Both the Galaxy S8 and S8+ are fantastic phones — in fact, we think they’re the best Android phones available and Samsung is now taking orders on unlocked versions of the phones. But regular prices starting at $750, Samsung’s latest phones are pretty expensive as well. And that only makes inexpensive Android phones even more appealing, particularly if they’re not tied to any carrier.
As far as other unlocked Android phones go, the Pixel and Pixel XL from Google are terrific options, and while they’re cheaper the the Galaxy S8 and S8+, it’s not that much of a cost savings. If you’d prefer to spend less than $500 on your next smartphone, you can’t go wrong with the OnePlus 3T ($439), the latest phone from OnePlus which features a better processor and longer battery life than its predecessor, our former top pick, the OnePlus 3. (Just be aware that OnePlus reportedly is working on a new version of its flagship phone for later this year.) Meanwhile, one of our favorite unlocked phones from 2016 — Huawei’s Honor 8— has been updated to the latest version of Android.
If you’re on a tighter budget, we also have recommendations for phones at lower prices, with the $229 Moto G5 Plus getting the nod as our favorite phone for less than $300 while the Blu R1 Plus is a good sub-$200 option. And with premium features increasingly appearing in budget phones, photography buffs will appreciate the dual-lens rear camera and optical zoom on the $329 ZenFone 3 Zoom — and that’s before we talk about that phone’s nearly 17 hours of battery life.
What to Look For
Most cheap unlocked phones can be purchased online via Amazon, Best Buy, Newegg and other retailers. Assuming you want 4G LTE speeds, the vast majority of these devices operate on GSM networks in the U.S. That means AT&T and T-Mobile, as well as discount carriers that run on those networks, such as Cricket Wireless, MetroPCS and Straight Talk. Some so-called multimode unlocked phones work with CDMA carriers like Sprint and Verizon, such as the Pixel and Pixel XL.
You can tell which networks an unlocked phone supports by looking at the bands on which it runs (e.g., 850 MHz; 900 MHz; 2,100 MHz; 1,900 MHz; 2100 MHz), but many online product descriptions will also tell you which providers are compatible. “Make sure it works on a carrier that offers good coverage in your area,” advised Avi Greengart, research director for consumer platforms and devices at market research firm Current Analysis.
How We Test
We evaluate smartphones based on a wide range of criteria, including design, display, audio, features, performance, camera quality and battery life. Display evaluations include tests for brightness, color gamut and accuracy. For performance, we use a mix of real-world tests, as well as synthetic benchmarks. Our battery life test involves continuous Web surfing over 4G LTE with the display brightness set to 150 nits.
When reviewing phones in the unlocked value category, we place an emphasis on making comparisons to similarly-priced devices, as well as higher-priced handsets, to gauge their overall value.
ONEPLUS 3T – Best Under $500