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Galaxy Note 10: How DeX is almost Samsung's killer app

DeX turns your Note 10 into a desktop replacement. A few flaws keep it from being a must-have feature.

The super pretty but super expensive Samsung Galaxy Note 10 Plus. 

Óscar Gutiérrez/CNET

Samsung has a conundrum. Flagship phones like its Galaxy Note line now regularly cost or exceed $999, and customers are proving less willing than anticipated to drop four digits on a new device. What can Samsung do to differentiate itself from premium competition, like Apple's iPhone 11 line and Google's new Pixel 4, while simultaneously enticing dollar-conscious buyers away from affordable phones such as the $379 Pixel 3A

Answer: Make its phones double as your new desktop computer.

That's what Samsung does with DeX, a feature it debuted in 2017 with the Galaxy S8. The concept of DeX is simple: Plug your phone into a monitor and it'll act as a PC. It's a killer concept and, if done well enough, would be a strong reason to pick a Galaxy S or Note phone over an iPhone or Pixel phone. 

And Samsung needs to give you all the reasons it can. The Note 10 costs $949. You'll drop $1,099 for a Note 10 Plus. Samsung, like Apple, needs to sell feature that justify you spending $999 for a phone, since you can actually buy a premium laptop like a MacBook Air or Microsoft Surface Laptop 3 for that kind of dough. 

We're usually sold on power, as each year phones from Apple, Samsung, Google and more pack increasingly sophisticated processors. But, outside of a slight-to-moderate bump in battery life, it's rare that you're actually able to put the extra grunt to use. DeX is a smart way to leverage all that impressive power.

Thanks to DeX, I used the Samsung Galaxy Note 10 as my primary work computer, on and off, for three weeks. DeX is an impressive feature with vast promise. It'll be a true killer app that competitors will scramble to replicate -- if Samsung is able to perfect it. Samsung, though, isn't quite there yet.

A Samsung Galaxy as your new desktop

First step: How do you actually use DeX?

On top of a recent Galaxy phone (from 2017 on), you'll need a docking station with enough ports to connect a keyboard, mouse and monitor. Samsung sells a DeX Pad ($99, £129, AU$199), and says using its own accessories will give you an optimized experience. You don't need to buy Samsung's own accessories, though, as I used a Dell docking station with a Logitech mouse/keyboard combo and had no hardware problems.  

If you're viewing DeX as a cherry on top, it's crazy impressive. Samsung's Android-based desktop operating system is intuitive, and in some ways feels like the OS of the future. I was quickly struck by how much it made sense to have your computer and phone accessible on one display.  

Sarah Tew/CNET

If you're like me, you'd prefer to do things like replying to text messages, mobile banking and podcasts on mobile. Since DeX has all your mobile apps on it, you get that experience without having to break away from your mouse and keyboard. 

At the end of the day, for instance, I check TripView, an app that gives real-time updates for Sydney's perpetually late public transport. Similarly, there were times where I'd read about a new app and, via DeX, go straight to the Play Store and download it. It's welcoming to be able to do this on my computer (DeX) instead of pulling out my phone; it has the "it just works" feeling synonymous with Samsung's main competitor, Apple. 

This all may sound trivial, but having an ecosystem that gives you desktop productivity with your mobile apps actually feels like a minor eureka moment. 

"I can't believe other phone companies haven't done this already," I thought to myself for the first time in a long while.

And it all functions well. Laptops have used Qualcomm Snapdragon processors for a while now, so it's no surprise that the Note 10, with a Snapdragon 855, can run more demanding desktop software.

Admittedly, I never did anything too intensive. I write my story drafts in Google Docs, and every now and then use Google Sheets. I don't use Microsoft's suite of Office apps which are optimised for DeX, nor do I do edit videos, photos or audio files. 

But I often used DeX for several days in a row, with lots of tabs open in my browser and lots of apps running simultaneously, and can't recall any hardware performance issues. My MacBook Pro is faster, but I'd only ever miss its speed in the moments immediately after switching from the MacBook to DeX. Outside of that small timeframe, the performance difference isn't noticeable. 

But no dice

Although there was plenty I liked about using my phone as a desktop, problems came up immediately. A lot of it is figuring out which apps work with DeX and which don't. 

Spotify's app, for instance, doesn't work well on DeX. You can easily search and play specific playlists and albums, but go to an artist's page and you'll be stuck on their promo picture, unable to scroll down to their song and album selection. That's OK, though, because Spotify's web player works fine on a browser. Other apps, such as Kindle, don't work at all. 

In general, a lot of the problems are forgivable -- circumventing them takes simple trial and error. You learn pretty quickly which apps work and which functions are better performed with Samsung's browser. 

But the browser is where I found my major problem. It was highly temperamental with CNET's content management system, where we write and publish our stories. The very first time I tried writing a story with DeX, everything was going fine until I added an image. The CMS page crashed and refreshed as a blank slate. I hadn't saved. It was a bad day. 

Another time, DeX was working fine until I opened the CMS and started a new article. Once I started typing, it became frazzled over which app was active. I'd type a word or two and the Browser app would go inactive, barring me from typing more and forcing me to to click inside the app to refocus DeX on it. I had to restart the system to fix this glitch. 

I've since been able to write full stories on DeX, so the problem is inconsistency rather than flat-out incompatibility. As I mentioned above, I used DeX on and off for over three weeks. I switched back to my MacBook when I had to write a story quickly, or when I was working with a lot of images. 

DeX's major problem is that it comes admirably close at being a desktop replacement but, since we're talking about your major productivity machine, close isn't good enough. If your actual computer is more reliable, then you'd only ever be using DeX for novelty's sake.

In fairness, it's difficult for companies to optimize their internal tools, like CNET's CMS, to different types of browsers and other software. (Our CMS is optimized only for Chrome and Firefox.) But if you have an office job, you probably have some kind of similar internal tool, and that tool is probably important to your job. Again: 90% reliable is impressive, but it can't compete with a computer that's 100% reliable.

Outside of the major issue of reliability, there were small bugs which made DeX feel sloppy at times.

Since you're using a mobile browser, certain sites, like CNET, were accessible only in their mobile form. And, like on your phone, there can only be one source of audio at a time. This is great sometimes, since you're never searching for the tab from where a sound is coming from, but it also results in Spotify being cut off when a video autoplays on a website you're browsing.  

I could go on forever with examples of apps that worked surprisingly well (like, say, Slack) and areas that need to be tightened up (web links auto launching a related app, for instance). But the bottom line is this: Right now, even two years on, DeX feels like it's in late-stage beta. It's DeX 0.9. 

A more reliable DeX with more optimized apps could one day be the reason to choose a Galaxy over another phone. But right now, it's something you're more likely to try out, think "oh, that's nifty," and then never touch again.