Mar 06 AT 1:48 PM Taylor Wimberly 54 Comments

Best unlocked Android phone for any budget: March 2013

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Last year I made the jump to using unlocked Android phones on pre-paid wireless plans, and I couldn’t be happier with the results. I saved a ton of money on my monthly bill, I can choose any Android phone I want, and I no longer have to rely on carriers to deliver my software updates.

If unlocked phones on pre-paid plans are so great, then why aren’t more people shredding their contracts and switching?

For consumers on a tight budget, switcing to the pre-paid world can be challenging at first. The cost of leaving your carrier during the middle of a contract and the cost of buying an unlocked phone could force you to spend 3-6x times your monthly carrier bill.

Once you get past the initial expenses, your savings could quickly add up. I switched from Verizon to Straight Talk (AT&T) and then Solavei (T-Mobile), which instantly saved me around $50 per month, or roughly $600 per year. That same $600 is about the cost of most high-end Android phones that are unlocked and sold without a service contract. This means your potential first-year savings could absorb the entire cost of any new Android phone you want.

After making the switch to using unlocked Android phones, I see no real reason to return to the land of locked phones and post-paid service plans. I have the freedom to choose the device I want, I can choose what network it operates on, I can decide what software it runs, and I can switch from device to device, and carrier to carrier, without signing another contract.

There are many places to purchase unlocked phones, and I have found that Amazon Wireless offers the largest selection, lowest prices, and fastest  shipping service. I’m a member of Amazon Prime so I get free 2-day shipping on most items, but it’s still a good deal even with shipping added in.

If you are considering making the switch to an unlocked phone, here is some advice from someone that already made the journey.

What is an unlocked phone?

Unlocked devices are phones that recognize SIM (Subscriber Identification Module) cards from any carrier. A locked phone will only recognize a SIM card from a particular carrier. The “lock” is a software setting that keeps the cell phone “loyal” to one carrier.

Why should I buy an unlocked phone?

We have already touched on some reasons to shred your wireless contract, but I’ll recap some of the highlights.

  • Unlocked phones cost less in the long run. Do the math.
  • Unlocked phones are not altered by a carrier. No need to worry about crap apps or gimped hardware.
  • Unlocked phones receive Android updates faster, directly from the manufacturer.
  • Unlocked phones give consumers more control of plans and pricing. No contracts, no commitments, no hidden fees.
  • Unlocked phones have a higher resale value.

Check out 7 Things you should know about pre-paid smartphone service before you switch for more info.

Why should I not buy an unlocked phone?

Unlocked phones are not for everyone. Some reasons you might want to pass on unlocked phones include:

  • No 4G LTE access yet. In the future we will see pre-paid service plans with 4G LTE, but right now you are limited to 4G HSPA+.
  • Large families might be better off with a post-paid plan that has shared data. Rates vary from carrier to carrier, but a family plan with shared minutes and data might be cheaper than a bunch of individual pre-paid plans.
  • No in-store support for most plans (T-Mobile Monthly 4G is the exception). If you enjoy walking into your local carrier store to get support with your phone, then you might pass on an unlocked device. Most carriers will not provide support for a device they did not sell, so you will have to turn to the manufacturer for help and warranty claims.

What US networks support unlocked phones?

AT&T and T-Mobile both use the GSM standard and support unlocked phones. Verizon and Sprint rely on the CDMA (Code division multiple access) standard and they will not work with unlocked GSM phones.

Most unlocked phones that were designed for the international market will have no problems running on AT&T’s network. T-Mobile USA uses different HSPA+ bands (1700/2100 MHz), which most international phones do not support,  but they are currently refarming their network to support more phones.

T-Mobile is rolling out HSPA+ service on the 1900 MHz band, so they are starting to support many unlocked devices at faster data speeds in select markets. Currently, T-Mobile covers over 50 markets and 142 million people with their new 1900 MHz network. For areas that have not been upgraded, unlocked phones will still operate on T-Mobile’s 2G Edge network.

  • AT&T HSPA+ bands: 850/1900 MHz
  • T-Mobile HSPA+ bands: 1700/2100 MHz, 1900 MHz is 50+ markets (See airportal.de for 1900mhz coverage map)

Some devices like the Nexus 4 support up to five bands (850, 900, 1700, 1900, 2100 MHz) and will operate on both AT&T and T-Mobile with no problems. Check the bands on an unlocked phone before you make your purchase.

What are the best service plans for unlocked phones?

This topic deserves a separate post (coming soon), but here is a quick summary. Unlocked phones can be used on most of AT&T’s and T-Mobile’s post-paid service plans, but using those won’t net you any extra savings. The best option is to go pre-paid with services such as Straight Talk SIM, Simple Mobile, Solavei, or T-Mobile Monthly 4G. Check out our post Top Pre-paid Plans for Android Phones for more info.

I initially chose Straight Talk SIM because they let you choose between AT&T’s or T-Mobile’s network. Eventually, I ended up with Solavei (T-Mobile) since they offer the most data (4 GB) and a referral program.

Tips for Buying from Amazon

Check who is selling and fulfilling the product: Amazon uses a number of sellers throughout their site. Each product listing will have a featured merchant, but click through the list of sellers to review all your buying options. Some products are shipped by the seller and others are fulfilled through Amazon’s own warehouses. Amazon provides reviews for each seller, so read up on the recent comments if you have any concerns.

Prices will fluctuate daily: You might notice prices jumping up and down before you buy, so keep an eye on the sale prices. One seller might offer a device for $30 cheaper than the competition, but they will sell out and the price will jump back up.

Amazon guarantee: You can buy with confidence because Amazon offers A-to-z Guarantee Protection. The condition of the item you buy and its timely delivery are guaranteed.

Read the reviews: We are providing our picks for the best unlocked Android phone at every price point, but don’t take us as the final word. I encourage you to read the user reviews to see what people are saying about the product.

Best unlocked phone for $700-799: Sony Xperia Z

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Original Release Date: February 2013

The Good: Full 1080p HD on a large 5” display, 13 megapixel camera with Sony Exmor RS sensor and HDR video capture, fast quad-core Snapdragon S4 Pro processor, NFC, water-resistant, frame is made from glass fiber polyamide.

The Not-so-good: High price, some say the viewing angles on the display are not the best.

Networks supported: AT&T 4G HSPA+, T-Mobile 4G HSPA+ (in select cities)

Last Amazon price$789, new to the list this month

Final Words: This is Sony’s best smartphone, but the price is hard to justify when you compare it with other devices.

Best unlocked phone for $600-699: Samsung Galaxy Note II

Original Release Date: September 2012

The Good: Large 5.5-inch HD display, S Pen stylus, fast 1.6 GHz Exynos 4 Quad processor, 2 GB RAM, Android 4.1, great camera experience, NFC, massive 3100 mAh battery, microSD slot.

The Not-so-good: Size might be too big for some.

Networks supported: AT&T 4G HSPA+, T-Mobile 4G HSPA+ (in select cities)

Last Amazon price: $654, prices are same as December

Final Words: The Galaxy Note II is the best super-sized phone you can buy. It features the largest display, fastest processor, and it ships with the latest version of Android.

Best unlocked phone for $500-599: Samsung Galaxy S III

Original Release Date: May 2012

The Good: Large HD display, fast Exynos 4 Quad processor, 1 GB RAM, Android 4.1, great camera experience, NFC, hacker friendly, removable battery, microSD slot.

The Not-so-good: After extended use, I prefer the camera experience on the HTC One X.

Networks supported: AT&T 4G HSPA+, T-Mobile 4G HSPA+ (in select cities)

Last Amazon price$500, prices are down $80 from December

Final Words: The Galaxy S III is one of the best unlocked phones that money can buy, in terms of hardware. However, we expect Samsung to unveil the Galaxy S IV on March 14th.

Best unlocked phone for $400-499: HTC One X

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Original Release Date: April 2012

The Good: Amazing camera experience, beautiful design, Beats audio, large vibrant display, quad-core Tegra 3 processor, best version of Sense UI yet, hacker friendly, NFC, Android 4.1.

The not-so-good: No microSD card, battery is non-removable.

Networks supported: AT&T 4G HSPA+, T-Mobile 4G HSPA+ (in select cities)

Last Amazon Price$480, down $10 from December

Final Words: The HTC One X offers a premium Android experience  with a price that beats some the top competitors. Design stands out above the rest. HTC enables you to unlock the bootloader, and there is a growing development community that supports the device. The Tegra 3 chip gives you access to tons of exclusive games from Tegra Zone. Expect prices to be dropping soon with the newer HTC One expected to launch by Q2 2013.

 Best unlocked phone for $300-399: Sony Xperia SL

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Original Release Date: September 2012

The Good: 4.3 inch Reality Display with Mobile BRAVIA Engine, 12 megapixel camera with Exmor R sensor, fast dual-core Snapdragon S4 processor, NFC, 32 GB of internal storage, Android 4.1.

The not-so-good: No expandable storage.

Networks supported: AT&T 4G HSPA+, T-Mobile 4G HSPA+ (in select cities)

Last Amazon Price: $389, new to the list this month

Final Words: The Sony Xperia SL is a great device, but it is kind of stuck in the middle. I would suggest getting the Nexus 4 or spending the extra cash and get the One X or Galaxy S III.

Best unlocked phone for $200-299: LG Nexus 4

Original Release Date: November 2012

The Good: Pure Android experience, updates straight from Google, NFC, wireless charging, beautiful display, fast Snapdragon S4 Pro processor.

The not-so-good: No expandable storage, no removable battery, camera is not as good as SGS3 or HTC One X, glass back can crack.

Networks supported: AT&T 4G HSPA+, T-Mobile 4G HSPA+

Last Google Price: $299 for 8 GB, $349 for 16 GB, prices are unchanged from December

Final Words: This is the best unlocked Android phone for the price. It doesn’t have expandable storage and a removable battery like the Galaxy S III, but this device is selling for almost half the price.

Best unlocked phone for $100-199: Sony Xperia U

Original Release Date: May 2012

The Good: 3.5 inch Reality Display powered by the Mobile BRAVIA Engine, 5 megapixel camera, Android 4.0, dual-core 1 GHz processor.

The not-so-good: No expandable storage, no NFC.

Networks supported: AT&T 4G HSPA+, T-Mobile 4G HSPA+ (in select cities)

Last Amazon Price: $193, down $10 from December

Final Words: The Xperia U has been flirting with the $199 barrier, and the price finally dropped. It’s a great buy at only $200, but we would suggest saving up some money and getting the Nexus 4.

Best unlocked phone for $0-99: Huawei Ideos

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Original Release Date: September 2010

The Good: Low price point, stock Android UI.

The not-so-good: Stuck on Android 2.2, small 2.8 inch display, limited internal storage.

Networks supported: AT&T 4G HSPA+, T-Mobile 4G HSPA+ (in select cities)

Final Words: You get what you pay for, but the Huawei Ideos is a decent disposable phone for only $79.

Last Amazon Price: $79, new to the list this month

Wrapping Things Up

When it comes to unlocked phones, the Nexus 4 is still the king when you consider the bang for the buck. It provides one of the best overall experiences and Google is selling it for half the price of competing phones. This would explain why the device has been extremely hard to get.

Over the next couple of months, we should see new flagship phones from HTC, LG, and Samsung go on sale. We don’t know the retail unlocked pricing yet, but I would expect them to debut in the $500-700 range. These new devices should offer greatly improved performance and camera experiences, but they will come with a premium price.

The other thing to keep an eye on is the rumored Motorola X Phone, which could debut around Google IO in May. There is a good chance that this device might be sold through the Google Play Store, so it could be priced lower than the top high-end unlocked phones.

Looking down the list, it is pretty impressive that you can get an Android 4.0 device for under $200. Once you dip below $100 you start to see the choices drop off, but that should improve later this year. Amazon doesn’t sell too many phones from the Chinese manufacturers like Huawei and ZTE, but those companies are helping to drive down prices of the entry-level phones.

Let us know if you spot any unlocked devices that might be a better pick at any of the price points. We plan to regularly update this list as we search out the best deals for unlocked Android phones.

Taylor is the founder of Android and Me. He resides in Dallas and carries the Samsung Galaxy S 4 and HTC One as his daily devices. Ask him a question on Twitter or Google+ and he is likely to respond. | Ethics statement

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