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Orange San Francisco II Review: In Depth

The Good

  • Good value for money

The Bad

  • Some of the Orange apps feel superfluous
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The original Orange San Francisco was one of the biggest selling phones of last year. Since then we’ve seen a number of city-named from Orange following in its footsteps, but the San Francisco II, as it’s name suggests, is the proper follow up.

Much of what made the first San Francisco a hit here returns; you get a big-ish touchscreen (3.5-inches) with a decent resolution (WVGA 800 x 480) and Android 2.3 Gingerbread, all for a very low price of £99.99 on its own or £10.50 a month on contract.

The emphasis here, as with the recent Orange Monte Carlo, is very much on the essentials. Those looking for cutting edge performance and eye catching design had best look elsewhere. But if you want something to get the everyday done and fancy a bit of Angry Birds on the side then the San Francisco II ought to be your next destination. Take a trip downtown with us to see what else is on offer.


Orange San Francisco II: Design and build

In terms of design, the San Francisco II is easy on the eye, perhaps less so to the touch. Boasting a stripped-back look that’s in keeping with its no frills credentials, the San Francisco II is a flat, sleek lozenge in shiny black plastic.

Design-wise it’s got a bit in common with Sony Ericsson’s Vivaz and the more recent Xperia Neo, right down to the long elliptic shape of the sides and the three keys down at the bottom.

The shiny black plastic, though nice to look at, feels pretty unpleasant to the touch; the back cover in particular picks up fingerprints like nobody’s business and after a while the whole phone feels more than a bit grimy.

Aside from the fingerprinty feel of the plastic casing, the San Francisco II feel has a chunky feel in the hand. It feels rather dense and blocky and not exactly premium. But you do get an impression of solidity and durability.

On the right there’s a small volume rocker that’s a little hard to activate at times, power button and a 3.5mm jack on the top, and a microUSB connection for charging/data transfer over on the left hand side.

The 5-megapixel camera unit sits on the back (natch) with a VGA camera mounted on the front, to the right of the speaker grille.

Menu, Home and Back buttons sit at the base of the phone. These are mechanical, and although rather cheap-feeling, do the job. Soft keys on equivalently-priced phones tend to be unresponsive and not that great. We prefer having the definite responsiveness that you get with physical keys.

The screen measures 3.5-inches and packs a resolution of 800 x 480. Pictures and web pages look pretty sharp and we were impressed with the levels of contrast and brightness for a phone without an AMOLED-type screen. Owing to the reflectiveness of the plastic cover over the screen viewing angles aren’t always great, but better than on some other phones. The screen sadly too is a fingerprint zone, same as the rest of the San Francisco II. Be prepared to put the hem of your shirt to good use, or invest in a microfibre wipe cloth.

Internal memory clocks in at a slim 512MB, only around 75MB of which was available to us. A 2GB microSD card comes included in the box. Like pretty much every microSD-compatible these days, you can expand the memory up to 32GB if you wish.


Orange San Francisco II: Interface

The user interface of the San Francisco II is basically vanilla Android that’s been given an Orange respray and had Orange’s custom apps added.

You get five homescreens to add your apps and widgets to and a ‘leap mode’ that’s accessed by pressing the Home key when you’re on the main, central homescreen. This allows you to quickly jump between screens but in reality it’s actually quicker to just thumb between the screens manually.

The stock keyboard is a simple virtual Qwerty that’s not really not that great. Installing a custom keyboard from the Market would be our first recommended port of call.

The app launcher is located bottom left; tap this and you get the familiar tray of app icons that you can then pin to the homescreen by long-pressing, dragging and dropping where you want them.

If you’ve used an Android phone before, you’ll feel right at home here. If not, Orange has installed a number of handy informal guides that take you through the basics.

There’s a number of Orange custom apps installed, many of which are welcome and useful, some of which, not so welcome.

We like the Gestures app, which we’ve seen previously on the Orange Monte Carlo. This allows you to define your own shortcuts accessed by drawing shapes on the homescreen; a square for the text message app, a ‘D’ shape for the dialler, or whatever you want. It’s very fluid and works nicely on the San Francisco II and dare we say looks a bit cool as well; there’s definitely a degree of show off potential here.

Orange Signal Boost, powered by Kineto Wireless is present here, an app that connects to your wireless router at home for improved indoor coverage. There’s also a decent gallery widget that lets you easily flick through your photos and share pictures via email, MMS, upload to Facebook etc without having to dive right into the Gallery app itself.

We’re less keen on services like contacts back up and Orange Maps. We’re puzzled as to why these have been installed on an Android phone. Google automatically backs all of your contacts up as you add them and the Google Maps Android app is one of the best navigation apps out there. This is made worse by the fact that you can’t uninstall them directly from the Applications menu. So they’re just sitting on your phone, taking up space, for no real reason. Talk about bringing your own sand to the beach.


Orange San Francisco: Browser

The Orange San Francisco II’s browser the standard Android browser that you get with unskinned Android phones like the Nexus S.

Admittedly not the fastest phone on the block, the San Francisco II still does a good job; thumbing through web pages ought to be fast enough for most, with speeds crawling whenever you’re not connected to 3G or Wi-Fi.

It’s fairly straightforwards stuff; the screen supports both pinch to zoom, for general zooming and navigation and tap to zoom, intended for tapping on columns of text. The latter zoom option centres in on paragraphs in news articles and the like and reformats the text to fit the page.

You can have eight windows open at once and turn off plug-ins if you want to disable animated banners when you’re browsing the web. Adding bookmarks is easy; actioned by either tapping on the starred tab next to the address bar or by pressing the menu key and selecting the relevant option. The San Francisco II offers a pretty standard web browsing experience; nothing terrible, nothing amazing.



Orange San Francisco: Multimedia and camera

As with the browser, the default music playing app is the vanilla Android one. It’s pretty basic. You can create playlists and there’s a shuffle option but there’s not much else in the way here really; no album art finders and no visualisations.

Tile transfer is handled by loading songs on to the microSD card via USB: MP3s and M4As are supported but not WMAs it seems.

Sound quality is surprisingly good through headphones and the single external speaker. Sound levels are nice and balanced with nothing sounding too low or too trebly. It’s not the most powerful phone for audio playback by a long shot but not terrible.

The 5-megapixel camera produces some adequate snaps. The single LED flash is pretty weedy but for fun shots of friends in the pub, it will suffice. Ditto close-up and distance shots; the auto focus does its thing well enough, but don’t expect Pulitzer prize winners from this. There’s a pretty big list of settings for sharpness, white balance and exposure allowing you to tinker if you’re prepared to.

Similarly, video capture is average – not great, but not terrible. You’re limited to recording either 20 or 30 second bursts or clips of up to 10 minutes in length at VGA resolution. Outdoor videos tend to pick up a lot of ambient wind noises and fast moving objects like trains or cars suffer from that characteristic wobble. For the odd clip of friends messing about it ought to suffice.

Finally, there’s a VGA video camera for self portrait shots and videocalls. It’s fairly basic, and therefore not that great; faces look a bit washed out and blotchy but that’s to be expected. We installed the Skype app from the Android Market but it looks like videocalling hasn’t been enabled for the San Francisco II yet, so we weren’t able to see how this fared.

Orange San Francisco II: Performance

Overall performance of the San Francisco II is pretty inconsistent. At times it’s a very slick proposal, such as when using the Gestures app, scrolling through Facebook feeds and the Gallery.

Other times it’s slow, such as when scrolling through the homescreens, or whenever an ad banner loads up on ad-supported free games.

Angry Birds is a real case in point here; normally on this game, there’s an ad banner in the top right corner which pops in to view for the first five seconds or so. During this time, on the San Francisco II, the game becomes super-sluggish and cumbersome. As soon as the ad has scrolled off screen, it becomes slick, smooth and a joy to play.

This is perhaps the best example of the San Francisco II’s overall user experience. Often when it comes to doing more than one thing at once, the phone starts to show signs of strain.

Texting is normally fluid, unless you’re writing of a message happens to coincide with an automatic sync period in the background. Google Maps is temperamental; working beautifully one minute and almost locking up the next. The San Francisco II’s user experience is generally a fluid one that’s sadly punctuated by bouts of sluggishness.

Packing an 800MHz processor and 512MB of RAM, you can’t expect the San Francisco II to be lightning fast; it’s clearly not a great multitasker.

For the day to day things, texting, calling, email a spot of Facebooking plus a bit of gaming, the San Francisco II (just about) does the trick. For anything demanding like HD video or 3D games, forget it.

Despite what the Orange site says, the San Francisco II can’t install the BBC iPlayer from the Market. It’s not capable of running Flash Player (which the iPlayer requires) so similar apps, like the ITV Player are off the menu as well.


Verdict

For a no-frills solution, it’s hard to find fault with the Orange San Francisco II. The build quality is respectable, the camera’s not bad and the price is very very nice.

The overall performance occasionally frustrates, but for those who just want a simple phone for the basics plus Facebook, Twitter and the occasional game will lap up the San Francisco II. It’s certainly good value for money.

That said, for about £40 more you could pick up an HTC Wildfire S or a Samsung Galaxy Ace on pay-as-you-go. This might be an ask for some on a tight budget (i.e. under or on £100), but both of these phones offer a more solid user experience than what’s on offer here.

Specification

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