Does Apple truly care about the desktop/laptop computer anymore?

I’m not so sure.

With the rumours of Apple looking to replace Intel processors with their own custom silicon around 2020, it made me think about Apple on the desktop/laptop and how comfortable it has been.  It’s like putting on comfortable slippers and lounging around wearing a smoking jacket, with a faux smoking pipe sticking out the corner of one’s mouth – occasionally removing it to make some witty quip about the state of the British Empire.  That is to say that the Mac, and MacOS, is getting tired, out of date and increasingly irrelevant.

Much of the innovation from Apple found in modern Macs and MacOS is from Apple’s mobile divisions – iOS.  The iPhone and iPad have been rolling out features to MacOS rather than the other way around.  MacOS’ new filesystem, APFS, first featured on the iPhone and iPad before it hit the desktop.  The processors (or rather, System on a Chip – SoC) have routinely beat the likes of the competition in the mobile market, and we’ve even seen them approach the performance of lower end modern Intel laptops.

So it makes sense for Apple to eventually move away from Intel and start using their own A-range of ARM processors.  But this is not without cost – I remember the transition between PowerPC and Intel and while it wasn’t too strenuous, it took some developers quite some time to roll out native code.  If the Mac went ARM, I can see the same thing happening: you’re stuck with a machine that is so new and shiny that so few apps can take advantage of the performance.

So I’ve decided now’s the time to swallow my pride and head back to the PC.  And that means having to (well, not HAVING to, but it’s better than Linux GUIs I’ve come across) embrace Windows 10.  Back in 2016 when I bought two machines – a Dell XPS and an Alienware R3, the experience of Windows 10 was dire , to say the least.  Just search this blog for my opinion at the time.   But work has convinced that despite the massive pain in the arse Windows is, it IS getting better – albeit slowly.

The hardware was went convinced me.  My MacBook Pro was a 7th generation Core i5 running at 3.1Ghz, 2 CPU cores, and had four threads.  Intel’s latest offering is 6 cores with 12 threads.  That includes desktop and laptop CPUs.  The MacBook Pro is limited to 16Gb RAM.  The SSD cannot be upgraded.   At work I recommended Dell to start replacing a fleet of low powered Windows machines.  For development work, I picked out the Dell 8930 which offers a 6 core Core i7 8700 processor.  And it looks beautiful:

6 core blimey, guv’nor!

RAM is easily upgradable to 64Gb DDR4 RAM – and you can see the M2 slot is perfectly capable of being upgraded.  Furthermore, this machine can accommodate up to 3 more 3.5″ hard drives. The machine comes with an NVIDIA Geforce 1050 Ti, which is a big step up from the integrated Intel graphics.

Dell has always been good at creating internals which give you easy access to the components.

So I’ve been very impressed with Dell’s latest desktop offering.  We’ve also had a Vostro laptop which is also extremely good and at a decent price range.  The one problem I encountered with it, however, was that Dell’s Windows 10 Pro image didn’t allow Windows domain users to access any of the installed software or Windows Store programs.  So I had to re-image the entire machine with fresh copy of Windows 10.  And this is where Dell is bloody marvellous: just download the System Manager and it’ll go off and find all the drivers your system needs.  It’ll also download and update the BIOS and other bits and bobs.

So after my experience at work, and having mulled over the possibility of Apple’s potential move to ARM processors among other concerns, I decided to buy a gaming PC.  I’ve ordered an Alienware (which is owned by Dell) Aurora R7 with an Intel Core i7 8700 processor, 16Gb RAM, 512Gb SSD boot drive, 2Tb 7,200 RPM secondary data drive, a top of the range Nvidia Geforce 1080 Ti with 11Gb RAM, 850 watt power supply, and the system is liquid cooled (closed loop).  Along with this is a 27″ Dell monitor with quad HD resolution, 144Hz refresh rate and supports Nvidia’s G-Sync.  I’ve already sold my MacBook Pro, and I am in the process of selling the other two laptops and other bits and bobs.  But it does mean I’ll have a top end system that will last a good few years (just like the Dell XPS desktop I had around 2001 which lasted ages – I gave it to my now former in-laws and it lasted them a good few years).

Still keeping the iPhone, Apple Watch and iPad Pro.  The iPad Pro is my new laptop (which became extremely useful on my previous cruise – more so than the MacBook Pro).  But as my contract starts to run out with EE, I may look at Android phones – though none of them have got to the point where they can give iOS or the Axx series of chips a run for the money.

At the moment I’ve transitioned everything to the Alienware R3 as a trial run.  Windows is actually behaving itself, and I’ve migrated Apple Photos over to Adobe’s Lightroom Classic CC (Adobe, for goodness sake, please give us Apple-like pricing for storage if you want us to use Lightroom CC in the cloud – your pricing is too expensive).  Still keeping with iTunes for Apple Music (which works remarkably well under Windows).

I’m all about that bass, ’bout that bass, no treble..

.. except there’s a decent amount of treble in Apple’s new HomePod “smart” speaker.  But that bass!

The press has certainly not been wrong in stating that this is perhaps the best quality of speaker of the current generation of “smart” speakers.  The bass and response of the sound emanating from this tiny, yet tubby speaker definitely has put my now redundant Alexa-enabled Echo Plus to shame.

The fibre mesh is lovely to touch, it’s almost difficult not to walk past and give it a bit of a stroke..

Set-up was extremely easy – just plug it into the mains and then hold your iPhone (it must be an iOS device – forget buying one of these if you’re not heavily tied into the Apple iOS ecosystem) near the speaker.  Set-up begins on your iPhone and ends when Siri fires up and prompts you to try her out.

The biggest weakness of this speaker aside from no physical inputs or outputs, plus no Bluetooth support?  Siri.  It has yet to get any of my requests of songs or playlists right (I’m an Apple Music subscriber – albeit using the 6 months free subscription with EE at the moment – I’ll have to start paying again in April) – but I can AirPlay stuff directly from the phone without any bother.

However, what Siri can do is interact with my Philips Hue lights far more quickly via Apple’s HomeKit than Amazon’s Alexa ever could.  I have been extremely impressed with HomeKit’s performance on iOS and Siri so far.  While HomeKit support is still fairly limited within the “smart” devices industry – for example, British Gas’ Hive could REALLY benefit from such support – it does mean that for many devices would have to be refreshed in order support a specific chipset that HomeKit requires.  So we may not see Hive support for quite some time.

If you’re curious to know what’s going on inside the HomePod, this iFixit teardown will show you that it’s next to impossible for the average consumer to fix.

It’s funny how the music industry has changed over the past few decades.  When I was a kid growing up in North East London, I was over the moon with the hand-me-down Amstrad tower system which compromised of a turntable, an FM/AM radio/tuner, dual deck tape deck (Amstrad was famous for this).  I didn’t even have a CD player for quite some time.

Now we tend to subscribe (monthly or annually) to music services rather than paying for individual tracks or albums, listen on mobile phones or computers, or stream music to speakers.  While many people who take music seriously will still have an amplifier with built-in equaliser (another thing that the HomePod does away with – it’ll automatically “equalise” the music for you), a great many people will still be using these smart speakers in place of a traditional hi-fi set-up.

I’ve been a big fan of Apple’s audio products over the years.  I started off with a 3rd generation click wheel iPod and have made my way up to the iPhone X.  I’ve also bought three types of Beats headphones – the Beats Solo 3 wireless, the Beats EP and the granddaddy of them all, the Beats Studio 3 wireless – and perhaps my favourite of all – the AirPods.  None of these is cheap, and none are the absolute best in class, but I’ve always found a use for them (the Studio 3 wireless is ideal when the neighbours are doing late evening DIY, the Solo 3 for general computing use, the AirPods for daily commuting, and the EP for anything else (I originally bought it in Edinburgh when the Solo 3 unit suffered a charging problem and I had to send it to Apple for repair).

A short iPhone 8 Plus review..

I took the day off today to await the delivery of my new iPhone 8 Plus and Apple Watch Series 3 watch.  The first thing to note is that I’m coming from an iPhone 7 Plus and Apple Watch series 2.  So why do this?  All devices run iOS 11 and WatchOS 4, so what’s new?

The iPhone 8 Plus has the A11 “Bionic” processor which is, according to benchmarks, the fastest processor ever in a smartphone – on par with the performance of my MacBook Pro 13″.  As this article quotes, “it is legitimate to directly compare scores across platforms” but “laptops are better at delivering sustained performance over a longer period, as opposed to the shorter max burst performance that benchmarks like Geekbench 4 are designed to measure. In other words, the iPhone 8 simply doesn’t have the thermals and heat dissipation necessary to replace your laptop.

Holding the iPhone 8 Plus you’ll notice that it is heavier than the 7 Plus.  This is because Apple has returned to using glass on the back – necessary for wireless (read: induction) charging to function properly.  But the extra weight feels right, and it makes the whole phone look very professional.  That said, I’ve stuck it in my old 7 Plus Apple leather case.

Moving to the 8 Plus couldn’t have been easier.  As soon as the phone had switched on, the 7 Plus knew its time was up.  It immediately offered to transfer its data to the new phone, and I didn’t have to do very much.  So within about 10-15 minutes, I had a fully working iPhone 8 Plus.  Passwords for the various services one uses don’t transfer – so you’ll have to re-authenticate.  That was the longest part of the process.  Setting up two-factor authentication again is a PITA.

The 8 Plus’ True Tone display is brilliant.  Formally only an iPad Pro feature, you won’t notice it in day to day use – but comparing it against the 7 Plus was like night and day.  The 8 Plus display looked so much better regarding colour balance.

The camera on the iPhone 8 Plus is perhaps one of the biggest features I wanted.  And no wonder – it’s just been rated the best smartphone camera on the image quality rating site, DxOMark.  It comes in with a mark of 94.  I’m sure that the iPhone X will outdo that a little, but for now, you’re getting the best smartphone camera on the market.

I’m not going to do much testing of the camera myself until next week – I’m waiting for MacOS High Sierra to be released.  The iPhone 8 Plus uses the new JPEG container format, HEIF (high-efficiency image format) which compresses photos up to 2 times without losing any quality.  And likewise, it also uses HEVC (high-efficiency video codec) for video – which is fast becoming the de facto standard for video (and especially 4K / UHD).  High Sierra will support that out of the box, but in the meantime, the 8 Plus can export to older formats for systems not capable of handling HEIF/HEVC.  I’m not holding my breath for Google (such as Chrome) to support it – they’re using their own codec, and this is a contention point for the new Apple TV 4K – it won’t be able to play YouTube videos in 4K because Google uses something called V9, and Apple uses HEVC.  I do think Google is being silly here since all TVs support HEVC.  I don’t know any that supports V9 or at least both HEVC and V9.

Overall, I like the familiarity of the iPhone 8 Plus.  I use it as I would the 7 Plus, but under the hood is a beast of a system that will keep on top of things for the next couple of years.

Apple’s September 12th presentation – some thoughts..

As a massive Apple fan who occasionally wishes he wasn’t (hence my failed attempts to go back to Windows, move to Android, etc.), yesterday’s announcements of the Apple Watch series 3, the Apple TV 4K, the iPhone 8/8 Plus and the iPhone X made for interesting viewing.

I think I may well be replacing my current 4th generation Apple TV with the 4K model for several reasons:

  • Apple is finally showing commitment to UK TV content.  Maybe they had to step on a few feet at a number of UK broadcasters to do this, but regardless of however they did it, us Brits are getting access to the Apple TV app at long last.
  • 4K HDR content that costs the same as HD content.  That’s a HUGE deal for two reasons – we should be able to get more 4K content and it won’t cost us the kind of prices being charged on UHD Blu-Ray.
  • Following on from the above – if you buy a Apple 4K TV, if there is any matching content you’ve purchased that’s available in 4K – you’ll get an upgrade from HD to 4K absolutely free of charge.

So I’m happy.  Or rather, I’m not entirely happy, as the prices of the boxes are rather steep.  But hopefully, an Apple TV 4K should last a good number of years without having needing another major hardware refresh.

The Apple Watch series 3.  For me, this isn’t that important.  I’m happy enough with my series 2.  I don’t need a cellular connection.  The one and only thing that’s of interest is the ability to charge it wirelessly.

Which brings us onto the iPhones.  I’m a bit confused with what Apple is trying to achieve here with the iPhone X and the iPhone 8/8 Plus.  The iPhone X seems very experimental.  While I’m sure Apple has solved the biggest problems with facial recognition (which Samsung absolutely has not), I think there will be problems.  The iPhone X is the first generation of its kind, and there are bound to be a few issues here and there – and while the OLED display with super thin bezels is appealing, the lack of a touch ID (at least as a backup/alternative for Face ID) and the silly pricing puts it out of my reach.

What really has put me off the iPhone X are people inevitably using Face ID at the barriers of London Underground stations and when boarding London buses.  I can just see it now – the phone doesn’t unlock, or they’re leaving the unlocking until the last minute and it delays the flow of traffic through the barriers or boarding the bus.  This is the first generation of Face ID.  I expect there will be issues.

Then there is the iPhone X’s Super Retina Display.  One of the biggest problems I have with iOS at the moment is that there are still too many developers not updating their apps to make full use of the FHD (full high definition) iPhone 6/7 Plus display.  Take National Rail’s iOS app, for example – it looks big and chunky because the development team hasn’t updated the app to take advantage of the higher resolutions of recent phones.  There are quite a few other developers guilty of this.

What I think will happen is that we’ll see one last iteration of the iPhone 6/7/8 form factor in the iPhone 9, then we’ll see the iPhone 11 which will merge everything together and will see a much lower price point as Apple fixes everything from what’s been gleaned from the public using the iPhone X.  I do not wish to be a paying beta tester for Apple (not while I have to pay through the nose for their equipment – hence why I never run any of their public betas), so the iPhone X is out for me.  Which is cool.  It’s not for everybody.

But the iPhone 8 Plus.  Now that’s tempting.  While it looks like an iPhone 7 Plus (which in itself is no bad thing), it gets wireless charging.  When I’ve briefly had Samsung phones, the ability to charge the device wirelessly was a tremendous benefit.  Now Apple is going wireless charging, this is going to be HUGE.  The True Tone display of the 10.5 iPad Pro is beautiful, so I’m glad that the iPhone 8 Plus is getting that (though it’s a shame that none of the new iPhone models are not getting the 120Hz ProMotion technology).  I’m also pleased to see the cameras get some subtle upgrades too, including new sensors and filters.  Will it surpass that of the Galaxy Note 8?  I’m not so sure, but Apple has always had pretty decent cameras and they’ve been good enough for me.

The next few months are going to be very interesting indeed as people get their hands on these new devices.  I really do hope that Apple has solved the facial recognition problem – but it’s far too early, and far too expensive, to be taking a gamble at this time.

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).