DEBUGGER

Microsoft’s Surface Duo Is a Perfect Blend of Phone and Tablet

The $1,400 Android-powered device makes elegant use of a second screen

Photos: Owen Williams

It’s been a long time since I’ve been excited about a smartphone, but Microsoft’s first new phone in years, the Surface Duo, is finally here — and it’s a bold attempt at figuring out what’s beyond the rectangular smartphone slabs most companies keep churning out every year.

The Duo is lovely to look at and even nicer to hold — which is important, given it’ll set you back a solid $1,400. It’s slick, coated in glass, and ultra-thin. It feels like it’s been refined for years, with attention to detail that I’ve only seen in Apple products. Unfolding it for the first time is incredibly satisfying, like cracking open a book you’ve been dying to read.

Gushing over the design aside, the Duo is more a foldable tablet than a smartphone. Unlike previous attempts at a foldable tablet by Samsung and others, it doesn’t fold down the middle of the display itself. Instead, the Duo sports two 5.6-inch “Pixelsense” displays with a hinge down the middle, which folds out into a giant 8.3-inch screen.

Think of a giant flip phone or a Nintendo DS; the Duo is closed in your pocket, but it can be opened into book mode to use both displays or folded all the way back into single-screen mode. The effect is like adding a second display to your computer except you can tuck it away at a moment’s notice. Rather than requiring you to jump in and out of one app at a time, the Duo can be unfolded to allow the use of a second app. The two screens can also be used to display a single app.

Are two screens better than one?

When I first started using the Surface Duo, I was skeptical about how much value the dual screen would add: I hadn’t ever wished that my phone had more screens. But not only has the Duo convinced me that the extra space is worth it, it’s totally changed the way I think about how I use my phone.

Microsoft’s pitch for the Duo is that the additional screen allows you to stay in your “flow.” If you’re scrolling through Twitter and tap an interesting link, the Duo is smart enough to pop the browser open on the other display rather than switching out of Twitter to read it.

It took me a few days to retrain my muscle memory away from constantly switching in and out of apps when I needed to reference an email or jump into my calendar. Once my brain wrapped itself around the option to flip out the second display and fire up another app at the same time, it was transformative: I felt like I was much more intentional about whatever I was trying to do, and my attention was less fragmented from constant context switching.

This is useful in all sorts of unexpected ways, like when I signed up for a print subscription of The Atlantic and needed to type in a card number. I whipped open my bank’s app on one screen and banged the details into the Atlantic’s payment form on the other, all without switching between the two while trying to remember the numbers.

The Duo is fast and capable despite coordinating between two separate displays. Outside of the occasional stutter, which was likely caused by early software teething issues, the hardware felt more than adequate. When using an app on each screen, both apps remain active and responsive. There is no idling or pausing one of them while you do something else. It never felt like the Duo was slow or not up to the task, and there hasn’t been a moment where the two displays didn’t feel like a single pane of glass fused together by a hinge.

Multi-tasking on the Surface Duo

While the Duo runs Google’s operating system, Android, Microsoft has sprinkled on a bunch of its own software magic to handle the dual screens, which are perfectly synchronized to act as one. Microsoft’s custom app launcher knows which display you’re trying to interact with and reliably places apps where you expect them to show up, using the screen you’re interacting with to determine where they should appear, for example.

The gestures baked into Android are heavily customized as well; with the Duo fully unfolded, a swipe across the gesture bar throws the app you’re using onto the other display. Swiping up and dragging the app into the middle of the hinge allows it to span both displays, which is useful for watching a YouTube video or playing a game.

Going into full-screen mode is compelling when it comes to reading books on the Duo, which I’d never really done on a phone before (I typically use a Kindle e-reader). If you maximize the Kindle app and unfold the Duo into a book-like position, the app is smart enough to reflow the text onto both screens as if it were an actual, physical book. I found myself jumping into books rather than doomscrolling on Twitter because the format was so satisfying.

What surprised me the most about using the Duo was how well Android apps respond to the wide-screen view, which spreads one window across both screens. All of the apps I regularly rely on, from YouTube to Google Meet to Spotify, worked perfectly. Occasionally, an app might randomly launch a settings screen spanned across both screens, but this happened less than I expected given that this is a brand-new form factor that developers might not have tested on before.

There is an opportunity for app developers to take advantage of the extra space on the second display, though few have at this stage. Microsoft’s apps, like OneDrive, do a good job of showcasing this; when you browse photos with the Duo unfolded, tapping an image opens it in full screen on the secondary display, which allows you to keep navigating your library on the primary screen. I didn’t find many apps outside of Microsoft’s products and Kindle that take advantage of these features yet, but I expect more will over time since other foldable devices, like Samsung’s Z Fold 2, are hitting the market.

All about the hinge

By default, I generally fold the Duo all the way back and use a single screen until I want to open something else at the same time. But, as with other foldable devices, the Duo can be used in different stances based on what you’re trying to do.

Tent mode, for example, allows propping up the Duo on a table for watching a video or playing a game. If you open the Duo into type mode, the lower display turns into a keyboard for writing a tweet or email on the other screen. The software is generally smart enough to figure out what you’re trying to do and adjust itself, albeit with the occasional brief confusion about which way you’re actually holding the device.

I’m obsessed with the hinge that makes all of this possible — it’s satisfying to open and close, with just the right amount of resistance to hold the position it’s left in. Unlike flip phones of the past, nothing flops around or feels loose; the displays hold themselves firmly in place once you stop moving them around, but they aren’t difficult to move when you want them to either.

The fact that the Duo can fold closed means the displays themselves are protected, held closed with a magnet. When the device is closed, it should be difficult to scratch the screens, and they’d be protected from a drop. (I didn’t test this for obvious reasons.) There’s no display or indicator on the outside to show you incoming notifications, though. You’ll have to rely on notification sounds or vibrations to let you know to check it rather than the screen lighting up.

There is a “peek” mode that kicks in when you open the Duo slightly, but it only shows you the time and upcoming alarms, which feels like a missed opportunity to at least show notification icons. The Duo integrates with a Windows PC, however, allowing you to receive notifications on your desktop.

This synchronization with Windows is pretty magical. If you click an incoming notification, it actually fires up the app on your Duo (even when it’s closed) and mirrors it to your computer, allowing you to click or tap around without ever actually picking up your phone. Mac users are out of luck, however, and can’t take advantage of this feature.

The camera on the Duo is quirky as a result of the foldable design. There’s a single 11-megapixel camera on the top of the right display. When you fire up the camera app, it figures out which way it’s pointing on its own; to switch the “view” of the camera to the back or front, you physically switch which side of the Duo you’re holding.

While the camera is good for video calling, which I used a lot for work on the Duo over the last week, it’s only mediocre for snapping pictures compared to a Pixel or iPhone. I found colors in particular were washed out, and that it sometimes took a minute to actually snap the photo, which meant it ended up blurry or missing the moment entirely. Worse still, detail was often missing that was easily captured by the Pixel 4.

Given the camera’s quality works well for video calls, it feels like this is something that could be improved by software over time, especially considering the camera is the first version of a custom app built by Microsoft rather than Google’s reliable camera app used on the Pixel. Some of this, however, may be the result of the device being so thin, with Microsoft telling The Verge that the “camera module inside the Surface Duo is one of the smallest on the market.”

This photo was shot on a bright-blue-sky day — which was washed out despite capturing the vivid red canoe.

Still, it’s a big stumble for a high-end phone. I’ll probably keep carrying my DSLR with me for now.

Other bits

Battery life: The first question I get about the Duo once friends have finished playing with the hinge is what the battery life is like with two giant screens. I found it easily got me beyond a day without needing to be topped up, and I had much less battery anxiety than I do with my Pixel 4, which struggles to make it to 5 p.m. most days.

Security: Unlike the Pixel 4 or iPhone, which have face unlock, the Duo sports a fingerprint sensor hidden away on the right side, where you grab to unfold it. That makes unlocking it incredibly seamless, and in a world of compulsory masks thanks to Covid-19, I’m more than happy to get fingerprint unlock back.

Pen support: I was excited to discover that the Duo supports the Surface Pen I already own for handwriting. It pairs instantly and feels great for quickly jotting down notes in OneNote, as though I’m using a tiny notebook. Unfortunately, handwriting is limited at this stage to apps that support it, which was disappointing: I was hoping I’d be able to write anywhere on the display and have it transformed into text, like my iPad.

NFC/payments: The biggest disappointment on the hardware front is the lack of NFC onboard, which means no Google Pay at all. If you live in a country like Canada, where contactless payments are practically universal, this is a huge bummer. Using the Duo means going back to carrying a wallet around everywhere. Microsoft says that NFC was left out of the first generation Duo because it was focused on “fundamental scenarios that solve customer challenges.” It seems likely that this will be added in a future iteration, but it remains a bizarre oversight for such a forward-looking device.

More tablet than phone

Looking at photos of the Duo online, it seems enormous, but in person, it’s actually a lot less unwieldy than I expected. It’s incredibly thin at just 8mm thick when unfolded, but it is wide; you’ll probably use it with two hands most of the time.

Because it’s so wide, I found that putting it into my jeans pockets was a snug fit and that it was more comfortable to keep it in my back pocket or in a hoodie. I can’t imagine it fitting into skinny jeans easily, and I’d probably consider throwing it in a bag if I actually commuted anywhere right now.

But, that’s the trade-off with the Duo: It’s big, but that means you can actually do work on it without taking something like an iPad with you. With dual screens, you can jump on a call and click through a presentation or document at the same time, which doesn’t get old.

Whenever I unfold the Duo, I feel like I’m using the futuristic computer in Westworld, and I’m convinced that Microsoft is onto something new that begins to blur the lines between computer and phone more than ever before. It’s the start of that journey, for sure, but it’s one hell of a compelling beginning.

A decade ago, when I attended a Microsoft launch event for Windows Phone 7, I remember wondering whether the company could differentiate itself from the iPhone and Android devices enough to get consumers to jump ship to an entirely new phone.

Windows Phone obviously didn’t work out, and the company has been absent from the smartphone space for years. By using Android, the Duo can use the millions of apps that are out there already rather than try and convince developers to build their apps all over again. And, unlike competitors building foldable phones, Microsoft doesn’t have the user experience debt of having more traditional phones it supports as well; it’s all in on the foldable paradigm, and it shows.

The Duo probably isn’t for everyone, and I think Microsoft is actually comfortable with that. It knows it’s a weird, compelling bet on a very specific slice of people who like Surface devices (like me) and care about getting more work done on the go with a single device. The Duo does not disappoint if you’re one of those people, even at the slightly eye-watering price point of $1,400.

Microsoft took the time to get this right, and holding the Duo feels like using something from the future, where the lines between tablet and phone are blurrier than ever.

Developer, accidental wordsmith. OneZero columnist trying to debug the why behind tech news. Follow: https://twitter.com/ow Blog: https://char.gd