Hands-on with Microsoft's dual-screen Surface Duo phone

When is a phone not a phone? When Microsoft's chief product officer is eyeballing you.

Panos Panay was sitting just two feet away from me after surprising the world with today's announcement of the new Surface Duo, a dual-screen Android device, that's powerful, pocket-sized and also happens to make calls.

"It's not a phone and I didn't want to go there. It's just not. It's a Surface,' he said very firmly.

"What we believe is that we're pushing the boundary for what we can do with a product this small. We know you're going to be more productive on it and that will lead to being more creative and so to call it a phone, it felt wrong."

The interview with Panay was one of only a handful he gave after today's Surface hardware event in New York. Microsoft had taken pity on New Zealand and Australia for the distance we'd travelled and there were only three of us journalists in the room with him.

Quick hands-on


The intimate setting meant we got to handle the prototype quickly, as Panay had it in his pocket, though we weren't allowed to see it up close with the screen turned on. There were still secrets to be kept as it's not being released until the end of next year. 

The folding device featured two side-by-side 5.6-inch screens connected by a 360-degree hinge. They expanded to an 8.3-inch device. It was lightweight and sat well in the palm of my hand. The hinges felt strong and the device folded back on itself easily. It also slotted comfortably into the front and back pockets of my jeans. 

"We wanted to make it as thin as possible so when they sat down it was reasonable, we also wanted to make those screens the right size so it was as productive as possible."

Then to prove its sturdiness, Panay threw the Surface Duo onto the floor in front of us. Better him than us. Luckily, it didn't break.

The Surface Duo is a big deal for Microsoft. It tried for a long time to make operating systems for mobile phones but found it hard to compete with Google's Android and Apple's iOS. The company's last attempt at a smartphone, the Windows Phone, didn't sell well and it has since been discontinued. Instead, Microsoft has opted to expand its Office software to rival devices and now the Surface Duo takes that further.

"This product brings the absolute best of Microsoft and we're partnering with Google to bring the absolute best of Android in one product."

A man holding a phone.
Microsoft's Panos Panay holding the Surface Duo. Photo credit: Newshub.

The device also incorporates elements of Windows 10X which is a new operating system meant for hybrid devices. "This is industry pushing technology," said Panay.

The device opens up so that the second display can be used as a game controller or a keyboard. The second display can also work as a stand so that videos can be watched in landscape mode. The device also works with a stylus.

The Surface Duo will be released alongside the Surface Neo, a larger dual screen laptop powered by a Windows 10X. Each individual screen on the Neo measures 9 inches diagonally and when extended has a 13.1-inch display. The fame is metal and polycarbonate and the front and back are covered in strengthened glass. 

There's no talk of pricing or actual release dates for the two devices, though it will be some time next year. Panay explained why he was announcing the products so far in advance. 

"Satya [Microsoft CEO] and I were talking about it this morning and we were thinking maybe we shouldn't do this....because you're showing technology and you're showing the competition 'hey, here's where we are going' but actually the more people that take it on and adopt it, the better off people are. And so if you take the ethos that we think about, like let's meet people where they are and have a people centred approach, then it's a good thing to share."

Other Surface products were announced by Microsoft today including the Surface Pro 7, the Surface Laptop 3, the Surface Pro X and the Surface Earbuds.

Newshub attend the Surface event in New York as a guest of Microsoft.