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First Look: HP Z1 G2 All-in-One Workstation

Is this HP's chance to polish off the Apple all-in-one competitor?

As part of the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas this week, HP announced the availability of its second-generation Z1 all-in-one workstation. Known as the HP Z1 G2, this tongue-twister of a name may soon come to be known as the only all-in-one, touch-capable workstation to outshine the polished image of a primary competitor: Apple.

Our first look, under embargo, was impressive for the specs the Z1 G2 provides. Two stand out and fit the Z1 G2 to a T: Thunderbolt 2 and a 27” touch-capable IPS screen.

Thunderbolt

If you’ve read our review of the first-generation Z1, then you’ll know that it offers maintenance and upgradability without the use of tools. The G2 version uses this to its advantage for one of the key differentiators from Apple’s all-in-one iMac: the option to have either an integrated Bluray disc burner or two Thunderbolt 2 connectors, neither of which the current Apple iMac offers.

First though, we have to take issue with HP’s press release which notes, a bit incorrectly, that “HP is the only workstation vendor to offer Thunderbolt as an option across both desktop and mobile workstations."

Apple has long had Thunderbolt integrated even in its smallest laptop, the 11” MacBook Air on which I’m writing this “first look” article. While HP may not consider all of Apple’s products workstation-quality, they certainly must acknowledge that the Mac maker has read-write speeds in even its smallest products that compare very favorably to competitive desktop offerings, including the first-generation Z1, as our Blackmagic speed tests have shown.

In addition, for inconceivable reasons, HP chose not to integrate Thunderbolt into its lightest and sleekest workstation-grade 14” laptop, revealing a gap in its attraction to on-the-go workstation warriors that also need high-throughput file transfer for video editing or streaming.

Finally, when it comes to workstation grade, Apple’s new MacPro—which ships with dual GPUs, unlike the Z1 with its single GPU—has been shipping since late 2013 with six Thunderbolt 2 connectors.

Having said all that, HP is correct in the fact that it is the only all-in-one desktop with Thunderbolt 2, and the company’s press release goes on to tout the benefit of Thunderbolt, stating that it “enables cutting-edge creative work, and the addition of this technology to the HP Z1 G2 expands HP’s leadership in innovation and demonstrates its commitment to the professional market."

We like the fact that the HP Thunderbolt 2 option slides into the Bluray slot, using an internal cable to feed the two integrated Thunderbolt 2 side-mounted connectors to the main board. We also like the fact that this is a field-upgradeable option.

“We could see a situation where a customer buys both [the Thunderbolt 2 and Bluray] modules, and then just swaps out the module depending on the project they are working on,” said an HP spokesperson. “With the tool-free serviceability it's a very fast and simple reconfigure process.”

While we haven’t had a chance to test this in our lab, we understand that HP may be focusing Thunderbolt integration as data storage only, eschewing the opportunity to drive additional monitors from the Thunderbolt ports. Still, as we noted on the original Z1, the inclusion of a DisplayPort connector means that one can run a ZDisplay monitor alongside the Z1’s integrated 27” IPS 2560x1440 screen. We did so, using a ZDisplay Z27i, which also has a native 2560x1440 resolution, during our testing of the first-generation Z1. And we’re holding on to that monitor to test the G2 version as well, since it gives us a 5120x1440 desktop on which to work.

Touch

We think that touch is the potential game-changing feature that will set HP apart. While we haven’t had a test unit in-house to test touch on, there are two facts that intrigue us about this potential workflow enhancer: Windows 8.1 and the Z1’s ability to collapse to a work surface-friendly horizontal position.

While Windows 8 has been panned in the press, and rejected by consumers that don’t have touch-capable laptops and desktops, we’ve found it to be an intuitive interface for basic functionality like music or video playback. As more and more programs are touch-enabled, it’s not hard to imagine a video mixer or control surface that would allow field production without a mouse, keyboard, or even an extra monitor.

HP has positioned the Z1 G2 for just such a potential opportunity. We’re still concerned about the weight from a portability standpoint, but the idea of using an HP Z1 G2 in its “maintenance” configuration (with the monitor parallel to the desk surface) bring a few great ideas to mind: a Wacom Cintiq-grade IPS panel for drawing or manipulating images, for one, or even just an intuitive video mixing surface to switch between camera inputs. Think TriCaster as an all-in-one sometime in the future, or vMix HD Pro today.

Finally, HP has also upgraded the Z1 with the newest Xeon processors and the ability to use dual mSATA flash-based SSD drives. This combination, along with ECC memory and integrated RAID options, should provide a powerhouse product in an all-in-one package.

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