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First generation products are such an interesting thing to experience. I remember the first iPad—I was in college and got a discount on it, and spent much of my semester’s meal allowance on the gadget. I think most of us would agree, that first generation iPad was not objectively great—but its newness allowed for some excitement due to being the first of its kind (let’s not get into a debate about other tablets; you know as well as I do that the iPad is and always has been the defacto tablet standard).
The Surface Duo presents a new phone form factor, and is arguably just as exciting as that first generation iPad was, but for obviously different reasons. Folding phones aren’t new, so to speak, but they aren’t yet mainstream and still very expensive. The Surface Duo, though, is not a folding phone with a folding screen—it is in fact just two screens sandwiched between two very thin pieces of glass. It is not unlike the LG V60 in its dual screen case, providing you two screens (if you want) for your normal phone activities. Where this differs, though, is the fact that this dual-screen phone is built around, well, its dual screens. Sort of, anyway.
Because this is a first generation device, it’s really really easy to pick the thing apart because there are many flaws. But, there are going to be—that’s the nature of first generation devices. That doesn’t make it unusable, or unbearable, or even bad…it just means that some kinks need to be worked out, some of which may not be a big deal to you. So, as you look at reviews, read cautiously.
The Duo’s design is second to none—and truly unique. Imagine a tiny Moleskine notebook, and you’ll be pretty close to the size and form factor. I think it’s fair to call the two sides of the device ‘impossibly thin,’ because it’s really, really compact for having two screens…it is not the thickness, for instance, of two independent phones. One of the sides is barely thicker than the thickness of the USB-C port which it sports.
The edges are sharp…almost uncomfortably so. Depending on how you have it opened or folded, it’s easy to get uncomfortable holding it without repositioning your hands. To some, this sharpness might suggest a product manufactured with very low tolerances, and therefore an item of quality. If the sharp edges aren’t your style, you at least have the hinge, which is by all accounts one of the nicest hinges, on any device, ever. Opening and closing the device is super satisfying.
I’d describe this device, possibly, as having ‘the most premium hardware,’ which is saying a lot with so many quality devices that are out there today. It only comes in one color, which I’m totally OK with, and the only issue I found with the build was that the SIM tray when pushed in doesn’t lie flush with the edge of the device. Otherwise, Microsoft knocked it out of the park with the Duo.
I mentioned its size similarity to a small pocket notebook…what’s most notable about each side of the device is that the screen is much wider than a cell phone screen typically is. I’m sure we’ve all been frustrated by narrow screens and tiny keyboards, but it was interesting how difficult it was to adjust to a slightly wider keyboard without making too many typing errors.
Folded flat, the Duo gives you just over 8 inches of screen real estate, separated by narrow bezels and the gap in the hinge. This is not something you’d want to watch a video on in ‘full screen’ mode because that gap in the center is not ideal…but that doesn’t mean there aren’t some other ways where the gap is utilized as a positive design component. More on that later.
Buttons on the side are minimal, and all of them lie on the right edge. There is a power button, volume rocker and a fingerprint sensor; the fingerprint sensor is remarkably responsive and quite enjoyable to use, and the volume rocker has the same ‘backward’ volume controls that you find on the Surface tablet lineup (and most recently, the Surface Go).
The Duo emulates a ‘360 degree’ style that you’d see in a laptop, and this flexibility allows for several orientations using one, or the other, or both screens depending on your mood. In order to use the phone, though, it has to be opened with both screens facing outward, as the right side of the Duo is the only place you’ll find a speaker on the whole device. If you want to use the other side, there is an accelerometer that senses when you flip the device over, and all you need to do is double-tap the unused screen to switch navigation to that side. This gesture (like many of the gestures) worked reliably about 50% of the time.
The screens themselves are really nice. They don’t have high refresh rates, and they have big bezels on 3 sides (top, bottom, outside), but they are clean and crisp and really nice to look at. Touch responsiveness was also good, but I think the janky gesture management had a negative impact on that experience.
The camera is passable for a budget phone—not for one that is $1500. Camera performance was one of the biggest disappointments, and it was just kind of weird to use it since there is only one camera on the whole device (inside, on the right screen). It was nice to have a full screen as a viewfinder, but even if the quality of the photo was decent (which it’s not), the camera software is very slow and shutter response lags terribly. The speaker is only marginally better than the camera, but just like the camera, there is only one (not counting the earpiece)—which is a huge waste. It gets plenty loud, but is probably only usable in a pinch…stick with earbuds or headphones on this.
The hardware is very much first-gen hardware, and again—that’s totally OK. Despite the negatives, it’s possible that you aren’t bothered by a bad camera or a bad speaker, and to be honest, this is a device seemingly aimed at professional multitaskers more so than one intended for digital media enthusiasts…and that is made more clear when you dig into the software.
This is an Android phone—but not stock Android; there is a Microsoft skin over Android that is arguably necessary; I don’t think that stock android on this device would make it feel like a Surface product…so probably why the skin is there.
The biggest concern when it comes to software, though, is around optimization for the Duo’s dual screens. Sure, you can multitask, and opening two different apps on two different screens is neat—but what about a single app across both screens simultaneously?
Well, it’s good and bad. There are a handful of apps—14 by my count that come pre-installed—that are optimized to make use of the Duo’s screens simultaneously. These apps won’t surprise you—Microsoft Outlook, OneDrive, OneNote… I think you get the theme here. Any app with a sidebar is, in theory, a good fit for the Duo, but even that is a bit of a stretch because sidebars are typically not occupying half of your screen at any given time.
Another 25+ apps that come pre-installed are notably not optimized for the Duo, which is frustrating. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t expect all apps to be optimized, but surely the Edge browser app would be included here…or the Bing app…or Google’s video calling app which shares the device’s name (but is not related… I just find this ironic more than anything else). Still, some of these non-optimized apps are usable in full-screen mode, while others are certainly not. One of my favorite non-optimized apps was YouTube; I found that watching across both screens allowed me to have the video exclusively on the “top” screen while I trolled the comments on the “bottom” screen. My favorite optimized app is Microsoft’s News app, which I’m a huge, huge fan of.
Other than single-app use, though, there is obviously a huge advantage to having two apps open simultaneously—like YouTube and News, for instance, or Outlook and Teams…and you can create what are called app pairs that will automatically open your desired apps on your desired screens with the press of an icon.
But, there is some weirdness to the software experience for sure. The gestures, as I said above, are kind of strange; sometimes they work, and sometimes they don’t. I also found that when opening an app on one screen, then another over top of it, both of those apps had to be ‘minimized’ by swiping up from the bottom to get back to the home screen on that side (although it didn’t occur consistently).
And the home screen, by the way, is actually two home screens: you can select any two consecutive screens to act as your home screens. Swiping from screen to screen is weird, too…part of me expects the full contents of both screens to be replaced with a single swipe, but instead, all the individual panels just shift one panel the direction you swipe. So, it’s technically possible to be looking at half of your home screen…home screens…well, maybe you see why it’s so strange.
Performance of the software was fine, but not great. This only has 6 GB RAM onboard, which is just not enough…now and then things would get laggy, which wasn’t helped by Microsoft’s inclusion of a year-old Snapdragon processor. Sigh….
I think it’s worth making a couple of quick comments about accessories. Included in the box is a bumper that alleges to protect the device, but despite its seemingly awesome build quality, I don’t see that bumper providing the phone much—if any—protection when dropped. I get it, though, because it’s kind of hard to create a case for a device that folds completely flat that also provides good protection, so it will be interesting to see if third parties come up with any solutions in the next several months.
Another accessory that might be worth your attention is a Surface Pen; the Surface Slim Pen is recommended for this device by Microsoft and I found it to provide a really great note-taking experience if that’s something you see yourself taking advantage of. Honestly, ahead of receiving the Duo I fully expected to make a direct comparison to a modern-day digital notebook (much like the pocket notebooks of years gone by), and I’m happy to say that the writing experience here was more enjoyable than what I noticed when using the same pen on the Surface Go 2 tablet. And, as a long-time Samsung Galaxy Note fan, Microsoft put something together here that is really quite enjoyable.
It was really exciting to get to try out the Microsoft Duo ; it is most definitely not for everyone, but it does make you think about how much you actually use your cell phone as a phone, compared to all the other things you do with it.
Because the screens are so wide, it can look a little ridiculous next to your ear, but with wireless earbuds becoming so popular, it might be something you’ll not see or experience very often. So, maybe it’s not the best phone—but it doesn’t make it a bad device.
It’s clear that Microsoft is marketing this to a particular type of user; not necessarily the cutting-edge tech enthusiasts, who will undoubtedly seek it out, but for the working professional that can benefit from a folding, pocket-sized device that can be used for multitasking. In fact, until the Duo, I’ve not found a non-laptop mobile device that offers the flexibility that the Duo does in two-app multitasking (even the iPad Pro, which multitasks well but is a bit finicky at times and doesn’t allow for quick swapping of apps the way the Duo does).
So, it seems that, if you just happen to be looking for a non-laptop mobile device that offers flexibility in two-app multitasking, the Duo is a really good (but truly, the only) option. Sadly, the software experience is a bit buggy, which I expect to improve over time as more units are sold and more feedback is received.
At the end of the day, though, I found myself enamored with the Duo, at least in part because it is a first-gen device, but mostly because it’s just fun to use it, provided you can get past some of its shortcomings. Some might automatically pass on this because it’s the first version of the device and the kinks need to be worked out—and they do, believe me—but I still think this could be a good phone for someone who can really benefit from its ability to multitask, who wouldn’t be as bothered that some of its features (camera, speakers) are less than flagship quality. And, it’s not like users of this phone will have to wait for a second generation for some of the issues to improve, because many of its issues are software-driven, which can be handled (in theory) with updates.
This product was provided by Best Buy and Microsoft in exchange for an honest, unbiased review. The opinions expressed herein are solely that of the author and have not been reviewed or approved by any sponsors prior to posting.