LG's Chocolate is sexy but clumsy

Market studies show that most people in the U.S. are cellular subscribers, which means that sales of phones and service inevitably will slow. By contrast, MP3 players and downloadable digital music are hot with no end in sight. So it makes sense to combine these devices and services, right?

LG Electronic's new Chocolate audio player/cell phone clearly makes sense for Verizon Wireless, enabling the carrier to not only sell more devices, but also its V CAST Music service. And Chocolate's initial appeal to users also is undeniable. It looks like an MP3 player, right down to the iPod-like round touchpad. The telephone keypad hides behind the device, and when you are ready to talk, you simply slide the keypad down. It has an unmistakable cool-gadget vibe with features like red backlighting for the touchpad.

Besides talking, you can download songs you purchase from V CAST Music directly to the phone via Verizon's 3G EV-DO cellular data network. Or, you can listen to MP3 files that you rip from CDs to your PC and transfer to the phone. In addition, the LG Chocolate is reasonably priced at US$150 with, of course, the inevitable two-year commitment.

But while Chocolate may initially be appealing, when you actually put it to work, it is clumsy to use and somewhat limited.

Voice and music combined

As a phone, Chocolate is solid but unexceptional. Its slide-down phone navigation keys are reasonably large and easy to press. It has a 500-name phone book, which should suffice for most users, and an integrated 1.3 megapixel camera.

Particularly useful is its bright 240-by-320-pixel color display, which is easy on the eyes. It also supports voice commands, an increasingly common but still useful feature. It has built-in Bluetooth connectivity that can be used for headphones or for connecting to a PC for tasks like transferring music files.

The device's most notable features, however, are those that support the media functions. For example, it has a built-in microSD storage slot that can hold an optional storage card with a capacity as high as 2GB. In addition, once you've downloaded music, you can use those tunes for ring tones.

Sound quality both for the phone and music player is decent, although unexceptional. Battery life is rated at three hours of either talking or downloading and playing music. This is unexceptional battery life for a phone and downright poor for a music player; some dedicated players have a battery life of 20 hours or more. Put differently, don't expect to use Chocolate for listening to music on a long flight and then make a call as soon as you've landed.

It surely will be useful to some to be able to download songs directly to the phone from virtually anywhere. Not surprisingly, Verizon Wireless charges a premium for that convenience -- US$1.99 per tune -- although you get a free download of the same song to your PC. Verizon also quite reasonably enables you to download songs directly to your PC for the industry-standard 99 cents per song and transfer the song to your phone, thus saving you money and Verizon bandwidth.

However, the service has its drawbacks. For instance, you can download only individual tunes to the phone, not an entire CD. In addition, the service's selection of 1.3 million available songs is significantly less than the more than 2 million tracks offered by services such as iTunes, Rhapsody and Napster, although Verizon says it plans to catch up. And the phone doesn't have digital rights management capabilities to enable you to use those competing services. This device is strictly for use with V CAST Music and music you've ripped from CDs.

Navigation troubles

These shortcomings might be acceptable if Chocolate's controls weren't so frustrating. One problem is that the controls are all over the device. The most noticeable of the controls is the round touchpad. In the center of that pad is an OK button surrounded by four arrow keys.

Then, there are four keys surrounding the touchpad, three of which have cryptic icons. The top two icons, it turns out, are for executing options shown at the bottom of the display. However, these keys are so far below the display that their purpose is not intuitively obvious. The bottom right button has a hard-to-figure icon that performs the "back" function, while the left bottom icon is a telephone. That button clearly relates to various telephony options such as accessing your recent calls, but it's not immediately clear that the key also is for starting and ending calls.

The four buttons surrounding the touchpad aren't raised or indented but, rather, are flush with the phone. As a result, it often wasn't clear that I had successfully launched a function by touching a button. This problem was exacerbated by an occasional delay of a second or two between pressing the button and the time the action launched. Conversely, it was too easy to brush over one of those keys and accidentally launch a function. You can adjust the pressure used to activate these keys, but I found that made little difference.

In addition, there are keys on the side of the device for increasing or decreasing volume and launching a screen with your music playlists. Some of those functions, such as displaying your music playlists, are duplicated elsewhere in the interface while others aren't.

Another gripe is that to use a non-Bluetooth wired headphone, you need an adapter that plugs into a proprietary port on the side of the device. However, the included adapter only has a 2.5mm jack, while nearly all headphones have 3.5mm jacks. As a result, you'll need to buy an adapter to plug into the adapter if you want to listen with your old wired headphones. And having all those adapters hanging off the phone is clumsy.

The bottom line is that LG's Chocolate is a sexy device until you start to use it. The muddled navigation combined with the many options that are inevitable on a device with so many functions means a steep learning curve. In addition, the V CAST Music service is a mixed bag, providing wonderful convenience if you're mobile but a lack of selection and flexibility.

LG's Chocolate is likely to appeal to young people looking for the latest gadget. It also provides a solid view into the future in which media will be available from anywhere on myriad devices. But most people who want to talk and listen to music while mobile will be better off with a dedicated MP3 player and a good phone.

David Haskin is a freelance writer specializing in mobile and wireless issues.

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