As we enter the third or fourth week of lockdown (to be honest, I can’t remember – I’ve been working from home since early at least early March), and with a good few more weeks to go (four, maybe even eight), I decided that I’d take some of the money that I’d be spending on commuting and upgrade some more of my home computing kit – particularly my monitor.

My old desk set-up – from the 1980’s! Multiplayer ZX Spectrum fun!

I’ve been using a Dell 24″ monitor for the past couple of years – it was something I bought for around £150 and has generally done me well. However, the 2018 15″ MacBook Pro and 2019 16″ MacBook Pro didn’t entirely get on well with it. iTunes/Apple TV would often complain that HDCP wasn’t available and refused to playback any of my 400+ iTunes movies and TV shows. Occasionally the screen would just blank for a few seconds too. I tried USB-C to HDMI cables, the £70 certified Apple adaptor and HDMI 2.0 certified cables – no joy.

Messy desk set-up prior to upgrade

I settled on a gaming monitor for the replacement. It may sound strange, but as the MacBook Pro can support higher refresh rates, supports AMD FreeSync for improved frame rates, it made sense. I went for a 27″ BenQ EX2780Q display.

New desktop set-up featuring 27″ monitor, Xbox One X and Jim Henson & Ava DuVernay Funko Pop Figures

It supports a 144Hz refresh rate (the higher the better), it has a native quad HD resolution which supports the 144Hz refresh rate – but can upscale to 4K resolution at 60Hz. The Mac will only see 2560×1440 – but this is a definitive improvement over 1920×1080 from the Dell. A bigger screen + resolution = more real estate for Terminal and Remote Desktop windows when working.

HDR is also supported, but this is a bit of a strange beast. Even now, HDR is still a bit of a mystery to me. My 60″ 4K TV doesn’t have it, but my iPhone and iPad Pro do (HDR10 and Dolby Vision support). This monitor has HDR support, though it isn’t very specific as to what it will support – though HDR10 on the Xbox One X seems to work just fine. On the Mac – no HDR mode is seemingly supported. But when playing on the Xbox One X, I do seem to notice more vibrant colours than before. There are options to change different HDR settings, but I’ve more or less left them alone and just accepted the defaults.

The monitor comes with a decent sound system built in – with a volume knob within easy reach. In fact, the controls for this monitor are excellent. Especially as it comes with its own remote control. I can change input settings easily – scroll through and make changes in the menu system all without touching the monitor itself. And speaking of inputs – it has support for USB-C, 2 x HDMI 2.0 ports and a DisplayPort. The Mac is hooked up via USB-C and the Xbox One X is connected via HDMI. Two presses on the remote control and I can switch between the Mac and Xbox with ease.

Since using the BenQ monitor – no HDCP problems, no screen blanking – it’s been working perfectly. I think this has been one of the best electronic purchases in recent years (along with the 2019 16″ MacBook Pro) and will keep me going for the next 5 years or so.

Jim Henson (with Kermit) and Ava DuVernay – and the giant remote control
Updated media library/shelves

The other additions to the the upgrades include the Logitech MX Master 3 mouse. I’m an owner of the MX Master 2S, but found that the battery life wasn’t very good (at least at home) and that the scroll wheel was very noisy/not terribly smooth. The MX Master 3 fixes ALL these problems, and then some. It’s perfect for the Mac – and I’ve been going weeks – not days – with the MX Master 3 without recharging. I’m extraordinarily happy with it. The Apple mouse is being kept because MacBook Pros (and Mac Minis) seem to have real difficulty with wireless mice in firmware mode unless it’s an Apple mouse.

Finally, I bought an Xbox One X. I did own one a few years ago, but found I didn’t play it very much. So it’s a system I had already invested in. With the lockdown and not being able to get outside, I wanted something to stimulate me that wasn’t work related. I also wanted to get a controller that worked with iOS and iPadOS too – and the Xbox controllers will work with them. The Xbox One X is effectively a Windows 10 PC – but you just can’t run Microsofft Word on it. Yet. More games are supporting keyboard and mice – including Fortnite – though as I found out, you really need a USB keyboard and mouse to make it work. The Xbox One X doesn’t support Bluetooth.

It was rather difficult getting the console because everybody else seems to be having the same idea. But it arrived, and set-up was very easy. It sits on my desk opposite the Mac and if I feel the urge to cure people of Freddy Mercury-itis in Two Point Hospital, it’s there:

or futuristic football with cars (Rocket League), I can just jump quickly into a match:

I’ve taken out the Xbox Games Pass Ultimate which, for £10.99/month, gives me access to over 100 games (Rocket League and Two Point Hospital are just two examples). One game that truly stands out as part of the Xbox Games Pass is the wonderful Ori and the Will of the Wisps which is simply one of the most attractive looking and sounding games I’ve ever played:

Even on the easy mode, this is a difficult, difficult game. It’ll keep me occupied for many months to come.

The only other thing I really need to complete my home office (haha – as if the Xbox is part of the office – though one could say it’s a de-stresser) is a webcam. I used to have a Logitech 4K Brio, but sold that about a year ago. Now you can’t buy them for love nor money as everybody is practically working from home now. At least the iPad Pro’s built in camera is useful for video conferencing, so I’m using that as a workaround.

They say (and rightly so), that you don’t buy a Mac to play games. And yet, how do you explain Apple Arcade – the £4.99/month subscription service from Apple which provides a selection of high quality games (albeit no AAA titles) across iOS, iPadOS, tvOS and macOS devices?

On my old 2018 15″ MacBook Pro, I could play the same games I had on my iPhone on my Mac – and the performance wasn’t too bad. It’s even better on the 2019 16″ MacBook Pro, of course. But Macs weren’t really intended for heavy gaming – this has long been the dominance of games consoles such as the Playstation, Xbox, or the Nintendo Switch. And gaming PCs, of course – Nvidia graphics, quad/hexa/octa-core CPUs with 16Gb+ RAM and superfast SSD drives.

Yet modern Macs have quad/hexa/octa-core CPUs, 16Gb+ RAM and superfast SSD drives. Yet they can’t play AAA titles even if they were ported to macOS. In part this is due to the Nvidia vs AMD graphics. Nvidia has had a long established foothold in the graphics market on PCs – yet AMD’s graphics power the likes of the Xbox and Playstation (and will do with the next generation consoles coming this year).

Nvidia vs AMD

Macs did once have Nvidia GPUs, but due to a long running spat between Apple, Intel and Nvidia, things were never the same. This is not to say AMD produce inferior graphics chipsets – as we’ve seen, they’re used in today’s modern consoles alongside AMD CPUs too. And AMD has just released a 64-core CPU capable of 128 threads. This is a monster of a CPU (with a monster price – $4k for the CPU alone).

But Macs graphics have never been particularly powerful for gaming – primarily because Apple has been concentrating on more professional creative workflows than 3D gaming. And MacBook Pros have been very slender machines which makes designing thermals to keep the machine cooled a bit of a challenge.

Another problem with Macs is that now macOS Catalina has gone fully 64-bit, many 32-bit titles will not work. Goodbye Team Fortress 2 – many a wasted hour spent laughing long and hard playing that game.

But with the 16″ MacBook Pro with an Intel Core i9 processor and an AMD Radeon Pro 5500M with 8Gb of video RAM, I can finally play Fortnite at reasonable framerates. The only downside is that with the release of macOS Catalina 10.15.3, the native Fortnite client takes around 4-5 minutes to load every time. With 10.15.2, it was near instantaneous. Also, with the newer thermal design, the CPU fans will ramp up and it does become quite noisy – so I revert to using headphones.

Nvidia’s GeForce Now – a potential solution to all Mac gamer problems?

Nvidia has a possible solution to the Mac/older PC problem. They have a subscription service which lets you play owned games (including Fortnite) by effectively providing a hosted virtual machine with one of their high end graphics cards. You’re effectively playing the game on their server and streaming the video back to your machine. This relies on:

  • Having a fast connection (50Mbs+ recommended)
  • Using ethernet rather than Wi-Fi
  • Low latency

You also need to own PC games. Fortnite is free to play, so as long as you have your Epic Games credentials, you’re all good. GeForce Now requires that you have logins for the games you’re playing. Nearly all games these days require some form of connection to the internet anyway, so this isn’t so much of a problem. Many of them are available from Steam anyway.

The downside to this is:

  • You’re giving credentials to a third-party service (Nvidia) which stores those credentials on their platform. The logins are usually connected to accounts where credit/debit card details are stored.
  • On a Mac, some symbols are only accessible via the option key – if you have a particularly complex password, good luck trying to enter them via the GeForce Now Mac client. Oh yes, copy and paste between the Mac and the client isn’t supported.
  • Nvidia does not support any form of two-factor authentication on their accounts. This is very bad.

So you’ve got to be very trusting that Nvidia will keep your credentials safe. And you’ll need to ensure that your GeForce Now account’s password is a strong one. Nvidia really need to get their arse into gear and deploy 2FA as soon as they bloody well can. They also need to fix their SPF and DMARC record, because all Nvidia store email goes to spam as a result. This is basic, basic stuff.

Nvidia needs to go back to email school and learn all about SPF and DMARC

Fortnite under GeForce now is very good. Initially it felt as if there was a little bit of lag (latency) when running under the Balanced setting, though it seems to have passed and gaming feels as good as running it locally. As I run my 16″ MBP via an external monitor – it’s limited to 1920×1080 which is a decent setting to run most games on high mode. GeForce Now Fortnite runs well with the high settings enabled and connected to Zen Internet via ethernet at 300Mbs download/50Mbs upload.

Fortnite using Nvidia’s GeForce Now on a Mac. High framerates! (Match sped up x 2)

In terms of loading speeds, GeForce Now and Fortnite are considerably faster than the native macOS Fortnite client. And the Mac’s fans never ramp up at all during gameplay. But I’d ideally still like to play Fortnite natively – if only the loading time issues can be resolved.

Can’t run Team Fortress 2 on macOS Catalina because of 32-bitness? GeForce NOW *can*.

The biggest bugbear is that GeForce Now doesn’t support one of the biggest titles in the past 7 years – Grand Theft Auto V.

GeForce now has two subscription tiers: free, with one hour sessions, and a limited edition Founder’s level which gives longer sessions and priority access (whatever that means). That said, it is £4.99/month with a 90 day trial before your card is charged, which is the cheapest and most generous I’ve seen.

Beware of the Shadows

There are alternatives to Nvidia’s video game streaming. One of them is Shadow. I’ve tried them before. They essentially provide you with a fully virtual Windows PC with Nvidia Geforce graphics card. You’d install games as you would under Windows. Unlike Nvidia’s GeForce Now, you have disk space and, as such, a quota to work with.

The biggest stumbling block I found with Shadow was the latency and overall streaming performance. Despite ethernet or Wi-Fi connection, the lag was very noticeable. And it was extremely expensive for what it is. You’d be better off saving the money towards a console or middle-end gaming PC. Even now, you have pre-order – with some specifications unavailable until 2021.

There’s also Google’s Stadia. Another streaming platform, designed to work across TVs, laptops and tablets. From what I understand you’ll need to buy hardware (at the very least a controller) and a subscription. From what I understand from the web site, you need to buy the games directly from Google to play with Stadia rather than bringing your existing library into it. That kind of limits things somewhat, and makes everything more expensive if you already own titles held on a different platform.

My recommendation

The current range of consoles – especially with Microsoft’s Xbox – are shaping up nicely as a good all round gaming system. Xbox has introduced mouse and keyboard support which when developers take advantage of, give PC-like gaming at a fraction of a cost. The next generation of consoles will also introduce SSDs for storage, which means much faster loading times. It’s also possible to stream from the console to a Mac or PC over local LAN, should you so wish.

But for the Mac user, regardless of whatever model you may be using, a combination of Apple Arcade and GeForce Now may be good option. Providing Nvidia continue to add titles, fix bugs, add essential features (as I mentioned earlier – copying and pasting between environments, and 2FA protection of Nvidia accounts).

As a long term Apple user, I’ve seen a lot happen with Apple’s services division over the past 20 years. When they work, they bring me great joy and they are absolutely worth the money. But when they don’t, they are a bigger pain in the arse than South Western Railways and Network Rail.

Having moved over to the 16″ MacBook Pro, one of the first things I did before the move was:

  • Create a current, up-to-date Time Machine backup
  • Copy all data – including Apple Photos and Apple Music/TV to a separate hard drive and copy them back over manually

iCloudy with a chance of rain

When the new machine was running, I copied all my data back over. The first problem was that because I use iCloud Photo Library, Apple immediately enables it even if you don’t want to use it (a bug, perhaps?) – creating a Photos library catalogue. About 99% of having copied the data from the separate hard drive to the Photos directory on the new Mac terminated and told me there was already data there, and then terminated the transfer.

So I thought I’d give Apple the benefit of the doubt and download all my photos and videos stored in iCloud Photo Library (around ~130Gb) and start a new catalogue from scratch. It did work, but it takes forever for the Apple Photos app in macOS Catalina to do its stuff before downloading can happen. It took about 3-4 hours in total to download 10,443 photos and 463 videos. Speaking of iCloud Photo Library – Apple had better start considering offering a 4Tb tier. I’m nowhere near that level yet, but as storage becomes cheaper on MacBook Pros, iMacs and Mac Pros, and as the cameras improve on iPhones, people will start putting everything in iCloud. Obviously I back everything up religiously to Time Machine, Backblaze, Google Drive and separate hard drives, but as we’ve just discovered – it doesn’t always work out the way you think it does. At least I can access all the old photos from the backups manually.

Ch..ch..ch..changes

What is interesting to note is that with macOS Catalina’s Photos app, Apple has made some internal restructuring to the package contents of the catalogue. No longer is there a masters directory containing your original files and filenames, but a directory called originals which contain the original files. But with Apple-encoded filenames. Original filenames appear to be stored as metadata within an internal, locally-stored Apple database.

Apple Music is just as buggy as iTunes

With regards to Apple Music, I originally didn’t have any problems copying that across. The only real issue is that the artwork to albums and playlists was missing. I tried everything I could to try and get them back through the Apple Music app on Catalina, but no joy. The closest I got was to nuke everything in the Music directory and copy back over from the Time Machine backup. They seemed to work – except that every single file was available to download through iCloud. Downloading only doubled the amount of space being used by macOS.

So I completely deleted my Music directory again and tried to get Apple Music to start afresh. Except it didn’t. It picked up my account details and some album artwork straight away. And iCloud Errors galore.

At one point, Apple Music got REALLY confused.

So I did a bit of digging around. There aren’t many articles about Apple Music on Catalina and how to fix problems. But this is how I “fixed” mine – where “fixed” was to get Apple Music to start from scratch – newly created directory, no files downloaded, all music stored in iCloud – then start to download music as an when needed. Over 56,000 tracks is a bit much.

I hate Windows registry, but Apple’s Library can just as bad…

Having closed Apple Music and deleted the Music subdirectory from within the Music directory in my home directory, I opened a terminal, I navigated to

~/Library/Caches

and nuked any files or directories that mention iTunes or Music in their file/directory names. This gets rid of any caches built up by Apple Music/iTunes. So it should forget anything you’ve done so far. But this isn’t enough. I then changed to:

~/Library/Preferences

and nuked any files or directories that mention iTunes or Music in the file/directory names. From there I fired up Apple Music and was greeted by the Apple Music welcome screen. And everything worked as expected from that point onwards. I downloaded my playlist music just fine, along with a number of albums. All good. And everything has been fine for the past 24 hours.

More internal local changes

Again, with macOS Catalina, Apple has re-arranged the internal file structure for Apple Music. My backups had an iTunes directory with all the media stored in there, and a Music directory which had a single package file within it. When starting Apple Music anew, there is a Music subdirectory containing the same package, followed by a media directory.

Within the Media subdirectory, you can see that (when arranged alphabetically) Apple Music files are stored separately from purchased/uploaded music.

When attempting to get things working from backup, it seemed Apple Music was completely confused. I’ve got to say, Apple, that you’ve made a right pig’s ear of this and I’m not happy. When I’ve set-up Apple Music on my work Mac, it was fine because I hadn’t any existing files. But if I had brought them in, I’m sure I’d suffer similar problems.

What is the point of backups if they don’t work properly – especially if the issue is being caused by bugs or changes made by the same company you’ve bought the hardware AND software from?

macOS Catalina – a steaming pile of horse poop

Regardless of whether its new hardware or existing hardware, the macOS Catalina experience has been awful. My work Mac Mini (2018) was bricked by the update and required a logic board replacement. The 2018 MacBook Pro was fine, but clearly the backups I’ve been making haven’t been suitable for transferring to a new machine – or even to the same machine because of all the changes between Mojave and Catalina.

A while back, I spoke to some people from a VERY big international games company, and the problems they were having with Catalina were numerous. Don’t forget that Catalina drops support for 32-bit apps. And many of them are games.

There are so many game titles which are all 32-bit, and not compatible with macOS Catalina, making Steam for macOS pretty redundant right now. At least there’s Apple Arcade, right?

I do love my 16″ MacBook Pro, but I want to see Apple seriously step up their services/macOS game because right now it’s simply not good enough.