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Samsung DeX review: Samsung’s desktop dock leaves us wanting more

Alex Kidman 19 May 2017

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Samsung’s DeX dock has high ambitions, but it doesn’t quite reach the performance bar its hype might suggest.

The Samsung Galaxy S8 is an exceptional smartphone without a shadow of a doubt. It’s an easy recommendation if you want the best premium smartphone right now, especially given its smooth style, good battery life and superb performance for all kinds of entertainment media.

Entertainment isn’t the only thing that you can throw at the Galaxy S8 (or Galaxy S8+), however. When it launched the Galaxy S8, Samsung was keen to talk up just how powerful the underlying processor (whether you got the Snapdragon 835, or, as we did here in Australia, the Exynos 8995 variant) was, and how this could change your productivity life.

The secret sauce here was what Samsung has dubbed the DeX dock. If you’re curious, that’s Desktop Experience Manager, according to Samsung. Although that should mean that the acronym should be DEX, just to be pedantic.

DeX isn’t just a pretty charging dock, however. The DeX is intended to act in the same way that old school laptop docks did, making it easy to add additional ports, devices and send the output of the Galaxy S8 to an external desktop style display.

This isn’t an entirely new idea. Motorola tried its hand at a desktop-style Android experience through the ill-fated Atrix phone and accompanying laptop-style case, but that handset was hampered by a serious lack of power. Microsoft has its continuum feature built into its own Windows 10 handsets, but there it’s been hampered by incredibly poor sales of its devices.

Samsung has healthy sales and a powerful handset to run the DeX experience, but has it pulled off what so many others have striven to accomplish?

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Samsung DeX: Design

Viewed purely as a phone dock, the DeX is a highly satisfying device, with a neat rounded design that, at first, resembles a somewhat gluttonous hockey puck. The top of the DeX slides back with a satisfying, and, if I’m honest, somewhat addictive clunk noise to reveal the stand section of the dock, complete with USB C type connector. In the case of the DeX this is used for both data transfer and charging, so while you’re using it, you’re also keeping your Galaxy S8 or Galaxy S8+ nicely topped up with power.

Around the back of the DeX dock you’ll find a single USB C type connector, HDMI output, ethernet and two USB 2.0 ports for connecting peripherals. The size of the DeX dock makes it easy to attach and detach cables and devices as needed, although rather predictably it does mean that when it’s in full use, it’s all too easy for it to become a spaghetti mess of tangled cables, especially if you use a cabled keyboard or mouse.

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Samsung DeX: Why you’d want one

  • Productivity boost: It’s neat that you can run apps such as Google Docs or Microsoft Office right there on your smartphone, but the real world issues around screen size and keyboard input mean that they’re not terribly practical for any kind of ongoing work. The promise of the DeX experience is that, when your phone is docked, you get a full screen desktop-style experience to use these kinds of productivity applications. This mostly works, with some caveats.
  • Power boost: Because the DeX itself requires a connected charger, it also continually charges the S8 or S8+ while it’s connected, meaning that you could leave it at your office desk for quick work when needed, but walk away at the end of the day with a nicely charged phone for your nighttime adventures.
  • Adds more than just USB: It’s relatively trivial to hook up a USB adaptor to most mobile phones, but the DeX goes a little further than that, with full HDMI output as well as integrated ethernet. While it’s likely that your office space also has Wi-Fi, if you need continuous data throughput, ethernet can’t be beaten.
  • Makes more sense of multitasking: Android 7.0 supports split screen multitasking after a fashion, but the DeX enhances that by allowing you to more easily have multiple app windows not only open but more easily viewable at once.

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Samsung DeX: Why you might not want one

  • Inconsistent app behaviour: Rather predictably, not every app built for the Android touchscreen experience works optimally when you push it full screen and try to interact with it via mouse and keyboard. Some apps simply won’t load, while others will warn you that they may not work and launch in vertically oriented fashion only. Even apps that are meant to work can be inconsistent in their approach to simple visual display. As an example, while trying to work on a Google Sheets document via the DeX, I found that the app version of Sheets blew the cell size up to an unworkable level, while the web browser based version shrunk it down way too small. Neither approach was optimal.
  • Multitasking has its limits: While you can have multiple open windows onscreen, they’re not always actually functional as applications in their own right. What that means is that often you’ll click between an app and notice a pause while it reinitialises. If there’s new data to push to that app, there’s an even longer wait while it does so. It’s more efficient than app switching on a standalone handset, but it’s not quite true multitasking yet.
  • No headphone jack: In order to use the DeX, you’ve got to plug a Galaxy S8 or Galaxy S8+ handset into the USB C port on the DeX. That means that you’re also obscuring the bottom mounted speaker and headphone socket on the handset itself. There’s no audio jack on the DeX itself, which means that it’s a Bluetooth headset scenario if you want to privately listen to some tunes while you work.
  • Doesn't come with a power adaptor: The DeX manual states that it works with the adaptor supplied with the Galaxy S8, and it’s very picky about any other adaptor. Sometimes you can charge the S8 within it but not invoke the DeX interface with other chargers, which means that unless you’re happy with slower charging in other locations, you’ll need to invest in a spare Samsung adaptor to quickly charge everywhere, because one is not provided in the box.

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Who is it best suited for? What are my other alternatives?

The DeX is Samsung’s first tilt at a productivity peripheral for the Galaxy line, and it certainly shows. There’s a lot of promise to the DeX, but it falls a little short of fully realising that ambition, as so many “version one” products do.

It’s feasible that future software updates to the DeX experience may address some of its current shortcomings with app availability and multitasking, but at launch it’s a somewhat limited experience best suited to those who work with predominantly cloud-based documents with very light scale needs.

If you’re simply interested in mirroring screen display up to a larger screen, you could consider Google’s Chromecast, or even a simple USB C to HDMI type dongle. If you’re more focused on productivity through full interfaces there’s not much competition in the Android space, although Microsoft’s Continuum feature, built into its Windows 10 based phones is another alternative in this precise vein.

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Where can I get it?

Samsung sells the DeX dock through its online store and retail locations in Australia for $199.

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