Editor's Note: As of August 2006, Helio has released an update to the Hero that adds an instant-messaging feature to the phone. It was not available at the time of this review.
The Hero marks the debut of the brand-new Helio cell phone carrier, a joint venture by California-based EarthLink with Korea-based SK Telecom that launched early May 2006. Helio is a mobile virtual network operator (MVNO) that piggybacks on Sprint's high-speed EV-DO network but offers its own line of phones and services. Like most of the youth-oriented MVNOs, such as Amp'd and Virgin Mobile, Helio's target demographic ranges roughly in age from the late teens to the early 20s. This is especially emphasized with Helio's big claim to fame: all Helio phones will have integrated access with the mobile version of MySpace, a social-networking site popular with today's youth. Aside from being the first Helio phone, the Hero is also the first high-end handset created by Pantech, a Korean company, specifically for the U.S. market. Along with features such as a camera and a music player, Helio vamps it up with a unique user interface that certainly sets it apart from the rest. The Hero goes for $275 in addition to Helio's monthly rates, a hefty price to pay for a supposedly youth-targeted phone.
The first thing you might notice about the Helio Hero is that it's not a compact phone by any means. It's a bulky affair, clocking in at 4.3 by 1.9 by 0.9 inches and 4.7 ounces, but its weight and its slightly tapered curves actually result in a comfortable feel in the hand, and the Hero cradled our ears just fine when opened. The slider phone is attractive, with a black finish and silver accents all around, and its prominent 2.2-inch, 260,000-color screen is a showstopper. However, we could hardly see the display in bright sunlight.
In the upper-left and upper-right corners of the screen, you'll find dedicated video and music buttons, while two soft keys and a navigation toggle sit below the display. When in standby mode, the toggle acts as a shortcut to the browser, applications, video, music, text messaging, and the Helio On Top service (more on that below). That's followed by the usual send, power/End, and Back/cancel keys. On the left spine, there is a volume/speakerphone button and a voice recorder key, while the right spine houses a headset jack and a Micro SD card slot. Located on the back is the camera lens, complete with a sliding cover, a flash, and a self-portrait mirror. Slide the phone upward, and you'll reveal a hexagonal keypad, resembling a honeycomb. All buttons are slightly raised above the surface, leading to a tactile and user-friendly experience.
By far, Helio's user interface is one of the most innovative we've seen to date in a cell phone. Its main menu consists of several bold graphics grouped together in a circle, doing away with the traditional boxy grid. It's supereasy to navigate, thanks to a very user-friendly interface. You can customize the backlight time and the font size but not the screen's brightness.
But enough about the design--you're probably most interested in the phone's features. Aside from a 2-megapixel camera with flash, the Hero sports a WAP wireless browser, a music player, a video player, a voice recorder, a speakerphone, a video recorder, and EV-DO support. The address book holds about 500 entries, each of which accommodates two numbers, along with three additional numbers or e-mail addresses and photo caller ID. You can organize the callers into groups or pair them with one of 19 polyphonic ring tones. Other features include text and multimedia messaging, e-mail, a calendar, a wake-up call, an alarm clock, an anniversary reminder, world time, a tip calculator, a regular calculator, a stopwatch, and a notepad. There's also a neat feature called Spam Inbox designed to capture all your junk e-mail, but with all the spam out there, we imagine this will fill up fast. Despite this long list of features, we were absolutely disappointed with the lack of support for instant messaging and Bluetooth. The Hero is Helio's flagship phone, so we expected more from it, especially for $275.
The most important feature on the Helio Hero is, of course, the much ballyhooed MySpace integration. With one click, you can access your MySpace account on the browser's home page. Just sign in with your login and password, and you're ready to blog on your MySpace page, check your mail, and widen your extended network with thousands and thousands of "friends." Sure, it doesn't have the typical multimedia onslaught that is the MySpace experience, but it's good enough for that quick fix. The one thing we dislike is that you can't upload the photos from your camera phone straight to your MySpace blog. Instead, you have to send the photos to your Helio account via a multimedia message, then login to MySpace to retrieve the photo, requiring a lot of extra work and time. Also, all uploaded photos will have a nonremovable Helio watermark on the lower-left corner, which we found a little annoying.
Another much-anticipated feature on the Helio is the introduction of Helio On Top, a dynamic newsfeed aggregator that displays the latest headlines from Yahoo and IGN (available as a free download). While we certainly appreciate this cool function, a big downer about this feature is that you can't add your own feeds, though Helio says it will add more news sources in the future. Helio's other Internet offerings include downloadable music videos and streaming video clips from TV shows, movie trailers, sports shows, and so forth, with more to come. You can download music videos at $2.50 a pop, and the streaming is free. We were very impressed with the audio quality of the clips, thanks to the built-in full-duplex stereo speakers, but as with most video-capable phones, the clips still looked a little blurry and faded.
While Helio doesn't have its own music store at this time, you may choose to upload your tunes via a USB connection. In order to transfer them to your phone, you'll have to download the free Media Mover application from Helio's Web site. Media Mover is extremely user-friendly, and we transferred MP3s from the PC to the Hero with ease. The music sounded crisp and clear whether we listened with the included earbuds or the phone's stereo speakers. You can also upload WMV and AVI movies, and the software will translate them into the appropriate format for the phone. Do note, however, that the Hero supports only MP3, AAC, WMV, and AVI formats. The capacity also depends on the size of your TransFlash card, as the internal memory of the phone is capped at 70MB.
The Hero's 2-megapixel camera produced decent pictures: a little blurry but still far beyond the VGA-quality photos of most camera phones and a touch better than photos from a 1.3-megapixel camera. You can take pictures in one of three resolutions (320x240, 240x320, and 240x180), five white-balance settings (Auto, Outside, Cloudy, Fluorescent, and Bulb), three quality settings (Super Fine, Fine, Normal), a multishot mode (up to 9 shots), and five camera modes (Auto, Portrait, Landscape, Portrait-Landscape, and Night), as well as with flash or no flash and six effects (None, Gray, Sepia, Purple, Blue, Green). You can also set the self-timer, turn on or off the preview screen, choose a Ready Sound (such as "Cheese!"), and set the shutter sound. The video recorder took expectedly low-res videos at 176x144 resolution.
The Helio phone is rife with customization options. You can also download more ring tones and graphics from Helio's store. Two games are included on the mobile--Lost Sister and a MidnightPool3D demo--but you can download more as well.
We tested the dual-band (CDMA 800/1900; EV-DO) Hero in San Francisco using Helio's service. Call quality was great on both ends, and callers said they couldn't tell we were on a cell phone. Once again, the stereo speakers really helped and made the speakerphone stand out among the competition. The Helio Hero comes with a wired headset made specifically for the phone, as well as an adapter in case you want to use your own. Downloads were speedy, as was the streaming media, though it took a little while to get started. We also experienced the occasional system lag when navigating through multiple menus.
The Helio Hero has a rated talk time of 3 hours and a tested talk time of 2 hours, 50 minutes. The rated standby time is 8 days but we got 10 days in our tests. According to FCC radiation tests, the Hero has a digital SAR rating of 1.3 watts per kilogram.