So I bought a thing this weekend. My Apple Watch showed up Friday, so I’ve been spending some time getting used to the new features, but that wasn’t the only new device I got that day. I had been looking at Surface Duo reviews and, while somewhat skeptical, I was still intrigued by the concept. There’s no absolute guarantee that dual-screen devices will be anything beyond a high-end honeypot, but there’s still something new and interesting here for us tech fans to get into.
There’s no way to know what you think about new technology without going hands-on. I finally saw where a local BestBuy had a Duo in stock late last week and decided to take the plunge.
It’s been an interesting, fun, unique, yet still frustrating experience so far. I’ve haven’t spent much time with Android in a while, so that has certainly been an adjustment. I’m a button-pusher by nature though, so it doesn’t take to long to figure out what’s changed in recent versions. But I won’t lie- this is not the OS I would like to see on this hardware. More on that later.
There’s also a learning curve involved with moving things between the Duo’s two screens, or using both screens together. And then there are the times when those gestures and functions break down, even when you perform them correctly. The Duo also gets confused over which screen should be active when you position the screens different ways. And then there’s that familiar split-second lag when shifting orientations on Android. I definitely remember that. All of that comes with life in the tech fast lane, I guess.
Anyway, here are a few early observations on the Duo after a few days with it.
The hardware quality is extremely impressive
This isn’t too much of a surprise, as most of Microsoft’s Surface hardware is extremely high quality. But considering the newness of the form factor, the level of polish is still pretty remarkable. You can tell a lot of thought and engineering time went into the design. This is especially true when you think about the effort it took to balance the two halves of the device.
Speaking of that, those two halves of the Duo are extremely thin. This means it is still as thin as most traditional smartphones when folded and comes in at around the same weight. It is noticeably wider than a traditional smartphone, which is a bit strange in a pocket but still manageable. That’s especially true for anyone like me who is already used to carrying a large device.
The Duo’s 360 degree hinge is especially impressive. The motion is smooth and fluid and it holds any position you put it in without issues. I believe the design will hold up for the life of the device, which you can’t always say about new designs. The hinge really is the best aspect of the hardware, in my opinion. That’s pretty important considering the nature of the device.
There are compelling use cases for dual-screen devices
Having a device with two screens may seem frivolous or unnecessary, but there really are instances where I have found the Duo legitimately very useful. Just something as simple as having your email and calendar apps open together without having to constantly flip back and forth between them or use them at half size is interesting. I do this all the time with my iPad Pro, but it’s different on a device that’s legitimately pocketable.
While several reviews pointed out early issues with multitasking performance on the Duo, it seems that Microsoft has worked most of that out at this point. That’s pretty important since multitasking is the primary reason this device exists. I know the Duo doesn’t have the latest processor or specs, but I never felt like that was holding it back.
I don’t feel inexorably drawn to this form factor, but that’s just me. I am enjoying my time with it, but it’s far from being something I can’t live without. My interest is more just as a tech fan who likes kicking the tires on new and unique devices. Still, I can understand why there are some reviewers who have gone crazy over some of the use cases that the Duo and the Galaxy Z Fold 2 unlock.
The Duo is also a device of compromises
This is sort of the way with novel devices. The same was definitely true of the original iPhone, as well. There are multiple rough edges and issues. In fact, the strongest aspect of the Duo’s design itself is a compromise. The 360 degree hinge is incredibly versatile, but it also prevents the screen from coming together to make a more unified single-screen experience.
That isn’t the only compromise, either. The Duo’s mediocre camera has been called out in most reviews. It is a product of the design constraints of the hardware and its 360 degree design. Then there’s the battery life, which is ok but not amazing. One side of the device can heat up quite a bit when pushing the device. The novel form factor makes creating a truly protective case for the Duo outside of a sleeve almost impossible, which is a legitimate drawback for a device that is glass all over.
This is going to be a recurring theme for dual-screen devices and foldables for the foreseeable future. For dual-screen devices, the tradeoff for multitasking capability and better looking, more familiar screen materials and technologies is the challenges to using the two screens as one. For a foldable, the portable big screen comes with a crease down the middle that can’t be unseen, durability concerns and lower grade screen materials. It’s going to take years for manufacturers to get around and past these obstacles. And in the meantime, buyers will pay a premium to help them further along that learning curve.
Surface Pen compatibility was a smart addition
Because a dual-screen device can be made with traditional glass panels, it is much easier to include active stylus compatibility. While I would love to see Apple take a swing at this form factor at some point, stylus compatibility is the part I most wish my iPhone had today.
I’ll never understand why Apple is so averse to doing this for the Pro iPhones, especially the Max version. The Pencil doesn’t have to dock to the phone or fit inside it. Leave that to Samsung and the Note. Just make it work, and those of who want to use one will carry it around and do it. I like having that option on the Duo and it was smart on Microsoft’s part to make their existing Pen compatible.
This device should be running some form of Windows
My biggest complaint about the Duo is simple. It’s Microsoft’s cowardice. Or maybe it was either laziness or apathy when it comes to Windows. Maybe my take on this is a bit edgy, but I’ve grown tired of coddling MS and giving them a pass over the years.
As a lifelong Windows user on the desktop, I wanted Microsoft to get their act together and make Windows 8 into something good that worked across multiple form factors. They failed. BADLY. Then I got my hopes up again when the rumors of Andromeda were floating around. Maybe Microsoft would FINALLY make touch more than a second-class experience on Windows. Maybe they could finally make a modern smartphone that leveraged the power of Windows. Nope.
Then there were the rumors of a dual-screen device and Windows 10 X leading up to a Microsoft event last year. I was busy at work that day and couldn’t follow the event live. When I read that they unveiled a phone, I got really excited for a moment. Then I read that it would run Android and I wanted to throw my iPhone through the windshield (please note that I wasn’t driving at the time). This was Microsoft’s final failure in mobile and the final notice that they will likely never really care about Windows again. What a disappointment.
For the record, I don’t hate Android. I just don’t like it. Maybe I’m just set in my ways, but I’ve never enjoyed using this OS and I still don’t. I’m not saying it’s bad or substandard in any way. For whatever reason, it just doesn’t fit the way I do things as well. Add in the fact that several apps and services that I use don’t exist on the platform and I just don’t have much interest in it. If this device ran on Windows, it would be a different story. I would be thinking more seriously about keeping it.
In my opinion, choosing Android for the Duo shows a major lack of vision on Microsoft’s part. It was literally the easy way out. Except it sounds like it still wasn’t particularly easy. Multipple articles and interviews suggest that Microsoft struggled to get the device optimized up until after hardware was in the hands of reviewers.
If this device was destined to be a struggle to produce a boutique smartphone that is geared toward hardcore Microsoft users and fans, then why wouldn’t they invest that time and effort into their OWN PLATFORM? You know, the one that still sucks to use with touch and is in the middle of a transition to ARM. What better way to take on those challenges than with a dual-screen smartphone?
Instead, Microsoft didn’t do the hard work required and produced a device with at least as many compromises as advantages. As a Windows user and someone who is deeply embedded in several Microsoft services for work and home, I still have no compelling reason to keep the Duo. I’ve heard the arguments and explanations, but they will never make sense to me.
The Surface Duo also undermines any hope I had that the Surface Neo would be a great device. At this point, I’m not sure it will every be any kind of device. The fact that it has been delayed indefinitely and Windows 10 X has already been re-framed as something not devoted to dual-screen devices just gives me more reason to believe that Microsoft isn’t truly committed to making Windows a better touch experience, or much of a better anything for that matter. Maybe they will get their ARM transition moving thanks to 64 bit emulation finally showing up, but I’ll believe it works well when I see it.
All that said, the Duo’s interesting hardware does mean that I will take a good, hard look at the Surface Neo if it ever does arrive. I can’t say that I have much hope that Microsoft will get it right this time, but there’s enough potential in a dual-screen device running an OS better suited to my needs to at least give it a shot if MS follows through next year.
Until then, I will continue to kick the tires on the Duo for a few more days. However, $1500 with tax is far too much to pay for a device that isn’t good enough to be my daily smartphone and runs an OS I just don’t enjoy using. It’s almost certainly heading back to BestBuy soon.
However, if you have any questions about it from an iPhone user’s perspective, feel free to ask in the Comments below or @iPadInsightBlog on Twitter.