Jacob Krol/CNN
CNN —  

Polish and refinement — the two words to sum up Microsoft’s Surface Duo 2. After several days with this dual-screen phone, it’s clear that Microsoft corrected mistakes and listened to feedback with the Duo 2.

The original Duo was a super-unique device that paired two screens with a hinge and ran a customized version of Android. It wasn’t perfect, and was brought down by a lot of bugs and a really bad camera.

The Duo 2 boasts all the latest buzzword features you’d expect — the latest processor from Qualcomm, marginally bigger screens, 5G support, a triple-camera array and better battery life. At its current price point, though, it’s still a device for a specific user whose focus is on productivity — with some room for fun.

Let’s fold open the Duo 2 and dive right in.

A polished and refined dual screen phone

The Duo 2 boasts all the latest buzzword features you'd expect housed in a unique high-end build. At its current price point, though, it's still a device for a specific user whose focus is on productivity — with some room for fun.

The who, what and how:

Who this is for: The Surface Duo 2 is for someone who wants the ultimate device for productivity and work, with the unique ability to focus on two apps in a variety of modes — and for someone who’s willing to drop a hefty sum for all that versatility.

What you need to know: Unlike other foldables, the Duo 2 has two separate screens and the ability to group apps side by side, allowing you to easily work between two programs at once. In our testing, many of the bugs and slowdowns have been ironed out in the second generation. The Duo 2 also meets the mark with a zippy processor, sharp screens and long battery life, though the cameras are not stupendous.

How this compares: The Surface Duo 2 really focuses on being a workhorse and destined for productivity tasks. And it really shines with Microsoft’s apps and doing two things at once with one device — these are called app Groups on devices. The Duo 2 is best for someone who wants a device that excels in work and multitasking. Those who want a foldable that better handles entertainment and games should look at the Galaxy Z Fold 3. And if you’re all right with a standard smartphone, the Galaxy S21 or Pixel 6 offer similar fast performance in a design that will let you split-screen two apps.

A refined design with a smooth-as-butter hinge

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Our favorite thing about the Duo 2 is the design — it’s like a modern-day mini Moleskine notebook that’s extremely thin (just 5.5 millimeters) and boasts a mostly glass build. The frame, which keeps it all together, is aluminum with two stainless steel bars that act as the hinge — which feels smooth to operate.

Duo 2 uses the same two hinges set up in the middle between the two displays — one at the top and one at the bottom — visible as two rounded rectangular pieces of stainless steel.

They operate very smoothly and make it easy to fold open the Duo 2 and interact with the two displays. Like on the original Duo, you can flip the left side under the right or the right side under the left — it’s a full 360-degree rotation. And you can stop or pause along the way with ease.

Two vibrant displays that come together nicely

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The Surface Duo 2 features two distinct 5.8-inch PixelSense displays, which are based on AMOLED panels. When viewing emails in Outlook or text on a Google Doc, we were presented with clear inky blacks that never look pixelated. Similarly, when playing MLB The Show over Xbox Game Pass or watching “Loki” on Disney+, we were presented with accurate colors that could pop when necessary and enough details to be immersed into the content. Here’s an important note, though — these displays aren’t a full 120Hz refresh rate, which means they’re not as smooth as similarly priced phones for high-frame-rate content. They come in at 90Hz, which isn’t a slouch, but for its price, 120Hz would have been a nice addition.

These displays come together for an 8.3-inch screen with a slight gap in the middle. The gap is noticeable, especially if you’re using an app spanned across both displays. But it works quite nicely for using two apps at once, which really is what Microsoft is pushing for here.

The fingerprint sensor is now baked into the power button and is very quick to scan. This lives below the volume rocker on the right-hand side of the device. The USB-C port lives on the bottom of the right side as well.

Unlike the original Duo, which could be laid fully flat, the Duo 2 features a triple-camera array in a sizable rectangular housing on the back. The result is a hefty camera bump for three lenses that are only average.

The Glance Bar could be so much more

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Right now the sloping of the displays only serves a few purposes. When Duo 2 is closed, there is no way to interact with it. On the original Duo, you could slightly open the device to reveal the time, but now Microsoft aims to make better use of space.

Since the displays slope down, the book bind of the Duo 2 can display visuals when it’s closed. Both screens mirror the same image so that you can see the time at the top of the spine. When a phone call comes through, a colored bar will glow from small to large, and notifications will stack as small bricks. It’s just not very easy to see and it feels like Microsoft could do more with this feature.

Our favorite use case is for phone calls, but wouldn’t it be handy if it had a ticker effect to display the phone number or contact name? It seems almost half thought out — and that isn’t great.

More polished software with the performance to match

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Android with a Microsoft interface on Duo 2 feels much more refined and polished. The phone has an upgraded Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 processor with 8GB of RAM inside, which effortlessly powers a dual-display device. It’s the latest in mobile processing from Qualcomm and also powers other higher-end devices like the S21 series, Z Flip and Z Fold.

You’ll quickly notice that the Duo 2 offers a pairing of Microsoft and core Google apps. OneDrive, the Microsoft Office suite and GamePass are centered along with all of the classic Google apps. You get a Google search and Assistant bar as an element on the top left, with a Microsoft time and weather widget below it.

The key to the Duo 2 experience is that you can save app pairings. And these work with any app by default. You can set Twitter on the right and Outlook on the left as a group, which we gravitate toward every morning as we quickly triage what emails have come overnight, get a taste of what’s going on in the world with Twitter and see what lies for the day ahead.

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And for when you need to go hard on achieving inbox zero, you can hold the Duo 2 almost like a mini laptop; with Outlook spanning both windows, you can even use it horizontally and have your main message on the right with a menu on the left. It’s pretty handy, but we like holding it vertically with a fresh email on the top and a virtual keyboard on the bottom. It’s a nice device for productivity-centric tasks. The ability to multitask here is on the same level as the Z Fold 3 nearly, except you can’t open more than two apps at once.

The camera bump on the back makes the Slim Pen 2 or another Surface Pen less of an ideal companion here, as the Duo 2 can’t lie flat. We loved using the original Duo as a mini notebook for meetings, but the camera bump is a drag in this use case. Yes, you can still write on it, but you’re going to end up rocking the boat — well, phone.

And really any application ran swimmingly on the Duo 2 — shortly after setup, we experienced the launcher, which powers the device, crash, but that only happened once. A restart quickly fixed that, and the Duo 2 has been smooth sailing.

While the original Duo wasn’t great for gaming, we’ve been enjoying Xbox Game Pass on the Duo 2. Setting it up like a tent allows one screen to face you at nearly any angle and makes it act like a mini TV. We paired an Xbox Wireless Controller with ease and could fire up any title, like MLB The Show, for some on-the-go gaming. The display was great for moments like these, and since it’s cloud gaming, it doesn’t really tax the device or significantly drop the battery life.

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For the times when you don’t have a controller with you, select games are optimized to have the game on the top and a virtual controller on the bottom. This is only when you’re holding the Duo 2 vertically, but it worked well in our testing for Asphalt 9. As it is with most new software tricks, developers will need to update apps to make use of this. It also stretches the Duo 2 beyond just work and play, but you can also do this with a standard smartphone, and it’s not enough to necessarily splurge the $1,499.

Average cameras and solid battery life

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We’re happy that Microsoft decided to swap one camera for four lenses, but we’d say that these aren’t of the same quality as an iPhone 13 or a Pixel. These are average cameras that offer versatility in favor of sheer quality. But as we stated last year, don’t buy this for photography — you can spend less and get more mileage elsewhere.

That large camera bump on the rear contains three main shooters:

  • A 12-megapixel wide: As the main camera on the Duo 2, this lens is fairly quick to focus and takes pretty good shots. It also supports modes like Portrait, but don’t expect wild levels of detail or hyperaccurate colors.
  • A 16-megapixel ultrawide: The ultrawide lens on Duo 2 lets you capture a lot more in a shot without needing to physically move. In our tests, it let us frame some near shots, but these do feature a fish-eye effect in the corners.
  • A 12-megapixel telephoto: The telephoto is only 2x optically here, but it does let you zoom in from afar while keeping a solid amount of detail intact.

You can see the quality in our test shots below, but they’re all pretty average. Lighting is generally correct but skew a bit to the cooler side. It’s a good image, but zooming in does reveal some artifacts and blur here. Additionally, photos in a bright space with artificial light result in some blown-out or overexposed aspects. The front-facing 12-megapixel lens is pretty darn good for selfies (offering quite a bit of detail) and ideal for video calls.

Microsoft also packed a bigger battery inside the Duo 2 — a 4449mAh dual-cell setup versus a 3577mAh dual battery in the original. While it’s a bigger set of batteries, Microsoft didn’t make a thicker phone either, which is pretty impressive. Battery life was quite strong, with the ability for the Duo 2 to make it through a full day with between six and eight hours of on-screen time.

Unlike the power-hungry Z Fold 3, the Duo 2 is a bit more timid in terms of draining battery. In our testing, the Glance Bar didn’t draw a significant amount of power either. Microsoft doesn’t include a power adapter in the box, but you do get a USB-C to USB-C cable.

As we do with every device we test at CNN Underscored, we ran the Duo 2 through our battery test gauntlet. In it we play a 4K video on loop with the brightness set to 50% and volume at 30% with the device in airplane mode. We also ensure that Wi-Fi and Bluetooth are turned off and play the video on a loop until the device dies. We monitor the test with two cameras for redundancy. The Microsoft Surface Duo 2 lasted for nine hours and 35 minutes.

Bottom line

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At $1,499, the Duo 2 succeeds as a high-end dual-screen phone with features and hardware to match the price tag. It’s still destined for a more niche consumer who wants a focus on doing more at once. With the upgraded hardware and expected 2021 flagship features, it’s more so a productivity czar phone with lots of ways to handle entertainment and gaming. Duo 2 is ultimately best for someone who wants to focus on two apps at once and seeks a device that puts productivity at the very center.

It’s really for users who want a dual-screen setup in a very unique build. And while $1,499 is a lot, it does undercut the $1,799 Galaxy Z Fold 3. Those who want a folding phone should consider the $999 Z Flip 3 as it offers performance that is in line — not to mention a better set of cameras. And if you’re cool with ditching multiple screens, the Galaxy S21 or S21+ aren’t slouches, and the Pixel 6 and 6 Pro are poised to be champs, at least on paper.