Orange San Francisco II review

Those of us with expensive smartphones sometimes forget that not everyone needs, or wants, a device in their pocket that costs £500. So for those who either don't see the point of super-expensive phones, or just simply can't justify the expense, there's the Orange San Francisco II.

Costing just £99, the new San Francisco offer a lot of the same features as more expensive handsets, but at a price that's compatible with any pocket. But can we recommend you buy one, or is even £99 too much for this phone?

Basic, but pleasant

Jony Ive might not want to swap the sleek lines of his iPhone with those of the Orange San Francisco, but we think it's a smart little phone. Finished in a plain black, it won't stand out, but there are no outward signs that this is a budget handset, so if you're worried about your street-cred, don't be.

There is a row of three hardware buttons along the bottom. These are for the context-sensitive menu, home and back. There's no dedicated search key, but holding the context-sensitive button will bring up the search box. These buttons work well, and in some ways it's nice to have push buttons, over the usual capacitive controls. We do very much miss illumination though, and in dark conditions we struggled to hit the right button. This will go with time, as you will learn the button positions, but it's a point we wanted to note.

There is a headphone jack for music, though the included 2GB SD card is a little small. Happily, upgrading to 16GB is a matter of some £16 these days, so if you're a music lover, you don't need to worry too much.

Tickled Orange

We think it's fair to say that Orange is one of the few companies that provides tons of extra features for its customers. And, despite its budget credentials, the SF II is no exception.

For a start, you get HD Voice. This allows for greatly improved call quality between handsets which support it. It only works on Orange at the moment, but we're sure it will spread. Indeed, Everything Everywhere partner T-Mobile will be getting the service in the future. And while it's not complicated, it's really nice to see a free increase in call quality. For technically minded people, HD Voice is a reworking of the GSM audio codec that uses no extra bandwidth, but takes advantage of the fact that compression algorithms have improved a lot in recent years - certainly since GSM was introduced.

Orange customers also get access to Orange Wednesdays. There's an app pre-installed on the phone which will help you get your two-for-one cinema tickets on a Wednesday. It still costs 35p, but it includes cinema listings for your area and film information. It's a lovely service and we're thrilled to see it still going after so many years.

There's also Film to Go, a new service that offers you the chance to download a movie each week from iTunes as a rental. You get 7 days to watch it, but aside from the text, it's free to download.

From zero, to hero

If you live in a marginal signal area, then you'll no doubt be frustrated by dropped calls and low signal. Orange, happily, has the solution. It's called Signal Boost (or UMA) and it uses your home wireless network to boost your signal.

While there's no "additional" cost to doing this, as there is if you buy a femotocell from a company like Vodafone, you are still charged for calls that you make using your own home connection. That is a bit of a cheek, but we're going to let it slide, because of the convenience of being able to keep connected, even when the mobile signal is marginal or non-existent.

It works a treat too. We're unlucky enough to live in a ropey signal area for Orange, and we still managed to make lovely clear calls. It does make us wonder why everyone isn't doing things like this.

There is one more thing that occurred to us too. Surely, you could use Signal Boost while you're abroad to get standard UK rate calls back to the UK. Sadly, that's not the case. Orange won't be in any great rush to drain the milk out of the roaming cash-cow any time soon.

On the down side

As good as it is to see Orange give so much extra away with its tariffs, it also comes with a downside. Namely, the high level of customisation the firm puts into its handsets.

Don't like orange? Then you're in BIG trouble, because the San Francisco is festooned with orange. There's an Orange logo on the back - we hate operator branding on phones, it's sickening - and then the operating system is covered in the company's corporate colour. It's almost like someone has murdered an orange, and left the bits lying around to decorate the SF II.

There's also an Orange Maps app, which probably does the same as Google Maps. We were unable to test it though, because it crashed every time we tried. Google Maps is here though, and it's brilliant, so there's not a huge need to use anything else.

Performance

It doesn't take a phone engineer to realise that the San Francisco II isn't the highest powered device in the world. There's only an 800MHz CPU in here, and 512MB of RAM. That's enough for basic stuff, but if you're expecting a powerful 3D gaming platform, you're not going to get one.

We noticed that there was a lot of lag navigating around the home screens too. It's never a disaster, and we've seen worse on much more expensive phones in our time. It points to the cost of the phone though, and we really have no problem with it, as the handset is a bargain of the highest order.

The screen is good though. It's bright enough and with a resolution of 480 x 800, spread over 3.5-inches, you'll never notice that this is a low end phone from what it shows you on the display.

Another nice surprise is the camera. In good light, it's capable enough. For casual snaps, you're likely to be very pleased with the results. Even in low light, the camera comes up with some impressive results. There is a lot of noise in dark areas though, and some blue highlights, which are fairly typical of a low-cost camera. It's decent enough for most uses though, and it's a lot more colourful and vibrant than we were expecting.

The battery isn't anything remarkable, but we extracted nearly a full day out of it. Again, as this phone is aimed at people who don't want an advanced phone, it's fair to assume that they won't drain the battery getting push email from three places, while constantly checking Twitter and Facebook. Or maybe they will. But as with all phones, you need either to pace yourself, or carry a charger around with you.

Verdict

There's nothing at all to dislike here. The SF II is a lovely little device with loads to offer. Orange makes it a good deal by throwing in some great features, like Orange Wednesdays and Signal Boost. It makes it the ideal phone for people who want to get the maximum bang for their buck.

The design is basic, and the speed isn't the most breakneck we've experienced, but we can forgive all of those things for £99. The phone works well, is certainly comfortable to use, and has sound quality that can outdo much more expensive handsets.

In short, if you're on a budget, need an emergency phone or are upgrading from a dumb or feature phone, the Orange San Francisco II is a terrific choice.