After years — YEARS — of rumours, Microsoft has finally announced its dual-screen Surface device, the Surface Neo. Panos Panay, chief product officer for Microsoft’s Devices Group, showed off the device at Microsoft’s annual Surface event alongside a whole slew of devices and a brand new version of Windows, Windows 10 X, that the Neo is expected to run on.
Unfortunately, the Neo isn’t coming to a Microsoft Store this spring. Panay might have shown off a very polished device, but he says it won’t be available until late 2020 — a year from now.
Microsoft has been working on this dual-display device, and similar, smaller devices for years now. First, there was Courier, which Gizmodo reported on the existence of way back in 2009. Then there was Andromeda, a more pocket-friendly phone-like device that came painfully close to being launched publically. Mary Jo Foley of ZDNet reported on its apparent demise in the summer of 2018. (Microsoft also announced the Microsoft Surface Duo, which sure sounds like what Andromeda was trying to be.)
It’s probable that Neo has its roots in Centaurus, which was first rumoured to exist in December 2018 when Windows Central reported Microsoft had been working on the device for over a year. While Andromeda was intended to be more phone or Galaxy Fold-like, Centaurus was supposed to be a larger device. Sure sounds like the Surface Neo, huh?
Panay was unfortunately fairly scant on details at the event. Each side is 5.6mm thin and use what Panay claims is the thinnest LCDs ever. It weighs 650g. It will use an 11th-generation Intel Lakefield processor that Panay claims is exclusive to the Neo.
The Pen magnetically attaches to the back, and an optional keyboard rests on top of part of one display. When the keyboard is set on one side of that display the “Wonder Bar” appears. It’s a supersized Touch Bar with emojis and other quick responses available at a touch. Push the keyboard up and a trackpad appears, allowing you to use the Neo like a very small Windows laptop.
It’s ok that those details are fairly sparse because, like the ARM-based Microsoft Surface Pro X and the original Surface Pro, the new Neo is as much a reference design for future Windows-based devices as it is a Surface device Microsoft wants you to buy and use.
What Microsoft is really good at doing is creating devices that are the platonic ideal of their respective categories. Take the Surface Pro. Windows tablet-based computers existed before the Surface Pro, but the Surface Pro gave computer makers a blueprint for how to do it best. The Neo is of a similar vein. This is how Microsoft feels a dual-display device running Windows should look.
Panay made it clear that it wouldn’t be the only dual-display Windows device either. And that makes sense. Microsoft made a commitment to dual-display devices at Computex in 2018, and we’ve seen a smattering of them since. Asus and HP both released laptops with small secondary displays, and Lenovo has two generations of the Yoga Book under its belt. That device has one regular display and one e-ink display and folds closed like a book.
Lenovo has also shown off prototypes that look more like the Neo. In early May, it showed Gizmodo a device that appeared to be one large tablet that could fold in half thanks to a 4K OLED display. Some problems with a dual-display system, like a crease in the display or the weird gap found on the Galaxy Fold, weren’t present in Lenovo’s device. But it also had huge bezels, and it appeared that Windows 10 wasn’t quite ready to deal with the dual display.
In May, Dell confirmed to Gizmodo that it was also working on dual-display devices. Yet where Lenovo was eager to show off its progress, Dell was much more reticent. Frank Azor, who ran Dell’s consumer PC business until July 2019, when he moved to AMD, was candid about the challenges of dual-display devices. “Why haven’t you seen us come out with a foldable? Why isn’t it here? Because we’re not clear yet on how to do that just yet,” he told Gizmodo
He noted that while competitors might rush to market, Dell was reluctant to do so until the time was right. For Azor, the problems with dual-display devices were plentiful.
Dual-display devices demand a lot of battery life to power twice the displays of a normal device. They also have to be thin, which means you can’t squeeze in a larger battery, and they have to have a processor that balances the thermal and battery constraints of a thin dual-display device while also being powerful enough to power both displays without noticeable lag.
There was also the usability issue that Lenovo’s prototype visibly struggled with. “How do I touch it? How do I interact with it? Because I want a great experience around that,” said Azor. “That’s all a lot of work a lot of software work. A lot of human factors work. A lot of giving people devices and saying ‘Play with it. Tell us what you think. What do you love? What do you hate about it?’”
Clearly, Azor and Dell did a lot of testing because not long after his departure for AMD, Dell invited me and a small group of reporters to check out some dual-display prototypes. The prototypes ranged from fanciful mockups to devices that resemble products already available, to things that look quite similar to the Microsoft Neo.
At the time, Dell noted that the challenges Azor highlighted were still present. At today’s Microsoft event, Panay seemed to suggest that quite a few of those issues were solvable in the very near future.
Part of that is because Panay clearly feels Microsoft has the engineering and design prowess to tackle the problems, and part of it is because Microsoft also makes the operating system. If it wants to make a flexible and more modular version of Windows 10 that uses less juice, requires less processor power, and also provides the usability necessary for a dual-display device, it can.
Windows 10 X is a branch of Windows 10 intended for devices like the Neo. Behind the scenes, that means it runs applications in containers. These containers effectively silo the apps so they can’t interfere with each other or draw on too much battery and processing power when not active. The operation of Windows 10 X is inspired by the version of Windows 10 found on the HoloLens. That device also has to contend with the limitations of its battery and processor, so it makes sense to use a practice that has been proven to work.
Less tested is the UI for Windows 10 X. It actually changes depending on how you’re using the device. The idea is that it should be seamless. The demo on stage certainly suggests Microsoft has sorted out the useability challenges of a dual-display device.
However, we didn’t actually get to interact with the device apart from sharing the same room as it. Hopefully, we’ll get some solid time with it between now and next year when the Neo is expected to launch.