Posted by: kurtsh | May 30, 2014

COMMENTARY: The Mystery of Surface Pro 3’s Power Port (or “who needs 40 pins to charge a tablet”?)

Panos Panay, the father of Surface, did a Reddit AMA earlier this week:

They disclosed some very interesting things and hinted at others.  In case you weren’t aware, one year ago, Reddit was where the Surface team first hinted at the vaunted “Power Cover” keyboard that was eventually released to the public – an attachable keyboard that also augmented the battery of the device, increasing the battery life by 70-80% through some previously undocumented metal contact points at the base of the tablet.

Something really excited me:  During the AMA this week, there was a discussion that caught my attention… a very specific set of comments from the Surface Product Group that implied Thunderbolt-connectivity & with that, the possibility of external discrete GPUs via, of all things, the newly redesigned power port on Surface Pro 3.  Here’s the two relevant comments:

To illustrate the point:

    Take a look at the photos of the power adapter.  It has only 6 metal contacts on one side from which it passes a charge to the device but there’s a TON of space in the middle of the connector… as if there’s room for other metal contacts.  If you take a really close look inside the power port on the Surface Pro 3, you’ll see that it’s actually a 40+ pin connector.  Who the heck needs 40 pins to charge the battery on a mobile device?
    Take a look at the Surface Pro 3 docking station photos available online.  Unlike the dock for SP1 and SP2 which had docking connectors for:
    – USB 3.0
    – Power
    – DisplayPort
    …there’s only a single port connection between the dock & the Surface Pro 3, and that’s via the power port.

It’s appears that the power port is at least also used for passing a lot of data… i.e. much much more than just power.  Given the comments made by the Surface team, it could be Thunderbolt of some sort, and if that’s true, having external GPUs just became a slim possibility.  At least that’s the rationale being bandied about.

Imagine if you’re on the road & need battery life, you’d probably use the Surface Pro 3 normally as a mobile productivity device.  If you’re seated at a desk with power however and need additional graphics processing beyond the Intel integrated graphics (HD 4xxx or 5000), it might be possible in the future to plug in via the Power Connector and get accelerated graphics for gaming, CAD, animation, etc. through an external GPU. 

And suddenly, you’ve got a serious workstation, worthy of what many do with full sized desktops.  Let’s just say, I’m crossing my fingers!

If you’re not familiar with how graphical processing is extended via external GPUs. the Sony VAIO Z did exactly this in its last iteration – albeit via a proprietary connection instead of Thunderbolt.  Sony provided discrete graphics processing to a small form factor laptop by externalizing the GPU inside a secondary, physical chassis.  The result was an optional add-on device that delivered an improvement in graphics throughput, when connected to the laptop, by roughly 60-80%.

The photo to the right shows the chassis which is conveniently an external add-on Blu Ray drive that happens to also include the discrete GPU & chipset.  It was connected by a fat, ultra-high bandwidth cable.

Here’s a link to it:


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