Microsoft’s dual-screen Surface Duo phone

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Microsoft has two new dual-screen devices: a tablet and a phone (although it doesn’t want you to call it a phone). We’re big fans of one of them: the Surface Neo

Think back to the most promising idea you had in 2008. A killer hairstyle maybe or a brilliant blog. Microsoft’s best, or at least most internet-popular, idea that year, the year of the iPhone 3G, was the Courier, a digital journal or “booklet” with dual 7-inch screens. It was reported to be at the late prototype stage in 2009, before being cancelled a year later.

The Courier is now real, in the form of the just-announced Surface Neo and Surface Duo, a nice case of a tech company rewarding people who wait. Ideas that seemed revolutionary in 2008 can lose their sheen 11 years later, though. The Surface Duo, the just about phone-sized device that can make phone calls but that Microsoft refuses to call a phone, feels a little lost in time, like a futuristic relic of the ‘00s. Far more exciting is the Surface Neo.

Neither of the Courier’s tech children sticks precisely to the original 2x 7-inch concept and that’s a wise move. The Surface Neo has two 9-inch LCD screens joined together by a hinge that can rotate 360 degrees, including a ‘posture’ (Microsoft’s word for mode) that sees it become a 13.1-inch display with well, a hinge in the middle. This isn’t a flexible polymer display, the likes of which we’ve seen on this year’s foldable phone experiments, this is Microsoft’s bid for on-the-go, multi-screen multi-tasking.

We’re still slightly light on specs, which is unsurprising given the ‘holiday 2020’ release date for these two products, but Microsoft claims that when folded out, the Neo at 5.6mm is the “thinnest LCD in its class”. Exactly which class it’s referring to here remains to be seen but for a secondary device for getting stuff done, the sizing here seems to work well.

On that point, the Neo also runs Windows 10X, a new light version of Windows for these portable, dual screen ‘PCs’. Now, Microsoft has been here before. Remember Windows RT tablets in the Windows 8 era? They didn’t offer anything in terms of extra portability or style or inputs to justify getting rid of full Windows and so unsurprisingly, it was discontinued. With the Neo’s tidy design and support for the new Surface Slim Pen, which magnetically attaches to the rear, plus similar devices from Asus, Lenovo, Dell and HP in the works for 2020, Windows 10X might just have a shot. The transitions across the displays and the controls to manage dual screens, a possible area for concern, looked fairly seamless in the demos too.

Asus, in particular, has previous form. Its £3,000 ZenBook Pro Duo laptop has a second 14-inch touchscreen display above the keyboard and although we felt that this particular model made too many compromises on ergonomics, battery life and performance in our review, Asus might have something of a headstart in figuring out if dual screens can work. (Microsoft hasn’t dropped any hints as to what the prices of these things will be but we’d fully expect into the thousands, as per the folding phones.)ADVERTISING

Back to the Neo and the more I see of the device, the more I want one. For me, that’s unusual for the Surface line which I’ve always respected but never loved. Microsoft’s chief product officer Panos Panay said the Surface is the bestselling 2-in-1 (and the “sexiest form factor”) at the New York launch event but that’s a narrow point in comparison when you consider that most people still use tablets (iPads), laptops or both.

Particularly delightful in this context is the Surface Neo’s mini laptop mode with either a virtual keyboard or a Type Cover flipped over the top of the lower display. With the keyboard slid down, you could display rows of quick access emojis or leave a module for stylus scribbling above the keyboard. Slipping it further up the second screen, you could add a touchscreen trackpad to the mix. Microsoft is calling this the ‘Wonder Bar’ which we’ll allow because it looks really damn neat.

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For video and gaming – it’s currently an LTE device, running on an Intel chipset – you have one of the 9-inch screens, unblemished by a hinge. If you want to set up with a keyboard and Bluetooth mouse, you could go multi-window with the full 13-inch mode. One sticking point could be the weight: the Surface Neo weighs 655g versus the current-gen 11-inch iPad Pro which weighs 467g. If Microsoft can shave a few grams off, that will help its case. How useful two 9-inch screens are in the unique book mode remains to be seen but besides the desk setup something like the magazine app Readly, an Apple News+ rival, could also come into its own here. All in, the Surface Neo could be a hit with students or as a secondary work device, a true iPad Pro alternative that works for weekends away. We like it, OK?

Things fall down when we get to the Surface phone, though, and its two 5.6-inch displays capable of unfolding to a 8.3-inch split-screen in the same booklet design as the Neo. For starters, the Surface Duo doesn’t run on Windows, it’s an Android device, which renders Microsoft’s built-in productivity edge less powerful no matter that, like the Samsung Note 10 series, this will be as Microsoft-friendly as an Android phone can be.

There’s more. It looks way too wide when folded into a ‘phone’ form factor and slightly silly being raised to the model’s ear to take a call in the promo video. There isn’t even a rear camera on the current model, just a front-facing one for video calling. This is where things start to get a little insulting.

I’m all for Microsoft moving the Android phone conversation away from increasingly niche camera features. And perhaps Microsoft is right and we do need a new word for these phone-tablet hybrids – please tech gods, not phablet – but in 2019 or 2020, if you can make phone calls on it, you need to be able to quickly take photos with it, because that’s still your primary device, daily driver, whatever label you want to use. Just one lens will do but essentially it needs to work without too much flipping and faffing. There might be some interesting opportunity in the double screen for gaming controls but again, that’s being slightly generous.

It’s also worth noting that Microsoft also has a lot more competition in the 6-inch screen space. It’s competition with lots to prove too; be it Samsung and its disastrous recall of early Galaxy Fold units or Huawei with its delayed Mate X and ongoing Android app issues. It’s also competition with much more riding on pure smartphone sales than Microsoft. By the time the Surface Duo goes on sale for ‘holiday 2020’ we will no doubt have a second-gen Galaxy Fold from Samsung, potentially joined by a second gen Mate X, competitors from Oppo and Xiaomi and perhaps even a true folding phone (not tablet) in the form of the rumoured Motorola RAZR revival.These are the best tablets for any budget in 2019

These are the best tablets for any budget in 2019

Microsoft has announced these two devices now to get developers interested in time for the release at the end of next year. But at the Surface launch, there were plenty of 2019 products that caught our eye. Microsoft is getting into the wireless earbuds game with the Surface Earbuds, one of which fell out of VP Robin Seiler’s ear on stage. We’re big fans, to our surprise, of last year’s noise cancelling Surface Headphones, but despite the 24 hour battery life, directional dual mics and touch controls to open Spotify, it’s tough to see how the really quite large Surface Earbuds ($249, no UK price yet) will break through in a crowded market.

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Also on show, the Surface Laptop 3 is an impressive high-end laptop and serious MacBook Air competitor. It will come in 13.5-inch and 15-inch sizes, the latter of which is powered by a custom “Surface edition” AMD Ryzen 7 processor with Radeon RX Vega 11 graphics. There’s also a 20 per cent bigger trackpad on its predecessor, USB-A + USB-C and impressive claims of fast charging of 80 per cent charge in less than an hour with an 11.5 hour battery life. Microsoft also showed off the Laptop 3’s “modular” design – what this means in practice is that the keyboard and cover can be easily removed at home, using tools, to swap out the hard drive.

Elsewhere, things were slightly more iterative. The £799 Surface Pro 7 gets a 10th-gen Intel upgrade, “oh and USB-C”. The £999 Surface Pro X, meanwhile, is more expensive but also more of a leap with a 13.3-inch display with slim bezels, LTE Advanced onboard, a build that’s 5.3mm thick (at its thickest point) and an ARM-based SQ1 processor, which is a collaboration between Microsoft and Qualcomm focused on graphics capability. As with the Surface Neo, there’s compatibility with the rechargeable Surface Slim Pen and another thoughtful addition, a new Surface Pro X Signature Keyboard that allows you to dock and charge the stylus. Nothing beats that Surface Neo, though.

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