A few thoughts about the 2018 mid-range MacBook Pro 15″

Good grief, the SSD on this thing is fast.  Thanks to the T2 co-processor which offloads encryption and disk controller functions from the main CPU (amongst many other things), the SSD performance is the fastest I’ve ever encountered.  2.5G/bits write and close to 3G/bits read.

The keyboard feels a little spongier thanks to the debris-blocking membrane, but it’s still a good keyboard to work on.  Still won’t be everybody’s cup of tea.  Neither will the touch bar which remains only partially useful to me.  Partially because I keep the lid of the machine closed when it’s hooked up to the monitor and use an external keyboard and mouse.

CPU, cooling and throttling performance.  About as I would expect having used previous incarnations of the 2017, 2016 and older MacBook Pros.  Having 6 cores greatly improves everyday tasks.  Importing and sorting all my photos and videos (~11,000)  back into Apple’s Photos app was made faster by having that extra CPU power.  That plus the speed of the SSD.  When playing back video via YouTube, backing up to Backblaze and doing a Time Machine backup did cause the fans to spin up – but the noise wasn’t bothersome and kept the unit pretty cool around 69 degrees C.  I haven’t really pushed CPU-bound tasks yet.  Neither have I really bothered to check CPU frequencies.  But everything seems to be in order.

Additionally, wireless seems to be a lot more stable than the Alienware machine, despite having the latest and greatest Killer chipset.  Apple has apparently done very well with the placement and number of antennas in the Mac.  So there’s another positive right there.

Epic Megagames’ Fortnite, however, is a miserable failure on these 2018 MacBook Pros.  The AMD dedicated graphics card isn’t really meant for gaming.  But even so, I’d have expected average or better than average performance from the world’s most popular game.  For £600 more, one could purchase the Blackmagic Radeon Pro 580 with 8Gb graphics external GPU, but this is a bloody stupid idea for anybody wanting to play games.  I’ll stick with the Xbox One X, thanks.

iTunes is now a delight to use now that I’m back on MacOS.  It’s responsive, fast and does what it says on the tin.  Having access to the underlying BSD infrastructure is a great help with work – and it didn’t take me long to set-up everything that I need to work from home.

I do wish the MacBook Pro came with a couple more Thunderbolt 3 USB-C ports either side to accommodate the many dongles that you may need to attach to the machine, but otherwise, connectivity is generally very good.  Here’s hoping the 2018 iPhone Whatever comes with a USB-C connector, or at the very least, USB-C cable rather than (or in addition to) a USB-A to Lightning cable.  Apple needs to make a bigger commitment to USB-C connectors.

The 2018 MacBook Pro mid-range 15″ model is a beast that is definitely going to last a good few years (we’re not going to see 10nm chips until late 2019 and Apple are unlikely to get those into production until mid-2020 at a minimum), but upgradability is limited through the USB-C connectors and any repairs will need an Apple specialist (I remember the good old days of the plastic MacBooks which allowed you to swap hard drives and memory – and even the battery – alas, those days are long gone).

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…

Apple gadgets update: October, 2017

iPhone 8 Plus

Still happy with the phone.  Does what it says on the tin.  The beauty of it is that when paired with an EE contract, you’re getting a good all-rounder.

In many areas I’ve visited, I often get between 40Mbs – 100Mbs 4G connectivity.  When connected to Wi-Fi the device switches to Wi-Fi Calling which is a significant battery saver (unlike Three’s implementation of Wi-Fi calling which will only kick in if there is insufficient cellular strength).  Plus there is the new higher quality HD voice calling – available only through EE at this time.  Haven’t had a chance to give that a go as yet since it requires the other person to also have another iPhone 8 (or better).  Plus EE fully supports Visual Voicemail too.

I had a chance to give the free inclusive London Underground calling function which kicked in automatically as soon as I got to the platform at Waterloo’s Bakerloo line station.  Wi-Fi just kicked in automatically – no need to configure or select the Wi-Fi hotspot – It Just Works(tm).  Really handy.

The quality of the camera is something I’m still undecided on.  Yes, it is better than the iPhone 7 Plus, but many photos are still very “painting-like” in comparison to say, the Galaxy Note 8 or the forthcoming Google Pixel 2 XL.  I’ve enclosed a small sample of unedited photos, shot in the new HEIC format and exported to JPEG.

(Click any of the following photos to get full-size image – but a reminder – all these photos are copyright and I have all rights reserved on them – if you want to use them, please get in touch first)

The video quality looks okay, but I’ve found that with the release of MacOS High Sierra, Photos does not automatically import videos.  If I AirDrop a video to my Mac, it inexplicitly saves it as H.264 – especially odd as one can only shoot in HEVC at 4K 60fps.  I’m hoping that whatever is causing the block in automatic video importing via Photos/Photostream will be fixed in an iOS or MacOS update shortly.   I will say I am particularly disappointed in Apple for not releasing an update to Final Cut Pro X to enable HEVC before or after iOS 11/iPhone 8 was released.

Battery life is good – especially if the phone is using Wi-Fi Calling – and having bought a Belkin induction charger, I just plonk it on the charging pad each evening that sits just under my monitor.  And I can continue to use the phone while it’s charging – and just pick it up without entangling myself in wires.

Oh, and EE’s 6 months free Apple Music and streaming data is good.  One has to make sure that if you have let your direct-with-Apple Apple Music subscription expire, after applying the EE offer, you’ll need to log out of iCloud Music Library and log back in otherwise weird stuff will happen within your desktop iTunes application.

Apple Watch Series 3 with Cellular (LTE)

Very happy with the new series 3 watch.  It’s faster than its predecessor (app switching and general app usage is now usable!), has more storage, and the new cellular capability means that I can make and receive phone calls in the toilet(!) or on the way to the local supermarket to pick up lunch whilst leaving my phone at my desk.  Yes, the watch is still tethered to one’s iPhone, but it gives the watch a much bigger range away from it.  One problem I’ve noticed is that whenever I enter and leave the Wimbledon branch of Sainsbury’s, I always set the alarm off.  It can’t be the watch, surely?

Apple TV 4K

As a 4K/UHD owner, getting access to 4K content can be a little tricky.  So Apple’s foray into the 4K space was always going to be welcome.  Especially the free upgrade to 4K streaming of existing iTunes Movie library content.

The first thing I noticed was that ALL video had significant motion blurring.  This was because my LG 4K TV has a number of picture “enhancements” that I had to find and turn off.  I’ve had the TV for over two years and I hadn’t even noticed them buried within the myriad of options.  But turning them off – including disabling 4K upscaling on my amplifier/HDMI switch – did the trick.

I don’t have HDR, so the video output from the Apple TV 4K is always 4K SDR.  And with the TV’s motion enhancements out the way, the picture quality is excellent to the point I’m using the Apple TV’s Netflix app as my default, along with NOW TV (whose app is now looking a little decrepit now and isn’t near as useful as that on the LG TV, but Apple TV’s performance is far better) and BBC iPlayer.  Like NOW TV, the BBC iPlayer too is looking a little long in the tooth and really should get an interface update to make it more like other platforms.  That said, Apple probably enforces UI policies on these things, so there’s that.

Are 4K iTunes movies worth it?  The answer is: yes.  They do look better to my eye than HD.  I do not care about HDR.  My TV doesn’t support it and even if it did, given the age, it probably wouldn’t support the right type.

I’ve relegated my forth generation Apple TV to the bedroom which is ruddy useful as I can pick up where I left off upstairs or downstairs – whenever or wherever I feel the most comfortable at the time.

MacOS High Sierra

It’s okay-ish, but shutting down the 2017 MacBook Pro attached to the LG UltraFine 4K monitor results in the monitor showing a cyan screen every time.  Automatic Time Machine backups are rather spurious – I have to untick and tick the automatic backup flag to get it to work, only for the backup to complete and the Time Machine Systems Preferences panel telling me the next backup will only happen when the disk is next connected.  It’s almost always connected!  Then there is the issue of Photos and iCloud Photo Library’s Photostream.  Not all photos transferred automatically from the phone, and absolutely no videos transfer.  I have to AirDrop them and import.  And using AirDrop to High Sierra does not result in HEVC video files for some bizarre reason!

High Sierra is not Apple’s finest moment, I have to say.

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.