Surface Duo: Microsoft's first 'phone' in years sidesteps perils of foldables, but faces other concerns

And part of the reason why it feels that way is because of its partnership with Google.

At its Surface event, Microsoft showcased updates to existing product line-up (Surface Laptop 3, Surface Pro 7), new products (Surface Pro X) and even boldly showed off working concepts of upcoming devices (Surface Neo, Surface Duo) that will arrive in stores in a year’s time.

While the former three are born out of existing products (laptops, 2-in-1s and connected laptops) the most interesting announcement among these was the new Surface Neo and the Duo thanks to the completely new approach both of these devices take when it comes to daily computing. In fact, they are so new and different, that Microsoft had to come up with a new operating system to power one of them and its called Windows 10X. But in order get to the Duo (which is basically a phone) we have to understand Windows 10X and the Neo first.

Microsoft's Surface Duo. Image: Microsoft

Microsoft's Surface Duo. Image: Microsoft

Windows 10X

Simply put, Windows 10X came into existence to support devices with dual displays. While Google (with Android) and its smartphone manufacturers pursue devices with folding displays (one display that folds), Microsoft has been dreaming of dual-display devices (two separate displays that work together) for several years.

Both ideas may sound similar, but Android was made to run on a smartphone first, which is partially the reason why there are few tablet apps. And it’s also the reason why Android struggles to adapt to devices with bigger displays, which is where ‘foldables’ (or devices with folding displays) come in. While Google has made accommodations for them with Android 10, the only proper production-ready device that has been launched so far is Samsung’s Galaxy Fold and we all know how it is doing right now.

While flexible OLED tech clearly isn’t ready (or tough enough) for day to day use, Microsoft's idea of using two displays covered in glass, at least makes it ready for smartphone users today.

With Windows, Microsoft has been working with desktops and tablets (Surface 2-in-1s) for long. So while it may not have a great deal of new-age (read post-iPhone) smartphones, it does know how to work with bigger screens like tablets. And this is why we have Windows 10X, that built for devices with bigger displays, ones that can run two apps simultaneously on two screens.

Microsoft’s goal with Windows 10X is to make apps accessible from posture to posture, which is not just from the couch in your living room to your office table and back but also the places in between. The software basically allows the OS and its apps (only for Neo) to run in different modes, using either one display for each task (Netflix + Mail) or scrolling through a long web page that flows from one display to another. And all of these changes depend on how many displays you use at any given time and how you are holding a dual-display device. Mind you, Microsoft’s Surface Neo will not be the only foldable device using Windows 10X in the future, the OS will be available on dual-screen and foldable devices by manufacturers like ASUS, Dell, HP and Lenovo as well.

The Surface Neo

And that brings us to the Surface Neo. Simply put, it’s a tablet that folds to smaller and much more compact form factor than your regular Surface 2-in-1.

But at the same time, it gets you a detachable physical keyboard for those long emails, and the ability to use the second display as a trackpad, which also makes for a pointing device.

The Surface Neo will be powered by Intel silicon will feature two 9-inch screens that open up to become a 13-inch display. And that’s pretty much you need to know about it.

The Surface Duo

Finally, we have a Surface phone from Microsoft, one with two displays that can run two apps independently on either display. With each display at 5.6-inches, it is the most compact Surface yet, and it’s the closest you can get to a smartphone from Microsoft because it can place calls.

It too runs on what appears to be Windows 10X, but is in reality Android. It is powered by a Qualcomm Snapdragon 855 chipset as per Wired. And that's about all we know about it.

A Surface with Android inside?

But there’s one more detail here that sets the Neo and the Duo far apart even though they look similar in design, it's Windows 10X. You see, Microsoft spoke about running Windows apps on Neo, but also spoke about its partnerships with Google on stage.

Turns out, the Neo will be powered by Windows apps, while the Duo (which is the phone) will be powered by Android and apps from the Google Play Store.

So even though they will look similar as an OS, they are quite different underneath. Wired reports that the current Duo test builds run Android 9 Pie as the base.

And it goes to show that Microsoft has done its research unlike when it boldly came up with Windows Phone, which was a failure thanks to the lack of support from third-party app developers.

Microsoft’s new Surface products seem to be quite sorted when it comes to their respective ecosystems. But since the Windows app ecosystem consists of fewer apps in comparison to the millions of Android apps on the Play Store there are bound to be a few issues, when it comes to syncing and continuity between the Duo and other Surface devices.

Microsoft's Surface Duo is powered by Windows 10X. Image: Microsoft

Microsoft's Surface Duo is powered by Android but will come with some Windows 10X -like customisations that let you snap and span apps to the two displays. Image: Microsoft

It’s as simple as playing a game on your Duo but not being able to use the same game data saved on your Neo or Surface tablet which is the current problem when reviewers like myself switch between iOS and Android smartphones (unless the developer supports cloud saves which is rare).

And for the few of us who noticed, there was little talk about the smartphone-like features such as the camera. From the promotional videos, it’s easy to say that camera above the right display on the inside can be flipped outwards to click photos (thanks to that 365-degree hinge), but that’s a lot of effort to click a photo. As per Wired, things have not been set in stone yet, so the final design may have a camera at the back of the device.

While the details are not clear about how heavily customised this Windows 10X lookalike fork of Android will be, we can be sure that it will feel similar to the Neo's Windows 10X experience. While all of Microsoft's apps will get support to switch or make use of two displays, third-party Android app developers will have to add a few tweaks to make their smartphone apps behave the same way or risk running in a blown-up version on either display which may still be fine, depending on how Microsoft scales these apps to run on the Duo.

Still, here’s what we know about Microsoft’s first phone in years

It will feature Google Apps from the Play Store.

It may feature an average camera that may not compete with current day flagships.

Continuity issues when swapping between Windows and Android apps are likely.

Apps will need a bit of support to fully support both displays like Windows 10X does.

But from the little that Microsoft has revealed about its Surface Duo, it still looks better, believable and reliable on day one than any Windows CE, Mobile or Windows Phone devices ever did and part of the reason it does feel this way is oddly because of its partnership with Google.

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