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New Ting cell phone service turns contracts on their head

A new wireless service for U.S. customers offers mix-and-match plans and credits you for what you don't use. But is it really cheaper?

Ting calculator
Ting's online calculator challenges the status quo of contract wireless providers.
Screenshot by Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

How about this for a crazy idea: a cell phone plan that charges you separately for each voice minute, message, and megabyte.

Meet Ting, launched yesterday by Tucows. The new cell phone service for U.S. customers turns the conventional contract on its head by offering plans for various allotments of talk, text, and data.

At the end of the month, Ting credits whatever you don't use, and charges for any extras beyond the plan (but at a higher rate) with no additional penalty fee.

Talk, text, and data bundles range from "XS," where you pay nothing until your bill comes in, to "XXL," which covers 3,000 minutes of talk time, 6,000 text messages, and 3,00MB of data over 3G and 4G.

Ting plans
Ting's talk, text, and data plans are mix 'n' match. Click to enlarge. Ting

Flexibility is the name of Ting's game. If you anticipate using a small number of voice minutes, but a large number of texts and data, you can order a la carte to mix and match. Families and small businesses can share the pool.

Ting, which rides on Sprint's network, is launching with a number of Android smartphones and feature phones, including the Motorola Photon 4G, LG Optimus S, and HTC Detail, a variant of the HTC Evo 4G.

Motorola Photon 4G
The Motorola Photon 4G is one Android phone you can get with Ting. Josh Miller/CNET

"What people are forced to put up with from mobile service providers just doesn't make sense," Elliot Noss, CEO of Tucows, said in a statement. "It's too complicated, too opaque, too adversarial, too expensive and frankly too inhuman."

If only Ting were quite that simple--and that cheap. Consider the expenses.

First, you have to buy the phone or data device in question at the unlocked rate--a much higher, unsubsidized price than with postpaid carriers. Smartphones range from $101 to $545.

You'll have no luck converting a Sprint phone to Ting. Even though the two share the same network resources, Sprint locks up their subsidized phones so customers can't stray. "It's our number one question," Ting's customer service representative told CNET over the phone. "And it's a big hurdle that we're trying to get over."

In addition to the plan, which can skyrocket for heavy users, there's the $35 activation fee per phone, and beyond that each active device costs and additional $6 per month.

Those costs add up.

Tucows hopes that the unconventional nature of its Ting business model, combined with online assessment tools, will snag business from Americans desperately searching for reliable no-contract options, especially those who may not use minutes, data, or texting very often or very evenly.

Yet when you add in the activation and monthly service fee just to use your unlocked phone, pennypinchers will have to make use of Ting's fee online calculator or break a mental sweat to see if they're truly getting the better end of a deal.

Article updated at 9:50 a.m. PT with more details on converting Sprint phones to Ting.