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Surface Duo 2 review: Microsoft’s second dual-screen hybrid is a letdown

The Microsoft Surface Duo 2 on a white surface with a bookshelf in the background. The device's dual screens are facing the camera in vertical orientation, showing the Android home screen.

Surface Duo 2 review: Microsoft’s second dual-screen hybrid is a letdown

Microsoft isn’t giving up on its dual-screen dreams. The company is back this year with a new Surface Duo that looks like it might fix some of the original’s flaws. Instead of a finicky and low-quality camera, the Duo 2 packs a triple-sensor system on its rear, in addition to a selfie shooter inside. The device also has a narrower overall footprint, faster-refreshing screens and some updated software. There’s also support for Microsoft’s Slim Pen 2, which should make drawing and taking notes a more intuitive experience.

But despite having addressed many of the previous generation’s issues and adding some useful features, the Duo 2 remains a frustrating device. And at $1,500, it’s still a pricey product with a niche, limited appeal.

Pros

  • Thin and well-built hardware
  • Sturdy hinge

Cons

  • Frustratingly inconsistent and buggy software
  • Lousy camera app
  • Expensive
  • Runs warm

Hardware and design changes

By now, you’re probably familiar with the Duo’s proposition. The second generation features a pair of 5.8-inch screens connected by a hinge. It’s also running Android 11 this year, with some tweaks to improve multi-display use. Combined, the two panels offer an 8.3-inch canvas, which is slightly bigger than before. You can flip one screen all the way around to use the Duo 2 in a phone-like single-screen state, use one side as a stand to prop up the other half or have both displays facing you like a book or tablet.

Like the original, this thing is an attractive piece of hardware with an impressively thin profile and a sleek silhouette. The Duo 2 is a bit heavier than its predecessor, and even heavier than the Galaxy Z Fold 3, and I’d chalk most of that gain up to its camera module. Despite the chunky protrusion on the back of the right screen, though, the Duo 2 is evenly weighted and felt balanced when open.

Side view of the Microsoft Surface Duo 2, showing its rear camera module sandwiched between the backs of its two screens.

David Imel for Engadget

My main concern when I first saw the camera bump was that two sides would no longer lay flush against each other when opened all the way up. But the bump was surprisingly unobtrusive, and while I didn’t mind using the Duo 2 as a single-screen device, it’s still a bit too wide to replace my phone, especially for one-handed use. Though the Galaxy Z Fold 3 is heavy and its screen is a little too narrow and cramped, it still offers a better experience in this mode.

When the panels are back-to-back, the system will keep the last screen you used active, while the other shows a message saying you can double tap it to switch over. It’s basically two phones sandwiching a camera and you can use one side at a time. You’ll notice odd aspect ratio issues here and there, thanks to the uncommon 1,892 x 1,344 resolution, but for the most part apps expand to cover the whole screen nicely if you enable the automatic span setting. It even worked with the notoriously finicky Instagram, except… photo captions would overflow into the edges and get eaten up, and Stories still had blank space flanking them. 

I did appreciate the 90Hz refresh rate when scrolling through my social feeds. The AMOLED panels are lovely, delivering crisp and colorful image and video quality. I do wish they got a bit brighter, though, since they’re about 200 nits dimmer than the iPhone 13 series.

When closed, the Duo 2 is basically useless since, unlike the Galaxy Z Fold 3, it doesn’t have an “external” screen. If you want to read your notifications while the device is laying on a table, you’ll need to leave it open or with one display facing out.

The Microsoft Surface Duo 2's glance bar showing the time through the hinge.

David Imel for Engadget

But Microsoft tries to offer you at least barebones notifications while the Duo 2 is closed via the new Glance Bar. The inside edges of the screens are curved slightly so you can see a little bit of the display through the hinge. When the Glance Bar is enabled, you can see the clock and other system info on this tiny sliver, and it’ll light up in different colors when you have incoming calls or messages. It actually drew my attention to the fact that the Duo 2 didn’t charge overnight by glowing red to indicate the battery was low.

While the Glance Bar is somewhat helpful, it’s also super tiny, which means you need to have Superman’s eyesight to see the clock from more than, say, a few inches away, which basically defeats the purpose. Plus, the Glance Bar works with just first-party apps for now, which means you’ll only get alerted to text messages and phone calls. Oh, and Teams calls, in case you’re that wired into Microsoft’s ecosystem.

The best uses for the Duo 2’s dual-screens

You can also use the Duo 2 in a few other modes (or “postures” as Microsoft calls them), thanks to the hinge, which is sturdy and smooth. It’s easy to open without too much force, yet strong enough to prop up one screen without it budging. Perhaps the best way to use the Duo 2 is in Book and Tent modes, the latter of which is wonderful for playing games while seated at a desk. It’s also handy for keeping an eye on Twitter or a YouTube live chat while working on my laptop.

A Microsoft Surface Duo 2 with one screen propped up to face out and the other screen laying face down on a table.

David Imel for Engadget

Then, when you’re ready to turn your attention to something more intensive, switch over to Book mode and hold the Duo 2 up with both displays facing you. This can be very immersive on any device, and I had a similar feeling with the Z Fold 3. It’s not ideal for idle doomscrolling while you watch TV or firing off a quick reply to your group chats, though. When you have both screens on they basically demand you be actively engaged — whether it’s reading a book, or building a shopping list on one side while looking at recipes on the other.

The Duo 2 is satisfying in this mode if you’re holding it vertically. Flip to landscape orientation and the entire UI just struggles to keep up, especially if you’re using swipe-based navigation instead of choosing the older Android home screen, with back and recent buttons. In general, the Duo 2 feels a little clumsy when held horizontally.

Software quirks remain

I want to commend Microsoft for all the work it’s done to improve the Duo 2’s software. Compared to the hot mess of last year’s model, the system feels a little more cohesive. Part of that has to do with better support for multi-screen devices in Android 11. But quirks still remain and they’re still too numerous for me to list individually, so I’m just going to give you a few examples.

Like I said before, the UI doesn’t know what to do with the swipe-based navigation and in landscape mode, the typical swipe up to go home gesture doesn’t work. Instead, you’ll have to swipe in from the right to either go home or see all apps. To go back, you can only swipe from the left — bad news for anyone who preferred it the other way.

A person holding the Microsoft Surface Duo 2 in book mode showing the Engadget home page. Images and text are eaten up by the hinge.

David Imel for Engadget

Also, trying to type in this mode is still a pain — you’ll lose more than two thirds of the screen to the keyboard (and a weird row of empty space at the bottom), so good luck trying to see what you composed.

Even in Book mode there are annoying quirks. There’s a pervasive touch input issue that other reviewers noted on the original Duo and it explains why I felt the Duo 2 is sluggish and finicky. Throughout the system, whether it’s trying to switch lenses in the camera or open the settings menu in a game, the system sometimes just doesn’t register a tap. I’d need to jab at it repeatedly for something to happen.

There are other issues too, but they happen inconsistently enough that I felt like the Duo 2 was gaslighting me. For example, the Microsoft Start app would randomly launch on the left screen when I had an app on the right. I promise you this wasn’t because I accidentally swiped over to the left to see the Start feed; This is a ghost app that appears on its own. There’s also that Instagram caption overflow problem I mentioned earlier that seemed to go away, but would reappear now and then.

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