(Pocket-lint) – The Surface Duo is here. This is everything you need to know about the phone-tablet hybrid – a Surface Phone in all but name.
Microsoft has been rumoured to be working on a Surface Phone – since at least 2016. Microsoft Surface Duo is that device and Microsoft did suggest to Pocket-lint it has been in development for quite some time. It’s a dual-screen, foldable Android-based device. As such it’s a different proposition to existing foldable phones and straight-up mini-tablets like the iPad mini.
Here’s everything we know about the Surface Duo.
What is Surface Duo?
- Foldable tablet that can be used as a phone
- Based around Android
At last year’s Surface launch event, Microsoft Chief Product Officer Panos Panay demonstrated how Duo can do everything you’d expect from a modern smartphone and tablet.
For instance, you can use it to play with apps and make calls, and it can even fit in your pocket. However, Panay said the company doesn’t view the new Surface Duo as a smartphone despite its ability to be used for calls.
In a post to launch Surface Duo, Panay added some more background to the creation of Surface Duo. “When we created Surface seven years ago, we wanted to challenge convention by redefining expectations for what a productivity device should be, and what it should do. Put simply, we wanted to help people get things done.
“We didn’t set out to combine two existing devices – the tablet and the laptop. We had a vision for how we could take the best elements of each to create something entirely new. To find that perfect intersection of hardware and software that unlocks a more intuitive way to work and create.”
Yep, Microsoft wants this to be an entirely new type of device, capable of giving something different to the user than the company’s existing 2-in-1 Surface devices. The idea is to appeal to those who like to be productive on their smartphones, but who struggle to complete complex tasks away from a laptop – the Samsung Galaxy Note crowd, in other words.
Microsoft is clearly apprehensive to pitch this as a phone due to its struggles in that market. While Surface laptops and tablets are successful, Microsoft’s forays into mobile devices have been disastrous.
Microsoft failed to make a success of its own mobile operating system, and its purchase of Nokia in 2013 was one of the biggest corporate fails in history, causing Microsoft to write off $7.6 billion. It finally stopped its Windows Phone effort in 2017.
Surface Duo price and release date
- 10 September US launch
- Available from AT&T, Microsoft Store and Best Buy
As we mentioned, Microsoft revealed the Surface Duo last October but with the warning that it wouldn’t be on sale for some time to come. That time has come – it’s available from AT&T, Microsoft Store and Best Buy. There are no details on a Surface Duo release date in the UK or elsewhere.
The device is expensive – slated at $1,399 – but isn’t ridiculous compared to high-capacity versions of rivals such as the iPhone 11 Pro Max and the Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra.
We knew the launch would be coming earlier in the summer because Microsoft execs have been keen to show off the Android-powered, dual-screen device on Twitter as they used it at home. Plus, it has surfaced at various regulatory bodies such as the US Federal Communication Commission (FCC), Japan’s Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications and Bluetooth SIG – usually a sign that a commercial release is close.
— Jeff Teper (@jeffteper) August 6, 2020
Surface Duo software
- Android with a light skin based on Android 10
- Development now in house
Surface Duo runs Android, albeit a heavily skinned version of Google’s mobile operating system that actually reminds us of Windows 10 X that will be coming to some other dual-screen Windows devices. It offers standard Android apps (via the Google Play Store) and you can place or accept calls.
The move to Android is, of course, interesting. While Windows Mobile limped along for most of its life until it was put out of its misery, the “new Microsoft” has taken a vastly different approach to the world’s thirst for smartphones since CEO Satya Nadella took over the lead of Microsoft from Steve Ballmer in 2014.
Instead – alongside its Windows 10 effort – it has focused on developing mobile apps that work well on iOS and Android. It has partnered with Apple previously to bring Office to the iPad as part of Apple’s iPad Pro drive and now it has teamed up with Google for this device. Yes, there’s a Google search bar on the home screen.
Microsoft says it wants to help shape the dual-screen category “by providing consistency in the way customers experience it and developers design apps.” And Panay made it clear Microsoft is working with Google to add features to Android to enable this to work more seamlessly.
Some reports suggest the Surface Duo will get a quick update to the imminent Android 11. However, while Microsoft’s own apps like Office will work seamlessly with the dual-screen, it remains to be seen whether other developers will make their own apps compatible. Microsoft has previously hinted at some on-device intelligence to cover this off though.
Apparently, Microsoft is now running the Android development in house after originally contracting the work elsewhere through a third party called Movial. In July 2020, Microsoft acquired Movial so has been working to bring many of its employees in house.
In his blog post, Panay suggests a few ways to use Surface Duo: “Open the Amazon Kindle app and read a book like a book. Position Surface Duo’s screen like a tent and watch video hands-free. Use Surface Duo in Compose mode to quickly respond to an email, or tilt it into portrait for a more immersive way to scroll through web pages or photos. Pair your Surface Duo with a supported Bluetooth controller to play games on Xbox Game Pass Ultimate. Or easily take notes with the Surface Slim Pen, sold separately.”
Surface Duo displays
- Dual 5.6-inch 1,800 x 1,350 OLED displays with 4:3 aspect ratio
- Can work separately or as an 8.1-inch single 2,700 x 1,800 3:2 screen (albeit with a bezel in the middle)
- No external display
- Surface Pen support
The Surface Duo looks a lot like Microsoft’s larger dual-screen Windows 10X-powered Surface Neo, but it’s more pocketable. It features two 5.6-inch screens calibrated together for colour and luminance. It rotates on a bespoke 360-degree hinge so that it works as an 8.1-inch tablet with a 3:2 aspect ratio. Separately, the displays have a 4:3 aspect ratio.
The screen is 4.8mm thick so folded together it’ll be 9.6mm. While that’s thicker than most flagship phones, it’s still decent. However, we can see some criticism on the horizon for the thick bezels at the top and bottom of the screens.
The device can fold together to protect the screens, or open up so that both screens can be simultaneously used. You can even have the device closed with one screen facing out, like a phone. Corning’s Gorilla Glass is used but there will be a cover in the box.
Each display can run two different apps at the same time. You can even use one of the displays as a keyboard – the most likely scenario – or game controller.
Reports suggest that the screens work in a similar fashion to if you use a Windows PC with a second display. Both screens will support Surface Pen, so that may magnetically attach to the outside – that’s unconfirmed though.
In February 2020, WalkingCat shared a video of “peek” feature for the Surface Duo. In it, you can more clearly see how the device will work with notifications, which appear on the right side of the display so you can deal with them without having to completely open the device. For calls, you can also open the Surface Duo fully to accept an incoming call.
— WalkingCat (@h0x0d) February 26, 2020
Surface Duo hardware
- Qualcomm Snapdragon 855
- It’s a 4G device, no 5G
- 6GB of memory and 64 and up to 256GB storage
The Surface Duo prototype featured a Qualcomm Snapdragon 855 processor and while we believed it would use the newer Snapdragon 865 in the final version. However, it’s going to launch with 855 which – like many of the other key specs – is disappointing for the hefty price tag.
Indeed, there will be no 5G version – but this will surely change in the future. There’s a physical SIM slot rather than being eSIM only or similar.
The device has 6GB of memory and 64/256GB storage sizes. Charging and data connectivity is via USB-C. We believe there is a fingerprint reader, too.
As with other foldable devices there are two batteries giving you 3,577mAh in total which is disappointing considering the 4,380mAh in the Galaxy Fold. We’re not expecting stellar battery life as a result – especially since there are two separate screens. Microsoft has previously said that you’ll get all-day battery life, but we think the jury is very much out on that.
Surface Duo camera
- Single 11 megapixel camera
- Video support up to 4K
As with other tablets (with the notable exception of the iPad Pro) the cameras aren’t best-in-class but should still provide a decent experience. There’s an 11 megapixel f/2.0 lens that supports 4K and Full HD video at 60fps – there isn’t one on the outside. It also features image stabilisation (digital not optical) plus a 7x zoom and HDR support.
Writing by Maggie Tillman and Dan Grabham.