LG's tasty Chocolate cell phone

LG's Chocolate cell phone will draw your attention as much for its high-concept name as for its rich looks. Also known as the LG VX85000, the Chocolate--distinguished by a slick design, a bright screen, and amazing sound quality--is now available through Verizon Wireless for US$150 with a new account and a two-year contract. While I admired the phone's sleek appearance and excellent sound, I found its navigational controls and convoluted menus frustrating.

Smooth as Chocolate

The Chocolate, which actually has a shiny, piano-black finish rather than the dark brown you might expect from its name, is definitely eye catching. This slider-style phone is slim and compact, measuring 3.8 by 1.9 by 0.7 inches when closed--about the same size as one of its closest rivals, the Sony Ericsson W810. However, while the Chocolate slides open to reveal its keypad, becoming longer as a result, the W810 is a candy bar-style phone that is as compact in use as it is when it's riding in your pocket.

Sturdily constructed, the Chocolate's slider mechanism is smooth; the top half of the phone glides effortlessly up, making it easy to use single-handed. The keypad itself is also extremely finger-friendly, with large, easy-to-press buttons.

Its 2-inch LCD is a 262,144-color TFT, with a resolution of 240 by 320 pixels. The display looked terrific and showed lots of crisp details in typical indoor use and in the shade, but I found it difficult to see in the glare of direct sunlight.

After the striking screen, the next thing I noticed was the Chocolate's slick-looking navigation. It lacks the usual complement of buttons on the front, offering touch-sensitive controls instead. Directly below the LCD, the face of the phone features a navigational ring that consists of four programmable buttons for accessing various phone features, with another button in the center. The front of the phone also presents two additional touch-sensitive soft buttons, located at the lower left and lower right of the LCD; their function varies depending upon the phone's use.

When the unit is activated, the center controls and the four navigational buttons illuminate in red, causing the phone to glow. The buttons certainly look cool, but in use they prove to be a mixed bag, and will require some getting used to. Though the sensitivity of the touch controls is adjustable, I often found myself invoking operations I hadn't intended. The Chocolate's detailed manual actually warns about this issue, and also advises against using the phone's touch buttons in a "humid environment."

Conveniently ringing the sides of the handset are other buttons: dedicated volume controls and a voice-command/recording button on the left, and controls for music, the camera, and end/power on the right.

I have a few other gripes with the interface. The convoluted menus are hard to navigate, and the context-sensitive menu options and button behaviors don't always act as you might anticipate. For example, the clear and back soft touch key doesn't always take you back; sometimes you have to use the end button instead.

In addition, the camera button on the right side of the handset shows only a camera icon, not a camera and video camera icon, even though it serves both purposes. When you go into the camera mode, the video camera isn't even an option, as you might expect it to be (you have to push the camera button twice to invoke the video camera). Once accessed, however, both the camera and the video camera seem to work well; I was particularly impressed with how the camera handled tricky lighting indoors.

The Chocolate does let you customize which menu items you'd like to see on your home page, but it would be a much stronger phone if the interface were cleaner and more self-explanatory from the outset, as not everyone will want to read the 118-page manual. You will need to break down and at least read the handy quick-start guide, if not the full manual, to figure out which buttons do what.

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