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Orange San Francisco

Pay-as-you-go: the best way to buy a smartphone?

Posted on 31 Jan 2011 at 11:40

Paul Ockenden says PAYG is no longer the preserve of cost-cutting consumers

I recently discussed the way to dig out the best mobile deals, but what about buying the handset in the first place? You’ve probably discovered there are three basic ways to buy a phone in the UK: get it with a monthly contract, buy it SIM-free, or pay-as-you-go (PAYG).

Buy with a contract and the network will typically subsidise the phone purchase, perhaps even giving it for “free”, but of course it isn’t really free: you’re buying it over a fixed term via monthly payments.

Now smartphones are as likely to be seen on buses and supermarket queues as in the boardroom, the networks have started offering some smartphones on PAYG tariffs

To buy a SIM-free phone there’s no point looking in the networks’ branded stores, as they’re normally only available from independent retailers. You’ll end up paying hundreds of pounds for the phone, but you should make back that cost over its lifetime by paying less for a SIM-only contract. And the other great thing about a SIM-free phone is that you can chop and change networks whenever you please.

For the kinds of smartphones I look at, pay-as-you-go has only really become an option in the past year or so. Before that smartphones were considered to be business tools while PAYG was the domain of impoverished consumers – they just didn’t mix. Now smartphones are as likely to be seen on buses and supermarket queues as in the boardroom, and the networks have started offering some smartphones on PAYG tariffs.

As a business user with a restricted budget, you can take advantage of this. How? Because it’s usually much cheaper to buy a PAYG phone and unlock it so that you can use it with a cheap contract SIM than it would be to buy the same phone SIM-free.

Depending on which mobile platform you want to buy into, there are some cracking pay-as-you-go phones available. Obviously, Windows Phone 7 is a bit too new – you’ll have to wait a while before cheaper, low-end devices become available – and the iPhone inhabits its own shiny little elitist world so you’re not likely to find one going cheap. But if you’re interested in BlackBerrys you should be able to find a Curve 8520 for around £130, or the excellent Curve 3G that I looked at a couple of months ago for £200.

If you prefer to go down the Android route, there are even better deals available: at the time of writing, Orange is selling a device called the San Francisco for £99 on pay-as-you-go – a bargain for a brilliant little phone. Of course, it isn’t quite as good as HTC’s Desire, but that would set you back around £400, and there certainly isn’t £300’s-worth of extra functionality between the Desire and the San Francisco.

Many of the Android phones currently appearing on the market are from HTC’s stable, but the San Francisco is actually a rebadged ZTE Blade. It doesn’t feel quite as well built as some of the higher-end smartphones – the Desire, for example – but it’s streets ahead of other cheap Android phones such as the Pulse and Pulse Mini.

Specification-wise, it sports a stunning 480 x 800-pixel capacitive touchscreen (not a rubbish resistive one, as you’ll find on other cheap Android phones) and it comes with all the usual smartphone essentials such as GPS, camera, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and so on; it also includes an FM radio.

Its battery capacity isn’t huge and so you’ll need to charge it every one or two days depending on your usage pattern, but this isn’t untypical for an Android device. Its 3-megapixel camera isn’t the best, either: it takes adequate pictures and is fine for stuff like social-media updates, but for special events you’d probably want to slip a compact digital camera into your pocket as well.

Speed-wise, the San Francisco uses a 600MHz Qualcomm MSM 7227 CPU, which obviously isn’t as fast as the 1GHz Snapdragon processors you’ll find in some high-end smartphones, but it isn’t too sluggish either (it’s the same CPU that HTC uses in the Legend). I really don’t think speed will be an issue for most users, though.

It’s helped along by 512MB of RAM – generous for a low-end smartphone – which helps when you have lots of apps open. Overall I’m quite smitten by the Orange San Francisco, as are a couple of my friends who’ve bought the device.

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User comments

Differing views

Interesting to see how your view of the San Francisco ("brillian") differs from the PCPro review ("disappoints").

Whom should I believe? I guess I could just go to a shop and try one out...

By The_Scrote on 31 Jan 2011

Budget smartphones

I had an unlocked San Francisco and it was pretty good but I bought a HTC Desire for the camera/reliability. The biggest obstacle to the PAYG smartphone is finding a tariff. Orange give a mean 100Mb with their PAYG data plan, fortunately I'm on a good retention deal from Three that I treat as SIM only.

By fiendishlyclever on 31 Jan 2011

Good point

Good point about the tariffs @fiendishlyclever. That's why you also need to click through to the "mobile deals" link referenced at the top of this article. I point out some of the best options there.

By PaulOckenden on 31 Jan 2011

Or wait a while...

I switched from Orange to O2 19 months ago just so I could get the iPhone 3GS. Not only did I leave a network with a reliable mobile signal but paid a hefty monthly bill.

Now that the contract has run out, I switched back to Orange and got a PAYG SIM to go with my iPhone. I find I am really saving money this way.

The phone may be an older one but it suits me fine at the moment. Were I tempted to get the next gen iPhone though, I think I would buy the phone outright and go PAYG as I would plan on keeping it for at least 2 years, I estimate it would be cheaper over it's lifetime.

By mviracca on 31 Jan 2011

Or do this...

Paul I basically agree with you as I've done something similar but I'd avoid the san francisco, there's no two ways about it - it's cheap rubbish.

What I did was buy a used Desire in A+ condition on Gumtree (thus I could inspect it before handing over cash), that cost me £220 in July 10'. Then root it and install Android 2.3 (oxygen rom). Get yourself a Tesco sim, £10, 30 day rolling contract, includes data, sorted.

By Scottbag on 1 Feb 2011

Sorry, but...

... have a rooted San Fran running Jellyfish RLS9 and I would agree with cheap, yes, but rubbish? NFW. It works. Awesomely. A SIM-free Wildfire is twice the price and aside from the camera inferior in most respects. That plus GiffGaff'll do nicely.

By nichomach0 on 1 Feb 2011

hmmm, rooting a san fran, never thought of that. I guess you are always going to be restricted by that processor but if all you want is something better than a wildfire, then probably, job done.

I think it's worth spending an extra £100 or so to have something that can compete with the Nexus S/iphone4.

Regardless, seems we both agree with Nick, sorry Paul.

By Scottbag on 2 Feb 2011

Try the PAYG Asda Sim.
8p min on voice and 4p per text.It also uses the Vodaphone network.I have one plugged into my old Motorola V3 which i bough unlocked about 5 years ago.

I've looked at the orange San francisco.It is cheap and quite good spec for the money.MODOCO web site do a few custom roms for it including one for android V2.2 that also unlocks it.Just don't drop it if you get it.
It does not look a very solid build.Desire is better , just a lot more expensive.My old V3 has been battered a lot and still works.Not sure these modern phones are up to it.Built in obsolescense i guess.

By Jaberwocky on 3 Feb 2011

I've always said it, in the long run it's cheaper to buy outright and you'll save yourself some money.

I recently bought the HTC Wildfire from carphone warehouse for just under £180 on PAYG, and used a sim from which offers unlimited mobile internet with no fair usage policy, unlike the other providers capping theirs at round 1-3GB with excess charges, and they're as cheap or cheaper than Asda and Tesco on call charges and text messages, check it out, you'll be as impressed as I was.

By OliverM on 5 Feb 2011

PAYG Desire HD

I bought mine on eBay, I have unlocked it but not yet rooted it, mainly because I don't know how to do it and local shops don't want to do it. I broke away from my old provider and lloked around and settled on giffgaff as they allow unlimited internet, and what's the point of a smart phone if you have to think about downlad caps on "unlimited"., have a look and see for yourself:)

By rkcl1 on 10 Feb 2011

Makes the £140 I paid for a brand new SIM-free Palm Centro seem quite reasonable.

I'm a light minutes/text user mostly using the phone to check email and occasional web-browsing when I'm out of the office. I've been on GiffGaff for the last 10 months or so, just topping up as and when and avoiding all the packages and monthly fees.

Quite frankly, I've saved a small fortune over the standard tariffs.

By survivalskills on 17 Feb 2011

I'd really like to know if a 'contract' exists that charges me depending on how much I use the thing. No top ups, no contract, just charged for usage.

That way on a busy month I'm charged a lot, on a quiet month nothing. No dropped calls, no unused minutes.

Does such exist? They'd certainly get me as a customer.

By bubbles16 on 21 Feb 2011

I have a SIM only deal from Orange where I pay peanuts and seem to be able to use as much data as I need. I combined that with a Motorola Milestone that I bought cheap on eBay. I have Cyanogenmod 7 on the Milestone which gives me Android 2.3 Gingerbread, and it works really well!

By Sushifiend on 24 Feb 2011

still confused

i am on t/mobile solo 15 would like to start useing phone internet for browsing though don`t use my mobile much need a good phone&deal should i go to giffgaff or payg so much deals can`t make my mind up

By elwar on 27 Apr 2012

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Paul Ockenden

Paul Ockenden

Paul is a contributing editor to PC Pro specialising in smartphones, mobile broadband and all things wireless. He's technical director of a combined IT and marketing company, which works on websites and intranets for several blue-chip clients.

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