More than just a gadget you want to be seen carrying, the Helio Oceanis a device hipsters--and aspiring ones--will covet for its innovative dual-slider design, robust instant-messaging and e-mail capabilities, MySpace integration, and music and video playback. Being able to search contacts and conduct a Web search right from the phone's idle screen is yet another reason to dive in. It has some issues, but the Ocean makes T-Mobile's slow and blocky SideKick 3 look like the smart phone equivalent of a kiddy pool.
The 5.6-ounce, 0.9-inch thick Ocean isn't exactly supermodel thin, but we dig the soft-touch finish and oval design. Sliding up the brilliant 2.4-inch display in landscape mode reveals a slightly cramped but perfectly usable QWERTY keyboard. The layout seemed a bit too wide at first, but we were typing quickly in no time. Sliding the screen up when you hold the phone vertically reveals a traditional dialpad, making the Ocean more comfortable for use when making calls than the Sidekick. Too bad the dialpad is so big and slippery; we constantly entered the wrong digits.
A 2.5mm audio jack, volume buttons, and media playback buttons line the left side of the Ocean (in phone mode), and a speakerphone button, camera button, and microSD Card slot are on the right. The back side houses the camera lens and flash. The front of the phone is where the action's at; a circular D-pad and four soft keys make moving around menus a breeze. The main menu presents nine easy-to-understand icons, including Surf (Web browsing), Snap (camera), and Plan (calendar and other tools).
Messaging & Search Champ
Messaging is the Ocean's biggest strength. From one screen you can send and view picture and text messages, as well as access AOL, Windows Live, and Yahoo for e-mail and instant messaging. Earthlink, Gmail, and Helio Mail are e-mail-only, however. We especially like the Ocean's integration with e-mail and IM clients. Within Yahoo, for instance, we could easily toggle between IM conversations and our Inbox by pressing right on the D-pad. The Ocean is also smart enough to tell you which buddies are online by using presence technology, which means you don't have to be in the messaging app to see who's online. A little icon next to your IM buddies tips you off from within the contact list.
Instant-messaging performance was generally fast, and we like that the Ocean alerts you to new messages even after you exit the Message application. We were generally pleased with the e-mail experience. Messages downloaded quickly, although you have to select More to read messages longer than a few paragraphs. We also appreciated the ability to download image attachments and read Word and PDF attachments as text. Hardcore business users will want to wait for Helio to provide full Microsoft Exchange support (which will wirelessly sync e-mail, calendar, and contacts), but Helio does support push e-mail from AOL, MSN, and Yahoo.
After we synchronized our Yahoo address book wirelessly, we could easily look up contacts by pecking just a few letters of the person's name from the Ocean's idle screen. Even better is the Direct Search feature, which delivers results from Amazon, Google, Wikipedia, Yahoo, and Yelp using an elegant tabbed interface. We typed "ny yankees," hit search, and within ten seconds the Ocean brought us to the Yahoo Search results page showing the team's logo and official homepage. Loading the Google results tab took an additional six seconds and gave us the Yanks' up-to-the-minute box score versus the Blue Jays. If Helio has content that relates to your search, it will present that front and center. For example, searching for Linkin Park returned links to ringtones, music downloads, and videos.
Good Entertainer, So-So Surfer
While it's not exactly a multitasking maestro, the Ocean has some serious entertainment chops. You can side-load AAC, MP3, and WMA audio files (including DRM files from Yahoo and Napster) or download songs over the air for a hefty $1.99 apiece, which takes about 40 to 60 seconds. Our Linkin Park and The White Stripes tracks sounded very good when played through the loud stereo speakers. Tunes also sounded decent through the included stereo headset and the Kyocera Bluetooth earbuds we tried. Unfortunately, the only things you can do while listening to music are shop for more music and surf the Web. Playback stuttered when we tried to download a song while listening. Worse, you can't adjust the volume or change tracks while surfing using the media controls.
On the video front, the Ocean impressed us with its streaming capabilities. We enjoyed smooth, full-screen playback when we streamed an episode of the hilarious Ask a Ninja, and we noticed only a minor amount of blur. Helio offers lots of other free content (well, free with your monthly subscription, which starts at $65 per month), ranging from The Onion and Fox Sports to tons of viral videos. The TV Set, a premium service that includes clips from the likes of Adult Swim, Comedy Central, and MTV, costs an additional $5.99 per month. You should also be able to transfer both video and music files from your PC to the Helio using the included USB cable, but the required Media Mover software wasn't yet available for this device during testing.
Web surfing was a mixed bag. Pages like the New York Times and ESPN popped up within ten seconds, but the browser by default loads only about a quarter of the page. You can choose to view in full HTML mode to eliminate having to click Next Page repeatedly, but we wish the Ocean let you switch to HTML mode permanently. On the plus side, bookmarking favorites and RSS feeds is easy, and several Web sites optimized for mobile like AccuWeather, Google News, MySpace, and Slate worked perfectly. The only other nitpick we have is the five to ten seconds the browser takes to shut down-a bit annoying when you want to make a call right away.
Ready for Your Close-ups?
So long as there's a fair amount of ambient light, the Ocean's two-megapixel camera takes decent pictures, but they're not good enough to print. We noticed a fair amount of graininess. Indoors, the LED flash helps, but only a little. On the plus side, it's dead simple to share photos, whether you want to do it via e-mail or upload images directly online using the Helio Up service. Once you do that, adding photos to your MySpace page from the device is a snap. Videos recorded with the camcorder function looked jerky and were littered with artifacts, but they're not any worse than what most camera phones capture.
Lest we forget, the Ocean is a phone, too. Calls generally sounded clear if a bit low in volume, and we didn't experience any dropped calls during our testing in Manhattan and New Jersey, just the occasional garbling resulting from weak reception. Helio rides on Sprint's network, so you get the same wide 3G data coverage. Battery life was what we expected given the Ocean's horsepower; the phone lasted about two days on a charge with moderate usage. Rated talk time is up to 5.1 hours.
The Ocean was a bit buggy at times. We encountered a few HTTP errors while Web surfing, and on two occasions the phone froze with the browser open; we had to remove the battery and reboot, which was more difficult than it should have been. Also, we noticed a delay between typing and the letters showing up on the device's screen. We're hoping that Helio can address some of these issues and that the service provider continues to enhance the phone with promised features like local contact and calendar synchronization via USB and more third-party applications.
Nevertheless, right now the Ocean is a best-in-class messaging phone. Mobile professionals might prefer the slimmer and cheaper BlackBerry Curve, but this do-it-all device is worth the extra dough for frequent instant messagers and MySpace users. Convenient features like contact presence and Direct Search seal the deal. This is the first Helio phone that's worth switching carriers for.
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