Near-Desktop-Class Performance in an Ultrabook Form Factor Makes This a Compelling Machine
Choosing a workstation-class notebook computer used to be easy. To get anything approaching desktop performance, you would bite the bullet and accept whatever was available — even if it weighed more than 10 pounds, offered a limited color gamut, and cost more than you would be comfortable admitting. These days, the choice is more complicated. The high-end mobile workstations now weigh less than 10 pounds, offer speeds that match some budget-priced desktop models, and cost considerably less.
Added to the mix of choices is a new generation of mobile workstations that are remarkably portable. They’ve been able to shave off the girth and pounds without seriously compromising performance or battery life. Following that trend to its logical conclusion, HP is now shipping the first quad-core mobile workstation that qualifies as a thin-and-light Ultrabook. It’s the HP ZBook Studio G3, and one of the soon-to-be-available configuration options is a 4K UHD DreamColor display.
Once you get beyond the excitement about just how much performance is available in a 4.4-pound notebook that’s only 18mm high, it’s important to remember that all of the current-generation mobile workstations have dramatically improved. For many, the ZBook Studio will be the ideal balance between performance and mobility. But for those who need a true desktop equivalent, it may not be the best choice. Within HP’s current generation of ZBooks, the HP ZBook 15 G3 and HP ZBook 17 G3 offer better expandability, performance, and battery life. However, both models are larger and heavier than the ZBook Studio.
If you value performance and mobility equally, the ZBook Studio could be a good fit, especially if you’re looking for a system that you can toss into a bag and carry with you just about anywhere. It’s small enough to pass Intel’s Ultrabook certification program, yet it has the same ISV Certifications as the other ZBooks for the usual industry-favored applications from Adobe, Autodesk, and Avid.
Built for Speed
If you look at the specs for the HP ZBook Studio G3, you may be surprised by its high-end configuration options. You can choose a fast Intel Xeon or Core i7 processor and as much as 32 GB of DDR4 system RAM. You also have the option of choosing ECC (error-correcting code) memory as opposed to non-ECC memory. That’s highly unusual for a mobile workstation and could be useful in work environments where reliability is more important than a slight decrease in performance.
The ZBook Studio ships with a special version of the Nvidia Quadro M1000M graphics chipset that includes 4 GB of dedicated GDDR5 memory. The M1000M is available on mobile workstations from other manufacturers, as well as the ZBook 15 G3 and ZBook 17 G3. However, this is the only model that has the 4 GB of onboard memory. All the others have 2 GB.
If you’re upgrading from a previous-generation mobile workstation, the Maxwell-based M1000M should provide a roughly 2x performance boost over the Kepler-based K100M. And, according to HP, the 4 GB version of the M1000M should provide an additional 20% boost in performance over the 2 GB version of the M1000M, depending on the application.
You can configure the ZBook Studio with as much as 2 TB of onboard storage when it’s equipped with dual 1 TB HP Z Turbo Drives. And there are two built-in Thunderbolt 3 ports, which you can use to connect to even more storage. Having two Thunderbolt 3 ports could let you set up separate daisy chains for your storage and display devices.
There are plenty of NVMe storage drives available, so it was good to see that HP is using the Samsung SM950 NVMe SSD. It’s a well-regarded flash memory drive that uses V-NAND technology for faster speeds while demanding less power. For whatever mobile workstation you choose, be sure to dig deep to see which brands and models are available with your purchase. There’s a wide variance in speed and reliability for SSD storage, and manufacturers will often skimp on the storage side, where in many cases only the capacity is listed.
The chassis is just 0.71 inches thick. That thickness is consistent from front to back.
Built for Portability
So how was HP able to cram so much workstation goodness into such a small space? As you would expect, given the 4.4-pound starting weight, there’s no optical bay. If you need an optical drive, you’ll have to attach one externally. HP has also removed the ExpressCard slot, which won’t be missed by most users.
To boost the battery life in relation to the small form factor, HP has moved to a newer and more efficient Prismatic battery technology. The downside of that is you won’t be able to remove the battery from outside the unit. (In theory, you could swap out the internal lithium-ion battery. However, you’ll need to remove the unit’s service door and bottom cover, disconnect the battery cable from the system board, and remove another six retaining screws — just to access the battery.)
There are several other factors that have helped to eke out extra battery life for the ZBook Studio. Moving to Intel’s Skylake processors from the previous-generation Haswell processors reduced the quad-core power consumption from 47 watts to 45 watts. DDR4 memory consumes less power than the previous-generation DDR3 memory. And Windows 10 is better at managing battery power than previous versions of Windows. (Don’t worry, you can still order your ZBook Studio with Window 7 Professional.)
Using the Mobile Mark 2014 battery benchmark, HP rates the ZBook Studio as having 9 hours and 30 minutes of battery life. That compares with 14 hours and 15 minutes for the ZBook 15 G3 and 16 hours and 15 minutes for the ZBook 17 G3. As you would expect, these larger models have larger batteries to draw from.
The weight of the ZBook Studio will vary according to the components you choose. For example, the DreamColor UHD display weighs 345 grams versus 360 grams for the non-touch HD display. However, the variation in component weight isn’t likely to amount to a significant difference. The well-equipped configuration that HP supplied for this review weighed in at 4.7 pounds versus the 4.4-pound starting weight.
Even with its thin and light design, the ZBook Studio felt solid and well-constructed. The exterior has a fine texture on top and a more coarse texture on the bottom, which makes it easier to grip and hold on to. There’s also a rubber-like liner on the bottom that helps keep the unit from sliding off your lap. The trackpad doesn’t have dedicated selection buttons. And there’s no pointing stick embedded into the keyboard. Those can be highly subjective, and may come down to what you’re used to or willing to relearn.
The integrated Bang & Olufsen stereo speakers sound quite good, though the 1 watt audio amp could be stronger. Don’t count on it being adequate for a multi-person presentation unless the surroundings are relatively quiet. The onboard DAC and ADC support 16-, 20-, and 24-bit audio, and the internal audio supports recording up to 96kHz and playback up to 192kHz.
A generous selection of ports and connectors is available on the left and right side of the unit, including RJ-45, HDMI 1.4, a stereo mic in/headphone-out combo jack, and dual Thunderbolt 3 ports. HP says the Type-C Thunderbolt 3 connectors support PCIe Gen 3 x 4, DisplayPort 1.2 and USB 3.1 Gen 2 protocols. There are also three USB 3.0 ports, and one of them supports device charging even when the ZBook Studio is switched off and disconnected from the AC adapter.
For many, the 4K UHD display options will be the most interesting feature for this sub-five-pound mobile workstation. Currently, there are three display options: an HD (1920×1080) UWVA IPS screen, an HD (1920×1080) Touch UWVA IPS screen, and a UHD (3840×2160) UWVA IPS screen.
In May or June, a fourth display option will be available. It’s a DreamColor version of the UHD (3840×2160) UWVA IPS screen. Both of the 4K UHD display options support 100% of the Adobe RGB color gamut. The DreamColor version is color-calibrated at the factory. and it includes the DreamColor Assistant software, which lets you adjust the color space for individual applications. The DreamColor Assistant software also facilitates user color calibration.
Because it wasn’t mentioned in the specifications, I asked HP how much of the DCI-P3 color gamut will be covered by the ZBook Studio’s 4K DreamColor display. The answer I got back was that — when it ships in May or June — they’ll be able to calibrate the screen as it leaves the factory to 92 percent of the DCI-P3 colors. That’s quite a bit less than the 98.8 percent of DCI-P3 coverage with the HP DreamColor Z27x monitor, but then this is a portable 4K screen that can run on batteries. with a mobile workstation attached.
All four 15.6-inch screen options allow for viewing angles up to 85 percent in each direction (left, right, up, and down). That should give you ample flexibility for using the ZBook Studio for ad hoc presentations. The two HD and non-DreamColor UHD displays have a typical brightness rating of 300 nits, while the DreamColor UHD display is rated somewhat higher at 340 nits. There’s a significant difference in the contrast range among the four display options. If you go with either of the HD displays, the contrast range will typically be 600:1. The non-DreamColor UHD will typically be 400:1. And the DreamColor UHD will typically be 1000:1. All four are LED-backlit.
And all four screens have a matte finish to reduce glare, which is pretty much essential for use on an airplane and other fixed-position environments. The non-DreamColor UHD display on the review unit was reasonably bright. In direct sunlight, it did tend to wash out some, though it held up better than the screens that I’ve seen on other mobile workstations.
The ZBook Studio is thin and light enough to pass Intel’s Ultrabook certification program.
The review unit that HP chose to send for this review was loaded for bear. It was equipped with a fast Intel Xeon E3-1505M v5 processor. That’s a quad-core CPU that runs at 2.80 GHz, though it can jump up to 3.70 GHz when using the Intel Turbo Boost Technology.
It’s only one notch below the fastest processor that’s available for this model — the quad-core Intel Xeon E3-1545M v5 that runs at 2.9 GHz (or up to 3.8 GHz when using the Intel Turbo Boost Technology). The two less-expensive CPU options are a quad-core Intel Core i7-6820HQ (2.70 GHz, or 3.60 GHz using the Intel Turbo Boost Technology) and a quad-core Intel Core i7-6700HQ (2.60 GHz, or 3.50 GHz using the Intel Turbo Boost Technology). Keep in mind that the battery life, as well as the price, will be affected by your processor choice.
The review unit included the full 32 GB complement of DDR4 system RAM, the NVIDIA Quadro M1000M graphics chipset (with 4 GB of dedicated of GDDR5), a 512 GB Samsung NVMe PCIe SSD, and the non-DreamColor UHD (3840×2160) screen.
As you might expect from the components, the price for this configuration is on the high-end of the scale—$2,999 at press time. If you’re willing to selectively scale down the components, you could bring the price down as low as $1,899. That configuration would have the non-touch HD display, 8 GB of system RAM, and a 128GB SATA-3 drive, though it would still have the NVIDIA Quadro M1000M graphics chipset.
So how well did the review configuration perform on a standard set of graphics, processor, and task-oriented benchmarks? It did extremely well with the 64-bit version of Cinebench 11.5. On the Open GL test, it racked up an impressive score of 88.46 fps. That handily beat the 41.97 fps from the Dell Precision M3800 mobile workstation that we reviewed nearly two years ago. To be fair to Dell, they also have moved on to the current generation of CPU and GPU components.
A better comparison might be the HP Z840 workstation that we reviewed less than a year and a half ago. This is a no-compromise desktop workstation. It scored a very impressive 112.43 fps on the Open GL benchmark. That a mobile workstation could even be in the same ballpark as a high-end desktop workstation is surprising—and a true testament to how far the mobile graphics chipsets have progressed recently.
On the Cinebench CPU benchmark, the ZBook Studio earned 6.96 points versus 6.31 points for the Dell Precision M3800 and 23.46 points for the HP Z840 workstation. Here you can see that mobile workstations still lag far behind their desktop brethren in raw CPU power.
Cinebench is an excellent benchmark for evaluating graphics rendering. And it’s available for free online. You could run it on your current system to determine how your workstation might compare with this particular ZBook Studio configuration.
With the PCMark Vantage benchmark, the ZBook Studio outperformed the Dell Precision M3800 by a smaller margin. The ZBook Studio’s score of 21,257 is only 8 percent faster than the older M3800’s score of 19,629. This is a more generalized benchmark designed to test a PC’s ability to work with photos, video, and music, as well as tasks related to games, communications, productivity, and security. Because of the general nature of the benchmark, some of the individual tests received only a marginal benefit from the higher clock speed and faster memory. Like Cinebench, PCMark Vantage is available in a free version.
For these benchmarks, the ZBook Studio’s 32 GB of system RAM probably didn’t make that much of a difference, as none of the benchmarks test for the benefits of having large amounts of RAM for unusually large projects.
To test the battery life with video, I played a 1080p video file at full screen (3840×2160) with an 80-percent brightness level. The battery lasted 4 hours and 2 minutes before the system shut down. That compares with 4 hours and 22 minutes for the previous-generation Dell Precision M3800. It’s worth noting here that the M3800 had a nine-cell (91 watt-hour) battery, while the ZBook Studio has a four-cell (64 watt-hour) battery.
The ZBook Studio, particularly in this performance-oriented configuration, isn’t likely to give you the same kind of battery life that’s associated with larger or slower notebooks—whether they’re workstation-class or consumer-based. Even with its many battery-optimizing features, there’s a price to paid for shoehorning quad-core performance into an UltraBook size and weight.
Along the right side of the ZBook Studio, you’ll find two Thunderbolt 3 ports, as well as an HDMI 1.4 connector.
With the ZBook Studio, HP has paired an impressive array of high-end components with an unusually thin and light form factor. Unless you’re editing multiple 4K video tracks or piling real-time effects into a mix, it may be all you’ll need for on-the-go processing. If you need more power, you could consider a larger mobile workstation, but given the options that are available for this model, that larger mobile workstation may not be significantly faster.
You could argue that a 15.6-inch UHD screen, even if it meets the DreamColor standards for color and contrast, is too small for judging critical detail in 4K content. That may depend on how you plan to use your mobile workstation and how crucial your judgements would need to be when you’re away from your desktop workstation and full-size monitor.
If you’re in doubt, you may not want to test-drive the ZBook Studio anytime soon. The combination of performance and portability may be too hard to resist, even if it isn’t an exact fit for your current workflow.