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HP ZBook 14u G4 Mobile Workstation review: Portable and robust, but performance disappoints

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Written by Charles McLellan on
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7.9/10

HP ZBook 14u G4

Very good
Pros
  • Sturdy military-grade build quality
  • Plenty of ports and slots
  • Good security features
  • ISV certification for workstation-class apps
  • Mobile broadband option
Cons
  • Disappointing GPU performance
  • Comparatively bulky
  • Editors' Review
  • Specs

With a 14-inch FHD display and weighing in at 1.64kg (3.61lbs), the ZBook 14u G4 is the smallest and lightest of HP's latest-generation mobile workstations, starting at £831 (ex. VAT) and rising to £2,073 as you upgrade CPU, GPU, RAM, storage and other options. With discrete AMD FirePro graphics available on all models, the ZBook 14u G4 is aimed at mobile power users in fields like photo and video editing, product design, science and engineering, and finance.

The ZBook 14u G4 may not be the thinnest, lightest or most elegant-looking laptop you've ever seen, but it's MIL-STD-810G certified to withstand the rough and tumble of life on the road. But does it have the raw power to cut it as a mobile workstation?

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The 14-inch ZBook 14u G4 runs on 7th-generation Core i5 or i7 processors with up to 32GB of RAM, uses discrete AMD FirePro graphics and offers up to 1TB of HD or SSD storage capacity.

Images: HP Inc

Design

This is a businesslike rather than eye-catching laptop, with a slate-grey livery and discreet HP branding on the back of the lid. Open the relatively flex-free lid and you'll find equally tasteful branding for the Bang & Olufsen (B&O) designed audio subsystem above the screen, to the right.

HP describes the ZBook 14u G4 as thin and light, but it's no ultraportable, measuring 338mm wide by 237mm deep by 22.1mm thick and weighing from 1.64kg (the weight may rise, depending on the options you choose). Still, it feels well made with, as noted above, military-grade build quality.

The 14-inch screen options start at 1,366 by 768 resolution, rising to full HD (1,920 by 1,080) in non-touch, touch and non-touch with ultra-wide viewing angles varieties. We had the touch-screen model for review, with 'standard' viewing angles. The display delivers decent 300-nit brightness and colour balance, but despite its 'anti-glare' billing is still somewhat reflective.

The screen has relatively wide bezels, particularly at the top, so there's plenty of space for the wi-fi and (optional) WWAN antennas, the webcam and a dual microphone array.

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The keyboard has 85 island-style keys that are sturdy and responsive enough to deliver a comfortable typing platform. It's spill-resistant, and offers three levels of backlighting -- off/full/half brightness -- toggled by a Fn key combination. The generous-sized touchpad has two buttons at the bottom, supports two-way scrolling and gestures, and has a second pair of buttons at the top to support the pointing stick located between the G,H and B keys. You can enable or disable the touchpad by double-tapping the top-left corner; an LED shows you when the touchpad is off.

Our review unit had a fingerprint reader in the top right corner of the wrist rest, although this isn't present on all variants of the ZBook 14u G4. Elsewhere, in the space between the keyboard and screen, you'll find the power button on the left and buttons for wireless on/off and volume mute on the right.

The trade-off for a relatively bulky chassis is plenty of room for ports and slots, which run to: USB-C, DisplayPort, 3.5mm combo audio, USB 3.0, RJ-45 Ethernet, a docking connector, a SIM card slot and the power input on the left; and VGA, USB 3.0, a smartcard reader and a security lock slot on the right.

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The ZBook 14u's 22.1mm-thick chassis provides plenty of room for an extensive array of ports and slots.

Images: HP Inc

Features

Processors range from Core i5-7200U to Core i7-7600U. Our review unit had a Core i7-7600U with 16GB of RAM -- the maximum memory complement is 32GB, filling two SODIMM slots. Although there is an integrated Intel HD Graphics 620 GPU in the processor, a mobile workstation needs more graphics horsepower, which is provided by a discrete AMD FirePro W4190M with 2GB of dedicated GDDR5 RAM. The ZBook 14u G4 is ISV certified to deliver fast and reliable performance with a range of workstation applications, although the list for this entry-level system is understandably less extensive than for its more powerful stablemates.

Storage in our review unit was a 512GB HP Z Turbo Drive PCIe SSD, with other options including SATA hard drives, hybrid HDD/SSD drives and SSDs up to 1TB in capacity.

Intel's Dual Band Wireless-AC 8265 adapter provides 802.11a/b/g/n wi-fi and Bluetooth 4.2 connectivity; LTE mobile broadband is also available on some models, although it wasn't present on our review unit.

HP makes much of the ZBook range's security features, including HP Sure Start Gen3, which ensures that a genuine HP system BIOS is present, unmodified, before the system boots up. If tampering is detected, a secure copy of the BIOS is loaded from flash memory. Secure authentication is available via the fingerprint reader and the smartcard slot, and if you have the optional mobile broadband module installed you can sign up for HP's Absolute Data Protect service, which includes GPS tracking of the laptop.

The audio subsystem, developed in conjunction with B&O, includes a pair of 2W stereo speakers located behind a grille between the keyboard and the screen. These deliver decent sound quality that doesn't distort much as you ramp up the volume. As ever with laptop speakers, though, you don't get much in the way of bass frequencies.

There's an extensive array of options and accessories available for the ZBook 14u G4, including cases, docks, connection adapters, extra batteries and external storage solutions. The HP UltraSlim Docking Station, for example, will cost you an extra £199 (inc. VAT), adding 4 USB 3.0 ports, RJ-45, DisplayPort 1.2, VGA and audio in/out jacks.

Performance & battery life

A system billed as a mobile workstation -- even an entry-level one -- should deliver good performance, and here the ZBook 14u G4 is slightly disappointing.

Looking at CPU performance, the ZBook 14u's Core i7-7600U delivered Geekbench 4 scores of 4,723 (single core) and 9,231 (multi-core), compared to 4,760 and 15,980 from the 2017 15-inch MacBook Pro running a Core i7-7820HQ. Both systems had 16GB of RAM.

Graphics benchmarks revealed a bigger gap between HP's entry-level mobile workstation and Apple's high-end laptop: on the Cinebench R15 OpenGL test, the ZBook 14u's 2GB FirePro W4190M managed 48.8 frames per second (fps), a score that the 4GB Radeon Pro 560 in Apple's MacBook Pro obliterated with 85fps.

Disk performance was better though, the ZBook 14u's 512GB SSD delivering write and read speeds of 1,686MB/s and 3,312MB/s respectively, compared to 2,000MB/s and 2,500MB/s from the MacBook Pro.

Power is supplied by a 3-cell, 51Wh (4,420MAh) battery that HP says will power the system for up to 10 hours. Manufacturers' claims should always be treated with caution, but our testing experience suggests that you can be confident of getting an 8-hour day's-worth of life from the system, on average. If you're likely to be running demanding workloads away from a power source, you may want to invest in a spare battery, which will cost an extra £50 (inc. VAT).

Conclusions

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Image: HP Inc

HP's 14-inch ZBook 14u G4 is sturdily built, relatively thin and light for a mobile workstation, and provides plenty of connections and configuration options. However, we were disappointed with the performance -- particularly from the discrete GPU -- from this entry-level mobile workstation.

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