At the end of 2010, a number of Android devices fought it out for the crown of ‘best affordable smartphone’. It seems Orange won the battle by miles
The San Francisco, a handset made by ZTE and also known as the Blade, is one of many sub-£100 smartphones on sale. It may not come with Android 2.2, such as the IDEOS, or a 5-megapixel camera like the Sony Ericsson X10 mini and mini pro, but what this phone does have is the high-resolution screen used on devices like the HTC Desire or Samsung’s Galaxy S. Believe me, it makes a difference.
The AM-OLED display shows 480×800 pixels, which is unbelievable for a phone selling for £99.99 or less. There’s a 600MHz processor, and stacks of RAM too. In fact, there’s more memory than you, or the operating system itself, will know what to do with!
But that’s certainly no bad thing. It means you don’t need to worry about running task killers that arguably do more harm than good (namely, draining the battery as killed tasks are restarted automatically by the operating system), and can keep running new apps without issue.
How low can you go?
However, for the price, there must be some limitations and flaws, no? Well, I’d be lying if I said there weren’t, but they aren’t deal breakers.
The first limitation is the camera. Although the display does make pictures look good on-screen, and the 3-megapixel sensor even has autofocus, the big problem is the time taken to focus and the high chance of ending up with a blurry mess. But not everyone is worried about taking high-quality photos. An even bigger problem is the lack of a flash, and poor video, limited to CIF resolutions (352×288 pixels).
The next issue, which isn’t really a limitation, is the feel of the phone. It does feel cheap in the hand, with materials that aren’t very nice to the touch. Underneath the main display are three keys (home, menu and back) which, from a distance look like snazzy touch-sensitive keys, but are in fact rather hard, plastic, buttons. The volume keys are good though, while the power button at the top is quite easy to press.
However, while it may feel cheap, looks can be deceiving, and this phone will probably last every bit as long as any of its more expensive rivals. The battery cover fits tightly too, ensuring there are no squeaks when held.
The price is right
Far from putting you off this phone, the huge price difference between this and, say, an HTC Desire is more likely to have people wondering why they’re paying £250-300 more for a phone that does relatively little more. Even the processor, compared to the 1GHz ones used by some HTC, Samsung and Sony Ericsson models, isn’t slow. It may not win the numbers game, but it gets on with the job and continues to amaze, given its price. It can lag when syncing in the background, but this affects all Android phones.
The Orange branding is a bit of an annoyance, but before you say ‘oh, so that’s the problem’ then, Orange allows you to turn it off and revert to the native Android one. Yes, a few icons have been given the Orange treatment, and they’ve installed Orange Maps in the hope you’ll use this instead of Google’s version, but everything else is on there too.
Battery life is helped by a 1,250mAh battery (bigger than that of the HTC Desire HD, albeit by only 20mAh), and the phone has everything else you’d expect from a modern smartphone, such as GPS, Wi-Fi and 3G/HSPA support.
I’ve been struggling to find bad things about the phone, but unless I resort to making something up, this phone just can’t be faulted. It even has multi-touch support, which none of the other entry level models do (that’s Sony Ericsson, Acer, Samsung, Alcatel and Huawei all included).
Ah, but there is one problem that I’ve found. It’s exclusive to Orange, which is good news for the network but not for anyone who might wish to buy one elsewhere. But, while Orange won’t be very happy to hear me say this, I feel compelled to tell you that you can unlock the phone for as little as £3 from a number of reputable unlocking websites or eBay.
It would have been nice to have had a dedicated search button on the handset, but for everything else this phone is perfect. It would have also been nice for Orange not to have a) called it San Francisco and b) written it on the front. But, if I’m picking at things like this then you can safely say Orange has done well.
Your every Desire?
Let me make it clear, an HTC Desire HD looks nicer, is faster, has a better camera and HD video, but it will also cost well over £400. It also has Android 2.2 instead of Android 2.1 (giving you features like the portable Wi-Fi hotspot that isn’t included on the San Francisco), but that’s about it.
When people, quite rightly, express concern at how Android may become fragmented with low-end models offering a poor user experience, you simply need to look at this phone for proof that you can maintain quality at a low-price.
The San Francisco is a cheap Android phone available on prepay for £100 or less, but it almost has the performance of a phone costing three times as much. There’s a large capacitive touchscreen with multi-touch support, a perfectly sufficient processor with stacks of memory and good battery life. The resolution of the screen matches that of an HTC Desire or Samsung Galaxy S, and the phone has 3G, GPS and Wi-Fi. In fact, the only downside is the less than inspiring camera, and the lack of a dedicated search key. On balance, it’s one of the bargains of the year.
Ratings (out of 5)
[wpgalleryimage title=”Editors-Choice-5Star” float=right]Performance: 5
Review Update: January 2011
Since this review was published in What Mobile magazine before Christmas, Orange has begun shipping both black and white versions with LCD displays instead of the OLED display.
In addition, the build quality of the white versions appears to be higher than that of the black/brown versions and must be down to the materials used.
Finally, unlocking the Orange San Francisco (aka ZTE Blade) can be done by following this guide.
What Mobile has a forum discussion thread on the ZTE Blade, with details of custom ROMs, debranding and updating the OS to Android 2.2 and beyond.