Microsoft recently launched the Surface Duo 2, hitting U.K. markets at a similar speed to U.S. markets for a change. Our exec editor Daniel Rubino reviewed the device, noting that while the form factor may not be for most people, the hardware enjoyed a sizeable leap.
Having previously tried out the first Surface Duo and remaining intrigued despite its issues, I couldn't resist picking up a Surface Duo 2 as someone desperate to rediscover a Microsoft that gives a crap about mobile phones. After a few days with the device, I'm sad to say that my quest for rediscovery may have to continue.
I asked recently if Microsoft really serious about the Surface Duo, and unfortunately, the Surface Duo 2 convinces me that it isn't.
Can't judge a book by its cover
The Surface Duo 2 is a gorgeous device, and nobody can take that away from Microsoft. The impossibly thin chassis, meticulous hinges, and off-black obsidian coloring and glass shell make for a truly impeccable device. I've seen some people complain about how smudge-prone the black version is, and sure, it can be smudgy, but that's hardly a deal-breaker, especially if you plan to put a case on it.
I was worried the camera bump would interfere with the experience, and it does to some degree, but I get the trade-off. Instead of last year's truly abysmal camera array, we have something that at least passes for competence in 2021, with wide-angle and telephoto capabilities in tow. The camera samples won't blow your mind, and low light performance is a lot grainier than my Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 3, but it's acceptable, at least if the rest of the phone functions as advertised. Sadly, it just doesn't.
Almost immediately out of the box, I was given bitter flashbacks to Windows 10 Mobile and its middling, buggy OS experience. It had apps that weren't properly designed for the platform, random features that didn't work properly, and a phone that got weirdly warm.
The Bluetooth interference that cratered my Surface Duo 1 experience has, sadly, returned in the Duo 2. I don't know if it's the antenna positioning or my jeans are somehow too thick, but once again, the Duo 2 is unusable for music with the phone in your pocket. It's certainly possible I have a faulty unit, given that our exec editor Dan Rubino hasn't seen similar issues, but there are other issues that are far more pervasive.
Even if you disregard the astronomical price, the Surface Duo 2 OS experience is simply unacceptable.
One of the biggest annoyances with this phone is the performance. Despite how it beats basically every Android phone out there in benchmarks, it seems that memory leaks caused by the OS reduce multi-tasking performance to a painful crawl while taking a video call on one screen and attempting to use apps on the other. My Galaxy Z Fold 3 runs not two, but three apps simultaneously without even the vaguest hint of performance degradation, video call or not.
There's also a litany of other annoying bugs and broken features that make the experience completely unacceptable in a phone this expensive. I've had issues where the keyboard simply deciding it wasn't going to work anymore, displaying an empty gray box where SwiftKey should be until I close and reopen the app in question. The Amazon app randomly decided it wasn't going to work anymore, ignoring all taps and interactions. And finally, the touch response continues to be laughably bad.
It sucks because this phone might be the best way to experience Xbox Game Pass cloud gaming, thanks to the full-size touch gamepad you get on the bottom display. However, it's rendered pointless if it can't actually detect my taps when I need to land that crucial attack. Even if you disregard the astronomical price, the Surface Duo 2 OS experience is simply unacceptable.
Is Microsoft serious about this thing?
I primarily use the Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 3 to frame my comparisons, since it is effectively the Duo 2's closest competitor. I wrote in my Galaxy Fold vs. Surface Duo article that the Duo's form factor does come with some advantages over the Fold, and that sentiment remains true. The Fold apps multitask in siloed sections, whereas the Duo's dual-screen setup adds scope for separate programs to interact with each other more seamlessly... at least in theory. It doesn't help that taps don't register the first, second, or even the third time on occasion.
The most egregious part of this experience is the fact most of these criticisms were present in the Surface Duo 1. The crappy Bluetooth stability. The weak touch detection. The generally unpolished, unfinished experience. Why didn't Microsoft address any of this feedback? Is it not reading the reviews or looking at YouTube? Is it ignoring Reddit? Is there anyone at Microsoft even actively using this phone? I have no idea, and I have no idea because Microsoft is so irritatingly secretive about it.
Somebody needs to let the Surface team know that it's a long way from being Apple. Apple has this aura of smugness, allowing it to shrug off criticism for selling wheels for $1,000 and napkins for $15. It does this by simply ignoring, well, everyone. And to some degree, it's earned that arrogance by way of being a trillion-dollar company known for making largely polished products a huge portion of the population use and love. Surface takes a similar radio-silence approach to its community while selling its products for Apple prices and without being anywhere near Apple's quality level.
Somebody needs to let the Surface team know that it's a long way from being Apple.
When Xbox torpedoed its brand in 2013, it launched a near decade-long campaign to reconnect with its customers and fans in an effort that is still ongoing today. The Xbox team is generally forthcoming with updates to its products via the Xbox Insider Program, with the vast majority of its executive leadership team engaging consistently and directly with Xbox customers on Twitter and Reddit. I am by no means suggesting the Surface engineering team needs to get on socials in their personal time, but it couldn't help to have some form of community managers or community engagement that goes beyond the very basic marketing presence the brand has on Twitter and Instagram. Taking the hands-off Apple-style approach is absolutely the wrong position.
We know virtually nothing about update timing plans to the Duo 1 or 2, save for the odd leak we occasionally get via my colleague Zac Bowden. We know nothing about the roadmap of products or services Microsoft intends to build to enhance its Android presence. SwiftKey, OneNote, the Microsoft Launcher, and various other Microsoft Android apps have barely had a meaningful update in what feels like forever. Instead, we got a Microsoft "Start" app, with Microsoft hoping that nobody would notice that it's literally just the Bing app with a new name. How can Microsoft expect to be able to sell these devices for north of £1,300 while putting in what appears to be the bare minimum effort?
I'll take it seriously when Microsoft does
If you want to develop the Surface Duo line iteratively, do it with us, the community. You haven't earned the right to ignore the people essentially acting as unpaid testers for your half-baked vanity projects yet.
I wanted to love the Duo 2, and sure, the Surface Duo 2 went all in on addressing some of the most obvious complaints like the lack of a real camera. The Duo 2 inking experience, I felt, was also superior to the Galaxy Fold 3. However, the fact some of the smaller day-to-day usability complaints have been completely ignored absolutely blows my mind.
In an Android world dominated by mature Samsung experiences, why is Surface failing at the very bare basics like touch and Bluetooth, things that even very dead Android OEMs like BlackBerry TCL and HTC could nail? How is it the Surface team can fashion the most elegant hinge in the history of engineering, but screw up basics white label phones sold on Wish.com for 100 bucks seem to land with ease? I think I've made my point.
I will take the Surface Duo line seriously when Microsoft does.