Despite hardware upgrades, Microsoft’s dual-screen Surface Duo 2 still suffers from split personality

The new notifications bar in the Surface Duo hinge. (GeekWire Photo / Todd Bishop)

Cracking open the Surface Duo 2 for first time this week, I had a litmus test for whether Microsoft and Google had made progress on the unlikely partnership that produced the first version of this Android device last year: has Gmail finally been optimized for the Duo’s dual screens?

The answer is no, as I discovered when I spanned Google’s email app across them. Just as with Gmail on the original Surface Duo, the message body stretches awkwardly into the left-hand screen, making the Duo’s dual-screen functionality awkward if not impossible to use with one of Google’s most popular apps.

This is despite the fact that Gmail and other Google apps are pre-installed on the device alongside Microsoft’s own apps, and users are prompted to sign into their Google accounts (in addition to their Microsoft account) upon the initial bootup of the Surface Duo 2.

Microsoft’s Outlook app, in contrast, puts the inbox on one side and the message body on the other, as it has since the first Duo was released last year.

It might be a minor complaint, but it reflects my initial experience trying a Surface Duo 2 review unit, on loan from Microsoft this week. The company has made some nice hardware upgrades, including an upgraded camera, slightly larger screens, 5G connectivity, a faster processor, and a handy glance bar for notifications in the exterior hinge.

There are also a few more non-Microsoft apps and games that have been optimized for the dual screens. Notably, the Google Play Books app has been optimized for reading across the Duo’s two screens, matching Amazon’s Kindle app in that regard.

However, the user experience overall still feels like a work in progress, and some of the complaints that led me to return the original Surface Duo that I purchased last year haven’t been addressed.

Chief among them is the way the taskbar jumps from a tight configuration on one screen to loosely span the bottom of two screens when an app is closed, making the simple task of pressing an icon akin to playing Whac-a-mole. There must be a better way to do this.

Coupled with this week’s initial preview of Android apps for Windows 11, my initial experience of using the Surface Duo 2 leaves me wondering, again, whether the ultimate solution will be for Microsoft to give up on Android and develop a dual-screen Windows device, returning to familiar ground.

The company was pursuing this previously with the larger dual-screen Surface Neo device and Windows 10X, which was paused indefinitely last year. Here’s hoping they give it another try.

I’m still in the early stages of using the Surface Duo, and keeping an open mind, but those are my initial impressions and takeaways.

Microsoft’s Surface Duo 2 is available now at a starting price of $1,500.

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