It's All in the Family: A Closer Look at the Kin Phones

Last April 12, Microsoft unveiled a new line of phones in its “Time to Share” media event. Previously codenamed Project Pink, the phones were later christened the Kin phones. The Microsoft Kin phone promises to be a unique member of the diverse Microsoft phone family. Unlike the serious, no-fuss Windows Mobile platform and its more hip and modern Windows Phone 7 cousin, Kin appears to be the youngest, most gregarious Windows-CE based platform phone in the Microsoft family.

Kin can be seen as the offspring of Microsoft Mobile and Danger’s T-Mobile Sidekick, a.k.a. The Danger Hiptops. Developers from Danger, Inc., which was acquired by Microsoft in February 2008, were reported to be behind the development of the Kin phones. The Kin phones are also manufactured by Sharp, the same Japanese company that manufactured the Hiptops.

To date, there are two sibling Kins, which are prosaically named Kin One and Kin Two. Kin One is nicknamed the “Turtle” owing to its curvy square shape that looks like, you guessed it right, a turtle. Its main 320×240 QVGA display doubles as a capacitive touch screen, and it also slides out a tiny QWERTY keyboard that lies on top of the phone. It has a 5-megapixel camera with LED flash and standard definition video, mono speakers, and 4GB of internal memory. Kin One’s slightly heavier, pricier sibling, Kin Two (nicknamed Pure), has a larger 480×320 HVGA capacitive touch screen display, a side-sliding full QWERTY keyboard, 8-megapixel camera with LED flash, 720p high-def video recorder, 8 GB of internal memory and stereo speakers. Both phones run on 256 MB DDR RAM, and also has GPS, an accelerometer, Bluetooth 2.1, and a USB slot for charging.

Besides the usual phone specs, the Kins boast of new, social-network optimized features that promise to make social butterflies flutter with delight. The home screen of the phones, called the Loop, greets users with an aggregate of social networking info from Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, Windows Live as well as live web feeds. This means that you stay up-to-date at first glance, and can send back your retweets and status updates in an instant. Keeping socially up to tabs is aided by the Spot, which is an ever-present green dot at the bottom of the screen. Almost any content (text, photo, video, maps) can be dragged to the Spot and automatically sent out via SMS, MMS and email to contacts in the user’s Facebook, MySpace or Windows Live account. Support for uploading photos and videos to Twitter, however, is unavailable.

The Kin phones also boast of the Kin Studio, a newly developed server slash cloud storage service. All text messages, call logs, and contacts are backed up in the Studio. Photos taken on both Kin phones are automatically geocoded and uploaded to the Studio as well. Microsoft thus promises an unfailing backup (and a permanent log?) to precious data stored on Kin phones. The Kin Studio can be accessed with a browser, and you can do cloud searching on the Studio via your phone’s Zune-based browser.

Media playback on the Kin phones is achieved using Microsoft’s own Zune entertainment platform. It allows for streaming music via WiFi or 3G, however it does not have support for Flash so you cannot play YouTube or Hulu videos. There’s also a media sync tool to let Mac users grab media files from iTunes and iPhoto onto Kin.

For a phone that has lots of social networking promise, its inherent limitations make it one of those “it’s either-you-love-it-or you-hate-it” devices. For one, there is a 15-minute delay on updates for the Loop, which is frustrating to see in a phone that claims to be “always connected”. Kin also does not have support for Instant Messaging, which means you can tweet or post your status updates on Facebook but are not allowed to chat. On-the-go socialites who need to keep tabs with dates and appointments will also be disappointed with the Kin’s lack of any calender application and inability to sync with apps like Google Calendar. For a device that touts itself as a “social phone”, the social scope of the Kin phones can actually be quite limiting.

The biggest downside to Kin is the inflexibility of its application suite. The Kin phones do not support third-party applications, so the only apps that you can use on the phone are those it came with. For a “fun” phone that targets the teen-to-youth demographic, Kin has no games whatsoever, and of course, has no games for download. It lacks support for Flash and Silverlight, and has no photo editing software for picture-savvy tweens and teens. With the emphasis on data storage via the Kin Studio, the Kins do not have options for expandable memory – no microSD slots here, so downloading and watching gigabytes of video can also be a hassle.

In the end, the Kin phones do rise up to the Microsoft family name – particularly in its fierce brand protectionism. This inability to cooperate with and support other platforms and applications makes the Kins phones quite limiting in scope. The full set of factory-shipped apps, though, are still in the works, and tweaks can still be made until the phones are finally shipped. Let’s just hope that Microsoft has a change in heart and keep our fingers crossed.

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