• Price: Model reviewed: £1,804 plus VAT

  • Company: HP

  • Pros: Powerful. Easier to upgrade that an iMac

  • Cons: Screen not a match for the iMac or pro displays.

  • Our Rating: We rate this 8 out of 10 We rate this 8 out of 10

HP's revamped all-in-one workstation is more than an iMac-a-like – but is it better than a desktop? We put one to the test.

The HP Z1 G2 is a unique computer. All-in-ones – computers that combine the screen and desktop components into a single slimish unit – are two a penny, with Apple's iMac being the best known. However, while photographers and designers might weigh up the Z1 against the iMac – there's nothing to rival HP's singular PC for modelling and animation – whether for the kind of projects we cover here at Digital Arts or more 'real' things like CAD and architecture.

That the Z1 stands alone isn't necessarily in its favour. You'd have thought that if there was much of a market for this kind of PC, Dell and others would have produced rivals – as there are for pretty much every other workstation design you can think of. The lack of direct competition is the market admitting that this is a niche product – and the new G2 version with faster processors and an optional touchscreen and Thunderbolt 2 isn't going to change anything.

So here's the niche you're in if the Z1 G2 is going to appeal to you: you don't want a computer under your desk – or you don't have room for one – and don't mind your computer being less powerful because of that. Or, if you're a designer or photographer, you want something like the iMac but more powerful, more easily upgradeable and the very different aesthetics are more to your taste.

HP Z1 G2 review: Design

It would be very easy to talk down the Z1 G2's design, as it's much bulkier than the 27-inch iMac – but it's not better or worse, it's different. Which appeals is a matter of taste. The iMac's design says grace, the Z1's says power. The iMac is stripped back, the Z1 has everything (including some superfluous things like the option of a DVD drive, if you don’t want Thunderbolt).

Apple iMac vs HP Z1 G2: The Z1 is much bigger, but it's more powerful and upgradeable too.

If they were architecture, the iMac would be by Zaha Hadid, the Z1 by Richard Rogers.

The Z1 G2 feels – and is – heavy. Even tilting the screen gives your arms a workout, and constructing the thing when you first get it out the box is best done with a friend. Muscle ache aside though, there's something quite satisfying about the Z1's solidity.

Push the screen over to lie flat and push two latches, and the whole screen swings back to let you – or your IT support – into the Z1's chest cavity to quickly replace anything that's died or upgrade with newer/bigger parts. Try doing that with an iMac. It's a neat piece of design, and – while I've got a sneaking suspicion that after the initial fun of showing it off to people had worn off, I'd need to do this very rarely – in emergency it’ll be very useful indeed.

By not attempting to make the Z1 G2 as thin as the iMac, HP has had no trouble dotting ports around the sides of its main body. There are XX , so plugging in portable things such as storage, USB keys and your phone is a doddle.  

HP Z1 G2 review: Specs

The 'beating heart' of the Z1 G2 is either an Intel Xeon E3, Core i3, i5 or i7 processor – which is the unusual for a workstation. Most other workstations from the likes of Dell, HP and Lenovo have Xeon processors, with Core-based models being from less well-known brands. Choosing a Xeon gets you the best performance – as you can select the 3.7GHz Xeon E3-1281v3 – and reliability, while choosing a Core i7 will keep the cost down. The Core i5 and i3 are for people who care less about performance in creative apps, those in the financial industries for example – or in short, they’re aren’t for you.

Our review unit came with the second-most powerful chip option, the 4-core 3.4GHz E3-1246v3.

Our Z1 G2 has the maximum 32GB of RAM – which is good for now but hardly futureproof – and an nVidia Quadro K3100M graphics chip with 4GB of graphics RAM. If you want more or less graphics power you can plump for the K4100M (also 4GB, but more oomph) or the K2100M (2GB). Ignore the choice of chips below this, again they’re not for you.

For storage, you can put in either a single 3.5-inch or two 2.5-inch drives – plus an additional M-SATA drive. Our review unit had a 256GB M-SATA system drive plus a 1TB hard drive for project files.

Other configuration options include a touchscreen – though this lacks proper pen support, so it’s not a rival to a desktop attached to a Wacom Cintiq. Our review unit didn’t have this. There’s also a slot where you can have either a Thunderbolt 2 card with two ports or a DVD drive – depending on whether you’re looking to the future or are still stuck in the past.

HP Z1 G2 review: Performance

Here we’ve compared the Z1 G2 to its most obvious rival – Apple's iMac with a 5K Retina Display – and what you’d likely think of buying inside, the most powerful  single-chip desktop workstation we’ve seen (Scan’s 3XS GW-HT20).

HP Z1 G2 vs Apple iMac vs Scan 3XS: Rendering

Longer bars are better

The Z1 G2’s score of 732 in Cinebench’s rendering test is good for a 4-core workstation – though for not too much more money you could pick up desktop workstations with the option of an 8-core chip, and the performance is over twice that of the Z1 G2. The Z1 G2 outperformed the iMac, though that iMac had a Core i5 chip – and I'd expect a Core i7 iMac to match the Z1 G2’s score.

The same was true for Lux Render component of the SPECwpc benchmark, at least comparing the Z1 G2 to a desktop as there’s no Mac version of SPECwpc. Scan’s desktop workstation achieved a score more than twice that of the Z1 G2.

HP Z1 G2 vs Apple iMac vs Scan 3XS: Real-time 3D

Longer bars are better

For real-time graphics, the HP’s Nvidia Quadro K3100M wasn’t a match for the full-sized graphics card in the Scan’s 3XS GW-HT20 – and wasn’t as far ahead of the iMac as you’d think considering that the iMac has a consumer graphics chip with half the amount of RAM.

HP Z1 G2 vs Apple iMac vs Scan 3XS: Overall performance

Shorter bars are better. This test renders two HD scenes in After Effects with layers of videos, VFX and animation. One scene features CG created in Cinema 4D through the Cinewave plug-in. Both are rendere using the standard rendering engine and the Raytraced rendering engine (which is only accelerated by the Nvidia graphics cards.

In our more well-rounded tests in After Effects, the Z1 V2 was twice as powerful as iMac – but only half as powerful as Scan’s desktop.

HP Z1 G2 review: Screen

The Z1’s screen is it’s weakness. It’s a good screen that’s many creatives would be very happy with – but it’s not great like the iMac’s. HP’s Dreamcolor pro-level monitor line as use the same ‘Z' branding as the Z1, so you’d expect the Z1’s screen to be as good as one of those – but again the Z1 falls short.

First off, the Z1 has the same 2560x1440 resolution as the Dreamcolor Z27x monitor – but the level of detail is half that of the 5120 x 2880 5K iMac.

I tested the Z1 using our standard testing tool, DataColor’s Spyder4Elite colourimeter and software. It found the Z1 to have a smaller colour gamut – the breadth of different shades the screen can output – than the 5K iMac or the Dreamcolor Z27x. The Z1 could output 75% of Adobe RGB colour space used by all of that company’s applications, vs 78% for the iMac and 87% for the Z27x.

The Z1’s accuracy was excellent though, achieving accuracy on a par with both of its rivals.

There's also the option of a touchscreen for the Z1 G2, but our review unit didn't have this. It sounds interesting, as you'd assume this would turn the Z1 into a kinda desktop version of Wacom's Cintiq Companion, a digital drawing board that's also a PC. However, while there's multi-touch support, there's no pressure sensitive pen support – so this is more for swiping, zooming and panning than drawing – which is a shame.

HP Z1 G2 review: upgradeability

Popping open the G2's hood gives you easy access to replace and upgrade components.

Replacing the media drive (above) is easy, as is the RAM (below) – but you can't add more than the 32GB that our test unit already had.

One component that's trickier to replace is the graphics, as it uses a laptop-style MXM connector. You should be able to get replacement parts – or upgrade parts from the current line if you get a Z1 with one of the less powerful graphics options – but future upgrades are unlikely to be possible.

HP Z1 G2 review: In conclusion

The HP Z1 G2 is an excellent alternative to the iMac if you prize power over beauty or screen quality – and it's the best all-in-one PC for creative work for photography, design, illustration, animation and video post-production – but I’m still not convinced most people wouldn’t be better off with a desktop workstation.