Best unlocked smartphones (February 2014)

Best unlocked smartphones (February 2014)

Summary: Enthusiasts have purchased unlocked smartphones for years, but more mainstream consumers are picking them with falling prices and the allure of no contract service.


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  • Nokia Lumia 520/521 can't be beat for less than $70

    Most people in the US purchase their phones directly from their carrier and look to pay the least amount upfront as possible. This usually means signing a long-term contract and picking up a heavily subsidized phone where the cost of the phone is hidden in the contract fees. And you can buy an affordable one that's not three or more years old.

    Times are changing though, thanks in large part to T-Mobile acting like a European carrier. Consumers are starting to understand that buying unlocked smartphones may work better for them.

    There are a few reasons you may want to consider an unlocked smartphone, including the following:

    • Flexibility to change carriers. You can go with T-Mobile or AT&T from the top four or choose another smaller GSM service provider.
    • Limited or no carrier bloatware on the phone. AT&T loads up their phones with a ridiculous amount of apps and services, most of which cannot be removed on Android devices.
    • Larger selection of phones, including very low cost phones.
    • Ability to use the phone overseas with low cost foreign SIM cards.
    • Option to pay carriers just for service and not for the phone subsidy that is rolled in forever.

    So now let's look at the best unlocked smartphones available today, in order from lowest price to highest. I tried to find the best under $500, but also included a couple Google Play Editions at the end that exceed this level.

    The Nokia Lumia 520/521 are crazy deals for a phone that performs very well, has a number of Nokia Lumia services, and has no carrier limits. Here's ZDNet's take on the 520.

    Some may also be asking about the newest iPhone devices. For your information, the lowest cost unlocked iPhone 5s is $649 (16GB only) with the lowest cost iPhone 5c priced at $549. 

  • Moto G

    ZDNet's Moto G review.


    December 10, 2013

    The Moto G has its drawbacks, but it's well built, and if its features are sufficient for your needs, then it delivers superb value for money. If you're looking to equip a workforce with a basic Android phone, it's arguably the best choice currently availableThe Moto G has its drawbacks, but it's well built, and if its features are sufficient for your needs, then it delivers superb value for money. If you're looking to equip a workforce with a basic Android phone, it's arguably the best choice currently available.

    You can buy the Moto G for $179.



Topics: Mobility, Android, HTC, iPhone, Nokia, Smartphones, Windows Phone

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  • when the hell isn't verizon getting a 5xx wp?

    the biggest carrier and nothing entry level.

    so continues the wait for the 929 I guess.
    • Maybe, just maybe . . .

      Google selling Motorola to Lenovo will end this bias. I am convinced Google has been paying VZW to maintain this massive bias towards Motorola phones.

      Personally, I'd like to see if Matthew pays any attention to the newly announced Blu Vivo 4.8. 4.8" 720p with 16 GBs storage in a very svelte case, poppy colors for $250 is a nice price.

      Nokia, however, needs to get a 625 type device out there with 720p for about $250 on T-Mobile and AT&T. Instead, they give us an updated 525 with 1 GB of ram and a flash, the later of which the original 520/521 should have shipped with in the first place. I have a 521 and this 525 is not a big deal, especially considered its launch price that's more than the original $149 of the 521.
  • Nexus 5 Unlocked!

    I really like my Nexus 5 unlocked on Straight Talk. It will save me about 1000.00 over the price of a Verizon smartphone 2 year contract plan. The N5 is a powerful unlocked handset with the latest stock Android KitKat OS. It is easy to see why iPhone sales are on the decline and why Google stock is now over double that of Apple!
    • I'm seriously considering . . .

      dropping my Nokia 521 for a Nexus 5 or Blu Vivo 4.8 in about six months, if Nokia doesn't launch a Blu type device. It's insane that they haven't launched a solid mid-range device in the U.S.

      MS had better recognize ASAP that tons of people will spend $250 up front for a good mid-range device, especially with the carriers moving away from subsidizing phone prices.
  • IOS 7 makes iPhones inconvenient for European prepaid use

    As I found out in December, IOS 7 blocks the character sequences that you have to dial to check remaining minutes and access other services on a prepaid phone on several European carriers. I don't know if this has always been the case, or if it is a problem on all carriers.
  • what are the best unlocked phones for Verizon?

    I believe that all the phones you have listed only work on the GSM carriers like T-Mobile and AT&T and a couple others. I work for a company that only uses Verizon because we travel all over the country and we have proven over and over again through the years that their network has the best coverage. Maybe you could list out what phones that are unlocked and would work on the Verizon network. Also are their phones that work on all the different carrier networks since they all claim 4G and LTE. My guess is that they have some different frequencies even though they all claim 4G and LTE. To me this would be a good topic to writh an article about.
    • you are right

      Verizon uses different LTE frequencies than the other services including Sprint. I think there is little interest because Verizon, as the luxury carrier, doesn't cater to cheapskates with lower priced plans. So we all go to TMobile , Smart talk, or Cricket with our unlocked phones.
    • Older VZ phones

      If you don't mind using a 1 or 2 year old phone you can pick up new unlocked VZ phones, from several sources. I recently bought an unlocked Motorola droid pro (new, unused) from It does not have LTE, but it works with a sim for international travel (or on AT&T) and it was $115. My uncle wanted a cheap VZ phone to use on their prepaid service, and he likes key boards. Amazon has a quite a few sellers of older unlocked phones.
      • old phones tend to come with old batteries

        even when they are sold unused. they have been sitting on shelves for too long.
    • Motorola Moto G

      There is a Motorola Moto g for 99.00 on Verizon prepaid.
    • Verizon

      I have Verizon and when my phone began to die ( Motorola Droid X) instead of buying new I purchased a like-new Verizon based iPhone 4S on ebay for $250. Granted it doesn't have 4G but I haven't found where I have needed the speed in my usage. The other reason I went this way is because I have no contract and I have the Unlimited Data package. When I am ready to upgrade my phone again, I will look for another lightly used phone on ebay again to add to my plan. I only wish Verizon would allow the Nexus phones on their system, because if they did I would purchase one of the unlocked Nexus 5's to add to my plan.
  • Laughing

    Blackerry Z10? Blackberry Q? Blackberry tech makes iphones look old. I have the Boost Mobile shinkage plan with my Blackberry - unlimited talk, text and data; started at $60m now down to $50m. Cheapskate? Just a former Wall Streeter who knows the value of a $1 or better, knows how to analyze stuff.
  • Wrong link for Nokia

    Hey Matthew, you posted the wrong link for the 520/521 review. The one you posted was for the 625.
    Sir Name
  • WP is a bloatware buster!

    "Limited or no carrier bloatware on the phone". This is one of the major advantages of Windows Phone, you can remove bloatware with ease.
    a hobbit
  • Nokia Lumias actually Unlocked?

    Are the Nokia Lumias sold on those Microsoft Store links actually unlocked?
    It says the 520 is AT&T no-contract and 521 is T-Mobile no-contract.

    NO-CONTRACT is not necessarily the same as UNLOCKED.
    Someone please let me know if they are actually GSM unlocked.
    • Depends on what you want to do...

      I purchased Nokia 521 phones from Amazon. They come with the prepaid T-Mobile SIM. If you want to use or set up a standard T-Mobile plan (I have a discounted family plan with them), you will need new (or existing) microSIM kits from T-Mobile (typically $10 a line). You can't use the SIM that came with the phone unless you activate the prepaid plan. Note that most if not all T-Mobile plans are "no-contract" - there is no early termination fee (but if you purchase the phones through T-Mobile on a monthly payment, obviously you'll have to pay the balance if you leave).
      • Unlocked Though?

        That still doesn't answer my question.
        Are the phones unlocked, meaning will they accept an activated and compatible SIM card from any carrier/ provider or just the carrier they are advertised for (i.e. AT&T or T-Mobile) ?
        • I don't think so?

          I don't think the no-annual-contract phones directly from T-Mobile and AT&T are unlocked - you can request the unlock codes after a while, but they don't come unlocked (at least that was the case when I got my Lumia 710)
          • With T-Mobile I get the unlock code wehn paid in full

            I have T-Mobile with five lines, and once a phone in my no-contract account was paid for in full, I was then able to get the unlock code. So yeah, you have to pay the phone in full (which can be done in installments, interest free), first, before getting the unlock code. But really, it isn't all bad. After all, there is no penalty for cancelling the service if you don't like it.
  • get over the misinformed idea

    that to be a good off contract phone it has to be a cheap piece of crap. even buying a $600 off contract phone saves you money over the life of the contract compared to standard subsidized deals, so all phones are good off contract phones.