KIN: The Bad, The Good, and The Awesome – A user account


21, 2010

I have now used KIN for a week. I bought my KIN One from the Microsoft Store in Mission Viejo, California. Because it had come out that same day (I was actually the first one who bought it, other than an employee), the process took a little bit of time, as they had to fix some things on my account. Overall the people there were very attentive, and although I would have liked to have applied my Verizon New Every Two discount, I was still happy to support my Microsoft Store.

My previous phone was an HTC/Verizon SMT-5800 with Windows Mobile 6.1 Standard (non-touchscreen). I liked that phone because it has both a keypad and full slide keyboard, and it has served me well, although it was already getting long in the tooth. In January, my contract ended, and my original plan, like most people, was to wait for Windows Phone 7 to come out in the fall. Indeed, I had looked at the leaked pictures of what was then called the Microsoft Pink project Turtle and Pure phones, and I thought they were the most uninteresting, and slightly ugly, phones ever. I’d also been reading about the whole Sidekick data loss fiasco, and about the disillusionment within the PMX team (feature cuts, resignations, possible sabotage, etc.), and I was of the opinion that Microsoft should have killed Pink.

At the same time, last fall I was also an early adopter of the Zune HD, picking up my pre-order the day it came out in September, and loving it since. This thing does almost everything: enough storage to put all my music, pictures, podcasts and video. Video looks superb on the device, as well on both HD and standard-def televisions. The games are fun and addictive. Overall it’s a gorgeous device, small and svelte, and I’ve definitely felt the device is worth the $300 I paid for it. Its one Achilles heel, of course, is that the morons at Microsoft decided not to put Bluetooth stereo on it, when most other high-end touchscreen MP3 players out there (iPod Touch and Samsung P2) have it. What makes this omission even more nonsensical is that the device already has WiFi and FM radio; what made them stop at that and not complete the picture with Bluetooth? It is a serious head-scratcher.

Anyway, so I had both my Windows Phone and my Zune HD. It was getting to be a pain having to carry them both around, because not only did I have to carry both devices, but also their respective charging cables. It got to be a tangled-up hot mess, but I was willing to endure this until September, when Windows Phone 7 would merge both my devices into one.
What, then, made me do a 180 and get the KIN, a device I had previously hated, and which seemed ill-equipped for a power user like me? Three simple acronyms: A2DP, AVRCP and 4G. I’m serious when I say that the one flaw of the Zune HD is its lack of Bluetooth Stereo. Upon learning that the KIN devices had A2DP and AVRCP (the ability to control play/pause/skip through a Bluetooth headset), I started seriously thinking about them a little more. Furthermore, I was already slightly uncomfortable with getting a Windows Phone 7 handset this fall, knowing that LTE would come out next year and make whatever phone I got instantly obsolete. Therefore, I changed my plans and decided that KIN would be my stopgap device until next year when I could get a nice 4G Windows Phone 7 handset.

The Bad
For this review I’d like to focus on things that have not been brought up in other reviews, as well as things that matter to me. At this point, I think most people are in agreement that KIN has more cons than pros. Even though Microsoft will never admit it, I think they know this, too, and hopefully they are busy fixing its flaws and it’s my hope that they push out a firmware update sooner rather than later, and that we get our promised “merging of the platforms” (Windows Phone 7 and KIN) very soon as well, hopefully as early as this fall.

First, the social networking. This is a big selling point of the phone, so it’s so bizarre that Microsoft didn’t get even this right off the bat. The most serious omission is that there are no alerts about new Facebook and MySpace notifications, or Twitter mentions/DMs. This is elementary, for goodness sake! Doesn’t Microsoft think you want to know the latest of what people have to say of your status/pictures/etc.? Then we have the KIN Loop, which is an area that is constantly fed with new status updates/etc. from all your social networking sites, plus your RSS feeds. What’s missing is a way to filter so you can exclude certain people/content, and prioritize others. So much with keeping up with your “Friends” friends, or however Microsoft is marketing that.

Oh, and then there’s an area where you can pin your favorite contacts, but this is just a glorified speed dial list, with no easy way of even rearranging your contacts, if that’s even possible. I would have thought that this would have been a secondary KIN Loop, with status updates and news from just your favorite contacts; that would have made more sense. It also would be nice if KIN would distinguish between Facebook friends, fan pages and groups, because although you can see status updates from fan pages and groups in the Loop, you cannot see them in your contact list or in universal search.

The one last thing I’ll say about social networking is the number of times I’ve used the KIN Loop: 0 times. The number of times I plan on using it in the future? 0 times. I think other KIN owners must feel the same way. Although sharing pictures/web pages is something you do, it’s certainly not something you do constantly, especially not from a phone, and certainly not enough to warrant it being a selling point for the phone. That feature just seems like an area of wasted resources.

The music experience (Zune) is also an area with some bizarre omissions and design choices. I’ve seen other reviews saying that the Zune player is the KIN’s saving grace; but being a day-to-day user of the Zune HD, I can tell you that’s far from the truth. This might not be a problem on the bigger Kin Two, but the KIN One Zune interface is very, very cramped. The interface has the same dimensions as the Zune HD, even though the screen has half the pixels. They really should have reduced the font size of everything by a little bit to give it some breathing room. My biggest pet peeve of the interface is that in the Now Playing screen you cannot slide the album art to the left to skip to the next track, like you can on the Zune HD (and from screenshots I’ve seen, on the KIN Two). Seriously, what was Microsoft smoking when they left that out?

Unless you have a Zune Pass, there’s no way for you to browse the Marketplace to sample and buy songs, which means that if you tag a song from the radio, you cannot instantly download it over 3G, not until you connect it to a computer and download it from the software. And then if you have Zune Pass, you’ll be missing on the greatest feature of the Zune ecosystem: Smart DJ. What was Microsoft thinking in leaving that out? It’s already on the Zune HD, how difficult would it have been to port it over?
Performance-wise, this phone leaves a lot to be desired. Scrolling is for the most part smooth throughout the interface except where it matters the most: the KIN Loop, which is very hiccuppy. And since the screen is already very small, you have to scroll with your finger constantly. I’m not very hopeful of the performance increasing on the phone, because the battery life is also very abysmal; definitely not the two days I’ve heard promised by Microsoft (I’ve gotten 2 hours listening to music and doing some light browsing on my daily commute). Something tells me the KIN is at its most efficient right now, and if so than that is some very bad news…

The Good
For all its flaws, there are a couple of things KIN does alright with. The camera has been heavily promoted by Microsoft, and for the most part I think they are right. In daylight the camera is amazing; it surprised me the first time I saw how sharp the pictures came out. In nighttime and evening, things are mixed. Close shots with the flash are alright, but forget about using the flash to take wide shots.

The RSS feed reader is a very nice, and puzzling addition to the KIN. I don’t know that their target demographic knows what an RSS feed is; nevertheless it will definitely serve a power user like me well. I just wish it wouldn’t show up in my KIN Loop; or rather, that I could have a KIN Loop that’s dedicated to JUST RSS feeds. I especially am looking forward to using the RSS feed reader in the KIN Studio; ever since Newsgator shut down, I’ve been meaning to find an online feed reader replacement that WASN’T Google Reader. Seriously, please boycott Google.
Anyway, there are also a bunch of little things I also like about the KIN: when you get an incoming call, it’s very cute that to answer it you “flip the page” (like you do when unlocking the phone). The ringtone selection is very nice, definitely themed, but for the moment it doesn’t make me go out and get ringtones of my own, although when I eventually do that, I’m not even sure how to load ringtones on it. Lastly, universal search (of contacts, web pages, places near me) is nice, especially since there’s a dedicated button for it on the keyboard. A sign of Windows Phone 7 to come…

The Awesome
Personally, in my opinion this phone’s saving grace, and the reason why I’ll endure it for a year or more, is the main reason I got it in the first place. This is the first Zune that has Bluetooth stereo, which is a very big deal. For 4 years Zune has suffered from having to use tangled-up headphones, and in this past year, a lack of buttons (i.e. no easy way to control your Zune HD via braille). And it’s not like we have an enormous ecosystem of third-party vendors that can easily make a Bluetooth stereo adapter to use (ahem iPod ahem). So personally I am very excited to finally being able to use Zune with A2DP, and to get my song plays counted. Although 4GB is not very good storage for any power user’s music collection, thankfully Zune has amazing sync groups, plus the ability to downconvert high-quality songs, so that I can listen to enough music and podcasts to get me through my day.

Closing Thoughts
As they remediate and improve this phone, I hope Microsoft keeps in mind its marketing talking points and makes sure it delivers on them. They first need to fix the obvious omissions and then make this a phone that is special and unique, and that would make people buy this over other phones with a $30/month data requirement. The KIN Spot seems like a lost area that few people will use at all, and even fewer people will use often. The KIN Two is probably better suited, at this point, for comfortable music navigation, until they fix the cramped interface on the KIN One. No matter for me, though, because I’ll be playing, pausing and skipping tracks with my Bluetooth stereo headset.

Thankfully, most problems I (and others) have with the KIN can be solved using firmware updates. The question is how soon relief will come. In the meantime, though, it’s a bearable enough phone, and there are definitely no show-stoppers that make me want to go back to Mission Viejo to return it.b7,

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