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Surface Pro Running Four Screens– My New Personal Workstation

Posted by Keith Elder | Posted in Technology, Windows | Posted on 14-08-2013

No One Believes Me

The other day on Twitter I mentioned I had my Surface Pro running four screens (technically 5 if you count the screen of the Surface itself) and that it was my new workstation. Then I got this tweet from Eric:

 

image

I swear this is not Big Foot, it does exist so let’s get that done and out of the way.

The Proof

image

Tada! I will note this configuration isn’t new. As a matter of fact I’ve had this setup with four screens since 2009 as noted in this article that also discusses what is holding up the screens.

In the picture above you’ll notice one single cord plugged into the Surface in the USB 3.0 slot that runs in behind a speaker and into a Plugable USB 3.0 docking station. The docking station is the secret and provides all of the magic. What’s running on the Surface is TweetDeck (top left), Skype (top right), playing full screen Youtube video (bottom left) and Outlook 2013 (bottom right). The screen on the Surface is just showing the standard desktop.

UPDATE

FIrst of all thanks for the interests in this article. My Twitter feed @keithelder has been blowing up with questions all day. For the many of you asking about lag I recorded a quick video so you can see everything working live.

This should answer those questions about lag.

UPDATE 10:30 PM

I created another video. This time because there seems to be a lot of misinformation in people’s heads about the Surface in general and especially the Pro. Look folks, this thing is a full blown Windows PC. But it has a touch screen and is also a tablet. Someone wanted me to push it a little further than doing just one video. So here is a video of the Surface Pro streaming FOUR YouTube videos at the same time full screen while also downloading Visual Studio 2012, and running Tweet Deck, Outlook 2013, Skype, Chrome, IE, Live Writer and Adobe Audition. I think it was also washing dishes at the same time I can’t remember. The point is this little itty bitty device isn’t slow. It is a full blown PC packed into a tiny form factor so don’t let what you may have read in media previously fool you.

Four YouTube videos streamed over USB 3.0 Docking Station

Another thing I should point out is the performance rating of the Surface Pro. People keep asking me if it can run Visual Studio. The answer is yes yes yes yes. I just installed it. Don’t take my word for it though. Compare performance information with your existing development machines and see how you stack up against the Surface Pro. Don’t get me wrong, there are way faster computers out there. It just that not many people realize what this device is really capable of. I just can’t wait to see what they do with the Surface Pro 2!

SurfacePro-PerfIndex

UPDATE 8/15/2013 5:25 PM

More questions have come in as this story continues to spread.

@RockyLhotka asked this a bit ago:

Hey @keithelder does your multi-mon setup run Netflix? I found the DL drivers weren’t signed, so couldn’t play DRMed content?

Rocky is talking about the Display Link drivers that the hard you’ll read about below uses. To answer Rocky’s question the answer is Netflix works without a single problem. I ran Netflix in the browser and then installed the Netflix app from Windows Store and ran that. They both work without a problem. Matter of fact I was watching the Netflix video while playing Angry Birds Star Wars which is combining desktop apps while also running Windows Store apps at the same time. It is getting crazy!

The Setup

I know. Your mind is blown. Full screen Youtube playing with four screens all from one USB 3.0 cable!? Answer. Yes. And it also provides sound, mouse, keyboard and has a HD video cam plugged into it.

Here is a closer pic of the Plugable Docking Station:

image

The docking station is just one of the pieces to the puzzle. It has a DVI port in the back of it so one of the screens is plugged directly into the DVI port. That leaves three other screens to go. For that piece of the puzzle all we need is a converter to go from DVI or VGA to USB 3.0. Just so happens Plugable also has the answer to this as well with their UGA-3000 product.

UPDATE 8/16/2013 4:53 PM

@Plugable just as of a few minutes ago drop a brand new docking station, the 3900 model that supports dual monitor support with one DVI and one HDMI. If you are going to get one, this may serve you better than the one I have.

http://plugable.com/2013/08/16/new-plugable-usb-3-0-universal-docking-station-with-dual-monitor-support 

Note the new unit is regular $129 but if you use Amazon promotion code 63P25IGM at checkout it is only $109!

The USB 3.0 UGA adapter will work with anything you have. It works with VGA, DVI and HDMI and includes the adapters in the box. They even support resolutions up to 2048×1152 (which I’m no where close to).

There are two USB 3.0 ports on the front of the docking station so I plugged the other big screen on the bottom plus one of the screens up top into the front USB 3.0 ports. That leaves one of the smaller screens plugged into a USB 2.0 port in the back. I thought I may notice a difference in the screens up top since one was plugged into USB 2.0 but honestly I can’t tell you which screen is plugged into which. To my eye there is no difference.

Let’s recap. To make this work get a Plugable USB 3.0 Docking Station for $99 (or something similar). Then pickup as many UGA-3000 adapters as you need. All total you’ll be in for about $250 if you have four screens which is the cost of a typical docking station.

Side Benefits

A side benefit has come out of my efforts to get multiple screens working with the Surface Pro and that is my Dell notebook I found out has USB 3.0 on it. While I had a Dell docking station for it running two screens, I think we all agree that four is better than two! I’m now using the Plugable Docking Station on the Dell at work which gives me four screens to work with as well. A whole new level of productivity at work has opened up.

Switching between the Dell and the Surface is dead simple. There is only one cable to plug / unplug. Everything runs off of the one USB 3.0 cable. Let me just go ahead and say this: USB 3.0…. I love you.

So Long Gigantic Desktop

In the article I mentioned at the beginning I stated my four screen setup isn’t new. In that article is the picture below of a custom gigantic desktop sitting besides the four screens.

That desktop now sits below the desk collecting dust. As a matter of fact I’m loaning it out to a buddy of mine who’s computer died. I’d rather it get used than sit in my floor. It is still a great machine but it doesn’t travel very well. The Surface Pro has plenty of power in all honesty to do anything I really need at the moment.

I blogged after Windows 8 was announced in September 2011 about the up and coming hardware revolution and how Windows 8 was a transformer OS. The Surface Pro is just the tip of the iceberg and I don’t see me buying a desktop ever again. If I can’t take whatever I buy with me it is useless in today’s world as far as I’m concerned.

I can’t predict the future but I assure you the Surface Pro isn’t going to last forever as my workstation as I’m just waiting on the new line of Ultrabooks to come out with better battery life and slimmer design. Whatever I wind up with will have USB 3.0 and it will be running these four screens. Being able to just unplug and go is super powerful. Moving from workstation to tablet with touch and then back is great. So far I’m enjoying the ride.

The next time you are looking for a new machine don’t leave Ultrabooks or the Surface Pro off your list. As long as it has USB 3.0 you’ve got something that can transform into a workstation and then to a tablet. Best of both worlds in my opinion and Windows 8.1 plus the new line of Intel processors is going to make it even better.

So long gigantic desktop… you’ve served me well.

  • keithelder

    So I had to buy 3 of the UGA adapters to make my setup work. Would only need to purchase 2 adapters. That also frees up another USB 3.0 or 2.0 port on the docking station (which I kinda need to be honest). Or that would mean that the other two monitors would be plugged into USB 3.0 instead of me having one into USB 2.0. Anyway, all the way around it is a WIN.

  • http://tanknologix.wordpress.com/ derektonkin

    I don’t understand how it having HDMI helps, can you explain?
    Thanks again Keith & Bernie!

  • http://tanknologix.wordpress.com/ derektonkin

    It’s been in our Best Buy for a while now but you’d never know it from talking to the employees there. Supposedly Walmart is going to start carrying them but Microsoft can’t push the Windows Store within Best Buys out quick enough as BB still dominates the market.

  • keithelder

    I saw the tweet and already updated the article above with a link to the announcement. Even better it has HDMI since the surface has that HDMI port. Dang it Bernie, now you’ve gotten me wanting to upgrade.

  • Bernie – Plugable Technologies

    Thanks so much for the kind words! As it happens, just today we launched our dual head version of the dock — instead of DVI + DVI it’s DVI/VGA + HDMI. If you’re setting up a 4 monitor configuration like this post, this will save some $$$ by requiring one less external USB graphics adapter.

    Here’s the announcement:
    http://plugable.com/2013/08/16/new-plugable-usb-3-0-universal-docking-station-with-dual-monitor-support

  • keithelder

    Lenevo has a unit that has a battery in the keyboard. Someone at work has one. If the Surface Pro 2 doesn’t have 256mb ssd, 8gb ram and just a little more awesomeness I’m going to be honestly disappointed.

  • RyanGroom

    Wow, Fantastic article! I have been debating about desktop vs. laptop for my new main dev machine for awhile, you have now answered my question. Thanks for the post!.
    P.S. I have a Surface Pro as well and love it.

  • keithelder

    With the Surface Pro it is pretty smooth, occasionally there’ll be a hiccup if the cpu is 100% spiked doing something. In those cases that doesn’t bother me. My Dell notebook using the dock I see lag every now and then. More so than on the Surface.

  • keithelder

    I think the bigger problem is the Surface needs to be in more stores. I know they are working a deal with Best Buy and whatever but really, a year+ after launch? Their are millions of people that think a Surface is a ghost, no one has ever seen one. I know where I live you can’t even look at one within a 100+ mile radius. And there is the problem with Surface sales.

  • Son

    Daniel,
    Visual Studio does run superbly on the Surface Pro. I have the 128 GB version, installed Visual Studio 2012 along with SQL Server 2010 (the Standard version). Was able to run poorly designed queries on lots of data pretty quickly.. the SSD is definitely not a subpar one.
    Keith,
    I really wish the Surface Pro would come out with some sort of keyboard dock that would extend battery life and add existing storage. I was on the edge with my purchase.. but then when I heard the Pro had ‘extra’ connectors, I was hopeful. Still hopeful… Otherwise, crossing my fingers for the Surface Pro 2.

  • bzibricky

    Thanks for the info Keith – I just returned a Targus USB 3 dock which I had outputting to a Surface Pro. I had it connected to two 2 inch HP monitors and the dock had the latest drivers ,etc.. It worked fine about 80% of the time and then I would get mouse lag and stuttering and it just drove me nuts!! I wanted it to work so bad but it had to go. Are you getting ANY stuttering at all with the Pluggable?

  • http://tanknologix.wordpress.com/ derektonkin

    Why in the world isn’t this product available in Microsoft stores right next to the Surface? If MS bought these guys and used the tech to build a first-party charging dock for the Surface they’d see their enterprise sails skyrocket. Even moreso if they utilized the Touchcover connection instead of USB 3.0.

  • keithelder

    And Keith *REALLY* appreciates the experience Bernie and is one the main reasons he chose Plugable. If you guys have a new one in the works my input would be to have 2 DVI ports on the back and more USB ports if that’s possible. Thanks for the great products.

  • Bernie – Plugable Technologies

    Hi Matt – That’s frustrating. We saw some problems like that on older firmware and drivers. One of the things we try to do at Plugable is ship the latest firmware and point to the latest drivers, to catch the most recent features and fixes. That may be why Keith had a better experience with our dock and adapters. I don’t know if Toshiba allows installing the drivers straight from DisplayLink (the chipset maker), but if they do you can go to http://displaylink.com/support/downloads.php to get the latest drivers.

  • Bernie – Plugable Technologies

    Hi Brad – yes, that’s a frustrating limitation of Windows 8 and earlier — Windows only has a single DPI setting that applies to all monitors (even though they may have very different DPIs). Fortunately, Microsoft has some big improvements coming in 8.1, including support for per-monitor DPI configuration:
    http://blogs.windows.com/windows/b/extremewindows/archive/2013/07/15/windows-8-1-dpi-scaling-enhancements.aspx

  • Bernie – Plugable Technologies

    On Windows, the GPU renders the desktop pixels, and then those are compressed and just the pixels that change are sent over USB to a framebuffer in the dock and/or graphics adapters. The monitor is then continuously refreshed from the hardware without CPU involvement (if no pixels are changing, there is no load). On a Surface Pro with 4 1080p monitors, you’ll see 10-50% CPU use when moving big windows around, etc. You can peg the CPU by running 4 full-screen videos. But for normal use, where you’re looking at 4 screens and just working on one — the load is minimal.

  • keithelder

    I don’t have this problem with this setup. Not sure even what you are refering to. You must be using the HDMI port?

  • Brad

    What abut the High DPI issue. I plug my surface pro into my monitor at home sometimes, but it’s annoying that I have to log out and log in again to change the DPI otherwise the regular monitors look bad in 150 DPI.

  • keithelder

    They do not. They are all just standard monitors.

  • Mike Slomanski

    BS. There are at least 3 PCs there….

  • herschko

    Do any of the monitors have touch. I have two dell touch monitors that I have hooked up to the surface pro and thus far I have been unable to get touch to work on monitor two.

  • Daniel Root

    Good to know. I think I probably will go the Ultrabook route as well eventually.

  • keithelder

    Hate you are having those problems with it. I did my research before going with the Plugable one and talking to some people at work that have used various ones as well. Thankfully I don’t have those problems with this one!

  • Matt Velic

    We have a similar docking solution at work, but from Toshiba. I don’t like it. Most days it cuts the video from my additional monitors for a moment, causing everything I’m working on to resize back to the laptop, before powering them back up again. Annoying. I wish I had a desktop with a real-deal video card so I could just multi-monitor from that.

  • keithelder

    Thanks! Duly noted!

  • keithelder

    Arcane if you are even remotely thinking about running a VM on a Surface Pro you are DOING IN WRONG. That isn’t anywhere in the cards dealt to you. Get something bigger.

  • ArcaneCode

    I have one of the usb vga adapters, it works great, although I haven’t tried it with my surface. Will do so when I get home from this trip! As for software, I not only have VS but SQL Server installed. The only limitation the surface has for me is ram. I often have to use Virtual machines and 4 gig just isn’t big enough to do it. (By comparison my laptop has 16 gig of ram.)

  • Alex

    one PC runs 8 monitors, the other one runs just 1. I’m using (2) NVIDIA Quadro NVS 440 x16 for Quad DVI, 1000 watt power supply to power both video cards

  • bitcrazed

    Keith, you rock! Thanks so much for taking the time to record and share this write-up and these videos. I owe you a beer or three

  • keithelder

    Daniel, I had Visual Studio 2013 on the Surface running Windows 8.1 until a few days ago. VS ran very well on the Surface Pro. I just haven’t installed it yet after resetting it back to Windows 8.0. Bottom line is you can write code on the Surface all day long no issues and then pick it up and hit the couch and use touch to do whatever. I am really looking at the new Ultrabooks hard for my ultimate device. I want it to weigh 3lbs, 8 hour battery life, 256GB HDD and 8GB of memory. I get that i’m good.

  • keithelder

    You sir are a man of many screens! How many computers powering all that?

  • keithelder

    Hmm. Good question Follas I haven’t looked. Will try to remember to check.

  • Alex

    Here’s my set up, Use it mostly for trading.

  • Daniel Root

    I notice VS is missing from that bottom-left screen in the Surface shot, but present in the workstation shot. :) I assume Pro can’t push VS at all or well. I’d love to hear what you do about that. I am similarly re-evaluating my need for even a workstation laptop (Elitebook 8540). I’ve actually gravitated toward doing most development on a VM in Azure that I can remote into from anywhere- laptop, ipad, customer, office etc. The 150$ MSDN credit makes this totally do-able. I can start on a project at a customer, go home and pull up the same spot on my home pc, then pull it up on my ipad+bt keyboard combo and my cursor stays in the same spot each time ;) (ipad is admittedly too small to be very productive). My main gripe so far is that VPN _from inside_ the VM to a customer can get tricky, since it can kill my RDP session.

  • jfollas

    What kind of load does that put on your Surface to push all of that video (and more) over the USB?