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Does someone in your life need a new smartphone this holiday season? Great! Since carriers in the United States have finally separated the cost of smartphones from the cost of plans, customers have more options than ever when it comes to smartphones, though you may not realize it if you are shopping at your local cell phone shop, where it seems like the only things to choose from are iPhones and Galaxy phones. Going the unlocked route can save you money and get you a phone that fits your needs perfectly. All of the phones in this list will have no problem working in T-Mobile and AT&T, as well as their mobile virtual network operators (MVNO) like Cricket and Metro PCS.
Over the past few years, a number of new phone manufacturers have started selling flagship-grade phones for quite a bit less than the traditional players. While most high-end phones sold at carrier stores still sell for around $700, companies such as OnePlus, ZTE, ASUS, and Huawei have shown that it doesn’t have to cost that much. Most 2016 flagship Android phones share very similar specs, a top-of-the-line multi-core chipset, high-resolution QHD or FHD screen, a ton of storage, and 4GB of RAM, fingerprint scanner, high-end camera, and a metal or glass-clad body. Sound familiar? I just summed up the Samsung Galaxy S7, S7 Edge, HTC 10, and LG G5. But, in addition to those well-known heavy hitters, I also described the ZTE Axon 7, Huawei Honor 8, and ASUS ZenFone 3 Deluxe, which cost hundreds of dollars less.
The ZTE Axon 7 features all the things you expect from a 2016 flagship. It has a 5.5" QHD AMOLED display, Snapdragon 820 chipset, 64GB of storage along with 4GB of RAM, a 20MP rear camera with optical image stabilization, dual SIM card slots, microSD expansion slot, and fingerprint sensor, all housed in a sleek metal body. It checks all the boxes you would expect from a flagship phone, save the high price tag.
Also worth a look is the Huawei Honor 8. Instead of metal, the Honor 8 is clad in glass and features a 5.2" IPS LCD screen, 4GB of RAM paired with 32GB of storage, an octa-core Kirin 950 chipset, and dual rear cameras. Instead of using dual focal lengths, such as wide and ultra-wide on the LG G5, the Honor 8’s dual cameras use different color filters. One is your standard Bayer RGB sensor, found on most cameras, the other is monochrome. The lack of color-absorbing filters on the monochrome camera sensor allows for a great deal more light to hit the camera sensor. The Honor 8 then combines the info from both sensors, allowing for better low-light imagery (in theory). The dual-camera setup also allows for the Honor 8 to use both cameras to create a depth map and create a relatively convincing shallow-depth-of-field effect, similar to the iPhone 7+.
For those who prefer larger flagship phones, take a look at the ASUS ZenFone 3 Deluxe 5.7". As the name implies, the ZenFone 3 Deluxe 5.7" has a 5.7" AMOLED display, Snapdragon 820 chipset, a massive 6GB of RAM, 64GB of storage that can be expanded further via a microSD slot, and a 23MP rear camera with optical image stabilization, all housed in an all-metal body. Pretty much all you would expect from a 5.7" flagship phone—save maybe an explosive battery.
Are you buying a Smartphone for someone brave? Do they have the courage to give up the 3.5mm headphone jack? If the answer is yes, then take a look at the Motorola Moto Z. The Moto Z features all the top-of-the-line specs you would expect from a flagship smartphone, including a Snapdragon 820 Chipset paired with 4GB of RAM, 5.5" 2560 x 1440 AMOLED Display, 64GB of storage, a microSD card slot, 13MP rear camera with optical image stabilization, and more.
On top of flagship-grade specs, the Moto Z brings a few other unique features to the table. First, it does away with the pesky 3.5mm headphone jack, to listen to your favorite tunes on the Moto Z simply use the USB-C connector or wireless headphones. Second, the Moto Z works with a number interchangeable modules, called Moto Mods, that connect to the back. These Moto Mods can add a number of additional features, such as a projector, extended battery, extra-loud speaker, or even a Hasselblad Camera with an optical zoom lens.
Do you know someone who commutes on the subway and enjoys being able to use their smartphone without relying on other passengers to keep them upright when the train suddenly lurches? For the seemingly dwindling number of people who enjoy being able to navigate a phone with one hand, their options have been shrinking for the past few years. Luckily, if you go the unlocked phone route, you do have options. Sony has been the last holdout, making powerful compact Android smartphones for the past few years, and the new Xperia X Compact keeps the tradition alive.
The X Compact has a 4.6" IPS LCD screen. Even though the screen is only a little smaller than the iPhone 7’s 4.7" screen, the small bezels of the X Compact make its overall size a lot closer to the 4" iPhone SE. Despite being small, this phone still packs a powerful Snapdragon 650 CPU with 3GB of RAM in tow, along with Sony’s top-of-the-line 23MP rear camera, featuring a large (for a smartphone) 1/2.3" sensor coupled with a f/2.0 24mm equivalent lens.
Also worth a look is last year’s Xperia Z5 Compact, which has the same compact footprint as the Xperia X Compact, and is also water- and dust resistant. Although the Z5 Compact is running on an older Snapdragon 810 chipset, the 810 was top of the line last year, and performance of the 810 is comparable to the 650, so it may be worth a look.
Despite what Gorilla Glass’s latest press release claims, most smartphones cannot handle repeated drops onto concrete. Despite the f/1.8 aperture and optical image stabilization on the new iPhone 7’s camera, it can’t see in the dark. And despite the Galaxy S7’s IP68 rating, it can’t handle being submerged in 6' of water. If those seem like limitations to you, then the Cat S60 is the phone you need.
The Cat S60 is built to be rugged, and is drop proof, shockproof, waterproof, and dustproof. Unlike most waterproof smartphones that are designed to handle being accidently dropped into a sink or toilet, the Cat S60 can handle depths of up to 15' (3m) for up to an hour. The Cat S60 also features a thermal camera in addition to a standard 13MP camera. This allows the Cat S60 to display a temperature map over the image from the normal camera—allowing contractors to see insulation leaks or plumbers to see hotspots through walls and pipes, or for normal people to easily win a game of hide-and-seek when the lights are off.
Spec-wise the Cat S60 doesn’t sport bleeding-edge hardware, but its octa-core Snapdragon 617 chipset and 4.7" 720p display offer more than enough power for most users.
A few years ago it was pretty hard to recommend any smartphone that cost less than $300. The compromises manufacturers had to make to come in at that price usually resulted in a frustrating user experience. But just as the price of top-tier phones has dropped, so has the price of decent mid-range phones. For all but the most demanding users, these budget phones offer better experiences than flagship phones from a few years ago, at a fraction of the cost.
For those looking for a great deal who aren’t afraid of trying something a little different, check out the Nextbit Robin Smartphone. The Robin features specs that were flagship-grade last year for a price that is super-budget this year. It has a 5.2" 1080p IPS LCD screen, Snapdragon 808 Hexa-core chipset, 3GB of RAM with 32GB of onboard storage, 13MP rear camera, fingerprint sensor—the works. The Nexbit Robin is also a perfect phone for people who hate managing storage. It comes with 100GB of free cloud storage that is intelligently managed in the background. Nextbit automatically transfers apps and pictures to the cloud that you might not use often. The apps and pictures in the cloud still appear on your phone, and will be seamlessly transferred back to your phone the next time you use them, meaning you almost never run out of space! The Nextbit Robin runs Android 6.0 and will work on both T-Mobile and AT&T in the United States.
Do you know someone who wants a flagship phone because it looks nice, but doesn’t plan to do much more than social media and text messaging with it? That’s the kind of person to whom it’s probably safe to say the Xperia XA is the best-looking budget phone on the market right now. It’s 5" 720p display is nearly bezel-less, which makes the phone smaller than you would expect from a 5" screen. The phone’s octa-core Helio P10 chipset isn’t going to win any speed awards, but its plenty fast enough to tackle all your social media and light gaming needs. It also features a 13MP rear camera, 2GB of RAM, 16GB of storage, and a microSD slot for memory expansion. The Xperia XA is a great budget phone for those who use their smartphone for basic tasks like web browsing, watching videos, and social media, who don’t need bleeding-edge performance but still want a phone that looks great.
For those on a budget who want a phone with a giant screen, take a look at the Moto G and Moto G Plus. Both phones offer large 5.5" 1080p screens, and powerful Snapdragon 617 octa-core chipsets. The G4 Plus even has 4GB of RAM in tow for those who demand performance. These two phones should be able to handle all but the most demanding apps and 3D games you throw at them for a fraction of the price of flagship phones. Also, the Moto G and G Plus are CDMA/GSM hybrids that will work in both Verizon and Sprint, a rarity for unlocked phones. Make sure to check that your carrier will support the phone.
Whatever the smartphone needs of the people on your gift list, chances are you will find a phone that both fits their needs and fits your budget if you go the unlocked route. Which is your favorite? Let us know in the Comments section, below.