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Tech Lab

Good smartphones for gifts

Much as I love smartphones, I’m too stingy to pass them out as Christmas gifts. But the latest high-quality, low-cost phones are beginning to change my mind.

Most of us buy smartphones on a contract plan — about $200 upfront, followed by monthly payments for two years. Perhaps that’s OK when buying for someone in the immediate family, but who wants to go through all that for an aunt or uncle?

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Nearly all of the best smartphones are available without a contract, but you’ll have to pay full price for the device. That’s about $750 for Apple Inc.’s iPhone 5s or $550 for Samsung Corp.’s Galaxy S4, not counting the cost of phone service. A merry Christmas indeed, until the credit card statement arrives.

For gifting, your best bet is to buy a moderately priced no-contract phone and let the recipient hook it up to a cell service.

You can find used and refurbished phones that have been “unlocked.” That means they can be used with a different phone carrier than the one that sold them. A refurbished iPhone might have begun life on the AT&T network, but by unlocking it you can use it with another carrier.

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Phone unlocking kicked off a sizable controversy this year, after the US government declared it was illegal for consumers to unlock their phones.

But under a deal worked out with the Federal Communications Commission, phone carriers have agreed to make unlocking easier.

Still, you can’t hook an unlocked phone to any old carrier.

Most of the world uses phone technology called GSM; so do AT&T and T-Mobile US.

But two of America’s biggest cell companies, Verizon Wireless and Sprint, use an alternative system called CDMA.

An unlocked Verizon phone may work on Sprint, but you can’t use it on AT&T. An unlocked T-Mobile phone could let you switch to AT&T, but not to Verizon.

Phone unlocking matters in many countries, where there are often four or more compatible GSM carriers. In the United States, it’s not such a big deal.

You’d probably rather buy a new phone anyway, but most no-contract smartphones are pretty mediocre. Often, they run an obsolete version of Google Inc.’s Android software and feature low-powered processors that deliver sluggish performance.

But lately we’re coming across relatively cheap models that can hold their own against more expensive rivals.

One of my favorites, Nokia’s Lumia 520/521, runs Microsoft Corp.’s Windows Phone 8 software. It’s available only for GSM phone networks; AT&T Inc. sells the 520 model, while T-Mobile offers the virtually identical 521. Earlier this year, these phones were selling for $130. These days, you can get them on Amazon.com at $80 for the T-Mobile version or $60 for the AT&T edition.

Either way, you get a surprisingly good phone. Despite its failure to catch on with US consumers, Windows Phone 8 is first-class software. You can get about 200,000 apps for it — not nearly as many as there are for iPhone or Android phones, but Windows Phone now has lots of the big-name apps, like Facebook, Twitter, Pandora, Instagram, and Angry Birds.

And even though the Lumia features a relatively low-powered dual-core processor, it runs everything with brisk efficiency. The chief drawbacks are its small, relatively low-resolution screen and the lack of 4G LTE wireless networking. But the Nokia Lumia 520 is one of the best values on the market.

If you’re looking for something a little better, Google has come through with a low-priced smartphone that deserves to be a hit. Remember that Google owns Motorola, the company that invented the cellphone. I wasn’t impressed by its recent high-end offering, the Moto X. But the new Moto G, a GSM-compatible Android phone priced at $179, and compatible with the AT&T and T-Mobile networks, is the most sophisticated low-cost phone I’ve seen.

There are no technical breakthroughs in the Moto G, just solid, competent design.

It features a quad-core processor, a brilliant 4.5-inch touchscreen that’s larger than that of an iPhone 5S but with comparable resolution, and a decent 5-megapixel camera.

It runs the latest version of Android software and can be upgraded to the next version, code-named KitKat and due to be released next year.

The Moto G has one major weakness: Like the Lumia 520, it doesn’t support 4G LTE networking. Too bad, because in all other respects, this phone is just about as good as devices costing hundreds of dollars more.

Thanks to lower prices, higher quality, and freedom from long-term contracts, slipping a smartphone under the tree is starting to make sense.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com.
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