Microsoft Surface Duo review and my thoughts on foldable devices

So, back again after another long non-blogging stint, with a short review of the Microsoft Surface Duo which Microsoft Europe was so kind to let me have one for a spin for a month. It’s a very compelling device with a nice form factor proposition, but it’s also terribly niche I’m afraid. Anyway let’s jump into the review and my following thoughts on the foldable hype that’s slowly starting to emerge.

Microsoft Surface Duo: a new form factor

When I saw the Surface Duo being introduced alongside the (cancelled?) Surface Neo foldable in late 2019 I was blown away like everyone else by the idea of having two screens, folding together in a small enough package to fit a pocket. Like Microsoft I could see the potential of having two seperate screens instead of one big actual folding screen, effectively elevating multitasking on a mobile device to the next level.
So I turned to Microsoft NL’s Paul Honout to see if I could get a loaner to experience this device myself, and I could have a Surface Duo for a period of four weeks. In these four weeks I popped in the SIM from my work and tried to get a good impression from it as a daily driver. I’m not gonna do an in-depth review of the complete device, as there are already so many good reviews on the web available like on WindowsCentral for instance, but more an experience of the device in daily use and what one should expect of it. Anyway; so I big thanks to Microsoft and to Paul for this chance to get my hands on a Surface Duo!
And by the way: Microsoft did not in any way expect this blog or any of it’s content to be published at all let alone influence its content. There will be critiques… πŸ˜‰

The hardware

This is always one of the best moments of a Surface reveal: Panos Panay emphasizing the wonderful enginering of the hardware. Like said in many of the reviews: you have to hold it in your own hands to really appreciate how stupid thin each half of this device is. It really breathes the simplicity of design that Panos likes so much, with a very clean exteriour without a single protrusion. So a design without compromises. For the design this holds true, but that (sort of automatically) causes some usability issues (on which I will elaborate later).
I’ve got some photo’s here, some together with some other devices to get some idea of porportion:

It truly is a marvel of enginering: the incredible thinness of the seperate halves of the device, the hinge and how sturdy that feels, the quality of the screens and them being exactly identical in presentation, the glass exteriour, etc. It’s a stunner to hold and behold.

As you can see the Surface Duo can be put into different so called ‘postures’, like the book mode when you have the two screens next to eachother openend. But there’s also a tent mode or a phone brick mode where you fold one screen over the back and use the remaing front one (the rear one shuts down automatically).
And then ther’s the laptop mode where you put it on a table and use the bottom screen for the keyboard (or another task) when on Teams for example.

Both screens support a Surface Pen for inking which turns the Surface Duo into a sort of a digital Moleskin.

Because of the design there is just one camera to be found on the device; right above the right screen, so in the ‘inside’ of the device. And here is where the first usability issues start to arise…

Usability

To be fair: this chapter is of course strongly dependant on what you expect from this device. And to get an idea of that, we also need to know a bit more of the history of the device…
The Surface Duo used to be known as project Andromeda (which in itself is a resurection of the infamous Courier prototype) and envisioned the smallest and most mobile computing device in the Surface range. However… originally this device was supposed to run some modern version of Windows which we have know for a brief time as Windows 10X before it was cancelled and rolled into Windows 11. So basically the Surface Duo is Andromeda with Android slapped onto it. That implies -if you like it or not- that it is a phone in the perception of most people. Panos could not stress enough in 2019 that this device should not be viewed as a phone, but that’s almost impossible.
According to most people a phone needs to be narrower to hold when in phone mode, and it needs to have a better solution for the camera.

So: what is Surface Duo? Is it an ultra portable computer to get work done on the go which happens to be capable of making regular phonecalls? Or is it a phone that can transform into a workstation?
In my humble opinion it is neither and I think that is due to being version 1.0 of the product and also the lacking software. First of all it wasn’t ment to run Android, so everything after that becomes a compromise. The biggest compromise here is the lack of true useful multitasking scenarios, like being able to drag and drop an image or file from an app on the left into an email attachment on the right for example.
Without basic integrations like this, touting this device as a productivity machine falls short pretty quickly. At the same time taking a call on it without some sort of headset feels downright awkward because the device is so wide.

The good

There are a few things at which I think it’s already really good: notetakingΒ  and doing Teams meetings. The Android Teams app works well with the different postures of the Duo and in ‘laptop mode’ you can have the call on the top screen, while chatting on the lower screen (or do something other meeting related task).
For notetaking there should be better apps, but Microsofts Onenote and Sticky Notes (in the Launcher) will do for now. But there remains work to be done here.

The camera (the bad)

The camera seems to have been an afterthought, or if take the Andromeda perspective: a pretty damn good webcam. But since it is on the inside, above the right screen, it takes some weird folding action to turn it into a regular camera phone: you’ll fold the device screens inside-out so the left screen will be your viewfinder while you point the lens above the right screen at your subject.
The posture switching of the Duo is a true disaster at doing this, so you can forget about snapping that quick picture. Half of the time the device isn’t capable of working out what is going on and leaves the wrong screen on, or both on or whatever… It’s a good thing this has already been adressed in the Surface Duo 2, but the experience in this version 1.0 is close to unusable. Apart from that the camera quality could be better, but it isn’t as horrible as many a review would lead you to believe.

Here are some examples:

Will version 2.0 be better?

I’ve had the Surface Duo for a full month this spring of 2021, and by the time I finally publish my thoughts on this device Microsoft has already released the Surface Duo 2. This version 2.0 addresses a lot of the shortcomings of the first Duo: it has an up-to-speed SOC with the Snapdragon 888, it has NFC now so you can do mobile payments and best of all: it has a seperate camera island on the rear with three lenses and they’ve added a selfie camera above the right screen for the video calls.
So, the hardware should be all up to speed now and fix most gripes people had with the device. Especially the weird photo taking experience.

However I think they should have changed the design as wel. The Duo (2) now consists of two screens in aspect ratio of 3:4 which makes the Duo very wide to hold (simply too wide for small hands like mine). Both screens together make up an 3:2 screen when the device is folded open in book mode.
In my humble opinion that’s a weird choice for a mobile folding device. If you ask me it should have been two screens of 2:3 aspect ratio, maing the phone quite a bit narrower (en we’re used to 9:21 anyway) whilst forming a 3:4 screen when folded open. To me this would make a lot more sense…

The main form factor: two screens that fold into a Moleskin like note-taking and productivity device is compelling. However, the execution still leaves a lot to be desired. Like making it just that tad smaller/narrower, as I mentioned just now, but mainly also the software. The software is still buggy (at least on this Duo 1.0 it was, but it remains buggy on the Duo 2 as well). Gestures were over sensitive and I have reverted to using the standard Android Navigation bar many times. The Launcher had its problems (see picture below) and then there were the postures at which the Duo was bad at picking the right one (I get it: this is probably hard to nail on a device like this).

My setup for ultra mobile work

So, who is this Surface Duo for? Well, you tell me…
At first it seems very promissing with its proposition of a multitasking beast that can get work done. But the software is too lacking in this space and you really need to make an efffort to be really productive on this device. If you consider joining meetings being productive, then maybe is a good machine, but I feel it could do so much more. And to do that it needs to become a bit more of a phone, and at the same time bring over a lot more and better productivity features like drag and drop actions.

For me personally it just doesn’t cut it. When I need to do some mobile work, I boot up my 8 inch ultra mobile 2-in-1 laptop (pictures below). This can be used as a tablet and as a laptop and has pen support. But best of all: it has a physical keyboard and IMHO that’s what you really need when you want to get some proper work done on the go.

True, it’s heavier and a bit bulkier but it offers so much more capability without jumping through hoops like connecting an external keyboard and mouse and RDP my way into some serious functionality. Not to mention that it has ports!

Where will foldables go?

Well, I don’t really know yet. All the different manufactureres who have foldable devices in their portfolios right now are still trying to figure that out I guess. But now that the technology is here, we’ll see a lot of different experiments and propositions emerging all around us. Microsoft clearly went with the dual monitor office setup in your pocket as I’d like to call the Surface Duo, while the competition in the form of Samsung is going for two very different formfactors: a phone form factor that folds open into a tablet (the Z Fold series), and a regular slab sized phone your can fold in half to fit any ladies jeans (the Z Flip series), neither of these doing the dual-screen multitasking proposition.

You could also argue that folding devices are a gimmick that is seeking an application, but aren’t clamshell computers in a way also foldables? You know: laptops and the old Windows CE palmtops….?

So I guess what you’re looking for is a device that fits your needs. For me that is gonna be a smartphone that folds into a smaller package than what I’m used to now, and all my other computing needs will be met by other devices like my 8 inch mini laptop or my full office setup at home.
So for now I went with a Samsung Z Flip 3, so I can tuck away a decent smartphone into a small jeans pocket….Β  If I need full computing power, my mini laptop will be in my backpack and the ZFlip will then serve as its hotspot modem.

But I’ll keep a sharp eye on how this Surface Duo line will develop in the future, because a digital super Moleskin with built-in productivity in maybe a slightly narrower form factor still seems very compelling. Hopefully becoming a bit less niche and finally unifying both form factorsΒ  I carry right now.
And you know: even the smartphone took some 6 years to really take off with Apple eventually raising the bar by ‘reinventing’ it (ugh, that I would ever say this) when Microsoft was really one of the first to create this market.

PS: I just might burn some euro’s on the all-time low stock-clearing prices for the Duo 1 that pop up everywhere now 😋 I’ve already seen ’em as low as €500,00.