Over the years, Intel has achieved dominance in the PC market, putting huge pressure on rivals such as AMD. But in the smartphone market it’s been a different story. Chips based on designs by UK firm ARM have been ruling the roost, because they have offered the energy efficiency needed for such portable devices. But with the Orange San Diego, Intel is making its first solid attempt to change things.
For its first attack on the smartphone market, Intel has chosen Gigabyte to build the phone, presumably in the hope that a qualified company with extensive experience of building PC systems is less likely to make a hash of building a smartphone with Intel technology. Together they have done a decent job, but whether it will be enough to upset ARM’s dominance of the smartphone market is still certainly up for debate.
Visually, the San Diego isn’t anything particularly special. It looks good, but it’s also the standard solid black, glossy block we’ve come to expect since everyone in the smartphone business started mimicking the look and feel of the Apple iPhone.
Like most Android smartphones, the San Diego has touch buttons below the screen, but Gigabyte has opted for four rather than three, adding a search button to the standard array of menu, back and home buttons found on most modern Android devices.
Around the edge is a strip of silver plastic – again a nod to the iPhone – which holds a power switch, volume control and a dedicated camera button. The chassis also features speaker grilles at the base, a micro-SIM card slot, a Micro USB and an HDMI-out.
The buttons are well positioned, but can be a little difficult to press at first, until you get used to the phone and the correct amount of pressure required.
The only outward sign that the San Diego contains a potentially revolutionary chip is the ‘Intel Inside’ logo found on so many of the world’s PCs, which nestles below Orange’s own branding on the rear.
But then you won’t be spending much time looking at the back of the handset, and luckily the San Diego’s 4-inch touchscreen screen is a pleasure to gaze at. It is sharp and clear, with vivid colours that remain truer to life than the washed out or over-saturated screens we’ve seen on so many rival devices.
Videos play well, and while the 4-inch screen may not be as big as some of the more entertainment-focussed handsets available, it can still deliver a very good film-watching experience, with images crisply rendered. Many mid-priced handsets skimp on screen quality, but it is very clear that the San Diego has been designed to avoid the temptation to take this route.
The 8-Megapixel camera is also decent. It’s not quite up to the standard set by HTC’s excellent One series or the Sony Xperia range, however, and the camera’s software application has very few bells or whistles.
Of course, the San Diego is much more about what’s inside than out. And Intel claims that even though the 1.6GHz CPU is a single-core chip, it delivers more processing power than a similarly clocked dual-core processor based on ARM designs can provide. In essence it is saying that it can deliver the same performance as the latest dual- and quad-core devices without the trouble of adding extra processing cores.
In benchmarking tests we found that the San Diego certainly performs on a par with dual- and quad-core handsets. It doesn’t pack quite the punch of devices such as the Samsung Galaxy S III, but it isn’t far from very high-end quad-core phones like the HTC One X.
More importantly, using the San Diego feels fast. Launching applications is quick, multiple apps run together smoothly, and it feels like a quality piece of hardware and that will instil confidence in customers. Unfortunately, the San Diego’s software does its best to undermine the good work done by the hardware.
The first problem is the lack of the Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich OS. Failing to bother with the latest version of Android is perhaps understandable on cheap devices, but the San Diego is a showcase device for Intel’s chip, so it really seems like a missed opportunity.
Intel’s Mobile and Communications Group vice president and general manager Michael Bell has said that the changes between the 2.3 Gingerbread version of Android and 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich are extensive and affect low-level processes, meaning the firm still has some work to do before it can support Android 4.0.
Doing that work rapidly will be important if Intel wants to prove it can provide chips for high-end devices, as Android 2.3 feels antiquated on this phone.
The second flaw is the Orange UI overlay that has been plastered over the Android OS, which is dull and adds little to the standard Android implementation. Aesthetically, all the skin does is add an Orange hue to most of the screens, which serves very little purpose, other than the obvious aim to constantly remind the user that they have a network-branded phone.
More annoyingly, few of the preloaded apps are much use, except perhaps the Orange Wednesdays apps. These help Orange customers take advantage of the money-saving weekly two-for-one cinema promotions that the operator has run for years.
It appears that one of the reasons the first Intel phone is making its way to market with Orange is because the operator decided to simply take the reference design for the hardware and put its software on top. That might work out well for Orange, but you have to wonder if Intel wouldn’t have been better off waiting for someone with a little more software flair and the desire to be creative, rather than play it safe.
While the San Diego offers punchy performance – one of the most important factors in establishing that Intel is a credible player in mobile phones – a major factor with this handset is battery life, because that is where Intel has been unable to compete with ARM designs.
On this phone, Intel has yet to fully convince us that it has improved in this area. The San Diego’s 1460mAh battery isn’t the best around, and considering that was always going to be one of the aspects that would be closely examined in Intel’s first phone, it seems strange they didn’t go for a bigger capacity power-pack.
While the San Diego will last you the whole day with some heavy usage, streaming video will sap power very rapidly. Intel seems to have managed to produce a suitably power-efficient chip, but we found that it isn’t any better at conserving battery life than other relatively high-performance handsets out there.
What is not in doubt is that Intel has found a way to make a punchy processor without having to go for multiple cores, so in that area at least, we’re impressed.
The San Diego certainly feels like a powerful phone, and at £15.50 per month on contract and around £200 up front for the handset itself, there’s no question that it provides a significant amount of bang for your buck.
With those prices and its Orange branding it should sell well, but the limitations of the operator’s fiddling with the software, as well as the lack of Android 4.0 means it could struggle to appeal to those in the know.
That’s not to say that the San Diego isn’t a good first attempt from Intel, however. With its strong performance, great screen and decent battery life, it has plenty to offer consumers that aren’t concered with cutting-edge features. But we’ll have to wait to see how a more ambitious handset using Intel chips matches up to the competition, before making a decision on whether Intel really has a bright future in phones.