June 03, 2013, 11:05 AM — 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.
You'll miss the extras
One of the best things about Android is how many devices there are to choose from. With such cutthroat competition, Android phone manufacturers have tweaked Google's OS by adding scads of extra functions and capabilities--and these days their devices are generally the better for it. Samsung throws in hundreds of clever features, while HTC emphasizes each phone's camera and audio capabilities.
Of course, manufacturers also like to skin Android to give their handsets a distinct look and feel. Android purists will always protest these modifications, because when the OS was in its infancy, manufacturers usually added unecessary bloat (instead of value). But in today's much more sensible Android era, manufacturers often add useful extras not found in raw Android--extras designed to get the most from a smartphone's base hardware.
For example, both the HTC One and the Samsung Galaxy S4 feature an IR blaster that, when used in conjunction with certain custom apps, allow the phones to double as universal remote controls. But the unlocked Google versions of the One and the Galaxy S4 lack access to those apps, leaving you to scrounge through the Play Store for inferior third-party alternatives.
HTC's One seems to benefit the least from running an unmodified version of Android, as many of that company's tweaks and extras were designed to address the phone's hardware deficiencies. For example, HTC's phone has a lower-megapixel camera than the Galaxy S4 does, and the One also lacks a user-replaceable battery. Neither of those hardware shortcomings is a problem when paired with HTC's custom camera and battery-management software, but when the phone is running the stock, unadulterated version of Android, you may begin to miss HTC's helping hand.
(That said, HTC confirms that the unlocked One will still make use of the company's Beats Audio software, giving us some hope that the phone's camera received special treatment as well.)
Another thing that most Android enthusiasts seem to forget is how unfriendly Google's OS can be to new users. Samsung, for one, has skinned Android to make using the OS a bit more straightforward, and recent Samsung offerings have included an "Easy Mode" that greatly simplifies the OS for new smartphone owners. Digging through and tweaking Android's various settings may appeal to hard-core techies, but it's not something you'd wish on your tech-illiterate parents.
So who really benefits from these expensive, unlocked Google phones? Excluding the big G itself, only developers and dedicated enthusiasts have any genuine reason to purchase one of these devices. At $300, the unlocked Nexus 4 is decently priced for a development platform, but it's harder to justify spending twice that amount for either the One or the S4. The hardware may be different, but because the software running on all three devices is the same, you're basically paying a premium for a prettier package.
Google can champion open standards and unlocked devices all it wants, but the company's ideals mean nothing if the rest of the world isn't on board.