AH Primetime: Unlocked vs. Carriers: The Age Old Question

November 27, 2013 - Written By Andrew Port

It’s not necessarily an old system, the mobile phone world. Prepaid carriers have been around for a while, as have the major carriers. Some have merged, some have dissolved; some have become really good, others really bad. The benefits of using the major carriers in the United States seems to have been abundant for some time, ranging from better coverage to a broader array of ‘cheaper’ high-end phones, but now, as smartphone owners begin to want more freedom with what they do with devices that they assume as their own devices, the Prepaid, Unlocked route seems to have picked up some traction. So now it’s time to decide: Carrier plan? Or unlocked? This article will attempt to hash out all the reasons why going Unlocked might just be the right decision for you. Before we delve into the variations options and intricacies, technical and otherwise, it’s important that we figure out just how we got to where we are with all of this.

It started with the OEMs. Google’s Nexus brand, along with some other manufacturers, led the charge into the murky waters of affordable hardware off-contract from phone providers. As they did, the subsequent technological advancement of many poor countries around the world began making these countries suddenly very appealing markets: OEMs wanted to break into these new markets with affordable hardware, since carriers weren’t available in these developing nations.

Similarly, Prepaid networks in the United States have also matured as these new pieces of Hardware have made themselves available. The Nexus 4’s rather incredible price surprised many of us, and with no support for Verizon or Sprint — as well as a certain lack of LTE — Google’s intentions were rather subtly made clear: The Nexus 4 was not a phone made for carriers and postpaid plans.

Prepaid networks are no longer the network that people go to if they can’t afford the big-name carriers — in fact, they’re often people’s first choices now. People who live in urban areas have a lot of options at their disposal, and even some less densely populated areas have great prepaid cell coverage. Where’s the proof that Prepaid carriers are on the rise? In the first Quarter of 2012, 79% of all smarphones sold in the United States were activated to a postpaid (contract) plan, with only 21% going prepaid. By Q1 of 2013, prepaid had jumped by 11%, and has continued to climb upward throughout the year.

Prepaid Versus Carrier

What’s Going for Prepaid Plans

When considering a prepaid plan versus carrier plans, probably the largest and foremost difference is the price. The price of a prepaid plan is extremely cheaper than what’s offered by carriers, and what’s more, you’ll very often be able to get the same quality of service. Prepaid services often more data, texting and calling minutes for less than many carriers’ lowest-costing options, and use the same towers as those big companies, meaning that you’ll be able to get the same service from them as you would from the big guys.

These Prepaid services are trying to make a name for themselves, and they’re not going to be able to unless if they provide expensive services before they’re even off their feet.

What else is going for these prepaid services besides the cost? You might be surprised. When you go overseas with your Unlocked phone, it’s as easy as buying your SIM card from any European Carrier of your choosing and then putting it in your phone. That’s it. No crazy roaming fees — it’s all under your control.

One my favorite reasons is that you can bring your own phone. Many prepaid networks actually encourage you bringing whatever phone you already have, presuming it can work on their networks (which are typically pretty common GSM radio bands). That means your GSM or unlocked Galaxy Nexus that you’ve had (and whose contract might have just ended!) will work on almost any prepaid network. What’s more? You can pay as you go, and you aren’t forced to keep the same service forever. Don’t like one service? Switch to the next. There isn’t a cancellation fee, cause you’re paying month to month without involving a contract. That’s big. You folks should check out our own list

But Wait, Hardware is Expensive, Right?

Well, yes and no. The hardware like the Samsung Galaxy S4, Note III, HTC One and the like are very expensive. In fact, they cost as much as a mid-range laptop: Typically around $600 or $700 off contract. And that’s a lot. Buuuuut, thankfully, not your own options. Google’s Nexus program, which was mentioned earlier, is an insanely good deal for a flagship smartphone. The Nexus 5 has some of the best specs in the business, and the price is pretty reasonable. For $350, that’s only $150 dollars more than your usual on-contract phone on carriers, and you’re getting a phone that has no bindings to it. It’s just yours. Even an undamaged and pristine Nexus 4 would be a great buy. Motorola’s Moto X is cheaper than a lot of other devices, but it’s still pretty expensive.

But the Nexus 5 isn’t exactly cheap, no. It’s just the best bang for its buck. Or is it? Enter Moto G.

Moto G 9

Motorola’s Moto G, its ‘budget’ category phone, just launched in the United States for $180. That’s it. It doesn’t have the most amazing specs in the world, no, but it is an important revolution in the smartphone industry where budget phones are concerned. Budget phones have been, in the past, synonymous with cheap. Bad specs, bad reliability, and bad service. What was the value in that? You’d end up replacing it with something more expensive. The Moto G has a 1.2GHz Quad-Core processor and 1GB of RAM, and pushes around a near stock version of Android on a 4.5-inch 720p screen. That’s a really good phone for a really good price.


No, this isn’t without a but. Carriers do have a leg up on Prepaid services in more than one way. That comes primarily in the form of distribution and proliferation, as well as customer service. I currently use Verizon, and I have to say that the service I get (in my hometown just north of New York City and in Boston, MA as well as everywhere else I go when I travel) is absolutely fantastic. I never lose my signal, and Verizon’s 4G LTE network is literally everywhere. As well, their Customer Service (while by no means ‘pleasant) is efficient and generally communicates rather clearly, getting the job done most of the time. These things, along with getting affordable flagships (thanks to subsidies) are things that you might have to sacrifice on a Prepaid plan, and it’s of course something to consider before making the leap.

What do you think? What do you use, and what do you prefer? Let us know!