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…

Escaping Apple’s Luxury Prison part 443,211: Google Pixel 2 XL and Fitbit Versa

So, this happened:

Great Googly moogly..

The biggest problem with Apple’s ecosystem (aka the luxury prison) is that it doesn’t tend to work well with others.  I’ve been scratching my head over how to integrate iCloud Photo Library with Windows properly, but it is slow and a pain in the arse to use under Windows.  I don’t want to use iTunes to connect my phone to the computer – a straightforward USB to use-as-a-disk is fine.  The iPhone X did not let me do that.

The Google Pixel 2 XL has been receiving many rave reviews over the past few months.  It’s stock Android which means that there is no bloat from the phone manufacturer or telecoms company, and it receives the very latest security updates ASAP as well as the latest feature updates too.  And you know where you stand with their update policy – this phone is supported up until late 2020.  Apple seems to keep moving things forwards and backwards and forwards with their support lifecycle for various products.

Now, I picked up my Google Pixel 2 XL at a bargain price.  Carphone Warehouse had knocked off a good £170 off the RRP, so I decided to go with them.  I also bought a Google Home Mini to replace the Apple Homepod.  I’ve got to say, Google has absolutely nailed it with the home assistant.  Not only is she responsive, but the response is natural and quick.  For example, when I ask how best to get to Woking, she tells me the correct bus number to take, when the next bus is, and the nearest stop.  And as it integrates with various smart related technologies around the home, it Just Works(TM).  I always found the Apple HomeKit system to be far too overly complex to operate.  The UI is a mess, and Siri has to think about things before responding.

The Pixel 2 XL itself is great.  The images it takes are the sharpest of any smartphone I’ve ever used, and even some compact cameras.

Everything’s peachy with the Google Pixel 2 XL camera
Dog keeping me company while I eat a ham sandwich.

The device is larger than the iPhone X, and also offers a greater number of app icons to be shown on screen at once.  All apps I’ve had on the iPhone are available under Android.  It took about 2 hours to transfer everything and set-up the phone as new (never trusted these transfer processes).  Instead of Apple Pay, there is now Google Pay.   Again, same support from the banks and credit card companies.

Gone is Face ID and replaced with a fingerprint scanner again.  This time around the back.  Its placement feels natural enough and makes looking at the phone at 3am in the morning much easier than trying to get Face ID to recognise you with your face against the pillow.

Another change Apple made without telling anybody is Wi-Fi calling.  Thanks to the hoo-hah over batterygate and Apple slowing down older phones whose battery is wearing out, they made a change to Wi-Fi Calling which meant that Wi-Fi Calling on iPhones will use cellular if it’s strong enough and fallback to Wi-Fi Calling if not.  There is no way of overriding this.  On the Google Pixel 2 XL, this works full time if you’re connected to a Wi-Fi network regardless of cellular signal strength and you enable Wi-Fi Calling.

The G-Team

But what about the Apple Watch?  I’ve replaced it with a Fitbit Versa.  This looks to be a device formed from the assimilation of the Pebble watch team.  It’s a lightweight watch that incorporates the usual fitness tracking.  But it works with both Android and iOS, and unlike the Apple Watch has a battery life of up to 4 days between charges.  So far it’s been great – though the Fitbit app is rather confusing.  The GPS connection warning started up immediately even though I wasn’t exercising, and I couldn’t figure it out, though it seems that it has something to do with the Always Connected versus All-Day Sync option.

The Fitbit Versa’s wrist straps are relatively straight forward to change.  I had to swap out the smaller strap for the included larger one, but to do this requires fiddling about with pins in the straps.  I managed to cause my fingernails to bleed when applying pressure to the pin heads.

My one concern is that of how tough the front glass is – there are many reports of the face getting scratched easily, though so far I haven’t managed to ding mine and I’m quite rough with it.

The Shape of Water & Black Panther: Two films you don’t want to miss

Last weekend I went to the local Odeon – the one where I had a lot of fun collecting tickets from an online booking for Star Wars: The Last Jedi.

ALAS!

While I initially booked The Shape of Water without any difficulty, I decided, while I was having a coffee at Costa coffee at Guildford station, to book to see the much-hyped Black Panther afterwards.  I got my phone out and attempted to make the booking, except, well, I’ll let the screenshots speak for themselves:

Did they try hitting the server repeatedly with a mallet? Works for me!

So I tried again.  ALAS!

Given the misadventures of last time, I now have no idea whether (a) they’ve taken credit from the gift card and (b) whether I have a seat or not.

So I made my merry way across the road and across the river, muttering under my breath how much the quality assurance of modern technology drives me insane, and went up to the box office, which – being Saturday – was open.

I explained the situation to one of the box office folk who had a look at the booking and presumably having given my name was able to confirm the seat.  Only he had to handwrite it for me:

Proud owner of one of only a few handwritten cinema tickets..

Now, two things happened here.  The first was that the ticket I had ordered for The Shape of Water had a seat reservation.  What you see above is NOT the seat I had reserved.  Had I paid for the premium seating, I would have flipped my lid.  The seat I ended up with wasn’t brilliant, but perfectly adequate.

Cinema escapades aside for the moment, The Shape of Water by Guillermo Del Toro is everything that people say it is.  It’s a stunningly beautiful love story that just happens to feature what is presumably the Creature from The Black Lagoon.  Sally Hawkins as the mute Elisa is nothing short of extraordinary – conveying her emotions physically and communicating entirely in sign.  Doug Jones as the Creature is otherworldly, yet is still capable of great kindness and compassion to those who are not out to kill him.

(Be warned, cat fans, as there is one unsettling scene which is really a bit of a misunderstanding (though the poor cat which is at the receiving end of said misunderstanding would hardly say that was the case.))

The film is brutal, romantic, lovely and surreal across the 2 hours it plays for.  It’s an adult fairytale and Del Toro took risks making it (including turning down the sequel to Pacific Rim amongst other projects).  But it pays back in spades.  It is well deserving of the BAFTA awards it has picked up (Soundtrack, Production Design and Director), and well worthy of picking up even more at the forthcoming Oscars.

So, after a stonking good two hours of fishy romance, I pretty much went straight into Black Panther.  I took my seat and waited.

ALAS!

Odeon double booked the seat.  Whatever happened at the Box Office didn’t properly reserve the seat, and whatever happened with the web app also failed to reserve the seat.  So I went back to the Box Office and explained what happened.  Thankfully seating was still available, and decent seating at that, so it was all booked without any fuss and I was able to go back into the cinema to enjoy the film.

Black Panther, it must be said, is perhaps Marvel’s best ever effort at making a superhero movie.  Not only does it feature decent character building of the good guys, but gives the main villain a decent background from which you can actually understand where he’s coming from.

The story centres around the kingdom of Wakanda, a central African nation that is technically superior to any other on Earth thanks to a mineral called vibranium which fell to Earth from a meteorite millions of years ago.  It leads to the people of the region to embrace its properties, which, thanks to the enrichment of the soil due to the mineral, grows a particular plant which if imbibed, gives the person superhuman strength.  Thus Wakanda was born, and of the 5 tribes, 4 yielded to the Wakandans and were given protection and access to the vibranium, with the fifth deciding to go their own way and live up in the mountains alone.  The subsequent rulers of Wakanda have become the Black Panther – a protector and warrior.  However, Wakanda remains hidden from the rest of the world.  To us, Wakanda remains a poor country – though in all its history, refused any aid.  While Wakanda’s neighbours were colonised and taken as slaves, Wakanda did not intervene – they stayed hidden.

Fast forward to modern times, and events after Avengers: Age of Ultron.  King T’Chaka is dead, and his son, T’Challa is to become king of Wakanda.  Meanwhile, a South African arms dealer (played by Andy Serkis) has just stolen a weapon from the British Museum, unbeknownst that it is made from vibranium (and hence originates from Wakanda).  Along with the South African, an American (Michael B. Jordon) shows a keen interest in the weapon and its origins…

And so begins a well-paced movie that explores multiple themes.  One of which is belonging, and another being whether Wakanda should share its technology with the rest of the world.  The result of the secrecy is one of the reasons behind the American finding Wakanda and, well, it becomes a feud of epic proportions.

The film features a gadget sequence that would be Q to shame.  T’Challa’s sister, Shuri (played magnificently by Letitia Wright), would put Tony Stark to shame.  At point in the film when Martin Freeman’s CIA agent, Everett Ross, awakens in her laboratory, she greets him with, “Hello, coloniser”.  We can pretty much assume not many western white people have been this way..

The women of Black Panther are fierce as heck.  Special mention must be made of Okoye, played by The Walking Dead’s Danai Gurira, who is the general of the Dora Milaje, the elite (female) bodyguards that protect the royal family.  She wields a very pointy and shiny spear which she uses to great effect.  No more so than the casino sequence in which hits, stabs and throws people about like rag dolls.

The entire film is absolutely wonderful.  The Afrofuturism is well done, and most importantly, believable.  I’m about to start reading Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti series, about a young Himba woman who is the first of her people to be accepted into a prestigious galactic university.  If Neil Gaiman loved it, I’m sure I will to.

But getting back to Black Panther – this is definitely the best Marvel film to date, and long may we see sequels.  We’ll be heading back to Wakanda for quite a spell in the forthcoming Avengers: Infinity War, so it’ll be nice to see some familiar faces.

Long live King T’Challa!  Long live Wakanda!