Since its birth two years ago, Helio has stylized itself as a youth-focused MVNO with a line of ultrahip cell phones offering trendy features like MySpace Mobile access. But with the introduction of the company's first-ever smart phone, Helio is aiming to widen its appeal. Offering a one-of-a-kind dual-slider design and incredible messaging and Internet capabilities and EV-DO support, the Helio Ocean may be the carrier's ticket out of the kiddie pool. Yet the real killer app for mobile professionals is still to come, as Helio plans to release a Microsoft Exchange ActiveSync application later this year. Hard-core business users should note the Ocean doesn't offer the capability to edit Office documents, and there's no way to sync your calendars with your PC, but it's still a powerful device that will please both teenagers and adults alike. The Helio Ocean is currently available for $295 with service. To find ringtones and accessories for this phone, plus advice and tips on how to use it, check out our cell phones ringtones, accessories, and help page.
The identifying design characteristic of the Helio Ocean lies in its unique dual-slider system. You can slide the phone vertically to reveal a numeric keypad or horizontally to reveal a QWERTY keyboard. It's completely innovative, though it's worth noting that because the keypad and keyboard are on separate layers (with the display layer on top), you can't keep both open at the same time. That said, the sliding mechanisms are solidly constructed, and they provide a very satisfying "click" when each layer slides into place. Of course, a triple-decker design does result in quite a hefty phone. Measuring 4.33 inches long by 2.20 inches wide by 0.86 inch thick and weighing 5.61 ounces, the Ocean is not a compact device by any means and may feel like a small brick in a pants pocket or a purse. That said, it has beautifully smooth, curved lines all around its oval exterior and a soft-touch rubberized shell that makes it a pleasure to hold.
One can't help but notice the absolutely stunning 2.4-inch QVGA screen that is front and center on the device. Saturated with 260,000 colors, the display is bright and vivid with images that appear to pop from the screen. Watching video on such a large screen was also pleasurable, especially in landscape mode (the display switches its orientation automatically when you open the keyboard). You can adjust the screen's brightness, the backlight timer, and the clock style. You have a choice of English or Korean fonts as well but you can't change the font size. As with other Helio phones, the Ocean sports the same innovative menu interface with bold graphical menu icons arranged in a circle.
The Ocean's screen is flanked by four soft keys; two on either side. The soft keys on the Ocean's top end (or left side when held horizontally) always act as shortcuts to the download store and message alerts. The other pair of soft keys sits next to a four-way navigation toggle that gives one-touch access to the browser, the Games menu, the Message In-box, and the Video + Music menu. Rounding out the navigation array are a Helio/OK key in the middle of the toggle, a Back/Clear button, and the Talk and End/Power key. Most of the keys are large and tactile, though the Back key is a bit too thin for our tastes. The Ocean's right spine is home to a microSD card slot, a dedicated camera key, and a voice-command key, while a headset jack, volume rocker, and music player controls are on the left. A camera lens with a self-portrait mirror and LED flash are on the back of the device.
As we mentioned earlier, sliding the phone vertically reveals a numeric keypad. Unfortunately, the silver buttons are one of the more disappointing aspects of the Ocean's design. The keys are arranged in an awkward curve, with little textured difference between each key. The bottom three keys (i.e., the *, 0, and # keys) are especially difficult to dial because they are crammed next to the bottom of the phone. What's more, the keys felt a bit stiff and squishy at the same time when pressed. As such, it was difficult to dial by feel.
Happily, the QWERTY keyboard is a better story. The bubbled keys have a nice soft-touch texture that make it a joy to type on. Yet, we still had some complaints. When compared to other keyboards like that on the T-Mobile Sidekick 3, the Ocean's buttons may feel a bit too crowded. Also, its spacebar is much smaller, so you might not be able to type as fast. We would recommend giving the Ocean a test run before you purchase it.
Now on to the aspect that really makes the Ocean shine: its features. There's a lot of ground to cover here, so let's get started with the basics. The Helio Ocean has an astounding 4,500-entry address book with room in each entry for six phone numbers, four e-mail addresses, three street addresses, a nickname, a title, a company name, a department name, three instant-messenger IDs (for Yahoo, AIM, and Microsoft), a MySpace page URL, a separate Web site URL, and notes. You can assign callers to a group, and pair them with a photo and one of 16 polyphonic ringtones. Other essentials include a vibrate mode, text and multimedia messaging, voice commands and dialing, instant messaging, a calendar, an alarm clock, a calculator, a wake-up call feature, a world clock, a unit converter, a notepad, a voice memo recorder, and a stopwatch. There's also PC syncing, a full HTML Web browser, a USB mass storage mode, a host of e-mail options (see below), a speakerphone, built-in GPS, and stereo Bluetooth support.
Unfortunately, there's no WiFi, but the EV-DO support makes up for that. The Ocean's built-in GPS support allows for applications like Google Maps for Mobile and Buddy Beacon (Helio's friend locator service). Please read our review of the Helio Drift for our take on these services.
One of the highlights by far on the Helio Ocean is its stellar array of messaging and Internet features. The Ocean incorporates access to all the major Web mail services (Yahoo Mail, AOL Mail, MSN Hotmail, GMail), plus Helio Mail and Earthlink Mail all in one integrated messaging dashboard. Though it was not available in our test, Helio plans to add push e-mail from these Web e-mail services later on. Future plans also include Microsoft Exchange ActiveSync support for corporate e-mail, calendar entries, and contacts. Undoubtedly this will be the killer application for a lot of mobile professionals. You then can add additional personal POP3/IMAP e-mail accounts if you wish. The messaging dashboard also provides one-touch access to all the instant-messenger services like AIM, Yahoo, and Windows Live Messenger.