Last year, my favorite phone was the Microsoft Surface Duo, but while it met my needs impressively well for a first-generation product, it had several critical flaws. Typically with any genuinely innovative new design, it takes three versions to approach the ideal. The second version is often the most changed, while the third makes tuning changes that finally make it attractive to the broadest number of potential customers.
In many ways, this latest Duo positions the product against the iPod Mini – which was arguably the most robust product in Apple’s latest launch – while exposing Apple’s excessive focus on revenue. The 8-inch iPad Mini is an iPhone without phone features because Apple wants you to buy two things, while the Duo is, when unfolded, an 8-inch tablet with phone features, so you only need one device.
Let’s talk about why the Duo 2 is potentially better than the iPhone and iPod Mini together, and what shortcomings it addressed with the first generation.
First-gen Duo’s Problems
The first Microsoft Surface Duo was an interesting product that was an excellent eBook reader (which is why I loved it). But it had a bunch of annoying shortcomings.
To take a picture, you had to flip it all the way around and use the same low-quality camera you used for selfies and video conferencing for pictures. It just wasn’t a great experience.
When closed, the display was covered, which protected the display nicely but made it problematic to keep up with what was going on.
It lacked 5G, which had it standing largely alone among other phones in its price class, and it used a down-level Qualcomm processor, which was also unusual for a phone in its class, making it noticeably slow.
It had a fingerprint reader, but it was a bit awkward to use, and the software wasn’t fully cooked, which often had you constantly adjusting the screen and image.
Having only one color, white, was a bit annoying, as I’m not a fan of white products. Finally, it used a rubber bumper for protection, which tended to come off with age and use.
Even with these issues, it was still my favorite phone of the year, but what if those problems were fixed?
Duo 2 Gets It Right
Duo 2 addresses each of these problems with a flourish.
Starting with the camera, it now has, like virtually every other premium smartphone, an advanced four-camera setup, with three cameras (ultra-wide, comprehensive and telephoto) on the back and a camera for video conferencing and selfies on the front. The telephoto camera has optical image stabilization to assure better photos, and the camera software has been improved as well. For instance, you can see the live image on one screen and the picture you just took on the other, so you know what to address in the next shot. It has intelligent image correction, and whatever you are photographing looks far better than it otherwise would. The camera is now a strength rather than a weakness.
Microsoft added a side display so you can see notifications like incoming emails, missed calls and instant messages.
The Duo 2 uses the top-of-the-line Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 solution and provides 5G support, for powerful processing, graphics and network performance.
The fingerprint reader is improved and looks far easier to access.
It comes in obsidian as well as white, giving me the color I prefer and making the device, to my eye, look far more elegant.
It looks like the rubber bumper, which remains optional, is far better attached, which should address the failure problem in the earlier phone.
And one more thing: it will stream Xbox games, and with in-game mode, you can use one screen as a game controller and the other screen to view the game. It is suddenly a relatively decent handheld game player.
I should add they didn’t break the book feature that attracted me to the phone in the first place.
Duo Productivity Improvements
Outside of these improvements, they did some exciting things with the software. It will now integrate far better with a Windows Desktop, allowing you to drag and drop things from the phone (like pictures) into your work project, or view the content of an email on one screen and your email list on the other. It has Microsoft Teams integration and, given that it uses Android, it should run the other Android video conferencing offerings as well. It is, in short, a blended phone and tablet, which is the bridge too far for the iPod Mini.
What the iPod Mini (and First Duo) Should Have Been
At Apple’s last launch, the iPod Mini was arguably their most improved product. But Apple still trails on advanced features like a foldable screen that Samsung, Motorola and Microsoft have adopted. And even though the Mini had 5G support, it doesn’t support phone calls, forcing you to buy an expensive iPhone, which, otherwise, would be redundant.
The Duo 2 has a far better camera solution than the Mini and should be cheaper than buying both a premium iPhone and Mini to get a similar solution. And the Duo should be a far better reader and game system than Apple can field.
Given that the Surface line was designed to run against Apple, this is arguably the most robust anti-Apple offering yet because it exposes Apple’s evident greed (forcing you to buy two products when one would do) and their lower technology level (no foldable screen). While I doubt Microsoft’s Surface Duo 2 will outsell iPhones, it took three versions for Apple to ramp to volume with the iPhone as well. The Microsoft Surface Duo 2 is arguably the most potent alternative to an Apple solution that has so far existed. As that’s the point of the entire line, that means this version of the Duo phone tablet is far closer than ever before to meeting its competitive objective.
With a second-generation version this good, Apple should fear the third generation as much as I’m looking forward to it.