Sunday, November 7, 2021

The Microsoft Surface Duo: When Being Different Isn't Enough

You won’t see me doing product reviews very often, because I don’t really care about the bells and whistles that those reviews tend to focus on as buying points. I want a product that’s reliable and, if possible, different. That’s pretty much it.

I’ll start this review by lamenting how the vast majority of cell phones today are all design riffs on the same boring black rectangular slab. So when AT&T decided to shut off service to my Moto E4, I had a choice to make. What kind of phone should I get next, and is there anything that breaks out of the stylistic boredom of most phones today? Understand that I wasn’t looking for something different for the purpose of impressing anyone; to the contrary, I hate being like other people so much that I’ll go out of my way to not be like them if I can help it.

There’s also a practical consideration: I break my phones with alarming frequency, and I wanted something that didn’t leave the screen as naked and exposed as most phones do. That ruled out paying up for one of the nice new Google Pixel phones, which come with some impressive specs for a not-unreasonable price. 

You’d understand where I’m coming from if you’d ever seen my old E4. It looked like it’d been through a war zone, with dented edges and a spiderweb crack across about a third of the screen. But by God, it still worked, and I intended to ride that thing till it died.

Well, AT&T beat me to it, turning off my phone service, in October of 2021, because the company plans to end 3G support next February, four months in the future. Never mind that my phone wasn’t even 3G; it worked on our local 4G towers just fine, and the taskbar display always clearly showed 4G. I never even saw the phone register a 3G network. But the phone wasn’t on AT&T’s list of “approved” devices that it would allow to function on its network past February. So whether my phone was actually 4G-compliant or not was irrelevant.

So what else was out there that I could stomach? The first thing to catch my eye were the new-ish foldable phones, like the Samsung Galaxy Z Fold and Z Flip, and the old Motorola Razr flip phone reimagined as a smartphone. I loved my old Razr dumbphone. I go all the way back to Nokia candy-bar phones, and before that a car phone in a bag that necessitated hanging a metal coil antenna on a rolled-up door window. So when the old Razr came along, I was thrilled with the form factor, that satisfying snap when you shut it, and the fact that my screen had a built-in protector.

But my research left me less than thrilled with the new foldable smartphones. That seam in the middle of the display just spelled trouble in my mind, and sure enough, I saw that lots of people reported cracks from repeated folding, and the cracks ended up blowing out their displays. Surely there must have been a way to make a phone with two separate screens that would butt up against each other when the device was opened, rather than trying to drape one display across a fold. For the four-digit prices the manufacturers were charging for these folding phones, this seemed like an unacceptable design flaw. And I won’t pay that much for a phone on principle, anyway.

Then I found the Microsoft Surface Duo. Now that was a nice-looking phone. It folded like the Galaxy and Razr phones, but it consisted of two separate screens joined by nice, strong metal hinges that let the screens swivel a full 360 degrees. You could situate the screens side by side and run a different app on each screen, or you could fold the phone all the way open, having only one screen face you – good for resting against your ear when taking a call. 

You can run one app on each screen (right, YouTube and Maps),
or you can stretch one app across both screens (left).

Or you could position the phone at pretty much any point in between. You could tent it, or you could set it up on its end like a book, or you could set one screen on a flat surface and position the other one for viewing, like a little baby laptop.

Tented and laptop-ish.

The problem, again, was the astronomical price. These things went for upwards of $1,400 when they first came out. I paid less than that for the laptop I use for work every day. Heck, it’s about 14 times what I paid for my old Moto E4.

But then I saw that the prices had fallen drastically since the Duo’s release. When I saw one for half price, and I’d just received a performance bonus from my client that would cover the cost, I decided to take the plunge.

And boy, was it a pretty little device. It was dazzlingly white instead of mind-numbingly black, with the iconic four-square Microsoft logo situated prominently front and center in an eye-catching reflective silver.

It was no less attractive when opened. Unlike the tall, skinny rectangles that most slab phones are, this thing had a 4:3 aspect ratio with one screen open, and a 3:2 when fully unfolded. Not too big, and not too small. Unfolded, it was nearly identical in its dimensions to my old Android tablet. 

Size comparison versus a Galaxy Tab A.

I’ve always preferred the size of tablets to that of phones, but obviously you can’t stuff a tablet in your pocket. Microsoft seemed to have solved that problem by basically making a tablet that folds down the middle and makes calls to boot! I was always envious of the European markets that seemed to have abundant options for buying nice, big phablets, but good old American corporate greed dictated that you could buy a tablet if you wanted more screen real estate, but the tablet couldn’t make calls. For that, you needed to buy a second device for your pocket. Idiocy. But again, Microsoft seemed to have addressed that gaping hole in the American market with the Surface Duo.

I say “seemed” because Microsoft really dropped the ball on this device. The company could have released something totally amazing, with the potential to redefine the smartphone market. But the thing is just way too glitchy.

For starters, touch responsiveness is poor. You’ll often have to press multiple times to get something to work, and hopefully you can succeed before you lose your patience and start angrily mashing your finger into the display. Not that I’d know anything about that. Call me crazy, but I expect an expensive phone to just work when I give it a command.

Second, things just lag, and sometimes they completely freeze. Apps won’t open or close, or the desired action will follow several seconds after you input the command. On top of that, you never know when, or even if, your display is going to flip from portrait to landscape when you turn the device. It’s a crapshoot.

Speaking of which, the back screen is supposed to go to sleep when you have the phone folded open. But it doesn’t always do that, and you’ll have to reopen the phone until it figures out which display you’re looking at. And then even when you get the back screen to go black, sometimes it’ll reactivate, and you won’t even know it until you’re trying to type something on your active screen and you can’t figure out why the keyboard is unresponsive or disappears. Then you flip the phone over and you realize your palm has been inadvertently interacting with the other screen.

Speaking of keyboards, I don’t like predictive text, and I couldn’t get it to turn off on the stock keyboard, no matter what I tried. Even when I rebooted the phone and went back to check that the switch was indeed turned off, I still got predictive text. The only solution was to download Gboard from the Play Store and make it my default.

One of the most perplexing things of all was the squashed display that the phone gives you for text and call alerts, and for dropdowns. When the screen is so big, why mash the notifications into an area smaller than what my old E4 served up?

There were lots of peculiarities like that. There’s one speaker, and it’s not great. There’s also just one mediocre 11-megapixel camera that doubles as front- and rear-facing, depending on which way you turn the phone.

Then there were the things I could live without but that probably proved a dealbreaker for others. One of the biggest drawbacks for a lot of people, I have no doubt, is that the phone shipped with an outdated chipset and came installed with Android 10, even though Android 11 had just recently been released. In addition, there’s no 5G capability, no NFC for touchless payments, and no option for wireless charging. For the price this phone originally retailed at, you’d expect those things to be a standard part of the package.

The things I didn’t like were the lack of a removable battery, no headphone jack, and no expandable storage options. I realize these “features” are becoming commonplace on phones nowadays, which is another reason I held on to my old E4 for as long as I could.

See, I understand that manufacturers don’t make phones for me. For example, I wanted a dual-SIM phone so I could have a main line for friends and another that could pick up the inevitable spam calls after I needed to give out a number on a form somewhere. But here again, American corporate greed won the day, as the phone providers didn’t want to sell phones on which consumers could possibly give part of their business to another company. Dual-SIM phones are easy to come by in Europe. Here, not so much.

I’m also still holding out for a device with massive internal memory, so that I can take my entire music library with me, in lossless form if I choose. But since most people seem content either handing their data off to someone else’s cloud or pulling song files they don't even own from an app’s library, I doubt I’ll ever find a handheld device with 1 or 2 TB of memory.

I also prefer a physical keyboard to a virtual one, but with the demise of BlackBerry, I’ve completely given up on that option. (Side note: Why do they call physical phone keyboards “QWERTY keyboards”? All keyboards are QWERTY keyboards, whether real or virtual.)

I’d go old school and just settle for a dumbphone, but I tried that with a Light Phone, and it was an unsatisfying solution. I like having a browser to look things up on the go. I like having maps and navigation. And I prefer full-keyboard texting to T9 tediousness. I like having a weather widget, too, though I could sacrifice that if I needed to. But I don’t use apps much, aside from a note-taking app where I’m always jotting down ideas. I’m just not a power user. I don’t use my phone as an entertainment device (though maybe I would if I had a phone with enough memory to stuff all my music on one), nor am I someone who sticks his face in his phone all day posting updates and selfies to social media. The most I’ll do is take the occasional picture when I see something interesting.

Since there’s no viable market for people like me, I don’t expect to ever find a phone that checks off all the boxes I want. So I’m content to settle for good enough, with a design that stands out from the stultifying conformity of the ubiquitous black slab being a nice bonus if I can find it.

But when one of the screens on my Surface Duo developed an aggressive green flicker after about two weeks of use, I couldn’t overlook its quirks and flaws anymore. I’m sending it back for a refund. It makes me sad, because I really like the form factor of this device. I love the size of the screens, and the fact that you can do two things at once on it, and the fact that you can position it pretty much any way you want. A de facto folding tablet that makes calls? That’s amazing. This thing held so much promise, and Microsoft just blew a golden opportunity.

So for me, I’ll be firing up an old Moto E5 Play that I had sitting around. I think I stopped using it when the speaker developed a really annoying rattle. But even with that defect, the thing is still more robust and reliable than a Surface Duo that cost far, far more. It actually has a headphone jack and a removable battery, and I can put up to 256 GB of extra memory in it. It’s not perfect, but at least I know I can rely on it to respond when I ask it to do something, and the display has held out for far, far longer than just two measly weeks.

My problem is that I tend to be an early adopter. I love finding things that challenge the boundaries and push the norms. Back when I still watched television, I had DirecTV when most people still had cable. I also bought a 5-inch Dell Streak, which was more or less the precursor to today's slabs, back in a time when everyone wanted tiny little phones. “You’re going to look stupid holding that massive brick up to your face,” people said — and now everyone is scooping up phones that make the old Streak look dinky, as manufacturers put out bigger and bigger 6- and 7-inch displays.

So I gambled on the Surface Duo, knowing that first-generation technology quite often comes with wrinkles that have to be ironed out in future iterations. But some technologies just fizzle out, regardless of the promise they hold. The Dell Streak was a great idea that was poorly executed, and I think the Surface Duo will end up being the same. The second generation of the Duo adds a better camera, a side display for viewing the time when the device is closed, and 5G and NFC capability. But I’m not convinced it’ll be enough to save the device.

I might try another first-gen Duo, in hopes that the green flicker on my device meant that I just got a dud. I really liked the phone, despite its obvious bugs. But for now, a rattling speaker on a boring $100 black-slab phone will just have to be good enough.