Editorial

At $1,399, Microsoft's Surface Duo is tragically overpriced

It's been over 10 months since Microsoft first announced its dual-screen Surface Duo, and after all of the leaks since then, all that was left up to the imagination was the price. Among Microsoft enthusiasts like myself, there was a lot of speculation about what the price would be.

I thought that the sweet spot would be $699, given the rumored specs, although to be fair, the original rumors were that the base model would have 64GB of storage. I'd have said $699/$799/$899 for 64GB/128GB/256GB. But the reason I came up with that price is because the Duo is a mid-range phone.

The general consensus, at least from the people I spoke to, was that it would start at $999. Those were people that would say, "Microsoft likes to charge expensive prices for Surface hardware, so I think it will be $999."

Even the people that tried to aim high couldn't hit the mark. Today, we found out that the Surface Duo starts at an incredible $1,399, which is $150 more than an iPhone 11 Pro Max with twice as much storage.

It's a phone, and a mid-range one

For some reason, people like to pretend that this isn't a phone. I think this started in the days when rumors first started for dual-screen pocketable devices, when people tried to pretend that rather than a phone, it's an ultra-mobile PC that just happens to have telephony capabilities.

That's garbage, and it always has been.

The argument against calling Microsoft's pocketable device a phone always seems to go along the lines that people don't make phone calls anymore, or that it does so much more than make phone calls. I like to think that the definition of the word 'phone' has simply evolved over the last decade or so. A better way to classify it would be to ask if the Surface Duo is in the same class of devices as other smartphones on the market. Of course, it is.

Microsoft also doesn't come out and call this a smartphone. I have no idea why, but I don't think the team realizes how stupid it sounds. Even when the Duo was introduced back in October, it was introduced by a phone ringing, and unveiled when a woman took it out of her bag to answer it. The resounding message was, "This is the Surface phone!"

It's a mid-range phone though. It's got a Snapdragon 855 processor, 6GB RAM, and 128GB of storage. It doesn't even support 5G; honestly, I never thought we'd see a $1,399 4G phone in late 2020, but here we are. The screens are nice, being AMOLED and the pixel density that you'd expect from an FHD+ smartphone (401ppi), but they're 60Hz while premium phones are going with 90Hz or 120Hz.

The camera is a single 11MP lens with an f/2.0 aperture, and that's closer to entry-level than mid-range. It can easily be outperformed from the last premium smartphone that Microsoft produced, which was the Lumia 950, although that came out five years ago. Windows phones has a legacy for amazing cameras, and it's a shame that the Surface team didn't make it a priority.

Galaxy Note20 Ultra

To compare, this is $100 more than a Samsung Galaxy Note20 Ultra with the same amount of storage, but with a 108MP triple-lens camera, twice as much RAM, a Snapdragon 865+, both sub6 and mmWave 5G, and a 120Hz display.

Where's the value proposition in the Surface Duo? The answer, of course, is supposed to be the second screen. Otherwise, it's just an Android phone with a bunch of Microsoft apps that you can already get from the Play Store.

But make no mistake; it's a phone. Unless you're planning to carry around a second device for some reason, this will replace the smartphone in your pocket. That means that before Microsoft gives you new functionality with the Surface Duo, it needs to be able to take what your existing phone already does, and do it as well or even better. This should have been the Surface team's first rule in making this product.

This is the Surface phone

Say what you want about the Surface Duo, but this is the most anticipated product in Surface history. Rumors of a Surface phone date back to 2013, if not earlier. Back in the days of Windows Phone, fans were waiting for Microsoft's own hardware team to show the world everything that a Windows phone could be.

Image via David Breyer

Of course, Windows Phone became Windows 10 Mobile, and eventually that was killed off. From its ashes was going to be Andromeda, a dual-screen, pocketable PC that has cellular connectivity and runs Windows. This was also killed off, but it lived on as an Android device, and that's what became the Surface Duo.

I bring this up because there are a lot of fans waiting for this phone, and there will be even more turned off by the price of $1,399. That's where the word 'tragically' comes from in the title. Oxford Languages defines the word as, "in a way that involves or causes extreme distress or sorrow".

Microsoft has burned its loyalists time and time again. Not only did it kill off Windows phones, but it killed off the Band / Health, Groove Music, and much more.

But what about the Samsung Galaxy Fold?

Back in late 2017, Apple made headlines when it introduced the thousand-dollar iPhone X. The Cupertino firm, in all of its hubris, expected people to pay such an insane price for a smartphone when more traditional devices were in the $700 range. Then things escalated. Thousand-dollar smartphones became common, with Apple and Samsung seemingly engaged in some kind of reverse price war.

Then foldable phones came along, with Samsung introducing the Galaxy Fold early last year for $1,980 and Huawei launching the Mate X for $2,600. The madness hasn't ended, as the latest Galaxy Z Flip 5G comes in at $1,449.99.

Looking at the state of foldable phones, it's easy to think the Surface Duo fits right in there. But from a technological standpoint, a dual-screen device is much easier to do than a foldable. Just look at all of the trouble that Samsung had with the Galaxy Fold. It seems crazy now, but just a few years ago, the idea of bending a screen in half without it breaking was a wild idea.

For a dual-screen device, you just have to add a screen and a hinge, and then customize the software to properly support it. In fact, LG has been doing this for four generations of devices now. The LG V60, a Snapdragon 865 device that supports sub6 5G, costs $899. That includes a Dual Screen accessory that LG offers, and it does exactly what I described. It adds a display.

To be fair, this is a first-generation product. Perhaps its next year's model that will really wow us, if there is a next year's model. The Surface Duo was originally supposed to arrive alongside the Surface Neo, a Windows-powered dual-screen PC. Neo is delayed until at least 2022 though, and that leaves Microsoft just selling a dual-screen Android phone with no Windows counterpart.

So, why did Microsoft move forward with the Surface Duo after postponing Neo? I can only speculate, but I'd say it's because it's so much easier. A dual-screen device is easy enough to make, and unlike with the Surface Neo, Microsoft doesn't have to build the Surface Duo's software. In other words, there's not a whole lot that's special here. It's just a mid-range phone with a second screen, that somehow costs $1,400.

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