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Why you won't benefit from Google's unlocked phones

Armando Rodriguez | June 3, 2013
Google's obsession with unlocked phones reflects the tech giant's utopian ideals, but it doesn't acknowledge how people actually buy and use their handsets.

Google's obsession with unlocked phones reflects the tech giant's utopian ideals, but it doesn't acknowledge how people actually buy and use their handsets.

At the D11 tech conference on Thursday, Android head Sundar Pichai announced an unlocked version of one of the year's best Android phones, the HTC One. This handset will join the rather small club of unlocked, bloatware-free Android phones available directly from Google, including the Nexus 4 and the Samsung Galaxy S4. Why buy one of these three smartphones? Each will receive OS updates in a timely manner--whereas their carrier-bound counterparts will likely be stuck running Android 4.2 for quite a while.

Unlocked phones are also free of carrier-installed apps, which are permanently bonded to a device and resist removal through conventional means. Carrier bloatware has worsened over the past two years as wireless providers effectively sell space on your phone to the highest bidder. Sorry, Verizon, no one wants to have an unremovable Blockbuster app on that shiny new smartphone.

But although Google's unencumbered handsets sound appealing, you'll find a few catches: Stock Android isn't always better, and sometimes manufacturer extras are worth the hardship of being bound to a two-year contract.

You're still limited by your carrier
When you buy an unlocked phone, you have a lot more to worry about than whether its camera has enough megapixels, or if its pixel density is pleasing to the eye. In fact, just because a phone is unlocked and may work with any carrier doesn't mean it will work effectively with any carrier. AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon all operate on different bands and frequencies, so knowing which bands your carrier supports can mean the difference between tapping into superfast LTE and picking up only 2G speeds.

Google's latest unlocked smartphones work only with AT&T and T-Mobile, so if Verizon provides the best coverage in your area, you'll have to decide whether owning an unlocked phone trumps actually being able to use it. AT&T's coverage and speeds rival those of Verizon's, but you don't realize extra benefits from buying a full-priced unlocked phone versus purchasing a subsidized phone in an AT&T store.

T-Mobile rewards you with a lower monthly bill if you sign up with an unlocked phone, and that carrier is often the de facto choice for Android fans who won't accept anything less than a phone running stock Android. Unfortunately, however, T-Mobile's new LTE network isn't as widespread as either AT&T's or Verizon's, and that frequently relegates customers to the company's inconsistent HSPA+ connection.

Having an unlocked phone makes sense only in a world where all carriers use the same bands and frequencies, and where everyone has access to the same coverage and speeds. And I doubt we'll be living in that particular world anytime soon.


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