The Surface Duo just looks good. It’s about the width of a passport, but a little taller and downright thin. On the outside, the device presents itself with two white glass panels.
On the front it bears discreet Microsoft’s Windows logo made up of four squares, on the back the required markings are barely visible. The 360-degree hinge and the protective strips in between are made of stainless steel, the rest of the frame is white.
The hinge works perfectly and keeps the two halves of the housing stable at any opening angle without ever appearing stiff. The two five-inch screens have fairly wide bezels at the top and bottom.
In the edge of the right half of the housing, the volume rocker, the on / off switch, the fingerprint sensor and the drawer for a SIM card are arranged side by side. The USB-C port is at the bottom and there is no headphone jack. Loudspeaker, camera and flash LED are installed above the right display.
If you fold the left half behind the right, you get a simple smartphone with a second display on the back. This has proven to be the most used configuration for me.
However, the duo shows its special possibilities when you open it up to form a tablet. Now two apps can be used side by side: on the left an email app, on the right a to-do list, or on the left a sports broadcast and on the right the statistics. Frequently used combinations can be saved as an icon on the start screen for quick recall.
Microsoft apps can do that
With a swiping gesture from below you can move a running program to the other screen. It works as well as two screens on a desktop computer. Only when you slide a running app onto the bridge between the two screens does it take in both at the same time.
This works wonderfully with customized apps, such as Microsoft Outlook: on the left the folder and a list of messages, on the right the currently selected mail. With Google’s Gmail app, however, the separation does not succeed. The bridge is then in the middle of the message text. You don’t even want to watch videos over both displays. Microsoft has pre-installed the icons for two customized third-party apps: TikTok and Kindle.
In addition, you can start Microsoft’s Edge browser on the Surface Duo twice and display different pages on both screens. The to-do app can be filled with lists from the browser by dragging and dropping. But Netflix or YouTube, for example, can only be used sensibly on one of the two screens – and thus with a small picture. If you drag the picture onto both displays, you can always see the wide hinge in the middle.
What it can’t do
It takes a few days to get used to the two screens and to use them properly. During this time, the weaknesses of the beautiful device are revealed: no large batteries and no induction loop for wireless charging fit into the slim housing. Without NFC, the duo is not good for contactless payment. The only speaker has a very thin sound.
And then there is the camera, which has 11 megapixel photos but delivers very poor images. It is good for web conferences and snapshots with sufficient lighting, but otherwise has to admit defeat to some cheap cell phones. Above all, the operation is very clumsy: the camera always starts in selfie mode. To switch it to normal photo mode, you have to quickly turn the case back and forth, with the viewfinder jumping over to the other screen.
Microsoft promises updates
The Surface Duo is very well integrated into the Microsoft ecosystem. Apps like Outlook, OneNote and Powerpoint make good use of the possibilities of the two screens. Google’s Android operating system was only very carefully modified for this.
The duo is still running with Android 10 and a security update from January. Microsoft wants to accelerate the development process by the summer and update it to Android 11 – Google will have presented Android 12 by then. Four major updates and enhancements have been delivered since its launch in the US in October 2020. Microsoft promises to provide the duo with updates for at least three years.
It is to be expected that Microsoft will show its staying power here and send more devices after the duo. The Surface Pro has only established itself in the third generation. The processor in the current device is a Snapdragon 855, which debuted in high-end smartphones in 2019. Despite the high price, you have to be content with 128 gigabytes (GB) of storage space in the standard version, which can be doubled for a surcharge of 100 euros. The duo does not get the 5G mobile standard for an additional fee.
In the USA, Microsoft has already reduced the net price by 400 to just under 1000 dollars, while prices here start at 1550 euros for the smaller version. That’s too much money for a groundbreaking product with glaring weaknesses.