The Surface Duo Ushers in a New Category of PC (And Phone)

A woman looking at a Surface Duo
Microsoft

Thanks to manufacturers like Samsung and Motorola, phones with true folding screens are all the rage right now, even if they are outside the realm of affordability and durability. At first glance, Microsoft’s upcoming Surface Duo, with its two screens joined by a hinge, might seem quaint by comparison. But when you realize that Microsoft is creating a new form factor separate from foldables, it becomes more exciting.

The Surface Duo Isn’t a Foldable

The Surface Duo really isn’t a foldable. Foldable phones are a device with a main screen that bends in half to change its size. Right now, there are two approaches to that scheme.

A Surface Duo phone with photo editing software spread across both displays.
Microsoft

The Motorola Razr and Samsung Galaxy Z Flip are smartphones that fold down into clamshell shapes, like the flip phones of old. And the Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 2 is a smartphone that folds out into a tablet. They may have a “secondary” screen, but you don’t use the two screens together.

The Surface Duo is completely different. Instead of relying on new screen tech that’s flexible, Microsoft went the “easy route” and connected two displays with a hinge system. It can work in a tablet mode, but you’ll have a seam, or it can work with just one screen or the other.

That makes the use case scenario totally different than foldable phones. The closest analog is the Z Flip 2, which you can use in a single display (like a traditional smartphone) mode or a larger tablet mode. But there’s a distinct difference. The Z Flip 2’s interior “tablet” tech is still one display. The Surface Duo, when opened, is actually two displays. That leads to attacking multitasking from different angles.

Multitasking to Get Stuff Done

Because the Galaxy Z Flip 2’s tablet mode is a single display and the Surface Duo’s “tablet mode” is two displays together, the companies took different routes for multitasking. The Z Flip 2 prefers to open singular apps, and then depend on you to create your own multitasking area. Want a second app? Slide open a side dock, then drag it into place. Or select it from a notification, then drag.

The Surface Duo goes from the opposite tact. It almost treats each display as a singular Android phone. Apps can open “fullscreen” across the two displays, but that’s not the main point. Instead, the idea is to run two apps, one on each screen. And for the apps to work together across both screens.

When you have email open on most smartphones and tap an attachment, you get whisked away from the email. If you need to reply and refer to the attachment, you’ll find yourself hopping back and forth. That’s a pretty maddening process that’ll leave you longing for a desktop or laptop.

Rather than be hampered by the seam (or hiding the crease, as with foldables), the Duo takes advantage of it. You’ll see that in apps by Microsoft, like Outlook, Excel, and Teams. On the Duo, opening an attachment in Outlook shunts the new window over to your second display. You can look at the attachment and write your email at the same time. The same goes for links; tap one in an email, and the Duo will open the browser on the other display.

If you’re away from your desktop or laptop and need to present information over a video call, a normal smartphone will let you make the call, but you’ll have to work from memory or navigate away from the call. With a Surface Duo, your video call opens on one display, and you can open your Powerpoint presentation on the other. And when you open an app on one screen, any icons on that display’s “home screen” automatically shift over to the other screen so you can still access them.

Even when you do use apps “fullscreen,” Microsoft is working to make the seam work for you. Outlook is an easy example, where the left display can show your inbox and list of emails, while the right screen shows a specific email you are reading.

When you get down to it, even though the Surface Duo is an Android phone, its behavior models a Windows PC, specifically one with two monitors. Drag what you need to this monitor, then the second thing you need to the other. In business, that kind of multitasking is what you need. The ability to scan through an Excel document while responding to an email, or taking a phone call is paramount.

A Pocket PC for the Modern World

Smartphones and tablets are more powerful than ever, but despite years of doomy predictions, desktops and laptops haven’t gone away. We still need them and use them, especially in the business world.

The Surface Duo doesn’t set out to replace your other devices, either. Instead, it intends to work with and receive enhancements from them. When you sit down at your desktop, the last thing you likely want to do is dig out your phone, unlock it, just to check and respond to notifications. The more of your phone you can handle from your desktop, the better. If you’re already on an iPhone and Mac, you know how magical that interaction can be.

Thanks to the open nature of Android, and Microsoft’s efforts, we’re getting closer to that same magical level with the Surface Duo. It works with Windows 10’s Your Phone app. But don’t think that means you can just check your text messages easily, the Duo (like some Samsung phones) can do much more.

A Surface Duo phone in a tablet like position.
Microsoft

From Your Phone, you can essentially mirror the Duo’s screen. That means you can pull up apps, respond to messages from multiple sources, transfer photos from your phone to your PC, and even take calls. All without needing to take your phone out of your pocket.

And if you’re a business user on the go, Surface Duo lets you take Windows with you. It’s another device in Microsoft’s list of “Windows Virtual Desktop for Surface” repertoire. With the right licensing and subscription, you can access a full instance of Windows 10 in the cloud from your Duo. It may run Android natively, but when you need it, you can get to Windows 10 on the go even without a laptop in tow.

An Extended, If Not New, Form Factor

Forget foldables, because the Surface Duo isn’t one. But that may leave you asking, just what is the Surface Duo? What Microsoft is doing here isn’t new to the company. It’s introducing a new form factor based on something that came before it.

A Surface Duo phone with an email on one screen and a keyboard on the other, and a Surface Slim pen next to it.
Microsoft

Years ago, when Microsoft started the Surface line, it introduced us to the concept of 2-in-1. Until the Surface, you had tablets, or you had laptops. But devices weren’t both. The Surface broke that mold with simple additions: adding a keyboard to its tablet and stand to hold it laptop position. It took a few tries, but what the company landed on has been wildly successful, and every other manufacturer from Samsung to Apple has copied to the concept to some extent.

The Surface Duo is the next iteration of that concept. It’s a 2-in-1 that marries your phone experience to your desktop experience. It’s not a Surface Mini—Microsoft didn’t just shrink the Surface Pro, keyboard and all. Instead, it went after one of the best features of desktops—multiple monitors.

That extra real estate used correctly is a boon to productivity, on Windows or macOS. And that’s what the Surface Duo brings to the phone experience. A multi-monitor experience for your phone so you can get more done without a constant need to switch back and forth between tasks.
The Surface Duo is the 2-in-1 for phones. It’s a smartphone when you need it, but it’s also your Pocket PC the rest of the time. Only time will tell if Microsoft got it right on the first try.

Josh Hendrickson Josh Hendrickson
Josh Hendrickson has worked in IT for nearly a decade, including four years spent repairing and servicing computers for Microsoft. He’s also a smarthome enthusiast who built his own smart mirror with just a frame, some electronics, a Raspberry Pi, and open-source code. Read Full Bio »

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