Microsoft Kin Review: The Best Mobile Phones You’ll Never Buy

Microsoft Kin Review: The Best Mobile Phones You’ll Never Buy

The Kins have an audience, a sense of style, and – a rarity from Microsoft – a coherent philosophy. They’re precocious feature phones, with actual potential. So why are they priced like smartphones?

Pink. Pin? Knip? Kin. Kin! There we go. Half a year after the mysterious devices were leaked to us, the Kins are up for sale on May 6. (Thursday.) It’s been a long road in terms of rumours, with repeated leaks – renders, shots, spec dumps – scattered throughout the last six months, but in terms or the basic, conceptual core of the phone, it’s been a surprisingly short road: We heard Kin, then known by its codename, Pink, would be a phone for young people. It would have Zune integration. It wouldn’t be, strictly speaking, a smartphone. Its marketing would be targeted directly and shamelessly at hipsters. And that’s what shipped. Two phones, the Kin One and Kin Two, previously known as the Turtle and Pure, respectively, running their own Microsoft operation system.

The Hardware

If you haven’t caught a glimpse of the Kin phones yet, here they are. (The Kin One is the pebble; the Kin Two the brick.)

I see the paired handsets as more of a hedge than anything else, a reflection of a reasonable suspicion that your average phone buyer might be cold on the lumpish Kin One, which, at least when closed, is one of the stranger phone designs I’ve seen in a while. I personally think it’s a fantastic shape that’s worth exploring, but I could see how someone would be turned off by it, or concerned about its potential shortcomings. The Kin Two, on the other hand, it utterly orthodox. It’s a QWERTY slider, like pretty much any other.

Behind their respective keyboards, they share CDMA 3G, Nvidia Tegra chip, 256MB of RAM. One the face, each phone has a single button. Beyond the form factors, though, the hardware isn’t really the story. Once you absorb and decide to love or hate the Kin One’s clenchable, orb-like design or the Kin Two’s plain vanilla aesthetic, the rest is pleasant: the sliding action on both phones is firm and smooth, and the keyboards, with matte plastic keys and fairly wide spacing, are extremely typable. My only hardware hangups? Holding the Kin Two like a camera and pressing the (dedicated) camera button causes the phone to inch open, which is awkward. The near-circular Kin One rotates freely in my pocket, but it was always easy enough to flip open, sight unseen. Call quality is consistently good and the volume was ample. The battery gets you through a day, and not much more. But really, the story here isn’t about hardware. The Kin’s spec sheet doesn’t tell you much about it.

Interesting, then, that aside from the shape, the only differentiating factors between the two phones are specs. The taller Kin has a 320×480 screen, like the iPhone, while the lil’ baby Kin has a 320×240 screen, lock in a single, wide orientation. Storage is fixed at 4GB for the Kin One, and 8GB for the Kin Two. The camera on the Kin One is an 8MP sensor that shoots 720p video, while the smaller Kin has a proportionately lower pixel count, taking 5MP photos and VGA video. Both cameras have LED flash.

The Software 🙂

So, this OS. This OS! It’s one of the more exciting pieces of software I’ve seen in a while, if simply because of how new it is. Not new like, hey, look, there’s a new version of a thing I’ve seen before, but more like hey, look, there a new version of th—what the hell? Oh! Hm. Interesting. Kins are labelled as a Windows Phone, but bear little resemblance to Windows Phone 7, and none at all to Windows Mobile. And yeah, it is a separate platform from Windows Phone 7. Actually, that’s a bit inaccurate – it’s not really a platform, since it doesn’t have apps.

The interface is heavily panelled, but the panels can be all kinds of things. Feeds! Shortcuts! Twitter, MySpace and Facebook items! Contacts! Throw your screen from side to side and you move between a homescreen with links to obvious functionality, The Loop, which is a collection of social networking feeds combined with RSS feeds, and your favourites. (Humans, not sites. Though you can peg website shortcuts to your homescreen.) No point overexplaining this stuff – this is how it’s used:

Swipey! Swoopy! And yes, the concept does work. The Kins are messaging phones centred not around texts, but around the services young people actually use nowadays. It prompts you to sync with Twitter, Facebook and MySpace immediately, which it (fairly) intelligently gleans for contact information. (It’s like WebOS in this respect.) Once you’ve got everything loaded up, your entire phone is basically overrun with social chaff, be it Twitter updates, friends’ Facebook albums, or items from the surprisingly competent RSS feed reader.

Photos are slurped down from the cloud, and populate virtually every screen you see. Twitter updates are suspended above cropped photos of your friends, all jammed together in ill-fitting chunks. It’s hectic, but it works. The Spot, a little dot on the bottom of the screen that you can drag just about anything into, is a helpful shortcut for sharing news, photos or whatever, and a fair – though not perfect – replacement for a lack of copy and paste.

When you dive a little deeper, you’ll find more to like. Using the Zune app on a Kin is basically like using a misshapen Zune, by which I mean it’s fast, sensible and, well, decent. With the Zune pass, its catalogue is infinite.

And beyond the features you can see and interact with on the handset itself, there’s the Kin’s killer app: Studio. It’s basically a blown-up version of your phone, with all its contents, accessible via a web interface. Uploads are automatic and nearly constant, so when you log on, your stuff is just there. (More on this later.)

The Software 🙁

Microsoft’s got a healthy concept here, for sure. Using the Kin for the first time isn’t just surprising, but pleasant. Using it a second time, less so. After a day with the device, you start to see some holes. After two or three, the holes start to fray.

It’s smart for a company to control its focus in designing a device, and that’s what Microsoft has done here. Messaging and social media are the Kin. But that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t come with a mapping application (there isn’t a native one, despite the presence of a GPS receiver.) It doesn’t mean that the browser shouldn’t have tabs, or a rendering engine that isn’t excruciatingly slow. It doesn’t mean that there should be no way to watch any web video of any kind, or that the phone should be arbitrarily tied to Microsoft’s Bing search service. It’s no excuse for excluding any kind of calendar.

These are all features that seem to be excluded at the expense of the phones’ core competencies, which will be strikingly absent for people used to smartphones, but possibly excusable to someone weaned on dumbphones. But they’re still worrisome.

More worrisome is the fact that some of the core features aren’t that great. The camera software persistently screws up metering, so indoor pictures come out dim with blown out light sources, while outdoor photos are either overwhelmed by the sky or flat and desaturated. Autofocus works like a point-and-shoot camera’s does, with a two-stage button, but it was hard to predict whether or not a photo would come out in focus. Both of these afflictions are apparent in video modes, too. The flash is blindingly bright, and washes out subjects, as LED flashes tend to do. Facebook integration is a bit better, but doesn’t include events, among other things. Oh, and there’s no way to upload Twitter photos, nor is there an obvious way to direct message people. It’s technically worse at Tweeting and Facebooking than virtually any other phone with an app.

And the whole thing feels slow. Not deal-breakingly slow, but definitely too slow. It’s especially vexing to jump from the perfectly smooth, graphics-intensive Zune app into the main interface, which stutters slightly at every move. Most damningly, the form factor I like the most – the nubby one – causes the software to feel cramped, as if it could use a slightly higher resolution, or just a few centimetres more vertical space. The software feels like it was designed for the more spacious of the two phones. Browsing is a chore, and multitouch, available in websites and photos, feels kind of wasted on such a small screen.

The impression you get using the Kins isn’t that they’re based on a flawed concept, really, but that they just aren’t quite done. It’s not really clear how much of this will be rectified in software updates, but Microsoft did assure me that they’d address some concerns in an OTA update before the end of the year.

Kin’s Saving Grace

The best thing about the Kin – the part that they didn’t just get right, but that they’ve basically cleaned everyone’s clocks with – is the Studio. When you shoot photos or (lower res) videos with a Kin, it automatically and transparently uploads everything to the cloud. Same goes for text messages, contacts, and news feeds. If you can get used to the overly flashy interface, the implications here are huge: This is how cloud stuff is supposed to work. You’re not supposed to notice, and it’s just supposed to happen. Imagine if Google did this? Apple? RIM? Anyone. Studio makes you wonder why they haven’t, and why Microsoft isn’t loading this kind of functionality into Windows Phone 7. This, I have to say, is awesome.

Or… Not
So, you’ve probably sensed some tentativeness. I like the Kin. I like what Microsoft is doing with it, and even if the launch features are a bit thin, I think it’s probably – no, almost definitely – the best feature phone I’ve ever used. Here’s the problem: It’s not a feature phone. Who says? Cue Verizon:

To get the most from KIN, Verizon Wireless customers will need to subscribe to a Verizon Wireless Nationwide Talk plan and an Email and Web for Smartphone plan. Nationwide Talk plans begin at $US39.99 monthly access.  Email and Web for Smartphone plans start at $US29.99 for unlimited monthly access.

When you buy a Kin One or Two, priced at $US50 or $US100, you’re stuck with the same plan you’d need if you opted for a Droid, or a Pre, or an HTC Incredible from the same store. You’re going to have to pay at least $US70 a month – $US90 if you want texting – for the privilege of using a phone that is, by any reasonable assessment, less than a smartphone. There’s some stuff that the Kin will do better than a Pre, and some people it will clearly appeal to. It has a thing.

But when the contract papers come out, and the prospect of spending nearly $US100 a month for the next two years is raised, you have to ask yourself: Is this worth it? Here’s how the total cost of ownership of a Kin stacks up, according to my calculations:

Generic Samsung Messaging Phone
Price: Free.
Baseline voice plan with texting: $US60
25MB of data, including email: $US10
Total cost alone: $US70
Total cost on family plan: $US20
Total cost of ownership: $US1680, or $US480 as an additional line

Palm Pre Plus
Price: $US30
Baseline voice plan with texting: $US60
Unlimited data: $US30
Total cost alone: $US90
Total cost on family plan: $US40
Total cost of ownership: $US2190, or $US990 as an additional line

Kin One
Price: $US50
Baseline voice plan with texting: $US60
Unlimited data: $US30
Total cost alone: $US90
Total cost on family plan: $US40
Total cost of ownership: $US2210, or $US1010 as an additional line. Adding Zune Pass, $US2570 or $US1370

Verizon’s choice to manacle the Kin with smartphone data pricing makes sense, but only to Verizon. Yes, I’m sure the photo and video uploading sucks up a lot of bandwidth. And no, bandwidth isn’t free. But aside from Studio – and as far as users are concerned – this phone doesn’t use data like a smartphone. It can’t. Other Verizon phones on this plan can stream video and music, upload photos, download apps. This one can’t give you directions.

This bizarre pricing will make potential Kin buyers’ minds jump from messaging phones, which the Kin compares favourably to, to thoughts of smartphones, with app stores and full mapping and real browsers. Droids. The similar looking Pre. Or a BlackBerry. The stuff that you might not consider if you were considering a phone like the Kin in the first place – overkill! – but which Verizon has made you consider by not giving these handsets the pricing they deserve, instead opting to pit them against monstrous foes, endangering the Kin concept, and slowing our inevitable progress toward cloud services like Studio.

As a dumbphone killer, the Kin is an easy pitch. As a smartphone competitor, it’s hopeless.