Introduction, Design Features
HP’s ZBook line of mobile workstations includes, without question, some of the brawniest portable PCs you can buy for high-end creative production and post work. 3D animators, VFX artists, editors, filmmakers, and photo retouchers flock to them, as well as people who want workstation-class performance and quality signified by rigorous testing, ISV certifications, and well-made components.
The ZBook family, in its late-2017 pecking order as we write this, includes five machines, which fit roughly into three categories. You might call the highest category “performance and expandability”; it contains the uber-powerful and roomy ZBook 17 G4 and ZBook 15 G4ZBook Studio, a machine that sports high-end features such as Intel Xeon CPUs, Nvidia GPUs, and 10-bit 4K DreamColor displays, yet is surprisingly thin and light. It’s something of an outlier in the mobile-workstation world.
Finally, you have the “ultraportable” machines in the ZBook family: the ZBook 15u, and the subject of our review today, the compact ZBook 14u G4 mobile workstation. While these two machines don’t carry the priciest or fastest processors and graphics chips in the ZBook line, they do pack a fair amount of power into a form factor that’s light in your bag—and on your wallet. Think of them as the more modest, budget-minded middle ground between the first class and the second.
So who are these specific ultraportable ZBook machines designed for, and why would they want them? It turns out that there are plenty of good reasons to get a ZBook 14u (or a 15u, for that matter), even if it’s not the machine to get for copious amounts of heavy rendering, or for long bouts of high-resolution video editing.
For example, suppose you are an architect, a contractor, or a manager who needs to review complex CAD blueprints or 3D models while working onsite. Or you might be a creative director who refers to character models or production designs while on set during coffee breaks. Each usage case requires a machine small enough to tuck comfortably under your arm, yet muscular enough to open complex 3D datasets.
Certain students in the computer sciences or STEM fields might find a machine like the ZBook 14u G4 very useful, too. Suppose you are taking a course in 3D animation and modeling. You may want a powerful tool to follow along during lectures and demonstrations without lugging a heavy mobile workstation along with the rest of your stuff. Later, you can continue working on the ZBook 14u at home, or transfer files to a tower or desktop to do the really heavy lifting and rendering. (Let’s not forget to mention: Students will find the price tag of the ZBook 14u G4 attractive, too, versus what many other mobile workstations cost.)
In short, the ZBook 14u G4 has its limitations imposed by its pricing and physical dimensions, but as a workstation for real-world budgets, it hits most of its marks.
The HP ZBook 14u mobile workstation has an appealing design, common to the ZBook line. This smallest ZBook shows off a 14-inch diagonal screen within a footprint of 13.3×9.3 inches; the thickness is 0.87 inch. One word to describe it might be compact…
That’s a good word. Small might also work, but somehow that’s not quite right; the bezels aren’t overly trim, nor is the machine a thin slice like an ultrabook or the ZBook Studio G4. The best adjective we came up with for our first impression of the machines was approachable…
That could work. Compact and approachable (the latter in the sense that the ZBook 14u G4 doesn’t look like a sober-black business tool) sums it up. The two-tone lid design gives it a friendly, semi-consumer appearance.
The keyboard deck reflects that thought toward accessible design. The important stuff was put in just the right places and in the right proportion, from the keyboard to the touch pad to the screen. The lower half has a well-built, sturdy feel when typing, and the dark-colored, no-flex metal case is attractive and stylish, with a satin-like finish…
In addition, the machine is surprisingly light, as workstation machines come, with a starting weight of only 3.61 pounds. With the HP ZBook 14u G4, you’ll know you’re carrying around a computer with you, but it will feel far more like a typical light-minded laptop than a mobile workstation. Again, not to get carried away: It’s not wisp-light like some of the willowy 2- or 2.5-pound ultrabooks that set laptop weight records. But for a pumped-up machine with dedicated workstation graphics, being solidly under 4 pounds is a feat.
And that’s the point of this machine. As light as the ZBook 14u G4 might be, its specifications set it apart from other 14-inch laptops like the ThinkPad T-series and Dell Latitudes of the world, earning its classification as a mobile workstation. The thing to bear in mind is that with greater screen sizes come bigger chassis; with a bigger chassis, you get more thermal headroom and following from that, the potential to stuff brawnier silicon inside. If you want a robust dedicated workstation graphics chip and a higher-end CPU, you’ll, by necessity, see these in larger-screen laptops; the thermal realities for high-end Intel Core i7 and Xeon CPUs mandate more space in which to operate. And because bigger screens are the norm in these machines, carry weights can get only so low.
That’s not to take anything away from the ZBook 14 G4. But it does explain why a “small-screen” mobile workstation tends to be at least 14 inches in screen size, and why 3.6 pounds is “light” in this class of laptop.
While the ZBook 14u G4 doesn’t offer the option for a 10-bit DreamColor display panel (like the higher-end ZBooks do), we were satisfied with the panel in our review unit. Its display was nice and sharp, with vivid colors and accurate reproduction of images.
The specific ZBook 14u G4 unit we reviewed had a full-HD (1,920×1,080-pixel) panel that supports what HP calls UWVA (for “ultra-wide viewing angles”). Sure enough, this display looked good when looking at it even from extreme off-center. If you like, you can opt for a lower-resolution HD (1,366×768-pixel) screen in the base model of this machine. But we wouldn’t. The FHD screen is an excellent choice, and any creative pro worth his or her salt working in the visual arts would likely be put off, these days, by a native resolution of just 1,366×768.
The 1,366×768 resolution makes more sense in a 14-inch panel if you’ll be sticking strictly to single-window productivity work. If you so desire, you can also opt for an FHD touch screen; HP offers the FHD panel in touch and non-touch varieties.
Ports and connectors positively pepper the right edge of this machine. Our tester had a DisplayPort 1.2, useful for connecting external high-resolution (including DreamColor) displays, a USB 3.1 Gen 1 port (using the USB Type-C connector), a more ordinary USB 3.0 port, a headphone/microphone combo jack, and an RJ-45 Ethernet connection…
Also over here is an SD card reader and the AC-power jack. The left side of the machine has one USB 3.0 port (a powered connection that charges devices with the ZBook powered down) and, to our surprise on a 14-inch machine, a good old VGA output. In addition, there was a security-minded Smart Card reader on this edge, along with a notch for Kensington-style security cables…
The compact keyboard on the ZBook 14u G4 feels comfortable and solid while typing, and the touch pad beneath it is nicely sized. You’ll note the two sets of left- and right-click buttons above and below the touch pad; one is for the touch pad proper, and the other is for the nub-style pointing stick in the middle of the board…
Loyalists to Lenovo’s old-school TrackPoint or the similar pointers on some Dell and HP business machines may consider this eraser-head pointer a major selling point; others may find it a yawner or even a nuisance, taking a bite out of the G, H, and B keys. Whether you like the pointer or not, though, we have to say that this keyboard deck gets most things right in terms of key proportions and key placement. Our only real quibble is a long-standing one with HP laptops: namely, those half-size up/down arrow keys bracketed by full-size left/right arrows. We’d be more bothered about them were this a gaming machine, though.
The acoustics of the HP ZBook 14u G4 are very good for a machine this size. The audio was developed in consultation with Bang Olufsen, and the integrated stereo speakers do a punchy job for a laptop of this size. There is also an integrated 720p Webcam for video conferencing, which delivers what you’d expect from a laptop Webcam: unremarkable video that gets the job done for casual video chats, not as a permanent record.
see our 8th Generation Core primer.) The key difference with the Kaby Lake-R CPUs is that the initial four U-series chips are all four-core/eight-thread, and that could make a big difference in multi-threaded apps such as video editors. HP hasn’t made any announcements as to whether or when a ZBook might get a Kaby Lake-R CPU, but it’s something to bear in mind if you’re investing in one of these machines. In the not-too-distant future, a workstation of this size could be available with a lot more threads and cores.
As for system memory, the ZBook 14u G4 includes two SO-DIMM slots, which together support a maximum of 32GB of DDR4-2133 SDRAM. The ZBook 15u G4 and the ZBook Studio G4 also support a maximum of 32GB of memory, while the big daddy of current-generation ZBooks, the ZBook 17 G4, supports up to 64GB max (in case you were wondering, and have the cash to indulge that).
On the storage side, the ZBook 14u has an M.2 PCI Express slot for installing up to a 1TB PCI Express/NVMe SSD (in HP’s parlance, that’s called an “HP Z Turbo Drive”). A nice surprise given that this is a 14-inch machine, the ZBook 14u G4 also has a 2.5-inch SATA drive bay, which holds up to a 1TB hard drive or an SSD, bringing the potential total storage capability of this machine to 2TB. That’s a nice bit of storage for such a small form factor, and the NVMe SSD screams, with extremely fast potential top transfer rates of 3GB per second for reads and 1.5GB per second for writes. (Our test unit came with just the NVMe SSD, at 512GB, and no supplementary hard drive.)
As for the graphics solution, from the bottom-end models to the top end, the ZBook 14u G4 comes with a discrete AMD FirePro W4190M GPU with 2GB of dedicated GDDR5 video memory. While that’s not as impressive as the higher-end ZBooks with Nvidia Quadro GPUs (in the mobile-workstation market, the AMD FirePros are generally a “budget”-minded choice), it’s capable enough for many modeling tasks, especially at school or onsite. All of HP’s versions of the ZBook 14u G4 at this writing (we noted five on HP’s site at this writing) used the FirePro; there was no option to go Quadro, Radeon, or GeForce.