It's the software, not hardware, that will make or break Surface Duo 2
Surface Duo is still buggy 10 months in. That just can't happen with Duo 2.
I love the Surface Duo. I've been using it as my primary phone since it came out, and am a true believer in Microsoft's claim that dual-screens on a phone makes you more productive. That said, Microsoft's execution of this vision isn't perfect, and that mostly comes down to the still incredibly buggy software that ships on the Surface Duo.
A few months ago, I expressed that one of the Surface Duo's biggest problems was that Microsoft itself was not communicating with customers about the roadmap for Surface Duo. There was no official word as to when Android 11 was coming, what bugs and issues were being tracked and prioritized, or when the next OS security update would arrive. Unfortunately, none of that has changed.
We still don't know anything or have a means of submitting feedback about software bugs on Surface Duo, and there's no transparency between Microsoft and customers about what issues are being fixed or even acknowledged. There also doesn't seem to be any coherent schedule for when the monthly bug fix and security updates go out, as they appear to just go at random points each month.
Surface Duo's biggest problem isn't the lackluster camera, the lack of NFC or the questionable choices in material; it's the software. Microsoft's version of Android that powers Surface Duo still feels like it's in beta, and that's probably because it is. The device has countless issues, many of which are encountered at least once a day. And things just aren't moving fast enough.
One of the big issues I keep getting is with one of the screens on Surface Duo turning off when in book mode. This is an issue that appeared with the April update, and Microsoft says it's fixed with the May update, but it's not. It's certainly less common now, but the issue isn't gone. I also often find the device will hang on the lock screen after unlocking with a fingerprint.
Other issues include the device being overly sensitive to gestures. I'll be in an app like Twitter, scrolling through the feed about mid-way up the display, and the OS will think I just swiped up from the bottom and take me back to the home screen. Touch often locks up and becomes unresponsive too, and just yesterday my device decided to randomly overlay the multitasking view across both screens while I was in single-screen mode, and I couldn't get out of it until I restarted the phone.
And I've not even touched on the frequency of random app crashes, which happens more on Duo than any other Android device I've tested in the last 2 years. The buggy nature of Surface Duo is the only obstacle getting in the way of making Surface Duo a truly productive device. If I can't guarantee the device is going to work reliably and as intended 100% of the time, it's not a device I can recommend anyone go out and buy.
Software bugs undermine the Duo's productivity goals
Surface Duo is the only Android device I've ever used where I'm constantly looking forward to the next monthly OS security update in the hopes that it brings more bug fixes. The latest release didn't, which was a real let down. It feels like no bugs were addressed at all; unacceptable for a device in this state.
The theory is that much of these issues will be solved with the Android 11 update, which is still MIA for Surface Duo. I'm told that Microsoft was originally expecting to launch Android 11 in August, but my sources now suggest that may have been pushed back to September or October to coincide with the launch of Surface Duo 2.
Microsoft absolutely cannot launch Surface Duo 2 in the same state software-wise that Surface Duo 1 launched in. The OS needs to be polished and robust, and work exactly as intended all of the time, just like a Galaxy, Pixel, or iPhone. It also needs to have more features that set it apart from other devices, because right now the OS is basically stock Android, with no flair or unique-ness that sets it apart.
For example, why is the Microsoft Launcher on Surface Duo worse than the Launcher on third party devices? Launcher has so many awesome customization features if you use it on anything that isn't a Surface Duo, but when on the Duo, it's totally barebones. It's missing everything from custom gestures, accent colors, icon customization, and much, MUCH more. How is this still a thing 10 months in?
Surface Duo should be where Microsoft's Android experiences shine the most, but that is so far from reality as things currently stand. Duo is even missing features that are part of Your Phone, making Samsung the go-to choice if you want the best integration between an Android phone and the Your Phone app. It's just so Microsoft.
I know Surface Duo 2 features a better camera system, slightly bigger displays with rounded corners, the latest flagship Snapdragon processor, 5G, and other "expected" smartphone features for a flagship device costing more than $1000, but it's the software that will be the key to its success. Nice hardware is all well and good, but if the software doesn't work as intended or offer enough from a features perspective to make the hardware shine, there's no point in any of it, especially at above $1000 pricing.
Like I said, I absolutely love my Surface Duo, and I'm looking forward to version 2 more than anything. But that doesn't mean I'm not frustrated with the OS experience on Duo V1. I can forgive the OS being buggy for the first 4-5 months on the market as Microsoft worked things out, but we're now on month 10 and it still feels very unpolished.
Surface Duo's hardware is good, and it's only going to get better with version 2, but it's the software that keeps letting this device down time and time again. Let's hope Android 11 transforms the OS experience from feeling like a beta to feeling like a shipping product, and that Microsoft is able to ship Duo 2 with a stable OS out of the gate.
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Zac Bowden is a Senior Editor at Windows Central. Bringing you exclusive coverage into the world of Windows on PCs, tablets, phones, and more. Also an avid collector of rare Microsoft prototype devices! Keep in touch on Twitter: @zacbowden.