While we were fans of Helio handsets like the Ocean and the Kickflip, we knew that Helio as a company was struggling. Indeed, Helio was shopping around for a buyer, and in late June, Virgin Mobile stepped up to buy the fledgling MVNO for $39 million. There were many questions as to the future of both companies--would the two exist in harmony? Would they find a way to combine both their brands?
As the new Virgin Mobile Shuttle indicates, the answer appears to be a resounding yes. The Shuttle is the first ever 3G handset from Virgin Mobile, which means it has EV-DO speeds. It is also capable of location-based services, and will utilize uLocate services such as Buddy Beacon and Where, both of which were mainstays on Helio handsets. And while its design is not nearly as stylish as that of most Helio devices, it's certainly the most attractive Virgin Mobile phone we've seen. Of course, since this is a Virgin Mobile phone, it is available for a very affordable price of $99.99 without a contract.
Despite its high-end features, the Virgin Mobile still looks a lot like most other Virgin Mobile handsets. It is clad in the trademark red-and-black color scheme, and doesn't look too different from other handsets. However, we did think its slider form factor and curved tips toward the top and the bottom add a lot to its sleek design. Measuring 3.9 inches long by 1.9 inches wide by 0.7 inch thick, the Shuttle is slender and lightweight with smooth rounded curves.
Right on the front is its attractive 2.0-inch 262,000 color display, which results in vibrant colors and clear legible text. You can change the contrast, the backlight time, and the menu style, but not the font size. We're not too pleased with Virgin Mobile's rather plain menu interface, but it's simple and easy to use, so we're OK with it.
Underneath the display is the navigation array, which consists of two soft keys, a circular toggle with middle OK key, Send and End/Power keys, as well as a dedicated speakerphone key and a Back key. The two soft keys plus the speakerphone and Back keys are slightly recessed, and are actually touch-sensitive keys with haptic feedback. We found this a little annoying, since we often activated the keys without realizing it even after setting the sensitivity of the keys to low. While we appreciate the haptic feedback, since it lets us know when we've hit the buttons, we really would've preferred physical keys. The circular toggle doubles as shortcuts to the My Account page (lets you check how much money is left on your account), a new message menu, the Recent Calls list, and the VirginXL store.
To slide open the Shuttle, all you need to do is push the front face upward. You will reveal the Shuttle's 12-number keypad, which is surprisingly well spaced for a slider keypad. We also found them nicely raised above the surface so we could dial by feel. On the left of the Shuttle are a 2.5mm headset jack, a voice command button, plus the volume rocker. The microSD card slot is located on the left spine of the Shuttle's top layer. The right spine is home to the dedicated camera music player buttons plus the charger jack. On the back of the Shuttle is a 1.3-megapixel camera plus a self-portrait mirror.
Even though the Shuttle's design didn't particularly wow us, we are thrilled that Virgin Mobile has finally stepped up its offerings to include high-end features such as EV-DO and location-based services. But first, we begin with the basics. The Virgin Mobile Shuttle comes with a 500-entry phone book, with room in each entry for five numbers, two e-mail addresses, two IM handles, and a Web site URL. Each contact can then be assigned to a group, and paired up with photo for caller ID. Each entry can also be assigned one of eight sounds for text tones or ringtones (Text tones are alert sounds for incoming messages).
Other basic features include text and multimedia messaging, a vibrate mode, a speakerphone, a calendar, an alarm clock, a tip calculator, a regular calculator, a world clock, and a stopwatch. More advanced users will like the voice command support, stereo Bluetooth, instant messaging, e-mail, as well as the wireless Web browser. The Shuttle also supports Virgin Mobile's Contact Vault, which acts as an online backup of your phone's personal contacts list.
Of course, the much-touted feature of the Shuttle is its EV-DO support. Indeed, we found surfing the Web quite fast on the Shuttle's browser. However, because the Shuttle uses a simple WAP browser without a lot of graphics or video, we didn't think the EV-DO added too much to the experience. Once Virgin Mobile starts supporting streaming video or streaming music content in its broadband offerings, we can see this being more useful. For now, it just makes loading pages faster.