Make no mistake: the Kin One and Two are coming into the world as the black sheep of the phone industry, and Microsoft would have it no other way. Straddling the fence somewhere between a dedicated smartphone and high-spec featurephone, they've been tricky to understand since the day they were first leaked (even Microsoft seemed unsure of what the devices meant until very recently). Billed as a Gen-Y (the "upload generation") social networking tool -- and sold in advertisements as the gateway to the time of your young, freewheeling life -- the Kin phones have admittedly been something of head-scratcher to those of us in the gadget world. Built atop a core similar (but not identical) to the Windows Phone 7 devices coming later this year, manufactured by Sharp, and tied into partnerships with Verizon and Vodafone, the phones dangerously preempt Microsoft's reemergence into the smartphone market. Hell, they're even called Windows Phones. But the One and Two aren't like any Windows Phones you've ever seen. With stripped-down interfaces, deep social networking integration, and a focus on very particular type of user, Microsoft is aiming for something altogether different with Kin. So do these devices deliver on that unique, social experience that Redmond has been selling, or does this experiment fall flat? We've taken both handsets for a spin, and we've got all the answers in our full review... so read on to find out!

Kin One and Two review

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Microsoft

Kin One

Pros

  • Hardware keyboard
  • Unique design
  • Kin Studio cloud-based syncing

Cons

  • Horrible, uneven, and buggy UI
  • Lack of applications, even IM
  • Data plan pricing too high for phone of this class
Summary

Microsoft

Kin Two

Pros

  • Decent hardware keyboard
  • 720p video recording
  • Kin Studio cloud syncing

Cons

  • Uneven and buggy UI
  • Lack of applications, even IM
  • Data plan pricing too high for phone of this class
Summary



Hardware


The Kin One and Two should look a little familiar -- they come off like mutated cousins of the Palm Pre. The One is short and squat, sort of disc shaped, with a smaller display that slides down into the center of the handset; the Two, meanwhile, is a larger, elongated device with a wide landscape keyboard. Both devices feature capacitive touchscreen displays (a 2.6-inch, 320 x 240 QVGA screen on the One and a 3.4-inch, 480 x 320 HVGA version for the Two) with thick, plastic coatings. Around the sides, the phones both feature the same complement of buttons: volume rockers, a dedicated camera key, a sleep / power button, plus a "back" button on the lower faces of the devices. The phones use a standard 3.5mm headphone jack, take micro-USB cables, and have cameras equipped with LED flashes on their backs.

From an industrial design standpoint, there isn't a lot that's laudable here -- but there's also not too much to complain about. As we said, the designs themselves don't feel tremendously original, but the company is ripping off good material. The One has a little more character than the Two, largely due to its uncommon size and use of the rarely-seen portrait slider mechanism. It's also got a little color highlight (well, white) around the screen when it's closed, giving it a kind of 60's Formica countertop feel that we like. Both handsets do seem a little iffy on the build quality; the slider mechanisms feel fine, but there are lots of open spaces and notches that make the devices seem less rugged than we would prefer -- the Pre and the G1 have that same problem. On the Two, the display is coated with a thicker plastic element that almost melts around the edges, giving it a dipped-in-shellac appearance that's refreshingly retro.

Both phones have slide-out hardware keyboards -- a welcome sight. The One seemed a bit mushier to our thumbs, and the extreme curve of the keyboard made typing a little more of a challenge. The Two has a much clickier and pleasant keyboard, though the narrowness of the keys might be troubling for users with larger hands. The keyboards were both usable, but we do take issue with the lettering, which is difficult to read because it runs off of the sides of the individual keys. Also, the special characters are quite difficult to see, and on the software side, there is zero text correction or prediction, even for simple words like "isn't." You're on your own here.

In your hand, both devices feel light but not without substance, and the matte material used on the backing is pleasant enough to the touch. Neither one of these phones is going to stop you in your tracks when you see it, but the designs are also quite approachable and likable, so points go to Microsoft on that.

Internals

Both the One and the Two sport the Tegra APX2600 CPU -- the same as in the Zune HD, so you've got plenty of horsepower -- and have 256MB of DDR RAM on-board. The One has a paltry 4GB of storage for your pics, music, and video, while the Two ups the game to 8GB... which still isn't hugely competitive. Neither of the devices support microSD, so if you were planning on some memory expansion, look elsewhere. The devices have light and proximity sensors, an accelerometer, and GPS chips inside, along with 802.11b/g, EvDO Rev. A, and Bluetooth 2.1 (which supports A2DP and AVRCP profiles). In our testing, we didn't see any remarkable performance out of the Tegra chips, though we'd bet dollars to donuts that they're running a little less hot so the phones can suck a little more life out of these batteries (1240 mAh for the One, and 1390 mAh for the Two). Overall, you won't be shocked by the performance or specs of these devices, but you shouldn't feel cheated either -- the Kins are fairly modern phones as far as the guts are concerned.

Displays

The Kin One and Two don't have particularly notable displays, though they get the job done well enough. Thanks to the light sensors in the phones, when you first boot up you'll find yourself in auto brightness mode, which for us was way, way too dim. Digging down we eventually found a way to switch to manual settings (more on that in a little bit). The display on the One was about as squashed as you'd expect it to feel. Luckily for Microsoft, there's not a lot of content being pushed at any one time, but we still felt like we were squinting every time we had to try to make out text on the screen. It's not just low resolution -- the pixel density doesn't seem too tight either. On the Two things felt a little better. Again, the Kin UI doesn't really need a lot of space, but it's nice to have more room, especially when it comes to dealing with email. Both of the displays seemed a bit washed out to us, and colors weren't quite as vibrant as we would have liked.

The touch sensitivity of the screens seemed up to snuff with their smartphone contemporaries. We did experience a few moments of sluggishness or unresponsiveness, though we're certain that that has a lot more to do with the software than the hardware. Pinch-to-zoom and other familiar gestures (like lots of swiping) generally went off without a hitch; touch response was definitely improved from when we'd first played with the phones, and it gives us hope that the Windows Phone 7 experience will be even better. The Kin displays work and look fine for the most part, but we didn't walk away feeling stunned by the screens.

Camera

Now Microsoft has been making a big deal out of the cameras on these phones, having equipped the One with a 5 megapixel shooter, and the Two with an 8 megapixel version that does... wait for it... 720p video. Why HD video might be important to the teen audience the company seems to be trying to appeal to here is anyone's guess, but we digress. We want to stress that the Kin ads show off a lot of heavy camera use, so we get the impression that the company intends picture taking to be a big part of how Kin users utilize their phones. So how are these memory-capturing tools when put to the test? Honestly... not very good. For starters, just the act of trying to take a photo with the hardware buttons on these phones is really quite uncomfortable; somehow, both the One and Two seem to force your hand into a position where you're blocking the lens with a finger or two. Once you do get a grip you like, pressing that button yields inconsistent results. On the One, it's usually good for taking a picture after a firm press, but sometimes there's no reaction at all, while on the Two, it tends to focus in and out and then never snap a photo. We had to press unreasonably hard on the key, and the results were usually marred by the movement of the camera... which was a result of pressing too hard.

Kin Two camera shots

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Once we could get the phones to snap a picture, the results were mixed at best. With the flash on or set to auto, the pictures ended up almost universally blown out, sometimes just revealing themselves on review as a white blur. Both the One and Two are equipped with autofocus lenses, though the One seemed to struggle much less with focusing in on subjects. On the other hand, its images looked more washed out to us. To sum up, taking still photos with both Kin devices was a frustrating, unrewarding affair that yielded more bad than good. Perhaps if the speed gets cranked up and that flash can be tamed in a future revision, the results may improve -- but for now, the moment you'll be capturing the most is just after something really good happened. Or just a flash of light.


On the video front, things did look a little bit up, especially in the case of the Kin Two. As we mentioned, it's capable of shooting 720p video, and what we saw wasn't completely cringe-worthy. Still, there is some nasty compression going on (which you have no control over), but on a bright day, we captured some pretty handsome shots which seemed well balanced as far as colors were concerned. The One and Two have image stabilization, but it wasn't exactly cranking on overdrive, and we had some really, really troubling wind noise (as you can hear on the video). Besides those minor problems, you can safely leave the Flip at home if you've got the Two in your pocket... just know that you can't up HD video to the Kin Studio -- you have to sync them with Zune on your PC, which goes firmly against Microsoft's mantra with these products that everything you capture is instantly whisked into the cloud. More on that in a moment.

Sound quality / Speakerphone

So we'll just be straight with you here -- we didn't get the overwhelming impression that Microsoft expects you to be talking a lot on these phones. If the literature, ads, and general functionality of the One and Two tell us anything, it's that phone calls are dead, and everyone is Facebooking like it's going out of style. Whether or not that attitude had any impact on the quality of the earpiece or speakerphone here is anyone's guess... but they certainly align perfectly, in that the sound quality of the phone seems like an afterthought. The earpiece itself was decent enough, but we thought the speakerphone left quite a bit to be desired. The Kin certainly isn't the only phone out there with poor speakerphone sound though, so this really didn't come as much of a shock to us.

Software


Okay, this is the big fish. The Kin wasn't designed for early adopters of the most cutting edge hardware -- that's obvious. What it was designed to do, however, was work really well doing a couple of key tasks, most of them centered around social networking, photos and video, and some overarching concept of capturing your mobile / digital life in a whole new and easy manner. Lofty goals indeed for a product like this, and unfortunately for everyone, Microsoft misses the mark by a long shot. It's not even close.

The user interface of the Kin is laid out in a deceptively simple manner. When you first boot the phone, you're asked for a username and password and then taken to your home screen. Let's talk for a moment about that login process: you may think that the Kin, like most modern phones, would be asking you for a preexisting username and password from something like Gmail or Yahoo! so that you can pull in your email account and perhaps contacts. It certainly seems like that's what's happening when you first turn the phone on -- however, that's not the score. What's actually happening is that you're creating a Windows Live account, one which the phone uses to sync your Studio data back and forth with. You actually are never given the opportunity to add a Gmail or Yahoo! account for anything but plain vanilla email (unlike with webOS, Android, or the iPhone). Therefore, if you're a user of one of these wildly popular services, your only hope for adding your contacts is dumping a .csv file from your account, then uploading that to your Live account, then praying that somehow the magical contact fairy makes your dreams a reality. We're still waiting for our Live account to sync those contacts to our phone or Studio.

Now, back to the main phone operation. The home screen (or screens, rather) consist of three panels which you gesture left or right to get into and out of. In the center is the "Loop," where you see Twitter, MySpace, Facebook, and RSS updates; off to the right you have your favorite contacts, basically a grid of people you like talking to; on the left is your "apps" page, which contains links to your camera, browser, email, and so on. So far so good, right? In addition to your three main pages, you've got a little clock in the right hand corner at all times, as well as a "recent" tab in the left corner -- both bring up pop-up menus, the latter giving you quick access to recent applications, and the former showing you the phone's battery life status and network connections. Oh, and down in the middle of the phone is a little dot called the "Spot" -- let's try and explain what that does.

The Spot is meant to be a point on the device where you can drag all manner of content, and then share that content with friends. For instance, you might want to send a text message to a group of friends. Easy: just drag their faces onto the Spot, then click on it. You'll be taken to a page where you can send an email or an MMS or SMS message. Simple enough. You can also do more complex actions, like drag a Facebook or Twitter message, a URL, and a photo into this area, then drag your friends into the Spot and send them an email -- only an email -- with all that content. It seems like a good idea, but in practice, it makes very little sense. A video demo shown on the Kin site offers a scenario where you might drag a concert venue, a band's MySpace page, a few photos you've taken, and a friend's status update to the Spot and then send an email about going to show... but no one really works like that, and the Kin UI doesn't make it any more logical. It's actually a really cumbersome way to communicate -- dragging one abstract thing towards another abstract thing doesn't make more sense than deciding to send an email, typing a few addresses, and throwing some pictures or links into the message... it just doesn't. You can't share those kind of mixed messages on Facebook or Twitter or MySpace either -- it's strictly for email. The more complex your combos get, the harder it is to get them out. One thing we couldn't do with the Spot was share music (or even a link or snippet) from the Zune app. We wanted to drag a song to the Spot, but there is no Spot in the Zune player! So much for "the social," right?

But the obtuseness of this user experience doesn't stop with the Spot -- it permeates the entire interface as though decisions about how things should work were made almost arbitrarily, without anyone stopping to test them in the real world. The Twitter implementation is a great example of that. You can add your Twitter account to the phone and see updates from people you follow, and you can update your status from the top of the Loop... but that's all you can do. You can't retweet something, you can't send a direct message, you can't go to single person's feed to see all their updates, and you can't even open a link in a Twitter message from the Loop! To do something as simple as look at an image someone has tweeted, you must first click on the tweet, then click "open in browser," then wait for the tweet to load on twitter.com, then finally click the link to see the image or URL. It's a shocking omission for a phone which claims to be about nothing but social networking.

The basic premise of the Loop also presented problems. The idea is that you can quickly glance at all of your friends' updates and respond to them quickly, but it soon becomes a daunting task just trying to understand who is saying what. The average Facebook user has 130 friends (we tested with accounts of over 700 and 200), Twitter adds noise to the mix, MySpace compounds it... and the phone only updates every 15 non-user-adjustable minutes. Sometimes less! What happens is that you can't really keep track of any conversations, and your friends (or in our case, lots of people you don't really know) become less about their individual voices, and more about random shouts in a big crowded room. The Kin might be more appropriately called the Facebook or MySpace phone, since it seems to want to play nice with those two sites more than anything, but even when trying to comment on something on Facebook, upload a picture, or update our status, we ran into frustrating timeouts and stalls that made us want to throw the phone across the room. Overall, it's just a deeply, deeply frustrating and inconsistent experience.

Beyond the social networking aspects of the phone, we also take issue with the browser, which is abysmally slow and buggy (it consistently crashed while trying to load any complex web pages like Engadget), and the email client, which seemed to have trouble displaying even the most rudimentary HTML messages. The only real saving grace on the software side is the Zune app, which is identical to the Zune HD interface, but allows you to download music and movies over the air (yes, even over 3G), which is almost worth the price of admission. Almost, but not quite. We had some Zune issues too, like the aforementioned lack of the Spot, the fact that it only displays in portrait mode (except searches, which then forces you to do some weird rotating back and forth), and a situation with certain albums we tried to download which were "computer only" -- meaning it didn't matter if we had a Zune Pass or not. We wish we had more to say on the "other" parts of the phone, but there's just not much there. No app store, no IM client, no games, no calendar... not even visual voicemail or some carrier-hitched GPS app. Teens still play games, don't they? Microsoft says that down the road the Windows Phone and Kin ecosystems will merge, yielding software for these devices... but they may be a long wait from what we can tell.

While using the One and Two we found ourselves consistently confused or surprised by how many bad little interface problems there are. Not only does the phone make it hard to do simple tasks -- and not only are the social networking features poorly implemented -- but the handsets are often sluggish, hiccupy, and downright crash-prone. We were told by the devices on more than one occasion that we needed to restart (while performing basic tasks), and often it would just throw us a blank screen while we waited for the device to come back from whatever tragic internal situation was occurring. It would be wonderful to say more good about the phone's UI -- but we just can't.

The Studio

One aspect of this family of devices that does show a lot of promise is the Kin Studio -- essentially an online repository of all of your SMS and MMS messages, call logs, photos, videos (non-HD, one minute long clips), contacts, RSS feeds, as well as your social networking service updates. The Studio interface is all handled by Silverlight, so it's fairly robust. We can definitely see a future where not only is your phone kept backed up in this fashion, but you also have access to voicemail, email, your music and video collection, and other bits of content you want to keep accessible (something like Dropbox, but integrated). It's a great start, but of course it's hindered by the devices themselves -- it's hard to become invested in the ecosystem of the Kin phones when their actual performance is so off-putting. It should also be noted that the syncing process takes a bit of time, and you never really know when your content will be available, which is a rather annoying aspect of the whole experience we hope Microsoft corrects. You should have some control over when and how you send your photos and video to the cloud.

Battery life

Microsoft told us that its goal was for users to be able to take off for a weekend road trip with these things and leave their chargers behind. We didn't have a long time to test battery life, but in our experience both the One and the Two held up fairly well under heavy use. In particular, the One was left off the charger quite a bit, yet still managed to go for more than two days with sporadic use. We'll chalk the better performance up to that heavily controlled sync schedule (once every 15 minutes at the most).

Pricing / Wrap-up


When we first saw the Kin phones, the editors at Engadget (and lots of other folks in the industry) said that price would be the big question when it came to these phones. If they really were destined for the hands of tweens and teens, then they would have to be offered at a price that was attractive to their parents, which means something decidedly below the standard smartphone deal: a device for $100 or $200, plus a pricey data plan. There seemed to be a general sentiment that if Verizon and Microsoft could partner on something that hit a lower price point for the devices coupled with a bargain-rate data package, they just might have a foot in the door, despite the obvious limitations of the device.

Even if that were true -- if a great price could cancel out the faults of these phones (which it can't) -- Microsoft and Verizon have failed there as well. The One and Two are being offered for $49.99 and $99.99 respectively after a $100 mail-in rebate... and they must be coupled with a standard Verizon smartphone plan, which clocks in at $29.99 a month. We were frankly shocked when we heard the pricing schemes (you also need a voice plan, of course, which will set you back another $39.99 monthly). To offer what is clearly so much less than a smartphone with a smartphone data plan is insulting to consumers, and doubly insulting considering who it looks like these phones are aimed at. If you're going to shell out this kind of money each month, it would be foolish to even consider these devices given the much, much better options out there. Even counting out the iPhone or similar devices on other carriers (many of which are rather attractive), just take a look at the offerings on Verizon right now. You could get a Pre Plus -- an immeasurably better phone with much of the social networking integration of the Kin devices -- for $29 coupled with a smartphone and voice plan. Or you could spend a little more upfront and get a BlackBerry Tour 9630, Droid, Incredible, or Droid Eris -- all much, much better phones with excellent social networking options. The list really goes on -- and again, if you were a teenager or young adult with all of these great options laid out before you, the idea of choosing this severely limited device which doesn't do a single thing better than even the most basic Android device is kind of crazy. Microsoft has hinted that it wants to shake up the text-centric featurephone market with Kin, but guess what? You categorically cannot even fathom to do that when you're charging for smartphone data. It's insulting to suggest otherwise.

And that about sums it up -- there are much better choices for much less money on the market, and Microsoft hasn't demonstrated to us why you would choose this phone over those. You could argue that the 720p video recording is a hook, but our results weren't that outstanding, and we don't know anyone who needs HD video on a phone so desperately that they're willing to overlook all of these faults. In the end, we're left with two orphan devices -- phones that feel like they should have been killed before they made it to market, but somehow slipped through. It's clear to us from conversations we've had with Microsoft that there are people at the company with good ideas about what phones should and shouldn't do, but we don't feel the Kin is representative of those ideas. The execution (or lack thereof) on these products makes us legitimately concerned about what the company will do with Windows Phone 7. We can only hope that the similarities between those devices and the Kin handsets don't stretch much further than the "Windows Phone" label, because in our estimation, Kin is one side of the family that needs to be disowned... quickly.

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Microsoft Kin One and Two review