Surface Neo could seamlessly switch modes, Microsoft patent suggests

Surface Neo Twopane
Surface Neo Twopane (Image credit: Microsoft)

What you need to know

  • The Surface Neo might seamlessly switch between input methods, according to a new patent from Microsoft.
  • The patent discusses the display switching between pen and trackpad modes without manual user input.
  • As with all patents, this technology might never ship on a device.

Surface Neo news is a bit scarce these days, as Microsoft's folding PC and its operating system, Windows 10X, are reportedly delayed, but a newly published patent sheds some light on how the Surface Neo could switch between input modes. The patent discusses and illustrates tech that would allow a device such as the Surface Neo to seamlessly switch between different input modes without manual user input. For example, the Surface Neo could switch to handwriting mode when you use a pen and switch to a trackpad when you touch the screen with your finger. WindowsUnited spotted the patent, which was filed for on November 26, 2019 but published today.

The Surface Neo features a unique form factor that includes two displays that can fold against each other. While people can use these displays as general touch screens on the device, Microsoft also showed off that the Surface Neo can work with a physical keyboard and a virtual trackpad. The trackpad appears above the keyboard and features some clever tricks, according to the recently published patent.

The patent explains that virtual trackpads often require user input to switch between modes. This can create a clunky workflow that makes people spend time jumping between options and modes rather than inputting data. Several scenarios are explained in the patent, but one highlights using pen input and touch input without swapping modes manually:

In one configuration, the virtual trackpad area can also receive input from a digital pen without requiring a user to change the mode of operation of the virtual trackpad. In this configuration, a user can write directly in the virtual trackpad area at any time using a digital pen. In particular, when input is received within the virtual trackpad area, the computing device determines whether the input is touch input (i.e. a user's finger) or input from a digital pen. If the input is touch input, the input is processed as touch input to a virtual trackpad to move a cursor or perform an activation operation, for example. If the input is input received from a digital pen, the input is processed as digital ink.

The patent never mentions the Surface Neo by name, but it references "a two screen hinged device resembling a traditional laptop computer." The images also appear to show off the technology on a Surface Neo.

In addition to switching between pen and trackpad inputs, the patent describes how a device can use "Modeless Gestures For Summoning User Interfaces." It breaks down a few examples, such as swiping from inside of the virtual trackpad to outside of the virtual trackpad to dismiss a UI.

As is the case with all patents, these ideas might not be part of any future device. Additionally, Microsoft might use the ideas on a different device or in a different way. If these ideas do arrive on the Surface Neo, they could streamline the input experience and take advantage of the device's virtual trackpad and touch area that's still present while a physical keyboard is attached to the device.

Sean Endicott
News Writer and apps editor

Sean Endicott brings nearly a decade of experience covering Microsoft and Windows news to Windows Central. He joined our team in 2017 as an app reviewer and now heads up our day-to-day news coverage. If you have a news tip or an app to review, hit him up at (opens in new tab).

  • Looks like progress on "tablet mode" X-D. But jokes aside, I'm glad MS is taking this stuff seriously.
  • Love the fact that MS is thinking about inking, but my biggest concern about the way Microsoft and other companies are implementing pens is that pens are easily misplaced. Even when a strong magnet is being used a pen can easily dislodge from your device when placing it in a bag. I feel like Samsung is the only company with a comprehensive inking strategy, with its sPen and full lineup of devices that utilize it. The one shining light as far as Microsoft is concerned is the Surface Pro X with its rechargeable slim pen/kb combo. A crying shame though that the slim pen/kb combo doesn't exist for Surface Pro and Surface Go. And a crying shame too there's no "mPen" included with Surface Book 3, or Neo, or even Duo as far as we know. Those form factors are perfect for it.
  • Use a case with pen storage. There are such cases for iPads, and the Surface Pro X keyboard has pen storage. Close up the case, pen is secure. You DO use a case, right?
  • That keyboard can't be used with sp7 or go 2 though
  • I would love to have more dock options for pen in 2-1 Windows laptops. There are a few models that do have them though; Dell Latitude, Yoga 930, Thinkpad Yoga, Surface Pro X, and iirc a Samsung 2-1 laptop (not entirely sure about that last one). I think the way to go is to include a small dockable pen (which can be relatively cheap) and an optional full sized pen. Thinking about it, I also wonder how good a smaller Surface pen would work with magnets. The pen would be smaller so the magnet in too but on the other hand it would be lighter & thinner.
    Costs wise it would be more interesting for me personally, since I don't need a full sized pen and smaller pens are always cheaper than full sized ones.
  • The surface pro kinda had that, but it was pretty wonky on my SP3 back in the day, not sure if it's improved now.
  • Its improved (I have an SP3 and SP7) but its still a stupid way to store a pen. I hardly ever use it because who in hell knows where it is. I do use the pen on my Galaxy Note 9 all the time (several times a day) because I know where it is, docked i.e in my phone. You either need pens that cost $5 so you can have a couple or you need them dockable, anything else is no good for casual use, the SP series magnet solution are no solution if you move about a lot.
  • You're talking about tablet mode and touch screen toggling using touch? The latter improved a lot, but the former is still useless. Also, they made changes to the touch keyboard that made them less useful. For example, they removed the ability to flick keys to get secondary characters quickly. Ugh! I hate that.
  • With flicking keys you mean short swipe upwards to e.g. quickly type a number? Cause I can still do that (v1903).