Scratching the Surface Duo

While the Microsoft Surface Duo has had mixed reviews, those reviews depend largely on subjectivity and perspective. Lets dig deeper, and scratch the Surface.


In our last article titled "On the Surface, more than it seems", we talked about various Surface family products including the Surface Headphones, Surface Buds, Surface tablets, and their different target groups.


Today, we're talking specifically about the Surface Duo.

Currently available only in the United States, with some speculation as to when it may be released in Japan, there is no information on when the device will launch in any other country.

Previously we had talked about Microsoft's strange decision to launch the Surface Earbuds, which seemed like an odd product for the range, because these are typically aligned with a phone or a music player, and Microsoft was no longer selling its own brand phones and had also discontinued the Zune music player.

However, when it came time to launch the Surface Duo, tech reviewers received a box containing both the Surface Duo, the Surface Earbuds, and a note from Panos Panay. Seeing the Duo and Earbuds side by side now made complete sense, this is a phone with earbuds - is it though, because Microsoft made a big deal about "it's not a phone, don't call it a phone".

This brings me neatly to the point of this article - scratching the Surface Duo.

Scratching the Surface (Duo).

There seems to be some debate as to whether the Duo is a success or failure. Microsoft is positioning it as a category-creating-device, which means that it is in its own category with no competition, so therefore it is a success. Others are saying that it's a bad phone or a bad tablet or it has too many compromises or not enough features, it's missing this or that.

While those points individually are true, it tends to make it look like the device missed the mark.

However, if you look at it from Microsoft's point of view, it's a flat out folded success.

As a "smart endpoint for Microsoft services", the device is a winner, no doubt about it. When you look at the show-reels and see the suggested use cases, you can see where they were going.

  • As an endpoint for Teams, it's a clear winner.

  • As a smart endpoint for Office, it's a clear winner.

  • As a text chat device, it's a winner.

  • As a video call device, it's a winner.

  • As a group video conference call device, it's a winner.

  • As a contact list and map app side by side, it's a winner.

  • As a productivity device, it's a winner.

Where it loses points are the areas where you start comparing it to your smartphone, such as the rear camera, speakers, screen size, awkward app resizing, keyboard layout, pocket-ability, lack of NFC, lack of wireless charging, case options, and the pros and cons of being an all-glass device.

I'm sure you could say that a toaster is pretty good at making toast and pretty bad at making ice - you have to use it for it's intended purpose to get the most value out of it. It's the same with the Surface Duo - Microsoft was hammering on "it's not a phone, don't call it a phone" - yet it runs Android, it makes and receives phone calls and video calls, it's the size of a (large) phone, so to everyone else, it's a phone.


Ah Android, the operating system on the Surface Duo, is yet another duality of the device. Microsoft making a device that runs Android would have been unthinkable a few years ago. Now it serves to solve a key problem that pocketable / phone-like devices have, which is their consumer success or failure based on the availability of apps.

Windows Mobile and Windows Phone operating systems failed largely due to a lack of apps. I had a HTC Windows Phone and a Zune music player, both of which were great devices with an innovative user experience - they just didn't have access to all the apps they needed to compete with iPhone and Android.

Although Microsoft insists on not calling it a phone, it will inevitably have some comparison to, and some use cases quite similar to, a smartphone, and this is the one inescapable area where I think both Google (who builds Android) and Microsoft (who builds Surface) can work individually or together to improve the user experience.

Again, as a smart endpoint for Microsoft services such as Office, Skype, Teams, OneNote, PowerPoint, Yammer, and so on, it's a winner.

Is it equally good at YouTube, Instagram, and everything else? Not so much. These apps need updates for dual screen devices or folding devices that have to deal with a seam or a crease, and this is unique to the small number of folding or flexible devices available on the market. It may not be the app developer's top priority, but baking-in that support at the operating system level makes all of that grunt work so much easier. Microsoft has done its part by making the Duo screen management utility available as a system extension (API) specifically for the Surface Duo, but Google needs to do more to support the dual screen / folding screen experience on other devices from Samsung, LG, Lenovo, Microsoft, and others.


Most of the "phone" criticisms levelled at the Surface Duo can be dismissed under the banner of "it's a first generation device" or "it's not a phone so don't expect to compare it to a phone". As valid as this may be, the device does make calls, and it has Earbuds, and Microsoft makes Skype and Teams that you would think would be natural use cases for voice and video calls. So in a way, Microsoft is hamstrung by operating system limitations - a situation it has little experience in resolving.


For its intended use - that is, as a smart endpoint for Microsoft services - the Surface Duo is a clear winner.

Furthermore, Microsoft has underplayed the Duo's other meat feature, which is its complete integration with the Your Phone app on the PC - a tool that puts your whole Duo Android experience on your Windows PC screen, and lets you do 99% of everything your phone can do, right there on your computer screen. Neat.

Until next time,

Xavier Zymantas

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Who is Xavier Zymantas?

Xavier Zymantas started out as the boy genius and piano player who completed 12 years of schooling by age 15, started university at age 15, finished two IT degrees by age 19, worked as a computer programmer for 9 years, then became self employed as a technology consultant. Xavier moved into general consulting and now offers insights, tips, tricks and techniques across a range of business areas.

Xavier's mind works differently, and he often uses techniques from speech, music, travel, business, and life to generate outcomes specific to each business. While each problem may be different, shockingly the solutions are remarkably similar.

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