HP ZBook Firefly 14 G8 Review

Posted on August 15, 2021 by Paul Thurrott in Hardware, Mobile, Windows 10 with 6 Comments

The HP ZBook Firefly 14 G8 is a thin and light entry-level portable workstation aimed at technical and creative managers, STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics) students, and product designers. It will often be used in organizations in which others are engaged in more demanding work and may be using more powerful portable and desktop workstations.

From my perspective, the Firefly, as I’ll now call it, is a step-up from the productivity-focused Ultrabooks and laptops I typically use, and it can be outfitted with more RAM and more powerful graphics than is typically available in that part of the market. And given how reliable it’s been on a two-week trip to Mexico, during which another laptop succumbed to water damage, I’m particularly impressed by its resilience and power.

Before heading into the meat of the review, I should also point out that the Firefly is the lowest-end member of a product family of ZBook portable workstations. And that the other PCs in this product family—among them the ZBook Power G8, ZBook Fury G8, and the ZBook Studio G8—are more traditional portable workstations, in that they are larger, thicker, heavier, and include some workstation-class components not found in the Firefly. In other words, the Firefly is a sort of bridge between more traditional laptops and the beefier portable workstations that HP also sells.

Design

The Firefly closely resembles HP’s Elite lineup of premium commercial PCs from a design perspective, with the same angular edges and tapered body. This looks good, but it’s also functional: You can more easily open the display lid thanks to the angled display lid and keyboard deck front edges.

And thanks to the unique “Z” logo and dark gray color, the Firefly also stands apart and, I think, above HP’s other, more pedestrian-looking laptops. Even my wife, who is not particularly interested in PC designs, asked me about this laptop when I first pulled it out of my bag.

Indeed, it’s rather interesting that HP has foregone its own branding on this laptop, which also features a prominent ZBook logo on the keyboard deck below the bottom left of the keyboard.

As a laptop, the Firefly doesn’t offer any of the 360-degree capabilities we see on HP’s x360 products, which is just fine with me. But the display doesn’t lay completely flat. Instead, it just gets most of the way there.

Overall, the Firefly presents a modern, professional, and attractive face to the world. It’s a real head-turner.

Display

The Firefly can be configured with a bewildering array of display choices, but all of them are 14-inch IPS panels with a 16:9 aspect ratio. That’s too bad, as there is clearly plenty of room for the taller 16:10 panel that I would very much prefer and the bezels are a bit large on the top and bottom of the display lid.

That said, it’s understandable that HP would reuse the body from its Firefly G7—the biggest changes can be found in the internal components and the Firefly G8’s Thunderbolt 4 capabilities—so maybe we’ll see 16:10 displays in the next go-around.

As for the display panel choices, it’s hard to even know where to start. There are Full HD (1920 x 1080) and 4K/UHD (3840 x 2160) options. Non-touch and multitouch options. Lower-power options. Various display brightness options, including 250 nits, 400 nits, 500 nits, and 1000 nits, depending on the configuration. An HP Dreamcolor panel that provides 100 percent DCI-P3 color accuracy. And of course an HP Sure View Reflect integrated privacy option, which can be toggled on and off from a key in the function row.

And confusing matters a bit more, the Dreamcolor and Sure View Reflect options can’t be combined with multitouch capabilities.

As for the review unit, it arrived with a Full HD display panel with no touch capabilities, no Dreamcolor panel, and no Sure View Reflect. Given my workloads, this is exactly the configuration I’d choose, and while I don’t have the equipment to accurately measure its brightness, I’ll guess it’s a 400-nit low-power panel, given my experience with PC displays and the observed battery life. It’s bright, pleasant, and nearly perfect for my needs. Yes, 16:10 would put it over the top.

Internal components

Since the 8th-generation Firefly is such a minor upgrade over its predecessor, you won’t be surprised that some of the more meaningful changes come on the inside. Starting, of course, with a selection of 11th-generation Intel Core i5 and i7 processors. The review unit arrived with the highest-end of the four available choices, a quad-core Intel Core i7-1185G7 processor with Intel vPro technology and Intel Iris Xe integrated graphics.

Yes, those processor choices are common to many of the mainstream laptops and other portable PCs that HP and others have sold over the past several months. But as an entry-level portable workstation, the Firefly also takes a step up the performance ladder by adding an optional discrete NVIDIA T500 graphics card with 4 GB of dedicated RAM. Granted, that’s not a gaming-class GPU by any measure. But it provides a bit of added oomph for the Firefly’s intended audience and the Autodesk, Adobe, and other software platforms for which this PC is certified. (It’s worth pointing out, too, that many NVIDIA T500-equipped PCs only ship with 2 GB of dedicated RAM.)

Further helping in the performance department are the heady RAM and storage possibilities. The Firefly can be configured with 16, 32, or 64 GB of DDR4-3200 non-EEC SDRAM, and in the first two configurations, it’s often possible to add another 32 GB after the fact, thanks to the Firefly’s user-serviceable underside. (This may require vPro.) It can also be configured with 128 GB, 256 GB, 512 GB, 1 TB, or 2 TB of M.2 PCIe Gen 3 NVMe-based SSD storage, with at least one of those configurations also offering 32 GB of Intel Optane memory. The review unit shipped with 32 GB of RAM and 512 GB of storage (but no Optane).

Since most of my work can be accurately described as basic productivity—Word, a web browser, Affinity Photo, Microsoft Teams, and the like—you won’t be surprised to discover that performance has been excellent across the board. But I’ve also used the Firefly with the Visual Studio 2022 Preview and with Hyper-V, in the latter case with Windows 11 and Linux virtual machines (VMs) outfitted with 8 GB of RAM and two processor cores. And using my standard productivity apps alongside those VMs has never been problematic. In fact, using Windows 11 virtually has been almost indiscernible from doing so natively.

Despite the performance, the Firefly is mostly quiet and doesn’t get truly hot during normal use. The fan venting is on the bottom middle of the PC, however, so it can get a bit loud if you use the PC on a bed or other soft surface, as I’ve done sometimes during my current trip. That’s to be expected.

Finally, the Firefly follows in the footsteps of HP’s Elite lineup by providing an integrated Tile module that can be used to locate your laptop if it’s lost or stolen. This is an excellent addition, and it’s nice to see HP expanding its use to the ZBook lineup.

Connectivity

Connectivity is as modern and versatile as anyone should expect, with Intel Wi-Fi 6 AX201 and Bluetooth 5.2 standard. You can also opt for NFC, and/or 4G/LTE capabilities via an Intel XMM 7360 (CAT9) chipset or 5G via a Qualcomm Snapdragon X55 modem. Unfortunately, the review unit didn’t provide cellular data capabilities.

Ports and expansion

The Firefly provides a versatile selection of legacy and modern ports that should meet almost any need. On the left, you’ll find a nano security lock slot, two full-sized USB-A 3.1 ports, the first of which provides always-on charging capabilities, a combo headphone/microphone jack, and, if configured, an HP Smart Card reader.

On the right, there is a barrel-style HP power connector, a full-sized HDMI 2.0 port, two Thunderbolt 4/USB-C ports, and, if configured, a nano-SIM card slot for cellular connectivity.

The review unit shipped with the HP Smart Card reader, but not the nano-SIM card slot.

Audio and video

Like HP’s mainstream portable PCs, the Firefly’s upward-firing stereo speakers are custom tuned by the audio experts at Bang & Olufsen. And the bundled HP Audio Control app can be used, among other things, to customize sound equalization, including a content-type auto-detection feature that can differentiate between music, movies, and voice that I like quite a bit. The resulting sound is typically very good, and I spent some time on my current trip watching movies like Once Upon a Time in Mexico and Star Wars: The Last Jedi, and I really enjoyed the punchy sound and stereo separation.

The Firefly also features a multi-array microphone, located at the top middle of the display panel next to the webcam. You can also configure noise cancelation for both the speakers and the microphones using the HP Audio Control app, and choose between Conference and Personal modes on the fly, via an interactive notification, when you engage the microphone. (The former focuses the microphone in 360 degrees while the latter focuses it to the front, at a single user.) This can be turned off, which I did.

The webcam is your basic 720p HD unit, nothing special, but I did have the opportunity to record a podcast episode outside while traveling, and for once the picture was crisp and clear instead of muddy.

I’m not sure how often anyone will do that, but most will appreciate its IR capabilities, which enable Windows Hello facial recognition. And there’s a manual privacy cover for the webcam, but it’s hard to see and use; I’d prefer a version you could toggle from a key on the keyboard.

Keyboard, touchpad, and fingerprint reader

HP has long made my favorite portable PC keyboards, and the Firefly ships with the superb HP Premium keyboard, with an integrated power button in the top row of keys and that extra column of Home, Pg Up, Pg Dn, and End keys that I love so much. This is an ideal typing experience, with firm, clicky keys, perfect key throws, and elegant backlighting with ambient light-sensing capabilities.

If you’re familiar with HP’s Premium keyboard, you know that it provides a few interesting extra keys in the function key row, including a Sure View Reflect toggle key (F2) if the PC is configured with a compatible display and a Programmable Key (F12). That latter key can, as its name suggests, be configured to open any application, website, file, or folder, execute any key sequence, or paste any text. Because File Manager can’t be configured to open to the folder I prefer, I’ve configured it to open that folder. Nice.

What I’m not a fan of is the keyboard’s integrated dual pointing stick, which sits in the middle of a triangle formed by the G, H, and B keys. Unlike the Lenovo TrackPoint, which is excellent, this nubbin is uncomfortable to use, and its dedicated hardware buttons take a bit of space away from the touchpad. But it doesn’t get in the way or detract from the overall typing experience, at least.

As for the touchpad, it, too, is nearly perfect, a “Goldilocks”-sized glass panel that’s not too big and not too small. As with most touchpads, I eventually turned off three- and four-finger gestures because of a few clumsy mistakes on my part, but it performed admirably after that. Some people question my preference for small touchpads, but it’s really an aversion to overly-large touchpads, which in the PC space often make it difficult to correctly perform certain sequences like selecting text, right-clicking, and then choosing an item from the resulting menu (typically Copy). HP gets it right.

The integrated fingerprint sensor is optional and appears on the keyboard deck instead of being integrated into the keyboard as we see elsewhere in HP’s portable PCs. I prefer the integrated approach, but this configuration is not a deal-breaker at all, and the fingerprint reader has been fast and accurate.

Portability

At just 0.7 inches thin and weighing under 3 pounds, the Firefly is HP’s most mobile workstation. Which is a cute way of saying that it’s the thinnest and lightest workstation that the firm makes. That’s a great weight and size for any 14-inch laptop, but when you consider the advanced components that you can pack into this PC, it’s even more impressive.

Battery life, likewise, was impressive, and for the first time since before the pandemic, I feel like I finally have an accurate measure of real-world battery, given my extensive usage on the road while in Mexico. I’m seeing between 7 and 8 hours of battery life across a range of usage that has included my standard productivity apps, my Visual Studio and Hyper-V experiences, and some media scenarios in which my family has enjoyed Movies & TV and Netflix content via a TV set over HDMI while the laptop has been unattached to power.

I’m also quite happy with the Firefly’s power management capabilities. Many PCs promise instant-on thanks to Modern Standby, but the Firefly has always delivered just that, with a level of reliability I’ve really grown to appreciate.

Put simply, the Firefly could be my ideal travel companion for both work and play.

Software

While I’m usually impressed with most of HP’s premium PCs these days, the company has been slipping into an uncomfortable place when it comes to bundleware with a growing collection of software value-adds with which it feels compelled to overburden its premiums PCs. And on that note, the Firefly is no better than any of HP’s recent Elite-branded laptops: I counted 15 HP-branded applications and utilities in the Start menu. (The 15th, myHP, is under “M” not “H” in Start.)

That’s too many. But to be fair to HP, many of them are truly useful, and many will be of interest, and of great value, to the commercial customers that the firm is targeting. And there are no silly games or nonsense apps in this list.

HP’s recently rebranded Wolf Security suite—which includes HP Sure Start, HP Sure Click, HP Sure Sense, HP Sure Admin, HP Sure Run, and HP Sure Recover—is among the most useful and interesting in the list. And with the Firefly, I’ve made a point of leaving the stock HP software install intact so I could experience at least a subset of its capabilities. To the user, most of this is invisible, but there are a few exceptions. For example, HP Sure Click will pop up a confirmation dialog of its own for many Internet downloads, and it’s kind of hard to argue with this extra step.

Beyond the HP-branded stuff, you’ll find a Tile app, several Intel utilities, and, if configured with discrete graphics, two NVIDIA utilities. Nothing problematic.

There are some other software-related niceties awaiting Firefly buyers. I noted above that the PC is user-serviceable, which is fantastic, but the PC also features a Sure-based intrusion detection system called Tamper Lock that can detect when that back panel is removed. That way, organizations can set policies to determine what happens when the PC is opened, including shutting down the system, locking the BIOS, encrypting the disk with BitLocker, and the like. And Firefly users can likewise take advantage of HP’s RemoteBoost capabilities, which lets them remotely access more powerful workstations in your organization when they need to tackle more time-consuming or compute-intensive tasks.

Pricing and configurations

As a portable workstation, the Firefly sits above HP’s EliteBook lineup in its product hierarchy and is priced to match. An entry-ish-level Firefly, with a Core i5-1135G7 processor and Intel Iris Xe graphics, 16 GB of RAM, 256 GB of storage, and a 250-nit Full HD display starts at about $1680 as I write this. But you can pile on the options and escalate the price list pretty quickly. The review unit configuration—Core i7-1185G7 vPro with NVIDIA T500 graphics, 32 GB of RAM, and 512 GB of storage—is about $2600, for example.

Recommendations and conclusions

The HP ZBook Firefly 14 G8 is the perfect companion for power users of all kinds, be they 2D or video creators, software developers, architects, or even those, like me, who spend most of their time in standard productivity apps but sometimes need a bit of extra horsepower for specialized tasks. But the Firefly is really designed to serve certain types of users in creative, engineering, or educational organizations in which colleagues with more demanding needs are using even more powerful Firefly portable and desktop workstations, and it would likely shine in such situations.

Whether individual power users would benefit from the Firefly’s unique combination of capabilities enough to justify the expense is, of course, debatable. But I wouldn’t argue with anyone who made that choice: The HP ZBook Firefly 14 G8 is highly recommended for those that want the best and can afford its heady price tag. It is one of the very best computers I’ve ever used, and it was an excellent choice for my current trip.

At-a-glance

Pros

  • Gorgeous, professional, and unique design
  • Multiple display options, including Dreamcolor and Sure View Reflect
  • Powerful, and modern internal components
  • Great ports selection
  • 4G LTE and 5G connectivity options
  • Thin and light
  • Excellent battery life
  • Superior keyboard and touchpad

Cons

  • 16:9 display panel
  • Expensive, as should be expected
  • Superfluous and uncomfortable dual-pointing system
  • 720p webcam
  • Far too many bundled applications

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Comments (6)

6 responses to “HP ZBook Firefly 14 G8 Review”

  1. bschnatt

    It's too bad it has one of those keyboard pointing stick nubbin things. I *hate* those things. They're a blight on any keyboard and should be banished to the depths of hell!

  2. jshoq

    I actually have one of these machines for work and it is a tremendous machine. The integrated Smart Card reader is super helpful for those needs and the size and weight make it a pleasure to "lug around" in my backpack. Even the power brick is very light, a delightful change from most machine.

    My only complaint with my device is how it was configured, but that is not an HP problem as the configuration was overwritten by my employer.

  3. dougkinzinger

    So far a solid unit. I configured one for a college freshman hoping it will make it all four years. Specs, speed, and storage make a strong case that it will.

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