It's the software, not hardware, that will make or break Surface Duo 2

Surface Duo 2020 Battery Status
Surface Duo 2020 Battery Status (Image credit: Daniel Rubino / Windows Central)

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.

Duo's biggest problem isn't the bad camera or lack of NFC, it's the buggy OS getting in the way.

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 2020

Source: Daniel Rubino / Windows Central (Image credit: Source: Daniel Rubino / Windows Central)

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 Android 11 will help fix Surface Duo's many bugs.

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.

Zac Bowden
Senior Editor

Zac Bowden is a Senior Editor at Windows Central. Bringing you exclusive coverage into the world of Windows 10 on PCs, tablets, phones, and more. Also an avid collector of rare Microsoft prototype devices! Keep in touch on Twitter: @zacbowden.

  • It sounds like a repeat of the 950 XL. It was incredibly buggy at the beginning and took months, if not years, to be more stable. It ended up being a phone I couldn't part with, but that didn't happen until years later.
  • Yup, good analogy.
  • Daniel.. I keep hearing "Android 11 could make SD feel more polished" but my question is how could this be the case? Or, why would 11 make Microsoft's version of it be more stable, and polished? I'm not exactly sure how this works, but it seems to me like Microsoft will be using a custom version of 11 just as they did with Android 10. I'm just wondering why we should expect their version of 11 would be any better. Am I looking at this from the wrong angle? Is it because Google is supposed to be more involved with the dual screen experience with 11? I think an article clarifying some of these questions would be be very helpful for me. 🙏🏾
  • The belief is because we're supposed to get more "dual-screen support" in ANdroid 11 as Google puts in more features for the form factor. Android 10 was too late to get a lot of that besides what MS could do in the few months it had to prep for v1. I personally don't see A11 being radically different to make it all better for Duo, but until we try it we don't know. Personally, I'm not assuming A11 fixes everything here. I think it's more than that.
  • I agree. But because Android 11 has been out so long, and Microsoft didn't migrate to it, I think maybe, it will be fixed in Android 12. But who knows?
  • What kind of Dual Screen features do you think A11 might bring?
  • I think Panos took a lot of his surface talent to launch Windows 11. But you might be implying that Google is putting manpower into Android for Dual Screen devices. I can see how that might solve glitches for Android systems with dual screens. But that does not solve app integration and development. I think Duo v3 in 2023 is the critical year for the form factor. By then Windows 11 will be up and running, android will be able to handle dual screens and app developers (think MSFT software--office, teams, launcher, etc.) will work well. IF the software is still buggy in January, then not sure it will make it to V3. IF MSFT could get Samsung to put some money into the device then the chances of success increase.
  • If Samsung’s dual screens keep improving and getting cheaper, there will be no reason for the Duo in 2023. There is nothing a dual screen can do better than a large single screen.
  • I initially misread this as "good eulogy", and then I realized it might just be a Freudian slip ;).
  • That is a nice analogy
  • Yes, it does feel like the 950XL launch. The bugs got worse after last several updates. That is the frustrating part. No sign of progress.
  • The camera on the 950 was pretty good for its time. It was slow, just like every MS device; that's something they need to finally get right.
  • Agreed, it was extremely good for it's time, in terms of Pic quality. It still held its own for camera for a bit.
  • That may be true, but it is sad since the 950 legacy had some of the best cameras of their time.
  • The "bug hunt" didn't work out so well for the Marines in Aliens either...
  • For all the same reasons mentioned above, I'm waiting for version 11 also, but not Android, Windows 11. With the final barrier removed (Android apps), there certainly is no longer a reason to use a competitors OS. There is a great deal of Windows X in Windows 11 and a lot of work in Windows X / WCOS / CShell was work towards dual screens. This is my hope anyway.
  • That's risky, because we aren't talking about the entire Play store on Windows 11... That would pose a huge app gap for a mobile device.
  • That's a good point. Amazon's Android store has only a fraction of what's in Google Play. Still, if a phone-sized device could run Windows 11 (not clear if that would be a good experience, or if battery life for the full Windows 11 OS with a phone-sized battery would be measured in minutes), then it seems the TECHNICAL barriers to a Windows Phone supporting many Android apps goes away. To the extent MS is planning this, I suspect it's not with anything coming out in 2021 or even 2022, but after that and ironing out these issues, maybe?
  • Amazon still sells a ton of tablets even with their limited store. I see this app gap as a minor inconvenience compared to what windows phone was dealing with before.
  • They sell a ton of tablets because their prices are excellent and the services they support are pretty good with Amazon music, video, books, audible. If you are a Prime member they are a portal into Amazon's services. They being Android is probably irrelevant to most buyers.
  • I can imagine Amazon being incredibly keen to get their Android store on Windows 11 because the fact that it would give them access to millions of Windows users might encourage developers to submit their apps where they previously ignored all but Google Play.
  • No way the dual screen stuff was brought into Windows 11, and there would be no advantage either way. You would be stuck with Amazon’s App Store, which kinda sucks, and you would be stuck with Microsoft software which really sucks. Windows 11 on Duo would be inferior to Android in every way.
  • I guess you believe they were Windows 11 mobile out there. I have to agree with.
  • I think it would be the right call. Together with current Surface tablets and Amazon users there is nice userbase and it would be good for UWP/WPF/WinUI apps too.
  • I agree with the message here. I love my Pixel 5 for the software experience married smartly with the hardware. MS has been too slow to update and communicate
  • The software has been nothing but a sore spot on this device. I love my Duo as the hardware sits. (Even though I'm fighting Microsoft to get it replaced due to damage from dropping it), but the software is so buggy. The bug where a screen turns off in book mode is awful, the misinterpreted gestures are the worst. Nothing worse than scrolling through a feed or webpage and then ending back on the home screen, or opening Google Assistant. I hope that android 11 fixes these issues and makes V2 a great device. I know I bought this device as a "beta" tester, but come on Microsoft, you've got to get out of beta eventually. Especially in a world of mobile devices where poor android software is a reason companies are leaving the ecosystem entirely.
  • This article captures my frustration with such a promising product. I've had my Duo since day one, and enjoy the productivity I get out of it, but the tradeoff with the software has become too much. I plan on upgrading to the Galaxy Fold 3 when it comes out, and I'll check back in with the Duo when (if?) they come out with a version 3.
  • I just don't see the thin screens for the fold working as well for dual apps. The fold seems more single app in tablet form ready - it needs to be wider
  • Thanks for a real review of the duo. I jumped at the opportunity to own for cheap on the deal and I'm glad I never bought it at full price. I wonder what the update release cadence is for the ATT branded (woot) version? Is there a way to force updates if att delays them? I have yet to get mine from the shipper.... I just want to be prepared for a "locked" phone. I haven't had one for over 6 years... Thanks!
  • Updates for AT&T are the same as unlocked, just delayed by a week or two. There are monthly updates (security, patches) and it'll get Android 11. Surface Duo gets 3 years of updates, so it should stop getting them in mid to late-2023.
  • Very good - thank you for the information!
  • It will be though.
  • I love my Surface Duo too! But yeah, they need to work on the bugs. It still hasn't received Android 11 yet. Can't wait for Surface Duo 2!
  • Some of those bugs sound very similar to the frustrating bittersweet joy that was my Lumia 1520. I loved that phone, and hated it. Notwithstanding the train wreck that was early Windows Phone 10 but the touch screen sensitivity was excruciating. A simple scroll up gesture would see apps closing and screens changing. I'm all in for owning a duo, but really see myself holding out for version 3
  • I think Windows Phone 8.1 was where it was at. That was one solid OS.. Just lacked a few features, and apps were severly limited. It was a much more enjoyable experience than Android, as far as the UI.
  • Agreed. 8.1 was peak Windows Phone. I really want to see Windows 11 on a Duo
  • The 928 was a great phone at the time.
  • I'll say it was generally very good, but it was where I started seeing the lack of attention to detail in Microsoft's products, that was further augmented in Windows 10/Mobile.
  • A grid of square icons, functionless widgets, and horrendously bad notifications? It had nothing on Android and sales proved it.
  • I owned a WP 10 phone (first upgraded lumia 640, later lumia 950) and those did not have the mentioned problems. I suspect many of the bugs were patched out by MS after release.
  • Any idea if Duo 2 will support CDMA on Verizon's network? Having to have Verizon set the CMDA-less flag so I could send/receive texts (but then having any images in those texts be downscaled to oblivion) has been annoying.
  • CDMA is being retired on Verizon. All CDMA-only phones will die soon.
  • Appreciate the info. Any idea what that means for the Duo, for which texting only works if your account is CDMA-less provisioned? Without CDMA, will that account flag be unnecessary? And will photos and gifs received via text actually be legible?
  • I would say almost certainly not: Verizon is actively removing CDMA antennas and pushing everything to LTE. Even On-Star, that used to run on Verizon's 3G network is being migrated, because it's losing its backbone. I commiserate with you though -- the unlocked version also doesn't support Wi-Fi calling, so there are many places where other Verizon phones work, where I can't use my Duo for regular calling. Fortunately, I set up calling over Teams as a VoIP system and effectively get Wi-Fi calling that way. (Try to do that with Zoom or Slack!)
  • Gotcha. Above and beyond the software issues and the camera, it's my least favorite part of the phone, so unless there's a Verizon Duo 2, it may be enough to force me to a non-Duo when I upgrade.
  • I want a Verizon Duo 2 also. I do not care if I am locked to Verizon. I just want the Verizon support!
  • It's Android it's usually very buggy the only stable by Android I know of is Kindle Fire or Samsung Galaxy devices.
  • The Surface team is inexperienced with Android. They need some more time to get it right. It'll take a while, just like with other OEMs when they started. There is also the dual-screen complexity. But they can get it right with time and consistency.
  • Yeah that's true to. Now you could easily read this in a opposite direction they might actually be Windows 11 mobile out there and they don't really care about Android anymore.
  • I have had a few OnePlus and they were always solid. Same with Motorola phones. After recently switching to iPhone, it certainly isn’t better. It has its own bugs and inconsistencies.
  • I think this just shows their inexperience with Android, and to compound matters, going dual-screen day one was ambitious. I'm all for it though because I have my Galaxy phones and iPhones to fall back on if the Duos become unusable. I'd rather they keep at it until they get it right. We can wait. Samsung, Apple, Google and the rest will keep providing the regular phones for us. Realistically, I expect another full year or year and a half before it gets really good. All the other Android OEMs went through the same process before getting it right (Samsung is a good example). The OneUI on Samsung is now really good, like iPhone type good. No complaints whatsoever about it.
  • I agree. Well said.. And, we gotta be realistic about the time frame in which Microsoft posted the job for 2? Android specialists. There was in no way their benifit would've been seen in time for Duo release, and Microsoft probably just threw them on A11 development, which is probably the best move anyways. Another realistic idea to consider is the fact that any negative experiences with version 1 don't really matter because it's so low on the radar with the average consumer.
  • There is no getting a dual screen phone right. It isn’t worth the hardware trade-offs and the software will never be finished with only Microsoft working on it. Another waste of time.
  • My two beefs with Duo so far, -Not recognizing which side should be active when folded in half. (and along with that, the touch screen still being active on the wrong side) -Camera switching to the wrong side. Overall, I guess the way I use my phone doesn't leave a lot of time for bug finding. I love the dual screens, and using the Duo has made me more efficient, but I mostly do what I need to do and get out. I use few apps and spend little time navigating the OS. So in comparison to Windows 10 mobile, and the overwhelming amount of problems I had with it across multiple devices, the Duo is still a breath of fresh air, IMO.
  • Zac, I had several of these problems myself -- the gesture problem, the stuck unlocks, etc., and I too believed them to be software. MS replaced my phone, and almost all of the problems went away. I no longer have any of those problems. I still have other problems -- insanely slow camera, ads that play upside down inside Plants vs. Zombies 2, very occasionally the keyboard spans both screens when in book mode, and a few others. but most of the problems you listed were fixed not be a software update, but by a replacement Duo. If that's right, no update will ever fix those problems for you, because they're actually not caused by software, or at least not exclusively by the software.
  • I really do think reviewers need to experience it or review from an Enterprise perspective. When you're working, you're no always flipping through social media and entertainment apps, but between MS apps while in meetings, checking emails and jotting notes or tasks. The software is just not that wonky for the primary purpose. The review can reflect the target user vs the casual enthusiast.
  • At work is only part of my day, and my current phones does work stuff just fine. What does Duo do for me the rest of the day?
  • so glad i didn't buy into the hype after zune, band, lumia, etc....
  • I'm glad that I bought Lumia phones. Best phones I ever had.
  • My Lumia phones must have had something wrong with them. Worst phones ever. Uninspired plastic builds with half baked software and poor support from the manufacturer. Quickly switched back to Android anytime I picked one up. Couldn’t use them more than a couple hours before getting frustrated at how bad the software was.
  • I would find useful hearing how the Duo is working as a phone in the hand.
    Duo's width when in single screen mode (phone mode) compared to the Samsung 20 Ultra 5G is extraordinarily wide, 93.3mm (3.67in) vs 77.2mm (3.04in). Compared to my Google Pixel 4a 5G (did Google outsource naming this to Microsoft?) at 74.0mm (2.91in) I can only imagine holding the Duo for phone calls would be li