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.

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.

Does Apple truly care about the desktop/laptop computer anymore?

I’m not so sure.

With the rumours of Apple looking to replace Intel processors with their own custom silicon around 2020, it made me think about Apple on the desktop/laptop and how comfortable it has been.  It’s like putting on comfortable slippers and lounging around wearing a smoking jacket, with a faux smoking pipe sticking out the corner of one’s mouth – occasionally removing it to make some witty quip about the state of the British Empire.  That is to say that the Mac, and MacOS, is getting tired, out of date and increasingly irrelevant.

Much of the innovation from Apple found in modern Macs and MacOS is from Apple’s mobile divisions – iOS.  The iPhone and iPad have been rolling out features to MacOS rather than the other way around.  MacOS’ new filesystem, APFS, first featured on the iPhone and iPad before it hit the desktop.  The processors (or rather, System on a Chip – SoC) have routinely beat the likes of the competition in the mobile market, and we’ve even seen them approach the performance of lower end modern Intel laptops.

So it makes sense for Apple to eventually move away from Intel and start using their own A-range of ARM processors.  But this is not without cost – I remember the transition between PowerPC and Intel and while it wasn’t too strenuous, it took some developers quite some time to roll out native code.  If the Mac went ARM, I can see the same thing happening: you’re stuck with a machine that is so new and shiny that so few apps can take advantage of the performance.

So I’ve decided now’s the time to swallow my pride and head back to the PC.  And that means having to (well, not HAVING to, but it’s better than Linux GUIs I’ve come across) embrace Windows 10.  Back in 2016 when I bought two machines – a Dell XPS and an Alienware R3, the experience of Windows 10 was dire , to say the least.  Just search this blog for my opinion at the time.   But work has convinced that despite the massive pain in the arse Windows is, it IS getting better – albeit slowly.

The hardware was went convinced me.  My MacBook Pro was a 7th generation Core i5 running at 3.1Ghz, 2 CPU cores, and had four threads.  Intel’s latest offering is 6 cores with 12 threads.  That includes desktop and laptop CPUs.  The MacBook Pro is limited to 16Gb RAM.  The SSD cannot be upgraded.   At work I recommended Dell to start replacing a fleet of low powered Windows machines.  For development work, I picked out the Dell 8930 which offers a 6 core Core i7 8700 processor.  And it looks beautiful:

6 core blimey, guv’nor!

RAM is easily upgradable to 64Gb DDR4 RAM – and you can see the M2 slot is perfectly capable of being upgraded.  Furthermore, this machine can accommodate up to 3 more 3.5″ hard drives. The machine comes with an NVIDIA Geforce 1050 Ti, which is a big step up from the integrated Intel graphics.

Dell has always been good at creating internals which give you easy access to the components.

So I’ve been very impressed with Dell’s latest desktop offering.  We’ve also had a Vostro laptop which is also extremely good and at a decent price range.  The one problem I encountered with it, however, was that Dell’s Windows 10 Pro image didn’t allow Windows domain users to access any of the installed software or Windows Store programs.  So I had to re-image the entire machine with fresh copy of Windows 10.  And this is where Dell is bloody marvellous: just download the System Manager and it’ll go off and find all the drivers your system needs.  It’ll also download and update the BIOS and other bits and bobs.

So after my experience at work, and having mulled over the possibility of Apple’s potential move to ARM processors among other concerns, I decided to buy a gaming PC.  I’ve ordered an Alienware (which is owned by Dell) Aurora R7 with an Intel Core i7 8700 processor, 16Gb RAM, 512Gb SSD boot drive, 2Tb 7,200 RPM secondary data drive, a top of the range Nvidia Geforce 1080 Ti with 11Gb RAM, 850 watt power supply, and the system is liquid cooled (closed loop).  Along with this is a 27″ Dell monitor with quad HD resolution, 144Hz refresh rate and supports Nvidia’s G-Sync.  I’ve already sold my MacBook Pro, and I am in the process of selling the other two laptops and other bits and bobs.  But it does mean I’ll have a top end system that will last a good few years (just like the Dell XPS desktop I had around 2001 which lasted ages – I gave it to my now former in-laws and it lasted them a good few years).

Still keeping the iPhone, Apple Watch and iPad Pro.  The iPad Pro is my new laptop (which became extremely useful on my previous cruise – more so than the MacBook Pro).  But as my contract starts to run out with EE, I may look at Android phones – though none of them have got to the point where they can give iOS or the Axx series of chips a run for the money.

At the moment I’ve transitioned everything to the Alienware R3 as a trial run.  Windows is actually behaving itself, and I’ve migrated Apple Photos over to Adobe’s Lightroom Classic CC (Adobe, for goodness sake, please give us Apple-like pricing for storage if you want us to use Lightroom CC in the cloud – your pricing is too expensive).  Still keeping with iTunes for Apple Music (which works remarkably well under Windows).