Review: MacBook Pro 13.3” (128GB) [non-touch bar], refurbished, June 2017 model

25 years!

That’s how long I’ve been an almost exclusive user of Microsoft products (from early teen to nearly forty), particularly the Windows operating system on PCs. So, you could forgive me for boredom and foolhardiness that drove me into the arms of a Mac.

I’d temporarily had a Mac before, an obsolete hand-me-down as a taster, and in 2008 I had a netbook with Ubuntu on it, which I used quite happily for five years. Other than that, I only had PCs, and my smartphones and tablets were all Windows-based too. The demise of Windows Phone drove me to an Android, and I’m sure the freshness of that magnetised to me an Apple laptop when a second(!) Asus machine died of multiple failures. So, now I’m a tech-bohemian – I can be criticised and loved by all…

Given that I like to use computers for music-making, whether I see a recording project through, and I wanted my laptop as a secondary computer to my 5-years-and-still-running-well Windows desktop machine, the clear choice from Apple was a MacBook Pro. Being averse to their price tags I decided to opt for a refurbished one from Apple themselves, saving about £200! The machine is still current, and it looked retail to me! It came in a shrink-wrapped box that was marked as refurbished, but the machine itself looked untouched. The cable was surely new, as was the documentation (I also get the standard warranty).

I worried if the 128GB model would be cutting it for space but seeing as I use OneDrive cloud storage (my desktop holding a lot of content that I don’t access much) and that I could get an external drive for music project files, and that I had only used about 135GB in total (including Windows) on my desktop, I reasoned I could get away with it through shrewdness. And so far, it’s looking good. The machine came with 97GB usable space, and once I updated it and added all the programmes I use, and selectively downloaded from OneDrive, I was left with 70GB free. That’s plenty for me given that I don’t anticipate much new programs to add (I first saw if all the longstanding programs I use on PC were available on Mac, and they are) and music projects will often be transferred to PC for more comfortable editing. This laptop will help with more portable recording. If this machine was to be my primary computer, I think 256GB would be more rational, but it does cost you a bit more.

I’ve not found it too much of a leap from Windows as the basic concepts are the same and I’m getting used to the small intricacies.

While I’ve often criticised Apple buyers as money burners, there’s no doubting the build quality of this thing. It’s a stunning and strong silver aluminium with a Retina display. The lack of travel on the keys feels odd but I’m quickly getting used to it.

The machine’s thinness allows famed Apple ‘braveness’: there is just one headphone port and two USB-C/thunderbolt ports (either can be used to charge the laptop or connect devices). You can pick up a USB-C to 4xUSB-A (standard port) dongle for a tenner, and all your gadgets will be good to go. It might be inelegant, but not when the machine doesn’t need those ports, say when you’re just travelling and doing document editing/watching films. Some dongles allow you to use an SD card reader, if you so need it.

I was pleasantly surprised to see that my Office 365 Personal subscription allowed me to install it on this as well as my desktop as the license is technically for one PC or Mac, plus a tablet and a smartphone. Given that tablets are out of fashion and hybrid tablet-laptops muddy the category, that’s probably how it ended up fine. This subscription also gives me 1TB of OneDrive space, so all Android phone photos go straight there and onto my desktop. I’m leaving them un-downloaded on my Mac. So, this allows a bit of Microsoft-dependence-continuity, which I’m happy to continue with (e.g. OneDrive is more generous than iCloud, and Office and Outlook beat the OS X default equivalents; Pages, Numbers, Mail).

It’s early days so far but I’m pleased with the purchase, particularly if it has a long usable life. At least OS X updates are free like Windows ones are now. Future resale value might keep me on the Apple ladder. *shock*

I had briefly looked at the equivalent-priced Surface Laptop, which is a bit more generous in spec, but I figured that if you’re going for a pocket burn, it feels more justified by going for a radical experience.

There’ll be new MacBooks later this year, no doubt, but they won’t be a relative bargain on the refurb shop immediately, so I feel this was a good time to get one.

Mac OS Mojave is out soon and that will have a dark theme mode which is something I’ve enjoyed already on Android and Windows.

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Iron Maiden @ The O2, 28/5/17

Another weekend, another event. I and a friend were actually pencilled in for this long before last week’s and one next week.

When I saw Megadeth a couple of years ago, it was a day after the Bataclan shooting in Paris and I was nervous: I was seeing an American heavy metal band in Wembley Arena. It turned out fine though; in fact I was quite happy about given a quick frisk in security, given that people of my look are the guilty parties.

Now I was seeing Iron Maiden after the Ariana Grande bombing in the more closer Manchester. Some artists cancelled their dates and venues even allowed customers to get refunds for active shows. I wasn’t put off though, because I had come to realise that attending an event immediately after a terror attack is likely the safest time because of the alert. The O2 always had security machines to pass through but now I saw more police on patrols than usual.

This was the first time I attended a ticketless event – ticketless because Maiden did an honourable move to prevent touting where you could only attend with photo ID and the card you purchased with. Unfortunately, my card had been replaced because of use at a suspected compromised cash machine, and I forgot I needed that old card for Maiden before I scissored it up. I worked out that email confirmation would help me out but it wasn’t too clear where to go, but I was sorted out at the box office. And I was not alone as there were at least 30 others who didn’t have a valid card for various reasons.

We sat down just in time for the end of support band Shinedown, and as support bands go they were just another generic one. All I remember of them was fists in the air.

40 mins later, Maiden come on. Or, first, there was a little video of their mascot Eddie in some sort of Doom-game like-thing. Then the lights came up on their Mayan-themed stage (because recent The Book of Souls album is framed that way) and they went through mostly new songs with some older classics.

It has to be known that I’m not a huge Maiden fan. I mainly tagged along because a friend not usually in to concerts wanted to go and he turned it into a late birthday present for me. I prefer their energetic earlier stuff (Powerslave is my favourite album, I love every track on that) and think their longer, mid-paced, proggier stuff of recent times can sometimes test my patience (consider that my favourite type of metal is the more zesty American thrash). But as a whole package I thought it was a great show. It was very theatrical and you know you’re having fun when it seems like you haven’t had enough.

Singer Bruce Dickinson ended with a little speech about Manchester, pointing out that there are lunatics all over the world (Trump was quite emphasised) and that the house of Maiden is welcome to all (whatever colour, religion, sexuality or other persuasion) who come in peace. You could argue that it was schmaltzy but it was a good way of saying that if you give in to fear and you buy into division, we’re all doomed. Apparently, there were more people at this show than on the sold-out first London night.

Set list here. Also check out this fan vid of the song Powerslave live from there.

PS: WordPress informs me that this blog has reached its 10th anniversary. It’s limped along in recent years, but it’s alive.

Omid Djalili @ Hammersmith Apollo, 20/5/17

I don’t frequently see live comedy (any time I’ve been, including this, has been at someone else’s expense) but whenever I do I always think ‘why don’t I go more’? They’re often cheaper than musical events and you walk away just as entertained, and also a little less tired.

Omid is a British-Iranian comedian who is very visible in that he’s appeared in films and TV. One almost risqué quality of his material is that much of it is race-based – but not racist. His contemporary David Baddiel points out that he gets away with it because of his innocent naiveté (there’s no malice and he makes fun of himself too), and most likely because of his ethnicity. I once heard Omid describe himself as an adopted (South) Asian. And why wouldn’t we take him in when we’re happy for him to be a representative?

The 90min support slot was admirably supported by Boothby Graffoe with his guitar, and Omid’s jokes covered Trump, Brexit (yes, I found his anti-Brexit stuff funny) and any other thing that’s currently or timelessly topical. I would be interested in buying any possible DVD for this Shmuck for a Night tour – in which the Apollo was the closing date.

Going back to the material. I remember liking some comedy when growing up that was in hindsight racist. Why? Though race-based material can often be low-brow, it can still be funny. My thought process on viewing such things is “yes, this is a stereotype, and it’s even exaggerated. I find it funny not because I hate myself or that who is being targeted, but just because it’s an observation that can be used to entertain and not necessarily be malicious.” The problem only is in the intent of the comedian (Bernard Manning, for example, was pretty funny, but it seems quite clear that he genuinely believed other ethnicities are inferior). You could even have a fan that misinterprets what Omid says, but given that his liberal-left leanings are obvious in his other material there probably won’t be many of those.

And I don’t think being white disallows you from good-hearted race-based material. Al Murray pulls it off very successfully with his xenophobic Pub Landlord character.

There was even what could be seen as a sexist joke from Omid – but all the women were laughing. I remember in the 90s that there was a backlash against anything that could be seen as prejudicial, but I think the balance is just right with comedy at the moment: Be funny, by whatever means. But don’t be cruel.

****

On another note, the historian Tom Holland followed-up his previous documentary on the genesis of Islam with one that examined ISIS and the genocide of Yazidis. I didn’t watch this one. I thought the other one was fine, but on deciphering that he places human tragedies in ranking order rather than equally, I now find him a bit suspect, in terms of his conclusions rather than his research.

ChEEp!

I remember my first mobile phone. 1999, an nk402 on the Orange PAYG network. A year before that I had a MiniCall pager – messages to that were 50p each!

I had been loyal to Orange up to late 2011 (Text Saver kept me keen), at which point they had merged with T-Mobile to form EE. I left Orange for a few reasons: the tariffs were now uncompetitive, the signal had suffered since the merge, and I was about to get my first smartphone and it seemed inevitable that I needed a contract to avoid getting fleeced.

I didn’t need a contract, turns out. I ported my number over to the ultra-cheap O2 network-leacher, giffgaff, and it was my network for three unlocked Windows Phones until a couple of days ago as they were starting to seem uncompetitive. The funny thing is that I have returned to my old network, now fully known as EE.

EE doesn’t have a reputation as the cheapest but they are known for having the best and most reliable 4G coverage. Turns out though, that, with a bit of research, they can also compete head-on with Three, who offer 1p/mb data and 3p and 2p UK calls and texts respectively. Vodafone and O2 were off my radar because they seem stuck in the 00s.

I actually tested Three and EE PAYG SIMs before making the leap. I found that I had a strangely-usable 0-bar signal on Three indoors and internet speed was on average H+, even out. EE’s signal was a tad lower than giffgaff’s but it was visible and I’ve never had anything less than 4G data connection.

It’s not very evident without a bit of digging that EE offers a 100mb/10mins/10txts pack for £1 week; this is enough for me because most of my surfing is at home and I can find free WiFi in most places, partly because BT broadband allows me free access to their very large WiFi network. I could visualise it as this: I pay £1 for 100mb of data (1p/mb, like Three, but data only comes as part of a pack/add-on on PAYG EE) and I get 10 free calls and 10 texts on top as a bonus. I class those as a bonus because data is all I really need; nearly everyone I know has WhatsApp and you can call and text through that.

At £4 per month it’s a quid cheaper than the most cheapest contract and you get free boosts of data/calls/texts after a certain number of packs are bought, thereby adding more value over Three in the long-run. Being able to tether, unlike on Three, for no extra fee, can also be handy on some occasions, and calls to voicemail can be from allowance calls.

True that off-pack rates on EE are much higher than on Three and giffgaff but I don’t anticipate going out of bundle often and I can buy add-ons for when I prematurely use up pack allowance (which will assuredly be rare). There’s no free EU roaming like on Three (with an All-in-One add-on), but a MiFi dongle and a local SIM card are still often better value.

EE, like its competitors, also offer free Virgin WiFi on London Tube stops, but this isn’t a big deal as O2 gives free WiFi to everyone there regardless, and it’s pretty decent.

So, if you’re looking at a good balance between quality and price on PAYG, I’m shocked to say that EE are a good choice. It’s nice to be back after a 5yr hiatus.

…For how long, though?

Patty wars

I don’t eat much fast food, so when I do I think I might as well go upmarket because it’s a rare expenditure.

I was first introduced to Gourmet Burger Kitchen about a decade ago and since then I barely remember entering the Golden Arches. They have a wide variety of choice and it’s all fresh stuff. Likely as good as can be for the body as it is on the tongue. Of course it costs, on average 3x more than from a cheap place, but you feel satisfied. Habanero’s my fave.

GBK isn’t the only ‘posh burger’ place though as competition has been encroaching. However, they remain a favourite.

I’ve been to Byron a couple of times and they really just seem a slightly more snobby McDonald’s. I think they’re alright but they would always be a choice below GBK and my other favourite:

Which is Honest. Honest don’t have a huge menu but the restaurant environment is pleasant and the food is just as good, maybe slightly better than GBK’s. I also can’t resist the cola bottle gums-like premium Karma Cola.

Yesterday I was at Boom Burger and I had high hopes for this Jamaican joint because the menu looked tantalising and I expected an explosion of flavour. But while perfectly edible I found the taste rather bland, on top of which the seating is limited and shoddy and you have to compete with fairly loud music when placing your order. I had to point to menu items in fear of being misheard. I tried plantain fries; too sweet for my palette. The mango sauce in the burger was nice though.

I think my days of trying new places is over (mainly as I don’t know anymore). I’ll stick with GBK and Honest.

Review: Straight Outta Compton (movie)

I wanted to see this when it first came out but somehow never got to it. I haven’t been to the cinema for quite a while, in fact.

A tempting offer for digital purchase allowed me to see this on my tablet on New Year’s Day.

I’m not a hard-core NWA fan, in fact my ears lean much more to rock, but I absolutely loved their debut album Straight Outta Compton. It actually has the attitude of rock and roll but the sonic sensibility of fine pop music. I was too young too listen to their unarguably best album at the time of release, but I knew about them, I was a teenager during the “aftermath”.

With decades having passed (approaching 30yrs), a documentary movie was timely. Also because the white band rock biopic needed a challenge from black guys with attitudez…

Though there’s no real big name cast to the film I was surprised by how decently acted it was. There was a nice balance in that no one cast member stood out too much (maybe Easy-E was more foreground, though) and it told the story well. Embellishments with the truth have been acknowledged, but that’s not exclusive to this part-fictionalised film. NWA don’t claim to be angels but the experiences they faced did not allow them to be so, but when they channelled it into making beefy-beated clever raps they made something amazing that they weren’t able to sustain collectively.

I found it scary how much Ice Cube’s son looked and acted like his father in his role. And it was nice to have an insight into the band making their music; this must be authentic with members of NWA being on-set to advise. One of the villains, NWA’s manager, also comes across as a bit 3D. You’re allowed to judge to what percentage he was crucial to their success and demise.

Perhaps the one dud note is something I question.

Easy-E was said to have died of AIDS and this was dramatised with E coughing a lot, collapsing and ending up in hospital with a diagnosis of HIV and a low T-cell account (said to be a hallmark of AIDS). But as testified by family and friends his disease was rather sudden for AIDS which is marked by many gradual immunity challenges. His partner and child (to be born) tested negative, and his promiscuity did not create an HIV/AIDS cluster (else the media would’ve jumped on it). What happened was that a young black man was given the test against his will based on assumptions of his publicised life. Drearily, Easy-E had a respiratory infection and the film was quite implicit about his drug use as NWA fell apart. If he was treated properly he would have lived. I don’t doubt that.

Overall a good film. You might prefer to just rent it than own it.

Review: Microsoft Lumia 640

I think I’m cursed.

On Christmas Day morning I was listening to a bit of music on Spotify mobile when my 2yr and 1mth old Nokia Lumia 925 froze, crashed and tried to restart itself several times before going to smartphone heaven (or hell). This was a high-end phone when it came out, but I saved a bit of money by getting it as a Chinese import (I get SIM-free phones because I’m with a primarily SIM-only operator). I know that smartphone life isn’t very high because it’s an immature technology, but I wished I could get one more year out of it. I think I’m cursed because my first Windows Phone died after 2yrs too, the HTC Titan.

For smarter people this usually is a cue to go to Android, Apple, or maybe even BlackBerry. But I’ve been a fan of the tile interface for 4 years now and I’m not in a hurry to leave. Maybe the Lumia 640 I have now will be a bit luckier; maybe it’ll be my last WP if Windows 10 Mobile doesn’t do what Microsoft hopes it does.

When searching for phones I knew I wanted to go midrange now, but I was surprised at how limited the options were. At the time of searching I could only find actively sold phones by Blu and Microsoft (previously Nokia). I’m guessing other manufacturers are reloading for Windows 10, but, anyway, Satya Nadella seems to have trimmed down the Lumia range. Though the price of the 5″ Lumia 640 approaches budget, it’s actually midrange in what they have. It’s several hundred pounds cheaper than the standard Lumia 950 which features retinal recognition, Continnum (connect to a dock and use almost like a PC) and a 20MP pixel camera. These are features I don’t care for and won’t use so I was glad that the best option was cheap.

But it doesn’t feel cheap. Sure it has a plastic body and quite a faceless look but it feels like “hey, did you misprice this?”. I do miss the AMOLED of my old phone for deeper blacks (off pixels), but an IPS LCD gives whiter whites. The 2000mAh battery of my 925 wasn’t lasting long (requiring at least 2 charges per day) but the 2500mAh here is giving me a full day and a half on average, and it’s replaceable!

Even though there’s only 8GB of internal memory, you can pop a micro SD card in (mandatory for sufficient use really), so I have a 32GB card for my apps and photos etc.

At this price range I was also surprised to see the glance screen which allows me to see time and notifications without taking the phone out of standby. This was a feature I’d lose by going to Blu. Though other WPs, like my deceased 925, have capacitive navigation buttons I was absolutely fine with them being on-screen now. You can swipe them out when not needed, so the front of the phone is virtually just screen (Gorilla glass too).

With HD resolution it’s easy on the eyes. Not quite Retina class, but good enough to not really care. There’s no physical camera button here, just power and volume. A headphone socket is on the top and a micro USB port on the bottom (you don’t get a charger with a detachable cable though, for connecting to your computer; I have one from my last phone though).

Upgrading from my old phone was easy. On signing into my Microsoft Account it found a backup of my old phone and restored everything it could. I just needed to adjust the tiles to fit this bigger screen, which is not uncomfortable to use. Though the phone is a bit thicker than my last, it’s certainly not too chunky.

A competing phone, the Lumia 550, has a lower spec but Windows 10 already on it. But I’m happy to wait for that upgrade as I hear it’s still a bit buggy and I’m fine with 8.1 for the time being.

If you’re looking for a midrange WP this is probably the best choice at the moment. Professional and consumer reviews are allied in that you get a lot of feature and quality for the price. It doesn’t feel such a downgrade from the 925; certainly it is an improvement in some areas (not the camera though, though it’s respectable enough here).

The box it comes in is not swish as Nokia used to do (which was aping Apple) but it’s nicely minimalist. Reading the short getting started leaflet is not mandatory as it’s very intuitive.

If you have more dough, you could go for the 640 XL which has a bigger screen and a better camera. But this is the one for me!