Microsoft's new two-screen phone looks amazing but has lots of compromises

Key Points
  • The Surface Duo is Microsoft's two-screened phone that lets you run two apps side-by-side or make one app stretch across them to see more.
  • It starts at $1,399 and is available beginning Thursday.
  • The design is fantastic, but the camera isn't great, it lacks important features such as wireless charging and mobile payments and the software can be buggy.
You get two big screen inside the Surface Duo.
Todd Haselton | CNBC

Microsoft and Samsung are betting that future phones will look different from how they look now.

Samsung's betting on foldable screens inside phones that can open up to work like a tablet. Microsoft's testing the waters with the Surface Duo, which looks like a glass Moleskine notebook with two displays hiding inside. It's like having two monitors on your computer. You can run one app on one screen, another on the opposite, or one app across both. And, thanks to a fancy 360-degree hinge, you can swing it around so you're only looking at one display like a regular phone. Or prop it up like a tent to watch movies.

I've been testing the $1,399 Microsoft Surface Duo, which runs Google Android with special software to support the unique design, for the past several weeks. It has its shortcomings, but it's also a unique and fun gadget that's doing something totally different than any other product out there. And while I'll argue it's a phone because it can make phone calls, Microsoft has been hesitant to call it that and instead thinks of it as a totally new category of device. But, let's be honest ... it's a phone.

Microsoft Surface Duo

Microsoft isn't new to phones. Its Windows Mobile operating system was successful until the iPhone launched in 2007. Microsoft tried to respond with new Windows Phone software, which largely failed because there weren't enough apps. It acquired Nokia's devices division in 2013, another failure that ended in a $7.2 billion write-off in 2015. All of this is why Microsoft chose Google's Android software, which already has millions of apps and is familiar to people around the world, to power the Surface Duo.

The Surface Duo is not for everyone. It's for gadget enthusiasts and Office 365 diehards who want to run two apps at the same time on two different screens and, really, that's probably not a whole lot of people right now. We're accustomed to using one screen and one app at a time. But Microsoft is trying to change that, and it's made it clear this is a first-generation device and has drawn some comparisons to its unique new design and the first Surface tablet. The first Surface tablet wasn't good. Now they're great, and lots of companies build similar products.

Here's what you need to know about the Surface Duo.

What's good

The Surface Duo has excellent hardware with a glass and metal design.
Todd Haselton | CNBC

I love the design. The Surface Duo is white with glass covering the front and back and a flashy metal Microsoft logo that matches the 360-degree hinge. There are two highlights: It's super thin, and the hinge feels smooth and sturdy.

It's so thin so that, even when folded, it's just a hair thicker than my iPhone 11 Pro. Microsoft said it had to do a lot of engineering under the hood, such as using two separate batteries and dozens of wires that run between the two displays, to get this to work. The hinge allows you to open the Surface Duo and bend one screen all the way back to the other side. And it stays open wherever you leave it, so you can prop it up like a tent, hold it like a book or lay it flat. There's also a fingerprint reader built into the side of the phone for unlocking it. It's clear a lot of thought went into designing the Surface Duo.

The side of the Surface Duo, where you'll find the fingerprint reader.
Todd Haselton | CNBC

I also like that Microsoft chose to use glass screens on the inside, which means you don't have to worry as much about damage to them as you do with Samsung's Galaxy Fold products, which use much thinner and more fragile glass that you can't draw on or poke too hard. It comes with rubber bumpers that stick to the sides of it to add extra protection from drops, which I appreciate. The screens are both bright and sharp. I didn't really mind the hinge in the middle while using the Surface Duo because Microsoft's software is built to steer you around it.

Running Netflix next to Twitter.
Todd Haselton | CNBC

The whole idea here, unlike Samsung's folding phones, is that you're using two screens for two different apps at the same time. Maybe you have email on the left and chat on the right. Or, as I did, a Zoom video call with friends on one screen and your fantasy football draft running on the other. It's great for these use cases and even better if you're using Microsoft apps, which let you drag and drop content from one to the other. On a normal phone, you'd have to be swapping between the apps.

All of Microsoft's apps are optimized to spread across both screens so you can see more of the app, too. In Outlook, for example, you can see all of your messages on the left screen and the contents of each message on the right. Amazon built a special version of the Kindle app that allows you to see two pages of a book at a time, which I loved. 

You can hold it and type in this little laptop mode.
Todd Haselton | CNBC

It's usually easy to do this, too. If an app is open, just swipe up from the bottom of the screen and toggle it over the hinge to spread it across both screens. Or, open one app on one screen and another app on the other screen. Microsoft also lets you pair apps and save them to your desktop, so you can click an icon to always launch Twitter next to Google News or Instagram next to YouTube or whatever you want. Samsung lets you do this too, and you can even swap the apps' positioning, which you can't do on the Surface Duo. Microsoft talked a lot about how closely it worked with Google on the software, but I think Samsung and Google did an even better job on software.

You can take notes on the Surface Duo with a Surface Pen.
Todd Haselton | CNBC

The Surface Duo supports Microsoft's Surface Pens. The regular Surface Pen starts at $100 but is often on sale for less. The nicer model, which has a more ergonomic design, the Surface Slim Pen, starts at $144.99. I wish a pen came in the box, since it works so well with the Surface Duo for taking quick notes in OneNote or other apps. It even magnetically attaches to the outside of the case, though Microsoft says this wasn't by design, that those magnets are actually used to help keep the screens closed.

Battery life is pretty good most of the time, but as usual that depends what you're doing. You can get through a whole day pretty easily with light use, even with both screens. And since it doesn't have an outside display showing you notifications all the time, I didn't brainlessly turn it on just to stare at the screen as I do on other phones. The battery will drain pretty quickly when you're pushing the Surface Duo screens with video chat and apps running at the same time.  

What's bad

Microsoft Surface Duo
Todd Haselton | CNBC

Sometimes the Surface Duo doesn't do what you want it to do, or lags when you're trying to open an app, flip the screen or close an app. Microsoft says it will continue to fix these bugs, but it can get really frustrating when you're trying to do something quickly. In the grocery store, for example, it took me way longer to open the Surface Duo, open my shopping list, flip it into single screen mode and then cross something off the list while I was pushing my cart. This was just so much easier to do from a regular phone. And speaking of that, you have to open it to answer a phone call, since there isn't a speaker or screen on the outside.

The Surface Duo was playing the F1 race on YouTube TV upside down.
Todd Haselton | CNBC

Then there are just weird things that pop up from time to time. A video will play upside down. You'll swipe the screen with your finger several times before it registers your touch. Precise touches like on a checkbox can also be tough, unless you're using a Surface pen. Sometimes you try to expand an app and it crashes entirely. Sometimes an app has clear bars on the top and bottom that show your desktop instead of black borders. Sometimes videos have a thin bar of pixels on the side or above them until you restart the video. All of these things can be fixed, but it shows the software isn't as polished as the hardware, and it makes me question Microsoft's narrative that it worked so closely with Google to get this right.

Then there's the stuff that's missing on the Surface Duo that you'll find on most other phones in this price range:

  • It doesn't have wireless charging.
  • There's no 5G, which isn't important yet, but should be in a device that costs $1,399. Microsoft said this wasn't really possible in such a thin device right now.
  • It doesn't have NFC for mobile payments, which is really important for me right now during the pandemic.
  • It has last year's high-end Qualcomm processor, which is powerful but seems to cause some sluggishness in the software from time to time.
  • It only has 128GB of storage at the entry level price ($1,499 gets you 256GB), which probably isn't enough for power users who like to save lots of big files and movies.
  • It's not water resistant, like most devices at this price.
  • It has big black bezels on the top and bottom below the screen, which makes it look a little dated on the inside.
  • There's a single speaker instead of stereo speakers. It's OK until you're watching a movie on the screen that doesn't have a speaker, then things seem off balance.
Surface Duo camera sample.
Todd Haselton | CNBC

The camera is also really bad for pictures. Microsoft said it had to keep the device really thin, so the camera wasn't a priority, but Google's Pixel phones are proof you can make a great camera that compensates with software. Colors are washed out, and there's not a lot of detail. With a newborn baby in the house, I always used another phone to take pictures. It's all right for video chat over services such as Microsoft Teams, though, which is what I think Microsoft is targeting this device for. But, most of us use our phones as cameras, so the bad camera is a big bummer for me.

Amazon Kindle stretches across both pages, but notice how the screens show different shades of white.
Todd Haselton | CNBC

Finally, there's a slight white imbalance between the two screens. This is most noticeable in the Amazon Kindle app at night, when I was looking at the two white screens side by side. One just looks like a different shade of white than the other. I can't spot it anywhere else, but it's annoying once you see it.

Should you buy it?

The Surface Duo closed.
Todd Haselton | CNBC

I guess the question most people have to answer is: Are two screens better than the lack of 5G, mobile payments, water resistance, a good camera, wireless charging, more storage and other things you can get from a cheaper phone?

The bad camera alone probably isn't worth it. If you're flush with cash and want a lot of that missing stuff and good cameras with a foldable phone, Samsung's Galaxy Z Fold 2 is a great but very different alternative.

I give credit to Microsoft for trying something different when most phones seem to iterate on old candy-bar designs with small changes to cameras and screen quality every year. The design is excellent. The Surface Duo is fun to use when it works and frustrating to use when it doesn't. I think Microsoft can fix a lot of problems through software updates in the coming weeks and months. And despite its shortfalls, I still have a lingering fondness for the Surface Duo that keeps me coming back. It's just so fun and unique when it works.

Microsoft says it's committed to the Surface Duo. It's on to something here. I'm excited to see what comes in future models, and I'm looking forward to following along to see how this one evolves.

First look at Microsoft's new folding phone the Surface Duo and dual-screen laptop the Surface Neo
First look at Microsoft's new folding phone the Surface Duo

Correction: The Surface Duo starts at $1,399.
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