Your smartphone can double as a laptop - if you keep things simple

by Peter Griffin / 23 June, 2018
Samsung has redesigned its DeX stand for its Galaxy phones. It'll connect your phone to a screen and charge it at the same time.

Samsung has redesigned its DeX stand for its Galaxy phones. It'll connect your phone to a screen and charge it at the same time.

A few years back Microsoft launched Continuum, a system allowing Windows-based smartphones to act as fully functional desktop computers when plugged into an external screen. 

Imagine it - no need to lug your laptop around, just find a screen, plug in your phone and a portable keyboard and get to work.

Continuum functioned remarkably well, you could just take a smartphone like the Lumia 950, a compact wireless keyboard and mouse, and connect the phone via a USB to HDMI cable into a large screen.

Suddenly you had Windows 10 displayed in full desktop mode and capable of running go-to productivity apps like Word and Excel, as well as other apps downloadable from the Windows App Store.

It was one of the most promising features of Windows 10. But there was one problem - no one wanted a Windows phone. Facing the might of Android and Apple’s iOS-powered iPhones, Microsoft simply couldn’t make any headway against them, despite buying mobile maker Nokia.

Continuum is still around, but on a dwindling range of handsets and Microsoft is instead now touting versions of its software products for Android and iOS instead.

But Android phone makers saw the potential. After all, the processors running the latest generation of smartphones, such as the 64-bit Octa-Core Processor in the Samsung Galaxy S9+, have more than enough grunt to power a desktop computer.

DeX-tending your desktop

A couple of years ago, Samsung adapted a version of Android to act as desktop software. It produced a plastic stand called DeX that would switch your Galaxy smartphone into desktop mode when you cradled it.

It has just redesigned DeX, releasing it as a pad instead, making it less bulky and easier to connect the phone to. It still lacks in the aesthetics department but it does the job of connecting your phone to a screen, while simultaneously charging it. There are two USB ports for peripheral devices and HDMI connector to feed into the external display.

I recently took a leap of faith and left my laptop at home, relying on DeX, my Galaxy smartphone and a wireless Samsung keyboard and touchpad that came with my TV and which I rarely use. The crucial thing to make this work is access to a screen wherever you are going to be working.

For me, it happened to be an Auckland hotel room, which featured a modern LG TV with an HDMI port. Unfortunately, the TV was mounted on the wall opposite the bed but far away from the desk, which was built into the wall so couldn’t be moved.

Instead, I sat on the bed and DeX displayed my desktop in front of me with my phone apps displayed as icons, sort of like you are used to on a Windows PC. I connected the wireless keyboard and was then able to start navigating around the desktop.

If you really don’t want to bring a keyboard with you, the DeX turns your smartphone’s screen into a touchpad to let you navigate with a mouse pointer. A virtual keyboard will pop up if you really want to type. I wouldn’t recommend that scenario for anything other than playing videos or showing Powerpoint files as the virtual keyboard is too fiddly.

The DeX can let you turn your smartphone screen into a touchpad to let you navigate with a mouse pointer.

In DeX mode, a wide range of applications are available, including Microsoft’s Office 365 suite which looks just as they would on a desktop. Your phones notifications, battery and network status are all displayed in the bottom righthand side and there is a tray at the bottom for often-used apps, just like on a desktop. I use Google Docs rather than the Office suite but was able to jump straight into my files and start editing a document, increasing the text size to account for being across the room from the screen. The Chrome browser worked fine for web surfing.

Gmail displayed in another screen, so right away I was in productivity mode.

Not all apps are fully compatible in desktop mode. Netflix only displays in a small window, you can’t go full screen, which defeats the purpose entirely. By plugging your phone directly into the TV with a USB-C to HDMI cable, Netflix works just fine.

Opting for a hub

Huawei’s Mate 10 Pro and newer P20 Pro smartphones have a similar function called EMUI Desktop or Easy Projection, without adding an additional piece of dedicated hardware. You can, however, plug in a USB-C to HDMI hub, with USB ports, which will function much as DeX does.

Using the Huawei without a powered hub device means you don’t have the convenience of keeping your phone charged while plugged into the screen and you won’t be able to add peripherals - you’ll be solely reliant on a Bluetooth wireless keyboard or the touchscreen of your phone.

The Huawei desktop experience is similar to what you’ll enjoy on the Samsung - they are both based on Android Oreo after all. There are a few quirks - the file system of both phones is not as familiar or extensive as you’ll be used to on your desktop and the intuitive features that let you easily toggle between screens and tasks aren’t as extensive.

The gestures you are used to in phone mode don’t translate in desktop mode.

The big limitation is that there will be software programmes on your phone that don’t exist as Android apps, so you won’t be able to use them. However, the web browser is fully functional, so you should be able to access services in the cloud. Indeed, Samsung is pushing DeX as a way to use virtual desktop services from Citrix, VMware and Amazon while on the road.

By the way, during all of this desktop work, the phone will continue to work as a phone. Messages will pop up on the screen and you are able to make and receive calls.

Where is this going?

It is early days for extending the functionality of the phone to offer a desktop, but it is easy to imagine Google developing Chrome OS, its operating system for low-cost laptops, to run on its Pixel and other smartphones.

Apple hasn’t a DeX equivalent for the iPhone and encourages people who want mobile computing and more screen real estate than a smartphone can afford, to invest in an iPad or MacBook Air.

But Apple could easily turn the iPhone into a portable computer. It already has MacOS, its desktop software, which could be adapted for the mobile. In fact, many observers have anticipated Apple merging its iOS mobile operating system with MacOS, however, that was ruled out last month at its annual worldwide developers' conference.

Those, such as Apple, who have a vested interest in selling us hardware devices in different formats will never enthusiastically embrace the mobile as a desktop stand-in. But the smartphone makers in the Android camp will mine this vein further.

Who will it suit?

Increasingly, we are finding ourselves in open-plan offices where hot-desking is the new policy in fashion. You may be moving between offices or floors day to day and logging into different computers.

These desktop extension services introduce the idea of taking your computer with you in the form of a smartphone and just plugging into an available screen.

There are security benefits to doing so as well as you can take advantage of the biometric features of the smartphone, such as fingerprint and facial recognition.

Ultimately, however, these functions will suit those who use a small collection of productivity apps extensively and are comfortable with the limitations of an emulated rather than true desktop experience.

DeX pad - $179

USB-C - HDMI hub - from $30 - $120

 

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