Dialing up MySpace on a cell phone

May 18, 2006|By DAVID COLKER | DAVID COLKER,LOS ANGELES TIMES

Here's bad news for parents who worry that their kids spend too much time on MySpace: The wildly popular online social network now comes in a cell phone version.

MySpace is featured on two new phones and a wireless service that hit stores this month from a company called Helio. Headed by Sky Dayton, best known for founding Internet service provider EarthLink Inc. in 1994 at age 23, Helio is a joint venture of EarthLink and SK Telecom Co. of South Korea.

The phones, packed with multimedia features, are unabashedly targeted at the teenage and early-20s crowd. The two models have dual speakers, high-resolution screens, 2-megapixel cameras and the capability to play MP3 audio and various video formats.

Both are fairly compact, forgoing keyboards in favor of standard keypads preferred by the texting generation for messaging. The screens are not as good as that of the video-enabled iPod or PSP game console but are still quite nice.

The phones are being sold at electronics stores and on Helio's Web site - they are not available through U.S. wireless carriers.

Helio handles its own talk/data plans - via space rented on Sprint's network - including "all-in" packages starting at $85 a month for 1,000 talk minutes. The packages include unlimited use of data services, such as text messaging, Web surfing and e-mailing, plus video and game downloads, although some cost extra.

Also available is a $40-a-month plan for 500 talk minutes. Data use costs extra.

But what truly sets the Helio phones apart is their ability to access and navigate the labyrinthine world of MySpace. And here's more bad news/good news, depending on your point of view: They do this quite well.

For cell phones, that is. It's still a lot easier on the eyes and fingers to use a computer. But it's no small accomplishment to get a highly usable version of a site - especially one dependent on photos and links - down to a size that can fit onto the phones' 2.2-inch screens.

I tested both the Hero model, which retails for $275, and the Kickflip, a bit cheaper at $250.

I favored the design of the Kickflip: It has a screen that swivels upward with the touch of a finger to reveal the keypad. It's slightly more compact than the Hero and has a pearl-white case that's more pleasing in look and feel.

But the keypad on the more pedestrian Hero was easier to use - the keys are arranged in a slightly curved pattern that cuts back on mistakes. This was important to a klutzy texter like me, and I ended up using the Hero more.

Once I signed on to MySpace on the phone, the differences between the Helio and computer versions of the site were apparent. The fancy graphics, music and videos that MySpace users labor over to make their home pages unique were completely absent.

Even the advertising that's normally on MySpace pages was absent. (A Helio spokesman declined to say whether the phone version would remain ad-free.)

The lack of complex graphic and audio components kept the site running reasonably fast on the phone. This was especially welcome because MySpace, even on the computer, can be frustratingly slow at times.

And speaking of speed troubles, you need a fairly good signal on the Sprint network to avoid getting bumped off the system with regularity. At my house, I had only one signal bar, and I ended up driving several blocks away to get a better signal.

The Helio version of a MySpace home page consists of the user's main photo, if one was uploaded, and links to other key functions, including the friends list, messages and the personal blog.

The phone's five-way navigation button is used to choose among links. But the on-screen cursor - a thin, red line that highlight's choices - was sometimes difficult to find, especially in bright light.

Clicking on "Friends" led me to a nicely laid-out, vertical list of my buddies. I could then click further to see their latest pictures and blog entries. And then, in the tradition of social networking, I could click through to their friends' pages and on and on until I was lost in a digital hall of mirrors.

The phone version also allowed friend searches based on display name, e-mail address or real name, but this is one of the weakest of MySpace's functions. I couldn't even locate myself, let alone friends I knew were on the system, with a name search.

You can't, however, do a browse search that in the computer version allows a user to seek out others based on age, marital status, ethnicity, sexual orientation, body type, etc. (Score one for parents.)

Sending messages to others on the phone version of MySpace worked well, and without much bother I was able to attach photos taken with the phone's camera.

There are other Web features on the Helio phones, but the distinguishing feature of the phone is MySpace. Kids might not want to leave home without it.

David Colker writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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