6 core blimey guv’nor, your 12 threads look mighty fine!

The Alienware desktop (an Aurora R7) arrived yesterday.  And jolly nice it is too.

Ignore the plastic on top, look at those lovely USB ports on top, including a USB-C port too.
And behold – a DVD drive! I can listen to CDs again!
More USB ports then there are stars in the heavens. Okay, just 10.
Since it is technically a gaming PC, I thought I’d bling things up a bit..

I also bought a Corsair Strafe Silent MX keyboard.  It’s a mechanical keyboard that utilises Cherry MX Silent keys, offering a much quieter experience above other types of mechanical keyboards that sound as if mice wearing stilettos are on a rampage across a wooden floor.  This keyboard feels great, and the colours are fully customisable.  Also includes special keys for gaming and tool to remove any keys on the keyboard for cleaning/replacement/custom keys.

Alongside that, I have a Corsair MX65 Pro gaming mouse.  It too lights up and is weighted.  This gives the mouse a much “sturdier” feel.  It makes the Apple Magic Mouse feel anaemic.  At first, it felt as if I were dragging a brick around, but about a minute later and after calibrating it, it felt as natural as anything.  The whole hand feels comfortable working with it.

To round things off is the 27″ Dell S2716DG monitor that is capable of 144Hz refresh rate, 2560×1440 resolution, and comes with Nvidia’s G-Sync technology for super smooth gaming.  It’s a shame the monitor isn’t an IPS display – thus blacks aren’t as good as they could be, and viewing angles do suffer a bit.  But overall it’s still a very good monitor.  I expect nothing less from Dell.  And speaking of gaming, the Nvidia GeForce 1080 Ti is nothing short of amazing.  Fortnite runs around 120-139fps at the highest resolution supported by the monitor.  I’ve not had a chance to time No Man’s Sky, but at Ultra settings, this thing seriously impresses.

The 8th generation Core i7-8700 processor with its 6 CPU cores and 12 threads do an amazing job of keeping up with everything I throw at it.  Watching four rows of graphs in the Task Manager when the system is doing something is quite impressive.

To think that the MacBook Pro which had cost MORE than this system, only had a dual-core processor (and 4 threads) and no discrete graphics card.  This is why I made the decision to go back to the PC, and on the desktop too.  Better hardware for the money.

Windows 10 is questionable in terms of value (I paid £46 to upgrade to Windows Pro because that is the version of Windows which supports drive encryption – Mac users get it built in with MacOS – but then again, you pay handsomely for lower spec hardware – you pays your money and you takes your pick).  I also paid £20 for a USB restore stick.  There is a bit of controversy over this as a PC recycler has just been fingered by Microsoft for selling CDs with Windows OS for the purposes of restoring the OS when the hard drive is wiped clean (which is freely available to anybody download and burn to a CD or USB stick from Microsoft’s site – albeit you’d still need to purchase an activation key, use the activation key found within your PC’s BIOS, or be in the position of a product key somehow).  I think Microsoft is being bloody stupid here, but then I think the same of most US IT corporations.  Too many lawyers, not enough sanity.

Overall I’m delighted with the new set-up.  It comes with 3 years on-site premium warranty as well, so no more trips to the Apple Store for me (which, in all the years of owning a Mac – I never had to go to – the iPad, yes, but not the Mac).

In these insecure times, which is the better product: BitDefender Total Security or ESET’s Internet Security?

The answer is: it depends on the platform.

I found ESET’s Cybersecurity Pro/Cybersecurity/NOD32 to be cumbersome under MacOS.  On network drives and WebDAV volumes, the access to files and documents were excruciatingly slow.  Local scan times took an age too.  So I had to give up and head over to BitDefender’s Total Security for the Mac.  While not quite as complete as it is for Windows, this is by far the best solution for Mac users.  It’s fast, unobtrusive and gets the job done, though it is a pity BitDefender Central couldn’t tell the difference between two MacBook Pros. 🙁

ALAS!

The same cannot be said for the Windows version.  I’d just taken delivery of part one of my Dell/Alienware order – an Alienware mechanical keyboard (oh so clicky!) and as it features programmable keys and lighting, it triggered a software install.  BitDefender, without telling me, falsely declared the software to be malicious and quarantined everything.  I could get stuff back from quarantine, but couldn’t whitelist it – so the BitDefender is now gone from my Windows machine.  In its place is ESET Internet Security.

Now, on lower end Windows machines, I’ve found ESET’s Endpoint software to be a blight on system resources – especially if you configure regular scans.  But on my current quad-core Alienware R3 machine, ESET Internet Security just flies.  Scanning is still rather slow, but you can happily leave it running in the background without slowing things down. (Another reason for me to leave the MacBook/Mac arena and go back to the land of the Windows/Linux PC – it’s just too bloody expensive to get a decent and powerful CPU with Apple – trying to get a Mac under budget for work was nearly impossible and I had to limit myself to dual core.)

I do have access to Sophos Home Premium, but the biggest problem I’ve found with that is that it’s controlled almost entirely online.  Give me local controls.  I’ve found Sophos’ business products to be excellent (especially Intercept X and their Ransomware protection) – but far too costly and complicated for the consumer.

Does Apple truly care about the desktop/laptop computer anymore?

I’m not so sure.

With the rumours of Apple looking to replace Intel processors with their own custom silicon around 2020, it made me think about Apple on the desktop/laptop and how comfortable it has been.  It’s like putting on comfortable slippers and lounging around wearing a smoking jacket, with a faux smoking pipe sticking out the corner of one’s mouth – occasionally removing it to make some witty quip about the state of the British Empire.  That is to say that the Mac, and MacOS, is getting tired, out of date and increasingly irrelevant.

Much of the innovation from Apple found in modern Macs and MacOS is from Apple’s mobile divisions – iOS.  The iPhone and iPad have been rolling out features to MacOS rather than the other way around.  MacOS’ new filesystem, APFS, first featured on the iPhone and iPad before it hit the desktop.  The processors (or rather, System on a Chip – SoC) have routinely beat the likes of the competition in the mobile market, and we’ve even seen them approach the performance of lower end modern Intel laptops.

So it makes sense for Apple to eventually move away from Intel and start using their own A-range of ARM processors.  But this is not without cost – I remember the transition between PowerPC and Intel and while it wasn’t too strenuous, it took some developers quite some time to roll out native code.  If the Mac went ARM, I can see the same thing happening: you’re stuck with a machine that is so new and shiny that so few apps can take advantage of the performance.

So I’ve decided now’s the time to swallow my pride and head back to the PC.  And that means having to (well, not HAVING to, but it’s better than Linux GUIs I’ve come across) embrace Windows 10.  Back in 2016 when I bought two machines – a Dell XPS and an Alienware R3, the experience of Windows 10 was dire , to say the least.  Just search this blog for my opinion at the time.   But work has convinced that despite the massive pain in the arse Windows is, it IS getting better – albeit slowly.

The hardware was went convinced me.  My MacBook Pro was a 7th generation Core i5 running at 3.1Ghz, 2 CPU cores, and had four threads.  Intel’s latest offering is 6 cores with 12 threads.  That includes desktop and laptop CPUs.  The MacBook Pro is limited to 16Gb RAM.  The SSD cannot be upgraded.   At work I recommended Dell to start replacing a fleet of low powered Windows machines.  For development work, I picked out the Dell 8930 which offers a 6 core Core i7 8700 processor.  And it looks beautiful:

6 core blimey, guv’nor!

RAM is easily upgradable to 64Gb DDR4 RAM – and you can see the M2 slot is perfectly capable of being upgraded.  Furthermore, this machine can accommodate up to 3 more 3.5″ hard drives. The machine comes with an NVIDIA Geforce 1050 Ti, which is a big step up from the integrated Intel graphics.

Dell has always been good at creating internals which give you easy access to the components.

So I’ve been very impressed with Dell’s latest desktop offering.  We’ve also had a Vostro laptop which is also extremely good and at a decent price range.  The one problem I encountered with it, however, was that Dell’s Windows 10 Pro image didn’t allow Windows domain users to access any of the installed software or Windows Store programs.  So I had to re-image the entire machine with fresh copy of Windows 10.  And this is where Dell is bloody marvellous: just download the System Manager and it’ll go off and find all the drivers your system needs.  It’ll also download and update the BIOS and other bits and bobs.

So after my experience at work, and having mulled over the possibility of Apple’s potential move to ARM processors among other concerns, I decided to buy a gaming PC.  I’ve ordered an Alienware (which is owned by Dell) Aurora R7 with an Intel Core i7 8700 processor, 16Gb RAM, 512Gb SSD boot drive, 2Tb 7,200 RPM secondary data drive, a top of the range Nvidia Geforce 1080 Ti with 11Gb RAM, 850 watt power supply, and the system is liquid cooled (closed loop).  Along with this is a 27″ Dell monitor with quad HD resolution, 144Hz refresh rate and supports Nvidia’s G-Sync.  I’ve already sold my MacBook Pro, and I am in the process of selling the other two laptops and other bits and bobs.  But it does mean I’ll have a top end system that will last a good few years (just like the Dell XPS desktop I had around 2001 which lasted ages – I gave it to my now former in-laws and it lasted them a good few years).

Still keeping the iPhone, Apple Watch and iPad Pro.  The iPad Pro is my new laptop (which became extremely useful on my previous cruise – more so than the MacBook Pro).  But as my contract starts to run out with EE, I may look at Android phones – though none of them have got to the point where they can give iOS or the Axx series of chips a run for the money.

At the moment I’ve transitioned everything to the Alienware R3 as a trial run.  Windows is actually behaving itself, and I’ve migrated Apple Photos over to Adobe’s Lightroom Classic CC (Adobe, for goodness sake, please give us Apple-like pricing for storage if you want us to use Lightroom CC in the cloud – your pricing is too expensive).  Still keeping with iTunes for Apple Music (which works remarkably well under Windows).

Dunsfold Park: The Lost World of Top Gear

Between 2013 and 2017, I’ve had the privilege of watching the shenanigans of my work neighbours as they were racing all manner of weird and wonderful motor vehicles around the test track at Dunsfold.  I’ve seen celebrities come and go – many of whom I never heard of or recognised but were assured by my workmates that they were proper famous[1].

Despite not being able to drive (though I did start learning back in 2016 – and as I was on my way back to the office from a lesson, I passed the Stig on his way out – it’s absolutely true – he NEVER removes the helmet in public) and not being terribly interested in cars, I started watching Top Gear.  And I actually enjoyed it.  It was a car show, yes, but the style and presentation made it so much more than that.

So I had to become a member of the studio audience to finally strip away the final mysteries of this TV series that I was already witnessing being partly made in front of my eyes.

So that day was yesterday.  I met up with Simon, the taxi driver who used to ferry the likes of myself and my colleagues from Guildford to Dunsfold every day, who took me to Dunsfold.  We went through the usual entrance but had to make our way around to Compass Gate where I was dropped off having avoided a significant queue of cars making their way in.  It must have been odd for somebody to turn up to a TV show about cars who can’t actually drive.

And there lies the problem.  The ticket said to turn up by 12:30pm, but you weren’t getting ferried to the studio hanger (next door to my former workplace) until at least 2pm.

View from the Top Gear audience car park, looking over the Dunsfold runway.
My old employers (brown building) sitting in front of the Top Gear hanger
Food and drink were provided, as well as “luxury” port-a-loos, but no seating other than if you came in a car. There is a LOT of waiting about to be done.
Panorama overlooking the Dunsfold airfield. Spot the abandoned bottle of Dr. Pepper. So much for littering.

We were handed some paperwork on arrival, including a wristband which had to be worn if you wanted to get into the hanger.

It took quite a bit of time to load people onto the buses.  And when you did get on them, you were nose to elbow with other people – crammed in like sardines would be an appropriate description.

Our chariot awaits!
Bus Gear!

I’ll say this about the phone/camera situation: you can put whatever wording you like in these things, people will just ignore it.  I saw more than a few sneaky people snapping away as the audience was being loaded into the studio.  I was busy looking at one of the camera operator’s clipboards containing a list of sequences to be shot.  Also was checking out what kit they used.  It’s impressive stuff.

Dos and Don’ts of being at Dunsfold for Top Gear.
A quiz!

I also noticed that there more than a few taller/bulkier people at the front of the audience than behind which made it difficult to see much – yes, I was at the back of the studio – near the fire exit and near the “machine room” where much of the VT systems reside.  Ah, it brought back memories of MPC’s VT ops.  And in fact, I’ll say that my position in the audience was most advantageous.  More on that later.

Where I was standing I generally had a good view at the camera with autocue (powered by Autoscript) that was pointing to the guest, in this case, Countryfile and ex-Blue Peter star Matt Baker.  So when that interview comes around – probably in the latter half of this year as Top Gear are ahead of schedule and it seems the BBC’s new policy follows the American system and splits a series into two halves – one now, the other later in the year.  Doctor Who is doing this – perhaps the only other BBC show still actually made by the BBC and not an independent production company.

Anyway, before ANY of this all happened, the whole thing kicked off with a warm-up man.  It’s traditional for any TV show with an audience to have one.  Except I wasn’t entirely impressed – the jokes were rather crass and crude, and a bit too laddish.  Still, he connected with the audience well enough.

After the initial warm-up, the executive producer (to this day I still do not know the exact duties of an executive producer – it’s not quite a producer, not quite a director, but somewhere in-between) Clare Pizey came on stage to explain what was happening.  Essentially they’ve already completed the first batch of episodes which are airing now, and everything that’s been shot today would feature in the second batch of episodes airing later this year.  Today was going to be a bit special as we were going to be filming one and a half episodes with two guest interviews (first Matt Baker, the second is Westworld’s James Marsden).  She went on to ask people to smile, then explained we’re going to watch some footage from Norway that is yet to be graded (it’ll look a bit rough ‘n ready).

Once Clare had finished, Matt LeBlanc was brought on and he welcomed us to the studio and gave a good intro speech.  Then it was Chris’ turn to come on, and again, he gave a good speech and then the show began in earnest.

Starting off with Matt Baker’s interview.  He turned up during the week of the Beast from the East and the conditions were such that he just skidded around the track.  So they hastily arranged a digger challenge instead.  We, the audience, watched both VTs on the lovely big displays they have in the studio.  I kept my eye on the VT and the reaction of both Matt and Chris’ face throughout – it’s likely this was the first time they’ve seen the footage too.  Some priceless reactions from Matt, I have to say.

Getting back to the interview, I was reading the autocue (yet trying to look as if I wasn’t).  Matt and Chris’ questions came up on the autocue with associated links to pictures and VT when necessary.  It was a great interview, but it was followed by a bit of surprise – they brought Matt back to perform on the test track.  It was probably what we saw being shot whilst we were waiting on the other side of Dunsfold.  If so, major kudos to the editors for compiling the footage so quickly.

The Stig, having given advice to Matt Baker, leaves for the portacabin.

There was a stop-start for members of the crew to bring in the leaderboard.  I won’t say how well or how bad Matt done.  After this, filming stopped and the unit photographer took a photo of the lads together.  It was then announced that they now needed to do a pick up over the other side of the hanger (furthest away from me).  Warm-up man came back up stage, and this is when my knees and back started to complaining that it really ought to be moving – having stood still for several hours, my body wanted to get moving.

With the horrific prospect of having to hang around for the shooting of another episode – including watching ungraded footage of an entire segment – I decided that as soon as they let us out to re-arrange the studio and bring in more cars, I’d leave and go visit my former employers next door to say hello.

While they were setting up and filming the pick up, I noticed the machine room door was open and I could see the current feed being visioned mixed in real time on a monitor there.  Certainly, I could see more from that monitor than I could from where I was standing.  Whenever a retake was needed (and there were several – mullets were involved), I saw the wide angle shot followed by medium shots, finally locking in on either Chris or Matt.

They opened the hanger doors afterwards (watching them close from the inside is nothing short of magical) and let us out.  We all spilled into the area outside, but I decided that I had seen enough – I’d come to see the hanger and see what a typical Top Gear show looked like from the PoV of the audience, and went around to meet up with my former colleagues before taking their shuttle bus back to Guildford.

So, was it a good experience?  I’d say that I wasn’t overly impressed.  Not because of the show or lack of professionalism. The floor manager was excellent as were the rest of the crew in getting things moving along as fast it can be.    There is a heck of a lot of waiting involved.  An awful lot of standing, mainly alongside and close to other people.  There is a significant number of people being bundled into a big hanger.  It is what it is.  I don’t like waiting.  I don’t like standing still.  That’s just me.  But if you’re willing to put up with it, I’d say you should go for it and get tickets.

I think I’ll just be happy watching the show (or any other TV show) on my 60″ TV at home from now on.  That said, I’m hoping that if Red Dwarf is commissioned for another series to get some tickets for that and go along to that with some chums.

Continue reading Dunsfold Park: The Lost World of Top Gear

Snowmageddon: Beast from the East

So, we had a tiny bit of snow this week. 

For the most part, it wasn’t all bad, though I did have to work from home for two days because buses went missing in Woking (well, rather they broke down) and trains weren’t directly stopping at Wimbledon and were also highly delayed.

Woking High Street, Thursday 1st March. Waiting for the bus to take me back home because none of the regular trains was running, and stopping services were highly delayed.
The naughty chair.

The worst day, however, was Friday.  I had to go in because company Windows laptops do not configure themselves.  I’d like to take this opportunity to say to Microsoft that their feature update system is just terrible.  When I got the brand new laptop on Tuesday, the first thing it did was offer the feature update.  2 hours into updating, it got stuck at 89%.  I couldn’t leave the laptop running overnight, so I had to stick it in sleep mode.

Microsoft’s Windows 10 feature update is just terrible.

I managed to get into the office on Friday – in fact, getting in was just brilliant because the schools in the area had closed and the bus and train I usually take arrived dead on time.

So I opened the laptop’s lid and after an hour, it got to 94% and that’s when I decided enough was enough and rebooted.  Then Windows Update completed failed.  Having sorted that out (which is a substantial pain in the arse), I tried again – only to encounter this:

Ruddy Windows feature update!

However, in the background, the system was preparing the 1709 feature update.   But four hours later, having got to 94% and staying there, and with South Western Railway announcing that they were shutting services early, I cancelled the whole lot.  I upgraded Windows 10 Home to Windows 10 Pro, installed all the software needed and got it to join the company domain.  That’s another thing that annoys the living heck out of me – you have to pay Microsoft at least £100 for the privilege of connecting a Windows client to a domain now.

Having set-up the laptop and got it all ready to go on the desk that it’ll be used, I left work early to try and catch a train home.  Severe delays galore.  I looked at the possibility of Ubering or Getting (Gett, an app for black taxis) home – but at around £100 – no thanks.  Eventually, a train heading to Guildford came along, so I got on that and changed at Surbiton where – luckily – a train to Alton was waiting – so I jumped on that (and got a seat!) and got back to Woking.

As I didn’t have much to eat at home, I contemplated just buying enough stuff at Marks & Spencers Food at the train station, but there just wasn’t enough there to keep things going, so I took a taxi (since my bus app that tracks the progress of buses wasn’t showing the number I regular take) all the way to the local Sainsbury’s (which I would have ordered a delivery from, except their website had nothing available until Monday due to bad weather).  I was lucky to get a taxi since many drivers weren’t available as they were staying at home due to the bad weather.

Despite the weather and reports of “panic buying”, the local Sainsburys was remarkably quiet and had plenty of food.

I managed to do my shopping and waiting for the local bus which, it turns out, was running.  Except after waiting 30 minutes, I discovered on the bus company’s website that it wasn’t able to get down the road I needed to get off.  So I Ubered a taxi (£5) which came and got me after a 15-minute wait.  While we were leaving Sainsbury’s, a car had broken down just by the roundabout and had to be pushed to one side.

Meanwhile, during the day, my former colleagues at Memset were coping pretty well with the weather: