Zact, a new virtual mobile carrier on Sprint's network, offers some killer service plans and useful parental controls. But it's entering a very crowded prepaid market, where its super-cool billing technology can't outweigh the value of unlimited plans for heavy users and a wider range of phones for most people. That makes Zact a true player, but not a leader, in the prepaid space.
Sign Up and Setup
Zact sells online only. You go to Zact's website and pick one of only three available handsets: a $449 Samsung Galaxy S III, a $259 Samsung Galaxy Victory, and a $199 LG Viper. They're all decent Android smartphones, although none of them is state of the art. More importantly, Virgin Mobile is undercutting Zact right now with a $339 Galaxy S III and $149 Victory.?
I got a Zact Samsung Galaxy S III. It came with all of the usual Samsung preloads, but only one carrier app: The Zact carrier management app, which helps you set your plan, monitor your usage, and control your kids' phones.
Zact's plans all work on Sprint's network. My Zact Galaxy S III found Sprint's 3G and LTE networks without a problem, getting around 400kbps down on Sprint's slow 3G network and about 6Mbps down on LTE. If Verizon's signal is stronger than Sprint's where you live, expect some odd behavior from your phone, though. When I went in our building's elevator, the phone flipped over into "roaming" mode for a few minutes, which was a little confusing.
Zact's system requires custom firmware, so it only works with phones bought through Zact. Unlike competing low-cost Sprint MVNOs Ting, Kajeet, and Expo Mobile, for instance, you can't bring your own Sprint phone. And since Sprint is a CDMA system, you can't use unlocked phones, or phones from other carriers. If you choose a GSM-based prepaid service like Simple Mobile or Straight Talk, you can use an entire planet's worth of unlocked GSM phones.
Plan Features and Management
Zact lets you tune your service plan to your exact level of usage, whenever you want. You can change it dozens of times a month if you like; only the last change, before your monthly billing date, matters. Ting also has custom service plans, but Zact's more granular approach generally leads to savings of at least a few dollars a month.
The key is that whatever plan you pick, you're only charged for what you use. For instance, a plan with 500 minutes, 1000 texts and 500MB of data on one phone is $33/month on Ting. On Zact, that comes to $32.93: $27.94 for the plan and $4.99 per phone. But Ting doesn't offer any data buckets between 100MB for $3 and 500MB for $13, while Zact will trim your monthly rate down to what you actually used, in 50MB increments. That means you'll probably pay less with Zact.
Zact's "specialized plans" are even more interesting: you can buy buckets that only work with specific apps. For instance, 275 MB of Facebook or Instagram for a month costs $5. If you're really into tweaking, you can create a plan for precisely your Internet usage and save even more money, but you have to be precise and pay attention.
Both Zact and Ting eschew the unlimited plans that most mainstream carriers and many MVNOs choose. For instance, Expo Mobile offers $50 unlimited talk, text, and 3G Sprint data. Zact can roll up to 5000 minutes per month ($86.97), 40,000 texts ($89.40) and 5GB of data ($104), but as you can see, it gets pretty expensive for very high volume users.
The parental controls here are excellent, and the whole family doesn't need to sign up for Zact to use them. You can control Zact phones from other Android or iOS phones, using an app downloaded from the Android Market or iTunes.
The Zact parental controls let you set restrictions by time and day of the week. You can blacklist or whitelist phone calls, texts, specific applications, and specific contacts?for instance, making it so a tween's phone can only text her friends between 3 and 8PM on weekdays. If you have multiple phones, you can set defined usage limits for each phone. That's really nice.
The only low-cost carrier competing with Zact on parental controls is Kajeet, also on the Sprint network. Kajeet has a limited set of text-focused plans with relatively little data usage on its lowest-cost plans, but it lets you bring most existing Sprint phones over and enjoy cheap plans with parental controls.
The specialized plans also make sense in a family-plan context: For instance, if your kid relies on Instagram, you can just buy her Instagram, but not other Web services.