Surface Duo: Made for an office culture that no longer exists

Redmond built Surface Duo clearly for its own employees and on-the-go campus culture. But it doesn't make sense in a work from home scenario.
Written by Jason Perlow, Senior Contributing Writer

You've probably heard about the release of Surface Duo, the dual-screen folding Android device Microsoft recently announced. It is available for pre-order and shipping to customers in early September for $1,399.

 For that much money, you get:

  • 128GB of storage (256GB of storage will cost you $100 more, and there's no MicroSD expansion slot).
  • Included in the box: 18W charger, USB-C to USB-C cable, and a protective case that looks more like an iPhone bumper. 
  • Android 10.
  • No 5G, no Wi-Fi 6. It seems like Microsoft missed the boat.
  • Snapdragon 855 processor, 6GB of memory, and a 3,800mAh battery.
  • Two 5.6-inch Pixel Sense displays providing 8.1 total inches of usable space -- with a considerable gap in-between screens. 
  • Single front-facing camera. It remains unclear how you'll take photos -- nothing has been shown about the camera with the device folded, the second screen as a viewfinder, or whether you can only take selfies. 
  • Surface Pen support. However, it's unclear when/where you can use the pen outside of OneNote. 
  • Monaural speaker. Not even stereo. 

Potential benefits of Microsoft as an Android device OEM

I'm conflicted about how I feel about this product. On the one hand, I am excited about Microsoft returning to the mobile device business. I thought it was a shame so much talent left the company when it stopped making Windows Phone and Windows Mobile devices. There's a lot Microsoft can bring to the table with mobile devices, particularly in business, especially with the enterprise cloud services like 365, Azure, PowerBI, etc. 

In a sense, the company has been rebounding in the mobile business for quite some time, with a full suite of Android and iOS apps that are very popular, including its quite excellent Launcher for Android, which is presumably showing up in the Duo as its default UX. 

The other thing I am excited about with the prospect of a Microsoft Android device is Microsoft support, particularly as it relates to routine patches and Android updates, which has not been the forte of the Android OEMs at all. If Microsoft can support its Android devices for three years or better, it would eliminate much of the downsides of being an owner of most OEM Android devices.

The price is ridiculous, and the specs are underwhelming

As excited as I am to see a new Microsoft mobile device, It's costly, and I don't see anyone other than an early adopter or a Microsoft software developer going for this thing. 

I also have some concerns about these specs. For a device that seems primarily positioned toward business document editing and reading, 6GB seems memory underpowered. That amount of memory felt constrained on the Pixel 4/4XL with the same RAM and CPU, and I would expect with Microsoft's many software enhancements in the UX, it will also feel underpowered while using hefty apps like Office and Adobe Acrobat.

There's also the battery issue. I'm not sure 3,800mAh is truly enough for a dual-screen device sporting that thirsty Qualcomm Snapdragon 855. That previous-generation SoC is less efficient than the current 865 and undoubtedly way less efficient than the 765, which I think, along with more RAM, would have been a more appropriate processor for this device. 

Obviously, this device has been under development for some time, and the bill of materials on it reflects 2018 to 2019 technology -- not what is currently being deployed by folks like Samsung or even Google.

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Who is this for and what problem does it solve?

This is a device designed to be used on a corporate campus, not in the home. It's clear to me Microsoft made this for its employees who want something more portable than their Surface laptops but need more of a content consumption device than a content creation device. And it's intended for use in places with significant campus IT infrastructure. 

But now it's questionable who is even showing up at the office in Redmond these days. With the COVID-19 pandemic, one can argue Duo arrived at the worst possible time. It's not all bad news, of course. Surface Duo may still have applications in the vertical industries such as medical, financial, aerospace, and transportation/logistics, which are used to spending a lot more money on mobile devices than consumers, but they may need more hardened cases and things like that. 

Can you replace a Panasonic Toughbook with a Duo and the right apps and a hardened case? Maybe. But we are not talking about a ton of volume shipments in the millions of units needed to address these sorts of customers; we're talking a few hundred thousand units needed, total. And the iPad and other Android tablets already have a lot of traction in vertical markets. Thus, something particularly unique or compelling about the way this device can be used in those industries would have to become more evident -- and, right now, I don't see it.

I think a dual-screen device has some potentially interesting uses for a few different scenarios. If you work in enterprise documents and dashboards and are manipulating report data and all that, I can see why you might want one of these, or if you are in an engineering field role and need to look at technical manuals while working on something. That sort of thing. Perhaps a doctor in a hospital who wants to stuff the capabilities of a mid-sized tablet into the pocket of their lab coat. 

But you can undoubtedly do app multitasking on a $350 iPad Mini with its single large screen. Can you fold it in half, making it even more portable and fit into a small handbag? No, but I don't think that's a functional requirement for most people.

Although you can run content consumption apps on it, I don't believe this is a particularly useful entertainment device; this is a business device that replaces both smartphone and tablet and eliminates the need for a phablet. Surface Duo is an overkill device for a consumer and doesn't fit their typical use case scenarios.

Duo dead on arrival, or will Microsoft continue with Android?

The dual-screen setup may be where the unique value play is for most customers, but I don't think the hardware compels me as a potential user of Surface Duo. It isn't enough to lure me into placing a pre-order, certainly. I decided to pass this time.

More than anything else on the device, I am interested in Microsoft's software stack: What modifications did it make to Android above just stuffing its launcher and apps on it? I've used (and enjoy) its launcher and apps on all my current Android devices, so the idea of a fully integrated Microsoft Android device sounds like a great idea to me. 

I just don't want it to be limited to use on a $1,400 device with an esoteric form factor like Surface Duo. 

Instead, I'd like to see Microsoft introduce products with the same software stack and industrial design -- ideally, on a $600 business handset with a single screen (Surface Solo?) or $300 8-inch tablet.

Are you more excited about Surface Duo's hardware, or its software stack? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

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