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.
Probably the feature with the most promise is the support for location-based services like Buddy Beacon and Where. Buddy Beacon is a friend-finder service previously associated with Helio handsets, while Where is a location service that partners up with sites like Yelp and GasBuddy to find the nearest restaurant or gas station. Other partners include Eventful for nearby events, Accuweather for the local weather, and Topix for local news. Where also has a built-in local search service plus maps and directions.
We weren't able to test the Buddy Beacon service, but we did try out the Where application. At the time of testing, these location-based applications were not able for download from the Virgin store, and could only be accessed via the Web browser. This might explain why the application thought we were about eight blocks away from our actual location, and we had to enter our location in manually. Once we did that though, we found the results of the search and the restaurants nearby quite accurate. Clearly, the location-based functionality isn't ironed out yet, and we hope to revisit this once native applications are available for the Shuttle.
The Virgin Mobile Shuttle comes with decent music player, with all the features we've come to expect from music phones. You get to create and edit playlists, plus there are repeat and shuffle modes. The player interface is plain, with an album art prominently displayed and player controls underneath. Since there's a microSD card slot, you're not limited to the Shuttle's internal memory of 64MB.
The 1.3-megapixel camera on the Shuttle isn't too bad. It can take pictures in six different resolutions (1280x960, 1024x768, 640x480, 320x240, 176x144, and 160x120), three quality settings, and with three shutter sounds (with no silent option). Other settings include white balance, color effects, fun frames, and a self-timer. Photo quality turned out to be decent but not great. Pictures appeared washed out and on the blurry side, though still better than a VGA camera. The Shuttle also has a built-in camcorder and can record in three quality settings with white balance, color effects, and a self-timer as options. You can also set a "cue sound" and mute the audio.
You can personalize the shuttle with a variety of wallpapers, graphics, and sounds. The Shuttle also comes with three games: Midnight Pool 2, a demo version of Tetris, and a Glu Combo Pack. If you're not satisfied with any of these, you can download more options from the VirginXL store.
We tested the Virgin Mobile Shuttle in San Francisco using Virgin Mobile's service. Call quality was admirable. Callers said our voice sounded natural without a lot of hiss, and is quite close to landline quality. Similarly, we heard them loud and clear without a lot of static. As for speakerphone quality, callers reported a tiny bit more echo on their end, while we thought the internal speakers sounded quite tinny and hollow. As for audio quality, we certainly wouldn't recommend the internal speakers for listening to music since the speakers do not offer the best sound. We would suggest using a stereo Bluetooth headset instead.
As we mentioned, the EV-DO speed was certainly noticeable. Loading pages took mere seconds, and downloading a game took around 30 seconds.
The Virgin Mobile Shuttle has a rated battery life of 3.91 hours talk time and 2 weeks of standby time. According to our tests, the Shuttle has a talk time of 4 hours and 10 minutes. According to the FCC radiation tests, the SAR rating is 1.26 watts per kilogram.