Microsoft Surface Duo offers a slick two-screen experience
Two screens: twice as good as one? Microsoft Surface Duo says so
We’re all re-thinking the way we work, where we work and how we work. Microsoft’s new Surface Duo is a premium mobile product with a very specific pitch; people who want to get things done. To that end, the Duo sports twin 5.6” screens and is designed to be used in a myriad number of ways. ‘Things are getting faster and better – that’s the nature of technology,’ says Tim Escolin, Microsoft’s director of industrial design. ‘With the Duo, we wanted to get more productivity from a two-screen device. However, we didn’t want it to feel like two phones combined. Instead, we took inspiration from a physical notebook – like a Moleskine – something you carry around and dip into.’
There’s an old visual joke about the inevitable outcome of the safety razor arms race. First one manufacturer adds a second blade to their cartridge – ‘for a smoother cut’ – then their competitors follow suit by adding a third. No prizes for guessing where this is going; according to Wikipedia, a South Korean company currently manufactures a seven-blade shaving cartridge. At one point, phones looked set to go down a similar path. Twin screen phones were briefly all the rage back in the flip phone era when a closed clamshell device made every call a surprise. However, folding and rolling displays are becoming more practical by the month. Samsung is already into the second iteration of its Galaxy Fold, Huawei’s Mate X2 is also around the corner, as is the FlexPai 2 from US-based Royole. Motorola’s Razr 5G rebooted the classic flip format with a folding screen, and there’s even talk of a folding iPhone in the years to come. Nevertheless, the consumer jury is still deliberating the merits and endurance of a fold point which is integrated with the actual display.
Microsoft hope to sidestep these concerns with the Surface Duo with its independent twin displays. The company’s industrial design team spent a long time exploring the form factor. Scott Schenone, Principal Design Manager in Microsoft’s Surface mobile team, explains how the 360-degree hinge was a crucial part of the design. ‘To start with we just taped two pieces of waterjet cut aluminium together to explore how they felt,’ he says. The device has a welcome solidity that only a mechanical hinge can create. The 360-degree hinge can stop at any angle, allowing the device to be used like a mini laptop, propped up like a tent or folded back on itself to resemble a conventional device. Inside, the components have been strategically located within the device, each ‘leaf’ of which is substantially thinner than a regular phone, to create better balance in the hand. ‘The weight is spread around so you have a good centre of gravity,’ says Escolin.
For the Surface designers, the blend of hardware and software has been the biggest challenge, working hand in glove with Microsoft’s 365 team, to ensure the Duo has distinct user benefits, even though the operating system is based on a stock Android build. For apps like Outlook, for example, you can compose in one pane and search the message list in the other. Or you can have two browsers windows open simultaneously or simply watch a video while you work. Once you get the hang of the UI you can ‘fling’ apps between the panels or swap the dominant screen. The form factor facilitates and even encourages a new approach. ‘It’s easy to make comparisons between the duo and a book. You start on one screen and move to the other, then move back and forth depending on what you’re doing,’ says Escolin. ‘We even went as far as measuring the average muscle strength in people’s thumbs,’ says Scott, just so we could ensure that it wasn’t too much of a stretch to use it when full open.’
Phones have been essential do-it-all devices for well over half a generation, but their form factor has stayed resolutely static for most of that time. While our devices can now hold a hundred things in mind, we still have to hunt and peck around for the last thing that caught our eye. This relentless information processing is not well suited to a single screen, however big, bright, or high resolution. The Duo is a brave attempt to re-shape and re-centre these digital habits. Sitting in between a primary and secondary device, still just about pocketable and exceptionally powerful, the Duo is well suited for consuming and commenting on all kinds of media, from the printed word to films. But before you get too comfortable with a twin-screen set-up, remember the fable of the razor blades. §