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01 Jun 12 Taking the (Med)Field: UK’s First Intel/Android Phone

It’s all kicking off at the low end of the smartphone market. Next week sees the release in the UK not only of the Nokia Lumia 610 (my review here), but the Orange San Diego – continuing Orange’s tradition of giving their own-branded phones – usually solid lowish-end models such as the  ZTEBlade – the telephonic equivalent of names usually claimed by professional gamblers or exotic dancers.

Intel inside – the Orange San Diego

The San Diego was codenamed “Santa Clara”, from which one can discern the most interesting thing about it – this is the first phone most western users will see running on an Intel chip. In global terms, it follows on the heels of the India’s Lava Xolo 900 and the Lenovo LePhone 800 in China. The San Diego and the Xolo 900 are based on the Intel reference model, so look similar and have similar internals: a 1.6 GHz Atom “Medfield” Z2460 processor (single core), 1GB of RAM, 16GB of non-expandable internal storage and a 4.03 inch screen with 1024×600 resolution. The camera offers 8MP, as is by now traditional, and shoots 1080p video, which can be exported to larger screens through a mini HDMI port. There is also a 1.3MP front-facing camera; one can confidently assume that Skype compatibility, unlike the Lumia 610, is unlikely to be an issue. The phone also supports not just NFC short-range data exchange but also HSPA+ high speed data access, which we will eventually probably give up on telling marketeers not to call 4G.

Cheap as chips?

The attention-grabbing part is the price: Orange will be offering the San Diego for just under £200 (roughly $300, although phone pricing doesn’t really exchange like that) as a pay-as-you-go phone, throwing in 250MB of data per month for the first year, and free on monhtly plans starting from £15.50. This sounds like terrible news for Nokia, in particular, which is launching a thicker, less aesthetically iPhone-litelike, smaller-screened low-end smartphone  at about the same time. What will prevent the San Diego from crushing all it surveys?

Core questions

Most visibly, it will ship with Android 2.3.7 (Gingerbread) – an upgrade to Ice Cream Sandwich is promised, but not until October – and, honestly, any timescale a mobile operator provides for an Android upgrade should be treated with a soupcon of the salty stuff. So, users should resign themselves to a good spell of late 2010′s hottest operating system.

[I'm just going to pretend that I didn't hear you use "range" as a verb meaning "include in our range", Jules from Orange. Cool? Cool.]
Orange promise to arrange the San Diego. In neat rows. On its shelves.

Further, the Atom processor in phones is something of an unknown quantity. According to Orange, 70% of apps in the Google Play store will play nicely with Android on x86 architecture – which means that 30%, representing over 150,000 apps, will not. As Intel low-power chips appear in more devices, more app producers will optimize for them, and the big players (who make the most desirable apps) are likely to catch up quickly. However, a phone not being able to run the app you need is a real issue, and may give some buyers pause. Also, the chip’s real-world performance remains a largely unknown quantity. Intel have traditionally wrestled with the power consumption of their architecture in tablets and other small devices: the promised fortnight of standby time for the San Diego sounds impressive, but for most users whether it gets through a day without a charge will be of more concern. Finally, the hardware in the San Diego is a level of modernity ahead of the Lumia 610 – not just the novel system-on-a-chip, but the higher-end camera, higher-resolution screen and larger RAM and storage. It should keep its value higher for longer – good for eBay sellers, not so good for market penetration over time.

It also, not to put too fine a point on it, needs to overcome the reputation of carrier-branded phones as low-end, cheap alternatives. Despite promising specs, description of the hardware is lightweight and “plasticky” may be cause for concern – although at the price a little corner-cutting is inevitable, and better a thin plastic back than a mayfly battery.

The Orange San Diego launches on the 6 June in the UK, with a two-day promotional event in London’s South Bank. Technology watchers will no doubt be following Intel’s first foray inside the mobile phone market of the Western market with interest.



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