Microsoft’s Surface devices, including an Android not-phone

Microsoft did do it! We heard lots of whispers and tips that Microsoft’s Surface event in New York would be something bigger than just a round of refreshes. It was!

(Image: Stuart Ramson/AP Images for Microsoft)
Microsoft’s Chief Product Officer Panos Panay, presenting on the smallest stage I’ve ever seen (Imgur), literally in the crowd 90% of the time, and making deep philosophical thoughts for why products exist (Twitter), announced new Surface laptops, a new 2-in-1 option, earbuds… (Windows.com). 
But! Panay also announced two intriguing foldable devices: one like a tablet/laptop running Windows, one like a tablet/phone running Android.
First, what we expected:

Surface Laptop 3, Surface Pro 7 and Surface Pro X: new laptops, in new ways.
  • The Surface Laptop 3 had a major round of upgrades, now available with 13.5-inch or 15-inch screens, with new colours and finishes, including new aluminium or the Alcantara material finish, and more little details.
  • The big deal is new 10th-generation Intel Core processors in the 13.5-inch versions, while the 15-inch models use AMD Ryzen processors.
  • Both offer fast-charging includes USB-C and the older USB-A ports, and start at $999 and $1199 respectively.
  • Surface Pro 7 delivers new 10th-gen Intel CPUs as well, boosting power, and adding USB-C ports. It drops in price to start from $749, shipping October 22nd, but battery life has fallen a touch, from the previous 13 hours to 10.
  • The Surface Pro X offers an ultra-mobile 13-inch laptop solution, at 5.33mm thick and 1.68 pounds, with a Qualcomm processor. The touch display has thin bezels, reportedly looks great, and it has a Surface Pen dock for a new rechargeable stylus. It starts at $999, with LTE, from November 5, which isn’t cheap given the likely downgrades in performance from that processor but portability is everything, you can choose 8/16GB RAM and removable SSD with 128GB, 256GB or 512GB storage.
  • Surface Earbuds bring true wireless earbuds to Microsoft, the great bandwagon of 2019, and they look a little bit like gauge-style ear piercings, and are definitely distinctive, with some interesting tie-ins to Microsoft Office apps. The shipping holiday season for $249.
  • And Microsoft’s ergonomic keyboard is back, plus new Bluetooth keyboards, a Bluetooth mouse, and more.
But really, the big eye-catcher is the new dual-screen devices, Surface Neo and Surface Duo. These are still more than a year away, but Microsoft is betting on them in a big way, with form-factors that defy conventional names.
  • Surface Neo is a dual-screen device with two 9-inch screens, that combine into a 13-inch area, using Windows 10X: Windows 10 designed for dual-screens, for both Microsoft devices and other manufacturers - expect similar from ASUS, Dell, HP and Lenovo. 
  • The screens have a 360-degree hinge, with friction allowing you to bend the device into whatever posture suits you, from portrait to landscape, while a foldable keyboard keeps things productive. The two screens can display one desktop, and therefore movie or presentation, or split into two functions. 
  • It’s a trick PC, there’s room for a Surface Pen, and it folds down into a tablet-sized form. 
  • No price yet, availability in “holiday 2020”, meaning more than a year away.
  • It looks great in this configuration switch, it really does:

  • The Surface Duo is the little brother, with two 5.6-inch screens that unfold to an 8.3-inch area. 
  • But it runs Android! It can make calls, it has a camera, it fits in your pocket, and Microsoft and Android, together at last, again.
  • Microsoft worked on this with Google, and while the form is similar to the Samsung Galaxy Fold, this isn’t a single folding screen, but two little tablet screens that work together:

  • Again no price, later availability next year, and full specs are not clear. 
  • Indications are the device is powered by the Qualcomm Snapdragon 855 processor and runs on Android 9 Pie now.
  • But by 2020 those will be yesterday’s hardware and two-year-old software, so… I’d expect better by the time this thing does come out.
  • But it’s a big deal because Microsoft and Android collaborating really could mean big things.
Duelling thoughts on the dual-screens:
  • Two separate devices, one bigger one for Windows productivity things, one smaller one for on the go, makes some sense in a vacuum, but practically I can’t see people owning both.
  • Windows apps vs Android apps isn’t really the fight, either. 
  • Everything we do is in the cloud now, so it’s more about the right form factor for you, where you see yourself using either device.
  • Oh, and we did first hear about this in June, but the rumours were a little vague, thinking this was all one unicorn device, not two separate options.
A device, not a phone: 
  • Microsoft really doesn’t want you to call the Surface Duo a phone, per WIRED:
  • No matter what you do, do not call the new Surface phone a phone. You can call it a Surface, a mobile product, a dual-screen device, a new kind of 2-in-1, a pathway to the all-important cloud. But Panos Panay, Microsoft’s chief product officer, doesn’t want you to call it a phone.
  • I get it. Calling it a phone is a tiny bit limiting and Microsoft doesn’t want to be seen as bringing out a phone to fight with the likes of Apple/Samsung/Huawei/etc., but bringing out an entirely new Surface experience.
  • However. The ZTE Axon M and the very recent LG G8X are very similar devices, that were phones and are phones. (Podcast host Adam Doud ran a nice ‘in defence of’ for the Axon M, by the way.)
  • Remember, LG announced its dual-screen G8X just a few weeks ago! It’s almost the same thing! 
  • But LG wasn’t talking this up as the future of productivity, just a useful addition to the main body of its existing, normal phone.
Can Microsoft transcend the phone?
  • Microsoft is aiming much higher. It made these two dual-screen devices a showpiece at a major launch. 
  • Heavyweight efforts are being into a device that Microsoft hopes will exist in a different category.
  • I don’t really think it can, without an unbelievably good software experience, with the hardware to back it up.
  • Otherwise, it’ll just be a Surface Duo, running Android, that most people will call the new Microsoft phone that will probably retail for more than an iPhone.
  • The other problem is that by the time the Surface Duo emerges, the likes of Samsung and its Galaxy Fold will be up to the Galaxy Fold 2.
  • In theory, that will be once the various production issues are ironed out, and it has an even further refined software experience as well, and perhaps is a touch cheaper.
  • And the rest of the foldable brigade is coming: Motorola has something, we’re waiting for the Huawei Mate X to be released, Xiaomi has demoed a device, Google is experimenting… it’s just we’re in about 1993 for foldable, right now.

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