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Kin: Does Microsoft's Socialphone live up to the hype?

"It's the phone I'd beg my mom for if I was 15 again. And didn't want an iPhone."

While reviews around the Internet have been decidedly mixed, Gizmodo's summarization of Microsoft's Kin is an accurate portrayal of the general attitude the technology press holds towards the new phones. Microsoft has built a lot of hype around the "socialphone", the smartphone that does little more than connect and aggregate your social networks into one portal, and some of the hype is being proved accurate. Much of it, however, is not. 

Cnet's Ina Fried took the phone for a spin for one workday and had this to say about the general quality of the phone.

"I'd summarize the phone as kind of like one's most eccentric friends. They are fun to hang out with every now and then, but they are not necessarily who you'd choose to live with every day."

Fried liked the phone's ability to seamlessly integrate social networks into a smooth, if sometimes laggy, software package. However, she was unimpressed with the lack of real-time updating of The Loop, the aggregator that displays the blend of social networking updates you subscribe to. By default, The Loop updates every 15 minutes, and Exchange email every 30 minutes. You can change some of these settings, but it won't ever be real-time, and Fried assumes that battery life would take a huge hit if the delay was lowered. On the subject of battery life, Fried was able to get 12 hours of battery life in her day-long test. This is a far cry from Microsoft's promised weekend-long battery life, and that was without too much heavy use. Fried places the phone somewhere between a smartphone and a feature phone, putting it in a generally awkward market position, a place where heavy smartphone users will miss features like a calendar, and socially addicted teens won't be using the phone to it's full potential.

Engadget applauded the general aesthetics of the phone, citing the "retro" look and feel as something they like in a phone. However, their review gives a decidedly negative judgement to both Kin phones. The screens are adequate, the camera does the trick, especially the Kin 2's 720p video, but won't turn any heads, sound quality is so-so, and it does aggregate social media well, but only on a limited number of services. For every positive, there is a negative. It's obvious that Engadget wasn't too thrilled with the phone. 

The software, the entire socialphone experience, took a harsh beating from Engadget. Their primary complaint can be summed up with the idea that the Kin is simply adding an abstract layer of activity over something that was simple to begin with, and making it needlessly complicated and cumbersome in pursuit of good looks and marketing. For example, the idea of dragging a social blurb to The Spot, the function that allows you to share content from the Kin with friends, is completely unnecessary. It doesn't actually make the activity of creating an email, attaching media to it, and sending it to a few people, any less complicated. In fact, Engadget complains that it it makes the process of sending a media-rich message more complicated, effectively defeating the purpose of the entire platform. For a set of phones that Engadget reports will cost $49.99 (for the Kin 1) and $99.99 (for the Kin2) on the Verizon network after a $100 mail-in rebate, and will force you to have a smartphone data plan, Engadget isn't recommending a purchase. 

Emphasizing the decidedly un-smartphone nature of the Kin series, Gizmodo highlights the complete lack of any ability to install applications and a severe shortage of basic and taken-for-granted features that a smartphone-like data-enabled phone would typically provide. Games, for example. There will not be any way to play a game on either Kin. This is, in their words, "a massive potential delbreaker." For a socialphone, the lack of any ability to play streaming web video content is a problem, as is the lack of a calendar, Xbox live connectivity (a Windows Phone feature), or any kind of GPS. Finally, for a phone that focuses on connectivity, you'd think there would be an HTML editor in the email client. There isn't, and the quality of messages sent from your Kin will suffer for it.

One thing that everyone can agree is an accomplishment is The Studio. The Studio backs up all your social data onto Microsoft's cloud, displays it in a nice-looking timeline on your personal Studio webpage, and allows you to access full-resolution versions of the uploaded media (with the exclusion of 720p video; this has to be synced with a PC first using Zune). Along with being the backup location for your phone, it also has a lot of the functionality of the phone, allowing you to share your Studio content through The Spot and letting you check The Loop. Gizmodo feels that this should be the model for cloud storage on mobile phones that all companies should be trying to emulate. 

Another general positive was the Zune experience. Engadget was generally impressed with the Zune service on the Kin, and reported that it only had a few minor flaws. You can't share Zune media like other media with The Spot, some of the albums available for download with the Zune Pass (that you can download over 3G) are "computer only", and you can only view the Zune UI in portrait mode.

Overall, the Kin didn't fare so well. It has a lot of innovative and original ideas that, unfortunately, are too bogged down in marketing and "cool" to properly address the big picture of social networking. Reviewers were put off by Microsoft's attempt to change the way you interact with your social networks, an attempt that ultimately makes the social experience more complicated than it needs to be. The few positives of the phone - the physical build of the product, its relatively long battery life, and the groundbreaking Studio - aren't worth the inherent flaws in the socialphone system Microsoft is selling, especially with the price tag of a true smartphone.

Image courtesy of Engadget

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