Hands on with the Kin One and Two

CNET takes a closer look at Microsoft's new social phones, the Kin One and Kin Two, and offers some initial impressions of the hardware and software.

On Monday, Microsoft finally took the wraps off of Project Pink and revealed two new phones targeted toward the younger generation of social butterflies.

The Kin One and the Kin Two will be available from Verizon Wireless starting next month, and, as CNET Reporter Ina Fried states , the phones are for men and women anywhere between the ages of 15 and 30 who want to broadcast their every thought, sight, and sound and want to know what their friends are up to as well. As a result, a lot of the phones' functions are built around the social-networking experience.

We got some hands-on time with both the Kin One and the Kin Two, and we're still trying to pinpoint our exact feelings on it. Overall, we think the premise is good but there are also some head-scratching omissions and the pricing of the devices and services plans will be key. We'll have to wait a bit longer to hear those details, but in the meantime, here are some of our initial thoughts on the hardware and the user interface.

Kin One
The Kin One is the more interesting of the two in terms of design. It has a squarish shape with rounded edges, and we've certainly seen other phones with a similar shape (e.g., the LG Lotus and the Nokia Twist), but the Kin One is still an unusual sight. You'll definitely turn some heads with this thing.

The handset is extremely compact and lightweight, fitting nicely in the palm of your hand. It has a bit of a plasticky feel, but the soft-touch finish on back prevents it from feeling completely slick. Now, given the smaller size, we figured the full QWERTY keyboard would be a nightmare to use, but we were actually pleasantly surprised by it; the oval buttons are a decent size and have a good amount of spacing between them. In addition, the keys are raised above the phone's surface, so they're easy to press.

If anything, it's the display that takes a bit of a hit. The 2.6-inch QVGA touch screen is pretty cramped, especially with all the information that's populated on the Loop home screen (more on this later), but we found it to be sufficiently bright and responsive. On back, you'll find the camera and flash, and there's a dedicated camera key on the side to help you capture photos. Being the more entry-level model of the duo, the Kin One has a lower 5-megapixel camera, which can shoot video only in standard definition, and it has half the onboard storage of the Kin Two, at 4GB.

Kin Two
Meanwhile, the Kin Two has a familiar look, resembling a number of other horizontal slider phones on the market today. On front, you get a 3.6-inch HVGA capacitive touch screen with multitouch and screen rotation support. The display was slightly sharper than the Kin One's and felt mostly responsive during our brief time with it. The scrolling experience wasn't the smoothest, but we weren't handling a final product so we'll let it slide for now. Below the screen, there is a single button that returns you to the previous screen (this is the same as on the Kin One) and aside from the controls on the side, this is your only physical control. Though not a deal breaker, we would have liked a Home shortcut.

The full QWERTY keyboard is quite reminiscent of the Sidekick, and that's no coincidence since the Kin phones are made by Sharp, which also made the Sidekick for Danger and is now a part of the Microsoft family after the April 2008 acquisition . We've always like the keyboards on the Sidekick models and the Kin Two is no exception. Spacious and tactile, we had no major complaints on our end.

We also have no complaints about the 8-megapixel camera with HD video recording or the 8GB of internal storage.

User interface
Both the Kin One and Two use the same user interface. The software on both devices was created on the same core elements of Windows Phone 7 (the kernels aren't identical but share a common heritage), but the user experience is designed around social communication with the Loop home screen at the center of it all.

Loop consists of three panes. The left pane shows all the phone's apps, the right displays your favorite contacts, and the center pane acts as a news feed for all your contacts updates, tweets, and such from social-networking sites, such as Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter. It retains a bit of the look and feel of Windows Phone 7 withe tiles that you can drag and drop in the order that you like. The center pane also reminded us of Motoblur, but the difference here is that you also get the ability to share any of this content with friends via the Spot.

The Spot is literally a green dot at the bottom of the screen where you can drag and drop content and then add the contacts that you want to share the information with via Text/MMS or e-mail. Admittedly, we were a bit confused by this concept when watching the demo but once we tried it firsthand, it clicked and worked well. That said, we don't know if it's the most efficient way to do things, though it is certainly innovative.

As with Motoblur, the UI on the Kin One and Two can be completely overwhelming at first. There's a lot of information to digest, but perhaps for the targeted audience, this is what they want: to be connected all the time and to have access to all your social networks with just a press of a button.

Some final thoughts
Clearly, there's much more to discover about the Kin One and Two, and it sounds like Verizon and Microsoft are pretty anxious to get these devices out the door, so hopefully, we'll have full reviews for you soon. We wanted to mention a couple of other things we liked about the devices as well as some things that troubled us.

Starting with the good, both the Kin One and Two will be the first Windows Phones to ship with Zune, including support for Zune Pass so you'll be able to stream music over a 3G network. In addition, Microsoft will offer a free downloadable client that will allow you to sync the phones with a Mac. Also, we really like the Web-based Kin Studio service. This is essentially like Microsoft's My Phone service, allowing you to back up your phone's contacts, text messages, and multimedia files to a server. The Timeline feature is also pretty cool as it opens up all the photos, all the people you've been in touch with, and all the messages you've received for a designated time period and places them in a timeline.

The not-so-cool parts are: first, the devices don't support games (no Flash or Silverlight support in the browser either); and second, there's no instant messaging. The phones also lack a calendar app. For phones that are targeted toward a younger audience, the omission of these two features baffle us. Microsoft's explanation for this is that it wanted to focus on the social aspects of the phone first, and the devices are enabled to receive over-the-air updates, so if there's a customer need, the company will be able to react quickly to it.

Overall, we think the Kin One and Two can pick up where the Sidekick left off and gain some younger fans, but again, we think a large part of its success will depend on pricing. If it comes with a hefty data plan, you can forget about it. But that's just our take. What do you guys think? What are your overall impressions of the devices? Software? Is it a hit or a miss? Let us know in the comments section below.

 

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