Neo Is the Most Exciting Laptop Since Microsoft Tried the Same Thing Back in 2009

Like many Microsoft projects, the company was simply dreaming too early

Photos: © Microsoft

TThe laptop industry has been in decline for years. There are many reasons why, from the rise of smartphones, to tablets like the iPad eating market share, but don’t overlook this one: Laptops got boring.

At an event in New York last week, Microsoft provided a peek at a future that could look a little more exciting — where the lines between laptops, tablets, and phones blur together.

The company unveiled its new Surface computers, which were impressive iterations on its already compelling Surface Pro and Surface Laptop devices, but the star of the event was the Surface Neo, a dual-screen, 9-inch computer that folds in the middle, allowing the user to tilt the screen up like a Nintendo DS, or flip it all the way back and cut the device’s physical footprint in half.

The Surface Neo is not a foldable computer. While it does technically fold, there’s a key difference when compared against the array of foldable smartphones like Samsung’s Galaxy Fold: the screen isn’t a single continuous, flexible display. Instead, Microsoft has opted for two separate displays, blended together with software to make them work like one.

This approach is less prone to failure than a screen that actually bends, and it allows for new paradigms that just aren’t possible on other devices.

When it’s in the “clamshell” position, for example, the Neo adjusts automatically to show a virtual keyboard and a “Wunderbar,” which looks like a giant, more useful version of the MacBook Pro’s Touchbar. This Wunderbar will display selectable emoji, allow pen input, and even allow access to an extra application right by the keyboard.

For those that don’t like virtual keyboards, Microsoft has that covered too, with a magnetic, smart keyboard that adjusts the screen layout dynamically whenever it’s attached.

What makes the Neo magic, however, is that it blurs the lines between laptop and tablet more than the Surface Pro ever could. Microsoft has tried to make the tablet PC a thing for years, but Neo appears to be different because it’s a shape-shifter with two screens. It’s the closest the industry has ever gotten to producing a digital version of a physical notebook, while offering the capabilities of an actual computer.

It seamlessly moves between a miniature tablet and full tablet, and it can even work like a full desktop computer. If you’re reading email in the smaller single-screen mode, then unfold the Neo to get a closer look, the content seamlessly expands the extra real estate.

Because the Neo is book-like, it’s heavily focused on using pen input, something that Microsoft has spent the better part of two decades perfecting, but always lacked the hardware to make it shine. The iPad Pro converted me to digital, handwritten notes, but it’s still not ideal; more like writing on a clipboard than in a book.

I’m tired of lugging around my laptop, but sometimes a tablet just doesn’t cut it, and there aren’t any great devices that do both well. The Neo could be an opportunity to carry a single device, rather than multiple devices that have overlapping uses.

Our computers shouldn’t be rigid, inflexible rectangles we organize our lives around, but should instead adjust as we move between our desks, meetings, and home.

What’s mind-boggling is that Neo isn’t even a new idea — Microsoft first conceived of a dual-screen, foldable tablet all the way back in 2009 with the “Courier” project, which was a failed attempt to bring similar ideas to life. The Courier is legendary in the technology industry as a dream of how computing could look in the future, but most of us assumed the ideas had died when the project did.

Like many Microsoft projects, the company was simply dreaming too early. A device like Surface Neo in 2009 would have been thick and heavy to accommodate power-hungry processors, which required noisy fans to cool. But, in 2019, energy-efficient processors and battery improvements mean that the ideas behind Courier can come back to life and deliver something that looks like the science-fiction computers in Westworld.

If the resurrection of Courier wasn’t exciting enough, Microsoft had something else up its sleeve: a second device, called Surface Duo. Just like Neo, it is a dual-screen folding device — but in phone form, running Android.

Duo is similar to Neo in that it blurs the edges of where a phone ends and a tablet begins, but it pulls off this trick in an even smaller form factor. With Duo, you can move easily from talking on the phone to writing a complex email — which I almost always pull out a second device for — by folding it open.

Microsoft building an Android phone feels like hell freezing over, but it’s the right approach, because the device will support millions of apps already available on Google Play. That lets the company focus on its own software, rather than having to reinvent the wheel.

What’s special about Duo and Neo is that Microsoft is giving us a peek into a new computing paradigm: one in which a device can transition between different types of use as we live our lives. Our computers shouldn’t be rigid, inflexible rectangles we organize our lives around, but should instead adjust as we move between our desks, meetings, and home.

The bad news, if you’re as excited as I am about these new ideas, is that Neo and Duo aren’t shipping until late 2020. Microsoft is taking its time to get them right this time, which includes building an entirely new operating system, called Windows 10X.

Neo and Duo are unlikely to single-handedly revive the laptop industry, but it instead asks a bigger question entirely: What is a laptop? Why can’t a phone be a tablet, or even a laptop, all at the same time? Unfortunately, we’ll have to wait until 2020 to find out if that’s actually possible.

Fascinated by how code and design is shaping the world. I write about the why behind tech news. UX Manager @ Shopify.

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