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Orange Monte Carlo Review: In Depth

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The Orange Monte Carlo has just ridden in to town, eyeing up all those fancy pants dual-core Android phones as it does so. The Monte Carlo is the follow up phone to last year’s Orange San Francisco; an unassuming (but nicely priced) Android phone that went on to sell bucketloads.

Consequently, there’s a lot riding on the Monte Carlo’s shoulders. Can it repeat the trick of its older brother? It’s certainly priced very competitively – £150 (plus a £10 top up) from Orange will get you Android 2.3 Gingerbread, a 5-megapixel camera and a large 4.3-inch touchscreen. This will be more than enough for some folks. But what else does the Monte Carlo have up its sleeves?

 

What we like

The screen of the Orange Monte Carlo, at an ample 4.3-inches across, dominates. The WVGA resolution (800 x 480) display offers sharp contrast, good viewing angles from the sides and impressive brightness that is positively blinding when you turn it all the way up.

You get Android 2.3 Gingerbread out of the box and 2.3.4 Gingerbread at that – the most recent (and secure) version of Android for phones. No faffing around or waiting for updates; until Ice Cream Sandwich hits, this is about as up to date as it’s (probably) going to get. Compared to the San Francisco which arrived last year running on the then-already out of date 2.1 Eclair, this is a step forwards.

As we mentioned in our unboxing of the Monte Carlo last week, Kineto Wireless’ Smart Wi-Fi app comes pre-loaded. In our tests on calls to mobiles and landlines, we found that this does improve the sharpness and clarity of voice calls when connected to Wi-Fi, more for the person on the other end though than you.

When not connected to Wi-Fi, or when the Smart Wi-Fi app is turned off, there is a noticeable change in the clarity of calls. But the change isn’t so drastic that conversations become problematic – you might struggle against the background noise of rush hour traffic or when at a station though, if there’s no open Wi-Fi going that is.

Along with the Kineto app, Orange has also installed a bunch of its own customs apps, as well as layering a custom interface on top of the standard Gingerbread look and feel. This includes a couple of useful additions, such as a leap mode, allowing you to jump between homescreens quickly.

Best of them all though is Orange Gestures, a cool gesture-shortcut system that allows you to jump to a specific app, folder or contact on the phone by drawing shapes with your finger. So you can assign heart-shapes for your girlfriend or boyfriend, musical notes for the music player, squares for the email app, whatever you want.

There’s the large widget that takes front and centre when you turn the phone on first of all, which is basically a scrollable list of how to tips. First time smartphone buyers might find this useful, Android veterans however might be put off by its earnestness (‘I am a widget!’ it shouts helpfully…).

Other Orange widgets include a text message widget and a camera/gallery one; good at what they, do but not essential. You can always get rid of them if you don’t like them.

The basic Android music player comes with a Dolby Stereo toggle in it, which is a nice plus. But it’s still the standard Android music player app which, as we know is pretty uninspiring. You could always download any of the many decent music players available for Android phones on the Market.


What we don’t like

Expecting bleeding edge performance from the Monte Carlo is like buying a family estate car and expecting it to perform like a sports vehicle. So you can forgive certain things like scrolling between homescreens and webpages being a little slower than you’d like and the camera being occasionally slow to take shots.

That said, the quality of pictures taken on the camera isn’t that great. They generally look ok in the gallery, at a glance. Zoom in on one and everything is pixellated, even on maximum resolution snaps with the detail setting cranked to Superfine. We’re putting this down to the focus not being that great. As a result we also ended up with a few shaky shots when our hands weren’t entirely still.

When we were taking calls with the Smart Wi-Fi turned on, occasionally the voice on the other end sounded a little too sharp and compressed, or made the person on the other end sound a bit like a robot. This didn’t happen all that often, and only seemed to happen when were were calling other mobiles.

The screen too, for all its pluses, is not the most responsive we’ve seen. Some games and titles that require a definitive touch response (particularly Angry Birds and Fruit Ninja) suffer as a result. Typing apps like our old favourites Swype and SwiftKey X also didn’t feel as fluid as normal.

But games like They Need To Be Fed and Apparatus however worked fine. Obviously we didn’t download and play every top rated Android game out there, but enough to gather that some work well and some don’t. Just be prepared to indulge in trial and error when looking for games and apps.

Both the touchscreen and the battery cover are also fingerprint magnets. As well as the screen requiring a bit of a wipe from time to time, this makes the actual phone a bit unpleasant to hold after a while. We were reminded of some of Sony Ericsson’s more recent phones; the Monte Carlo appears to be cut from similar cloth, or shiny black plastic in this case.

Other than this, its basically Android 2.3 Gingerbread with some Orange stuff bolted on. Facebook for Android acts just as well as it does on the Galaxy S2 or Sensation, ditto Twitter, ditto Spotify, iffy touchscreen aside.

Some more experienced users might consider the Orange apps and ‘helpful widgets’ not so helpful bloatware. Particularly Orange Maps – why bother when you’ve already got the superior Google Maps? You can’t seem to be able to delete these from the phone either.

Also, if you buying one of these for the purpose of installing a custom ROM on, chances are you’ll find a way to get rid of or get round these custom features; no doubt some enterprising types at XDA and Modaco are already hard at work on this one.


Conclusion

The Orange Monte Carlo follows in the footsteps of the San Francisco by being one of the best budget Android phones seen thus far. You get a huge touchscreen and the Smart Wi-Fi app gives you additional coverage in the home, or wherever there’s some free Wi-Fi going.

It’s not without its flaws, a sub-par camera and slow touchscreen response being our two main bugbears. But for £150 you certainly get kicks for your cash.

Specification

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