HP Z1 G2 Workstation

df_hpz1g2_heroHewlett-Packard is known for developing workstations that set a reliability and performance standard, characterized by the Z-series of workstation towers. HP has sought to extend what they call the “Z experience” to other designs, like mobile and all-in-one computers. The latest of these is the HP Z1 G2 Workstation – the second generation model of the Z1 series.

Most readers will associate the all-in-one concept with an Apple iMac. Like the iMac, the Z1 G2 is a self-contained unit housing all electronics and the display in one chassis. Whereas the top-end iMacs are targeted at advanced consumers and pros with less demanding computing needs, the HP Z1 G2 is strictly for the serious user who requires advanced horsepower. The iMac is a sealed unit, which cannot be upgraded by the user (except for RAM), and is largely configured with laptop-grade parts. In contrast, the HP Z1 G2 is a Rolls-Royce. The build is very solid and it exudes a sense of performance. The user has the option to configure their Z1 G2 from a wide range of components. The display lifts like a car hood for easy accept to the “engine”, making user upgrades nearly as easy as on a tower.

Configuration options

df_hpz1g2_hero_touchThe HP Z1 G2 offers processor choices that include Intel Core i3, Core i5 and three Xeon models. There are a variety of storage and graphics card choices and it supports up to 32GB of RAM. You may also choose between a Touch and non-Touch display. The Touch screen adds a glass overlay and offers finger or stylus interaction with the screen. Non-touch screens are a matte finish, while Touch screens are glossy. You have a choice of operating systems, including Windows 7, Windows 8 and Linux distributions.

I was able to specify the built-to-order configuration of the Z1 G2 for my review. This included a Xeon E3 (3.6GHz) quad-core, 16GB of RAM, optical drive and the NVIDIA K4100M graphics card. For storage, I selected one 256GB mSATA boot drive (“flash” storage), plus two 512GB SSDs that were set-up in a RAID-0 configuration. I also ordered the Touch option with 64-bit Windows 8.1 Pro. Z1 G2 models start at $1,999; however, as configured, this system would retail at over $6,100, including a 20% eCoupon promo discount.

An important, new feature is support for Thunderbolt 2 with an optional module. HP is one of the first PC manufacturers to support Thunderbolt. I didn’t order that, but reps from AJA, Avid and Blackmagic Design all confirmed to me that their Thunderbolt units should work fine with this workstation, as long as you install their Windows device drivers. One of these would be required for any external broadcast or grading monitor.

In addition to the custom options, the Z1 G2 includes wireless support, four USB 2.0 ports, two USB 3.0 ports, Gigabit Ethernet, a DisplayPort connector for an secondary computer monitor, S/PDIF, analog audio connectors, a webcam and a media card reader.

Arrival and set-up

df_hpz1g2_openThe HP Z1 G2 ships as a single, 57 pound package, complete with a wireless mouse and keyboard. The display/electronics chassis is attached to an adjustable arm that connects to the base. This allows the system to be tilted at any angle, as well as completely flat for shipping and access to the electronics. It locks into place when it’s flat (as in shipping), so you have to push down lightly on the display in order to unlock the latch button.

The display features a 27” (diagonal) screen, but the chassis is actually 31” corner-to-corner. Because the stand has to support the unit and counter-balance the weight at various angles, it sticks out about 12” behind the back of the chassis. Some connectors (including the power cord) are at the bottom, center of the back of the chassis. Others are along the sides. The adjustable arm allows any angle from vertical to horizontal, so it would be feasible to operate in a standing or high-chair position looking down at the monitor – a bit like a drafting table. I liked the fact that the arm lets you drop the display completely down to the desk surface, which put the bottom of the screen lower than my stationary 20” Apple Cinemas.

First impressions

df_hpz1g2_win81I picked the Touch option in order to test the concept, but quite frankly I decided it wasn’t for me. In order to control items by touch, you have to be a bit closer than the full length of your arm. As a glasses-wearer, this distance is uncomfortable for me, as I prefer to be a little farther away from a screen of this size. Although the touch precision is good, it’s not as precise as you’d get with a mouse or pen and tablet – even if using an iPad stylus. Only menu and navigation operations, but no drawing tools, worked in Photoshop – an application that seems natural for Touch. While I found the Touch option not to be that interesting to me, I did like the screen that comes with it. It’s glossy, which gives you nice density to your images, but not so reflective as to be annoying in a room with ambient lighting.

The second curiosity item for me was Windows 8.1. The Microsoft “metro” look has been maligned and many pros opt for Windows 7 instead. I actually found the operating system to function well and the “flat” design philosophy much like what Apple is doing with Mac OS X and iOS. The tiled Start screen that highlights this release can easily be avoided when you set-up your preferences. If you prefer to pin application shortcuts to the Windows task bar or on the Desktop, that’s easily done. Once you are in an application like Premiere Pro or Media Composer, the OS differences tend to disappear anyway.

df_hpz1g2_bmdtestSince I had configured this unit with an mSATA boot/applications drive and RAID-0 SSDs for media, the launch and operation of any application was very fast. Naturally the difference from a cold start on the Z1 G2, as compared to my 2009 Mac Pro with standard 7200RPM drives, was night and day. With most actual operations, the differences in application responsiveness were less dramatic.

One area that I think needs improvement is screen calibration. The display is not a DreamColor display, but color accuracy seems quite good and it’s very crisp at 2560 x 1440 pixels. Unfortunately, both the HP and NVIDIA calibration applications were weak, using consumer level nomenclature for settings. For instance, I found no way to accurately set a 6500-degree color temperature or a 2.2 gamma level, based on how the sliders were labelled. Some of the NVIDIA software controls didn’t appear to work at all.

Performance stress testing

I loaded up the Z1 G2 with a potpourri of media and applications, including Adobe CC 2014 (Photoshop, Premiere Pro, After Effects, SpeedGrade), Avid Media Composer 8, DaVinci Resolve 11 Lite (beta) and Sony Vegas Pro 13. Media included Sony XAVC 4K, Avid DNxHD175X, Apple ProRes 4444, REDCODE raw from an EPIC Dragon camera and more. This allowed me to make some direct comparisons with the same applications and media available on my 2009 eight-core Mac Pro. Its configuration included dual Xeon quad-core processors (2.26GHz), 28GB RAM, an ATI 5870 GPU card and a RAID-0 stripe of two internal 7200RPM spinning hard drives. No I/O devices were installed on either computer. While these two systems aren’t exactly “apples-to-apples”, it does provide a logical benchmark for the type of machine a new Z1 G2 customer might be upgrading from.

df_hpz1g2_4kIn typical, side-by-side testing with edited, single-layer timelines, most applications on both machines performed in a similar fashion, even with 4K media. It’s when I started layering sequences and comparing performance and render times that the differences became obvious.

My first test compared Premiere Pro CC 2014 with a 7-layer, 4K timeline. The V1 track was a full-screen, base layer of Sony XAVC. On top of that I layered six tracks of picture-in-picture (PIP) clips consisting of RED Dragon raw footage at various resolutions up to 5K. Some clips were recorded with in-camera slomo. I applied color correction, scaling/positioning and a drop shadow. The 24p timeline was one minute long and was exported as a 4K .mp4 file. The HP handled this task at just under 11 minutes, compared with almost two hours for the Mac Pro.

My second Premiere Pro test was a little more “real world” – a 48-second sequence of ARRI Alexa 1080p ProRes 4444 log-C clips. These were round-tripped through SpeedGrade to add a Rec 709 LUT, a primary grade and two vignettes to blur and darken the outer edge of the clips. This sequence was exported as a 720/24p .mp4 file. The Z1 G2 tackled this in about 14 minutes compared with 37 minutes for the Mac Pro.

df_hpz1g2_appsPremiere Pro CC 2014 uses GPU acceleration and the superior performance of the NVIDIA K4100M card in the HP versus the ATI 5870 in the Mac Pro is likely the reason for this drastic difference. The render times were closer in After Effects, which makes less use of the GPU for effects processing. My 6-layer After Effects stress test was an 8-second composition consisting of six layers of 1080p ProRes clips from the Blackmagic Cinema Camera. I applied various Cycore and color correction effects and then moved them in 3D space with motion blur enabled. These were rendered out using the QuickTime Animation codec. Times for the Z1 G2 and Mac Pro were 6.5 minutes versus 8.5 minutes respectively.

My last test for the HP Z1 G2 involved Avid Media Composer. My 10-layer test sequence included nine PIP video tracks (using the 3D warp effect) over a full-screen background layer on V1. All media was Avid DNxHD175X (1080p, 10-bit, 23.976fps). No frames were dropped in the medium display quality, but in full quality frames started to drop at V6. When I added a drop shadow to the PIP clips, frames were dropped starting at V4 for full quality and V9 for medium quality.

Conclusion

The HP Z1 G2 is an outstanding workstation. Like any alternative form factor, you have to weigh the options of legacy support for older storage systems and PCIe cards. Thunderbolt addresses many of those concerns as an increasing number of adapters and expansion units hits the market. Those interested in shifting from Mac to Windows – and looking for the best in what the PC side has to offer – won’t go wrong with HP products. The company also maintains close ties to Avid and other software vendors, to make sure the engineering of their workstations matches the future needs of the software.

Whether an all-in-one is right for you comes down to individual needs and preferences. I was very happy with the overall ease of installation, operation and performance of the Z1 G2. By adding MacDrive, QuickTime and ProRes software and codecs, I could easily move files between the Z1 and my Mac. The screen is gorgeous, it’s very quiet and the heat output feels less than from my Mac tower. In these various tests, I never heard any fans kick into high. Whether you are upgrading from an older PC or switching platforms, the HP Z1 G2 is definitely worth considering.

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / CreativePlanetNetwork.

©2014 Oliver Peters

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