Surface Duo is a productivity revelation, not a form factor revolution

Microsoft's Android handset elevates the long-tried dual-screen handset to a new height with a slim design, differentiated usage modes, and wide screens. While it offers more work area than mainstream market leaders while costing less than folding flagships, it must confront a future of more affordable folding displays.

Foldable future: How Microsoft hopes to define a new hardware category with Surface Neo and Duo

"The Microsoft you love and the Android you know," one may wonder if Google would reverse those descriptors. Nonetheless, such is how Microsoft reconciles what would have been unthinkable a few years ago: A smartphone bearing its brand but based on Android. Debuting on the heels of the second-generation Samsung Galaxy Fold, which offers a different take on-screen expansion at an even higher price, Microsoft's Surface Duo seeks to combine the best of the Microsoft and Android ecosystems.

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Doing so, at least for now, is more than any one screen can handle. The Duo is but the latest in a long line of dual-screened devices to tantalize with promises of enhanced productivity. Most recently, LG has offered an optional second screen accessory for its last few smartphone releases. When so configured, products such as the LG Velvet offer one of the Duo's key benefits: Seeing information from two full-screen apps at once.

The last true dual-screen Android smartphone to hit the US market was the ZTE Axon M. ZTE recognized the sustainable differentiation of such an approach and touted that the Axon M would be but the first in a series of such devices. Even if the company had made more of an effort to do so, it might have been stymied by the same political concerns that have stymied Huawei in the US. Still, even with its limited-time dabbling with the form factor, ZTE had made more headway with app developers in supporting dual-screened Android devices than LG has to date. 

With the Surface Duo, though, Microsoft has surpassed the LG and ZTE approaches in several ways: Most notably pushing Android's user interface further toward dual-screen optimization. Among the most visible enhancements is a dock that dynamically shifts its icons to the display not running an app (if one is available). Unfortunately, though, the dock is limited to six apps. The product's 360-degree hinge and slim profile (for a double-decker) let it capably present as a single compact screen when the other is rotated underneath, addressing some of the needs that convinced Samsung to add a larger front display to the Galaxy Fold.

Unfolded, though, the Duo stretches notions of the versatility of a two-screen device versus larger two-screened experiments or even convertibles. For while Microsoft has introduced modes or "poses" as the company calls them, to mobility, mobility has given much to poses, some of it in experience nuance. For example, like a convertible laptop, the Duo can be used in a tent or a clamshell pose but takes on other qualities when used on the go. In its default mode, for example, its two halves shelter the screens to provide a more intimate reading or watching experience, like holding a magic (or actual, in the case of the optimized Amazon Kindle app) little book, one that closes with the encasing satisfaction of a flip phone.

Another mobile-specific pose benefit reveals itself with the device unfolded in portrait orientation, where an app such as Word or Google Docs fills the top screen while the SwiftKey keyboard fills the bottom one. The configuration makes for perhaps the best software-based smartphone typing experience in the market. It's certainly the best on the Duo, which faces the same clamshell typing challenges I detailed when I wrote about LG's expansion into dual-screened phones with the G8X. However, swipe-typing with the lower screen on a surface isn't a bad compromise. Finally, there's SwiftKey's one-handed mode, in which the keyboard pushes the keys to the far edge of whatever display is being used for input. This still requires a bit of thumb-stretching. Indeed, it's more convenient to just peck at the keys with a free hand.

The Duo may charm, but its form factor has forced compromises that would be unthinkable in a phone near its $1,400 tab. There's no 5G support or wireless charging. As my fellow ZDNet writer Matthew Miller notes, the camera is a far cry from the multi-lens affairs on less expensive flagships, and the fingerprint reader has been banished to the device's border instead of under the display like on more modern devices. The Duo's wide screens are a refreshing change from the tall, narrow aspect ratios of modern flagships and support the phone's emphasis on productivity, but entail large top and bottom bezels that, while helpful in holding the device, are out of step with modern device trends.

And not every revelation of the Duo is pleasant. Because the Duo relies on one camera that must face outward to capture things in front of the user, activating the flashlight without first remembering to fold the front camera away from one's face results in a blinding flash to the eye. Microsoft should either insert a warning or at least gradually ramp up the brightness. Even designing a protective case for Duo, as for the Fold, is challenging. Microsoft includes a bumper in the box that is most useful for offering a bit of cushion for the screen edges in "tent mode."

Of course, the Duo is designed to shine with optimized apps that, when spanned across its screens, divide their user interface at the hinge with minimal disruption in a pane paradigm. For example, Outlook or OneNote place message or note lists on one screen and message content on another. Teams can also split its user interface intelligently between the two displays. The bad news for Microsoft is that the benefits of even well-designed spanning apps are not as strong as dedicating a display to each app. The good news for Microsoft is that that's because the benefit of having so much real estate dedicated to a separate app makes a compelling enough case for the Duo's philosophy and that it requires no extra effort on the part of developers.

Plus, Microsoft's battle gets tougher when its apps must go head to head against Android ecosystem apps that had a long head start on Android (and iPhone) such as G Suite apps versus Office Mobile. Microsoft makes its strongest case when its apps offer differentiated functionality, e.g., the layers of OneNote structure versus the more casual Post-It-like fluidity of Google Keep, or where there's little switching cost, for example, SwiftKey vs. GBoard or (now) Edge vs. Chrome.

Today, the Duo offers a more affordable alternative to phones that fold out to tablet size; today, that's the exclusive province of the Galaxy Fold in the US. Over time, though, the cost of folding display technology will fall. A future Duo built on such technology could retain everything worthwhile about Microsoft's debut effort by including software-definable dual app borders while eliminating the need to work around the seam of a hinge when apps take advantage of the entire display.

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