Samsung DeX Station
£129 inc VAT from: tinyurl.com/mgz779g
It’s amazing just how heavy an ultra-portable laptop becomes when you’re lugging it through airports, convention centres, and the streets of wherever you’re doing business. Even a thin laptop can become a 1kg 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 (page 33) and S8+ smartphones.
Drop your Galaxy phone into the DeX dock, 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, yes, your desktop is Android, not Windows.
Once you get past the DeX pain points...
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 travelling 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 is we opted for a USB keyboard and mouse throughout our 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 favourite 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 load 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, we found multitasking to be both familiar and easy. The display’s refresh rate is a bit laggy, but our bigger concern is universal support: we tested DeX on four common 1900x1200 desktop monitors, and one 4K TV, and one of the four monitors refused to run DeX full screen. Instead, the display was horribly letterboxed, top and bottom, left and right.
Let this serve as a reminder that when you’re travelling with DeX for business, you’re at the mercy of whatever monitor or TV you may find in your hotel room or business lounge. We would also suggest bringing along an HDMIto-DVI adaptor, just in case. But 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, we spent all our time with an S8+ review unit docked in the DeX Station. Our work requirements aren’t particularly exotic. We don’t need to get into CAD or download torrents. But we do need to build articles in IDG’s custom CMS; edit documents in Word and Google docs; and download and edit images, and then load them into the CMS. And, yes, we also need to Slack colleagues, check email, and glance at the football schedule and check what’s happening in our favourite Subreddits. Let’s now look at all of those activities in reverse order. Our Reddit reader of choice is the Reddit Is Fun app. Unfortunately, along with a few other Android apps we regularly use, it doesn’t offer a resizable window in DeX. Samsung currently lists 30 apps with DeX support, but we’re 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, we opted to read Reddit in Chrome, as Chrome has DeX support. We also used Chrome to read our Outlook Mail because our Android lockbox for Outlook – an app called Nine (free from tinyurl.com/ qhLLsr8) – doesn’t have a resizable window either.
As for the Slack app, it frequently reminded us we were 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 behaviour 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 behaviour made us miss quite a few direct messages, especially because we never received Slack notifications either.
DeX gets productive
While Slack proved problematic, our 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 dialler and make the call, and you’ll hear your partner over the docked speakerphone.
Music apps? We experienced mixed behaviours. 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 we opted to go with 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 we 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 colleagues sent over video scripts via email, we 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 behaviours). Mind you, we were still in the mobile version of Docs, so tasks such as 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 Office 365 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. We never hit a brick wall, and performance was more than acceptable.
We 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 out week of testing, when we clicked ‘Upload new image’ in the CMS interface, Chrome presented us
with four source options: Camera, Camcorder, My Files (the Android file manager) and Documents (Google Drive). From there we 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 we 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 our CMS activity was business as usual (if perhaps a bit slow).
Would we like to have multi-monitor support? Absolutely. Are we irritated by Bluetooth pairing challenges? Sure. But it’s pretty hard to poke holes in DeX when we can get all our 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 us pause when thinking about leaving our 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. Jon Phillips
Requires Samsung Galaxy S8/S8+ HDMI 2.0 100Mb/s LAN port 2x USB 2.0 USB-C 105.2x105.2x47.5mm 231g
This is how DeX looks when it’s running properly. Chrome, Settings and Play all offer resizable windows in DeX, but Reddit Is Fun is locked to its mobile app proportions. Note how notifications appear in the lower right-hand corner
Hover over a docked icon, and you’ll see a little preview – just like in Windows
The Android version of Lightroom ran without hiccups on the Snapdragon 835 built into the Galaxy S8+