Unlike Walmart's AT&T-powered Straight Talk, Solavei relies on T-Mobile's 4G network. You can bring your own unlocked GSM phone (like, say, an AT&T iPhone), paying just $9 for a SIM card, or choose from around eight unlocked, unsubsidized handsets sold via GSM Nation. These include the Motorola Defy ($205), HTC Amaze 4G (345), and beloved Samsung Galaxy S III ($575). (Interesting side note: If you use PayPal, you can get no payments and no interest for six months.)
Personally, I think the big appeal will be to post-contract users like me who want the same (or at least comparable) service for less money. In fact, there's the potential to make it much less: Solavei offers a reward program that can lower or eliminate your entire bill, or even put extra cash in your pocket.
In a nutshell, if you refer three other paying customers, you get $20 per month off your bill. Wrangle another three and get another $20 off. And so on and so on. Once you've covered your entire bill (i.e., signed up at least three trios, or nine people), you start pocketing the difference. Translation: You can actually make money. It's a little pyramid-schemey, perhaps, but you gotta love the incentive of having no phone bill.
I've been test-driving the service with a loaner HTC One S phone, and can report solid voice quality and data performance alike. (The Speedtest app reported around 10Mbps downloads in my basement.) However, when I popped the SIM card into an unlocked iPhone 4, the best it could manage was 2G speed. According to a company rep, that's because T-Mobile's 1,900MHz-band 4G updates have yet to roll out to my area. When they do, I'm golden.
Well, almost. There's one other potential string attached for iPhone users: no visual voice mail, same as with Straight Talk. (The latter also disables MMS, which is fully supported here.) That's far from a deal breaker for me (YouMail, anyone?), but it's something to keep in mind.
So, is Solavei the way to go? Walmart charges $4 less per month for its Straight Talk service (not counting any rewards you might score here), but the service recently came under fire when it was discovered that its "unlimited everything" offer was anything but. Indeed, as PC Magazine reported, there's a 2GB soft cap on data, after which you may get throttled or cut off altogether. And if you do something as harmless as download an app from iTunes, you're potentially violating the terms of service. (For my part, I've tried numerous times to reach a Straight Talk company rep to get more information, but all my requests have gone unanswered.)
Update:Following this post, a Walmart representative reached out regarding the PC Magazine story, to which Straight Talk issued a response. But as PC Mag's follow-up notes, Straight Talk's terms of service are at odds with Straight Talk's response. Hmm.