Microsoft shows off Surface Neo, a two-screened laptop

Key Points
  • The Surface Neo is scheduled to come out in time for the 2020 holiday season.
  • Microsoft engineers have worked on foldable device concepts as far back as the late 2000s.
  • The company's device revenue rose about 19% in the most recent fiscal year.
Microsoft unveiled the new Neo laptop.

Microsoft on Wednesday showed off a brand-new type of device, a two-screened foldable laptop called the Surface Neo.

The product will be ready next holiday season, Panos Panay, Microsoft's chief product officer, said at a company event in New York on Wednesday.

Although Microsoft is arguably most well known for its software like Windows and Office, it's been making hardware since 1980. In the most recent fiscal year devices produced less than 5% of Microsoft's total revenue, at $6.1 billion, up about 19% from the same period one year earlier.

Since 2012, Microsoft's Surface brand -- from the little Surface Go to the elaborate Surface Studio desktop -- has inspired new types of computers from the likes of Dell, HP and Lenovo. They haven't become universal hits, though, in the same way that Apple's iPhone has.

The Surface Neo also has a touchscreen display above the keyboard.

Both nine-inch screens of the Surface Neo measure 5.6 millimeters in terms of thickness, and altogether it weighs less than 1.5 pounds. The device features a 360-degree hinge, an Intel Lakefield chip and a USB-C port. It will support the use of a magnetic stylus and a magnetic keyboard that folds over part of one of the displays.

Users can work with a single app across both screens at a 13-inch diameter -- or use a different app on each screen. Apps work in both vertical and horizontal orientation, and they automatically rotate on both screens when the device is rotated.

When the specially designed wirelessly charging keyboard is placed on one of the screens, the content on that screen is relocated to the other screen, so that work can continue. With the keyboard in place, users can select from emojis, animated GIFs and word predictions that show up above the keyboard, on the part of the screen that's not hidden.

Moving the keyboard upward on the bottom screen makes a virtual trackpad appear beneath it, just like on a laptop. The keyboard can also be removed and used with the Surface Neo separately.

The system will run Windows 10X, a new operating system developed for double-screen devices, Carmen Zlateff, partner group program manager at Microsoft, said at the event. Hundreds of engineers and designers have worked on it for the past couple of years, she said. Asus, Dell, HP and Lenovo will come out with their own devices running Windows 10X, Eran Megiddo, corporate vice president for Windows and education at Microsoft, wrote in a blog post.

The interface on the Surface Neo highlights apps and recommended files in a simpler way than Windows 10 and provides a quick way to search the web and user content. The task bar has also been redesigned.

Rumors about the Surface Neo, previously known by the codename Centaurus, had been circulating since December. In May, Microsoft reportedly showed employees a prototype of the product.

Microsoft's interest in this type of device goes back further, though. In 2017 people started discussing a folding device with the codename Andromeda that was said to be smaller than Centaurus. "After struggling to find a serious use case, and the fact that their previous mobile hardware had absorbed $10 billion ... the device went into the vault, for now," Brad Sams wrote in his 2018 book "Beneath A Surface."

Microsoft unveiled the Surface Neo on Wednesday.

In the late 2000s, Microsoft engineers worked on a device with 7-inch dual screens that used the codename Courier, with a unique pen- and touch-oriented interface. The project was shelved in 2010. Its isolation from important products like Office and Windows was a factor in the decision, CNET reported.

The Surface Neo has the same basic form factor of the Courier, but it contains "a very smart keyboard," Georg Petschnigg, chief innovation officer of WeTransfer and formerly co-founder of Pioneer Studios at Microsoft where he worked on Courier, told CNBC in a message on Wednesday.

Courier did not have a keyboard that folds out, as Neo does.

"The workflows though are so core and key here — it's about enabling creativity and productivity on the go," Petschnigg wrote.

Microsoft unveils Surface Neo two-screened laptop, for 2020 release