Surface Book can transform into a desktop PC with the help of Surface Dock, a versatile new accessory that comes with a few challenges.
First, the good news: After turning off my desktop tower PC and switching to Surface Book full time—using it with Surface Dock and my 27-inch display, keyboard, mouse, speakers, and other peripherals—I’ve experienced no major issues. There are the expected problems switching between Surface Book’s crazy-high-PPI internal display and my own, pedestrian 1080p desktop display, of course. But day-to-day, I’m no less productive than I was with a more traditional desktop PC setup.
Surface Dock offers enough expansion for most users, I’d imagine. There are four USB 3.0 ports—two on the front, two on the back—a gigabit Ethernet port for wired networking, two MiniDisplayPort ports for video-out, and a headjack-style audio port. That said, I quickly filled up those USB ports and ended up adding a 4-port USB 3.0 hub so I could have more stuff attached. (My needs are unusual thanks to my my smart phones and need for podcasting and Xbox video capture devices.)
But the nice thing about this peripheral, compared to the Plugable UD-3900 USB 3.0 Universal Docking Station I also own, is that it only requires one cable connection between the Surface Book and the dock, thanks to SurfaceConnect, Microsoft’s proprietary interface. This lets me keep the Surface Book power adapter in my travel bag and when I’m ready to undock, there’s only one cable to unplug, and it’s magnetic, so even that is simpler.
But as Brad Sams recently discovered, Microsoft’s promise for video-out is somewhat fanciful. That is, Microsoft says that you can drive two 4K displays with Surface Book/Pro 4 and Surface Dock. And you can… assuming you plug one display into the Surface Book/Pro 4 and one into the Dock. Otherwise, you’ll get an unacceptably low refresh rate.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. Surface Book has two MiniDisplayPort ports for video-out, so why on earth would you need to use one of the ports on the Surface itself? And that, folks, is the problem. As it turns out, SurfaceConnect, Microsoft’s proprietary connector, is nothing more than USB 3.0 with a different plug shape. And that means that it’s bandwidth constrained.
The real world implications of this shouldn’t impact normal users. I use Surface Book, Surface Dock, and my 27-inch 1080p display every day, and Book never heats up or kicks on the fan. But as Brad wrote, you can only drive two 4K displays at 60 Hz if you split up the MiniDisplayPort cables from each display, with one going into the Surface and one going into the Dock. So much for the cable management advantages.
I haven’t tested even one 4K display, but Brad tells me that Surface Dock can successfully drive a single 4K display. And it certainly works well enough with two normal PPI displays, in my case the 1080p display I always use paired with an old 1600 x 900 display. I suspect two 1080p displays would work without issue, too. I’m just not that into multiple displays.
There is of course one other consideration when it comes to video out. I use Surface Book with the lid closed, and yes, it works just fine that way, with the 1080p display as the only display. Many users would likely prefer to use both the internal display and an external display at the same time, and yes, that does work fine as well. It should also help you overcome the issues related to switching between 1080p on the desktop and 3000 x 2000 when you’re untethered.
For now, I’ll put up with the rescaling issues, and while I often need to reboot for things to work as ideal as is possible, Microsoft has made big strides with high DPI scaling in Windows over the years.
For those who would like to save some money and don’t mind a bit of extra cabling, that Plugable UD-3900 USB 3.0 Universal Docking Station is only $100 at Amazon.com right now (normal price, $165), just half the cost of Surface Dock. It has only two USB 3.0 ports, but has four USB 2.0 ports, for a total of 6 USB ports, and you can get a single display version for $10 less. The big difference between these docking stations and Surface Dock is convenience: You’ll need to connect Surface Book to power using the normal power adapter andconnect to the docking station with USB. But that may be an acceptable trade-off for many.
I’m going to keep using Surface Book and Surface Dock together as my desktop moving forward. If I had a need for two or more displays, especially 4K displays, I’d probably just use a normal tower PC instead.