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Sucks to be him! How Henry the vacuum cleaner became an accidental design icon | Life and style

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In March this year, photos of the government’s glitzy new briefing room, where Boris Johnson’s new media chief was set to host daily press conferences, leaked to the media. The centrepiece of a “presidential” approach to communications, it was already controversial for its cost to taxpayers of £2.6m. With its gaudy blue backdrop, giant union flags and imposing podium, it looked like the stage for a US political or legal TV show: The West Wing with a touch of Judge Judy.

What the briefing room needed was something to suck the pomposity out of it. What it needed, it turned out, was a cameo appearance from a 620-watt anthropomorphic vacuum cleaner. The stocky red and black appliance was barely visible in the wings, stage left, yet instantly recognisable. Turned away from the podium, his chrome wand propped casually against a varnished dado rail, the Henry vacuum cleaner looked almost as if he were rolling his eyes.

The image quickly went viral; there were gags about a “leadership vacuum”. “Can we put Henry in charge?” asked TV presenter Lorraine Kelly. Executives at Numatic International, based in a sprawling complex of giant sheds in Chard, a small town in Somerset, were delighted. “It’s amazing how little of Henry was in that picture, and how many people came through to us and said, ‘Have you seen it? Have you seen it?” says Chris Duncan, founder and sole owner of the firm where a Henry rolls off the production line every 30 seconds.

Downing Street’s new White-House style media briefing room, following criticism that more than £2.6 million had been spent on the renovations. Issue date: Monday March 15, 2021
Where’s Henry? The Downing Street briefing room image that went viral. Photograph: ITV News/PA

Duncan, who invented Henry 40 years ago this summer, is now 82, and worth an estimated £150m. Known as “Mr D” to his 1,000 employees at the factory, he still works full-time at a standing desk that he built himself. He is speaking to me, after months of persuasion, in his first proper interview.

Henry has become an accidental icon of British design and manufacturing. Equally at home in the hands of princes and plumbers (Charles and Diana received one of the first models as a wedding present in 1981), he is also an under-stairs stalwart in millions of ordinary homes. As well as the Downing Street cameos, Henry has been photographed hanging from a rope as abseilers cleaned Westminster Abbey. The week after my visit to Henry HQ, Kathy Burke spotted one while touring a palatial mansion in Money Talks, a Channel 4 series about wealth. “No matter how rich, everyone needs a Henry,” she says.

Henry is the anti-Dyson, rolling over the social codes of the household appliance market with a modesty and humour that escapes the bigger, more expensive brand and its billionaire creator. James Dyson has hoovered up a knighthood and more land than the Queen. He has faced criticism for outsourcing production and offices to Asia while also cheerleading for Brexit. His latest memoir is out this September, while his early vacuum cleaners are venerated in design museums. Henry? Not so much. But if Dyson brought aspiration, innovation and an air of exclusivity to Big Vacuum, Henry, the only mass-produced consumer vacuum cleaner still made in Britain, brought simplicity, reliability – and a cheerful lack of airs. “Bollocks to that!” is Duncan’s reaction when I suggest that he should also write a memoir.

Chris Duncan (MBE), Numatic's CEO and founder, and inventor of Henry the vacuum cleaner, photographed in his office
That’s my boy: Chris Duncan, Henry’s inventor. Photograph: Ben Quinton/The Guardian

The son of a London policeman, Duncan wears a short-sleeved shirt with open collar; his eyes glint behind gold-rimmed specs. He lives 10 minutes from the Chard HQ. His Porsche has a “Henry” numberplate, but he owns no other homes and eschews yachts and other baubles in favour of a 40-hour week and the company of Ann, his wife of 35 years (he has three sons from a previous marriage). Modesty permeates Numatic. The campus is more Wernham Hogg than Silicon Valley; the firm never advertises Henry and retains no PR agency. Yet it has a turnover of almost £160m and has now made more than 14m Henry vacuums, including a record 32,000 in the week before my visit, thanks to a pandemic-related surge in demand for household appliances.

When Duncan received his MBE at Buckingham Palace in 2013, Ann was led into the auditorium to witness the honour. “A guy in uniform said, ‘What does your husband do?’” he recalls. “She said, ‘He makes Henry vacuum cleaners.’ He nearly shit himself! He said: ‘When I get home and tell my wife I’ve met Mr Henry, she is going to be so livid she wasn’t here.’ And it’s stupid, but those sorts of stories are worth their weight in gold. We don’t need a publicity machine because it’s self-generating. Every Henry goes out there with a face on it.”


I will at this stage admit to a slight Henry obsession. I didn’t think about my girlfriend Jess’s Henry a great deal when I moved in with her 10 years ago, or when he moved with us to a new home after our marriage. It was only after the arrival of our son in 2017 that he began to occupy a bigger place in our family.

Jake, who is nearly four, was one when he first met Henry. It was early one morning, before dawn, and Henry had been left out of the cupboard the night before. Jake wore a striped babygrow and, placing his milk bottle on the wooden floor, crouched to inspect a curious object that was as big as he was. It was the start of a great romance. Jake insisted that Henry be liberated from his dark cupboard; for months, he was the first thing Jake went to in the morning, and the last thing he thought of at night. “I love you,” Jess said above his cot one evening before lights out. “I love Henry,” came the reply.

When Jake discovered my mum had an upstairs Henry and a downstairs Henry, to save on lifting, he was beside himself. For days, the imaginary stories he demands after his book at bedtime were about Granny’s Henrys. They would call out to each other at night, meeting for domestic adventures. In an effort to return Henry to the cupboard, I bought Jake a toy Henry. He could now hug little Henry as he fell asleep, his “trunk” entwined in his fingers.

The affair peaked with the onset of the pandemic. In the first lockdown, big Henry became the closest thing Jake had to a friend of his own size. When he accidentally bumped into the vacuum with his mini pushchair, he reached into his toy doctor’s kit for his wooden stethoscope. He began to watch Henry content on YouTube, including earnest reviews by vacuum influencers. His infatuation is not surprising; Henry looks like a giant toy. But the strength of the bond, which rivals only Jake’s love of his stuffed dog, Doggy, got me wondering about Henry’s backstory. I realised I knew nothing about him. I began firing off emails to Numatic, a company I had not even known was British.


Back in Somerset, Henry’s creator fills me in on his origin story. Duncan, who was born in 1939, spent much of his childhood in Vienna, where his father had been posted after the war to help build a police force. He moved back to Somerset at 16, got some O-levels and joined the merchant navy. A naval friend then got him a job at Powrmatic, a company in east London that made oil-fired heaters. Duncan, a natural salesman, ended up running the business until he left to launch Numatic in 1969. He had spotted a gap in the market for a sturdy, reliable cleaner to suck soot and muck out of coal- and gas-fired boilers.

The vacuum industry had been growing since the early 1900s, when British engineer Hubert Cecil Booth designed a horse-drawn machine whose long hoses would wind through the doors and windows of posh houses. In a 1906 advert, a hose is coiled on a thick carpet like a benevolent snake, imaginary eyes attached to its steel mouth gazing up at a housemaid. “Friends” is the slogan.

A robot attaching a lid to a Henry vacuum cleaner on the assembly line.
A robot attaches Henry’s lid. Photograph: Ben Quinton/The Guardian

Meanwhile in Ohio, an asthmatic department store cleaner called James Murray Spangler created a handheld vacuum using a fan motor in 1908. When he made one for his cousin Susan, her husband, a leather goods manufacturer named William Hoover, decided to buy the patent. The Hoover was the first successful domestic vacuum cleaner and – in the UK – a trademark that became synonymous with a product category (“hoover” is now in the dictionary as a verb). But it wasn’t until the 50s that the cleaners sucked their way into the homes of the masses. Dyson, a privately educated art student, began developing his first bagless cleaner in the late 70s, eventually shaking up the industry.

Duncan had no interest in the consumer market, nor did he have the money to make parts. He started with a small oil drum. In need of a lid in which to house the motor, he wondered if an upturned washing-up bowl might do the trick. “I took the drum round all the shops until I found a bowl that fitted,” he recalls. “Then I called the company to order 5,000 black washing-up bowls. They said, ‘No, no, you can’t have it in black – that will show the tidemark, it will look terrible.’ I told them I didn’t want them for washing up.” This Henry ancestor now collects dust in a corridor that serves as Numatic’s museum. The oil drum is red, and the black bowl is clamped on top. It has furniture castors for wheels. “The thread on the front today, where you put your hose, is still a two-inch oil drum thread,” Duncan says.

By the mid-70s, after Numatic had found some success, Duncan was on a British stand at a Lisbon trade show. “It was as boring as sin,” he recalls. One evening, Duncan and one of his salesmen idly began to dress up their latest vacuum cleaner, first with a bit of ribbon, then with a union flag badge on what started to look a bit like a hat. They found some chalk and drew a crude smile under the hose outlet, which suddenly looked like a nose, then some eyes. Searching for a nickname that felt suitably British, they settled on Henry. “We put it over in the corner with all the other equipment and the next day people were laughing and pointing,” Duncan says. Back at Numatic, which then had a few dozen employees, Duncan asked his advertising guy to design a proper face for the cleaner. “Henry” remained an in-house nickname; the product still had Numatic printed above its eyes.

A Henry vacuum cleaner having its wheels and face attached on the assembly line.
Humans far outnumber robots at the factory in Chard, Somerset. Photograph: Ben Quinton/The Guardian

At the next trade show, in Bahrain, nurses from the nearby Aramco oil company hospital asked to buy one for the children’s ward, to encourage recovering children to help with the cleaning (a strategy I may attempt at home at some point). “We were getting all these little reports and we thought, there’s something in this,” Duncan says. He increased production and, in 1981, Numatic added the Henry name to the black lid, which had begun to resemble a bowler hat. Duncan was still focused on the commercial market, but Henry was taking off; they heard that office cleaners were talking to Henry as a way to break up the grind of night shifts. “They took him to heart,” Duncan says.

Soon, big retailers started contacting Numatic: customers had seen Henry in schools and on building sites, and his reputation as a hardy friend of the trades had created a word-of-mouth cachet. Some also smelled a deal (Henry today costs a good £100 less than the cheapest Dyson). Henry hit the high street in 1985. Despite attempts by Numatic to discourage use of the word “hoover”, which is banned at company HQ, Henry quickly informally became known by the public as “Henry hoover”, marrying the brands in an alliterative union. Sales are growing at a rate of roughly a million each year, and now include Hettys and Georges, among other siblings, in a range of colours. “We turned an inanimate object into an animate object,” Duncan says.

Andrew Stephen, a professor of marketing from the Saïd Business School at the University of Oxford, is initially stumped when I ask him to assess Henry’s popular appeal. “I think there’s something about the product and branding that draws people to it rather than them getting caught up in what is normal, which is using price as a proxy signal for quality,” Stephen says.

“Timing might be part of it,” says Luke Harmer, an industrial designer and lecturer at Loughborough University. Henry arrived a few years after the first Star Wars film, with its hapless robots, including R2-D2. “I wonder if there was a connection to this product that provides a service and is slightly robotic and you forgive its foibles because it’s doing a useful job.” When Henry topples over, it’s hard to get cross with him. “It’s almost like walking a dog,” Harmer says.

Topples are not the only frustration for Henry owners. He gets caught on corners and has occasionally fallen down the stairs. Cramming his ungainly hose and wand into an overstuffed cupboard can feel like wrestling a snake into a bag. There are also average reviews for performance among the generally positive ones (though he gets the job done in my house).

Jake, meanwhile, is far from alone in his infatuation, presenting Numatic with passive marketing opportunities that suit its modesty – and save millions in advertising. In 2018, a Cardiff University student was forced by the council to cancel a Henry picnic when 37,000 people signed up to attend with their vacuum cleaners. Henry’s appeal has gone global; Numatic increasingly exports its products. Duncan passes me a copy of “Henry in London”, a professionally produced photo book in which Henry tours famous sites. Three young Japanese women flew from Tokyo with a Henry to take the shots.

Henry vacuum cleaner lids having the finishes touches done, including a quick polish.
All of the 75 parts that make up the latest model could be used to repair ‘Number one’, the 1981 original Henry. Photograph: Ben Quinton/The Guardian

In 2019, Erik Matich, a five-year-old fan from Illinois who was being treated for leukaemia, flew 4,000 miles to Somerset with the Make-A-Wish charity. It had been his dream to see Henry’s home [Erik is now doing well and is due to complete his treatment this year]. Duncan says dozens of children with autism have made the same trip. “They seem to relate to Henry because he never tells them what to do,” he says. He has tried to work with autism charities, and recently found an illustrator to help create Henry & Hetty books that the charities could sell (they are not for general sale). In Henry & Hetty’s Dragon Adventure, the dust-busting duo are cleaning a zoo when they discover a dragon enclosure. They fly with a dragon to a castle where a wizard has lost his crystal ball – until some more vacuuming uncovers it. It wouldn’t win awards, but when I read the book to Jake that evening, he is rapt.

Henry’s appeal to children has also brought challenges, as I discover during a factory tour with Paul Stevenson, 55, a production manager who has worked at Numatic for more than 30 years. Paul’s wife, Suzanne, and their two grownup children also work at Numatic, which still makes other commercial products, including cleaning trolleys and rotary floor scrubbers. The factory has chugged along despite the pandemic and Brexit-related delays to parts; Duncan, who quietly backed Brexit, is prepared to ride out what he sees as teething problems.

In a series of giant sheds, rich with the smell of hot plastic, 800 workers in hi-vis jackets feed plastic pellets into 47 injection moulding machines to create hundreds of parts, including Henry’s red bucket and black hat. A reeling team adds Henry’s coiled power cord. The cord reel sits on top of the “hat”, transferring power to the motor below via two lightly sprung metal prongs that spin against a greased receptor ring. The motor powers a fan in reverse, drawing air up through the hose and red bucket, to which another team adds a filter and dust bag. In the metal section, steel tubes are fed into a pneumatic bender to create the signature kink in Henry’s wand. It’s quite mesmeric.

Freshly moulded and printed Henry the vacuum cleaner faces ready to be assembled
Freshly moulded and printed Henry faces, ready to be attached. Photograph: Ben Quinton/The Guardian

Humans far outnumber robots, one of which is employed every 30 seconds to lift an assembled Henry into a box for dispatch. “We do a different job every hour,” says Stevenson, who started out making Henry in around 1990. The Henry line is the busiest in the factory. Elsewhere I meet Paul King, 69, who is about to retire after 50 years at Numatic. Today he’s making attachments for a ride-on floor scrubber. “I worked on Henry years ago but they’re too fast for me on that line these days,” he says after turning down his radio.

Henry’s face used to be printed straight on to the red bucket. But health and safety laws in some international markets forced a change. Despite there being no recorded incidents in 40 years, the face was deemed a danger because it might encourage children to play with a household appliance. New Henrys now have a separate faceplate. In the UK, it is snapped on in the factory. In more fearful markets, consumers may attach it themselves, “at their own risk”.


Regulations are not the only headache. As I continued to feed Jake’s Henry habit via the internet, a less wholesome side of his dust cult emerged. There are flame-throwing Henrys, fighting Henrys, X-rated fan fiction and a music video in which a man takes in an abandoned Henry only for it to strangle him while he sleeps. Some take things further. In 2008, one fan was sacked from his job as a builder after being caught in flagrante with a Henry in a works canteen. He claimed that he had been vacuuming his underpants.

“The Russell Howard video is the one that won’t go away,” says Andrew Ernill, Numatic’s head of marketing. He’s referring to a 2010 episode of Russell Howard’s Good News. After riffing on a story about a policeman who had been arrested for stealing a Henry during a drugs bust, the comedian cuts to a video in which Henry snorts a huge line of “cocaine” from a coffee table.

Ernill is keener to talk about Henry’s future, as is Duncan. This year he added Emma McDonagh, Numatic’s first chief technical officer, to the board, as part of wider plans to prepare the company “in case I get hit by a truck”. A veteran poached from IBM, she will help the company grow, and make more Henrys, more sustainably. There are also plans for more automation, and increased local employment. Henry and his siblings now come in various sizes and colours; there is even a cordless model.

Yet Duncan is determined that his vacuum stay true to its roots: it remains a remarkably simple machine. Duncan beams with pride as he tells me almost all of the 75 parts that make up the latest model could be used to repair “Number one”, as he calls the 1981 original; Henrys are made to last – and to be easily repaired – in the landfill age of rapid obsolescence. When my own Henry’s hose popped off his nose a couple of years ago, I trimmed an inch off it and screwed it back in place with a bit of glue.

In the end, Downing Street Henry was surplus to requirements. A month after his cameo, No 10 binned the idea of daily press conferences: the briefing room has been used mainly for the prime minister’s pandemic announcements. Henry has not been seen again. Was his unscheduled appearance to blame for the communications U-turn? “Henry’s work behind the scenes has been greatly appreciated,” is all a government spokesperson will say.

My own Henry spends more time under the stairs these days, but his bond with Jake remains strong. Jake can talk for England now, if not always coherently. When I attempt to interview him, it’s clear he sees nothing unusual in loving a vacuum cleaner. “I love Henry hoover and Hetty hoover because they’re both hoovers,” he tells me. “Because you can hoover with them.

“I just love hoovers,” he goes on, getting a little exasperated. “But, Daddy, I only like hoovers with a name.”

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California’s net neutrality law dodges Big Telecom bullet • The Register

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The US Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals on Friday upheld a lower court’s refusal to block California’s net neutrality law (SB 822), affirming that state laws can regulate internet connectivity where federal law has gone silent.

The decision is a blow to the large internet service providers that challenged California’s regulations, which prohibit network practices that discriminate against lawful applications and online activities. SB 822, for example, forbids “zero-rating” programs that exempt favored services from customer data allotments, paid prioritization, and blocking or degrading service.

In 2017, under the leadership of then-chairman Ajit Pai, the US Federal Communications Commission tossed out America’s net neutrality rules, to the delight of the internet service providers that had to comply. Then in 2018, the FCC issued an order that redefined broadband internet services, treating them as “information services” under Title I of the Communications Act instead of more regulated “telecommunications services” under Title II of the Communications Act.

California lawmaker Scott Wiener (D) crafted SB 822 to implement the nixed 2015 Open Internet Order on a state level, in an effort to fill the vacuum left by the FCC’s abdication. SB 822, the “California Internet Consumer Protection and Net Neutrality Act of 2018,” was signed into law in September 2018 and promptly challenged.

In October 2018, a group of cable and telecom trade associations sued California to prevent SB 822 from being enforced. In February, 2021, Judge John Mendez of the United States District Court for Eastern California declined to grant the plaintiffs’ request for an injunction to block the law. 

So the trade groups took their case to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which has now rejected their arguments. While federal laws can preempt state laws, the FCC’s decision to reclassify broadband services has moved those services outside its authority and opened a gap that state regulators are now free to fill.

“We conclude the district court correctly denied the preliminary injunction,” the appellate ruling [PDF] says. “This is because only the invocation of federal regulatory authority can preempt state regulatory authority.

The FCC no longer has the authority to regulate in the same manner that it had when these services were classified as telecommunications services

“As the D.C. Circuit held in Mozilla, by classifying broadband internet services as information services, the FCC no longer has the authority to regulate in the same manner that it had when these services were classified as telecommunications services. The agency, therefore, cannot preempt state action, like SB 822, that protects net neutrality.”

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, which supported California in an amicus brief, celebrated the decision in a statement emailed to The Register.

“EFF is pleased that the Ninth Circuit has refused to bar enforcement of California’s pioneering net neutrality rules, recognizing a very simple principle: the federal government can’t simultaneously refuse to protect net neutrality and prevent anyone else from filling the gap,” a spokesperson said.

“Californians can breathe a sigh of relief that their state will be able to do its part to ensure fair access to the internet for all, at a time when we most need it.”

There’s still the possibility that the plaintiffs – ACA Connects, CTIA, NCTA and USTelecom – could appeal to the US Supreme Court.

In an emailed statement, the organizations told us, “We’re disappointed and will review our options. Once again, a piecemeal approach to this issue is untenable and Congress should codify national rules for an open Internet once and for all.” ®

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RCSI scientists find potential treatment for secondary breast cancer

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An existing drug called PARP inhibitor can be used to exploit a vulnerability in the way breast cancer cells repair their DNA, preventing spread to the brain.

For a long time, there have been limited treatment options for patients with breast cancer that has spread to the brain, sometimes leaving them with just months to live. But scientists at the Royal College of Surgeons Ireland (RCSI) have found a potential treatment using existing drugs.

By tracking the development of tumours from diagnosis to their spread to the brain, a team of researchers at RCSI University of Medicine and Health Sciences and the Beaumont RCSI Cancer Centre found a previously unknown vulnerability in the way the tumours repair their DNA.

An existing kind of drug known as a PARP inhibitor, often used to treat heritable cancers, can prevent cancer cells from repairing their DNA because of this vulnerability, culminating in the cells dying and the patient being rid of the cancer.

Prof Leonie Young, principal investigator of the RCSI study, said that breast cancer research focused on expanding treatment options for patients whose disease has spread to the brain is urgently needed to save the lives of those living with the disease.

“Our study represents an important development in getting one step closer to a potential treatment for patients with this devastating complication of breast cancer,” she said of the study, which was published in the journal Nature Communications.

Deaths caused by breast cancer are often a result of treatment relapses which lead to tumours spreading to other parts of the body, a condition known as secondary or metastatic breast cancer. This kind of cancer is particularly aggressive and lethal when it spreads to the brain.

The study was funded by Breast Cancer Ireland with support from Breast Cancer Now and Science Foundation Ireland.

It was carried out as an international collaboration with the Mayo Clinic and the University of Pittsburgh in the US. Apart from Prof Young, the other RCSI researchers were Dr Nicola Cosgrove, Dr Damir Varešlija and Prof Arnold Hill.

“By uncovering these new vulnerabilities in DNA pathways in brain metastasis, our research opens up the possibility of novel treatment strategies for patients who previously had limited targeted therapy options”, said Dr Varešlija.

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Surface Duo 2 review: Microsoft’s dual-screen Android needs work | Microsoft

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Microsoft’s second attempt at its interesting dual-screen Android smartphone corrects some mistakes of the original, but falls short of a revolution due to a series of oddities created by its physical laptop-like form.

Looking more like a tiny convertible computer than a phone, the Surface Duo 2 starts at £1,349 ($1,499/A$2,319), a lot for a regular smartphone but slightly cheaper than folding-screen rivals.

It opens like a book, with each half just 5.5mm thick, and a hinge that allows it to fold all the way over.

Microsoft Surface Duo 2 review
There is no screen on the outside, but the time and some basic alerts for SMS and calls can be shown down the spine of the hinge. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

Inside are a pair of 90Hz OLED screens each measuring 5.8in on the diagonal. They can be used on their own or combined as one display measuring 8.3in – a similar size to an iPad mini. Both screens are covered in traditional scratch-resistant smartphone glass and have large, old-fashioned bezels top and bottom.

Having two separate displays rather than one that folds in half creates a major drawback: a gap in the middle of the screen big enough that you can see through it, which is much harder to ignore than the crease in the middle of a flexible display as found on the Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 3.

Microsoft Surface Duo 2 review
The gap between the screens sits right in the middle of the combined display, which makes full-screen reading, scrolling and watching video awkward. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

You can use two different apps at the same time on the two screens. The theory is sound, but I found few pairings were useful beyond simple messaging apps and a browser. More useful was using one screen for a note-taking app and the other for a full keyboard like a mini laptop.

Some apps spanned across both displays, like Outlook, can put different information on each screen, such as your inbox on one side and an open message on the other. Some games, including Asphalt 9 and Microsoft’s Xbox Game Pass streaming service, put controls on one screen and the action on the other. But there are very few apps and games optimised for this setup.

microsoft surface duo 2 review
The two screens can be folded into various configurations, including just a single display, both combined into one large display, propped up like a tent or open like a mini laptop. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

Specifications

  • Screens: two 5.8in AMOLED 90Hz displays

  • Processor: Qualcomm Snapdragon 888

  • RAM: 8GB of RAM

  • Storage: 128, 256 or 512GB

  • Operating system: Android 11

  • Cameras: 12MP wide, 16MP ultra-wide, 12MP 2x telephoto; 12MP selfie

  • Connectivity: 5G, USB-C, wifi 6, NFC, Bluetooth 5.1 and location

  • Water resistance: IPX1 (dripping water)

  • Dimensions closed: 145.2 x 92.1 x 11.0mm

  • Dimensions open: 145.2 x 184.5 x 5.5mm

  • Weight: 284g

2021’s top Android chip

microsoft surface duo 2 review
It takes two hours 15 minutes to fully charge the Duo 2 hitting 50% in 45 minutes, using a 45W USB-C charger (not included), which is pretty slow compared to rivals. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

The Duo 2 has last year’s top Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 chip with 8GB of RAM, matching the performance of top-flight Android smartphones from 2021 and capable of running two apps running side-by-side without slowdown.

Battery life is more variable than a traditional phone. It lasts about 32 hours between charges, with both screens used for about four hours with a variety of messaging, browsing and work apps. It lasts about a third longer if you mostly use only one screen. That’s a considerably shorter battery life than a regular smartphone and behind the Z Fold 3.

Sustainability

Microsoft Surface Duo 2 review
The camera sticks quite far out of the glass back stopping it from sitting flat on a desk. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

Microsoft does not provide an expected lifespan for the Duo 2’s battery; those in similar devices typically maintain at least 80% of their original capacity for in excess of 500 full charge cycles. Microsoft charges an out-of-warranty service fee of £593.94 to repair devices and £568.44 to replace the battery. The previous generation Surface Duo scored only two out of 10 on iFixit’s repairability scale.

The phone contains no recycled materials, but Microsoft operates recycling schemes for old devices, publishes a company-wide sustainability report and a breakdown of each product’s environmental impact.

Android 11

Microsoft Surface Duo 2 review
The single screen mode is hard to use one-handed and most Android apps and websites are designed for longer screens, not short and fat ones, so you end up having to do a lot more scrolling than you would on a regular phone. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

The Duo 2 runs Android 11 – not the latest Android 12 – and generally behaves like a standard Android smartphone or tablet with a few small additions that make it easier to use each screen separately. One of the best is the ability to drag the gesture bar at the bottom of an app to move it between screens or to drop it on to the gap between the screens to span it across both displays.

The software can be a bit unpredictable at times, such as opening the keyboard or text box of an app on another screen or hiding a second app from the screen when you try to type. But it is generally a fast and responsive experience given how unusual the device is.

The Duo 2 will receive three years of software updates from release, including monthly security patches, which is disappointingly at least a year short of what rivals, including Samsung and Apple, offer. Microsoft’s last planned update for the Duo 2 will be 21 October 2024.

Camera

Microsoft Surface Duo 2 review
Because the camera is on the back of the device, it would be blocked if you fold one of the screens over, meaning you have to shoot photos with both screens open – which is unwieldy. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

The Duo 2 has a triple camera on the back and a 12-megapixel selfie camera above the right-hand screen.

The rear main 12MP camera and 2x telephoto cameras are good, capable of producing detailed shots in a range of lighting conditions. The 16MP ultra-wide camera is reasonable, but a bit soft on detail and struggles with challenging scenes. The camera app has most of the features you’d expect, such as portrait mode, night mode and slow-mo video, and can shoot regular video at up to 4K at 60 frames a second.

The 12MP selfie camera is capable of shooting detailed photos even in middling light, and has access to the dedicated night mode when it gets dark.

Overall, the camera system on the Duo 2 is solid, but it can’t hold a candle to the best in the business.

Observations

Microsoft Surface Duo 2 review
The camera lump on the back stops the device folding fully flat, creating a wedge shape when using one screen only. The shiny power button is also a fingerprint scanner, which was fairly fast and reliable. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian
  • The Duo 2 supports Microsoft’s Slim Pen stylus, which can be magnetically stored and charged on the back of the device when not in use.

  • The stereo speakers are decently loud but a bit tinny, fine for watching YouTube videos.

  • The width of the device makes it a challenge to fit into smaller pockets.

Price

The Surface Duo 2 costs £1,349 ($1,499/A$2,319) with 128GB, £1,429 ($1,599/A$2,469) with 256GB or £1,589 ($1,799/A$2,769) with 512GB of storage.

For comparison, the Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 3 costs £1,599 and the Galaxy Z Flip 3 costs £949.

Verdict

The Surface Duo 2 is an improvement on its predecessor, but is still a very odd proposition that’s neither a good phone nor a good tablet.

The individual screens are short and stout, forcing lots of scrolling in apps when using it like a phone and making one-handed use very difficult. The gap at the hinge makes combining them into one big tablet screen awkward too.

Using two apps side-by-side works well, but few combinations proved useful or faster than just quick switching between two apps on one screen on a normal phone. There is more potential in apps like Outlook that provide a multi-pane view, but few apps or games are optimised for the dual-screen system.

Microsoft is only offering a disappointing three years of software and security updates from release for the Duo 2, too, losing it a star.

It is good to see Microsoft trying something different. But ultimately the Duo 2’s two screens are just not yet as good or useful as either a single phone screen or a bigger folding screen, making it an expensive halfway house.

Pros: two screens, two apps side-by-side, multiple modes, top performance, hardened glass screens, decent camera, head-turning design.

Cons: gap between screens, few optimised apps, average battery life, bulky camera lump, chunky in pocket, hard to use one-handed, no real water resistance, only three years of software updates from release.

Microsoft Surface Duo 2 review
The outside of the device is smooth glass front and back with quality-feeling plastic edges and a metal hinge. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

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