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Microsoft’s Surface Duo phone just might beat Galaxy Fold's shaky track record

Major drawbacks in damage-prone screens are just one way that foldable phones could bend to a dual-screen device.

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Microsoft is betting on a dual screen phone as opposed to a foldable display.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Foldable phones versus dual-screen devices that have a seam down the middle. Any way you bend it, phones that fold in half are touted as our mobile future. Microsoft's take on the doubled-screen device, the Android-based Surface Duo (no, not a Windows phone) is the first formidable challenge we've seen to phones with folding displays like the Galaxy Fold and the upcoming foldable Motorola Razr phone. (Weirdly, Microsoft doesn't want you to call its phone a phone.)

Read more: A new dual-hinged foldable phone prototype from TCL bends into thirds like an accordion -- we went hands-on

The question now isn't whether large-screen devices you open and close are coming. It's which design will prove most useful -- one big screen that bends in half, or two separate displays, one on either side of a hinge.

The Microsoft Duo comes at a time when foldable phones are grabbing attention for wedging extra screen space into a device you can easily carry in your pocket or purse. It's a goal that phone-makers have wrestled with for years, especially as the demand to watch videos, multitask and work on ever-larger screens has grown. If successful, Microsoft's commitment to the dual-screen design could nudge the attention away from foldable screens and their early problems.

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"We know scientifically you'll be more productive on two screens," Panos Panay, Microsoft's chief product officer, said at an event in New York on Wednesday. "But it has to be elegant. It has to fit in your pocket."

The battle between the two designs is just beginning. By the time that the Surface Duo launches in holiday 2020, the Galaxy Fold will have been on sale for a year, giving Samsung and its tribe time to work out some kinks in today's foldable phone design.

 Here's how the Surface Duo could beat the Galaxy Fold, and how foldable phones could fight back. And here's every Duo spec we know, and all the ones we don't.

The Surface Duo will work with a digital pencil.

Microsoft

The Surface Duo has sturdy glass screens

Microsoft's biggest advantage is that the Surface Duo has glass screens. The Fold's foldable design uses a specially-made polymer screen (essentially plastic), which is so delicate and prone to damage that Samsung included specific care instructions so you buyers don't ruin the $2,000 phone.

Surface Duo has more total screen space than the Galaxy Fold 

If getting more screen is your goal, the Surface Duo has two 5.6-inch displays. The Fold opens up into a 7.3-inch screen, meanwhile, which I suspect will feel more limited when compared side-by-side with the Surface Duo.

Note that there's no exterior screen, unlike the Galaxy Fold, which has a 4.6-inch display on the outside. However, this outer screen is so tall and narrow, it isn't very practical to use, and its tiny keyboard is especially painful to type on.

The Surface Duo can stand up on its own

The Surface Duo opens and closes like a book, but you can also stand it up to watch a movie, and pop up one side to use as a screen while using the other as a keyboard or game pad. You can use it fully extended or partially open. By comparison, the Fold really works best when fully opened.

It'll work with a digital pen

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We won't see the Microsoft Surface Duo for a year.

Microsoft/Screenshot by Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

The Galaxy Fold's biggest tragedy when it comes it comes to productivity and creativity is that it won't work with a digital pen, and that comes back to that fragile screen. This is the perfect shape and size to take Samsung's S Pen stylus -- a unique feature only Galaxy Note phones had -- to the next level with the large, foldable display.

But the screen is too prone to dents and damage from pressure to work with a digital pen. The glass-topped Surface Duo has no such problem. That could be a real selling point for Microsoft's Surface phone.

However, that Surface Duo camera could be a problem

Microsoft didn't talk up the Surface Duo's camera, and that make us nervous because cameras are a major selling point for phones. The Galaxy Fold has six of them, in fact: three on the back, one on the closed-up front and two inside.

Apparently, the working prototype of the Surface Duo doesn't have a rear camera, which means you'd have to turn the device around to use the front-facing camera to take photos, according to Wired, which saw an early version of the device. 

Hopefully the final version we see next year takes photography as seriously as buyers do.

That center seam could be an eyesore, too

The Surface Duo runs Android, which means that it'll bundle in Google's software support for foldable phones -- assuming the Duo gets Android 10. Microsoft showed off a feature on the larger Surface Neo (which has no cellular radio) that lets you drag an app over to span both sides of the display. 

Assuming that capability also comes to the Surface Duo, that means that one app could be split across two screens, with a big black seam running down the middle. Microsoft tried to sell that seam as a benefit that "defines" the space, but foldable phones are likely to win in the all-screen app department because the image is uninterrupted. 

Yes, the Galaxy Fold has a visible crease, but when you're watching movies, reading an article or e-book or scrolling trough photos, it all but blends into the background. You won't be able to ignore a large black bezel if you try watching an all-screen video on Netflix on a device like the Duo.

Samsung has a big head-start over the Microsoft phone

Samsung's marketing machine is hard at work convincing buyers that it's made an unprecedented and exciting device in the Galaxy Fold. The yearlong wait for the Surface Duo isn't going to do it any favors while other device-makers begin selling their own foldable or dual-screen phones.

LG, in fact, already launched the LG G8X with a dual-screen case that does just about the same thing, while also giving buyers the option to carry the phone solo.

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The Galaxy Fold works best when fully opened.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Early dual-screen phones have a terrible track record

Before there was the Surface Duo, there was the ZTE Axon M, a similar-looking dual-screen phone with the same central seam and some major design issues (the battery on one side made balance a real problem, and using the camera was complicated).

And before the Axon M came the Yota Phone, the Kyocera Echo, the LG DoublePlay, the Samsung DoubleTime and more in a parade of attempts at the dual-screen design that just didn't work. 

Microsoft and others might argue that those devices were ahead of their time, but history has shown us that we have a right to be cautious, even skeptical.

Pricing and details matter

Microsoft's Surface Duo is certainly intriguing, and it comes at a time when interest in foldable phone designs is high. But making a good dual-screen device isn't enough on its own to make Microsoft a big name again in phones. 

The details matter. Will it be light enough to want to use all day? (The Fold can get pretty heavy.) Will the cameras take great photos? It'll also have to be easy to buy, both from carriers and big box stores like Best Buy. (The Microsoft Store alone isn't going to cut it.)

Most important still, it's going to have to hit pricing right. The Galaxy Fold costs $1,980, but cheaper foldable phones are on the horizon. Too expensive and the Surface Duo could wind up a niche curiosity, which would be a shame for a company that's making big bets on that large Android screen.

Originally published earlier this week.