Not entirely sure how I feel about this one, because streaming video is undoubtedly a luxury versus the need to keep businesses running through video conferencing, voice over IP phone calls, and instant messaging.

The problem is that the likes of Netflix, YouTube, Amazon and even Apple have all been asked to reduce the bandwidth or resolution of their streaming services by the European Commission in order to reduce load on Internet Service Providers.

Here in the UK, despite the occasional spike, ISPs have generally stated that they’re able to cope with the extra demand of people streaming video now that social distancing is being put into practice. Yet Netflix has reduced the bitrate for their service to save bandwidth by 25%. The trouble with this is that their service was already very efficient with video compression – and the Premium level gives you the highest quality video (up to Ultra HD). People pay extra for this tier, so is Netflix intended on compensating people for the reduction in bitrate? And especially for those who are also paying extra for top tier ISP performance (G.Fast in particular at 100Mbs or above)?

Netflix and still a high bill

YouTube is another culprit. I’m paying them £11.99 for the Premium service, and expect to get the highest quality video where available (as well as the removal of adverts – I could just use an ad blocker, but there are a number of creators I want to support and going down this route seems the fairest route).

Amazon Prime Video, Apple TV+, Britbox, BBC iPlayer, UK TV, All 4, ITV Player and Channel 5 On Demand only operate on one tier and you can’t really complain if they reduce the resolution or quality. However, Apple TV+ seems to have gone overboard. This has lead me to cancel my free year-long trial. I was rather enjoying Amazing Stories and Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet – but otherwise there isn’t much other content that interests me, and they don’t offer any extras at all – a good opportunity for Apple to showcase their own iTunes/Apple Extras. But I won’t let the buggers reduce quality to the point of blocky artefacts. Even if I’m not paying for it (and yet they expect people to pay up to $350 for an iPad Pro keyboard/trackpad?!).

Apple’s blowing us a big fat bowl of raspberries..

And what do you think is going to happen on Tuesday 24th March when Disney+ launches in the UK and other countries in Europe. You bet demand is going to go through the roof that day. Will Disney be joining others in reducing bandwidth or resolution?

And furthermore, what’s happening with the US studios plan on releasing titles that were intended for cinema to be available to rent on streaming services such as iTunes, Amazon Prime Video, YouTube, etc.? Will those titles – which cost around £15-20 to rent have their bandwidth or resolution restricted? If so, you can bet that piracy is going to outpace the legitimate version – further hurting the film industry.

Super high-res cinema brought down to sub-par resolution and bitrate

(While I’m at it – given that practically everybody in the world is now social distancing and staying at home – what’s the point of separate domestic and international release windows for new releases? Why is there still a pre-order for Star Wars: Rise of Skywalker in the UK when it’s been released early in the US? Why does the country release window matter anymore? We’re all stuck indoors!)

These companies were asked to reduce bandwidth, not ordered to do so. But I expect there would have been consequences if they had not – that seems the way with the European Commission. I wonder if ISPs had ever been asked about the usage and their plans on monitoring and handling traffic accordingly.

Streaming video is a luxury – yes, but for some this is escapism given the solitary demands of social distancing. And what does the European Commission think of video game streaming, video games that communicate with servers for multiplayer games (Fortnite, for example) – the traffic should be fairly negligible (though I use 50Mbs for Nvidia GeForce NOW which is often significantly more than what my streaming habits consume) – but would the European Commission craack down on that too? What other services or protocols does it want to reduce the use of?

What I strongly object to are web sites that load and then autoplay video in a small window (or even if the video is embedded in the body of the page, autoplaying is bad!) alongside 20 billions adverts. Plus the 50 billion third party calls to external services just to make the bloody site work. Now THAT is a waste of bandwidth.

For my work, I just need voice over IP telephony (Zoom), the occasional online conference where we share screens, SSH access, RDP access, VPN access and your usual web based traffic. Face to face video conferencing is not needed for the most part (I can’t remember the last time I had to use it). I paid for a decent internet connection for the likes of streaming – I should be able to use it for it until such times I can’t afford to do so, or the plan I’m using isn’t available any more. I trust my ISP has the ability to manage the traffic accordingly. And if they asked me to reduce my usage, I would (though there would be some discussion about what I’m paying as a consequence of that). But I dislike the EU interfering without first doing some substantial research first.

I’m continuing to enjoy Fortnite through Nvidia’s GeForce NOW service. macOS Catalina’s graphic driver just doesn’t seem to be optimised for Epic Game’s masterpiece – at least not in 10.15.3. It takes forever to start playing after selecting the match and waiting for it to start – to the point where you end up automatically being kicked off the bus and falling somewhere you haven’t chosen to drop.

I’m working my way up the ranks. At the time of writing I’m at level 40 out of a possible 120-something. But I don’t do too bad. I still don’t have the fingering skills (ooer missus) good enough to rapidly build forts to protect myself against my fellow competitors. I can usually last until the last 10 people remaining or so.

I hatched an evil scheme to try and catch somebody coming out from the Shark Island spy lair. It involved building a wall around the escape route and planting remote detonators. Alas, nobody took the bait. Then then storm came. Then somebody got me as I was having a gentle cruise down the river. The swine.

Drat. Double drat. Catch that pigeon, etc.

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/oca-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).