Individuals are unicellular and spherical, usually around 30–80 μm in diameter, and covered with long radial axopods, narrow cellular projections that capture food and allow mobile forms to move about.
A few genera have no cell covering, but most have a gelatinous coat holding scales and spines, produced in special deposition vesicles. These may be organic or siliceous and come in various shapes and sizes. For instance, in Raphidiophrys the coat extends along the bases of the axopods, covering them with curved spicules that give them a pine-treeish look, and in Raphidiocystis there are both short cup-shaped spicules and long tubular spicules that are only a little shorter than the axopods. Some other common genera include Heterophrys, Actinocystis, and Oxnerella.
The axopods of centrohelids are supported by microtubules in a triangular-hexagonal array, which arise from a tripartite granule called the centroplast at the center of the cell. Axopods with a similar array occur in gymnosphaerids, which have traditionally been considered centrohelids (though sometimes in a separate order from the others). This was questioned when it was found they have mitochondria with tubular cristae, as do other heliozoa, while in centrohelids the cristae are flat. Although this is no longer considered a very reliable character, on balance gymnosphaerids seem to be a separate group.
The evolutionary position of the centrohelids is not clear. Structural comparisons with other groups are difficult, in part because no flagella occur among centrohelids, and genetic studies have been more or less inconclusive. Cavalier-Smith has suggested they may be related to the Rhizaria, but for the most part they are left with uncertain relations to other groups. A 2009 paper suggests that they may be related to the cryptophytes and haptophytes (see Cryptomonads-haptophytes assemblage). They are currently classified as Hacrobia, under the Plants+HC clade, although some research studies have found evidence against the monophyly of this group. Centrohelids are currently divided into two orders with contrasting scale morphology and ultrastructure: Pterocystida and Acanthocystida.