Microsoft Surface Pro 3 Docking Station Review

Microsoft Surface Pro 3 Docking Station Review

Microsoft gets desktop expansion right

Microsoft's Surface Pro 3 Docking Station—available for preorder and due in stores in the US and Canada starting next week—is exactly what you were hoping for: An elegant and efficient way to turn the ultimate mobile computer into a desk-bound workstation that can connect to multiple peripherals, including multiple displays. If you were hoping to consolidate everything around Surface Pro 3, you'll want to pick up the Docking Station as well.

I was happy to get a Docking Station for review, but the timing was tough: The accessory arrived less than two days before my family was set to fly to Barcelona for an over three-week-long home swap. This was of course better than the alternative, which was not getting to experience or write about the Docking Station until I returned home in late August. But it also meant I needed to scramble a bit.

So I posted my Surface Pro 3 Docking Station: Unboxing Photos and Surface Pro 3 Docking Station: First Impressions articles immediately and figured I could at least test the device's expansion capabilities—especially multi-monitor support—before heading off on the trip. And while I was able to confirm that the multi-monitor functionality worked as I expected, I didn't really get to spend as much time with the Docking Station as I had hoped. As you might imagine, the final day before a home swap is a bit of a meltdown-infused disaster.

Then it occurred to me: Why not just bring the Docking Station to Europe? After all, we have to check bags on these flights—something I never do while traveling domestically—and I bring a bigger-than-usual bag, which is already packed with some electronics. And sure enough, I had plenty of space for the Docking Station. The worst thing that would happen is that the home were staying it wouldn't have a display or two for me to test with.

No worries there: While they are fairly small by US television standards, there are indeed two HDTVs here, and each has both HDMI and VGA inputs. So I was good to go on that front.

The only thing I can't really do from here is use the Docking Station as I would at home: With a single external display and the Windows screen projection settings set to "external display only." It's just not possible, or ideal, anyway, to do this with the HDTVs in this home. But that's fine. I've got a good handle on how well this accessory works, and of course I have tons of experience with its Surface Pro 2-based predecessor as well. (Check out Surface Docking Station Review for more information.)

If you're familiar with the previous Docking Station, this new model looks, feels, and works very similarly (but is of course designed to work only with Surface Pro 3). That is, it is made of plastic and not magnesium, but it feels solid and substantial, and not cheap in any way.

The mechanism you use to dock Surface Pro 3 works like before in that there are two wing-like handles on the sides that you slide outward to open up the Docking Station to accept the tablet. Then, you lower the Surface Pro 3 into the obviously grooved bottom of the Docking Station and, once positioned, close the wing-like handles by pushing them in towards the device.

With Surface Pro 2, the Docking Station connected via the USB port on the left and the miniDisplayPort port on the right, but the Surface Pro 3 Docking Station is more sophisticated. Now, it physically connects all of the expansion ports through the power receptacle on the right side of the Surface Pro 3; this carries the expansion bus from the device out to the ports in the Docking Station. But this change has two other nice side-effects. One, it's easier to connect, and those handles slide effortlessly when connect (and disconnect) Surface Pro 3. And two, it means that the USB 3.0 port and miniDisplayPort port on the Surface Pro 3—which are correctly positioned above the Docking Station and thus aren't hidden by those handles—can still be used. This nicely expands the expansion possibilities.

And those expansion possibilities are, well, expansive, and improved over the Surface Pro 2 unit.

You get 3 USB 3.0 ports, two on the back and one on the left side (as you're facing the Docking Station) that is more easily accessible. You also get two USB 2.0 ports, which you might choose to use with an external mouse and keyboard, or other devices that don't require 3.0 speeds. And don't forget you have the USB 3.0 port on Surface Pro 3, too, for a total of six available USB ports. Very nice, and as good as you'd find on most desktop PCs.

A gigabit Ethernet port provides that essential wired connection, while freeing up a USB port as well. There's a headphone jack, which I connect to external speakers (though not here in Barcelona), and a security lock port.

And then there's video-out.

With the original Surface Docking Station, Microsoft provided a single miniDisplayPort port, and you could connect multiple external displays by daisy-chaining (which requires modern DisplayPort-capable displays). Or you could use less sophisticated methods like USB-based video-out (which taxes the PC's processor and spins up the fan), Miracast-based wireless display, or some combination of all that.

The Surface Pro 3 Docking Station works the same way, but as noted it also provides access to the Surface Pro 3's miniDisplayPort port, meaning that you effectively have two miniDisplayPort ports, one of the tablet and one on the back of the dock. You can still daisy chain, if you have the right displays, and indeed you can do so off both ports now. Or, you can simply connect each port to one display each, which is what I've done (both at home, briefly, and here in Barcelona). I've also combined wired displays with a Miracast-connected display. What the heck.

The problem is, I don't have any high-resolution DisplayPort-based displays. What I have are 1080p displays (and, here in Barcelona, one 1080p display and one 720p display). So the way I've connected to these displays is via Microsoft's official Surface accessories, the Mini DisplayPort to VGA Adapter and the Mini DisplayPort to HD AV Adapter (which works with HDMI). (And yes, I brought those to Barcelona too.)

It all works great. You can mix and match how each display is configured and positioned relative to the internal display, as you'd expect. But what you're really wondering, I know, is whether doing so spins up the Surface Pro 3 fan and ruins the experience with heat and sound. In my experience so far, this configuration—one HDMI-connected display, one VGA-connected display—works quite well, and the fan doesn't kick on any more than it does in normal use. (Remember that the Surface Pro 3 fan does, of course, come on from time to time, regardless, and often when it's not clear that anything particularly strenuous is happening. It's a mystery.)

In other words, I consider this successful. But I also need to start thinking about displays with higher resolutions and more modern connections. That will need to wait until I get home.

Aside from the obvious expansion capabilities, the Surface Pro 3 Docking Station has a few fit and finish niceties that deserve being called out.

This was never announced, but you can magnetically connect the Surface Pen to the left handle on the Docking Station, providing a handier way to access this accessory while working from a desk. This is such a fun and delightful surprise that I'm curious why Microsoft didn't call it out. (And while I've heard complaints about this connection not being available on the right side of the device, give me a break. Now we're just complaining to complain. I'm a righty and this works fine.)

There is a soft and subtle light on the top of the right handle that helps you know that the dock is connected correctly to Surface Pro 3. (That is, it's not a "power light" but rather more of a "connected light.") What a thoughtful touch.

I noted in my First Impressions article that the Surface Pro 3 Docking Station power supply (as with the Surface Pro 2 version) doesn't have the same connector as the power supply that comes with Surface Pro 3, so they're not (100 percent) interchangeable. (The cable that connects to the power brick on one side and the wall receptacle on the other is identical between the two.) This also inexplicably triggered some strange grousing from people who clearly don't understand why the way this is designed is correct. For the Surface Pro 3 power connector, Microsoft provides a magnetic, fin-based plug that makes sense for a tablet. But a docking station needs to sit still in an office, so it makes sense that the power connector would be a more traditional, physical connector, and not some magnet thing that could be easily dislodged.

Some people also complained that the Surface Pro 3 Docking Station power brick doesn't have a USB port as with the unit supplied with the tablet. That's a nonsense complaint as well: This brick sits about 8 inches from the wall socket and will usually be on the floor, behind a desk, or otherwise hidden and inaccessible. And the Docking Station already supplies excellent expansion capabilities.

Finally, the Surface Pro 3 sits very nicely in the dock, and if you wish to use the Type Cover you can do so in either of its supported modes: Flat on the table or magnetically latched so that it sits at an angle. The only thing I don't like about this arrangement is that the screen angle is fixed, so if you want to use the internal screen along with external screens, you're stuck with the angle Microsoft provides. I'd prefer it to be back a bit, but then I won't normally use it this way anyway.

Keyboard up...

...or keyboard down

The Surface Pro 3 Docking Station is available now for pre-order in the US and Canada, and it retails for $200. It will become publicly available on August 15, and if you plan to get one, check Windows Update in the 24 hours before that date as Microsoft will be shipping some Docking Station-related driver updates out to Surface Pro 3 users.

Should you get one? If you're looking for a more casual or occasional docking/desktop expansion experience, and want to save some money, look into the Plugable UD-3900 docking station I've recommended elsewhere (as in Surface Pro 3: Desktop PC Replacement) instead. It's a less painful investment at just $109 on Amazon.

But even at its loftier $200 price tag, the Docking Station justifies its cost by the quality, expansion capabilities and excellent video-out options. If you are serious about consolidating around Surface Pro 3, this accessory isn't really optional, it's mandatory, and anyone who goes this route will be happy with the quality and functionality. Highly recommended. 

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