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HP ZBook x2 G4 review: The perfect laptop for a cluster of creatives

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The Good The HP ZBook x2 G4's Adobe RGB-accurate DreamColor matte screen is far more usable than the typical glossy panel, and combined with Wacom EMR's 4,096 levels of pressure sensitivity provides brushes that feel more natural than most to work with. It's also powerful for its size, relatively full-featured and the detachable Bluetooth keyboard is comfortable for typing.

The Bad You're limited to the one, single-button stylus, it's relatively heavy and while the battery life is good for its components, it won't get you through the day.

The Bottom Line As long as you aren't constrained by the stylus and are comfortable with the cost, the HP ZBook x2 G4 DreamColor delivers accurate color and smooth sketching with workstation credibility.

8.2 Overall
  • Design 8
  • Features 9
  • Performance 8
  • Battery 8

If I had to describe the HP ZBook x2 G4 in one sentence, it would have to be "It's like a Microsoft Surface Pro and its competitors, but way better." 

The detachable mobile workstation doesn't excite me quite as much when I first saw it -- I really thought it had a 10-bit panel -- but it's still a great solution for a select group, especially heavy users of Adobe Creative Cloud applications. People who need a full Adobe RGB gamut coverage and hardware color profiling; who want excellent pressure sensitivity and feel for digital brushwork; and who need a workstation graphics processor to either run certified applications along with workstation-class security, or enable 10-bit color support in applications like Photoshop. And who can afford all of the above. Some limitations, though, may narrow that club a little further.

Now, your 1,500 words of why.

Adobe RGB FTW

The 14-inch 4K touch display comes in two versions: one with DreamColor, one without. The DreamColor versions are factory calibrated to accurate Adobe RGB, and for that, it's definitely great: out of the box, Delta E 2000 values repeatedly measured well under 2, white point averaging about 6,730K (a smidge high, but within 4 percent of D65), a peak brightness of 340 nits and black level of 0.23 nits (but that's at 100 percent screen brightness) with a 1,500:1 contrast and a clean 2.2 gamma curve. (We test using Calman 5 Ultimate and an X-Rite i1Display Pro.)

HP ZBook x2 G4

Price as reviewed $3,622.32
Display size/resolution 14-inch 3,840 x 2,160 DreamColor display
PC CPU 1.9GHz Intel Core i7-8650U
PC Memory 32GB DDR5 SDRAM 2,400MHz
Graphics 2GB Nvidia Quadro M620
Storage 512GB SSD, SD card slot
Ports 1x USB 3.0 Type-A, 2x USB-C/Thunderbolt, 1x HDMI 2.0
Networking 802.11ac 2x2, Bluetooth 4.2
Operating system Windows 10 Professional (64-bit)
Weight 4.9 lbs/2.2 kg

The DreamColor comes with profiles for sRGB/BT.709, DCI-P3, DICOM and native as well, but the display only covers about 90 percent of P3, and it's calibrated to DCI-P3 Theatre, not the D65 P3 display standard. Also, per HP, entering calibration targets beyond the panel gamut don't work at the moment, but it's working on a software fix for the issue. 

There are tablets that can surpass the color gamut, notably the P3-capable iPad Pro, but there's no systemwide color calibration, much less hardware calibration, available in any of them.

While it uses 10-bit color calculations and is pretty accurate, it's still an 8-bit IPS panel using frame-rate control to simulate 10 bits. (HP refers to IPS panels as "Ultra wide viewing angle" or UWVA.) You can connect it to a better external monitor through HDMI or Thunderbolt 3 when you need a larger gamut and more precise  beyond-Adobe RGB color. That's another reason why hardware profiles are so important. It's the only way to guarantee that the profiles for the built-in and external displays are using the correct profiles. As with most DreamColor solutions, though, hardware calibration profiling only works with X-Rite i1 units.

I've seen some complaints about backlight bleed, but it's no worse than any I've seen -- and given the built-in Wacom EMR layer, probably harder to manage than usual. I tested the uniformity in the corners and it wasn't that bad.

Smooth strokes

Another notable aspect of the x2 is the Wacom EMR support, along with a Wacom/HP custom-designed HP Pen, with 4,096 levels of pressure. One of the big benefits of EMR is that the stylus draws its power from the screen rather than a AAA battery. This isn't particularly novel; Samsung uses the technology, for example. 

But the HP's display is chemically etched, which serves two purposes: it adds a little more friction to the screen for a more natural, precise stroke feel, and vastly decreases glare. In a sea of glossy tablet screens, it's an oasis of visual sanity. Keep in mind that antiglare doesn't equal antireflective. While working in Starbucks with the tablet on my lap, the lights shining from above made it almost as hard to use as the typical glossy display.

And it does feel almost as responsive as its truest competitor, the Wacom MobileStudioPro, with its similarly matte display and Wacom's latest generation of technology for 8,192 levels of pressure. Some people feel that's too much, though, and requires too much customization of the pressure curves to respond to a light touch. Once you're up that high you're into personal preference territory, unless you need seriously granular control over strokes. Nib, screen friction and to a certain extent, latency, can impact your experience more.

As for latency, that's application dependent. It feels instantaneous in applications with fast brush algorithms. Then there's Photoshop, which has unusable lag on complex brushes, no matter what hardware you throw at it. The stylus responds to tilt well, too; I admit I never got to testing rotation, but it should work fine as well. 

The 14-inch HP feels a little less unwieldy than the 16-inch MobileStudioPro, and while the 13-inch is a better size, it doesn't come with a 4K display option. The 4K display on the HP works out to a 315 pixels-per-inch screen density, great for dealing with extra-thin strokes. But it's also heavy at just under 5 lbs/2.2 kg.

The sides of the display hold programmable QuickKeys, which you'll be familiar with if you use a Wacom Cintiq or Intuos Pro's ExpressKeys. (And seriously, why is the default for Photoshop Undo rather than Step Backward?). That's another big advantage over more consumer-focused tablets.

Unfortunately, there's one terrible, horrible, no good, very bad drawback for some people who are otherwise the exact buyer for this: it only works with the HP stylus, which only has one button. That means at best you'll have to relearn some habits, and at worst, makes it unusable for your needs if they run to airbrushes or three-button pens for 3D work. The touchpad is pretty nice, but it's a conventional consumer touchpad without the multiple buttons on power mobile workstations.

Overall, it's well designed, though the industrial design probably isn't to everyone's taste. The detachable keyboard is rigid, with key travel and feedback sufficient for comfortable typing. Plus, its high-end-plastic back doesn't attract schmutz. Or cat fur. The kickstand is rigid for inking, and can tilt down to a low angle. Because it's a detachable, you remove the magnetically attached keyboard to turn into a tablet, and it conveniently reconnects via Bluetooth for use while separated. That's great for applications where your muscle memory insists on keyboard shortcuts.

Finally, the price

Normally, this would be one of the first things I talk about. But you have to think about whether it delivers what you need before making the "wow, that's expensive" assessment. Because it's significantly more than all the consumer options, even after factoring in the Surface Pro's essential add-ons, like a keyboard and stylus, which add at least $230 to the price. 

HP's preconfigured models start at $2,280 in the US; that's for a Core i7-7600U with 8GB RAM and a 128GB SSD. While all the systems come with the Quadro M620 -- ignore the i5/iGPU configuration option, I have no clue why it's there -- they don't all come with the DreamColor-calibrated display. However, DreamColor support adds only $175 to the price, so if you care about color profiling it's worth it. 

Models with eighth-generation i7-8650U CPUs start at $2,900, and come with at least 16GB RAM and 512GB or 1TB SSDs. You can also customize it from the ground up, but that $2,900 model configuration looks pretty good to me unless someone else is footing the bill. For video editing, you might want to increase storage to the 1TB Z Turbo Drive SSD, which will add about $420 to the cost. 

Our evaluation model wasn't a standard configuration -- we had 32GB rather than the 16GB-equipped $3,400 version. In Australia, there are no eighth-generation Core i options, at least not yet, so the nearest configuration has the same storage and RAM but an i7-7600U for AU$6,860. And then in the UK, there's no 1TB option, and you have to choose between 16GB with a 512GB SSD or 32GB and a 256GB SSD, plus there are only i7-7600U choices at the moment. The 16GB/512GB model runs £3,656, but isn't available; the 32GB 256GB model, the only available model, costs about £3,710.

It's worth the extra money for the seventh-generation processors, at the very least because they likely deliver better battery life -- and this needs it. I suspect the Quadro GPU takes a lot of power, and with workstations there's rarely fallback to the integrated graphics to extend battery life, which tested at almost five hours. That's actually not bad for a tablet with discrete graphics and a 4K display, but that's small consolation on a cross-country flight. 

And finally, its performance stands up quite well against full laptops, though I don't have a lot of data for comparisons (we haven't run the Cinebench tests, which are the relevant ones here, on enough of the competing systems.) In practice, it felt as fast as a typical midrange desktop. That's one of the trade-offs for its size and flexibiility. But it never got hot, which is important as well.

Streaming video playback battery drain test

Microsoft Surface Book 2 (15-inch)
984
Apple MacBook Pro with Touch Bar (15-inch, 2017)
643
Microsoft Surface Pro
505
HP ZBook x2 G4
283
Wacom MobileStudio Pro 16
243
Microsoft Surface Book 2 (15-inch) tablet section
239

Note:

Longer bars indicate better performance (in minutes)

Geekbench 4 (Multi-Core)

Apple MacBook Pro with Touch Bar (15-inch, 2017)
15973
HP ZBook x2 G4
15060
Microsoft Surface Book 2 (15-inch)
12940
Microsoft Surface Pro
8845
Wacom MobileStudio Pro 16
3707

Note:

Longer bars indicate better performance

Cinebench R15 OpenGL

HP ZBook x2 G4
107.17
Apple MacBook Pro with Touch Bar (15-inch, 2017)
91.19

Note:

Longer bars indicate better performance (FPS)

Cinebench R15 CPU (multi-core)

Apple MacBook Pro with Touch Bar (15-inch, 2017)
764
Microsoft Surface Book 2 (15-inch)
691
HP ZBook x2 G4
524

Note:

Longer bars indicate better performance

System configurations

Apple MacBook Pro with Touch Bar (15-inch, 2017) Apple macOS Sierra 10.12.5; 2.9GHz Intel Core i7-7820HQ; 16GB DDR3 SDRAM 2,133MHz; 4GB Radeon Pro 560 / 1,536MB Intel HD Graphics 630; 512GB SSD
HP ZBook x2 G4 Microsoft Windows 10 Home (64-bit); 1.9GHz Intel Core i7-8650U; 32GB DDR5 SDRAM 2,400MHz; 2GB Nvidia Quadro M620; 512GB SSD
Microsoft Surface Book 2 (15-inch) Microsoft Windows 10 Pro (64-bit); 1.9GHz Intel Core i7-8650U; 16GB DDR4 SDRAM 1,866MHz; 6GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 1060 ; 1TB SSD
Microsoft Surface Pro Microsoft Windows 10 Pro (64-bit); 2.5GHz Intel Core i7-7600U; 16GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,866MHz; 128MB (dedicated) Intel Iris Plus Graphics 640; 512GB SSD
Wacom MobileStudio Pro 16 Microsoft Windows 10 Pro (64-bit); 3.3GHz Intel Core i7-6567U; 16GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz; 4GB Nvidia Quadro M1000M; 512GB SSD

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