Teens and smartphones: Coolness is key

'You know the Kin One is more feminine that the Kin Two. And you'd never see a guy carrying around a purple BlackBerry.'

Ask a group of high school students what they think of the latest smartphones and cell phones and you'll likely hear a lot of "It's so cool" or "I hate it," with very little in-between.

Computerworld recently asked four high school juniors and one senior, ages 16 and 17, to look at the new Kin One and Kin Two social-networking phones from Microsoft, HTC's Droid Incredible, with its speedy 1-GHz Snapdragon processor, and the less-than-brand-new Palm Pre Plus and Pixi Plus.

They gathered around a table in a coffee shop in suburban Boston one afternoon and heard descriptions of the phones by two Verizon Wireless consultants who sell the five devices, in addition to dozens of others.

The teens also got to hold the devices and use them briefly, leading to plenty of comments about ergonomic features -- basics like size and weight, but also details, such as whether the surface was too slick and might make the phone easy to drop. Color was also important. The presence of a physical keyboard, for easy texting, seemed to be the most important feature (keyboards are included on the Kins and the two Palm devices), although the Incredible's touchscreen-only keyboard eventually impressed two diehard Qwerty keyboard fans.

Showing how much look and feel really matter when it comes to choosing a phone, Evyn repeatedly remarked when holding the square-shaped slider Kin One: "This phone is so cute. I love this phone. I really like the size of it."

All four of her friends, however, said the Kin One's keyboard was too small. They favored the larger rectangular slider and keyboard of the Kin Two, even though it was not their ultimate favorite device.

As it turned out, only two of the students (Skylar and Anthony) picked the same phone, the Incredible, as their favorite from the handful of phones demonstrated. The others picked the Kin One (Evyn), the Palm Pre Plus (Julie) and the Palm Pixi Plus (Emily).

Phone choice is personal decision

The fact that four of the five teens picked a different phone as their favorite bolstered Verizon's view that cell phones are extremely personal devices. That means it's a good idea for the carrier to offer dozens of models and a choice of operating systems in an attempt to reach the widest possible audience, Verizon officials said. That marketing approach could be making a difference: Verizon is the largest wireless carrier in the U.S., with 90 million customers.

Besides assessing the look and feel of the devices, the teens shared some other impressions: Without a doubt, they all care most about texting, followed by voice calling, with Web browsing at the bottom of the list. Gaming via a phone app didn't even register with this group.

Using a phone to store songs (which are purchased separately) was a low priority; playing a music stream with an application such as Pandora was more important. Two students said keeping songs on a phone made little sense. Emily explained that when she tried to port ring tones from an older phone to a newer one, her carrier at the time wouldn't allow it. Verizon said it was aware of that problem and now sponsors a service to make it easy to retrieve songs and other media stored in the cloud for easy installation on a new phone.

Taking good photos was a high priority. But the group was divided on the value of video chat, which may be available on upcoming phones -- the next-generation iPhone, which will arrive this summer, is rumored to support video chat.

"Video chat would kill your battery," Emily declared. But Julie said she would welcome having video chat on a personal mobile device, especially after having experienced problems moving from videoconferencing on a Mac at home to a PC with a different video format.

(Several of the teens asked when Verizon would be getting the iPhone, now sold exclusively by AT&T, and one of the Verizon reps smiled coyly and urged them to "read what you find on a Google search about that." Hearing that, two in the group piped up. One said, "That means you are getting it." The other said, "It means you aren't getting it." Go figure.)

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