SLIDESHOW

Top 10 Unlocked Smartphones

Freedom of choice--that's the biggest advantage of buying an unlocked phone. You're not bound to a carrier, and you have some pretty enticing choices when it comes to a handset.

RIM BlackBerry Bold

T-Mobile customers now can experience the speed and sophistication of Research in Motion's BlackBerry Bold 9000 ($400, unlocked; as of 4/13/09). The Bold is sold unlocked from third-party vendors in addition to being offered at a subsidized price from AT&T. But while the Bold boasts a sleek design, a sharp display, and high-speed connectivity, it fails to impress in some other areas--particularly, its call quality and its camera's image quality.

Delivering high-speed browsing and powerful messaging capabilities, the Bold represents a major step up in form and function over existing BlackBerry models. Though it takes a lot for a handset's QWERTY keyboard to impress me, the Bold succeeded. For this model, RIM revamped its keyboard with sculpted keys designed to minimize finger slippage. The result is a roomy, ergonomic typing area that makes texting and e-mailing a breeze.

Nokia E71

As Nokia's very first 3G phone with a full QWERTY keyboard, the E71 ($422, unlocked, as of 4/9/2009) is an all-around improvement on its predecessor, the E61. It not only has a sleeker and more sophisticated curved design, but it packs a multitude of features ideal for both business and personal use. This candy-bar phone is remarkably slim at 0.4 inch thick and fits as easily in your hand as it does in your pocket. And at a light 4.4 ounces, it won't weigh you down.

Many of the E71's applications, such as the Music Store and Push-to-Talk, are not available to American users. You can also share photos and videos via the preinstalled Ovi and Flickr applications, but given its camera quality, you might not want to. Pictures I took with the E71's 3.2-megapixel camera came out grainy and dark, particularly in bright environments. Overall, though, the E71 shines as a stylish device that does more than the average business phone.

Nokia N85

The Nokia N85 ($370 unlocked, as of 4/7/2009) is very similar to the Nokia N96, but with one big difference: An OLED display. This gorgeous screen is a huge boon because the N85 has excellent multimedia features. The N85 supports a respectable number of video and audio formats, and its audio and video quality was very good. Based on my experience, I could easily see myself using the N85 as my primary media device.

Unfortunately, like the N96, the N85 lacks both a touchscreen and a QWERTY keyboard, so navigation and messaging can be a pain. With the Nokia N97, which will address this issue but is still on the horizon (it's due sometime this year), the N85 might seem a bit obsolete. But Nokia has yet to announce U.S. pricing for the N97, and if the N96's debut price is any indication, you can bet that it will be sky high. If you can get past the at-times frustrating navigation, the N85 is a solid buy.

LG Prada II

The LG Prada II ($500, unlocked) improves on its predecessor in some important ways--such as by offering a physical QWERTY keyboard, 3G network capability, and Wi-Fi support. It's packed with impressive specs, but it doesn't have a vital (and increasingly common) feature: GPS. Integrated GPS is becoming standard on midrange phones, so it seems like a mistake not to have included it on this high-end model.

Some touchscreen phones are sluggish and a hassle to navigate, but the Prada II's responsive touch interface and its support for multitouch made it a pleasure to use. Like the Apple iPhone 3G, the Prada II lets you pinch to zoom in on a Web page. The Prada II is haptic-enabled, too, meaning that it interacts with the user via the sense of touch. So when you press the phone's screen, you get light vibrating feedback. As fashion phones go, the Prada II is a lot more than just a pretty face: It has a great feature set and a user-friendly interface.

Nokia E63

The little brother of the Nokia E71, the E63 lacks a GPS receiver and preinstalled games, and it has a downgraded camera. On the other hand, it possesses the same excellent e-mail and messaging capabilities as other members of the Nokia E-series. And the biggest news here: The E63 sells for $280 unlocked--about half what the E71 cost when it debuted.

The lightweight E63 retains the E71's curved, slim design. The E63 also runs on Symbian OS 9.2. To make the sometimes-confusing Symbian S60-based platform more user-friendly, Nokia provides customizable shortcut keys and a standby screen. Though the E63 may not be as sexy as the E71, it delivers excellent business and messaging features. Still, the E63 isn't suited for everyone. Consumers seeking strong multimedia features are better off with a (far pricier) Nokia N-Series phone, such as the N85.

Sony Ericsson Xperia X1

Sony Ericsson's first Windows Mobile device, the Xperia X1, received a lot of buzz last year for its slick and customizable software interface and stylish design. The Xperia X1's Windows Mobile 6.1 overlay allows you to choose from nine different "panels," which are meant to represent the different facets of your life. While aesthetically pleasing and easy to use, the X1's interface was sluggish--a common problem with Windows Mobile devices. Moving among panels could be slow, and sometimes the touchscreen wasn't as responsive as it should be. The 3.2-megapixel camera has a few advanced features, but on a handset this expensive, I expected better specs and features, such as you get with Nokia's 5-megapixel N85 (which is a lot less expensive, and sold unlocked, too).

Although the Sony Xperia X1 is a feature-packed, well-designed handset with excellent performance, its assets don't warrant its sky-high price. At $800 (unlocked), the Xperia X1 can't compete with subsidized smart phones like the T-Mobile G1 or the Apple iPhone 3G (both on GSM networks) that offer the same features if not more.

Palm Treo Pro

Having enjoyed success with its sporty Centro models, Palm is taking some of the lessons it learned there back to its Treo business line: The Palm Treo Pro ($550, unlocked, as of 4/9/2009) integrates certain Centro design elements with the Windows Mobile 6.1 operating system and with the more robust features of contemporary BlackBerrys to produce a sleek smartphone built with the image-conscious corporate user in mind.

Palm's Today screen makes some helpful tweaks to Windows Mobile. My favorite feature is an icon in the upper-right corner that lets you view all running apps and shut down the ones you don't need. Even with that added feature, however, I encountered some sluggishness when navigating around various applications--typical Windows Mobile behavior. Sprint now also offers the Palm Treo Pro for a subsidized price of $200 with a two-year contract.

HTC Touch Cruise

An unlocked brother to the HTC Touch series phones, the HTC Touch Cruise ($550.00, unlocked; as of 4/9/2009) has an eye-catching design and a gorgeous touch interface. Like the other HTC phones we've tested, though, the Cruise suffers from sluggish performance---a common problem with Windows Mobile touchscreen phones.

The Touch Cruise sports the improved TouchFLO 3D interface, a simple HTC overlay that runs atop the Windows 6.1 operating system. TouchFLO 3D looks spectacular on the Cruise's display, but its performance was hit-and-miss and downright pokey at times. As a multimedia device, on the other hand, the Touch Cruise excels. The music player, like the majority of the programs on the TouchFLO 3D interface, is aesthetically pleasing, with an iTunes-esque album-art navigation system. The camera was just average, but you can view your photos in a touch-friendly, flickable photo album, which look spectacular on the Cruise's 2.8-inch screen.

HTC S740

A chic alternative to the more mundane BlackBerry Curve, the HTC S740 ($550, unlocked; as of 4/9/2009) holds appeal for those who prefer a physical keyboard to a touchscreen. This slim, eye-catching smartphone has a clean interface and a spacious keyboard--making it one of the best Windows Mobile devices I've ever used. But that isn't to say the S740 doesn't have its quirks--call quality and camera quality both disappointed.

The HTC S740 handset takes a design cue from last year's HTC Touch Pro and HTC Touch Diamond: Like those models, it has a jagged, rubberized back cover. The S740's keyboard has some useful shortcut keys for SMS/MMS, e-mail, and Internet Explorer. In short, the S740 makes other smartphones with so-called "full" QWERTY keyboards look miniscule and nonfunctional. The S740 runs Windows Mobile 6.1 Standard edition; on top of that, it has an easy-to-navigate sliding panel overlay. The HTC S740 is currently available in the U.S. at third-party stores, like Amazon.com. A U.S.-specific device will be coming out later this year under the name S743.

Samsung Innov8

The Samsung Innov8 ($930, unlocked; as of 4/7/2009) innovates in several ways--most notably with its 8-megapixel camera. The phone with the highest-megapixel camera to date to be sold in the United States, the Innov8 offers advanced on-camera photo editing capabilities and delivers excellent photo quality. And it has versatile multimedia features and an easy-to-use interface.

The Innov8's camera has a surprising number of advanced features. In my hands on tests, I found image quality superb, for the most part. The only issue I had was with darkly lit settings: The dual-LED flash just wasn't strong enough to light my subjects. A true Xenon flash drastically improves shots taken in low light environments. Since the Innov8 debuted, Samsung released the Memoir, another 8-megapixel camera offered at a subsidized price through T-Mobile. The Memoir boasts similar camera features as the Innov8, but has a Xenon flash. Add a fun touchscreen user interface, and the Memoir is actually the better all-around camera phone. But if you're not looking to bind yourself to a contract, you won't be disappointed in the Innov8's snapshot capabilities.

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