Help Me, Tom's Guide: What Are the Best Unlocked Phones for Verizon?

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Once upon a time, the carrier you used greatly influenced which phone you bought. In the early days of the iPhone, you had to be an AT&T customer to get one of Apple's phones, and the first Motorola Droid was exclusive to Verizon.

Credit: ShutterstockCredit: ShutterstockTimes have, thankfully, changed, and now anyone can use almost any handset on their wireless network of choice. Unless you're like my roommate, that is, in which case you've got quite a dilemma on your hands.

Yes, my friend has accomplished something most of us wish we had the foresight to do nearly a decade ago: He's found a way to keep his grandfathered Verizon unlimited-data plan. No, not one of those newer "unlimited" plans that Big Red introduced last year, full of different tiers with caveats and catches, but the original iteration — you know, back when unlimited still meant unlimited.

That's helped him save hundreds of dollars over the years; last month, for example, he used 50GB and paid just $48. The only problem is that it's made upgrading very difficult.

You see, to keep his grandfathered plan, my friend can't buy a new phone with the payments broken into installment plans or subsidized in any way by Verizon. That would force him onto a newer, and likely more expensive, monthly plan. That means he has to go with an unlocked phone — a device not tied to a carrier in any way.

MORE: Unlocked or Carrier? How You Should Buy Your Next Phone

Ordinarily, this wouldn't be an issue; networks that operate on the global GSM standard, like T-Mobile and AT&T, allow you to take your SIM card out of one phone and put it in another to switch over your service. But CDMA-based carriers like Verizon and Sprint use certain bands that GSM networks don't. And while you could put your Verizon SIM in any unlocked phone and probably receive some data support and perhaps be able to make calls and send texts, you might struggle to get a signal depending on your location.

As a result, my friend has been holding onto his Huawei Nexus 6P for nearly three years now, unable to find an unlocked phone he likes that sells at a reasonable price and will work on Verizon. His Nexus' battery is failing — he tells me it's a common problem with that model — which means he needs a new handset now more than ever.

This guy is a stock-Android devotee — so much for buying an unlocked iPhone — and he prioritizes flagship performance and a great camera. Right off the bat, that eliminates most budget phones. He doesn't want to pay more than $500 either, which further complicates things. (He really likes the OnePlus 6, but that phone's lack of CDMA wiring makes it a nonstarter.)

What should he do? Here are my suggestions on what to buy:

Credit: Tom's GuideCredit: Tom's GuideAn old Pixel: If you've got to pick up a phone this minute and you're OK with something not quite bleeding edge, why not get an original Pixel? The first-generation model may be two years old, but it is still plenty powerful, touts stock Android and has a camera that continues to impress. Better yet, many retailers, from B&H to Amazon, offer the smaller, 5-inch model for less than $350. Personally, if I were more price-conscious, this would be my choice — though Google has stopped issuing software updates for the phone, which is a notable downside.

There's also the Pixel 2 to consider, especially because that phone could see its price slide in about a month, when the Pixel 3 emerges. Of course, the Pixel 2 has an even better camera than its predecessor, with a faster processor and Active Edge support, so you can squeeze the device to access shortcuts more quickly. The Pixel 2 currently costs $649, though again, you can look forward to that changing in the near future.

Credit: RedditCredit: RedditWait for the Pixel 3: The Pixel 3 might be a bit more expensive than my friend would like, but he's also told me he's particularly excited about the design of the smaller, 5.4-inch model, which has been rumored to skip the notch. Google's upcoming flagship figures to capitalize on the company's camera dominance, with rumors pointing to an upgraded Pixel Visual Core chipset, along with dual front-facing cameras and the notable addition of wireless charging. The bigger, uglier and pricier Pixel 3 XL is likely out, unless Google does the unthinkable on Oct. 9 and proves that all those leaks were decoys.

Credit: Tom's GuideCredit: Tom's GuideThe Essential Phone: This is a contentious pick (as my colleagues will be quick to remind you) but worth considering nonetheless. Yes, the Essential PH-1 launched to jeers from critics and consumers alike, thanks to its lackluster camera, laggy software and $699 asking price. And yes, the public responded appropriately, by refusing to buy it.

And then, Essential pulled off one of the most impressive comebacks in recent tech history. It drastically slashed the price of the PH-1, to less than $350; in fact, the Halo Gray model can currently be had on Amazon for a little more than $300. The company pushed out updates that improved the camera and sorted out the lag gremlins. Essential released a selection of gorgeous new color options, like the limited-edition green-and-gold Ocean Depths variant. And the company became the first phone maker to roll out an upgrade to Android 9 Pie, even beating Google's Pixels to the punch by a few hours.

You may still have to put up with less-than-stellar photos with this phone, though, even with that supposed camera fix. But in every other respect, the Essential Phone is currently Verizon customers' answer to the OnePlus 6. And at $200 less than that phone, it's arguably a better bargain, too.

Credit: Tom's GuideCredit: Tom's GuideGalaxy S8 is still a great choice: Just because Samsung has shifted focus to the dual-aperture-toting Galaxy S9, that doesn't mean the Galaxy S8 is any less compelling of a flagship. And right now is actually the perfect time to jump aboard the Samsung train, because lately, Galaxy S8 prices have been dropping faster than all those Pixel 3 leaks.

Amazon sells the unlocked model for just $507, while Best Buy has it for $549. For that money, you still get Snapdragon 835 power, a very solid camera, wireless charging, a headphone jack, a microSD slot for expandable storage and — last but certainly not least — a jaw-droppingly vibrant 5.8-inch AMOLED display.

The only potential downside is the Samsung Experience UI. It’s as polished an Android front end as you're likely to find in 2018, but it may be a sticking point for purists like my roommate (and ditto for the Bixby integration). Regardless, I don't think that's a reason to pass up one of the most well-rounded, well-designed handsets of the past two years.

Other options

If you find yourself in a similar dilemma to my buddy here, you should know that there are plenty more options if you abandon his admittedly stringent criteria. Apple users in a pinch could spring for the iPhone 7, which currently runs just $549 unlocked for the 32GB model. That price may fall even further after Apple's Sept. 12 event, when the next-gen iPhones will debut.

There are also less-powerful but even cheaper Android phones than those discussed here, like the $249 Moto G6, which is already on sale for $229 through Best Buy. These kinds of budget handsets lack class-leading cameras and blistering graphics performance for gaming, but the best examples still hold their own for everyday use.

In any case, if by some miracle you, too, still cling to a long-discontinued grandfather plan with your carrier, never let go at any cost. That stuff's worth its weight in gold.

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