Remember the “I don’t get it” scene in Big? You know, the one in which Tom Hanks infuriates a colleague because he doesn’t understand how a toy works? That’s what the Kin Two reminds us of. What, you don’t remember this movie? Well, then you’re probably in the target demo of Microsoft’s hipster phone. And you probably won’t get it either.
A social-networking successor of sorts to the Sidekick, Microsoft’s Kin Two aims to collect and organize all those tweets, e-mails, and status updates in one place. However, while the Kin Two is more connected to the cloud, the social networking features for which it’s touted aren’t fully functional. More important, it lacks a lot of features we think even tweens would appreciate, like games. Priced at $99 (after a $100 rebate), the price of the hardware itself is reasonable, but the $30 a month Verizon charges for data—the same amount you’d pay for a true smart phone—simply isn’t worth it given this device’s limited functionality.
The Kin Two assumes the standard touchscreen slider shape; the front of the phone is made up primarily of the screen, with a single Home/Back button beneath. The phone angles inwards on the back, which has a slightly rough finish, keeping it securely in your hand. It feels a little cheap, though: we would have preferred a rubberized surface.
The top of the phone has a 3.5mm headphone jack, the bottom, a microUSB port, and along the right side are volume controls and a camera button. Owing to the beveled sides of the phone, we found it difficult to use the camera button, which was angled away from us; the only way we could press it accurately was by resting our thumb against the screen, which caused the somewhat loose display to move.
Measuring 4.3 x 2.5 x 0.8 inches, the Kin Two is roughly the same size as the Motorola Devour, but at 4.7 ounces, is more than an ounce lighter. On the back of the phone you’ll find the Kin logo, Windows Phone/Verizon/Sharp branding, and an 8-MP camera and flash.
The Kin Two’s display is crisp and vivid, and it’s easy enough to see the display outdoors as long as you’re not in direct sunlight. However, the 3.4-inch, 480 x 320 resolution screen isn’t going to blow anyone away, especially compared to devices like the HTC Incredible and Motorola Droid, which have close to twice the resolution. Still, the capacitive touchscreen was responsive, and we had no issues with scrolling or selecting items.
We find ourselves a little hot and cold about the Kin Two’s keyboard. While the circular keys are very tactile, there’s almost too much space between them. The space bar is awkwardly long and thin; we found ourselves having to press firmly on it. Getting up to speed didn’t take us too long, though we can still type much faster on our BlackBerrys than we can on the Kin Two.
In a concession to style, each key has a letter (in white) falling off the left side, and a number or symbol squished on the right. While we like that they’re large, the layout of the keyboard is such that the letters are jumbled, and almost dizzying to look at.
In order to access certain characters, you have to press on the smiley button (to the right of the spacebar) and scroll through two sets of screens: one full of smileys, the other with characters such as underscores and asterisks.
We also found it strange that when starting a sentence, letters aren’t capitalized and there is no auto-correct feature. Apparently, Microsoft doesn’t feel that teenagers are too concerned with proper grammar, spelling, or punctuation. Finally, there’s no virtual keyboard, which becomes a pain when you need to, say, search for a contact or enter a web address, but don’t want to slide the keyboard out.
Operating System and Interface
It doesn’t run Windows Mobile, nor does it use Windows Phone 7. Rather, the Kin Two uses what Microsoft calls “Windows Phone,” a stripped-down version of the upcoming mobile operating system. When you first power on the Kin Two, you see a ton of faces arranged in a collage, like a modern-day Mondrian, making it very clear that this phone is really meant to share all the minutiae of your life with your friends. Three features—Kin Loop, Kin Spot, and Kin Studio—are meant to facilitate this (more on them later).
After running through some tutorial screens, you’re prompted to enter your e-mail address. However, this information is only used to create a Windows Live account; if you want to receive e-mail, you must go back later and re-enter that same info. This was just the first inconvenience we encountered.
Swiping to the left brings you to another screen with a grid of icons: Alarm, Browser, Camera, Contacts, E-mail, Feed Reader, Help, Messages, Music, Phone, Search, and Settings. We found it slightly annoying that the clock in the lower right-hand corner covered up the label for the app; we could only read the “Fee” of “Feed Reader.”
There are two different ways you can get to the phone application, neither of which is practical: you can swipe left from the home screen and open the phone app, or you can slide the keyboard open and hit the phone button. We don’t know anyone who would make a call with the keyboard extended, and not having the phone on the main screen wastes precious seconds, especially in emergencies. (Yes, we know the target audience texts way more than it make calls, but it’s still annoying.)
We didn’t always find some of the Kin Two’s menus to be intuitive or simple. For example, if you want to adjust your screen brightness, you have to go into settings and select Screen Lock. Normally, we’d think that option was for setting passcode locks and phone security, but from there you can change your wallpaper, adjust screen brightness, and select/deselect auto-brightness. Under Account Sync, you would think it would let you add or change your Facebook, Twitter, or Windows Live account, but no, all it does is turn auto-sync on or off, and let you update your e-mail password if it’s changed. In order to accomplish this, you must go to Contacts > Accounts. Frustratingly, there’s no edit option. If you make a mistake, you have to press Delete and start all over again.
As part of the setup process, the Kin Two asks to sync your Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, and Windows Live accounts. After doing so (and waiting a few minutes), your friends will appear on the home screen (known as the Loop) in a collage-like fashion with status updates from the social networks tied to your device. Behind or beside each status update is that person’s picture, although the Kin Two couldn’t pull in Twitter profile pics (except ours). At the top of the home screen is your name, plus your current status message; changing our status on the phone updated it instantaneously on both Facebook and Twitter (you can select which service gets updated).
If you want to change your profile picture on the Kin Two itself, you can only choose photos that are on the phone, not ones from a Facebook album; another annoying oversight.
While the Loop is fine for casually checking friends’ updates, there’s a lot missing. Selecting a friend’s Facebook status update lets you see other people’s comments, as well as post your own; in the case of Twitter, you can see who retweeted the message. However, the Loop’s layout only displays half a dozen updates at any one time. If you’ve got a lot of friends, that means a lot of scrolling. If someone posts a picture, you can’t open it directly: you’ve got to click on the link, which opens in the web browser. Be prepared to wait, too: the Kin two only updates messages every 15 minutes—and you can’t change the frequency. Other things you can’t do is upload images to Twitter, share links, retweet, or send direct messages. Finally, there’s no instant messaging, either.
Sharing (The Spot)
In the center bottom of the screen is the Spot, a little green circle that’s meant to facilitate sharing content with friends. In practice, it’s as unintuitive and impractical as it gets. In trying to accommodate both texting and e-mail, Microsoft has added one too many steps—and that’s even without including a way to tweet.
Say you want to share a photo. First, we dragged a contact into the Spot, then swiped over to the Camera, where we pulled in a photo to the Spot. We then clicked the Share button in the upper right-hand corner, and e-mailed the photo to our friend. It’s fine if you want to send a number of photos, but involves way too many steps if all you’re sending is a single image.
And oddly, you can’t do this in reverse; selecting a photo, then swiping over to your contacts. Instead, after dragging a photo into the Spot, you must click Send, then E-mail, which—after a few seconds delay—gives you a list of your most recent contacts. In the To field, the Kin Two gives you the option of searching for contacts, but you can’t scroll through a list: you need to use the keyboard to search by name. We found it much quicker to open a photo in the gallery, select Share, then Send, then E-mail. But still.
Perhaps the biggest—or only—reason to buy the Kin Two is the Kin Studio, which automatically syncs all your phone’s content to the cloud, where it’s easily accessible using a wonderfully graphical web page. At the top of the page is your current status message, which you can change. Along the left are menus for Contacts, Feed Reader, Goodies, Messages, and Photos and Videos; Messages just took us to the Kin home page.
In the center of the web page, messages, photos, videos are all sorted chronologically, and you can easily zoom in by month, week, or day. Contact favorites are arranged as they are on the phone itself. Unfortunately, there is no remote locate or wipe feature with Kin Studio, so if you lose your phone there is a chance your personal information could be compromised. However, if you get a new Kin device, you’ll have all your information from Studio just as it was before.
It took about 15 minutes for photos we took on the Kin Two to show up on the Studio website. That’s not instantaneous, but considering the Kin Two has an 8-megapixel camera, it’s nice knowing that you don’t have to worry about running out of storage on the phone itself. However, we wish you could also manage your music from here too, instead of having to use the standalone Zune app (more on that later).
Powered by a 600-MHz processor and 256MB of RAM, the Kin Two was moderately fast. We were able to swipe through screens easily enough, but there would often be a second or two delay when opening, say, the Settings menu. However, it was quick to switch from portrait to landscape mode when we rotated the device in our hand.
Multitasking was decent; we were able to listen to music while we checked out pictures or surfed the web, and saw no lag. Also, when we were in another app, clicking on the volume control brought up a small window where we could not only adjust the volume but pause the music, or skip to the next or previous track.
E-mail and Contacts
Swiping to the right of the home screen brings you to the Favorites screen, where you can add your top 15 contacts in the panes; all have different sizes and show their Facebook profile pics. After clicking on an empty pane, you can select a contact to fill it. However, you can’t drag a contact from one pane to another, and friends’ phone numbers only showed up if they chose to publish them on Facebook. Since very few of our friends list cell phone numbers on Facebook, it made it all that much harder to reach them.
While the built-in e-mail app pulled in our Gmail messages and folders, it didn’t pull in any of our contacts from that account; all of the e-mail addresses listed were from friends on Facebook, and that’s only if they listed their e-mail address in their profile. This being a Microsoft device, it has full Exchange support, though we can’t imagine many in the Kin Two’s target demographic needing this.
The Mozilla-based web browser works surprisingly well on the Kin Two. It’s a full HTML browser, so it’s comparable to what you’d see on Android and webOS devices, but it automatically defaults to some sites’ mobile web pages, like NYTimes.com and ESPN.com. It also supports tap-to-zoom and multitouch gestures. Most pages loaded up and were fully rendered quickly enough to make web browsing on this a pleasant experience. Over 3G, the New York Times’ mobile page loaded up in just 8 seconds, and CNN’s mobile page loaded in the same amount of time. The full Laptopmag.com home page rendered fully in 26 seconds. The Spot feature works here, too; by clicking and holding on a web page, you can share it with others via e-mail, SMS, or Facebook, but not Twitter.
The Kin Two also comes with Microsoft’s Zune software. In order to use it, you must first download the Zune app to your notebook, and sync the Kin Two via USB. Considering everything else is managed in the cloud, it would be far better if you could do this through the Kin website. It’s yet another app you have to deal with. Still, we like the Zune interface on the Kin Two; it’s pretty intuitive compared to iTunes, and we liked that you could listen to music while using other features on the phone. However, the Spot feature does not work here, so you can’t share music with friends. Also, if you want to use Zune Pass, you’ll have to fork over another $14.99 per month. We think it should be free or maybe $5 on top of the already expensive data plan.
Music and videos played smoothly on the Kin Two; the included earbuds (which have an in-line control to pause music) had a nice range to them, offering a pleasing amount of bass and treble. However, they were a bit chintzy; even out of the box, there was a lot of static from a frayed wire. The Kin Two’s speaker wasn’t all that loud, and sounded a bit like a transistor radio. Unlike most smart phones, the Kin Two doesn’t offer a Slacker or Pandora app for streaming music for free over the web.
As previously mentioned, the Kin Two has an 8-MP camera with an automatic flash. Too bad the placement of the physical camera button is poor; we resorted to using the on-screen button instead. Also, the lens’ proximity to the other corner caused us to inadvertently block it with our finger from time to time.
Opening the Camera app, you’re first presented with the photos you’ve taken; swiping to the right brings you to the camera itself. Swiping left gets you, in succession, Favorites, Albums, and then the Online screen, which shows photos recently posted online by your friends. A nice feature, but why is it buried?
The Kin Two’s camera took fairly good pictures outdoors on a bright day: blues of a billboard and the sky were nice and dark, and the sensor wasn’t overwhelmed by the sun’s reflection off a glass building. Indoors in a dimly lit room, pictures taken with the flash were blurry and quite dark. The phone also geotags photos, so when you view them in Studio, you can click on Map and see them overlaid on a Google Map. It was fairly accurate; most photos were off by about a block.
When you want to take 720p video, the Kin Two warns you that you won’t be able to upload it to the cloud, but helpfully says that you can transfer it via USB. Videos looked okay, but were a bit choppy and became very pixelated whenever we panned the camera around.
Call Quality and Battery Life
Sadly, for a phone on Verizon Wireless’ network, the Kin Two’s reception was mediocre. When we were outside, we made a call to a friend on a landline, who could easily hear wind and truck noises around us. We’ll update this review once we’ve run our full battery test, but anecdotally the phone lost a quarter of its juice overnight after being on a full charge (since it’s grabbing updates in the background).
Perhaps it’s telling that Verizon Wireless dropped $50 off the price of the Kin Two to $99 the day before it was announced; regardless, consumers will still have to cough up $30 a month for a data plan on a device that does much less than a more versatile smart phone. And if you want a Zune Pass, that’s another $15 per month. It’s disappointing when a phone targeted at social networking performs worse than, and has fewer social networking features than, smart phones that cost much less. The Palm Pre Plus, for example, costs just $30, has a more intuitive OS, and is far better at messaging. While the Kin Two has Zune and the innovative Studio, those two features aren’t enough to salvage this device.