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Microsoft Kin One Cell Phone Review

by The Review CrewMay 30, 2010

In April 2010, Microsoft finally took the wraps off Project Pink and introduced two new phones targeted at the younger generation of social butterflies: the Kin One and Kin Two. However, the reveal was shrouded in questions and doubt rather than excitement. Who would want this kind of device, especially in the wake of the Windows Phone 7 announcement? Even though Microsoft was very clear in saying that the Kin devices would not appeal to everyone and was specifically targeted at a younger, more social crowd, we were still apprehensive.

Flash forward to now, when we’ve had a couple of days to check both the Kin One and Kin Two and can see things more clearly. Stepping back from our role as tech journalists and trying to get in the mindframe of the target demographic, we can see how the Kin One and Two might appeal to teens and 20-somethings. The phones offer instant access to favorite friends and a constant connection to them through the tight social-networking integration. They also offer a different and fun user experience than a lot of other full-featured phones on the market.

All of this is well and good, but as we said before, part of the devices’ success would depend on the pricing of the phones and data plans. Interestingly, when we first received the phones, Microsoft and Verizon said the pricing would be $79.99 for the Kin One and $149.99 for the Kin Two, both with a two-year contract and after a $100 mail-in rebate. We were just about ready to launch into a tirade when at the last minute we received word that the pricing had been changed to $49.99 and $99.99, respectively–much, much better. Unfortunately, though, there’s no adjustment to the monthly data plan. Both the Kin One and Two will require monthly $29.99 unlimited data plans, just like Verizon’s other smartphones and 3G multimedia and feature phones. Considering the amount of data the handsets use, it makes sense, but still: the target group probably doesn’t have much disposable income, and this may pose a problem to the Kins’ overall success.

The Microsoft Kin One and Two will be available for preorder through Verizon’s Web site starting May 6 and will ship within 48 hours. The devices will be in all Verizon stores nationwide May 13.

Design
Of the two Kin phones, the Kin One has the more interesting design and is sure to turn some heads. At first glance, it doesn’t even look like a phone. It’s squarish in shape but with rounded edges, and the front section of the slider phone is smaller than the back part, which adds to its unique look. When talking with CNET digital audio editor Jasmine France, we concluded that it looked like some kind of fitness device or even some of the older Rio MP3 players. We wouldn’t call the Kin One ugly–just different.

This is not your average phone. The Kin One has quite a distinctive design.
The handset is extremely compact and lightweight, measuring 3.25 inches tall by 2.5 inches wide by 0.75 inch deep and weighing 3.9 ounces. It fits nicely in the hand, though when on a call, we preferred to have the keyboard open since it felt weird to hold a hockey-puck-size device up to our ear. The phone feels solid overall, and the soft-touch finish on back prevents it from feeling completely slick and becoming a smudge magnet like the front of the device.

Now, given the smaller size, we figured the full QWERTY keyboard would be a nightmare to use, but it’s actually not that bad. Admittedly, the layout is slightly cramped, so users with larger thumbs may need time to acclimate; and even though the keys are raised above the phone’s surface, they’re slightly stiff to press. Still, the oval buttons aren’t too small and there’s a decent amount of spacing between them, so that cuts down on mispresses. We also appreciate the shortcut keys on the bottom row for the phone app, search, and emoticons.
 
If anything, it’s the display that suffers from the Kin One’s petite size. The 2.6-inch QVGA capacitive touch screen is pretty cramped, especially with all the information that’s populated on the Loop home screen (more on this later). It also makes it less than ideal for viewing movies and Web pages, though for the latter you at least get pinch-to-zoom support. With a QVGA resolution, it’s the not the sharpest display on the block, but we found it to be sufficiently bright and clear for reading messages and viewing images. There’s an ambient light sensor that will automatically adjust the screen’s brightness depending on the environment, but the screen still washed out in bright sunlight.

The touch screen is mostly responsive, though the scrolling experience isn’t quite as smooth as we’d like it be. Below the display, you get only one button, which takes you back to the previous screen. There is an onscreen button that will bring up your most recently used apps, but we missed having a dedicated home key to get back to one of the three main home screens, especially when we were several menus deep. Having to hit the back button multiple times got old pretty quick.

There are other controls scattered around the edge of the phone. There’s a 3.5mm headphone jack on top. In the upper left corner there’s a volume rocker, and there’s a camera activation/capture key and power button in the upper right corner. However, the volume and camera keys are in awkward positions. The volume rocker is too high up, so it’s not easy to adjust the volume just by feel when on a call. Also, because the camera key sits off the edge and requires a pretty firm press, it’s hard to hold the phone steady while trying to press the button, resulting in a blurry image.

The Kin One comes packaged in a cylindrical canister along with an AC adapter, a USB cable, a wired stereo headset, and reference material. For more add-ons, please read our cell phone accessories, ringtones, and help page.

User interface
Both the Kin One and Two use the same user interface. The software on both devices was created on the core elements of Windows Phone 7, but the user experience is designed completely around social communication, with the Loop home screen at the center of it all.

Loop displays all your contacts’ updates and tweets from Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, and Windows Live, and will also pull in any content from your subscribed news feeds. It retains a bit of the look and feel of Windows Phone 7 with the tile layout, and you can tap each tile to either read the full story or comment on a person’s status. Information is shown in chronological order with the most recent news up top; as more updates and stories come in, stories are pushed down, but be aware that the screen doesn’t pull data in real time but rather in 15-minute increments. Your status and image, however, always remain at the top, where you can instantly update your MySpace or Facebook status or send out a tweet by simply tapping the screen. One note about the social-networking integration: though you can upload photos to MySpace and Facebook, you can’t upload to Twitter, which is unfortunate.

To the left of the Loop screen, you will find all the phone’s apps, such as e-mail, music and videos, phone, browser, settings, and so forth. When you swipe to the right you’ll find all your favorite contacts. You can have up to 51 favorites and adding contacts is simple. You can’t change the size of the tiles, but you can rearrange them, as well as apps, by doing a two-finger tap on the screen.

The Kin One and Two aren’t just about having access to information: they’re also about sharing, and the phones have a unique way of doing so with a feature called the Spot. The Spot is literally a green dot at the bottom of all three home screens to which you can drag and drop content and then add contacts (also through drag and drop) with whom you want to share the information with via text/MMS or e-mail. You can share anything from the Loop screen, as well as Web pages, which we thought was pretty cool.

It’s a simple process and works as advertised. You just do a long press on an item until you see a smaller version of it and then drag it down to the Spot; you do the same with contacts. We don’t know if it’s the most efficient way to do things, but it’s certainly different and innovative, setting it apart from many of today’s feature phones and smartphones.

In general, the UI on the Kin One and Two can be completely overwhelming at first, much like Motoblur. There’s a lot of information to digest, but there are ways you can pare down the feed. For example, you can filter the Loop screen so that only one of your social-networking sites populates the screen. Then again, perhaps for the targeted audience members, this is what they want: to be connected all the time and to have access to all their social networks with just a press of a button. Even so, there’s a bit of a learning curve and accessing submenus within apps can be confusing.

Features
There’s more to the Kin One and Two than just social networking, however. Of course, with devices like these, phone calls may not be the first choice of communication. If you actually feel like making a call, you can! Voice features include a speakerphone, conference calling, a proximity sensor, text and multimedia messaging, 3G support, and stereo Bluetooth. Wi-Fi is also onboard as well as a full HTML Web browser (more on the browser in the Performance section) and Bing Web and local search.

The handsets’ address book is limited only by the available memory; each contact card offers room for multiple numbers, e-mail addresses, custom ringtones, and photos, birthdays, and more. If an individual has a Facebook or MySpace page (and as long as you’ve synced those accounts to the phone), you can open up an individual entry and then swipe to the right to view any contact info that’s been pulled from those sites. It’s also possible to link and unlink duplicate contact cards.

E-mail support on the Kin One and Two includes POP3/IMAP accounts as well as Exchange with push delivery, though we certainly wouldn’t recommend this as a business device. The Kin doesn’t offer a unified in-box, but rather something reminiscent of the Windows Phone 7 hubs that you can swipe to the right and left to view your various in-boxes.

E-mail is well-represented, but we’re baffled by the lack of any IM clients as well as any kind of calendar app. There are other omissions as well, such as gaming capabilities and an app store, but we’re less concerned with these features since we think there are enough distractions on the phones to keep you occupied, but the first two just seem like no-brainers. When asked about this, Microsoft said it really wanted to nail down the social aspects first, so some features had to be sidelined. However, both the Kin One and Two are built to support over-the-air updates, and the company didn’t rule out adding these capabilities in the future.

Among the several unique features that the Kin One has to offer is a media player that is anything but standard. Along with the Kin Two, this stout slider is the first Windows phone to come with a fully integrated Zune HD interface, which we daresay is a considerable step up from the Windows Media Player app found on previous products.

Those who are familiar with the Zune HD will be extremely comfortable browsing media on the Kin One. As on the standalone player, navigation is handled entirely via the touch screen and the tactile back button, and it’s a very smooth process despite the Kin One’s significantly smaller screen. Media is also organized in the Zune HD manner, with the main screen dedicated to five categories: music, videos, radio, Zune Pass, and settings. (Unsurprisingly, photos are separated out because of their relation to the phone’s camera feature.) The top screen also features a graphically intense margin of “pins,” playback history, and recently added content. This video illustrates this area better than we could ever describe it in words.

Delving into the various menus on the Kin One’s Zune player reveals a simple radio with autoscan and presets; a straightforward video player; and music organized handily into artist, album, genre, song, and playlist subcategories. The music section and playback screen feature prevalent album art, which keeps things visually appealing. The playback screen further offers shuffle, repeat, and “heart” soft keys; the latter let’s you like or dislike songs for later sorting. You can listen to the songs through the integrated speakers, or with the included earbuds, which aren’t terribly comfortable, but at least provide clear-sounding audio. On the whole, the player provided solid audio and smooth performance during testing, except for a minor glitch that prevented the audio from rerouting from the speakers to the headphones when they were plugged in during playback. Restarting the phone once fixed the problem.

Another distinctive feature of the Kin devices is the Web-based Kin Studio service. This is a bit like Microsoft’s My Phone service for Windows Mobile, as it automatically backs up your phone’s contacts, text messages, and multimedia files to a secure Web site for free. When you log on to the Kin Studio Web site and enter your Windows Live ID and password, all your information will be there, including a current version of your Loop screen, any news feeds, and call logs. There’s also a Timeline feature, which is pretty awesome, as it opens up all the photos, all the people you’ve been in touch with, and all the messages you’ve received for a designated time period and places them in a timeline.

The Kin One features a 5-megapixel camera with flash on back.
Aside from the obvious physical variations, there are a couple of other differences between the Kin One and Two. Most notably, the Kin One offers 4GB of internal memory, whereas the Kin Two offers 8GB. Also, the Two has an 8-megapixel camera–the One’s is 5 megapixels–and can shoot HD video.

Performance
We tested the dual-band (CDMA 800/1900; EV-DO Rev. A) in New York using Verizon service and call quality was a bit mixed. On our end, callers sounded loud and clear with little to no voice distortion or background noise. We also had no problem interacting with an airline’s voice-automated response system. However, several friends complained that our voice sounded low and robotic. We didn’t encounter the volume problem on voice calls, but it was an issue with speakerphone calls. It was fine if we were in a quiet room, but if there was any background noise at all, we had a hard time hearing our callers even with volume set to the highest level. We had no problems pairing the handset with the Logitech Mobile Traveller Bluetooth headset and the Motorola S9 Bluetooth Active Headphones.

With support for Verizon’s 3G network, Web browsing was pretty swift on the Kin One. CNET’s full site loaded in 30 seconds; CNN and ESPN’s mobile sites loaded in 6 seconds and 9 seconds, respectively. The Kin’s browser is a bit clunky to navigate; though it’s easy to refresh or favorite a site, it’s hard to figure out how to do anything else within the browser, and there’s no support for Flash or multiple windows.
 
The Kin One’s 5-megapixel camera took mediocre pictures. As we mentioned before, the weird placement of the capture button made it really hard to get a sharp image; though it has flash and lighting settings, the color still looked a bit faded. Recorded video clips also looked murky.

The Kin is powered by the 600MHz Tegra APX2600 and the phone struggled a bit to keep up with our demands. It’s not like we were expecting the smartphone to be a power device, but we definitely noticed some delays when switching screens and launching apps. Aside from the aforementioned glitch with the Zune player, we didn’t experience any other problems or crashes during our testing period.

The Kin One features a 1,240mAh lithium ion battery with a rated standby time of up to 8.75 days. We are still conducting our , the Kin One has a digital SAR rating of 1.38 watts per kilogram and has a Hearing Aid Compatibility Rating of M4/T3.

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The Review Crew
The Review Crew is a group of beat editors, writers, and consultants that have been working together for years. They know just about everything about everything collectively and have published their collective work under the Review Crew brand moniker for almost 20 years.