Portable Power and Mega Displays

Surface Pro 3Anyone who has worked in an office with me knows that I crave screen real estate.  Really… there is no more valuable commodity for a developer.  We need to see code, debuggers, client applications or browsers, database connections, communication applications, source control screens, and that’s just getting started.  Its a lot to have to juggle in your head, and with your alt-tab keystrokes to be able to toggle back and forth between these essential applications that you need in order to get your job done.  This weekend, I started reconfiguring my office to support my additional monitors in a more sensible way.

My Workstation

First, the machine that I am using is certainly no slouch.  I have opted for some pretty high-end gear in the past, including a machine from Alienware with a raid 0 hard drive configuration.  Oh, and that was in a LAPTOP.  You could roast marshmallows with the amount of heat that machine put out.  This time, I’ve opted for a Surface Pro 3 with an i7 and 512GB of disk space.

Why a Surface Pro 3?

  • Its a solid, slim design that makes ultrabooks look so 2013
  • Touch screen.  full stop.  Seriously, if you’re not developing with a touch-screen how can you build good touch-first interfaces for touch devices like tablets and phones?
  • I’m a sucker for Windows 8.  I like it, even though I don’t use the start screen that much.  The touch interactions with the other applications is really cool.
  • The stylus – I’ve always liked being able to write out things on my PC with a stylus on a wacom tablet, but the interaction between the Surface and its stylus is really good.  OneNote never felt so natural
  • USB port, mini displayport, and micro SD ports.  I can add features, drive space, and add displays.  What other tablet supports this?
  • Type-cover – I’m not the world’s biggest fan of it, but I use a keyboard with every tablet I own.  Yes, I have bluetooth keyboards for my iPads.  This is a must for me.

Desktop-ifying the Surface Pro 3

I travel in my current job, about a week a month I’m away from my home office.  When I’m home, I want to have a fully capable machine in front of me.  I took some pretty easy steps to make the Surface Pro a premiere desktop experience… I desktop-ified it.  Check out these options that I added to the system:

  1. Surface Pro 3 Docking Station – This is where it all begins.  A simple landing spot for the Surface with a ton of ports to allow for expansion.  This solves a number of problems for me:
    1. I am ALWAYS forgetting power cables for my laptop.  The docking station has a dedicated power supply and I can keep the portable supply in my laptop bag.
    2. Gigabit ethernet – I used to have USB to ethernet adapters on my desk to connect ultrabooks to my home network.  Wifi for video chat and downloading big files from the corporate network is second class to a wired connection.
    3. Three USB 3 and two USB 2 ports.  Now I can connect that external Blu-ray player, my Rode Podcaster mic and an external hard drive with no problems.
    4. There is another mini displayport on the docking station!  That means that while the Surface is docked, I have two mini displayports available.
Docking Station

Jeff’s docking station connections

  1. Two portrait displays – My employer offered to provide me with two displays for my workstation.  Sweet!  I have these two 24-inch displays connected with the two mini displayports, turned in portrait mode and placed outside of the Surface Pro.  This makes code editing and browsing sites with long lists, like Twitter and Facebook, really nice.
  2. For my birthday this past year, I bought a nice 27-inch display for my office.  With a decent USB-VGA adapter on one of the open ports of my docking station, I’ve got a fourth display set up above my Surface and between my vertical displays.
Jeff's desktop workstation and displays

Jeff’s desktop workstation and displays

The resolution of the main display isn’t optimal yet, I need to get a better USB-VGA adapter.  The resolution and layout of the displays is as follows:

Jeff's current display layout

Jeff’s current display layout

This is a little strange, because the largest resolution display is the Surface, but it is the smallest in physical size.  My main display, #4 in the diagram, can support a higher resolution. I need to make a run to my local electronics store and grab a better USB-VGA adapter for it.

Also, the mic and boom arm are a little strange coming out from between the displays. I think I should attach it on the side of the desk and allow the displays to sit more side by side.  Not sure about this one yet…

Summary

I keep my communication applications like Lync and Skype on the left display.  I typically have a web browser on display 4 with Visual Studio on display 2.  Email and OneNote are always open on display 1 – the touch screen.  This is really working well for me, and my wife is VERY jealous that she can’t play World of Warcraft or Diablo on a setup like this.

What recommendations do you have to make my workstation even better?  Let me know in the comments below.

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  • richardkligman

    is the microphone you using the rode podcaster? have you had any issues with it and your surface pro 3? Thanks!

    • That is a Rode Podcaster, and I have not had any issues. I use it regularly for calls to my team, Skype, recording with Camtasia, and podcasting.

      • richardkligman

        great! Thanks!

  • Kevin Kuebler

    I also have a SP3 as my main home machine, and I also use the dock and have a Logitech keyboard/mouse combo with one of their little unifying receivers plugged into one of the dock’s USB ports. Which is great because it only requires one port for both. I also have a Rode Podcaster which I use for Camtasia/Pluralsight recording and that works great too.

    What I don’t have (yet) are the 3 external displays. 🙂 I currently have just one Dell 24″, which is a great display, but I would love to have 3 like you do. If (when) I get the chance to get myself a couple new displays, my plan is to get two identical monitors that support mini-DP daisy chaining. That way I can have them both connected via the one port on the dock. And if I wanted to add a third one like you have, I could use the port on the SP3 itself, no USB-VGA adapter needed. Might be too late for you Jeff since you just got those monitors, but something for others to consider (or if it’s not too late to return the ones you got …) 🙂