Hands-on: Microsoft's Surface Pro 3 Docking Station is a capable, costly upgrade

surface pro 3 dock front and back

By now, you should probably think of Microsoft’s Surface Pro 3 tablet as the Windows equivalent of a MacBook Air: an exquisitely constructed, premium tablet for those who aren’t worried about their next mortgage payment. 

The new Surface Pro Docking Station simply completes the experience. For the superlative Surface Pro 3 is already a tablet that is already almost a two-in-one notebook. When docked, the tablet provides enough horsepower to drive two other monitors, adding its own high-definition screen as a bonus. At that point, you may as well be working at a desktop PC.

Microsoft surface pro 3 multimon setup Microsoft

One possible setup of multimonitor configurations, all connected to the Surface Pro 3.

The dock itself costs $199. Yes, $199. It's definitely pricier than tablet docking stations from the likes of Dell and HP, but also fancier, and a minor upcharge to the $1,200 or so you might pay for a midrange Surface Pro 3. If you’re going to spend that much already, you may as well go whole hog.

Physically, the new dock looks very similar to the dock Microsoft built for the Surface Pro and Surface Pro 2. Microsoft also stole a page from Hollywood and "rebooted" the name, calling it simply the Surface Pro Docking Station. Despite the moniker, however, only the SP3 is supported. 

Microsoft Surface Pro 3 docking station Mark Hachman

When inserting the Surface Pro 3, make sure that you "fold down" the keyboard, as shown. It makes inserting the tablet much easier.

Like earlier models, the sides of the dock clasp the tablet like a vise, connecting power and I/O alike through the tablet’s charging connector. The Surface Pro 3 doesn’t dock as easily to the Surface Pro Docking Station as the Surface Pro 2 did to its own dock, though, because of the way the new Type Cover connects to the tablet.

If you fold the Type Cover upward to provide yourself an angled typing surface, make sure you “unfold” the cover and lay it flat. Otherwise, the dock’s extended charging connector may miss the tablet’s port, possibly damaging itself or the tablet.

You can either leave the SP3's stylus in its fabric loop, or attach it via a handy magnetic connector Microsoft has added to the left side of the dock.

Microsoft Surface Pro 3 docking station Mark Hachman

A magnet secures the stylus when not in use.

Ports, ports, ports

If you’re buying a docking station, you’re buying connectivity, which is one of the slight deficiencies of the Surface line in general. Each Surface Pro 3 tablet, by itself, includes just a miniDisplayPort and a USB 3.0 connection. The docking station does not obstruct those ports, and it adds five more USB ports—two USB 2.0 and three USB 3.0. (That’s a slight step up from the Surface Pro/Pro 2 dock, which had three USB 2.0 connectors and a single USB 3.0 connector.) There’s also another (replicated) miniDisplayPort connector on the back, plus Gigabit Ethernet, a headphone jack and Kensington lock. Microsoft removed the mic jack from the Surface Pro 2 dock, probably because no one was using it.

Microsoft doesn’t make it clear whether you can daisy-chain two DisplayPort monitors together, as its documentation refers you to a support site where that question wasn't addressed. Microsoft has said previously that you can, however. (I lacked the appropriate miniDisplayPort adapters to test this properly.)

Microsoft Surface Pro 3 docking station Mark Hachman

You can use the connectors on the back of the dock, but the connectors on the tablet itself are more accessible.

One slight annoyance is that the pitch at which the dock reclines is fixed, which takes away from the nearly limitless pitch options that the SP3’s flexible kickstand delivers. You’ll probably end up using the desktop monitor as your primary display, however, which means you’ll be staring at the Surface display a lot less than you might have otherwise. 

Finally, a true left-handed gaming tablet

Right-handers blithely move through the world, failing to appreciate that everything from desks to golf to the way we write has long favored a right-handed approach. While the world's somewhat kinder to southpaws these days, gaming remains biased. I'm left-handed, and I can’t effectively game on a PC without access to a keyboard’s number pad—which compact keyboards like the Surface’s Type Cover sacrifice to save space.

That’s not a dealbreaker, of course. A game like Trine or the Batman Arkham series work well with gamepads or an Xbox controller. But with the dock, I can finally connect a mouse and keyboard and game as I choose. 

Microsoft Surface Pro 3 docking station Mark Hachman

Why you're buying the dock: extra ports. An additional USB 3.0 connector is around to the side.

That said there are other options. Consider spending $199 for the Surface Pro 3 dock, versus $19—yes, $19—for a powered four-port USB 3.0 hub that can plug right into that USB 3.0 slot. You're sacrificing the option of an extra monitor connection, but saving yourself $180. The weight of that hub, plus the miniDisplayPort, might be enough to topple an undocked Surface Pro 3. But I doubt it.

With Microsoft’s Surface Pro Docking Station, you have a fairly simple decision to make: Do you need that extra connectivity? Most likely, you do. But I also think you could probably find a cheaper alternative.

If money’s no object, however, you won’t regret it: Microsoft’s Surface Pro docking station is a well-engineered, robust piece of hardware that looks great and makes your Surface Pro 3 even more useful than before. 

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