Panos Panay effuses about the Surface Duo. He gushes about its dual screens, its 4.8mm thick unfolded profile, and how two Android apps work side-by-side on the device. Panos truly believes the Duo is a revolutionary new product.
“I'm not trying to reinvent the phone, but I do believe this is a better way to get things done,” says Panos. “A better way to create and a better way to connect.”
Often called the “father” of Microsoft’s Surface devices, Panos is largely credited with successfully navigating the Surface through its rocky and confusing early years (remember how bad Windows 8 and RT were?) and turning it into the class-leading laptop replacement it is today.
Now that everyone, including the iPad, is copying the Surface’s tablet, detachable keyboard, and stylus recipe, Panos is turning Microsoft’s hardware attention back to mobile with the dual-screen Duo. After missing out on mobile during the last decade — Bill Gates called it his “greatest mistake ever” when he was CEO — Panos says he believes the Duo has unique enough hardware and multi-tasking software to offer fresh mobile experiences.
I have no clue how good the Surface Duo is in person, since I haven’t touched it or played with its software. I have only seen working models from afar at last fall’s Surface event, on Twitter, and in Panos’s hands. But I have used Samsung’s Galaxy Fold and the Dual Screen attachment for devices like LG’s V60 ThinQ and Velvet, and from what I’ve observed from Panos’s live demos, the Duo seems to have a major edge when it comes to software usability.
A few important housekeeping things first: the unit is available for pre-order starting today (August 12) and launches on September 10. It’ll start at $1,399 and be available on Microsoft’s online store, AT&T, and Best Buy.
Okay, now let’s talk Duo.
If you know Panos, you know that he’s a product guy — he's the “Steve Jobs of Microsoft” as some have dubbed him. During a 30-minute live press briefing yesterday, Panos bemoaned not being able to show off the Duo in person. He seemed annoyed that media couldn’t touch it, because products are meant to be held and touched. The usability of a device doesn’t click until you have it in your hands.
Still, Panos did his best to express his delight with the Duo. Announced and teased last fall, he kicked his presentation off with a reminder of what the device is and what they’re hoping to achieve with it.
“You got to make bold bets. You got to make bets that no other company thinks about.”
The Duo’s raison d'étre goes back to Microsoft’s mission under CEO Satya Nadella. “We have this belief that we need to empower people to achieve more,” says Panos.
With two screens, Panos believes user behaviors will change. People will want to do more. For example, they’ll be able to multitask with two apps. The Duo will open a new way of mobile computing, Panos says. He didn't once mention Microsoft's Courier, but make no mistake, this is that dual-screen concept realized.
"If you want to redefine categories... and change the world," says Panos, "You got to make bold bets. You got to make bets that no other company thinks about. No other company would be able to make a bet like this. That combination of Android and Microsoft coming together. Striking an emotion in people when they connect with technology in a totally different way."
It starts with the hardware. The Duo has Surface DNA written all over it. It’s thin. Panos remarks that it’s 4.8mm (9.6mm thick folded up) and not 5mm. He waxes about how virtually every component is custom-made for the svelte form factor. How the battery and motherboard are split between both halves; how it designed 56 precision cables to connect the dual screens through watch-like gears inside of the hinge; and how much extra care the product team took to calibrate the two displays so that they’ve always got the same color reproduction.
“I love this product. I love it. I love it. I think you’re gonna love it,” he says. “It's probably one of the sexiest devices we've built. It's got a perfect feel. It feels premium. The hinge feels incredible, it's beautiful, and it just adapts.”
“It's probably one of the sexiest devices we've built. It's got a perfect feel.”
The dual-screen design also exempts the Duo from the fragility and durability issues of foldables and their bendable screens. How many folds can the hinge withstand? "Until the human is tired of folding because I think the human will give up before the device breaks," says Ralf Groene, lead industrial designer at Microsoft.
I have no doubt the Duo feels solid. The Surface team has already proven its mastery of materials and design from the Surface Pro to the Surface Laptop to the Surface Headphones. But there’s no looking at the chunky bezels above and below the two screens and not feeling like it’s dated. The aesthetic jumps out, especially now that computers and mobile devices have pushed the display to the corners and shrunken the bezels. Of course, bezel thickness isn’t everything. The Surface Pro 7 still is a better device than the Surface Pro X despite its thicker bezels.
The Duo’s success won’t be decided by the black frame around its screens, but by its software.
From what I’ve seen, the Duo’s software is very promising. That’s mainly because Microsoft has swallowed its pride and embraced Android. Yes, the Duo runs Android and not a version of Windows.
Using Android instead of Windows on the Duo — a device that is powered by Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 855 chip — is a no brainer. You get the versatility of a mobile device (power efficiency and built-in cellular connectivity) and — this is super important — access to Android apps.
Microsoft isn’t making the same mistake it did with Windows Mobile (née Windows Phone), which was dead on arrival because app developers didn’t get behind it. So many of the most popular apps like Facebook's Instagram and Google’s suite of apps from Gmail to Google Maps were never ported to Windows Mobile, leaving its users third-class citizens without essential services.
Panos says Duo is different. Every Android app in the Google Play Store works on the device. Instagram, TikTok, Google Maps — you name it and the Duo will load it out of the box, no optimizations by third-party developers necessary.
But the entire library of Android apps isn’t the main selling point of the Duo. It’s the dual-screen experience. Again, I haven’t used the Duo, but judging from Panos’ live demo from what he said was his own personal Duo, I’m stoked to see for myself how responsive and intuitive the software really is.
In his demo, Panos said Duo was “built as the Microsoft you love and the Android you know.” That means Android things work exactly as they do on other Android phones. Swipe down from the status bar to bring down a notification shade and swipe up from the bottom to open the app drawer. Swipe left and right to page through home screens. Simple!
Introducing a second screen usually complicates the UI and UX. That doesn’t appear to be the case on the Duo. Compared to the multi-app experiences on the Galaxy Fold and LG Dual Screen, which can only be described as complicated, the Duo’s new bag of gestures appears downright easy.
Apps open on their respective screens and moving apps from one display to the other is as simple as holding the gesture bar at the bottom and dragging and dropping the app onto the other. The coolest gesture is called “spanning” where you can expand the app to full screen on both displays by dragging the app over the hinge. Panos demoed Instagram in full screen and it does look slick (if you can ignore the hinge between the screens).
The Duo’s form factor also informs its “adaptive software.” For example, when you have two apps open and want to enter text on, say, the app on the left screen, the keyboard squishes itself to the left for better thumb-typing (and vice-versa for entering text in apps on the right screen). If an app is “spanned” full screen, the keyboard is full-width for two-hand typing. Flip one screen completely backward and the front-facing screen’s software becomes more phone-like.
Panos also showed a handful of other clever optimizations built-into the OS from Microsoft and third-party developers. If you simultaneously have Microsoft Edge and the messages app running, links open in the browser window instead of occluding your texts. The Kindle app shows realistic page turns when you swipe from one screen to the other. With the AllTrails app, you can see a map of a trail from Google Maps on one screen and the trail's information on the other. And remember, these are just apps scratching the surface (pardon the pun).
Microsoft has also baked in integration with Windows. With the Your Phone app, you can wirelessly connect and mirror the Duo to a Surface computer and have control of your calls, chats, and more, without needing to switch between devices. This demo looked a little laggy — I saw some choppiness and stuttering when mirroring Android apps — but I’ll reserve judgment for my review. It could have been pre-production software.
Really, the Duo’s software seems thoughtful which is a promising development, as there’s nothing more infuriating than pretty hardware with software that’s an afterthought.
You’ll notice that I didn’t say much about specs. If you must know: the Duo has 6GB of RAM, 128GB or 256 GB of UFS 3.0 storage, and a 3,577 mAh battery. Each 5.65-inch AMOLED display has a 4:3 aspect ratio, 1,800 x 1,350 resolution, and 401 ppi with wide color gamut. The Duo also has an 11-megapixel f/2.0 camera that also records video at 4K 60 fps and a fingerprint reader. There’s no wireless charging or any IP-rated water-resistance (it may be lightly water-repellent).
The Duo’s software seems thoughtful.
My disinterest in specs is for a reason: they don’t really matter. The whole point of the Duo is not what chip is under the hood but what the form factor enables. Its many foldable modes (or “postures” as Panos calls them) offer something different. Previously gimmicky modes like “tent mode” and “stand mode” now suddenly feel far more useful in social-distanced gatherings.
Clearly, if you’re looking for a killer camera, the Duo is not going to be it (the lack of a camera bump is a telling giveaway). But if you’re thinking about the Duo in the context of the strange COVID-19 world we live in, the transforming form factor — being able to have a phone that opens up into a tablet, that can run two apps at once, and connect seamlessly with Windows PCs — makes a lot of sense. More people are working from home, moving from room to room, from desk to sofa to bed, quickly shuffling inside and out. A transforming device that accommodates these behaviors is more sensible than before.
Is the Duo a phone? A tablet? A mini laptop when folded up? Panos doesn't think any of these labels are a good fit. “I don't know that I've ever said it's not a phone. I definitely have said it is a Surface.”