Perhaps the most curious bit of news, though, isn’t about the phones so much as an accessory that supports them: the DeX. Short for “desktop extension,” this is a little dock that effectively turns the Galaxy S8 or S8+ into a desktop computer.
So if you wanted to finish a Word doc you started typing on the bus, for instance, you could pop the Galaxy S8 into the DeX, hook up a Bluetooth keyboard and mouse, and continue on the bigger screen.
When everything is connected and the DeX is plugged into a monitor, the phone stretches out its Android skin to look like a Windows-esque PC platform. It seems pretty clean. The DeX itself has ports for USB-C, HDMI, Ethernet, and the older USB 2.0, and comes with its own cooling fan to keep your phone from overheating. You can still connect the web over LTE.
Samsung’s own browser, email, calendar and other apps have been reworked to fit the more spacious screen, but the company says it’s also getting Microsoft and Adobe to adapt their Office and Lightroom apps, respectively, to the non-mobile environment.
Samsung isn’t saying how much the DeX will cost or when it will be available, but past leaks have said it will cost €150 in Europe (about $A211). So it could be pricey. Given that the Galaxy S8 itself isn’t cheap, Samsung is pitching the DeX as a neat, productivity-boosting extra for Galaxy diehards more than a core aspect of the phone itself.
A dream that will not die
That’s probably for the best. Samsung is just the latest in a string of tech companies who have tried to sell phones that can also be PCs. Thus far, none of them have taken off.
Tech people call this “convergence” — the idea that a single gadget, in this case the smartphone, can swallow all other device types and become the One True Computer for whatever you need.
The thinking behind it makes sense: The smartphone is already the most popular way people access the internet, and the technology behind it is only getting more powerful. Apple’s A-series of mobile chips are at the point where you can at least put them in the same conversation as an Intel desktop processor, and last year Microsoft showed how it can run its full Windows 10 operating system — albeit partially through emulation — on a Qualcomm Snapdragon chip. The Galaxy S8 itself runs on the latest and fastest Snapdragon 835 chip.
Meanwhile, more and more people are comfortable turning to less-robust devices like tablets and Chromebooks to fill their computing needs. If the phone is good and strong enough, why buy two or three computers when you could just have one?
It’s an attractive pitch — which helps explain why Samsung is far from the first company to make something like it. Here’s a quick history lesson:
• Back in 2011, Motorola released the Atrix 4G, an Android phone you could plug into a “Lapdock,” a $US500 laptop shell you could use to run the phone in a desktop environment. The phone itself was powerful at the time, but the Lapdock’s price and limited functionality kept it as more of a gimmick than a game-changer.
• Also in 2011, Asus introduced its PadFone line. This was a series of Android phones that could dock in the back of a tablet shell and power that sort of form factor. Asus released a few iterations of this, but hasn’t launched a new model since 2014.
• UK software maker Canonical has repeatedly tried to position its Ubuntu OS as a platform that works across devices, to little consumer success. In 2013, it raised millions on Indiegogo for an Ubuntu Edge phone that would run Ubuntu when plugged into a desktop, but the company couldn’t get the astronomical $US32 million it asked for, and it subsequently scrapped the project. It later launched a tablet that tried something similar, but it never really caught on. The company is now looking more at the Internet of Things.
• Microsoft has taken the biggest stab at this idea, with its “Continuum” feature for Windows 10 designed to scale the OS down for phone sizes. If you plug a phone like HP’s Elite x3 into a dock, it’s meant to become a full Windows PC. There are still some features missing, though, and Windows phones have long lacked app developer support. That’s made Continuum a niche feature, at best, for Windows loyalists.
• Jide’s Remix OS has transformed Android into a desktop-friendly design, but is still at the mercy of Google’s own software updates, and is again more known by enthusiasts than anything else.
• Various crowdfunded projects have pitched the idea of a dock into which you could plug an Android phone and translate its software to a big screen. The Superbook, for instance, is a $US119 laptop “shell” that raised nearly $US3 million on Kickstarter last year. Sentio, the company behind it, has missed its original shipping date, though.
While all of these projects have had their individual issues, the underlying problem in each case is that the software just wasn’t cooked enough to be a full PC.
The DeX will work with the most popular devices to take on this idea, but right now, it’s likely to have the same hangup: Android isn’t quite there yet for bigger screens. You can run multiple apps at once, but if an app isn’t designed for the DeX, it will be displayed in a phone- or tablet-sized window. Those apps then won’t be resizable. We’ve seen this issue before with Android apps running on Google’s Chromebooks.
Even then, a
lot of Android apps that are ostensibly built for big screens — even Android’s Settings menu — resemble blown-up phone apps, with white space aplenty. It’s a similar problem to what Samsung just ran into with its Galaxy Tab S3 tablet: Google and Android developers just haven’t cared about this use case, so the experience has been sloppy, and Google itself seems to be favouring Chrome OS as its big-screen platform over Android.
Still, there are reasons to think things will get better. The latest Android update, Nougat, made a number of concessions to larger screens, allowing two apps to run side-by-side, and the upcoming Android O looks like it will take that further, with things like improved keyboard support. Google is making Android on large screens a focus.
But here you’ll have to wait on Samsung to update its software to take advantage of whatever comes next. And while Samsung says it’s working to have “many more” apps support the DeX, the fact that the dock is made for a small subset of Galaxy phones gives reason to doubt how many other developers will jump onboard.
The DeX does have one trick that could get around Android’s shortcomings: Samsung says it’s working with software companies like Citrix and VMWare to let you run a virtualized (i.e., streamed) version of Windows 10 off the phone. That would give you a more desktop-ready OS, but it’s a solution that hasn’t run smoothly on past Windows phones.
We’ll have to test the DeX further to see how well this all works — and how much the Galaxy S8 can handle — but it’s best to think of this as an add-on more than the next step for how smartphones collide with the PC. It’s something the iPhone cannot do. Still, it looks like Android will need to keep pressing forward before Samsung can accomplish what Microsoft and Motorola have failed to do.