Samsung DeX: Closer to a Chromebook than convergence
Despite all the details that are conveniently swept under the rug by all the utopian excitement, there is - genuinely - a lot to be excited about when it comes to the idea of convergence. For the unfamiliar, the pitch here is that at the rate at which smartphones are advancing, they’ll soon become powerful enough to compete with the laptops and desktop workstations we currently jump between depending on our needs. Owning multiple computers will be a thing of the past and you’ll own a single device that does it all.
That’s the idea, anyway, and - for what it’s worth - that promise of unification is absolutely going to appeal to certain people more than others. Specifically, Samsung are betting that there’s a strong crossover here between those who are willing to buy into convergence and those who are willing to buy (or already own) a Galaxy smartphone.
The end-result of those expectations: the Samsung DeX.
The Samsung DeX (presumably shorthand for “Desktop Experience”) is a USB-C charger dock best designed to work with the Galaxy Note 8 (though it will also work with the S8 and S8+) that allows you to connect your smartphone to a monitor and gain access a “desktop-style” user interface. It’s got a USB-C port on the back (used to power the accessory), ethernet jack (100m/ps), HDMI 2.0 output and two USB 2.0 ports.
Design & Setup
In terms of setup, there’s not a huge amount of hassle attached to the DeX aside from the wiring. You plug it into a power source, then into a monitor, then stick your Samsung smartphone on it and your device automatically shifts gears to output to the display. Since it does double as a charger-dock, you don’t have to worry about your phone running out of battery during extended use.
Unfortunately, the Dex doesn’t necessarily play nice with every monitor out there. Sure, it worked seamlessly with the Samsung CF591 and an older Acer display we had around the office. However, when we tried it with a Lenovo monitor we ended up with large sections of the display left black. Your mileage might vary.
In terms of control, the DeX supports both wired and wireless mice and keyboards. Regardless, you’re probably going to want to opt for the latter since the alternative will see you lose out on the DeX’s entire array of USB-inputs. If this is meant to replace your desktop or workstation, then two ports just not enough to work with.
Audio output is another aspect of the DeX experience that needs a little more work. The 3.5mm audio jack on the Note 8 is located on the bottom of the device. This means its inaccessible while your phone is in the DeX - meaning you’ll likely have to either rely on the audio output of your monitor (which might not be good or even supported), the slightly-muffled speaker on the Note 8 (which isn’t all that great to begin with) or lose another yet USB port to some sort-of speaker output. Again, it feels like there just aren't enough USB-ports here.
In terms of the experience, the DeX does a great job of translating Samsung’s TouchWiz interface over to a desktop. Navigating the interface feels quick, easy and intuitive. Everything works more-or-less how you expect it to. Resizing apps works well-enough but does feel a little bit clunky. Having the ability to use a mouse and keyboard absolutely makes certain things much easier to accomplish.
Creating shortcuts to specific files or folders also feels sometime like a little bit more of a process than it ought to be but, overall, the DeX UI isn’t bad - but it still need work (better Bixby integration wouldn’t go amiss either). On the whole, I was actually surprised how much the experience reminded me of Chrome OS.
Like Google’s ultraslim operating system, all your Android apps should work in the DeX desktop interface. However, whether or not they’ve been optimized for the DeX is a whole other bag of worms. It’s very hit-and-miss. The big things - Google Docs, Word, Adobe Photoshop etc,- are generally supported but if your app library is a little more diverse, there’s a good chance you might run afoul of some sort of incompatibility. In some of those cases, the app will load up in smartphone-shaped window. This is sometimes workable but rarely ideal. Other times, the app will flat-out refuse to launch.
Of course, much like a Chromebook, whether or not the app library available on the Google Play store (or Samsung’s own Galaxy Play store) will let you do everything you need to do on a desktop is absolutely going to vary based on your personal requirements. Regardless, there are a few things that can be eliminated from the outset.
Powerful as they are, the Galaxy S8 and Note 8 aren’t going to replace your traditional gaming desktop anytime soon. Likewise, if you’re looking to do some video editing or creative production work - this isn’t going to cut it. That said, configuring the DeX with one of the many a virtual machine apps available on Android is absolutely a potential workaround though it’s not exactly elegant and sort of undercuts the larger pitch for convergence.
The other big aspect of the desktop experience that’s absent here is customizability. The DeX needs much more of it. There’s something to be said for the simple-and-clean look that TouchWiz offers. However, the big thing that’s missing - or at least inadequately addressed - by the DeX experience is the ability to make your desktop feel unique to you.
The Bottom Line
It’s telling that the raw, unadulterated idea of convergence that drives the DeX remains so compelling despite the many shortcomings here. As a product, the DeX works well enough. However, as a realisation of convergence, it’s held back by the hardware as much as it is the software. Even if it looks good, the DeX’s minimalism comes at a significant cost to usability - and considering that the masterstroke to convergence is building an experience that you’ll prefer to use over a conventional PC - that’s a pretty big misstep. It’s also little too expensive - even if it is potentially replacing a dedicated desktop or workstation.
It’s clear that a lot of time has gone into making the Galaxy smartphone experience bigger but less time has gone into catering for those might see this as a chance to ditch their dedicated desktop. I’m absolutely fascinated to see how Samsung learn from the DeX and improve upon it’s weaknesses in future iterations but, as it currently stands, your mileage is going to vary far too much to unreservedly recommend the DeX right now.
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