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- The Microsoft Surface Duo.
- Here it is closed, with a pen.
- It folds flat, and each half is a crazy-thin 4.8mm.
- Two screens means side-by-side apps.
- You can use it vertically.
The Microsoft Surface Duo, Microsoft’s first-ever Android phone (we’re not counting the Nokia X), was announced almost a year ago. There have been official images and even live photos of the dual-screen phone floating around for most of the year, and Microsoft has just been quietly developing it. Today, the company is finally ready to talk specs, release date, and price. The phone is up for pre-order now, it ships September 10, and the pricewait for itis $1,399.
Before we dig into the details, a quick spec rundown: the phone comes with two 5.6-inch, 1800×1350 (4:3), 60Hz OLED panels joined by a 360-degree hinge. A Snapdragon 855 powers the phone, with 6GB of RAM, 128 or 256GB of storage, and a 3577mAh battery. There is one 11MP camera above the right screen that doubles as the front and rear camera, thanks to the hinge. The device comes with a USB-C port on the bottom, a single speaker, a fingerprint reader, Android 10, and support for Surface pen input. Sales seem to be US-only for now, and besides being sold unlocked, the phone is also for sale at AT&T.
It’s somewhat exciting to see Microsoft’s first Android phone, especially when it has such a unique form factor and sports the company’s premium “Surface” brand. But $1,400 is a lot of money to ask for this device, especially when the spec sheet has so many deficiencies in it. I haven’t tried the phone yet, but I have a lot of concerns about the Surface Duo.
First, the 3577mAh battery is extremely small. A single-screen Galaxy S20 has a 4000mAh battery, and the Ultra version is at 5000mAh. Neither of those phones is trying to push dual 5.6-inch displays. Displays account for the vast majority of smartphone battery usage, and there will be no getting around the fact that two of them are going to use a lot of power. The Surface Duo is extremely thin, at just 4.8mm when open, and just over double that (9.9mm) when closed. Microsoft definitely prioritized thinness over battery life.
While concessions were made for thinness, it does not seem like the Surface Duo will be all that easy to carry around. The full dimensions are 145.2mm (H)×186.9mm (W)×4.8mm (D) when open, with the phone folding up into an absolutely ridiculous, pocket-busting, 93mm width when closed. Screen sizes might get bigger every year, but that is mostly due to thinner bezels, taller phones, and taller screens. The width of smartphones has been surprisingly stable. Just compare 2015’s Galaxy Note5 with a 5.7-inch screen to one of the biggest phones currently on the market: the Galaxy Note20 Ultra, with a 6.9-inch display. The widths aren’t very different: 76.1mm on the Note5 compared to 77.2mm on the Note 20 Ultra. One of the reasons width doesn’t really change is that phones sort of have to fit into a pocket. One of the widest flagship phones ever was Google’s Nexus 6, at 83mm, and that was immediately deemed too wide by the entire industry. The Nexus 6 was uncomfortable to carry around in a pocket and restricted your movement, and no phone has approached this width since.
The Surface Duo is 10mm wider than the already-too-wide Nexus 6. It is the widest Android phone ever by a large margin. And we say “phone” because the Surface Duo is not designed to be a leave-it-at-home tablet device. It is meant to be your primary device, and you’re supposed to carry it around. No size is too big for someone who carries a bag, but if you want to have your primary device in your pocket, the Surface Duo might make you walk funny.
In the world of Android, dual-screen devices are not really a new product category. Most recently, LG has shipped accessories that turn its flagships into dual-screen devices for the past two years, and while the Surface Duo certainly looks better, the basic form factor concerns are still here. One thing I’ve learned from trying out those devices is that typing on a dual-screen phone can be a challenge.
Enlarge/ Like other dual-screen devices, it does not seem like the Surface Duo supports a split keyboard. So typing requires you to either close the phone or awkwardly hunt-and-peck with one hand.
The whole idea of a touchscreen keyboard is that you wrap your hands around the sides of the phone and type with your thumbs, but you can’t do that with a second screen in the way. Tablets and foldables work around this by having a split keyboard that puts thumb-accessible keyboard halves on the left and right side of the screen. The complicated screen setup has stopped dual-screen Android phones from having a split keyboard in the past, and Microsoft’s own press images only show the Surface with a normal, one-screen keyboard awkwardly hanging out on one of the screens. On LG’s phones, any serious typing requires you to 360-fold the second screen out of the way to type, and having to constantly fold and unfold the phone to type is awkward. Having such a barrier to typing has made past claims of “dual-screen productivity” ring hollow, and it doesn’t seem like the Surface Duo is fixing this issue.
There’s also a lot about the spec sheet that just seems out of place for a $1,400 phone in 2020.
- Microsoft’s newness to the smartphone game and the Surface Duo’s extremely long development cycle mean the phone is shipping with last year’s Snapdragon 855 instead of this year’s Snapdragon 865 (though we can’t complain about that too much).
- The Surface Duo only has 60Hz displays, when most phones releasing this year are jumping on the high-refresh-rate bandwagon, a rare industry trend that actually does significantly improve the user experience. Even the foldables are getting there, with the Galaxy Fold 2 shipping a 120Hz interior display.
- 6GB of RAM is not a lot for a high-end Android device in 2020, with only Google shipping such a low amount in a flagship device. Also keep in mind that a dual-screen device encourages multi-tasking, so the Surface Duo should have higher RAM demands than your normal smartphone.
- There is no NFC, so forget tap-and-pay.
- The device has a single speaker.
- It also doesn’t have 5G, but almost no one should care about that at this point.
Fourteen-hundred dollars is also a load of money to ask for a device that has always seemed like a halfway compromise between a single screen device and a foldable smartphone. A good foldable smartphone would be inherently superior to the Surface Duo design. You would get all the same side-by-side app benefits but with the addition of a more productive split-screen keyboard and the ability to use the device like a tablet when you want. A foldable can be a big-screen device for watching video, playing games, using a tablet-style app, or browsing a desktop webpage. The Surface Duo will never be a good device for these use cases. To be clear, the device does have a mode that merges the two screens into a big 8.1-inch display, but it’s going to have a big gap down the middle.
The whole argument for a dual-screen device was that foldables aren’t ready for prime time, and the Surface Duo was a stopgap between now and the future. That seemed reasonable a year ago when the Duo was first announced, but now Samsung is gearing up to ship the second-generation Galaxy Fold 2 with a glass display cover and a host of other improvements. The original Fold, at ~$2,000, was more than the Surface Duo, but Microsoft really can’t make a value argument at $1,400.
The good news is that, in a statement to Android Central about the lack of NFC, Microsoft seemed to hint that it’s just getting started with the Surface Android line. The company called the device a “first-generation design” and said it will “listen to customer feedback and apply that lens to future iterations of the product.”