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The Surface Duo could evolve to become the Xbox 'Nintendo DS' we never got

Surface Duo Gaming
Surface Duo Gaming (Image credit: Windows Central)

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

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

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.

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

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

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

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 (opens in new tab) in the U.K., although it is enjoying a £200-off sale at the moment. It has been cut to just $650 (opens in new tab) 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.

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

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

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

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.

Jez Corden
Jez Corden

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!

21 Comments
  • Aya Neo... is a better choice.
    Both XPA (offline play) and Cloud would work on that device.
  • Neo would be nice, but it doesn't fit in your pocket, whereas this does.
  • it needs a hardware attachment so we can have actual buttons on it .
  • Agreed, that would be cool
  • They should borrow the magnetic keyboard idea from the Neo to add hardware buttons, something low profile that could be slipped in a pocket, use a little screen space at the top for shoulder buttons.
  • It's cool for doing 2 things at once, but I think that phones with those air trigger things are probably still better (haven't tried), however this is still very cool though, I can't stress how grinding in a game while on YouTube or Netflix is Fing cool.
  • This all comes down to building a mobile dual-screen ecosystem. Why did the smartphone work out so well? Simple. People recognized the utility of calling people while you are out and about, which means most of the day. So billions of people bought phones once the monthly cost got low. Now with billions of users, the ecosystem (android and iOS) could get developers to build countless apps and make money. This just expanded the utility of the smartphone, justifying higher price points. $1000 iPhone? no problem. But the utility of the single screen is reaching its maximum value. But adding two screens or one larger flooding screen provides for more utility. I don't want to get into an argument with Bleached on this point. But neither the folding screen nor the dual-screen form factor has sufficient utility to attract developers. We just don't know how close all the base software engineering has improved to make a Surface Duo an effective device for developers to make money. What if the Duo becomes the go-to mobile gaming device for Xbox gaming? More sales, more units out in the market, a larger addressable market for app developers. If you can buy a $1000 iPhone or Android, why not consider a $1000 duo? If people are comfortable paying $1000 plus for a phone and you can buy a Duo and get a better gaming experience and, oh by the way, the dual-screen apps seem a lot easier and productive to use, Why not buy one? Surface Duo 2. Better camera? NFC? Better processor? 5G? It does not take much hardware engineering (maybe the camera is difficult) to incorporate these features to make the Duo 2 a cutting-edge device. But is the software running a dual-screen device good to go? Time will tell. But clearly, MSFT has plenty of time and money to make it work. We just have to see if the market appreciates the utility of a dual-screen device. While I prefer to use my Surface Pro 7 plugged into a surface dock with a large screen to run my business, I can make do with a $200 Motorola, which replaced my $700 Oneplus after it was run over by a car. I will be in the market to buy a new phone in 12 months or so. What do I need most? An ultrawide camera to take pictures of rooms in apartments after people vacate to preserve a good record of the condition of the apartment. IF the Duo has this camera, it will be in the mix. Right now I am leaning towards an S21.
  • Good points.
    "I can make do with a $200 Motorola", same, I bought my nokia 6.2 (/android) at the similar price of the cheap chinese competitors but still get 3 years of updates. Obviously the Duo cannot compete with this price for value, but when I look at the more premium & highend phones like galaxy S/Note and Iphones the price difference with the Duo is not even all that big. Current Duo was already competitive in its performance but if MS can also further improve battery life (like 1.5-2 day usage) and camera (and some features like nfc) than the Duo 2 would sound a lot more appealing to me than other flagships. With also little but handy extra's that it does not need a stand on the desk.
  • Folding screens don’t really need to attract developers, at least not like a dual screen device. When folding screens mature, which might be several years away, dual screens will be obsolete. They might be able to be a budget option, if there is room for it. Even today the Duo isn’t exactly lighting the world on fire, and it did the form factor almost perfectly. We haven’t seen any copycat devices and there is zero buzz beyond some Microsoft fans. I don’t think dual screens will catch on at all at this point.
  • The app fot Steam Link should support this too.
  • I got some of the feels from your positive futuristic take on what the Duo could be. It made me remember Jason Ward and his "Warditorials" - the eternal optimist that he was. I hope he's doing OK. I agree with you that Microsoft has some of the building blocks of a powerful and fully compelling consumer platform through synergizing their increasingly more mature and successful ecosystems - Xbox, Windows 11, Office, Surface. Each of these is being transformed/evolved into a more powerful and accessible (and attractive) product to the consumer, with the long-standing quirks quickly being ironed out. People have no qualms seriously comparing thee products to Macs and even ditching those to join Windows. A goal Microsoft should pursue now is how to use the halo effect of each product's unique selling points and so the whole becomes truly greater than the sum of the parts.
  • "Xbox, Windows 11, Office, Surface." None of these are consumer products. Xbox is closest, but hard core gaming is still a niche. A large niche, but still not a consumer product. Certainly not Windows, Office and Windows PCs. These are the very definition of business products. A consumer product is something everyone wants to buy. Phones have become the ultimate consumer product, combining a computer, phone, radio, TV, flashlight, compass, MP3 player, E-book reader, camera, GPS and full wireless internet access, all into a single pocket size device. There is no consumer "halo" around anything MS sells. Windows and Windows PCs are perceived as ancient in today's world. They are about as exciting as DVD players and vinyl records. The recent surge of Windows PC sales was due to people working from home. IOW, they had no Windows PC at home because they did not NEED one. We had 10 straight years of PC sales decline through 2019. If Windows PCs were a consumer product, everyone would have already had one at home. With people going back to the office now, expect to soon see a glut of used PCs on the market. Sales and prices of new PCs will naturally drop, and we will see some consolidation in the market. Dell or Lenovo or HP or Acer or (take your pick) will not survive. Microsoft understands all of this. Thus, the 11th hour attempt to make Windows "new and exciting". Windows 11 is way too little and WAY too late to make any difference to consumers. Plus, the last thing businesses want - who are, after all, the REAL users of Windows and PCs - is "new and exciting". They want "old and reliable" to run critical business apps. Remember, the last time MS tried to make Windows "new and exciting" was Windows 8. How well did that work out? It crashed and burned, of course. Why? Because businesses did not want it. Consumers were not part of the equation, even back then. There is even less consumer interest in Windows today than there was when Windows 8 was released.
  • There are one billion Windows users who would tend to disagree. IS a $1000 PC that big a burden to buy than a $1000 iPhone? Depends on utility. As you said, a phone, mp3 player, calculator, flashlight, camera in a device that fits in your pocket has a lot of utility versus a box and screen that sits on your desk. I think you arguing the difference between a car and a stove. A car has much more utility than a stove. But are both considered consumer devices? If you are arguing about Utility, then we have to ask about the utility of a PC to manage your life versus a phone. Neither one can replace the other. The question many recognized was the impact of Covid and the change in utility. Did a car have as much utility if you work from home? Does a smartphone become important in the family if the kids are at home most of the day? How do you home school with a smartphone? Hence the importance of a different form factor for managing information processing and decision making. So people bought a new PC. And phone prices seem to be falling. I think I would much rather read a book on a duo than on my smartphone. I never read a book on my smartphone. My point is simple. The utility of a Duo is driven by the software and hardware integration of the device. will the Duo 2 provide enough upgrades in hardware to improve utility? Better camera? NFC? bigger battery/longer run time? Better form factor development of Android controls? The Duo is a first-generation device. By the third generation, we should have a pretty clear understanding of the utility of the form factor and the consumer will decide if the utility is sufficient to shift market share from a single screen smartphone to a dual-screen device. At the end of the day, MSFT could care less which phone you are using. The Duo is an android device. MSFT just wants to make sure people can access its software and cloud services from any device. We will see if the changes in the Windows Store will shift the market dynamics away from Apple and Google. Windows 11 is not about the consumer per se. It is more about the market dynamics between the Apple Store, the Google Store, and everyone else. I would think Amazon would want a nice home for its own store on the information super highway. Sure you can go to amazon.com, but that website has always been clunky to use. For me anyway.
  • What is the difference between reading a book on Duo and everything else? You can only look at one page at a time. Duo brings no utility there, especially if you fold it in half to be easier to hold.
  • Any data to backup the claim that Windows has a billion consumer users and they aren’t predominately business devices?
  • "None of these are consumer products. Xbox is closest, but hard core gaming is still a niche. A large niche, but still not a consumer product. " , first time I heard that one. I am not sure you understand what a 'consumer product' means. Unless you are a game reviewer or such, you play games for non-work purposes (eg for fun), you 'consume' games so to say. Same like someone would 'consume' movies from netflix etc. Also console gaming (xbox=console + even other devices) is not a niche lol. Something like rts or darksouls genre might be called a niche. or the Duo to give another example. 😉
  • XBox is casual gaming, not much different than mobile gaming these days. It isn’t hardcore gaming, that is PC. XBox is certainly a consumer product.
  • "they could maybe even incorporate some kind of magnetic gamepad similar to the magnetic keyboard cover we saw revealed with the MIA Surface Neo" I've seen this suggested before but I'm not sure that it's practical. With gaming controls, there will be a lot more lateral force that with a keyboard and some of it quite vigorous. You'd need strong magnets indeed to prevent people detaching the controller repeatedly. While it sounds like a good idea at first, I think it would be a disaster.
  • Surface Duo Gaming.
    Vaporwares ? Mainstream ? Nintendo ? Accessory ?
    I think it's okay for smartphone gaming with haptic touch.
    Xbox handheld must be intesreting for any market as Xbox console.
  • Drop it down to $350 - $400 and I might consider buying the Surface Duo.
  • They need to drop the price, so increase the thickness and change the specs more for playing games.