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For the past six or seven years, smartphone brands have dabbled with mobile/desktop convergence. There was Motorola and the lapdock, Alcatel and its own effort and, of course, Microsoft and Continuum for Phones.
This year though, we’ve seen Samsung take a stab at the “your phone is a PC… kinda” trend, launching the DeX dock alongside the Galaxy S8 (review). And at first appearance, it’s pretty similar to Microsoft’s effort in terms of hardware setup. Andy Walker and Hadlee Simons put the DeX through its paces — read the conversational review below.
Hadlee Simons: Take a look at the dock itself and you’ve got two USB ports, a welcome Ethernet jack, HDMI cable and Type-C jack for power via a charger. Handy stuff. Press down at the top of the device (below the Samsung logo — there’s a discreet arrow here) and the top turns into a USB-C cradle for your phone.
As for keyboard and mouse? Well, Bluetooth peripherals should work just fine, but USB-based solutions should also run without issue. Us? We had a supplied Bluetooth keyboard/trackpad combo courtesy of Samsung. Truth be told, it wasn’t the best device for the job, as the trackpad couldn’t handle something as simple as resizing windows or highlighting text. Almost as if multi-touch wasn’t a thing (two finger scrolling works though).
Andy Walker: It’s pretty much what you’d expect from a phone dock that charges your device and spits out video to a larger screen. Yes, there is only an HDMI out, but HDMI should be fine. Also, there’s seemingly no way to pop headphones into the DeX, and considering that the headphone on the S8 is hidden by the DeX itself, it seems that someone in Korea wasn’t paying attention during the concept stages.
Using the DeX
Hadlee: What better way to review DeX than to actually use it for work, right? Well, it all sounded great on paper and it was pretty promising initially, with a proper desktop feel and everything (duh).
I found myself using Chrome most of the time, but there didn’t seem to be a way to permanently request desktop sites. Instead, it was a case of open new tab, enter URL, request desktop version — for every single tab. And this right here, is a pain and a half to solve, right off the bat. Then again, Andy swears by Firefox and never came across this issue as a result.
Nevertheless, actually publishing to Gearburn wasn’t half bad, although the finicky trackpad made life miserable. Note to self: get a mouse for cropping images, quickly highlighting text and other basic functions. And the ability to watch YouTube in the background is welcomed too.
Otherwise, I found apps to be very hit and miss. The DeX Hub app is a must-grab, giving a variety of variables to play with, such as toggling wireless settings when you go into DeX mode. Then there are the likes of WhatsApp and Instagram, which work fine but could benefit from a better UI (particularly Instagram). And yes, Office requires a subscription if you want to actually edit.
Another huge oversight, as Andy mentioned, is the lack of a headphone jack on the DeX dock. It wouldn’t be a problem if the phone’s headphone jack was still accessible, but alas, the dock blocks the jack. Surely if DeX is being marketed as a PC replacement of sorts, something as simple as a headphone jack would be included on the dock, for headphones and speakers? Guess you gotta settle for Bluetooth…
Andy: That headphone jack is honestly the dumbest thing.
Nevertheless, I had a harder time using the DeX. I didn’t enjoy working in-browser on articles on the thing, and that’s not just because of the bundled keyboard/trackpad.
It’s not that the S8 is slow to respond to input, but I always felt limited. I didn’t have the array of apps I’d usually have at my disposal on a Windows device, nor did I have the ability to quickly download a compatible replacement.
Some apps will work, but some apps won’t. Netflix, Instagram and Twitter were notable examples of the latter. Browsing emails feels natural though, while more mundane web browsing on Chrome or Samsung Internet Browser is dispatched without huff or puff.
What is admirable however is the ability to plug USB hubs into the dock. You could quite easily use the DeX as a charging station-cum-media centre in the future, but only once apps gain DeX support. But hell, plugging any old USB mouse and keyboard into the thing works like a treat.
Hadlee: I totally agree with the array of apps and flexibility of the platform. In the app department, finding a GIMP replacement for example, was a fair amount of effort. That’s not because there are too few alternatives, but perhaps because of the opposite.
I feel like Google should implement a desktop-friendly section, or at least make it more visible if they’ve done so already. And it’s not like Google has no reason to implement a prominent desktop apps section, owing to Chromebooks getting Android app support, for one. To the Korean firm’s credit, Samsung’s own store has a (meagre) section devoted to DeX apps.
Then there’s something as silly as links opening by default in certain apps. This behaviour is fine on the phone itself, but I really don’t want to use the Twitter app in DeX mode when I can have the full-fledged desktop version instead. Nor do I want the Sync for Reddit app to open when I click on a reddit link. A toggle for this behaviour in DeX would be nice.
Should you buy it?
Andy: No. Not at its current price.
Like any first-generation hardware, stay away until the kinks are ironed out. Mind, there aren’t many, but the DeX just isn’t that killer bit of hardware to go alongside your shiny new S8. It’s easy to live without it.
Perhaps in the future, once app support is broader, and more Galaxy models support DeX, it may become a novel and completely essential accessory, but for now, it’s not the desktop killer that Samsung hopes it to be.
Hadlee: DeX bizarrely seems like a better offering than Microsoft’s own dead-in-the-water Continuum for Phones feature. You’d think if any company could get desktop mode down-pat, it’d be Microsoft, right? But no, I’m actually impressed by Samsung’s basic execution. When I’m creating an article in DeX mode, it certainly feels like a path to the future. At least until I have to edit images.
I do agree with you regarding it being a first-gen product though. At this stage, the potential is there, but we’ll need to see better hardware (give me the 3.5mm jack) and apps that play nicely in this form factor. But with full-blown Linux coming to DeX, at least the productivity side of things is looking bright. Until then (and DeX 2018), you’ll want to wait.