There are two devices that I would consider to be Apple’s greatest achievements over the past decade. The first is the Apple Watch, and the second is AirPods. Both have become daily essentials in my battle to get fit and healthier and to pass the time when commuting (especially when South Western Railway/Network Rail implodes).

AirPods are just so damn useful. You can keep them in your jacket or trouser pocket and whip them out (oo-er missus) when you need audio stimulation (oo-er missus). They are a little bit fiddly, yes, and there is the constant danger of dropping them/losing them. But when you need to listen to something in relevant peace and quiet – they’re much better than lugging around normal size headphones.

Beat(s) *THAT* Apple – You Can Do So Much Better

Speaking of normal size headphones, until I bought my first set of AirPods, I’d been using several of Apple’s Beats headphones for a few years – but I can’t say I’ve been terribly impressed. About three years ago I bought the Beats 3 Solo wireless headphones. No Bluetooth audio lag when watching a video, reasonably portable, very comfortable. But when I took them up to Edinburgh, I found I couldn’t charge them. So I took them to the Edinburgh Apple Store and they took them in for repair, and bought a pair of Beats wired headphones to tide me over. But over the past year or so, I can’t say I’m impressed with the earpads of either set of headphones:

Goodness knows how much I’ve got to pay in order to fix the earpads – they don’t appear to be user-replaceable. I’m quite disappointed in Apple here – and as a general opinion of their “extended| warranties, I do wish they’d offer FOUR year AppleCare/AppleCare+ warranties. Dell gives you a choice. Apple do not. In this case, I don’t have any AppleCare with the above headphones, but I DO have them with the AirPod Pros. And I’ve been using the headphones normally (and carefully).

Getting back on track, the one problem with AirPods is that they let in sounds from your current environment, which can make it rather difficult to hear anything unless you crank up the volume. On the iPhone, the volume is limited in a number of ways, but can be overridden:

Until I disabled Sound Check and turned off the Volume limit on the iPhone, listening to audiobooks on the iPhone was noticeably more difficult than with the Apple Watch (yes, you can upload music and audiobooks to an Apple Watch – providing you pair it with Bluetooth headers/speakers). The Apple Watch volume output was much louder and could be heard against a greater range of environmental noises (mainly trains passing through stations).

The AirPods Pro are different in that they introduce noise-cancelling features and a design which fits better inside your ear, creating a better seal, which should help reduce as much as your local environmental sounds as possible. Plus it can also be used as a kind of hearing-aid – using the built-in microphones, it can relay sounds directly to you, which makes it much easier to hear people talking to you/announcements. Whenever you need to be alert. Noise cancellation can be turned off and be used as regular AirPods. Noise cancellation itself is pretty good for an in-ear device. It won’t get rid of sounds completely, but it’s good enough to listen to music and audiobooks without having to have the volume turned up loud.

The AirPods Pro use silicon tips which keep the pods in your ears and comes with two other sizes. They’re easily replaceable (and if you lose them – Apple will sell you a new set for about $4) – just pull them off and push new ones on. I found that I had to use the larger size to get the most comfortable (and most efficient) fit. Big lugholes require big tips. Oo-er missus.

I absolutely love my AirPod Pros, and the wireless charging case makes things even easier (I’m coming from the first generation AirPods which didn’t have any wireless charging). I almost entirely use AirPods/AirPods Pro when on the phone, and at work – when I want to drown other people’s music out and/or concentrate when the office gets a bit too noisy.

They’re a bit more pricey than regular AirPods – but thanks to EE, I’m able to add them to my phone plan and split the cost over 11 months. I’ve just got to be sure NOT to wash the things – which I did when I left my first ever set of AirPods in a trouser pocket once.

As a long term Apple user, I’ve seen a lot happen with Apple’s services division over the past 20 years. When they work, they bring me great joy and they are absolutely worth the money. But when they don’t, they are a bigger pain in the arse than South Western Railways and Network Rail.

Having moved over to the 16″ MacBook Pro, one of the first things I did before the move was:

  • Create a current, up-to-date Time Machine backup
  • Copy all data – including Apple Photos and Apple Music/TV to a separate hard drive and copy them back over manually

iCloudy with a chance of rain

When the new machine was running, I copied all my data back over. The first problem was that because I use iCloud Photo Library, Apple immediately enables it even if you don’t want to use it (a bug, perhaps?) – creating a Photos library catalogue. About 99% of having copied the data from the separate hard drive to the Photos directory on the new Mac terminated and told me there was already data there, and then terminated the transfer.

So I thought I’d give Apple the benefit of the doubt and download all my photos and videos stored in iCloud Photo Library (around ~130Gb) and start a new catalogue from scratch. It did work, but it takes forever for the Apple Photos app in macOS Catalina to do its stuff before downloading can happen. It took about 3-4 hours in total to download 10,443 photos and 463 videos. Speaking of iCloud Photo Library – Apple had better start considering offering a 4Tb tier. I’m nowhere near that level yet, but as storage becomes cheaper on MacBook Pros, iMacs and Mac Pros, and as the cameras improve on iPhones, people will start putting everything in iCloud. Obviously I back everything up religiously to Time Machine, Backblaze, Google Drive and separate hard drives, but as we’ve just discovered – it doesn’t always work out the way you think it does. At least I can access all the old photos from the backups manually.

Ch..ch..ch..changes

What is interesting to note is that with macOS Catalina’s Photos app, Apple has made some internal restructuring to the package contents of the catalogue. No longer is there a masters directory containing your original files and filenames, but a directory called originals which contain the original files. But with Apple-encoded filenames. Original filenames appear to be stored as metadata within an internal, locally-stored Apple database.

Apple Music is just as buggy as iTunes

With regards to Apple Music, I originally didn’t have any problems copying that across. The only real issue is that the artwork to albums and playlists was missing. I tried everything I could to try and get them back through the Apple Music app on Catalina, but no joy. The closest I got was to nuke everything in the Music directory and copy back over from the Time Machine backup. They seemed to work – except that every single file was available to download through iCloud. Downloading only doubled the amount of space being used by macOS.

So I completely deleted my Music directory again and tried to get Apple Music to start afresh. Except it didn’t. It picked up my account details and some album artwork straight away. And iCloud Errors galore.

At one point, Apple Music got REALLY confused:

So I did a bit of digging around. There aren’t many articles about Apple Music on Catalina and how to fix problems. But this is how I “fixed” mine – where “fixed” was to get Apple Music to start from scratch – newly created directory, no files downloaded, all music stored in iCloud – then start to download music as an when needed. Over 56,000 tracks is a bit much.

I hate Windows registry, but Apple’s Library can just as bad…

Having closed Apple Music and deleted the Music subdirectory from within the Music directory in my home directory, I opened a terminal, I navigated to

~/Library/Caches

and nuked any files or directories that mention iTunes or Music in their file/directory names. This gets rid of any caches built up by Apple Music/iTunes. So it should forget anything you’ve done so far. But this isn’t enough. I then changed to:

~/Library/Preferences

and nuked any files or directories that mention iTunes or Music in the file/directory names. From there I fired up Apple Music and was greeted by the Apple Music welcome screen. And everything worked as expected from that point onwards. I downloaded my playlist music just fine, along with a number of albums. All good. And everything has been fine for the past 24 hours.

More internal local changes

Again, with macOS Catalina, Apple has re-arranged the internal file structure for Apple Music. My backups had an iTunes directory with all the media stored in there, and a Music directory which had a single package file within it. When starting Apple Music anew, there is a Music subdirectory containing the same package, followed by a media directory:

Within the Media subdirectory, you can see that (when arranged alphabetically) Apple Music files are stored separately from purchased/uploaded music.

When attempting to get things working from backup, it seemed Apple Music was completely confused. I’ve got to say, Apple, that you’ve made a right pig’s ear of this and I’m not happy. When I’ve set-up Apple Music on my work Mac, it was fine because I hadn’t any existing files. But if I had brought them in, I’m sure I’d suffer similar problems.

What is the point of backups if they don’t work properly – especially if the issue is being caused by bugs or changes made by the same company you’ve bought the hardware AND software from?

macOS Catalina – a steaming pile of horse poop

Regardless of whether its new hardware or existing hardware, the macOS Catalina experience has been awful. My work Mac Mini (2018) was bricked by the update and required a logic board replacement. The 2018 MacBook Pro was fine, but clearly the backups I’ve been making haven’t been suitable for transferring to a new machine – or even to the same machine because of all the changes between Mojave and Catalina.

A while back, I spoke to some people from a VERY big international games company, and the problems they were having with Catalina were numerous. Don’t forget that Catalina drops support for 32-bit apps. And many of them are games.

The titles listed below are all 32-bit, and not compatible with macOS Catalina, making Steam for macOS pretty redundant right now. At least there’s Apple Arcade, right?

I do love my 16″ MacBook Pro, but I want to see Apple seriously step up their services/macOS game because right now it’s simply not good enough.

The 16″ mega beast of a MacBook Pro arrived yesterday and it was glorious. It had already run up 5,700-odd miles making its way from Shanghai to Reading (hang on, it’s not a car..) before eventually reaching me.

Despite having a 16″ screen, the unit is not that much better than the 15″ machine it replaces. It fits fine into my existing sleeve and backpack, so there’s no need to go out replacing existing carrying cases/sleeves if you already have them.

The slightly higher resolution is quite noticeable, as is the thinner screen bezels. But what really stands out is how good the reworked keyboard is. It’s very much on par with the external Magic Keyboard that I use when the machine is docked to my Dell 23.5″ monitor.

After the usual macOS set-up, it was time to start shifting data over from the old MacBook Pro. I keep a few external hard drives about for such purposes, so had been copying my data to them throughout the day. The first software to be installed was Chrome and 1Password, my password manager. Then iStats Menu, which gives me an overview of system resources along the Mac’s menubar.

Then it was a case of copying over the 133Gb of photos to the system. Alas, Apple switches on iCloud Photos by default which creates an existing Apple Photos library catalogue “file” which caused a problem with the external hard drive copy. So I had to stop the copy, delete the catalogue file which was there, restart Apple Photos and then – just to see how fast it would take to download all 10,443 photos and 463 videos over a 300Mbs connection – enabled iCloud Photos. Turns out its about 3 hours. Though you need to be VERY patient with the macOS Apple Photos app because it’ll need to do a bit of housekeeping first before it starts downloading anything.

Apple Music was a little better. I copied over 103Gb of music, fired up Apple Music, signed in and.. it told me I hadn’t signed in. So I had to log out and log back in again, forcing another resync. I could now play my music. The downloaded files were playable – they didn’t have to be re-downloaded again, thank goodness. But all the album artwork had vanished in listing mode. Even now, despite manually attempting to force through updates, it’s very slow or has completely stopped (I’m not currently sure which).

During all these tasks, I was watching a YouTube video in Chrome with a number of open tabs. Now, Chrome is notorious for memory usage. Which is why I specced out 32Gb RAM for this machine. Yet, the entire system froze. The video continued to play for a while, but even that stopped. Completely unresponsive – couldn’t even force quit anything. So I had to hold down the power button down and restart the machine. Now, I hadn’t logged out or rebooted since I first went through setting up the machine – so it could be a leftover/hung process or something that caused it to go haywire. It’s been fine since, and I’ve pushed the CPU and the fans to their limits on a number of occasisons.

Speaking of the CPU and the fans, the 9th generation 8-core Intel Core i9 processor is a definitely a bit of a step-up from my 8th generation 6-core Intel Core i7, even though the minimum speed is 300Mhz lower on the newer machine. But with each generation comes improvements in efficiency and you could really see it here. The 4Tb SSD speed is not much different than that of the older MacBook Pro, but bloody hell, it’s nice to have the space!

The AMD Radeon Pro 5500M with its 8Gb RAM feels like a significant improvement over the 560X with 4Gb RAM. I tested performance in the game Fortnite and got between 50-80 frames a second in my first test – settings at high, and a resolution of 1920×1080. With the older Mac, the frame rate varied greatly and barely got between 28-40 fps.

Overall I’m very happy with the new 16″ MacBook Pro. It’ll keep me going for a lot longer – and maybe even in the ARM-based era of the MacBook/MacBook Pro. I’m still a bit concerned about the total system freeze, but as I’ve said, I hadn’t rebooted since the initial switch on, and it may just be a small glitch. macOS Catalina hasn’t exactly been the most stable of operating systems since the release – but Apple is rolling out updates regularly and they nothing if not committed to making it one of the best Macs (and OSes) yet.

Look for another review coming soon – the AirPods Pro. Perhaps Apple’s greatest contribution to audio yet (aside from the 16″ MacBook Pro speakers which are apparently awesome – though I’ve yet to test them).

Now that it’s 2020, I felt it was time to cut back a bit on social media, which has recently become so Marmite-ish that everything tastes bitter and salty. So much anger. So much aggression. It’s all become very toxic.

So I’ve made it a New Year’s resolution to cut back on Twitter. I’m kind of scaling back on Instagram too, though mainly cutting back on the number of people and things that I’m following. The biggest problem with social media is that the more people you follow, the longer it takes to read everything, the noisier it gets, and it then ultimately exposes you to the knuckle-dragging Bad PeopleĀ®, and that makes you wonder why you bothered in the first place.

So, I’ve abandoned my 409-odd followers and the 600-odd people/things I were following and started again from scratch – retaining a follow a select few fellow twitterers whose tweets don’t make me want to go out and get a lobotomy.

My new account (@MartynDrake76) is going to be permanently set to private, and I’m resisting the urge to post anything to anybody who chooses to follow me. It’s more of a lurking/read-only account. Useful for checking the latest train info, or news updates.

Bring back the days of computing where nothing was interconnected. Where you had to wait 10 minutes for a computer game to load from tape, and if the system subsequently crashed just after loading the game, you’d do the same thing again. It taught us patience (well, maybe some of us – definitely not me).

Don’t get me started on Facebook. It has its uses (mainly family and close friends), but even then it’s not something I actively engage with much. Facebook’s Instant Messanger and WhatsApp apps are extremely useful – but that’s really the only things that get any kind of decent workout. The site itself I only glance at a few times a week at most – and for a minute or two.

It seems that MPC Vancouver has shut down shop, laying off 95% of the workforce just before Christmas. There is a rather substantial thread on Reddit about it, as well as this Cartoon Brew report.

One set of comments that stood out was this one. Never go full feline.

To give a bit of context, the VFX studios Rhythm & Hues closed down after winning their VFX Oscar for The Life of Pi. The following documentary explains what happened, and what’s wrong with the VFX industry:

It’s difficult to say how much of an impact this will have on the rest of MPC’s worldwide presence, or how the industry will perceive it. Come Oscars time, it’s worth watching to see who will win the best VFX Oscar. If it’s MPC for The Lion King, this is going to be a bittersweet win – but could possibly have ramifications for the industry too.