Surface Pro 3: Desktop PC Replacement?

Surface Pro 3: Desktop PC Replacement?

Tablet and laptop, sure. But desktop PC too?

While most have focused solely on Surface Pro 3's suitability as a replacement for both a tablet and a laptop, Microsoft highlighted an interesting third possibility when it launched the device: a desktop PC replacement. To that end, the firm will soon start selling a Docking Station. But since that's not available yet, I've begun testing Surface Pro 3 in this configuration as it did originally with its predecessor, using a USB 3.0-based docking station.

You can check out Going Pro: Replacing the Desktop to read about my experiences using original Surface Pro as a desktop replacement. Back then, there were challenges related to screen scaling, which Microsoft at the time pledged to fix and then later did, as much as it could, with Windows 8.1. More successful was the interface I used to turn Surface Pro into a desktop PC: The Plugable UD-3000 USB 3.0 Universal Docking Station I used—and still have and use—connects via a single USB 3.0 cable and provides heaping portions of expandability. It's a very versatile accessory.

For Surface Pro 2, Microsoft released its own Surface Docking Station, which I reviewed last November. That device is much more expensive than the Plugable solution(s) and comes with fewer expansion options. But it works fairly elegantly and includes both power and an integrated mini-DisplayPort port for video-out, the latter of which is ostensibly more efficient in that it won't tax the CPU as much as a USB-based solution. (You can always use the mini-DisplayPort port on the Surface for video-out when using the Plugable docking station, of course.)

Ultimately, either a USB-based docking solution like the Plugable or the official Microsoft docking station will get the job done. The trade-offs are price and convenience. The Plugable solution(s) are much less expensive than Microsoft's, and offer more expansion. But the Microsoft docking station doesn't require you to plug in multiple wires: With the Plugable, you need to plug-in the USB cable, the Surface Pro power supply and, optionally, a video cable via mini-DisplayPort.

For this new round of testing, I'm using a newer version of the Plugable docking station, the Plugable SuperSpeed USB 3.0 Dual Monitor Docking Station. This is model UD-3900 vs. UD-3000 for my original unit, and as I understand it the big difference is that the newer version—which costs $109, a bit more than half the cost of the Microsoft Surface Docking Station—is that it provides native support for dual external monitors, each with up to 1920 x 1200 resolution. (Or you can drive a single external display at 2048 x 1152).

Plugable UD-3000 (left) and new UD-3900 (right), with HDMI-out

Like its predecessor, the UD-3900 is bristling with expansion: 2 USB 3.0 ports, 4 USB 2.0 ports, gigabit Ethernet, DVI-I (video out), HDMI (video out), plus separate microphone and headphone jacks.

(That's a bit better than what Microsoft will offer with its own docking station: two USB 2 ports and three USB 3 ports, a mini-DisplayPort connector, gigabit Ethernet, and a headphone jack. The Surface Docking Station's mini-DisplayPort—like that in Surface Pro 3—is of driving a single external 4K display or two external screens at 2560 x 1440 ... but only with an i5 processor or better.)

Microsoft's Surface Pro 3 Docking Station

I'm not super-interested in dual monitor out. As I noted in that original Going Pro article, when I paired a Surface Pro with the UD-3000, the Surface Pro fans would kick in every day, often for what seems like no reason at all. I've certainly experienced this with the Surface Pro 3 as well, just using it normally, and I'm sure that docking it won't help matters per se. But HDMI-out is very useful. So I will be testing that configuration.

I've only had the Plugable UD-3900 for a day, and I'm leaving for a week-long trip to Colorado in the morning. So I'll need to wait until I get home to really figure out what this combination—Surface Pro 3 plus Plugable UD-3900—is like. I can say that so far it works as expected, and of course the trip is a good excuse to test other things, like battery life, and finish up my review. The fan noise is fairly prevalent.

Dual-display with Surface Pro 3 display (left) and HDTV via UD-3900's HDMI-out (right)

When I do get home from Colorado, I'll use the Surface Pro 3 with the UD-3900 as my daily-driver desktop PC. I suspect that it will actually work quite well, with the caveat that fan noise from the Surface Pro 3 might be the deal breaker. Either way, I'll let you know what I find out.

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