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Microsoft Surface Duo 2 review: A two-screen phone that’s not quite ready

·Technology Editor
·6-min read
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Microsoft’s (MSFT) Surface Duo 2 is officially here. The dual-screen don’t-call-it-a-smartphone smartphone is available starting today for $1,499 and features an improved design including a proper camera system.

The second-generation, Android 11-powered Duo 2 features a unique two-screen setup connected by a hinge that allows you to use two apps at once. You can also stretch apps across the displays to view them in a larger mode.

Microsoft’s first take on the Surface Duo was promising, but had a number of kinks to work out, from its buggy software to its lackluster camera. And while the company has poured more resources into the Duo’s hardware capabilities this time around, shortcomings still persist including a clunky interface and camera that underperforms leading rivals including Samsung’s $1,899 Galaxy Z Fold3.

Two is better than one, when it all works

The Surface Duo 2’s draw is its dual-screen setup. That design allows you to use it as an open book, or as a single-screen device with one display folded behind the other. While the original Duo had two 5.1-inch screens, the Duo 2 gets 5.8-inch PixelSense Fusion panels that open up to a combined 8.3 inches.

Unlike Samsung’s foldable displays, the Duo 2’s are physically from each other via a hinge, so there’s no crease at the fold. The problem with that, however, is that the gap prevents you from watching movies across that big combined 8.3-inch panel. Fire up Netflix and span it across the screens, and you’ll be watching “Squid Game” with a chunk of the image removed.

Running two apps side by side is a genuinely helpful capability. (Image: Howley)
Running two apps side by side is a genuinely helpful capability. (Image: Howley)

You can still watch on either of the 5.8-inch screens, but foldable phones are meant to allow you to get a tablet-like experience on a compact device. The Surface Duo 2 doesn’t exactly offer that. In fact, a number of apps I used didn’t work well when spanned across the two screens including Gmail, Instagram, and YouTube. They’re simply not optimized for the Duo 2’s design.

When apps do work across the screens, however, like Microsoft’s Teams and TikTok, it’s a fantastic experience. You can view your conversations or lists of videos on one side of the screen and message people or watch TikToks on the other. Xbox Game Pass even has a handful of games optimized for the Duo 2 experience. Turning the phone in landscape mode puts the game on the top screen, and the touch screen controller on the bottom.

Multitasking on the Duo 2 is equally impressive. I’ve been able to stream Football games on one screen, while checking email on the other. I can also send Slack messages to colleagues while chatting with friends in Google Chat. (Thankfully, I haven’t mixed up the two.)

Microsoft is positioning the ability to run two apps at once as the key to the Surface Duo 2, and it’s a compelling argument. Swiping across your smartphone through multiple apps while trying to get work done on a deadline, or even copying and pasting content between apps, can be a hassle. The Duo 2 lets you do that quickly and painlessly via its two-screen setup.

The front of the Surface Duo 2. (Image: Howley)
The front of the Surface Duo 2. (Image: Howley)

As a single screen phone, the Surface Duo 2 is functional — even good. To be sure, the screens’ aspect ratios mean you see less information in portrait mode than say, the iPhone 13. Still, it works well, and movies and websites look wonderful. You can also use tent mode to enable the phone to stand up on its own, so you don’t have to prop it up on a napkin holder or a can of beer.

When closed, the Surface Duo 2 has no external screens, unlike the Z Fold3. Instead, there’s a sliver of screen exposed on the hinge that can show the time and notifications when you press the power button. It’s an interesting decision. Still, the hinge screen is tiny, making it difficult to read even the time.

Real cameras that fall short

The original Surface Duo used a single camera to double as both its rear and selfie camera. That didn’t work out so well. This time, Microsoft equipped the Duo 2 with a three camera setup for its rear shooters, similar to competing top-tier smartphones.

The Surface Duo 2 has trouble balancing light, as seen in this shot where the sky is blown out. (Image: Howley)
The Surface Duo 2 has trouble balancing light, as seen in this shot where the sky is blown out. (Image: Howley)
A photo of the same flower taken with the iPhone 13 Pro is far more balanced. (Image: Howley)
A photo of the same flower taken with the iPhone 13 Pro is far more balanced. (Image: Howley)

I compared the Duo 2’s cameras to those of the Galaxy Z Fold3 and the iPhone 13 Pro, and while the Duo 2’s shots were clear, a step up from the original Duo’s, the color quality was lacking. Photos were darker when taken with the Duo 2, while those taken with the Fold3 and iPhone were vibrant and bright.

Low-light shots, meanwhile, were hard to decipher when shot with the Surface Duo 2. They didn’t look much better on the Z Fold3, though, while the iPhone’s images were far better.

Performance and battery

Overall, the Surface Duo 2 is as fast as any other high-end phone on the market. That’s because Microsoft equipped the Duo 2 with a Qualcomm (QCOM) Snapdragon 888 processor with 5G capability, something that was missing from its predecessor.

In terms of battery life, Microsoft says you’ll get roughly 15 and a half hours of video playback. I streamed Monday Night Football on the Duo 2, and still have plenty of battery left over to try to salvage my survivor league season by researching teams well into the night.

Should you get it?

The Surface Duo 2 is Microsoft’s to help you multitask on a single smartphone. And as the productivity company, it makes sense Microsoft would set out to tackle the problem.

Unfortunately, the Duo 2 is still not quite ready for the average consumer. Setting aside its $1,499 price tag, the poor camera performance and still buggy software make it difficult to recommend. Still, I appreciate what Microsoft is trying to do here, and I’m hopeful that the next generation has all of the nagging issues of the Duo 2 worked out.

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