You won't see it advertised on billboards or television, you won't hear it mentioned in a carrier store, and your less technologically-savvy friends most certainly won't know about it — but quietly, HTC's done something extraordinarily important this month: it's broken AT&T's stranglehold on its nationwide LTE network.
I can't underscore enough what a big deal this is. It's a move that even Google, for all its money, power, and influence, didn't make with the Nexus 4.
Like T-Mobile and essentially every other carrier in the world that relies exclusively on a SIM to identify your phone on the network, AT&T will happily let a customer bring their own hardware — you don't need to buy an AT&T-branded phone to use the service. But since AT&T's LTE airwaves launched in 2011, the only flagship phones and tablets capable of actually using it have been AT&T-branded, meaning that you're subject to all the typical heartache that comes with owning carrier-branded equipment: pre-installed crapware, glacial firmware update schedules that are at the mercy of carrier testing and approval, ugly carrier logos, the list goes on. If you've wanted to avoid the mess, you've typically had to import a gray-market phone from Europe or Asia that only supports HSPA or HSPA+, not LTE. That's no good, particularly on a congested network where you need as many technological advantages as you can get.
I did a double-take when I saw it
Apple took the first legitimate swipe at that LTE lock-in last November with the US launch of the unlocked iPhone 5. But there's Apple ... and there's everyone else. Of course, the locked iPhone 5 lacks crapware, so it's not as big of a deal. And what if you don't want an iPhone? What if you prefer Android?
That brings us back to HTC, which has started shipping both 32 and 64GB versions of the superlative One — an early contender for the best phone of 2013, and arguably the best Android phone ever made — in a carrier- and bootloader-unlocked version that supports both T-Mobile and AT&T LTE. No strings attached. Go ahead, check it out. I did a double-take myself. And even more remarkably, it's sold for $574.99, $25 less than AT&T's full price for the locked, crapware-laden version of the same phone. I've confirmed with HTC that this unlocked version will get firmware updates according to its own schedule, not AT&T's; if history is any indication, that means you're likely to get Android 4.2 (and beyond) much faster. Sony is starting to offer the Xperia ZL as well, but it's nearly $200 more and — as our review of the very similar Xperia Z shows — the hardware and software simply aren't as good.
It's upsetting that we've become so accustomed to carrier politicking that the notion of a great unlocked LTE phone from a top-tier manufacturer sounds absurd and improbable, but that's where we are.
Do yourself a favor: don't buy it from a carrier store
Of course, AT&T would prefer you not buy the unlocked version of this phone for obvious reasons: it can't get its own software in front of your face, it can't conform the phone to its own firmware update schedule, and it can't use hardware as leverage to sign you into another contract extension. And that's likely just one of a host of reasons that you won't see HTC heavily promoting this model's existence — HTC's relationship with AT&T, unfortunately, is still far more important than its relationship with end users. But the mere fact that this unlocked phone exists, and is being sold directly by HTC to customers in the United States, is an extraordinarily encouraging sign.
So if you're on AT&T, you're in the market for an HTC One, and you're not up for a deeply-discounted upgrade, do yourself a favor: don't buy it from a carrier store, buy it straight from the source. You'll end up with a far better phone, and you'll help send a message that this is how it should be.
Update: We've added a mention of the Xperia ZL, which is now on sale directly from Sony for $759.99.