Using Samsung DeX

Some thoughts on one of Samsung Mobile's coolest (if half-baked) features.

So, there's a possibly underrated or underknown feature that many newer Samsung phones have.

It's called DeX, or Desktop Experience. DeX activates when you take your Galaxy or Note and plug it into a screen through an HDMI adapter. The screen switches to an Android-powered desktop environment that runs a lot like Windows. Nearly every familiar Android app you might be using can run in windowed mode in this environment, and you can fake it with a lot of the ones that won't by using an experimental setting that lets you resize any app.

I discovered DeX when I got into wearable computing. The Vufine, my main wearable display device, mentioned it in its site literature, and while I got it to use with an actual Windows computer, I decided to use it with my Galaxy Note 9 to see what DeX is all about.

I rarely used my phone with the Vufine because of some quirks of the DeX system that I'll get into shortly, but... there was a lot to like about it. In fact, if not for those quirks, I probably would have skipped getting the pocket PC and just used my phone as my wearable computer.

What are the quirks? They have to do with the phone screen. While I've seen DeX touted as a way to have a two-screen setup by mounting a phone on the side of a larger screen, any time the DeX screen has focus for typing the phone screen blurs out. So if you want to be writing on one screen while referring to notes on another, you have to write on the phone screen and keep your reference material on the bigger one.

Same deal if you're trying to multitask by watching a video on one screen and working on the other. To me, it would be a natural fit to have my phone's screen showing Netflix or Hulu while I work on the actual computer screen. Can't do that. And some apps — like Netflix — pause the video when the focus goes to the phone. 

But while DeX effectively prevents you from using both screens simultaneously in the most useful use cases, it also won't let you turn the phone screen off! Activity on the DeX desktop wakes the phone up. This is why I couldn't use it to power my wearable computer, incidentally. There was no way to mount my phone where it wouldn't be overheating in my pocket and generating a lot of "ghost touches" that grab focus away from what I'm doing.

Apart from the fact that it's impossible to stumble across by accident, I think these paired limitations are the main reason why DeX hasn't seen much adoption despite being a cool feature that Samsung invested in. Ideally I should be able to use the phone and the computer screen in tandem with each other; failing that, the phone that's tethered to my display shouldn't be an encumberance to what I'm doing.

I should mention that one of the cleverer features of DeX is that when your phone is outputing to another screen there's an option to turn the phone into a digital trackpad. I normally do this just because the phone isn't good for much else and doing this prevents the mouse cursor from going off the side of the screen and generating stray clicks on the phone. But a lot of physical configurations would make it awkard to use the phone as an input device, and if you're plugging your phone into a computer screen you probably have an actual keyboard and mouse.

I'm using DeX more now that I have replaced my ailing and failing laptop with a Kickstarted device called the Nexdock 2. The Nexdock has the body of a laptop and the brain of absolutely nothing. It's a screen, speakers, keyboard, trackpad, and battery, but with no RAM or processor or hard drive. It was designed for use with Samsung phones and other similar devices, as well as minicomputers like Raspberry Pi and my own pocket Windows PC. I got it because there are times when I need a laptop but I don't really need a laptop, with the pocket PC. This way all my files and programs are there whether I'm in wearable mode or sitting down.

With my phone and the PC, I can use the same physical shell for a somewhat quirky Android environment that depends on my phone, which has a long battery life and its own data connection, or with my less quirky Windows-on-an-HDMI-stick device that has no battery of its own and needs wifi (or my phone). It's neat. It's nice. I love it.

I would just love it even more if I could mount my phone alongside the Nexdock screen and use them both. I think I'd hardly ever use the pocket PC if that were the case, just as I'd hardly ever use the pocket PC with my Vufine if I could turn my phone screen off and put it in my pocket while it powers DeX. I guess that's why I'm writing a review here, both to let people know this feature exists and it's cool, and also hopefully to shine a light for Samsung on how it could be greatly improved with a couple of tweaks.

Samsung has the start of something great here. If they would just solve the screen problems, I could see a time when my phone becomes my main computer. Until then, it's going to remain effectively a backup or a novelty.