Is a prepaid smartphone a good deal?

Samsung Intercept smartphoneBuying a cell phone plan shouldn't be like doing calculus, no matter how simple my fellow WalletPop writer Josh Smith makes it in his handy charts comparing cell phone data plans. As his analysis points out, if you're looking for an Android-powered smartphone with unlimited data, Virgin Mobile has the best deals. I bought the Android-powered Samsung Intercept through Virgin a week ago, and now I can't imagine how I lived without it for so long.

The upfront cost of $250 is a lot, but once you do the math, it's apparent that it's a good deal. The phone essentially pays for itself in nine months when you factor in the minimum $30 monthly savings that other companies charge for unlimited data use.

Virgin Mobile's Beyond Talk plan offers unlimited data and Internet, text and e-mail starting at $25 a month, as Smith pointed out a few weeks ago on WalletPop. The $25 includes 300 anytime minutes to talk. Other plans are $40 for 1,200 minutes and $60 for unlimited minutes.

I bought the $40 plan this month, but next month I may switch to the $25 plan if I'm not using the phone to call as much as I thought I would. As someone who doesn't like being surprised by a monthly phone bill with taxes and fees added on, I've had a prepaid phone for a few years. Upgrading to a smartphone, however, has so far allowed me to be more productive when I'm away from my computer.

For example, my computer broke this week, so while it was in the shop I was still able to call and e-mail sources for freelance stories I'm working on. Even when I get my computer back, I'll use the Intercept often for e-mail when I'm away from the computer -- which is often during the afternoon when my daughter gets out of school. I can still do some work -- such as e-mailing to set up interview appointments -- without having to get to a computer.

Most smartphones are subsidized by the carrier, which is why the Intercept costs $250 upfront. That was a steep fee, but worth it in the long run, along with not having to pay any early cancellation fees and being on a month-to-month contract.

As for the phone, it has a lot to offer: a 3G network, takes photos and video, connects to Wi-Fi, can download and run Android apps, has a physical keyboard, expandable memory and a free app from Google Maps that gives voice turn-by-turn directions. I used the directions feature the other night and had no problem finding an address.

A downside so far is that the battery drains fast, which may be my fault for having too many apps loaded and alerts running. Using the phone for about four hours drains the battery enough that it needs to be recharged, and if it's not plugged in overnight it can lose a charge within a few hours the next morning after a few calls. I may soon be buying a car charger.

Also, to find out how many calling minutes I have left, I have to go to Virgin Mobile's website and log in. This is easy enough to do from a computer, but getting there from the smartphone is a hassle. I'd prefer seeing the used minutes listed somewhere on the phone, although that function may be hidden somewhere and I just haven't found it yet.

At least I'm not looking at paying $30 a month for a data plan.

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