The Surface Duo is an odd duck.
I’m not drinking the Microsoft marketing Kool-Aid when I say this, but this thing doesn’t feel like a phone, although it runs Android. It’s not even an effective tablet, thanks to that screen-swallowing metal hinge. No, this “thing” is more like a laptop with two connected, touchscreen monitors — except it’s not a sufficient laptop replacement. So what is it then?
It’s important to preface this review by scrubbing your brain of any “mobile phone” associations because, aside from the fact that you hold the Duo in your hands, the comparisons are not entirely appropriate. This is not an apples-to-apples situation; it’s more like apples-to-durian fruit. In my short time with the device, I’ve come to realize that it does rightly occupy its own space within the larger foldable category without actually being one of those full-fledged foldable. Its dual 5.6-inch 1800×1350 AMOLED screens open in a book-like manner to form a bisected 8.1-inch display, making the Duo an outlier — while its “cousins,” Samsung’s Galaxy Z Flip and Z Fold 2, embrace single bendable displays.
There’s one other inescapable thing about the Duo you’ll come to realize within your first few hours with it: a steep learning curve. You won’t use the Duo like you use your current phone, though you will try. Instead, the Duo will teach you how it wants to be used through trial and frustrating errors, most of which are navigation-based. But as with all new things, it’ll eventually become familiar and you’ll settle into a rhythm with it.
The question is whether it’s worth the hassle.
A premium feel to match the price
Starting at $1,400, the Surface Duo is far from the impulse-buy territory, but it’s also more affordably priced than something like the bank-breaking, $2,000 Galaxy Z Fold 2. Its Android core and related suite of pre-installed Google apps, including Gmail, Maps, and more, help to lower the risk/novelty factor some, allowing curious early adopters to dabble in Microsoft’s new Android-pond without ditching the mobile ecosystem their virtual lives have come to depend upon.
But that doesn’t mean Microsoft has ceded the show entirely to Google. The company’s left its imprint on the Duo, packing it with all of the Office apps you expect (i.e., Outlook, OneDrive, OneNote, Teams, OneDrive), plus others like Skype, LinkedIn, and Edge.
For the price, Microsoft is giving users 128GB of storage — upgradeable to 256GB for an additional cost — paired with 6GB of RAM, a Snapdragon 855 CPU, and a 3,577mAh battery that never once posed a problem throughout my time testing the device. (In fact, I hardly worried about battery life at all since it lasted over 10 hours on a single charge with heavy use. Normal use gets you more than a day.)
All of this is housed inside of an elegantly thin and lightweight device that weighs just a little more than half a pound and measures just under 5mm when unfolded. This emphasis on a featherweight build means the Duo is truly portable — you can slide it easily into your pants pocket or toss it in a bag without weighing down your shoulder. But the Duo’s slight profile also works against it to a degree. By emphasizing thinness, the product team behind the Duo also sacrificed some much-needed convenience in the form of a front-facing notification panel.
This may seem like a minor design omission, but losing the ability to check notifications at a glance actually heightened my anxieties. I found myself reaching more often for the Duo, not because I wanted to play around with it, but because I was paranoid I’d missed an email or text. Microsoft has positioned this as the working professional’s device — you know, those multitasking A-types who have no problem emailing you after work hours, and are ready to respond to Slack pings while on the treadmill past 10 pm on the weekend. And it’s done that group a disservice in this regard.
Sure, you could argue that a connected smartwatch would alleviate this pain point (and it’s possible many of those overachieving A-types already use one), but that’s not included in the box. So that excuse doesn’t really factor in here.
I’d assumed the Duo’s “peek” posture, which allows you to slightly open the device to glance at the time, would rectify this misstep. I was wrong. This mode only shows the current time — that is when you manage to open the device to the exact degree to trigger it — not the number of unread emails and texts, or whatever other notifications you rely on. If you really want to know what you’ve been missing out on, you have to fully open the Duo. It’s not ideal. And that’s just the way it is.
Its convenience shortcomings notwithstanding, the Duo is undeniably a thing of beauty. It’s a solid, premium piece of engineering, and for that Microsoft deserves credit. You’ll know this cost $1,400 because it feels like it cost $1,400 — it’s just sturdy. And you can tell the Duo belongs to the Surface family, too, because of the minimalist design at work. When closed, the only noticeable embellishment is the silvery Windows logo on its front. The rest is a sea of glacier white that’s broken only by its silent 360-degree metal hinge.
Everything you need to physically control the Duo is placed along the right edge of the right display. Here is where you’ll find the reliable fingerprint sensor sandwiched between the volume rocker and power button above it, and the SIM card tray below. The USB-C port, which can be used for fast charging with the included 18W power supply or for connecting to a PC or laptop, lives on the bottom edge of the right display.
As for its cameras, well… the Duo only has one. (I know — gasp, clutch your pearls, shake your head — whatever helps you process this departure from normalcy.) This lone 11-megapixel camera (f/2.0) sits above the right display and does double duty as your main and selfie cam, depending on the posture. Fold the left display back into the single-screen mode with the right screen facing outwards, and you can shoot “rear” photos like you normally would with a regular smartphone. If you need to swap into selfie mode, just flip the Duo around and it should automatically adjust, lighting up the display you’re facing. This doesn’t always work seamlessly, however, and in those instances, an onscreen prompt will instruct you to double-tap your desired display to “wake” it.
Your guide to ‘good’ postures
By now, you’ve surely come to realize that “posture” is just Microsoft’s fancy way of describing how you hold and fold the Duo. There are five of these modes to choose from — book, compose, single screen, tent, and peek — though I came to rely on just two.
Of the bunch, the most enticing and useful posture is compose — but not for the reasons Microsoft intended. This mode allows you to flip the Duo into a laptop-like orientation, freeing up the bottom display to function as a fullscreen keyboard, with the “compose” window (for emails or texts) up top.
I managed to pleasantly while away a couple of hours with the Duo in this posture as I listened to Spotify on my Surface Earbuds and slowly thumb-typed out a journal entry. But the experience wasn’t without frustration. Due to the power button’s placement on the right side of the fingerprint sensor — a natural resting place for your right pinky finger when holding the Duo in the compose posture — I found that I kept accidentally triggering it and turning off the display. This continued until I consciously trained my fingers to stay behind the display, at which point I’d given up on messaging in compose.
But even if that little annoyance didn’t exist, I don’t think I’d default to compose mode for messaging. I have big hands and even still I felt like I was reaching across the screen with my thumbs to properly type. You just can’t beat the efficiency (and muscle memory) of one-handed swipe or gesture typing. And so I found myself reverting to using the Duo in book mode to reply to emails and texts using just one screen and just one thumb.
Where compose mode really shines is in its ability to let you watch live-streamed content up top while participating in chat using the bottom screen. For this, you’ll need to span an app across both screens, meaning you have to drag it to the hinge, which can be a bit tricky to master. If you happen to be big into Twitch, then this mode should really speak to you. I spent several hours laying on my couch, watching a stream, and occasionally dipping into the chat to comment. What’s more, I found that I actually preferred using the Duo to watch Twitch more than my laptop or TV-connected PC.
Compose also works beautifully for scrolling through news articles or social feeds, like Twitter or Instagram. In this regard, the hinge doesn’t obstruct the viewing experience, but enhances it, allowing for more relaxed browsing thanks to the extra screen real estate. In fact, when I tried browsing Twitter on my boring-by-comparison Pixel 4XL, it just didn’t feel right anymore. Like a real American, I’d gotten used to all that extra space.
Consider this your default Duo mode — and it’s not a bad one, either! This is where the multitasking magic happens.
To underscore its dual-screen usefulness, Microsoft has pre-installed what it calls “app pairs.” This marries Edge and OneNote under the “Learn” banner; Outlook and To-Do under “Plan;” YouTube and MS News under “Discover;” and Office and Teams under “Share.” Unless you currently live within this world of Office 365 apps, you can go ahead and wipe these off of your device. None offered up a use case that made any sense for how I, personally, use a mobile device. And though I did give them a spin, I found that I cultivated my own organic app pairs through normal use.
Case in point: Merely setting up the Duo highlights the utility of its two screens. As anyone who’s bought a new phone knows, you have to dedicate a good hour or so to logging back into all of your apps, resetting forgotten passwords, and entering one-time SMS or authenticator codes. Going through that normally tedious process was made so much simpler with my Authenticator app permanently open on the left screen. Whereas I’d normally be heavily sighing as I swapped between apps to complete the setup process on my phone, here I was smiling; I actually wanted more apps to log into because it was just so simple.
Now, that alone doesn’t justify the Duo’s existence, but it is a strong argument in favor of it.
Another plus working in the Duo’s favor has to do with this mode’s namesake: books. If you’ve given up on reading on your phone because it’s too tall and narrow, and just not comfortable to hold and scroll, then you’ll enjoy the experience on the Duo. Because it’s so lightweight, the Duo feels natural to hold in its book form, whether it’s fully unfolded or slightly bent. So keep that Amazon Kindle app at the ready — you can easily lose hours reading on this thing.
Where book mode fails, however, is in its tablet mimicry. And that’s a damn shame. One of the first things I tried with the Duo was watching content from Netflix and YouTube spanned across both displays in fullscreen. Spoiler alert: It’s unwatchable. That lovely, sturdy, silent, flexible hinge just eats up too much of that crucial middle screen space. When you consider how much-filmed content is center framed, you quickly realize you’ll never get to enjoy the Duo as a tablet. Not while it uses two separate screens, anyway. It’s a bummer.
There are only two reasons why you’d ever want to fold the Duo back into this single-screen posture: phone calls and photos. But if you’re like me and you have a pair of wireless earbuds always at the ready, then it’s safe to assume you’ll rarely bother with this model. So that leaves us with just the photo use case, and considering the Duo isn’t an imaging powerhouse, this will, again, likely become your least used posture.
I barely ever used single-screen posture because it seemed to go against everything the Duos about. In fact, it seemed to go against the interaction the Duo had trained me to accept. This was never more clear than when I was walking back home with groceries in my one hand and needed to pull out the Duo with my free hand to fire off a text and check my grocery to-do list. Guess what? I couldn’t because it was properly folded and tucked away in my pocket, protected from my keys and loose change. There was no quick access to a front notification panel I could navigate one-handed; no way to flip the device open. It was at that moment I realized I could never really live with the Duo — a device that practically demands you use it two-handed at all times.
Of course, I could’ve folded it into a single-screen posture and stuffed it in my pocket. Microsoft’s product team suggested as much when I relayed my issue. And sure, I could have… I could have placed this $1,400 device with its two exposed glass screens into my pocket and hoped that my house keys and loose change wouldn’t scratch it up. But I didn’t, because that seems like a foolish risk. Also, I still wouldn’t have been able to fire off a text one-handed with this thing. It’s just a wee bit too wide for that.
I call this one “lazy mode.”
You know those mornings when you don’t want to get out of bed, so you grab a pillow and prop your phone up against it to mindlessly watch something while your brain boots up and you regain the will to move and join the waking world? Yeah, that’s what the tent posture is for, except you don’t even need a pillow now. Just fold back one screen like a kickstand, place it on your belly (or nearby tabletop) and you’re ready to go.
It’s by no means a substitute for your larger laptop or tablet screen, but it gets the job done in a pinch. So if you’re stuck on a long flight and need a Netflix distraction, or you’re just lying supine on the couch and in the mood for some low-energy content consumption, tent mode is your friend.
It can also come in handy for video calls if, again, you somehow aren’t near your computer or tablet, but it’s not ideal.
Peek is a useless posture for reasons I’ve already covered. If you want to know the time, just fully unfold the device, or look at your watch, or check the computer, or glance at an actual clock.
Until peek mode offers more than just the time (when it works!), you can just act as if it doesn’t exist. I eventually did.
Oh yeah… it has a camera, too
There isn’t all that much to tout when it comes to the Duo’s 11-megapixel camera. Microsoft itself has even admitted that cameras weren’t the focus of the Duo’s design. And it shows.
All the usual imaging modes are here: lowlight, HDR, portrait, panorama, and burst. There’s even a 7x super zoom option, 1080p slo-mo at up to 240fps, and 4K video recording at up to 60fps. So, technically, you have the full imaging suite of what most smartphones today offer. In practice, however, it’s not all that great.
First off, there’s a noticeable delay in triggering the shutter. In some cases, the pause was long enough to convince me I hadn’t actually pressed the shutter button. This would be understandable if the camera was working to focus a busy scene, but this happened when I was attempting to photograph static objects and landscapes, and taking selfies. It’s not enough of a delay to make the camera unusable, but you will want to ensure your hands are steady for a clear shot. The few times I moved a bit prematurely, I wound up with blurry photos.
The Duo also tends to oversaturate images. As you can see in the photo below, the flowers appear to have an almost orangey-pink glow that wipes out any finer detail. And that latter issue is something I noticed with many of the shots I took with the Duo. Whether it was a macro, portrait, or even a landscape shot, there was always an obvious grainy quality to the final images.
So, will the Duo suffice for your Insta stories? Yes. Could you do better with another phone’s camera? Also, yes.
Obeying the ‘speed limit’ and other assorted bugs
A week before this review was set to go live, Microsoft issued a crucial software update for the Duo. That update probably should’ve come a lot sooner, too.
You see, the Duo is a buggy device because it’s an ambitious device. And when it’s not being buggy, it’s kind of slow on purpose (I’ll explain in a moment). There’s just the slightest hesitation to almost every action you’ll undertake on the device, whether that’s pulling up the app tray, triggering an app, switching postures, or attempting to swap tasks. Or, at least, there was a bit more noticeably before the update.
When I’d mentioned this slowdown to Microsoft, I was told that it was intentional. That the novelty of the Duo’s navigation (and the resulting frustration) required that these actions be slowed down a bit so the user could catch up. I don’t know about you, but that feels to me like it’s underestimating the target audience for this device. When I shell out $1,400 for a shiny, new foldable, mobile computing whatchamacallit, I want it to feel zippy. What I don’t want is someone holding my hand in the shallow end to make sure I can figure it out. Throw me in the deep end and let me swim, Microsoft!
Most of the more egregious bugs have since been worked out. Netflix playback, for instance, would pause whenever I tried to do anything on the opposite screen. YouTube videos would sometimes appear fuzzy and compressed when I swapped postures, requiring me to further swap postures or revert back to single screen use (not posture!) to fix it. Again, these issues have now been remedied before the Duo will land in consumers’ hands. So, Microsoft is mostly out of hot water here, but there is still room for improvement.
On occasion, the Duo’s screens will go black when I unlock the device. Sometimes, one screen running an app will effectively freeze, forcing me to either swap postures to refresh it or power the display off and then on again. This happens with more regularity than I’d like for a $1,400 device, but not enough to send the device flying into a wall.
Then there is the bug that bisects one screen with a green or red line, rendering that display unusable until the app is dismissed or the display is powered off. I haven’t been able to reliably replicate the circumstances around that particular issue, but it has reared its ugly head at least five times during my testing.
Oh, and the Duo’s ambient light sensor needs some major help. More often than not, I found myself tweaking the brightness manually because the Duo just couldn’t read the room.
All of those problems can be somewhat overlooked given the Duo’s fairly consistent reliability. It’s as buggy as any novel, the first-generation product tends to be, but it’s not broken. Certainly, these are issues Microsoft will be able to address with future software updates. What is less forgivable, however, is the nightmare that is navigation.
If you’re new to Android’s gesture-based navigation, then you’re going to have a hard time with the Duo. I suffered through the learning curve with my Pixel 4XL, so I knew what to expect and how to get around: Swipe from the edges to dismiss or go back; swipe up for the app tray and down for the notification panel. Pretty simple stuff.
What I wasn’t prepared for was how to dismiss apps on the Duo, and it has everything to do with posture (and patience).
If you span an app in compose mode and want to dismiss it or go back, you have to swipe from the left edge to the center. If you swipe from the right edge, you’ll simply shift the app back to occupying a single screen. If you’re typing in compose mode and want to dismiss the app, you have to swipe from the left edge to the center on the upper screen. It won’t work on the lower screen’s keyboard.
If you’re multitasking in book mode, and you want to dismiss an app on the left screen, you have to swipe from the left edge to the hinge on that display. Swiping from the right edge on that same display will do nothing. Now, reverse this. To dismiss an app on the right display, you have to swipe from the right edge to the hinge.
Now, let’s get a bit more advanced: If you want to trigger the task manager and dismiss apps running in the background, you have to pay attention to posture. In compose mode, this means swiping the app up on the top screen or swiping the app down on the bottom screen. If you reverse this, you’ll simply send that app to populate the upper or lower screen. See? It’s a little confusing. This is much more manageable, however, in book mode, as the usual task-managing rules apply: Swipe up to dismiss.
If you’ve read all of that and are thinking to yourself: “Sounds pretty straightforward.” Then good luck to you, you superior human being. It’s one thing to read about it, and another to put into practice. But, as I said at the start of this review, there’s a learning curve and you’ll eventually adjust. It just takes time and determination, which I’m willing to wager you’ve got if you spent $1,400 on this.
The missing features
Okay, so let’s briefly talk about what features the Duo doesn’t have that it really should: 5G, water resistance, and a notification panel on the front.
That’s it. That’s all there is to say. You know that’ll all be in Duo v2.0, so it’s just a matter of waiting out the clock. Start your timers… now!
I like Duo. Yes, despite all those bugs and that glaring lack of a front-facing notification panel, it’s got the makings of something great. It’s not the home run that Microsoft needed to make a big splash and overpower some of Samsung’s more ubiquitous foldable marketing, but I do commend the team for trying something new and untested. And that’s really what this is: a trial run.
But I was glad to give it a go. It really has been a joy to reach for the Duo, open it like a book, and browse Twitter while bringing links up on the opposite screen. Even the simple act of texting article links to friends has been made all the easier because of its dual screens. And any opportunity I can get to lazily stay in bed and watch videos of Summer Games Done Quick speedruns with a device neatly propped up on my belly is one I’ll gladly take.
It’s just that $1,400 is a lot to ask for that convenience, especially when it isn’t full service. I want Microsoft to meet all of my needs with this not-a-phone-but-should’ve-been-a-tablet, laptop-lite thingamajig — and that means making sure I can use this two-screen device one-handed.