Contracts, for most people, are a dreadful part of the smartphone purchasing process.

There's nothing quite like agreeing to tether yourself to a carrier for 24 months with the only chance of escape an early termination fee (which can range between $50 and $350).

Perhaps contracts aren't as bad as being thrown in San Quentin, but an increasing number of consumers are realizing there are alternatives to being chained to one carrier for a chunk of their lives.

An exodus is indeed happening as data gathered by the NPD Group - a consumer and market research firm - found that prepaid smartphone sales drove overall smartphone growth this year.

And Informa, yet another research group, recently reported lower-priced/budget smartphones will dominate the market by 2017.

The other choice

Carrier contracts save money up front through subsidies, but the cost is transferred to the contract, making any initial savings seem worthless when all is said and done.

A prepaid mobile device for many is often a better way to go, offering a decent if not delightful device for a fraction of the long-term cost, including no activation fees.

Plus, you can end your service any time - there's no punishment for stopping service on your terms and choosing another carrier, plan and smartphone.

"Prepaid" has a bit of a stigma, conjuring images of a rundown handset with a barely there service plan, so TechRadar set out to find the best prepaid phones on the market.

We compiled the list below and will update it as more phones warrant inclusion. We tried to stick to national carriers and keep the up-front prices low (no $649.99 Galaxy Note II).

Most prepaid carriers throttle data speeds after the monthly data limit is reached, so it's imperative to stay on top of your usage and understand what consequences await for going over (most if not all carriers provide free warning texts when limits are near).

No carrier is perfect – prepaid isn't a fix all for the problems of carrier contracts. But the choices are there and in many cases at least one prepaid option is the right fit for many who thought there was no other way.

Galaxy S3
Samsung Galaxy S3

1. Galaxy S3 (MetroPCS)

Where you can get it: MetroPCS website and retail stores

You pay: $499 plus tax online or in retail stores

Prepaid deal: $40/month 4G LTE up to 250MB, unlimited talk and text; $55/month 4G LTE up to 2.5GB, unlimited talk and text (limited time offer); $60/month 4G LTE up to 5GB with Rhapsody Unlimited Music, unlimited talk and text; $70/month 4GLTE with MetroSTUDIO Video on Demand, unlimited talk and text.

The Galaxy S3 is, in many people's minds, the phone of 2012.

While $500 is a hefty price to pay at check out, the savings really come in the monthly payments. At $60 a month, the yearly cost of the S3 on that plan is $720.

By comparison, the lowest talk/text and data (1GB) package on AT&T is $85 a month, whether you choose an AT&T month-to-month plan or one- or two-year contract.

One year on on the 1GB option will cost $1,020, while two years ends up costing $2,040. The price of the phone fluctuates with each AT&T option, though a monthly plan brings the S3 to $549.

As for the phone itself, 4G LTE capabilities, a stunning 4.8-inch HD SuperAMOLED display, punchy 1.5GHz dual-core processor and Android 4.0: Ice Cream Sandwich are its highlight-reel features.

MetroPCS's version comes with a 11.8GB of internal memory, while external storage racks up to 64GB.

The 8MP camera is better than many top-tier handsets, let alone weak lenses found on prepaid devices.

With a Metro/T-Mobile merger in the works, Metro customers should see more larger-carrier perks, including greater 4G LTE coverage, coming in the next year.