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Virgin Mobile gets a Google Wallet phone: LG Optimus Elite

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As the only major U.S. carrier backing Google Wallet(s goog), Sprint(s s) is trying to help its cause, releasing the LG Optimus Elite for Virgin Mobile on Tuesday. Virgin Mobile is a Sprint-owned pre-paid brand and the new handset is the first on Virgin Mobile to include a near-field communications (NFC) chip that can use Google’s Wallet for mobile purchases. The Android 2.3 handset is priced at $149.99 with pre-paid plans starting at $35 per month.

The Optimus Elite is a successor to last year’s Optimus V. I reviewed a variant of that device and found it to be a solid performer for the then $149 price tag. At the same cost, the new Elite offers a few welcome upgrades: a faster 800 MHz processor and 5 megapixel rear camera with a flash and video capabilities to name a few. The 3.5-inch display is still just HVGA, or 480 x 320 resolution, however. Virgin Mobile and LG are supplementing the on-board storage with 50 GB of free cloud capacity through

NFC may be the biggest new feature here, however. Google is struggling to gain customers for its Google Wallet service as another carrier-backed group consisting of AT&T(s t), T-Mobile and Verizon Wireless (s vz)(s vod) are preparing an alternative mobile payment system dubbed Isis.

Until now, most NFC-based Google Wallet phones were expensive, higher-end handsets. For $149, Sprint, Virgin Mobile and LG are putting wireless payments in the hands of the pre-paid user base at a reasonable cost. Will it help Google Wallet win out over Isis? Probably not, but if nothing else, the LG Optimus Elite will at least raise awareness for mobile payments before a whole new audience.