By our very nature, we at Tom's Hardware aren't much interested in the many, many accessories and gadgets that are optional add-ons to devices like mobile phones and laptops. (A neato Bluetooth dongle, you say? Who cares! Is that a very expensive protective laptop sleeve? Not for me! And so on.) Those items tend to be the "slice of pie" of the tech world, unnecessary detritus that only serves to add to the final bill but isn't much part of the meal, as it were.
The new Display Dock (HD-500) that you can purchase with an upcoming Lumia 950 or Lumia 950 XL smartphone is not one of those things. Indeed, although you can certainly use one of the relatively high-end Lumias without ever missing the Display Dock, the little $99 device can open up a world of possibilities for many users.
The small, square device is like a laptop dock you can fit in your pocket. Leave it hooked up to your monitor, keyboard and mouse, where it will wait for you to plug in your new Lumia phone using the USB Type-C cable, transforming your phone into a PC thanks to Windows 10 Continuum, or take it with you and have a PC-like experience wherever you go.
My Phone, My PC
Let me back up a bit.
The ability to use your phone as a primary computing device is something of a panacea in the minds of many, and that question -- Can my phone be my PC? -- has been asked repeatedly since Apple created the smartphone market with the iPhone.
There have always been severe limitations, though. The mobile hardware wasn't at all powerful enough. The apps weren't sufficient substitutes for desktop software. There weren't good enough ways to connect and display the smartphone's contents on a larger monitor. Battery life was an issue. And so on.
Things have been changing on that front, of course. Mobile hardware continues to increase in power, and innovations such as SlimPort and MHL and USB Type-C have all in one way or another helped to ameliorate the connectivity and battery issues.
Microsoft cleared one of the final, and most formidable, hurdles -- that of the UI problem -- with Windows 10 by enabling Universal Apps on the new OS (that is, applications can run on any device with the same code, from desktops to mobile phones to the Xbox) and creating Continuum (which intelligently displays a device's contents to fit a larger display).
In other words, the technology baked into Windows 10 enables you to connect your Windows 10 Mobile smartphone to a monitor and display the phone's contents in a pretty, intuitive, familiar UI, with applications that run (more or less) just as well on your desktop as they do on your phone.
(Windows 10 Mobile is not yet out -- it's coming in December alongside the launch of the Lumia 950 and 950 XL -- so we'll have to reserve some judgment on how well that will work. But the demos we've seen are promising.)
The Last Mile
What Microsoft has done with the HD-500 display dock is to create a "last mile" solution for all the aforementioned tech. It's a linchpin of sorts, a dedicated little hub for your high-end Lumia phone that lets you add a keyboard, mouse and large display to your phone.
With the additional available ports, you can also attach, for example, an external hard drive, effectively increasing your available storage by as much one or two TB. Also note that the hub enables DisplayPort over the USB Type-C connection.
Microsoft Display Dock (HD-500)
-USB Type-C (5 Gbps)
-USB 2.0 (x2)
-USB 2.0 w/ high current charging
-64.1 x 25.6 x 64.1 mm (WxLxH)
-DisplayPort over USB Type-C
-1080p HD video
-Gadgets app UI
-Charger input: 3000 mAh
-Charger output: 2000 mAh
The above is all well and good, but you probably have some reservations about that really important little thing we call "performance." To be honest, I share that concern. Can the hardware inside the Lumia 950 and 950 XL (and any subsequent phones that the HD-500 will support) really hack even a relatively lightweight workload?
We wouldn't dare state definitively that they could (or couldn't) without testing it for ourselves, but we can speculate. Consider the specs of these new Lumias:
Lumia 950 XL
Qualcomm Snapdragon 808 (hexacore)
Qualcomm Snapdragon 810 (octacore)
-5.7-inch Quad HD AMOLED Corning Gorilla Glass 3
-2650x1440 (564 ppi)
-5.7-inch Quad HD AMOLED Corning Gorilla Glass 4
-2650x1440 (518 ppi)
-expandable storage up to 200 GB microSD
-20MP PureView with Zeiss optics, OIS, triple LED flash, supports 4K
-5MP front camera, wide-angle, 1080p HD
-Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac with MIMO
-Single- or dual-SIM available
3340 mAh (removable)
-Ambient light sensor
-Wi-Fi network positioning
-USB Type-C port with "fast charging"
-Physical power, volume and camera buttons
-Transfer my Data
They run high-end Qualcomm Snapdragon SoCs and have 3 GB of RAM. That's not nuthin', as they say. And we've certainly seen smartphone-level hardware running non-smartphone devices before, such as some 2-in-1 tablets and Chromebooks, and those experiences aren't terrible.
Granted, Chrome OS is built to be as lightweight as possible, and thus a mobile chip can handle its demands more readily than it would a bulky Windows desktop installation. And although today's high-end smartphones can keep up with whatever you throw at them, there's a certain way that we're prone to use a desktop environment that is different from how we'd work on a mobile device.
However, if you simply take everything you do on your phone all day (shooting off emails, writing notes, using Office 365, working on social media, maybe even doing some light photo editing, etc.) and give yourself the ease of keyboard/mouse input and the large display area afforded by a monitor, that's a terrific upgrade to your workflow, is it not?
Your phone can't do all the things your PC can -- even if that PC is a lightweight ultrabook -- and in that sense, no, your phone can't replace your PC. And it never will. But with the aforementioned technologies, linked together with the HD-500 dock, your ability to be productive with your phone can skyrocket.
One other issue, though, is the HD-500's exclusivity. It's unclear what future handsets it might support, although it's reasonable to assume that it will work just fine with any phone running Windows 10 Mobile that has a USB Type-C port. (At present, there are precious few devices that meet that criteria. But more could be coming.)
The Bottom Line
We can confidently surmise from the listed specs that the Lumia 950 and 950 XL will offer strong performance as standalone smartphones. And we can safely assume that, via the HD-500 dock, they will provide reasonably sufficient performance for lightweight productivity applications on a nice, big display.
Further, Microsoft has done a nice job of framing this little device. It's simple and straightforward, convenient, and its use is purposeful and clear: Plug your peripherals into it. Plug your phone into it. Off you go. That's it.
And it costs just $99.
Even so, no one is expecting Microsoft to sell millions and millions of Lumia 950 and 950 XL handsets. I believe many Windows Phone users have been waiting for a new flagship option, and many will snap up one of these phones, but the market share just isn't there to make a huge dent. For however many new Lumias Microsoft sells, it will unload even fewer HD-500 docks.
And that's okay. It doesn't matter if these things sell like gangbusters. On paper, Microsoft has figured out the way to do this smartphone-as-PC thing better than anyone else to date, and because of that, it's likely that we'll see more handset makers, and possibly third-party dock makers, come to market with similar options.
That's a good thing for consumers. It could force other OEMs such as Apple and Samsung and HTC to develop similar hardware solutions, and it could put some pressure on Google and Apple to do a better job of reproducing a mobile OS interface on a large external display.
In that sense, even if Microsoft doesn't sell many HD-500 docks -- and even if it doesn't work all that spectacularly well -- it could still be a catalyst for changing the smartphone game.