When the Helio Ocean was released two years ago, it marked the coming-of-age of the young MVNO upstart that was Helio. It was the carrier's first smartphone-like device, and it was also Pantech's first attempt at a dual-slider handset (Pantech would go on to create other dual-slider phones such as the Pantech Duo). Indeed, it was one of 2007's most talked about phones, aside from the iPhone, of course. With great messaging capabilities, a HTML browser, EV-DO, GPS, smart integration with popular social networks like Facebook and MySpace, and support for Microsoft Exchange ActiveSync, the Helio Ocean promised to be a great phone for tech-savvy hipsters.
But Helio didn't last too long in the MVNO space. In late 2008, Virgin Mobile USA bought the troubled network operator (The intent to purchase was announced in June and the acquisition was closed in August), which allowed the prepaid giant to introduce a whole new set of devices to its customers. It also branched out its payment models to include monthly voice and data plans that better suit Helio's legacy. The first sign of this new marriage was the Virgin Mobile Shuttle, which was Virgin's first ever 3G handheld. It was a decent phone, but it was nowhere near the sleek and feature-rich device that was the Ocean.
Enter the Ocean 2. Released two years after the original, the Ocean 2 has everything the Ocean had and more. Pantech's still the manufacturer and it still has that dual-slider design, but now it comes with a much-improved keyboard, an innovative touch pad sensor, and a wider display. You also get all the high-end features the original Ocean was known for, plus a few extra goodies like 2GB of internal storage, a tabbed browser, and more. We definitely think it's a step up from the original Ocean, but you'll still have to get over its hefty size. You can get the Helio Ocean 2 now from Virgin Mobile for a pretty nice price of $149.
There's no two ways about it; the Helio Ocean 2 is one very thick phone. The Ocean 2 measures 4.65 inches long by 2.28 inches wide by 0.81 inch thick and weighs a whopping 5.89 ounces. Two years ago, that might've been OK, but in today's market of skinny handsets, the Ocean 2's girth is a novelty. But there's a reason behind the heft. Following the design sensibility of the original Ocean, the Ocean 2 has a dual-slider design with three layers: the display layer, the number keypad layer, and the keyboard layer. You slide the phone vertically to reveal the number keypad and horizontally to reveal the QWERTY keyboard--you can't slide both out at the same time. The slider mechanism on the Ocean 2 feels nice and solid; each layer slides into place with just the right amount of give. Because of its heft, this is certainly not a phone to put in your pocket, but its oval shape and rubber trim gives it a good feel in the hand.
Right on the front of the Ocean 2 is its 2.6-inch QVGA display, which is a tad larger than the Ocean's 2.4-inch screen. It is a great-looking display, with support for 262,000 colors and 240x320-pixel resolution, making it an excellent showcase for the Ocean's colorful and animated menu interface. Though the screen size isn't as wide as, say, the iPhone, it works fine for short video clips and surfing through Web pages. The display changes orientation automatically--it goes to portrait mode when you slide out the number keypad and switches to landscape mode when you slide out the QWERTY keyboard. You can adjust the screen's brightness, the backlight timer, and though you can't change the font size, you have the choice of either English or Korean words.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the Ocean 2's design is the addition of an optical sensor touch pad. It sits underneath the display (when viewed vertically), and is surrounded by two soft keys, the Talk key, the Back/Clear key, and the End/Power key. The optical sensor is encircled in a silver ring that acts as the four-way navigation toggle. Like the optical sensor on the Samsung Omnia, it acts as a touch pad and is a way for you to scroll through menus or a long Web page simply by stroking the pad in the desired direction. The sensor presses down if you want to select something, and it leads to Helio Connect when the phone is on standby.
Though we like using the touch pad for navigation, we did think it felt a bit tedious especially when scrolling through very long Web pages, but that's more because of screen size and browser limitations. The navigation keys around the sensor felt fine for the most part, but they were a bit flat and slippery. On standby, the navigation toggle acts as shortcuts to the browser, the Games menu, the message in-box, and the Video + Music menu. There are also two soft keys above the display (or to the left if you view the phone in landscape mode), which act as shortcuts to the Helio Store. What's more, these two soft keys at the top felt a lot skinnier and stiffer than the other keys, and were thus harder to press.
When held vertically, the dedicated camera key and music player key plus a 3.5mm headset jack are on the right. We're definitely pleased to see the 3.5mm headset jack. On the left are the charger jack, the volume rocker, and a silent toggle. The camera lens is on the back, and unfortunately the Ocean 2 does not have the self-portrait mirror and LED flash that were on the original. Also, the microSD card slot is now located behind the battery, which is quite inconvenient.
The number keypad is definitely improved over the original. No longer flat, the Ocean 2's keypad has nice defined ridges and all the keys are raised above the surface. There's also a lot more room between the bottom row of the keypad and the lip of the phone. Similarly, the QWERTY keyboard is improved as well, with a more spacious layout and bigger keys. We were able to thumb-type text messages quickly without a lot of mistakes. Our only complaint is that the spacebar is located between the V and B keys instead of underneath them, so it takes some getting used to.