Three no-contract iPhone options compared

A new iPhone 5C on Virgin Mobile, a post-AT&T iPhone 4S on Straight Talk, and an old iPhone 4 on T-Mobile. Which one costs the least and works the best?

Virgin Mobile

New year, new changes: Every now and again I'm going to skip my daily deal post in favor of something a little broader, something that merits discussion. It'll always be about saving money on tech, of course, just not a "buy this while it's on sale" product or service.

Today, for example, I want to talk iPhones. (Don't flee just yet, Android users -- this discussion is relevant to you as well.) Yeah, yeah, "a true cheapskate wouldn't have an iPhone," but the reality is I've always loved the product -- and I write about it for a living, so you'll forgive me this one transgression.

In fact, mine is a three-iPhone household. Until recently, two of those iPhones were under contract with AT&T, with a pretty low-level service tier still costing me a little over $160 per month (with taxes and fees). Barf. But in October I finally climbed out from under the two-year yoke, leaving me free to explore other options.

Long story short: I now pay for three different iPhone models running on three different networks. Crazy? Not at all. Here's the rundown of what we're using, why we're using it, and how it's working out.

1. My iPhone 4S on Straight Talk

Straight Talk

I am without question the heaviest iPhone user in the house, and I'm not just talking about my weight (though I do have a few holiday pounds that need shedding).

When my AT&T contract ended, I knew I could take my 4S to a variety of other GSM-friendly carriers: H20 Wireless, Solavei , Straight Talk, or even T-Mobile. ( AT&T, for its part, recently lowered prices for off-contract phones , but it turns out my savings would be nil.)

After a lot of research, I decided to try Straight Talk, which costs $45 monthly for unlimited everything. (There are asterisks on that "unlimited," of course, but that's true of all the carriers.) Because it operates on AT&T's network, I didn't even need to unlock my iPhone. And I'm getting pretty much the same coverage and throughput I got before.

However, setup was difficult, requiring some fiddling with Access Point Name (APN) configuration files to get MMS working properly. What's more, voice mail is kind of a train wreck. Not only does Straight Talk not support visual voice mail, my iPhone no longer displays notifications that I have new messages waiting. That sucks, and Straight Talk needs to do a much better job informing potential customers of this limitation.

I'm also a little vexed that taxes and fees bring my monthly total to just under $50. Still, I'm paying $30 less per month. I can switch to another carrier any time I want. And I rarely get voice mail messages anyway, so I can live with that hiccup.

Keen observers may recall that I planned to abandon my iPhone after Apple failed to keep me as a customer last September, but obviously I haven't made a move yet. I'll explain my reasoning in a future post, but for now let's just say I'm still weighing my options.

2. Mrs. Cheapskate's iPhone 5C on Virgin Mobile

The colorful iPhone 5c proved a good choice for Mrs. Cheapskate, especially with a $40 per month service plan.
The colorful iPhone 5c proved a good choice for Mrs. Cheapskate, especially with a $40 per month service plan. Apple

I'm not saying my wife dropped her iPhone 4S on purpose, only that she'd been complaining about insufficient storage for months. "I can't take any more photos!" she'd protest, the subtext plain: "Aren't you a technology guru? Do something!"

I'd promise to offload some of her thousands of snapshots and videos, but somehow the timing never worked out. And then, just a week or so before Christmas, I heard this from the kitchen: "Oh, rats, my screen broke."

Uh-huh.

Anyway, I hadn't yet moved her off AT&T, so that change was imminent anyway. And because this is a woman who believes that most of life's events -- meals, restaurant visits, a kid reading a book -- require photo-documentation, a measly 16GB of storage would no longer do.

So she needed a new iPhone, one with more space, and I needed it to have no contract and low monthly rates. At that particular moment in time, Virgin Mobile was offering too good a deal to pass up on the iPhone 5C: a discount on the phone itself and free overnight shipping. Plus, I saved an extra $45 via cashback service Top CashBack.

Although the iPhone 5C represented a fairly steep initial investment, Virgin's service costs just $40 per month. (I could get the $30 per month plan if Mrs. Cheapskate didn't routinely indulge in hour-long calls to her sister, but, alas.) In short order I'll recoup that investment, and then end up saving money over the long haul.

Now, Virgin Mobile runs on Sprint's network, and everyone knows Sprint sucks, right? Here in metro Detroit, it's definitely not great. But for my wife, it's totally fine. She can make calls, send texts, check e-mail, and update Facebook, which is all she really cares to do. (Oh, and take photos.) And $40 per month (period -- no extra fees!) is so much better than $80 per month. She's happy. I'm happy. Win-win.

3. My daughter's iPhone 4 on T-Mobile

T-Mobile

About a year ago my 13-year-old inherited a hand-me-down iPhone 4. Adding it to our AT&T plan added another $60 or so to our monthly plan. She paid for some of that, but ultimately we all wanted a cheaper option.

Thankfully, fellow CNET writer Danny Sullivan reported on a "secret" $30/month plan from T-Mobile, and last June I moved my daughter's iPhone to that plan .

It includes unlimited texting and data, but only 100 voice minutes. You know how many of those minutes she uses every month? On average, two. So, yeah, this is the perfect plan for a teen.

What I haven't told her, and what she doesn't care less about, is that she's getting 2G service much of the time. That's because T-Mobile's network in our area is still being upgraded (or "refarmed" or something). But like me and like her mom, she spends most of her time connected to Wi-Fi, so data performance is rarely an issue.

You better shop around

The upshot of all this is that it's worth shopping around to figure out the best carrier, and best plan, for each person in your house. Many users make the mistake of thinking they're getting the best deal with a shared plan under a single carrier, but that's not always the case.

At one point I was paying around $210 per month for three iPhones. Now I'm paying $120 -- and one of those phones is getting 4G service instead of just 3G. Your mileage may vary, of course, but I'm curious to hear what similar solutions you've explored, and how they've worked out.

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