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Why I ditched T-Mobile for Cricket Wireless

Short version: it took me about 20 minutes to knock about 25 percent off my monthly bill. Plus: Chromebook deal!

Cricket's no-contract Basic plan is a steal at $35 monthly. Screenshot by Rick Broida/CNET

Good news for just about anyone who owns a smartphone: US carriers are now legally required to let you unlock your device, meaning as long as you're not tied to a contract, you can easily switch to another carrier -- potentially saving big (or at least medium) bucks when you do.

My story is a little different: my iPhone 6 was already unlocked, purchased that way precisely because I didn't want to be married to a single carrier for two years. (Also because I write about this stuff for a living and needed the freedom to shop carriers at will.)

Whether your phone is already unlocked or you're in the process of getting it done, it may be time to take a serious look at other carriers.

T-Mo or less

I'd started with T-Mobile, because initially only T-Mobile offered the unlocked iPhone 6 option. (The less said about what I paid for the unit, the better. It was a decidedly anti-Cheapskate move. But, as noted above, I had my reasons.) I'd been with Virgin Mobile, paying a very attractive $35 per month for virtually unlimited everything -- but coverage from that Sprint-powered carrier was always terrible.

With the move to T-Mo, I got better (though not complete) coverage, plus the benefits of a GSM network: global compatibility and simultaneous phone/data operation -- meaning I could, say, Google an address while on a phone call. Sprint's CDMA network, like Verizon's, is mostly US-only, and doesn't allow for any data activity while you're on a call.

But I was also paying a higher price: $45 per month, plus taxes and fees that brought the total to $48 and change. That netted me unlimited calls and texts, plus 2GB of data -- more than sufficient for my needs. (Like the vast majority of users, I rarely consume even 1GB per month, though I certainly wanted that extra buffer just in case.)

Because I'm the Cheapskate, I knew various MVNOs were offering slightly better deals, but switching seemed like a hassle. I'd had a couple experiences trying to port numbers to (and from) Virgin Mobile, and they weren't pretty. And surely I'd be giving up something in the equation, right? Like no more visual voicemail or MMS. (Went through that with Straight Talk a couple years back.) Meh.

I'm all about the bars, 'bout the bars

Then, a couple months ago, I started a new business that moved me out of my home office and into a high-rise. Number of bars available to me in that office: zero. But co-workers on other networks had working service.

Hassle or not, now I needed to make a move. And, perfect timing, that's when Cricket Wireless (which recently merged with AIO Wireless) introduced some newly sweetened no-contract plans, including this one: unlimited calls and texts and 2.5GB of 4G LTE data for $40 per month -- or $35 if you sign up for auto-pay, which I always do. And that's a flat rate; no taxes or fees tacked on when you're not looking.

Plus, Cricket Wireless operates on AT&T's network, and I knew from co-workers that I could get decent coverage in my new office. And, whattaya know, a brand new Cricket store had just opened a mile from my house.

Fully expecting a lengthy, exasperating experience, I stopped in during lunch. To my shock and delight, I was out of there in 20 minutes with a ported number and working Cricket service on my iPhone. And the promise that incoming calls would start getting properly routed in about an hour, which is exactly what happened.

I did have to pony up $10 for a SIM card and $25 for activation, and you can't get the $5/month auto-pay discount until the second month. Even so, I'll offset these costs in exactly three months and pocket the savings thereafter. Plus, sure enough, I have solid 4G service in the new office.

Your mileage may vary, of course, and none of this is to say Cricket is the best option out there or that I recommend it above any other carrier. It's simply where I'm parking my phone number right now. The beauty of an unlocked phone and contract-free service is I can switch again if a sweeter deal comes along. Something tells me it will.

Bonus deal: Not all reruns are bad. Take this one: Woot is once again offering the refurbished HP Chromebook 14 (2014 model) for $209.99, plus $5 for shipping. Ah, but this time: no shipping! Just paste in coupon code CHROMEO at checkout to put that $5 back where it belongs. (Cheapskate exclusive, y'all!) This uber-popular laptop is available in your choice of three snazzy colors and comes with 16GB of local storage and some solid hardware under the hood.

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