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Surface Duo review: Why I'm still confused about Microsoft's dual-screen device

I've been using Microsoft's Surface Duo for the last two weeks as a phone and mobile productivity tablet. Here's my 'non-reviewer's review' of the company's newest $1,400+ Surface.

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When I received a Microsoft Surface Duo dual-screen Android mobile device two weeks ago from Microsoft for review, I was curious how and if it could fit into my daily workflow. I also was curious whether it could replace my current Android phone and/or Kindle. Most of all, I wanted to know if using this device regularly would answer my biggest question: Why does it exist? What does it offer that a single screen mobile phone or tablet doesn't.

Two weeks later, I have to say that I'm not sure that the Duo scratches any itch for me. It's an interesting concept, but it definitely feels like a Generation 1 solution that's in search of a problem more than a solution to a problem I have with mobile devices.

This is one of my usual "non-reviewer" reviews. I am not attempting to provide readers with speeds, feeds or comparisons with other new phones or tablets. I'm hoping to address what "normal" users might want to know -- along with a number of reader-supplied questions -- about this new device.

I'm currently a happy Surface Laptop 3 and Pixel 3XL phone user. I've had a chance in the past to test-drive a few Surface devices (some provided by Microsoft and some of which I purchased myself). I've not been a big fan of the majority of Surface PCs. I did initially have high hopes for the Surface Go, as I'm perpetually in search of a thin, light and very portable computing device with good battery life. Sadly, the Surface Go fell short for me on multiple of those counts and wasn't lappable or usable for real work because the detachable keyboard was too cramped and bouncy.

Nevertheless, I persisted. I was interested in the Duo because it purported to offer great mobility and productivity gains. So how did it fare in my two weeks of testing? Here's my rundown.

What pleasantly surprised me: The Duo hardware is premium and drool-worthy. The 360-degree hinge feels really solid. Unlike most Surface devices I've tried, the Duo feels properly balanced and weighted. It's not lappable (you knew I had to go there), but the hinge is really nice and tight, making using this in tent mode, book mode and "compose" mode (like a tiny laptop, with the SwiftKey keyboard on the second screen) all very nice experiences. (Speaking of the SwiftKey keyboard, I often found it didn't automatically dismiss when I was done with it, but there's a down arrow in the left corner navigation bar below the keys that gets rid of it.)

Microsoft did not include a Surface pen with our review units. Existing Surface pens work with the Duo (and can sort of stick to the exterior of the device because of the magnets in it, but not by design). I didn't try using a pen with this device because I don't find using a pen useful; I don't sketch or draw on my PCs or phones and I type rather than write. If you're curious about the pen experience, you'll need to read another review. (Ditto if you're curious about gaming on the Duo; didn't try it, as I am not a gamer, casual or otherwise.)

See also: Surface Duo: Made for an office culture that no longer exists  | Where's the keyboard case? | Forget the Microsoft Duo: LG's Dual Screen devices offer more for hundreds less

Other things that made me happy: The Duo's battery life is soooo much better than it is on other Surface devices. It actually lives up to Microsoft's "all day" promises (also unlike the case with other Surface devices) and holds a charge for days. While battery life is very dependent on the types of apps being used and whether it's on WiFi, cell or a mix, I found myself getting more than a full day of battery consistently with intermittent use. I'm guessing the Duo's good battery life is because this is an Android, not a Windows device. But maybe it also has to do with the way Microsoft designed the device with two batteries, one on each side.... (?)

Things that didn't make me (too) sad: The Duo works just fine as a phone. It's a big and somewhat unwieldy phone, weighing in at half a pound (not including the bumpers). Because of its roughly 4-inch horizontal width in portrait mode,the Duo is easier to use as  a phone with  wireless earbuds. Call quality using Google Fi in and near my New York City apartment was solid.

Microsoft seemingly decided keeping the Duo super-thin was more important than having a premium camera on this device. The Duo's single 11 MP camera quality is OK. It's not amazing, but after applying a system update which Microsoft pushed out late last week, I have to say picture quality was passable and better than I had feared. I still prefer most of the shots I took with my Google Pixel 3XL to the Duo, but the Duo didn't take terrible, photos. Low-light photos with the Duo also were somewhat washed out. 

Two unedited (just cropped) photos for comparison:

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Surface Duo photo

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Google Pixel 3XL photo

For me, the biggest problem with Duo camera is the way it's built to work. Clicking on the camera icon opens it in selfie mode, as there's only a single, front-facing camera. If you open the camera app on the left screen and then fold the screen over so the camera is facing outwards, the camera works like it does with a regular smartphone. (Double clicking the fingerprint sensor also results in the camera app opening properly). This whole process is cumbersome and makes taking photos a slow and onerous process. 

What perplexed me: The gestures! Even though I've been an Android user for several years, I didn't know before using this device that Android gestures were a thing. As someone who avoids Windows gestures and most keyboard shortcuts, Microsoft's decision to ship the Duo with Android gestures turned on by default made for a frustrating first few days. Every time I opened the device, I had to stop and wonder: Am I supposed to swipe up or down? Towards the hinge or away? These "handles" on apps are hard to grab and flinging them doesn't always yield the same results. (And I'm not alone; a 2019 survey showed many Android users still prefer and use buttons over gestures.)

To turn off gestures on the Duo and use buttons instead, go to Settings > System > Gestures > System Navigation and chose 3-button navigation. The change lets you seethe trusty back and home commands and switch apps using buttons. This made my Duo usage a whole lot less frustrating.

What further perplexed me: Microsoft's own navigational system on top of Android's native gestures. I knew from seeing videos and reading about the Duo, that users could drag an app to the center of the Duo, hovering just above the hinge, and let it go so that it "span" both screens. But I didn't realize that some apps had to be spanned in order for them to work the way we've seen in Microsoft demos. To get a message, a photo or another item to open and appear by itself on the right hand screen with apps designed to handle this (Microsoft Outlook and OneDrive for example), users first have to span the entire app. When using the new Chromium-based Edge, users have to select a link, right click on it and  select "open in new window" to get it to open on the opposite screen. To me, these behaviors aren't intuitive, even after doing them multiple times over the past couple weeks.

Microsoft is including some Tips videos preloaded on the Duo. It also is posting Duo support pages on its site with more navigational and other kinds of Duo-related information. These are helpful starting points for figuring out how to use the device. I hate to say this, but the Duo experience often remined me of Windows 8: It assumes users can easily figure out how to do basic things and errs on the side of providing too little information. This assumption helped to make Windows 8 one of Microsoft's least-loved operating system releases. What's wrong with including a cheat sheet in the box to give users an easily consultable reference point? 

 

What about the built-in software/services? The Duo is true Android (running Android 10 when I received it), with the Google Play Store, plus a bunch of pre-installed Google apps (Search, Assistant, Calendar, Drive, Photos, Maps, YouTube, Gmail, and more). It also comes loaded with a bunch of Microsoft apps, including Office, Teams, Authenticator, Bing Search, Intune, LinkedIn and Your Phone (some of which require subscriptions in order to use all the features). Microsoft has customized some its Office/Microsoft 365 apps for the Duo, meaning they can handle Duo-specific postures and interactions, like "spanning."   

Some have asked me if they can uninstall the preloaded Google apps and services on the Duo so it could be a "true" Microsoft phone. The answer is no. You can disable some of the preinstalled apps, but not uninstall them. The same is true of the Microsoft apps that come preinstalled.

The Launcher/Feed that's part of the Duo experience is the same one that's now available to other Android users and is easy to use and handy, in that it puts your meetings, documents, calendar and other oft-used apps front and center.

The "Link to PC"/Your Phone experience, via which Duo users can see and interact with photos, messages and apps on their mobile devices from their Windows 10 screens is not as seamless and fully-featured as Microsoft demos and videos might have you believe. The recently demonstrated ability to interact with two Duo apps that are streaming side-by-side isn't there yet and there's no dedicated Apps section in the Your Phone menu for the Duo. (The new Your Phone Apps experience also is not working as demonstrated on Samsung's Galaxy phones, either, as my podcasting partner Paul Thurrott blogged recently.) 

Can the Duo replace my current Android phone (Google Pixel 3XL)? It technically could, but I definitely found myself reaching repeatedly for my single screen Pixel when I was in a hurry to get things done. I didn't have to try to remember how to open an app or wonder whether it would open on the right screen or the left or whether that mattered. A web page on my Pixel included just about as much information as a page open on one of the screens on the Duo, albeit with a lot more density and less spaciousness. And it's no contest when it comes to the camera: The two-year-old Pixel 3XL camera takes better pictures and is much easier to use.

Can the Duo replace my Kindle Paperwhite e-reader? Definitely. Amazon has optimized the reading experience for the Duo so that using it in book mode simulates a physical book, with two pages side-by-side along with a page-turning animation. However, I will note that I'm not a speed reader, so having two pages open, side, by side, when reading doesn't really do much for me. I've moved on in terms of the way I read books, thanks to reading almost exclusively on the Kindle, and am very comfortable seeing a page at a time and clicking to advance the page. 

Can the Duo replace my Surface Laptop 3? No. Because I write a lot, I need a real (non-glass) keyboard. I don't want to have to carry a bunch of separate peripherals with me to make the Duo work as well as a PC.

The biggest question: Does the Duo make me more productive than a regular mobile phone because it has two separate screens side-by-side, as Microsoft contends? My answer after two weeks is no. The non-intuitive gestures and constant guessing how apps will open and work slowed me down. I also couldn't come up with a lot of reasons to create or use Microsoft's touted "App Groups," which are a way to automatically load two different apps side-by-side.

I also realized after these past two weeks that I'm really not much of a multitasker. I do sometimes have two windows open simultaneously on my PC. But more often that not, I am just switching from app to app; not using them at the same time. On my phone, I have gotten used to how nested app experiences work. I don't open multiple browser tabs on my phone. I don't use two side-by-side monitors in my PC setup, which may be a reason I don't feel a need for two separate screens on a mobile device.

Microsoft Chief Product Officer Panos Panay said "The ability to get things done shouldn't be limited to just when you were sitting in front of a traditional PC." For me, it isn't. But there are still certain tasks that are easiest on a dedicated PC/tablet and others that I'm fine with doing on a single-screen phone. The first-generation Surface Duo has not changed my mind that two optimized devices are better than a single hybrid one.

The Surface Duo is available for purchase in the U.S. as of today, September 10, for a starting price of $1,400 (without a pen or earbuds).