The Helio Ocean was an amazing phone in its day, so we were excited to see all the cool updates hitting Virgin Mobile's Helio-branded Ocean 2. Turns out, there's not much cool to be found.

Originally released almost two years ago, the Ocean was a great phone at the time. Its dual-sliding design was unique, and it was packed full of features that weren't widely available elsewhere, such as 3G surfing, GPS and great Gmail integration. Cut to two years later, and none of these things seem all that unique.

Today, the Ocean 2 doesn't hold up as well. It's seriously thick compared to most other phones—twice that of an iPhone—and its dual-sliding design requires a fatness that is the phone's Achilles heel. It's not worth the space when a touchscreen could replace the entire numerical pad level. A much simpler configuration would be a slide-out QWERTY keyboard and a touchscreen for dialing, like on the Palm Pre. Sure, the screen is brighter and sharper than the original, but it's still not a touchscreen. Cost-cutting was clearly a key influencer in the Ocean 2's design, but that may hurt it in the end.

The Ocean 2 does, however, offer some upgrades to its predecessor. Besides the noticeably sharper and brighter screen, you also get 2GB of built-in storage, plus an SD slot for more videos and music.


There's a new optical navigation pad, which is a bigger, fancier version of the "OK" button on the original Ocean. It still acts as an OK button, but it also is touch-sensitive, allowing you to scroll around websites and through menus without any clicking required. Unfortunately, it's too small to feel very useful, and you end up accidentally scrolling when you're trying to hit OK.

There are some new software features that are nice, including Helio Connect, a way to check on your Facebook, Flickr, Twitter and YouTube accounts, as well as your RSS feeds, all in one place. It's a convenient way to get caught up without having to jump around to a half dozen websites or apps.

On the other hand, the browser is inexcusably bad. It completely destroys the rendering of most websites, and if you choose to view them as regular HTML, you'll be scrolling all over the place. It's also very slow, despite the 3G connection. It just feels like a last-generation mobile browser.


Overall, the interface is basically identical to the original, just like the design. Yes, there have been updates, but none of them feel all that substantial or consequential. This feels more like the Ocean 1.5 than the Ocean 2.

With phones such as the Palm Pre and the iPhone out there for not all that much more, you've got to wonder how many people are going to be interested in signing a two-year contract for a two-year-old phone that's merely been polished instead of being really revamped. You certainly won't feel like you've got the hottest piece of tech on the block, but it's also too expensive and bulky to be seen as a good budget phone. It's stuck in a vague middle area, a place few customers are going to want to go. [Virgin Mobile]