Stunning 4K DreamColor display. Two Thunderbolt 3 ports. VR-ready Nvidia Quadro P5000 graphics.
Expensive. Bulky. Brief battery life.
- Bottom Line
Formidable in every way (starting with its price), the HP ZBook 17 G4 mobile workstation and its color-calibrated UHD display are ready for the most demanding jobs, from video editing and 3D rendering to VR authoring.
Mobile workstations are the beasts of the laptop world, and the HP ZBook 17 G4 (starts at $1,529; $6,059 as tested) is one of the biggest and most powerful. Like the HP ZBook 15 G4 we recently awarded our Editors' Choice in the category, this 17.3-inch model is designed for and carries independent software vendor (ISV) certifications for rampaging through huge data sets in design, rendering, and scientific applications.
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It offers expandability that civilian laptops can only dream of—up to 64GB of memory and 4TB of storage—and takes content creation into the realm of virtual reality with Nvidia's VR-ready Quadro P5000 graphics. It has a gorgeous 4K (3,840-by-2,160) display with HP's DreamColor technology. It misses our Editors' Choice because it's too expensive and specialized compared with its 15.6-inch sibling, but if you're looking for the definitive luggable workstation, look no further.
Actually Not All That Heavy
The ZBook tips the scales at 6.9 pounds—no ultrabook, to be sure, but relatively portable compared with ponderous gaming rigs like the 9.8-pound Alienware 17 R4, especially considering that it's passed MIL-STD tests for survival in rugged conditions. It's too big for most briefcases at 1.3 by 16.5 by 11 inches (HWD), but fits well into a backpack, again undercutting the Alienware (1.2 by 16.7 by 13.1 inches) though with roughly the same footprint as the 7.7-pound Razer Blade Pro (0.9 by 16.7 by 11 inches). Smaller-screened workstations, of course, are more travel-friendly (the Dell Precision 3520 is 4.8 pounds and 1 by 14.6 by 9.9 inches).
The aluminum and magnesium chassis has the same handsome two-tone inlaid design and chrome strip running around three sides of the system as the ZBook 15 G4. The big HP logo on the lid is accompanied by smaller HP, ZBook, and Bang & Olufsen branding on the screen bezel and palm rest. HP says that a latch on the bottom panel offers tool-free access to internal components, but we are able to access only the battery and one SATA drive bay without a screwdriver (HP's online documentation warns of as many as 30 screws securing the user-accessible parts).
Three USB 3.0 ports, one able to charge handheld devices when the system's switched off, are located on the left edge of the laptop, along with an SD card slot, Ethernet port, and security lock slot. On the right edge, a fourth USB 3.0 port is joined by a SmartCard slot, HDMI and VGA video outputs, the connector for the jumbo power brick, and two Thunderbolt 3 ports with USB-C and DisplayPort functionality, making the ZBook fully ready for multi-monitor docking solutions or external RAID arrays for video or VR editing.
The keyboard causes our obligatory complaint about HP's Apple-style cursor arrow keys—half-sized up and down arrows sandwiched between full-sized left and right arrows, in a row instead of a handier inverted T—but is otherwise first-class. There are dedicated Home, End, Page Up, and Page Down keys above the numeric keypad (along with dedicated keys to toggle Wi-Fi and mute the audio), and the keys provide ample travel and a snappy typing feel, with no annoying flex in the keyboard deck. The keyboard is also backlit and spill-resistant.
Both the touchpad and the pointing stick embedded in the keyboard offer smooth cursor control and three soft-touch buttons, including the middle button used by some workstation apps. A Windows Hello-compatible fingerprint reader resides south of the keypad, though it's the less convenient swipe-your-finger rather than press-your-finger type.
Penny-pinchers can opt for a full HD (1,920-by-1,080) standard or touch screen, but the HP's screen size cries out for the factory-calibrated 4K DreamColor panel. A system-tray utility lets you switch among native, Adobe RGB, sRGB, and DCI P3 color palettes, all of which look fabulous on the non-glare display. Viewing angles are broad, fine details are standouts, and colors are lush and vivid, with spectacular contrast. Our only gripe is that brightness falls off sharply at anything less than the backlight maximum, giving you a reason to keep the ZBook plugged in rather than trying your luck with the battery life described below.
The speakers on the front edge pump out very good sound, not quite as loud as we expected (or as rich in bass, since the system lacks the subwoofer found in some 17.3-inch gaming laptops), but pure and accurate. The webcam above the screen captures well-lit but slightly soft-focus images.
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Our test unit is outfitted with Intel's seventh-generation Xeon E3-1535M v6 processor, a 3.1GHz (4.2GHz turbo) quad-core with Hyper-Threading. It also carries 64GB of ECC memory and two 512GB Z Turbo Drives, HP's lingo for PCIe M.2 solid-state drives. There are also two 2.5-inch SATA drive bays on board, so HP lets you configure the system with up to two 1TB hard drives plus two 1TB SSDs. The "Pascal"-architecture Quadro P5000 is Nvidia's top-of-the-line mobile workstation GPU, backed by a whopping 16GB of GDDR5 display memory (Nvidia's flagship GeForce Titan Xp gaming desktop card has merely 12GB).
These components yielded screaming performance, even for jobs that aren't really in a workstation's wheelhouse. The ZBook 17 G4 trailed the ZBook 15 G4 in our PCMark 8 general-purpose productivity benchmark (it more or less tied our favorite business laptop, the Lenovo ThinkPad T470), but in our CPU-intensive tests it was bested only by the Alienware 17 R4 and its overclocked Core i7-7820HK, joining the very few systems we've seen to score more than 800 points in Cinebench and finish a video-encoding job in under a minute in Handbrake. It tied the Alienware with a blazing time of 2 minutes and 33 seconds in our Adobe Photoshop image-editing benchmark, despite having to push more pixels (the R4 has a 1440p, not 4K, display).
Similarly, the ZBook slugged it out with the Alienware in our 3DMark, Heaven, and Valley graphics tests, although all three simulate PC gaming rather than workstation operations. It fell just short of the 30fps (frames per second) threshold for smooth gameplay in Heaven and Valley at high quality settings at native resolution, but again that's due to the overhead of a 4K screen—running at 1080p, the HP managed more than 90fps.
Something else 4K screens don't do well is run on battery power. Our test unit lasted only 4 hours and 35 minutes in our unplugged video-playback test, compared with more than 11 hours for its 15.6-inch sibling and its 1080p display—and more than 17 hours for the ThinkPad T470 and its extended-life battery.
For Elite Apps and Elite Users
High-end workstation buyers don't balk at prices that traumatize civilian PC shoppers; they know that fast, flexible machines recoup their cost in time saved waiting for rendering or number-crunching jobs to finish. The HP ZBook 17 G4 is such a system, with the bonus of being the first in its class to target VR content creation. As we said, we're close enough to the civilian mindset to restrict our Editors' Choice to the more portable, more general-purpose ZBook 15 G4, but the big HP is today's ultimate mobile workstation.
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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