Some thoughts on the Surface Duo

Despite Microsoft pricing the device to fail in the UK I’ve somehow ended up buying a Surface Duo. Yes, the cost here is ridiculous – £1300 at a time when the price has been reduced to $999 in the US – but I’ve always loved Microsoft’s Surface line and was curious about it. And I’m in the incredibly fortunate position of being able to support curiosity purchases. Not spending £700 on commuting tends to do that.

Some quick thoughts:

  • Microsoft is on to something when it talks about the productivity of dual screens, and I think it’s correct that dual screens are better than a single large foldable screen for this purpose. I’d really like to see this in a larger format as a tablet, which was obviously the intention behind the now-canned Surface Neo. Even though it’s a lot smaller, I prefer having two screens versus a single one which splits virtually. I can’t quite explain why, but it feels much more natural.
  • Apps which span are few and far between — basically Microsoft’s own and a hand full of others. However, I’ve actually found myself almost never using it in this mode, even with Microsoft apps. It works nicely, and the apps are — in my experience — now pretty rock solid but I just don’t use it. Much more often I’m using a pair of apps to do something, such as Outlook on one side and To Do on the other, dragging and dropping neatly between the two.
  • The hardware really is beautifully designed, and you can see that the team who created it have poured their heart and soul into it. The hinge on its own is a thing of joy: incredibly smooth, just the right resistance, and firm enough to hold in place without accidentally getting knocked into another position. Well done, Microsoft.
  • When I say it is beautifully designed, I mean that it pases my “pick up” test: this is a device that you constantly want to pick up and use.
  • Lack of 5G, NFC and so on do not feel like limitations at this point. Likewise, the camera: it’s good enough for the things it is designed to so (video calling, quick captures of documents and whiteboards). No one is going to use this as their main camera.
  • Software performance is fine. Microsoft seems to have got the bugs out, and it never feels slow, which probably goes to prove that if you take out the need for lots of performance for image processing and AI, you really don’t need to have the latest generation of chip.
  • The one area that Microsoft needs to work on more is typing, as the experience of the on-screen keyboard is hit and miss. It’s perfectly fine when you are thumb typing with it folded over, and when you have a split screen and are holding it like a little laptop, thumb typing away. However, when it tries to shift the keyboard over to the side a little so you can type one-handed, it doesn’t quite shift over enough if you have small hands. Most of the time I find myself holding it with one hand and swiping with the other instead – and that is fine.

Overall I think Microsoft is on to something with this form factor, but I really wish it was larger and a tablet rather than smaller and a sort-of phone. Microsoft is absolutely correct not to market this as a smartphone, because it never really feels like one — but it does feel like a tiny, interesting and highly usable mini-tablet.

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