Folding phones may be the future, but they are still young. Samsung and others fold a large screen into a smaller, pocketable size, while Microsoft combines two screens with a hinge to produce a digital book-like gadget.
Microsoft’s first attempt, 2020’s Surface Duo, flopped. The original Duo had a great design, but it was a hot mess. It lacks a decent camera, 5G, wireless charging, NFC, and a current processor. Worse, the software was unreliable and difficult to use, with frequent crashes, poor touch response, and restricted third-party program compatibility.
Microsoft appears to have fixed many of the original’s flaws in the $1,499.99 Surface Duo 2. It has a newer processor, refined design, bigger battery, 5G, NFC, newer software, and a real camera.
But once you get past the spec-sheet tweaks, the Duo 2 still has many of the same issues as the original. I can’t advocate getting this till Microsoft figures it out.
MICROSOFT SURFACE DUO 2 SPECS
|Operating System||Android 11|
|CPU||Qualcomm Snapdragon 888|
|Dimensions||5.75 by 3.62 by 0.43 inches|
|Screen Size||5.8 inches|
|Screen Resolution||1,344 by 1,892 pixels|
|Camera Resolution (Rear; Front-Facing)||12MP, 12MP, 16MP; 12MP|
|Battery Life (As Tested)||5 hours 25 minutes|
The Duo 2 retains the original’s stunning impact. This is a very unique gizmo that will definitely turn heads when used in public. Overall, it’s two full-size, super-thin smartphones linked by a 360-degree hinge. However, the two sides are still remarkably thin, and the extra thickness gives the whole item a more substantial feel. It also accommodates a larger battery, which easily lasts me a day. This year it comes in white or black. My review item is black, but I like the white model because it hides fingerprints better.
Easy to transition from using two screens to simply one screen thanks to the smooth yet robust hinge. The screens’ sides bend around the hinge, allowing you to see them when the Duo 2 is closed. However, it is still not as convenient as a screen on the outside of the phone. The curvature has also pinched my fingers in the hinge when opening the phone – not hurt, just embarrassed.
The panels are now 5.8 inches each, for a total of 8.3 inches, and boast a 90Hz refresh rate for smoother interactions and scrolling. They are still OLED displays with vibrant colors and deep blacks, and I had no problems viewing them in bright sunlight. The Duo 2’s footprint isn’t greater than the first Duo since the unattractive bezels above and below the screens are now smaller.
However, the Duo 2’s dual-screen architecture makes it wider than regular phones. It’s too big to fit in a pocket and too wide to comfortably thumb over the screen. Even though the Samsung Galaxy Fold 3 has an extra screen on the exterior, it is easier to operate in one hand for fast tasks and fits better in my jeans pockets when closed.
ONE-HAND USE OF THE DUO 2 IS NOT EASY.
The Duo 2 is difficult to use quickly or with one hand. It’s not a phone you can pull out of your pocket to pay or take a picture; everything is more laborious. To use Google Pay with the NFC chip, you must first open the phone, unlock it, fold the left screen back, and tap it on the scanner. It’s not quite fluid, but last year’s model had no NFC, so baby steps.
Microsoft also made some noticeable changes to the external hardware. The power button now has a fingerprint scanner, and the USB-C charging connection is on the right side of the phone, making it easier to use with some charging docks. It still lacks wireless charging, which is a shame at this price point. It also lacks water and dust protection, something Samsung has managed to add to its folding phones this year. Be careful — that’s a lot of non-waterproof phone.
The Duo 2 boasts a louder, clearer dual-speaker system than the Duo 1. It improves movie viewing and speaker phone or video chats, although the speakers aren’t as good as those on Samsung’s Galaxy Fold 3.
Various Surface Pens (available separately) work with the Duo 2, including the new Surface Pen Slim 2. It doesn’t have haptics like the new Surface Pro 8 or Surface Laptop Studio, but it writes better than the prior ones. In addition to the Duo 2, Slim Pen and Slim Pen 2 cases are available for purchase. The pen won’t slide off because the magnet is powerful, but you have to be careful while slipping the phone into a pocket.
Pen input works best with OneNote and Sticky Notes from Microsoft. Other programs, including Evernote, lack palm rejection and inking.
CAMERONS WERE COMPLETELY MISSING FROM INITIAL DOUBLE.
The right screen now has a triple-camera system on the rear. It has a 12-megapixel wide-angle, a 16-megapixel ultra-wide, and a 12-megapixel 2x telephoto. Shooting 4K video at 60fps is possible.
The camera housing protrudes from the rear of the phone, which interferes with folding back the left side and using only the right screen. So Microsoft tilted the housing so the left screen sat flush. It doesn’t fold as flat as the first Duo, but it’s a good compromise.
Microsoft’s camera software also uses two panels to show recorded photographs on the left and framing on the right. It’s simple to see a full-size image right away.
Beyond that, there isn’t much to like about this camera. For starters, the Duo’s design prevents you from taking photos one-handed or without fully opening the phone. The camera is also difficult to focus, slow to capture photographs, and generally unpleasant to use.
Also, image quality is poor. Photographs are over-sharpened, flat, and lack detail in low-light images. While the Duo 2’s camera is an improvement over the initial Duo’s lack of a real camera system, it is still inferior to phones priced hundreds of dollars less. Google’s $500 Pixel 5A outperforms this camera by a third.
Despite the Duo 2’s distinctive form factor, there are some fascinating things you can do with it. Unlike split-screen options on other phones or iPads, the two screens make running two apps much easier. Simply open one program on one screen and another on the other and you’re multitasking. I could join a Zoom meeting on one screen while following along in a Google Doc on the other without missing a beat or feeling obligated to use my laptop. I can readily check my schedule when responding to a meeting request email, or two social media streams at once when one isn’t enough.
All of this can be done on other phones or tablets, but the Duo 2 makes it much easier.
You have limitations. Neither Microsoft’s Edge browser nor Google Chrome allow you to access two webpages side by side, therefore you need two browsers to compare them.
You may “span” a single app across two displays, but only Microsoft apps operate well in this mode, like Outlook, OneNote, and the Office suite. Most Android apps merely extend themselves across the screens, leaving a huge gap where the hinge is. Video looks terrible when spread over both screens, so keep the phone on its side and only use one of the panels in landscape. No need for a kickstand if you can tent the phone on a table or desk.
Microsoft cleverly collaborated with Amazon and Google to support the Kindle and Play Books apps on the twin screens, so you get a digital approximation of a book when you span them. The Duo 2’s software now allows you to set an app to auto-span both screens when you open it, which means when I open the Kindle app, it instantly spans both displays. My favorite thing to do with a Duo, and it beats using a Kindle.
In the beginning, Duo had many issues with Android 10. Many months later, it still runs Android 10 and has many of the same faults. It will get Android 11 before the year is over. The Duo 2 comes with Android 11 and three years of monthly bug fixes and security patches. A specified number of Android OS platform updates is not promised.
The Duo 2’s software is undoubtedly better than the original at launch, and even better than the original after several bug fixes. It’s faster, more reliable, and more predictable, thanks to the Duo 2’s upgraded processor and additional RAM. Features like auto spanning mode and hinge notifications are included, as are automatic dark and night light modes for the display.
But it’s still a work in progress and feels incomplete. The major fault is a Duo line staple: weak touch responsiveness. So I have to double-tap an icon to launch an app or send a message. A large percentage of my taps are ignored when typing on the keyboard, slowing me down significantly. Even when writing with a pen, the screen misses strokes, highlighting my already terrible handwriting.
Microsoft insists it hasn’t noticed these issues, but other reviewers who have tested the Duo 2 have confirmed my findings. This basic function on a touch-based smartphone isn’t flawless.
Other features like tap to wake when the phone is open or an always-on display are absent. Those capabilities may not always make sense on the Duo 2’s size factor, but they are examples of what you give up to have a device like this.
The Surface Duo range has a lot of potential. You may imagine many ways to use two screens to get more work done and live in the future.
But such hopes are quickly dashed. Like its predecessor, the Duo 2 is difficult to use due to glitches and the uncomfortable form size. With a real camera, NFC, twin speakers, 5G and a current processor, the Duo 2 feels like a supplementary device, something you carry with your primary phone for snapping pictures, purchasing, and normal phone stuff.
THE DUO 2 IS NOT A ONE DEVICE RULER.
Instead, choose for the Samsung Galaxy Fold 3, which offers a better multimedia experience, can be operated with one hand, and has fewer issues. Or you could just wait, as this segment is still relatively new.
The Surface Duo 2 is priced at about $1,500. For a third of the price, an iPad Mini could do much of the same. If the first Surface Duo felt half-finished, the Duo 2 is probably 75% finished. I see potential. Sadly, it does not live up to it.
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