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Android Headliner: Why Aren’t Unlocked Phones More Important?

January 27, 2016 - Written By Justin Diaz

For at least a decade consumers in the U.S. and other regions have been used to buying phones directly through their carrier or from third-party resellers. No matter where the devices were picked up, they were locked down to the carrier they were for. For years these branded devices have been the majority method for people upgrading or buying and activating new phones, and it’s easy to understand why because carriers will often hold promotions and sales to give customers a special deal on devices that seem almost too good to pass up. Is this really the best way though? Unlocked devices are arguably the better choice in the long run, and although there are quite a few reasons why it would be beneficial for customers to consider an unlocked device over picking one up from a carrier, even if it’s the same device, perhaps the most important these days is the arrival of software updates.

More than a few years ago this wouldn’t have mattered so much when it comes to smartphones. While software updates were important to the otherwise tech savvy crowd, they weren’t as important to the average user. That still remains true to some degree today as new updates still come with new features that only those who love technology might find exciting, but new features really aren’t the most important thing about updates anymore. Security takes precedence now, and while this isn’t meant to be a scare tactic or come off as fear mongering, security on Android is now in the limelight and a few instances have been serious enough that it’s warranted a change from Google that now sees monthly security patches coming to a handful of Nexus devices. Even some manufacturers have hopped on board with the monthly security updates to patch risks, committing to the act of pushing these out either the same day as Google or within a small amount of time afterward, but this generally tends to be on unlocked devices only, while those that are locked to a carrier have to wait for things to be tested by the carrier before they send them out.

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It’s a tale as old as time with smartphones on the Android operating system. Google pushes out software updates and makes the code available to anyone, manufacturers take the software and make sure things are tested on their devices, then they either push the finished software out to unlocked phones, or they have to push it to carriers so the carriers can do their own testing and tweaking with the software before sending it to the public. While it would be nice for carriers to push updates out faster, this isn’t likely to be something that changes anytime soon, and this puts users at risk of anything that might be a risk to security on the device they’re currently using with the software version it’s currently on. It’s unfortunate, and one of the reasons why unlocked devices are a better option, especially if you want a more secure experience. There is one less hand that the software has to pass through before it hits your device.

Security by way of monthly updates is certainly a big benefit of unlocked devices over carrier locked phones, but it isn’t the only reason. As mentioned above there are more than a few reasons why an unlocked device might be a better choice. Unlocked devices will often times come in cheaper than some of the phones you can pick up at a carrier. This isn’t the case with something like the latest Galaxy S or the flagships from OEMs like LG, but big name brands like Motorola and their last few Moto X and Moto G devices are a great example of some excellent devices that are not only coming unlocked but also have a lower price tag. Take this year’s Moto X for example, which offers up a premium build with a metal frame, plenty of customization options for consumers, and a spread of great hardware specifications that rival some of the best flagships on the market, all for hundreds less. Now that the four major US carriers are all contract free, customers usually aren’t getting savings for signing a two-year, so the only option is to buy phones outright at full retail, or to break the phones up in payments along with their monthly bill. While not every smartphone that has a carrier counterpart will be more expensive at full retail than just buying unlocked straight from the manufacturer, breaking the payment up over the bill is a tempting option and hard to pass up as it means less upfront that’s required. This simply causes a higher monthly bill though.

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So why not just pay full retail from the carrier instead of the manufacturer for an unlocked version? Well, one good reason is the user experience. Carrier locked devices come with carrier extras and added or pre-installed apps that customers may never use. These simply take up space on the phone and may or may not run in the background. Apps running in the background will do nothing for the user but eat up RAM and drain the battery little by little, unless they’re apps that are being used on a consistent basis or need to run in the background for the phone to function properly, and in many cases most of the carrier loaded apps don’t fit into that category. With an unlocked device you will still get some pre-installed apps, but none of the carrier apps or software will be there, which means there’s no opportunity for them to drain the battery and use up the RAM. Ultimately, this could lead to a speedier phone and possibly longer battery life, which are both important factors to think about. You should want the phone to function at a respectable pace, and who doesn’t want long battery life so they can continue to use it without worrying the phone will die in the middle of something?

Four or five years ago unlocked smartphones were quite a bit less common, so customers were left with a limited amount of choice and thus, locked contract phones through carriers were more appealing because there was more choice available. That isn’t the case anymore though, as there are tons of unlocked devices available these days, from varied manufacturers and from low-end to high-end devices so there’s a price range that can fit just about anyone’s budget. Many of these can also be picked up from multiple places, whether it be the manufacturer’s own website or through places like Amazon or Best Buy, and even eBay.

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With not only a wealth of options on the device itself but multiple places to buy these devices, unlocked phones are extremely accessible. There’s no need to stroll into a carrier store and deal with a wait, or be met with indecision because a sales associate is trying to push you towards a certain device for whatever reason. Considering all of these factors, there’s almost an overwhelming rationality of why unlocked devices are a better choice than a carrier locked smartphone.

Of course, this won’t be the case for everyone, and an unlocked device won’t be the best option for every consumer. They are however, a better option for many more consumers than they used to be. It all simply depends on the features that are most important, and whether or not you mind the software that comes pre-installed on the device. To some, it will also just simply be easier to walk into a carrier store, go over a few phones and pick the one that best suits their tastes and what they need from it. This also grants them immediate gratification as they have their new device in hand. Whatever your preferences, one thing is now certain though. Unlocked phones are nearly everywhere now and they come in all sizes with a varied set of features and at multiple price ranges. There’s much less in the way of getting one, and there are even a few that will work across both GSM and CDMA carriers, like the Nexus 6P and the Nexus 5X for example. Unlocked smartphones may not yet be on everyone’s minds, but there’s definitely a chance of them being much more prominent in the future, and there’s no reason why they shouldn’t be at least considered by every consumer.