Initial reactions to Surface Duo and Neo: can these devices find a niche?

Kip Kniskern

First of all, Microsoft knocked it out of the park again on Wednesday with its latest Surface showcase. The Surface Laptop 3 is top of class, the Surface Pro X carves out new territory and introduces ARM technology into the Surface family, and Surface fans are finally getting USB-C and fast charging. But of course it was the preview of two new devices, Neo and Duo, that made all the headlines.

Technology makers have become somewhat obsessed with the idea of dual-screened devices recently, an obsession that may be more about a solution in search of a problem than anything. Still, the promise of doubling your screen real estate with a device that still fits (or almost fits) in your pocket is enticing, and Microsoft appears to be committed to the form factor. We’ll have to wait and see if the market is as committed as they are.

Aside from gaining that extra screen space from an ultra portable device, there are some scenarios where a dual screen device could actually add value. Microsoft showed off some “spanning” capabilities in this week’s Neo and Duo demonstrations, splitting apart an app into disparate parts (and email list on one screen and an open email in the other, for example), but they also quickly touched on other uses worthy of a second look.

The xCloud sweet spot

Microsoft very briefly showed Duo running xCloud in the sizzle video showed during the keynote, you can see it at about 1:34 here:

The video shows the woman sitting down to briefly play what looks like Forza on xCloud, and aside from an actual controller or keyboard, Duo presents itself as quite the little xCloud machine. Here’s a closer look:

Surface Duo xCloud controls

Both Neo and Duo could be very capable xCloud machines, and a lot more versatile than a Nintendo Switch, for example, a full on gaming device that’s also a full on computer.

Keyboard variations

Microsoft also showed off Neo’s impressive keyboard capabilities: by placing the physical keyboard on top of one of the screens, it left just enough of the screen available to become a “WonderBar,” a Macbook touchbar like experience that might actually turn out to be useful, offering a spot for an emoji picker, a Netflix parker, or an on-screen touchpad. Of course app developers would have to enable WonderBar features, much like they’d have to enable the “spanning” feature, but there are certainly opportunities for some interesting scenarios.

These are just two of the possible advantages of the dual screen Surface family, we’re sure there will be more good reasons to justify this new form factor as we head into next holiday season.

Is a dual screen solution really going to be better?

But both these devices seem to be trying to carve out a niche that just may not be there. For the Neo, it’s not pocketable, so why not just carry a Surface Laptop or Pro X, and enable Windows 10X to split the screen? You’d get all the benefits of “spanning,” but still have a full sized laptop if you needed it, one with a real keyboard and a screen capable of showing off 4K video in all its glory. For the Neo, one seemingly plausible use case would be to use one screen to enable phone calls, and the other to get on with your work. That however, requires a chipset capable of delivering phone connectivity, something the Neo’s Intel Lakefield processor won’t deliver.

That’s where Your Phone comes in, and Microsoft apparently has some tricks still up its sleeve with the PC / phone compatibility app. Still, this puts Neo in a situation where you’ll have to carry it and a phone (and possibly a laptop too, for “real” work). A cool device, for sure, but again maybe a solution in search of a problem.

Duo may be the phone you want, is it the phone you need?

surface duo 1

Most of the initial buzz has been about Surface Duo; that it’s the return for Microsoft to phones, that they’ve ditched (for this device, anyway) Windows for Android, and that it came as something of a surprise. Panos Panay told the Verge that running Android on the Duo was all about the apps, and of course it is, a lack of apps what sank Windows Phone in the first place. We’ll get to Android in a minute, but first, let’s be clear that Duo is the “Andromeda” device that Microsoft has been working on for over 3 years. Although there’s lots of work left to do before next holiday season, Panos Panay told The Verge that “(t)he hardware won’t change at all.”

Where’s the camera?

Currently, the Duo doesn’t even appear to sport a rear-facing camera, and has a single, meager looking front facing camera from the looks of it. Modern smartphones, however, are all about world class cameras, ones that are always with you, available for everything from a cute puppy video to a quick video reminder of how your carburetor looks before you take it apart to your latest artwork of a meal from your favorite restaurant, all easily shot, saved and shared.

Without a great camera, the Duo becomes something less than a phone, and if you’re going to have to carry your iPhone 11 or your Pixel 4 with you, then why carry a Duo at all?

Android, Android, Android

Let’s be clear, the Duo is (or will be) an Android phone, right down to the Google Play Store, the Google Search Bar, and Google Maps. Sure, there will be Microsoft apps pre-installed, and a Microsoft-Android phone may be the next logical step in the Microsoft Launcher journey, but this isn’t some Windows variant. It’s Android. Here’s what Panos Panay told The Verge about Launcher, however:

NP (Niley Patel of The Verge): But that settings looks a little bit different than a standard. You’ve done some design work.

There’s some, of course. There’s the design work, but it’s what you know. It’s a Surface.

TW (Tom Warren): Is it like an extension of the Microsoft Launcher [for Android]?

So the Launcher team is a huge part of this program. They’re amazing. You can think of it that way a little bit. We’re not putting Launcher on top. That’s not it. But the Launcher team is doing a ton of work bringing together this connected experience with the cloud. It’s very cool. Very cool. I won’t share too much because I can’t give too much of it away.

TW: So what are the gives and takes between Microsoft and Google. Are we going to see Google search integrated into Windows?

We’re probably not going to talk about that today, Tom. Not to be rude, but I think just… there’s a lot there. Not in gives and takes. That’s not what I mean. But in the sense of our relationship is, it’s building. it’s pretty deep-rooted, and we’re partnering. That’s the best way to think about it. I don’t think it’s give-and-take.

I think it’s about: what’s the right product to build for people? That’s how I feel. I think that’s how my counterparts over in Google feel, and that’s what we’re going to go do. I think people will love it, though. For that reason. Because that’s the ethos.

A couple of takeaways, here. One is that there’s more to come about how Duo, Android, and Microsoft Launcher all evolve, in ways that could make the reasons for Duo’s existence more clear. Another is that as the technology landscape changes, we could well see a relationship between Google and Microsoft play out in ways that just weren’t imaginable.

Will Neo and Duo find their place?

The cool factor for these two new dual screen devices is decidedly high. They look beautiful, and seem to be as powerful as they are sleek. Where do they fit in to our already technology filled lives, though? Can Duo replace your phone, and not only that, can it fit easily in your pocket? Is there really room or reason for a device sandwiched in between the laptop and the smartphone? Will having Duo run Android provide seamless experiences, when the Neo, looking exactly alike and only a few inches bigger, will run a totally different OS and set of apps and not be capable of making phone calls or delivering LTE or 5G data by itself?

Luckily we have almost a year for Microsoft to find a niche for these two obviously desirable but somewhat head scratching devices. What do you think, can the Neo and/or the Duo fit into your lives?