Review: Is Microsoft’s Kin One as good as a smartphone?


Microsoft’s Kin phones are now available for pre-order on Verizon and I’ve been playing around with the Kin One for a while. Unlike the other reviews you may have seen we did the crazy thing and actually used it in real life for more than a few hours. With its unique design, solid software and cheap price, the Kin One is an interesting device. But did Microsoft sacrifice too much in order to appease the “upload generation” and is it better than a full-fledged smartphone? Can I get through the review without a lame “Kin” pun? Read on after the jump for an thorough review, friends.

Verizon Microsoft Kin One
Available now for $49.99 with new 2-year contract

Pros:

  • Unique, polarizing design that I found endearing.
  • Kin Studio is a great way to keep track of your photos.
  • Good battery life.
  • Strong cloud device overall.

Cons:

  • It’s not a full-fledged smartphone and I hit the limitations quickly.
  • The screen is way too small.
  • Good photo device but this is ruined by the awkward placement of shutter button.
  • Plastic finish feels a bit cheap.

Hardware specifications / Spec-sheet overview

  • Tegra APX2600 CPU
  • 2.6-inch QVGA capacitive touchscreen at 320 x 240 resolution
  • 5-megapixel camera with LED flash
  • 3G data
  • WiFi
  • GPS
  • 4 GB of internal storage
  • Bluetooth (Stereo (A2DP), Handsfree, Headset, Phonebook Access)
  • Windows Phone


Hardware

When we first got the Kin One, a Microsoft representative described it as the “device to get your fix” and that’s fairly accurate. Right away, the design of the Kin One pops out because it’s so odd. I saw the specs and photos but I was still taken aback by how small this thing is. It is a rounded vertical slider that measures in at 3.25″ x 2.5″ x .75″ – You can think of it as a squished-down Palm Pre and it shares some similarities to Motorola’s old Pebl line. It’s definitely a polarizing design. I like to pull the bar test with any phone I’m reviewing – whip it out at your local watering hole and see if there’s any reaction. This thing did draw a lot of attention. The gals seemed to like it and think it’s cute but the brochachos gave a few puzzled looks. Take that however you want to.

The handset’s made by Sharp and it feels decent in the hand but there’s a cheap plastic finish. For $50, I guess you shouldn’t expect the world in terms of fit and finish but I would have liked a bit more polish. Internally, there’s a Tegra APX2600 processor, 4 GB of internal storage, WiFi, 3G, Bluetooth, GPS, 3.5 mm headset jack and all the goodies you’d expect from a device like this. It feels a little underpowered, though, as I noticed lag flipping through the screens and apps. This isn’t a huge deal but it was a bit annoying. There’s also a back button on the face that works system-wide: hit the button once to go back and hold it to go to the home screen.

The 2.6-inch screen is way too small for the type of operating system that Microsoft is trying to push (more on that below). It’s relatively responsive to touch and you can do multitouch controls. It’s bright, clear and better than most feature phones but it’s hard to handle when you know amazing screens are being put on devices like the Samsung Galaxy S and EVO 4G. That may not be a big problem for the target demographic of this handset, however. Unlike its older brother, there’s no accelerometer on the Kin One but it would be kind of pointless to use that tiny screen sideways.

Once you slide up the screen, you’re greeted with a mostly good keyboard. I like the spacing of the keys, the responsiveness and feedback of the buttons and the dedicated search, emoticon keys. The main beef is that there’s no intelligence to the keyboard software. Maybe I’m too lazy/busy, but I want some form of auto-correcting when I’m typing. BlackBerry fans know how much better it is to have a hard keyboard with software that will automatically capitalize and add apostrophes. The Kin One lacks this and it takes me longer to write clear messages on this than it would on a Droid or soft keyboard (there’s no software keyboard on this phone). Maybe the upload generation doesn’t care about this – I mean, how important is punctuation for “u gna b l8?” These kids, I tell you …


Software

This device was made for the social networking/upload generation. Microsoft took many bold choices with the Kin’s proprietary OS and I like their vision, but don’t think it’s executed well. First of all, it’s technically a Windows Phone but it’s not a Windows Phone 7 device. That means the Kin doesn’t have access to the Windows Marketplace for Mobile but we may see some apps pushed to the device in the future, the software giant said.

As you can see from the video below, setupis a breeze. You simply pump in your Windows Live ID and you’re off and running. If you don’t have one, you can use any e-mail but this leads to a little confusion – if you use a Gmail account, it will create a Windows Live ID with that e-mail but won’t sync that account’s e-mail and contacts. Fortunately, setting up your e-mail accounts is very quick. The bread and butter of this device is social networking, so you can integrate your Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, Windows Live and Outlook contacts with your address book. In fact, if you don’t care about the services above, you should forget the Kin entirely because the experience it directly tied to these online networks.

The user interface is very visually and touch oriented. You swipe left and right to find your contacts and apps, while your main home screen is filled with something called Kin Loop. This pulls in your friends’ Facebook, Twitter, etc. updates and plasters it on your page. Like MotoBlur, this is a good idea but it fails due to the small screen size and fundamentally misses on how I interact with my social networks. For example, I don’t want the constant updates from Twitter on my home screen. I love the service (cheap plug: follow me @marinperez) but there’s definitely too much junk on it and I don’t want that cluttering up my phone’s main screen. You can tailor Loop by adding your favorite contacts but it’s still too much of a mess on this small screen. I do like the ability to update to multiple social networks directly from the home screen, though.

Kin Spot is also a neat idea that also isn’t as good in practice. There’s a pervasive green spot at the bottom of the screen that you can drag nearly any content on to share with your friends. If you want to share a web page, you just long press the page and drag it down. Then, you go into your favorites screen and drag the contacts you want to share that page with and drag it into the Spot. You’ll have the option to share with your friends via MMS, text or e-mail (it can send a link and a thumbnail of the web page you’re sharing – neato!). Did those last few sentences seem a bit convoluted? Well, that’s because it’s a rather cumbersome process. It’s very visually-appealing process but it takes longer than it should. I have things to do – I just want to share content quickly and sometimes menus and lists work faster.

The contacts integration is well done, as it will pull in your friend’s Facebook photo for the picture and you can easily associate Twitter accounts with friends. Once you dive into a contact, you can swipe left and right to see what they’ve said on each social network.

The absolute best thing about the Kin One is the cloud-based nature of it. Don’t worry about the puny 4 GB of storage because your photos and videos will automatically be uploaded to the cloud and the Zune Pass brings millions of songs to your fingertips – I’ll dive into the greatness of this in the camera/media section below. Your contacts are also backed up so you can easily transition to another Windows Phone if you lose your Kin One.

I like a lot of things about this OS but it’s fundamentally screwed because it’s not a smartphone platform. Microsoft will tell you the demographic it’s seeking is more interested in being connected with friends than the abilities of the platform, but this is wrong. The upload generation wants to share content easily with their friends but they also want to download a game or see what all the fuss is about that hot new app. It gives you a taste of the smartphone world but you quickly run into the limitations. Check out the video below for a walk through of the Kin software (Will’s using a Kin Two in the video, but it’s the same software).


Web browsing, multimedia, camera and video

The Kin One’s browser is based on Mobile Internet Explorer 6 and it’s pretty solid. IntoMobile comes up quickly, as do the standard sites I visit, although it did chug along when hit with heavy duty JavaScript. The multitouch means you can do pinch to zoom and you’ll definitely need it because the tiny screen makes reading sites a pain. Again, it’s a solid browser but the screen’s too small to do much mobile surfing.

The 5-megapixel camera is pretty good at still shots and there’s also a bright flash and auto-focusing. The problem is that the shutter button is oddly placed on top of the device, which means it’s very easy to get one of your fingers in the way of the shot. I do appreciate that you can use the volume rocker to zoom in and out and video recording was clear when I recorded things without too much movement.

I talked about how this is a cloud-centric device above and this is perfectly executed with Kin Studio, which backs up your photos and videos to an online gallery. The interface for Kin Studio is nice and inviting, and it organizes your photos in a time line. You can view your pictures by days, weeks or months and each photo can be geo-tagged and overlaid on a map. If your device is running low on memory, it will delete photos that have already been backed up. I can’t stress enough how groovy this is – Microsoft should be applauded for this type of service and I would look for all the major players to offer something similar soon.

This is the first handset with Zune media software on it and, unsurprisingly, it acts like a Zune HD. The UI is great and it makes for a solid mobile music experience. It can play multiple types of audio and video files (again, the tiny screen makes this useless for videos), and there’s also a built-in FM radio. The Kin One is also capable of using the Zune Pass, which gives you unlimited streaming of millions of songs and 10 MP3 downloads a month for about $15 a month. This kicks all sorts of behind. As a cheapskate, I’m not sure if I’d shell out that much a month for tunes, but it is a great experience.


Call quality and battery life

I had absolutely no problems with call quality on the Kin One. Voices sounded clear, had the proper volume and I had no problem getting consistent voice and data service in the San Francisco Bay Area. Oddly, there’s no call button on the home page, as you either have to scroll to the left or use the hard call button at the bottom row of the keyboard. I noticed some chatter on Twitter saying the Kin One doesn’t play nice with some conference calls, but I had no problem with systems recognizing the numbers I was inputting. They also hide the battery and signal strength icons under a menu, which can be a blessing or curse depending on your tastes.

The Kin One has a 124 mAh battery and Microsoft’s said the goal is to have it run for a whole weekend without having to be plugged in. It’s not quite that good but it is loads better than I’m used to with smartphones. I got through nearly two whole days without charging it and that’s not bad. The battery does tend to get hot when you’re furiously tweeting or whatever, so be aware of that.


The final take: You Kin do it?

It’s impossible to look at the Kin One or Two without factoring in the amount Verizon will charge. You have to buy a $30 monthly plan on top of voice service in order to use the Kin One, which places it squarely in competition with devices like the Droid and Droid Incredible. There are some interesting ideas and concepts with this phone and I completely adore the Kin Studio and cloud-centric nature of the device. While the Kin One is leaps and bounds better than a standard feature phone, the lack of an app store, small screen and unneeded limitations means there is no reason to buy this handset over a real smartphone.

  • Mark Evanier

    Wow, never seen these before. News from me.

  • http://twitter.com/Yofa_Kurnia Yofa Kurnia

    Where can I buy it? how much it costs if the Indonesian rupiah? thank you,,,,

  • http://twitter.com/Yofa_Kurnia Yofa Kurnia

    Where can I buy it? how much it costs if the Indonesian rupiah? thank you,,,,

  • http://twitter.com/Yofa_Kurnia Yofa Kurnia

    Where can I buy it? how much it costs if the Indonesian rupiah? thank you,,,,

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