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
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)
For users who truly want a productivity device, the Surface Duo is going to be the smartphone to beat. Studies 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.
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