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Microsoft hasn't given up on its aspirations to create a unique, if not niche, smartphone for its loyal Surface fans. With last year's Surface Duo, the company took a novel approach to the standard smartphone. Instead of putting out yet another rectangular Android phone, the Duo featured two impressively thin displays, held together by hinges, that made it possible to fold the phone in half. Unlike Samsung's Galaxy Z Fold that actually has a screen that folds in half, the Duo had two displays that are physically separated.
As is often the case with first-generation devices, the Duo wasn't all that impressive. I purchased one and returned it within 30 days (Microsoft offers a 60-day return policy). There was clear potential with the phone, but I felt the concept was a better fit for a tablet (or even a laptop).
Fast forward and Microsoft is ready to ship the Surface Duo 2. There are some modest changes to the second generation device, including a speedier processor, better cameras and it runs Android 11.
I've been using the Surface Duo 2 as my main Android phone for two weeks now, and have a good feel for what I like and what I don't. I'm going to stick to my original plan and live with the Duo 2 for an extended amount of time, but here are some of my thoughts after using it for a couple of weeks. Let's start with my least favorite part of the Duo 2.
The first few days of using the Duo 2, I didn't really mind the different approach to its size and shape. It was a nice break from the long, black rectangles all smartphones resemble. But the longer I've used it, the more awkward I've found it. Microsoft has made adjustments to the keyboard, its positioning and size based on whether or not the Duo 2 is open, or one side is folded onto itself. But I've yet to figure out the most comfortable way to type on it.
With both screens open, you're forced to type on one side with a single thumb, with the keyboard shrinking down towards the edge of the screen to make it easier. When the device is folded over on itself, giving you a single screen to view and use, the keyboard spans the entire screen to make it easier to type two-handed. This is probably the most comfortable, or at least my most used, orientation for typing longer messages or replying to emails. But because the camera bump (more on that in a minute) no longer allows the device to fold completely flat, the gap between makes it feel lopsided, as if you're doing something wrong.
Then there's the fact that putting the oddly shaped smartphone -- which is wider than the iPhone 13 Pro Max or Pixel 6 Pro when closed -- in a pocket is downright uncomfortable. It just doesn't fit properly, which means you end up carrying it in your hand most of the time, or slipping it into your back pocket. Or in my case, I put it in a coat pocket, not realizing that it didn't quite fit all the way. A few seconds later, the phone fell out of my pocket, crashed to the floor and cracked the corner of the screen. It's still usable and doesn't impact the experience at all (other than seeing a few cracks), but it's a good reminder that you need to put some sort of case or bumper on this phone, and be more aware of how you're carrying it with you.
The original Duo lacked any way to easily check if you had any pending alerts while the device was closed. You had to slightly open the device to activate the peek feature that showed you the time and notification icons. Peek is still present to check the time (at least I can't find a setting to turn on alerts), but thanks to rounded display edges, you can now see alert icons along the hinge when the Duo 2 closed.
Microsoft is calling this feature the Glance Bar, and currently, it's capable of showing the time, text message alerts, missed calls, battery level, and volume. For example, when you start charging the Duo 2, the Glance Bar will show you the battery's current charge level -- showing green or red based on the current level.
When the device is closed, you can press the power button to trigger Glance Bar and check the time as well as any pending alerts. It's a far better experience than peek on the original Duo which required more than just a quick action like pressing a button. However, it doesn't go far enough.
I would love for Microsoft to open Glance Bar to third-party developers and let apps like Twitter or Spark Email to show new message alerts.
I've also found that the Glance Bar doesn't always work. For example, I've randomly been able to press the volume buttons and see the Glance Bar light up white to show the volume level moving up or down. But more often than not, the volume indicator doesn't show up at all. Maybe there's a specific order of pressing the sleep/wake button and then the volume rocker, or vice versa, but all of my pressing and tapping hasn't figured it out.
Maybe I never really gave the Duo a proper chance, or the Duo 2's software ironed out enough of the usability bugs I encountered (more on that in a minute), but it feels easier to multitask on the Duo 2.
It wasn't until about 48 hours after setting up the phone that the way to leverage two different displays started to click for me. For example, entering app-specific passwords to set up my email, contacts, and calendars normally is a process that requires jumping between a browser and an email or sync app.
But on the Duo 2, I left the Edge browser open on one display, with passwords at the ready while at the same time completing the setup process in the respective apps on the other display. What really helped me, more than being able to see all the information at the same time, was that I could use one hand to select and copy information while at almost the same time using the other hand on the opposite display to select a text field and paste the information.
It really was an Aha! moment for how the Duo 2 is supposed to be used. I need a lot more time to figure out the multitasking scenarios and how Microsoft intends for the Duo 2 to be used, but I feel like I've started to turn the corner.
After two weeks, I still find value in using both of the Duo 2's screens at the same time. Often I have Twitter open on one side, browsing through my timeline, with the other display acting as my multitasking screen. I'll switch between apps, reply to messages and the like.
One of my main issues with the original Duo was that the software felt unfinished and lacked overall polish for routine tasks like rotating the screen. Icons would disappear, the device wouldn't change orientation or the launcher would flat out crash. It was bad, but I've been told it got better over the last year through software updates.
That effort doesn't go unnoticed on the Duo 2 which runs Android 11. Overall, the Duo 2 feels faster and performance has been mostly reliable. That said, there have been a few occasions when app icons appear stuck on the screen. Here's a screenshot example:
As you can see on the left side of the device, there are stacked app icons and the dock has a giant bar across it. I just noticed while adding the photo that the search bar is also present. So much going on in one screenshot. I remember seeing similar stuff like this on the Duo last year, but it happened a lot more frequently.
The review sample I received is running the same software version that Microsoft is shipping to customers, so I'd expect some customers to report similar issues. Granted, it's not widespread, but this is something that shouldn't really happen.
For those who've used Android's gestures to navigate between apps and menus, you'll feel somewhat at home when using the Duo 2. Most of the gestures are still there and do exactly what you want them to, with two big exceptions. You can't swipe horizontally across the bottom of the screen to quickly switch between apps.
It's a gesture I routinely use on a typical Android device to bounce between apps. That gesture does absolutely nothing on the Duo 2. Well, I take that back. If you swipe towards the other screen, it will move the app to that screen, replacing any app that was open.
To switch between apps, you have to swipe up from the bottom of the screen to enter the multitasking view and then continue to scroll vertically until you find the app you want to switch to.
I'm not sure what the answer is for the Duo 2 and its gestures, but after two weeks you'd think that I would have adjusted to the new gestures. Instead, I constantly throw apps from screen to screen without even thinking.
One of the many complaints about the original Duo was its lack of a high-quality camera. In fact, it only had a single camera that was above the display -- there wasn't one on the rear of the device at all. That meant the back of the device was completely flat on both sides, allowing you to lay it completely flat or fold it closed on itself.
This year, Microsoft added a triple camera array on the back of the right display. The cameras, so far, are an improvement, but the bump that Microsoft had to add to accommodate the modules takes away how surprisingly thin the original Duo was.
In addition to that, the Duo 2 no longer sits flat on a table, nor can you fold it over on itself without there being a gap. The latter complaint is admittedly a little nit-picky on my part, but not being able to lay the Duo 2 flat on my desk and use the Surface Slim Pen 2 to jot notes in One Note is what really irks me.
Because of the camera bump the entire device wobbles when you get near the edge or to a specific corner of the display, depending on how you place the Duo 2 on your desk.
I have used a Surface Slim Pen with several Surface products, including the Surface Laptop 4 and the Surface Pro X, and it works, but the experience hasn't been near as good as the Apple Pencil on an iPad Pro.
Even with the wobbly issue I just talked about, the Slim Pen 2 and the Duo 2 is a marked improvement. I've been using the Duo 2 for all my meeting notes the last couple of days and have been impressed.
Microsoft isn't taking orders for a Duo 2 case that magnetically attaches and wirelessly charges the Slim Pen 2, but it's definitely something I want to check out when it launches. It's odd that the case enables wireless charging for the pen, but the Duo 2 itself lacks wireless charging.
Outside of Microsoft's own apps, there aren't very many apps that fully support the Duo 2's dual-screen approach. Amazon's Kindle app is a good example of an app that had adopted the two-screen approach and makes it feel as if you're really reading a book. TikTok is also optimized for the Duo 2, showing you trending items or a user's profile information on one screen while you swipe through your account's stream on the other.
But outside of the small handful of developers that Microsoft has convinced to build apps to maximize the experience, many apps struggle -- especially when they're spanned across both displays.
Slack, for example, would make sense to add Duo 2 support and adopt a similar look to the iPad app where your list of channels and conversations are on the left side, and the right side shows the content of each as you move between them.
Instead, the full-screen Slack app acts just like it does on a much slimmer, single display smartphone, forcing you to swipe back and forth to move between channels, conversations, and their contents.
I get it, the Duo and Duo 2 are very niche devices for a very small subset of users. Prioritizing developer resources to implement features that a small percentage of people will care about and use isn't a top priority -- and shouldn't be for most developer teams -- but, as is often the case with experimental and new devices like the Duo 2, without developer support it's hard for a device to gain traction.
I haven't fully tested the cameras outside of a couple of photos of random stuff on my desk and one of my dogs. Even those boring pictures look much better than I remember the original Duo's camera being, but not on the same level of Apple's iPhone, Google's Pixel or even a Galaxy phone.
I'm sure my experience and opinion of the Duo 2 will drastically change over the coming days and weeks. I'll keep updating this review in progress as that happens.
In the meantime, do you have a Duo or plan on getting the Duo 2? Let me know your thoughts about Microsoft's latest smartphone in the comments below.