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Orange San Diego review: Orange San Diego

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The Orange San Diego has brought the sun to Britain at last. The own-brand Orange handset is a 4-inch Android smart phone with a fistful of features. Most notably, it's the first smart phone powered by an Intel processor.

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7.5

Orange San Diego

The Good

Large high-resolution screen; Slick web browsing.

The Bad

Inelegant interface; Orange bloatware; Disappointing camera.

The Bottom Line

The Orange San Diego serves up powerful web browsing for the price. Sadly, its slick performance is paired with an Orange interface that's fiddly and annoying. Other let-downs include a disappointing 8-megapixel camera and lashings of Orange-hued bloatware.

Intel usually makes the brains for computers -- you know, like in the adverts with the space men dancing and the bonnng-bingbongbingbing! Intel chime. But this is its first foray into phones.

It will set you back £200 on pay as you go, and comes with 250MB of data every month for the first year. The handset's free on a two-year contract from around £15 per month. If you're an existing Orange customer upgrading to the San Diego, you'll get extra minutes and texts thrown in for nothing.

Orange San Diego
The Orange San Diego has more orange hues than David Dickinson.

Should I buy the Orange San Diego?

While the San Diego is relatively affordable as smart phones go, it's about twice as pricey as other operator-branded budget blowers like the Orange San Francisco 2 and the T-Mobile Vivacity. Huawei's G300, currently exclusive to Vodafone, is also about half the price of the San Diego so you're clearly paying a premium to get Intel's chip inside.

This processor does deliver slick web browsing. In other areas the phone is the opposite of slick -- with a fiddly interface and Orange bloatware clogging your app tray. The San Diego isn't all fun, fun, fun in the sun.

At this pay-monthly price, your money could be spent on the perennially popular Samsung Galaxy S2 or the super-speedy HTC One S -- both of which deliver an altogether slicker experience. If you can afford to go the contract route, the San Diego isn't really worth your while.

If you want the phone on pay as you go, it's certainly worth considering but there are still plenty of alternative Androids vying for your cash -- including the Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc S, the Samsung Galaxy Ace 2, the HTC One V and the Sony Xperia U. Make sure you consider all your options before splashing your cash.

Intel processor

The San Diego is more than just another cheap and cheerful own-brand phone from Orange. It's distinguished by being the first smart phone to be powered by an Intel processor.

This mobile's thinking is handled by an Intel Atom x86 processor clocked at 1.6GHz. That's some welly. The chip is important because the more powerful it is, the faster the phone performs tasks, from simple things like opening menus to running games or showing video. It's more complicated than simply looking at spec sheet numbers though. A processor that works in perfect harmony with the phone's software can in some cases handle tasks better than a faster chip.

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The Intel Atom Z2460 processor was designed specifically with smart phones and tablets in mind.

In benchmark tests the San Diego flexed its Intel-powered muscle and generally punched above its £200 weight. On the Quadrant benchmark, which probes CPU, I/O and 3D graphics performance, the blower managed a decent 3,721 score. This beats the likes of the Samsung Galaxy Nexus and the LG Optimus 2X from 2011.

Orange San Diego Antutu benchmark
Having Intel inside delivers some decent benchmark scores.

In Antutu's benchmark, which tests memory, CPU speed and graphics, the San Diego served up a total of 5,695 -- just behind the Samsung Galaxy S2. It ran GL Benchmark's standard Egypt test at a middling-but-still-not-bad-for-the-money 34 frames per second.

On the Sunspider JavaScript benchmark, which evaluates a browser's speed, the phone recorded a very impressive 1,634.8ms -- beating Apple's iPhone 4S and coming within a whisker of the score of Samsung's new Galaxy S3 super-phone (lower is better in this test as it's a measure of time). In the Vellamo browser benchmark test, the San Diego delivered a pretty spiffing 1,287.

Benchmarks are all very well, but how did the phone perform in practice? The San Diego certainly distinguished itself on the web browsing front, with smooth and nippy performance -- certainly faster than the average £200 phone. Menus also swish about speedily and app downloads won't keep you waiting around for ages.

Intel claims its chip results in a more stable phone system than rival Androids. Specifically, it says its hardware and software will result in fewer app crashes. During testing, I didn't experience any so the San Diego certainly seems pretty stable.

Intel also points out that its chip system is powerful enough to handle relatively processor-intensive features like 1080p resolution video playback, HDMI, wireless display (wirelessly mirroring the phone's screen on another device), and a photo burst mode, without having to have a dual-core chip inside. So it's pushing higher-end features down towards the lower end of the smart phone spectrum.

Orange Santa Clara width
It might look like an iPhone but it's packing Android Gingerbread, with an Ice Cream Sandwich update scheduled.

Battery

Another important consideration related to the chip is battery life. The more powerful the chip is, the more battery juice it sucks up. Of course, once again, if the processor and the software are in perfect sync, the phone will be more efficient in its energy use.

The San Diego has a 1,460mAh battery and Orange claims it will last up to two weeks on standby -- that's only if you don't use the phone at all. The blower is good for 8 hours of talk time, according to Orange, up to 5 hours of browsing or up to 45 hours of audio playback.

I tested the battery by fully charging the phone and leaving it playing back a video over Wi-Fi, with the screen set to maximum brightness. In this test, the phone lasted a mere 3 hours 42 minutes. If you're the sort of person who uses your phone heavily throughout the day, you'll need to be careful -- dial down the brightness and make sure you set the screen to time-out after short periods of idleness.

The phone's battery is sealed inside so there's no option to carry a spare.

Design and build

At first glance, the San Diego looks suspiciously familiar, with its flat black front and back and silver band around it. Yes, it looks like a cut-price iPhone. In a way, that's exactly what it is, as you can do most of the things an iPhone will let you do -- surf the web, play with apps and games, watch movies, take pictures and shoot high-definition video.

Previously known as the Orange Santa Clara when it was in development, it's worth noting that although it bears the Orange name, the citrus-hued network isn't responsible for building this phone. That honour belongs to Gigabyte, the same manufacturer that made the Orange Boston.

Orange Santa Clara screen
Images look crisp on the 4-inch 600x1,024-pixel display.

Compared to some of the super-bright and hyper-vibrant displays slapped on phones -- such as the AMOLED screens Samsung is fond of and HTC's bright LCDs -- the Orange San Diego is a pedestrian affair. But there's a pleasing realism about its more lifelike colours. And for the money you're shelling out, it's still a nice screen.

It also has a very healthy resolution of 600x1,024 pixels -- which equates to a tasty 297 pixels per inch. That's not as high as the more pricey Samsung Galaxy Nexus, which crams a mammoth 720x1,080 pixels into its 4-inch screen, but it's still impressive.

The high pixel count means you won't have trouble making out text and icons, even when they're small. Photos and high-resolution video also look good. One small niggle is that the viewing angle isn't amazing -- so for the best view, you'll need to make sure your eyeballs are parked in perfect front and centre position.

Orange Santa Clara back
It'll last for two weeks on standby -- as if you can resist the lure of those cute YouTube cat vids for that long.

Despite the handset design being a little blocky, I'm pleased to report the Santa Diego feels very light. It weighs just 117g, so you won't feel this mobile dragging your trousers down once it's ensconced in your pocket or weighing down your wrist during marathon phone calls. It's not the slimmest phone I've ever seen, but at a fraction under 1cm thick, it'll definitely be thin enough for most people.

Along the bottom you'll find four touch-sensitive buttons, which sit just beneath the display. I found these nice and responsive. There are also three physical keys on the phone -- a power key on the top edge and a volume rocker and dedicated camera key on the right-hand side. The power and camera buttons are very low lying so they feel stiff when pressed, resulting in spongy button syndrome. I found I was having to push annoyingly hard to get them to fire.

The back of the phone is rubberised, which looks utilitarian but does mean there's less danger of it slipping out of your fingers.

Orange Santa Clara width
It's not the slimmest phone ever, but it's perfectly pocketable and very light.

You get 16GB of memory to fill with photos, movies and music. That's a pretty decent amount at this price. But do be aware there's no microSD card slot for expanding the storage. Ports wise, there's a micro-USB for charging and ferrying your snaps and other files back and forth, and an HDMI socket for plugging the phone into a big screen. There's also a micro-SIM tray and a 3.5mm headphone jack.

The San Diego has a pair of speakers on its bottom edge, rather than a rear speaker. Audio can go fairly loud but does sound tinny. Call quality is excellent though -- the phone has HD voice so the people you're speaking to will sound exceptionally clear. I also didn't experience any dropped calls during testing.

One feature that's still pretty rare is HSPA+. It's a fast variant of 3G, which offers download speeds of up to 21Mbps -- in theory. Orange has upgraded its network to support faster 3G, but your actual download and upload speeds will very much depend on where you are. In practice, you're unlikely to notice a difference while browsing. But you may spot that cellular streaming and downloading stuff like apps or movies is slightly faster than a non-HSPA+ blower.

Orange Santa Clara strip
Can't think where I've seen that silver strip before... oh that's right, on nearly every iPhone-aping handset out there.

The San Diego also includes near field communication (NFC) contactless sharing technology, which can be used in conjunction with NFC tags to quickly grab info.

Software

The San Diego is powered by Android software so you can download apps from the Google Play store. This takes moments and you can get apps wirelessly without needing to plug into a computer.

One thing to note is that because the San Diego has Intel's Atom x86 chip architecture, rather than the more common ARM architecture, not all Android apps will be compatible with the phone. According to Intel though, 95 per cent of Android apps are compatible so it's a fraction you're missing out on. Intel further breaks this down to 100 per cent of Android Dalvik apps but only 70 per cent of Android NDK apps.

The BBC's iPlayer app, which lets you watch catch-up TV, doesn't appear in search results. Also absent is Minecraft Pocket Edition. The latter is the only app from our Best Android apps feature that isn't supported by the phone. Other app favourites -- such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube -- are all present and correct. So the vast majority of mainstream apps are on tap. (And iPlayer can still be accessed via the website.)

The San Diego currently runs Android version 2.3 aka Gingerbread, which isn't the latest edition of Google's mobile operating system. That honour belongs to Android 4.0 aka Ice Cream Sandwich. While Orange says the phone will get an ICS update, it's a shame it isn't there right from the start.

Orange has slathered an orange-themed Android skin on top. If the sight of too much vendor-branded software makes you feel sickly, the San Diego will quickly make you queasy. From the orange-coloured default wallpaper to the orange-tinted icons and widgets to the orangey glow that bursts forth when you hit the app tray's buffers, it's all glaringly, unrelentingly Orange.

Orange San Diego
The keyboard layout is pretty fiddly but at least Orange has added a Swype input option.

The operator has also loaded the phone with several of its own apps -- some of which you might find useful but most of which carry the unmistakeable tang of bloatware. These apps can't be deleted and annoyingly, when you try to quit out of them, many ask if you really want to. (You see that sort of thing on computers all the time, but rarely on phones. It's pretty irritating.)

One potentially welcome pre-loaded Orange app is the Orange Wednesday app, which makes it easy to claim a free cinema ticket every week. Also on board are an Orange weather app that requires you to turn off Wi-Fi the first time you use it. Presumably this is to verify you are using the Orange network rather than surfing the airwaves of rival networks O2, Three or Vodafone -- this verification process occurs when initially using other Orange apps such as the Orange Mobile Mail app. It's a small annoyance.

Other Orange apps include the Your Orange account app, which lets you check your mobile usage and get help from the operator. There's an Orange Assistant app to push you in the direction of more Orange services. Orange Plus acts as a portal and is yet another way to get in touch with Orange. And Navigon is a turn-by-turn sat-nav app that's only available to Orange UK customers -- and which currently has a not exactly stellar 2.7 out of 5 stars average rating on the Google Play store.

All these apps arguably take away more than they add since there are better apps waiting to be downloaded from Google's app store. But a bit of bloatware is the standard price you pay for buying a relatively cheap mobile operator-branded phone. You can, of course, ignore Orange's apps -- even if you can't entirely delete them from the phone.

Much harder to ignore is Orange's Android skin. Even setting aside its unrelentingly orange colour scheme, it's an unpleasant cloak that puts annoyingly tiny text and icons in the way of your Android enjoyment. The camera interface is especially fiddly -- with a tray of icons so minute only fairies could comfortably press them.

Pushing the menu button when you're in the camera view does not, as you might hope, bring up a menu of options. Instead, it offers you a single option to view the gallery. Getting to camera options means swiping a side tray out and then scrolling up and down through a series of inscrutable miniature icons.

Orange San Diego camera
Fiddly, minute, inscrutable: hello San Diego camera software.

As far as functions go, the camera is loaded with extremely granular options such as anti-banding settings, back lighting correction and raw data types ('none, YUV and Bayer', since you ask). There's also more standard camera settings such as ISO, shutter speed and various shooting modes. For a point-and-shoot camera-phone, it's an insanely complex array of options, squashed into an awkwardly fiddly interface. Certainly not a recipe for easy-to-use software.

Orange's Android skin also means you're stuck with its choice of launcher bar apps -- 'all apps, messages, telephone and contacts'. You can't change the order or the functions here. Nor can you increase or decrease the number of home screens (five), or change the app tray view from all apps being displayed alphabetically. So if you're after a truly customisable Android experience, you're better off shelling out for a non-operator branded phone.

One area where Orange has tried to add something novel is its Orange Gestures interface. This allows you to launch apps by tracing specific gestures on the home screen. Sadly, you can't invent your own gestures -- rather, you assign particular shortcuts or apps to a stable of preset gestures that include numbers, letters and symbols. Apps, web bookmarks, contacts and other phone functions can be assigned a gesture each and, provided your swiping skills are up to the job, you can fire up the chosen function by tracing out its symbol. It's certainly quicker than drilling down through menus.

Orange has also included a Swype keyboard input option. So if you turn this on, you can drag your finger over letters to make words instead of tapping them out on the keyboard. I found the standard keyboard slightly cramped and its layout rather fiddly. Using Swype was a big improvement.

Camera

The San Diego has an 8-megapixel snapper -- a cut above the typical megapixel count at this price. It also shoots 1080p resolution video and -- as previously mentioned -- has HDMI-out so you can watch your footage on a high-definition television. There's a front-facing camera for video calling or doing your hair on the train when you're late for work.

Orange Santa Clara camera
The 8-megapixel camera will shoot 1080p resolution video and has a burst mode to capture 10 snaps a second.

Intel has made a big song and dance about the camera having a burst mode that fires 10 pictures in less than a second, which is useful for capturing fast-moving action. Sequential shooting is still pretty rare in camera phones although HTC and Samsung have both recently added devices with a burst mode, albeit at a higher cost. It's good to see it here towards the lower end of Android's mid-range.

The camera isn't the snappiest I've encountered -- but it will take a shot (or 10 if using the burst mode) in about a second. It can also be finicky about focusing.

Results from the camera weren't amazing, with photos lacking crispness, colours looking a tad off and noise often speckling images -- but then this is a £200 smart phone, not a £500 super-phone, so adjust your expectations accordingly.

Orange San Diego camera test
Stormtrooper Donald Duck papped with the burst mode -- hence the especially grainy quality (click image to enlarge).

As a basic point-and-shoot for capturing throwaway snaps, it will certainly suffice. Just don't expect to win any photography awards with the San Diego's lens.

Orange San Diego camera test
The San Diego has made Southwark's grumpy-looking sky look even gloomier than usual (click image to enlarge).

HD footage captured with the lens was also poor -- with much of the frame looking blurry, colours appearing washed out and a serious loss of detail when there's movement in the frame or even when panning slowly.

It will serve as a basic YouTube clip creator when your cat is doing something funny. But don't use it to capture your baby's first steps.

Conclusion

If you can live with its Orange-tinted view of the world, the San Diego will serve up a better web browsing experience than lots of similarly priced Androids. The software seems reliably stable too. But it's swings and roundabouts with this phone, thanks to bloatware, an inelegant Orange interface and battery life that's -- at best -- average.

You do get a lot of phone for your money including that large 4-inch screen, HD video capture, a front-facing camera, features such as HSPA+ and the photo burst mode. However it's hard not to find the San Diego slightly disappointing as it promises so much yet, in certain areas, delivers a distinctly budget experience. Results from the 8-megapixel lens are especially disappointing.

There are cheaper Android phones out there -- the 4-inch Huawei Ascend G300 is half the price and offers excellent value for money. So, ultimately, Orange is hoping the Intel brand and the smooth web browsing experience the phone's 1.6GHz chip delivers are enough to tempt you. Whether that's a trade you're happy to make is down to preference.

Additional writing and testing by Rich Trenholm and Luke Westaway.