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Friday, October 7, 2022

Microsoft Surface Duo 2 re-review: I get it now

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It is extremely rare for a product to actually become better months after it was released. But Microsoft’s oft-forgotten Surface Duo 2, which launched in October 2021 with a hefty price tag and a laundry list of bugs and issues that made it very frustrating to use, has broken that trend. In fact, the Duo 2 has improved so much that it’s now one of my favorite mobile devices, even if it’s still weird and unique enough that I can’t really recommend it to most people.

In case you forgot, the Surface Duo 2 is a foldable phone with two large screens connected 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 two screens feel more like two large phones attached together and use the same software. You can easily run two apps side by side as if you were holding two phones at the same time, or you can run a single app across both screens to mimic a small tablet. Both halves of the phone are thin enough to fold together like a book and fit in a pocket relatively easily. Pair it with Microsoft’s Surface Slim Pen 2and you have a portable digital notebook that can work just as well for taking notes, reading an ebook, or composing an email.

When I reviewed the Surface Duo 2 last year, none of its smart design or book-like features mattered. The device was effectively broken, held back by software bugs that made it irritating to type on, frustrating to use, and ultimately disappointing. It was a $1500 novelty that could appeal only to the most seasoned Microsoft brand stooges who were willing to put up with its many flaws so that they never launched Courier device what they dreamed of more than ten years ago.

The Surface Duo 2 doesn’t work very well as a phone, but it can be a very handy pocket computer.

But remarkably, Microsoft has not given up on the Duo 2. In fact, the company has consistently monthly software updates released to address the many issues the Duo 2 had at launch. Some of these updates consisted of simple security patches and minor bug fixes, while others, such as the recent June update, included more significant fixes and new features. Crucially, Microsoft addressed the touch latency issues that were common 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 original complaints with the Duo 2, I took advantage of a recent price cut (the phone can now available for $1,000, which is still expensive, but significantly lower than the 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 achieve with this device when notable bugs get in the way.

And reader, I can finally say I get it. The Duo 2 is the most unique mobile device I’ve used, allowing me to do things I just can’t with a traditional smartphone. It also does certain things, like multitasking and reading ebooks, better than the Z Fold 3’s single large screen.

A Kindle eBook spanning both screens of the Microsoft Surface Duo 2

Reading Kindle books remains one of the best experiences on the Duo 2.

The Pocket Android app displays an article on both screens of the Surface Duo 2 while in portrait orientation.

Rotating the Duo 2 to portrait orientation with both screens open gives you a large iPad Mini display for reading vertically scrolling articles or taking handwritten notes.

Over the past month, I’ve used the Duo 2 for reading many books in the Kindle app, which takes advantage of the dual screens to provide a more book-like experience than any other device. I managed my inbox and calendar at the same time; I edited Google Docs while tracking a Slack conversation. I used the Slim Pen 2 to take handwritten notes in OneNote. I’ve read numerous articles in my Pocket queue where the app has been stretched across both screens and the Duo 2 has been turned into portrait mode. I’ve watched so many videos on both screens that I don’t even notice the small gap anymore. There’s something undeniably satisfying about completing a task on the Duo 2 and then folding it like a book and slipping it into my pocket.

The Duo 2 hasn’t replaced my primary smartphone as I use it for a variety of tasks: messaging, calling, photos, smart home control, music, and mobile payments on my iPhone; reading, multitasking, taking notes and YouTube on the Duo 2. I’ve yet to take a call on the Duo 2 because unless you’re using wireless earbuds it’s terribly inconvenient to do this. Most of the time, I’ve used the Duo 2 exactly like an iPad Mini, except it folds in half and fits in my pocket. It’s not even right 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 at launch, but moved away from that marketing with the Duo 2.)

Microsoft has made the Duo 2’s camera app faster and more responsive, but I’ve never used it to take pictures. It’s just too clumsy to take pictures, and that’s what I have my iPhone for. In fact, I’d prefer it if the clunky rear hump and camera were gone altogether and the Duo 2 retained the sleeker 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 a challenge to use as a primary phone. There is 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 the “hinge screen” in the June update doesn’t change this fact.) It’s a much more intentional device than flat phones that can be easily unlocked and used with one hand when you want to kill some time in line at the supermarket. Samsung’s Z Fold 3 is a much better standalone device for replacing both a phone and a tablet, simply because you can still use it when folded.

A black Surface Duo 2 with the Surface Pen's bumper cover attached.

The Duo 2’s form factor makes it difficult to protect against damage. I’ve resorted to using the Surface Pen’s bumper case and a vinyl skin, but I still handle it with velvet gloves (not pictured).

The Duo 2 is also far from a durable device. While I haven’t broken anything in the last month – and I’ve used it again, it lacks both water and dust resistance, so you don’t want to get it wet. The design makes it extremely difficult to set up a case and maintain the flexibility of the hinge. (I’ve resorted to Microsoft’s Surface Pen charging dock and bumper along with a Dbrand skin.) Even though it’s folded shut when I’m not using it, it’s not something I’d just throw in a pocket with keys and loose change. for fear of something getting stuck 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 are those made by Microsoft, despite the Duo 2 being out for eight months now. There are still times when an app or link opens on the screen other than what I expect, or gesture to an app in full screen fails. Pen input into anything other than Microsoft’s own apps is still lousy. I don’t think I’ve ever used the drag and drop feature because it’s supported in so few apps that it’s not worth remembering that it exists.

Things may get better with the upcoming Android 12L update, which is designed to improve the experience on foldable devices like the Duo 2 and Fold 3. But I guess even after that update I still have most apps on a single screen.

All that is to say, despite the updates and bug fixes, the Duo 2 still won’t be a phone for everyone or even most people. It is best suited as a secondary device for specific tasks, just as an iPad or tablet is secondary to your smartphone. Even with the recent price cut, it’s still more expensive than an iPad or other small tablet. It’s only ideal for those who appreciate taking it with them in more places on the go, even if they already have another phone in their other pocket.

A black Microsoft Surface Duo 2 closed and sitting on a placemat.

With many of the software bugs and issues resolved, the Duo 2 is getting closer to fulfilling the dream of the 2009 Microsoft Courier concept.

There are rumors that Microsoft won’t launch Duo 3 this year, instead for 2023. That would give it more time to troubleshoot 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 pen without resorting to a crazy and expensive add-on case. A company’s recent patent application envisions a Duo-esque device that uses a single panel that can be folded 360 degrees instead of two separate screens attached with a hinge. I’m not sure what problem that would solve other than eliminating the gap between the screens when watching video, but it sure would look cool.

Anyway, if Microsoft stays committed to the Duo form factor and keeps repeating it, I’ll keep an eye on it. The Duo 2 has gone from 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 Verge

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