Microsoft Surface Duo hands-on review: Finally, a Surface phone

The Surface Duo is Microsoft's new smartphone, and it looks amazing.

Microsoft Surface Duo hands-on review: Finally, a Surface phone

“The Surface Duo is bringing Microsoft back to smartphones, and I'm ready for it.”
  • Great dual-screen design
  • Sleek, elegant look
  • Fast Qualcomm processor
  • Hefty
  • Won't release until late 2020

Remember Windows Phone? Yeah, sure you do. A costly effort to catch up to a market that had already beaten it, Windows Phone was a flop. And if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em – which is why Microsoft just announced the Surface Duo, a dual-screen, Android-powered phone that looks every bit like the folding phone you’ve been dying for.

Microsoft surprised the world by showing off the device during the annual Surface October 2019 hardware event in New York City, where journalists expected to see new products – the Surface Buds – and updates to existing laptop lines, including the new Surface Pro 7 and the Surface Pro X. We’d even heard rumors that a dual-screen PC was coming, which Microsoft delivered with the Surface Neo. (Heck, just read our roundup of everything Microsoft announced at the Surface event.)

No one imagined there could be a new Microsoft phone. Yet here it is.

The Surface Duo is essentially two 5.6-inch joined by a 360-degree hinge that’s hidden behind a polished slip of metal a mere 4.8 millimeters thick. Aside from a volume button and a power button, thin strips that sit on the left side of the device, the Duo is unmarred by cut outs, bumps, or other modules that give reviewers and customers fits. The multi-camera hump on the back of the new iPhone 11 Pro? There’s nothing like that here.

I spent some time with the Duo, folding and unfolding it. The action was effortless.

I spent some time with the Duo, folding and unfolding it. The action was effortless. The Duo feels hefty, much like Samsung’s Galaxy Fold. That’s to be expected. These devices are two phones in one, so there’s some extra weight. It didn’t feel unwieldy, however, or so heavy that it would grow tiresome in the hand.

The prototype was powered by Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 855, the latest smartphone chip from the silicon giant, but you can expect a hardware bump before Microsoft releases these products next year in time for the 2020 holiday season. There was no talk of 5G, the next generation network that is all the rage in the cellular world. That’s not to say that Microsoft won’t bundle it in, or sell a model with one, but they didn’t mention it one way or the other and declined to answer questions about 5G.

microsoft surface duo review surfaceduo handson press
Microsoft

The software wasn’t working on the model I was allowed to use, but a Microsoft representative showed off some of the power of the device, and it’s impressive. Too often, we are held back by the fact that we have a single screen without even realizing it. Consider Outlook. Not a day goes by when I don’t flip back and forth between calendar and mail to check whether I can take a meeting, or confirm the time of an appointment. I saw the Surface Neo open a calendar on one screen and a mail on the other, and was confounded by why no one has done this before. Why aren’t all of our laptops dual screen?

To open an app into both screens, simply drag it onto the hinge. Some apps will naturally expand in a logical way – email inbox at left, the message you’re reading at right. Others will require developers to use new APIs Microsoft is releasing in conjunction with Google to enable support for the device. But the power is obvious. Picture the Flipboard app actually flipping pages across screens. Picture the Kindle app as a book. Picture yourself dragging and dropping an Excel graph into a Word document – well, okay, you probably wouldn’t do that on your phone, but you could.

While this is a Windows phone, it’s not a Windows Phone. Microsoft is partnering with Google to bring a version of Android to the Surface Duo. It’s an interesting, unexpected collaboration that raises many questions, and Microsoft has few details to share. It’s clear — given that the software on the unit I tested wasn’t even functional — that this idea is still in its early stages.

The Surface Neo is a prototype at present, a demonstration of what the future might look like. But it’s tantalizing, and builds off the “foldable phone” concept in intriguing ways. The marriage of software and hardware is what makes a device like this shine, and that’s where Microsoft excels.

Windows Phone 2020? Yep, that sounds a-okay.

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