HP ZBook 14 review $2399
16th Jan 2014 | 22:29
The first workstation ultrabook keeps it simple
When it comes to professional laptops, HP isn't playing games. The company isn't interested in fancy features or alternative designs—its simply out to make a product that delivers. Inside and out, that philosophy is clear in the HP ZBook 14, which the vendor claims is "the world's first workstation ultrabook."
Weighing just 3.57 pounds and measuring 0.83 inches thin, the ZBook 14 is quite the mobile machine. The notebook was a breeze to carry around in my shoulder bag for the past week or so, and wasn't a pain to pull out either. The fact that HP ensured that its workstation ultrabook was built with premium materials certainly helped.
The ZBook 14 comes in a gray brushed aluminum finish on its lid surrounded by black soft touch paint accents and a classy chrome HP logo front and center. Smooth magnesium coats the laptop keyboard deck in an almost gunmetal hue, surrounding a chiclet-style, backlit and spill-resistant keyboard with matte plastic keys replete with drain to offset liquid damage.
To please the veteran business users, HP included a gray rubber pointing stick between the G, H and B keys with two dedicated buttons just below the spacebar. Most users will be served just fine by the snappy, smooth touchpad with firm physical buttons.
Above the keyboard is a 14-inch, 1920 x 1080 LED screen that users can upgrade with 10 point multi-touch capability. Look even further up, and you'll find a 720p webcam—both of which are surrounded by a black magnesium bezel wrapped by a thick bumper of rubber.
Unfortunately, the ZBook 14 doesn't keep to a consistent aesthetic: The underside is made of a black magnesium and the soft touch paint on the lid is off putting. This pro laptop is no Lenovo ThinkPad Yoga or 15-inch MacBook Pro in terms of style. (The latter is seeing more and more play in the business world.)
Easy access? On a laptop? Blasphemy!
Despite its boring plastic construction, this ultrabook's undercarriage has a terribly useful feature: easy removal for access to the laptop's innards. Coined by HP as the "Easy Access Door," this allows for easy upgrades to this ZBook 14's 240GB solid-state drive, 16GB of DDR3 RAM and more.
Held by one simple-but-sturdy sliding lock, this should come in especially handy for the business user or IT pro when hardware issues rear their ugly heads. But there's more to be said of a feature like this: HP is focused on function more so than form, for a product that would be the most useful for business-class users.
The ZBook 14 might not turn heads at the local coffee shop or on your cross-country flight, but thanks to a solid design—take the stiff, sturdy hinges, for instance—it will prove to be a reliable workhorse. HP made sure of that with some serious specs focused on one thing: enterprise performance.
This laptop won't bend 360 degrees on a whim or detach into an enormous, unwieldy tablet, but how useful is that, really? The ZBook 14 is a focused ultrabook outfitted with the hardware and features needed to get the job done in a shape that won't break your back. To the no-nonsense business user, that's all that should matter. Well, that and price, but more on that in a bit.
The ZBook 14 measures 13.35 x 9.33 x 0.83 inches (W x D x H) and weighs 3.57 pounds. That's a bit thicker than the 3.52-pound Lenovo ThinkPad Yoga, but isn't even a tenth of a pound heavier. That HP's ultrabook accomplishes this while offering a larger screen is impressive. Of course, the 13-inch MacBook Air outclasses both of these laptops when it comes to portability.
And thanks to its slightly larger dimensions than most business notebooks, HP didn't have to sacrifice connectivity for size. To start, this pro-grade notebook comes packing four USB 3.0 ports (one with charging capability) - already that's double what the MacBook Air and ThinkPad Yoga can say - and it doesn't stop there.
This is the ZBook 14 configuration HP sent to TechRadar:
- CPU: 2.1GHz Intel Core i7-4600U (dual-core, 4MB cache, Intel vPro security)
- Graphics: AMD FirePro M4100 with 1GB GDDR5 RAM (switchable with Intel HD Graphics 4400)
- RAM: 16GB DDR3L
- Screen: 14-inch 1920 x 1080 LED FHD UWVA with anti-glare
- Storage: 240GB SSD
- Ports: 4 USB 3.0 (1 charging); DisplayPort; stereo mic/headphone jack; RJ-45 Ethernet; side docking connector; VGA, SD card reader, SmartCard reader
- Connectivity: Intel 7260AN 802.11a/b/g/n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.0
- Webcam: 720p front-facing camera
- Security: Fingerprint sensor; lock slot
- Weight: 3.57 pounds
- Size: 13.35 x 9.33 x 0.83 inches
Here's the stinger: This configuration will cost you a whopping $2,349 (about £1,430, AU$2,617), and a number of these marquee components do not come standard. If you were to pick up the starting ZBook 14 configuration for $1,399 (around £851, AU$1,558), you'd have just a 1600 x 900 display, 4GB of RAM, a 500GB, 7,200 rpm SATA hard drive. Luckily, you would still get the AMD FirePro graphics chip, 720p webcam and fingerprint sensor along with the vast input and output selection.
The beefiest ThinkPad Yoga configuration offers an equally-clocked Intel Core i7-4200U, but can only provide half the RAM and a slightly larger SSD (256GB) for $1,514 (about £921, AU$1,686). By comparison, a souped up 13-inch MacBook Air puts up just a 1.7GHz dual-core Haswell chip and half the RAM, but twice as much SSD storage (512GB) for $1,849 (around £1,125, AU$2,060). Both maxed out models may be hundreds cheaper, but keep in mind that neither offer a dedicated GPU and present less screen real estate.
The Core i7-4600U inside the ZBook 14 can reach up to a 3.3GHz frequency using Intel's Turbo Boost feature. Between that and a dedicated GPU with 1GB of GDDR5 RAM, the ZBook 14 should be ready to meet the most intense business tasks.
Still, nearly $2,500 is a lot to ask for a 14-inch business laptop. Consider that when you could get an all-aluminum, 15-inch MacBook Pro with a 2880 x 1800 Retina display, a 2.3GHz quad-core Haswell chip (which can Turbo Boost to a faster 3.5GHz), a bit more SSD storage (256GB) and just as much RAM for $50 less.
Stacking the ZBook 14 up against these business machines makes HP's mission with this ultrabook even clearer: utility over all. While the ZBook 14's spec sheet and price tag is outclassed by even Apple in some regards, none of these competitors provide features like fingerprint security, easy access to components and dedicated graphics processing for that fee.
The ZBook 14 performed admirably on our range of synthetic benchmark tests, save for battery life, thanks in no small part to its Core i7 chip and AMD FirePro GPU. Here's how it did:
- Cinebench 11.5: Graphics: 36.72 FPS; CPU: 2.95 pts
- 3DMark: Ice Storm: 39,887; Cloud Gate: 6,396; Fire Strike: 1,208
- PCMark 8 Battery life: 2 hours and 51 minutes
Numbers like this show what a business-class graphics processor can do, tackling one of the most intense graphics benchmarks around and spitting out a four-digit score. However, don't expect to play too many 3D games on this machine, as many game developers tend to leave enterprise-grade video cards off the table. Stick to your gaming rig or shiny new Xbox One for blowing digital dudes up.
Generally speaking, it's tough to wear a machine down in an anecdotal multitasking test, especially one configured as such. The ZBook 14 had no issue running over 10 Google Chrome tabs rife with spreadsheets, ad-filled web pages and word documents alongside Spotify streaming high bitrate music, multiple PDFs open and a dedicated chat app. Thanks to its optional SSD, the ZBook 14 booted to Windows 7 (up to Windows 8 Pro is also on offer) in seconds.
Going the distance
PCMark 8 pegged the ZBook 14 for just 2 hours and 51 minutes of battery life. That low rating could be chalked up to the fact that the benchmark includes a number of graphics-heavy tests in its rotation, including video playback and photo editing. These tasks could have triggered the dedicated GPU, with the laptop switching back to Intel's integrated HD Graphics 4400 processor for less intense processes. TechRadar also runs this test on the "High performance" power setting and maximum brightness.
During my own time with the ZBook 14, it lasted for a much lengthier 4 hours and 18 minutes. In my anecdotal testing, I was running 10 Google Chrome tabs replete with spreadsheets and word processors in addition to ad-heavy web pages, streaming high bitrate audio on Spotify, using a chat app and manipulating several PDFs. This test was conducted using the "High performance" power setting, the volume set low, the keyboard backlit and brightness at 50%.
Still, this time doesn't come close to the 10+ hours that HP promises. That's likely due to the nature of the company's internal testing, which could involve different power profiles, screen settings and more. If you were to run the ZBook 14 a lower power setting and dim the screen and keyboard, you should squeeze out at least another hour or so. That would get you by on most cross country flights.
Snappy keyboard, meet smooth touchpad
It's a beautiful thing when a laptop's touchpad and keyboard just work. When you have just the right amount of key travel and a silky smooth tracking surface, the two work in tandem for a seamless experience. This is exactly what HP's new pro-grade laptop brings to the table.
Even with its hard mouse buttons, the ZBook 14's Synaptics-built touchpad is one of the finest I've used on a Windows laptop. Palm rejection was a non-issue, and inertial scrolling worked without effort. While my mission to kill the pointing stick will never cease, I'll allow it in this case considering how flush it sits between the G, H and B keys.
The ZBook 14 keyboard is just as delightful, offering just enough snap to keep up with me typing most of this very review. HP left more than enough room on the palm rests to fit comfortably, though the fit would be even better if the touch pad were centered. At any rate, the matte plastic keys rarely slipped under my fingers, and the white backlighting was even throughout. (Unfortunately, the keyboard backlighting doesn't come standard either.)
A fun and functional fingerprint sensor
Not only is the HP Fingerprint Sensor on the ZBook 14 effective, it's a blast to use. After a quick registration process replete with security questions and three test swipes, I was logging into the laptop with just a single finger – not eight in a special sequence.
It helps that that fingerprint sensor is incredibly quick, recognizing my print in about a second. By the time I got used to using the feature, I wanted it on every device that I owned. As it turns out, simply swiping my finger across the sensor strip was faster than typing in my password.
It's features like this that need to be standard not just on business laptops, but devices across the board, especially when the process is so seamless and reliable. (I had an officemate try logging into the ZBook 14 using his fingerprint to no avail.) Frankly, it's about time the MacBook Pro latched onto this technology.
HP has kept the bloatware light, given that this is a device designed for enterprise users. Business folk don't need apps like Kindle preinstalled – they need software-level security measures and useful productivity tools, and that's what HP delivers on the ZBook14. Here's a closer look at the most notable apps on offer:
- CyberLink YouCam: Allowing you to change the webcam resolution and other settings, this app comes alongside Skype. You can go pretty deep into exposure and lighting settings, which should please frequent video callers.
- DTS Studio Sound: This app allows you to fiddle with volume and equalizer settings as well as slightly enhance sound output. Robust recording settings (like beam forming control) are on offer as well, making it another must for video callers.
- PDF Complete: Your standard, run-of-the-mill PDF reader. However, you'll need to pay up if you want to edit – just download Adobe Reader at that point.
- HP PageLift: This could come in handy as a scanner on the go, autocropping photos of documents and creating JPG images out of them. Just be sure to use a decent camera and upload the images from an SD card.
- HP Software Setup: Don't bother going to the HP support website for downloading drivers and software updates. You can do all of that right here, and it works rather well, granted you have a decent Internet connection.
- HP Client Security: This is the hub for all of the security tools that HP offers, including File Sanitizer, which can securely scrub mechanical hard drives. (Unfortunately, SSD scrubbing is off the table.)
- HP Performance Advisor: Get simple diagnostics on your system's components, a detailed map of how they all connect, live reports on memory usage and resource monitoring on applications with this handy app.
- HP Connection Manager: This is a simple place to manage and monitor your PC's wireless communications from Wi-Fi to Bluetooth and 4G LTE (if you're so lucky).
With the ZBook 14, it's clear that HP isn't interested in reinventing the wheel. This business ultrabook is simply about providing the best, most focused computing experience for its enterprise audience. This laptop delivers on that promise, diverting from the core feature set only when it makes sense.
The result is a mobile workstation that seems to have made consideration for the business user from remote connectivity to security and beyond. The only aspect of the ZBook 14 that lacks focus is it chassis design. While the laptop's aluminum and magnesium makeup is choice, it's also inconsistent – particularly where the lid and bezel are concerned.
The standard fingerprint sensor on the ZBook 14 makes me want to see such tech on every laptop from here on out. Never before have I seen a fingerprint sensor act so quickly and reliably as HP's, thanks in part to Validity's hardware. As soon as I had registered my right index finger, it was simpler and faster to log into via fingerprint than password. That HP Password Manager can extend this to any login you use online makes this feature all the sweeter.
There's also plenty to be said for the mouse and keyboard experience on the ZBook 14. Honestly, quality inputs are tough to find on Windows laptops – it's usually one or the other that turns out to be a dud. Not so with this ultrabook. With snappy keys that are easy to grip and a well-placed pointing stick, typing this review was a breeze. Plus, a silky smooth tracking surface with buttons that provide just enough give made for worry-free navigation. It's too bad that the touchpad isn't center on the palm rest, though it's a minor complaint.
Overall, I appreciate how much the ZBook 14 considers not only the user, but the business doling several of these laptops out to employees, with features like an Easy Access Door. That's bound to make repairs and upgrades less painful for all parties involved. Also, HP's choice of software adds some welcome features, like fingerprint logins on any website and a stopgap document scanning solution while on the go.
Aside from the fingerprint sensor and Easy Access Door, few of these marquee features actually come standard, namely the beefy processor, backlit keyboard and screen resolution. All of these arguably necessary niceties together drive the ZBook 14's price up to 15-inch MacBook Pro levels, putting its value into question.
This might be a vain concern, but the ZBook 14 isn't an attractive machine. Between brushed aluminum and soft touch paint on the lid and a magnesium frame and keyboard deck, this laptop's design is the only thing about it that lacks focus. That said, I've at times forgotten that this ultrabook was even in my backpack – a testament to how thin and light a profile HP achieved with this workstation.
Finally, the ZBook 14 is one speedy business rig, but I ran into more than a few snags during my time with the laptop. Namely, the blue screen of death reared its ugly head more than a few times, not to mention lockups that forced me to hard restart the system. Of course, all of these were easily recovered from, and my data was intact. And while it happened more often than I would like, this issue is likely exclusive to my review sample and not the entire lot.
The HP ZBook 14 neither turns the world of business computing upside down nor does it bring anything relatively new to the table. When your primary concern is an ultrabook that provides the tools you need to get your job done quickly and securely, none of that matters. HP knows this, and that philosophy drives this laptop through and through.
The result is a mobile workstation that's more than capable and offers the features you need, like dedicated, pro-level graphics processing and several security options. These two items should be standard on all business laptops, and the ZBook 14 looks all the better for it.
However, the optional features – some of which that should be standard issue – that were crammed into the review unit sent to TechRadar heavily skew the ZBook 14's value. At this price range, other more stylish or better-specced options become viable alternatives, like the 15-inch MacBook Pro, despite its lack of hardware-level security.
This ultrabook is a fantastically-equipped, 14-inch workhorse at its most expensive, but is easily outshadowed by larger, shinier and cheaper competitors in some regards. If effective, simple security, a pro-grade GPU and easy access are concerns for you, an entry level or mid-range HP ZBook 14 will serve you well.