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Microsoft has given us no reason to believe the Surface Duo will be any good

Surface Duo
Surface Duo (Image credit: Microsoft)

If you stay in your Android lane and don't pay too close attention to what Microsoft is up to, you probably forgot the company's first Android, the Surface Duo, is set to debut soon. That's probably because it was announced over 9 months ago, with a yet-to-be-determined launch date in late 2020, and there hasn't exactly been much fanfare outside of Microsoft circles.

The lack of anticipation and excitement around the Surface Duo will probably work out in Microsoft's favor, though, because there is very little reason to believe it will actually be a good product. It's incredibly hard to make a great Android phone, or tablet, or whatever Microsoft wants to call the Duo. Nonetheless, it's going to compete with high-end phones, and be judged as such, and Microsoft doesn't have a track record of making good phones, or knowing what consumers expect when they spend $1000+ on one.

From what we know now, Microsoft will have the advantage of launching something that looks new and exciting, and that's it. And as we've seen time and time again in the Android world, it's not enough to just have a cool form factor — you must get the basics right, or none of the rest matters. And so far, I'm nowhere near convinced that it has gotten those basics right, or has the proper foundation to launch a successful mobile product.

Source: Windows Central (Image credit: Source: Windows Central)

It was a considerable surprise to me to hear that up to this point, Microsoft has been using a third-party software development company to work on the Android operating system build that will be running the Surface Duo. Given that this is its first Android device, the fact that it worked with an outside company to get up and running isn't that surprising. And that it's now bringing all of those employees in-house to work on Android devices at Microsoft is a big vote of confidence in the Duo's future — and the future of other Android-powered Surfaces.

Zac Bowden, writing on Windows Central, points out the immediate benefits: "With the OS team in-house, Microsoft itself will handle post-launch software updates for Surface Duo that will add new features and experiences over time. This same team will also handle Android OS work for Surface Duo V2, which I'm told is now in early development."

But to take until now, mere months (or possibly just weeks) before putting the Surface Duo up for sale, to make this move seems odd. Knowing that until just now the entire development of Android on the Surface Duo wasn't actually being done in-house at Microsoft leads me back down the path of being concerned about just how good this thing will be. It takes a whole lot more time than that to properly adapt a brand new build of Android to a product like the Surface Duo.

Source: Windows Central (Image credit: Source: Windows Central)

Microsoft has given us a good idea of what apps look like on the dual-screen Surface Duo, and it looks good. The company has clearly put a lot of thought into what app experiences should be like when you have two large displays connected by a hinge; how the apps flow between the two and make use of space. And Microsoft has something like 60 apps in Google Play (opens in new tab). But there's a lot more to the experience of using a phone, or tablet, or whatever Microsoft wants to call the Surface Duo, than designing a handful of apps. You have to customize an entirely new operating system.

Microsoft is facing a really steep learning curve for trying to figure out all of the little quirks, issues and fine-tuning of Android that companies like Samsung, Motorola, LG and OnePlus (among a dozen others) have spent years perfecting. Not to mention the invaluable consumer feedback and market experience they've all received. And with all of those years of experience, and dozens of products behind them, even these companies struggle at times.

There's a steep learning curve for making Android run properly, and with the features we expect.

Extending my worry about this launch is the long lead time making the spec sheet outdated. The latest information we have, from May, points to a Snapdragon 855, 6GB of RAM, 64GB base (256GB optional) storage, a very basic 11MP camera, and just a 3460mAh battery. Of course the Surface Duo's hardware, from what we've seen, looks amazing — and the dual 5.6-inch displays with a unique hinge will steal the spotlight from the specs if everything works as well as hoped. But ultimately this is going to be a late-2020 device with specs that wouldn't have been the top of the line in late 2019. For a device that's expected to have a flagship Android price, that's going to be a tough hurdle to overcome — in the Android world, if you want to charge top dollar, you need to deliver on specs. Just ask Google's Pixel team.

What are the top parts of the smartphone experience today? In some ranking, it's performance, software features, battery life and camera. These are the areas that take the most time and expertise to perfect, and Microsoft is launching into a market in 2020 where the expectations are extremely high — again, especially if the price is in the four-figure range as rumored.

The Surface Duo barely has the specs to be competitive, and the software still has to make the most of them.

With a Snapdragon 855 and 6GB of RAM, it ostensibly has enough horsepower ... but is its software going to be properly optimized to take advantage of it? Who knows. And I have serious questions about whether a 3460mAh battery — nearly identical to 2018's Pixel 3 XL — can deliver anything approaching full-day battery life when there are two 5.6-inch 400 ppi displays to run, not to mention on less-efficient Snapdragon 855 and once again without the expertise in software optimization necessary to make Android last longer.

The first camera sample from the Duo, frankly, looks terrible if you know what modern Android cameras offer. With a single 1.12-micron 11MP sensor behind an f/2.0 lens, I'm not at all surprised. And once again, without years of expertise in making camera software, it's basically impossible for Microsoft to come out of the gate with a great camera on the Surface Duo, no matter the hardware. But much like the overall specs conversation, the camera quality needs to at least be acceptable — because no matter what Microsoft says, the Duo will be compared to high-end smartphones, and the competition has incredible cameras. It's something everyone demands.

When you're an early adopter, you'll put up with a lot — but that logic can only go so far before people give up.

These are all reasons why I argued months ago that Microsoft should've made a "normal" Android phone before attempting something as ambitious as the Surface Duo. Obviously Microsoft's hardware division is filled with highly skilled engineers and has produced excellent products in the Surface line — but stepping into a new category, with a new operating system and new form factor, is an entirely different ballgame. I'm afraid Microsoft will be distracted by making the "Duo" part happen, and leave all of the core parts of the smartphone experience behind — to its detriment.

I can get behind the thought process that when you're an early adopter of new technology there's a price you pay in terms of giving up the "nice-to-have" features you'd otherwise get. The Surface Duo will be unique and very intriguing, and just like with foldable phones there will be a lot of people who are willing to give up on some parts of the experience in order to get that new form factor. But that logic only extends so far before people won't put up with it anymore. The Surface Duo's hardware can be innovative, and the form factor can be amazing, but if it has outdated specs, bad battery life, a horrible camera and a basic build of Android with few of the features we've come to expect, the product won't have a leg to stand on.

Andrew was an Executive Editor, U.S. at Android Central between 2012 and 2020.

22 Comments
  • I am a road warrior, or at least I was before CV-19. Weekly travel on planes, trains, and automobiles to see clients and make presentations. The Duo should be for someone like me, right? I mean, on the face of it, being able to have MS Teams open in one screen while I'm watching a Zoom call in the other should be fantastic, right? Except I fully agree with Andrew, and I'll take it a step further; not only does a high-end device have to get the basics right, it has to do SOMETHING better than the alternatives. I would argue that it doesn't - or at least it doesn't appear to. When you're traveling, you're typically in one of two modes: moving, or stopped. Moving meaning you're in motion: walking, an Uber, or on a plane. Or, you're stopped: Hotel room, conference room, or if you have space, on a plane. If you are stopped, a laptop is the better option every time, so you're going to bring that. If you're in motion, the Duo is too big for easy phone calls or texting or navigation, so you're going to bring your phone anyway. If I have my phone and my laptop...tell me again why I need a third device? I suppose if I'm sitting in coach and my laptop is too big, I can use the Duo...but it's not big enough for real work, so I go back to my 6.5" smartphone, which is big enough for movies, social media, email, etc. I think we have the HP Elite X3 all over again.
  • Meh, same arugument was made when the smart watches came out, and when Samsung released the 1st note.....
  • Nope, different arguments. The Note series succeeded in spite of the stylus, not because of it. That device showed that consumers wanted a big screen. Nobody thought that smart watches were a bad idea...heck, everyone thinks they're a great idea! Just look at all the apple watches...no one was poo poo ing them back in the day on functionality, just execution. Android smartwatches don't meet minimum viable product requirements.
  • 2020 is a dead year or a non-year ... whatever...so this one won't really count. The interesting thing is how the Microsoft Duo (have to always remember separating it from the Google Duo app) will do in 2021 and beyond, in its future iterations, should there be any...
  • And it has not given us any reason that it won't be....
  • Except all the reasons laid out in this article...lol. Make no mistake this will be a Gen 1 device with Gen 1 issues. Doesn't mean they won't get it right eventually. I mean it took Samsung until the Note 5 before they got most of it right.
  • Huh? I beg to differ. By the time it got to Note 3 Samsung had worked out most of the kinks and the Note 4 still remains one of the best phones made by Samsung, a true power horse.
  • Note 3 and 4 were a lot better than the first 2! I personally don't think Samsung started making really good phones till about 2015 but I have high standards. Regardless, my original point still stands: the Duo will be a Gen 1 device with Gen 1 problems and it will take several iterations for MS to get it right (if they keep with it).
  • This has little to do with the title, IMO. People didn't take this stance with the Galaxy Fold or Huawei Mate X or even the RAZR foldable. Justifiably, Microsoft's pretty synonymous with questionable support in the consumer space. There is a historical consistency of not following through with post-release product development. They cut off the legs of their consumer base by rebooting their Windows mobile platforms every few years. They did very little to promote their Band devices. They did almost nothing to provide content for the Kinect, especially on XB1. They've yet to put out a real game for WMR and wouldn't even give a firm commitment for WMR support on the upcoming Flight Simulator which seems like the exact reason for WMR to exist. I want a Duo myself. The problem is I fully expect them to release this thing and just stare at sales numbers. I've got a lot of concern that they won't do much to really promote the devices and the dual-screen phone platform. The shutdown of physical stores months (or weeks) before release furthers those worries. That they didn't design it with so many basic, modern features like Qi and NFC makes it seem like they didn't plan things out super well. If MS had a better track record of developing and supporting long-term consumer efforts, this article wouldn't exist.
  • Why aren't this and the bendable phones called what they really are? They are Phablets. That's really what they represent. A hybrid trying to get a space in between categories. But for some reason tech writers stay away from calling it how it is. I hope it comes out and sends some brands back to the drawing board, and start copying.
  • People have a problem with Microsoft phones always. A budget windows phone I used was far better than Android phones that are twice expensive (which I used later).
    The author almost gave a verdict/review even before the phone is available in market. The "specs" that were talked about in the article are never the benchmark for real life performance. The Lumia phone I used had 5MP camera and shot great pictures.
    Please at least wait till you lay your hands on the phone before you dismiss it
  • I used a couple of Windows 8 phones. I really liked them. In fact, I preferred Windows phone OS over Android at one point. If Google Maps had been available on Windows phone, I think it would have worked out for Microsoft. I can't say I can blame Google for not building a Windows version of Google Maps. I really thought that Windows 8 phones were the best for non-techies.
  • It's not a phone and will not be marketed as such...it's small form factor tablet with wireless capability. It's not aimed at consumers, it will be marketed for business users.
  • I was very much looking forward to this but then Microsoft decided to close the stores which if I have a issue I used to think nothing of just making a appointment and getting my answers taken care of. I am thinking of running all of my Microsoft products into the ground and then either getting a Chromebook or using my MacBook
  • It's not like MS has never done a phone OS before, in fact, Windows Phone was pretty good
  • dang, good burn....
  • Microsoft has brought to the table so many great products; eventually, however, either selling them off OR discontinuing them, to enter into the wastebasket of history. I hardly believe that this new phone will be different. They should have brought back the Windows Phone version back, which was a great interface, paid programmers to build a solid body of apps, and then keep it going for at least 5 years before they drop it. Remember the Zune?!
  • The best phone to date (the way I use the phone personally) for me was the Samsung SCH-i760. It had a qwerty sliding keyboard, the dial pad turned in to a numerical pad when the keyboard was in use, a retractable stylus...I now am using a Note 9 and when the Duo was initially announced I was excited. Running OneNote on one screen and anything else on the other...it sounds fantastic for me. But no NFC, no Qi, I need something with reliable battery life. The stylus. It was a great day when I could take the Note in to the field instead of my Surface with a loose stylus (pen, whatever.) I will keep this device on the radar but if it doesn't have a place to stow the stylus I'm out as appealing as the concept is to me.
  • I don't "NEED" a perfect phone. I need a more-useful one.
  • Moron. Windows Phone was great, with bad leadership and Google's monopolistic practices the biggest reasons for its failure. I trust Microsoft, who might actually be able to make something usable or if the muddled Android masses (you treat Android as monolithic... It's not), more than I trust the likes of LG, who's stuck in the way back, or OnePlus, who just spies on you constantly. Then there's Samsung, who really likes to put a back button in the wrong place and couldn't build a proper interface layer until a few years ago. Wonder what Microsoft's been doing for the past 40 years.... The problem with win phone was NEVER the interface....
  • Angling for a bigger check from Samsung eh? How about this Andrew: it is a folding android device costing well over $1,000 whose screen won't break before the first security update arrives - or before Android 12 comes out.
  • Everyone is discussing this, including the podcast guys, like it's somehow revolutionary as a form factor and a concept. LG has been making this exact form factor for years, in the G8X (which I love), the V50, V60, and so forth. The discussion over "will this work" is completely moot - it exists, it works, and you can go play with it right now and decide what you think of it at most carrier stores. Me, I like it. I work on an ambulance and I have to field supervise the schedule sometimes, call people and refer to charts at the same time, and run Maps in one window while texting our dispatcher in another. For me the dual screen concept is great - my only niggling issue is that the LG Dual Screen magnetic connector needs magnets that are a little tougher, and a little more battery in the second screen would be nice. I see nothing here revolutionary besides the Microsoft name driving the software.