It seems like a thousand years have passed, but it was really only a bit over a year ago that Microsoft showed off the Surface Duo for the first time. I attended that October 2019 event and documented what I saw here. Curiously, though, Microsoft didn't allow most journalists any hands-on time with this odd, dual-screen, Android-powered device.
So when the Surface Duo went on sale in August, I decided to place an order, even though the price (well over $1500 after tax) was uncomfortably high. I had my doubts, but decided to take advantage of Microsoft's generous return policy, which offered a 60-day evaluation period and a money-back guarantee.
My device arrived in mid-September. By the end of October, I had decided that it wasn't a keeper. Here are my reasons.
First the pluses: The engineering is spectacular and build quality is first-rate. That shouldn't be surprising, given Microsoft's history in recent years with Surface designs. In particular, the hinge has the same fluid feeling that the kickstand does on Surface Pro devices.
And the software support for side-by-side displays is extremely clever, once you learn how to make it work. If more manufacturers created dual-screen devices, there would be ample incentive for developers to support these new features.
But the minuses, for me, were far more plentiful, and in some cases overwhelming. In all, I found five dealbreakers.
My carrier doesn't support it
This is a uniquely American problem, as I will freely admit. But then, this is a uniquely American device, as evidenced by the compatibility note on Microsoft's webpage: "Surface Duo will work on AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon networks including subsidiary and international partner networks."
Yes, if you're a student of American mobile carriers you might notice one name missing from that list: Sprint. Despite having been swallowed up by T-Mobile, Sprint still uses an odd set of bands that aren't supported by some devices. And because Sprint is my carrier, I couldn't add this device to my account.
I also have an account with Xfinity Mobile, which uses the Verizon network. Sadly, it too is not an option. Xfinity Mobile supports iPhones and Samsung Galaxy devices and some members of the Google Pixel family. But not Surface Duo.
For testing purposes, I ponied up for a Mint Mobile account, which uses T-Mobile towers. The Surface Duo worked just fine on that network, and if that had been the only issue I could have ported my number over and carried on. But it wasn't the only issue.
It's too big
When folded, the Surface Duo fit comfortably in my back pocket, although not in the front pocket where I am accustomed to keeping my phone.
The trouble is, it was too big (or, more accurately, too wide) to fit comfortably in my hand. I have average-sized hands, and I never felt that the grip was secure, and accomplishing anything in single-screen mode was awkward without getting both hands involved.
Using the phone with earbuds or a Bluetooth headset helps, but that only really works for pre-scheduled calls.
It's too small
When I saw demos of the Surface Duo in action earlier this year, I was encouraged to see it running Kindle software. That seemed like a perfect application to me, with the option to read a book using a device that's roughly the size of a paperback.
Alas, the reality was disappointing. Although the Kindle app does support this side-by-side arrangement of pages, the surface area is just too small for it to be practical. That's especially true for trying to read magazines in digital format.
I quickly went back to my trusty iPad for reading.
Other configurations, like the one shown here, also made clever use of the dual screens to add an onscreen keyboard, but that tiny virtual layout is just too small to be productive.
The camera is not good
Microsoft's Surface Duo page scrolls on and on and on. It's stunningly well designed, with photos and video clips that show off the device impressively.
But what's odd is that the word camera does not appear on that page. Well, technically, it does, but only if you know exactly where to click when going through the hardware features list.
I am not surprised that Microsoft doesn't brag on the Surface Duo camera, because it is less than great. It takes so-so photos, especially in less than perfect light, and for a device that costs $1500 that's a pretty big failing. But even worse than the image quality is the usability story.
To take a picture with a conventional smartphone, you pull it out of your pocket or purse, swipe to open the camera app, point, and shoot. To use the Surface Duo camera, you have to first fold the device open, then remember which side the camera is on and point it toward the subject, then open the camera app and shoot.
That's just too much friction.
The software is confusing to use
Android devices have a fairly consistent set of gestures for navigating through apps and settings. Microsoft's enhancements for the Surface Duo add a whole new layer of extra gestures on top of that, including drag-to-position actions that enable the side-by-side displays.
I eventually learned how to get everything working, but I never felt comfortable with it, and the "snap" actions failed enough of the time to be more frustrating than fun.
At the end of the day, all of those negatives added up to an easy decision to take advantage of Microsoft's no-questions-asked return policy.
To the company's credit, that process was extremely smooth. I filled in an online form requesting a return and got an email with a link to print a UPS label minutes later. I handed the device off to the UPS driver on Thursday, it arrived at Microsoft's return center in El Paso on Monday, and the refund landed in my credit card account less than 12 hours later.
It was fun while it lasted, and I saw enough to like that I will take a serious look at the next version or two, especially if it's significantly bigger. I don't really want a phone but Surface Duo would make an excellent tablet.