Helio Drift Hands-On

The past few years have seen some drastic changes to the cellular landscape. Nextel merged with Sprint, Motorola reemerged as a major competitor, Cingular continues to grow, etc. Perhaps the most peculiar of these developments is the emergence and advancement of the mobile virtual network operators (MVNO).

MVNOs function by essentially leasing capacity from a larger provider. Helio is one such MVNO that formed as a joint venture between SK Telecom in Korea and Earthlink, with each company holding an equal share. It leases its network capacity from Sprint.

Helio has positioned itself as foremost amongst US MVNOs. Since its launch this past May, it has blazed ahead with its catchy, distinctive slogan “Don’t call us a phone company. Don’t call it a phone.” So if it’s not a phone company and it doesn’t provide phones, you’re probably wondering what the hell is going on here?

The fact of the matter is, Helio is a phone company, but it’s a very different sort of phone company. It has sought primarily to create a different kind of user experience, an experience tailored mainly toward the young and the hip. The testament to this, is Helio’s partnership with Myspace, it being the only mobile provider (MVNO or otherwise) to have any reasonable method of accessing Myspace. Myspace is integrated right into the user interface on Helio devices. But it’s more than just that partnership.

Indeed, Helio has distinguished itself by acquiring exclusive domain over a slew of highly desirable phones devices. Having launched with the Hero and the Kickflip (formerly the YT), Helio has plodded ahead since then with the launch of the Hydrid WLAN card and now the Drift from Samsung.

The Helio Drift can perhaps be considered the first device from an MVNO that might cause envy amongst subscribers of the larger providers. It can currently be seen as part of a big ad campaign directed by Jon Hess (the guy who did “Napoleon Dynamite”):

The Drift has a sexy slider body that comes in either black or limited edition white. It’s stamped with a Helio flame on the back and has HELIO written beneath its 2.12-inch QVGA display. Feature wise, the Drift has standards like Bluetooth, microSD, EV-DO and a media player, the not-so-standard feature of a 2-megapixel camera and a cutting-edge feature in its integrated GPS.

First things first. While it might not be called a “phone,” it certainly makes excellent calls. After subjecting it to my highly nomadic roaming habits, I’m impressed to say call quality was usually topnotch and, barring my first call made from the device, I had no dropped calls. Score one for Helio.

The interface is quite nice and intuitive. The phone lights up when you slide it open and you can thumb around with the directional pad. The options screen is situated in a heliocentric manner with options surrounding your contacts and groups icon, which seems to be Helio’s way of saying that the service revolves around the subscriber.

I’m glad to see the quality of camera phones climbing. The Drift is a step toward this reality. It’s 2-megapixel camera includes a flash and it takes reasonable pics.

The EV-DO network was quick when accessing data on the phone. I’m completely unsure whether the phone supports dial-up access—I was never able to get it to pair with my Powerbook, which was unfortunate but not all too uncommon.

By far the most anticipated feature of the Drift is its GPS capabilities. To put it simply, its GPS is quite cool. The addition opens quite a few doors for subscribers. Users can use Google maps to pinpoint locations. Also, with the addition of buddy beacons, you can keep tabs on your friends and find their specific locales. This provides an easy means for overbearing boyfriends to track stalk their girlfriends, or vice versa (no reason the ladies can’t stalk, too). Helio also anticipates several other functions of the GPS to be developed in the near-future.

The biggest problem I experienced with the Drift are the buttons. As I’ve mentioned before, I have relatively large hands so this might be exclusive to bigger people, but I have some difficulty with the directional pad on the Drift. It’s not horribly disabling or anything, but it can be a little tedious when trying to move quickly and you end up hitting the wrong thing due to proximity. It does at least get easier with practice.

So the verdict is, despite the slight problem with the buttons, I really dug the Drift. Helio has gone through a lot of effort to create a unique user experience here. It’s a fact that’s obvious from the moment you lay hands on the box. It’s situated in such a presentable fashion that you can’t help but feel somewhat special for possessing it. The device itself is slim and swank and something you won’t regret pocketing. And with a Helio All-In Membership you can use the Drift’s many features until your hands go numb.