Introduction, Design Features
At the top of HP’s ZBook workstation-notebook line are the brawny ZBook 15 and 17, easily two of the most powerful mobile workstations you can buy. They’ve just recently been refreshed to “G4” models that afford access to “Kaby Lake” and late-model Xeon chips, plus the latest workstation-grade graphics, in the familiar ZBook mix.
In this review, we’ll be taking a look at the HP ZBook 15 G4, which offers a remarkable level of performance and expandability (and surprising portability) for those looking for a powerful workstation with a 15.6-inch screen. Workstations are, of course, specifically designed for serious, compute-intensive work, and this line in particular has undergone rigorous MIL-STD 810G testing to withstand punishing workloads and wear-and-tear over large periods of time. They’re also ISV-certified (the “ISV” stands for “independent software vendor”) to work with the latest professional applications. (Sure, you can use them to play a few games, too, if you really want to, but that’s not what these machines are about.)
The ZBooks more or less define this category of machine, along with Precision machines from Dell and certain ThinkPad P and W models from Lenovo. A machine like the ZBook 15 G4 is a natural choice for those who do serious creative-content work on a professional level and want a powerful, expandable machine to keep up with them. If you’re into video editing, 3D animation, photography, or visual effects for post-production, the ZBook 15 is a machine in your wheelhouse.
HP loaned us a $2,887 configuration of this mobile workstation kitted out with a Xeon processor, 32GB of memory, and all-SSD storage. (Models start at around $1,800 with a Core i5.) Let’s dig into it.
The HP ZBook 15 G4 is an attractive, well-designed machine that’s all about getting serious work done. While it’s not as thin as the 15-inch ZBook Studio (another 15-inch workstation in the ZBook line, with trimmer dimensions), it’s still pretty doggone sleek (and, in keeping with the step-up-model status, a lot more expandable). It has a handsome, warm, and dark chassis constructed from aluminum and magnesium that’s just shy of an inch thick. (It’s 23mm, to be precise.)
We especially liked the distinctive inlay in the lid of the machine, lending a sober but two-tone look…
With a weight of 5.8 pounds, taking the ZBook 15 around with you on occasion should not be a problem. Sure, it weighs well more than your average ultrabook, but considering that it is one of the more expandable mobile workstations you can buy, that’s a workable weight to carry on your back.
The ZBook 15 we reviewed had a 15.6-inch full-HD (1,920×1,080-pixel) display, which is also available in touch-screen form (if you insist on having a touch screen on your workstation). Our test model didn’t include the touch feature. Also available is the option to get a 15.6-inch DreamColor display in Ultra HD, also known as 4K (3,840×2,160).
If you don’t know about DreamColor, it is HP’s own line of displays designed for those who work with color-critical applications such as color grading and the visual arts. HP developed DreamColor in cooperation with leading visual effects and animation studios such as DreamWorks, and in 2015 even received an Academy Award for developing it. With DreamColor, you get a 10-bit color-calibrated display that looks stunning from almost any angle.
If you were planning to get the ZBook 15’s bigger sibling, the ZBook 17 G4, with its larger 17.3-inch screen, the DreamColor display would be a great thing to get built into the computer. On the ZBook 15, however, with its smaller 15.6-inch screen, it’s somewhat of a less compelling option, though it is still an attractive one for creative professionals. While having a DreamColor display built into the computer is nice, there is another way to get the benefits of DreamColor into your workflow and use it to greater effect.
At the 15.6-inch screen size, it would make more sense for color-minded pros to get the ZBook 15 with the 1080p/FHD display, and subsequently get an external DreamColor display, such as the HP Z24x or the remarkable HP Z31x. You would be able to connect the panel to the ZBook 15 G4 via the laptop’s Thunderbolt 3 connection. This way, you get the full benefit of DreamColor when you need it, and still have a decent FHD screen to take along with you. Just make sure that you get the ultra-wide viewing angle (UWVA) panel on the 1080p screen and not the standard viewing angle (SVA) variety, since it makes a difference in image quality when viewing the screen from extreme off-center angles. In our tester model, we received the UWVA 1080p panel.
The left side of the ZBook 15 G4 is home to a USB 3.0 port (which is also a device-charging port), an SD card slot, an RJ-45 Ethernet jack, a VGA output, and a security-cable locking notch…
On the right side of the chassis, you’ll find two Thunderbolt 3 connectors, piggybacking over USB Type-C. Also on this edge is a SmartCard reader, a mic in/headphone out combo jack, two more USB 3.0 ports, an HDMI output, and a connector for the power brick…
Thunderbolt 3 is, of course, a critical connection for those who work with large amounts of data, and a crucial feature for a workstation. It was developed to support, simultaneously, the fastest single-port data transfers possible and the most video bandwidth available on a single cable, while also supplying power. The idea is one port that virtually does it all.
With Thunderbolt 3’s incredibly fast maximum potential data-transfer rate of 40Gbps (eight times faster than USB 3.0, and twice as fast as Thunderbolt 2), you can, for example, connect an external graphics enclosure containing a dedicated graphics card to boost your GPU rendering speed, add a big array of hard drives for large video-editing projects, connect multiple high-resolution monitors (such as a DreamColor display), or connect to a compliant docking station, such as the HP ZBook Dock.
The ZBook 15’s backlit keyboard is spill-resistant and includes a numeric keypad, as well as an old-school pointing stick…
The keyboard, as a whole, feels sturdy under your fingers and is comfortable to type on.
Under the keyboard is a multi-gesture touch pad with three buttons on the top (for the pointing stick) and on the bottom (for the touch pad; left, middle, and right). The three buttons are unusual, versus the usual two on most consumer laptops. Having three is important in 3D programs such as Cinema 4D and Maya. There’s also a fingerprint reader under the keyboard.
The audio solution on the ZBook 17 is designed by Bang Olufsen, with two integrated stereo speakers on the front of the machine. In our trials, they delivered impressive sound with decent bass response, especially for a mobile machine. There is also a 720p integrated Webcam.
The processor in the review unit we tested was a four-core Xeon E3-1505M v6 CPU with a base frequency of 3GHz, a maximum Turbo Boost frequency of 4GHz, and an 8MB cache. This is a processor that’s capable of weathering heavy-duty challenges, whatever you’re working on, including demanding applications as varied as Adobe Premiere, BlackMagic DaVinci Resolve, Maxon Cinema 4D, Autodesk Maya, and Avid ProTools. The CPU choices for the ZBook 15 G4 include 7th Generation Intel Core or Xeon processors; you can ramp down from Xeon. Bumping the CPU down from the Xeon we had in our tester unit to a Core i5-7300HQ knocked $310 off the price.
On the graphics front, the ZBook 15 G4 we tested included an Nvidia Quadro M2200, a mobile graphics chip with 4GB of dedicated GDDR5 memory and 1,024 CUDA parallel-processing cores. This Quadro is designed to keep up with heavy-duty graphics-bashing tasks such as video editing or 3D modeling and animation. It’s also a decent graphics card for 3D animators who wish to start implementing GPU rendering into their workflow using programs such as Octane Render and Redshift. Other GPU options available on the ZBook 15 include the Nvidia Quadro M1200 ($135 less) and entry-level Quadro M620 ($225 less), as well as the AMD Radeon Pro WX 4150 ($155 less). It’s also possible to get the machine with just integrated graphics (a $325 discount), though we can’t think of too many scenarios where that would fit.
The ZBook 15 supports from 8GB to 64GB of standard or ECC memory at the newer and faster speeds of 2,400MHz. (Our unit had 32GB of ECC, which you can get in dual- or quad-module configurations.) At the high end, that’s a lot of memory for a mobile computer, and when you are involved in media creation or scientific analysis, the more memory you have, the better off you are. To the old saw “You can never be too rich or too thin,” we would be happy to add, “…or have too much RAM.”
Unusual for a laptop of any size, the HP ZBook 15 has two M.2 PCI Express slots, into which you can install high-speed NVMe SSDs (or “Z Turbo Drives,” as HP dubs them). These are available in 256GB, 512GB, or 1TB capacities. NVMe solid state drives are blazingly fast—several times faster than SATA SSDs, and a lot more so than SATA hard drives—and are especially useful for things like high-resolution video editing. The ZBook 15 we tested came with a single 512GB NVMe Z Turbo Drive, which had Windows 10 Pro 64 loaded aboard. With the SSD’s help, the machine booted up what seemed like instantaneously, in a matter of a few seconds. Gone are the bad old days when waiting for your computer to boot was like waiting for a pot of water to boil…a large pot. Here, you don’t even have time to fetch coffee from the carafe.
In addition to the NVMe SSD, the ZBook 15 also has an additional 2.5-inch bay, into which you can install a SATA SSD or a hard drive. You’ll have to remove some screws from the bottom panel to get there…
This brings the maximum potential storage in the ZBook 15 to as much as 6TB, if you were to opt for a pair of 1TB M.2 SSDs and install a 4TB 2.5-inch hard drive yourself. RAID-configuration support on the M.2 SSDs is also available, if you want to go that route. Our test unit came with just the 512GB SSD. Note that HP offers, for the 2.5-inch bay, only SSD options, and hard drives up to 1TB. If you want to install a hard drive of a larger capacity, you’ll have to do it yourself.
The ZBook 15 G4 comes standard with a 90-watt-hour polymer battery that HP claims is targeted for up to 14 hours of battery life. That should be more than enough to get you through a day’s work. (Real-world run time varies, of course, with what kind of work you are doing.) The battery also supports HP’s Fast Charge function, which enables the battery get up to a 50 percent level in only 30 minutes. The included 150-watt Slim Smart AC adapter, of course, can be used to recharge the battery or power the unit through an outlet as you work. We’ll get into the battery life as we tested it on the next page.
Every HP workstation ships with HP’s Remote Graphics Software (RGS), which lets you effectively operate the ZBook from a remote location using another workstation, a consumer PC, a Mac, or even just a tablet. Also loaded onto the machine is HP’s Performance Advisor, a useful piece of software that gives you deep insight and analysis into the various components that make up your machine.
Our model also came with Windows 10 Pro installed, which is the default choice on the ZBook 15 G4 line. Going with a downgrade to Windows 10 Home reduces the price by $50.