HP ZBook 14u G4 review

HP’s ZBook 14u G4 goes anywhere, but it might not have the power you need

The HP ZBook 14u G4 is a portable workhorse, but it compromises on performance.
The HP ZBook 14u G4 is a portable workhorse, but it compromises on performance.
The HP ZBook 14u G4 is a portable workhorse, but it compromises on performance.

Highs

  • Thin and light for a mobile workstation
  • Solid build quality and MIL-SPEC 810g testing
  • More than adequate connectivity
  • Good audio quality

Lows

  • Underpowered for professional applications
  • Display is only average
  • Keyboard and touchpad don’t stand out

DT Editors' Rating

Mobile workstations are curious machines. They’re not as attractive as the typical consumer or business-class laptop. They’re not usually as thin or as light, either, but there are exceptions. Our HP ZBook 14u G4 review looks at once such rarity.

Our review unit came equipped with a seventh-generation Intel Core i7-7600U CPU, 16GB of DDR4-2133 RAM, a 512GB PCIe solid-state drive (SSD), and an AMD FirePro W4190M GPU, all for the workstation-like price of $2,890 (currently on sale for $2,140). The machine can be equipped with up to 32GB of RAM and a 1TB SSD for the most power-hungry users, or you can cut some cost by dropping down to a Core i5 processor. A 4K screen is also available, though ours came with a 1080p display.

The HP ZBook 14u puts the “mobile” into mobile workstation, but did HP make too many compromises to fit workstation power into a smaller chassis? Read on to find out.

Uninspired but rugged design is more comforting than exciting

Like all of HP’s mobile workstations, the ZBook 14u is engineered to meet and pass 14 tests dictated by the MIL-STD-810g standard. While testing and rugged design doesn’t promise indestructability, it does mean that the machine is likely to take the abuse a typical office can dish out. If you need a machine that’s robust, and will last in challenging environments, then HP has engineered the ZBook 14u to comply.

The ZBook 14u won’t be winning any awards for its good looks, however. It’s a black hole of a clamshell notebook, and could sit on a table in the middle of an office and never catch a single glance. That’s not to say it looks bad – rather, it simply has zero personality.

Impressions improve when you take the ZBook 14u in your hands. The lid features a rubberized surface around its edge, which makes the notebook pleasant to carry around.

The ZBook 14u is engineered to meet and pass 14 tests dictated by the MIL-STD-810g standard.

It also feels solid, despite its reliance on plastic. Handling it doesn’t cause any creaks or groans, and the hinge opens and closes with one hand, which generates confidence in its longevity.

The ZBook 14u is thin at 0.87 inches, and weighs 3.61 pounds. Though it’s not the lightest notebook, it’s reasonably svelte for a 14-inch laptop, and weighs less than the Razer Blade or Apple MacBook Pro 15.  Most workstation laptops tip the scales at five or six pounds.

Connectivity is more than adequate

HP’s ZBook 14u has a VGA port, USB 3.0 Type-A port, and smartcard reader on the left side. On the right, you’ll find a USB 3.1 Type-C port, DisplayPort 1.2, another USB 3.0 Type-A port, gigabit Ethernet port, slide docking connection, and SIM module slot. Finally, an SD card reader is hidden underneath the right flank, and power is provided by a proprietary connector.

HP ZBook 14u G4 review
Mark Coppock/Digital Trends
Mark Coppock/Digital Trends

Wireless connectivity depends on the configuration, and whether optional vPro support is selected. All configuations include Intel dual-band Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.2. NFC and WWAN connectivity are optional.

A good, but not great, keyboard

The ZBook 14u sports a full-size keyboard with a mostly standard layout, including properly sized shift and enter keys, and usable arrow keys. HP put the home, page up, page down, and end keys along the right side, which is fine once you get used to it.

The ZBook 14u doesn’t have the fastest CPU and GPU, but its storage certainly won’t slow you down.

The only unusual keys are the Wi-Fi and mute toggles, found above the keyboard on the right. It’s odd to see them on their own, but they made Wi-Fi and mute status easy to gauge at a glance.

How does the keyboard feel? Okay. Key travel and tactile feedback were good, but the keys were just a bit stiff, and the bottoming action was a touch abrupt. It’s not enough to make typing uncomfortable, but we weren’t impressed with the overall feel. The keyboard backlight has only two brightness levels, which is less than most competitors.

The touchpad is a little smaller than usual, due to the dual set of buttons on the top and the bottom. Those buttons are responsive and quiet, and there are two pairs to accommodate the ThinkPad-like nubbin nestled between the G, H, and B keys. The touchpad is a Microsoft Precision model, with a surface that’s just slick enough without being imprecise and that provides reliable multitouch gesture support.

HP ZBook 14u G4 review
Mark Coppock/Digital Trends
Mark Coppock/Digital Trends

Windows Hello password-less login is provided by an old-school fingerprint scanner that’s swipe-based rather than relying on pure touch. It’s more difficult to use than other, more modern sensors, though it does work after a few swipes.

The uninspiring display is a bit of a disappointment

The HP ZBook 14u G4 has many display options, including touch, non-touch, Full HD (1,920 x 1,080), and 4K UHD (3,840 x 2,160) resolutions. Our review unit was equipped with a non-touch Full HD display.

When we put our colorimeter to work, we found the ZBook 14u’s display to be average across a broad range of criteria. Brightness was only moderate at 277 nits, while we like to see even matte displays come in at more than 300 nits. Color gamut was again average at 71 percent of AdobeRGB, and 93 percent of sRGB. Gamma was a bit dark at 2.4, where 2.2 is perfect.

Average color error was very good at 1.12 (1.0 or less is indistinguishable to the human eye), and contrast was just okay at 730:1 at full brightness. Overall, these are good scores that are just a bit lower across the board than some other mobile workstations that we’ve reviewed such as the Dell Precision 5520. Note that the HP ZBook Studio G4’s DreamColor display had much better color support, and would be a better choice for anyone professionally working with images and video.

In day-to-day use, we found the display just bright enough to be comfortable in a typical office setting. Image quality, though, had it flaws. Videos were a little darker than we’d like, while colors were true to life and not over-saturated. If you’re primarily doing productivity work, then the display will likely be perfectly acceptable. For professionals who need superior color support and accuracy, however the display falls short.

Surprisingly decent sound quality

The HP ZBook 14u has two speakers located underneath the keyboard deck, directly beneath the display. Volume is strong enough to fill a small office, and the speakers can become quite loud before distortion sets in. Audio is strong enough to share the occasional music video, with a surprising amount of bass, and a clear midrange. You won’t want to give up your headphones, but you also won’t find yourself reaching for them when watching a quick clip on YouTube.

At the low-end of the mobile workstation performance scale

The HP ZBook 14u is equipped with seventh-generation Intel dual-core processors — in the case of our review unit, a Core i7-7600U. It’s a fast chip, but it pales when compared to larger mobile workstations running quad-core CPUs, particularly those with high-end workstation-class processors.

Unsurprisingly, the ZBook 14u benchmarked right in line with our expectations. In Geekbench 4’s single-core and multi-core tests, the ZBook 14u scored 4,816 and 9,452, respectively.

That’s the same as similarly equipped machines, and in fact its single-core score is higher than most machines in our comparison group. Only the much more powerful Xeon E3-1535 v6 CPU in the ZBook Studio G4 was faster. In the multi-core test, however, the quad-core processors were all significantly faster than the ZBook 14u.

The ZBook 14u’s display falls short for professionals who need superior color support and accuracy.

In our real-world Handbrake test, which encodes a 420GB video file to H.265, the ZBook 14u took a fast-for-its-class 946 seconds to finish its encoding run. Compared to the HP EliteBook x360 1030 G2, which finished in 1,019 seconds with the same Core i7-7600U processor, that’s a great score. Yet when compared to the 465 seconds the ZBook Studio G4 needed to churn through the video, the ZBook 14u is no speed demon.

Ultimately, processor performance followed the same pattern we’ve seen throughout this review. The HP ZBook 14u is meant to be easy to carry around compared to larger and heavier mobile workstations, but it’s a machine you’ll want to reserve for lesser workloads.

Incredibly fast storage speeds are a welcome departure

HP has equipped the ZBook 14u with one of the fastest PCIe SSDs around, the Samsung SM961. It’s a real scorcher, which usually promises excellent performance.

It’s no surprise the ZBook 14u scored extremely well in the CrystalDiskMark test. With a read score of 2,950 megabytes per second (MB/s), and a write score of 1,650 MB/s, you won’t find many notebooks with faster storage. The SSD in the ZBook Studio G4, for example, scored 1,349 MB/s and 1,285 MB/s, and the Dell Precision 5520 mobile workstation equipped with the same fast Samsung SSD scored an equivalent 2,931 MB/s and 1,679 MB/s.

While at some point fast SSDs are indistinguishable from one another in typical use, there’s no arguing with sheer speed when it comes to working with large files. The ZBook 14u might not be the fastest mobile workstation around when it comes to processor and graphics performance, but its storage won’t slow you down.

Rock-solid for professional applications, but it’s really not for gaming

The HP ZBook 14u is equipped with an AMD FirePro W4190M GPU with 2GB of GDDR5 RAM. That GPU is a member of AMD’s professional line, which is certified to provide rock-solid reliability in professional applications. As we mentioned earlier in this review, the ZBook 14u is focused on providing a highly mobile workstation experience, rather than the quickest.

In 3DMark, the GPU scores closer to high-end integrated graphics like Intel’s Iris Plus than it does to low-end discrete graphics like the Nvidia GeForce MX150. In the 3DMark Fire Strike test, for example, the FirePro W4910M scored 1,703, which is close to the 1,578 scored by the Iris Plus Graphics 640 GPU in the Microsoft Surface Pro. Nvidia’s MX150 scored 3,165, almost twice as fast, and the Nvidia Quadro M1200 professional GPU in the HP ZBook Studio G4 scored 3,911.

That means while the ZBook 14u is going to provide a reliable experience in professional applications, it’s not going to be a top performer.

For kicks, we ran Civilization VI’s built-in benchmark on medium and ultra detail settings. The ZBook 14u scored 18 frames per second (FPS) and 8 FPS, respectively. Simply put, you’ll want to stick to casual games to relax, and leave the hardcore gaming to another notebook.

Portability

At 0.87 inches thick and 3.61 pounds, the ZBook 14u isn’t thin and light by normal notebook standards, but makes for an easy mobile workstation to stick into a backpack and carry. Its rugged design means that you can take it just about anywhere you’re likely to go, and feel confident it’s going to take your abuse, and keep on working. The question is, just how long will its 51 watt-hour battery keep you working?

According to our testing, the answer is likely long enough, depending on the task. If you push the machine — as does our Basemark test, which runs the machine through a series of web pages that push the CPU and GPU — then you’ll see around two and three-quarter hours of battery life. That’s competitive with the larger and more powerful HP ZBook Studio G4, but less than the Dell Precision 5520, and significantly less than the HP EliteBook x360 G2.

On the other hand, if you’re watching video or surfing the web, then you’ll be working for considerably longer. In our test that repeats a locally-stored “Avengers” trailer until the battery gives out, the ZBook 14u lasted for a solid ten hours and 48 minutes. The HP ZBook 14u also managed to run our web browsing test, which loops through a series of popular web pages, for almost seven and a half hours. Those results are more competitive with other mobile workstations.

HP ZBook 14u G4 review
Mark Coppock/Digital Trends
Mark Coppock/Digital Trends

HP has implemented its Fast Charge technology in the ZBook 14u G4, meaning you can charge from zero to 50 percent battery capacity in 30 minutes (but for safety reasons, not zero to 100 percent in an hour). That helps make the machine a more viable mobile workstation, if you can periodically juice up.

Software

HP loaded our review unit with its usual commercial software, such as its Client Security suite and Touchpoint Manager application. That goes along with the usual HP support utilities. Examples of advanced capabilities include HP’s SureStart Gen3, which provides BIOS-level protection against intrusion with an offline BIOS chip that can’t be accessed externally, and checks the machine at boot and during runtime for any unauthorized changes.

All of that makes sense for anyone working in a commercial environment but is overkill for most other users. None of it is particularly obtrusive, however, meaning that it’s there if you need it but won’t get in your way otherwise.

Warranty information

The HP ZBook 14u G4 is covered by a generous three-year parts and labor warranty. That’s par for the course with mobile workstations and much better than you’ll get with your typical consumer notebook.

Our Take

HP has made a machine that’s a perfect fit for a distinct class of users — those who need something that’s thin and light, but also want workstation-grade reliability and durability. For those people, the ZBook 14u G4 is an excellent choice.

Is there a better alternative?

The ZBook 14u G4 stands out as being the most mobile option in the mobile workstation market. To our knowledge, there isn’t another machine with a 14-inch display and in such a thin and light chassis. The ZBook 14u G4 stands out if your main concern is portability.

If you’re willing to carry around a heftier machine, however, there are better alternatives. HP’s own ZBook Studio G4 is one example. It offers significantly higher performance for professional applications, though you’ll need to spend around $3,500 to pick it up.

The Dell Precision 5520 is another great machine that’s larger and more powerful. The same theme applies here. It’s a better option if size and weight aren’t a major concern.

How long will it last?

The HP ZBook 14u G4 has a modern CPU and a professional GPU that’s sure to see solid long-term support. It’s also well-stocked with connectivity options, including a forward-looking USB Type-C port that means you can connect to tomorrow’s peripherals. Finally, the build quality is superior — the machine is built to last.

Should you buy it?

Only if you need the absolute most mobile workstation that still sports a GPU providing certified performance and reliability in professional applications. That’s a huge caveat, however. If you need a more powerful workstation, or an even thinner and lighter general productivity machine, then you’ll want to consider other options first.