Friday, December 18, 2009

LG BL20 New Chocolate review: Bittersweet Noir

LG BL20 New Chocolate

The Chocolate revival is no news and the LG BL20 New Chocolate is not a headliner in the sense of the unique and inspired BL40. But we're still about to have another sugar-coated meeting with an extraordinary handset, fresh off the LG design board.
The BL20 New Chocolate may not have the splendor of the BL40 but is definitely the spiritual successor to the original Chocolate series. Sequels are all over the place but the Chocolate series are somewhat different. LG have been so involved in touchscreen we're just realizing it's been more than a year since we last reviewed a regular phone of theirs. Anyway, the Chocolate series are back and we're about to see if the good old-fashioned recipe still works.

The latest BL20 Chocolate comes with a lively screen and handy touchpad navigation to add to the sliding keypad, meaning it nods to both traditional design and the new trend towards touch functionality. Other improvements include a better camera and fast 3G connectivity. But first and foremost it's a fashion phone, so this here Chocolate is about the icing, not the filling.

Key features:

Quad-band GSM/GPRS/EDGE support, dual-band UMTS with 3.6 Mbps HSDPA
2.4" 262K-color QVGA display
Touch-sensitive navigation pad
5 megapixel autofocus camera with Schneider-Kreuznach optics, AF-assist light and LED flash
Standard microUSB port
Bluetooth (with A2DP)
Hot-swap microSD card slot (up to 16 GB)
Stealthy touchpad and classic chocolate looks
FM radio
Comfortable keypad

Main disadvantages:

Way too tall and big for its fashionable status
No accelerometer (hence no auto screen rotation)
Volume rocker and camera key have absolutely no press feedback
Piano black surface is a fingerprint nightmare
Memory card slot under the battery cover
Poor video recording
Slow scrolling in the image gallery
No document viewer
No sign of any social networking integration

OK, we may have a wee bit longer list of disadvantages here, but that's just because LG have spoiled us lately. They've been churning out better equipped handsets for quite some time and we didn't quite expect that minimalistic approach to a their latest fashionable handset. But then again, the BL20 is not an expensive all-in-one so in a sense, you get what you pay for.

If fashion and the wow factor are your key buying considerations, the extra features are not the most important thing perhaps. It's the unique design, looks and colors that will have people looking at your hands when you are on the phone.

Let's not waste any more time and get on with seeing how sweet the new Chocolate is. Follow us on to the next page and you're welcome to share the first bite.

The retail box: unimpressed

The retail box is big, but you won't find anything out of the ordinary there. Along with the handset itself, you get a charger/data cable combo, a two-piece headset - with a 3.5mm jack at the bottom and a CD with PC software.

That's it. It would have been nice to have a memory card in the package, but it seems that's asking too much.

LG BL20 New Chocolate

The BL20 New Chocolate isn't the slimmest among slider phones but LG were probably keen to stay as close as possible to the original Chocolate styling. The LG Secret by the way, was built around the same concept of a touchpad-navigated slider. The Secret however had more elaborate finish and notably slimmer body. The New Chocolate isn't as sophisticated perhaps but does meet what looks like its top objective - to look like a real chocolate bar.

Measuring 106.9 x 50.8 x 12.3 mm, the handset is still quite pocketable. The weight of 115g is just right to give the BL20 a comfortable hand feel.
It's only when you slide up the Chocolate BL20, that you may notice it's somewhat awkwardly tall. One thing we miss from its predecessor is surely its compactness.

So, LG have themselves two brand new chocolate bars to serve to different customers. The touchscreen bar obviously will be selling off the top shelf and the 3G-enabled feature slider may as well thrive on carrier-subsidized sales. Regardless of the different price bracket though, the two are so consistent in design that if you squint, it would be impossible to tell them apart.

Design and construction

The BL40 made sure the New Chocolate series don't get blamed for blatantly bringing old stuff out of the freezer. The S-Class touchscreen interface and the one-of-a-kind 21:9 wide display made it a unique handset. The BL20 in turn takes a more literal approach and suffices to simply bring the original Chocolate up to date with 2009.
The BL20 New Chocolate is the real sequel and it's not ashamed to show it. The Chocolate genes are all there and we can safely safe the styling is duly updated to be in touch with the times. The BL20 is a complete replica - in a different form factor - of its noble sibling, the BL40. From the piano black gloss, to the thin metallic side lining and the red accents top and bottom.

Those glossy plastics just love fingerprints though, and the BL20 looks messy all the time. It takes quite longer to clean the phone, than the mere seconds in which it's all covered in smudges. After a few hours of just normal use it will easily accumulate enough smudges to make a whole CSI unit happy for a week.

The touchpad up front is no news for Chocolate, and LG on the whole. The touch controls are absolutely invisible when the phone is locked - for those sweet chocolate bar looks - and come alive in warm, radiant red when in use. What we liked quite a lot is the response and precision of the touchpad: it's way better than the LG Secret's. Haptic feedback is spot on too. There's no customization for it but the touchpad vibrations are very sharp and accurate.

There's quite a bunch of touch sensitive buttons down there - two context keys, a direction pad with confirm action, as well as a Task Manager and Widget launcher.
The touchpad is large enough, so all the buttons are well spaced and comfortable to hit. Good feedback and precision, the New Chocolate is absolutely comfortable to navigate with the touchpad.

At the top is the earpiece, which also serves as a loudspeaker.
The rest of the BL20 New Chocolate front panel is taken by the 2.4" TFT display, which looks too small for the phone's measurements. Thanks to the thicl bezel around the screen, the closed BL20 looks very much like a fashionable music player than a mobile phone. The display on the BL20 is decent - we wouldn't expect anything above QVGA in a midrange feature phone, albeit a striving fashion icon.

Anyway, the New Chocolate screen has lively colors and good contrast. Things are not so good in direct sunlight, but the display still manages to remain visible. Backlighting is excellent though and the screen looks cool in the dark.

Next on the list is the alphanumeric keypad, which now contains an extra three buttons - Call and End keys, and a Clear key. It's not a conventional layout, but we don't mind it.

The keypad is quite spacious with large keys for extra comfortable typing. It's a flatbed keypad with no tangible bordering between keys (the thin metal lines between rows are more of a design accent), but spacing and tactility are near perfect. The flat buttons have great press feedback and overall, it's a very comfortable keypad.
The keypad backlighting is solid white, which, combined with the vibrant display, make it a pleasure to look at and work with in the dark.

The only thing to note on the left side of the BL20 New Chocolate is the micro USB port, while on the right that would be the volume rocker and the camera key. The volume controls and shutter key are very peculiar buttons. They are tiny buds that need not be pressed but touched instead. Bit don't let that fool you - they are regular keys. It's just that confusingly enough, they provide no press feedback whatsoever and their performance tends to be quite random.

The lightest taps on the volume rocker will sometimes be registered, while at times you will end up pushing with all your might to no avail. With time we got the hang of it and mastered the exact quick and firm taps needed to turn the volume up or down. But it's not a user-friendly solution anyway.
The shutter key works along the same logic. It takes a tap to launch the camera - but it will take you a few taps more often than not.

When shooting, a tap will lock focus and keeping your finger on the key will capture the shot. But you'll never know you're doing it right before you here the shutter sound. It takes some time getting used to, but in the end we mastered focusing and capturing. The peculiar shutter key will even let you skip the shot after locking focus - if you need to reframe or just walk away.

The top houses only the lock key, while the bottom is completely plain apart from the microphone pinhole.

The back of the LG BL20 New Chocolate hosts the 5 megapixel camera lens and LED flash. There is no lens protection whatsoever, and what's even worse is that the lens slightly protrudes and will be the first thing on the rear to suffer any kind of damage.

Under the battery cover is the 960 mAh Li-Ion battery compartment, as well as the SIM and microSD card slots. The memory card is hot-swappable despite being hidden here. The BL20 didn't have any problem handling our 16GB microSD card. The only problem here is the slow initiation of the microSD card and the frustrating refreshing of the thumbs every time you open an image folder.

Since the phone has almost nothing that could easily drain the battery, the LG BL20 New Chocolate did quite well. It took four days of file and web browsing, shooting, calling and playing games for the battery to die completely.

The build quality of the LG BL20 New Chocolate is commendable. We didin't hear any disturbing noises or noticed any potential build issues for the time of our reviewing. The phone is well done - smooth and solid slider action, very good keypad, nice and responsive touchpad - and looks hot.

If any of the original Chocolate users should have waited this long for an upgrade, they won't be disappointed with the looks and feel of the successor.
The chocolate finish has its dark sides, we admit. The inevitable fingerprints are a major issue for the glossy plastic but that's the price we guess, for a gadget that looks like it's about to melt in your hand.

The only thing we'd wish for is for the BL20 to be a tad more compact - more in tune with its predecessor. When you slide the New Chocolate up, it gets quite tall - even in a man's hand.

The feature phone UI goes in the right direction

It's been more than a year since we last reviewed a regular non-touch LG handset. And it feels the LG BL20 New Chocolate is the right handset to get us back on track.
The New Chocolate features the regular, but richly revamped LG user interface, which scores very high on visual appeal. The feature phone menu takes after the high-flying S-Class by LG and it looks like the two New Chocolates are similar not only on the outside, The BL20 is a pleasure to use, with its colorful and customizable menu. It's very fast and responsive too.

The standby screen offers the usual readings - date, time and all the status indicators - signal strength, the active profile and battery status. There's an option to add some extra items here - a calendar, various clocks. But don't expect miracles - you can use only one item at a time on the homescreen.

The menu structure of LG BL20 is straightforward and easy to work with even if you don't have much experience with other LG handsets. The main menu has two distinct layouts - grid or list view. Once you get beyond it though, all deeper submenus appear as lists.

There are two themes available on the BL20 New Chocolate and they are the same as those on the BL40 - the menu icons have a bit of 3D-styling with some visual effects, but you can also use the old black and white menu if you so prefer.

The touchpad directions are assigned shortcuts: New contact, new text message, profiles and the Quick menu. In the Quick menu you can have up to nine shortcuts to almost anything in your phone. It's handy and is activated by touching the up arrow.

The two soft-key functions are non-customizable - they're assigned to MyStuff and Contacts. The task manager button on the touchpad is nothing new either - it lets you easily switch between the currently running apps.

The Widget button will grant you access to some small but useful apps - memo, RSS reader, calendar, weather, alarms and VIP contacts. While the first five speak for themselves, the latter reminds of the contact homescreen in the S-Class UI. The VIP contacts are displayed in a scrollable arc of five contacts with their pictures. It's not as efficient as the quick dial, but looks good.

The phonebook does the job

The phonebook in the LG BL20 New Chocolate can store up to 1000 entries. You can opt to display the numbers on SIM, in phone memory or both simultaneously. You can order the contacts by first or last name. Naturally, searching by gradual typing is available. If a contact has a picture assigned, it will only be displayed when you select the contact in question.

There are plenty of available fields, so it's unlikely you will find anything missing. But in case you actually do, you may be better off buying a smartphone.

The LG BL20 New Chocolate offers smooth and problem-free performance when it comes to the most essential task of a phone - making calls. It offers good reception and in-call sound, with pleasing voice quality on both ends of a call. The New Chocolate has smart dial too.

Decent messaging
LG BL20 New Chocolate can handle all of the most common type of messages: SMS, EMS, MMS and email.

We aren't really the biggest fans of the handset's messaging department but we still believe it's capable enough for most occasions.
The first three message types share a common editor. All you need to do to switch between them is insert some multimedia content - like a photo or audio track for example. The editor itself has rather basic looks and that's one thing we weren't particularly fond of.

The email client is quite easy to work with and mailboxes can be set up in no time. Creating an account is very simple - you need to type your email and password, then choose the type (POP3, IMAP) and your mailbox is automatically configured.

Poor multimedia
Very basic image gallery

The gallery of the LG BL20 New Chocolate is accessible only through the My stuff icon in the main menu. It offers two view modes: thumbnail with 9 thumbs on screen, and list view with only 7 file names with tiny thumbs displayed. Be aware that heavily populated folders take their toll: the gallery refreshes its thumbs every time it's launched.

You can view single pictures in both landscape and portrait mode or you can opt for fullscreen. You can also zoom in to see further detail. But there is a problem here - if your picture is more than two megapixel, forget about zoom. The BL20 tells you the file is too big and zoom is not enabled. Nice one! Even on images that allow it, be warned that zooming is slow and it might just get too annoying. The only good thing here is the panning speed.

Worst of all, the slow browsing speed inside the gallery is quite a bugger. Loading the next image always seems to take forever.

Simple music player

The music player on the LG BL20 New Chocolate is the same as in the KF750 Secret. It sorts tracks by three different filters - artist, album and genre. You can also create your own playlist if you like. The player offers only two simple visualization options - Album art and equalizer bars.
When the music player is active, the buttons on the touchpad are used as media controls.

There are 7 equalizer presets on LG BL20. Sadly, neither can be modified, nor new ones created.

Video player is a letdown

Typical for a midrange feature phone, the video player is not much of an option. Varied codec support is non-existent and you can play only 3gp and some mp4 files at low bitrate. There are only few options there - fullscreen, delete or send file. You can jump back and forth in the video timeline though.

FM radio onboard

The BL20 New Chocolate has an FM radio of rather simple interface, that's generally very easy to work with. There is an auto scan feature that locates every radio station in your area and offers to save it. Unfortunately, RDS is not available.

Below par audio quality

The LG BL20 New Chocolate might have the looks but certainly lacks the voice to be a lead singer.
It achieved a pretty bad score in our test in the frequency response section and didn't impress in stereo crosstalk either. The dynamic range and stereo crosstalk were also only average. It might not seem as much but it took quite a look of effort on our side to achieve even that kind of readings.
The New Chocolate turned out quite pretentious musician and delivered awful output when set at the maximum volume. Only when it was set to 18 (from 20 level) and fed with mp3 files, rather than wav was it able to generate any kind of measurable result.

Good 5 megapixel camera, poor video recording

The LG BL20 New Chocolate boasts a 5 megapixel auto-focus camera with Schneider-Kreuznach certified optics. In addition, it has LED flash, which can also be used as a video light.

The camera user interface is the same thing we saw in the KF750 Secret and uses the same black and white color scheme. The available features are even less than those in the Secret. The camera itself has nothing to offer other than auto-focus, text scanning mode and the LED flash. The user configurable settings are some effects, light sensitivity up to ISO 400, night mode, white balance and brightness.
Text scanning mode was already present in the LG Secret. There is no character recognition. It's just that the camera sets more appropriate settings for shooting text.

The viewfinder layout is simple: a column on the right side where you can turn text scan mode on/off, toggle still camera and video recorder, set flash options and digital zoom. All the other stuff is packed in the advanced settings. You can use the confirm button of the touchpad as a shutter key too, but if you do there's no way to skip the shot after locking focus.
The camera UI looks outdated and LG really should have put a bit more work into it

The resolved detail in the images is decent enough and will pass as good in our books. The colors in most cases are accurate and lively and there is no purple fringing or over sharpening. Noise reduction seems at a normal level, rarely a little too aggressive.

Video recording

The LG BL20 New Chocolate is capable of capturing QVGA videos @ 15fps, which is pretty much suite only for MMS.

Web browser is OK

The web browser on the LG BL20 New Chocolate is basic, but reasonably good. It renders most of the web pages very well, but the smallish screen and lack of Flash support make it really just an extra, not something you can seriously surf on.
The web browser of the BL20 has a virtual mouse pointer that jumps between links. In most of the cases the mouse pointer moves rather logically and does the job right.
When the web page is loaded, the browser automatically zooms out. You can zoom to standard view by tapping the middle touch key when your mouse pointer is not over a link.

In the settings you can find some options for caching web pages and accepting cookies. Finally, you can disable images to save on data traffic.
You can open up to two pages simultaneously from the menu. We tried watching mobile YouTube videos and it worked like a charm. Just remember to configure your streaming profile in the settings.

Organizer and apps

The organizer and the standard applications are a pretty basic package too and far from what we expected. In fact most of the software are just cut-down versions of those on the LG KF750 Secret. But there is no document viewer and this may be the first LG handset to omit it.

The calendar offers daily, weekly and monthly view modes and three different events available for setting. Those are: anniversary, birthday and appointment, and each of them has its own unique fields. Naturally alarms can also be set up to remind you of the event at a given time.

There is also a To-Do app, Memos - text and photo, Alarm settings, calculator, voice recorder, stopwatch and unit converter. We can't say anything special about them - all use a basic and simple interface to do their job.

The Alarm clock, Calendar and Memos are also easily accessible through their respective widgets.
You will also find Google Maps, Sudoku and a bunch of demo games. There is no GPS on board so the use of GMaps is limited.

Final words

The new Chocolate series by LG are trying to carve some new shapes into the design landscape. The BL40 is in charge of that. It allowed the designers to unleash their creativity and bend the rules. It's the limited edition, the luxury piece. The BL20 in turn is staying faithful to the original Chocolate concept, trying to revive an iconic name.

Exactly following the recipe was a top priority for the BL20 we guess, and the few actual upgrades are only there to give the handset some up-to-date credibility. A 200 euro price tag sounded quite unreasonable for the offered functionality but the Chocolate BL20 price went down by a good 50 euro during the week it took us to prepare this review.

So in the end, with some subsidizing from your carrier, you might as well get yourself a fashion device on a bargain - without the price premium it started off with. But as we said before, you will be getting what you're paying for.
It's not a phone for the power-user but this doesn't mean it can't be successfully targeted. And telecoms are likely to be among the customers too.

There are a few Sony Ericsson sliders that would fit the profile just as well. The C903 easily tops the Chocolate feature list with GPS, a better camera, and TV-out. And it also has enough sex appeal to go with the capable hardware and software.

The compact Nokia 6600i slide may also be an option. It may have an average camera and web browser performance, but it tempts with minimalist styling, it's compact, all metal and plays it nice with an accelerometer sensor and VGA video recording.

In the end of the day, the BL20 would've been just another slider, but BL40, the first of the New Chocolates, may be enough to fuel some interest for the BL20 as well.

Beyond that, the BL20 is hardly inspiring. It's unusually large and its feature pack is too trimmed down to make a point besides the obvious fashion statement. Truth be said, this here dark chocolate has a wee bit too much cocoa to chew on.

On the bright side, the recent price drop we witnessed may make it an attractive buy this holiday season and if you're after some looks rather than wits, feel free to help yourself and don't let us spoil your party.


1 comment:

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