HP ZBook 15

HP laptop has workstation power, gov-level security

This review has been updated with additional information and a correction of the starting price for the ZBook 15.

Many government workers require a workstation to do their jobs. Whether for heavy number-crunching, simulation, graphically intensive programs or development work, they need the power that workstations offer. But in the past, that has meant staffers were stuck at their desks next to the big computer tower. In recent years, there has been an effort to slim down workstations a bit, which led to the development of Hewlett Packard's ZBook product line. The ZBooks are designed to offer workstation power in a mobile format.

There are three models in the ZBook family right now. The ZBook 14 is an ultraportable model. The ZBookZBook 17 has a bigger screen and the most powerful graphics package in the lineup. The ZBook 15 Mobile Workstation, which is the flagship system, comes with lots of configuration options and offers a good balance of portability and workstation power that should make it a nice fit for most government users.

Government buyers will be happy to find that the ZBook 15 has a fingerprint reader as a standard option and an integrated smart card reader, which would meet authentication requirements. This goes along with a dedicated TPM 1.2 embedded security chip. And there is support for the Computrace GPS tracking program as an extra option, if that level of security is required. Given that some of the data being worked on by the portable workstation could be sensitive, it's nice to see such an effort to make the ZBook 15 secure.

In terms of performance, the ZBook was able to achieve an overall score of 3,051 on the PassMark PerformanceTest benchmark. That puts it well above most desktop systems and on par with tower-based workstations. In very recent months we have seen tower-based workstations get up to 5,000 or 6,000 in the PassMark ratings, but those were all much more expensive than the ZBook, and not even close to being portable.

For real-world testing, we attempted to time how long it took to open our 20M graphical test file in Photoshop using the ZBook, but it opened almost instantaneously. We had to more than double the file size before we could actually record a time for that test. Even then, it was less than a second. CAD programs were also able to rotate very complex, wire-frame graphics around in a 3D plane without a hint of slowdown. There was nothing that the ZBook couldn't do from our bag of testing tricks. This is a workstation-level computer in every area except size.

There were also several nice extras with the ZBook that are worth noting. The first was the fact that it had an illuminated, backlit keyboard. This makes it perfect for working in dim areas, or even in full darkness. Combined with the antiglare coating on the LCD screen, it makes the ZBook usable in almost any lighting condition, from a field bathed in full noon sunlight to the dark backseat of a car at night.

Another aspect that many government organizations should appreciate is that the entire interior of the workstation can be accessed without using tools, so upgrading the unit with more memory is a simple process. But more important, agency workers who need to lock up their hard drives at night or when not in use will find it easy to get inside the machine to secure their data. We've rarely found notebooks in any format to offer completely tool-free entry, so it was a pleasant surprise to discover it here.

The most interesting aspect of the ZBook line is that it's configurable to be able to do just about anything. Even just within the ZBook 15 line, there are a huge variety of options, including ruggedized units with Miltope casings.

The ZBook 15 is available in several configurations, but in general all of the units fall into the same basic format. Our test unit was 15 inches tall, 10.1 inches wide, 1.2 inches thick and weighed 6.2 pounds. It had an eight-cell battery, though larger ones are available. It also had a large 200-watt adaptor that adds to the weight but is necessary to power up all the components packed inside the casing.

The monitor on the ZBook 15 is a 15.6-inch LED-backlit LCD with a native resolution of 1,920 by 1,080. It also uses the same DreamColor standard found in high-end HP monitors, which was developed in conjunction with DreamWorks Studios to ensure perfect color accuracy. With the HP DreamColor calibration software, users can calibrate the ZBook so that colors on the screen match those of other monitors in the office or even the printer output. That way, color accuracy is ensured, throughout the entire production process.

One thing that helps give the ZBook 15 workstation-level performance is a Thunderbolt port, which gives peripherals the performance level of internal components. The Thunderbolt format combines PCI Express and DisplayPort into a single cable alongside a connection for electric power. Depending on the cables, up to six devices can be supported through the single port. There are also two USB 3.0 ports and one USB 3.0 charging port that can be used to recharge the batteries of most USB devices. And HP included a single USB 2.0 port in case users had any legacy devices that weren't compatible with the new formats. There is also a DisplayPort, a VGA port, a secondary battery connector and a jack for a stereo microphone-in/headphone-out combo device to be attached.

For networking, we weren't surprised to find a Gigabit Ethernet port that can scale down to operate on slower networks if needed. Wireless options include WLAN with Intel Centrino Advanced-N 6205 802.11 a/b/g/n plus Bluetooth.

Our test unit was configured with an Intel Core i7-4800MQ processor running at 2.7 GHz. Using turbo mode, that speed could be boosted to 3.7 GHz. Our unit had 16 GB of memory configured into four DIMM slots. It used the 64-bit version of Windows 7 Pro as the operating system.

Storage was provided by a 500 GB hard drive, though officials at HP told us that the ZBooks can handle configurations up to a 1.8 terabytes in size. We were also pleased to find an optical drive bay. The standard component for that area is a DVD-ROM but ours was upgraded to a writable Blu-ray drive, a really nice touch for those who need loads of removable storage.

There are lots of graphical options with the ZBook line, given that some users just need raw power while others will require a robust graphical engine. Our test unit had an Nvidia Quadro K2100M chipset with 2 GB of DDR5 RAM. That's on the high end of the graphical power scale. Users who don’t need that kind of graphical flair can drop in an NVIDIA Quadro K610M and save about $350.

At the baseline configuration, without a graphical package upgrade, the Zbook 15s start at $1,699. As configured for this test, our ZBook was priced at $3,989. At less than $4,000, the ZBook's performance makes it a good value for a highly configurable workstation. The fact that it's actually portable is a great extra. And its security options mean it's ready for government service almost right out of the box.

For government users who need power and performance, but don’t want to be chained to a full-size tower, the ZBook 15 will make a perfect traveling companion. Almost infinitely configurable, it's quite a big thing in a smaller-than-expected package.

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