Thursday, May 31, 2007

Helio Ocean

Hands-on Review: Helio Ocean

Since I first laid eyes on it at CTIA in March, the Helio Ocean has stood out as the clear pretender to the messaging-phone throne—which, to my mind, has been owned by the Sidekick (both II and 3) for a few years now. Despite its aging features, the Sidekick 3 has had a couple of aces up its sleeve: a killer, easy-to-use interface, its swiveling screen and that roomy QWERTY keypad. But with its two-way sliding design—one way for numeric keys, the other for a full keyboard—plus its state-of-the-art data, messaging and multimedia features, the Ocean represents the Sidekick's strongest challenger to date.

Look and feel: There's no question that the Ocean's a big phone: at 4.3 by 2.2 by 0.9 inches and about 5.6 ounces, the Ocean is nearly as big and heavy as my Treo (although its noticeable smaller than the bulky Sidekick). But while it makes for a tight fit in a jeans pocket, the Ocean's nice curves and rubberized shell felt good in my hands. As for its twin keypads, I'm a bigger fan of the full-QWERTY keypad than of the numeric one. Don't get me wrong—I love the two-way slider concept, which keeps you from having to guess which QWERTY keys are for dialing and which aren't—but the thin, curved rows of numeric keys were tricky to press. The roomy QWERTY keypad was a pleasure, however, and I especially appreciated the dedicated "@" key for composing e-mail messages.

In the box: The Ocean comes with a solid set of accessories, including a wired stereo headset, a USB cable, and an adapter for earphones with standard 3.5mm minijacks—a nice change from the carriers who ship their phones with no accessories at all. There's no included microSD card for memory expansion, but the Ocean's generous 200MB of internal memory (good for a few dozen songs) will tide you over until you get one.

Interface: I've been a fan of Helio's user interfaces in the past, and I'm pleased to report that the Ocean's menu system looks even better now; previously tough-to-use features (like conference calling) are much easier to use now, and I never lost my way through the myriad options. I just wish the whole experience was a bit more unified; there's nothing like the Sidekick's "Jump" button that takes you back to the main menu. Also, a jog dial or trackball would be a welcome addition (my thumb kept reaching for a trackball that wasn't there).

Messaging: Outstanding—I especially liked the Ocean's unified messaging screen, which shows you at a glance the status of your e-mail and instant messaging accounts. You get out-of-the-box support for Yahoo! Mail, AOL Mail, Windows Live Mail and Gmail, along with all their respective IM services (save Google's), and Helio is promising Exchange ActiveSync support for corporate servers later this year. A couple of things are missing, though: the Ocean won't automatically fetch your POP/IMAP messages (you have to collect them manually), and HTML-formatted e-mail messages are stripped of their formatting—then again, my pricey Treo 700p (and the Sidekick 3, for that matter) has the same problem.

Web browsing: The Ocean's mobile Web browser earns high marks, but it falls just shy of the bar set by Nokia. Web surfing was quite speedy, faster even than on my 3G Treo, and the cool zoom feature instantly zooms text and images up to 200 percent (or down to 50 percent). The browser borrows Nokia's mini-map so you can see your position relative to the rest of the page, which is a nice touch. The Ocean's browser puts HTML pages through Google's mobile optimizer by default; you can scroll to the bottom of a page and click a link to see the full HTML version, but you can't turn the option off altogether, which was a bit annoying. Also, the browser struggled to render full HTML pages correctly; it couldn't display the Yahoo! front page at all, and the IMDB front page looked jumbled (Nokia's Web browser breezed through those tests). Still, I'll take the Ocean's browser over almost any other mobile browser out there, including the Sidekick's.

Music and video: Helio at last has an online storefront where you can buy music, making its service more than competitive with the music and video stores on Sprint and Verizon Wireless. You can also sync your PC-based music and videos using the included USB cable and software, and subscription-based services like Yahoo! Music are supported. The Ocean's music player boasts shuffle and repeat modes, as well as an equalizer with four presets. Music controls along the left spine of the phone let you pause and skip tracks or tweak the volume, even when the Ocean is closed, and you can listen over a stereo Bluetooth headset or your own earbuds thanks to the unobtrusive 3.5mm minijack adapter. Nicely done.

GPS and pictures: The Ocean comes with Helio's cool Buddy Beacon feature, which lets you see the location all your fellow Buddy Beacon pals (you can, of course, disable the GPS locator if you want to travel covertly). The Ocean is also one of the few phones that integrates Google Maps with GPS, making it much easier to find nearby restaurants, ATMs, gas stations and so on. In my tests in Manhattan, the GPS-aided Google Maps pinpointed my location within a couple of doors—not bad at all. Even better, you can send pictures to your buddies embedded with your present GPS coordinates, or upload your photos directly to MySpace with the new HelioUp app. The Ocean's two-megapixel camera represents a major improvement over the carrier's previous camera phones—images looked relatively vivid and sharp, if not up to the standards or a dedicated camera.

The last word: The Ocean is clearly Helio's strongest phone to date—it's a quantum leap over last year's Hero and Kickflip, and I'd have to say it easily leapfrogs all the other consumer-oriented messaging phones out there, including the Sidekick 3, LG's enV, and Samsung's dual-flip SCH-u740. At $300 with service, the Ocean isn't cheap, but you're getting a truckload of features for the cash. If you're a messaging addict who wants plenty of multimedia on the road, then this is your phone.


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