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.
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
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.
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.
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
, 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.