Touch-A, Touch-A, Touch Me: MacBook 2016 Initial Impressions

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The long-awaited refresh of Apple’s MacBook Pro series has finally arrived to a mixed reception by the Mac community.  Much praise has been given to its design: the thinness and lightness compared to the previous generation, and a much brighter and more vibrant display (in which reds are fuller reds, etc.).  But much criticism is given to the keyboard – including the brand new addition: the touch bar.

First of all, the 2016 15″ MacBook Pro is a tiny bit smaller than the predecessor. Not by much, but noticeable nonetheless.  Lifting the screen is much, much easier than the previous generation – it always felt a little awkward. Thanks to re-engineered hinges, the lid is effortless and will now start the MacBook Pro without you ever having to press the power button – regardless of whether you’re cold booting or resuming from sleep.

The only ports available are all USB-C.   Any of them can be used for charging, and you’re given a generous 2m USB-C charging cable and charging brick.  I actually prefer this to the previous MacBook Pro’s charger – it’s much easier to carry around and cable is long enough for most people’s needs.  But I do confess that I miss MagSafe.  In terms of #DongleLife, it’s not been a problem.  So far I’ve had to use my Lightning to USB-C cable to pair up the wireless mouse, and a USB-A to USB-C adapter to connect a WD Passport HD to transfer data from my older computer.  Each of the USB-C ports is sturdy, and when a connector is in, it sits there firmly plugged in.  That said, be careful of placing any drinks nearby – I nearly spilt a cup of something when pulling out the USB-A adapter this morning.

They keyboard. I thought I would hate it having tried out the MacBook earlier this year (when I was waiting to replace my iPad Pro bricked by Apple releasing dodgy firmware), but the keyboard on the MacBook Pro 2016 model is lovely.  I love typing on this thing.  The closest I can describe it is that it feels like a combination of the Apple’s wireless keyboard crossed with the iPad Pro smart keyboard cover.  Trust me when I say it’s better than it sounds.  Speaking of sounds, this keyboard is much noisier than previous generations, but it feels satisfying. Imagine you had a room full of 2016 MacBook Pros, and everything was typing at once – now imagine the olden days of newsrooms and typewriters – that’s probably what it would sound like.

The Touch Bar.  It’s nice and useful.  But I’d like to see Apple’s haptic engine paired up with it to get feedback from key presses.  The surface is smooth and glossy, but you don’t get any touch feedback from it.  I can see Apple extended this to the keyboard in general – I imagine one day we’ll see MacBook Pro’s that use keyboards that are essentially a full-size Touch Bar with haptic feedback.  It’d feel like you were typing on the current 2016 MBP keyboard, but it’d essentially be virtual.  This would mean that ANY key could be remapped or changed to suit particular applications – imagine having a whole keyboard dedicated to Final Cut Pro X functions, etc.  I reckon Apple are preparing us for that very thing.  But in the mean time, the Touch Bar DOES give the user a much more usable set of functions that replace the ancient function key row.

The Escape Key.  As a systems administrator, I use the escape key a lot more than most people.  I find it a very odd experience when editing files in vim having to press something that doesn’t give me touch feedback when pressed.  But it works, and I haven’t made any mistakes using it yet.  It will take a bit of getting used to.

I’d like Apple to produce a wireless keyboard that matches the experience of the MacBook Pro 2016.  Not just key travel, but also the Touch Bar.  How you’d do that on a wireless model without exhausting the batteries is another matter – but once you’ve gone to the MBP 2016 keyboard, you won’t want to go back – unless you absolutely hate it – these things are a deeply personal preference, and I’m a very fussy keyboard user.  Thankfully the current Apple wireless keyboard is close enough that I won’t pine for the MacBook Pro keyboard while I’m working at the desk.

I’ve not given the CPU or GPU much of a workout, but I have discovered a few issues:

  • Graphics glitches.  I can confirm that they do exist (I have the 2Gb Radeon Pro 450 – the lowest end model).  Fortunately for the moment it seems to manifest during the post-boot login screen and soon go away once fully booted into MacOS Sierra.  I’m convinced these are just driver / OS issues rather than the hardware – I’ve seen similar issues with my work MacBook Air over a few versions of OS X and it seems to be something that just happens. As these MacBook Pros now use the Skylake architecture, remember what I said about the Dell XPS and display issues?
  • System Integrity Protection was disabled out the box.  On a Mac, the SIP is an important component that helps protect the system from being abused by all manner of nasties.  All new Macs should ship with it switched on, but there have been many reports that new 2016 MacBook Pros ship with it disabled – but equally many reports with it being enabled.  Why?  Only Apple knows.  But it’s easy to enable it – boot into recovery mode, open up a Terminal and type csrutil enable. Then reboot.  

I should mention the Touch ID fingerprint sensor.  It makes the Mac a little more pleasurable to use when waking from sleep,  accessing my 1Password password manager, or installing new applications.  Works just like it does on an iPhone or iPad.  iOS convergence is here!

Apple Pay is now supported, but don’t do what I do.  Given what I’ve just said about System Integrity Protection – make sure it’s enabled before adding ANY credit or debit cards to your MacBook Pro’s Apple Pay wallet.  Having done this and discovering SIP was disabled, I enabled it, only to discover that wiped out all previous cards added to the system – because it’ll think these were added by another user.  I can’t be bothered adding them back in because it will involve another phone call to the banks.

I did give the MacBook Pro the obligatory graphics and GPU performance test: Team Fortress 2.  It detected a stronger GPU over the previous generation MacBook Pro and gameplay was excellent – with the fans barely kicking in.  When they did, the fans on this unit are spectacularly quiet.  TF2 is not a graphics intensive game, but then again I wouldn’t want to run a super modern, highly graphics intensive game on this thing – it’s not meant as a gaming machine.  This is why I have a games console.  The discreet GPU on this thing is there to help along creative tasks performed with Photoshop, Final Cut Pro, and so on.

Overall, I’m really pleased with the 2016 MacBook Pro.  Once Apple gets around to releasing bug fixes for the graphics and a fix for the SIP (not a lot of people will want to fix it themselves), this will be a perfectly decent workhorse for many years to come (just as well given the cost).

My next MacBook Pro upgrade will come a few Intel CPU generations later – whatever one supports mobile hexacore CPUs (I reckon mid-2019 or thereabouts).  By then we should be able to upgrade RAM above 16Gb without affecting battery performance and see true hardcore mobile performance in the kind of form that Apple users expect.  But for now, this Skylake beauty is perfectly good enough for my current and immediate future needs.

Dongle Time!

As us UK folk are in a period of uncertain financial stability thanks to a certain referendum, I have decided to make one last major purchase for the next few years – at least until we’ve got out the EU (not my decision, but I respect it) and things are ticking along again.  I am buying the new Touch Bar MacBook Pro.

I’m sure I am going to get a very good price for my current MacBook Pro, especially as it has all the ports that everybody’s been having a go at Apple for removing on the new models.  While I’ve already said it’s a buyer’s market – the same can be said for anybody with a reasonably recent MacBook Pro to sell. Some people just hate dongles and adapters.

I’ve pretty much gone wireless.  Wireless headphones, wireless mouse, wireless keyboard (at work) and so on.  It’s only the Drobo and WD Passport external hard drives that I need to connect on the odd occasion.  They use USB-A type connections.

With that in mind, I’ve ordered a couple of USB-C to USB-A adapters along with a USB-C to Lightning cable (for hooking the iPhone and iPad to the Mac) and a Sandisk USB-C SD card reader, directly from Apple.  So imagine my annoyance when Apple – faced with substantial criticism over using only USB-C ports on the new MacBook Pro range – decided today to slash the prices of all of those things – some quite substantially.

More dongles than there are stars in heaven!
More dongles than there are stars in heaven!

But, thankfully, Apple has a very quick and easy way to get hold of somebody online and I’ve confirmed with them that they’ll be reaching out to those of us that have already placed orders:

Elyse:
Customers who purchased eligible accessories between Oct. 27 and Nov. 4 may be eligible for a reimbursement of the difference between the old and new prices. We will reach out to online store customers over the next week to offer them a credit.

So for those people, like me, who have prepared themselves for serious dongling (until hardware manufacturers get around to changing over to USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 generation 2), there’s nothing to do.  Apple will fix it.

This new machine has got to last 3 – 4 years.  No interim upgrades.  No changing of minds.  This is absolutely going to be my daily driver for everything.  So let’s Apple have done a good job with it.

The new MacBook Pro – dongles galore!

Having had some time to digest yesterday’s Apple event regarding the new MacBook Pros, I’ve to conclusion that Apple have gone completely stone bonkers in a good and bad way.  Let me explain.

The Good – USB-C

USB-C is the future.  It’s a reversible connector that can handle up to 10Gbs throughput through the USB 3.1 specification.  When you add Thunderbolt support to that, the throughput can reach up to 40Gbs.   The old USB-A ports have gone, and you now have FOUR USB-C ports. Additionally they can be used as DisplayPorts (for connecting to monitors), and also to charge the machine.   Which is fantastic, since you can now charge on either side of the machine.

The Bad – USB-C

USB-C devices are a bit thin on the ground, but more are coming.  The really silly thing is that the iPhone 7/7 Plus comes with a USB-A to Lightning port cable.  This means if you want to charge or connect your iPhone to your new MacBook Pro, you’ve got to buy an adaptor.  Remember: the iPhone 7 was released in September.  So Apple knew these changes were coming and did nothing to ensure that iPhone users who would want to buy it are looked after.

This is going to lead to a lot of more adaptors hanging off those USB-C ports until the tech industry starts standardising on USB-C connectors.  That will take a good few years to come to fully come to fruition.  So accessory makers are going to sell loads and loads of dongles in the mean time.

Speaking of charging through USB-C – this does mean that the supplied charger will not feature one of the most popular features of the MacBook/MacBook Pro lines – the Magsafe connector.  This means that the power connector is anchored into place with magnetics.  If something (or somebody) trips over the power cord – the power lead is pulled out safely, without taking the entire laptop with it.  So people are going to have to be a lot more careful about where and how they charge the new MacBook Pro.

The Good – The Touchpad

It’s a LOT bigger.

The Bad – The Touchpad

This means the keyboard is smaller.  Apple have used the second generation keyboard from the refreshed MacBook.  When I had a chance to play with it earlier this year waiting for Apple to replace the bricked iPad Pro, I have to say I didn’t like it.  The key travel felt as if you’re simply typing on a virtual keyboard. But apparently this 2nd gen version is meant to be better.  We’ll see how people take to it.

The Good – The Touch Bar

Perhaps the most radical change to the MacBook Pro range is the Touch Bar.  This is a vertical OLED touch-sensitive strip that sits above the number keys of the keyboard.  It can be made to display keys, images and a lot more.  It also holds the Touch ID sensor which means that you can unlock the Mac with your fingerprint (rather than password – I assume that maybe users will be allowed to do both for extra security) and pay for stuff with Apple Pay.  It also serves as the power button.  The Touch Bar itself will adapt to individual applications.  If you’re using Final Cut Pro to edit a video, the Touch Bar will display the timeline which you can use to “scrub” through video, and so on.

The Bad – The Touch Bar

No physical “Escape” key.  An engineer’s friend, the “escape” key is used heavily in coding and for us sysadmins, accessing serial consoles.  Apparently there are specific Touch Bar keys that will come into play when Terminal is being used.

The Good – The Display

Better colour gamut means that photos and videos will look much more vibrant than before.  Additionally the bevel has been reduced considerably, making for a smaller device.

The Bad – The Display

No changes to the resolutions supported.  Not necessarily a bad thing, but it’d have been nice to see Apple up the max resolution to UHD/4K and scale it down appropriately for the 13″ and 15″ display.  Apple are THE best when it comes to scaling higher resolutions, and was the reason for me going back to the Mac.

The Good – Everything Else

For the 15″ MacBook Pro, Apple has jumped two generations of Intel processors from Broadwell to Skylake, bumped up RAM speed, and given almost 2-3x performance boost to the SSDs.  This was a long time coming, and is most welcome.  While Kaby Lake chipsets/processors are now available, I doubt we’ll see those in MacBook Pros until mid-late 2017.

The 13″ MacBook Pro comes with the Intel Iris 550 graphics, which based on my experience of the 540 on the Dell XPS 13 is excellent.  I wouldn’t rely on it to play the super latest games, but it sure as heck gets things done.  For the 15″ MacBook Pros, you get the Intel Iris graphics along with the AMD Radeon Pro 450 or 460 – the next generation of Radeon graphics.  Very worthy inclusion.

The Bad – Everything Else

The price.  Oh dear Gods, the price.  A fully tricked out 15″ MacBook Pro will cost you over £4,000.  Apple has raised the prices and aligned them to the weak pound, so you’re definitely going to be smacked in the face if you’re going to go for one of these things.  But as with most high end laptops, this is something that’s going to last for a good three to four years.  I love Apple for their ability to create computers that actually last that long – often without ever needing repair.

The Good – Selling & buying a Mac

Now is the perfect time to pick up a second hand Mac.  As people sell their Macs to get the next generation, you’ll often be able to pick up a bargain.  Definitely a buyer’s market right now.

Game of Phones: Apple iPhone 7 Plus is out, Google Pixel is in

A while back I posted something (now deleted) about the new Google Pixel XL going too much in the direction of Apple.  Then I thought about things for a bit. With Microsoft having now firmly established themselves in the hardware sector with their Surface range of laptops (and now desktop PCs), it seems that the major players in the tech industry have effectively decided that yes, doing an Apple – designing both hardware and software – is the most efficient thing to do.

I initially wrote off the Google Pixel and Pixel XL as Google aping Apple.  Similar design, similar principals.  The user would get the latest and greatest feature updates and timely security updates as Google designed both the software and hardware themselves.  I was concerned that Google would not look favourably to other flagship Android manufacturers as a result, and Android – as an ecosystem – would become insular.  I was concerned because my experience of the Samsung Galaxy Note 7 was the best thing I ever had with an Android phone.  The Galaxy S7 Edge was nice, but felt super bulky and – dare I say it – almost cartoony alongside it.  The Note 7 was slim, had a beautiful screen and screen layout, packed full of features .. and the potential to explode at any time.

So my reaction to that was to go back to Apple.  Apple is safe.  Apple is good.  But the thing is, Apple just isn’t as good as they used to be.   They occasionally come up with some products that are truly excellent (their Beats Solo 3 wireless headphones are the bees knees, for example – the battery life of that thing is incredible), but I’ve notice that over the past couple of years, more and more bugs and other issues have crept into their products which has put a bit of a downer on things.

It’s expected that new MacBooks and MacBook Pros will be announced today, and given leaks from the MacOS system itself, it appears there will be a lack of a physical “escape” key.  As a sysadmin/engineer, the “escape” key is one of the most important keys on a keyboard.  I spend a great deal of time on serial consoles which require a combination of ‘escape’ key combinations to diagnose and bring servers online.  If Apple does take away the ‘escape’ key – or turn into a virtual key through the much rumour OLED touch bar – this is going to be a problem.  I am super glad that my return to the Mac is with a design that has served Apple very well for the past 8 years or so.  I shall let others figure out whether the new design is going to work out or not.

The iPhone 7 Plus is good all round pocket computer.  But it’s not great.  The CPU is the fastest in the industry as demonstrated many times over.  The optical zoom is a nice feature to have, but I find that iPhone 7 Plus photos are too soft and looking at images at 100% resolution yield too soft (almost paint-like) qualities to it in comparison to something like the Samsung Galaxy lines.  But my biggest bugbear with the iPhone 7 Plus has been the cellular capabilities.  With the Samsung phones, the reliability of 3G/4G has been superb.  Handover between Wi-Fi and cellular and back again – no problem.  iPhone 7 Plus with iOS 10 – many problems.  Many are blaming Apple’s use of Intel modems for this (whereas with the iPhone 6/6S phones, Apple used Qualcomm).

So I’ve made one more exchange.  I’ve turned my SIM only contract into an phone contract and gone for the Google Pixel XL.  The iPhone is going.  The brief time I’ve had with the Pixel XL has sold me that even if it took Google just 9 months to get this thing out, it’s still done a better job than Apple has with the iPhone 7/7 Plus.  With the Google Pixel XL, cellular connectivity is spot on, the raw Android OS does everything I want of it, and the camera is just superb – lens flare issues or not (again, bringing up the concept of improving imagery with smaller sensors using computational photography – Photoshop before you Photoshop so to speak).

I can live without iMessage and the recent update that allows people to place stickers and animated GIFs all over the shop.  I hate it, to be honest.  There’s a lot of UI associated with that I’d rather see gone.  I can live without iCloud Photo Library.  Google’s Pixel provides unlimited free storage for photos and videos shot/taken on the Pixel, and given that I can backup my entire Google Account through the use of Spanning Backup – no problem!  I’m also a lot more confident of Google’s cloud infrastructure than I am of Apple’s.

Google is definitely aiming to get iPhone users to convert, and I think they’ve done a pretty ruddy good job here.  Given that a lot of my personal workflow goes through Google’s G-Suite for Business, it makes more sense for me to use a device running Android that can make the best use of it.  The problem in the past has been that Android was never completely there for me.  It is now.  And having Google take the lead over other Android flagships gives me a major advantage.  Perhaps now Samsung and Co. will do more to ensure they get out security and feature updates to their Android phones faster.  My initial analysis was wrong – Google is showing others how Android should be done.  And long may it continue.

But Martyn, you may ask yourself, what about the iPhone 8 (or whatever they’re going to call it) next year?  Well, next year is next year.  Providing Google continue to roll out updates, and providing they’re committed to Android and Pixel, I think I’ll be a proper Android convert for a very, very long time.

Where do we go from here?  The next big thing in IT that’s going to shake things up a bit: artificial intelligence.  There’ll be a blog post on that soon.

P.S. – no, definitely no more phone swaps for me for at least a year (and if I do, it’ll be through the phone contract).  I’m keeping the iPad because I’ve still yet to see an Android tablet that renders books, newspapers and magazines as well.

When mobile phones outsmart DSLRs

I’ve always enjoyed taking photographs and have owned a number of standalone cameras in my time.  I never enjoyed 35mm film cameras because of the fiddly nature of spooling the film into the camera, so was very happy when I got my first ever digital camera way back in the year 2000.  It was a Sony Cybershot.  It was a big clunky camera.  My most recent was another Sony Cybershot (the well received RX100 MkIII).  Tiny thing.  But I’ve just sold that.

Why?

I’ve come to realise that I just don’t like carrying around two devices that now do the same thing.  In fact, the device that’s replacing it does more – it can automatically tag photos with location data which makes it much easier to identify where a photo was taken.

So..

I’m buying a Samsung Galaxy Note 7.  I already own the Galaxy S7 Edge (which will be sold to make up the shortfall when the Note 7 arrives), and both devices share the same camera optics.  The S7 Edge has taken some of the most impressive photographs I’ve seen from a camera phone to date.  It uses dual pixel technology as found in the Canon 70D camera (which has only just found its way into the new and pricey Canon 5D Mark IV) which means super fast auto focus.  It behaves extraordinary well in low light situations.  In Pro mode, one can generate RAW files.  In short – you’ve got professional camera features in a mobile telephone.

Let them eat cake - photo taken with Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge (full auto) - click image for full size
Let them eat cake – photo taken with Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge (full auto) – click image for full size

But why the Note 7 in particular when the S7 Edge and Note 7 share such similar specifications?  The first is the S-Pen.  Steve Jobs has always dismissed styluses for phones, but the Note 7 is more than that.  With the Note 7, you can write directly on the screen when the phone isn’t in use and save them.  As I’m always taking down notes, this is going to be a much-used feature.  The second is the curved screen isn’t pronounced.  My biggest problems with the S7 Edge is that I whenever I grip the sides, it results in accidental app launches and whatnot if the phone is unlocked.  Then there’s the slightly larger size over the S7 Edge (a whole .2 inches).  I have large hands, therefore a larger phone suits me better.  Then there is the refined user interface, the iris scanner (though as I wear glasses, I don’t think I’ll get much use of that feature).  The Note 7 is the first Samsung phone to incorporate blue light reduction which I find very useful before heading off to sleep.

I have made the decision to stick with the Samsung Galaxy Note series for future mobile phone tech.  Samsung has taken the lead over Apple (who are currently embroiled in the iPhone 6/6 Plus “touch disease” fiasco).  In particular, I trust Google’s services far more over Apple’s (especially given I have a proper SLA with Google for Google Apps for Work – no such SLA exist with any of Apple’s online services;  I fear that one day,  as Apple integrates its online services even more tightly into MacOS and iOS, they will seriously muck it up, leaving vulnerable Apple users with lost data).  I’m also with Intel in saying that if you’re going to go down a fully digital audio route for headphones and the ilk, USB-C is a better medium than Apple’s own ecosystem.

All these features within a single unit that I carry about every single day and hardly leaves my side.  It’s strange to think how far mobile phone technology has become.  The S7 Edge/Note 7 processors contain neural net technology for crying out loud!  It is a computer, it is a phone, it is a compass, it is a satnav, it is a pro camera.  It’s no wonder why mobile phones have become so popular.