Review: HP ZBook X2 Detachable PC Workstation

Built Around a DreamColor Touchscreen and Wacom Stylus Tech, This PC Laptop/Tablet Combo Is in a Class of Its Own

HPI Aug 03rd 2018

When it comes to tablet computing, there’s always been a trade-off for creative professionals. Apple made a credible stab at the market with its iPad Pro, which provides a nifty and highly portable option for pen-based input, but it falls a little short when you need a workstation — it won’t run the full version of Adobe Photoshop, let alone Premiere Pro. And Microsoft souped up the portable experience with the well-reviewed Surface Book, a high-performance Windows laptop with a tablet mode. Sounds great, but the powerful Nvidia Geforce 1060 GPU is in the keyboard — meaning the Surface Book reverts to on-board Intel graphics when you use it as a tablet.

Well, HP has made a better detachable workstation — and not just incrementally better, but dramatically so. It offers a powerful portable computing experience, with Nvidia Quadro graphics hardware behind the screen, where it’s fully accessible to artists drawing in Photoshop in tablet mode. It uses Wacom stylus technology, which offers a mature touch experience without reinventing the wheel. It’s available with an HP DreamColor display covering 100% of the Adobe RGB color gamut, and it’s the first time that’s been an option on a ZBook. And if that’s not good enough for you, built-in Thunderbolt 3 technology means you can put it in a dock to drive dual external 4K displays.

The ZBook may not be the best portable workstation for most people — even most creatives. For those who don’t enjoy drawing on screens, its design is eccentric. For those who do enjoy drawing on screens, it’s a bit heavy (and pricey, if you’re used to drawing on the iPad Pro or Surface Book). But if you’re in the market for a system that runs as a workstation firing on all cylinders while also letting you develop intricate pen-to-screen visuals in Photoshop or other creative imaging software, it’s the only option that makes sense. It’s built for illustrators. A certain breed of VFX artist may just fall in love with it. And, who knows — even if you’ve never really tried it, you may find out that you love drawing on screens, too.

Sizing It Up

The first thing you’ll notice about the ZBook X2, out of the box, is its relative heft. This is no ultralight workstation, and nobody will ever confuse it with an iPad. The tablet portion alone is a little more than half an inch thick and weighs about 3.6 pounds. That goes up to 0.8 inches thick and 4.8 pounds with the admittedly super-slim keyboard attached. In other words, it’s beefy, which has pluses and minuses.

The adjustable kickstand allows the tablet to be positioned at a low angle to your table or desk.

The adjustable kickstand allows the tablet to be positioned at a low angle to your table or desk.

On the plus side, the system’s weightiness does keep it in place when in use. Whether the screen is angled low to your desk in drawing mode or propped up in a more upright configuration with keyboard attached, you don’t have to worry that this system is going to wiggle or slide around as you work. On the minus side, you may think twice before slipping almost five pounds of computer into a bag you’re going to be carrying around all day, especially if you’ve gotten used to more lightweight hardware.

The overall design aesthetic could be described as brutalist, with HP’s state-of-the-art machined aluminum and die-cast magnesium taking the place of the concrete shapes that defined that architectural movement. It’s an interesting combination of form and function, with a ribbed bevel on the underside of the screen that doubles as venting for a dual-fan cooling system that keeps the system surprisingly cool under load, drawing air in and across the key components. The four corners of the system have been chamfered — that is, cut off, dog-ear style — to create an octagon, a decision that reduces the overall blockiness of the thing. And the hinged kickstand folds away so completely that you almost can’t tell it’s there in tablet mode, which is a nice touch. Still, this feels sort of like a first draft; future iterations of the design should be a bit sleeker.

The Ins and Outs

The ins and outs

 

Along the right-hand side of the screen module are the system’s power connector, dual Thunderbolt 3 ports, an HDMI 1.4 port, a USB 3.0 port, a full-size SD card slot, and a fingerprint reader. On the left side are a headphone/headset jack, power button, and volume +/- buttons. The rear of the screen module has an 8-megapixel camera.

HP’s Quick Keys come with presets for Photoshop, but can be custom-configured by application.

HP’s Quick Keys come with presets for Photoshop, but can be custom-configured by application.

On the face of the screen module, you’ll find a front-facing 720p webcam with IR sensors. Two strips of six buttons are arranged vertically to the left and right of the screen. Those are HP Quick Keys for desktop applications, and the system comes loaded with presets binding them to brush size and hardness, panning and zooming, etc., in Photoshop. They are a great help — using the Quick Keys is a lot faster than fussing repeatedly with sliders and such in the application interface. And they are programmable by application, so if you don’t like the defaults it’s easy to develop your own shortcuts on a program-by-program basis.

While we’re talking about keys, it’s worth noting that the ZBook X2’s keyboard is top-notch. It’s fantastically thin, which is important, but it remains eminently usable, even when typing away at high speed, and my muscle memories adapted quickly to the layout and travel distance of the keys. The touchpad is very responsive as well. In my experience, the MacBook Pro is the gold standard for keyboard touchpads, and HP’s version is every bit as good. What’s more, the Bluetooth-enabled keyboard can be used even after being detached from the display. I liked having the tablet on a desk right in front of me, with the keyboard pushed off to the left side so I could draw with my right hand and reach over with my left whenever I wanted to reach over and hit a familiar shortcut key combo. Did I mention it has backlit keys? Yeah. It’s nice.

A Commanding Display

The marquee feature of the system is arguably the 14-inch UHD (billed as 4K, but it’s actually 3840 x 2160) DreamColor display. It’s a matte-style touchscreen, so it’s largely free of the distracting reflections that plague glossy screens, and it reaches over 300 nits of brightness — pretty good, given that the light has to shine through the anti-glare coating. What it loses in absolute brightness compared to a glossy panel, it more than makes up in color accuracy. And the overall effect is really compelling, visually — sort of like reading a book on the e-ink screen of a Kindle rather than the glowing iPad display. Profiles are available for sRGB/BT.709, DCI-P3, and DICOM. If you already use DreamColor monitors on your desktop, it should help the continuity of your workflow to have DreamColor on the go, too. (At least you won’t have to fix any unpleasant surprises when you check your work.)

This incarnation of the DreamColor display uses 8+2 FRC to display 1 billion colors.

This incarnation of the DreamColor display uses 8+2 FRC to display 1 billion colors.

One clarification: HP has called this a 10-bit display, and it is capable of displaying one billion colors but, like the $489 Z24x G2 DreamColor display, it uses a temporal dithering system called frame rate control (or 8+2 FRC) to get there, generating visible colors that an eight-bit panel cannot reproduce directly. It’s an effective system, but HP’s larger (and more expensive) DreamColor displays are true 10-bit panels.

How does such a capable screen handle stylus input? Elegantly.

HP Create Control PanelAs mentioned above, HP’s ZBook X2 pen uses Wacom technology — specifically electromagnetic resonance (EMR) detection, which allows energy to flow into the pen from the screen as you use it instead of requiring a battery. As a result, the HP pen is surprisingly lightweight, for better or worse depending on your taste. But the screen is chemically etched to provide just a hint of textural feedback as you move the pen’s nib around. The result is a smooth drawing experience with just a hint of friction, as if you were drawing on paper. And the pen has an eraser on the opposite end from its drawing nib; flip it around in your hand and you can use it to erase marks you’ve just made. (This feature sounds handier than it actually is.)

The pen barrel has a single customizable button, which is factory preset to register a right-click. (Some Wacom users will miss a second button mapped to middle-click, but the Quick Keys help in this regard.) The HP Create Control Panel is where you configure the pen as well as those function keys on either side of the screen. The pen hardware registers 4,096 levels of pressure-sensitivity, per HP, and users are given fine-grained control over the tip feel, double-click distance when using the pen’s tip to do a double-tap, and tilt sensitivity, all of which help dial in a feel that matches your drawing style from light sketching to bold drawing and painting. Similar options are available for the eraser, and of course a calibration screen is also available.

Capable Computing

The quality of pen-to-screen input is a key selling factor of this system, but that’s not the end of the story. HP is selling this as a truly uncompromised professional workstation, and that means there is a lot of power under the hood. Nvidia Quadro M620 graphics come standard. Configurations start at $2,279 with an Intel Core i7-7500U processor and a measly 8 GB of RAM — if you’re going to shell out for a workstation in this range you should treat yourself to more RAM. The system I tested had an 8th-generation Intel Core i7-8650U CPU with four cores running at 2.12 GHz, a 512 GB HP Z Turbo Drive PCIe, and a full 32 GB of RAM — to which I say hallelujah!, as RAM is often the component of a portable workstation that users most wish could be upgraded and 16 GB isn’t adequate for every workload. That said, if you feel secure with just 16 GB of RAM, you could save a quick $390 by downgrading. At this writing, the same system was priced by HP’s online configurator at $3,623.

How does it perform? The ZBook X2 isn’t exactly a performance beast, but it does hold its own. I ran it through its paces using Maxon’s Cinebench R15 3D benchmarking software, where it earned a middling 503 cb CPU score and a better 107.78 fps OpenGL score. For the sake of comparison, HP’s slightly less expensive ZBook Studio G4 scored 730 cb on the CPU test and 82.31 on the OpenGL test when we reviewed it last year, making that PC faster than this one on the processing side but notably slower where graphics are concerned. I also torture-tested it by having it play back a massive HEVC-encoded UHD video stream, which it handled capably, albeit with occasional dropped frames. Less processor-intensive codecs should play back more easily. It’s a fast system — but not a speed demon like a fully loaded ZBook 17.

Another point of comparison might be the Wacom MobileStudio Pro 16, which has a larger 15.6-inch UHD display and punches in the same weight class as the ZBook X2 when it comes to graphics (Nvidia Quadro M1000M) but at this writing offers only 6th-generation Intel Core processors and comes up decidedly short in the display department, at least compared to the brighter and wider-gamut DreamColor display. If you can wait, the next generation of the MobileStudio will certainly have this system in its sights as it’s the new gold standard for high-powered tablet computing.

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What’s not to like? The sound. Nobody really expects great sound from a laptop, but this one’s speakers have Bang & Olufsen branding, which might lead you to expect some fancy audio engineering. Yet the sound is surprisingly tinny and the volume level underwhelming. Points of comparison: My iPhone 7 Plus and iPad Pro both have better and louder sound than the ZBook X2, as does my aging Dell Precision M3800 workstation. For a system that is more likely than most to be pulled out or passed around in presentation mode, that’s an oversight that should have been fixed.

Conclusions

The ZBook X2 sets a new standard for professional tablet computing. HP looked at how digital artists were using computer hardware and saw they needed a number of different tools required to be truly creative on the go — a high-powered desktop workstation for serious creative tasks, a decent laptop computer for productivity outside the office, and often a separate device entirely for sketching, drawing and painting. The ZBook X2 crams all those different devices into a single, pro-level package. The biggest thing holding this system back is, well, its bigness. Less than five pounds is a great target for a portable workstation, but when it comes to something you want to curl up with on a sofa and draw on for hours on end, it’s a little much. Then again, if you yearn for a powerful tablet with a DreamColor screen fronting a full-on PC workstation, well, the ZBook X2 is that rare thing in today’s commodity computing climate — it’s one of a kind.