Samsung has been on a major roll this year, pushing Android smartphones and tablets into the top tier, with its Galaxy S III smartphone, supersized Galaxy Note II "phablet," and Galaxy Note 10.1 tablet rivaling Apple's iconic and category-defining iPhone and iPad. That's a sea change for Android, which for several years was clearly inferior to iOS, settling for "good enough." HTC and Motorola Mobility have also improved their Android offerings, but Samsung has led the way, especially in mobile innovation.
So I was intrigued by the Galaxy Note II Smart Dock, a $99 peripheral that you plug a Note II into via the MiniHDMI port and connect to an HDTV or other monitor via HDMI. Optionally, you can use it to connect a mouse, keyboard, or extra storage via the three USB ports. When connected, the Smart Dock theoretically could transform the Note II into a portable Android PC. In truth, it can't do anything of the sort.
[ If the Galaxy Note II is too big for you, see who wins InfoWorld's face-off between the iPhone 5 and Galaxy S III. | If the Note II isn't big enough, see which small tablet InfoWorld recommends in our hands-on review of the iPad Mini, Google Nexus 7, and Kindle Fire HD. | Get expert advice about planning and implementing your BYOD strategy with InfoWorld's "Mobile and BYOD Deep Dive" PDF special report. ]
The Smart Dock at first blush seems to be alike in concept to Motorola Mobility's Lapdock, which offered similar connectivity options and came with a Linux-based Firefox browser to do "real" Web work the standard Android browser could not. Although its concept was intriguing, Motorola never figured out the Lapdock, and the product died after several unsatisfying versions. I suspect the Smart Dock will face a similar fate.
Contrary to the name, the Smart Dock isn't so smart. Once you plug your Note II into it and connect to a TV or monitor, you get a mirrored image of your Note II's screen. The screen is in portrait orientation, so most of your big screen is wasted. Only videos auto-adjust to play in horizontal mode and take advantage of the screen real estate.
I expected the Smart Dock to at least display apps, games, and so on in horizontal mode, so what you saw on the big screen looked like a PC desktop. I even hoped that the screen resolution might be larger than the Note II's; that way, you'd get not just a blown-up screen, but a true desktoplike experience. I got neither. On the bright side, I didn't miss the lack of a desktop browser, such as the Lapdock's Firefox -- the Android browser app that comes with the Note II's and S III's "Jelly Bean" update is as capable as its desktop equivalent, unlike previous versions.
Ironically, when I plugged a Galaxy S III into the Smart Dock, its screen did auto-rotate; apps, games, and the home screens all were in horizontal mode. How bizarre that the S III -- which is not designed for the use with the Smart Dock -- uses it better than the Note II, which was designed for the Smart Dock.