Putting serious computing power into a mini desktop PC isn’t easy. Why? Desktop-class CPUs, graphics chips, and other components count on the support of large cooling fans and heat sinks that simply can’t fit into a small square box like the HP Z2 Mini G4. But HP has managed to fit an Intel Xeon processor and a Nvidia Quadro GPU in this diminutive, snazzy-looking black slab. Those components qualify the Z2 Mini G4 as a bona fide workstation for architectural firms, hedge funds, research labs, and other potential customers who must have immense amounts of extremely stable computing power at their disposal. Add in a reasonable price for a desktop workstation (it starts at $ 799; $ 2,149 as tested), and you get a PC that punches far above its size and earns an Editors’ Choice award.
Entering the Fourth Generation
The Z2 Mini family has actually been around for a while. The model I’m reviewing here, which started shipping in July, is part of the fourth generation. That means that HP’s designers have already settled on a form factor and physical design, which remains mostly unchanged from the Z2 Mini G3. Here, they have focused on packing in ever-more-powerful components and better connectivity options.
They don’t have a lot of space to work with, though. The Z2 Mini G4 is just a quarter of the size of a traditional small form factor (SFF) desktop. It measures 2.28 by 8.5 by 8.5 inches (HWD) and weighs just 4.5 pounds. That’s about the same size footprint as the Zotac ZBox Magnus EK71080 (5.04 by 8.86 by 7.99 inches) that one of my colleagues recently tested; it includes similarly powerful components, but it’s significantly shorter.
Less vertical space means less room for air to circulate, and HP can’t get around that law of physics, but it is able to help hot air escape more easily by including four vents, one at each corner of the chassis. These vents have been redesigned for the fourth generation, one of the few physical alterations to the family chassis.
Among the design attributes that remain constant is the less-than-ideal power-delivery situation. Like other small desktops, the Z2 Mini G4 requires you to plug in a great, big external power brick, which in this case is nearly as wide as the PC itself. One of the most iconic small desktops, the Apple Mac Mini, not only has a built-in power supply but is thinner than the Z2 Mini G4, too (1.4 by 7.7 by 7.7 inches). Last refreshed in 2014 with a fourth generation Intel Core i5 processor, the Mac Mini is nowhere near as powerful as the Z2 Mini G4, of course.
Connectivity You Can Customize
The Z2 Mini G4’s port selection is plentiful, albeit missing a few key options. Along the side, you’ll spot two USB 3.0 ports, one of which supports quick-charging connected devices. There’s also a USB Type-C port and a 3.5mm audio input/output jack.
Around back, this review unit features no fewer than three DisplayPort 1.2 outputs for connecting the latest external displays, as well as a second USB Type-C port, two more USB 3.0 ports, the power connector, a Gigabit Ethernet jack, and a serial port to facilitate connections with legacy devices.
The Z2 Mini G4 supports up to six displays—screens connected directly to the DisplayPort outputs, plus additional daisy-chained displays. This makes it a fine option for a brokerage house, an architectural studio, or a CCTV monitoring station. Note, though, that if you opt for HP’s entry-level model in this line, you lose one of the DisplayPort connectors and the rear-side USB Type-C port.
Conspicuously absent from the port selection on this test unit is a Thunderbolt 3 port. That said, you can configure your Z2 Mini G4 to include one, a key improvement over last year’s model. In addition to a Thunderbolt 3 port, the new flexible I/O slot can accommodate your choice of a second Gigabit Ethernet port, an HDMI output, or even legacy options such as a VGA port or the serial port on our unit.
Even if you leave this flexible I/O slot blank during the ordering process, the absence of Thunderbolt 3 is not as critical as it otherwise might be. That’s because one of Thunderbolt 3’s big appeals is daisy-chaining displays and other peripherals, and the Z2 Mini G4 can already accommodate up to six monitors via DisplayPort connections. Perhaps the only potential customers who will miss out on Thunderbolt 3 support are those hoping to supplement the internal storage with a lightning-quick Thunderbolt 3 portable or desktop drive.
So much for the wired connectivity. As for the wireless, an optional wireless card installed in the unit that I tested offers Bluetooth 4.2 and 802.11ac Wi-Fi connections.
Defining a True Workstation: ISV Certifications and More
If you are an architect interested in the Z2 Mini G4 as a platform on which to run CAD software, you’ll be pleased to note that it comes with certifications for more than 20 such apps, including AutoCAD, Solidworks, and Revit. This independent software vendor (ISV) certification is a key benefit that distinguishes workstations from PCs that are merely very powerful. Another key distinction is support for error-correcting code memory (ECC), which the Z2 Mini G4 also supports and is a requirement for many financial-modeling and laboratory-analysis software tools.
Enterprise-level security features abound on this workstation, including Trusted Platform Module (TPM) and secure-boot encryption options. HP also offers a generous three-year standard warranty that includes onsite service. The company also specifically mentions that “24/7 operation will not void the HP warranty,” so feel free to run those financial models at 3 a.m. as needed.
HP bundled a cheap-looking and uncomfortable plastic keyboard and mouse with the Z2 Mini G4, but you can order one without any peripherals at all and bring your own (almost certainly far more comfortable) mechanical keyboard and a mouse of choice.
Six Cores and 12 Threads for the Win
The Z2 Mini G4 unit I tested comes with an Intel Xeon E-2176G CPU with an impressive six cores, 12 threads, and base clock speed of 3.7GHz. It’s comparable to other hexa-core processors from Intel’s eighth-generation Core lineup, but since it’s part of the Xeon family, it offers ancillary enterprise features like the aforementioned support for ECC memory that a consumer-grade Core i7 or even a Core i9 can’t match.
The story is much the same when it comes to the discrete graphics chip, an Nvidia Quadro P1000 with 4GB of dedicated graphics memory. Its performance is comparable to lower-end models of the company’s gaming-focused GeForce GTX lineup, but instead of eking out every last gaming frame, it prioritizes GPU-accelerated performance for apps that need it, such as 3D-rendering tools or CAD software.
Add in 32GB of memory and a combo storage setup consisting of a 256GB solid-state drive (SSD) and a 1TB hard drive, and you are looking at a seriously powerful machine. Indeed, compared with other similarly priced, non-workstation compact PCs like the Zotac ZBox Magnus EK71080 and the MSI Vortex G25VR, the Z2 Mini G4 offers a noticeable performance bump on specialized tasks like exporting video and rendering 3D images.
Perhaps the best measure of its advantage here is the Cinebench R15 rendering benchmark, which harnesses all CPU cores and threads. The Z2 Mini G4’s score (1,345) was significantly higher than the Zotac (734), though only a few hundred points higher than the MSI (1,178). The latter system has a Core i7 that also packs six cores and 12 threads.
In fact, the Z2 Mini G4 was faster than both systems, as well as the Dell Precision 5720 All-in-One workstation, at applying filters in Photoshop (2 minutes and 22 seconds) and exporting a short HD video into a smartphone-friendly format using Handbrake (36 seconds). Also, it beat all of the other systems on the Cinebench test. The performance differences on these tests between the HP and the Dell are especially notable since it demonstrates how much of an impact additional cores and threads have. (The Dell has a Xeon processor with four cores and eight threads.)
When it comes to graphics performance, though, the MSI and Zotac have the Z2 Mini G4 beat by a wide margin, both on our Heaven and Valley frame-rate benchmarks and our 3DMark tests, which output a proprietary performance score. In terms of gaming performance, the Quadro struggles to meet the 30 frames per second (fps) threshold we consider to be the minimum for smooth gaming, at least if you max out the detail settings, like we did on the Heaven and Valley tests at Ultra quality.
Thanks to their more capable GeForce GTX 1000-series graphics, the MSI and Zotac both achieved more than 100fps on these tests. Even the Dell performed better, with its workstation-grade AMD Radeon Pro WX 7100 GPU. If you’re primarily running CPU-intensive apps and mainly relying on the Quadro GPU to provide steady video output for a half-dozen monitors, though, these lower frame rates shouldn’t be a problem.
Even though the Z2 Mini G4 is plenty powerful when pitted against its similarly priced diminutive peers on CPU-intensive tasks, it’s not a substitute for a full-size desktop workstation. To see why, consider that extremely powerful workstations like the Apple iMac Pro are far more expensive ($ 5,000 is a common price for them) and can be configured with more powerful Xeon W CPUs that include as many as 18 cores.
You can tell just how much of a difference these additional dollars and cores make on our POV-Ray workstation-specific performance test. The Z2 Mini G4 completed the all-cores POV-Ray 3.7 benchmark in 105 seconds, compared with just 61 seconds for the Dell Precision 5820, a tower with a 10-core Xeon CPU that rings up at $ 5,567. In the same benchmark, the Precision 5820 achieved 4,107 pixels per second (pps), compared with the 2,481pps the Z2 Mini G4 recorded.
In a (Compact) Class of Its Own
As a mini desktop with a Xeon processor and all the other accoutrements of a workstation, the HP Z2 Mini G4 is a rare beast. Compact workstations just aren’t that common; its closest alternative is likely a workstation all-in-one like the Dell Precision 5720 or the Apple iMac Pro, but even our high-end configuration is a far cheaper solution than either of those two machines. That’s still the case even when you factor in the cost of a midrange monitor.
You also get decent connectivity options, a generous warranty, and a stylish metal design, which together make the Z2 Mini G4 even more attractive, both on paper and on your desk. The only major downside is that this diminutive PC simply doesn’t have enough room to offer the truly powerful workstation components of a full-size desktop workstation like the Dell Precision 5820. As long as you’re comfortable with fewer cores and threads (but still a lot of them, compared with most consumer PCs), your budget and available desk space will thank you for choosing the Z2 Mini G4.