Surface Duo review—Orphaned Windows hardware makes a poor Android device

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At least it’s very pretty

The main thing the Surface Duo has going for it is that it is very pretty. It’s a minimalist glass sandwich with a sophisticated pearl white and chrome color scheme that is just a pleasure to look at. The phone is absolutely cracker-thin, and along with the Moto Razr, it’s one of the rare foldable smartphones that doesn’t look like an ugly brick. If you’ve got two free hands, there’s something very comfy about holding the Duo in book mode and just casually flipping through something. The shock and awe of Microsoft’s design language is probably enough to make some people fall in love with the device and ignore all its other faults. I mean, not me, of course, but some people.

SPECS AT A GLANCE: Microsoft Surface Duo
SCREEN Two 1800×1350 5.6″ OLED displays
(401ppi, 4:3 aspect ratio)
OS Android 10
CPU Eight-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 855
Four Cortex A76-based cores (One 2.84GHz, three 2.41Ghz) and four Cortex A55-based cores at 1.78GHz
RAM 6GB
GPU Adreno 540
STORAGE 128GB or 256GB
NETWORKING 802.11b/g/n/ac, Bluetooth 4.2, GPS,
PORTS USB 3.1 Gen1 Type-C
CAMERA 11MP
SIZE Open: 145.2mm x 186.9mm x 4.8mm
Closed: 145.2mm x 93.3mm x 9.9mm
WEIGHT 250g
BATTERY 3577 mAh
STARTING PRICE $1400 at Microsoft
OTHER PERKS  Side fingerprint sensor

The word that most comes to mind when describing the Surface Duo is “flat.” The body of the phone is not perfectly flat, but it’s uninterrupted sheets of glass on the front and back of both halves. There’s no camera bump, no curved sides, just four sheets of glass. When closed up, the outside of the phone also gives off a minimalist look with no lights, cameras, or wordmarks, just a single, reflective Windows logo Microsoft logo. The Surface Duo almost doesn’t look like it’s an electronic device. You could easily make a Moleskine notebook that looks just like a Surface Duo. In fact, I’d bet a Moleskine is where a Microsoft got the dimensions for the Surface Duo. The “Pocket” version of the little notebook is 140mm x 90mm, while a Surface Duo is 145.2mm × 93.3mm when closed.

Crack open the Duo and you’ll find a series of strange decisions. First there’s the two 60Hz 5.6-inch displays with a 4:3 aspect ratio, so they are way wider and way shorter than most other Android displays. Next you’ll find some comically huge bezels on the top and bottom of the phone, which really ruins the “digital Moleskine” vibe the device gives off from the outside. It’s not really clear why the bezels are so large. We certainly have the technology to make them much, much thinner, and as we’ll get into later, the short, fat 4:3 displays would greatly benefit from the extra height. I’ll guess that this is one of the Surface Duo’s many concessions to thinness.

Pretty much all the phone bits on the right half of the device. On the bottom edge of the right half, you’ll see the USB-C port, on the right edge there’s the sim tray, a volume rocker, power button, and an ultra-skinny side-mounted fingerprint reader. The right half handles phone call duty, with an earpiece in the top bezel and a microphone slot on the bottom. The internals mirror this layout, too: all the phone chips are in the right half of the phone, while the left half is almost all battery. The only thing on the left side besides another screen is the phone’s only media speaker, which exits via a slot in the top of the display glass. With a mono speaker, no headphone jack, and a wonky 4:3 display, the Surface Duo is not exactly a media machine.

You’ll find the only camera hardware in the right side’s top bezel: an LED flash sits next to a terrible 12MP sensor with a very cheap looking pinhole lens. The 360 hinge allows this to double as both the selfie camera and the main camera, which is clever. But in a device as thin as the Surface Duo, the camera never had a shot at being good. Most phones need additional thickness to squeeze in a quality camera sensor (the camera bump), and today most smartphone camera sensors are thicker than the entire 4.8mm body of the Surface Duo.

The Surface Duo prototype with a rear camera bump on one half, and a corresponding divot on the other. The final device has no rear camera.
Enlarge / The Surface Duo prototype with a rear camera bump on one half, and a corresponding divot on the other. The final device has no rear camera.

There is not a market for camera sensors that fit into this thin of a profile, so Microsoft probably really had to dig through the industry parts bin and settle for anything that would fit. We know Microsoft kicked around a few ideas to try to fix this. One early Surface Duo prototype has a camera bump on the rear of one half of the device, with a divot on the other half so the phone can still fold flat. The company also has a patent for a camera lens that would fit into a thin profile and then grow taller when it was in use, like an old-school point-and-shoot. In the end, we got no camera bumps and no fancy camera tech, just a thin, smooth device and a compromised camera.

The Surface Duo hinge feels exactly like a laptop hinge. It’s stiff enough to stay wherever you put it but still easy to move around. Like a laptop hinge, there is continuous resistance throughout the entire movement with really no assist at all, so you won’t be flipping the phone open or closed, and you’ll always need two hands to open the phone. The hinge folds all the way around, so you can turn your dual-screen phone into a single screen by folding one display all the way back. It’s easy to switch sides in this mode, too—just double tap on the display you want to light up. You can do whatever you want with the hinge: hold the phone like a book, flatten the phone out against a table, prop it up like a tent, or turn it into a mini laptop.

One amazing thing about the hinge mechanism is that there’s no padding of any kind for when you close it, yet the closing process still feels safe, soft, and gentle. The Galaxy Fold and Moto Razr have either rubber feet or a big plastic bezel to protect the screen from being slammed closed. On the Surface Duo, there are no bumpers at all, so closing it means you are pressing one slab of glass against another. You might expect to hear a shattering noise after an enthusiastic close, but it feels like the hinge is doing some cushioning work, and you never feel like you have to be gentle closing the phone.

Microsoft went all out to make the Surface Duo as thin as humanly possible. If you measure the Surface Duo when it’s open, it qualifies as one of the thinnest smartphones of all time at just 4.8mm thick. You’d have to go back to the thinness craze of the mid-2010s to find anything as paper-thin as the Surface Duo—the 4.75mm thick Vivo X5Max, which I think still holds the title of “world’s thinnest smartphone.” (It even had a headphone jack!) The Surface Duo might be the world’s second thinnest smartphone, or maybe even #1, since it doesn’t have a camera bump like the Vivo X5Max.

The internals of this phone are really incredible and show Microsoft pulled out all the stops to get as thin as possible. In a normal, modern smartphone, the goal is to reduce the motherboard area for a bigger battery, and manufacturers have started constructing motherboards like a multi-story house. Not only does a single board have chips on the top and bottom side, manufacturers have started stacking up multiple layers of circuit board. Something like an iPhone 11 has three planes of chips. The bottom has a single-sided board that can be pressed against the back of the case, then a double-sided board is stacked on top of that. The Surface Duo is the complete opposite: It has a massively large motherboard that is actually single sided. Every single chip is on one side of the board, and the backside is flat, reducing the height as much as possible.

While the push for thinness in the mid-2010s was a pointless gimmick, for foldables, thinness is a major factor for portability. This thing has to go in your pocket, after all. Folding in half means it grows to double the thickness. However, Microsoft’s obsession with thinness means the phone is still only a svelte 9.9 mm when it’s folded up, which is still only on the high-end of normal smartphone thickness. Staying in the realm of smartphone thickness is a nice improvement over the brick-like form factor of some other foldables. The Galaxy Z Fold 2, which made no concessions for thinness, is 16.8mm when it’s folded up—that’s basically two normal smartphones stacked on top of each other.

Microsoft did not quite think out how the thinness of the device would clash with its material choices, though. The sides of the device are plastic, and while it looks and feels fine, thin plastic isn’t very strong. Everything is fine until you get to the USB-C port, which, since the port is almost as thick as the entire phone, has only the tiniest sliver of plastic surrounding it. It’s alarming how much you can move the plastic just by pushing it with your finger. There are already reports of the plastic around the USB-C port cracking and breaking off, and I have no doubt I could snap it with my finger. Half a millimeter of plastic (I measured) isn’t sturdy enough for anything, let alone a high-stress point like the USB-C port. Did I mention yet that there’s no wireless charging?

One odd thing about the Surface Duo is that it kind of feels like you could pick it apart with your fingernail. The plastic sides don’t wrap around the inner or outer glass at all, leaving the sides of the glass panels exposed. There’s actually a gap between both panes of glass and the plastic edges, and you can easily stick a piece of paper in there, or even a fingernail. It’s an odd way to make a phone, where normally the glass would be recessed into whatever material the sides were made out of, and any gaps would be impenetrable. If Microsoft had wrapped the plastic edges up around the glass, like normal, the area around the easily-broken USB-C port would be about twice as thick, while the overall phone wouldn’t have been any thicker, which seems like a good idea!  Obviously, after this description, the phone is in no way water-resistant.

In addition to missing wireless charging and water resistance, the Surface Duo also doesn’t have NFC, which is a big omission for a $1400 device. There’s also only a 60Hz display, when most other phones in this price range will offer 90 or 120Hz displays, offering a much smoother interface.

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