Surface Duo: Microsoft's $1,400 dual-screen Android phone coming September 10

Microsoft is counting on users seeing the Duo as filling an untapped niche. But for people used to thinking about carrying no more than two devices -- usually a PC/tablet or phone -- where does the Duo fit?
Written by Mary Jo Foley, Senior Contributing Editor
Credit: Microsoft

Microsoft is taking preorders starting today for its first Android-based Surface device, the Surface Duo. The dual-screen phone, which Microsoft is pitching as both a productivity and creativity device, will be generally available in the U.S. as of September 10 for a starting price of $1,400.

Let's just get the jaw-dropping price out of the way first. I figured this device would be expensive, given it's a Surface "premium" product and has two PixelSense screens connected with a custom hinge that can rotate 360 degrees. But I was thinking the Duo might come in around $1,000, not $1,400 for a 128GB version and $1,500 for the 256GB variant. I believe these prices will make it a non-starter for anyone other than Microsoft Surface superfans.

When Microsoft officials unveiled the Surface Duo at a hardware launch event in October last year, they tried to deter us from calling it a phone. (This, despite the fact that the first scenario Microsoft showed off for the Duo in its sizzle video was its use as a phone.) Microsoft held a private, Duo virtual launch event for select press and other invited guests on August 11 and officials again stressed that the Duo was "a Surface," and not a phone.

Chief Product Officer Panos Panay told launch-event attendees Microsoft wants the Duo to help challenge traditional thinking and build new categories. Panay said he wasn't trying to reinvent the phone with the device. Panay also acknowledged though the single, front-facing camera includes some custom AI technology, "photos are not the primary focus" with the device.

The Duo needs an easily articulated value proposition that goes beyond a Microsoft-optimized Android phone. After seeing a bunch of demos and hearing officials articulate how they built the Duo, I am still not sure what makes this a unique, must-have mobile device.

Microsoft is counting on users seeing the Duo as filling an untapped niche. But for people used to thinking about carrying no more than two devices -- usually a PC/tablet or phone -- where does the Duo fit? In its first iteration, with a seemingly mediocre 11 MP camera, an older Snapdragon 855 processor and a relatively heavy form factor (about half a pound), the Duo is not going to replace my Pixel 3XL Android phone. And with a total screen size when open of 8.1 inches, the Duo is just too small to replace my PC.

Panay and team are touting the Duo as a device that will give people a better way to get things done, to create and to connect. As was the case with the currently postponed, Windows 10X-based Surface Neo device, Microsoft's contention is two separate screens connected via a hinge help people work smarter and faster than they could with a single screen of any size. Officials say they've got research and years of work that backs up this claim. I do think more screen is better for almost everything, but for now, I am having trouble buying the idea that a hinge/division in the middle of two screens is going to make any kind of magic happen in my brain.

The Surface Duo "was built as the Microsoft you love and the Android you know," Panay quipped during yesterday's private launch. 

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The device is true Android, with the Google Play Store, plus a bunch of preinstalled Google apps -- Search, Assistant, Calendar, Drive, Photos, Maps, YouTube, Gmail and more. It also comes loaded with a bunch of Microsoft apps, including Office, Teams, Authenticator, Bing Search, Intune, LinkedIn and Your Phone (some of which require subscriptions in order to use all the features). Microsoft has customized its Office/Microsoft 365 apps for the Duo, meaning they can handle Duo-specific postures and interactions, like "spanning."

In spite of my misgivings, there are some intriguing things about the Duo, at least in the demos we've had a chance to see. 

Inside the Microsoft Surface Duo (in pictures)

Microsoft built some custom experiences for the devices, like a Microsoft 365 Feed to help users keep track of all their appointments, mail, documents and such in a single place. And via Your Phone and its recently announced Apps capability, users will be able to interact on their larger screen Windows 10 PCs with all their mobile apps on their Duos, which is a handy option. I like the idea of using the Duo as a replacement for my dedicated Kindle device, since there's a customized Kindle app for the Duo that Amazon built. (The Duo can be used in a variety of postures, from book-like to tented.)

But ... it's $1,400. My Surface Laptop 3 with excellent specs and a full size real keyboard was only a few hundred dollars more. I'm also curious about the "all day" battery life Microsoft is promising. The fine print says up to 15.5 hours of local video playback, up to 10 days standby time, up to 27 hours talk time, but also says your results may vary based on the apps you're running. If this were a Windows 10 PC, I'd say divide the claimed battery life by half for real-world results, but this is Android, so I guess we'll have to see.

For those interested in giving the first-generation Surface Duo a try, it will be available via AT&T, the Microsoft online Store and Best Buy. (It will work with Verizon and T-Mobile along with AT&T.) It's U.S.-only for now with no announced date for availability outside the U.S. I'm planning on trying out the Duo once I get my hands on it, so stay tuned for one of my "non-reviewer" reviews.  

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