Surface Duo: kiosks, unboxings and parallels

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The Surface Duo launch has been something of a long, drawn out affair, and even now the first USA reviewers are bound not to show the device turned on, since evaluation of the software is both waiting for updates and also the expiry of an embargo (possibly the date of public availability in the shops). But we are starting to see real units handled and shop presence, so I've embedded a few likely candidates below along with some thoughts on the Duo's future...

Firstly a retail sighting via Twitter:

The actual Duo is a dummy unit, with mocked up display, though apparently there are working units 'out back' and can be produced for hands-on if needed. The Duo is real, it seems (see the embed in the comments below), which is cool for such an early look at such an expensive device. The retail display does a great job of explaining and demonstrating the unique 'poses' of the Surface Duo, kudos to Microsoft here.

Review Surface Duos have been seeded with 50 journalists, YouTubers, and tech influencers in the USA, with the caveat that they're not allowed to show the device powered on - yet. So we have a clutch of 'unboxings', which are still interesting and worth a quick watch. Here are some examples. Firstly Marques Brownleee, rightly famous not just for his insane production quality but also for sensible, hype-free opinions:

Then Daniel Rubino, the head of Windows Central, also based in the USA, of course. He's rather more biased, but he's also well informed and has had his own multiple hands-on in the past with working prototypes:

The obvious caveat to put against the enthusiasm shown is that Marques, Daniel, and 48 others (they're mostly on YouTube here) have been handed a device for free and they haven't had to dip into their pocket to the tune of $1400 or weigh up the whole 'Can I use this instead of - or as well as - a traditional smartphone' decision.

I've had numerous bits of admirable hardware sent in for review here that I love to bits but could never use practically as my 'phone'. For example the Planet Computers Gemini, also based on Android, which in theory offers a full mechanical QWERTY keyboard, stereo speakers and full 'laptop in your pocket' operation. But the older Gemini sadly lacks the same three huge spec points that the Surface Duo misses: NFC (for Google Pay), Qi charging, and a decent camera. I could live if one of these was missing, but not all three. So it fails as a main phone - for me, at least - for the same reason the Surface Duo will.

Gemini and Duo

I don't think the prohibition on showing the device 'on' yet is too suspicious. My strong impression is that there's a big, bug-fixing OS update needed and Microsoft wants to push that out before the reviews get started in earnest. We haven't had a Surface Duo emulator update for a month and a half, but that probably just means that Microsoft's engineers have been concentrating on the device itself instead. I'm expecting a new Surface Duo emulator build appearing just after the new version gets pushed to review devices in the first week of September.

As with any new form factor, there are bound to be some interface glitches and app incompatibilities, but the Duo isn't a flash in the pan consumer smartphone and is intended to be a long term piece of computing hardware in the same vein as a laptop or hybrid, so it'll be fine if it takes a few more months for the OS and UI to be completely stable.

I still don't think it's a good recommendation as a 'primary smartphone' for most people, but it will find a niche, I'm sure. Take the unboxings with a pinch of salt, take the eventual USA media reviews with a similar pinch - it's not until we see real sales figures, user reviews and (possibly) return rates that we'll know whether real world users can justify this outlay for a 'productivity' gadget.

PS. Some of our previous Surface Duo coverage here: