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Orange Monte Carlo review: Orange Monte Carlo

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Also known as the ZTE Skate, the Orange Monte Carlo is the successor to the highly popular and critically acclaimed Orange San Francisco. It's an Android 2.3 Gingerbread smart phone with a massive 4.3-inch touchscreen.

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7.5

Orange Monte Carlo

Pricing Not Available

The Good

Large, 4.3-inch screen; latest Android 2.3 Gingerbread software; fantastic value for money.

The Bad

Cheap case; slow processor; pointless pre-installed apps; weak battery.

The Bottom Line

Despite its bloatware, uninspiring build quality and under-powered CPU, the Orange Monte Carlo impresses, offering the latest Android software and a huge screen at a surprisingly low price.

The Monte Carlo is being sold exclusively through Orange for £150 on a pay as you go deal. If you're looking to grab one on a monthly contract, you can expect to pay around £10 to £15 for the privilege. A SIM-free ZTE Skate, without the Orange branding, sells for around £200.

Should I buy the Orange Monte Carlo?

If you're on the lookout for an Android phone on a pay as you go contract, then the Monte Carlo arguably represents your best option right now.

When you consider the specs -- Android Gingerbread, a 4.3-inch screen, an 800MHz processor -- the price being asked for this phone is very low. Most other 4.3-inch Android phones retail SIM-free for much more than the £150 that Orange is asking for the Monte Carlo.

It doesn't hurt to be realistic about the phone's power, though. That 4.3-inch LCD-TFT capacitive display is a joy to behold, but the handset could really have done with a faster processor to make it fly. At times, the Monte Carlo stutters and jerks during demanding processes, and some of the more ambitious 3D games aren't compatible because it lacks the necessary hardware.

Despite its shortcomings, the Monte Carlo puts its pay as you go Android rivals in the shade. Most of its peers run an older version of Android and feature weaker CPUs and much smaller screens. If your budget is limited but you desire some big-screen extravagance in your pocket, then this phone comes highly recommended. You certainly won't find a better pay as you go handset for such a low price.

Software

The Monte Carlo runs Android 2.3 Gingerbread. To be specific, it's actually loaded with Android 2.3.4, which is the very latest version of Google's mobile operating system. That means the Monte Carlo is on par with the Nexus S, Google's official 'developer' phone.

Orange Monte Carlo
As this Android Market search shows, the Monte Carlo doesn't come with Flash support (left). But it does come with the latest flavour of Android (right).

This iteration of Android brings with it increased power, better task-management tools and a whole host of other goodies. In short, it's the most accomplished version of the OS yet.

It's impressive to see such a modestly priced pay as you go challenger sporting Android 2.3. Many similarly priced rivals, such as the LG Optimus One, Samsung Galaxy Mini and Samsung Galaxy Pro, remain stuck on Android 2.2 Froyo.

The Monte Carlo doesn't run the vanilla version of Android 2.3, though. Orange has been up to its old tricks again, tinkering with the OS. Most of the menu icons are white and orange, and there's a whole host of unique widgets to try out, although, in truth, many are simply copies of existing examples already available within the Android OS itself.

When compared to other Android skins on the market, the Monte Carlo's custom OS feels rather lightweight. The overbearing use of orange colouring is off-putting too, but, if you install your own app launcher (such as the excellent Go Launcher or LauncherPro), you can overcome this issue somewhat.

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The Monte Carlo's menus are infused with black and orange, and aren't exactly eye-catching.

Touchscreen

The Monte Carlo's front is dominated by a 4.3-inch, 480x800-pixel touchscreen, which puts the handset on an equal footing with the likes of the HTC Desire HD, HTC Sensation and Samsung Galaxy S2.

Although it's not an AMOLED display, like the one seen on its close relation the Orange San Francisco, the Monte Carlo's TFT offering is still impressive. With auto-brightness switched on, it's perhaps a little too dim, but, once you turn this frugal feature off, you'll have no complaints, although battery life naturally takes a hit.

In fact, the Monte Carlo's screen makes some high-profile Android phones look dull in comparison -- place it next to the HTC EVO 3D or Sony Ericsson Xperia Play and the budget device comes out the clear winner. That's no mean feat when you consider the vast difference in price.

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Even when compared to the likes of the Xperia Play, the Monte Carlo's 4.3-inch screen makes it look massive.
The good news doesn't end there, either. The Monte Carlo's screen utilises capacitive touchscreen technology rather than the cheaper -- and nastier -- resistive kind, as seen on the likes of the T-Mobile Pulse Mini. This means no pressure is required to register a touch, and the screen is more precise and responsive.

 

The display also allows for multi-touch gestures, such as 'pinch to zoom'. This feature proves indispensable when you're browsing the Web, finding a route on Google Maps or playing Angry Birds.

It's also worth noting that the Monte Carlo's screen is capable of picking up more than two individual points of contact -- something that phones like the HTC Desire and Nexus One can't manage.

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The Monte Carlo's capacitive touchscreen can pick up multiple points of contact simultaneously.

Design

When you're selling a touchscreen smart phone with a 4.3-inch screen for £150, it's inevitable that corners are going to have to be cut. In the case of the Monte Carlo, one of those corners is the design and overall construction of the device.

Clad in cheap, glossy plastic, the Monte Carlo doesn't exactly exude a feeling of luxury. Gripping the phone tightly results in some rather disconcerting creaking sounds, and the battery cover flexes under pressure. But the low-cost construction does offer one big positive: unlike rival large-screen smart phones, the Monte Carlo is relatively light, weighing just 120g.

Although it's quite attractive from the front, when you turn it around, you're presented with a stark black wall of shiny plastic that attracts fingermarks like you wouldn't believe. The rear of the phone is so minimalist that you almost wonder if the designers simply forgot about it. Aside from the camera and speaker grille, the only other feature worthy of note is the Orange logo. Because there's no texture on the back of the Monte Carlo, it can prove to be difficult to grip if your hands happen to be clammy. Ours always are.

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The glossy and largely featureless back looks and feels cheap, and quickly becomes covered in fingerprints. 

Turning the phone back over, you're presented with a row of physical buttons below the screen. These are your traditional Android shortcuts, although the 'search' button has been jettisoned -- a common occurrence these days, what with Samsung abolishing it on most of its handsets.

These three buttons can be used to wake the phone's screen when it's asleep, and the 'back' button also has an LED light beneath it, which shows when the phone is charging or when you've got an unread message.

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The ‘back’ button becomes illuminated when you’re charging the phone. 

The sides of the phone reveal a standard volume rocker and power/screen-lock button, both finished in cheap-looking chrome plastic. Lamentably, there's no dedicated camera button to speak of. The USB socket is found on the right-hand side of the device, and, sadly, lacks a cover to prevent dust and pocket fluff from getting in.

Camera and video

The Monte Carlo's 5-megapixel camera is a distinctly no-frills affair, offering an interface that's very close to the stock Android version seen on the Google Nexus S. The one big difference is that you can manually adjust the brightness of the screen using a slider -- something that proves useful when you're attempting to shoot in low-light conditions and want to see what it is you're actually capturing.

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The camera app is pretty standard stuff, although the inclusion of a brightness slider is a neat touch.

The photos produced by the Monte Carlo's camera are reasonably decent, although the usual issues remain -- colours can look washed-out, and images lack clarity and definition. You'll find that the phone is perfectly decent for shooting the odd image, but it won't cause you to leave your dedicated digital camera at home during days out. On the upside, there's a built-in LED flash and autofocus, making macro shots achievable.

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The Monte Carlo's camera is workmanlike. 

The Monte Carlo is capable of recording video, but it's of a standard-definition, rather than 720p or 1080p, resolution. The phone's meagre 800MHz processor would struggle to capture moving images at such a high resolution -- in fact, just playing back HD video causes the handset to break out in a sweat.

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Autofocus means close-up shots are possible, but the phone struggles with tight macro shots.

Processor

You'd be forgiven for assuming the Monte Carlo rocks a dual-core processor, given that many other 4.3-inch monsters have cutting-edge technical specifications. Sadly, this isn't the case -- the phone doesn't even have a 1GHz single-core CPU, let along a dual-core one. The handset's 800MHz processor is another area where ZTE has had to tighten its belt in order to achieve that magical pay as you go price point.

The Monte Carlo isn't what you call a slouch -- after all, budget phones like the LG Optimus One are saddled with slower CPUs, and the Monte Carlo offers the same amount of power as Motorola's rugged Defy -- but with that massive screen to power, the chip is heavily taxed. There's only 512MB of RAM inside. Had this figure been slightly higher, the phone's performance would have undoubtedly been smoother.

Moving around the Monte Carlo's user interface is a good way to see just how the phone struggles with even basic tasks. Swiping between home screens isn't exactly a smooth experience, even when you're not using loads of different shortcuts and live widgets. Scrolling through menus is disappointingly jerky, too.

Internet

The Monte Carlo uses what initially appears to be a bespoke browser, but it's actually the default Android one with a slightly different menu icon. It offers a solid browsing experience, allowing you to collate bookmarks, run multiple windows, and use multi-touch gestures to zoom in and out of highly detailed pages.

Thanks to the enormity of the Monte Carlo's 4.3-inch screen, even the most complex and feature-rich sites look fantastic. Small text is easy to read and images look amazing. The browser is also surprisingly nippy at navigating around each page, despite that sluggish CPU.

Sadly, there's no support for Adobe Flash on the Monte Carlo. This omission not only means you'll miss out on many online videos and other Flash elements, but you won't be able to download Android Market applications which rely on Flash.

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There's no Adobe Flash support, but the Monte Carlo's browser is nippy enough.

Applications

Orange is infamous for heavily branding its phones and including performance-sapping applications. Sadly, the Monte Carlo hasn't been spared this unfortunate fate. It's packed with its fair share of pointless and downright intrusive apps.

Because the Monte Carlo runs Android, you get access to the Android Market, a rapidly expanding repository of apps and games. There are literally thousands to choose from, and many are entirely free of charge.

Curiously, Orange has also chosen to include its own app store with the Monte Carlo. It mainly offers downloads that are already available in the standard Android Market. To make matters even more confusing, this Orange app store can be accessed by three different icons in the phone's applications drawer. Despite the plethora of links, they all point to the exact same location.

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Orange has included its own app and games store, but it's largely populated with stuff you can already get in the Android Market. 

It gets worse. Orange has included some applications that are entirely superfluous. For example, its own Orange Maps app is basically an inferior replica of the beloved Google Maps. What's even more galling is that Orange expects you to pay a monthly fee to use turn-by-turn navigation -- something that Google Maps offers for free.

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Orange Maps is the worst kind of bloatware. Google Maps does it all better -- and for free.

Similarly unsettling is the fact that, when you first open many of the Orange apps, they require a cellular connection in order to boot. If you're using your home Wi-Fi, many of the apps simply shut down without any explanation. Only when you switch off your wireless connection do they agree to play ball.

We're also supremely puzzled as to why Orange has bothered to include its own contacts backup tool, because the Android operating system automatically backs up your contacts to the cloud anyway. Ditto for the Orange Photo uploader, a piece of software that looks to emulate Android's built-in Picasa uploader but fails miserably.

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The Contacts Backup app is a complete waste of time, as Android already performs the same task. 

The only faint glimmer of hope is the Orange Gestures app, which allows you to tie certain processes and applications to shapes drawn on the screen. Although it takes a while to remember all of the different symbols, it's a genuine time-saver.

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The Gestures application is one of the few useful pieces of software installed by Orange. 

With all of this bloatware clogging up the Monte Carlo's internal app storage space, it's hardly surprising that the phone has very little room left for genuinely desirable apps and games. Just over 160MB is allocated for the installation of software -- a disappointingly small figure when you consider that other Android devices offer around 500MB to 1GB of space.

Gaming

The Monte Carlo's massive screen is predictably brilliant at hosting Android games. The insanely popular Angry Birds looks and plays brilliantly on the phone, thanks to the vivid display and responsive capacitive touchscreen.

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Complicated 3D games are something of a weakness for the Monte Carlo, but it handles Angry Birds well enough. 

The device's 800MHz processor is more than capable of running graphically modest 2D titles, but it's a slightly different story as far as some of the more demanding 3D games are concerned. Fruit Ninja is playable, but there's a noticeable lag when there's plenty of fruit flying around the screen. We also tried the graphically intense robot shooter ExZeus, which ran reasonably well until the screen started to fill up with enemies.

Many games simply will not run on the Monte Carlo, and these are omitted from Android Market searches. We tried to download and play Gameloft's graphically intense Fast Five by downloading it from the Gameloft site rather than the Android Market, and, while it would happily install on the phone, it crashed as soon as we attempted to load it.

If you're looking for a cutting-edge gaming device, the Monte Carlo isn't for you, despite that wonderfully bright 4.3-inch screen.

Connectivity

The Monte Carlo is well-equipped when it comes to data connectivity, offering both 3G and Wi-Fi. You'll also find Bluetooth and GPS support under the hood. There are some caveats to consider, though. Wi-Fi is limited to the 802.11b/g standards, which means wireless data transfer won't be quite as decent as it is on more expensive phones.

MicroSD support is featured on the Monte Carlo, with a 2GB card included. The phone can accept cards of up to 32GB in size. If you're looking to populate the handset with music, videos and photos, it might be wise to invest in a slightly roomier card. 2GB won't go very far if you're looking to use the device as your main music player, for example.

Speaking of which, the Monte Carlo's speaker is surprisingly loud. With the ringer volume turned up as high as possible, you're unlikely to miss a call even if you're stuck in the middle of an elephant stampede.

A 3.5mm socket means you can use your own pair of headphones, and you'd be very wise to -- the ones included with the Monte Carlo are cheap and nasty, lacking power, clarity and bass.

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A 3.5mm headphone socket allows you to use your own cans. 

Battery life

With such a large display to power, it should come as no great shock to learn that the Monte Carlo's 1,400mAh battery struggles to make it though a day. This is perhaps why the default brightness setting is so low -- it's a deliberate attempt to improve the phone's stamina.

With all of the available data connections switched on, the screen at a reasonable brightness and the usual Android sync running, the Monte Carlo is unlikely to make it past the 24-hour mark without being hooked up to your wall charger.

Conclusion

Although some corners have been cut, we're still impressed by the Orange Monte Carlo. It's difficult to grumble about its shortcomings when you consider that the Monte Carlo costs significantly less than other big-screen Android phones, and stands head and shoulders above practically every other device in the same price bracket.

If you're shopping on a budget and can stomach Orange's branding, then the Monte Carlo comes highly recommended.

Edited by Charles Kloet