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.

RIP Lupin Drake

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.

My Pacific Northwest travels of 2015

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.

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/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).