Helio Offers Cell Phones for the MySpace Crowd

— -- I've been hearing a lot of buzz about mobile service newcomer Helio. So on my recent trip to Los Angeles, I stopped by the company's headquarters and checked out its Hero and Kickflip cell phones.

Helio is a Mobile Virtual Network Operator that uses Sprint Nextel's 3G network to handle its voice and data service. In places where Sprint's 3G, broadband-level EvDO network is unavailable, you'll have access to a slower CDMA data connection. (To find out if EvDO is available in your area, check Sprint Nextel's site.)

To take advantage of the broadband-like data connections, Helio offers a slew of multimedia services that appeal to its core audience: 18- to 32-year-olds who want to be connected at all times and want to consume content like music videos, games, and news feeds.

Helio is a joint venture between SK Telecom and EarthLink. The company's CEO, Sky Delton, knows a thing or two about the mobile arena. He founded EarthLink in 1994 and then moved on to launch Boingo Wireless in 2001. Fast forward to 2006, when Sky and his company introduced Helio to U.S. mobile phone users. Helio officially launched its service on May 2 and began shipping its handsets shortly thereafter. You can buy Helio's phones and sign up for the service at the company's site and at several retail stores, including Fry's, Tower Records, and local independent shops.

Inside the Helio office I was immediately greeted with Helio in the news. Like a proud parent, the company showed off recent media coverage of its products. A flat screen hung on a wall behind the reception desk showing looping news clips featuring Helio's phones. In the lounge, several magazines graced the coffee table, including a copy of US Weekly, conveniently bookmarked to a page with a photo of actor Tom Cruise futzing with his Hero cell phone while his fiancée, actress Katie Holmes, looked over his shoulder--all this as they made an appearance on the red carpet for the premier of Mission: Impossible III. I was thoroughly amused.

Minutes later Helio spokesperson Rick Heineman showed up and took me to a conference room where I tooled around with some of Helio's data services on the Hero and Kickflip handsets. Although I got the spiel on the company and a preview of its two handsets, Helio couldn't provide a phone to review at press time. Look for a full review of Helio's handsets and service soon.

The key element that sets Helio apart from other carriers is access to the popular social networking site MySpace. Although you can visit a MySpace page from other handsets' browsers, MySpace on Helio has been specially tailored to work well and look nice on a mobile platform. From a Helio phone, you can perform tasks such as upload photos, read and write blogs and e-mails, and add friends to your MySpace page, according to Heineman.

You can receive news feeds from media outlets such as The Onion, Fox Sports, and MTV News. Every few seconds, a small pop-up window shows information on the phone screen. Heineman says you also have access to Yahoo tools including Yahoo Mail, Yahoo Messenger, and Yahoo Search.

Helio provides a service that lets you buy and send content (such as games, videos, and ring tones) over the air to another Helio subscriber's phone. The cost of the download shows up on your monthly statement, so there's no separate billing.

The Hero and the Kickflip have many features in common, including a 2.2-inch screen, a 2-megapixel camera, 70MB of internal storage, a MicroSD slot, and EvDO network support. When I tried them out at Helio's office, both phones sounded fine during voice calls and the broadband connection worked well when I viewed Web sites.

Although the phones are similar in size--about a deck of cards--they differ in design. The pearly white $250 Kickflip sports a cover that swivels 180 degrees to the left or the right. The phone has a five-way button in the center, soft keys for on-screen selections, talk start and end buttons, a voice record key, and a back button. One unusual feature: You can connect the Kickflip to a TV using an extra-cost cable.

The shiny black $275 Hero features a sliding cover and a small speaker on the side. It has the same buttons as the Kickflip, though the locations are slightly different. The Hero costs more than the Kickflip because it has a coprocessor to enhance graphics in games, according to Heineman.

Going back to the phones' similarities, each is equipped with media playback controls, a camera button, and a headphone jack. However, using the side button to power up the camera requires you to hold it down for 1.5 to 2 seconds, which seems slow when you need to snap a shot right away.

Both phones use Helio's unique user interface, which puts the contact icon in the center and icons for other functions (such as camera, settings, and basic PIMs) encircling it. It was easy to navigate the menus and the performance was speedy.

Both handsets can play back MP3s and MPEG-4 videos. Heineman says you can listen to songs saved on a MicroSD card and you can transfer songs from your PC to the phones using included software. Helio currently doesn't offer an over-the-air music download service.

Helio's monthly subscription fees aren't cheap, but they're fairly reasonable. The company offers unlimited data on its three calling plans: $85 per month for 1000 anytime minutes; $100/month for 1500 minutes; and $135/month for 2500 minutes. If you want to spend less money per month, consider using the à la carte service: For $40, you get 500 anytime minutes and you pay for data transmission at the rate of 2 cents per kilobyte (essentially for Web browsing), 10 cents per incoming or outgoing text message, and 25 cents per outgoing multimedia message (MMS). Helio also requires a two-year service contract.

In the end, Helio's biggest draw is MySpace support. If you don't use MySpace or don't feel the need to access it on your cell phone, Helio's monthly fees and pricey handsets may make it difficult to justify switching carriers. Plus, there are other youth-oriented carriers with more-affordable monthly fees to choose from, including Amp'd Mobile, Boost, and Virgin Mobile (though not all provide 3G service).