Microsoft's dual-screen Courier device was never more than a concept video, but NEC will be shipping its dual-screen Android tablet in Japan in March.
The Cloud Communicator has two 7" screens (800 by 600 resolution on each screen) and it's hinged in the middle like a book, with four large, physical buttons along the bottom of the right screen. There's a 3 megapixel camera on the back of one screen and two USB ports at either end, plus 802.11 b/g Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, an ARM Cortex A8 processor and a welcome 1GB of storage as well as the 384MB of internal memory. You'll want that much storage if you're going to fill it up with ebooks and manga the way NEC expects you to. It will ship with Android 2.1 but a 2.2 upgrade will be available; there will also be a version with 3G connectivity which will give it the Android Marketplace. But although you can run one application on each screen if you want, the apps that take the most advantage of the dual screens are NEC's own.
The most compelling is an ebook and manga reader, with pages that turn quickly and smoothly. Text and images are very clear and crisp. A note-taking application lets you insert, size and position images and write with a stylus or your finger and a project 'binder' lets you insert videos and content from the Web. These use both screens, so it's like working in a paper notebook. NEC 's home screen is simple, with large icons on both screens.
Although two pages are natural for reading books and Web pages , they do mean this is a thicker device than other 7" tablets (though it's not too heavy, at 530g) and it uses much more power; NEC is only predicting five hours of battery life. And this isn't a device you can pull out and work with one-handed; you need both hands to open it, hold it and start swiping on the (resistive rather than capacitive) screens. Resistive screens and styluses are still popular in Japan (for writing kanji characters rather than typing) but that means no multitouch and dimmer and less vivid screens.
The NEC home screen covers both screens; the app launcher button is on both so you can choose which screen to put an app on.
NEC told us that it hasn't yet decided whether to ship the Cloud Communicator outside Japan; if there is enough demand, an international version might come next year. We're not sure how popular an unusual form factor like this will be (when Toshiba produced the dual-screen Libretto W100 Windows tablet last year, it was very much a special edition for the anniversary of the first Toshiba notebook). Japanese commuters read manga the way UK travellers read newspapers and having entire series of your favourite with you in something smaller than a single manga makes this ideal for the Japanese market but that's not as compelling a comparison elsewhere.