Skip to main content

Folding displays vs. dual screens: Comparing pros and cons for PCs and phones

Surface Neo
Surface Neo (Image credit: Windows Central)

2020 is shaping up to be a year of new PC (and phone) form factors, with foldable displays garnering most of the attention. However, dual-screen devices like Microsoft's Surface Neo (Windows 10X) and Surface Duo (Android) are also stealing some spotlight.

It's clear the industry is (and will be) experimenting with both category for the foreseeable future, and there is no right way to make these devices. They each have their advantages and disadvantages, and some users will prefer one over the other. Here are a few strengths and weaknesses of each that I learned of when talking to various companies that make these devices.

Do more with two

Dual screens: Glass, less likely to fail, and trusted

Dual-screen design is the route Microsoft is taking for the Surface Neo and Surface Duo. A recent patent, though, suggests that Microsoft was also at least considering a single foldable display for the Surface Duo phone (powered by Android). Whether the company will revisit the concept later remains to be seen.

Microsoft claims from its internal research that dual screens are better at productivity. The analogy is like how some desktop office users run double (or triple) display setups for their PCs. Data is separate on different screens; the user can look at one display and glance at another and keep going.

Microsoft also claims, again based on internal research, that users had an easier time completing tasks on dual screens compared to a single foldable display, or just a single screen. They measured this "effort" through electroencephalography (EEG), aka brain waves.

Pros

  • Lower cost
  • Made from glass
  • Less likely to fail
  • Supposedly better for productivity
  • Device can fold both ways

Cons

  • Worse for media
  • Heavier than plastic
  • Apps need to be coded to use both screens

I've been told by one company that dual screens are cheaper to manufacture than a single, foldable display. That seems likely due to their design and the technology (and research) needed to make them work properly (including hinges and reinforcements). That means there's a good possibility that the Surface Duo should run cheaper than the pricey $2,000 Samsung Galaxy Fold.

Another "win" for dual screens is that they can let a device fold back onto itself. This allows the Surface Duo to function as a regular single-screen phone when closed (even though the second screen is still on the back). Foldable displays only work one way (closed), not two ways (closed and reversed).

Perhaps the most prominent feature for dual screens is a simple one: glass. That means no odd bumps, divots, or creases in the display. You can also use a pen, though Lenovo has also proven you can ink on a plastic screen.

Apps should be coded to leverage the different possibilities with dual screens for different postures, in landscape, portrait, or productivity modes, for example. But apps don't have to be coded to be used on dual screens, as can they default to a single pane and span across both if needed.

The real and only major downside to dual screens that I'm aware of is that they won't be as good for watching movies or consuming some media. To use the full span of both displays, you'd need to tolerate a seam running down the middle. That's going to be hard for some users, especially since may also be letterboxing around the edges to adjust the aspect ratio to fit the screen.

Another small but minor drawback with dual-screen devices, especially if they fold back onto themselves, is there doesn't seem to be an obvious way to put on a case for added protection. When coupled with dual glass displays, this could make dropping such a device more damaging.

One giant screen

Displays that fold: Plastic (for now) but better for video

Currently, foldable displays are more in vogue than dual-screen devices. There are multiple Android phones with screens that fold expected in 2020, and Lenovo's ThinkPad X1 Fold should launch this summer for PC.

Folding displays are cooler-looking and are better at achieving a shrinking effect since you can take a 13-inch PC and reduce it by half the size. The main benefit of these devices will be watching media like movies or videos across the entire screen. You get one uninterrupted, glorious display.

For the X1 Fold, Lenovo also cites how the PC can be used propped up (by its kickstand) and, when paired with its Bluetooth keyboard and a dock, it turns into a full 13-inch "desktop" PC. The Surface Neo can't do that.

Pros

  • Plastic won't shatter
  • One large display
  • Lighter than glass
  • Better for media, movies, and games

Cons

  • More prone to failure
  • Can only fold one way
  • Could initially be more expensive
  • Potential for bumps, divots, and creases

While Microsoft says dual screens let you be more productive, Lenovo also correctly states that ultra-wide single displays are now displacing dual-screen setups at the office. People are getting used to and even preferring one screen again, and a device like the X1 Fold follows that trend.

While a flexible display is not nearly as satisfying as a glass one, in my opinion, there have one significant advantage: Plastic doesn't shatter, making these devices more drop resistant (and lighter).

Even an objection to the feel of plastic is likely temporary. Corning, the makers of Gorilla Glass, is in the advanced stages of mass marketing bendable glass, making this whole point moot.

Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Fold

Source: Windows CentralThe Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Fold is due summer 2020. (Image credit: Source: Windows Central)

Being that foldable-display technology is so new, the idea that it is more prone to failure is a valid concern. But without firm numbers, it's hard to pin too much on this potential issue. Samsung initially had a lot of problems with the Galaxy Fold, but it's four months out from release and failure rates have been surprisingly low. Likewise for complaints of the crease, bumps, or divots, which are more likely on the first generations of this technology but could be solved later.

Unlike the Surface Duo, phones that have a single foldable display are basically just tablets (opened) and clamshells (closed) because they only fold one way. The Duo can turn into a single-screen device, which gives users a more in-between experience.

Finally, there is, in theory, less for an app developer to have to worry about with a foldable display. There are no modes or postures to contend with, though odd screen dimensions could make this advantage a wash.

An exciting future

Foldable- AND dual-screen devices are packed with potential

Surface Neo

Source: MicrosoftMicrosoft Surface Neo with keyboard. (Image credit: Source: Microsoft)

I'm not convinced that when it comes to dual versus foldable screens, one form factor will necessarily win. Just like how 2-in-1 laptops and Surface Pro-type PCs did not wholly disrupt regular laptop sales, people will buy what they feel works best for them.

For some users, the proposed productivity enhancements and data management of dual screens will be a reason to go for those devices. It's not a surprise Microsoft would go down this route first as the company does everything around the concept of work and "empowering everyone on the planet."

The Surface Duo and Neo also seem less "risky" than a foldable display, but at the rate at which technology advances, this could be a short-lived concern.

Today, dual displays seem less 'risky' than a foldable display.

Regular consumers and those who prefer watching media may be best served with a single foldable display for either their phone or PC (or both). These experiences may be more familiar to use, and they certainly have more wow factor going for them.

Today, it may seem like dual screens are for work and a foldable display for pleasure. But Lenovo is betting on the latter for its ThinkPad X1 Fold, which is 100 percent business-focused, suggesting that boundary is not so clear cut.

Companies like Dell are experimenting with both designs. Other firms have hinted they will likely follow suit and let buyers decide which they prefer.

For now, it's all really exciting, and the evolution both form factors should be of interest to anyone who loves technology. Which one do you prefer and why? Let me know in the comments.

Daniel Rubino
Daniel Rubino

Daniel Rubino is the Executive Editor of Windows Central, head reviewer, podcast co-host, and analyst. He has been covering Microsoft here since 2007, back when this site was called WMExperts (and later Windows Phone Central). His interests include Windows, Microsoft Surface, laptops, next-gen computing, and arguing with people on the internet.

32 Comments
  • It all comes down to implementation. Both ways have so many valid use cases that there is no need for one to "win".
  • As much as I love idea of dual screen phones I don't think masses will prefare it over flexible screens. I believe People will prefer to do one thing at time on a small formfactor like smart phones instead of taking
    advantage of multitasking. I believe future surface duo iteration will be using flexible screens instead of dual screens. But I think in laptop segment dual screen devices will give tough competition to flexible screen devices because flexible screen devices like Lenovo's folding screen laptop can't bend 360 degree and used as small tablet.
    Lenovo's folding screen laptop and surface neo works same size as a laptop. but surface neo can be used like a small tablet vs Lenovo as a big tablet. I think people Will prefer small tablet over big tablet.
  • I personally see more value in a laptop or tablet running full Windows with a dual-screen than I would on a smartphone. Since my smartphone is more of my "media consumption on-the-go" device, I would rather have a foldable for that, but the technology is not mature yet.
  • For now, I lean towards dual displays. Given the cost of the hardware, I want confidence that it will last. Until we have more long term durability information, I don't have a lot of faith in the foldable display. At the same price, I might consider it, and that's a big might. But given that folding display devices will most likely cost more, I'll pass for now. This is especially true given that my main focus on either of these devices are the productivity boosts and the ease of running two apps at once. I don't consume a lot of media on my mobile device and what I do consume, I don't care too much if it's a larger screen. On the Duo, I'll just use one screen to watch video. But running two apps side-by-side, that will be super helpful for me.
  • Dual screens are just a stop-gap at best. When folding display technology matures, the only advantage it might have is price. I don't think either of these technologies are ideal for budget phones.
  • Sane man, in contrast to many others here.
  • I'd have to agree with that. As long as flexible displays are made of plastic, dual displays will always have some advantage. I know that Corning is working on flexible Gorilla Glass and they have already got further than many people would expect. With creative hinge designs and flexible glass, we will likely have folding glass displays relatively soon. Once that happens, there would be very few use cases where dual screens would be preferred.
  • I would personally prefer plastic screens like the Moto Force had. A glass screen protector makes it feel great and you don't have to worry about breaking it ever. I have debated starting a business replacing iPhone screens with plastic. There might be an opportunity and designing a plastic display can't be that tough.
  • "designing a plastic display can't be that tough" This is a perfect example of the attitude that is responsible for so many stupid comments here and elsewhere. Everyone's an expert at software and hardware because they've used a few devices and applications. The truth is that most people know very little about either. Designing a plastic phone screen from scratch would undoubtedly be very hard. You go do it though. I look forward to seeing the fruits of your labour.
  • “ there doesn't seem to be an obvious way to put on a case for added protection.” Finally we are talking about this issue. I have been wondering since the day I saw duo. This actually might be a much bigger issue if not taken care at launch. I have seen people not using their brand new iphones until their case has arrived from Amazon.
  • Bumpers would be the most obvious method, although a thin case with an elastic centre could also work.
  • For the time being, I will definitely go for the dual screens. I use my Windows devices primarily for productivity, and having the separate, dual screens will be far more useful to me. I can see myself doing a translation on the Surface Neo running my full desktop translation-assistant tool on it (I would use the "slap-on" keyboard on the second display) and if I need to proofread two Word documents side-by-side, I would flip it horizontally and use the two folding displays for more screen real estate than what I currently have on my Surface Go. Once foldable displays mature in terms of quality and price accessibility, I will definitely look into those, but for now I am looking forward to the Surface Neo and all its Windows desktop-in-your-palm glory.
  • Dual Screens means the developers have taken the time to do all the work to make them mesh properly and hand-off to each other. Sorry, but for other than a keyboard/handwriting input or maybe mousepad functionality, I don't see that level of attention-to-detail that even makes me want to be forced to open a floating secondary window for an application and have to depend on it having doe its job correctly except as an old Immediate window that freezes all other processing until it is closed. Been using handhelds for decades, and others for decades more, and I have no faith this will be implemented in a way I trust all the data to be kept concurrent. I see no reason the developers community would want to jump on to a wagon that might disappear when MS or the like finally get the folding screen right, either, or at least forces everyone to go 'folding' because they, the manufacturers, can make a bigger buck that way. That affects not only the quality of the software but also the number of applications out there, too. Let us consider the recent development disaster that was MS's Windows Mobile Platform, and hemorrhage of releases that drove off programmers. I will buy one of these devices when Rev 3 comes out, with Rev 4 & 5 a done deal, so probably NEVER.
  • What is the point of dual screen? You can make iPad dual screen multitasking too apps or browsers same Time and have app store, more features, better camera
  • You've got to love it when people make absolutely no effort to think of an answer before posting a question. Can you fold an iPad in half? No, you can't. That means it can't take up half the space when stored. That means that it can't be used in all the different modes, e.g. tent, that a foldable device can. At least try thinking first. As for "more features, better camera", that just shows that you fail even when you try to think. For you to be able to say that, you'd have to be comparing it to a specific dual-screen device, which you're not. That may be true for some dual-screen devices and not for others. Sorry but you're just not up to this conversation.
  • I would love to have a full PC in my pocket.
    I agree, an iPad makes, foldable or not, no sense when you can have a similar Surface for the same price.
  • for movies I doubt the folding screens will be better at least on the current devices because they fold open to a 4:3 screen ratio. That's old picture tube TV ratios. The letterboxing will be big when watching a 16:9 movie, and downright huge when watching a 21:9 movie. I doubt the actual image of a 21:9 movie would be bigger on a folding 4:3 display than it would on a single display of a dual screen phone. And a dual screen phone can hold itself up while watching a movie.
  • This is my issue with folding screen devices and where do many articles get it won't, they actually aren't that great for media consumption unfolded, they are far more useful for desktop work and Office which don't require a wide screen (well, depending on the software). In fact considering the difference in account ratio watching a movie on say the Galaxy Fold would provide a marginally larger screen than just watching it on an S10 plus.
  • To the best of my knowledge MS has never presented the Neo and the Duo as a consumer device. IMHO the target audience is corporate and prosumers. This audience most presumably couldn't care less that watching a movie on a corporate device is not ideal on a dual screen. "Hey boss I want a folding device rather than an dual screen device to enjoy Netflix better" yeah dream on.
  • Windows 10X is going to be an enterprise and prosumer platform? What about Windows 10 Pro?
  • "Windows 10X is going to be an enterprise and prosumer platform?" No one said that. Read what was actually written. The OP said that the Neo and Duo were presented as enterprise and prosumer devices. The Duo doesn't even run 10X and the Neo is just one device of (what Microsoft are hoping will be) many that will run 10X. Which market segment those are targeted at is up to those companies producing them. Maybe don't be so quick to be negative every time and say something sensible more often.
  • If there is currently one device announced that has Windows 10X and it is targeted at enterprise and prosumer, and the device is being released by the SAME COMPANY that created the software, I don't think it's a stretch to think that they are intending for Windows 10X to be enterprise and prosumer oriented. What other manufacturers do is actually irrelevant, Microsoft made the software, they make the hardware, that is the direction they are pushing it in.
  • "that is the direction they are pushing it in" Is it? Microsoft have said that the Surface line is supposed to be aspirational with a view to other OEMs taking ideas from it and making varying devices. The direction that Microsoft is pushing in is dual-screen. The devices that OEMs implement with those dual screens could be for any market segment.
  • The answer is no.
  • This was a good read, just want to throw in some points:
    1) Most IT classes don't teach students that you can snap applications to one side the screen and another in the other half let alone snapping them into 4 equal quadrants. 2) Some companies use hot desking, meaning that an individual is not assigned specific desk and as the applications are either cloud based or on hybrid solution (self hosted with cloud based) or self hosted. They can sit anyone or work remotely. Some of these desks either a single screen or two screens either due to financial constraints or in some cases penny pinching to increase profits. So effectively you have to adapt to working on both set ups and this brings me back to my first point. As my current work place utilises hot desking with some desk with a single screen and others with one. I have noticed colleagues cycle between applications on a single screen and cycle between set applications on two screens - with all applications running full screen - primarily because they do not know they can snap upto 4 windows. Basics like this should be taught in schools but it's not. Never the less the greater screen real estate you have and if it's used efficiently productivity will go up. Plus even if it's inefficiently used productivity will still go up as you're not constantly scrolling down a page to see more information for instance. So a greater screen real estate is a win-win for everyone especially the user. It's great that companies are pushing the boundaries and trying different methods when it comes to dual screens. Hopefully companies will keep pushing the boundaries when it comes to screens as competition fuels innovation. Which means us techies don't have to wait for a sci-fi movie to just see the darn tech and imagine what it would be like to use - we get use it reality.
  • Both of these will never be more than niche device form factors like laptops that can fold the keyboard the way back. Any supposed productivity increase is more than offset by the higher costs, weight, and size/bulk.
  • The two screen desktop analogy falls apart when you consider there is nothing stopping you from running two apps side by side on a wide screen. Monitor managers are even provided by monitor OEMs to make that a simple process, dividing the screen in 2, 3, 4 virtual areas that apps live within. Nothing stopping Samsung from doing the same with what is essentially a wide screen phone, partitioning it to allow side by side app use. Only reason to suggest that two screens would be more productive, is that you are building a dual screen device.
  • As someone who has two 2K monitors at home and had four HD monitors at work, I can tell you that snapping two apps side-by-side on one screen is absolutely not the same thing as having two apps on different screens. Sure, having two apps side-by-side is better than not being able to do so but it obviously means that they each get half the screen real estate. The obvious advantage of dual-screen or foldable devices is that, disregarding thickness, they take up the same space as regular devices while providing twice the screen space. If they can be made thin enough, that's a really big advantage for a lot of people.
  • Foldable is inherently better from a usage perspective because there is nothing a dual screen device can do that a single foldable screen can't. Neither device is going to be cheap, although yeah foldable will be more expensive.
  • In principle that's true but, as long as foldable screens have to be plastic, that dual screens can be glass will be a point in their favour. Foldable glass is on the way and may be the death of dual-screen devices. Who knows how expensive it will be though. It may end up the case, for a while at least, that dual-screen devices occupy the power price brackets while foldables occupy the high end.
  • A dual screen device can fold closed, or fold back on itself. Tent mode and laptop mode in the same device so I guess not nothing...
  • Dual screen. 👑👑👑 That's my pic. 👌🏽