Earlier this year, Helio CEO Sky Dayton said that the Ocean is the phone he "dreamt of making" when he first took over as the MVNO's chief executive. The Helio-designed, Pantech-built Ocean has also been near the top of my - and every other phone reviewer's - "can't wait for it" list since it was announced. Featuring a unique dual-slider design affording dedicated QWERTY and dialing pads, a 2mp camera, media player, and messaging-centric features running over Sprint's 3G data network, Ocean looked ready to take the mobile phone world by storm.
Now that it's been available for a few weeks, ?Ocean's? been put through the ringer by reviewers and users alike. Helio's motto is "don't call it a phone," and Ocean really brings that slogan to life more than any other Helio device. While it of course works just fine as a phone, Ocean would be overkill for the user interested primarily in voice calling - this device, coupled with the provider's "All In" unlimited data plans, is clearly meant for the always-connected IM and MySpace set. In fact, it reminds me of a T-Moble Sidekick, what with its chunky body and robust support for IM, Email, and Web services.
But is Ocean all it's been hyped up to be? After a few weeks with the device I can definitely say, "yes and no." In a nutshell, Ocean is feature rich and very fast, but also both clunkier and cheaper-feeling than I expected. While smaller than an Sidekick 3, Ocean's QWERTY pad is cramped, and in general I wish Helio had done away with some of the buttons in favor of a slimmer profile and/or larger screen. And the software is a little buggy and sort of does "everything pretty well" instead of "anything great." But Ocean is also feature-rich, user-friendly and - in a few places - quite innovative and smart.
So ... Is the Ocean for you? To answer that we must delve into the details ...
Helio's slogan for Ocean is "Shape Shifter," a reference to its signature dual-slider design. The handset is a candybar with three distinct layers: Display, Dialing, and QWERTY. Helio tapped Pantech to build the phone, but also retained separate engineers to custom design a triangular spring for the dual-sliding mechanism. Ocean is finished in black soft-touch plastic with silver trim. While the rubber-like finish is easy to grip, the device itself frankly isn't all that comfortable to hold. To be fair, since the Ocean fits into one hand (it's smaller than a Sidekick 3) I'm judging it against other candybar/slider phones instead of larger devices like the Sidekick 3 or Pocket PC phones, which I wouldn't really expect to be comfortably held and used one-handed.
Still, at 114mm x 56mm x 23mm and weighing 165g, Ocean looks and feels like a big, heavy candybar phone. It's weird - it's not long and wide enough to look like a smartphone, but doesn't have the "pleasant heft" I've come to associate with certain high-end phones like the Nokia N-Series or SE K790/800 models. Instead, Ocean has more of a cheap plastic feel to it. Some of that assessment is my personal sense of style rearing its head - I'm sure lots of people love the way Ocean looks and feels (and the matte finish is more smudge resistant than shiny plastic). One objective note, however, is that while the sliders are generally smooth and snap open and shut with assurance, they also have a bit of wobble to them if you press on the wrong edge while a layer is extended.
The topmost layer of the phone, which is always exposed, features a 2.4" display that works in both landscape and portrait orientations, depending on which keypad is in use. Held vertically, the screen is bordered by the earpiece and two softkeys on top and the microphone and navigational array - D-pad surrounded by two more softkeys, and dedicated Call, Hang Up, and Back buttons - below.
Sliding the top layer up vertically reveals the middle dialing layer. This layer is finished in silver and comprised of a standard 12-button numeric keypad. While I've heard a few folks complain about the slightly rounded shape of the dialing buttons, I found them quite roomy and comfortable to use.
Sliding the top layer to the right - or "up horizontally" - actually moves both the display and dialing layers to reveal the QWERTY layer. 34 of the 35 buttons in the QWERTY layout are finished in dark grey; the ALT key is bright orange, which makes it easy to spot and also kind of cool looking. The QWERTY keys are small ovals, save the space bar which is a double-width oval. During use, I found the QWERTY keys to be a bit cramped - specifically, the space bar is too small and the top row is too tightly bordered by the two upper layers of the device. My thumbs constantly pressed against the edge of the upper layers of the Ocean, which got to be uncomfortable when tapping out emails or navigating extended Web and IM sessions. It's not at all impossible to use, and the raised key design helps, but the keyboard is definitely smaller than what you'll find on a Sidekick or full-fledged smartphone like the Cingular 8525 or T-Mobile Wing.
Ocean's back panel has a centered battery cover flanked by cutouts for the rear-firing stereo speakers. Above the battery cover is the camera housing, which includes a flash assist light and self portrait mirror in addition to the sensor for the 2 megapixel shooter. Along the right side of the phone (when held vertically) are the microSD memory card slot and dedicated speakerphone and camera buttons. A headphone jack, volume up/down buttons and play, skip forward, and skip back media buttons are located along the left side. A rear-mounted port takes the included AC adapter and USB data cable.
I could easily write a novel-length description of Ocean's features and probably still leave something out. Helio's bread and butter is packing their "not phones" with access to all sorts of multimedia and games that users can download or subscribe to (for additional fees) via the Helio Store. Ocean is the first device really designed from the ground up as a high-tech means of accessing all Helio has to offer. In many ways it succeeds beyond expectations, while in others it comes off a bit like a "Jack of all trades, master of none." Web surfing and messaging are Ocean's strong suites, and I'll cover those in later sections of the review. Media, games, and organizational apps on Ocean were generally good if not great, with some unique features worth mentioning.
Ocean features a redesigned user interface built around an icon-driven menu screen. A ring of choices takes you to apps including contacts, the Web, media player, messaging, planner, camera, and the Helio Store. Depending on which icon is highlighted, additional context-specific choices are available via two softkeys. While UI icons have been designed with an eye towards the younger crowd, all menus on Ocean are clean and easy to read. Helio's UI designers really did a nice job on Ocean's look and feel; it's a little hipper than, say, Nokia's Series 60 UI but perhaps even easier to use.
One caveat to that is that certain features on the device feel a bit like they were "layered on top" of the core UI and OS. For instance, accessing the Web browser launches a loading screen complete with progress bar. Leaving the browser yields the same screen en route back to the main OS. As a friend of mine put it, "It's really weird to watch applications boot up on a phone."
Helio also did a great job with the Idle Search feature, which lets you initiate a Contacts and/or Web search by typing keywords directly from the Home screen. If your keywords match an entry in your Contacts, you'll get that entry as your result; otherwise, your taken to a Web results page. Very handy. More on Ocean's Web surfing capabilities later in the review...
Two free applications - Google Maps and Helio Buddy Beacon - take advantage of Ocean's GPS capabilities. Both apps worked very well, and the MySpace generation will love Buddy Beacon, which lets you keep track of where your friends are. Me, I'd just as soon nobody be able to find me at any given time unless I specifically wanted them to. But I'm an old fogey like that.
Ocean also features a media player that can play music and video tracks from internal memory, miniSD memory cards, or streamed over the 3G data network. The music player generally worked quite well, though I did experience a one-time bug that resulted in all the tracks I'd sideloaded from my Mac showing up with Korean titles in place of the English titles they'd actually been tagged with. Music can be played in the background during Web surfing, but not while any other applications are running.
Songs can also be purchased and downloaded over the air from the Helio Store. While the experience is a good one and downloads are reasonably quick, at $1.99 per track Helio is charging double what Sprint asks at their music store.
The video player was decent, but not as great as I'd expected. Streaming video in particular was rather blocky and choppy, though still viewable in that "if it's entertaining, it doesn't have to be HD" sort of way. Video shot with the built-in camera did result in somewhat smoother playback.
The Contacts, Alarm, and World Clock applications work well, but the Planner app leaves a few things to be desired. As of my writing this, Ocean can't sync Calendar data with either PCs or Macs, though Helio says they're working on solutions for both platforms. The planner is also lacking a task list, strangely enough. On the flip side, Ocean supports over the air Contacts syncing via Helio's website. In fact, Helio makes it really easy to switch between handsets (in case you want to leave Ocean at home and take a sleeker phone like Heat out with you for the evening). On their Website you can click between your devices, making one or another active while also syncing your Contacts. Very cool if you're a multi-phone kind of person.
Helio put a 2.0 megapixel camera with flash assist light into Ocean. While this shooter's somewhat washed-out and blurry images won't win any contests, they're at least on par with standard (read non-SE Cybershot or Nokia N-Series) cameraphones. Far from awful, images captured with Ocean's camera are just a bit dull and washed-out, lacking "pop" when it comes to color or detail. The camera is backed by software that allows for myriad shooting modes/settings and makes it easy and fun to share photos via messaging and/or Helio's "Up" photosharing service. Up allows for direct uploading of photos from Ocean to a server that allows for tagging (including location tagging via GPS) and Web-based access for you and your friends. Photos can also be saved to microSD memory cards for transfer to a computer or printer.
Video capture mode resulted in movie clips that suffered from a similar dullness coupled with a fair amount of motion blur during action sequences. Movie clips may be captured at QVGA (320 x 240) or 176 x 144 resolutions, the latter specifically intended for use in MMS messages. One neat trick found on ocean is the ability to use movie clips as moving wallpapers on the home screen. While I honestly don't know that I'd actually employ that feature very often, it's still pretty cool.
Ocean's display is excellent. Oddly, something about the layout of the handset's "display layer" made me think the screen was smaller than it actually is, but at 2.4" in size and a QVGA resolution at 260,000 colors, Ocean's screen is on par with all but the very upper echelon of today's mobile phones.
I really like Helio's user-friendly menus and display fonts, and text, images, and video all rendered bright and crisp on Ocean's screen. Screens rotate very quickly from landscape to portrait when you slide the various layers of the handset open and shut, and the display works quite well for widescreen viewing of media. Both still images and video clips may be used as wallpapers, and the Helio Store offers plenty of downloadable backgrounds for you to spend your money on.
With so much functionality - and so many network-enhanced features - under the hood, I was kind of surprised not to find any sort of home screen shortcut menus or data feeds on Ocean. I'm thinking of Nokia's Series 40/60 Active Standby menus or Windows Mobile's Today menus: at a glance views of your daily calendar, user-definable shortcut menus, or even some kind of always-on status updates relating to MySpace, Helio Buddy Beacon, or other social networking services. Even home screen RSS feeds, weather updates, or other news bytes would be cool ... something like a mini MyYahoo! page.
Helio has said that Ocean represents the near-term future of the MVNO, a platform upon which to build-out new user services. So it certainly stands to reason that the provider will be rolling out new features to Ocean via software and firmware updates over the coming months.
I tested the dual-band CDMA Ocean on Helio's service - which runs on Sprint's network - in the San Francisco Bay Area. The phone generally worked very well for voice calls, and I was able to hear and be heard loud and clear throughout my testing. While you'll likely have the phone in portrait mode (with the dialing layer extended) while holding it to your ear for voice calls, it's worth noting that if you're using ocean in landscape mode and answer an incoming call, handsfree speakerphone mode is automatically activated. Ocean actually has two integrated speakers for stereo audio playback. This is a growing trend on cell phones and frankly it's little more than a gimmick. Music played back over the tiny speakers sounds like music played back over tiny speakers - fine for "in a pinch" sharing, but pretty useless for actually enjoying music (in other words, they're no better or worse than any other phone's built-in stereo speakers).
Bluetooth support includes stereo over Bluetooth via the A2DP profile.† I had no trouble pairing a Bluetooth earpiece with the phone, and voice quality with the earpiece was good. Music played back through wireless stereo headphones also sounded good.
Helio also included a pair of stereo earbuds with in-line mic and a separate 2.5 to 3.5mm headphone adapter in the retail packaging. The included earbuds sounded pretty good (i.e. like your standard pack-in earbuds) and worked well for voice calls with the in-line microphone. For music playback, you'll want to rock the 3.5mm adapter paired with a pair of quality earbuds to get "iPod-esque" sound quality.
Ocean is as much a messaging device as it is a phone. The operating system supports Yahoo!, AOL, and Windows Live instant messaging as well as Helio mail, Gmail, AOL mail, Earthlink mail, and good old fashioned POP3 and IMAP4 email right out of the box. You'll be hard-pressed to find another mobile phone that comes pre-configured for access to this many messaging protocols. SMS and MMS messages are also supported.
Messaging generally works very well on Ocean. Messaging features unique to Ocean include a nifty alert system that puts an icon in the status bar when you have new messages of any flavor, and the ability to send photos over IM just like on a PC. Also, the home screen shortcut to messaging is two-fold: a quick tap "down" on the D-Pad takes you to the main messaging screen, while a longer press in the same direction lets you compose a new message. Sweet.
Push email is supported for AOL, Yahoo! and Windows Live. Instant messaging also works quite well, though there is a wee bit of a lag during IM sessions as compared to a PC. In general, though, messaging is pretty speedy thanks to Sprint's 3G data network. All in all, Ocean is one of the most comprehensive email phones on the market right now.
As mentioned, Ocean uses Sprint's 3G EV-DO network for data services, including connections to the Internet. Sprint's EV-DO service is often cited as the fastest in the U.S., and I certainly was happy with the data speeds I got on Ocean.
Ocean's Web browser and Idle Search functionality were amongst the features I was most excited to try on the handset. After a few weeks surfing the Web on Ocean, I came away mostly impressed with a few caveats. The biggest hitch with the browser is that it defaults to reformatting incoming Web sites via mobile.google.com, essentially giving you WAP pages at blazing fast 3G speeds. Hidden at the bottom of every page you visit is a "view this page in HTML mode" option, which takes you to Ocean's excellent full-HTML browser. While I can see the reasoning behind defaulting to a WAP view on a device whose screen is less than three inches wide, I really wish there was a way to change that default setting to "full HTML" in a preferences menu. WAP pages are better suited to mobile browsing tasks like weather, sports, and stock updates, but there are plenty of Web pages I like to check in on during the day that simply don't look right after mobile.google's reformatting.
The aforementioned Idle Search function is also really handy for those, "If only I knew the answer to ..." situations. With most mobile phones you have to drill down through a few levels of menu, launch your mobile browser, and then point it to a URL before you can enter your search terms. Ocean's Idle Search lets you type keywords directly from the homescreen and hit go, launching you out to a results page with tabs for Google, Amazon, Wikipedia, and Yelp results.
When reviewing a new handset, my benchmark mobile browsers are Nokia's N-Series, Opera Mobile, and the UIQ browser on Sony Ericsson smartphones. It's hard to say if Ocean's browser is better or worse than those three, as it does some things really impressively and others not quite as well. Idle Search, for instance, is basically unmatched by any other mobile I've seen. There also aren't many other handsets that combine full HTML browsing in landscape mode with full-on 3G data speeds that work in the U.S. (Nokia's N75 for Cingular comes to mind, but the good browser on that phone is buried in menus beneath the not as good Cingular-branded browser).
On the other hand, the default WAP mode "feature" is pretty annoying. And the browser did crash on me semi-regularly in HTML mode when it ran into sites it just couldn't deal with.
All in all, Ocean provides one of the best mobile Internet experiences available today, but not without some serious quirks. Hopefully Helio will address those quirks in short order via over the air updates - remember, this is a first generation, Rev. A product. In the meantime, whether or not those quirks will bother you is really a matter of personal preference. For my money I prefer the Nokia browser mostly because it uses HTML mode all the time and renders pages just a bit more accurately than Ocean does. Then again, when it comes to pulling the device out of my pocket and searching for a piece of information, Ocean is a good step or two ahead of the field. If you're considering Ocean and Web browsing is a key feature for you, definitely try before you buy if at all possible - it's a somewhat subjective experience.
As mentioned, Ocean is a dual-band CDMA device that operates on Sprint's network (with Helio providing service as the MVNO). Ocean's data services are handled via EV-DO connectivity that makes for one of, if not the, fastest cellular data connections currently available in the U.S. Unfortunately, laptop tethering is not currently supported on Ocean.
Ocean features Bluetooth connectivity with support for object exchange and A2DP stereo audio. Calendar syncing is not currently supported, though Helio says they're working on solutions for both Mac and PC systems. Contacts can be synched over the air via Helio's website, and Helio subscribers with more than one device can sync contacts across handsets and also change their active handset via the website. A USB data cable is also included.
Ocean also features a whopping 200MB of internal memory and a microSD removable memory card slot (no microSD card is included in the packaging). One odd quirk about the memory is that music and video files cannot be saved directly to a microSD card - they must first be saved to the internal memory and then moved over to the external card.
Helio's Ocean was at the top of my "most anticipated" list since it was first announced. The anticipation grew when images and video clips surfaced following Helio's behind-closed-doors preview of the device at CTIA in March. When Ocean launched in May, I couldn't wait for my name to make it to the top of Helio's PR list and instead ordered a unit directly from their website. So after all that hype, what do I make of the three weeks I've spent with Ocean?
From an objective standpoint, Ocean is in many ways what Sidekick 3 wishes it was. It's smaller, lighter, and faster than SK 3 while also being more feature-rich. Helio's data speeds (over Sprint's EV-DO network) are fast enough to make HTML Web browsing enjoyable, and their GPS-enabled applications add locative data to the mix. The plethora of Email and IM options, along with MySpace mobile, appeal to the 24 and under market while also giving Ocean some cross-marketing appeal with the "hip at heart" professional set. While Ocean's size and style was a negative for me, plenty of other folks may well love the black and silver matte rubber finish.
From a personal standpoint, Ocean just isn't for me. It's simply too bulky for me to carry around on a daily basis, and I think the dual-slider form factor is overkill. Ocean's dedicated dialing layer certainly will make life easier for many of its users, but I'd prefer a slightly more complex button layout in the name of a slimmer overall design. The time I've spent with larger, thinner smartphones like the Motorola Q and HTC/T-Mobile Dash showed me that I prefer a device with a bigger footprint but thinner profile and lighter weight. That's just me.
That being said, given Ocean's overall bulk its QWERTY keyboard is just too small and cramped. Not unusable, just too small. The lack of personal information sync is also a deal-breaker for me - while I believe a solution is in the works, as a Mac owner I know that my solution will likely come well after an as yet unreleased PC solution hits the airwaves.
Bear in mind, whatever your initial impressions of Ocean, that this is a first-generation device built from the ground up. It's going to have bugs and quirks, but those will be ironed out in time. Ocean basically represents the next step for Helio, so look for it to improve in the coming months via subtle firmware upgrades and more dramatic new feature and application releases. While Ocean likely won't change or be replaced for awhile, it's more than reasonable to expect the device's functionality to expand; data synching, customizable Web searches, an "active" home screen ("Helio on Top" is actually available for Helio's other handsets), and more GPS-aware services come to mind as features that could make Ocean a more and more attractive solution well before we see another entirely new handset from Helio.
In sum, if you're a Sidekick user, MySpace/IM junkie, or gadget fiend looking for your next fix, Ocean is well worth a trial run. Power users used to full smartphone functionality and style-conscious techies who think "thin is in" may want to pass. At an introductory price of $295 with a two-year contract (various promotional discounts are available), Ocean is one of the most expensive handsets currently subsidized by a U.S. carrier. On the flipside, Helio's "All-In" plan provides unlimited data usage along with varying levels of calling minutes at competitive monthly rates (as of June 2007, $65/mo will get you 500 anytime minutes with free nights and weekends). Helio does offer a 30-day "Happiness Guarantee," so you could always get one and take it for a one month test drive before making up your mind. That's what I did.