Game of Phones part.. oh, I’ve lost track now.. and the big screen experience at home

September is traditionally the time in which the two biggest players in the smartphone market release (or at least announce) their newest flagship phones to the masses.

Apple is due to announce the new iPhone 8 range of phones on September 12th, whereas Samsung is releasing the new Galaxy Note 8 a few days later.  Over the past couple of years, I’ve really struggled to move to Android and have always returned to iOS.  When I got the Galaxy Note 7, I absolutely loved that phone, but the whole battery/recall situation was unpleasant enough (which also took me to the Galaxy S7 Edge and Google Pixel XL) that I just bit the bullet and went back to an iPhone.  Earlier this year I had a brief encounter with the Galaxy S8+, but one of my most valued (and most used) applications kept crashing under Android and that forced me back to the iPhone – again.

Right now I’m thinking the best strategy would simply to keep using the iPhone 7 Plus that I have and wait it out until later next year to see what’s happened between the Note 8 and iPhone 8.  But I really like the look of the Note 8 – it’s square shape, the S-Pen and the dual cameras (both of which feature optical image stabilisation – a first for any smartphone) all appeal.  I liked that I could jot down phone numbers or write notes when the screen was off with the Note 7.  That’s great value to me.  With the iPhone 8, I stay within the Apple ecosystem with the Apple Watch and the MacBook Pro 2017 Kaby Lake (13″).

Speaking of the MacBook Pro, I decided that, as I will be occasionally working from home with my new job (which is going great, BTW – there’s a LOT to keep me occupied) to buy myself a monitor.  I’ve been using laptops almost exclusively close to nearly 15 years, and I’d never thought about buying an external monitor to use with them.  Back at Memset, I had a single monitor (21″) that kept me going for 5 years (whereas colleagues had multiple monitors) that I hooked up to my MacBook Air.  It was okay, and as such, I felt that I didn’t really need that sort of set-up at home.  This new job, on the other hand, gives me two 21″ monitors out the box on a desktop based Ubuntu OS (it was running Windows).

So last week, having endured two weeks where I had to work at least one day per week at home due to the South Western Railway signal/Waterloo upgrade situation, I decided that what I really needed to be able to work comfortably at home with a trillion SSH sessions going on, a web browser or three, and a Slack session all running at the same time was a monitor.  I had a look at Ultra HD/4K monitors and ruled them out due to cost.  I think it may be another year or two before costs are driven down.   So I had a look at a decent 21-24″ full HD monitor that would be both cost-effective and last me for a couple of years (or more).

I looked at a Samsung curved monitor, then ruled that out as it looked too odd.  Then there was the LG 25UM58-P-25 21:9 aspect ratio ultra-wide monitor, which looks incredible, but I wondered if it would fit on my desk.  I finally settled down on a Dell 2418H InfinityEdge display from John Lewis. £200.  It’s a lovely display and comes with its own speakers (tuned by Waves Maxx Audio) that sit within the stand.  The quality of the image is fantastic.  Yes, you can see the pixels in text given that it’s only a Full HD display and the Mac is capable of driving much higher resolutions – but for my needs it’s perfectly fine (the laptop screen runs at 1600×900 and this display runs at 1980×1080 – then when you combine both screens, I have substantially more real screen estate to play with now).

I also had to buy a new dongle for the Mac because of Thunderbolt 3/USB-C ports don’t allow me to directly hook up to an external monitor without one.  I settled for a Cable Matters USB-C to 4K HDMI multiport adapter.  This also gives me a gigabit ethernet port and two USB 3 ports.  And it works brilliantly.  It also works with my Dell XPS 13 (9350) too.

Speaking of the Dell XPS 13 9350, I think it may be time to say goodbye to the only decent Windows machine I’ve used in the past year.  Dell is just about to refresh the line with the brand spanking new 8th generation Intel processors which bring quad core processing to 13″ notebooks for the very first time.  So if anybody is looking out for a very good Windows laptop with 16Gb RAM and 1Tb SSD, and still carries an on-site warranty until 2019 – please get in touch (details in the About Martyn page – link on the left).

You don’t need ransomware to make me WannaCry about Windows..

Windows Servers.  What a load of old tosh.  The past three weeks or so have seen me tinkering unnecessarily with the blasted things because of Microsoft’s inability to write an operating system which is so super sensitive to hardware changes – principally because of licensing – that just by upgrading underlying virtualisation software triggers the operating system to think it has a new network card.  You can imagine the chaos something like that can cause!

It’s not just that which makes me despise Windows Server.  For similar reasons, if a dedicated server chassis dies and needs to be swapped out – you’d better have a spare because any hardware changes will cause Windows to freak out.  Linux has no problem with such things providing you’re using a modern distribution and reasonably up to date hardware.  Generally speaking, with maybe a very few exceptions, Linux Just Works(tm).

Don’t get me started on those people that are still running the now 15 year old Windows 2003.. (though this article about Fasthosts running Windows 2003 for their backup platform made me laugh a lot more than it should – and bury my hands in my face for leaving an obsolete OS in charge of managing critical customer backups).

The whole WCry situation around these parts has been, strangely, pretty good – indeed, a lot more people have taken an interest in their backups and patching their systems and this is only to be commended.  A good old major outbreak tends to kick people in the teeth and get them thinking about disaster recovery.

Just because I use MacOS and Linux isn’t making me complacent – oh no.  Very recently Apple just released updates to iOS, MacOS and WatchOS to fix a rather nasty exploit, as well as general performance updates.  It’s one of the reasons I went back to iOS – Apple has become very good at rolling out updates much faster and on schedule than the likes of Samsung.

The server on which this blog runs on utilises something called KernelCare which patches the kernel in real time for newly discovered exploits.  This has the advantage of:

  1. Not having to wait for the OS vendor to release a patch.
  2. You don’t have to reboot the machine.

In my testing of KernelCare, it has worked very well.  If you’re using it in a VPS, it must support full virtualisation – paravirtualisation won’t cut it.

Meanwhile, Microsoft should stick to producing office productivity software and gaming (Xbox One) – it’s what they’re good at.  I’ve completely lost faith in their desktop and server operating system divisions.

(UK readers) Get Office 365 Home for 5 users for just £50

An annual subscription to Microsoft’s Office 365 service for 5 PCs/Macs that gives you the complete Office 2016 Home suite (Word, Excel, Powerpoint, Access and Outlook) usually costs £79 (inc VAT).

But for a very limited time, you can purchase a full year’s subscription up front for just £49.98 (saving £30) through Amazon.co.uk.

I’ve just bought one, and it’s extended my subscription under December next year, when it’ll revert back to monthly billing,

(First spotted at Windows Central)

Back to the Windows (Future): Part Two

Settling in reasonably well with Windows 10.  Next month we’ll all be getting the Anniversary Update which will make some changes to the Start menu (which I think is for the better based on my experience from the preview builds I’ve been testing with at work) as well as a few other bits and bobs.

Windows as a Service (WaaS) is the way forward.  There will no Windows 11.  And depending on how technically adventurous you are, you can switch to using Insider Builds which provide you with the latest and greatest new features and bug fixes before they’re unleashed on the public.  Even so, I still stick with the regular builds at home.  I only use the Insider Builds on virtual machines that I run at work.

One thing that had been bugging me over the past couple of weeks was finding a local backup utility to store copies of my files on my local NAS (network attached storage), a WD MyCloud (6Tb) which sits on my gigabit switch hooked up to the Sky Q Hub.  I tried Crashplan which also backs up to its own servers, but found it to be too slow (and Crashplan’s high-resolution support isn’t great).  I also tried Acronis TrueImage 2016, but found that to be far too slow as well – and found that it didn’t recover very well if the backup was interrupted – the UI froze a lot.

I then remembered that I had a product I used way back when I was using Windows before the great migration to the Mac, SyncBack Pro.  But, alas, it has the worst high-resolution display support of any of the backup products and I have to remove it.  I mentioned this to the developers who told me I could create a file that would help improve that – but I’d have to re-create it with each new update.  Why this couldn’t be handled via the UI I don’t know.  So I gave up on that one.

It turns out that I had the solution under my nose all the time!  Kaspersky’s Total Security 2016.  I bought a multiple device license – one for my Android device and the other for the Windows desktop.  It’s very good indeed and I hadn’t realised that it comes with a backup/restore function.  So I’ve been backing up to the NAS using something I had.

For online backups I still use Backblaze.  Provides unlimited backups, but versioning only up to 30 days.  So if you delete a file and try to retrieve it after 30 days, you’ll probably be out of luck.  Hence the local backups.  I’d have preferred to use Crashplan which allows for unlimited versioning across any number of days, weeks and months, but as I’ve said, the main thing that’s holding me back is the lack of high-resolution display support.

I do hope Microsoft consider doing more work to improve high-resolution display scaling.  If Apple can do it successfully with OS X (or MacOS as it will be called), I can’t see why Microsoft can’t.  It’s time to ditch legacy and look to the future of Windows.  It can’t be too longer before 5K monitors and beyond will be the norm.  Windows  need to be ready for this along with all Windows developers.

Meanwhile, I’m selling my Xbox One in preparation for the Xbox One S.  Ultra HD Blu Ray support PLUS the ability to game (stream to a PC) and PC integration (controller can be used with a PC for gaming via Bluetooth) for less than £350?  Yes please.  The Xbox One (S) is effectively running its own version of Windows 10, so that’ll be getting the Anniversary Update too.

Dell XPS 13 – the Apple of the Windows world

Stage 2 of Operation Bye Bye Apple Pie is in progress.

My replacement for the two-year-old MacBook Pro arrived yesterday.  Having owned a Dell desktop for around three years before switching to the Mac platform, I know just how reliable and well built Dell PCs are.  Indeed – I gave the old Pentium 4 Dell desktop to my in-laws, and it lasted them two-three years with just a graphics card and hard drive replacement required to get it working again after a year of heavy use.

I chose a Dell XPS 13.  It has a 13″ screen but within a 12″ body.  If you thought Apple were the only ones making well-made laptops, think again.  This thing has what is called an “infinity display” – the screen’s bezels are extremely thin., giving you more screen for your buck.  The keyboard closely resembles a MacBook Pro – chicklet keys that are satisfying to type on (albeit now with a Windows layout and the @ and £ symbols moved around a bit).

The system comes with 16Gb RAM, 1Tb  NVe PCIe SSD and Windows 10.  I chose to upgrade to Windows 10 Pro because the ability to generate, host and muck about with Hyper-V virtual machines are extremely useful for work related purposes.  I shall just tap my nose at this point – all will be revealed later.  The most important feature of Windows 10 Pro is the Bitlocker filesystem encryption.  With the Mac you’re rather spoilt with FileVault, so it makes sense to do the same thing with WIndows.  Speaking of the Mac, FileVault has given me quite a bit of jip over the years – see my articles on fixing FileVault on new Macbooks and CoreStorage jiggery-pokery – which will probably make all this look tame when Apple moves to their brand new filesystem, Apple FIle System (or APFS) with MacOS Sierra.  I doubt Microsoft will ever move away from NTFS / BitLocker for quite some time.  I’ve enabled BitLocker and it’s roughly 38% through encrypting the drive.

The SSD itself is a thing of beauty.  I’d always been wary of using SSDs with Windows because for the longest time there was never much in the way of “TRIM” support.  Trim helps manage the areas of the SSD where data has been written and erased.  Over time, the SSDs cells will eventually wear out (despite not having any physical moving parts).  Trimming will help manage the cells and remap where necessary.  A typical SSD should last around 5 years or more even with constant use (constant use being something like writing over 100Gb a day to the drive).  As this Dell uses Intel’s Skylake processor range, it also supports the latest chipset revisions.  It supports the SSD optimised management system called NVMe, an architecture designed around SSDs.  The internal Samsung SSD fully supports it.  From boot to use, Windows 10 Pro is ready to be used within 10 seconds.

The display is a touch screen, super high-resolution beast.  Like the iPad Pro, the screen suffers from a lack of support from developers.  Anything that doesn’t support resolution independence will look a bit blurry and rubbish.  On the other hand, applications such as Adobe Bridge are absolutely hideous – the screen is so small you’ll need to look at it through a magnifying glass.  I’m happy to report, however, that Adobe Photoshop is just fine.

The touch screen makes extensive use of Windows 10 tiles and touch facilities.  You could potentially use this laptop like a tablet – although the screen is firmly attached to the unit and you can’t twist the screen around.  It puts it in the same category as Dell’s excellent Chromebook range (albeit this XPS has a much better display).  It’s rather odd touching the Start menu with your fingers and not your mouse.

My biggest bugbear so far is that while Microsoft provides an OS X-like Preview app for viewing multiple images in separate windows, the Windows 10 Photos app adds all manner of guff to each window which you can’t get rid of.  If you just wanted to look at a photo by itself without the headers or toolbars – tough luck.  But you can, through a registry hack, bring back an older image app called Windows Photo Viewer.  This is much better – it’s easy to resize images through scrolling, resize the windows, etc.  I’ve tried looking for third-party applications that can do this – just in case Microsoft does something silly with Windows Photo Viewer – but nothing comes close to it in functionality.  I have yet to try Adobe Lightroom, however.

Overall, my experience with Windows 10 – my first proper experience with Windows 10 not involving running it in a virtual environment/lab – has been a good one.  But I’m not done there – I still have ti move over my photos and manage them as well as iTunes.  While the iTunes thing is more or less done through Google Play Music now, I’d still like to keep the physical files that I own on the SSD and access them through some form of desktop player.  Microsoft’s Groove player, maybe?  We’ll see.

This weekend I will be waving a sad goodbye to my MacBook Pro.  It was fun.  But it was two generations behind and, as I’ve said, I don’t have much faith in Apple going forward.  Besides, this new machine has cost me far less than what I originally paid for two years ago, has on site warranty for three years, and offers greater tinkering possibilities.  It also fits in with what I do at work, and – finally – who doesn’t like a change once in a while?  I had been stuck in Apple’s complete ecosystem for far too long.