Hands-on with Surface Duo at Best Buy: An impressive phone unlike any other

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The first Surface Duo review units are out, but Microsoft has a review embargo, and tech reviewers are under NDA and can not discuss the software or camera experiences until September 10th. Being the Surface fan that I am (and since OnMSFT was not on the initial review unit list and not under embargo) I was still eager to try one out, gather my own thoughts, and share them here.

Ahead of the arrival of my own Surface Duo pre-order next week, I headed to my local Best Buy where a display unit was available to try one out (without any limits on looking at the software or cameras.) It was tricky finding a location that had one available, but after spending two hours with the Duo in my hands, I must say, it is a phone like any other, and a phone that’ll make you a dual-screen believer.

Editor’s note: We are not under any NDAs and are using a display unit, and the final Android/software experience of the Surface Duo is subject to change. There’s also a red “tint” in our photos and videos, due to the lighting in the room at Best Buy. This is only noticeable on camera, and not in person.

The premium-feeling hardware

The minute I walked up to the Surface Duo display unit, I was amazed. As I picked it up with my hands, I was really surprised at how thin the Duo felt. Coming from the world of Windows Phone, Blackberry, iPhone, and Google Pixel, I never quite felt a phone that thin. As many tech reviewers have pointed out, one screen on the Duo is almost as thin as a single USB-C port. And, when folded together, the Duo is just as thin as a Pixel 3XL. It really is quite amazing.

But the thinness wasn’t all that amazed me. As I folded and unfolded the screen, the hinges really caught my attention. They are super solid and really can hold the phone up well. No matter which angle I opened the Duo too, the phone was able to support itself thanks and stay in place thanks to the hinges. The feel is a bit reminiscent of the watchband hinges that Lenovo has on its Yoga laptops, but the difference is that Microsoft tucked the hinges inside the screen.

Surface Duo Hinge 2

Then, there’s the overall material. The Duo is unlike your average Surface and is made of glass and not magnesium. It did feel a bit too smooth and slippery in my hands for my liking, but I think the included bumper case or a Drand skin can fix that. That’s also where I really appreciated the thick bezels, as it gave my fingers something to grab onto when handling the phone and rotating it around.

Comparing the dimensions of the Duo to my Pixel 3XL, meanwhile, offered another interesting experience. The Pixel is a lot taller than Duo, whereas the Duo is shorter, and a bit wider. I wasn’t able to move the Duo to see if it could fit in my pocket, but with those dimensions, I don’t see why it can’t fit.

The Dual-Screen Android experience

Surface Duo Dual Screen Apps

Next up in my hands-on experience was touring the dual-screen experience. This is where the Duo again feels different from other phones, and it’s all thanks to the underlying work Microsoft has done with Android. In fact, I think the Duo marks the perfect combination of Microsoft hardware and Google Android software.

In my experience of testing out the dual-screens on the Duo, I tried a couple of things. I stacked and scrolled two apps on the two screens at the same time, slid apps around from one screen to the next, spanned an app across the two screens. I also ended up rotating the Duo so both screens are in the vertical orientation, and turned it back over and shifted apps around. Then, I ended up using the Duo in its various modes, such as “tent” or “laptop.” Keep in mind, all of these gestures and experiences are powered by Microsoft Launcher and Android.

Surface Duo Side By Side Apps And Home

Again, thanks to Microsoft’s work on the hardware, leveraging those dual-screens for all my tests was an amazing experience. My fingers easily moved in between the two screens hinges as I pushed one screen to the next. It felt like the hinges and the gap in the screen were not even there. Even for pre-release, the software also felt quite polished too. As I moved things around, the Duo didn’t freeze and on-screen animations were always fluent and fast.

However, the hinge did feel a little annoying when spanning apps “full screen” in the horizontal mode. It cut out things I was scrolling or watching, especially when it comes to videos.

Surface Duo Apps Spanned Vertical Mode

But I do want to mention an interesting point. Although Microsoft hyped-up opening apps side by side, the real strength of the Duo is using it in the vertical mode, with a single app. Thanks to its aspect ratio and orientation, scrolling webpages, and other apps felt really natural and smooth. When reading the New York Times website, It felt like I was holding a piece of paper in front of me, and the content on the screen was really natural-looking. This will be a point for the Duo that I’ll keep an eye on moving forward.

I’ll end this section by pointing out another thing that makes the Duo unique. Since it has hinges, you can fold the Duo over into a tent mode. I did this to watch a video on YouTube, and it was really cool, to say the least. Although the video had a weird letterbox mode (I assume YouTube isn’t optimized for the Duo) it was a little heartwarming to be able to “fold” a phone over and use it to watch videos, in the same way that I would on a Windows 2-in-1.

The inking and using the Surface Pen

Surface Duo Inking On Phone

As I moved along in my demo, I found that the display unit I played with asked me to sign into a Microsoft Account to use core apps like OneNote, and Outlook, so my inking experience was a bit limited. However, that didn’t stop me.

I pulled up a New York Times article on one screen, and the sticky notes widget in the Microsoft Launcher on the other. I simulated jotting down notes, and I felt right at home. The movements of the pen on the screen is fluent, as is the latency. It’s really like using a Windows 10 PC or a Surface Pro.

Just be aware, there’s nowhere for the Surface Pen to attach to the Surface Duo. It’ll stick to the back screen, but it also will slide off. You’ll have to keep attaching it as it moves. From what I know, this isn’t officially supported, and you’d have to keep the pen stored in your pocket. Apparently this gets a bit better with the bumper, but still, it’s no Note 20.

The camera

Surface Duo Camera

The final point I want to mention is the camera. This has been an area of controversy with the Duo, and a reason I was quite hesitant to purchase one for my personal use. However, after trying the Duo out, I’m not as worried. Here’s why.

Microsoft has done a lot of optimization with the Surface Duo camera. To my surprise, the overall user interface is quite fluent. While it is true that there’s no rear camera, if you want to take pictures of something in your world, the Duo has your back.

Thanks to the software, just fold the screens over, and flip them around to switch from selfie mode to rear-camera mode. The switch happens almost instantly as clicking the “switch camera” button on a typical Android phone.

But, then there’s the quality. With a single 11MP sensor, can the Duo make the cuts? Have a look below for the quality, and let us know what you think in the comments.

Overall, I am not too worried about the Surface Duo camera. For situations with a lot of light, it looks like the camera can punch out some really great photos. However, in situations with low-light, the Duo might struggle a bit. It’s hard to come to a conclusion right now, but I do look forward to finding out more when I get my own Duo and take it out into the wild.

I can’t wait to get my own Duo!

As my initial hands-on occurred on a demo unit in the limited setting of Best Buy, there’s still a lot of things I am curious to see about the Duo. Once I get my own Duo, I can’t wait to set up my daily apps (Snapchat, Instagram, etc) and see how the phone tackles my everyday needs. I’ll be doing a full review of the Duo come mid-September, so be sure to keep tuned to OnMSFT. And, if you have any questions for me, drop me a comment in the section below. I’ll do my best to answer them!