Speaking of CricKet, sometimes people ask me what the best cell phone company is. To which I answer, “it depends.” If you want the latest high-end smartphones (I do) you’ll need to pony up for a contract with Verizon, T-Mobile, Sprint or AT&T (in order of my carrier preference at this point). If you’re okay with a lower-end phone that still works perfectly well, you have more options.

Depending on where you are, certain wireless providers will have better coverage than others. Nationwide, Verizon has the best network from what I’ve seen, though you pay for that privilege. AT&T is second by virtue of pure land area, and they now have LTE in a smattering of markets, but in areas where Verizon also is, Verizon tends to be better. The same comparison happens when in T-Mobile HSPA+ (“4G”) enabled areas; T-Mobile wins versus AT&T there too. Sprint falls behind everyone at times due to a botched 4G network deployment (they’re now switching gears from WiMAX to LTE) however they have a decent network in many areas where T-Mobile is either roaming or 2G-only (which is why I still have Sprint).

So, with all that in mind, pick the cellular provider that gives you the coverage you need in your area. Though the best deals tend to be on Sprint or T-Mobile.

Specifically, Boost Mobile, Virgin Mobile and CricKet PAYgo all use Sprint as their underlying network. Any Android phone running on Tracfone’s Straight Talk or Net10 brands is also Sprint-only. Simple Mobile runs on T-Mobile.

But what’s so good about the carriers that I mentioned above?

On Straight Talk you can get an Android phone for $150-$200 (depending on whether you want an LG phone with a keyboard or a lower-end Samsung without one) and an unlimited-everything plan for $45. On Net10 the $150 Android is made by LG, the LG phone with the hardware keyboard is $180 and the unlimited-everything plan is $50 per month. If you want AT&T service instead, Straight Talk’s highest-end phone runs Symbian, for a slightly higher price than the Android, but with an identical monthly charge. If you want Verizon, you’ll have to settle for a non-smartphone.

For CricKet, unlimited talk and text for a non-smartphone is $35 within their home network area (see my previous post for more information on this). For a smartphone, the cost jumps to $55 per month, but phones are a little cheaper for what you get compared to Straight Talk. Outside CricKet’s own coverage area, prices are similar but you get 1000 minutes and 500MB of data instead of unlimited minutes and 1GB (after which data speeds slow). The outside-area non-smartphone plans are rather attractive as well; $25 gets unlimited data plus 300 minutes. $35 ups the minute count to 1000.

For Boost Mobile (again on Sprint) $50 per month gets you unlimited everything on a non-smartphone. Smartphones are $5 more per month for the same thing. The cool feature here is that, every six months, your monthly fee decreases by $5 until you’re at $35 or $40 per month, depending on whether you have a smartphone or not. Boost Mobile also has the Samsung Transform Ultra, which is a little better than other smartphones that run on non-contract Sprint-based providers.

Virgin Mobile shares Boost’s unlimited plan pricing, albeit without a discount for non-smartphone users or long-term customers. That said, they have less expensive plans if you’re willing to stay within a specific minute count (300 for $35 per month, 1200 for $45). They also have, for non-smartphones, a $30 plan that gives 1500 minutes and 1500 text messages per month, plus 30MB of data (a fair amount for a non-smartphone). Virgin Mobile is a little less expensive than comparable carriers for similar phones; Android phones start at $100 and include higher-end models such as the LG slider found on Straight Talk, the HTC Wildfire S and a large-screened Motorola-branded phone with dual cameras.

On the T-Mobile front, Simple Mobile doesn’t sell phones; you’ll have to buy your own T-Mobile compatible handset for a sm that could be fair or fairly princely depending on what you choose. However their plan structure is simple: $40 buys unlimited talk and text with 3G-speed data; another $20 per month upgrades that data speed to 4G. The catch: service is only available where T-Mobile works (which isn’t everywhere), and you’ll need to pick up a specific-to-prepaid T-Mobile phone to get a handset at a rate anywhere near reasonable (a very basic Android phone is available for $75, a refurbished mid-level handset is $120 and a higher-end phone is $350).

But what if you just want to talk and text on a phone that doesn’t include Android? That’s actually a lot easier; Straight Talk and Page Plus Cellular both offer Verizon-based unlimited-talk-and-text plans for $45 per month. Straight Talk also gives the option of buying an AT&T-based phone with coverage that mirrors AT&T’s contract network (Verizon and Sprint resellers either won’t let you off their respective networks or charge you for roaming), and either picking up a 1000-minute, 1000-text, 30-MB-of-web plan for $30 or an unlimited-everything plan for $45. Net10 offers 750 minutes-plus-texts for $25 per month.

If you don’t even need that many minutes, two good choices would be Tracfone, Page Plus Cellular and PlatinumTel. PlatinumTel runs on Sprint but has the distinction of offering a rate plan that charges 5¢ per minute, 2¢ per text and 10¢ per MB of web access, with a minimum monthly spend of just over $3. Page Plus (on Verizon) offers minutes at between 5¢ and 10¢ apiece depending on how many you buy at once, and costs at minimum $2.50 per month. Text messaging is 5¢ per message on this plan, or you can buy a pack of 2000 for a month for around $11, or unlimited for $20.

Tracfone’s per-minute rates vary, depending on what size of airtime card you get, and which phone you add it to. The company, which has traditionally used promotional codes to give savvy shoppers more minutes per dollar, has now started offering “triple minutes for life” on some of their phones, including one that costs $50 and runs on AT&T’s contract-class network footprint, including roaming (as long as you stay on 2G, AT&T does just fine). This means that Tracfone’s $10 airtime card costs around 11 cents per minute, or 3.3 cents per text (text messages cost 0.3 minutes of airtime), and their heavy-hitting $200 one-year airtime card doles out 4500 minutes (at a little over 4.4 cents apiece, or 1.3 cents per text) instead of just 1500 (or 3000 with double minutes). $200 may sound like a lot of money to spend on cell phone service, but minutes last a year, so you’re winding up spending less than $17 per month on a minute bucket where you can average 375 minutes per month, which isn’t bad at all.

As stated before, the best cellular option for your needs is going to vary depending on what you want your phone to do. I pay a little over $60 per month for a plan that effectively includes unlimited everything including phone insurance on Sprint (I’m on a special plan with special add-ons that isn’t offered anymore). My mom and brother each pay $25 per month on Virgin Mobile (for the plan that is now $35 per month). My dad and other brother have Tracfones, with my dad spending maybe $20 per month on service, and my little brother spending $7.50 per month or so. When you add all the fees up, we’re ahead of where a family plan for equivalent functionality would put us, and only one of us (me) is on a contract. All very good things…