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).

How long it does it take update Window 10 to Creators Update?

Too long.

So I dusted off my Dell XPS 9350 laptop yesterday to check out the improvements of the Windows 10 Creators Update.  As I have not touched the thing in many months, there were many, many updates previously that had to be applied.  That alone took about 2 hours, including updating the BIOS and other Dell related software.  Why after all these years is Windows so slow at downloading and applying updates?  There was one point it was taking so long (30 minutes+) to apply the updates prior to reboot I had to manually power off the laptop and switch it back on again.

Then there was the hassle of getting the Creators Update.  It didn’t show up in the Windows Updates list, so I have to hunt around for the Windows Update Assistant which did the job for me.   The time spent dealing with this and the other stuff took another 2 hours.

Now, ordinarily, a user wouldn’t leave updates for several months – not after the mess of security flaws we’ve seen hit the news headlines.  But even so, to have to go through all the steps I had to go through to get things up to date  – it should NOT take four hours to do it.  And my XPS is no slouch – 16Gb RAM with 1Tb SSD with SkyLake i7 processor is not to be sniffed at.

If there is anything I would beg of Microsoft – please improve the update process. Make it easier for customers to upgrade to the latest releases in a single process rather than lots of little ones.  And the fewer reboots as a result of that would be just grand.

(Return of the Mac) Come on, (You know that I’ll be back) Here I am

Oh, Apple.  What an enormous pain in the bottom you are at times!  Nearly four months away, and I return to discover that your software is just as buggy as when I left.  But, when it works, is infinitely better than that offered for and by Windows / Microsoft.  The last straw was when I created a spreadsheet in Excel 2016 on the Dell UHD laptop, only to find that due to dodgy Windows scaling, the row sizes were all over the shop when the same file was opened on a Mac also running Excel 2016.

  • Importing 8,163 photos and videos into Photos caused Photos to crash half way through.  Thankfully as Adobe Lightroom organises photos by year, I did one year at a time and everything is now inside the Photos ecosystem.
  • Restoring iTunes to a new machine (regardless of platform) while you have an Apple Music subscription is the biggest load of nonsense I have ever encountered from any software company ever.  All seemed to go well – iTunes picked up the freshly copied Windows iTunes folder and organised/consolidated it as it should.  But, alas, while Apple Music was switched on and signed in, iTunes told me otherwise.  A workaround was to browse and/or play something directly from the Apple Music catalogue web site (within iTunes – iTunes essentially acts a glorified browser), then offline stuff could play.  In an attempt to fix the problem once and for all, I turned iCloud Music Library Off (and Apple Music) and switched them back on.  Big mistake.  As soon as that happened, iTunes attempted to reupload music and match, resulting in the duplication of all Apple Music albums and tracks.  At least some 2,000+.  Sorting out the duplicates in the Gilbert & Sullivan 450 track multi-disc album was, to say the least, [censored] annoying.  This was even after nuking the entire iTunes library and letting everything (inc. matched non-Apple tracks and iTunes purchased tracks) download again from Apple’s servers.  This incident has made me extremely nervous of ever having to restore an iTunes library from a backup.  Maybe Apple is promoting Apple Music’s strength as an online service that you really never need to back up to anything other than their servers?  *shrugs*
  • Playing Team Fortress 2 using the AMD Radeon R9 370X is fine and dandy, but things went a bit wonky straight after Steam/TF2 installation, with TF2 and Steam quitting immediately as soon as the game started.  Restarting MacOS seems to fix it.
  • Switching to Apple’s Two Factor Authentication was a pain too.  If you had Two Step Authentication, you have to disable that, create a new series of security questions, then wait a bit before the Two Factor Authentication settings pop up on the iPhone or iPad.  Trying to get the Apple TV to recognise HomeKit involved logging in and out about six times before it finally worked.  Lots of logging in and out across all devices overall.  Apple Watch needed a reboot to get the MacOS unlock functionality working, else the system complained that it couldn’t find the watch.

Otherwise, I am enjoying the Retina display, the quad core processor, and super fast SSD drive.  I’ve come to the conclusion that Windows is not ready for 4K/UHD and above displays.  Not until software developers start making the use of it.

But I will remain a Mac/iPhone/iPad user for the foreseeable future.  The alternative is good, but for me – and despite all the problems with Apple’s software division – it’s not enough. Apple have won.  I surrender.

Dell XPS 13 (9350) Windows 10 Anniversary Update Bug Edition

Update: Removing the Hyper-V services under Windows 10 Pro seems to fix the issue, suggesting there is some problem between Intel graphics and Microsoft’s Hyper-V virtualisation platform.

When I moved away from the MacOS/OS X platform, I understood that I was more likely to suffer more problems within Windows than MacOS/OS X.  I was right.

While the Dell XPS 13 9350 is a magnificent piece of modern hardware – it appears that its newness is so new, there are issues with the Intel Iris 540 graphics.  After updating to Windows 10 Anniversary Edition when it was released on 2nd August, the screen started flickering on and off, sometimes going off for a second, then coming back on, adjusting resolution with it (always returning to full 4K resolution).

Re-installing the more recent (June) Dell supplied Intel HD graphics drivers has taken some of the edge off the problem.

It sure looks like that the Skylake architecture/Intel Iris 540 has a few problems that still need to be addressed in the drivers.  Intel has released newer drivers, but in an uncannily Apple-like move, you can’t install them directly over the top of the existing Dell drivers because Intel tells you that, “your manufacturer may have made tweaks and optimisations”.  Even then, attempting to bypass all that results in Windows telling me that I already have the latest drivers.

So I need to wait until Dell and Intel get together and update the drivers to fix whatever is causing this issue.  It’s not a huge problem – just annoying.  Often just occurs after booting from cold (I’ve disabled Fast Start in Windows 10 because it was causing more problems than it solved), then for a few minutes.  Then the system settles down and everything is fine.  Event Viewer logs reveal nothing of note other than directly after the Anniversary Update when it logged a request to reinstall the graphics drivers (which I subsequently did).

This issue apparently exists across different Skylake architecture-based PCs judging from this Reddit thread from three months ago.  I present additional evidence to back this up..

With Intel about to release yet another new architecture in the coming months, it’d be nice if they could concentrate on getting this one right first.  Oh, the fun of having new and more powerful hardware – more bugs, more pain.

That said, I’ve suffered from odd screen corruption on my (almost four years old) work MacBook Air for quite a few releases of El Capitan (and Yosemite).  The problem seems to have gone away with the last update of El Capitan, suggesting there was probably a graphics driver problem there (the MacBook Air also uses an Intel integrated GPU).  These kind of issues are not exclusive to Windows/commodity hardware.

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.