A true workstation with all of its vital components built into the monitor—minus the noise

There are three constants in life—death, taxes, and oversized workstations. Why are workstations so large? They need breathing space for their powerful components, which could overheat if they aren’t cooled properly. As a result, no one had successfully designed an all-in-one workstation. Apart from squeezing everything into what is essentially the back of a monitor, there’s this vexing problem of how to disperse the heat. If the components are just inches from your face, you would have to listen to the constant whirring of fans.

Apparently HP can’t take no for an answer, because it has introduced the first (and so far, only) workstation in an all-in-one form factor—the HP Z1 Workstation. You probably have the same questions I had when I heard the announcement. Is it a true professional-quality workstation and not just another computer similar to Apple's 27-inch iMac? Was HP able to solve the technical issues regarding heat and noise? And should you consider buying one, even if you have sufficient room for a minitower workstation? The quick answers are yes, yes, and it depends. Even if you think you’re not in the market for an all-in-one, you may be surprised by the different applications that are opened up by a transportable workstation.

All in the Chips

You only have to look at the specs to see that the Z1 can be configured as a true workstation. The three processor options are the Intel Core i3-2120, Intel Xeon E3-1245, and Intel Xeon E3-1280. The high-end E3-1280 runs at 3.5GHz and includes an 8MB cache. It also has 4 cores and can support 8 threads at a time. The graphics selection is even broader. You could use the onboard graphics with either the Core i3-2120 or Xeon E3-1245, which might be fine if your needs are strictly for number crunching. Otherwise, you’ll be looking at a choice of four NVIDIA Quadro graphics chipsets: the Q500M, Q1000M, Q3000M, or Q4000M. NVIDIA worked with HP to develop a new MXM module to house the graphics chipset. The module provides its own cooling system.

The NVIDIA chipsets are mobile-based, rather than desktop-based. If you’re concerned that a mobile-based graphics chipset might be compromised somehow, you may want to skip below to the benchmark scores. HP configured the Z1 review unit with the most powerful processor and graphics options (the E3-1280 and Q4000M). As you can see from the benchmarks, the Z1 is no slouch.

Dreamy Display

An important advantage for this system is its 30-bit (10-bit per color) display. The Z1 uses the same LED-backlit IPS panel that’s built into HP’s ZR2740w 27-inch DreamColor monitor. This would be an excellent panel for critical-color applications, as it has a 2560×1440-pixel resolution with support for as many as 1.07 billion colors. The Z1 display lacks the DreamColor’s algorithms that extend the color palette. And the Z1 display doesn’t have the DreamColor’s built-in color calibration (you’ll need to use an external sensor). Like the DreamColor displays, the Z1’s display surface is glossy rather than matte. A glossy surface can benefit video presentations (increasing the contrast range and color saturation), but the screen may be more difficult to work with if your location is prone to glare.

The Z1’s built-in speakers are better than you would expect from an all-in-one. They don’t sound tinny or underpowered. As a result, you may not need to attach powered speakers if you’re editing on location. The two dual-cone speakers are forward-facing, as opposed to the typical downward-facing speakers found in consumer all-in-one desktops. That could be a significant plus if you use your Z1 as a transportable editing system.

Design Challenges

All the components are user serviceable. As with HP’s other workstations, you can easily replace any sub-system, including the power supply, without the use of tools. Given the space limitations, that must have been one of the most challenging design issues. HP not only had to fit in everything, they allowed extra room for non-technical users to slide the components in and out of the chassis.

As previously mentioned, another design challenge was system noise. If you collapse the unit back into its stand and lift up the top section, you can see the six fans that independently cool the system. The fans are larger than you’ll find in a conventional workstation. Large fans can turn more slowly, and therefore more quietly, while moving the same volume of air. Nine temperature sensors are spread throughout the system to help regulate the use of the fans.

Even when running intensive graphics applications, such as Adobe Premiere Pro CS6 and Adobe After Effects CS6, I found it difficult to hear the fan noise, unless I moved my ear within several inches of the back of the unit. And this is with a Z1 equipped with the top processor and graphics chipset. I don’t have a way to precisely measure audio levels, but an HP representative told me that the dB level for the Z1 is likely to range from the high teens to the low twenties, depending on the hardware configuration and workload. Similarly, I felt no extreme heat emanating from the back of the Z1. It was warm to the touch, but well within acceptable limits.

You can order the Z1 with either one 3.5-inch hard drive or two 2.5-inch hard drives, for up to 2TB of storage. HP has cleverly designed the shared drive space to work with either size. The four memory slots can handle as much as 32GB of RAM. The slots can accept either ECC (Error Correction Code) memory or less-expensive non-ECC memory. You can also choose to include either a DVD or Blu-ray writer—both slot-loading. I did find it a bit awkward to load discs from the side of the display.

The Z1 comes equipped to connect with a wide variety of devices. That’s good, because you won’t be able to add any expansion cards, apart from the MXM graphics module and three internal mini-PCIe slots. On the sides of the unit, you’ll find microphone and headphone jacks, as well as two USB 3.0 ports, a 1394a connector, and a 4-in-1 media card reader. On the back, HP has supplied DisplayPort In/Out, audio line in/line out, S/PDIF, and subwoofer connections, as well as a fast gigabit LAN and four USB 2.0 ports.

Speedy Benchmarks

As you would expect from the review unit’s Intel Xeon E3-1280 processor, NVIDIA Q4000M chipset, and 16GB of RAM, the Z1 performed very well on industry standard benchmarks. With the 64-bit version of Cinebench 11.5, the Z1 scored an impressive 58.37 fps on the Open GL test. The CPU scored 6.99 points overall with a single core rating of 1.57 points. Cinebench is a good benchmark for evaluating graphics rendering. It’s available for free online, so you could run it on your current system to determine how your system might compare with the Z1. Visit cbscores.com to see how the Z1 scores (or your own scores) stack up against other systems.

The PCMark Vantage benchmark uses a more comprehensive series of tests to evaluate a PC’s ability to work with photos, video, and music, as well as with tasks related to games, communications, productivity, and security. The overall score for the Z1 was 18,503, which is an excellent score for a media-configured workstation. PCMark Vantage is also available in a free version, so you could see how your current system compares with the Z1 on this benchmark.

In terms of performance within the current HP lineup, the Z1 is roughly equivalent to the HP Z210 minitower workstation. If you need a more powerful processor (such as the Xeon E5-1600 or Xeon E5-2600) or a faster graphics chipset (such as NVIDIA’s Quadro 5000 or Quadro 6000), you may be better off with the new HP Z420, HP Z620, or HP Z820 workstations. These are traditional tower workstations and would perform even better—assuming you have the physical space and available cash to equip them with more costly components.

If the Shoe Fits

So who should be lining up to buy a Z1? One key group would be engineers and media creators who work in cramped spaces. At 23.0 inches high, 26.0 inches wide, and 16.5 inches deep, the Z1 is essentially the same size as a 27-inch monitor. The Z1 ships with a wireless keyboard and mouse, so you could start working with it just by plugging in the power cord. With its sleek and stylish appearance, expect many tech industry CEOs to snap them up, even if they don’t need the power of a true workstation.

Apart from those two obvious groups, there may be video applications that would benefit from a transportable workstation. Because of the ease of set up, it could be a good pick for on-location video editing. The screen is considerably larger than is available with any laptop-based workstation, while the Z1’s weight (47 pounds with the stand or 34 pounds without) is lighter than the combined weight of a tower workstation and 27-inch monitor.

One potential niche might be wedding and event video production. You could perform a quick edit, show the edited video to the gathered group, and start burning the video to disc before the reception or event has ended. You could do this with the HP EliteBook 8740w Mobile Workstation, but you would have to deal with a smaller screen and less powerful components.

Lean and Mean

The Z1 is a highly capable workstation with very few limitations. Prices start at $1,899, though that’s for a configuration without a discrete graphics card. The $5,673 price for the review configuration shows how quickly the Z1 (or any workstation) can soar in price once you start adding in the various high-end components. Most buyers will likely settle for a configuration and price somewhere in between.

As for the limitations, those are less design issues than potential compromises related to the form factor. The glossy screen, for example, could be an problem if you’ll be using the Z1 where you can’t control the reflective light. If you need a massive amount of hard drive space (more than 2TB), you may balk at being limited to only one 3.5-inch or two 2.5-inch hard drives. And you’ll likely encounter fewer upgrade options in the years ahead with the MXM module versus the PCLe slots in a traditional tower workstation.