The Microsoft Corp. Surface Duo smartphone is displayed during a product event in New York, U.S., on … [+]
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Microsoft’s Surface Duo is one of the few devices I’m genuinely excited for in 2020, alongside Google’s Pixel 5.
But as a company with a less-than-stellar record in making smartphones, I’m not expecting a smooth launch for the dual-screened device. A recent sample of the Duo’s camera shows where the company – and the device – might struggle.
Microsoft’s chief product officer Panos Panay posted an image on Instagram last night, which was taken with his Surface Duo. With Instagram compression caveats aside, it isn’t a bad photo but also not a particularly good one.
This is our first look at the Surface Duo’s camera abilities.
The colours and dynamic range look decent, but it lacks detail. The image might’ve been taken in a darkened environment, which could explain the lack of detail – but Panay would’ve talked-up the camera’s low-light abilities if that were the case.
Obviously no one can judge the device’s camera from this sole image. But Microsoft does have a huge challenge on its hands creating a camera that’s anywhere near competitive to current top-end smartphone photography.
In 2015 I was pleasantly surprised by the Lumia 950 XL’s camera abilities, which showed that Microsoft could be competitive in that area despite the phone failing in a lot of other ways. But smartphone photography hasn’t just moved on since 2015, it has travelled across the galaxy, terraformed a barren planet and started a new civilisation.
Apple and Google have run away with it, with Samsung following closely behind. Both Google and Apple have relied on AI (Google’s Pixel Neural Core and Apple’s Deep Fusion technology) to push beyond the hardware limits of smartphone photography.
Other established players like OnePlus, LG, Motorola and Sony have struggled to compare. Even Samsung’s S20 Ultra powerhouse didn’t quite match up to Google and Apple’s efforts. The only other company that is perhaps on par in camera prowess is Huawei, but its phones no longer have vital Google services.
Will the Surface Duo launch with seriously competitive camera technology? Panay is promising a “world class” camera, but that seems unlikely considering how long the company has been out of smartphone production – not to mention the above roll call of well-funded regulars who struggle to compete. Microsoft’s work in AI might be repurposed to help produce better image results, but there’s little information about that.
Whilst the main draw of the Duo probably isn’t its camera results, that will undoubtedly be important. If you’re asking people to spend hundreds of dollars – perhaps even upwards of $1000 – on the only phone they’ll own for the next two years, then they will want pictures on par with the price. Camera quality ranks in the top five of most important smartphone features – a poor snapper could quite easily sink a phone.
The battleground that camera quality has become in recent years (because it’s one of the few areas companies can make genuine, tangible, improvements) has created a two-tier system of devices. There are the two or three manufacturers at the top – and then everyone else. This shapes how consumers – and reviewers – judge the rest of the device, too.
Getting this small part of the Duo right – as impressive as the dual screens are – is critically important. Here’s hoping I’ll be pleasantly surprised again.
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