For the sake of versatility and value, you should be considering one of our best unlocked smartphones when the time comes for a new device. Most of us default to carriers for a two-year payment plan, but that is usually not the most cost-effective option. It’s likely that a carrier’s phone pricing is not the best deal, and not to mention the hassle of being locked in for two years or equipment fees that you can be charged.
That said, purchasing a phone at full price (so you can unlock it) doesn’t necessarily mean it has to cost upwards of $700. There are some great bargains out there that can closely rival those top-end flagships. So we went out and did the research so you don’t have to. We purchased the top 10 unlocked smartphones and tested them based on their internal specs, camera quality and overall user experience to find the best options. After this testing, we found that the Google Pixel 3a is the best choice for anyone in the market for a new phone. It’s backed by Google’s top-of-the-line tech, a stellar camera and a beautiful display. Keep reading to learn more about the Pixel and the rest of the phones on our list.
Top 5 Unlocked Smartphones Compared
#1 Google Pixel 3a – Top Pick/Best AndroidWHY WE LIKE IT: Coming in at around half the price of a standard flagship smartphone, the Google Pixel 3a is an impressive unlocked smartphone indeed. With premium build quality, seamless Android experience and decent camera functionality, the Pixel 3a is a force to be reckoned with.
Google isn’t a stranger to technology, which is obviously apparent in the Pixel 3a, the best unlocked smartphone we purchased and tested. It’s hard to believe that you’re only spending around $400 for this phone when you consider the power, performance and convenience it provides. With a seamless Android experience, amazing camera and high-quality design, it’s hard to find anything to complain about with the Pixel 3a.
Yes, we could gripe about the lack of water resistance or missing wireless charging functionality, but these downsides faded quickly into the background after turning the phone on and using it for the relatively brief amount of time we did. Ultimately, if you’re looking for a smartphone that harnesses everything the Android OS can do, the Google Pixel 3a is the unlocked smartphone for you. Also, check out best SIM cards for USA.
#2 Motorola Moto G7 – Honorable Mention/Best ProcessorWHY WE LIKE IT: The Motorola G7 offers a smooth and seamless experience due to its extra-fast processor and near-stock version of the Android user operating system. If you’re looking for a smartphone that’s snappy and extremely easy to use, this is a great option for you.
Motorola does a lot of things right, which is a huge reason why its Moto phones are still going strong today. The manufacturer’s latest strategy with the Moto G7 was to give its fans value. The Moto G7 is priced competitively but doesn’t give up a whole lot of its high-end status. The phone features a large 6.2″ FHD+ Max Vision display, Snapdragon 632 processor, 4 GB of RAM, 64 GB internal storage with microSD expansion up to 512 GB, 12 MP/5 MP dual camera and 3,000 mAh battery. You’ll want to get the best portable phone charger for this handset.
Motorola has the lightest custom user interface on its phones, so you’ll get a near-stock software experience and quick updates. Overall phone performance is seamless, as well. We didn’t experience any stuttering or hiccups while we used the G7, even when playing games. For the most part, the Moto’s camera performs well, but we were disappointed with video quality and photo quality in low-light environments. In the end, the Moto G7 offers a high-performance experience at a super low price.
#3 Huawei Honor 8X – Best Value/Best CameraWHY WE LIKE IT: Huawei is the Chinese brand that’s redefining what kind of boundaries you can break with a budget smartphone. This smartphone provides a ton of premium features at an ultra-low price, like a metal body, smooth user experience and surprisingly high-quality camera.
It’s hard to justify spending almost a thousand dollars on a premium flagship smartphone when the Huawei Honor 8X is on the market. Made from a full aluminum frame between two extra-strong pieces of glass and a stunning two-tone color scheme, the Honor 8X is certainly one of the more attractively designed phones on our list. And besides being a beautiful phone, the Honor 8X offers plenty of performance, both in user interface and camera quality. Speaking of performance, read about the best smartphone.
The Huawei Honor 8X offers one of the fastest and smoothest user experiences on our list. We didn’t experience any stuttering or lagging, even when we were swapping back and forth between apps or playing games. We were also super impressed with just how long the battery life lasted on the Honor 8X. Unfortunately, when it comes to charging, you’ll still need to use a MicroUSB cable, which means you won’t get any fast charging functionality. Ultimately, the Huawei Honor 8X offers the most value of all the unlocked smartphones on our list, something that was surprising at such a low price.
#4 Samsung Galaxy A20 – Best BatteryWHY WE LIKE IT: Samsung knows how to build a high-quality budget smartphone, which is very apparent in the Samsung Galaxy A20. With a best-of-class battery and durable overall design, the A20 is an unlocked smartphone that will last for years to come.
If you’re looking for the unlocked smartphone with the best battery, you absolutely cannot miss out on the Samsung Galaxy A20. With a whopping 4,000 mAh battery, the A20 easily lasted us longer than a day in most instances. Of course, this battery life lessens during processor-heavy usage (like playing games or streaming Netflix), but even then we were able to last most of the day without charging. When you do need to charge the A20, you can use the included fast charger to fully charge the phone in under 2 hours, which is a feat in and of itself.
The A20 falls behind a little bit when it comes to the display and camera. While the phone does feature an AMOLED display, the 1560 x 720 resolution is a bit disappointing. This is low enough to notice some fuzzy text and blurry edges. However, we were also pleased with the excellent contrast and bright colors the AMOLED display offered. The camera was also a little disappointing, but that’s to be expected at a price point like this. We were most pleased with the camera’s Live Focus mode, which provides a pleasing bokeh effect. Read about the best smartphone plan to compare options.
#5 Samsung Galaxy A10 – Best Budget/Best GSMWHY WE LIKE IT: Holding up to the Galaxy line’s overall quality, the Samsung Galaxy A10 offers premium quality at a budget price. This unlocked smartphone gives you an octa-core processor, long-lasting battery and beautiful display. But be aware that it only works for GSM carriers.
While it may not offer all of the features you might come to expect from a product made by one of the biggest smartphone manufacturers in the game today, the Samsung Galaxy A10 is still a solid option that’s made more impressive when you consider just how inexpensive it is. The budget smartphone offers a fairly durable plastic housing that still manages to feel premium without all the metal and glass. The display is also impressive, even in spite of a lower resolution and lack of brightness sensor.
We were especially pleased with how well the A10 performs, even under pressure. This is because of the phone’s Exynos octa-core processor. Yes, the phone hesitates a little bit when playing games, but overall we never experienced a moment of frustration because of phone performance issues. The battery is also something worthy to note. We were able to get almost a full day’s worth of use out of the A10 and its 3,400 mAh battery. If you’re looking for a budget unlocked smartphone to work on your GSM carrier, you should definitely consider the Samsung Galaxy A10. To compare the cameras, read the best smartphone cameras.
What to look for in the Best Unlocked Smartphone
Specs: Lower-end chipsets are actually very capable today. Many of them actually boast quad-core processors. But if you want the phone to last, we’d recommend going with a chipset that’s more mid-range than low-end. Specifically, look for a Qualcomm Snapdragon 600 series or higher or MediaTek MT6700 series or higher.
Software: Hardware specs are important in smartphones, but we can’t forget that the software largely determines our experience. Chances are that you’ve decided on the operating system (iOS, Android, or Windows). However, if you’re going with Android, there’s another level to the software – the UI. Manufacturers all develop their own skin on top of Android, some heavier than others, that offer different features. Make sure to research the differences.
Battery: The battery subject speaks for itself. Battery life is often a pain-point with smartphones. We ask so much from them, and before we know it, our precious phone is nothing more than a paperweight. Therefore, it’s important to be mindful of the battery’s mAh capacity in the phone’s specs. We recommend getting as close to 3,000 mAh as possible, which should generally get you through a day. However, there are exceptions where a smaller battery would be fine. The manufacturer could have efficient software or the ability to swap the battery for a fresh one.
Mistakes to Avoid
Things Aren’t as They Always Look: Keep in mind that things aren’t always how they look in spec sheets and promotional talk. For instance, there are plenty of budget cell phones with enticing 8MP or 13MP cameras that are actually terrible. Also, make sure that the screen resolution is not skimped – we’d recommend no less than 720p.
Too Little Memory: One of the biggest mistakes smartphone buyers make is to not be conscious of the amount of memory. We’re talking about both system memory (RAM) and storage. Budget phones can only have a measly 1GB of RAM. When we consider that the OS uses a portion of that to operate, it’s really not enough. The same goes with storage. If the phone only has 8GB of space, and the OS uses a chunk of it, you’ll run out pretty quickly. This problem is further exacerbated if you play a lot of games or take a lot of pictures/videos. We’d recommend at least 2GB of RAM and 16GB of storage (preferably with microSD card expandability as well).
More Pixels Isn’t Always Better: A high megapixel count doesn’t mean that a camera is good. The quality more has to do with the lens and sensor competency. When considering a smartphone, check out more specifics about the camera, such as aperture size. A larger aperture lens (less is more – e.g. 1.8f) lets in more light, making it better equipped for those tricky low-light situations. Also, avoid cameras with slow Auto-Focus. Life happens fast, and a smartphone camera should be able to keep up.
Technology Depreciation: When we shop for an unlocked smartphone, we shouldn’t only be looking at new models. We can use the fact that technology moves fast and thus, depreciates fast, to our advantage. Consider a top-end flagship from a year or two ago. Often, they can still hold their own, and actually, many times their components are still better than today’s low-end.
Network Compatibility: Since we’re essentially on our own when shopping for an unlocked smartphone, consumers need to be conscious about the phone’s compatibility with their cellular network. U.S. carriers use different wireless technology, which means that the radio (band) frequencies they use can be different. All phone specs list out the bands they have for communication. Check the bands that your carrier uses to make sure they match up. Note: Verizon and Sprint use unique CDMA wireless technology, and most unlocked phones use GSM (which the rest of the world uses), so your phone choices on those two carriers will be more limited.
Most Important Features
- Qualcomm’s Snapdragon chipsets are the most recognized, but you’ll see a fair share of MediaTek processors in unlocked smartphones. MediaTek is generally lower costing for the manufacturer but don’t worry, they’re very capable chipsets.
- Avoid going too low-end if you want the phone to last. And don’t go lower than 2GB of RAM.
- There’s no excuse for display resolutions lower than 720p today. Especially since most screens are now on the large side, you want a decent amount of pixels for a clear viewing experience.
- We’d recommend keeping a lookout for either IPS LCD or AMOLED displays. Older TFT LCD displays have subpar colors and viewing angles, in comparison, and should remain in the past.
- The best smartphones that can’t make it through a day can be frustrating. Always check out the battery’s capacity in the phone’s spec sheet. We’d recommend being around 3,000 mAh, but there can be some exceptions (i.e. the manufacturer efficiently tunes the software to minimize battery drain).
- You can still find phones that give you access to the battery. A replaceable battery is a great feature for heavier users, which allows you to go from 0 to 100% in a couple of seconds (if you carry the extra battery with you).
- More and more smartphones are adopting Quick or Fast Charging. If this feature is valuable to you, check that the manufacturer states it.
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