January 29, 2018
field test

Can We Switch to PC DIT Laptops Now? The ZBook from HP

Mac laptops continue to dominate low budget DIT stations on set, but the HP ZBook 15 G4 makes a case that we might be ready to switch.

While they have never had the same power-for-price ratio that PCs offered, Macs have dominated the world of on-set download stations for the last decade for a few key reasons. First, for a long time, Final Cut Pro, which required a Mac, had a large footprint in professional post. On top of that, the variety of ports on offer and the convenient form factor made it unlikely that you'd ever run into a situation where your external drives didn't fit. Get to set and discover that the producers bought FireWire 800 drives when they said they were buying USB? Or USB 3 when they promised Thunderbolt? Mac had you covered.

A DIT station with a massive graphics card, a wide variety of ports, and the ability the run all of the biggest software is increasingly appealing.

But with the disappointing performance and lack of port variety of the newest generation MacBook Pro, and the move away from Final Cut Pro to Premiere, Resolve, and back to Media Composer, many filmmakers are seriously considering switching, with the tremendous amount of power available in a PC chassis looking more and more attractive. As PC makers fit full size gaming cards into laptops (hell, Microsoft has stuck one in a tablet's keyboard), the idea of a DIT station with a massive graphics card, a wide variety of ports, and the ability the run all of the biggest software (Creative Cloud from Adobe, Resolve from Blackmagic, and Media Composer from Avid are all platform neutral and run fine on Windows) is increasingly appealing. We continue to mostly see earlier generation MacBook Pros (as old as 2013 units) used for on-set work, but PCs are starting to show up, certainly more often than the new MacBook Pro.

HP is hoping to get a taste of this market with its ZBook 15 G4 Mobile Workstation. While the laptop doesn't offer a full sized gaming PC card, it does have a powerful graphics card, a wide variety of ports, and is clearly designed with the idea of power use on the road in mind. It's not a "beautiful" case the way the Macbook Pro is, but it doesn't need to be; this isn't a lifestyle accessory, it's a professional tool, and while it has to be large to house all that power, it's not unattractive. But beauty and unnatural thinness aren't the point. Doing your job is.  To that end, this laptop also comes with a DreamColor monitor.

It is thick and 90s looking, but who cares?Credit: Charles Haine

DreamColor Monitor

"DreamColor" has been HP's brand for color-accurate monitoring for a long time now. While you don't see them that widely in video post suites, you do see them all over photography, and a desktop DreamColor was the first computer monitor that we know of to offer a Rec. 709 mode.

We all know that the best place to evaluate your footage is a properly calibrated broadcast monitor capable of Rec. 709. We personally have a full-sized Flanders and a 7" SmallHD OLED that are highly accurate and dependable for evaluating color. The problem is, they aren't cheap, and sometimes you don't have them, and in those cases, you will be evaluating your footage on the desktop of your download computer. Worse, sometimes you have paid to buy or rent the calibrated monitor, and some team member wants to evaluate both on the broadcast monitor and your desktop. Or they just accidentally see it on in your desktop and are frustrated that it doesn't match your external monitor. No matter the reason, you don't want to be in a situation where people make decisions about shots based on evaluations on an incorrect monitor.

Oh the ports! Ethernet without a dongle.Credit: Charles Haine

This is where the idea of having DreamColor monitoring on set is so key. Can we finally have a monitor we can trust for image evaluation on the desktop built into a laptop?  In reality, for filmmakers, having a laptop where you don't need an external monitor is still a long way away, since the monitor maker only controls one part of the pipeline.  Filmmakers want a video signal (ideally an SDI signal) to evaluate our pictures. No laptop will ever replace the benefits of a Blackmagic Mini Monitor and a real broadcast monitor, be it the wonderful SmallHD OLED all the way up to the full power Flanders OLED.  

That being said, the DreamColor monitor image looks much closer to the OLED than we are used to. It's a huge benefit since nothing is more frustrating than a director looking at the monitor and saying "I like the image better on your desktop, can we make it look like that?" While you ideally don't want the laptop monitor to be the only place you analyze your picture, by having a DreamColor monitor, you open up the possibility that you can do some evaluation of images on the desktop, though it's important to remember that to do so you still need to be looking at the imagery in the right program. Open up a video clip in VLC, Quicktime, Premiere, and Resolve and you'll notice they all render video differently.

The color just doesn't match the measured-accurate OLED. Closer than many, but still not good enough to grade on.Credit: Charles Haine

To be clear, this isn't a final calibration-capable monitor. As you can see in this comparison image, the calibrated to DLogE 1.1 SmallHD and the DreamColor don't match perfectly. They are close enough to each other that it won't drive your clients to total distraction, but it's nowhere near close enough for us to consider grading just on the laptop with no external reference. This requires a combination of factors—the software generating the video, the display, the OS, coming together—and it's a tough nut to crack. We might never see a laptop where you can grade on the screen itself accurately.  We appreciate that HP is trying, but it's just not there yet.

Performance

HP essentially matches the 2016 Macbook Pro, in that it roughly doubles the performance of the 2013 Macbook Pro when working with RED raw media. If you open up an 8K timeline on the 2013mpb (faster than the 2015, oddly) and render it in Resolve, you'll get 5-6 fps and a render time of 1:40 seconds for our little demo project. The HP hit 11-13 fps, and knocked it out in a little more than half the time.

Windows

WIndows is fine. It does pretty much everything you can do on a Mac. There are little things that take getting used to with the switch, but at this point, with OSX going so long without the integration of major new features, Windows has had plenty of time to catch up. It's a modern, clean, stable operating system, and if all you have to do to get affordable power is get used to a few different shortcuts, you'll almost definitely be fine with the switch. One drawback is that things like drivers become an issue again. Getting the Blackmagic Mini Monitor, which "just worked" on a Mac, to work on the PC took some hunting through forums and downloading various software until signal would come out. This is very familiar to PC users, but something Mac users forget about.

 It feels like a machine that will legit do all the things you want it to do without a dongle.  

Apple has put a ton of work into lifestyle in the last few years, and many of the improvements you'll miss out on are lifestyle-based: reminders to sync between phone and laptop, for instance. But there are a variety of non-proprietary third party apps to do the exact same thing, and that is hardly enough of a benefit to be worth spending longer on set waiting for your renders to process. Beyond just the renders taking longer, there are other real benefits to this machine.  It comes with both old and new USB ports.  A full-sized ethernet cable for when you need ethernet, which is still a reality for many in post. An SD card slot. It feels like a machine that will legit do all the things you want it to do without a dongle. Who cares that it weighs nearly 6lbs? You don't need to put it on your shoulder all day.

Time to give CineForm another lookCredit: Charles Haine

Drawbacks

The one glaring issue is lack of ProRes. The only app that currently creates consistently stable ProRes exports is Assimilate Scratch, and while you can rent it for as little as $50, Scratch remains a niche product. Scratch faces an uphill battle in that its interface is simply not anywhere near as user friendly as its competitors (it still insists on using "enter" for play/pause while literally every other application uses the space bar, for instance). There are other options for writing ProRes files on a PC, but none appear to be stable as of this writing, so the best solution is renting Scratch for a day to crank them out. However, ProRes is really just an imitation of Avid's DNx platform, which is funcitonal on both PC and Mac, and CineForm is growing in popularity as filmmakers realize they might want to be Mac-free in the future.

If you accept that the DreamColor monitor doesn't mean you can grade on it, and you are willing to continually explain that to clients/producers/directors, the benefits of this machine are huge. And the colors are closer to the external than we are used to with a laptop, which is good, as it's less distracting.  Having all those ports and the option of more than 16 paltry GB of memory, is amazing. It might be time to make the jump.

Available from HP starting at $1,999, but configured for filmmakers (to get the best graphics card and the DreamColor) will set you back a bit more.

TL:DR

  • A PC might be your next DIT station
  • ProRes is the final hurdle to overcome, but maybe it's time we go CineForm
  • Ports. Oh, it's so nice to have ports galore back. A mix of so many ports!
  • You can go up to 64GB of RAM!  Hooray!

Tech Specs

  • Windows 10 Pro 64
  • Intel® Xeon® E3-1535M v6 (3.10 GHz, 8 MB Cache, 4 core)
  • 15.6" diagonal B-LED UHD UWVA DreamColor Anti-Glare flat (3840x2160)
  • NVIDIA® Quadro® M2200 4 GB Graphics dedicated GDDR5
  • 256 GB SATA TLC SSD
  • Ethernet Port that doesn't need an adapter
  • 2 USB Type-C™ (Thunderbolt™ 3, DisplayPort™ 1.2, USB 3.1); 2 USB 3.0; 1 stereo microphone-in/headphone-out combo
  • SD card reader
  • 32 GB (4x8 GB) DDR4 2400
  • 6.7lbs

Your Comment

20 Comments

This article convinced me to stay with Mac. I get the impression that wasn't the intent.

January 29, 2018 at 12:15PM

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The author apparently doesn't know what a PC is, or he'd know the Mac IS a PC.

Not the most credible source.

February 4, 2018 at 6:32AM

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David Gurney
DP
1421

What do you do when the post that your clients are using are still using a mac? Those drives need to be set up for a mac, they want pro res. I wouldn't jump back to PC just yet. I feel like by going this route one is just settling and patching up the leaks instead of just having pipes that don't leak at all. OWC/MacSales has some decently priced docks with more ports built in than this laptop.

January 29, 2018 at 12:20PM

3
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Ryan Bennett
DP/Director/SoundMixer/Writer
37

Nope, not switching.

January 29, 2018 at 1:01PM

16
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Jan Becker
DP, Director, Producer
187

"However, ProRes is really just an imitation of Avid's DNx platform..."
ProRes - 2007
DNXHD - 2008

Use what you want, but a $40 dongle isn't enough to make me want to change workflows, fight with drivers, viruses, etc.

January 29, 2018 at 4:39PM

0
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Those are arguments and myths from the 1990s/early 2000s.

January 30, 2018 at 2:30AM, Edited January 30, 2:30AM

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JeffreyWalther
Steadicam Operator/Owner
1593

And they were bullshit then. It wasn't until a couple of years ago that Macs even detected a new device when you plugged it in. As far back as the '90s, Windows would detect a new device and prompt you to insert a driver disk or offer to search for a driver. Plugging a new printer into a Mac would result in... nothing. You had to scrounge around for a driver and install it manually.

And there's STILL no software uninstaller for the Mac. Pathetic.

February 4, 2018 at 6:36AM

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David Gurney
DP
1421

A the pithy quotation marks are often counter-productive... the "it just works" sarcasm in the same sentence describing how it--wait for it--does actually, just work--while the PC admittedly, in the same paragraph, leaves you searching the internet for drivers to download and hope for the best. And the amazing monitor that's so much more accurate than... well, it doesn't matter, because you can't trust it for colour accuracy. And ProRes is just a prescient copy of DNx, which almost nobody uses, and which one could argue is itself a copy of whatever video codec preceeded it (likely Pro Res). I'll just explain that to clients and I'm sure they'll all immediately accommodate me and convert to Avid once they see the light.

Weird piece.

January 29, 2018 at 4:45PM, Edited January 29, 4:47PM

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"Windows is fine". LOL. The reason so many people in the cine and art business use Apple products are for OSX, because Windows is not fine, sorry. It's ok. Not fine. HP could build the greatest and cheapest laptop ever made, I wouldn't change if it's with Windows.

January 29, 2018 at 6:37PM

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Vincent Galiano
Filmmaker / Screenwriter / Photographer
312

Could you explain your statement a bit further, please?
What is wrong with windows? I have encountered no problems so far.

January 30, 2018 at 1:56AM

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JeffreyWalther
Steadicam Operator/Owner
1593

Windows is an absolute UI mess now. Which is sad, because Microsoft did more to advance the state of the GUI in the '90s than Apple did in twice the time.

Unfortunately Microsoft has crippled its OS with hidden controls, peek-a-boo UI, and major usability regressions. You can't even group applications under the Start menu anymore, or set up your own color scheme. WTF?

Apple suffers from many similar blunders, and is hurrying to degrade its hardware to the point of unusability. This embarrassing "touch bar" is just the latest degradation of Apple's line, and symptomatic of a company that's not just out of ideas but ignoring obvious enhancements it could have made instead. Instead of deleting a dozen keys from an already gimped keyboard to add this brain-dead "touch bar," why didn't they make the giant trackpad work with the Pencil? Now THAT would be useful.

February 4, 2018 at 6:44AM, Edited February 4, 6:45AM

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David Gurney
DP
1421

The answer Charles, is no. No we can't.

My next DIT machine will be a Hackintosh running on a Threadripper. I can have the great hardware AND the great OS. Why would I hobble myself with windows? I have work to do.

January 30, 2018 at 2:26AM

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Leo Joy
Data Wrangler, DIT Trainee
4

Previous comments are funny. More like a fanboism. I have macs and pcs, I work with both. Dont have a problem with neither one. Love apple ecosystem, but I dont get how apple fanboys can be so dumb. Viruses? I have never had virus on my pc. Drivers? I have never had to install driver. Maybe there will be one or two drivers which has to be installed, but you need to do it only once and for specific thing. For example BM is apple lover, so it works usuall better with macs. Even though I work on a mac more than on a pc I have found more limitations with using mac - protected hdmi out from mac, not many possibilities of settings of your output (second screen), missing cmd+x (wtf!), file system is more fancy than usefull, macs are slow (ok they are fast with final cut, but with everything is slower).. But yeah, prores is really missing on a pc.

January 30, 2018 at 3:53AM

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Macs ARE PCs.

February 4, 2018 at 6:38AM

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David Gurney
DP
1421

For decades the "windows community" ..ie: IBM, Dell, HP(compaq) referred to Apple as toys for kids. Funny how they all want to be like Apple now. I believe that you should "never say never" ... but .... I will never go back to Windows.

January 30, 2018 at 8:56AM

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In all reality, use what works best for you. I have a MacBook Pro at work and it does great for my day to day and editing needs. Color correction, editing, motion graphics, etc. I use a PC at home for freelance and motion graphics because I have a much heavier processor in it plus a graphics card that has way more power and I can upgrade it. But I rarely use the two of them together as transferring files and general communication is not as smooth. Hard drives won't work that are formatted for Mac on PC, etc. But I am just strategic about what I do on which machine and I don't have issues. If I need to render an AE project, put it on a shared drive, render, repeat.

All in all, PC works well, Mac works well. I personally lean on my Mac for 90% of my work and don't se myself switching for my primary work system. PC is great when I need it and I can play PC games as well. Use what works best for you and your workflow. Not everyone has to deliver assets to clients so maybe PC works best for them.

People just love a good argument I suppose.

January 31, 2018 at 11:46AM

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To all the Mac fan-boys here: this argument has been over for AWHILE now. They WERE a great company once- that really supported video, graphic design and the creative professions in general, but those days are done. All the excuses I hear from Mac owners are hilarious really.

And driver support? Don't get me started! My wife got new MB Pro recently and just adding a second monitor? Let's see, there's the big extra dongle, then the other dongle to convert the video signal out, then the special drivers which of course we not included and had to be hunted down. Took several hours of coaxing the thing to simply connect... Same priced PC I got last year (which again has way better spec.s)? I had second monitor running with 5 minutes of turning it on. HDMI out directly to the monitor because it has an HDMI port (what a concept). The driver for the monitor was auto-detected...Done. I've worked on many computers over the years, both Mac and PC, and the Macs are hands-down always harder to fix, upgrade (if at all) and less user friendly. Why pay a premium for that?

This article sites just one of dozens of robust production friendly REAL work Windows machines out there that do a lot more for the same of less money. Mac laptops and desktops? They have stopped being relevant to production for years in terms of performance, functionality and cost, and only have hung on by the magical thinking of the fan-base, or if it's a larger studio, the cost of converting a whole workflow all at once. Some day you might finally realize that Apple stopped caring about Creatives as soon as the iPhone came out.

Sure Apple's the most profitable device maker around, and they are happy to keep taking your money while building computers that do less every time a new one rolls out. What they really produce is the equivalent of Rolex watches: they look great on your wrist, but are really just bling that doesn't do any more than a $100 watch could, and does less than a $300 performance watch will.

February 1, 2018 at 4:04PM

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Douglas Bowker
Animation, Video, Motion-Graphics
254

OK, Apple is waging a war against usefulness, and the "touch bar" is an embarrassment. But I'm curious as to what was going on with your monitor issue.

All you should have needed was a DisplayPort cable. What driver would you need for a monitor?

Apple's handling of external monitors is a little fussy but actually makes a decent amount of sense; and they've fixed a couple of giant defects over the last few years.

February 6, 2018 at 4:11AM

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David Gurney
DP
1421

I come from the technology side, unlike most people in cinema who come from the art side. It amazes me to no end how ignorant the cinema community is about technology. One would imagine that production having become a pure digital thing for years, fans and pros would've learned how to deal with computers by now. But you still have to read things like: "WIndows is fine. It does pretty much everything you can do on a Mac." I couldn't help laughing out loud. Actually, if you go with facts instead of personal impressions, you would have exchanged the Windows and Mac words. "Mac is fine, it does pretty much everything you can do on Windows, except for a good bit more money and a lot less hardware and software choices".

But I wouldn't try to convince anyone from using a Mac. I've learned through the years that almost all motivations Mac users have are sentimental (or based on experiences ten years old, as if technology had stand still for all that time), not rational, so why would you expose facts to counter emotions?

February 2, 2018 at 8:45AM, Edited February 2, 8:48AM

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Sadly, both platforms are going backward. The hideous UI regressions on both are bad enough, and then Apple is degrading the quality of its hardware almost daily. The idiotic "touch bar", the glued-together computers with soldered-in RAM, the desktop machines with shoddy laptop components in yet another glued-together case....

And asinine glossy screens all around.

The whole thing is a clinic on human stupidity and ignorance.

February 6, 2018 at 4:14AM

2
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David Gurney
DP
1421