Can Samsung DeX really replace your college laptop?

If you own a Samsung phone from the last few years, or plan to get a new one before returning to school or college, the question of whether Samsung’s DeX productivity feature could replace a tablet or laptop for you may have crossed your mind. DeX turns your phone and a monitor into a mini computer, and all you need to do is grab a Bluetooth keyboard, as the phone’s screen works like a touchpad, so it’s a reasonable thought.

DeX mode and equipment.
Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

Saving space and money at the same time? Too good to be true? Let’s talk about whether Samsung DeX really can save you from buying a laptop to use at college.

What is DeX?

Samsung calls DeX a multitasking tool, but this doesn’t do it justice. When you connect your phone to a television or a monitor, DeX activates a desktop-like experience and lets you do almost everything you would on the phone on a big screen. This means you can run apps, watch videos, use Microsoft tools, play games, run presentations, edit photos, have video meetings, check email, and browse the web.

All this can technically happen without buying any additional products outside of owning the right phone and a compatible TV or monitor, but the whole experience is improved if you treat your phone like a desktop computer. Get a Bluetooth keyboard, and perhaps a stylus, too, and you’ll be very close to removing the need for a laptop or a tablet, depending on your needs.

What Samsung phone do you need?

The essential item here is the right Samsung smartphone. Depending on which model you have, you’ll be able to run DeX either wirelessly or with a cable. To use wired DeX, you need a USB Type-C to HDMI cable and a monitor or television with an HDMI port. Wired DeX works on all Galaxy Note phones, from the Galaxy Note 8 to the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra, along with all the Galaxy Fold phones, as well as all Galaxy S Series phones, from the Galaxy S8 to the Galaxy S21 Ultra. It’s also a feature on some Galaxy tablets, including the Galaxy Tab S4, S5e, and Tab S6.

DeX with a keyboard.
Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

The downside with using a wired connection for DeX is it removes the ability to charge your phone using a cable at the same time, as the DeX cable uses the phone’s USB Type-C port. The solution is to use a wireless DeX connection on Samsung’s newer phones. If you own a Galaxy Note 20, Note 20 Ultra, or any of the newest Galaxy S21 phones, or even the latest Galaxy Z Fold 3 or Z Flip 3, DeX can be used wirelessly with a compatible smart TV. Samsung TVs made after 2018 all work for this, and any that have a screen mirroring or Miracast feature may also work with DeX.

What accessories do you need?

If you’re going to use your phone and DeX as a laptop alternative, you need a Bluetooth keyboard, and maybe a mouse too, but this isn’t essential as your phone’s screen converts over to a handy touchpad when DeX is active. Connect your chosen Bluetooth keyboard to your phone, and that’s it. If you want to use a stylus and don’t have a Galaxy Note, but you do have a Galaxy S21 Ultra, you can also buy an S Pen stylus and use that with DeX.

Galaxy S21 Ultra with Wireless DeX active.
Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

Got an older Galaxy phone? Before Wireless DeX came along, Samsung sold the DeX Pad and DeX Station accessory, which acted like wired docks for your phone. The advantage here is the range of connections on the dock. The DeX Station had two USB Type-A ports, an Ethernet port, an HDMI port, and a USB Type-C port so you can charge your phone while it’s docked.

Sadly, getting one today isn’t easy. Each dock was only compatible with certain Samsung Galaxy phones, not including the Galaxy S20 or Note 10 or later, and Samsung has since discontinued them. However, if you own an older Galaxy phone — the Galaxy S8 through to the Galaxy S10, plus some Note models — already and want to use DeX, you may still find one of the docks available through eBay, or on a store shelf somewhere. It would be worth trying to find one for the ability to charge the phone while using DeX.

Does it really work?

Yes, it really does, but we recommend not relying on Wireless DeX. Equipped with a Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra, the KeyChron K2 and the Keychron K3 Bluetooth keyboards, and a Sony Android TV, the setup process stalled when we tried to connect to the television. Despite the Sony TV having screen mirroring, the phone refused to link up. Based on forum threads all over the internet, this is not uncommon, and not only a Sony TV issue either. Both keyboards easily linked to the Galaxy S21 Ultra using Bluetooth without a problem, though.

If you can try DeX out with your existing smart TV and it works, great. If you can’t and are planning to buy one, there’s no guarantee Wireless DeX will work if it’s not a Samsung model. However, connecting to a TV or monitor with a USB Type-C to HDMI works faultlessly, but you are left without the ability to charge your phone. What we did find was that the Galaxy S21 Ultra would wirelessly charge when placed on a Qi charging pad even when DeX was active, so there is a way around it. You may want to get a Bluetooth mouse if you’re going to use this method.

Once connected to a monitor or TV, DeX works really well. The desktop interface looks and operates a bit like Windows, so there’s nothing new to learn, and all your usual phone features are there, including SMS and messaging apps. You can run up to five apps at the same time, and there’s no noticeable lag when performing general productivity tasks like using a word processor or Outlook for emails. YouTube runs in its own window, and Chrome is very responsive.

If your demands are relatively light, then Samsung DeX is just as usable as an Android tablet for work-related tasks, and could replace your laptop if you’re only doing the basics.

No need to buy a laptop?

A laptop is always going to be more powerful and more versatile than a smartphone linked to a big screen. Good laptops don’t have to cost a fortune either. However, DeX is a good alternative if you’re thinking about using an Android tablet for productivity. Typing on a Bluetooth keyboard is always preferable to typing on a keyboard case, for example, and a TV screen is always going to be bigger than a tablet’s screen.

Even if you don’t go “full DeX,” knowing it exists and how it works, and investing about $18 for a USB Type-C to HDMI cable, is wise. A modern Galaxy smartphone is hugely capable in terms of processing and ability, and we keep all of our lives on them, from photos to emails. The chance to plug it into a bigger screen for very little extra money, if any, is too good to miss, even if it’s just with a monitor in a work room.

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