Note 41: New phone, who dis?

Adventures in Florida and a Microsoft Surface Duo review.

I’m back with my feet on ground in the concrete jungle of Chicago after a long weekend trip to Tampa to attend the wedding of one of my wife’s best friends, and our first post-COVID plane trip. The trip itself was quick and one of those where I was largely on others’ itinerary. That said, I enjoyed myself and even managed to find some time to take a dip in the ocean and do some shell hunting while getting in some GoPro time.

Unfortunately the friendly neighborhood dolphin - which was popping up and checking out the local surfers - didn’t cooperate and make an appearance while I was filming.

In addition to my beach fun, I also used the trip to upgrade the wardrobe a bit to break me out of my COVID-era uniform of pairs of comfortable corduroy pants and tee shirts. Given the oppressive humidity of Tampa, I figured that I would be able to pick up some serviceable sport coats that I could begin wearing with a proper shirt and tie. The Sunshine State did not disappoint, and I’m now getting used to wearing my “Big Boy Clothes” once again. Sartorially, I should be back to full strength and ready to take on the post-COVID world with a full Windsor knot.

Pixel go BOOM!?

Unfortunately, we did have one casualty of the trip and that was my Pixel 3XL phone. While tinkering on it on the plane, I noticed that something was off with the volume buttons. A closer inspection revealed that my protective case wasn’t at fault, but rather that the phone’s battery was beginning to swell, which is NOT a fun thing to notice while several miles up in the air. I shut down the device and did some research while in the air and came up with a decent plan to move forward over the weekend with a new phone. (Ironically, a few hours before, I ruled out bringing one of my many development phones, which would have been a quick solution to this problem).

When we landed at Tampa International Airport, I took a cab on our way to the hotel to a nearby Best Buy where I discovered that I might be able to get about $300 knocked off the price of a Microsoft Duo smartphone, using Best Buy’s price match with Amazon’s prices. I wasn’t certain how well that would work, and I did have to jump through some hoops that kept me from getting the 256GB version (sold by Woot! at Amazon, which was ineligible) and ended up with the 128GB version (sold by Amazon at Amazon). There were two in stock and I was able to knock down the retail price from $999 (the device originally sold for $1,400 back when it was introduced in October) to $670. The salesman was pretty surprised I was able to get that steep of a discount (apparently Best Buy’s willingness to price match has limits), and I left him and his fellow salesmen discussing which of them would pick up the remaining device in stock with that discount.

As far as I know, this is Microsoft’s first Android device and rather than make one in the traditional slab form factor, they created a foldable tablet that uses two screens to provide a pretty interesting computing experience:

Unlike Samsung’s and others’ take on the foldable concept, the two screens means that you can fold them back to back if you’re looking for a traditional slab handheld experience. When both screens are open (as you’d hold a book), they function as two separate screens side-by-side, allowing you to run one app on the left screen and run another independently on the right screen. You can drag the apps from one screen to another, and if you want a genuine full-screen experience (this is pretty cool for map apps), you can drag the app to the middle of the device and the app will cover both screens.

The device itself is pretty much the size of a typical paperback book, which is a wee bit large for my hands, but once you start using and holding it like a book, the advantages of the form factor become readily apparent. Since my prior phone was decommissioned as I work out replacement details with Google (this wasn’t my first Pixel 3XL with a swollen battery), I spent a good part of the weekend restoring access to sites and apps on the new device, and being able to run LastPass on the left screen with my usernames and passwords, and restoring apps on the right screen made the restoration experience quicker and easier than it would be on a traditional slab device.

Now, one of thing things that sets this device apart from other Android phones is that the interface is entirely gesture-based. Microsoft uses the entire screen for app content, and unlike phones like the Pixel, there are no hardware or software buttons for the standard Android home and back buttons. Depending on the device orientation, “back” might be swiping in from outside the screen from the right or the left. “Home” is swiping up from the bottom, and I’m still working on getting that one working reliably, as I seem to be invoking it accidentally at times when scrolling apps.

One downside to the device is that it only has a single camera that is on the same surface as the right-hand screen. If you want to take a picture that’s not a selfie, you have to launch the camera app, fold the phone back on itself, and wait for the viewfinder to appear on the other screen. It’s an awkward experience that hopefully the next iteration of this device will address by including a camera module facing away from the display.

In terms of the overall construction of the device, the hardware is top-notch. The screens are very nice and the overall device is as polished and slick as anything Apple’s releasing these days. I’ve had no problems with the hinge, and I’ll be keeping an eye open over the next few weeks to see if it remains as tight as it is now. I was also impressed by the thin fingerprint reader that Microsoft included on the side of the device. I’ve traditionally been a fan of back-mounted scanners, but given the unique ergonomics of the device, where it is on the side makes perfect sense. That said, it does not include NFC, so I won’t be using it to pay for things.

I haven’t had any problems running any Android apps on the device, but there are a few that could use some hints as to where the screen separation is, such as GMail. Not too many apps have been modified to take advantage of the two screens, but the Kindle app has been. I’ve been using the device as a reader in lieu of my Kindle. Since it’s paperback sized, it’s pretty natural to hold it and read it just like an old fashioned book. However, as I discovered this morning, its smartphone display has the same handicaps compared to E Ink devices, which means that it can be pretty difficult to read text when in a bright environment where the max brightness of the device can’t keep up with the ambient environmental lighting.

One downside to the device that I’m looking forward to addressing is that it’s pretty slippery. Microsoft used glassy materials for the back surface and those don’t provide a lot of grip. I looked into case options, but it was hard to find anything that was designed to work well with the 360° hinge. So, with that in mind, I figured that I’d take the paperback book metaphor to its logical conclusion and and order some custom vinyl skins for the device that I can place on the exterior to look like an actual paperback book. I’ve been looking at classic covers to Weird Tales and Astounding Stories featuring Lovecraft stories, but this morning I was struck by the inspiration that I should probably look into Sutter Cane covers as well.

Overall I’m enjoying the new device and odds are pretty good that it remains my Main Phone, even after Google replaces the Pixel for me. The Courier is dead. Long live the Courier!

Book reports

I don’t have any new books to report on and I’m falling further behind on my schedule. I’ve been stuck on a Lovecraft-inspired anthology called The Black Stone: Stories for Lovecraftian Summonings since my Arkansas trip and it’s taking me some time to get through it. The issue is the writing - not that it’s bad writing, but instead that it’s very good writing in the contributions that’s doing HPL justice. The problem is that some of these stories can be a bit intense, so it’s really easy for me to fall off-track to take a breather, whereas with a regular novel, I would bounce to the next chapter. Dark fiction like this requires a breather before jumping into the next tale.

In addition to the book, Raffaele Pezzella also recruited a number of musicians to put together a companion album:

This is the first anthology in Pezzella’s Dark Fiction series, and I’ll be looking forward to future entries in the sequence. In the meantime, I’m happy (if slow) to be able to work my way through some first-class Lovecraftian stories that also happen to be written by long-time luminaries such as Ramsey Campbell, but also some personal friends like Russell Smeaton (after whom you’ll never think about the term “bookworm” the same again) and John Chadwick (who contributed a great piece on the greatest arcade game that everyone was made to forget).

As of now, I’m 7 books behind schedule (39 of 100 books). Looking forward to making up the deficit with some more John le Carré spy stories and random graphic novels after I finish absorbing Black Stone.

Interesting reads and listens

My 14-Hour Search for the End of TGI Friday's Endless Appetizers (Gawker)

Rocket Lab wins NASA contract for Mars spacecraft as interplanetary missions become less costly (CNBC)

'This Should Be the Biggest Scandal in Sports' (Sports Illustrated)

Aliens Wouldn't Need Warp Drives to Take Over an Entire Galaxy, Simulation Suggests (Gizmodo)

A guide to living at a black hole (Ars Technica)

Amtrak just debuted upgraded long-distance trains that will transform rail travel in America with new seats and rooms (Business Insider)


Out in the year 3307, I’ve been zig-zagging my way to Colonia along the Orion arm of the Milky Galaxy. My detailed surface scanner remains broken due to Thargoid sabotage, but the Pilot’s Federation should have it fixed soon to that I can survey new worlds more efficiently. While honking and scooping, I’ve been enjoying this album:

Happy travels, CMDRs!