Microsoft introduced its successor to the Microsoft Duo today at its annual Surface event and had the absolute gall to charge yet another $100 for its all-new not-a-phone, the Surface Duo 2. You’ll recall last year, when the original Duo hit the shelves, it carried a $1,399 price tag. Since then, the price has dipped to fire-sale levels, hovering around a far-more-palatable $400. So, when Microsoft introduced the Surface Duo 2 at a higher price point, it’s bound to give you some pause, and rightly so.
Last week, I wrote up my wishlist for what we needed to see in the Surface Duo 2. Long story short, I asked that Microsoft ditch the not-a-phone narrative, add in flagship specifications, and for the love of Pete, fix the software. Today we found out that Microsoft at least checked one of those boxes.
But none of that matters if the software isn’t ready.
The Surface Duo 2 comes with all the specifications you’d expect to see in a 2021 flagship phone. You’ve got your Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 processor, 8GB of RAM, up to 512GB of storage, 5G, NFC, and a triple camera setup, complete with a camera bump. I ask you, dear reader, what is a modern-day flagship without a phone camera that is so monstrous it needs its own bump? Microsoft also added in a battery that was almost 25% bigger.
Most importantly, Microsoft added three more cameras to the phone, in the traditional wide, ultrawide, and telephoto setup. This marks a vast improvement over its predecessor that relied on a single, mostly terrible camera to shoot all its photos and videos. The new phone is also slightly bigger, adding 0.2 inches to each side and a mere 0.7mm thicker.
Overall, without having done a full review as of yet, this phone feels like more of a finished product. In retrospect, the original Surface Duo was more of a beta test than a finished product, and its sales (or lack thereof) and ultimate fire sale bore that out. This hardware feels much more in line with what you’d expect from a flagship.
But now we get to that price, $1,499 is a good chunk of change, falling just $200 short of its nearest realistic competitor, the Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 3. While the comparison between the two is not exactly apples and oranges, a $200 price difference between the two really isn’t enough to set one apart from the other. If you’re willing to fork over $1,499 for a Duo 2, you should also be willing to come up with an extra $200 to go with the Z Fold 3.
$1,499 is a good chunk of change, falling just $200 short of its nearest realistic competitor, the Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 3.
It comes down to a question of priorities then. If you want to multitask like a boss, go with the Duo 2; if you want to have a large screen for consumption, then the Z Fold 3 is your winner. The point is, both of these devices should be equally good at what they’re designed for and they both have the specifications to back it up. That is why the price tag on the Duo 2 makes a lot of sense.
But none of that matters if the software isn’t ready. The original Microsoft Duo’s software was terrible. But Microsoft has had a year to iron out the bugs. Better hardware will help, but a year’s worth of additional software optimizations and bug fixes should be even better. We’ve seen incremental improvements in the software as the year has gone by, but even with the latest software releases, there has been some less-than-optimal behavior.
Fortunately, it’s fair to anticipate that Microsoft will not try to play the embargo game this time around. Last year’s “hardware only” embargo was an obvious attempt to deflect attention onto the hardware and away from the software. The hardware was beautiful last year, and this year it looks to be just as good. But the separate embargos were a fairly transparent attempt to get people awestruck before reviewers revealed the wizard behind the curtain.
Personally, I’d also like to see more apps taking advantage of the dual screen, but I don’t think that will happen. Put simply, the original Duo was too much of a train wreck for developers to have faith in the platform. There’s no sense in putting resources into a platform that is not only unproven but a notable failure. So, we’re unlikely to see a ton of developers jump on board any time soon.
This is another big question mark. Microsoft sure did address the one major hardware criticism from the original Duo. While the single camera was (barely) fine for video conferencing it was terrible in just about every other circumstance. Microsoft responded this time around with a triple camera setup including the main camera, telephoto, and ultrawide sensor. That’s extremely encouraging.
I would frankly be surprised if the camera was anything approaching good this first time around. I have this fantasy that Microsoft held on to some goodies from the old Lumia days that will make its first “real” camera setup amazing out of the gate. It’s a pipe dream, I realize that, but it would be nice for sure. If you put a gun to my head and made me guess, I would think the cameras on the Surface Duo 2 will probably be on par with midrange offerings these days, which is to say they’ll probably be great in broad daylight, and get progressively worse as the sun goes down.
That wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world. It’s honestly pretty hard to screw up camera sensors these days when the lighting is good. Microsoft will have less experience in the post-processing part which can be worrisome, but overall, I’ll be shocked if you take a photo at an amusement park, and it doesn’t come out looking pretty good.
So, this year’s Duo 2 starts at $1,499, and on paper, I’m ok with that. What Microsoft is doing is adding excitement to the mobile space in a way that is both unique and useful. Running two apps side-by-side on two large screens has a ton of potential, as explored by LG before its untimely mobile demise. Is it too soon to talk about LG’s dual-screened phones? Because LG has some great ideas there and I hope Microsoft was paying attention.
Meanwhile, if the hardware on the Duo 2 is as sleek and well-built as the original Duo, Microsoft has a potential winner here. But again that’s all on paper. It’ll actually come down to the overall experience, and that can’t be judged by a few demos on stage. Once reviewers have had the chance to work with the Duo for a time, it’ll be much clearer. Did Microsoft build a winner? The specification sheet checks a lot of boxes. It’s just a question of whether the software can live up to the spec sheet.
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