Reviews Surface Duo

Surface Duo 2 review: Turbocharged, but held back

Microsoft’s original Surface Duo launched to polarizing opinions. It was an engineering masterpiece, receiving universal praise for its thinness, hinge, and just how premium it felt in the hand. But it was also criticized for dated internals and unstable software, especially given the $1,499 asking price.

The new Surface Duo 2 feels like the result of Microsoft listening to public feedback, and aggressively course-correcting. Its internals now consist of the latest Snapdragon processor, the newest version of Android (at the time of Duo 2’s launch), and previously missing features such as 5G, NFC, and a high-end multi-camera system.

In my experience review of the original Surface Duo, I attempted to look past the spec sheet, and focus on what the device was actually like to use on a day-to-day basis. In short, it was a game-changer – albeit one that felt experimental as is usually the case with radically new first-gen technology.

I intentionally delayed this review to get some proper hands-on time with the Duo 2 as my primary device. Now, after a month and a half of use, I feel like I have a good idea of how it compares to its predecessor, and that’s what I want to focus on in this review.

Hardware – Spectacularly refined inside and out

For the most part, the Surface Duo 2 is a true refinement of the original design. The device is slightly thicker than the original, which isn’t a bad thing given that it was the extreme thinness of the original that caused the frame around its USB port to break for many owners, including myself.

The exterior glass – now made of Gorilla Glass Victus – is rounded as it melts into the frame, making Duo 2 more comfortable to hold. The seamless merging of materials means that unlike on the original Duo, where the glass was flat, there is no gap for dirt and debris to find their way into.

Before unfolding the Duo 2, let’s talk about the elephant in the room; the camera bump. The original Duo only had a single selfie camera located on the inside above the display. This meant having to fold the device backwards when taking forward-facing pictures and having to deal with finicky camera software to switch modes in the process. Now, with the addition of dedicated rear-facing cameras at the back, housed in a protruding camera bump, Microsoft is no longer restricted by the thinness of the device to include a proper camera system.

A side effect of the camera bump is that Duo 2 can no longer fully fold backwards. The camera housing is smartly angled and magnetized to hold the folded display securely, and the resulting wedge shape, while unsightly, does make the device easier to hold one-handed. It’s function over form.

“You want a good camera? Here’s a good camera. But with a mandatory massive camera bump that ruins the aesthetic of the device, which now also doesn’t fold all the way back and leaves it looking like a wedge of cheese. Happy?” – Microsoft, probably.

The camera bump has affected the way I handle the device. When not on me, I set Duo 2 down with the cameras facing up, because even though the camera bump is beveled, I don’t want to risk scratching the camera glass. This has led to other negative consequences I’ll get into later.

Now, unfolding Duo 2, and in keeping with the theme of the exterior, the internal display glass is also rounded, curving into the hinge, thus bringing the two screens closer together. The displays are also larger, with smaller bezels surrounding them.

Powered on, the displays run at a fixed 90Hz refresh rate. This makes everything from UI animations, scrolling, pen input, high fps video, gaming, and pretty much everything you see on the screen look and feel incredibly smooth.

The curved displays also allow for a nifty new Glance Bar feature. Acting as an external display when the device is closed, the Glance Bar provides a quick look at the time, unread texts, missed calls, and Teams notifications, as well as indicate charge levels and incoming calls. It’s a feature I’ve been using more often than I thought.

As convenient as it is, the Glance Bar does leave me wanting. There is currently no way to customize which notifications are shown and from which apps. So if you want it to display WhatsApp notifications for example, no can do.

It’s also not as smart as it should be. For example, when you plug the device in to charge, the charge indicator displays for a few seconds and then disappears, great. But say after a while, you want to check the charge level. You press the power button, but only the time and notifications show. Not the battery indicator. So you have to open the device to check the charge level, defeating the purpose of the Glance Bar indicator.

Oh, and the negative consequences I mentioned earlier of placing the device down with the camera facing up. The Glance Bar doesn’t use the accelerometer to tell which way is up and down, so everything appears upside-down in my case. Despite this, the Glance Bar is mirrored on both the top and bottom displays. This mirroring causes each display to reflect onto the other, which can make reading the time difficult.

Other new hardware features include the addition of stereo speakers. A truly wonderful upgrade over the single speaker in the original Duo. It gets louder while also sounding better. In my previous review of the original Duo, I mentioned that there is a “correct” display to watch videos on, as sound is only emitted from one side of the device. That is thankfully no longer the case with the Duo 2.

When it comes to accessories, the Duo 2 supports all of the latest Surface Pens, including the recently announced Surface Slim Pen 2. Unfortunately, the haptic feedback feature of the Slim Pen 2 is not supported on Duo 2, but as mentioned previously, the writing experience has improved thanks to the higher refresh rate screen.

Pen functionality in software is severely lacking though, especially compared to all the features Samsung has built for the S Pen on Galaxy devices. You can write, you can use the eraser to erase, and some apps like Outlook support the pen-hover feature to display quick actions. Microsoft has only recently added the ability to launch OneNote by pressing the eraser button, but the app it launches can’t be customized yet. Pressing and holding the eraser button doesn’t launch the Assistant. The right-click button does nothing (outside of Outlook to highlight text), and there are no unique pen gestures built into the Microsoft Launcher that can be utilized for shortcuts.

The good news is that Microsoft at least addressed pen storage this time around. The new Pen Charging Case allows for a Surface Slim Pen to magnetically attach and wirelessly charge. Although I haven’t purchased this accessory myself, it does seem like a good way to carry the pen if you plan on using it regularly.

Camera – Better, but not up to $1,500 standards

The new rear-facing camera system on the Surface Duo 2 consists of a triple-lens setup. There’s a 16MP f/2.2 ultrawide, a 12MP f/1.7 wide camera with optical image stabilization (OIS), and a 12MP telephoto camera, also with OIS. The front facing camera is a 12MP f/2.0 unit.

The experience of taking pictures on the Duo 2 has improved significantly compared to its predecessor. Not only is dealing with an unreliable automated mode-switching system a thing of the past, the Duo 2’s use of both displays to capture and instantly preview images is a photographers dream scenario.

I took both devices out for a countryside trip to the coastal city of Sur, Oman. The city is mostly known for its shipbuilding history, where traditional dhows are built to this day. It is also host to some of the Sultanate’s famous landmarks; the Al-Ayjah Lighthouse and the country’s first suspension bridge to name a few. Needless to say, I had plenty of photo opportunities to test the cameras on.

Take a look at some of the sample shots below. Use the sliders to see how the Duo 2 (right) compares to the same shot taken on the original Duo (left). All of the images are untouched, with no editing or cropping applied.

The level of detail is significantly improved when comparing the Duo 1 (left) vs the Duo 2 (right).

Duo 2 does a better job in challenging lighting conditions such as this one. HDR is enabled on both devices.

Color accuracy is also better and more true to life on the Duo 2 compared to the original Duo.

The additional cameras and focal lengths available on Duo 2 gave me more framing options without having to rely on digital zoom and the reduction in image quality that comes with it.

Camera quality compared to the original Duo is noticeably better, especially with the addition of the ultrawide and telephoto cameras. Images appear sharp with plenty of detail, that is, until you zoom in. I’ve found that the best approach here is to make sure you frame and get as close to your subjects as possible, as zooming in after-the-fact will leave you with a grainy mess of an image.

Image quality deteriorates quickly in low-light conditions. The dedicated Night Mode helps in brightening up an image, but with the lack of detail captured, it only tends to make the noise more prominent.

I’ll keep it simple. The camera is acceptable and definitely an improvement over the original Duo, but for $1,500, image quality should be better than it is. Especially in low-light.

Software – Enables you to be just as productive, but could use some polish

The original Surface Duo was a productivity beast, and the same is true for the Duo 2. Having two screens at your disposal will leave you wondering how you ever made do with only one before. It’s a convenience that once you get used to is hard to let go of.

“Two screens… a convenience that once you get used to is hard to let go of.”

Everyday tasks are made easier with two screens. Like signing into my Amazon account on one screen, with Authenticator open on the other. Or taking down action points in To-Do without breaking away from a Teams call. Or ordering food online when a YouTube ad makes me hungry. Or having links in an article I’m reading open on the second screen to read later. The list goes on and on. Having two screens fundamentally changed the way I go about multitasking on Duo.

With the launch of Duo 2, the benefits of two screens expands beyond productivity. Microsoft partnered with Gameloft to enhance some of the latter’s games for Duo. Asphalt 9 Legends, Modern Combat 5, and Dungeon Hunter 5 were updated to show useful information like a live map of the track in Asphalt to prepare for corners and rip through shortcuts.

That said, the list of dual-screen optimized apps is still rather anemic one year later. Many of Microsoft’s own apps don’t support spanning yet. Even ones that would be perfect for Duo, like LinkedIn, Remote Desktop, and the PowerBI app.

Unlike the original Duo, which as of the time of writing is still stuck on 2019’s Android 10, Duo 2 runs Android 11. UI elements in Android 11 are larger, which is especially evident in the notification drop down, but also rounder and more approachable in general.

Performance-wise, the Surface Duo 2 is noticeably faster than its predecessor. Everything from launching apps, loading webpages, and even rebooting is faster on Duo 2. Geekbench reports similar performance improvements, which is to be expected given the faster Snapdragon 888 in the Duo 2 compared to the older Snapdragon 855 in the original. Overall, it culminates in a software experience that is smooth with almost no lag or hiccups whatsoever.

Almost…

Despite the improvements made, the software can feel unpolished. That’s still better than the unfinished feel that the original Duo suffered from at launch, but bugs still rear their ugly heads every now and then. Microsoft’s Launcher would freeze occasionally, forcing me to reboot. The camera would sometimes refuse to close, again forcing me to reboot.

Touch response is still an issue on Duo 2. Far less so than it was on the original, but annoying nonetheless. This is an area Microsoft really needs to work on. Gestures and taps feel more responsive on my Pixel 2 from 2017 than it does at times on my Duo 2, and the Pixel doesn’t have today’s flagship processor or a 90Hz display. The December 2021 firmware update for the Duo 2 claims to have improvements for touch responsiveness included, but I’ve noticed missed taps and undetected back gestures after the update too.

The mere existence of the Duo 2 tells me that Microsoft cares about the product. It just needs to do a better job showing it.

The software remains the lowlight of the Duo’s story. Overall, it’s better, but it still feels like there’s a lack of commitment from Microsoft to fully support both the original Duo and the Duo 2. The aforementioned first-party apps that haven’t been updated being one of them, but also a general lack of communication and community engagement from the Duo teams at Microsoft that aren’t dev-related. Then there’s the absurd fact that the Your Phone app still doesn’t support the Duo 2 the same way it supports Samsung devices, with features like launching mobile apps on Windows missing for those with a Duo. It’s mind-boggling that Samsung devices work better with Windows than Microsoft’s own hardware.

At least the included Feedback app is a step in the right direction, but even then, it’s a one-way street. Unlike the Feedback Hub on Windows, you can’t see or engage with feedback submitted by other Duo users. The app itself doesn’t even have an icon. You can only access it by digging deep into Settings, and only on the Duo 2. Duo 1 owners, you’re out of luck.

The mere existence of the Duo 2 tells me that Microsoft cares about the product. It just needs to do a better job showing it.

Surface Duo 2 – A few steps closer to the perfect dual-screen foldable

The Duo 2 attempts to right a lot of the original’s wrongs. It is “better” everywhere you look, making it worth the upgrade from the original Duo. Hardware design, specs, software, cameras, just better. But for a device that costs $1,500 (going all the way up to $1,800), it needs to be more than just better. It needs to be close to perfect. The same way the iPhone 13 and the Pixel 6 are close to perfect. With the basics like touch response nailed down, and a worthy camera system.

So, just over a month and a half with the Surface Duo 2. How do I feel? No regrets, no buyer’s remorse. It’s just an improved Surface Duo – which I loved for its productivity prowess. Having 5G, NFC, and a capable day-time camera this time around is nice, but there’s still room for improvement.

Microsoft has been doing an incredible job with the Windows Insider and Office Insider programs. Fostering a passionate community of users who happily take the time to test and provide feedback to make the products they rely on better for everyone. I’d love to see that same level of engagement and commitment extended to Surface Duo users as well.

Surface Duo 2 is turbocharged, but held back. Hopefully Microsoft unleashes the beast with the next iteration. They do say third time’s a charm.

8 comments

  1. It seems like a step in the right direction but I just can help but wonder what it would be like if they had a screen like the new Oppo Find N. It seems like the hinge Microsoft uses might work just as well as Oppo’s and would get rid of the annoying issue of having a gap between the screens. Maybe the 3rd gen might have this.

    1. I think single foldable screens are the future, but not until they can figure out solutions for the crease, and long-term durability, as well the plastic-feel of foldable screens that put people off. That future might not be very far away.

  2. I. have had my Duo 2 since the first week in November. The Duo is a different class of device: it is a dual-screen device. The Fold, Flip and Razor are folding single screen devices. If you want to do gaming and watch videos, get the Fold. However, as this reviewer states, if you want multitasking productivity, the Duo 2 is for you. I agree that, once you get used to the advantages of dual screens, you will never want to go back. I have a number of apps that were not built for dual screens but still function using the full dual screen functionality. The one most often cited by reviewers is Amazon Kindle, which allows you to have two pages open at once, reducing the page turning by 50%. Another is My Stocks Portfolio. I have the MSP widget on one of the scroll screen. With the widget on the right screen, I can tap on a stock and have the detailed information open on the left screen, leaving the live full-screen widget untouched on the right screen. For us with really big thumbs, the Duo 2 is a texters dream. Just rotate the Duo 2 into landscape. The SwiftKey keyboard occupies the bottom screen and the text window the top. Huge keys that even my big thumbs cannot accidentally hit two keys at once. But I have to admit, ever since I discovered the microphone button on the SwiftKey, I have not typed nearly as many texts as I used to. My voice recognition is about 98% and getting better. On the Surface Pen. I got a package deal on my Duo 1 with the original Surface Pen. The handwriting recognition i Android is pretty good so I used the Pen to takes meeting notes in One Note or Word. One of the selling points in the Duo 2 is the ability to magnetically attach the Pen to the Duo 2. I thought that was only for the Pen 2, but the Pen 1 does it too. The only thing lacking is the ability to drain the Duo 2 battery to charge a Pen 2. Heck, the Pen 1 battery lasts for days! I agree, since the Duo 2 does not fold the full 360, it makes it easier to hold when on the phone. No longer do your fingers wrap around and hit the mute key. I compared the camera on the Duo 2 against my Daughter’s S21 and truly could not tell the difference. In fact, in some cases, I though the Duo2 was better. The fact that the camera uses both screens allows you to adjust the photo before saving. You can mess with contrast, white balance, etc. until it is just right. There are a lot of settings in the camera itself; so you can adjust before you shoot. But, frequently, you don’t have time to adjust, just soot. Then, the dual screen editing becomes a real asset.

      1. About a month ago, my Duo 2 developed a case of the screen flickers, especially on the left screen. It was persistent. Even rebooting did not fix it. I contact MS via email and received a prompt reply, even though it was during “the holidays”. I thought I might have gotten some dirt in the hinges, which have a position sensor inside. (The connection between the two screens is wired though the hinges.) So, I turned off Duo 2, washed the hinges with alcohol and blew them out with canned air. That seemed to reduce the flickers, but not entirely. I was dreading sending back to MS under the warranty, but then last week’s firmware update came and that seems to have fixed the flickers. Whew!

  3. Fahad, yours is by far one of the best reviews I have ever read on any product. Your review answered all of my questions about the surface Duo and then some. I’m signing up as one of your followers. Thanks for this great review.

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