Well, I was wrong. And it kind of makes me happy that I was wrong. Apple will be going through another major architecture change for the Mac range of computers – even in the face of the pandemic and economic downturn. But after watching the the World Wide Developer Conference 2020 (WWDC 2020), I am somewhat more optimistic than I was.

I like how they demonstrated all the apps, including Microsoft Word and Excel, alongside Adobe Photoshop, all running natively on Apple’s A12Z Bionic processor running macOS Big Sur (yes, sir, yes, sir, three bags full, sir), and the system didn’t flinch once. This is the same processor used in the iPad Pro 2020. And they demonstrated a triple-A game running with Intel x86 code translation, performing admirably well. What’s interesting is that these new Macs will be able to run iPhone and iPadOS apps natively. It’s genuinely nice to see a build once, run everywhere platform.

I’ve been down the Mac transition route before – my trusty work G4 to an Intel Core 2 Duo. It was pretty painless, though some apps were left behind because the developer didn’t want to update or couldn’t update for whatever reasons. But ultimately we came through with relatively few scratches and we’ve had a good long run with Intel and the x86 architecture.

The biggest question mark in the whole thing is how well Windows is likely to run through their virtualisation system. We saw Parallels, a VM system for the Mac run Debian 10 just fine, but Windows was not mentioned at all. It may be the biggest casualty in this transition, which could piss off a number of developers that work across Mac, iOS, Windows and Linux. Maybe more details will be forthcoming about how Windows and VM will work with the A-series processors. If at all.

It’s interesting to note that after 20 years, macOS gets a major revision change and becomes 11. Yes, they finally cranked it up to 11.

Mac OS XI?
Yes, sir, no sir, three bags full, sir – macOS Big Sur

I love what Apple are doing with iOS and iPadOS in terms of improving usability – especially with widgets embedded directly within the home screens. macOS Big Sur gets a major cosmetic change as well as architectural change, of course.

I won’t be able to afford a new Mac for a good 3-4 years, and unless this change introduces some major price discounts, the spec I’m using is not something I’m likely to be able to personally afford again for a long time. The resale value of my MacBook Pro is going to be affected, obviously, given the Intel Mac is given a commuted death sentence.

But the people that have spent over £10-50k on Mac Pros which only very recently were updated as late as 2019 were always going to be the people who were really going to be miffed. Thankfully Apple expects the transition to take two years (for the whole range of Mac systems, I presume), but will be supporting macOS on Intel Macs for a good more number of years (probably at least 5, I’d have thought).

It’s certainly a start of an interesting new era of Macs, and indeed, the whole Apple ecosystem. But what will the likes of the EU (which is currently going after Apple for their App Store) make of an entire closed loop system – and what about the right to repair? Interesting times indeed.

There’s a LOT of hype going around that Apple intends to announce the switch from Intel processors to their ARM-based A-series processors for the Mac line of laptop and desktop computers. There are plenty of reasons for doing so – including complete control of the silicon and working to Apple’s own time frame rather than that of a third supplier (e.g. Intel).

BUT..

.. we’re still in the middle of a worldwide pandemic which isn’t slowing down significantly yet (indeed, it’s getting worse – and I trust the WHO a lot more than the blathering jibber jabber from the UK government and the constant lies and deceit from Trump). People are still getting sick. The economy is doing badly, and it’s going to take years to recover. People are either furloughed or have been made redundant. If we get a second wave and have to go into a series of lockdowns again – this is only going to cause more frustration and loss of income.

Is now REALLY the time to introduce a whole new architecture on the desktop? Sure, for most developers that have moved to Swift, this shouldn’t cause too many problems. But if A-series Macs are announced on Monday, we still don’t know how much the development kits are going to cost, what kind of support developers are going to get for them over the coming months (consumer support from Apple isn’t great right now – taking far longer than usual), when the new A-series Macs might be introduced and what models will get the A-series CPU treatment first, etc.

I think it’s going to be tough enough as it is just to get the new Xbox Series X and Playstation 5 consoles out the door later this year. Everything is so uncertain.

Even the iPhone 12 is said to be launching at least one month later than usual. For me, I don’t see much reason to upgrade – at least not for the cameras at least – since I’m stuck at home at the moment and there’s really not much reason to take photos of anything. 5G? That ain’t going to be happening around where I live for some time. Don’t use it much while I’m at home unless the main broadband starts playing up, or I need another connection to test web sites I’m working on. But 5G is not something I particularly need or want right now. What does interest me more this year is the Apple Watch, which has been an incredible device ever since it launched and improved leaps and bounds with every generation.

If A-series Macs are getting the go ahead, what happens with all the recently updated Macs such as the 16″ MacBook Pro which has a new $800 GPU option which essentially gives it close to 2x the graphics performance of the highest end model from the end of 2019. If a whole new iMac design is announced on Monday, that’s surely going to have Intel CPUs? Apple is still tweaking the Intel platform. Thus how long is Apple actually going to support the Intel platform for – and especially for those that can afford to fork out for the super expensive Mac Pro and iMac Pro models if they’re going to be heading over to the ARM architecture? How long is it going to take for Apple to get the A-series processors up to those levels of performance?

In these uncertain times, it’d be nice to keep things somewhat certain until the world has managed to get this bloody virus under some form of control. An entire architectural change is not what’s not needed immediately – it could stand to wait a year or two first.

I realise that I’m starting to sound like a broken record at this point, but being able to easily back up, retain and watch movie and TV purchases from the iTunes store is important to me – and it should be for anybody who regularly uses the iTunes store.

I’m struggling to understand Apple’s approach to how it stores and manages music, movies and TV show purchases through the iTunes store. Apple is actively promoting the iTunes Store’s ability to buy and watch purchases everywhere because it stores everything you purchase on its own servers.

But they have the right to remove content at any time and strongly advocate that you need to download it so you can keep your purchase. However, with that comes some major disadvantages: you lose 4K and you lose iTunes Extras if they come with the film. It takes away a lot of the features that attract people to the platform (name me any other online video retailer that offers audio commentaries and featurettes). Apple needs to significantly improve in this area because it’s not inspiring consumer confidence in cloud computing and services if content you’ve bought is removed without knowledge or compensation, leaving either nothing or significantly less than what you bough. Cloud computing something Apple is keen to increase its interest in, especially after it’s been revealed that Apple has gone on a hiring spree.

To avoid you having to go through my previous rambling rants, I’ll summarise the key points here as I understand the situation:

  • Apple can remove any music, movie or TV show title you’ve purchased from your library at any time, for any reason. The most likely explanation is the ownership of copyright has changed rights owners and Apple hasn’t been granted permission to continue selling that title. Apple doesn’t give any notice if this happens. Nor are you entitled to any kind of refund or compensation. Then again, it’s also possible that you could potentially still access your purchase. In summary: it’s effectively completely random as to whether you keep your purchase with all its features to stream or download from Apple’s servers. You might keep a title forever, a week, a month, a year, 5 years, 10 years. You just don’t know.
  • Apple recommends downloading and backing up your purchased media content. Music purchases are DRM-free, usually small, and this is usually no problem for the majority of people to keep backups of their music files. Movies and TV shows, on the other hand, are large, multi-gigabyte files which are DRM protected, meaning that this restricts playback to your Apple account and devices that you own. iPhones, iPads, Macs and Windows machines can playback downloaded movies and TV shows. If they’re not downloaded, they’re streamed from Apple’s servers. iTunes Extras after the 10th July, 2014 are streaming only and cannot be downloaded. 4K content is streaming only, restricted to certain devices, and cannot be downloaded. So they cannot be backed up.
  • Apple TV HD and 4K devices are streaming devices only. iTunes purchases are not officially supported being accessed from NAS devices. Home Share doesn’t seem to support a new movie/TV show container format that I’ve found which is being used for newer titles in the iTunes Store. AirPlay should be used to stream to an Apple TV device from an iPhone, iPad and Mac/Windows machines if the title is not available anymore from Apple’s servers. Again, a reminder: you will lose access to 4K (if it was offered in that format) and iTunes Extras if the film is pulled from Apple’s servers. Your movie download only consists of the HD movie (or SD if not available in HD).
  • iTunes purchases downloaded to iPad and iPhone are not backed up if the device is set to only backup to iCloud. You’d need to connect your device to a computer running iTunes and macOS Catalina and back up the entire contents of the device there.

It should be noted that the terms of Apple’s Media Services are extremely ambiguous (for example, streaming is barely mentioned – just “redownloads”) and in my initial dealings with Apple Support, it feels as if they’re making excuses on the spot to get around their flawed and consumer unfriendly policies.

So, with regards to not being able to play newer iTunes movie purchases through Home Share (to test backup strategies), I reached out to Apple Support on a separate ticket and used examples such as Warner Bros. Birds of Prey, Lionsgate’s Knives Out and Warner Bros. Joker. All recent films, and all appear to use a new container format (HLS) when downloaded from the iTunes Store to a computer via the Apple TV app (on macOS Catalina). I discuss the symptoms on my previous post.

Apple Support and I have had some interesting conversations about this – nearly 90 minutes spent on the phone. The first revelation is that Apple does not officially support Network Attached Drives (or NAS). So if anybody is using Synology or similar NAS tech to share media libraries with an Apple (TV) device – Apple won’t support you.

The second was that AirPlay is the recommended method by which to play this type of content to the Apple TV. From your Mac, iPhone or iPad, you start playing the content and select the AirPlay symbol, select the device you want to stream it to, and it starts playing there.

The trouble with downloading content to an iPad and iPhone is the limited space available, and you’d still need to back the whole device up to a computer (Mac or Windows) to be able to backup any purchased media content because it won’t be backed up to the iCloud.

So what you really need to back up your movies and TV shows is a Mac (I can’t speak for Windows too much because I have no idea at what state it has move on from iTunes and transitioned to separate apps like the Mac) – but you need to either download the entire library to your Mac’s internal SSD/HD, or to an external drive. If the latter, you’d have to find your own way of ensuring that you have backups of that drive. Apple recommends using Time Machine to back up the Apple’s internal drive(s), though (again, see previous post) – this doesn’t always yield favourable results and I had to rely on the Apple cloud to restore everything for Apple Music. I only hope it was because of the separation of iTunes and library folder layout which was the problem (dramatically different layouts when I compared my Time Machine backup to that of the new Apple Musics app).

Note: Any iTunes Extras content made after 10th July, 2014 cannot be downloaded – it’s streaming only. So if Apple pulls the plug on a title, you’ll only have access to the file(s) containing the movie (up to HD quality only).

What Apple told me about the HLS container files is that it’s possible that the DRM is preventing playback on the Apple TV device via Home Share. If so, that’s crazy – especially as I’m using an all Apple ecosystem. And that this is not a bug. Regardless of whether it is or isn’t (I say isn’t), it seems that me that Home Sharing could be for the chop in a later tvOS/macOS. If it’s not able to handle these new container formats, it makes future iTunes purchases impossible to play via Home Share. Obviously one would use the Apple cloud service to stream in all cases where possible – but if Apple removes the content (without notice), you’ll be forced to use the method described above.

UPDATE (19th May, 2020) – the issue of the HLS package download can be resolved by going to Preferences -> Playback in the Apple TV app in macOS Catalina and ensuring that Download Multichannel Audio and Download HDR when available are both unticked.

I’ve still yet to hear back from Apple why this has to be done, and why Apple TV devices can’t see the HLS format (and what good does it do anyway if the download has no effect whatsoever).

Fix .movpkg / HLS file downloads in Apple TV app by deselecting the above

I’ve asked Apple Support to continue investigating and raise this accordingly with the technical engineering teams responsible. But I still say that Apple needs to keep all previous iTunes Store purchases on Apple’s servers even if the seller has pulled the title from the Apple platform – unless it is a genuine mistake by the seller, and then compensation needs to be organised accordingly. I don’t care about the legalities of this – and neither should the average consumer – we shouldn’t care about what licenses or agreements Apple has with their sellers. Keep the purchases on Apple servers indefinitely!

Downloading and managing files is the very least thing I want to be doing – I chose Apple because the process of purchasing and watching movies and TV content across multiple devices using their servers is quick and convenient. When you start to bring in backups (and only half-arsed backups at that due to the strange download/streaming hybrid Apple has found itself in), it becomes inconvenient and you see the cracks in the system that Apple has spent decades building up.

It also has to be said that we really need better consumer law surrounding digital content and protecting consumer purchases – especially if it’s being stored in the cloud.

Well, pretty much. They wash their hands of any responsibility, pocketing your money without a clear and concise method of allowing customers to back up their purchases, and without retaining the full feature set (essentially the 4K element and any iTunes Extras if they come with them).

The senior advisor at Apple keeps referring to the right to cancellation, but this isn’t the case at all. I did not cancel. Apple (and remember my contract is with them, not the studio or distributor) took my money for a purchase, not a rental, and then removed the film from its servers without any notice, or refund or partial refund. This insist everybody should be downloading their purchases.

So what if I did download all movies? Can I play my entire iTunes/Apple TV library through Home Sharing?

No.

I decided to enable Home Sharing on my MacBook Pro (which has moved from the apps into System Preferences -> Sharing -> Media Sharing). I’ve downloaded a number of films that I think could be at risk from being removed from Apple’s stores by the distributor for whatever reason. And to that, I added the most recent Warner Bros. film, Bird of Prey, which is offered with iTunes Extras and – more importantly for my test – 4K/HDR. According to Apple TV’s app, HDR download is actually supported!

You can download HDR movies, but not 4K ones

This is what I can see in the Downloads section of my Apple TV app on macOS Catalina:

The Apple TV store allowed me to buy a movie twice when it wasn’t able to find an existing purchase.

Note that you’ll see two copies of Amelie there. Two reasons for this that I can ascertain. The first is that the Apple TV app on macOS Catalina is utterly bloody useless. I was quite panicy that Amelie had been removed. Turns out that’s not the case, but the Apple TV store itself didn’t think it was the same version I had already purchased and downloaded, so offered it for me to buy. Which I did. And that’s when I found out that I’ve bought exactly the same content twice. No safeguards at all.

Anyway, when I went and enabled Home Sharing on the Apple TV (which is the 4K device, and running the latest non-beta version of tvOS), I see all the regular HD content, but not Birds of Prey. Surely logic dictates that although I cannot download the 4K version of the title, the Apple TV should still see an HD version of it? Well, it can’t. It sees nothing.

Well, this convinces me to buy a NAS, it really does. (facepalm)

The files for Bird of Prey are definitely sitting on my Mac:

Why won’t a downloaded copy of Birds of Prey work with Apple TV via Home Share?

Yet my copy of What We Left Behind, an excellent documentary on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, is available. That’s available in 4K on the Apple TV if I play it directly from Apple’s servers. Via the download on Home Sharing, it will only play in HD. The downside is that the iTunes Extras are missing. So no, you cannot make adequate backups of your movies, Apple.

Apple’s iTunes/Apple TV store (whatever the hell they call it these days) is massively misleading. The “advice” I’ve received from Apple’s support is both wrong and deceptive.

Home sharing is set-up correctly on the Mac

I’ll tell you something else about Apple and backups: when macOS Catalina came on the scene, removing iTunes and replacing it with separate apps, I struggled substantially to get my music library working with a new Mac. Something between iTunes and Apple Music had changed which meant there were syncing issues with the Apple Music subscription. I tried manually importing the music files. I tried restoring a Time Machine backup. No joy. In the end, I had to rely on the music in Apple’s cloud to download and use that as the backup moving forward.

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.

Dear Apple,

Please can we use third party Bluetooth mice with pre-boot MacBook/MacBook Pros encrypted with FileVault. I’m not happy that only Magic Mouse mice work during this part of the boot process.

Last year I posted a blog which expressed my frustrations with the system recovery process and non-Apple Bluetooth mice. Even with the Logitech Master 2S hooked up via USB, System Recovery would have none of it. That’s when I had to fork out £55 for the Apple Magic Mouse.

Performing system recovery circa 2019 (pre-macOS Catalina)

Speaking of pre-boot problems, the 2019 MacBook Pro 16″ appears to have issues with Apple’s own (external Bluetooth) Magic Keyboard during pre-boot. When I go to enter my account password to unlock FileVault, more often than not, some key presses aren’t registered in the input form. I have to press them multiple times to get them to register. Sometimes it’s so bad, I have to open the laptop lid to fully expose the built in keyboard and enter it there. That’s works okay – but I’d rather use the external keyboard wherever possible if I’m hooking the machine up to my external monitor. I’m pretty sure my 2018 15″ MacBook Pro didn’t suffer from this problem. Maybe macOS 10.15.4 will resolve the problem?