The Google Pixel 2 XL: Great phone, brilliant camera!

I’m continuing to enjoy using my Google Pixel 2 XL phone.  It is quite the beast.  I love almost everything about it – including Android.  Took me a few days to get used to how Android deals with things, but one the adjustment period is over – it comes naturally.  I do still kind of miss having a front fingerprint scanner – I do keep putting my finger over the camera flash from time to time, but I’m sure muscle memory will eventually kick in.

But what I really love about this phone is the camera.  It truly is best in class despite only having a single lens.  Google’s computational photography outdoes Apple considerably.  The Google Photos service is also a remarkable thing – far better in many ways than iCloud Photo Library – though I do wish Google would maintain up-to-date support for the latest camera RAW formats as my Sony RX100 mark V isn’t supported and I can’t upload my RAW images.  Otherwise, Google Photos for me has been the best experience in managing and organising photos since the Apple Photos app.  I can download the whole lot via Google Takeaway – though I’d also appreciate some form of API so that I can plug in another cloud service (thinking Backblaze B2) to back up all photos on the fly.  One cannot escape the cloud these days!

Taken at Surbiton Station with a Google Pixel 2 XL.
Pizza time at work. Taken with Google Pixel 2 XL. Note that at 100% crop, you can read the Samsung logo on the TV clearly. With Apple, this would be like am expressionist painting.

The photos are good enough, IMHO, to leave the proper camera at home.  I’m very happy with the quality that Google brings to the table.  When the Pixel 3 XL comes out, I’m sure it’ll be even better.

Interestingly enough, I’ve been going through my photos that are now stored in Google Photos and it’s interesting to note that after the iPhone 6S, the (mainly Samsung) Android phones that I have had produced much better imagery than the iPhone 7, iPhone 7S and even the iPhone X!  At least to my eye.  There’s something that Apple did from the iPhone 6S onwards that seems to have resulted in “painting like” imagery when cropped at 100%.

Getting back to the phone itself, customising ringtones is dead simple to do on this phone – unlike iOS where you have to jump through a number of loops beforehand.  I also really like notifications – though a bit in-your-face at first, they are highly customisable and I like that one can easily copy codes from SMSes or reply/acknowledge direct from the notification centre.

Google really make use of the bigger screen resolution to fit more icons on, and this also means that apps such as Authy allow me to cram as many 2FA sites on there than I could with the iPhone X.

Apple Music on Android is a bit of a pain, however.  It can often just open, sitting there with a blank screen until I click the pull-down menu and fuss about with it.  Then there is the issue that it doesn’t seem to recognise purchased content which IS still available in the UK iTune store and is also downloaded to the phone:

Apple Music – 3 years later, and being a pain in the arse on a different platform.,

Apple still has much to learn about co-operating with other platforms.

I regret nothing switching to the Pixel 2 XL.  Bring on the Pixel 3 XL later this year.  Unless Apple really pull something out their sleeve…

How many viewing cards does it take to determine a Sky Q box has died?

Two.

My Sky Q box has given up the ghost.  It is an ex-Sky Q box.  It has gone to Silicon Heaven.  Or at least I think it has.  Maybe it’s merely pining for decent TV programming.  Whatever has happened, I need a Sky engineer to come out.

I came home from work last week to the message that I needed to insert a valid viewing card into the box.  There was a valid viewing card in the box.  I took it out and put it in several times.  I gave the box a reboot or twelve.  But no, it wasn’t having it.  Having gone through Sky’s horrendous automatic telephone service (which make me very angry), I was put through to an operator who took me through all the steps I’ve already been through and we came to the conclusion it may be the viewing card.  So a new card was dispatched via Special Delivery and arrived on Saturday last week.

ALAS!

It did not work.  The Sky Q box doesn’t want to know.  The big problem is that without a valid viewing card, one cannot view any recordings or watch anything outside of the main terrestrial channels.  But Westworld and Last Week Tonight with John Oliver was going to be on – as well as having to catch up with Britain’s Got Talent semi-finals and the final itself!  I had to catch up!  But how?

So the first thing I did was to call Sky and tell them that the new viewing card did not work.  After a while, it was decided an engineer has to come out.  What day of the working week would I like?  None of them.  I work.  Sky charges for weekend visits.  I said I wasn’t particularly keen on their policy, given that it’s just me living here.  Thankfully the operator was kind enough to waive the charge in this instance and also processed a credit for the time that I’d be without Sky Q.

Will Sky Q be available this weekend?  Only time will tell.  In the meantime, I’ve taken out a month’s worth of NOW TV Entertainment package (I do wish Sky would offer a free week/month  for folk who have smart TVs or smart dongles/boxes that offer NOW TV)  as a backup.  I was able to watch Westworld and John Oliver and all sorts just fine on my Apple TV.  I took out a free trial of ITV Hub+ to catch up on Britain’s Got Talent and all is well.  Channel 4, however, still have not got a tvOS app for All 4.  As a public broadcaster, this is inexcusable.  If the BBC can put iPlayer on as many platforms as wide as possible, so can Channel 4.

Escaping Apple’s Luxury Prison part 443,211: Google Pixel 2 XL and Fitbit Versa

So, this happened:

Great Googly moogly..

The biggest problem with Apple’s ecosystem (aka the luxury prison) is that it doesn’t tend to work well with others.  I’ve been scratching my head over how to integrate iCloud Photo Library with Windows properly, but it is slow and a pain in the arse to use under Windows.  I don’t want to use iTunes to connect my phone to the computer – a straightforward USB to use-as-a-disk is fine.  The iPhone X did not let me do that.

The Google Pixel 2 XL has been receiving many rave reviews over the past few months.  It’s stock Android which means that there is no bloat from the phone manufacturer or telecoms company, and it receives the very latest security updates ASAP as well as the latest feature updates too.  And you know where you stand with their update policy – this phone is supported up until late 2020.  Apple seems to keep moving things forwards and backwards and forwards with their support lifecycle for various products.

Now, I picked up my Google Pixel 2 XL at a bargain price.  Carphone Warehouse had knocked off a good £170 off the RRP, so I decided to go with them.  I also bought a Google Home Mini to replace the Apple Homepod.  I’ve got to say, Google has absolutely nailed it with the home assistant.  Not only is she responsive, but the response is natural and quick.  For example, when I ask how best to get to Woking, she tells me the correct bus number to take, when the next bus is, and the nearest stop.  And as it integrates with various smart related technologies around the home, it Just Works(TM).  I always found the Apple HomeKit system to be far too overly complex to operate.  The UI is a mess, and Siri has to think about things before responding.

The Pixel 2 XL itself is great.  The images it takes are the sharpest of any smartphone I’ve ever used, and even some compact cameras.

Everything’s peachy with the Google Pixel 2 XL camera
Dog keeping me company while I eat a ham sandwich.

The device is larger than the iPhone X, and also offers a greater number of app icons to be shown on screen at once.  All apps I’ve had on the iPhone are available under Android.  It took about 2 hours to transfer everything and set-up the phone as new (never trusted these transfer processes).  Instead of Apple Pay, there is now Google Pay.   Again, same support from the banks and credit card companies.

Gone is Face ID and replaced with a fingerprint scanner again.  This time around the back.  Its placement feels natural enough and makes looking at the phone at 3am in the morning much easier than trying to get Face ID to recognise you with your face against the pillow.

Another change Apple made without telling anybody is Wi-Fi calling.  Thanks to the hoo-hah over batterygate and Apple slowing down older phones whose battery is wearing out, they made a change to Wi-Fi Calling which meant that Wi-Fi Calling on iPhones will use cellular if it’s strong enough and fallback to Wi-Fi Calling if not.  There is no way of overriding this.  On the Google Pixel 2 XL, this works full time if you’re connected to a Wi-Fi network regardless of cellular signal strength and you enable Wi-Fi Calling.

The G-Team

But what about the Apple Watch?  I’ve replaced it with a Fitbit Versa.  This looks to be a device formed from the assimilation of the Pebble watch team.  It’s a lightweight watch that incorporates the usual fitness tracking.  But it works with both Android and iOS, and unlike the Apple Watch has a battery life of up to 4 days between charges.  So far it’s been great – though the Fitbit app is rather confusing.  The GPS connection warning started up immediately even though I wasn’t exercising, and I couldn’t figure it out, though it seems that it has something to do with the Always Connected versus All-Day Sync option.

The Fitbit Versa’s wrist straps are relatively straight forward to change.  I had to swap out the smaller strap for the included larger one, but to do this requires fiddling about with pins in the straps.  I managed to cause my fingernails to bleed when applying pressure to the pin heads.

My one concern is that of how tough the front glass is – there are many reports of the face getting scratched easily, though so far I haven’t managed to ding mine and I’m quite rough with it.

A month later: The 2018 Windows 10 experience isn’t that bad..

.. except if you add an Active Directory into the mix – but that’s a whole different blog post.

So now I’m fully committed to Windows 10 – like I was back in 2016.  But that failed because Windows 10 just wasn’t right for me back then.  But my, how things have changed considerably!  I no longer use a Mac at work due to circumstances beyond my (or my employers) control – a long story.  One of biggest challenges for the move has been the ability to connect to remote computers via SSH.  Thankfully back in 2016, I renewed a maintenance contract for SecureCRT/SecureFX – a superb terminal emulator for Windows and Mac.  I actually used it on the Mac as its site manager feature was easier to manage substantial numbers of servers than a series of command aliases.

The next challenge was performing Linux style commands locally.  While Windows has its Command Prompt, it isn’t really good enough for my day to day tasks.  So thank goodness Microsoft invested in the Windows Linux Subsystem for Windows 10.  It’s still quite early days, and you can’t really use stuff like “mtr” that requires privilege escalation between the subsystem and Windows (amongst other things), it still gets stuff done 95% of the time.  Combine this with Chocolatey, a Windows package manager,  and you’ve got yourself a very nice platform on which to develop and maintain systems.

My only complaint is with Rackspace’s AWS service.  It uses ScaleFT as a method of connecting to AWS EC2 instances through a special client.  And it’s a bit of a pain in the arse.  I do wish third-party terminal emulators such as SecureCRT could integrate with it.  It’s not a terribly elegant solution in my view, and I’d wish both Rackspace and ScaleFT would do more to support Windows-client based SSH sessions.  It feels very rough right now.  I’d go as far as saying that I’d much rather just have a VPN instead.

Otherwise, Windows 10 has been pretty good.  The April 2018 update went smoothly, though we have now discovered why several laptops were locking up – there’s a bug which affects Chrome and Microsoft’s own Cortana. I’ve not experienced it myself across two (now three) machines, but it is definitely there.

Of course, the Alienware desktop is nothing short of remarkable when it comes to games thanks to its Geforce 1080 Ti.  He’s me in Fortnite getting one of my very rare first kills.  It’s a bit like a horror movie version of Mary Poppins.

So Windows 10 – it’s come a long way in the 2 years that I last used it in anger.  I will never rule out switching back to Mac, but for now, I’m happy, and the cost of ownership is significantly cheaper than Mac, even if you were to factor in any repairs (I have three onsite warranty for my desktop).

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).