Turning Smartphones into Computers

Originally posted at Endless OS Foundation

Endless was born from the idea that a smartphone could be connected to a TV in order to provide the full experience & educational capability of a Personal Computer, without requiring the separate purchase of comparatively expensive PC hardware. Because the number of TVs and smartphones distributed around the world far exceeds that of the PC, we still believe this is a game-changing opportunity waiting to be realized in terms of reducing the digital divide.

Endless was born from the idea that a smartphone could be connected to a TV in order to provide the full experience & educational capability of a Personal Computer.

An accidental discovery

At home, I make use of a small gadget on my desk, to which I have connected a keyboard, a mouse, a HDMI display, and my laptop charger. When I get home, I quickly plug this box into my laptop. At this point, my laptop transforms itself into a desktop computer – seamlessly making use of the keyboard, mouse and display. It charges the laptop battery at the same time. This is known as a USB-C/Thunderbolt hub, it is a modern day version of the docking station and it is very convenient.

USB-C Hubb 5 portar

One evening, with my smartphone battery running low, I decided to plug the hub into my phone instead of my laptop, hoping it would charge like my laptop does. Indeed, the smartphone battery started charging. But I was stunned to see that my smartphone immediately took advantage of this connectivity to present a PC-like desktop environment on my monitor, as you can see in the photo at the top of the article.

A smartphone. Connected to, essentially, a TV, plus keyboard and mouse. The result: a PC-like experience. This is Endless’s original idea, turned reality a decade later.

The Samsung DeX experience

My smartphone is a Samsung Galaxy S10, and the functionality I’d stumbled across here is known as Samsung DeX. And it’s rather well done.

Getting started with DeX is quick and convenient. No configuration is needed – you literally just plug in the hub and then you have the desktop on screen within seconds.

And this is not just your phone showing up on a bigger screen. It’s a re-imagination of your smartphone’s user experience, carefully adapted for more of a desktop setup. At Endless we comprehend the effort required to produce a compelling and delightful desktop experience, and it’s clear that plenty of thought went into DeX’s presentation and interaction models.

It’s a re-imagination of your smartphone’s user experience, carefully adapted for more of a desktop setup.

It was really exciting to see this and I immediately knew what I had to do next: I shut down my laptop, put it on the shelf, and moved to using DeX for my professional and personal PC needs for a couple of days as an experiment. Here are my main observations and reflections.

App-based desktop convenience

Like many other digital citizens, I have taken steps to synchronize my smartphone with my laptop. I have accounts and apps set up so that I can read my email or check my calendar on both devices. I am logged into WhatsApp on my laptop so that I can access messages sent to my phone. I use online banking on my laptop but also have installed my bank’s app on my phone for occasional use there. This has taken some effort as I’ve essentially had to set up multiple services on two distinct devices.

Now, under the lens of my smartphone fully replacing my PC, one of my first big realizations was that all my stuff is already there, in full, in the DeX setup. My existing smartphone apps can be run in this environment and they access the accounts and data already on my phone. With a single device serving as both the portable smartphone and also as the home PC, there’s no longer any need to set things up twice. Convenient and refreshing.

An even more exciting realization here is that DeX promotes the app-based desktop concept.

One of our innovative steps in Endless OS is to build the user experience around a central concept of apps, much like a smartphone. This is in contrast to a traditional PC interface, where users typically spend almost all of their time within the web browser. An even more exciting realization here is that DeX promotes the app-based desktop concept. As a PC user I’ve developed the habit of gravitating towards doing everything in the web browser, but after a short period of adaptation, under DeX I find myself preferring to use the individual dedicated apps for reading my email, booking things on the calendar, checking the map, logging into my bank account, etc. Similarly to the way we use smartphones, this feels logical and organized.

Productive results

With no setup required, and my apps, accounts and data already present within the environment, I was able to get my DeX-driven working day underway smoothly. That included my usual tasks of writing documents, reading/writing emails, web browsing, communication on Slack, video conferences via Google Meet, etc. In the evenings I did some online shopping, instant messaging, and also enjoyed being able to use some smartphone-only apps as part of my home PC setup.

Overall the experiment was both uneventful and remarkable. Uneventful in that I was able to get a bunch of work done. And remarkable, because my usual designated workhorse (my laptop) sat to one side gathering dust. My smartphone replaced my laptop. Performance was good, I had all the tools I needed, and my productivity was at its normal level.

That’s not to say there weren’t imperfections. Getting down to the details:

  • Some UI elements want you to swipe (e.g. dismissing notifications) and this does not feel natural with a mouse.
  • Big emails and documents hang for a few seconds, before being notified that grammar checking has been disabled because of too much text.
  • At one point, the Alt-Tab window switcher got stuck on screen and I couldn’t find any way to recover other than rebooting the smartphone.
  • Regular phone notifications are shown on-screen but it took me some time to spot where that was happening.

There were some other niggles related to the apps themselves which have been designed for a smartphone, where they are used one-at-a-time with touchscreen interactions only. Under DeX, they are displayed as large, resizable windows and are driven by the keyboard and mouse. When running apps in this ‘foreign’ environment, I hit some pain points such as Google’s Calendar app being more limited than the web version, and I couldn’t find a way to include images in mails sent in the Gmail app. Some apps require you to do a pinching motion, which you can’t do on a mouse. And some apps, like Slack, don’t make good use of the huge amount of space now available, continuing to behave as if running on a small screen (unlike the behavior of their PC & web versions).

These technicalities do not seem insurmountable though. And Google’s Chrome app shows just how well this can work. On my phone, the Chrome app runs in its regular minimalistic mode, but when running that same app on the big screen, it impressively transforms itself to look and behave like the PC desktop version of Chrome.

Software freedom

Endless is a strong proponent of Free and Open Source software being the right base for sustainable, scalable access to PCs. And as exciting as it feels to put my laptop to one side and switch to a PC experience produced by my smartphone, I faced a sinking feeling in this area: this is the first time in around 20 years that I’m not using an open source platform for the tasks I do on a PC. That feels like an unfortunate step backwards. While built on some open technologies, you cannot really consider the Samsung Galaxy Android OS to be a FOSS project, and the DeX functionality seems to be entirely proprietary.

That said, this does highlight an inconsistency in ideals. Why do FOSS proponents such as myself feel strongly about the need for open technologies on PC desktops, while simultaneously holding comparatively closed mainstream smartphones in our pockets?

Closing remarks

At the start of my 2-day experiment of using DeX instead of my PC, I had the feeling that it would fail. I had the perception that my laptop was an essential part of my work, I figured that a handheld smartphone would not be able to offer enough performance to replace a PC, and I expected the DeX experience to be sufficiently rough to have me craving the return to my laptop.

I was wrong on all these counts. I remain astounded that this experiment went as smoothly as it did. The DeX experience even surprised me with its smooth realization of the app-based PC desktop experience and the convenience of already holding all my apps and data. I did face minor inconveniences which left me considering if I should grab my laptop, but these could just be ordinary switching costs. The technical issues could likely be solved by developers without much effort. The overall experience seems so close to being a drop-in PC replacement.

From an Endless perspective, it’s hugely exciting progress in two of our focus areas. Firstly, the implication that a smartphone can replace a PC is hugely powerful, because smartphones are more affordable and much more widespread than PCs within the underserved communities we seek to benefit. Secondly, it delivers the app-based desktop experience in the PC-like environment, which is the same direction of travel that we have within Endless OS. The downside is that it’s a step backwards in terms of software freedom, but I am hopeful that open source implementations could emerge in future.

My biggest question: Why is this game-changing feature so hidden and unknown? Despite having so much relevance for our work at Endless, and with two DeX-capable smartphones at home, it still took 3 years for me to come across this – purely by accident.

Now that I’m aware of it, I see user discussions around DeX going back to 2018, and I see similar solutions such as Motorola Ready For and Huawei Easy Projection. There’s even the NexDock which uses DeX or similar to convert your smartphone into a laptop.

This feature delivers a compelling user experience, to the point where I will continue actively using it while reconsidering the importance of a traditional PC going forward.

Imperfections aside, this feature delivers a compelling user experience, to the point where I will continue actively using it while reconsidering the importance of a traditional PC going forward. As Matt Dalio writes in his accompanying article on this topic, we now need this feature to mature to the point where it is common in low-cost smartphones, and at that point, it could bring great positive impact to emerging markets where PC adoption is still in its infancy.

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