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. Let’s take a look at some of the best unlocked smartphones for 2019.
- 1 Best Unlocked Smartphone 2019
- 2 #1 Pick Nexus 6P
- 3 #2 Pick Moto X Pure Edition
- 4 #3 Pick OnePlus 2
- 5 #4 Pick Nexus 5X
- 6 #5 Pick Honor 5X (Best Unlocked Smartphone Under $300)
- 7 Honorable Mention BLU Vivo XL (Best Unlocked Smartphone Under $200)
- 8 What to look for in the Best Unlocked Smartphone
- 9 Mistakes to Avoid
- 10 Most Important Features
- 11 Which Unlocked Smartphone is Right for You?
Best Unlocked Smartphone 2019
|Nexus 6P||Moto X Pure Edition||OnePlus 2||Nexus 5X||Huawei Honor 5X|
|OS||Android 6.0 (Marshmallow)||Android 6.0 (Marshmallow)||Android 5.1 (Lollipop)||Android 6.0 (Marshmallow)||Android 5.1 (Lollipop)|
|Display||5.7" QHD AMOLED||5.7" QHD IPS LCD ||5.5" 1080P IPS LCD||5.2" 1080P IPS LCD||5.5" 1080P IPS LCD|
|Chipset||Snapdragon 810||Snapdragon 808||Snapdragon 810||Snapdragon 808||Snapdragon 616|
|Cameras||12.3MP (f/2.0, 1.55µm) rear and 8MP front||21MP (f/2.0) rear and 5MP front||13MP (f/2.0, 1.3µm) rear and 5MP front||12.3MP (f/2.0, 1.55µm) rear and 5MP front||13MP (f/2.0) rear and 5MP front|
|Battery||3,450 mAh||3,000 mAh||3,300 mAh||2,700 mAh||3,000 mAh|
|Buy Now||Buy Now||Buy Now||Buy Now||Buy Now|
#1 Pick Nexus 6P
WHY IT’S A TOP PICK: The best Nexus phone yet + the best Android software.
Google’s Nexus phones, and in this case the 6P, easily takes the trophy as a best unlocked smartphone. Google’s aim is to pack their Nexus phones with flagship-rivaling specs, and all the while not charge an arm and a leg. Not only that, but they’re not bogged down by third-party software. This is the real Android deal, and it functions as efficiently and smoothly as the software giant has intended.
The Nexus 6P is Google’s latest cream of the crop. It is made for phablet-sized phone lovers who also appreciate a premium build, with a 5.7″ screen (AMOLED, QHD) and a Huawei-manufactured all-metal casing. Despite a mid-range price of $450, the 6P is equipped through-and-through to stand up with the big boys. We have a high-end octa-core Snapdragon 820 chipset with 3GB of RAM, 12.3MP large pixel (1.55µm) camera with laser auto-focus, hefty 3,450mAh battery, dual front-facing speakers, quick fingerprint scanner, and the very latest Android operating system.
The Nexus 6P is available with either, 32GB, 64GB, or 128GB storage capacities (no microSD expansion) and in the following colors: Matte Gold, Aluminum (silver), Graphite (grey), or Frost (white).
#2 Pick Moto X Pure Edition
Price: $350 | Display Size: 5.7″ | Battery: 3,000 mAh
WHY IT’S A TOP PICK: Terrific value, near-stock Android, and personalized customization.
Motorola does a lot of things right, which is a huge reason why its Moto X flagship is still going strong today. The manufacturer’s latest strategy with the 2015 Moto X (aka “Moto X Pure Edition”) was to give its fans more value. The Moto X Pure Edition is priced competitively, at $350, but doesn’t give up a whole lot of its high-end status. We have a large 5.7″ IPS LCD screen with QHD pixel saturation, Snapdragon 808 hexa-core chipset, 3GB of RAM, 16GB/32GB/64GB options with microSD expansion up to 128GB, 21MP primary camera, and 3,000 mAh battery.
The Moto X Pure Edition was recently updated to the latest Android build – 6.0.1 (Marshmallow). Motorola has the lightest custom user interface (UI) on its phones, so you’ll get a near-stock software experience and quick updates. Something else fans love is the Moto Maker online phone customizer. You can choose color accents all around your personalized phone and the back cover material, between soft grip plastic, real wood, or real leather.
#3 Pick OnePlus 2
Price: $350 | Display Size: 5.5″ | Battery: 3,300 mAh
WHY IT’S A TOP PICK: Flagship specs at half the cost.
OnePlus is a Chinese phone maker that has quickly gain popularity by creating a disruption in the way we see “flagship” smartphones. Dubbed the “Flagship Killer”, OnePlus’ aim has been to offer what top-end phones boast, but at half the price. That seems to have worked, because the market’s interest in OnePlus phones now match up to the greats.
The second iteration, OnePlus 2, brings the original phone up to current, high-end standards. A metal frame garnishes the design and a fingerprint scanner on the front allows for Android’s latest security features. As expected, we have spec boosts across the board: a high-end Snapdragon 810 chipset, 4GB of RAM, 13MP camera (1.3µm, OIS), and 3,300 mAh battery. The screen stays with a 5.5″ size and 1080P resolution, and the storage options are still 16GB or 64GB (still no microSD expansion, unfortunately).
The original failed to provide its promise of vast back cover options, but the OnePlus 2 follows up appropriately by offering the following: Sandstone Black, Bamboo, Rosewood, Black Apricot wood, or Kevlar.
#4 Pick Nexus 5X
Price: $300 | Display Size: 5.2″ | Battery: 2,700 mAh
WHY IT’S A TOP PICK: Superb camera and best Android software at a lower price.
The Nexus 6P isn’t the only recent Nexus phone. Google wanted a follow-up to the popular Nexus 5 from 2013, and LG agreed to get the fans what they’ve wanted. Just like the original, the Nexus 5X pushes smartphone value to a new height. The low price tag does mean that you won’t get today’s highest end specs, but we’re still looking at a very capable phone and a great alternative if you want to save some dough.
The Nexus 5X still maintains a compact size, with a 5.2″ screen (IPS LCD panel and modest 1080P resolution). Being that Google reserves the “premium” metal casing for the next tier, the 5X bears a more conventional plastic build. The hexa-core Snapdragon 808 chipset is technically a step down from the 810, but this isn’t saying much, as it’s still a powerhouse. We applaud Google for giving the 5x the same low-light-fighting camera module and super responsive fingerprint scanner from the Nexus 6P.
The Nexus 5X available in the following colors: Carbon (grey), Quartz (white), or Ice (light blue), and in 16GB or 32GB storage capacities. There’s no microSD expansion, so make sure to choose wisely.
#5 Pick Honor 5X (Best Unlocked Smartphone Under $300)
Price: $199.99 | Display Size: 5.5″ | Battery: 3,000 mAh
WHY IT’S A TOP PICK: Top bells and whistles for under $200.
Huawei is probably the most recognized amongst the Chinese phone makers. This is because the company seizes opportunities. While renowned manufacturers continue to keep their top-end at wallet-busting prices, Huawei sought to match them at a fraction of the cost. Today, this means that you can get a premium built, metal uni-body smartphone for just under $200!
You may expect that the Honor 5X’s specs aren’t “top-end”, and you’d be right, but they’re nothing to scoff at. We have a “sweet-spot” 5.5″ 1080P IPS LCD panel, quad-core Snapdragon 616 chipset, 2GB/3GB of RAM, 16GB storage with microSD expansion, 13MP (f/2.0) rear and 5MP front cameras, 3,000 mAh battery, and rear-mounted fingerprint scanner. Android 5.1.1 (Lollipop) is running the show (with the promise for Android 6.0 Marshmallow), with Huawei’s custom user interface on top.
You can find the Honor 5x in either gold, silver, or grey.
Honorable Mention BLU Vivo XL (Best Unlocked Smartphone Under $200)
Price: $150 | Display Size: 5.5″ | Battery: 3,150 mAh (removable)
WHY IT’S A TOP PICK: The Vivo XL is the epitome of the smartphone value movement.
If all the phones we’ve covered so far still don’t agree with your budget, you may want to consider the BLU Vivo XL. BLU is an U.S.-based, underdog manufacturer that makes some solid, super affordable smartphones. The Vivo XL is the company’s latest effort to show the market its evolved prowess and compelling value. It’s our recommendation for the best unlocked phone at $150.
The design of the XL is a mix of new and old. You have a metal frame like on premium handset, but the back cover is plastic (albeit, a fancy finish that BLU refers to as “liquid metal”). Fortunately, this means that you’ll get access to the replaceable 3,150 mAh battery – a capability that has been going the way of the dodo. The specs aren’t too shabby either. We’re looking at a 5.5″ display (AMOLED, 720p), octa-core MediaTek MT6753 chipset, 2GB of RAM, 16GB storage (with microSD support), 13MP rear and 5MP front cameras, and Android version 5.1 (Lollipop).
The BLU Vivo XL is available on Amazon in either gold, silver, blue, or pink.
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. Specially, 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 more heavy 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. 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 flagships from a year or two ago. Often, they can still hold their own, and actually, many times their components are still better than the 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 to keep 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 to be 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 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.
Which Unlocked Smartphone is Right for You?
There’s a reason why unlocked smartphones are a happening space right now. The gap between affordable phones and flagships is closing, as you no longer need to pay top-dollar for great specs. For instance, for $200, a Huawei Honor 5X gets you a quad-core process, 2GB of RAM, 5.5″ 1080P IPS LCD, and 3,000 mAh battery. Or for $150 more, you can bump up to an octa-core processor, 4GB of RAM, 3,300 mAh battery, and a great performing camera with the OnePlus 2. Top-end smartphones may soon need to rethink their pricing, because these cost-effective alternatives are catching up fast.