Fast performance. Good battery life. Available 1080p touch and 4K DreamColor screens. High memory and storage ceilings. Two Thunderbolt 3 ports.
Expensive. Big and heavy for a 15.6-inch system.
- Bottom Line
Intel Xeon power, a 64GB RAM limit, three drive bays, three screen choices, and two Thunderbolt 3 ports add up to a mighty mobile workstation in the HP ZBook 15 G4.
Who are the most demanding, power-hungry laptop shoppers? Some would say gamers, but we'd pick mobile workstation users—design or scientific pros who want machines that are not only fast but durable, backed by independent software vendor (ISV) certifications of compatibility with elite apps, and ready to rock with huge datasets and complex visuals. The HP ZBook 15 G4 (starts at $1,847.78; $3,181 as tested) is such a system. As the fourth generation of the company's 15.6-inch flagship, it's positioned above the entry-level, dual-core ZBook 15u and the thinner and lighter ZBook Studio—and it's now positioned as our Editors' Choice among mobile workstations.
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Our test unit features a "Kaby Lake" 3.0GHz Intel Xeon E3-1505M v6 quad-core processor, 32GB of DDR4 ECC memory, a 512GB PCIe solid-state drive, Nvidia Quadro M2200 graphics, and a full HD (1,920-by-1,080) IPS display. These components helped it outperform its Editors' Choice predecessor, the Dell Precision 15 5000 Series (5510), across the board in our benchmark tests below, but doesn't represent a maxed-out configuration: The ZBook can be configured at ordering time with up to 64GB of RAM and up to 3TB of storage (two 1TB M.2 solid-state drives plus a 1TB, 2.5-inch SATA drive). Indeed, since—unlike the 5510—the chassis is not sealed, you can unscrew the bottom panel and install an even larger hard drive, though an HP rep told us the company suggests external Thunderbolt 3 storage rather than exceeding its officially endorsed 3TB.
Nor is our system's screen the top of the line—both a full HD touch panel and a 4K (3,840-by-2,160) display with HP's DreamColor calibration and color space management are options, as is a trivially faster Xeon E3-1535M v6 (or, if you're pinching pennies, a Core i7 or Core i5 CPU).
Two-Tone Style, Thunderbolt Speed
The ZBook 15 G4's aluminum and magnesium chassis features a handsome inlaid lid with large HP logo in two shades of gray. A thin chrome strip runs around three sides of the system and the words "Mobile Workstation" appear on the rear edge. At 5.8 pounds, it's quite heavy for a laptop with neither a touch screen nor optical drive (compare the 15-inch Apple MacBook Pro at 4.0 pounds, or the Dell Precision 3520 at 4.8 pounds), and more backpack- than briefcase-worthy at 1.0 by 15.2 by 10.4 inches (HWD; compare the HP ZBook Studio G4 at 0.71 by 14.76 by 10.04). The laptop has passed MIL-STD tests to survive bumps and harsh conditions; there's a bit of flex in the keyboard tray, but none in the display.
Port selection is more than satisfactory, ranging from modern (two Thunderbolt 3 ports with DisplayPort and USB-C functionality) to classic (a VGA port). Other interfaces include three USB 3.0 ports, SD and SmartCard slots, and HDMI, audio, and Ethernet ports as well as a Kensington lock slot and the connector for the brick-sized AC adapter.
The webcam centered above the screen captures well-lit, detailed images and video; there's a microphone mute key (Fn+F10) for listening to online conferences. The speakers on the system's front edge pump out pretty good sound, a little quieter than some—loud enough to fill a room, but not to vibrate the walls—and short on booming bass, but with well-defined highs and lows.
While we're disappointed that our test unit didn't flaunt HP's 4K DreamColor display (a $320 option), its screen ranks with the best 1080p panels we've seen. Brightness is ample, albeit only at the top two or three backlight settings, and contrast is excellent, with deep blacks and pristine whites. PowerPoint slides, YouTube videos, and the SPECviewperf benchmark's rendering models all benefited from vivid colors and broad viewing angles. (Avoid the screen option labeled SVA in HP's online configurator—it stands for "standard viewing angles," as opposed to the ultra-wide viewing angles of our display's IPS technology.)
We like the ZBook's backlit keyboard, too, except for HP's terrible trademark cursor arrows—half-sized up and down keys sandwiched between full-sized left and right; would it kill HP to adopt the inverted-T arrangement used by almost every other laptop vendor? At least there are dedicated keys for Home, End, Page Up, and Page Down, though they and the Delete key are small.
Two buttons just above the keyboard toggle Wi-Fi and audio mute, and a Windows Hello-compatible fingerprint reader resides below the numeric keypad. Typing feel is good, with deep travel and slightly springy feedback; we made a few more errors than usual in our first few minutes but got up to speed quickly. Both the smooth-gliding touchpad and keyboard-mounted pointing stick offer three buttons, including the middle button used by some workstation apps. HP bundles the ZBook with its Remote Graphics Software, which lets a low-powered PC or tablet access the powerful workstation's screen over the Internet.
Overkill for Office
Both crushed the Precision 5510, but the Xeon-powered ZBook 15 G4 narrowly edged the Core i7-based Dell Precision 3520 (by a score of 3,601 to 3,539) in our PCMark 8 general productivity benchmarks. Scores that high indicate machines that are too powerful to waste on a diet of mere spreadsheets and word processing documents; as we said, these mobile workstations are intended for more challenging apps—such as video editing and encoding, for instance, where the ZBook posted a rare sub-one-minute time (57 seconds) in our Handbrake benchmark, easily besting machines like our favorite business laptop, the Lenovo ThinkPad T470 (2:04). The only one in the pack to best it in this test was its cousin, the ZBook Studio G4 (44 seconds).
The HP mobile workstation also shone in our Adobe Photoshop image-editing test, as the only one in our test group to finish the workload in under 3 minutes (2:43), compared with 3:01 for the Dell 5510 and 3:15 for the Apple MacBook Pro. And though it's built for work, not play, it blazed through our gaming simulations Heaven and Valley, reaching the 30 frames per second threshold for smooth gameplay even at top image-quality settings.
The ThinkPad T470 and its optional extended-life battery led the way in our battery-rundown test, lasting more than seventeen-and-a-half hours, with the MacBook Pro's 15 hours not far behind. The ZBook 15 G4 settled for a middle-of-the-pack finish here, but its time of 11 hours and 15 minutes is more than enough to get you through a workday.
Ready for Anything
Except for its bulk and its arrow keys, it's hard to find fault with the ZBook. It's costly, but the type of users who invest in powerful mobile workstations will find it can pay for itself over a few jobs. It offers sterling performance and battery life, along with all the connectivity you could ask for. It's even backed by a three-year warranty with on-site service.
We awarded our Editors' Choice to the Precision 5510 last year partly because of its stellar 4K touch display, which the HP can't match—its available 4K screen is not a touch panel. But its benchmark-test near-sweep, greater expandability, and second Thunderbolt 3 port have us passing the honor to the ZBook 15 G4.
Other Hewlett-Packard Laptops & Notebooks
By Eric Grevstad Contributing Editor
Formerly editor-in-chief of Home Office Computing, Eric Grevstad is a contributing editor for PCMag and Computer Shopper, where he earlier served as lead laptop analyst and executive editor, respectively. A tech journalist since the TRS-80 and Apple II days, Grevstad specializes in lightweight laptops, all-in-one desktops, and productivity software, all of which he uses when commuting and telecommuting between PC Labs and a cat-filled home office in Old Greenwich, CT. Email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @EricGrevstad…. More »
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