When it comes to Android devices, there are some beautiful handsets at the top of end of the market. The Desire, Desire HD, Desire Z, Galaxy S and Streak to name but a few, all pack specifications to lust over but sadly more often than not a price to match. Android isn't just winning people's hearts and minds in the realms of power devices however, also taking place is a subtle yet concerted attack at the lower end of the market, with devices such as the Pulse, Pulse Mini and ZTE Racer from Chinese manufacturers Huawei and ZTE instrumental in the battle. Manufacturers of the aforementioned power devices are also targeting the entry level - HTC with their 'Mini Desire' the Wildfire, Samsung with the Galaxy Portal / Spica and a host of similar devices at knock down prices not to mention Sony Ericsson with their cute and strangely appealing X10 Mini and X10 Mini Pro.
So what constitutes an entry level / low end / budget device?
Everyone's definition is likely to vary a little, but for me the segment is defined by the device being on sale either SIM free or on prepay for under £200. The HTC Wildfire and Galaxy Portal can be purchased on 3 for £199, the Sony Ericsson X10 Mini and Mini Pro retail for £169 / £179 respectively at phones4u / O2, the Pulse Mini and Pulse (Maxi?) are sold by T-Mobile for £79 / £99 and the ZTE Racer will set you back £99, again on 3.
The Orange San Francisco is an 'own-brand' version of the ZTE Blade. The San Francisco brings the Android OS to Orange's own-brand city-themed range for the first time, priced at £99 on prepay (plus a mandatory £10 topup) - putting it very much in the bargain basement section of Smartphone ownership.
Now, saving a few pounds can easily be a false economy if it comes at the expense of important aspects of the Smartphone experience (Pulse Mini - i'm looking at you here!) so is the San Francisco another 'miss' or an unexpected hit?
Read on to find out!
In the box
Predictably, the box contents cover 'what you need' rather than including any extra niceties! You can check out my unboxing video below, but in the box you'll find..
- The handset itself, in a plastic bag with a thin plastic transit screen protector on
- a 2GB microSD card (in the phone itself)
- your prepay topup card
- your SIM card
- a 'read me first' quick start guide
- a microUSB to USB cable
- A 1250mAh battery
- a 3.5mm headset
- a very comprehensive paper user guide
- a guide to what you can do on your san francisco 'once you're up and running'
- a UK mains to USB plug
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Hardware - overview
Specifications are as follows...
- Android 2.1 Eclair
- Qualcomm MSM7227 600MHz processor
- 512MB RAM
- UMTS 900/2100 MHz
- GSM 900/1800/1900 MHz
- HSDPA (3G+)
- 3.2 megapixel camera with autofocus
- 3.5" WVGA (800x480) OLED capacative touchscreen
- WiFi 802.11 b/g
- FM radio
- Digital compass
- Light sensor
- Proximity sensor
- 116mm / 56.5 mm / 11.8mm
- 4 hours talktime (lol)
- 9 days standby (lol)
Let me walk you around the device.
The front of the device is dominated by the 3.5" WVGA OLED screen. Above the screen sits the primary 'San Francisco' branding and below the screen sit the Home, Menu and Back buttons. The buttons are physical buttons (as opposed to capacitive touch buttons) with a very positive click and are backlit in white. The back button also has a green / red flashing backlight. The screen surround is shiny black and flows into the soft touch grey finish that covers the bulk of the device. The front also houses the proximity and light sensors.
The left of the device has a silver strip accent and the microUSB port (into which the microUSB cable goes 'upside down'). The right of the device also has a silver strip accent, the volume up / down buttons and the speaker.
The top of the phone has the power button (which again depresses with a positive click) and the 3.5mm headphone jack. The base of the phone is home to the battery release cutout and the microphone. The 3.2 megapixel camera is on the back cover, which removes in one piece and also includes the top of the device. There is a small Orange logo on the back.
The microSD slot is underneath the battery cover.
Note: You can view full resolution versions of the device photography in my Flickr set.
The San Francisco is packing a fairly basic Android 2.1 Eclair build with some Orange customisations thrown in for good measure. You won't find a UI overlay in the style of HTC Sense or Sony Ericsson *scape here, but that's not necessarily a bad thing... the standard Android UI is pretty decent nowadays.
We'll talk more about the various applications that Orange have added / changed later in the review, but there is also one notable omission from the San Francisco - Google Talk. I'm not sure if this harks back to the bad old days when Orange used to pull MSN Messenger from Windows Mobile devices but it does seem rather strange.
So far so good, but now the acid test... what's it like to use?
First the hardware.
When you buy a budget device you expect it to be cheap and plasticky. And in some ways the San Francisco is - there is obviously little metal in the construction and the entire device has a 'soft touch' plastic finish. That said, I really like it! It feels good in the hand, is noticeably lighter than my Nexus One / Desire but still feels like it's well made. While it doesn't feel as 'premium' as the aforementioned HTC devices, the exterior looks like it will wear better than the shiny all plastic finish of my Galaxy S. If you've ever held an Acer Liquid, you will have witnessed one of the worst examples of plastic construction ever - it twists, creaks and generally feels like it's going to fall apart. Not so on the San Francisco - if I hold one half in each hand and twist there is zero movement. This thing is SOLID.
So, the finish is decent and the weight is good (as is the size and general shape)... let's move onto what is arguably the devices 'pièce de résistance' - it's 3.5" WVGA AMOLED screen. Of course, to get a WVGA screen on a sub £100 device is impressive. At 3.5" and OLED it's nothing short of miraculous and the quality doesn't disappoint. While it gives away a little in crispness of it's whites to my OLED equipped Nexus One, the screen is still exceptional - coupled with the high resolution and good size it makes using the San Francisco a pleasure. The capacitive screen means that only the softest of touches is needed to elicit a response... although capacitive technology does mean it can't be used with gloves (a worthwhile tradeoff imho!)
Screen aside, the design is pretty well thought out. The top left wouldn't really by my first choice for a microUSB port (I prefer them on the bottom), but it's not a huge issue. The power button is sufficiently difficult to accidentally press but effective when you do (with a short vibrate from the device to tell you the press has been registered) and the volume rockers too have a nicely defined click. The 3 buttons on the front also have a decent action, although the fact they are completely flush with the case / screen makes them a little awkward to press instinctively... the positive side of this being that they are harder to press accidentally. The San Francisco is devoid of dedicated notification LEDs - the 'back' button flashes red and green for some notifications, although i've yet to work out the logic to this exactly! Having a 3.5mm jack (and on the top of the device too) is a real positive point, although with the stock headphones at least some users have reported the volume output as a little quieter than they'd have liked.
The microphone is positioned well and i'm glad to see a speaker that isn't on the back of the device, I could never understand the logic of designs where the speaker was covered when the device was sat a table. The speaker is loud and clear, providing decent music playback and also making the San Francisco a very good speakerphone. Call quality in general seems very good.
The San Francisco includes the full complement of technology... GPS, WiFi, Bluetooth, Accelerometer, Digital Compass... gone (thankfully) are the days of compromising in these areas. I have found the GPS lock speed particularly impressive, Bluetooth has happily hooked up to my car and my wireless headphones and the WiFi hangs on to my Fritz!Box router with no problems at all. Interestingly, some users in the forum are noting problems with WiFi (and have had to swap units in store to get their WiFi working) - we'll keep an eye on this as it develops and flag here if it becomes a serious issue. The accelerator and compass performed as one would expect in our tests, with very good response times.
The San Francisco features proximity and light sensors, which I would normally class as premium features. The promixity sensor turns off the phone screen when you put it to your ear (and turns it on again when you take it away) and the light sensor can be used to auto adjust the brightness of the screen. Both features work very well, although strangely the auto brightness feature is disabled out of the box. Some devices I have seen with auto brightness change the level so frequently and bluntly that it's really not worthwhile, but the San Francisco implementation is very good.
So all good so far... where are the inevitable compromises on this budget device? Well, there are two really (aside from the somewhat cheap headphones included in the box), and the first one is the camera.
Put simply, if you're not in good light, the camera on the San Francisco is a waste of time. I've included some sample shots below, but imaging is definitely not the phones forté. That said, it depends on how important the camera is to you as to whether it's a showstopper. If the camera is bad, then the camcorder is pointless. Again, i've included some samples below, but the quality is SO poor that I can't see it every really being used in anger. There is a chance that ZTE may be able to up the recording bitrate in a future software update... we'll keep our fingers crossed.
The second compromise is the processor speed. In a world where lots of devices seem are shipping with 1GHz Snapdragon processors, the San Francisco makes do with a 600MHz Qualcomm MSM 7227. This is not a disgrace - the same CPU is employed by HTC in their 'Legend' Android phone - it just means that in general use the device is not quite as snappy as the Snapdragon equipped devices. It's a bit slower, but not unusably so.
If I had to sum up the hardware experience of the San Francisco, I would describe it as very good. The CPU speed is not an issue for the majority of users, the camera is the main weakness if that is important to you.
How about the software then?
ZTE / Orange have taken a very straightforward Android 2.1 build and attempted to strengthen a couple of it's weaker points, then loaded it up with a bunch of Orange crap. I'm not really a fan of 'operator customisations' (who is?) and the San Francisco hasn't done anything to change my mind.
The standard Android keyboard is OK - but not great - so I'm very pleased to see one of my favourite input methods, TouchPal, bundled on the device. TouchPal provides a very good qwerty as well as great 12 and 20 key layouts, hats off to ZTE / Orange on that one. Interestingly, fellow Chinese manufacturer Huawei also bundle TouchPal on device.
Another area of weakness IMHO in stock Android is the dialer. I LOVE the feature we see on Windows Mobile and now on HTC Android devices where you can 'predictive dial' people by name on the number pad... and thankfully ZTE have built this into the San Francisco. Somewhat bizarrely the UI is a virtual carbon copy of the HTC implementation but it works... so i'm grateful.
A fairly basic FM radio application is included and has something of an oddity in that you can only listen to it via the headphones. On most devices, if you have the headphones connected (to work as an antenna) you can configure the application to output the sound via the internal speaker. Not so on the San Francisco - it would be great to see this application improved in a future release. There is no RDS in the application.
The standard Android email application has been removed (Gmail still remains of course) and replaced by 'Orange Mail' which is a rebranded version of the excellent 'Seven' email software... allowing push mail of just about any email account including HoTMaiL, POP3 and IMA4 and many more.
A simple Task Manager is included, a useful addition.
Orange have included their own App / Games / Ringtones stores (an attempt to monetize the platform in the light of no 'operator share' in Android Market earnings) and in another example of unnecessary duplication of existing functionality, Orange Maps is preloaded. Orange Maps - like Google Maps - uses offboard map storage (meaning a data connection is necessary) but unlike Google Maps it isn't free... in fact it's quite expensive. I can't see anyone using this (or the Orange stores).
Other additions include a replacement alarm clock application (which offers only a couple of extra features over and above the original), Orange Contacts Backup, Orange Photo Upload, Global Time (a somewhat counter-intuitive world time application), a Homescreen selector (Orange have included their own customised launcher but thankfully have also included the stock version), Orange Wednesdays and Your Account (both already available via the Android Market) and a very poor Weather application.
A few demo applications are included on the device, including 'Documents To Go' office viewers from DataViz and 'Guitar Hero 5' and 'Who Wants to be a Millionaire' from Glu games.
Every cloud has a silver lining (apparently), and in this case it is the face that the Orange customisations are easily removed. This can be achieved either with some nifty file explorer work after rooting or by installing a custom ROM. I won't go into these options here, but suffice to say both are exceptionally easy, so don't be put off by the orangification of the device.
Summing up again the software on the device, I would say that it is solid (reliable - I've not had any crashes with the exception of the 'Sound Recorder' bug as yet and no real slowdowns) starting point. The beauty of Android is that you can very easily customise your device via the Android Market and the San Francisco makes an awesome blank canvas. It has bags of space, not too much pre-installed junk slowing it down and you can easily tailor it to your perfect device... providing you're not lusting after a comprehensive UI overlay like HTC Sense of course.
Note that the San Francisco has 512MB of RAM - this is very generous and on par with the highest spec devices... this helps prevent slowdowns as applications are less likely to be switched out of memory.
To view all 74 images in full, visit the Orange San Francisco Screenshots Flickr set.
White is right
If you watched my unboxing / overview above... you'll have noticed that the box is actually designed for either the grey San Francisco (as we have here) or the white model! Nothing is known about the availability (or indeed price) of the white model yet... but as a sucker for white devices, i'll be first in line when they come to market!
Battery life for me is absolutely on par with my other devices - I generally eke a day of pretty decent use (push mail, browsing, tweeting etc.) out of the device. Off the charger in the morning, back on needing charge at bed time. Effectively, i've not found the San Francisco either great or horrible in the battery life stakes.
If you hadn't guessed already... i'm pretty comprehensively blown away by the San Francisco. Even ignoring it's price, this is a device that I would be happy to own and happy to carry around as my everyday phone (in fact i've been doing just that and i've rarely missed my more 'prestigious' devices). Factor in that this phone is just £99 and it is just incredible. This is £300 cheaper than a HTC Desire. Food for thought!
A new benchmark has been set and I can't WAIT to see what handset comes out that eclipses the San Francisco on price vs performance. I have a feeling that it won't happen for a while, such is the accomplishment here.
There are two things that concern me a little. The first is that Orange will see the huge success of the San Francisco and increase the price. While the phone would still be great value at double the price, that would be a real shame considering the extent of the achievement here. The second concern is that the San Franciscos will become very hard to buy... I hope Orange ordered a lot - these are going to sell by the truckload.
Paul's Orange San Francisco Pros and Cons
- Stunning screen
- Lots of RAM
- Full complement of specs
- Near vanilla Android 'blank canvas'
- Poor camera
- 600MHz processor can't keep up with the latest Snapdragons (but it is good enough!)
- Orange junk (albeit easily removed)
- FM radio can only be played through headphones and not through the speaker
The San Francisco is available to buy from Orange Stores or via Orange online. Visit Quidco to potentially earn up to £12 cashback. NHS staff, local council staff and students may be eligible for discounts, call 0800 079 2000 for further information;
The San Francisco can be unlocked for only $4. Visit this topic for further details.
The San Francisco can be rooted using our Superboot image. Visit this topic for further details.
Peer comparison photos
From top - T-Mobile Pulse, HTC Hero, Orange San Francisco, HTC Wildfire, HTC Desire
Have your say
Thanks for reading my review... i'd love to hear your thoughts! Whether you agree or disagree with what i've written, please reply below.
Sample camera pictures
Click on the images for the full size version, additional images to follow. You can find more user contributed pictures in this topic.
Videos to follow.
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