Steal These Surface Duo Ideas

As has happened with my Fold 3, after about a year of using it, my Fold 4's screen started to delaminate,1 so I had to send it in for repairs.2

My Fold 4's borked screen

When looking for a cheap replacement phone to use while my Fold 4 is away, I noticed that the Surface Duo is now available for around 400 bucks, so I picked one up.

Then, something interesting happened: I started to absolutely love it.

I think this is due to three things.

The Duo's Aspect Ratios

The Surface Duo's aspect ratios make a ton of sense. When it's folded, it has a 86×116 mm screen, which is just a great aspect ratio. It's wider than most screens, but less tall, which makes the screen more reachable when held in one hand, and means content like websites work much better. When it's unfolded, it essentially has an 176×116 mm screen, which is great for reading books, or watching YouTube videos (although there is a black bar in the middle, so it doesn't work as well for watching actual movies, where you care about the aesthetics).

Visual comparison of the Duo's aspect ratios

The Fold 4, on the other hand, has a 58×148 mm screen when folded, which is a weird, skinny, tall aspect ratio. Worse, when it's unfolded, at 150×148 mm, it's essentially square, which means that that most things you'd want to use a larger screen for don't fit well. To me, at least, it's painfully obvious that the Duo's aspect ratios make much more sense.

Visual comparison of the Fold 4's aspect ratios

Default Unfolded App Behavior

The way apps behave on the Duo seems odd at first, but turn out to be exactly what I want. On the Fold 4, the unfolded phone acts as a tablet, and opened apps immediately take up the whole screen. Not so on the Duo: apps take up only half of the screen by default.

At first, I found this annoying, but I soon realized that it encouraged me to open apps side-by-side more often, rather than switching between them.

Have to log into some account that 1Password can't fill in automatically? Instead of switching between the two apps, just open 1Password next to the app I'm logging into. I'm responding to an email? Open a browser next to my email client so I can see both at the same time. Need to find a time slot for an appointment, and company policy doesn't allow me to open my calendar in my regular calendar app? Open my personal calendar app and my company calendar app side-by-side.

All of this would have technically been possible on the Fold, I just never did it, because by default, apps take over the whole screen. It's much more convenient to have them take over half the screen by default, and then enlarge them when necessary, rather than the other way around.

Single-Screen Mode

Unlike most other foldable phones, you can fold the Duo's screens so the screens are outside of the phone, on the front and the back. So instead of having a small outside screen, and a large foldable inside screen, like the Fold 4, the Duo only has the inside screen, but it can either be folded closed, so the screen is protected, or it can be folded fully open, so both screens are on the outside.

Duo folded back into single-screen mode

Why is this great? Because at that point, it's just a regular phone with a great screen that has a perfect aspect ratio. And because there are only two screens, it's a phone that is much thinner, but has a much larger screen, than a closed Fold 4.

Picture of the Duo in different screen configurations such as tent mode, or "keyboard" mode

In general, the way the Duo is designed, it's much more versatile than most "real" folding phones.

It's quite unfortunate that the Duo (and its much better sequel, the Duo 2) never caught on. This is likely mainly due to the first Duo's utterly abysmal software, which never really got fixed, even after multiple software updates.

At this point, it seems that the Duo line of smartphones is dead, but I do hope that some of these ideas make it to other phones.

  1. I guess technically, the built-in screen protector, the one that is supposed to not be removed from the screen, started to remove itself. It's kind of funny how that just happens, and people accept it. If Apple released a phone whose screen would just fall apart after a year, the media couldn't stop screaming about delaminategate - as they should. I'm just not sure how Android phone manufacturers get away with this shit. ↩︎

  2. Why do I keep buying foldable phones if they keep falling apart? Because they're so much better than regular phones that the advantages vastly outweigh having to send them in for repair once a year. ↩︎

If you require a short url to link to this article, please use

designed for use cover

But wait, there's more!

Want to read more like this? Buy my book's second edition! Designed for Use: Create Usable Interfaces for Applications and the Web is now available DRM-free directly from The Pragmatic Programmers. Or you can get it on Amazon, where it's also available in Chinese and Japanese.