PRODUCT REVIEW

The Kins: Academically Average, Socially Gifted

You might think that someone at Microsoft is a big fan of Dr. Seuss; naming the new Windows Phones the “Kin One” and “Kin Two” certainly conjures up images of critters that would assist the Cat in the Hat in wreaking havoc on Sally and her brother’s house. But it’s really Kin as in kinship; people joined by common ancestry (as Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary defines it), or in a more tech-savvy sense, younger users joined by the common desire to share every bit of information they come in contact with via their smartphones.

Microsoft Kin One

The Microsoft Kin One

Certainly the two Kin phones bear no kinship to previous Windows Mobile handsets, and that’s a good thing considering the tarnished history of Microsoft’s attempt to become a major player in the mobile phone business. That last “b”-word, in fact, was the problem with the operating system formerly known as “Windows Mobile”; the company kept pushing its business-friendly features while the smarthphone world — thanks largely to Apple — was putting personal, consumer-centric usage like media consumption first and foremost. Now Microsoft wants desperately to show that it’s received the message loud and clear, so the Kins are all about social media and sharing.

As if to hammer home that point, the welcome screen for this particular version of the Windows Phone OS shows a montage of faces, all apparently caught in the act of being … social? That’s followed by the handwritten “nice to meet you” message that briefly pops up before you are sent to the home screen. Clearly, this is not your father’s Windows Mobile software — or Bill Gates’, for that matter.

From Outside to Inside

How to tell Kin One and Kin Two apart? Kin One is smaller and rounder, about the size of a lady’s compact yet a little heftier, with the Kin Two approximating the dimensions of a Droid Eris but a little thicker around the middle. Blame the thickness on the fact that both phones have slide-out QWERTY keyboards. However, the multi-touch screens also allow for the kind of finger navigation that phone customers have come to expect with modern handsets.

Despite being a little bit chunkier, the black matte paint jobs on the Kin One and Two still put them squarely in the middle of the sleekness scale that become the standard for smartphones/feature phones. The cameras are placed near the upper right-hand edges on the backs of each phone (5 megapixels for Kin One, 8 megapixels for Kin Two).

The black finish actually coordinates nicely with the OS’s yellow, black and white color themes. Which brings us to…

The New, Improved Windows Phone OS?

To paraphrase Obi-Wan Kenobi, these are not actually the new Windows Phone 7 smartphones you’re looking for, which were announced with much fanfare earlier this year by Microsoft. Those come out in time for the year-end holidays. The Kins are using an OS variation that does incorporate Zune stylings and fonts, especially when it comes to music and media consumption (why tinker with something that finally got some good reviews?) The major differences are in the navigation and layout — three home screens separate contacts from apps from updates. The home screen, called the “Loop,” shows your status and those of your friends via Facebook, Twitter and Windows Live (naturally) thanks to instant syncing of contacts. The Apps screen includes all email and messaging, music, camera, phone, feeds and settings, while the Favorites screen is just that — friends and contacts you’ve bookmarked for easy access.

A note on the creative use of the word “Apps” for features like camera, phone, etc.: I don’t know about you, but when I think of apps, I’m thinking third-party games and productivity software, which you won’t find at this time on a Kin. It’s a little stretch of the imagination, then, to get users to view their camera as an “App.” Back home, we call that a phone “feature.”

Navigating all this takes some getting used to, and the typeface and layout are designed to mark clear differences with the other OSes now on the market. Microsoft is gambling that users already weaned on iPhone-style let-your-fingers-do-the-walking, not to mention access to an overstuffed App Store, will accept something that is truly different. And different in this case does not necessarily mean bad. It just means a little more study time to become fluent with this OS.

The 600Mhz Tegra processor inside seemed plenty fast for Web browsing, switching from function to function, and for powering the cameras. There are a couple of options for operating the cameras; you can tap the onscreen camera icon for photos or videos, or click the Enter button on the keyboard. But with the larger Kin Two, you’re going to be doing a lot of shooting in landscape mode, so you might want to make sure you have both hands free.

Microsoft Kin Two

The Microsoft Kin Two

One neat feature of the OS: the “Spot,” a place to drag just-captured photos and other information that gets it off the screen but saves it for instant recall. Hold a photo until it takes on a border, than drag it to the spot and it shrinks down to nothing. Tap the spot and the photo reappears on a new screen, ready for sharing or storage.

Speaking of stroage: Microsoft and Verizon are also playing up the Kin Studio, the PC-based cloud system that backs up everything you shoot and enter from the Kins.

The Verdict

The Kins aren’t going to make anybody forget about the other smartphones currently dominating the market and the techno-media, but they are a marked improvement for Microsoft. Judging from the lower prices (US$49 for the Kin One, $99 for the Kin Two, both with two-year voice and data plans), Microsoft and Verizon Wireless seem to be banking on the Kins as perfect gifts for graduating seniors that won’t break a parents’ checking account.

That is, as long as Sally and her brother didn’t have their hearts set on iPhones or HTC Incredibles.

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