(Pocket-lint) - Orange seems to be the one mobile operator that puts the most effort into adding value and providing an interesting, and unique, range of phones. Other networks tie in key handsets - such as the Samsung Galaxy S III - to exclusive deals, but that's little more than selfish empire building that serves only their needs.
Orange has, at least, offered one of the few budget handsets that's a pleasure to use, in its San Francisco - can you see a naming theme here? What's more, it offers services such as Orange Wednesday and Signal Boost which allow low-signal areas to make use of Wi-Fi to place calls. And now, there's the first Intel-powered phone, the San Diego. So, is this Atom-powered phone interesting enough to warrant a purchase, or just another uninspiring phone in a sea of generic handsets?
If we told you to picture an Android smartphone, without telling you anything about it, we're pretty sure it would be something like the San Diego that came into your mind. In short, there's nothing groundbreaking about the style of this phone. It's pleasant enough to look at, but it's a black lump with a glassy front.
At the bottom of the screen are the old-fashioned Android shortcut screens. They're capacitive here, there are no real buttons, but they demonstrate that this phone ships with Android 2.3.7 - a flavour of Gingerbread. Ice Cream Sandwich is coming in the summer, we're told. This is a little frustrating, becausenew phones should come with a new operating system.
Around the phone, things remain pretty conventional. On the top edge, there's a headphone jack and a power button. On the right-hand side, a volume rocker, SIM card slot and a hardware button to activate the camera, and take photos. We love hardware camera buttons, so this is good news.
On the bottom edge, there's a pair of speakers and a USB socket for charging, and data transfer. There are few surprises here, it has to be said. On the right-hand side, you'll also find a micro-HDMI socket, for watching video on your TV.
There is no microSD socket here, so you're stuck with the device's 16GB of built-in storage. That's probably enough for most people, but it's a shame there's no expandability. Also, note that the back of the phone is not supposed to be removed - but if you pull it hard enough, it will come off. Underneath there are no surprises, but you will get the very real sensation you've done something you shouldn't have done. It's actually a lot easier to make this mistake than you might think, and strangely, the back does have clips to keep it in place, and these don't break when you lift off he rear case. But there's a sticky glue too, which makes a sound of protest as you're pulling. Erm, whoops?
Intel Inside, phone outside
Much has been made about this Intel-powered phone. It's important, because until now the firm has avoided phones and stuck to more traditional computer processors. This has, at least in part, been because Intel processors haven't had a focus on power consumption, concentrating instead on compatibility and speed. But it doesn't take a genius to realise that the market for phones is enormous.
To use the phone, you'd never know it wasn't powered by the same thing as every other Android phone. It looks the same, runs the same and generally seems as smooth and pleasant as any well-specified mobile phone.
That said, it is snappy. In our time with it there was no significant lag to report. We don't believe in benchmarking, as it really doesn't show anything except how well a phone runs a benchmarking app, so we rely on how well a handset performs against its peers in usability. Here, the San Diego falls smack bang where we'd expect to: it's not the fastest phone we've used, nor is it the slowest; it sits bang in the middle.
And that figures, as it's a 1.6GHz chip, with single core. There's a PowerVR GPU too, to help apps out when they know how to use it. Don't be alarmed that it's a single-core processor either, it feels every bit as snappy as a dual core, and decoding HD video was no sweat for it either.
The screen is a highlight
It's good to see a capable screen on this phone. While the San Diego isn't positioned as a premium phone, it is more expensive than Orange's budget handsets - those around £100 SIM free - so it's to be expected.
The detail stands out, there's a crispness to text on the web that we like a lot, and the high resolution means you get a bit more screen real estate than on cheaper phones. It does also mean that things are a little bit smaller, and font sizes seem far smaller than on other phones.
Video was a challenge at times. Not because of the screen, but we couldn't get it to stream via DLNA on any of our usual apps. Video in MKV and AVI formats, moved to the internal SD card, however, did play well and with beautiful quality that proves how good this screen is.
Overall, it's impressive to look at, and the screen gives a good, premium feel to the whole thing, although every time you look at it you must also look at the slightly old-fashioned Android buttons and clunky case design.
Music, via headphones, sounded terrific too. Even with minimal sound processing, music had the right amount of detail and clarity. We used some decent, but not overly expensive headphones to test, so we're not skewing the results.
The built-in speakers are good, with plenty of volume and clear sound. So that's another pass for the San Diego.
One pleasant surprise was the camera. It's marked as an 8-megapixel shooter, but that's meaningless in most important areas. As with performance, we judge based on how images look. And they look pretty good, for the most part.
It doesn't have the closest focusing range, so you need to move away from things to get a good, in-focus, photograph. But when you do get the distance right, there's enough detail to sustain the image.
As you might expect, in subdued lighting, it's not all good news. There's plenty of image noise on pictures taken indoors with normal overhead and natural light. This isn't a problem at first glance, but zoom in to 100 per cent, and the image noise is substantial.
One really nice feature is the burst mode. Here, you can take 10 photographs in rapid succession. And it works well, but for fairly obvious reasons the focus is locked on the first shot - so if it's not right, you'll have 10 photos that are blurred, instead of just one. But there's no real lag in photos shot this way, so it's a really good way of capturing action without worrying. The same can't generally be said of most camera phones, or even some proper cameras.
NFC is here, for those who care
NFC is the future, apparently. It's more likely not significant at all but - on the off chance we're all going to be touching this to pay for that in the coming months - it's included here, on the San Diego. So far, we've seen some reluctance from many companies to adopt the system. Transport for London says it's "too slow" to be used to touch in and out on the Tube, and banks might not be keen to trust the system with their money.
Also, Android Beam - which allows you to share contact information, links or other simple content - comes only with Android 4, which isn't installed on this phone at launch. An update is planned, but we can't tell you for when. In short, phone manufacturers feel like they need to include NFC in new phones.
There's not much to do with it yet, but we do expect that to change in the future. We're just not sure if it's the distant future, or the near future.
And this is where things are crucial for the success of this phone. Intel needs to deliver good battery life, or its mobile ship will sink without trace. We're happy with the results. We used the phone modestly and got about two full days out of it. We moved it around a lot too, and had it using data while we did so. We didn't have the screen on most of the time, so that will have saved some juice. Even so, this is no disaster at all. Intel isn't the power-hungry monster it once was, and the Atom chip in this phone seems more than capable. Performance doesn't suffer either, which is great news.
In short, the Intel debut is a solid phone. It's wildly uninspiring to look at, and the Orange exclusivity is a bind, but we assume that will change in the future.
We could live without Orange's customisations, as they make everything very orange without actually improving much. We'd also like to see HD voice and Signal Boost - Orange's best value-added features - but neither is present here.
At £200 it isn't an extortionate price either, and on a two-year contract it can be had for about £15 a month, with the usual Orange calling plans. This is certainly nearly as capable as some high-end smartphones, and while it's visually a bit boring, it's quick and likeable to use.
We don't see people seeking out this phone, because it doesn't have that "tier one" feel, but anyone who does get one will be very happy with it. Another triumph for Orange, and a great debut for Intel.