The HP ZBook x2 isn’t a laptop. Not in the normal sense, anyway. It’s a specialized tool designed to serve as a complete solution for digital artists, photographers and other creatives. It’s massive, but designed to provide easy access to shortcuts. It also has a professional-grade stylus and a matte 4K display that feels as if you’re drawing on paper.
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But a fully specced- out version with an 8th Gen Intel Core i7 CPU and Nvidia Quadro graphics will cost you more than $3,500 ($1,647.36 to start), so while what it does is unique, you’re going to pay a heck of a premium for it. For this review, I showed the ZBook to Laptop Mag’s deputy director of photography, Jef Castro, who also works as a digital artist, in order to get a sense of how he would use it on a day-to-day basis. We also ran the ZBook through our normal benchmarks to compare it to similar products that creatives might also consider.
You’ve never seen a laptop like this before. The ZBook is industrial in a way that looks powerful. It’s a large, metal octagon. The back is a very plain gunmetal gray with a reflective Z logo and a whole bunch of vents for cooling. The pull-out kickstand could use a little more to put you fingers in the small notches on the side, but it pulls out almost flat, up to 165 degrees.
The front is far more interesting. There’s a thick bezel around the 14-inch, 4K matte display, but it’s built with a purpose.The top houses a webcam and infrared cameras for logging in with Windows Hello, and the sides have 12 (six on each side) programmable shortcut buttons (see below).
The semi-octagonal keyboard attaches with magnets to the bottom of the tablet, and shares the same gray color scheme on the deck, but with black buttons.
And it should be as tough as it is large. HP claims that the machine is MIL-STD 810G tested, so it should have no issues with shocks, drops or vibrations.
All of the ports are on the sides of the tablet, with a headphone jack and a lock slot on the left.
Along the right is where you’ll find a fingerprint reader, an SD card slot, a USB 3.0 port, an HDMI output, a pair of Thunderbolt 3 ports and a barrel-shaped charging jack.
You’ve never seen a laptop like this before.
At 14.5 x 8.9 x 0.8 inches and 4.9 pounds with the keyboard ( 0.6 inches thick and 3.8 pounds without), the ZBook is larger than other workstations. The 15-inch Microsoft Surface Book 2 is 13.5 x 9.9 x 0.9 inches and 4.2 pounds, and the 15-inch MacBook Pro is 13.8 x 9.5 x 0.6 inches and 4 pounds.
While the Surface is bottom heavy, with additional battery capacity and a GPU in its base, the ZBook takes the opposite approach. Everything is in the tablet, which means when you take off the keyboard, you still get the same level of performance. It does, however, make it clunkier than the Surface when used as a tablet.
You can get brighter displays, but the ZBook’s 14-inch, 4K panel ranks as one of the most vivid we’ve ever measured. It’s also one of the few matte touch screens I’ve seen, and it has a chemical coating that, when paired with the stylus, feels like you’re writing on paper. The ZBook has what HP calls a DreamColor display, which means it can show 1 billion different colors. When I watched some videos on the matte screen, though, they didn’t appear as great as the scores would suggest. In the trailer for Avengers: Infinity War, the oranges and yellows in Doctor Strange’s spells popped against New York City streets, but Thanos’ purple skin was dull.
Most colors looked quite good, but darker scenes suffered. This, Castro told me, is because the matte finish softens contrast, which he thinks is a double-edged sword. Matte is definitely better for creating art, but for reviewing a drawing, Castro said he’d want to look at it on a glossier screen. Additionally, the ZBook x2 has a standard 16:9 aspect ratio, but for drawing, Castro said he prefers something similar to the 4:3 ratio offered by the iPad Pro.
You can get brighter displays, but the ZBook’s 14-inch, 4K panel display ranks as one of the most vivid we’ve ever measured.
The screen covers 178 percent of the sRGB color gamut, an excellent score that beats the workstation average (150 percent), the Surface Book 2 (131 percent) and the MacBook Pro (126 percent). It’s dimmer than the competition, though, at 313 nits. That’s higher than average (308 nits) but far below the MacBook Pro (460 nits) and the Surface Book 2 (417 nits).
Stylus and Shortcuts
Lots of laptops come with a stylus, but the ZBook x2 is among the best I’ve tried. It’s the length of a real pen and has a comfortable weight. The matte screen’s chemical treatment gives it a slightly rough feeling, like a piece of paper.
“The stylus felt identical to a WACOM, so if that is already familiar to you, then there would be no learning curve to transition to this,” Castro told me. The stylus has 4,096 degrees of pressure sensitivity in both tip and eraser.
Castro currently uses an Apple Pencil and iPad Pro, and he said he appreciated that the ZBook’s stylus has an eraser, though the screen picked up his wrist a few times as he drew. Another thing the ZBook stylus has over the Apple Pencil is that you don’t need to charge it, ever. The Apple Pencil needs to be plugged into a Lightning port on an iPad.
MORE: Best 2-in-1s 2018
The shortcut buttons on the sides of the screen are great for when you’re sketching without the keyboard. In Photoshop, I had one preset as a color picker to quickly switch between hues, while another one made brush strokes thicker and thinner. You can control the shortcuts on the sides with HP’s Create Control Panel, which can adjust those buttons as well as preferences for the pen and eraser. When I installed Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator, it pre-populated with suggested shortcuts.
Castro told me that they made sense as starting points for jumping in right away. For the stylus, you can adjust the tip and eraser feel, the tilt sensitivity, and what the extra button on the pen does. You won’t want to press too hard, though. Like most screens, the ZBook’s has a bit of give that distorts when you press hard with a stylus. Castro said he doesn’t see this on his iPad, however.
The stylus comes with a nice carrying case, but I wish it were magnetic to stick to the tablet, similar to what Microsoft does with the Surface and Surface Pen. That would make it easier to keep the two together.
Keyboard and Touchpad
A lot of detachable 2-in-1s flounder when it comes to the keyboard. The ZBook’s, though, is excellent and comparable to a full-size laptop. It offers a full 1.5 millimeters of travel and requires 68 grams of force to press. On the 10fastfingers.com typing test, I reached 118 words per minute with a 3-percent error rate, which is par for the course for me. I do prefer the keyboard angled slightly up (it felt a little flat when simply placed on my desk), but otherwise, I got a nice, clicky feel.
The keyboard attaches to the ZBook x2 not only via Pogo pins but also over Bluetooth. That means that when the keyboard is detached, you can still use it. For instance, in the Adobe suite, you can have the keyboard nearby for keyboard shortcuts without having it directly connected to the tablet. Of course, that means you need to remember to charge the keyboard. There’s a mini USB port on the back for this purpose, though the keyboard will charge on its own off of the tablet.
A lot of detachable 2-in-1s flounder when it comes the keyboard. The ZBook’s, though, is excellent, and comparable to a full-size laptop.
The 4.3 x 2.5-inch inch touchpad is nice and spacious and responds quickly to Windows 10 gestures, like tapping four fingers to open the Action Center and dragging three fingers up to see all of your open programs.
HP’s partnership with Bang & Olufsen has typically led to amazing sound, but that’s not the case with the ZBook x2. The speakers are on the top of the back of the tablet, which meant that when I used the ZBook x2 as a laptop, the speakers fired away from me. When I listened to The Knack’s “My Sharona,” the vocals and guitars were decent, but the drums weren’t snappy and the bass was weak. However, the drums got better when I started to draw. With the kickstand bent to its full 165-degrees, the speakers fired at the table, reflecting back at me. But it was barely loud enough to fill a small conference room. HP’s Bang & Olufsen Audio app has a bunch of preprogrammed equalizer, but I would recommend most people leave it on the default “HP Optimized” setting.
Our top-of-the-line ZBook came with an Intel Core i7-8650U CPU, 32GB of RAM, a 512GB PCIe SSD and an Nvidia Quadro M620 GPU with 2GB of VRAM. With those kinds of specs, everyday tasks were an easy exercise. I had 25 tabs open in Google Chrome, including one streaming a 1080p episode of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver while also sketching and applying filters in Photoshop. There wasn’t a hint of lag.
On the Geekbench 4 overall performance test, the ZBook earned a score of 15,308, which is higher than the 13,973, workstation average, the MacBook Pro (15,170, 7th Gen Intel Core i7) and the Surface Book 2 (12,505, Core i7-8650U).
The ZBook’s PCIe SSD transferred 4.97GB of files in 8 seconds or a blazing 631.2 megabytes per second. That’s faster than the average (523MBps) and the Surface (318.1MBps), but the MacBook Pro is a little quicker(654MBps).
On our Excel macro test, which pairs 65,000 names and addresses, the ZBook took 1 minute and 21 seconds, beating both the average (1:37) and the Surface (1:31).
We also ran the ZBook through our Handbrake video-editing test, which transcodes a 4K video to a 1080p video. It took the ZBook 20 minutes and 25 seconds to complete, shaving a few minutes off the average (22:38) and the Surface Book (23 minutes).
But when it comes to pure graphics might, the ZBook lost out to the Surface, which has an Nvidia GeForce GTX 1060 GPU. On the 3DMark Ice Storm Unlimited benchmark, it earned a score of 115,845, falling behind the average (136,274) and the Surface Book 2 (162,361). The Surface Book 2’s GPU is capable of entry-level VR and high-level gaming.
The ZBook x2 will need its charger if you want to travel. It lasted just 4 hours and 9 minutes on Laptop Mag Battery Test 2.0, which continuously browses websites, graphics tests and videos at 150 nits. That’s less than the workstation average of 6 hours and 5 minutes. The Surface Book 2 endured for 11 hours and 34 minutes (with its keyboard base. As a tablet alone, it lasts a measly 3 hours and 12 minutes).
Part of this is because the DreamColor screen uses the discrete GPU at all times. We also tried testing the ZBook x2 with DreamColor turned off (you can make this switch in the BIOS; some models don’t include the DreamColor screen). In that case, running mostly on the integrated graphics, it ran for 6:58, which is better but still pales in comparison to the Surface Book 2.
The ZBook x2 has two cameras: a front-facing, 720p selfie cam, and a 3264 x 1836 rear shooter. I initially found the camera on the back to be a curious decision, though our artist suggested it might be good for taking a picture of something he wanted to sketch.
The front-facing camera leaves something to be desired. In our well-lit office, it got the color of my green sweater right. But light coming in from some windows completely blew out the shot, and it didn’t catch finer details on my face, as my eyebrows looked drawn onto my face.
With the back camera, I took pictures of some desk toys that one might want to sketch. While my Iron Man and Captain America Funko Pops came out sharp, the colors weren’t exact.
The tablet can get a little toasty under a heavy load. After streaming 15 minutes of HD video from YouTube, the back of the tablet measured 97 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s just a bit higher than our 95-degree comfort threshold. Using it in laptop mode shouldn’t be an issue, though, as the center of the keyboard and the touchpad stayed a cool 77 degrees.
Software and Warranty
HP’s software includes HP WorkWise, which you can use to manage your PC from your mobile device, and HP JumpStart, which offers tutorials for setting up your machine.
If you’re using the ZBook x2, you’re probably using Adobe’s creative suite. That doesn’t come free with the ZBook x2, but you can get a decent deal on a one-year subscription. If you get the laptop from HP, you can get the Creative Cloud Suite for $479 for a year, which is 20 percent off the usual $49.99 per month asking price.
The HP ZBook x2 we reviewed costs $3,623.04 and includes an Intel Core i7-8650U CPU, 32GB of RAM, a 512GB PCIe SSD, an Nvidia Quadro M620 with 2GB of VRAM and HP’s DreamColor display. The CPU we got is one of the few that enables vPro on the ZBook x2, so IT departments can manage the system remotely.
Unlike most traditional laptops, HP has set up four configurations that it thinks are best for different creatives. There’s one for photographers ($2,849), digital artists ($2,429), UX designers ($2,849) and professional digital artists and photographers ($3,279). Those all use Intel Core i7-7500U or i7-7600U CPUs and have various amounts of storage and RAM.
Alternatively, you can use a customization tool to build your own. The cheapest option I was able to build cost $1,647.36, with an Intel Core i5-8250U CPU, 8GB of RAM, a 128GB SATA SSD, a 4K non-DreamColor display, and no webcam, no discrete GPU, no fingerprint reader, no stylus and, instead of Windows 10, FreeDOS 2.0. (Windows 10 Home adds $140 to the cost, Windows 10 Pro jumps $193.) It’s hard to recommend that model, though, even if you have your own Windows license to upgrade to. Somewhere in between there and the maxxed-out configuration we received are a dizzying array of choices. Whatever amount of storage or RAM you want, you can configure it. If you don’t need a fingerprint reader or a camera, ditch it.
The HP ZBook x2 is a specialized tool for digital creatives that need power, a high-res screen, a fantastic stylus and accessible shortcuts for the Adobe creative suite, albeit with mediocre battery life. It’s expensive, but there’s no machine out there like it. I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone other than hard-core professional artists or editors who want one device that can do everything. If you already use an iPad Pro, a Wacom tablet or other input device in conjunction with another computer, you’ll save money going for the 15-inch Apple MacBook Pro (starting at $2,399). It will get you a bright display and strong performance for less money and has great integration with an iPad. If you need more powerful graphics performance, the 15-inch Surface Book 2 (starting at $2,499) has an Nvidia GTX 1060 GPU that can also play games and power VR experiences. It also has a great pen, but you won’t get the graphics performance in tablet mode.
Those who want professional-grade inking and Adobe integration in an all-in-one device need look no further than the ZBook x2. Just be prepared to fork out a hefty amount of dough for all the bells and whistles.
Credit: Shaun Lucas/Laptop Mag