By Brady Betzel
It seems like each year around this time, I offer my thoughts on an HP mobile workstation and how it serves multimedia professionals. This time I am putting the HP ZBook Studio G4 through its paces. The ZBook Studio line of HP’s mobile workstations seems to fit right in the middle between ease of mobility, durability and power. The ZBook 14u and 15u are the budget series mobile workstations that run Intel i5/i7 processors with AMD FirePro graphics and top out at around $1,600. The ZBook 15 and 17 are the more powerful mobile workstations in the line with the added ability to include Intel Xeon processors, ECC memory, higher-end Nvidia Quadro graphics cards and more. But in the this review we will take the best of all models and jam them into the light and polished ZBook Studio G4.
The HP ZBook Studio G4 I was sent to test out had the following components:
– Windows 10 64 bit
– Intel Xeon 1535M (7th gen) quad-core processor – 3.10GHz with 4.2 Turbo Boost
– 4K UHD DreamColor/15.6-inch IPS screen
– 32GB ECC (2x16GB)
– Nvidia Quadro M1200 (4GB)
– 512GB HP Z Turbo Drive PCIe (MLC)
– 92Whr fast charging battery
– Intel vPro WLAN
– Backlit keyboard
– Fingerprint reader
According to the info I was sent directly from HP, the retail price is $3,510 on hp.com (US webstore). I built a very similar workstation on http://store.hp.com and was able to get the price at $3,301.65 before shipping and taxes, and $3,541.02 with taxes and free shipping. So actually pretty close.
So, besides the natural processor, memory and hard drive upgrades from previous generations, the ZBook Studio G4 has a few interesting updates, including the higher-wattage batteries with fast charge and the HP Sure Start Gen3 technology. The new fast charge is similar to the feature that some products like the GoPro Hero 5/6 cameras and Samsung Galaxy phones have, where they charge quicker than “normal.” The ZBook Studio, as well as the rest of the ZBook line, will charge 50% of your battery in around 30 minutes when in standby mode. Even when using the computer, I was able to charge the first 50% in around 30 minutes, a feature I love. After the initial 50% charge is complete, the charging will be at a normal rate, which wasn’t half bad and only took a few hours to get it to about 100%.
The battery I was sent was the larger of the two options and provided me with an eight-hour day with decent usage. When pushed using an app like Resolve I would say it lasted more like four hours. Nonetheless it lasted a while and I was happy with the result. Keep in mind the batteries are not removable, but they do have a three-year warranty, just like the rest of the mobile workstation.
When HP first told me about its Sure Start Gen 3, I thought maybe it was just a marketing gimmick, but then I experienced its power — and it’s amazing. Essentially, it is a hardware function available on only 7th generation Intel processors that allows the BIOS to repair itself upon identification of malware or corruption. While using the ZBook Studio G4, I was installing some software and had a hard crash (blue screen). I noticed when it restarted the BIOS was running through the Sure Start protocol, and within minutes I was back up and running. It was reassuring and would really set my mind at ease if deciding between a workstation-level solution or retail store computing solution.
You might be asking yourself why you should buy an enterprise-level mobile workstation when you could go buy a laptop for cheaper and almost as powerful at Best Buy or on Amazon? Technically, what really sets apart workstation components is their ability to run 24/7 and 365 days a year without downtime. This is helped by Intel Xeon processors that allow for ECC (Error Correcting Code memory), essentially bits don’t get flipped as they can with non-ECC memory. Or for laymen, like me, ECC memory prevents crashing by fixing errors itself before we see any repercussions.
Another workstation-level benefit is the environmental testing that HP runs the ZBooks through to certify their equipment as military grade, also known as MIL-810G testing. Essentially, they run multiple extreme condition tests such as high and low temperatures, salt, fog and even high-vibration testing like gunfire. Check out a more in-depth description on Wikipedia. Finally, HP prides itself on its ISV (Independent Software Vendors) verification. ISV certification means that HP spends a lot of time working with software vendors like Adobe, Avid, Autodesk and others to ensure compatibility with their products and HP’s hardware so you don’t have to. They even release certified drivers that help to ensure compatibility regularly.
In terms of warranty, HP gives you a three-year limited warranty. This includes on-site service within the Americas, and as mentioned earlier it covers the battery, which is a nice bonus. Much like other warranties it covers problems arising from faulty manufacturing, but not intentional or accidental damage. Luckily for anyone who purchases a Zbook, these systems can take a beating. Physically, the computer weighs in around 4.6lbs and is 18mm thin. It is machined aluminum that isn’t sharp, but it can start to dig into your wrists when typing for long periods. Around the exterior you get two Thunderbolt 3 ports, an HDMI port, three USB 3.1 ports (one on left and two on the right), an Ethernet port and Kensington Lock port. On the right side, you also get a power port — I would love for HP to design some sort of break-away cable like the old Magsafe cables on the MacBook Pros — and there is also a headphone/mic input.
Alright, so now I’ll go through some of the post-nerd specs that you might be looking for. Up first is the HP DreamColor display, which is a color-critical viewing solution. With a couple clicks in the Windows toolbar on the lower right you will find a colored flower — click on that and you can immediately adjust the color space you want to view your work in: AdobeRGB, sRGB, BT.709, DCI-P3 or Native. You can even calibrate or backup your own calibration for later use. While most colorists or editors use an external calibrated monitoring solution and don’t strictly rely on your viewing monitor as the color-critical source, using the DreamColor display will get you close to a color critical display without purchasing additional hardware.
In addition, DreamColor displays can play back true 24fps without frame rate conversion. One of my favorite parts of DreamColor is that if you use an external DreamColor monitor through Thunderbolt 3 (not using an SDI card), you can load your color profile onto the second or third monitor and in theory they should match. The ZBook Studio G4 seems to have been built as a perfect DIT (digital imaging technician) solution for color critical work in any weather-challenged or demanding environment without you having to worry about failure.
Speed & Testing
Now let’s talk about speed and how the system did with speed tests. When running a 24TB (6TB-4TB drives) G-Speed ShuttleXL with Thunderbolt 3 from G-Technology, I was able to get write speeds of around 1450MB/s and read speeds of 960MB/s when running the AJA System Test using a 4GB test file running RAID-0. For comparison, I ran the same test on the internal 512GB HP Z Turbo Drive, which had a write speed of 1310MB/s and read speed 1524MB/s. Of course, you need to keep in mind that the internal drive is a PCIe SSD whereas the RAID is 7200RPM drives. Finally, I ran the standard benchmarking app Cinebench R15 that comes from the makers of Maxon Cinema 4D, a 3D modeling app. For those interested, the OpenGL test ran at 138.85fps with a Ref. Match of 99.6%, CPU 470cb and CPU (Single Core) 177cb with an MP Ratio of 2.65x.
I also wanted to run the ZBook through some practical and real-world tests, and I wanted to test the rendering and exporting speeds. I chose to use Blackmagic’s DaVinci Resolve 14.2 software because it is widely used and an easily accessible app for many of today’s multimedia pros. For a non-scientific yet important benchmark, I needed to see how well the ZBook G4 played back R3D files (Red camera files), as well as QuickTimes with typical codecs you would find in a professional environment, such as ProRes and DNxHD. You can find a bunch of great sample R3D files on Red’s website. The R3D I chose was 16 seconds in length, shot on a Red Epic Dragon at 120fps and UHD resolution (3840×2160). To make sure I didn’t have anything skewing the results, I decided to clear all optimized media, if there was any, delete any render cache, uncheck “Use Optimized Media If Available” and uncheck “Performance Mode” just in case that did any voodoo I wasn’t aware of.
First was a playback test where I wanted to see at what decode quality I could playback in at realtime without dropping frames when I performed a slight color correction and added a power window. For this clip, I was able to get it to playback in a 23.98/1080p timeline in realtime when it was set to Half Resolution Good. At Half Resolution Premium I was dropping one or two frames. While playing back and at Full Resolution Premium, I was dropping five or six frames —playing back at around 17 or 18fps. Playing back at Half Resolution Good is actually great playback quality for such a high-quality R3D with all the head room you get when coloring a raw camera file and not a transcode. This is also when the fans inside the ZBook really kicked in. I then exported a ProRes4444 version of the same R3D clip from RedCine-X Pro with the LUT info from the camera baked in. I played the clip back in Resolve with a light color treatment and one power window with no frames dropped. When playing back the ProRes4444 file the fans stayed at a low pitch.
The second test was a simple DNxHD 10-bit export from the raw R3D. I used the DNxHD 175x codec — it took about 29 seconds, which was a little less than double realtime. I then added spatial noise reduction on my first node using the following settings: Mode: Better, Radius: Medium, Spatial Threshold (luma/chroma locked): 25. I was able to playback the timeline at around 5fps and exported the same DNxHD 175x file, but it took about 1 minute 27 seconds, about six times realtime. Doing the same DNxHD 175x export test with the ProRes4444 file, it took about 12 seconds without noise reduction and with the noise reduction about 1 minute and 16 seconds — about 4.5 times realtime. In both cases when using Noise Reduction, the fans kicked on.
Lastly, I wanted to see how Resolve would handle a simple one minute, 1080p, ProRes QuickTime in various tests. I don’t think it’s a big surprise but it played back without dropping any frames with one node of color correction, one power window and as a parallel node with a qualifier. When adding spatial noise reduction I started to get bogged down to about 6fps. The same DNxHD 175x export took about 27 seconds or a little less than half realtime. With the same spatial noise reduction as above it took about 4 minutes and 21 seconds, about 4.3 times realtime.
The HP ZBook Studio G4 is a lightweight and durable enterprise-level mobile workstation that packs the punch of a color-critical 4K (UHD — 3840×2160) DreamColor display, powered by an Nvidia Quadro M1200, and brought together by an Intel Xeon processor that will easily power many color, editing or other multimedia jobs. With HP’s MIL-810G certification, you have peace of mind that even with some bumps, bruises and extreme weather your workstation will work. At under 5lbs and 18mm thin with a battery that will charge 50% in 30 minutes, you can bring your professional apps like DaVinci Resolve, Adobe Premiere and Avid Media Composer anywhere and be working.
I was able to use the ZBook along with some of my Tangent Element color correction panels in a backpack and have an instant color critical DIT solution without the need for a huge cart — all capable of color correction and transcoding. The structural design of the ZBook is an incredibly sturdy, machined aluminum chassis that is lightweight enough to easily go anywhere quickly. The only criticisms are I would often miss the left click of the trackpad leaving me in a right-click scenario, the Bang & Olufsen speakers sound a little tin-like to me and, finally, it doesn’t have a touch bar… just kidding.
Brady Betzel is an Emmy-nominated online editor at Margarita Mix in Hollywood, working on Life Below Zero and Cutthroat Kitchen. You can email Brady at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @allbetzroff.