Rise of the Planet of No-Contract Smartphones

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Kogan Agora 4G

Quick quiz — I’ll name five products, and you tell me what they have in common; Google Nexus 5, Kogan Agora 4G, Motorola Moto X, OnePlus One and Samsung Galaxy S4.

Give up? Yep, they’re all powerful Android smartphones. But it’s a trick question: The real answer is that you can buy any one of these devices without a contract and choose whatever carrier offers you the best monthly rate. The price tag also doesn’t set you back the typical $600 to $700.

This surprises folks accustomed to buying a subsidized phone (usually for $100 to $200), then paying a Big Four carrier a hefty monthly sum for a minimum of two years. Those days are over, and good riddance to them.

Take, for example, the Kogan Agora 4G, an Aussie import that’s available in the U.S. starting this week. It has fairly modest specs, including a quad-core processor, 8GB of storage (expandable via microSD, thankfully), and a 5-inch IPS display running at 1,280 by 720 pixels.

Now check out the price: $219. That’s what you pay to buy the phone outright, meaning you own it. You’re not beholden to any one carrier or any service contract. Instead, you take it to AT&T, T-Mobile or any other GSM carrier that lets you bring your own device. For example, Straight Talk offers unlimited talk, texting and data for $45 per month. Just grab a SIM card, pop it into the phone, activate your account and you’re good to go.

OnePlus OneThe same is true of several other modern smartphones, many of which are marquee models: the Moto X, Nexus 5 and OnePlus One, for example. They start at $299, $349 and $299, respectively.

The OnePlus One is a particularly remarkable deal, packing some state-of-the-art features and a mammoth 5.5-inch screen into an admirably thin frame. The $299 model has just 16GB of storage and isn’t expandable, but $349 buys you the 64GB version. No other no-contract phone comes close to that kind of bang for the buck.

Goodbye, Big Bill

I don’t mind spending a couple hundred bucks on a phone. What always drove me crazy was the hefty monthly bill and iron-clad 24-month contract. Thankfully, you now have plenty of contract-free options that cost considerably less.

TextNow Galaxy S4For example, I recently had the chance to test-drive a TextNow-branded version of the Samsung Galaxy S4, one of the top-rated smartphones of 2013. The phone itself (a refurbished, but like-new model) costs $329.99, and TextNow’s service plans start at just $18.99 per month.

How is that possible? This slightly modified S4 relies on Wi-Fi for calls, texts and data, switching to Sprint’s 4G towers only when Wi-Fi isn’t available. That’s how the company is able to offer comparatively cheap service.

If that sounds familiar, it’s because TextNow is treading on ground already established by Republic Wireless, which sells a similarly modded Motorola Moto X for $299 and has service plans starting at a seemingly impossible $5 per month. However, whereas Republic offers only the Moto X and its lesser cousin, the Moto G, TextNow has a wider selection of models — including the entry-level Samsung Galaxy Victory for just $99.99.

These aren’t ideal solutions for everyone. In my neck of the woods, for example, Sprint coverage is mediocre at best. And the automated handover of Wi-Fi calls to cell towers (and vice versa) is hardly seamless; it’s not uncommon to experience a brief silence or dropped call.

But, again, there are other options. Ting, for example, lets you bring any existing Sprint-compatible phone (including iPhones), then create a custom monthly plan based on your actual usage. And if you’re bringing multiple phones, like for everyone in your family, everyone can share in the “buckets” of voice, data and texting.

Although I remain an iPhone fan, I know that if I want the upcoming iPhone 6, I’ll probably have to spend at least $600 to get an unlocked version — or tie myself to a carrier for another two years so I can get a subsidized price. Ain’t. Gonna. Happen.

Because, come on: a $329.99 Galaxy S4 and $19 per month? Or a $299 OnePlus One and an H20 Wireless plan for $30? These are incredibly good deals for anyone in the market for a new phone, the kind that make me question my loyalty to iPhone.

Photo credits: Kogan, OnePlus, TextNow

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