Have you ever thought that Smartphones these days are so advanced they could actually replace the PC in your everyday computing life? Today, we here at HTG will review using the Galaxy S4 with the “Smart Dock Multimedia Hub” as a PC replacement.

Image by Aviad & JD Hancock.

The bottom line

For the really impatient reader, YES, this setup does bring a huge productivity boost, even for non-ROOTed users. With that said, it is probably not ready to be everyone’s daily driver just yet.

Author’s ramblings

I’ve made a personal bet that by the year 2023 there will no longer be “Personal Computers” a.k.a. “PCs”. As in, they might still exist, just like the “Workstation” does, but they are far from being the mainstream norm. Another comparison is the fact that you can make good money being a COBOL programmer today (30 years after it has practically lost its relevance), though it doesn’t make it the mainstream norm.

I contend that PCs will most certainly not be the clunky, mammoth towers of plastic, metal and silicon we hide beneath our desks or even lug around with us to put on our laps. I think that the Ubuntu Touch “dream” is not as far in the future as people might think. With the rise of the “Cloud” and HTML5, it is my conjecture that Smartphones will eventually overtake or even completely replace PCs, and it could happen in the foreseeable future.

With the above in mind, when I came across the “Smart Dock Multimedia Hub“, I had to see how deeply does the geek rabbit hole go. Not in a couple of years, but TODAY.

Setup & Dock review

As stated, my setup consists of a Samsung Galaxy S4 (which is NOT ROOTed) and its compatible dock.

Here’s an uninteresting, sloppy at best, unboxing video for the dock.

Once the dock was unboxed, plugging it in took about 5 seconds.

With that said, I wouldn’t be a geek if I didn’t go “all the way” and try to connect my desktop’s LCD. While my LCD screen has a Dport input port, surprisingly enough, despite the close relationship between HDMI and Dport, no converter that I could get my hands on would make the HDMI output from the dock give a picture on the screen. Having said that, using an HDMI to DVI converter worked perfectly and on the first go.

If this was only a “Review” for the Dock, then we would be done, as there is actually nothing more to say about the hunk of metal and plastic that, unless you try to be a smart-ass and connect the HDMI output through a converter, works well. The HTG added value that we can give you is that while the Dock “steals” about 200mA from the 2000mA feed (probably for the USB hub operation), the fact that you are actually charging your phone (and quickly too) while your using it is nothing short of amazing.

We will dig into the Android desktop experience below.

The Fantastic & Intuitive Android Desktop

Using this setup really felt like I was catapulted into the “always on & always connected” future. In this buttery smooth future, programs are quick, simple, and easy to use. They launch very quickly, respond quickly and do what they are supposed to do quickly and well.

The old “It’s Tuesday, you need to install updates and restart your system, which will take an hour and a half of your life (well it won’t, but it will feel like it did)” days are gone. There is no obligation to update if you don’t want to. In fact, my mother has a galaxy S1 whose apps only get updated when I come over to visit and take the time (at her request) to fondle her device (so roughly about once a year…). And that’s just apps; her OS? That could have been easily been successfully un-updated till the day that phone died, because as a regular-user, she wouldn’t even know there are options past the stock OS version (which isn’t even supported by the vendor anymore).

Anyone who picks up a Smartphone can immediately use it (even if not to its full potential), unlike other OSs which can take literally a lifetime to only begin to scratch the surface of (I’m looking right at ya GNU/Linux…).

Here is me using the Android desktop:

Part of this fantastica-city was that the Keyboard and Mouse inputs were simple and intuitive. With the external keyboard, the media buttons (Volume up/down and Play buttons) worked as they should “out of the box”, no questions asked. I did not have to wait for any driver download or anything of the sort (in fact, I am actually using them behind a KVM and a USB HUB with no issues).

The mouse is a replacement for your finger, where the “Left click” acts as your touch on the device’s screen would. The one thing these new systems abandon (with good reason) is the double click. Thus, there is no more confusion on when to use a single click VS a double click… there simply is no double click.

The “Right click”, in total shock to the conventional desktop experience, does NOT bring up the “Menu” (as one might expect). Instead, the right click is another way of invoking a system “Back” action. IMHO, this actually makes more sense for the average, non-power users, who just want to “get outta here” and don’t spend their time in every aspect of the system’s properties. Like it has been said, “Users don’t want to use your program, users want to have been used your program” (the incorrect grammar is deliberate), and they don’t care at all how software works as long as it gets them to the goal they wanted to achieve.

The “Middle click”, while rarely used on a desktop by anyone other than uber-shortcut aficionados , is extremely handy. Here, the middle or scroll wheel button click is another way of invoking a system “Home” action, and is used as often as one would use the “Home” button on the phone.

While it took a couple of minutes to get used to the mouse control layout (for example the “no right click for properties as on Windows” thing), I’ve actually found myself (when switching back) wishing the mouse worked like that on Windows.

Once the shock from the changed input methods wore off, I realized that my entire system is now one surprise after another…

What surprised me for the better

I was really surprised that I didn’t really miss that much of a beat compared to the desktop. Most of the things any normal user would want out of his system, either just exist or are an app/quick configuration away. Things like:

  • SMSing with a full keyboard — Things like sending a message with SMS, WhatsApp and even Facebook’s “faces”, are now all at my fingertips with a full QWERTY keyboard… the joy is indescribable.
  • Eco-system support — It is no longer the early days of android where you would be lucky to have anything from the desktop. Many things nowadays come for the Smartphone first or at least have a sufficiently functional replacement. I was sure that when I made the switch from my desktop to the android, I would lose many things. I found out quickly that if you look for a solution, that you can probably find one in Google Play and that more often than not it will be free. I was even able to find a replacement for MS Office. There are tons of apps that will not give you the full desktop experience, but will give just enough that you may be able to forgo the need for one. For example, with Godaddy’s app I was even able to change the DNS records of my domain.
  • I had no need to sync my… well… anything… the phone has just become my only device.
  • The media buttons — I know I’ve already mentioned this, but the fact that I was able to simply push the “Play” button on my keyboard, and the system (with zero configuration to do so) simply launched the default music player (Poweramp in my case) in the background and started playing, amazed me.
  • A bar-code (QR) scanner — Yes, while docked I could still use the front and rear cameras, even for apps such as QR readers.
  • My “computer’s” power draw, has just been reduced by about a hundred fold.
  • Printing — one of the concerns I had was “How do you connect the android to the printer?” Apparently that isn’t even hard :)
  • Multi-window — The S4, like the Note-II, is able to put selected apps “side by side”. Here I was all ready to give up on true multitasking, and android has to come and rained on my parade :)
  • Multilingual support — There is a language switching key combo, SHIFT + SPACE. This may sound like a small thing, but trust me when I say that any multilingual user (like me) wouldn’t even consider using a system that doesn’t have support for that. The only caveat is that there is no way of changing what the combo is. While I’m sure that the last time anyone has done so in windows was… actually I’m not sure anyone has… and we all just got used to Microsoft’s default. During this transition time, IMHO, they should either mimic the well known combo or give the ability to change it.
  • Live wallpaper — Yes, it is stupid, yes, it is esoteric and cosmetic… but by GoWAd, does it have the “wow impact” on anyone I’ve shown the system to.

The Mediocre/Unpleasant surprises

Because I’m so ahead of the curve on this, I did find myself fighting with the system. Even after making many tweaks to the system, there were still places where it fell short. For Example:

  • On-screen keyboard should appear…? — I’ve found that there is an ambiguity surrounding when the on-screen keyboard should appear. Sometimes the on-screen keyboard will pop-up and will regain focus again and again, despite being discarded. If you need one, a perfectly good solution is to use Null Keyboard.
  • Apps tend to lose state — Because the applications and the system expect to be in very hostile, memory-congested hardware, they will automatically close anything that isn’t right in front of the user’s eyes, and sometime even that will be closed as well. Even though this is not as true for the S4 with its 2G of RAM, the Android system still treats it as it would a low end device. As an example, I still found that switching away from a browser application and back (even for something as simple as getting a call) will more often than not cause it to reload the page. Because it has lost its state, any draft information you had in the page will be lost. And that is only one example of many.
    Update: There is now an app (CallHeads) that will make the receiving a call scenario less of a context switcher.
  • Samsung keyboard forced upon you — Even if you want to use a 3rd party keyboard, you’ll find that every time you Dock your phone, the system switches you back to the stock one.
  • No external screen power saving — Maybe I’m still “old school”, but I still want to be able to set an amount of time for the screen to automatically turn off and conserve power. As the external screen is now the main screen, despite it being a very power efficient LCD, it actually draws about 10 times more than the phone does (that is how little the phone draw is).
  • Landscape mode not supported across the board — While most apps and launchers do support landscape mode, every once in a while a non-compatible app will flip the screen to portrait and make most of your screen real estate useless. In fact, the S4’s Touchwiz doesn’t support landscape while the S3’s does. Baffled by this, I simply switched to Nova.
  • Objects may appear closer than they are  — While the galaxy S4 is a 1080p resolution type of a device, the pixel-per-inch ratio is abysmal compared to the Desktop counterpart. You may find that every icon seems to appear “larger than life”, at least, at first. IMHO one can simply get used to it rather quickly, and that feeling doesn’t just go away, but is replaced with “why is everything so small on the desktop?”

The Ugly surprises

While it does seem like the PC industry really should be worried that Smartphones will eventually take over, Smartphones right now lack roughly 20 years of desktop development under their belt and boy, do you really feel that you are getting only a fractional subset of your desktop experience…

The fact of the matter is that if every time that I ask my friendly neighborhood Android programmer if he can create an app to do X or Y, the answer starts with: Assuming you’re ROOTed… That means that something fundamental is missing in the system.  Moreover, even if the app doesn’t require ROOTing, its very creation may be a necessity that springs from the lack of a good Framework. In an act to say “Hi, look at how great Frameworks would be. We have just invented the wheel for you. You should be grateful…”, Google has just announced Volley. This means that up until now, at the very least, the 4 separate apps they give as an example had to spend the time/money for R&D and QA to do the exact same thing…
Case in point, on the desktop, for multilingual users, there is an app (called LangOver) that would correct your input if you’ve forgotten to switch back from your secondary language. Currently, the only way to achieve the same goal on Android is to write a brand new keyboard app. This is doubly stupid, because A) there shouldn’t be a need to rewrite this functionality which has been done to death for a single function and B) the LangOver creator not only didn’t have to create an entire keyboard, but he didn’t even have to write too much code… he took advantage of already well established and vetted .NET Frameworks, that do most of the heavy lifting.
even if you leave these extremely geeky thoughts behind, you will still be hit in the face with:

  • Mobile browsers not up to par with desktop versions – This really came as a shocker, but everything I loved about the Desktop version of Chrome simply isn’t there on the Android version. Not only is it a memory hog that causes other applications to crash, but it doesn’t even show the pages correctly. Unlike its desktop counterpart, this version also lacks third party support, so things like Lastpass and Adblock are non-existent. I completely switched to Dolphin as my main browser, but even there the web experience is lacking.
  • Keyboard aficionados beware – Because an external keyboard is such a foreign concept to Smartphones, you will find that even the simplest of shortcuts you’re used to either no longer work at all, do not work in a consistent manner across the system, or work just enough to make you go crazy (sometimes the simple Copy & Paste actions stop working). Case in point, right now, no application even shows sign of wanting to bind to a global hot-key. This is a shame, considering they are at least partially supported. I know because when I’ve hit the CTRL + ALT + DEL combo (got confused when I was doing a windows login within an RDP app), the phone rebooted in my face…
  • Screen options are extremely limited – If you want to hook up more then one display, just don’t make me laugh…If you have overscan (like I have on my LG-TV) or want to say “Hey, I’ve connected a high-end display that can do a better resolution/DPI”, there simply is NO way to change any of that.

And the above is by no means an exhaustive list.

Final thoughts

This setup is on the precipice of becoming an accepted mainstream norm. In fact, it is so close that anyone I’ve shown it to almost immediately reacts with the question of “why isn’t it wireless“?” Not “where is Word?” or “I couldn’t live without the properties right click”… And you know what? They are right, but its still very early for that. I’m sure that the next generation of docks will take advantage of the already existing technologies of wireless charging and wireless display to achieve this exact thing.

So yes, it is early and there is some gap between PCs and Smartphones, but that gap is closing with every new generation of Smartphones that comes out (I just wonder how many times will we change our minds on how the same problem should be solved). With the rise of the almighty cloud, and with the realization of service providers that users want the same level of access and features on their Smartphones as they do on the PC, and the fact that application developers actually target the mobile users first, the days of the PC are numbered at best.

Final nail in the coffin?
This entire article, including the videos, has been created/written on the Galaxy S4+Dock+external-keyboard setup… (Boom! mic dropped… Hotfortech leaving the scene).

Follow the white rabbit…