Flashback: the LG BL40 New Chocolate puts a cinema in your pocket with its 4″ 21:9 screen
How wide is too wide? That’s a silly question, thought LG in 2009 when it released the LG BL40 New Chocolate. With a 4-inch display in cinematic 21:9 aspect ratio, this phone was unique for its time – at that time a typical phone had a 4:3 or 3:2 display, while media-focused devices went 16:9 to match emerging HDTV standards. But 9:9 was unheard of.
To some extent, the aspect ratio dictates the type of content viewed. Early TVs had square aspect ratios because they mostly showed news anchors – portrait images, basically. The growing number of televisions in the home has driven cinemas to expand to create an experience you couldn’t get on your couch.
In 1953, Twentieth-Century Fox introduced CinemaScope, giving the screen an aspect ratio of 2.35 or to give it as a fraction, 21:9. Movie TV shows either had to crop the image to fit 4:3 tubes or use letterboxing (which made the small TV screen look even smaller). If you wanted a cinematic experience, you had to buy a movie ticket.
Fast forward half a century and you could have the CinemaScope experience in your pocket. The LG BL40 New Chocolate had a 4-inch TFT LCD screen with a resolution of 345 x 800 pixels. It’s 1/3 the HD resolution in terms of pixel count, but that works out to a solid 217ppi. For comparison, the contemporary iPhone 3GS had a 3.5″ 3:2 display with a density of 165ppi, the very first Galaxy phone a 3.2″ 3:2 display with a density of 180ppi.
An iPhone and a BL40 New Chocolate side by side
This beautiful display had to be protected from scratches, a duty entrusted to Gorilla Glass. As you can see, in addition to being ultrawide, it also had fairly thick bezels, so the whole phone measured 128 x 51 x 10.9mm (and weighed 129g).
The LG BL40 New Chocolate had a 4″ 21:9 (345 x 800px) display with Gorilla Glass protection
Watching movies on the go was clearly the main draw of this phone. But something really weird happened between the prototype stages and the release. When we previewed the BL40, it happily handled DivX video up to 720p, but XviD support was shaky. At the time, we wrote “We hope that the final version of the user interface will have all these problems fixed”.
It was with a pre-release unit. A month later we got our hands on a retail unit for a proper review and were disappointed to find things went the other way – HD playback was no longer possible with the one or other of the codecs. The media player peaked at D1, which is the resolution typically used for DVDs (720x480px for its widescreen version).
DivX and XviD video played well, and the screen couldn’t really do much with HD footage (again, it had 345 pixels on the short side, less than half of HD’s 720 pixels). But the phone did support TV-out (if you bought the right cable), so HD support would have been fine.
Media player couldn’t handle HD video
If you wanted to watch on the go, Dolby Mobile was available (a precursor to Atmos for phones), which worked best with headphones plugged into the 3.5mm jack.
The socket was at the top of the phone, sharing the bright red panel with the power key. Everything about the BL40 New Chocolate screamed “look at me!”, the top and bottom painted bright red to contrast the piano black on the other sides, the silver trim the side keys were embedded in, and even the height of this phone .
While the cinematic display dictated the design, the phone loved music almost as much. There was even a dedicated button for launching the music player. We’ve already mentioned the 3.5mm jack, but there was another way to stream music: an FM radio transmitter. Bluetooth 2.1 was also on board, but that was before the prevalence of high-quality audio codecs and plenty of BT speakers.
LG BL40 New Chocolate
The LG BL40 New Chocolate featured a 5MP camera with a Schneider-Kreuznach certified lens. You’d think LG built it for shooting awesome home movies, especially on a 21:9 widescreen.
But no, the video recording capabilities were actually woefully lacking – the videos were CIF resolution (352 x 288px) and the frame rate was unpredictable, usually in the 10-20fps range. It was 2009, the first phone with HD video capabilities was already on the market. Even the D1 resolution would have been fine, matching the phone’s playback capabilities, but instead we got the cheap phone processing.
Speaking of which, it was not a good smartphone. It ran LG’s S-Class UI that we originally saw on the LG Arena. It had a very skeuomorphic look and was loaded with 3D animations. LG wanted a show to match the display.
The S-Class user interface focused on the visual experience
The user interface supported widgets on the home screen and featured quick toggles that could be removed from the status bar. The system could run multitasking J2ME applications, but there was no split-screen support – something that’s perfectly suited to the 21:9 aspect ratio but required more advanced technology than that on which the New Chocolate was built.
Besides movies, games were another chance for the 4-inch ultrawide display to shine. Unfortunately, at the time, app stores were just starting to become a thing and the S-Class UI didn’t have one. The phone came with several games pre-installed, all motion-controlled for some reason (we’re guessing someone at LG was holding a Nintendo Wii controller and thinking “that sounds familiar”).
The most interesting game of the bunch was Dual Match. It was named so because two players could play in split-screen mode, both holding a phone. It was a smart use of the extra-tall screen, but it’s probably not enough to make it a mobile gaming hall of fame.
Dual Match on the LG BL40 New Chocolate offers split-screen multiplayer on one phone
Another fun, well, not exactly a “game” but a musical instrument, let you play a scaled down piano keyboard or virtual drums.
New Chocolate also had a creative side
A few fun and clever uses of the extra-tall display weren’t enough, the LG BL40 New Chocolate was a versatile phone in a smartphone world. It was certainly a unique device – it would be years before we saw another 21:9 display – but the lack of a sequel tells us all we need to know about sales.
Would it have been more efficient if it had run Android on a more powerful chipset? We can only speculate and the answer is probably “no” anyway. Netflix was best known as a DVD-by-mail company back then and those janky old 3G networks wouldn’t have handled video streaming, let alone the cost it would have cost the consumer.
This left the LG BL40 New Chocolate in the tricky position of being a multimedia phone where the user had to provide their own multimedia. Lots of people did, lots of people didn’t (they asked iTunes to do it for them). Had it launched a few years later with cheap Netflix prices, falling data plan costs, and booming mobile game sales via app stores, “New Chocolate” might have been a household name now. But the world just wasn’t ready for a 21:9 display in your pocket.
Leave a Reply