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HP ZBook 15u G2 review

You'll have to work hard to afford HP's ZBook 15u G2

Highs

  • Fast enough to handle general work
  • Design is clean, professional
  • Rated at military-grade toughness

Rating

Our Score 6.5
User Score 0

Lows

  • Too expensive for what you get
  • 1080p doesn’t impress at this price
  • Bulky, heavy, and awkward
  • Lackluster battery life
The HP ZBook 15u G2 packs performance, but expensive upgrades and mediocre battery life hold it back.

Despite numerous management changes at the top of the chain in the past year, HP continues to fight on, and it can hardly be accused of losing. It remains a top manufacturer in the United States, and its enterprise notebooks continue to go toe-to-toe with Apple and Lenovo.

The company’s latest ultrabook, the $1299 ZBook 15u G2, is a workhorse designed to bring the full notebook experience to the most remote work sites. It’s a get-things-done kind of machine that aims to take no prisoners in its battle against the upcoming refresh of Apple’s Pro lineup.

While affordable in entry-level-guise, the model reviewed was dressed to the nines at just over $2,200 MSRP. It featured Intel’s top-of-the-line mobile i7 alongside 16GB of RAM, an AMD Radeon FirePro graphics chip, a 256GB PCI Express solid state drive, and a 1080p non-touch panel. That’s a long and impressive spec list. Will this laptop’s potential for powerful productivity be enough to give it the edge?

Functional formal wear

The ZBook makes no allusion about its intended purpose as soon as you open the box. This is a machine you take to work, use for work, and will make you look like you’re working even if you’re just aimlessly scrolling through Facebook on a break.

The ZBook’s black-on-black anodized aluminum exudes a no-nonsense personality that commands respect.

We’re fans of the aesthetic, which almost directly contradicts the ethos of Apple with its brightly lit up logo and sleek aluminum curves. The ZBook’s black-on-black anodized aluminum exudes exactly the kind of no-nonsense personality that commands a certain air of respect. It is lined with black plastic, but don’t worry; the material feels far from flimsy.

From a design perspective, the 15u convinces me that the company’s long and hard fought battle to stay at the top of the heap has been a worthy one, and that HP has finally realized that these days, how a laptop looks can be just as (if not more) important than what it’s got packed away on the inside.

Plenty of ports in the storm

The 15u follows the same trend we’ve seen with many other ultrabooks of its kind, ditching the optical drive in favor of stuffing in more ports or options for video output instead.

Physical connections include a DisplayPort 1.2 video output, four USB 3.0, one VGA out, an RJ45 Ethernet port, an SD/SDHC card reader, and a docking port in case you want to easily swap between desk mode and getting ready for the road. The dock also serves as an additional DisplayPort 1.2 port, and can support up to two 4K monitors at a time.

Wireless options include 802.11ac Wi-Fi along with Bluetooth 4.0, and even an option for hooking up to a 4G LTE network of your choosing.

Slick and sturdy

The ZBook’s trackpad was as functional as you would hope for from a laptop made for work, and the 15u even goes as far to add a mouse nub in the middle of the keyboard in case you’re wearing gloves and a trackpad is too unwieldy to manage.

HP zBook 15 trackpad

Bill Roberson/Digital Trends

Just to the right of the pad is a biometric fingerprint scanner, which can be used to set up passwords and specialized keys in case you’re working on sensitive data that’s for your eyes only.

The keyboard was responsive, and easily held up to the challenge of a full day’s work from a writer. We did trip over the track pointer a few times while tapping away, but other than that it was a pleasure to use and felt right at home with the rest of the polished parts on the ZBook’s shell.

Big bezels, but still beautiful

The model we reviewed came standard with an anti-glare, 15.6-inch, 1,920 x 1,080 panel, which is admittedly is mediocre for a modern notebook in this price tier. With that said, the colors were still bright and images were crisp. Compared to most workstation notebooks, the display looked solid.

If you’re looking for a machine that’s ready to work and play, you’d better look elsewhere.

We took a closer look at its color and contrast capabilities while watching House of Cards on Netflix, as well as during our gaming stress tests for Diablo 3. Blacks were deep, we saw minimal tearing, and all of the applications we used to verify the crispness of the screen were as bright as they needed to be — up to the point of being obnoxious, if brightness was kept near its maximum.

While the bezels around the display were a smidge large for our tastes (about half an inch on each side), their presence only further solidified the message that this is a machine made to make things happen, and cares about very little except results at the end of the day.

HP zBook 15 webcam

Bill Roberson/Digital Trends

Regrettably, the onboard speakers didn’t fare as well. Tinny, distant, and lacking any semblance of bass, you’d be better off hooking up headphones to this laptop than blasting out another drum solo during your daily Rush marathon.

The lack of quad-core, hurts

The 15u G2 represents a shining star in what HP likes to call its “value performance” line, even though the unit we tested pushed just over $3K with all the extra bells and whistles tacked on. As it was about as decked out as it could get, our version of the laptop held up under most of our performance tests, but it didn’t set any records.

Geekbench

With 16GB of DDR3 RAM and a 5th-gen Broadwell i7-5600U processor, HP’s ZBook should have been able to take down the Macbook’s equivalent in the 2015 model. But, bad news for HP; the ZBook got schooled.

While the top-tier model of the Pro 15 just barely eked out a space in front of the 15u by a factor of 400 in single core results, it nearly doubled its multi-core score at 13,313 for $300 less. Granted, it has a quad-core to help with that, but why can’t HP pack similar hardware into a similarly sized system? Perhaps the company is waiting for 5th-generation Core quads.

As it stands, the $3,000 15u’s numbers put it a hair ahead of the smaller Macbook Pro 13, which we tested with a 2.7GHz Core i5-5257U, the processor in the base $1,299 model. The differences in dual and quad-core Broadwell are more apparent than ever in these results.

The hard drive in the ZBook is no slouch. Crystal DiskMark clocked it at 656.5 megabytes per second for sequential reads, and 433MB/s for sequential writes on the 15u. That beats most of the current Windows ultrabooks, but the MacBook Pro 13 easily is even quicker, scoring 1,056MB/s read, and 647 MB/s write in the Blackmagic benchmark.

For work, not play

The Zbook’s 1GB AMD FirePro M4170 is a perfectly acceptable card if all you’re looking to do is some 3D design on the side, but if getting a kill count is your main objective, then maybe an Alienware or Asus ROG might be better suited to the task.

It was difficult to find any other laptops released this year that we could compare to in our 3DMark tests, but when run against the full breadth of our data set, the 15u landed right under the Dell Inspiron 15 7000 Series, and just above Acer’s Aspire E17, both of which were released around the tail end of 2014. Both also had low-end Nvidia GeForce discrete graphics chips.

3DMark 11

In Blizzard’s Diablo 3 we were only able to achieve a measly 36 frames per second average at the lowest graphical settings and 1080p resolution, with a minimum of 29 and maximum of 51. High settings were understandably worse, posting an average of 28, a minimum of 25, and a maximum of only 32.

Bulky with a purpose

The 15u is big, bulky, and probably won’t lend itself too readily to anyone who’s looking for something they can stow away in a small saddlebag while they’re on the go. At four and a quarter pounds, though, the laptop’s weight is about average for the category.

This machine will make you look like you’re working even when you’re just killing time on Facebook.

As far as the battery life is concerned, we were able to achieve slightly under what HP advertises on its website for the 3-cell, 50 watt-hour variant, with the 15u chugging along for four hours and 38 minutes before finally puttering out its last breath.

When slotted against the Macbook Pro 15’s 10 hours, the result is disappointing. Against other high-end Windows ultrabooks, it’s on par. The Asus Zenbook NX500, for example, hit four hours and 37 minutes. We wish these large notebooks packed larger batteries, even if it meant adding a few tenths of a pound.

Power draw fluctuated starkly when the laptop switched between its two main graphics chips. At idle the system ate up 15 watts, a bit higher than most ultrabooks, which tend to consume around 10 watts. Power draw jumped as high as 41 watts at full load, which is reasonable given the system’s performance. An Acer Aspire E5 17-inch, by contrast, hit 58 watts in our testing.

Warranty

The 15u features an industry standard 3/3/3 warranty, covering parts, labor and the battery for three years each.

Conclusion

A sort of one-size-fits-all for the productive professional, the ZBook 15u G2 is an acceptable addition to a lineup of high-powered portables that promise users a mix of functionality and style in one.

This is a computer that be great to have at work, but also wouldn’t be bad to pop open on the sofa at home. It can’t game all that well, but considering it’s not made to, that oversight can slide. Plus, if you’re willing to downgrade to an i5 the 15u starts at a much more reasonable price of $1,199, which actually seems attainable for the rest of those 9-5 warriors who can’t afford laptops that cost as much as a used car.

This HP is quick, but at an as-tested price of $2,204 it butts heads against systems with quicker hardware and better displays, including some systems that offer 4K resolution. Buyers can obtain more for less by spending their money elsewhere.

Highs

  • Fast enough to handle general work
  • Design is clean, professional
  • Rated at military-grade toughness

Lows

  • Too expensive for what you get
  • 1080p doesn’t impress at this price
  • Bulky, heavy, and awkward
  • Lackluster battery life

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