Microsoft KIN ONE and TWO Review

11
Introduction and Design
These phones are available with Verizon Wireless.

Introduction:

The death of the long Sidekick line of handsets aimed at the hip, young, and connected individuals brought on the birth of Microsoft's foray into the market of manufacturing their own set of devices that contrasts closely to what the Sidekick tried to accomplish during its time. Microsoft has long been acquainted with the smartphone market, but now that Windows Phone 7 is expected to revamp things for the company later on in the year, it's going to be interesting to see how Microsoft's KIN devices will be able to attract customers – especially when it targets one specific demographic. Despite knowing its heavy focus on bringing social networking to the extreme on these handsets, KIN is able to stir up a new concept with the cloud based KIN Studio which offers owners a haven to experience the happenings in their daily lives. This isn't the first time we've seen devices mesh some social networking aspects, such as MOTOBLUR and webOS's Synergy, but it's safe to say that it seamlessly blends everything into a singular experience that removes some of the hassles of juggling multiple accounts. Naturally KIN greets us by saying “nice to meet you,” but will owners ultimately say the same after checking it out?
 
The Microsoft KIN package contains:
•    Microsoft KIN ONE or TWO
•    Quick Start Guide
•    Wall Charger
•    microUSB Cable
•    Stereo Headset
•    Product Safety & Warranty Guide

Design:

Without any major changes in design since the first leaked images of the two “Project Pink” devices came into fruition, the Microsoft KIN TWO isn't ground breaking in terms of design. Interestingly enough, it has a stark resemblance from afar with the Palm Pre, but we notice that it's slightly better built all around and the materials look to be more durable. The feel and look of the handset's form factor is typical of what we would've expected, but it does feel rather noticeably heavier (4.7 oz) than its smaller brother. By no means does it try to beat out the slim look of the QWERTY-packing Motorola DROID, but rather, it's your normal looking device that blends into your pockets without adding much bulk (0.75” thick). Although it's mainly constructed out of plastic, the acrylic layer around the touchscreen makes it feel sturdier and less prone to scratching, but it's also a magnet for the usual finger prints and smudges. The rear cover has a subtle soft touch feel to it and tastefully repels most of the moisture from our hands while holding it.



You can compare the Microsoft KIN TWO with many other phones using our Size Visualization Tool.

The easiest distinction that the KIN TWO has over its brother is its 3.4” HVGA touchscreen that's both spacious and pleasing to the eyes. The themed colors does well in highlighting important text on the tiles and are easily legible thanks to the higher resolution. Although there are at times some lag or delayed responses when using the touchscreen, we believe it to be related to the software as opposed to the display – fortunately though it's accurate enough to the touch. However, the glossy acrylic coating on the touchscreen makes it difficult to view what's on-screen in direct sunlight, but the automatic brightness does well in offering the most optimal viewing.

Only one hardware button adorns the face of the touchscreen and acts as the back function when pressed once, while holding it down will bring you back to the home screen; the KIN Loop. The button itself is slightly raised from the surrounding surface and wide enough with a good tactile feel to accompany it. All the other dedicated buttons can be found on the right side and are appropriatly located in the most comfortable positions except for the camera key which is awkwardly placed closer to the rear of the phone – which will require a firm grip with both hands to make sure that pressing it won't make the display move up. Thankfully the volume rocker and power button have a decent push to them, but we can't say the same for the camera button. Centered on the top edge of the phone is the standard 3.5mm headset jack while on the opposite bottom side there is a small opening for the microUSB port. The rear cover prominently displays the KIN name and the 8-megapixel auto-focus camera with LED flash while the notches on the left corners hide the speaker. Finally, removing the cover will only give you access to the 1390 mAh battery.




Of all the areas on the phone, the QWERTY landscape keyboard is the only thing to pay homage to the Sidekick with its similarly-looking circular sized buttons. As much as we liked to use the Sidekick LX's keyboard, we can't say the same for the KIN TWO. Although they're slightly raised and easily differentiated from one another thanks to some spacing in between each key, they felt somewhat stiff for the most part and made us wonder if the phone recognized our presses. Numbers are located on the top row and require the press of the dedicated single green button located on the bottom left area, but it would've been helpful if another one was located on the other side to alleviate the awkward position of fingers while typing. Additionally, the space button only has a distinct feel towards the left or right sides of it – hitting it squarely on the middle gives it that double push feel. We feel as though the real estate left unused on the QWERTY could've been used to add a few additional buttons to round out the experience.


Not to be outdone by the better specs seen on the KIN TWO, the other half of Microsoft's tandem makes a larger impression in the design department. We were thoroughly surprised holding the hockey puck sized KIN ONE for the first time because it felt relatively compact and uniquely throws a bone to customers with its deceptively decent looks. Constructed out of the same plastic materials, which makes it feel light weight (3.9 oz), it is also accompanied with the acrylic layer for the touchscreen portion of the phone and the same somewhat soft touch material for the rear. Although it feels sturdy in the closed position, opening it however, we could feel that the mechanism that holds the two pieces in place felt a bit wiggly; just like the original Palm Pre. Despite that shortcoming, it doesn't take away from its eye catching looks.



You can compare the Microsoft KIN ONE with many other phones using our Size Visualization Tool.

Following it's “shrunken” design, the hardware specs follow suit as the 2.6” QVGA touchscreen is perfectly center aligned to the handset – where its attention is most prominent. Considered as being quaint by some of the high resolution displays out there, it's more than fitting with the KIN ONE's compact nature – although it's noticeable that the image quality is not as detailed as on the KIN TWO. The same acrylic layer is again overlaying the touchscreen which makes it difficult at times in viewing the display in direct sunlight. In addition, it's prone to the usual set of problems of attracting dirt and smudges that can tarnish its pristine glossy looks. Moreover, it's small real estate does pose a problem when trying to make out text on-screen as they are a bit hazy and don't have the fine details with the KIN TWO.

The hardware button below the touchscreen acts similarly with the one on the KIN TWO as it's used as the back/home key – and it has that similar button feel to it. The left side of the phone houses the microUSB port while the well sized volume rocker is placed on the left corner of the phone. Conversely on the right edge of the phone are the dedicated power and camera button – the latter of the two is again located closer to the back of the phone and makes for some awkward finger placements when trying to press on it. You'll find the 3.5mm headset jack on the top side with a small notch for the speaker phone right next to it. Thankfully the 5-megapixel auto-focusing camera with LED flash is placed towards the top right area of the rear so that there's enough distance from the shutter key to prevent any fingers from moving into its view. Finally, the 1240mAh battery can be accessed by removing the back cover.


Surprisingly, we were impressed by the KIN ONE's portrait style QWERTY keyboard which is probably more usable than the one of the KIN TWO. Slightly more oval looking buttons are used instead which doesn't make it feel too cramped thanks to the full utilization of the real estate of the phone. They're also slightly raised from the surface and offers a tiny bit better tactile feel over the KIN TWO. However, the same problem still plagues it because there is only a single green button, which acts as the function key, that slightly hinders the overall speed typing experience. At the same time, we did notice the same double push feel with the space button if it is hit squarely on the center – but with some practice, it becomes less of an issue.



Microsoft KIN ONE 360 Degrees View:




Microsoft KIN TWO 360 Degrees View:





Interface:

Sure the hardware may not be the most eye-catching or innovative out there, but KIN's true power is found in the software running on the phones. With the clear indication of “Windows Phone” stamped on the back of the two devices, KIN has an interesting user interface that takes some of its design cues that are noticeably found in Windows Phone 7. Naturally, KIN is geared to play host to the needs of individuals who rely heavily on social networking web sites – and it does in fact offer an experience that is robust with its integration. Powered by the Tegra APX2600 processor on both the KIN ONE and KIN TWO, the navigation experience is still sometimes littered with subtle hints of lag – but nothing to the point making it unbearable. Throughout the interface, there is a specific color theme in use in almost every application you use – fortunately there are four options to choose from in the settings menu, but it requires a restart on the phone to apply it.




There are three panels to switch between on the homescreen – these are the apps, “Loop”, and favorites panels. Everything on the interface is laid out in panels that are starkly separated by prominent borders – which strangely enough makes it look like you're reading a comic book more than anything. The Apps panel offers you all the simple core apps on the phone which are nothing short of typical on most phones, but is noticeably lacking even some of the native ones seen on feature phones – such as a calculator, timer, or tip calculator. On the other hand, you can find apps that get you into the browser, email, messages, camera, music, feed reader, contacts and alarm.


The “Loop” panel is where the phone miraculously aggregates content from your chosen favorites which include Myspace, Facebook, Twitter, Windows Live, and RSS updates. The basis of the “Loop” is to keep you connected with those individuals you actually care about; as opposed to those random friends on Facebook that you rarely talk to. Although you'll be able to change your Facebook status or tweet something on Twitter by simply typing it in the box at the top of the “Loop” panel, there is no way to reply to a friend's tweet. On the other hand, you can reply to a Facebook comment and view all the associated comments to the posting – which clearly shows that Facebook is deeply more integrated out of all the social networking sites KIN supports. Sadly though, KIN automatically chooses what items will be displayed on the “Loop” panel without the ability to specifically choose which friends' posts will be displayed unless manually checking under the RSS Feeds app.

Finally we are left with the Favorites panel that enables you to choose out of the hundred or thousands of friends you may have and allows KIN to seamlessly pull information from their associated social networking accounts onto the phone. Selecting a person on one of the tiles brings up their information that is locally stored on the device while swiping to the right will display their separate social networking accounts – which essentially beats having to open up the browser to check out their profile. We find it simple and all encompassing that manages to wrap up the social networking experience simply by offering the convenience factor.



Phone Contacts:

Now this can be the tricky part with the KIN UI as it pulls your contacts from you social networking accounts. Unlike Synergy on webOS that intelligently combines contacts stored on different accounts into the same person, you'll have to manually link contacts to make sure there aren't duplicates of the same person in your contacts. With so much emphasis on the seamless experience, it does paint a sore eye when the KIN is unable to do this by itself. Thankfully you can view contacts from each of the social networking accounts you may have on the phone – swiping to the right will display Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, and Windows Live. Additionally, you can manually input a contact on the phone which allows for the usual set of information to be included – such as address, emails, birthdays, and notes.




Organizer:

Almost an unimaginable thing to see on a phone nowadays, KIN doesn't offer even a native calendar app – the only thing remotely close to it is the date and time being displayed on the phone. Granted it does offer support for Microsoft Exchange, we noticed a bug conflicting with the phone as it synced contacts stored in Exchange – it seems as though the phone doesn't like mixing your social networking accounts with Exchange as we noticed that content from our favorites started to not sync properly on the “Loop” panel. Lastly, the only other remote app associated with the functionality of an organizer is the alarm which simply is your standard thing found on just about any phone. With no app store in tow, it'll be difficult to see how Microsoft plans on keeping things fresh on KIN.



Messaging:

Now one of the highlights of KIN is the ability to share stuff with people – and it is best highlighted when it comes to messaging. Although the core text messaging app is just about simple at its core, you won't have any problems whipping out a text message and include content like pictures or videos with it. The Kin Spot, which is a green colored orb that is generally located towards the bottom of the screen, allows you to quickly share content to multiple contacts. For example, you can start dragging the grids of specific friends from the Favorites Panel into the KIN Spot. After you complete choosing all of the people you want to include in a mass text message, you can click the KIN spot which shows you all of the people who are going to receive the message. Another example is the ability to share a web page, Facebook posting, and tweet to anyone you throw into the KIN Spot. It's a neat concept that quickly gives you the ability to share content to multiple people without all of the hassle.


Email through the popular providers is a simple process to set up on the phone as it generally requires the email address and password to automatically set up. One thing that really caught our attention was KIN's inability to choose which email account we had set up on the phone to reply to a message. For example, after receiving an email in our Hotmail account, you couldn't reply back using another email account like Yahoo.



Connectivity & Internet:

If you're hooked on any of the social networking web sites featured on KIN, then you'll be glad to find yourself rarely relying on the web browser. Even though it's constantly in tune with the Verizon Wireless network, pages load up painfully slowly with each picture popping up one by one from top to bottom. Naturally this doesn't compare to the swift experience found on some of the premier web browsers out there, but insult is added by not including the ability to open pages in new windows – so hitting the back button will make you cringe in disappointment. Although you can zoom in/out with pinching gestures, the browser is also slow to render images and text to the specific zoom level. One bright spot was the smooth scrolling experienced once pages were fully loaded – we wouldn't recommend to navigate a site while it's still downloading. Finally adding the nails to the coffin for the experience is the glaring inability to play YouTube videos on the phone – something that even some basic phones can handle. All in all, KIN's focus on social networking is wonderful to say the least and does a great job in having you to rarely launch the web browser, but it's riddled with a poor showing on just everything else.





Camera:

Starting up the camera application is simple by just pressing down on the shutter key or launching the camera app from the Apps Panel. What we're greeted to is a simple interface that is extremely bare when it comes to icons that won't clutter the display. With above average cameras in use with the KIN ONE and KIN TWO, it's almost unusual to see few options to fine tune the photographing experience. The only options you can change are the resolutions, modes, and lighting conditions. Although having to awkwardly adjust your hand because of the placement of the shutter keys on both phones, the picture quality was surprisingly good. Slightly pressing down the shutter will allow it to focus and pressing all the way will take the shot – the same can be accomplished by pressing the camera icon on the display.


The KIN ONE was able to produce some good shots that were filled with natural colors and good detail in them to make out some fine things. Touted for its superior LED flash, it did little in illuminating our indoor shots as it was most optimal from a distance of approximately 4 feet away. Conversely, taking shots any closer than that would generally result in over-exposed images.



Seeing that the KIN TWO offers an 8-megapixel camera, we were delighted to see that images were meticulously replicated to an almost stark similarity. There is plenty of detail in the photos with colors adding the perfect balance of tones to make just about any outdoor shot in good lighting look like a work of art. Just line the KIN ONE, the KIN TWO fared the best with its LED flash from about 4 feet from the object. Otherwise, moving closer will produce overexposed images while overall image quality in indoor settings was of course darker than anything else. Still, we were impressed by how well photos came out with the KIN TWO.



By default, both devices are set to shoot videos in “email quality,” so you'll have to manually switch it to high quality in the settings. However, it's worth noting that it requires a manual sync via USB connection to get videos captured in the highest resolution, while “email quality” videos are wirelessly synced to the KIN Studio. Thanks to its inclusion of image stabilization, the KIN ONE's videos are steady when abruptly moving the device. Detail was good enough in the capture while the frame rate was smooth. For something compact as the KIN ONE, it's nice to see that it can take a decent video that'll surely be good enough for saving precious memories.

Microsoft KIN ONE sample video at 640x480 pixels resolution

Sporting the ability to shoot 720p video, the KIN TWO is considered in the upper echelon of devices in the video capturing arena. Even though image stabilization aids in the process of shooting video, it doesn't automatically focus in on objects – so things placed up close will still look out of focus. Despite having a decent quality in the captured video, it doesn't flow as smoothly as what the KIN ONE offers, but it's nonetheless more than adequate in getting the job done right the first time around.

Microsoft KIN TWO sample video at 1280x720 pixels resolution

Multimedia:

You can actually pull up the gallery of media taken by the phone by simply swiping to the right when the camera interface is up. Displayed in a grid-style manner, images and videos can all be previewed from the interface. Although it may not be fancy, you still have the fine elements of swiping left to right for navigation, pinch gestures to zoom in/out, and the ability to upload them to specific social networking accounts.

The KIN ONE's 2.6” QVGA does little in watching videos on its relatively small screen, but fortunately there is no lag associated in its playback. In order to get videos on the device, you'll have to sync it first with the Zune Player. Unfortunately, it took an extreme amount of time as the software converted a one minute video we had shot in 1080p onto the phone. Luckily, it was still playable and more than enough in getting a decent experience in watching videos on the KIN ONE.

Thanks to the detailed screen of the KIN TWO, videos looked stellar and played back with no lag whatsoever. In addition, colors were just amazing thanks to the crisp display and we found that it didn't struggle in playing back any videos. Between the two devices, it is obvious that the KIN TWO clearly has the advantage in the video playback department.

Naturally the solid Zune integration of KIN allows for a music experience that can supplant itself as being the best out there. Selecting the “Music & More” app in the Apps Panel, you'll be greeted to the standard Zune interface that substantially differentiates itself from just about any other music players out there. Broken down into four options, navigating between any one of them is a swift experience that's accompanied with fancy transition effects to show off some of its graphical prowess. When playing a specific song, it'll display the album cover, song title, and artist – while the on-screen functions like forward and reverse can be accessed by simply touching any part of the display. We thoroughly checked out Zune Pass which allows for unlimited streaming of songs via 3G connections and were happy with its overall performance in quickly playing a tune. In the event you don't have a connection to the network or Wi-Fi coverage, you can download a song from their huge library and have it stored locally to listen to it later. Sounds from the KIN ONE's speaker and KIN TWO were just about the same – there were sharp tones when set to the loudest setting with some faint crackling sounds every now and then.


Almost sad as it may, but there is no support for YouTube videos to be found on KIN – even visiting the mobile web site in the browser yielded to no videos being supported by the handset. Strange as it may be, it's almost unfathomable nowadays to see such a key feature blatantly missing from a device.

GPS & Software:

Now here is the interesting part about both KIN devices – they have built-in GPS, but there is no native map application to be found. Although pictures can be geo-tagged to be viewed later in the KIN Studio to see where you've taken them, you can also do the same on the handset by simply hitting the “more” button when you're checking a photo in the gallery and then selecting “map.” It'll open up the web browser and show you on Bing maps where the specific photo was taken.

Aside from the integrated social networking features that KIN has to offer, it manages to extend it thanks to the KIN Studio which is an online haven for all of your content. Any media taken on the phone will automatically get synced to the KIN Studio – these include pictures, videos, text  messages, call logs, RSS feeds, and contacts. You won't be too mad if you lose your phone due to the fact that pretty much all of your data will remain intact and can be accessed online. Once you get a new unit in, you can just log in with your KIN account and it'll automatically sync it up. We were able to have both the KIN ONE and KIN TWO connected to a singe account which made for some interesting things such as being able to take photos with both handsets and have them sync them to the KIN Studio. Although it might be seen as a saving grace, it's a requirement for you to go online and physically receive a hard copy of specific content. There just isn't an option to download photos taken from the phone and connect it via USB cable to your computer to save them. In addition, you can accomplish some of the tasks like share content with friends as there is a KIN Spot in the KIN Studio.




Performance:

Both devices fared quite well when it came to phone calling quality – there was little background noise or static to be heard on both ends. Additionally, voices were clear and distinct without any hollowness in them to muddy the experience. Switching over to the speaker phones, both devices were loud enough to make out full conversations, but there is a noticeable sharp tone whenever a word is first uttered. On the KIN ONE though, we did notice that voices on the speaker phone sounded a bit muffled – plus it didn't sound as loud as we would've liked it to be. On the other hand, the KIN TWO did produce better sounds on the loudest setting and we rarely found it to strain.

Microsoft intended for these KIN devices to last you a decent weekend before requiring a charge. As we had both phones set to the automatic brightness setting, we were impressed by how well the KIN ONE put up in the battery life department – after one solid day of heavy usage, its battery life was at a steady 75%. Unfortunately we can't say the same for the KIN TWO with its larger touchscreen display – which could be the culprit in its poor battery life. We managed to get a solid day in using the device extensively, but it notified us to connect it to the charger by the end of the day. The KIN ONE is rated for 210 hours of standby time while 232 hours for the KIN TWO.

Conclusion: 

If there is anything going for KIN, it has to be its tight integration of social networking that envelops users to take notice of its keen strengths in that department. First of all, the KIN ONE is quite a compelling piece of hardware which can be attributed to its hockey puck looks, but we feel it is more suitable for sending a plethora of messages thanks to its good QWERTY keyboard. Conversely the KIN TWO is the better device for those who'd prefer some more impressive specs, but lacks a decent QWERTY to get the task of sending messages. Even though there are faint similarities between KIN and Windows Phone 7, the question that remains unanswered is why would someone go with this over the all encompassing features of Microsoft's next platform? Sure it does a swell job in quickly getting you in contact with the people you care about the most by easily sharing a myriad of content with them, but its lack of depth in being a well balanced platform makes it stand below some of its feature phone counterparts – specifically the lack of organizer functions, YouTube, IM, and some generic apps. Although it would be a nightmare for Microsoft to just stop the experience now and how it currently stands, we bet that in time there will be additional updates to the KIN platform to make it stand toe-to-toe with some of the elites out there. Moreover, it's pricing plays a pivotal role in how it'll become adopted by consumers. Despite the fact that both phones are priced below $100, it makes it one hard purchase to consider with the knowledge of some pretty decent smartphones encroaching on its turf. Having in mind you'll have to pay for a monthly data package of at least $30, we believe that there are better alternatives to the KINs right now, such as the cheaper Palm Pre and Pixi, which are smartphones and have much, much greater functionality. And if you don't mind adding some more cash to your initial purchase, we wouldn't hesitate to recommend you getting the Android 2.1-powered HTC Droid Incredible or Motorola DROID, which are incomparably better devices. However, if smartphones are not your cup of tea today and you only want to access Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter, the KIN ONE and TWO will do the job by  providing a constant feed to your favorite accounts – which is basically what they are all about.

Note: We have chosen an overall rating of 7 for both devices. Both have their strong and weak sides, so we believe that which one is best for you depends purely on personal preference.

Microsoft KIN ONE

Pros:
•    Compact form factor
•    Good QWERTY keyboard
•    Great battery life

Cons:
•    Placement of the shutter key
•    Poor speaker phone

Microsoft KIN TWO

Pros:
•    Solidly built
•    Detailed display
•    Great photo quality

Cons:
•    Stiff keys on QWERTY
•    Placement of the shutter key
•    Poor battery life




PhoneArena Rating:

7.0

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