Katherine Boehret

Microsoft Reaches for the Sky With Its Kin Phone

Finally, after years of churning out corporate-centric smartphones, Microsoft has designed a homegrown, cool and truly consumer-focused mobile device. It’s called the Kin (kin.com), and it comes in two versions, Kin One and Kin Two. Both will be available exclusively from Verizon Wireless (VZ) and in stores on May 13 for $50 and $100, respectively, after a $100 mail-in rebate and two-year contract.

For the past five days, I’ve kept the Kin One with me at all times, using it for social networking, texting, emailing, phone calls, Web browsing and capturing photos and videos. This 3.9-ounce gadget is about the size of a large makeup compact. It has a slide-out QWERTY keyboard and a 2.6-inch square touch screen that responds to gestures like swiping, pinching, double tapping, dragging and dropping. Friends who handled it each had the same first impression—that it felt sturdy in the hand. (The Kin Two, which I used but didn’t test as extensively as the Kin One, looks more like the iPhone, but with a cleverly hidden, slide-out QWERTY keyboard. It offers 8 gigabytes of storage, a 3.4-inch touch screen and the same new software features as the Kin One.)

Pop-Up Clouds

The Kin One has several fun features. It makes all sorts of funky sounds when different buttons are pressed, and it displays content in clever ways, like text messages that pop onto the screen in dialogue bubbles. The home screen, called the Kin Loop, is a colorful collage of photos and status updates from social networks including Twitter, Facebook and MySpace. A finger swipe to the left from the Loop home screen shows the device’s apps, while a swipe to the right displays a photo collage of favorite contacts. A round dot at the bottom of each screen, called the Kin Spot, gives people a place where they can drag and drop almost anything to save for sending later.

The real wow factor of the Kin starts when you get back to your computer. By logging into kin.com with the same username and password used to set up the Kin, you’ll reach Kin Studio, an online repository for activities performed with the device, laid out in timeline style. This includes photos and videos, which are automatically synced to the Studio about five minutes after they’ve been captured—with no extra steps on the user’s part. It shows phone calls, text messages, and contacts. All of this content is viewable by month, week, or day.

Magic Moment

The first time I opened Kin Studio felt like magic. An entire website was created to hold my Kin’s content, yet I had done absolutely nothing extra to put it there. I’m the kind of person who never plugs her mobile device in for syncing, so this over-the-air backup is ideal for me. I saw photos that I didn’t remember taking and enjoyed watching videos captured with the Kin on a larger computer screen.

The Studio is a huge plus for the Kin in two respects. For one thing, if someone loses a Kin, its content is still saved on this site. More importantly, because all photos and videos are automatically stored online, the uploading from the device has already been done. When photos or videos are shared from Kin, the phone triggers the Web-based Studio site to do the sending—a great use of “cloud computing.” This takes pressure off the already overloaded cellular network and lets people quickly send several photos or videos at once. This also helps to conserve the device’s four gigabytes of storage, since only a thumbnail of a file resides on the device.

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Microsoft’s $50 Kin One

But for a device that focuses on social networking, the Kin falls short in some respects. Twitter fans will be disappointed that it can’t retweet updates or direct message other Twitter users from within a tweet; instead, they must use a clumsy, manual process. Likewise, photos dragged into the Spot for sharing can’t be shared through Twitter. Kin owners using Facebook won’t know if friends have made comments about one of their status updates without going through three steps to read a screen displaying comments.

Also, this device’s 5-megapixel camera with a flash is supposed to do a good job of capturing photos and/or videos, in dark areas (like bars or clubs), but it produced fuzzy, hazy shots in normal and low light. It was significantly inferior to my BlackBerry’s 3.2-megapixel camera with a flash. The videos captured on the Kin looked better.

This is only the first version of Kin software and a Microsoft (MSFT) representative says that the company plans regular, over-the-air updates. These include two significant updates before the end of this year, in addition to a maintenance update that a company representative says will improve photo quality.

Apps on the Kin are currently limited to those bundled on the device—like Facebook, music and photos—and it won’t have third-party apps this year. Farther down the road, the Kin platform will merge with Microsoft’s Windows Phones and all the devices will have access to a common app marketplace.

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The Kins uses Kin Studio for online device backup.
Two-Day Battery Life

The Kin’s battery life estimate is two full days with normal use, making life easier for the type of person who forgets the device’s charger for a weekend trip. In my tests, it lasted from a Saturday morning until a Monday night without needing a charge, and though I only made a few short calls on it, this was still pretty impressive.

I had some trouble getting used to the Kin’s keyboard software. Typing wasn’t a problem, but its lack of autocorrect capabilities was. None of the first letters in my sentences were capitalized, and shortcuts like hitting the spacebar twice to type a period don’t exist. Nor are words corrected as you go: typing “youre” won’t automatically become “you’re”; “i” won’t become “I”; and so on. A Microsoft representative says this is intentional because so much slang gets autocorrected the wrong way, but it only made more work for me, which was annoying.

I carried my little Kin in a pocket or purse with no problem, and enjoyed reading the continuous stream of social-networking updates on the Loop. I selected nine friends as my Favorites, which automatically used their Facebook profile photos to create a small representative tile for each person on one screen. A two-finger touch on the Kin’s screen lets you rearrange tiles according to your preference. A small, silver button below the touch screen works as the back button.

I enjoyed grabbing content—like someone’s Facebook status, a photo or a website opened in the browser—and dragging it into the Spot. I did this by holding my finger on the item until a tiny icon representing it seemed to bubble up from the screen, and then I dragged it to the Spot dot at the bottom of the screen.

Goofy sound effects indicate when the item has been dumped into the Spot. By tapping the Spot, options for sharing appear, and thanks to the Studio, several items can be dumped into the Spot and then shared at once with no problem. The Spot works to share photos to Facebook, MySpace or Windows Live, and it can share videos to Facebook and MySpace. Using SMS, MMS, or email, the Spot can send photos, videos, websites, Web-search results, location, feeds, status messages, and tweets.

Searching the Web

I liked using the Kin’s browser. Its URL bar doubles as a search box and uses Bing, Microsoft’s search engine. Double tapping on the browser screen automatically zooms in on a Web page, and pinching two fingers on the touch screen zooms in even more.

Up to 10 email accounts can sync with the Kin, including POP or IMAP accounts and one Microsoft Exchange email account. For now, contacts will only sync for Hotmail and Exchange users.

Music can be pulled onto the Kin by syncing the device with Microsoft’s Zune software or by using the Mac Sync program to sync iTunes playlists—as well as iPhoto libraries—to the Kin. A Zune Pass, which costs $15 for one a month or $45 for three months, enables over-the-air streaming and downloading of tracks and is offered as a 14-day free trial for Kin buyers.

Though Microsoft’s Kin One has some polishing to do on its camera and on its social-networking tools, it’s a uniquely attractive device that’s a pleasure to use. I only wish all mobile devices had worry-free backup websites like the Kin Studio.

Email mossbergsolution@wsj.com


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