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4 things you can do with Surface Duo that you can’t on other smartphones

Microsoft’s Surface Duo is finally shipping on September 10, and we now know just how much it’ll cost: $1,400. It’s a high asking price, making it difficult not to make comparisons to other phones. In a world of iPhones, Galaxies, and Pixels, the Surface Duo is a newcomer with a lot to prove. It’s the first dual-screen or foldable phone to hit the market either.

But Microsoft does have a few tricks up its sleeve. Backed up by its rich ecosystem of apps and a close relationship with Google, Microsoft has brought four features to the Surface Duo that hard to find elsewhere.

Two screen multitasking

Topping our list at No. 1 is two-screen multitasking, which has been billed by Microsoft as one of the top-selling points for Surface Duo. Similar to what you can do with your laptop, on the Duo, you’re able to create app groups, stack your apps on each of the two-screens, swipe them around, or span a single app across the screen to get more done.

That isn’t physically possible on single screen phones, and split-screen multitasking often doesn’t quite cut it. But even on other dual-screen phones, like the LG G8X ThinQ or LG Velvet, your second screen gets treated as a separate space, or, a separate phone. The two screens do not really flow well together. You can’t easily “drag” your apps or content across either screen without an awkward three-finger gesture.

LG Velvet Dual Screen Apps
Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

What about foldable phones like the Samsung Galaxy Fold, or the upcoming Galaxy Z Fold 2? Well, opening apps across the fold on the screen seems quite seamless. Thanks to a floating window that can be pulled out from the side of the phone, you can open multiple apps side by side (up to three.) However, in our review, we found that Samsung and Google could do a bit more work on optimizing the split-screen mechanics. They didn’t feel as fun or smooth as on a true tablet like an iPad.

All of these attempts run into the underlying limitations of Android. But with the Surface Duo, Microsoft is doing this through its Microsoft Launcher app, and it is what makes its two-screen multitasking unique.

We haven’t tested it yet ourselves, but Microsoft has made things far easier — in concept. Opening and dragging apps looks intuitive and is a blend of what you experience on Android, iPadOS, and other dual-screen phones.

If you want to open up your mail app alongside your web browser, you just pull up on the dock. Open that app on one screen, and then pull up the dock on the other screen and choose your browser. Then, when you want to switch apps from one screen to the next, simply pull down on it, and drag it across the seam to the other screen. Finally, to span the app, just hold it across the hinge.

You can see Panos Panay demo this in the video briefing for the Surface Duo, at around the 9 minute and 44-second mark.

Optimized Microsoft apps

Microsoft Surface Duo -- in hand 4

When the dual-screen or foldable trend first started, a lot of smartphone makers and developers struggled to optimize their apps for the new devices. While Samsung and LG have since made improvements, this is an area where Microsoft has an upper hand. The Duo comes with a lot of first-party Microsoft apps made optimized specifically for the dual-screen setup.

A complete list of apps optimized for the Surface Duo is seen on the product listing page, but they include Office apps, the Edge browser, Teams, News, Bing, LinkedIn, and more. Each of these apps can make use of the two screens, all within a single app.

For instance, OneNote will span across both screens, showing you a list of notebooks on the left screen, and an area to ink and write on in the left screen. OneDrive, meanwhile, will show you a list of all your photos on the left screen, and then an individual photo on the right. Then, with the Outlook application, you can a list of emails on the left screen, and reply on the right. Finally, you can turn the Duo over 90 degrees, and use the Duo like a laptop, and reply to that email, too.

The focus here is on productivity and work, which is right in Microsoft’s wheelhouse. While some of the success of the Surface Duo relies on third-party developers making use of those two screens, the Surface Duo has plenty of functionality right out of the box.

Link to Windows

Next up on our list is the Link to Windows functionality. Any single-screen or dual-screen Android phone can already sync up to Windows 10 with the Your Phone app on Windows 10, for cross-platform photo, text, message, and notification sync. However, the Duo takes the functionality a bit further to deepen the connection between phone and PC.

While Link to Windows is also available on select Samsung phones, Microsoft has plugged a deeper Windows and Android integration right into the Duo hardware. Thanks to this feature, you don’t need to download the Your Phone Android app to sync up the Duo to Windows. From the notification panel, you just need to pull down, select Link to Windows, and sign in with your Microsoft Account. Then, on Windows, you’ll be able to boot up the Your Phone app and sync up your photos, videos, messages, and more.

It’s more than just ease of access. The Surface Duo will also allow for app mirroring, which Microsoft calls “Phone Screen.” Without ever touching your phone, you’ll be able to mirror your Android apps and your phone into Windows.

Microsoft is also working on a feature known as “Your Phone Apps” which will bring the apps in a seamless windowed mode to Windows 10, and it’s believed the Duo will support it too. It’s a feature currently exclusive to only some Samsung phones and the Surface Duo.

You can see Microsoft executive Shilpa Ranganathan demo this in a video at around the 25-minute mark. She’s able to access both screens of the Duo on her PC and do everything she would on her Duo from her computer.

Various modes of use

Finally, are the multiple modes you can use Surface Duo in. While typical phones like the Galaxy Fold are meant to be folded open when used, the Duo is more like the LG ThinQ thanks to its 360-degree hinge.

Just like LG’s dual-screen smartphones, that hinge means you can fold it over into a tent mode to watch a video. You also can use it in a laptop mode, with the virtual keyboard on the bottom. Or, like the Galaxy Fold, fold the screen open so it’s held like a typical phone with just one screen up front.

So no, this isn’t technically the only phone that can do that, but the Surface Duo’s implementation stands out. The differentiating factor is how seamless the hinge is. It isn’t as visually distracting, tucked away between the screen to allow for has various modes of use. The inspiration clearly comes from modern Windows 2-in-1 such as the Surface Pro, and here it really makes the different modes more pronounced.

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Arif Bacchus
Arif Bacchus is a native New Yorker and a fan of all things technology. Arif works as a freelance writer at Digital Trends…
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