Review: Updated: HP ZBook Studio

Introduction and design

The last few months have been a bit of a rollercoaster for HP Inc, which together with HP Enterprise, made the HP that we knew.

The split has seemingly been a blessing in disguise for the company as it came up with some stunning new designs and an eagerness to innovate (see the HP Elite X3 or the new HP Spectre) that was sorely lacking just a few years ago.

Introduction and design

The last few months have been a bit of a rollercoaster for HP Inc, which together with HP Enterprise, made the HP that we knew.

The split has seemingly been a blessing in disguise for the company as it came up with some stunning new designs and an eagerness to innovate (see the HP Elite X3 or the new HP Spectre) that was sorely lacking just a few years ago.

The HP ZBook Studio G3 laptop was announced back in November 2015 and competes with Dell’s Precision 15 5000 and Lenovo’s ThinkPad P50 series in terms of performance, features, and also mobility.

There seems to be a clear strategy from the main vendors to take the lessons learned from the premium consumer market and apply them to the workstation market. That means having thin-and-light (15-inch diagonal or less) and standard (17-inch or more) form factors living side-by-side.

The Studio G3 easily fits in the Ultrabook category with a weight of a tad under 2kg and a thickness of only 18mm, slightly heavier and a smidge thicker than the Precision 15 5000 but more portable and svelte than Lenovo’s option.

The Studio G3 starts from £1,400 at HP (around $2,020, or AU$2,785) – it’s likely to be lower elsewhere – but our review sample (which you cannot buy direct from HP, only through value added resellers) bears a considerably heftier price tag of £2,100 (around $3,025, or AU$4,180).

That’s pretty modest though, for a top of the range model that’s expected to achieve desktop-grade performance both computationally and graphically, while on the move.

Design

The Studio G3 reminds us a lot of the Dell XPS 15 thanks to that eye-catching silver edge that runs around the laptop’s base unit. The laptop is built with a black studded aluminium and magnesium chassis that is pleasant to the touch.

You won’t notice any fingerprints or smudges when you handle this device, which can’t be said about some of its rivals. The studs give the Studio a nice shimmering texture, especially when held up to sunlight or in dark rooms with heavy overhead lighting. The word “bling” comes to mind.

We are not crazy about the tiny keys HP outfitted the Studio with, although they are decent and slightly curved. They are slightly softer than we were expecting and do have a fair bit of travel; the keyboard is backlit and spill resistant as well. Bearing in mind that this is a business laptop, we were somewhat disappointed by the lack of a numeric keypad.

We love the oversized trackpad which is located closer to the left edge – with a 5.5-inch diagonal, it is one of the largest we’ve seen on a laptop. It’s a shame that it doesn’t have dedicated physical mouse buttons.

As always when it comes to keyboards and trackpads, your mileage may vary. On either side of the keyboard are the grills that hide Bang & Olufsen-powered speakers.

The power button is located at the top-left while the Wi-Fi and volume buttons are on the top-right; there is also a fingerprint reader that sits near where your right-hand palm would rest.

Unlike the HP ZBook line-up, which features two metallic hinges at the far ends of the laptop, the Studio is built with a single long plastic hinge that is flexible, smooth and sturdy.

The use of plastic is debatable but it does feel a lot more pliable than the metallic hinges used on other devices, notably the smaller ZBooks and the Lenovo ThinkPad P50.

The bottom of the Studio G3 is divided into two sections, both of which are surrounded by a single thin rubber band, which is ideal for people like me who tend to drop their laptops on desks, rather than gently placing them.

The lower portion of the panel is rubber, but it doesn’t feel or look cheap the way ruggedized devices do. The rubber material is designed with a snake-like pattern, so the rubber texture doesn’t overpower the laptop’s aesthetic.

The texture should also help to absorb some of the brunt of the force generated when you place the laptop down at an angle. The upper portion of the base of the laptop is mesh-vented, which should help to dissipate the heat generated by the processor and the graphics module.

This isn’t the prettiest design you’ll find, but it seems a necessary one, especially for users who are running processor-heavy tasks like video editing and graphic design.

Our only two concerns are the fact that it might leave odd-looking marks on your legs if you’re wearing shorts, plus dust and other residue might clog the tiny holes.

That said the laptop was designed to pass the stringent MIL-STD 810G standard (although at the time of writing, HP said that the testing “was pending and not intended to demonstrate fitness” for the US DoD contract requirements).

The entire bottom of the laptop can be removed by undoing eleven screws – we love the fact that the screws can’t be removed from their holes (i.e. they’re fixed in place). This is great for IT departments and anyone else who likes to tinker with their laptop’s innards.

Specifications and performance
Spec sheet

Here is the configuration of the HP ZBook Studio G3 sent to techradar for review:

CPU: Intel Xeon E3-1505M v5 running at 2.8GHz with Turbo to 3.7GHzGraphics: Nvidia Quadro M1000M, Intel HD Graphics P530RAM: 32GB DDR4Screen: 15.6-inch IPS anti-glare LED-backlit display (3840 x 2160 resolution)Storage: 512GB PCIe SSDPorts: 2 x Thunderbolt 3 ports, HDMI port (v1.4), 3 x USB 3.0 ports, SD card reader, Gigabit Ethernet port, Combo audio portConnectivity: 802.11ac Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.0Weight: 2kgSize: 375 x 255 x 18mm

Our ZBook Studio G3 review sample is powered by an Intel Xeon CPU, the Skylake-based E3-1505M v5, which has a max TDP of 45W.

It is essentially the Intel Core i7-6820HQ with ECC support and a higher base/turbo frequency. Surprisingly, a Studio G3 equipped with the former is cheaper than the Core i7 model, which makes a Xeon-based ZBook an absolute no-brainer.

Our review model also featured two 16GB DDR4 SODIMMs (32GB in all) but can be upgraded to two 32GB SODIMMs (when they become more widely available). Only the Lenovo P50, the P70 and the PC Specialist Octane II support 64GB memory as they can squeeze in four 16GB memory modules.

HP’s new flagship mobile workstation features an Nvidia Quadro M1000M graphics card that can be used interchangeably (via Nvidia’s Optimus) or teamed up (using DirectX 12’s Multiadapter feature) with the on-board Intel HD Graphics P530 GPU.

The former has 4GB GDDR5 memory (rather than the usual 2GB) while the latter uses the system memory (up to 4GB).

The M1000M is a first-generation Maxwell-based GPU that sits somewhere between the GT940M and the GTX950M in terms of performance.

The 15.6-inch display is a 4K non-touch display with a matte finish which translated into more muted colours, with good contrast and very decent brightness levels.

The rest of the specification list includes an HP-branded 512GB PCIe SSD, the Z Turbo Drive, one that’s made by Samsung (the SM951), upgradable to 2TB (with a 4TB model in the pipeline). Note that this laptop doesn’t take 2.5-inch hard disk drives but you can add a second M.2 SSD.

Connectivity-wise, we have a combo audio port, two Thunderbolt 3 ports, HDMI (v1.4, not 2.0 sadly), three USB 3.0 ports, an SD card reader and a Gigabit Ethernet port. We are puzzled by the inclusion of Thunderbolt 3 ports – true, they are compatible with USB-C but their appeal is still limited and the lack of DisplayPort means that the Studio G3 can’t run 4K displays out of the box.

The ZBook Studio G3 also offers an optional dock that connects to the laptop using Thunderbolt 3 and has 10 ports including two 4K-capable DisplayPorts. Note that it is a dock, not a docking station which means that you’ll still need to connect the power supply to the laptop.

The laptop also supports 802.11ac and Bluetooth 4.0 and as expected, it runs Windows 10 Pro with downgrade rights to Windows 7 Pro. It also comes with a three-year onsite warranty, a TPM security module (upgradable to v2.0) and a 4-cell, 64Whr battery that is not user-upgradable – you can’t swap it out.

Performance

Mobile performance is always a matter of compromises and this is particularly true in portable workstations. Desktops have far more generous leeway for power consumption, power dissipation, space and weight.

With the ZBook Studio G3, HP went to one extreme: this workstation packs some of the most powerful mobile components available on the market but they consume a lot of power and dissipate a lot of heat.

The drive to keep everything tightly assembled together and as lightweight as possible has given HP engineers very little room for manoeuvre.

This has an impact on battery life and thermal dissipation. The CPU and the GPU consume up to 85W, about twice as much as a laptop like the Dell XPS 13. No wonder then that its power supply unit is a 150W brick. During our testing, the CPU peaked at 99 degrees under load (that’s Centigrade by the way, not Fahrenheit) which is dangerously hot.

Part of the issue could pertain to the laptop base – the notebook has no feet as such, instead using the aforementioned rectangular-shaped rubber band which could impede free air circulation.

Then there’s the fans: a pair of whirring and whining hot air extractors that, at full speed, competed with the gale-force wind blowing outside our window. They are essential to make sure that the laptop didn’t throttle or crash when under load but that’s the sort of too-great-a-compromise we were referring to earlier.

What makes it worse is that they alternate between high and low speeds, like someone breathing. Plus they come on as soon as there’s the slightest of loads.

As expected, the battery life was relatively short at just 2 hours 21 minutes (PCMark 8 Work test with the display on 100% brightness).

When it comes to pure numbers though, the Zbook Studio G3 is easily one of the fastest non-gaming laptops on the market behind the Digital Storm Triton, the Origin EON17-S and the Dell Alienware 17that we’ve tested in the past. It will whizz through most tasks you throw at it, but just be aware of the fans.

Benchmarks

Here’s how the HP ZBook Studio G3 performed in our benchmark tests:

3DMark 8: Skydiver: 11151; Cloud Gate: 16055; Fire Strike: 3388PCMark 8 Home: 2857PCMark 8 Work: 2852PCMark 8 Creative: 3194PCMark 8 Battery Life: 2 hrs 21 minsCinebench: CPU: 593; GPU: 92Geekbench: Single-Core: 3863; Multi-Core: 12678Verdict

The ZBook Studio G3 is not only a powerful laptop but also a good-looking one. It’s a product that is on par with its two big rivals, the Dell Precision 15 5510 and the Lenovo ThinkPad P50. Unsurprisingly, they have a lot of common points including a steep price tag (around £2,300 – which is about $3,310, or AU$4,580) and premium components.

We liked

This laptop is a formidable powerhouse; don’t be fooled by its appearance. It delivers the sort of raw performance that would have come out of a far more expensive desktop workstation from only a few years ago. It has ISV certifications, more system memory than some laptops have storage and a powerful professional GPU, all encased in a serviceable chassis that looks great. The screen is very decent and so are the connectivity options.

We disliked

We understand that HP wanted to go for an eye-pleasing design but we feel that this is done at the expense of pragmatism. Don’t get us wrong, other Ultrabook-esque workstations suffer from the same fundamental flaw. The battery can’t be swapped and its 64Whr capacity – there is only one version – is less than the maximum capacity of its rivals (84Whr for Dell and 90Whr for Lenovo). The ZBook G3 had some issues with power dissipation as well, with the device heating up rapidly when under load.

Final verdict

This is a fantastic piece of engineering and one of the finest workstations on the market. Apple demonstrated that a laptop can be both powerful and elegant with its MacBook Pro, and that a notebook doesn’t have to be a block of soulless anthracite plastic.

The relatively poor battery life, the non-user serviceable battery, the lack of additional storage expandability and the heat dissipation issues are what hold us back from falling head-over-heels for the ZBook Studio G3. The laws of physics mean that HP engineers can only do so much when faced with physical constraints.

Juan Martinez contributed to this review

Check out our top 10 best mobile workstations of 2016

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