Can a Surface Pro 3 with docking station replace your desktop PC?

Can a Surface Pro 3 with docking station replace your desktop PC?

Summary: In its ads, Microsoft says the Surface Pro 3 is "the tablet that can replace your laptop." With the addition of a new docking station, the Surface Pro has its eye on your desktop PC, too.

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In its ads for the Surface Pro 3, Microsoft calls the latest release of its flagship Windows device “the tablet that can replace your laptop.”

With the help of a new Surface add-on, that same hybrid device can now replace your desktop as well.

I received an early production model of the Surface Pro Docking Station, which is available for preorder now and shipping later this month. For $190, it allows a Surface Pro 3 owner to snap the lightweight tablet into a frame that holds it firmly in place, transforming it into a full-fledged (albeit compact) Windows desktop in seconds.

sp3-docking-station

You can use that configuration as is, adding only an external keyboard and mouse. But the target market for this setup will want a full desktop experience, which means setting the docked tablet off to the side and putting a large-screen monitor front and center.

Made out of a dark plastic, the new docking station weighs only 650 grams (1.4 pounds). Small rubber feet help it maintain a firm grip on the desktop. It’s similar in appearance and construction to its predecessor, which was designed for the two earlier Surface Pro models. The slot where you insert the tablet is thinner, of course, and the connectors on either side are also thinner.

But the new dock offers much more connectivity than its predecessor. Here’s a rundown on the ports available after you snap the Surface Pro 3 into the dock.

SP3-docking-station-back

The back side of the device contains two USB 2 ports AND three USB 3 ports (the third port is around the corner from the Ethernet and audio ports and isn't visible in the above photo). The new dock design leaves the USB 3 port on the device itself accessible, for a total of six available USB ports.

You’ll also find a Gigabit Ethernet port on the back of the dock. (That’s a significant upgrade from the older docking station, which maxed out at 100 Mbps.) Audio input/output is available through a 3.5mm jack.

A lock slot allows you to attach a security cable to prevent the dock from being carried away; it doesn’t provide any protection for the tablet itself.

But the star of the dock is the Mini DisplayPort video output on the dock, which allows you to permanently connect an external monitor for immediate use after docking the Surface Pro tablet. The Mini DisplayPort output on the tablet itself is also available, allowing you to use two external monitors and the device display simultaneously. (More on external monitors at the end of this post.)

A removable plastic label glued to the left side of the dock points out a clever feature you might otherwise miss: that side of the dock is magnetized, specifically so you can snap the Surface pen to the side of the dock for storage.

Setting up the dock is ridiculously easy. Snap in the AC power connector (which uses a cylindrical plug, like those found on conventional laptops, to make a firm connection to the dock), connect USB peripherals (wired keyboard and mouse, external hard drive, and so on), and plug in an Ethernet cable for wired network access.

With that setup out of the way, you can turn the Surface Pro 3 into a full-fledged desktop PC by setting it in the dock and pushing the two sides of the dock into place to make a firm connection. The connector on the right, which fits into the same thin slot as the Surface power connector, carries power and data; the connector on the opposite side simply holds the left side in place.

The new docking station had no trouble recognizing any device I threw at it. That’s not surprising—after all, these are standard connectors for external peripherals.

The only wrinkles in the entire experience appear when you connect an external monitor to the dock.

For monitors that use an HDMI, DVI, or VGA input, you’ll need an appropriate adapter. With any of those input sources you’ll also be limited to 1080p (1920 x 1080) resolution on the external monitor. For higher resolutions, the input on the external monitor must be either DisplayPort or dual-link DVI. Any Surface Pro 3 model can drive a single external monitor at up to 4K resolution (4096 x 2304).

Microsoft says the i3-based model can comfortably drive two Full HD (1920 x 1200 at 60 Hz) displays, while the i5 and i7 models can power two external displays at a maximum resolution of 2880 x 1800 each at 60 Hz.

In my office, the i5-based Surface Pro 3 worked beautifully with a single 27-inch Dell UltraSharp monitor at 2560 x 1440 resolution. The Project option, available by pressing Windows key + P or using the option on the Devices charm, gives you the options shown here. Depending on your preferences, you might choose Second Screen Only, leaving the built-in display blank, or Extend, which allows you to run one or more apps on the built-in display and use the external display as a primary desktop monitor.

extend-display

My testing with a cheap 24-inch Full-HD LCD monitor, with only VGA and DVI inputs, was occasionally problematic. Using a VGA connection, I couldn’t get the display to sync up properly, leaving a blank area on one side of the screen. Using a kludgey Mini DisplayPort-to-HDMI-to-DVI adapter, I got a perfectly sharp image on the external display.

But in every configuration involving an external monitor, I had to deal with display scaling issues. The Surface Pro 3 packs a very high-resolution (2160 x 1440) into a very small display—12 inches measured diagonally. (If it had an Apple logo, it would be considered a Retina display.) By contrast, my 27-inch monitor, despite being more than four times larger in terms of display area, has a display resolution that's only slightly larger, at 2560 x 1440. If the Surface Pro 3 displayed every one of those 3.1 million or so pixels on the screen at the same density as the much larger external monitor, I’d need a magnifying class to read menus and identify Taskbar buttons.

So the Surface Pro 3 scales interface elements and apps to 200 percent of their size on the larger external display. But if you apply the same scaling to both displays, you get either cartoonishly large objects on the big display or impossibly small objects on the small display.

Microsoft introduced a new feature in Windows 8.1 that automatically compensates for this difference and tries to apply individual scaling factors to multiple monitors. Sometimes this process works well, as with my 27-inch Dell monitor. And sometimes it works poorly, as on my old bargain 24-inch display. The behavior is also slightly different depending on whether you sign out and sign back in again after adjusting settings.

(There are lots of moving parts for managing scaling on multiple displays. I’ll have a more detailed explanation in a follow-up post.)

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For basic business productivity and casual gaming, the onboard graphics on the Surface Pro 3 were more than acceptable. I haven’t yet tested heavy workloads such as PhotoShop, video rendering, or high-FPS PC games.

Based on my experience, the combination of a Surface Pro 3 and docking station could easily replace a desktop PC with the ability to detach and become a tablet or laptop instantly. That offers obvious advantages of not having to worry about syncing apps, settings, and data files. If you use the device at home and in an office, having a second docking station at the office is a real productivity-boosting possibility.

The scaling issues should be the at the top of your compatibility testing list if you’re considering this configuration with an external monitor. You’ll have to do your own testing to confirm that the multi-display output is acceptable with your existing hardware. If it doesn’t work, your budget will go up by the cost of one external monitor.

From a cost standpoint, the math works like this. If you already own a suitable display, adding $200 for the docking station brings the total cost to $1128 (for the Surface Pro with i3), $1328 or $1628 (for the i5 model with 128 or 256 GB of storage), or $1878 or $2278 (for the i7 model with 256 or 512 GB of storage).

If you don’t already own a suitable display, a high-quality 27-inch monitor will set you back another $700 or so, including the necessary cables.

Those prices are in line with comparable iMacs: The 27-inch iMac, with a resolution of 2560 x 1440, sells for almost $2100 when configured with an i5 and 256 GB of flash storage. Of course, iMacs don't transform into mobile devices, so you'll need to add the cost of a laptop and tablet to make the comparison fair.

The availability of the docking station fundamentally changes the value proposition of the Surface Pro 3. If you’re comfortable with the device as a tablet and laptop, its ability to transform into a full-strength desktop PC could tip the scales.

Topics: Microsoft Surface, Hardware, Microsoft, Mobility, PCs

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130 comments
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  • Same as the laptop docking

    That's the same concept as the laptop docking station that never got that popular. Hardware isn't that expensive so why put all your eggs in one basket?
    Buster Friendly
    • As always, it depends on one's needs.

      I wouldn't necessarily say laptop docs never got popular - maybe not among casual users, but in a business setting, laptops + docks are quite popular.

      As for hardware not being expensive, cost isn't the sole reason to do one thing or another. Having a single multi-purpose device is very convenient - no need to network separate systems, keep files synced, keep programs on, and up to date on, several systems. You have everything you need wherever you happen to be.

      If it weren't for my need for greater processing power, the Surface Pro would definitely serve all my computing needs. As it is, it handles all my tablet and laptop needs, and when I need another desktop, I drop it into the dock, which is connected to a KVM switch, and I can seamlessly switch between 3 workstations and the Surface.

      I'm sure a herd of haters are stampeding this way, but the fact is, for the right needs, the Surface is simply unbeatable. For a few small but admitted compromises, you get a seriously flexible and capable system. My Pro 2 is easily the single best portable computer I've ever purchased.
      PC987
      • It's a click-bait article

        Because the answer completely depends on the needs of the individual......

        Yes it can, quite easily, if your needs are reasonable.
        Boothy_p
        • How is it click-bait?

          Outcomes from trying various options were given that you would only get by trail and error or by reading the article.
          thekman58
      • Sync is easy these days

        The syncing part is easy these days especially with Windows 8 and Office 365. Any system you log into, even if you've never used it before, will come up with your options, start screen layout, taskbar pins, and files.

        I did work for a company that got sold the docking concept but it was pretty much universally hated. You'd get to work only to realize you forgot your laptop and can't do anything. It would need service, and you just say on your hands until it was done. Basically anything you saved on hardware was lost many times over on productivity.
        Buster Friendly
        • More to it than that.

          There's more to syncing than just Start Screen layouts and basic Windows options. Yes, it's easier with Windows 8 and Office 365, but the majority of desktop applications don't have any default or built in system for syncing. It's still easier to just pick up and go and have literally everything with you than set up some all inclusive syncing system or rely on some cloud based solution.

          And it's hard to believe the experience the company you mentioned is common when it comes to laptops and docks. If someone forgets to bring their laptop to work, well, that's more incompetence on their part than a knock against the dock concept. That excuse holds about as much water as "the dog ate my homework" did in highschool. My wife's entire company has gone the company issued laptop with a dock at the office and another for home route. She's never once forgotten her laptop at home.

          And as far as downtime while servicing a laptop, it really shouldn't be any different than servicing a desktop, and a competent IT department should be able to keep that at a minimum either way.
          PC987
          • All applications sync

            The application doesn't need a sync function. It's all done by the OS.

            You can't really ignore the problem of being stuck out of work without the laptop by personal attacking the person. Our tools are supposed to work for us not the other way around. It's just it's cheap bean counter move that only subtracts from productivity.
            Buster Friendly
          • What I mean...

            ...is that not all applications/tasks are conducive to syncing. Sure, you can set up your own system, or save everything to OneDrive and make sure everything is synced before leaving. But that's still more work than just taking the system with you.

            Windows' syncing of the Start Screen and other settings doesn't include every 3rd party applications. My Adobe program settings, brushes, etc. aren't synced between systems, for example. So as I said, there's more to syncing then just Windows and Office.
            PC987
        • Who forgets their laptop?

          I mean I know we hear stories about people forgetting their babies in hot cars so things happen but your laptop IS YOUR MOST IMPORTANT TOOL (for sales it might be their smart phone).

          Not sure where you work but at my enterpise people love their docking stations.
          Rann Xeroxx
          • Seems to happen a fair amount in government...:)

            There are also muggings...
            jessepollard
          • And dropping

            And they get dropped. Attacking the person because a dumb setup failed isn't really rational.
            Buster Friendly
          • In that case...

            ...desktop systems under desks are more likely to be lost to fire if one brakes out at the office over the weekend or at night... If we're going to be ridiculous, there's no limit.

            By the number of corporations that have adopted notebooks and docks, it's absurd to insist that it's an inherently dumb setup. Continuing to do so just calls into question your own experience.
            PC987
          • Agree

            Buster - I think you're conflating your own experience. I managed a global 3rd party NOC and desktop support operation in a past life. For mobile employees and execs, the laptop/dock combination was common, and issues were rare, especially of the "forgot my laptop" variety.

            Also, having read/re-read through PC's comments, I didn't interpret anything as an ad hominem argument. One can refute the claim's of another without it being considered a personal attack. He/she offered plausible evidence and opinion to the contrary.
            Nierteroth9
      • That's just not true

        We use laptop docks for all our managers and engineers. We need to be able to take our PC's with us to meetings, service trips, supporting production...in either building miles apart. Dock are a perfect solution allowing us to take our work with us. Maybe they aren't used as much at home, but that's a small market compared to business use.
        timspublic1@...
    • I've had a laptop dock on my desk for about 15 years

      And about 5 or 6 different laptops. They are wonderful things if you carry your laptop home in the evening, but want a big monitor on your desk at work during the day.

      As someone else noted, business users use these all the time - they are basically a default-checked checkbox on the "buy your next laptop" form at work.
      Flydog57
    • Have been using them for past decade

      Can't beat the convenience of simply plugging in, power on, get to work, with all your peripherals available. And the price of this one is about the same as what Dell and other OEM's have offered over the years.
      thekman58
    • Eggs

      Who said these are all my eggs? Or just my only basket for that matter? You're World is not my World, nor anyone else's. Understand?
      Narg
      • What?

        I hope that was supposed to funny and not a point.
        Buster Friendly
    • Depends

      These are high end devices more closer to ultrabooks than tablets or PCs. At my enterprise about half of our ultrabooks have docking stations at their desk.

      I get the whole "eggs" thing, thats why I typically use my cheaper Surface RT when I am out and about and just remote into my primary computing device when I need something not on the device.
      Rann Xeroxx
      • Remote is a good point too

        Remoting in is a good point too. Do you really want to allow direct access to your database from a VPN or have that data cached on a laptop?
        Buster Friendly