Editors' note, November 24, 2010: Though Microsoft discontinued the Kin One and Two in June 2010, Verizon brought them back in November and is now selling them as feature phones with modified capabilities.
In April 2010, Microsoft finally took the wraps off Project Pink and introduced two new phones targeted at the younger generation of social butterflies: the Kin One and Kin Two. However, the reveal was shrouded in questions and doubt rather than excitement. Who would want this kind of device, especially in the wake of the Windows Phone 7 announcement? Even though Microsoft was very clear in saying that the Kin devices would not appeal to everyone and was specifically targeted at a younger, more social crowd, we were still apprehensive.
Flash forward to now, when we've had a couple of days to check both the Kin One and Kin Two and can see things more clearly. Stepping back from our role as tech journalists and trying to get in the mindframe of the target demographic, we can see how the Kin One and Two might appeal to teens and 20-somethings. The phones offer instant access to favorite friends and a constant connection to them through the tight social-networking integration. They also offer a different and fun user experience than a lot of other full-featured phones on the market.
All of this is well and good, but as we said before, part of the devices' success would depend on the pricing of the phones and data plans. Interestingly, when we first received the phones, Microsoft and Verizon said the pricing would be $79.99 for the Kin One and $149.99 for the Kin Two, both with a two-year contract and after a $100 mail-in rebate. We were just about ready to launch into a tirade when at the last minute we received word that the pricing had been changed to $49.99 and $99.99, respectively--much, much better. Unfortunately, though, there's no adjustment to the monthly data plan. Both the Kin One and Two will require monthly $29.99 unlimited data plans, just like Verizon's other smartphones and 3G multimedia and feature phones. Considering the amount of data the handsets use, it makes sense, but still: the target group probably doesn't have much disposable income, and this may pose a problem to the Kins' overall success.
The Microsoft Kin One and Two will be available for preorder through Verizon's Web site starting May 6 and will ship within 48 hours. The devices will be in all Verizon stores nationwide May 13.
Of the two Kin phones, the Kin One has the more interesting design and is sure to turn some heads. At first glance, it doesn't even look like a phone. It's squarish in shape but with rounded edges, and the front section of the slider phone is smaller than the back part, which adds to its unique look. When talking with CNET digital audio editor Jasmine France, we concluded that it looked like some kind of fitness device or even some of the older Rio MP3 players. We wouldn't call the Kin One ugly--just different.
The handset is extremely compact and lightweight, measuring 3.25 inches tall by 2.5 inches wide by 0.75 inch deep and weighing 3.9 ounces. It fits nicely in the hand, though when on a call, we preferred to have the keyboard open since it felt weird to hold a hockey-puck-size device up to our ear. The phone feels solid overall, and the soft-touch finish on back prevents it from feeling completely slick and becoming a smudge magnet like the front of the device.
Now, given the smaller size, we figured the full QWERTY keyboard would be a nightmare to use, but it's actually not that bad. Admittedly, the layout is slightly cramped, so users with larger thumbs may need time to acclimate; and even though the keys are raised above the phone's surface, they're slightly stiff to press. Still, the oval buttons aren't too small and there's a decent amount of spacing between them, so that cuts down on mispresses. We also appreciate the shortcut keys on the bottom row for the phone app, search, and emoticons.
If anything, it's the display that suffers from the Kin One's petite size. The 2.6-inch QVGA capacitive touch screen is pretty cramped, especially with all the information that's populated on the Loop home screen (more on this later). It also makes it less than ideal for viewing movies and Web pages, though for the latter you at least get pinch-to-zoom support. With a QVGA resolution, it's the not the sharpest display on the block, but we found it to be sufficiently bright and clear for reading messages and viewing images. There's an ambient light sensor that will automatically adjust the screen's brightness depending on the environment, but the screen still washed out in bright sunlight.
The touch screen is mostly responsive, though the scrolling experience isn't quite as smooth as we'd like it be. Below the display, you get only one button, which takes you back to the previous screen. There is an onscreen button that will bring up your most recently used apps, but we missed having a dedicated home key to get back to one of the three main home screens, especially when we were several menus deep. Having to hit the back button multiple times got old pretty quick.
There are other controls scattered around the edge of the phone. There's a 3.5mm headphone jack on top. In the upper left corner there's a volume rocker, and there's a camera activation/capture key and power button in the upper right corner. However, the volume and camera keys are in awkward positions. The volume rocker is too high up, so it's not easy to adjust the volume just by feel when on a call. Also, because the camera key sits off the edge and requires a pretty firm press, it's hard to hold the phone steady while trying to press the button, resulting in a blurry image.
The Kin One comes packaged in a cylindrical canister along with an AC adapter, a USB cable, a wired stereo headset, and reference material. For more add-ons, please read our cell phone accessories, ringtones, and help page.
Both the Kin One and Two use the same user interface. The software on both devices was created on the core elements of Windows Phone 7, but the user experience is designed completely around social communication, with the Loop home screen at the center of it all.
Loop displays all your contacts' updates and tweets from Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, and Windows Live, and will also pull in any content from your subscribed news feeds. It retains a bit of the look and feel of Windows Phone 7 with the tile layout, and you can tap each tile to either read the full story or comment on a person's status. Information is shown in chronological order with the most recent news up top; as more updates and stories come in, stories are pushed down, but be aware that the screen doesn't pull data in real time but rather in 15-minute increments. Your status and image, however, always remain at the top, where you can instantly update your MySpace or Facebook status or send out a tweet by simply tapping the screen. One note about the social-networking integration: though you can upload photos to MySpace and Facebook, you can't upload to Twitter, which is unfortunate.
To the left of the Loop screen, you will find all the phone's apps, such as e-mail, music and videos, phone, browser, settings, and so forth. When you swipe to the right you'll find all your favorite contacts. You can have up to 51 favorites and adding contacts is simple. You can't change the size of the tiles, but you can rearrange them, as well as apps, by doing a two-finger tap on the screen.
The Kin One and Two aren't just about having access to information: they're also about sharing, and the phones have a unique way of doing so with a feature called the Spot. The Spot is literally a green dot at the bottom of all three home screens to which you can drag and drop content and then add contacts (also through drag and drop) with whom you want to share the information with via text/MMS or e-mail. You can share anything from the Loop screen, as well as Web pages, which we thought was pretty cool.