Samsung's DeX is the closest thing we have to using our phones as PCs
Perhaps you've heard this idea before: can a single device work as both your mobile phone and your desktop or laptop computer? If you have, and you've used the many prior attempts at it, you've probably been disappointed. A lot of companies, from Palm to Motorola and even Microsoft, have tried this idea, yet none have succeeded; we're still all carrying around phones and laptops instead of just one, do-everything device.
That's the world Samsung is entering with DeX, a $149.99 docking station for the Galaxy S8 smartphone. On paper, it's just like Microsoft's Windows 10 Continuum: a basic dock that you plug the phone into that provides connections for a monitor, power, Ethernet, and USB devices. Hook up a monitor to the DeX's HDMI port and pair a wireless mouse and keyboard to the phone, and boom, you instantly have a desktop workstation.
The “phone as PC” idea is a graveyard of failed attempts
The software, however, is where Samsung is making its mark. Samsung has effectively taken Android apps, optimized a few of them for productivity, and managed to make a mobile-meets-desktop experience that actually feels… good. By comparison, Windows 10 Continuum is, well, not good, hamstrung by very limited app compatibility and poor performance. My initial thought was that DeX likely wouldn't be much better, that it would have similar limitations or simply be a clever but unusable concept.
But I've been pleasantly surprised as I've used DeX as my primary workstation for the past week. It has a much wider assortment of apps available than Windows 10 Continuum, and the Galaxy S8's processor is capable of handling multiple windows and a lot of browser tabs with relative ease. With few exceptions, I've been able to do the vast majority of my work tasks with DeX, which I can't say about Continuum.
That isn't to say this idea is for everyone. In fact, it's probably not for most people. It's safe to say we still haven't arrived at the perfect one-device-for-everything solution. Between the cost — in addition to the $150 dock, you also have to supply a mouse, keyboard, monitor, and the $750 Galaxy S8 to make it all work — and DeX's limitations, which I'll get into, most people are still better served by a standard Windows or Mac laptop, or even a Chromebook.
But it's the closest anyone has come to turning a smartphone into a full PC, and it has me excited about an idea that I had all but written off before.
Plug a Galaxy S8 into the DeX dock for the first time and, in about a minute, a desktop environment, complete with app tray, shortcut bar, and system tray, will pop up on the connected monitor. All of the apps that you had been using on the phone before you docked it are available as icons at the bottom of the screen, which means there will likely be dozens of icons in the task bar right away. The system tray at the lower right provides access to notifications, settings shortcuts, and the time and date, just like you might find on a Windows 10 computer.
Hit the app tray icon at the lower left and you can launch any of your apps on the big screen. Samsung has worked to make sure its own apps — calendar, internet browser, email, messages, etc. — take advantage of the larger display with desktop interfaces. But lots of other apps adapt to the big screen as well, including Slack, Microsoft's Office suite (I'm writing this in Word Mobile on DeX right now and it's just as powerful as Word Mobile on my Surface Pro), and YouTube. Windows can be resized, rearranged, tiled, or stacked, just like you're used to doing on a desktop computer. Keyboard shortcuts, such as Alt-Tab, also work, so it's easy to transition to working on DeX just like you might on Windows or macOS.
DeX's browser is its most impressive part
The biggest test of these kinds of systems is always how well the browser works, and this is where DeX is most impressive. By default, Samsung's internet browser will load desktop versions of websites, instead of mobile ones, and it supports content blockers and other extensions. Scrolling is fast and stutter-free, and it can handle multiple windows, multiple tabs (I've been able to use it with a dozen or more tabs running at any given time), and interactive web apps without grinding to a halt or having to frequently reload tabs. The Google Docs Android app is severely limited in its feature set compared to Docs online, but I was able to run the full version of it in DeX's web browser without issue.
The browser does have its limits — it struggles with the proprietary content management system we use at The Verge and Adobe Flash support is obviously out of the question — but for the most part, it loads pages just like Chrome or Safari does on a full computer.
There are things that will frustrate power users, though. The browser's tab management doesn't compare to a desktop browser, and you can't easily pull tabs out into separate windows or combine multiple browser windows into one group of tabs. And sometimes clicking a link in an app would open a new browser window instead of a tab in the existing window I had open, which is unpredictable and annoying.
Not every app on my phone is optimized for DeX, and a great many of them are limited to phone-sized windows when I open them. That includes key apps like Facebook, Pocket, Lastpass, and Instagram. But since the browser is so capable, I just loaded those services in browser tabs when the small app window wasn't sufficient.
Then there are other apps, like Twitter, Evernote, Gmail, and YouTube, that open in large, resizable windows, but don't necessarily provide an appropriate interface for the bigger screen. In other words, they work fine, but are essentially blown-up phone apps in DeX — just like how they are when they run on Android tablets.
There were a few apps that I couldn't use at all on DeX, the most notable of which is Spotify, which refuses to open. Certain games, such as Super Mario Run open fine, but then are unable to be played without a touchscreen. And some apps, like my preferred email client, EasilyDo Mail, were just sluggish on DeX, so I used Gmail instead.
Not all apps take advantage of the large screen
But those issues pale in comparison to how limited Windows 10 Continuum is, which doesn't allow windowing of apps and only has a handful of programs that will even work at all on it. (Google's implementation of Android apps on Chromebooks has similar issues and limitations, though that's not exact the same idea as what Samsung and Microsoft are going for.) I was able to re-create my standard desktop environment of Twitter on the right; Slack, Word, and browser in the middle; and Todoist and calendar on the left in no time in DeX.
And because the whole thing is running from my phone, I can make and receive phone calls, read and send text messages, and use pretty much any other messaging app I want right from my mouse and keyboard. I'm even able to use the S8's iris scanner to unlock the desktop and authenticate logins in the browser.
Performance in DeX is better than I experienced with Continuum, as well. Switching between apps and windows happens quickly, resizing windows doesn't introduce annoying stutters, and it all just works without really getting in my way. It's not as fast as a modern Windows PC or Mac computer, but it's comparable to an entry-level Chromebook. Even when the system popped up warnings of low memory, which, admittedly, happened early and often, it just kept going without crashing or freezing.
The DeX hardware is less impressive than the software experience. The dock resembles a plastic ashtray when the phone is docked in it and while the HDMI, Ethernet, and two USB Type-A ports are sufficient for most things I'd need to plug into it, I wish it also included an audio out for desktop speakers.
Undocking the phone is clumsier than docking it, and it takes a good minute or two to switch back to “phone” mode after running the desktop environment, meaning you can't use your phone right away after getting up from your desk. More frustrating is that the system doesn't remember any of my window arrangements when I switch modes, so every time I sit down at my desk and dock the phone, I have to reopen my apps and rearrange my workspace.
Those issues aside, I'm stunned at how close Samsung has come to fulfilling the dream of having one device that can work as multiple types of computers. It's so far ahead of Windows 10 Continuum that it's almost laughable and makes me wonder what Microsoft has been doing for two years since Continuum debuted. I'd love to see Samsung come out with a DeX laptop dock, so that I can have a truly mobile workstation powered entirely by my phone.
Answering the question “Does it work?,” which for the most part, DeX does, turns out to be easier than answering who this is for. Again, this type of system isn't ideal for the average person because of its sheer cost, and power users will quickly find the limits of DeX and get frustrated with it. A Windows or Mac laptop, or even a Chromebook, is a better solution for both sets of people.
DeX is the best proof of this concept yet
But it could be an interesting proposition for businesses that need to deploy and manage fleets of devices for their workforce. The DeX system isn't necessarily more economical than providing a laptop and phone for each employee, but it's certainly easier to manage from an IT perspective. Or it could be a good option for a shared computer in the home (provided everyone in your house has a Galaxy S8 or S8 Plus), where it's only required to do light tasks from time to time.
Mostly though, DeX is a proof of concept that shows it's not so crazy to think that a smartphone could accomplish as much as a PC, provided it has the right peripherals attached to it. And it's more proof than we've ever seen before.