Microsoft Surface Duo 2 hands-on: once more, with cameras

Today, Microsoft is unveiling the Surface Duo 2, a new Android-based smartphone with two screens and a raft of updates over the problematic original Surface Duo. From improvements to the cameras to bigger screens to software tweaks to a better way to store a Surface Pen, Microsoft is addressing all the obvious problems from the first model.

As before, it’s a dual-screen device meant to help people multitask by letting them run two apps side by side. The overall design is very similar, but Microsoft has softened the corners and allowed the glass to curve into the edges more. It’s a nice object to hold even though it’s not quite as visually striking as the original.

For that sky-high price, Microsoft is putting in completely modern specs. That was the first problem with the original Duo: even on the day it was released, it was already behind the times. The Duo 2 has a Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 processor, 5G, 8GB of RAM, batteries that add up to a capacity of 4,449mAh, and more.

The second downfall for the original Duo was the cameras. Microsoft’s solution was again the obvious one: just add cameras. Specifically, there’s now a camera bump on the back that houses a wide, ultrawide, and a 2x telephoto lens. The specs behind those lenses seem solid on paper. The wide-angle has a 12-megapixel dual-pixel PDAF sensor with 1.4μm pixels behind a lens with f/1.7 aperture, for example. We’ll need to test the cameras in our review to see if they’re any good, of course.

A big camera bump presents a particular problem for the Duo 2, however. It’s a device that’s meant to be able to be folded in half, not just to close the screens in, but to have them on the outside so you can use it one-handed. Microsoft’s solution is to slightly angle the bump so that it aligns the glass as it closes, and to include a small magnet to draw them together. There’s also a plastic ridge around the lenses to protect both sides from scratching.

It’s also just open enough at that point to temporarily stow the new Surface Slim Pen 2 between the two halves of the device. Microsoft will also sell a special case with wiring inside it that can draw power from the Duo and reroute it to charge a magnetically mounted Slim Pen on the outside.

In any case, the gap when in single-handed mode is a worthwhile tradeoff for the cameras, and Microsoft tells me that most users spent most of their time using it with both screens anyway.

Both of those OLED screens are slightly bigger and nicer-looking. They’re each about 5.8 inches diagonally or 8.3 inches when viewed together (with, it must be said, a huge gap between them). They also have a 90Hz refresh rate, but I didn’t get enough time with them to say how much that contributed to smoothness. The larger screen also means smaller bezels, and the whole thing looks much more modern, especially in the new, darker color option.

The curved glass on the edges enables a neat little trick: you can just barely see some display inside the hinge when it’s closed. Microsoft is using that space as a kind of mini-outer display for notifications. You can see the time and some indicators for notifications, and it also lights up for incoming calls. It’s not as useful as a true outer display, but it’s better than nothing.

The Duo 2 ships with Android 11, and Microsoft once again promises timely software updates. That’s a promise it only nominally kept with the original Duo — it got security updates and some bug fixes but is still only on Android 10. Microsoft says it will try to get an 11 update out for the older device soon. We’re expecting Android 12 for Pixel phones any week now, too, and no word on when to expect that update for either device.

Otherwise, when it comes to software, we’re mostly looking at tweaks to the system that Microsoft established for multitasking. One new change is that the Surface Duo 2 defaults to assuming that the right-hand screen is the “primary” one, so when you fold it into single-screen mode it’s the one that will stay lit up by default. That small improvement could make a big difference, as all too often the original Duo’s accelerometer couldn’t tell which side was up.

The original Duo was something of a tragedy because Microsoft’s ideas for how to make a multitasking phone were genuinely new and thoughtful — but the implementation was so bad that it was nearly impossible to experience Microsoft’s vision. The question for the Surface Duo part deux is simple: can it turn a tragedy into a redemption story?