Orange San Diego review

Pros

  • Fast processor
  • Outstanding display
  • Amazing value

Cons

  • SIM locked and can't be rooted
  • No microSD card slot
  • Some apps don't work on x86

For many, the Apple iPhone 4S is just about as good as smartphones get. It's sleek, powerful and a very capable handset. What if I told you there was a new phone with a faster processor, twice the RAM, a higher resolution screen, but instead of £499 it costs just £199. Interested? We thought so.

The San Diego is the latest in a long line of own-branded smartphones from Orange, offering unusually impressive bang for buck. It also marks the first mobile phone to sport the famous "Intel Inside" logo. With 1GB of RAM and boasting more pixels than the Retina Display on the iPhone 4S, is the Orange San Diego the new hero phone for the budget-conscious Android power user?

Orange San Diego Front Side Back

First impressions are certainly positive. The phone is surprisingly light at just 117g and its 10mm thickness feels neither freakishly thin nor overly portly. Only available in black the San Diego won't win any design awards for originality - it smacks more than a little of iPhone with that silver band and all-back fascia.

You also won't find any glass back covers or even tastefully brushed aluminium; the San Diego is an all-plastic affair. Despite this, build quality is solid with very little flex in the chassis. The back cover is coated in a type of non-slip rubber, which is a mixed blessing. Some should find it harder to drop accidentally, though those of us without butter fingers might prefer a smoother finish to slip in and out of our jeans' pocket.

The cheaper build cost is also apparent when you come to turn the phone on: the power button is too thin and requires a firm shove to activate. This threatens to turn into a regular annoyance, given how often it is pressed each day to unlock the screen from sleep. I can only suggest you pop into an Orange shop and try it for yourself before buying.

It is a product demo well worth taking as you can then experience first-hand two of the major plus-points of the San Diego: its blazingly-fast CPU and its gorgeous display. Under the hood is a 1.6GHz Intel Atom Z2460 processor, marking the company's first foray into the smartphone market.

Codenamed "Medfield" this single-core chip is dramatically different from every other phone on the market. Outwardly, Apple has the dual-core A5 processor, the Samsung Galaxy S3 is powered by an Exynos quad-core chip and the HTC One X flagship has an NVIDIA Tegra 3 at its heart, marketed as a Four-Plus-1 CPU. What they all have in common is that they are based on the British-designed ARM Cortex A9, running the ARM v7 instruction set.

What makes the Medfield processor in the San Diego different is that it is x86-based, the same instruction set that has been the cornerstone of Intel since 1978 and the powerhouse of Windows PCs since the days of MS-DOS.

You can read more about the technical aspects of the processor design in Riyad's Medfield feature but at the basic level you might question how a lowly single-core chip could possibly keep pace with dual-core handsets, nevermind the latest quad-core flagships; a fair question indeed.

According to Mike Bell, General Manager, Mobile and Communications Groups at Intel, Android is slowed down by multi-core processors: "the way it's implemented right now, Android does not make as effective use of multiple cores as it could..." Put simply, a single core at 1.6GHz can out-pace a typical dual-core phone, which might only be clocked at 1.2GHz.

In real-world use, the San Diego is quicker than a quad-core Google Nexus 7 tablet, somewhat proving Intel's argument. Opening apps and generally bouncing around the Android interface, the difference in performance is slight, and really only noticeable in side-by-side testing. However, if nothing else it suggests that you can get quad-core performance for single-core money, with other benefits like lower power consumption. Good news indeed.

Raw horsepower aside, let's take a look at the real world features and performance of this Orange San Diego phone.

Display

The San Diego has a 4.03in LCD screen which places it in a curious middleground between the 3.5in iPhone 4S and the increasingly larger handsets from Samsung and HTC, which range from 4.3in all the way up to 5.3in.

What sets the San Diego apart from competing handsets in the same price range is the resolution, and resulting pixel density. Most Android phones are WVGA with a resolution of 480 x 800 and screen sizes in the 3.5 to 4.5in range. This results in a pixel density around 250 PPI.

Orange San Diego Display

The San Diego elevates this to WSVGA or 600 x 1024 pixels, the same as some tablets such as the Kindle Fire. Pixel density increases by 20 per cent to 297 PPI resulting in ultra-crisp text and vivid images. On a pound-per-pixel basis nothing comes close, and you would have to spend double the money on a Samsung Galaxy S3 to go any higher (720 x 1280 / 306 PPI).

Orange San Diego Resolution

This photo shows what a difference this higher resolution can make in every day use. Pictured is the Orange San Diego (top) versus its spiritual predecessor, the Orange San Francisco (also know as the ZTE Blade). The latter has the now-ubiquitous 480 x 800 pixel LCD screen and as you can see, the Messaging app only has room for two lines of text.

The San Diego puts its extra 120 pixels of height in landscape mode to great effect, giving you a lot more room to see what you're typing. The 4in display has a further advantage over smaller devices: the keyboard is large enough in portrait mode to allow rapid typing, which yields an even larger text box.

If you are shopping around you would also be best advised to check the specifications carefully in this area. The Samsung Galaxy Ace Plus and HTC Desire C are both available free on similarly low-cost contracts as the San Diego yet feature the same 320 x 480 pixel resolution as the original 2G iPhone from five years ago. Side-by-side, the pixel density is almost half and the difference is akin to a Retina Display iPhone 4S versus iPhone 3G.

Orange San Diego Display BBC News

Despite this clear advantage the San Diego still cannot hide its mid-range roots; the LCD display lacks the more expensive PVA or IPS technology of premium handsets. The TN panel does suffer from contrast shift when viewed from an angle but is perfectly acceptable in normal use.

Black levels are pleasingly deep and colour reproduction all round is excellent. AMOLED displays may have won the marketing war in the minds of many but their over saturated, day-glo colours are no match for the San Diego.

Gaming

The San Diego features a PowerVR SGX540 graphics core, the same that is used in the Samsung Galaxy Nexus though clocked a full one third higher at 400MHz (vs 304MHz), making this phone a more than capable portable gaming machine.

Orange San Diego Angry Birds Space

Mated with the nippy 1.6GHz Atom Z2460 processor we rarely encountered any in-game performance problems. Angry Birds Space loaded in under five seconds and was smooth throughout. Sadly we did find several titles that didn't work at all, including the hugely popular Temple Run. As this is the first x86 phone to market, existing games and apps are designed for the ARM chips inside every other smartphone, and run through an emulation layer. Some game developers may need to recompile to native x86 code, but might be disinclined without a large userbase to make it worthwhile. I suspect Intel will be dedicating significant resource to its Developer Relations team to lend a hand.

Of course, try as they might it is needless to say that any Nvidia-tweaked games for Tegra 3 handsets like the Galaxy S3 are beyond these efforts. They refuse point blank to install, so the visually impressive Shadowgun is off the menu. Thinking back to installed userbases, Samsung has reportedly sold 10 million Tegra-3 powered S3 handsets...

Multimedia

The multimedia experience on the San Diego is a bit of a mixed bag. On the positive side the bundled headset earphones offer good sound and decent bass. They come with three different sets of silicon tips to ensure a snug fit into your ear canal, sealing out the noise of the surrounding environment. They also ensure the rest of the train carriage is not subject to your beats, unlike every iPhone owner and their god-awful, leaky buds.

The phone features HDMI-out but no micro HDMI cable is included in the box.

The other way to get video or games onto the big screen is via is Intel's Wireless Display (WiDi) technology, as built into many laptops and Ultrabooks featuring Sandy Bridge or Ivy Bridge Core processors (so 2011 or later), which is also built into the Medfield platform.

Orange San Diego WiDi Belkin Screencast

Using the phone's WiFi circuitry in broadcast mode, Wireless Display can mirror the display onto a TV across the room. New TVs with WiDi on-board are launching this year, and the functionality can be added to any HDMI-equipped TV via a small external receiver box for around £70. Both Samsung and HTC have their own, proprietary "push-my-phone-onto-the-TV" boxes but these aren't currently compatible with Wireless Display so are tied to those specific handsets.

At least that is the theory. Unfortunately, despite several attempts to pair with a Belkin ScreenCast TV adapter, I was unable to get the San Diego to sync with my TV.

Resigned to video on the go, there are several stumbling blocks preventing the San Diego from serving as a top-notch phone for consuming video. Despite just 13GB of available internal storage and no microSD card slot, initially I actually wasn't put off by the finite storage capacity. I figured I could just copy a couple of files onto the device each day, no problem.

Amazingly, this plan fell at the first hurdle. The on-board USB storage is formatted using the FAT32 file system. This limits the maximum file size to 4GB, so many full-length HD movies simply won't copy onto the phone.

Android is capable of reading other file systems that do not have this limit, such as EXT3, but without a removable SD card to format and no root access, you're out of luck.

"No problem", you say. "I can just watch TV shows, or lower bitrates" to get around this issue. I then encountered the second hurdle: software and codecs. The bundled copy of DoubleTwist struggled with every HD MKV I tried, and almost every other package you can get for Android is compiled for ARM and so has to pass through Intel's emulation layer.

Orange San Diego Movie Playback

MoboPlayer was the only video player I could find with a native x86 binary, though it kept trying to download ARM codec packs. 5.1 audio is not currently supported, meaning down-mixing to stereo isn't either. If your file doesn't specifically have a stereo soundtrack you get no sound at all. MKV support was patchy, with some files working while others didn't. Overall it was a disappointing experience when my (reasonable) expectations were that everything would "just work".

On the streaming side of things YouTube HD works great but the official BBC iPlayer app "isn't compatible" and the Play Store won't permit the download. We can only hope that this will be addressed in time.

Camera

The Orange San Diego features an 8-megapixel camera, matching this year’s flagship phones like the Samsung Galaxy S3, and elevating it above the other mid-priced handsets, which almost universally manage a mere 5-megapixels.

Orange San Diego Camera

Of course, it’s not all about how many megapixels you have, but what you can do with them; the San Diego has a few party tricks thanks to the Atom processor.

You can take one, three, five or ten photos in quick succession, at speeds of one, three, five, seven or a whopping 15 frames per second. Opting for maximum warp the camera will capture 10 frames in under 0.7 seconds. This trumps phones costing twice as much: the Samsung Galaxy S3 will take 20 photos at 6fps while the HTC One X can take up to 99 in one sequence, though only at a slower four frames per second.

There are two practical applications for this mode. The first is akin to Samsung’s Best Shot: capture a number of photos in a burst, review the shots and keep only those you want. While the interface isn’t quite as slick, the basic mechanic does work. You can snap a group of friends and cull shots of people blinking to find your best shot.

Orange San Diego Burst Mode

The second application for the burst modes is capturing action-packed moments: kids running around, dogs catching frisbees and the like. Unfortunately one crucial omission renders this largely useless in practice: there is no Shutter Priority mode or any other shutter speed control. Without this you are at the mercy of the Auto Mode and in testing we mostly captured 15 frames of motion blur.

Orange San Diego Sample Macro 1b

Also absent is Aperture Priority. The maximum aperture is f/2.4 and when set to Macro mode the resulting images are actually pretty good.

The bokeh won't win any awards from hardcore pixel peepers but as a basic effect of blowing out the background to highlight your subject, it should suffice.

A nice addition is the inclusion of a physical shutter button on the side of the handset, making the process of capturing a shot as natural as using a regular compact camera. The button is well-weighted and responsive, which only re-enforces just how horrible the main power on/off button is to use.

Orange San Diego Sample Shot

As with all camera phones, performance is best in bright light, especially outdoors. ISO can be set from 100 to 800, though the latter in low-light produces quite noisy results (see sample above).

There is a range of basic editing functions available in-camera, should you feel the need to tweak before emailing it or uploading to your social network of choice. Rotate left and right will save users craning their necks while Crop allows you to tweak your framing.

Orange San Diego Digital Zoom

Digital zoom is available at up to 8x but the results are quite woeful, though not necessarily any worse than other camera phones we have seen. There is a general lack of definition and high noise even at ISO 100 so it will surprise no-one to hear that we recommend leaving this setting well alone.

The phone can also capture HD video clips, at 720p or 1080p, though without any of the special trickery of the still-shot mode. Imagine quality is distinctly average and the continuous auto-focus can get confused by fast moving subject, producing a nauseating JellyVision effect. It definitely won't replace your camcorder or the video mode on your compact camera, but is arguably better than nothing.

Battery Life

Measuring a handset's battery life can be somewhat subjective, as people use their phones in different ways. The sad reality of smartphone ownership these days is that the first question everyone asks is "can I get a full day's use out of it?".

To this I can happily report that the answer is "yes". Indeed, I managed two days with moderate use so even heavy tweeters should make it to bedtime on a single charge.

In heavy testing I got just over five hours of HD video playback so while you won't get through a transatlantic journey (even in Flight Mode), watching a two hour film on the train will use around 40 per cent of your charge, leaving you 60 per cent for the rest of the day.

Orange San Diego Battery

It is worth noting that, as is increasingly the trend these days, the battery is not user-replaceable. Access to it require disassembling the phone. If you're the kind of power user that likes to carry a spare battery, just use an emergency USB battery device available from the likes of Duracell and others.

Hacking

The Orange San Francisco was very popular among the Android enthusiast community for its low cost, great specification and ease with which it could be rooted and modded with custom ROMs.

If the San Diego sounds like a hacker's dream handset, the reality is far more sobering. The bootloader is locked and so far, even a mere SIM-unlock to allow different mobile networks is beyond reach.

Paul O'Brien, owner of the popular Android-hacking Modaco.com, secured this official statement from an Orange spokesperson

"Security of the platform is very important to our customers. The device comes with an OS that is fairly flexible and you can load a large number of apps that don't impact the ROM on the phone itself.

If phones aren't security locked it's possible that someone could develop a virus that could cause a large amount of harm to the device and/or personal security of our customers.

One of the features of our devices is the programmable security engine on the platform. This is done to protect the ROM and the boot loader from corruption or from being overwritten. All production devices are secured utilizing keyed encryption.

For these reasons, the San Diego can't be unlocked, and we don't have any future plans to offer the ability to unlock it."

What does that mean for prospective San Diego owners? For one, you are limited to SIMs from Orange (or T-Mobile, via their Everything Everywhere partnership). No switching to Vodafone. No PAYG plans from GiffGaff (they use O2) and crucially, no swapping to a local SIM when on holiday in another country.

Cyanogenmod 9

You can't remove Orange's installed apps. No apps that require root access and you can't experiment with custom ROMs such as the popular CyanogenMod (above) or even update to Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich (ICS) or Android 4.01 Jelly Bean binaries direct from Google.

An Orange spokesman confirmed that there are plans to offer Ice Cream Sandwich and "more details on availability will be available in due course". It had previously been rumoured to be later this year, but for now, users will be stuck with 2.3.7 Gingerbread.

Value

The Orange San Diego is available free on a number of plans, the cheapest of which is a special promotional Dolphin deal at £15.50 per month on a 24 month contract. This only offers 50 minutes and 50MB of internet, so isn't much good to anyone really.

Higher allowances kick in at £20.50 a month, though the £492 lifetime cost of these contracts isn't the cheapest way to put a San Diego in your pocket.

The phone will set you back £199.99 on Pay-As-You-Go, and if you top up £10 a month and you will get 250MB of mobile data thrown in for free for 12 months. The two-year cost of this approach is £419, saving you £73.

The third approach is to buy the phone for £199.99 and go SIM Only, from either Orange or T-Mobile (as part of the Everything Everywhere partnership). There are some cracking cashback deals available for SIM Only these days via Quidco and TopCashBack which you can use to reduce your monthly costs.

How does the phone compare to competitors available for similar cash?

Orange San Diego vs Huawei G300

It is substantially heavier (140g vs 117g). The screen is the same 4in but is less responsive and has a 480 x 800 resolution vs 600 x 1,024.

Its 1GHz processor, ageing Adreno 200 GPU and 512MB of RAM is no match for the Atom 1.6GHz San Diego with its 1GB of RAM and powerful SGX 540 GPU. True, it has an SD card slot but only 4GB of storage on-board vs 16GB. The 5MP camera can't match the San Diego's 8MP shooter either.

Read more in our full Huawei G300 review.

Orange San Diego vs HTC One V

It has a 1GHz processor under the hood and 512MB of RAM, half that of the San Diego. It can boast Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich vs 2.3.7 Gingerboard but the real kicker is that while it is sold with 4GB on-board memory (plus SD card up to 32GB) our testing revealed just 0.94GB is available for apps. This compares to 16GB on the San Diego, almost 13GB is available for apps.

Read more in our full HTC One V review.

Orange San Diego vs Sony Xperia U

Unlike many others at this price, the Xperia U has a dual-core processor albeit clocked at 1GHz. The 5-megapixel camera is capable of 720p video, elevating above several others but not besting the 1080p capability of the San Diego. While both handsets lack SD card storage, the Xperia U is ultimately let down by just 4GB of on-board memory compared to 16GB.

Read more in our full Sony Xperia U review.

Orange San Diego vs Samsung Galaxy S3

A quad-core 1.4GHz processor compared to a single 1.6GHz core. 1GB of RAM and 16GB storage is a tie, though you can expand the Samsung via SD card to 48GB or more. Both cameras are 8MP and capable of 1080p video.

Love it or hate it, the Galaxy S3 has a Pentile AMOLED screen boasting 720 x 1280 pixels, trumping the San Diego's 600 x 1024. However, as it is 4.8in vs 4.03in the Samsung is only marginally sharper at 306 vs 297 PPI. It also requires a larger and heavier chassis, though 14 per cent thinner.

Read more in our full Samsung Galaxy S3 review.

Verdict

Intel may be late to the party but the Medfield-based Atom Z2460 proves the giant can take its design expertise from decades of desktop and laptop processors and apply it to the low-power environment of smartphones. It is both a fast and frugal platform.

Orange San Diego Shazam Fail

Regrettably the fact that it is based on the venerable x86 architecture is an unnecessary distraction, forcing the majority of apps to run through an emulation layer to match the rest of the market, running ARM. Intel claims 75 per cent of all apps work and the fact that so many do is a commendable achievement, but several high profile exceptions ultimately undermine user confidence.

Part of me wants to applaud Orange for taking a risk and bringing the San Diego to the UK market. It may be just the Intel reference design in terms of hardware but a fast processor and great screen for a budget price should have been an unbeatable combination.

However, while the same reference phone is available unlocked in other countries (notably in India as the Lava XOLO X900), Orange has chosen to restrict its ROM.

Without a SIM-unlock or root access, consumers paying the full £199 SIM-free price are still left restricted to the Orange or T-Mobile networks and the stock Gingerbread Android. If this doesn’t bother you, the San Diego is high-end hardware for mid-range money and definitely worthy of your consideration. Intel has certainly demonstrated that it can get the job done on the hardware side, but more work needs to be done on the software side.

Sadly, Android power users will be left wondering what might have been, and await the next generation.