The Orange San Francisco is one of the cheapest Android phones on the market. Android may be the seen as the biggest rival to Apple’s iPhone, but phones like this prove it’s a different kettle of piranhas altogether. An ancient battered first-gen iPhone will fetch more than a hundred quid on eBay, but the Orange San Francisco costs just a ton new. How can it possibly be any good? Find out in our Orange San Francisco review.
Like finding a tenner down the back of the sofa, the Orange San Francisco is a wonderful surprise that your wallet will thoroughly approve of. For the money you can snap one up for, a hundred pounds on a pre-pay deal, not only is there no better Android phone, there’s no better smartphone, full stop.
We’ll get onto the Orange San Francisco’s lame duck elements later and, gushing praise aside, there are a few, but prepare for a light-speed tirade of love as we look at what makes this phone special.
Top of the list is the Orange San Francisco’s capacitive screen. The only Android that’s been widely available at a similar rock-bottom price to use a capacitive screen is the T-Mobile Pulse, which T-Mobile doesn’t even stock directly any more. The rest? They use resistive screens – perfect for use with a stylus, but with a finger navigation feels stodgy and slow. The San Francisco’s touchscreen isn’t as super-responsive as an HTC Desire running Android 2.2, but it’s lightyears ahead of its direct rivals.
Wait, it doesn’t just end there though. The Orange San Francisco also uses an AMOLED display, which we’ve never seen in a phone this cheap. AMOLED displays don’t use a backlight, letting them reproduce near-perfect black levels – backlit LCDs’ black areas always have some degree of luminescence, making them look a little blue or grey. The screen’s viewing angle are ridiculously good for a budget phone too, with almost no visibility deterioration whatsoever.
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Next up is the phone’s resolution. The Orange San Francisco uses a 480×800 pixel display. Packing 384,000 pixels into a 3.5-inch display gives this phone a brilliantly sharp image. With plenty of pixels and rockin’ AMOLED tech on-board, the San Francisco’s display can feasibly be compared to the screen of the original HTC Desire and Samsung Galaxy S, phone which cost around four times the price at launch, without having to bow its head in shame.
How has Orange managed to reproduce such high-end features at such a low price? Not a clue, but we’re impressed. Some props go to ZTE, the company that originally manufactured the device before it was given the Orange branding stamp.
The Orange San Francisco runs Android 2.1. With Android 2.2 already here and Android 3.0 likely due for release within the next few months, it’s not bang up-to-date, but it’s not bad. Android 2.1 offers swish features like live wallpapers (animated backdrops for your homescreens) and, most importantly, it’s compatible with almost every major app currently available on the Android Market, Flash 10.1 plugin aside.
The only thing holding it back is its 600MHz processor. To get a kick into the 1GHz big leagues, you’d have to spend three times the price of the Orange San Francisco, but with a 600MHz clock speed some high-end apps may chug occasionally, and there will be some lag as you navigate around menus.
This lag gets annoying if you make do with Orange’s default UI, which encompasses five home screens and a static icon dock down at the bottom of the screen. Like all the worst custom UIs, it’s slow and cumbersome, but the Orange San Francisco seems to admit this.
What we love just as much as the phone’s great screen is that it’s humble. It comes with the naff UI in place as standard, but admits its own failures by adding the Homescreen Selector app. Here you can switch to the pre-installed Launcher alternative, which is free of Orange branding, or any others you’ve found on the Android Market. We switched to Launcher Pro, available for free from the Market (with some extra features costing a premium) and the Orange San Francisco slipped into the fast lane, with any lag annoyance wiped out.
Spend the time on a tweak or two, and the Orange San Francisco can better phones that’ll cost you much more. The HTC Wildfire has an inferior screen and will cost you at least £50 more. The Sony Ericsson Xperia X10 Mini offers a great UI and is tiny, but costs double the amount and runs the aged Android 1.6. If you want a cheapie Android phone on a pre-pay deal, this is the one to go for. As long as you can get on with following rotten eggs hidden under the carpet…
The cut corners
The Orange San Francisco’s 3.2-megapixel camera is awful. The autofocus is so slow that you could be forgiven for thinking you’d set it up for a 3-second delay. Even with the hands of a surgeon – and not one of those jittery alcoholic ones you see on TV either – your photos will often come out as a blurry, distorted mess. Yuck.
The AMOLED screen falls into a known trap of the screen tech, with slightly oversaturated colours. But even if that was to bother you, the built-in video skills aren’t good enough to highlight them too clearly. No DivX and XviD support means the majority of vids you’ve downloaded from the net will refuse to play. It’s a cut corner we could have predicted before even seeing the phone, but it’s a shame.
Then there’s the styling. The Orange San Francisco is slim, petite given its 3.5-inch screen, and commendably solid. But parts of it don’t half look tacky. The cheap-looking silver strips down the side? The horrible camera lens housing? My, they’d get rotten veg thrown at them if they ever graced a catwalk. And that awful “San Francisco” font on the phone’s fascia? Darling, don’t even mention it – it’s hideous, simply hideous.
And yet, while these shortcomings became evident fairly soon after getting our hands on the Orange San Francisco, we’d urge you to forget them. If you’re watching your wallet, this is the best Android phone you could ask for, and it’s not that far off phones that would cost you £400 or so, SIM-free. As David Dickinson would say, it’s a bit of a bobby dazzler.
The Orange San Francisco has made our Best Android phone: Budget Top 5, which is why we’ve given it our Recommended rosette. Check out more Top 5s here and find out more about how they work with our Top 5 guarantee.