Microsoft Surface Duo review: The future of smartphones is a work in progress

Microsoft Surface Duo

“Gloriously thin and marvelously smart, the Surface Duo rethinks the smartphone.”
  • Impossibly, wonderfully thin
  • Hinge is perfectly engineered
  • Luxurious build quality
  • Smart app-management software
  • Buggy software (still)
  • Design compromises
  • Steep learning curve
MSRP $1,399.00

Among technocrats, a certain crowd flatly dismisses hardware from Microsoft, turning a blind eye to the quite successful Surface line of products, ignoring the Xbox platform, skipping decades of innovation in keyboards and mice. These people point to the Windows Phone’s failure with a knowing wink, lean in close, and smugly say, “Remember the Zune?”

Yes, we all remember the Zune. And Clippy. Sigh.

This same crowd penciled the Surface Duo onto the list of flops out of the gate, noting that its hardware simply doesn’t compete. There’s much more to this new device than megahertz and microchips, however. With the Duo, Microsoft wants to rethink what you do with the 7 or 8 ounces of metal and glass you carry everywhere like a bible, just as the first iPhone turned portable handsets into smartphones we can’t stop fiddling with. But does it succeed?

Design

Let’s get this out of the way. It’s easy to look at a spec sheet for the Surface Duo and see a series of compromises. Sure, it’s thin, but where’s the wireless charging or 5G? Sure, it’s much cheaper than other foldables, but you lose out on the fastest chipset on the market.

Think instead about design decisions. Smartphone makers have for years battled physics and Moore’s Law to shave a tenth of a millimeter off their phones and, at the same time, add an extra few minutes of talk time. These decisions are meant to squeeze as much tech goodness as possible into a device about 7mm thick and around 6 inches long.

The latest example of this is the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra 5G, a beautiful hunk of glass 6.5 inches long and 8.8mm thin. Compare it to the phone Samsung released in 2019, the Galaxy S10 Plus — a beautiful hunk of glass 6.4 inches long and 7.8mm thin.

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Microsoft’s Duo is different. Each screen is 4.8mm thin, a little more half the size of that new Galaxy. Half the size! Folded up, it’s 9.9 mm, just over a millimeter thicker. It’s just about the thickness of a magazine, which is simply remarkable.

If the average smartphone is about the thickness of a PB&J, putting two of them together – as do other foldables such as the Galaxy Z Fold 2 or the LG V60 ThinQ – is like building a hoagie. And I’m not in the habit of sticking submarine sandwiches in my pockets.

Here’s where the “design decisions” come in. Microsoft’s engineers wanted a device so thin it’ll have you gasping, a decision that drove the hardware and shaped the device. It means wireless charging was impossible to fit in. And 5G chipsets and the multitude of antennas that thread through the innards of most phones like your circulatory system simply wouldn’t work. That’s why Qualcomm’s latest Snapdragon 865 chip is missing. NFC requires yet another extra antenna, so it was left off as well, and with it the ability to tap to pay at a grocery store or subway turnstile. And an ordinary battery is too thick to fit this device. More on that in a second.

So yes, there’s a reason the Duo lacks a bunch of features common to other phones. It’s still kind of a compromise, though, even if you know why they were left out.

Display quality and hinge durability

A pair of 5.6-inch AMOLED displays make up the Surface Duo, each with a resolution of 1800 × 1350 at 401 pixels per inch. Microsoft’s marketing team calls them “PixelSense Fusion” displays for some reason. Together, they form an 8.1-inch tablet with a resolution of 2700 × 1800. The Duo is pushing around about 5 million pixels, in other words, which seems like a lot for a device with a small battery. Battery life is nonetheless decent, a fact that speaks to countless hours of engineering work.

Covered by Corning’s Gorilla Glass, the screens are deep and dark, with crisp contrast. Watching Carfection’s 2020 Mini JCW GP review, colors leapt off the screen — a little warmer than natural, but quite pleasing to my eyes. And it’s sharp as a tack, thanks to all of those pixels.

A continuous torque system lets you fold the device 360 degrees into any position, but there are really four you’ll lean into: Flat as a tablet, folded like a book, completely open or closed, and propped up like a tent. It’s this last one that’s useful when watching videos. I find myself propping the Duo up next to my laptop and popping on music videos or John Oliver. It’s liberating.

Jeremy Kaplan/Digital Trends

There’s also a special mode. Open it just a crack, and you’ll see that it shows you the time and date. This seems a little silly. If you’re raising your arm, can’t you just glance at your watch? Oh, that’s right — we’ve abandoned watches in favor of the more convenient smartphones, and then taken away some of that convenience. Hmm.

Anyway, you can stop the device at any point in those 360 degrees, meaning you can make the tent short and squat if you’re a taller individual, or more acute if your tabletop is at eye level. Regardless of position, the hinge is responsive, smooth, and frankly kind of fun to use. It holds every position tenaciously as well; this tablet won’t flop in half on you. Durable? You bet.

I find myself using the Duo with both hands like a book most often. Propped open in my right hand, I open apps and check email with my left. But if there’s something to dig into, I’ll fold the device back on itself and do so on a single screen. Note that this still requires two hands, a big change from nearly every other phone you’ve used.

With ordinary phones, you can hold a subway strap in your left and read a Kindle book in your right. The Duo is so wide that I can’t reach my thumb across it, and I can barely hit most icons at the bottom of screen. Held in one hand, my thumb hits the center of the screen. Forget reaching for a menu.

Using the Surface Duo

There’s no escaping the fact that the Duo is heavy. At first blush, I called it light. I was surprised that two screens wouldn’t weigh more. But if I’m being honest with myself, every phone I’ve carried in the last three years has become incrementally heavier; we’ve all just ignored it, caught up in the race for faster and newer. So I’ll say it here. At 250 grams, the Duo is heavy. Android Authority called the 220-gram Galaxy S20 Ultra “too damn heavy.” At more than half a pound, this is worse. I wonder what they’ll say about the Galaxy Z Fold 2, which will weigh you down like a brick at about 280 grams.

Still, I’m willing to look past the weight if you can get more done with it. And you can! It’ll just take some work.

Here’s the thing: This device is maddeningly familiar, yet doesn’t quite work like other smartphones do. Consider that the Duo is the first device I’ve ever seen that’s aware of how you’re holding it, thanks to a series of sensors that line the edges of the individual screens.

Jeremy Kaplan/Digital Trends

Thanks to these accelerometers, gyroscopes, and magnetometers, it knows when you’re holding it like a book, and responds appropriately when you’ve tented it next to your dinner plate. (Caveat emptor: The speakers are on a single side of the display, so tent it correctly or you’ll pump soundtrack at your dinner mate. They won’t be happy.)

Ordinary gestures are more or less the same, except there are several new ones you’ll have to learn. A swipe up and to the left or right is different here. For some phones, that’ll give you a menu of recent apps; here, you can use that action to close an app, flinging it into the oblivion off-screen.

Likewise, you can move a window from one screen to the other by dragging up from the bottom and flinging it across the divide, an action that’s totally mesmerizing. I could do it all day. Pull down from the very top of the screen for the standard settings menu; do it from ¾ of the way down for a search bar.

Details like this litter the interface, showing the attention to detail Microsoft lavished on this device. Consider the line of quick-launch icons that stretches across the bottom of both screens. Open an app on one screen and the six icons skitter and dance over to the other side, where they nestle snugly next to each other to fit in. It’s charming.

Button-wise, there’s little to the Duo: The right screen has a volume rocker, a power button, and a biometric reader in a dent that sits right under your thumb. I worried about this needlessly. It works well. It also gives the entire Duo a little vibration when you pick it up, as the device notices you and hints that it’s raring to go. I like this. It’s sort of like the rumble of a motor eager for the throttle.

Software

The Duo runs Android 10, with a little sprinkling of Microsoft thrown in. To capitalize on the real estate, Microsoft worked closely with Google’s team of software engineers to create special features just for a device like this, with two screens: A new icon type groups a pair of apps and launches them simultaneously side by side, one per screen. This seems immensely powerful.

Likewise, Microsoft built drag-and-drop functionality into some of its apps, letting you, say, highlight a few sentences from an email in Outlook and drag it into Tasks, where it becomes your day’s agenda.

The big feature is dual-screen support: Expand an app to fill both screens by dragging it from the bottom to the hinge. Outlook has been redesigned to show a list of emails at left and a reading pane at right. It’s kind of a game-changer; think for a second about how often you press the back button on your phone to return to what you had been doing.

Microsoft built a smart keyboard for this device into SwiftKey, which can swap between single-thumb, dual-thumb, and full-screen modes. Thanks to all of those sensors, it knows whether the left screen or right screen is active, and will shift to accommodate only that thumb. In full-screen, it can be tough to reach all the way to the center of the keyboard, but it’s neat to hold the Duo like a little laptop nonetheless. I find myself swiping more often than not.

Jeremy Kaplan/Digital Trends

Finally, the company built a prime directive into the Duo: Use the screens wisely. Apps that launch others will smartly do so on the second screen, letting you continue doing what you were doing. The All Trails app will launch Google Maps on the second screen; news apps can call individual site apps across the screen.

I gloss over these engineering efforts only because they are few and far between: Microsoft has built support for drag-and-drop into one or two apps, including OneNote, which I’ve never found a really compelling use for. And almost no apps are designed to smartly use both screens, despite the fact that it’s been a year since Microsoft began talking about this device. Sure, they can invent this new UI, but it’s up to others to make hay with it. Google has had endless problems getting developers to make apps to fit large screens, as has Samsung; Microsoft has struggled in the past getting developers to support its newest initiatives as well. There’s a risk Instagram, Tik Tok, Adobe, and whoever else simply refuses to do the work, hindering the Duo dramatically.

Speaking of doing the work, this is clearly a work in progress. After I and a bunch of other journalists complained about distracting glitches in the software, Microsoft pushed out a weekend update that improved the camera, reduced jerkiness in scrolling, fixed some quirky behavior, and more.

But it’s still not quite there, which is frustrating. Every once in a while, I open the Duo and no screens come on, rather than both. Or I expect an app on the left and it’s on the right. Or I rotate the device and the app stubbornly refuses to leave portrait mode. These glitches are hard to forgive. These basics need to work every single time … or Microsoft will see a return rate higher than the national debt.

Camera

Outside of smartphone reviewers, few people use the ridiculously advanced features that are baked into today’s smartphone like unexpected extras in a cookie. Spinach and chocolate chip? No thank you. Butterscotch and baked beans? Why would you even offer that? By skipping these unwanted features, Microsoft saved money and avoided the raised welt that scars the backs of most flagship phones.

It must be said, the company also cut corners.

The Duo includes a single camera: An 11-megapixel sensor with a basic f/2.0 aperture, very small pixels, and no OIS (optical image stabilization). It’s housed atop the right panel, ready for a selfie if you wish. There’s 4K 60 fps video, slow-motion video support, panorama and portrait modes, and digital zoom up to 7x. But it’s basic stuff, and not all of it works well.

Jeremy Kaplan/Digital Trends

The autofocus on this camera is … not good, let’s just come out and say it. I saw some bees buzzing around my Rose of Jericho shrubs, and after saying a silent prayer for them (someone has to, after all), I leaned in for a snap, pressed the button, and watched the bees whiz off before the camera took a shot. It took me a few tries before I learned to time my shots correctly.

And while colors are decent, your photos will never match the glorious shots taken by the best camera phones out there, such as the Huawei P40 Pro and the iPhone 11 Pro. That said, it does do some neat tricks: Fire up the camera, rotate the right panel (the one with the lens) back, and the camera app automatically flips onto the correct panel to let you take a picture of whatever you’re looking at. Rotate it back and you’re ready for selfies. Expand the app to fill both panels and you can see your photo library on one side and the live image on the other, making it easy to review all those self-portraits.

Ninety-five percent of people will find the camera perfect for 95% of the photos they want to take. Most of them would be happier with a camera as powerful as that found in the Google Pixel 4a, which costs literally $1,000 less than those fancy phones I mentioned earlier. No one viewing your photos will ever know that your images could have been a tiny bit better. More important, no one will care.

Performance

As you’ve likely heard, the Surface Duo runs last year’s Qualcomm Snapdragon 855 platform, the same chip featured in 2019’s Galaxy S10 phones, rather than 2020’s Galaxy S20. The same processor as in 2019’s OnePlus 7 Pro, rather than 2020’s OnePlus 8. The same … well, you get the picture. It’s also got 6GB of DRAM and 128GB or 256GB of storage, depending on how much money you want to drop.

But is any of that really important? The benchmarks certainly tell one story: We ran the popular 3D Mark suite of benchmarks, and saw results in line with last year’s chips:

3D Mark Sling Shot Extreme: 5,745 (OpenGL)

3D Mark Sling Shot Extreme: 5,055 (Vulkan)

Geekbench 5 CPU: 735 single core, 2,768 multi-core

But numbers are numbers; real-world performance is something else. Across several days and a bunch of apps, I never felt performance was in anyway subpar. If you’ve bought a laptop in the last few years, you’ll know what I mean: For the bulk of what you do, it’s probably good enough, isn’t it? Sure, a new one might be faster, but for browsing the web and checking your email, it’s exactly good enough.

Battery life

The Duo is an engineering wonder for a variety of reasons. One is the 3,577mAh battery, which is split across two different sides of the device. Special controllers ensure the two sides run and wear evenly, Microsoft says. Amazing! You’ll never notice it, but I find little facts like that simply fascinating.

Jeremy Kaplan/Digital Trends

The company claims you’ll be able to get up to 27 hours of talk time, but let’s be honest: Who wants to spend that much time chatting? In my testing, with heavy web browsing, email use, and leaning into videos, I was able to stretch the battery over the entire day without an issue. The box contains an 18-watt fast-charger, which seemed to do the trick.

Our take

The Surface Duo is striking, functionally distinctive, and expensive as all get-out. Having two screens seems like a novelty, but I did find myself better able to work with two screens that more or less work in tandem. With my calendar up on one side and email on the other, I can see my day at a glance. With my inbox at left and a reply message at right, my phone is suddenly far, far better at email. And propping it up to watch a video is just incredibly satisfying.

That the software still needs work is concerning, however. How long will it take to polish up? And will developers embrace this strange new device? We’re left with lingering questions.

Is there a better alternative?

The obvious alternatives are foldable screen devices like the Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 2 and the LG V60 ThinQ. The Duo makes them seem silly. Those things are simply enormous, and in the case of the Galaxy Z Fold 2, hundreds of dollars more. And anything with 5G might be a smarter buy, given the vast, worldwide push to develop the new networking technology. Microsoft won’t be able to simply “add it in.” It’s either there or it isn’t, and two years from now, the absence of 5G will grow in importance, just as poison ivy develops days after you touch that pretty plant.

How long will it last?

The physical shortcoming of a device like this should be the hinge, but this one feels designed to last through nuclear war. The software might be its Achilles’ heel, however: Developers should start supporting the features Microsoft has built, since they will be broadly supported in future Android builds. But will they?

Should you buy it?

Are you the kind of person who buys version one of anything? Who likes dazzling friends with the newest hotness? Then, sure, grab the Duo and impress the world. Everyone else should wait a few weeks to ensure that Microsoft can work the kinks out of the software, and encourage Twitter, Facebook, Zoom, and the world’s game makers to support this platform. And they will … probably.

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