★★★★★ £1,463 • From store.hp.com/uk
Squeezing professional-grade specs into a mini PC form factor, the HP Z2 Mini G3 is an intriguing but limited workstation
A potent Intel Xeon workstation in a tiny package, but some practicality has been left behind
WHEN WE THINK of workstations – not simply PCs you might use for work, but systems tailor-made for highly technical professional applications – we tend to think of either enormous desktop towers or back-breakingly bulky laptops.
HP’s Z2 Mini G3 has different ideas. It’s a true mini PC, measuring just 216x216x58mm, so it stands a good chance of having an even smaller footprint on your desk than your monitor stand. And that’s just when it’s laying flat – it can also be tipped on its side, so it takes up even less room.
What’s more, the insides of this tiny computer have some highly respectable workstation credentials. The Z2 Mini G3 comes in a dizzying variety of CPU, RAM, storage and graphics combinations, but the spec we tested seems to aim for a balance of all four: it has a quad-core Intel Xeon E3-1245 v5 processor, 16GB of DDR4 RAM, a 512GB PCI-E SSD and a 2GB Nvidia Quadro M620, a GPU typically found in laptops.
Windows 10 Pro is the operating system of choice – no settling for the Home edition here – though Windows 7 Pro is available through downgrade rights. This could be useful if the Z2 Mini G3 is joining an IT environment that also runs largely on the older OS, even if we personally prefer Windows 10 for its UI improvements and the fact that it will receive security updates further into the future.
In theory, the Xeon processor should make short work of our 4K benchmarks, which incorporate the type of editing and encoding tasks that these kinds of chips excel at. Sure enough, this is one powerful PC indeed, scoring 128 in the image-editing test, 136 in the video-encoding test, 150 in the multitasking test and 142 overall. Whether you’re making tweaks in Photoshop or cutting together clips in Vegas Pro, the Z2 Mini G3 will handle technical jobs quite comfortably.
However, we can’t help but notice that these scores are lower than what you’d get from a Core i7-7700K – a CPU from Intel’s more consumer-focused line that costs about the same as the Xeon E3-1245 v5, yet has significantly higher clock speeds (4.2GHz with a 4.5GHz Turbo Boost, to the Xeon’s 3.5GHz base clock with a 3.9GHz Turbo Boost).
There are side benefits to choosing a Xeon: they tend to degrade slower than Core chips when running intensive tasks over long periods of time, and they support error-correcting code (ECC) memory to help prevent RAM failure, but for the price, we were expecting the Z2 Mini G3’s high scores to be even better. This system doesn’t even use ECC memory sticks, anyway.
Still, one thing you rarely see in a roughly equivalent Core system is storage this fast. Using the AS SSD benchmark, we measured
Ultimately, the thing about the Z2 Mini G3 that makes it an interesting product is also what holds it back
decent sequential write speeds of 344.28MB/s, but it’s the sequential read speeds of 1,885.76MB/s that really show the advantages of PCI-E SATA drives.
If we had a concern, it’s that 512GB could be quite a low total capacity for anyone who regularly works with large files – there’s no second hard disk for overflow storage. Fortunately, adding a 2.5in SATA drive is one of
the few post-purchase upgrades you can make to the Z2 Mini G3’s tightly packed internals.
Opening up the chassis is actually quite easy for a mini PC, as you simply push a latch at the back and remove the top panel. It’s only once you’re right inside that things get complicated; the various components and blower-style coolers are stacked on top of each other in separated compartments.
Accessing the CPU or motherboard, for example, involves so much intricate screwdriver-wielding that we’re not sure it’s even worth doing. Not that there’s much scope for adding new upgrades in the first place, the sole exception being that aforementioned 2.5in bay – which, thankfully, is right at the top of the pile.
While this lack of upgradability isn’t ideal, it is largely inherent to the form factor and thus can’t really be helped. Unfortunately, though, this isn’t the only issue brought about by the sizing. Physical connectivity is somewhat limited, and with just four full-size USB3 ports (two on the back and two on the left side), you might find yourself running out of room for peripherals. There are two USB Type-C ports as well, to be fair, plus four DisplayPort outputs (a far better choice than old VGA or DVI ports), but that’s your lot for data and video outputs. There’s no card reader or optical disk drive, either.
The only audio jack is a 3.5mm headphone output, and while the Z2 Mini G3 does have its own set of integrated speakers, they sound awful; they’re tinny and quiet, though this doesn’t stop some ugly distortion occurring at max volume. Perhaps it’s a good thing to have that 3.5mm jack, then, as headphones are a must.
MATTER OF TRUST
By Nvidia’s own design, Quadro graphics cards aren’t good for much beside media editing, 3D modelling and the like, but considering what kind of system this is, that’s fine – and the M620 appears to be a perfectly adequate tool for these tasks. Because we’re sticklers for process, we ran our usual 1,920x1,080 gaming benchmarks, and saw average frame rates of 14fps in Dirt Showdown and 12fps in Metro: Last Light Redux. Stick to work, in other words.
On that note, Windows 10 Pro continues to effectively combine the usability of the Home edition with useful enterprise-oriented features. Full drive encryption via BitLocker is present and correct, for instance, and because the Xeon E3-1245 v5 includes a Trusted Platform Module (TPM) crypto-processor, you get the full benefit, not the watered-down version of BitLocker that you’d have with standard consumer CPUs.
We’re also quite fond of Windows 10 Pro’s greatly enhanced Remote Desktop tool, which allows you to sign into the Z2 Mini G3 and access locally saved files via a separate, networked PC – good if you work both at home and at an office.
Ultimately, the thing about the Z2 Mini G3 that makes it an interesting product – the squeezing of proper workstation hardware into a compact mini PC form factor – is also what holds it back. This is not to say that it’s terrible – by our own measures, it performs very well, and we haven’t even mentioned how pleasantly quiet it stays under load – but we’re also not convinced that the aesthetic and space-saving factors outweigh the fact that you’d get superior flexibility, upgradability and connectivity out of a small-ish tower with the same key central components.
The price, too, is impossible to dismiss. Pre-built mini PCs seldom come cheap, but we’d be more tempted by the £1,319 spec, which includes a Core i7-7700 instead; your mileage may vary, but we’d be willing to give up the Xeon’s minor perks in exchange for a £140-plus saving.
Either way, while we don’t always agree with what the Z2 Mini G3 is trying to do, we will say that it does it reasonably well. If you’re a CAD specialist and want your desk space to look as good as your creations, HP’s tiny workstation does make a certain kind of sense.