Samsung has a deep history of testing wild ideas with new products and features. There were the “touchless” controls in the Galaxy S4. Curved TVs that are more expensive without adding much of a benefit. Even refrigerators with tablet computers built into the door.
Samsung’s latest trick: turning your smartphone into a full-on desktop computer. That trick is also tied to the very obvious question: “Why would I need that?”
The theory is that smartphones are so powerful that they’re the only computer you need in many cases. So why not create a way to make it that one-gadget-to-rule-them-all?
This isn’t a new concept. Microsoft gave it a shot with the Continuum feature built into Windows 10 Phones. But since no one really has a Windows Phone these days, the feature went nowhere. And Motorola even tried it way back in 2011 with the Atrix, an Android phone that could power a laptop.
Samsung is giving the idea another go with DeX, a $150 dock for the Galaxy S8 that lets you attach a monitor, keyboard, and mouse and run a lightweight, custom desktop operating system.
At first glance, it looks very familiar. There’s a desktop with wallpaper, app icons, and a mouse pointer for navigating. If you weren’t paying attention you’d think you were looking at a Mac desktop screen.
But this is an entirely different kind of operating system that’s loosely based on Android. You can run all your Android apps in DeX’s desktop mode, and do other smartphone-like stuff such as making calls or checking notifications.
For the most part, it works pretty well, as long as you stick with Samsung’s own apps (web browser, email, etc.) and the small handful of third-party Android apps that have been optimized for DeX, like Microsoft Office.
Everything else feels janky though. DeX lets you run any other Android app, but they’re squeezed into a smartphone-shaped window without the option to make them full screen. For some Android apps that have been configured to work in tablet mode, like Slack, this is OK. But it gets really awkward with just about every other app.
Google has tried over and over to turn its Chrome and Android operating systems into desktop replacements with mixed results. Samsung appears to be jumping the gun a bit with DeX, and it feels like the company is putting the cart before the horse. Maybe one day we’ll just have one gadget that we carry with us everywhere and have it adapt to what we want to do. But today, there simply isn’t the app support and raw computing power for that to happen.
DeX is a fine solution if you just need something for emailing, writing, and browsing the web, but I don’t see this gaining enough third-party support to become a broad enough platform for a large number of people to use.
At best, DeX is an extremely niche product. It works fine, but it’s not something I’d recommend for most people. The Galaxy S8 is a great phone, something you should definitely consider buying. But when it comes to add-ons like DeX, it’s still clear that no one has a product that can beat the tired and true laptop/smartphone combination.