Before I even start testing, there are a number of necessary side-notes:
- Samsung's DeX isn't the only 'desktop interface hidden inside a mobile OS' around. Aside from Microsoft's now long-forgotten Continuum, there's Huawei's Easy Projection, sadly rather ruined in real life in the West by the phones no longer having access to Google services. Then there's LG's fledgling system, also ruined now by the company itself pulling out of the phone business completely. Motorola has a full desktop mode too, called (confusingly) 'Ready For', and this is available on a handful (Edge+ and G100) of their mid-range flagships. Finally, Google has been playing with a 'desktop mode' too, though nothing of production quality has yet appeared - maybe the Pixel 6 will change this later in 2021?
- It's actually unfortunate (for general readers) that I'm testing DeX here with the NexDock Touch, since this is a now discontinued product in a category which is woefully under-populated. You'll remember that HP did a lapdock for its Elite X3 (with Continuum) back in 2016? It was horribly over-priced (£500+, for the corporate market) and didn't sell well as a result. There were a number of crowd-funded alternatives, but none of these took off either. All very strange. NexDock itself has moved on to the NexDock 360 (yet to appear, apparently shipping next month), so the category isn't dead, but I still think Samsung itself should have introduced a £200 lapdock years ago.
So, if you're anything like me, you need a (desktop or) laptop, in addition to a smartphone. The extra screen real estate, the desktop-class media editing apps, there will be something that you need a 'bigger' computer (than a phone) for. In my case it's advanced video editing and recording podcasts, plus (as you'll see below) full-screen media consumption, but you'll have your own use case.
But can your phone power such an experience? And why anyone would want their phone to be their laptop? Firstly, you only then have one OS to worry about, one OS to keep updated, one OS to keep secure. It's easy to get dissatisfied with a desktop OS - as applications are added and removed, as things are tested, as updates roll in and often fail for one reason or another, there's the underlying worry that things aren't quite 'right', with a complete rebuild an unthinkable amount of work. A smartphone OS presents less to fiddle with in terms of updates and management, by comparison.
Secondly, all authentication is then done using the phone's biometrics and remembered tokens. So email, cloud accounts, banking, work document collaborations, video chats, it's all handled as 'you' with no extra passwords or account lookups needed. No challenges, no periodic password re-entry - DeX (or similar) is running on your phone and thus uses all your smartphone identity information. And, should you have a shared 'dock' system (e.g. hot-desking at work or sharing a lapdock with a partner), then everything is on the phone and you can hand over the external hardware knowing that it 'becomes' what it's plugged into and that not a single byte of your personal information is stored.
On the other hand, there are obvious downsides too:
- With the best will in the world, mobile-class applications can often not do as much as 'desktop'-class versions.
- Despite the best efforts of Samsung (et al) and accessory makers, things usually don't line up in software. Windows fail to maximise, audio goes awry, etc. It's a UI complication too many.
- If you're carrying around a lapdock or similar shell, or a portable monitor, Bluetooth keyboard, and mouse, then that's as much extra bulk (or more) than simply using a Windows laptop in the first place.
In order to see how these aspects balance out, I wanted to spend 24 hours living with 'just' a lapdock and DeX, and report back. Note that my ageing Lumia 950 XL still needs a cumbersome workaround to work with the NexDock Touch, plus - now that All About Mobile has launched - I can now focus more on Android, Samsung, and DeX with a clear conscience.
DeX host speed testing
Given that I have two possible DeX hosts to try, let's start with some speed tests between my Galaxy S9+ and Galaxy S20 FE to see how much phone processors are a bottleneck when driving DeX. According to Geekbench, the latter is over 50% faster in terms of raw performance plus it uses the faster UFS 3.1 and not UFS 2.1 storage, so I tried a few benchmarks in DeX:
|(All tests with NexDock Touch)||Galaxy S9+ as DeX host||Galaxy S20 FE as DeX host|
|Launch DeX (til icons appear on desktop)||6s||5s|
|Launch Chrome and New York Times desktop site
|Launch RFS flight simulator
|JetStream 2 browser benchmark in 'Chrome'
(higher score is better)
|Octane browser benchmark in 'Internet'
(higher score is better)
|5-loaded-tab browsing and scrolling in 'Internet':
all loaded and just switching between them
|70% smooth - some stuttering, and images took a few seconds to load back onto the display||85% smooth - just the occasional stutter or delay, images much faster to re-display (see the video below)|
Note that I could have timed quite a bit else, but when times get below a second or two then it's hard to get reliable differential results. But the above data points give a good idea - the raw extra 50% processor power does seem to translate into a faster overall experience with DeX, between 10% and 100% faster. So yes, let's call it 50% average.
But is this all fast enough? Comparing with a modern day Windows 10 or Mac OS laptop, it's all rather slow, I think. I don't think it's necessarily the phone processor and GPU that's the bottleneck, neither do I think it's the DeX system and UI hookup through HDMI, nor the driving of a landscape 1080p screen. Nor even that Android applications are rarely optimised for landscape use in the first place. Rather, the performance is a combination of all these factors - DeX optimisation undoubtedly happens at Samsung, but they can't control the speed of a lapdock, nor the compatibility of the applications that the user chooses to run.
The best way of demonstrating the speed you might be able to expect from a DeX lapdock is by demonstrating it all on video. See what you think:
So impressive that all this (mostly) works at all, but it's a step down from what one might expect from a dedicated computer of the same size.
Which mean it then comes down to how valuable it is to have all your signed in applications and data always at hand. And to whether there are any showstoppers for your own use case. In my case... I think there are. But let's delve into how individual applications work under DeX, or at least how successful they are at living in the DeX environment, i.e. running on the phone and outputting to an external display and speakers. App by app, then (and I appreciate that your own app set will vary):
[note that applications which don't behave properly are shaded in yellow - or red, if they don't work under DeX at all]
|App||Behaviour under DeX|
|Gmail||Resize-able, layout adapts to window size.|
|Chrome||Resize-able, layout adapts to window size, though manual control of the 'Desktop site' toggle in Chrome's UI is advised.|
|Play Store||Resize-able, layout adapts to window size.|
|Maps||Resize-able, UI doesn't change, but not an issue since you just see more (or less) of your maps.|
|YouTube||Resize-able, layout adapts (in small ways) to window size, but as with Maps, it's all about seeing as much of your video as possible. Importantly, sound is also routed properly to the lapdock's four speakers here.
|Drive||Resize-able, layout adapts (in small ways) to window size, it's all a bit primitive, but you're unlikely to go full-screen with a file utility like this, surely?
|Docs, Sheets||As with drive, all resizeable and friendly, though the layout doesn't need to change much, you just get to see more content.|
|Photos||Resize-able, layout adapts to window size. Beautifully done, Google - controls, thumbnails, editing views, all work.
|Google Calendar||Resize-able, layout adapts to window size, though there's not much actual change - a pretty wallpaper fills the gaps.|
|Google Keep||Resize-able, layout adapts to window size brilliantly, with notes shuffling around as needed.|
|Podcasts||Resize-able, though UI doesn't change and ends up looking stretched and odd as the window gets larger. Audio is directly correctly through the lapdock speakers.|
|(Google) News||Resize-able, though UI doesn't change, so you end up with massive blank bars left and right. More work needed, Google. In fairness, this app is designed to slot in on phones to the left of the homescreen - I don't think Google ever envisaged it being run in landscape at 1080p!|
|YouTube Music||Resize-able, layout adapts to window size well, splitting the UI between album art and playlist/relevant songs, etc.|
|Gallery||As with Google Photos, again resize-able, layout adapts to window size. Controls, thumbnails, editing views, all work. Photo applications seem perfect for DeX use, it seems.
|My files||Although you'd typically use this windowed, it again adapts layout and works with all window sizes.|
|(Samsung) Calendar||Resize-able, layout and content adapt to window size, though it all gets overwhelming full-screen with either too any days shown or too much white space.
|Contacts||Resize-able, layout and content adapt to window size, though it's a little pointless as there's not enough information per contact to fill a landscape 1080p display!
|Internet||Samsung's browser is surprisingly capable, turning web pages full-on dark for night reading, offering ad-blockers, and it works superbly at all window sizes and resolutions. Anecdotally, it's not my main browser when I'm on the S20 FE.|
|Messages||Although you'd typically use this windowed, it again adapts layout, with a sender/message-content split, and works with all window sizes.
|(Samsung) Music||Resize-able, layout and content adapt to window size, showing art for more albums, for example, and audio is correctly routed through the lapdock speakers.
|OneDrive||Resize-able, layout and content adapt to window size, but it's a bit bare bones - and also due a major update, which I'm waiting to report on. So I'll not be too critical here.
|Office||Resize-able, but loads of glitches - pop-up menus fail to work, space is used badly, and it's clear that more updates are needed from Microsoft. Loaded Word, Excel, Powerpoint documents do load for editing, but the suite as a whole isn't useable on DeX right now.
|OneNote||Resize-able, layout and content adapt to window size, with workbook/title/note-content splits as needed. Good work, Microsoft.|
|To Do||Doesn't resize at all. Usable in its own small window, but...|
|Third Party apps (well, the selection that I have installed!)|
|BBC iPlayer||Doesn't run at all, putting up a message about 'designed for touchscreens' - clearly the Beeb don't know about touchscreen DeX solutions!|
|BBC Sounds||Doesn't resize at all. Usable in its own small window, though, and audio is played correctly.|
|BBC Weather||Doesn't resize at all. Usable in its own small window, though surely you'd just use the BBC site in a browser tab?|
|Blink (security cameras)||Doesn't resize at all. Usable in its own small window, though given the visual nature it would be better if it used the full-screen available.|
|eBay||Resize-able, layout and content adapt to window size, even better than using eBay in a browser tab.|
|Resize-able, layout and content adapt to window size, but it's a bit bare bones and it's clear that 'mobile' content is being served up - better to use a browser tab.|
|Feedly||Doesn't resize at all. Open in landscape by default, which is a good start. But can't be windowed properly and content gets cut off.
|FlightRadar24||Doesn't resize at all. Useable - just, but an appallingly small viewport and hard to see.|
|Unsurprisingly (this app has a terrible reputation on larger-screened Android devices, usually tablets), this doesn't resize at all.|
(my chosen secure database etc.)
|Doesn't run at all, putting up a message about 'Please use the phone instead'. Not sure if this a security thing or just a UI coding issue.|
|Lloyds Bank||Doesn't resize at all, but useable within the small phone-sized window. 50:50 whether this is better than using online banking in a browser tab, which has more UI and screen real estate but doesn't have the fingerprint (on the phone) authentication!|
|MeWe (social network)||Doesn't resize at all, but useable within the small phone-sized window. Would be useful if this went full-screen, as there are things which are better than in a browser tab.|
|MX Player Pro (on-device video player de luxe)||Resize-able as needed - the index page isn't that useful but actual media playback is superb at any size, and audio is present and correct.|
|Nationwide (online banking)||Doesn't resize at all, but useable within the small phone-sized window. 50:50 whether this is better than using online banking in a browser tab, which has more UI and screen real estate but doesn't have the fingerprint (on the phone) authentication!|
|Netflix||This is where it gets interesting. This doesn't resize, but plays content perfectly, including audio. If, as noted below, this is forced to full screen then the audio is lost and plays from the phone! Updates needed from both Netflix and Samsung, I think!|
|PayPal||Doesn't resize at all, but useable (in theory) within the small phone-sized window. In practice, something about DeX spooked its security and I couldn't log in!|
|Photo & Picture Resizer||Doesn't resize at all, but useable after a fact within the small phone-sized window. Given the use case though, this would be a heck of a lot more useful full-screen.|
|Prime Video||As with Netflix, this doesn't resize, but plays content perfectly, including audio. If, as noted below, this is forced to full screen then the audio is lost and plays from the phone!|
|Slack||Resize-able as needed - the chat content reflows, and swipe in menus work, though the UI is somewhat stretched in full-screen!
|Snapseed||Another photo tool, doesn't resize at all, but useable after a fact within the small phone-sized window. Given the use case though, this would be a heck of a lot more useful full-screen.|
|Resizes, but the content never fully adapts (sidebars, hashtags, etc.), so you're stuck with a single column view at all times.|
|Twitch (event/game streaming)||Works perfectly, resizing, reflowing, all audio is correct. A lovely DeX experience!|
NB1. Samsung DeX does include a 'Labs' set of experimental features, one of which is 'Force to full screen', but in my experience this also messes up other aspects, such as audio. So I've left this feature off when testing above. As so many other applications tested show, a well coded Android application should resize natively and not have to be hacked!
NB2. I've not included games above because, almost without exception, they don't work with DeX, other than appearing in their own landscape phone-sized window. Although desktop-extending isn't exactly on game developers' radar, it would be nice to play, say, a flight simulator full-screen, and see the scenery more clearly. And, relevant to NB1 above, forcing full-screen mode does work with some, though not all, games, and with varying degrees of impact on whether the interface still works(!)
As the table clearly shows, sticking with a browser-based workflow, or centring on Google or Samsung applications, the DeX experience is almost indistinguishable from using another laptop with desktop-class OS. The issues start when one branches out into anything tricky (photo utilities spring to mind for me) or when one wants to start watching video streaming services, i.e. entertainment. Both are a crying shame because the larger display of a lapdock or Continuum-style external screen would pay dividends for these use cases.
Having said that, my experience is still more positive than negative, plus updates are always arriving. To DeX itself (and Motorola's Ready For) and to individual applications via the Play Store, so this is a set-up that will warrant a re-test in three months time. Maybe with Android 12 in early 2022?
PS. I'll see if I can get the NexDock 360 in for review too. It's similar in specs but offers a 360 degree hinge to offer 'tent' and 'tablet' modes. Pretty cool.
PPS. For more video, see also my Phones Show review of the NexDock Touch, featuring DeX, with the caveat that this was DeX as it was at the end of 2020 and that updates have been delivered since then.