Back in the days of yore, the ZX Spectrum reigned king. My ZX Spectrum+ (48K) was solid built machine, and even the keys, while squishy, still felt comfortable, and the range of games and applications were just incredible.
But eventually it gave up the ghost and was replaced by an Amstrad-made ZX Spectrum +2A. It had even better keys, memory, and a built-in cassette recorder – but it was notoriously buggy and crashed a lot. Especially annoying when it could take upwards of 10 minutes to load games.
I miss the old geezer, I really do. It taught me patience (which has since long gone when I moved into modern IT, let me tell you; nothing infuriates me more than buggy software and hardware which seems to be getting worse every year). It taught me to program (maybe not very well, but I didn’t do too bad at secondary school, college and university). It taught me to appreciate what I had – especially when you consider that at the time 16-bit computers were making an impact into the home computing sector, and the likes of the American Atari ST and Commodore Amiga were the Ferraris of the day – better graphics, better music, better everything.
But now, the ZX Spectrum is making ANOTHER come back! After the success of the original Kickstarter campaign, the ZX Spectrum Next is getting an updated model – the ZX Spectrum Next issue 2. It features:
Processor: Z80 3.5MHz, 7MHz, 14MHz and 28MHz turbo modes
Extra Hardware: Hardware sprites, DMA, Copper, Enhanced ULA, Tilemap, Layer2
Storage: SD Card slot, with DivMMC-compatible protocol
Audio: 9 channels via 3x AY-3-8912 chips with stereo, plus 2x 8bit DACs output
Joystick: 2 ports compatible with Cursor, Kempston and Interface 2
PS/2 port: Mouse with Kempston mode emulation and/or external keyboard
Special: Multiface functionality for memory access, savegames, cheats etc.
Tape support: Combined Mic and Ear port for tape loading and saving
Expansion: Original external bus expansion port and accelerator expansion port
Accelerator board (optional): GPU / 1GHz CPU / 512Mb RAM
Network: Wi Fi module
Extras: Real Time Clock
OS: NextZXOS and NextBasic featuring expanded commands set
Long gone are cassettes – one can now use standard SD cards to load games (from the likes of the Spectrum game archives at the World of Spectrum which hosts – legitimately – a HUGE selection of games and utilities which can be loaded to SD and played on the machine) – though the Next issue 2 is able to load via cassette tape if you’re an absolute masochist and/or transferring old, rare tapes to SD card.
And it has Wi-Fi!
Just look at it in action:
£300 is too steep a price for me (for now), but it’s certainly looks to be a fantastic machine for those that loved the ZX Spectrum the first time around and have a few quid to spare. I have very fond memories of it, and this kind of thing makes me happy to see that people are willing and happy to revisit a time where things were more simple, but still a substantial amount of fun!
I have recently bought the single biggest mechanical hard drive I have ever owned, or want to own. The reason for this is simple. Apple’s Media Services is a state of flux, dithering between downloads and streaming. It sells movies that you can stream from any of your Apple devices. Anywhere. Anytime. Going where there is no internet? Download it!
Surely Apple doesn’t expect you to download ALL your movies and TV shows – it takes up so much space?! With internal drives for MacBook Pros costing up to £2k for 8Tb, nobody is going to have all that money to keep their digital movie and TV collection on their Mac, safe and sound?
Apple recommends that you download your purchases because they told me (but they never make it clear in any of their advertising, nor through the user interfaces of their online stores) that titles can be pulled from the local iTunes store for a variety of reasons and unless you’ve downloaded your purchase, you’ll lose it forever. This, despite people buying digital content and streaming content directly from Apple’s servers – as this is the easiest way, and indeed, the way it was designed to be so. Rarely does a computer enter into the whole purchase thing. Got an Apple TV device? Just buy straight from your armchair. Buy from your iPhone or iPad. Easy.
Apple iTunes Store movie purchases are only downloadable up to HD quality only. Any advertised features such as 4K and iTunes Extras cannot be downloaded – they’re streamable only.
Still, I have nearly 500 movies in my collection which would be a considerable pain in the arse to store as physical media in the small house I live in. So I really ought to back up everything I got. Having something is better than nothing.
I looked at a number of options:
NAS device with at least 8Tb capacity, in RAID 1 configuration to ensure that both drives are mirrored simulataneously in case one drive fails.
Multiple WD Passport bus-powered 5Tb drives, splitting movies and TV shows across each device, and backing each one up to Amazon’s S3 Deep Glacier which charges just $1/Tb per month.
Single big drive, along with multiple WD Passport bus-powered drives to back up movies and TV shows separately as a backup.
The problem with the NAS device is that the enclosure alone is pricey. And that’s without any disks. Add the disks and it becomes very expensive. And the disks themselves are not going to be fast. So copying nearly 4Tb of data off the WD Passport 4Tb bus-powered, 5,400RPM drive I was using to back up everything was not going to be fast.
I looked at the Western Digital MyBook Duo range of drives, eyeing up a massive 24Tb beast. The advantage here is that the drives are WD Reds which are best designed for long term use, plus with the MyBook Duo enclosure, you can swap the drives out easily – and even upgrade. Downside was that the enclosure is plastic, plus there were many reports of it overheating as a result of that (though these reports go back to 2017/2018), and it was noisy. Plus they wanted £530 for it. And the disk performance wasn’t exactly great, either.
I started looking at Western Digital’s new WD_BLACK range. These are designed primarily for gamers, incorporating fast storage and plenty of capacity. What really caught my eye with the WD_Black D10 Game Drive for the Xbox One: 7,200RPM 3.5″ drive rated up to 250MB/S and a USB 3.2 gen 1 interface. The drive can be positioned horizontally (it has rubber feet) or vertically (comes with a stand).
Interestingly, the type of drives installed in these units appear to be datacentre-grade drives that are typically found in servers (Ultrastar DC 500 series drives, apparently). This means that they will keep up with demanding performance from reading/writing, and for a long time. And it was a bargain at £262. The only downside is that the drive comes with a 3-year limited warranty rather than the Ultrastar’s typical 5-year warranty.
So I bought one. Plus it came with 3 months Xbox One Game Pass Ultimate, so that’s extended my subscription to February 2021 (in case anybody’s wondering: the Xbox One Game pass is very much worthwhile if you’re an Xbox owner).
And I absolutely love the drive. The downside was that the WD Passport drive was so slow in transferring data, it was quicker to download the whole 4Tb from Apple’s servers. That took 2 days. But the drive performance is indeed excellent, reaching up to around 215MB/S write and 235MB/S read during my own tests.
Apple’s Apple TV app on macOS Catalina is a massive pain in the arse, however. It’s so fragile about where data is stored. Get something every so slightly wrong and you’d need to download the movie/TV show again even if it exists on the filesystem. As I don’t have the drive going all the time, I created a new library by pressing the Option key down when opening the Apple TV app. I created a new library on the external drive and downloaded everything from there. The Mac and the drive were on for two solid days, and the D10 drive never once felt hot. Warm, yes, but never hot – and this is in the horizontal position.
What I need to remember is if I want to use the Apple TV app when the external drive is off, I need to press Option whilst opening the app to select the local internal SSD library. However, Apple TV seems very insistent on holding on to an internal database file which results in this:
and the only way to get around is to determine the process ID of whatever is holding onto the TV library database and kill it off:
which then allows me to open the other library. I’m not sure what effect killing off the process like that has on the internal Apple TV library, but so far I’ve found no ill effects. But it does suggest that maybe Apple needs to spend a bit more time working on closing files when the application closes..
So the drive is proving itself worthy. But isn’t it a single point of failure? Yes. But I intend to buy another one and clone this drive to it, keeping the second drive as a backup. And maybe later down the road, getting a MyBook Duo or NAS as an additional backup. Speed won’t matter too much, and it’ll just sit in the corner being idle for large amounts of time.
Speaking of backups, Apple’s Time Machine has become a massive pain in the arse, and I’ve stopped using it. In its place I’m using Acronis’ True Image 2020 which is so much faster, provides versioning and tidying up of versions older than X days/months old. It backs up to the 12Tb drive, naturally, and gives me plenty of space for a good while alongside the media library.
As we enter yet another week of lockdown, I’ve been all too successful at remaining indoors. While Sainsbury’s, Tesco, Asda, Ocado, Waitrose and all other grocery stores online delivery services are completely out of bounds, Amazon Prime Now has proven itself worthy over and over again. Best £7.99/month I’ve ever spent.
I’ve managed to keep up stocks of the regular staples including bread and main meals regularly over the past few weeks without too many issues. One has to keep checking available slots, but usually something turns up every few hours. This is in stock contrast to Sainsbury’s which is only delivering to the most vulnerable. Click and Collect is always unavailable.
The big problem with the main supermarkets is that they make the assumption that everybody drives and has a car. I don’t. The bus service where I live has reduced its services to about one bus per hour rather than the usual 10 minutes when they were operating normally. So it could take several hours for me to go grocery shopping each week – and bear in mind that I’d have to cart everything back by myself.
Virtual Music Concerts
I’ve not been to many music concerts in my life (I can count on one hand – The Divine Comedy at The University of East Anglia (UEA) back in the late 90’s, Last Night of the Proms at Hyde Park in the mid 2000’s, and similarly one trip to Guilfest in 2006), but as we’re all still in lockdown, new ways are being found to provide the concert-going experience at home.
Fortnite, the wildly popular video game, recently put on a virtual concert for Travis Scott. The event, called Astronomical, showcased a few of his existing songs as well as previewing a new track. It was rather spectacular – and more importantly, provided a virtual mosh pit where you could jump and run around and, in some cases, swim and fly. The Xbox controller’s haptic feedback engine vibrate in time to the music often.
I’ve put together a few highlights here.
It was a wildly successful event, and I have no doubt that we’ll be seeing more of these things in the future – lockdown or not.
Replacing the daily commute with a webcam
One of the most difficult things I had trouble sourcing when work asked us to start working from home was a webcam. Every other bugger was buying them as well. But I’ve finally managed to get my hands on one, albeit it at a cost which closely matches that of my monthly commute via South Western Railways. It is a 4K webcam, though, and designed for streaming.
Work has a regular weekly meeting with all employees, and a daily virtual coffee/chinwag in which using video is highly encouraged. My 16″ MacBook Pro is hooked up to my new 27″ BenQ monitor, and the lid is closed, so I can’t use the webcam there (and besides which it’s only 720p because Apple has seriously skimped on what is now a vital resource). I’ve used the 2018 iPad Pro temporarily, but the angle is such that it looks up my nose and just isn’t flattering at all. With the new Logitech Brio 4K Stream camera, it’ll sit on top of the monitor and will provide viewers with a much better angle, and at a much better quality.
I imagine that realistically, we won’t be back in the office much until June/July time, so it seems worthwhile making the investment now. Given the potential for reinfection, we may be using video conferencing a lot more.
Photo slideshows and video editing
I’ve started experimenting with Apple Photos’ slideshow functions to put together a few slideshows of various things. One thing that I put together was a tribute to the family cat, Lupin, who sadly passed away last month. It’s quite interesting that looking back on the photos, I took a LOT of pictures of that cat. But alas, it’s not great, so I won’t embed it here.
After messing about with Apple Photos, I attempted to put together a slideshow of a trip I made to the Pacific Northwest I went on 5 years ago next month. I wanted to do something a bit special for the 5th anniversary. Alas, Apple Photos is a massive pain in the arse and, combined with my lack of organisational skills in managing the photos and date/time settings on the camera and iPhone, it’s all a bit of a mess. Re-ordering them in the slideshow caused significantly more problems.
I had even imported the exported slideshow into Final Cut Pro X, created some text overlays (with a flag for each country I visited) and polished the presentation. It looked good, apart from noticing the completely out of order photos which kept happening every time I messed about with the export function in Apple Photos. So I’d preview it in Apple Photos, see that it was okay, and got a completely different result from the export after putting all the effort in captioning and graphics and watching the results.
I think what I need to do is create an album, add the photos I want to add there, and then create the slideshow for that. I’ll give that a go soon, but having spent nearly 7 hours very early Saturday morning messing about with Apple Photos and Final Cut Pro X, I’m not in a rush to do so again too soon.
Sometimes I wonder about the wholesomeness of the games industry… perhaps this is why it’s called an Xbox (sponsored by Viagra for those that aren’t common achievers and are having problems “getting wood”).
As for Minecraft itself, it’s become far too horribly commercialised for what is essentially a kid’s game. The prompting for people to buy extra packs and add-ons at silly pricing is just wrong.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.