The hardware should be immediately familiar to Ocean 1 owners, while closed the Ocean 2 is slightly thinner and just a bit longer, making it just that much easier on our pants and jacket pockets. The red finish on our limited edition model -- the first, and for the time being only, type available at launch February 12 -- combines with the all glossy front panel to give this model a more sophisticated look, and the slight taper along the sides brings not only a welcome slimming effect, but makes it more comfortable to handle in portrait mode. Overall the face design is the same, with four multifunction buttons around the screen adjusting to software and orientation changes. The "Helio" branding across the top (portrait) or left (landscape) now lights up, red while charging, blue when fully charged or for messaging alerts. Additionally, the number pad is now on the bottom third of the dual-slide mechanism, not a big deal, but just enough to throw off users upgrading the first time it's opened. We adjusted after a few days and didn't have a preference for either the old or new design in that respect.
The major hardware change on the front of the phone is in the middle, where the familiar flame button pulls double duty as a touch sensitive pad, allowing for swipes in any of four directions for navigation. The surrounding ring has shrunk to the surrounding chrome band seen in the pictures, but this aspect of the new phone may be its biggest misstep. While adjusting touch sensitivity to its highest setting helped a little, our cold, dead fingers were unable to swipe and swoop through menus with the same ease and accuracy we were used to. The new surrounding ring is also slightly more difficult to use in applications that don't recognize the touch pad's inputs. It wasn't all bad, scrolling up and down webpages tended to show the most benefit from touch sensitivity, but overall we weren't impressed and longed for a larger circle again.
The 2.6-inch QVGA display is without question brighter and more colorful than the one it replaces, coming through with easier to read information and improved visibility in high glare. The QWERTY keypad has changed too, going from individual buttons to one solid plastic cover with raised bumps for each letter. It turned out to be every bit as easy to use as the original, and since it's not as deeply inset, the edge buttons are now more easily accessed.
Flipping the phone over, the mostly-useless flash has disappeared, and the (still 2.0 megapixel, but with the addition of "night" mode and higher resolutions in portrait mode) camera shifted from the side to the top. Also gone are the bottom mounted stereo speakers, in favor of a single speaker mounted at the top next to the camera, resulting in noticeably improved sound while on speakerphone or playing music, even laying flat on a table. Even the battery cover has changed, with a much more easily accessed push button, unlike the almost-impossible to remove battery of the original, which is a good thing because the side mounted MicroSD slot of days gone by has also left us, now mounted underneath the battery -- bad news for anyone looking to swap cards on the go. We didn't give the claimed 10 days of standby/5 hour talk time claim a go, but in our casual use we'd say the battery life is about equal to the original.
On the side, a hardware switch for muting audio with a flick of the thumb means an end to those annoying conference room gaffes where you were sure you'd set your Ocean on vibrate. Combined with a software setting to put the phone on vibrate or totally mute this is one of the most welcome additions. Alongside that are the volume controls and the power/data connector, having migrated from the bottom. On the opposite side we find the camera button in its usual place, plus a play/pause media control and a 3.5mm headphone jack that should take any standard jack.
The software is where -- for better or worse -- you'll find the least has changed. The Ocean 2 is nearly identical to the original, although a new menu screen with animations we found more annoying than entertaining (thankfully, the old menu remains as an option) freshens things up a bit. Still, tweaks abound, with welcome bits like a green notification bar across the top of any currently running apps showing the From: and subject line of any incoming messages at all times. The universal messaging app still impresses: Yahoo, AIM, Windows Live and now Google Talk, it's all available in one place, plus threaded SMS and push e-mail.
On the app side things are again very familiar, although Buddy Beacon 2.0 -- once we got it running -- proved much more useful, thanks to a new Facebook tie-in and free WHERE widgets offering up anything from ticket info to weather forecasts or local gas prices. TellMe looks to be subscription only, however in our testing its voice recognition proved top notch and easy to use, giving the same information you'd find in the Google Maps app, but with just one button press and a word into the mic required. YouTube, MySpace, File Viewer and the oh-so-necessary Opera browser are also back, and we didn't have any trouble loading up custom apps for some DrugWars action. Helping to shift things in favor of the Ocean 2 are Helio's exclusive services, while Helio Connect doesn't replace a full fledged app, one tough of the flame button brings customized news and social network access from the main menu, while Helio Up makes sure your pictures and movies go straight to Flickr / Facebook / YouTube or any combination desired.
Original Ocean users know that the original media player only allowed access to the underpowered default web browser while in use, now it keeps playing the background all the time. Want to send some IMs, texts, or use Opera while playing music? Go right ahead, it won't stop you, and if you do something like open up a YouTube video, the music pauses while you watch and resumes immediately afterward, stopping only after a press of the side-mounted pause button or double tapping the power / call end switch. That alone makes the Ocean 2 a much stronger media device, although we question the design decision that resulted in giving us only the choice to browse by album -- not playlist, artist or song -- while the phone is open in landscape mode, requiring a switch to portrait mode just to see what our recently played songs list could offer.
Kicking us out of apps once the phone is closed is still as annoying as ever, as was a tendency for our review unit to sometimes soft-reset, usually while trying to exit or enter one of the included apps. We thought the external hardware design changes were a sum improvement over the original, and the software tweaks allowed us to get a lot more of what we want out of our experience than the original Ocean did when it first launched. Still, without serious third party developer support and a better default browser experience (now with tabs, but not much else) it's not quite the smartphone-fighter it once claimed to be, and not far removed from other feature phones on the market. Whether the Ocean 2 is right for you will depend on whether your needs are met by its out of the box software package and Helio's all-in service packages, but we're still left curious to see what new phones are over the horizon.