iPad Pro 10.5″ is getting closer to replacing your computer

I am a big fan of Apple’s tablet range, and having owned the previous generation 12.9″ iPad Pro and the 9.7″ iPad Pro, they were pretty decent beasts.  But they were not enough to replace my laptop.

A year and a bit on since the 12.9″ iPad Pro was launched, Apple have jazzed up the the iPad Pro range with a new 12.9″ model, and a brand new 10.5″ model replacing the 9.7″.

I have just replaced the 9.7″ with the 10.5″ model which now comes with a staggering 512Gb of storage.  I’ve already filled it with 200Gb of TV shows (ready for my upcoming cruise).  The A10X Fusion chip that’s driving the new 10.5″ and 12.9 iPad Pro is nothing short of remarkable.  The benchmarks alone put this thing up into the MacBook Pro processing range for some tests.

But what’s particularly special about the new 10.5″ and 12.9″ iPad Pros is the display.  The ProMotion 120Hz refresh rate is nothing short of a revolution in tablet display tech.  Heck, even most modern monitors can’t achieve this level – not unless you go for specialist gaming or creative monitors costing many hundreds of pounds.  “Smooth as butter” is probably the aptest description I can give to anything utilising 120Hz refresh.  Swiping between pages or scrolling up and down in Empire Magazine’s app gives you a whole new experience of reading material on this device.  The Times and Sunday Times electronic newspapers are similarly impressive when scrolling through articles or swiping through pages.  The additional inch of screen real estate also makes reading electronic comics much easier too.  And the whole thing – especially as Apple no longer provide back covers for the iPad Pros – feels lighter than the previous gen. It feels very comfortable in one hand.

The 120Hz ProMotion feature also comes into play if you’re drawing or writing with the Apple Pencil.  Latency has been reduced to 20ms, and it’s as close to instantaneous response as you’re going to get (well, until the next generation of ProMotion at least).  I can provide a better signature with this thing.  Writing on the iPad Pro with an Apple Pencil is a much better experience.

The only thing I would mention is that everything feels a little too big when it comes to icon arrangements on the home screen.  I’ve made the text smaller, but there’s still a lot more space between the icons.  I’d like a feature like the iPhone Plus 7 where I can condense the space a bit more.  Similarly, the smaller font I’ve selected makes the tablet font rendering in some apps look a bit odd.  At times it feels like I’m using .. da da daaaa .. Android.  So I think Apple has got to do a bit more work smoothing out font rendering a bit more.  That said, this problem may go away in iOS 11 – an OS that will take iPads to a whole new level (seriously, this WILL make the tablet looks and feel like a proper computer from what I saw during the live WWDC video stream) .

(Note: the 10.5″ Ipad Pro’s display is a little too large to read novels, so I’ll always carry my e-Ink Kindle with me, but it’s ideal for reference material.  As I have taken advantage of a few Humble Bundle reference books over the past couple of years, I have quite a few O’Reilly and other technical books which render fantastically well on this device under iBooks)

So to the naysayers that thought the iPad had run out of steam.  Oh no.  No, no, no.  Apple have only just started.  I am delighted with the 10.5″ iPad Pro.  The storage space, the display, the lightness, AND with the leather pouch (ooer-missus), to protect both the device and the Apple Pencil will ensure that it’ll be a brilliant second computer to carry around with me – and will be used daily.

You don’t need ransomware to make me WannaCry about Windows..

Windows Servers.  What a load of old tosh.  The past three weeks or so have seen me tinkering unnecessarily with the blasted things because of Microsoft’s inability to write an operating system which is so super sensitive to hardware changes – principally because of licensing – that just by upgrading underlying virtualisation software triggers the operating system to think it has a new network card.  You can imagine the chaos something like that can cause!

It’s not just that which makes me despise Windows Server.  For similar reasons, if a dedicated server chassis dies and needs to be swapped out – you’d better have a spare because any hardware changes will cause Windows to freak out.  Linux has no problem with such things providing you’re using a modern distribution and reasonably up to date hardware.  Generally speaking, with maybe a very few exceptions, Linux Just Works(tm).

Don’t get me started on those people that are still running the now 15 year old Windows 2003.. (though this article about Fasthosts running Windows 2003 for their backup platform made me laugh a lot more than it should – and bury my hands in my face for leaving an obsolete OS in charge of managing critical customer backups).

The whole WCry situation around these parts has been, strangely, pretty good – indeed, a lot more people have taken an interest in their backups and patching their systems and this is only to be commended.  A good old major outbreak tends to kick people in the teeth and get them thinking about disaster recovery.

Just because I use MacOS and Linux isn’t making me complacent – oh no.  Very recently Apple just released updates to iOS, MacOS and WatchOS to fix a rather nasty exploit, as well as general performance updates.  It’s one of the reasons I went back to iOS – Apple has become very good at rolling out updates much faster and on schedule than the likes of Samsung.

The server on which this blog runs on utilises something called KernelCare which patches the kernel in real time for newly discovered exploits.  This has the advantage of:

  1. Not having to wait for the OS vendor to release a patch.
  2. You don’t have to reboot the machine.

In my testing of KernelCare, it has worked very well.  If you’re using it in a VPS, it must support full virtualisation – paravirtualisation won’t cut it.

Meanwhile, Microsoft should stick to producing office productivity software and gaming (Xbox One) – it’s what they’re good at.  I’ve completely lost faith in their desktop and server operating system divisions.

More bad Breaking Bad distribution foul-ups

Update: I’ve found the workaround.

A while back I mentioned how flawed the Blu-Ray edition of the Breaking Bad: Complete Series was in how it used cardboard cases that scratch the Blu-Ray discs, providing a horrible experience to people who have paid a lot of money for it.

Well, I thought I had a way around all that when I spotted Breaking Bad Deluxe series 1-6 (series 5 is split into 2 in order to bring in more profit) on iTunes.  It contains all the same features of the Blu-Ray, but none of the potential scratchiness of terrible packaging – plus the ability to play across all Apple devices.  So it includes lots of audio commentaries, extra features, documentaries and so on.

ALAS!

The audio commentaries, which are presented as separate titles, do not play on the Apple TV.  You only get the original episode audio for some reason.  I examined the info while playing the commentary episodes – there’s just one audio stream.  There’s no ability to switch to any other audio stream/track.  So where is the Apple TV getting the audio from if the commentary episodes are self-contained?  Or are the commentary episodes just containers pointing to a separate audio file that the Apple TV can’t parse?

The audio commentaries play absolutely fine under MacBook Pro iTunes, the iPad and the iPhone 7 Plus.  No problems at all.  But the one method I want to play it on – the Apple TV (and the latest 4th generation at that) – doesn’t work.

Fan-bloody-tastic.

As an experiment, I tried to stream an audio commentary episode from the MacBook Pro to Apple TV – nope – the original episode audio played.

Sigh.

I’ve dropped Apple quite a few reports about this, and I’m waiting for them to get back to me.   All I will says is: God help Apple if they tell me that I need to take this up with the content provider.  There will blood – probably mine as I bash my forehead repeatedly against the desk.

And film/TV studios wonder why people turn to piracy…

iTunes & iTunes Extras: A viable alternative to physical media – at last!

One thing I love about buying movies and TV shows on physical media: the extras.  You usually get audio commentaries from the filmmakers along with little featurettes (and occasionally feature-length documentaries) about the making of the film.

But the problem with physical media is having to store it somewhere.  All those cases all add up.  And if higher definition versions come out later, you’ll have to replace the disk, packaging, etc.

Until recently, I had been put off of iTunes movies because I’ve a reasonable fear that the movie studios may pull the movie off the service at any time and remove my access to the movie.  After all, this DOES happen with iTunes music – if you buy a track or album and it’s no longer sold on iTunes, you won’t be able to download it again if you’ve removed the files to make room on your computer or device.

However, I think Apple (and the movie studios) treat movies & TV shows differently.  Given the size of HD movies, they can take up an enormous amount of space on a device.  And the Apple TV has limited storage (we’re talking about the 4th generation here).  So it makes sense that purchases remain in the cloud.   Thus I’m pretty certain that movies & TV shows bought on iTunes will remain a permanent fixture – and even if they don’t, I’m sure Apple would refund accordingly (although I shall bring this up again in another blog post about iTunes in-app subscriptions – what a mess THAT is!).

Anyway, one thing I have come to love with iTunes movies is iTunes Extras.  When movies first started being released with Extras, the offerings were not brilliant.  But more and more movies are being released with DVD/Blu-Ray quality features – and with audio commentaries.  The audio commentary thing is a HUGE deal.  Something that’s traditionally been limited to physical media is now being made available online (or offline if you download the movie to your computer or device).

Even Amazon Prime Video has jumped on the audio commentary bandwagon – offering a few of their TV shows with audio commentary.  It’s essentially a different title because the Amazon Prime Video platform doesn’t appear to offer multiple audio streams.  But it’s a start.  Netflix doesn’t offer ANY audio commentaries for any of their shows yet – so they’ve got some catching up to to.

But there is a downside to iTunes Extras.  They’re not available on iTunes TV shows.  If you buy a series or individual episodes, there are absolutely no extras whatsoever.  None.  Nada.  Kaput.  I hope Apple and the respective studios will put that right.  It’s essential, I think, to do this if Apple has any ambitions to make Apple TV a viable platform.

As for making backups of all the iTunes things – I use one of these, a Drobo.  Lovely device (on loan from work) – it offers full redundancy – up to two disks can fail at once and the data is okay.  But it’s a seriously noisy thing – and one of the disks (the second one from the bottom) is humming like mad.  So it’s on to take backups of my systems, then shut off.

Coming up next on my blog: iTunes subscriptions – is Apple passing the buck? and What movies to watch on iTunes, Netflix and Amazon Prime Video in 2017.

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.