Virgin mobile no-contract Android phone gets basics right

The Samsung Intercept isn't bleeding edge, but the reasonable no-contract plans could make it an attractive first smartphone.

A spate of cool connectivity products have come out with prepaid, no-contract plans, and now Virgin Mobile is one of the first to offer an Android phone with such a plan.

Virgin Mobile, Sprint's prepaid service subsidiary, began selling the Intercept at Target stores Monday and says it will begin selling it through "other major retailers" throughout October, and at its website toward mid-October.

Virgin Mobile, whose phones run on the Sprint nationwide 3G network, is pitching the new phone thusly: "Samsung Intercept Delivers Smartphone Luxuries with Monthly Unlimited Plans."

That second part is pretty much true.

Virgin Mobile will sell the Samsung Intercept itself for $250, along with three prepaid all-in-one (voice, texting, data) plans at $25 per month, $40 per month and $60 per month. All plans include unlimited texting and data. The $25 plan you get 300 voice minutes; the $40 plan gives you 1200 minutes and the $60 plan gives you unlimited minutes.

But does the Intercept really deliver on the "smartphone luxuries"?

Let's just say it gets the basics right. I got a chance to do some hands-on here at the CTIA show in San Francisco, and came away liking the product Virgin Mobile is offering with such reasonably priced service plans.

The Intercept has been available from Sprint on a post-paid basis (with contract) for some months now. And by the looks of the device, Sprint picked a good one to move over into the smartphone stable of its prepaid subsidiary Virgin Mobile America. The Sprint Intercept and the Virgin Mobile Intercept have nearly identical specifications. (See specs below.)

The Intercept is nothing fancy. It does not have the video quality and connection speeds of Sprint's EVO 4G, for example. The video on the Intercept's 3.2-inch screen does not have the sharp, defined look of video you see on the EVO. Aside from the pixilation caused by less-than-optimal connection speeds, the video had the flat, undefined look that only comes from budget screens.

The phone also does not support Flash, because it runs on Android 2.1, and a Virgin Mobile representative said no plans are in place to migrate the phone to the Flash-supporting Android 2.2.

The modem in the Intercept is EV-DO Rev 0, not the faster EV-DO Rev A, so connection speeds are not as fast as the Sprint 3G network is capable of delivering. After several speed tests, 300 kilobits per second (kbps) was the fastest download speed I could achieve on the phone. The good news is that the phone contains a Wi-Fi radio with support for 802.11 b/g.

One nice surprise was the responsiveness of the touch screen. Unlike some other lower-end Android devices I've tested, the Intercept was sensitive to my touch. I did not have to press down hard several times to get a button or an icon to respond. Also, the onscreen keyboard, while not quite as sensitive as the one on the EVO, was responsive and accurate enough for me to type two sentences quickly with only one minor typo.

The keyboard was also a nice surprise. Firstly, the slide out mechanism of the keyboard seemed well-built, and not likely to loosen and become unstable without some serious abuse. The keys on the keyboard are square in shape with a slight bevel on the top. The keys are approximately 1.5 millimeter apart, but I did not find this to be a problem at all.

Finally, the experience of searching for and buying apps at the app store was easy. I logged in using my Gmail account credentials, and immediately began downloading apps. My only complaint was that due to the rather slow 3G connection, the apps took too long to download, and it was sometimes hard to know if a download was progressing.

The Intercept comes with a group of common apps preloaded, including YouTube, Facebook, Google Talk, and the Virgin Mobile Live streaming music app. You'll also find a handful of Sprint's sports-related apps, like Sprint NASCAR and Sprint Football Live. For me, these apps do nothing but clutter up my apps screen; others may appreciate them.

The Intercept is one of growing number of Android smartphones that can be produced cheaply enough to be sold at a reasonable price and contract-free. This is a result of an extremely vibrant ecosystem of Android app makers, handset makers and chip makers, all selling enough product to push the price of the end product--the phone--downward.

But keeping that cost down also requires using parts and software that are far from cutting edge. The Intercept might be perfect for users who want a real Android smartphone complete with the ability to download and run apps, but don't need the bleeding edge in smartphone technology.

I suspect that a large number of current feature phone users might find phones like the prepaid Intercept the perfect way to move into a smartphone after their current contracts expire.

Specifications:

  • ARM11 Samsung S3C6410
  • 256 megabytes of RAM
  • 3.2-inch touch-screen display
  • Slide-out QWERTY keyboard
  • 3.2 MP camera for still and video
  • Integration of Google Apps (Gmail, Google Talk, Google Maps, Google Navigation)
  • Document file viewer
  • Portrait and landscape screen orientation
  • Dedicated keys for quick access to social networking

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Tags wireless technologysprintsamsungVirgin Mobile Telecommunicationsconsumer electronicsctiaPhonesSamsung Electronics

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Mark Sullivan

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