By Joanna Stern 

It isn't always clear when something is ready.

Take my grilling. Sometimes I remove steak well before or after I should've. You might say it's a "tough" call. But there's nothing tough about stating this: The new two-screen Surface Duo is undercooked.

Microsoft's new $1,400 book-like phone-tablet thingy is not ready for me and not ready for you.

Unless, of course, you want an Android device that repeatedly ignores your taps on its screens, randomly slows down, struggles to figure out its own up, down and sideways positioning, and abruptly rearranges parts of its own interface. If that is your dream, well, then it is ready.

Somehow, Microsoft disagrees. "We had been testing for some time. We wanted to get it out. We thought this was the right time for us," said Matt Barlow, Microsoft's corporate vice president of modern life, search and devices.

The device, which begins shipping on Thursday, has already received one software update that has rectified some of the bugs I've experienced. Additional fixes related to the performance and software quirks I've been experiencing are said to be coming. "Monthly updates will continue to improve the experience," Mr. Barlow added.

I'm going to ask you -- like I asked myself during weeks of testing -- to try to see past all that. Because when it was working, the Duo felt like the first real innovation in smartphone design I've seen in years. Microsoft's re-entry to mobile cellular devices actually reminded me a lot of the original Surface: a new flexible design that can unlock more productivity.

The twin 5.6-inch screens aren't the only dynamic duo here. There's also the partnership of the two historically antagonistic tech giants, Microsoft and Google. Their linking makes things a whole lot easier for the millions who live daily in a blended Windows/Android world -- on the new Duo but also in other Android phones coming soon, and even some already on the market.

When Two Screens Are Different Than One

The Duo looks like something you would buy at Barnes & Noble -- not Best Buy. In fact, grab a pocket-size Moleskine notebook and you've got the dimensions of the Duo -- not to mention a sense of how it opens. While you're at it, grab a Pop-Tart to get a sense of its thinness, and the nearest Ferrari for a good comparison of the impressive hardware engineering.

Instead of calling the Duo's different positions, well, positions, Microsoft's dubbed them postures. There are four of them:

   -- Book Mode -- Like a paperback book, the Duo opens to 5.6-inch screens on 
      the left and right. Unlike the Samsung Galaxy Fold, whose screen actually 
      folds, the Duo has two distinct panes, separated by a central frame. I 
      used this mode 90% of the time. 
 
   -- Single-Screen Mode -- Flip one of the screens behind the other and you've 
      got a device that's sort of like a smartphone, though much wider and 
      harder to hold one-handed. 
 
   -- Compose Mode -- Turned sideways in a laptop-like clamshell position, it 
      can theoretically use the bottom screen as a full-size keyboard. 
      "Theoretically" because the software and the position sensor cooperated 
      maybe once to actually do this. 
 
   -- Tent Mode -- Resembling an A-frame tent, I call this one babysitter mode 
      because it means no longer having to prop your phone up on a fork when 
      your toddler wants to watch "Frozen 2" at a restaurant. 

When Two Screens Are Better Than One

With the Duo, Microsoft's apps (and some of Google's) can display across both screens. That means you can read through your Gmail inbox on the left screen and compose a new email on the right. Or glance at your weekly calendar on the left and create a new calendar event on the right. Or edit a PowerPoint slide on the left while looking at a view of all your slides on the right. In Microsoft's Outlook, you can drag and drop between screens -- just like on a computer.

With OneNote, I've loved brainstorming and taking notes with the $100 Surface Pen (sold separately). I'd love it even more if the pen could keep up with my writing. Another performance issue. Unfortunately, key Microsoft apps like Excel and Skype haven't been optimized for two screens.

Microsoft and Google are also working with third-party app developers. The Kindle app, for instance, places a page on each screen to make this one adorable little e-reader. (Or at least it should. It glitched midway through testing, but began working again later, after I complained to Microsoft.)

You can also launch one app on each screen -- Edge browser on left, Word on right, for instance. One of my favorite features is App Groups, which lets you pair two apps together to simultaneously launch. I have Twitter and TikTok in one with the label, "Bad for My Brain."

One screen is still better suited to many of our current needs, and that makes this wide device feel awkward more often than not. Talking phone-style on the folded Duo is like holding a baking pan up to your head (cue sales pitch for $200 Surface Earbuds), and the display definitely gets in the way when you're just responding to a quick text or snapping a quick photo. (And don't get me started on the 11-megapixel camera and its position on the top left screen.)

Mr. Barlow said he often keeps his Duo in single-screen mode so he doesn't have to unfold it when he wants to do something quickly.

When Two Companies Are Better Than One

There's no need to go down memory lane to recount Microsoft's failed smartphone strategy. Fine, one stop: $7 billion wasted on Nokia's handset business. But the real cost for the Windows ecosystem was a lack of synergy between phones and PCs.

Microsoft has made up for a lot by creating strong Office apps for the iPhone, iPad and Android. But on Android specifically, the growing ties between Google and Microsoft now mean benefits that would make iPhone owners jealous.

On the Duo, right in the Settings tray is a "Link to Windows" button. Tap it when your Windows 10 computer is on the same Wi-Fi network, and you can respond to text messages, take calls, even launch supported Android apps such as Instagram, all on your Windows 10 PC.

This isn't just for the Duo, though. Microsoft's Your Phone Companion app is available in the Google Play store for select Android phones, and Samsung is also preloading it on its latest phones, including the Note 20 and new Galaxy Fold, which is notably faster and easier to use than the Duo.

Another boon? Microsoft apps -- especially its improved Edge browser -- can be set as defaults on Android so you can turn any Android phone into a Microsoft-centric one. Microsoft's apps dominate the Duo's toolbars and homescreens.

These last benefits aren't unique to the Duo, while most problems I experienced are. So throw the Duo back on the grill, Microsoft. I'm hungry for the real power and productivity promised by this future-feeling gadget. It just has to actually work.

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Write to Joanna Stern at joanna.stern@wsj.com

 

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

September 10, 2020 09:14 ET (13:14 GMT)

Copyright (c) 2020 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
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