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How much should I pay for an unlocked smartphone?

Purchasing a smartphone is an experience that virtually everyone has gone through, but the nagging question remains: Do I purchase an unlocked handset or do I end up with a far cheaper price (for free at times) for the desired smartphone model through a mobile carrier? Let us take a look at the former today as we figure out just how much should I pay for an unlocked smartphone. For context, I will concentrate only on flagship models since the entry level and mid-range tier will continue to sell well. 

Modern day smartphones do seem to be able to do everything. While it is our primary communications device, it also serves as a portable media player, a GPS navigation tool, an impromptu camera, and of course, a portable computer, boasting a slew of apps that make life far more enriching. This has turned the smartphone into an indispensable tool that we use every day, making it extremely difficult to live without one in connected areas. When it comes to unlocked smartphones, the iPhone X has breached the psychological $1,000 price point barrier. Is forking out ten Benjamins justified?

Many of the flagship smartphones such as the Samsung Galaxy Note 8, the Samsung Galaxy S8 Plus, Galaxy S8 and LG V30 all cross the $700 mark easily. While we understand that top of the line models should always maintain a premium price point, the sticker price tag has seen a slow and steady increase with each new iteration released. 

AndroidPIT HTC U11 LG V30 Galaxy Note8 Pixel2 plus Huawei Mate10 pro 1988
How much does that pretty unlocked smartphone in the window cost? / © AndroidPIT

While an increase in price can be expected in order to keep up with the inflation rate (not to mention the hardware manufacturers tend to have to answer to shareholders when it comes to generating more profit), is there a tipping point in how much a consumer can expect to pay a reasonable amount when it comes to an unlocked smartphone? 

I would dare venture that anything more than $600 is actually extremely expensive. The cost of an unlocked smartphone should not cost more than a month’s salary in developing countries, and neither should it cost you the price of an old yet functional second hand vehicle in developed countries. 

In fact, the BOM (Bill of Materials) would show that most of the parts and components used to manufacture a smartphone do not cost that much. However, I understand that manufacturers will have to factor in other costs such as research and development, marketing, advertising, etc. Still, economy of scale and more efficient manufacturing systems in place should offset the overall cost to a degree.

It was virtually unheard of to have a mobile phone breach the $500 mark until Nokia released the luxurious looking Nokia 8810. From there, newer innovations from Sony Ericsson like a high resolution color display, followed by PDA phones from Palm and HP continued to push the unlocked smartphone price upwards. However, the price has been dependent more on large leaps in innovation as compared to today’s small steps in between flagship smartphone generations.

This has not stopped manufacturers from increasing their price, but the buck has to stop somewhere eventually or consumers will simply vote with their wallets and settle for more affordable options upon realizing that unlocked flagship smartphones are not worth the dollars paid for. Eventually, the price for an unlocked smartphone will have to bend to the law of diminishing returns, and market forces will dictate manufacturers to perform a rethink.

Do you think that the $600 figure I put forward is reasonable, or would you settle for less (or more)?

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  • FYI,
    Here in Canada, earlier this year the telco regulator (CRTC) ruled that "As of Dec. 1 [2017], cellphone customers can ask their provider to unlock their phones free of charge, the CRTC announced Thursday. At the same time, it said, all newly purchased mobile devices must be provided to customers unlocked." (CBC article, 15Jun17)

    Maybe write to your lawmakers.


  • If you want it, pay what they charge.


  • There are two types of people, ones that need an unlocked phone and those that don't. I happen to be the latter because I'm happy with my carrier and what they offer. So for me there's no difference whether my phone is locked or unlocked. And I'm guessing that that's how most people are because the other piece is that it's too much of a hassle to switch carriers, even though it's gotten easier with the ability to keep your number it's still a hassle. I'm for keeping prices for phones below $500. My two cents.


    • I'm happy with my carrier (Bell Canada) and a locked phone so long as I'm here at home, but with a single SIM slot next time I go to the US or elsewhere I want to unlock the phone to buy a SIM for a local prepaid deal. I was able to buy a Bell unlock code for $10 from the merchant who sold my last phone (which is still locked) - Bell was sinfully charging $75 for the same code to its customers. I am completely against hobbling consumers in these self-serving telco / OEM straitjackets, once the phone is paid for on the installment plan.


  • unlocked is certainly the way forward. If you look at expensive monthly contracts for flagship devices and take out what it would cost for a pay monthly sim only deal with the data/minutes you need. The rest of the cost over two years is always much more than it would cost to buy the phone outright and have a pay monthly sim only deal.


  • so far all devices I own are unlocked, at a price that suits personal circumstances...
    which are as changeable as the weather.
    so I'll set a limit of maybe £500 and then probably disregard that when looking at something I really really like,
    at which point common sense doesn't exist..
    really liked Essential PH1 but not enough to pay $700
    now it's $500 and very compelling, shame it's not available in UK.


  • Unlocked and unbranded for any phone for me. I used to root every phone right out of the box.


  • Dave S 1 week ago Link to comment

    unlocked is the only way to go, but take it one step better by purchasing and unbranded phone such as the Moto G4 Plus which has not bloatware associated with ATT and the like, for that matter I think price is no issue, it all depends on your taste in smartphones


  • Mark
    • Admin
    1 week ago Link to comment

    "boasting a slew of apps that make life far more enriching" I am sorry, but apps do not make life more enriching. Spending real time with loved ones and friend doing things you love. That makes life enriching not some social media app.

    As far as unlocked cell phones, they are the only ones I will buy. The so called free phone from a carrier is far from free with the plan you have to buy to get it "free". I much rather shell out the money for a phone so I can pick lower priced plans and switch any time I need to rather than be locked in for 2 years.


    • Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the matter, Mark. Some millennials do think that life is more enriching with apps, the same way we think that having more gadgets are supposed to make our life "easier" so that we can spend more time with loved ones and family as shown in advertisements, but that is rarely the case since people would use the time freed up to do more work. I think that is pretty ironic.

      However, social media app might help bridge the communication divide with family and friends who live on a different continent and time zone.


      • Mark
        • Admin
        1 week ago Link to comment

        I think "easier" is a much better term than "enriching". Social media is the curse of the modern age, I personally think it creates more antisocial behavior than social. Once apon a time a troll was something in a story book, now the internet and "social" media is full of them.


    • There haven't been true contracts in years.

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