This is a 3 month post release review of the recently released Surface Duo folding phone by Microsoft.
Microsoft of course used to be king of mobile phones, not so much recently however and whereas an unconventional device like the duo is unlikely to put them back on top they have come up with a premium device for their core market – business oriented consumers. To that end I should point out that I have been reviewing it less as a phone and more as a replacement for the Ipad Mini, Kindle and a plethora of other digital devices I used as well as phone. Could you use it as a phone, sure, I think you could especially that most of my calls these days are over Slack, Skype and WhatsApp and the Surface Duo is a great device for those Applications.
I am reviewing the phone in the UK and I can confirm that the phone works very well. I have been using it on 4G with O2 and it works absolutely fine. The device of course does not have 5G support but given the general lack of 5G support on networks still in the UK and the extra cost associated with 5G then it is hardly a hardship.
The first things to comment on is the premium look and fee of the device, it really does look and feel qualitative and is a real head-turner.
It ships with a bumper that actually makes the device easier to hold providing some friction for your fingers to hold onto. That leads neatly onto one of the most amazing things about this device that I have seen mentioned in other reviews but perhaps has not had enough focus for a device of this size – the weight. It is so freakishly thin and light for the size of device it is. Having used the original Galaxy Fold and latterly the Galaxy Z Fold 2 I found using the Surface a duo a pleasure. No arm ache, no ‘tech neck’ because it’s not as heavy as those devices and the weight is more distributed because you tend to hold it like a book. It literally is a joy to use. Lets take a look at the comparative weights of some of those devices:
- iPhone 11 Pro Max – 226 Grams
- Microsoft Surface Duo – 250 grams
- Galaxy Fold Original – 276 Grams
- Galaxy Z Fold 2 – 279 Grams
- Huawei Mate X – 295 Grams
As you can see, something like the Z Fold 2 is a brick, and you really notice the heft of the device.
Another thing to mention is the shape of the screens and how wide they are. It almost reminds me of two BlackBerry Passports glued together because the screen reel estate has similar dimensions with the aspect ratio of each screen being 4:3. Each of the 5.6″ AMOLED displays have an 1800 x 1350 resolution providing a 401 pixel-per-inch density. When you combine the screens you end up with a 3:2 aspect ratio. When the Passport was released BlackBerry made a lot of noise about the shape provided a better reading experience and the same goes for the Surface. When you have been using the device you really notice the difference when you move back to a normal smartphone.
Next up lets talk about the elephant in the room, the camera. I’ve seen a lot of reviews focus on what they have generally regarded as a sub-standard camera compared to other ‘smartphones’. Therein however is the rub. I’m not sure you can really classify this as a smartphone device in the mild of other phones and I’m not sure that is the standard smartphone user is the target user that Microsoft went after for this device. They went after the user that is going to use the device to use a camera to chat over Microsoft Teams or Slack rather than your typically selfie obsessed teenager, and for that the camera is more than adequate. Actually after some recent software updates the camera is not that bad, sure its not as good as the iPhone or the Samsung camera but it takes adequate pictures particularly in decent lighting. The bottom line is that if you are looking for a ‘camera phone’ I don’t think the Surface Duo is the device you would be giving consideration too anyway.
As an aside there a few GCam ports kicking about that work really well on the Duo. Take a look at the Surface Duo sub-reddit to source one (where you can also pick up other tips and tricks) . Whilst we are on the subject of forum recommendations you may also want to join the Facebook Surface Duo group if you already have the device.
Let’s circle back to the software in general. This was another bugbear of early reviewers of the device. Three months on how is it looking ? Well, actually pretty good I believe. The device has had a couple of software updates with another one due and there have been numerous Microsoft Launcher and App updates that have knocked the rough edges off those early release experiences.
An update to the keyboard means it now spreads across both screen when in dual screen book mode making it much easier to type:
There are still occasionally some glitches but I still get some of those with my Note 10 so its hardly something exclusive to Microsoft and the Duo. With Microsoft’s commitment to monthly updates and Apps being updated frequently I would expect to see improvements continue and hope to see OS and App innovation increase.
From an App point of view there are still not a lot of Duo optimised Applications. Currently the list stands at:
- Adobe Acrobat Reader
- Amazon Kindle
- NOOK (Barnes & Noble )
- Google Play Books
- Jira Cloud
- Microsoft SwiftKey
- Microsoft Teams
- Microsoft To Do
- Microsoft Edge
- Microsoft Launcher
- Microsoft News
- Microsoft Office
- Microsoft OneDrive
- Microsoft OneNote
- Microsoft Outlook
- Microsoft Solitaire Collection
- Relay for reddit
- Sketch 360
- Google Chrome
- Google Docs / Sheets / Slides
Also Apps that function in tablet mode, when dragged into dual-screen mode, can offer Tablet functionality. The Sync Pro Reddit App is a good example of this, which when choosing dual column mode in landscape makes a great Reddit books style reader:
The Apps that are optimized however offer a great user experience. Lets take a look at a few:
This provider probably the closest experience to a desktop email reader that you are likely to get on a mobile device with your list of messages in the left window and the email content in the right:
Microsoft’s browser can be opened in two separate instances on each screen providing a great way to review web content.
It is ironic that the Surface Duo may just provide the greatest Ebook experience ever to date on a mobile device. It is without a doubt the closest I have come to feeling that I was actually reading a book.
The Google suite of Apps offers some limited support. In Gmail, when clicking to compose a new email the compose window will open on the second screen. Similarly for the Google office suite, select a document, sheet or slide from the first screen and it will open ready for you to work worth it on the second screen. The Chrome browser has just had a new feature released to open another instance of the browser on the second screen of dual screen enabled phones :
There is also a slow trickle of Apps that are being released by innovative developers keen to work around some of the rough edges. For example Duo Browser Helper opens a link clicked on one screen on the other screen in the web browser of your choice. Screenshot Snippet by the same developer automates the process of cropping the Surface Duo’s dual screen screenshot into one side of the screen.
Next lets move onto the device speaker. It is actually a mono speaker, although in truth I could not really tell. For me it is pretty loud, perhaps even louder than my Note 10, and it has a decent tone. I really have no complaints about it – it seems no better, no worse than any other Android smartphone or tablet speaker. I’ve seen comments from a couple of reviewers that the speaker sound is a little low, but that definitely has not been the case for me so perhaps a software update has rectified any early issue. There have also been plenty of reviewers bemoaning the fact that the speaker is mono on such a high end device and maybe that is a fair point but it’s not that bad in my opinion.
Early reviewers made the point that performance was stuttery and they attributed this to the Qualcomm Snapdragon 855 CPU which they pointed out is hardly a flagship CPU in 2020 (having been usurped by the SnapDragon 865 and 865+). After a month of use and a few software updates the devices is reasonably smooth. No noticeable slowdowns with software updates having taken care of the residual jerkiness of some of the swipe interactions. I’m pretty sure this will continue to improve over time as the software updates continue to ship.
Battery life is always something to watch out for with foldables that have duel screens but I have to say the battery life on the Duo is stellar easily getting through a whole day even with heavy usage.
The other issues I saw mentioned on launch as subsequently was Bluetooth which seemed to be hit and miss for many. For the devices I paired it with it has been fine, notably my Apple AirPod’s and a couple of Bluetooth Keyboards. I went for walks with the Duo and Airpod’s and it did not drop once. Again perhaps it was a result of recent software updates. As I was curious I tried to pair a number of different BlueTooth devices I had lying around and it was hit and miss. Some paired OK. Some seemed to pair but connected and then dropped out. I then tried the same devices that did not pair with the Surface Duo with my Note 10 and they could not hold a connection there either. I’m guessing perhaps they were using an old Bluetooth version although in theory Bluetooth is backwards compatible.
Lets take a look at it next to some other foldables:
Surface Duo and the Galaxy Fold
Surface Duo v LG Wing
Surface Duo v LG G8X
As a UK reviewer / user it’s difficult if not impossible to get hold of the new Microsoft bumpers and device cases (not that there appears to be many to choose from). I did find a case from a French company called Noreve who supply cases for Surface Duo’s that either have the bumper fitted or don’t. I took a look at the one that works with the bumper fitted and it its a snug fit with the bumper and adds a lot of protection, but it does add bulk.
I also tried out a case meant for an Amazon Kindle which actually works quite well and also fits in a Surface Pen along side.
From a screen protector viewpoint I’ve always preferred to fit matte screen to my devices as they are easier to read in direct sunlight. I found that this set of screen protectors from BProtect have worked very nicely with the duo.
There are skins you can also apply to the outer case of the phone, in fact you can probably see from the photos that I have one applied. You can source these from DBrand and SopiGuard. The black that I applied was from the latter.
So, in summary, three months on the device is more stable with a lot of the rough edges ironed out and I believe it’s starting to find its niche. The greatest compliment I can give it is that I will be keeping it and selling my iPad Mini !
Finally a shout out to BigAppleBuddy who shipped the device on which this review was based, a great place to buy tech not currently available in the UK.