Surface Duo 2 review: Microsoft's folding phone is innovative, but impractical
The Surface Duo 2 feels like a glimpse at where phones may be headed that still isn't practical enough for today.
Updated Oct. 21, 2021 6:52 a.m. PT
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Lisa EadiciccoSenior 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.
Flexible hinge is great for reading and playing games
90Hz refresh rate makes scrolling feel smooth
Optimized apps feel innovative and new
Not many apps are optimized for both screens
Some software glitches still exist
Size makes it feel cumbersome as an everyday phone
Camera could be better
Microsoft's Surface Duo 2 is like a Swiss Army knife. It can morph into a digital book, a small tablet, a screen I can prop up just about anywhere or a mini-laptop reminiscent of the T-Mobile Sidekick. But it's not the one thing I want it to be: an excellent phone.
The Surface Duo 2 is Microsoft's second-gen foldable device, and it launches on Oct. 21 starting at $1,500 (£1,349, AU$2,319). The company's first attempt at a foldable device suffered from laggy performance and a lack of features you'd expect from a high-end phone -- two criticisms that Microsoft clearly took to heart. The company put a more powerful Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 processor in the Surface Duo 2, boosted the screens' refresh rates and added previously missing tech such as a triple-lens camera and 5G support.
These changes make the Surface Duo 2 much more capable as a phone than Microsoft's first foldable. But the problem is that a device like the Surface Duo 2 needs more than just faster performance and better cameras to make it worth the price.
With its performance issues (mostly) fixed, I'm beginning to see the appeal of a device with two screens that can fold in half. The biggest problem is that the Surface Duo 2's unconventional size requires you to sacrifice some of the conveniences that today's normal-shaped smartphones offer. Plus, most apps aren't optimized for the two-screen experience just yet. Those are trade-offs I'm not sure many people are willing to make for the price.
The Surface Duo 2's limitations make it hard to recommend. But if this phone is for anyone, it's for those who prioritize productivity and entertainment above all else. If having more screen space for reading books, working in Microsoft Office apps, and playing video games is more valuable to you in a phone than convenience, you might be happy with the Surface Duo 2. But I'd still encourage you to wait until the dual-screen experience feels more polished.
A design that shapeshifts into a lot of things, except for a great phone
Let's start with what puts the Duo in Surface Duo 2: its dual-screen design. Like the original, the Surface Duo 2 consists of two screens joined together by a hinge that runs down the center of the device. It reminds me of a digital little black book, or a Pokedex.
There's no denying that Microsoft's new phone is a conversation piece. The first time I used the Surface Duo 2 in front of a group of friends, the questions came rolling within seconds of me taking it out of my purse. This hasn't happened since the early 2000s, when I owned the Samsung Juke.
The Surface Duo 2 has the same overall shape as its predecessor, but with some upgrades. Each AMOLED screen is slightly larger at 5.8 inches compared to the 5.6-inch displays on the older model. Combined, that gives the Surface Duo 2 a total display area of 8.3 inches versus the original's 8.1 inches of screen real estate.
Both screens each have a higher 90Hz refresh rate, which makes scrolling feel surprisingly light and effortless. There are some other physical changes, too: The Surface Duo 2 comes in a new obsidian black color, and it has a new triple-lens camera bump on the back (more on that camera later).
One of the biggest updates is the new Glance Bar, which runs along the hinge when the device is closed. The idea is to provide a way to see incoming calls, the time and notifications without having to open the device. The Glance Bar was helpful on a few occasions, mostly when it alerted me that my phone was ringing while on silent mode. But it's difficult to see since it's wedged inside the hinge, so I don't find myself using it often.
That hinge gives the Surface Duo 2 (and first-gen Surface Duo) a superpower not found on other phones: the ability to take multiple forms. You can open it like a book, fold one side completely backwards to use it more like a regular phone, bend both displays backwards to prop up the phone like a tent or open it halfway in landscape mode sort of like a Nintendo 3DS. Snapping the Surface Duo 2 closed when you're finished with it feels satisfying, just like closing a flip phone to hang up on someone.
Holding the Surface Duo 2 in book mode felt most natural, but I found myself folding the display all the way back to use it with one hand most often. It's larger than I'm used to, but it kind of feels like holding an e-reader or a small tablet. The downside is that the new camera bump stops you from folding the two sides completely flat against one another in one-handed mode. A fingerprint sensor is located on the right side just like last time, but it lacks facial recognition.
There's a lot to appreciate when it comes to the Surface Duo 2's design, but there's also a lot to complain about. I'm finally starting to understand why Microsoft didn't want to call it a phone: It's best suited for times when you want to dive into a book, game or work, but it falls short in portability and practicality.
Quick actions like sending a text message while walking down the street or taking a photo before my cat scurries away just aren't practical on the Surface Duo 2. That might not sound like a big deal, but think about how many times you take out your phone each day. Using the Surface Duo 2 has made me feel like I've been taking my compact iPhone 12 for granted. Reaching for my phone when I'm on the go should be effortless, not something I should have to think about.
Surface Duo 2 photos: See Microsoft's new foldable phone in action
By now you're probably wondering: does my phone need a second screen? That's a question Microsoft is on its way to answering, but hasn't nailed quite yet.
There are two main ways to use the Surface Duo 2's two screens: Running two apps side-by-side, or extending one app across both screens. The first one is more straightforward, and to me it makes more sense for multitasking than using split-screen mode on other Android phones with large screens. It's just hard to compete with having a dedicated full screen for each app.
However, I'll admit that I didn't find myself using this functionality very often. I've used it sometimes to send a message in Slack while looking up an email I needed to reference, or to find a login code sent to my email while signing into an app. Launching my calendar on one screen and WhatsApp on the other to check my schedule while making plans with friends was also useful. You can also choose to pin two apps together to launch them with a single tap.
But these scenarios didn't come up as often as I thought they would. I'm already used to opening one app at a time, and thinking of apps as pairs requires me to develop new habits around how I use my phone. That can take time, and I imagine most people probably feel the same.
The other way you can put these two screens to work is by using a single app across both displays. The catch is that apps must be optimized to actually function across two screens. It's an interesting concept that I hope catches on more broadly. Rather than just making apps larger, Surface Duo-optimized apps separate certain features between the two displays. When it works, it feels like you're using the app in an entirely new way.
Many of Microsoft's own apps are designed to work well on the Surface Duo 2. In Outlook, you can view your inbox on one display and a full email on another. OneNote displays a notebook on one screen and a single page on the other. The phone's camera app turns one screen into a camera viewfinder while showing your photo gallery on the second display.
A handful of third-party apps have also been adapted for both screens. One of my favorites is the Amazon Kindle app, which gives each book page its own dedicated screen and even displays a page-turn animation. The Kindle app was one of the first to be updated for the Surface Duo since the first version of the phone launched last year, and it's still a shining example of the benefits of having two screens on a phone. TikTok also displays the Discover tab on one screen and the For You feed on the other.
Gameloft has tailored Asphalt 9 so the racetrack is displayed on the top screen when held in landscape mode while the controls and a map are shown on the bottom. Certain titles in Microsoft's Xbox Game Pass streaming service are also optimized for the Surface Duo 2 in a similar way. The Surface Duo 2's shape makes it almost feel almost like a Nintendo DS, and it's another great example of why I believe the Surface Duo 2 has potential.
I had a lot of fun playing Yakuza: Like A Dragon as a handheld game on the Surface Duo 2 through Game Pass. The bottom screen turns into a digital gamepad that even displays the controls for each button -- something a regular controller can't do. For example, a speech bubble symbol appears next to the Y button to remind you that pushing it lets you interact with other characters and game elements. However, using touchscreen controls instead of physical buttons, in a game designed for a traditional controller, took some getting used to.
The problem is that the vast majority of apps I use on a daily basis aren't optimized for the Surface Duo 2's screens. These apps, which include Facebook, WhatsApp, Seamless, Google Drive, Instagram, Adobe Lightroom, Slack, Netflix and YouTube, just look strange when spanned across both displays because of the hinge that joins both screens together. The crease on foldables like the Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 3 seem nearly invisible by comparison.
That's the big advantage Samsung's folding phone has over the Surface Duo 2. It essentially serves as a tablet when open and a phone when closed. There isn't as much optimization that has to happen behind the scenes to communicate the benefit of simply having a larger screen.
I actually enjoyed the Surface Duo 2's flexible design more than its second screen. Most of the time, I watched videos in tent mode and used the second screen as an expensive built-in kickstand.
The bottom line: Having two screens can be useful sometimes. But on a device like this, it should be useful all the time.
Better performance, but still some software hiccups
Performance was one of the original Surface Duo's biggest shortcomings. Thankfully, the Surface Duo 2 has gotten some important hardware upgrades in this area, but software performance still feels more jittery than I'd like.
First, the hardware. The device runs on a Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 5G processor with 8GB of RAM, while the older Surface Duo phone ran on a weaker Qualcomm Snapdragon 855. The Surface Duo 2's chip is the same one found in other high-end phones like the Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 3 and OnePlus 9 Pro, but Samsung's foldable comes with 12GB of RAM.
This upgraded processor combined with the Surface Duo 2's 90Hz refresh rate makes scrolling through news feeds and settings menus feel snappy and smooth. I rarely notice the difference when using phones or tablets with higher refresh rates, but the Surface Duo 2's interface feels noticeably slick.
When it comes to general computing power, the Surface Duo 2 is on par with the Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 3, according to the Geekbench 5 benchmark. That test measures general CPU performance for everyday tasks such as checking email and playing music. The Surface Duo 2 scored an average of 1,101 on the single-core processing test and 3,420 on the multicore processing test. Samsung's premium foldable, by comparison, scored 1,097 and 3,399 on the same test. The $1,099 iPhone 13 Pro Max, on the other hand, outperformed both phones significantly with a score of 1,741 and 4,856.
In terms of graphics benchmarks, the Surface Duo 2's results were inconsistent and varied depending on the device's temperature. When it ran hot, the Surface Duo 2 would score around 7,178 on average during the 3DMark Sling Shot Unlimited test. That's just a bit higher than the iPhone 13 and Motorola Edge 5G UW, which scored 6,653 and 6,428 respectively. But when I placed the Surface Duo 2 in the fridge to cool down before running the benchmark, it scored an average of 10,640, which is on par with the Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 3, Galaxy S21 and Galaxy S21 Ultra.
Now for the software. The Surface Duo 2 was able to keep up with my movements as I switched between its various modes for the most part, which is an improvement on the original. But it wasn't perfect all the time.
There were still some instances in which the display lagged when moving from portrait to landscape mode, which made the device feel jumpy and inconsistent in some circumstances. When using the device in tent mode or one-handed mode, a message appears when moving between the two screens to let you know that you can double tap the other display to switch to it. But this didn't always work. And when it did, the Surface Duo 2 would sometimes close the app I was using or display it in the wrong orientation. While it's great that Microsoft has made some progress, it's still disappointing to see performance issues like this on the second-generation model.
A better camera that's still far from the best
The Surface Duo 2 has a new triple-camera system with three lenses: a 12-megapixel wide lens, 12-megapixel telephoto lens and a 16-megapixel ultrawide lens. It's a big upgrade from the single 11-megapixel lens on the previous Surface Duo, but this certainly isn't a phone for photo enthusiasts.
During my tests, the Surface Duo 2 produced photos that were clear and crisp, but in many cases weren't as well-lit and colorful as those taken on the Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 3 and iPhone 13 Pro Max. This is usually most noticeable when looking at the sky in the background during outdoor shots, which was sometimes a completely different color compared to the phones from Samsung and Apple. Photos taken with the Surface Duo 2's zoom lens also weren't sharp or vibrant enough, and the same can be said for images taken with its 12-megapixel selfie camera.
Take a look at the images below.
Surface Duo 2 camera testing: See how Microsoft's new foldable phone takes photos
The bigger issue, however, is that Microsoft solved one problem only to create another. Now that the Surface Duo 2 has three rear cameras, you must keep the phone open while snapping photos in order to actually see what you're shooting. On the previous model, you could fold the screen all the way back so that you could more easily shoot with one hand. The whole experience just feels awkward and cumbersome.
Yet there are upsides to having two screens. For one, you can see an image right away on the second screen after taking a picture. When editing photos, you can dedicate one entire screen to the image itself while the various sliders and toggles are located on the second screen.
Still, I imagine most people would prefer a phone that's more compact and easier to manipulate. It feels nearly impossible to capture a photo with one hand using the Surface Duo 2. Combine that with the time it takes to unfold the phone, unlock it and launch the camera app, and you've probably missed the moment.
Solid battery life
The Surface Duo 2 is designed with multitasking in mind, and it needs great battery life to match. In my experience so far, the Surface Duo 2's battery life has been reliable but not mind-blowing. After a full day of heavy use, which included about 45 minutes of streaming games via Game Pass and a half hour of taking photos in addition to other daily tasks, the Surface Duo 2 still had 33% of its battery left by the time I went to bed.
That suggests it should last a bit longer than a day even when performing taxing tasks like game streaming. But battery life will always vary depending on how you use your device, so you'll probably get more mileage out of it if you're mostly just checking email, browsing social media feeds and reading.
We haven't had the chance to run CNET's official battery test yet, but we'll update this review with those results once we have them.
A promising device that's not practical as an everyday phone
For all of its drawbacks, the Surface Duo 2 feels like a step in the right direction. But it's just that: another step, not the destination.
It's a reflection of how our relationship with mobile devices has changed over the last decade as we've come to rely on them for everything from email, productivity, gaming, video chatting, social media browsing, photo editing and banking. But I don't think the Surface Duo 2 strikes the right balance of portability, functionality and practicality that most people want from their smartphone just yet.
For a device like the Surface Duo 2 to be worth it, the two-screened app experience needs to be materially better than the single-screen app experience. That's just not true today since there are still so many popular apps that aren't optimized. The bigger issue might be that the Surface Duo 2 still feels too awkward to use as an everyday phone, which at best results in a learning curve and at worst feels generally inconvenient. On top of all that, some software performance hiccups still exist.
I can't say I didn't enjoy using the Surface Duo 2, especially for playing games and reading. But I felt some degree of relief when switching back to a regular, nonfolding, single-screen phone.