While they're still somewhat of an anomaly, prepaid phones account for a growing share of the market, and Virgin Mobile's latest offering, the Wild Card by Kyocera, may increase it even more. With a full QWERTY keypad, low price, and an ample music library, the Wild Card is perfect for young people accustomed to texting on their parents' dime. With a prepaid phone, parents can make sure their messaging fees don't go through the roof. It isn't the most attractive handset, and downloading music could be more intuitive, but for those on an allowance, it'll do just fine.
Wild Card Design
With messaging launch buttons both inside and out, the Wild Card's design suggests its intended audience of heavy texters. At 4.1 ounces, the device weighs the same as the LG Rumor, but at 3.9 x 2 x 0.8 inches it's a bit shorter. The phone's black shell houses a 1.5-inch display with a silver navigational pad and a black number pad. It opens horizontally to reveal a 1.8-inch screen and a full keyboard with glow-in-the dark buttons and turquoise accents bisected by a navigational pad and space bar.
The QWERTY layout makes typing fairly easy, but the placement of some of the buttons takes some getting used to: Although the dedicated Back key is self-explanatory, we were tempted to use the right soft key instead. The back panel has a bumpy, rubbery feel and houses the 1.3-megapixel camera. On the left side are volume controls and a camera launch button. Befitting a prepaid phone, the Wild Card also has a button to check your remaining balance. The keypad is ample, but the total effect of the bright plastics and gummy silver details felt a bit chintzy.
Menus could use a face lift; while we like that they don't disappear when you open and close the phone, their large font means a lot of scrolling. When you turn the phone on, it reads "hello" in black block letters against a white background, and there's no way to change this. On the plus side, the screen is bright, and the phone comes loaded with colorful wallpaper and screen savers.
Calling and Texting on the Wild Card
Although Virgin Mobile USA piggybacks on Sprint's PCS network, it's a carrier unto itself. Rather than signing contracts, Virgin Mobile customers buy prepaid plans. Users can opt for either prepaid minutes or monthly plans, which cost as little as 10 cents a minute and $14.99 a month, respectively.
For $19.99 a month, you get unlimited texts, e-mails, IMs, and picture messaging, plus a free second month. Free nighttime calling begins at 7 p.m. For $14.99 a month, you get 100 anytime minutes; if you opt for a basic, pay-by-the-minute calling plan, you pay 20 cents per call, and 10 cents per call to other Virgin Mobile phones.
Voice quality was decent: Calls to AT&T and Verizon Wireless phones sounded clear, with slight fuzziness in the background. We were impressed by the phone's speedy 1X connection, but service would occasionally cut out while we were browsing music. For $1 a day or $4.99 a month, users can surf the Internet and use AIM and Yahoo Messenger at no additional charge.
We had no problems chatting with friends. The phone also saves your login information, and automatically signs you in when you select Mobile IM. Browsing the Web was simple, and we didn't have to wait too long for pages to load: Facebook.com took 12 seconds; MySpace.com, 13 seconds; and CNN.com and NYTimes.com each took 15 seconds.
Funky Music Player
The Wild Card is the second Virgin Mobile phone to include Bluetooth and the first that can stream music. Bluetooth isn't stereo, but according to Virgin Mobile, it's on the way. Speaker volume and fidelity is good, but it's not as loud as a dedicated music phone. Virgin offers a streaming music function that, for $2.49 a month, lets you stream full songs to the phone for an additional 25 cents per song. The selection is paltry: In browsing artists alphabetically, we found four under "A," three under "D," and none under "R."
We streamed the song "Friends" by a band called Atomship. After just a few seconds of buffering, the music started playing, and despite the 1X connecton, sounded fluid throughout. Annoyingly, you must keep the phone open while streaming music. You can use the Headliner application to get tour updates, news, and discographies for your favorite artists.
Downloading a ringtone from Virgin XL, a separte splash page, took just 14 seconds. Although quick, the menu was confusing: We selected an Alicia Keys track in the Music menu, thinking we would get the entire tune, but our download turned out to be just a ringtone. At $2.50 a pop, ringtones are expensive. What's more, you can't add your own music to the phone.
Picture quality from the 1.3-megapixel camera was poor: Images appear pixelated, even on the tiny screen, and when you view them, they don't even fill the LCD. However, the phone lets you send pictures via MMS and attach a recorded message and up to 1,000 characters of text.
Kyocera Wild Card Verdict
The Wild Card isn't reason enough to abandon your carrier contract: For a reasonable price, you can buy a sleeker messaging phone with an integrated MP3 player and a more intuitive over-the-air music store. But if your kids are racking up that texting bill, the Wild Card might be a good fit.
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