When is a laptop not a laptop? More than just a posh name for a portable workaday PC — when it’s a Mobile Workstation is one answer.
But when does a laptop attain workstation status? When it is groomed for endurance as well as high performance, built to survive professional use and abuse. And perhaps just as important, has dependable manufacturer support available to quickly turn around repairs or replacements for time-is-money business customers.
The HP ZBook 14 is a professional 14-inch mobile workstation, now in its second generation — spot the G2 suffix — and sporting updated Intel processors and AMD graphics. Given the slightly smaller frame we can expect lower-spec processors and hence reduced performance compared to 15- and 17-inch models, although depending on needs there should be power enough to breeze through lighter workloads without complaint.
Hewlett-Packard once packed its strongest and best mobile workstations into a wrapper it called EliteBook. It then rebranded the category as ZBook a couple of years ago, introducing slimmer and more shapely bodies to what were once bulky and square-cornered chassis. The EliteBook name is now reserved for HP’s lightweight executive notebooks.
The 14-inch screen size is an interesting size. Most laptops today, consumer and professional, tend to cluster at 13- or 15-inch screens, with the 14-inch formerly popular in business laptops as a halfway house between the usual two sizes.
For the ZBook 14 G2 we still find an incredibly solid chassis built from cast-metal alloys below with sheet aluminium for a lid backing, while still totalling just under 2 kg in weight. The overall finish is decidedly noir, spray-paint black and dark anodization throughout. The lid back is partly bordered with a matt plastic trim, which does get remarkably greasy and unsightly after little carrying around.
But there’s a certain satisfying feel to the ensemble: chunky at just under an inch thick (24.8 mm), with large-radius corners and edges that are part chiselled like a raked ultrabook, part rounded like a pebble.
There’s evidence here of HP’s forté in fitting durable and high-precision components to its top business machines, starting with a sublime keyboard and trackpad combination. The 14-inch display is clearly a high-quality item too in most respects, but let’s return to screen options later.
Like just about every notebook designer, HP specifies a Scrabble-tile style keyboard with relatively short-travel keys, backlit in white with two brightness levels. And like most brands, HP hasn’t entirely mastered the issue of light leakage between the keys, which rather spoils the effect of simply illuminated letters.
HP was perhaps the first laptop brand to seize upon the Synaptics strain-gauge touchpad, now made famous by Apple as the Force Touch Trackpad, a human-interface device that is sensitive to the degree of pressure your fingers make on its surface. Fitted here though is a more familiar, but remarkably high-grade, traditional touchpad with semi-matt texture sized at 92 x 54 mm. It’s still multi-touch capable and able to respond to two- and three-figure gestures. OEM Synaptics calls it a LuxPad.
It’s a little smaller than Apple’s 104 x 76 mm but eminently usable, helped in no small part by real left/right click buttons. There are four of them in fact, one pair both above and below the actual pad, and with their smooth and positive pistonic action, mouse-click interaction is more joy than jolt.
For Windows laptop users wedded to the old trackpoint system, HP thoughtfully fits one of the little rubber-tipped nipple steerers (branded TouchStyk by Synaptics). It’s sited between the cluster of G, H and B keys. Although it’s not our preferred way of skating around the desktop, we found this worked well in combination with the upper click buttons.
The main processor is a 5th-generation Intel Core i7, from early 2015’s Broadwell collection rather than the Skylake series that launched toward the end of last year. Broadwell was the first CPU series to receive the cutting-edge 14 nm process treatment, so should perform as fast as the previous Haswell chips while potentially consuming a little less power.
Despite the impressive-sounding Core i7 name, this is a dual-core processor more limited in performance than the quad-cores usually found in workstation notebooks, likely selected for its reduced heat output and power load. Intel specifies it with a nominal total design power (TDP) of 15 W; compare this with the mobile quad-core chips which can deliver twice the performance but with a commensurate power consumption up to around 35 W. They require more battery energy to keep going, followed by more heatpipes and fans to dissipate waste heat.
This Core i7-5600U has a baseline clock speed of 2.6 GHz which can rise to 3.2 GHz in short bursts using Turbo Boost technology as the OS or programs demand. Tucked inside is an integrated graphics chipset, Intel HD Graphics 5500, which drives the display until a graphics application or game is launched at which point the discrete AMD graphic processor takes over.
Unlike the latest Skylake chips which can accept new DDR4 RAM, this Broadwell chip relies on familiar DDR3 SO-DIMM memory, low-power modules clocked at 1600 MHz. Two memory card slots were ready filled on our sample with 8 GB 1600 MHz DDR3 in each, for a total of 16 GB.
Discrete graphics from AMD are branded FirePro in line with the professional cards found in desktop workstations, although given space and power constraints the relatively humble FirePro M4150 specified here is fairly modest in its capability.
The M4150 is not listed as part of AMD’s usual line-up so may be a custom part for HP, likely somewhere between the M4100 and M5100. Indeed, this M4150 seems to run at 715 MHz – compare this to the latter two GPUs clocked at 670 and 775 MHz respectively. It includes 1024 MB of GDDR5 video memory.
Ins and Outs
There’s a good selection of ports included around the ZBook 14 that should satisfy most if not quite all users. These are ranged across the left and right sides only, so there will be no blind fumbling at the back nor lifting the front to slip in SD cards.
Four USB 3.0, two on each side, is a welcome layout. There are two video outputs for connecting to an external display or projector — old-school VGA D-Sub on the left side, and modern DisplayPort (full-size) on the right. This DP port should be good for up to 4K UHD (3840 x 2160 pixel) resolution at up to 60 Hz.
Conspicuous by its absence is Thunderbolt, the high-speed port developed by Apple and Intel and now finding its way onto recent Windows workstations. Its full-duplex 20 Gb/s specification in v2 form makes it attractive to pro users that need massive bandwidth for data processing and rendering.
Corporate users sometimes require additional two-factor security, available here through a smart-card slot embedded into the left side. Other features include a Kensington slot for physical security (a valuable asset, sometimes absent on otherwise respectable notebooks such as the MacBook line), 3.5 mm headset jack, gigabit ethernet (complete with trapdoor and activity LED), and a general-purpose dock slot proprietary to HP. We’ve met this side dock before on EliteBook ultraportable notebooks, which slip in a dongle to break out VGA and ethernet through this detachable connector.
Servicing and upgrades will be a relative breeze, thanks to a removable bottom plate that slides off to reveal the internals. There’s a single cooling fan which draws in air through grilles in the bottom and vents hot air through the left-hand side vent.
For storage, this sample included a decent 512 GB SSD, albeit an older 2.5-inch SATA Revision 3.0 type. This SanDisk X210 is a high-quality SSD but a little behind the curve that now sees direct PCIe-attached flash drives. You can go this route if you prefer with the ZBook 14, either at time of purchase (HP calls it a Turbo Drive) or by fitting one in the available M.2 slot later. There’s enough space here for an SSD up to 2280 size.
Besides the gigabit ethernet port there is of course an internal WLAN card, here an Intel Wireless-AC 7265, which can take on the current 11ac standard and uses up to two spatial streams. This means a theoretical maximum wireless sync speed of 867 Mb/s; or around 400 Mb/s of real-world data transfer in best conditions.
Bluetooth 4.0 is present for short-range data and peripheral connection, and road warriors can optionally specify an LTE 4G internal modem.
Focusing on the raw performance of the CPU and memory, the ZBook 14 scored 3354 points in the Geekbench 3 single-core test, and 6872 points in multi-core mode, where the dual-core processor with Hyper Threading Technology enables four virtual processors.
Cinebench 15 meanwhile returned figures of 117 points using one core, and 311 points using all cores.
These figures are very close to the 15-inch ZBook 15u G2, which also uses a dual-core processor, the 2.6 GHz Intel Core i7-5600U. It scored points 3281 and 6862 points respectively in Geekbench, and 131 and 309 points in Cinebench 15.
If we compare results from both these benchmark tests to the next model up HP’s ZBook range, the chunkier non-‘u’ ZBook 15 G2 with its quad-core 2.5 GHz Intel Core i7-4710MQ processor, we can see how four physical cores (here juggling eight threads) dramatically improves performance.
The latter 15-inch notebook scored 3472 and 12,914 points respectively in its Geekbench test, while Cinebench 15 scores of 137 and 655 points mirrored this quad-core advantage. This clearly shows that while a single-threaded process achieves roughly the same result, the quad-core chip can provide nigh-on twice the benchmark score in multi-core tests.
Turning to the Futuremark PCMark 8 system test, the ZBook 14 G2 scored 2804 points in the standard Home test, rising to 3444 points when leveraging OpenCL acceleration from the GPU. Again these results are close to the performance of the ZBook 15u G2 with its Haswell processor, which scored 2937 and 3631 points in the same tests.
Using the Work module of PCMark 8, the 14-inch scored 3077 and 4578 points (conventional and accelerated), while the slim 15-inch came in with 3108 and 4489 points. It’s worth noting that the ZBook 15 and ZBook 15u both use faster storage too, in the form of SanDisk PCIe SSDs, which should benefit an all-round system test like PCMark.
The AMD FirePro M4150 is engaged for graphics-heavy applications, and we tested its mettle in Cinebench 15, where it could render the given car chase scene at 36.9 fps. That’s not too far behind the ZBook 15u G2 with its M4170 graphics, which averaged 40.8 fps in this scene.
How about the competition from Apple, for example? Here the current 13-inch MacBook Pro (Early 2015) with integrated Iris Graphics 6100 in its dual-core 2.7 GHz Intel Core i5-5257U processor could muster 28.9 fps. So while AMD’s little FirePro M4150 GPU may be limited in scope, it can still reach beyond one of the best integrated graphics solutions available.
Turn to the 15-inch MacBook Pro, and there’s a choice of models with either solely Iris Pro Graphics 5200, or with additional switching AMD Radeon R9 370X discrete graphics. The Iris Pro-only MacBook played the scene at 31.0 fps, while the highly capable AMD Radeon solution allowed framerates to reach a heady average of 62.5 fps.
Graphics for Games
Returning to the ZBook 14, we ran some games tests to get an idea of its graphics performance. While we wouldn’t imagine anyone buying this mobile workstation for gaming alone, such a notebook could be pressed into service in games development.
We were initially surprised to find problems with gameplay at native 1920 x 1080 resolution using recent action games. Some would play well, such as Batman: Arkham City which zipped along at 64 fps with High detail, albeit at 1366 x 768 pixels. Raising res to full-HD, the result was still playable with 35 fps motion. By reducing detail to Medium, we hit 43 fps.
Yet we also found that Tomb Raider (2013) could maintain a 31 fps average only after dropping to 1366 x 768 pixels, and that at Normal detail setting. Raised to High detail, framerates fell to 27 fps, with a minima sub-20 dip at 19.4 fps.
We’ve seen (slightly) better results from integrated graphics: for example the Intel HD Graphics 520 in the new Skylake mobile chips, which let an Asus Zenbook with 2.5 GHz Intel Core i7-6500U hit 30 fps in full-HD and Low detail, where the ZBook 14 G2 here averaged only 28 fps.
Further investigation revealed that for unknown reasons the ZBook may have been relying on Intel graphics here. A retest let it reach up to 65 fps in Tomb Raider at native screen resolution and Low detail; and 34 fps with detail raised to Normal.
So with care Windows gaming is possible, even if it’s more likely only as a diversion from the real work.
HP offers a choice of three different displays for the ZBook 14 G2, depending on your needs and budget. Confusingly, these are referred to in HP’s inimitable jargon as: ’14″ diagonal LED-backlit HD+ SVA eDP anti-glare (1600 x 900); 14″ diagonal LED-backlit FHD UWVA IPS eDP anti-glare + PSR (1920 x 1080); 14″ diagonal LED-backlit FHD UWVA IPS eDP anti-glare + PSR + touch (1920 x 1080)’.
Unravelling this, the choice is simply between a cheap twisted-nematic (TN) panel of 1600 x 900 pixel resolution, with matt anti-glare finish (and potentially poor colour gamut and restricted viewing angles); or a matt IPS panel with 1920 x 1080 resolution; or the same resolution IPS panel but with a touch-sensitive overlay for touchscreen use.
Both the latter screens also feature panel self-refresh (PSR), a technique which can reduce power consumption by intelligently reducing the frequency of screen refreshes (typically at 60 Hz) when displaying static images.
The sample of ZBook 14 G2 loaned for testing featured the ‘top’ touchscreen display. It’s a decisive topic, but we don’t find these of any tangible benefit on regular consumer laptops, and on a mobile workstation are even more of a useless gimmick for hands-on (keyboard and trackpad) users that only add weight, cost and further reduce battery life.
Worse, despite HP’s ‘anti-glare’ billing for this screen, it is in fact fronted by what appears to be untreated aluminosilicate glass with a high-gloss finish. The actual TFT panel can be seen to lie several millimetres below. This reflective double-glazed panel gives us a needlessly lousy viewing experience whether under normal daylight or indoor lighting.
Touchscreen technology means you can reach out and prod a wobbling display, even while professional software and Windows itself is poorly or totally unnavigable by touch, whether you’re running Windows 7 as here or with versions 8 or 10.
Behind the perverse touch panel, there’s a good screen waiting to get out. It’s a 14.0-inch AU Optronics AUO133D panel using in-plane switching (IPS) technology with 1920 x 1080-pixel resolution It’s backlit by white LED and seemingly without using the deleterious low-frequency PWM switching technique to control brightness that HP employs on its cheap consumer laptops.
Colour gamut reached 98 % sRGB, and 73 % of Adobe RGB, decent figures in line with good IPS displays fitted to today’s notebooks. Contrast ratio was around 800:1, with a maximum of 840:1 recorded at full screen brightness. Accuracy of colour was held well, with a Delta E average of just 1.14.
The cheapest variants of the ZBook 14 G2 are blessed only with a basic 2.5-inch SATA hard disk, 500 or 1000 GB, and despite the 7200 rpm spindle speed they are liable to leave the machine feeling somewhat underpowered. Like the 15-inch ZBooks, there’s also a slot offered for a PCIe-attached M.2 flash drive (‘HP Z Turbo Drive’), although our generally high-spec sample was instead fitted with a 512 GB SATA Revision 3.0 SSD, using the available 2.5-inch slot.
This SanDisk X210 proved to be reasonably speedy in simple testing with CrystalDiskMark (v5.1), reaching up to 429 MB/s sequential reads and 402 MB/s sequential writes. Maximum input/output operations per second were recorded with 4 kB random reads at queue-depth of 32, namely 85,000 IOPS. Random writes reached 57,000 IOPS.
To test battery life, the ZBook 14 G2 was set to loop play a reference HD MPEG-4 video, streaming through the local network over Wi-Fi. Screen was calibrated to 120 cd/m^2 brightness and set not to switch off or dim.
Under these conditions the laptop’s 50 Wh lithium battery allowed continued operation for 7 hour 05 minutes. That’s not a bad runtime, approaching a working day, even if a professional’s day would likely entail something more taxing than running a video that barely envokes the main processor.
For comparison, the ZBook 15u G2 lasted nearly as long (6 hour 14 min) in this test, while the old-school 2.9 kg and 30 mm-thick ZBook 15 G2 with its AMD FirePro M5100 survived only 2 hour 39 min.
If you need the same kind of performance as the ZBook but with real staying power, you’ll need to turn to the MacBook Pro. Under the same test conditions the MacBook Pro (Retina, 15-inch, Mid 2015) lasted 8 hour 58 min in its 2.5 GHz/AMD Radeon guise; the current 13-inch model at time of writing lasted a staggering 17 hour 5 min from a 74.9 Wh battery.
The HP ZBook 14 G2 is priced from £765.60 inc VAT with 1600 x 900-pixel anti-glare TN display, 500 GB HDD and 4 GB of memory.
For £962.40 you can get it with full-HD anti-glare screen, 1 TB HDD and 8 GB RAM; or £1106.40 buys you the 1600 x 900 anti-glare screen, 256 GB PCIe SSD and 8 GB RAM.
The touchscreen adds an additional £156.23 inc VAT. Our suggested model for best performance, comfort and performance would take the matt full-HD screen, 256 GB PCIe SSD and 8 GB memory for a price of £1866.80, with a later memory upgrade to 16 GB outside of the HP online shop’s £133 price for an additional 8 GB card.
The 100 Words or Less
Superlative solid build quality, appropriate fast components and high-quality fittings mark out the ZBook 14 G2 as a laptop far removed from £500 consumer fodder, and while this example costs £2351 you can find a better proposition without touchscreen for well under £2000. The 15-inch MacBook Pro is the same weight, slimmer and offers much improved performance, battery life and screen quality. But if you need the corporate security features and spill-proof keyboard, or need to swap and upgrade internals at will, this Windows mobile workstation comes well provisioned.
Specification as tested:
14.0-inch (1920 x 1080) 157 ppi IPS gloss touchscreen (AU Optronics AUO133D); 2.6 GHz Intel Core i7-5600U (3.2 GHz Turbo) 2C, 4T, 15 W; Windows 7 Professional; AMD FirePro M4150 with 1 GB GDDR5 + Intel HD Graphics 5500; 16 GB 1600 MHz DDR3L RAM; 512 GB 2.5in SATA SSD (SanDisk X210, aka SD6SB2M-512G-100); gigabit ethernet; 802.11a/b/g/n/ac 2×2 MIMO (Intel Wireless-AC 7265); Bluetooth 4.0; optional 4G LTE modem; 4x USB 3.0; DisplayPort 1.2, VGA; fingerprint reader; NFC; SDXC card slot, smart-card slot; stereo speakers; 0.9 Mp webcam; dual mic array; 3.5 mm headset jack; US tiled keyboard, spill resistant; 92 x 54 mm, four-button trackpad + keyboard trackpoint; 50 Wh lithium-ion battery; 65 W mains adaptor with IEC C6 inlet; 339 x 237 x 24.8 mm; 1954 g