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Orange San Diego review: Intel comes to smartphones

Android meets x86

For many years, Intel has been promising that it would revolutionize mobile computing. At CES 2010, it showcased a new Atom processor, Moorestown, and even went so far as to announce a device, the LG GW990, which was set to ship in the second half of 2010. Amidst rumors of poor power consumption, the GW990 was canceled, and not a single Moorestown device ever made it to market.

Fast-forward to CES 2012, and Intel is in Las Vegas again with a new mobile chip codenamed Medfield. This chip, Intel says — this chip is the one. Intel showed off a fully-functional reference design, and also announced a multi-year, multi-device partnership with Motorola.

This time round, Intel has followed through on one of its promises. But rather than arriving guns blazing with a hot new slate of phones, Intel is testing the waters by commercializing that CES reference design with a series of low-key launches. In April, Indian cellphone manufacturer Lava released the Medfield-based Lava X900, and a few weeks ago Lenovo followed suit in China with the LePhone K800. Next on Intel’s list is the UK, with carrier Orange, and the San Diego.

The San Diego isn’t priced like a revolutionary device — it’s available for just £199.99 (around $309) on an Orange prepaid plan. For comparison, Nokia’s Lumia 710 will set you back £179.99 ($278) through Orange pay-as-you-go, and last year’s Galaxy S II is £399.99 (about $618). You’ll get a lot of phone for your money as well — a 4.03-inch high-resolution display, 16GB of onboard storage, NFC, an 8-megapixel 1080p rear camera, and a 1.3-megapixel 720p front-facing imager. But while its low price alleviates some of the pressure, the San Diego still has a lot of questions to answer. Intel says that the vast majority of apps will run on its x86 processor without issue and ensures us that it’s finally fixed power consumption with the Medfield Atom. Is it true?

Intel has dominated the PC and laptop market for what seems like an eternity, but Android is firmly in the hands of Qualcomm, Nvidia, TI, and the rest of the ARM manufacturers. Can Intel really enter this late in the game and hope to be competitive? And will the increased competition benefit consumers, or simply further fragment an already increasingly disparate platform?


Design / hardware

Design / hardware

Do I know you from somewhere?

As I alluded to previously, the San Diego is a doppelgänger for the Intel Medfield reference design that we saw at CES: the devices’ general dimensions and spec sheets are virtually identical, and only a few minor cosmetic differences separate the two.

Orange has stuck so closely to Intel’s formula that the San Diego feels almost anonymous. Manufactured by Gigabyte — a big player in the PC parts industry and a logical partner for Intel — there’s nothing particularly offensive about the San Diego, but there’s very little to pique your interest either. It’s just a black and silver slab, with predictable lines and unappealing curves. I’ve had more than one person tell me "it looks like a toy," and that’s not because of poor build quality or even (for the most part at least) poor materials. It’s just so generic it’s almost unreal — no surprise given its origins as an Intel testbed.

Up front is a 4.03-inch WSVGA (1024 x 600 pixel) display, which is a very unusual size and resolution for a smartphone, and the first clue that this isn’t your average Android device. Beneath the display there’s a line of four capacitive keys, and up top there’s a 1.3-megapixel front-facing camera capable of shooting 720p video.

The sides of the device are clad in a very cheap silver plastic, which is reminiscent of the sort that used to cover the old HTC smartphones of the mid 2000s. While I owned and loved many of the old Windows Mobile handsets, their build quality is not something I’m nostalgic about.

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Thoroughly forgettable

A sheet of soft-touch gray plastic lines the back of the San Diego and makes the device feel very comfortable in your hands. It’s non-removable, so there’s no access to the 4.6WHr battery behind it, and there’s also no microSD slot to be found. If you need more than the 16GB of internal storage that the San Diego provides you might want to start comparing cloud storage services.

Measuring 9.9mm (0.39 inches) thick, it’s certainly not the thinnest smartphone around, but the San Diego is very ergonomically sound, and doesn’t feel bulky at all. It’s almost exactly the same height and width as the Sony Xperia P — 123mm (4.84 inches) by 63mm (2.5 inches) to be exact — but doesn’t have any of P’s industrial design magic to hide the fact that its footprint is relatively huge, and comparable to devices with larger displays like the Galaxy S II.

Aesthetics aside, you’ll find everything you would expect from an Android smartphone. On one side you’ll find a two-stage shutter key, Micro SIM slot, and volume rocker, and on the other a Micro HDMI port. Up top you’ll find the usual power button, headphone jack, and noise-cancelling mic, and down below the Micro USB port for charging and syncing, a loudspeaker, and a microphone. I found the volume rocker and power button a little too stiff for my liking, and the two-stage shutter key was a pain to push all the way in — far too spongey.

There’s also an 8-megapixel rear camera with LED flash which sits above the Orange and Intel logos. I’m not a fan of on-device branding, but it has to be said it’s a great novelty to see the Intel Inside logo away from the confines of my laptop. I have one major irritation with the back of this phone: the camera housing sits around 5mm (0.2 inches) off-center, which makes it looks like someone made an error in manufacturing. Once I noticed this, I found it impossible to ignore, but others may not have the same problem.


Performance

Performance, battery life, and software

In the larger scheme of things, aesthetic intricacies don’t matter to most — what’s more important is what’s inside. And what’s inside, as the logo on the back suggests, is Intel.

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The San Diego is powered by a single-core 1.6GHz Atom Z2460 x86 processor, paired with 1GB of RAM and a PowerVR SGX 540 GPU clocked at 400MHz. Athough the Atom is a single-core processor, it utilizes the same hyper-threading technology as Intel’s desktop chips, and Android actually treats it like a dual-core processor. Just like the ARM chips that most Android devices use, the x86 Atom can intelligently lower its clock rate to save battery when the extra processing power is not needed. Although its spec sheet lists scaling from 100MHz to 1.6GHz (in 100MHz increments), the benchmark apps we used flag this implementation of the chip bottoming out at 600MHz. In addition to that scaling, the processor can power down into a ‘deep sleep’ that works in a similar way to a laptop’s hibernate mode, after it’s idle for a sufficient amount of time. Intel says that this technology allows the San Diego to last for two weeks on standby. In contrast, ARM chips can scale to a far lower when idle, but are unable to ever fully power down, and don’t have such impressive standby times because of it.

While that all sounds great on paper, Intel has been saying that its mobile chips are competitive for many years, and this is the first chance we’ve had to test its claims. There are three important topics to cover here: battery life, app compatibility, and general performance.

Thanks to Hyper-threading, Android sees the single core as two
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Intel is on par with the competition
Battery life

Battery Life

Unfortunately, the San Diego didn’t last nearly as long as Intel claims. While the company’s two-week assertion might be true if you were to switch Airplane Mode on and never turn on the screen, I managed to get to two and a half days from a single charge with light use — Wi-Fi on, push email syncing, the occasional tweet, text message, and some light browsing of The Verge’s mobile-optimized site. Still, for a mid-range Android device, that’s actually pretty great. Bear in mind that the device had to sync over 100 emails per day through this period — if you’re an exceptionally light user, you should be able to coax out even more life from the battery.

One area where Intel can improve power consumption is heavy use. The San Diego lasted 5 hours and 26 minutes in our battery test, which cycles webpages and images with the screen set to 65 percent brightness. That’s not the worst we’ve tested, but it could definitely be better. Under normal use, Intel’s fantastic idling tech easily sees the San Diego through to the end of the day and beyond. Intel isn’t leaps and bounds ahead of the ARM competition, but it seems to have caught up.

App compatibility

App Compatibility

Intel recently said that 95 percent of the content in Google Play would work with x86. While it comes close to that figure in some categories, my overall experience wasn’t quite so trouble-free.

In terms of apps, the San Diego should play nicely with almost everything you throw at it. While time constraints obviously prevented me from physically testing all the apps on the store, I personally launched every single one of the top 100 free apps and games available to me on Google Play, and 50 more for good measure. I found no cases (apart from Netflix, which encountered errors during the install process) where an app was supposed to run, but wouldn’t. Ookla’s popular Speed Test app did highlight one interesting issue: it ran in a WVGA (480 x 800) window with black borders around it, rather than taking up the full screen This seems to be an issue with the app scaling to the San Diego’s unusual display resolution, rather than compatibility with x86.

Of course, just because all the apps that Google, Intel and Orange allowed me to download worked, that doesn’t mean that all the apps are available to begin with.

To confirm if Intel’s 95 percent claim was true, I visited Google’s top 100 charts and checked to see how many of the apps would run on the San Diego. First up was the Top 100 Paid apps and games chart, of which 83 were compatible. All of the incompatible items were games, with the exception of a pair of ICS-only launchers. Next up was the Top 100 Free apps and games chart, of which 6 were incompatible — all games again, aside from the aforementioned BBC iPlayer app. The results match my personal experience — games are the real issue here. Of the Top 100 Paid games, only 72 were compatible, and from the Free Games chart, 93.

I went through the same process with the Galaxy S II, Xperia P, Droid RAZR, and Galaxy S III to see what the results would look like in comparison to the San Diego.

Top Paid Apps/Games Top Free Apps/Games Top Paid Games Top Free Games
Orange San Diego 84 / 100 94 / 100 72 / 100 93 / 100
Galaxy S III 89 / 100 92 / 100 80 / 100 97 / 100
Xperia P 94 / 100 94 / 100 91 / 100 98 / 100
Droid RAZR 91 / 100 98 / 100 90 / 100 99 / 100
Galaxy S II 98 / 100 94 / 100 94 / 100 100

As you can see, the San Diego isn’t as far behind the curve as you might have expected. When I bought my Galaxy S II on launch day there were a lot of incompatible games, but after a year the situation is much improved. This is a normal issue with some devices that have new or unique technology inside, but for the time being it can definitely be an annoyance.

For instance, both Netflix and the BBC iPlayer app seem to be incompatible, and wouldn’t work no matter what I tried. As LoveFilm, the UK’s other major movie streaming site, doesn’t have an Android streaming app you’ll be stuck sideloading or renting through Google Play if you want to watch movies on the go. I’m sure this is a matter that can be fixed, but this is the type of issue that Intel needs to address before it even considers releasing a major device.

For me, the lack of video apps wasn’t a huge issue, and Facebook, IMDb, Instagram, Kindle, Readability, Skype, Spotify, SwiftKey X, TuneIn Radio, Tweetdeck, and YouTube all ran without issue. That’s pretty much my standard software selection for any phone. I also tried out popular alternatives to my favorite apps, including Instapaper, Pocket, Viber, Rdio, Deezer, Twitter, and Swype and ran into no problems.

The main cause of frustration for me personally was gaming, with big-name titles like Shadowgun, Samurai II, Temple Run, Plants Vs. Zombies, and Minecraft: Pocket Edition all on the incompatible list. That’s not to say that you can’t game on the San Diego — the vast majority of games will work, and graphically intensive games like Dead Space and Mass Effect: Infiltrator ran with only minor framerate dips, much the same as they did on my neighboring Galaxy Nexus.

That’s not to excuse Intel, though; it definitely needs to be aggressive in its attempts to improve the situation. The average user shouldn’t have to care about which processor is powering their device. While it’s true that incompatible apps (again, Netflix aside) won’t show up in Google Play on the device itself, people know what Temple Run is, and they won’t understand why their brand-new smartphone doesn’t have it. Intel just about passes the app-compatibility test on its first attempt, but it needs to improve, and improve fast.

Benchmarks
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How competitive is Intel's Atom?

Benchmarks

Quadrant Vellamo GLB 2.1 Egypt (720p) GLB 2.1 Egypt (1080p) AnTuTu
Orange San Diego (Medfield Atom) 4,127 1,303 28fps 14fps 5,604
Galaxy S III
(Exynos 4 Quad)
5,283 2,008 101fps 59fps 10,568
HTC One X
(Tegra 3)
4,430 1,614 65fps 32fps 11,322
HTC One S
(Snapdragon S4)
5,141 2,420 57fps 29fps 7,107
Galaxy Nexus
(OMAP4460)
2,002 1,065 28fps 14fps 6,079


The San Diego’s processor is certainly a cut above the competition’s silicon at this price point: in fact, based on CPU-weighted benchmark scores alone, it seems like it would be a decent match for Nvidia’s quad-core Tegra 3. Respectable scores in Quadrant and AnTuTu reflect its solid all-round performance, and the lower (but still very strong) Vellamo score can be attributed to the browser, rather than a lack of power. A very low score in the "user experience" section of the Vellamo test, which simulates scrolling through heavy websites, dramatically lowered the score in comparison with other devices. All three tests are influenced by screen resolution, meaning that a WVGA or qHD device like the One S is at an advantage when compared to the San Diego, and 720p HD devices like the One X score lower than they would if they were fitted with a WSVGA display.

The GLBenchmark test renders a complex 3D scene off-screen at 720p and 1080p, ensuring that display resolution isn’t an issue — this is a straight test of GPU power. As they share the same GPU, the Galaxy Nexus and San Diego score identical results of 28fps and 14fps, placing the pair well below the rest of the pack. Hopefully Intel will pair its Atom with a more competitive GPU when it launches high-end hardware.


Software

Software

I’m sorry to say that the imperfect real-world performance hinted at in the browser test extends to the rest of the software suite. Orange’s interpretation of Android, which features on many of its low-end smartphones, has one of the worst skins I’ve ever had the displeasure of using. Among the highlights are ugly icons, compressed text menus, and a collection of utterly dull (if occasionally useful) widgets. You’ll come across occasional stutters when navigating the UI, especially when swiping through homescreens — that’s completely unacceptable from a device that seems to be this powerful.

To ensure that the performance was down to poor software, rather than the Atom, I installed the third-party ssLauncher. Immediately after switching away from Orange’s launcher, all of the San Diego’s performance issues were eradicated. While I can now sleep happy knowing that the processor was not to blame, that’s not much consolation to the average person that will buy this phone and get a thoroughly sub-par experience.

In addition to the sluggish launcher, Orange has littered the San Diego with a number of preinstalled, non-removable apps. The full list comprises 10 apps; although I’ve seen phones ship with more bloatware, there are five separate programs dedicated to carrier services, and very few of actual use. Navigon Select was actually of some interest to me, as it offers turn-by-turn directions without the need for a data connection, but unfortunately unless you’re on a plan that includes the service, you’ll have to pay £5 (around $7.75) per month to use it. Dailymotion and Quickoffice are both inoffensive, but if I wanted to I could get them, or any number of alternative apps, from Google Play. They certainly shouldn’t be unremovable. Gestures is an app that only works when you use Orange’s awful launcher, and allows you to trace shapes on the homescreen to open up an app, start a new text message, or jump to a settings menu. While it’s a nice idea, in reality I found it trying to recognize a gesture when I was simply attempting to swipe between homescreens — more of a hindrance than a help. Doubletwist is admittedly a fantastic media player, but again, I don’t like that it can’t be removed.

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Gingerbread plus bloatware... Nailed it
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As long as a game was compatible with Medfield, gaming was pretty issue free. As I previously mentioned, Intel has paired its CPU with the same GPU as found in the Galaxy Nexus, which is capable of running most titles without any framerate issues. As the Nexus has a higher resolution screen than the San Diego gaming performance should technically be better on Orange’s device, but if it is, the difference was imperceivable to me. I did run into one or two issues with games crashing, but to be fair that’s pretty indicative of the average Android experience at this price range.

There is an issue I haven’t yet covered though, and that’s the absence of Google’s latest operating system, Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich. This is usually the time when I, or one of my colleagues, would provide some upsetting statistics on how long the ICS source code has been in the public domain, and then spew some vitriol about how unacceptable this sort of situation is. On the one hand, Android 4.0 was not designed to run on the x86 architecture, making Intel’s job a fair bit harder than Sony or LG’s. Intel has to port the platform over to Atom, and ensure that its binary translation engine (the magic that makes Android apps run on x86) works flawlessly.

That doesn’t excuse Intel, though: the company showed off a Medfield Reference Design at CTIA earlier this year with Android 4.0, and Intel promised that "all future versions of Android" would be optimized for Intel chips over a month before Ice Cream Sandwich was announced. Either there’s something not quite ready yet, or Intel chose a poor launching partner in Orange. Orange says that a future update will bring Android 4.0 to the device, but the carrier won’t provide a date.

Display

Display

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Measuring 4.03 inches diagonally, the San Diego’s LCD is dwarfed by modern-day ‘superphones’ like the HTC One X and Samsung Galaxy S III. After spending quite some time with a 4-inch device recently, I’ve fallen in love with this out-of-vogue screen size. The resolution certainly helps — WSVGA (1024 x 600 pixels) on a screen this small gives a thoroughly dense 295ppi. That falls short of the industry-leading Xperia S (342ppi) and iPhone 4S (326ppi), but I find it impossible to make out pixels anyway. It’s definitely a cut above mid-range devices like the HTC One S (256ppi), and holds its own against the Xperia P’s superb 275ppi display.

However, pixel density is but one metric when ascertaining display quality. There are also the small matters of color temperature, saturation, viewing angles, brightness, black levels, and visibility in sunlight. To totally nail it — and in turn earn a hallowed ‘10’ in our wrap-up — a display has to be well above average in every category. With that in mind, how was my experience with the San Diego’s screen? Good, but not perfect.

Although viewing angles are indeed superb, the display doesn’t ‘pop’ like the HTC One X or iPhone 4’s LCD, which are laminated to glass. The backlight is very bright, and makes this LCD one of the more visible in direct sunlight. Viewed head-on the San Diego produces black levels that are among the best I’ve seen, but from a somewhat-oblique (45 degrees or so) angle, the backlight washes out all the colors and reduces the visible contrast. Speaking of colors, they’re nicely saturated and reasonably accurate, but the white balance (and therefore color temperature) seems to be a little on the blue side. It’s nothing major, and unless you’re the sort of person that obsesses over display calibration you probably won’t notice.

A dense, attractive display
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Cameras

Cameras

More of a tech demo than a software suite
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Sitting at the back of the San Diego is an 8-megapixel f/2.4 auto-focusing camera with a dizzying array of features, including a burst mode that can shoot 10 images at up to 15fps. It’s also capable of shooting 1080p video at 30fps, and encodes it in H.264 at 15Mbps. Up front you’ll find a sensor that can capture stills at 1.3-megapixels and video at 720p.

The photos I took were extremely inconsistent. It’s usually easy to pinpoint issues and highlight poor low-light performance, soft images, or issues with exposure, but to this day I still have no idea why some images were either ridiculously dark, under-saturated or over-exposed. I’m almost certain that the sensor isn’t to blame. On occasion (and seemingly at random) it outperformed the Sony Xperia P, iPhone 4S, and Galaxy S II. But those occasions were few and far between. As far as I can tell, the sensor is fantastic and can capture a great amount of detail, even in extremely low-light situations.

The software doesn’t help matters at all. It’s more like a tech demo for the image processor built into the Medfield chip, and was clearly created by an engineer rather than a UI designer. That’s to say, the feature list is very extensive, but the way the app presents the features to you makes no sense. Switching between sensors and photo / video modes is done through two tiny buttons at the bottom of the screen which sit too close to each other — you’ll often find yourself changing cameras when you wanted to switch to video mode and vice versa. On the left side of the display is a pull-out drawer with an almost-endless scrollable list of meaningless buttons, inside which are sometimes more buttons, which will take you to a set of toggles.

Buried in the sea of icons are the usual ISO, exposure and white balance controls, but also such exotic options as backlight correction and antibanding, the latter of which prevents those unsightly lines that appear when you take photos of a television or computer screen. If only everything wasn’t so difficult to find. To give you an idea of what joy awaits you inside the submenus, the smiley face button contains three toggles: XNR, ANR, and GDC. There is, of course, no mention of what the heck any of the settings do anywhere on the device or in the included manual. After searching around around a little I managed to deconstruct the acronyms: Geometric Distortion Correction, eXtra Noise Reduction, and Active Noise Reduction. The fact that the software is capable of this sort of witchcraft is fantastic, but it should either be taken care of automatically or be clearly labelled. That’s the story through this UI — way too many settings than are needed for a smartphone, and very few of which are actually defined properly or explained.

I actually appreciate having more granular control over my photos — iOS’s over-simplified setup thoroughly frustrates me when compared to the average Android camera app — but this is absolute overkill. It doesn’t invite experimentation either, as there are far too many options that under the wrong conditions will completely ruin your photos. Intel has placed a reset button at the bottom of the menu, so once you mess up the settings — and unless you’re a camera pro, you will — you can quickly jump back to your original settings.

Shooting video was far easier, and the results were much more impressive as well. The settings list actually fits on the screen now, although still presents you with confusing, unexplained acronyms in the form of DVS (Digital Video Stabilization) and NR (Noise Reduction). The other settings pertain to video size, white balance, flash mode, zoom, and the obligatory selection of filters. The movies I shot were crisp and detailed, although occasionally the autofocus flitters around a bit (as seen in the video sample below). Low-light performance was good, and the video stabilization also did a good job of reducing shakes.

The San Diego’s front-facing camera deserves a little praise. It performed quite well in comparison to most front-facing cameras — which admittedly isn’t saying much — but it did give me photos and videos I wouldn’t be completely ashamed of. Given its placement you’ll likely be using it for video calling most of the time, and i’m happy to report that it performed very well over multiple Skype calls.

Call quality

Call quality, reception, 3G performance

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I was unable to run my usual multiple-carrier tests with the San Diego as it will only accept SIM cards from Orange. From my single-carrier test, signal strength was always on par with or above that of the Galaxy S II, Sony Xperia P, and iPhone 4S. Call quality was also superlative, with callers sounding crisp and clear even in speakerphone mode. I had no complaints about clarity from those that I called, and I was told that I sounded clearer than I did on the aforementioned devices.

3G performance was difficult to test, as even with full signal the Orange network was unable to provide more than 1.4Mbps down and 0.6Mbps up. This was identical to that pulled down by other phones, but it’s impossible to tell how the San Diego would cope with the high speeds other carriers in my area can offer.

The San Diego is a solid Android device that’s worth a lot more than Orange is charging, at least on hardware alone. It’s difficult to find a comparative phone in this price range. The HTC One V comes with Android 4.0 — something that should come to the San Diego at some point — but has a small, low-resolution display and a single-core processor. A better comparison would be the HTC One S, which is by far a more complete package, but also happens to be twice the price in the UK. While If you can deal with the occasional incompatible game, and don’t mind waiting for Android 4.0, the San Diego is a bargain.

Intel has now proven that the Medfield platform can power a smartphone, run Android, and sip power effectively. There’s room for improvement in both performance and battery life, but it does well in most Android metrics that we care about. What it needs next is compelling hardware and a strategy to lure developers into ensuring all their apps are compatible with x86 processors.

Looking down the line, it seems like Intel has a decent shot at making a name for itself in mobile devices. It has an agreement with Google that will ensure future versions of Android are developed for ARM, a partnership with Google-owned Motorola to produce x86 devices over coming years, and a pace of development that few companies can match — just ask AMD. In 2013, Intel will shrink its manufacturing process from 32nm to 22nm and in the process create more powerful, less power-hungry chips. The year after that? 14nm.

While ARM-based chips will undoubtedly continue to advance at a similarly blistering pace, Intel has, with a single-core Atom CPU, almost matched the best ARM has to offer. My only hope is that Android developers don’t leave x86 out: there’s room in the Android world for more than one architecture, and if everyone can play nice, the increased competition will benefit all of us.

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