On October 2 last year, Microsoft finally announced a Surface phone. Called the Surface Duo, it's a dual-screen Android device, and we've learned a lot about it since. Microsoft has released an emulator so you can play with, or you can download the Microsoft Launcher (Preview) app on your Android phone right now.
However, very few people outside of Microsoft have actually gotten to use the hardware. While the software story is out there, there's still the question of what the device itself will be like. For example, what will the camera experience be like? One video taken by an eagle-eyed person on a train implied that there will only be one camera, so you'd have to fold back the screen 360 degrees to take a picture.
Yes, it seems like an awkward way to take a picture, but when you consider the Surface Duo's form factor, there's really no other way. This is because there's no screen on the outside.
The case for an exterior screen
This week, some videos were leaked by WalkingCat that showed a Peek feature. The idea is that if you open the screen slightly, you'll get to see important information, which can be anything from the time and information for your day, to who's calling.
Peek isn't helpful. The idea that opening your screen slightly is easier than opening it all the way isn't true in any meaningful way. It's still an extra step. This is an easily solvable problem too, with an exterior screen.
Right now, the smartphone landscape is filled with OEMs trying to find ways to pack larger screens into smaller devices. Some companies are making smartphones that have foldable screens, which fold out into larger tablet-sized devices like the Huawei Mate X and the Samsung Galaxy Fold. The other option for foldable screens is a smartphone-sized screen that folds down to a smaller footprint, like the Samsung Galaxy Z Flip and the Motorola razr.
And then there are dual-screen devices, which is the strategy being used by LG with its G8X and V60 ThinQ 5G, and of course, by Microsoft with the Surface Duo. There are various advantages to this, as a folding screen will inevitably wear out after a while.
One of these things is not like the others. The Surface Duo is the only one out of all of the devices I just mentioned that does not have any kind of external display. Every other one has some way of seeing notifications, who's calling, and quick glance information without having to open the device.
And then there's the camera
As I mentioned, there's no easy way of handling the camera, at least without a screen on the outside. An exterior camera would be useless without a viewfinder on the outside. Even the Samsung Galaxy Z Flip has a tiny screen on the outside that can also be used as a viewfinder.
It seems like the camera on the Surface Duo will have all of the chops of a good front-facing camera, which frankly, isn't good enough. Microsoft might end up trying to brand this as something that's not a phone, but make no mistake, it's a smartphone. That means that things like a camera and notifications are important.
Trying to put a good camera on the inside of the device is going to be hard, really hard. Keep in mind that the Surface Duo is pretty thin, so each side of it is really thin. A good camera is going to take up some space, and it's going to need a camera bump, something that would have to be done with an external camera.
Again, this is still a smartphone. I've heard the argument that we shouldn't call them phones anymore because we don't talk on our phones as much, that that's actually the feature that we use the least. Rather than saying, "It's not a phone", it's time for Microsoft fans to recognize that the definition of the word phone has evolved since 2007 when Apple introduced the iPhone.
The Surface Duo needs to be a good phone before it can be anything else
The Surface Duo isn't going to be an extra device that you'll carry around; it's going to replace that valuable space in your pocket where your phone currently is. That means that before Microsoft adds all of the features that make the Surface Duo, it has to be really good at the features that we already take for granted.
The obvious feature is the camera. Smartphone cameras are the way that the bulk of people capture memories. And guess what. You won't be able to go back in time and take a better video of your kid's first steps. A great smartphone camera matters in a very meaningful way.
The other features worth keeping in mind are email, web browsing, notifications, social media, and calls. Things like email, web browsing, social media, and productivity tasks are going to be great on the Surface Duo. Let's face it; Microsoft is great at productivity.
Calls and notifications are another story. Every time your phone rings, you're going to have to take that extra step of opening up the foldable device, which is an inconvenience. It's a minor inconvenience, but when you consider how many times you wake your phone throughout the day, it might be worth thinking about.
It's not too late
Yes, I realize that this is going to fall on deaf ears. The design is likely finalized on the product. But really, it shouldn't be too late for a product that's not going to ship until this holiday season.
It just seems so obvious that out of the gate, there are going to be some real pain points with the Surface Duo. And those pain points could easily be solved by a single, small, display on the outside. Every single other dual-screen or foldable smartphone has this feature, and Microsoft should take note of that.
Hopefully, Microsoft is still considering this, or at least will consider it for the second generation of the product.
Again, as so many more details are starting to emerge now, it's unlikely that anything will change for this product. It seems like Microsoft will show off the Surface Duo at its spring event, before fully unveiling it at its fall event.