One Aging Geek

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Life with Chocolate

Life with chocolate is better than without ... but in this case Chocolate is the new phone I acquired.

About three weeks ago my "New every two" anniversary came up. I spent a few days wading thru the horrible Verizon website to try to figure out what phones were available. I narrowed down to the Motorola RAZR V3M and the LG VX8500 Chocolate. Both are small enough to go in a pocket. Belt clips and I do not get along. Both can play music and support a microSD card. The RAZR has speakerphone capability that is missing from the Chocolate but the Chocolate plays MP3 or WMA while the RAZR is WMA only. I ended up going with the Chocolate.

Given that nothing is perfect, I'm ... reasonably happy with the result.

What this thing has done for me is reduce the number of gadgets I drag around on a regular basis. In my typical work day I use a portable MP3 player to listen to podcasts while commuting and carry a PDA from meeting to meeting primarily so my calendar is handy. The phone has replaced both of these uses.

After having the phone for a couple of days I bought the Music Essentials Kit (MEK) and a 1GB microSD card (the phone can accomodate microSD cards up to 2GB). The MEK includes a set of headphones (which suck, more below), a USB cable, and drivers for Windows. After installing the drivers and plugging the phone in, it shows up as a modem and as a COM port. Presumably one could use the phone as a method of connecting to the Internet. In addition, putting the phone into "sync music" mode causes Windows to recognize it as a "portable player" device. The thing is interfaced, not as a simple disk drive... that would be too easy, but as a Media Transfer Protocol device or in Microsoftspeak "Plays for Sure". In other words it's got a layer to help enforce Digital Restrictions Management schemes.

I've tried using Windows Media Player 10 to transfer music to the phone. It's slow, about 250KB/sec so multiple minutes per typical track. There were some odd quirks. It would randomly decide to convert some MP3s to WMA before transferring. No idea why. It would also randomly lose the tag data so the track would show up on the phone as having no artist or album.

I next tried using WinAMP. WinAMP didn't do the weird convert-to-WMA trick but also lost tags randomly and also randomly deleted tracks.

At this point I'm sticking to putting music onto the microSD card by taking the memory card out of the phone and using a flash card reader. The card came with an SD card shaped "adapter". Slide the microSD card into the adapter and then just use an SD card reader. This is still slow so perhaps that's a "feechur" of microSD cards. But so far it seems to be more ... predicable. No disappearing tags or tracks.

So moving music to and from the device isn't as convenient or quick as I could have wished. But I'm still finding the MP3 player useful. What I'm listening to is audio books. These make my commute more bearable. I plug in the headset, put in one earbud, fire up the player and listen as I drive. I have a co-worker who has given me a whole pile of audio books plus I've got several queued up from That leaves my iRiver H-340 hard-drive MP3 player for podcast listening.

The headphones in the MEK are ... sub par. The earbuds are too big for my earholes. But for the moment I'm stuck with them. The phone has one all-purpose port, used for charging, headphones, everything. Included is an adapter for a "standard 2.5mm" headset but it will only work with four-conductor plugs (ground, left, right, microphone) and all I have is three conductor headsets (ground, single earbud, mike). So, until I can save up the nickels and dimes for a bluetooth headset the MEK phones are all I've got.

The phone is also doing decent duty as my portable calendar. The on-phone calendar is good but using BitPIM makes it truly useful. BitPIM recognizes the VX8500 when it's hooked up via USB and can manipulate most of the data on the phone. Ringtones, phonebook, wallpaper, pictures, SMS messages, memo pad, playlists, songs, and the calendar. In addition BitPIM can import my Outlook calendar. So it takes just a few clicks to get the calendar out of Outlook and onto the phone.

Let's see what other features... oh yeah, it makes, you know, phone calls. It's a good, small phone with all the stuff you'd expect on a modern cell phone. Good sound quality, good reception sensitivity. Battery life is solid even when running the MP3 player. It has a "music only" mode that turns off the phone part for use on airplanes. I ran the player for the duration of a flight to San Francisco (about 3 hours from down here on the third coast) and used about a quarter charge. Also used it as a travel alarm on that trip and have carried over to using it as my alarm at home.