Surface Duo 2 Review: Huge Improvements To A Groundbreaking Design

By Patrick Moorhead - January 31, 2022
Surface Duo 2 MICROSOFT

Microsoft announced its next-generation Android smartphone, the Surface Duo 2, back in October, and I have been using the device for a few months now. The Surface Duo 2 is Microsoft’s second go at an Android device, and I think there are some admirable improvements over the last generation. 

The Surface Duo 2 is a unique device. It is a pioneering device in the smartphone ecosystem with its dual-display technology from a hardware perspective. From a software perspective, Android is a completely different ecosystem from Windows 11. I think these unique circumstances bring on an extra set of challenges for Microsoft. Although the Surface Duo 2 is far from perfect, I still believe it gives us a glimpse of future mobile productivity. Let’s take a look at my experience with the Surface Duo 2 and why I believe some of its biggest concerns could be remedied with time.

The design

The Surface Duo 2 has a slightly larger 8.30 inch PixelSense dual-display configuration with a 90Hz refresh rate. The display makes the device feel snappy, and along with the curved inside portions of both displays, it makes for a more fluid experience. Although the single display orientation has an unorthodox screen ratio, that is nothing new from a folding device. 

The curved edge also makes an appearance when the device is closed and, although I did not go to it as much as I previously thought, the curved edge doubles as a notification center. The curved glass is followed by a chrome bar on both displays that wrap around the device and transitions to the back where it meets the back glass. The back glass is slightly curved at the edges, giving it more of a figure than its predecessor. From the displays to the hinge to the back glass, the whole device feels and looks premium, much of what you would expect from a Surface device. It also comes in two colors instead of one like the Surface Duo with Glacier White and Obsidian. I love that Microsoft named the darker color Obsidian as a nod to the Obsidian block in Minecraft.

The Surface Slim Pen magnetically attaches to the back of the Surface Duo 2 with the Surface Duo 2 ... [+] MICROSOFT

The most notable difference, and probably the most controversial with respect to the last generation, is the protruding camera bump on the back. While I do not think it interferes with the original design of the Surface Duo as a productivity device, I believe it makes it more difficult to use one-handed. The triple camera lens keeps the device from folding back flush like the original Surface Duo was able to do. When holding the device in one hand and only using one screen, the device is like a wedge and, depending on which display you use. It tends to make one side top-heavy. It isn’t necessarily the wedge design that makes it uncomfortable. The weight distribution makes it more difficult to hold, especially since the device is already on the heavier side than other smartphones. The side that the device defaults to when closing it for one-handed use is the side that I think is the best for holding. The camera bump is on the inside of the palm and fills a gap already with the thumb while keeping the weight closer to the hand. It also keeps the fingerprint sensor that is housed on the home button useable. 

The camera

The Surface Duo 2’s rear-facing camera supports a 12MP Wide, 12MP Ultra-wide, and 16MP Telephoto lens with a flash and ToF sensor. It utilizes Qualcomm’s Spectra ISP and can record video in 4K at 60fps. Although the Surface Duo 2 is not the best and most premium camera on the market, it is better than last year’s lack of a back camera and perfect for the Surface Duo 2’s audience of productivity powerhouses and business workflows. The most obvious concern with the rear-facing camera is that users can only take photos when both displays are open. It is impossible to take photos with the Surface Duo 2 one-handed mode because the folded back display blocks the camera. I think this hinders the user’s ability to take action shots because in my personal experience, action shots are taken in many cases with one hand. 

Surface Duo 2 camera with a triple camera lens. MICROSOFT

I found the front-facing camera great for video calls as I did the first Surface Duo. I can have a video call open on one display and then a note-taking application on the bottom. The protruding camera bump also does not make the device top-heavy when lying flat for video calls. 

The Software

One of the biggest concerns of the first-generation Surface Duo was how buggy and out-of-sync the software was in using both displays. The first-generation Surface Duo ran on Android 10, which had little support for a dual-display configuration. I do want to give Microsoft credit, however, because successfully implementing a dual-display device is very difficult to do, and many have tried to create a dual-display android device and have failed. When considering that and the fact that it is Microsoft’s second Android device, there has to be some grace. Using the Surface Duo before it was released and using the Surface Duo 2, the software has been greatly improved. I believe Microsoft has gotten out of the early stages of software bugginess. Yes, there are times when it can be buggy, but for the most part, the software concerns are more so a jab at implementing two displays correctly. 

The idea behind the dual displays is the same idea of having two monitors for a desktop, and it is better for productivity than one large monitor. Similar to having multiple windows open at a time on a desktop to increase productivity, having multiple displays on a mobile device is better for productivity.

I will give an example of how the Surface Duo 2 is increasing my mobile productivity. Currently,  I am typing this blog on the Surface Duo 2 using a Logitech K480 with the Surface Duo vertically. I have Word opened at the top in the Office app, and I have my notes open at the bottom in OneNote. The difference between using the Surface Duo 2 over a device like the iPhone is that I cannot only type on a larger canvas thanks to the screen real estate, but I can have other apps open, and I don’t have to switch between apps constantly. 

The Surface Duo 2 with two apps opened and in use at one time. MICROSOFT

In workflows like the one I described above, the Surface Duo 2 can make a task on mobile relatively productive. However, some software concerns still need to be ironed out when we think about alternatives on the Android platform like a tablet or the Z Fold 3. For example, when using the OneNote badge, I cannot see where the badge is on the display until the device is oriented in a specific way. The keyboard frequently interferes with the other display when I want to look at the secondary display and type something on the other display. Use-cases like these make it less convenient to use than a traditional Android device and even shorten my time with the device because it takes too much time to try and figure out how to manipulate the device to do what I want. 

What I think is causing the bugginess and the software concerns have to do with the Microsoft Launcher. Like many other Android OEMs, the Surface Duo 2 comes with a custom launcher blanketed over Android. OnePlus has Oxygen OS, Samsung has One UI, which was changed from TouchWiz, and Microsoft has the Microsoft Launcher. What is unique about these launchers is that you can replace them with a different launcher on the Play Store. For the Surface Duo 2 and its Microsoft Launcher it does not play friendly with other launchers, and this is to be expected since most other launchers may not have the capacity yet to recognize that there are two displays. While it is understandable, its less about other launchers not recognizing the two displays than it is about the Microsoft Launcher recognizing that there is an alternative launcher being overlayed. 

While it may seem small and nit-picky, I also want to point out that the Microsoft Launcher was not made for the Surface Duo devices. It was configured and tweaked to work with the Surface Duo. The Microsoft Launcher existed long before the Surface Duo line. If Microsoft were to create a launcher specific to the Surface Duo and that is fundamentally made for a dual-display device, I think it could solve much of the software concerns present on the Surface Duo. For now, I think the Microsoft Launcher does its job well and handles the dual displays as expected. With time, Microsoft should replace the Microsoft Launcher with a more suitable and dual-display-specific Android overlay that adopts much of what it learned from the Microsoft Launcher. A new Android overlay will allow Microsoft to implement a more Windows 11 look and implement more dual display features. One feature that I could see for the Surface Duo 2 is a multi-windowed snap feature where you can have two apps open on each screen, similar to the Windows 11 snap feature.

Wrapping up

I think the Surface Duo 2 has a lot going for it, and although it has improved significantly on its software, I believe it still has room for improvement. Microsoft is going through the growing pains of pioneering a dual-display design, and it takes time. 

I do believe Microsoft has done a great job on the hardware side of things. The Surface Duo 2 is a premium-looking device and much of what you would expect from a Surface device. Although the protruding camera bump can be an inconvenience, I don’t think it compromises the overall experience of the Surface Duo 2 as a productivity device.

Note: Moor Insights & Strategy co-op Jacob Freyman contributed to this article.

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Patrick founded the firm based on his real-world world technology experiences with the understanding of what he wasn’t getting from analysts and consultants. Ten years later, Patrick is ranked #1 among technology industry analysts in terms of “power” (ARInsights)  in “press citations” (Apollo Research). Moorhead is a contributor at Forbes and frequently appears on CNBC. He is a broad-based analyst covering a wide variety of topics including the cloud, enterprise SaaS, collaboration, client computing, and semiconductors. He has 30 years of experience including 15 years of executive experience at high tech companies (NCR, AT&T, Compaq, now HP, and AMD) leading strategy, product management, product marketing, and corporate marketing, including three industry board appointments.