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Chocolate Cellphone Only Looks Sweet; Its Design Is Flawed

If you needed any proof that cellphones today are often about everything but phone calls, Verizon Wireless this week made that case by releasing a phone called the Chocolate, produced by LG, the big Korean electronics company.

The Chocolate can make and receive phone calls and text messages, but it’s designed as a music player first. In fact, it was crafted to look like an Apple iPod, right down to its most prominent feature, a navigation wheel. Verizon is heavily hyping the Chocolate, hoping to capture some of the same sort of buzz that catapulted the iPod, and later Motorola’s RAZR phone, into the status of cult-style accessories.

Chocolate Cellphone Photo
The Chocolate will hit Verizon stores next week and is available at Verizon’s site for $150.

While the Chocolate may look like an iPod, however, it doesn’t work like one. In fact, as a music player, it functions like an iPod designed by a committee. It’s burdened by a ham-handed user interface and other failings that would get its designers fired at Apple. As a result, the Chocolate, which I’ve been testing for a week or so, isn’t as good a music phone as, say, the Sony Ericsson Walkman phone.

The Chocolate is available now at Verizon’s Web site for $150, after a $50 rebate, with a two-year contract. It will reach Verizon’s stores next week. If you’re serious about using it for music, however, you’ll have to shell out an additional $100 for a 2-gigabyte memory card, which can hold about 500 songs in standard MP3 format. That’s because, incredibly, the Chocolate comes without a memory card, and has a pitiful 64 megabytes of internal memory for storing songs.

This phone is handsome. It’s a black slider design, small and light. Unless you slide it open, the phone keypad is hidden and all you see are the roomy screen, the navigation wheel and glowing red control indicators. It has a decent camera that can take still pictures and crude videos. Unlike an iPod, the Chocolate can play music through a built-in speaker, which sounded very good to my ears.

The best user interface elements on the Chocolate are two buttons on the right side, which take you directly to the music player and camera functions, so you don’t have to wade through menus. These buttons are called out by little labels at the right edge of the screen. But it’s downhill from there.

One big problem is that cool-looking wheel. It turns out that, unlike on the iPod, it isn’t a wheel at all — just a common five-way navigation pad made to look like an iPod wheel (in the popular European model of the Chocolate, it had a rectangular shape). While it is touch sensitive, like the iPod’s wheel, you can’t scroll with it by moving your finger across it in a circular motion. You have to press the buttons in the middle and at the corners.

Worse, the touch sensitivity is poor. While you can adjust how sensitive the wheel buttons are, I found them to be either so sensitive that it was easy to accidentally activate them, or so insensitive that you had to hit them twice — hard — to get things done.

In another bad design decision, the “end” button that terminates calls, turns the phone on and off, and gets you back to the home screen, has been moved from its traditional position across from the “send” button to the side of the phone. This requires a major adjustment and is awkward, because the button is very small.

The music application itself is pretty standard, but is full of unwelcome surprises. For instance, when you turn on the phone, you can’t start listening to music immediately if you store your songs on the memory card, because the player has to load the songs from the card each time. You can set the player to shuffle through your songs, but if you manually advance to the next tune, it goes in order, rather than picking a random song.

And the Chocolate doesn’t handle your MP3 files properly. I loaded the card with 208 very standard, unprotected MP3 files — files that are perfectly recognized on all computers, phones and portable devices I’ve tested. But the Chocolate failed to read the song information — artist, title, album — on all but a handful of them. So I could select them only by file name.

I had a similar problem with my personal photos. Of the 16 picture files I loaded onto the card — again, standard files I’ve used to test numerous devices — the Chocolate could display only four.

In fact, the Chocolate’s multimedia features are really designed mainly to encourage users to buy songs, pictures and videos from Verizon’s online download and streaming services — VCast and Get It Now — not to let you use your own content. The phone works much better with $2 songs you buy from VCast (twice what Apple charges) than with free songs you load onto it.

This is the opposite of Apple’s model. Its iTunes Music Store exists to sell iPods, and the iPod works perfectly with music from other sources, even if you never buy a song from Apple.

I do believe that, someday, the merger of the cellphone and the music player will result in a great device for consumers. But the Chocolate isn’t it.