It is extremely rare that a product actually gets better months after publication. But Microsoft’s often-forgotten Surface Duo 2, which launched back in October 2021 with a hefty price tag and a long list of bugs and issues that made it very frustrating to use, bucked that trend. In fact, the Duo 2 has improved so much that it’s now one of my favorite mobile devices, although it’s still weird and unique enough that I can’t exactly recommend it for most people.
In case you forgot, the Surface Duo 2 is a folding phone with two large screens connected by a hinge. Unlike Samsung’s Galaxy Z Fold 3, which takes a single, tablet-sized display and folds it in half to fit in your pocket, the Duo 2’s dual screens feel more like two large phones strung together connected and running the same software. You can easily run two apps side by side like you’re holding two phones at once, or you can spread a single app across both screens to mimic a small tablet. Both halves of the phone are thin enough that it folds like a book and fits in a pocket with relative ease. Pair it with Microsoft Surface Slim Pen 2and you have a portable digital notebook that’s just as good for jotting down notes, reading an e-book, or composing an email.
When I reviewed the Surface Duo 2 last year, none of its clever design or book-like features mattered to me. The device was effectively broken, held back by software bugs that made typing annoying, frustrating to use and ultimately disappointing. It was a $1,500 novelty that could only appeal to the most die-hard Microsoft-branded henchmen who were willing to put up with the many bugs so they could have that never started courier device this is what they dreamed of over a decade ago.
But remarkably, Microsoft hasn’t given up on the Duo 2. In fact, the company has consistently done so Monthly software updates released to solve the many problems that the Duo 2 had at launch. Some of these updates consisted of simple security patches and minor bug fixes, while others, like the last June update, contained more significant fixes and added new features. Crucially, Microsoft has addressed the touch latency issues that were prevalent at launch, making it very difficult to type on the Duo 2’s virtual keyboard – or even navigate the UI.
Knowing that Microsoft has addressed many of my original complaints with the Duo 2, I took advantage of a recent price drop (the phone can available now for $1,000, which is still expensive but well below the introductory price) and a generous trade-in offer and bought one for myself. The goal was to see if I could get a better idea of what Microsoft is trying to achieve with this device if no glaring bugs get in its way.
And readers, I can finally say I get it. The Duo 2 is the most unique mobile device I’ve ever used, allowing me to do things I just can’t do with a traditional smartphone. It also does certain things, like multitasking and reading e-books, better than the Z Fold 3’s single large screen.
Over the past few months I’ve used the Duo 2 to read many books on the Kindle app, which takes advantage of the two screens to offer a more book-like experience than any other device. I managed my inbox and my calendar at the same time; I was editing Google Docs while keeping up with a Slack conversation. I used the Slim Pen 2 to take handwritten notes in OneNote. I’ve read countless items in my Pocket queue, with the app spanning both screens and the Duo 2 placed in a portrait orientation. I’ve seen so many videos spanning both screens that I don’t even notice the small gap anymore. Getting a task done on the Duo 2 and then folding it up like a book and slipping it into my bag is undeniably satisfying.
The Duo 2 hasn’t replaced my main smartphone because I use it for other tasks: messaging, calling, photos, smart home control, music and mobile payments on my iPhone; Reading, multitasking, notes and YouTube on the Duo 2. I have yet to take a call on the Duo 2 because unless you’re using wireless earbuds it’s terribly cumbersome. For the most part, I used the Duo 2 exactly as I would use an iPad Mini, except that it folds in half and fits in my pocket. It’s not even correct to call this device a “phone” depending on how I use it. (Microsoft tried to position the original Surface Duo as something other than a phone when it launched, but moved away from that marketing with the Duo 2.)
Microsoft made the Duo 2’s camera app faster and more responsive, but I never used it to take photos. It’s just too cumbersome to take photos, and that’s what I have my iPhone for anyway. In fact, I’d prefer if the unsightly rear hump and its camera were gone entirely and the Duo 2 retained the slimmer lines and ability to fold flat against itself that the first Duo had.
Aside from being a cumbersome camera, there are other things about the Duo 2’s design that make it difficult to use as a primary phone. There’s no quick way to check notifications or do anything with one hand — you to have to open the device to use it. (The recent addition of third-party chat app notifications to “Hinge Display” in the June update doesn’t change that fact.) It’s a much more intentional device than slab phones, being easy to unlock and use one-handed when You want to kill some time in line at the grocery store. Samsung’s Z Fold 3 is a much better standalone device to replace both a phone and tablet simply because you can use it when folded.
The Duo 2 is also far from being a durable device. Although I haven’t had a break in the month and have used it again, it lacks both water and dust resistance so you won’t want to get it wet. Its design makes it extremely difficult to attach a case and maintain the flexibility of the hinge. (I resorted to Microsoft’s Surface Pen charging cover and bumper, along with a Dbrand skin.) Although it folds up when I’m not using it, I wouldn’t just toss it in a bag with keys and loose change, afraid that something gets caught in the hinge.
The software also has a lot of room for improvement. Aside from the Kindle app and Google Play Books, the only apps that can really work well across both screens come from Microsoft, although the Duo 2 has been out for eight months now. There are still times when an app or link opens on the other screen than expected, or a gesture to full screen an app fails. Pen input in apps other than Microsoft’s own is still lousy. I don’t think I’ve ever used the drag-and-drop feature because so few apps support it, it’s not worth remembering it exists.
It’s possible things will get better with the upcoming Android 12L update, which should improve experiences on folding devices like the Duo 2 and Fold 3. But I suspect that even after this update, I’ll still be using most apps on a single screen.
All of this means that despite the updates and bug fixes, the Duo 2 still won’t be a phone for everyone, or even most people. It works best as a secondary device for specific tasks, much like an iPad or tablet alongside your smartphone. Despite the recent price drop, it’s still more expensive than an iPad or other small tablet. It’s just ideal for those who appreciate being able to take it to more places on the go, even if they’re already carrying another phone in the other pocket.
Rumor has it that Microsoft will not launch a Duo 3 this year, instead of saving it for 2023. That would give more time to iron out issues and avoid the bug-filled launches that plagued both the original Duo and Duo 2. Microsoft could also address the aspects of the Duo design that make it difficult to use as a primary phone (a touchscreen on the outside would go a long way here). Maybe it can find a way to attach and charge the stylus without resorting to a goofy and expensive add-on case. A the company’s recent patent application envisions a Duo-like device that uses a single panel that can be folded 360 degrees, rather than two discrete screens connected by a hinge. I’m not sure what problem this would solve other than eliminating the gap between screens when you’re watching videos, but it would definitely look cool.
Anyway, if Microsoft stays committed to the Duo form factor and keeps repeating it, I’ll watch. The Duo 2 has gone from being one of the most problematic devices I’ve reviewed to one of my favorites, and I’m excited to see where Microsoft takes it next. In the meantime I have one more book to finish.
Photography by Dan Seifert / The Verand