Samsung’s $180 DeX Pad is a docking station that turns a Galaxy S9 or S9 phone into a desktop computer. On paper it looks like a good idea. In practice it’s not as useful as you might expect. At least not for most people.

The main part of DeX Pad is a lightweight black plastic box that lies flat on a desk or table top. It has a cheap, flimsy feel. This is in stark contrast to premium finish of the Galaxy 9 phone. You plug a Samsung Galaxy 9 or 9 phone into it using the USB-C port. This also lies flat, which is a potential minor problem as we will see.

Samsung Dex Pad - flat

There are two USB 2 ports. You can use these to connect a keyboard and a mouse. A HDMI port connects the DeX Pad to a screen. There’s another USB-C port for the DeX Pad’s power supply. It comes with a New Zealand-style wall plug, but the cable is on 1 metre long, which may not be enough for many people.

The box is a little bigger than the Galaxy S9 phone. It measures 84 by 158 mm. When it sits on its little rubber footpads, the height is around 15 mm plus a small lump with the USB-C phone connector. That adds another 15 mm to the height.

Lightweight hardware

On its own, the DeX Pad weighs 135 g. Together a Dex Pad and a Galaxy S9 phone weigh around 300 g. The two weigh less than, say, an iPad or a small, light laptop.

Samsung DeX Pad

So all good to go? Well no. The DeX Pad is meaningless without a screen and you really need a keyboard to get much value. Carrying both along with the various cables and power supplies is far harder than taking a tablet or a laptop. Even if you know you can expect to find a suitable screen at your destination, you still have to carry a satchel full of kit.

When you get to your destination it takes time to hook everything up. The inventory of parts you need to carry includes phone, DeX Pad, keyboard, two cables and, perhaps, a mouse. Which mean there’s risk of leaving something behind. Taking a laptop or tablet would be far less trouble.

If you’re OK with all that, DeX Pad has another drawback: Android.

Lightweight OS

Whatever your opinion of Android as a phone operating system, it is not the best desktop OS. Windows, MacOs or Linux are better in almost every conceivable circumstance. The DeX Pad Android desktop OS feels a little like ChromeOS, but Google’s browser-based operating system would have been a better choice. Indeed, any of the OSs mentioned earlier would give you a better and more productive experience.

That’s not to say Android needs to be awful on the desktop, but Samsung has not done enough work on the software user experience. For example, some apps appear in portrait mode windows that mimic how they would look on a phone. Others have lots of white space. Almost nothing makes the best use of the screen real estate.

The good news is that most apps popular with IT departments and the enterprise users likely to choose  Dex Pad now have decent Android versions. You could run, say, Microsoft Office or G-Suite this way.

Jerky

Microsoft Word functions as expected. But performance is poor. Even the cheapest Windows 10 PC has less lag than a Galaxy and Dex Pad. At times the cursor jerks slowly almost painfully across the screen.

You can choose to use the phone screen as a touch pad instead of a mouse. It’s just as jerky and at times unpredictable. Likewise the double-tapping to click can be tricky when the touch pad function decides to be unresponsive.

Dex Pad Screen

Because the phone lies flat on the desk, you can’t use the fingerprint reader. So if you leave the Dex Pad long enough for it to go to sleep, you have to lift the phone in its cradle and turn it through 180 degrees to use the face recognition. There’s little that is downright bad, but lots of small niggles add up to a less than stellar user experience.

Don’t even think of running a fast moving game on this combination. Of course that’s not what Samsung designed the device for. The target is enterprise users.

Samsung DeX Pad verdict

Samsung’s marketing suggests a Galaxy S-series phone owning consumer might choose Dex Pad instead of buying a desktop or laptop computer. They would be disappointed.

Dex Pad would be handy if you’re in sales and turn up at a customer’s office to present with, say, PowerPoint.  It might be useful if you stop overnight in hotels where you can plug the Dex Pad into the TV set. Beyond that there is not an obvious market for the product.

Say you shuttle between, say, a home office and a company office. You would need screens and keyboards sitting waiting at both locations. You’d be better off buying two computers.

And that’s the problem. The idea is not silly. After all, phones are powerful and dominant. And the phone business is short of fresh thinking. One day a Dex Pad-like product might arrive and change the face of personal computing. We’re not at that day yet. The execution lacks too much for Dex Pad to be a serious PC alternative. For now it is likely to appeal to a tiny niche.

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Galaxy S7There are signs the lack of innovation in recent times is hurting phone makers.

Reuters reports from Seoul:

Samsung is expected to post its smallest profit growth in more than a year in the second quarter, as lackluster sales of its premium Galaxy smartphones overshadow its highly profitable chip business.

Analysts expect Samsung’s smartphone sales to drop in the April-June quarter, following a more than 2 percent drop in the previous quarter as consumers flock to cheaper models from Chinese rivals such as Xiaomi Corp.

Samsung’s lead over Apple in the global smartphone market is under pressure after the U.S. firm’s iPhone X exceeded market expectations while a lack of technological innovation dogs Samsung offerings.

“Functions (that) Samsung’s mobile phones have are not attractive enough for customers to spend more money on,” said Song Myung-sup, analyst at HI Investment & Securities.

It’s not just Samsung, other phone makers are rubbing up against the same issue. We’re on the top, flat part of the innovation S curve as far as the current generation of phones are concerned.

Phone makers go on improving cameras and bumping speeds. Yet there hasn’t been an improvement that makes a significant difference for at least three years. A better camera, smaller bezel or a library of childish emoji is not innovation, it’s window dressing.

Why upgrade?

For most people that means no pressing reason to upgrade.

At the same time, cheaper phone brands have caught up to the point where they now offer all the essential features at a lower price. In some cases that’s a much lower price. If you own a three year old Android phone from a top brand like Samsung you can swap it for better technology and pay half what you paid for your existing model.

We’ve been here before with the PC and no doubt we’ll be here again. Stable designs are not necessarily a bad thing for consumers, but they kill hardware company profits.

phone cameras

Every recent high-end phone launch has focused, sorry about that, on the camera. Likewise, every phone promotion or marketing campaign pushes cameras to the fore.

Samsung launched the Galaxy S9 in Auckland last month. The company invited journalists to an open plan restaurant. There, Samsung invited journalists to photograph the chef preparing food.

The menu included a dish with a viscous pour-on sauce. This was a clever way of highlighting the S9’s very slow motion video function. The results were impressive.

Samsung hired a video professional to take slow motion footage of bees entering a hive. Shown on a giant TV screen, the pictures were crystal clear and, at times, had stunning clarity.

When phone makers show journalists new devices, they devote at least half the time to cameras.

Apple and Huawei have the same emphasis on photography.

Phone makers with smaller budgets push camera features to the top of their press releases.

Camera talk

During technical presentations company insiders talk at great length about phone features. At least a third of allotted time is camera talk. You can come away with the impression that’s all they want to talk about.

Every phone maker mentioned so far and some others will tell you they have the best phone camera. In a limited sense most of them are right, although it depends on your terms of reference. No phone costing, say, $800 or more has a bad camera.

In the last year or so, every phone maker used the word ‘bokeh’ at least once in their launch presentation. It would not be hard to make a cliché bingo card for phone launch attendees.

If this sounds like ‘me too’ marketing, well, it can be at times. Every phone maker thinks a fashion parade is an original idea.

There are important difference. Each company’s best camera excels at something else. Samsung’s Galaxy S9 does well in low light and can do very slow motion video. Huawei’s Mate 10 is best for black and white photography.

Most phone makers can point at unique camera hardware features. They can all point at unique software.

The quality of still and moving pictures from high end phones is remarkable. If you know what you’re doing — we’ll come back to that — you can take wonderful images. This is even more impressive when you consider how small the lenses are. Phone lenses are prone to finger smudges and camera shake is a given.

A point of difference

So why do phone makers put so much emphasis on cameras? An obvious reason is cameras differentiate what are otherwise me-too products.

Telephony and connectivity are much the same on all phones including cheap ones. Screen resolution is higher than the human eye can perceive. Few high-end phones struggle with processing power. These days they all look alike.

While there is a huge and obvious software difference between Apple’s iPhone range and Android handsets, you couldn’t say the same for Android models. Phone makers add their own software skins to stock Android. In almost every case this detracts value, at least from the customer’s perspective.

This leaves cameras and camera software as a playground for creativity and innovation. Which, in turn, brings us to the second reason phone makers place so much emphasis on photography.

Phone hardware designs and specifications have stabilised. With the move to remove bezels, that is the borders around screens, there’s little left to tinker with. Samsung struggles deciding where to put its fingerprint scanner. Otherwise, physical phone design has reached a cul-de-sac, at least for now.

The Galaxy S9 looks so much like the S8. Samsung had to come up with a new case colour for people wanting to show off their new phone.

Room for improvement

Over the last few years phone makers found room for improvement in their camera hardware and software. It’s likely this will soon reach another dead end. The laws of physics mean there’s only so much you can do with a tiny lens and sensor array.

The last big innovation was the move to dual lens cameras. This hasn’t played out yet. Meanwhile, at least one phone maker, Huawei, is talking of a triple lens camera.

There’s a danger this could become like the disposable razor business. There, for a time, adding an extra blade gave the appearance of innovation to an otherwise evolved product. It could be like tail fins on 1950s American cars. In effect we’re talking innovation for the sake of having an innovation talking point.

Another danger is that customers are loosing interest in phone cameras. Or, more likely, customer interest in phone cameras is not in alignment with phone maker hype.

Take, again, the Samsung Galaxy S9 slow-motion video feature. As mentioned early, the results are impressive, but how many Galaxy S9 buyers will use it?

Or, more to the point, how many will continue to use it beyond playing around with it when they first get their phone?

You can ask the same question about many of the camera innovations phone makers promote. Is the beauty mode, which attempts to make people look better, anything more than passing fad. How many phone owners have taken more than a handful of bokeh shots with blurred backgrounds?

Are people buying cameras or phones?

Slow-motion video is nice-to-have, but it’s unlikely more than one phone buyer in 20 will use it often. Similar reasoning goes for all fancy high-end phone camera features.

The flip side of this logic is worth considering. High-end phones with fancy camera features sell at a considerable premium. You may pay NZ$500 extra to get that super camera in your hands. If you only use it a dozen or so times, that feature has cost you $40 a shot.

Skeptical readers might see the industry’s obsession with camera phones as a way of forcing up handset prices. It also repairs margins in a business where only Apple and Samsung make decent money.

Of course, you can use phone cameras for serious work. If you need to take pictures in your job, the extra cost can be a smart investment.

Yet, in general you can’t take pictures of the quality you’d get from a SLR or any decent camera with a much bigger lens and sensor array. Phone cameras are handy, we carry them with us all the time. And the quality is so good that at times it is hard to tell if an iPhone or a Canon took the shot.

Hard to use

One phone camera drawback is they are hard to use in a hurry. Sure, all the phone makers tell us how easy their products are to use. Even so, the software can be confusing.

Phone camera interfaces are often tiny and you need to hunt around to find controls. Almost everyone uses the default mode for every shot. What’s more, stabbing at controls on a phone screen is not the best way to steady your hand to take pictures. Adjusting and using a digital SLR is easy in comparison.

There is still some room for improvement with phone cameras. Among other things Huawei’s third lens could do the trick. There is scope for yet more innovation in the software and, yes, a better user interface.

No doubt other improvements are in the works. At best we may see one or two more cycles. In the meantime some phone makers are switching their marketing attention to what they call AI or artificial intelligence.

It’s questionable whether this is real AI in the sense that the software learns things from use. There’s also a big question over whether phone buyers give a toss for this approach. We’ll see.

End of the golden age

Phone makers face a far bigger problem than competition with each other. It appears phone sales have faltered and now may be about to end the same kind of fall that has plagued the PC sector.

People are hanging on to phone longer. Research companies like IDC and Gartner put this down to consumers not being so enchanted with new feature that they feel a need to upgrade.

Given the marketing emphasis phone makers put on cameras, that can be evidence they are out of sync with what customers want. Whatever that is, it’s unlikely to be a way of taking better photographs or videos.

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Mobile phone handsetPeople are paying more for phones. After years of falling prices, market research firm GfK reports the average price of a phone climbed seven percent in the last year. The number of phones sold worldwide climbed three percent during the year. Sales fell in North America and Western Europe.

GfK works with actual sales data rather than the shipments preferred by some analysts. This means the information is a more accurate reflection of consumer behaviour.

The clear pattern is that phone makers have switched focus towards more expensive premium smartphone models. Apple, Samsung and, most of all, Huawei all moved their customers upmarket. GfK says the premium features have become more important to customers.

What phone buyers want

They now look for: “water and dust protection, battery power and memory, high-resolution sound, camera and video capabilities, bezel-less design and even biometric sensors”.

Rising handset prices run counter to conventional technology hardware wisdom. The usual pattern is for prices to fall over time as manufacturers improve processes and wring out economies of scale. This is accelerated by new market entrants undercutting existing players.

The phone market has been running on a different track ever since Apple introduced the first iPhone a decade ago. For most of that time Apple has made almost all the industry’s profit despite having only a minority market share.

Aggressive phone prices

To a degree Apple’s rivals bought market share with aggressive discounting. That made sense to them during the growth years as people around the world bought their first smartphones.

It meant the phone business went through the usual economic cycle much faster than earlier technology waves. While it was always a competitive business, there were far few players than in, say, personal computer hardware.

There have been casualties along the way. Blackberry, Nokia and HTC were all roadkill on the route to today’s market.

Chasing margins

Now the phone makers, especially the Android phone makers, have turned their focus to margins and profitability. Hence the price rises. Apple pushed the bar higher again with its iPhone X which costs more than NZ$2000. Huawei has an even pricier phone.

Huawei is knocking on the door of Apple and Samsung. It aims to be the first Chinese company to be a global technology quality brand.

There’s still a way to go. The company’s products are excellent quality and contain as much innovation as brands like Samsung. Unlike Samsung, Huawei is on the whole more inclined to invest in engineering than in marketing budgets. That said, the company uses Scarlett Johansson in its advertising to great effect.

Huawei also teams with prestige brands. Its high-end phones use Leica camera lenses and its most expensive models have blingy Porsche designs.

Despite the company’s engineering prowess, Huawei has yet to master the art of looking after a customer after the sale. The biggest complaint you hear is that phone software is rarely, if ever, updated. That may be an issue that only concerns a certain market segment. Ironically, it is the market segment most likely to be drawn to advanced engineering.

Artificial intelligence

Huawei’s latest phone, the Mate 10, includes the kind of artificial intelligence features found in Apple and Samsung models. It’s ability to translate written languages feels almost like magic, or perhaps something from science fiction. In a similar vein, the phones take screenshots when you knock on the display with your knuckle.

For now, the sector’s move upmarket has created opportunities for mid-tier phone makers like Oppo. It’s another Chinese brand. Oppo sells an Android phone with about 90 percent of premium phone functionality for about 50 percent of the price.

Although Huawei would love to be seen as a serious rival to Apple, in truth the two address two quite different audiences. Few Apple iPhone owners would jump ship for a Mate 10. That’s not the case with Samsung customer, the two brands both use the same basic Android software and switching is relatively painless.

Galaxy Note 8Last year’s Galaxy Note 7 looked like a winner. It seemed to be the best Android phone. Then we learnt about battery explosions and burning phones.

Yesterday Samsung unveiled this year’s model. The company’s Auckland launch was a tired affair set in a grim industrial bunker.

After drinks the crowd was made to stand in the cold watching a dreary and blurry demonstration of, well, it’s not clear what Samsung intended to show us. Earlier in the week Oppo did a better launch job on a smaller budget.

A lot of people, including me, left at this point.

Solid, not remarkable

The event highlights the problem with the Note 8: it’s not that special, exciting or different. It doesn’t do anything significant that the Note 7 didn’t. You won’t be more productive or have more fun.

On the other hand, you won’t get burnt and you can travel on a plane without being a pariah.

Sure, Note 8 has a bigger screen than last year’s model. The front camera has more megapixels. There are dual lenses. Samsung uses a newer processor. Without hands-on testing it’s hard to tell if that means faster in practice.

Incremental

The key here is these are all incremental updates. It’s the Note 7 with a safer battery, nicer case and a few specification bumps.

That’s not to say the Note 8 is not a decent phone. It is. Battery issues aside the Note 7 was so far ahead of the curve, that an incremental update is all anyone could realistically expect.

And there are a lot of incremental updates. Together they add up to more than the sum of the parts.

Galaxy Note 8 comeback?

Samsung has a lot riding on the Galaxy Note 8. Almost every technology headline writer on the planet has referred to it as a comeback phone or used words to that effect.

In truth Samsung doesn’t need a comeback phone. The market has been generous to Samsung. If another Samsung phone has a melt-down the company will be in trouble, but its lead in the Android market remains strong. Huawei and Oppo are snapping at Samsung’s heels, but they were there last year too.

The Galaxy Note 8 poses two questions. First, is the latest Note sufficiently different from the Galaxy S8 Plus? As a casual observer at the launch function it felt like the two phones are converging, although I can’t put my finger on why that seems to be the case.

Samsung gave the Note a stylus. The Galaxy S8 doesn’t have one. Otherwise, there’s not much in it.

Stylus

There’s a sense that Samsung’s Galaxy Note stylus may have run its course. I notice many existing Note users don’t do much with their stylus. There aren’t lots of apps to make use of it, unlike the Apple Pencil.

Samsung’s stylus is like a technological security blanket. This may be different in Asia where people need to use more complex characters to write.

The second question posed by the Note 8 is about the competition from other Android brands. The Samsung Galaxy Note 8 will go on sale in New Zealand next month at $1600. That’s the same price as last year’s model. While it is cheaper than the Apple iPhone 7Plus, you can choose from a dozen or so cheaper Android alternatives including Samsung phones.