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Can the Samsung DeX replace your PC? We put it to the test

By Raymond Lau - 25 Feb 2018

Putting the Dex in real world use

A complete Samsung DeX setup.
 

Some apps are good in DeX mode, but most aren’t

“DeX” is Samsung’s short-hand for “Desktop Experience”, and it fully met my expectations on this front.  The DeX is blessed with a properly-designed desktop user interface (UI) that most people are presumably already comfortable with.

If you’ve spent any time with PCs made in the last decade, the DeX environment will pose no problem at all. All the key elements are there and work exactly like you’d expect them to: an app drawer that shows you all your installed apps, a task bar of open apps lining the bottom of the screen, and a bunch of tiny icons for controls and notifications on the bottom-right.

The biggest issue lies in app compatibility.

At launch, Samsung touted a number of apps fully compatible with DeX mode, including the venerable Microsoft Outlook, Word, Excel and PowerPoint. Even Adobe’s Photoshop and Lightroom apps hold up gracefully in DeX mode.

These apps are expected to improve with time, provided their makers continue to show support for the DeX platform. We’ll also have to put our faith in Samsung as it tries to drum up developer support for DeX-optimized apps.

But for now, using all my regular apps on the DeX feels… uncomfortable. There’s no other word for it. Sure, the apps do run, but they don’t behave in quite the same way. Some can be run in landscape mode, others cannot. Some apps let you resize their window while others don’t.

Some work well with a mouse pointer, others are terribly awkward since they’re made for touch. And while some apps allow you to expand the window to fill the screen, most are not coded to take advantage of the bigger screen estate and the mouse-and-keyboard combo that the DeX offers.

Google Chrome, for example, insists on serving up mobile layouts by default even on DeX mode.

On the other hand, many other apps just refuse to run at all.

Don’t get me started on keyboards. Every so often, my keyboard will mysteriously switch to Chinese input, and it’s probably because I accidentally hit a hot key that triggers it. But for the life of me, I just can’t figure out what it is. The only solution was to disable my Chinese keyboard in DeX mode, only to re-enable it after I exit DeX mode.

As a result, I could never really enter my state of productive flow when using the DeX. Compared to a traditional Windows laptop, which I’ve had decades to master, the DeX somehow always throws me a curve ball every once in a while to break up my concentration.

 

Putting the desktop in DeX

So far, there doesn’t seem to be a really compelling reason to run out and buy the DeX right now. Most of us simply won’t have a good reason to do so.

But here’s the little secret that Samsung isn’t telling you yet: the DeX isn’t just trying to be an optimized Android interface blown up into a big screen.

The company’s end-game seems to be bringing the entire desktop experience to its smartphones.

Just a few months ago, Samsung announced that DeX users will soon be able to run Linux distributions powered by just their smartphones.

This opens up a world of possibilities. Full-blown desktop apps running from a smartphone! Even if they are Linux apps, which are not very common.

But it’s not impossible that we could see Windows 10 running from an Android phone in the near future now that Microsoft has announced its first ARM-based Windows laptops.

In the meantime, the DeX can technically already offer the full Windows desktop experience to those who desire it through its compatibility with VDI (Virtual Desktop Infrastructure) solutions, such as Amazon WorkSpaces, VMware Horizon and Citrix Receiver.

Sadly, you probably don’t have access to these solutions as they’re generally part of very expensive enterprise plans. For regular Joes like you and me, there appears to be a lack of compatible remote desktop access apps.

I tried out several free or consumer-targeted apps like Parallels Access and TeamViewer, but they all turned out to be incompatible with DeX, with no indication of when compatibility will come, if ever. The best workaround came in the form of a third-party app called DEX MAX, which grants the power of going full screen in DeX to every app you have.

Nonetheless, this is not a difficult problem to fix in the grand scheme of things. And once Samsung does that, the DeX will be that much more powerful.

 

What else can you use the DeX for?

With all that talk about work and productivity apps, it’s easy to forget that Samsung meant for us to have fun with the DeX, too.

The company has partnered with game developers to enhance their games for the keyboard and mouse, including the popular MOBA Vainglory and the MMORPG Lineage 2: Revolution.

Personally, I’ve never been a big fan of mobile games, so porting these games over to the big screen and giving them keyboard and mouse controls does nothing to increase their appeal for me. But for fans, the small investment in DeX to bring their favorite games to the big screen could be a big plus.

But I really see the potential for the DeX to be a home entertainment hub.

A “DeX for TV” platform could transform any plain old television into a smart television, complete with video streaming, casual gaming, and other custom app experiences. Throw in customized remote controls and gaming controllers and Samsung may just give the Apple TV or other dodgy Android set-top boxes a run for their money.

Imagine how awesome it would be to come home after a long day, plop your phone into a dock, and immediately begin enjoying your favorite shows streaming off Netflix or YouTube without having to mess around with wireless casting or their ilk.

 

Conclusion

Here’s the million-dollar question: should you get the DeX?

I have to admit, I cheated. A lot.

Frankly, I was extremely relieved to be able to go back to my Windows 10 laptop whenever I wanted and settle back into the familiar productive flow that I’ve painstakingly cultivated and trained myself in over years of practice.

Whenever I needed to complete a task that took too much effort to “make it work” on the DeX, I just switched to my laptop to avoid wasting time.

But all things considered, I do think that the DeX is a good product. In fact, it’s the best attempt at desktop-smartphone convergence that I’ve seen to date.

Even so, there is clearly work to be done, both on the hardware and software fronts.

But Samsung is clearly showing commitment to the DeX. Recent leaks appear to show Samsung fixing two of the biggest hardware annoyances: allowing the phone to double up as a trackpad when docked, and freeing up the audio jack for external speakers or headphones. It looks to be a lot more compact and suitable for traveling with, too.

If Samsung is giving this much attention to fixing the first DeX’s hardware shortcomings, we can be reasonably hopeful that many of the software and app issues will be fixed too.

The only problem is that no one really needs it. It’s a nice-to-have accessory that augments your S8, S8+, or Note8, but chances are you’ll struggle to find a fit for it between all the gadgets you already own.

For the DeX to be a compelling purchase, its features and functionality must eclipse the tried-and-tested laptop formula. It has to be able to somehow be powerful enough to be the centerpiece device of our computing lives, have the flexibility to morph into any form factor we need it to be at any point in time, and offer corresponding software that works seamlessly just like we’re used to no matter the screen size.

That’s no small feat, but I believe we’ll get there sooner than you might think.

For now, hold off on the purchase and let’s look at what Samsung will bring to the table at its UNPACKED event this year.

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