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Andrew Hayward / Lifewire
Solid battery life
Clumsy, buggy software
Not ideal for quick actions
No 5G, Wi-Fi 6, NFC, IP rating
Fragile plastic frame
Beyond the beautiful hardware, the unique premise, there’s little to love about actually using Microsoft’s Surface Duo.
We purchased the Microsoft Surface Duo so our reviewer could put it to the test. Keep reading for our full product review.
Windows Phone has been dead for a few years now, but Microsoft’s smartphone efforts have been given new and surprising life with the Surface Duo. Named similarly to one of the tech giant’s Surface series tablets and laptops, the Android-powered Surface Duo is a totally unique, convertible two-screen phone. It can run two apps side-by-side, run one large app across both screens, or even fold back so either screen can be used individually.
The Surface Duo has gorgeous hardware, including a brilliantly-designed hinge that easily folds and securely holds any position you want it in. However, actually using the Surface Duo is a clumsy, buggy, and often sluggish experience. Along with a poor camera and dated processor, it also lacks modern elements like 5G support, wireless charging, or even NFC for mobile payments. At $1,400, the Surface Duo is positioned as a smartphone that is also a productivity powerhouse, but it fails at being a good phone, rendering the rest of that attempt moot.
Regardless of the quality of the actual experience, there’s no doubt that Microsoft has delivered some seriously impressive hardware with the Surface Duo. It’s a beauty: almost like an ultra-thin, super minimal, glass-and-metal book that you open to reveal the hybrid smartphone/tablet within.
It’s all glass on the outer surfaces, looking clean in this lone Glacier (white) edition. The hinge system is an engineering marvel, letting you open and fold the Surface Duo with ease, whether you want to hold it like a book, lay it fully open on a flat surface, fold it back into a single-handed position, or even prop it up like a tent for watching video. There’s just no slack to it, and it’s especially impressive given that the two halves are just connected at two small spots on the top and bottom.
That said, the plastic frame around the rest of the phone doesn’t feel quite as sturdy: the chunk around the USB-C port feels and sounds particularly thin, and users have reported seeing cracks there. Truth be told, as well-built as the Surface Duo feels, it’s terrifying to consider how much damage one bad drop could do to this device—and probably scarier to contemplate the repair bill.
Microsoft includes a rubberized, adhesive bumper to help with protection and gripping the phone in everyday use, although it adds a little bulk to what’s already a very large phone. I did most of my testing without the bumper and probably wouldn’t use it if the Surface Duo were my everyday phone (I don’t typically use cases), but it can definitely be beneficial.
Folded open, you get a dual-screened phone that is more than seven inches wide, with quite a bit of bezel above and below those displays. It creates a combined 8.1-inch surface with a gap in the middle, with each individual screen measuring at 5.7 inches diagonally. There’s just one camera on the Surface Duo, above the right screen, so you’ll use it for external shooting and selfies alike, depending on phone configuration. The fingerprint sensor on the right side of the frame is reasonably placed so that you can unlock the screens while unfolding the phone.
Obviously, it’s a large handset when unfolded—but it’s also a big device when folded up, whether in your pocket or in your hand. Today’s biggest smartphones don’t get much wider than 3 inches, while the 5.72-inch Surface Duo strikes a much different approach. Even as someone who loves large phones, the Surface Duo is awkward to hold one-handed, and can be a tricky fit for pockets. It’s ultra-thin and svelte, but it’s the width that you’ll really feel.
The base Surface Duo comes with a solid 128GB of internal storage, or you can double that tally for $100 more. There’s no option to slot in a microSD card for additional storage, unlike many other Android-powered phones. Also, there’s no IP certification for water and dust resistance, and Microsoft makes no promises on waterproofing—so be careful. Even worse, there’s also no NFC chip for mobile payments, which is a standard feature of most non-budget phones.
Luckily, both of the Surface Duo’s screens look pretty good. The dimensions are different from your usual 18:9 or 16:9 phone screen, however: each 5.6-inch AMOLED panel is wider at a 4:3 aspect ratio, and they combine to create an 8.1-inch screen with the gap in the middle at a 3:2 aspect ratio. They’re solidly crisp at 1800x1350 each, or 2700x1800 combined, although the 401 pixels per inch (ppi) makes it slightly less sharp than an iPhone 12, for example (460 ppi). These are just 60Hz screens, too: they don’t have the smoother 90Hz or 120Hz refresh rate seen on nearly all of this year’s Android flagships.
Two screens are already more than most smartphones, but given the fold-open design, the lack of a dedicated external screen is really felt here. Foldable rivals such as the Samsung Galaxy Z Fold2 and Galaxy Z Flip, as well as the Motorola Razr reboot, have a smaller external screen for checking the time, notifications, and other rapid needs.
The lack of such a screen on the Surface Duo makes it feel like a device that can’t handle quick-access needs, which is a key role of any smartphone. You can keep the device flipped open in the one-handed position at all times, but there’s no always-on screen option or even tap-to-wake, plus then you have two large screens that are consistently left exposed to the elements. In other words, there’s no good solution.
The Surface Duo can be slow to adapt to changes in orientation and switching from one screen to the next, and buggy and unresponsive at times.
The Surface Duo has some extra tutorial elements for getting used to its unique gestures and screen modes, but otherwise, the setup process is essentially identical to other current Android phones. You’ll power it on by holding the small button on the right frame and then follow the on-screen prompts, which include connecting to a network, signing into Google and Microsoft accounts, reading and accepting the terms and conditions, and choosing whether or not to restore from backup or copy data from another device.
The Surface Duo ships with Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 855 chip, which is the processor seen in 2019’s biggest Android phones. It’s still a capable processor, considered top-of-the-line only a year ago, but it’s baffling to think that a $1,400 phone released in late 2020 isn’t using the newer and faster Snapdragon 865 or 865+ chip instead.
In benchmark testing, the Surface Duo puts up performance numbers comparable with other (2019) phones using the same chip. The PCMark Work 2.0 performance score of 9,619 is in the same ballpark as comparable phones. In GFXBench, the scores of 36 frames per second (fps) on the Car Chase demo and 60fps on the T-Rex demo are on point, as well, and 3D games like Call of Duty Mobile and Genshin Impact run well here.
But last year’s top Android chip with 6GB RAM isn’t enough to smoothly handle two screens and the interactions between them. The Surface Duo can be slow to adapt to changes in orientation and switching from one screen to the next, and buggy and unresponsive at times. I’d point towards unoptimized software on Microsoft’s part, but ultimately it makes the everyday experience of using the Surface Duo feel sluggish and frustrating. More RAM certainly would have helped, along with a newer processor.
Microsoft’s hardware is beautiful, but the clunky software was the biggest reason why I couldn’t wait to get back to a standard smartphone.
I can’t think of another $1,000+ smartphone releasing in late 2020 that lacks 5G support built-in. The Surface Duo stands alone in that inglorious respect, which means you’re limited to 4G LTE connectivity on Verizon, AT&T, or T-Mobile. Testing on Verizon’s LTE network just north of Chicago, I saw typical results, including download speeds in the range of 30-60Mbps. That’s fine, but Verizon’s 5G Nationwide service routinely delivers 2-3x those speeds, while its 5G Ultra Wideband network provides incredible speeds upwards of 3Gbps in limited coverage areas.
Given the Surface Duo’s emphasis on productivity, the lack of support for faster 5G speeds is an enormous omission. Also, unlike many of today’s flagship phones, the Surface Duo does not support the latest Wi-Fi 6 standard, topping out at Wi-Fi 5 instead. It just doesn’t make sense.
With such a thin frame and an included bumper that covers up nearly all of it, where is the speaker? It’s a single, very slim cutout above the left screen—and unsurprisingly, a small mono speaker isn’t great for media playback. It’s solidly loud and fine for watching quick videos or for speakerphone, but sounds confined when playing music from the device. It’s nowhere near the top of my list of critical Surface Duo issues but still underwhelms.
You might expect a costly flagship phone to have an incredible camera setup, but the Surface Duo does not. There’s a single 11-megapixel camera (f/2.0 aperture) that is used for all photography needs based on how your device is configured. You can take selfies while the phone is fully open or when using the right screen in one-handed mode, or switch to use it as a main camera when looking at the left screen in one-handed mode.
In broad daylight or otherwise strong lighting, you can take decent shots with modest detail, although they’re not as vibrant as seen on recent iPhones and premium Samsung and Google phones. In lower light, your chances of getting a good result are slim-to-none. The Surface Duo typically delivered blurry, soft, and muddled results, and there’s no night mode to try and offer decently-visible low-light results. It’s like a budget phone camera, and not even a good budget phone: the $349 Google Pixel 4a takes better photos than this, top to bottom.
Here’s a bright spot, thankfully. The Surface Duo has a 3,577mAh combined battery capacity between the two included cells, and while that is relatively modest compared to many top Android flagships that hit 4,000mAh or higher, it feels like plenty here. I finished most days with 40 percent or more left in the tank, and days with heavier productivity needs shouldn’t be an issue.
That said, I’ll be honest: I did not feel compelled to open up the Surface Duo as often as I would check a traditional smartphone, which meant less time with the screen powering on. Some might see that as a positive, which I understand, but for me, it was more a matter of inconvenience given the aforementioned impact on quick-access usability. Note that there is no wireless charging option, just 18W wired charging using the provided USB-C wall adapter.
At $1,400, the Surface Duo is positioned as a smartphone that is also a productivity powerhouse, but it fails at being a good phone, rendering the rest of that attempt moot.
The Surface Duo ships with Android 10 and the Microsoft Launcher skin on top, but Microsoft had to do some pretty major additional work on top of Android to make this convertible two-screen device work as designed. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work as expected, which leads to frequent frustration and confusion.
Android is configured here to rotate and swap the screen images as needed when you fold, unfold, and rotate the device, but it will sometimes lag for several seconds or not rotate at all. Getting around the interface can be very sluggish at times, with taps not being recognized either immediately or at all. Scrolling through apps like Twitter and Feedly was also immensely annoying, as the phone would ignore some of my swipes with regularity.
Microsoft’s Edge browser wouldn’t open links from other apps for about half of my testing cycle until the app was updated via the Play Store. Chrome, meanwhile, had a big flickering freak out on the Surface Duo at one point. Swiping up to close apps often does not actually close the app, and the handy Android multitasking gesture for quickly swapping between apps doesn’t work here. On top of that, the screen-switching function needed to use the single camera in different directions often does not work as indicated, making it difficult to take a quick snap in the moment.
It’s a mess. Amazingly, Microsoft already rolled out significant updates for the Surface Duo before I received the device and began testing, and they’ve made notable fixes since the launch. Still, it’s nowhere near as smooth, responsive, and reliable as any modern smartphone should be, let alone one that costs this much. Microsoft’s hardware is beautiful, but the clunky software was the biggest reason why I couldn’t wait to get back to a standard smartphone.
It’s a two-in-one device that isn’t greater than the sum of its parts. I understand the excitement over one device that’s claimed to replace a phone and tablet or laptop, but the reality of using the Surface Duo doesn’t match up to those promises. For this money, you could buy an iPhone 12 and new iPad Air, both of which are significantly more powerful than the Surface Duo, and get polished, optimized—and yes, separate—phone and tablet experiences. You could do the same on Android, too, such as with the Samsung Galaxy S20 FE 5G and Galaxy Tab S7.
There also isn’t that much dedicated app support for the Surface Duo’s dual-screen form factor. It’ll run anything made for modern Android phones, but if I open up Slack, the Play Store, or Twitter, for example, and spread it across both screens, then it just runs like it’s on a single large screen—ignoring the gap in the middle.
Amazon’s Kindle app has been optimized for book-like reading across both screens, but Comixology doesn’t let me read side-by-side pages on both screens; I can hold the unfolded phone sideways to get a big page, but then I’m missing whatever dialogue and details are where the gap is located. That approach works OK for browsing the web and Twitter, since you can scroll to see what is obscured, but not for fixed images like comic book pages. Beyond Microsoft’s own apps, there are only a handful of noteworthy apps that have been updated for the Surface Duo’s unique form factor.
You can optionally use a Surface Pen stylus to jot down notes or scribble on the screen in OneNote or other supported apps, much like on one of the Surface tablets or laptops. It feels precise and responsive, and some people will surely appreciate the ability to treat the Surface Duo like a digital journal, plus OneNote thankfully offers optimized dual-screen support.
Even as someone who loves large phones, the Surface Duo is awkward to hold one-handed, and can be a tricky fit for pockets.
However, the device doesn’t come with its own pen or offer a slot to stick it in, unlike Samsung’s Galaxy Note series. It also doesn’t feel like it was designed with the pen in mind, as it doesn’t have the Note-like capability to draw on the black lock screen, for example, or to otherwise use the stylus in ways that your finger can’t handle. Still, the Surface Pen is available if you want to spend upwards of $100 more for one.
You expect to pay more as an early adopter of any gadget, and Samsung’s Galaxy Fold models have set the ceiling at $2,000 for a foldable, multi-screen smartphone. At $1,400, the Surface Duo is more expensive than most of today’s flagship phones, which typically fall into the $700-$1,000 range, but packs in a second screen and an innovative new design.
If the Surface Duo was an excellent smartphone or even a really good one with functional, game-changing ideas, I could see it being a reasonable price for some users. But it’s neither of those things: it’s an awkward, clumsy device that fails at being a good smartphone and doesn’t deliver on the promise of a multi-screen portable hybrid. Bundle in a dated processor, terrible camera, buggy software, and the lack of expected flagship features such as 5G, Wi-Fi 6, and wireless charging, and paying anywhere near that price is simply unfathomable.
Reliable performance would help a lot, as would a wider selection of compatible two-screen apps, but that’s only part of the issue here. The Surface Duo simply doesn’t work well as an everyday smartphone, nor does the two-screen approach make this a more capable device for on-the-go productivity than any other large-screened flagship phone on the market. Add in a poor camera and missing modern features like 5G and NFC, and the Surface Duo lands as one massive misfire for Microsoft. It’s a real shame.
With a $1,299 starting price and a productivity-centric focus, the Samsung Galaxy Note20 Ultra 5G is a comparable alternative to the Surface Duo, even if the design is significantly different. It’s also much better than the Surface Duo in nearly every possible way. Most notably, it delivers super-smooth performance thanks to the new Snapdragon 865+ chip and 12GB RAM, speedy 5G support, a dazzling screen that offers either crisper QHD+ resolution or a smoother 120Hz refresh rate, and one of the best smartphone camera setups on the market today.
It’s also a better productivity device. On top of all of those elements above, it’s easier to type with the on-screen keyboard of the Note20 Ultra than the Surface Duo’s keyboard, given the awkward form factor, and the pop-out S Pen stylus is smoothly baked into the interface with several apps available. The Galaxy Note20 Ultra 5G will still be too large for some users, yet it’s still much less cumbersome in usage than the Surface Duo in any configuration.
Don’t beta test this super-pricey experiment.
The Surface Duo is an incredibly frustrating device, through and through. Microsoft has developed a sleek and attractive form factor, but sadly saddled it with sluggish and buggy software and has not delivered a cohesive, smooth-running experience that can remotely justify either the feature and performance trade-offs or the price tag.
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