I've previously written about my desire for an Xbox handheld. In a world where Nintendo Switch has become one of the most dominant consoles, you have to wonder whether Microsoft is thinking about how best to serve Xbox gamers on the go. The vehicle, without a doubt, is going to be Xbox Game Pass Ultimate and Xbox Cloud Gaming, which provides you with dozens of games you can access on tablets, phones, and low-power PCs.
As it pertains to hardware, though, the experience isn't the most user-friendly. If we disregard the fact you need a stable internet connection, which often isn't possible, the options we have now for gaming on mobile devices aren't the best for various reasons. While attachments like the Razer Kishi and the GameSir X2 are plugging the ergonomic gap, gaming on a phone in general can be a cramped experience. Phone calls and notifications can interrupt the fun. Screen usage time can deplete your battery rapidly, particularly if you're using a USB-powered accessory.
I often wondered if a separate device entirely would be best for playing games from the cloud, but after using the Surface Duo for the past few weeks, I think Microsoft might already have an in-house solution.
Gaming on the Surface Duo
My colleague Zachary Boddy previously wrote a piece on Surface Duo gaming, and my experiences largely mirror his, with a few caveats. One thing I'm totally in agreeance on is that this experience probably isn't ready today, but a prospective Surface Duo 2 could blow this thing wide open.
For those who don't know, the Surface Duo is a two-screen folding Android phone, which can be manipulated 360 degrees backwards to function like a regular single-screen phone, or pivoted out into a book shape, or even angled upwards to mimic a Nintendo 3DS. It's in this configuration where Xbox Cloud Gaming shines the most.
Microsoft's Surface and Xbox teams worked together on a unique Duo experience for the Xbox Game Pass app. The app detects when it's running on a Duo, and using the phone's "spanning" feature, you can drag the Game Pass app to the center of the screen while holding it in landscape mode, and it will fly out a virtual gamepad on the lower display.
This feels incredibly natural to use for anyone who's ever used a Game Boy SP or above. Crucially, this configuration removes the touch commands from the game display, which often overlay over in-game UI elements and subtitles, presenting both gameplay and accessibility issues. If you're on public transport even and simply want to play a game without sound, using subtitles, they're harder to read with your thumbs all over the screen. The Duo's second display solves this problem.
You don't have to use the second display though. There are games where the on-screen controls aren't as interfering, such as Streets of Rage 4. Even then, you can actually move them if their default positions aren't user-friendly. The fact that you're not locked in to using the second display opens up multi-tasking possibilities. Pretending you're listening to a Windows Central work meeting for example, using the top display for a Skype call, while using the bottom display for gaming, is a useful option.
If you're grinding in a game, you could also use the top display for Netflix or Disney+ too. You could also use the other display for Microsoft Edge, showing a game guide or something else. Xbox Game Pass uses far fewer system resources than a native game would, making multi-tasking an absolute breeze even on its outdated SoC.
Even with the Xbox Series X server upgrades to Xbox Game Pass, I still find that games that are a bit simpler or 2D still tend to work better on Xbox Cloud Gaming. Honestly, I find that to be true of the Nintendo Switch out of its dock as well, owing to the smaller display and low-power internals. Streets of Rage 4, Slay the Spire, and Darkest Dungeon all work amazingly well on the Duo, without feeling like they interrupt my ability to actually use my phone, thanks to the dual-screen configuration. Would I actually recommend it, though? ... Probably not.
The Surface Duo itself needs a large amount of work
The main drawback of this proposition is the Surface Duo itself, which frankly is hard to recommend in its current incarnation. The price alone should be enough to dissuade most people. It's an astronomical £1,349 in the U.K., although it is enjoying a £200-off sale at the moment. It has been cut to just $650 in the U.S., which seems far more reasonable.
I appreciate the unique engineering effort that went into the hardware here, though. Folded out flat, this is one of the thinnest devices ever made, barely wider than its USB-C port. Microsoft made it that way so it would remain "phone-like" in thinness when folded backward. Additionally, the engineering on the hinge is sublime. It remains resistive and rigid across tens of thousands or more folds, which is ideally what you'd want in a device like this. Microsoft would've also had to invest a ton into Android itself, which didn't support many of the features needed to make a dual-screen device like this work in practice.
I'd argue Microsoft mis-placed some of its focus though. I don't think a device like this needs to be so thin, if it would cut costs a bit, and enable us to have a better camera, better mic, larger display ratios, and bigger battery. It's also lacking NFC and 5G, which effectively eliminates it from the most modern phone use cases, including tap-to-pay and faster connectivity tech, which you'd probably want in a phone for cloud gaming anyway. 5G data has recently rolled out in my town in the U.K., and I used it to play Street of Rage 4 on my Galaxy Note 20 Ultra without any perceptible lag or artifacting. It felt like the future, frankly. But I'd far prefer to experience than a dual-screen phone like the Duo, where I could control it without blocking the display with my thumbs.
There's something just enchanting about the Surface Duo, though. Browsing books or manga just feels so good with a dual-screen display, and the multi-tasking features, multi-position hinge, and general uniqueness of the proposition makes me feel excited about phones again. I just need a bit more from my smartphone in 2021, that the Duo doesn't offer by itself. I'm hoping the Duo 2 can fix that — if it does, I'll grab it day one (especially if it adds accent colors ...).
An Xbox + Surface collab could make this happen
If the entire point of the Surface Duo is for it to be a unique Swiss Army-like phone-tablet, it only makes sense for Microsoft to double down on Xbox Cloud Gaming as one of its unique properties. Surface has often been the intersection of Microsoft's hardware and software teams, with everyone across the company coming together to build unique devices that showcase the ecosystem. What better way to do this for Xbox Cloud Gaming than the Surface Duo itself?
The Surface Duo 2 could be more than just a great Xbox Cloud Gaming device, it could be the next big thing in mobility.
A Surface Duo 2 that has more respectable gaming chops probably needs a better screen-to-body ratio. It probably needs haptics to give gentle feedback on how you're moving the virtual joysticks. Hell, they could maybe even incorporate some kind of magnetic gamepad similar to the magnetic keyboard cover we saw revealed with the MIA Surface Neo.
The Surface Duo has a lot of problems as it stands today, and given the fire sale prices over in the U.S. I expect it probably didn't do as well as Microsoft expected it could. The Android ecosystem is tough to break into, with Samsung utterly dominant, with even longtime players like LG and HTC exiting the market. Razer and Amazon have famously failed to crack it as well. I think there's reason to be bullish about the Surface Duo, though.
Microsoft has seen a ton of success defining new categories in hardware, and there's no denying that the Surface Duo hardware is magical. Teaming up with the consumer-focused Xbox team could give the Duo the springboard it needs to align with what users actually want, and need. I want this phone to succeed, and moreover, I want it to become my primary consumption device; whether that's manga, Netflix, or Xbox Cloud Gaming. The Duo is so close to greatness, and close to being one of the best tablets for Xbox Cloud Gaming in general. If Microsoft is willing to throw a bit more investment at the OS, and deliver some of those key missing features, the Surface Duo 2 could be more than just a great Xbox Cloud Gaming device — it could be the next big thing in mobility.
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