The Orange Monte Carlo – also known as the ZTE Skate – has been on our radar ever since Mobile World Congress in February. As the follow up to the spectacular Orange San Francisco, 2010′s bargain bin phone of the year, we were expecting great things at next to no cost: it’s the same size as the HTC Sensation or the Samsung Galaxy S 2 – but it costs a mere third of the price of either.
So does this phone live up to expectations? Almost.
You see, while someone at manufacturer ZTE has clearly made a Faustian pact with the devil in order to procure components, put them together and then sell them on at such a low price and still make a profit, the sheer size of the handset creates assumptions about what you should get from a smartphone of that size – and it doesn’t quite fulfil all of them. Let’s take a look.
You are going to have to get used to the fact that the Orange Monte Carlo looks every bit as cheap as it is. What do you expect? At some point, years down the line, an executive at ZTE is going to get a tap on the shoulder to find Lucifer himself grinning down at him, knife in hand to take his pound of soul.
Anyway, from a distance the 10.4×125.9×67.8mm phone could pass for a HTC Desire HD – it shares its 4.3-inch screen size, as well as that curved top edge flush with speaker grille.
Up close though, it’s a plasticky mess. The three buttons below the screen (no search key, sadly) are physical buttons that clack down, requiring a real prod, and the back panel is a sheer fingerprint magnet blemished with an Orange logo. face down, it looks like a piece of Duplo.
But you know what? That’s OK. It has most of the ports you need – micro USB on the side, 3.5mm audio on the top, though no means of TV-out, sadly – and weighs just 120g, and feels capable of taking lots of drops, because obviously Pay As You Go owners are more clumsy.
Oh, and because it costs one hundred and fifty bleeding pounds. That’s the best deal this side of an HP Pre 3.
Part of the reason the first batch of Orange San Francisco handsets were so impressive was the fact that their capacitive touch screens were AMOLED rather than boring old LCD-TFT, which is much more vivid, and the Samsung Galaxy S 2 phone’s secret sauce.
AMOLED screens are however extremely hard to come by these days – just ask HTC. Samsung basically uses every single one it makes, and it’s only really Nokia that’s still capable of getting dibs on any.
What we have here with the Orange Monte Carlo is a TFT screen that’s just as responsive, and much larger, with 800×480 pixels stuffed into a 4.3-inch display. Considering the price, it’s frankly superb – we’d take it over the bobbins display on the Sony Ericsson Xperia Play anyway, and viewing angles are impressive, even if colours don’t burst.
If you’ve ever used an iPhone 4 or a smartphone with an AMOLED screen, you won’t want to downgrade, but for everyone else, it’s a fine display for watching videos on the go. Take this with you next time you’re on a long haul flight – it beats staring at those cruddy screens built into the headrests.
Android 2.3 itself is excellent. We know this, hopefully you do by now as well. “Gingerbread” is powerful and feature packed, and the best thing outside of iOS, with hundreds of thousands of apps to download.
Our problem with the Orange Monte Carlo however is the network’s nasty bloatware that comes pre-installed. Its email client isn’t as good as Gmail. Its contact backup option is superfluous because ANDROID DOES THIS ANYWAY. Those games that come pre-loaded? Just downloads to trials of them.
And then there’s the nasty Orange launcher. Orange makes a big deal of this, jazzing it up with custom live wallpapers and whatnot, but bottom line is that it’s far too slow. Hit the home button and you can sometimes have a several second wait for it to appear. Don’t bother: download the free LauncherPro ASAP for a much smoother experience, as well as a new keyboard too.
In fact, we’d go so far as to say Orange has loaded the Monte Carlo with malware. It’s true that you don’t have to use any of these services if you don’t want to, but Orange is doing customers a disservice nonetheless. Not everyone will know that you can download different home screens or keyboard, or that Google Maps is vastly superior to its crummy offering with exactly the same name.
Stop it, Orange, and concentrate on selling phones at stupidly cheap prices other operators can’t match. Like you’re already doing.
It’s here where the Orange Monte Carlo loses a star. The 800MHz processor inside, paired with 512MB of RAM is fast enough for most apps, (so long as you remove Orange’s garbage). In our benchmarking, the Monte Carlo regularly clocked just shy of 800 on Quadrant Standard, putting it slightly below last year’s Samsung Galaxy S model – which is still an impressive performer. The 1400mAh battery easily cleared a day’s use with sync and all connections on too.
But don’t go in expecting Flash on this – while technically lower power ARMv6 processors like the one used here can run it, ZTE hasn’t brokered a deal with Adobe to get it here. As such, you can’t watch some online video phones such as the Desire HD or Samsung Galaxy S series models can.
That large screen will also trick you into thinking you can indulge in all the latest games. Some, but not all. While we managed to get both Pocket Legends and Dungeon Defenders up and running, other more intensive games, such as Gun Bros, crashed, while others simply aren’t available for download on the Android Market – because of its lower specifications.
The thing is, this horsepower bottleneck means there’s not a great deal more you can do with a Monte Carlo as you can with the even cheaper San Francisco. That also means it’s for more undemanding users, and as such, the smaller San Francisco is still seriously worth considering.
Nothing much to see here. The five megapixel camera on the back of the Orange Monte Carlo is the sort of five megapixel camera that will make your friends on Facebook hate you for repeatedly posting blurry pics of people with their arms round each other in nightclubs.
Want a good camera phone? Go get the Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc.
Let’s be clear: the Orange Monte Carlo is an absolutely stunning deal. For £149.99 upfront on Pay As You Go, you can’t get anything as powerful, with as large a screen and as a large eco-system.
But last year’s San Francisco, running at just 200MHz slower, will still be enough for many users. And a quick search online shows it selling now for just £75. Pocket money.
Let’s hope the extremely enterprising Android hacker community can change that pronto. We can’t wait to see what undercutting insanity ZTE comes up with next.