Friday, December 3, 2021

Microsoft Surface Duo 2 Review

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MICROSOFT SURFACE DUO 2 SPECS

Operating SystemAndroid 11
CPUQualcomm Snapdragon 888
Dimensions5.75 by 3.62 by 0.43 inches
Screen Size5.8 inches
Screen Resolution1,344 by 1,892 pixels
Camera Resolution (Rear; Front-Facing)12MP, 12MP, 16MP; 12MP
Battery Life (As Tested)5 hours 25 minutes

Microsoft’s $1,499.99 Surface Duo 2 works, and it doesn’t work like anything else. A dual-screen, handheld Android phablet, the Duo 2 lives up to its name: It practically demands that you look at two windows at once. With no real external display and with a bezel between the screens, it’s not like other foldable phones such as the $1,800 Samsung Galaxy Z Flip 3. The form factor is likely too radical for most people, who want to hold a phone to their heads for calls, and send texts, take pictures, or play games on a single screen. But if you find yourself wishing for an alternative to using the task switcher on your Android phone all the time, the Duo 2 might be right for you.

Refined Hardware

The Surface Duo 2, as the name says, is the second of its line. The first model was a disaster, lacking basic features such as primary rear cameras and launching with unacceptably buggy software. That’s so Microsoft, right? Like Windows 1.0 or PC DOS 1.0, Microsoft is nothing if not consistent. But Microsoft also constantly iterates. So now we have the Duo 2, which fixes the original Duo’s problems while still standing in a class of its own.

Simply put, the Surface Duo 2 still looks like nothing else on the market. When it’s closed, it’s secure, with no actual outer screen or display. The device comprises two slim, rounded panels joined by a reliable-feeling hinge that stays open at whatever posture you want to put it at. At 3.6 inches wide, it’s not comfortable in a pants pocket; you wish to have it in a jacket pocket or a bag. And at 10 ounces, it has a lot of heft to it, so it’s better for bags than for pockets once again. The back has a significant bump on it for the new triple-camera system.

Microsoft Surface Duo 2 Review
Amazon

To show your notifications without opening the phone, Microsoft has introduced a “glance bar” along the edge of the Duo that displays information. When you’re charging the phone, the glance bar fills up to the level of charge. If you tap the power button, it shows the time in (very) small type and the number of missed calls and texts.

A raised power button on the right edge below the volume buttons includes the fingerprint sensor. A USB-C port for charging and headphones on the bottom worked with my Samsung USB-C earbuds; the phone comes with a cable, but neither earbuds nor a power adapter.

The Duo has two 5.8-inch, 1,892-by-1,344-pixel screens that work independently or as one 8.3-inch panel. There’s a break in the middle; although it’s smaller than the one on the original Duo because Microsoft now uses curved screens that get closer to each other, it still creates a noticeable gap in a spanned image. You don’t want to play games or watch videos across the break, unlike on the Galaxy Z Fold3’s smooth screen. You want to use one at a time or have two windows open.

The screens are gorgeous: They’re super sharp at 401 pixels per inch, with 800 nits of maximum brightness and a 90Hz refresh rate. They’re a pleasure to read small text on, although you need sharp eyes—I noticed that the Office experience on the Duo does not pity those with fuzzy vision.

I didn’t get to test the new Surface Slim Pen 2 ($130), which inductively charges from the phone when used with an additional $65 charging cover. Four other bumper covers are available in black, blue, orange, or white for $39; those don’t blame the pen, though (the pen otherwise comes with its little USB dock for charging).

The base, $1,499 Duo 2 has 8GB of RAM and 128GB of storage; you can also get it with 256GB for $1,599 or 512GB for $1,799. There’s no microSD card slot, so choose wisely.

Beyond Bendy

The Duo’s 360-degree hinge lets it perform many tricks you don’t see on other phones. Fold it back, and it’s an extensive, single-screen phone. The screens don’t lie perfectly flat against each other, so the device ends up being quite the hand-buster in terms of both width and thickness at its most significant point (unless you have large hands), but that gives you a one-handed posture.

The Duo has six main modes:

  • The folded-back, single-screen mode
  • Two screens, with two windows, doing two things
  • One innovative application using the two screens to show different things
  • A big window spanned over both screens
  • A “table-tent” mode where it’s propped up in a V shape
  • Closed, where all you see is the glance bar because there’s no external screen

The table-tent mode is the real revelation for me; it’s great for playing games while leaning back with a Bluetooth controller, watching videos, or making speakerphone calls, and there’s no other phone that can do the same thing without a clunky kickstand case.

Microsoft Surface Duo 2 Review
Amazon

Relatively few apps use the two screens intelligently. When dragged across both screens, the Amazon Kindle app shows two pages, like the device was a book. The Kobo Books app does not; it has a one-page span the two screens, unreadably. Microsoft Office works well in dual-screen mode; for instance, you can browse OneDrive on the left and preview selected documents on the right. The built-in camera app shows your gallery on one screen and the viewfinder on the other. Asphalt 9 uses one screen for its mini-map while the main gameplay is on the other screen.

But by and large, it’s two screens for two things. I found it productive for entering benchmark results (on the right) into an Excel spreadsheet (on the left) or scrolling through an index of news articles (on the right) as I open and read them (on the left).

There’s a twist that keeps tripping me up. If you switch away from an app, but it stays in memory, it’ll reopen in the same posture it was in before. That means if you were playing with Settings on the left screen a while ago, forgot, and reopened it expecting it to be on the right screen, it’d pop open on the left screen.

This carries on to some secondary window uses being a bit confusing. I often wanted to have two Edge windows open and open a link on the other screen, but sometimes tapping “open in another window” would cause the link to open on the same screen, not spawn the other Edge window. Microsoft says that has to do with the system trying to respect if I was doing a non-edge activity on the other screen, but I found it unpredictably unreliable. I want the same click always to do the same thing.

Microsoft Surface Duo 2 Review
Amazon

There are still occasional bugs and crashes, but nothing like what I saw on the original Duo. Sometimes with two Edge windows open, tapping “open on the other screen” on one causes the other window to quit. Excel crashed a few times. It’s all more mildly annoying than showstopping, though.

The software could also use some tuning. Sometimes the screens didn’t rotate when I expected them to, or a window would drop back to a single screen when I was trying to drag to span it across both. Microsoft says it’s tricky to understand when a phone with so many postures wants to rotate, and I get that.

The company has done its best to make the Duo’s weird form factor easy enough to type on. In general, you use a touch keyboard that’s crowded to one side of the screen you’re using at the moment, which I prefer to Samsung’s split-keyboard or middle-of-the-screen options on the Z Fold3. If the phone is held like a laptop, a full-screen keyboard often appears on the bottom screen while you do things on the top one. This can be great if you have thick fingers, but it can also be a little disorienting when you’re working with two web pages, click on a text entry field on the bottom screen, and then the bottom screen gets kicked to the top to make room for the keyboard on the bottom.

Microsoft Surface Duo 2 Review
Amazon

Oh, one more thing—if you plug it into a USB-C monitor, it will drive that monitor with no complaints, and the “spanned” window mode is the correct between aspect ratio to not look weird on an external monitor (as opposed to most mirrored phone screens, which are either too vertical or too horizontal). This isn’t quite Samsung’s desktop-like DeX mode, but it’s another neat trick in the Duo’s bag. You can also drive screens through Chromecast and Miracast wirelessly.

Your Portable Xbox

The Duo is pretty wild as a gaming device. It pairs with Xbox Bluetooth controllers, works with Xbox Game Pass game streaming, and has some neat dual-screen tricks that pop up when you’re in the Microsoft ecosystem.

If you’re just playing Google Play games, it’s best to play them on one screen. I am trying to span both screens, for me but too much content on the bezel. Genshin Impact, especially, usually puts your character right near the center of the screen, and that’s just weird. Genshin isn’t the smoothest I’ve ever played it here, with a few skips, but it’s okay.

Microsoft Surface Duo 2 Review
Amazon

The Duo’s strength opens up when you start playing with Xbox Game Pass Ultimate ($14.99/month) or a dedicated Bluetooth controller. With a controller, the table-tent mode lets you prop the phone up for a lean-back gaming experience. Without a controller, the bottom screen becomes one, so you have all the appropriate buttons and triggers.

Xbox Game Pass streaming is imperfect, but I found it surprisingly good. You need a solid internet connection, and not every game is ideal for the device. The silly quasi-RPG The Good Life played beautifully, and Halo bobbed along with aplomb. But the controls in Need for Speed: Heat was too gummy to be enjoyable. The upscale roguelike Children of Morta played enjoyably, but some text was too small to read.

Microsoft Surface Duo 2 Review
Amazon

The device has dual speakers for games, music, and video. They aren’t particularly memorable, neither outrageously quiet nor room-filling loud, and they’re about as tinny as most phone speakers are nowadays.

Plenty of Power

The Surface Duo packs the same Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 processor as in other leading Android smartphones of the moment. It runs a customized version of Android 11 that had to be heavily altered for Microsoft’s unusual hardware. That said, Microsoft promises frequent feature and security updates. For the next major version of the OS, Android 12, Microsoft says it’s “working on it.”

In terms of benchmarks, the Surface rule applies: When it’s good, it’s very, very good, but when it’s terrible, it crashes. Our PCMark Work benchmark hit repeatedly, but other bars gave either the same (Geekbench) or better (Basemark Web and GFXBench) scores than we saw on the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra and Galaxy Z Fold 3.

The battery is a significant weakness, though. With both screens active, one playing video and the other scrolling a web page, I only got 5 hours, 25 minutes of use. Turning off one screen brought that to 10 hours of single-screen video playback, but I still get the sense it’s going to have shorter battery life than other large single-screen phones like the Galaxy S21 Ultra (11 hours, 20 minutes) and the Apple iPhone 13 Pro Max (18 hours). The Galaxy Z Fold3 also doesn’t have the most significant battery life (11 hours, 25 minutes).

The Duo 2 promises 18-watt fast charging, but I didn’t find it to charge quickly in testing. Connected to a 20-watt Samsung USB-C charger, it took a total of three hours to fill its tank.

Reliable Connectivity

The Surface Duo 2 has the same Qualcomm X60 modem that you’ll find in other leading smartphones this year, including the Samsung Galaxy S21 and the iPhone 13. That puts it two years ahead of the original Duo.

The Duo has a nano-SIM slot and an eSIM; you can use both simultaneously, making it a dual-SIM phone. The device supports all of the 4G and 5G bands currently used in the US, both sub-6 and mmWave, and the upcoming C-band. You can turn off 5G if 4G gives you better coverage.

Microsoft’s antenna work in the first Duo was solid, and I saw the same strong reception on the Verizon network with this model. I consistently got 3 to 4dBm better LTE reception on Verizon’s network with the Duo than with the Samsung Galaxy Z Fold3. In a weak 4G signal area, that could make the difference between a connection and none.

Microsoft Surface Duo 2 Review
Amazon

Tested over several locations with Verizon, the Duo generally outpaced the Fold (although not consistently). On a millimeter-wave connection, the Duo and Fold both peaked at around 2.6Gbps, while on Verizon’s “nationwide” 5G, the Duo peaked at 304Mbps. The two phones didn’t show much difference in terms of millimeter-wave range.

Wi-Fi 6 is supported, but not Wi-Fi 6E; the device also has Bluetooth 5.1 and NFC for mobile payments.

Holding the Duo 2 up to your face to make a call is a little weird; it’s very slabby. A Bluetooth headset is a good bet (there’s no 3.5mm headphone jack). For speakerphone calls in a quiet room, the Duo 2’s table-tent mode is very compelling, though call quality is unremarkable.

Weak Cameras

Microsoft Surface Duo 2 Review
Amazon

The original Surface Duo had no rear-facing camera at all. This one has three: a 12MP, f/1.7 primary shooter; a 12MP, f/2.4 2x zoom; and a 16MP, f/2.2 110-degree ultrawide. There’s also a 12MP, f/2.0 front-facing lens.

Unfortunately, the cameras aren’t excellent, and I ran into several bugs in the camera app. The app should default to a wonderfully usable mode where you see the viewfinder on the right screen and your gallery on the left. When you take a shot, you can see it in full-screen on the left display, letting you easily judge whether the picture is in focus or whether you should take another one.

That mode launched sometimes. But other times, I’d get the camera app on the right/top screen, and the other display would stay showing the home screen, not the gallery. Once, the viewfinder popped up on the entire screen, and the image was upside-down. Not the UI elements—this wasn’t a screen-rotation problem—just the viewfinder image. And in low light, it switches between cameras, zooms, and focuses exceptionally slowly.

Quality-wise, Microsoft’s software doesn’t seem to be entirely up to Samsung’s standards. I compared the Duo 2 with a Samsung Galaxy Z Fold3. Shots taken with the Duo are universally dimmer, with more muted colors and softer details. The Duo does have a night mode for extreme low-light situations, and it definitely helps, but once again, it doesn’t create images as sharp or as bright as the Fold does.

In good light, Duo’s front-facing camera is ideal for video calling. It delivers very even images that minimize shadows on your face, unlike the Fold’s more dramatic looks. In low light, the Duo kept the focus on my face and pretty much blacked out everything behind me, while the Fold was still able to pull some detail out of the background.

Are you looking for a Unique Phone? You’ve Found It.

It was easy to bash the first Surface Duo because it didn’t work on a fundamental level. The Duo 2 works. It’s just extraordinary.

The Surface Duo 2 is the Wolverine of mobile multitasking. “I’m the best at what I do,” it says, “but sometimes what I do doesn’t look very nice.” Yes, it’s certainly possible to do split-screen on other Android phones like the Galaxy Z Fold3, but it isn’t nearly as easy nor as obvious. If your ideal phone workflow involves copying and pasting a lot from one window to another, the Duo is a uniquely usable tool. But while the Duo 2 does things other $1,500 phones can’t do, it doesn’t do things other $1,500 phones can, like deliver class-leading image quality or feel comfortable when held up to your head for a phone call. It isn’t an unfolding tablet like the Z Fold3. It’s very much its own thing.

If you’re interested in the Duo 2, go into the experience with your eyes open, your curiosity alive, and your credit card well-financed. It doesn’t earn our Editors’ Choice award for a certain kind of mobile multitasker, though; it’ll be a godsend.

PROS

  • Unique multitasking abilities
  • Razor-sharp screens
  • Solid 4G and 5G reception

CONS

  • Poor cameras for the price
  • So-so battery life
  • Unpredictable software

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Product prices and availability are accurate as of the date/time indicated and are subject to change. Any price and availability information displayed on [relevant Amazon Site(s), as applicable] at the time of purchase will apply to the purchase of this product.

Prices pulled from the Amazon Product Advertising API on:

Product prices and availability are accurate as of the date/time indicated and are subject to change. Any price and availability information displayed on [relevant Amazon Site(s), as applicable] at the time of purchase will apply to the purchase of this product.

Prices pulled from the Amazon Product Advertising API on:

Product prices and availability are accurate as of the date/time indicated and are subject to change. Any price and availability information displayed on [relevant Amazon Site(s), as applicable] at the time of purchase will apply to the purchase of this product.

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Product prices and availability are accurate as of the date/time indicated and are subject to change. Any price and availability information displayed on [relevant Amazon Site(s), as applicable] at the time of purchase will apply to the purchase of this product.


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