The Surface Duo is not a phone

The Surface Duo is not a phone

I've been looking at the Dual screen phone market for the last month wondering if the Samsung Fold is worth it, would a Flip work better, could I deal with the lack of Android on the Huawei foldable or is the Surface Duo the option.

The price of the Surface Duo has dropped considerably since its launch, but it was actually using a Samsung Fold that started me investigating the Duo.

The Samsung is a nice device, however that screen, it's a few years off being a proper fold-out phone for long periods of time. No doubt it will get better as Samsung seem heavily invested in this tech, right now you'd be hard pushed I think to spend the money Samsung is asking for a technology they are still having intermittent issues with down that fold.

So why isn't this a phone?

This is a PDA for the 21st century that has the ability to make and receive phone calls. To measure this device against any modern phone is an apple to oranges comparison and totally unfair.

This device is about workflow, about information, about doing more than one thing at a time on a handheld device, it's not about taking x100 zoom shots, or the best nighttime selfie. It's not about 100-megapixel cameras, hi-res OLED screens either. It's about all those other things a phone does. It's about taking notes, taking video conference calls on Zoom or Teams and having both apps available at the same time.  

The point of this device is I'd suggest pretty clear, it's a consumer-driven device for the Work from Home generation. The on the move generation, people who work from their phones and whose phones work for them.

And yes, all you people out there reading this I'm fully aware that the Surface Duo is "a phone", the point I'm trying to make here is it's not a phone first and foremost, it is a device going right back to the roots of what a PDA was. Sure you can argue that the "smartphone" is the obvious next step and that for 1.7 seconds Microsoft had the phone ring at the end of an advert so that implies this is first and foremost a phone. You might think I'm approaching this because the Surface Duo's phone isn't that good.

I'm not, I strongly believe that to compare this device like a phone to a Samsung Galaxy, Oneplus or any other flagship phone is wrong.  They are just not the same thing, they are not designed for the same people and are not like for like comparisons.

So please, don't take the clickbaity title literally, by the letter of the unwritten law of the Reddit commenter who is incapable of seeing nuance and sees the world only in black and white.  Yes, your ego is correct and intact, this is indeed a phone, for the rest of us who can see past labels, this is not just a phone.

Above all, this is a good device

Who's this phone for?

It's actually easier to determine who this device isn't for, if Instagram, likes on Facebook and photography with your mobile are your thing, this isn't the device for you. If gaming is your thing, buy a console... If thin, sleek, slabs of carbon fibre which all resemble an iPhone or something close to it are your thing this isn't the device for you.  

This is a device for people looking to get things done, while they are on the go.

This is a device for people who understand that in generation 1 of anything it's never going to be perfect especially when you're doing something new on a platform not designed to really do what you want to do.

This is a device for people who understand that Microsoft wants this to work, will take the feedback and apply monthly fixes to improve the experience.

Internet moans

Before I bought my Surface Duo I did what many people reading this will have done. I watched YouTube videos, read online reviews and watched the price of the device tumble.

There is certainly a very specific trend when it comes to this device, which I am the first to concede after almost 12 months since its release and a LOT of updates on the device its vastly improved from those 11 month old reviews.

However, my god the internet moans, and in this case, today, 12 months later, to go back and hear the complaints two things spring to mind.

1) There are a lot of "Tech Influencers" who need to pull their head out of their arses and realise they didn't really know what they were reviewing.  As I've said above, this isn't a phone it's a device for grown-ups.

2) Kudos to the people who stuck with this device and worked through the issues with the updates over the last year. Shane Craig (scaryifliteral) springs to mind.

Before you continue to YouTube

Never met the guy, spoken to him, however, he has a set of honest, helpful videos on YouTube which make a difference.

Suffices to say, if you've not bought a Surface Duo yet, and are still on the fence the price drops, don't read or watch anything on the device before July 2021

So what's it actually like?

Enough with the preamble, what is this device actually like? I'll cover below the things I think are important about it and my opinion on them. I've been using a OnePlus 8 pro for almost a year and Android since day 1 (barring a couple of years on Windows Phone 8). I use my phone a LOT, I do most of my work on it, I've been a sysadmin for over 30 years and use a lot of tech. So I'm a nerd.

Hardware

Upon pulling this out of the packaging, I was honestly shocked at how thin this device is.

It's not much thicker than my Oneplus 8 pro with a case on, it's light yet it feels sturdy, it feels like it won't break through bending. The two screens part open with a nice amount of pressure, just enough to know it's not going to flap open, but you don't need to apply a huge amount of pressure to open and it shuts nicely as well, no snap that you might think the screen is going to break, more akin to a draw with a buffer on it that slows the close.

It's small, well in my sausage hands it is, I only say that because the YouTube community seem to have small hands which make the device look massive and it's not it's a good palm size.

The device, however, is a slippery bugger, reminded me of my old HTC One which i loved the brushed aluminium of but that thing was destined to slide out of my fingers or off a table at some point and I feel this device will do that same thing to me.

The back of the phone is covered in glass, and I'm sure the marketing brochure will tell me it's some form of military-grade has been to space, gets chomped on by a shark in the testing glass. Facts are Facts and it's going to slide out of my hand onto the floor and break at some point without a cover or skin.

Bottom line

This feels like a premium device, it's a good weight, it's thin, it will fit in your pocket it just needs a little safety added to make sure it doesn't slide off that coffee table.

Screens

When you open the device and see those two screens some things pop into the old noggin.

  • These are two nice size screens
  • These are two bright screens and the brightness is just 50%
  • The balance of the two screens is nice
  • They are responsive touch devices.

I'll be honest, it was lovely, it was feeling like I was in the year 3000 having both screens there, this feels like something different, something positive, something which immediately feels comfortable.

The screens are bright, responsive, rotate seemed to work well..

Performance

I don't play games on my phones so I can't tell you how whatever the current game plays on this. I can tell you that when I open multiple apps, it's still a smooth experience. When I run Zoom or Teams, it works well, when I'm using a stylus in Onenote, it's got minimal lag and all in all this device is no different to my OnePlus in responsiveness.

It's as I'd expect from any modern phone or tablet running Android.

Battery

Battery for me is key, I have 12 hrs a day sometimes between travel and being in the office. I need a device that can have battery left at the end of the day and I can listen to music or podcasts with, watch some YouTube or do video conferences with.

While I am sure this won't be the case forever, this weekend provided some home.

I unplugged the battery at 08:00 on Friday Morning, and at 23:00 on Sunday evening it had 34% charge left. I got all my emails, messages and other notifications. I read some Flipboard, I cast some videos to the TV.

I'll explain more below, but I think there is an accessory for this device that enhances the experience and also stops the biggest battery drainer of all, the screen (on any phone or tablet) from playing quite such a demanding role on the battery.

Realistically I think you can expect about 10hrs out of the Battery under normal usage.

Camera

The camera gets a lot of hate online on this device and not for the photos, which are average, not terrible, great for scanning in receipts and taking candid photos of whiteboards, but for the speed.. The report is it takes a couple of seconds from button press to snap on the stock camera.

I experienced this, and i'm up to date patch wise in Sept 2021. The de facto answer seems to be to sideload an APK of an adapted gcam package.

Personally, I installed Camera FV-5 and it worked fine

Camera FV-5 - Apps on Google Play
Professional camera app that brings DSLR manual photography controls to Android.

No lag, good pictures, great app..

Fullscreen

Ah yes, the "most apps don't support the 2 screens" whine...

I don't think that's the point of the two screens, sure when you do open an app like Youtube Music or Outlook which supports both screens it's nice. The power of the Duo is the ability to launch 2 apps side by side. So much so that out of the box there are shortcuts set up for examples of how to do this.

Seriously though being able to open Teams on one side and take notes in OneNote at the same time on the other the first time you do it is amazing and at that point, you start to understand the power of the Duo

Launcher

Finally, there is the Launcher, it makes perfect sense for Microsoft to use their own Microsoft Launcher on the device, however, what I did find strange were a few of the features of the one on a stock android device were missing. Not that it made any real difference because I've moved to use Launcher10

Launcher 10 - Apps on Google Play
A highly customisable and fast launcher for Android

Taking on the guise of the Windows Phone 8 Launcher concept the team have added some features for the Surface Duo and for me, this works perfectly for how I'm using the phone.

Its bigger icon's better use of screen real estate work for me.

Accessories

Other than realising this isn't a phone, it's a device and that running two apps at the same time is a thing there is something else you really need to know about this device.

Accessories are key...

You do not need any of these items, however, each one of them adds something a little extra to the Duo experience.

Smart Watch

I've got a Skagen Falster 3 watch, it runs WearOS and its a pretty much stock Android Wear experience

Why am I telling you this? Simple I think it's key to the extended battery life I've been seeing on the phone this weekend.

The biggest power drain on any phone is the screen, x2 the screen and you've got more battery drain. Each time you get a notification you pull it out of your pocket and open it, find the notification, open the app to read and then close down.

This all takes battery, and in many cases time. If you get a lot of notifications (as I tend to) the added "necessity" (first world problem coming up) of opening the phone up to read them is a pain.

Enter the WearOS device that has been sat on my nightstand for 6 months...

I actually paired them up because the Surface Duo has no NFC built-in, and I am invested in Google Pay and not carrying cards or cash. WearOs supports NFC on this watch so I can make Google Pay payments using the watch.

The side effect of this however was not needing to reach for, open, and check notifications directly on the phone. I just check them on the watch.

This pairing works well for me and I'll keep track of that battery usage.

Stylus

Ever since the first Microsoft Windows CE PDA's came out back in the early 2000s (I was an HP Jornada Owner) Microsoft have been about the stylus..

Jornada (PDA) | Wikiwand
The Jornada was a line of personal digital assistants or PDAs manufactured by Hewlett-Packard. The Jornada was a broad product line that included Palm-Size PCs, Handheld PCs, and Pocket PCs. The first model was the 820, released in 1998, and the last was the 928 model in 2002 when Compaq and HP me…

Even after Apple launched the iPad, Bill Gates was still adamant that you needed a Stylus.

Bill Gates: The Pen Is Mightier Than the Finger in Tablet Computing

You can use this device for 99.9% of things without the need for a stylus, it's an Android Device and they are not built for pens they are built for fingers.

That 0.1% is handwriting, having that second screen available, and using OneNote or Evernote, if you're able to use a stylus to write on Glass, being able to take handwritten notes is a great feature.

The Official Microsoft styluses are mighty overpriced, and I opted for a 3rd party one I've had zero issues with.

Stylus Pen for Surface Pro - Eraser & Right Click Button, Palm Rejection & Tilt, Stylus Pen Compatible with Surface Pro/Go/Book/Laptop/Studio/Duo Series - VITADE
Buy Stylus Pen for Surface Pro - Eraser & Right Click Button, Palm Rejection & Tilt, Stylus Pen Compatible with Surface Pro/Go/Book/Laptop/Studio/Duo Series at Amazon.

Bluetooth Headset

When the phone part of this device kicks in, be that the "phone", WhatsApp, Teams, Zoom or whatever your chosen communication path is starting to ring, you simply fold the device in half, make it "a phone" and answer the call...

I feel the same way about this personally as I do about notifications, the screens on, you're draining juice, just add a BlueTooth headset.

Your hands are free, if you're cool young and hip these can be some vendors "buds" otherwise anything that sticks in your ear with a mic will do...

Power

Does not matter what device/phone you're carrying, if it's core to your life for payments, travel cards, music, contact then at some point you will run out of power on that device.

Having a small powerpack with you is always useful.

I've read about one user who launched his camera before he left for the day and the phone was out of power 3 hrs later..

Charmast 10000mAh Mini Power Bank Quick Charge 3.0 USB C Battery Pack PD 18W Power Delivery Portable Charger USB C compatible with Smartphones, Tablet and More : Amazon.co.uk: Electronics & Photo
Free delivery and returns on eligible orders. Buy Charmast 10000mAh Mini Power Bank Quick Charge 3.0 USB C Battery Pack PD 18W Power Delivery Portable Charger USB C compatible with Smartphones, Tablet and More at Amazon UK.

I got one of these, it's small, light charges fast and is easy to put in the other pocket.

Case/Skin

As I wrote about earlier, the white shiny finish on the Duo is a refreshing change from the fingerprint, dust magnet black phone slabs other vendors are putting out there.

That comes with the risk of slip, drop or slide drop and screen smash.

There are not many what I'd like to use cases out there I could find, a few plastics or faux leather folio ideas. However, there are plenty of places doing skins with a textured finish you can apply to the device.

Thoughts

I've not brought up many of the issues with the phone because I purposely wanted this to be a positive first review of the device. Considering the effort put in to resolve bugs month in, month out, the use of Android 10 which really isn't set up for 2 screens and the poor reviews by people who don't know any better it seemed only fair to highlight the positive experience I have had so far with this device.

It still has overheating issues, its horizontal to vertical screen twist isn't as snappy as it could be, the lack of NFC is a serious oversight. Photos from the camera are not OnePlus 8 pro great.

I'm more than willing to overlook these things however because I've got a feeling if the device is updated to Android 11, and a few more bug fixes this will be a great intro device for so many into the world outside of the iPhone and generic Android plastic slabs.


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