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Helio Ocean

Pros - Innovative dual-slider design Excellent messaging software. Cons - Sometimes lackluster call quality Small selection of nongame apps


This stylish, feature-packed phone almost has it all.

The Helio Ocean is a stylish, feature-packed phone. Its innovative dual-slider design allows for both a standard phone keypad and a full keyboard. Though it lacks Wi-Fi, it offers fast EvDO data access, Bluetooth, built-in GPS, and a great do-it-all message center that combines text, IM, and e-mail. You also get an easy-to-use 2-megapixel camera (with flash) that can record video.

Overall, I'm impressed with this fun phone. The only drawback I found with the $295 Ocean was occasionally fuzzy or hollow-sounding audio in my informal test calls to various numbers. Whether the cause was Sprint or Helio's local service in San Francisco or a hardware limitation in the phone itself, I couldn't say--but calls from my Treo (with AT&T service) to the same numbers generally sounded better.

Another minor issue: Battery life for the Ocean was only fair in our tests, lasting 5.5 hours (we test for a maximum of 10 hours).

Still, the Ocean is a pleasure to use. The dual-slider design presents large buttons for phone dialing in portrait mode, and the spacious keyboard in landscape mode makes for smooth e-mail and other text entry. Most applications (some games being the exception) automatically adjust the 2.4-inch, 240-by-320-pixel display when you shift from portrait to landscape and back again, and assorted buttons on the front and edges of the phone let you quickly change the volume, stop and start music, and perform other functions.

A free, downloadable Maps application works with the Ocean's internal GPS to display your current location and use it as the start or end point for directions. Though it isn't a full-blown portable GPS program, it's still useful enough to convince me that the next phone I buy should have some sort of GPS, no question. The also-free "Buddy Beacon" GPS app shows your location and that of any friends using Helio phones, if you enable the option.

Not free by any means is a just-released Garmin Mobile program, which does bring full GPS features such as dynamic routing and voice directions. Since it'll run you a ridiculous $3 per day, however, I'd suggest sticking with the less-functional but free Google Maps. Another nice freebie is the Helio UP utility, which lets you easily upload pictures or video straight to Flickr, Helio's site, or YouTube right after taking them.

A handful of other downloadable Java apps, some free and some paid, are available, but Helio's selection is limited. Typically you'll have to shell out a monthly fee of $3 or $4 for the paid programs, too.

Third-party sites such as Heliocity and Mobile GMaps are just now stepping in to fill the gap, though, with free Helio versions of the Opera Mini browser and an alternative map program. These non-Helio designed apps aren't yet able to use the Ocean's keyboard or landscape layout, but that may change.

In general, Helio's selection of games is better than its assortment of utilities, and the games are fairly priced; those I looked at cost $1 for a seven-day trial run or $6 to buy.

As for built-in apps, the Helio sports a serviceable Web browser, a music and video player, a nice contacts database, and an excellent message center. The browser lacks an address bar, but scrolls quickly through a page when you hold down the click wheel. Zooming in or out is easy, as well. Pages load quickly over the EvDO connection, but I wish the phone would automatically disable the screen-blanking power-save feature when I'm browsing.

I couldn't ask for anything more from the impressive message center, though. It's a snap to grab AOL, EarthLink, Gmail, Windows Live, or Yahoo e-mail or have an IM chat over AOL or Yahoo. You can also sign up for Helio's e-mail client or download a free applet that can pull e-mail from a Microsoft Exchange server. What's more, after setting up any of those accounts, you can easily synchronize your phone contacts with those stored online.

For more solo entertainment, you can transfer your own music and video to the phone via USB from a PC or download them from Helio. The songs I looked at cost $2 each, and were DRM-protected .wma files. You can also play MP3, AAC, AAC+, and eAAC+ formats on the phone. Helio's video download site offers a good selection of free streaming videos; in addition, you can purchase videos for $2.50. Though you get only 200MB of memory on the phone itself to store your media, the Ocean accepts microSD cards up to 2GB.

The Ocean works only with Helio's phone service, which uses the Sprint CDMA network. "All-in" plans include unlimited text messaging and data access, and range from $65 a month for 500 call minutes up to $145 for unlimited calling. "A la carte" plans charge 10 cents per text message and 0.2 cents per KB for data transfer but start at $40 for 500 call minutes. You're locked in for two years under a new plan, with a $175 early cancellation fee.

Overall, the Ocean is a solid contender as a modern do-it-all phone. The occasionally lackluster call quality is a disappointment, but not a deal-killer, especially if you intend to use your phone for Web and e-mail communications as much as for voice. And while I might wish for a larger (and cheaper) selection of add-on programs, a great amount of functionality is already packed into the device.

-- Erik Larkin

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