Updated January 23, 2017
Did you know it’s much cheaper to buy unlocked phones? Big cell companies sell contract phones at a tremendous markup, disguising their overpricing through subterfuge: The true price of the phone gets rolled into your monthly cellular bill.
Never buy a smartphone from a carrier — ever. Most consumers don’t know that they can purchase contract-free phones. Unlocked phones can work with MVNO plans, with plans costing half that charged by major carriers.
The six phones presented in this article provide excellent value. The prices start at $20 and run as high as $650. However, if you are looking to sign a contract with a carrier (and I strongly suggest that you do not), check out Riley Dennis’s list of the best Android smartphones — she’s absolutely correct. However, if you need reasons to dump your carrier and hook up with an MVNO, read about it here.
Two Kinds of Phones
As I’ve mentioned before, there exist two kinds of unlocked phones—those that work with GSM networks and those that work with CDMA. Other cellular technologies exist, but they’re not entirely mainstream and are largely based on the ubiquitous GSM standard. Also, a rare number of phones work on both GSM and CDMA networks, such as the Google Pixel.
CDMA: CDMA technology semi-locks phones into a single network, so while these phones can unlock, there are all kinds of hassles in transferring them between carriers. For GSM phones, however, phones can migrate to another network by simply changing the SIM card. Note, though, that many CDMA phones do not use SIM cards.
- In the US: Verizon Wireless, Sprint Nextel, MetroPCS, and US Cellular.
- In Japan: DoCoMo.
GSM: Internationally, GSM remains the dominant cell technology. CDMA does exist in almost all markets, although it’s generally associated with third tier carriers. It’s only in the US that it possesses the lion’s share of the market. Consequently, most dual-SIM international phones are GSM based.
- In the US: T-Mobile and AT&T.
- In India: Airtel, Reliance Communications, and Idea Cellular
- In the United Kingdom: O2, EE, and Vodafone
The phones presented in this article are specifically labeled with the correct network that they function on. When purchasing a phone, always make sure you’re buying the right model for your network. If you’re switching to an MVNO, the MVNO will correspond with a particular network—for example, Airvoice Wireless (which rents spectrum from AT&T) only works with GSM phones. MVNOs cost very little per month. Oftentimes, you can save between $20 and $100 per month.
I use three factors in determining the phone’s final grade: First, the best features of the phone are weighed. Second, the worst features of the phone are weighed. Third, I divide the price of the device by the aggregated consumer feedback scores from Amazon, Newegg or other smartphone review websites (whichever was available). The final result shows how much you pay per star of rating. This measure isn’t intended as a serious metric, although it should indicate better overall value, rather than raw performance.
BLU Tank 2 T193 ($21 via Amazon)
Technically the Tank 2 is a dumbphone with limited smart capabilities. You might call it a semi-smartphone. I consider it among the best phones for the elderly as it doesn’t require interacting with a touchscreen and the features are limited to the essentials. On top of that, its battery life is ridiculously long, so it makes the perfect gift for someone with failing memory.
- Amazing battery life
- Super low cost
- Small size; easy to carry around
- Physical buttons make it easy for the elderly to use
- Limited feature set; lack of apps
- Tiny screen
Per star rating: $21 / 3.8 stars = $6 per star
BLU Advance 5.5 HD ($90 via Amazon)
BLU Products’ Advance 5.5 HD is the lowest priced Android 6.0 smartphone you can buy unlocked, anywhere. BLU made a name for itself by reselling China-based Gionee smartphones in the United States. Their phones generally emphasize value over performance.
- Lowest priced, unlocked Android phone with Marshmallow (Android 6.0)
- Dual SIM for international travelers
- Good performance, particularly for the money
- Great value and lowest total price for a brand-new smartphone
- microSD card support
- Won’t ever receive a firmware update
- Weak support from chipset vendor
- Average battery life
Per star rating: $90/3.7 stars = $24 per star
NextBit Robin ($165 via Amazon)
Startup NextBit released the Robin to widespread cheers. It managed to squeeze modern smartphone guts into an inexpensive package totaling less than $165. It comes with all the bells and whistles that you need, including 802.11ac wireless connectivity, 32GB of storage, and the Snapdragon 808 processor. Overall, you get a lot for your money. Some shortcomings include a plastic frame prone to warping, and average battery life.
In all honesty, this is the phone that I would have purchased had Google not tricked me into buying the Pixel XL.
- Elegant and sleek design
- Modern smartphone guts
- Excellent hardware (particularly for the money)
- Best value out of all smartphones on today’s market
- Snapdragon 808 processor runs a little warm
- Battery life is average
- No microSD card support
Per star rating: $174.94 / 2.8 stars = $62 per star
Motorola Moto Z Play ($400 via Amazon)
The Moto Z offers a high powered processor, modularity (what’s a modular smartphone?), and overall outstanding performance. Motorola’s Moto Mods program allows consumers to add a high powered camera, projector, or speaker to their device. The extensibility also adds additional battery life.
- Excellent features, including gesture support and voice recognition
- Uses one of the fastest processors on smartphones
- Modular design enables long battery life via Moto Mods
- No microSD support
- Owned by Lenovo (see Superfish scandal)
Per star rating: $400 / 4.5 stars = $89 per star
OnePlus 3T ($439 via OnePlus)
OnePlus’s 3T is a refresh of the OnePlus 3 series. It’s not that much different from the OnePlus 3, with the exception that it dispenses with a torrid (and potentially unreliable) Snapdragon 810 processor. The 3T uses a Snapdragon 821 — the same in Google’s Pixel — but for $200 less! Both CNET and the Verge regard the OnePlus 3T as one of the best Android smartphones of 2016.
On the downside, OnePlus’s operating system seems to be in limbo after CyanogenMod’s dissolution.
- Includes one of the fastest Android processors around
- Modern smartphone internal components
- AMOLED screen
- Long battery life
- 64GB of storage on the entry model
- AMOLED screens suffer from burn-in
- Uncertainty regarding the operating system
- No water resistance
Per star rating: $439 / 4.5 stars = $97 per star
iPhone 7 32GB ($650 via Apple; $715 via Amazon)
Apple created the smartphone market. The iPhone 7 offers one of the fastest and most reliable handsets around. But beware: Apple produced two models of iPhone! One is for CDMA carriers (Verizon and Sprint) and one for GSM carriers. Fortunately, an unlocked iPhone includes both CDMA and GSM compatibility. iPhone 7s sold on contract through either T-Mobile or AT&T won’t be able to function on Sprint or Verizon networks.
Networks: GSM and CDMA (with restrictions, see above)
- Latest, state-of-the-art product from Apple
- Cutting edge features
- iOS, if you are locked into the Apple app ecosystem
- Water resistance
- Fewer features compared to Android
- Unlocked model is substantially better than GSM-only model
Per star rating: $650/4.3 stars = $151 per star
Conclusion: What’s the Best Smartphone for the Money?
If you’re looking for an unlocked cell phone with excellent value relative to reviews, BLU Products Tank 2 T193 and the Advance 5.5HD provide the best low-cost products on the market. Unfortunately, because of the relative obscurity of their manufacturer, few reviewers have given credit to otherwise value-packed phones.
On the other hand, assigning a per-dollar ratio to reviews doesn’t fully capture the performance and features of higher end phones. One thing is certain, though: Consumers seem more satisfied when paying more money. However, there are big gaps in per-dollar satisfaction when going from a $90 smartphone to a $165 device. There’s an ever bigger drop-off in satisfaction-per-dollar when going from a $430 device to a $650 smartphone. The moral of the story: Spend your money wisely. Sometimes big things come in small (or cheap) packages.
Has anyone purchased a low-priced smartphone? What were your experiences? Let us know in the comments!
Image Credit: beeboys and Ganibal via Shutterstock.com