Microsoft Surface Duo 2 review: Duo-over or strike two?

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Folding phones may be the future, but right now, they are still in their infancy. And in this weird time period where companies are still trying to figure out the best way for a folding phone to work, there are two camps: Samsung and others that fold a big screen down to a smaller, pocketable size, and Microsoft, which joins two screens with a hinge to create a digital book-like device.

Microsoft’s first attempt at this, 2020’s Surface Duo, was not very good. It had a head-turning design and plenty of cool factor, but the original Duo was, to put it bluntly, a hot mess. It lacked modern smartphone things like a proper camera, 5G, wireless charging, NFC, and an up-to-date processor. Even worse, the software was buggy and frustrating to use, with frequent crashes, poor touch response, and limited compatibility in third-party apps for its unique dual-screen features.

For this year’s attempt, the $1,499.99-and-up Surface Duo 2, Microsoft appears to have righted many of the original’s wrongs. It has an up-to-date processor, refined design, bigger battery, 5G support, NFC support, newer software, and an actual, honest-to-goodness proper camera.

But once you get past all of those spec-sheet corrections, the Duo 2 still suffers from many of the same issues that plagued the first model. This is still very much a work in progress, one that I can’t recommend anyone buying until Microsoft figures it out.

The good thing about the Duo 2 is that it still has the original’s wow factor. This is just a flat-out cool-looking device and is almost sure to turn heads when used in public. The general design remains the same: it’s effectively two, full-size, super-thin smartphones joined by a 360-degree hinge. The two halves are slightly thicker than last year’s model, but they are still remarkably thin, and their added thickness makes the whole thing feel more substantial. It also offers room for a larger battery, which doesn’t have trouble reliably lasting me a day. Also, this year you can get it in white or black. My review unit is black, but I’m partial to the white model, which hides the fingerprints that collect on the glass much better.

The Duo 2’s hinge is strong enough to hold the screens in any position you may need.

The hinge is very nice — it’s smooth yet firm, so it can hold its position however you want it, and it makes it easy to switch from using two screens to just a single screen. The sides of the screens that meet the hinge have a curve, making it possible to see them through the hinge when the Duo 2 is closed. Microsoft is taking advantage of that space to display limited notifications (missed calls, messages, battery level, and volume level, but no third-party apps), but it’s still not as convenient as a screen on the outside of the phone would be. I’ve also pinched my fingers in the hinge when opening the phone numerous times due to the curve — I’m not hurt, just embarrassed.

The screens are slightly larger now — 5.8-inches each, effectively an 8.3-inch screen when combined — and they have a 90Hz refresh rate for smoother interactions and scrolling. They are still OLED panels, which provide punchy colors and deep blacks, and I didn’t have any issues viewing the screens outdoors in bright light. Their slightly larger size doesn’t actually make the footprint of the Duo 2 any larger than the first Duo — the unsightly bezels above and below the screens are now slightly smaller.

The Duo 2 is slightly thicker than last year’s model, but it’s still impressively thin when closed.

The curve of the screens lets you see part of them through the hinge when it’s closed — Microsoft is using this to show limited notification information.

Yet the Duo 2’s unique two-screen design makes it a lot wider than normal smartphones. It’s harder to fit into a pocket, and it’s too wide to comfortably reach across the screen with your thumb. The Samsung’s Galaxy Fold 3 has an additional screen on the outside of the phone, and while that screen may be a little small for comfort, it’s a much easier device to use in one hand for quick tasks and fits in my pants pockets easier when it’s closed.

The Duo 2 is just really hard to use quickly or with one hand — that’s the main takeaway here. It’s not the kind of phone you can whip out of your pocket to pay for something or snap a pic; everything is much more belabored. Using the NFC chip to buy a snack with Google Pay requires opening the phone, unlocking it, folding the left screen back, and then tapping the phone on the reader. It’s not exactly fluid, but hey, last year’s model didn’t even have an NFC chip, so baby steps it is.

Microsoft made some other small but obvious tweaks to the external hardware. The fingerprint scanner is now integrated into the power button and the USB-C charging port is centered on the right half of the phone, which might be easier to use with certain charging docks. Sadly, the Duo 2 still doesn’t support wireless charging, which is an unfortunate omission at this price. It also doesn’t have any sort of water or dust resistance rating, something that Samsung has been able to add to its folding phones this year. You’ll want to be careful — that’s a lot of phone that can’t get wet.

Last year’s Duo had a lousy, single speaker; the Duo 2 now has a louder, clearer dual-speaker system. It makes watching video more enjoyable and it’s easier to hear speaker phone or video calls, but the speakers are not nearly as nice as the ones on Samsung’s Galaxy Fold 3.

You can write notes on one screen while reviewing a website or document on the other.

The Duo 2 works with Microsoft’s various Surface Pens (sold separately), including the new Surface Pen Slim 2, for pen input. It doesn’t support the Pen 2’s haptics, like you get with the new Surface Pro 8 or Surface Laptop Studio, but the writing experience with the new pen is much better than it was with the older models. The company is also selling a case that covers the front of the Duo 2 and lets you store and charge the Slim Pen or Slim Pen 2 through a magnetic attachment. The magnet is strong — the pen isn’t going to just fall off — but you do have to be careful when sliding the phone into a pocket to not dislodge it.

Unsurprisingly, pen input works best with Microsoft’s own OneNote and Sticky Notes apps. In other apps like Evernote, palm rejection and inking is not as good.

The last big new hardware feature is the new triple-camera system on the back of the right screen. It’s comprised of a 12-megapixel, f/1.7 wide angle; 16-megapixel, f/2.2 ultrawide; and a 12-megapixel, f/2.4 2x telephoto camera. There are night and portrait modes and you can shoot 4K video up to 60fps.

The camera housing sticks out from the back of the phone, like many other phone cameras do, which gets in the way when you try to fold back the left side and use just the right screen. So Microsoft cleverly angled the housing so the left screen sits flush against it. It doesn’t fold as flat as the first Duo in this position, but this is a fine compromise.

Microsoft is also using the two screens to its advantage in the camera app to show you captured images on the left and your framing on the right. It’s easy to quickly see a full-size image right after you take it.

The Duo 2 now has an actual camera system, but its output is not very good.

But beyond that, there aren’t many positive things to say about this camera. For starters, because of the Duo’s design, you can’t take pics without opening the phone fully, and it’s very awkward to try to do it one-handed. The camera also hunts for focus a lot, is slow to capture images, and is generally just not very pleasant to use.

Image quality is a low point, too. Pictures are over-sharpened and flat, low-light images have lots of watercolor noise reduction and little detail. While it’s certainly an upgrade to the complete lack of a proper camera system in the first Duo, the Duo 2’s camera is hardly competitive with phones at its price point or even hundreds of dollars less. Google’s $500 Pixel 5A runs laps around this camera for a third of the price.

Multitasking on the Duo 2 is easier than on just about any other phone you can buy.

Despite those frustrations with the hardware, there are absolutely some cool things you can do with the Duo 2’s unique form factor. The two screens make it far easier to run two apps at the same time compared to split-screen modes on other phones or iPads. You literally just open one app on one screen and the second on the other and boom, you’re in multitasking bliss. I was able to call in to a Zoom meeting on one screen and follow along in a Google Doc on the other screen without missing a beat or feeling like I should have taken the call from my laptop. I can easily see my calendar when I’m responding to an email asking for a meeting, or I can mainline two social media feeds at the same time when doomscrolling through one just isn’t enough.

Those are all things you can do on other phones or tablets, but the Duo 2 makes it much easier to multitask in that fashion.

There are limits to what you can do. Neither Microsoft’s own Edge browser nor Chrome allow you to open two websites side by side, so if you want to compare two sites, you have to use two browsers.

You can “span” a single app across the two screens, but the apps that work best in that mode are primarily made by Microsoft, like Outlook, OneNote, and the Office suite. Most Android apps will just stretch themselves across the screens in an unsightly way, with a giant gap in the middle where the hinge is. Video is particularly bad when spanned across the two screens — you’ll want to stick to turning the phone on its side and just watching something on one of the screens in landscape. You can easily tent the phone to prop it up on a table or desk — no extra kickstand needed.

Watching a video across two screens means dealing with a big gap in the middle.

Microsoft smartly worked with Amazon and Google to support the Kindle and Play Books apps on the dual screens, so when you span them you get one page on each screen, a digital facsimile of a book. A new feature in the Duo 2’s software (which Microsoft says will eventually be coming to the original Duo) is the ability to set an app to auto span every time you open it — so whenever I open the Kindle app, it automatically takes over both screens. It’s perhaps my favorite thing to do with a Duo and is more enjoyable to use than an actual Kindle.

The original Duo launched with Android 10 and had countless bugs. Many months later, it has received numerous updates, but it’s still on Android 10 and still has many of the same bugs. (Microsoft says it will get Android 11 before the end of this year.) The Duo 2 is launching with Android 11 and the company promises three years of updates, including monthly bug fixes and security patches. But it stops short of committing to a specific number of Android OS platform updates.

The software on the Duo 2 is undeniably better than it was on the original at launch, and even where the first model is today after many bug fix updates. It’s faster, likely thanks to the Duo 2’s newer processor and more generous amount of RAM, and it’s more reliable and predictable. It has more features, like the aforementioned auto spanning mode and hinge notifications, plus basic quality of life things like automatic dark mode and night light modes for the display.

Reading ebooks is one of the best experiences on the Duo 2.

But it’s still in rough shape in a lot of ways and feels incomplete. The biggest issue by far is a familiar one to the Duo line: poor touch response. A lot of my taps on the screen just aren’t registered — I have to hit an icon twice to launch an app or send a message. Typing on the keyboard is particularly frustrating as a not-small percentage of my taps are ignored, slowing me down greatly. Even when writing with the pen, the screen will miss strokes, making my already bad handwriting look even worse.

Microsoft says it has not seen these issues itself, but I spoke to a number of other reviewers who have been testing the Duo 2 and they all shared my experience. It’s baffling that such a core experience on a touch-based device isn’t flawless.

There are other features missing, like tap to wake when the phone is open, or any sort of always-on display. Maybe those features don’t always make sense on the Duo 2’s form factor, but they are just more examples of things you give up, like easy one-handed use, in order to have a device like this.

The Duo 2’s new black color option is very glossy and very fingerprint magnet-y.

It’s easy to see the potential in the Surface Duo line. You can dream up all kinds of different ways you’d put two screens to use, get more work done, and live in the future.

But it doesn’t take long for those dreams to come crashing down to reality. Between the bugs and inherent awkwardness of the form factor, the Duo 2 is just a difficult device to live with day to day, much like its predecessor. Despite Microsoft addressing many of the omissions of the first generation — a proper camera, NFC, dual speakers, 5G, current processor — the Duo 2 still feels like a secondary device, something you carry alongside your primary phone for taking pictures, paying for things, and general phone stuff.

If you do want a futuristic device that straddles the line between phone and tablet and has pen input, you’ll be better off with the Samsung Galaxy Fold 3, which has a better multimedia experience; can be used easier in one hand; and far fewer bugs. Or maybe you just wait, after all, this segment is still very much in its infancy.

At $1,500-plus, everything about the Surface Duo 2 is a tall ask. You could accomplish much of the same with an iPad Mini alongside your phone for a third of the price. If the first Surface Duo felt like it was 50 percent complete, the Duo 2 is perhaps maybe 75 percent of the way there. I can see the potential. But it does not live up to it, unfortunately.

Photography by Dan Seifert / The Verge

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