Microsoft reenter’s smartphone business with Surface Duo… or has it?
I am a little late writing this blog post, since Surface Duo was released late last week on September 10th (Shop now) and since then, any tech website or Youtube you visit are all filled with Surface Duo’s reviews.
Since I don’t have Duo in my hands so I cannot give my own hands on or a written review. But I am a Windows Insider, a Most Valuable Professional (MVP) for Microsoft which gives me little privilege to speak to Microsoft engineers, other MVPs around the globe, and also watching a lot of Youtube reviews has given me pretty solid information about Surface Duo.
Let’s get few details out of the way before I get into what I actually think about Surface Duo and why most of the tech reviewers have got something wrong.
Surface Duo is Microsoft’s latest ambitions for what it feels is a new category defining device, just like in 2012 when they first released and no one paid attention to the first Surface Pro. It took 3 generations for Surface Pro to come to its full realization and seek attention from broad general public.
Microsoft does not call this device a phone, even though it can take calls. Surface Duo isn’t running any variant of Windows this time round, instead it runs Google’s Android v10. Under Satya Nadella, anything is possible!
Surface Duo has modest internals like last year’s Snapdragon 855, 6 GB of RAM, 128 or 258GB of storage, 11MP single camera lens, a mono speaker, and just like everyone else on the planet mentioned this, so will I.. Duo does not have 5G, no NFC and no wireless charging. There you go, I said it. Not that I care about any of it, 5G or NFC. 5G is far from wide coverage yet.
Mr. Panay (Chief Product Officer at Microsoft) has said in various interviews that this device has been in the making for a long time, and to him this is a version 3 internally. Going by the raving hardware reviews specially that “hinge”, which does the magic of joining the two 5.6″ displays, when laid flat at 180 degrees angle, it gives a tablet feel of 8.1 inches, is indeed sheer hard work and something they must have worked on for a long time to get to this perfection. The device can be folded all the way back to 360 degrees to operate it as a single screen (regular smartphone posture). Microsoft provided some details on what makes the Duo’s screens special:
Duo uses a custom pixel stack and each set of panels undergo extensive color and luminance calibration. We developed a new manufacturing processes to actively align pixels across screens. The proprietary digitizer algorithms even consider when you are crossing the seam with your finger, making it feel like it’s one fluid screen. Within the Dynamic 360-degree hinge, custom designed cables connect the displays to work together, across a variety of postures. We designed a completely new dual system architecture to deliver optimal performance and battery within the thinnest, lightest design possible. Every detail from the layout of the motherboard and multi-cell battery to the placement of inertial sensors, mics, and antennas was purposefully designed to unlock an entirely new interaction model across two screens.Microsoft
Some folks have complains for the bezels, like, we are in 2015 or something. And I understand it. From an engineering point of view, there is so much that is packed under those bezels and at 4.8mm when unfolded, this is the slimmest pocketable device. Even when folded, it is only a little taller than iPhone 11 Pro.
So far, no reviewer has complaint about the hardware, they have all actually praised it. But when it comes to the software, things get little dramatic.
Most of the tech pundits have actually given very low rating to the overall user experience of the operating system and the number of bugs they have come across are too many. You see, unlike other manufacturers like Samsung, who have forked out Android OS and have customized it to suit to their needs, it is why Z Fold2’s folding works way better. Microsoft on the other hand, is making the Duo stuff work natively to the OS. By Duo stuff I mean, all the summersaults Surface Duo does with its different postures like the Tent mode, Compose mode, Read mode, the software sometimes does not adapt to the posture the user has switched to. The whole experience moving between different postures is currently a bit jarring. For example, Daniel Rubino from Windows Central noted in his review that SwiftKey (the default keyboard on Duo) at times misses/or is slow capturing the strokes, making the the typing experience a little frustration in the touted Compose posture. And of course, the underwhelming camera quality and performance.
The fault here isn’t Microsoft’s entirely. As mentioned above, Microsoft has not customized heavily the Android OS, instead, it is working closely with Google to bring the Dual experience natively to the OS. The good side to this is, other smartphone manufacturers can gain benefit of Dual screens as well and can make their own dual-screen hardware of their own. Also, this should make easy for Microsoft to release newer versions of Android operating system, say Android 11 release fast on their Surface Duo. Because they are already using a lot of core Android OS rather than twisted and customized it so much that releasing a new version for their hardware becomes an issue. So what is the bad side of this. The bad side is of course all the software issues I’ve mentioned above. The truth is, Android 10 that Duo is running isn’t well equipped to run or understand dual-screens and different usage scenarios. But since, the manufacturer of this device is Microsoft, the receiving end of the bad press is also Microsoft.
Coming to my own take of Surface Duo. You see, most of the tech reviewers are trying to compare the Duo with the existing/known territory of smartphones. Comparing it to the likes of iPhones, Samsungs, how superior the camera systems are of those devices vs how bad it is for Surface Duo.
Quite frankly, there is nothing like Microsoft Surface Duo in the market currently. Surface Duo, is a different idea and a different concept altogether. For that same reason, Microsoft does not like calling Duo a phone, because Duo is so much more than just a phone. Surface Duo happens to make calls in a pocketable form factor, otherwise, it is more of a productivity device to compare notes, write emails, scroll through a website on 1 and write notes on the other, or run Microsoft Teams meeting on one side and write notes or view PowerPoint on the other. There are just too many different ideas and workflows that Surface Duo is capable of, and, which a regular smartphone even with their giant screen sizes cannot.
Microsoft never intended this device to compete with iPhone 11 Pro or Note 20 Ultra, but it has created a new device category as it did with 2-in-1 Surface Pro tablets and Apple did it with iPads.
I am absolutely not saying that you should run and buy a device (which currently is only sold in the US) that has a price tag of whooping $1,400 with meh camera and yesteryear’s internals. What I am telling you, you need a Surface Duo because you need a Surface Duo. If you are the type of person who is deliberating between a OnePlus, Samsung, iPhone or should you buy Duo, then you are already not the audience. Surface Duo is a unique device on its own, and if you care about what the Duo offers rather than what it does not compared to regular smartphones, than you have a very tough decision to make.
What I agree with most of the tech reviewers is the overall software experience, the bugs, the jarring effects, the lousy SwiftKey keyboard. I strongly believe, Microsoft should have then delayed the device and tweaked the OS. There is no reason for Microsoft to throw out the device and start releasing monthly updates to fix those issues. It is still a $1,400 device, that’s a lot of money they are asking from us, and the least they need to provide us is give us the best user experience. The targeted audience can live with less stellar camera quality, or no 5G and NFC but what even the Surface lovers and productivity audience cannot take is a bad overall software experience. Nevertheless, the good side of the coin is, it is still software, which as Microsoft has promised will be releasing monthly updates for features/bugs/security patches. In the next 3-4 months, I believe a lot of the software side of the complains should iron out. We will have to wait and watch.
Let me know your thoughts in the comments. Peace.