PCs

★★★★★ £1,463 • From store.hp.com/uk

Computer Shopper - - CONTENTS - James Archer

Squeez­ing pro­fes­sional-grade specs into a mini PC form fac­tor, the HP Z2 Mini G3 is an in­trigu­ing but lim­ited work­sta­tion

VERDICT

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.

X FAC­TOR

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.

BAREFACED LAYERS

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.

PRICE POINTS

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.

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