Most people, when they are deciding which phone to get, do all their shopping on their wireless provider’s website or store. But this isn’t the only option: you can buy an unlocked device.
These are phones that are offered directly to consumers by device manufacturers, or sold through online stores. They are called “unlocked” because they aren’t locked to any one provider’s network, and will work with a wide variety of them.
There are some real advantages to broadening your device options, but there’s an important point I need to make first, though: what I’m saying applies only to people who get service over a GSM network. In the United States that’s AT&T, T-Mobile, and a host of smaller companies. If you’re a Sprint, Verizon, or Alltel customer then you’re pretty much stuck with what’s on the company’s website.
For those of you who have this flexibility, there are some big rewards from taking advantage of it.
The most obvious of these is selection. Wireless providers only offer a sub-set of all the devices you can use. There are a large number of devices that you can only get unlocked.
Take AT&T, for example. It appears determined to not offer any smartphones that would compete to closely with Apple’s iPhone. That’s why you won’t see some of the best Windows Mobile devices in its stores, like the Samsung Omnia i900 or the HTC Touch Diamond.
And T-Mobile has its own problems. It’s a relatively small wireless company, and this limits the number of devices it can offer. Many of these tend to be consumer-oriented, so it doesn’t offer many smartphones focused on business, like the Palm Treo Pro or MWg Zinc II.
Choice isn’t the only advantage. There’s also flexibility. In order to get a new smartphone from your carrier, you’re going to have little choice but to sign a new multi-year service contract. This isn’t true if you buy an unlocked phone.
Some of you may be aware of unlocked phones but you’re afraid to get one because you’re worried you’ll run into hassles setting it up. A few years ago your concerns would have been quite justified, but not any more. Virtually all smartphones made in the last year or so to be sold directly to consumers come with software that will automate the set-up process for you. You just put in your SIM card, answer a few questions, and let the device do all the work.
At this point, you might be asking “Why doesn’t everyone buy an unlocked smartphone?” Well, many people don’t because they aren’t even aware that such things exist. But others don’t because there are some disadvantages.
The first will become obvious to you within moments of visiting an online retailer: price. You’ll be hard pressed to find a new unlocked phone for less than $300, and most of them are considerably higher.
This is because wireless providers subsidize the cost of hardware as a way of roping you into signing a multi-year service contract. If you buy a device without a contract you don’t get the subsidy.
But the situation isn’t cut and dried. Your wireless company might advertise that a phone is something like $99, but it could easily cost you much more than that. This is because, in order to qualify for the lowest advertised price, there’s a few hoops you’re going to need to jump through.
Whether you qualify for the discounted price depends heavily on how long has it been since your last new device. If it hasn’t been a sufficiently long time, usually at least a year, you’re going to have to pay much more than the minimal price. For example, although the advertised price foe the iPhone 3G is $200, those who don’t qualify for a discounted upgrade have to pay $400 for it.
Also, many wireless carriers require you do more than just renew your current contract for another two years, you have to sign up for one of their more expensive plans. That can hit you more than you realize.
Suppose you’ve been happy with your monthly plan, but to get the device you want you have to move to a plan that’s $20 more a month. $20 doesn’t sound like much, but you’ll be paying that extra money every month for two years. Suddenly that new phone doesn’t cost $200, it costs $680. That’s enough to make that $550 unlocked phone look like a bargain.
There’s one disadvantage to some unlocked smartphone models that’s harder to work around. Many of the devices that are sold in the U.S. by grey-market retailers were actually made to be released in Europe and/or Asia. Because N. America uses different wireless frequencies for 3G than the rest of the world does, these devices won’t give you access to the fastest types of cellular-wireless networking, like HSPA.
And T-Mobile USA customers have a special problem in this area. Your carrier is going with a version of 3G that’s different from every other one on Earth, so the only way to get a phone with 3G support is going to be straight from T-Mobile.
Of course, unlocked phones can still be used to make voice calls in the U.S., and offer the 2.5G standard EDGE, which is fast enough for email and light-duty web browsing. And there are few that lack Wi-Fi for when you need a really fast connection.
Below are some of the models that are available unlocked. This is by no means a full list, just some of my favorites.
HTC Touch Diamond
Sprint recently introduced the Touch Diamond, but this very cool device isn’t coming to either AT&T or T-Mobile. You can get the European version from grey-marketeers, though.
This is a slim Windows Mobile 6.1 smartphone with a VGA screen, Wi-Fi, GPS, and 4 GB of on-board storage.
Unfortunately, this is one of the devices that lacks support for the U.S. version of 3G.
MWg Zinc II
MWg is a new company that’s virtually unknown in the U.S., but if you’re looking for a smartphone with a built-in keyboard you should check out the Zinc II.
It has support the version of 3G used by AT&T, and also includes Wi-Fi and Bluetooth.
This is another Windows Mobile 6.1 device, and MWg has added a touch-friendly application launcher. It also has a GPS receiver, an external microSD card slot, and a 2 MPx camera.
The Centro is available through a wide number of wireless companies, but T-Mobile USA isn’t one of the Fortunately, Palm offers an unlocked version.
This is a very small Palm OS smartphone that still packs in a 320-by-320-pixel display, a microSD memory card slot, and a 1.3 megapixel camera.
At $300, it’s one of the best deals you’ll find on an unlocked device.
Palm Treo Pro
Palm’s latest Windows Mobile-based smartphone is being offered primarily by Vodafone in Europe, but it also makes a U.S. version with support for 3G.
The Treo Pro has a design similar to previous Treos: a candybar shape with touchscreen above a QWERTY thumb-keyboard.
It has Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, an external microSD card slot for additional storage, a built-in GPS receiver, and a 2.0 MPx camera.
Samsung Omnia i900
The Omnia i900 has a design that focuses on its relatively large touchscreen, and is one of the devices that invites comparison to the iPhone 3G.
It runs Windows Mobile 6.1 Pro, but Samsung has added its TouchWiz user interface, which has been designed to make the device easier to use with a fingertip.
This device has a 5-megapixel camera, a microSD card slot, a TV-out port, a GPS receiver, an FM radio, and a 1440 mAh battery.