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Microsoft Surface Duo is a Game Changer

Photo By BulbousSum – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=124764374

While the Microsoft Surface Duo may have some issues, it is a game changer as a phone / tablet / laptop all-in-one and at the incredibly low price of only $100-$300 (for a $1500 phone) refurbished with Ebay or Amazon guarantee and unlocked to work on any carrier. No other phone marries the benefits of being pocketable or chest-mountable, yet folding out to provide two 5″ 1080P+ glass Oled screens OR one 3.2K+ Oled 8.1″+ display while retaining the strength and resilience of Gorilla Glass or Victus. All other phones focus on ultra-wide screen displays making landscape or horizontal use quite limiting, especially when trying to use an onscreen keyboard.

All other foldable phones without a gap between displays necessarily require a plastic scratchable display with scratches at a level 2 and deeper grooves at a level 3 Mohs hardness (Thanks Jerry;) – therefore keys, a grain of sand, anything can scratch the fragile Samsung Fold 4 screens. Even a specialized s-pen stylus is required to avoid scratching the delicate folding Samsung screens. In constrast, the gorilla glass of the Surface Duo holds up to a level 6 or 7 – much more resilient than the Samsung Fold / Flip, Pixel Fold, Oppo N. The Surface Duo, on the other hand, is solid, slim, very light, very thin, great displays, great batteries, and uniquely offers the ability to dual boot into the latest Android 12L and/or Windows 11. Moreover, when paired with the surface pen slim 2 (or the Adonit jot or other stylus) truly facilitates multi-window, multi-tasking, note taking, document creation, markup, sketches, atak/wintak/civtak/winlink or other use on the go even in gloves or rain. The phone is so slim and lightweight, and with the folding, allows some very unique use-cases and modalities. With the constant updates, like clockwork every month, allows good security relative to a CCP device like the Unihertz Atom devices. With dual batteries and OLED screens, the power can last quite a while.

I’ve been looking forever for unique / nonconventional computing platforms for use outside, navigating at night in kayaks or dinghies, sailing, windsurfing, or hiking while actually using my hands or while woodworking, soldering, or cooking and keeping hands clean during the pandemic.

Surface Duo 1 with Seek Thermal infrared camera (left top)

I had previously used the Samsung S22 Ultra and the Unihertz Atom XL (DMR uhf phone) or Atom phone (the smallest android device ever made at only 2.45″ screen and 110grams) which includes a lanyard loop – allowing the phone to serve as a backup device on a neck lanyard hidden under your shirt. The problem for me, other than the obvious Chinese CCP opsec concerns and the utter lack of security updates and deprecated Android version, was that there is only one hardware lanyard connection point so when the phone is on your chest serving as a flashligh or camera, it was prone to rotate- limiting the usefulness of a hands-free camera, flashlight, or PTT comms device in the field. Night use with the light-leak prone LCD killed my night vision.

In contrast, the Surface Duo with it’s unique split-screen OLED with gap design allows the connection of TWO lanyards on opposing lateral sides allowing for a minimally-intrusive chest-mounted hands-free heads-up flashlight, camera, tactical navigation, mapping, night vision, and communications device which doesn’t rotate promiscuously off-sight, but instead keeps the light or lens where you want it.

Advantageously this allows for completely hands-free video recording, flashlight, weather mapping, atak use, thermal night vision display and other unique use-cases. Even as simple as hands-free podcasts while doing dishes, cooking, walking or sailing. No other phone offers these features for $100.

To get something similar for ATAK or Gotenna Pro use requires a plate carrier with molle mounts, a juggernaut phone case ($1000), pivotal connector (big, bulky, expensive, and doesn’t blend well going through customs or operating inconspicuously). In contrast, the Surface duo offers a chest-mounted, concealable, hands-free, heads-up, always on display (OLED without light leakage and truly OFF dark-mode) for $100-$300 with more than enough horsepower to run atak mapping on one screen while on the move and a whole second pivotal screen for typing, swiping, notes, or other applications such as Seek thermal nightvision / thermals with a usb-c thermal infrared camera. No other device allows an operator to point the (visible or infrared) camera or flashlight AND see the screen simultaneously. But with two pivotally connected displays, the camera, flashlight, or thermal camera can be pointed where you want while the other half of the device acts as a live display.

Some issues that may be a game breaker for some are the lack of Mil-Spec 810G or IP68 water-resistance, let alone water proofing – but the lanyard chestmount somewhat mitigates this issue by keeping the phone out of a hip-pocket well-above the water line. Using a hat or hoody keeps the phone protected even in a moderate amount of rain- but waterproofing would definitely help operate better in the rain or for full submersion.

Another issue is the rudimentary stylus support relative, for example, to the very mature Samsung S-pen approach. While the Samsung offers an internal silo for keeping, retrieving, and charging the stylus and ensuring you always have it ready to go, the Microsoft Surface stylus is an additional $100 or so, does not silo into the phone, it barely magnetically attaches, and requires a separate charger (at least on the Surface Duo 1, but the Surface Duo 2 has the option of a charging case to charge on the go). Still, the system integration is nowhere near as robust or intuitive as the Samsung S-pen approach. The full 3d airmouse 6dof features of the spen bluetooth are not replicable by even the Surface Slim Pen 2. This airmouse feature is great on the s22 ultra, Note 10 ultra, or even the Note 9 for discreetly using the the phone without touching it. But, for people who only envision using the stylus at home or in the office and conspicuously, this may not be a deal-breaker. I’ve found that the Adonit Jot line of styluses work sufficiently well, are inexpensive, waterproof, and require no separate charger.

Lastly, the camera is not GREAT, but it’s limitations are greatly exaggerated online. Depending on your use, it may be sufficient. It works decently well in well-light outdoor, sunny environments but your mileage may vary inside, in the dark, and at night time. I will note that the Gcam mod seems to provide much needed HDR and better pictures and is available for free and regularly updates to work with these devices.

If you want a pocketable or chest-mountable, civilian looking hands-free, inexpensive computer that can run the latest Android and/or full-blown Windows 11, with an amazing almost 4k 8″ OLED display (or two great 5″ displays) works with a stylus, bluetooth mouse and/or keyboard, this is the only option on the market. At 200g and only 5″, being only 4mm thick, it beats lugging a laptop and a phone into the field. Even the several years-old Qualcomm Snapdragon 855 (being a previous flagship processor) is more than sufficient to run full 4K video, dual applications without lag, and yet power efficient enough to operate all day or night.

I’ll write a review of the Atom and Atom XL dmr uhf phones shortly and upload some pictures of the chest-mounting options shortly – but wanted to share thoughts on anyone who might need hands-free heads-up computing options.

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