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Helio Ocean review: Helio Ocean

Helio Ocean

Nicole Lee Former Editor
Nicole Lee is a senior associate editor for CNET, covering cell phones, Bluetooth headsets, and all things mobile. She's also a fan of comic books, video games, and of course, shiny gadgets.
Nicole Lee
9 min read


Helio Ocean

The Good

The Helio Ocean has a smart dual-slider design that reveals both a number keypad and a QWERTY keyboard. It has a 2.0-megapixel camera, a music player, EV-DO support, a full HTML browser, and plenty of messaging options. It also lets you search the Web directly from the phone's home screen.

The Bad

The Helio Ocean is a bulky device with a poorly designed numeric keypad. Streaming video quality was not the best and photo quality was mediocre. It also has not yet implemented the Microsoft Exchange ActiveSync application that many mobile professionals would covet.

The Bottom Line

The Helio Ocean is a great beginner smart phone, with a fantastic array of multimedia features and Internet capabilities that are sure to please both consumers and mobile professionals.

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.

The Helio Ocean slides up to reveal a number keypad.

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.

The Helio Ocean slides horizontally to reveal a QWERTY keyboard.

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.

The Helio Ocean has a 2.0-megapixel camera lens on the back.

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.

The Helio Ocean has a rich array of messaging options.

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.

But the messaging dashboard isn't the only avenue to the IM application. If you have contacts with saved instant-messenger IDs, you can take advantage of the Ocean's unique "Presence Detection" feature that lets you see your friends who are online. Simply type in the contact's name from the home screen, and Helio's "Smart Dialer" will show the person's full contact information and icons to show whether your friend is online. We really loved this feature since it makes messaging so efficient.

The Smart Dialer also has a very smart direct search feature. Just type a Web search keyword from the phone's home screen, and you'll get a Web page full of relevant search results from a variety of sources. For example, we searched for "Britney Spears" and were presented instantly with results for downloadable ringtones and music from the Helio store, images from the Web, Wikipedia entries, and more. And thanks to the Ocean's built-in GPS functionality, you easily can search for nearby restaurants. We tried typing in "sushi," and it asked us if we were interested in finding a sushi restaurant in our neighborhood. Plus, there's a Yelp search tab in case we wanted to read the restaurant reviews as well. This rich array of search options is incredibly impressive and is quite possibly the ultimate reason to get the Ocean. And best of all, the full HTML browser on the Ocean makes surfing the Web a breeze. You can view and save Web images to the device, blow up a Web page to its original size, or shrink it to fit the screen.

Thanks to its EV-DO support, the Helio Ocean provides easy access to Helio's video/audio download and streaming service. You can purchase music via the Helio Music store and stream short video clips of TV shows and movie trailers. A song costs $1.99 each, and you can download it over the air as well as on a PC. The music player has a fairly basic user interface but it supports WMA, MP3, and AAC audio formats. The external music player controls are a big plus as they make it easy for us to switch through different tracks without a lot of menu navigation. Other music player features include six preset equalizer settings, shuffle and repeat, a sleep timer, plus the ability to add and edit your own playlists. We should note that though you can listen to music while surfing the Web, you can't do so when IMing your friends--quite a downside in our book. The Ocean also supports MPEG-4 and H.264 video formats for viewing on its built-in video player.

The Ocean has a 2.0-megapixel camera with plenty of settings. They include eight resolutions (up to 1600x1200), eight shot modes, three quality settings, five white balance settings, a self-timer of up to 10 seconds, five color effects, photo frames, four different preview modes, and the choice of internal or external storage. Photo quality seemed a little blurry and washed out for a 2.0-megapixel camera, especially in low light. After you take the photo, you can either save it or send it to a friend, or upload your photos to Helio's server via Helio Up. The Ocean has an impressive 200MB of internal storage, and it has a microSD card slot for more space. If you choose to upload it via Helio Up, you can add tags and descriptions to the photo, even GPS geotagged metadata.

The Helio Ocean took mediocre photos.

The Ocean's camcorder has a few settings including three recording modes (Normal, MMS length, or an Idle Screen Movie for use as an animated wallpaper), two resolution settings (170x144 and 320x240), and a host of other options similar to the still camera. Video quality was lacking, as it couldn't handle quick movements, and the moving images seemed a bit washed out.

Those seeking personalization options will have a field day with the Helio Ocean. Since you can save any Web image to the device, you can choose anything you see online as your wallpaper. If you wish, you also can purchase and download plenty of graphics like wallpaper and screensavers, ringtones, alert sounds, "answer ringers" (ringtones your callers hear), "video ringers" (short video clips that play for incoming calls), and more. Helio Ocean only comes with one game--Gameloft Mega Hits--but you can always download more as well.

We tested the dual-band (CDMA 800/1900; EV-DO) Helio Ocean in San Francisco using Helio's service. Call quality was spectacular, and callers couldn't even tell we were using a cell phone. There was a bit of wind noise when we were outside, but it wasn't too much of a deterrent. We also had no problem being understood by automated caller systems. We paired the Ocean with the Plantronics Pulsar 260 stereo Bluetooth headset and were able to stream music easily.

Speakerphone audio quality was loud and clear as well, with plenty of volume, but it's important to note that if you answer a call while the Ocean is in landscape mode, the speakerphone will automatically turn on. The idea is you probably don't want to be holding up the phone to your face while it's in messaging mode. However, once you change the Ocean to portrait mode, the speakerphone will automatically turn off and you can resume talking on the phone as usual.

As we mentioned earlier, music quality was pretty good when heard through the stereo Bluetooth headset. Though the stereo speakers emitted quality sound as well, we much prefer the headset for better clarity.

We were quite impressed with the EV-DO speeds on the device. We were able to download a four-minute song within a minute and a half, which is fairly fast. Streaming video seemed quite hassle-free as well, with little to no buffering. The video quality still seemed rather grainy and pixilated however, and it sometimes took a while for the video to load.

The Helio Ocean has a rated battery life of up to 5.1 hours of talk time and up to 15 hours of music playback time. Our tests revealed 5 hours and 11 minutes of talk time. It has a rated standby time of seven days.