Microsoft’s Surface range of laptop/tablet hybrids has been hugely popular for years now because of the agility the devices give their owners – now the tech giant thinks it has the solution for mobile phone-sized devices.
The Surface Duo is a pocket-sized mobile device which Microsoft won’t be drawn into calling a phone, tablet or foldable – and that’s the point – it is meant to be something new entirely.
On a basic level, it is two screens held together by a 360-hinge, which open out like a book and run a hybrid of Microsoft and Android software so you can use it like a phone to watch, play and communicate on the go, but it’s also a productivity device with the firm’s Office 365 apps front and centre.
So, how does it look?
About the same height but slightly wider than a traditional smartphone, the Duo can still comfortably fit into the hand and a pocket.
But, with no screen on the front there is an air of mystery about the device when it is closed – it looks more like an e-reader than anything else in this state.
It is also worth noting how thin the Duo is too, opened out and flat, it is barely thicker than the USB-C charging point that sits on the bottom of the right-hand panel – which again helps it slip into almost any pocket comfortably
In short, this is a very smart-looking device.
However, the elegance you see on first impression is dimmed slightly when you open the Duo, particularly if you’ve seen foldable phones such as the Samsung’s Galaxy Fold range and are used to opening devices out into a single, large screen.
Here, there are two separate screens divided by a hinge and a single camera lens – indeed unlike many other foldables this is the sole camera on the Duo, which as a side-note does limit it as a photography device.
The 360 hinge, which enables the phone to be opened out, folded, balanced and used in any way you can think of, does greatly boost the overall agility of the Duo, but you can’t help but feel this is a device already behind the times because it of its screen layout and minimal camera options.
But what about when you actually start using it?
Things take another turn for the better when it comes to software experience, thanks to Microsoft’s decision to essentially use Google’s Android as the foundations of the UI and then build on top of it.
The result is a version of Android that feels closer to a mobile version of Windows, with a full suite of Office 365 apps at its heart.
These apps are, unsurprisingly, the ones that run the best on the Duo and take advantage of the two screens on offer, allowing users to easily multitask as you manage your email or documents for example.
The Duo works well here because firstly it offers the basic advantage of two screens side-by-side, so users can have two relevant apps open at once in order to work more fluidly: for example your email on one screen and calendar on the other.
But it goes further in some apps – using a pull up and drop gesture from the bottom of the screen – which enables an app to take up both screens and really focus your productivity, like having one open email on one screen and the rest of your emails on the other – essentially a tablet or desktop experience on a mobile.
Add in the 360-hinge and again the possibilities expand.
Position the device flat on a desk and opened up to mimic a miniature laptop and you can turn the lower screen into a keyboard, essentially recreating that laptop experience should you need to type quickly.
This is all very impressive when it works, but the issue for the Duo is these experiences are too limited, mainly to just key Microsoft apps.
Many others that you might hope would go split-screen don’t properly, or attempt a single screen view which looks jarring when there is a big gap down the middle.
It is also worth noting that dragging and dropping items between two apps or screens isn’t straightforward or even possible in many cases, meaning you have to rely on old fashioned copy and paste.
For context, on Samsung’s Galaxy Z Fold 2 you can have two apps open and side-by-side, for example your photo gallery and email app, and it is possible to drag a photo from the gallery into an email – we weren’t able to do this on the Duo.
Having only a single camera has its issues too.
Its location at the top of the right hand screen is fine, and if you fold the second screen around and behind the right-hand display – into a single screen smartphone mode – it is straightforward for snapping selfies like you would on a traditional front-facing phone camera.
But if you want to take a photo of what’s in front of you, you then need to turn the device around in your hand and hope it registers the movement and switches the camera viewfinder to the other screen, so you can see what you’re trying to capture.
Describing this process is clunky, and so is actually doing it.
The image quality too is OK, enough for the casual photo-happy user to be more than satisfied with, but not perhaps any serious photographer.
However, given that this device is one aimed more at productivity this is less of an overall concern.
But considering the Duo’s price tag of £1,349, you might expect a little more.
The Surface Duo then is, much like its design, two-faced. On the one hand, it is a beautifully designed productivity tool that totally rethinks what a mobile device can be.
However, the Duo still feels more like a preview of what is to come rather than the finished product – there are too many issues here to warrant its current price tag.
But it is absolutely a product category worth keeping an eye on – Microsoft’s Surface line has become the industry standard in the tablet-notebook-hybrid space – and there is no reason that that won’t make the Duo fulfil its promise in the future.