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Unlocked Phones Seek Their Niche

Unlocked smartphones continue to pour into the market, many looking to differentiate themselves via stepped-up multimedia features at a low cost or to position themselves as more affordable alternatives to competitors’ flagship phones.

ZTE is taking the latter position with its with ZTE’s Axon 7, which offers Force Touch technology, back-side fingerprint sensor, and Google’s Daydream VR platform at a price promised to be half that of other flagship smartphones.

The Axon 7 is among the first phones announced with the Daydream VR platform, and it and a new Freetel model are adding fingerprint authentication.

The ZTE and select new Sony phones also add high-resolution audio decoding and DACs, and select Sony models add predictive hybrid autofocus, which predicts the motion of a photo-shoot subject to capture action shots without blur.

Fingerprint authentication is also coming to the ZTE phone as well as to a new Freetel unlocked phone.

Here’s what’s coming:

Acer: The Chinese company revealed a $199 price point for the previously announced unlocked Liquid Zest, expanding Acer’s unlocked selection in the U.S. The GSM/LTE phone with 5.5-inch display focuses on camera quality and battery life. The device features 30-megapixel main camera, 5-megapixel selfie camera with wide-angle lens, and three focusing technologies: laser, phase-detection and contrast-detector focusing. The battery grows to 5,000 mAh from current models’ 4,000 mAh to deliver near-two-day battery life.

Freetel: The Japanese supplier plans June availability of the unlocked flagship $389 Kiwami and $99 Priori3 through Both are unlocked GSM/LTE Android 5.1 phones.

The Kiwami features 6-inch 2K WQHD IPS display, 2GHz octacore processor, fingerprint authentication, HD Voice, 21-megapixel rear camera, 8-megapixel front camera, fast-charging technology, and 32GB storage. The Priori3 features 4.5-inch 480 by 854 screen, 1GHz quad-core processor, 8- and 2-megapixel cameras, and 720p video capture.

Sony Mobile: The company revealed price points and U.S. plans for its first Xperia X series of Android smartphones, a quartet of models that includes the recently announced midrange Xperia XA Ultra.

All are GSM/LTE smartphones that feature stepped-up camera and battery technologies. They will be available unlocked through Sony and select retailers at suggested retails of $279 to $699. All feature Android Marshmallow OS and 5-inch displays except for the Xperia XA, which comes with 6-inch screen.

The $549 Xperia X will be available June 26, the $699 Xperia X Performance and $279 Xperia XA on July 17, and the $369 Xperia XA Ultra on July 24.

All but the XA Ultra were unveiled at this year’s Mobile World Congress.

The top two models feature predictive hybrid autofocus, which predicts the motion of a photo-shoot subject to capture the action without blur. The top two models also feature 23- and 13-megapixel cameras. And all four feature Sony’s previously available SteadyShot technology to remove shakiness from on-the-move videos.

To boost battery life, the X series adds Qnovo’s adaptive charging technology to double the battery’s lifespan.

For gaming enthusiasts, the Xperia X Performance and Xperia X both feature PS4 Remote, which lets consumers walk away from their PlayStation 4 console but continue game play on their phone’s screen while on their home network.

Like other select Xperia phones, the top two models play high-resolution audio playback of DSD, PCM, FLAC and ALAC music files. The two also feature stereo speakers.

ZTE: The Chinese company is bringing virtual reality, enhanced audio and video performance, a fingerprint sensor, Force Touch technology, and compatibility with Google’s Daydream VR platform to its latest unlocked smartphone, which is part of the flagship Axon series of premium but sharply priced phones.

The LTE-equipped dual-SIM Axon 7 will be compatible with the AT&T and T-Mobile GSM/LTE networks at launch, but a version for the Verizon and Sprint CDMA/LTE networks might be available later this year, the company said.

The phone is ZTE’s first Axon model with fingerprint sensor, but in a switch from other brands’ implementations, the sensor is on the back and placed where the index finger naturally falls when the phone is gripped, the company said.

The phone is also ZTE’s first U.S. phone with Force Touch technology, enabling users to execute different commands in an app by applying different levels of pressure to the screen.

The Axon 7 phone runs stock Android 6.0 and will come in two versions, one with 4GB RAM and 64GB storage and the other with 6GB RAM and 128GB storage. Both versions will come with 5.5-inch 2K WQHD AMOLED display and 64-bit quad-core 2.15GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon processor.

The device will be “half the cost of today’s flagship phones,” the company claimed without revealing prices.

For VR use, the phone snaps into ZTE’s VR, a Google Daydream-compatible VR headset with built-in nine-axis gyro and 96-degree field of vision. Pricing and a ship date were unavailable, but it will come to the U.S.

Like its two most recent Axon predecessors in the U.S., the phone features 192kHz/24-bit high-resolution audio DACs from AKM but adds dual front speakers, higher quality amplifier chip, and Dolby Atmos object-based audio decoding.

Camera capabilities have been upped to deliver quality similar to a D-SLR, the company contended.