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Best unlocked smartphones (February 2014)

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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1 of 8 Matthew Miller/ZDNET

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. 

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2 of 8 Matthew Miller/ZDNET

Moto G

ZDNet's Moto G review.

Comments:

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.

 

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3 of 8 Matthew Miller/ZDNET

Moto X

Moto X review.

Comments:

November 25, 2013

The Moto X is my current favorite smartphone. At $299 with service plans starting at just $5 per month, Republic Wireless has a compelling offer for consumers.

Nothing beats the feel of a Moto X in the hand and it truly is an incredible smartphone. This is not the kind of hardware you typically find with a no-contract prepaid service and can't be beat.

The Moto X can be purchased for $329.99 (16GB) and $379.99 (32GB) until 14 February and then $70 more after that.

 

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4 of 8 Matthew Miller/ZDNET

Google Nexus 5

My Nexus 5 review.

November 7, 2013

Comments:

I have been living with the Google Nexus 5 for a week and just a couple days ago I thought I was going to return the device. After further evaluation and looking at available smartphones, it is clear to me the Nexus 5 is an outstanding value and there is no way I returning it.

Google Nexus 5 will cost you $349 (16GB) and $399 (32GB).

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5 of 8 Matthew Miller/ZDNET

Samsung Galaxy S III

My Galaxy S3 review.

Comments:

July 6, 2012

Just before I went on my vacation I received an evaluation Samsung Galaxy S III eval unit from T-Mobile. I used it for a day and it was an easy decision to give it top billing in my Top 5 smartphones of the summer article. I used it as my primary camera and camcorder while on vacation, in addition to using it extensively during several days as a smartphone at Orlando theme parks. Both my wife and I are seriously considering one and I think millions more will come to that same conclusion this summer.

Samsung Galaxy S III for $370

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6 of 8 Matthew Miller/ZDNET

Apple iPhone 4s

iPhone 4S review roundup.

Comments from CNET:

October 13, 2011

The good: Apple's iPhone 4S has a faster processor and an upgraded camera, all the benefits of iOS 5, and a useful and immensely fun voice assistant. Call quality on the Sprint model is admirable, and the data speeds, while certainly not 4G, get the job done.

The bad: It's about time we get a larger screen.

The bottom line: The iPhone 4S isn't the king of cell phones, but it's part of the royal family nonetheless. Even without 4G and a giant screen, this phone's smart(ass) voice assistant, Siri, the benefits of iOS 5, and its spectacular camera make it a top choice for anyone ready to upgrade.

The lowest price found is $409 at Amazon.com.

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7 of 8 Matthew Miller/ZDNET

HTC One

CNET review: HTC One Google Play Edition.

Comments from the CNET review:

June 26, 2013

The good: The HTC One Google Play Edition's metal design is gorgeous. The phone's hardwareand components are top-notch. The clean Android Jelly Bean UI is refreshingly simple, and Google promises a stream of fresh updates as they happen.

The bad: The HTC One Google Play Edition doesn't offer any of the extras found in HTC Sense. The handset's unsubsidized price is expensive.

The bottom line: The pricey HTC One Google Play Edition's unique blend of premium design, components, and pure Jelly Bean software will only tempt true Android fanatics

You can get the HTC One Google Play Edition at Google for $599

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8 of 8 Matthew Miller/ZDNET

Samsung Galaxy S4

CNET review: Galaxy S4 Google Play Edition.

Comments from the review:

June 26,2013

The good: The Samsung Galaxy S4 Google Play Edition offers users the most powerful hardware specs of any Android phone without any carrier bloatware, and with an elegantly simple Jelly Bean UI.

The bad: Google's Galaxy S4 variant strips away a lot of Samsung's neat software and photo features, and it comes with a steep price tag.

The bottom line: Unless you're an Android enthusiast or demand total freedom from carriers, the Samsung Galaxy S4 Google Play Edition isn't worth the hefty price.

The unlocked price from Google is $649.

 

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