The Surface Duo is one of the most polarizing devices I have ever used. It won't please everyone and everyone will have an opinion about it.
You will either think Microsoft's dual-screen folding design is the innovation that smartphones need right now or that it's the worst idea since 3D smartphones (I'm triggered just thinking about the very horrible Red Hydrogen). Very few people I've shown the Duo to have middling feelings about the device that — surprise — runs Android and not Windows. Like I said, the Duo is a very controversial device.
Microsoft is expecting this reaction to the Duo. The company's chief product officer and head of Surface, Panos Panay, told me himself he's prepared for the love-hate for the Duo, which he refers to as his "baby" and "child."
"Do I know judgment is coming? Do I know people aren't always going to talk nice about my children?" Panay told me two weeks ago during a Q&A session covering the Duo's design. "I got to tell you, does that feel good? Absolutely not. Of course it's coming. But do I also believe that there's inspiration and a product that helps people achieve more right here right now and that it is transformative? A hundred percent. I 100 percent believe that."
It's only fair to expect the unexpected.
It's good that Microsoft is setting realistic expectations for when the Duo arrives in peoples' hands. Because while the hardware design is magnificent on every level, the Duo's most important element — the adaptive, dual-windowed experience gently layered on top of stock Android — could use more fine-tuning.
When I received my review unit in late August, the Duo's software was a hot mess; apps crashed constantly, windowing was janky, gestures were really unresponsive, overall performance was unbearably sluggish. The disappointing experience broke my heart until Microsoft pushed a software update intended for release on launch day early and fixed almost all of the responsiveness issues. After updating, the Duo is far more usable than before. But some bugs still persist so be ready for them.
Though Panay calls the Duo the "third-gen" version — he insists the first two in-house test iterations of the Duo count despite them never shipping — it's still a new form factor. An expensive one at $1,400 for that matter. As with all new form factors, it's only fair to expect the unexpected, whether that's good or bad.
I was not prepared for the Duo's beauty. It looks stunning in photos, but it feels phenomenal in your hands. The awe factor is real and palpable. The last phone that mustered so much emotion in me was the iPhone 4's glass and stainless steel body. The Duo tapped into a similar part of my brain. The glass-covered device is dense, but has lightness. Microsoft's head of industrial design Ralf Groene said the Surface team painstakingly arranged the device's internal components for a balanced weight. It's no hyperbole. I can feel this symmetry in weight when the Duo is open in the palm of my hands.
Likewise, grabbing either half of the Duo doesn't induce fear of breaking it. There is some flex to the two thin halves, but only if you apply pressure to them. Did you expect the 4.8mm-thick halves to not bend? I'd be careful to not sit on the Duo when it's open. There's a good chance it'll snap under enough weight.
The crown jewels on the Duo are easily the two hinges that connect the two halves and displays together. In case you didn't already know, Microsoft's really good at making hinges. I've tested many devices of all different sizes with hinges that enable their screens to be rotated 360-degrees and none come close to matching the fluidity of the joints on the Duo. The polished hinges are so sublime with zero stoppage, clicking, or creaking when opening and closing the Duo. It's one of those teeny, tiny attentions to detail that contribute to a device's intuitiveness and delight. It's like lifting the lid of a laptop with a single finger without the entire bottom half moving with it.
The Duo's delicate body doesn't mean you need to baby it, though. While I consciously avoided tossing it on my bed or sofa like I normally would with my iPhone, the Duo withstands daily usage quite well. I was worried less about any microscopic specs of dust slipping through the hinge and dual screens' very, very narrow gap and more about all of the fingerprints on the two screens and bezels, which by the way never took away from the device experience. People will point at the thick bezels and call it outdated. Last I checked, all of Apple's non-iPad Pros and the iPhone SE have big foreheads and chins and that hasn't stopped people from buying them. Only dorks grade by bezel thickness.
The Duo's wide proportions gave me pause, but it turns out it's not an issue. It's just slightly wider than a passport (and the BlackBerry Passport) and roughly half an inch wider than big phones like the iPhone 11 Pro Max and Galaxy S20 Ultra.
There are tradeoffs when designing and engineering for thinness. Hardcore gadget heads will bemoan the Duo's lack of modern staples like wireless charging, Wi-Fi 6, 5G, face unlock, and NFC. I get it. A $1,400 device should have these features, especially the latter, without which means the Duo doesn't support mobile payments like Google Pay. It's an unfortunate omission given the pandemic has all but made cash usage obsolete for me and many merchants.
The svelte hardware also means Microsoft could only fit one camera: an 11-megapixel shooter that works as both a selfie and a rear camera when you fold one screen backward. Again, one camera feels unacceptably inadequate when other phones now come with three, four, or more cameras; the Z Fold 2 has five.
I'm a phone photographer obsessive so I lap up every breakthrough phone cameras get. But I also believe it's silly to think anyone buying a Duo is doing so with the intention of winning photography awards. The Duo has a camera that takes photos, does video calls, scans documents, and reads QR codes. If you need a best-in-class camera, you can get an iPhone or a Pixel. You don't need to buy the most expensive ones, either. The $399 iPhone SE and $349 Pixel 4a take photos that rival $1,000+ phones like the Note 20 Ultra and OnePlus 8 Pro.
Double Screen Power
If I'm being perfectly honest, the only reason you should buy a Duo is for its adaptive and windowed software experience. I said earlier that the software could use more refinement. What I mean is that the fundamentals for a transforming dual-screen experience are all here. The Duo is very different from other foldables in regard to how the software works.
Whereas other foldables like the Z Flip, Z Fold 2, or Razr feel like hardware in search of software use cases — you see it in how Samsung is slowly bolting on features like Flex mode to the Fold 2 — the Duo's two screens and thick bezels directly serve the windowed Android software.
The ethos of the Duo is the same as all of Microsoft's hardware, software, and services: to help you do more and achieve more. Productivity, in a nutshell. There is no correct or wrong way to use the Duo. Microsoft wants it to be flexible to a user's personal needs. Just as with the Surface Pro, an artist may use it more in tablet mode and a Surface Pen, leaving the keyboard detached more than me, a writer, who would use mostly in laptop mode (Panay calls the different modes on Surfaces "postures").
The Duo's transforming hardware and adaptive software mostly succeeds. As promised, Android is largely stock Android. There's no Microsoft skin or optimization the way there is on other Android phones, which means everything is where it should be just like on other Android devices.
The Duo comes pre-installed with Microsoft's own apps (Outlook, Teams, Office, OneDrive, etc.) and none of them can be uninstalled, which is an obvious clue as to who should really get this device. But don't worry, you're not forced to use Google's apps. Any app from the Google Play Store will install. Microsoft absolutely didn't want a repeat of Windows Phone/Mobile's app deficiency.
Running two apps side by side, each on its own bright 5.6-inch AMOLED display, is multitasking you simply can't get on a regular phone, and it's simple to fling move apps between displays (drag them by their gesture bars and flick them). The Fold 2 lets you do the same, but splitting its narrower foldable display into two sections means apps are comically squished in terms of how much content can be displayed.
On the Duo, I love being able to tap a grouped app and launch both Twitter and Feedly, or YouTube and OneNote, at the same time. You can group any two apps to launch simultaneously. Panay calls this multitasking "staying in flow." You can call it whatever you want because it's really hard to go back to constantly bouncing between apps on my iPhone after using the Duo.
It's hard to go back to constantly bouncing between apps on my iPhone after using the Duo.
Apps can also be "spanned" across both screens. Just drag an app over the seam between the two displays. But not all apps work the same when they're spanned. Some (but not all of) Microsoft's own apps like Outlook and OneNote are optimized to treat the two displays as separate screens when spanned — another reminder that this is a miniature multi-monitor experience as opposed to treating the two displays as one tablet-sized display (albeit with a hinge running down the middle). Apps with dual-screen spanned experiences are pretty neat. For example, in Outlook you can have the left screen display your received emails and when you tap one, it opens up on the right screen. The same works for OneNote: the left shows the chapters in each of your digital notebooks and the right is space for pages.
One problem is that there doesn't seem to be an established framework for how apps should span. This can be good but also irritating. Good: The Kindle app has pagination with really nice skeuomorphic page turns when you swipe from a book in the self-explanatory "book mode." Other apps like Microsoft News have a book mode too, but the swiping animations more resemble the animated flips in Flipboard than paging.
Bad: Apps that simply expand to fullscreen are somewhat impaired. For instance, if you're browsing the web on Edge or Chrome in spanned mode, the hinge actually hides the pixels that would normally be there. This can be really annoying if you're reading an article in "book mode" and a word falls between the two screens; letters go missing. Your brain can usually fill in the blank. But when it doesn't — I hate to be that guy — but it (ahem) takes you out of your flow. There's an imperfect workaround for this, dare I say, optimization, which Groene tells me was intentionally designed this way and isn't a flaw: rotate the device to "Nintendo DS mode" as I like to call it. Swiping up and down on an article with the hinge's seam running horizontally instead of vertically still cuts off pixels, but it's less disorienting.
As I said in my Fold 2 review, the challenge for any company releasing a foldable device (regardless of whether its dual screens or has a foldable display) will be convincing app developers to support split-screen modes. Even though Microsoft worked closely with Google to optimize Android for two displays, many of Google's own apps don't work elegantly, don't support dual-screen spanning, or look broken when spanned fullscreen. The worst is when features like Instagram Stories get cut off because they're vertical content designed for screens with 16:9 aspect ratios and not the Duo's two 4:3 aspect ratio displays, or when menus are chopped off in fullscreen (hello Asphalt 9 and Fortnite!). The question is: will developers tweak their apps to work with the Duo? Some will, but the majority won't. Not until there are tons more dual-screen or foldable devices in the wild.
I have to re-emphasize again that the software mostly works as designed because there's occasional bugginess and sluggishness, no doubt a victim of the previous-gen Qualcomm Snapdragon 855 chip and 6GB of RAM. The memory would normally be a lot for a single screen phone, but it's clearly not sufficient enough to smoothly juggle the constant switching between dual side-by-side apps, apps that span full screen across both displays, and rotating apps between landscape and portrait.
I suspect a great many buyers will not be able to tolerate the Duo's unpredictable software. As Panay repeatedly reminded me during our interview: "When I do something, did it do what I expect it to do? Did it do what you expect it to?"
He also added: "The thing you don't want to do with a customer if you're gonna meet them where they are is you don't want them to be embarrassed or scared to pick up something and get so confused they put it back down because they're like 'It's just too hard.' That happens."
Panay is generous when he says the Duo adapts to the user and not the other way around. While he's not wrong and the software does adapt depending on the different modes the hinge enables. I legit appreciate how the keyboard can shrink to one side for easier thumb- or swipe-based typing or expand full screen for two-handed typing. I love that Duo is smart enough to function more like a regular phone when one screen is rotated completely backward.
But there are also some questionable UI choices that don't necessarily make sense. Sometimes the gesture bar on one screen might disappear when you change the Duo's orientation, which can make closing the app frustrating. When the battery is at 5 percent or lower, the software is rendered completely unusable until you charge it (thankfully, the Duo supports fast charging). In "DS mode," if you have an app like YouTube on the top screen and want to enter text into a field in, say, Slack on the bottom screen, the Duo shrinks the video to picture-in-picture mode and pushes the message to fill the top screen while displaying a fullscreen keyboard on the bottom. Microsoft told me this specific example with picture-in-picture is a deliberate behavior, but I find it somewhat confusing.
Long story short: you definitely will have to adapt to using the Duo. Panay is right that it will take more than the first few days for you to learn how to use the Duo and adapt it to your needs. There is a learning curve. You for sure will get confused. You may even want to rage quit and return back to the comfort of your single-screen phone when something as simple as a swipe to return to the home screen doesn't work 100 percent, every time.
But if you stick with the Duo and its transforming and adapting experience — like a well-maintained manual-transmission car where you give it love and it sends love back — you'll find that the device does help you do more. It took me two weeks to get to this new multitasking way of doing things on a mobile device, but I did feel more productive.
It's satisfying being able to catch up on YouTube on one screen, stay plugged into the Input Slack channel on the other, all while doing sets of pushups directly over them. It's super convenient being able to prop the Duo for Zoom video calls on my kitchen counter while scrambling eggs for breakfast. And it's just nice to have a more book-like experience with pages on two screens in the Kindle app instead of tapping on the screen.
The Duo's software has its fair share of abnormalities (as often is the case for new form factors), but I'm cautiously optimistic that Microsoft can keep improving the software until it works more reliably as intended. I didn't expect the launch day software update to iron out so much of the original jank, but Microsoft did it. If another update or two can further clean things up and squash bugs the way the first one did, it's hard not to be impressed by what Microsoft is trying to manifest with the Duo.
Bold new waters
If you're still not sure after reading 2,600 words about my experience with the Duo, then Microsoft's dual-screen device is probably not for you. Maybe you're worried about the software. Perhaps the tech specs are underwhelming for your needs. Or maybe the $1,400 price tag is simply too high. These are all valid reasons to not get a Duo.
For me, I'm well aware of the Duo's shortcomings in the hardware and software. Battery life in particular could be better (I averaged around 3.5 to 4 hours of screen-on-time every day, mostly on the lower end) and I wish there was face unlock so I could automatically get to my apps just by opening the device. But the Duo is such a hard device to quit after getting used to it. In two weeks, I feel as if I've done more with the Duo in the same amount of time I would have with a regular phone. At the same time, I also felt the Duo's clamshell design activated a behavior on the opposite spectrum: I had less of an urge to get distracted within apps when doing things that require my full attention, like watching the new 2-hour-long Mulan without pausing a dozen times, or zombie scrolling through Reddit during my evening walks at my nearby park.
My wallet is telling me no, but my quality of life is telling me yes.
By simply being closed, the Duo unintentionally freed up time to accomplish more meaningful and important tasks instead of me getting sucked into mindlessly tapping through Instagram Stories. Who knew the clamshell design would end up improving my digital wellbeing?
$1,400 is a lot of money and my wallet is telling me no, but my quality of life is telling me yes. The Duo isn't for everyone and it doesn't need to be. Like the Surface Pro, the Duo is familiar, but different if you want it to be. It's a phone, but also not a phone. Fit it in your life. Or don't. The Duo doesn't have to replace regular phones just like the Surface Pro hasn't replaced laptops. That doesn't mean the Duo isn't what's next. It very much feels like what's next.
In May, when Microsoft unveiled a blitz of new Surface devices with spec bumps, I said the company had hit peak Surface and that "perfect is now boring." I also openly called Panay out to "break out of the comfort zone and start disrupting everyone again."
"Pick up the Duo and tell me, Ray, that I haven't broken you out of your comfort zone," Panay said with genuine passion in his voice. "At least tell me we've done that!"
Oh, you definitely have Panay. You most definitely have pushed me out of my mobile comfort zone with the Duo.