HP Z1 Workstation Review - Where to Buy

By on August 1, 2012

“Power without the tower” indeed.

HP Z1 Workstation Review
When the HP Z1 was first introduced back in April, it was a step in a new direction for workstation computing. Here indeed was an all-in-one system with workstation-class performance, that certainly brought ‘power without the tower’. But would this sleek all-in-one actually be able to stand against the likes of traditional tower workstations? The short answer is yes, but of course you’re going to need a little bit more detail than that.

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Design & Build Quality


Lifting the Z1 out of its box was a somewhat immaculate moment, with the entire office crowding around to see this beautiful feat of engineering emerge from its cardboard and Styrofoam prison. The Z1 is packed entirely flat, so once removed all you do is press a button at the bottom and you’ll be able to tilt the screen forward to a regular viewing angle. The unit is quite heavy at about 21kg, so once this thing is setup you’re not going to be moving it around much.

Because this is an all-in-one system, everything is essentially built into the back of the screen, so it was vital for HP to make everything as sturdy and durable as possible. The hinge the supports the screen is freakishly strong, so no matter what varying angle you tilt the screen at, it stays put. You will require a decent amount of effort to adjust the Z1 – it’s not because it’s stiff, but just because the hinge has been designed so be as rigid and supportive as possible. Even though this is an all-in-one system, there’s no touchscreen here as users who would be using the Z1 would most likely be using some other kind of input system such as a tablet or just a regular keyboard and mouse. And if you want to really save on desk space, the Z1 is fully compatible with a standard VESA mount, so you can ditch the stand completely, although this may make upgrades and fixes a little bit tricky.



On the right side of the screen is where you’ll find the power button and slot-loading optical drive, as well as 2xUSB 3.0, 1 IEEE 1394a, Mic, Headphone, and 4-in-1 Media Card Reader. Hidden under the Z1’s hinge are the rest of the ports, including 4xUSB 2.0, Gigabit Ethernet, Line-In, Line-Out, Subwoofer, Display Port In/Out, and an SPDIF port. These rear ports are a bit hard to reach at times, so it’s best you plug in devices here that you’re not going to bother with such as peripherals, and use the side USB ports for things like flash storage. There’s no Thunderbolt port yet, but I imagine this will be something for HP to consider in the next generation of Z1. Also given the internal constraints of the Z1, you can only fit in one 3.5” HDD or two 2.5” drives – any additional storage you need will have to be in the form of an external drive. There’s also a hidden gem in the form of an internal USB port, which lets you plug in a security dongle or a wireless keyboard/mouse receiver and basically completely forget about it. Towards the bottom of the screen are the SRS Premium Sound, Dual-cone front-facing stereo speakers which deliver a rather impressive performance when the volume is cranked up.



The graphics card used in the Z1 is a custom one from nVidia, utilizing the Quadro M series due to the limited space inside. The choices include the Q500M , Q1000M, Q3000M and Q4000M depending on how much of graphics power you need under the hood. So because it’s a completely custom-designed card, you won’t be able to use any stock graphics cards in the Z1 – again HP reiterate that this was down to keeping the Z1 cool and quiet, as well as reducing power consumption.



While the Z1 does look stunning from the outside, it’s real beauty lies in its internals. By laying the Z1 flat and sliding two small buttons at the bottom of the screen, the Z1’s screen pops up like a car hood, and let’s you open it all the way up to expose the hardcore internals. It’s an ingenious design idea, and certainly one that went through a number of iterations before HP decided this was how they wanted the Z1 to open up.

HP prides itself on what they call the “Z-DNA”, which defines their workstation lineup. One aspect of this is the fact that all of HP’s workstations can be fully serviced without the need to remove a single screw. This is especially true of the Z1, where convenient green tags indicate what can be removed and replaced easily. From the power supply to the graphics card and hard drives, everything just needs a simple lift or pull and it comes right out without any hassles. This means that if literally any component here fails or needs to be upgrades, you simply ‘pop the hood’, replace what you want, close the screen, and you’re back in business. The only component that you can’t upgrade without unscrewing is of course the processor. Expansion here is limited to upgrading whatever components are inside, but there are mini-PCI-E sockets available should you need to slot in anything extra. Cable management is kept to an absolute minimum here, with most of the cables running out of sight behind the screen or under the motherboard. There are also several heat sensors attached all over the system, so you can constantly monitor your Z1’s temperatures if you’re doing anything taxing with it. There are also plenty of fans spread around the inside, which I’ll cover in more detail later on. And as a last design aesthetic, there’s a small hydraulic piston on the left hand side, so even if you should accidentally let go of the screen, it will slowly lower itself down and click shut without damaging the display.


Specifications


The Z1 comes in a variety of specifications, from an ‘entry-level’ build with internal graphics to a complete powerhouse unit packing up to 32GB of RAM.



Our review unit Z1 sat at the ‘midrange’ section, so while it wasn’t as beefed up as say the Z800 we reviewed earlier, it still offered a decent amount of kick during our tests.



Performance & Benchmarks


Since this is a professional-grade system, the amount of bundled software on the Z1 was at a bare minimum. There are a few HP utilities and a trial copy of Office 2010, but that’s about it – the last thing you want on a system this expensive is to have a million trial apps running in the background. HP does include software that couples with its Chassis Intrusion Sensor to detect theft or if someone has been fiddling about with the internals of the Z1, which is quite cool.

Boot times from the Windows 7 logo to the desktop was about 41 seconds which I can hardly complain about given the quick number of checks the Z1 does before firing up the bootloader. I wouldn’t advise turning on the sleep function of Windows as the last thing you want to happen when you’ve left your Z1 to render something is for it to stop halfway and tuck itself in for a nice power nap.

For continuity, I ran our standard benchmark suites which would seem almost trivial to the Z1. Performance was fairly good compared to similarly specced desktops, but I was more interested in the workstation tests that I would run later. Here’s what the Z1 scored in our usual benchmarks:



As with the Z800, I ran SPECviewperf 11 to run through a series of 3D tests that would really test both the CPU and GPU not in terms of framerates, but in terms of the number of calculations it could pull off. Each test involved a very taxing model being re-rendered and rotated before more layers were added to the model and the process was repeated.

To compare, I matched the Z1 with my previous tests with the Z800 (2.0 GB DDR3 666MHz SDRAM of RAM, 2 x Intel Xeon CPU X5650 @ 2.67GHz, 500GB (7200) SATA HDD, nVidia Quadro 4000) as well as a custom-built rig that we had in the office (Intel i7 3960X CPU @ 3.3GHz, 16GB DDR3 RAM, AMD HD 7970 2GB, 128GB OCZ Vertex 4 SSD).



It’s a bit unfair to look at the figures between the Z800 and Z1 purely because the two have very different specifications. However even with our custom machine having some fairly decent internals, it wasn’t able to keep up with most of the tests which were very computing-intensive and produced some of the slowest renderings I’ve seen yet. The Z1 however was able to sail through with its specifications, and ran all of the test without any issues.

My next test was with Adobe Premier Pro 5.5, which really took the cake. I took at 1080p rip of the movie ‘300’ (what else?) and cut it down to only the first 15 minutes of the film. I then applied various color correction filters and effects, and then rendered the entire clip back out at full HD at max settings. Now one nifty thing about the Z1 is that it allows programs like Premier Pro to use the GPU to help renders, thus drastically cutting down render times. Using the “Mercury Playback GPU Playback Acceleration” renderer, I was able to export the entire clip in a little under 31 minutes. I then re-rendered the clip with the exact same settings, but chose the default “Mercury Playback Software Only” renderer. This time, the 15 minute clip took a whopping 2 hrs and 51 minutes to output, so it’s not difficult to see the advantages of programs tapping into the nVidia GPU core. Other tasks were also quite easy to handle for the Z1 – ripping a DVD onto the hard drive took about 9 minutes to finish, and rendering my sample dragon model (120,844 faces) in Maya took about 2 seconds to spit out a high quality JPEG at full resolution.

Screen


The 27” screen of the Z1 is an absolute joy to work on, sporting a comfortable resolution of 2,560x1,440. The Z1 uses the same LED-backlit IPS panel that’s built into HP’s DreamColor monitor, which is often used in the media and production industry to display colors as accurately as possible. You can also use the included DisplayPort to further extend the Z1, and when mounted on a VESA mount it makes for a truly spectacular desktop space. The only downside is that the screen is quite glossy, so while it looks bright and displays colors well, it may be hard to use if you’re near a window or have any direct lights shining on the display.



HP have also included a handy HD 1080p 2.0 megapixel webcam at the top of the screen, which can be titled up and down by a tiny scroll at the top, so no matter what angle you’ve got the Z1 at, you can comfortable use the camera.

Heat & Noise Levels


The biggest challenge that HP would face with the Z1 was keeping it cool. There are a number of fans running inside the Z1 which are larger than standard cooling fans found in other machines. These large fans are able to spin at a slower rate than their smaller counterparts while still producing the same amount of ventilation, so you no matter what you’re doing on the Z1, you will never hear the fans kick into high gear.



The Z1’s CPU registered an average temperature of about 82C during our tests, dropping down to 78C when idle. Most of the Z1’s heat is expelled through the top of the unit, so beware of plenty of hot air escaping from the top – make sure you don’t position the Z1 under a low shelf or you’ll certainly disrupt the cooling levels. The Z1 was also quite warm near the left side of the screen where the processor is located, so overall the unit can get a little bit lukewarm at times. But given that this much power is crammed into an all-in-one system, HP have still done a very good job in keeping things quiet and as cool as possible.

Conclusion


So who is the Z1 really targeted to? The simple answer is anyone who’s looking to buy a workstation who needs some serious performance but doesn’t necessarily have the space for a full-fledged tower unit. The Z1 is certainly a no-brainer for anyone in media production who needs the screen real-estate and color quality that’s on offer. The Z1 is easy to upgrade and configure, and certainly is able to deliver workstation-grade performance in a sleek and space-saving form.
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