It is extremely rare that a product actually receives better months after its release. But Microsoft’s oft-forgotten Surface Duo 2, which launched 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, though it’s still weird and unique enough that I can’t recommend it to most people.
In case you forgot, the Surface Duo 2 is a foldable phone with two large screens joined by a hinge. Unlike Samsung’s Galaxy Z Fold 3, which takes a single tablet-sized screen and folds it in half to fit in your pocket, the Duo 2’s dual screens feel like two large phones are strapped together and run the same software. You can easily run two apps side by side like you’re holding two phones at the same time, or you can spread a single app across both screens to mimic a small tablet. Both halves of the phone are thin enough to fold like a book and slip into a pocket with relative ease. Pair it with Microsoft’s Surface Slim Pen 2 and you’ve got a portable digital laptop that can work just as well for taking notes, reading an ebook, or writing an email.
When I reviewed the Surface Duo 2 last year, none of its smart design or book-like features mattered. The device was indeed broken, held back by software bugs that made it maddening to type, frustrating to use, and ultimately disappointing. It was a $1,500 novelty that could only appeal to diehard Microsoft brand minions willing to put up with its many flaws so they could have the never-launched Courier device they dreamed of a long time ago. ten years old.
But, remarkably, Microsoft didn’t abandon the Duo 2. In fact, the company regularly released monthly software updates to fix the many issues the Duo 2 encountered at launch. Some of these updates consisted of simple security patches and small bug fixes, while others, like the recent June update, included larger fixes and added new features. Basically, Microsoft fixed the touch latency issues that were prevalent at launch and made it very difficult to type on the Duo 2’s virtual keyboard – or even navigate the interface.
Knowing that Microsoft addressed many of my initial complaints with the Duo 2, I took advantage of a recent price drop (the phone can now be had for $1000, which is still expensive but significantly lower than its introductory price) and a generous trade-in offer and bought one myself. The goal was to see if I could get a better idea of what Microsoft is trying to accomplish with this device when mind-boggling bugs don’t stand in its way.
And reader, I can finally say that I understand. The Duo 2 is the most unique mobile device I’ve used, allowing me to do things I simply can’t do with a traditional smartphone. It also does some things, like multitasking and reading e-books, better than the Z Fold 3’s single large screen.
Over the past month-plus, I’ve used the Duo 2 to read many books in the Kindle app, which takes advantage of dual screens to provide a more book-like experience than any other device. I managed my inbox and my calendar at the same time; I edited Google Docs while following a Slack conversation. I used the Slim Pen 2 to take handwritten notes in OneNote. I’ve read countless articles in my Pocket Queue with the app extended across both screens and the Duo 2 turned into portrait orientation. I’ve watched so many videos spread across both screens that I don’t even notice the slight gap anymore. There’s something undeniably satisfying about completing a task on the Duo 2, then folding it like a book and slipping it into my pocket.
The Duo 2 hasn’t replaced my primary smartphone as I use them for different tasks: messaging, calls, photos, smart home control, music and mobile payments on my iPhone; reading, multitasking, note taking and YouTube on the Duo 2. I haven’t taken a call on the Duo 2 yet because unless you’re using wireless headphones it’s horribly inconvenient to do so . Most of the time, I used the Duo 2 just like I might use an iPad Mini, except it folds in half and fits in my pocket. It’s not even accurate to call this device a “phone” based on how I use it. (Microsoft tried to position the original Surface Duo as something other than a phone when it launched, but walked away from that marketing with the Duo 2.)
Microsoft has made the Duo 2’s camera app faster and more responsive, but I never used it to take photos. It’s just too awkward to take pictures, and I have my iPhone for that anyway. In fact, I’d rather if the unsightly rear bump and its camera disappeared altogether and the Duo 2 retain the cleaner lines and ability to fold flat against itself that the first Duo had.
Besides being a clunky 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 have to open the device for use. (The recent addition of third-party chat app notifications to the “hinge display” in the June update doesn’t change that fact.) It’s a much more intentional device than slab phones. which can be easily unlocked and used with one hand when you want to kill some time in line at the grocery store. Samsung’s Z Fold 3 is a much better single device to replace both a phone and a tablet simply because you can still use it when it’s folded and closed.
The Duo 2 is also far from a durable device. Although I haven’t had anything broken in the month and will use it again, it lacks both water and dust resistance so you don’t want to get it wet. Its design makes it extremely difficult to place a case and maintains the flexibility of the hinge. (I’ve resorted to Microsoft’s Surface Pen charging cover and bumper with a Dbrand skin.) Even though it’s folded up when I’m not using it, it’s not something I would just throw away. in a pocket with keys and change lest something get caught in the hinge.
The software also has plenty of room for improvement. Aside from the Kindle app and Google Play Books, the only apps that can really work well on both screens are made by Microsoft, even though the Duo 2 has been on the market for eight months now. There are still times when an app or link opens on the opposite screen than I expect or a gesture to view an app in full screen fails. Pen input in anything other than Microsoft’s own apps is still lousy. I don’t think I’ve used drag and drop before because it’s supported in so few apps that it’s not worth remembering it exists.
It’s possible things will get better with the upcoming Android 12L update, which is designed to improve experiences on foldable devices like the Duo 2 and Fold 3. But I suspect that even after this update, I will still use most apps on a single screen.
All that to say that, despite updates and bug fixes, the Duo 2 still won’t be a phone for everyone or even most people. It’s best suited as a secondary device for specific tasks, much like how an iPad or tablet is secondary to your smartphone. Even with the recent price drop, it’s still more expensive than an iPad or other small tablet. It’s only ideal for those who will appreciate the ability to take it with them anywhere, even if they already carry another phone in their other pocket.
Microsoft is rumored to not launch a Duo 3 this year, but will keep it for 2023. This would give it more time to fix the issues and avoid the bug-filled launches that plagued both the original Duo and the Duo 2. Microsoft could also address aspects of the Duo design that make it difficult to use as your primary phone (a touchscreen on the outside would go a long way here). Maybe he can find a way to attach and charge the pen without resorting to a goofy and expensive add-on case. A recent patent filing from the company envisions a Duo-like device that uses a single panel that can fold 360 degrees instead of two discrete screens attached by a hinge. I’m not sure what problem it would solve other than eliminating the gap between screens when watching video, but it sure would look cool.
Either way, if Microsoft remains committed to the Duo form factor and continues to iterate on it, I’ll be watching. The Duo 2 has gone from one of the most problematic devices I’ve reviewed to one of my favorites, and I’m curious to see where Microsoft takes it next. In the meantime, I have another book to finish reading.
Photograph by Dan Seifert/The Verge