Update, Sept. 21, 2021: Microsoft will hold its 2021 Surface event on Sept. 22, when the Surface Duo 2 is rumored to arrive.
Microsoft brought the Surface Duo to market earlier this fall. The Surface Duo ($399 at Amazon), 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. In the device, originally $1,399 but currently $1,199, 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 superthin 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.
While CNET Editor at Large Scott Stein -- a noted dual-screen skeptic -- says the device felt good, he also says it represents 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 works. (Or you can just read our final Surface Duo review here.)
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. But in the end, he went deeper in in the full review and said, "The sense of flow that the Duo aspires to -- that feel of things working well together, the device not getting in the way -- hasn't been there for me."
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 chose to make a new handheld device after a series of embarrassing multibillion-dollar attempts that ended in failure.
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 was initially charging $1,399 for the 128GB version of the Surface Duo. On the Microsoft Store website, that's currently $1,199, although we can't say how long that discount will last.
Is the Surface Duo a phone?
That question is one of the things that's surrounded this devices since it was announced last year. Wired's take back then summed the situation up well: "It folds, but the screen isn't foldable. It sort of fits in your pocket. It has a camera. And it makes phone calls-but don't you dare call it a phone."
Ultimately, if your definition of "phone" is it takes and receives calls, then yes it is one. But so is your PC, tablet and potentially your game console too.
So, maybe "phone" is more a state of mind than a label.
Is the Surface Duo an Android?
This is easier than asking whether the Surface Duo is a phone. This device is an Android, in that it runs Google's mobile software for tablets and phones, and it is designed to run pretty much all the apps you can use on a standard non-Apple device.
In fact, Microsoft said it chose to build the Surface Duo using Android instead of its Windows software because of the large base of hundreds of thousands of apps that already exist in the Android store. Why reinvent the wheel?
Does the Surface Duo have 5G?
Nearly every major phone launch this year, including Apple's new iPhones, 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.
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.
Where is it on sale?
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's available to order online through Microsoft's website and Best Buy. You can buy it from AT&T, too.
If the starting price is too steep for you, Microsoft offers a 24-month payment plan through Dell financing. AT&T similarly will allow you to pay in installments through its Next Up program.
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.
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.
But in his review, Scott Stein ran into several app issues, for example, he says, "The laggy feel of my review Duo and its early software, plus the weird interface, make navigation a serious challenge. I try Slack and Gmail, which work together fine... until I get hamstrung by popping the keyboard up in one window or another and trying to either thumb-swipe or flip the phone and type."
Will the Surface Duo run Windows apps like my PC?
The Surface Duo runs Microsoft apps, including Office, Teams and Outlook, but it doesn't run the same software as your computer. That's one of the tradeoffs Microsoft had to make when building this device.
Its larger cousin, the Surface Neo, will run many of the same apps your computer has today. That's because it'll be powered by Windows 10X, a variant designed for dual-screen PCs. But that device, which brings together two 9-inch screens likely wouldn't fit in your pocket as easily as the Surface Duo. The company's also delayed until at least 2021, if not longer.
How many folds can the Surface Duo 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.
Does the 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. After in-person testing, we said, "The camera on the Surface Duo (and there's only one) is fine. Definitely not great. It's been serviceable for Zoom, and has created some photos and video clips that aren't as good as what I've come to expect. Image stabilization for video seems particularly jittery.
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 has not yet comitted to timetables about when.
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 1,800x1,350 pixels separately
- 8.3 inches of total screen real estate when opened fully, running at an effective resolution of 2,700x1,800 pixels
- Snapdragon 855, 6GB DRAM
- LTE 4x4 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
- 11-megapixel camera, f2.0 with electronic image stabilization