Microsoft Doubles Down

By Alex Cranz on at

I only got a little time with the Duo and Neo, Microsoft’s new dual-display devices, but that little time made one thing clear: Microsoft has a wildly different approach to the collapsible device than just about everyone else.

We’ve seen a surprising number of shapeshifting devices this year. We’ve seen ones that fold like an overstuffed taco and ones that snap in half with a display that seems to go all the way around. Almost all of them are flexible tablets. That makes Microsoft’s new phone and tiny laptop stand out.

Everything about the design of the Duo and Neo reinforces the fact that these are genuine dual-display devices and not collapsible tablets. Rather than make a large foldable display that disappoints with clumsy construction, Microsoft seems to think it can deliver a better experience with two screens.

This is evident at the very highest level in the materials the company chose. Microsoft wanted to use Gorilla Glass to protect the displays and a full 360-degree hinge, both of which would have been impossible with a flexible OLED panel.

Two displays mean, naturally, that there’s a little gap between where the displays meet. That gap is taken up by bezel, hinge, and a bit of air. The gap measures about 8.9mm on the laptop-like Neo and less on the Duo phone. The Neo’s two displays are each 9 inches diagonal when measured, but if you did try to use the Neo like a tablet, the combined displays would have a diagonal measurement of 13.1-inches. The Duo is made up of two 5.6-inch displays, which measure 8.3-inches diagonally when put together.

Despite only handling a pre-production demonstration unit (it did not power on), I was impressed that the Duo does a decent job passing itself off as a phone. When I placed my Phone 11 Pro on top of the Duo, I noted that a single display was about three-quarters of an inch wider than my phone. When I closed the Duo, it was a little thicker but felt similarly heavy. The back of the device felt like it was composed entirely of glass (presumably the same Gorilla Glass used on the displays).

The Neo I handled was also a dummy. The keyboard, which will likely be a separate purchase, magnetically attaches to the back of the device like a big ugly gray strip. It comes off and attaches to the right display quite easily, and stayed in place even with a gentle shake of the entire device.

The keyboard has a slight wedge design so that when you close the Neo with the keyboard on the display there’s a small gap. Typing on the keyboard was surprising. It’s a much higher quality little doodad than Apple’s terrible iPad keyboard. Snappier keys and better travel.

But boy is it cramped. The best comparison is, again, to the iPad, specifically the 9.7-inch iPad Pro. If you found typing on that keyboard to be too cramped, you’ll be miserable on the Neo’s keyboard. I have smaller-than-average hands and have few issues with the iPad, but I absolutely noticed the lack of space when I typed as if rattling off a few sentences on the Neo.

As it stands, typing on the Duo one-handed will be tricky. Even folded and just using a single screen, it is too wide. Two hands will be better in that case. You could theoretically lay the Duo flat and type on it that way, but then the gap in the centre of the device will bisect the keyboard. Holding it like a tiny laptop and hammering out words with your thumbs makes more sense. One display will function as a keyboard while the other operates as a typical display in landscape view.

Microsoft envisions a few primary modes of using both the devices. For example, in a “Book” mode, you hold them much as you’d hold an actual book, with the two displays functioning as two visible pages. A “Composition” mode should make it easier to turn one side of the device into a keyboard and use the other as a traditional display.

There’s another mode where both screens operate as distinct elements independent of each other. If you tap an app in a display, it should open in that one, not across both, or garishly in the middle—with the hinge gap bisecting it.

Window management on the Neo will need to be seamless. In the limited time, I saw Microsoft employees using it, I didn’t notice any shocking bugs. That’s a welcome improvement compared to the prototypes we’ve seen from Dell and Lenovo and dual-display Windows devices already available from HP and Asus.

Curiously, with the Duo, there’s more window management than on other flexible Android devices. The Galaxy Fold and Mate X both fold out into big square tablets, so Samsung and Huawei didn’t have to significantly modify Android to get it to work. That’s not the case for the Microsoft Surface Duo. Microsoft and Google are expected to work extensively together to tweak Android for better window management, and in the demo I saw, it seemed to work quite smoothly.

The extent of the partnership is still unclear, though. Presumably, the version of Android on the Duo won’t be vanilla, so you’ll have to wait for updates, but Microsoft isn’t sharing details on that front at this time.

App makers should have APIs available from Microsoft to make their apps work better with dual display devices. It’s not clear if Google will also have APIs available or if app makers hoping to produce Android apps for the Duo will have to seek out Microsoft for support.

Microsoft was also reluctant to share details on specs for either product. So there’s no clarity on 5G or storage or RAM options. The Duo I saw had a Qualcomm Snapdragon 855 processor, which is this year’s fastest mobile-based Snapdragon CPU. The chip will likely change when the device launches next year.

The Neo will have an Intel 11th-generation Lakefield processor, but there’s no word on how many cores the CPU will have or what series of Intel processors it will belong to. One would assume it will use a low-powered Y-series processor like those used in super thin and light devices, but given the custom silicon we saw in the Laptop 3 and Surface Pro X, it could be custom too.

There’s still quite a bit that remains up in the air with these devices. While they might look like they’re ready to ship tomorrow, and while the demos on stage might reinforce that notion, these things are still a year away. The hardware and software will definitely change. However, no matter how it changes, one thing will stay extremely consistent: these won’t just be folding tablets.

For the flashiness of the flexible devices we saw this year, Microsoft obviously thinks two is better than a transforming one. That’s going to be incredible for people who regularly open two apps on a device or wish their phone had just a little more screen real estate. I’m not entirely sure if I personally like the approach. I typically wish I could just fold the Surface Go I lug around in half. I rarely feel like I need two Surface Gos bolted together. Maybe the Neo and Duo will change my mind.