Microsoft Surface Duo review: Cool design, janky performance – CNET

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Phones are like lifeboats, now. iPads ($270 at Back Market) and Chromebooks are classrooms. VR is my escape pod. Every device in my house has taken on a special purpose, connecting to schools, work, and everywhere else in some sort of insane clockwork dance. I pick my tools carefully. Experimentation happens, of course, but things need to work. This is the life of gadgets in our overburdened virtualized world, 2020.

The Microsoft Surface Duo seems at first like the perfect little device for this new work-from-home world. Two screens instead of one. Extra space, more apps. A phone that becomes a tablet. (And yes, it’s a real phone with a SIM card and everything.) And it costs $1,400 (about £1,070 or AU$1,960). This is encouraging. While I’ve never found dual-screen phones appealing, the Surface Duo arrived promising a well-thought-out argument for being useful.

From the outside it looked promising. I like the feel, the hinge. But if only the experience was as good on the inside. My time using the Surface Duo has been a rough ride through what feels like not-fully-baked software, and so far it most definitely has not convinced me of the value of dual screens. In particular, the sense of flow that the Duo aspires to — that feel of things working well together, the device not getting in the way — hasn’t been there for me.

Like

  • Beautiful thin design
  • Sturdy hinge can bend and stay in any orientation
  • Sharp OLED screens are good for documents and reading
  • Supports Microsoft Pen

Don’t Like

  • Laggy, buggy software
  • Few apps support cross-screen multitasking
  • Not great for full-screen movie watching
  • Just one not-good camera
  • No 5G

There are some things the Duo does do well: Its feel and shape are compelling. It can stand up at multiple angles, which normal phones can’t do. The bonus screen can come in handy as an extra help at times, although I found I needed it less than I’d expected. (Scanning something like Twitter or Slack is helpful, but multitasking with keyboard input can get weird.) And if the dual screen stuff gets frustrating, well, it can be folded over and used as a single-screen phone. It’s perfectly fine at that — but that’s not why you’d get a Surface Duo, is it?

And, this Duo is arriving alongside the Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 2, a more expensive $2,000 (£1,799 or about AU$3,270) phone that’s thicker, but has a nearly seamless folding display (rather than two hinged displays), multiple cameras, 5G, a better processor, and more RAM. I haven’t used the Z Fold 2, but my colleague Jessica Dolcourt did, and she loved it. I don’t know if I’d like the Z Fold 2 any better than the Surface Duo, but The Z Fold 2 is Samsung’s second-year effort on folding phones. The Surface Duo ends up seeming, by comparison, like an idea that could still use another year of fleshing out. But even if the Z Fold 2 never existed, I’d still feel dissatisfied with aspects of the Surface Duo.

Here is a summary of my psychological state with this product: the Five Stages of Duo Acceptance.


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