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Microsoft Surface Duo

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Microsoft Surface Duo

Microsoft Surface Duo

bySascha Segan

Editor Rating: Fair (2.5)

Microsoft Surface Duo - Microsoft Surface Duo

  • Pros

    • Gorgeous hardware
    • Best dual-window experience on Android
    • Speedy 4G performance
  • Cons

    • Buggy
    • Awkward to hold
    • Expensive
  • Bottom Line

Microsoft's Surface popularized a new category: the 2-in-1 PC. Now Microsoft is hoping to do the same thing on a smaller scale with the Surface Duo, a $1,399 phone-tablet that tries to enable those multitasking, productive workflows that never quite happen on your single-screen handset. It's ambitious, certainly, but it's not entirely successful, with bugs and ergonomic issues that sometimes make the Duo confusing and frustrating to use. While it costs even more, the $1,999 Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 2 is a much more successful example of a folding phone.

A Shimmering New Design

This isn't the first dual-screen phone. I remember the Kyocera Echo and the ZTE Axon M, both failed attempts at something like this form factor. But those phones were from lower-profile companies, only appearing on one carrier each, with sluggish performance. It's safe to say that the Duo is the first serious attempt at this dual-screen form.

The Surface Duo is made of two glass slabs connected by a metal hinge. Because the screens are separate, the gap between them doesn't give access to the innards of the device, allowing for a much slimmer hinge than on the Galaxy Z Fold 2. The screens are also tougher—they're real glass, not the flexible "ultra-thin glass" that Samsung uses. And they work with the $99.99 Surface Pen, whereas Samsung's device has no stylus support.

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The Duo comes with an adhesive rubber bumper that sticks to the edges of the device to protect it. It isn't quite a case, but you absolutely want to put it on; it not only cushions the Duo on drops, it gives the edges a grip so they don't slide around when it's semi folded like a tent.

The two 5.6-inch screens are in a wider 5-by-4 aspect ratio than we're used to from phones nowadays. That makes the Duo a 5.7-by-3.7-inch (HW), super-wide hand-buster when folded back, but it's good for reading books and looking at web pages, and it means the 5.6-inch screens bat above their weight in terms of square inches. Each 5.6-inch screen, with 15.4 square inches of room, is bigger than the Z Fold 2's 6.2-inch exterior screen, which is 14.25 square inches of pixels.

The Surface Duo (outside) is considerably wider than the Galaxy Z Fold 2 (inside)

The screens are each 1,800 by 1,350 pixels; together they're 2,700 by 1,800. They seem even sharper than their 401ppi resolution suggests.

You can span the two displays inside to make an 8.1-inch screen with about 30.8 square inches of pixels, slightly more than the 30 square inches on the Z Fold 2's 7.6-inch screen. But the fact that there's a gap between the screens makes a big, spanning window feel unsatisfying. The device really wants you to do two things on the two screens.

When the phone is closed it's protected, but unusable. The white outside faces are blank. That's fine if you don't intend to whip out the device and just start using it. If you do want quick access, you'll have to fold it with both screens facing out, which feels dangerous. The screens are tough, far more durable than the Z Fold's tender internal display, but still, that feels daring.

The outside of the Surface Duo has no screen

The Multitasking Phone

The Duo exists to solve a real problem. In 2020, lives and workflows are built around multitasking. I write articles while referring to spec sheets. My wife, a teacher, does Zoom classes while looking at reference material. My daughter, an artist, draws while texting her friends. But none of the major mobile operating systems have figured out a multitasking interface as simple and smooth as the 40-year-old windowing system we use on PCs. iPads and Android tablets can split into virtual windows, but they use systems of unintuitive and often buggy gestures that lead relatively few people to use them, outside of product demos.

The Duo makes the virtual physical, with its two screens. It's obvious, from the actual form of the device, how to open an app on each screen, and even the drag-and-drop or drag-and-span gestures of moving apps around is much more obvious than it is on Android or iOS. But something doesn't quite come together, and I think it's a physical thing.

The two screens can show two different web pages

Bear with me here. When you're operating multiple windows on a PC, moving between them involves a twitch of the wrist, at most. But because you're holding the Duo with both hands, and it's a little large, there's a lot of thumb stretching and repositioning of hands and fingers to get from the tops to the bottoms of the screens. Maybe this is just about reprogramming my muscle memory, but I kept falling back to my laptop to do complicated work.

Now, I've never found touch-screen keyboards to be great for long, in-depth work; they're a little confusing and tiring on the fingers. The ergonomics of the Duo—where you either type with one thumb while holding the other half of the device with your other hand, or where you stretch both thumbs across a slightly too wide, folded device—don't help.

Some aspects of the Duo's hardware are otherworldly. No phone ever before has been able to do the full-rotation hinge trick that we see on Windows 2-in-1s. Like a Lenovo Yoga notebook (specifically, the Yoga Book), the Duo folds open a little bit, halfway, into a tent shape, or all the way back, and stays that way. Each posture has a distinct use. I ended up using the Duo folded all the way back most of the time, as a 5.6-inch, 5-by-4 phablet; that's really the only way you can comfortably hold it in one hand and operate it with the other. But that posture means you lose a lot of what makes the Duo special, which is having two active screens.

The table tent mode is great for watching several hours of Netflix. In the laptop-like L-shaped mode, with one screen flat on a table, that screen turns into a keyboard for the app you're using on the other screen. This seems really cool, but as with the Yoga Book, the ergonomics of typing quickly on a flat piece of glass are off; it hurts your fingers after a while.

The book mode is the most productive, either for reading two pages of a book, or having a web page open on one side and OneNote on the other, for instance. Using the Surface Pen makes it an even more book-like experience, as you look at something on one side and scribble notes about it on the other screen.

Microsoft Office is ideal to use with both screens

Screen-Spanning Software

The Surface Duo runs Android 10, but it's highly customized in a partnership between Microsoft and Google. That starts with the icons, squarer than on most Android devices, calling to mind Windows Phone's old Live Tiles.

The standard home screen spans both displays. Swipe across, and icons move over both. Open an app, and it defaults to the screen it was opened on. Tap a link, in a message or document, and it opens on the other screen. The two screens then operate somewhat independently. One always has focus, so if you're using an app that pauses when it loses focus (like Netflix), that app will pause when you touch the other screen.

Pages and apps can span the two screens

By pulling up and across from the bottom of the screen, you can get an app to span both screens. This works best with apps like Outlook, OneDrive, or OneNote, where you can have a content index on one side, and a page you're working on, on the other. It also works well with Kindle or other apps that can put different pages of content on the two screens. Because of the gap between the screens, it doesn't work well with web pages or maps, a big minus compared with the Galaxy Z Fold 2. Dragging and dropping content between the two screens, by and large, doesn't work, but cutting and pasting does just fine.

The default keyboard is Microsoft's Swiftkey, which tries to crowd to one side of the screen or the other so that your thumb can reach the full keyboard. It works, but I found it to make more errors than I'm used to with Gboard. Unfortunately, if you load any other keyboard it won't work properly in the laptop-like mode—the space bar goes below the bezel of the screen.

I hoped the Duo would have exclusive hooks into Windows or Microsoft Office, but that isn't the case. The Office apps on the phone are designed to work across both screens. But for hooking into Windows, it's just the same Your Phone app (allowing for file transfers and cross-device notifications) that you get on other Android devices. I would have loved the Duo to become a secondary screen for my Windows computer, for instance, the way an Onyx Boox tablet c an.

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Folded back, the Surface Duo is a wide phablet

Good-Enough Performance…Except for the Bugs

The Surface Duo uses last year's Qualcomm Snapdragon 855 processor. The base model has 128GB of storage, which you can bump up to 256GB for an extra $100.

For benchmarks, we got 9,386 on PCMark Work; 754/2,651 on Geekbench single core and multi-core; and 402.66 on Basemark Web, all on a single screen. The GFX Car Chase benchmark got 37fps onscreen, 42fps off using a single screen. Using a window spanned over both screens, I still got 391.3 on Basemark Web and 757/2,809 with Geekbench, showing that using both screens doesn't detract from performance.

See How We Test Phones

These results are around the performance of a 2019 flagship phone like the Galaxy S10+. That's plenty of power unless you're trying to pump 5G or a 120Hz screen, and the Duo has neither ambition. The one performance issue I'd call out is that I felt like there was some scroll tearing, making the scrolling experience feel less smooth than on 120Hz devices like the Samsung Galaxy Note 20 and the OnePlus 8 Pro.

The Surface Duo doesn't have 5G, but honestly that doesn't really matter at the moment (as demonstrated by our results from testing for the Fastest Mobile Networks). I tested it against a Samsung Galaxy S20+ on T-Mobile and Verizon, and it performed very well on both carriers. On Verizon, I got an average of 303Mbps down where the S20+ got an average of 244Mbps down. Both phones were on 4G all the time, except for one 202Mbps 5G result on the S20+ that didn't change the averages.

On T-Mobile, I got 89.4Mbps down on the Duo and 89.9Mbps on the S20+. That's especially impressive when you consider that six out of my 13 tests on the S20+ were on T-Mobile's 5G network, which tends to be faster than its 4G network. The Duo's 4G performance is simply good enough that 5G doesn't matter right now.

Holding the Duo up to your head is a little awkward

Band-wise, the Surface Duo is better equipped for AT&T and Verizon than T-Mobile. It has all of AT&T's and Verizon's current LTE bands except the still-little-used CBRS band 48, but it (shockingly) lacks T-Mobile's band 71, which the carrier relies on for coverage in rural areas.

In terms of Wi-Fi, the device is also a year behind the curve. It has Wi-Fi 802.11ac (Wi-Fi 5), which is the most common current form of Wi-Fi, but is in the middle of being replaced by Wi-Fi 6. Wi-Fi 6 makes the most difference if it's transmitting a super-fast network or in a very busy location like a coffee shop. Most coffee shops don't have Wi-Fi 6 routers yet, but if your Duo is a three-year purchase, it would be nice to have the future-proofing.

The Duo has Wi-Fi calling, but know that if you want to do that on AT&T, you have to buy the AT&T-locked model. The phone's unlocked, all-carrier model has an eSIM as well as a physical SIM, so you can attach a second subscription from an eSIM-compatible carrier.

Using the Duo as a phone is a little odd because it's so wide. It helps to use USB-C or Bluetooth headphones, as there's no 3.5mm jack, but you can absolutely use it held up to your head if you need to. Sound quality is loud and clear. It would really rather be sitting on your table in L-shaped mode as a speakerphone or video chat device, though.

I tested a pair of Surface Earbuds with the Duo, which don't come with the phone. The earbuds connected without issue, but there's a Surface Audio app on the phone that's supposed to let you monitor the battery and control equalizer settings. The app repeatedly said it wasn't connected to the earbuds, even when Bluetooth settings said the earbuds were connected, or when I was actively playing music on the earbuds at that moment. At one point, when they were connected, the app said the earbuds had zero percent battery, while Bluetooth settings said they had 97 percent battery.

Left to right: Surface Duo, Galaxy Z Fold 2

After a day or two, the Surface Earbuds then started spontaneously disconnecting. I hooked up some Pixel Buds and they stayed connected, except for the time the volume mysteriously waxed and waned, or the time the music fell into choppiness until I turned Bluetooth off and on again. The Bluetooth is just buggy.

I kept on running into bugs, even after the latest software update. Sometimes, while just sitting on the table, the screen would rotate. Sometimes the screen wouldn't rotate when it needed to. Swiping up from the bottom of the screen to get the app drawer or close an app sometimes didn't work. The screen would also wake up spontaneously, for no apparent reason, and then go back to sleep.

I got 9 hours, 10 minutes of battery life on the Duo's 3,577mAh battery. Our battery rundown test streams a long video over Wi-Fi, while at the same time running a process in the background that records the battery percentage running down. With almost all Android phones, after a few hours the phone falls back into a low-power mode where the background process gets deprioritized and the video runs on the phone's lowest-power core. That's why you see 12-hour results on some phones with our video test.

The Duo never fell back into low-power mode. It looked like it was running on all cylinders, all the time. Therefore, I got shorter battery life than I did on the Galaxy Z Fold in its big-screen mode (11.5 hours).

For powering back up, the Duo supports 18W charging, but not wireless charging.

Don't Buy It for the Camera

The Surface Duo has the worst outward-facing camera experience of any phone I've ever tested. The single, 11-megapixel camera does double duty as a selfie shooter and the main camera. The idea is that if your phone is folded all the way back, the viewfinder will appear on the screen you're looking at, so it becomes an outward-facing camera. But this usually doesn't work.

If you try to wake the phone up with the screens folded all the way back to take a quick shot, often the wrong screen will light up so you're staring at a black, unlit panel, or the screen you want will light up with an icon that says "double tap to switch screens," and yet double tapping on the screen does nothing.

Occasionally it does work. Several times, the viewfinder appeared, but it was upside down. The only way to reliably activate the outward-facing camera is to open the phone in book mode, launch the camera as a selfie camera, and then fold the screen back, rotate it, and wait, which isn't at all practical.

The blown-out lamps here betray poor HDR (also, the photos taken with the main camera get saved upside-down for some reason)

The photos the camera takes, meanwhile, look like images from a phone that's several years old. The device has nothing like a night mode, so photos taken in low light are dim at best. It has no optical zoom lens, so photos taken with any level of zoom are somewhat digitally blurred. And its HDR is a major step behind other leading phones, so photos with, say, lamps in them, typically blow out the bright parts. It felt like I was looking at images from a Galaxy S7.

Trying to zoom results in digital blur (and another upside-down photo)

This feels like a gap in understanding. Yes, the inward-facing camera is far better than any laptop's webcam. It'll be terrific for Teams. But at $1,400, this is going to be people's primary mobile device, and that means it's going to be their primary camera, too. The Surface Duo fails as a primary camera for the world around you, and that in itself is enough reason not to recommend it.

A Singular Duo?

There was a day when Microsoft dominated handheld computing. Back in the early 2000s, a new version of Windows Mobile was always the flagship announcement at the 3GSM or MWC trade shows—alone, it would have been a reason to fly across the Atlantic. Microsoft stumbled after Apple and Google made touch-friendly interfaces and unified app stores the order of the day. The Windows Phone operating system was gorgeous, and started with strong hardware partners, but Microsoft abandoned it after inconsistently supporting it for years.

Don't count Microsoft out, however. The first Surface, for example, had a lousy form of Windows, RT, which didn't run most Windows applications. Since then, Surfaces have become bestsellers. The Duo has been gestating for a very long time—a year and a half, to hear some people talk about it. Sometimes you just need to launch what you've got so you can move on to the next version.

But that doesn't mean you have to buy version one. I cannot currently recommend the Surface Duo because it's expensive, awkward to use, and buggy. I get the idea here: Productive people multitask, so having two screens to work on is better than one (I say, writing this on a dual-monitor setup). But something doesn't quite track here. Stretching my thumbs to deal with the two screens, trying to type while holding on to the sides of the device, feels less comfortable and less productive than working on a laptop or even an iPad. The various software bugs don't help; they make the Surface Duo feel even more like a science project and less like a finished solution.

And that's not to minimize Microsoft's actual bad choices here, most notably the camera. The Duo's use of a year-old processor and 4G are forgivable; the processor is fast enough, and the 4G performance is terrific. But the single, 11-megapixel camera and its lousy software are miles behind any other handheld device, and even behind iPads. A single, mediocre front-facing camera is fine if you have a laptop that just uses it for videoconferencing, but a handheld device is the camera you always have on you. Both you and the Surface Duo deserve better.

I wish the Duo had come out a year ago, when it would have been on par with a group of experimental, failed folding phones like the Samsung Galaxy Fold and the Huawei Mate Xs. Now, Microsoft is a year behind Samsung, which has the excellent Galaxy Z Fold 2. The Duo 2 can't come soon enough.

Microsoft Surface Duo Specs

Operating System Android 10
CPU Qualcomm Snapdragon 855
Dimensions 5.7 by 3.7 by .38 inches
Screen Size 8.1 inches
Screen Resolution 2,700 by 1,800 pixels
Camera Resolution (Rear; Front-Facing) 11MP
Battery Life (As Tested) 9 hours 10 minutes

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