My packing was done and I was just about ready to leave on a working vacation that would take me across the Mediterranean to Malta and Greece, with a stopover in Frankfurt. But this time around, my 2.5-pound notebook and its heavy AC adapter would be staying at home, along with the usual bag of connectors and dongles that join me on such trips.
Instead, I traveled light, taking just a Samsung Galaxy Note 9 along with a fold-up keyboard and HDMI adapter. It was all I needed – or so I hoped at the start of this trek – because the DeX software on board the Note 9 can transform Samsung's phone into a desktop computer, with the help of an external display or TV and wireless keyboard. Total weight: less than a pound.
It's an alternative I have craved for a long time. During this trip, I hoped to work on several projects (including this article), create and give presentations, and crunch some large spreadsheets. And when I wasn't working, I wanted to watch a few movies, catch up on my favorite Korean soap operas and play a few games.
Was the Note 9 and DeX up to the task of providing all the comforts of a PC at a third of the weight of my notebook? Here's how the Note 9 performed under pressure, with no net to save me if this productivity high-wire act failed.
Travel Companions: What I Need to Be Productive on the Road
|With a Notebook||With a Galaxy Note 9 and DeX|
|Main Device (Weight)||HP EliteBook Folio 2 (2 pounds, 8 ounces)||Galaxy Note 9 (7.1 ounces)|
|Power Adapter (Weight)||AC adapter (8 ounces)||AC and HDMI adapters (2.3 ounces)|
|Other Accessories (Weight)||HDMI adapter (1 ounce)||Keyboard (5.7 ounces)|
|Total Weight||3 pounds, 1 ounce||15.1 ounces|
Before our journey begins, though, here's a quick refresher on Samsung's Desktop Experience, or DeX for short. Wherever I can snag a TV or display, my Note 9 can be transformed into the equivalent of a desktop computer.
Without DeX, when I plug my Note 9 into a monitor, the phone's screens appear as a cramped vertical strip that takes up about one-quarter of the display's viewing space. With DeX, though, whatever's on the Note 9's display fills the entire external screen.
The setup takes less than a minute. After plugging the phone into the display using an HDMI converter, I link my iClever BK06 keyboard (opens in new tab) via Bluetooth to the Note 9. Finally, I turn the phone's screen into a touchpad. The result is as close as you can get to a desktop computer while using a phone.
DeX debuted with the Galaxy S8 and S8+ in 2017, and it's been part of every Samsung flagship phone (that includes the Galaxy S9, S9+ and Note 8 in addition to the Note 9) ever since; DeX also works with Samsung's Tab S4 tablet.
DeX helps those devices punch above their weight by presenting a full-screen horizontal view of apps on an external display. Similar to Windows and Mac OS X software, the DeX interface lets you keep several windows open at once and drag items between them.
The big change with DeX on the Note 9 involves how you connect. Previously, you needed to plug the phone into either the $150 DeX Station or the $100 Dex Pad (opens in new tab) to act as an intermediary between your phone and the display.
The Note 9 simplifies things by directly connecting to a display with a USB Type-C-to-HDMI video converter. Unfortunately, older Samsung phones still require a DeX Station or DeX Pad, so if you don't have a Note 9, you'll still have to tote one of those accessories around.
A useful Quick Panel on the external display's lower right offers links for interacting with the system: Use them to change the volume, connect with a Wi-Fi network or view the phone's Notifications. On the bottom left, DeX's Navigation Buttons let you jump to the phone's apps, see all the open apps or jump back to the desktop.
DeX works best with software that's been enhanced to take advantage of Samsung's productivity feature. As of this writing, there are 73 DeX-enhanced apps (opens in new tab) ranging from Word, PowerPoint and Excel to Photoshop Lightroom and Express. DeX is short on entertainment apps, however — particularly games. It has Vainglory but not League of Legends.
While DeX works with many off-the-shelf apps, the app may want to restart, might not run full screen and can shut down on its own. In my testing, I mostly stuck with enhanced apps, though I used Belkin NetCam and its unenhanced software to remotely watch the family's pet tortoise.
During my travels, the first thing I did when I returned to my hotel every night was plug the phone into the room's TV via an HDMI adapter or USB Type-C hub, connect to my Bluetooth keyboard and start using the Note 9 as a touchpad by scrolling down the Notification Settings and tapping on "Use Your Phone as a Touchpad." One instant desktop computer, coming right up.
Most of my DeX use centered on reading and writing emails using Gmail as well as outlining and developing ideas, stories and notes in Word. Having both programs on the big screen was a big help, because the DeX versions are virtually indistinguishable from what I'd use on either the PC or Mac. About 15 seconds after plugging in, I had my current document open, often with me furiously typing away while swiping on the phone to type new sections, move paragraphs around and change formatting.
While on Malta, I put together a PowerPoint slide show that incorporated parts of a monster spreadsheet and images I pulled from the Web. It all took place using my hotel room's 32-inch TV — a big step up from the 12-inch screen of my notebook, not to mention the Note 9's 6.4-inch screen.
I also took a lot of pictures during my trip, with some of those requiring cropping or editing in Photoshop Lightroom to alter the contrast, brightness and color balance. For others, I added a sepia tone to give them an antique appearance. Having the ability to work through these image-editing tasks on a large display was a big advantage. I'm not sure I could have done it at all or as well on the Note 9's display.
With the work done, it was time to unwind and have the DeX-Note 9 combo play some new episodes of Mr. Sunshine on Netflix. While not an approved DeX app, Netflix works well; the content was displayed in full-screen mode on the hotel's TV and the sound came through loud and clear on its speakers.
Can DeX Be Your PC on the Road?
Overall, the Note 9 and DeX worked hand in glove with each other. They kept me on track with my work, and when I finished all my tasks, DeX kept me entertained on a bigger screen than the one that my phone offered.
For that reason, DeX seems like magic to me: I was able to use a big display to write, do research and edit images without feeling cramped. Yet, I was carrying a phone, not a notebook, making DeX an essential part of traveling light.
Still, DeX remains a work in progress that needs to evolve in several key areas before it can truly become a traveler's tool. Due to the short cables I packed, I often had to drag a table to the screen and sit on the edge of the bed.
MORE: Samsung DeX Review: The Phone-as-PC Dream Remains Elusive
While the 32-inch TV in my Maltese hotel was perfect for working and entertainment, the TV in my Athens hotel room only accepted composite video inputs, making DeX a nonstarter. Instead, I used the Business Center's communal display.
More software (particularly on the entertainment side of things) would be a good step forward for DeX. Recently, Samsung released a software development kit (opens in new tab) so that software developers can add DeX compatibility to their Android apps. Hopefully, this will be the start of a renaissance for DeX apps.
Ultimately, DeX's biggest compromise is that, unlike a tablet or notebook, it lacks a permanent display. Unless I had a monitor handy, all I could do was use the Note 9's built-in screen, which was too cramped for many of the tasks I needed to do.
Finally, as good as DeX and the Note 9 are together, the cables really get in the way. Samsung engineers are working on replacing DeX's physical connections with wireless links. Imagine a world where, when it's time to get to work or watch a movie while you're traveling, all you have to do is tap the screen to wirelessly connect to the hotel room's smart TV, connect a keyboard and set up the phone as a touchpad. That's my idea of a traveler's dream come true.
Credit: Tom's Guide