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3 'unlocked' phones that might make your carrier unhappy

Rob Pegoraro
·Contributing Editor
The Moto G5 Plus apps screen.
You don’t have to worry about which carrier these phones work with.

BARCELONA — Mobile World Congress, the world’s largest mobile tech convention, can often look like a bizarro-world version of the U.S. phone market. Major companies like AT&T (T) and Verizon Wireless (VZ) occupy small exhibit spaces, while phone vendors that don’t even get shelf space in the carriers’ stores take up massive, heavily trafficked booths.

That reflects not just the global scope of MWC, but the importance of phones sold directly by manufacturers and not locked to any specific telecom. Much of the rest of the world has been buying unlocked phones for some time. And with the demise of two-year contracts at U.S. carriers, buying such handsets is finally a viable option in the States, too.

So while the U.S.-market phone you’ll hear the most about at MWC will almost certainly be LG’s G6 — a phone built around an unusually tall 5.7-inch screen — you may find your own attention and dollars instead going to phones that bear no carrier’s endorsement.

Moto G5 Plus

Motorola’s $229-and-up G5 Plus checks off most of the features you’d expect on a reasonably high-end Android phone. A 5.2-inch screen with 1080p resolution, a 12-megapixel rear camera, what’s touted as an “all-day” battery that can quick-charge six hours’ worth of run time in 15 minutes and a fingerprint-unlock sensor to free you from having to type in a numeric passcode 120 times a day.

Moto also throws in a microSD card slot to expand the phone’s storage beyond its 32GB or 64GB of onboard space, as well as an FM radio that relies on a headphone cable for its antenna.

The Motorola Moto G5 Plus rear panel.
The Motorola Moto G5 Plus in all of its splendor.

Moto says this phone will come with a splash-proof coating, but you shouldn’t expect it to survive a drop in a bathtub or beer mug. There also isn’t a USB-C port on the bottom, which may count as good news if you still have a bag full of micro-USB chargers and cables. Oddly, the U.S. version won’t include the NFC chip included in other countries’ editions, so you won’t be able to use this to pay for your groceries.

Alcatel A5

Like the Moto G5 Plus, Alcatel’s A5 sports a 5.2-inch display, though unlike the G5 Plus, the A5 also sports an LED back cover. The panel can function as a giant notification light, a visual accompaniment to music playback or as … a child-distraction tool? I actually wasn’t able to get a complete sense of its purpose during a couple of inspections on the show floor.

Of course, you can also replace that showy backside with a plain cover for job interviews or other formal occasions. Alcatel also plans to sell other back covers that add features like a better speaker or a higher-capacity battery to the A5 similar to Motorola’s expandable Moto Z.

Alcatel A5 rear panel.
The Alcatel A5 has a light up rear panel for … reasons.

The software inside Alcatel’s handset reveals another unusual addition: Amazon’s (AMZN) Alexa voice assistant. During my time with the AI helper I asked it for the weather in Washington while in the middle of Alcatel’s noisy exhibit and got the correct answer.

The cameras here, 8MP on the back and 5MP on the front, probably won’t drive any sales. There’s also no fingerprint unlock, and having only 16GB of storage onboard limits the phone’s long-term utility. We’ll have to wait for official U.S. pricing to get a better sense of this phone’s value, as Alcatel only quotes a €199 price tag, or $211 at current exchange rates.

Sony Xperia XZ

Sony’s (SNE) newest smartphone, the Xperia XZ Premium, doesn’t have an announced price yet, but Don Mesa, the company’s North American marketing vice president, said it will cost more than the $699 Xperia XZs, which was also introduced at MWC. How much more? Consider the two headline components on this Android phone.

First, there’s the 5.5-inch, 4K display with high-dynamic range (HDR) technology, which provides a wider range of colors than non-HDR screens. While, no unaided human eyeball will ever be able to make out the 800 or so pixels packed into each inch of this display, Sony has lined up Amazon to offer its first selection of 4K streaming content.

The Sony Xperia XZ Premium rear camera.
The Sony Xperia XZ Premium’s rear camera.

Then there is the Xperia’s 19-MP camera, which can capture 960 frames per second for the slowest of slo-mo videos. At a press event Monday morning, Sony touted its “predictive capture” technology, which can start recording photos after you’ve opened the Camera app, but before you’ve put a finger on the shutter button.

Mesa said Sony is talking to electronics retailers like Best Buy (BBY) about arranging device-financing programs. He also noted market-research firm NPD Connected Intelligence’s December report that unlocked phones had grown to 12 percent of the U.S. market.

It’s probably true that the unlocked space can make room for a luxury phone and one that can double as a signaling beacon. But it probably has more room for an everyday, not-so-flashy phone that doesn’t cost more than few months of wireless service.

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Email Rob at rob@robpegoraro.com; follow him on Twitter at @robpegoraro.