[My article on hi-dpi multi-mon scaling tweaks generated a ton of interest. Several enthusiasts asked questions on the forums about how to choose the best multi-monitor docking setup for their Surface Pro and other high-end laptops. This article provides an analysis of some available options and weighs them against a small set of criteria common for enterprise and consumer environments.]
Suppose you have a premium laptop like the Surface Pro or Surface Book and you’d like to use it as desktop replacement with two external monitors. What accessories should you buy? To enable your laptop to fully replace a desktop computer, you need connections – lots of them. Desktops typically include 4 or more USB ports, 2 or more monitor ports, audio, Ethernet and many other options. Some ports like Ethernet are essential in enterprise settings but not so much in consumer settings. When choosing accessories to provide the ports you need, the following factors should be considered:
- # of USB ports
- # of monitor ports
- monitor resolutions supported
- other ports (audio/Ethernet)
- convenience of single step docking action vs manually plugging in several cables
There are a few key accessory categories that provide these ports:
- Factory Dock option (Microsoft Surface devices)
- DisplayLink-based USB 3.0 docks
- DisplayLink-based USB graphics adapters
- DisplayPort MST hubs
- USB 3.0 hubs
Case Study Surface (various models)
The official Surface Blog provides a lot of info already so I won’t try to duplicate it.
[Image courtesy Surface Pro blog]
Surface Enterprise scenario
For enterprise, a DisplayLink dock works well and for budget-minded organizations the Plugable UD-3900 is probably the best choice given Plugable’s reputation for stellar support. However there is an option to use the Surface brand docking stations instead. The Surface brand docks provides 4 or 5 USB connections, Ethernet, audio, etc., just like the DisplayLink docks, but it does not use a DisplayLink chipset. They use the built-in Intel GPU for all monitors so there is no CPU-usage penalty or potential compatibility concerns. Also they are premium devices with excellent build quality. Plus with integrated power, you don’t need to remember your power brick and plug in power separately. The older clamp-style Surface Pro 3 dock provides one mini-DisplayPort connection and the Surface tablet provides a second mini-DisplayPort connection. This allows 2 monitors to be connected with no additional devices. The newer brick-shaped Surface Pro 4 dock provides two miniDP connections natively for the easiest multi-monitor experience on both Surface Pro 3 and Surface Pro 4. For customers using the older clamp-style dock with 2 or more external monitors that prefer a docking experience where multiple cables don’t need to be plugged in manually, there are a few options:
- If your monitors support DisplayPort MST then you can daisy-chain one monitor to the next so that all the monitors are connected through one DisplayPort cable attached to the dock. Most customers do not have these monitors and it is silly to go buy them just for this feature if you already have working monitors.
- You can add an MST hub which allows connecting 2 or 3 monitors via a single DisplayPort cable. (Some MST hubs from 2012-2013 had hardware flaws which blocked using 2 or more monitors. The current models have corrected these issues and support 2 or 3 monitors just fine. If you happen to buy a used MST hub where the 2nd monitor doesn’t work, contact the vendor for a replacement.) These hubs need additional cables and some require an external power supply so you may have to deal with a mess of cables.
- You can add a DisplayLink USB Graphics adapter which are less expensive than MST hubs. They don’t need external power so there is much less cable clutter compared to the MST hubs.
Surface Consumer scenario
For consumer use, the DisplayLink docks and Surface brand docks work the best, but they can be a little expensive. If you don’t need a premium experience, you can make do with a 4-port USB 3.0 hub and a mini-DisplayPort-> HDMI adapter to plug into your regular monitor. If you need a second monitor, you can get an MST hub or DisplayLink-based Dock or one of the USB graphics adapters. But the most economical choice is, again, the Plugable UD-3900 and similar docks. If you only need one external monitor, a docking solution from ETauro incorporates a 4-port USB hub, Displayport extension and charger all integrated into one box, but it only works with the Surface Pro, not the SurfaceBook.
Product Summary Table
Other Ports & notes
|Surface Pro 3 / Pro 4 / Pro 2017 VESA docking station||$80||2x 2560×1440 @60Hz via miniDP plus Surface screen at eye-level||4 USB, combined audio in/out jack, Ethernet, integrated charging, 2 miniDP; requires MS OEM brick dock|
|Surface Dock (brick style)||~$199||2x 2560×1440 @60Hz via miniDP or 1x 4K@60Hz||4 USB, combined audio in/out jack, Ethernet, integrated charging, 2 miniDP|
|Surface Pro 3 Docking Station (discontinued clamp-style)||~$199||1x 2560×1440 @60Hz via miniDP||5 USB, combined audio in/out jack, Ethernet, Charging, miniDP|
|Plugable UD-6950||~$170||2x 4K@60Hz or 1x 5K@60Hz via DisplayPort||6 USB 3.0, audio in, audio out, Ethernet, 2 DisplayPort|
|Plugable UD-3900 or Hootoo docking station or iClever or ETekCity||~$80-100||2x 1920×1200 @60Hz or 1x 2560×1440 @50Hz via HDMI/DVI||6 USB, audio in, audio out, Ethernet, HDMI, DVI|
|Thinkpad USB 3.0 Dock||~$150||2x 2560×1440@60Hz via DP/HDMI||6 USB, audio in, audio out, Ethernet|
|Targus DV4K||~$180||2x 4k@60Hz via DP/HDMI||5 USB, audio in, audio out, Ethernet,|
|ETauro Surface Pro hub||~$100||1 miniDP passthrough||4 USB, Charging, Ethernet|
|ICZI hub||~$80||1 display passthrough with choice of HDMI or DP receptacle||3 USB, Ethernet, Audcio|
|Sabrent docking station with tablet stand||~$90||2x 1080p@60Hz via DVI+HDMI||6 USB, Ethernet, Audio|
|DisplayPort MST hubs||~$60-100||2x 2560×1440 @60Hz via DP||No additional ports|
|Plugable DisplayLink USB 3.0 Graphics adapter||~$60||1x 3440×1440@50Hz via DP||No additional ports
suitable to combine with any other solution.
|Plugable DisplayLink USB 3.0 Dual 4K Graphics adapter||~$90||2x 4K@60Hz via DP||Ethernet
suitable to combine with any other solution
|MiniDP->HDMI 2.0 active adapter||~$20||0 – just converts to HDMI and allows 1x 4K @60Hz||None|
|4-port USB 3.0 hub||~$15||0||4 USB|
- Note many of these devices support alternate monitor resolutions but I’ve listed the most popular 60Hz resolutions that folks typically use at work and home. If you have a specific monitor you’d like to use, check the specs of the device carefully to ensure it works at your desired refresh rate.
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