The Z1 stands apart from nearly every one of its workstation brethren by taking up less room on your desk, huffing out much less noise and fuss, offering the usual ability to slot in this year's hot new processor or graphics cards, and looking cool. It's an all-in-one workstation solution, and all-in-ones—like laptops—aren't a computer form factor known for their internal upgradability.
The Z1 is different, and HP says it's the first of its kind. It's designed to be as interchangable as a tower-format PC, just in a smaller size with many of its internal parts accessible when you flip its easy-access lid up. They're shrouded in custom-fit HP plastic to ensure all the right high-power parts don't vent heat onto other parts when the tight-fitting shell is shut, and there are small fans all over the place as a compromise—pushing hot air out but in a way HP assures us is quiet. That means if you want to upgrade them, then you'll likely have to go with custom HP parts (we're checking with HP on this), but that's pretty much the norm when you're talking about the workstation business, and it feeds HP's long-tail business model.
Workstations are a sort of personal computer, as distinct from, say a mainframe, but not like the one you may be reading this on. They're typically the high-end offering of many computer makers, and they're usually promoted as offering professionlal-grade power with industrial-level reliability (a trend stemming back from when they were invented, when computers were less reliable than now). They're found in designer's offices, helping render Hollywood special effects and shaping the curves of next-generation cars—both in terms of design and calculations about aerodynamics. The industry is typified by staid design, slow iteration, high cost, and boxy, performance-led computers that can be about the size of an undergrad's dorm room refrigerator.
Here's HP's glossy video promoting the novel machine.
Notable at the end of the clip is the way components slip easily in and out of their sockets—requiring no tools, no fiddling, and none of the traditional paraphernalia IT support staff traditionally carry to unbolt components, undo pentalobe screws holding the chassis together and so on.
HP product manager Mike Diehl explained to Fast Company that the Z1 was considered by HP to be so disruptive that it was put on a super fast-track process that took about 18 months. "It was secret inside of many of the places within HP. We kept the program team separated ... our lab was really a lab within a lab. It was a locked room within a lab that only certain people could get into. Our sales team, our people outside ... were not informed of what was going on."
Workstations are big business, and each machine is expensive (the Z1 starts at $1,899 and goes up from there), and the design and accessibility of the Z1 will definitely appeal to many corporate buyers looking for a next-gen solution. All this innovation, Diehl says, is transformative for his industry: "I believe we're going to see things down in the consumer space when people see what we've been able to do, they'll be incorporated into mainstream systems."