Surface Duo: Everything you need to know about Microsoft’s dual-screen phone

For the first time since the death of Windows 10 Mobile, Microsoft will be releasing a new smartphone. It’s called the Surface Duo, and it sports a dual-screen layout. The phone was originally scheduled for release during the 2020 holiday season, but rumors now show it could be released as early as summer 2020.

With unique dual-screen functionality and Google’s Android operating system under the hood, there’s plenty to be excited about. Here’s everything we know about it so far.

Price and release date

Microsoft

At its October 2019 Surface event in New York City, Microsoft mentioned that the Surface Duo will be released in time for holiday 2020. Typically, that means November or December. But in the months since then, things have changed: The phone could come far sooner.

With Microsoft amping up its development efforts for the device, a working version of the Surface Duo was recently spotted in the wild in the hands of a Microsoft employee. The Windows Central blog also reports that the Surface Duo could be coming as soon as this summer, which could mean you might have one in your hands anywhere between July and August.

This would also make sense, as we heard that Microsoft was planning a Spring event for its other Surface products such as the Surface Book 3 and Surface Go 2. If nothing more, we at least expect to hear more about the Duo then — so long as the coronavirus doesn’t delay its release.

As far as pricing goes, not much is currently known about how much the Surface Duo might cost you. Microsoft’s last top-range smartphone, the Lumia 950XL, came in at $650 when it launched in 2015. You would expect the Surface Duo to come in at a similar price, but smartphones with folding or dual-screens are now within the $1,000 plus range. Judging from the price of the Samsung Galaxy Fold, we expect it to be in the same ballpark.

Design: Dual screens, 360-degree hinge

Microsoft hasn’t yet unveiled many aspects regarding the design, battery life, or the portability of the Surface Duo. What we do know, though, is that the Surface Duo is unlike your typical folding smartphone.

The Surface Duo screen itself doesn’t fold like with the Galaxy Fold. Instead, it has two separate screens, connected together by a 360-degree hinge. The hinge is designed to stay out of your way, tucked inside a polished metal seam beneath the screen.

Elsewhere, the device is also outfitted in the same magnesium material from the rest of the Surface lineup. In our original hands-on time, we found that it adds up to make the device solid and sleek, with no notches or buttons to get in the way when holding it.

In technical terms, the Surface Duo sports two 5.6-inch screens, which fold out to a total of 11.2 inches. The resolution, meanwhile, was rumored to be 1,350 x 1,800 on each of the two displays. This hasn’t been confirmed, but if true, it would give the displays a pixel density of around 401 pixels per inch.

It all comes with no sacrifice to heft, as Microsoft also mentioned that Duo is just 0.19 inches thick. There are, however, thick bezels around the top of the device, so don’t expect this to be like the bezel-less Samsung Galaxy phones.

Finally, there is a need to address the other ports on the device. Not much is official in this area, but prototype versions of the Surface Duo have a fingerprint reader on the side of the device, as well as a USB-C port. There was no headphone jack, however.

Camera: Can it compete with smartphones?

Much like many other technical aspects of the Surface Duo, we don’t know a lot about the camera. Aside from Panos Panay, chief product officer of Microsoft’s Devices group, saying at a 2019 event in Berlin that the Duo would have a “good camera,” Microsoft hasn’t mentioned anything specific about it.  The megapixels and the type of sensor on the camera all remain unknown to us.

Otherwise, we have been given a glimpse of the Duo’s camera image quality. On his Instagram, Panay recently posted a photo he says was captured on his own personal Surface Duo. In the image, we see a picture of his son studying. Lighting conditions and other factors going into the photography are not known, but his son is in good focus, and the background looks especially colorful and vibrant. Instagram has been known to compress image quality, though, so the image might not truly represent what you’ll get when the Duo releases.

What we also know is that there looks to be no world-facing camera on the Surface Duo — at least from videos of the prototypes recently seen in public. This means that you won’t find a camera on the outside of the Duo like your typical smartphone. The Duo will likely only have one front-facing selfie camera on the inside screen, alongside a flash. You’ll have to “flip” the device around to make use of the camera when you need it.

The app and software experience

The Duo uses Google’s Android 10 operating system, with a custom skin and dock or lock screen provided by the Microsoft Launcher app.

Here’s where the two screens and the hinge come into play. Microsoft touts that this functionality has many benefits in portability and getting work done on the go. You’ll be able to stack apps side by side, drag apps from one screen to the next, and span them across the screen and the hinge. We saw most of this in action with an emulator and the Surface Duo SDK, released by Microsoft in February 2020.

The hinge allows it to be folded over into four different modes, just like a modern Windows 2-in-1. The first of these is “extended canvas,” where apps span across the hinge. The second is “two page,” where apps can be opened side by side. There’s also the “dual,” and “companion pane” modes where you’ll be able to open the Android home screen and app pane side by side, to pick your apps.

Microsoft also has confirmed that apps will have a single-screen view by default, but can be spanned to cover both screens when the device is put into double-portrait or double-landscape layout.

We also recently learned about some functions on the dual-screens being used for notifications. For instance, you’ll be able to “peek” at your calls and notifications when pulling open the top screen on the device.

Performance: Snapdragon 855?

The Surface Neo is a dual-screen PC
Microsoft

Much like everything else about the Surface Duo, Microsoft has remained hush-hush about the specifications of the device. Not much is known, and we’ll just be going off unofficial rumors.

Judging from a report from Windows Central’s Zac Bowden, it is indicated that the Surface Duo might come with the Qualcomm Snapdragon 855 processor inside. That will then be paired with 6GB of RAM and 64GB base storage. It is said that there could be additional options with more RAM or storage, but this is not confirmed. No word yet on expandability or SD card support, either.

Based on reviews of other phones with the Qualcomm Snapdragon 855, the Surface Duo will still be a good bet for multitasking, and more. It is a year old now, but it was found in other phones like the OnePlus 7 Pro, the Samsung Galaxy Fold, LG V50 ThinQ, and the Sony Xperia X1. When we reviewed these phones, we were a big fan of the performance, so this will be a good bet for the Surface Duo.

The choice in the Qualcomm processor also means that the Surface Duo will not be a 5G compatible phone. You won’t be able to take advantage of the benefits of new and upcoming 5G networks if you buy the device.

How it compares to the Surface Neo

The Surface Duo isn’t Microsoft’s only dual-screen device coming in 2020. The company is also planning on releasing the Surface Neo, a larger dual-screen PC. Compared to the Surface Neo, it’s quite different. The Neo will be far more powerful for a couple of reasons.

First, the Neo runs a full-blown version of Windows specifically designed for dual-screen devices known as Windows 10X. This allows you to run the full gamut of Windows apps, including Win32, Microsoft Store, Progressive Web Apps, and Universal Windows Apps. It’s a complete laptop replacement when you want it to be. The Neo shares a similar chassis design to the Duo, but it has two 9-inch screens that expand out to a total of 13.1 inches of screen real estate.

The Neo also uses Intel’s Lakefield processors under the hood, which should be able to outmuscle the Duo by quite a bit.

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