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14 things you need to know before buying a phone directly from the manufacturer

It's never been easier to buy a new phone directly from the people who made it. But you shouldn't dive in without knowing what's what.

Apple rocked the phone universe when it started a program to sell you a new iPhone every year directly from its own store. What you may not realize is that Apple isn't the first or only phonemaker to skip Verizon, T-Mobile, Sprint and AT&T and reach out to buyers one-on-one.

Motorola's been doing this for years through its own website (though, like Apple and others, you can also buy some of its phones from carriers if you want to). Huawei, Alcatel, OnePlus and ZTE also sell phones directly to customers from websites built just for the US, and we're already seeing crowdfunded phones like the Nextbit Robin elbow their way in.

Buying direct from Motorola snags you this flashy wood backing.

CNET

Why might you want to do this? Buying directly from the source is a good way to pick up a phone you like that you can't find at your carrier store, often at lower prices than competing handsets. Sometimes there are special perks, too, like being able to design your phone colors, such as Motorola's Moto Maker service, which is only available through its website.

Buying phones directly from phone makers is generally regarded as safe, and it's going to become a lot more common very soon. Still, some support services are better than others, so you'd better know the benefits and risks before diving in.

Is buying a phone direct from a manufacturer website safe?

Buying a phone from the people who made it is like buying any product online -- you have to trust the merchant. As a good rule of thumb, established global manufacturers like Huawei, ZTE, Alcatel and OnePlus are safe (their goal is to sell phones, after all). There's more inherent risk with crowdfunded campaigns on Kickstarter and Indiegogo delivering their promised product, but when it comes to fraud, these online sellers comply with industry security standards to encrypt your payment information.

Will I have to pay for shipping once I buy the phone?

You're in the clear; shipping is typically free.

Are these phones all 'unlocked'? What does that mean anyway?

Not necessarily, so it's good to check. An unlocked phone is one that works on many carriers, not just one. That makes it ideal for switching carriers both where you live, and if you travel abroad. Most of the phones you buy direct from the manufacturer don't come with SIM cards that tie you to a specific carrier, but some do. For example, you can buy the iPhone and Motorola phones either with a carrier connection, or unlocked -- this is also sometimes called SIM-free.

iphone-6s-17.jpg

Make sure the phone works with your carrier.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Will the phone work on my carrier?

This is another thing you're going to have to keep an eye on. Some phones will work on all carriers, like the Motorola Moto X Pure, Huawei-made Google Nexus 6P and the iPhones. Others, like the Motorola Moto G and many Huawei and Alcatel phones, will only work on networks provided by AT&T and T-Mobile (and their respective prepaid affiliates like Cricket, MetroPCS and Tracfone). Why? Because there are two competing cellular technologies in the US (called GSM and CDMA), and one of those (GSM) is the more globally-used -- hence, global phone makers usually stick to GSM phones only.

Also, a phone may have to be certified to work with a US carrier. For example, not every unlocked phone that's theoretically compatible with Verizon's network may work -- Verizon requires certification. Best double-check with the carrier before taking the plunge.

Will 4G LTE data be just as fast?

There's a possibility that the phone you buy might not support the whole of your carrier's LTE network, especially if you're buying a phone that's only natively sold in another country, say China. If it doesn't, that might mean you experience slower data speeds during uploading and downloading. Unfortunately, finding this out can be a hassle because you have to find out which frequency bands are supported. If those bands match up between the device and the carrier, then it should work. (The only caveat is if the carrier hasn't built out their network fully in certain bands, service may be slower.)

Luckily, information about LTE bands is almost always listed in the phone's tech specs, which should be posted on the vendor's site. As for carrier bands, here's a handy chart below to help. If all else fails, reach out to the phone maker's customer service reps.

Carriers and their LTE bands

Network technology LTE frequencies LTE bands
Verizon CDMA 700c, 1700f, 1900 2, 4, 13
AT&T GSM 700abcde, 2300 2, 4, 12, 17, 29, 30
T-Mobile GSM 700a, 1700def, 1900 2, 4, 12
Sprint CDMA 800, 1900bcg, 2500 25, 26, 41

What if I want to switch carriers?

If you buy an unlocked phone, you can simply take out your SIM card and insert a new one from a different, but still compatible, carrier. If you bought a phone that is tied to a specific carrier -- say a Verizon iPhone -- you won't be able to switch service on that device until you get that phone unlocked (if it is not already). Even if you do, you still have to make sure that the hardware supports the network you want to switch to (it may not have the right inner hardware, like cellular radios, to work on a different network).

Most of the time, unlocked phones from global players will work with AT&T, T-Mobile and carriers that also use their networks.

Are there payment plans if I don't want to pay for the device all up front?

The good news is that many phone makers do offer a financing plan of some sort. ZTE leases through SmartPay and Motorola offers Moto Credit. Huawei uses a company called Affirm. You may also be able to piggyback off of carrier financing, if, for example, you're buying the iPhone online. Some vendors, like the Nextbit Robin startup and Alcatel, don't currently offer payment installment plans, so you'll need to check individual websites before you plunk down a credit card. It's also worth checking again in case they newly added financing at the time you're ready to buy.

What if I want to return the phone? Can I get my money back?

If you change your mind about the device, you can generally return it in new condition within 14 days, though some manufacturers give you a whole 30 days (like ZTE, or Motorola -- but only if you live in California). As a special case, Motorola buyers customize their phone colors on the Moto Maker site will get one free "do-over" if they don't like the style once their phone arrives.

And if it's past the two-week or one-month grace period?

Things get a little complicated if you want to return the device after the cut-off, especially if you've signed up for financing and have already begun paying for your phone. In those cases, it's straight to the fine print for you to work out early termination costs, which vary by manufacturer.

So, what do I do if the phone breaks?

Most manufacturers do have a warranty plan, but they differ. It's common, though, to see warranties lasting one or two years. Luckily, warranty information is usually posted on the company site. Expect phones launched from crowdfunded campaigns to also post warranty details in an FAQ, as the Nextbit Robin does here.

You won't find the Nextbit Robin at your carrier store.

Josh Miller/CNET

How can I reach the phone maker if something happens?

Apple and Microsoft are the only online sellers who also have a US store you can walk the phone into if something happens. For everyone else, you'll have to go through the customer service center or forums posted on the manufacturer website. The best ones have a self-help articles for troubleshooting, an email form, a 24-hour US hotline phone number staffed by agents and a live chat bot. Some vendors only have some of these options, including phones staffed during daytime -- but not nighttime -- hours.

How quickly will the company respond?

It depends on how you reach out. Speaking to a representative through live chat or a phone call will get you to the next step faster than email. Expect at least a 24-hour turnaround time there.

Will I have to go without my phone while they fix it?

Unfortunately this is one area that's less standardized. At least a day or two, and sometimes longer. Motorola and ZTE (like many electronics-makers) offer Advance Exchange that sends you a new device right away along with a prepaid label for returning your broken phone. Other device makers would send along a prepaid label for you to return the phone, but you could wait up to two weeks to get it back.

What happens if the company goes out of business while I'm still using the phone?

This isn't likely for big, established companies like Motorola, Huawei, Alcatel and ZTE, but lesser-known and crowdfunded companies pose a bigger risk long-term. In the event your vendor shutters after you get the phone, you would be able to keep the device, but you wouldn't receive any official support for bugs or breakage. Companies would warn customers first, and provide instructions on what to do to retrieve anything you've stored online, like photos.