Samsung is the first manufacturer to have cracked smartphone desktop convergence
WE’VE READ A FEW DeX reviews online and have been overwhelmed by the disparity between those in favor and those against. The arguments against DeX generally focus on price. You’re paying £700+ for a phone and £129 for the DeX docking station – add it all up and you’re talking about roughly £800 for a sub-optimal desktop experience! Don’t do it.
On the flip side, other reviewers acknowledge – you’re probably getting a Samsung Galaxy S8 or S8+ anyway – why wouldn’t you? It’s a great phone. Spend a fifth of the money you spent on the phone to pick up the DeX dock. This delivers a more than basic desktop replacement. It’s the epitome of an excellent accessory – spend a bit, get a lot more out of your device.
As someone who’s been optimistically following the smartphone dock convergence category since we started in tech – Motorola Atrix, I looking at you – on paper, DeX tickles all of our hotspots in all the right ways. That said, we’ve also grown accustomed to disappointment, most recently at the hand of Microsoft’s tragically flawed Continuum, packing all the promise of Windows 10 but the follow-through of its ill-fated mobile OS.
Can DeX pull through where so many before it crumbled?
What is DeX?
In a nutshell, DeX is a dock for the Galaxy S8 and Galaxy S8+ that outputs a desktop experience from your phone to a big screen. It acts as little more than a portal, relying entirely on your phone’s processing power to generate the experience, doing so via HDMI, making it compatible with most TVs and monitors. Thanks to two USB ports around the back, it’s easy to hook up a keyboard and a mouse to DeX, and there’s even an ethernet port for anyone who wants a high-speed connection without consuming all your mobile data.
DeX is a plastic puck that looks much better than it feels. It’s lightweight, hollow, and is a bit flimsy, not helped by the fact it has moving parts. There’s a central sliding component that glides back to expose a USB-C port for your Samsung Galaxy S8 to mount. Once docked, lifting up your Galaxy S8 results in lifting up the whole unit, making undocking fiddly, and ensuring this isn’t an ergonomic docking dream.
Fortunately, like we said, it looks much better than it feels and once your S8 is docked, the whole set-up looks great. DeX angles your S8 so it’s easy for you to see your phone’s screen, while the black body will likely go with most desktop decors. The round, inoffensive, organic shape makes DeX looks more like a paperweight than a smart gadget, and even the name, DeX, sounds more like a person than a smartphone accessory.
Unlike with a smartphone, design is only marginally important for DeX as you’re not handling it excessively or pocketing it. We also love the fact DeX is a dock. The Lumia 950 Continuum ‘dock’ wasn’t a dock, it was an octopus box that sprawled wires across a work surface. DeX, by contrast, is a neat package that gets away with being not quite perfect from a design point of view thanks to a great overall aesthetic and, as we’ll come onto, some excellent utility.
Before jumping into the nuts and bolts of the user experience, let’s deep dive a little bit into the connections, and as mentioned, everything of note is around the back – one USB-C port, one HDMI port, capable of 4K output, two USB 2.0 ports and one Ethernet port that supports speeds of up to 100MB.
The DeX Station also has a built-in cooling fan and charges your phone while it’s docked, which, practically, really helps your Samsung Galaxy S8 or S8+ last more than a day.
The DeX user experience is weird. It feels sort of like an Ubuntu Chrome OS love child with no room for tinkering. There are no terminal windows, no command prompts, this is, in its entirety, a desktop world according to Samsung.
Firing it all up and there’s a desktop set-up that is familiar enough. You have one desktop only and can load it up with app shortcuts and folders – no widgets. So while DeX runs Android apps and is, therefore, something of an Android skin, it isn’t a traditional one.
On the bottom left is a back and multi-tasking button as well as a ‘Start’ button. This is where you’ll find your apps and it’s intuitively mapped to a physical keyboard’s Windows key. Like the Windows button in Microsoft’s OS, pressing it also pulls up a search feature so you can browse your apps and also search them with ease.
Within the DeX UX, there is no latency and it’s much more stable and enjoyable to use than Microsoft’s Continuum ever was. In fact, DeX UX is, for the most part uncomplicated, so its features don’t really need more of a deep dive. What is worth going into is app support.
There are three types of apps within the DeX environment, apps supported by DeX, apps not supported by DeX, and apps that don’t even open in DeX. Apps supported by DeX are obviously the best and offer window resizing so you can view them fullscreen. These extend beyond just Samsung apps, with Microsoft Office apps, Gmail, and YouTube making the most of every inch of your monitor.
Apps not supported by DeX usually still work well, however don’t give you the option to resize the app window. This leaves you with apps that are mirrored in floating windows exactly as they would appear on your Galaxy S8. It isn’t a terrible user experience and the added mouse/keyboard input adds a huge amount of comfort to things like wordy Instagram posts.
The final category of apps is those that don’t work on DeX in any capacity. These are the annoying ones. In our experience, they also include key apps like Amazon Prime Video – a weird one given its heavy presence in the Galaxy S8 story, Asphalt 8, and Spotify. Asphalt 8‘s incompatibility is easy to justify as it relies on touch-screen controls, but the other apps don’t and would add a great deal of value to the experience.
The biggest issue with the DeX UI is down to interacting with apps across these three categories. For example, on the home screen, you double-click an icon to interact with it. Double-clicking also works within well-optimized Samsung apps like File Explorer for example. Meanwhile, unoptimized apps are more Android in their interaction, requiring you to single-click, as you would single touch with your finger.
This isn’t deal-breaking, but it’s incongruous and annoying. I understand why Samsung went down the double-click route, to make it all feel more familiar, more like Windows, but I wish they hadn’t. If they had a bit more conviction in their new platform, they would have just retained single-click interaction throughout. This would have meant navigating through DeX wouldn’t have felt incongruous until every Android app in the world was DeX optimized – which will obviously never happen.
A final bugbear with regards to apps comes down to the taskbar. All open apps populate the taskbar every time the S8 is docked, resulting in it overflowing. It would be great if DeX remembered your open apps in the DeX environment as separate from your open apps in your phone environment. That said, you can quickly close all apps by clicking the multitasking menu.
If you’re thinking of picking up a DeX just for gaming, don’t. While in theory, pairing your S8 with a big screen and Bluetooth gamepad sounds great, games aren’t supported by the DeX UI just yet. This results in a floating window gaming experience. There is a workaround though – DeX Station can be used as a straight screen mirroring solution for your phone’s screen, something we’ll come onto later in more detail.
That said, if none of the other DeX highlights sound worth it and gaming is a primary consideration, save yourself some money and buy a USB-C to HDMI connector. This will bypass the DeX platform in favor of screen mirroring, delivering full-screen gameplay and console-like graphics from your phone.
Probably the best thing about working with DeX aside from having mouse and keyboard input is the web browsing experience, especially if you’re okay boycotting Google Chrome and using Samsung’s own web browser. It’s better able to convince websites that you’re not on a smartphone than Chrome, resulting in sites being desktop optimized nine times out of ten.
Web apps like WhatsApp Web work brilliantly on it, and generally speaking, we found everything from embedded video playback though to form filling was a painless process. At times, you bump into sites that force you into a mobile mode which is painful on a big landscape screen, but until the entire internet is comprised of responsive web pages, that isn’t something we’re going to blame Samsung for.
What’s also excellent about Samsung’s browser is that you can password protect private browsing sites, and it supports extensions.
Desktop Remote Access
If you’re looking at DeX as a business tool, perhaps the highlight will be its remote desktop functionality. This feature uses apps like Citrix Receiver and Amazon Web Services to stream a Windows or Mac OS desktop experience to DeX. Using your desktop’s horsepower or a virtual machine, the feature can deliver high-end PC clout to your S8. What’s great is that these services offer immersive, full-screen support, so it doesn’t even feel like a virtual environment.
I used Citrix Receiver when reviewing DeX, and it was excellent. The interaction had virtually no latency with mouse and keyboard input across the core UI, while Office 365 apps worked to perfection. When streaming video sound sync was off, so you’ll want to stick to the DeX experience for media consumption. Meanwhile, video editing tasks like Premiere Pro will be too much of an ask for DeX, even when using a remote desktop. That said, other advanced applications like Photoshop and the rest of Adobe’s creative suite have the potential to work brilliantly through Citrix Receiver.
Suffice to say, you’ll need relatively fast internet on both sending and receiving ends for smooth interaction, we tested DeX with a download speed of 125MB and an upload speed of 20MBPS. These services also come at a cost but offer a free trial so you can try them out to see if they’re right for you and your business. As for more consumer-centric options like Chrome Remote Desktop, Microsoft Remote Desktop, and GoToMyPC, none of these are optimized for DeX just yet.
The fact you can bypass the DeX experience altogether is a great workaround to some of its niggles. When you plug your S8 in, you have the option to either jump into DeX or screen mirror your S8. For unoptimized apps and games, like Amazon Prime Video and Soul Calibur, this feature saves the day.
The other advantage is the fact that the dock charges your phone while outputting video through the USB-C, something a traditional HDMI converter won’t do. Using the dock also provides keyboard and mouse input when interacting with your Android UI, so it still feels very comfortable navigating through the experience – aside from the fact that everything is in portrait orientation by default, meaning, you have to tip your DeX on its side to get a landscape experience on your telly.
The DeX Docking Station is definitely worth the money if you want to turn your S8 or S8+ into a word editing, web browsing, desktop solution. In addition to providing keyboard and mouse input, it delivers a fit-for-purpose desktop UI that runs 90 percent of Android apps in some capacity. It also offers businesses remote desktop capabilities for those times Excel, PowerPoint, and Word for Android just aren’t enough.
Don’t get me wrong, DeX isn’t perfect. To get the most out of it for video playback and gaming, you’ll need to switch between the DeX desktop UI and HDMI screen mirroring. The interface also has some inconsistencies around single and double clicks and app support needs to improve. Still, we don’t think £129 is an excessive amount of money considering the potential for productivity bound up in the DeX dock, and with that, Samsung has become the first manufacturer to have cracked smartphone desktop convergence, even if they haven’t quite perfected it.
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