The Future Is Here
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The Triumph of the Cheap Phone

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Buying a cheap phone used to be a little depressing. You bought one because you had to. Now they’re finally becoming the phones you want to buy. And carriers are responding by ripping up their old two-year contracts. Freedom—at a price.

The contract era is over

When I bought an iPhone 5s two years ago, I signed a two-year contract for service from AT&T. That’s just how it was done. You signed up for two years with a service provider without knowing how that service would change and whether competitors might offer something more attractive along the way. It was ridiculous and irrational, but I did it because it meant I could get a top-shelf, cutting-edge phone for just $200.


An unlocked iPhone would have meant an out-of-pocket expenditure of some $650, which is a ton of money. And though unlocked phones were an option back then, they haven’t always been. You’ll recall that for years, the iPhone was an AT&T exclusive. The only way to get a cool, shiny iPhone was to sign up with AT&T. People lined up around the block for days, begging to sign up for a carrier ball-and-chain.

Since then, carriers have been slowly moving away from lock-in contracts entirely. It started with T-Mobile and its consumer-focused Uncarrier campaign, which over the last two years has added perk after perk to its month-to-month plans to make them more attractive. Instead of getting a subsidized phone, you pay for your phone in installments. Other carriers have followed T-Mo’s lead. Verizon is ditching contracts and so is Sprint. For now, AT&T still offers some two-year contracts, but it’ll surely follow the rest of the pack.


On the surface, this sounds crappy. Now you have to pay full price for your phone. No more subsidy. But the new paradigm also forces carriers to compete with each other on pricing and services. If customers can walk away at any time, without giant fees to pay off their phones, the carriers have to make sure the service is good enough that they’ll stay.

Sure, the carriers will still try to lock you in by selling you on those installment plans, giving you your iPhone for “only” $27 a month. But as we approach the launch of the new iPhone, there’s less reason than ever to buy one. Now there are finally a lot of darn good phones you can buy outright, for far less money than a premium device. Now that the full price of $650 phones are no longer hidden behind subsidies, these cheaper phones are going to seem like fantastic choices.

Cheap phones aren’t garbage anymore

It’s not just carriers that are changing; phones are changing too.

In October 2013, shortly after I’d signed my life away to AT&T for a shiny new iPhone, Google launched the Nexus 5, a fantastic flagship-quality device that shipped unlocked for $350. Sure, it was more expensive than a subsidized phone, but it came in at roughly half the price of its competitors. It was a very attractive device!


At last we had a (relatively) affordable unlocked phone you might want to buy. It’s hard to underestimate the importance of this development. Turn the dial back a few years and anything cheap you could buy outright was pretty much a catastrophe. If you smashed your phone and were locked in a contract, you would end up with some clumsy afterthought of a device that ran outmoded software. It could send email, play music, and text, but that’s about it. They were like the dehydrated survival food of hardware.

The Nexus 5 was different. It was a real phone. In the years since, a legion of solid smartphones has emerged. And in the last month, we’ve seen two new cheap phones so well-crafted that they make paying full price for a loaded flagship look silly.


Now we’ve got the new Moto G and OnePlus 2, starting at $175 and $330 respectively. The former is a barebones device that does exactly what you need it to. It runs stock Android with Motorola’s excellent software additions on top. It’s got a solid camera, great battery life, and it’s waterproof to boot. The OnePlus 2 is pricier but it’s incredible: Amazing screen, beautiful design, a clean Android operating system, and zippy performance.

The future of phones is not flagships

Today’s cheap phones are still not perfect — there’s no denying it. The Moto G is a little buggy and has a pretty bogus display. The OnePlus 2 is made by an upstart manufacturer that might not be able to keep up with demand, and its custom OS will lag behind other phones on updates—if it gets updates at all.


Still, over time, the drawbacks of cheap phones will become increasingly insignificant. What’s more, as cost-conscious manufacturers zero in on necessary features, we might end up with the phones we really wanted all along.

Though flagships are amazing, the race to jam them with flashy superfluous features is starting to get ridiculous. How could you see the Galaxy Note Edge’s weird display as anything more than a gimmick? Is there really a benefit to adding a curved display to a phone like the LG Flex?


In this light, a stripped-down Moto G starts to feel like a refreshing revelation. It’s a durable phone that runs great software and gets a full-day of life on a charge. You pay for features you want, with no bullshit tacked on. And you’re liberated from vendor lock-in when it comes to carriers.

Welcome to the world of the off-contract, totally awesome cheap phone.