There is a lot of buzz about Microsoft’s new Windows phones Kin One and Two. They’re built by Sharp and run on Verizon’s 3G networks. What are they exactly? Tough to say…It’s not quite a smart phone and its a little more than a feature-phone. It’s a “social phone,” a phone that places a large emphasis on social networking. Kin revolves around easily sending and receiving updates to and from all of your friends, blogs, and “followers”. It’s clear after a small amount of use that Microsoft targeting a very specific audience for Kin One and Two. This audience will consist mainly of 13 to 25 year old Generation-Y-ers who are caught up in constant uploading, sharing, and harmless stalking. These users won’t be looking for anything too advanced because frankly Kin doesn’t offer anything too advanced. Those interested in Android and iPhone will not be impressed. It’s more like a Sidekick.
I’ve been testing Kin Two (the one with the larger screen and slightly better camera) for a few weeks now. It gave me a good chance to retap my social networking persona. I became much more “in touch” with my friends. Social networking aside, the RSS updates on my “loop” (home screen) kept me informed of all my Chip Chick and other blog updates…I love that. Everything you do on your Kin is stored “in the cloud”. Kin also has a very nice camera, integrated zune mp3 player, and physical qwerty keyboard. Oh yeah, also it works as phone…did I mention that?
The Kin Two is a smooth looking phone. It resembles the Palm Pre. It’s not nearly as distinguished as Kin One’s squarish pebble form. Kin Two’s soft rounded edges makes it very palm friendly; feels good in your hand. The screen slides to the side to access the keyboard. The slide movement feels very durable. You can easily slide the screen side-to-side with your thumb on the screen. The screen automatically orients to landscape mode when the keyboard is present. The accelerometer will also orient the screen if they keyboard is not present. With the keyboard closed, Kin Two has five physical buttons; one on the bottom center of the screen and the rest on the right side of the device. The center button is a back button. It will also take you home if you hold it. There is an on/off/screen lock button on the top right, two volume buttons (which will also access Zune controls if music is playing) and a dedicated camera button. The camera button has a full push and a half push. The half push is used to focus the camera. There are two ports; headphone and micro-usb sync/charger. The headphone port is located on the top center of the phone and the charging port on the bottom center. This was a neat design choice. The back of the phone is the battery cover, which can be popped off to replace the battery. There is no expandable memory slot.
The keyboard is relatively minimalistic; the keys are mainly for letters only. Each key is small, round, and well spaced from each other. Numbers and special characters are doubled up with the letters and require you to press the green button first. The only other buttons on the keyboard are phone, shift, backspace, return, search, and emoticon menu. Personally, I found lack of dedicated number keys to be cumbersome, especially when typing in a number to text message. There is no on-screen keyboard (or numpad when text messaging).
Unlike its brother, Kin 2 sports a large 3.4″ TFT display. The resolution is 480×320. The screen is a capacitive touch screen. It is pretty responsive to a light touch. It also supports multitouch gestures like pinching and zooming. The screen is beautiful and bright, but nothing mind-blowing. There is a light sensor which will automatically adjust the brightness. This can be turned off and set manually if you choose. Auto brightness worked well enough for me. The screen was even pretty visible sunlight.
Kin 2 is very plasticky, but it’s pretty solid. The front of the phone has a clear plastic covering which wraps all the way around the front. If dropped, this plastic could probably scratch or scuff, but it seems thick enough that the LCD would remain intact. As mentioned, the slide mechanism is durable and tough. It takes a bit of force to pop it open or closed. I constantly slid the phone open and closed when I got bored. I could tell that the slide mechanism would remain nice and sturdy for the phone’s lifetime.
Kin 2 sports an incredible 8 megapixel camera with lumi LED flash and 720p video recording. The camera takes very nice pictures. The focus button makes it very easy to take the exact picture you want. It also worked great for closeups. Additional camera settings include resolution adjustment, flash (on, off, auto), mode (night, burst, auto), geotags (quick vs gps), and lighting (home, office, sunny, cloudy, or auto). The phone gives you the tools to take some very nice photos. Photos in the dark that rely on the flash are a bit disappointing. They look washed out. This can hopefully be improved through a software update. The videos I took came out very well, but I wouldn’t go around boasting that they’re Avatar quality 720p. You also can only take 1 minute videos, so shooting anything longer is out of the question. You need to physically connect the phone to your computer to pull the high-res videos. You can find the low-res versions in your Kin Studio cloud.
When you first set up your Kin you create a profile, provide your social networking and email logins, and choose your RSS feeds. All of this information is tied into your homescreen. Your homescreen actually consists of three screens, your kin apps, your newsfeed, and your favorites. The newsfeed, called “Loop”, is a combination of your social networks and RSS feeds. From loop you can post updates to myspace, facebook, and twitter. You can update all three networks at once if you choose. You can expand on posts, view images, and comment on statuses. Unfortunately, you will not be alerted if anybody comments on your status, writes on your wall, or sends you a message via these social networks.
You may have seen commercials showing off Kin’s “spot”. This is a small green circle which always sits on the bottom of the display. Drag status updates, pictures, or URLS into the spot, and drag contacts whom you’d like to share with. You can then share everything you dragged with your contacts via email or text. You can also upload stuff in your spot to facebook.
One of the most unique features Kin offers is its automatic cloud storage. I was surprised when logging into the Kin Studio website to find all of my pictures, videos, and messages displayed in a very familiar looking Kin UI. Even my loop feed was there. Since all of the images are geotagged you can see a map of where all of your images were taken. It’s a very nice feeling to know if you lose your phone you’ll still have every contact, picture, video, and text message backed up. I suppose as comforting it is, it could be equally as scary.
Kin Two doesn’t just have an mp3/video player, its got a Zune. It uses the interface of the Zune HD to play and download music and movies. Zune Pass ($14.99/month) allows you to download unlimited music. It even works over 3G. Kin comes with earbuds which sound pretty decent. The earbuds have one button for pausing and skipping tracks, it also incorporates a microphone. In addition to these features Kin Two has a stereo speaker, WiFi, Bluetooth 2.1 with A2DP, GPS, 8gb of storage, and an accelerometer.
During my testing, I had to constantly remind myself that Kin is not a smart phone. It isn’t supposed to be like Android or iPhone. It does not need to have advanced settings, fully capable browser, or the ability to stream youtube videos. It does, on the other hand, have a lot of bugs that need to be addressed. It’s not too difficult to make the phone freeze up, have the buttons become unresponsive, or make it restart itself. There is a bunch of little things that are begging to be fixed. You’re very limited with theme customization. You have your pick of a few different color schemes. The kicker is you have to restart your phone just to use the new “theme”.
It’s a social networking phone with support for just Myspace, Twitter, Facebook, and Microsoft Live. What about LinkedIn, Buzz, StumbleUpon, or Flickr? And where are the apps? I could have really used a notes app at the very least. It’s comforting to know that all of my gripes can, and will hopefully, be fixed in future software updates. I had no real complaints with the phone’s hardware, in fact it’s a pretty solid component lineup. The camera took some great shots with help from the autofocus button. Phone calls were very clear on both ends, with and without the headphones. Service was great, I almost always had 3G. The only dead zones I hit were on the subway. The battery was better than most of the smart phones out there; I was able to get more than a full 24 hours of slightly-above-average usage without charging (I did sleep for 8 hours, so factor that in however you choose).
Microsoft may be on to something with this new niche of “social phones”, but they still have a ways to go. The UI is still very buggy and unintuitive. Using it does not feel natural at all and certainly takes some getting used to. Microsoft needs to hurry up with some apps too! The Kin’s hardware/components satisfied us. It has everything we need: a real nice camera, a flash, good form factor, qwerty keyboard, capacitive touch screen, GPS, bluetooth, wifi, 3g, and some pretty good processing power. The only thing it’s really missing on the hardware side is an expandable memory slot. 8GB isn’t a ton of storage these days (and Kin One only comes with 4GB!). If Microsoft starts pushing out some software updates, Kin Two could very well catch on.
If the Droid and iPhone are more robust than you need, and you love social networking, then you might just be who Microsoft had in mind. Ideally this phone would probably be perfect for those teens who will get a kick out of the social networking aspects of the phone and want something a bit more than the Sidekick. Kin Two costs $100 with a 2 year Verizon agreement. This is a fair price…until you realize Kin requires a mandatory $29.99 “smartphone” data plan in addition to the $39.99 voice plan. Now it’s getting pricey for a feature-phone (or social phone, or non-smartphone–whatever it is). Play around with Kin One and Two if you get a chance – it’s indubitably a whole new direction for cell phones.
The Good: Form, camera, cloud storage, Zune integration
The Bad: UI is buggy and unintuitive, no expandable memory, social networks are very limited, expensive
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