Surface Duo 2 hands-on: Just about everything got upgraded
Microsoft's $1,500 phone looks better all around and arrives Oct. 5. Is the software better, too?
Scott SteinEditor at Large
I started with CNET reviewing laptops in 2009. Now I explore wearable tech, VR/AR, tablets, gaming and future/emerging trends in our changing world. Other obsessions include magic, immersive theater, puzzles, board games, cooking, improv and the New York Jets. My background includes an MFA in theater which I apply to thinking about immersive experiences of the future.
ExpertiseVR and AR, gaming, metaverse technologies, wearable tech, tabletsCredentials
Nearly 20 years writing about tech, and over a decade reviewing wearable tech, VR, and AR products and apps
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.
Microsoft's Surface Duo 2, announced today at the company's virtual Surface event, looks like it's addressed a lot of the previous Duo's shortcomings: sometimes sluggish performance, one camera and a lack of 5G. Whether it can compete with the Samsung Galaxy Fold 3 remains to be seen, but the Duo finally has 5G, more cameras, a faster processor and even a side display. The Duo 2 starts at $1,499 and is available for preorder with an Oct. 5 release date. Here's what you need to know about Microsoft's new Android phone and how it aims to compete. Will its performance finally feel better?
Surface Duo 2 design: A new Glance Bar on the hinge
The Duo 2 looks the same, at first. It's like a folding all-glass Moleskine book, with two separate screens connected by a hinge, as opposed to one continuous bendable display like the Galaxy Fold 3 and Z Flip 3. It folds back into a tent mode and can open up to see both screens at once, or flip back to use just one screen. Glass covers the front and back panels, just like before.
The dual 5.8-inch AMOLEDs are a bit larger than the 5.6-inch screens were. They open up to about 8.3 inches of total space, with 1,892x1,344-pixel resolution per display. The glass covering the displays is now Gorilla Glass Victus, which Microsoft promises will be more durable. Also, the displays are now slightly curved in at the hinge, which looks like it means less of a gap between displays and a more continuous look. The displays are 90Hz this time, too.
There's one big new feature: A Glance Bar strip running down the side of the Duo 2's hinge that can show battery life and notifications, sort of like edge displays other phones have had. Considering the folded-up Duo 2 doesn't have an outer screen on the other side, this could be useful for incoming calls.
The Glance Bar lights up when you're receiving a phone call, and you can also press the Surface Duo's side button to see whether you have any notifications. You'll definitely have to unfold the phone to see any meaningful information. But the Glance Bar seems to deliver exactly what its name implies: a glanceable view of what you might be missing while your phone is closed.
Watch this: Surface Duo 2: Microsoft's two-screen wonder gets another shot at premium phone fame
Microsoft beefs up the Surface Duo's processor and storage
The Duo 2 has a Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 processor this time, just like the Z Fold 3. The step-up from the last Duo's Snapdragon 855 chip should help the phone seem more fluid than the original, which felt laggy. The phone runs Android, similar to before, with Microsoft's own custom apps and some interface touches in the OS that are optimized for these specific displays and the Pen stylus. The storage options range from 128GB to 512GB, and there's 8GB of RAM on the Duo 2.
During my brief hands-on with the device, the Surface Duo 2's performance mostly felt snappy. The software generally kept up with my movements as I switched orientations and shifted between tent mode, the laptop-like position shown below, and one-handed mode. There were a few instances in which there was a slight pause before the software adjusted to the phone's new position. But we haven't spent enough time with the Surface Duo 2 to know what its consistent performance is like.
The Surface Duo 2 seems well-positioned as a handheld gaming device, so long as developers continue to optimize their titles for it. One of the first supported games is Gameloft's Asphalt 9 racing game, which felt smooth and fast on the Surface Duo 2 during my brief time with it.
You can hold the Surface Duo 2 sideways and dedicate the entire top screen to gameplay, similar to a Nintendo 3DS. The bottom screen becomes a touchscreen controller and displays other useful elements like the game's map. That certainly seems like a compelling proposition for those who play a lot of mobile games, but it also makes me wonder whether the Surface Duo 2 is still destined to be a niche device. Asphalt 9 is the only native Android game optimized for this experience that Microsoft is talking about today. But more than 50 games on Microsoft's Xbox GamePass Ultimate streaming service also support similar controls.
Microsoft's Slim Pen 2 works with the Surface Duo 2
Microsoft's still-stubby new Slim Pen 2 looks interesting: It has vibrating haptics this time, which promise a more tactile feel when writing, and a "Zero-Force inking" feature that will write without needing to press on the display with the Pen tip. The new Pen charges magnetically with the Duo 2 when it's in a Duo 2 charge case.
Surface Duo 2 gets triple rear cameras
There's now an external camera on the Duo 2 -- three of them, in fact: a f/1.7 12-megapixel telephoto lens, a f/2.4 12MP wide lens, and a third 16MP ultrawide camera, with optical image stabilization. There's a night mode, portrait mode and HDR, and it can record up to 60 frames per second at 4K plus record slow-mo. It sounds like a complete package, especially considering the last Duo only had one inner camera. The cameras also have a time-of-flight sensor for helping with focus.
The camera package sounds extremely promising, especially compared to the previous Duo's lack of rear cameras. The camera app Microsoft has on the Duo 2 also lets one display work as a viewfinder while the other can show previous photos for comparison: This could be really helpful for trying to make a shot better.
The Surface Duo 2's screens could also come in handy for those who frequently edit photos on their phones after shooting them. The two screens provide some separation between editing controls and the image itself -- again giving you a better view without having to obscure parts of the image with your fingers as you tap.
The Duo 2's inside camera looks similar to the previous model: It's 12 megapixels. I'm curious about how well it will handle Zoom calls.
5G comes to the Surface Duo, finally (NFC, too)
5G is now included in the Surface Duo, unlike last year's LTE-equipped Duo. The phone supports mmWave and Sub-6 frequencies and also has Wi-Fi 6. The lack of 5G on last year's Duo was one of its key missing features for a supposedly premium work phone. Also, onboard NFC (also missing from the original Duo) should help with tap-to-connect everyday uses.
Will Microsoft's Surface Duo 2 finally feel good to use?
The last Surface Duo didn't win me over with its software nor did it feel easy to multitask on. I love the idea of what it represents, but will Microsoft have the software better polished and optimized this time around? The hardware seems totally refreshed and very much ready to compete with other premium devices. The next part is nailing the execution of it all and showing us why we need a two-screen phone in the first place.
There's potential in the Surface Duo 2, especially for gamers, photographers and those who love to watch video or read on their mobile device. But we'll have to see if Microsoft can deliver that experience without the compromises of its predecessor.