A month later: The 2018 Windows 10 experience isn’t that bad..

.. except if you add an Active Directory into the mix – but that’s a whole different blog post.

So now I’m fully committed to Windows 10 – like I was back in 2016.  But that failed because Windows 10 just wasn’t right for me back then.  But my, how things have changed considerably!  I no longer use a Mac at work due to circumstances beyond my (or my employers) control – a long story.  One of biggest challenges for the move has been the ability to connect to remote computers via SSH.  Thankfully back in 2016, I renewed a maintenance contract for SecureCRT/SecureFX – a superb terminal emulator for Windows and Mac.  I actually used it on the Mac as its site manager feature was easier to manage substantial numbers of servers than a series of command aliases.

The next challenge was performing Linux style commands locally.  While Windows has its Command Prompt, it isn’t really good enough for my day to day tasks.  So thank goodness Microsoft invested in the Windows Linux Subsystem for Windows 10.  It’s still quite early days, and you can’t really use stuff like “mtr” that requires privilege escalation between the subsystem and Windows (amongst other things), it still gets stuff done 95% of the time.  Combine this with Chocolatey, a Windows package manager,  and you’ve got yourself a very nice platform on which to develop and maintain systems.

My only complaint is with Rackspace’s AWS service.  It uses ScaleFT as a method of connecting to AWS EC2 instances through a special client.  And it’s a bit of a pain in the arse.  I do wish third-party terminal emulators such as SecureCRT could integrate with it.  It’s not a terribly elegant solution in my view, and I’d wish both Rackspace and ScaleFT would do more to support Windows-client based SSH sessions.  It feels very rough right now.  I’d go as far as saying that I’d much rather just have a VPN instead.

Otherwise, Windows 10 has been pretty good.  The April 2018 update went smoothly, though we have now discovered why several laptops were locking up – there’s a bug which affects Chrome and Microsoft’s own Cortana. I’ve not experienced it myself across two (now three) machines, but it is definitely there.

Of course, the Alienware desktop is nothing short of remarkable when it comes to games thanks to its Geforce 1080 Ti.  He’s me in Fortnite getting one of my very rare first kills.  It’s a bit like a horror movie version of Mary Poppins.

So Windows 10 – it’s come a long way in the 2 years that I last used it in anger.  I will never rule out switching back to Mac, but for now, I’m happy, and the cost of ownership is significantly cheaper than Mac, even if you were to factor in any repairs (I have three onsite warranty for my desktop).

6 core blimey guv’nor, your 12 threads look mighty fine!

The Alienware desktop (an Aurora R7) arrived yesterday.  And jolly nice it is too.

Ignore the plastic on top, look at those lovely USB ports on top, including a USB-C port too.
And behold – a DVD drive! I can listen to CDs again!
More USB ports then there are stars in the heavens. Okay, just 10.
Since it is technically a gaming PC, I thought I’d bling things up a bit..

I also bought a Corsair Strafe Silent MX keyboard.  It’s a mechanical keyboard that utilises Cherry MX Silent keys, offering a much quieter experience above other types of mechanical keyboards that sound as if mice wearing stilettos are on a rampage across a wooden floor.  This keyboard feels great, and the colours are fully customisable.  Also includes special keys for gaming and tool to remove any keys on the keyboard for cleaning/replacement/custom keys.

Alongside that, I have a Corsair MX65 Pro gaming mouse.  It too lights up and is weighted.  This gives the mouse a much “sturdier” feel.  It makes the Apple Magic Mouse feel anaemic.  At first, it felt as if I were dragging a brick around, but about a minute later and after calibrating it, it felt as natural as anything.  The whole hand feels comfortable working with it.

To round things off is the 27″ Dell S2716DG monitor that is capable of 144Hz refresh rate, 2560×1440 resolution, and comes with Nvidia’s G-Sync technology for super smooth gaming.  It’s a shame the monitor isn’t an IPS display – thus blacks aren’t as good as they could be, and viewing angles do suffer a bit.  But overall it’s still a very good monitor.  I expect nothing less from Dell.  And speaking of gaming, the Nvidia GeForce 1080 Ti is nothing short of amazing.  Fortnite runs around 120-139fps at the highest resolution supported by the monitor.  I’ve not had a chance to time No Man’s Sky, but at Ultra settings, this thing seriously impresses.

The 8th generation Core i7-8700 processor with its 6 CPU cores and 12 threads do an amazing job of keeping up with everything I throw at it.  Watching four rows of graphs in the Task Manager when the system is doing something is quite impressive.

To think that the MacBook Pro which had cost MORE than this system, only had a dual-core processor (and 4 threads) and no discrete graphics card.  This is why I made the decision to go back to the PC, and on the desktop too.  Better hardware for the money.

Windows 10 is questionable in terms of value (I paid £46 to upgrade to Windows Pro because that is the version of Windows which supports drive encryption – Mac users get it built in with MacOS – but then again, you pay handsomely for lower spec hardware – you pays your money and you takes your pick).  I also paid £20 for a USB restore stick.  There is a bit of controversy over this as a PC recycler has just been fingered by Microsoft for selling CDs with Windows OS for the purposes of restoring the OS when the hard drive is wiped clean (which is freely available to anybody download and burn to a CD or USB stick from Microsoft’s site – albeit you’d still need to purchase an activation key, use the activation key found within your PC’s BIOS, or be in the position of a product key somehow).  I think Microsoft is being bloody stupid here, but then I think the same of most US IT corporations.  Too many lawyers, not enough sanity.

Overall I’m delighted with the new set-up.  It comes with 3 years on-site premium warranty as well, so no more trips to the Apple Store for me (which, in all the years of owning a Mac – I never had to go to – the iPad, yes, but not the Mac).

In these insecure times, which is the better product: BitDefender Total Security or ESET’s Internet Security?

The answer is: it depends on the platform.

I found ESET’s Cybersecurity Pro/Cybersecurity/NOD32 to be cumbersome under MacOS.  On network drives and WebDAV volumes, the access to files and documents were excruciatingly slow.  Local scan times took an age too.  So I had to give up and head over to BitDefender’s Total Security for the Mac.  While not quite as complete as it is for Windows, this is by far the best solution for Mac users.  It’s fast, unobtrusive and gets the job done, though it is a pity BitDefender Central couldn’t tell the difference between two MacBook Pros. 🙁

ALAS!

The same cannot be said for the Windows version.  I’d just taken delivery of part one of my Dell/Alienware order – an Alienware mechanical keyboard (oh so clicky!) and as it features programmable keys and lighting, it triggered a software install.  BitDefender, without telling me, falsely declared the software to be malicious and quarantined everything.  I could get stuff back from quarantine, but couldn’t whitelist it – so the BitDefender is now gone from my Windows machine.  In its place is ESET Internet Security.

Now, on lower end Windows machines, I’ve found ESET’s Endpoint software to be a blight on system resources – especially if you configure regular scans.  But on my current quad-core Alienware R3 machine, ESET Internet Security just flies.  Scanning is still rather slow, but you can happily leave it running in the background without slowing things down. (Another reason for me to leave the MacBook/Mac arena and go back to the land of the Windows/Linux PC – it’s just too bloody expensive to get a decent and powerful CPU with Apple – trying to get a Mac under budget for work was nearly impossible and I had to limit myself to dual core.)

I do have access to Sophos Home Premium, but the biggest problem I’ve found with that is that it’s controlled almost entirely online.  Give me local controls.  I’ve found Sophos’ business products to be excellent (especially Intercept X and their Ransomware protection) – but far too costly and complicated for the consumer.

Touch-A, Touch-A, Touch Me: MacBook 2016 Initial Impressions

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The long-awaited refresh of Apple’s MacBook Pro series has finally arrived to a mixed reception by the Mac community.  Much praise has been given to its design: the thinness and lightness compared to the previous generation, and a much brighter and more vibrant display (in which reds are fuller reds, etc.).  But much criticism is given to the keyboard – including the brand new addition: the touch bar.

First of all, the 2016 15″ MacBook Pro is a tiny bit smaller than the predecessor. Not by much, but noticeable nonetheless.  Lifting the screen is much, much easier than the previous generation – it always felt a little awkward. Thanks to re-engineered hinges, the lid is effortless and will now start the MacBook Pro without you ever having to press the power button – regardless of whether you’re cold booting or resuming from sleep.

The only ports available are all USB-C.   Any of them can be used for charging, and you’re given a generous 2m USB-C charging cable and charging brick.  I actually prefer this to the previous MacBook Pro’s charger – it’s much easier to carry around and cable is long enough for most people’s needs.  But I do confess that I miss MagSafe.  In terms of #DongleLife, it’s not been a problem.  So far I’ve had to use my Lightning to USB-C cable to pair up the wireless mouse, and a USB-A to USB-C adapter to connect a WD Passport HD to transfer data from my older computer.  Each of the USB-C ports is sturdy, and when a connector is in, it sits there firmly plugged in.  That said, be careful of placing any drinks nearby – I nearly spilt a cup of something when pulling out the USB-A adapter this morning.

They keyboard. I thought I would hate it having tried out the MacBook earlier this year (when I was waiting to replace my iPad Pro bricked by Apple releasing dodgy firmware), but the keyboard on the MacBook Pro 2016 model is lovely.  I love typing on this thing.  The closest I can describe it is that it feels like a combination of the Apple’s wireless keyboard crossed with the iPad Pro smart keyboard cover.  Trust me when I say it’s better than it sounds.  Speaking of sounds, this keyboard is much noisier than previous generations, but it feels satisfying. Imagine you had a room full of 2016 MacBook Pros, and everything was typing at once – now imagine the olden days of newsrooms and typewriters – that’s probably what it would sound like.

The Touch Bar.  It’s nice and useful.  But I’d like to see Apple’s haptic engine paired up with it to get feedback from key presses.  The surface is smooth and glossy, but you don’t get any touch feedback from it.  I can see Apple extended this to the keyboard in general – I imagine one day we’ll see MacBook Pro’s that use keyboards that are essentially a full-size Touch Bar with haptic feedback.  It’d feel like you were typing on the current 2016 MBP keyboard, but it’d essentially be virtual.  This would mean that ANY key could be remapped or changed to suit particular applications – imagine having a whole keyboard dedicated to Final Cut Pro X functions, etc.  I reckon Apple are preparing us for that very thing.  But in the mean time, the Touch Bar DOES give the user a much more usable set of functions that replace the ancient function key row.

The Escape Key.  As a systems administrator, I use the escape key a lot more than most people.  I find it a very odd experience when editing files in vim having to press something that doesn’t give me touch feedback when pressed.  But it works, and I haven’t made any mistakes using it yet.  It will take a bit of getting used to.

I’d like Apple to produce a wireless keyboard that matches the experience of the MacBook Pro 2016.  Not just key travel, but also the Touch Bar.  How you’d do that on a wireless model without exhausting the batteries is another matter – but once you’ve gone to the MBP 2016 keyboard, you won’t want to go back – unless you absolutely hate it – these things are a deeply personal preference, and I’m a very fussy keyboard user.  Thankfully the current Apple wireless keyboard is close enough that I won’t pine for the MacBook Pro keyboard while I’m working at the desk.

I’ve not given the CPU or GPU much of a workout, but I have discovered a few issues:

  • Graphics glitches.  I can confirm that they do exist (I have the 2Gb Radeon Pro 450 – the lowest end model).  Fortunately for the moment it seems to manifest during the post-boot login screen and soon go away once fully booted into MacOS Sierra.  I’m convinced these are just driver / OS issues rather than the hardware – I’ve seen similar issues with my work MacBook Air over a few versions of OS X and it seems to be something that just happens. As these MacBook Pros now use the Skylake architecture, remember what I said about the Dell XPS and display issues?
  • System Integrity Protection was disabled out the box.  On a Mac, the SIP is an important component that helps protect the system from being abused by all manner of nasties.  All new Macs should ship with it switched on, but there have been many reports that new 2016 MacBook Pros ship with it disabled – but equally many reports with it being enabled.  Why?  Only Apple knows.  But it’s easy to enable it – boot into recovery mode, open up a Terminal and type csrutil enable. Then reboot.  

I should mention the Touch ID fingerprint sensor.  It makes the Mac a little more pleasurable to use when waking from sleep,  accessing my 1Password password manager, or installing new applications.  Works just like it does on an iPhone or iPad.  iOS convergence is here!

Apple Pay is now supported, but don’t do what I do.  Given what I’ve just said about System Integrity Protection – make sure it’s enabled before adding ANY credit or debit cards to your MacBook Pro’s Apple Pay wallet.  Having done this and discovering SIP was disabled, I enabled it, only to discover that wiped out all previous cards added to the system – because it’ll think these were added by another user.  I can’t be bothered adding them back in because it will involve another phone call to the banks.

I did give the MacBook Pro the obligatory graphics and GPU performance test: Team Fortress 2.  It detected a stronger GPU over the previous generation MacBook Pro and gameplay was excellent – with the fans barely kicking in.  When they did, the fans on this unit are spectacularly quiet.  TF2 is not a graphics intensive game, but then again I wouldn’t want to run a super modern, highly graphics intensive game on this thing – it’s not meant as a gaming machine.  This is why I have a games console.  The discreet GPU on this thing is there to help along creative tasks performed with Photoshop, Final Cut Pro, and so on.

Overall, I’m really pleased with the 2016 MacBook Pro.  Once Apple gets around to releasing bug fixes for the graphics and a fix for the SIP (not a lot of people will want to fix it themselves), this will be a perfectly decent workhorse for many years to come (just as well given the cost).

My next MacBook Pro upgrade will come a few Intel CPU generations later – whatever one supports mobile hexacore CPUs (I reckon mid-2019 or thereabouts).  By then we should be able to upgrade RAM above 16Gb without affecting battery performance and see true hardcore mobile performance in the kind of form that Apple users expect.  But for now, this Skylake beauty is perfectly good enough for my current and immediate future needs.

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.