I’ve always been a simp for niche hardware – especially phones. In high school I had the T-Mobile Sidekick with the flip around screen that I used to play Midnight Club: Los Angeles and Tony Hawk: Ride. I was a big fan of Motorola's Moto Z series of modular phones that came with attachments like a Bose speaker and a Switch-style controller. I reviewed the Red Magic 3S, I had Xperia Play, AKA the Playstation Phone, and yes, I had an N-Gage. If a phone offers a unique gaming experience, I’m always going to be the first in line to buy one.
My latest obsession is one you’ve probably heard of, but maybe not as a dedicated gaming device. Microsoft’s Surface Duo is a dual-screen, folio-style device marketed as a productivity device for busy professionals, but the more I use it, the more I realize how much it has to offer games. There are things this phone does that no other mobile device can do, and as Microsoft continues forward with the product line in 2023, I hope it continues to unlock the Surface Duo’s gaming potential.
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I picked up a 1st-gen Surface Duo last week for $250 on Amazon because I wanted a light-weight eReader and I was attracted to its book-like design. Of course, I immediately started putting games on it the second it came out of the box. The Surface Duo has some unique qualities that set it apart from every other phone that just so happen to make it a fantastic device for streaming and emulating. Its two 5.6-inch OLED displays are joined together by a hinge, giving you two separate screens. They’re 4:3 aspect ratio makes them oddly shaped for a phone, but they’re the perfect dimensions for full-screen and retro gaming.
Android games tend to struggle with the odd size, but streaming Game Pass is a much better experience than other phones. Not only do you get a bigger screen (just an inch-and-a-half smaller than the Switch) but you also get the benefit of two screens, which makes it so versatile. Game Pass has built-in support for the Surface Duo so you can put all the touch controls on one screen and the actual game on the other, which unclutters the display and keeps your fingers from blocking what you’re playing. Alternatively, you can keep your second display operational and use it to watch videos, look up guides, or chat with friends in Discord while you game. If you’re using a Bluetooth controller, you can also use the second screen as a kickstand to prop it up like the Switch in tabletop mode. The Duo fits great into the Razer Kishi 2 as well, and you can still use the second screen to do whatever you want while you play.
The Surface Duo is also an incredible DS and 3DS emulator. Oddly enough, it shares nearly identical dimensions with the 2DS, yet has a much bigger (a customizable) display. Using Android apps like DraStic and Citra, you can emulate most DS and some 3DS games flawlessly. If you don’t use touch controls often it may take some time to get used to on-screen buttons, but I’ve had no problem playing classic DS games like Pokemon Conquest, Rhythm Heaven, The World Ends With You, and The Legends of Zelda, Phantom Hourglass in all of their dual-screen glory.
You also aren’t required to use both screens. The first generation Surface Duo folds over flat on itself, turning into a slightly-thicker version of a single-screen phone. While folded, you can use the Surface Duo to play games just as you would with any other phone – albeit on a much wider, brighter screen. As far as gaming goes, you’re not losing anything that a normal phone can do when you use the Surface Duo, you’re just gaining a lot of new ways to play.
The original Surface Duo launched in 2020 and was poorly received do to software bugs, high price, and its strange form factor. The Surface Duo 2 followed in 2021, but instead of releasing a new device in 2021, Microsoft updated both phones with Android's newest operating system designed for folding and folio-style devices called Android 12. It’s expected, though not confirmed, that a Surface Duo 3 is coming out this year. The Surface Duo 2 has been out-of-stock globally since October, but the original Surface Duo is still available for under $300 from plenty of retailers. It’s the coolest device I’ve ever had for mobile gaming, and I hope Microsoft leans into those qualities if a Duo 3 is on the way.