The new MacBook Pro – dongles galore!

Having had some time to digest yesterday’s Apple event regarding the new MacBook Pros, I’ve to conclusion that Apple have gone completely stone bonkers in a good and bad way.  Let me explain.

The Good – USB-C

USB-C is the future.  It’s a reversible connector that can handle up to 10Gbs throughput through the USB 3.1 specification.  When you add Thunderbolt support to that, the throughput can reach up to 40Gbs.   The old USB-A ports have gone, and you now have FOUR USB-C ports. Additionally they can be used as DisplayPorts (for connecting to monitors), and also to charge the machine.   Which is fantastic, since you can now charge on either side of the machine.

The Bad – USB-C

USB-C devices are a bit thin on the ground, but more are coming.  The really silly thing is that the iPhone 7/7 Plus comes with a USB-A to Lightning port cable.  This means if you want to charge or connect your iPhone to your new MacBook Pro, you’ve got to buy an adaptor.  Remember: the iPhone 7 was released in September.  So Apple knew these changes were coming and did nothing to ensure that iPhone users who would want to buy it are looked after.

This is going to lead to a lot of more adaptors hanging off those USB-C ports until the tech industry starts standardising on USB-C connectors.  That will take a good few years to come to fully come to fruition.  So accessory makers are going to sell loads and loads of dongles in the mean time.

Speaking of charging through USB-C – this does mean that the supplied charger will not feature one of the most popular features of the MacBook/MacBook Pro lines – the Magsafe connector.  This means that the power connector is anchored into place with magnetics.  If something (or somebody) trips over the power cord – the power lead is pulled out safely, without taking the entire laptop with it.  So people are going to have to be a lot more careful about where and how they charge the new MacBook Pro.

The Good – The Touchpad

It’s a LOT bigger.

The Bad – The Touchpad

This means the keyboard is smaller.  Apple have used the second generation keyboard from the refreshed MacBook.  When I had a chance to play with it earlier this year waiting for Apple to replace the bricked iPad Pro, I have to say I didn’t like it.  The key travel felt as if you’re simply typing on a virtual keyboard. But apparently this 2nd gen version is meant to be better.  We’ll see how people take to it.

The Good – The Touch Bar

Perhaps the most radical change to the MacBook Pro range is the Touch Bar.  This is a vertical OLED touch-sensitive strip that sits above the number keys of the keyboard.  It can be made to display keys, images and a lot more.  It also holds the Touch ID sensor which means that you can unlock the Mac with your fingerprint (rather than password – I assume that maybe users will be allowed to do both for extra security) and pay for stuff with Apple Pay.  It also serves as the power button.  The Touch Bar itself will adapt to individual applications.  If you’re using Final Cut Pro to edit a video, the Touch Bar will display the timeline which you can use to “scrub” through video, and so on.

The Bad – The Touch Bar

No physical “Escape” key.  An engineer’s friend, the “escape” key is used heavily in coding and for us sysadmins, accessing serial consoles.  Apparently there are specific Touch Bar keys that will come into play when Terminal is being used.

The Good – The Display

Better colour gamut means that photos and videos will look much more vibrant than before.  Additionally the bevel has been reduced considerably, making for a smaller device.

The Bad – The Display

No changes to the resolutions supported.  Not necessarily a bad thing, but it’d have been nice to see Apple up the max resolution to UHD/4K and scale it down appropriately for the 13″ and 15″ display.  Apple are THE best when it comes to scaling higher resolutions, and was the reason for me going back to the Mac.

The Good – Everything Else

For the 15″ MacBook Pro, Apple has jumped two generations of Intel processors from Broadwell to Skylake, bumped up RAM speed, and given almost 2-3x performance boost to the SSDs.  This was a long time coming, and is most welcome.  While Kaby Lake chipsets/processors are now available, I doubt we’ll see those in MacBook Pros until mid-late 2017.

The 13″ MacBook Pro comes with the Intel Iris 550 graphics, which based on my experience of the 540 on the Dell XPS 13 is excellent.  I wouldn’t rely on it to play the super latest games, but it sure as heck gets things done.  For the 15″ MacBook Pros, you get the Intel Iris graphics along with the AMD Radeon Pro 450 or 460 – the next generation of Radeon graphics.  Very worthy inclusion.

The Bad – Everything Else

The price.  Oh dear Gods, the price.  A fully tricked out 15″ MacBook Pro will cost you over £4,000.  Apple has raised the prices and aligned them to the weak pound, so you’re definitely going to be smacked in the face if you’re going to go for one of these things.  But as with most high end laptops, this is something that’s going to last for a good three to four years.  I love Apple for their ability to create computers that actually last that long – often without ever needing repair.

The Good – Selling & buying a Mac

Now is the perfect time to pick up a second hand Mac.  As people sell their Macs to get the next generation, you’ll often be able to pick up a bargain.  Definitely a buyer’s market right now.

The Great Apple Break Down

It’s been an absolute pain in the arse this past month for all things tech-related.  We’ve had Samsung’s Galaxy Note 7 recall shenanigans, and now Apple’s new IOS release caused temporary bricking as soon as it was released due to a corrupt over the air image.

I was pretty miffed when I updated the 9.7″ iPad Pro OTA (over the air) and found it wanted to be connected to iTunes.  Apple advertises this as a standalone computer.  A standalone computer shouldn’t need another computer to be able to fix update problems.  Does Apple expect us to own two or more computers as a consequence?  Even if you had two iPad Pros, it wouldn’t have fixed the issue – it must be a full on desktop machine (MacOS or Windows) running iTunes.

Except because when I got home, Apple’s iCloud services were in a mess.  In order to perform a manual update/restore of the iPad, iTunes had to download version 9.3.5 of iOS first.  Took well over an hour.  Couldn’t update iTunes via the normal means because Apple’s servers were completely borked.  But thankfully when 9.3.5 downloaded and was applied to the iPad Pro via a USB cable connected to the Dell, the iPad eventually sprung back into life and all settings and data was preserved.  Unlike last time, when the hardware was completely knackered and I had to get entire iPad replaced. So a big phew! there.

As iTunes (with a vastly improved interface for managing Apple Music) wasn’t updating, it was actually quicker to download the installer file from Apple’s web site and update it that way.  I could then update both iPads to version 10 of iOS.

How I do wish Apple would take better care of iOS releases.

To ease the pain somewhat, I discovered that Apple has added practically every single Studio Ghibli soundtrack album to Apple Music, and spent a very happy evening listening to some classic Joe Hisaishi music.

iPhone 7 Unboxing Day

Update: Meanwhile, in Australia, Galaxy Note 7’s are banned on three Australian airlines. For how long is anybody’s guess, but as nobody can be sure that somebody is carrying a non-defective replacement, it’s probably better to be safe than sorry.

After iPhone7-mas, we’ll soon have iPhone Unboxing Day.  That’ll be September 16th.  But will I be trading my Samsung Galaxy Note 7 for a fancy pants iPhone 7 Plus?  Very likely given the very slick presentation, the phone’s telephoto lens, quad-core A10 processor (one pair for performance, another pair for efficiency), cinema colour optimised display, and – for me, this is perhaps the most important – a static force-touch home button with haptic feedback.

Very likely given the very slick presentation, the phone’s telephoto lens, quad-core A10 processor (one pair for performance, another pair for efficiency), cinema colour optimised display, and – for me, this is perhaps the most important – a static force-touch home button with haptic feedback. When I’ve used previous iPhones, I’ve always felt the home button to be something that could just stop working at any moment.  And indeed, this actually did happen (iPhone 5, I think).  So Apple to incorporate from other products (Mac’s touchpad) within its flagship smartphone product is a darn good move IMHO.  The fewer moving parts, the better.

Personally not bothered by the lack of a headphone socket.  Bluetooth has been a regular thing for me for over a year.  Like Apple, I believe the fewer cables the better.  Not interested in AirPods because I can imagine that even with the case they’re going to get lost.  Also, as somebody remarked on Twitter, it looks as though you’ve got tiny dicks in your ear (their words, not mine).

My journey back and forth between iOS and Android has been a very good learning experience.  There are many, many things I like about Android – but there is still the problem of fragmentation.  It’s considerably better than it used to be, and indeed the Galaxy S7 Edge has just received the September security update from Google (but missed out on the August one).  That I can swap out the default SMS/messenger software for a third party one is also commendable – although the Gear smartwatch software will have a right old moan about it.  I think next time I’ll invest in a second, cheaper Android phone (such as the OnePlus Three) as an Android device to ensure that I’m kept up to date with developments (also handy for dating purposes – I get very nervous handing out my phone number, and I’ve changed my number twice over the past three years).

One thing that interests me about going back to iOS, and also one of the thing that makes me the most nervous given my experience with Apple online services – is the use of iCloud to store one’s entire photo archive.  I still think Apple should – maybe as either part of AppleCare+ or similar – a paid SLA that protects the content of anything uploaded to their servers.  And/or allow third parties to be able to use all iCloud services to take backups of data (in the same way I pay a third party a nominal fee to backup my entire Google Apps account – email, Drive contents, etc).  Apple’s Photos app is still one of the strongest photo management tools I’ve come across and it makes it very easy to split photos into separate events.  With Adobe Lightroom, I find it to be a massive PITA organising photos into events.

Then there’s the dual lens system in the iPhone 7 Plus.  One wide angle lens, the other a telephoto lens to offer optical zoom for the first time in an iPhone.  With the promise of superior digital optical zoom thanks to a reworked Apple Image Processor combined with the optical zoom, photography on an iPhone looks to have been taken up quite a significant notch.  But what REALLY caught me eye was the (future) ability to take DLSR quality Bokeh photographs.  Just how well this is going to work in the real world has yet to be seen, but the demonstration photos shown in the presentation were extremely impressive.  I doubt that the iPhone 7 Plus’ camera will have an autofocus system as fast as that implemented by Samsung in its S7/Note 7 series, but I’ve never found it to be a big problem in the past.

The one thing that Apple really needs to work on is wireless charging.

As an aside, but still relevant, the Apple Watch Series 2 looks to be an excellent incentive to get swimming again.  Waterproof up to 50m with built-in GPS, you can now go running (and not get lost, or at least, track where you’ve been) and swimming (where a GPS won’t be much good – unless you’re planning on swimming the English Channel, I suppose) and keep a complete track of your activity.  It also tells the time.  But like the previous generation, the battery life is of similar strength.  You will have to charge the thing every 24 hours.

Meanwhile in Sonyland.. the PS4 Pro was announced.  UHD gaming, but absolutely no UHD Blu-Ray player.  Well done Sony (the creators of the Blu-Ray format).  They’ve said that “the PS4 is a primarily gaming machine”.  My argument to that is that if you’re providing the ability to playback Blu-Ray movies on disc, if you’re going to offer a UHD version, you should have UHD Blu-Ray player as a consequence….

Google Play Music would be the best streaming service if only..

.. it had support for offline support for albums being borrowed on subscription.  Practically every other service has this.  Even more oddly, the mobile app does have offline support.  So why not on the desktop?  And speaking of desktop, there really isn’t a desktop version – you run it within a web browser.  I use Google Chrome – I’m a big Google user – but even I recognise that there are certain limitations with listening to music via a web browser.  I’d much prefer a properly written desktop app for Windows, Mac and Linux.  On the other hand,  even with Google Play Music operating in a web browser, the experience is 100 times better than Apple Music and iTunes!

Speaking of desktop, there really isn’t a desktop version – you run it within a web browser.  I use Google Chrome – I’m a big Google user – but even I recognise that there are certain limitations with listening to music via a web browser.  I’d much prefer a properly written desktop app for Windows, Mac and Linux.  On the other hand,  even with Google Play Music operating in a web browser, the experience is 100 times better than Apple Music and iTunes!

The real beauty of Google Play Music is that one can upload up to 50,000 DRM free tracks and access it in a browser or a mobile app along with the subscription music.  It forms a very powerful and well-integrated system.

So, Google, offline support for the “desktop” and/or a proper desktop app – and I’ll happy keep subscribing.  Which I will.  Until Amazon’s own music subscription comes along when I’ll be checking that out.

As for Apple Music – much trumpeting from Cupertino yesterday about a forthcoming redesigned service, but no mention of fixing server errors, iTunes Match muck-ups and all that malarky.  No apologies, nothing – and we know it’s affected a great deal of people.  Especially those who are heavily into their music collections – the very people Apple are trying to target.

My biggest complaint with Apple services that outside of the US, it’s pretty much a load of old rubbish.  I’m really still not happy with the speed of development of high-resolution apps for the iPad Pros.  I’m not happy with the tvOS uptake of video app for Apple TV (still no All 4, no support for BBC Store in the iPlayer app, no ITV hub, and unlikely that tvOS will get an Amazon Prime video app).   Apple may be providing the platform, but damn it if developers are taking the bait.   As for watchOS 3 – the speed differential should have been there at the launch of the Apple Watch on day one.  As for the other stuff – many features already present in other platforms or third party apps.  And they’re mainly niceties, not must-haves.

Apple turnover: Replacing a bricked 9.7″ iPad Pro due to 9.3.2 firmware

Yesterday I popped up to London to get my recently bricked (thanks to the latest 9.3.2 firmware update) 9.7″ iPad Pro fixed.  Having arranged what I think must be my first ever Genius appointment in the 12+ years I’ve been using Apple products, I took a leisurely poot on the 139 bus from Waterloo Station up to Regent’s Street/Oxford Circus.

The Regent Street Apple Store is currently under refurbishment at the moment, so you have to walk down (or take a lift) downstairs to a temporary area full of tables, people and Apple Store staff in green shirts.  I’ve always had problems with the Apple Store layouts in that they never put up any signs pointing you to where things are, or what they do.  You wouldn’t go shopping in a supermarket and have to figure out where the canned soup is, so why should a high end technlology store be any different?  For example, I joined a smallish queue with an Apple Store staff member at the end dealing with queries.  I had naturally assumed this is where I had to check in for my appointment.

Not so.

Apparently I could have flagged anybody down and be shephearded over to empty desks to wait for somebody to come and see me about my problem.  And this is what happened.  After a wait of about 5 minutes, a chap came over and I described the problem: upgrading the iPad Pro OTA (over the air) to 9.3.2 , which worked fine for the large iPad Pro and iPhone 6S Plus, bricked the smaller iPad Pro.  I attempted numerous restores – even downloading the 9.3.1 update and attempting to apply that.  I attempted a full wipe and restore.  No dice.  Error 56 every single time.

So the Apple Store Genius chap brought out his MacBook Air and attempted to do the same.  No dice on every occasion.  Error 56 (hardware problem).  Whatever Apple did with the 9.3.2 update should never do that sort of thing.  I occasionally get very nervous flash updating hardware RAID controller firmware at work, but I should never have to face complete and total hardware replacement if I update my iOS device’s OS and firmware.

Anyway, it was determined that the iPad Pro was a very dead iPad Pro and was not pining for the Fjords as Apple suspected.  The Genius staff member took away the iPad because with the lights in the store was making it very difficult to read the etched serial number on the back of the unit.  He also attempted to locate replacement stock, but it turns out the Regent Street store was completely out.  For at least 7 days.  But thankfully the Covent Garden store did have some available and he made a reservation for me to go and pick it up immediately (I had 45 minutes to get there – the store closes at 8pm).  It was that, or wait until Apple release some form of update that undoes everything – but as there is no timescale for this, and we don’t know WHAT the 9.3.2 firmware actually did, it was too much of a gamble.

So I Ubered over to the Covent Garden store.  That was a mistake.  I forgot just how busy London traffic is.  But we got there with 15 minutes to spare.  Upon entering the store, I was passed around 4-5 different Apple Store staff members – going forwards and backwards before I was about to lose my temper.  Again, no signs in the store to indicate where I should be going.  But thankfully I helpful chap took my details and walked back with me to the right place to get hold of the reserved replacement unit.  Within 10 minutes we swapped out the SIM and was getting going with restoring from the last iCloud backup.  About 10 minutes after the store closed I had a working iPad Pro 9.7″ again.

I am not updating from 9.3 until the next release of iOS (which should be 9.3.3) and that I have seen people update successfully first.  This entire little adventure has cost me £40 including train, bus and Uber fares.  All because Apple mucked up a firmware update.  And because Apple made it impossible to restore from a backup.

I will be writing to Apple about this, and enclosing my reasonable invoice to reclaim the fees paid to get the unit replaced.  Interestingly, I was made to sign something electronically which I managed to muck up.  The Apple Store staff appear to use older iPads that don’t support Apple Pencil, so I was expected to use my finger to sign.  Which I didn’t – I just clicked Done.  Does that still tie me to the T&Cs?  I don’t know.  We’ll see what Apple says when I write to them.