At the 2019 Surface event, Microsoft stunned the tech world with its most impressive line-up in years. A super-sleek ARM-based Surface Pro X, a custom AMD-powered 15-inch Surface Laptop 3, and even some smart Surface Earbuds. They were by no means the main event, however.
After revealing the Surface Neo, previously known to us as the larger folding tablet codenamed "Centaurus," Microsoft unveiled the Surface Duo — a phone, powered by Android, in partnership with arch-nemesis Google.
This phone is already proving controversial with Windows fans due to its choice of operating system, with some even starting a petition for a Windows 10X version. Also, some of that initial awe seems to have subsided into healthy skepticism with the broader tech press. Is this Microsoft Courier-reborn really the start of a new device category?
Only time will tell if the Surface Duo becomes a big success story, but while we wait to find out, here's everything we know so far about this intriguing device.
Andromeda reborn, releasing Holiday 2020
We've been covering the story of the Surface Duo for a few years at this point, with extensive coverage from our Windows Editor Zac Bowden, with various additional patent filings relating to the hinge assembly and beyond.
Previously known by its codename Andromeda, some members of the tech press reported it canceled when its operating system seemed to be shelved. It appears that instead, Microsoft pivoted to Android, while keeping the form factor intact.
The Surface Duo isn't exactly a new idea at Microsoft, either. Born from the ashes of the Microsoft Courier prototype, the Surface Duo and its larger, Windows-powered cousin, the Surface Neo, are targeting a Holiday 2020 launch. Microsoft opted to announce these new devices early to encourage developers to join them in creating experiences that take advantage of its unique folding design.
Full Android, not Windows
As noted, the fact Microsoft chose Android for the Duo has proven controversial with some Windows phone fans and developers. However, for the sake of the device's success, having Android's sizeable app library and Google's mature software support is paramount.
In an interview with The Verge, Surface lead Panos Panay summarized the choice of operating system simply stating "those are the apps you want," before elaborating further.
I don't know how to answer it differently for you. Yeah. Because there's hundreds of thousands of apps, and you want them. And [Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella] and I talk about it, and it's about meeting our customers where they are, where they're going to be. And I don't think the mobile application platform's going anywhere anytime soon, and it's pretty simple. I'm not trying to be smart about it, either. Like, literally, Tom, it's: you need the apps.
We also learned that the team behind the incredibly popular Android Microsoft Launcher is working on the OS experience for Duo, with a more "native" feel that will go far further than the launcher layer Android allows for today. Microsoft also noted during its press conference that it's working directly with Google to tailor the folding experience on the OS.
I have speculated in a separate article that perhaps, one day, the folding Windows 10X OS powering the Surface Neo could one day make its way onto phones. For the launch, though, it's crucial that Microsoft really nails the experience consumers are expecting, including the app experience they're expecting.
Known Surface Duo specs
The Duo Microsoft showed off at its Surface event was a prototype, and no official specs yet exist. We'll update this section when they're available. That said, the design gave away some details about what we can realistically expect.
The Duo has dual screens, as opposed to the flexible displays leveraged by Samsung and Huawei in their folding devices. The prototype is glass around the back of the display, and we can see a single front-facing camera on one screen, which can be wrapped around the back to be used as a rear-firing camera. Some prototypes have been spotted with camera holes cut out, and Microsoft has a range of patents aimed towards cramming small cameras into these incredibly thin displays, but we'll have to wait and see to find out more.
The prototype sports a fingerprint reader on the side of the device, complete with USB-C fast charging. There's sadly no headphone jack, and we have no idea about the current battery life. The displays are, however, a slightly insane 4.8mm thin, which could go some way to explaining the bezels being thicker than you might expect in 2019. Each display is 5.6-inches by itself, 8.3-inches total when folded out flat.
Microsoft was using a Snapdragon 855 in the prototype Duo but may swap it out for an 865 before launch in 2020. Microsoft is still considering whether or not to include 5G. Of course, we also have no idea how this thing will cost, but don't expect it to be cheap, considering the Samsung Galaxy Fold costs $2000.
Surface Duo folding capabilities
The Duo trailer showcased some of the expected capabilities of the device, with apps designed to contextually conform to one display or the other based on what you're doing.
The Android Outlook app, for example, will be able to open up emails in one panel, while keeping your inbox on the other panel. You can then hit links within the email to open up a browser without leaving your email, and then open up a call without leaving your browser, and so on. Microsoft also showed off some drag-and-drop capabilities within Google Maps, allowing you to easily open up directions without losing sight of a location's info.
The Duo has several positional "poses," and will become aware of what the user is currently doing to enhance the experience. Tent mode allows users to place the device down and use it as a mini TV, for watching YouTube or Netflix. It can be folded like a clamshell for typing emails almost laptop-style or using the bottom portion of the display as a gamepad for playing streaming games via Project xCloud. The Duo is also compatible with the Surface Pen for inking, drawing, and notetaking, and can be used as a book with apps like Amazon Kindle or Comixology.
Microsoft unveiled the Duo early to help get developers on board, so expect all sorts of new use-cases when it eventually launches.
Surface Duo is extremely promising
Although questions over the camera, price, battery life, and general capabilities of the Duo remain, nobody can deny that Microsoft has already managed to make a strong impression.
Microsoft's approach, with safer dual-displays, while bringing developers along for the ride, will help ensure that the Duo has a wealth of solid experiences going for it at launch, too, instead of rushing to market without a competent user experience in tow.
We'll keep you updated with any and every new detail we can scrounge up on the Surface Duo. For now, let us know in the comments what you think, or jump into our Surface Duo forums over here.
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