Helio's Strengths Can Be Summed Up in Its Billing

By Rob Pegoraro
Sunday, July 23, 2006

One of the more interesting new cellphone services hardly bothers to invite you to talk on its phones.

Helio Inc., a Los Angeles-based joint venture between SK Telecom Co., the South Korean wireless carrier, and EarthLink Inc., the Atlanta-based Internet provider, wants you to value megabytes before minutes.

On most wireless plans, everything on top of voice service comes a la carte: You pay one monthly fee for Web browsing, a second for text messaging and a third for picture and video messaging -- and most of these add-ons come with their own separate usage quotas.

Helio ( http://www.helio.com ) instead offers unlimited Web and messaging use. At $65 a month, the cheapest of Helio's four service plans offers 500 "anytime" minutes per month (calls on weeknights and weekends aren't metered). Its top plan, which comes with 2,500 monthly "anytime" minutes, is $135.

Since Helio runs on Sprint PCS's network, it provides the same coverage and download speeds as Sprint -- up to 500 kilobits per second in major markets (two-thirds the speed of entry-level DSL) but closer to 50 kbps in most parts of the country.

Helio parts company with its competitors, however, with its menu of data services. Its main course is a mobile version of the MySpace.com social-networking site. With a Helio phone, you can fire off blog and bulletin posts to your MySpace page, view friends' pages, link to new acquaintances and upload pictures taken on the phone (both Helio models, the $200 Kickflip and the $275 Hero, include two-megapixel cameras).

As an on-the-go extension of the popular site, Helio's flavor of MySpace makes basic sense-- even if you can't edit a few parts of your MySpace presence on the phone, such as your blurb or your profile.

(Then again, what if you don't care for MySpace? Helio's pitch might not resonate so strongly among people not in the right demographic. As a married man on the far side of the 18-34 age bracket who doesn't play in a band or work in a bar, I keep asking myself what I'm doing on MySpace in the first place.)

Helio's other distinct data offering is something called Helio On Top, a beta-test program that downloads a stream of new Web stories and video clips to the phone. You can choose content sources to reflect your interests, but with fewer than 30 available -- most from Yahoo, CNN or Fox -- this feels much more like basic cable TV than the Web.

After those two items, Helio doesn't stray far from the online fare of other carriers -- aside from some limits that betray its relative youth. You can browse and bookmark any site that works on the phone's small but sharp screen (though you may be derailed by bogus site-not-responding errors).

You can also send text and picture messages, with up to three files allowed per message -- but multimedia messages can only be sent to Sprint, Cingular and SK Telecom phones. Picture messages sent to an e-mail address never arrived, while one sent to a Verizon phone got bounced back.

The absence of a QWERTY keyboard could squelch the appeal of a Helio phone as a text-messaging terminal for some. Others, however, have grown up triple-tapping on a phone keypad, mastering the predictive-typing software that tries to guess which of the three or four letters on each key would fit best with what you've typed so far.

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