Mobile workstations represent the top of the line in everything from build quality to performance. The ZBook line is HP’s entrant to this venerable market, offering display sizes from 14″ to 17.3″. The 15.6″ ZBook 15 model in this review is a G2 variant, a second-generation technology refresh of the original ZBook 15. The G2 model features the latest Intel Haswell processors, a new QHD+ IPS display option, M.2 SSDs and is now available with an AMD FirePro M5100 graphics card in addition to its Nvidia Quadro choices.
Note the HP ZBook 15 reviewed here shouldn’t be confused with HP’s other new 15.6-inch mobile workstation, the thin-and-light ZBook 15u G2 Ultrabook.
The HP ZBook 15 G2 features a traditional business-class design.
Build and Design
The ZBook 15 is almost unremarkable visually and unlikely to attract any wandering eyes. Its clean professional appearance undoubtedly says business use though the overly rounded corners give it a softer appearance than its squared-off predecessors. The dark exterior color scheme of black and gunmetal aluminum lends the ZBook 15 a weighty look; indeed, the ZBook 15’s 6.13 pounds is hefty and moreover relatively thick at 1.2″ tall all around. However this notebook is designed as a true desktop replacement with a full power Intel quad-core processor, up to 32 GB of RAM and dedicated graphics cards plus the need to be extra durable and have ample user serviceability, making the bulk more than understandable.
The ZBook 15’s chassis is internally reinforced with its own support structure. It’s exceptionally strong and resisted all our attempts to twist or induce flex. The lid is one of the most rigid we’ve seen short of a rugged notebook, exhibiting minimal flex when twisted by its corners and not even budging when we applied pressure to its back surface, an important indicator of how well the display is protected. The lid’s hinges hold it securely in place and don’t allow any display wobble without being overly stiff, a minor feat of engineering in itself. The hinges still allow the lid to be opened one-handed provided it’s done slowly. The ZBook 15’s build materials are a mix of thick black plastic and aluminum. The fit and finish is excellent with minimal and consistent gaps between parts.
Upgrades are easy thanks to a single convenient access panel.
The ZBook 15 is one of the easier notebooks on the market to upgrade. Its bottom access panel is tool-less – slide the lock latch to the left and the entire panel slides off with one pull. Underneath lies access to the 2.5″ drive bay, M.2 slot, two memory (RAM) slots, and the wireless card. The other two memory slots are located under the keyboard which takes a few minutes to remove. Also under the keyboard is the modular graphics card and socketed CPU. We should also note the battery is easily swappable and the optical drive can be replaced with a 2.5 drive caddy if desired. This is about as upgradeable as notebooks get.
Input and Output Ports
The ZBook 15 sports one of the most comprehensive port arrays we’ve seen on a 15.6-inch notebook. Unlike most consumer notebooks, it includes a SmartCard slot, ExpressCard/54, a Thunderbolt 2 port and an internal optical drive. If the included ports aren’t enough or if you prefer the convenience of a desktop-like setup, the ZBook 15 features a dedicated docking station connector on the bottom which is compatible with HP’s docking station solutions. The HP Advanced Docking Station supports up to five independent displays.
All picture descriptions are left to right.
Left: physical lock slot, USB 2.0, cooling exhaust vent, Thunderbolt 2, full-size DisplayPort, USB 3.0, ExpressCard/54 (top), SmartCard reader (bottom)
Right: SD card slot, headphone/microphone combination jack, USB 3.0, Blu-ray drive, VGA out
Rear: USB 3.0, AC power jack, Ethernet
Screen and Speakers
HP offers three display options on the ZBook 15 G2: the standard HD+ (1600×900) panel, an upgraded FHD (1920×1080), and the QHD+ (3200×1800) panel on our review unit which is new for the G2. The QHD+ display has three times as many pixels as on a traditional FHD display, which is the primary reason to opt for it. The QHD+ resolution provides exceptional clarity in applications where screen real estate is valued such as high-res photo editing. With scaling in Windows set to 150%, the text is just a hair smaller than it would be on a traditional FHD display at 100% yet still provides more available working space.
The QHD+ display uses IPS technology which is beneficial for image quality and viewing angles. The picture remains constant regardless of the angle you’re viewing, but we did notice the brightness shifting from side to side. Colors are full and lively and contrast is very good with rich blacks and whites. Brightness levels are plenty for indoor usage though it’s not quite enough outdoors on a sunny day. Another positive is the anti-glare surface treatment reduces or eliminates reflections, something easily appreciated in an office environment with overhead lighting.
The ZBook 15’s two stereo speakers lie beneath a perforated grill above the keyboard deck. Their sound quality leaves much to the imagination but they get sufficiently loud to play a video for two people. Bass is practically non-existent. Needless to say, plan on making use of the headphone jack for meaningful sound.
Keyboard and Touchpad
The ZBook 15 has a full-size Chiclet style keyboard with a separate numeric keypad and two levels of white LED backlighting. The keys have a short throw but a quick and precise action, making it great for touch typing. We also appreciate how little noise the keys make when pressed. Furthermore the keyboard deck is rock solid with no flex which contributes to the overall solid feel of this notebook. All of the standard desktop keys are present and the layout is similar to a traditional desktop keyboard. The backlighting is softer than expected but plenty visible in the dark; it can be adjusted or turned off by pressing the [Fn] and [F11] keys in conjunction.
Dedicated wireless on/off and volume mute buttons reside to the top right of the keyboard. We’d ideally like to also see buttons for controlling the volume and toggling the touchpad on and off as on previous generation HP workstation notebooks. [Fn] and F-key shortcuts are available for all of the mentioned functions however.
The oversized Synaptics touchpad is offset to the left to be in line with the keyboard area. This alignment is how we see most brands approach touchpad implementations when including a number pad and it makes sense; it keeps the touchpad away from the palms while typing. The touchpad has a smooth surface and is well appointed with three dedicated buttons – right, center, and left click. The buttons have almost too much travel but provide good feedback as a result. Perhaps their best attribute is they’re basically silent when pressed.
A rubber pointing stick occupies the center of the keyboard between the G, H, and B keys. We found its responsiveness a bit stiff and generally awkward to use especially coming from a Lenovo ThinkPad’s TrackPoint setup; the intuitive feel is missing. The ZBook 15’s pointing stick is nonetheless still usable and has three of its own dedicated buttons on the bright side. We’re not complaining about that.
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