Unlocked phones — outside the shackles of the carriers and able to work on any GSM operator worldwide — are finally starting to have their moment in the sun.
And we're not just talking more expensive versions of top-shelf phones. There are a number of mid-range unlocked phones that will serve you very well — and not burn a hole in your wallet. Let's take a look.
Nexus and unlocked go together like PB&J
- Great build quality
- Excellent camera
- Pure Google software
- It's pretty big
- Lacks wireless charging
- A little bit slippery to hold
In the Android world, one brand should always come to mind when thinking unlocked: Nexus. For the Nexus phones aren't just a way to get the latest and greatest software from Google. They're also a way to get a good phone at a good price and stay away from a new contract. Of the two current Nexus phones, the 6P is the one to get.
We've usually had to recommend a Nexus phone with a rather large caveat — and that's usually had to do with the camera. Not so with the Nexus 6P, manufactured by Huawei.
It's got a camera that doesn't make us want to carry around a second shooter, just in case. It's got the design and build quality that stands up against any other phone. And perhaps most important is that it's going to always be updated to the latest version of Android, and that goes for the monthly security updates, too.
Motorola Moto G (2015)
Still one of the best value phones around
- Solid build quality
- No manufacturer bloatware
- MicroSD card slot
- No NFC
- Only a single speaker compared to previous model
- No quickcharge or wireless charging
Motorola is arguably responsible for reinventing the budget phone space when it tore up the rule book with the original Moto G. Now three generations in and it's no more difficult to recommend to anyone looking for the best on a budget. And without a contract.
The hardware is more than ample for the price and Motorola's signature software experience of value added to stock Android remains. The camera is improved on its predecessor, Moto Maker allows for some customization on the color schemes and all-in-all the essence of what made this phone great hasn't gone away. And we'd definitely recommend the 16GB/2GB RAM model. It's worth the extra.
The Moto G isn't just a good phone for its price, it's a good phone, period.
Not quite a flagship killer, but very good nonetheless
- Excellent hardware and design
- Good quality fingerprint scanner
- 64GB internal storage
- No NFC
- Middle of the road camera
- No wireless charging
As sophomore efforts go, OnePlus has done well to create a device that improves upon its predecessor in nearly every way. The aluminum band around the outside of the phone gives the OnePlus 2 a sturdy heft, and the ability to swap backplates means you can have grip, style, or durability with ease.
OxygenOS is a newer custom version of Android, but like Cyanogen OS before it the focus is a clean, fast experience with a UI that closely resembles the Nexus experience. What few changes you find are subtle, visually pleasing, and often easy to disable if you decide it's not for you.
At $389, OnePlus has struck an interesting balance between performance and price. While it doesn't have every bell and whistle you'd see in a high-end smartphone, the OnePlus 2 is more than capable when it comes down to performance and battery life. You also don't need to go through the ridiculous invite process to get one anymore.
Moto X Style (Pure Edition)
A custom treat
- Great starting price
- Front facing speaker
- Custom design options
- Quite large
- No wireless charging
- Camera still weaker than competition
Motorola's made one of the more beloved (if imperfect phones) of the past few couple years. The 2015 edition — the Moto X Style, or the "Pure Edition" if you're in the U.S., also looks to be a good one. But the body of the phone has gotten even bigger, approaching Nexus 6 size. That's going to be a deal-breaker for some folks. But Motorola has slipped an SD card slot into this phone, which opens it back up to many other folks.
We've also got dual front-facing speakers this time around, and Motorola promises we'll be impressed with the camera this year, after two years of disappointments (and more promises). We'll just have to wait and see.
So far the Moto X Style (when it's released sometime in September) will only be available in the U.S. through Motorola, Amazon and Best Buy. (Outside the U.S. is another story, but usually a better one, too.) Price starts at $399.
Asus Zenfone 2 Laser
- Great price
- Long battery life
- Decent camera
- Awkward button placement
- Cheap feeling materials
- Software won't be to everyone's taste
The Zenfone 2 Laser is one of many different phones in the same lineup, and for the most part is on par with the original bearing the name. The big change with the Zenfone 2 Laser was the addition of a super-fast laser autofocus on the rear camera.
What Asus offers though is a solid mix of hardware, features and affordable price which makes this phone a good choice for anyone looking to avoid buying from a carrier. You should be good with this on AT&T and T-Mobile.
It's not perfect by any means, with software that's best described as an acquired taste, and some cost cutting in the materials used to build it. But make no mistake, you're getting a solid phone with long battery life, a decent camera and more besides for not a whole lot of your hard earned.
Huawei Honor 5X
Honor lands Stateside
- Premium design and construction
- Fingerprint scanner
- Good quality display
- EMUI still broken in places
- Sluggish at times
- Launched on Android 5.1
The Honor 5X is a perfect example of where the $200 price point smartphone market is headed. For a remarkably good $199, the first Honor phone to officially launch in the U.S. packs a metal body, decent screen and fingerprint sensor. The hardware certainly feels worthy of a higher price point.
The only drawbacks to the Honor 5X come in the software. Huawei's EMUI is still an acquired taste with some questionable features and things that still don't work quite as we might hope. But, there's a lot of good stuff, too, and some really useful features baked in.
Android 6.0 Marshmallow is on the horizon, but overall the Honor 5X proves you don't have to spend a fortune to get a good looking, well built, carrier free phone.