[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 3/4, Surface Book, or Lenovo Yoga Pro 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 (Surface Pro 3/ Surface Pro 4)
- DisplayLink-based USB 3.0 docks
- DisplayLink-based USB graphics adapters
- DisplayPort MST hubs
- USB 3.0 hubs
Case Study Lenovo Yoga 3 Pro
The Lenovo Yoga 3 Pro is a wonderfully versatile laptop that already includes a lot of connections such as 2 USB 3.0 ports and a micro-HDMI monitor output. So out of the box you can hook up a big monitor (2560×1440@ up to 50Hz) and a full size keyboard/mouse without any additional accessories. But what if you need to add a hard drive, second monitor, USB memory stick, Ethernet, USB 3-D printer, etc.?
[Image courtesy “Yoga 3 Pro on Dell U2713hm at 2560×1440” forum contributor]
Lenovo Enterprise scenario
For Enterprise, a DisplayLink-based dock that provides two monitor outputs, Ethernet, and several USB 3.0 ports is probably the best option. Lenovo makes their own Thinkpad USB 3.0 dock that includes 5 USB ports, 2 DVI monitor connections, Ethernet and Audio. Other brands like Plugable and Targus provide docks with similar functionality at different price points, but if you are purchasing for enterprise and have a supplier that works with Lenovo already, it may be simpler to get the same brand. Using these docks is simple. Just plug in a single USB cable to your laptop and the power cable that came with your laptop for a total of 2 cables and you’re good to go. The only drawback of using these USB-based docks is that they are not natively supported by Windows and piggy-back on the Intel, AMD, or NVIDIA GPU device driver outside the best practices documented on MSDN for GPU devices in Windows 7/Windows 8 (For Windows 10 they are fully supported). For most environments they work just fine but they may not be as robust as a dedicated GPU running the monitor directly. Because the graphical output is managed by an additional software layer, some CPU performance is used. On modern laptops, this usage is not noticeable to end-users and would only be apparent when running performance benchmarks or graphics intensive games. Because many enterprises encourage their employees to use two monitors for productivity/ergonomic reasons and the laptop itself only has a receptacle for one monitor, a USB dock is the obvious choice.
Lenovo Consumer scenario
The Enterprise solution works fine for consumers too but for folks on a budget, instead of getting a full dock, you can get a simple 4-port USB 3.0 hub and a micro-HDMI->HDMI adapter. This will allow you to use a single large monitor and up to 5 USB devices with your laptop (4 plugged into the hub and one plugged directly into the laptop). You’ll need to manually plug in 3 cables with this setup: power, USB, and HDMI. If you need a second external monitor, it’s probably best to just get a full USB dock like the Plugable UD-3900.
Case Study Surface (various models)
The official Surface Blog provides a lot of info on this 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 new 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
|Surface Pro 3 / Pro4 / Pro 2017 VESA docking station||$85-$275||2x 2560×1440 @60Hz via miniDP||4 USB, combined audio in/out jack, Ethernet, Charging, 2 miniDP|
|Surface Pro 4 Docking Station||$130-199||2x 2560×1440 @60Hz via miniDP||4 USB, combined audio in/out jack, Ethernet, Charging, 2 miniDP|
|Surface Pro 3 Docking Station (discontinued)||$150-300||1x 2560×1440 @60Hz via miniDP||5 USB, combined audio in/out jack, Ethernet, Charging, miniDP|
|Plugable UD-3900 or Hootoo docking station or iClever or ETekCity||$70-100||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||~$200||2x 4k@ @60Hz via DP/HDMI||5 USB, audio in, audio out, Ethernet,|
|ETauro Surface Pro 3/4 hub, with Ethernet||$70-200||0 – just a miniDP passthrough||4 USB, Charging, optional Ethernet|
|DisplayPort MST hubs||~$60-100||2x 2560×1440 @60Hz via DP||None|
|DisplayLink USB Graphics adapter||~$60||1x 3440×1440@50Hz via DP||None|
|Micro-HDMI->HDMI adapter||~$6||0 – just converts to HDMI and allows 1x 1920×1200 @60Hz or 1x 2560×1440 @60Hz||None|
|MiniDP->HDMI 2.0 adapter||~$20||0 – just converts to HDMI and allows 1x 2560×1440 @60Hz||None|
|4-port USB 3.0 hub||$10-$20||0||4 USB|
- Note many of these devices support alternate monitor resolutions such as 4K@30Hz, but I’ve listed the most popular premium 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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