PROS / Virgin has begun partnering with music services to offer free music streaming that doesn’t count toward your monthly data cap.
CONS / Spotty coverage and a family plan that’s only available at Walmart limit the company's overall versatility.
VERDICT / As a prepaid provider, Virgin Mobile's monthly prices are easy on the wallet. When compared to bigger carriers, however, its coverage and feature set are substandard.
Virgin Mobile is trying to come around. Without its own storefronts, the company sells its services either online or through Walmart, and those services have long been substandard – slow speeds, low data allocations and miserly feature lists. With some recent plan changes, Virgin is finally raising its value proposition, but a few notable drawbacks keep it from standing with the best cell phone providers in the country.
Befitting a modern cell phone company, all of Virgin’s plans include unlimited talk and text, international calling (at pricey per-minute rates), visual voicemail, and so on. Its biggest new addition is unlimited music streaming. Virgin has partnered with five music brands and lets you stream from their apps, as long and as often as you like, without digging into your monthly data. If you’re a fan of Pandora, iHeartRadio, Slacker Radio, 8tracks or Samsung Milk Music, you’re good to go, but the biggest names in the game – iTunes, Google Play Music and Spotify – are notably absent.
Virgin offers three different data tiers. You can pay $30 a month for 500MB of data, $40 a month for 4GB of data or $50 a month for 6GB of data. The 500MB plan isn’t enough for any but the lightest data users, so it’s probably best to budget for the $40 option. This is still cheap for a modern cell phone plan, and given the unlimited music streaming you get for no additional charge, it earns Virgin a high rating on our value scale.
Virgin’s biggest downside is its network. As a mobile virtual network operator, or MVNO, Virgin leases coverage from Sprint and resells it to its customers. Sprint’s network is the weakest of the four national carriers’, with spottier coverage, more dropped calls and slower download speeds than the competition. It has broader reach than T-Mobile outside of urban areas but is otherwise inferior, and all that carries over to Virgin. If having the best cell phone service is important to you, you might want to consider a provider that runs on AT&T’s network.
The other annoyance for Virgin customers is how it structures family plans. Like most modern providers, Virgin offers a shared-data option that’s perfect for families, but it’s only available if you go to a physical Walmart store with a Walmart Mobile branch. Given how easy it is to handle Virgin Mobile purchases online and even finance them through PayPal, being forced to find your nearest Walmart just so your whole family can get service is tedious.
Virgin Mobile’s unlimited music streaming, low rates and multiple payment options for new phones make decent cellular service affordable. However, when it’s pitted against the best cell phone plans from the major carriers – or even other MVNOs – its lack of features becomes painfully apparent. If you want a family plan but don’t live near a Walmart, if you want to call internationally without breaking the bank, and even if you just want stronger cellular service than the Sprint network provides, Virgin isn’t for you. It’s come a long way but still falls short of our recommendation.