The second time's a charm. Sporting improved controls and good multitasking capabilities, LG's latest Chocolate, the VX8550 ($99 with a two-year contract and rebate), is much better than its predecessor, especially for buyers looking for a value-priced iPhone alternative. Verizon Wireless still charges too much for over-the-air song downloads ($1.99), but otherwise this musically inclined sequel satisfies.
Having a choice of colors is nice--Black, Black Cherry, and Blue Mint--but the star of this glossy slider's design is the new metal navigation wheel, a big improvement over the original Chocolate's finicky touch controls. You can press down on this wheel in any direction or scroll using your thumb. We prefer the former method, despite the slightly slippery feel, but scrolling comes in handy when attempting to zip through song or artist lists. In case you want to show off, Trace Motion lights glow red on the edge of the wheel as it moves. (You can turn this effect off if you want.) You can also use the nav wheel to zoom in with the 1.3-megapixel camera.
The Right Touch
LG hasn't abandoned touch altogether; the two soft keys are touch-sensitive, as are the Speaker and Clear keys. The good news is that these buttons provide haptic feedback, so you feel little vibrations when you've made a selection. The bad news is that we sometimes had to press these keys a couple of times before the Chocolate registered our command. Our recommendation: Play around with the four sensitivity settings until you get the right feel. We also noticed that the backlit touch buttons were sometimes tough to read in direct sunlight.
We like that the latest Chocolate weighs a bit less (3.2 ounces versus 3.5 ounces) and is a hair thinner than its predecessor, but we appreciate having dedicated Send and End keys on the bottom half of the slider even more. On the VX8500 these were touch-sensitive buttons on the top half of the phone. We had no problems using the new dialpad, and we appreciate having the camera launch key positioned between the Send and End keys.
Another welcome enhancement is the 2.5mm audio jack on the left side of the VX8550, which makes the new Chocolate compatible with a wide range of stereo headsets, as opposed to being locked into whatever proprietary headset Verizon sells. You can also go the stereo Bluetooth route, which we did using the Plantronics Pulsar 260, enabling you to control the volume and change tracks even when the Chocolate is stuffed in your pocket. Don't worry about accidentally skipping songs or pausing playback on this slider; a handy lock switch on the right side prevents unintended button presses.
MP3 Player in a Phone's Body
The button you'll likely press most often--at least when you're not making calls--is the Music launch key (also located on the right side). It brings you right to your song list, and from there you can start playing tunes right away or toggle over to the Album, Artist, or Playlist views by pressing left or right on the nav wheel. Our favorite feature is the ability to search within these menus by entering the first few letters of what you're looking for. The smart software on the latest Chocolate narrows the results with each click.
Getting tracks on the VX8550 is pretty painless. It took 40 seconds to download "Hey There Delilah" from Plain White T's and 33 seconds to download "Libertad" from Velvet Revolver over the air from the V CAST Music store. However, at $1.99 each, Verizon Wireless continues to charge a buck more per track for downloads from your phone than Sprint, although you can buy tracks from your PC for 99 cents and then sync them to the phone. You'll likely sideload most of your own MP3s and WMAs from your PC using a memory card reader or Verizon's Music Essentials Kit 4.0 ($199), which includes a 4GB microSD Card, USB cable, and LG Bluetooth stereo headset. You can also pick up the same kit with a 2GB card for $79.99.
Sound quality was crisp and loud using both our 2.5mm and stereo Bluetooth headsets, and you can customize the output with your choice of 12 sound effects. We got the best results with the R&B and Rock settings. The speaker on the back of the Chocolate delivered plenty of volume for its size, and without distortion.
Where the LG VX8550 really excels is multitasking. With music playing in the background, we could browse the mobile Web, send text messages, and even take pictures. Phones like the LG Muziq from Sprint, for instance, can text message--but not browse or snap pics--when music's playing. However, you can't do everything on this Chocolate while rocking out; games and IM are out. Another bummer: When surfing, you can use the volume controls only for paging up and down mobile sites. Why not just use the nav wheel for that?
So-So Video, Smooth Talker
In most other respects the Chocolate VX8550 is a solid if unspectacular V CAST phone. Streamed videos started playing within about ten seconds, but the quality was only decent. We watched a couple of YouTube clips and a CNN news update, and there were noticeable artifacts, especially in full-screen mode. The 1.3-MP camera still lacks a flash, and some of our pics in daylight appeared washed out, but the results are okay for e-mailing or sharing via MMS. The 176 x 144-pixel videos, on the other hand, are too tiny for YouTube or for enjoying on your PC.
Voice quality and voice and data coverage were excellent on our tests in New York City and New Jersey. Callers could tell we were on a cell phone, but we didn't experience a single dropped call. Nor did we have to put up with the annoying delay between dialing and hearing the line ring, which plagues many other carriers' handsets. Verizon Wireless claims the VX8550 offers just over four hours of straight talk time and about 14.6 days of standby time. On our mixed tests, which included phone calls, media playback, and Web surfing, we got through two days of use before needing to recharge.
On the surface, the LG VX8550 seems like a minor cosmetic upgrade to the original Chocolate. But there's a lot more to this slider than the new navigation wheel. The music player is fast; searching for songs is easy; and you can do a lot with tunes playing in the background. Some may prefer the similarly priced LG Muziq because of its clamshell design, FM transmitter, and Sprint's cheaper 99-cent over-the-air downloads, but we think the Chocolate's tactile controls and smarter software make it much easier to use.
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