Microsoft Surface Duo review, one month later: Enthusiastically an enthusiast’s phone
This story was originally published 2020/09/10
6:00am PDTon Sep 10, 2020 and last updated 2020/10/16
7:29am PDTon Oct 16, 2020.
Over the past few years, smartphones have stopped evolving at a rapid pace and settled into iterative, yawn-inducing update cycles. Just like how a desktop PC from eight years ago can still handle basic productivity tasks in 2020, a flagship smartphone from two or three years ago isn’t radically different from what you can buy today, and there’s only so much room for innovation in the flat glass slab form factor. This has sent some manufacturers to go back to the drawing board in search of something more radical and exciting. Samsung has released several foldable phones, LG is developing a dual-screen device, and now Microsoft has the Surface Duo.
The Surface Duo is the first Android device with two integrated displays since the Kyocera Echo and Sony Tablet P, but it’s more than just a side project by an existing Android phone maker. It’s Microsoft’s first Android device ever, and it’s the company’s first smartphone since the implosion of Windows 10 Mobile.
This is a unique product, and while it (mostly) succeeds at its goal of being a mobile productivity station, it’s still ultimately a first-generation device. There are bugs, some features are missing, and most people should wait for the Duo 2.
Design, hardware, what’s in the box
The Surface Duo is shaped more like a small notebook than a typical smartphone. The front and back are encased in glossy plastic, with a reflective Microsoft logo placed on the center of the front piece. There are no curves or 3D glass on the Duo, only the gradually-curved corners on the exterior sides of the phone. I’ve never been a fan of curved displays on smartphones, so the mostly-flat design of the Duo is definitely a plus in my book.
Perhaps the most striking aspect of the Duo (besides the two screens) is just how thin the phone is. Previous attempts at dual-screen devices usually ended up having double the thickness of a traditional phone, but the Duo is just 9.9mm thick when closed. When opened, the Duo shrinks to 4.8mm. This might be the first time I can excuse a phone for skipping the headphone jack, because I’m not sure it would be physically possible to include one in the frame.
Speaking of which, the bottom of the phone has a single USB Type-C port. An additional Type-C connector for audio accessories would be appreciated if a headphone jack is out of the question (the ROG Phone 3 is one phone with two USB ports), but at least it supports fast charging with USB Power Delivery. The charging rate maxes out at 15W, which seems a bit low, considering the Galaxy Note20 costs $100 less and can reach 25W.
The Type-C port can also output video with a generic HDMI/DisplayPort adapter (though not when the device is closed), which is how I captured the screen recordings in this review. That’s not too unique for a flagship Android device, but it is something that Google’s own Pixel devices lack.
The right side of the Duo has the remainder of the buttons, starting with the volume and power controls. The physical buttons are clicky, but I would have liked to see a different texture on the power button — it’s easy to press the wrong keys until you get used to the design. Below those is a side-mounted fingerprint sensor, similar to what you’d see on Sony phones or the Galaxy S10e. It sometimes has trouble reading my finger unless it’s perfectly centered, but that’s something that could be refined through software updates. At the very bottom of the right side is the nanoSIM card slot — no microSD card slot to be found.
Once you open the phone, you’re greeted by two 1800×1350 AMOLED screens. The sizeable bezels look out of place on a 2020 phone, but they didn’t bother me in regular use. The screens offer good colors and decent brightness, and you can use any Surface Pen as a stylus (the Slim Pen will fit best). It seems ridiculous that Microsoft couldn’t include a stylus in the box for the $1,399 asking price. I didn’t even have a Surface Pen to test with, but the Duo did work with my old Wacom Bamboo Ink stylus.
Above the right screen are the speaker, 11MP camera, and flash. The Surface Duo only has one camera, so when you want to take rear photos, you fold the phone in half and point the side with the camera away from you. This awkward design led to me temporarily blinding myself a few times by turning the flash on before flipping the phone around. The primary speaker is located above the left display, and while it can become loud at full volume, it still sounds as tinny as the speakers in most flagship smartphones.
You can flip one of the screens all the way back when the tablet form factor isn’t practical, like when taking a phone call, capturing a photo, or typing long messages. This turns the Duo into a single-screen smartphone, albeit a wide one. The 3:4 aspect ratio does take a bit of getting used to, but I didn’t find the phone to be uncomfortable in this mode.
It’s also important to note what the Duo lacks compared to other $1,000+ smartphones. There’s no NFC for tap-to-pay, but I didn’t have any issues using NFC on a Wear OS smartwatch paired to the Duo. There’s also no wireless charging, no secondary camera lenses, no high refresh rate support and no dust/water resistance. My most significant issue with the Duo is that there is no way to check if you have notifications without opening the phone; an exterior display like the Galaxy Z Flip or Moto Razr might not have been possible given the Duo’s thinness, but a simple LED light would be better than nothing.
The unique form factor makes it hard to keep the Duo clean. When I flipped one side around to use the Duo in single-screen mode, my palms rubbed on the back screen, and the smudges were everywhere when I returned to dual-screen mode. I don’t think there’s anything Microsoft could have done to avoid this — it’s just a reality of this form factor.
In the box, you get the Surface Duo, a 15W USB Type-C wall adapter, a Type-C charging cable, and some instruction manuals. You also get a bumper case, which attaches to the phone with adhesive — you can only take it off once or twice before it doesn’t stay on anymore. There’s no included 3.5mm adapter, but this one I previously purchased on Amazon worked well with the Duo.
The software experience is where past attempts at dual-screen phones failed, usually due to poor app support and bugs. Thankfully, not only do modern versions of Android natively support multiple displays (especially Android 10), but Microsoft also has an entire ecosystem of applications updated to take full advantage of the Duo’s features.
I was curious to see what functional or visual changes Microsoft would make to the Android operating system to merge it with the company’s Fluent design language. If you were hoping for a revival of Windows Phone, you’ll be disappointed — the Surface Duo sticks very close to stock Android. Notifications have larger buttons, and there’s a Microsoft section in the Settings, but most of the modifications are related to dual-screen operation.
While you do get the standard package of Google apps, Microsoft has replaced some of the defaults with its own products. Microsoft Launcher is the default home screen, Edge is the web browser, SwiftKey is the keyboard, and so on.
The Surface Duo sticks close to Android 10’s gesture navigation: swipe up from the bottom to go home, and swipe from the left or right to go back. Each screen has its own navigation, so you don’t need to worry about checking which app is active before going home or back, like you do with standard multi-window on Android. Dragging the navigation pill allows you to move the selected application across screens, and dragging the app into the center of the Duo will stretch the app to fill both displays.
Moving apps across both screens
It takes a little while to get used to, especially if you like to swipe left and right on the navigation pill to switch between apps on stock Android. Unlike most phones, the navigation doesn’t rotate when you rotate the phone, so the pill will stay in its original position. This means the back gesture requires swiping from the top or bottom of the display when the Duo is rotated. I understand why Microsoft probably had to implement the behavior, since performing the home gesture on the top screen would interfere with the gesture to move apps between the displays, for example. I think the navigation is about as intuitive as it could be without changing the core behavior of Android 10’s gestures.
The Surface Duo is primarily designed to be used with one app on each screen, since that’s where the main productivity benefits come into play. You can check your email while on a video call, look at your calendar while creating appointments over email, and so on. The usefulness of two screens also extends beyond work, as I often used the Duo to watch TV on Hulu while playing a game or scrolling through Discord messages.
It’s important to note that, in most cases, you can’t run two instances of the same app on each screen. For example, you can’t have two Gmail apps open simultaneously to look at two inboxes. The only application that seems to support this is Microsoft Edge, which allows you to have one web page on each screen.
The launcher allows you to create ‘groups,’ that open apps of your choosing on each screen (see below). Once you figure out which dual-screen workflows you use the most, groups act as super-handy shortcuts.
Microsoft has built a few other custom features, too. If you’re typing in one app and flip the Duo into landscape mode, the bottom screen becomes a giant touch keyboard. Typing in this mode is absolutely more comfortable than trying to use the keyboard on either side, but I didn’t type much faster with it than I would in portrait mode on any regular smartphone.
If you change the default keyboard from SwiftKey to something else, the keyboard will still appear on the bottom display when the Duo is flipped into landscape mode, but it won’t fill the entire lower screen. While I’m not quite a fan of SwiftKey’s text completion, switching to another keyboard will give you a sub-par experience.
Typing in landscape mode
The Duo is not free of bugs, but I was surprised by how well most apps handled running side-by-side. Multi-window has never been a perfect experience on Android, as some apps go into hibernation when you start interacting with another application (Slack stops displaying new messages, Netflix pauses the current movie, etc.), while others refuse to run at all. Thankfully, I had no such issues with the Duo. The only catch is that Microsoft only lets you run one app on each screen, so you can’t run tiles of applications like on the Galaxy Z Fold2, but a 4:3 display doesn’t leave room for more than one app at a time regardless.
My main complaint with dual-screen use is that there is no way to open an app across both displays. You have to open it on one screen and stretch it to both afterward. There are some games I wanted to play across both screens (despite the gap in the middle), but since many games aren’t designed to dynamically resize like regular applications, I could only try them on one display.
You can run almost any pair of apps on the Duos screens at once, but most of the preinstalled applications also have a custom interface for when they’re stretched across both screens. This is similar to what we’ve seen with select apps on the Galaxy Z Flip, but it’s more useful and prevalent on the Duo.
Most of the supported applications use the enhanced mode to display one column on each screen. In Microsoft Outlook, your messages are shown on the left screen while the currently-open email stays visible on the right. With Microsoft To-Do, your list of items is on the left screen, and the item you’re editing is on the right.
The enhanced mode makes the Duo feel more like a foldable Android tablet than a device with two independent displays, and you get more horizontal space than the Galaxy Z Fold2. Using those applications is a delight, but there are few supported applications outside of those developed by Microsoft. This means that if you want the Surface Duo to work as well as possible, you’ll have to live inside the Microsoft ecosystem, or at least be willing to switch to a few of the company’s services. There should really be a free trial of Microsoft 365 included with the Duo.
Microsoft has said more developers are working on optimizing their apps for dual-screen use, but I don’t expect widespread support until the APIs are fully integrated into stock Android, and more Duo-style phones are available.
Surface Pen, Windows integration
As mentioned previously, the Duo works with any Surface Pen (or any stylus that is interchangeable with a pen), complete with pressure sensitivity. Mostly thanks to Chromebooks and the Galaxy Note series, there are a decent number of Android applications with stylus support at this point: MyScript Nebo, Autodesk Sketchbook, Photoshop Sketch, Microsoft’s own OneNote, and a few others. However, I was disappointed that there was little use for a stylus outside of those applications. Samsung’s stylus-enabled devices allow you to capture screenshots and GIFs by dragging the pen over an area, and easily draw over the screen for recordings or demos — the Duo has no such functionality.
Microsoft has also added the same Windows 10 integration to the Surface Duo that is present on the Samsung Galaxy Note20. That means you can pair the Duo with a Windows PC to see push notifications, read and answer text messages, transfer photos, and even stream Android applications.
The Surface Duo is a first-gen product, and very few Android applications have been built with dual screens in mind, so I expected to run into a few bugs. Microsoft released a system update while I was writing this review, but the OTA didn’t fix any of the issues I initially had with my unit.
The top screen of the Duo in horizontal mode, with no notification icons
The status bar seems to be the most inconsistent part of the Surface Duo’s software. The clock and notifications are supposed to appear on the left screen, and status indicators on the right, but sometimes the status icons will be centered on one display, or app notifications wouldn’t be visible at all.
The status bar is not visible at all on the left screen, and barely noticeable on the right screen
I also ran into constant theming bugs with the status bar, including a problem where the bar would use black text on black backgrounds. This is less of an issue when the apps you’re using have the same basic color scheme, or don’t style the status bar at all. I was usually able to fix it by switching to single-screen mode for a second, or locking/unlocking the phone.
Performance and battery life
One of the most common criticisms of the Surface Duo following its announcement was that it’s using last year’s Snapdragon 855 SoC, rather than the 865 and 865+ that are common in phones released in 2020. The older chipset is also the main reason why the Duo doesn’t support 5G, as that would have required adding a dedicated X50 modem, adding bulk (and cost) to the phone.
The Surface Duo should absolutely have a Snapdragon 865 at the price Microsoft is asking for it, but the 855 is still plenty powerful. Applications open quickly, and animations are smooth.
I was expecting battery life to be poor on the Surface Duo, given that the phone is so thin and has two AMOLED screens to keep powered on. However, the Duo always lasted me through a whole day, even when I tried to push it with extended sessions of Bloons Tower Defense 5 with Hulu or YouTube playing on the other screen. Most of my time was spent on a Wi-Fi connection, but I almost always had both screens running at medium brightness, and I still ended most days with around 5 hours of screen-on time. Everyone uses their phone differently, but I was pleased with the Duo’s endurance.
Nearly every premium smartphone released over the past few years has two, three, or even four cameras, but the Surface Duo keeps it simple. There’s a single 11MP lens that serves as both front and rear camera, depending on how the Duo is folded. While the camera is serviceable for conference calls and scanning documents, it can’t match the photo quality offered by other $1,000 phones (or even many mid-range devices).
From left to right: Galaxy S20, Google Pixel 3a, Surface Duo
Photos from the Surface Duo usually have washed-out colors, and the limited resolution means you can’t zoom in very far (or crop the image) before quality drops significantly. Given enough light, the Duo can produce a decent image, but don’t expect Pixel-level imagery here.
Should you buy it?
Maybe. We’re not giving the Surface Duo our standard rating on a 1-10 scale, because there’s honestly nothing we can directly compare it to. LG sells phones with dual-screen attachments, but those are far bulkier and lack some of the software features found on the Duo. The Galaxy Z Fold2 shares the Duo’s book-like design, but the internal screen isn’t wide enough to comfortably use two apps at once, and there’s no stylus support.
You’ll only get the most out of the Duo if you live inside the Microsoft ecosystem.
Microsoft has managed to side-step most of the issues that affected previous attempts at dual-screen phones by adding proper software support across the entire operating system. The launcher, keyboard, and most of the pre-installed applications are designed for the form factor. However, this does mean that you’ll only get the most out of the Duo if you live inside the Microsoft ecosystem. If you switch the keyboard to Gboard, or use Chrome or Firefox as your main browser, you won’t get the same experience.
Unfortunately, the Surface Duo lacks many of the hardware features we’ve come to expect in flagship phones. It uses last year’s Snapdragon processor, there’s no NFC for contactless payments, the screen is only 60Hz, wireless charging is nowhere to be found, and the Duo will absolutely not survive a dunk into water. Microsoft has also opted not to include a stylus or any other accessories in the box, and the Surface Slim Pen costs $145 separately. Even including a few months of Microsoft 365 to get the most out of the dual-screen applications could have made the cost more justified.
Surface Duo folded next to the Galaxy S20
On paper, the Duo is objectively one of the worst values in the smartphone industry at its MSRP of $1,399. However, you can’t get this dual-screen functionality anywhere else, and it does absolutely improve productivity and general multitasking. There’s a lot of room for improvement, but Microsoft has built a stronger first-generation product than I anticipated, and I’m already looking forward to the inevitable sequel.
You often find yourself wishing for more screen space on the go.
You don’t mind the missing features, or you’re planning to use the Duo as a secondary/Wi-Fi only device.
You’re in the Microsoft ecosystem, or open to switching to Microsoft’s apps.
Don’t buy it if:
You care about 5G, IP ratings, wireless charging, and/or camera quality.
You want the best general-purpose smartphone.
One month later
I’ve used the Surface Duo on and off since this review, and my opinion hasn’t budged too much. It still falls behind other flagship smartphones in some areas, and comes out ahead in a few others. The Duo is ultimately best suited as a secondary device, even if the idea of spending $1,500 on a phone you don’t use as your primary device might sound silly.
Microsoft has continued to work on the software experience, first with a system update in early October that improved touch screen responsiveness and bugs, and later with an update to the Microsoft Launcher that included additional fixes. However, I’m still dealing with some of the same problems I experienced at launch, like color issues with text in the status bar. I’ve also experienced new issues, like the notification bar appearing in the wrong place, and the auto-brightness going to 100% after waking the Duo from sleep. It’s clear Microsoft still has a ways to go until the Duo is bug-free.
Notification shade isn’t centered on left screen
Status bar is still often unreadable with two apps open using different themes
There hasn’t been much progress on applications adding support for the Duo’s unique form factor, which isn’t too surprising — most developers aren’t going to put the work in until dual-screen phones are more common. Google Maps was testing a better interface on the Duo, but the changes were later turned off for some reason. Relay for Reddit is one of the few third-party apps I’ve found that actually has specific optimizations for the Duo. Adobe Acrobat and Kindle have also rolled out proper Duo support, though those were announced at the Duo’s launch.
Left: Relay for Reddit; Right: Adobe Acrobat
In summary, I’d still recommend most people wait until the second (or even third) generation of the Duo. There are absolutely some cases where having two screens boosts productivity, but given the missing hardware features and experimental software, the Duo is hard to recommend to anyone but the most diehard Microsoft fans.