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The 411: Prepaid phones

Every two weeks, Nicole Lee answers your questions about cell phones and their accessories.

The Clutch makes for a great durable prepaid phone.
Corinne Schulze/CNET

Welcome to The 411, my new Q&A column answering all your questions about cell phones and cell phone accessories. I receive plenty of questions about these subjects via e-mail, so I figured many of you might have the same questions, too. At times, I might solicit answers from readers if I'm stumped. Send your questions and comments to me at nicole.lee@cnet.com. If you prefer to remain anonymous, let me know in the e-mail.

I am looking for a pay as you go plan with a phone that will last. Can you recommend one? My intent is to keep the cost down to below $20/month with basic texting and calling/receiving calls. -- Sudeep, via e-mail

Since you're looking for a phone that will last, I would recommend a rugged handset that's military-certified to take a beating. Luckily, Boost Mobile offers a number of those. One of the more recent ones is the Motorola Clutch i465, which is rather compact and sports a QWERTY keyboard. It does cost around $80, but remember that's without a contract. As for the monthly plan, Boost Mobile doesn't offer flat rates quite that cheap, but Boost's Pay As You Go option costs 10 cents per text message, and 10 cents per voice minute. If you don't use the phone a lot, you can easily make it under $20 a month.

I live in the Bay Area and I'm planning on buying a prepaid phone but don't know which one has the best features and phones for me. I'm looking for a plan that will let me text, call, use the Web for a CHEAP price, and I'm looking for a good music phone, with a music player and FM RADIO, what is the best plan for me? I send around maybe 130 txts a month, talk around 100 minutes a month, and browse the Web A LOT. What/which plan, phone, and prepaid carrier would be the best option for me? -- ST, via e-mail

I tried looking for a phone that satisfies all your requirements and it was quite difficult. The Nokia 1661 for T-Mobile has text messaging and an FM radio, but it doesn't have a very good Web browser. Many Virgin Mobile and Boost Mobile phones have text messaging, a music player, and a Web browser, but I could not find any that had FM radios as well. If any of our readers can find a phone that satisfies these requirements, let us know!

However, looking at your heavy text and data usage, I would recommend going for either a Boost Mobile or Virgin Mobile phone. Boost offers a $50 unlimited plan, where you can send as many text messages and surf the Web as much as you like, all for $50 a month. The Motorola Debut i856 has a pretty good music player, with 14 different 3D reverb effects in the settings, so that would be my recommendation.

Virgin Mobile, on the other hand, offers unlimited text, e-mail, data, and Web in three different packages--$25/month with 300 minutes, $40/month with 1,200 minutes, and $60 a month with unlimited everything. There's a $10 surcharge if you want the BlackBerry plan. For Virgin Mobile, we quite like the LG Rumor Touch, as that satisfies most of your requirements.

I'm interested in a smartphone, but I'm wary of contracts. Is there a way to get a smartphone on a prepaid basis? -- Lizzy, via e-mail

Yes, there are a number of ways to do so. You can, of course, get an unlocked smartphone and just pop in a prepaid SIM card from AT&T or T-Mobile, but that could get expensive, especially since most unlocked smartphones have high prices. Another option is to go the prepaid carrier route, like with Boost Mobile or Virgin Mobile. Both of these carriers offer BlackBerry Curves for around $250 or so, and Boost Mobile even has the Android-powered Motorola i1 coming soon to its stores. Boost Mobile offers a special BlackBerry plan for $60 a month, plus a regular unlimited plan for $50 a month.