Hands-On I’m typing this story on a phone – a Galaxy S9+ to be precise, lodged in Samsung’s new “DeX Pad” not-a-dock that turns its high-end handsets into passable desktops when connected to a monitor or tellie over HDMI.
Samsung introduced the Dex with 2017’s Galaxy S8 and then updated it this year with a smaller dock that puts the phone in a horizontal position and turns it into a touchpad. That’s an important trick because as a portable device, the DeX Pad is a wash: you need a USB charger, a keyboard and an HDMI cable to get it working. Samsung recommends that you use only its supplied HDMI cable too, so that needs to go into your bag too, making a rat’s nest of cables even before you add a mouse to the mix.
Once installed, the device is nicely trim. The DeX Pad tucks power, two USB and USB-C cables at the back. The Galaxy device's USB-C nestles nicely on the dock. And thought has clearly gone into things like making sure the phone's headphone socket remains available.
The Dex desktop is well-designed too: if you’ve used a WIMP interface* any time in the last three decades you’ll be at home in minutes. You'll also see enough of Android to make the leap into desktop mode easily.
I do most of my work in a browser and once I logged into my personal account noticed little significant difference between the way I worked on a Dex and the way I work in MacOS or Windows. I did have to deal with the minor annoyance of most web apps assuming they were on a mobile device rather than a desktop. That meant hunting to reset them into desktop mode and then back again later once I used the phone as a phone again.
I found I could excuse that because apps behaved well in Dex mode, as did Microsoft Office. There’s little to stop you being as productive on Dex as you would be on a PC.
Helping things along a lot is that there’s now just-enough filesystem so that either the Galaxy’s own storage or a cloud file locker are easily accessible. Finding documents to work on isn’t an issue.
Some Android apps pop up warnings saying they’re not entirely happy running in Dex mode, but that seemed precautionary rather than a harbinger of weirdness. I also missed a few right-click opportunities that mobile apps don’t support, but those are minor quibbles.
I’m a mouse guy so was happiest using Dex with a rodent, rather than as a touchpad. But the latter is responsive and I found the S9+’s glass surface a more pleasant surface than my laptop’s touchpad and in no way damaging to cursor-positioning accuracy.
One thing that could be done better is USB-C support for video, as a one-cable experience would further reduce clutter. Sure, USB-C is far from ubiquitous in tellies, but it’s the coming thing in monitors.
Overall the DeX Pad does a fine job of almost everything … except giving you a reason to use it.
It’s a lousy laptop replacement because it just isn’t as neat and needs a screen. It doesn’t really work in front of a television, because it needs a wireless keyboard and mouse which renders the touchpad trick irrelevant. And even though it is quick and slick, I just can’t see Android as a desktop replacement.
But I say that as someone whose professional computing life has always involved a desktop metaphor. The ingrained habits that’s created may mean some obvious uses for newer devices elude me. For example, I’m currently playing with Apple’s 2018 iPad. If any other major PC vendor suggested you adopt its $300 cheapie as your main machine you’d laugh them out of your office. The current iPad is wonderfully put together, has a gorgeous screen, stellar battery life and a brilliant OS. Yet I can’t find a use for its pen or augmented reality features and don’t want to type on glass, but love it as the World’s Poshest Kindle™.
Perhaps that lack of modern imagination is why I couldn’t find an obvious use for the DeX Pad, but an inkling it has two possible uses.
I call one “splashdown” and imagine that it involves field workers who spend their days entering data into a Galaxy device on the run could come back to base, or home, where an already-plugged in DeX Pad lets them do some work that’s too hard to do on a small screen.
To explain the other I need to recall a conversation I once had with an Intel exec who explained that PC purchases are driven by the size of homes. Japan, the exec told me, is one of the few places where all-in-one television/PCs ever thrived, largely because there just aren’t many places to put a PC in small urban apartments. But in large suburban homes, minitowers still walk the earth. The exec’s observations suggest to me there’s a physical niche out there for the DeX Pad. I suspect that just as the iPad has become a de facto standard at point of sale, something interesting awaits the US$99/£52.99/AU$149 DeX Pad.
And you’ll do a lot worse than getting your hands on one to figure out what that interesting scenario is, because once you find it I reckon the DeX Pad will do you proud. ®
*WIMP = “Windows, icons, mouse, pointer” in case you’ve forgotten or are too young to know better