Some thoughts on Samsung’s Galaxy S8 and its DeX docking cradle

Samsung’s newest Galaxy smartphone range was launched to great fanfare last week, but came with an unexpected surprise. No, not an exploding battery, but a docking cradle that turns it into a desktop computer.

The latest line-up of Samsung’s flagship handset comprises two models, the Galaxy S8 and Galaxy S8+, that are everything you would expect from the leading smartphone vendor. They offer a choice of display size – 5.8in and 6.2in – multi-core processors, support for the latest high-speed networks, and the Android 7.0 Nougat operating system.

Owners of the new devices can also pick up an unusual optional extra for their Galaxy S8 or Galaxy S8+, in the shape of the DeX. This looks rather like a fancy black ashtray, but turns out to be a docking cradle that comes with an Ethernet port, HDMI video output and full-size USB 2.0 and USB Type C ports.

As well as charging the phone, the DeX lets you connect up to a desktop monitor, keyboard and mouse, and presumably also to a LAN using the Ethernet port, effectively turning your phone into a desktop computer. When plugged in like this, the user interface switches to a desktop-style user interface to make use of the larger display.

Samsung Galaxy S8 and DeX desktop cradle

This is an interesting concept, and one that has been mooted before. The comparison many in the tech industry are making is to the Continuum feature of Windows 10, which is intended to offer a similar large-screen experience for users of phones running Windows 10, when connected to a monitor. But the Windows Phone platform is essentially going nowhere, and many mobile watchers have pretty much written it off as dead.

However, it is also a feature that Ubuntu firm Canonical touted for its proposed Edge “superphone” back in 2013. This was to have been a high-spec smartphone running Ubuntu Linux, which would switch between a mobile user interface and a full Linux desktop shell, depending on whether it was docked or not. Sadly, the Edge never met its crowdfunding target on Indiegogo, and so did not go into production.

Samsung’s implementation of the concept could potentially attract interest from professional users because of the fact that key apps such as Microsoft’s Office Mobile suite are available for Android, and someone whose role mostly involves document work in Microsoft Office could conceivably run this on a Galaxy S8 or Galaxy S8+ connected to a monitor, in place of a desktop computer.

Another potential use case is not as a PC per se, but as a thin client for accessing virtual desktop (VDI) sessions. Here, the user would have access to a full-blown Windows desktop running full Windows apps, with the docked Galaxy S8 or Galaxy S8+ serving as a terminal. Both Citrix and VMware offer Android versions of their VDI client software, which Dell Wyse used to deliver a pocket-sized thin client in the shape of the Cloud Connect device several years back.

Citrix also showed off its receiver client running on a smartphone connected to a monitor screen as far back as 2010, although this required a handset with an HDMI output to function, and few had this.

Although Samsung seems to have made a splash with DeX at the Galaxy S8 launch, is there actually much call for this usage model? While the ability to turn your smartphone into a desktop client system is a neat trick, who would actually use such a system?

Most mobile professionals currently use a laptop, and plug that into a desktop display when they are in the office. The laptop has a decent sized screen that you can take out on the road with you, while with the Samsung DeX, you leave your big screen and keyboard behind in the office when you go roaming.

Samsung DeX desktop cradle

While it is conceivable that there may be some mobile worker roles in which a big screen is needed only in the office, and a smartphone is sufficient while out on the road, these would seem to be a bit of a niche. Few people would suggest that a smartphone with its small screen and lack of a physical keyboard would be suitable for intensive work – they tend to be used for checking emails or looking up information.

Then there is the fact that the suggested price of the DeX docking cradle – $149.99 in the US – is not much lower than many existing thin client terminals from established vendors in this market such as HP and Dell Wyse, so anyone choosing to equip their staff with a Galaxy device and a DeX to use as a VDI client would not really be saving much.

In addition, the lifecycle of a smartphone tends to be much shorter than that of a corporate device like a thin client terminal. Users tend to upgrade their phones every couple of years, whereas thin clients are often good for up to seven years of use.

Another potential pitfall is that you may invest in a bunch of Galaxy S8 or Galaxy S8+ handsets and DeX cradles, only to find that Samsung may no longer support DeX with any successor generation of Galaxy devices.

While Samsung is to be applauded for exploring a novel use of smartphones with the DeX hardware, it may find that the main market for this will be found among consumers or tech enthusiasts rather than business customers.