Nov. 16 Update: OnePlus has unveiled the OnePlus 5T, a successor to the OnePlus 5, and we've got a preview of the new phone.
When it comes to smartphones, how you buy is as equally important as what you buy. And instead of going to your carrier to purchase your next device, there are a couple reasons you might want to go unlocked.
Unlocked phones are all about freedom. With an unlocked phone, you’re not beholden to a certain carrier. If you want to jump ship, you’re free to do so without having to pay off the remainder of the device or fork over hundreds for early termination fees. In many cases, you can even get cheaper phones, because manufacturers save money in bypassing carriers and can pass those savings onto you.
If you’re looking for an unlocked phone, you’re likely hunting for a bargain. Fortunately, there are more than a few options out there. The $230 Moto G5 Plus is currently our favorite, thanks to its fast processor, upscale design, and premium software experience. There’s also Motorola’s even cheaper E4 Plus, with its massive 5,000-mAh battery that delivers nearly 15 hours on a single charge.
But just because you're going unlocked doesn't mean you have to settle for less. Take the just-unveiled OnePlus 5T. It has many of the high-end specs we liked about its predecessor, the OnePlus 5, including a Snapdragon 835 processor (the same used in the LG V30 and Google Pixel 2), dual rear cameras, an AMOLED display and 6GB of RAM. All that comes in a $499 phone, a fraction of what you'd pay for competing flagships such as the $749 Samsung Galaxy S8 and the $799 iPhone 8 Plus. We haven't had a chance to review the OnePlus 5T yet, but we did have some hands-on time with the new phone and will post a full review soon.
Even iPhone fans have a great budget unlocked option, in the form of the $349 iPhone SE. This pint-sized powerhouse contains the same A9 processor as the iPhone 6S, but recently saw its base storage bumped to 32GB. You won’t find a better camera in any 4-inch handset.
Unlocked Phone Benefits
- Your choice of carrier: Unlike some phone sold by carriers, unlocked phones aren't exclusively limited to one network. Most are compatible with all of the Big Four carriers, though some are limited to GSM networks only like AT&T and T-Mobile. This means you won't have to change your phone if you want to change your service provider.
- 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 carrier bloatware, which can take up precious room on your phone's storage. However, bloatware provided by the manufacturer or seller, in the case of Amazon's Prime Exclusive phones, may still be present.
- You can save a bundle: Because phone makers skip the carriers for unlocked phones, they can often sell devices at a reduced cost. In fact, there are several very good Android phones under $200.
- OnePlus 5 is here: As noted above, the OnePlus 5T has landed as OnePlus's new flagship device. The new phone goes on sale November 21, starting at $499 for the model with 6GB of RAM and 64GB of storage.
- Huawei's new Mate: Huawei has announced the successor to its big-screen Mate 9 — the Mate 10 and Mate 10 Pro. Having reviewed the latter phone, we're impressed by its camera and battery life. We're stilling waiting on a ship date for the U.S., but if the Mate 10 Pro follows the lead of the Mate 9, you shouldn't expect to see the new phone stateside until early 2018.
Starting at $179, the Moto E4 Plus is the phone that almost never sleeps. The smaller Moto E4 was already one of our favorite budget handsets, but the larger model improves on it with a massive 5,000 mAh battery. As a result, the E4 Plus delivers nearly unparalleled longevity on a charge — about 15 hours in our Tom’s Guide Battery test. You won’t find that in most flagship smartphones, let alone devices in the E4 Plus’ price range. Other positives are an all-metal design, respectable camera, and excellent stock Android experience with a few useful gesture controls added in by Motorola. The less-than-stellar performance and lack of storage are notable downsides, but for what you’re paying, you really can’t do better.
MORE: Moto E4 Plus Review
A bright, colorful screen, solid camera with dual-pixel autofocus technology and the latest version of Android highlight the latest version of Motorola's budget powerhouse. The Moto G5 Plus also lasts more than 11 hours on a charge and will work on both GSM and CDMA networks, giving you more carrier options. It's a good budget buy whether you opt for the $229 version with 32GB of storage and 2GB of RAM or pay up to double the RAM and storage on the $299 Moto G5 Plus. Amazon Prime members can enjoy further discounts on this phone. The Moto G5S Plus offers dual rear cameras and improved battery life with a 5.5-inch display, and while we like that phone, we think the less expensive G5 Plus is more appealing to bargain hunters.
MORE: Moto G5 Plus Review
The curved 2.5D glass that covers Huawei's phone and its curved metal frame give the $399 Honor 8 the kind of striking looks you'd expect from a much more expensive phone. But beauty is more than skin deep here: you also get a very capable smartphone with a sharp display and peppy performance. The Honor 8's standout feature, though, is its dual-rear cameras, which let you adjust the focus of your shot even after you've captured it. You'll sacrifice a little bit on battery life, but in exchange you'll get a capable handset with a sparkling look and feel. Huawei has rolled out Android Nougat to this phone, offering the latest version of Android to Honor 8 users. As we mentioned, the Honor 9 has been released in other countries, though there's no U.S. launch date or price for this Honor 8 successor.
MORE: Huawei Honor 8 Review
Samsung introduced a new design with the Galaxy S8 — an extended OLED screen that practically eliminates bezels on the front of the phone. Because Samsung uses an extra wide 18.9:5 aspect ration, this 5.8-inch phone still fits comfortably in your hand. The 12-megapixel rear camera is little changed from the Galaxy S7 save for some software improvements that bolster image processing.
MORE: Samsung Galaxy S8 Review
Don't be fooled into thinking the iPhone 8 Plus is just a minor update from its predecessor. The dual rear cameras — the showstopper feature on this phone — are an improvement over the already great camera in the iPhone 7 Plus, with better colors and a new Portrait Lighting feature that lets you add lighting effects on the fly. The new iPhone lasts more than 11 hours on a charge, and its A11 Bionic processor makes it the most powerful smartphone on the market. The only reason to hesitate on buying the iPhone 8 Plus is that the iPhone X is now available; however Apple's $999 phone isn't sold unlocked yet..
MORE: iPhone 8 Plus Review
What to Know Before You Go Unlocked
- Where to buy: Most cheap unlocked phones can be purchased online, either through the phone makers themselves or via retailers such as Amazon, Best Buy, Newegg and others.
- Which carriers are supported: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.
- Your carrier's coverage map: In terms of coverage area, there's less discrepancy between networks than ever before, but there are still gaps, especially in less-populated areas. "Make sure [the phone you're buying] 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 Unlocked Phones
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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