Microsoft Surface Duo: A software evolution testimonial, but for who?

Article By : Brian Dipert

Foldable smartphones deliver compelling use case benefits, unfortunately in combination with (getting-fixed) bugs and performance limitations.

A couple of months ago, when I mentioned that my beloved Google Pixel 3a smartphones were nearing the end of their three-year support cycle, I indicated that I’d be transitioning both of my cellular accounts (AT&T for personal use, Verizon for work) to Pixel 4a (5G) smartphone successors. While that remains the long-term plan, at least for Verizon, my AT&T path has already taken at least a temporary diversion to something I’d mentioned a month earlier (and also alluded to two months ago), a first-generation (“OG,” for original generation, to the Reddit crowdMicrosoft Surface Duo:

Mine’s a 256GB carrier-unlocked open box unit, in like-new condition, that I’d bought from BuyDig on Christmas Eve (happy holidays to me!) for $420. While that might seem like a chunk of change at first glance, keep in mind that the original MSRP for this particular model in September 2020 (first shipment date, with preorders beginning one month earlier; it had actually been publicly previewed nearly a year earlier) was $1499, with the 128GB variant $100 cheaper at $1399. Brand new units direct from Microsoft are now selling for $699 (128GB) and $749 (256GB), presumably to clear out inventory in favor of the Surface Duo 2 successor:

Here’s how they stack up spec-wise, both against each other, my current Pixel 3a, the Pixel 4, and the Pixel 4a 5G:

Pixel 3a Pixel 4 Pixel 4a (5G) Surface Duo Surface Duo 2
Storage 64GB 64/128GB 128GB 128/256GB 128/256/512GB
DRAM 4GB 6GB 6GB 6GB 8GB
Size 5.96 x 2.76 x 0.32 in (151.3 x 70.1 x 8.2 mm) 5.79 x 2.71 x 0.32 in (147.1 x 68.8 x 8.2 mm)

 

6.06 x 2.91 x 0.32 in (153.9 x 74.0 x 8.2 mm) 7.36 x 5.72 x 0.19 in (186.9 x 145.2 x 4.8 mm) (unfolded), 3.67 x 5.72 x 0.399 in (93.3 x 145.2 x 9.9 mm) (folded) 7.26 x 5.72 x 0.22 in (184.5 x 145.2 x 5.5 mm) (unfolded), 3.63 x 5.72 x 0.43 in (92.1 x 145.2 x 11 mm) (folded)
Weight 5.19 oz (147 g) 5.71 oz (162 g) 5.93 oz (168.0 g) 8.8 oz (250 g) 10 oz (284 g)
Screen 5.6″ OLED, 2220 x 1080 pixels (441 ppi) 5.7″ OLED, 2220 x 1080 pixels (441 ppi) 6.2” OLED, 2340 x 1080 pixels (416 PPI) Dual 5.6” OLED, 1800 x 1350 pixels (401 PPI), combined: 8.1” OLED; 2700 x 1800 pixels Dual 5.8” OLED, 1892 x 1344 pixels (401 PPI), combined: 8.3” OLED; 2688 x 1,892 pixels
SoC Qualcomm Snapdragon 670 Qualcomm Snapdragon 855 Qualcomm Snapdragon 765G Qualcomm Snapdragon 855 Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 5G
Battery capacity 3000 mAh 2800 mAh 3885 mAh 3577 mAh 4449 mAh
Cellular data (most advanced) 4G (LTE) 4G (LTE) 5G (sub-6) 4G (LTE) 5G (sub-6 and mmWave)

Let me be clear upfront: no matter the added and enhanced capabilities that the Surface Duo’s dual-screen approach affords, IMHO it wasn’t worth the original $1499 price tag. I’d even go so far to say that the same goes for its successor, no matter the 2nd-generation improvements (more advanced CPU, more system memory, 5G cellular support, enhanced camera, NFC support, Glance Bar, 90 Hz display refresh rate, expanded Slim Pen support, etc.).

But at just over $400, I figured it was worth the investment to see if there was reality behind the “foldable” hype. And surprisingly, the discounted Surface Duo became my “daily driver.”

The Surface Duo has something of a convoluted history. Originally, it was intended to be the launch hardware for Microsoft’s Project Andromeda, a dual-screen-centric operating system successor to the ill-fated Windows Mobile O/S. When Microsoft decided to shelve Windows Mobile in favor of an embrace of Google’s mobile operating system, the Surface Duo team redirected its attention to then-latest Android 10. One problem: Android didn’t yet (or still, for that matter, except for recent betas) have any cognizance of dual-screen, dual-foreground-app or similar configurations, an omission that’s been equally challenging for Samsung (the other notable current “foldable” Android smartphone supplier). To date, both companies have instead had to develop their own Android add-ons. Read any of the launch reviews of the Surface Duo and you’ll therefore encounter no shortage of praise for the hardware, albeit coupled with withering criticism of the software.

My decision to purchase a Surface Duo of my own was driven in part by price but also by timing: per prior public comment, Microsoft was poised to release a significant Android 11-based system software upgrade, after having paused its public update releases the past few months while it internally pivoted away from further Android 10 development. That Android 11 upgrade ended up being a few weeks late, which gave me a chance to first try out what early adopters had been dealing with (still benefitting from around a year’s worth of updates since launch, mind you). The benefits of a dual-screen device became quickly apparent; here are just two of the many improved scenarios I encountered:

  • Launching 1Password (my password manager of choice) in one display while logging into a website or app on another (Android’s integrated password manager support remains hit-and-miss in my experience), and
  • Pondering a potential purchase in the Amazon app (for example) on one screen while price-comparing it with other retailers in a browser window on the other

But they were balanced against oft-frustrating hiccups. Sometimes, for example, one or both displays refused to power on—or to remain powered on—until I closed and reopened the hinge (and sometimes it took multiple tries). And rotating the handset either horizontally or vertically, if it produced the desired display rotation-and-switching behavior at all, often occurred only after unacceptably long latency. In attempting to discern whether I was encountering bugs, CPU/graphics/etc. performance limitations, a dearth of system memory, or a combination of these, I first dove into the memory usage screen available after enabling Developer Options:

Enabling this has consistently inferred no memory “starvation,” no matter that the Surface Duo 2 has further bumped up the allocation to 8 GBytes. I’ve therefore concluded that what I’d experienced was a combination of software bugs and inefficiencies, compounded by a no-longer-leading edge processor; while the first-generation Surface Duo uses the same SoC as the Pixel 4, keep in mind that in the former case it’s not only driving a slightly higher-res display, it’s driving two of them, each potentially corresponding to a unique foreground application.

I say “potentially” because there’s also the option to have one application span both displays. My results here have been mixed, due in part to a current lack of dual-screen optimized applications and to continued use of an operating system that’s equally non-dual-screen tailored. Take the Amazon Kindle app, for example. If I hold the opened phone in landscape orientation, I get two simultaneous pages displayed, one per screen, like a book. Rotate the phone in portrait orientation, conversely, and I end up with a few lines’ worth of missing text in the ”gutter” where the hinge is located, because Android treats both displays as one big one.

That all said, there have been notable improvements since I started using the Surface Duo, both with the late January Android 11 upgrade (thereby explaining my earlier “what I’d experienced” past-tense wording):

And (particularly) with the follow-on late February update:

At this point, the Surface Duo is essentially bug-free for me, albeit still a bit more sluggish than I’d prefer. And I’m hopeful that Microsoft will going-forward fulfill its earlier “three years of support” promise by bringing now-beta Android 12L (which Google is ironically rolling out in parallel with the Android 13 beta for standard devices) to the platform (some folks have already unofficially done so via hacks, in fact, along with Windows 11!), thereby standardizing Microsoft and Samsung’s currently proprietary dual-screen workarounds, in the process eliminating “gutter” issues, expanding the available suite of “launcher,” camera and other apps, etc.

A few other observations in closing:

  • Long-time readers might find it ironic that I’m using such a large device given my earlier grumbles about big-screen smartphone pocketability. The Surface Duo is actually more totable than you might think, thanks to its thinness when closed, although it’s still not capable of being safely squeezed into the front pocket of a snug pair of blue jeans.
  • That said, it’s a bit wonky when held up to the head for traditional phone operation. I’ve therefore been testing a suite of Bluetooth earbuds, the results of which are scheduled to appear in a coming-soon follow-on writeup.
  • I’m not terribly fond of the Surface Duo’s off-white color scheme; the Surface Duo 2 optionally comes in black. That said, it’s nothing that a skin won’t fix (I’ve also invested in both Ice Blue and Graphite protective “bumpers” to supplement the Glacier one that came with the Surface Duo).
  • I’d originally planned on using the Surface Duo with my Verizon account, but I was unable to get either Visual Voicemail or Verizon-to-Verizon text messaging to work (although exchanging texts with other carriers’ customers worked fine). Both issues ended up being related to Microsoft’s decision to not pursue CDMA certification on the Surface Duo; as a result, Verizon accounts need to be configured with the “CDMA-less” option, which wasn’t feasible on my group work plan. The Surface Duo also doesn’t support Wi-Fi Calling when associated with a Verizon account, and I’m not aware of any workarounds for that (although the omission wouldn’t have affected me personally, as my wife and I use a femtocell, which Verizon refers to as a “LTE Network Extender”). All conversely is fine on AT&T.

What are your thoughts about foldable phones generally and/or the Surface Duo specifically, both in an absolute sense and depending on how they’re priced? Let me know in the comments!

This article was originally published on EDN.

Brian Dipert is Editor-in-Chief of the Edge AI and Vision Alliance, and a Senior Analyst at BDTI and Editor-in-Chief of InsideDSP, the company’s online newsletter.

 

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