Microsoft's Surface Duo 2 needs more than faster performance, better cameras to win the foldables race

Commentary: With the Surface Duo 2, Microsoft needs to make a strong case for a two-screened smartphone.

Lisa Eadicicco Senior Editor
Lisa Eadicicco is a senior editor for CNET covering mobile devices. She has been writing about technology for almost a decade. Prior to joining CNET, Lisa served as a senior tech correspondent at Insider covering Apple and the broader consumer tech industry. She was also previously a tech columnist for Time Magazine and got her start as a staff writer for Laptop Mag and Tom's Guide.
Expertise Apple | Samsung | Google | Smartphones | Smartwatches | Wearables | Fitness trackers
Lisa Eadicicco
5 min read

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Microsoft's original Surface Duo showed the potential for dual-screened phones, but ultimately didn't deliver on expectations. The company is hoping to address those limitations with the new $1,499 Surface Duo 2, announced on Wednesday, which comes with a much-needed boost in processing power and camera quality. The biggest question, however, is whether Microsoft can truly make the case for a dual-screened phone.

First, let's start with what's new about the Surface Duo 2, which is available for preorder starting Wednesday. Microsoft's second-generation foldable includes a triple-lens camera with 12-megapixel wide, 12-megapixel telephoto and 16-megapixel ultrawide lenses, which should be a big upgrade compared to the original's single-lens 11-megapixel camera. That new camera system is located on the Surface Duo's rear this time around, unlike last year's model which required you to open the phone and fold the display back to use the device as a normal camera. 

Read more: Microsoft shows off the Surface Go 3, Surface Pro 8Surface Slim Pen 2 and Surface Laptop Studio

The Surface Duo 2 also comes with many of the connectivity protocols that were missing from the first Surface Duo, such as 5G support, NFC and Wi-Fi 6. The addition of Qualcomm's Snapdragon 888 5G processor, the same chip powering Android flagships like the Samsung Galaxy S21 and OnePlus 9 Pro, should result in a notable performance bump, too. The original Surface Duo, by comparison, runs on a Qualcomm Snapdragon 855 chip, which felt a bit underpowered and can be found in older phones like the Samsung Galaxy S10.

The screens on the new Surface Duo are also slightly larger, and a new display strip located along the hinge shows information like the time and notifications when the device is closed. 

Read more: Microsoft Surface Adaptive Kit improves laptop accessibility

These are all appreciated changes that will surely help Microsoft's new two-screened device catch up to other premium smartphones. But subpar technical specifications were never really the Duo's biggest problem. Yes, anyone paying for a $1,400 smartphone would expect top-notch cameras, fast performance and 5G at a minimum.

But that's not the Duo's main attraction; people interested in Microsoft's foldable were likely intrigued by the idea of a second screen. The lack of 5G and an unimpressive camera just added to the Surface Duo's issues, it wasn't the main cause behind them. 

The first Surface Duo's shortcomings and challenges

The original Surface Duo seemed compelling in concept. At a time when most of us use our phones for just about everything, who wouldn't want an extra screen? The problem was that the execution wasn't as polished as it should have been. The software on the prerelease version that went out to reviewers was sluggish and laggy. Many apps weren't optimized to work the way you would want them to across two screens. 

Microsoft's software updates fixed many of these bugs, but that didn't address the biggest hurdle that devices like the Surface Duo 2 face. Gadgets that are among the first of their kind such as the Surface Duo require you to rethink the way you use your device in order to see the appeal, and nailing that is challenging for any company. 

The Surface Duo, for example, has a seemingly handy feature that allows you to pair two apps together and launch them simultaneously with a single tap. That's great in theory, but most people probably use their phones more spontaneously and don't think about apps in pairs. I might need to switch between Slack and Outlook one day, but find myself juggling Slack and Google Drive the next, for instance. 

The keyboard also sounded great on paper until I actually used it. I was excited to type on the Surface Duo since it looks like a mini laptop -- until I realized the keyboard was too small for traditional home row-style typing but too wide to comfortably tap with my thumbs in this mode.  

In other words, it's not enough to just give people a phone with two screens. Microsoft's job is to fully think through why you would want two screens to begin with, and then execute that in the best possible way. It tried to do that with the original Surface Duo, but its vision didn't feel fully realized yet. 

Competition from Samsung could also present another challenge for Microsoft. Foldable phones are still new, but Samsung is now on the third generation of its large-format flexible phone, the Galaxy Z Fold 3. Although the Z Fold 3 has its limitations, especially when used in phone mode, the premise behind it is simple: It's a tablet when opened and a phone when closed.

The Surface Duo is decidedly different; it's not one large screen that folds in half. Rather, it's two screens joined by a hinge that open and close like a book. The idea is a bit more complex, which means Microsoft might have to work harder to show people why it's useful, especially as Samsung's foldables gain attention. 

The potential for a phone with two screens

There were some glimmers of promise with the original Surface Duo that make me excited that Microsoft isn't giving up on its foldable. The reading experience on the first Duo, for example, was excellent. It felt a lot like reading a book, and apps like Amazon Kindle and Microsoft News even have a page-turn animation that furthers this effect. 

I also really loved the flexibility that the Surface Duo allows for, compared to other foldables like those from Samsung. Tent mode, for example, made it really easy to watch videos or use my phone as a second screen without having to use a stand or nearby surface to prop it up.

We won't really know whether the Surface Duo 2 feels like a big leap over the original in this regard until we try it. But Microsoft is teasing some improvements that make me hopeful it will. 

Microsoft's Xbox Game Pass Ultimate streaming service will be available on the Surface Duo 2, and based on a brief peek in the company's press briefing it looks like at least some games will be optimized for its dual screen. Gaming seems like one of the most obvious areas where the Surface Duo 2 could shine, since it essentially transforms into a touchscreen Nintendo 3DS-like device when opened. Doubling as a phone and a handheld Xbox console sounds like a great way to make use of those dual screens, though it would require developers to adapt their games, which may not be worth their while unless Microsoft sells a lot of these phones. 

The improved camera might also make the Surface Duo 2 more appealing for those who want to shoot and edit photos on their mobile device. After all, it offers double the screen space of a traditional smartphone and support for Microsoft's pen accessories (although unfortunately you have to buy the stylus separately).

The Surface Duo 2 is another sign that tech giants like Microsoft and Samsung are rethinking what's expected of a smartphone. It'll likely take time to figure out exactly what that looks like, but Microsoft is hoping the Surface Duo could do for the mobile industry what the original Surface did for computing. That shift didn't happen overnight, and this one likely won't either, but the Surface Duo 2 could be a bigger step in that direction.