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Author Topic: Microsoft Surface Duo Review: Double Troubles 1/2  (Read 6 times)
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« on: September 11, 2020, 01:32:42 PM »

All the right ideas ó but spoiled by buggy software and a bad camera

Microsoftís Surface Duo aspires to be something different from any other gadget youíve used. It could be mistaken for a phone or a small tablet, but itís both less and more than those things.

When itís closed, there are no screens or cameras. In shape and appearance, itís like a small book, a digital version of the Field Notes notebook I carry around in my back pocket. When open, you get two screens side by side or one screen with the other folded back. And like a notebook, it feels somehow more natural to hold than a phoneís vertical slab shape. You hold it in your hand with the two sides angled toward you like a book.

In truth, thereís nothing the Surface Duo can do that you canít do on your current smartphone or tablet. Your smartphone surely takes better photos, and your tablet doesnít have a big gap in the middle of it. But the difference with the Surface Duo is that the way you do things is unique. I found myself tackling tasks that would have frustrated me on those other devices.

Microsoft is charging a starting price of $1,399 for the Surface Duo. Given its capabilities relative to other phones, it is absolutely not worth that price. And even after a couple of weeks, Iím not entirely convinced that the Surface Duo actually makes me more productive than any standard single-screen phone. But even though it doesnít always get it right, sometimes thereís just a little less mental friction to multitasking on the Duo. I often feel more productive with the Duo.

What is that feeling worth?

Surface Duo Hardware

The Surface Duo is a lovely, well-designed object. Every millimeter of it has clearly been crafted with intention ó though sometimes that intention is so focused that it can lead to annoying compromises.

The most important thing to know about the Duoís hardware is its thickness: 4.8mm when open and 9.9mm when closed. Microsoftís dedication to thinness is what makes the Duo a pocketable, ergonomic device. Itís also relatively light for a device with two screens and two batteries, at 250 grams.

The thinness and lightness of the Surface Duo are essential to its appeal, as is the fact that Microsoft kept the outside free of screens or camera bumps. Those choices make the thing thin and comfortable to hold, but they also send a signal that this is a different kind of device.

The feel of opening this device like a book ó and shutting it like one ó is fundamentally different than unlocking a smartphone. It puts you in a different mindset in both cases. The intentionality of the design encourages you to be intentional with your use of the device and to be intentional in not using it.

The hinge is classic Surface, which is to say itís meticulously designed to feel great. It rotates a full 360 degrees so you can swing one of the screens around the back and use it like a traditional phone. Or you can angle one side up, and itíll hold its place while youíre making a video call. Itís firm without being stiff, and all of those tight tolerances minimize the size of the gap between the screens.

Itís glass on the front and back ó both fronts and both backs, I guess I should say. Theyíre sandwiched around a metal rail. The rail houses the USB-C port but no headphone jack. For once, the argument that the phone is too thin to fit a headphone jack makes sense. Itís also where youíll find the volume buttons, power button, and fingerprint sensor (which should be integrated into the power button, if you ask me, but it is not).

Not everything is perfect. If I look very closely, I can see a tiny lack of symmetry at the hinge and maybe even the slightest bowing out along the top and bottom. It also ships with plastic bumper rails, which helps with the fairly sharp corners on the edges and also with grip. Thereís also a very slight color variation between the two displays on my review unit ó the white point on the left-hand side seems a little redder. Itís not something I noticed until reading a Kindle book with the lights turned low.

But the white point isnít a major complaint about the hardware. Iíll save that for the bezels above and below the dual 5.6-inch OLED screens. Theyíre big, and I think theyíre one of those annoying compromises that were necessary to keep the Duo so thin. As with most bezels, notches, and other screen borders, you get used to them.

Otherwise, theyíre good screens. Theyíre readable in bright light, pixel-dense, and have good viewing angles. If you have a Surface Pen, it will work on this screen, too. They donít have the high refresh rates that are increasingly standard on $1,000-plus phones, however.

When closed, the Surface Duo is less than 10mm thick.

Those screens are also quite a bit wider than any recent smartphone. Each is designed with a 4:3 aspect ratio, which translates to a device that you canít use with one hand ó even when folded in half. Like the rest of the Duoís design, I think that width is meant to subtly influence how you think about the device. Your apps look and feel just a tiny bit more like windows on your desktop instead of lists you end up doomscrolling.

Many other things have been sacrificed at the altar of thinness: NFC, wireless charging, a bigger battery, expandable storage, 5G, and perhaps more modern specs like a faster processor and more RAM. Thereís only a single speaker, and itís no great shakes. But all of those things youíd expect on a phone of this price are theoretically expendable because the Surface Duo is theoretically not a phone but something else entirely.

Delivering on that promise falls to the software, which will make or break the whole thing.

Microsoft has heavily customized Android.

Microsoft may have bitten off more than it can chew with the software on the Surface Duo. The original version it sent out to reviewers was riddled with show-stopping bugs and crashes. A little less than a week ago, the company pushed out a software update ó the same one that will land on retail devices today ó that solved an appreciable percentage of those bugs.

But some bugs persist. There are hassles with the camera app, with lag and missed inputs, and other oddities like the keyboard jumping into view for no earthly reason. If for no other reason than software stability, itís worth waiting to see what more people say about their Surface Duo experience over time before considering buying one.

Surprisingly, one of those problems is not the complaint ó long-running and richly deserved ó that Android tablet apps arenít good. Because there arenít many Android tablets, many Android developers rationally choose not to make tablet-optimized versions of their apps, which means thereís no incentive to make Android tablets, and so it goes.

The app availability problem can turn into a vicious spiral, a problem Microsoft knows all too well from Windows Phone. So one of the cleverest pieces of software design on the Surface Duo is simply what Microsoft chose not to do: make a tablet. Instead, the Duo is exactly what its name suggests: two phone-sized screens meant primarily for running apps side by side.

Just on its own, the ability to easily launch side-by-side apps is great. Without having to learn some whole other interface, you can simply tap on the icon you want on each screen and use them next to each other. That may not seem like something youíre interested in for your phone, but perhaps thatís because itís been such a pain with a single screen.

One of the things that helps you to be productive on your laptop is windows ó the interface with boxes with your apps, I mean, not the OS. Having windows makes it easier to cross-reference stuff and less likely youíll lose your state when you do another task. And you can move stuff across from one window to another without having to muck about with other interface elements.

But every attempt to replicate that on phones thus far has been kind of crappy. On the Duo, itís better simply because itís easy to open up an app on each screen. Microsoft has tried to tout drag and drop between apps, but itís hard to get that gesture right, and it only works in a handful of apps ó so thankfully, tried-and-true copy and paste works just fine.

The hinge allows you to contort the Duoís screens into what Microsoft calls ďpostures.Ē Thereís a tent mode for watching movies, a single screen mode with one of the screens flipped around, a mode with a big keyboard, and a full-screen mode. In full screen, most apps are oblivious to the existence of the gap between screens, and so content either looks goofily split or even gets cut off in that negative space between OLEDs.

The Kindle app is a nice example of turning the gap into an advantage: you get a page on each side and the ability to hold the Duo like itís a little book. But outside of that, the only apps that handle that gap well are (unsurprisingly) Microsoftís own. Outlook, in particular, is great: you get your email list on the left side and emails on the right. Hit forward, and the original email scoots over to the left and the entire right screen becomes the compose window for your new email. This means you donít have to constantly scroll down and up again as you comment point-by-point to an email.

One posture I like: the big keyboard. When you rotate the Duo 90 degrees when thereís an active cursor, the bottom screen automatically turns into a keyboard while the main screen expands to the full view. It lets you see what youíre typing on a larger canvas and gives you a really big keyboard to boot.

But getting apps into their proper place for each of these postures isnít easy because Androidís natural state is a single phone screen. And thatís where the majority of the bugs really start cropping up.

Itís a shame, too, because those bugs are a result of Microsoft making the right choices when it comes to customizing Android for a true multitasking experience. I donít think this will be obvious to the casual observer, but after spending a decade reviewing dozens of different flavors of Android, I can say this definitively: Microsoft chose one of the hardest possible roads it could in customizing Android to fit its needs, but it is the right road.

Unlike Samsung, LG, and others who have dabbled in split-screen and folding screen versions of Android, Microsoft has tried to make a multitasking system that doesnít seem like itís tacked on top of Androidís more traditional interface.

Although a lot of manufacturers are sticking with buttons, modern versions of Android work by swiping up from the bottom to get to the core parts of the OS like multitasking views, the home screen, and your apps. So Microsoft has taken that system and added to it. You can swipe up to get an app window and then drag it around on the two screens to put it in one of those modes.

Itís a noble goal, but remembering what all the swipes do depending on your context is a huge hurdle. Sometimes a swipe brings up multitasking, sometimes it goes home, sometimes it launches the app drawer, sometimes it flings an app to the other screen if you angle it just right (or wrong). Oh, and if you turn the Duo sideways, donít forget that up is now over on the side.

Itís too much, but itís a learnable system, and I eventually got proficient in it and even found myself entering that ďflowĒ state that Surface chief Panos Panay likes to talk about. But just as often, Iíd enter a rage state as the Duo did something I didnít expect or lagged out when I was trying to position a window.

The real shame of all of this is that Microsoft has achieved the holy grail of every other Android phone maker not named Google: a comprehensive, unified, and coherent ecosystem of apps and services. If youíre in Microsoftís ecosystem, you will have Outlook, Office, compatibility with Your Phone on Windows 10, OneNote, and OneDrive, all working together in harmony.

This is all miles better than whatever Samsung or LG equivalent youíll find on their phones. Plus, Microsoft doesnít force you to use any of it if you donít want to. Google search is the default instead of Bing, Gmailís sitting right there, and so on.

Speaking of Google, I am serious when I lay some of these issues at the feet of Android itself. Google has been touting support for foldables for a couple of years now, but itís been failing to make Android tablets successful for much longer. The result of that technical debt is that Android is woefully unprepared for devices like the Surface Duo and Samsungís Galaxy Z Fold 2. But at the end of the day, itís not Googleís logo on the back of the Surface Duo. Itís Microsoftís.

Through it all, there were still moments of feeling like I could get more done on the Duo than I could on other phones. And as time went on, those moments turned into longer stretch.

part 2 ►
« Last Edit: September 11, 2020, 01:35:19 PM by javajolt » Logged

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