Will the Surface Duo phone have a rear-facing camera?

(Image credit: Microsoft)

At Microsoft's massive Surface event this week, the firm unexpectedly revealed Andromeda, now known as the Surface Duo. Complete with Android and Google Play, the Duo has a folding 360-degree hinge that allows the device to be used as both a phone and a tablet. We've written about the potential user scenarios for years, and Microsoft showcased a few in its sexy teaser video. Tent mode for media consumption. Angled up 90-degrees as a Project xCloud game streaming handheld, side-by-side multitasking, and so on.

Despite Microsoft's protests that the Duo is simply a "Surface," and not a "phone," the entire world will see it just as it is — which is a phone. Phones come with specific expectations attached to them in 2019. People have already decried the chunky bezels, as Surface betrays the edge-to-edge display trends espoused by Samsung, OnePlus, and other Android vendors. The whole reason Windows 10 Mobile failed was the big glaring app-gap, with contemporary services avoiding the platform altogether. It effectively forced Microsoft to adopt Android for this incredible piece of tech. As phones go, the Duo had a specific glaring omission in its press materials. The lack of a rear-firing camera.

So, will the Surface Duo have a "real" camera, or simply rely on the front-facing camera wrapped around? Will that be powerful enough? Surface lead Panos Panay offered some comments on the topic in a recent interview.

Not the finished product

The Surface Duo we saw at the Surface event is by no means the finished product, which makes it hard to estimate for sure what kind of features it will or won't have, besides that gorgeous folding form factor. However, Panay has dropped hints in some interviews that Microsoft has more tricks up its sleeve when it comes to cameras for Surface. Speaking to Wired, Panos Panay said that they were nervous about revealing too many details about the camera at this stage, wanting to keep competitors out of the loop.

"These are our efforts for the past two and a half years, so there's a balance to the number of details I can give, even with regards to the camera (...) The idea is, I want to help you become more creative and productive, that doesn't mean a bajillion-megapixel camera on the back of the product. It means I get you into the flow, so you can create, you don't have to switch out of context."

Prototype hints

Source: Marques Brownlee (Image credit: Source: Marques Brownlee)

In a preview video with Marques Brownlee on YouTube, we got a glimpse of Panay's black prototype Surface Duo, complete with a cut out for a camera module. This at least suggests Microsoft is exploring ways of getting a more serious camera into this thing, and could also help explain the need for hefty bezels, as the requirement for thinness squashes components out from behind the display portion of the device.

Patents dating back years seem to detail various methodologies Microsoft has been exploring for squeezing cameras into what is effectively two extremely thin phones, adding credence to the idea that indeed, we haven't seen everything Microsoft intends to ship with this device.

All signs point to "probably"

It feels incredibly unlikely to me that Microsoft would produce a ground-breaking product, complete with a partnership with Google, and not include at least some baseline level of contemporary camera tech. We've seen shoddy cameras bury fairly innovative Android handsets like the Razer Phone, and no amount of side-by-side screen multi-tasking will make up for a phone that produces grainy images.

In the same Wired interview above, Panay spoke about not having to reach for additional devices to complete your creative flow. If you're someone who likes taking pictures, I can't imagine anything more interrupting than having to put down your Surface Duo to pick up another phone with a decent camera, if a photo opportunity presents itself.

The idea of the Duo not having a decent camera seems to betray Microsoft's own vision for the device, but indeed, we won't know for sure until we get our hands on it in the Holiday of 2020.

Microsoft Surface fall 2019 event: Everything announced

Jez Corden
Managing Editor

Jez Corden is the Managing Editor for Windows Central, focusing primarily on all things Xbox and gaming. Jez is known for breaking exclusive news and analysis as relates to the Microsoft ecosystem while being powered by caffeine. Follow on Twitter @JezCorden and listen to his Xbox Two podcast, all about, you guessed it, Xbox!

  • It's good to hear that MS has tricks still in the wings for its Android apps for the Duo. Let's hope some of the Microsoft on Android apps developed for Duo also make it onto non-Duo devices.
  • Can we please talk about what a terrible name Surface Duo is? I hope that is just the temporary name for the developer’s edition.
  • Surface Duo is fine. Much better than Surface Mini or even Surface Phone. Duo gives it an identity and describes the product aptly.
  • So, shouldn’t Microsoft have named the Neo as Duo, and the Duo as Neo? Seriously, Microsoft needs to gut its marketing department. Don’t even get me started on Windows 10X that doesn’t run on Surface Pro X.
  • I think the Duo name is excellent. I think Neo will change though. Duo is aptly named while Neo seems like a prototype name.
  • I doubt it. It was Project Centaurus and considerable thought would have gone into the Neo name. Whether you like it or not, now that the product has been announced with that name, I don't see it changing.
  • I like it. Short and explains what it is.
  • I think the name "Duo" is more about "Microsoft + Google" tandem than about dual screen.
  • Still scratching my head as to how MS has no Win10x version of Duo, especially since it's just a smaller version of Neo. Found this petition to right the situation http://chng.it/c5h9YY5b7h . Hope it gets someone's attention this next year while they're finishing the prototype.
  • Most probably because it wants to compete with Samsung and Apple as a Phone. Which is won't be able to do without third party apps and it is sure it won't be able to convince developers to start building again for MS.
  • What gets me though is that in many enterprises there is little to no need for Play Store apps on company issued devices. In our agency we really only have a need for Office 365, Skype, texting, Edge, phone calls, Bing Maps, and custom built apps. What's more we would love to build custom apps that targeted both Neo and Duo. We also deal with a lot of disclosure and privacy issues. So keeping Google and its hooks off our agency issued devices is a preferable thing. A Win10x version of Surface Duo would perfectly fit our needs.
  • And everything you named can be accessed through android/play store.
  • "custom apps that target[ed] both Neo and Duo" can be accessed through the Play Store? To be clear a "custom" app is built in house by an IT shop. Secondly Neo runs Win10x. No Play Store there. Not even side loading Android apps for all we know. And that's the whole point for an IT shop with limited resources, one code base (UWP) that targets two form factors tablets and phones running the same operating system. If Neo runs Win10x there should at least be an option for Duo to run it too.
  • Of course, it will. Camera is one of the important hardware that user will focus before buying any phone, I mean flagship phones. I bet, PureView n Zeiss lens
  • I hope you are right. If not - no Surface phone for me.
  • I was actually thinking about this. All the surface products have a rear camera, so that would make you think it'll have one. On the other hand. If they put a single (or multiple lense) camera on the front, what is stopping you from folding that to face the rear and become your rear facing camera. If they do either one, I'll be happy.
  • Yeah I thought about that too, then you could have a single powerful camera both for selfies/Skype AND regular pictures
  • I vote for back camera (for main camera). The latest mobile camera lense to date, is getting bigger n bigger in size. Despite Duo will ship in one year from now, the camera n all other hardwares will be different from this day. So, having one camera (main & selfie camera) at the front, will make the bezel even larger (maybe). Well, I hope for smallest bezel and simmetrical at the day of the Duo launched.
  • And how exactly would you use a camera on the back? You'd have to have the device folded out flat, making it rather unwieldy to use as a camera. Fold the camera either way and you either block the lens or the screen, so you can't take a picture either way. If they have a third screen then you could use that, but I doubt that a third screen would be good enough as it would be enough for notifications only.
  • Without a Galaxy Fold style exterior display, there won't be much use for a back camera.
  • I'm with you on that only way would be to put a front screen on the other fold. For me not really an issue OK I you can't pull it out and take a quick picture like other phones but for me this phone is not about the camera it's about work. For me it's the best folding device that's been shown off for what I want as a mobile device and one that will make me think twice about getting the note 10 or 11 next year. I want a phone to do productivity on and the odd snap with a camera. If they put a good camera on the inside I'll be happy to fold it round and use it that way. Still 12 months off this device yet so plenty could change but for me this is the 1st time I have been excited for a phone in quite a few years.
  • I thought I remembered seeing a patent by Microsoft for a folding phone. Maybe they'll use it.
  • Microsoft has filed 2 or 3 patents like that. Hope they pull of another surprise by successfully implementing split camera idea That's will be icing on the cake.
  • Remember Microsoft formed a partnership with Canon some time ago so I think it might have their technology Onboard.
  • It's will just go read the interview Tom Warren had with Paynos. He talks about everyone just play with their current phones and when the Duo comes he'll convince people they'll be more creative and do more with the Duo. I don't think it was a coincidence be mentioned the cameras.
  • I have a really hard time believing that Microsoft owns all of this Nokia tech and wont do anything with it. I have a pretty good feeling they've kept a camera team working since they got ride of Lumia just so they can come back strong. Microsoft has known they were gonna come back to the mobile market ever since they quit Windows Phone. I just think they didn't talk about everything the phone is going to be able to do because they don't want to give anything away to the competition. This announcement was about form factor, not tech specs for that device.
  • Good point. I pray you're right.
  • Microsoft doesn't own that tech though. Microsoft bought the PureView name, which it has since sold, but only licensed the technology. The Nokia camera technology from both Nokia and Microsoft phones still belongs to Nokia.
  • Sold to who?
  • To HMD, who are making the new Nokia phones.
  • Where is Jason Ward??????
  • He is in the Microsoft shop having his yearly service and programming.
  • Lol.. I see what you did there. 😂😂😂
  • I've been wondering about that myself.
  • Maybe he was AI created by MS😳😳😳
  • I think we can all agree, the world is a better place when Jason Ward sticks to serviceable product reviews.
  • No, we need him to keep preaching what he preaches.. He was exactly right, and now the tech press is saying what he's saying.. They're also saying MSs approach with two separate screens is the right move for now. No screen failure apprehension. You be quiet. 🥊🥊🥊🥊
  • Two screens are not comparable to a single folding screen. Two screens are pointless as we have learned from the Echo, Axon M, and G8X.
  • Of course they're comparable. They're not the same but they're comparable. Dual screens is clearly superior in some ways. Now that you've been proven wrong about the Surface Phone happening, I guess you have to shift your deliberate negativity somewhere else. Sad to see, really.
  • Lol, yeah. Jason is rather 'excitable' when it comes to Microsoft. The super fans love it naturally but it's a turn off for everyone else imho.
  • Don't understand why you read his articles if you think he's a turn off.. 🙄🙄🙄
  • Typos...especially at the end "holiday 202"?? With MS's history of bad phones, I'm not holding my breath. They are just going to F' this one up too.
  • Let's just be honest here...
    IN 2020, ALMOST 2021, THE SURFACE DUO BETTER SHIP WITH AT LEAST AS GOOD A CAMERA AS THE BY THEN YEAR OLD IPHONE 11, AND NOTE 10, HAVE IN 2019... If not, that would be really sad for this product, and for MS, because that would definitely set this product up for instant failure.
    SURFACE DUO MUST HAVE A COMPETITIVE CAMERA FOR A 2020 DEVICE.... PERIOD, END OF DISCUSSION. 🙅🏾‍♂️🙅🏾‍♂️🙅🏾‍♂️ because that's what people want😳
  • Camera should be placed at front not back.
  • What do you mean? It should be on the front and back.
  • see zte axon m's camera placement to understand Back camera on this device doesn't make much sense because it can be only accessible in laptop mode & tablet mode.
    Laptop mode puts duo in uncomfortable position &
    in tablet mode the viewfinder will be devided in both screens and it will be awkward to hold duo in this position. So it's better to provide camera in front so it can be used just like any other phone thanks to 360 degree hinge.
  • Ahhh, I see. You're right.
  • I agree, there is not much incentive to have the camera in the back when you have a device that folds 360 degrees. The only most comfortable to hold the device when taking photos or videos is to fold the device into tablet/phone mode 360 degrees, so you only dealing with single screen. So just having front as a main camera make sense. Not to mention there is an advantage for this like you can have the screen facing the subject show the viewfinder so they can see what they look like in the frame. I wish that at least the have 2 camera they will put with Surface Duo, a normal and wide angle lens. At least to me I would be okay not having telephoto, but not having wide angle is a huge loss. Now they can also have room for other fancy sensor like time-of-flight. Of course it needs a LED flash.
  • Why not have a swivel camera module on this?? We still fit know how Duo will evolve by the next holiday time!!
  • That woud ruin the design & duo would not close flat.
  • @raycpl; It all depends on what the finalize device will actually look like but a swivel module function maybe a probable solution. These devices may change a great deal before next season but I am most impress with Microsoft crafting their own chip and will have devices featuring Qualcomm, AMD, Intel chips which should excite at least I am hoping the OEMs and others.
  • Three lenses and a flash is becoming norm nowadays. How will MS place it in front, if not under the screen? And if it goes with just one lens, who will replace their phone with duo?
  • Well considering the bezels are huge (at least what they have shown assuming the screen size is final), they could have a space dedicated for camera components in there. I think 2 lenses would be minimum and is more than enough for most use case. I think a combination of normal and wide-angle lens should be fine. Then they have space for IR sensor and flash.
  • I'm inclined to agree. A single camera or single set of cameras above or behind one of the screens. You can then use that camera for selfies or videoconferencing by looking at that screen and then, when you want to take photos, you simply fold the device open all the way and then use the other screen as the viewfinder. The ability to put a camera(s) on just one side of the device should simplify things somewhat.
  • Yeah, since it is not even ergonomic to use the device if you just have it on unfolded tablet mode which is way too big to hold to take photos. So just having a single set of camera on the front for the display would do just fine, it also saves cost on separate front-facing and main camera. I hope they will go with at least a normal and wide angle lens since the versatility of having multiple camera is better than just having one, especially for wide angle which something you can't replicate unlike telephoto which its use case is more limited.
  • They could incorporate something similar to Oppo but for the rear camera, have a module that pops up when you open the camera app.
  • The halves of the device are thinner than your average phone already. Anything popping up from inside would have to be thinner still. Given their patents, I think that half the camera assembly in each half of the device coming together as a whole when the device is folded together seems more likely.
  • Gotta shrink those too and bottom bezels
  • I just don't want to buy an expensive device and make compromise. Please give us the best camera on the market when released. I'm more than happy to give a few hundreds bucks more for it
  • I think that the ideal situation would be to use a single camera or set of of cameras on the same face as one of the screens. That way, you simply face that screen to take a selfie or video-conference and you're using the main camera, so you get the best possible resolution. To take a photo, you simply fold the phone all the way open and then use the other screen as the viewfinder, exactly as you would with any other phone. The fact that you only need one set of cameras makes things simpler and cheaper. The problem is that you need the space for a proper camera lens on the same face as a screen, so you either need a big bezel/notch or an in-screen camera. If the tech is not ready for in-screen cameras then the big bezel/notch would be the only option and might hurt an otherwise sleek device.
  • The real question here is.... does it really matters? I mean with all the many Android phone options available now at days why would we buy this Surface Duo Android phone? And if we want one now we could just buy a dual screen from ZTE or LG.
  • Kinda agree.
    If it was running the new windows, it's a computer in your hand, boom, but Android?
    Will certainly fulfill the phone side of things but I don't understand it's function running Android, it's just going to be a very expensive phone.
  • For superior hardware & design.
    Lg's device rely on screen accessory which makes whole product ugly and thick.
    Zte axon m was very good phone but it's quite old now. Surface duo is the best iteration of dual screen phone idea right now thanks to 360 degree hinge & Microsoft's quality of hardware.
  • It's worth (if MS do not repeat it's previous mistakes) because it is being developed by MS, a software giant unlike ZTE or LG who just stitched together two screens.
    MS with it's software expertise can do great futuristic things which mere hardware manufacturer can't.
  • Because all the hardware in the market is THE WORST.
  • It's more about the hardware/software harmony than about them individually. Apple with iOS and the iPhone has proved beyond any doubt that execution is far more important than being early or first. It's critical that all the components come together seamlessly