Microsoft Surface Duo: The Smartphone That Hits Where You Live

eWEEK PRODUCT REVIEW: This device is designed for the dedicated Microsoft 365 user who needs something more portable than a laptop and doesn’t want to carry two devices.

MicrosoftSurfaceDuo

Let’s start by saying the new Microsoft Surface Duo phone isn’t for everyone. It is the antithesis of the iPhone and if you like large screen phones focused on entertainment, there is a reasonably good chance you’ll not like the Surface Duo. It is the first business-focused smartphone we’ve had since the BlackBerry Key 2 (which I also carried and loved). As such, it is focused on those who have a broader interest in consuming written material, video conferencing (especially on Microsoft Teams) and email (especially with Outlook).

In short, it is designed for the dedicated Microsoft 365 user who needs something more portable than a laptop and doesn’t want to carry two devices. 

If you aren’t that person, odds are you won’t put in the effort to learn how to use this phone’s unique features and you’ll prefer another phone from another vendor. But if you are that person and I admit I am, you’ll love this thing. But be aware: This is a first-generation device, so it will improve a lot by version #3. 

Let’s talk about all of that this week as I share why this phone is uniquely suited to how I work. 

Living in Microsoft 365 and the Amazon Kindle Reader

Where this phone truly shines is with the Amazon Kindle Reader, Outlook and Teams. The Amazon Kindle reader, when you put the app into the twin-screen mode, treats the device like it is a book that opens and hold like a book. It is more comfortable to hold than a tablet or phone, because you can set it down on its edge and it nestles in your hand like a, well, book. I typically carry a 10-inch Amazon Fire tablet, and I find I no longer need to do that. The Duo works as well or better for reading than the Fire Tablet does; the Tablet is a better bargain (typically around $150), but it is also a redundant device, and both my wife and I have lost several of them over the years. And I can carry the Duo in my pocket, something I can’t do with the Tablet.

[Editor's note: Since we're talking pricing for the Fire Tablet, we should mention the pricing for the Duo: It will run you from $1,400 to $1,600, depending on storage (128GB or 256GB) and other options. Go here for company information.]

The Outlook app, when in dual screen mode, places the list of emails on the left; it then places the email content on the right so you can rapidly go through your email without having to open each message.  And both aspects of Outlook get their screen, meaning you don’t have to switch views or scroll, especially for short messages continually. 

Teams give you a screen for the content and then another one for the chat window, making it easier to follow discussions while keeping the talking head and content in view. Given, like many of you, I’m working from home at the moment. As a result, this feature could allow me to join a conference that I’d forgotten or that was organized late on one of my rare moments when I’ve escaped the house. (I escape the house as much as I can get away with). 

Issues to consider

This device is a dual-screen phone, not a foldable and it is very different as a result. In effect, you can treat each screen as a different device and have two apps open one on each screen.  You can watch a video and keep up with Facebook, for instance, or be playing a game while watching your security cameras (Arlo seems to work on the device just fine). But this does mean there are a learning curve and unique gestures to navigate the screen, put apps in dual screen mode and get to special features. 

We typically don’t like learning new things, and this can be annoying at first as the skills you’ve developed on other phones may not transfer to this one. Now I don’t notice this at all, but the first few days, I did find that annoying as well. 

The phone doesn’t have 5G, Wi-Fi 6 or NFC (near-field communication). Current testing is indicating, at least in the U.S., that 5G and 4G phones are performing similarly--likely because the 5G network isn’t yet built out. Wi-Fi 6 requires a Wi-Fi 6 router, which most people don’t have. I still haven’t had to use NFC, even when carrying a phone that has that technology. But if you want any of these technologies, you best wait for the next generation of this phone. 

Because of the industrial design of this phone, it works best with earbuds, a smartwatch like the latest Diesel Android watch that you can use to answer, or another hands-free Bluetooth device (like a car or wireless headset). Yes, you can fold the phone, and that will automatically put it in answer mode, but it is more awkward than just picking up the thing and swiping the screen. 

The camera on the phone is sufficient for its primary purpose, which is video conferencing. Still, it does have a decent flash and it doesn’t have the focal range of other high-end phones, particularly those with multiple sensors. It is adequate for me, but for those who take a lot of pictures, it may not be adequate. As I’ve noted, this is a focused phone, and its focus isn’t photography. Oh, and the phone doesn’t do facial recognition (which honestly is pretty worthless if you are wearing a mask), but it does have a well-placed fingerprint reader that also wakes the phone up, so I think that’s a wash. 

This is a first-generation device, which means there will be issues. For instance, just now, only one screen was coming up and while I was able to correct that by rebooting the phone, it was still a little annoying.  My general advice for first-generation devices is that most folks should wait until the second or third version because, by then, the bugs have been fully worked out of the system. By Generation 3, particularly, the form factor, usability and app support issues are typically resolved. The reason to have the first generation is that the device uniquely meets your needs, as this does mine, or you like to have something few yet have (which is me, as well). 

The case of the phone is made of glass, something I rediscovered when it fell out of my pocket when I got up from my desk. It does come with rubber bumpers in the box, which I didn’t discover until after I dropped it, so I’d suggest putting those on it. 

Wrapping up: Why I love this thing

I’d buy this phone because it does what I like to do with it, which is mostly email and reading; it is pretty decent at browsing the web. I like using headsets, so using one with this phone hasn’t been an issue, either. But the phone, which is more of a productivity device, is in its first version, meaning the next versions will improve a lot. It’s great for me today, but for you, it may be more of a 2021 or 2022 option once it matures. 

But if you like: a) having something new, different and unique; b) are okay with a first-generation device; c) like the idea of twin screens, and d) want a phone that focuses more on making you money than consuming the money you already have, it may be worth checking the Microsoft Surface Duo out. 

Rob Enderle is a principal at Enderle Group. He is a nationally recognized analyst and a longtime contributor to eWEEK and Pund-IT.