Microsoft's Kin One has fun software, clunky design

The smaller of Microsoft's newest social networking phones, the Kin One ($50 with a two-year contract from Verizon with a mandatory $30/month data plan; price as of 5/4/10) has a slick and intuitive user interface, but the hardware is middle-of-the-road and the phone can sometimes be sluggish.

Additionally, advanced users might be disappointed with some limitations within the operating system.

Kin One phone
Microsoft's Kin One phone focuses on social networking. With a square shape, it has a five-megapixel camera and 4GB of memory.

Decent but unattractive hardware

The Kin One isn't the most stylish little thing: Short and squat, it looks a bit dated. That said, the Kin One feels solid in hand and fits easily in a pants or purse pocket. One hardware "back" button sits on the face of the phone. A 3.5-mm headphone jack sits on the top of the phone with a camera shutter button and volume rocker/digital zoom control flanking it. A power/unlock button sits on the right spine of the phone.

The 2.6-inch display is a bit on the small side, but large enough for reading texts, browsing your friends' status updates and scrolling through your contacts. For video playback, it feels a bit cramped, however.

The keyboard's keys are spacious and boldly labeled, but they don't feel as comfortable as those on the Sidekick phones (the design team behind the Sidekick phones played a big part in the Kin One and Two's designs). I also noticed a bit of lag between what I typed and what actually appeared on the screen, which was frustrating when I was trying to hammer out a long e-mail. There are a few shortcut keys including a shortcut to the dialer, an emoticon key and a search key for searching within your contacts and apps.

Kin OS: Intuitive, but missing key features

While it's a bit overwhelming at first, Kin OS is visually pleasing and incredibly easy to navigate. The main screen, called Loop, displays your selected friends' status updates and messages as well as your favorite RSS feeds in a colorful collage of text and images. Flick to the left, and you'll see a panel of all your applications; flick right, and you'll see your contacts.

I also liked how easy it was to share photos with your friends via the Kin "Spot." The Spot is a green circle that sits at the bottom of the user interface. If you want to share a photo, video or news story from your RSS feed, you simply drag and drop it into the Spot. You can then tap the Spot and decide whether you want to send it to your friends or upload it to one of your social networks.

Another highlight: The Kin One ships with the Zune HD media player for video and music playback. The Zune player is gorgeous and definitely a superior alternative to the boring mobile Windows Media Player of the past. There's also an FM radio, and if you have a Zune Pass subscription ($15/month), you can tag and buy songs you like on the radio from the Zune Marketplace.

Unfortunately, the Kin OS is missing some features that, in my opinion, are crucial for social networkers. First of all, there's no native calendar nor is there support for syncing your Outlook or Google calendars. If Kin's main goal is to connect people together, then why isn't there a way to create and share events via a social calendar? There's also no native IM client, which seems strange for a phone that's built for messaging. Lastly, Kin lacks support for uploading photos or videos to Twitter. You can upload videos to your Facebook or Myspace profiles, but forget about Twitter. Microsoft says that it might be adding these features in future over-the-air updates, but don't expect them at launch.

Also, if you're a heavy app user, you'll be disappointed to learn that there's no software development kit currently available for the Kin phones, nor is there an app store. For now, you're stuck with what's preloaded on the device.

Good 5-megapixel camera

Overall, I was quite impressed with the Kin One's 5-megapixel camera. My outdoor snapshots looked terrific with bright, natural colors and sharp details. The camera handled zooming well, too. Even when I zoomed as much as I could (the Kin One has 8x digital zoom), my subjects still looked pretty sharp.

The Kin One sports a fairly powerful flash. Faces were nicely highlighted without being completely blown out. I can see the Kin One being an ideal companion for concerts as you can snap quality pictures and easily share them with your friends or social networks.

Video clips are automatically capped at one minute, which is a bit disappointing. While recording, you'll see a counter that tells you how much time you have left on your video. Playback looked pretty good, however.

Photos and videos are automatically uploaded to the Kin Studio (more on that below) and you can choose to automatically geotag all photos or on a one-by-one basis.

Kin Studio: Useful but problematic

When you capture photos or videos on your Kin phone, they're automatically uploaded to the Kin server. You can then log into your Kin Studio account on your PC to view and share your media--no USB cables or microSD cards to hassle with and no tedious uploading procedures. This is an ideal feature for the non-tech-savvy audience Microsoft seems to be targeting with these phones.

But there's one disturbing problem with the Kin Studio: You can't delete photos off your phone without deleting them from the Kin Studio. In some ways, Microsoft's explanation for implementing this makes sense. If a user wants to delete, say, an incriminating photo from a bar the night before, they probably want it completely erased from existence. But if you're simply deleting photos to free up some storage on your phone, this is a big problem since the Kin One's memory is restricted to 4GB (no microSD support). Realistically, 4GB of memory isn't enough to hold all of your photos, videos and music.

I also wish there was some sort of photo editing or video editing software built into the studio. To edit a clip or photo, you have to download it to your PC first, edit it in a third-party program, then re-upload to the Kin Studio to share with your friends.

Clean call quality, sometimes sluggish performance

The OS was a bit sluggish while I was navigating through various menus. Scrolling through my long list of contacts wasn't the smoothest experience; the phone stuttered a bit as it loaded my contacts' information.

Call quality was clean over the Verizon Network. My contacts heard me loud and clear, even while I was standing on a busy street corner. My 3G service never dropped as I traveled all over the city of San Francisco.

The Kin One has an interesting position in Verizon's line-up. It is more affordable than the network's high-end smartphones, like the HTC Droid Incredible and Motorola Droid, but doesn't have nearly as many features or customization options. It will definitely satisfy social networkers, but possibly only to a certain degree. The lack of apps and limitations within the OS might put off even the most novice smartphone users. And with sub-$100 smartphones also available on the network, like the Palm Pixi Plus ($30 with a two-year contract), it is hard to say how successful the Kin One (or the Kin Two) will be.

This story, "Microsoft's Kin One has fun software, clunky design" was originally published by PCWorld.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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