Back to Apple’s luxury (throttled) prison

Nobody is going to be surprised by this blog post.

Windows is okay, but it’s no MacOS.  And as much as I enjoy playing Fortnite on the glorious Nvidia GeForce 1080 Ti, I much prefer to listen to my Apple Music, watch YouTube videos, trying to write madcap screenplays about ridiculous things, do things for work involving writing Bash and Perl scripts, testing images before they’re deployed to a variety of cloud environments, and generally doing .. well .. general things.  I really, really do not play games often enough to make the justification of such a high-end graphics card worthwhile.  I am bemused, even, as Nvidia’s game companion kicks in whenever I launch the Twitter app for Windows.

Then I miss having a decent text editor such as BBEdit for Mac.  Or Highland  2 (screenplay software, but can also be used to write any other kind of document in Fountain/markdown formatting) for Mac.  And although as much as I love the Linux subsystem of Windows – it isn’t perfect.  and as the number of Macs at work increase, I find as I spend my whole time around Windows that I begin to forget things Mac related.

But most of all I miss Apple’s Photos app and – yes, a big shock here, iCloud Photo Library.  It kept things organised and I could easily backup photos locally through Time Machine, Backblaze or manually copying the photos document bundle somewhere.

So, in short – the workflow was significantly better with MacOS.

So, having paid off the desktop PC I’m going back to the Mac.  The 2018 MacBook Pro, in fact.  But not the Core i9 model.  I don’t see much point of sticking in an overclockable processor in a chassis that has never been built to cool the processor down like you can a desktop PC.  So I’m sticking with the mid-range 15″ model with 1Tb SSD and 16Gb RAM.  This has to last me at least 3-4 years.  Having sold my previous 15″ MacBook Pro model last year to make up for lost wages as part of moving to a new job (remember folks: holiday entitlement costs you if you use it all up before moving to a new job!), it’s going to be nice to get better performance from the 13″ MacBook Pro I had earlier this year.

So I’m going to be selling my Alienware machine to part fund the cost of the MacBook Pro.  I’m looking for around £1,650 and that includes a three-year on-site warranty.  If anybody is interested, please drop me an email.

Will I be moving back to the iPhone?  Probably.  In September my annual upgrade kicks in.  I’m going to probably move back to the original iPhone X to reduce costs while the new iPhones are released.  Then, next year, I can move up to the latest and greatest.  Here’s the thing with Apple – the latest and greatest usually means that you’ll have to wait a good couple of iterations until the software you’re using on the fancy new gadget is fully optimised.  So I’m not as eager to rush out to get the newest Apple doodad anymore.  Besides, the iPhone X wasn’t a bad phone at all, but if only Apple could put better cameras in their phones!  Google’s computational photography truly is wonderful.  I am rather enjoying Android right now, but after the EU’s ruling against Google with regards to bundling their own software with the OS (which is what the EU caught Microsoft doing – yet they’ve yet to go after Apple), things could change for the worse within the Android community.  Having an iPhone with a Mac also makes sense.  So we’ll see.

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…

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.

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).