Despite Microsoft's healthy market share in the smartphone arena several years ago, the Windows Mobile platform has failed to hold its ground against competitors such as the iPhone and Android. While everyone still waits for Windows Phone 7 -- Microsoft's fresh start in the smartphone market -- the company made a surprising introduction with the Kin siblings. The handsets are not marketed as smartphones, nor as feature phones, but rather as a new kind of device that caters to social networking enthusiasts. The devices represent Microsoft's first self-branded handsets, a completely new approach that is a polar opposite from Windows Mobile's "professional" focus. We have taken a closer look at both devices to see if Microsoft has redeemed itself from the recent failings of Windows Mobile, or if the handsets are destined to be yet another misguided flop.
Form and construction
The Kin One is built with a squashed form that gives it the appearance of a pebble, similar in overall proportions to the Twist handsets offered by Nokia and Motorola. The Kin One has more rounded edges, with a portrait slider that will be familiar to Palm Pre owners. Marketing photos make the device appear very compact, with a low-volume housing that seems like it offers a size advantage over rectangular alternatives. As soon as the Kin One is held in the hand, however, it takes on a much more robust feel. The One is actually thicker than the Two, which is slightly thicker than Motorola's Droid handset.
The Two features a rectangular housing and a typical landscape slider. The Two felt more natural in a pocket, surprisingly enough, despite having a larger volume than its squarish brother. The facade also resembles the Pre, with a gloss surface that extends to the rounded edges.
Both Kins integrate an acrylic or plastic plate that serves as the front panel and LCD protector. The convex surface does not have a ridge that might protect the plastic from becoming easily scratched and marred. Although we did not test the durability of the phones, the front panel would quickly become damaged if the phone was frequently left on abrasive surfaces -- or dropped even once -- with the LCD facing down. A ridge would have detracted from initial attractiveness, but help to keep any scratches off the LCD cover.
Without replicating common cellphone accidents, we can't say with any absolute certainty that the Kin handsets are not durable devices. Overall construction still seems average, however, including the back cover produced from an unnervingly thin piece of plastic. Without the battery in, a light grip causes the cover to flex to a slightly concave shape. The sliders, although mechanically solid, are slightly elevated above the keyboards with more of a gap than many other devices.
Keyboards and Displays
Both Kin handsets offer full QWERTY keyboards, a necessary component for social networking. The keys are oval shape and rounded, with excellent tactile feedback. The Kin Two offers a standard layout with straight rows and decent spacing between the keys. The reference characters could be better, as each letter or symbol is pushed to the edge of the key and sometimes difficult to recognize with a quick glance.
The Kin One keyboard layout is a bit cramped and each row follows a curve. The tight curve is difficult to get used to, especially for users accustomed to straight QWERTY rows. An imaginary line that extends from the center of the middle keys will fall directly between the first and second row at the edge of the keyboard, potentially causing frequent mistakes at first.
Most smartphones and feature phones offer some sort of spelling correction or predictive text. We were amazed to find that neither the One or Two provide a comparable system. This is shocking, considering some type of input assistance would likely benefit the type of quick messaging these handsets appear to be designed for.
If potential customers are concerned with easy readability of social networking feeds, websites, news, or other rich content, the Kin Two is a clear winner with its 480x320 LCD. The Kin interface seems to be geared toward this resolution, which easily shows small text and an array of pictures that are displayed on the social networking feeds. We did not encounter any problems with touchscreen responsiveness or accuracy during typical usage.
The Kin One slashes the screen area in half, with a tiny 320x240 LCD placed directly in the middle of the housing. While this spec might be fine for feature phones that are predominantly used for text messaging, the Kin interface becomes very difficult to deal with at such a low resolution. Social networking feeds seem to be cut off short, forcing the user to constantly scroll, while viewing websites or using multi-touch input is also frustrating.
Microsoft made a solid decision to outfit both Kins with decent cameras, especially with marketing focused on "sharing" themes. The Kin One integrates a 5 megapixel camera that also records SD video, while a single LED provides illumination. Pictures were decent, not incredible but on-par with most smartphones currently on the market.
The Kin Two features an 8 megapixel sensor capable of recording 720p HD video, which is probably the only feature that beats the vast majority of smartphones. Still photographs are a step up from the Kin One, but not a great leap. Recording HD videos shows the typical distortion and compression effects that are expected from small cameras. HD video quality matches that of the Flip lineup, although the Flips suffer from the same problems. One note to consider -- the HD videos cannot be uploaded to social networking sites directly from the handset. Only SD videos can be posted from the phone or automatically sent into the cloud for later access via the Kin Studio.
We have already covered most of the hardware differences between the Kin One and Two. Both devices might seem like they are very different from each other, however the Kin software sets both handsets far apart from any other smartphone or feature phone. The operating system is completely focused on social networking. Twitter and Facebook are not just apps on these phones, but rather the essential core of the user experience.
In essence, the Kins represent a single step up from phones solely oriented toward text messaging. Where texting handsets simply extend communication from phone calls to SMS chatter, the Kin aims to embrace the most popular social networking portals. Everything else seems to be left as a lower priority. Even the Kin browser appears to serve a single purpose of accessing Facebook or Twitter content that can't be viewed directly from the primary feeds.
In a similar way to Android or iPhone interfaces, the Kin OS is based on several screens that can be swiped left or right. One of the screens displays each of the six apps in a grid with two columns, allowing users to easily access the phone, e-mail utility, text messages, browser, camera, etc.
A quick swipe moves to the Loop screen, which aggregates updates from Facebook, Twitter, Windows Live, MySpace, and RSS feeds. All of the updates are automatically organized by time or the current 'favorites' hierarchy to populate the screen. Text information is displayed above contacts' profile pictures, which create a constantly-evolving montage of images and information.
Although the Loop screen is bubbly and unique, lending to Microsoft's youth-infused marketing, its attractiveness does not equate to usability. For a social networking phone, the social networking features are surprisingly limited and complicated. The Loop works fine if the user wants to view status posts from friends or update their own. Anything beyond simple browsing and posting, such as viewing a picture link from a Twitter post, can quickly become more complicated. Users must click on the link to open the additional content in the phone's browser. Darting back and forth between the app and browser is probably what most people are looking to avoid by purchasing a handset specifically designed for Twitter and Facebook. The browser limitation extends to a variety of other simple actions.
After digging through the settings in an attempt to find the sync frequencies, we were again surprised to find that the phone sets its own update schedule. It is unclear if the update schedule is fixed or variable based on usage. Either way, it would be nice to have control over the deluge of content that fills the Loop screen.
If users intend to browse through entire lists of updates, organized by the source, they can open the Feed Reader. Opening the Facebook feed presents updates in chronological order, with a colored bar that shows which updates have already been viewed. The utility also provides a dedicated button to manually refresh the feed. The Feed Reader provides an organized way to browse content, especially if the user is not constantly monitoring the barrage of additions to the Loop.
The third screen allows users to select their favorite contacts, which are displayed as random rectangles with pictures. This is another neat way to display content, although the OS still lacks a few simple options to make everything work as it should. Unlike smartphones that can automatically sync contacts with Gmail or other services, the Kins only allow users to gather contacts from Windows Live or the social networks. This is a pain for anyone who doesn't already use Windows Live, or those who keep their contacts elsewhere.
Another frustrating aspect is the odd rectangle sizes and lack of control over picture placement. If a user imports a contact from Facebook -- the only option aside from Windows Live -- the profile picture is automatically dropped into the contact rectangle. This results in many pictures showing only a person's hair or other random pieces of the photo. Users can manually import other pictures for each contact, however it is still surprising that the OS does not provide options for centering or zooming images.
The Kin OS also provides a Spot feature, which is essentially a clipboard for copy-and-paste functionality. A small green dot is located at the bottom of most screens, working as a drag-and-drop target as the user browses through content. When viewing a notable website, for example, users can hold the link and drag it onto the spot. After navigating back to the messaging utility, a tap on the spot presents the item or items that were added to the clipboard. Users can then drag a link, picture, or other item into an e-mail.
The Spot feature is yet another aspect of the Kin OS that adds pizzazz and looks good on demo videos, but lacks any advantage over simpler methods. In real-world testing, standard copy-and-paste functions or attachment controls provide the same functionality using quicker, more logical methods.
Kin Studio is a web-based portal that serves as an extension of the phone interface, accessible from any computer with Silverlight installed. Despite bungling the handset OS, Microsoft seems to be on the right track by deeply integrating the 'cloud' services into the mobile experience. After providing an e-mail address and password, users can access their social networking content and local media from the web-based portal. Microsoft has taken a unique approach by ensuring that all of the content is automatically synced without any manual commands or direction from the user.
The Studio interface shows the latest photos and videos that were captured on the Kin, along with any messages and a log of recent phone calls. Clicking on a pull-out menu presents the familiar Loop and a list of feeds. Aside from gathering data from the phone, Studio also allows users to update their status or upload media without leaving the interface.
A standard smartphone can easily be used to keep in touch via Twitter or Facebook, take pictures and videos, or send SMS messages and place phone calls, all while away from home. Upon arrival at a computer, however, most of the information is still on the handset. There are a variety of third-party utilities that automatically sync various types of content, but Studio takes care of everything. The portal is not yet perfect, but it shows the potential to truly facilitate a seamless transition from mobile devices to desktop computers.
The most significant considerations for anyone eying the Kin One or Kin Two will likely involve the list of things the phones can't do, rather than the array of supported capabilities. Both devices lack a slot for memory expansion, limiting media capacity to 4GB on the Kin One and 8GB on the Kin Two. Microsoft decided to integrate GPS components, however the data is only used for geotagging and not for navigation. Users cannot buy or download a navigation utility, or any other apps, because Microsoft has yet to embrace third-party development. The Kin browser is sluggish and prone to crashes, while lacking commonplace features such as tabs. Users can set alarms, but there is no calendar and no way to sync with social networking schedules or other services such as Google Sync. Perhaps most perplexing, users cannot communicate via basic instant messaging clients that are commonplace even on feature phones.
Admittedly there are numerous decent phones that lack the same functions as Microsoft's Kin duo. Verizon sells a wide variety of such devices, paired with basic monthly contracts that typically command $40/month for voice or $60/month with a text provision. The Kin feature set clearly places each device between a feature phone and a smartphone, however customers are forced to pay for Verizon's $30/month smartphone plan.
At the time of this review, new or upgrade-eligible subscribers can purchase the Kin One for $50, or the Kin Two for $100, with a two-year contract. Extending the $30/month smartphone add-on by two years equates to $720 in the long run. Even if the Kin One or Kin Two were offered for free, signing a smartphone data contract on such borderline devices is not a sensible proposition for most buyers. For the price of the Kin One, customers can also choose between the Palm Pre Plus and Droid Eris. Both devices offer a range of capabilities much wider than either Kin.
While many smartphones are more expensive than feature phones from a hardware standpoint, major carriers cite data usage as the primary factor behind the higher contract pricing. In this respect, the Kin One and Kin Two -- constantly uploading to the cloud -- would likely show average data usage on-par with most smartphones.
The Kin One and Kin Two are not terrible handsets. Both devices may quickly fade from the market, but Microsoft's concept and vision could still evolve into a successful platform. Unless Google and Apple perfect the mobile cloud strategy before Microsoft can hone its approach, the Studio feature could help bring the company back into the game. In the meantime, Microsoft's mobile division apparently still struggles to solidify a new identity after the downfall of Windows Mobile.