(Pocket-lint) - The Surface Duo is here. This is everything you need to know about the phone-tablet hybrid - a 'Surface Phone' in all but name.
Microsoft had been rumoured to be working on a Surface Phone - since at least 2016. The Microsoft Surface Duo is that device and Microsoft did suggest to Pocket-lint it has been in development for quite some time.
Surface Duo is an exciting device in concept, but the reviews have been mixed - although Time called it "one of the best inventions of 2020" - so should you be excited about one now the global roll-out has begun?
What is Surface Duo?
- Foldable tablet that can be used as a phone
- Based around Google Android
At its 2019 Surface launch event, Microsoft's Chief Product Officer, Panos Panay, demonstrated how Duo can do everything you'd expect from a modern smartphone and tablet.
For instance, you can use it to play with apps and make calls, and it can even fit in your pocket. However, Panay said the company doesn't view the new Surface Duo as a smartphone - despite its ability to be used for calls.
In a post to launch Surface Duo in the US, Panay added some more background to the creation of Surface Duo: "When we created Surface seven years ago, we wanted to challenge convention by redefining expectations for what a productivity device should be, and what it should do. Put simply, we wanted to help people get things done.
"We didn't set out to combine two existing devices - the tablet and the laptop. We had a vision for how we could take the best elements of each to create something entirely new. To find that perfect intersection of hardware and software that unlocks a more intuitive way to work and create."
Yep, Microsoft wants this to be an entirely new type of device, capable of giving something different to the user than the company's existing 2-in-1 Surface devices. The idea is to appeal to those who like to be productive on their smartphones, but who struggle to complete complex tasks away from a laptop - the Samsung Galaxy Note crowd, in other words.
Microsoft is clearly apprehensive to pitch this as a phone due to its previous struggles in that market (remember Windows Phone?). While Surface laptops and tablets are successful, Microsoft's forays into mobile devices have been disastrous.
Microsoft failed to make a success of its own mobile operating system, and its purchase of Nokia in 2013 was one of the biggest corporate fails in history, causing Microsoft to write-off $7.6 billion. It finally stopped its Windows Phone effort in 2017.
Surface Duo price and release date
- Available from AT&T, Microsoft Store and Best Buy in the US
- 18 February 2021: Available in UK, Canada, France, Germany
As we mentioned, Microsoft revealed the Surface Duo in October 2019 - but with the warning that it wouldn't be on sale for some time to come.
That time came to the US market in 2020 - it's still available from AT&T, Microsoft Store and Best Buy. Microsoft has also announced it will be coming to the UK, Canada, France and Germany - available from 18 February 2021.
The US price started at $1,399, which just six weeks after launch dropped to $1,199. From February 2021 the price is lower still, at $999.
The UK price doesn't see a favourable Pounds-to-Dollars conversion at all, with £1,349 being the starting asking price.
Surface Duo software
- Android with a light skin based on Android 10
- Development now in house
Surface Duo runs Google Android, albeit a heavily skinned version of the mobile operating system. It actually reminds us of Windows 10 X that will be coming to some other dual-screen Windows devices. The Duo offers standard Android apps (via the Google Play Store) and you can place or accept calls too.
Microsoft says it is continuing to improve the software, saying that - via App Annie data - it is now the third-largest developer for the Android ecosystem globally.
The move to Android is, of course, interesting. While Windows Mobile limped along for most of its life until it was put out of its misery, the "new Microsoft" has taken a vastly different approach to the world's thirst for smartphones since CEO Satya Nadella took over the lead of Microsoft from Steve Ballmer in 2014.
Instead - alongside its Windows 10 effort - it has focused on developing mobile apps that work well on Apple iOS and Android. It has partnered with Apple previously to bring Office to the iPad as part of Apple's iPad Pro drive and now it has teamed up with Google for this device. Yes, there's a Google search bar on the home screen.
Microsoft says it wants to help shape the dual-screen category "by providing consistency in the way customers experience it and developers design apps." And Panay made it clear Microsoft is working with Google to add features to Android to enable this to work more seamlessly.
You can create your own App Groups to automatically open your preferred suite of apps and Microsoft says that over 1,000 different unique groups have so far been created. "We've heard from customers who open their Surface Duo as soon as they get in their car," says Pete Kyriacou, vice president of Microsoft Devices "with Spotify playing on one screen while Google Maps guides them to their destination on the other. There are numerous possibilities for personalizing your Surface Duo experience."
Some apps have been customised especially for Surface Duo - as well as Microsoft Office, TikTok and Spotify will show you videos or enable you to play music on one screen while you browse on the other, while the Amazon Kindle app enables you to read off the dual-screen just like a book.
Apparently, Microsoft is now running the Android development itself after originally contracting the work elsewhere through a third-party called Movial. Back in July 2020, Microsoft acquired Movial so has been working to bring many of its employees in house.
Panay suggests a few other ways to use Surface Duo: "Position Surface Duo's screen like a tent and watch video hands-free. Use Surface Duo in Compose mode to quickly respond to an email, or tilt it into portrait for a more immersive way to scroll through web pages or photos. Pair your Surface Duo with a supported Bluetooth controller to play games on Xbox Game Pass Ultimate. Or easily take notes with the Surface Slim Pen, sold separately."
Surface Duo displays
- Dual 5.6-inch (1,800 x 1,350 resolution) OLED displays with 4:3 aspect ratio
- Can work separately or as an 8.1-inch single (2,700 x 1,800) 3:2 screen
- Designed with no external display
- Surface Pen support
The Surface Duo looks a lot like Microsoft's larger dual-screen (and MIA) Windows 10X-powered Surface Neo, but it's more pocketable. It features two 5.6-inch screens calibrated together for colour and luminance. It rotates on a bespoke 360-degree hinge so that it works as an 8.1-inch tablet with a 3:2 aspect ratio. Separately, the displays have a 4:3 aspect ratio.
The screen is 4.8mm thick, so folded together it'll be 9.6mm. While that's thicker than most flagship phones, it's still decent. However, we can see some criticism on the horizon for the thick bezels at the top and bottom of the screens. If you thought it looked outdated in 2019, then almost two years on at actual launch it looks even more so.
The device can fold together to protect the screens, or open up so that both screens can be simultaneously used. You can even have the device closed with one screen facing out, like a phone. Corning's Gorilla Glass is used but there will be a cover in the box.
As we mentioned, each display can run two different apps at the same time. You can even use one of the displays as a keyboard - the most likely scenario - or game controller.
The “peek” feature shows you notifications, which appear on the right side of the display so you can deal with them without having to completely open the device. For calls, you can also open the Surface Duo fully to accept an incoming call.
Surface Duo hardware
- Qualcomm Snapdragon 855 platform, 6GB RAM
- 64GB storage (up to 256GB optional)
- It's a 4G device, no 5G connectivity
The Surface Duo prototype featured a Qualcomm Snapdragon 855 processor. So while we believed it would use the newer Snapdragon 865 in the final version, it doesn't. Which, again, by 2021 standards is now generations behind. Like many of the other key specs it's disappointing for the hefty price tag.
There will be no 5G version - it's 4G only for now - but this will surely change in the future. There's a physical SIM slot rather than being eSIM only.
The Duo has 6GB of memory and 64/256GB storage sizes. Charging and data connectivity is via USB-C. There's a fingerprint reader, too.
As with other foldable devices there are two batteries, giving you 3,577mAh in total - which is disappointing considering the larger 4,380mAh capacity in the Samsung Galaxy Fold. There isn't stellar battery life as a result - especially since there are two separate screens. Microsoft has previously said that you'll get all-day battery life, but we think the jury is very much out on that.
Surface Duo camera
- Single 11 megapixel camera, f/2.0 aperture
- Video support up to 4K
As with other tablets (with the notable exception of the iPad Pro) the cameras aren't best-in-class - but should still provide a decent experience.
There's an 11 megapixel sensor that supports 4K and Full HD video at 60fps - but there isn't a second one on the outside. It also features image stabilisation (digital not optical) plus a 7x digital zoom and HDR support.