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At least it's very pretty
The main thing that the Surface Duo has to offer is that it is very pretty. It's a minimalist glass sandwich with a sophisticated color scheme in pearl white and chrome that is nothing short of impressive. The phone is absolutely wafer-thin and together with the Moto Razr one of the rare foldable smartphones that doesn't look like an ugly stone. When you have two hands free, there is something very convenient to keep the duo in book mode and just casually flipping through something. The shock and awe of Microsoft's design language is likely enough to make some people fall in love with the device and ignore any other flaws. I mean, of course, not me, but some people.
|TECHNICAL DATA AT A GLANCE: Microsoft Surface Duo|
|SCREEN||Two 1800 × 1350 5.6 "OLED displays
(401 ppi, 4: 3 aspect ratio)
|operating system||Android 10|
|Central processor||Eight core Qualcomm Snapdragon 855
Four Cortex A76-based cores (one 2.84 GHz, three 2.41 GHz) and four Cortex A55-based cores at 1.78 GHz
|WAREHOUSE||128 GB or 256 GB|
|NETWORK||802.11b / g / n / ac, Bluetooth 4.2, GPS,|
|PORTS||USB 3.1 Gen1 Type C.|
|SIZE||Open: 145.2mm x 186.9mm x 4.8mm
Closed: 145.2mm x 93.3mm x 9.9mm
|STARTING PRICE||$ 1,400 at Microsoft|
|OTHER PERKS||Side fingerprint sensor|
The word that comes to mind most when describing the Surface Duo is "flat". The phone's body isn't perfectly flat, but there are continuous sheets of glass on the front and back of both halves. There are no camera bumps, no curved sides, just four panes of glass. When closed, the exterior of the phone also looks minimalist, with no lights, cameras, or word marks, just a single reflective Windows logo, the Microsoft logo. The Surface Duo almost doesn't look like an electronic device. You could easily make a Moleskine notebook that looks just like a Surface Duo. In fact, I'd bet that with a Moleskine, a Microsoft has the dimensions for the Surface Duo. The "pocket" version of the small notebook is 140 mm x 90 mm, while a Surface Duo is 145.2 mm x 93.3 mm when closed.
Open up the duo and you'll find a series of strange choices. First, there are the two 60Hz 5.6-inch displays with an aspect ratio of 4: 3, making them much wider and much shorter than most other Android displays. Next up, you'll find some weirdly large bezels on the top and bottom of the phone that really ruin the "digital Moleskine" vibe that the device exudes from the outside. It's not really clear why the bezels are so big. We certainly have the technology to make them much, much thinner, and as we'll learn later, the short, bold 4: 3 displays would benefit a lot from the extra height. I'll guess this is one of the Surface Duo’s many concessions to thinness.
Pretty much all of the phone bits on the right half of the device. At the bottom of the right half you can see the USB-C port, at the right edge the SIM slot, a volume rocker, an on / off switch and an ultra-thin, side-mounted fingerprint reader. The right half is suitable for phone calls. There is an earpiece in the top panel and a microphone slot at the bottom. The internals also reflect this layout: all the phone chips are in the right half of the phone, while the left half consists almost entirely of battery. The only thing that's on the left, next to another screen, is the phone's only media speaker, which comes out through a slot at the top of the display glass. With a mono speaker, no headphone jack and a wobbly 4: 3 display, the Surface Duo is not exactly a media machine.
The only camera hardware can be found in the top bezel on the right: an LED flash sits next to a terrible 12 megapixel sensor with a very cheap looking pinhole lens. With the 360 degree hinge, this can be used as both a selfie camera and a main camera which is clever. With a device as thin as the Surface Duo, however, the camera never stood a chance of being good. Most phones require extra thickness to indent a high quality camera sensor (the camera bump), and these days most smartphone camera sensors are thicker than the entire 4.8mm case on the Surface Duo.
Enlarge /. The Surface Duo prototype with a rear view camera on one half and a corresponding divot on the other. The end device does not have a rear view camera.
There's no market for camera sensors that fit this thin profile, so Microsoft probably really had to dig through the industry's parts bin and settle for anything that would fit. We know Microsoft has come up with some ideas to fix this. An early Surface Duo prototype has a camera hump on the back of one half of the device and a divot on the other half so the phone can still fold flat. The company also has a patent for a camera lens that fits into a thin profile and then grows larger when used, like an old-school point-and-shoot. In the end, we had no camera bumps or fancy camera technology, just a thin, sleek device and a compromised camera.
The Surface Duo hinge feels exactly like a laptop hinge. It's stiff enough to stay where you put it but still easy to move. Like a laptop hinge, there is continuous resistance throughout the movement with no assistance whatsoever, so you don't have to open or close the phone and always need two hands to open the phone. The hinge folds down completely so you can turn your dual screen phone into a single screen by flipping one display all the way back. In this mode, too, it's easy to switch sides – just double-tap the display you want to illuminate. The hinge lets you do what you want: hold the phone like a book, flatten it against a table, prop it up like a tent, or turn it into a mini laptop.
One amazing thing about the hinge mechanism is that there is no padding whatsoever when it closes, but the closing process feels safe, soft, and gentle. The Galaxy Fold and Moto Razr either have rubber feet or a large plastic bezel to protect the screen from slamming. The Surface Duo has no bumpers at all. So when you close it, you are pressing one sheet of glass against another. You can expect to hear a jarring sound after an enthusiastic close, but it feels like the hinge is doing upholstery work and you never feel like you need to gently close the phone.
Microsoft has done everything possible to make the Surface Duo as thin as possible. If you measure the Surface Duo when it is open, it is considered to be one of the thinnest smartphones of all time with a thickness of just 4.8 mm. You'd have to revert to the thinness of the mid-2010s to find something as thin as the Surface Duo – the 4.75mm thick Vivo X5Max, still dubbed the world's thinnest smartphone in my opinion . (It even had a headphone jack!) The Surface Duo may be the second thinnest smartphone in the world, or even number 1, because it doesn't have a camera bump like the Vivo X5Max.
The internals of this phone are really incredible, and show that Microsoft has pulled out all the stops to get as thin as possible. In a normal modern smartphone, the goal is to shrink the motherboard area for a larger battery, and manufacturers have started building motherboards like a multi-story house. Not only does a single board have chips on the top and bottom, manufacturers have also started stacking multiple layers of circuit board together. Something like an iPhone 11 has three levels of chips. On the underside there is a single-sided plate that can be pressed against the back of the case. A double-sided plate is stacked on top. The Surface Duo is exactly the opposite: It has a massive motherboard that is actually one-sided. Each individual chip is on one side of the board, and the back is flat, reducing the height as much as possible.
The internals of the Surface Duo. In each half there is a battery and a massive motherboard surface.
The motherboard is so big because every single chip is on this side. Now look at the next slide.
The back of the motherboard is completely empty! No other smartphone is designed like this.
To get an idea of how different the duo are, here are the components of an iPhone 11 Pro Max. In the center of the picture you can only see the tiniest remains of the motherboard. And that's not all – these two pieces are actually stacked on top of each other.
Here is the iPhone 11 Pro Chip Sandwich as it sits in the assembled phone. You can see the sandwich (above) open in the picture below, showing three layers of chips.
While the urge for thinness was a pointless gimmick in the mid-2010s, thinness for foldables is an important factor in portability. That thing has to be in your pocket. Folding it in half doubles the thickness. Microsoft's obsession with thinness, however, means the phone is still only a slim 9.9mm when folded, which is still only in the upper range of normal smartphone thickness. Staying in the smartphone thickness range is a nice improvement over the brick-like form factor of some of the other foldable parts. The Galaxy Z Fold 2, which has made no concessions for thinness, is 16.8 mm when folded – that's basically two normal smartphones stacked on top of each other.
However, Microsoft did not give careful thought to how the device's thinness would conflict with its choice of materials. The sides of the device are made of plastic, and while it looks and feels great, thin plastic isn't very strong. Everything is fine until you get to the USB-C port, which, since the port is almost as thick as the entire phone, is surrounded by only the tiniest piece of plastic. It's alarming how much you can move the plastic just by pushing it with your finger. There have been reports of the plastic around the USB-C port cracking and breaking off, and I have no doubt I could snap it with my finger. Half a millimeter of plastic (I measured) is not robust enough for anything, let alone a point with a high load like the USB-C connector. Did I mention there is no wireless charging?
One weird thing about the Surface Duo is that it feels like you can take it apart with your fingernail. The plastic sides do not wrap around the inner or outer glass at all, leaving the sides of the glass sheets exposed. There is actually a gap between both sheets of glass and the plastic edges, and you can easily stick a piece of paper or even a fingernail into it. It's a strange way of making a phone where the glass is usually embedded in the material the sides are made of and gaps are impenetrable. If Microsoft had wrapped the plastic edges around the glass as usual, the area around the easy-to-break USB-C port would have been about twice as thick, while the entire phone wouldn't have been thicker, which seems like a good idea! From this description, the phone is obviously not waterproof in any way.
In addition to the lack of wireless charging and water resistance, the Surface Duo also doesn't have NFC, which is a huge loophole for a device worth $ 1,400. There's also only a 60Hz display, with most other phones in this price range offering 90 or 120Hz displays and a much smoother user interface.