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The Surface Duo Is the First Phone that Basically Requires a Smartwatch

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The Surface Duo Is the First Phone that Basically Requires a Smartwatch
A Surface Duo next to Surface buds and a pen
Microsoft

The Surface Duo has all the makings of a new category of PC—something more than a smartphone. It’s a multitasking workhorse you take with you, but that doesn’t mean it’s perfect. As any first-generation device is prone to, the Duo has some disappointing omissions. And if you want the best, most complete, smartphone experience with the Surface Duo, you need a smartwatch.

I Don’t Even Use Smartwatches Anymore

Call me a curmudgeon, but beyond occasional testing for my job at Review Geek, I often don’t see the point of smartwatches. I fall into that group of people who view them as superfluous extra devices to keep track of and charge that replicate features of a thing you already carry anyway. I haven’t used one regularly in years—not since my smartwatch of choice got discontinued (more on that in a bit).

Smartwatches let you see notifications from your smartphone, respond to text messages, make payments, play with apps, and do simple things like check the weather or take a call. Other than perhaps heart-rate tracking on some smartwatches, that’s all stuff you can do with your smartphone.

Most smartphones anyway. You see, all of that applies to any slab phone you might buy right now, from the iPhone to the Google Pixel, and it can even apply to most foldables. But that argument doesn’t hold water with the Surface Duo. No, the Surface Duo can’t do some of the basic things you take for granted on your regular smartphone.

What Time Is It? Who’s Calling? Check Your Smartwatch

A closed Surface Duo with a bumper case.
No outer display means no time, notifications, or anything else when the Duo is closed. Microsoft

I’m in my late 30s, so I can remember when I wore a regular old watch. No fancy electronics or internet capability (what internet?)—just a watch that tells time. But like most people, I stopped a long time ago, thanks to phones. When I need to check the time, I don’t look at my wrist. I check my phone. It’s right there, easy peasy.

But the Surface Duo doesn’t show the time quite so easily. The Duo’s claim to fame is a dual-screen system that closes like a book. It can flip around thanks to a 360-degree hinge, but you close it and can’t see the screen when you’re not using it. That’s the crux of the problem. That means you can’t check time or notifications and even see who’s calling without partially opening the phone to get to the Duo’s peak mode.

On top of that, the phone doesn’t have an NFC chip, so you can’t make contactless payments. You might not have used contactless payments regularly before, but they are more important than ever thanks to the global pandemic.   We currently live in an era where the new goal is not to touch things, especially in public places.

Touching a credit card machine’s PIN pad or handing your card over to a stranger is the last thing you want to do right now. You don’t know who touched the machine last, how often someone cleans it, how safe the employee has been, or any dozen other factors. The science on how long COVID-19 lives on what surfaces is still murky, so the best option is not to touch anything.

Contactless payments, on the other hand, remove all that uncertainty. Instead of handling physical objects or interacting with strangers, you can hold your contactless payment solution near a reader and pay. That can be a card, a smartwatch, or a smartphone with NFC.

More stores and restaurants are adopting the technology, and it’s not uncommon to go through a fast-food drive-thru with a payment machine hanging out the window. You might not find contactless payment options available everywhere you go, but having the possibility is better than not at all. On its own, the Surface Duo can’t make contactless payments. It doesn’t have the hardware.

But, there’s a pretty simple solution to getting back the features Microsoft skipped: Use a smartwatch. It’s right in the name; you can check out time from your smartwatch. You can see your text messages, even take a call. All without digging a phone out of your pocket and opening it up to the source of the notification noise. Sounds much better on the go or in the car. And you can travel without worrying about handling your card, or touching a potentially infection-carrying machine.

Whereas on other smartphones, you can argue a smartwatch replicates features, on the Duo, smartwatches replace missing features. You’d think with the choices Microsoft made, the company would have a smartwatch to go with the Surface Duo. But it doesn’t. At least not anymore.

Getting the Band Back Together

A Microsoft Band with a "Your PC ran into a problem" error.
That’s my Microsoft Band 2. I still have the thing. Josh Hendrickson

Did you know that Microsoft had a smartwatch? OK, technically, it was a fitness band. But it might as well have been a smartwatch; it did nearly everything modern smartwatches do. The Microsoft Band, version 1 and 2, had a small number of apps, the ability to display notifications, and even respond to texts.

I had both versions, and I can confidently say that you could type on it reasonably well despite the tiny keyboard. Or you could use Cortana. I paid for Starbucks with the Band, and I exercised with the Band. And naturally, I checked the time with the Band. It wasn’t super comfortable, but it was super functional.

Microsoft canceled the Band, ending my short affair with smartwatches. It’s a shame because the Band worked with Windows Phone (remember those?), iOS, and Android. That last bit is the most important part of this scenario.

What the Surface Duo needs is a Surface smartwatch. Something purpose-built for Duo, to enhance and improve it, giving you back those missing features. Microsoft has the chops to build great hardware, and it even has a vision. You can see that in the “Productivity Vision of the Future” video that the company created in 2015. Stick around, and you’ll even see an intriguing take on smartwatches.

But, that video asked, “what could the future be like in 5-10 years” and seeing we’re 5 years after that video, it’s obvious that Microsoft’s vision is a way off. So, we’ll have to settle for some other smartwatch.

The Best Smartwatch for Surface Duo

A Galaxy Watch3 and FItbit Sense side by side.
Samsung, Fitbit

The Surface Duo needs a smartwatch for the best experience possible. But which one should you get? That answer is a bit tricky because we can’t simply say “get the Microsoft one.” The Surface Duo runs Android, and while you might think that a Wear OS watch is the obvious answer, we disagree. Even if you manage to get one for $15, you’ll still regret it.

That leaves two viable options that will get you time, notifications, text messages, phone calls, and contactless payments. You’ll even get fitness features. The first smartwatch you should consider is a Galaxy Watch, whether that’s the Watch 3 or Active 2.

You might think the Galaxy-branded smartwatches only work with Samsung phones, but that’s not true. It works with any Android phone. You’ll have to download the Galaxy Wearable app, but you get all the features you can expect from a smartwatch once you do.

Of the two, the Galaxy Watch 3 is the more expensive device. That comes down to having a physical rotating bezel for navigation, leather band, and a trip sensor. It’s newer than the Active 2, so it may see support for a longer time, too.

A near Apple-Watch experience

SAMSUNG Galaxy Watch 3 (41mm, GPS, Bluetooth), Mystic Bronze (US Version with Warranty), Gold (SM-R850NZDAXAR)

The Galaxy Watch3 works well with Android phones, and it’s the closest you can get to an Apple Watch-like experience. It’s still not perfect, but miles better than Wear OS.

If you want to save some money, though, the Active 2 is a good choice. Feature for feature, it’s nearly identical to the Watch 3, from EKG scans to GPS, they share nearly identical sensors, save the trip sensor on the Watch 3. You’ll step down to silicone bands and lose the physical bezel rotation, but Samsung built a software equivalent into the Active 2.

A less expensive Samsung smartwatch

Samsung Galaxy Watch Active2 (40mm, GPS, Bluetooth), Aqua Black (US Version)

The active 2, like its name suggests, focuses on health tracking and exercise. But it also layers in all the smartwatch features you’d want, from text messaging to contactless payments.

But if you want the best fitness experience, turn to Fitbit. The upcoming Fitbit Sense is a full-blown smartwatch with tons of fitness extras. You can take calls, text messages, and get your notifications just like the Galaxy Watch. Still, you get the advantages of Fitbit’s ecosystem, and the new EDA Scan sensor to manage stress. It also has Fitbit Pay for contactless payments.

The Best Health-Focused Smartwatch

Fitbit Sense Advanced Smartwatch with Tools for Heart Health, Stress Management & Skin Temperature Trends, Carbon/Graphite, One Size (S & L Bands Included)

The latest and greatest from Fitbit, the Sense smartwatch is the company’s most advanced health tracker yet. You get all the smartwatch features you’d expect, and hearth rate, EKG, and EDA Scans.

If you prefer Fitbit on a more affordable scale, you could step down to Versa 3. You get all the same smartwatch features, with fewer health features. Neither the Sense nor Versa 3 are out yet, but they’ll arrive a few weeks after the Duo. If you can’t wait, the Versa 2 is a great option as well.

A more affordable Fitbit smartwatch

Fitbit Versa 3 Health & Fitness Smartwatch with GPS, 24/7 Heart Rate, Alexa Built-in, 6 Days Battery, Black/Black, One Size (S & L Bands Included)

Nearly identical to the Fitbit Sense on the outside, the Versa 3 forgoes a few fitness features in the name of affordability. It also sports soft alluminum instead of a stainless steel casing.


Microsoft wants to create a new category with the Surface Duo—a hybrid tablet and phone that multitasks better than either. But like all first-generation hardware, it won’t be perfect. If you want the experience, don’t skip a smartwatch. You’ll need it to get the most out of your Duo.

 

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