Microsoft Surface Duo 2 review: Productivity powerhouse, this time with a decent camera
The Microsoft Surface Duo 2 is the second iteration of the company’s dual-screen smartphone efforts. The first iteration was not something we would call a success. At best, we could say that it got mixed reviews.
The original model had something that you could barely consider to be a camera. And when it launched at $1,399.99, it was using last-gen specs, such as a Snapdragon 855 and 4G LTE. The Surface Duo 2 fixes those things, and it even improves upon the software.
Navigate this review:
- Design: The Surface Duo 2 is the most beautiful piece of hardware I’ve used
- Camera: The Surface Duo 2 is a massive improvement, but it still needs work
- Performance: The Snapdragon 888 and 5G take the Surface Duo 2 to a new level
- Surface Duo 2 Pen Cover, and the Slim Pen 2
- Work and play: Does it make more sense to get a Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 3?
- Conclusion: Should you buy the Microsoft Surface Duo 2?
Microsoft Surface Duo 2 Specs
|Processor||Snapdragon 888 5G Mobile Platform|
145.2 mm (H) x 184.5 mm (W) x 5.50mm (T)
145.2 mm (H) x 92.1 mm (W) x 11.0 mm (T at hinge)
|Camera and video recording||Dynamic triple lens rear-facing camera:
|Storage and memory||
|Software||Microsoft built-in applications:
Microsoft Surface Duo 2 UI core features:
Other preinstalled apps:
Operating System: Android 11
|Video playback||Video Playback Formats:
*Wireless dependent on the TV/monitor support
|Security and authentication||
|Countries and carrier availability||Unlocked device for all carriers
|Ports||USB 3.2 Gen 2|
|Pen and inking||
|Price||$1,499.99 / $1,599.99 / $1,799.99|
The model that Microsoft sent me for review is the one with 256GB of storage, in Obsidian.
Design: The Surface Duo 2 is the most beautiful piece of hardware I’ve used
I know the header says this, but the Surface Duo 2 is the most beautiful piece of tech I’ve laid my eyes on. Seriously, this thing is a work of art, and you can feel it when you look at it. The original model only came in a white color called Glacier, but the new additional to the family is Obsidian. If you thought that Glacier was pretty, wait until you see this.
To be completely fair, the fact that it’s so beautiful is a detriment to the product. The biggest flaw in the Surface Duo 2 is that there’s no screen on the outside, so every time you want to use your phone, you have to open it. That’s a pain point. We’ll talk a bit about the Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 3 later on, but that’s a similar device that does have a display on the outside, and it works.
But here’s the thing. Part of me would rather give up that very basic functionality and ease of use in order to keep that black glass panel with the silver Microsoft logo. It’s just so pretty.
This really isn’t something that you want to compromise either. Many shouted down those that complained about the camera on the original Duo, but you have to remember that the goal is to have one device for everything. Even if productivity is the goal here, we have to remember that the user is replacing their personal smartphone with this, so it needs to be able to take proper pictures.
So yes, when you fold the display back 360 degrees, it can no longer lie flat against the other side. It’s fine though.
The only port is a USB 3.2 Gen 2 Type-C port on the bottom, which supports fast charging. There’s no headphone jack, and that’s no surprise given that this thing is just 5.5mm thin. It’s actually quite impressive how thin this thing is, even though it’s a bit thicker than its predecessor. I’m not complaining though. The engineering here is phenomenal.
The two screens are beautiful as well. It has two 5.8-inch AMOLED 1,344×1,892 displays that get 90Hz refresh rates and have 800-nit max brightness. The total pixel density is 401ppi. The colors are vibrant, the blacks are black, and it’s absolutely delightful. They support pen input from any MPP pen, and you can even get a case that will let you attach and charge the Slim Pen 2.
Sadly, the Slim Pen 2 haptics that feel like you’re writing on paper won’t work with this device. I’m told that that feature is coming later.
But the unnerving thing is that that’s precisely the area where the original Surface Duo failed. Microsoft shipped the product a certain way, and once it was on shelves, little was done to make it better. The problem with this strategy is that it leaves little confidence that the product will improve over time. It’s an area where Microsoft could really learn from OnePlus.
One other thing to note about the display is that the curve around the back for what Microsoft calls the Glance Bar. It can be useful, but most of the time, it’s not really practical. It does show notifications as they come in, and it lights up when a call is coming in. But to check the time, it’s just as easy to open the device as it is to press the power button to light up the Glance Bar.
Camera: The Surface Duo 2 is a massive improvement, but it still needs work
Like I said earlier, the camera in the original Surface Duo was a potato, so it’s nice to see the team put some actual effort into this one. The Surface Duo 2 has three rear camera lenses: 12MP f/1.7, 12MP f/2.4 2x zoom, and 16MP f/2.2 ultra-wide.
I’m pleased to say that the camera is decent. However, it certainly won’t be winning any awards. In daytime, it’s pretty easy to get right, although it does weirdly try super hard to focus on the middle of the viewfinder. That’s something that other OEMs worked out a while ago, that if your subject is not in the middle, it should still be focused on.
That’s a minor issue though, because the major issue is nighttime performance, and I’m not talking about the quality of photos. When you open up the Camera app at night, the frame rate in the viewfinder drops to a point where it actually gets hard to use. It’s even harder to focus on the subject that you’re trying to focus on. This is an area that I judge based on how many images I have to delete after testing. It was a lot for this phone.
One thing that’s quite cool is that you can do more with the two screens. With the viewfinder on one screen, your image gallery is on the other. Tap an image in the gallery, and the other screen shows editing options. This wasn’t possible with the original Duo because there was no rear camera, so the display has to be folded 360 degrees to take a picture.
These are the samples I took:
I really do like the way that the camera handles colors and such. Everything about it is just so much better than the original Surface Duo.
It’s a key change. I don’t care how much this device is aimed at productivity. It’s still a smartphone, and it has to be good at the things that smartphones do. Having a passable camera is one of those things.
Performance: The Snapdragon 888 and 5G take it to a new level
Honestly, if something ships with a last-gen processor, I’m not too mad at it. I personally believe that flagship smartphone processors offer more power than most consumers will know what to do with. So last-gen chipsets are fine, but not in a $1,400 smartphone, and that was the case with last year’s model.
Now, the Surface Duo 2 is specced out. It comes with a Snapdragon 888, which is the latest from Qualcomm, and it has 5G connectivity. I turn 5G off, of course, because despite living in such close proximity to New York City, T-Mobile’s 5G is still much slower than 4G LTE for me.
So, what can you do with all of the power you get from a Snapdragon 888? That’s a whole lot of productivity right there. And yes, the additional processing power does help in running two apps side-by-side, something you’ll be doing a lot with this device. If you’re not running two apps side-by-side, I’m not sure why you’d be looking at the Surface Duo 2 at all.
It’s pretty cool to see that Microsoft has done a lot with the second screen. From using it as a gaming controller to using it to edit photos and more, it’s impressive.
It’s also got a 4,340mAh battery, something that I never had trouble getting through the day with. At worst, it was on 35% when I put it on the charger at night. Sadly, the fast charging isn’t that fast at 23%, so it’s not like a OnePlus 9 Pro where I can just tell you that if the battery dies, you can just charge it for a few minutes. There’s no wireless charging either, sadly.
Surface Duo 2 Pen Cover, and the Slim Pen 2
When Microsoft first announced the Surface Duo 2, it also shown off the Pen Cover, something that wasn’t available at launch. It’s here now though, and frankly, it was one of the things that I found most interesting about the device.
First of all, you can attach a pen to the Surface Duo 2 via the magnets that are already built into the device. It won’t stay on very strongly, and it won’t be straight. This was a workaround that was found in the original Surface Duo as well. With the new Pen Cover, the Slim Pen 2 not only properly attaches to the device, but it wirelessly charges.
There are a few things to note about the design of the case. First of all, it comes in both Obsidian and Glacier, so you can match it with the model you bought (or not). It’s also matte, so you’re going to lose that beautiful, glossy look of the Duo 2, not that the case itself isn’t beautiful. It’s just pretty in a different way.
It also only covers the front. As you can see from the image above, the back is mostly unprotected. There’s a bumper that goes around the sides too, and those little pieces attach via an adhesive, meaning that once you put it on there, you should keep it on there if you want to ever use it again.
The other thing to note is that the Slim Pen 2 increases the gap when the display is folded at 360 degrees. Of course, if you’re buying this case at all, you’re probably way more interested in the productivity implications of having the pen with you than you are with a slightly larger gap.
This product costs $64.99, and that doesn’t include the Slim Pen 2. The pen is an additional $129.99, so after taxes, this all costs well over $200.
I actually think that it’s totally worth it. Adding a pen to this device adds a whole new dimension to it. As I’ve said when talking about the Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 3, I love the idea of handheld devices with pen support. It’s useful to take handwritten notes, and you can use one screen for being on a call while you’re using the other to take notes in OneNote.
As of right now, the Surface Duo 2 doesn’t support the haptic feedback that you get from the Surface Pro 8 or Surface Laptop Studio. It’s meant to make it feel like you’re writing on paper, and it’s pretty great. Microsoft told me that this is coming later.
Work and play: Does it make more sense to get a Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 3?
I don’t care what anyone says. The Surface Duo 2 is not a foldable phone. It’s a dual-screen device with a hinge. This is the point where you have to start asking, is it better to have a foldable or a dual-screen device?
Both devices are more similar than you might realize. Microsoft and Samsung have a strong partnership where the Galaxy Z Fold 3 has some solid integrations with Windows and other Microsoft 365 services. Both are priced similarly as well.
There are pros and cons to each. The foldable display on the Galaxy Z Fold 3 will likely break down sooner than two traditional displays would, so that’s a mark in favor of the Duo. On the other hand, the Galaxy Z Fold 3 unfolds into one big display.
With the Surface Duo 2, you can force any app to span both screens. Sadly, that doesn’t work very well for a lot of media consumption, as you can see from the Comixology app above. You’ll also have to look at that split if you’re watching videos.
The Amazon Kindle app is great though. It’s actually made for dual screens, and there’s even an animation that looks like you’re turning the page in a book. Weirdly though, the virtual page is anchored to the left side of the left screen, rather than the middle of the two screens. Either way, the Surface Duo 2 is a great Kindle reader. Of course, so is the Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 3.
Take a look at the Outlook app as well. One screen shows you all of your emails, and the other shows the email you’re reading. Using one pane for navigation and the other for content is probably the most natural, but the problem is that the industry has already come to a natural solution. That’s because we have a whole tablet market, where app designers have already been using one side for a navigation pane, and they are not splitting the screen at 50%.
Both the Surface Duo 2 and the Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 3 are fantastic Microsoft phones. If you’re into Microsoft services, either one deserves your attention. I have to say though, in most situations, I think the big foldable screen is the way to go.
Conclusion: Should you buy the Microsoft Surface Duo 2?
Now, here’s the question. Should you buy this $1,500 dual-screen smartphone? It would be hard to fault you if you did. In fact, it’s so easy to just look at this thing and fall in love with it at first sight. It’s so beautiful, and the AMOLED screen is so easy on the eyes.
Overall though, I do quite love the Surface Duo 2. There’s something about it that’s pleasant and delightful, and the productivity aspect of it is real. If you spend a lot of time working on the go, you’ll find that it’s super useful to have one app on one screen and another app on the other.
Microsoft really did a great job with this one. The camera is improved, and most importantly, the software is a lot better. I just hope that the Redmond firm continues to do well with it by servicing it with software updates.