The Venn diagram showing 2-in-1 convertible laptops and mobile workstations doesn’t have much overlap. Convertibles run the gamut from inexpensive Chromebooks to potent, big-screen systems. Workstations are uniformly powerful platforms for design, rendering, and scientific apps, yet machines with both independent software vendor (ISV) certifications and screens that pivot into tablet mode for pen input are scarce. The HP ZBook Studio x360 G5 (starts at $1,999; $4,623 as tested) joins other rarities such as the Dell Precision 5530 2-in-1 in this group. It’s an impressively versatile option, but it’s heavy and costly and can’t match the performance of our Editors’ Choice mobile workstation, the conventional clamshell Lenovo ThinkPad P52.
Flip-and-Fold in 4K
The 15.6-inch-screened Studio x360 is $1,999 with an Intel Core i5 CPU, 8GB of memory, 256GB solid-state drive, and full HD (1,920 by 1,080) touch screen backed by Nvidia’s 4GB Quadro P1000 graphics. My $4,623 test unit carries a mighty six-core, 2.9GHz Xeon E-2186M processor, 32GB of RAM, a 1TB PCI Express/NVMe SSD, and a 4K (3,840-by-2,160-pixel) touch screen with ambient light sensor, as well as the same Quadro P1000 GPU. Windows 10 Pro for Workstations is preinstalled; a Wacom AES stylus with support for tilt and 4,096 levels of pressure sensitivity is bundled.
The top CPU choice on this model is the Core i9-8950HK; the memory ceiling is 64GB of standard or 32GB of ECC DDR4. Two M.2 slots allow up to 4TB of solid-state storage. Graphics shoppers can step up to the Quadro P2000, while the 400-nit 4K display of my review unit can be replaced with a 600-nit 4K DreamColor screen showing 1 billion colors.
The silver-gray Studio features an aluminum lid with HP’s stylized logo and diagonally cut rear corners. Like HP’s business EliteBooks, it’s passed a battery of MIL-STD tests against shock, vibration, temperature extremes, and other road hazards; there’s minimal flex if you grasp its screen corners or pound its keyboard, though the screen hinges felt a bit looser than I like.
At 4.9 pounds, the HP is positively portly—the Precision 5530 2-in-1 tips the scales at 4.36 pounds, and is noticeably trimmer at 0.63 by 13.9 by 9.2 inches to the Studio’s 0.74 by 14.2 by 10 inches. While the bezels on either side of the screen are thin, the ones at top and bottom aren’t. At least you get a spacious palm rest and touchpad, as well as an upward-firing grille above the keyboard so the Bang & Olufsen-tuned quad speakers aren’t muffled by placement on the laptop’s bottom.
Two USB 3.0 Type-A ports, one with device charging, are located on the ZBook’s left side, along with a security lock slot, the power button, and a slot for an optional ($146) SIM card for mobile broadband. On the right, you’ll find two Thunderbolt 3 ports, an HDMI video output, an audio jack, an SD card slot, and the AC adapter connector. There’s no place to store the stylus pen within the laptop, so HP provides a plastic clip that snaps into the SD card slot.
Making Workflows Go
Windows Hello users can sign into the system using either the fingerprint reader in the palm rest or the face-recognition webcam above the display. The 720p camera’s images are well-lit, with fair colors, but they look soft around the edges, almost pixelated; my hair looked like a blurry crown, and my mouth was a smear.
The backlit keyboard lacks a numeric pad but has dedicated Home, End, Page Up, and Page Down keys, which almost makes up for HP’s unsatisfactory, but trademark, placement of the cursor arrow keys (half-height up and down arrows stacked between full-height left and right). It also has the special Skype communication keys seen on some EliteBook models. I wasn’t wild about its typing feel, which is shallow and clacky, but I managed a brisk pace after a few minutes’ practice.
The plus-size touchpad glides and taps smoothly, but it has no buttons, let alone the middle button beloved of CAD and other ISV applications. (You can use Windows’ settings to change a three-finger tap from a Cortana search to a middle-button click.) Touch-screen operations are precise. The pen has a USB Type-C port for charging, so it doesn’t need a battery; it kept up with my fastest swoops and scribbles as I played with the Windows Ink Workspace apps.
The 4K display is a highlight, with a superfine view of even the smallest details in videos and 3D models. There’s ample brightness, though it falls off quickly as you dial it down two or three notches to save the battery, and contrast is excellent. Viewing angles are broad, and colors are vivid and richly saturated.
Listening to MP3s and streaming audio was a pleasure, with louder and clearer sound at 50 percent volume than some laptops muster at 100 percent. (Audio at peak volume wasn’t distorted or rough, just uncomfortable.) Overlaid tracks came through clearly, including a surprising amount of bass. A supplied Bang & Olufsen control panel offers music, movie, and voice presets and an equalizer, as well as noise cancellation for conference calls.
HP backs the Studio x360 with a three-year warranty with on-site service and provides IT-friendly security features such as Sure Start (an automatic check and restoration of a compromised or hacked BIOS) and Sure Click (an extra layer of security for browsers).
Doing the Benchmark Boogie
The Studio’s closest competitor, the Dell Precision 5530 2-in-1, hasn’t completed our recently revised suite of performance tests (though you’ll see it in the workstation-specific section). Instead, I compared the HP to two 15.6-inch non-convertible workstations—the Lenovo ThinkPad P52 and Dell Precision 5530. I rounded out the results with two high-performance, general-purpose 15.6-inch laptops, the Dell XPS 15 and MSI P65 Creator. You can see the contenders’ basic specs below.
Its Quadro P1000 GPU is relatively low on Nvidia’s totem pole, so the Studio didn’t set our workstation benchmarks on fire, but it generally proved to be a fine performer, making you sacrifice little for its convertible and pen flexibility.
Productivity, Storage, and Media Tests
PCMark 10 and 8 are holistic performance suites developed by the PC benchmark specialists at UL (formerly Futuremark). The PCMark 10 test we run simulates different real-world productivity and content-creation workflows. We use it to assess overall system performance for office-centric tasks such as word processing, spreadsheeting, Web browsing, and videoconferencing. The test generates a proprietary numeric score; higher numbers are better.
PCMark 8, meanwhile, has a Storage subtest that we use to assess the speed of the system’s storage subsystem. The result is also a proprietary numeric score; again, higher numbers are better.
All these systems easily exceeded the 4,000 points that we consider excellent in PCMark 10, cementing their status as overkill for Word, Excel, and PowerPoint. Their solid-state drives sped through PCMark 8’s storage test, though the Precision 5530 was a bit off the pace.
Next is Maxon’s CPU-crunching Cinebench R15 test, which is fully threaded to make use of all available processor cores and threads. Cinebench stresses the CPU rather than the GPU to render a complex image. The result is a proprietary score indicating a PC’s suitability for processor-intensive workloads.
Any score in four figures indicates a CPU on steroids. These six-core systems are eminently suited to video editing or 3D rendering.
We also run a custom Adobe Photoshop image-editing benchmark. Using an early 2018 release of the Creative Cloud version of Photoshop, we apply a series of 10 complex filters and effects to a standard JPEG test image. We time each operation and, at the end, add up the total execution time. (Lower times are better.) The Photoshop test stresses the CPU, storage subsystem, and RAM, but it can also take advantage of most GPUs to speed up the process of applying filters, so systems with powerful graphics chips or cards may see a boost.
The Studio edged the Precision at the finish line to win the gold medal. Between its speed and its screen, it’s a topnotch choice for serious image editors.
3DMark measures relative graphics muscle by rendering sequences of highly detailed, gaming-style 3D graphics that emphasize particles and lighting. We run two different 3DMark subtests, Sky Diver and Fire Strike, which are suited to different types of systems. Both are DirectX 11 benchmarks, but Sky Diver is more suited to laptops and midrange PCs, while Fire Strike is more demanding and made for high-end PCs to strut their stuff. The results are proprietary scores.
3DMark rewards gaming GPUs more than workstation silicon, so the MSI with its GeForce GTX 1070 was the class of the field. The HP brought up the rear.
Next up is another synthetic graphics test, this time from Unigine Corp. Like 3DMark, the Superposition test renders and pans through a detailed 3D scene and measures how the system copes. In this case, it’s rendered in the company’s eponymous Unigine engine, offering a different 3D workload scenario than 3DMark, for a second opinion on the machine’s graphical prowess. We present two Superposition results, run at the 720p Low and 1080p High presets.
Again, the Creator prevailed when it came to gaming- rather than workstation-style graphics, with the Studio in a relatively distant last place. That’s not to say you can’t play games on it (certainly not compared to a laptop with lowly integrated graphics), but it’s simply not what the system’s designed for.
Battery Rundown Test
After fully recharging the laptop, we set up the machine in power-save mode (as opposed to balanced or high-performance mode) where available and make a few other battery-conserving tweaks in preparation for our unplugged video rundown test. (We also turn Wi-Fi off, putting the laptop into airplane mode.) In this test, we loop a video—a locally stored 720p file of the Blender Foundation short film Tears of Steel—with screen brightness set at 50 percent and volume at 100 percent until the system conks out.
Most mobile workstations spend most of their time plugged in, but the HP finished in the middle of the pack nonetheless, showing fairly impressive stamina for a powerful portable with a 4K display. Credit its beefy 96-watt-hour battery.
I changed the cast of characters for our specialized benchmarks designed to simulate the challenges posed by common workstation tasks: Not only do we have results for the Dell Precision 5530 2-in-1 convertible, but for the Studio’s clamshell cousin the HP ZBook 15 G5. The latter features a Core i7-8850H processor and Nvidia Quadro P2000 graphics; the Dell hybrid uses Intel’s Core i7-8706G, which combines a quad-core CPU with AMD Radeon Pro WX Vega M GL graphics.
One of the tests in this group is Cinebench’s OpenGL benchmark, which presents an animated scene measured in frames per second. Another is POV-Ray 3.7, which puts systems through a timed, off-screen rendering exercise that stresses multiple CPU threads and GPU compute units to the max. (Lower times are better.)
The Studio x360 rendered the Cinebench animation surprisingly quickly, finishing second to the ThinkPad P52. By contrast, it was the second slowest of these 15.6-inch mobile workstations in the POV-Ray benchmark.
Finally, there’s SPECviewperf 13, which renders and rotates 3D and wireframe models based on popular ISV apps’ viewsets; it’s the most realistic and challenging workstation test we run.
The Dells turned in a couple of outlying slow performances (the 5530 in the SolidWorks workload and the 5530 2-in-1 in Creo), but the HP was slightly off the pace in all three subtests—not agonizingly slow or something you’d grow impatient waiting for, but about what you’d expect considering its Quadro P1000 versus the Quadro P2000 and P3200 parts.
A Niche Within a Niche
There are more powerful mobile workstations suitable for tackling ginormous datasets or creating virtual-reality worlds (with the VR-ready Quadro P3200 and above), but they can’t fold into tablet mode for lap work or tent mode to give a presentation. If such positioning or pen input appeals to you, the ZBook Studio x360 G5 is a must-see. I’d be particularly tempted by the DreamColor display.
For most design or data-crunching pros, a clamshell system—whether ZBook, Precision, or ThinkPad P series—offers more bang for the buck. The Studio will delight some users, but misses out on our Editors’ Choice in the category.