From the Envy brand to its latest ZBook line, HP has brought a number of interesting computers to the market in the last several years. But none might be more important to appeasing us pros than putting professional-level storage in a portable, convertible, touchscreen experience. Meet the ZBook x2.
The ZBook x2 looks incredible. I’m a Mac guy, but even I can appreciate some of HP’s latest designs that break the mold a bit. More aggressive than the design of the MacBook Pro, but nowhere near the ridiculous levels of Alienware’s gaming aggression, the x2 strikes a great balance design-wise with its chiseled edges contributing to a contemporary look.
The ZBook x2, however, is not a traditional laptop in several senses. Most notably, it houses all of its computing power (including battery, I/O — everything) in its screen and relies on a snap-in docking system to connect an ultra-thin, somewhat soft keyboard that feels almost more like a folio-style cover for the tablet. This means you don’t have to have the keyboard attached to have access to everything you might ever need in terms of ports, power, and performance.
However, a kickstand on the back of the display is necessary because the keyboard attaches through a mechanism in a hinge-less design. Without a hinge (think iPad with a folio cover), you can’t stand up the ZBook X2 on a table without its heavy top screen leaning back on its popped-out hinge. And this is where we perhaps get a bit into the ideology behind Apple’s refusal to do a touchscreen Mac. That’s a decision I still disagree with, as users should still have the choice, but you do start to see the point in some contradictions.
On a table, this setup is fine, but the flexibility in the connection between the keyboard and tablet pieces and the fact that it has to lean back on a thin (but sturdy) stand means that you really can’t work too comfortably with this on your lap. So truly, it can’t really be considered a laptop. Instead, a desktop-class tablet might be a better description. Additionally, the depth it takes up on the table because of this makes it near-impossible to use in a laptop configuration on a plane, as it’s just too long on the tray table. Of course, HP is counting on you using this in a tablet mode 90 percent of the time. So maybe that’s fair; but then (to continue being fair) it’s a darn heavy tablet with all that stuff in it, which is something to consider.
While the design is limiting in some ways, it’s in the performance and tablet capability in it all where things get interesting. With up to 32 GB RAM, the x2 beats out computers like the MacBook Pro in the one way professionals are really picky about. That memory makes a big difference for many professionals shooting on higher-end equipment, even if it eats up battery life. Another item not seen often in tablets would be 2 GB of dedicated graphics with the NVIDIA Quadro M620, which sits alongside a quad-core Intel Core i7 8650. And the anti-glare 14-inch display looks absolutely stunning with its 4K resolution.
In real-world terms, I ran a Lightroom export of 249 JPEGs in eight minutes on this computer and in 7 min. 20 sec. on my fully loaded 2015 15” Retina MacBook Pro. The HP had a fresh install of everything on it, while my MacBook Pro is my working computer. But even then, Lightroom doesn’t exactly run the same between both operating systems. The way I see it, this is on-par performance that’s relatively impressive for anything of this form-factor.
With the battery-less pen and dedicated, user-programmable buttons on each side of the screen, designers, Photoshop experts, and artists can certainly take great advantage of the touch experience, which is superb. And that’s exactly where this shines.
Traditionally, you’d have to sacrifice a lot on power (and/or software) to get a touch experience in one device. You could always bring the tablet along, but I think we’re all a bit tired of that. The actual pen-to-surface experience was so good, I didn’t want to let go. But I did find it mildly frustrating that I would often accidentally engage the customizable buttons on either side of the screen when simply handling or moving around the device. However, I’m sure this is something I would get used to with time. One other aspect I didn’t love: if you’re going to make a tablet the highlight experience of a product, include a spot to hold the pen. This is something I’m not sure I can get over mentally. It’s such a small thing; and yes, it wastes internal space. But I almost lost this pen three times during this review alone. Thankfully, they aren’t too expensive. But I think there should have been a smarter way to incorporate it into or alongside the x2’s body.
A quick note on battery life: everyone makes all kinds of promises on battery life. They always have. I have no idea where Apple, HP, Dell, Microsoft — any of them — get there battery numbers. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never gotten 10 hours out of a laptop battery in my life. Sure, I’m running Box, Google Drive, and CrashPlan continuously in the background, Time Machine is busy taking snapshots, I have a hundred Safari tabs open, and then use Lightroom and Photoshop occasionally in bursts. But even when just watching a Netflix movie, I only get about four hours out of my MacBook Pro. Suffice it to say the x2 is no different, but that’s fine. The way I see it, with everything we run, four hours of show-watching and one to two hours of solid high-output processing operations is the way it is for everyone. And the x2 does that fine.
What I Liked
- Incredible touch experience as good as a Wacom, but with the added benefit of a full operating system
- Excellent mobile performance (as good as any other high-end laptop)
- Plenty of I/O including all the USB types you actually care about and an SD card slot
- The screen really does look incredible (I forgot how nice it was to have anti-glare, too)
- Customizable buttons similar to a Wacom tablet on either side of the screen are a pro designer’s dream
- Everything else about the way this works is great — keyboard is thin, but provides a great typing experience, etc.
What I Didn't Like
- A bit pricey even given the performance level
- Laptop configuration not the most comfortable/flexible
- No way to hold pen with computer body
- Charging cable and adapter are huge (silly gripe, but still something I don’t understand the necessity of)
- Semi-odd performance configurations: most are dual-core, but the quad-core runs at 1.8 GhZ (so you better really need the multiple cores for whatever you're running if you go this route) and only comes with a maximum 512 GB SSD (up to 1 TB for the dual-core models) — however, it performed very well in all tests we ran
Overall, the aesthetic design, performance, and touch experience of HP’s ZBook x2 left nothing to be desired. It really is a great experience. However, for me, I simply can’t say it would be worth it, as I just don’t use touch enough. I could see how a designer, artist, or photographer that does intensive multimedia digital manipulation (à la Jeremy Cowart) would thank HP forever for giving them a product with this power and this great of a touch experience. But for someone that just edits photos or video and for whom touch is only occasionally necessary, giving up the lap-work or tray-table-work experience isn’t worth it to me, personally. Add to that the $3,500 price tag for a 1.8 GHz quad-core computer with 512 GB of storage, but otherwise fully loaded, and you really have to need that touchscreen.
At the end of the day, we need what we need; and even a little extra money shouldn’t stop us from making a switch that helps us be more productive. But that increased productivity has to be there for you if you’re going to do it. If not, it might be worth checking out other options in HP’s ZBook lineup.
The ZBook x2 is available from B&H in multiple configurations.