With their uncharacteristically intensive marketing campaign over the last month focusing on this phone alone, it's readily apparent that Verizon has high hopes their VX8500 "Chocolate" slider is ready to take the torch from Motorola's original V3 RAZR as the must-have midrange handset for the masses. To get anywhere close to that lofty goal, though, the phone requires more than a slick ad blitz. Basic functionality and practicality obviously have to be there, but what's more, it needs a gizmo appeal that'll attract the casual gearheads (assuming the more serious ones have already been ceded to the smartphone market) and a fashion sense -- a mystique, if you will -- that naturally draws in users and observers alike.
Let's tackle these areas one at a time. First, basic functionality and practicality. The VX8500's voice quality is excellent, outpacing many recent handsets tested for clarity and volume. Furthermore, folks we called were consistently impressed with the clarity of the call and an overall lack of background noise and echo. The phone's loudspeaker reminds us of the stereo speakers on LG's CU500, which were similarly clear enough to nearly fool us into listening to music through them for an extended period. Strangely, it's only usable as a loudspeaker; we feel we've gone back two years by LG's failure to include speakerphone functionality, but maybe they're thinking you'll be listening to so much music that you have no desire to take calls anyway.
The numeric keypad is perfectly usable and the sliding mechanism felt solid. Unfortunately, the placement of the End key on the right side of the top portion of the slider is illogical. Granted, most calls will be ended by pushing the slider closed, but End frequently sees duty as a quick way to get home from deep in the phone's menu structure, and the relocation makes it virtually useless in that capacity. Similarly, the volume up/down rocker would've been better off located on the lower half of the slider -- for us, anyway. We're sure some folks will disagree here, but we found accessing them awkward during a call.
What about the technical wizardry? The Chocolate brings to the table about every feature a Verizon customer could ask for without pushing into smartphone territory, rocking EV-DO, solid music support, a microSD slot, Bluetooth (including A2DP), and location-based services. That being said, these are all features you can find elsewhere in Verizon's lineup, and this phone doesn't present any of them in a particularly unique way. Of course, getting to the goodies has to be easy, and we found Verizon's menu system speedy, attractive, and relatively easy to use, though the top-level menu of the Flash Lite-enabled handset is unnecessarily clunky with its animated, rotating wheel design.
One final aspect of the phone's high-tech portfolio is its group of touch-sensitive controls. Specifically, the soft keys, Send, Clear / Back, the d-pad, and OK are all designed this way with no tactile feedback -- though the directional buttons do have a unique grooved feel and OK is slightly raised in the center. The concept is nifty enough and the thought of navigating our phone in complete silence is enticing, but we had difficulty actuating the keys we intended, particularly with the d-pad. Erroneous entries were frequent, including the occasional accidental phone call. We imagine we'd master it pretty quickly, but fair warning to new users. There's also a menu item for controlling touch sensitivity which may help, though we didn't play with it.
Besides being touch-sensitive, the soft keys, Send, and Clear / Back all but disappear when not being backlit in their soft red, which leads us to our final point: aesthetics. The phone's pretty hot looking, no question. When you first take it out of the box, it essentially looks like a solid, glossy black slab. As with anything glossy, smudges are always an issue and scratch resistance (or lack thereof) can be problematic, but in this case, it's simply a price society has decided to pay in the name of electronic hotness. All that being said, we see our fair share of beautiful phones, and the Chocolate is by no means in a class by itself -- or so we thought. On the streets, we struck up a few casual conversations with passers-by about our newfound plaything. Much to our surprise, a majority of folks were not only well aware of Verizon's ad campaign and were intrigued by the Chocolate itself, but were also extremely impressed with the phone in person. Several had never seen a slider before and were simply curious about the form factor, but others loved the touch sensitivity, the functionality, and the phone's overall appearance.
In the end, despite the intense hype buildup surrounding its release, we could only conclude that the VX8500 is a well-equipped (save the lack of a speakerphone) midrange device with a pretty face -- no more, no less. Enough to do RAZR-like damage in the marketplace? Probably not, but then again, we haven't seen the last of the Chocolate.
*Verizon has acquired AOL, Engadget's parent company. However, Engadget maintains full editorial control, and Verizon will have to pry it from our cold, dead hands.