With the move to an Intel-based architecture, Surface 3 is a far more versatile device than its ARM-based predecessors, a change that comes with no sacrifice to battery life or mobility. And among the many improvements we see in this release is the ability to transform Surface 3 into a full-featured desktop PC using Microsoft’s Docking Station or a third-party alternative.
As is often the case with Surface 3, I feel the need to issue what I feel is an obvious qualifying statement, a caveat as it were: Surface 3 is a cost-reduced Surface Pro 3, not a “smaller” Surface Pro 3, and as such it—by definition—features lower-end hardware than its more expensive siblings. So adding a Docking Station to Surface 3 won’t magically turn this device into a powerful PC workstation. It will simply let you use this device with a bigger screen and a desktop class keyboard and mouse.
Put another way, the utility is absolutely there. If you go the Microsoft route—the Surface 3 Docking Station costs $200, but as you’ll see there are lower-cost alternatives too—you get two USB 2.0 ports, two USB 3.0 ports, gigabit Ethernet, and miniDisplayPort out, everything the budding college student needs to work more efficiently back in the dorm room.
But it’s not magic. In a world in which even Apple can’t bend the laws of physics and create an expensive and yet mid-level Core M-based MacBook outperform the processor or battery life of the less expensive and more useful MacBook Air lineup, Microsoft can likewise do little about the Atom-based architecture inside Surface 3. It is what it is. But it’s not a Pro device, and the addition of a Docking Station doesn’t make it one either.
And it’s not just the processor. Where the Surface Pro 3 Docking Station extended the internal bus of the tablet through its docking connector—providing access to multiple displays and more USB peripherals—the Surface 3 Docking Station is simply USB-based, with a passthrough for the single miniDisplayPort connector. So it’s no more (or, as you’ll see, not much more) sophisticated than a USB-based docking station.
Speaking of which.
For less than $90—less than half the price of a Surface 3 Docking Station—you can pick up the Plugable Pro8 Charging & USB Docking Station instead. I have one—I’ve been meaning to write up using such a thing to turn a mini-tablet like the Dell Venue 8 Pro into a low-priced desktop PC—and, guess what? It works great with Surface 3. In fact, it works almost as good as the much more expensive Microsoft Docking Station.
NOTE (added 5/7/2015): I’ve been told that there are some compatibility issues between the Plugabe Pro 8 and Surface 3. I did test that it powers Surface 3 using the supplied micro-USB to micro-USB cable, but there could be issues some of the device’s other capabilities. I’ll test this when I get back from my current trip. –Paul
The Plugable Pro8 provides a handy micro-USB to micro-USB cable that can charge Surface 3. And it provides four USB ports, though they appear to be USB 2.0 across the board. (Which makes sense given the original point of this device.) It sports
gigabit 10/100 Mbps Ethernet, too, and video-out in the form of DVI (though the device comes with a few dongles, including VGA and HDMI).
Aside from USB, there are two big differences between the Plugable and Microsoft’s Docking Station. On the Plugable, video-out goes over USB, which will stress the processor and hinder performance a bit. And if you do use an external display with the Plugable, you’ll have two cables to plug and unplug as you move between tablet and docked modes: USB and video.
For the convenience and performance, the Microsoft Docking Station is of course the better solution. But it’s also pretty expensive, which is why I mention the Plugable solution. (Well, that and my previous good experiences with Plugable equipment. I still use a Plugable USB 3.0 Docking Station with my desktop PC as well.)
Regardless of how you dock a Surface 3, the ability to do so is of course a major differentiator. And not just with Surface 2 and other ARM-based Windows tablets. It’s also a big differentiator with Apple’s overpriced and lackluster new MacBook. That $1299 piece of instantly-obsolete technology features just a single USB-C port and no docking capabilities, not to mention other deficiencies. You could buy two Surface 3’s for that price and still have money left over for a Docking Station.
I’ll expand on my “why the new MacBook is a waste of money” theme in a more appropriate venue. For now, the important thing to remember is that, while the Surface 3 Docking Station isn’t the reason Surface 3 is a better device, it is most certain a reason.
And using the phrase both Apple and Microsoft would like credit for, it just works. You dock the Surface 3 into this high-quality add-on just as easily as you do with Surface Pro 3 and its own Docking Station. And in doing so, you are immediately online with whatever peripherals are connected.
The only real issue is display scaling. Like Surface Pro 3, Surface 3 features an odd-ball (for now) 3:2 display running at a pretty high DPI. The saving grace for anyone who will use only the external display when docked is that the Surface 3’s internal display—which runs at 1920 x 1280—is close enough to the typical 1080p display (which run at 1920 x 1080) that moving between the two isn’t that bad.
(OK, this actually kind of sucks. But seriously: my kingdom for Microsoft or third-party 3:2 external displays that match the resolutions of Surface Pro 3 and Surface 3. I would buy one right now.)
Ultimately, you either need the Docking Station or you don’t. If you’re on the fence, the Type Cover is of course mandatory, and Surface Pen is another one of those differentiators, one that is simply unheard of in this price class. But the Docking Station works great. And I’ll keep testing it en route to my review.
Tagged with Surface 3