A Month With the Surface Duo

It’s been a month, a whole 30 days, since I took delivery of the new Surface Duo, unboxed it, and made it my daily driver. I wanted to give it some time, and let at least one software update drop, before I sat down to share my thoughts, so let’s do that today.

Some background: I’ve been an Android user since my HTC Hero in 2009, the first phone Sprint carried using the mobile OS. I’ve gone through HTC, Samsung, Sony and LG devices before becoming a huge fan of the Google Pixel devices, of which I’ve owned every one. My daily phone previous to the Surface Duo was the Pixel 4XL, and one of the main drivers for me to look outside the Pixel family is the noted lack of an XL model with the new release coming later this month.

For me, the Surface Duo was a new way to look at a mobile device, and maybe a chance to re-think how productivity that was usually managed on a laptop or tablet could translate to a device with a unique form factor.

The truth is that I think the Duo has way more hits than misses, but the misses are REALLY hard to live with on a day to day basis. Let’s walk through some of the high points first.

THE GOOD

  • The hardware is buttery smooth. Since I took it out of the box, the fit and the hinges have been great for me. It’s heavy, but not too heavy, the volume buttons have good travel and feedback on them, and the fingerprint reader is placed in a very convenient place, making it easy to tell the orientation of the phone by feel when you pick it up.
  • The screen is bright, and the colors are good.
  • The use of two screens natively, especially in the apps that are set up to take advantage of them, is spectacular and easily one of the best features of the phone. Outlook and OneNote in particular are really great experiences, with objects on the left, and items on the right.
  • Multi-tasking, and the concept of “app groups” is really useful. Having Teams on one side, and OneNote on the other, or Edge on one side and YouTube on the other, is an experience that simply can’t be touched by any Android phone that implements the standard split screen functionality.
  • The battery life isn’t terrible for a device with this much screen. It easily lasted me all day, and charged overnight. The charging was quick.
  • Gaming is a surprisingly good experience, especially ones that use an on-screen controller. I’ve been using RetroArch and playing everything across multiple systems, and it’s been great.
  • The “Microsoft Experience” is actually really good. If you want a platform to run Outlook, Office, Authenticator, and the rest on, they’ve really done a good job making subtle changes to the UI to take advantage of the form factor. Microsoft also did a good job leaving Android alone. This doesn’t feel like a Samsung device, where they’ve skinned or replaced or overlaid every element of the UI. Coming from a Pixel, I really appreciated this.
  • You really can use this as a replacement productivity device. Pair a Bluetooth keyboard and mouse to it, and it works fine as an e-mail, document writer (spoiler, I wrote about half of this blog post in exactly this fashion while sitting on my deck), and even development machine. The screen setup is really great for this use case, and it’s one of the things I feel like the Surface Duo gets right better than any other mobile device I’ve ever used.
  • The pen input is surprisingly great. OneNote in particular uses it really well, and it completely replaced the paper notepad I use to keep at my desk for quick things. Really well integrated and easy to pair together.

THE BAD

  • While the multi-screen is great when you are using both screens, the single-screen experience suffers. A lot. I’m not 100% sure, but it feels like there’s some software overlay that determines the “active” screen, and then positions the elements on the screen, but it’s finicky at best. The way it manifests is a very random, very annoying delay, especially when you bring the phone out of sleep. It’s REALLY frustrating, and easily my #1 day-to-day gripe. My hope was that a software update would address this, but the first one didn’t seem to change it at all.
  • In general, when using one screen, it feels like there’s a few things in Android that don’t really know how to keep up. The screensaver doesn’t know that only one screen is active, so things like the clock and alerts sit in the middle which is less than useful. The switching from screen to screen, usually to use the camera (oh yes, we’ll discuss the camera later), is a painful process: you have to flip the phone fast enough that the gyro senses it, tap the alternate screen quickly enough to have it register (see the previous issue), and then…..the app you had open doesn’t move to the new screen. Again, this feels like a gap between the Surface Duo form factor, and the Android OS standard behavior. It could be addressed with software at some point in the future, and would make a difficult situation (did I mention we’ll discuss the camera later?) somewhat better.
  • I miss wireless charging. That’s all.
  • You are pretty much stuck with the Microsoft SwiftKey keyboard, because there are so many places where any other keyboard, including the default Android/Google keyboard, doesn’t respond the way it needs to, or doesn’t resize itself properly. In a related comment, I really, really don’t like the Microsoft SwiftKey keyboard for so many reasons. This one surprised me a little, because I really liked SwiftKey before the acquisition, and I don’t know if this is as much a commentary on SwiftKey, or just me having gotten VERY comfortable with the default Google keyboard because I’ve had the Pixels for so long.
  • There are other default Android things that seem to not translate, whether it’s due to the screen size or the display ratio. Why doesn’t the pull-down menu span the entire width of the screen? Why doesn’t the keyboard sit flush with the bottom of the screen? How come opening a folder covers the entire screen, but I can’t put more than 9 apps on one page? Oh, here’s a good one: why can’t the default screenshot app tell when you are only using one screen AND ONLY TAKE A SCREENSHOT OF THE ACTIVE SCREEN? I’m so tired of having to crop every screenshot I take to get rid of an entirely blank screen, which is what you get from every orientation of the device..
  • This is probably a small thing…..but I don’t know that I’ve ever closed the phone with both screens inside. There’s no point. You can’t respond to alarms or see notifications, so it always stays open, using one screen or two. I’ve never had any issues with scratching, but obviously that’s going to happen since it’s sitting face-down on one of the screens.
  • The screen display ratio is great for productivity use cases, but it’s pretty bad for…everything else. Good luck finding a car mount that will fit, there’s simply no way most people can use this one handed, and the strange angles that you end up at with your hand placement means I’m constantly getting the app picker or Google Assistant when I wanted to switch apps, or pull down the menu.
  • The adaptive brightness isn’t nearly adaptive enough. I find myself constantly having to manually turn the brightness down when the room is dim, and having to turn the brightness up in brighter environments. Again, this seems like a software fix that could be made.
  • I don’t like the “bumper” that Microsoft includes. It’s only attached with adhesive, so you have to get it on perfectly, and it ruins the lines of the device, which are generally pretty sleek and thin.

THE UGLY

  • OK, let’s talk about the camera. Ohhhhhhh, the camera. This is the biggest pile of dogshit camera I’ve had on a phone in years. It’s like we went back to 2012, when you needed a tripod, and a floodlight pointed at a stationary target to get anything that looked good. it’s terrible. If that wasn’t bad enough, the cascade effects of the camera cause nothing but pain. The camera is the reason (there may be others) for the enormous bezel on the right screen, but in order to make the screens identical that means you have this enormous bezel on the left screen too, that doesn’t have anything in it. It’s not just bad in low-light, it’s unusable. When you go to take a video, there’s a good 3 second lag between tapping the record button, and having the device start recording. I don’t know that I’ve ever gotten a video cleanly on my first try.
  • The CPU is massively, stunningly, underpowered. Everything is slow. Opening apps is slow. Bringing up menus is slow. Switching apps is slow. Everything. Is. Slow. Compared to the Pixel 4XL it’s like using Android in quicksand and it drives me crazy. It’s most noticeable when you bring the system out of sleep, or when you change the orientation of the screen. There a delay for seemingly everything.
  • Did I mention how much I hate the camera?
  • This device is slippery. And I mean, I’ve had phones that were slippery before, including the first Pixel devices with the glass backs, but nothing comes close to this. I can’t set it down on ANYTHING that isn’t perfectly flat. You can’t put it on a couch, or a chair, or a pillow, nothing. Doesn’t matter whether you have it open or closed, it’s all glass and it’s all going to slide off of any surface known to man.

Conclusion

I feel like Microsoft wanted to make a device that didn’t get used like a traditional mobile phone, and in that they succeeded spectacularly. I don’t think of it like a phone, I don’t use it like a phone, and there are things I can do with it that I would never have thought of with a traditional phone. The app integration with the form factor is wonderful, and the flexibility to move between traditional Android apps and Microsoft productivity apps with no forced change of context is pretty amazing.

But….

I miss my phone. I really miss my cameras. Both of them. One on each side. I miss having Android fit to the screen. I miss having a responsive UI. I miss having something fit for purpose. If Samsung didn’t bastardize Android so much I’d be interested in trying the Galaxy Fold to see how the form factor works with more traditional sized/shaped screens. I’m a fan of the possibilities and use cases, so I’m curious to see how it does in the market.

I’m keeping the Surface Duo. It’s got a few use cases that I really like, and they will work fine over wifi. I’m willing to let Microsoft take a couple more swings at the software and see if maybe some of the issues I ran into can be resolved. I’m a fan, and I’m glad I got it. Kudos to the Microsoft and Google teams who worked on this unique and one-of-a-kind device, I can’t wait to see how subsequent versions of the device progress. Please, please, please don’t skimp on the CPU and cameras next time, okay? Thanks.

However, the SIM card is going back in the Pixel 4XL, and even without a larger size device available, I’m going to pre-order a Pixel 5 and see how I like it. The Surface Duo is a whole new kind of device, but I can’t figure out how to use it as a replacement for my old one.

I’d love to hear your impressions of the device, or answer any questions you have. Reach out to me on Twitter @jdooley_clt.

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