Are two screens better than one? A week with the Surface Duo
I've always been a sucker for gimmicky hardware. I loved the Wiimote, I loved the Wii U's block of a gamepad, and right at the top of the list, I loved the DS. When the Surface Duo launched in the tail end of 2020 I was captivated, but ultimately put off by its outlandish price point. Now on sale with that price slashed by half or even more, I took a chance, and so far, I can't say I regret the decision.
It looks more like a PDA than a phone.
Even when it launched last year, the Surface Duo wasn't exactly cutting edge. Featuring a then-last-gen flagship processor in the Snapdragon 855 paired with a single underwhelming camera, 6GB of RAM, and a paltry 3600mAh battery, you may wince when I tell you it retailed between £1349 and £1449. I certainly did. Paired with this being Microsoft's first soiree into the Android ecosystem after their failed mobile versions of Windows, you have largely-unproven hardware, underwhelming specs, and bug-ridden firmware. Looking back to the device's launch I can only describe it as a disaster, so exactly what did it have going for it?
Despite its shortcomings, Microsoft did at the very least come out with a design fitting of the Surface team. While this is their first phone, it isn't their first rodeo when it comes to quality portable technology. Looking back at the various Surface devices, you can see a clear lineage that lead up to this, and that overall quality and experience does shine through. The hinge holding the phone together is remarkably sturdy and holds any angle I set it to with no effort at all. The clamshell design looks incredibly sleek from the outside, with each side of the phone uniform and remarkably thin; the phone closed is the same thickness as my RedMagic 5S! They even included a simple and non-intrusive case for the obscure form factor, acting as a bumper around the edges of the device. It isn't perfect. The shell is still plastic, with the USB-C port in particular being a reported weak point over time, but so far it's done me well.
Looking to the star, or more appropriately, stars of the show, the Duo features two 1350x1800 screens. They look absolutely fantastic, but where they shine is in the how they're used by the software. When using the phone, you have three options: put an app on the left screen, put an app on the right screen, or sprawl an app across both screens. While a few apps do recognise the Surface Duo's hardware and have special modes for the dual screen layout, the majority of apps will simply treat it as one large screen. This can work fine for something like Chrome where you're able to scroll freely, but for other apps you may find issues by the device rendering part of the screen to where the hinge is. It's particularly notable in games like Pokemon where your character is always in the middle of the screen. For regular use, it's incredibly rare I have a single app open across both screens, instead opting for having two apps open at the same time. It's just incredibly handy. I could be playing Fire Emblem Heroes on the left screen while chatting on the right, I could have GBAtemp open on one screen while emailing on the other, or if I rotate the device, the lower can be utilised as a large touch keyboard. With each of my thumbs able to reach the middle of the screen like this, it's a surprisingly comfortable layout.
Thanks to various updates since launch, the operating system is relatively snappy with a few quirks to get used to, largely to do with the gesture-driven nature of use. Coming from an Android phone that uses the traditional three touch buttons I wanted to give this a shot, and wow did it take some getting used to. The worst part of it by far is trying to open recent apps, which is done by dragging from the bottom of a screen and holding. It just doesn't work sometimes, and sometimes immediately dismisses the recent apps, leaving you having to do the same gesture again. It's not so frequent or irritating an issue that it'd put me off using the device, but it's enough that I'm conscious of it as a problem. The rest of the gestures work as they should.
It's thin to the point where I can somewhat understand the lack of 3.5mm jack.
The other somewhat finnicky part of the OS comes from the automated detection of how the device is folded. You see, if you have one screen folded all the way back, the Duo will only display one screen. If you rotate the device, a message will pop up for you to switch which screen is in use. In theory it's a nice idea, but I'd have much preferred a setting I can configure manually, perhaps as a notification bar button. When the phone is open and I tweak the hinge, it can sometimes cause one screen to turn off, thinking you've reoriented the phone in some obscure way. Much like my issues with the gestures, this isn't something that happens too often, but it's something I'm aware of.
If you've made it this far into the post, congratulations! We're moving onto what's probably the best bit for you fine folks: emulation! I'm skipping over native Android games here since I'm not aware of any that actually make use of the two screens, but if there are in fact some you know of, let me know and I can write up some thoughts as an update. Let's cut to the chase though. Two 1350x1800 screens? "That's a 4:3 aspect ratio!" I hear you cry. And your cries would be correct. Do you know what else has two screens of a 4:3 proportion? The Nintendo DS. And it is absolutely great.
Games like Advance Wars are a perfect fit for this kind of device.
DraStic is probably the best DS emulator out there regardless of which platform you're looking at, so being able to use it on a device like this has been a joy. There is a glaring omission that holds this back from perfection, and it is of course a lack of hardware buttons. And there are a few solutions to this. You could suck it up and use touch controls; they do work fine after all. You could buy a mobile controller that grips the phone. That'd work fine too, but be aware of just how thin the Duo is. There isn't all that much to hold onto for these grips. My approach was a simple one: just don't play games that need buttons. With the Duo supporting the Surface Pen, I have before me a perfect system to play such gems as Pokemon Ranger and Cooking Mama. It sounds like a joke, but I've honestly been having a blast. Giving Pokemon Mystery Dungeon's touch controls a go for the first time has been an interesting endeavour too. It's a great way to play some of my favourite DS games, but what may come as a larger surprise is that DS isn't the platform I've been playing most on the Duo. GameCube is.
With DS being the obvious fit for the Surface Duo, it's easy to overlook a simple fact: you have two 4:3 screens. With pretty much every console up to the GameCube using 4:3 as its standard aspect ratio, you have a colossal library of games that perfectly fill the screen for some glorious retro gaming. Naturally, not every game is a great fit. Precision platforming, or any kind of precise movement at all, I would probably stay away from. Touch controls are never a great fit for that. What you're looking for are games where movement is more a means to an end. RPGs in particular fit this bill well, with Pokemon Colosseum being the game I've gone to first on the majority of my recent train rides to and from my place of employment. It just works. Using Dolphin MMJR2, you can have the game perfectly fit to the top screen, while placing all the touch controls on the bottom screen for an unobscured experience. I love that I don't have to faff about finding the best widescreen cheat codes to stretch out what ends up being a tiny box on the ridiculously wide 19.5:9 displays of modern phones. I can just play games.
Coming back to the processor, while the 855 isn't a modern flagship, it was still a flagship once upon a time, and can still hold its own. Every GameCube game I've thrown at it set at x2 internal resolution has been handled without slowdown. The crux to all of this is the battery. 3600mAh just isn't enough, and barely gets me to the end of the day. If you were just using it as an emulation device it wouldn't be so much of an issue, but as a daily driver, the waters become muddied. If it's just scraping a day of use when I buy it, how long will it take for the battery to fall below that somewhat basic threshold? It's hard to say, and it's the biggest factor I'd steer people away from the device outside of its larger price point dilemma.
Should you buy a Surface Duo? Despite absolutely loving mine, I'm stuck in the mind of saying no. It's a hard sell. Even at more than 50% off, I still paid £729 for the 256GB model. That's a lot of money for what may ultimately devolve into an emulation handheld. I do think there's some merit in two screens from a productivity standpoint, and I do prefer having two defined screens over Samsung's folded design, but Microsoft is probably one or two iterations off perfection here. Wait and see, because I feel things are only going to get better.