Hands-On with Microsoft Kin One and Kin Two

Noah Kravitz
 from Oakland, CA
Published: April 12, 2010

The launch party for Microsoft's new Kin phones - two of 'em, set to hit Verizon in the US next month - is wrapping up here at Mighty in San Francisco. I just got some hands-on time with both devices, so look for videos soon.

What I really like about Kin is the extent to which Microsoft is really trying to revamp themselves. The Kin UI continues the much more visual approach that Microsoft is taking towards their new mobile products, as evidenced by Zune and Windows Phone 7. Kin's UI is kind of like WinPhone 7 with a healthy dash of "youthfulness," if youthfulness means color, irregularly-sized shapes, and a generally amped-up take on WP7's bold, panning, and highly typographic look at feel.

Kin will come in two flavors when it launches, both featuring toucshcreens, full QWERTY boards and the same software. Kin One is what was leaked as "Turtle," a vertical slider looks kind of like a slimmer, wider, shorter Palm Pre with a weird double-chin sort of design that leaves the sliding display flanked by the bottom half of the phone on top and bottom (See photo, it describes the design way better than my words do). The device will pack a five megapixel camera with SD video capture and flash, backed by 4GB of internal memory.

Kin Two is a more traditional-looking horizontal slider that steps up the multimedia specs with an 8MP cam, 720p HD video capture, and 8GB of internal memory. Both phones will feature WiFi in addition to 3G connectivity via Verizon's EV-DO network. Both devices also are compatible with Zune Pass, as they're the first phones to feature Microsoft's Zune Experience.

I got a brief hands-on with both devices and came away both impressed and concerned. I also got a look at Kin Studio, an Web destination that promises to both provide automatic wireless sync of Kin users' data (photos, videos, feeds, contacts, etc) while also displaying them in a highly graphic, timeline-based format accessible from any Web browser. Think of the Studio as a combination backup service and personal microblog.

Kin One isn't for me, based solely on the form factor. That's mainly a personal thing, as I prefer Kin Two's horizontal slider design, but is also an opinion informed by the experience of trying to navigate Kin's UI on One's smaller, square-shaped display. I had an easier time making sense of "The Loop" - Kin's MotoBlur-esque home screen that's chock full of status updates and RSS feed headlines - on Two's widescreen-style screen. I also like the layout of Two's QWERTY board better, mostly because it fit my hands a bit better. 

Both devices feature multitouch capacitive displays that support pinch-to-zoom photo and Web browsing, and also recognize two-finger taps. I saw the two-finger gesture used to select photos for editing, and was told that it's pervasive throughout other UI elements on the devices. Very cool - makes me wonder how else the gesture is implemented across the OS. The displays were bright and responsive, and given how visual and gesture oriented the entirety of the Kin experience seems to be, the integration of the touchscreen to UI elements and software performance will likely be pretty key to customer satisfaction when the phones hit store shelves.

My concern lies mainly with the business of the Kin UI. The Loop and features like "The Spot" - a system-wide drag-and-drop system for sharing status updates, Web clippings, photos and virtually anything else you like with contacts and social networks - are timely and look pretty well thought-out, but they rely heavily on Kin's hyper-caffeinated user interface. I didn't get enough time to really form a strong opinion, but I wonder if swiping and dragging through a heavily visual UI will prove more fun or more annoying than clicking through conventional text-and-icon menus on a regular basis. I'm not saying they won't be Awesome, Man!, I'm just saying that a few weeks with a Kin as your daily driver will tell you much more about its daily usefulness than watching a six minute demo can.

Still, the Kin launch was more exciting than I thought it'd be, and not just because I got to hit a nightclub on Monday morning. Microsoft is to be applauded for seriously making over their mobile offerings this year. Once Kin One and Two (and, later this year, the first WP7 devices) arrive, we'll be able to tell much more about the success of those efforts.

Products mentioned