Smartphones are the new black. Seemingly everyone has one, and the people who don't have one want one. Unfortunately, in order to get most smartphones you have to sign away a good chunk of your income, for the next one or two years. Even if the plans were reasonably priced (they aren't), those contracts should make you think twice, especially in this day and age.
Apple gives students, teens, and people who can't afford a data plan an easy alternative: The iPod Touch, which is basically an iPhone minus the phone. You can buy one for a little more than $200 off-contract, and it runs the same apps that an iPhone does. IPod Touches are Wi-Fi only, though, so you can't get a data plan for one without buying an accessory. Plus, they don't run Android, and while iOS has its advantages there are a lot of Android fans out there, too.
Fortunately, there are a few Android smartphones out there that are cheaper than an iPod Touch, even unsubsidized. And you can add a data plan to them on a month-by-month basis, without having to sign a contract.
I'm personally not a fan of AT&T's wireless service, but even I sat up and took notice when I saw the LG Thrive coming out. It runs Android 2.2 "Froyo," and looks like a serviceable no-contract Android phone. Having played with one in person, I don't think it's as classy as my HTC Aria (with its rubberized back), but the MicroSD card door that you don't need to take off the back to get to is a nice touch.
The LG Thrive is a GoPhone, meaning it uses AT&T's pay-as-you-go voice minutes and texting packages. But AT&T's also introduced pay-as-you-go data, so you can mix-and-match voice, data and texting to put together a package that's right for you. I got my monthly phone bill down to $15, although I've had to pay $30 this month because I was making heavy use of data while apartment hunting.
These Android smartphones are sold off-contract through Virgin Mobile, which uses Sprint's wireless network. The Optimus V is basically identical to the Thrive, but Virgin Mobile's plans aren't; unlimited data and texting starts at just $25 a month, with 300 anytime minutes included. If you don't need many voice minutes, that beats the pants off of GoPhone's data plans.
The Samsung Intercept is sold by Virgin alongside the Optimus V, and includes a slide-out hardware keyboard. But most reviews of it seem to be negative (sometimes comically so), so I'm just including it for the sake of completeness.
The Ascend is sold through Cricket and MetroPCS, and while it's the cheapest phone on this list you get what you pay for: PCMag reports that the Ascend has poor call quality, and a sluggish UI. Plus, MetroPCS' data plans apparently start at $50 a month, while Cricket requires a $55/month "Android plan."
On the plus side, it's the cheapest device on this list, and it doesn't require a contract. At less than half the price of a new iPod Touch, it just might be worth considering, even if you're a fan of Apple's products.
Jared Spurbeck is an open-source software enthusiast, who uses an Android phone and an Ubuntu laptop PC. He has been writing about technology and electronics since 2008.