Helio Fin review: Helio Fin

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3.5 stars

CNET Editors' Rating

The Good The Helio Fin is an extremely thin phone with an impressive feature set that includes a 3.0-megapixel camera, a music player, built-in GPS, EV-DO support, direct media uploads to Flickr and YouTube, and more. It also has great call quality.

The Bad The Helio Fin has a tiny external display. It lacks a self-portrait mirror, a dedicated camera key on the side, and a dedicated speakerphone key. It also has a flat keypad that's unpleasant to use.

The Bottom Line The Helio Fin is perhaps too thin for its own good, with several design compromises that place slimness over usability. If you can look past these flaws, however, the Fin is a feature-packed phone with excellent performance.

Visit manufacturer site for details.

7.3 Overall
  • Design 6.0
  • Features 8.0
  • Performance 8.0

Helio is one of those rare MVNOs that has captured some of the spotlight away from the major carriers with its hipper-than-thou ad campaigns, slick design philosophy, and tricked-out handsets. From the curvy Helio Kickflip to the dual-slider Helio Ocean, Helio is set to make waves in the MVNO pool with phones that stand out from the rest. Its most recent handset, the Helio Fin, is no different. Helio's first flip phone, the Samsung-made Fin, is also supposedly the thinnest flip phone in the country. It has a tiny OLED external screen, a startlingly slim profile, a truly flat keypad, and a style that is, sadly, rather underwhelming. That said, its treasure trove of Helio-approved features, like the ability to upload media directly to Flickr and YouTube, plus a brand-new GPS application courtesy of Garmin, saves it from being too ordinary. We would probably advise the finger-friendly Helio Drift or Helio Ocean over the Fin, but if you must have thin above all else, then the Fin is a good choice. Its MSRP is $365, but you can get it for $175 with service and a discount offer.

No question about it, the Helio Fin is one thin phone. Measuring only 0.45-inch thick, the Fin is the Kate Moss of skinny handsets, making it the thinnest flip phone in North America at the time of its release. But, we hate to say, the phone looks rather ordinary despite its slim figure. Its chassis is a businesslike blue, there's nothing too exciting about its wide rectangular shape (about 4.06 inches long and 2.04 inches wide), and the small OLED display on the front is disappointing to say the least. Though the display does show the typical date, time, signal, and battery strength information, as well as caller ID, it is just way too small. It can't support photo caller ID, and can't be used as a camera viewfinder.

The Fin has a tiny external OLED screen.
Above the display sits a camera lens, with no sign of a flash or self-portrait mirror anywhere. The left spine is home to a volume rocker and charger jack, while the microSD card slot is inconveniently located behind the battery. We were also disappointed with the lack of a dedicated camera key on the side, making self-portraits highly uncomfortable to take. As for the overall feel of the phone, we do like the cool metallic surface and its lightweight 3.35 ounce heft. It fits fine in the hand and when held up to the ear. That said, its skinny profile does make it a tad tedious to hold for long periods of time.

The Fin's microSD card slot is located behind the battery.
Flip open the phone and you'll find the Fin's saving grace as far as design goes; its large 2.3-inch 262,000-color QVGA display. Images look sharp and colorful, and Helio's graphical menu interface really shows it off. As on all Helio phones, the menu icons are arranged in a circle, making for easy navigation. You can adjust the backlight time, the brightness, and the dialing font style, as well as font sizes. You can also choose to overlay the home screen with a clock or calendar.

The Fin has a very flat keypad.
The Fin has probably one the flattest keypads we've ever used. The entire keypad feels like one flat slate, except for the four-way toggle that has a spun-metal surface and two tiny dots around the number 5. We are absolutely not fans of this design, as this all-flat surface makes it difficult to dial and navigate. The navigation array consists of the aforementioned four-way toggle, two soft keys, a dedicated music player key, a dedicated camera key, a back/clear key, and the Talk and End keys. The toggle doubles as a shortcut to Helio's Web browser, the Games menu, messaging, and the Video+Music menu. We would have liked a dedicated speakerphone key as well. The phone's speaker sits above the display while the mic sits underneath the keypad.

Even though we were not pleased with the Fin's too-thin design, the phone's high-end features make up for it. But first, the basics. The Helio Fin comes with a 1,000-entry address book, and each entry is able to store up to five numbers, an e-mail address, a birth date, a home address, and a memo. Each contact can be assigned a caller group, a photo or video for caller ID, and one of seven polyphonic ringtones. Bear in mind that the Fin doesn't have an external screen that supports photo or video caller ID, so it's only applicable when the Fin is open. The Fin has a full-featured messaging dashboard that includes all kinds of messaging options in a single menu--text and multimedia messaging, instant messaging, and access to a variety of e-mail options that include POP3 and IMAP support, Web e-mail access, and push mail support for Yahoo, AOL, Windows Live, and Helio Mail. Other features include a vibrate mode, a speakerphone, voice dialing, a calendar, an alarm clock, a calculator, a to-do list, a world time clock, a wake-up call alarm, a unit converter, a notepad, a voice recorder, and a stopwatch. On the higher end, there's a wireless Web browser, stereo Bluetooth support, USB mass storage mode, EV-DO support, and built-in GPS.

As with the Helio Drift, this built-in GPS allows Helio to offer location-based applications such as Google Maps for Mobile, a miniaturized version of Google Maps with traffic information, step-by-step driving directions, and an integrated search engine to find local businesses. There's also Buddy Beacon, Helio's own friend locator service that works by broadcasting your location to your friends (and vice versa). Finally, the latest GPS application to join the Helio family is Garmin Mobile, a full-on GPS application with a moving map and turn-by-turn directions, as well as voice instruction. Another cool thing about the Garmin Mobile application is that it comes included with 6 million points of interest preprogrammed into the service. However, using Garmin Mobile will cost you--you rent it for $2.99 a day.

Thanks to the Helio Fin's EV-DO support, the phone comes with an array of rich broadband services like Yahoo Search, shortcuts to sites like CNN, Digg, and MySpace Mobile, and even video and audio streaming from content partners like ABC, MTV, and Fox. You can choose to purchase and download music videos for $2.50 each and video ringers for $2.99 each. As with previous Helio devices, the Fin also has an optional dynamic newsfeed aggregator called Helio On Top (H.O.T.), which displays the latest headlines of your favorite newsfeeds right on the home screen. Unlike previous versions of H.O.T., the latest one actually allows you to add your own newsfeed so you can get the latest updates from your favorite blog--an upgrade we definitely applaud.

The Fin also has access to Helio Music, Helio's own music service where you can download a song over-the-air for $1.99 and have it transfer to your home PC as well. If you prefer, you can download a song for 99 cents to your PC and then upload it to the phone later on. You can read more about Helio Music in our review of the service. Another way to upload songs to the Fin is via Helio's free MediaMover application, and thankfully the Fin comes with 100MB of internal memory plus a microSD card slot for additional storage. The Fin comes with a pretty standard music player, which groups songs into genres, artists, and albums, or you can create your own custom playlist. The music player supports MP3s and AACs. There's also a built-in video player that supports MPEG4 and H.264 video.

The Fin takes impressive photos.
One of our favorite features on the Fin is its 3.0-megapixel camera. It's a step up from the other Helio devices, and we just love the photo quality of the images. Pictures looked outstanding, with full color and crisp edges. There was a bit of an overcast look in certain low-light shots, but that's to be expected out of a camera phone. Camera options include image resolution (2,048x1,536; 1,280x960; 640x480; 320x240), image quality, brightness, white balance settings, lighting, color effects, photo frames, a self-timer, up to 9x zoom, and multishot. Video camera settings are similar, but video is limited to two resolutions (320x240 and 176x144) and two frame rates (14fps and 7fps). Video quality was OK, but it was still marred by choppy movement and pixilated images.

To go along with the camera, the Fin comes with the built-in Photo Studio that lets you edit the photos by resizing, rotating, flipping, stretching, or swirling the images. You can add filters, effects, stickers, fades, and overlays in the videos as well. Also, you can download the optional HelioUP application that lets you upload photos directly to Helio's site, MySpace Mobile, or even Flickr. Even better, you can upload your video directly to YouTube. Since the Fin has built-in GPS, you're able to automatically geotag your photos and videos with location information when you upload them to these sites. That means your photos may appear on Flickr's World Map, letting you chart where your photos were taken.

Of course, personalization options are plenty with the Helio Fin. You can customize it with wallpaper and screensavers, plus download more graphics and alert tones from Helio's store. The Fin comes with four games--My Pet, Midnight Hold'em Poker, and trial versions of 3D Homerun Derby and SiL--plus you can always purchase more from Helio.

We tested the dual-band (CDMA 800/1900; EV-DO) Fin in San Francisco using Helio's service. Call quality was spectacular--callers heard us loud and clear, even when we were speaking in a relatively soft voice. We heard them just fine as well, though there was the occasional hiss and pop in certain locations. Speakerphone quality was pretty good as well, though it sounded a bit tinny on our end. We paired the Fin with the Cardo S-2 stereo Bluetooth headset, and audio heard through the headset was great.

Music quality was fair--there wasn't too much bass, but the melody sounded fine. It probably won't replace your MP3 player, but it'll do for a quick hit. EV-DO speeds were quite impressive--we downloaded a song from Helio Music in mere seconds. We did experience considerable lag when trying to collect data from the satellites for Garmin Mobile however, but that may be an application issue. Streaming videos had little to no rebuffering, though the quality wasn't the best--there were a lot of blurred images, especially with action sequences.

The Helio Fin has a rated talk time of three hours and a rated standby time of eight days. We managed to get a talk time of 3 hours and 41 minutes in our tests. According to FCC radiation tests, the Fin has a digital SAR rating of 1.27 watts per kilogram.

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