Forget everything you thought you knew about buying mobile phone service. Remember the days of the subsidized phone wrapped inside the pricey two-year carrier contract? That’s a distant, unpleasant and expensive memory. Right now, the smart -- and increasingly common -- move is to buy an unlocked phone outright, then shop it to the carrier that offers you the best bang for the buck.

That carrier doesn’t have to be AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile or Verizon Wireless. Although the Big Four have expanded their offerings and, to varying degrees, lowered their prices, the real deals still come from the smaller guys -- otherwise known as mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs). A few of them are actually owned by the Big Four (we hereby dub them the Little Four), while others merely repackage and rebrand their services. Whatever the arrangement, you can almost always score better pricing by opting for one of these other carriers.

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