Updates!

For my regular readers, I apologise for not updating this blog for a while as I’ve been very busy.  During the past month, I’ve passed my probation in the new job I started back in August and what with just having gone through the recent Black Friday/Cyber Monday, the weeks leading up to it have been extraordinarily busy.

I’ve cancelled Virgin Media and gone back to Sky for TV, phone and broadband (well, the phone not so much – I’ll be using my EE mobile for the most part and just keep the Sky landline for incoming calls).  I can tell you right now, the difference between Sky and Virgin is like night and day.  Sky Q has improved considerably in the 8 months or so since I originally joined Virgin with their Tivo 6 box.  The Tivo has been a massive disappointment what with TV programmes regularly suffering from messed up imagery/artefacts and I’ve not been able to delete all programs I’ve recorded either – they just end up stuck.  The whole Sky Cinema SD/HD thing was just awful.  So Virgin Media has been given the heave-ho permanently this time.

I’m a tiny bit disappointed that Sky has done away with their Sky Fibre Broadband Pro package which offered a static IP.  As I also work from home on a semi-regular basis, having a static IP makes a big difference when configuring access control lists for various endpoints.  But the max package I’m on is nevertheless not shabby in the least, and the lease times on IPv4 seems long enough – plus IPv6 has been re-enabled (took around 12 days after activation), so I’m dual stack here.

Getting back to Sky Q – there’s a new remote!  Instead of giving everybody two remotes for the main Sky Q box, there is just one.  It doubles as a touch-sensitive remote as well as being a regular clicky one – controllable from within the Sky Q menu settings.  I really like this approach and big kudos to Sky for taking on board feedback from customers.  It’s a real pleasure to use now.  But the biggest thing for me is the voice control.  I ask Sky Q to change the channel (and it will automatically select the HD version of that channel if available) as well as fast forwarding and rewinding X seconds or minutes.   It matches up with the Apple 4K TV just nicely.  If only we had a unified remote that could control both!

Sky Q now offers favourite channels – something that was sadly lacking last time.  It still needs a bit of tweaking: ideally, there should be a favourites button on the remote to take you to the TV guide that compliments the (new) existing feature of allocating favourites to the remote buttons.

Sky Cinema is back in full HD, and still offers a not unreasonable number of ultra HD (4K) content.  Unlike the Tivo V6 which didn’t offer anything at all.  And the best part is that Sky Cinema is only £10 a month for the duration of my 18-month contract.  Let’s hope we can do a deal again when it comes to renewing it!

For me, while I have had a massive speed drop from 300Mbs to 76Mbs (on average around 65Mbs), this isn’t a big problem.  Rarely do I achieve speeds above 150Mbs anyway – mainly because many websites simply won’t go above 100Mb due to bandwidth throttling at the hosting company – take a look at a lot of hosting packages and you’ll see what I mean.  But I’d rather Sky’s speeds with their brilliant Sky Q Hub than Virgin Media’s Intel-powered latency inducing SuperHub 3.

(BTW, not being paid by Sky to say these things – just a very happy customer with one exception – I have continually received “please return our equipment” SMSes and emails over the past month with threats to charge me despite the equipment being sent back with evidence of posting.  I think this has finally been resolved by speaking to an operator who got me to upload a scan of the Post Office receipt to a special section of Sky’s website.  So hopefully that’s that.)

Oh, and I’ve also replaced my Oppo 203 UltraHD Blu-Ray player with an Xbox One X – currently the most powerful console yet, with its 6 Teraflops of processing power.  It also has an UltraHD Blu-Ray player in it, and is much, much smaller than the Oppo.  I’ve been very impressed with it, but not so much with Microsoft Store who mucked up the extended warranty necessitating in two phone calls and a bunch of emails.  I’m not entirely sure the issue has been fully resolved as my account has weird XML related code embedded in the page where the warranty info is.  Let’s say that if I were considering a Surface Pro 2 which can cost up to £3k, I’d be very wary of buying it directly from Microsoft.  If they can’t get it right with an Xbox…

So that’s it so far!

How long it does it take update Window 10 to Creators Update?

Too long.

So I dusted off my Dell XPS 9350 laptop yesterday to check out the improvements of the Windows 10 Creators Update.  As I have not touched the thing in many months, there were many, many updates previously that had to be applied.  That alone took about 2 hours, including updating the BIOS and other Dell related software.  Why after all these years is Windows so slow at downloading and applying updates?  There was one point it was taking so long (30 minutes+) to apply the updates prior to reboot I had to manually power off the laptop and switch it back on again.

Then there was the hassle of getting the Creators Update.  It didn’t show up in the Windows Updates list, so I have to hunt around for the Windows Update Assistant which did the job for me.   The time spent dealing with this and the other stuff took another 2 hours.

Now, ordinarily, a user wouldn’t leave updates for several months – not after the mess of security flaws we’ve seen hit the news headlines.  But even so, to have to go through all the steps I had to go through to get things up to date  – it should NOT take four hours to do it.  And my XPS is no slouch – 16Gb RAM with 1Tb SSD with SkyLake i7 processor is not to be sniffed at.

If there is anything I would beg of Microsoft – please improve the update process. Make it easier for customers to upgrade to the latest releases in a single process rather than lots of little ones.  And the fewer reboots as a result of that would be just grand.

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.

(UK readers) Get Office 365 Home for 5 users for just £50

An annual subscription to Microsoft’s Office 365 service for 5 PCs/Macs that gives you the complete Office 2016 Home suite (Word, Excel, Powerpoint, Access and Outlook) usually costs £79 (inc VAT).

But for a very limited time, you can purchase a full year’s subscription up front for just £49.98 (saving £30) through Amazon.co.uk.

I’ve just bought one, and it’s extended my subscription under December next year, when it’ll revert back to monthly billing,

(First spotted at Windows Central)

Dell XPS 13 – the Apple of the Windows world

Stage 2 of Operation Bye Bye Apple Pie is in progress.

My replacement for the two-year-old MacBook Pro arrived yesterday.  Having owned a Dell desktop for around three years before switching to the Mac platform, I know just how reliable and well built Dell PCs are.  Indeed – I gave the old Pentium 4 Dell desktop to my in-laws, and it lasted them two-three years with just a graphics card and hard drive replacement required to get it working again after a year of heavy use.

I chose a Dell XPS 13.  It has a 13″ screen but within a 12″ body.  If you thought Apple were the only ones making well-made laptops, think again.  This thing has what is called an “infinity display” – the screen’s bezels are extremely thin., giving you more screen for your buck.  The keyboard closely resembles a MacBook Pro – chicklet keys that are satisfying to type on (albeit now with a Windows layout and the @ and £ symbols moved around a bit).

The system comes with 16Gb RAM, 1Tb  NVe PCIe SSD and Windows 10.  I chose to upgrade to Windows 10 Pro because the ability to generate, host and muck about with Hyper-V virtual machines are extremely useful for work related purposes.  I shall just tap my nose at this point – all will be revealed later.  The most important feature of Windows 10 Pro is the Bitlocker filesystem encryption.  With the Mac you’re rather spoilt with FileVault, so it makes sense to do the same thing with WIndows.  Speaking of the Mac, FileVault has given me quite a bit of jip over the years – see my articles on fixing FileVault on new Macbooks and CoreStorage jiggery-pokery – which will probably make all this look tame when Apple moves to their brand new filesystem, Apple FIle System (or APFS) with MacOS Sierra.  I doubt Microsoft will ever move away from NTFS / BitLocker for quite some time.  I’ve enabled BitLocker and it’s roughly 38% through encrypting the drive.

The SSD itself is a thing of beauty.  I’d always been wary of using SSDs with Windows because for the longest time there was never much in the way of “TRIM” support.  Trim helps manage the areas of the SSD where data has been written and erased.  Over time, the SSDs cells will eventually wear out (despite not having any physical moving parts).  Trimming will help manage the cells and remap where necessary.  A typical SSD should last around 5 years or more even with constant use (constant use being something like writing over 100Gb a day to the drive).  As this Dell uses Intel’s Skylake processor range, it also supports the latest chipset revisions.  It supports the SSD optimised management system called NVMe, an architecture designed around SSDs.  The internal Samsung SSD fully supports it.  From boot to use, Windows 10 Pro is ready to be used within 10 seconds.

The display is a touch screen, super high-resolution beast.  Like the iPad Pro, the screen suffers from a lack of support from developers.  Anything that doesn’t support resolution independence will look a bit blurry and rubbish.  On the other hand, applications such as Adobe Bridge are absolutely hideous – the screen is so small you’ll need to look at it through a magnifying glass.  I’m happy to report, however, that Adobe Photoshop is just fine.

The touch screen makes extensive use of Windows 10 tiles and touch facilities.  You could potentially use this laptop like a tablet – although the screen is firmly attached to the unit and you can’t twist the screen around.  It puts it in the same category as Dell’s excellent Chromebook range (albeit this XPS has a much better display).  It’s rather odd touching the Start menu with your fingers and not your mouse.

My biggest bugbear so far is that while Microsoft provides an OS X-like Preview app for viewing multiple images in separate windows, the Windows 10 Photos app adds all manner of guff to each window which you can’t get rid of.  If you just wanted to look at a photo by itself without the headers or toolbars – tough luck.  But you can, through a registry hack, bring back an older image app called Windows Photo Viewer.  This is much better – it’s easy to resize images through scrolling, resize the windows, etc.  I’ve tried looking for third-party applications that can do this – just in case Microsoft does something silly with Windows Photo Viewer – but nothing comes close to it in functionality.  I have yet to try Adobe Lightroom, however.

Overall, my experience with Windows 10 – my first proper experience with Windows 10 not involving running it in a virtual environment/lab – has been a good one.  But I’m not done there – I still have ti move over my photos and manage them as well as iTunes.  While the iTunes thing is more or less done through Google Play Music now, I’d still like to keep the physical files that I own on the SSD and access them through some form of desktop player.  Microsoft’s Groove player, maybe?  We’ll see.

This weekend I will be waving a sad goodbye to my MacBook Pro.  It was fun.  But it was two generations behind and, as I’ve said, I don’t have much faith in Apple going forward.  Besides, this new machine has cost me far less than what I originally paid for two years ago, has on site warranty for three years, and offers greater tinkering possibilities.  It also fits in with what I do at work, and – finally – who doesn’t like a change once in a while?  I had been stuck in Apple’s complete ecosystem for far too long.