Review: HP’s zBook 17 G3 mobile workstation

By Brady Betzel

Desktop workstations have long been considered the highest of the high end and the fastest of the fast. From the Windows-driven HP Z820 powerhouse to Apple’s ubiquitous Mac Pro,  multimedia pros, video editors, VFX editors, sound engineers and others are constantly looking for ways to speed up their workflow.

Whether you feel that OS X is more stable than Windows 10, or you love the ability to use Nvidia’s Quadro line of graphics cards, one thing that pros need is a reliable system that can process monster DNxHR, ProRes 4444, even DPX files, and crunch them down to YouTube-sized gems and Twitter-sized GIFs in as little time as possible.

What if you need the ability to render a 4K composition in Adobe After Effects while simultaneously editing in Adobe Premiere on an airplane or train? You have a few options: Dell makes some pretty high-end mobile workstations, and Apple makes an outdated MacBook Pro that might hold up. What other options are there? Well, how about HP’s latest line — the HP zBook Generation 3? I’m focusing on the 17-inch for this review.

One of the fringe benefits when buying a workstation targeted at post pros is they are tested with apps like Adobe’s Creative Cloud, Avid Media Composer and Autodesk’s Suite of apps — better known as ISV Certification (ISV= Independent Software Vendor). HP and selected software vendors spend tons of time making sure the apps that are most likely used by the high-end zBook users are strenuously tested. Most of the time this means increased efficiency.

For example, being able to choose a graphics solution like the Nvidia Quadro M5000M with 8GB of RAM and 1,536 CUDA Cores instead of the AMD FirePro W6150M with 4GB of RAM because you want CUDA-enabled renders is a choice you get because HP spent time testing the highest-end graphics cards to be placed in this system.

Here is a rundown of the specs in the zBook G3 I tested:
– Processor: Intel Xeon CPU E3-1535M v5 — four cores, eight threads, 2.9 GHz
– Memory: 32GB DDR4, 2133MHz
– NVMe SSD drive: NVMe Samsung MZVPV512 – 512GB
– Graphics card 1: HD graphics P530 1GB
– Graphics Card 2: Nvidia Quadro M5000M 8GB
– Screen: 17.3-inch diagonal FHD UWVA IPS anti-glare LED-backlit (1920×1080)
– Audio: Bang & Olufsen HD audio
– Built-In Battery: HP Long Life 6-cell 96 WHr Li-ion prismatic
– External Ports: four USB 3, Gigabit RJ-45, SD media, smart card reader, microphone/headphone port, two Thunderbolt 3, HDMI, VGA, power and security cable slot.
– Full-size spill resistant keyboard with numeric keypad
– Operating system: Windows 10
– Warranty: 3/3/3 – three years parts, labor and on-site (limited restrictions apply)

What Do I Really Think?
Some initial takeaways after using the zBook G3 are: it features very sturdy construction, it offers lightning quick speed and connections, and it has an amazing battery life when paired with the power the zBook G3 harnesses. Obviously, the battery life drains faster when really using the zBook G3 in conjunction with power hungry apps such as Maxon’s Cinema 4D, Adobe’s After Effects, Premiere or Media Encoder, but the now built-in battery is the longest lasting that I have experienced in a mobile workhorse.

I recently took this mobile workstation to San Francisco for the GoPro Developer Program announcement, and it lasted all day. Lasting all day is nice because the power supply is not small and it is not light. I wish I had left it at home, but I was scared I would run out of battery power. When talking with the HP crew during this review process, they stressed how they improved the battery life even though the machine’s speed and power was increased, and they were not lying. But like I said, when using apps like Adobe Media Encoder you are going to drain your battery faster. But I could get two to three hours while transcoding in Media Encoder, which is still pretty great.

Stress Test
With powerful workstations like the HP zBook G3, I like to run Cinebench (a standard in benchmarking for many reviews), a render and speed stress test made by Maxon. I had some interesting results, for OpenGL it was 5th, bested by some desktop graphics cards like the AMD Radeon HD 5770, Nvidia GTX 460, Nvidia Quadro 4000 and the mobile card the Nvidia Quadro K4000M. The Intel Xeon CPU E3-1535M v3 tested 5th, topped by three Intel i7s and one Xeon — all desktop processors. Surprisingly, when tested for CPU single core it ranked second, topped only by the Intel i7-4770K.

Practical Test
As an editor with a lot of experience in the prep and delivery of footage and final products, when I hear workstation I think an encoding and transcoding beast. A typical task in my daily work is to transcode hour-long episodic QuickTimes from codecs like ProRes or DNxHD to something like an H.264 or an MP4. My first test was to compress a two-hour DNxHD 175 QuickTime to the YouTube 1080p setting in Adobe’s Media Encoder, which is a 1920×1080, 16 Mbps, MP4 — fit for decent quality, balanced with a low file size. It took 80 minutes (about 2/3 realtime), which is pretty good considering I’m working on a mobile workstation. On a high-end desktop workstation like the Mac Pro or z840 I might get that down to about (1/4 realtime, or about 30-40 minutes).

My next test was to transcode a 44-minute DNxHD QuickTime to the YouTube 1080p setting in Adobe’s Media Encoder. This file took 33 minutes to transcode, roughly ¾ of realtime. I tried compressing a ProRes HQ 50-minute long QuickTime to the YouTube 1080p MP4 setting and it took around 40 minutes. So all in all, you are getting a little faster than realtime, and if you need it to be faster you should probably be compressing on a desktop workstation.

Other Observations
I was able to really appreciate the large IPS screen that is very bright and very clear. One thing I notice as I get older is that I need larger screens (yuck, I think I just fainted… definitely getting old). On mobile workstations it’s hard to get a large screen that is also easy to view for multiple hours, but this HP matte screen is great.

Another thing I really like is the branded speakers. Most laptops have half decent speakers at best, but the zBook comes with Bang & Olufsen speakers that offer sound way above other laptop speakers I’ve heard. I definitely plugged in headphones, but in a pinch these were more than good. I particularly liked the full-sized keyboard with numeric keypad (any editor who has to enter timecode knows how important the numeric keypad is for this).

In the End
I love HP’s line of z series workstations, from the super-high-end z840 to this zBook G3. If you are looking to transcode a 44-minute QuickTime in under 15 minutes, you are going to need a system like the HP z840 with 64GB of RAM and an SSD under the hood.

If you need similar power to the z840 but in a mobile powerhouse, the zBook G3 is for you. With peripherals like the HP Thunderbolt 3 dock you can keep your Thunderbolt 3 RAID, display ports for your UHD/4K monitors and even more USB 3 ports stationary at home without having to always hook up and unhook your peripherals every time you get home from office. The 200W dock will cost $249, and the 150W dock is $229 (for the 17-inch G3 you will need the 200W version). The power supply to charge the zBook G3 is not small, so using the dock as a charging station and peripheral connector is definitely the way to go.

One issue I had with the zBook has to do with HP ditching the Thunderbolt 1/2 connectors. It’s kind of funny to see a VGA port next to an HDMI and Thunderbolt 3 ports without a Thunderbolt 2 connection, or at the least I would have hoped HP would include an adapter with their zBook. I asked HP about this and they said other companies were already tackling the Thunderbolt 1/2-to-3 converters. While it’s not a huge issue, it’s interesting to see them ditch such a new interface like Thunderbolt 2 (which was in the zBook G2) when I know their customers have recently invested in Thunderbolt 2 devices and there is no easy way to connect them to this zBook G3, other than buying a $100 adapter, after paying for the mobile workstation. Obviously I am nitpicking, but it stood out to me.

Moving on, the zBook G3 is one of the most solid mobile workstations I have touched. It’s not light, but it’s not meant to be. HP has other options for users looking for a Windows-based PC that rivals the MacBook Air. The zBook isn’t as powerful as its stationary workstation line, but it won’t let you down if you need something to encode QuickTimes on the go or create proxies for your Blackmagic Resolve 12.5 or Avid Media Composer 8.5 projects. It will even run Cinema 4D without skipping a beat.

If you have the money, the zBook G3 is at the top of my list for a workstation that fits in a backpack, lasts upwards of five hours on battery life, and can chew up and spit out media files.

Brady Betzel is an online editor at Margarita Mix in Hollywood, working on Life Below Zero and Cutthroat Kitchen. You can email Brady at bradybetzel@gmail.com, and follow him on Twitter @allbetzroff. Brady was recently nominated for an Emmy for his work on Disney’s Unforgettable Christmas Celebration.


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