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.

While Helio's onscreen menus advertise music and video downloads, at the moment only videos are sold, at $2.49 each. Helio's video catalogue is depressingly slim and seems even thinner when you see how many times the same artists pop up.

The tested Kickflip phone provided all the standard ways to dress up its interface and then some -- for instance, you can choose a movie clip as the phone's wallpaper instead of a picture. This swivel-open handset also included a decent set of programs, including a good address book, a basic calendar, a memo pad, a voice-memo recorder and a handful of games (with others available for sale or rent).

The Kickflip provides the theoretically helpful option of data synchronization with a Windows computer, but Helio has made a mess of that with its free desktop software. Its installer caused Windows XP to throw up two "unsigned driver" warnings, much of its interface is a morass of small type and hard-to-decipher icons, and some useful functions (like converting MP3s into ringtones) go missing entirely.

If you merely want to copy your MP3s over to a Helio phone for listening on the go, you'll need to install a different desktop program and pop a tiny "T-Flash" memory card into the phone.

As for the Kickflip's hardware, its roughly inch-thick dimensions mean it's not about to shut down a Motorola Razr in the style department. A lack of Bluetooth wireless and mediocre talk time (2 hours and 42 minutes in a test) don't distinguish it in terms of utility either.

The everyday reality of Helio's service and devices doesn't quite square with its marketing. Promotional efforts like "Helio House" events at nightclubs and a quarterly magazine filled with hard-to-read type and pictures of bored models imply that this company represents an overwhelmingly cool break with the cellphone business we know.

But that's not so. For all the buzz Helio's MySpace links have won it, in practical terms this company's major contribution to the wireless market seems to be its refreshingly simple, all-you-can-eat data charges -- though people who don't spend their lives "texting" will still save money with the name-brand carriers' more complex pricing.

But the real problem of wireless-phone service in the United States isn't confusing subscription options, it's the control-freakery of established carriers that continue to ship phones locked to their own service and with useful features deactivated.

Fixing that will take much more than all-inclusive pricing, a new batch of mobile-Web links or fancier, small-screen multimedia.

Living with technology, or trying to? E-mail Rob Pegoraro atrob@twp.com.

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