Hacking a Portable Dual Screen for Surface RT for under $100
Surface RT on Left. Motorola LapDock connected thru HDMI and USB adapter cables to be MultiMon.
I love my 64gb Surface RT. I have started leaving my 17" desktop replacement laptop behind and traveling with my RT instead. With ubiquitous high-speed Internet everywhere, and tethering on my Nokia 920 with 4G LTE, I find that I can use all my development and graphics tools on my desktop or home computer thru remote desktop.
What I do start to miss is my multiple monitor developer setup, but now I don't have to anymore.
Today's hack is a portable MultiMon setup for your Surface RT or Pro that will give you a full keyboard, track pad and second monitor for less that $100. How is that possible? Well one man's marketing failure is another man's hack project.
A few years ago Motorola came out with a cell phone that when connected to what they called a lapdock could convert to a laptop. They built it but nobody came. Now these lapdocks are selling on Amazon and eBay New-in-box for $70 or so. The device looks like a very thin laptop, but a flip up dock behind the screen has two plugs where the phone was to pass USB and HDMI signals to the lap dock. There is a male micro-USB and a male micro-HDMI plug on the docking station side. These are not your typical USB and HDMI plugs, but micro versions of them, and with the wrong gender for most standard cables, but with the right set of adapters you can wire them to your surface and set the unit side by side with your surface.
The Surface RT is just an ARM version of Windows, but the Windows desktop still had most of the well known features like options to extend your desktop, duplicate displays, etc. And the Surface RT is equipped with a female micro-HDMI female port. To use the monitor as an external monitor you need to get a set of adapters to adapt the female micro-HDMI to the male micro-HDMI. That would seem simple enough, but there are not many of these around. You may have to get a micro gender changer, and a some small cables to make it long enough and have the ends and the correct distance and type. The USB has a similar issue. You need to adapt the USB micro-mail to the standard USB female port on the RT.
For the Surface pro the USB port situation is the same, but instead of a micro-HDMI female port, it has a micro-display port, so you need to go from that to HDMI to micro-HDMI male..
I have not found off the shelf cables for any of these that will do the trick. So you will have to mix and match to hack the adapters yourself. I found all the connectors and adapters I needed on Amazon, so for my setup its more of a Lego snap together hack with no soldering required.
More about the lapdock. The lapdock is about the size of an 11" MacBook air. It weighs in at 2.4llbs (about a kilo). It runs all day on a single charge, but you can bring the adapter as well and keep it powered. It has a full notebook quality keyboard that is comfortable for extended use, especially when compared to the standard surface touch cover. There is a built in track pad, mouse buttons and a one-touch battery meter on the front of the unit. It has two USB ports on the back and will act as a powered hub so you can charge and run your phone without depleting your Surfaces battery. I forgot my phone charger once and managed to get 5 full charges off my adapters. You can also plug in a wired mouse if that track pad is not your thing.
I have taken this setup on a few trips and the extra desktop space makes coding remotely a much better experience than having to just deal with the single Surface RT screen. You certainly can get value of it for other application, but remember this is not a touch screen, so only your original Surface will have the touch capability, but almost all the new RT apps run fine with the track pad, but as on a desktop. The Surface RT's keyboard is great for short sessions on the go, but if you have to type for hours the full-keyboard on the lapdock makes it much less of a chore for a eight to ten hour go.
Honestly this hack could also be used on other tablets and laptops that support HDMI and USB, and I have even seen a Raspberry PI hack, but it really is a nearly perfect addition for the Surface RT, and for the cost of less than the type cover.
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