HP Z2 SFF G8 Workstation First Impressions

Today, HP announced the next-generation versions of its entry-level Z2 workstations. I’m reviewing the small form factor (SFF) version. And … yikes.

This product isn’t typical of the PCs I’ve reviewed, recently or otherwise, though I have reviewed some desktop and portable workstations over the years. It’s not even the craziest hardware I’ve reviewed, as I at one time had a rack-mounted Windows Storage Server with redundant drives in my cellar, as one would. But this is an impressive package that ranks up there with the most powerful machines I’ve used.

For those unfamiliar with this slice of HP’s product portfolio, Z by HP is the firm’s workstation lineup, and the Z2 line represents the entry-level. This isn’t to say that these are underpowered PCs by any stretch of the imagination. Not even close.

The Z2 comes in two basic form factors—SFF and tower—and they are aimed at two primary customer types, professional creators and power users. And given the pandemic we’re still struggling with, you won’t be surprised to discover that the product line has also been updated to address the new normal of the hybrid workforce, where users will be working from home at least some of the time and yet may still need access to the more impressive computing horsepower that’s available in the office.

The latest-generation Z2s—named G8 to bring them in line with other Z-class products—are aimed at the high-end needs of its customers, who expect incredible performance, modular expansion capabilities for futureproofing, certified high reliability, and, of course, enterprise-grade security.

That I am not such a customer is, I assume, obvious: I was literally just shopping for a new Intel NUC, which is a truly small form factor PC that uses laptop parts. Aside from some forays into software development and OS virtualization, most of my day-to-day work consists of standard productivity work using software like Microsoft Office, Teams, and Affinity Photo. So I will struggle a bit to really put this machine through its paces.

Also, it’s been a while since I’ve used a traditional desktop form factor. My previous tower PC, coincidentally an HP with an H-series processor, was briefly put back into service for podcasts when I had my little podcast studio in Dedham in 2016-2017, but it’s been sitting in a box in the basement since we moved. But in unpacking the HP Z2 SFF G8, I was reminded of the things I really miss about desktop PCs, though the honking HDD reminded me of the things that I thought we’d moved past as well.

But let’s start with the core specifications. The review unit arrived with an 11th-generation Intel Core i7-11700K “Rocket Lake” processor, a 125-watt (!) part that provides 8 processor cores and a 3.6 GHz clock speed. If you’re not familiar with Intel’s K-series processors, and I wasn’t, these are the highest-performing parts in the product line, and they come with integrated graphics that can be paired with discrete graphics. No compromises here.

The Z2 review unit also shipped with 32 GB of DDR4-3200 RAM, a 512 GB Z Turbo PCIe-based M.2 SSD drive, a 1 TB 7200 RPM SATA 3.5-inch HDD, and an Nvidia Quadro RTX 3000 graphics card with 6 GB of dedicated RAM. So, not your average Ultrabook.

As for the configuration possibilities, we don’t have the space or the time, but HP offers a dizzying array of microprocessors, RAM, graphics, storage, and expansion. Here’s a condensed version: You have a choice of 11th-generation Intel Core i5, i7, and i9 K- and F-series or Intel Xeon W-13xx processors. Up to 128 GB of RAM. And a variety of storage options up to a 2 TB HP Z Turbo Drive PCIe NVM SED Opal 2 TLC M.2 SSD. Intel UHD Graphics 730, 750, or P750 paired with AMD Radeon Pro WX 3200 (with 4 GB of dedicated GDDR5 RAM), NVIDIA Quadro P400 (2 GB GDDR5), NVIDIA Quadro RTX 3000 (6 GB GDDR6), or NVIDIA T1000 (4 GB GDDR6).

As noted above, there are two different versions of the HP Z2 SFF G8, the SFF version I’m testing and a traditional tower. Based on the photos that HP supplied, the SFF is basically just a smaller version of the tower. That is, when standing upright, the SFF appears to be about two-thirds the width of the tower. Otherwise, they are the same basic form factor and the same height—or, when laid flat on the desk as I’m doing with the SFF, width—and depth.

It’s a handsome design that exudes power and performance. The Z2 has an all-black design, which I love, and a few angular design elements at the corners to give it a bit of flair and design symmetry with HP’s other modern PCs.

And it can be oriented horizontally, like a desktop, or vertically like a tower PC.

The Z2 SFF G8 is also bristling with ports, and it can be easily expanded to offer even more ports.

On the back, there is an audio-out port, Gigabit Ethernet, two DisplayPort 1.4 ports, two SuperSpeed USB-A (10 Gbps) ports, one SuperSpeed USB-A (5 Gbps) port, and three USB Type-A (480 Mbps) ports.

And on the front, you’ll find two SuperSpeed USB-A (10 Gbps) ports, a universal audio jack, two SuperSpeed USB-A (5 Gbps) ports, and one SuperSpeed USB-C (20 Gbps) port.

The HP Z2 SFF G8 features a completely tool-less design that I love: You just flip a switch and the side panel slides right off.

The front panel is even better: It’s a thin plastic covering that’s held on only by magnets, so it comes off even more easily. Nice! (And HP also offers a Flex IO option that lets you add an additional port of some kind, including a DisplayPort 1.4, HDMI 2.0b, or your choice of several others. I believe the second DisplayPort 1.4 port is what was added to the review configuration.)

Inside, you’ll find several expansion slots, including a PCIe 3 x4 (x16 connector), a PCIe 3 x4 (x4 connector), an M.2 2230 PCIe 3 x1, a PCIe 4 x16, an M.2 2280 PCIe 4 x4, an M.2 2280 PCIe 3 x4, and a PCIe 3 x1 (x1 connector).

Pricing is as varied as the configuration possibilities. The HP Z2 SFF G8 Workstation starts at $1169, and the tower version at $1179, but you can quickly spend several thousand dollars depending on your needs. I don’t have an exact price on the review configuration, but it’s somewhere between $2000 and $3000.

And … I’m looking for ideas for putting this workstation through its paces. Obviously, I could throw some heavy-hitting games at this thing, but that’s not really the point.

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Conversation 19 comments

  • mikegalos

    12 April, 2021 - 1:24 pm

    <p>Yep. Small form factor doesn't have to mean "Laptop components soldered in place in a bigger box". For that matter, neither does "all-in-one".</p><p><br></p><p><br></p>

  • RobertJasiek

    12 April, 2021 - 1:48 pm

    <p>To truly test the graphics card according to its purpose, you'd need to train (not just use) an AI net while taking advantage of Nvidia's Quadro drivers… Point is: if you rather use an AI net, you'd prefer an RTX 3000 card, such as RTX 3090 – not a Quadro. Hence, you will have a really hard time to do this workstation justice.</p>

  • maddycom

    Premium Member
    12 April, 2021 - 1:49 pm

    <p>Looks quite big. I thought things got smaller and faster over time. Maybe Corp market is asking for something like this.</p>

    • hrlngrv

      Premium Member
      12 April, 2021 - 3:17 pm

      <p><a href="https://www.thurrott.com/hardware/249029/hp-z2-sff-g8-workstation-first-impressions#622683&quot; target="_blank" style="background-color: rgb(255, 255, 255);"><em>In reply to maddycom:</em></a></p><p>You should see the tower.</p>

    • wiley

      Premium Member
      12 April, 2021 - 3:22 pm

      <blockquote><em><a href="#622683">In reply to maddycom:</a></em></blockquote><p>It looks like a slimline (~half width) micro ATX case?</p><p>The standard motherboard sizes that ultimately determine PC form factors haven't really changed over the last decade or two. The components generally have gotten smaller and faster, but we've used to that to pack more and faster components in the same space instead of making the space smaller. On the motherboard, that means a PCI Express slot is the same size as it's always been but the bandwidth is 8x what it was in 2003. Likewise, power supplies are in the same standard sizes but have 2-4x the power density.</p><p><br></p><p>More practically, the problem is heat – that's a 125W CPU that can probably consume 200W while boosting paired up with a ~200W GPU. You could in theory pack all of that into something the size of a NUC, but you'd need a jet engine to keep it cool. And if you decided you wanted a new graphics card in a few years, you'd have to throw the whole box away.</p>

    • richfrantz

      Premium Member
      12 April, 2021 - 5:39 pm

      <blockquote><em><a href="#622683">In reply to maddycom:</a></em></blockquote><p>It helps to lift your monitor up a few inches if that is your thing.</p>

    • wright_is

      Premium Member
      13 April, 2021 - 5:51 am

      <blockquote><em><a href="#622683">In reply to maddycom:</a></em></blockquote><p>Sound is possibly a factor. Cramming that amount of heat into a smaller form-factor means the fans are smaller and have to rotate faster. Having a case large enough to shift huge volumes of air at speed, without using high speed fans is always a trade-off.</p><p>I have a Ryzen 7 tower, it is nearly silent, even when running flat out. I wouldn't swap that tower for a smaller form factor that is loud when under load. In fact, the only thing you can really hear on that PC is the hard drive spinning up every now and then (it is used as a local backup of the SSDs).</p>

  • wiley

    Premium Member
    12 April, 2021 - 1:54 pm

    <p>Is that gigabit ethernet and not 2.5G or 10G? I think it's a bit weird for a workstation-class PC to be "just gigabit" these days because the sorts of shops that use workstations for video-editing/compiles/renders/data-processing tend to rely on a high speed link to a very large NAS rather than local storage.</p><p><br></p><p>(there's also an interesting trend where 10G ethernet is still too expensive for home use, but an unmanaged 5- or 8-port 2.5G switch is down to &lt;$200)</p><p><br></p><p>As for workloads, have you ever played around with Autodesk Fusion 360? It's one of the more popular CAD programs hobbyists use to design objects for 3d printing these days, it's the sort of thing that would push me to buy a machine specced like this, and the hobbyist license is free.</p>

  • zself

    Premium Member
    12 April, 2021 - 1:59 pm

    <p>Paul, one benefit I don't read about from reviewers is when the machine will run the full 49 Zoom video thumbnails or Teams custom gallery display. There's a whole world out there who could benefit from knowing that there is a whole world of better graphics for even "light" use.</p><p><br></p><p>This may be a great machine to provide the kind of headroom for webinar/large meeting participation– two screens, capable processing.</p>

  • hrlngrv

    Premium Member
    12 April, 2021 - 3:17 pm

    <p>As for putting a machine like this through its paces, video rendering or large scale monte carlo <span style="color: rgb(0, 0, 0);">simulations come to mind. Maybe let SETI get some teraflops from it.</span></p>

  • howgozit

    Premium Member
    12 April, 2021 - 7:04 pm

    <p>Paul,</p><p><br></p><p>Games may not work as welll as you think – the Quadro drivers are optimised for 3D rendering (Solidworks and AutoCAD for instance). I had a rather enthusiastic service desk tech working for me and he ran into issues – in the end, I think he loaded GTX drivers. (Lets not go into why work people should or should not be using a work workstation to play games ……. ).</p><p>Granted, this was a long time ago (10 years..?) – things keep changing. I'd try Photoshop or video rendering to try and exercise this – I suspect you aren't doing any rendering of large buildings or large holes in the ground (I used to work for a mining company, and the engineers and geologists loved these things.). (Loan it to Brad to hammer out the podcast episodes 🙂 ).</p><p><br></p><p>Ross</p>

  • angusmatheson

    12 April, 2021 - 9:08 pm

    <p>This is literally computer porn.</p>

  • nerdile

    Premium Member
    13 April, 2021 - 1:02 am

    <p>Very cool to see you reviewing these. I have used the Z4 series at work for a number of years now (software compilation + Hyper-V) and they are amazing and last forever. Take an 8-year-old Z420 workstation, add an NVMe SSD, and a modern graphics card… and you've got an enviable gaming rig.</p><p><br></p><p>One feature I particularly like on the Z4 series, besides the tool-free case, is the extra power button on the back. I set up my workstations with the back facing out for easy reconfiguration, and I have always found this to be a nice touch.</p>

  • wp7mango

    Premium Member
    13 April, 2021 - 2:02 am

    <p>If you want to put it through it's paces, run MSFT Flight Simulator 2020 on it. I know that you class this as a heavy hitting game, but it's currently <em>the</em> most demanding simulation available.</p><p><br></p><p>A lot of FS 2020 users do indeed choose power desktop machines to run it. </p>

    • tonchek

      13 April, 2021 - 3:24 am

      <blockquote><em>I am running it on 5900X+RTX3080 on 4K. Looks amazing and almost smooth!</em></blockquote>

  • Craig Hinners

    13 April, 2021 - 3:51 pm

    <p>Liked the sound of this until I got to the bottom and realized it doesn't have Thunderbolt to run my new USB-C monitors, using one cable for both video and data. Also, integrated Wi-Fi would have been a nice bonus.</p><p><br></p><p>So close but no cigar…</p>

    • Paul Thurrott

      Premium Member
      14 April, 2021 - 9:42 am

      You can add that at order time or later. It’s easily expandable.

  • jgraebner

    Premium Member
    14 April, 2021 - 12:55 pm

    <p>One possible consumer application I could see with something like this might be managing a media collection. Maybe test performance by doing some video conversions using Handbrake? You could also set up a Plex server and see how well it handles transcoding.</p>

  • t-b.c

    15 April, 2021 - 9:45 am

    <p>Only a few months ago I finished building my own workstation with a Threadripper CPU, 32Gig DDR4 RAM and a 1Tb M.2 drive for $1600.00. It's far more powerful than I need, and wish now I'd seen this first. Could have saved some coin.</p>


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