HP’s ZBook Studio G3

Posted by Alex Herrera on June 13th 2016 | Discuss
Categories: Hardware Review,
Tags: intel workstation hp

As 2015 came to a close, HP Inc. was busy following on the heels of Intel’s Skylake launch with a broad product refresh of its own, both upgrading and expanding on its line of ZBook mobile workstations. When it did, the company made it clear where it was focusing its new wares: 15.6-inch models. 

In comparison to the 14-inch and 17.3-inch display form factors for mobile workstations, 15.6-inch models have long represented the historical Goldilocks sweet spot—big enough without being cumbersome—and garnered the lion’s share of dollars spent on mobile workstations. So when Skylake rolled out in December, HP unveiled not one or two but three 15.6- inch, third-generation (“G3”) ZBook models: the ZBook 15, ZBook 15u, and ZBook Studio. 

The thin-and-light HP ZBook Studio G3 is the elite offering of the new batch of ZBooks. Both svelte and stylish, its appeal is broad, encompassing a wide range of professionals already using Windows or Linux workstations. But we think HP crafted this machine not just for existing customers but to lure new buyers from a segment the company has identified for some time as ripe for the picking: the media and entertainment community, many of whom are currently on MacBooks and may be contemplating a switch to the Windows platform. In that regard, the ZBook Studio looks like a replacement for HP’s Omen Pro mobile workstation, introduced about a year prior with similar features and form factor. 

As is the norm for virtually any mobile or deskside model, the ZBook Studio comes configurable across a range of build options, allowing buyers to customize levels of performance and features. 

The performance 

Performance is far from the only criterion driving a buyer’s decision on a new mobile workstation. But while it may not be the only priority for all, it’s the top for many, and certainly among the top few considerations for all. Ac-cordingly, the ZBook Studio G3’s datasheet includes top-end configuration options for most performance-critical system components, starting with the CPU. 

Not only does the machine allow for the usual high-end mobile-tuned versions of Intel’s PC-oriented Core i7 brand (6000 series), but for the first time, Xeon as well (E3-1500 v5 series). In a single-socket application like this, Xeon’s advantages are fewer, but there are some benefits; for example, supporting Error Correction Code (ECC) memory on mobiles for the first time—up to 32 GB (DDR4-2133) on the ZBook Studio G3. 

As with most modern thin-and-lights, the ZBook Studio ships with SSD storage exclusively, supporting up to 2.0 TB of HP’s own Z Turbo branded PCIe NVMe storage. PCIe provides the highest performance connectivity to exploit SSD speed, while NVMe is a recent evolution in software interface to maximize SSD latency and throughput. 

For graphics, the ZBook Studio offers a combination of the Xeon’s Gen9 Intel HD P530 integrated graphics sup-port—nice for low-demand applications to extend battery life—and one discrete workstation-caliber GPU to run mission-critical applications: Nvidia’s high-end Quadro M1000M (the “M” suffix indicating “mobile” and the “M” prefix reflecting the GPU’s Maxwell generation technology). 

SPECWPC 1.02 composite scores, normalized to the deskside ZBook Studio G3.

 

HP did manage to enhance the ZBook Studio’s version of the M1000M, working with Nvidia to outfit it with 4 GB of memory, twice the 2 GB of the standard M1000M SKU. (And it is also worth noting that while current Skylake Xeon SKUs like this one max out at the HD P530 GPU, Intel expects to be shipping Xeons later this year with the Iris Pro HD 580 that will, for the first time, expose Intel’s highest performing GPU in workstation applications.) 

SPECWPC 1.02 composite scores/$, normalized to the deskside ZBook Studio G3.

 

Excellent balance of size and performance 

To test and compare workstation performance, we relied on the latest version (2.0) of on SPEC’s SPECwpc. De-signed to be comprehensive, the benchmark incorporates six test suites, one per each of six popular workstation verticals: Media and Entertainment, Product Development, Energy, Life Sciences, Financial Services, and General Operations. The benchmark reports a composite score for each of the six application suites. 

With the exception of the GPU, the ZBook Studio G3 can be configured with the highest performance the silicon industry can offer. Accordingly, we’d expect our review machine to demonstrate a level of performance on par with the best the workstation can offer. And it did, delivering benchmark results near the top of what any mainstream (i.e., non-boutique) mobile workstation can. 

As one means of putting those results into context, we compared the SPECwpc scores with those produced by another mobile workstation we’ve reviewed recently: Lenovo’s 17-inch ThinkPad P70. Now, evaluating a 15- inch mobile that emphasizes a slim profile in the same context as a 17-inch machine that doesn’t is intentionally an apples/oranges comparison. Often, we find contrasting machines of different types is a more revealing exercise than contrasting machines of a similar type. In this case, we get a chance to examine what a buyer gains—and gives up—considering the two primary form factors in mobile workstations: a thin, stealthy 15-inch model and a big, max-capability 17-inch machine. How much does performance suffer for the former in exchange for the superior portability and desirable aesthetics? 

For most, a 15-inch mobile workstation is the default purchase, justifiably outselling 17-inch form factors by typically between two and three to one. Those who opt to pass on the default in favor of a 17-inch machine do so for one or two productivity-driven reasons: higher performance and/or bigger display. The GPU spec is a perfect example of a trade-off a buyer will typically need if pursuing maximum portability in a super-thin 15-inch form factor. Where the ZBook Studio G3’s top-end GPU is the more modest, lower-power Nvidia Quadro M1000M, the 17-inch P70 can be outfitted with a substantially more powerful (and more watt-chewing) Quadro M4000M. 

Sure enough, it’s in the graphics where the P70 shows it can provide a degree more throughput, in exchange for its bulkier form factor (and correspondingly, increased power consumption). In the Viewperf-inspired rendered viewsets (scattered throughout SPECwpc), the P70’s scores are anywhere from about 2X to 4X those of the HP ZBook Studio G3, clearly due to the M4000M’s superiority over the M1000M. 

That, however, marked the only area the much larger P70 outperformed the ZBook Studio G3. Not only was the latter’s measurable CPU performance comparable (no surprise, given they came equipped with the same Xeon SKU), but in some areas the ZBook Studio G3’s advantage in memory and storage performance gave it a notable edge. The source of part of that edge was plain—memory capacity—given the HP machine populated twice the memory: 32 GB to the P70’s 16 GB. But the rest of that noticeable edge appears to have come courtesy of HP’s Z Turbo Drive, which delivered consistently higher numbers on SPECwpc’s preeminent measuring stick for storage I/O: IOMeter. 

All in all, not only did the smaller, lighter, and less expensive ZBook Studio G3 lag only a modest amount (3% to 18%) in the metrics it trailed the P70, but it actually outperformed the P70 slightly (2% to 7%) in three of the six composites. 

Factor in the ZBook Studio G3’s modestly lower price (as configured), and price/performance clearly favors the less expensive machine (as it typically does).
Display and dock: productivity isn’t just about performance: 

All the above features and components add cost and add performance, with contributions to productivity that can be measured (or at least estimated) by tests and benchmarks. However, not every productivity-enhancing feature is so quantifiable. Our ZBook Studio G3’s premium 3840 × 2160 (i.e., “4K UHD”) IPS (in-plane switching) display, for example, adds $300 to the build price (over standard 1920 × 1080) and won’t boost a benchmark number. Still, with the increased precision—and to many, more comfortable ergonomics—it offers obvious value in productivity. In addition, the IPS technology provides excellent viewing angle, particularly in situations where multiple sets of eyes are fixed on the screen in a collaborative session. 

Even better, a ZBook Studio G3 buyer opting for the 4K display never need worry about obsolescence, at least not with respect to resolution. Because at this pixel density, when viewed from anything beyond 12 inches—certainly the norm for most users—the human eye can no longer differentiate individual pixels (precisely the goal of Apple’s Retina brand displays). That is, with 4K on a 15.6-inch screen, there’s no reason to ever upgrade based on increased resolution. 

A perfect use of Thunderbolt for a Windows workstation 

Due to space constraints, I/O ports on a mobile workstation are more limited than on a deskside. For the same reason, implementing a lot of ports on a thin-and-light like the ZBook Studio is even more challenging. On the left are one RJ-45 and two USB 3.0 ports (one for charging), and on the right are two Thunderbolt 3 ports, along with one HDMI 1.4, one USB 3.0, and a combo mic-in/headphone-out mini-jack. 

But with the ZBook Studio G3, the I/O ports on the chassis itself are just the start, because with this machine, the addition of a dock opens the door to a whole range of I/O and expansion options. HP leveraged the machine’s support for Thunderbolt 3—an ultra-high-bandwidth, multi-protocol interface—using it as the interface to the new ZBook Dock, which then links to all those existing Winux-required standard interfaces. With one simple cable, ZBook users can connect to the dock, which then interfaces to up to 10 devices through an array of ports: four USB 3.0, RJ-45, VGA, combo audio, and two DisplayPorts (capable of 4K each), as well as a Thunderbolt 3 port (which can further link to daisy-chained DisplayPort 1.2, USB 3.1 Gen 2, and PCIe devices). 

What do we think? 

An emphasis on visual computing is what will drive some buyers—a minority, granted, but some—to sacrifice the portability of a slim, light, 15.6-inch mobile workstation to go with a bigger, bulkier 17.3-inch model. For hard-core professionals whose workflow depends critically on visual performance and acuity, a more capable GPU and a bigger display both pay dividends. And that’s one area where a high-end 17.3- inch machine like Lenovo’s P70 (as well as HP’s own ZBook 17, for that matter) excels. For that minority of hard-core professionals for whom the visual experience is critical, 17.3-inch will remain the default. 

But while those buyers have valid motives to jump to the 17-inch form factor, they represent the minority. The 15.6-inch mobile workstations dominate the market for a good reason— they blend a sensible and compelling compromise of performance, display size, and form factor. That combination will satisfy the vast majority of mobile workstation needs. And similarly, for that majority interested in a thin-and-light 15.6-inch workstation that can still handle the bulk of workloads, the ZBook Studio represents a compelling choice. 
With its admirable balance of performance, size, functionality, and high-quality display, the ZBook Studio puts itself among the most sought-after mobile workstations. But what puts it over the top, in our view, is the ZBook dock. We love it. It makes compelling use of Thunderbolt 3, and with the combined Thunderbolt 3/power plug, one quick connection is all it takes to have access to multiple desktop screens, and more than enough options to satisfy all but the most demanding I/O requirements. 

Beyond use in traditional, client-side computing, we think the ZBook Studio G3 represents a great option for those that will rely exclusively—or to a substantial agree—on virtual workstations, either those hosted in a private datacenter (à la VDI) or cloud (DaaS). Its form makes it perfect to travel, supports a full desktop experience via the dock, and in those cases requiring traditional client-side computing, the ZBook Studio G3 has the performance to handle the vast majority of tasks—the one exception being the heaviest visually intensive workloads.

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