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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Comments (19)

19 responses to “Microsoft Surface Book with Performance Base: Surface Dock First Impressions”

  1. 5690

    Noticed you had a x-box one controller on the desk. How have you found the game play on a win 10 desktop while streaming thru the x-box app or what ever?

  2. 428

    I don't have much problems on the surface book docked witch a 16/9 1080p screen. However, you have to know that all dpi settings are applied after you close windows session then sign-in again. If you dont, some settings are not applied and this is what cause some issues.

    So : dock the surface book, apply the screen settings you want, sign-out then sign-in again. You should be good if you follow this.

    • 114

      In reply to tremblaymax:

      I do the same.  Have a BenQ 32" 4k monitor chained off the dock.  Never been a fan of multiple screens anyway and certainly not with something the size of the SP4.  Quick log off and back on works fine for me 95% of the time, especially since Chrome comes right back where I left off and most long-standing work is being run within remote desktop anyway.

  3. 639

    One of the things I am looking forward to this Spring is the Surface Pro 5.  The other is to see what they do with the Surface dock.  If they both have USB-C ports, I'm getting both.

  4. 410

    I use the Surface Dock with my SP4 and two displays, and the native display off (1080 full HD on one and 2560x1440 on the other).  This works really well and is highly usable as a desktop solution.

    I assume that SB would work just as well in a similar configuration.  It's time, as Paul suggests, for MS to switch to a faster bus connector, as even this relatively modest set-up is pushing the limits of the proprietary connector.

  5. 670

    Maybe a little compromise will help. I use my SB with the dock and two Acer 27" WQHD screens (2560x1440). All three screens are active, and most applications (except for Adobe Acrobat Pro 11) are well behaved even when you drag from screen to screen and back to SB. The text is sharp and easy to read. I can easily have four letter size documents open across the two WQHD screens for comparison editing/research, while still reading email or taking handwritten notes on my SB. Frankly, I think 4K is overkill, and 1080p is decades old by comparison.

  6. 10228

    I totally agree and this is a big, painful problem and transition for Surface. 


    You have two two competing problems:


    1. Windows' mantra of full legacy means no matter how much they do to fix DPI issues it won't fully go away until every app developer does it right or rebuilds their app as UWP

    2. The current crop of surface devices use a DisplayPort and proprietary surface connect for connecting displays. While fast, they are not fast enough for anything higher than 4k. To truly get dpi matched scaling (e.g. 200%) with the surface book, you would need that 28" monitor to be surface studio in pixel density - 4500x3000 - which sadly is just not possible with the limited bandwidth ports on the surface line up.


    I was REALLY disappointed that Microsoft didn't make that patented version of the Surface Studio that was a display with a built in gpu - basically creating a surface dock + display in one. Given their experience externalizing a gpu on the surface book this seemed very likely.

    Secondly, The surface connect MUST have more bandwidth than a standard DisplayPort if it's able to also have all those other ports, but they refuse or are unable to utilize it to drive a "4.5+K" display at 60hz. 


    The real solution, of course, is new surface devices with thunderbolt 3. But that's a ways away and requires a whole new computer. Sad. 

  7. 10258

    This has been an issue for me. I have used every model of Surface Pro device and it has only gotten worse as the devices have gotten better. With every release they increase the DPI of the Surface, creating a greater disparity with existing desktop monitors. This makes docking and undocking painful.

    To address this, I have started testing 4K displays. I started with dual 24" when I found out the tidbit that the Surface Dock can only support 30HZ when using two monitors and had to lose one of them. I chose 24" because the DPI scaling is 200%, just like the Surface. Docking and undocking was much better. The transition wasn't perfect, but everything looked ok after undocking.

    However, I am getting older and 24" was just too small, especially when connecting to pre 2012 windows servers via remote desktop. They do not scale and the command prompt is impossible for me.

    Next I purchased a 27" 4K display with 150% scaling. After a trip to the optometrist for "computer" glasses I was doing OK, but decided to bump the scaling to 175%. Now, it's much better from both a docking and viewing perspective.

    Unfortunately two new problems have come to light. I use a dock at both home and work. I love Windows Hello, using face recognition or the fingerprint reader makes life easier. That requires I leave the cover down on the SP4, which also cause it to be the primary monitor every time I dock even thought the last session had it set to only the second monitor. The morning ritual became dock the Surface, go into the project menu and select the second screen only option. Then log out and log back in to get the scaling "right". Repeat the process when docking at home at night. This sucks, so let's give up on face recognition and use and external fingerprint reader. $80 later I have spent more money and disabled one of the coolest new features of Windows 10 with SP4, but now I can boot and login properly without extra steps.

    Second problem is sleep. I didn't notice this problem on my 2K monitor, but with 4K it is a productivity killer. When the monitor goes to sleep and you wake the device back up, Windows 10 does not always recognize it and defaults to 640 x 480. All of the windows get shrunk to a 640x480 postage stamp and placed in the upper left hand corner of the screen. A window size of 640x480 with 175% scaling is almost impossible to work with. You can't grab the title bar. Your only option is to resize every window manually every time you been away for a while. Sucks.

    I have read that certain DisplayPort monitors have a type of keep-alive in low power state that prevents this. I have also found several tips about regedits that have not worked for me. I can only purchase so many monitors to test.

  8. 6844

    If Microsoft don't make such a monitor, I'm sure one of their OEM partners might. There would be a high demand for it.

  9. 4801

    Hi Paul,

    This has been my frustration with Surface Book.

    I had a Surface Book non-Performance Base model until Nov 2016, MS Store upgraded me for the cost difference due to battery issues and Surface Book not working properly with Surface Dock.

    I purchased 2 ASUS 28" 4K displays to work with Surface Book and Surface Dock. The dock cable obstructed the MiniDisplayPort adapter on Surface Book, what a pain.

    From last Nov 2015 until just a few weeks ago, the configuration was very unreliable plus I had an issue with scaling and displaying Outlook 2016 email content in reading pane.

    This month I spent 6 hours at the Microsoft Store in Troy MI, shout out to Brandon the technical services manager and his team to resolve the issue.

    The solution was to return the 14-month-old Surface Dock that had been replaced 3 times for a Kensington dock with 1 DisplayPort connector and fewer USB connections. 2nd DisplayPort could be connected directly to SurfaceBook.

    The other solution was to purchase a Dell PB2715Q monitor, the only monitor that is 4K and has DisplayPort in and out to daisy chain 2 4K monitors to support 4K. 

    I found that even the 2 ASUS 4K monitors @ 30hz configuration were flaky. 

    The MS Store team also solved the Outlook scaling problem by scaling from 100% to 150% on 1 monitor, reading pane does not have content missing from emails. 

    My experience with the Surface call center was not impressive, it sucks to have to drive 2 hours to resolve this issue.  

    The Microsoft store was very helpful, wish they were closer. 

    In my opinion, the Surface Dock for the price should be smarter and maybe have video chip embedded and the dock connector should be updated to USB C with the same connector for backward compatibility.

    Engineers, content creators, and designers should be the target audience for the device, I am betting that 2X4K monitors are important for these people, this will not replace an expensive workstation with a quad-core processor and expensive video system, however, how close can it get?

    One last item, can someone reach out to Microsoft executives and ask them why their 1st level support is so terrible, they are understaffed for 2nd level support and you have to tweet Panos Panay to get 3rd level support involved



  10. 10158

    LG UltraFine 27 is a 5K display, though it's 16:9. And for what it's worth, if MS made a 3:2 of the size Paul mentions, it would probably need to be 4500x3000, like Surface Studio. 


  11. 6315

    I'm considering going to a dock for my Surface pro to replace my aging home desktop setup. I'm wondering if anyone offers a 3:2 monitor and if that would help the docking situation. Sorry if this is a stupid question, I'm pretty new to the idea of docking.

    • 3072

      In reply to fanchettes:

      I run 2 1900x1200 external monitors off the surface pro 3.  One via the sp3 mini display port and the other via the surface dock display port.  

      I think windows does a remarkably good job at handling the multiple resolutions.  I run office 365, various visual studio versions, remote desktop, graphics and screenshot utilities and a variety of other apps.  The only issue I have with scaling is with chrome.  Chrome plugins do not respect the lower res monitors scaling correctly.  

      When you click on them, the mouse does not match the actual location on the plugins interface. This is because while chrome is following the correct scaling for the monitor it's on, the plugins aren't. It's a known issue and has been identified for a long time but never fixed.  The plugins work correctly on the surface high dpi display.  From observation it looks like the plugins are using the scaling value from the primary display whereas chrome is using the scaling setting if the display it is on.

      Aside from that one chrome issue I've not noticed anything in the applications I use that does not appear to behave as you would want/expect. 

    • 442

      In reply to fanchettes:

      On the desk, reconsider your monitor choices.  3:2 might not be best for desktop use.  And the switch between the two is not that bad.  Windows will remember settings between the unit monitor and your desk monitor.  Get the dock and use your current monitor as a test basis.  You might be surprised at how well it works.

      • 484

        In reply to Narg:  With the sole excpetion for those who watch a lot of movies on their PC monitor when would a 3:2 aspect ratio ever not be superior for desktop use?
  12. 10104

    MacOS resolves the problem without any handicap. I connect my 4K display to my old 27" iMac without any resolution problem and my Retinas to my old 24" monitors without scaling problems. I wonder why Microsoft does so bad in this.

  13. Surfacegirl

    I do a lot of photo editing using a Wacom Tablet attached to my Dell desktop. I recently got a Surface Book and love it! I would use the Surface Pen to edit more often if there was a way that I could lay the clipboard flat and still use the physical keyboard. (Having the virtual keyboard pop up in the middle of editing is not very functional for my needs.) Is there a way to use the Surface Dock (or some other cable) to attach both the Surface Book Performance Base and the Surface Book clipboard components to each other with both laying flat on a table top?

  14. 1526

    Apple has solved this issue nicely with its new MacBook Pros. Just plug in one or two 5K displays @ 60 Hz into one or two Thunderbolt 3 ports. No need for a dock. OS X/macOS is optimized for high DPI. Enterprise users might need to access files stored on file servers, so here a 2-1 device might make sense. But for most home and SMB users there´s no need for such devices. They´ll store their files on OneDrive, Dropbox or iCloud. An iPad does fine in this scenario. And you don´t have all those compromises with a desktop OS that has to be a tablet OS as well, and devices that neither are PCs nor tablets.