The Great Big Merge: Why All Your Gadgets Look and Work Alike

The lines between our different gadgets are breaking down

The Samsung Galaxy Book S on a table at a tech event
Samsung Galaxy Book S.

 Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

I grew up in a time when you would no more mistake a TV for a phone than you would an ostrich for an alpaca. The rise of screens, touch sensors, and ever-shrinking components has collapsed laptops, smartphones, tablets into cousin and sibling devices (which, thanks to streaming, have now gone full circle to become tiny TVs). Even those that remain distinct now open their digital doors to direct interaction with one or more of these devices.

In recent days I’ve seen tablets with smartphone features (the Samsung Galaxy Tab S6’s dual camera), smartphones that approach the size of tablets (the 6.8-inch Galaxy Note10+), software that puts your smartphone screen on your laptop (Microsoft's Your Phone), and laptops that run on roughly the same processors as a smartphone (the Samsung Galaxy Book S).

Bridging the gap between disparate devices is not a new quest. We’ve been trying to do it since the days of LapLink, when local networks were sparse and the internet was non-existent. In more recent years, Apple, Samsung, and Microsoft have tried to create a sort of persistent presence across mobile and more fixed devices with Continuity and Continuum to extend our phone screens to our computers.

Everything’s Taking a Giant Step Closer

Microsoft’s Your Phone, however, especially as I saw it in action on the new Samsung Galaxy Note10 and the new Windows 10-based Galaxy Book S, takes that access to the next level.

Microsoft Your Phone on Note10 and Samsung Galaxy Book S
Microsoft Your Phone on Note10 and Samsung Galaxy Book S.  Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

This year-old technology enables a much more intimate relationship between your phone and your laptop. Instead of a series of pop-up messages delivered through the ether from your phone to the laptop screen, the entirety of your smartphone display appears in full size (in this case, 6.3 inches) on the laptop screen.

This is not the first time I’ve seen a phone display on a computer, but this may be the first time I’ve ever seen full access and control via my laptop keyboard and mouse.

Phone and laptop
Where we're going, there are no barriers. The view of your smartphone on a laptop.  Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

Samsung already has DeX, which connects your smartphone to a monitor, keyboard, and mouse, but it requires a local, wired connection, and, as Shilpa Ranganathan, Microsoft’s Corp VP for Mobile and Cross Device experiences, told me on Wednesday, DeX is “more about a transient experience.”

When Microsoft introduced Your Phone almost a year ago, it worked more like Apple’s Continuity, letting you view recent text messages and photos, though it did also let you copy and paste directly from phone apps to your PC.

Now, Your Phone, which for now only works with the Samsung’s Galaxy Note10 and Note10+ (“We’re working on a roadmap for additional devices,” Ranganathan told me), offers a deeper, more personal connection between devices.

Making this more profound connection is surprisingly easy. There’s a new Link to Windows button under the Samsung Galaxy Note10 Quick Swipe Panel that guides you through a couple of steps. After that, the linked Windows system name appears in that panel. It only takes a tap on that link and then the confirmation on your computer to launch the connection.

Samsung Galaxy Note10 screen
Setting up the Your Phone connection through a Samsung Galaxy Note10.  Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

It’s fun to control the phone through a computer. I could even control the Note+ camera, but I wondered about the overall utility. Ranganathan explained that the “point is driving focus,” and not letting social media and other smartphone notifications and pop-ups on our phones distract us from our work. With Your Phone, you can still engage with all that, but without looking away from the computer screen. It’s a reason, though I’m not sure it’s a compelling one.

The Future: It’s One Device

Merging your phone and laptop screen is still kind of a kludge, though. Our future is do-everything devices that no longer ask us to give up touch, typing, drawing, or portability.

Apple and Samsung’s latest pro-level tablets are millimeters thick, but they welcome the addition of keyboard covers and pen input. The new Note10+ is 6.8-inches, just an inch or so smaller than an Apple Pencil-supporting iPad Mini, but manages to squeeze a productivity-focused stylus inside its body.

And then there’s the new Samsung Galaxy Book S.

Samsung Galaxy Book S
The Samsung Galaxy Book S weighs just over 2 lbs. Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

At 13.3-inches, the Galaxy Book S ($999) is not some undersized netbook (remember those?). It includes a full-sized keyboard with decent travel and an expansive touchpad. It’s also a full 2.1-pound, Windows 10 Home, touch-screen laptop with 256GB of storage, 8GB of RAM, and a USB-C port for charging (yes, the same one you use to charge your phone).

Check out my Samsung Galaxy Book S hands on video.

The Galaxy Book S uses two crucial elements — a mobile processor and LTE connectivity — to bridge the gap between productivity tablets (and smartphones) and laptops.

Galaxy Book S laptop
The Samsung Galaxy Book S is quite thin.  Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

Its Qualcomm Snapdragon 8cx mobile CPU sips power, resulting in a claimed 23-hour battery life. In other words, battery life is what you'd expect on your mobile phone, much more than from your typical laptop. LTE means you can use the Galaxy Book S like your phone, connecting wherever you are, not just where you can find an open Wi-Fi hotspot.

Barriers are gone, and so, it appears, are compromises. The future is not about what kind of gadget you need so much as it is what size screen do you choose. The rest — connection, power, and utility options — are yours to decide.