Microsoft has been teasing the Duo since October 2019. The final version of the phablet runs Android 10 on a Qualcomm Snapdragon 855 processor and has two 1,800-by-1,350, 5.6-inch screens that can bend into nearly any configuration on a 360-degree hinge, including a book, a laptop, a table tent, or a large phone.
Microsoft’s chief product officer, Panos Panay, said Microsoft tested the hinge to “millions of cycles” because “the product has to feel the same year three as it does day one.” If the Samsung Galaxy Fold debacle is anything to go by, that’s a wise idea.
Closed, the Duo measures 5.70 by 3.67 by 0.40 inches (HWD). Opened, it’s only 0.18-inch thick, but it doesn’t sound like it’s fragile, as the hinge bends all the way back and the screen is covered in Gorilla Glass.
The Duo has 6GB of RAM, either 128GB or 256GB of storage, and a 3,577mAh battery that promises 15.5 hours of video playback.
Panay played up how the dual screens create different physical windows so you can do two things at once, rather than just opening the Duo up into a big tablet.
You can run different apps on the two screens
“We have decades of experience with windows and how you can grab multiple, defined spaces. It’s easier to process information this way, and it saves time,” Panay said.
As to why Microsoft needed to go with Android rather than Windows for its first phone since 2016, Panay had one word: Apps. “When it comes to mobile apps, the answer is Android…Every single app in Android works on both of those screens,” Panay said.
The Duo lets you open different apps on each screen, “span” the screen with apps, create pairs of apps that open together, or click on a link on one screen that opens on another. Panay said the dual-screen approach “keeps you in your flow” by not having one application replace or overwrite another application.
The Duo works with existing Surface Pens
While the Duo’s flavor of Android has all the Google services, there’s definitely a Microsoft twist to it. Pull down the notification pane and the settings icons are Microsoft-style squares. The keyboard, from Microsoft’s SwiftKey, crams itself to one side of the screen so you can use it one-handed. And, of course, all of the Office apps are optimized for the device, with OneNote and Outlook making heavy use of dual-screen, dual-pane modes.
Fold it all the way back, and you can hold it up to your ear and use it as a very large phone.
“I’m not trying to reinvent the phone,” Panay said. “I’m creating a better way to get things done, a better way to create and a better way to connect on a mobile device.”
One connection the Surface Duo doesn’t have, though, is 5G. In development for more than a year, it’s not using a 5G-compatible chipset. The unlocked version will be compatible with all US 4G carriers and have an eSIM and a nanoSIM slot; the AT&T version will have a single nano SIM.
The Duo supports existing Surface Pens, but it doesn’t come with one (and at less than 0.2-inch thick when open, it doesn’t have anywhere to store one). The device has an 11-megapixel camera that has portrait mode and video support, but Panay said it isn’t the “focus” of the device.
The Duo comes with a protective bumper
A Costly Choice
I’m not going to sugarcoat it: A $1,400 Android phone using last year’s chipset, without 5G, is a tough sell in the COVID-19-ridden 2020 economy. It’s taken so long to develop the Surface Duo, down to creating new alloys for the little wires that connect the two screens across the hinge, that it may already have passed its sell-by date.
I think Panay is on some level aware of this. The question is whether he’s willing to be in mobile for the long haul. The first Surface, from 2012, wasn’t a slam dunk: its Windows RT operating system didn’t run most Windows apps and as a result it wasn’t a big hit in the market. But Microsoft stuck with the product line over years, refining it into success and basically creating the current 2-in-1 Windows tablet market.
“At first it was bumpy and there were some questions,” Panay said of the Surface experience. “But when you understand what people need and what they’re going to do, over time, behaviors start to shift.”
It’s a really old Microsoft joke that it takes the company three versions of anything to get it right. The Surface Duo may not be, to use an old Apple phrase, Microsoft’s Jesus phone. But if the company doesn’t get discouraged, the Duo could very well be its John the Baptist.
We hope to get our hands on the Surface Duo soon, so be sure to check back for a closer look.