Surface Duo Review: The Pursuit of Productivity

In an alternative universe, Microsoft’s ambitions in the smartphone segment are as successful as its desktop counterpart. But the reality is that Microsoft has found itself on the sidelines of the mobile conversation when it comes to hardware and software. While the scars of the past are still present, the company is once again pursuing the pocketable segment with the Surface Duo.

But this time around, things are different. In contrast to when Microsoft was trying to sell Lumias and music subscriptions, the company has become comfortable with its position in the marketplace as a leader in productivity software and services. And there is no denying that it was this recognition of their true strengths that finally made the Surface Pro a success with the Surface Pro 3. And now, the company is applying that same methodology to the Surface Duo where they hope to mimic the success of the Surface Pro.

And the Duo is nothing like I have used before, which makes it important to understand how and why this device exists. It is easy to say the Duo is a smartphone but when you look at how Microsoft is promoting the hardware, to me, this is device reminds me more of the PDAs of the early 2000s than of the smartphones of the 2020 era.

And that’s the lens that I am going to review this hardware through because after using the device for two weeks, the Duo is the best ‘productivity pocketable’ available today but it is far from the best smartphone for the money which is an important distinction – let’s dive in.

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Surface Duo laying flat in a tablet posture.

Starting on the inside, the Surface Duo specs are remarkably average (full breakdown here) with a Snapdragon 855 from last year, 128 or 256 GB storage options, 6GB of RAM, two 5.6in displays that open to create an 8.1in canvas, and a fingerprint reader that is accurate and fast.

But the hero of the device is the hinge; there is no mistaking that the Duo feels premium in your hands. The hinge rotates like a hot knife through butter and has the ability to stop at any position and stay that way with confidence. If nothing else, the Duo is impossibly thin; Microsoft deserves some credit because the Duo feels more like a piece of jewelry than a computer/tablet/pda/phone.

That is not to say that it isn’t without fault because there are some odd design choices that were made to achieve the profile of the hardware. Most notably, the lack of wireless charging is the biggest inconvenience for a device with a starting price of $1399. While I can overlook the lack of 5G support as LTE is fine for today, without 5G, this may be limiting the lifecycle of the hardware once those LTE towers start flipping from LTE to the 5G radios.

The screen is bright, and the AMOLED displays offer a responsive and colorful experience; you cannot overlook the fact that the bezels are of the 2012 variety. But more importantly, the viewing angles of the displays are adequate for the many different ways you may look at the Duo.

A word of caution when using the LED as a flashlight. Because the camera and the LED are typically pointing at you, when turning on the LED, it is going to blast into your eye – I have done this more than I would like to mention publicly.

Speaking of the camera, Microsoft chose not to put a huge camera bump on the back of the device. Instead, there is one camera that you can fold the device in half to take photos utilizing what we typically think of a front-facing camera.

I am here to tell you that if your priority when buying a smartphone is for the camera, the Duo is not for you. While the Duo can shoot portrait mode, panorama, and all the other modes, it is an average piece of glass. Low-light images have quite a bit of noise, but daylight images are typically good enough for most users. And if this was a $400 phone, the camera would be acceptable in nearly all conditions, but this is a premium device and the camera experience falls short of other premium smartphones.

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Surface Duo camera sample image

The buttons are tactile and when you do have to plug in the USB-C cable to charge, the connection is confident. When it comes to battery life, you should be able to make it last a day but you are not going to set any records here for staying unplugged – I would estimate around 6 hours of continuous usage is feasible but that figure is going to swing significantly depending on how you use the hardware.

The overall hardware experience is quite good and the fit and finish is top-notch, but the software is the defining factor for the Duo. Microsoft worked with Google, as the device does run Android, to develop the experience and it is worth a much closer look (check out the video above).

When you open the Duo for the first time, you are greeted with an onboarding experience that will feel familiar to Android users and there are OOBE indicators to help you get set up with how apps, gestures, and the screens operate.

Using the Duo is different, and it takes some time to adjust to the experience but once you do, there are certainly unique experiences that can only be found with this piece of hardware.

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Surface Duo open and balanced in book posture.

Microsoft/Google have customized the experience with gestures to make it easy to move apps between screens or to span the entire device. The dock will dynamically adjust if you open an app on one screen to put all docked apps on to the other display and folding the device to various postures also updates the interface as you would expect (most of the time).

There is also unique functionality like app groups that allow you to launch two applications with one tap. It is a neat feature but the odd thing is that it’s not possible to launch an app and have it span the entire display – this would be quite helpful with Outlook or Teams.

The Surface Duo is the best Microsoft 365 device that can fit into your pocket. You will not find a better piece of pocketable hardware for a Teams call, or to read email, or edit PowerPoints, or manipulate an Excel file. This is where the Duo outshines other smartphones and it is where Microsoft has invested a considerable amount of time because apps like Outlook and Teams take advantage of the dual displays.

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Surface Duo fingerprint reader is fast and accurate

On a Teams call, you can have the participants on one display and other conversations on the other screen or with email, your inbox on one display and the email message on another. OneDrive also makes use of the dual-displays and OneNote works well too.

Simply put, for using apps that Microsoft builds for productivity is why you would want to buy a Duo. If you are looking for the best productivity mobile device, the Duo is for you. This is why I think of it more as a PDA than say a traditional smartphone – PDAs helped you organize your life while the Duo does that and helps you get things done too.

And as you would expect, integration with your Microsoft 365 tenant is top-notch. And biometric security is included with a fingerprint reader that is accurate and fast – if you live in the Microsoft ecosystem for productivity, the Duo shines bright

But the experience falls apart for many other tasks. For example with LinkedIn, there is no benefit to using the Duo and nor does using xCloud (Microsoft’s game streaming service) provide any benefit with two displays – both of these apps are made by Microsoft.

And if you use any non-Microsoft apps, more than likely that app will not support the spanned experience until the developer explicitly enables the functionality.

While OS animations are typically smooth when using the Duo, there are noticeable slowdowns and hiccups with animations. This often occurs when trying to close a single app or when moving from watching a video to other apps that are already running – the Duo would certainly benefit from a more powerful chip behind the glass.

There are also instances where you can get ‘lost’ in the navigation experience. It is hard to explain but sometimes accidental gestures are detected that result in you opening the app drawer or accidentally throwing an app to the other screen. The more I have used the device, the better I have become at using the Duo effectively but during the first couple of days, there is certainly a learning curve.

And there are other challenges with gestures when using apps. If you are using Edge, as an example, and you have the Duo opened up like a book with the browser on the right screen, swiping back to go to the previous webpage is difficult because the hinge is in the way. This experience is replicated with nearly every app that uses the ‘back’ gesture.

The Duo is also a two-handed device. Even when you fold the display back, using it with one hand, it can be a challenge to reach the entire screen.

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Surface Duo hinge folded at roughly 90 degrees.

What it boils down to is that the Duo is an excellent PDA, an average phone, an ok camera, and a big display that can fit in your (larger) pockets. The Duo is something that I love to use and at the same time, shy away from too; it really is dependent on the task I am trying to accomplish.

When it comes to working and knocking out my tasks for the day, I reach for the Duo first. But when it comes to sitting on the couch and doom-scrolling social media, a traditional smartphone is much better for that experience.

So the question is, should you buy this device or give it to your employees? If your company is issuing phones and you expect your employees to use the device explicitly for Microsoft 365, the Duo is an interesting option as it embodies productivity in a piece of hinged hardware. And quite frankly. I enjoy using the Duo – I wrote this entire review using it.

And if you do go down the route of issuing corporate hardware, the Duo is easily managed like all your other mobile devices too.

But as a personal piece of hardware, it is a bit harder to justify. At $1400, you can buy a well-equipped Surface Pro or Laptop which for many, could be a better productivity device but neither of those options can fit in your pocket.

What this phone lacks the most, though, is a true Windows Phone Continuum experience. Samsung has Dex but the Duo needs a way to be your entire productivity device. There are ways to use the hardware with WVD (Windows Virtual Desktop) but that scenario is not fully defined yet and I would not recommend buying it for that workflow, yet.

The ‘Your Phone’ feature does allow you to link your Duo and your PC together and even lets you run Android apps through the experience on your desktop but I am not entirely sure how useful that feature is for productivity scenarios – any Microsoft 365 app on your phone is already on your PC and it’s much easier to use the native experience.

Sure, being able to send text messages from your desktop, via the Duo, is a neat party trick but it is far from seamless. What is missing is being able to use the Duo as your desktop – allowing the device to connect to a larger display and be your entire PC in your pocket.

With the Duo, Microsoft took a risk to re-enter the mobile space and they took a different approach that they hope will find a market. And if I haven’t made it clear, the Duo, for the right type of productivity user, is the best device available today but it is not for everyone: it is not a mass-market device and it is not perfect. But I would be lying if I said I did not love what Microsoft is trying to do here and the hardware that they put together.

The creation of Duo was not something Microsoft tossed together with components from a shelf but instead is an artfully crafted piece of hardware whose software is still maturing. For those who have been waiting for years for a Surface PDA, your day has finally arrived but for those looking for a general-purpose smartphone, this likely isn’t your hardware.