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HP ZBook15 Mobile Workstation Review – Is Beauty More Than Skin Deep?

Sunday, December 1st, 2013

HP recently introduced its ZBook series of mobile workstations. After attending the product launch in NYC, I was fortunate enough to get a top of the line HP ZBook 15 mobile workstation to evaluate and discover if this sleek new beauty’s performance promise was more than skin deep.

My evaluation unit was über equipped with the highest performing NVIDIA GPU, included a built-in HP DreamColor Display system and came with the following specifications as supplied:

O/S: Windows 7 Professional 64-bit Service Pack 1
CPU: Intel® Core™ i7-4800MQ with Intel HD Graphics 4600 (2.7 GHz, 6 MB cache, 4 cores)
GPU: NVIDIA Quadro K2100M (Designed specifically for mobile 15.6″ Platforms and the high end of offered GPUs)
Storage: Hard Drive – 500 GB (Includes 32GB Flash Cache and is Expandable to 1.87TB)
System Memory: 16GB RAM – (Expandable to 32GB with 64bit O/S and Quad Core processor)
Display: Full HD 15.6″ diagonal LED-back lit UWVA eDP anti-glare (1920 x 1080) screen with integrated HP DreamColor Display system providing more than a billion color possibilities.
Ports and Connectivity: 2 USB 3.0; 1 USB 2.0; 1 USB 3.0 charging port; 1 Thunderbolt1; 1 DisplayPort; 1 stereo microphone-in/headphone-out combo; 1 RJ-45 Ethernet; wireless;1 docking connector; 1 secondary battery connector; 1 VGA port; 1 SD compatible memory card reader
Other: Webcam with Cyberlink YouCAM control software installed; Optical Storage with Blu-ray read, DVD/CD read/write; fingerprint reader; Kensington lock port
Weight with batteries: Starting at 6.2 lb (2.82 kg)
Warranty: Protected by HP Services, including a limited 3 years parts, 3 years labor, and 3 years on site service (3/3/3) standard warranty.

My first impression of the mobile workstation was the attention to its detail, at many levels: its strong and substantial construction and yes, as you can see above, the ZBook 15 is beautifully designed. Its case is artfully and ergonomically constructed of high-grade burnished aluminum resting on a light weight but strong magnesium chassis that, as I unfortunately learned the hard way, protects the unit from accidental damage.

A Tale of Unintended Consequences – Testing the ZBook 15’s Ruggedness and Durability

Accidents do happen – courtesy of Dr. C. Wacko

I never intended to test this unit’s durability but sometimes life gets in the way. After completing my evaluation, the mobile workstation was sitting closed on the floor directly below my TV stand. I was swapping out a couple of connectors at the rear of my 46” TV and as I nudged the TV to the front of the glass stand-top to gain access, the fifty-pound glass plate unexpectedly tipped forward and slammed forcefully down on top of the closed computer. OMG!

When I saw the two inch recessed gash in the case above the screen I was certain that I had completely destroyed this expensive loaner and quickly but carefully pulled the unit free. I said a few prayers and booted up to find that although the screen had cracked it was still emitting light. There was hope, and I quickly plugged in an external VGA display and miraculously the computer worked perfectly! I do not recommend this as an evaluation method, but it certainly does prove that the ZBook 15 is capable of surviving even the most egregious mishandling and of overcoming the worst of accidents.

Ease of use

The keyboard is well laid out and includes a full numeric keypad, back lit keys, and the TouchPad mouse controller is ideally positioned. Using other portables the fleshy mass under my thumb intermittently rubs against the finger controlled pad while I’m typing, initiating all sorts of unwanted actions and consequences. This never happened to me on the ZBook 15, and to use the workstation with a mouse and avoid this possibility altogether all I had to do was double tap the TouchPad to toggle it off. The ZBook 15 is also equipped with a fingerprint reader you can use instead of entering a password when signing in. And, it works! I was skeptical about this feature at first, but found that lightly sliding my forefinger over the reader logged me in every time without a hitch

Ports (Expandability)

Four USB ports are positioned around the sides and rear of the unit: 1 USB 2.0 port for backwards compatibility and 3 USB 3.0 ports, one of which can be used as a charging port that always has power available to charge your other devices, even when the machine is turned off. This came in handy during a recent business trip when I had my iPad’s cable but forgot to bring along the AC charging plug.

The sides of the workstation also include an SD memory card reader, one port that accepts a composite headphone-out/microphone-in cable, an optical drive that plays Blu-Ray DVD’s and plays and records to standard DVD’s and CD’s, a VGA monitor input jack, a DisplayPort, and a Thunderbolt I/O that greatly increases data transfer performance with bi-directional 10 Gbps speed. (There is no HDMI port. However, I learned that if you want to display HD video on your TV, the HP “DisplayPort to HDMI Adapter” is available as an inexpensive accessory.)

Flip the unit over and you’ll find a docking connector, flush-mounted with the surface that gives you the option to expand your possibilities by powering external displays or other devices.

My evaluation unit came with 16GB of system RAM and 500 GB of hard drive storage that’s paired with a 32 GB MLC mSATA module with intel SRT (Smart Response Technology) for quick boot and file access.

I particularly liked the ability to open the back panel with just a flip of a lever to quickly upgrade system RAM to 32GB, and upgrade storage to a whopping 1.87TB with no tools needed. The modular design with green touch-points allows for tool-less removal and replacement of most common modules making upgrades and maintenance a snap.

The Optional DreamColor Display


The DreamColor Display in Animation

The evaluation unit came equipped with an integrated DreamColor display. The DreamColor display was introduced a few years ago on the DreamWorks Animation campus where it collaboratively got its birth by providing exceptional color accuracy across their entire studio. One feature set that I took special note of are its six built-in and selectable color calibration modes: sRGB, Rec. 709, Rec. 601, Adobe® RGB, DCI-P3 emulation, and full gamut. There’s also one user programmable mode that lets you customize your unique color look and feel across an entire enterprise.

You initiate the DreamColor control panel by entering “HP Mobile Display Assistant” into the Start menu search field. This wasn’t immediately obvious or explained, and to get there faster I pasted a shortcut icon to this program into the task bar.

Subjective Testing

To experience this machine as it was intended, I began my evaluation by using the mobile workstation in my every day work by taking it with me daily to and from my office, and then on an out-of-town business trip. The ZBook15 is ISV certified to perform with virtually all engineering software and I loaded in and worked with Autodesk Maya 2014, the full Adobe creative suite, and Avid’s Pinnacle video software during my evaluation.

I was pleasantly surprised at how quickly the unit booted up – it took just 15 seconds to boot from a cold start to the login screen and only 3 seconds to the desktop after swiping my finger. I also clocked boot times for my applications – Autodesk Maya 2014 fully launched in 4 seconds, Adobe Photoshop in 3, and Avid’s Pinnacle video editing software in just 7 seconds.

I fully exercised each of these applications creating and rendering complex models and scenes with Autodesk Maya and doing full video editing and rendering with both Adobe Premiere and Avid Pinnacle. The renderings appeared to fly by and when operating in these applications all actions occurred almost instantly.

Working in this responsive environment was a breath of fresh air and allowed me to get to work fast without impatiently drumming my fingers waiting for the next screen to appear.

I clocked the battery life at an even 2 hours while running the very compute intensive SPECapc Maya 12 Benchmark Test and was told that on my unit battery life was diminished by at least half with the DreamColor display installed. The HP spec claims 14 hours of battery life, but this is without DreamColor, and measured when the computer is idled.

Objective Testing

To objectively gauge how well the ZBook 15 performs I ran two benchmarks, NovaBench (geared more toward overall performance) and SPECapc Maya 12 (geared more toward graphics performance).

NovaBench Benchmark Test

16156 MB System RAM (Score: 238)
– RAM Speed: 12318 MB/s
CPU Tests (Score: 648)
– Floating Point Operations/Second: 203,939,208
– Integer Operations/Second: 678,708,632
– MD5 Hashes Generated/Second: 946,661
Graphics Tests (Score: 260)
– 3D Frames Per Second: 754
Hardware Tests (Score: 44)
– Primary Partition Capacity: 450 GB
– Drive Write Speed: 143 MB/s

Total NovaBench Composite Score: 1,190

The ZBook 15 scored well above average. 41,004 NovaBench workstation benchmark tests were performed over the past 3 months and the average composite score for these was 864 compared to the ZBook 15’s score of 1,190.

SPECapc Maya 12 Benchmark Test
I chose to run the Maya test because of its many complex and compute-intensive operations. This comprehensive test puts Maya through its paces by evaluating four Maya projects (.ma) from wireframes, to texturing, shading and mentalRay rendering. It also measures time expended while doing physics calculations for liquid, smoke, cloth, streamers, hair and deformations. It runs each of these tests four times and calculates and displays all of the details and a composite score of the test results. The composite score for the SPECapc Maya 12 benchmark I ran on the ZBook 15 was: GFX – 272 and CPU – 347 putting it on a par or faster than the majority of the newer workstations we’ve tested recently.

Final Thoughts
With its slick ergonomic design, extreme power and build quality the Zbook 15 is ideally positioned to meet the needs of today’s crunch-time world where computational horsepower and mobility can be game changers. Its starting point price of $1,699 makes it competitive with desktop workstations and well within reach of its intended professional audience.
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HP ZBook 15 Mobile Workstation

Pros: Ergonomic and attractive design; excellent price/performance ratio; build quality; connectivity options; configurability; easy expansion; ruggedness and reliability.

Cons: None significant, especially noteworthy since this is one of three new ZBooks just released.
Price (As configured for review): $2,999. Prices start at $1,699
Final Grade: A

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

For More Information about the HP ZBook 15 mobile workstation: http://www8.hp.com/us/en/campaigns/workstations/zbook-15.html


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NVIDIA GRID VCA Grabs Major Hollywood Award

Friday, November 8th, 2013

Although NVIDIA hasn’t issued a formal press release about receiving this award, Ankit Patel of NVIDIA has written a blog announcing this achievement.  I’ve posted Ankit’s blog here to give you a teaser update on GRID VCA.

“Roll out the red carpet. Our NVIDIA GRID Visual Computing Appliance (VCA) has won the annual award for engineering excellence from the Hollywood Post Alliance (HPA).

This is a big deal for us. The HPA represents some of the creative professionals we admire most. They provide the technical expertise for the movies, television and other media that people all over the world love.

These are pros who need to work fast – and flexibly – on a huge variety of projects. Which is why we are happy the HPA has acknowledged the GRID VCA, a new tool that allows creative pros to tap into our powerful GPUs whenever they need it.

The GRID VCA is perfect for small post houses that don’t have huge IT budgets.  It lets them on-board contractors quickly and easily, protects valuable customer assets by keeping them secure in the server room and gives video artists the graphics power they need on the PC of their choice.

What’s more, the GRID VCA is a transformer. Within moments, it changes from a remote graphics server delivering design applications for eight concurrent users to a rendering powerhouse putting the performance of up to 4 GPUs to work on a single project.

In short, the GRID VCA gives digital artists the graphics power they need for what they do best – create great content. It also gives smaller shops access to the kinds of tools once available only to much larger firms.

The result: more power, and more flexibility, for the pros who need it most.

 

Let’s Go Gaming! – Autodesk’s Maya LT helps game developers get there fast and in budget

Tuesday, October 1st, 2013

 

 

Excitement is in the air as the gaming industry continues to increase momentum with most of today’s game development targeted at mobile smart phones and tablets.  Entrepreneurial spirit has been ignited and new indies and small production houses are popping up like dandelions, all looking for the best and most cost effective game asset development solution they can find.

To meet the needs of this emerging market Autodesk announced the release of Maya LT last month.  In developing Maya LT Autodesk started with Maya 2014 and stripped out features that were aimed at film production, like advanced rendering and special effects, leaving Maya LT with a solid core of high-end development tools plus some new ones specifically aimed at meeting the needs of smart phone and tablet game designers.


Introducing Autodesk Maya LT 2014

While getting acquainted with Maya LT I realized that its accessibility might also make it an entry point for CG artists who aspire to create professional results and who can learn and make good use of this tool now and then grow into the full Maya edition as their skills and needs increase.

What perked my immediate interest were its rich feature set and its price point.  You can get the full version including updates for $795 or, to get your feet wet, you can lease Maya LT for $50 per month. And, since Autodesk is offering a free trial you can download and try the software now to see for yourself if it meets your needs and expectations before opening your wallet.

I recently interviewed Greg Castle, Senior Product Manager and Wesley Adams, Marketing Specialist at Autodesk who have been actively involved in Maya LT concept and development and continue working with the team to improve the software based on internal and user experience feedback.

I will be posting a hands-on full review of Maya LT in an upcoming article, but to get the ball rolling I’d like to share the interviews with you here first to give you a good overview of how Maya LT was conceived, what Maya LT is, how it can fit into your workflow and where it’s headed.

The Consolidated Interviews
I’ve consolidated and edited my interviews with both Greg Castle and Wes Adams below to give you the full picture.

Edited Transcript

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A Brief Overview

Autodesk is known for its high end products and traditionally caters to high-end professionals who create movies, TV, Vfx, and games.  Recently a growing number of smaller and indie companies are writing for mobile devices and we took notice of this. We have been tracking this closely and are excited about advancements in this area, especially in the unique game play that’s being released now and also the production innovation that is taking place.

These teams are small compared to larger studios and are more restricted by budget and resources.  They’ve had to work hard to produce impressive and captivating games and have had to innovate, and improvise to do new cool things.   We wanted to make sure that we were poised to help these people.

We’ve been working hard developing new free products for consumers like the 123D mobile app and Sketchbook, and offer both a low and high end range of development tools,  but up until now small game development houses have fallen somewhere in the middle.  We did an analysis of our tools and determined that for game development, 3D modeling and animation is where we can provide the most help to smaller game developers and determined that Maya was the best option to start from.  It has a substantial user base, works on both Max and Maya and has some great tools for game development and some great game development features.  So, we decided to focus on Maya and see how we could make it more accessible.

Maya is a big and very powerful tool used in lots of different industries and we said okay we’re going to modify Maya for game developers, and the first thing we did was to ask the question ‘what features don’t game developers need?’   We began by removing features used exclusively in film and that are just superfluous to game development.  We then compared small game developers to larger game developers with attention to the different restrictions of resources etc.  Smaller developers just don’t have the time to create the same types of assets that a Triple A developer can while Triple A studios don’t have the same price constraints and are happy with Maya as it stands.

We engaged in a Beta program at the beginning of this year and did a lot of research to learn how small game developers were using Maya compared to larger game developers and studios and realized that the biggest factor for smaller studios was pricing.  We needed to figure out how to make the pricing much more in line with smaller development budgets without cannibalizing or alienating our larger Maya base.  We looked at tools like Particle Effects and high end renderers that smaller game studios don’t use and we customized a version of Maya specifically for smaller developers that we could offer at a lower price point.  This became Maya LT.

We only kept the essentials.  Everything we’ve left in Maya LT is there for a reason and we’ve even added some features that are specific to game development and that don’t even appear in full Maya. One such example is Shader Effects, a node based shader that makes it  easy to create shaders non-programmatically and get some really great results in a more efficient manner.  And there are some other game specific tools we are working on now that will go into future versions of Maya LT as well.  But initially, we really wanted to get Maya LT out there because there is a major need for this product.

This was just a jumping off point, if you will, and we’ve got a lot of great services and features planned for indie and mobile game developers that will find their way into Maya LT.  We’re also working very closely with the community through our community website ‘Area,’ to nail down what people really want and need and what their pain points are in game development  and we’re working hard to insure that all these needs are incorporated into Maya LT.

There is a lot of work being done – this is not a static industry by any means – it moves super quick, and we have to be super responsive.  Maya LT does not follow the same development cycle as standard Maya.  Maya LT product updates will be coming out on a quicker cycle than they will be for standard Maya to make sure that we’re keeping up with the industry and that we’re responsive to customer requests.

A Lighter UI for Modeling

You work over there at ShareCG.com and are probably familiar with 3D packages.   And, sometimes when you open these models in Maya it might be pretty daunting, so we’ve made the UI a little bit lighter which right away makes the product more approachable, and that’s one step in the right direction.  But, Maya LT actually has full parity with Maya 2014 in terms of modeling.

What you’re going to see vis-a’-vis Maya and Maya LT is that when something is added to Maya, if it applies to gaming, it will be added to Maya LT or vice versa.    We just added the next tool set that Maya users were clamoring for that makes modeling a lot nicer and we also include these tools in Maya LT.  Our goal is to laser focus on what is going to help game developers and incorporate these features into Maya LT.

Character Animation with HumanIK

In terms of animation we’ve included Autodesk’s HumanIK.  HumanIK is a library that allows for the calculation of full body inverse kinematics.   HumanIK is traditionally used in games like Assassins Creed to be able to calculate character movement at run time without having to predetermine all kinds of animations.   If, for example the character wants to jump on one particular rock you don’t have to animate thousands of rocks – Human IK can figure that out for you and more.

We incorporated the full HumanIK rig into Maya LT so that when you’re creating bipedal characters you have a skeleton generator to help you create bipedal skeletons and bipedal rigs really, really quickly.  And, it has HumanIK technology behind it so it’s a lot easier to animate and incorporate into games.

The ‘Beast and the Turtle’ – Lighting and Texturing

In terms of lighting and texture-making another technology that we’ve incorporated is called Autodesk Beast which allows you to bake lighting information into texture and UV maps.  This feature, which grew out of the Turtle plug-in, allows you to pre-calculate all your lighting and effects before hand to keep your assets light and efficient so they don’t have to be calculated at run time.

Shader Effects

Something that’s really interesting is Shader Effects which is the first capability that exists in Maya LT that does not exist in standard Maya.  You basically apply shader effects to your asset like you would apply a material using a node based shader editor.  So instead of writing in the HLSL, GLSL and CGFX computer languages you get a bunch of boxes that give you different selections that you can drag and drop between to create your shader definitions.  Menus pop up and you can use float point values, or sliders to adjust the different effects and you can see the effects in real time as you make the adjustments.  It’s kind of like HyperShade but at the end you can export into HLSL or GLSL or CGFX, so you don’t have to go in and create the shader yourself.

If you and I were collaborating on designing a game I could send you the shader definition file so that we are both working in the same environment that I’ve envisioned.   It takes a few extra steps, but you can also make the shader work right within Unity for example, so the assets that appear in Maya LT’s View Port will better approximate what they will look like once they’re in the game.

Compatibility with Game Engines

Popular game engines like Unity, Unreal, and Cryengine support the FBX format and Maya LT’s primary export file format is FBX.  Maya LT has its own internal format, MLP.   You save all your work-in-progress to the MLP format but then when you want to export and integrate your assets into a game engine it’s all done in FBX.

Wrap Up

We have a separate development team that only focuses on Maya LT.  This is really nice since for the full Maya version the development team has to consider multiple industries using the tool, whereas with Maya LT the team has the luxury of just focusing on Game Development.  We will be releasing product extensions a lot more often than for standard products and we are paying close attention to feedback and quickly responding with solutions.

I can’t share specifics about the Maya LT road map but if I were to show it to you I’m sure you’d be very, very impressed and excited!

Each integrated tool is targeted at different phases of your game development project making Maya LT a one stop place for creating game assets.

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I just downloaded the trial software and am beginning to delve into each of this tool’s elements.  In the coming weeks I’ll write and publish an in-depth and objective Maya LT software review to share what I’ve learned. In the meantime, download your free trial and give it a test drive!

 



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