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Microsoft Surface Duo: Every spec we know and 8 that we don't

Microsoft is making its first phone in years, but we don't know exactly what kind of phone it is. Here's everything we know and don't about the dual-screen device.

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The Surface Duo isn't exactly an open book.

Microsoft

Update, Oct. 24: A new dual-hinged foldable phone prototype from TCL bends into thirds like an accordion -- we went hands-on. Original story follows.


The beauty of announcing a device that won't launch for a year is that you don't have to toss out the specs list or inner workings for the wolves to tear apart. You can build excitement first. This is what Microsoft did last week with the Surface Duo, a dual-screen device that also happens to be the company's first phone in years -- even though Microsoft says the Duo isn't actually a phone.

We know the gist of the product -- an Android phone (which Microsoft denies is actually a phone) that essentially doubles your screen space to take on foldable phone design. Although we have to wait until "holiday 2020" to meet the Duo, Microsoft has certainly created a sense of hype by leaping back into the game at a time when phones that double the available screen space are seen as the next big thing in phone design.

A quick flash of the Surface Duo taken from an executive's pocket, a 2-minute video and a few minutes with a non-functioning prototype were our only glimpses at the device. Microsoft's well-orchestrated teaser gives us only fragments of detail, leaving us to wonder if the Duo will come together as a device that could truly take on foldable phones like the Galaxy Fold and upcoming foldable Motorola Razr. (Scroll to the end for all the specs we know.)

Now playing: Watch this: Samsung Galaxy Fold, Microsoft Surface Duo and the future...
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How much will the Surface Duo cost?

Foldable phones aren't expected to be cheap. Samsung sells its Galaxy Fold for $1,980, and the (delayed) Huawei Mate X will go for the equivalent of $2,600. 

While the Surface Duo won't be a foldable phone, it achieves about the same goal by doubling up on the given screen space you have to work with for watching videos, reading, typing and playing games.

This extra screen space is the real benefit, and the Galaxy Fold proves what a convenience it is. It's a convenience you're also expected to pay for. 

The logic goes that a dual-screen device like the Surface Duo (which connects two 5.6-inch screens with a hinge) is a true phone/tablet hybrid that will maximize your productivity and entertainment -- so prepare to pony up.

I expect the Duo to sell for at least $1,500, or in the ballpark of foldable phones with similar screen area (the Duo gives you 8.3 inches versus the Galaxy Fold's 7.3-inch span).

Will the Surface Duo will have 5G?

Despite Microsoft's protestations, the Surface Duo is a phone. It makes phone calls. What we don't know is if the Duo we see in 2020 will top out at 4G data speeds or if it will be 5G-capable.

The Surface Duo that Microsoft teased runs on Qualcomm's Snapdragon 855 chipset, which will work with 5G if the device also has the right modem to connect to the faster next-gen network. But a year's a long time and Microsoft could also swap out Qualcomm's next chip, which is expected to support 5G right off the bat. Doing so could also bump up the price.

Since every premium phone is expected to run 5G by this time next year, I'm putting my money on a 5G Surface Duo. Microsoft would struggle to compete with more mature foldable devices using 4G alone.

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Two phone screens -- better than one?

Sarah Tew/CNET

Where will it sell?

Microsoft has a history of strong carrier relationships from its Windows phone days, but there's no saying if those dried up alongside Windows phones. It's a fair bet that part of the tech giant's goal in spreading the Surface Duo's word early was to get carriers and big box retailers to perk up.

The vast majority of US buyers get their phones from carriers, which means the Surface Duo will be doomed if it sells through Microsoft stores alone. And while there are dozens of Microsoft Stores across the US, there are only ten international locations.

How well full-screen mode will work for all apps

Microsoft's demo video of the Surface Duo shows a slim finger simply dragging apps across both screens, and watching them snap into a split-screen view to conveniently do two different things on the same app at a time. 

That will certainly be the case for some native apps, especially those that already have tablet support, but it isn't clear how an app will behave if it isn't optimized for the dual-screen look.

We also didn't get to see how the center seam will look when you're playing a video or game with the Duo totally open. Microsoft clearly expects you to turn the device to landscape mode and use only one screen to watch the action. A scene depicting gameplay shows off gaming on one lobe and on-screen controls on the other.

Microsoft called out to developers to join the cause -- it's a fair bet we'll see major developers spruce up their apps to work with foldable and dual-screen phones.

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The Galaxy Fold is far from light.

Angela Lang/CNET

If it will be comfortable to hold for long periods of time

I held the Galaxy Fold a lot -- to watch hours of movies on an airplane, to take hours of notes and to read article after article in bed. Guess what? At 9.7 ounces, it got pretty heavy pretty fast. That's why I'm curious how Microsoft's design will stack up. 

Both phones have plenty of glass, but in the Surface Duo's case, most of that is protecting the inner screens, while the Galaxy Fold has a plastic Infinity Flex display on the inside and Gorilla Glass on the outside (along with a 4.6-inch outer screen).

Will a heavy phone deter buyers? Probably not, but drop a half-pound weight into your pocket or bag and you'll notice right away.

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Look to the right of the speaker to find the Surface Duo's sole camera.

Microsoft

Will the Surface Duo have only one camera?

Microsoft showed us a Surface Duo with a single camera -- it lives on the right screen as you open it up. Compare that to the Galaxy Fold's six cameras (three on the back, two in the middle, one in the front) and the Duo may start to seem lacking. We don't know anything at all about the camera tech.

But Microsoft seems to believe that one camera should be enough to take any photo you want -- turn it one way for a selfie and the other for a portrait. The problem is this: Image quality is one of the top features that buyers care about in a phone, and any top-tier device is practically expected to have at least two cameras on the back. 

Even Google's Pixel ($1,030 at Amazon) phone, which has bucked the trend with one very excellent rear camera, is getting a pair of lenses in the Pixel 4 this month.

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The Galaxy Fold has 5 more cameras than the Surface Duo we saw, but will it matter?

Angela Lang/CNET

If Microsoft can't demonstrate terrific picture quality, the Surface Duo could be in trouble. We'll see how many cameras the finished product will get.

Software: Android 10 or Android 11?

The Surface Duo runs Android 9 right now, but Android 10 is already on some phones and by this time next year, Android 11 will be, too. That doesn't make Android 11 a shoe-in at launch, since devices require hefty lead times to prepare. 

Microsoft isn't known for being nimble, and it will want to be cautious about its first-ever Android phone. It's likely we'll get Android 10 out of the box, with a later update to Android 11.

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Can the Surface Duo do this? We'll find out.

Angela Lang/CNET

If Microsoft solves the water-resistance problem

The lack of water-resistance only makes or breaks a phone the instant it hits a wall of water. So far, foldable phones don't repel water and dust the same way as the rectangular handsets we've come to know and love. 

That's a problem for the Galaxy Fold, whose plastic screen stretches across the hinge and is already prone to damage. But the Surface Duo's glass displays stop at the hinge, which could help outpace the Galaxy Fold's durability in more ways than one. 

Now playing: Watch this: Why the Surface Duo will be amazing
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Everything we know about the Surface Duo

  • A 360-degree hinge means you can fold one screen flat against the other to hold it like a note pad.
  • You get a total of 8.3 inches of screen real estate.
  • There's no outer screen -- you have to fully open the device to use it.
  • Phone calls come in on the Duo's right screen.
  • It supports the Surface Pen, which you may need to buy separately.
  • The Surface Duo has thick screen bezels, but that might help keep you from accidentally tapping while you hold it.
  • You can drag and drop items, like a phone number, from one screen to the other.
  • It appears to have a digital cursor (although that could just be a visual aid in the video).

Surface Duo specs

  • Two 5.6-inch displays (resolution and display technology unknown)
  • 8.3 inches of total screen real estate
  • Snapdragon 855
  • 4.8mm thin
  • Fingerprint reader
  • USB-C charger

Originally published earlier today.