Microsoft's Surface Duo looks like a near-perfect execution of a very old idea

Surface Duo
Surface Duo (Image credit: Microsoft)

We've seen other companies take on the dual-screen folding phone idea, notably ZTE with the flawed Axon M. Still, I think the Microsoft Surface Duo is the first time I've seen it done this well.

Back in 2011, Kyocera strolled out the Echo, a folding Android phone. It wasn't very good from a usability standpoint, mostly because when "unfolded" you had a substantial black bezel between the two physical screens. I'm not opposed to bezels where they're needed, but this was just too much. Outside of the bezels though, I thought the idea was sound and with some further refinement, a phone with two screens that merged into one, or worked with each other separately, was a device that needed to be built.

A small bezel is still better than a display that won't last.

The Surface Duo benefits from all the ideas other "folding" phones had before it, and it's a boon that Google is involved. On the hardware side, Microsoft designed something sturdy yet thin and light, that's not too big, and doesn't have a distracting bar between the two displays. Yes, there is clearly a pair of bezels there, and there will be times where they get in the way when using the Duo as a big-screen device, but it's not so jarring that it makes it unusable. And in my opinion, that small bezel is a much better design than a folding display that will have a crease and eventually fail like the Galaxy Fold. Anyone who has used a Surface product can tell you that Microsoft does a great job of building beautiful and sturdy products.

On the software side, the most significant benefit will be running a version of Android that's designed for two displays. Microsoft worked closely with Google, and we're told that there are some custom APIs in the operating system, but much of what was shown off is just Android 10. A version of Android that knows what to do when you drag from one screen to the other or enlarge to use the entire surface can do more tricks than multi-window on a single panel. It certainly will have issues — it's not launching for another year — but because it's Android, we know the operating system itself will just work.

The Surface Duo is running an operating system that's actually designed for foldables.

LG was very close to the mark with the G8X. The problem was that it wasn't built with two displays and relied on a case-like adapter and that made things clunky. You had a big bezel, a bulky hinge, but a dual-display experience that ran the gamut from phone to laptop. The one thing it couldn't do was open to a flat "single" display. I think that's something most people interested in a folding device really want to see.

The Surface Duo isn't going to be for everybody. The sheer size will be polarizing, and by the time it goes up for sale, we'll have seen plenty of other things on which we want to spend our money. Some of them will look very much like a Surface Duo, too. Another thing that will temper consumer reaction (read: sales) is that not many people want an Android-powered laptop, no matter how small and "phone-ish" it might be. The Surface Duo might have figured out the hardware, but it's still a niche device for which not too many people are asking.

The Surface Duo isn't going to be for everyone, but it could be a great mobile device for the enterprise.

What the Duo will do well is integrate with your Microsoft desktop computer, which means it's a perfect mobile device for any business traveler. Expect to see Microsoft Office building special sauce for the Duo as well as updates for Windows that integrate the Duo even further into the desktop experience. Microsoft knows enterprise and business software and has a keen eye for features that keep users locked in year after year.

Really, none of this matters right now. The Duo isn't going to be available until late 2020, and that's an eternity in the tech world. But it is nice to see someone figure out a big-screen clamshell Android device without trying to sell a flat sheet of plastic or a gimmicky detachable case. I just never figured that it would be Microsoft doing it.

In the meantime, there are plenty of great Android phones to buy.

Jerry Hildenbrand

I'm an RHCE and Electrical Engineer who loves gadgets of all kinds. You'll find my writings across Mobile Nations and you can hit me on Twitter if you want to say hey.

  • I hope this means Microsoft will add much more functions to its apps like OneNote.
  • It looks like a great device but I was hoping for a Windows OS version. I'm still using my Lumia 950XL because of work. They don't allow Android devices to access email. This was my last hope to avoid getting an iPhone.
  • Windows Mobile was my favorite mobile OS, but without developers the platform wouldn't work. That's why WM failed and we're seeing similar things with the Microsoft app store. Surface Neo, while not pocketable, might be your best bet.
  • Looks great. Just wonder what kind of specs we could be looking at for next year (figure that won't be finalized until sometime next year) As for people complaining that it should run Windows. I get it, I too would much rather be on a windows phone, but with our low numbers we could barely keep it afloat and I doubt the market would jump on a return of a MS OS on a phone.
  • Going Android will have MS Services more tightly integrated into Android. For MS in 2019 and forward everything is about getting their services more widely used.
  • I agree and we can be sure that the many Microsoft apps on Android will be optimized for this device by the time it comes out, so I will be able to make it look much like my One Plus does now: a Microsoft phone.
  • Like a lot of others who frequent this site, I've been waiting for the next rendition of a "Windows" phone. I've used Windows since 2010. However I think MSFT is finally realizing in the mobile realm, Windows just isn't relevant and the best direction is to get people interested in using MSFT hardware even if it's running another OS. This is an awesome move and shows that they've learned there lesson. Surface is the crown jewel for MSFT so they are really pitching that name out there for consumers to see. The advertisement is something I'd expect from Apple, so I expect it to be appealing to Apple users who may only use an iPhone, but have a Chromebook, or a laptop running Windows. This also sets a foundation to get more app developers interested in the device. I wouldn't be surprised to see MSFT come out with a Windows version of this device, but it's all going to be dependent on how this one sells.
  • Two massive problems: - Android
    - HUUUUUUUUUGE bezels. It looks as if they took two Iphone 6s and linked them together.
  • I agree on not loving that it's Android, but we saw how they failed with Astoria, and they can't survive without apps. That said, I get the recoiling at bezels, but I don't mind them. I like having space to hold my phone without worrying that I'll touch something by mistake. It makes the thing easier to show off and flip and bend and generally work with, I think. I have no issue with the bezels, and almost hope they don't try to slim them up too much.
  • You realize this is just a prototype. The final version of this device will not be released for 13+ months. I would be shocked if the final version had bezels anywhere close to what was shown today. Android is the sensible choice for the device. Optimized for small screens. Runs many apps. MS wants to eliminate any barriers to adoption. MS future is based on their enterprise services not their HW or OSs. HW and OS choice is based on what will drive the greatest adoption of their services.
  • Is the app problem any different on the Neo than on the Duo?
  • Yeah. People who buy smartphones want apps like Snapchat and all of Google's junk. Face facts: Windows on phones failed hard. The people on WC obviously loved it, but we weren't keeping it profitable for Microsoft. Android is easy. It's on billions of devices already, Google does the hard work in actually building the OS, provides a ready-made store full of all the apps and content people want, Microsoft builds on top with its excellent apps and services. This whole "it's not Windows it sucks" argument holds literally no water on smartphones in 2019 and definitely not 2020.
  • Not an argument since Panay more or less said that the Duo isn't a phone. The argument is not "it's not Windows it sucks". The argument is "it's Google there is no way I'm hooking up to their spyware any more than I am forced to"
  • It has "small" bezels the places where you are most likely to hold it, and large bezels where you will rarely hold it though. Ultimate for me would be: - The form of Duo (with fixed bezels)
    - The OS from Neo
    - A scaled down version of the SQ-1 chip.
    - The ability to make calls and send SMS-messsages
  • The Duo has to be Android because developers showed they don't want to develop for iOS, Android, and a far third place mobile OS. That's the main reason Windows Mobile failed. Yes, the top and bottom bezels are big, but this is a polished prototype. I would hope the hinges would be more covered in the final product. They're probably a few iterations beyond what was shown, and this is a product category I wouldn't touch until the third generation. Let others work out the bugs and see if Microsoft will support it for the long term.
  • In addition to all whatthe author alluded to as potentials, MSFT now have an advantage of designing a powerful ARM silicon and AI for this device as they just did for Surface ProX
  • Hope: Microsoft also makes this version of Android more security, as well as less privacy concern (similar as new Edge, which uses Chromium).
    Question: would it be easy to answer the phone call with this inside duo screen form factor (as you need to open to see who calls and answer).
  • Answering the phone is what the earbuds are for ;). I would imagine it can tell you who's calling. Note that Panos did clearly say this was not a phone. I know we want to call it one, but it really is a new device that can also make calls. That's actually what a 'phone' is to a lot of people these days.
  • Go Google/Bing Microsoft Courier.
  • Android? What a slap in the face by Microsoft to its most loyal fans. Why in the world would they want to become an Android hardware manufacturer and help Android compete against Windows 10X in the dual-screen space? This makes no sense.
  • It makes perfect sense. They're merging their world with Android. They're getting a foot in the door in the mobile space, and then making those mobile devices work with their devices very well.
    If (and only if) they start getting the type of app support for Windows 10 X that Android and iPhone has, they can actually start putting 10 X on a phone. Until that time, they're going with what the market dictates, and they look like they're doing a good job of it.
  • Microsoft makes more from services than Surface. Crazy, I know. Also crazy: Microsoft doesn't just build for "loyal fans." It builds products for everyone on the planet, and the people who bought phones voted overwhelmingly against Windows.
  • Because.... yeah... it makes no sense anymore...
  • Pixel Duo from Google, next?
  • With Windows 10 X? lol
  • This phone has already been made.
  • Even for enterprise I would have liked to see a little more pazzas of the UI. It looks so dysorganized basic 1999. I frankly would have been giddy for a slightly more souped up Microsoft launcher shell on top of android, with advanced live tile supported. Much more fitting an up with the times. I would have sparkles in my eyes.
  • We have had full functioning widgets for over a decade. Removing functionality from widgets, as Live Tiles do, wouldn't be "up with the times". Maybe Microsoft could try fully functional square widgets.