The Surface Duo 2 Is Not Good

Maybe it's time for Microsoft to give up on dual-screen phones.

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Microsoft Surface Duo 2
Photo: Sam Rutherford

We’re already seeing the third generation of foldable phones, but dual-screen handsets remain exceedingly rare—possibly for good reason. But that didn’t stop Microsoft from bursting onto the scene last year with the Surface Duo and trying to pick up where the last major dual-screen phone, the ZTE Axon M, left off. Now the Surface Duo 2 is here, and while Microsoft has packed in a lot of upgrades (inside and out), I’m still not sold on dual-screen phones. In fact, I’m pretty sure Microsoft should stop trying.

A Foldable Phone That Looks Like a Book

One of the best things about the original Surface Duo was its design, which featured ultra-thin glass displays held together by a nifty hinge and virtually no awkward angles or unsightly protrusions to break up its minimalist lines. It looked as if Microsoft re-engineered a hardcover book for the 21st century, and even if you didn’t like the device itself, there was no denying it was beautiful.

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The Surface Duo is now available in both black and gray (whoa, get excited), but its general design hasn’t deviated much from last year’s model. In fact, Microsoft has tweaked a number of little aspects that make the Duo 2 look and feel even better before. The Duo 2's hinge is smaller, while its bezels are thinner and its screens are slightly larger at 5.8 inches each (or 8.3 inches combined) without increasing its overall dimensions. Heck, Microsoft built the Duo 2's fingerprint sensor into its power button so the weird divot on the side is gone. And it seems Microsoft even listened to feedback about the edges of the first Duo being a bit too sharp, because on the Duo 2, they’re a bit more rounded, which makes the device much more pleasant to hold.

Microsoft Surface Duo 2
Photo: Sam Rutherford
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Microsoft also rounded out the edges of the Duo 2's display on the side closest to the hinge, which allows you to see things like the time, notifications, and charging status (when the phone is plugged in) using the Duo’s new Glance Bar. It’s a clever feature, and on a phone that basically requires two hands to open before you can really use it, it’s also really useful.

Of course, there’s one new component that doesn’t really jive with the Duo 2's new streamlined design: a huge camera hump in back. I get why Microsoft wanted to put a nice rear camera module on the Duo 2—the only camera on the original was the selfie cam mounted above the phone’s right screen, and people hated it. But I really don’t think a camera this big or bulky was the way to go. Not only does it look like it was just tacked on the back of the phone like an afterthought, but the camera module also makes it impossible to open the phone a full 360 degrees.

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Microsoft Surface Duo 2
That huge camera bump feels like a rather brutish solution to improving photography.
Photo: Sam Rutherford

This means there’s a gap between both halves of the phone when you’re trying to use it in single screen mode, which increases its thickness and makes the whole thing feel much less sturdy. Without much effort, you can even bend parts of the phone opposite of its cameras to the point where its corners touch. Now it’s true that Microsoft has made some small adjustments to alleviate some of the stress, like giving the camera module a slightly slanted design so that its screen sits flat on its rear camera when folded back. But for such an elegant device, the Duo’s camera module remains a rather brutish solution, and that’s before we even talk about the kind of pictures it produces.

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Flagship Performance, Finally

One of the biggest misfires about the original Surface Duo was its weak hardware, which included a Qualcomm Snapdragon 855 chip that was already outdated at launch. Microsoft packed a current-gen Snapdragon 888 chip, a respectable 8GB of RAM, and 128GB of base storage (though sadly, no support for microSD cards) into the Duo 2. That gives the device a big performance boost, putting it on the same playing field as Samsung’s Galaxy S21 Ultra and other super premium Android phones. It also fared slightly better than the Pixel 6's Tensor chip on some tests, like Geekbench’s multicore CPU benchmark.

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Microsoft also upgraded the Duo 2's two 1892 x 1344 AMOLED displays with 90Hz refresh rates, which makes everything from gaming to simply scrolling down websites look and feel noticeably smoother. And while the Duo 2 is still running Android 11 (and likely won’t see an update to Android 12 for many months), a lot of the multitasking issues and general performance bugs have been fixed and polished too.

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However, one aspect of the Duo 2's performance that still feels somewhat rough is its touch response. I’ve been using the Duo 2 for weeks, and I’m not sure if it’s a calibration issue, wonky settings, or inputs that just don’t get recognized, but for some reason, even simple gestures like swiping up to open the app launcher or swiping down to open the notification tray often require multiple attempts to go through. It’s hugely frustrating, particularly when you first boot up the phone, because sometimes it feels like the Duo 2 is straight up ignoring you. I’ve asked other folks to test out Duo 2's touch response just to make sure it wasn’t just me, and some people thought it was broken. I started to get used to it, but navigating through menus and even switching between apps just doesn’t feel as smooth or intuitive as it should.

Big Cameras Shoot Bad Photos

Microsoft Surface Duo 2
Photo: Sam Rutherford
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It might be OK to stick huge cameras on the back of a phone if they shoot really great photos, but that’s not what you get on the Surface Duo 2. The Duo 2 sports a rear camera module that sticks out twice as far as the one on the Galaxy Z Fold 3, and you get noticeably worse pictures. When compared to the Pixel 6, the Duo 2's cameras are even more terrible.

The main camera woes come down to image processing. In a typical daytime shot of a flower, the Duo 2 completely oversaturated the flower’s petals, which turned the flower into a bright magenta blotchy mess. In another shot of a baseball field, the Duo 2's pic look desaturated and lifeless. Even the Duo 2's ultra-wide-angle camera looks grainy and blurry compared to the one on the Pixel 6. And this is all before the lights go down, which is when the Duo 2 really struggles.

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In addition to weak image processing, the Duo 2 also lacks a lot of dedicated shooting modes, the most important of which is a dedicated night mode. And while Microsoft does include an automatic low-light function, it’s not enough to salvage the Duo 2's nighttime pics. In one shot of a basketball court at night (even with a few nearby streetlights), the Duo 2's pic looks more like an impressionist painting than an actual photo, and in another more challenging shot, the result is so dark and grainy that if I didn’t know better, I’d assume the phone was two or three years old.

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Now I know I’m being harsh, and that in many cases the Duo 2's cameras are more than serviceable. And for Microsoft, who hasn’t invested as heavily into mobile photography as Apple, Google, Samsung, and others, it’s probably not a surprise to learn that the Duo 2's cameras are lackluster. But for a phone this expensive and with a camera module this big, just producing passable shots isn’t good enough.

Solid Battery Life, but No Wireless Charging

Microsoft Surface Duo 2
Photo: Sam Rutherford
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With a time of 14:36 in single screen mode, the Duo 2's battery easily outpaced the 12:36 smartphone average, though that time did drop significantly to 10 hours flat when I did a second test with both screens going. Still, in everyday conditions, I found the Duo 2 was easily able to last throughout the day, though you shouldn’t expect much after that.

My bigger issue is that even with upgraded 23-watt wired charging, Microsoft still didn’t include support for wireless charging, which is a real unfortunate omission on a flagship phone (not to mention no real form of water resistance).

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The Dual-Screen Future

Microsoft Surface Duo 2
Photo: Sam Rutherford
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After weeks of testing, I still feel really conflicted about the Surface Duo 2. When it comes to multitasking, it’s not hard to see the Duo’s potential. Two screens make it super easy to have multiple apps running at the same time, or to see the camera app, Outlook, and more in an expanded view—effectively putting more information at your fingertips. I even think Samsung could learn a thing or two from Microsoft about multitasking on mobile phones, as moving apps between different screens or making app pairs often feels more intuitive on the Surface Duo 2 than the Galaxy Z Fold 3.

The big problem is that even though the Surface Duo 2 costs $300 less than a Z Fold 3 (and that’s before discounts or promotions), the Z Fold 3 offers so much more for the money. Its battery life is longer, it takes way better photos, and it has high-end features like water-resistance and wireless charging you’d expect on a super premium device—not to mention the lack of a gap between its displays and a handy exterior screen for easier use. Putting that huge rear camera module on the back of the Surface Duo 2 makes the phone even more of a two-handed device than it was before, and it often feels clunky and cumbersome.

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Microsoft Surface Duo 2
Even though the Duo 2 is thinner, that extra wideness means it’s not that much sleeker or more portable than the Z Fold 3.
Photo: Sam Rutherford

But I still appreciate what Microsoft is trying to do. Dual monitors are fantastic at a desk, so why not do something similar on a phone? That’s basically the idea behind the Surface Duo and Duo 2. I love reading books and comics on the Duo 2, and the virtual touch controller when playing games on Xbox Game Pass feels like the best thing about the legendary Xperia Play has been updated for 2021.

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It makes so much sense for business users who might not care as much about camera quality that I’m surprised Microsoft isn’t trying to pitch the Duo 2 harder at the enterprise market—especially considering all the companies already paying for corporate Office 365 subscriptions.

However, I also worry about the Surface Duo 2's design. It’s been billed as the thinnest 5G device on the market, and it is. But the smartphone thinness wars ended years ago, and if that thinness came at the expense of features like wireless charging, longer battery life, a smaller camera bump, or improved durability, that’s not a compromise that was worth making.

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Microsoft Surface Duo 2
Photo: Sam Rutherford

As much as I love the idea of a really good two-screen phone, ultimately I think Microsoft is better off continuing the Duo line with a big foldable phone instead of a dual-display one. From a pure hardware standpoint, the Galaxy Z Fold 3 does everything the Duo 2 can, but better. Both phones even have native stylus support, but let me ask you: Would you prefer to draw on a big screen with a gap in the middle, or one with a single continuous display (albeit with a light crease down the center)?

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In a lot of ways, it feels like Microsoft spent so much time addressing the original Surface Duo’s shortcomings, that it didn’t have time to add new features to the Surface Duo 2. And in a gadget landscape that shifts so quickly from year to year, treading water isn’t something Microsoft can really afford to do with its flagship dual-screen phone. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what it did.