Editors' note: As of September 27, 2006, LG has released a firmware update to the LG Chocolate that adds speakerphone functionality to the phone. It was not available at the time of this review.
It's not uncommon for the introduction of a new cell phone to be preceded by a ton of hype. Take for instance, the LG VX85000. Otherwise known as the Chocolate, the VX8500 became the talk of the mobile world after its stateside debut last April at the annual CTIA show. Rumors flew back and forth regarding when we'd see it with a U.S. carrier, and finally this week, after being available in Europe and Asia for several months, the Chocolate has landed at Verizon Wireless. After so much speculation, we were eager to find out just what type of chocolate the Chocolate really is. Is it Hershey's or Godiva? The answer seems to lie somewhere in between. By all means, it's beautiful and offers decent call quality, but the keys and controls take some getting used to. And though it has stereo Bluetooth, a megapixel camera, a digital music player, and support for Verizon's 3G video and music services, it doesn't do much that other cell phones don't do already. And more to the point, it lacks a speakerphone, something even the most basic cell phones offer. On the upside, the Chocolate is fairly priced at $149 with service. From what we can tell the "Chocolate" in the LG VX8500's name comes from its basic shape. Sporting a sharply rectangular form factor, the all-black phone does somewhat resemble a dark-chocolate candy bar, but that's all the resemblance we could find. However, it is very sleek and sexy, and we love the cool slider form factor. The dimensions with the slider closed are average (3.8 by 1.58 by 0.69 inches; 3.5 ounces), but it will fit in almost any pocket and won't add significant weight to a bag. Also, while it's hardly as thin as the
The gorgeous display measures two inches diagonally (320x240 pixels) and supports 11 lines of text. With support for 262,000 colors, it's one of the most attractive displays we've seen on a cell phone and arguably the best on an LG handset. Graphics and animation were sharp, and colors popped. Our only gripes, and these are small, is that the display has a reflective quality and attracts smudges and fingerprints easily. Also, it's hard to see in direct light and nearly impossible to see when the backlighting is off. You can change the clock style, the backlighting time, and the font size but no other options are customizable.
Below the display are the navigation controls, which are unlike anything we've seen on a cell phone thus far. We'll say off the bat that while they're intriguing and pretty, they have some big trade-offs. Not only is their overall design and placement on the phone somewhat baffling, it takes practice to understand how to use the controls. The most prominent feature is a round iPod-like touch pad that sits just below the display. Much like a navigation toggle on a more traditional cell phone, the touch pad is divided into four quadrants for each direction (up, down, left, and right) with an OK button in the middle that also open the main menu. The four directional buttons can be set as shortcuts to four user-defined functions, while the left and right keys also serve as back and forward controls when using the music player.
The other navigation keys consist of two soft keys that double as shortcuts to the messaging menu and the phone book, a talk button and a dedicated (but oddly marked) back key. Where's the end/power key you ask? That's been moved to the Chocolate's left spine, which is an odd and unintuitive location for such an oft-used key. Before we grew accustomed to the arrangement, our finger kept pressing the back button by mistake when we wanted to hang up a call. Like the touch pad, all the navigation buttons are touch keys, which means they are extremely sensitive. You can change the sensitivity, but even in the lowest setting, we would activate a button by simply brushing our finger across the phone's face. Moreover, you don't get the tactile feel of pressing down on a button when using the controls, and when the backlighting is off, the navigation buttons outside of the circular touch pad disappear completely.
Another consequence of the touch-pad controls is that the navigation array locks immediately when the phone is closed and when you're on a call. Though the lock mechanism is necessary to avoid any misdials, it also means you have to press the voice-dialing button on the left spine in order to unlock the controls. The keys also lock when the phone is open, but a quick press of any spine-mounted control will activate them again. Above the voice-dialing button is a volume rocker, while a covered headset jack sits just below it. On the right spine are camera shutter control and music player shortcut buttons, the aforementioned end/power key (also used to stop the media player), and the Micro SD card slot. The camera lens is located behind the slider mechanism, so you must have the phone open to take pictures.
The numeric keypad is well designed, with large buttons that are brightly backlit. They're also set far enough below the bottom off the slider so that your finger doesn't bump up against it. Though the alphanumeric keys can be slippery are not separated into individual buttons, they do have a tactile feel and move downward when you press them, while giving off an audible click.
Fortunately, the Chocolate offers menu themes beyond the standard Verizon design that is now commonplace on the carrier's phone. The default "Rock n Roll" option uses a Flash-based design where the menu options are arranged in a circle. With this arrangement, our initial instinct was to use the touch pad much like an iPod scrollwheel in order to get to the choice we wanted. Yet we learned quickly that our instincts were wrong, and we had to use the left and right keys to turn the circle instead. Options in the secondary menus are arranged in a simple list format, which is scrollable using the up and down directional buttons but not the volume rocker. We like that you can navigate sideways through secondary menu options. The LG Chocolate comes loaded with multimedia options, but we'll get the basics out of the way first. The phone book holds 500 contacts, which was below our expectation, but each entry holds five phone numbers and two e-mail addresses. You can organize callers into groups, assign them a picture, or pair them with one of 13 polyphonic ring tones. Other essentials include a vibrate mode, text and multimedia messaging, voice command and dialing, a calculator, a calendar, an alarm clock, a world clock, a notepad, a tip calculator, and support for e-mail and instant messaging. Bluetooth is onboard as well and, though in typical Verizon style most object exchange profiles aren't supported, you can use the Bluetooth to make calls, send a wireless business card to another Bluetooth device, sync your contacts and calendar with your PC, or connect to a PC for modem calls. And even better, the Chocolate does have a stereo Bluetooth profile, which is still too rare on most phones today. Yet for all that hands-free functionality we were extremely disappointed to learn that the Chocolate does not have a speakerphone. Since even the most basic handsets on the market today, such as the LG C1500, have a speakerphone, its omission on the Chocolate is perplexing and frustrating.
Verizon is pushing music as one of the core components of the Chocolate. Like all Verizon phones compatible with the carrier's V Cast Music service, you can download tunes directly to the phone. Most of the same restrictions and costs apply here as well: songs downloaded to a PC are 99 cents, while simultaneous downloads to a PC and the phone are $1.99 each. Also, while the integrated digital music player supports both WMA and MP3 formats, any files transferred from a PC must be converted to WMA format first. The music player interface is similar to those on other V Cast Music phones, and we like that you can activate and turn off the player via the spine-mounted shortcut buttons. Navigation through the round touch pad was easy enough, but the other keys proved tricky for the reasons we mentioned earlier. Features on the player include shuffle and repeat modes and an airplane mode. And as previously mentioned, the stereo Bluetooth support is a great touch.
Besides downloading music wirelessly, you can transfer it from a PC using a USB cable and Verizon's software, or you can load tracks on the phone from a Micro SD card. None of these items comes with the phone, however, so you'll need to shell out an additional $30 for the Music Essentials Kit, which includes the software, a USB cable, and a stereo headset for making calls and listening to music. Unfortunately, the only in-box accessory with the Chocolate is an adapter for using your own 2.5mm wired headset (the Chocolate uses a proprietary plug). A Micro SD memory card is also a good investment, since the phone's internal memory caps out at 62MB for music and 66MB shared for other applications.
As part of its 3G, EV-DO support, the Chocolate is also compatible with Verizon's V Cast streaming video service with the full range of content offerings. Also on the visual side is the 1.3-megapixel camera. You can take pictures in five resolutions: 1,280x960, 640x480, 320x240, 176x144, and 160x120. Camera options include a self-timer, brightness and white balance controls, a night mode, five color effects, and three shutter sounds (plus a silent option). There's no flash, but there is a self-portrait mirror and a 2X zoom for use at the lower resolutions. The camcorder takes 3G2 videos in one resolution (176x144) with sound; editing options are similar to the still camera. Clips meant for multimedia messages are capped at 15 seconds; otherwise you can record up to an hour depending on the available memory. Photo quality was quite good in our tests, with sharp colors and distinct object outlines. In bright conditions, the lighting was a bit washed out. Videos were decent but nothing special as they tended to be grainy and pixelated.
You can personalize the LG Chocolate with a variety of wallpapers, alert sounds, and display themes. If you want more options or more ring tones, polyphonic or MP3, you can download them via the WAP 2.0 wireless browser. No games or special applications are included on the phone, but a variety of options are available for purchase from Verizon's Get It Now service. Be advised that gameplay through the touch pad is a bit difficult. We tested the dual-band, dual-mode (CDMA 800/1900; EV-DO) LG VX8500 Chocolate in San Francisco using Verizon's service. Call quality was decent overall, and we had no problem getting a signal. There was little static or interference, but at times, callers sounded a bit harsh and robotic. Callers could tell we were using a cell, but they had little trouble hearing or understanding us in most conditions. We were able to pair the Chocolate with the Plantronics Explorer 320 Bluetooth headset and enjoyed reasonable call quality.
EV-DO coverage was admirable, and connection speeds were sufficiently speedy. Game downloads took less than a minute, and browsing was hassle-free. On the other hand, streaming video quality on the Chocolate wasn't very sharp. There was heavy choppiness and pixelation, and the sound didn't match the action. What's more, clips paused for rebuffering on more than a few occasions and at times even froze completely.
We were impressed with the music quality overall and found it to be Verizon's best-sounding music phone to date, surpassing the LG VX8300 and on a par with Sony Ericsson's Walkman phones. You can listen to music without the headphones, but your tunes will sound much better with them. Yet we didn't like the phone's proprietary connection, which didn't fit very securely. Keep in mind, the music player won't provide the full range of bass and equalizer options as you'll find on a stand-alone MP3 player, but it will do the trick for short to moderate stints. V Cast Music takes a few seconds to access, and song downloads take just over a minute. Check back soon for a full report on Verizon's Music Essentials software.
The Chocolate has a rated talk time of 3.5 hours and a promised standby time of 10 days. However, our talk-time tests came up short at just 2.5 hours. According to FCC radiation tests, the LG VX8500 Chocolate has a digital SAR rating of 1.13 watts per kilogram.