When the Helio Ocean was released two years ago, it marked the coming-of-age of the young MVNO upstart that was Helio. It was the carrier's first smartphone-like device, and it was also Pantech's first attempt at a dual-slider handset (Pantech would go on to create other dual-slider phones such as the Pantech Duo). Indeed, it was one of 2007's most talked about phones, aside from the iPhone, of course. With great messaging capabilities, a HTML browser, EV-DO, GPS, smart integration with popular social networks like Facebook and MySpace, and support for Microsoft Exchange ActiveSync, the Helio Ocean promised to be a great phone for tech-savvy hipsters.
But Helio didn't last too long in the MVNO space. In late 2008, Virgin Mobile USA bought the troubled network operator (The intent to purchase was announced in June and the acquisition was closed in August), which allowed the prepaid giant to introduce a whole new set of devices to its customers. It also branched out its payment models to include monthly voice and data plans that better suit Helio's legacy. The first sign of this new marriage was the Virgin Mobile Shuttle, which was Virgin's first ever 3G handheld. It was a decent phone, but it was nowhere near the sleek and feature-rich device that was the Ocean.
Enter the Ocean 2. Released two years after the original, the Ocean 2 has everything the Ocean had and more. Pantech's still the manufacturer and it still has that dual-slider design, but now it comes with a much-improved keyboard, an innovative touch pad sensor, and a wider display. You also get all the high-end features the original Ocean was known for, plus a few extra goodies like 2GB of internal storage, a tabbed browser, and more. We definitely think it's a step up from the original Ocean, but you'll still have to get over its hefty size. You can get the Helio Ocean 2 now from Virgin Mobile for a pretty nice price of $149.
There's no two ways about it; the Helio Ocean 2 is one very thick phone. The Ocean 2 measures 4.65 inches long by 2.28 inches wide by 0.81 inch thick and weighs a whopping 5.89 ounces. Two years ago, that might've been OK, but in today's market of skinny handsets, the Ocean 2's girth is a novelty. But there's a reason behind the heft. Following the design sensibility of the original Ocean, the Ocean 2 has a dual-slider design with three layers: the display layer, the number keypad layer, and the keyboard layer. You slide the phone vertically to reveal the number keypad and horizontally to reveal the QWERTY keyboard--you can't slide both out at the same time. The slider mechanism on the Ocean 2 feels nice and solid; each layer slides into place with just the right amount of give. Because of its heft, this is certainly not a phone to put in your pocket, but its oval shape and rubber trim gives it a good feel in the hand.
Right on the front of the Ocean 2 is its 2.6-inch QVGA display, which is a tad larger than the Ocean's 2.4-inch screen. It is a great-looking display, with support for 262,000 colors and 240x320-pixel resolution, making it an excellent showcase for the Ocean's colorful and animated menu interface. Though the screen size isn't as wide as, say, the iPhone, it works fine for short video clips and surfing through Web pages. The display changes orientation automatically--it goes to portrait mode when you slide out the number keypad and switches to landscape mode when you slide out the QWERTY keyboard. You can adjust the screen's brightness, the backlight timer, and though you can't change the font size, you have the choice of either English or Korean words.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the Ocean 2's design is the addition of an optical sensor touch pad. It sits underneath the display (when viewed vertically), and is surrounded by two soft keys, the Talk key, the Back/Clear key, and the End/Power key. The optical sensor is encircled in a silver ring that acts as the four-way navigation toggle. Like the optical sensor on the Samsung Omnia, it acts as a touch pad and is a way for you to scroll through menus or a long Web page simply by stroking the pad in the desired direction. The sensor presses down if you want to select something, and it leads to Helio Connect when the phone is on standby.
Though we like using the touch pad for navigation, we did think it felt a bit tedious especially when scrolling through very long Web pages, but that's more because of screen size and browser limitations. The navigation keys around the sensor felt fine for the most part, but they were a bit flat and slippery. On standby, the navigation toggle acts as shortcuts to the browser, the Games menu, the message in-box, and the Video + Music menu. There are also two soft keys above the display (or to the left if you view the phone in landscape mode), which act as shortcuts to the Helio Store. What's more, these two soft keys at the top felt a lot skinnier and stiffer than the other keys, and were thus harder to press.
When held vertically, the dedicated camera key and music player key plus a 3.5mm headset jack are on the right. We're definitely pleased to see the 3.5mm headset jack. On the left are the charger jack, the volume rocker, and a silent toggle. The camera lens is on the back, and unfortunately the Ocean 2 does not have the self-portrait mirror and LED flash that were on the original. Also, the microSD card slot is now located behind the battery, which is quite inconvenient.
The number keypad is definitely improved over the original. No longer flat, the Ocean 2's keypad has nice defined ridges and all the keys are raised above the surface. There's also a lot more room between the bottom row of the keypad and the lip of the phone. Similarly, the QWERTY keyboard is improved as well, with a more spacious layout and bigger keys. We were able to thumb-type text messages quickly without a lot of mistakes. Our only complaint is that the spacebar is located between the V and B keys instead of underneath them, so it takes some getting used to.
The Helio Ocean 2 is big on size as well as features. Indeed, the Ocean 2 is one of the most feature-rich handsets we've ever had the pleasure of using. But before we delve into that, let's get started with the essentials. The Ocean 2 comes with a quite generous 4,500 entry address book with room in each entry for six phone numbers, four e-mail addresses, three instant-messenger usernames (for Yahoo, AOL, Windows Live, and Google Talk), a MySpace ID, a Web site URL, a street address, notes, and details like title and company information. You can assign contacts to groups, or pair them with a photo or one of 19 polyphonic ringtones. If you enter in your contacts' IM handles, you can then see if they're online when you scroll through the contacts list.
Other basic features include a vibrate mode, text and multimedia messaging, voice commands and dialing, instant messaging, a calendar, an alarm clock, a calculator, a to-do list, a notepad, a stopwatch, a wake-up call alarm, an alarm clock, a world clock, a tip calculator, a voice memo recorder, a unit converter, and a speakerphone. More advanced features include PC syncing, a USB mass storage mode, plenty of e-mail and messaging options, built-in GPS, EV-DO, over-the-air address book sync, and stereo Bluetooth support.
As with the original Ocean, the Ocean 2 comes with a full HTML browser, but the Ocean 2 improved on it by adding tabbed browsing, page zoom, and a mini map. With tabbed browsing, you can bring up a tab view that lets you scroll through all your open tabs, similar to the interface on the iPhone's Safari. We also like that there's a text-only mode that will help load pages faster, and we like that you have access to typical browser options such as Find in Page, Refresh, Save Screen, and more. The optical sensor touchpad makes it easier to scroll through Web pages, but it does get tiresome after awhile because of the lack of screen real estate. Another nitpick is that we would like some kind of Home or End function so you can quickly return to the top or bottom of a long Web page. The Helio browser is proprietary, but you also have the option of using Opera Mini on the Ocean 2 if you don't like it.
To go along with the new browser is something new called Helio Connect. This feature brings one-click access to multiple social networks and media-sharing sites such as Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, YouTube, and Flickr. You can also use Helio Connect to set up a built-in RSS reader with your desired newsfeeds. To get started, just access the Helio Connect page by pressing the optical sensor. From there, you enter in your log-in information to any of the social networks or set up your RSS reader. After that, you never need to enter that information in again; you're just automatically logged in. Helio Connect also has an Activity tab where you can view all the latest activity from your social networks and RSS feeds.
Since it has GPS, the Helio Ocean 2 comes with a wide variety of location-based applications and services. They include Google Maps, which has traffic information, step-by-step driving directions, and an integrated search engine for local businesses; Garmin Mobile, a full-featured GPS application with moving turn-by-turn directions; Buddy Beacon, Helio's friend-locator service; and Microsoft's TellMe, a GPS-based search with voice recognition so you can tell it to "Find me the nearest gas station" and it'll bring up the information for you. Plus there's a whole set of WHERE widgets that'll help you find relevant local information like a local pub finder or the cheapest gas station, which are all integrated into the Helio's browser.
One of the highlights of the Ocean 2 is that it has a messaging dashboard interface Helio calls the Ultimate Inbox. This in-box incorporates access to all the major Web e-mail services (Yahoo, AOL, MSN Hotmail, Gmail), Helio Mail, EarthLink Mail, all of your own personal POP3 or IMAP e-mail accounts, all your IM messages, and all your text and multimedia messages, compiled in one convenient dashboard. It even supports Microsoft Exchange ActiveSync for corporate e-mail, contacts, and calendar entries.
Like the original Ocean, the Ocean 2 comes with a Smart Dialer feature. Simply type in whatever contact name you want, and the Ocean 2 will bring up that contact's phone number so you can either call or text him or her. If you choose to type in something completely different, you can then hit Search and the phone will bring up a page full of relevant search results from Google, Yahoo, Wikipedia, and Yelp. The latter is especially useful when you're looking up a restaurant location and you want to use the Ocean 2's GPS functionality to find out how to get there.
Now on to the multimedia features. The Ocean 2 has a pretty decent music player, with features like shuffle and repeat, preset equalizer settings, a sleep timer, and the capability to add and edit your own playlists. It supports WMA, MP3, and AAC audio formats. We're a little disappointed that the Ocean 2 does not have external music player keys, but it's not a huge deal breaker. The player interface is pretty simple, with the album art in the middle and the typical player controls along the bottom. You can load music onto the Ocean 2 via the PC sync software or you can purchase and download music from the Helio Music store for about $1.99 each--the price includes a PC download as well. Speaking of the Helio Store, you can also download or stream video clips from content partners such as NBC and ESPN. The Ocean 2 has a nice 2GB of internal storage but you can always download more to the microSD card.
We're a little disappointed that the Ocean 2 didn't bump up the camera to a 3-megapixel shooter, but the 2-megapixel camera isn't too bad. Settings include six resolutions (up to 1,600x1,200 pixels), three quality settings, five white balance presets, a night mode, a self-timer, five color effects, geotagging, multishot mode, and fun photo frames. Photo quality was not too different from the previous Ocean. Images seem sharp, but the colors look a bit washed out. We also miss having a flash. After you take the photo, you can either save it for later or upload it to any of your media sharing sites via HelioUp (like Flickr, Facebook, or MySpace). You can then add tags or descriptions to the photo, even the aforementioned geotag metadata.
If you want to customize the Ocean 2, you will have plenty of options. Not only can you change the wallpaper and screensaver, but you can also change the sounds and alert tones of everything from key presses to the slider action. You can save any Web image from the browser and make that the wallpaper if you wish, and you can use any MP3 you want as a ringtone. But if that's not enough, you can purchase and download more as well as "answer ringers" (ringtones your callers hear) and "video ringers" (short video clips that play for incoming calls) from the Helio Store. The Ocean 2 comes with a few games--demo versions of Midnight Pool 3D, Brain Challenge, Guitar Rock Tour, Big Trouble on Little Earth, Age of Empires III, and 3D Fortune Golf--but again, you can download more if you want.
We tested the Helio Ocean 2 in San Francisco using Virgin Mobile's service. Call quality was amazing; our callers said it was close to landline quality, with nary a static or blip. Even when we used the speakerphone, call quality was loud and clear, and our callers couldn't even tell we were on speakerphone. We also had no problems being understood by automated voice recognition systems.
Music quality was impressive as well. The speaker quality doesn't really do justice to the music though, since there's not a lot of bass and it sounds a bit hollow, so we would recommend using a headset for better quality.
As for EV-DO speeds, we're quite impressed with how fast we were able to load Web pages and download music. For example, we downloaded a 4-minute song in just under a minute, which is quite speedy. We also managed to stream video without a lot of buffering, but the video clips themselves look a bit grainy.
The Helio Ocean 2 has a rated battery life of 5.4 hours talk time and up to 10 days standby time. It has a tested talk time of 6 hours and 45 minutes. According to the FCC, it has a