Android off-contract: My prepaid journey, 3 months later

It's hard to believe, but it's been nearly three months since I ditched the Verizon Galaxy Nexus and moved to a prepaid smartphone setup. A lot of people have been asking me how I like my new and rather untraditional path, so with almost 90 days under my belt, I thought I'd share some updated thoughts on my experience.

Android Prepaid

In short: I love it. I feel like I've finally broken free from the carriers' chains. I'm paying a fraction of what I used to pay for comparable service -- and I'm finally getting the full Google Nexus experience, with instant Android upgrades directly from Google and no carrier meddling. It's everything I wanted and more.

My detour into the prepaid world, as you may recall, started with my frustrations over Verizon's involvement with its Galaxy Nexus device -- delayed upgrades, restricted tethering, and all that other fun stuff. But the more I looked into it, the more I realized that prepaid made sense for me on a lot of different levels.

I ended up getting an HSPA+ Galaxy Nexus phone ($350 from Google) and going with T-Mobile's $30-a-month prepaid plan. The plan gives me 100 minutes a month along with unlimited texting and unlimited data (with the first 5GB at 4G HSPA+ speeds). A hundred minutes a month isn't much, but thanks to Google Voice and some crafty location-aware call forwarding I have configured on my phone -- in conjunction with Google-based VoIP "phone lines" I have set up in my home and office -- I rarely use more than that.

[RELATED: How free Google services can help shrink your phone bill]

And here's the real beauty of it all: I pay only for what I want to use. Since 100 minutes typically works for me, there's no reason for me to shell out more cash for talk-time I don't need. For the rare times when I need more minutes -- on months when I'm traveling, for instance -- I leave a small balance on my T-Mobile account from which I'm charged 10-cents a minute for anything over my allowance. Even with the occasional overage, I still come out way ahead compared to what I paid before.

Smartphone Money

Part of the reason is that with prepaid, you avoid all the shady surcharges and hidden fees that come along with traditional cell service. My monthly payment is literally $30 plus basic sales tax -- no 911 fee, no "universal service charge," no "regulatory charge," and no "administrative charge." I think the grand total ends up being around $32.25 a month.

Of course, a hundred minutes a month won't cut it for everyone -- and it doesn't have to. Like with traditional cell service, the prepaid world has a wide range of carriers and plans you can choose from. T-Mobile, for example, also has a $50-a-month prepaid plan with unlimited talk, text, and Web. Straight Talk, another popular prepaid provider, offers a similar option for $45-a-month; it works on your choice of T-Mobile's or AT&T's network. And that's just scratching the surface of what's out there.

Speaking of options, I really like knowing that I'm not locked into anything. If I decide in two months that I'm not happy with T-Mobile's service, all I have to do is order a new SIM card (which usually costs anywhere from a dollar to $15) and make a move. If a better deal comes along tomorrow, I'm free to jump ship at the drop of a hat. One-sided contracts? No thanks. Early termination fees? Not anymore.

To be fair, prepaid service probably isn't the right choice for everyone. You can't currently get prepaid service with LTE-based data, for instance, and that may be a turnoff for some folks. For me, the change from LTE to HSPA+ hasn't been an issue; in most day-to-day smartphone use -- music streaming, email checking, casual Web browsing, and so forth -- I honestly can't tell much difference. But depending on your wants and needs, your mileage may vary.

You also won't get perks like free night and weekend minutes or free mobile-to-mobile calling with prepaid, and you won't find any family-style group discount plans. It's a straight-forward, pay-for-what-you-use kind of thing, and that may or may not be what you want.

Finally, with prepaid, you won't get the subsidized phone prices you get with two-year carrier contracts, and that means most high-end smartphones -- purchased unlocked on your own -- are going to cost you more than you're used to paying. If you do the math, though, there's a good chance you'll find you still come out ahead in the long run. 

I did the math, and I'm paying about a $600 a year less than I did with Verizon. I even shelled out an obnoxious $270 fee to cancel my Verizon contract early; with the amount I'm saving each month, I'll have more than made that up by the end of the year.

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If I stick with my current setup through the end of 2013 -- when my Verizon contract would have expired -- I'll have made up the cost of the new HSPA+ Galaxy Nexus phone, too, and saved an additional 300 bucks on top of that. 

I'm obviously quite pleased with those numbers -- and I'm also happier than ever with my smartphone setup and the freedom it provides. For the first time, I don't feel like I'm stuck getting screwed simply because there is no better way. I've taken back control, and damn it, that's a fantastic feeling.

I can't imagine ever signing a carrier contract again.

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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