Microsoft’s Surface Duo is an open book.


CNET

Microsoft’s bringing the Surface Duo to market Sept. 10, with preorders starting Wednesday. The $1,399 Surface Duo, powered by a modified version of Google’s Android software, puts a different spin on the foldable phone trend, joining Samsung’s recently announced Galaxy Z Fold 2, the Galaxy Z Flip and last year’s Motorola Razr reboot. The Surface Duo’s hinge is the key difference, bringing together two 5.6-inch screens instead of relying on one massive display that can be folded. Microsoft created the Surface Duo over five years, developing the hinge in a way that’s easy to open but hard to accidentally close. The hinge allows the super-thin screens to rotate 360 degrees. Microsoft doesn’t want to call the dual-screen Surface Duo a phone, per se. Instead, it wants us to think of this as a new type of product. 

“When we designed it, the intent was, ‘How do you make something so thin, beautiful, light and super elegant that when people pick it up they can feel that emotion in the product,” Panos Panay, Microsoft’s chief product officer and head of Surface devices, said in an exclusive interview.

The device brings new ideas to the mobile world, including software Microsoft wrote to make the two screens interact. You can drag a photo from one screen to the other and it works thanks to a mix of computer programming that follows your finger across the screens. There’s also an array of sensors that track where the displays are relative to each other, including if they’re open, closed or somewhere in between.


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While CNET editor at large Scott Stein — a noted dual-screen skeptic — says the device felt good in his hands, he says $1,399 is a lot of money to ask of people on a normal day, let alone in the middle of an economic downturn fueled by the coronavirus pandemic.

Still, Microsoft invited us to talk with its engineers about how the Surface Duo was conceived, the technology invented to make it possible and how it’ll work when we get it in the mail (watch out for CNET’s review in the next few weeks).

In I’m already folding in love with the feel of Microsoft’s Surface Duo, Stein shares what it was like to hold a Surface Duo prototype. Microsoft shipped us a near-production prototype device with the screens replaced by clear glass so we can see the inner working and learn how it works. Stein also talks about why he hasn’t like dual-screen devices before, and why the Surface Duo may be the device to change his mind.

In Microsoft’s two-screen Surface Duo isn’t an iPhone or Galaxy Fold. That’s the point, we look at where the Surface Duo fits in the world, and why Microsoft is choosing to make a new handheld device after a series of embarrassing multi-billion-dollar attempts that ended in failure.  

Here’s how Microsoft’s Surface Duo compares to its foldable rivals: Surface Duo vs. Galaxy Z Fold 2 vs. Razr.

Surface Duo vs. Galaxy Z Fold 2 vs. Razr

Microsoft Surface Duo Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 2 Motorola Razr
Display size Dual 5.6-inch AMOLED; Combined: 8.1-inch AMOLED; 2,700×1,800 pixels Internal: 7.6-inch Dynamic AMOLED; External 6.2-inch Dynamic AMOLED Internal: 6.2-inch, foldable OLED;  External: 2.7-inch glass OLED
Resolution 1,800×1,350 pixels; 2,700×1,800 pixels TBD 2,142x876p pixels; 800×600 pixels
Dimensions (Inches) Folded: 5.72×3.67×0.399 inches / Unfolded: 5.72×7.36×0.19 inches TBD Unfolded: 6.8×2.8×0.28 inches / Folded: 3.7×2.8×0.55 inches
Dimensions (Millimeters) Folded: 145.2×93.3×9.9mm / Unfolded: 145.2×186.9×4.8mm TBD Unfolded: 172x72x6.9mm / Folded: 94x72x14mm
Weight (Ounces, Grams) 8.8 oz; 250g TBD 7.2 oz; 205g
Mobile software TBD TBD Android 9
Camera 11-megapixel TBD 16-megapixel external, 5-megapixel internal
Front-facing camera TBD TBD 16-megapixel external
Video capture 4K TBD 4K
Processor Qualcomm Snapdragon 855 TBD Qualcomm Snapdragon 710
Storage 128GB, 256GB TBD 128GB
RAM 6GB TBD 6GB
Expandable storage TBD TBD No
Battery 3,577 mAh 4,500 mAh 2,510 mAh
Fingerprint sensor TBD TBD Below screen
Connector TBD TBD USB-C
Headphone jack TBD TBD None
Special features Dual-screen display; dual-SIM capabilities (nano-SIM and e-SIM) 5G, Foldable display, 120Hz refresh rate Foldable display, eSIM, Motorola gestures, splashproof
Price at launch (USD) $1,399 (128GB) TBD $1,499
Price (GBP) Converts to about £1,070 TBD Converts to about £1,160
Price (AUD) Converts to about AU$1,960 TBD Converts to about $2,090

Here’s what else you need to know about the Surface Duo.

How much does the Surface Duo cost?

Foldable phones aren’t cheap. Last year, when Samsung released its Galaxy Fold after a series of design failures were discovered by reviewers just before launch, it cost $1,980. The (also delayed) Huawei Mate X went for the equivalent of $2,400 when it was released.

Microsoft is charging $1,399 for the 128GB version of the Surface Duo. There will be a 256GB version as well.

Will the Surface Duo have 5G?

Nearly every major phone launch this year, including Apple’s forthcoming iPhone, is expected to support 5G wireless capabilities. Samsung’s Galaxy Note 20 Ultra, announced earlier this month for $1,300, has 5G. So does its cousin, the Galaxy Z Fold 2, whose price and launch date will be announced in September.

The Surface Duo, on the other hand, will work with 4G networks. Microsoft said the reason comes down to tradeoffs — the company chose to stick with the previous generation wireless tech to allow for better battery life and a thinner device.

202-microsoft-surface-neo-and-surface-duo

The hinge that makes the Surface Duo possible.


Scott Stein/CNET

Where will it sell?

Microsoft closed nearly all its brick-and-mortar retail stores, so you won’t be able to find them there even if you’re willing to venture out during the pandemic. It will be sold online through Microsoft’s website. You’ll be able to buy it from AT&T and Best Buy, too.

If the $1,399 starting price is too steep for you, Microsoft said it’ll offer a 0%, 24-month payment plan through Dell financing. AT&T similarly will allow you to pay in installments through its Next Up program.

Microsoft Surface Duo

We got to peer inside the Surface Duo, beneath the screens, to see how it works.


Richard Peterson/CNET

How well do apps run in the phone?

Microsoft made a point of showing us that standard Android apps run on the device just fine, thanks to its two screens being the equivalent of two standard phone displays. For apps built with the second screen in mind, they can be designed to “span” across the two screens, meaning an email app could have your inbox on the left and opened messages on the right. They could also be programmed to open new links or companion apps in the opposite screen you’re looking at.

Microsoft demonstrated Amazon’s Kindle book reading app, which was designed to look like a book with text on the left and right. When you swipe your finger across the screen, an animated page follows along.

At launch, it appears Microsoft’s apps will primarily be the ones built with the Surface Duo in mind. Those include Microsoft Office, Outlook, Teams, OneNote and Authenticator. Oh, and you can’t forget Microsoft Solitaire Collection too.

The company said that it’s working with Google to integrate some of the software it developed for the Surface Duo back into Android so other two-screen devices in the future will benefit from Microsoft’s work. That also means more apps may eventually be programmed for the Surface Duo as a result.

How many folds can it take?

We’ve tested a few folding devices at CNET using a special robot developed by SquareTrade. The Samsung Galaxy Fold began failing after about 120,000 folds during our test last year. That was much less than the 200,000 folds we estimated it would go through during five years of use. (Although we’re just starting to learn how people use folding phones and that could change with the different designs companies are inventing).

When we put the new Motorla Razr through FoldBot’s paces last year, that device didn’t make it to 28,000 folds.

Microsoft preemptively said folding test robots don’t simulate real life usage the same way its own labs do. Still, it wouldn’t say how many folds the Surface Duo could last through, except that the company expects the hinge mechanism to last beyond the Surface Duo’s own natural lifecycle.

Microsoft Surface Duo

The Surface Duo’s individual screens are thinner than an iPad Air.


Richard Peterson/CNET

Does Surface Duo have a camera?

Many companies releasing premium phones justify their $1,000 or more prices with the beautiful photographs they say you could take. Apple has that Shot on iPhone billboard campaign, and the iPhone Photography Awards contest. Samsung boasts about how its devices can deliver stunning zoom with their cameras. And Google proudly says its advanced programming makes photos on its Pixel phones unlike competitors, offering shockingly well captured low-light shots. They can even photograph stars in the sky.

By comparison, Microsoft’s mostly talked about how the Surface Duo is built for productivity and better interaction between apps. Translation: Its camera will not be a killer feature. 

CNET will still test the camera against other premium phones when we do our reviews.

Microsoft Surface Duo

A peak at the Surface Duo’s camera.


Richard Peterson/CNET

Will it get quick Android updates?

One of the most vexing parts of owning a phone powered by Google’s Android software is Android itself. Manufacturers routinely fail to deliver timely updates to users, even with Google putting out test versions of its software months ahead of the typical fall release.

Microsoft says it’s working with Google directly on the Surface Duo, which naturally led to questions about whether that means it’ll get updated more often and more quickly. Microsoft says the device will get software updates, but didn’t commit to timetables about when.

Microsoft Surface Duo

It comes in a box that’s very reminiscent of a certain fruit company that also makes phones.


Richard Peterson/CNET

Other details about the Surface Duo

  • A 360-degree hinge means you can fold one screen flat against the other to hold it like a notepad.
  • You get a total of 8.3 inches of screen real estate.
  • There’s no outer screen — you have to open the device to use it.
  • It supports the Surface Pen, which you need to buy separately for at least $99.
  • The Surface Duo has thick screen bezels, but that might help keep you from accidentally tapping while you hold it. Microsoft said the bezels are a tradeoff from miniaturizing parts and making the screens so thin. It’s also Microsoft’s way of saying smaller bezels are likely in the future.
  • You can drag and drop items, like a phone number, from one screen to the other.

Surface Duo specs

  • Two 5.6-inch AMOLED displays running at a resolution of 1800×1350 separately
  • 8.3 inches of total screen real estate when opened fully, running at an effective resolution of 2700×1800
  • Snapdragon 855, 6GB DRAM
  • LTE 4×4 MIMO (Not 5G), supports AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon Wireless in the US
  • Fingerprint reader
  • USB-C charger
  • 128GB or 256GB of internal storage
  • Mono speaker
  • 11MP camera, f/2.0 with electronic image stabilization 
source: cnet.com

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