Will the Surface Duo’s Stunning Design Be What Holds It Back?

Past Surface launches give us insight into where the Duo can go from here

Bharat Arimilli
Aug 17, 2020 · 8 min read
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Photo courtesy of Microsoft.

Microsoft’s first smartphone in years comes with a plethora of surprising facts. First, it runs Android making it the very first Microsoft hardware device not running a Microsoft operating system. Second, it's a dual-screen device at a time when most manufacturers are trying to innovate with folding screens. Third, it comes with notable omissions such as lacking NFC, wireless charging and multi-camera setup. Lastly, it does all this for the price of $1,400. That’s a decidedly flagship price for a phone missing some crucial flagship specifications.

Of course, the Duo is also no ordinary phone. Early reviews of the Surface Duo’s unique dual-screen hardware have been incredibly positive, with many reviewers noting its impressively thin design and smooth 360-degree hinge. However, reviewers have been instructed not to review the device turned on just yet and that’s understandable considering the Duo’s numerous limitations will become clear once it’s actually being used as a phone.

Will Microsoft be able to continue evolving this form factor with better components like a better camera and bigger battery without making it significantly thicker? If you take the position that this first-generation Surface Duo is about laying out a vision that Microsoft will further refine, there are two existing Surface devices that can serve as examples of how this might play out. The Surface Pro and Surface Book, two devices that blur the lines between laptop and tablet, both represent some of Microsoft’s strongest innovation with new form factors and although one has gone on to achieve success, the other presents a cautionary tale.

Surface Pro: third time’s a charm

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The first-generation Surface Pro. Photo courtesy of Microsoft.

The Surface Pro was initially launched as a niche prosumer counterpart to Microsoft’s ill-fated ARM-based Surface RT tablet. Where the Surface RT was essentially designed to target the iPad and was restricted to running tablet-oriented apps from the Windows Store, the Surface Pro had a full Intel processor and ran Windows 8 Pro, meaning it could run any Windows app you could throw at it.

Of course, Microsoft’s big marketing push was with the Surface RT and at the time, the Pro quietly sat in the background as people tried to understand what this more expensive device was trying to be. Sure, it was much more powerful than the Surface RT but having full PC internals also meant the device was incredibly thick and heavy. It was therefore too uncomfortable to use as a tablet and despite being able to tackle anything a laptop could, its small screen and inability to be used comfortably on your lap meant it also didn’t handle being a laptop very well.

It wasn’t until the Surface Pro 3 that the entire vision of the Surface Pro-line became clear. Rather than the original Surface-line’s target of competing directly with the iPad, the Surface Pro would create its own category entirely of a tablet that could be your laptop. The Pro 3 brought a fully flexible kickstand that could be adjusted to any position, a larger screen, a magnetically angled keyboard and a much thinner form factor that more perfectly balanced the Pro’s tablet and laptop credentials. What resulted was a tablet that, with its optional (but necessary) Type Cover magnetic keyboard attachment, could transform into a credible laptop while retaining the full flexibility of being a tablet.

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The Surface Pro 3 finally perfected the hybrid tablet-laptop form factor. Photo courtesy of Microsoft.

Seven years after the Surface Pro-line initially struggled to find its place in the market, the tablet market has now largely moved in its direction. Tablets now look more like the Surface Pro than ever with keyboard attachments of their own and some even with kickstands identical to Microsoft’s design. Even the iPad Pro has slowly evolved to look increasingly similar to the Surface Pro over the years. The iPad Pro now has a magnetic keyboard attachment of its own, a trackpad, a stylus and a fully adjustable hinge (with its keyboard attachment). While the iPad defined the modern tablet in 2010, the Surface Pro was arguably the biggest revolution since then by blurring the boundary between tablet and laptop.

Just as the Surface Pro took multiple tries to perfect an entirely new category, supporters claim the Surface Duo, with its unique dual-screen 360-degree hinge form factor, will similarly take a few tries to get right. It's easy to see this perspective considering Microsoft themselves have said the priority for the first-generation Duo is to focus on the fundamentals of the vision.

However, although the Surface Pro’s legacy presents a sense of optimism about the Duo’s future, there is another less optimistic Surface story that could be more applicable to the Duo’s situation.

The promise of the Surface Book

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Photo courtesy of Microsoft.

Microsoft was riding high after fully realizing the vision of its Surface Pro line, now looking to take aim at the more powerful laptop market occupied by the MacBook Pro. While Surface head Panos Panay spent the better part of the Surface Book announcement making it seem as if it was just a standard pro-level laptop, he cleverly waited halfway through to reveal that this was indeed no ordinary laptop and that the screen could detach to be used as a standalone tablet. To this day I remember my sheer awe at realizing the absolute feat of engineering that Microsoft had pulled off with this form factor. This very revelation resulted in a standing ovation from the audience at the Surface Book’s announcement, enthusiasm more fitting for an Apple announcement rather than a Microsoft one.

The initial reaction to the device was incredibly positive. Not only was the innovation that went into the device clear, but its vision was clear as well. You had a laptop that was just as powerful or more powerful than a MacBook Pro and could still offer the flexibility of a tablet. At the time, the consensus seemed to be that the initial design quirks such as the large gap when the laptop was closed, the wobbly top-heavy design and cumbersome latching mechanism were all things that would be refined in future generations.

And yet, the Surface Book 2 came out two years later with the exact same design and just with updated internals. Three years after that in May of this year, the Surface Book 3 came out with the exact same design yet again and just with updated internals. The Surface Book has seen no substantial updates to its design since it first launched 5 years ago. While the Surface Book remains an incredibly unique and innovative form factor, it's also becoming increasingly dated by retaining all the quirks of its original design while not embracing new trends such as thin bezels. As the Surface Book has soldiered on without meaningful updates, it has become increasingly clear that Microsoft has hit the limits of the Surface Book’s form factor.

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Photo courtesy of Microsoft.

What makes the device so special is that all of its main components are fit into the detachable tablet portion of the device, so that you can detach the screen and use it as a standalone tablet. Primarily, this means the CPU has to fit into the already space-constrained tablet-side of the device meaning there’s almost no room to fit in more powerful processors. Though the most recent Surface Book 3 comes with a very powerful GPU (which sits in the spacious keyboard base), it comes with a comparatively underpowered CPU. Where similarly priced pro-level laptops like the Dell XPS 15 and MacBook Pro have plenty of space to fit in powerful components with their traditional laptop designs, the Surface Book is often more expensive (because of its unique form factor) while being less powerful. The question remains whether enough people will be able to justify paying a premium for the form factor for a less powerful device.

The very thing that makes the Surface Book unique is the thing holding it back and this in fact parallels a lot of the Duo’s present limitations and constraints. At $1,400 people are also paying a premium for the Duo’s form factor, for a less powerful device.

The compromises of the Duo’s form factor

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The Surface Duo’s hinge and 4.8mm thickness. Photo courtesy of Microsoft.

So many of the Duo’s compromises stem from the very thing that makes it unique: its dual screen 360-degree hinge form factor. While folding phones such as the ones in the Samsung Galaxy Fold series can fit sizable cameras on their exteriors because they don’t have 360 degree hinges, the Surface Duo has to have a flat exterior so that the screens can fold all the way around. This leaves it with no room for the now-standard camera bump or multiple cameras meaning a paltry single 11-megapixel camera that doubles both as a front-facing and rear-facing camera. To make the Duo comfortable to hold and use even when folded, Microsoft had to make each side of the Duo incredibly (and impressively) thin. However, this thinness also likely contributed to its lack of NFC, wireless charging, 5G and it having a small battery.

This isn’t to say that it will be impossible for Microsoft to fix these issues in future iterations. But, similar to the constraints caused by the Surface Book’s form factor, it looks like the Duo’s form factor itself might hold it back from being a more competitive device. Microsoft has been smart to avoid calling the Duo a phone, to avoid these very direct comparisons and emphasize that they are trying to create a new category, similar to what the Surface Pro did for tablets. However, unless Microsoft is expecting people to carry two devices in their pockets, people are going to expect the Duo to do all the things they still expect from a flagship smartphone. The mediocre camera, lack of NFC and small battery alone threaten to make the Duo hard to use as a daily-driver, let alone the fact that you have to pay $1,400 to even get one.

The point in saying any of this isn’t to say that the Duo will fail or that it has no future. There is a strong vision here that just needs refinement and if there’s any team that can pull off impressive new form factors like this, it's the Surface team. But, I think it’s important not to immediately look to the Surface Pro for evidence that the Duo will eventually succeed because it could also go in a very different direction. I for one applaud Microsoft for presenting a unique vision for smartphones rather than aimlessly competing with the Galaxy S’s and iPhones of the world. I want the Duo to pave the way for even better phones just as the Surface Pro did for tablets. I am rooting for the Duo and I hope Microsoft can pull it off, just with the understanding that it’s not a foregone conclusion.

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