When it’s time to get a new smartphone, you don’t have to turn to a wireless carrier to buy your device. Instead, you can pick up an unlocked version of the phone. Here’s why you would want to go this route.
Unlocked Phone Benefits
- Your choice of carrier: With an unlocked phone, you can get service from whatever carrier you want, more easily jumping to a new wireless provider if you’re dissatisfied with your service.
- You own the phone: You’ll also own your unlocked phone outright — no two year’s worth of monthly payments to manage — and you’ll likely get a better return on your unlocked phone should you decide to resell it.
- No carrier bloatware: Not a fan of apps you don’t need? With an unlocked Android phone, you don’t have to deal with bloatware, which can take up precious room on your phones
- You can save a bundle: Because phone makers bypass the carriers for unlocked phones, they can often pass the savings onto you. In fact, there are several very good Android phones under $200.
- Huawei's New Mate: Huawei has just announced the successor to its big-screen Mate 9, and it comes in two versions. The Huawei Mate 10 is a 6-inch phone while the Mate 10 Pro offers a 5.9-inch screen. It's the Kirin 970 processor inside both phones that will command your attention as it features an onboard neural processor. That lets the phone do things like recognize what you're taking a picture of and adjusting the camera settings to optimize the shot. We're waiting to see which version will hit the U.S. and how much it will cost, but the Mate 10 will be available unlocked.
You can find many of the best Android flagships available unlocked. As impressed as we are with the Galaxy Note 8, we still give the nod to the Samsung Galaxy S8 as your best unlocked option overall since it's available for $125 less than the larger Note 8. However, if you prize a top-performing camera above all else, the dual rear lenses on the Note 8 make it our favorite camera phone. If you want the full Android experience, though, consider the Pixel 2 XL from Google. It has the latest version of Android, and it really taps into Google's Assistant. (Be aware that the Pixel 2 XL has some issues with its display, so you could opt for the lower priced Pixel 2, which doesn't have those problems with its 5-inch screen.)
You can buy an iPhone directly from Apple without having to commit to a carrier. Now that it's out, we think the $799 iPhone 8 Plus is the best choice for an unlocked iPhone, thanks to its industry-best dual rear cameras and longer battery life. (It lasted more than 11 hours on our battery test, versus a little less than 10 hours for the iPhone 8.
Our favorite option for people who want the best bang for their buck is the OnePlus 5. It has many features you’d find on either the Galaxy S8 or iPhone 7 Plus, including a sharp AMOLED display, Snapdragon 835 processor and dual rear cameras. You won’t find a high-price tag, though: the OnePlus 5 starts at $479 for a model with 6GB of RAM and 64GB of storage.
For even lower priced phones, one of our favorite unlocked devices from 2016 — Huawei’s Honor 8 — now runs the latest version of Android, and you can get it for less than $400. If you're on a tighter budget, the $229 Moto G5 Plus gets the nod as our favorite phone for less than $300, even though its newly released sibling — the G5S Plus — offers dual rear cameras.
What to Know Before You Go Unlocked
Most cheap unlocked phones can be purchased online, either through the phone makers themselves or via retailer such as Amazon, Best Buy, Newegg and others. Assuming you want 4G LTE speeds, the vast majority of these devices operate on GSM networks in the U.S. That means AT&T and T-Mobile, as well as discount carriers that run on those networks, such as Cricket Wireless, MetroPCS and Straight Talk. Some so-called multimode unlocked phones work with CDMA carriers like Sprint and Verizon, such as the Google Pixel and Pixel XL.
You can tell which networks an unlocked phone supports by looking at the bands on which it runs (e.g., 850 MHz; 900 MHz; 2,100 MHz; 1,900 MHz; 2100 MHz), but many online product descriptions will also tell you which providers are compatible. "Make sure it works on a carrier that offers good coverage in your area," advised Avi Greengart, research director for consumer platforms and devices at market research firm Current Analysis.
How We Test
We evaluate smartphones based on a wide range of criteria, including design, display, audio, features, performance, camera quality and battery life. Display evaluations include tests for brightness, color gamut and accuracy. For performance, we use a mix of real-world tests, as well as synthetic benchmarks. Our battery life test involves continuous Web surfing over 4G LTE with the display brightness set to 150 nits.
When considering which unlocked phones to recommend, we compare similarly priced models, with a particular emphasis on budget categories, as we look to recommend handsets that provide a lot of value for their specific price tag.
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