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Who is Surface Duo for? Don't overthink it.

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

This week has been rather momentous as Microsoft pulled the curtain back on its dual-screen mobile device dubbed Surface Duo. Pricing and availability were revealed, and as expected, both did not quite meet the hopes of many techies.

One question that comes up frequently is who is Surface Duo for – as in, who is expected to buy this thing?

I see a lot of handwaving about how Surface Duo won't sell to the masses, it's not a consumer device, it's too expensive, grandma won't buy it, Billy down the street has no need for it, and how LG is a better option (even though no one buys LG phones). But all of this misses the point.

The answer to who should buy Surface Duo is simple, and I think a lot of our core audience is overanalyzing it. Surface Duo is for Surface enthusiasts and those that rely on Microsoft's services. It is also for people who want a different Android experience that is more focused on productivity and creativity. That is a niche group, but niche isn't a bad thing when it comes to new technology.

This hypothesis is not me riffing or taking a guess. Microsoft's chief product officer Panos Panay has said this multiple times.

In an in-depth interview with Fast Company, Panay says matter of factly that Surface Duo is for "Surface fans who live in the Microsoft app ecosystem." Panay reiterates the position again in the Surface Duo press presentation (embedded above), which I implore you to watch. Towards the beginning, Panay states that Duo is about "challenging conventional thinking … that leads to building new categories," and after the Surface Duo sizzler reel, he remarks, "We built this product for Surface fans, there's no question about it, for people who love Microsoft …." Later Panay gives a meta-analysis that Duo is "the Microsoft you love and the Android you know."

Surface Duo is about "challenging conventional thinking … that leads to building new categories."

And that's it. Microsoft is not playing 4D chess.

Surface Duo is not here to defeat Samsung or Apple. Surface Duo means to start a new conversation, and it's doing that. Surface Duo is about what mobile computing could be and how it can be better. Surface Duo has a lot of interest and curiosity, even from those with no plans to buy one, which is the whole point of it.

Will that lack of mass purchasing always be the case? Of course not. I've stated in our podcast that Surface Duo is about testing the theory of dual-screen devices. It's a stripped-down, core experience that will go into real people's hands to see what they do with it. Future iterations of Surface Duo will add those features that are glaringly absent in this iteration. Microsoft is also hoping Surface Duo drives other device makers to embrace the concept, too — it's not just for them.

Surface Duo Press Upright Media

Source: Microsoft (Image credit: Source: Microsoft)

The trajectory and eventual goal for the Surface Duo should be evident. The first version gets people talking with early adopters, Surface fans, and general tech enthusiasts taking the plunge and buying one. Most people will simply look on with curiosity. Surface Duo v2 will fix shortcomings of the first model, and more people will consider buying one that time around. By the third version, Microsoft, in principle, will have made the dual-screen mobile device that meets the needs of its target demographic.

Surface Duo is meant for a specific demographic. It's for Surface and Microsoft enthusiasts, early adopters.

Of course, none of this matters if the core experience of Surface Duo — that two screens are better for productivity and creativity — falls flat. That could happen. This possibility is why its price, camera quality, lack of Qi, or NFC does not mater. No one can justify a $1,400 category-defining device if it fails at its core experience even if it has a whizbang camera or lets you buy a Slim Jim at 7-11 without your wallet. But if the dual-display approach works, adding Qi, NFC, and improving the camera experience later is solvable. Getting the foundation right in a new device experience is the hard part.

As far as price and it sinking sales? There are three things to consider:

  1. Discounts. Microsoft routinely puts new hardware on sale near the holiday season. This strategy happened last year with Surface Pro X, Surface Pro 7, and Surface Laptop 3. I suspect we will see Surface Duo drop in price later this year. Companies often build in a higher price point so they can do this to drive sales. There's also the whole trade-in thing.
  2. Expectations. If Microsoft expects to sell 200,000 Surface Duos and makes that many, but it only sells 80,000 – that's a big failure. If, however, Microsoft plans to sell 10,000 and sells 9,100, then it is a success. Microsoft learned a hard lesson about "big launches" with Surface Pro 1 and 2, where it had to write down $900 million due to overstock. This is why there is no global release. If you strictly control inventory and have it mirror demand, your product is not a failure because you matched expectations. That's a very different definition from the success of a "mass consumer product," but it is also not wrong.
  3. Proprietary everything is expensive. Surface Duo has the world's thinnest touch display that supports inking in a mobile device. The battery, the motherboard, the inking processor, the dual sensors, the antenna design, are all custom made and not mass-produced. That drives up costs. Anyone who studies the Bill of Materials (BOM) for a smartphone knows the display is the most expensive part. That's true here too, especially when you have two, and they have touch, pen support, and a wide color gamut.

Yes, I know those are not the answers you want to hear, but that is the reality of innovation. New tech is always more than what we want to pay for it. It is why I sat out for Tesla's electric car revolution until (1) it came down in price, and (2) the infrastructure was there to support it. Both of those things happened in 2019 but were not true in 2012.

Surface Duo is meant to start a new conversation.

Right now, Surface Duo is intended for a specific, narrow demographic. It's for Surface and Microsoft enthusiasts, early adopters, and those who want to try something new. It's not complicated. As this platform grows, so will the audience, with many going from onlookers to participants.

The bottom line is Surface Duo is driving the conversation in a very mature and stagnant smartphone market. There is a reason why those who refuse to buy one are commenting on nearly all our articles. There is also an explanation of why the tech press has been quite positive on Surface Duo. The core concept makes sense. Your piqued curiosity is why Surface Duo exists.

Microsoft doesn't need to justify the existence of the Surface Duo

But if you don't think it's worth it now, that's fine too. Sit back and enjoy the ride because it is happening.

Microsoft Surface Duo

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Daniel Rubino
Executive Editor

Daniel Rubino is the Executive Editor of Windows Central, head reviewer, podcast co-host, and analyst. He has been covering Microsoft here since 2007, back when this site was called WMExperts (and later Windows Phone Central). His interests include Windows, Microsoft Surface, laptops, next-gen computing, and arguing with people on the internet.

212 Comments
  • Dan - Any insight as to whether Microsoft will have a fair trade-in program for those upgrading from Duo 1 to Duo 2 when it comes out?
  • Seeing as they're taking Pixels, Samsungs and Apple phones now, can't see why they wouldn't do that for Duo 2.
  • I think the key part of that is 'fair'. I'd trade in my Surface Go, but not for $120, with charger. (mines the 8G, 128, wLTE)
  • Right. I'm considering getting the Duo 1, but i'm pretty sure i'm going to want the Duo 2 when it comes around. So i'd be kicking myself for buying something now that will be worth a fraction of the price a year from now.
  • Most smartphones are like that though
  • You're right, Microsoft doesn't give fair Trade-in value for their own products but more for other OEM units respects when i paid $1300 for my surface laptop 2017 edition which is in mint condition and runs like a champ still. They want to give me $160 which is insane IMO.
  • Lol, ridiculous offer. Just sell it 2nd handed for much more. Perhaps they factor in devices in bad condition too?
  • No one is forcing people to buy it and despite that, some still find a way to moan about a first iteration of a new product category.
  • Comments like these are so dumb. It's not about "forcing you to buy it," and suggesting as much is the epitome of a strawman. It is, and always has been, about expectations and reality. WC itself sold the narrative of "starting at $1,000," which I think most people considered to be high, but justifiably so. I was ready to buy in at around $1,000-1,200 (since I wanted the 256 GB model). They then came in at $1,400-1,500. The issue isn't "they're forcing me to buy it," it's that they managed to jump above what were seen as lofty price goals, and by about 30-40%. $1,200 and I'm pre-ordering it because it's cool tech and I'll accept the compromises. $1,400 with the Slim Pen in the box and I grumble a little but still buy. Instead, I'd be at $1,650 for the model I need (128 GB is insufficient). People are disappointed because they WANTED to pay a premium, but MS overshot even the high-end pricing rumors and forced people out.
  • Well put. Also factor in only 3 years of support + an extra $200 or so for a care plan and it's double the cost of what is reasonably expected.
  • Granted its 3 years of upgrade support (so that means Android feature updates), security updates might be longer. A care plan might not be needed if you put screen protectors on it and perhaps use the cover.
  • Bottom line is, it's that your expectations and other people will always differ, that why you have the freedom to choose is this device is right for you based on what you expected! The problem is, is that people want to force their expectations on everyone else and tell then what they should or shouldn't purchase. It's a bit presumptuous to basically assume those people aren't aware of the specs listed and still want the device despite ours shortcoming compared to other dual screen offerings. What needs to happen is we should let people decide what's right for then without bashing them or the company who chose to release the device with the specs of their choice.
  • Exactly this. What I think some people here ignore is how this device is overpriced compared to other gen1 Surface devices (heck this device makes the ProX look like a bargain).
  • for what it does and the form factor, is it over priced? how much would a device like this have cost when the Surface line first started? would it even have been possible to do at all?
  • I do not mean to the Pro 1, that is too long ago (even than though MS included a wacom pen with it). Duo has a cool form factor, as well as the other Surface devices when they were launched for their time (Book 1, Studio 1, Pro X). Other Surface devices were not necessarily overpriced when you factor in the sum of parts (digitzer + integration of magnets or cradle, tablet de-attach option, dgpu's etc). Duo is I think overpriced, an entry price of 1000/1100 dollars (possible 64 gb ssd instead of 128 gb) would have been fair I think. The Duo misses something to make it appealing for consumers at $1400 in my opinion, eg an integrated or included pen or included Surface earbuds or charging for Surface Slimpen. Both could have helped its marketing a lot too (better pen synergy could have been a match in heaven with one note + some other app dual tasking, while Earbuds could help with taking phone calls etc.).
    The only thing (for consumer market I mean) that could potentially still make a strong point for the Duo is its decent upgrade support and DuoOS. Of course for entreprise it is different since businesses can write off costs.
  • Daniel suggested that part of the $1400 price tag takes into account sales that will likely happen around the holidays, so maybe around November/December, you could see that $1200 price tag.
  • people wanting to buy something they can't afford is the way of things.
    just decide to spend the money or save up first
  • The problem to me is the cost. It almost sounds like MSFT is viewing this as nothing more than a prototype, and if so how can any personal user justify $1,400 to help them test it. If they drop the price closer to $1,000 I am in, but until then I wait on V2. I love my HP Elite and loved its predecessors. But MSFT has a bad record with consumer devices. Zune was superior and they could not market it. Windows Mobile is a superior experience but they could not market it. They had tablet computers before there even was such a thing and could not market them. All the early attempts at Surface failed but they committed to it and it finally made it. So are they really committed or is their testing at OUR expense and just another Zune? Who can tell? Waiting on V2 or a much lower price point on V1 for sure.
  • excuses again. so if you want this device, you still need a high end phone for pictures and calls. good compromise .... not !.
  • How? The device can take a call just fine, and most people use wireless headsets anyway. The camera is an unknown, but I expect it will fall in the middle of the crowd, which is still better than most of the phones people have had.
  • Yea but those cameras most people have that it is better than, didn't cost them $1400. Not saying it is a deal breaker, but saying it is better than those on $300 phones isn't a good marketing pitch.
  • I will be using Surface Duo as my only phone...
  • And if you weren't working for Windows Central? Honest question really...
  • If I can remember, Zac's been using a Galaxy Z Flip and Dan uses or used to main an iPhone. Plus, what do they get from saying they are buying a Duo?
  • > ... what do they get from saying they are buying a Duo? A proof that they have some idea of what they are talking about -- it doesn't look like Microsoft is too generous with the review units.
  • Great counter/question.
  • I will be using it as my only phone.
  • I am somehow talking myself into both buying the Duo and doing the same. Wtf is going on with me, lol.
  • Ditto. No need for another phone.
  • I too will be using my Surface Duo as my primary phone, btw, and my wife will be using her Surface Duo as her primary phone as well.
  • Excuses is just another man's reasoning. Depends how you want to view it. Just like confidence is for some, while others see it as arrogance. The real question is can you actually refute the points I made here? Because you haven't yet.
  • Honestly I call myself a Surface enthousiast (SP3, SB2, Go)who's invested in the Microsoft ecosystem (O365, Xbox and what not)... But I think a lot of people are thinking like me : spend 1400 to make steps backwards compared to what I have now is not quite an option... The hype was created (and it worked because I really wanted one) but the price and some specs were really a smack in the face... It's Surface so we knew it'd be priced premium but honestly I'd expected it somewhere below 1000 and WITH basic stuff like NFC... Then I'd go with it. But creating such a hype for imho quite a crowd and ending with an anticlimax isn't the best move I think. Fwiw I'm looking forward to you guys reporting on Surface Duo v2 or how it'll be called but let's just say I'm a wee bit disappointed now.
  • I too would have loved a sub 1k price, but I knew it would be more. Two screens and all the fit and finish were not going to come cheap. No foldable has been that cheap including the Moto and it is arguably lower quality than Duo
  • I was right there with you, until they killed Cortana on the Invoke. I picked up an Echo Dot and a Nest Mini, but Alexa and Google assistant can't compare to Cortana, especially with Samsung's SmartThings. I was planning to upgrade from my Surface Pro 3 to a Surface Book 3 or 4 next year, but now I see no point. I don't need Visual Studio anymore, because UWP is dead, and I code in Java on a MacBook Pro for work. I still hate Apple and Google products, but Microsoft has left me no choice. I don't trust them anymore. I've still got a working Zune 80GB, just to give you an idea of the many Microsoft products that I have seen die.
  • This whole "I don't trust them anymore" seems ... childish. Some things don't work out, no matter the resources put behind it. That's just life. And you suggest you're moving that trust to Google, with their track record, makes you somewhat less-than credible.
  • I never said I trust Google, but there are only 2 options left.
  • So if you don't trust Google and don't trust Microsoft, go to Apple. Microsoft is a business. You're boohooing about the weirdest things.
  • Actually not. Google is in the Ad business and is notorious for tracking and then selling every movement you make. If privacy is a concern at all then their reliance on Android is a big issue. Give us a new Win Mobile in V2 and it is much more appealing.
  • That ship has sailed. If there wasn't enough people buying into Windows Mobile V1, why would anyone get a V2 now?
  • I somewhat believe that MS will meliorate the Duo v.1 into a MS OS Duo v.2 with an added 'Watch' perhaps hitting the streets Jan-2022. Geez that a long time from now. In the meantime we will enjoy the 2 SDs we ordered.
  • THIS is what you have. Microsoft has no obligation to you to do that. And it's childish bc it's like why cry to Microsoft. You can literally pick any other company to build you an os. Build it yourself or something. But crying as if Microsoft 'left you with no other choice' is babyish. Neither did the other multitrillion companies that have been formed. It's weird, bro. If privacy was the #1 concern, stop using smartphones in general. Don't connect to the internet. The oddballness has to stop
  • Apple is out of the question for a lot of people. Which sadly just leaves Google...
  • Well then act like adults and make the best decision for you. That decision might be to not use a smartphone at all. This 'ms left me no choice' is babyish. Grown people want someone to make their plate for them AND be fork fed. Microsoft did what's best for them. Do what's best for you. Simple.
  • What is wrong with Apple other than its slightly annoying elitism? Frankly I enjoy throwing things at my TV when they have a product roll out. Cast thy demon, *snark*, aside, Apple has a brilliant computing stack that runs circles around Google. Where they are with silicon alone is a mind blow. Then there is the watch. They are doing brilliant work. Then there is the interoperability amongst their devices. They pretty much sit at the apex of the wholistic experience game. Now that Microsoft is rolling out the a mobile device that is going to have legs, Apple needs to move its fat butt over. When you cast out the demons, Apple has great stuff. Where they come up short is in the enterprise cloud area, but that is not what they are about. Apple over the decades has set a design standard that is really high and precisely because of them Microsoft launched the Surface family. The old cliché, that a rising tide raises all boats, applies here in depth. They made Microsoft better, they made Dell better, they made HP better to name but three PC companies. I think you have wildly misunderstood the modern computing world. If we are steering into the absolutist tree of either this one or that one, I would suggest that you most likely have it backwards. But that is not the world we live in. The range of great technology companies on the plant now is staggering. It is a heterogeneous computing world now and we get to optimize it for our purposes.
  • For phones yeah, not for laptops. Windows 10 is a great laptop OS with longest update support and legacy support, and it bridges well with samsung phones with YourPhone. And if you hate Windows just put Linux on it, much better deal than a macbook pro imo.
  • They'd rather cry about Microsoft saving themselves business wise. Newsflash to them. Satya doesn't even know they exist to begin to care about them. No one did ANYTHING to them. I wished they love themselves more
  • Google has killed about as many products as MS has. https://killedbygoogle.com/
    Apple likes to play it safe, so now 2-1 laptops with digitizers etc.
  • Yes he has. He, and statistics. Disregarding (among several things) the feature that most people care about in a pricey smartphone - a great camera - is not a good call if you're looking for any kind of significant sales.
  • Agreed. And no manner of argumentation or arrogant snubbing is going to change that fact.
  • Who's it for? Anyone who wants it and can afford it. Wish it was me :)
  • Great for students! travel light and get more done, with the added memory advantages of pen input.
  • Yes, 'cause students never take photos... 🙄 They'd be much better off with a good smartphone and a Surface Go 2...
  • Definitely not for students lol, just like students (imo) should not get a Fold. These are luxury devices, like Jcmg62 said get if you have enough money and want a digital/modernized molebook with phone capabilities.
  • Dan, just want to say that was a very thoughtful and balanced article. You sum up nicely the key issue. It may not be for everyone but everyone seems to have an opinion on it. "Meh" it isn't!
  • Thanks for reading, glad you liked it!
  • It's actually excruciatingly 'meh'; that's the problem in a nutshell...!
  • Watching that press briefing gave me a much deeper appreciation for what's being accomplished here.. I've also watched quite a few videos of people bashing the device by listing off specs and comparing it to single screen foldables without ever mentioning the word "productivity".. The dual screens, the 360 hinge, and the software driving the experience are the true stars here coupled with the thin and light hardware design.. can't wait to add this device to my Surface collection and looking forward to what v2 and v3 looks like..
  • Agree. Watching that video is key to better understanding Surface Duo. I've had so many people tell me how it changed their opinion.
  • This is a first-gen category defining product that has got (from the look of things so far) its core objectives for productivity right. The price is prohibitive for most, but for many of us Surface fans for whom this device is designed, it is difficult to resist. I think the naysayers are missing Microsoft's strategy here as well as the advantages of dual screens Microsoft is expounding. I've been using the LG G8X with the dual screen case since December. I knew that I would like two displays, but was surprised at just how much it enhanced productivity and how good it made me "feel" not to have one app obscured when using another app while still wanting to keep another active. Now this is with a device that has less software investment to optimize the dual screen experience than that which Microsoft and Google have thus far (admittedly there is a ways to go with a broader spectrum of optimized apps) achieved with the Surface Duo. I feel that Microsoft is on to something here, and is pioneering a mobile experience that very well could succeed. Version 1 isn't meant to take the world by storm. We're smart enough to know how these things go. Their setting a standard, staking a claim, building the relationships through Google and developers. Though nothings guaranteed, time, if they endure (which I'm confident they will) through versions 2 and 3 will, I'm confident will lead to the category emerging as one that makes a lasting mark.
  • Nice to hear from you, Jason! Well-reasoned response, thanks.
  • Thanks Dan. Great article. Glad to contribute to the conversation and to touch base at a very exciting time for Microsoft and the industry. 👍 I do miss Windows Central. God bless man!
  • Yo. Didn't realize you left. How is it first gen category defining if you already have another one from LG? Haven't Nokia done this 20 years ago.
  • Jason, miss your writing! Wish we had a Duo Warditorial. (No offense Dan, your article is great also).
  • Hey thanks for the kind thoughts. I really appreciate that. I've been brewing over some thoughts for a "Duo Wartditorial." Things are way too exciting right now to remain silent. lol I don't know when or where but I'll be putting something out. :-) Follow me on Twitter @JLTechWord and if I get something out I'll put a link there. Thanks again.
  • Nice to hear your thoughts Jason. The price of the Duo (is my main barrier so I will probably go with the LG V60 or the cheaper LG Velvet which both have the dual screen option, good cameras, pen support, a built in controller app to use on the second screen, and (at least on the Velvet) a similar feature for opening grouped apps as the Duo. I love Surface devices but I will wait for the Duo to mature (if Microsoft bothers to stick with it) before considering it.
  • Thanks ladydias. I hear you on the price. $1400 even for Surface Fans (especially in the midst of difficult financial times) is not something everyone could or even should (if it digs into priority responsibilities like rent, mortgage, food and clothes) jump on. I understand Microsoft's move. And those who can will jump on board, and progress will be made. Later this year, inevitable discounts or bundles may also make it more accessible to others. As amped as I have been looking at cuts that I can make to make that $50 monthly payment for the 256GB model palpable. But then I counter that with the eventual advent of version 2 and how I'll be salivating over that and how I'll likely still be paying on version one and unable to reasonably commit to getting a better version 2 out the gate. Still, I'd love to review it. So, I'm in the same boat as everyone else. The more I learn about it, and reflect on my positive dual screen experiences from my LG G8X I really want to jump all in now, particularly since some of the software adaptations on the Duo are more advanced than what I've had on my LG G8X. I'm still on the fence (I've got a wife and two little ones to take care and have to manage resources reasonably. lol). But, if I jump in I'll make it known on Twitter and share my hands on thoughts and experiences (somewhere :-)) So keep an eye out. Thanks again for the kind thoughts. :-)
  • Are you on ATT? I added the extra $5/month for the early upgrade (as long as half the device is paid off), so that I can upgrade to version 2 next year.
  • Yes, I'm on ATT.
  • Lol, that parental struggle is real. I look forward to your thoughts if you do find it feasible to get a Duo. Even if you wrote about your experiences on the LG 8X, that would be nice. Btw, I believe LG is updating their older handsets to the Velvet UI which had improvements for the dual screen experience.
  • The only thing that I can think of that makes this phone Surface enthusiasts is that it has pen support, other than that I don't see how this is more for the Surface enthusiasts then let's say the upcoming Fold 2. Outside of the Pen, the Galaxy Fold 2 will be better in every way. I don't hate the Duo I think that is great middle step between regular phones and Foldable phones, but it needs to be priced properly.
  • Fold 2 is at LEA