We'll forgive plenty in a phone that costs a mere £99 on a pay as you go deal, especially if it's running Google's feature-packed Android operating system. But the San Francisco really tested our patience due to all the crud that Orange has covered Google's little green robot in. It's still a phone worth checking out, but you'll have to do some tidying up before it's at its best.
Dreamy capacitive screen
The San Francisco looks pretty good for the price. The buttons on the front are slightly wobbly and the chrome trim along the sides is naff, but it's slim and easy to hold, with a rubbery case.
The phone's 3.5-inch capacitive touchscreen is its best hardware feature, offering good contrast and brightness. It's not quite as zippy and responsive as that of a more expensive smart phone with a faster processor, but it's still very usable. Websites are readable, and multi-touch support means zooming in and out is as easy as pinching your fingers together. The multi-touch functionality isn't as smooth as it can be on a high-end phone, but it's still decent, and a spectacular feature on a phone this cheap.
In our tests, battery life proved average for this kind of phone, lasting about a day and a half with normal use. The camera performs well for the price, taking decent snapshots in good light, despite packing only 3 megapixels. Starting up the camera and taking a shot can be a slow process, though. That's a reflection of the San Francisco's sluggish processor.
The best thing about the San Francisco is that Orange has slapped Android onto it. It runs version 2.1 of the operating system, which makes the San Francisco slightly behind the times, since a new 2.2 version is already out. But you won't miss out on too many new features with the older version, especially since it's unlikely that the San Francisco has the power to take advantage of 2.2's flagship feature, Flash Player 10.1 compatibility.
Google is packing more features into its mobile-phone software with each release. For example, Google Maps now offers maps and Street View photos of almost everywhere in the UK, so you'll never get lost again. There's even a Google Maps Navigation sat-nav mode that gives you free turn-by-turn driving or walking directions to your destination. The only downside is that Maps, and most of Google's services, require an Internet connection to work.
The San Francisco includes built-in Wi-Fi so you can surf the Web at home or at work. Otherwise, you'll have to look out for a tariff that doesn't have a dangerously low Internet cap. Even Orange's Dolphin plan, which it flogs as its 'free Internet' option for pay as you go customers, only allows 100MB of data per month. With the wonders of Android sucking down data at all hours, it can be easy to use that amount in a couple of weeks. At least the San Francisco makes it easy to keep track of your data use, by bombarding you with messages every time it wants to go online. The downside is that a phone like this is much more fun to use when you can surf without worrying about the cost.
Speaking of Wi-Fi, some users have spotted a bug that keeps their phones from automatically reconnecting to their wireless networks. In our tests, we had no trouble staying connected to our test Wi-Fi network, but it's something to watch out for. We hope that Orange will get stuck into fixing this bug sharpish.
There are a couple of Android apps that could help if you do have connection issues -- try searching the Android Market for 'Blade Wifi Fix'. In fact, the Android app store is your best source for hundreds of great apps and games with which to trick out the San Francisco. Check out our list of the best Android apps to get you started.
Bay area bloatware
Like a new laptop that's caked with unwanted programs you have to spend the first hour uninstalling, Orange has put its mark all over the excellent Android 2.1 software on the San Francisco. It's a real pity, because, although a couple of Orange's apps are useful, like the Orange Wednesdays app that scores you two-for-one movie tickets, they're also ugly and potentially confusing.
For example, setting up an Android phone usually includes creating or logging in with a Google account. This will get your Gmail going, if you use it, as well as backing up your settings with Google and setting up your account with the Android Market app store. On the San Francisco, Orange has barged over this step with its own Mobile Mail email set-up, which offers push email for any number of email services, including Gmail.
The problem is that going through the set-up process for Mobile Mail doesn't configure your Google account on the phone -- you'll have to do that later -- and Mobile Mail costs a staggering £1 a week for pay as you go users. Even worse is that it looks like Orange has ditched the default Android email program on the phone, so you have no choice but to pay the bill unless you install an alternative email program from the Market or you only use Gmail, which has its own dedicated app. The whole situation stinks.
Similarly, we're not fans of the fact that everything from the default home screen to the home page in the browser has been coated with Orange's ugly icons, which look better suited to a low-res feature-phone screen than the beautiful 3.5-inch touchscreen on this baby. The Orange App Shop, filled with overpriced crap like a £2 England-flag desktop image, is front and centre. So is Orange Maps, sat-nav software that you don't need to pay for, because you've got Google Maps on-board. It wouldn't start on our sample phone anyway.
This may sound like no big deal, but, if you're a first-time smart-phone user tempted by the San Francisco's low price tag, messing with the Google account set-up process and hiding the best Android apps behind sub-standard, pricey Orange alternatives could mean the difference between a smooth smart-phone experience and a confusing muddle. Poor show, Orange.
Once we used our yoga rage-management techniques to calm down at this cack-handed Orangefication of Android, we set about fixing it. And thank our downward face dog, Orange has built in an escape hatch. Open the menu and tap the 'homescreen selector' app, switch from 'Orange' to 'launcher', and -- like after a cleansing colonic -- everything is better. We've never been so happy to see the default Android home screen in all our lives. Orange icons still take over when it comes to the normal Web browser and clock, and the email client is still paid-for rubbish. But the default home screen is 1,000 times better-looking, and it ditches the four unmovable shortcuts to poor Orange apps.
In making this switch, however, you will miss out on the one advantage that we could see in using Orange's own home screens, which is their support for landscape mode. The Android home screen only supports portrait mode. This isn't a big deal, though, and we still think it's worth switching.
We'd like to give Orange a big hug for bringing us a decent-looking, powerful Android phone with a capacitive touchscreen for under £100 on a pay as you go deal. Then we'd like to give Orange a punch in the face for covering the phone in bloatware and messing up its email in a bid to recoup its pennies.
Edited by Charles Kloet