Microsoft Surface Book with Performance Base: Surface Dock First Impressions

Posted on January 28, 2017 by Paul Thurrott in Microsoft Surface, Windows 10 with 19 Comments

Microsoft Surface Book with Performance Base: Surface Dock First Impressions

Thanks to improvements to Windows 10, moving Surface Book with Performance Base between docked and mobile usage is easier and more seamless than was the case when its predecessor first shipped. But there’s still so much work to do here.

In fact, I still believe firmly that the only real solution to this problem is for Microsoft to offer a large-screen Surface display—28 inches sounds about right—that matches the 3:2 3000 x 2000 resolution display found in Surface Book. I’ve been asking for such a thing for years, since Surface Pro 3 debuted. And while it’s trendy these days to suddenly declare that what Microsoft should offer is “a Surface Studio display,” this isn’t a new concept. And it’s still sorely needed.

If you’re not clear on the issue here, it goes something like this. Surface Book and other modern PCs with high DPI displays pose a problem for Windows 10 when docked because the OS must manage different display scaling configurations for the internal display and the docked display(s). Surface Book ups the difficulty by offering a still-unusual 3:2 aspect ratio in an age when most desktop displays still provide widescreen 16:9 or 16:10 aspect ratios.

We can debate the relative merits of both approaches, but I feel that 3:2 makes much more sense on 2-in-1 devices like Surface Book and Surface Pro 4 because it helps minimize the “stretched” look that these devices otherwise adopt when used in portrait mode as tablets. Having really gotten used to 3:2 with Surface Book, I’ve come to prefer it. And even otherwise excellent laptops and portable PCs suffer from using 16:9 or 16:10 displays, I think. (Though I suppose docking them is less problematic.)

Anyway. Surface Book is 3:2. And it is very high DPI. So we have to deal with that.

We have to deal with it because most people do not have high DPI displays on their desks (4K, whatever). And because, statistically, no one has a 3:2 display on their desk. But the culprit, of course, is Windows 10.

As I wrote back in October, Microsoft may never solve the high DPI issues in Windows 10. But I find it heartening that they are at least trying: As first seen in Windows 10 Insider Preview build 15002, the Creators Update will include a power user feature that lets you override the high DPI scaling behavior on an app-by-app basis. It’s hit or miss. But it’s nice to have.

Windows 10 has always let us configure the display scaling of each display independently, which is a big improvement over previous Windows versions. And with the Creators Update, Windows 10 also seems to do a better job of just dealing with two really different displays; the 3000 x 2000 display in Surface Book, for example, and the 27-inch 1080p display I normally use at the desk.

That’s particularly the case when you use the displays in Extend mode, where both are active at the same time, creating a panoramic desktop that spans both displays. If you choose to simply use the second display, which I prefer, things break down because Windows 10 must switch between a big but low DPI screen when docked and a small but high DPI screen when you’re mobile. Apps and windows caught in this transition are oddly-sized and morph into cartoons. You will spend the rest of your life resizing windows as you dock and undock, and this is why I think Microsoft will never fix this problem. There’s just no easy solution.

Two displays with a common desktop. The one on the right is physically much bigger but offers low DPI.

However you prefer to work, if you are going to use two displays, you can simplify your desktop set up by using a Surface Dock, which provides an elegant, one-cable solution. Surface Dock is only $150 right now—it originally cost $200—and it provides two miniDisplayPort ports, four USB ports, an Ethernet port, and an audio jack. It seems to work well unless you need two external 4K displays at 60 Hz; here, the bandwidth limitations of the Dock’s USB underpinnings fail it.

I’ve been fooling around with various configurations to find something that works well for me, but I’ve never really taken to multiple displays, and it’s not clear that Surface Book with Performance Base—or all the improvements Microsoft has been making in Windows 10—will change that. And I’ve really tried.

I do think that using a high DPI external display—even a widescreen version—would help. I tried to go 4K back in December, as you may recall, with disastrous results. But the big advantage there is the same as with the Surface Book display: Text is so super-clear and wonderful looking, and it makes it hard to go back to older display technology.

I’ll keep trying. But I’ll also toss out the suggestion I’ve been making for years. Microsoft, please. It’s time for a 28-inch 3:2 high DPI Surface display. Past time. Such a thing would make Surface Book with Performance Base so much more elegant when docked. And this is one PC that most customers will want to use everywhere, not just on the go.


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