Microsoft’s Surface Duo 2 Is a Lovable Weirdo

 


Microsoft revealed its long-in-the-works dual-screened device, named the Surface Duo. No one bought it.

That’s not actually true. Some people did buy it. But the mobile device was hamstrung by glitchy software and Microsoft’s bewildering categorization of the product. The company’s product chief, Panos Panay, refused to call it a phone, though it ran on Android and made phone calls. And he held a strong belief that a pocketable device running multiple apps across two separate screens would send people into a trancelike state for work.


But Microsoft kept iterating, as companies with trillion-dollar market caps can afford to do, and now it has produced the next version of the handset, the Surface Duo 2. It’s supposed to start shipping a month from now, and its sticker price has Big Phone energy: $1,499. It is also undoubtedly a phone. Microsoft is willing to acknowledge that fact this time around. The new Duo even supports 5G.

The Surface Duo 2 is also being pitched as something the original not-a-phone wasn’t: a fun phone. When Panay showed off the first Duo, he talked about staying “in the flow” an uncountable number of times, as though writing long emails is what life is all about. Then, in August of 2020, when it actually launched, the context for the Duo had shifted. It was no longer just a work device, it was a work-from-home device. You could still answer emails on it, but you could also search for bread recipes or watch Netflix at the same time. (More screen time, you say? Here are two screens in one.)


Now, the new Surface Duo 2 is for phone stuff. Most notably, it has a rear camera module on the back. The first Surface Duo had only a front-facing camera, and you had to flap it back in order to use it as a rear camera. The rear module on the Surface Duo 2 is a hulking thing, but it has the three cameras you’d want in a modern phone: a wide-angle camera, an ultrawide, and a telephoto. Its front-facing camera is slightly improved, too. When you snap photos with the Surface Duo 2, you can use one screen as a viewfinder and the other as a display for your just-shot photo. Want to edit your photo on the fly? One screen is your palette, while the other becomes a giant panel for adjusting brightness, exposure, and contrast. Swipe through, and you can access 15 more photo editing options, all on the same page. 

When the Surface Duo 2 ships it will be running on Android 11, and like the last time around, some key Microsoft Office apps have been optimized for the split screens. But who really needs to spend more time in email?! Use it for casual games instead: One touchscreen displays the game while the other touchscreen becomes a controller. During a prelaunch demo, a vice president for Microsoft, a middle-aged man, showed me how TikTok has been optimized for the Surface Duo 2. (He abdicated any responsibility for whatever showed up on the app’s For You Page. Lucky for the both of us, the first video was a cat video.)

The Surface Duo 2’s hardware has been updated too. It’s thicker than last year’s Duo, by a hair. This is partly because it’s powered by Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 888 5G chip platform, and the 5G modem requires a little more space. But the Duo 2’s corners have been rounded slightly, and the glass backs of the twin displays feel cool and sleek. It feels like an iPad Mini if an iPad Mini had a giant seam down the middle and folded in two. And ran Android.

Wait, there’s more. In Microsoft’s revamp of its finally-calling-it-a-phone, the company realized that it needed to rethink notifications when the Duo 2 is folded shut. Its solution was to turn the spine of the device, with hinges on the top and bottom and the curved edges of the inner display peeking through, into a notification bar. When a phone call comes in, this slice of display lights up. Same with a text message notification. The time of day is shown here too. I cannot explain why this brings me joy. Where Samsung decided to put a small display on the front cover of the Samsung Galaxy Z Flip phone, a fine enough solution, Microsoft threw up its hands and built a light-up notification system on the spine of its of-course-it’s-a-phone.

The thing is, Microsoft has established itself as willing to experiment in hardware. For years, the company produced staid accessories; ergonomic keyboards, pebble-smooth mouse controllers. When it started making its own PCs, it tried pushing two-in-ones into the mainstream with the 2012 release of the Surface hybrid computing tablet. The software was a mess—remember Windows 8? For a while, sales were poor. But eventually, hybrids evolved. Both the hardware and software improved. The surface became a billion-dollar business for Microsoft.

Will the Surface Duo 2 revamp the phone market? Any reasonable analyst would say, with so many entrenched players in the smartphone market, good luck with that. But at least we can now call it what it is: a phone.

Microsoft has officially announced the Surface Pro 8, and the rumors were pretty much on the money. The new tablet includes a larger screen with a 120 Hz refresh rate, updated internal hardware, user-replaceable SSDs, and a pair of Thunderbolt 4 ports that replace the USB-C and USB-A ports in the previous model. It's the most significant (and also: only) redesign that the tablet has gotten since the Surface Pro 3 back in 2014. The Surface Pro 8 is available for preorder today, and a version with a Core i5 CPU, 8GB of RAM, and 128GB of storage will set you back $1,100 (plus the cost of a keyboard cover and the $130 Surface Slim Pen 2, if you want either or both). The first preorders will begin shipping on October 5, the day Windows 11 launches.

The Surface Pro 8 adopts most of the design tweaks Microsoft first tried out in the Surface Pro X in 2019. In fact, the two tablets now share some of the same key physical specifications, including the 13-inch 2880×1920 display size and resolution and the exact same height and width. Like most laptops released in the last few years, the screen size increase comes from shrinking the display bezels rather than dramatically changing the size of the device. The Surface Pro 8's screen does support up to a 120 Hz refresh rate for smoother scrolling, but the tablet will be configured to use the more typical 60 Hz refresh rate out of the box.

The Surface Pro 8 is about a tenth of an inch (or 2mm) thicker than the Pro X to make room for additional cooling, but the identical height and width means that the Surface Pro 8 and the Surface Pro X use the same keyboard cover, now renamed the Surface Pro Signature Keyboard. By the same token, the keyboard covers that worked with all Surface versions from 2014's Surface Pro 3 up to the Surface Pro 7 won't be compatible with the Surface Pro 8.

Because it uses the same keyboard, the Surface Pro 8's keyboard cover can now be used to pair with and wirelessly charge the Surface Slim Pen or the new Surface Slim Pen 2, which supports the same 4,096 pressure levels as the old one but moves the pen's button from the narrow side to the flat side and adds a haptic vibration motor to recreate the "feeling you get with pen on paper." That haptic feedback feature only works on the Surface Pro 8 and Surface Laptop Studio, since it relies on their "custom Microsoft G6 processor" to work. Current Surface Pen models should continue to work with the Surface Pro 8, just as the Surface Slim Pen 2 will work with Surface devices going back to the Surface Pro 3.

Internally, Microsoft has refreshed the Surface Pro 8 with standard laptop hardware for 2021—11th-generation Intel Core i5-1135G7 and i7-1185G7 processors with Intel Iris Xe GPUs and 8GB, 16GB, or 32GB of RAM. Either of these will provide a solid boost to CPU and GPU performance compared to the Surface Pro 7's 10th-generation CPUs. But while Microsoft has included AMD Ryzen processors in some of its other Surface devices, the Surface Pro 8 is only available with Intel chips.

There will be versions of the Surface Pro 8 for businesses that include a Core i3 option and Core i5 and i7 processors with vPro support, but most people won't be able to buy those versions—that's a change from the Surface Pro 7, which uses a Core i3 in its entry-level consumer configuration. The commercial version of the Surface can also be configured with Windows 10 rather than Windows 11, suggesting that manual downgrades will be possible for people who really want to do it.


The Surface Pro 8 also picks up one more handy feature from the Surface Pro X (and the business-only Surface Pro 7+ from earlier this year): user-replaceable SSDs, accessible by popping open a small access door on the back of the tablet. There are limits to this feature, though. The Surface SSD slots do use the standard M.2 interface, but they only have room for a short M.2 2230 drive (that is, 30mm long) rather than the more typical 2280 (80mm long). Microsoft also recommends that you only use Microsoft-branded SSDs, lest you risk lowered performance, though this doesn't seem to be a hard-and-fast requirement. So you won't be able to pop any old standard M.2 SSD into the Surface, but you at least have recourse if you buy a version with 128GB or 256GB of storage and decide you want more in a year or two.

Alongside a fresh lineup of Surface systems, Microsoft announced a new mouse at its fall hardware event. The name gives away the reason why it's interesting. It's called the Microsoft Ocean Plastic Mouse.

The shell is made with 20 percent recycled ocean plastic, which is created from waste that has been recovered from oceans and waterways and processed into resin pellets. Those pellets are added to the other materials that are used to make the shell.

Microsoft Ocean Plastic Mouse
Microsoft

The wood and sugarcane-fiber box that the mouse comes in is completely recyclable and does not include any plastic. You can also send in your old mouse for free and Microsoft will recycle it. Microsoft says the Ocean Plastic Mouse marks a small step forward in its "larger sustainability journey."

There are three customizable buttons on the mouse, which supports Bluetooth 4.0 at a range of up to 33 feet. Microsoft claims the peripheral will run for up to 12 months on a single AA battery. The mouse also supports Swift Pair to help you connect it to your computer. The Ocean Plastic Mouse will ship on October 5th, the same day Microsoft will release Windows 11, and it costs $25.

Microsoft Ocean Plastic Mouse
Microsoft


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