I’ve been a huge fan of the Surface devices ever since I first got the original Surface Pro after waiting in line during a snowstorm at the Microsoft Store. The mall wasn’t even opened, but I had the manager’s cell phone number and called while waiting with a bunch of other people looking for the same thing. That was 8 years ago, and the Surface devices have grown significantly. As a Windows Phone user and fan, I had also often wished for a Surface Phone designed by the team that makes all of the other Surface devices. Today that wish is granted, but instead of running Windows as we wanted, the Surface Duo runs Android with a customized shell/launcher from Microsoft. Read on to see how that turned out.
The Surface Duo is a dual-screen hinged Android phone with two 5.6″ AMOLED 1800×1350 pixel screens which adds up to a 2700×1800 pixel resolution. The unfolded dimensions of the entire device are 5.72×7.36×0.19 inches and when closed, the dimensions change to 5.72×3.67×0.399 inches. The weight is about 8.8oz or 250g. For a processor, we’ve got a Qualcomm Snapdragon 855. For storage, there’s 128Gb or 256Gb depending on the model you choose and there’s 6Gb of RAM. There’s only one camera and it’s 11 megapixels, but it does have an LED flash. Of course, there’s WiFi, GPS, Bluetooth, and LTE radios for connectivity. There’s also a fingerprint scanner on the edge and a 3,577 mAh battery to power it all. It’s also running Android 10 with a launcher made by Microsoft and lots of bundled Microsoft apps. There is no 5G data connection support and there is no NFC either (which means no tap-to-pay options.)
Hardware and Design
The Surface Duo hardware really is unique and beautiful. The outside is two blank white glass panels with a reflective silver Microsoft Windows logo. It doesn’t make sense to have a Windows logo on this thing though since it doesn’t run Windows. So, that’s a mistake. I suppose maybe the four boxes logo is supposed to be more representative of Microsoft as a whole instead of just Windows now?
The Surface Duo doesn’t feel like a phone. It feels like an electronic notebook made of glass.
The panels are so thin that it’s just about as thick as a normal phone when folded. On this edge, you can see the SIM card tray pin hole, indented fingerprint scanner, power button, and volume toggle buttons.
The spine edge is where the 360-degree hinges are. It’s totally straight and smooth curved chrome metal with two double hinges at the ends. The hinges have the perfect amount of friction where you can easily unfold the device, but the two screens will stay put in whatever position you stop moving them at.
The Microsoft Windows logo is shiny chrome as well which matches most other Surface devices. This is the only identifying mark on the device and it looks super clean. There are no other logos or IMEI numbers.
The Nano SIM card tray pops open with the usual pin or paperclip tool, but this one’s tray seems a little loose. There’s a tiny bit of play if you poke it with a fingernail. It doesn’t fall out, it just jiggles a little.
A microphone is hidden very well as a tiny little slit in the edge of the glass and plastic of the Surface Duo’s body. The edges are pointed right angles, not smooth, and you can see a little bit of a ledge on the edges.
The power button and volume toggle buttons feel exactly the same as the ones on other Microsoft Surface devices. This is a great move for user interface consistency. I love it! Unfortunately, this might be the only thing that provides user interface consistency, but we’ll get to that. The fingerprint scanner is nicely indented so that you can easily feel for its location while holding the Surface Duo.
The tiny dual hinges are beautifully designed, but I’m afraid dirt will get in there pretty easily.
We’ve got Surface Pen support too, but the Surface Duo doesn’t quite match the nice magnesium alloy of the Surface Pro.
The Surface Duo ships with Android 10 and a custom launcher from Microsoft as well as a bunch of Microsoft’s Android apps. Most of Microsoft’s Android apps are set as defaults too while the Google Equivalents are hidden in a folder. So you’ll have Microsoft Edge as the default browser, Outlook as the default email/calendar app, etc. Office, OneNote, ToDo, LinkedIn, Teams, etc. are all there too.
As you open the Surface Duo, there’s a nice “peek” mode that shows the time and date. I wish that this could display some recent notifications too as that would be way more useful when you hear a notification sound. As it is now, after a notification sound, you have to open it all the way, unlock the screen, swipe the top edge, then try to figure out which notification there is the one that made the sound.
The awesome part of having two screens and a hinge in such a thin and light device is the multitasking. I can be on a video call with someone AND be taking notes in OneNote at the same time without making the other person disappear or shrinking them to thumbnail size.
You can check the weather and read the news at the same time.
Outlook for Android is probably the worst version of Outlook, too. The Windows 10 x86 version of Outlook is my favorite PIM (Personal Information Management) program. It’s extremely feature-rich and capable. The iOS version is pretty nice too, though not as great as the Windows version. The Android version is frustrating as heck. It’s got these ugly distracting useless colorful circles next to each email in the list and you can’t remove them like you can on iOS. What’s worse is that it can’t connect to my personal IMAP account even though I’m using the exact same settings as in the iOS, Windows, & Mac versions of Outlook.
The Surface Duo is fully compatible with all of the Microsoft “Your Phone” app features, which is pretty nice. Setting it up takes kind of a long time. There are lots of permission requests happening every time you go to a different section.
You can only see 2000 photos on the phone via “Your Phone”, but I don’t really need this since my Android phones sync all of their photos to OneDrive anyway and that’s accessible via Windows 10, too. The “Your Phone” app enables phone notifications and SMS messaging on Windows 10 PCs as well, but personally I don’t like that feature at all as the double notifications become annoying quickly. I already get email notifications on my PC. SMS messages I’ve turned off about 5 years ago since everyone has the internet now. So, the extra notifications are just extra noise.
The screen mirroring is pretty nice though! This feature shows the Surface Duo’s entire two screens on the Windows 10 PC and you can interact with it using your mouse, keyboard, pen, or touch screen. The gestures are terrible to use this way, so it’s recommended to switch to the 3-button navigation option. The screen mirroring reminds me a lot of the SOTI Pocket Controller software we used to use at Pocketnow all the time for Windows Mobile and Pocket PC devices 20 years ago. That feature stopped being a thing when Windows Phone came out, so I’ve been living without it for 10 years and don’t really miss it anymore. It’s nice to see that the feature is back though for those who never had it in 2001. Still, it’s a nice way to multi-task with your phone while using a real hardware keyboard and a mouse. Apparently, Windows 10’s handwriting recognition panel and Windows Ink do not work though.
If you have Xbox Game Pass Ultimate, you can play any of about 186 Xbox games on one screen and do whatever else you want on the other screen. This is actually really useful when you’re waiting for a game to load.
The Surface Duo has some of the most basic user interface design problems. Just look at the home screen above. Why are there 6 icons at the bottom that don’t have text labels while all of the others above do have text labels? Why should users be allowed to understand the icons in the middle part of the screens, but not the icons at the bottom? Every time I have to support clients, I have to describe unlabeled mystery meat icons to them by their shape and colors. It would be so much easier for everyone if people could read the name of the button and instantly know what it does.
- Yes, icons need text labels
- The Importance Of Labels
- The best icon is a text label
- Icon usability
- Do icons need labels?
- The Obvious UI is Often the Best UI
Normal people aren’t going to understand many of the icons at the bottom and that’s not even the taskbar like on Windows 10. There’s no congruity with Microsoft’s Surface devices in this design. I get that these are similar to the bottom row of icons on most other Android launchers as well as the iPhone OS, but the Surface Duo is more like a tablet than a phone. The necessity for a row of persistent icons is lower.
Another feature that normal people will have trouble finding is the ability to group two apps into a single group icon on the desktop that will allow you to launch both apps at the same time in the two separate screens. This option requires a tap-and-hold on an icon, then choose “Groups” and it will then show you a whole list of the installed apps that you can group that icon with. One bit of disconnect with this feature that doesn’t seem to be well thought out is that when the screens are folded backwards so that only one is showing, the group icons are still there but only load one app in the one screen. Opening the device to show two screens doesn’t necessarily show the second group app on the second screen. It’s very confusing.
System Software Gestures
The Surface Duo’s default Android Launcher (basically the graphical user interface shell) was customized by Microsoft and it is measurably worse than the interface you may have hated in Windows 8 and Windows RT eight years ago. Normal people are rightfully going to be frustrated with this (see: The Distribution of Users’ Computer Skills: Worse Than You Think).
First let’s look at the tablet Interface for a Surface Pro running Windows 10. The Start screen takes up the full screen in tablet mode and everything here is basically point and poke. You can read the names of the icons and poke them to open the programs. It has smooth scrolling which is great because you can manage the speed of scrolling yourself and you don’t have to re-orient your fingers or eyes as you would if these were full-screen pages.
The Windows 10 tablet interface also has some hidden gestures. These are completely undiscoverable, but once you figure them out, they’re very useful. A swipe from the right edge shows your notifications and action center. A swipe from the left edge shows the multi-task interface where you can choose an open app to switch to. Swiping down from the top essentially grabs the window’s title bar and then you can swing the gesture to the left or right in order to enable the split-screen snap mode. If you swipe all the way from the top edge to the bottom edge, this will close the foreground app. If you have two apps in split-screen mode, you can drag down on the title bar of one of them and then move it to the top middle to expand it to full screen. So that’s what, four hidden gestures that you need to learn in order to use a Surface Pro’s tablet mode? Now if you rotate the tablet into portrait mode, all of these gestures work the same (except there’s no room for split-screen mode.) Four hidden gestures to learn is not that bad. It does not take up too much cognitive energy to learn 4 or 5 gestures.
Now let’s look at the Surface Duo. The home screen is similar to the Windows 10 full-screen start menu in that you can launch programs from here and also customize it with widgets that show information. A big difference is that it scrolls in pages as opposed to a user-controllable smooth scrolling list. That means there’s more work in reading each page and re-orienting your finger to poke the things you want. There’s also a dock of shortcuts at the bottom and these really aren’t necessary since the home screen is also customizable shortcuts. Also, why should I be able to read all of the icons on the homescreen, but the ones in the bottom row don’t have text labels? It doesn’t make sense that I should be able to understand the functions at the top, but not the ones at the bottom. I get that this is something Apple and Google do, but it still doesn’t make sense. There’s plenty of room to label the functions so that people can understand them. There are some fairly intuitive gestures to control the homescreen. A swipe from the right edge inwards scrolls a page to the right. A swipe from the left edge inwards scrolls to the left.
A swipe from the top edge reveals the notifications and action center just like Android and iOS do, but completely different from how Windows 10 does. This is obviously a problem if you use other Microsoft Surface devices, but at least this top edge gesture works in all scenarios and it’s familiar from other non-Microsoft platforms. However, if you miss the top edge while you’re on the home screen and do a top-down swipe that does not start at the very top… then you’ll get the search interface.
The next problem is when you install new apps. The icons for new apps don’t appear on the home screen and there is zero indication of where to find them or how to launch them. There is no button for an app drawer that lists all installed programs! Seriously! Maybe the tutorial at the first boot covered this, but I’ve forgotten that already (as will every non-tech enthusiast that tries to use this). It turns out you have to figure out a hidden gesture where you swipe up from the bottom middle of the touch screen and this reveals the full list of programs. Unlike the home screen, this listing DOES smooth scroll so that you can easily choose the speed and movement of the list thus reducing eye and finger movement.
While all of these hidden gestures can increase efficiency for power users who have memorized them, they certainly increase frustration for people who use other Surface devices or do not want to waste their cognitive energy memorizing them. In fact, Android users prefer the on-screen buttons interface over hidden gestures according to Google.
Launching an app loads it in whichever side of the split-screen that you poked it in. That makes sense. The other side of the screen still shows a portion of the home screen and allows you to launch another app on that screen.
Now that we’ve got two apps loaded and both showing in both screens, the gesture controls are going to be completely different. Now instead of a taskbar or any system control buttons, you’ve got absolutely nothing except two white wiener bar lines at the bottom. They look like scrollbars, but they’re not. Tapping the wiener bars don’t do anything. Swiping the wiener bars outwards towards the edge of the screen doesn’t do anything. Swiping it inwards towards the spine flips it to the other screen. Swiping it upwards minimizes the app and reveals the home screen again. Yes, that’s the opposite of the gestures that you may have learned by using other Microsoft Surface devices. Sometimes if you drag from the bottom edge upwards long enough to feel some haptic feedback, you’ll get a list of open apps instead which you can then scroll through in order to switch apps. Confused yet? It gets worse.
When you have apps opened, the left and right edge gestures are different now. Both the right edge or left edge gestures invoke the “back” function. This is something that’s normally a dedicated button on the taskbar in Windows 10, but now on the Surface Duo, we have invisible back buttons. In some apps, they don’t even work and will often just minimize the app and show the home screen. These gestures also heavily conflict with apps that also have side-edge gestures. For example, many apps have a left-edge gesture that reveals a panel of other options. This doesn’t work if you have the app loaded on the left screen on the Surface Duo.
Now if you drag the bottom edge wiener bar and hold it in the middle of the screen, you can then drag it to the center spine of the split screen in order to make the app span both screens. Again, this is a completely different gesture than what was used for the same function on Windows tablets since 2012.
So we’re up to about 10 non-discoverable hidden gestures that you need to learn in order to use the Surface Duo so far. That’s too many already, but guess what, it gets worse…
If you rotate the Surface Duo so that the spine is horizontal, both screens will change their orientation, and now… all of those gestures you just learned are completely different. Well, the only one that’s the same is the top-edge gesture which still shows the notifications and action center. The right edge gesture no longer functions as the back button. It now minimizes the app because now the white wiener bar is on the right edge instead of the bottom where it was before. The left edge swipe gesture does still function as a back button, but it still also conflicts with the in-app left-edge swipe gestures that some programs depend on. The bottom edge swipe up gesture now does nothing.
Let’s go back to the home screen in this landscape layout. Guess what, everything is different here too! Instead of horizontally scrolling pages of icons and widgets, now we have vertically scrolling pages. Remember how before we had to swipe up from the middle of the home screen in order to access the full list of installed programs? THAT DOESN’T WORK ANYMORE!!! Instead, you have to use a “swipe right to left from anywhere other than the right edge” gesture in order to access the full list of installed applications. Now that the swiping up and down switches between home screen pages what happened to the search interface? The “swipe down from anywhere other than the top edge” home screen gesture no longer opens the search interface. It just scrolls through home pages until you get all the way to the top and THEN it opens the search interface.
So that’s 6 more new hidden gestures to memorize that we need to add to the other 10 from the book/portrait orientation. 16 hidden gestures to memorize! That’s 4 times more complicated than the gestures we had to learn for Windows 8 in 2012. Remember how everyone hated the hidden gestures in Windows 8? Making a user interface that’s four times worse than that is not going to help. That’s not even counting the hidden gesture to activate Google Assistant, which I never even figured out how to do.
Okay, the Google Assistant gesture is a swipe up from a corner. Completely not discoverable, and unintuitive!
You can, in the settings, change the UI to have a more point-and-poke type interface that has a triangle, wiener bar, and square button on each screen. This might be easier to use if you’re familiar with Android, but this all would have been much much easier if it used the same interface as Windows 10 already has. It’s certainly possible to make an Android launcher that’s similar to Windows 10 and that would have made the Surface Duo much more consistent with other Surface devices as well as with itself.
If you want a device to be easy to use, the interface needs to be easy to learn first. “Easy to learn” should always be the default. The ability to customize a UI for each individual’s preference for more efficiency in their specific use-case is absolutely important, too, but what’s efficient for you should not be forced on users who aren’t going to be able to figure it out.
The Surface Pen and input methods
What about the pen and input interface? Well, that’s a huge downgrade from what Windows tablets had in 2012 and even 2002, as well. The Surface Duo does support the Surface Pen, which is awesome, but the software support is pretty terrible. There is no system-wide pen support. It’s only useful in apps that specifically are made to detect it like Microsoft OneNote. There is no character recognizer or handwriting recognizer input panel for all input fields like we had on Windows CE in 1998-2010 or Windows XP Tablet PC Edition in 2002 through Windows 10 today.
There’s no split-screen keyboard either. You ONLY get a swipe enabled Qwerty keyboard that can appear on one screen at a time. There’s no option to detect a stylus and automatically switch to handwriting recognition as I had on my Windows Mobile 6.1 HTC Touch Diamond in 2008. How can you release a Surface device with hardware support for the Surface Pen, but not include a handwriting recognition input panel?! The version of OneNote on the Surface Duo doesn’t even have a “convert to text” command for converting ink to plain text. It’s embarrassing that Microsoft was such an innovator in pen technology 20 years ago, and yet the Surface Duo has practically nothing in terms of digital ink support.
The keyboard input is often frustrating too. If you’re in book mode and you want to type something in a field on the left screen, then the keyboard appears in the left corner. That really sucks because I’m right-handed and could have easily swipe-typed if it had appeared in the right corner. So then I have to flip the screen backward so that the left side switches to a full-width keyboard that I can use two thumbs on, but guess what… sometimes the act of flipping the screens over will cause one screen to turn off, and sometimes that screen is the left one that I was trying to type into. It’s hugely frustrating.
The only input method that’s actually pretty good is when you hold the Surface Duo in kind of a laptop display mode where one screen is on the bottom and the other screen is angled up. In that mode, the keyboard appears within the entire lower screen and you’ve got big buttons that you can either point & poke at, or use your thumbs while holding the device.
If you connect a Bluetooth keyboard, like my Microsoft Universal Folding keyboard, there are some keyboard shortcuts added. There’s a prediction row of words that will show at the bottom and each has a number above and to the right of it. If you type Ctrl + the number, that will finish typing that word prediction for you. So that’s pretty nice, but the rest of the operating system lacks keyboard access keys significantly. There are no keyboard shortcut indicators anywhere else like you would expect in Windows x86 programs from 1995-2015 (before UWP apps removed them.) So, hardware keyboard navigation on the Surface Duo is very bad as well, but at least you can connect a nice keyboard for typing.
Previously we were only talking about the design of the Surface Duo’s interface. In reality, it’s even worse since often things don’t work. Sometimes the orientation doesn’t switch, sometimes both screens don’t turn on, sometimes the screen switching doesn’t work, sometimes the complicated gestures aren’t recognized or invoked correctly. It’s a big mess.
Ok, so the software is pretty bad, but what about the camera? Oh, it’s kind of embarrassing especially since Microsoft used to have some of the best smartphone camera technology around when they had bought Nokia years ago.
The Surface Duo only has one camera and it’s on the inside. So if you’re holding it in book mode, the camera will be facing you. You can, however, flip the screens around backward and switch the viewfinder to the other screen in order to point the camera at something else and look through the viewfinder from the other side. This makes accessing the camera for quick photos terribly difficult. There is a shortcut that works a bit better if you can figure it out. Double pressing the power button will launch the camera, and that works well if you already have the phone’s screens flipped backward on the outside of the device. You’re still going to run into the problem of the shutter button not responding right away sometimes, and that’s not acceptable for a camera that doesn’t save RAW data and is such low quality.
Below is a series of 100% crop images of the same model using different camera phones to show how the Surface Duo compares to a few other phones.
The Surface Duo’s 11Mp camera is about on par with the Nokia N8’s 12Mp camera… from 10 years ago… although I still seem to see a little more detail in the hair in the Nokia N8’s example. Next, you’ll see the Microsoft Lumia 950 with a 20Mp camera and much better detail. After that is the old 2013 Nokia Lumia 1020 with its 41Mp camera and this one has the most detail of anything. I can practically see myself in the reflection of our model’s pupil! The last sample is from a 2020 phone called the Infinix Zero 8 which is using a 64Mp camera sensor (which subsamples down to 16Mp in hardware) and costs $250 or about 1/5th the price of the Surface Duo.
Above are a few full resolution sample photos from the Surface Duo camera. It’s ok in nice light, if not a little hazy, but in low light, the details become very blurry. The camera doesn’t support RAW output and doesn’t work with the Android CameraAPI2 via Open Camera, so we’re stuck with Microsoft’s noise reduction and post-processing.
The 3,577 mAh battery works well for keeping the Surface Duo running for most of the day. The 18-watt fast-charger should get things back up and running pretty quickly via the USB-C port.
Pricing & Availability
The Surface Duo launched on September 10, 2020 for $1399.99 which comes to $1524.24 with tax. That’s ridiculously expensive for something who’s software is so poorly thought out and doesn’t replace my Surface Pro (which is less expensive).
Pros & Cons
- Gorgeous and unique hardware design
- 360-degree hinge has the perfect amount of friction
- It runs Android apps
- Multi-tasking with two screens is great
- Surface Pen kind of works
- Microsoft’s software design & stability is very disappointing
- Software has no consistency with other Surface devices (or even with itself)
- Can’t run real Windows programs or UWP apps
- No wireless charging
- No NFC
- No 5G support
- Single 11Mp camera might have been ok 10 years ago
- Very expensive
- Camera doesn’t output RAW
- No water resistance
- Almost zero software support for the Surface Pen
- Doesn’t fit in the usual car holders
As a huge fan of the Surface Pro since its first release and a huge fan of Microsoft’s previous mobile phone software attempts (Windows Phone, Windows Mobile, Pocket PC, Windows CE), I was very much looking forward to the Surface hardware engineers finally releasing a Surface phone. Other than the mediocre camera, the hardware is beautifully well designed and robust. Yes, there are bezels, but I prefer having those since it gives you someplace to put your fingers in order to hold the device without activating things. The 360-degree dual hinge is practically perfect.
The problems come when you turn it on. Yes, it uses Android, so the interface is going to be different from Windows, but Android is open-source and you can create your own launchers that change the system UI a lot. That’s what Microsoft did, but they did it in a way that makes no sense for Surface users or anybody who has never used the Duo before really. While Windows Phone was really well thought out and designed for ease-of-use, the Surface Duo’s Android implementation was not. With all of the overlapping, non-discover-able gestures, it seems like it was designed to be frustrating to use. It’s like the difference between learning pi to 4 decimals versus learning pi to 20 decimals. A lower amount of cognitive energy required to use the software would have been so much better. It’s not just poorly designed, it’s also buggy and often does not do the things you expect. That makes it even more frustrating to use. The lack of digital inking support is even more embarrassing since Microsoft was a pioneer of digital inking on smartphones and mobile devices over 20 years ago.
All of those issues would probably be acceptable and forgivable if this was an inexpensive $200 device, but it’s 7 times that price at $1400!