The LG Chocolate BL40 is unlike any other touchscreen phone we've come across. Its stunning, ultra-wide display has a true cinematic 21:9 aspect ratio and gives the handset a very distinct tall-and-thin profile. Available in October for free on a £35-per-month contract with Orange or Carphone Warehouse, or for £500 SIM-free, the Chocolate is quite pricey. Besides the impressive screen, though, it's bursting with other cool features, including a 5-megapixel camera, FM transmitter and DivX support.
Quite the looker
Unlike LG's previous touchscreen handsets, such as the chunky Arena KM900 and boxy Viewty Smart GC900, the Chocolate is a real looker. It's not just the fact that its tall and narrow form factor separates it from the rest of the smart-phone pack. LG has packaged it in an extremely slim and neat piano-black chassis that really looks the business. Before getting our mitts on a review sample, we thought the phone would be too tall and ungainly, but it actually feels very comfortable in the hand, partly because it's narrower than other smart phones.
This handset's key feature is its fantastic 102mm (4-inch) capacitive touchscreen. Like the phone itself, the display is tall and narrow. In fact, it's got a 21:9 aspect ratio, so it can show a full cinematic image without having to crop the edges, as the iPhone or HTC Hero do. When working in landscape mode, this means the screen is considerably wider than it is tall. That turns out to be both a blessing and curse.
It's a blessing for a number of reasons. Firstly, the extra width means you can view movies in their natural 21:9 aspect ratio, with the result that they look absolutely brilliant, especially as the display is very bright and has a reasonably high resolution of 800x345 pixels. The extra width has also allowed LG to introduce a neat split-screen view in the messaging applications: contacts are listed on the left-hand side, with messages appearing on the right, just like with standard PC applications. It also means Web pages fit across the screen without you having to scroll back and forth, as you must with pretty much every other smart phone around.
The downsides are that, as the display is also very narrow, when you do view Web pages in landscape mode, the rendered text is very small and quite difficult to read. Consequently, you usually find yourself having to zoom in to increase the text size to a more acceptable level. This defeats the purpose of having the wider screen, as, once you zoom in, you then have to scroll back and forth, just as you do on other devices. Also, when you call up the landscape keyboard in the browser, email or SMS applications, it practically fills the entire screen, leaving just a couple of lines of text at the top. We can't help but feel that LG would have been better off making the screen slightly taller in landscape mode, even if this would have meant using a non-21:9 aspect ratio.
Lacklustre user interface
As with LG's other touchscreen mobiles, the Chocolate runs the company's S-Class user interface. It's bright and colourful, with well-designed icons and some slick animations, including a funky rotating 3D cube that you can use to swap between different menu screens. But it can also be rather confusing to use because it gives you too many ways of accomplishing the same task. For example, applications can be accessed either via a shortcut menu, a grid display with icons divided into carousel menus based on their function, or in a landscape view that shows all icons on a single screen. After a while, we found ourselves craving the iPhone's simpler homescreen.
Despite LG having switched from the AMD chip it used in the Arena to a faster Qualcomm processor, the Chocolate still feels slightly sluggish, and can be slow to respond to screen taps. Also, we aren't all that keen on either of the text-entry options. In portrait mode, you're presented with a standard mobile-phone keypad with multiple letters per key. In landscape mode, the full Qwerty keyboard layout is rather cramped, so we often ended up hitting the wrong key. Matters are made worse by the fact that the predictive text system isn't as good as that of the iPhone or Hero. Suggestions don't seem as accurate or varied. The phone's also missing a few tricks, like that of double tapping the spacebar on the iPhone to enter a full stop and space at the end of a sentence.
In other areas, LG has made some welcome improvements to the S-Class experience. As well as supporting multi-touch zooming in the Web browser and picture viewer, you can now also double tap on an picture or column of text in the impressive Web browser to automatically zoom in on it. The Cover Flow-style mode in the photo and video browser has also been improved, giving you a clearer view of the thumbnails you're browsing through. Thanks to the new processor, there's no longer a delay between loading a picture and being able to zoom in on it, as there is on the Arena. There'll also be an iPhone-style, one-touch cut-and-paste system, although this wasn't functional on the early version of the phone that we had in for review.
LG also has to be applauded for the sheer number of features it's managed to pack into this handset. Connectivity is excellent, with quad-band support, as well as HSDPA and Wi-Fi for fast Internet access. There's on-board GPS, which is very quick to find your position, Bluetooth with A2DP support for wireless audio streaming to stereo headsets, and an FM transmitter so you can beam music to a car stereo or home hi-fi.
The handset is equipped with a standard 3.5mm headphone jack, so you can easily swap out the supplied stereo headset for your own headphones. Audio playback sounds top-notch from both the music player and the video player. As well as being compatible with the usual mobile-video formats, the handset supports both the DivX and Xvid formats. Video can also be fed to a TV if you buy the optional TV output lead.
The camera is a cut above those found on the likes of the iPhone. It's got a 5-megapixel resolution, autofocus and an LED flash. Shots taken in good light look pretty impressive by smart-phone standards, and there's a very cool panoramic mode in which the phone tells you where to point the lens for each shot in the panorama before automatically stitching the pictures together. The camera can also shoot video (30 frames per second at VGA resolution), and there's a neat little video editor on-board that you can use to knock your clips into shape. The LED flash isn't really strong enough to overcome the camera's poor low-light performance, though, so night shots tend to suffer pretty badly from digital noise.
Call quality was excellent during our test period and battery life was pretty much par for the course with a smart phone of this ilk, with the handset offering 6 hours of talk time. This means you can expect to have to charge it after about a day and a half's worth of normal usage.
Using the LG Chocolate BL40 is like watching your favourite football team play beautifully, but then lose the match by hitting too many shots wide. Despite packing a stunning widescreen display and an abundance of features into a gloriously slim and sexy frame, LG has dropped the ball when it comes to the user interface. The S-Class menu system is annoying and unresponsive at times, and generally feels over-engineered and too complicated. Consequently, despite offering way more features than the iPhone or HTC Hero, this handset just isn't as satisfying to use as either of those two models.
Edited by Charles Kloet