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Microsoft Kin One Review

Highs

  • Clever social-network-centric OS
  • Mirrors all activities and auto uploads photos to Kin Studio Web site
  • High-quality 5 MP (Kin One) and 8 MP (Kin Two) camera with flash
  • 4GB (Kin One) 8GB (Kin Two) built-in memory
  • Light, sleek, stylish uncluttered exterior

Rating

Our Score 7
User Score 8

Lows

  • Cluttered, claustrophobic OS
  • No third-party apps
  • Slippery exterior
  • Unintuitive music player
  • Hard to get high-quality video off phone
  • No external memory card slot
Does an amped-up Sidekick have a place in 2010? Microsoft hopes to find out with the Kin One and Kin Two.

Introduction

As we all know, “different” does not necessarily equal “better.” Yes, the operating system Microsoft has concocted for its ballyhooed Kin One ($49.99 with rebate and two-year contract) and Kin Two ($99.99 with rebate and two-year contract) phones, made by Sharp for Verizon, is way beyond different. Whatever the OS is called – and Microsoft hasn’t called it anything (it has design elements we’ve seen in demos of Windows Phone 7), it’s a whole new cell OS gestalt, with little that is recognizable from Apple’s iPhone, Google’s Android OS, or even Windows Mobile, thank goodness. But does different mean it is better than any of these previous OSs?

Kin OS and Software

Microsoft’s Susan-Boyle-like makeover of Windows Mobile adopts a collage philosophy, splaying a mass of single-color graphics, images and text on its three home screens: apps, The Loop, and Favorites. With no breathing space and little organizational sequence or priority, it’s a busy OS. To our quickly wearying eyes, all these tightly-packed and tightly-cropped on-screen elements felt claustrophobic, like kids jamming into a phone booth (remember those?), all mushed together, making quick identification of a single face, function or app difficult.

Like any new thing, you can get used to the Kin’s urban design zeitgeist, but its beauty-to-functionality ratio will definitely be in the eye of the holder. And its intended holder is the 15 to 25 crowd, each of whom may initially be attracted to “different” just to appear to be different.

By emphasizing social networking while deemphasizing other otherwise de rigueur cell functions and added applications, the Kin OS is this generation’s gussied up Sidekick.

The Kin’s primary home page is called The Loop, consisting of your status, and Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter updates from your designated social networks. Quote bubbles of new text messages cover these updates. Motorola’s Motoblur for Android offers a similar approach, but its updates – which also includes messaging and news feeds – are presented as overlays, pop-up bubbles over the standard Android screen. On the Kin, these social media updates are the screen, with nothing underneath.

Perhaps the Kin’s most innovative idea is Microsoft’s online mirroring Web site, called Kin Studio. Nearly everything you do on the phone – add a contact, view videos, send e-mail or texts – can be done from Kin.com, which uses the e-mail address and password you enter during the phone’s setup process. Even more convenient, everything you do on your phone is mirrored on Studio, which means all photos and low resolution videos are automatically uploaded to your Kin Web page.

To the right of The Loop is Favorites, a page of your most frequent contacts arranged into irregularly shaped and sized rectangles with tightly-cropped faces and all-cap contact names.

All screen space is monopolized by apps, faces, or updates, but you can use a photo as your lock screen wallpaper for some personalization. Fortunately, you also can switch from the sickly pea green “Voss” default color scheme to one of three other more aesthetically pleasing – but ultimately boring – themes. Just to help quickly identify the look-alike screens and app icons, it would be nice if we had a wider diversity of coloring options. More annoyingly, you have to restart the Kin to apply your new theme.

The Kin OS also doesn’t appear to offer additional apps, Microsoft’s or anyone else’s.

The Kin OS may have its overall pros and cons, but on the Kin Two and its 3.4-inch 480 x 320 pixel LCD, the OS clutter is at least decipherable. But the Kin OS overwhelms the Two.6-inch 320 x 240 pixel screen on the poor, little Kin One, requiring a lot more scrolling around to get to vital data. It’s too much information in too little space.

Form Factor

Physically, both Kins have one only front button: a wide silver back key. There is no home key, (although holding down back brings you to The Loop, and no send or end keys to quickly initiate voice calls. If you want to verbally communicate, you have to get to the apps page, of which “phone” is one, along with messages, e-mail, browser, camera, settings, alarm, and so on. Even contacts are relegated to this apps page, buried at the bottom. If you want phone status – battery remaining, signal strength, ringer status – you have to tap the small time rectangle on the bottom right of one of the three home screens.

The cute Kin One may be the first square cell since the Sony (pre-Ericsson) CM-RX100 – five years ago. While the Kin One looks like a makeup compact, it’s more like a baby with a really huge head, its small body trembling under the weight of its OS.

The Kin Two is a more pedantic horizontal slider phone with a three-line QWERTY.

While their shapes are different, the Kins share some physical characteristics. Both are slippery devils, for one thing. And the perimeter controls – volume, camera shutter, power – are too flush to the surface, thereby difficult to find by feel and to actually activate.

Equally unusual – in a good way – are the slide-out QWERTY keyboards on each phone. Each uses round keys well-spaced from their neighbors, which minimizes mistypes. The letter labels are all lower case and stylishly offset on each key; our only problem was quickly discerning the “q” from the “g” since the offset removes the serif from the latter letter.

Strangely, the smaller Kin One actually has the better keyboard. It sits in a slightly concave white background, which better offsets the black keys, the keys are arranged in a slight arc, and aren’t as spread out, which makes it more comfortable to thumb tap for those with shorter fingers.

The Kin One includes 4GB of onboard memory; the Kin Two offers 8GB – and that’s all you get. Neither Kin has an external expandable memory slot. Both Kins include a microUSB power/sync jack and a 3.5mm headphone jack.