Review: HP's ZBook 17
Issue: November 1, 2013

Review: HP's ZBook 17



PRICE: Starting at $1,849


- SSD for fast boot times
- Nvidia Quadro K5100M graphics
- DreamColor display

HP has been turning out very solid and fast mobile workstations for a while now, most noticeably the EliteBook series, which is getting a refresh in the form of the HP ZBook. At first glance, I wondered if HP had sent me a consumer laptop, as it reminded me of their other laptop offerings in some ways. But when I open it up and began looking deeper, I couldn’t be any more wrong — this is a very serious workstation.

Firstly, the chassis for the ZBook 17 is sleek. It sports a rounded front and HP got rid of any screen latch button in front in favor of a magnetic latch, which I love. However, on this particular unit, the hinge on the screen is a quite stiff, forcing you to use both hands when opening the laptop; simply lifting the screen/lid will lift the entire machine. The underside feels a little lightweight, but solid, and gives you easy access to internal components like memory slots and hard drive bays. I fear it may dent a little bit, but the weight savings and heat dissipation is appreciated.

When you compare the weight and heft of a mobile workstation like this to consumer level laptops, you’ll think this was on par with the heavier 17-inch machines you get from the big chain retailers. But when you realize that this is a desktop replacement workstation, you’ll immediately be thrilled with how portable it is for how powerful it is.

And power is where the ZBook shines. Inside, this is a monster. With 16GBs of RAM (which is the minimum amount of memory I would recommend) supporting a quad-core Intel Core i7-4900MQ 2.8 GHz CPU, you can run just about any application alongside any other application at the same time. I frequently run Autodesk Maya alongside Adobe Photoshop and After Effects, all of which are memory and processor hungry. It’s a 47W CPU, meaning it has plenty of power, and is not a stripped-down, low-voltage processor you may find in mobile systems. This is important for professional use, such as with 3D applications.

With 3D graphics, the ZBooks 17’s Nvidia Quadro K5100M is absurdly fast. Running SPECViewperf 11, I was amazed with a 33 percent increase in frame rates across all tests compared to the EliteBook 8760w, which has an already impressive Quadro 5010M. I then ran my homemade series of Maya 2014 benchmarks and found a staggering 60 percent increase in frame times playing back a simple animation scene with 12.4 million polygons. Wow! This is in no doubt attributable to the new Nvidia Kepler architecture. Compared to a desktop i7-860 2.8 GHz running a full Nvidia Quadro 5000 card (not a mobile “M” version), the performance gains of the ZBook’s K5100M were actually even higher with my own Maya 2014 benchmarks. This just reinforces the fact I need to upgrade my desktop (don’t tell my wife)!

With a fast bandwidth DisplayPort output, I can hook up any external monitor to have dual displays, a luxury without which I simply cannot do, especially when my desk already rocks an HP 27-inch IPS screen. You could even add a VGA monitor if you find yourself transported to the 1990s. But there is something to be said for covering all your bases. Then, add to that USB 3.0 ports, an SD card reader and a Thunderbolt port, you have all the connectivity options you’d ever need, at least in this decade. The ZBook 17 even has USB 2.0 ports as well, just in case some peripherals don’t work in USB 3 yet. 

The ZBook’s display is a beautiful, 17-inch, 10-bit capable DreamColor display, so you can count on accurate color without constant calibration. The colors are rich and deep, and spot on, so you can be assured of your output without having to jack into an external monitor. The bezel around the screen, I admit, is a bit wide for my taste; I prefer a sleeker edge-to-edge style if I can get it, but the screen itself I can swear by. If you are keen on your color, get the DreamColor option, it’s professional grade and worth every penny.

Inside the machine, we have an SSD drive for fast boot times and application launching. There is a second hard drive bay in the 17-inch model, allowing you to add a second drive which you can RAID. For example, you could easily have dual SSDs in mirror for safety or striped together for pure speed. I recommend at least a 120GB SSD as the boot drive with a 750GB or larger mechanical drive for the most flexibility.

All the ports and a Blu-ray drive all live along the sides of the ZBook, leaving only the power connector and gigabit Ethernet port in the back. The back and underside are very well vented, keeping the machine cool, even under pressure. Even after days of running the machine at full-tilt, I never felt the chassis getting more than warm to the touch. While fan noise is definitely audible when the machine is running at its max, when you’re standing eight feet from the machine, it is preferable to a lesser-ventilated machine, and not louder than the previous EliteBooks. When under normal, non-crazy use, the fan is perfectly quiet.

What isn’t so quiet is the new speaker arrangement, and that’s good. The speakers run along the top of the keyboard and fire upward with a deep rich sound suitable for watching movies. A built-in Web camera allows you Skype with your family when you’re away at work, and a nice suite of software from HP rounds out this mobile workstation. 

You can get decent battery life by being conservative with screen brightness, however, under fair usage with the brightest screen setting and multiple apps running, you can expect about 2.5-3 hours of battery. Under a heavy, take-no-prisoners workload, you can expect just about an hour of battery life, which is in line with previous mobile workstations I’ve reviewed.

While I first thought how “normal” this notebook looked, I am actually quite surprised by its graphics performance and agility. The sound quality is a nice addition, as are the security tools. While I wouldn’t drag this out on a plane (I fly coach!), I would take the ZBook on-set and to presentations. In short, I trust the ZBook’s refined horsepower and appreciate its mobility, and I just can’t get over its blistering pro graphics and gorgeous color-accurate screen.

Dariush Derakhshani is a VFX Supervisor and Professor in Los Angeles. You can find him at and on Twitter @koosh3d.