Samsung Galaxy S8 DeX is the best phone/desktop hybrid yet

I still think this concept only applies to a few use cases, and there’s room for improvement, but the Galaxy S8 Desktop Experience has the best chance of being successful.

When I heard that the new Samsung Galaxy S8 could be docked to a monitor, mouse, and keyboard to form an Android desktop, I knew I wanted to compare it to other experiences. Today, I’m finally sharing my thoughts.

Introduction

The phone/desktop idea—sometimes referred to as the “Nirvana Phone” concept—has come up several times over the years (in 2011, 2014, and 2015). Parts of the desktop virtualization and mobility crowd have gotten excited every time, but so far none of these devices has gone very far.

More recently, the idea was resurrected by Microsoft with Continuum features in Windows 10 Mobile. Continuum shipped on a few phones, including the HP Elite x3, but essentially Windows 10 Mobile is dormant right now. When Samsung announced the Galaxy S8 and DeX (or Desktop Experience) in March, however, it was inherent that DeX would have the advantage of running on a popular flagship phone.

This review is a few months late, but since I reviewed the HP Elite x3, I wanted compare the Samsung anyway. (Plus, this isn’t a dedicated hardware review site, so we’re not trying to be first and it takes us longer to get our hands on things.) Samsung’s next Galaxy event is coming up on August 23, and there’s sure to be talk of DeX at VMworld, so here we go!

Galaxy S8 and DeX hardware

Back when I covered the Elite x3, I had to spend time going over Windows 10 Mobile and HP’s hardware. But with the Galaxy S8 and Android, my opinion doesn’t matter—there are already plenty of reviews of the handset, and what really matters is that millions of people are buying the Galaxy S8 and billions of people use Android. With that, on to the DeX hardware.

The DeX dock is the size of a donut, and has a top that slides up to expose a USB-C docking plug. It has two USB-A 2.0 ports, an HDMI port (DeX supports a 1080p display), an Ethernet port, and a USB-C port for power. It has a fan built in, too, which some reviewers have suggested is why you can’t use DeX with just a dongle, and unlike the HP, there’s no laptop dock option. It lists for USD $150, but you can find it for around $100 or less.

Everything about the hardware was fine, though you do have to take a second to line up the phone as you dock it. The dock covers the headphone jack, but you can use a Bluetooth headset or the speakerphone to make calls, and listen to audio through an HDMI monitor.

Using DeX

Android has had mouse and keyboard support for a while, and Android N brought a form of multi-window support, but Samsung has clearly put a lot of effort into making sure the desktop experience works:

  • All the basics of a desktop user interface are present. You can right-click, drag and drop, switch apps with alt-tab, put icons on the desktop, and so on. Most importantly, there are free-floating, overlappable windows. I liked being able to put Google Hangouts next to my browser, and in general, managing my windows just like I would on any other desktop.
  • Web browsing is fast enough to not draw attention to itself (unlike my experience with the HP), and overall I didn’t have much trouble with anything bogging down, either in the browser or in apps.
  • The bundled browser, Samsung Internet, always requests desktop sites when docked, and only rarely did I get a site that was stuck in a mobile UI. Samsung allows developers to create extensions, which great since they’re a key part of the desktop browsing experience, but the selection was pretty small.
  • The Samsung email client was okay, but what I really liked was that it let you compose emails in separate windows—and again, they were free-floating and could overlap other windows.

Overall, I was much more impressed than with previous Android desktop devices I’ve tried.

Screenshot of DeX Android desktop environment showing browser, Twitter client, and overlapping email window.
My DeX desktop. (Click arrow to expand.)

Switching back and forth from phone mode to desktop mode takes several seconds (the HP was pretty quick in this regard). All your apps stay in the recent app screen when you switch, but the screen layout doesn’t resume when you re-dock.

In general, app compatibility was good, though there are some requirements that can be found in Samsung’s DeX developer documentation:

  • If an app isn’t completely optimized for DeX, it gets killed when switching modes. Because of this, there’s a warning message advising you to save your data before switching.
  • Some apps might not work at all in DeX mode, but this didn’t cause any problems for me.
  • There are some good-to-have optimizations, like for right clicking, scroll bars, or drag and drop. In this case, the only thing that I lamented was that some apps had assorted scrolling issues.

I could list plenty of other small examples of how the DeX experience differed from what you would expect from a more established desktop operating system, but overall, it’s the best Android desktop I’ve used, and I’ll just think of this as an ongoing journey.

There were really just two major issues. First, neither the Samsung email client nor Outlook Mobile come anywhere near what you would expect from a desktop email experience, and for some reason OWA didn’t get along with Samsung Internet and reverts to the old light version in Chrome. Second, due to something that the clipboard was doing, I had to come up with a more labor-intensive workaround for one of my core desktop workflows (entering articles into TechTarget’s CMS).

The verdict

Despite the occasional issues I had, the Galaxy S8 provided a completely legitimate desktop. I could actually sit down with it for extended periods of time and get my work done, and of course the S8 itself is an excellent phone. I enjoyed the overall desktop and phone experience.

Where does a desktop/phone hybrid actually make sense?

Occasionally, people get quite excited about the phone/desktop hybrid idea, declaring that this could be their only device. I spent a lot of time on this in other articles (here and here), but essentially, I think this is a niche concept. I can see it as a good idea for task workers that are mostly mobile but have to do occasional desktop work throughout the day. However, I don’t think any office worker is going to go on a business trip with this as their only device. (Back at Synergy I met with a few members of the Samsung Knox team, and I found that they have a pretty similar views on this, too.)

Really, it all depends on how the math works out. User have to consider:

  • Where and when will all the necessary peripherals be available? (And not just any old monitor, but a decent HDMI one.)
  • Could you just use another laptop, desktop, or thin client (which you probably already own) instead?
  • Will pulling together everything you need to do for DeX actually be cheaper or more convenient than just using two devices?
  • Do you want to have a single point of failure? (If I lose my phone, I can work on my laptop, and vice versa.)

But again, the Samsung Galaxy S8 and DeX have some important points that could change the math here. The Galaxy S8 is a popular flagship phone. The DeX experience could use some refinements, but it actually works and performs fairly well. The whole package passes the straight face test.

It could be the right tool for certain types of jobs, and gadget geeks (I say using the term in a loving way) are really going to like this. Samsung should certainly put work into developing this further.

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I wonder how long it will be before someone gets a proper Linux desktop environment running as a container / application on this thing for a proper desktop.  I know I just made some Windows users cringe by using "proper desktop" and "Linux" in the same sentence... but I know many Android devices are powerful enough and it has been done before.  The problem with the Android desktop is that it is a fill-in which no one was already using.  I want the desktop I'm already using.
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I agree 100%. Along similar lines, I've always thought a nirvana phone with a Chrome OS desktop would be great.
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Samsung did a lot right with DeX but it has some serious flaws in its current form. One use case for a hybrid phone/desktop is seniors who don't need a PC but would appreciate a large screen with bigger text for email and web browsing. Another use case is people in developing countries where their phone is their only computer. One problem with the current DeX is it only works with a top-of-the-line $800 phone. Seniors and people in developing countries typically use lower-end phones. Once Samsung's entire product line supports DeX, I think it will become very popular and will have more app support. Currently, apps that have not been modified to support DeX can not be scaled, even with no change in aspect ratio, which is very unfortunate. Samsung and Google need to fix software problems like this. I like that DeX gives me the option to use wired ethernet and a wired keyboard and mouse. I wish it supported a wired headset. Since mobile processors have gotten fast enough for most ordinary people, I think DeX-like gadgets are the future of consumer computing. In its current form, DeX is a product for people that make heavy use of mobile apps and want a bigger screen for a fixed location. College students need laptops but they could use DeX in their dorm rooms connected to a large screen.
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