Want a 15-inch mobile workstation? HP gives you almost too many to choose from, ranging from a convertible (the ZBook Studio x360) to a model for engineering students and others on tight budgets (the ZBook 15v) to not one but two thin-and-lights (the ZBook Studio and ZBook 15u). But the head of the class—and, HP claims, the top-selling mobile workstation in the world—is the full-size ZBook 15. (It starts at $ 1,699, and rings up for $ 3,436 as tested.) The “G4” fourth generation of the ZBook 15 was only recently replaced as our Editors’ Choice by the Dell Precision 5530. The Precision 5530 keeps that crown for its mix of power and portability, but the new ZBook 15 G5 has its own strengths: It can hold twice as much RAM (64GB) and half again as much storage (6TB) as the Dell. It’s a near-flawless pick for serious design, rendering, simulation, and scientific professionals.
Worth the Weight
The ZBook 15 G5 abandons the two-tone design of last year’s model for a monochromatic silver, CNC-machined aluminum chassis. The company’s stylized four-slash logo decorates the lid, while diagonally cut (HP calls them dog-eared) rear corners add a touch of flair. The sturdy system has passed a slew of MIL-STD 810G tests against shock, vibration, temperature extremes, and other abuse; if you’re looking for flex in the screen or keyboard deck, you’ll have to look elsewhere.
The G5 is no ultraportable—for a moment when taking it out of the box, I actually mistook it for a 17-inch laptop. It measures 1 by 14.8 by 10.4 inches, versus 0.66 by 14.1 by 9.3 inches for the Precision 5530 or 0.61 by 13.8 by 9.5 inches for the 15-inch Apple MacBook Pro. At 5.8 pounds, it’s an anvil compared to the Dell or Apple (4.4 or 4.1 pounds, respectively).
But anvils aren’t usually this configurable. The $ 1,699 base model features a quad-core Core i5-8300H processor, 8GB of RAM, a 256GB PCI Express solid-state drive, a 1080p IPS display, and Nvidia Quadro P1000 graphics. My $ 3,436 review unit stepped up to a six-core, 2.6GHz (4.3GHz turbo) Core i7-8850H chip, 32GB of memory, a 512GB NVMe SSD, HP’s 1080p Sure View touch screen with built-in privacy filter, and Nvidia’s step-up Quadro P2000 GPU.
As I alluded to earlier, the RAM and storage ceilings are high. Four SO-DIMM sockets and two M.2 slots, plus a 2.5-inch drive bay, accommodate up to 64GB of RAM and 6TB of storage. CPU choices include an upgrade to one of two Xeons, with ECC memory (not available on the MacBook Pro or Dell 5530) an option if you insist on absolute data integrity. The peak screen pick is HP’s 4K-resolution, 600-nit, billion-color DreamColor panel with a color-calibration sensor in the touchpad to set the system to 100 percent of the Adobe RGB gamut before each workflow.
Left-side ports include two USB 3.0 Type-A (one for charging handheld devices), Ethernet, an SD card reader, and a security lock. On the right side, you’ll find a third USB 3.0 port, a SmartCard reader, an audio jack, an HDMI video output, and two Thunderbolt 3 ports with USB-C and DisplayPort functionality, along with the connector for the AC adapter.
Superbly Simple Access
The HP makes upgrades easy, even without a screwdriver in sight: Merely sliding a latch on the laptop’s bottom lets you remove a panel and reveal the hard drive bay, two M.2 slots, and the third and fourth memory sockets (the first two are under the keyboard), as well as the battery.
The ZBook supports password-free Windows Hello sign-ins via both a fingerprint reader and face-recognition webcam. The camera captured fairly detailed but noisy images in my office on an overcast day; turning on a couple of lamps made the image washed out. The Bang & Olufsen speakers above the keyboard are startlingly loud (anything over 70 or 75 percent volume gets rough and raucous) but impressively rich, with punchy bass and clear highs.
The spill-resistant, backlit keyboard follows HP’s ungainly row-style rather than inverted-T layout for the cursor-arrow keys—half-size up and down arrows sandwiched between full-size left and right—but is otherwise pleasing. There’s adequate travel and a crisp typing feel; the numeric keypad not found on the Precision 5530 or MacBook Pro; and your choice of an embedded pointing stick or somewhat slippery touchpad for cursor control, both with three good-size, soft-touch buttons. The keyboard also has the “collaboration keys” found on HP’s EliteBook business laptops, shortcuts for making a presentation or answering or hanging up on a Skype call.
Another feature borrowed from the EliteBooks is the test unit’s 15.6-inch, full HD (1,920 by 1,080) touch screen with built-in Sure View privacy filter. The latter, activated by pressing the F2 key, narrows the display’s legibility to the user seated directly in front of it, so someone next to you on a plane or train can’t sneak a peek and see your confidential information. It’s a great idea that’s disappointing in practice, because making the screen invisible to prying eyes also makes it murky and barely visible to you. More than a few minutes with Sure View is a guaranteed eyestrain headache.
With Sure View turned off, the screen is much better, though it never seems as bright as its rated 650 nits. Sharing its glossy mirror finish with many touch screens, it offers vivid colors, wide viewing angles, high contrast, and fine details. Web pages, videos, and SPECviewperf benchmark viewsets from popular independent software vendor (ISV) apps all looked sharp.
Not surprisingly, the ZBook does just fine in performance tests. The system posted a sky-high score of 3,879 in our PCMark 8 productivity benchmark, showing it to be massive overkill for Microsoft Office, and crushed its G4 predecessor and other quad-core models in our Cinebench processor measurement and Handbrake video editing exercise. It was a little off the pace of its six-core peers in our Adobe Photoshop image editing workload, but by less than a second per filter or effect.
And the G5 edged the Dell 5530 (though the latter was slightly handicapped by its higher 4K screen resolution) in our graphics tests. It produced playable frame rates in our Heaven and Valley gaming simulations at top screen-quality settings, even though its Quadro P2000 graphics aren’t optimized for gaming as Nvidia’s GeForce products are. The HP was also the longest-lasting Windows workstation in our battery rundown test, managing 12 hours of unplugged video playback, though the 15-inch Apple topped that at almost 16.5 hours.
In workstation-specific benchmarks, the ZBook completed POV-Ray 3.7’s off-screen ray-tracing exercise in 117 seconds, just a tick behind the Precision 5530’s 112 but ahead of the Precision 3530’s 146. In SPECviewperf 13, which renders and rotates solid and wireframe models using selected ISV apps, the HP posted 77 frames per second (fps) in Creo and 86fps in Maya, compared to 77fps and 90fps respectively for the Dell Precision 5530; 57fps and 58fps for the Dell Precision 3530; and 37fps apiece for another “slimline” workstation, the Lenovo ThinkPad P52s.
Large and in Charge
The HP ZBook 15 G5 is an outstanding mobile workstation. Its flexibility and component accessibility make it the best we’ve seen in the traditional size and weight class. The Dell Precision 5530 holds our Editors’ Choice for thinking outside that traditional size and weight class—while it has negatives, like its 32GB RAM ceiling and the unusable webcam placement inherited from the XPS 15, its smaller, lighter form factor makes it more convenient for taking workflows on the road. But if you’ve got an appetite for power, this ZBook is ready to serve.