Living with Microsoft's Kin, day one

CNET's Ina Fried tries out Microsoft's phone for the uber-social and found it was fun, but more than a little quirky.

Ina Fried Former Staff writer, CNET News
During her years at CNET News, Ina Fried changed beats several times, changed genders once, and covered both of the Pirates of Silicon Valley.
Ina Fried
6 min read
Microsoft Kin Two
Microsoft's Kin phones are all about the social networking. Here, the Kin Two displays a Facebook update screen. James Martin/CNET

SAN FRANCISCO--For me, testing a cell phone is about living with the phone. Phones are interesting in demos and videos, but that's not where they get used. They get used at restaurants and on buses, in the office and on the go.

That's the approach I take with trying most portable gadgets, actually. I had fun taking the original Zune around San Francisco looking for someone to share music with me and then, when the Wi-Fi-based Zune HD came out, I took it on the road to see which hot spots were compatible. So I thought the same approach might make sense with the Kin, Microsoft's new phone for the uber-social which goes on sale this week.

In the case of Microsoft's Kin, it makes extra sense since the device is so different from the average phone. Plus, it gets me out of the office and the weather here has been especially nice.

Although I detail my full experience with the Kin Two below, I'd summarize the phone as kind of like one's most eccentric friends. They are fun to hang out with every now and then, but they are not necessarily who you'd choose to live with every day.

The Kin does some really nice things, including blend social feeds, Exchange and Web-based e-mail, and comes with a music player that can play not only songs stored on the device but also stream music over a 3G connection.

But it also insists on doing things its own way, from its "spot" for sharing information with contacts to the rather arbitrary times it decides to update information. It also had only so-so reliability in my use, restarting and hanging multiple times and often navigating to places other than the ones I was trying to reach.

Setting up the Kin
Getting going with the Kin isn't too hard. It asks for things like the user name and password for the various services you want to connect to, from Web-based e-mail, to an Exchange Server to Twitter, MySpace, and Facebook. (Hint: If you don't have at least two of those last two services, I doubt this phone is for you).

After spending most of the first few hours with the Kin setting up the various e-mail and social-networking services and letting my massive array of contacts and e-mail data arrive on the device, I decided to officially start my first day of living with the Kin at the same time that the product's availability details were made public--9 p.m. on Tuesday.

A day with the Kin (photos)

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As I sat typing a blog about the Kin, I allowed the device to get a quick peek at what I had to say about it, snapping a picture of the work-in-progress. I also used the Kin to see what the first Twitter reactions were to the Kin, including our CNET review from Bonnie Cha as well as a harsh take from Engadget and a quite favorable view from the Wall Street Journal.

Exhausted from the day, I plugged in the Kin and went to bed, allowing both our batteries to recharge for a full day on Wednesday.

Wednesday began a little rushed as I overslept a bit. Perhaps I should have used the Kin's alarm clock. (It has an alarm clock, but oddly not a calendar). To make sure I had some music for the day ahead I downloaded a couple albums, including the "Glee" soundtrack from the recent Madonna episode. After a quick shower, I unplugged the Kin at 8:05 a.m. to leave the house and also see just how long the battery lasts in my real-world use.

The bus ride into work gave me time to snap a few pictures and catch up on Facebook and Twitter, although I forgot to listen to music at the same time and as soon as I got into the office I had a few stories to write and had to give the Kin some down time.

For lunch, the Kin and I headed on the road to meet a friend from junior high as well as her infant son. I took some pictures and even shared a photo with my friend using the Kin's "spot"--a rather unique way of sharing content that I didn't necessarily find to be a big time saver.

The pictures, as one can see from the gallery, may have more megapixels than the standard camera but don't strike me as that amazing in quality. And despite a dedicated camera button, I often find it challenging to figure out just when the Kin is going to take a picture, which probably adds a further element of blurriness to my shots.

Unfortunately, I had some non-gadget-related work to do when I got back to the office. Fortunately, by midafternoon, I found some time to play around with the Kin again.

It didn't seem I was getting the promised Exchange push e-mail. Turned out I had the phone was set to only automatically update Exchange e-mail every 30 minutes (egad). Changed to auto-sync, though I will be interested to see what that does to my battery life considering I get an e-mail almost every minute during the working day.

I also decided to reset my theme from the standard green one. I was surprised to see a message that the phone had to reset itself in order to make this switch, but I guess that's not too huge of a deal, provided one doesn't want to change their theme all the time. And, when the phone did come back, it was in the pink and purple hues I had selected.

Tuning into Zune
After getting this column largely written, I decided I needed some music to get me through the home stretch.

The Zune is probably the most solid feature of the Kin. But even it is weird. One has to shift to landscape mode to type in an artist to search. But the rest of the Zune player only works in portrait, no matter which way the device is held. This is in contrast to the rest of the Kin, which automatically adjusts the display based on how the device is being held.

The first albums I tried, a couple for Tracy Chapman, only let me stream 30-second samples. I switched to the Dixie Chicks' "The Long Way Around." That worked as expected with the full songs streaming to my phone.

Now, hopefully by this point I've managed to make everyone's stomach turn at least once with my musical choices. I describe my tastes as "something everyone will hate."

The most promising aspect of the Kin, as others have noted, is the companion Web-based Kin Studio that automatically backs up ones photos, text messages, and call logs. The Kin Studio shows this information in all sorts of interesting ways, including a daily, weekly or monthly timeline. Photos can also be displayed on a map showing where they are taken, provided one turns on the geo-tagging feature.

I also remembered that I hadn't tried out the video feature of the Kin and it was incumbent on me, in the interest of thoroughness, to download a TV show or movie to watch on the way home. After a brief scan of the Zune marketplace from my PC, I decided to go with the pilot of "House," which cost 160 Microsoft points, which, if I recall, is around $2.

The "House" episode was as good as I remembered it and made the bus ride home go a lot quicker than the one in to work.

The downside is that between turning on auto-sync on and watching a little video, by 8:05 I got a message that my battery was critically low. For the record, that's 12 hours after I unplugged the Kin with a full charge--nowhere near the weekend of battery life that Microsoft said a typical user can expect.

That said, I've never had a phone that really can give me much more than a full workday of e-mail, text, and Web--and that's without asking it to do video and streaming audio.

In trying to make sense of the social features, I am a bit torn. The Kin can do some really cool stuff, but misses some of the basics that I think its target market want as much as I do. For example, when I got a Facebook friend request, I would have had to go to the Web to accept it. On my BlackBerry, I just had to hit the "accept" button. And while the Kin is all about sharing, I can't send photos to Twitter, or retweet, or send direct messages.

Overall, the Kin can do a lot more than most feature phones and several things that the leading smartphones can't. But the combination of slow updates, less than total reliability, and bizarre omissions like a calendar meant that my trusted BlackBerry probably doesn't have much to fear--for now.