Why HP's $5,189 Workstation Laptop Is Such A Beautiful Beast

Laptops have seen tremendous improvements in performance over the last few years, but for a professional animator and creative video producer like myself, they’re rarely if ever as powerful as the desktops companies equip me with. Yet after five months with the HP Zbook x360 G5 Studio, I feel comfortable saying laptops have finally arrived at a point where they can replace desktops for even the most demanding digital professionals.

Normally I work on a MacPro and big Cintiq display provided by Gizmodo. It’s a powerful, if ageing set up, and I’ve found myself eyeing the upcoming MacPro with envy. But the HP Zbook x360 G5 Studio gives me something the MacPro will never provide, mobility and decent battery life.

The G5 Studio isn’t for everyone. It starts at $5,189 in Australia, but the version I reviewed goes for around $6,949. This machine, like the MacPro or the Microsoft Studio, is intended for design and video professionals. Unlike the Studio and nearly every laptop Gizmodo reviews, the G5 Studio can be equipped with the kind of processor and memory professionals actually need.

Ours has an Intel Xeon E-2186M processor, 16GB of DDR4 2666 ECC RAM, NVIDIA Quadro P2000 GPU, a 256GB SSD, and a 4K touch display with wider colour gamut. The ECC RAM found in the G5 Studio isn’t as common as someone like me would like. ECC memory, or error-correcting code memory, is much better at limiting little problems with data corruption.

Video producers and animators are reading and writing from really big files constantly, and if even one bit of data is corrupted in that process, it can crash your workflow and set you back hours or days. If you’re just browsing the web or playing a video game, ECC isn’t necessary, but for someone like myself, it’s vital and very welcomed.

I snuck away from our Manhattan HQ and wrote this on the G5 Studio from a relaxing and clear vantage point along the Hudson River.

Between the ECC memory and the CPU, this laptop feels almost as good as the older 2013 trash-can MacPro at my desk, and light years ahead of the Microsoft Studio I reviewed earlier this year. I’ve been using it daily to run Adobe’s Creative Suite, handle 4K video editing, and output motion graphics design/animation. (I even did much of the work on the video above with it.)

The workstation-grade mobile hardware found in the G5 Studio absolutely outperforms the mobile grade hardware inside of the Surface Studio 2. When using Photoshop to cut out images with a masking technique, the cursor lags to catch up with my pen on the Surface Studio 2. When I edit video footage with higher bitrates and resolution I’ve been reaching for the G5 Studio over the Studio 2 because it offers me real-time playback and faster renders.

One caveat that might scare away video editors is the Windows operating system. Apple is the industry standard for many pros and a lot of workflows rely on macOS and specifically macOS dependent codes like Apple ProRes. But sleep soundly, because the Adobe Creative Cloud 2019 update now lets us have Read/write capabilities with Apple ProRes on a Windows machine.

Right side view of HP Zbook x360 G5 Studio. (Image: Santiago Garcia)

If you plan to do VR/AR/MR, I recommend you max out the G5 Studio and expect to be able to do your intensive work on it; the Nvidia P2000 will be a clear advantage here over nearly any other mobile GPU available right now. Although we should just admit that sometimes we need more GPU and could stand to have a render farm — or cloud rendering instead of relying on a single computer to render big 4K workflows.

Thankfully this unit has you covered because it can actually expand: Thunderbolt 3 to the rescue. You can loadout with an external GPU or push your workload along a fibre network connection to help you take advantage of cloud rendering.

Tight squeeze (Photo: Santiago Garcia)

Besides two Thunderbolt 3 ports that also support USB-C, the G5 Studio comes with HDMI, an SD card slot, and two 2 USB-A ports — one of them being high powered. There is also a headphone jack and an option to add a sim card.

The headphone jack is super close to the SD card slot, though. It’s a problem if you regularly use the accompanying pen, which uses Wacom’s excellent AES ten-point-touch technology. The pen holder that comes with the machine sits in the SD card slot and totally blocks the headphone port.

You can add on an additional dock from HP, and it includes even more ports — including support for VGA. However, I had issues with the dock ejecting my server connection more often than I’d like. The issues seem to flare up when I use the HDMI port found on the machine in conjunction with the dock being plugged in. We reached out to HP about the problem, and it is being looked into.

HP Dock Accessory (Photo: Santiago Garcia)

When not in the docked mode, the G5 Studio functions as a typical convertible laptop. The piano hinge pairs nicely with the touch and pen input by giving more flexibility to the position of the screen. Personally, I like working with the machine flat on the table and having access to the keyboard. When I switch into tablet mode, there is a great virtual keyboard. Yet I still prefer laying the machine out at 180 degrees and using the hardware.

This could be controversial, especially as high-resolution displays are very popular, but I don’t like that I have to use a 4K screen if I want a wide colour gamut. The train of thought used to consider a desirable distance from you and your laptop is a mathematical one. When viewing art, a billboard, or even while looking at your television, there is maths involved and it says higher resolution screens are better the close you sit to them. Yet I’m not convinced that this 15.6-inch screen is large enough for me to fully benefit from 4K. And in some instances, the high resolution is simply worse.

Painful, isn’t it? (Gif: Therese McPherson)

I appreciate that it makes the pixels smaller, but operating in Windows set to a 4K resolution with 100-per cent scaling is not ideal. For touch, my small fingers aren’t small enough. Adobe Premiere’s interface appears particularly small. So does After Effects.

Can your eyes handle the burn of squeezing in 3,840 x 2160 pixels on a 15.6-inch screen? Theoretically, when you have more pixels you should be able to sit even closer to the screen because more pixels means tinier pixels, and tinier pixels means they’re less visible to the naked eye. Yes, it’s smooth and very hard for me to see a single pixel, but do we really want to put our faces closer to what is essentially a lamp with a lot of glare?

Recommended 250 per cent scaling of standard interfaces when switching to 4k (Photo: Therese McPherson)

Is this a big deal? Probably not — but think about the past design considerations that have been made to accommodate our previous generation of HD monitors. Not all user interfaces are made with adaptive and/or responsive resolution. This feels like a problem particularly for creative professionals — which is who the G5 Studio is made for.

At least if you think the 4K display will be a problem, you can skip it altogether. You can save nearly $600 and get the 1080p display with a narrower colour gamut if you’d prefer. Personally, I’d prefer a wide colour gamut and a smaller resolution display. The 4K display, like that weirdly placed holster for the pen, is more an inconvenience than a deal-breaker. And the HP Zbook x360 G5 Studio is a deal, by the way.

For creative professionals, the G5 Studio is a nice choice if mobility and performance are important. Its price point is a little high, but two things: the types of jobs you can run on this machine will pay for this machine faster (freelancers can get more work done more quickly) and you should be able to expand/repair this machine for a few good years. That could make the cost justifiable. If you’re tired of waiting for the new MacPro, or even just MacBook Pro with touch than seriously consider the Zbook.

README

  • A wide range of configs means you should be able to build one in your price range.

  • 4K display is optional, and unnecessary for creative professionals.

  • It is incredibly powerful.

  • The pen technology feels superior to anything Microsoft is doing right now.

  • The little pen holster is poorly placed.

  • The optional dock needs work.

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