A Hands-On Review of the HP ZBook 14u G5
Michael Alba posted on August 27, 2018 |
The HP ZBook 14u G5. (Image courtesy of HP.)
The HP ZBook 14u G5. (Image courtesy of HP.)

The HP ZBook 14u G5 is a mobile workstation that aims to meet the dual goals of powerful performance and premium design. Unfortunately, these two goals are often at odds with one other. When you max out design at the expense of performance, you wind up with the MacBook—beautiful, slim, light, and totally impractical for many tasks. On the other hand, when you max out performance at the expense of design, you wind up with the Alienware 17 gaming laptop—powerful enough to fill in for a desktop, but a bulky behemoth you won’t want to lug around.

MacBook (left) and Alienware 17 (right) shown roughly to scale. (Images courtesy of Apple and Alienware respectively.)
MacBook (left) and Alienware 17 (right) shown roughly to scale. (Images courtesy of Apple and Alienware respectively.)

The ZBook 14u G5 is somewhere in between these two extremes, but it leans more towards the design side of the spectrum. It was HP’s goal to meet in the middle, as the company advertises the laptop with the phrase “workstation-class power meets thin and light design.” Ultimately, the 14u G5 meets this goal—to an extent. As can be expected when balancing any tradeoffs, if you go for the middle, you wind up making sacrifices on either side.

With that said, let’s take a closer look at the ZBook 14u G5.

The Specs

First, let’s break down the name of the ZBook 14u G5. ZBook refers to a suite of mobile workstations by HP, each embracing the theme of performance-meets-design. The 14 designates the screen size, 14 inches, while the u marks this specific type of ZBook (the 14u has a sister computer called the 15u with, you guessed it, a 15-inch display). Finally, the G5 denotes that this is the fifth generation of the ZBook 14u/15u, in contrast to the previous G4 version.

The entire HP ZBook lineup. (Image courtesy of HP.)
The entire HP ZBook lineup. (Image courtesy of HP.)

Here are the specs of the ZBook 14u G5:

CPU

Low end: 7th Gen Intel Core i5-7200U (2.5GHz to 3.1GHz)

High end: 8th Gen Intel Core i7-8650U (1.9GHz to 4.2GHz)

GPU

Integrated: Intel UHD Graphics 620

Discrete, optional: AMD Radeon Pro WX 3100

Display

1920 x 1080

14 inches

Optional touchscreen

Memory

Low end: 4GB DDR4-2400

High end: 32 GB (2 x 16GB) DDR4-2400

Storage

Low end: 128GB M2 SATA TLC SSD

High end: 1TB PCIe NVMe MLC SSD

I/O Ports

(1) USB-C with Thunderbolt 3

(1) HDMI 1.4

(1) USB 3.0 (charging)

(1) USB 3.1 Gen 1

(1) Headphone/mic in

(1) Power connector

(1) Ultraslim docking connector

(1) RJ-45 connector

The ZBook 14u G5 is highly configurable, and not just in the memory and storage department. You can choose between Windows 10 and Free DOS 2.0, a backlit or non-backlit keyboard, whether or not you want a fingerprint reader, whether or not you want a touchscreen, and even what wireless chip you want, if any (to satisfy both sides of that classic debate between the Realtek RTL8822BE and Intel 8265).

The lowest end configuration of the ZBook 14u G5 is priced at $1065.60. If you spec it out, you’re looking at over three times as much: $3442.32. With all the configurability options in between, you’ll most likely be able to find something that matches your budget.

The Design

(Image courtesy of HP.)
(Image courtesy of HP.)

True to the ZBook line, the 14u G5 sets out to be a premium-looking mobile workstation—and, largely, it succeeds. The chassis is machined from aluminum and has a gunmetal tinge that HP calls “turbo silver.” In many types of lighting, the 14u G5 actually appears pale purple, but it looks nice in any case. The ZBook 14u G5 also shoots for the slim and light basket, and comes in at 0.71in thick and 3.56lbs heavy. It’s not the lightest or thinnest laptop around, but it’s a very creditable effort.

One of the best design components of the ZBook 14u G5 is the keyboard. If you spend a significant amount of time typing, it’s crucial to find a keyboard you get along with. The keyboard on the 14u G5 provides a great typing experience, with enough travel and key spacing to ensure comfort over long periods of time. For users that want it, there’s a black pointing stick nestled between the G, H and B keys.

The top row of the keyboard is a split function/shortcut row typical of most mobile keyboards. In addition to the usual shortcuts like volume, screen brightness, and key backlighting, the 14u G5 provides some unique extras. For example, there are dedicated keys for answering and ending Skype calls and presenting your screen. Another nifty shortcut puts the 14u into a mode called HP Sure View, a security feature designed to guard against visual hacking, i.e., somebody looking at your screen. Pressing this button adjusts the display so that the viewing angle is extremely limited. You can see it if you’re right in front of it (though it looks very washed out), but to anyone else your screen appears completely white. It’s a cool feature, though not one we found ourselves using very often.

The trackpad on the ZBook 14u G5 sits right beneath the space bar (as opposed to being centrally aligned on the chassis). It has two buttons on top for a more tactile left and right click, but as users can click down on the trackpad itself, these buttons are more to complement the pointing stick on the keyboard. The trackpad itself feels and works great, and that’s coming from a guy who’s pretty picky when it comes to trackpads. Though many users will opt for a mouse, a good trackpad makes for better mobility, so HP deserves full credit for the trackpad on the 14u G5.

The keyboard and trackpad on the ZBook 14u G5. Note the present/answer/disconnect shortcuts in the top right, and the HP Sure View button in the top left (on the F2 key).
The keyboard and trackpad on the ZBook 14u G5. Note the present/answer/disconnect shortcuts in the top right, and the HP Sure View button in the top left (on the F2 key.)

The HP ZBook 14u G5 offers a decent selection of I/O ports, with a standard USB 3 port on either side, one USB-C with Thunderbolt 3 for connection to an external display, an RJ-45 for ethernet hookups, an HDMI port, and a headphone jack. There’s also a security lock slot, a smart card reader, and an HP dock connector. But most interesting, and what really enhances the mobility of the 14u G5, is a SIM card slot that allows users to take advantage of mobile data. The 14u G5 isn’t the only mobile workstation that boasts this feature, but it’s not exactly commonplace, so it’s definitely a check in the 14u’s favor. One thing we wish the 14u did offer is an SD card reader, but you can’t have everything.

The display of the 14u G5 is nice, but nothing special. At only 1920x1080p, it falls short of some of the super high res workstations out there like the 4K ThinkPad P52s.

Two more notes about the design of the 14u G5: the camera and the microphones. HP is really pushing this computer for its collaboration capability, and so they’ve put a little extra effort into these features. On the non-touch display models, the camera includes a physical privacy shutter so that users don’t have to put post-it notes or band-aids or masking tape over the camera. It would have been nice to have this feature on the touchscreen models as well, but there are difficulties with the touch display because the glass extends to the very edge of the computer. As for the mics, HP has put a couple on the back of the screen in addition to the front facing ones. The purpose of these extra mics is to capture ambient noise so it can be cancelled. If you’re using the 14u as collaboratively as HP expects, these will definitely come in handy.

The Performance

Using SOLIDWORKS on the ZBook 14u G5.
Using SOLIDWORKS on the ZBook 14u G5.

The ZBook 14u G5—at least the version we tested, which was near the top of the specs—is packing a good enough CPU and GPU to provide a comfortable CAD experience. The GPU, an AMD Radeon Pro WX 3100, is an entry-­­­­­level workstation graphics card, so it’s designed to meet the minimum standards of design software needs (for NVIDIA folks, this chip is comparable to a Quadro P600). In our tests using Onshape, SOLIDWORKS, Fusion 360, and KeyCreator, we had very few issues. That’s not to say the experience was seamless—there was the occasional lag and/or freeze—but it’s good enough to do some design on the go without banging your head in frustration.

To get a better idea of exactly how well-suited the 14u G5 is for design, we ran the SPECapc SOLIDWORKS 2017 benchmark. These were our results:

The larger the score, the greater the speed. Pay particular attention to the composite results in bold (FSAA stands for Full-Screen Anti-Aliasing). There aren’t too many published results to compare these scores to, as the 2017 benchmark was only recently released. In fact, only one other mobile workstation—the Lenovo ThinkPad P52—has been officially documented:

As you can see, the ThinkPad far outstrips the 14u G5’s scores. You can spec out the ThinkPad P52 for about $4500 (base price $1740), so it is more expensive than 14u G5, but in terms of CAD performance, the ThinkPad is the clear winner. Of course, our day-to-day experience with the 14u G5 suggests it’s more than fit for occasional design work. For the light CAD user, it’ll serve just fine.

But as competent as the 14u G5 may be for light design work, we can’t give the performance a glowing endorsement. From day one, we were plagued with seemingly random glitches that never let up. The fingerprint scanner stopped working. The screen brightness keys stopped working. The connection to an external monitor stopped working, forcing us to update our GPU drivers. USB drives wouldn’t be recognized. Bluetooth would stop working properly. The computer would freeze intermittently with no discernible cause. These, and many other problems, made the 14u G5 a frustrating computer to use. Oh, and every now and then this annoying popup would demand our attention:

The battery life of the 14u G5 was also underwhelming. In our tests of a typical working session, we averaged about three hours before having to plug in. These results will obviously vary, and ours are likely to be on the low end (we tend to have a lot of peripherals plugged in and a lot of active applications). So if you’re doing actual work on the 14u G5, you can count on a few hours of mobile power. Just make sure to bring your charger if you’ll be going much longer than that.

The Verdict

As much as we appreciate many aspects of the ZBook 14u G5, like the sharp design, great keyboard and trackpad, and highly configurable specs, the number of issues we faced with this laptop is deal breaker. That’s not to say every 14u G5 will experience the same problems—maybe there was something up with our unit in particular—but as far as mobile workstations go, the 14u would not be our first choice.

That said, here’s our customary table of the good, the bad, and the neutral of the ZBook 14u G5:

The Good

In the Middle

The Bad

  • Thin, light, and looks premium
  • Great keyboard
  • Great trackpad
  • Highly configurable workstation
  • Comfortable for light design work
  • Competitive price
  • Decent display
  • Okay selection of ports
  • Frustratingly glitchy
  • Underwhelming battery life

Check out our video review of the HP ZBook 14u G5 here.


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