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Microsoft Surface Duo: Release Date, Price, Features and More

(Image credit: Microsoft)

Microsoft is getting back into the smartphone business, even if it insists that its upcoming Surface Duo device isn't really a phone.

Part of the Surface lineup of devices, the Surface Duo is like a 2-in-1 laptop, only in miniaturized form. Its two screens open up on a hinge like a book to from a very big-screen phone. And since it can place phone calls, the Surface Duo will find itself competing with similarly sized smartphones, even with Microsoft's marketing machine choosing to emphasize the Duo as a productivity device first.

Microsoft abandoned the phone business in 2017, after failing to win over both consumers and app makers from Android and iOS with its Windows Phones. Will the Surface Duo make a bigger splash when it finally arrives? And just what can you expect from this foldable phone?

Here's what we know so far about the Surface Duo.

Surface Duo release date

Microsoft says it plans to release the Surface Duo in time for the holidays — but not this holiday season. Instead, Microsoft is targeting 2020 for a release date of its foldable phone.

(Image credit: Microsoft)

Why such a big gap between the October reveal of the Surface Duo and its actual launch? Microsoft says it needs the time to work with developers to optimize their apps to take advantage of the Duo's multiple screens. 

Surface Duo price: How much will it cost?

Microsoft hasn't set a price for the Surface Duo just yet. We imagine that price will come into focus as we get closer to that holidays 2020 release date Microsoft is targeting.

There aren't many foldable phones out there right now to give us an expected price range for the Surface Duo. ZTE's Axon M — which, like the Surface Duo, featured a pair of displays that could combine to form a single larger screen — cost $725 when it debuted in 2017, though it didn't feature a top-of-the line processor. Samsung's Galaxy Fold sells for $1,980. That's a pretty wide gap, and it's hard at this early stage to say where the Surface Duo might fall in between those two extremes.

Surface Duo screens: How does it work?

The Surface Duo features a pair of 5.6-inch glass screens. Unfold the phone — it opens up like a book on a hinge — and you've got an 8.3-inch display to work with. There's a bar running down the middle of the phone where the hinge is, so don't expect a seamless display when the Duo is opened up. 

(Image credit: Microsoft)

You can run a single app across the Duo's two panels; you also have the option of running two apps at once on the different screens. And Microsoft says you can use one screen as an input device for an app running on another screen — think an on-screen keyboard for composing messages or a controller for playing games.

The Surface Duo is pretty slim, at 4.8mm thin. Those who've gotten a chance to handle the phone say that it can fit into a pocket, though it's probably a more comfortable fit inside a coat pocket like the Galaxy Fold.

How will the Surface Duo differ from other foldable phones?

The Surface Duo goes about things a little bit differently than foldable phones like the Galaxy Fold and Huawei Mate X. (The Fold is already shipping, and the Mate X is expected to arrive in October 2019.) The Fold features a small outer screen, and when you open the device, you've got a seamless 7.3-inch display staring back at you. The Mate X folds inward on a hinge, but once you lift up on its outer covers, a seamless 8-inch tablet snaps into place. In other words, there's no dividing line running down the middle of the Fold or Mate X like there is on the Surface Duo.

There's one more critical difference between the Surface Duo and those other foldable phones. Because glass doesn't yet bend — not easily, anyhow — the Fold and the Mate X use plastic displays. The Surface Duo, which does all its folding via a 360-degree hinge, uses glass panels. Microsoft is banking that this will be a more elegant experience. 

(Image credit: Microsoft)

If you want to compare the Surface Duo to another dual-screen device, the most apt choice may be ZTE's Axon M, which also used glass panels that folded out. That's probably not a comparison Microsoft would hope to invite, though — we found it clunky to use, and having a hinge running between two screens didn't make the experience feel very immersive. We’re guessing that Microsoft has learned from those missteps.

What operating system will the Surface Duo run?

The Surface Duo will be an Android phone.

There are a couple of reasons why Microsoft opted for Android instead of its own operating system, and they're pretty obvious when you think about it. For starters, that's where the app makers are. Developers are already building apps in the hundreds of thousands for Android, and Microsoft — which got stung by app makers spurning mobile Windows the last time it tried to make a go of it with phones — knows that apps are the key to people using your hardware.

It also helps that Android 10 adds support for devices with multiple screens. There will be a new version of Android out by the time the Surface Duo finally ships, but that multi-screen support is likely to continue in Android 11 or whatever Google winds up calling the next version of its mobile OS.

What are the Surface Duo's specs?

Microsoft said that the model we saw at its Surface event in October featured a Snapdragon 855 processor, but since 2020 is going to bring a new top-of-the-line mobile chipset from Qualcomm, it's likely the shipping version of the Surface Duo will go with that yet-unannounced processor instead.

Our bet is on the Qualcomm 865 chip.That's a good thing, too, as future Qualcomm chips are expected to integrate 5G, meaning the Surface Duo could include 5G connectivity — not that Microsoft has even mentioned that feature so far.)

Another oddity with the Surface Duo Microsoft has shown off so far is that it seems to feature just one camera — it's on the right display as you have the phone opened up. Presumably, if you want to take a photo, you'll need to swivel that screen around so that the camera is pointing at your subject. That seems like a big hassle, especially considering how critical the camera has become to smartphones, so it's very possible that design could change between now and when the Surface Duo finally ships.

The only other Surface Duo specs mentioned so far include a USB-C port and a fingerprint sensor.

How does the Surface Duo differ from the Surface Neo?

The Surface Duo isn't the only dual-screen device Microsoft plans to introduce in 2020. Microsoft also is working on the Surface Neo, a 2-in-1 device with a pair of 9.8-inch screens. Like the Duo, the Neo features a 360-degree hinge, which allows the screens to swivel into different positions. The Neo features both a pen and keyboard that attach to the device magnetically. Unlike the Duo and its Android OS, the Surface Neo will run  Windows 10X.

(Image credit: Microsoft)

There's no price yet on the Surface Neo, and its specs are as shrouded in mystery as the Surface Duo's are.

The fact that Microsoft is banking on two devices that feature a dual-screen setup underscores the company's belief that there's a future in dual-screen designs. It also indicates that Microsoft is very serious about this new form factor, even if it will be a good long while before we get our hands on either product.