Microsoft Surface Duo is a smartphone that I haven’t tested yet, but based on what I know, it already worries me. It’s kind of like the new crop of foldable phones in that it can fold and flip and works with Android 10 just like the Galaxy Fold. It also demands a sky-high price tag like the upcoming Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 2 and Galaxy Z Flip.
But while foldable phones are pushing the boundaries of what a display can do and charging prices to match them, you can’t get it with the Surface Duo. Instead you’re getting a dual-screen device with giant bezels that runs a version of Android superimposed on a heavy Windows casing. Okay, a lot of Android phones have custom skins, but Duo is a Surface device first and an Android second, which is concerning.
Compared to a similarly priced flagship device like the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra, the Surface Duo isn̵
Surface Duo specs: down
The problems start with the specs, comparing them to the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra. Even on paper, the Surface Duo doesn’t look good:
Dimensions (folded): 145.2 x 93.3 x 9.9 mm
Screen: Dual 5.6 inch AMOLED PixelSense Fusion, 1800×1350, 401 PPI
Storage: 128GB / 256GB
Camera: 11 MP, f / 2.0
Galaxy Note 20 Ultra
Dimensions: 166.9 x 76.0 x 8.8 mm
Screen: 6.9-inch WQHD, 3200 x 1440, 120Hz, 496 ppi
Processor: Snapdragon 865
RAM: 12GB LPDDR5
Storage: 128GB / 512GB
Front camera: 40 MP, f / 2.2
Rear camera: 12MP ultra-wide, f / 2.2 + 108MP wide, f / 1.8, OIS, + 48MP telephoto, f / 3.5
The Note 20 Ultra is not only better across the board than the Surface Duo, it also costs $ 100 less. Plus, you get 5G, NFC, Wi-Fi 6, and wireless charging, none of which are available on the Surface Duo. And if you want to use the Surface Slim Pen for taking notes, it will cost you $ 145 more. It’s an awfully high level to enter a world that is nowhere near cutting edge.
Design Surface Duo: feeling of embarrassment
The Surface Duo design is sure to be nice. It has a remarkably thin glass and metal frame that feels like a sturdy notebook and a 360 degree hinge that feels extremely sturdy.
Okay, because you will open it a lot. Without an external screen, whenever you want to use Duo to check a notification or email that just arrived, you’ll need to take it out of your bag or purse and open it, just like old-fashioned feature phones.
That design might work for a clamshell laptop like the Surface Laptop 3, but it’s inconvenient for a device that should double as your phone, especially one that costs $ 1,400. While Samsung improved the original Galaxy Fold with a larger external screen on the Galaxy Z Fold 2, Microsoft’s Duo doesn’t make that effort to be versatile. Android has fixed the problem of unlocking phones and lighting up screens with always-on displays, but the Surface Duo ignores that. There isn’t even a small display on the front like the Galaxy Z Flip.
Don’t forget the camera. Aside from the still unknown image quality, you’ll need to open Surface Duo fully to start shooting. This is a multi-step, multi-second process that will hinder a quick shot. Where every other phone maker has device shortcuts to access the camera, Microsoft has made it harder to use what most people reach for their phone.
Biometrics are also not up to par. Although Microsoft has advertised Duo’s enterprise-grade security features, including a “custom designed unified extensible firmware interface,” it does not have a biometric camera. The actual device lock and authentication is left to a fingerprint reader on the side of the device rather than the Windows Hello facial recognition system, which is more secure than a fingerprint and could tap into Android’s BiometricPrompt API like it does Pixel 4. There is a lot of space in the frame for this.
Surface Duo Features: Android Anxiety
The Surface Duo experience will likely be colored by its hybrid Windows-Android experience. Microsoft has transformed the new dual-screen device to work with the company’s ecosystem of apps and services. Much like a multi-monitor PC setup, the displays are meant to work together or separately. As Panos Panay told The Verge: “There is a very clever algorithm that tries to be predictive. If you are on one screen and you are invoking a link, it will fill the other screen.”
This doesn’t look all that different from LG’s Dual-Screen case for Velvet, however, a phone that costs half the Duo and has 5G. In fact, none of what Surface Duo does is all that novel. Picture-in-Picture, drag-and-drop, and side-by-side apps are all available on other Android phones, as are Microsoft Launcher and Office apps.
Furthermore, there is no guarantee that the Android experience will be premium. Sure, Microsoft’s apps will all be optimized for the dual-screen experience, as will a few others, like the Kindle reader. But what about the thousands of other Android apps we use?
As we’ve seen on Chromebooks or even Android tablets, linking Google Play apps to an environment not specifically suited to them isn’t ideal. The benefits of multitasking may not be there for most apps. None of the Microsoft product shots show an Android app, which is already worrying. Good luck convincing developers to support a single device amidst a sea of less demanding competitors. And even if it’s great Microsoft guarantees three years of Surface Duo updates just like the Pixel and Galaxy phones, which is basically the stakes for a $ 1,400 phone. Imagine that Surface users are only guaranteed three years of security updates for Windows?
Insufficient tablet, insufficient phone
Microsoft isn’t positioning the Duo as a competitor to other top-tier Android phones – on its site, Android is only mentioned twice – but at $ 1,399, it has to be more of a portable conduit for Office apps. Once the novelty wears off, the Duo will be measured by the strength of their abilities, and much they won’t be able to do.
Whether it wants to be classified as a phone, a mini-tablet or something else to usher in “the next wave of mobile productivity,” Duo feels like a step backwards for both the Surface product line and Android smartphones. Where foldable phones are attempting to merge two devices, smartphones and tablets, the Surface Duo adds nothing to the foldable conversation. With a litany of seemingly engineered challenges, Microsoft will have a hard time convincing people that the Surface Duo is a useful addition to their Android and Surface workflows.
Update 12:40: Added the news that Microsoft guarantees three years of Android updates.