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Surface Duo 2 review: A huge step in the right direction, but still much work to be done

Microsoft's latest dual-screen Android phone gets major hardware revisions, which positively alters the experience, but the software still holds it back from greatness.

Surface Duo 2 Hero
(Image: © Daniel Rubino / Windows Central)

In late 2019, Microsoft surprised the world with its grand idea for a modern pocketable computing experience with Surface Duo, a phone with two displays that resembled a digital diary. A year later, that device hit store shelves with a thud. Buggy software, a high price, and severely lacking hardware made it nearly impossible to recommend except for the bold early adopters and risk-takers.

Based on ideas from years earlier, the Duo 1 was meant to be a pocketable Surface that ran a version of Windows, not Android. The concept was later salvaged as it was "converted" to an Android phone in a last-minute Hail Mary. If you wonder why there was no NFC, a lousy camera, no 5G, an old CPU, well, there you go.

So, what happens when Microsoft can completely redo the hardware knowing it's going to be a flagship Android phone in late 2021? You get Surface Duo 2 with Android 11 (an OS slightly more optimized for the dual-screen experience).

The good news is Surface Duo 2 is a giant leap forward in the concept. It is more impressive than ever with a triple camera array, 90Hz curved displays, NFC, 5G, and the potent Snapdragon 888. The software is also better — faster, snappier … and generally less buggy (more on that later).

At $1,500, Surface Duo 2 is still going to have a tough hill to climb to convince the masses to take the risk, but at least this time, it plays the part, even if it's still not ready for the mainstream.

Surface Duo 2: Price and availability

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

Surface Duo 2 has a starting price of $1,499, a $100 increase over the first Surface Duo's launch price. Even though it costs more, there is also less in the box with no free bumper case or a Type-C charger brick (though you do get the charger cable).

Optional accessories include the $40 Surface Duo 2 Bumper (redesigned with newer materials), the $65 Surface Duo 2 Pen Cover (pen not included), and the $130 Surface Slim Pen 2. The Surface Duo 2 Pen Cover can wirelessly recharge the Surface Slim Pen 1 or 2 and hold it in place with magnets. The pen also sticks to Surface Duo 2 without the cover, but it won't wirelessly recharge.

The device is available in more countries at launch compared to the first generation, however, and is expected to start shipping on October 21 in the following markets:

  • United States
  • United Kingdom
  • Canada
  • France
  • Germany
  • Australia

Surface Duo 2 can be had in Glacier White or Obsidian Black (new) colors, in either 128GB, 256GB, or 512GB storage configurations. The pricing for each spec is $1,499, $1,599, and $1,799 respectively.

Surface Duo 2: Hardware and design

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

Surface Duo 2 looks like the first version save for the new (fingerprint-prone) obsidian black colorway from far away. But picking up the Duo 2, it is immediately apparent that this is not the same phone as last year. Microsoft completely rebuilt every aspect of Surface Duo 2, and it is all for the better.

On the outside of Surface Duo 2 is Corning Gorilla Glass, and on the inside, Corning Victus — the toughest glass there is currently. That glass now slightly curves at the edges in a "2D" falloff reminiscent of Nokia Lumia screens. The result is Duo 2 feels softer in the hands with fewer hard edges compared to the first-gen. Microsoft also reworked the frame and materials used for the entire phone with better seals, making it more resistant to damage. This includes a reinforced Type-C port, which is now in the middle. There is even rudimentary IPX1 water protection.

The device is a bit thicker at 5.5mm opened instead of 4.8mm (11mm and 9.9mm closed, respectively), but it's only noticeable if you directly compare Duo 2 to its predecessor. The weight increases from 250 grams to 284, making it slightly heavier than Samsung's Galaxy Fold 3 (271g).

Duo 2 spreads its bulk out more evenly compared to regular phones, making it less like an anchor in your pocket. That size and weight increase are due to the larger battery, which jumps from 3,577mAh to 4,449mAh, needed to power the 90Hz displays (up from 60Hz) and much faster Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 processor (vs. Snapdragon 855).

Ironically, that added weight and thickness work in the Duo 2's favor. The first Duo was almost too thin, making it feel fragile, which the included bumper case helped alleviate. Surface Duo 2 feels more substantial and less delicate, making the bumper feel non-essential.

Even the hinges are new with Surface Duo 2. Despite being an engineering marvel in how thin they are and housing the wiring for both displays, the Duo 1's hinges a very lightly click if you quickly opened the screens, which some users confused with breakage. That's gone now as the Duo 2's hinges are smoother with slightly more resistance — opening it up is even more satisfying, which is a notable achievement.

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

On the rear is the most significant difference with a new triple-camera array with ultra-wide, wide, and telephoto. Assisting those lenses is a flash and time-of-flight sensor for focusing assistance.

While there is a hump, the housing is angled to help when reverse-folding the Duo 2's displays. Many people have wondered how it feels when used this way, and it was no issue. Odd? Sure. Does it prevent usage? Nah. Indeed, the device has a satisfying "clap" when switched to this position, with the lenses being slightly recessed to protect them. It's a compromise design, indeed, but arguably the primary complaint of Duo 1 was the terrible camera situation, which this solves.

Internally, there is still a front-facing camera (minus the flash) for selfies and, more likely, video calls.

The Surface Slim Pen 1 and 2 now magnetically stick to the front cover. While it seemed like you could do with Duo 1, it was only a side-effect of the device's magnets. This time, it is intentional, and the magnets are respectably strong (the Pen Cover's are even more potent).

CategorySurface Duo 2
OSAndroid 11
ProcessorQualcomm Snapdragon 888
NetworkWi-Fi 6 802.11ax (2.4/5GHz)
Bluetooth 5.1
LTE: 4x4 MIMO, Cat 20 DL / Cat 13 UL | Wi-Fi 5 802.11ac (2.4/5GHz)
Bluetooth 5.0
LTE: 4x4 MIMO, Cat.18DL / Cat 5 UL
SIMNano SIM + eSIM
Network bandsFDD-LTE: 1,2,3,4,5,7,8,12,13,14,19,20,25, 26,28,29,30,38,39,40,41,42,46,48,66,71
WCDMA: 1,2,5,8
GSM/GPRS: GSM-850, E-GSM-900, DCS-1800, PCS-1900
DisplaySingle: 5.8 inches (1892x1344), 401 PPI, 4:3 aspect ratio
Dual: 8.3 inches (2688x1892), 401 PPI, 3:2 aspect ratio
AMOLED, HDR, 800 nits, 90Hz
Memory8GB
Storage128GB, 256GB, 512GB
CameraFront-facing: 12MP, ƒ/2.0, 24mm, 1.0um
Rear-facing wide: 12MP, ƒ/1.7, 27mm, 1.4um
Rear-facing telephoto: 12MP, ƒ/2.4, 51mm, 1.0um
Rear-facing ultra-wide: 16MP, ƒ/2.2, 13mm, 1.0um
AudioStereo speaker
SecurityFingerprint reader
PortsUSB-C 3.2 (Gen 2)
IPX RatingYes, IPX1
Battery4,449mAh
Fast Charging
DimensionsOpen: 145.2mm (H) x 184.5mm (W) x 5.5mm (T)
Closed: 145.2mm (H) x 92.1mm (W) x 11mm (T at hinge)
Weight284g
ColorGlacier
Obsidian

The SIM tray is also now on the bottom edge and centered opposing the Type-C port. It's a single nano-SIM slot, although Surface Duo 2 supports simultaneous eSIM usage too, which is another change.

The side volume rockers feel untouched, which is OK. Microsoft correctly combined the power button and fingerprint reader into one, which makes more sense. It's an excellent reader too — fast, reliable. Double pressing that power button when Surface Duo 2 is closed enables the flash to be used as a flashlight; the same function launches the camera when the device is opened. You can turn this off in settings, but it's a crafty touch.

Audio is markedly improved. Whereas before the was a single speaker (in addition to the one for phone calls), there are now two (plus one for phone calls). Microsoft puts one on the top left display, and on the right, it's at the bottom, which helps sound balance regardless of the Surface Duo 2's postures. It's an immersive effect when using both displays. However, on a Microsoft Team's call, they were unusually quiet compared to playing a YouTube video or listening to music on Spotify, which was loud and vibrant. The audio works well when the device is closed, too, and is intended to be used that way if listening to music with no worsening in quality.

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

Bluetooth jumps from 5.0 to 5.1 with AAC support. Many people had issues with Bluetooth on Surface Duo 1 with inconsistent and deteriorated performance. I had no such concerns utilizing Microsoft's Surface Earbuds, Samsung Galaxy Buds 2, and use with the Tesla Model 3. With the Buds 2, I could walk 25 feet into another room and still had audio playing without missing a beat.

There is now NFC built into the left display to be used for Google Pay. Simply reverse fold Surface Duo 2 with the device unlocked, and you can make a payment. It works as expected.

Being unlocked, Surface Duo 2 works on any network with 5G. 5G can mean anything from blazing fast speeds to slightly faster than LTE, depending on your carrier and location. Using T-Mobile in downtown Marlborough, MA, I pulled 39.9 Mbps down and 54.2 Mbps up, which isn't bad.

If I could rate Surface Duo 2's hardware, it'd get an A+. If you can get yourself to a Best Buy to try a display model, I encourage you to do so.

So good

Surface Duo 2: Displays and pen

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

Opening Surface Duo 2, you're greeted with two 5.8 inches (1892x1344) AMOLED HDR glass displays that combine to form a larger 8.3 inches (2688x1892) one with 401 pixels-per-inch (PPI). That's an increase from last year's 5.6-inch display (8.1-inch total). It's noticeably larger. Those bezels are slimmer too. New this year is a higher 90Hz refresh rate, which, combined with the faster CPU, makes the whole device more responsive. You cannot disable 90Hz and drop down to 60Hz to save battery.

Peak brightness is a decent 800 nits, just enough to use outdoors in sunlight (below the 1,000+ nits of Samsung and Apple's latest). The screens are glossy, too, but easy to overlook due to the sharpness.

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

I don't want to mince words, and I'll just say these screens are tremendous. The color, contrast, and sizes make them nothing like any other device on the market.

While Fold 3 spans 7.6-inches with 374 PPI, the Duo 2's are larger (8.3-inches) and higher resolution (401 PPI). Samsung wins on the 120 Hz refresh, although I'd argue anything over 90 Hz has diminishing returns compared to the jump from 60 Hz. Plus, Microsoft uses glass displays versus Samsung's plastic.

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

The Duo 2's displays now curve inwards like how paper in a book bends, complementing the analogy that Surface Duo 2 is like a digital moleskin. The curves help in multiple ways and aren't just for looks. The effective viewing area between the two screens is now closer than the original Duo, with only 67 pixels being obscured, down from 84 pixels letting you see more uninterrupted content.

Because the curved screens show a tiny portion when the device is closed, Microsoft utilizes this as a secondary external display called Glance Bar.

While not as effective as Samsung's outer screen, this Glance bar shows notifications for missed calls, SMS, and voicemails. It also displays a pulsing blue bar for an incoming call and uses a different animation for an incoming text. A green bar reveals the battery level when plugging into recharge, while a white bar appears when altering volume and playing audio. Hitting the power button turns on the bar indicating the current time and any missed notifications. It's an imaginative solution that helps the utility of Duo 2's odd form factor.

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

Microsoft has not opened the Glance Bar's APIs up to third parties or other apps, but it told the press it is investigating the idea.

The Surface Slim Pen 2 is not included, although if you have a Slim Pen 1, you can use that too. While Slim Pen 2 supports haptics in Surface Pro 8 and Surface Laptop Studio, Surface Duo 2 does not, although Microsoft is stu