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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 it’s now coming much earlier.

With unique dual-screen functionality and Google’s Android operating system under the hood, there’s plenty to be excited about. An early morning blog post by Microsoft has revealed all of the details of the new device. Here’s everything you need to know about it if you’re considering buying one for yourself.

Price and release date

At its October 2019 Surface event in New York City, Microsoft mentioned that the Surface Duo will be released in time for the 2020 holiday season. However, as of today, the Duo has now become available for pre-order at AT&T, Best Buy, and the online Microsoft Store. It will ship to customers starting September 10. It will work on AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon wireless networks.

As far as pricing goes, the Surface Duo comes in starting at $1,400. That’s considerably more expensive than Microsoft’s last top-range smartphone, the Lumia 950XL, which was $650 when it launched in 2015. However, judging from the price of the Samsung Galaxy Fold, this high price tag should not be a surprise. Two screens often come at a high cost.

Design: Dual AMOLED screens, 360-degree hinge

Microsoft Surface Duo -- in hand 5

In terms of design, the Surface Duo is unlike your typical folding smartphone. The Surface Duo screen doesn’t fold like the Galaxy Fold. Instead, it has two separate screens, connected by a 360-degree hinge.

The hinge is designed to stay out of your way, tucked inside a polished metal seam beneath the screen. Microsoft says it choose this design over a foldable phone because it wanted a strong glass that won’t bend. There’s also the factor of pen support, so the user wouldn’t have to worry about denting the screen when writing.

Elsewhere, the device is outfitted in the same magnesium material from the rest of the Surface lineup. The screens, meanwhile are protected by Corning Gorilla Glass.

In technical terms, the Surface Duo sports two 5.6-inch screens, set up in the 3:4 aspect ratio. Together, they can fold out to a total maximum of 8.1 inches of screen, when not counting the thick bezels. The resolution, meanwhile, comes at 1,800 x 1,350 on each of the two displays, and a total of 2,700 x 1,800 when extended out. That adds up for 401 pixels per inch.

It should also be noted that these screens are AMOLED panels, similar to the ones used by Samsung. Microsoft says that means the displays are vibrant, thanks to a proprietary calibration process and “active pixel alignment.” They both sport a wide color gamut, 100% of the sRGB spectrum, and 100% of the DCI-P3 spectrum.

Like the Galaxy Note, the Surface Duo also supports any Surface Pen. That includes the new Surface Slim Pen, Surface Pen, and the Surface Hub 2 Pen. These pens are for inking on webpages, drawing in OneNote, and doing more across Android.

That all comes with no sacrifice to heft, as the 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. In terms of weight, the Duo comes in at 250 grams, which is less than half a pound and similar to the iPhone 11 Pro Max.

Finally, there is a need to address the other ports on the device. The Surface Duo has a fingerprint reader on the side of the device, as well as a USB-C 3.1 port that supports fast charging. For cellular connectivity, you’ll find a nano-SIM and an eSIM, but be aware that the AT&T version will not support eSIM.

Finally, there is no headphone jack, and the device doesn’t support QI charging or NFC capabilities. There is a mono speaker, though, and a dual mic with noise suppression. This means you’ll likely need to use Bluetooth headphones with the Surface Duo’s Bluetooth 5.1 connectivity, or invest in a USB-C to 3.5mm dongle.

Performance and battery life: Snapdragon 855

The Surface Neo is a dual-screen PC

Now, for the specs. The Surface Duo comes with Qualcomm Snapdragon 855 processor inside. That will also then be paired with 6GB of RAM and 128 or 256GB of base storage. Like iPhones, there is no expandability or SD card support, either, so be sure to pick a model with storage that’s right for you.

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. Instead, you’ll have to leverage 4G LTE, which supports 1.2Gbps download and up to 150Mbps upload speeds.

As for performance, 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 should not be a worry.

In terms of battery life, the Duo comes in with a 3,577 mAh battery. The is bigger than the one on the 3,110 mAh on the iPhone 11 Pro, but smaller than the 3,969 mAh one on the iPhone 11 Pro Max. It’s also smaller than the 4,380 mAh battery of the Galaxy Fold.

You can expect actual battery life to range at similar times to those phones, but take that with a fine grain of salt. Microsoft says that you can get up to 15.5 hours of local video playback, up to 10 days of standby time, and up to 27 hours of Talk Time. Fast charging is supported, too, thanks to the 18-watt power adapter included in the box.

The app and software experience

The Duo uses Google’s Android 10 operating system, with a custom skin, dock, and lock screen provided by the Microsoft Launcher app. This is where the two screens and the hinge really come into play.

Microsoft touts that this functionality has many benefits in mobile productivity and getting work done on the go. You’ll be able to use gestures on the Duo to run and stack apps side by side, drag apps from one screen to the next and span them across the screen and the hinge. This all isn’t possible on typical single-screen phones like the Pixel 4.

You’ll also find that unlike most smartphones, on the home screen of the Duo, you can pin up to six apps — three on each of the two screens. You can then swipe up on either screen to get an app draw and explore Android, or even grab an app and fling it across screens. There are even “App combos” which can be saved, to automatically open a combo of apps on the screens like Teams and Outlook, or Spotify and OneNote.

The hinge, though, allow allows the Duo to be folded over into and positioned in four different modes, just like a modern Windows 2-in-1. That includes folding it into a “book,” “compose,” and “tent mode.”

In the software, this all means that you’ll be enjoy Android apps in various ways not possible on single-screen phones. These include “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.

Many of Microsoft’s core Office or Microsoft 365 apps are optimized for these various modes. However, Microsoft 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.

Microsoft Surface Duo -- in hand 4

As for the apps that will come installed on the device itself, these apps include the Microsoft Edge browser, Microsoft’s SwiftKey keyboard, OneNote, Outlook, To-Do, and OneDrive. You’ll also find Teams, OneDrive, News, Authenticator, Bing, LinkedIn, Microsoft Solitare Collection, and the Surface Audio app.

Of course, you’ll find Google’s apps too, as this is required for Android certification. That includes Messages, Search, Calendar, Drive, Chrome, Maps, Gmail, and the full suite of stock Android apps.

But how will these apps work? As expected, Edge works by spanning web pages across both screens. You also can split Edge and open up two different webpages on each page. There’s even a nifty feature where you can select ingredients from a webpage with a finger in Edge and then drag and drop to the To Do app to build a shopping list.

On top of that, the dual-screens can also be used for notifications. For instance, we saw that you’ll be able to “peek” at your calls and notifications when pulling open the top screen on the device.

Finally, the Duo will sync with the Your Phone app on Windows 10, allowing you to see photos, and contents from the Duo on Windows 10. It is compatible with the “Link to Windows” functionality that was once exclusive to Samsung Galaxy Phones. This will allow users to enjoy Android apps on Windows, along with several other cross-platform features.

Camera: Can it compete with other smartphones?

Microsoft Surface Duo -- in hand

Officially, the Surface Duo sports a single camera with an 11-megapixel sensor and a 2.0 aperture. On paper, it is being called an “adaptive camera” with an 85-degree diagonal field of view, optimized with “artificial intelligence for the front and rear.”

This still confirms that there is no world-facing camera on the Surface Duo. It means that you won’t find a camera on the outside of the Duo like your typical smartphone. The Duo only has one front-facing selfie camera on the inside screen, alongside a CRI LED flash. You’ll have to “flip” the device around to make use of the camera when you need it.

In the software, the Duo’s camera supports an auto mode with low-light and HDR. There’s also multi-frame photo capture and dynamic range scene detection. Elsewhere, it has super-resolution zoom, and “superzoom” up to 7 times. And, for selfies, a portrait mode with adjustable depth control. These are all routine features in a modern phone.

Coming down to video recording, the Duo sports support for shooting both 4K videos and 1080p videos at 60 frames per second with electronic image stabilization. It also has a video HDR mode and can shoot slow-motion videos at 1080p at 120 frames or 240 frames per second. Again, all routine features.

While this camera is different from the triple and double camera setup on most modern smartphones, this should still equate to good image quality. On his Instagram, Surface chief Panos Panay recently posted a photo he says was captured on his 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.

How it compares to the Surface Neo

The Surface Duo isn’t Microsoft’s only dual-screen device. The company is also planning on releasing the Surface Neo, a larger dual-screen PC. It was originally supposed to be released in 2020 alongside the Duo, but development efforts changed, and the device has since been delayed.

Still, 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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