Something a little bit different…

I know you’re probably used to coming to the site and reading reviews, but I received an inquiry a couple of weeks ago that I thought might be an interesting thing to share. Can you use Surface devices as extra monitors? And, what is the experience like?

Use Case

The situation is this: a user wants to have a device to act as a third monitor connected to their existing Windows 10 PC setup while at home. Meanwhile, the user wants to use that same device when traveling to allow access to a full Windows environment.

It’s worth noting, this user is a Windows user – not a Mac user – otherwise the recommendation for tablet/mobile device that acts as a second monitor is simple. I find Apple’s Sidecar to be the best wireless monitor solution I’ve ever used. The requirements with Sidecar are not trivial — the most significant being the price tag, especially if you’re starting from scratch. For now, we’ll hold off on the Apple-based recommendations. …but only for now…

Does it even work?

My first thought was, can I even use a full Windows device (with its own OS, like a Surface Pro or Surface Book) as a second monitor? Well, the answer is yes—sort of. The host device (that is, the casting device) requires hardware and drivers to accomplish this, and thankfully most modern Windows 10 PCs are equipped for this. But it’s not a guarantee.

You can check your PC (casting device) by pressing the Windows Key + P, and see if the option for connecting to a wireless display exists:

This PC does not have the ability to connect to a wireless display without an additional hardware dongle
This PC has the required drivers to connect wirelessly to compatible displays

If you see the option, then your device supports Miracast, which is required for this whole setup to work.

If you don’t see the option, then you’ll have to seek out a third-party Miracast dongle, which might exist, but I couldn’t really find one quickly. The goal here is that the device doing the casting has to support Miracast, so if there’s a dongle out there that you can connect to your casting device to enable that functionality, it might take some searching. Like I said, I couldn’t find anything quickly.

Once you confirm your casting device supports Miracast, you have to look next to the recipient device to determine if it is capable of being casted to. Not only that, but for this use case, the device needs to stand on its own as a mobile computing device. The Microsoft Surface line of products seems to be an ideal choice, if not the only option. With that in mind, let’s press on.

One more thing..

Fun fact: many modern computers support Miracast and the ability to be casted to. But, not all modern computers come out of the box with all the necessary drivers to support that functionality. A quick Google search will help you work through the various steps of enabling this optional feature within Windows, but to save you the trouble, we’ve created a small gallery that should help you through those steps on your own devices.

1. ON THE DEVICE YOU ARE CASTING TO, from the start menu, type “optional features” and select the “Manage Optional Features” result.

2. In the “Optional Features” dialog box, click the “Add a feature” button. Note, if the Wireless Display feature is already installed, you can verify this in the Installed Features list.

3. Type “wireless” to find the Wireless Display optional feature; select it and choose “Install.”

4. The feature will be installed.

5. Press Windows Key + P, choose “Connect to a wireless display” then “Projecting to this PC.”

6. This dialog box provides configuration options for incoming casting. The top option defaults to disallow all connections; you can change it based on your security and comfort level. Make note of your PC name.

7. ON YOUR CASTING DEVICE, press Windows Key + P and choose “Connect to a wireless display.” Choose the device you made note of in the previous step.

8. After connecting, a bar should display at the top of your casting device indicating connection to your other display. This can now be treated as any other extended monitor from the Windows display settings.

It’s so laggy, bro’

One of the big shortcomings of Miracast is core to its wireless design. It will certainly allow you to extend your monitor, but it comes with a performance cost. Miracast will impact your wireless card (because cabled connections aren’t an option here) as well as the graphics processor on both devices. The end result is a delay between action and response on the recipient device. The reality is, it’s not going to be the most amazing user experience, and you may be forking out quite a bit of cash for that lackluster experience.

And a note about cabled connections…the HDMI port on Surface Pros and Books is an output port, not an input port, so it’s not something that can be leveraged here.

If everything works out….

Let’s assume it does work: you confirm that your casting device supports Miracast, and the recipient device checks all the applicable boxes.

The next question is, does it make sense to buy a full secondary device with its own OS and to use it as a second or third monitor? If you’re looking at Surface devices, your screen size is going to be limited to 15” depending on the device you choose, which isn’t very big. Yes, you’ll be able to max out your resolution so screen real estate shouldn’t be a problem, but I’m getting old and even thinking about how much squinting I would do on a Surface product gives me a headache.

We are so used to multi-tasking devices—our phones, our tablets, heck…even our microwaves. It’s a relatively rare thing to seek out uni-tasking devices unless you have a very specific, niche need. For example, a professional photographer wouldn’t rely on his iPhone when taking photos at a wedding—he or she would likely have at least one professional camera, an assortment of lenses, and all the gear to go along with it.

But because we are so used to buying a single device that does so many things, it’s easy to think (especially in 2021) “there must be a device that can do ALL the things I want it to do, right?”

A step deeper on the use case

In order to make a good recommendation, I think it’s important to know how frequently this device is going to be used remotely, versus “in-house,” and what it needs to do when used remotely. If you are like most people and you just need a basic device for email, social media, streaming and word processing, there are options. The more heavy lifting that needs to be done when mobile, the more restricted (and expensive) those options become.

If this device will primarily be a remote device (and it would just be nice to connect it to your PC when you’re not out and about), I’d sooner suggest ignoring the ‘extra monitor’ need at home when making a decision. In this case, multitasking may not be the best option—as that requirement will limit the options. For instance, if all that is needed is basic web connectivity, a Chromebook is an extremely inexpensive option that is lightweight, but won’t be able to act as another monitor.

If you save enough money on the mobile device purchase, another really inexpensive solution for your third monitor is to just buy a third monitor. This will get you more view space on the third monitor than if it were another device with a smaller screen, and you could spend under $100 for essentially lagless performance (since it would be connected by a cable).

Time for the Apple recommendation…

I’m an Apple fanboy, so my first thought is this: use an iPad as your second (or third) monitor (yes, this applies to Windows in addition to MacOS). Even the $329 iPad is an acceptable option for this, although the screen is a little small. An iPad doesn’t require that your casting device is Miracast capable, because there is a handful of third party apps that can be used with iPad and PC. And yes, these apps will be laggy, but that’s no different from the Miracast option.

Furthermore, if you need something that can handle basic mobile computing and the Apple ecosystem doesn’t scare you, upgrading to the iPad Air or iPad Pro might be a good decision as well. At the time of writing this, the iPad Pro can get you a screen up to 12.9”, and although it is certainly more expensive, it will handle just as much as a Chromebook and is by far my favorite media consumption device. When it comes to my iPad Pro, it is my favorite, most used and best multi-tasking device…and I have no shortage of devices. And, it’s hard to get a more portable second monitor that does more than act as a monitor.

There is a lot of speculation about Apple’s next event (again—at the time of writing this), and that also should be considered if you’re looking to make a purchase soon. Many think that an updated iPad Pro will be released before Summer 2021, and if that’s the case, you can either snag a decent discount on last year’s models, or take advantage of potentially new sizes and features with what is coming.

And to be honest, I could write a whole other post about which iPad is ‘best,’ so we’ll save that editorial for another day. I’ll instead summarize with the following statement about Sidecar:

The drivers are already installed and ready to go on your Mac. Very little configuration is required up front–if your Mac and your iPad are on the same wireless network, all you need to do is extend your Mac’s screen to your iPad in Display Preferences under “Airplay Display.” Alternatively, you can hover over the green ‘restore’ button in the upper left corner of any window for the option to move that window to your iPad screen. Once connected, the display operates just like any other extended display.

What’s it worth?

The best answer is, start with a budget in mind and go from there. If your host device supports Miracast, then it really just comes down to screen size and how much you want to spend. Just because you can get a device that does it all doesn’t mean that you should.

Personally, I think it’s probably best to let separate devices be separate devices. Buy a decent monitor and add it to your setup at home. Buy a decent mobile device, whether it be iPad, Surface, Chromebook or something else—and use it for that purpose. I think in the end, this provides a much better experience in both settings.

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