December 29, 2011, 8:00 AM — What’s the best phone that hardly anybody, at least in the U.S., knows about? It’s an unlocked phone. To clarify, that’s a phone that was either bought independent of a carrier, or has since been freed from one-carrier-only restrictions by either a code graciously provided by the mobile carrier (sometimes for free, usually after a certain number of months), or obtained through a simple Google search for unlock code services. Better still if that phone is rooted) or jailbroken, or, in other words, modified in some way to allow unofficial software installations.
When your smartphone is unlocked and free, you can, generally, buy one-time SIM cards to allow for calls and data usage while traveling. You can, with some effort, find month-to-month phone and data plans in your own country that leave you free to switch networks and compare services--and Google Voice even lets you make those switches while keeping one number. You can sell your phone whenever you decide it’s time to upgrade or switch, and if you decide to pick up with a new carrier contract, you can sign one without facing an early termination fee. Without an unlocked phone, international traveling usually ends up involving a lot of internet cafe visits and Skype.
Rooting, jailbreaking, and other unofficial methods take your phone freedom further. You can install apps that are otherwise blocked by your device’s app market, some of them quite handy--like an easy screenshot app for Android, or a few keyboard modifications on iPhones. You can make full backups of your phone, tweak far more of the interface than you can with the default settings and preferences, and, perhaps most helpfully, install unofficial upgrades on phones that would never officially receive an upgrade from reluctant carriers or manufacturers.
Rooting and jailbreaking are legal in the U.S., but it’s still a process that can be tricky for certain phones, and perhaps too great a risk for those who aren’t really motivated to change something on their phone. Unlocked phones, however, are just something that people have to go out of their way to find, and which most smartphone buyers have been conditioned to think of as crazy expensive.