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What's the best low-cost phone plan?

The Cheapskate weighs in on the one carrier that gets his money every month, and why.

CNET's Cheapskate scours the web for great deals on PCs, phones, gadgets and much more. Questions about the Cheapskate blog? Find the answers on our FAQ page. Find more great buys on the CNET Deals page and follow the Cheapskate on Twitter!


cricket-wireless-app-on-iphone

You can manage most account settings via the Cricket app.

Rick Broida/CNET

As the Cheapskate, I'm often asked to name my preferred carrier, the mobile phone service offering the most bang for the buck.

Easy: Cricket.

I say this as someone who's tried a ton of MVNOs -- mobile virtual network operators, the smaller carriers that lease bandwidth from the Big Four (AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon) and typically offer lower rates. Of course, I've looked at the Big Four as well, as they've gotten hypercompetitive over the past year.

But for now I'm sticking with GSM-based Cricket, and I thought I'd explain why. I'm not here to shill for the company or even to suggest it's the best carrier; I'm simply answering the inevitable follow-up question: Why Cricket?

5 lines for $100

cricket-wireless-logo

If you need four or five lines, Cricket's Group Save plans are pretty tough to beat.

Cricket

The simple answer is math: My household has four phone users, meaning I need four lines. Cricket's Group Save plan works like this: You get $10 off the first additional line, $20 off the second and so on -- up to $40 off the fifth line.

Because our data needs are fairly minimal, I've chosen the 4GB Basic Plan, which costs $40 per month. That means the second line costs $30; the third, $20; the fourth, $10. Grand total: $100 per month. But because we can add a fifth line for $0 extra, I gave that one to my mother-in-law -- shhh -- and scored major points in the process, ahem.

That works out to $20 per month per person for 4GB of LTE data -- each -- plus unlimited calls, texts and yada-yada. And because Cricket is an AT&T MVNO, I get the same coverage an AT&T subscriber would. I'd have to describe that coverage as excellent: I rarely find myself without a strong signal. Can't say the same for Sprint and the various Sprint-based MVNOs I've tried.

I should also note that when we started on this plan, each person received 2.5GB of data. Cricket later raised it to 3GB, and then more recently to 4GB. Rates stayed the same. Gotta love that.

As CNET's Alfred Ng noted when Cricket announced that initial data bump, the carrier's download speeds are slower than AT&T's. But I wouldn't describe 8 megabits per second as "slow," and I've had no problems streaming Netflix or any other video service. (I wouldn't actually stream a Netflix show unless I was connected to Wi-Fi, as it would eat a pretty big chunk of my 4GB.)

Another perk: The carrier recently rolled out Stream More, its answer to AT&T's Stream Saver: Some video content gets automatically downshifted to SD from HD (not a problem on a phone's relatively small screen, in my opinion), meaning you'll get more video-streaming mileage from your data plan. You can toggle the feature off if you don't want it.

What don't you get?

My only real problem with Cricket is my plan doesn't include the ability to use my phone as a mobile hotspot. To get it, I'd have to bump up to the $50 per month Smart Plan, then pay an additional $10 per month on top of that. I'm not wild about increasing my bill by 20 percent for something I need only occasionally (maybe once or twice a month). 

Granted, the Smart tier would also net me 8GB of LTE data, plus some international calling and messaging benefits. I don't need the latter, though, and that much data would be wasted on me; I typically consume around 3GB per month.

That said, if you're an individual user, the Smart Plan drops to $45 per month if you enroll in autopay -- and that's a pretty competitive rate for that much data. T-Mobile One gives you unlimited data, but a single line costs $70. I could get four lines there for $160, but what of my poor mother-in-law? For our needs, I feel like T-Mo is overkill. (I wouldn't mind the occasional free donut, though.)

Should you switch?

Everyone has different needs when it comes to their phone, and there are other carriers that might better suit yours. For example, if you already own CDMA phones, you'll need Sprint, Verizon or one of its MVNOs. But I'll address all that in a future post explaining how to choose a low-cost carrier, as there are too many variables to discuss here.

veckle-magnetic-car-mount.jpg

Give your phone a hand -- by which I mean an arm.

Veckle

In the meantime, I'll simply say that for my family of, ahem, five, I've yet to find a better deal than Cricket. It delivers excellent coverage and ample data for a price I can absolutely live with.

If you've found something better, by all means share the details in the comments!

Bonus deal: Speaking of phones, I continue to be a huge fan of magnetic car mounts. Of course, those that clip to an air vent are a bit problematic: They block that vent and expose your phone to blasts of heat or cold, depending on the season.

Ah, but how about one where the mount ciips to the vent but has an arm to hold your phone above it? That solves the aforementioned issues and puts your phone closer to eye level.

What would you pay for such an ingenious solution? $40? $30? Nah: seven bucks. For a limited time, and while supplies last, iOrange (via Amazon) has the Veckle universal magnetic car mount for $6.99 when you apply promo code 5PGX4ZCL at checkout. (Tested and verified at 5 a.m. PT.)

Designed specifically for horizontal vents (though possibly compatible with vertical ones; read some of the user reviews), this mount relies on a slim metal plate that attaches either to the back of your phone or case, or to the inside of the case. I use one much like it and couldn't be happier with the setup.