Best unlocked Android phone for any budget, September 2012

Earlier this year I started writing buyers’ guides for every carrier, and I intended to update them each month. Then I got fed up with the locked phones and service contracts that carriers offered, so I ported my number to Google Voice, paid Verizon my $300 ETF, signed up for a pre-paid plan, and went back to using unlocked devices.
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 or 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), 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 an unlocked Android phone on Straight Talk, 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 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 just 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 vs carrier locked phones.
  • Unlocked phones give consumers more control of plans and pricing. No contracts, no commitments, no hidden feeds.

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. In the future we might see pre-paid service plans with 4G LTE, but right now you are limited to HSPA+.
  • Large families might be better off with a post-paid plan. 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. 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.
Most unlocked phones will still operate on T-Mobile’s 2G Edge network, but they will not have access to the faster HSPA+ speeds. However, T-Mobile does plan to launch HSPA+ service on the 1900 MHz band by the end of 2012, so they will eventually support many unlocked devices at faster data speeds.
  • AT&T HSPA+ bands: 850/1900 MHz
  • T-Mobile HSPA+ bands: 1700/2100 MHz, 1900 MHz coming by end of 2012
Some devices like the Galaxy Nexus support up to five bands (850, 900, 1700, 1900, 2100 MHz) and will operate on both AT&T and T-Mobile. 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 service plans, but using those won’t net you any extra savings. The best option is to go prepaid with services such as Straight Talk SIM, Simple Mobile, Solavei, or T-Mobile Monthly 4G.
I chose Straight Talk SIM because they let you choose between AT&T’s or T-Mobile’s network.

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, because of the number of merchants that Amazon uses. One seller might offer a product for $30 cheaper than the competition and then 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 pics 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 $500-599: Samsung Galaxy S III

The Good: Large HD display, fast Exynos 4 Quad processor, 1 GB RAM, Android 4.0 (Android 4.1 coming later), excellent camera experience, NFC, hacker friendly, removable battery, microSD slot.
The Not-so-good: Samsung hasn’t been the fastest to deliver software updates.
Final Words: The Galaxy S III is one of the best unlocked phones that money can buy, in terms of hardware. However, you can get a pretty similar experience from the HTC One X for around $100 less. The Galaxy S III is the only unlocked phone on this list with 2 GB RAM (which bodes well for future Android updates), but I’m not sure that justifies the price.
Full Review: Check out Anthony’s review of the Galaxy S III.
Last Amazon price: $578 for GT-I9300 International version (Pebble Blue), $589 for GT-I9300 International version (Ceramic White)

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

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 4.0 (Android 4.1 coming later).
The not-so-good: No microSD card, battery is non-removable.
Final Words: The HTC One X offers a premium Android experience  with a price that beats 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.
Full Review: Check out Taylor’s review of the HTC One X.
Last Amazon Price: $492 for S720E global version with Tegra 3 chip and 32 GB storage.

Best unlocked phone for $300-399: Samsung Galaxy Nexus

The Good: Only smartphone shipping with Android 4.1 Jelly Bean, usually one of the first devices to receive new versions of Android, hacker friendly, large 4.65-inch display, NFC with Google Wallet, replaceable battery.
The not-so-good: Camera experience is now lacking compared to newer phones like the One X and Galaxy S III, no expandable storage, OMAP4 processor lags behind Snapdragon S4 and Tegra 3, we expect a new Nexus device to go on sale in Q4.
Final Words: The Samsung Galaxy Nexus delivers the most bang for the buck. The software experience is so good that you sometimes forget this phone is about to be a year old. This is still a good purchase if you don’t mind the camera and no expandable storage, but a the next Nexus is coming soon.
Last Google Price: $349

Best unlocked phone for $200-299: Sony Xperia Sola

The Good: Just upgraded to Android 4.0, 3.7-inch Reality Display with Mobile BRAVIA Engine (854×480), 5 megapixel Fast Capture Exmor R camera, ”Floating Touch” search the web without touching the screen, NFC,  available in multiple colors (black, white, red).
The not-so-good: Resolution is only 854×480, but that is pretty standard for this price range, battery capacity is only 1320 mAh.
Final Words: Last time we chose the HTC One V, but it only supports HSPA+ on the 850 MHz band (no 1900 MHz). The Xperia Sola works on 850/1900, offers twice the internal storage of the HTC One V (8 GB vs 4 GB), and it runs about $25 cheaper.
Last Amazon Price: $264

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

The Good: Android 4.0, 3.2-inch display, 800 MHz Snapdragon S1 processor, microSD slot, FM radio, available in multiple colors (black, white, red, blue).
The not-so-good: Low-resolution 480 x 320 display, only 3 megapixel camera, only 2.5 GB internal storage.
Final Words: Last time we suggested the Xperia Mini Pro, but that phone is starting to age. The new Xperia tipo offers more internal storage, longer battery life, and a better overall experience.
Last Amazon Price: $192

Best unlocked phone for $0-99: Motorola Sprice XT300

The Good: Price, slide-out QWERTY keyboard, 3 MP camera, and microSD expansion slot.
The not-so-good: Only Android 2.1, low-resolution display, only 400 MB internal storage, and don’t expect it to receive software updates.
Final Words: This phone doesn’t really belong here, but it’s hard to find much else below $99. The LG Optimus One would be a better pick when the price falls, and it’s already down to $110.
Last Amazon Price: $99

Wrapping Things Up

Anyone looking for a high-end device will be happy with the HTC One X or Samsung Galaxy S III. I have been using both devices and you can really tell they are a step ahead of phones from last year.
Even the Samsung Galaxy Nexus offers a premium Android experience at an affordable price of $349. The camera is lacking and the OMAP4 CPU is a year old, but the pure Android 4.1 Jelly bean experience is unmatched.
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 as we reach the holiday season. Amazon doesn’t sell many phones from the Chinese manufacturers like Huawei and ZTE, but those companies are also helping drive down prices of the low-end phones.
Let us know if you spot any unlocked devices that might be a better pick at any of the price poins. We plan to regularly update this as we search out the best deals for unlocked Android phones.
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