LG has certainly managed to come up with some innovative designs and features recently, from the Crystal to the limited-edition Watch Phone. Add the new BL40 to the mix and all three could equally prompt the same single word response: Why? The Watch Phone doesn’t pretend to be mainstream, and the LG Crystal may have a gimmick in the form of a transparent keypad, but makes up for it by adding in something useful – the ability to turn the keypad into a glide pad for gestures and mouse pointer operation.
The latest Chocolate (or New Chocolate as LG will be referring to it) has a tall screen, giving the BL40 the look of a slick learning remote for controlling your TV, DVD or amp. The long screen is designed to work best when the phone is in landscape mode, giving wide page views for websites, split screen applications that make things like messaging easier and the ability to enjoy true movie-widescreen video.
It also looks wildly different to all the other touchscreen offerings on the market, which puts this firmly in the fashionable and aspirational category. Many people buying this phone will do so simply to provoke a reaction (in a good way, not an Emmanuel Adebayor way), because it certainly will get people talking.
Amongst the world of Android, iPhone OS, Windows Mobile, Symbian, webOS and Maemo, the BL40 might be expected to run any one of these smartphone operating systems. It doesn’t, favouring LG’s own S-Class user interface that was introduced in the Arena, incorporating many elements that make it look incredibly similar to an iPhone.
On the back of the phone is a 5-megapixel camera (with flash) and an iPhone-like lock/power button at the top. Besides the camera button, two volume keys and a shortcut key, there’s little else to break up the smooth lines of the phone. All of this makes the handset look special.
The problem I have with the phone is the height of the screen, which makes it hard to use the phone with one hand (unless you have huge hands or long, extendable, digits). Assuming you’re not a yeti, I’ll have to assume that you’ll also find yourself holding the phone with one hand while you move up and down the screen (most menu options are at the bottom of the screen, while OK or Back are at the top). In landscape mode, holding the phone with two hands is the only option.
Ironically, if this were a fancy remote control for your home entertainment setup, such an issue with usage wouldn’t be a problem! If LG hadn’t put so much space aside for its logo at the bottom and the earpiece at the top, it would have been possible to reduce the height of the phone by almost 3cm. This would have impacted on the overall design, but I believe it would be to the benefit of the overall package.
Like the Arena, the Crystal and the Viewty Smart, the S-Class UI is pleasant to use and offers a great deal of customisation, with many panels that can hold widgets, phone contacts and media. The menu itself still looks rather menacing, especially in landscape mode where all 32 options are shown in one hit, and without any text to explain what icon does what. With two separate themes to choose from, you’ll need to learn them twice.
Fortunately, they’re mostly self-explanatory and LG has obviously taken the time to design things logically. The touchscreen is also very sensitive, and responds quickly to touch – especially when you’re entering text. The high-resolution screen also allows you to see a lot of information at once, and nothing demonstrates this better than the web browser.
The web browser works in both portrait and landscape mode, working well with mobile sites in portrait and other pages in landscape. When you turn the screen, the browser rotates everything and scales things in an animated form – which actually introduces an unnecessary delay and serves no real purpose. That’s a minor annoyance, but the bigger one is the rendering of web pages.
Video is another casualty, and although you can play DivX films – which should be perfect on the extra wide display – I found it dropped frames when playing high resolution video. You can play lower resolution video and zoom in, but the only option is to stretch the video rather than crop it. If you used to hate watching non-widescreen stretched to fill a widescreen television, you’ll know just how bad such a zooming option is.
The whole phone is a mix of good and bad. The camera interface is great, with all of the icons nicely kept away from the viewfinder screen, and it can capture video without any dropped frames. Perhaps this is because the maximum resolution is 640×480, with no widescreen or HD (720p) video capture options, like the Samsung I8910 HD.
When you have taken a photo and go into the gallery, you can scroll through your photo album in a similar way to using Cover Flow on an iPhone. Scrolling through the thumbnails is very quick, so it seems to be just video and web browsing that makes the BL40 start to baulk.
It’s just as easy to send pictures via Bluetooth, Wi-Fi is easy to set up and configuring email is a totally painless exercise. The phone supports Microsoft Exchange and any POP3 or IMAP account. It set up my Google Mail account in a matter of seconds.
I really wanted to like this phone. It’s a special product and part of the exclusive Black Label brand that has done LG proud over the years. But, I can’t help feeling that it just doesn’t serve any real purpose except to have a totally outlandish design. It’s the design that both attracts attention and also puts you off. Considering the extra large screen makes usage harder, and it can’t even cope with high-definition video or advanced websites, there’s really no advantage of having it at all. LG has plenty of other handsets using the excellent S-Class user interface, so you can still stay loyal to LG without having to get this model.
Behind the battery cover (which on our review sample was very loose and almost fell off, but I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt on that one) is a 1,000mAh battery, despite there appearing to be room for something a bit more generous. A higher capacity battery could have helped save the phone, and boosted the overall rating, but alas this handset is going to struggle to manage a full day if you do opt to struggle on with the browser and video player.
LG will soon be announcing another handset in the ‘New Chocolate’ family, which will be more like the original – a sliding handset with a more modest QVGA-resolution display. Or, you could just look at another handset like the Crystal, Arena or Viewty Smart instead.
The New Chocolate phone has found a clever way of increasing the screen size, without making the overall phone huge, but it looks too much like a TV remote. With such a tall-display, you can’t use it easily with one hand. Video playback isn’t as good as the cinema-wide screen would suggest and the web browser has its own issues. But, the S-Class user interface is as excellent as ever, and the camera impressed, including video (even if it is just VGA-resolution and not HD or widescreen). Battery life was disappointing; we wish LG had fitted in a larger one.