Portability is a key part of any company’s mobile technology strategy in today’s market. In fact, since smartphones stopped being feature constrained, and laptops started being always connected, it has arguably become as important as battery life. Since that time, I’ve been of the opinion that non-native applications and consolidating the features found in multiple devices, was the way forward. So, can I use just a smartphone for all my daily tasks, for an entire week? I tried something similar previously and failed. Perhaps this time will be different?
Blame Microsoft and Blame Google’s Chromebooks. In 2011 the latter launched a resource-light Operating System that would last for days on a charge and would deliver, at least, the basic productivity features many consumers require; browsing, emails, media consumption, etc. In 2015 Microsoft took a step closer to producing something similar but from a slightly different angle.
Microsoft launched the Microsoft Display Dock, alongside the Lumia 950/XL smartphones, and introduced Continuum. Continuum was Microsoft’s attempt to use a smartphone to output a desktop-esque experience to a monitor and other connected peripherals. Those that used Continuum could possibly be split into two main camps; those that saw issues and bugs, and those that saw a future computing experience in its embryonic stage. I was the latter (whilst I still saw the former!)
Fast forward to 2017 and both Samsung and Huawei launched their own smartphone-driven desktop experiences in DeX and Easy Projection/EMUI Desktop respectively. Both had undergone changes, tweaks, bug fixes and improvements over the subsequent years, and it’s now that I feel I have the best shot of achieving my stated aim, utilising Huawei’s EMUI Desktop.
Simply put, my plan was to use nothing but my Huawei P30 Pro for 7 days, during a normal working week. All I would have access to is a Type-C 3.1 Gen 2 cable for general connectivity, a monitor or dock, and a keyboard and mouse and the associated power cables. Finally, I’d be carrying a 10,000mAh battery bank, just in case.
A normal week would see my completing the following regularly:
- Browsing websites
- Email (3 mailboxes)
- Accessing this site and uploading content
- Messaging apps, etc
- Media consumption (Plex, YouTube, etc)
- Accessing Cloud-based storage solutions
- Office productivity
- Accessing network shares and Remote Desktops
The Huawei P30 Pro is still my go-to device for daily activities. It has the advantage of still being supported by Google’s eco-system, something the later Huawei devices sadly don’t, whilst also delivering sterling performance and great camera functionality. Battery life was another consideration also, but thankfully slightly less of an issue due to the use of mains adapters in most places.
Coupled with my smartphone, I used a Nexdock 2. I’ll be adding a full review of this device shortly, as well as the upcoming successor (pre-order on the way!) but suffice to say the Nexdock 2 is the perfect bedfellow on paper. For the uninitiated, the Nexdock 2 is a dumb laptop chassis, complete with battery, keyboard, and trackpad, and a 1080p display. Gone are the usual internals you’d expect to find in a laptop, instead the Nexdock 2 is specifically engineered to work in tandem with a smart device that can output a desktop mode (Samsung, Huawei, Raspberry PI, etc), thus making it the perfect device for this challenge. There might be a slight spoiler alert above in the fact I’ve already pre-ordered the next Nexdock – a 1080p touchscreen device, complete with webcam and a few other tweaks.
I’ll skip right to the conclusion here; it is possible to use a smartphone for daily tasks, and I did manage to use the Nexdock 2 in conjunction with the Huawei P30 Pro for my daily productivity tasks, but there were some concessions that needed to be made, and some improvements that are still required to make this a seamless process. Those improvements sit firmly within the software arena; the hardware exists.
First up, connectivity is flawless. Take your phone (Samsung or Huawei for the Nexdock 2), hook it up to the USB Type-C port specifically to carry the HDMI signal through to the device, et voila, a Desktop representation of Huawei’s Android EMUI skin. If you so wished, as I do sometimes, you could even connect to a TV, wirelessly, if they support the mirroring technology. Latency would be introduced, and peripheral connectivity might be a little hit and miss with your TV, but it’s an option!
The EMUI implementation looks a little like ChromeOS. There is a ‘start menu’ which acts as the Android app drawer, and a set of home, recent and back buttons on the right side of the taskbar. Also, on the right are some icons Android users would expect to see sitting at the top of their devices, such as Wireless connectivity strength, battery percentage, volume control and the time.
A number of icons are placed on the desktop immediately for ease of access; Gmail, Chrome, Duo, Drive, YouTube and a few other Google-ecosystem apps. By default, there are only a few Huawei apps on the desktop, these being their own Browser, Notepad, Video and Gallery applications (the latter is the only one I use).
The Nexdock 2 does a good job of completing the setup too. The keyboard adds a ‘Nexdock’ key which acts as a Windows Start button, as well as dual-use function keys to raise or lower volume, and brightness. Furthermore, media controls buttons exist and standard functions such as Print Screen, and Home, End, Page Up and Page Down are all available. All is looking good so far.
Generally, applications are responsive and can be opened in full-screen mode, as well as a windowed mode to allow multi-tasking. There is a catch. Only some applications can be resized, and of those that can an even smaller amount can be fully resized to any size. This is very frustrating. I’d like to align my Twitter feed and have a website up alongside it, and whilst possible, it involves a lot of clicking and dragging to get the right setup. Additionally, there does not seem to be any window snapping here as one would expect on a full desktop OS.
The first major hurdle I stumbled upon was accessing my browser of choice, Vivaldi. Vivaldi is a Chromium-based browser meaning it looks and acts very similar to ChromeOS but without the Google tracking and a few other nice performance tweaks. As nice as Vivaldi is, it failed to operate properly (or at all in some cases) on my Nexdock 2 in Desktop mode. The app itself loads speedily, however, no sites render. I tried Google Chrome, and the same issue occurred. I have subsequently read others had the same issue and their fix was to switch to “phone mode” and mirror the Phone itself onto the Nexdock 2 display. For me, that isn’t even close to a fix. I was about to call it a day, 30 minutes into the challenge when I decided to try Microsoft’s Edge browser. Again, now Chromium-based, I should have the same performance levels I’d come to expect from Vivaldi. I installed the app, fully expecting the same result – a blank screen, however, Edge seamlessly fired up the Bing homepage. I tried a few mobile sites, as well as desktop ones, all worked fine. Not ideal, but hey, a browser, so on I went.
Firing up the Microsoft Office applications went flawlessly, using 2FA to sign in, as did a few other applications such as Amazon Music and YouTube. I was then set for the first few hours of the day; reading and responding to emails, listening to music, checking social media from the web applications rather than the shoddily-scaled native apps and topping up my phone’s battery whilst I did it. Microsoft Teams responded as well as it usually does, and the only real problem I came across during the working day was learning to get used to the Nexdock 2 keyboard. Obviously I couldn’t take a swipe at EMUI for that!
The lack of any camera on the Nexdock (or TV if you were using it) did hinder my first few calls, but I resolved to use my smartphone (whilst still projecting) to make video calls which got around that issue. Since my initial setup, I’ve added a Phone Holder to allow my device to sit alongside, and attach to, the Nexdock. A nice little added extra.
My workdays generally finished with my P30 Pro on 100% battery, and my Nexdock 2 having to be plugged in at the mains to continue outputting the display. I did get a morning’s use out of it before that and I was quite happy to run it on mains. At the end of a day, I normally would switch to my TV or my Phone to watch some videos, but on the second day, I decided to continue using my Frankensteined setup to stream some content. I clicked on Amazon Prime Video to see if I could re-watch the last episode of “The Boys” before Season 2 starts (10/10 – would recommend by the way), and I was greeted with my next niggle – “This app is currently unable to run on the display screen”. Not good at all. I powered up Edge and went to the web player and unfortunately found the same issue. This is the perfect example of some of the areas that will only improve if the adoption of my sort of use case becomes more widespread. Here’s hoping!
This type of back and forth continued throughout the week. Luckily it was a relatively slow work week which meant that I could get to grips with some of the foibles of the desktop mode and ensure that it did not hamper my productivity long term. I was also buoyed by the fact my Dell XPS 13 was sitting only a few feet away should I need it – I nearly reached for it, but I didn’t.
I completed the challenge successfully, but not without a few stumbles along the way. Some of the main takeaways from this challenge are below:
Consolidate Like A Champ – Pros:
- App performance was great
- Using your smartphone as a trackpad is a cool little idea
- Web, social and email use was seamless and very similar to that of my daily Windows device (albeit in a browser)
- Using Android apps on a bigger display can provide more utility
- The setup of a phone and laptop dock meant on the one time I travelled (to a Coffee shop) I had to take only my laptop sleeve with a phone and battery bank stuffed in it
Divide and Conquer – Cons:
- Video or image editing will be (and was) difficult due to the cramped work area
- You still need to carry some cables around for power. The Nexdock 2 used its battery to charge my phone
- 1 in 5 applications I tried failed to either scale properly or be responsive to resizing
- Some apps do not support external displays at all
- ChromeOS is potentially a better overall solution for many, but it’s an additional device
Google has hinted at baking this functionality into Android releases, with Android 10 having an option in Developer Options to enable it. It’s not fully operational, and Android 11 might well flesh it out a little more.
Samsung and Huawei show no signs of dropping support for their own flavours of the desktop mode. That stands to reason with our smartphones getting more and more powerful with each generation. You need to look no further than Apple who now has plans to launch ARM architecture-based Macbooks. This is mainly due to the performance increases on the platform and the energy efficiencies. Windows users already have “Always Connected PC” offerings sporting the technology too.
My own personal Holy Grail though is to use our smartphones as the driving force for all of our mobile computing needs. For that to become a widespread reality, companies do need to identify the issues surrounding software fragmentation and improve developer support. This would help many more applications and peripherals to take advantage of the software. As I mentioned above, there are still issues with responsiveness/resizing or, in some cases, no application support for a secondary display at all. I have hope though, and that’s exactly why I’ve pre-ordered the next Nexdock. As we become even more Cloud-native, I want to ensure that I have a suite of tools to help me in work and in play. I don’t want to be carrying a Kindle for eBooks, workstation laptop for audio/video editing, Chromebook for light browsing and productivity tasks, and my smartphone for social and interaction purposes. One device to rule them all please!
This challenge has proven to me that, whilst not easy, it is a possibility to work this way, and I’m looking forward to using later generations of devices that will, hopefully, make this even more seamless.