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The Galaxy Note 9 is one step closer to the smartphone-computer dream

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Turning a phone into a desktop has been done before

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Image credit: Samsung

Samsung took the wraps off the Galaxy Note 9 last week, and it announced that the device would work with Samsung DeX, a desktop-style environment you can project to a monitor using a USB-C to HDMI adapter / cable.

It sounds fairly simple, and it seems like the Note 9 is closer to fully realizing the smartphone-computer dream: using your phone to power a desktop-style computing interface without needing a mouse or keyboard (while still supporting both).

After all, why shouldn’t powerful phones have capabilities like laptops? This isn’t the first time this question has been asked by a smartphone OEM, and there have been many unsuccessful attempts to make this happen in the past. The past two years have brought more powerful smartphones than ever, with clock speeds and cores that are closely rival those of laptop processors.

Before we get into how DeX came to be, here’s a look at some of the iterations that got us here.

Windows Phone Continuum

The platform that comes to mind (but wasn’t the first) is Windows Phone and its Continuum feature. Announced back in 2015, it underwent two years of development and didn’t bear fruit in terms of an enjoyable user experience. By the time Continuum was ready for consumers, Windows Phone as a platform was on its last legs.

To make matters worse, most Windows Phone apps (of which there were few to begin with) didn’t work with Continuum, so it was dead on arrival. However, it’s one of the most interesting takes of desktop computing with a phone.

Motorola Atrix with LapDock

Image credit: Motorola

The Motorola Atrix was originally unveiled at CES 2011 and launched in the first quarter of that year as an exclusive with AT&T in the United States. It was the first phone to use a PenTile qHD display with 24-bit graphics. But more importantly, it had a feature called Webtop.

When placed into the laptop dock accessory, you could use an Ubuntu-based(!) desktop, complete with Android notifications, multimedia playback, and Firefox. Much like the phone, Webtop was ill-fated and its source code was uploaded to Sourceforge.

Palm Foleo

Image credit: Palm Inc.

Oh, Palm. The short-lived Palm Foleo was announced by Palm Inc. in 2007 to serve as a companion to the then-popular Treo line. It ran Linux as its main operating system, had 256MB of flash memory, near-instant boot-up, and was canceled only three months after the announcement.

It was an odd accessory, mostly due to the fact that it didn’t actually receive or send emails over Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, but rather transmitted over synchronization with your companion Palm smartphone.

Also, here’s a fun fact: if the Palm Foleo had launched, it would have predated some of the netbooks that would be launched and introduced to the consumer market.

Redfly Mobile Companion

Image credit: Redfly

If you thought a companion laptop for your smartphone was weird, then get familiar with the Redfly C7. It was introduced in 2007 (after Palm canceled the Folio), supported Windows Mobile smartphones, had a battery life of around five hours, and two USB ports.

However, it didn’t have its own CPU, RAM, or internal storage, so it was completely reliant on a smartphone. With no support for the BlackBerry or Nokia phones that were popular at the time, its demise hedged most on its lack of compatibility with non-Windows Mobile devices.

Asus Zenfone PC Link

PC Link is Asus’ method for mirroring a Zenfone’s screen to a Windows PC by expanding the user interface on a larger screen and making it possible to run alongside other windowed apps. You can connect a Zenfone over its USB-C cable or an Asus docking accessory that comes with mouse and keyboard support. It’s not a groundbreaking feature for Zenfone users, but it allows for more flexibility.

And Now...

Galaxy S8 / S8 Plus / S9 / S9 Plus / Note 8 / Note 9 with Samsung DeX

Photo by Amelia Holowatz Krales / The Verge

Samsung DeX first debuted as a dock accessory, and you’d plug in a monitor, keyboard, and mouse. By docking your Galaxy S8, S8 Plus, or Note 8, you could achieve the Samsung DeX experience. Initially, though, it was a hard sell: why would you use a complete desktop setup with a phone, instead of with a real desktop PC? Still, it was a solid proof-of-concept that extended to the Galaxy S9 and S9 Plus with improvements in speed.

Fast-forward to present day, and the Galaxy Tab S4 and the Galaxy Note 9 have DeX built in. The Tab S4 is particularly adept at using DeX, with the option of using it instead of the default Android interface, but it still supports many Android apps. Unfortunately, the lack of Android tablet apps means it’s not as compelling as it could be. Plus, the Tab S4’s keyboard is lackluster and in dire need of a mouse, which you can add via Bluetooth. However, this still isn’t a fully integrated, smartphone-as-a-computer solution.

On the flip side, it would appear as if the Note 9 does DeX best by requiring just a USB-C to HDMI adapter and cable to connect to a monitor. From there, you can use the Note 9’s screen like a touchpad or use the S Pen in place of your finger.

The Note 9 in DeX mode also doubles as a keyboard, so there’s a real argument to be made that the Note 9 is the first smartphone that can accomplish a full desktop environment, without needing a separate mouse and keyboard to work or an additional software download. By removing those seemingly small barriers to entry, Samsung is making it easy for you to get DeX working. You only need a monitor and an HDMI to USB-C adapter; it’s a plug-and-play solution.

How much work you can get done with the Note 9 running in DeX mode will be dependent on app developers, Note 9 owners’ experiences, as well as the results of our upcoming review. But this much is true: prior to the Note 9, it’s never been this easy to use a phone as a computer.