AMD 2.1

Review: HP’s ZBook G6 mobile workstation

By Brady Betzel

In a year that’s seen AMD reveal an affordable 64-core processor with its Threadripper 3, it appears as though we are picking up steam toward next-level computing.

Apple finally released its much-anticipated Mac Pro (which comes with a hefty price tag for the 1.5TB upgrade), and custom-build workstation companies — like Boxx and Puget Systems — can customize good-looking systems to fit any need you can imagine. Additionally, over the past few months, I have seen mobile workstations leveling the playing field with their desktop counterparts.

HP is well-known in the M&E community for its powerhouse workstations. Since I started my career, I have either worked on a MacPro or an HP. Both have their strong points. However, workstation users who must be able to travel with their systems, there have always been some technical abilities you had to give up in exchange for a smaller footprint. That is, until now.

The newly released HP ZBook 15 G6 has become the rising the rising tide that will float all the boats in the mobile workstation market. I know I’ve said it before, but the classification of “workstation” is technically much more than just a term companies just throw around. The systems with workstation-level classification (at least from HP) are meant to be powered on and run at high levels 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.

They are built with high-quality, enterprise-level components, such as ECC (error correcting code) memory. ECC memory will self-correct errors that it sees, preventing things like blue screens of death and other screen freezes. ECC memory comes at a cost, and that is why these workstations are priced a little higher than a standard computer system. In addition, the warranties are a little more inclusive — the HP ZBook 15 G6 comes with a standard three-year/on-site service warranty.

Beyond the “workstation” classification, the ZBook 15 G6 is amazingly powerful, brutally strong and incredibly colorful and bright. But what really matters is under the hood. I was sent the HP ZBook 15 G6 that retails for $4,096 and contains the following specs:
– Intel Xeon E-2286M (eight cores/16 threads — 2.4GHz base/5GHz Turbo)
– Nvidia Quadro RTX 3000 (6GB VRAM)
15.6-inch UHD HP Dream Color display, anti-glare, WLED backlit 600 nits, 100% DCI-P3
– 64GB DDR4 2667MHz
– 1TB PCIe Gen 3 x4 NVMe SSD TLC
– FHD webcam 1080p plus IR camera
– HP collaboration keyboard with dual point stick
– Fingerprint sensor
– Smart Card reader
– Intel Wi-Fi 6 AX 200, 802.11ac 2×2 +BT 4.2 combo adapter (vPro)
– HP long-life battery four-cell 90 Wh
– Three-year limited warranty

The ZBook 15 G6 is a high-end mobile workstation with a price that reflects it. However, as I said earlier, true workstations are built to withstand constant use and, in this case, abuse. The ZBook 15 G6 has been designed to pass up to 21 extensive MIL-STD 810G tests, which is essentially worst-case scenario testing. For instance, drop testing of around four feet, sand and dust testing, radiation testing (the sun beating down on the laptop for an extended period) and much more.

The exterior of the G6 is made of aluminum and built to withstand abuse. The latest G6 is a little bulky/boxy, in my opinion, but I can see why it would hold up to some bumps and bruises, all while working at blazingly fast speeds, so bulk isn’t a huge issue for me. Because of that bulk, you can imagine that this isn’t the lightest laptop either. It weighs in at 5.79 pounds for the lowest end and measures 1 inch by 14.8 inches by 10.4 inches.

On the bottom of the workstation is an easy-to-access panel for performing repairs and upgrades yourself. I really like the bottom compartment. I opened it and noticed I could throw in an additional NVMe drive and an SSD if needed. You can also access memory here. I love this because not only can you perform easy repairs yourself, but you can perform upgrades or part replacements without voiding your warranty on the original equipment. I’m glad to see that HP kept this in mind.

The keyboard is smaller than a full-size version but has a number keypad, which I love using when typing in timecodes. It is such a time-saver for me. (I credit entering in repair order numbers when I fixed computers at Best Buy as a teenager.) On the top of the keyboard are some handy shortcuts if you do web conferences or calls on your computer, including answering and ending calls. The Bang & Olufsen speakers are some of the best laptop speakers I’ve heard. While they aren’t quite monitor-quality, they do have some nice sound on the low end that I was able to fine-tune in the Bang & Olufsen audio control app.

Software Tests
All right, enough of the technical specs. Let’s get on to what people really want to know — how the HP ZBook 15 G6 performs while using apps like Blackmagic’s DaVinci Resolve and Adobe Premiere Pro. I used sample Red and Blackmagic Raw footage that I use a lot in testing. You can grab the Red footage here and the BRaw footage here. Keep in mind you will need to download the BRaw software to edit with BRaw inside of Adobe products, which you can find here).

Performance monitor while exporting in Resolve with VFX.

For testing in Resolve and Premiere, I strung out one-minute of 4K, 6K and 8K Red media in one sequence and the 4608×2592 4K and 6K BRaw media in another. During the middle of my testing Resolve had a giant Red API upgrade to allow for better realtime playback of Red Raw files if you have an Nvidia CUDA-based GPU.

First up is Resolve 16.1.1 and then Resolve 16.1.2. Both sequences are set to UHD (3840×2160) resolution. One sequence of each codec contains just color correction, while another of each codec contains effects and color correction. The Premiere sequence with color and effects contains basic Lumetri color correction, noise reduction (50) and a Gaussian blur with settings of 0.4. In Resolve, the only difference in the color and effects sequence is that the noise reduction is spatial and set to Enhanced, Medium and 25/25.

In Resolve, the 4K Red media would play in realtime while the 6K (RedCode 3:1) would jump down to about 14fps to 15fps, and the 8K (RedCode 7:1) would play at 10fps at full resolution with just color correction. With effects, the 4K media would play at 20fps, 6K at 3fps and 8K at 10fps. The Blackmagic Raw video would play at real time with just color correction and around 3fps to 4fps with effects.

This is where I talk about just how loud the fans in the ZBook 15 G6 can get. When running exports and benchmarks, the fans are noticeable and a little distracting. Obviously, we are running some high-end testing with processor- and GPU-intensive tests but still, the fans were noticeable. However, the bottom of the mobile workstation was not terribly hot, unlike the MacBook Pros I’ve tested before. So my lap was not on fire.

In my export testing, I used those same sequences as before and from Adobe Premiere Pro 2020. I exported UHD files using Adobe Media Encoder in different containers and codecs: H.264 (Mov), H.265 (Mov), ProResHQ, DPX, DCP and MXF OP1a (XDCAM). The MXF OP1a was at 1920x1080p export.
Here are my results:

Red (4K,6K,8K)
– Color Only: H.264 – 5:27; H.265 – 4:45; ProResHQ – 4:29; DPX – 3:37; DCP – 10:38; MXF OP1a – 2:31

Red Color, Noise Reduction (50), Gaussian Blur .4: H.264 – 4:56; H.265 – 4:56; ProResHQ – 4:36; DPX – 4:02; DCP – 8:20; MXF OP1a – 2:41

Blackmagic Raw
Color Only: H.264 – 2:05; H.265 – 2:19; ProResHQ – 2:04; DPX – 3:33; DCP – 4:05; MXF OP1a – 1:38

Color, Noise Reduction (50), Gaussian Blur 0.4: H.264 – 1:59; H.265 – 2:22; ProResHQ – 2:07; DPX – 3:49; DCP – 3:45; MXF OP1a – 1:51

What is surprising is that when adding effects like noise reduction and a Gaussian blur in Premiere, the export times stayed similar. While using the ZBook 15 G6, I noticed my export times improved when I upgraded driver versions, so I re-did my tests with the latest Nvidia drivers to make sure I was consistent. The drivers also solved an issue in which Resolve wasn’t reading BRaw properly, so remember to always research drivers.

The Nvidia Quadro RTX 3000 really pulled its weight when editing and exporting in both Premiere and Resolve. In fact, in previous versions of Premiere, I noticed that the GPU was not really being used as well as it should have been. With the Premiere Pro 2020 upgrade it seems like Adobe really upped its GPU usage game — at some points I saw 100% GPU usage.

In Resolve, I performed similar tests, but instead of ProResHQ I exported a DNxHR QuickTime file/package instead of a DCP and IMF package. For the most part, they are stock exports in the Deliver page of Resolve, except I forced Video Levels, Forced Debayer and Resizing to Highest Quality. Here are my results from Resolve version 16.1.1 and 16.1.2. (16.1.2 will be in parenthesis.)

– Red (4K, 6K, 8K) Color Only: H.264 – 2:17 (2:31); H.265 – 2:23 (2:37); DNxHR – 2:59 (3:06); IMF – 6:37 (6:40); DPX – 2:48 (2:45); MXF OP1A – 2:45 (2:33)

Color, Noise Reduction (Spatial, Enhanced, Medium, 25/25), Gaussian Blur 0.4: H.264 – 5:00 (5:15); H.265 – 5:18 (5:21); DNxHR – 5:25 (5:02); IMF – 5:28 (5:11); DPX – 5:23 (5:02); MXF OP1a – 5:20 (4:54)

-Blackmagic Raw Color Only: H.264 – 0:26 (0:25); H.265 – 0:31 (0:30); DNxHR – 0:50 (0:50); IMF – 3:51 (3:36); DPX – 0:46 (0:46); MXF OP1a – 0:23 (0:22)

Color, Noise Reduction (Spatial, Enhanced, Medium, 25/25), Gaussian Blur 0.4: H.264 – 7:51 (7:53); H.265 – 7:45 (8:01); DNxHR – 7:53 (8:00); IMF – 8:13 (7:56); DPX – 7:54 (8:18); MXF OP1a – 7:58 (7:57)

Interesting to note: Exporting Red footage with color correction only was significantly faster from Resolve, but for Red footage with effects applied, export times were similar between Resolve and Premiere. With the CUDA Red SDK update to Resolve in 16.1.2, I thought I would see a large improvement, but I didn’t. I saw an approximate 10% increase in playback but no improvement in export times.

Puget

Puget Systems has some great benchmarking tools, so I reached out to Matt Bach, Puget Systems’ senior labs technician, about my findings. He suggested that the mobile Xeon could possibly still be the bottleneck for Resolve. In his testing he saw a larger increase in speed with AMD Threadripper 3 and Intel i9-based systems. Regardless, I am kind of going deep on realtime playback of 8K Red Raw media on a mobile workstation — what a time we are in. Nonetheless, Blackmagic Raw footage was insanely fast when exporting out of Resolve, while export time for the Blackmagic Raw footage with effects was higher than I expected. There was a consistent use of the GPU and CPU in Resolve much like in the new version of Premiere 2020, which is a trend that’s nice to see.

In addition to Premiere and Resolve testing, I ran some common benchmarks that provide a good 30,000-foot view of the HP ZBook 15 G6 when comparing it to other systems. I decided to use the Puget Systems benchmarking tools. Unfortunately, at the time of this review, the tools were only working properly with Premiere and After Effects 2019, so I ran the After Effects benchmark using the 2019 version. The ZBook 15 G6 received an overall score of 802, render score of 79, preview score of 75.2 and tracking score of 86.4. These are solid numbers that beat out some desktop systems I have tested.

Corona

To test some 3D applications, I ran the Cinebench R20, which gave a CPU score of 3243, CPU (single core) score of 470 and an M/P ratio of 6.90x. I recently began running the Gooseberry benchmark scene in Blender to get a better sense of 3D rendering performance, and it took 29:56 to export. Using the Corona benchmark, it took 2:33 to render 16 passes, 3,216,368 rays/s. Using Octane Bench the ZBook 15 G6 received a score of 139.79. In the Vray benchmark for CPU, it received 9833 Ksamples, and in the Vray GPU testing, 228 mpaths. I’m not going to lie; I really don’t know a lot about what these benchmarks are trying to tell me, but they might help you decide whether this is the mobile workstation for your work.

Cinebench

One benchmark I thought was interesting between driver updates for the Nvidia Quadro RTX 3000 was the Neat Bench from Neat Video — the noise reduction plugin for video. It measures whether your system should use the CPU, GPU or a combination thereof to run Neat Video. Initially, the best combination result was to use the CPU only (seven cores) at 11.5fps.

After updating to the latest Nvidia drivers, the best combination result was to use the CPU (seven cores) and GPU (Quadro RTX 3000) at 24.2fps. A pretty incredible jump just from a driver update. Moral of the story: Make sure you have the correct drivers always!

Summing Up
Overall, the HP ZBook 15 G6 is a powerful mobile workstation that will work well across the board. From 3D to color correction apps, the Xeon processor in combination with the Quadro RTX 3000 will get you running 4K video without a problem. With the HP DreamColor anti-glare display using up to 600 nits of brightness and covering 100% of the DCI-P3 color space, coupled with the HDR option, you can rely on the attached display for color accuracy if you don’t have your output monitor attached. And with features like two USB Type-C ports (Thunderbolt 3 plus DP 1.4 plus USB 3.1 Gen 2), you can connect external monitors for a larger view of your work

The HP Fast Charge will get you out of a dead battery fiasco with the ability to go from 0% to 50% charge in 45 minutes. All of this for around $4,000 seems to be a pretty low price to pay, especially because it includes a three-year on-site warranty and because the device is certified to work seamlessly with many apps that pros use with HP’s independent software vendor verifications.

If you are looking for a mobile workstation upgrade, are moving from desktop to mobile or want an alternative to a MacBook Pro, you should price a system out online.


Brady Betzel is an Emmy-nominated online editor at Margarita Mix in Hollywood, working on shows like Life Below Zero and The Shop. He is also a member of the Producer’s Guild of America. You can email Brady at bradybetzel@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @allbetzroff.


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