Microsoft Surface Duo review: Cool design, janky performance


Phones are like lifeboats, now. iPads ($285 at Back Market) and Chromebooks are classrooms. VR is my escape pod. Every device in my house has taken on a special purpose, connecting to schools, work, and everywhere else in some sort of insane clockwork dance. I pick my tools carefully. Experimentation happens, of course, but things need to work. This is the life of gadgets in our overburdened virtualized world, 2020.

The Microsoft Surface Duo seems at first like the perfect little device for this new work-from-home world. Two screens instead of one. Extra space, more apps. A phone that becomes a tablet. (And yes, it’s a real phone with a SIM card and everything.) And it costs $1,400 (about £1,070 or AU$1,960). This is encouraging. While I’ve never found dual-screen phones appealing, the Surface Duo arrived promising a well-thought-out argument for being useful.

From the outside it looked promising. I like the feel, the hinge. But if only the experience was as good on the inside. My time using the Surface Duo has been a rough ride through what feels like not-fully-baked software, and so far it most definitely has not convinced me of the value of dual screens. In particular, the sense of flow that the Duo aspires to — that feel of things working well together, the device not getting in the way — hasn’t been there for me.

Like

  • Beautiful thin design
  • Sturdy hinge can bend and stay in any orientation
  • Sharp OLED screens are good for documents and reading
  • Supports Microsoft Pen

Don’t Like

  • Laggy, buggy software
  • Few apps support cross-screen multitasking
  • Not great for full-screen movie watching
  • Just one not-good camera
  • No 5G

There are some things the Duo does do well: Its feel and shape are compelling. It can stand up at multiple angles, which normal phones can’t do. The bonus screen can come in handy as an extra help at times, although I found I needed it less than I’d expected. (Scanning something like Twitter or Slack is helpful, but multitasking with keyboard input can get weird.) And if the dual screen stuff gets frustrating, well, it can be folded over and used as a single-screen phone. It’s perfectly fine at that — but that’s not why you’d get a Surface Duo, is it?

And, this Duo is arriving alongside the Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 2, a more expensive $2,000 (£1,799 or about AU$3,270) phone that’s thicker, but has a nearly seamless folding display (rather than two hinged displays), multiple cameras, 5G, a better processor, and more RAM. I haven’t used the Z Fold 2, but my colleague Jessica Dolcourt did, and she loved it. I don’t know if I’d like the Z Fold 2 any better than the Surface Duo, but The Z Fold 2 is Samsung’s second-year effort on folding phones. The Surface Duo ends up seeming, by comparison, like an idea that could still use another year of fleshing out. But even if the Z Fold 2 never existed, I’d still feel dissatisfied with aspects of the Surface Duo.

Here is a summary of my psychological state with this product: the Five Stages of Duo Acceptance.

Stage 1: What a pretty design

All glass, metal, a wonderful smooth hinge. The Surface Duo’s shape won me over and got me thinking, hey, maybe this dual-screen-folding-device future could work. It’s not necessarily futuristic, but oddly practical? It seems like a book, or a mini laptop. Or a Nintendo 3DS. The dimensions seem proper and promising.

The displays are nice: 5.6-inch, 1,800×1,350-pixel AMOLED, crisp and well-matched. Together they’re 8.1 inches diagonally, like an iPad Mini ($259 at Back Market).

I already wonder how I’m going to hold this, or protect it. There’s a bumper in the box. It’s strips of rubber. I don’t want to put it on, but I know I should. It will help with sliding around. I’m worried it’ll glide right out of my pocket and crash to the floor. (But once I put that bumper on, it stays on.)

Dual-screen reading via the Surface Duo’s Kindle app is a high point, provided you’re not outside in bright light (lots of glare).


Scott Stein/CNET

Stage 2: Whoa, why is nothing working smoothly?

New devices need special guidance, magical assistance and amazing tutorials. I think about the Nintendo Switch, the original iPhone and the Oculus Quest: These are things that push you out of your comfort zone, but reach out with magical tools and software and lure you in. I enjoyed every step of the journey with those devices. I felt like I was being transported. And that made me feel comfortable learning the new tools needed to adapt.

Microsoft’s Surface Duo needs those tools, that unique software, that special touch. I don’t see it here yet. I get a brief tutorial explaining the swipes and gestures to move around, and there are two sets of sign-ins: one for my Microsoft app ecosystem, the other for Google and Android. This boots up like an Android phone, because it is an Android phone. Not all of the Android parts feel ready for the Microsoft Surface Duo parts.

The early software on the Duo review unit I’ve been using was sometimes so frustrating, I wanted to stop using it. A more recent update prerelease has fixed a lot of the totally broken issues, but there’s a persistent lagginess and problem with screen orientation that’s throwing off the whole experience for me. And again, when all I want to do is open an app, or throw one app to another screen, or close it up again and make it single-screen, the Duo can’t keep up with me.

It could be that it’s still evolving to a new interface. Or I am. By trying to seem like an everyday phone times two, the Duo ends up ducking some of the bigger interface questions I still have, but it doesn’t really solve them.

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The soft keyboard is not great. It’s often not in the place I want it to be.


Scott Stein/CNET

Stage 3: How do you use this, exactly?

I get the idea of a bigger screen you can unfold or tuck into your pocket: That’s the promise of a Galaxy Fold ($1,980 at Best Buy) or Z Flip. Two different screens suggest you’ll find ways of making apps work together, and there aren’t many that play nicely like this. Really, it’s just Microsoft’s suite of apps, some of which need a Microsoft 365 subscription to unlock all the features.

The laggy feel of my review Duo and its early software, plus the weird interface, make navigation a serious challenge. I try Slack and Gmail, which work together fine… until I get hamstrung by popping the keyboard up in one window or another and trying to either thumb-swipe or flip the phone and type.

Zoom works, and Zoom plus a browser or window to read things in is OK. But again, any attempt to type makes the keyboard fly up and either take over one app completely or interrupt the flow.

I keep coming back to the keyboard because that’s my main way of being productive: writing and taking notes. It’s just plain weird on the Surface Duo at the moment.

Some of the multitasking flow reminds me of multiple apps on the iPad, using a little handle on the bottom to move an app to one screen or another, or holding it over both to expand it out. A quick-launch dock of six apps on the bottom of the screen is meant to help, but I want more than six apps at the ready. Finding others in Android’s app drawers isn’t as convenient.

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The Surface Duo can play games across both screens, like Minescraft, but they’re not optimized and can get a little weird. (Comparison here next to the Nintendo 3DS XL)


Scott Stein/CNET

New devices demand new software: new games or apps made specifically for that platform that then let you see how it works and what makes it exciting. The Surface Duo lacks those system-selling apps. Microsoft’s core apps still feel buggy and weird on the Duo, and too limiting. I can drag text across apps, but not images. I can jot down notes with a Surface Pen (which isn’t included, but should be), but it doesn’t feel like a universal annotation tool on Android. Apps don’t always resize automatically. The shift from single to dual screen hasn’t been magical at all. It’s been a struggle.

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The Surface Pen magnetically snaps onto the side of the Surface Duo, but doesn’t come included with the phone.


Scott Stein/CNET

If the Duo came with a smaller Surface Pen that slotted in somewhere, like the Note, it could feel more like a little notebook. If it could handle Google’s core productivity apps the same way as Microsoft’s and helped manage both equally, it could feel like a bridge between Windows and Android. If it had better and more versatile cameras, it could be a next-gen videoconferencing tool for work and chat. But the Duo in its current form is none of these things. I also think it’s a shame it can’t turn into one seamless, massive screen. If it did that, I could watch movies on it. Video viewing on the Duo means accepting a big bar in the middle, or large bezels on each half of the glass. That’s one area where a single folding screen has an advantage. 

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The camera app and camera on the Surface Duo are really frustrating and slow, too.


Scott Stein/CNET

Stage 4: I miss my old comfy phone

When new devices are this tough to use, you stop using them. The first Apple Watch was so slow at opening apps that I just went back to the iPhone instead. If the Duo makes email and Slack and Zoom weirder, I’d just reach for a normal-feeling smartphone or tablet or laptop instead — which is what I’ve been doing.

Phones are good at what they do. Most new phones have amazing cameras, optimized apps for nearly everything and they can zip between tasks at speeds we take for granted. I appreciate them again after seeing the hiccups on the Surface Duo. If the Surface Duo worked at the same speed, I’d love it. Maybe some of that is software that still needs work. Maybe it’s because Google hasn’t made Android truly dual-screen optimized yet or Microsoft is still figuring out how it wants to tackle dual-screen for its ecosystem. I think it’s all of these. I’m finding it hard to adapt, and the Duo isn’t helping.

I wonder what the Duo would have been like with more RAM or a faster processor. A Qualcomm Snapdragon 855 and 6GB of RAM seems underpowered for dual high-res displays, and it shows. I also wonder about 5G, especially in a year where most major flagship phones are going that way. It’s unclear how the Duo can be a future phone when it leaves out the future’s network.

But bleeding-edge tech isn’t always the path to comfort. I use the devices I use because they work and I understand them. Or, because they’re so amazing at what they do (like the Oculus Quest) that I want to dive in and use them over and over.

The camera on the Surface Duo (and there’s only one) is fine. Definitely not great. It’s been serviceable for Zoom, and has created some photos and video clips that aren’t as good as what I’ve come to expect. Image stabilization for video seems particularly jittery. Also, the corner-oriented camera, while trying to serve all Duo positions, is too off-center for comfortable Zooming while it’s propped up — I always seem like I’m staring off to the side. 

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I want the Surface Duo to be more like a magic book. It’s not there yet.


Scott Stein/CNET

Stage 5: Accepting a slow road to the future

Phones are clearly evolving. They’re already overpowered-everything machines that have outstripped their size. But rebuilding the phone isn’t easy. I see some logic to the book-tablet design Microsoft is going for here. The form and shape make sense, but the speed and implementation and features don’t. Yeah, this is $600 less than a Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 2, but it’s also left parts off that probably should have been here.

The perfect folding and dual-screen devices may be coming later. Google hasn’t solved for all of this in Android. Microsoft’s going to take another shot at figuring it out on the Windows-based Surface Neo next year. The idea isn’t going away, and just like the first big wave of smartphones, there will be plenty more experiments.

Microsoft is striving for something that just hasn’t come together on this first Duo. Maybe it will with the next one. Or maybe, like experimental wearables that have fallen by the wayside, this will be a moment in time as well. I love the idea of experimentation, but I don’t like using experiments that don’t feel good. And right now, I don’t see who the Duo is for. But in a year, it might well be a better solution. I was convinced by my conversations with Microsoft and it would be nice if that ended up happening. But it’s not yet here on the Surface Duo.

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btw, Microsoft’s Solitaire app seems to do well with dual-screen.


Scott Stein/CNET

Other notes

Yeah, it’s also a phone

I didn’t even get into phone testing here because… well, I’m at home all the time. Seeing how the Duo makes phone calls isn’t my focus when I’m already struggling with the interface. Calls seemed fine, but I can’t yet comment on cellular strength and lack of 5G, since I’m at home. There’s 4×4 MIMO for greater strength, plus a physical SIM and eSIM. I have a test AT&T SIM I’m using.

Battery life seems to last for the day

The 3,577-mAh dual battery is rated for 15.5 hours of video playback, and an 18-watt USB-C fast charger comes in the box. So far, it seems to hang in there for my needs. I’m not sure what a full commuting train ride away from home would be like, because I’m always at home now.

It doesn’t have Wi-Fi 6

So, it doesn’t have next-gen cellular or Wi-Fi. Still, the Wi-Fi seemed OK but sometimes fell out of my home’s range faster than my iPhone or laptop did. I got speeds that match my 100-megabit budget FiOS connection.

It comes in 2 storage configurtions 

One at $1,400 with 128GB, and one at $1,500 with 256GB. There’s no expandable storage.

Some apps seem to hang, maybe because apps need to be updated 

Most Android apps functioned, but occasionally Minecraft, Netflix, and a few others had issues that either caused playback weirdness or a situation where I couldn’t swipe out of apps. Sometimes it seems like app touch zones and the OS’ swipe-away navigation caused conflict.

I like the rubber bumper

It’s ugly, but I’d want to use it to protect the Duo. It adds grippiness and prevents it from sliding around.

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