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Surface Pro / Pro 2 Portrait Docking Station hack


[I posted this project on public forums over a year ago, but thought I’d clean it up, organize the pictures better and make it into a real blog post for posterity.]
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Intro:

Back in 2012 I got my hands on a few Surface Pro tablets to test the Intel IvyBridge GPU drivers. I thought they were solid tablets/laptops, and with the proper peripherals, capable of being full desktop replacements too. Many early adopters (self-hosters) at Microsoft used their Surface Pro tablets with external monitors. But they all had a huge problem: the main monitors were at proper eye-level but the Surface Pro was down low on the desktop. For taller folks the tablet screen would go unused in this configuration because it was just too low to view comfortably. Lifting the tablet up a few inches off the desktop with a couple reams of paper worked somewhat better but still looked rather awkward next to two big monitors.
So I came up with an alternate approach that flipped the Surface Pro on its side so it could sit right next to a pair of monitors more comfortably. Rather than fiddling with a USB plug manually, I incorporated a USB 3.0 plug so the Surface Pro could just drop right in and connect to monitors and peripherals in one easy step.
The initial design used a Lenovo Thinkpad USB 3.0 port replicator (0A33970) and a little box made out of scrap wood. The Lenovo device is still the most compact DisplayLink dual-monitor port replicator because it uses two small circuit boards stacked one on top of the other rather than one longer board like Plugable and Targus port replicators.
 

Design Process:

I was inspired by the MacBook docking station experts Henge Docks | Docking Stations for Apple Notebook Computers. But I saw a big problem with their vertical docking stations: you can’t use the MacBook screen while docked! What a waste because the screen is the best part of a MacBook. So I thought it was essential to keep the Surface screen visible when docking. MacBooks typically have all their connectors on one side of the machine which makes it easy to plug everything into a dock all at once. Unfortunately the Surface Pro/Pro 2 is not designed that way: the power and video is on one side and the USB on the other. I opted to dock on the USB side so power must be connected manually. The flipstand/kickstand is a key differentiating feature of the Surface brand. So I thought it was important to accentuate this in my design as well. In docked position, the flipstand is flipped out not only for aesthetics, but also to provide stability.
 

Fabrication:

I went through a few design iterations and chewed up a lot of scrap wood with my Dremel tool in the process. I also ordered a bunch of different right-angle USB 3.0 extension cables from DealeXtreme to test different layouts. After I had a working proof of concept in hand-built Dremel form, I learned the SketchUp CAD tool and made a quick 3D model. I sent the model to a friend who has a ShopBot CNC and he cut a couple test slabs out of MDF for me. They didn’t fit 100% but were close enough for prototype purposes. That is what is shown here. I’ve since tweaked the models for better fitment, but haven’t done a production run or anything.
Many people asked why I didn’t use 3D-printing? When I did this project, I had zero 3D-printing experience and didn’t see a need for it given that CNC milling worked just fine. MDF turned out to be about $1 per dock and quite easy to mill. Besides there was so much plastic around my desk already, I thought wood was a nice alternative.
 

Materials:

Tools:

  • Saw
  • Dremel
  • Power drill/screwdriver
  • Glue gun
  • SketchUp CAD
  • ShopBot or other CNC mill

Conclusion:

The Surface Pro portrait dock was a side project I did in my spare time at home before I knew that the Microsoft Surface accessories team was working on a landscape dock. I entered my side project into the Microsoft Maker Garage Science fair, and you can see it at 1:57 in this video on the Microsoft Youtube channel: Microsoft Maker Garage, Devices Science Fair, and Maker Space unveiled – YouTube. The official Surface landscape dock was publically announced just 2 weeks after the science fair and when it was made available for sale, it sold like hotcakes. So I put this project on hold but never really forgot about portrait docking
At the Garage Maker Science fair [Sept 5th, 2013]:
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