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HTC Explorer vs Samsung Galaxy Mini vs T-Mobile Vivacity vs Orange San Francisco 2

If you’re in the market for an inexpensive touchscreen phone on pay-as-you-go, there’s plenty of choice right now. We’ve picked four phones that we think represent the best value for money and have compared them against one another.

We’re focusing mainly on each phone’s physical build and design, interface and how easy the phones are to use, their cameras and overall performance (call quality, battery life etc) and how each compares.

So while the T-Mobile Vivacity and the Orange San Francisco 2 are, on paper, remarkably similar (they’re essentially the same phone, spec-wise) they’re very different in terms of how they look and they come with a different set of built-in features.

As well as these two phones, which can be had from their respective networks for under £100 – we’re looking at Samsung’s Galaxy Mini, which can be bought SIM-free for a similar price – £90 or thereabouts. For a little bit more you could shell out for the HTC Explorer which at the time of writing can be had for as little as £116 on a SIM-free basis. 

Read on to see which phone gives you the most for your money and check out our full reviews of each of the phones here:

HTC Explorer

Samsung Galaxy Mini

T-Mobile Vivacity

Orange San Francisco 2

Design and build

The HTC Explorer is the smallest of the phones on offer here; it’s got a 3.2-inch screen tucked away in a 57 x 103 x 13 mm body. Available in a number of colourful combinations, it’s a fun-sized phone that’s perhaps aimed at younger phone buyers, or those looking for a phone for their child.

The functions of the four softkeys down at the front are fairly self-explanatory and there’s a volume rocker and micro USB port on either side for volume and data/charging. A 3.5mm sits up on the top and there’s a catch at the bottom so you can get at the battery.

The HTC Explorer it’s a solid-feeling and well put together phone. Those with larger hands might think that texting would be a pain on the Explorer. But the responsiveness of the touchscreen makes up for any shortcomings that you might experience (short version: we’ve got big hands and we found it easy to use).

The Samsung Galaxy Mini’s screen too measures in at 3.2-inches across the diagonal. It’s a hair shorter and wider than the screen of the HTC Explorer and therefore doesn’t look/feel as enclosed.

The Galaxy Mini’s touchscreen is responsive too, and the matt plastic casing, though not what you’d call premium, at least has a nice feel.

The three keys at the bottom are mechanical buttons. While not as fancy-looking as softkeys, they’ve a more functional feel. Soft keys very occasionally feel like they aren’t responding to commands, whereas with a mechanical control you get a definite sense of confirmation once you press and click the button.

The Samsung Galaxy Mini is something of an ugly duckling in this line-up. It’s not really a looker compared to the rest but it gets the job done.

While The T-Mobile Vivacity and Orange San Francisco 2, both made by ZTE, are easier on the eye than the Galaxy Mini, their shiny plastic cases have a habit of picking up fingerprints pretty quickly. So while they’ll look nice, they don’t always feel nice in the hand. That and you’ll need to give them a wipe every now and then to stop them from looking all grubby.

If you can put up with the occasional bit of wiping and the odd fingerprint mark (every phone picks up fingerprints to some degree) then you’ve got the choice between two pretty nice looking phones, nicer than what you could expect to have for £100.

There’s no easy way to say this, but the T-Mobile Vivacity basically looks like an iPhone 4. So much so that when you put one next to the other it’s hard to tell them apart at a glance…

This ought to tell you everything you need to know about it’s looks; it’s a compact black plastic sandwich with a metallic effect trim running round the edge. In short, it’s rather nicely turned out. Did we mention that it looks like an iPhone 4?

The Orange San Francisco 2 is a more curvy affair. It’s a slick-looking, black lozenge-shape that’s got a good hefty feel in the hand. It gives an impression of solidity and durability unlike any of the other phones here. But we would wonder how well the plastic would develop scratches and scuff marks if we dropped it.

The same goes for the T-Mobile Vivacity which comes wrapped in the same kind of shiny black plastic. Nice to look at, not so nice in the hand. 


Interface

1. HTC Explorer
2. Samsung Galaxy Mini
3. Orange San Francisco 2
4. T-Mobile Vivacity

The HTC Explorer features HTC Sense 3.5, the latest version of the Sense user interface (UI) to date.

It boasts a number of neat features including a drawer of five shortcuts that sit on the main homescreen and a custom lock screen widget. Both of these are customisable, allowing you to pepper your Explorer with quick links to your favourite apps, games and 

When the Explorer is locked and you turn it back on, you’ve got the option of unlocking the phone and going to the main screen as normal, or unlocking with a shortcut to, for example, the camera, and jumping straight to that instead. It’s a very handy way of quick-loading your favourite tools, apps or games.

HTC Sense also comes with a set of vibrant colourful wallpapers which can be easily changed or swapped with an image you’ve made yourself.

The Samsung Galaxy Mini runs TouchWiz 3.0, which while not as colourful and vibrant as HTC Sense 3.5 is nonetheless functional; you’ve always got access to the essentials at the bottom of the screen. Performing a pinch to zoom action on a homescreen brings up an overview of where all of your stuff is and makes it easy to add more screens (up to seven) to be populated with apps and widgets and whatever you want.

The T-Mobile Vivacity’s interface is very basic – it’s the default Android look and feel that you get on phones like the Google Nexus One and Nexus S.

So while functional, it’s very basic. You’ve got five homescreens to customise with apps and the like and there’s shortcuts to the phone dialler and web browser permanently pinned to the bottom of the screen. There’s a handful of T-Mobile-specific apps that let you check up on how much credit you’ve got left and a ‘Top Apps’ mini-store of recommended games.

Like the Vivacity, the San Francisco 2’s interface is based on the stock Android look and feel, but is even more heavily customised with network branding and Orange features. There’s apps for services like Orange Wednesdays and a cool Gestures function. This lets you create personalise shortcuts accessed be drawing pre-set or custom shapes on the screen.

Like on the HTC Explorer, there’s a widget that lets you read your text messages without having to open the entire text editor, as well as providing shortcuts to the message composer. So at a glance you can see that you’ve got a new text, tap a button and immediately start replying.

Orange Maps to us seems like a needless inclusion on an Android phone. Google Maps, one of the best mobile navigation services going, is part and parcel of Android. So there’s really no need to use this as it just isn’t as good as Google Maps, which is constantly updated with new features and settings.

What’s more annoying is that you can delete any of the Orange-branded content whether you want to or not. So if you don’t end up using all or some of it, what you don’t end up using is effectively gathering dust and taking up space.

The standout feature of the custom Orange services however is the Signal Boost app. Powered by Kineto Wireless, this improves coverage in your home by connecting to your wireless router (if you’ve got one) and routing voice calls over that.

In homes where you can’t get great reception, even with the Orange/T-Mobile network sharing agreement, this is a real plus that none of the other phones here can match, at least out of the box.

  


Viewing Angles  

1. HTC Explorer
2. T-Mobile Vivacity
3. Orange San Francisco 2
4. Samsung Galaxy Mini

The HTC Explorer has the best all-round viewing angles. From any of the sides there’s hardly any discolouration and it performs well in direct sunlight as well.

Front-on the T-Mobile Vivacity has impressive levels of contrast and detail as well, with the white areas of the screen taking on a blueish tinge at some more extreme angles. The Samsung Galaxy Mini is the only phone that really suffers from viewing angle problems as you can easily see in the images above and below.

Call Quality

1. Orange San Francisco 2
2. HTC Explorer
3. T-Mobile Vivacity
4. Samsung Galaxy Mini

It should be said that none of these phones suffered from call quality that was particularly awful.
But for what it’s worth, the Orange San Francisco 2 came out top in call quality. Overall sound in a full signal area was nice and clear, not too muffled or ear-piercingly trebly.

This may have as much to do with Orange’s investment in HD Voice technology as the phone itself though.

The T-Mobile Vivacity (which has very similar specifications) didn’t fare as well – voice calls to landlines and mobiles alike just weren’t as good.

In terms of coverage, we found that both phones would quickly hop on to either the Orange or the T-Mobile network, with no noticeable difference in quality.

HTC Explorer was the loudest phone, but we felt that, with the volume all the way up, things occasionally got a little muffled and distorted in comparison to the San Fran 2.

Samsung’s Galaxy Mini fared the worst to our ears – calls to mobiles and landlines sounded a little on the fuzzy side at times, which could be a pain during rush hour.

Note: for the HTC Explorer and Samsung Galaxy Mini, we tested out voice calls using O2 and Three SIMs. The T-Mobile Vivacity and Orange San Francisco 2 are locked to their respective networks.

Battery Life

1. Samsung Galaxy Mini
2. HTC Explorer
3. Orange San Francisco 2
4. T-Mobile Vivacity

Android phones have notoriously short battery lives. In any case we’d advise you to take a charger or a USB cable with you wherever you go and read up on our battery saving guide.

Out of these four phones its the Samsung Galaxy Mini that has the most robust battery. On paper you get 9 hours and 30 minutes of talk time and 570 hours of standby time (over 2G). This drops to 6 hours 20 minutes and 440 hours respectively over 3G.

The HTC Explorer’s battery boasts 7 hours and 40 minutes of talk time and 485 hours of standby power. There’s no official figures for batteyr life over 3G, but in our experience you’d get around 5 hours of talk time and 4-5 hours of general use.

The Orange San Francisco 2’s specs on paper clock in at 4 hours and 30 minutes of talk time and 240 hours in standby mode. This isn’t too far off the mark of how we found it in real life – we did warn you to take a charger with you.

Same applies with the T-Mobile Vivacity – official specs list a less optimistic 4 hours of talk time and 200 hours of juice in standby.

Storage and connections

All of these phones have the same connections – 3.5mm headphone jack, microSD card slot and micro USB for charging/data transfer. The amounts of internal storage you get aren’t great in any case. You’ll be looking at getting a microSD card if you want to store pictures and MP3 playlists.

HTC Explorer internal memory: on paper 512MB, available to use 112MB

Samsung Galaxy Mini internal memory: on paper 160MB, available to use, 135MB

T-Mobile Vivacity internal memory: on paper 512MB, available to use, 125MB

Orange San Francisco 2 internal memory: on paper 512MB, available to use, 125MB.

Cameras – Hardware

1. Orange San Francisco 2
2. T-Mobile Vivacity
3. HTC Explorer
4. Samsung Galaxy Mini


The Orange San Francisco and T-Mobile Vivacity have the better cameras here. Both backing 5-megapixel units with a single LED flash, they’re immediately a cut above the HTC Explorer and Samsung Galaxy Mini on paper – both of these have 3-megapixel cameras and no flash.

The HTC Explorer can take fine pics in the daytime, or where there’s plenty of illumination. In a dim or dark room, even when there’s a strong source of light, it doesn’t fare so well.

In such situations, the Explorer doesn’t focus particularly well and you occasionally get blurry, out of focus pictures. It’s more or less the same story goes for the Samsung Galaxy Mini, although thanks to the lower resolution screen, you don’t get as much of an accurate idea of how good (or bad) your pictures actually are, until you export them to a desktop or laptop.

In terms of speed, the Explorer and Galaxy Mini’s cameras are actually quicker to take shots than the more powerful cameras of the other two.

Picture taking is near instantaneous, with both phones taking a second to process shots. So thought they’re not particularly powerful, they are fast and nippy. Using the HTC Explorer’s screen lock widget, you can unlock the phone and jump straight to the camera, so you’ve got a quick ‘shooting from the hip’ option here.

The cameras of the San Francisco 2 and the Vivacity aren’t terribly slow though. Average picture taking time is about 2-3 seconds, depending mainly on how long it takes for the autofocus to do its thing.

For shooting video things are a little more comparable. The San Francisco 2, T-Mobile Vivacity and the HTC Explorer all record video at 640×480 (VGA). Video and audio quality is comparable on these phones, though clips we shot on the Explorer suffered a bit from muffled audio.

The Galaxy Mini records at a maximum of 320×240 (QVGA) and is pretty messy and jerky in comparison.

Both the T-Mobile Vivacity and the Orange San Francisco 2 have front-facing VGA cameras. These are OK for taking fun (albeit grainy) self-portraits or for turning either phone into a high-tech mirror. Videocalling via Skype or Tango is sadly not yet possible on either phone, pending developer support.

HTC Explorer

Samsung Galaxy Mini

T-Mobile Vivacity

Orange San Francisco 2


Cameras – Software

1. HTC Explorer
2. Samsung Galaxy Mini
3. Orange San Francisco 2
4. T-Mobile Vivacity

In the interests of fairness we should note that all of the phones have some form of options to adjust exposure/contrast/brightness in their settings.

So when taking the test pictures above we could, for example, have tweaked the T-Mobile Vivacity’s exposure setting to let a bit more light in. This would’ve made its pictures comparable with those we took on the San Francisco 2.

Despite the Explorer and the Galaxy Mini’s cameras not coming with as much megapixel punch, you get a greater degree of special effects and settings built in than you do on the Orange San Francisco and the T-Mobile Vivacity.

The Explorer comes with HTC’s usual panoply of filters (things like solarize, aqua, sepia, etc) and the Galaxy Mini has a fun (if basic) panoramic shot mode, which stitches pictures together.

The San Francicso 2 and the Vivacity have a handful of effect filters but the camera software – much like their user interfaces – are the basic Android ones. In short, you get better standard shots with these phones than you do the others.

The lack of a ‘fun factor’ can be mitigated somewhat by downloading an app like FxCamera or Retro Camera from the Android Market.

For shooting video again, the HTC Explorer’s software was easier to use; you’ve got the option of recording a high-quality 10-minute clip at maximum resolution or a clip of unspecified length at full res or a succession of lower resolutions (480×320, 320×240 or 176×144 suitable for MMS).

While you’ve got similar resolution options on the San Francisco 2 and Vivacity, there’s time limits of either 20 seconds, 10 minutes or 30 minutes.

Music

1. HTC Explorer
2. Samsung Galaxy Mini
3. Orange San Francisco 2
4. T-Mobile Vivacity


The HTC Explorer’s music player supports a decent range of file formats (AACs, MP3, WMAs as well as OGG, M4A, MID and WAV) and there’s an option to search for videos on YouTube based on what you’re currently playing as well. There’s a sound enhancer and a virtual equalizer, which only works when you’ve got headphones plugged in.

Similarly, the Samsung Galaxy Mini has a virtual EQ and a 5.1 stereo enhancer for when you’ve got your cans in. The Galaxy Mini supports MP3 and AAC (all variants) types of audio files on paper but we managed to get it playing M4A types as well – WMAs were a no-no however.

Both the Orange San Francisco 2 and the T-Mobile Vivacity are limited in terms of what they can do – they have the basic Android music app and can play MP3s, all AAC variants and WAV files.

Of all the phones we plugged our microSD card full of tunes into, it was the HTC Explorer that had no problem recognising album art information as well – the others weren’t able to process everything.

File format problems can be circumvented somewhat by installing a compatible player from the Android Market – MixZing and PowerAMP are both pretty reliable when it comes to playing non-standard audio, like FLAC and OGG files.



Performance – General

1. HTC Explorer
2. Samsung Galaxy Mini
3. T-Mobile Vivacity
4. Orange San Francisco 2

Despite its lowly specs, the overall performance of the Samsung Galaxy Mini is really very good. The screen is low resolution, the camera’s not the best one here but the Galaxy Mini is responsive and easy to use. The touchscreen is responsive and general functions – using the dialler, composing texts – is totally hassle free.

If you’re playing a game or browsing a web page that’s heavy with images and video content the Galaxy Mini slows down and shows its limitations. As a general purpose phone though it’s fine.

The T-Mobile Vivacity and Orange San Francisco 2 aren’t quite as quick on their feet as you’d like for this. Swishing left and right between homescreens isn’t as fluid compared to the Galaxy Mini and the screens themselves don’t feel as responsive either. Things like the virtual shutter key for the camera don’t always respond well to that first tap, leading you to tap the screen twice or three times in some cases.

This is most annoying when it comes to composing text messages, or entering website URLs – unless you’re judicious with your finger presses, it can sometimes be a nightmare to even text something like ‘I’m on my way – see you at the pub in 10 mins xxx’ without it becoming a typo minefield.

This is partly due to the standard keyboard software being dull – a problem remedied by something like Swype or SwiftKey X – but the screens of both these phones simply aren’t as responsive as the other two.

In terms of overall performance and ease of use though, the HTC Explorer wipes the floor with the competition here.

Operating the Explorer is already made easy by the super responsive touchscreen and the very user-friendly HTC Sense overlay. But a stable, slick performance wraps things up nicely. The Explorer simply does what you want it to when you want it to.

Performance – Web Browsing

1. HTC Explorer
2. T-Mobile Vivacity
3. Orange San Francisco 2
4. Samsung Galaxy Mini

The HTC Explorer’s web browser is just great. Text resizes automatically as you zoom in and out, so it’s great for reading new articles on the go.

Thanks to what HTC calls its ‘Smart URL prediction,’ you can start typing a URL and if it’s in the top 100 websites, the Explorer will suggest the full address for you. For commonly visited sites like bbc.co.uk and telegraph.co.uk it’s handy to have this.

The Explorer has also got built-in Adobe Flash support. This means you can view Flash content on the go if you wish – something that none of the other phones here do natively. The only downside is that you can only have four windows open at any time.

The T-Mobile Vivacity and Orange San Francisco 2 both feature the stock Android browser, meaning you can have eight windows open at any one time. Through the settings you can easily enabled pop-up blockers and an option to no load images from websites, if you want a text-only browsing experience.

The Samsung Galaxy Mini limits you to having four windows open at once. It’s faster to respond to finger taps than the Vivacity and San Francisco 2, making pinching and tapping to zoom on articles more fluid.  

Performance – Browser Speed Test over Wi-Fi  

Given that the San Francisco 2 and the T-Mobile Vivacity are locked to Orange and T-Mobile respectively, we decided to perform browser speed tests by clearing each phone’s cache, cookies and history folders and connecting to the same Wi-Fi access point.

We timed speeds using the UltraChron for Android app, to see how the phones handle simple pages and sites with not much information on them (Google’s UK homepage) and busy pages that are heavy with lots of images (our own homepage). We loaded the pages three times over the same Wi-Fi connection (with no other devices active on the same connection) and worked out averages for each page, before calculating the total average at the bottom.


Speed test No. 1 – loading google.co.uk

HTC Explorer – 03”55.333

Samsung Galaxy Mini – 04”02

T-Mobile Vivacity – 04”33.333

Orange San Francisco 2 – 04”21


Speed test No.2 – loading recombu.com

HTC Explorer – 14”61

Samsung Galaxy Mini – 20”12

T-Mobile Vivacity – 13”21

Orange San Francisco 2 – 19”55.333


Mean average, based on page load times for both sites.


HTC Explorer – 9”28.167

Samsung Galaxy Mini – 12”07

T-Mobile Vivacity – 8”57.167

Orange San Francisco 2 – 12”08.167



Verdict

Though the most expensive in this line-up, the HTC Explorer comes out on top. It’s easily the most user-friendly, most approachable and most stable of the phones on offer here. For the little bit extra you’d have to pay for one, we think it represents the best value for money.

The HTC Explorer’s camera can’t really hold a candle to those of the T-Mobile Vivacity or the Orange San Francisco 2. So if taking pictures on your phone is more of a priority, then we’d suggest to pick one of these over the Explorer.

Of these two, the T-Mobile Vivacity is our first choice. Though very similar to the Orange San Francisco 2 in terms of features, we prefer its more minimal design and the fact that it runs more quickly.

The San Francisco 2 is still a good phone and if you’re committed to staying on Orange (it offers the best signal in your area and you’re addicted to Orange Wednesdays) then this could be a good second option if you don’t want the HTC Explorer.

The inclusion of the Signal Boost app could give you the extra bit of coverage you need. If you’re staying on Orange and the reception at home isn’t great then this would edge the San Francisco 2 above the others.

The Samsung Galaxy Mini is a phone from last year and so it’s perhaps unfair to compare it to the other three here. In terms of general useability we found it much easier to get on with than the Vivacity or the San Fran 2 – it’s got a better battery to boot as well.

In every other aspect though – poor camera, not amazing design, low resolution screen – it doesn’t compare well. If you’re not bothered about features or don’t want anything too flash then the Samsung Galaxy Mini will satisfy – it’s our outside favourite to win in this four horse race though.

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