Microsoft has been showing off a new prototype privately to its employees, an innovative dual-screen device that currently goes by the codename “Surface Centaurus.” It’s a project that’s been in the works for years, having taken a few different forms as it’s evolved. As of yet, it’s never been officially spoken of by Microsoft, only hinted at in rumors and reports.
What we do know is that Centaurus is an ambitious dual-screen “2-in-1” device that could be released sooner than you would think. Here’s everything we know about the revolutionary new Surface device and what it might be like.
Price and release date
It’s still too far out to make accurate claims about the Surface Centaurus price. However, Microsoft’s current Surface laptops start around $900 or $1,000. Add in new dual-screen technology, and it’s easy to guess that $1,000 or higher is a good starting place for the device. Then again, it is supposed to be a smaller device, so Microsoft may try to bridge the gap between the affordable Surface Go and the premium Surface Pro.
As for a release date, Microsoft has made no official announcement or teaser for when to expect it. Earlier rumors suggest that the device may be slated for a release in fall 2019. That would fall in line with the previous October announcements of the Surface Pro 6, Surface Laptop 2, and Surface Book 2. However, more recently, IHS Markit analysts believe — based on supply chain information — that Microsoft may debut the device in the first half of 2020.
Born from Andromeda and Courier
If you’ve been paying attention to Microsoft rumors for a while, this two-screen idea will seem very familiar. There was a “Courier” project several years ago that was supposed to be some kind of dual-screen, lightweight computer that was ultimately canceled. Microsoft also spent some time on Andromeda, a project to create a phone-sized dual-screen or foldable device. Microsoft has reportedly stopped work on Andromeda to focus on Centaurus, reasoning that software would be easier to develop for a larger screen, and worrying that there wasn’t enough demand to justify its production.
When Windows Central first broke the story on Centaurus in December 2018 and revealed that Microsoft has been working on it for a couple of years, it wasn’t exactly a surprise. It was just a matter of Microsoft finding out just what it wanted. And it seems the company wanted a larger dual-screen device in the Surface family, designed for more innovative business work and potentially launching a whole new form factor for the company.
There’s also a chance Microsoft could be interested in the foldable screen trends. Samsung is determined to release its Galaxy Fold despite major setbacks, and Lenovo has even shown off its own version of a laptop-like device with a foldable screen. This might be the closest thing we’ve seen to a preview of the Surface Centaurus as we’re going to get.
A flexible stylus/headset peripheral may also be in the works
Microsoft may also choose to pair its foldable computer with a flexible stylus. At least, that’s what details from a recent patent filing from the technology company would suggest. Published on June 13, but filed by Microsoft on December 8, 2017, the patent details the features of a “flexible carpenter’s stylus with dockable earpiece.” Most notably, diagrams included in the patent indicate that the stylus can be bent and shaped into curvier configurations and that it may be paired with what appears to be a dual-screen foldable computer. Microsoft also went on to explain the purpose of having a flexible stylus with an earpiece:
“The carpenter’s stylus can be used as an input device for a touch screen display. Additionally, the flexible portion has an integrated dock that can hold a dockable wireless earpiece. The earpiece dock securely stores the wireless earpiece and provides power to charge a battery of the wireless earpiece. The flexible portion of the carpenter’s stylus can be bent into a headset shape, allowing the whole peripheral to be worn over a user’s ear. When the carpenter’s stylus is worn as a headset, the earpiece remains fully functional. Thus, the user can wear the carpenter’s stylus on their ear, while also using the peripheral as a hands-free headset. Alternately, the earpiece can be removed from the carpenter’s stylus and used independently of the stylus body as the stylus body is used as a touch input device.”
And there you have it: It appears Microsoft may be developing a stylus/headset hybrid peripheral for its foldable computer, which could prove useful for things like video calling on the go.
Laptop-sized form factor
While we aren’t sure exactly what Surface Centaurus will look like, but it does appear to be larger than both Courier and Andromeda were expected to be, so look for something near the size of a laptop or professional tablet.
The device may support two 9-inch screens, each with a 4:3 aspect ratio, according to IHS Markit when it debuts. This makes each of the display on Centaurus just slightly smaller than the 10-inch PixelSense Display on the Surface Go. The aspect ratio here may be of significance, as it marks a shift away from the 3:2 screen ratio that Microsoft had adopted since the Surface Pro 3 — prior versions of the Surface Pro and Surface RT line used a 16:9 aspect ratio.
That’s not to say that smaller dual-screen Surfaces are out of the question or won’t ever happen: The Surface division head Panos Panay really, really likes the idea of a pocket-sized Surface product. Microsoft appears to have chosen a larger device as its flagship model, however, to make the benefits of using a dual screen obvious and more accessible to a broad audience. For comparison, Apple’s iPad Pro also utilizes a 4:3 aspect ratio.
No doubt the Centaurus device will make use of the Surface Pen for functions and drawing. It could also have some kind of touchscreen-based keyboard for operation, although we’ll have to wait on Microsoft for further details. Interestingly, Microsoft has been working to advance hinge construction on its Surface computers, which could be a sign that Centaurus will use a similar hinge design. Microsoft has also been playing with including multifunction buttons on a foldable device. The technology could make it to Surface Centarus, as this would make for new ways to interact with the device, with one button serving multiple purposes while the device is folded.
Made for Windows Lite
Reports also suggest that Centaurus will run Windows Lite, which is also known as Windows Core OS. This is a streamlined version of Windows 10, one that could better fit a variety of screen sizes and form factors. Windows Core OS is said to be a bit more controlled in terms of what apps you can use and has a lower footprint for speed and simple tasks. As you might expect, Microsoft wants this version of Windows to compete more directly with things like Chromebooks and iPad Pros. The Centaurus device looks like a good opportunity to advance that goal.
Though Microsoft hasn’t talked much about the software, we’ve actually already seen a version of this new operating system in action on the Surface Hub 2. We’d expected to hear more about the new operating system at Build this year, but it looks like we’ll have to wait until next year to hear more.
Powering Android apps?
After Microsoft had launched Windows 10, the company had high hopes of helping developers port Android apps to its ecosystem, making Windows more competitive against mobile operating systems. Microsoft had subsequently abandoned its efforts — known as Project Astoria — though its ambitions may continue to live on when Centaurus launches.
IHS Markit revealed, according to Forbes, that the Windows Lite operating system used by Centaurus will be able to run Android apps, as well as iCloud services. Given Microsoft’s previous push to get developers to build native Universal Windows Platform apps, Android support on Windows will mark a major strategy shift for Microsoft. This functionality will at least allow Microsoft to compete against Chromebooks running Google’s Chrome OS. Though being able to run Android apps may make Centaurus more appealing to consumers — given the vast number of apps inside Google’s Play Store — the move may come with its own set of challenges.
Unless Microsoft gets Google’s blessing, third-party Android apps that run on Windows Lite may not work as intended, especially if they don’t come with support for Google Play Services. Moreover, without Google’s blessing, first-party apps that many of us have become reliant on — including Google Maps, YouTube, and Google Docs — won’t even see the light at the end of Microsoft’s app tunnel.
Intel is along for the 5G ride
Intel, for one, is very interested in dual-screen devices — so much so that the company has shown off its own concepts for dual screens in the past, and is working on various components to help companies reach that end. The closest might be the Tiger Rapids prototype, first shown off at Computex in 2018. The device featured two screens, which could be folded up like a notebook.
It’s no surprise, then, that reports also say Microsoft and Intel have been working together on Centaurus, and that the double-screened computer is very likely to depend on Intel tech for its operation. Intel has good reason to support this, too: The manufacturer is seeing powerful competition from ARM in certain areas, like professional mobile devices, and wants to be a potent alternative. This new device could easily fall into the realm of Project Athena, Intel’s attempt to work directly with manufacturers to push for better battery life and more inventive form factors.
Microsoft’s unique dual-screen computing form factor could also make it a very attractive candidate for Intel to unveil its next-generation 10nm architecture. IHS Markit speculated that Centaurus may adopt Intel’s Lakefield processor, and if Centaurus hits the performance, power, and battery life requirements, the device could even get certified for Intel’s Project Athena initiative. Another feature rumored to make its way on to Centaurus is mobile broadband connectivity, and the device could come with an option for a 4G LTE or 5G modem. This will help the dual-screen device better compete against the new crop of emerging thin-and-light Windows convertibles powered by ARM processors and backed by Qualcomm’s Always Connected PC project.