Opinions Surface Duo

6 Months with the Surface Duo. What’s Changed?

It’s been half a year since I came into possession of a Microsoft Surface Duo, and a lot has changed since day 1. Admittedly, Microsoft’s first-generation foldable had a bit of a rocky start. Early reviewers gushed over the hardware, but had negative reactions to the software. Understandably so, as early firmware was bug-ridden to the point of making the device frustratingly unusable.

Nonetheless, the Surface Duo carried with it a vision for the future of mobile computing, and a promise for changing the way we think about getting work done on the go. So the question remains, 6 months on, what’s changed? And ultimately, has the Surface Duo lived up to its vision and promise? Here’s what I think.

Bugs

Starting with the most glaring flaw, are the bugs that hitched a ride on the launch of the Surface Duo. These bugs ranged from random app crashes, touch gestures not being recognized, and issues switching between front and rear camera modes among a host of other smaller glitches. The software felt unfinished and unpolished, and collectively, the little critters made for an unpleasant user experience.

Microsoft said that it would release firmware updates with improvements and fixes on a monthly basis, and the company delivered. With the exception of the December 2020 update which was delayed and released together with the January 2021 update, Microsoft has been consistent in releasing updates to the Duo.

It wasn’t until the February and March 2021 updates did the Surface Duo really find its footing. Gestures are more responsive, the camera switches modes more reliably, and there are far fewer system and app crashes. Overall, the software on the device is now significantly more stable compared to day 1. Microsoft has even started adding new features in the most recent updates like the ability to take single-screen screenshots.

Android 11

The Surface Duo was released on September 10 with Android 10 pre-installed. Two days earlier, on September 8, Android 11 was made generally available. Other Android OEMs usually take a few months for them to update their existing devices to a new version of Android. The process tends to start with updating the flagships, then (maybe) cascading down to mid and low-end models.

But unlike other Android OEMs, who have an ocean of Android devices in their lineups, the Surface Duo is Microsoft’s only Android device. Naturally, you would expect the company to release a new version of Android for it faster since all their resources are focused on just one device. Unfortunately, that hasn’t been the case. 6 months on, and Android 11 is still not available for the Surface Duo.

Google is currently beta testing Android 12 and gradually showing off its new features. Android 10 is suddenly starting to feel really dated.

Hardware

Surface Duo was highly praised for the quality of its hardware when it launched. Reviewers couldn’t get enough of how thin the device was, how the hinge was a perfect balance of being smooth yet firm, and how the glass back and front both looked elegant and felt premium. Generally speaking, these observations still hold true. There are however, some hardware-related issues that became evident over prolonged use of the device.

Some users have reported issues with their USB ports breaking and the front glass separating from the body. Personally, I haven’t experienced any of these issues. On the contrary, I’ve violently – but accidentally – dropped my Duo on multiple occasions and there isn’t a dent on it. I do consider myself lucky, though, and the issues others face are valid.

Unlike with software, the hardware cannot be fixed via a firmware update. So users that are facing hardware issues either have to learn to live with them, or send the device back to Microsoft to be replaced. Even then, replaced devices could end up with the same issues since they are all designed with the same parts and materials. Hopefully Microsoft finds a way around this with the Surface Duo 2.

Missing Features

The introduction video that Microsoft released for the Surface Duo back in the October 2019 Surface Event was very exciting. I’ve embedded it above, and clearly, it shows us some pretty cool features. I’m a particular fan of the animated flower wallpaper that blossoms as the device is opened, and the virtual Xbox controller that appears on one screen to play a game on the other.

While the animated wallpapers are nowhere to be found 6 months on, the virtual Xbox controller has recently made an appearance as part of the new Xbox Game Pass app.

Separately, an early pre-launch video of Peek Notifications leaked, where detailed notifications would be part of the Peek feature. These notifications still haven’t been enabled on the Duo, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see it be part of one of the upcoming monthly updates.

Optimized Apps

At launch, many of Microsoft’s first-party apps were updated and optimized for Surface Duo out-of-the-box. These apps are hinge-aware, and take full advantage of both screens on the Surface Duo.

Some third-party apps were also optimized for Surface Duo at launch, including Adobe Reader, Amazon Kindle, and Mylio among others. The lineup of optimized apps has remained anemic, as there haven’t been many more released post-launch. TikTok is probably the biggest name that was updated recently, but many of the major social apps like Facebook, Instagram, Reddit, Snapchat, WhatsApp, and others still behave poorly when spanned on the Surface Duo.

Mind you, they work perfectly in single-screen mode, and the Surface Duo is designed to run two apps at a time, but it does feel like potential is lost with certain apps. I expect the situation will improve long-term as foldable devices become more mainstream.

Current State

To conclude, the Surface Duo has made some great progress with its most pressing issues over the last 6 months. I’ve talked about how the device has changed the way I use a mobile device in my experience review, and I think that the device still lives up to its promise of boosting mobile productivity.

That said, it still feels like there’s a lot of untapped potential buried within. Part of that is up to Microsoft to bring to the surface (pun intended), and the other falls to developers to optimize and create new experiences for dual-screen devices. It’s a story we’ve heard before with Windows Phone, but we’re still in the early stages of this particular foldable. It will be interesting to see how it plays out.

I am looking forward to seeing what the future holds with upcoming updates to the Surface Duo and what’s to come with the Surface Duo 2.

1 comment

  1. I have had a Duo since October. I got it instead of the Fold because I do a lot of multitasking. If I watch movies, the Fold would be better. On other phones, you can take one app icon and drop it onto another to create a folder with two or more apps to save screen real estate. On the Duo, when you do that you are presented with a popup to either create a Folder or Group. Folder is the same as other devices, but, if you select Group, the two apps are placed side-by-side in an icon with a line down the middle. When you click on that Group, the two apps open, the left one on the left screen and the right one on the right screen. For instance, create a Group, name it “Conference” and put Power Point on the left and Teams on the right. When you tap that icon, both apps will open at once. Slick! Note, when you create a Group, the original icons are NOT removed from your home screen as they would be in a Folder.

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