A new class of devices is rising — a type of device that wants to be both a phone and a tablet. The Surface Duo is one of the more exciting attempts to straddle that divide. Instead of going for a foldable screen like Samsung, Motorola or Huawei, Microsoft simply connected two screens together. That makes sense, given the company's experience with Surface tablets and their hinges. Plus, since the Duo can rotate 360 degrees, it offers a few more orientations, or what Microsoft likes to call “postures,” than the Galaxy Z Fold 2.
But software has always been Microsoft's Achilles heel on the mobile front. So, for the Surface Duo it teamed up with Google to offer a version of Android 10. These two giants collaborating could succeed where other dual-screen phones have failed before, and the early results seem promising.
- Sleek and sturdy design
- Smooth hinge
- Useful book and tent modes
- Very finicky software
- Camera is hard to use
- Few compatible apps at the moment
Whether it’s open or shut, the Surface Duo is impressively thin, unlike the Galaxy Z Fold 2 or older dual-screen phones like the ZTE Axon M. It’s 9.9 mm or about 0.38 inches thick when closed and 4.8mm when open, while the Z Fold 2 is almost twice that. At 250 grams (or 8.8 ounces), the Duo is also light enough to hold for long gaming or reading sessions and a hair lighter than the 282-gram Z Fold 2.
On the Duo’s right edge sits power and volume buttons as well as a fingerprint sensor. And slightly off center on the bottom is the USB-C charging port.
Gallery: Surface Duo review | 26 Photos
Gallery: Surface Duo review | 26 Photos
When closed, you’ll see the silver Microsoft logo on one side of the Duo’s glossy white cover, which pairs nicely with the silver hinge. I love the clean, minimal aesthetic, though the device does get smudged up pretty easily. Thankfully, its Gorilla Glass coating is more resistant to scratches than fingerprints and survived a couple of falls from my couch without a mark.
The Duo’s hinge is sturdy but moves effortlessly — like a knife through softened butter. It also rotates a complete 360 degrees, while Samsung’s foldable, for obvious reasons, can only open up to 180 degrees flat.
That freedom to open all the way allows the Surface Duo to be set up in a variety of modes like tent and laptop. But you can also flip it so that both screens are facing outside, so you’ve essentially got a pretty wide phone.
As a phone
The Surface Duo experience differs greatly across all its ”postures.” As a smartphone, it is... decent. Each of its 5.6-inch AMOLED screens has a 4:3 aspect ratio and requires two hands to maneuver. The Full HD-ish resolution delivered crisp text and images, and I was impressed by how sharp and vibrant the music video for Blackpink’s How You Like That looked.
I wasn’t sure the solo 11-megapixel camera above the right display would take great pictures. Images looked slightly cloudy as I framed them up. But when I viewed the shots after, they were surprisingly clear and rich. The Duo lagged most flagship phones in low light, but delivered respectable color and clarity. I sometimes could barely differentiate the Surface Duo’s photos from the Pixel 4a’s, but when I could, it was because Microsoft’s photos were slightly green and Google’s portrait mode is superior.
While image quality may be similar to most smartphones, the Duo’s single-camera setup takes some getting used to. Because this one sensor will serve as both your regular and selfie shooter, Microsoft had to build software that detects which direction you’re pointing the phone. Then it’ll enable the corresponding screen. When I first started using the Duo, this was insanely finicky — my selfie-taking attempts were thwarted because I could never get the screen with the camera facing me to stay on. After a software update on September 5th this became more reliable, but it’s still quite slow and requires very deliberate flipping.
Honestly, if you’re trying to capture fleeting moments, you might miss most of them with the Duo. First, you’ll have to take out the Duo and turn on the camera, which can take awhile if you don’t already have the screens facing outwards. Then you’ll have to wait for the software to figure out which display to activate, and hope it’s right. I always had to futz around for at least five seconds before I could snap a picture, by which point your smiling baby or prancing pup may have already stopped being cute.
This is one of the things about the Duo that requires some learning and a lot of patience. For those with smaller hands like me, you’ll want to enable the one-handed keyboard, which shifts towards the screen’s edge so letters are easier to reach. I generally prefer Google’s GBoard for its better swipe typing and predictions, but only Microsoft’s Swiftkey adapts to the different postures right now.
I see why Microsoft hesitates to call the Duo a phone, because it doesn’t feel like it’s really designed to be that. Although, if you want to, you can still make and take calls. It looks a little odd, but the Duo isn’t so wide that I can’t hold it up to my ear with one hand and it’s only slightly broader than the Galaxy Mega from 2013.