At its core, Android is an open source operating system. Not only does that mean that any manufacturer can do what they like with it, but they can put it on whatever they like too. As a result there’s a growing line of budget Android smartphones out there, running Google’s mobile OS on barebones specs for a low, often heavily subsidised price.
This category isn’t exactly new, of course. HTC first had a go with the tiny, unusable HTC Tattoo well over two years ago but the original Orange San Francisco, actually made by Chinese giant ZTE, was the first of these devices to provide real value for money. For £99.99 on Pay As You Go, it offered impressive performance and a spectacular display without a contract. Crucially, it was easy to use and had a quality feel about it which was something the budget Android phone market hadn’t experienced before.
The Orange San Francisco II, again made by ZTE, looks to improve on the original with a speedier 800MHz processor and a more up to date version of Android, 2.3.4 Gingerbread. But with arch-rival Huawei upping its game with the recent Huawei Blaze, is the San Francisco still the Android phone bargain king?
There are £99 smartphones, and then there are £99 Orange smartphones. In a very short space of time, the network has carved for itself a niche as the go to carrier for affordable Android phones. The secret: subsidising the cost of its handsets on Pay As You Go. As a result, the Orange San Francisco offers more bang for your buck compared to rivals such as the £99 Huawei Blaze or O2 exclusive Alcatel OT-990, simply because Orange is prepared to make a loss upfront and make money back on top up credit.
The Orange San Francisco II is another prime example of this. Huawei can only offer a 3.2inch 480×320 display and just 256MB of RAM. The San Francisco II offers a 800×400 resolution screen and a 512MB of RAM which handles app multi-tasking more effectively.
It’s the screen that is the real talking point here. With 256,000 colours (As opposed to 16 million), it’s not the best around, but you won’t find any sharper at this price point. That resolution means websites render crisply, text is easy to read, and most Android apps are supported. It’s also large enough to type comfortably on. As for the design itself, it’s a non-descript black plastic entity that is impressively thin at 10.6mm, with three physical buttons in a row beneath the screen. Don’t expect a great deal from the camera however – the five megapixel sensor sounds reasonable on paper, but it’s one of the easiest ways for ZTE to cut costs, and it shows in the results. Flat, lifeless, and all too easily blown out and despite the selection of ISO and metering options, there’s no Auto-Flash, you have to choose this yourself depending on the light level. ZTE hasn’t made cuts with the battery, offering a substantial upgrade. We found that the 1200mAh cell was able to get through just under two days of moderate use with Gmail syncing continuously.
Orange has also tried to make itself the go-to brand for Android one other way: software modification. Unfortunately, it’s only ever served to detract from the experience, and the same is true with the San Francisco II, which runs Android 2.3.4 Gingerbread. Orange needlessly complicates matters by preloading phones with extras like a mapping app that’s not as good, or as free, as Google Maps, and a contacts Backup app which misses the point of Android entirely as it automatically backs up your contacts the first time you sign in. To make matters worse, these shortcuts are shoved straight onto your start screen by default. Thankfully, most of the problems are a few taps away from being removed. Android’s open qualities mean you can simply download a new homescreen, free from lag and Orange’s useless add-ons but for many new users, they may be unaware of the potential in the Android Market that makes the phone a true bargain.
You could argue that this phonr is too late to market, that Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich has left Gingerbread feeling stale. But if you’re an Android virgin and can trim the embedded Orange apps, this is amazing value.
WHAT MOBILE TEST VERDICT 4/5