If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. That advice might work for most things, but in the world of digital media, the status quo is constantly shifting. There’s always another track, effect or plug-in that you would like to add to the mix, even though you’re already pushing the limits of your processor and graphics card. And if you’re working on a mobile workstation, good luck having it duplicate your desktop workflow without overheating the unit or draining the battery.
That’s why we eagerly await each new generation of processors and graphics cards. There’s always the hope that the improvements in speed and capabilities will be directly applicable to your work. Plus, it’s a chance to grab the extra goodies that manufacturers throw in to entice us to trade-up our systems for a shiny new toy.
Following Intel’s introduction of its seventh-generation Core and Xeon mobile processors, HP has upgraded its ZBook mobile workstations to a fourth-generation (G4) series that takes advantage of the latest hardware advances from Intel and NVIDIA. Accordingly, the ZBook Studio G3 that I reviewed last year has been upgraded to the ZBook Studio G4.
The Studio G4 sits in the middle position of HP’s current ZBook lineup. If you need a ZBook that’s thinner and less expensive, you might gravitate to the HP ZBook 14u or HP ZBook 15u. If you need a ZBook that’s more powerful and expandable, you might shift to the HP ZBook 15 or HP ZBook 17. For many, the ZBook Studio G4 will be the Goldilocks choice. It’s not too heavy, but it’s still quite powerful. And it’s the lightest (4.6 pounds) and least-expensive ZBook that offers a DreamColor UHD (3840×2160) display option.
A Bump Up in Speed
If you’re expecting a massive increase in CPU and GPU performance for the ZBook Studio G4 over the G3 version, you may be disappointed. The new Intel Core and Xeon mobile processors are faster, but not significantly faster, than the previous-generation processors. For example, the seventh-generation Core i7-7500U processor is roughly 12 percent faster in raw speed tests than the sixth-generation Core i7-6500U processor. The actual increase in processor performance depends on the type of work you do.
You might see a somewhat stronger increase in speed from the new GPU. The Nvidia Quadro M1200 in the Studio G4 is noticeably — but not dramatically — faster than the previous-generation Nvidia Quadro M1o00 in the Studio G3. The M1200 has 640 CUDA parallel processor cores versus the 512 CUDA parallel processor cores in the M1000. It also has 4 GB of GDDR5 memory, where the M1000 had 2 GB of GDDR5 memory in its standard configuration, with 4 GB being the step-up option.
That’s not to say there aren’t other improvements in the ZBook Studio G4. However, for this iteration, there are only incremental advances in CPU and GPU speeds over last year’s model.
So what’s new with the ZBook Studio? One key improvement is a substantial increase in battery life. Where the ZBook Studio G3 had a four-cell 64 watt-hour battery, the ZBook Studio G4 adds an option for an eight-cell 92.4 watt-hour battery. That’s a 43.7-percent increase in watt-hours. How did HP manage to fit a larger battery into the same space? If you go with the 92.4 watt-hour battery, you’ll have only one storage slot versus the two slots that you’ll have if you go with the 64 watt-hour battery. And you can swap out the batteries, if you decide to buy both. If you need two TB of storage on a daily basis, you might install the smaller battery to leave room for both storage slots. But when you’re traveling, you might swap out one of the drives for the larger battery.
HP uses MobileMark 14 as its battery-life benchmark for the ZBook product line. Using that benchmark, the ZBook Studio G3 scored 11 hours of battery live with its 64 watt-hour battery. Using that same benchmark, the ZBook Studio G4 with the 92.4 watt-hour battery got 16 hours of battery life.
MobileMark 14 is a broad-use measurement of battery life. It would be more of a best-case scenario for a typical mobile workstation. A better test for StudioDaily readers might be a video playback benchmark. For the ZBook Studio G3 review, 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. I did the same test with the ZBook Studio G4 equipped with the larger 92.4 watt-hour battery, and the battery lasted 7 hours and 57 minutes before the system shut down.
It’s worth pointing out that the 80-percent brightness level on the ZBook Studio G4 is less bright than on some completing laptops. You probably wouldn’t want to set the brightness level too much lower. HP didn’t include a 64 watt-hour battery with the review unit, so I wasn’t able to test it when configured with the smaller battery.
There’s also good news with battery charging. All the G4 series ZBooks now support HP’s FastCharge feature that lets you charge the battery from 0 to 50 percent in just 30 minutes. If you find that the battery is depleted by lunchtime, you could recharge it during your lunch break and possibly have enough juice left to make it to the end of the day. And if you’re worried that constant charging and recharging will force you to replace the battery prematurely, you may be comforted by the news that the ZBook Studio batteries now have a three-year warranty as a standard feature.
In addition, HP has enhanced the level of security for all the G4 series ZBooks. The ZBook Studio G4 ships with HP’s SureStart Gen3, which provides BIOS-level protection from outside the operating system. Before the OS loads, the system checks the BIOS for any unauthorized changes. And it continues to monitor the runtime memory from outside the OS, even after the OS has loaded. HP claims that this is the industry’s “first and only self-healing BIOS with real-time intrusion detection.”
You might think that this wouldn’t be relevant if you’re a freelancer or part of a small production team. Isn’t this something that only happens to Sony, HBO, or other high-profile big media companies? Not necessarily. As Microsoft, Apple, and the anti-virus/anti-malware vendors plug holes on the software side, hackers are increasingly looking for ways to attack the hardware from outside the OS.
A Glorious Display
One of the best reasons to purchase the ZBook Studio G4 is to have a UHD DreamColor display in a sub-five-pound laptop. With the improved battery life, that’s a terrific combination. While the screen doesn’t have the full 1.9:1 aspect ratio and 4096×2160 resolution of the DCI 4K standard, it does conform with the 1.78:1 aspect ratio and 3840×2160 resolution of the UHD-1 standard typically associated with televisions and computer-based monitors.
There could be some design issues with trying to cram a 1.9:1 aspect ratio 4K screen into a 4.6-pound laptop. Either the laptop would need to be wider than usual, or the screen would need to be less tall than usual (with smaller pixels) to fit into a standard form factor.
The UHD DreamColor display is a carryover from the ZBook Studio G3. Given that it already supported more than a billion colors and 92 percent of the DCI-P3 color gamut, there was no reason for HP to upgrade the display for the G4 model. As a point of reference, HP’s 27-inch desktop DreamColor monitor (the HP DreamColor Z27x) covers a larger 98.8 percent of the DCI-P3 color gamut. That said, the desktop version isn’t portable, and it doesn’t run on batteries.
If you order the ZBook Studio G4 online, you’ll see four display options: two UHD displays (3840×2160: one DreamColor and one non-DreamColor) and two HD displays (1920×1080: one touch and one non-touch). The two UHD displays are identical hardware-wise. The DreamColor version is given an extra calibration step in the manufacturing process. And it includes the DreamColor system software that lets you select different color gamuts, as well as create and save your own color gamut presets.
The review unit I received had the non-DreamColor UHD display, so I was not able to try out the color gamut software. I was told by an HP product manager that you’ll be able to download the DreamColor system software, even if you didn’t originally choose the DreamColor version. At press time, there was only a $50 difference between the two UHD display options. Given the small difference in price, it may be worth it just to have the screen calibrated before it ships, especially if you need to have the same color performance from system to system.
Even though the display wasn’t calibrated before it was sent out for this review, I can attest to the fact that it’s the best display that I’ve seen on a mobile workstation. The colors were rich without being overly saturated. The contrast levels were smooth and realistic. I ran HD versions of the movies Vertigo and Touch of Evil on the unit, as well as some 4K video clips, and everything looked terrific, with pleasingly sharp images and smooth, flicker-free motion.
The UHD display on the ZBook Studio G4 may be physically capable of supporting the HDR spec in some 4K content, but that can’t happen unless the Nvidia Quadro M1200 also supports HDR. And Windows 10 would have to facilitate passing the HDR data across the laptop’s components. So I asked an HP representative: Does the ZBook Studio G4 support the HDR standard associated with 4K content? The answer is no. It looks like we may not be at the point just yet where we can view HDR 4K video on a thin and light mobile workstation.
Though the ZBook Studio G4 is only 18mm thick, it has a fairly generous assortment of ports and connectors. There are two Thunderbolt 3 ports on the right side of the unit that support DP 1.2, USB 3.1 Gen 2, and PCIe. The Thunderbolt ports are compatible with the new USB-C connector. Both sides of the unit have USB 3.0 connectors (one of them can charge a device even when the laptop is switched off). There’s an HDMI 1.4 port and audio-in/audio-out connector on the right side. And there’s an SD UHS-II flash media slot, Ethernet port, and security lock slot on the left side.
The chassis is machined out of lightweight aluminum and feels sturdy enough. There are no ports or connectors on the back, which allows the hinge to swing the screen open to an almost horizontal position. Bang & Olufsen speakers are mounted on either side of the keyboard. They sound pretty good for built-in speakers, even at full volume. The speakers and audio amplifier are definitely a cut above what you’ll find on a consumer-grade laptop.
The Studio G4 uses an Intel Dual Band Wireless-AC 8265 adapter to support 2×2 11ac Wi-Fi speeds up to 867 Mbps. It also supports Bluetooth 4.2. Unfortunately, it doesn’t support Bluetooth 5.0, which is twice as fast and has four times the range. And there’s no provision for adding an internal WWAN card to the Studio G4. If you need a cellular connection, you’ll have to go with an external device.
Since you may find yourself giving impromptu presentations on your mobile workstation, it’s worth pointing out that the UHD display has an anti-glare finish. That can be a real advantage when you’re in an airplane seat or on location, where you may not be able to control the light or reposition yourself. Some may prefer a glossy screen for blacker blacks and a more vivid presentation. This display did show some glare, though it was diffuse and relatively easy to manage.
While the look of the unit is essentially unchanged from the G3 iteration, HP has altered the bottom of the chassis to allow for better airflow and heat dissipation. Like the Studio G3, the Studio G4 has two internal fans. One keeps the CPU cool. The other keeps the GPU cool. In theory, the improved design of the bottom panel should make the G4 a little quieter than the G3. In practice, you’ll find that the fans run much of time, but at a relatively low volume.
According to HP, the ZBooks are configured to keep the average temperature of the system quite low. That’s because it’s not unusual for a mobile workstation to go from a 10-percent performance level, where the fans may not be necessary, to a 100-percent performance level—in just a matter of seconds. By keeping the core temperature cooler than is actually needed, there’s less of a system spike when you go from browsing a static webpage to editing an effects-heavy video project.
Even when throwing a heavy workload at the ZBook Studio G4, the fans never became loud or irritating. When ramped up, the tone of the fans wasn’t high-pitched or squealing, as you might experience with some earlier mobile workstations. There are limits, of course, as to how far you can expect to push a mobile workstation without having the chassis become unusually warm or the fans begin to warble like a bad opera singer.
To see how much faster the ZBook Studio G4 might be compared with the ZBook Studio G3, I ran the same benchmark program on the newer machine. On the OpenGL test using the 64-bit version of Maxon Cinebench 11.5, the Studio G4 turned in an impressive score of 109.40 fps. That handily beat the 88.46 fps from last year’s Studio G3. And it’s very close to the 112.43 fps from the HP Z840 desktop workstation that I reviewed almost three years ago.
On the Cinebench CPU benchmark, the Studio G4 scored 8.05 points versus the 6.96 points from the Studio G3. That’s a tangible difference, though probably not enough to convince most G3 owners to upgrade to the G4. This benchmark also helps to put into perspective the significant processor differences between desktop and mobile workstations. The HP Z840 desktop workstation far surpassed the two mobile workstations with its score of 23.46 points.
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 most recent 64-bit version of Cinebench (15.038), the Studio G4 scored 82.31 fps on the Open GL test and 730 cb on the CPU test. [You can see the full configuration tested under “What it Costs” near the bottom of the sidebar at top right. -Ed.]
No mobile workstation will be able to duplicate the processor speed, graphics power, display performance, or storage capacity of a fully equipped desktop workstation. What HP has done with the ZBook Studio G4 is to cram as much as possible into a thin 4.6-pound frame.
While the modest increase in CPU and GPU speeds will be welcome for those who waited to upgrade an older mobile workstation, the big jump in battery life may be the most valuable improvement for on-the-go content creators. And all that mobile goodness routed through a DreamColor UHD display may be too tempting to pass up.