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In recent years HP has made a real effort to woo the designers and creative users that have traditionally been Apple's captive audience. In fact the workstation section of HP's online store specifically targets "pros moving from Mac" at a time when Apple's plans for its own Mac Pro range remain unclear. And, just as Apple has recently revamped its compact Mac Mini, adding a 6-core configuration aimed at design and video-editing applications, HP has responded with an update to its own 'mini' model -- the Z2 Mini G4 Workstation.
But, as we saw with last year's G3 model, the HP Z2 Mini G4 is even more ambitious, offering the latest Xeon processors and professional-level GPU options that provide true workstation levels of performance for CAD, graphics and video applications.
Design & features
The external design of the Z2 Mini G4 remains unchanged, with the same low-profile chassis as its predecessor. It looks rather like a bulkier, armour-plated version of the Mac Mini, but is still extremely compact, standing just 58mm high and 216mm square, and weighing 2.2kg for the high-end 'Performance' model tested here.
And what the design lacks in elegance, it makes up for in practicality. You can lay the Z2 Mini flat on your desk, or stand it upright so that takes up hardly any space beside a monitor. There's a lock slot on the back to keep the -- easily removable -- device secure, and a VESA bracket built into the base of the unit, so that you can mount the entire unit on the back of a monitor if you want to keep it out of sight altogether.
A simple latch on the back of the Z2 Mini G4 allows you to quickly remove the top cover, providing access to the motherboard, memory and storage components. There are, of course, no internal expansion slots, but the Z2 Mini provides an impressive set of external connectivity features. There are two USB 3.0 ports, one USB-C, and a combo headphone/microphone port located on the left-hand side of the unit for easy access. The back panel adds a second USB-C port, two more USB 3.0 and Gigabit Ethernet. There are three full-size DisplayPort interfaces and, with the addition of an optional Flexible I/O module, it's possible for a Z2 Mini G4 with both integrated and discrete GPUs to drive up to six separate displays.
Those powerful components mean that there's a sizeable cooling fan inside, but the Z2 Mini G4 ran cool and quiet throughout all our tests. The only disappointing omission is the lack of Thunderbolt ports for high-performance storage and expansion. That's one area where Apple's Mac Mini has an advantage, as its four Thunderbolt 3 interfaces allow the addition of an external GPU upgrade, as well as a maximum of three external monitors. But, if you don't need six monitors, then you can opt for an alternative Flexible I/O module that adds a single Thunderbolt 3 port.
The Z2 Mini was recently launched in the US, and HP's website for the US lists a number of standard configurations, starting at a $1,375 for the 'Entry' model with a modest Core i3 processor with integrated graphics, 4GB of RAM and a 500GB hard drive. The Entry models do provide other Core processor options, including a Core i7 model at $1,529, but it's the Performance models that take the Z2 Mini G4 into workstation territory, with the latest Xeon processors, Nvidia's Quadro graphics cards and Windows 10 Pro for Workstations (with a Linux option also available, with a saving of $375).
There's a wide range of customization options available for the Performance models, and our review unit was equipped with a 6-core Xeon E-2176G running at 3.7GHz (up to 4.7GHz with TurboBoost) and an Nvidia Quadro P1000 with 4GB of video RAM. It also included the maximum 32GB of RAM, a 256GB solid-state drive -- set up as the main boot drive -- and a secondary 1TB hard drive running at 7,200rpm for data storage. All this brought the total price to $2,218.45.
At the time of writing, HP's UK website was still concentrating on last year's G3 model and, somewhat confusingly, it's only when you attempt to 'customize and buy' the G3 that you're shown the option to select the new G4 model as well. And, at the moment, the UK only offers a four-core Xeon E-2174G processor running at 3.8GHz, although the 6-core option is due soon. With the same GPU, memory and storage as its US counterpart, the quad-core UK model is priced at £1,583.13 (ex. VAT or £1,899.75 inc. VAT).
Those prices include a three-year onsite warranty for both UK and US customers -- but remember that, like the Mac Mini, the Z2 Mini G4 does not include a monitor (although it does come with a mouse and keyboard).
The Z2 Mini G3 that we reviewed last year cost £1,325 (ex. VAT, or £1,590 inc. VAT) and delivered quite impressive benchmarks, with a Geekbench 4 score of 14,525 for multi-core performance, and 92fps on the Cinebench R15 OpenGL test.
This year's Z2 Mini G4 is more expensive, but the performance of our 6-core review unit certainly justifies the higher price: the Geekbench 4 multi-core score surged to 22,965 (with single-core at 5,300); the more powerful Quadro P1000 GPU provides a big step forward too, delivering an outstanding 171fps when running the Cinebench R15 OpenGL test.
It might not have the elegant design of the Mac Mini, but the Xeon processors and discrete GPU options of the Z2 Mini G4 mean that HP's alternative is in a different league when it comes to performance.
Some professional users will still prefer a more traditional workstation design that includes future-proof expansion slots, but there's no doubt that the compact Z2 Mini G4 provides true workstation levels of performance in a compact design that will fit inside a briefcase. The high-end models are also competitively priced, especially compared to expensive all-in-one PCs that commit you to a fixed, built-in monitor.
UK buyers may want to wait until HP brings its UK website and customisation options up to date, but the Z2 Mini G4 currently has few rivals in the relatively new 'mini workstation' category.