Sunday, 19 November 2017
News Tech

HP ZBook x2 brings a tear-off keyboard and 4K 10-bit color


HP chose to launch its 14-inch ZBook x2 mobile workstation at Adobe Max, the annual conference for Creative Clouders; that should tell you exactly who HP is targeting with the x2. And from what I’ve seen, it hits the mark as exactly what professional creatives will want by the time it ships in December. It’s the first detachable mobile workstation — a laptop that turns into a tablet when you remove the magnetically-attached keyboard — which can be configured with a 10-bit 4K UHD pressure-sensitive display, the first available on a mobile device.

While the prices start at $1,750 (directly converted, approximately £1,330 and AU$2,230), that’s for a relatively underpowered configuration with a dual-core Intel Core i5 and integrated graphics, an 8-bit 4K display and so on. HP doesn’t have a price yet for the maxed-out configuration — which would have an 8th-generation i7, the DreamColor 4K display, an Nvidia Quadro M620 GPU, 32GB RAM and 2TB NVMe M.2 SSD — but if this is going to be your only system, you’re going to want the power. It comes with 20 percent off a year’s subscription to CC for new users, too, for whatever that’s worth.

Why does all this matter? Let me count the ways.

You want a detachable

There are two types of laptops that double as tablets: detachables (aka 2-in-1s, where the keyboard comes off, like the Microsoft Surface Pro) and convertibles, where the keyboard rotates around the lid for tablet use. Convertibles (aka hybrids) tend to be more business-oriented: in addition to standard laptop and tablet use, they can be positioned for presentations and video conferencing. Because the keyboard remains attached, there’s also room for more battery cells and bigger components. But it also means that they’re not terribly comfortable to use as a tablet, especially with a stylus. 

Detachables, on the other hand, are a lot more comfortable for extensive stylus use, and you have the option of leaving the keyboard behind to make it lighter. And as long as they’re properly designed, they can be tons more flexible than plain-old tablets like the iPad Pro because they run desktop applications, offer convenient connections to physical devices and can drive displays at high resolution.  

The ZBook x2 even does detachable better; when you physically disconnect the keyboard, it automatically connects via Bluetooth so you can still use it. Anyone with keyboard shortcuts for their most-used applications deeply ingrained in muscle memory will appreciate it. Yes, it has 18 programmable buttons on either side of the display, but I for one have never been able to use those with as much alacrity as the keyboard. The kickstand parks rigidly and tilts to angles appropriate for comfortable stylus use.

You can pair a Wacom MobileStudio Pro with a Bluetooth keyboard, but that’s clunky to carry. Plus, it doesn’t have a kickstand, and more generally, Wacom isn’t a system vendor, so it doesn’t offer up-to-date components or the same type of support. However you can connect it to a system and use it like a pen-capable monitor, which is a really nice feature. 

The system also supports 32GB of memory, more than other detachable or its closest competitor in spirit, the Wacom MobileStudio Pro. Add to that connectors for HDMI, USB Type-A, USB-C/Thunderbolt 3, plus a fingerprint reader and UHS III-capable SD and smart card slots, and it’s ready for anything.

You want a Wacom EMR stylus

Wacom’s been in the premium graphics-stylus business for longer than almost anyone still around, and its electromagnetic resonance technology is still the best. The x2 doesn’t incorporate the latest generation, which offers 8,192 levels of pressure sensitivity and 60 levels of tilt detection and which only Wacom’s products currently use, but it does offer 4.096 levels of sensitivity and tilt detection (I don’t have a tilt specification).

Some of the best things about EMR is that the stylus charges through the surface, so no batteries are required, and it automatically connects on contact rather than using Bluetooth. 

HP claims no parallax (offset between the tip and the pixel location) and minimal latency, but I find that usability is more a function of the complexity of the brush and the application — latency is one thing but lag, as I frequently see with some complex brushes in Photoshop or Painter, is another. In any case, any Bluetooth stylus is going to have some latency from the connection.

HP also chemically etched the screen to provide a better feel for both stylus and touch. There’s a fine line between too slippery and too rubbery when using a stylus on tablet screens and in my brief fingers-on with the x2 I did like the feel. The company also custom-designed the stylus, but while it’s certainly comfortable it didn’t really stand out in that respect.

HP Zbook X2

HP’s stylus looks and feels more like a Wacom Intuos Pro Pen 2 than the typical stylus that comes with a Windows tablet.


Sarah Tew/CNET

You want antiglare, Adobe RGB-accurate 4K

If you opt for the 10-bit DreamColor display, it comes factory calibrated for Adobe RGB with 100 percent gamut coverage — and supports hardware profiles — all essential for color-critical work. For reference, the recently announced Surface Book 2, which Microsoft touts as a great “workstation,” has a way-too-glossy screen and only claims accuracy for the much smaller sRGB color space. 

And that chemical etching that gives drawing a more natural feel also renders the screen antiglare. I can’t stress enough how much more comfortable it is to work on a matte screen than a glossy one. With the exception of gaming laptops, most consumer laptops have glossy screens to make colors pop. Even the ones that claim to be antiglare are still too shiny — or they are really antiglare and not very graphics friendly.

And for photo editing, 4K is much better than lower resolutions for judging sharpness and detailed masking.

You probably want a workstation

The term “workstation” has become diluted, frequently used to describe any fast computer that can be used for professional graphics work. But it really has a very specific meaning: a system that can be certified stable and secure by software manufacturers. That requires specific configurations, which almost always includes a workstation-class GPU like an Nvidia Quadro or AMD Radeon Pro/FirePro. 

Workstation applications rely on OpenGL a lot, but just because a GPU supports OpenGL doesn’t mean it has the appropriate drivers for the the application to take advantage of it. For instance, one of the biggest points of contention among people who game and edit photos is Nvidia’s hardline distinction between its consumer GeForce and workstation Quadro lines: You can’t get true 10-bit color in applications like Photoshop because Nvidia’s GeForce drivers don’t support it, but you can’t get GeForce performance in games from a Quadro. 

The upshot is you need a workstation GPU to access certain levels of acceleration — and occasionally features, such as real-time renderers in CAD programs — in your applications. And if you really want gaming performance, you can connect an external GPU chassis via the Thunderbolt port.

And some industries have stringent security requirements to prevent, for instance, leakage of profitable content you might be working on. Workstations have enterprise-class security.

But you might want a little more, too

The ZBook x2 looks like it might be one of the best options I’ve seen thus far for professional creatives, but a few things did jump out at me. 

For one, the design aesthetic is more engineer than artist; I wish it took after the Spectre line rather than HP’s clamshell workstations. Fourteen inches is a good compromise size — it weighs at least 4.8 lbs/2.2 kg as a laptop, so I shudder to think how heavy it would be at 15 inches — but the battery life is probably not great. It has a 70Wh four-cell battery rated for 10 hours, but that’s a maximum and usually for the least power-consuming configuration. I wouldn’t mind adding a couple of ounces of weight to the keyboard to supply some extra juice, especially since it already must have a battery in it for Bluetooth-connected operation.  

And given its purpose, it also deserves a better-than-average back camera rather than a random 8-megapixel model.

As for the internals, while it uses eighth-gen Intel Core chips, those are still based on a tweaked version of last year’s Kaby Lake architecture and the integrated graphics are just rebranded from last year’s. That’s unavoidable; Intel still hasn’t shipped Coffee Lake-based mobile CPUs. But given how much the high-end configuration will probably cost, I’d be tempted to wait and at least get a sense of how much of an improvement the desktop Coffee Lake processors deliver. More cores for a workstation are more important than in a consumer laptop.



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