Get ready for Microsoft to jump back into the smartphone business — even if the tech giant insists its new Surface Duo device isn't really a phone.
Display: Two 5.6-inch AMOLED 1800 x 1350 displays
CPU: Qualcomm Snapdragon 855
Camera: 11MP, ƒ/2.0
Ports: USB-C (1), nanoSIM slot
Battery: 3,460 mAh
OS: Android 10
First teased last fall, 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 when it makes its debut.
That arrival could happen very soon. Everything from regulatory filings to leaks suggests a Surface Duo launch is imminent. So it's more relevant than ever to understand just what Microsoft is planning, how the Surface Duo will work and how it compares to other foldables like Samsung's Galaxy Fold (not to mention that phone's soon-to-launch successor, the Galaxy Z Fold 2).
Here's what we know so far about the Surface Duo.
Microsoft Surface Duo release date
When it previewed the Surface Duo in 2019, Microsoft said to expect a launch in time for the 2020 holiday season. Well, it's apparently Christmas in July, as all signs point to a summer launch for the Surface Duo.
Regulatory filings for the Surface Duo with the FCC and Bluetooth SIG have recently appeared, and that usually happens right before a phone launches. The Surface Duo also popped up in Microsoft's Your Phone app, alongside other Android devices, further adding fuel to the rumor that Microsoft was pushing up the phone's launch.
Looks like Your Phone already has the assets to differentiate between normal Android phones and Surface Duo pic.twitter.com/BBnKenOF1EJune 20, 2020
A new report from Windows Central claims that the Surface Duo will be unveiled around August 24. That's a little more than two weeks after Samsung's August 5 Unpacked event, where it's likely to show off the Galaxy Note 20 as well as new foldable phones.
Why push up the date for the Surface Duo launch? The smartphone market figures to be very crowded in the fall, with launches by Apple, Google and others. Beating those other phone makers to the punch brings some badly needed attention to Microsoft's new product, which it could use after abandoning the smartphone market in 2017.
There's also the matter of Samsung's similar Galaxy Fold, which is likely to get a new version very soon. By countering with its own productivity-boosting foldable, Microsoft wouldn't cede any ground to a competitor — or so the theory goes.
Microsoft Surface Duo
Microsoft hasn't set a price for the Surface Duo just yet. We imagine that price will come into focus just before the phone's launch.
Since the Surface Duo's unveiling, other foldable phones have come along to give us a better idea of what device makers charge for this kind of product. At the time, we just had the Samsung Galaxy Fold, which debuted in 2019 at $1,980. The Galaxy Z Fold 2 will likely cost about the same.
Subsequent foldable phone releases have introduced more affordable devices — or at least relative to a $2,000 price tag. The foldable Motorola Razr costs $1,500, while Samsung's second crack at a foldable phone, the Galaxy Z Flip, goes for $1,380 while the new Galaxy Z Flip 5G will cost $1,449 when it debuts on August 7. That doesn't really tell us anything definitive about Microsoft's plans for the Surface Duo, but we'd suggest setting your expectations for a high price.
Microsoft Surface Duo displays and multitasking
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.
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.
In January, Microsoft put out a set of developer tools to show app makers how the Surface Duo will display their software. Some animations whipped up by designers give us a better idea of what life with the Surface Duo might look like.
In context - this feels even more magical. pic.twitter.com/8yLLoioE1KJanuary 22, 2020
More recently, a 24-minute video gives a preview of how the Surface Duo and its displays will handle things like notifications and multitasking. The video, compiled by Windows Central using clips from the Surface Duo emulator also shows off some of the phone's gesture controls.
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.
Microsoft Surface Duo OS
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 added support for devices with multiple screens, and Android 11 promises more foldable support when it arrives later this year. The Surface Duo is expected to ship with Android 10.
Microsoft's use of Android may also ensure that the Surface Duo arrives without delay. At the same 2019 event where Microsoft showed off the Surface Duo, it also previewed the Surface Neo, which is based on Windows 10X. (More on that dual-screen device in a moment.) With Microsoft deciding to put Windows development resources into single-screen Windows 10X device, the Surface Neo launch got pushed back to 2021 and now there's speculation the Neo launch could be delayed even further.
Microsoft Surface Duo specs
At the Surface event last October, Microsoft said the Surface Duo would feature a Snapdragon 855 processor. Since then, chip maker Qualcomm has introduced the Snapdragon 865 which powers many leading Android flagship devices, and there's even a Snapdragon 865 Plus that improves graphics rendering.
You would think the Surface Duo might use the more powerful Qualcomm chip, but a recent Surface Duo specs leak suggests that it's still going to be a Snapdragon 855 inside Microsoft's phone.
There's a good explanation for that, according to Windows Central, which posted the Surface Duo's specs. Qualcomm requires Snapdragon 865-powered devices to also include a 5G modem, and the Surface Pro's design can't really accommodate that extra component. That means the Surface Pro won't have 5G connectivity, but on the bright side, it may allow Microsoft to charge less than what we've seen from similar foldable phones. (Looking at you, Galaxy Fold.)
That same specs leak said the Surface Duo would have 6GB of RAM and either 64GB or 256GB of storage. Rumored specs also point to a 3,460mAh battery, which seems small for keeping two displays powered up.
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.
At least that camera looks like it's capable of taking good photos. Microsoft's Panos Panay shared a photo captured with a Surface Duo in April, and the picture looks sharp enough.
The only other Surface Duo specs mentioned so far include a USB-C port and a fingerprint sensor.
Microsoft Surface Duo vs. other foldable phones
The Surface Duo goes about things a little bit differently than foldable phones like the Galaxy Fold and Huawei Mate X. (Those devices seem like more relevant comparisons than folding flip phones like the Galaxy Z Flip and Motorola Razr.) 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.
One rumor suggests a way the Surface Duo can handle notifications without an external display. A "peek" feature would show at-a-glance info on the right side of the Surface Duo's display when you pop open the phone for a quick look.
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, much like the Galaxy Z Flip which uses a layer of ultra-thin glass in its display for a much more polished look. Microsoft is banking that this will be a more elegant experience.
If you want to compare the Surface Duo to another dual-screen device, the most apt choice may be ZTE's Axon M from 2017, 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.
Microsoft Surface Duo vs. Surface Neo
As noted above, the Surface Duo isn't the only dual-screen device in Microsoft's plans. 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. And launch plans for the Neo are up in the air, as the Surface Duo seems closer than ever to a release.
There's no price yet on the Surface Neo, and its specs are more shrouded in mystery than 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 bit before we get our hands on either product.