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.

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?