Smartphones took over the entire mobile phone world after the iPhone came out. Before the iPhone, smartphones were a relatively small business oriented niche product. After the iPhone, smartphones are what we expect in a phone. Previously cutting edge features like playing music, surfing the web, watching videos, or playing 3-D games on your phone is just normal now.
Sometimes, people still make calls on their phones.
To answer what the best smartphone on prepaid networks is, you first have to set some criteria in terms of networks, price ranges, and so on. To make this all a bit less confusing we are going to mostly avoid talking about particular network specific phones, unless some combination of network and phone provides a somewhat extraordinary value proposition.
For example, when the LG Optimus V came out on Virgin Mobile, it was arguably the first good prepaid phone for a reasonable amount of money available on the US prepaid phone network. Also, Virgin Mobile USA’s pricing at the time was excellent enough that I believe you could get 200 minutes, unlimited texting, and unlimited data for $25 a month. That was such a crazy deal that nobody else could match it.
Best Overall Phone
The iPhone is simply the best phone for most people wanting a smartphone. The ease of use, the software and hardware design, the app ecosystem, and overall quality are all superior to pretty much anything you can get running Google Android right now.
That is not to say there aren’t outliers, it’s just that in most areas that people care about, iPhone is a better buy.
So, which iPhone should you buy? The one you can afford.
Buying a prepaid iPhone usually means getting the device at full price. For a new iPhone like the iPhone 6 the price starts at $650 and goes up from there. Many people don’t want to spend $650 on a phone, even if you are saving money on the service due to prepaid being cheaper.
The good news is, you don’t need the iPhone 6. You can get fantastic deals on older iPhones.
For example, if you use a prepaid service like Ting, you can get a used iPhone 4S for as little as $160. The iPhone 5S is only $399 used on Ting. On Straight Talk you can usually find a refurbished iPhone 5 for around $400 if they are in stock.
If you are willing to pony up the money, you can always buy a full price device for the iPhone and that can set you back $350 - $1,000 depending on the model you buy and where you buy it from. At the low end, a new iPhone 4S will probably cost around $350 as a prepaid device. At the high end, you can spend $1,000 to buy a 128GB iPhone 6 Plus, the most expensive phone Apple offers right now.
To us, the best deals out there right now are probably a refurbished iPhone 5, or the brand new iPhone 6. The refurbished iPhone 5 on Straight Talk gives you a great plan, great coverage on Verizon’s network, and a great price ($400 or so). The iPhone 6 is a great option right now because it’s brand new, so it will never be more cutting edge or up to date than it is right now.
What I usually do is to figure out what my budget is, and then figure out if what I can afford is a meaningful upgrade over my current phone - the iPhone 4 on Straight Talk’s GSM (AT&T) service. If I can’t afford a meaningful iPhone upgrade, then I’ll just wait longer for prices to come down, or for me to save more money to buy the phone that I want.
Sometimes that means waiting a bit longer for the phone I want, but it saves me a lot of money and isn’t that what prepaid phone service is all about?
Best Overall Value
If you don’t want an iPhone, the prepaid smartphone to buy is the Moto G. Right now you can get the first generation device for about $75 on a bunch of different prepaid carriers and with the second generation device now available for around $175 or so, you have not one but two fantastic options from Motorola.
So what makes the Moto G so great?
It’s a stock Android phone that has a lot of smart design choices. It’s not a giant 6” phablet phone. It doesn’t cost an arm and a leg. And, it doesn’t come with a bunch of whiz bang features that you don’t need.
The Moto G has a good camera, a good screen, and a good processor that can run all of your apps, check all your email, and post to pretty much any social network you care about. In short, it’s a very good phone that does what you need it to for a price that makes sense on a prepaid phone.
To be honest, a lot of the Android prepaid phones aren’t very good. They are often cheap, junky phones that only exist to hit a price point, not to deliver a great experience for the buyer.
See, the phone companies often look at their product line a lot like an economics textbook would tell them to. They have a variety of phones with a variety of options and features available at every conceivable price point. The problem with this strategy is that it equates your buying decision with basically a single variable - price. You can’t design great products if all you care about is hitting a certain price because it usually leads to cutting cost in the wrong areas as dictated by some manager with a spreadsheet.
That is why you have phones anywhere from $15 - 500 on prepaid carriers like Virgin Mobile USA or Boost Mobile. It’s about having a phone for any budget. A lot of the phones they carry aren’t very good. Most aren’t nearly as good as the Moto G.
In the case of Android phones, the biggest culprit is the system updates. Motorola is very good about pushing out system updates for the Moto G and Moto X phones because they don’t do nearly as much customization as HTC and Samsung do to the Android operating system.
Motorola also has a pretty solid history of making smartphones that people really enjoy. The original Moto Droid on Verizon, the newer Droid and Droid Maxx, and even the new Moto X phones are among the best reviewed Android powered phones out there. In short, Motorola knows how to make a great Android phone and the Moto G is a great Android phone.
Me personally, I love how the Moto G feels in my hand. It’s a great form factor for a great phone. The newer 5” size feels great in hand and really, I think they have a real winner on their hands.
In many ways, the Moto G is the phone that suits all but the most demanding users. It’s got plenty of apps, good hardware, it’s on pretty much every network, and doesn’t cost an arm and a leg.
If you have the budget, the iPhone is a better overall phone, but if you want to spend less than $200 on your phone, the Moto G is a much better buy. It’s a fantastic value.
If you are looking at some other prepaid smartphone, you should probably just stop and ask yourself why you don’t want the Moto G or the iPhone.
If it’s totally about price for you, then you don’t care about what is the best phone, you just want a phone at a certain price. That’s a perfectly reasonable way to buy a phone, but you are obviously going to sacrifice some amount of quality to hit that price.
Every other device I’ve seen is about compromising something for one reason or another. Like, sure you could buy some off-brand phone, but it probably won’t run as well or get all the updates that the Moto G does. Maybe you could buy a higher end Android phone, but it probably won’t be as nice for the money as the iPhone is.
Save yourself some headache and stick with the iPhone or Moto G.
If your prepaid phone carrier doesn’t offer the iPhone or the Moto G, you might want to reconsider your carrier. By now both devices are available just about everywhere including Straight Talk, Virgin Mobile USA, Boost Mobile, Verizon Allset, AT&T goPhone, and T-Mobile’s various “uncarrier” options.
So, iPhone or Moto G, the choice is yours.
P.S. I unpack more ideas in Creative Genius