How wide is too wide? That’s a silly question, LG thought in 2009 when it released the LG BL40 New Chocolate. With a 4” display of cinematic 21:9 aspect ratio, this phone was unique for its time – at that point a typical phone had a 4:3 or 3:2 display, while media-focused devices went 16:9 to match the emerging HDTV standards. But 21:9 was unheard of.
To some extent aspect ratio dictates what kind of content is viewed. The earliest TVs had squarish ratios because they mostly showed newscasters – portrait images, basically. The growing number of TVs at home pushed cinemas to go wider to create an experience you couldn’t get on your couch.
In 1953 Twentieth-Century Fox introduced CinemaScope, giving the screen a 2.35 aspect ratio or to give it as a fraction, 21:9. TV broadcasts of movies had to either crop the image to fit the 4:3 tubes or use letter boxing (which made the small TV display 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” TFT LCD with 345 x 800px resolution. That’s 1/3rd of HD resolution in terms of pixel count but worked out to a solid 217ppi. For comparison, the contemporary iPhone 3GS had a 3.5” 3:2 display with 165ppi density, the first ever Galaxy phone a 3.2” 3:2 display with 180ppi density.
An iPhone and BL40 New Chocolate side by side
This beautiful display had to be kept safe from scratches, a duty bestowed upon Gorilla Glass. As you can see, on top of being ultrawide, it also had quite chunky bezels, so the whole phone measured 128x51x10.9mm (and weighed 129g).
The LG BL40 New Chocolate had a 4″ 21:9 display (345 x 800px) with Gorilla Glass protection
Watching movies on the go was clearly the main draw of this phone. But something really weird happen between the prototype stages and the release. When we did a preview of the BL40, it happily handled DivX videos at up to 720p, but XviD support was shaky. At the time we wrote “We hope the final version of the UI will have those glitches all cleared up”.
That was with a pre-release unit. A month later we got our hands on a retail unit for the proper review and were disappointed to find that things have gone the other way – HD playback was no longer possible with either codec. The media player topped out at D1, that’s the resolution typically used for DVDs (720x480px for its wide screen version).
DivX and XviD videos both played fine and the display couldn’t really do much with HD footage (again, it had 345 pixels on it short side, less than half the 720px of HD). But the phone did support TV-out (if you bought the right cable), so HD support would have been nice.
The media player couldn’t handle HD video
If you wanted to watch on the go, Dolby Mobile was available (a precursor of Atmos for phones), which worked best with a headset plugged into the 3.5mm jack.
The jack was atop the phone, sharing the bright red panel with the power key. Everything about the BL40 New Chocolate shouted “look at me!”, the top and bottom painted bright red to contrast with the piano black of the other sides, the silver trim that side keys were incorporated into and even just how tall this phone was.
While the cinematic display dictated the design, the phone loved music almost as much. It even had a button dedicated to launching the music player. We already mentioned the 3.5mm jack, but there was another way to output music – an FM radio transmitter. Bluetooth 2.1 was on board as well, but this was before the prevalence of high quality audio codecs and numerous BT speakers.
The LG BL40 New Chocolate was equipped with a 5MP camera with a Schneider-Kreuznach-certified lens. You’d think that LG had built it to shoot impressive home movies, especially in 21:9 widescreen.
But no, the video recording capabilities were actually woefully inadequate – the videos had CIF resolution (352 x 288px) and the frame rate was unpredictable, usually in the 10-20fps range. This was 2009, the first phone with HD video capabilities was already on the market. Even D1 resolution would have been okay, matching the phone’s playback capabilities, but instead we got the cheap feature phone treatment.
Speaking of, this wasn’t a proper 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 spectacle to match the display.
The S-Class UI focused on the visual experience
The UI supported widgets on the homescreen and had quick toggles that could be pulled down from the status bar. The system could multitask J2ME apps, but there was no split-screen support – that’s something that is perfectly suited for the 21:9 aspect ratio but needed more advanced technology than the New Chocolate was built on.
Besides movies, gaming was another chance for the 4” ultrawide display to shine. Unfortunately, at the time app stores were only just becoming a thing and S-Class UI didn’t have one. The phone came with several pre-installed games, all of them motion-controlled for some reason (we guess someone at LG held a Nintendo Wii controller and thought “this feels familiar”).
The most interesting game of the bunch was Dual Match. It was named this way because two players could play in split screen mode, both holding one phone. It was a clever use of the extra tall display, but it probably isn’t enough to make it into the mobile game hall of fame.
Dual Match on the LG BL40 New Chocolate offered split screen multiplayer on one phone
Another fun, well, not “game” exactly but a musical instrument thing, allowed you to play a cut down piano keyboard or virtual drums.
The New Chocolate had a creative side as well
A few fun and clever uses of the extra tall display weren’t enough, the LG BL40 New Chocolate was a feature phone in a smartphone world. It sure was a unique device – it would be years until we saw another 21:9 display – but the lack of a sequel tells us all we need to know about sales.
Would this have been more successful if it ran Android on a more powerful chipset? We can only speculate and the answer is probably “no” anyway. Netflix was mostly still known as a DVD-by-mail company back then and those janky old 3G networks wouldn’t have handled video streaming, not to mention how much it would have cost the consumer.
That left the LG BL40 New Chocolate in the awkward position of being a multimedia phone where the user had to supply their own multimedia. Many people did just that, many more did not (they had iTunes do it for them). Had it launched a few years later with cheap Netflix prices, falling data plan costs and booming mobile game sales through app stores, “New Chocolate” may have been a household name now. But the world just wasn’t ready for a 21:9 display in your pocket.