It’s amazing just how heavy an ultra-portable laptop becomes when you’re lugging it through airports, convention centers, and the streets of wherever the heck you’re doing business. Even a thin laptop can become a 2.5-pound problem, but now it’s a problem that could very well be solved by DeX, Samsung’s desktop-PC-in-a-dock for the Galaxy S8 and S8+ smartphones.
Drop your Galaxy phone into the DeX dock ($150 at Amazon or the Samsung store), then connect DeX to a desktop monitor or TV over HDMI. Boom: You now have a 1920x1080 PC desktop with resizable windows. Except all your programs are mobile apps. And, yeah, your desktop is Android, not Windows. But it works!
I shared my first impressions of DeX last week, so please check out that article for extra details on the DeX experience (none of my early opinions have changed). Now I’m ready to submit my final review, all based on using the Galaxy S8+ and DeX as my only PC at work for seven days. Could I still do everything my workflow requires, from Slacking with co-workers to editing photos to building articles like this in our company’s custom content management system (CMS)?
In three words: yes, yes and yes. And more.
Once you get past the DeX pain points...
As I shared before, the biggest pain point with DeX is Bluetooth pairing. If you intend to use a Bluetooth keyboard and mouse with DeX (which would make perfect sense in traveling scenarios), you’ll need to pair the accessories before you insert your Galaxy phone in the cradle. Once you dock the phone, its screen goes dark, making it impossible to pair Bluetooth devices from the handset. Meanwhile, the DeX startup screen on the desktop will require a passcode—which you can’t enter unless you have a keyboard already paired.
The upshot: I opted for a USB keyboard and mouse throughout my testing. The DeX dock has two USB 2.0 ports, one ethernet port, and a USB-C port for power (and, yes, the DeX Station will charge your docked phone).
Once connected to a display, DeX casts a 1920x1080 desktop that looks remarkably like a PC. Shortcuts to your favorite apps appear vertically on the left, and open apps dock on the bottom. Mouse over the docked apps, and you’ll get previews of the activity at hand. But, hey, you’re still in Android, so the lower right of the desktop showcases your full Android notifications tray.
The 1080p resolution doesn’t offer a ton of screen real estate and it does suffer a bit of blurry pixel interpolation. But it’s still very laptop-like, and because DeX accommodates resizable windows in a good number of Android apps, I found multitasking to be both familiar and easy. The display’s refresh rate is a bit laggy, but my bigger concern is universal support: I tested DeX on four common 1900x1200 desktop monitors, and one 4K TV, and one of the four monitors refused to run DeX fullscreen. Instead, the display was horribly letterboxed, top and bottom, left and right.
Let this serve as a reminder that when you’re traveling with DeX for business, you’re at the mercy of whatever monitor or TV you may find in your hotel room or business lounge. I would also suggest bringing along an HDMI-to-DVI adapter, just in case. But, hey, in terms of getting full resolution, a four out of five hit rate isn’t bad.
Windows—but in an Android playground
Once properly set up at work, I spent all my time with an S8+ review unit docked in the DeX Station. My work requirements aren’t particularly exotic. I don’t need to get into CAD or download torrents. But I do need to build articles in my company’s custom CMS; edit documents in Word and Google docs; and download and edit images, and then load them into the CMS. And, yeah, I also need to Slack co-workers, check email, and glance at the NBA playoff schedule and check what’s happening in my favorite Subreddits.
Let’s now look at all of those activities in reverse order.
My Reddit reader of choice is the Reddit Is Fun app. Unfortunately, along with a few other Android apps I regularly use, it doesn’t offer a resizable window in DeX. Samsung currently lists 30 apps with DeX support, but I’m not sure how support is even defined. If it simply means the app provides a resizable window in DeX, then Samsung’s list is incomplete. To wit: Slack doesn’t make the list, but does have a resizable window.
At any rate, I eventually opted to read Reddit in Chrome, as Chrome has DeX support. I also used Chrome to read my Outlook Mail because my Android lockbox for Outlook—an app called Nine—doesn’t have a resizable window either.
As for the Slack app, it frequently reminded me I was still in an Android environment: Because it’s a mobile app, it will show your status as offline unless its window is active in the foreground of the DeX desktop. This behavior makes sense when the app is running on a smartphone, because the phone could be in your pocket, where a dormant app really does mean you’re offline. Nonetheless, on DeX, this Android behavior made me miss quite a few direct messages, especially because I never received Slack notifications either.
DeX gets productive
While Slack proved problematic, my other main messaging platform—regular old SMS—was better than ever. Because your DeX’ed S8 is both your phone and your PC, you can have full texting conversations on your desktop in the resizable Messages app. Likewise, you can make voice calls from your docked S8. Just launch the phone dialer and make the call, and you’ll hear your partner over the docked speakerphone.
Music apps? I experienced mixed behaviors. Spotify launched in a fixed Android portrait window, and refused to play music. But YouTube and Google Play Music cooperated, playing music through the phone’s speakers.
But enough about these distractions. Let’s talk productivity. DeX supports a number of image editing apps, but I opted to go with Adobe Photoshop Lightroom, which is both incredibly refined for a mobile app, and runs speedy-fine on the Snapdragon 835 processor of the Galaxy S8+. What’s more, it wasn’t much of a hassle to find the images I needed to edit. Once you download a file, it appears in My Files, the rudimentary Android file manager app that’s preloaded at the top of the DeX desktop.
Editing raw text was just as easy. When my staffers sent me video scripts via email, I simply clicked on the links to Google Drive, and up popped the scripts in Google Docs (which also supports resizable windows, cut and paste, and other DeX behaviors). Mind you, I was still in the mobile version of Docs, so some tasks—like simply adding a comment—required a few extra inputs. But it never felt excessively tedious.
DeX also supports the mobile Microsoft Office suite, including Word, Excel, PowerPoint, OneNote, OneDrive and Skype. You’ll need an Office365 subscription to unlock everything, but once you’re up and running, you’ll feel right at home.
But could I CMS?
The real productivity test would be working inside our custom content management system. This workflow requires getting through password protection; uploading images; searching through a database for images; and making finicky text edits in what can often be a slow and inflexible cloud-based environment.
To race right to the payoff: Working in the CMS was easy. I never hit a brick wall, and performance was more than acceptable.
I entered the CMS via Chrome, and had zero issues with password management (the days when mobile browsers forgot our passwords are clearly over). Uploading images required a bit of creativity: At the beginning of my week of testing, when I clicked “Upload new image” in the CMS interface, Chrome presented me with four source options: Camera, Camcorder, My Files (the Android file manager) and Documents (Google Drive). From there I could easily navigate to My Files, where my downloaded images were stored.
Strangely, toward the end of the week, the CMS interface stopped giving me My Files as a directory option. But I easily found a workaround by jumping into Google Drive and uploading images stored in the phone’s My Files directory.
And that was pretty much the only hiccup. Otherwise, all my CMS activity was business as usual (if perhaps a bit slow).
The bottom line
Would I like to have multi-monitor support? Absolutely. Am I irritated by Bluetooth pairing challenges? Sure. But it’s pretty hard to poke holes in DeX when I can get all my day-to-day work done with relatively little hassle.
Nonetheless, there’s still the uncertainty of what displays will be waiting for you in the vast business-travel unknown. How many hotel rooms will have TVs with HDMI ports? How many hotels can loan you a desktop display? And what happens if you get seemingly appropriate hardware, but DeX still letterboxes its desktop?
These are questions that give me pause when thinking about leaving my laptop at home. But, wow, when DeX is up and running, it really delivers. This is a platform that Samsung should migrate to other Galaxy phones; that Google should steal for Pixel 2; and that Microsoft should study for its Continuum scheme. There’s a lot to like about the Galaxy S8 and S8+, but for people who work, DeX might be the best feature of all.