The Microsoft Surface Duo Makes a Great First Impression Until You Turn It On

A Surface Duo on top of a Surface Pro 3 and Surface Slim Pen
Josh Hendrickson

Despite knowing better, I ordered a Surface Duo. As a former employee, I’m a Microsoft fan and it’s easy for me to believe in the Microsoft vision. So I ordered the Duo because I saw the concept for a new device category and embraced it. I’ve handled the device for a few hours now and have some quick thoughts—It makes a fantastic first impression, a terrible second impression, and an OK third impression.

Now to be clear, I only recently opened up my Surface Duo, so this won’t be a full review. The Duo wants to be a whole new category, not quite a phone and not quite a tablet but somewhere between the two. So a fair and full review will require more time to get a feel for the device.

Think of this as a first impressions overview. Not an unboxing—I have a retail unit, and the box isn’t that interesting. But everything I noticed from software to hardware with a few hours under my belt. And boy did my opinions wildly fluctuate from moment one to hour three.

A Solid First Impression From Really Fit Hardware

A Duo next to a OnePlus 7T in a red case.
Side by side, the Duo is slightly thinner than an OnePlus 7T in a PLU case. Josh Hendrickson

I’ve been wracking my brain to explain how it feels to hold a Surface Duo. Whether I have it in single display “phone mode” or dual-display “tablet mode,” I keep coming back to a singular thought: “This isn’t a phone.”

And that’s the truth; the Surface Duo doesn’t feel like any phone I’ve ever held for a myriad of reasons. First, it’s so incredibly wide, even when folding to a single display mode (or closed). I can hold my Surface Duo up to my Nest Hub and nearly cover its screen entirely. It’s wide.

But despite having two screens slapped together by a hinge, it’s also super thin. I have a OnePlus 7T with an OnePlus PLU case on it right now, and side by side with the Duo closed up, the Duo is actually thinner. You read that right, the phone with two displays is thinner than the phone with one display and a case. Of course, if I take the case off, then the OnePlus wins, but only by a hair. That’s crazy.

A Duo in "tent mode" with the screens hidden on the inside.
The least useful position for the Duo. Josh Hendrickson

And there’s something unmistakably Surface about the phone. It’s glass, but it still looks like a Surface device. The colors are right; the fit and finish are right. The moment you pick it up, it feels premium.

Even the hinge screams premium. I’m a nail biter (I know, I know), and I honestly feared I wouldn’t be able to open the thing. But I can without any trouble.

How do you get something just right? Microsoft knows. I don’t need to tug with all my might to open the phone, but even if I hold it by a single display, it won’t budge on its own. It feels like exactly the right amount of pressure, no more and no less. Nevermind the specs and the innards, everything about the outside of Surface Duo felt fantastic. And then I turned it on.

The Software Second Impression Almost Ruined Everything

A Kindle app open on the Duo, a page on each display.
In the first hour, every time I tried to do this with the Kindle app it crashed or stretched incorrectly. Josh Hendrickson

Our devices are more than just hardware and Microsoft should know that better than anyone. The best hardware won’t save a terrible operating system, and the best operating system won’t save terrible hardware. You need a balance.

And initially, in the first hour or so after I turned my Duo on, I thought Microsoft might have forgotten that hard-learned lesson. My Surface Duo didn’t work right at all.

The whole point of two displays connected by a hinge is running two full-screen apps side by side. And failing that, a single app designed to take advantage of the gap the hinge leaves. In the Surface Duo Demo Panos Panay gave, you saw Outlook and Calendars running together. Later he demonstrated the Kindle app beautifully displaying a single page on each screen with a page-turning animation. But none of that worked for me.

The Duo with one screen prompting for an update while the other tracks the update.
Day One Update, seriously? Notice the screens can’t agree on what I’m doing. Josh Hendrickson

I already knew that Microsoft released a “day one update” (what is this, an Xbox phone?), so I installed that and then loaded all my apps and preferences from an Android backup. Even that process was quirky, as one display prompted me to update the phone while the other tracked the progress of that very same update.

Naturally, once I finished setup, the first thing I tried to do was open apps on both screens and use the few apps I knew Microsoft or partners specifically tailored for full-screen dual-display usage on the Duo. And every time, the system failed hard. Apps crashed left and right and the whole OS froze up entirely. The Kindle app? That stretched a single page across both screens and refused to animate a page turn. And that’s when it didn’t crash just trying to span across the displays.

I thought I was doing something wrong, so I kept checking for more updates for both the OS and my apps, but there weren’t any. Even the fingerprint reader stopped working after a while.

Finally, I put the Duo down and walked away for dinner. That’s apparently all it needed.

A Better Third Impression

A Duo with YouTube on one Screen and the Review Geek site on the other.
Admit it, you watch YouTube while browsing the web too. Josh Hendrickson

When I returned to my phone, I restarted it once more just for luck and everything started working correctly. The Kindle app now shows a single page on each display and animates page turns. I can open apps side by side, and I haven’t seen any more freezes.

I’m beginning to see the promise of the Duo. At one point, inexplicably, 1Password stopped offering to fill in passwords for me. But that’s fine. I kept it open full screen on my left display and opened apps on the right display one by one. Having my password manager right next to the apps I needed passwords for made things so quick and easy. No constant switching back and forth between apps, just copy, paste, and move on.

Now I have Twitter and Facebook side by side, which at least allows me to get disgusted with social networks more quickly and move on to productive stuff. And Slack and my work email make a great pairing too.

It’s a work in progress, and I need more time with the phone. But right now, as a Surface and Microsoft fan, I don’t have any regrets. But I’m going to use the camera soon, so we’ll see how my opinion holds in the full review.

Josh Hendrickson Josh Hendrickson
Josh Hendrickson has worked in IT for nearly a decade, including four years spent repairing and servicing computers for Microsoft. He’s also a smarthome enthusiast who built his own smart mirror with just a frame, some electronics, a Raspberry Pi, and open-source code. Read Full Bio »

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