I used a Microsoft Surface Duo and Samsung Z Fold2 to see if foldable phones are really worth the hype

  • Samsung and Microsoft garnered attention after releasing foldable phones over the past two months. 
  • After reviewing the two foldable devices, columnist Jason Aten says they're expensive, but don't offer much improvement to the way we already use smartphones, especially when there are tablets and laptops.
  • While the hardware on both the Z Fold2 and the Surface Duo is excellent, he feels Android just isn't up for the task, and most apps haven't been updated for these form factors.
  • "Sure, it's nice that there are multiple ways to display an app, but that's only helpful if the device understands which you're trying to use," Aten writes. Bottom line? "You probably shouldn't buy either of them, at least not yet."
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If the smartphone is the device where you spend the greatest amount of time, it has to be good. It has to be capable of handling any of the tasks you might throw at it without slowing you down. You can imagine, then, why so many companies are looking for ways to make it better.

Most smartphones are already fast, and most of them have perfectly nice displays. Lately, they almost always have features like 5G and incredible cameras. At some point it gets harder to differentiate or decide what makes a smartphone better.

For years, one of those ways was to make it bigger. A larger display, at least in theory, meant you could do more with a device. There is, however, a limit. For the most case, a smartphone still has to be able to fit in an average person's pocket. 

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The largest iPhone 12 is 6.7-inches, and while I haven't seen one in person, I've held plenty of similarly-sized devices, and that's about as big as I think anyone will want to try and carry around with them all the time. 

Then again, if you could fold the device in half, you could make the screen larger, but still manage to get it into a form factor people would want to carry around. The holy grail is a device that can act as either a phone or tablet depending on your use case, but still folds up nice and small.

Enter the Samsung Z Fold2, and the Microsoft Surface Duo. First, I should be clear, this isn't mean to be a direct comparison of the two. I'm not trying to help you make a decision about which one of these devices you should buy. You probably shouldn't buy either of them, at least not yet.

I'm more interested in whether foldable devices are the future of productivity, or whether they're mostly an expensive exercise in futility, at least for now. So, I spent a few weeks with each trying to do all the things I do on a regular basis to find out whether a foldable device is something I need in my life.

The answer, at least so far, is not really.

The two are very different devices, and, as a result, very different experiences. In fact, the only thing they really have in common is that they fold in half. Well, and they both run Android, but in very different ways.

The Z Fold2 has a display that literally folds in half. The current version is really the third attempt by Samsung at this particular form-factor, with the original version plagued by design flaws that caused it to be redesigned and delayed. What you get now has been further refined into something that reflects what you might expect from a device with a glass display that folds down the middle.

The Surface Duo, on the other hand, has two separate displays. While you can use the two displays as one, there's a gap in the middle, and my experience was that the Surface Duo is really best understood as two smartphones stapled together in the middle with a hinge. It is worth mentioning, as other reviewers have, it might be the best hinge in any device I've used. Still, that design choice affects everything about how you use it.

The ultimate use-case for a foldable smartphone is one where you're able to multitask with different apps open side-by-side with enough screen real estate to make it worthwhile. Essentially, you get the benefits of a tablet in your phone.

For example, you might have your email app on the left, and your calendar on the right. Or, you might have a video on the top, and a note-taking app on the bottom. 

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In theory, that could be super useful. The question, ultimately, is whether or not a smartphone of any size is the best type of device for this kind of multitasking.

In reality, there are two problems:

The first is that, at least for most people, that simply isn't how we use our phones. It might be how we use a tablet or a laptop, but it just isn't how we use smaller devices. Having two things open on a phone at the same time isn't necessarily a better experience than simply swiping through different apps as you need them.

Most of us have multiple devices that we use for different types of tasks. We use our phones mostly to communicate or quickly access information. 

On the other hand, we use a laptop for creating and consuming content.  If we need something smaller for those purposes, we have an iPad or tablet. The idea, I guess, is to try to make our phones more like those larger devices.

The second problem is that these devices aren't quite ready for us to use them that way, even if we wanted to. Foldable devices are all about compromises. For that matter, every gadget is about the choices made in terms of design, features, materials, and production.

Take Microsoft's decision to use Android, for example. I'll be completely candid, it isn't good. It was slow and it usually had no idea what I wanted it to do. That's mostly because Android is a smartphone operating system, and almost none of the apps written for a smartphone know what to do when the display is actually two side-by-side displays.

On almost every iOS or Android phone I've ever tested or used on a daily basis, the device seemed able to understand what I wanted it to do, without me having to figure out some sort of strange finger-yoga in order to make it happen. Sure, it's nice that there are multiple ways to display an app, but that's only helpful if the device understands which you're trying to use.

The Z Fold2 is a little different, though having one larger square display isn't necessarily better. Android is certainly better adapted for the form factor, though I suspect that's largely because Samsung has some experience in this area since it has been making smartphones for a while now.

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I will say that, of the two, the Z Fold2 is by far the more complete device. The hardware is very good, including the cameras, even if it's a little bulky when folded.

That said, I really wanted to like the Surface Duo. The hardware is fantastic — so much so, that I wanted to find a way to use it all the time. It's probably not a ringing endorsement that the best overall experience — for both devices — was reading a book using the Kindle app. 

I imagine, if Microsoft sticks with it, the third generation of the Surface Duo will probably be very good. The hardware itself, other than the camera (just take my word for it, it's bad), already is. The software simply isn't.

On the other hand, if Apple were to make a foldable iPhone that ran iPadOS when it was unfolded, and iOS when it wasn't, that might just be the best-case scenario. That won't ever happen, which means that, at least for now, the future of these devices has yet to unfold.

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