Off Contract Flagship Smart Phones

There is a lot to love about smart phones, and especially flagship smart phones. They're fun, they're flashy, and their releases have become events, with people lining up hours and sometimes days before release to make sure they don't wait an extra day to get their hands on their new mobile.

The problem with cramming cutting edge technology into a thin and light device and pairing it with a state of the art touch screen is the price. Flagship phones, at launch, can sometimes cost over $1,000 at retail. In order to subsidize this cost, most shoppers opt to sign a long term contract, or enter a monthly payment plan with their carrier. After all, who's got $800+ to spend on a new phone every other year?

Over the last couple of years, there have been a few manufacturers who have looked to disrupt the mobile phone market by offering the same or sometimes better hardware commonly found in flagships from manufacturers like Samsung or LG, but carrier unlocked, and at a fraction of the price.

Here, we'll cover two of the most prominent off-contract flagship phones and see how they compare to the latest offerings from popular phone makers, while also covering some of the benefits and drawbacks.


Pros and Cons of Buying an Off-Contract Flagship

Thinking of kissing your carrier handset goodbye and buying an off-contract flagship phone? Before profiling two of the most popular off-contract flagships, we want to cover the many pros and cons to this endeavor. While some of them might seem obvious, here are a few key points to take into consideration when deciding whether or not to kiss your contract goodbye.

Pros

No contract or monthly payment – This is really the selling point for many buyers who opt to go off-contract. Although each of the major carriers advertise a number of attractive smart phone plans, being tied into a long term contract, or adding $30-$50 in a monthly hardware payment on top of your plan is a turn off for many.

Carrier Agnostic - What good is being tied to a contract if your device is only capable of working on a specific carrier? One of the benefits of buying an off-contract flagship is that you are free to switch carriers on a whim. Be sure to check the specifications of the phone you're purchasing to make certain it operates on the carriers in your area.

No Carrier Bloatware – One of the biggest problems with buying a phone from your carrier is that these phones come bogged down with tons of carrier specific apps that are often non-removable and non-usable. Not only do these apps take up valuable storage space, but most of them run in the background constantly, making your brand new phone sluggish right out of the box. Buying off-contract straight from the manufacturer or from non-carrier outlets like Amazon means not having to deal with this headache.

Cons

Large Upfront Cost – Conversely, while you can escape the trap of monthly payments and contracts, this involves a larger up front cost if you'd like one of the top smart phones on the market. This cost is mitigated a bit by the two smart phones we are featuring today, but the cost will still be higher up front than a payment plan or contract subsidized phone from your carrier.

No Upgrade Option - This goes hand in and with being free from a contract. Those who always want to trade in their phone for the newest model can often take advantage of upgrade offerings from their carriers if they are on a payment plan, giving a low cost path to always having the newest phone. Because of the nature of buying off-contract, if you always want the newest phone, you'll have to go through the hassle of selling your phone on the secondary market when you're ready to upgrade.

No Carrier Handset Insurance – A feature that many shoppers opt to take advantage of is the low-price handset replacement insurance offered by many carriers. The problem here is that these off-contract smart phones aren't sold by carriers, and even though third party companies usually provide the fulfillment, your carrier may not offer this option for phones that aren't specific to that carrier.


OnePlus 3 - $399.99

OnePlus 3

  • 5.5" AMOLED Display (1080 x 1920; 401ppi)
  • Snapdragon 820 Quad-Core CPU with Adreno 530 GPU
  • 6GB LPDDR4 RAM
  • 64GB Storage
  • Dual Nano SIM
  • 16MP camera (f/2.0)
  • Dash Charge

OnePlus began on 2013 as a company that set out with a single goal: to deliver a high quality smart phone with a simple user interface at a significantly lower price than the world's major phone manufacturers. Famously launching with the $300 OnePlus One along with the tagline "never settle", OnePlus succeeded in making buyers and tech enthusiasts alike rethink what a budget smartphone should be. Whether it was a marketing ploy or a simple necessity because of overwhelming demand, OnePlus generated both positive and (mostly) negative buzz with an invite-only buying system that ran much like a social media lottery.

After three years of increasing success, OnePlus still asks that their users never settle but has thankfully ditched the lottery system with the OnePlus 3, which launched in June of 2016. Revered by tech media outlets across the web as OnePlus' first true flagship, the company has in succeeded in making the low-cost, fully loaded, and factory unlocked smart phone dream a reality.

For $399 direct from OnePlus, smart phone enthusiasts can get the OnePlus 3, which can go toe to toe with other high end smart phones like the Samsung Galaxy S7 and the LG G4 and either come close or exceed those devices in terms of performance and sheer hardware prowess, sometimes blowing them out of the water with features like a ridiculous 6GB of LPDDR4 RAM.

Aside from the horsepower, the OnePlus 3 features a bevy of other niceties that are typically only found in high end phones, such as an all-aluminum body, fingerprint censor, optical image stabilization, and USB-C connectivity with the proprietary Dash charging system that can charge the battery to 63% in only 30 minutes. The OnePlus 3 even comes with a screen protector pre-applied to the screen, so kiss those pesky air-bubbles goodbye!

If you're looking to buy off-contract without sacrificing power or design features found in high-end flagships, but don't want to spend nearly $1,000, the OnePlus 3 has most of the bases covered. The one glaring omission here is the lack of microSD expandability, which can be a deal breaker for power users.


ZTE Axon 7

ZTE Axon 7

  • 5.5" AMOLED Display (1440 x 2560 pixels; 534ppi)
  • Snapdragon 820 Quad-Core CPU with Adreno 530 GPU
  • 4GB RAM
  • 64GB Storage (microSD expandable)
  • 20MP camera (f/1.8)
  • Dual Nano SIM
  • Qualcomm Quickcharge 3.0
  • Dolby ATMOS enabled Hi-fidelity DAC with dual stereo speakers and mics
  • 24 Month Warranty (Axon Passport)


Through supplying low-end smart phones to carrier resellers, ZTE has quietly become the 4th largest smart phone manufacturer in the world. ZTE appears to feel they are ready for prime time, and the US-designed Axon 7 is Chinese manufacturer ZTE's first serious attempt to disrupt the flagship smart phone market (there were not 6 before it, despite the number 7 in the name).

Like the OnePlus 3, in raw power the Axon 7 can take on just about any smart phone on the market and come out on top or a close second. ZTE even managed to best their fellow Chinese phone make OnePlus by adding the ability to use the second nano sim card slot as a microSD card for expandable storage up to 128GB.

Where the Axon 7 really shines is with the slew of extras and hardware enhancements found on the phone, not the least of which is the large, front facing stereo speakers found on either end of the screen. The fun doesn't stop there, as the Axon 7 features an AKM digital to analog converter (DAC) that blasts through the Dolby ATMOS enabled speakers. You'd be hard pressed to find better audio quality on a smart phone, and will never find one at this price.

Rounding out the features found on the all-aluminum unibody design is a rear fingerprint reader, USB-C port, a 20MP camera that features dual image stabilization (optical and digital) and hardware capacitive navigation buttons. Qualcomm Quickcharge 3.0 means you can charge the phone to 50% in 30min and the 24-month warranty even includes 30 days of buyer's remorse coverage, which means if you don't like the Axon 7 for any reason, ZTE will give you a full refund minus the cost of return shipping (for purchases made direct from ZTE).


Final Thoughts

One of the traps of buying a phone from your local carrier store is the overpriced accessories, which seems to plague every area of tech. If you opt for either of the devices we've featured here, be aware that these both use USB-C connectors, which will someday soon be the standard, but for now, will not work with any of the micro-usb cables or accessories you currently have. The good news is that since you're not buying from a carrier, there is no pressure to buy accessories at the store, instead check out online retailers like Amazon where you can find USB-C cables as well as phone cases and screen protectors at a fair price.

There are many other high-end off-contract phones that many consider to be flagships, specifically those offered by Google and Huawei, so if you've got a favorite phone you think we should cover, or just want to share your experiences going off contract, head to our comments section below.

October 31, 2016
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