review

Review - Macbook Pro 13" (with ForceTouch)

Here is my review of the Macbook Pro 13“ - with ForceTouch.

Summary

Here’s the quick version:

Good

  • Premium feel
  • Fantastic battery life
  • Force Touch is handy
  • SSD is ludicrously fast

Bad

  • It's a $2000 laptop with no touch screen
  • RAM is not upgradable

macbook pro, hooray

Upgrade Time

My old HP laptop sucked. The battery lasted 2 hours on a good day. The viewing angle of the glorious 720p screen was about 3 degrees - beyond which the contrast washes out. It also sounds like a vacuum cleaner when something taxing is loaded - such as notepad. Even worse than the vacuum like noise, is when it stopped. Ever had to replace a heat sink on a HP laptop? You need to literally dismantle the entire laptop and spend $70 on the replacement part. After going through that ordeal, I felt I’d earned a new laptop.

Doing a bit of research, the three choices for Ultrabooks seemed to be:

  • Apple Macbook Pro 13”
  • HP Spectre convertible tablet-ultrabook
  • Dell XPS 13

I checked out the XPS 13, but it felt as though it had been designed by accountants, then had carbon fibre patterns slapped on to make it seem cool. It was ok, but didn’t seem interesting.

My Debian loving Canadian co-worker bought a HP Spectre, which is a great machine. It converts between a tablet and ultrabook, and is one of the best Windows devices on the market… which is why he runs Debian on it. Meanwhile, one of my other coworkers has spent 18 months trying to convince me that a Macbook Pro is the way to go (“Because they ‘just work’!” he would say, before heading down to the Apple store to get broken display replaced).

So, on the face of it - both the HP Spectre and the Macbook Pro are great machines. Why did I go for the Mac?

  1. The MBP allows me to do cross platform development.
  2. The terminal environment is great. I write a ton of Javascript, so this makes me a happy developer.

Macbook Pro 13 - Initial Impressions

One of the first things I noticed about the Mac Book Pro (MBP) was the build quality. Apple use the “Unibody” manufacturing process, which consists of getting a block of aluminium, and using a CNC machine to cut out the case. This gives a case with no seams - other than access panels added for installing components. The end result is a laptop that feels like a solid object, rather than a collection of parts.

The end result is a laptop that feels like a solid object, rather than a collection of parts.

Everything about this machine gives the impression that someone has put a lot of thought into it. Here are some examples:

  • the cooling vent is hidden behind the hinge
  • the power adaptor has two unfolding brackets for wrapping the cord around
  • the power adaptor comes with a short plug and a swappable long extension cord
  • the screen has a small rubber gasket running around it (rather than small rubber pads - which tend to fall off and get lost). This makes the close mechanism feel nicer
  • the keyboard backlighting is fully adjustable, rather than just on or off

All parts of this machine feel premium. Take the keyboard as an example. The keys are plastic (in contrast to the aluminium case), and I wondered why they didn’t try to make them match the case. The HP Spectre shows why. It has “faux metal” keys - and it just doesn’t quite look right (in all other respects, the Spectre is a beautiful machine).

The Hardware

The specs of this particular MBP are:

CPU: Intel Core I5 2.7GHz (turbo boost to 3.4GHz)
Memory: 8GB DDR3
Graphics: Intel Iris 6100 1.5GB VRAM
Storage: 256MB SSD
Display: 13.3” 2560 x 1600 IPS panel
Network: 802.11ac
Optical Drive: Not included
Camera: 720p

Overall, that is not bad. The only real weak point is the Intel graphics. The MBP can run Portal 2 just fine, and Minecraft (as long as you don’t get carried away with shaders). If you fire up something like Battlefield 4, expect a low frame rate.

Retina Display

Apple fans have been harping on about the retina display for years. It quickly becomes apparent why. At the default scaling setting, roughly twice as many pixels are used as a non-retina display. The result is that screen elements are the same size, but everything has a sharper look. OSX seems to do a much better job of anti-aliased fonts than Windows - making writing code much easier on the eyes.

ity bity pixels

The only fault the screen has, is that it isn’t a touch screen. A touch screen would be nice - but OSX just isn’t built for touch at this point. The main two competitors for the MBP - the HP Spectre and the Dell XPS 13 - both offer retina class touch displays, but as extra cost options that push the price past that of the MBP (note that even the cheaper low res Spectre screen has touch).

Force Touch

Force Touch is a nifty feature you may have heard about. Apple have removed the moving ‘click’ assembly from their track pads, and replaced it with a simulated ‘click’. They achieved this using small motors capable of generating haptic feedback - the same tech offered in some smart phones.

track pad

I was initially skeptical but in day-to-day use, I can’t tell the difference between force touch and a ‘real’ track pad. No big deal right? the draw card is that the track pad can sense the amount of force being used. Apple have used this to enable the strength of the track pad click to be configurable - which is nice. Additionally, they have provided an extra type of input. If you hold your finger on the pad after clicking, and push a little harder - you feel a deeper click (which apple call a Force Touch).

The Force Touch option is context sensitive. In finder it will preview the file you have selected. If you force touch a docked app, it will reveal the window. Although these short cuts are nice, the big draw card will be pressure sensitivity. Being able to sketch in Photoshop with a stylus is a a killer feature for art/design type people.

Ports ports ports

After Apple released the MacBook (with a single USB-C port), it seemed they’d gone mad. “You want to charge your laptop and use a USB device? Bah!” The madness has not been extended to the MBP.

Apple has provided:

  • 2 USB 3 ports (on opposite sides, so double USB external hard drives will be less than great)
  • 1 HDMI port
  • SD Card reader
  • 2 Thunderbolt2 ports

While on paper Thunderbolt2 sounds awesome for video, external drives, and docking stations - in practice anything carrying the Thunderbolt badge costs a bloody fortune. Good thing we have USB3 ports as well!

useful ports, and firewire

Software

On first boot, Windows users are taken to a strange and confusing place where we add all of our external accounts. OSX is nice enough to integrate with Google, Twitter, Facebook, and Linked In. Unfortunetely OSX does not like 2 step auth on a Google account, so I had to force kill Safari to progress.

Free Apple Software

Having had none of the anti-trust problems Microsoft have dealt with, Apple are free to bundle free things. Out of the box, you get:

  • Photos (replaces “iPhoto” apparently)
  • iTunes (don’t worry, it’s actually really nice on a mac)
  • Garage Band (makes music, but not good music when I use it)
  • Office Software (not MS Office, but seems ok)
  • iMovie
  • Maps

Maps is surprisingly great, and shows off the visual prowess of OSX. It spins, scales, and zooms around with none of the disjointed choppyness of Google Maps (or that other one… Bong Maps or something).

One odd omission is drawing software. There is nothing like MSPaint, and apparently nothing like Paint.Net exists for OSX.

The App Store

All of your software purchases and updates happen via the app store - which seems a bit more competent than Windows Update. Don’t think you’ve escaped reboots though. OSX still needs a restart after some patches.

The app store is virtually identical to what you have in IOS. It takes most of the pain away from installing and updating. For apps you can’t find on the app store, OSX can run *nix apps.

The 2 month update

I neglected to post this review for 2 months. Mostly because I thought the last thing the internet needs is another person gushing about Apple Hardware. On the upside, I can now give an update of how the MBP has performed after 2 months.

The issues I’ve encountered are:

  • Safari decided to download 2Gb of data over my tethered phone yesterday. Why? Who knows. It may be something to do with Gmail. In the meantime, I’m back to using Chrome. I’ve discovered this app - Tripwire, which allows me to selectively block/allow apps internet access.
  • Sometimes gestures stop working on resume. The log provides no help. Putting the MBP to sleep and waking it up again seems to fix the issue.

That’s it. 2 months after completely changing hardware and operating systems, those are the only issues I have had.

Overall

This laptop is the best purchase I have ever made. I have absolutely no regrets. I rate this 55 bananas.

nanananananananananananananananananananananananana

/eof

Chrome Cast (Australian) Review

In July 2013, Google released the ChromeCast in the US. This allowed Google to finally make the jump to the TV, and provide some competition for the AppleTV (and other media streamers).

After a long wait, the ChromeCast has finally launched in Australia. The Australia tax has raised the price from $35 to $50. Is it worthy of your hard earned dollars? Here’s the low down.

Updated

This post has been updated since my original review. The original issues I had were resolved as detailed here.

Meet the ChromeCast

The ChromeCast has the following specs:

  • Marvell 88DE3005 SOC (System On a Chip) with hardware decoding of the VP8 and H.264 video compression formats
  • AzureWave NH–387 Wi-Fi which supports 802.11b/g/n (2.4 GHz).
  • 512Mb RAM
  • 2Gb storage
  • HDMI port
  • MicroUSB power

It works a little differently to how you might expect. When you fling a video to the ChromeCast, it does not stream from your phone/pc. The ChromeCast sets up a connection back to the source of the video (YouTube for example), and streams directly. This means you can flick a video to your TV, then go back to looking at cat pics or whatever.

Appearance, Initial Impressions

The ChromeCast is small, matt black, and has a gold plated connector. It has a single activity indicator light, and a micro-usb port for power. It is about as sexy as a dongle can get without getting into some seriously risqué territory.

As far as size goes, you can see it sitting next to a pencil. It is small enough to fit behind the average TV. For those of you with poorly designed TVs with rear facing HDMI ports - Google’s got you covered. They provide a small HDMI extension cable.

For people with a decent TV (which includes USB ports), you can plug a micro USB cable straight into your TV, hiding all the cabling. For those of you who buy your TVs from Aldi, Google include a USB power plug.

Setting Up

Powering up for the first time, we get a screen on the TV saying “set me up”. I downloaded the ChromeCast app on my phone, and tried connecting. My phone found the ChromeCast. Success!

Set me upNice spinny circlePairing code

I typed in a pairing code (matched on the TV). I chose a name for my ChromeCast (ChromeBro). Things are going well! Time to try playing some music. I fire up Google Music and start playing. Life is great. Then this happens:

Google Music Fail

I could no longer control the ChromeCast. ChromeBro? Ok, no problem, let’s fire up the ChromeCast app.


ChromeCast Fail

The next half hour I got to see this screen a lot. I tried factory defaulting, and a fresh set up. I tried running off the power plug instead of the TVs USB power.

The problem? the timezone was wrong. WHY CAN’T CHROMECAST USE MY NETWORK TIME? or even use a Time (NTP) Server? Advanced NTP technology has only been around since 1985, after all.

Things were much smoother sailing from this point onwards.


Cast me baby, all night long

When I turn on my TV, I am greeted with this nice screen. If I choose not to cast, and just stare at this screen, it helpfully hides the text and switches between soothing images. The ChromeCast is a great way to turn your 60” into a handy photo frame (as long as you are happy to see random pictures taken by strangers).

Ready to cast!

Phone Casting (Nexus 4)

Once connected (via the ChromeCast app), supported apps have a little TV icon appear. Performance is surprisingly great. I flicked a YouTube video to the TV. The YouTube icon appeared on the TV, and within 10 seconds the video was running - and in glorious 1020p high def. The quality seemed better than my existing Western Digital Live HD, and there was only the occasional pause for buffering (maybe once in a 10 minute video). For reference, I have a 20MBit ADSL2+ connection.

Shaun the Sheep

Once casting, you can play/pause from your phone - most of the time. Sometimes the phone loses the connection, and the movie plays on regardless. This means you have no way to control the TV via the phone, until you relaunch the ChromeCast app and reconnect. This seems to happen at the worst possible time - for example it happened when I was watching Ninja Turtles with my 4 year old… and a cat was exposed to radioactive slime. The cat then grotesquely pulsed, then melted while making disturbing sounds. Meanwhile, I was desperately trying to stop playback, while my kid was recoiling in terror.

On my phone, I found I could cast from the following apps:

  • You Tube
  • Google Play Movies
  • Google Music
  • Netflix (more info further down)
  • Hulu Plus (more info further down)

For a complete list of apps look here. Amusingly, the stock version of Chrome can’t ChromeCast. Surprisingly, Google+ and the Photos app can’t cast. If I film a home movie on my phone, I can’t cast it to the TV?

Google, did you not think that maybe one of the main use cases of ChromeCast would be to fling a home movie to my TV? Between that, and the lack of Chrome being able to cast - it makes the product feel very half done.

I can’t help but think if an Apple Engineer had tried to release an Apple product with a similar limitation - zombie Steve Jobs would have crucified them.

Update!

The Android Photos/movies/Google+ app has had an update. You can now cast your home movies. Thanks Google.

PC

Casting from the PC is a little different. I had to install the ChromeCast app in Chrome. From there, I can flick any browser tab to my TV. There is about 1 second of lag - not terrible. Movies can be played this way, but the quality seems lower than using the “Cast” button on the YouTube site.

YouTube, Play Movies, and Play Music all get a new icon - the Cast button. I found it to be fast, reliable, and always there.

Yes, Netflix and Hulu work in Australia

Yes, Netflix and Hulu do work - but not out of the box. The ChromeCast has hard coded DNS servers. This will stop Australian devices from connecting to Netflix/Hulu. To work around it, I had to set static routes for Google’s DNS servers (I routed them to my router), then I set the routers firewall to drop any outgoing packets destined for those DNS servers.

If the last paragraph made no sense to you, then this is probably not the device for you (if you want to watch Netflex at least).

The Competition

There are a fair few competing devices out there, like the Apple TV (pictured), Western Digital Live (pictured), Roku, etc.

Yay, photoshop!

I’ve got a Western Digital Live. It retails for $100, and here is how it compares to the ChromeCast:

Western Digital Positives

  • I can control playback at any time via the remote
  • Large range of existing apps
  • Netflix works without having static routes and other rubbish

Western Digital Negatives

  • It costs $50 more than the ChromeCast
  • It takes nearly 5 minutes from boot up to actually streaming a Netflix movie

My wealthy co-worker Json has an Apple TV, so I’ll compare based on his feedback. Also, let’s all take a moment to boo Json for not including me on his awesome side project. Boo! Json, if you’re reading this, you’re bad and you should feel bad. You’re awesome otherwise. Moving along.

Lets compare the Apple TV:

Apple TV Positives

  • Huge range of apps
  • You can screen share anything. ANYTHING. Playing MineCraft? flick it to the TV with AirPlay. Angry Birds? AirPlay. Amazingly, it is low latency enough to actually game with.

Apple TV Negatives

  • $110
  • Doesn’t work with anything other than Apple devices

Conclusion

The Good

  • For $50, it is pretty hard to go past
  • If you have Android or Apple devices, it is going to integrate nicely. All 3 windows phone users (including famous Swede @larsklint) will be excited to hear of Windows Phone support - but note that it is not as mature as other platforms, so your mileage may vary.
  • It’s a very compact unit, and if your TV has powered USB ports, all cords are nicely hidden away.
  • The quality of video play back is fantastic. It is sharp, it is smooth, and it is fast.

The Bad

  • Setup was far more painful than I would have liked
  • Hardcoded DNS makes it a pain in the backside to bypass geo-blocking (Netflix,Hulu)
  • Some apps have a bad habit of constantly losing communication with the ChromeCast. Hulu for instance. This makes it difficult to pause/resume.
  • My phone (Nexus4) sometimes can’t see the ChromeCast until I reboot it (the ChromeCast, not the phone).
  • No AppleTv style screen casting… ala AirPlay. This is a killer feature.

Overall

The ChromeCast is a great device. If we got the same price as the US ($35) it would be a no brainer. Even at $50, it is hard to go past. If it had something similar to AirPlay, and didn’t lose connection to my phone regularly, it would be 55.

As it stands, I rate the ChromeCast 3.5 bananas.

Updated

My main issues were patchy connectivity, and troublesome setup. Since resolving these issues (and letting me cast my home movies) - I’ve raised my rating to 4.5 bananas.

nanananananananananananananananananananananananana

/eof

Dbrand Phone Skin Review

Someone at LG needs to be slapped, and I know who. It’s Bob - in Product Design. “I’ve got an idea!”, exclaimed Bob. “How about we give the Nexus4 a glass back!”. In an ideal world he would have been beaten to death by his co-workers - but he wasn’t… so I have a Nexus 4, it’s broken… and here we are.

I’m too cheap/lazy to fix a cracked Nexus4 back, so I decided to try a DBrand skin. On to the review…

Here’s my Nexus 4, before getting a new skin:

Broken Phone

Can you see the crack in the top right corner? I fell asleep on a rug with my phone in my pocket. When I woke up and took my phone out… it felt different. There was a big damn crack on the back glass! The crack isn’t noticeable most of the time, but I know it’s there, and I’m easily annoyed by these sort of things.

I’d heard about a nice Canadian company who make phone skins - and even better, they use a Laser to cut them! I work with a Canadian (hi Diwas!), and I like Lasers, so I thought, why not? DBrand have an impressive range of skins. I went for the “Carbon Fibre” model. They also have a “tacky gold” version (must be huge in China), a “white douche leather” edition (for iPhone fans), and some cool brushed aluminium styles.

A week and a half later (and $10), the skin arrived in an envelope. It looks like this:

DBrand Skin DBrand Skin

It is surprisingly easy to install. I’ve installed screen protectors before, so I was expecting this to be hellish. It was literally a 30 second job. It is also removable. DBrand accomplish this using 3M Vinyl stickers.

DBrand Skin DBrand Skin DBrand Skin DBrand Skin DBrand Skin DBrand Skin

It has a very smooth yet textured feel. It doesn’t feel like a sticker, yet it doesn’t it doesn’t feel entirely authentic either. Overall it is not unpleasant.

The visual effect is amazing. If I move the phone around under the light, the texture shines and reflects - looking incredible. The skin fits so well that a friend asked if I had replaced my phone. The cutting precision is impressive. The shiny “Nexus” lettering is clearly visible, and the camera cut outs perfect.

I can recommend this product with no reservations. If you want to make your phone look great, hit up the DBrand Website. Oh, and if anyone knows Bob at LG - go slap him for me.

/eof

Aussie retailers could learn a thing or two from dollar shave club

A couple of weeks ago, something interesting popped up on my Facebook feed. It was a company called “Dollar Shave Club” offering razors direct to my door for $4 a month. How can a company afford to do that? Would the razors suck worse than Aldi razors?

The razors didn’t show up. I contacted the company. How they handled it shows why traditional retailers should be terrified.

We’ll get back to that in a minute.

Australia’s retail scene is pretty crap. Our products typically cost a lot more than the US, Europe, and most other places you could name. Online shopping here is often a poor joke. I ordered online (with a pickup option) from Target last Christmas. They failed to have the product ready for pickup. Good thing I had a backup plan, or I would have had one disappointed kid! Target tried to make me drive 20km to pick it up when it did arrive 3 weeks after Christmas. They wouldn’t let me swap it, and tried to worm their way out of a refund. They only relented when I started ringing managers and hassling them.

Target are a special kind of stupid, but our other retailers are not much better. For the most part their online stores are a begrudgingly tacked on afterthought. On top of that, you have dear old Gerry Harvey from Harvey Norman continually bleating about the plight of the poor Aussie retailers. Can’t we just change some laws so he can hire people from overseas for $2 an hour? Do you know how hard things are for him? His chain only made $142,000,000 last year.

Dollar Shave Club

Back to Dollar Shave Club. They are American, and like most Americans they are loud, disruptive, and pretty awesome. They promised cheap razors with fast delivery. I ordered my razors 8 days ago - so they were running a bit late. I quickly flicked an email to them before I left for work.

I honestly didn’t expect a response for a day or two. A couple of hours later, Adam B replied. He apologised, gave me a free month of razors, and confirmed my address (for context, I asked if they’d sent it to the right country)….

Adam B. (Dollar Shave Club) Apr 13 19:48

Hi Danny

Thanks for replying mate, I’m on my way to the post office right now to ship out your Humble twin blades and handle.

Haha yep - all our orders are sent out from our Distribution Centre in Sydney.

Shave On Adam

When I got home from work at 6pm, I had a package from Dollar Shave club. How the hell did they ship it 1000km in one afternoon? I honestly wouldn’t be surprised if they had someone in Brisbane personally hand deliver it.

If it was an Australian retailer, they would respond in on the of following ways:

  • blame Australia Post
  • tell me to wait another week
  • ask me to file a missing item report with Australia post
  • claim they never got my order

In contrast these guys treated me so well that I’m going to tell everyone I know. That is how you make your customer happy. Don’t make excuses. Just fix it.

The package

This is what I received:

Dollar Shave Club Package

The package contained…

  • a friendly welcome card
  • a razor
  • 5 blades

This the cheapest razor they offer. They do have some more expensive options, but I figured I’d give the bargain basement version a try first.

In all honesty, I didn’t expect much. The worst razors I have ever used were purchased from Aldi. To get an idea of how those feel, go smack your face down on some asphalt… maintain that position… and use your legs to propel your body forward. That was what I expected from these razors.

I progressed from Aldi razors to some Gilette Mach 5000 sooper duper 5/6/7 blade razor. That was ok, but the cost of blades bordered on extortion. I’ve tried old school safety razors, but found I cut myself more often and it had little to no benefit over a dual blade Schick FX disposable.

Our Hero

Well, I can happily report that these are the best razors I have ever used - and they only cost 4 bucks! You can quote me on that:

Well, I can happily report that these are the best razors I have ever used - and they only cost 4 bucks!

Danny, random internet blogger

They were smooth on my skin, shaved close without cutting, and followed the contours of my oddly shaped face. They are great.

So, to summarise:

  • great razors
  • $4 a month for the cheapest option, with higher spec’d razors from there
  • great service

If you want to give them a try, go here: The Dollar Shave Club Disclosure note - that link has a referral. If you sign up, I get a free razor. Here is the same link without the referral: The Dollar Shave Club

/eof

Belkin WeMo Light Switch Review

I recently purchased a Belkin WeMo light switch. I’ve been eyeing these off for a while. The general premise is pretty cool. It is a IP enabled light switch, with Iphone/Android control.

Install was pretty easy. It was simply a matter of cutting a hole in the gyprock (plaster board), and running some wires to my existing switch. Belkin provided some twist-on electrical connectors, which made the job very easy. Note that this will not use any sort of standard Australian wall plate - so it is not going to look like your Clipsal switches. It does fit into a standard plasterboard C-Clip, so that is nice.

Once running, it was fairly easy to setup. After installing the WeMo app, I connected my phone to a new Wifi access point provided by the WeMo switch. The WeMo app then prompted me to enter my existing WiFi network details. From there, the switch connected to my home network and performed a firmware update, and we were in business.

Controlling the switch worked on my home network, or remotely - and it responded fast. There is an audible click from the switch when triggered remotely.

The switch lights up to indicate status, with a small green icon showing on/off state. This is really handy at night. There is also a soft white LED showing a network connection.

If you live here in Australia, you MUST have the switch installed by a licenced electrician. It is a legal requirement. You should also keep in mind that you are dealing with 240v power. You could do yourself a serious injury or manage to electrocute yourself. Don?t become a Darwin Award.

Issues

So far, I have had two problems. The first is that the switch has stopped responding to my phone over wifi. If I connect to it over the cell network, it works fine. I suspect this is a quirk of the NAT setup for my home network rather than an issue with the switch itself.

The second issue I have had is that I setting up IFTTT integration was difficult. The WeMo app was unable to generate a PIN for IFTTT. Belkin were very quick to respond on twitter. They suggested performing a factory reset of the switch (which I did). Within 24 hours it was working. It may have been a server side issue at Belkin.

Integration

As a software developer, I was keen to attempt to integrate with the WeMo switch. Unfortunately Belkin don?t provide a public API! I was hoping there would be a REST or SOAP service I could work with. That means our options for integration are limited to third party services supported by the WeMo - which includes IFTTT (mentioned above).

For my integration test, I integrated my home alarm system with the switch. When my alarm is armed at night time, the WeMo Switch turns on my outside light. In more detail, when I arm my alarm, an email is sent saying “Alarm Armed at (time)”. I added a Google script to my Gmail account to check if it is after sunset, and if it is, send a second email saying “Alarm Armed (Night)”.

IFTTT picks up this second email, and turns on my outside light!

Conclusion

Overall I’m happy with the WeMo switch. The price was $60, which seems ok considering some of the fancier standard light switches are up near that price. If integration was friendlier, I?d rate it higher.

Rating: 45 Stars - Highly recommended

Photos


The installed switch Front of switch and connectors Back of switch, showing wires

References

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