Surface Duo review roundup: An expensive multitasking mixed bag

Last October, Microsoft unveiled the Surface Duo, its latest — but certainly not its first — attempt to build a smartphone that lives up to the company’s productivity reputation on other platforms. Now, after almost a year, the Surface Duo dual screens (and its reviews) have arrived. And as you’ll be able to tell after reading this review roundup, it seems it probably could have used another year to bake before making its official debut…

Most of the reviews can pretty much be summed up with this paragraph at the Verge; the common consensus is that the phone just isn’t ready. Apparently, reviewers were originally sent devices that had software that was borderline unusable — and Microsoft had to patch things up before the actual review embargo. That’s never a good sign, but especially not when a company wants this much money.

This Surface Duo? It’s not really ready. It has a bunch of good ideas, but the execution is bad in places, and a lot of people aren’t going to get what Microsoft is going for. There are more than enough problems here to keep me from recommending it. Maybe if this didn’t cost fourteen hundred bucks we could be having a different conversation. But it does. And if you want to spend that much on a work phone, the Note 20 Ultra does split-screen, comes with a stylus, has a good camera, and runs all of those Microsoft apps just fine.

The product is clearly beautiful from a hardware engineering standpoint, though. Almost every reviewer praised the tactility and reliability of the hinge — perhaps the best on a foldable thus far.

MKBHD got some more attractive imagery of the device in his review, and agreed on most points with Dieter:

Owen Williams also had the highest of praises for the phone’s hardware, saying that its premium build is only comparable to products you’d see from the big fruit company:

The Duo is lovely to look at and even nicer to hold — which is important, given it’ll set you back a solid $1,400. It’s slick, coated in glass, and ultra-thin. It feels like it’s been refined for years, with attention to detail that I’ve only seen in Apple products. Unfolding it for the first time is incredibly satisfying, like cracking open a book you’ve been dying to read.

As Axios notes, the camera is the one major weakness with the hardware. Perhaps you could complain about the large bezels around the displays, but this is a first-generation product after all:

The camera is the Duo’s glaring hardware weakness. There’s only one small sensor, and you have to fold your phone one way to take selfies and another to capture what’s in front of you. That makes Surface Duo ill-suited for candid shots and results in an overall subpar camera experience.

My good friend David Imel at Android Authority put together a video review exploring the underlying philosophy of the Surface Duo and touching on the beauty of the hardware as well. But the software and the actual dual-screen experience is shoddy, he says. There’s essentially an endless list of bugs.

“It would take an entire separate video to go through all of them,” he says. “I’ve also found that my Surface Duo just lags, a lot — I’ve had a ton of frame drops.”

CNBC went into more detail on some of the software issues they experienced with the Surface Duo in their review:

In the grocery store, for example, it took me way longer to open the Surface Duo, open my shopping list, flip it into single screen mode and then cross something off the list while I was pushing my cart. This was just so much easier to do from a regular phone. And speaking of that, you have to open it to answer a phone call, since there isn’t a speaker or screen on the outside.

CNET’s Scott Stein said he just stopped using the phone after finding it more frustrating to use than a normal smartphone.

When new devices are this tough to use, you stop using them. The first Apple Watch was so slow at opening apps that I just went back to the iPhone instead. If the Duo makes email and Slack and Zoom weirder, I’d just reach for a normal-feeling smartphone or tablet or laptop instead — which is what I’ve been doing.

Joanna Stern at the Wall Street Journal perhaps put it best:

It isn’t always clear when something is ready.

Take my grilling. Sometimes I remove steak well before or after I should’ve. You might say it’s a “tough” call. But there’s nothing tough about stating this: The new two-screen Surface Duo is undercooked.

And Michael Fisher, who infamously forgives the most ambitious and exciting and weird among smartphones, obviously saw merit in much of the concept. He said in his Surface Duo review that he “wants to love it,” but for now, could “only recommend to only the most hardcore of Microsoft fans.”

“Come to think of it, that’s how I ended my Lumia 950 review, too. Here’s hoping things go differently this time around,” Fisher said in his review.

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Avatar for Stephen Hall Stephen Hall

Stephen is Growth Director at 9to5. If you want to get in touch, follow me on Twitter. Or, email at stephen (at) 9to5mac (dot) com, or an encrypted email at hallstephenj (at) protonmail (dot) com.