Microsoft Surface Duo: The new Blackberry?

I took advantage of the much lower price to order the Microsoft Surface Duo, even with the new one probably coming up next month.

The last year I have been using the Samsung Galaxy Fold 2 as my main phone, and I also still have my Galaxy Flip, which I still adore. At first, it seems like a step back to go from a device that offers one big display to a device that is basically two smartphones connected together with a big seam in the middle. But it wasn’t…

Over the past year, I noticed that I mostly used the outer display of the Fold 2. For many tasks, opening up the Fold 2 seemed too much effort. I only opened the device for viewing or editing pictures or reading a larger e-mail. Occasionally, I opened it for some multitasking when I needed to copy something from one app to another, for example. I also almost never used the Fold 2 in Flex mode, unlike the Flip which I used a lot in this mode. The Fold 2 is just not that nice to use in flex mode and the display can only be set at certain angles. But the Fold 2 is still a great device, and I could not imagine going back to another kind of phone.

That was until I received the Surface Duo. At first, I did not bother to put a sim in it because I never thought this was going to be my main device. Certainly not after seeing all the bad and critical reviews about it. And as an avid photographer, I would never want to give up the cameras and the large display of the Fold 2. However, after using it for only one day, I swapped my sim and I never looked back at the Fold 2. In fact, I sold the Fold 2 at the third day.

What happened? How could this so-called flawed and inferior device replace the mighty Fold 2? It’s difficult to explain, actually.

It’s not about productivity. It’s about flow.

The more I used the Surface Duo the more I was reminded about my beloved Blackberry Passport. Coming from the small outer display of the Fold 2 (which is great, by the way), it suddenly felt so good to be back on a very wide display when using a single display. Typing is a lot easier and felt very much like using a Blackberry Passport, except for the physical keyboard of course. But the Blackberry vibe continued as I felt more and more that this was truly a business machine and not a device for the average consumer. Just like Blackberries used to be an enterprise kind of device, the Surface Duo also feels like that. It’s a device that is a bit more cumbersome to use if you are not used to it, and a the same time a lot more efficient to use if you take the time to get to know it.

You will not be a lot more productive on the Surface Duo, compared to another smartphone. Just like most people will not be typing faster on a physical keyboard. But boy, do we miss the physical keyboard. Typing on glass can be so frustrating while typing on a physical keyboard can be so satisfying. The same thing goes here for the Surface Duo: it’s not about saving time or being more productive. It’s the way it lets you multitask without interrupting what you were doing. That makes it so much more relaxing, stress-free, and most of all, satisfying to use.

I am not the kind of person who puts Powerpoint and Excel next to each other to copy and paste things. If you do, you will love the Surface Duo even more. I also will not put Facebook and Youtube next to each other. That is not multitasking. I don’t need two screens for that. But when I am doing something like filling in a form on a website, and a notification comes in, I just tap on it on the other display to interact with it, and everything I was doing remains untouched at the first display. On every other smartphone, you are taken away into another app, and afterward, you have to navigate back to what you were doing. This seems like it is not so important, but it makes a huge difference in how you feel when using a mobile device. The same thing goes if I need to look up something I stored in Onenote to complete something I was doing in a web browser. On a normal smartphone, I have to navigate away, open the other app, and then navigate back. That takes me out of the flow. On a device like the Fold 2, I can put the apps side by side, but it takes some more steps. The simplicity of the Surface Duo makes it so much more satisfying to use. Doing a firmware update of a bluetooth connected device that takes a long time and requires you to keep the app open? No problem on the Duo because you can continue on the other display.

I am not really trying to multitask on the Surface Duo. I am also not really looking to find apps to put side by side. In fact, I use the device in the single-screen mode most of the time. The multitasking on both screens just happens by itself while you are using it. Unfold it and proceed if you need to check something instead of closing what you were doing. Again, it sounds like a small thing, but it makes such a huge difference in the user experience, that I switched to the Duo after only using it for a day.

The Surface Duo is a great device to use in flip mode and in tent-mode which no other foldable offers. The display can be set at any angle and it remains firmly in place.

And finally: you can use a stylus with it. I tried a Surface Pro pen, and it worked perfectly without the need to set up or install anything.

The quirks

It’s not all good news, off-course. Setting up the device is a bit more cumbersome than most other Android phones. There are only a couple of setup languages available. After completing the setup, you can switch to most other languages, however. And there is update after update that needs to install first. It took me over an hour of updating before I could actually use the device and after each update, it takes you through the same setup wizard again. Not a big problem. You only need to do this once. It felt a bit like Windows…

The device is usually fast enough, but you will experience slow-downs and stutters now and then. After tapping something, nothing seems to happen. A couple of seconds later, it works anyway. Sometimes, taps really do not register and you need to exit the app and try again. Or the keyboard does not pop up when you enter a field. This only happens very rarely, however, so it is not a big problem.

Screen rotation can be slow and buggy. I often need to try several times to get the right orientation. This should be improved. It works better if the Duo is completely folded backward, or wide open. Any position in between makes it more problematic.

Call and speakerphone quality are just ok. Not great, not really bad, also. You need to pay attention that you hold the side with the speaker and microphone at your ear when calling. It happend twice already on me that I held the device wrong, wondering why I could almost not hear the other person…

I suddenly could not charge the device anymore with the chargers and cables I usually use for all of my devices. It showed it was charging, but the percentage never went up. After switching to the supplied high-quality charger and wonderful long USB-C cable, it started to charge normally again. I do like the off-center location of the charging port. It makes it easier to use the device while charging.

The included bumper is very nice, and the device still folds flat with it, but it attracts dirt like a magnet. Put the Surface Duo in your pocket with the bumper on, and the bumper will look terrible when you take it out again. It’s difficult to clean also.

I do not often experience the problems that are widely reported such as a display staying black or displays not switching properly. It happens. But no more than once or twice per week. I do have a problem with the limited customization of the Microsoft Launcher on the Duo, however. I truly hate the fact that swiping down on the display activates an iOS-style of search function. I never use this, and it gets triggered by accident all of the time. There is no way to disable this, unfortunately. I wish it would be possible to get the notification center open by swiping down. You can also not switch the recent-apps carrousel from the vertical to horizontal layout or change simple things like the icon grid.

You need to pay attention when you use the device, and you must never try to hurry. Gestures need to be done very precise to work. If you try to hurry them, you get the wrong result, or nothing happens. When you rotate the device and nothing seems to happen: just wait before trying again, or you get a whole bunch of unwanted rotations. Always pay attention to where the line is to indicate the bottom of the screen when in landscape mode. You will get confused in the beginning because you never know for sure which edge to swipe.

The main issue I have in daily usage is that two of my most used apps (Blackberry Hub and Google Calendar) launch extremely slow when the Duo is folded backward in single-screen mode. It can take up to 8 seconds after tapping the icon before the app shows. When I unfold the Duo in book-mode, these apps open instantly. Very strange.

I also noticed some connectivity issues. More on that further down.

And finally: it has no NFC. This is a big problem for me. I pay with my phone just about everywhere, and this is simply not possible with the Surface Duo. I now take my Samsung Galaxy Flip along, just for the payments. I don’t like to pay with a smartwatch since you usually have to bend your arm in a very awkward position to get it to the terminal.

Update: August 2021

Before the August update, I did not experience most of the problems many others were reporting. I guess I was lucky.

Since the August update, hell broke loose…

Things I never had before:

  • Wrong screens activating or screens not activating at all.
  • Sides of the display not responsive to touch when in single screen mode: half of the keyboard can not be used, unless you fold the device open. Only a reboot fixes this.
  • Camera viewfinder upside down when in landscape mode. Turning the Duo around or flipping it, does not solve this. Shutter button does nothing. Only a reboot will do. Typical MS problem, since users of Surface laptops also report this problem.
  • Many times, when I tap a folder or icon on the home screen, the Duo opens the home screen settings instead. Extremely annoying.
  • And some more…

The camera

The biggest complaint you read everywhere about the Surface Duo is about its camera.

For me, the problem is not with the image quality, however. The image quality is actually far better than expected, and I am mostly happy with it. Colors and exposure are often better than on my Samsung devices. Auto-HDR seems to kick in to expose skies correctly. It does this in a way I like. Other devices often try to eliminate blown-out highlights and crank up the shadows to show more details. This kind of dynamic range is often liked by technical reviewers, and they use it as a sign of a great camera. I completely disagree. High dynamic range often makes pictures look dull and flat. Blown-out highlights and dark shadows usually make a picture far more interesting. As a photographer myself, I actually quite like the output.

The camera does lack sharpness when compared to other smartphones. This means you can often not make a digital crop or zoom in as much on a picture as you can with other smartphones. But most pictures these days are only viewed on small smartphone displays, so that is also not much of an issue.

No, image quality is not the real problem here. The main problem with the camera is shutter lag. For some reason, the camera sometimes takes 3 seconds or more to take a picture after you press the shutter button. That is simply not acceptable. Often it works fine. But there are enough times when it doesn’t, and this will annoy you. They should really focus on fixing this.

I never had a problem switching displays to change between selfie-mode and normal camera operation, so that’s great. But again: you need to be slow and think a bit. Flipping displays need to be done fast, however to make sure the device notices the change.

Daytime pictures in good light – unedited

Digital crop

Pictures taken in low light – at sunset and indoors

Connectivity issues

I was having a problem using the Surface Duo with my Bluetooth earbuds when walking in the city. There were so many drop-outs that it was nearly impossible to listen to music. But the Duo plays fine to my car stereo over Bluetooth and at home. Many others also report the same issue. Because I always noticed this in the exact same areas in the city, I guess that the Bluetooth signal of the Surface Duo is easily disturbed by other signals. Today I pressed the remote of our shop gate and instantly the Surface Duo disconnected. I noticed the exact same problem with the Hidizs AP80 Pro music player. It also had drop-outs in the same areas in the city but to a far lesser degree. Never at home. I guess the Surface Duo can not handle interference and also has a weak signal, to begin with.

The exact same thing happened with smartwatches. I have my Tissot, Casio, and Garmin smartwatches connected. All of them function fine when at home. Outdoors there were frequent disconnects, usually in the same areas where the Bluetooth audio also has problems.

I never had any of these problems using my Samsung Galaxy devices which were connected to the same audio devices and smartwatches when walking in the same areas.

How can it be that it is always the two giants, Microsoft and Apple, that seem to have so many problems with Wifi and Bluetooth? Other manufacturers usually use the same components and have far fewer issues.

Update: today the Bluetooth issue seemed almost gone. And no updates were installed. I connected the Bose Tenor sunglasses to the Surface Duo, and they had no problem at all. I walked the same areas and they never mist a beat. So I tried the earbuds again, walking the same route, and although it still had some drop-outs, it was completely usable. I also noticed the last couple of days that my smartwatches remain connected. Good news. Not perfect, but a lot better. No idea what changed. But the next day the problem was back. Disconnecting smartwatches again, and lots of drop-outs. I can already predict exactly where they will happen on my daily route through the city. But I also noticed more and more disconnects from the smartwatches when I wasn’t moving at all. This can also drain the battery.

Update 2: For some reason, the Bluetooth has become less of a problem. Only my Tissot smartwatch and my Razor Hammerhead earbuds have a problem with connectivity to the Duo. Our other smartwatches from Garmin and Casio seem to function fine now. My B&O H95 headphones also play without a problem, and so do the Bose Frames.

If Bluetooth connectivity is important for you, we can not truly recommend the Duo. The behavior is too unpredictable. Sometimes it works perfectly even from far away, and other times it does not, even if the Duo is next to you. It largely seem to depend on the device you are pairing with it. Devices that work fine on any other smartphone can have a problem with the Duo.

Wifi reception and cellular signal also seem to be lower than on my other smartphones, although the connection remains stable. The Duo often switches to 3G in areas where our Samsung Galaxy Fold still shows a strong 4G or even 5G signal. I had not seen a 3G indicator on my smartphones for years until we received the Duo. On the other hand: the Duo can still be used when the signal switches to 3G. Most other phones become almost unusable when they are not at least on 4G. I am using the Surface Duo in Europe and it only does basic LTE here. Not the more advanced form that is usually called 4G+ or 4G LTE, and it doesn’t do calls over 4G LTE (VoLTE). It switches back from LTE to 3G when you are on a call. The good thing is that you can still use the 3G internet connection while on a call. Not every phone allows this. The download speed slows down to about 5Mbps while on a call and the upload speed to an unusable 0.06Mbps.

Connectivity is a bit of disappointment on the Surface Duo. This probably has to do with the fact that the device was not intended to be used outside the US and most carriers here did not bother to certify it. In Europe, the Duo feels like a device from many years ago, in this regard. This is sad, but I can live with this because it is not caused by the hardware of the Duo but because of the limited roll-out worldwide. The problematic Bluetooth connection when outdoors, however, can be a problem for some. A lot of people report it. I had the problem, but it improved greatly.

Battery life

Battery life is not great, but also better than expected. I have no problems getting 5 hours or more of screen-on time when connected to wifi. That is mostly e-mail, social media, web-browsing, and a lot of watching stuff on Youtube. No gaming.

I do use the device in the single-screen mode most of the time. It may look cool to read Kindle books in book mode, but what use is that? You can only read a page at a time, and turning to the next page is not that difficult. So having both displays on to read a book only uses more battery. I only use both displays when I need to open two apps at the same time.

Things change, however, when you are away from home or office and there is no wifi to connect to. The Duo has to use cellular data and that uses more battery. In areas where the signal is a bit less, the battery drains noticeably faster. While on a business trip inside Brussels, the Duo lost 50% battery charge over a period of about 6 hours, while only doing basic things like e-mail and a few posts on social media. Make sure you have a way to charge the phone if you are going to be out all day long without a way to connect to wifi networks. I made it just on time to my car with only 20% left.

Conclusion

I thought I would have a horrible experience and would switch back to my great Galaxy Fold 2 very fast, but the opposite happened. I fell in love with the Surface Duo. It’s not a device for the average consumer because it takes some time and dedication to truly learn how to use the device, and the slow camera, lack of NFC, and the connectivity issues will be a problem for many. On top of that, every update can make the device worse to use, as we experienced.

If you loved a Blackberry, like we did, you will love the Surface Duo even without the physical keyboard.

We do hope Microsoft will fix all of the issues with the Android 11 update, but we don’t have high hopes.

Even with the Surface Duo 2 on the horizon, this device is still:

Recommended (for Tech users)

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