Over the past year, Orange have been reshaping the smartphone market to suit those who don’t want to spend a fortune for their latest gadget. We’ve seen the £99.99 Orange San Francisco become the best selling phone in the UK. In a first of many, the San Francisco brought Android to the masses with all the premium features seen in higher end smartphones such as the iPhone 4.
It seems Orange are eager to repeat history with their latest device – the Orange Monte carlo. Although not marketed as a direct sequel to the Orange San Francisco, the Orange Monte Carlo is already hyped up to be the next big Android budget phone in the UK and across Europe as the ZTE Skate.
For the price, the Monte Carlo provides amazing value for money. The phone packs a ARMv6 800MHz processor with the Adreno 200 GPU and 512 MB RAM. Supposedly the processor is identical to the San Francisco’s processor, but clocked at 800MHz instead of 600MHz. Included is a very generous 1400mAh battery – quite an upgrade from the San Francisco’s 1250mAh battery.
As for storage, the Monte Carlo includes a free 2GB microSD card by Transcend. 2GB isn’t a whole lot if you plan you use the Monte Carlo as a portable music player or take a lot of pictures, however you can upgrade the microSD card to a maximum of 32GB.
The phone includes a 5 megapixel camera with LED flash and can shoot video at a lower resolution. Included are the usual features seen on higher end smartphones, such as GPS, proximity sensors, Wi-Fi, bluetooth, 3G and DLNA.
The Monte Carlo features a massive 4.3-inch capacitive touch screen, and we really do mean massive. Side by side, it makes the San Francisco look like a phone for toddlers. However, we understand not everyone will instantly prefer such a big screen. It sure does take some time getting used to, but once you do we almost guarantee you will never look back. The screen feels very sturdy, and after a couple of tests we can say the screen protector is very scratch resistant.
Weighing in at just 120g, the Monte Carlo is surprisingly 10g lighter than the San Francisco. Although not a big difference, with such a huge surface area the Monte Carlo certainly feels a whole lot lighter in your hand when compared to smaller smartphones such as the San Francisco.
The Monte Carlo is 125.9 mm in length, with the majority of the front covered by the 4.3 inch screen. The width measures in at 67.8m, which as actually wider than the Samsung Galaxy S II. Remarkably, the Monte Carlo is 1.4mm thinner than the San Francisco, measuring in at 10.4mm.
The front of the device features three physical buttons at the bottom – Home, Menu and Return. Although plastic, they definitely feel sturdy and firm when pressed. The top holds the earpiece, sensors and Monte Carlo logo – both slightly larger than the San Francisco. The sensors are placed very discreetly and appear to fit in with the design of the earpiece. The rest of the front is covered by the 4.3-inch display and screen protector, with the plastic sneaking in through the sides.
Located on the right hand side of the phone is the metal power button and USB port. It seems ZTE have been listening to their customers with the dissatisfaction of the power button placed on the Orange San Francisco / ZTE Blade by moving the power button from the top to the right. Also, the power button doesn’t sink in, so we are unlikely to see problems such as the button getting stuck and and buried as we saw with the San Francisco. On a side note, we can confirm the only way to wake the Monte Carlo is by pressing the power button. However, with the new location this shouldn’t be too much of a problem. The left side of the phone holds a metal volume rocker, which also feels fairly robust and sturdy.
The 3.5mm earphone jack is located at the top center and surrounded by plastic. The microphone is placed on the bottom right. On the back of the phone, the 5.0 megapixel camera and flash is placed towards the top left, whilst the loud speaker is unusually placed opposite towards the top right. Just below the camera appears to be what looks like another microphone. The Orange logo at the back bottom is identical to that as seen on the San Francisco. With a bit of hard and careful scrubbing, we are sure you will be able remove the logo to your liking.
The entire back of the phone is covered by a removable plastic plate. The cover doesn’t feel as sturdy and hard when compared to the San Francisco, however the case was fairly durable throughout our tests. Unfortunately due to the glossy plastic, the entire back of the phone is a fingerprint magnet – the moment you touch it, you can guarantee your fingerprints will be all over. Thankfully, the screen tells an entirely different story. Throughout our use we were unable to find any fingerprints on the screen under normal light. Fingerprints only became visible under extremely bright light, which is normal for any smartphone.
The San Francisco was one of the first few budget phones to incorporate the OLED screen technology, which allows for better viewing angles and more brighter, vivid colours. You can be aware of the recent surge in demand and lack of supply for OLED screens, which also resulted in later production models of the San Francisco switching to TFT screens. Unfortunately, that lack of supply has also caused a knock on affect for the Monte Carlo. The Monte Carlo has reverted to the traditional TFT screen, but the results aren’t as bad as you probably expect. In fact, even with the TFT screen we will go as far to say the Monte Carlo’s display is pretty fantastic. Although a downgrade from the San Francisco’s OLED screen, the increase in size certainly compensates.
The whole front of the phone is wrapped around the huge 4.3-inch screen. By default, Orange has chosen to set the display brightness to automatic. With the automatic settings, the brightness is able to adjust depending on the lighting situation around you by using the sensors at the front top of the phone. We honestly would never have guessed without checking the settings, considering the phone appeared to be on the brightest level whilst we were indoors. Even on such a low brightness, the display was able to express vivid colours with very deep blacks and spot-on whites. It’s only when you set the display brightness to maximum where the Monte Carlo’s display really shines. However, for general usage we preferred to use the screen on a fairly low brightness due to the strain on our eyes. Of course, we turned up the brightness when viewing photos and videos to really get the full cinema display effect. It’s quite a delight to view films and photos on the Monte Carlo.
For a TFT screen, viewing angles are exceptionally good. We didn’t have to worry about loosing focus whilst tilting the screen. As for outdoor viewing, we really got the most out of the display by switching to a higher brightness. Even in bright sun light, the display was still crystal clear without any loss of colour.
Text on the Monte Carlo’s display is very clear and sharp. Reading is quite a joyful experience and provides a comfortable platform for general reading and eBooks. Again, the large display really does excel here.
The only negative we can highlight from the Monte Carlo’s display is the slight ghosting when scrolling fast, particularly noticeable with white text on dark backgrounds. Point aside, the Monte Carlo’s display is quite exceptional and doesn’t disappoint for a TFT screen. Sure, an OLED screen would have been the icing on the cake, but the TFT screen still provides a remarkable display and experience.
Upon first boot, we were presented with a first time “wizard” setup. This isn’t the stock Google Android 2.3 setup, but a slightly modified setup by Orange. Before starting, we were given the option to change the language (default English UK). We began by tapping the Start button. The first step allowed us to set the time, date and format.
The second step is a nice touch by Orange, but more of a tutorial; it gives you the option to test the keyboard by entering text into an empty box. Even better, you can try both the Orange XT9 keyboard (default) and stock Google Android 2.3 Gingerbread keyboard, selecting your preferred choice at the end. Personally, we preferred the Orange XT9 keyboard – more on that later.
The third step allows you to enter your email accounts. We skipped this step, and we strongly recommend you do too. This isn’t the stock Google Android email setup. When you enter your email address, Orange does not enter your email details into your Android OS (we checked after the setup), but signs you up to a free trial of Orange Mobile Mail which will cost after 14 days. If we’re honest, the Orange Mobile Mail is pretty useless and rubbish, and even worse Orange expect you to pay for it. We recommended skipping this step and entering your email accounts manually into the Android OS. You can do this after the setup has completed by going to Settings -> Accounts & sync -> Add account.
The fourth step asked us how we wanted our phone to connect to the internet – WiFi, 3G or both. This is a nice touch by Orange as some users may not want to use 3g because of the additional charge incurred for data usage. If I remember correctly, you can get 100MB of free mobile internet per month when you top-up £10 every month with Orange – a bit too much for our liking. Although the phone is locked to Orange, you can unlock it for free and use any SIM and any network.
The last step produced a report, listing what steps we had completed and skipped. We tapped the Finish button and were taken to the home screen.
Orange have decided to use their own custom launcher and pre-load the phone with a few of their apps. From the visual side, the Monte Carlo doesn’t provide a very stock Android 2.3 experience, but behind closed doors the phone is very much an Android device. Apart from the Orange Mobile Mail we talked about in first boot, the Orange apps don’t really interfere with the Monte Carlo. You can easily replace the launcher with an alternative from the Android Market such as LauncherPro.
All the usual Google Android apps are pre-installed, such as Market, Email, Music, Navigation and Maps. However, Orange have also pre-installed alternative apps, some with identical names. The only way to differentiate from those with identical names is through the app icon. This is all a bit too confusing and will be particularly confusing for those who are new to Android. Orange apps such as Maps don’t provide a better experience compared to their counterparts from Google - in fact, they aren’t even half as good and yet Orange still charge you to use them. We suggest sticking with the Google apps – not only are they free, but also pack a whole lot more features and are generally slicker.
A few extras from Orange are welcomed, such as the additional ringtones and wallpapers. Orange have also bundled a few of their branded widgets, such as Clocks and News. However, they don’t excel compared to the stock Google Android widgets which are also included. And to be honest, the Orange widgets aren’t very visually pleasing.
It seems Orange has been listening to their customers’ feedback from the San Francisco. With the Monte Carlo, Orange have included two keyboards to choose from – the stock Google Android 2.3 keyboard and XT9 Orange keyboard. We noticed quite early on that the Orange keyboard is identical to the stock keyboard in terms of functionally. In fact, the Orange keyboard seems to just be a reskinned version of the stock keyboard, whilst replicating the Apple iPhone 4 design. Personally, we preferred the Orange keyboard since it is a lot lighter on the eyes, but we understand a few will prefer the darker stock Android 2.3 keyboard. It’s pretty much all down to personal preference here since both keyboards offer the exact same features and performance.
Typing on the Monte Carlo was a breeze and considerably easier when compared to smaller touchscreen phones. The large screen provides the keys with adequate breathing room, preventing accidental errors and typos. Those with larger fingers will benefit the most. We sent a few text messages to test the accuracy of the keyboard and we were very pleased with the results. The auto-correct feature allowed us to type freely without looking, and resulted in rougly a ninety percent success rate at predicting what we intended to type. We can confirm that the “squashed” keyboard seen on prototype models of the ZTE Skate have been fixed, leaving you will a full sized, fully functioning keyboard.
In order to test the GPS performance, I downloaded the free RunKeeper app from the Android Market to track my 30 minute run outdoors. The GPS was able to find a signal within seconds, and did not disconnect throughout the entire 30 minutes. Signal did not dip below “fair”, and stayed at “good” throughout the majority of my run. After my run, I compared the results to Google Maps Satellite view and the Monte Carlo successfully and accurately tracked my run without wondering off course.
Wi-Fi seems to have been fixed from the San Francisco, with no disconnects when alternating between sleep and wake mode. Speeds were consistent indoors as well as outdoors in the garden. The bar rarely dropped behind 2 bars, and we reported no disconnects at all. We were able to stream videos and music without any lag. The browser speeds were also stable without any delays or disconnects.
Orange 3g speeds were consistent throughout our travelling in London, however this is entirely dependent on your area and network. There were no problems between the phone and 3g connection – browsing, YouTube and Facebook worked just fine when on mobile 3g. We suffered from a few lags when steaming video on YouTube, but again, this is entirely dependent on your network and location.
The browser is 100% stock Google Android 2.3. Orange have added 5 bookmarks (which can be deleted) and that’s about it. Browser performance was very slick without any reported crashes throughout our use. Compared to the San Francisco, speeds were roughly the same and more and less matched some higher end smartphones. Scrolling and navigation was considerably smoother than the San Francisco, with very little lag at all. However, pinch and zoom did seem to give some performance issues on rich desktop sites, such and BBC News and The Guardian. Text alignment and size adjusted quickly to pinch and zoom and double tap to zoom, with very little lag at all. As with most TFT screens, text was crystal clear and sharp in the browser regardless of zoom levels. Generally, TFT screens tend to display sharper text when compared to OLED screens.
Unfortunately, the Monte Carlo does not support Flash. We reported a few weeks ago that the Monte Carlo has more than capable hardware for Flash, however licence agreements between Adobe (the creators of Flash), ZTE and Orange have not been met or agreed upon. This also means BBC iPlayer will not be supported on the Monte Carlo since the iPlayer app requires Flash. Perhaps we will see third party support for Flash from the developers at xda and MoDaCo, but I wouldn’t hold my breath.
In order to compensate for the larger screen and more powerful hardware, the Monte Carlo packs a 1400mAh battery compared to the San Francisco’s 1250mAh battery. We tried to simulate general usage in order to get any idea for battery performance and life.
In between checking emails, social network sites, making calls and texts, browsing the internet and streaming videos for a few minutes every hour, we managed drain the battery within 14 hours with GPS and bluetooth both switched on. The Monte Carlo will pretty much be able to offer a full day’s performance for the average Joe, and some.
For stress testing, we played a 800 x 480 video on loop from a full charge. Within 5 hours, the Monte Carlo was on its knees begging for some juice, until the phone finally switched off after a few minutes.
Overall, the Monte Carlo offers better than average battery life for an Android smartphone. In fact, the Monte Carlo offers better than average battery life compared to any mobile phone. The Monte Carlo certainly offers greater battery life over the San Francisco, however we can’t be sure whether that’s down to the larger battery or better software optimization.
We had high hopes for the Orange Monte Carlo, and it certainly did not disappoint. Quite simply put, the Orange Monte Carlo is the best smartphone you can buy around the £150 mark. If you are looking to upgrade your Orange San Francisco, look no further. The faster processor and upgraded camera certainly justify the £50 price increase. The sheer size of the phone and screen may be a bit off-putting for some, but we guarantee within time you will fall in love with the form factor and gorgeous display.