Attractive price. Compact and sturdy chassis. ISV-certified hardware. Support for up to six displays. Solid connectivity, including USB-C.
Limited expandability. Lacks Thunderbolt 3 support.
- Bottom Line
The HP Z2 Mini G3 is an ISV-certified workstation in a package that's smaller than a shoe box. It's an ideal choice for professionals who need plenty of power, but don't have much desk space.
The HP Z2 Mini G3 (Starts at $699; $1,698 as tested) is the most compact small-form-factor (SFF) desktop workstation you can buy. It can be configured with an Intel Core or Xeon processor along with a fairly powerful Nvidia Quadro workstation-class GPU. It's all packed into a case that's smaller than traditional tower workstations like our top pick, the Dell Precision Tower 3000 Series (3620). And it's reasonably priced, so it makes perfect sense for space-constrained power users like financial analysts, engineers using CAD/CAM software, and workshop supervisors. Small in stature, but big in power, the Z2 Mini G3 is our latest Editors' Choice for single-processor workstations.
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Compact, Connected, Secure Chassis
Although it resembles other squared-off SFF PCs like the Apple Mac mini and the HP Elite Slice, the Z2 Mini G3 is a bit thicker and wider, measuring 2.8 by 8.5 by 8.5 inches (HWD). It can easily fit under or on top of a desk, or bolted to the back of a VESA-mounted monitor. The exterior is all black, with vents carved into its corners for the system's internal fans. The case is mostly metal, so it will survive a harsh environment like a manufacturing assembly line. It can be locked down with a VESA Sleeve ($45) that blocks access to the I/O ports, which is important to prevent USB thumb drives from infecting the system.
The Z2 Mini G3 is ISV-certified, making it a particularly good choice for architecture, engineering, and construction users of CAD/CAM programs like AutoCAD, Revit, and Solidworks. That means the system and its components have been tested and verified to perform as expected by the developers of these professional apps and programs. ISV certification is often a prerequisite before bidding on contracts, so the choice to operate on a workstation rather than a high-end consumer or business desktop should pay off in the future.
Connectivity is excellent, starting with a headset jack and two USB 3.0 ports on the left side. Around back, you'll find the jack for the AC adapter, four DisplayPorts, an Ethernet jack, two USB 3.0 ports, and two USB-C ports (these aren't included in the base model due to its slightly different chassis). It's notable that the latter don't have Thunderbolt 3 capabilities, a slight disappointment, since you won't enjoy faster throughput speeds with external solid-state drives (SSDs) or graphics accelerators using that technology. The system's four DisplayPorts and its Quadro M620 GPU are powerful enough to drive six screens, a boon for those who continuously monitor different data sources, like stockbrokers and factory foremen. 802.11ac Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.2 handle wireless connections.
There is a locking security slot on the back to keep users from fiddling inside, but once open, access to the interior is as easy as sliding a switch on the back panel. The top lid pops open, and you (or your IT staff) will be able to service or replace the cooling fans, the RAM, a 2.5-inch hard drive, the M.2 SSD, or the motherboard. On the well-equipped configuration we tested, you'll need to replace rather than add parts, since there are no empty slots or drive bays available. If you need multiple hard drives or replaceable graphics, you will need to opt for a more expandable PC like the HP Z240 SFF Workstation or the Dell Precision 3620.
Quiet and Well Equipped
Two fans, one each for the CPU and the GPU, keep the Z2 cool. They are hardly audible in operation, unless you put your ear up to one of the vents. That's as quiet as the Cerise Circular Computer, a larger SFF workstation that is also notable for being almost silent. The Z2 Mini G3 is a good choice for workspaces where noise is a concern, like in an audio recording studio or a video-recording bay.
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The base Z2 Mini comes sparsely configured, with an Intel Core i3 processor, 4GB of RAM, a 1TB hard drive, and integrated graphics. Our upgraded test model comes with 32GB of RAM, a quad-core Intel Core i7 processor, a 256GB SSD boot drive, a 1TB data drive, 2GB Nvidia Quadro M620 graphics, and a wireless mouse and keyboard. It's equipped with Windows 10 Pro (with Windows 7 Pro downgrade rights), and comes with a three-year warranty with on-site service.
Power for CAD/CAM Projects and More
The Core i7-6700 processor and Quadro M620 graphics helped the Z2 Mini produce respectable results on the PCMark 8 Work Conventional test (3,721 points). That's only about 40 points lower than the Digital Storm Slade Pro (3,760), which is remarkable because that system has a 10-core Intel Xeon processor. It edged out a win over both the Cerise Circular Computer and the Dell Precision 3620 on the same test. The Slade Pro was a lot faster on some of the more strenuous multimedia tasks like Handbrake and CineBench, but the Z2 Mini still showed excellent results (0:54 on Handbrake; 819 points on CineBench). Its score of 2:41 on the Photoshop test is better than the Slade Pro (3:05), and was just 11 to 12 seconds behind the Cerise Circular Computer (2:29) and the Dell Precision 3620 (2:30). (Under a minute on Handbrake and less than 3 minutes for Photoshop are considered excellent scores. CineBench scores above 700 points show high aptitude for CPU-intensive processes.)
3D test results were also good, matching those of the HP Z240 SFF workstation. Though you wouldn't expect to play games on this business PC, the Z2 Mini's GPU produced playable frame rates on our Heaven (72 fps) and Valley (72 fps) tests at medium-quality settings. Both the Quadro M620 in the Z2 Mini and the Quadro K1200 in the Z240 are entry-to-mid-level 3D graphics processors, suitable for CAD/CAM work, accelerating content creation/multimedia tasks, and the light-to-medium 3D rendering that you'd need for architecture and design software. The higher-end Quadro M4000 in the Digital Storm Slade Pro and the Dell Precision 3620 is a better bet for higher-end 3D tasks.
Chunky Performance in a Svelte Package
The HP Z2 Mini G3 is an excellent choice for businesses that perform multimedia-heavy tasks like CAD/CAM rendering, 2D/3D design work, large database and spreadsheet calculations, and audio/video recording and transcoding. It has ISV certifications, which will give you a leg up when bidding on projects with competitors who are using uncertified high-end business desktops. It's not as expandable as the Dell Precision Tower 3000 Series (3620), but it is as powerful on all but the most strenuous 3D tasks. You'd still want a tower like the Dell Precision or the Digital Storm Slade Pro if 3D performance is a top priority for your business. However, as seen here, the Z2 Mini costs about $1,000 less than the Precision 3620. For its compact form factor, quiet operation, performance, forward-looking technology, solid port selection, and overall value, the HP Z2 Mini G3 earns Editor's Choice honors.
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Joel Santo Domingo is the Lead Analyst for the Desktops team at PC Magazine Labs. He joined PC Magazine in 2000, after 7 years of IT work for companies large and small. His background includes managing mobile, desktop and network infrastructure on both the Macintosh and Windows platforms. Joel is proof that you can escape the retail grind: he wore a yellow polo shirt early in his tech career. Along the way Joel earned a BA in English Literature and an MBA in Information Technology… More »
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