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Microsoft’s new $1,500 folding phone is a huge improvement from last year

Microsoft Surface Duo 2

Todd Haselton | CNBC

Microsoft‘s $1,500 Surface Duo 2, the company’s second folding phone, launches Thursday. I’ve been using it for about a week and it’s a huge improvement over the first model Microsoft launched last year, which was too buggy and underpowered.

Microsoft doesn’t make a lot of money off of hardware, and it has a poor track record with phones. While the Windows Mobile operating system was popular before the iPhone launched in 2007, the company’s hardware has never caught on with consumers the way iPhones or Samsung phones have. The Surface Duo 2 probably won’t change that narrative, since its design and price will only attract a niche audience. Microsoft likely won’t sell a ton of these.

But the Surface Duo 2 offers something unique that you don’t get with any other phone on the market. It has two screens that can run different apps side by side. The company thinks people can be more productive with the Surface Duo 2. I’m not sure I’m more productive with the Surface Duo 2. I still take out my laptop when I need to get work done. But it’s novel, fun to use and actually works this time.

Here’s what you need to know about the Surface Duo 2.

What’s good

Microsoft Surface Duo 2

Todd Haselton | CNBC

The Surface Duo 2 is like a shiny glass Moleskine notebook with chrome accents. Like the first iteration, it looks high end, with two thin halves that fold together into a tiny notebook. It opens up to reveal two large 5.8-inch screens that, used together, offer 8.3 inches of space to run two apps side by side or to span a single app, like Outlook, across both. 

The displays are slightly bigger than last year, so you have more space for apps. I have the black model, which looks great, but it gets covered in fingerprints. So you may want to consider the white version instead.

Microsoft Surface Duo 2

Todd Haselton | CNBC

Microsoft addressed nearly all of the hardware complaints last year. The 2020 Surface Duo lacked a lot of features of competing high-end devices. The Duo 2 has the same Qualcomm chip as other top Android phones, instead of a slightly older one. It has support for faster 5G cellular networks — great for streaming games or downloading a movie before you hop on a flight once the Covid pandemic ends — and also adds NFC support, which I use all the time for mobile payments.

Microsoft Surface Duo 2

Todd Haselton | CNBC

Last year’s Surface Duo launched with terribly buggy software. It was slow to open apps, the screens wouldn’t respond if you tried to flip it back into the single-screen mode, and the camera didn’t always work the way it was supposed to. Microsoft addressed a lot of those bugs. The Surface Duo 2 feels fast and apps open the way I expect them to. I still ran into occasional bugs where a video would temporarily run upside down, but it often fixed itself in seconds.

Microsoft Surface Duo 2

Todd Haselton | CNBC

The Surface Duo 2 can be a joy to use. It’s not always as convenient as an iPhone or a regular Android phone, which has just one screen and is quicker to access. But, I love that I can prop up the Surface Duo 2 and watch CNBC on my desk while I’m working on my computer, or read a book in the Amazon Kindle app with a page on each display.

Microsoft Surface Duo 2

Todd Haselton | CNBC

I enjoyed chatting with friends on one side of the screen while reading a news article on the other. And I liked playing games with Xbox Game Pass with a connected Xbox controller, or with the added touch-screen buttons that appear on one screen while the game appears on the other. It’s just a really unique experience you won’t get anywhere else. The closest comparison is Samsung’s Galaxy Z Fold 3, though the inside of that phone is a single full screen so the Fold is better for watching movies.

Microsoft also added stereo speakers, which were missing last year. That means it sounds like the audio is coming from both sides of the phone, instead of just one side, and it made a difference while watching videos.

Microsoft Surface Duo 2

Todd Haselton | CNBC

And, like Samsung’s Galaxy Z Fold 3, it supports pen input. I used the Surface Slim Pen 2 ($129.99), which is convenient for taking notes or just sketching. That same pen works with the Surface Pro computers, so you may already own one (or an earlier model).

Microsoft Surface Duo 2

Todd Haselton | CNBC

I don’t need a pen often, but it’s useful to have for when I need to sign something for my child’s day care. It’s useful for scrolling around apps and moving through emails, too. I recommend also considering the Surface Duo 2 Pen Cover, which protects only the front glass of the Duo 2 but holds and charges the pen with a magnet.

What’s bad

Microsoft Surface Duo 2

Todd Haselton | CNBC

While the Surface 2 Duo is a breath of fresh air in a sea of phones that mostly look the same, it’s also just not terribly convenient if you need to just quickly send a text message or make a phone call. You have to open it to answer a call, for example. You could always just leave it folded back, but it seems like it’s better to keep those big displays protected by keeping it closed. The Surface Duo 2 makes sense as a secondary device, maybe one that you mostly use for work and watching TV, but while still also owning an iPhone or a separate Android phone. Sort of like a portable tablet that fits in your pocket. It’s how I spent a lot of time with it.

I appreciate that Microsoft bends the screens ever so slightly over the hinge so that you can see icons representing notifications on the side, or an incoming call, or how charged the battery is, but it only lights up when a new notification comes in. So, you have to crack open the phone to see your alerts. And the battery charging indicator doesn’t stay on the whole time it’s plugged in, so you need to unplug and plug it back in again to see how charged it is (or open it). Microsoft could fix this by allowing the hinge to respond to a tap, lighting up the slim screen to give a status update.

Microsoft Surface Duo 2

Todd Haselton | CNBC

Last year’s Surface Duo had a camera that wasn’t very great for much outside of video chat. Microsoft addressed those complaints by adding three additional cameras to the back, including a wide-angle, an ultra-wide angle for fitting more into a picture and a zoom lens. The cameras are fine, but they’re still not as good as what you’d get on phones that cost hundreds of dollars less, like the regular iPhone 13 or the Samsung Galaxy S21. There’s a split-second delay when you take a photo, so I often missed my son smiling before he moved on to do something else. Or the picture would turn out blurry. Those are issues that are normally fixed in software updates, so it’s not a huge concern. But you should be getting a much better camera on a $1,500 phone.

Surface Duo 2 sample photo

Todd Haselton | CNBC

My bigger concern is that it’s just weird taking pictures with the Surface Duo 2. You have to hold it with both screens open, so it’s sort of like taking pictures with a book. It’d be useful to have a tiny screen on the front that could be used as a viewfinder and to show small notifications. The good news is the colors in pictures are far better than last year’s single lens, which often produced really washed-out images.

Microsoft Surface Duo 2

Todd Haselton | CNBC

There’s a gap when you fold one screen back onto the other, since the camera lenses pop out. It makes the Surface Duo 2 a little fatter to hold in single-screen mode, but it’s not as bad as it might seem. Microsoft did a nice job angling the camera lenses so they rest against the back panel, and it still feels sturdy despite the extra gap.

Microsoft Surface Duo 2

Todd Haselton | CNBC

I like that I can expand apps like Outlook to span across both displays, to see messages on one side and the contents of an email on the other. But even other apps that are designed for spanning across both screens don’t always look great. Some content is cut off by the hinge in the middle, for example. Other apps do a better job, like a new TikTok app, which shows you what’s trending on one side and a video on the other. I’d like to see more apps add support for both screens, but I don’t think developers are going to be incentivized to do it if millions of people aren’t using this phone.

Lastly, the Surface Duo 2 doesn’t support wireless charging and isn’t as water-resistant as most expensive phones are. I hope to see Microsoft add those features next year.

Should you buy it?

Microsoft Surface Duo 2

Todd Haselton | CNBC

The Surface Duo 2 is way better than Microsoft’s first attempt. It isn’t a mass-market phone for most people, but it’s worth a look if you’re looking for something more unique than a regular phone or think it might be useful to run two apps side by side. I prefer the flexibility of Samsung’s more expensive $1,800 Galaxy Z Fold 3, and appreciate that phone’s water resistance, so you should also give that a look.


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