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Mobile Trends in 2013: Cheaper Unlocked Phones

by Todd Haselton | January 22, 2014January 22, 2014 12:00 pm PDT

ZenFone 4 02

2013 has come to a close, and now it’s time to reflect on some of the trends that occurred during the year. One of the biggest ones we saw in mobile was the introduction of newer, more affordable unlocked phones. We’ll be bringing you a guide of some of our favorite introductions shortly, but we wanted to discuss the trend, especially since we expect it to continue in 2014.

It’s unfair to say it started with the Moto X, but in a lot of ways that phone brought attention to what was already happening. Motorola started out offering the phone on contract at an affordable $99 price point, but after a few sales it permanently dropped the phone down to $399 off contract. Google also introduced the Nexus 5, and arguably put a more consumer-friendly spin on a device that was typically always heralded as a phone for developers who wanted the latest versions of Android first. Those are certainly at the high-end of the spectrum, though.

I argue the Moto X put the focus on unlocked phones because it was followed by the Moto G, a handset that offered many of the design elements but at a much more affordable $179 price point. It doesn’t offer LTE support, but it does offer a 720p screen, Android 4.4 KitKat, a 5-megapixel camera, and enough colors that the phone looks more hip than a budget-handset you’d be embarrassed to carry. In a lot of ways, the Moto G also signify’s the race into emerging markets for both Google and Android. China is huge, and largely dominated by local players, so the Moto G is instead targeted at South America, other emerging markets and, soon, India. Nokia also introduced several models in 2013, including the Lumia 625 that can be purchased for under $300. Then CES happened, and we saw that the trend had already been far in development during 2013 and that it will continue and spread into 2014 at a rapid pace.

Asus introduced a bevvy of remarkable handsets at stellar prices. The ZenFone 4, ZenFone 5, ZenFone 6 and PadFone Mini+ all made debuts there, and none of them exceed a $300 price point. In fact, you’ll soon be able to pick up the ZenFone 4 for just $99. No contract, nothing. You’ll be able to buy it, keep it in your travel bag, and toss in a SIM card when you land in a foreign country.

Sure, unlocked phones existed before 2013, but they were typically more expensive devices because they weren’t tied down with a carrier subsidy. Or they were older phones with slightly outdated hardware that weren’t as compelling. Now, though, the PadFone Mini ships with a  7-inch screen that helps it double as a tablet, and the ZenFone 6 and ZenFone 5 offer phablet experiences for the fraction of the price you’d pay for a Galaxy Note 3.

This is all made possible by decreasing component prices and new hardware that was specifically designed for these sort of devices. Asus’ phones are powered by Intel Atom processors, for example, instead of high-end Snapdragon 800 chips. And large displays are more affordable than they ever have been before, now that the focus is turning to 1080p, curved displays, and sharper resolutions.

So what’s next? We’re already starting to see this trend continue in 2014. I wouldn’t be surprised to see new phone makers enter the space, and for Motorola to launch a successor to the Moto G later this year. Apple is still on the sidelines in this market in many ways. It re-introduced an 8GB iPhone 4 in India, but I think it has a shot in the U.S., too. Maybe we’ll see an unlocked and more affordable iPhone 5c hit the market after a new model is introduced in September (if at all). For now, though, it seems this market is really for Android and Windows Phone.

If anything, it’s a great time to be a traveler. You can pick up an unlocked smartphone for an affordable price and keep it as a complementary device for when you touch down in another country. You won’t be coughing up a boatload of money at the get-go, and you’ll also save on roaming costs by sticking with a local SIM card. Sit tight, we have a top 5 unlocked budget Android phones article coming up soon that covers some of these offerings more in depth. For now, here’s a gallery of some of the phones mentioned in this story.


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Todd Haselton

Todd Haselton has been writing professionally since 2006 during his undergraduate days at Lehigh University. He started out as an intern with...


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