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Orange San Francisco (ZTE Blade) - Verdict

The Orange San Francisco runs Android 2.1. Yes Android 2.2 or, ambitiously, Android 2.3 would have been better, but that isn't the problem. The problem is when you first start the San Francisco it is hard to tell the phone uses Android at all.

Orange is famous (infamous?) for heavily customising the handsets on its network, but the San Francisco takes this to a new level. The wallpaper is orange, the icons are orange, low res and ugly and much of Android's core functionality – such as email and the Android Market Store – has been replaced by Orange's own cack-handed apps. These include an Orange 'Mail' client which charges pre pay users £1 per week for access, an empty 'App Shop' with over priced tat like Uno for £5 (!) and a space wasting custom 'Maps' app which is completely redundant thanks to Google's free Maps Navigation. Just like buying a new laptop loaded with bloatware, you'll spend your first few hours with the San Francisco uninstalling junk.
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Happily more advanced users will find a 'Homescreen Selector' option which – praise be – brings back the standard Android desktop, but it doesn't change the fact that a) less tech savvy users are likely to find this all somewhat challenging, and b) Android shouldn't have been messed with in the first place. It does nothing to enhance user experience and reduces the chance of official firmware upgrades. Orange has been alienating customers with its bloatware for years and it needs to stop, now!

More positively, once you have taken the time to clear out all this rubbish (or better yet followed one of the numerous guides on how to root it with Android 2.2) you'll find a fabulous handset underneath. The 800 x 400 pixel AMOLED capacitive display is unlike any display we've previously seen at this price point. Colours are vivid, text is sharp and it is extremely responsive. With 7.2Mbit HSDPA and 5.76Mbit HSUPA for uploads the San Francisco is also fitted with top of the line 3G and you're not being short changed on any of the other smartphone niceties either with the likes of 802.11g WiFi, aGPS, Bluetooth 2.1 with A2DP, accelerometer and proximity sensors, a digital compass and micro SD support for up to 32GB (a 2GB card is included). There's even an FM radio with RDS. Battery life? Not world shaking, but you will get a full day out of it with moderate usage.
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Niggles? They do exist. The 600MHz processor in the San Francisco means it is snappier than the HTC Wildfire, but you will notice some lag when zooming in and out of complex web pages, roaming GoogleMaps, and even just scrolling through menus sometimes. Meanwhile call quality is only adequate (though differing regional coverage makes that had to claim definitively) and the camera is perfunctory at best (see above). Then again its tendency to blow out highlights at the slightest provocation is no worse than the iffy 5MP camera on the Wildfire.

Verdict

The Orange San Francisco is a staggeringly well featured handset which simply has no peer when it comes to value for money. Orange has done its very best to make a mess of the user experience by riddling the phone with bloatware, but it is nothing some enthusiastic uninstalling can't fix. If you have been reluctant to spend the money to join the smartphone revolution, you'd be dummer than your dumb phone to miss out on this.

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