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Is an unlocked Galaxy S4 or HTC One worth the hefty price tag?

In this edition of Ask Maggie, CNET's Marguerite Reardon offers advice to a reader looking for an unlocked smartphone. And will the next version of Android software, Key Lime Pie, have any new killer features?

For most consumers in the U.S., price is not a factor when buying a new smartphone, since most devices with a two-year commitment cost roughly the same. But when you are in the market for an unlocked smartphone, the dynamic drastically changes.

High-end devices, such as the Samsung Galaxy S4 or the HTC One, are still attractive to just about any consumer. The features are top-of-the-line, and the devices are sleek. But what many consumers don't realize is that a cutting-edge smartphone does not actually cost $200 or $250. In fact, if consumers were to pay the full retail price for such devices, they'd likely cost four times more.

Most consumers take the subsidy, but there are strings attached. Not only does the subsidy likely mean a lengthy contract, but it also means the device can't be unlocked for overseas use until the phone is paid off. In the end customers looking for unlocked devices must now consider the true cost of their phones.

In this edition of Ask Maggie, I explain why buying a Google Nexus 4 smartphone, which retails for less than half the price of a brand new, unlocked Galaxy S4 or HTC One, may be a better choice for a reader looking for an unlocked device to use in the U.S. as well as abroad. I also offer some predictions about the upcoming version of Android 5.0 codenamed Key Lime Pie.

Price vs. features when buying unlocked smartphone

Dear Maggie,
I am an avid tech reader and everyday I am always keeping up to date with the latest phone news and gossip. That said, I myself don't own a smartphone yet. But I have decided that over the summer I am going to invest in a smartphone.

My problem is I move around the world, so I will need to buy an unlocked phone instead of a device on a contract. I am also scared that when I get the phone it will disappoint me in some way. Right now, I want either an HTC One or the Samsung Galaxy S4. I'm also considering an updated Nexus 4, if Google releases one at it's Google I/O conference.

My question is which phones do you believe would be better for me, since I have to get it unlocked? I understand that I will have to pay quite a bit more to get an unlocked device. So if you have any advice on how to save money, that would be helpful, too.

Thank you,

Dear Galen,
These are three very strong choices for smartphones. And even though you say you are a tech enthusiast, since you've never owned a smartphone before, I am sure you would be happy with any of these devices.

The Samsung Galaxy S4 and the HTC One are two of the hottest phones coming to market this spring. The HTC One went on sale this month, and the Galaxy S4 will be available for some carriers starting this week.

My CNET Reviews colleagues Brian Bennett and Jessica Dolcourt do a fantastic job comparing the two devices in a story published earlier this month. And the full review of the new Samsung Galaxy S4 was just published Tuesday.

In a nutshell, the Galaxy S4 has a slightly bigger screen, expandable memory, removable battery, and the latest version of Android software Jelly Bean 4.2.2. It also comes with tons of features that the average consumer will likely never even touch.

The HTC One gets high marks for its thin, sleek aluminum design. It's screen size is slightly smaller than the Galaxy S4, but it has greater pixel density, which could mean sharper images. It doesn't come with expandable memory or a removable battery.

Also, it doesn't come with the very latest Android software installed. It works with Jelly Bean 4.1.2. The difference in software isn't that dramatic, so I wouldn't worry too much about it. Plus, each of these devices is likely to get the new version of Android, Android 5 code-named Key Lime Pie , when it's released later this year.

Deciding between the two devices may come down to what you like best in terms of hardware design and user interface. Neither of these devices run stock Android software, which means Samsung and HTC have added their own special software sauce to the phones, making them custom Samsung or HTC devices.

At any rate, these phones are so similar in terms of their capability, it's difficult to recommend one over the other. It will inevitably come down to personal taste. And I honestly don't think you'd be disappointed with either choice.

Price is a major consideration.

But there are other factors to consider. And since you're looking to buy a device that is unlocked out-of-the-box, I'd say price should be a major factor in your assessment. Because the Galaxy S4 and HTC One are still so new and because they are primarily sold through carriers for a subsidized price, unlocked versions are incredibly expensive at the moment.

For instance, Amazon is taking pre-orders of the 16GB version of the Samsung Galaxy S4 for about $900 at full retail price without a carrier contract. The 32GB version of the HTC One is also about $900 without a contract on Amazon. But you can get an unlocked HTC One for $575 on HTC's website. There's a chance you could find these phones unlocked for less on sites like eBay. But at least for the next couple of months, I would expect the unlocked versions to still be pretty pricey.

Meanwhile, the Nexus 4, which was introduced in November, is incredibly affordable. The 16GB version of the device costs only $350 unlocked from the Google Play store. And if you look on eBay and other places, you may even find it cheaper.

While the device may not have all the same specs of the newer Samsung and HTC devices, it's still a very good smartphone. Specifically, it features a 4.7-inch 720p display, a 1.5GHz quad-core Snapdragon S4 processor and an 8-megapixel camera. It also includes 2GB of RAM, NFC or Near Field Communications, a 1.3-megapixel front-facing camera and the latest version of Android.

When you factor in the price, it's a real steal compared to the competition. The only problem I have with the Nexus 4 is that it does not support 4G LTE. This means it won't operate on U.S. carrier networks at top speed. This may not matter to you so much if you are planning to spend most of your time overseas. Neither the Samsung Galaxy S4 nor the HTC One will support LTE overseas. But these devices do support it on all U.S. carriers that will be selling the phones.

New Google devices

As you suggested in your question, Google is expected to announce either an updated version of the Nexus 4 or an entirely new smartphone at this year's Google I/O conference in San Francisco (if you are an optimist like me, you're hoping they do both.) Some rumors suggest Google may unveil an updated version of the Nexus 4, called the Nexus 5. This device might include 4G LTE support and sport 32GB of storage capacity instead of a maximum of only 16GB.

The other possibility is that Google may take the wraps off its new "superphone," the rumored Motorola X. Google has supposedly been working on the "X" since it completed its acquisition of the troubled handset maker. And the device is expected to have all the latest and greatest technology embedded.

It's difficult to say which bells and whistles will be added to the new superphone. And it's just as hard to predict when it will be introduced. Recent rumors suggest that Google won't debut it at Google I/O. Still, it may be a device worth waiting for if you aren't in dire need of a smartphone. Though Motorola has struggled against competitors, such as Apple and Samsung, the company has always been known to build quality hardware. And I for one am very interested to see what the new Motorola/Google team will come up with.

That said, I suspect this new hero device won't come cheap. So if price is truly a concern, and you plan on getting the device unlocked, it may be priced too high for you. As for the updated Nexus 4/Nexus 5, I expect this device to come with a competitive price tag, which I think is very attractive for people, like you, who don't spend all your time in the U.S. and will need an unlocked device.

Discounts for an unlocked Galaxy S4 or HTC One?

Now to answer your second major question: Are there any tricks to get more expensive devices, such as the HTC One or Galaxy S4, for less?

If you really have your heart set on either one of these devices, I'd suggest buying them through the carrier and unlocking them when it's time to move overseas. Since you plan on using your new phone both in the U.S. as well as internationally, your best bet is to get a phone that is made primarily for a GSM carrier. Once these phones are unlocked, it's easy to slip in a SIM card from a foreign carrier for new service. So if you decide to get one of these pricier phones from a carrier, this means you will either buy it from AT&T or T-Mobile.

The big caveat is that in order to get your devices unlocked from either AT&T or T-Mobile, you'll still end up paying "full" price for you phone. But as you add up the costs, it will still be cheaper to sign a contract or buy your device at full price through the carrier and have it unlocked instead of buying it already unlocked.

AT&T sells the Galaxy S4 with 16GB of storage for $250 with a two-year contract. But you can cancel your service early, if you're willing to pay an early termination fee of $325 minus $10 for each full month of completed service commitment. What this means is that you could sign up for service with AT&T to get the cheaper price on the Galaxy S4, and then cancel that service when you move out of the country. At most you'd pay a total of $575 for the device and the ETF. Compare this to the $900 you'd pay for the already unlocked version on Amazon.

T-Mobile doesn't require a contract. But you still have to pay for your device in order to get it unlocked. The down payment for a Samsung Galaxy S4 is $149. You then are required to pay another $20 per month for 24 months. In total, you'll spend $629 for the device. But just like the early termination fee for AT&T, you can pay off the balance on your smartphone at any time, which then makes it eligible for unlocking.

In either case, buying a device through a carrier, cancelling service, and going through the hassle of getting the unlock code from that carrier will likely save you money when compared to buying it already unlocked. But as I mentioned above, the Nexus 4 is still about half the price of either the Galaxy S4 or the HTC One even when buying it via a carrier. What's more, the Nexus 4 comes unlocked out-of-the-box, which saves you the trouble of getting the unlock code from the carrier when you leave the country.

One other thing to keep in mind when buying a device from a carrier and then having it unlocked is that some companies, like Samsung, use different components and have different specifications for their international phones. For instance, the U.S. version of the Galaxy S4 uses a different processor than the international version.

The bottom line is that for people who split their time between the U.S. and international destinations, an unlocked Nexus phone is hard to beat both in terms of convenience and price. So if I were you, I'd wait to see what Google introduces next month at Google I/O before I'd pull the trigger on a new smartphone. Because once the Nexus 4 supports LTE, I don't see a big enough difference in these devices to warrant spending the extra money.

Keep in mind, I'm frugal and much more concerned with value than flash. I recognize that not everyone thinks the same way I do. So if you are like me and would likely buy a Honda over a BMW, then go with the Nexus. But if you need something with a bit more flash, and you are willing to spend a lot more money, then either the Samsung Galaxy S4 or the HTC One will suit you just fine.

I hope this advice was helpful.

Will Key Lime Pie update be something to write home about?

Dear Maggie,
I was wondering whether you thought there would be at least one "killer" feature as part of the new Android update called Key Lime Pie, expected later this year. In other words, is there something that will be in the new version of Android that I will need ASAP or at least something really cool that I'd want to brag to my friends about?

I am currently enduring the lengthy process of waiting for the Samsung Galaxy S4 on Verizon Wireless. But I'm also worried that that Android 5.0 will be so terrific that I'll regret getting the Galaxy S4, which will ship with Android 4.2.2 Jelly Bean. I know the GS4 will get the next Android update eventually. But I am not a very patient guy. So should I just skip the GS4 and get a device like the Nexus 5?


Dear Jon,
I can't say for certain that there will be a single "killer" feature in the next iteration of Android. But I will tell you that it's been almost a year since a significant update to the software. So there is a very good chance that Google will do something major in this next update many are calling Android 5.0 or Key Lime Pie.

Google has been tight-lipped about any new features that are coming. And it hasn't officially said when it will release the new software. But the rumor mill has been churning. And many are expecting a launch at the Google I/O conference in San Francisco May 15-17.

There has been much speculation about what features may be added. One thing that has been mentioned is something called Google Babble. I have no idea if Google will actually call it this, but the idea is that Google will tie together several communication features, such as instant messaging, voice over IP and video calls. These services will all be integrated, much like Apple has already done with iMessage in its iOS software.

In addition, to allowing one-on-one chats, the new service might also support group chats and file sharing. It could also include support for Google+ Messenger, Google Talk and Google Voice.

Another thing to look for in the next software update is improved performance. Google is always looking to improve performance of the software, so it would be no surprise if this was the case with Key Lime Pie. It's also likely that software will be tweaked to be more efficient when it comes to power usage, so that it can support increasingly speedier processors.

Beyond that, it's hard to say what other features might be added. Will Key Lime Pie be worth waiting for? I think the integrated messaging could be interesting. But it might not be a deal breaker.

My advice to you is to wait just a little longer. Verizon isn't likely to get the Galaxy S4 until May anyway. So you probably won't have to wait at all, since Google I/O is also just around the corner. Then you'll know for sure what new features will be available.

Now to answer your second question: Should you just get the next new Nexus device, which you know will support the latest version of Android software? As you suggested in your question, it often takes several months to get the new Android software onto smartphones already on the market. The reason for that is that it takes time to test the software. And in theory, Samsung has not seen the new Android software until it's released to the public, usually at the same time that the stock Android devices get the software. What this means is that the Google Nexus phones will always get the newest versions of Android before devices like the Samsung Galaxy S4.

But one thing to keep in mind is that Google often launches a new unlocked Nexus device that operates on GSM networks only. This might mean that an updated Nexus may not even operate on Verizon's network. That said, one of the recent rumors I've heard is that Google may introduce a CDMA version of the Nexus 4, which would operate on Verizon's network. If that's the case, and getting the latest Android software is the most important thing to you, then I'd say you may want to consider a Nexus smartphone over the Galaxy S4. That way, you'll be guaranteed to get the latest software whenever it's available.

I'll keep my fingers crossed for you and other Verizon subscribers that there is a new CDMA version of the Nexus device that will get the latest Android software. Good luck!

Ask Maggie is an advice column that answers readers' wireless and broadband questions. The column now appears twice a week on CNET offering readers a double dosage of Ask Maggie's advice. If you have a question, I'd love to hear from you. Please send me an e-mail at maggie dot reardon at cbs dot com. And please put "Ask Maggie" in the subject header. You can also follow me on Facebook on my Ask Maggie page.