It used to be that prepaid users were stuck with the bottom of the barrel when it came to devices. Without the luxury of large device subsidies, carriers like Leap Wireless International/Cricket Communications and MetroPCS have been playing a waiting game on smartphones, hoping one day OEMs could deliver a full touchscreen experience that they could price aggressively for their value-conscious customer base.

That day apparently has arrived, as is evidenced by the three devices from Cricket that I've been playing around with for the past couple of weeks. While the Huawei Ascend and Sanyo Zio by Kyocera aren't exactly iPhones, they're capable, attractively priced Android-based smartphones for the contract-averse. Likewise, the company's new Crosswave hot spot from Huawei is an intriguing addition to Cricket's portfolio.

Both of the Android devices reviewed herein are eligible for Cricket's recently announced nationwide roaming, which expanded the company's 3G coverage to more than 280 million POPs practically overnight. With broader reach and more sophisticated devices like the ones detailed below, Cricket's recent offering signal a dramatic change in the look and feel of prepaid.

Huawei Ascend
The first thing you notice about the Ascend is that it doesn't feel cheap. The build is sturdy and the touchscreen is vibrant and responsive, if a magnet for fingerprints. Design wise, the Ascend is compact, attractive and feels good in the hand.

There's a lot to like with the Ascend and that's without throwing in the for-a-prepaid-smartphone caveat. It comes running Android 2.1, which should be upgradeable to 2.2 at some point, and at $129 without a contract, it's hard to call it anything less than a bargain.

To be sure, the Ascend would be a mid- to low-range smartphone within the context of a postpaid carrier's portfolio, which in some respects it is, but for our purposes let's call it an entry-level smarty. I have to confess that I put it over the top of Cricket's other Android smartphone, the Sanyo Zio by Kyocera, which I'll get to later.

Huawei Ascend and Sanyo Zio by Kyocera

The Ascend isn't actually what you'd call snappy, and it's in this area that you really are getting that for which you pay. With a 528 MHz processor, start-up time is a drag and the gaming experience is a little jittery (I tried the pre-loaded Midnight Bowling from Gameloft). Once it's up and running, however, the Ascend gets along at a decent enough clip. It's fair to say that the slower speeds wouldn't be a deal breaker for the new smartphone user.

The UI was a little funky, featuring three vertical and three horizontal home screens to personalize, but easy enough to navigate once you get the hang of it. The keyboard was spacious and responsive (gotta love a dash of haptic feedback) in both portrait and landscape modes, with the addition of preloaded Swype offering a nice way to address any shortcomings in the text-entry area.

The 3-megapixel camera worked well and video recording was as on par with what one would expect from that resolution. Video from YouTube streamed well over Cricket's 3G network and did so without any pauses. The 3.5-inch HVGA screen isn't really a dazzler but it gets the job done. I also like the Ascend's speaker, which produced better sound than I would have expected. 

Setup of my Google account was easy enough and the Android Market of course sits front and center at the bottom of the home screen. It's worth mentioning that key to an entry-level smartphone like this is Android's robust apps market. The OEM and carrier can skimp on preloaded applications (e.g. browser, search, etc.) For instance, the Ascend's factory browser was not to my liking, and in the absence of pinch-to-zoom, an inadequate browser is a real problem. Not to worry, however, the Android Market features plenty of stand-ins that will increase the quality of user experience 10-fold.

Overall, the Ascend more than justifies its non-contract $129 price tag. To be blunt, an iPhone user who switches to Cricket and picks up an Ascend would be more than disappointed, but if we stick with the "entry-level" smartphone label, value conscious consumers new to the smartphone arena could do much worse than this full-featured Android device from Huawei.

Sanyo Zio by Kyocera
Why the Zio costs more than the Ascend is beyond me. It comes running Android 1.6 (upgrade to 2.1 on the way) and seems to fall way short of the Ascend in a number of areas. Still, within the scope of prepaid (I guess we will add that caveat), the Zio offers a full, if at times frustrating, entry-level smartphone experience. 

I remember seeing a prototype of Kyocera's first Android device back at a CTIA press event in San Diego. That device was about as vanilla as the one that was finally brought to market, but I guess at this price point, that's to be expected. The hardware is pretty typical for a lower-end smartphone: 3.2-megapixel camera with video capture, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and expandable memory up to 32GB.

The Zio's design is sleek and smaller than the Ascend, featuring a 600 MHz processor from Qualcomm, but while it may be a hair faster than the Ascend, the overall experience is lacking due to its average touchscreen experience.

Whereas the Ascend doesn't feel cheap on first handling, the Zio's small size doesn't exactly scream quality. Perhaps the most disappointing thing about the Zio is its touchscreen, which is frustratingly unresponsive and when combined with a tiny virtual keyboard in portrait mode (a little better in landscape), writing an email or even a text becomes a chore.

In my opinion, the Zio is has too many buttons for a touchscreen device. At the bottom of the handset, there are flat Home, Menu, Back and Search buttons, as well as physical On and Off buttons and a trackball. Design of touchscreen smartphones is on a course to eliminate as many of these buttons as possible, and the confusion that results from too many is unnecessary.

As for the UI, the Zio doesn't go far enough to really screw anything up. There's the homescreen and one additional screen for personalization. Beyond that, it's straight-up Android 1.6.

So is the Zio just a terrible device? Not at all. Even after outlining where the Zio falls short, I can say that Cricket customers are still being offered an incredible value over what they could have expected just a couple years ago, when a prepaid texting phone ran anywhere from $200-$300.

While I spent some time in this review comparing the Ascend and the Zio, in daily use the differences are relatively insignificant. Both of these phones offer users high-end smartphone features like full Web browsing, chat, email, texting, apps, account management and video, features that in the past were only available with postpaid carriers. Prepaid customers can thank the open-source and free-to-any-OEM Android platform for that. 

Huawei Crosswave
The Crosswave mobile hot spot is yet one more way that Cricket is offering its prepaid customers more services that were normally reserved for postpaid customers. There's little to say about the Crosswave itself, beyond the fact that it works and is attractively designed.

The fact that it works and works well is more a testament to the strength of Cricket's network as it is a comment on the device itself. The Crosswave allows users to connect up to five devices at once to Cricket's 3G CDMA network via a Wi-Fi connection. It does just that.

I was able to connect with my netbook and stream Netflix via the Crosswave. Buffering was quick and in line with what I experience on my iPhone. The Crosswave sells for $129 and when paired with Cricket's nationwide roaming, it's a nice addition to the company's line of USB dongles.

Prepaid's Stigma
I was impressed with the overall quality of these latest offerings from Cricket. They're signals that prepaid carriers can and are finding ways to compete in the hyper-competitive wireless market. Granted, Cricket's third-quarter results were disappointing, but the carrier sees smartphones as a good way to boost ARPU in coming quarters.

While the United States was built on the postpaid model (which relies heavily on U.S. consumers' use of credit), Europe's wireless industry has long thrived on the prepaid model, with less credit-dependent customers willing to shell out a little extra to get a premium device without having to sign a contract. As differentiation between postpaid and prepaid fades (God forbid the economy worsens), I wouldn't be surprised if more Americans go the way of the Europeans when it comes to cell service.

To be sure, the prepaid proposition always has been one burdened with the you-get-what-you-pay-for stigma. But that's changing as the smartphone playing field levels and device and data prices drop dramatically. With what I've seen from Cricket, as well other developments in the space, such as MetroPCS succeeding in the first LTE rollouts in the U.S., there's even more evidence that consumers will continue to have a breadth of options in this space.