Surface Duo Review: Misunderstood And Underappreciated

By Patrick Moorhead - January 11, 2021
The author holding Microsoft's recently released Surface Duo.

I will be the first person to admit that I was only mildly interested when I initially heard about the Microsoft Surface Duo. My first smartphone was a Microsoft-powered HTC Titan, branded the XV6800 and made for UTStarcom. I loved that phone—it ran Windows Mobile 6 Professional Edition and came with Microsoft Office pre-installed on it. It was great for doing my homework when I didn't have my laptop. Of course, the interface was horrendous for a mobile phone, but none of us knew any better at the time—all we knew was Palm and Blackberry. Microsoft eventually updated Windows Mobile to 6.5 in a last-ditch to save the operating system before it canned everything for a new version. Finally, Microsoft migrated everything to Windows Phone 7, but that ultimately pushed all Microsoft's mobile developers to Android for trying to be too much like (sinking Nokia along with it).

A fresh new start

I give you all this history because my prior experience with a Microsoft mobile device was a mixed experience that ultimately left a bad taste in my mouth—hence my initial lack of enthusiasm at the  Surface Duo announcement. Still, I was curious to see what the company would do with its first Android device. Furthermore, I believed it was the right call not to run Windows, given the current state of mobile ecosystems. 

I struggle to call the Surface Duo a phone because aside from its cellular connection and dialer apps, it does not act much like one (aside from having a cellular connection and a dialer app to make and receive phone calls). And to be frank, I think most people of my generation and younger don't care much for the phone aspect of our mobile devices today; we prefer to chat and text much more than talk on the phone, and if we do use voice, it's usually in one of our many chat apps.

The Surface Duo design is in line with the rest of the Surface portfolio, which Microsoft successfully built up over the years as a premium brand. However, we can't call the Surface Duo  a premium Windows brand anymore—now it's a premium Microsoft brand. As such, nobody was surprised by how incredibly sleek and thin the device is. It's like nothing else on the market.

Growing pains

While I was not in the first round of reviewers who got the Surface Duo, I did get the device before it was available to the public. Unlike most reviewers, my experience was mostly positive. I attribute the discrepancy to the fact that I started using the device after the first major software update fixed many of the initial issues. Most of the Surface Duo’s software issues were fixed with the second major update. I do believe that this phone still has lots of room for improvement on the software side, but I also think that many people's expectations of this device were simply outside of what it was intended to do.

The Surface Duo is a misunderstood device that Microsoft designed to fit into a yet untapped niche. I believe that is why the Surface Duo doesn't have an outside screen or a three-camera array. There are a lot of people who don't particularly care that much for smartphone cameras, and some who aren’t even allowed to carry a device with a visible camera into their workplace. The Surface Duo does still have a front-facing camera, which can be flipped outward, but the user experience in my opinion is not really that great and feels like a compromise. However, there is a somewhat strong case to eliminate the Duo’s camera for users who might carry two devices around, using the Duo as their work-only device, 

Productivity powerhouse

I use dozens of phones per year and few devices have come close to matching the Surface Duo in terms of productivity. LG came pretty close with the V60 and dual screen setup as did Samsung with the Galaxy Fold line. Still, I believe the Duo’s dual screen design allows for the smoothest mutli-tasking experience in the industry. I believe this likely has to do with Microsoft's Surface Duo launcher and how it handles applications. I think there's still room for improvement on this launcher, though it’s gotten a little sharper with every Surface Duo update. 

I split most of my productivity between Google and Microsoft apps, all of which have worked extremely well side by side. That said, I do not see myself using the Surface Duo for writing documents or working on spreadsheets because I prefer to use a keyboard and mouse for those applications, which starts to enter laptop territory.  I do see myself using apps such as OneNote together with Teams when I'm not at my desk. I like the ability to have both my active apps open at the same time and without having to switch between them, and switching between apps on the Surface Duo is generally pretty easy.

Microsoft has explored some app pairings, where one app launches on each screen, such as Edge and OneNote, Outlook and Calendar, YouTube and Microsoft News and Office and Teams (the last of which I use frequently).  I actually use the Surface Duo as my back-up device for Teams if I'm not at my desk. For me, the most common app pairing is Gmail with Google Calendar so that I can see my schedule when scheduling meetings or calls. Additionally, when I'm taking a break, sometimes its nice to browse Twitter while watching TikToks or doomscroll through Facebook and Twitter simultaneously.

The first great dual-screen

Many have tried to make dual-screen work on Android and most have failed. I believe that Microsoft has made a very strong case for a dual-screen Android device as competition to some of the foldables out there like the Moto Razr, Samsung Galaxy Z Flip and Z Fold. Some people are not particularly sold on the foldable formfactor quite yet and many of them actually like the idea of a tight but functional hinged design with two screens. I think that Microsoft has really nailed this experience, albeit with some growing pains, and has shown that this form factor has real promise. Apps like Microsoft News fully utilize the dual-screen design in an intelligent way, which gave me some very exciting ideas about the future of mobile experiences. Obviously application developers have to enable this capability, but there are already some very compelling dual screen applications of the surface like extending the height of a standard webpage by using the device in "portrait" mode and extending the browser across both screens.

I am a big multi-tasker and I like to have many things open at the same time. I am that guy with 100+ Chrome tabs open, across 4 windows on 3 monitors. I also like to do photo editing, video editing and write simultaneously. So, naturally, the Surface Duo is my go-to device. However, while I really do wish that I could make the Surface Duo my daily driver for everything personal and business, there are some shortcomings that necessitate carrying at least 1 or 2 other devices in addition to the Duo.

A great first try 

While I have enjoyed the Surface Duo and I prefer to use it as my 'work' device over others, there are still lots of things that I would like to see Microsoft do with the second version. First, Microsoft needs to upgrade the camera and camera software. If the Duo is only going to have one front-facing camera, it needs to be much higher quality than what's currently on the Duo. Personally, I can't make the Duo my daily do-everything device because it doesn't have enough cameras or good enough cameras. Triple camera is the minimum for me on a flagship device and that's not going to change—I love taking pictures and I take lots of them.

While it’s forgivable that Microsoft didn't ship the Surface Duo with this year’s flagship processor, it's much harder to justify charging a $1,399 retail price for last year's. For a Surface product, one would expect the latest Snapdragon, either an 865 or 865+. Especially considering that without the latest Snapdragon, the Duo lacks both 5G and Wi-Fi 6 capabilities. I believe that these are all big misses on the device's productivity and performance capabilities. Faster connectivity and processing power all translate to a better productivity experience and that story has been pushed by virtually all of Microsoft's competitors in the space. I also believe that the 6GB of RAM the Duo ships with is low for a device being promoted for its ability to multitask and increase productivity. I believe that 8GB should be the minimum for any Android-based flagship, let alone one meant for productivity.

In terms of design, while the Surface Duo looks unique and extremely clean, it could benefit from a serious downsizing of the bezels at the top and bottom. The extremely thick bezels obviously hide a lot of the device's electronics, but I believe that many of the components should be smaller to enable either a larger display size in the same body or a smaller overall body. That said, the overall build quality is absolutely fantastic and the device feels and looks absolutely premium.. The Surface Duo design seems to elicit the same reactions from people as the first Surface PCs did—amazement and confusion.

What's next?

Microsoft needs to decide what its ambitions for Windows on ARM and Android are for the future. I think that Microsoft absolutely made the right call to launch the Surface Duo on Android and I don't think it should waver from that decision. That said, Apple has leaned heavily into its own M1 processor and, as my boss Patrick Moorhead has illustrated, even companies as big as Apple have growing pains. The Surface Duo is Microsoft's first real try at a smartphone since the company launched the last Lumia phones in 2016 with Windows 10 mobile. While there are many ways I believe that the Surface Duo could improve, especially in terms of system specifications and software maturity, there are glimpses of brilliance in there as well. As I used the Surface Duo more and more, I felt increasingly more productive and capable of multi-tasking in a way that I didn't think was possible on a mobile device. For that alone, I hope that Microsoft comes out with a second version with an improved design, better specs and more polished software.

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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.