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Would Surface Duo's dual-display functionality make up for a bad camera? (poll)

Microsoft Surface Duo
Microsoft Surface Duo (Image credit: Microsoft)

Microsoft seems to be reluctant to describe the Surface Duo as a phone, despite the fact it can make calls, and, well, is a phone. In my opinion, this is an attempt to wave away the Duo's potential shortcomings, like its potentially shoddy camera.

The lack of a rear-firing camera bump certainly makes it seem as though the only camera we're going to get on this thing is the face camera, embedded in the top bezel. There's a question about whether or not this thing will even have a flash, which will impact its versatility in some user scenarios.

We have no idea how good the camera on the Duo will be when it eventually launches. However, the potential that it will be poor cannot be ignored. We have to ask: Is the functionality we're gaining from having dual screens worth losing a decent, modern smartphone camera experience?

Why I want a decent camera

Source: Windows Central (Image credit: Source: Windows Central)

A decent camera isn't just a "nice to have," for me; I consider it to be a necessity. Before I left Windows Phone for good, I was using a HP Elite x3, which by far and away had the worst smartphone camera I've ever used. Not only was it slow, and crashtastic, but the images were grainy and awful even in decent daylight scenarios.

Living in Europe, or the Northern Hemisphere in general, comes with the inevitable reality of overcast climate, meaning that you're rarely in a situation with ideal lighting conditions. Most modern smartphones tend to account for this not only at a hardware level, but also at a software level, using post-processing techniques to improve image quality in lieu of a high-powered camera sensor.

I'm a visual person, and I prefer to catalog things in photographs rather than in notes. If the Surface Duo doesn't even have a flash, even doing something as basic as capturing documents in OneNote might end up being a chore. That's a problem considering the Duo is being billed primarily as a productivity device.

The whole point of Microsoft switching to Android was so that it could take advantage of the wealth of apps on the platform. Many of those, from Instagram and Facebook to Snapchat and Tiktok, all depend on the camera array for large parts of their functionality. Even popular games like Pokemon Go are increasingly making use of AR, and smartphone cameras obviously play a huge part in that scenario.

If Microsoft isn't truly bothered about giving the Surface Duo a full and modernized smartphone experience, why bother using Android in the first place? Most of those major productivity apps were on UWP and Windows 10 Mobile already.

Why a high-end camera might not matter (for some)

Source: Microsoft (Image credit: Source: Microsoft)

For users who truly want a productivity device, the Surface Duo is going to be the smartphone to beat. Studies (opens in new tab) have shown that dual monitors boost productivity, allowing you to view multiple tools and programs simultaneously without the need for switching between apps and experiences. Flipping from app to app increases cognitive load, as you have to recall your previous chain of activity. Dual displays eliminate the need to recall that information since the apps will persist at all times.

When you factor in unique user scenarios that come from folding functionality, like tent mode for media play back, folded in landscape for playing games with a virtual gamepad, side-by-side inking, and beyond, perhaps we're approaching a point where the Surface Duo can truly exist in its own category, alongside smartphones, rather than in spite of them.

Many of us (myself included) will want to have "one device that does everything," though. All of this assumes that the Surface Duo won't have a good camera, and who knows? Maybe we'll get around to December 2020 and be surprised.

What do you think?

So how do you feel about all of this? Vote in our poll above, hit the comments below, and let's get the discussion going.

Jez Corden is a Senior Editor for Windows Central, focusing primarily on all things Xbox and gaming. Jez is known for breaking exclusive news and analysis as relates to the Microsoft ecosystem while being powered by caffeine. Follow on Twitter @JezCorden and listen to his Xbox Two podcast, all about, you guessed it, Xbox!

35 Comments
  • Well i was looking forward to getting this device but if there is no quality Camera on board this guy ain't buying!
    why do Microsoft make these crazy decisions? No Windows OS No Useful Camera No Buying it..Would you carry this and a Phone because you need pictures during the day? i wouldn't.
  • "why do Microsoft make these crazy decisions?"
    It's literally NEVER a "decision" to not have a good camera, it's simply HARD to do. Apple took YEARS to get a good camera (Lumias regularly beat it) and only with iPhone 11 did they start to compete again with Samsung/Huawei/Pixel who were destroying Apple on lenses, night, zoom, etc. for years. OnePlus does just "OK" with camera even after 7 iterations. Samsung didn't get even GOOD until the Galaxy S6. And even on Windows Phone it ONLY the Lumia series that had good cameras. LG, Samsung, HTC? Nope. It's a lot of research, investment, and algorithms. It's why so many companies e.g. Razer struggle with it. Razer didn't say "forget it, we don't need a good camera" they just couldn't pull it off because it takes time, talent, and a lot of money. It's not just slapping a sensor in there and plugging it in to the OS. Nevertheless, one thing we now know is it's not all hardware these days. Google proved that with Pixel 2 and 3. And Microsoft does very good cameras for laptops (Surfaces have the best laptop cameras on the planet, nothing beats them). Microsoft also gets imaging (see HoloLens, Kinect, LifeCam, and the new Hub 4K camera). I don't think the camera on Duo will be bad, but merely "OK" by 2020 standards. In an era where smartphones have four lenses and laser sensors, there's zero reason to believe the Duo will have an amazing or great camera.
  • What you're saying is wildly different from what the article presents. Just a FFC with no flash is not at all close to what anyone would call "OK by 2020 standards." I don't believe people expdct a best-in-class camera, but while you're saying that the iPhone 11 is the first to be a top contender, I think the majority of readers are concerned that the article is saying we'd be looking at a camera like you would see on an iPhone 6 or something. As long as they fixed the inconsistent white balance issues of the Lumia 950 family, I think most people would be able to live with that quality of camera without dying. However, the article is presenting something way, WAY short of that.
  • " Just a FFC with no flash is not at all close to what anyone would call "OK by 2020 standards.""
    We have zero information on the camera's sensor, size, and how well it works. NOTHING. Is it an off-the-shelf sensor or a custom one? Pixel size? Megapixel count? Science behind the lens? Does it use AI/computational photography and 2nd chip computing? We have no idea. It being a front-facing camera is literally about its position, not the hardware, so that is irrelevant since it serves both purposes (the screen flips around).
    "the article is saying we'd be looking at a camera like you would see on an iPhone 6 or something."
    Jez is definitely playing the camera down because there is little reason to think otherwise until we are shown contrary evidence. I'd rather we temper expectations and be surprised than over-hype it and be disappointed. History suggests though it takes years for an OEM to get good at imaging on a smartphone. LG, Samsung, Apple, Huawei, OnePlus all attest to this. When we see a late-entry player e.g. Razer or even Essential , it merely does "OK" on v1.0.
  • I would be fine if it's same level as razer phone, which is nowhere close to "capturing documents in OneNote might end up being a chore". I think the reason we are so worried is because the lack of information and the prototype we see online so far looks bad for camera.
  • I'd be happy if the Duo had a similar camera to my Sony Xperia XZ Premium. It ain't the best camera but it clearly would beat some rubbish 5Mpx shooter you'd find in an old Surface RT.
  • I have more use for a great camera on my phone than I have use for a dual screen device.
    So, if the dual screen device comes with a great camera, I will be interested because it's a novelty, a different approach to a smartphone BUT I'm not sacrificing anything for it (well, other than the money). However, if the camera is bad or it lacks other smartphone essentials, the novelty of it will no longer be enough to make me go and burn the money on the device just for the sake of it.
  • And I'm quite the reverse, if I want to take good photos, I take a DSLR, for social media, all I need is a camera as good as the old Lumia 950XL, middle era Galaxies, certainly not going to lose any sleep if it's not comparable to my DSLR, because let's face it, you want really good photos, you need good glass and sensors, not the tiny things they put in phones.
  • I personally am sick of carrying a monstrous DSLR plus a bunch of dedicated lenses every time I go on vacation. And with the results companies like Huawei are delivering on their phones, DSLRs are becoming more and more a niche product just for people who make photography their living.
    I find it increasingly difficult to justify putting up with the hassle that a DSLR encompasses just to take photos for myself. Specially when, if you know how to use a DSLR, you can take full advantage of the hardware in phones like the P30 that deliver far superior results than what you'd get by just point and shooting or even by using outdated hardware like the Lumia 950 or middle era Galaxies (or modern hardware designed for dumb people like the iPhone and the iPixel). So a great camera is an absolute must in a smartphone for me. If there's an extra screen thrown in, fine, that should be fun. But if the camera can't be trusted to deliver great quality as current Huawei and Galaxy cameras do, then no amount of extra gimmicks will make up for it in my book.
  • Did I miss a rumor that said anything about the camera? I recall the soft announcement which was about the folding display (a highlight of the device), but a year is enough time to figure out a camera solution (though, don't expect a high quality one unless they recruit the Nokia people they got a few years ago... Wait...).
  • It's about expectations. No reason to believe a v1.0 Android phone will have a killer camera when even OnePlus struggles after 7 iterations (they make an "OK" camera, not the best, def not the worst). It's also a very thin device, which suggests limitations on the camera's hardware. The question is where does Duo fall: terrible ⬅➡ decent ⬅➡ good for most people ⬅➡ amazing My hunch is somewhere in the middle, leaning towards decent.
  • Exactly, "expectations", and MS being vague about the camera is not a good way to manage them, especially since what it possibly won't have or what it isn't (don't call it a smartphone...) will eventually drown out all the positive potential it has. For a company that spends tens of millions, probably hundreds of millions, on marketing and messaging to try to give their products the best chance to succeed, MS is terrible at it, bordering on amateurish.
  • Although MS hasn't shown or mentioned a rear-facing camera, I think the issue is how to best implement it on such a device. The only way I could honestly see that working is to have a camera in the bezel of each screen. What I would do is allow users to decide which screen would be the main screen. The camera on that screen would be considered the front-facing/selfie camera and the opposite would be the main camera. With that said, both cameras need to be the best cameras. But, they need to be the best cameras that will fit the form factor, without taking aways from it. The camera on my Note 8 is decent enough for most people and I think it shouldnt be a problem putting one on both screens.
  • There is bad and then there is not flagship. I think the camera will not be bad but there are also not positioning this as a consumer-first camera forward device. It needs a good camera (think comperable to a flagship a gen or two behind) not a stellar one.
  • I am very much in the target audience for this device. Office worker interested in productivity, former WP user (Lumia 920 FTW!), Microsoft service user now. But I have a family. Being able to capture excellent photos/videos from the device in my pocket is non-negotiable. I want the Duo and will be a day one order if the device impresses with the camera along with everything else. Otherwise, I just can't do it. Maybe Samsung will come out with the same type device but throw in a 4-5 sensor camera setup?
  • This thing has to be able to live as a user's primary device. Not just meaning "the one capable of doing the most," but meaning "you can leave the house with this, nothing else, and not be compromised." They don't need to have the best camera in existence. Heck, I couldn't tell you the last time I seriously worried about having the best camera because of how capable the major players have all become. I'm not worried about my G8 against an S10 iPhone 11, Pixel 4, or whatever else the way I was considering the Lumia 920 against its rivals (or even the 950). In that mentality, I can live with an OK camera that doesn't have 3 rear lenses and the very best optics ever. My 2-lens G8 does me just fine, and I never use anything but the primary rear camera--never needed the FFC or thought the wide one would help me. Hiwever,goijg with just a mediocre FFC, especially with no flash, would be an awful compromise. People don't need the best camera ever, but a design decision like that would mean the Duo can't perform as a main camera for a MASSIVE number rof people. In that reality, people are going to look at the Duo as a complementary device. When it's time to go for short, quick outings, the Duo will be the one left behind. It'll be more like a laptop than a smartphone in a bad way. The mere presence of a primary camera worth using is very important to the majority of users. They don't have to be in the top tier if the camera market, but they can't place the Duo in a weird situation that coerce people to leave it behind on a regular basis. It will fail if customers feel they a high-end smartphone to complement the thing. The Duo needs to prod people towards a life of embracing foldable, not convince them they're niche products people don't really need.
  • Let's stop getting ahead of ourselves. The Duo we're seeing now isn't the final version. I'd be ok without a rear camera. The high quality camera could be on the same side as the screens. It would function as the rear camera (fold the screen/camera to the back) and a high quality front camera.
  • I'll let my wife take pictures with her phone. It's not like she isn't already doing that all the time anyway.
  • If Microsoft and Panay are serious all hardware components art top notch. I'm not sure microsoft cares about image quality. Whilst they hitched a nice ride with nokia's camera's and had a stellar team make pureview, the surface line has been less than stellar. The latter, even up to the latest pro 7 and X hasn't changed significantly over time. The main focus seems certain hardware and certain software within the platform.
    It's hard to sense what Microsoft wants to do with the dual screen mantra. They've teased us for years with a great hero device called Courier. But I'm underwhelmed with duo. I think microsoft is already too fixated with telemtry, instead of being more daring as with windows phone and windows 8. There is some sound sense to start with the basics as they do now. But it still feels like hitching a ride again, like Nokia, as they're doing now with Android. The difference now is collaboration instead of a takeover and dismantling, but I don't think the future looks as colourful and exciting as it did with windows phone.
    The biggest think, I hope, Microsoft has learned is too itterate with the market on time, but still manage to listen and support the platform for a longer period, without the devastating dead stops between upgrades like they did with windows phone 7 to 8 to 10 mobile. Those were such short lived moments they died, before being able to mature and master productivity on those devices. In my experience they kind of got it with windows 10 mobile, which I enjoyed a lot, despite it's feature update shortcomings. If they can see that as well, follow through (fingers crossed), then they've got my blessing and (financial) support.
    I've recently switched to Android after a lovely era of windows phone and 10 mobile. I ditched Microsoft Launcher in one week, in favour of Launcher 10. I am disappointed with the state and quality of outlook mail app. It looks and feels less mature, with less features and fewer polished features than on windows 10 mobile and Windows 10!
    To me it looks and feels like Microsoft is in a state of identity crisis.
  • My take is that people who spend over a thousand, or maybe two thousand on this device wouldn’t possibly consider bringing an iphone or something else alongside it. The amount of people on earth who use dual phones because they need something on one thats not on the other has to be microscopic compared to the people who just want a do it all device.
    It has to have a good camera, every mobile device has one. In my opinion it doesn’t matter if its front facing or rear facing, or if there is one, two or for some reason 3 sensors. It only matters that a camera on the device will be able to achieve solid video calls, and solid far range photos. The premise of the device is to change form so wherever the camera ends up, it can be rotatable to any posture. Therefore we don’t need a rear camera.
    What we do need, without question is a flat and flush device without a trace of a camera bump. It needs to be able to sit flat on a table, on a wireless charging pad, and it needs to be able to fold flat flush when you are closing or opening it up all the way. Any bump for a camera would destroy the device. No one wants to rotate it to 359 degrees with a hairline gap (Imagine surface book)
    Personally I would only be interested in the device if they had a flush camera that was some sort of a jack of all trades camera. If my old Lumia or surface pro have better cameras then that’s a pass for me.
  • As much as I'm looking forward to this device, a lousy or even mediocre camera would give me significant pause. In such a case, the OS, device, and bells and whistles would have to be game changing to make me turn a blind eye to a poor camera. Our phone camera's have really taken center stage in our everyday device operation. Whether it's photos, scanning, reading labels and codes, or serving as a mirror or zoom device, we have made the smartphone camera a viable tool that can easily be viewed as a necessity.
  • Needs a great camera. It's the most important thing on a phone nowadays when sharing stories, a picture/video tells a thousand words
  • Why the need for a great camera, rather than just good? Stories can be told without great quality pictures/videos, or did you never watch TV in pre-HD era, or never own a VCR showing on a CRT TV set. Just scrolled through my facebook feed, the first 20 photos, all come in at 1/16 the pixel count, or fewer, than the default photos taken by my galaxy s8+. How many people have devices capable of viewing the full resolution of the high end phones these days? The camera doesn't need to compete against the flagships, just needs to be as good as the previous couple of generations of flagships.
  • I think it would be more important for a device like this to be able to use its camera to quickly and efficiently scan documents, even having the functionality baked into the installed camera app.
  • After living with the bad camera on OnePlus 5, which otherwise is a perfect phone for me. My next phone will be one with a great camera. I might even beat the bullet and buy an iPhone if they have the best camera.
  • From what little I (we) have seen of this device, I'm really struggling to understand how the whole camera setup is going to work. Not having any sort of external display would suggest that this device will need to be opened for every interaction, every notification and every time you want to use the camera, and that already sounds like too many steps. We've all spent the last 10 years getting used to just picking our phones up, pointing them at whatever and taking the pic. The idea of pick up, unfold, open app, take pic sounds more complicated than it ought to be....and the masses do not like complicated. With all that said, however, I default to my first line....I have virtually no idea what this device's capabilities are going to be, and maybe (hopefully) Microsoft have used it's engineering prowess to find a solution to all of these issues already. Can't wait to find out in a few months time :)
  • Just put a decent camera on top of the left screen, let me fold it to the back and show the viewer on the right screen.
    Doesn't have to be super high quality (at least for my use case). Something like the back facing camera on the Surface Pro 7 will do fine.
  • I'm not going to buy it either way but phone cameras even in mid-range phones are already good enough, and I feel that phone camera reviews in high end phones ends up in nitpicking.
    The only real difference to me is in the number of cameras (ultra wide, wide and telephoto).
  • I would guess they are going to take the route of the ZTE Axon M, which had a 20 MP Camera sensor on one of the two screens' bezels. You either pointed it towards or away from you and used the software to determine if it was in Selfie or Main Camera mode (i.e. active screen). Simple, easy to understand (and you could have the subject of the photo see how they looked on the second screen). Was it the best camera? No, because ZTE had some software issues with low light and no OIS which sucked, but it was serviceable as a daily driver. If Microsoft copies the form factor and use a decent middle of the road sensor, like a Sony IMX, with OIS, it could surprise people without being the best there is.
  • I'd most likely get it regardless of the camera, but I do expect the camera to be of decent quality. Sometimes you need a good pic to send to someone who's trying to assist you remotely with a problem. A good image helps. I do hope they include a flash. Not necessarily for taking pictures, but for it's use as a flashlight. That's primarily the only time I use it. I don't recall seeing this, although I did skim, but I hope the FFC will have the required components to use Windows Hello, or something very similar.
  • I need a decent camera to photos of notes and evidence of my work for my portfolio (obviously omitting any client data for privacy and confidentiality). As long I can take clear and legible images of documents that can be converted into PDFs with office lens and is able to take decent photos for family photos then good enough for me. If it's anything like Elite X3 camera... that's not good enough especially for the Surface line of devices. Furthermore, if the Surface Duo costs anything north of a thousand dollars it must have a decent camera otherwise the naysayers will use it as a yard stick to bash the device. As it will be compared as a smartphone to other flagship smartphones in that category whether Microsoft likes it or not. "If Microsoft isn't truly bothered about giving the Surface Duo a full and modernized smartphone experience, why bother using Android in the first place? Most of those major productivity apps were on UWP and Windows 10 Mobile already." Totally agree Jez, I can't describe what a joy WM10 is to use due to the productivity integration in the o/s even more so when a course provider uses Office 365. I don't have to fumble around with exchange settings or have my phone enrolled by IT for the use on the campus. All I had to was login and the o/s did all the heavy lifting. "Many of us (myself included) will want to have "one device that does everything," though. Same here, same here I prefer to carry one device not multiple devices and if a device costs over a thousand dollars it better be one device that does everything. If the Duo costs about 500 dollars then sure the compromises would be understandable but over a thousand dollars? It would be unforgivable as it's a premium device in the Surface line up. However am I worried? Not really, camera tech has come a long way - there are many laptops with extremely thin bezels yet they still have windows hello face recognition, a front facing web camera and in some cases of 2 in 1s - a rear camera.
  • the nokia cameras spoiled me I loved those. I never realized how much until I switched to the hp elite that camera was crap, followed by the razer phone. Its not that hard to put a good camera in there.
  • My wife's spoiled by the camera in the Pixel phones (rightfully so, as their software is amazing), but I'm fine with the S10+, which sometimes has serious issues with focusing on moving targets, like my 13-month-old. I wouldn't mind if the Duo had a camera that meets the same standard as most other phones out there: If the target isn't moving, the photo comes out fine. At the end of the day, this thing isn't going to be designed for the type of person who shares on Facebook/Instagram, so its photos are probably going to be primarily for something like a whiteboard or other stationary target.
  • The Duo needs a good camera system, one that is at least competitive with flagship Galaxy phones if not more. I enjoy my Note 10+ but the camera has trouble focusing on moving objects (Samsung still can't seem to figure it out) and lowlight shots aren't very good. It's my work-issued phone but I don't use it for taking pictures. My iPhone 11 Pro Max takes better low light and moving subject shots. MS would need to at least match Samsung if not surpass them. I'm hoping that Samsung finally takes things seriously with the S20 and Note 11/20/whatever. It's clear they aren't doing much for their Flip (or whatever their Razr competitor is) with the cameras or specs but I don't want MS thinking they can fall back on the Duo's form factor. It needs the highest end SoC (not the 855 or 855+), all-day battery life, and a camera that would put it in the top 3.
  • Does Duo need a great camera? It's really a stupid question.. Hey, here's a question. Do we want a repeat of Windows Phone?
    .... Ummm, Samsung, and Apple, will make their versions of this device with state of the art cameras, and every damn thing else: there's your answer. Give me a break, people. We've already been through this crap for a decade. Duo needs to do everything well. If not then Microsoft should just not try at all... End of story. 🙄