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Hands on with the HP ZBook 17 G3 portable workstation

When we went hands on with the G2 version of HP’s flagship mobile engineering workstation, the ZBook 17, last year, its power and display were incredibly impressive. But its large-size, high-price, and short battery life made it an unlikely purchase for anyone for whom the power and extensibility weren’t vital. HP has now upgraded the machine all-around to the new G3 version.

After spending some time with the G3 ($2,150 and up), I found the improvements are indeed significant. It’s still not for the faint of heart, but the new version is lighter, cooler, smaller, has a longer-life battery, and yet is also more powerful. In addition, HP has also reconfigured its ZBook product line, adding what will likely be a popular new model, the ZBook Studio.

It used to be that to do serious engineering work, you needed a monster desktop souped up with a massive graphics card. That is changing rapidly. Last year, when we reviewed the G2, you could get all the compute power that your desktop had a few years prior in a laptop that weighs under 10 pounds. Now, with the G3, you can get even more power in a unit that weighs in at less than 7 pounds.

While there are a few users that purchase a 17-inch ZBook simply because they need the large screen — or amazing color of HP’s DreamColor displays — most buyers are in it for the performance. On that score, the ZBook 17 delivers. You can get a system with up to 64GB of ECC memory, over 4TB of storage, and Thunderbolt and USB 3.0 for expansion — all powered by a 6th generation Core i7 or Xeon processor.

Photo manipulation in Photoshop and Lightroom is even better than on the G2. It was as fast and smooth as on my last-gen GPU-assisted quad-core i7 desktop. My review unit was packed with the high-end Nvidia Quadro M5000M 8GB mobile GPU.

The review unit ZBook 17 G3 I’ve been evaluating is also the first laptop that feels powerful enough to do some solid machine learning projects. Its Quadro GPU is 30x faster than a 4GHz i7 at training networks, and the roomy 64GB of system memory, and 8GB on the GPU itself,  allow fairly-large datasets — even those including images — to be accessed quickly. The ZBook score 2229 on Fire Strike Ultra — definitely respectable compare to the 5200 score of my high-end 1080 GPU.

One of the last market segments to be dragged into the ultra-high-resolution display, Windows-10 era has been engineering laptops. Only recently have many of the major scientific and engineering applications been certified on Windows 10, and it also wasn’t until recently that mobile GPUs had the power to run graphics-intensive applications at UHD resolution. Finally, with the G3, ZBook users won’t have to compromise on either of these. You can get a new ZBook with Windows 10, and optionally with a UHD display. Some models are even available with an optional touch screen (although only at 1080p resolution).

HP ZBooks make up a good-looking, powerful family of portable workstation class laptops

Like with the G2, the unit I reviewed had a really bright and gorgeous-looking DreamColor LCD. Its gamut is larger than Adobe RGB, and it can be set either to one of several default colorspaces, or matched to a custom colorspace — which is apparently quite popular among HP’s Hollywood customers. New for the G3 and 2016, the DreamColor display is 3840 x 2160 — conveniently quadruple 1080p for easy application scaling. The DreamColor is an option, which is probably a good thing, since it still forces the unit to rely on the discrete GPU at all times. That cuts battery life quite a bit.

Fortunately for engineers everywhere, the ZBook G3 models all benefit from dramatic battery life increases over the G2 versions. HP claims an overall 42% increase in battery life for the ZBook 15 G3 and 72% for the ZBook 17 G3 — around 16 hours using HP’s battery benchmark, although of course users are unlikely to see anything close to that in practice.

With G2, HP introduced PCIe SSDs, as part of a technology it called Z Turbo. The G3 pushes the SSD performance envelope further, with NVMe PCIe SSDs. It claims around double the throughput for the new interface — as much as 2 GB/s sequential read performance.

HP continues to push the disk performance envelope with NVMe PCIe SSDs

MacBook Pro users will be quick to point out that its newest models also feature PCIe-connected system SSDs, but we’ll have to wait for the expected MBP refresh this fall to see if Apple does something similar to HP’s NVMe-based interface.

As part of its commitment to ensuring your ZBook will perform its best, HP bundles its Performance Advisor software with the units. It also features an excellent Support Assistant, that manages needed updates from Microsoft and HP, and messages from HP. As a Dell XPS owner, I’ve always been unhappy with how the Dell Update tools work. By comparison, HP’s ZBook management and update tools are excellent — easy to understand, comprehensive, and effective at finding and installing updates.

The base price for a dual-core ZBook 17 G3 is starts at just over $2,000. For that, though, you get a pretty minimalist configuration. You can spend another several thousand dollars if you want a top-of-the-line version with DreamColor display, larger SSD, more RAM, or a beefy Nvidia GPU. The review unit I tested prices out at an eye-watering $7,100 — including 64GB of RAM, DreamColor display, 2 512GB SSDs, a Xeon E3-1575M CPU, and Nvidia Quadro M5000M GPU with 8GB of memory.

Personally, being cheap, I often buy laptops with the minimal specs and then upgrade them myself — except for processor and GPU. However, part of the appeal of the ZBook like is HP’s extensive support and ISV certification offerings, so it seems unlikely too many of their customers go that route. HP does make it simple to add more storage and memory, though, with a simple-to-open, tool-free back cover that reveals two drive bays and the second two memory slots (the first two populated are located under the keyboard). This will be especially useful for those who want to swap drives on a shared computer, or have different projects on different drives.

The ZBook 17 also features HP’s dock connector which, combined with the unit’s own extensibility and computing power, means that if you can live with the price, you won’t have to make many compromises with this machine as your primary computer. The ZBook 17’s built-in keyboard is massive and full-featured, and includes a TrackPoint-like stick, touchpad, and numeric keypad. Even fickle typists are unlikely to find they need to add an external keyboard.

HP has re-organized its ZBook line for 2016 and G3 including adding the ZBook Studio

I went into this review focused mainly on the ZBook 17, but have become even more intrigued by the new ZBook Studio that features a 15.6-inch display and quad-core CPU. It seems to offer the kind of high-end performance many professionals need, but at an amazingly light 4.4 pounds — similar to a MacBook Pro 15 or the Dell XPS 15, but with more impressive raw performance specs.

An increasing number of engineers I talk to are using mobile workstations as their primary machines, even at the office. Part of that is due to the growth in tools being run on the network or in the cloud, part is because of the growth in mobile usage scenarios, and part is because mobile workstations (and high-end laptops) have gotten good enough that they can deliver performance even under a demanding engineering workload.

Now read: The best laptops for engineers and engineering students: when work requires a real workstation

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