Friday, 11 May 2018

7 Days With Linux Mint... On A 2012 MacBook Air

I’ve been a linux fan on the side for a long time, dipping in to it and then going back to my Mac. However, my love of Apple has faded lately and with my 2012 MacBook Air getting older by the year Linux is looking a viable option for the future. Before I dive in, ditch my Mac and live in a non-Apple environment I thought I would try and get to grips with Linux a bit more. I couldn’t go full time in an OS I am not 100% comfortable with. While I am no Linux n00b, I am not that experienced either. So a week ago I installed rEFInd - an EFI boot manager for Apple computers - partitioned my SSD and installed Linux Mint 18.3 Cinnamon ‘Sylvia’ (ensuring I have 8GB for swap). Mint is my go-to distro. I love the look, it works fantastically and I am the most comfortable in it.

First impressions were impressive. Everything worked and it looked superb. All hardware was detected and setup correctly, even down to the Mac specific hardware keys for screen brightness, sound and keyboard backlight. My MacBook Air is no slouch, a 1.7Ghz i5 with 8GB RAM and a 256GB SSD and under Mint it performs even faster than macOS. This is not a pros and cons of Linux article. Anyone looking in to it knows its advantages and limitations in comparison to the competition. The GUI of Linux Mint shares a look between macOS and Windows. It has a bottom task bar a ‘Mint’ Start menu and a clock in the bottom right. Drives mount and show on the desktop and Notifications pop up to the top right of the screen. Keyboard shortcuts also mimic Windows using a Control key instead of an Apple key - but oddly enough Control+Q closes windows - a mix of Control + F4 for Windows and Apple + Q on macOS. The Apple (or command) key now activates the 'Mint' menu.

Once you get your head around changed shortcuts and screen decor being in different places navigating and using the OS is great and simple.

Installing apps isn't as difficult as it used to be. The Software Manager is an app store which makes finding and installing apps easy, but other apps can be downloaded and installed from websites just like macOS and Windows. I installed DropBox and a text editor called Sublime without any issues.

Performance is superb, but on this hardware it does have some specific issues. Battery life. This takes a significant hit, lasting almost a third less and that is under average load. I have yet to do anything very processor or drive intensive yet. Heat. My Air runs very cool under macOS, but under Mint it has heated quite bit with more fan action than I have ever experienced before. It happens especially when it is on charge. Initially this was a worry, but after the first few days, this has drastically reduced. Writing this article now my Mac is back to no fans, silent and relatively cool. Mouse. I reversed the scroll direction and lowered the pointer speed, but the tap is very sensitive and I cannot seem to lower this. I have on a number of occasions accidentally tapped when moving my finger across the pad. It has also detected a drag and sent a few windows where I didn’t want them. Being a Mac it only has one mouse button. It took a while to work out tapping with two fingers will bring up a right button sub menu. Sleep. Waking from sleep can be little temperamental. Opening the lid wakes the machine 95% of the time, but a few times I have had to prod the power or escape key to give it a little nudge. Battery Low Indicator. When the battery gets critically low it pops a warning, however plugging in a charger doesn’t automatically dismiss this. You have to manually click it. A small annoyance. Everything else has worked fine. I have ran the multiple updates to ensure everything is up-to-date. I would like to stress that these are not specific issues with Linux or even Mint, rather particular issues when combining Linux with a MacBook. Others have experienced these with different distros. I have never come across these issues before and I have run Linux on various machines from ThinkPads to other Macs without these problems. At first I was very disappointed with the heat issue. After all I don't want to damage my MacBook Air. The others are minor issues.

I thought it was going to call time on my Linux venture, but I will keep a mindful eye on temperature. The more I use and get used to Linux and Mint the more I enjoy it. After 20 years of using a Mac and Apple OS it is going to be strange to get used to.

Wish me luck.

Written by Simon Royal. Follow me at twitter.com/simonroyal

Monday, 30 April 2018

Fallen Out Of Love With Apple. But Whats Next For Me?

I’ve been a massive advocate for Apple and the Mac platform for nearly two decades, but of late my love of them has become less love, more habit. Once locked in to the macOS and iOS ecosystem, about 18 months ago I broke free, ditched my iPhone and jumped in to the Google camp.

This was a major step, it meant I no longer required a Mac to take advantage of my phone. The cat and mouse game of will my phone version work with my Mac and will my Mac version work with my phone is no longer there.



My Android based Motorola Moto G4 has served me amazingly for over a year and I can not fault it in any way. It works very well too with a Mac, but it isn’t tied to it.


With every year that passes my beloved MacBook Air gets older and older. A 2012 11” with i5 processor and 8GB of RAM means it is still no slouch and hardware wise probably has a few more years left, but Apple increasingly push hardware and drop older models with each new release of macOS. I am running Sierra, I haven’t bothered with High Sierra and the next version is just around the corner. Whether you want to run the latest or not sometimes you are forced to by software developers or Apple themselves. There is a good chance the next version will be the last for my now 5 year old Mac and that puts it on the slippery slope to ‘low end’.

So what next? I no longer drool over the latest Apple tech and I certainly don’t have the funds to stump up a £1000 for another Mac. Going the used market route saves you a few hundred but puts you closer to the eventual cut-off where you will be in the same position again.

I have had a keen interest in Linux as a desktop operating system for years, dabbling in various distros - such as Mint, Ubuntu, LXLE to name a few - and learning the basics, but it has always been a side interest, a geeky look at what those ‘nerds’ run. However it is no longer spotty speccy geeks who snort with excitement over new kernel releases or wet themselves over the newest LTS release. It has become a real contender in the OS wars. It places itself sandwiched between Windows haters and those who either can't afford Apple hardware or those who don’t want the lock-in you get with them.

Looking at my list of apps sitting in my dock, I see very little that is Mac exclusive. I browse using Chrome, I use GMail for emails, I write in Google Docs or use OpenOffice. I use VLC for video use, Audacity for audio tweaking, HandBrake for video conversion and DropBox for off site back ups. All of which are available for Linux, some of which were originally Linux apps ported to the Mac.

I have a few other minor apps, which may not be on Linux but I am sure there are just as suitable alternatives.

I no longer use iTunes everyday. It is used mainly for editing tags and adding artwork to music and since leaving iOS I don’t use Photos anymore.

Android File Transfer is an awful piece of essential software for any Mac user with an Android, but isn’t required in Linux as most support native mounting with drop and drag.

The one caveat to not owning a Mac would be Adobe Photoshop. Being an ex professional graphic designer I grew up learning Photoshop and despite many attempts haven’t found anything to match it. Perhaps there are or perhaps I am just too set in my ways to get my head around another graphics package. If I am honest it is one of the main things holding me to my Mac.

However, it isnt just about apps. Linux is a large learning curve. It may be nix based and OSX/macOS may share similar ideas, layout and operations - especially compared to Windows - but Mac is 99% GUI. Linux - while it has come a long way to be user friendly - you still need to delve in to terminal and understand what you are doing once in a while.

It is a big step for me, after 20 years of using a Mac, I know the OS inside out. It just works. It never lets me down. It never gets in the way of my every day use. Moving to a relatively unfamiliar operating system I don’t want to be spending time constantly looking up how to perform simple tasks.

Microsoft is definitely not an option. Nothing anyone can say will make me switch to that swiss cheese OS. I may not be an Apple devotee anymore, but I still have extreme hatred for Windows.

The future for me is uncertain, but my love of Apple is no longer where it was. I want the freedom. I want the choices to be my choices and not governed by who makes my computer. Linux is looking more and more appealing as a way to escape the clutches of Apple.

Written by Simon Royal. Follow me at twitter.com/simonroyal


Monday, 26 March 2018

The Instagram Android App is infuriating

For a long time now, going back several phones, Instagram has been a pain on Android. I post a lot of photos, mainly from my long walks. After a bunch of photos get posted, the app eventually ends up just making blank white images, like so.


The only way to fix this, at least temporarily, is to go into App Info (tap and hold the Instagram icon),

Tap Force Stop and OK



Then tap Storage and Clear Cache. Then instagram will be fine until it builds up another 50MB or so of cache. I know I should not be surprised that an app owned by Facebook is utter crap, but they could at least fix simple things like this.






Thursday, 22 February 2018

Motorola Moto G4... Why I Am Keeping Mine

In February 2017, I switched from an iPhone to Android. I bought a Motorola Moto G4 and compared to my aging iPhone, this thing screamed along. The 5.5” screen, octa-core processor and 2GB of RAM were decent specs and its £159 price tag was half that of a used iPhone.


The Moto G4 was actually released March 2016, so is now coming up for two years old. The Moto G5 was released March 2017 but with a smaller screen than its predecessor, it also benches lower so I decided not to upgrade. The Moto G6 is due to be released shortly, but unless it offers serious improvements I will be holding on to my G4 for some time yet.

Looking around at other handsets from other manufacturers in the sub £200 price bracket and I was thoroughly disappointed with what was offered. Could a two year old mid range handset like the Moto G4 really be better than what is currently being offered?

The Samsung Galaxy J3 2017 and Sony Xperia L1 both have a measly quad core processor, while the Nokia 5 and LG K10 2017 have octa core processors and all feature 2GB RAM.

All of the above feature 16GB internal storage, 13mpx rear camera and 5mpx front facing camera and have Android 7.0 Nougat. While some may have or get the 8.0 Oreo update, some may not and my Moto G4 isn’t going to get it either.

On a side note I was shocked to see low priced sub £50 Android handsets such as the ZTE Blade A110 shipping with Android 5.1.1 ‘Lollipop’ and the Alcatel OneTouch Pixi 3 3.5 even ships with Android 4.4 ‘KitKat’ an OS released in 2013.

Nothing in the same price bracket as my Moto G4 offers much if anything more than I am getting now - and considering my handset is now a two year old model, it really shows how much ‘bang for your buck’ you get from a Moto G handset.

My family all own Moto G handsets. My daughter has a Moto G, my son has a Moto G2, my other son has a Moto G3 and both my wife and I have a Moto G4. They are cracking phones offering far better specs and speed than comparably priced handsets.



Even two years on the Moto G4 is a superb handset. It has never caused me any issues, never let me down, is still super fast, does everything I need and the 3,000 mAh battery lasts forever.

The upgrade from Marshmallow to Nougat didn’t caused any slow down and is a real shame it won’t see Oreo - but having the latest version isn’t that important in the Android world.

It is by far the best handset I have ever owned, a joy to use. On the used market you can pick them up for about £70 which is an absolute bargain.

Written by Simon Royal. Follow me at twitter.com/simonroyal

Wednesday, 14 February 2018

A Moto Z Play Camera issue meant a replacement device for me.

Just the other day i was looking through the photos from my Moto Z Play and noticed in every photo that there were 3 little black splodges, two of which were about a few pixels wide and one a bit larger. Once you notice them, you cannot unsee them in almost every rear camera photo. I looked back through my photos and found that it started happening on December the 4th last year. The last time I had an issue like this it was with the Sony Z3 I had ever so briefly before returning it. I had my Z Play since late November. I had to go through all my photos on my hard drive and edit out the spodges. It's harder to do this in Google Photos or Flickr since you essentially have to end up replacing the images, so I mainly resorted to cropping the marks out, as they are all fairly close to the edge of the photos. There's still a few on both that I have not replaced or fixed yet.


Today I returned my Z Play to CEX and luckily they had a white Z Play in the shop window to replace it with. Though I'm not keen on white usually, it is growing on me, it reminds me of the white front of the second gen X that I had a while back. The back doesn't matter since I always keep my phones in a case.


It is the dual SIM version, and in better condition than my old one. No massive scratches on the glass back on this one, and unusually has the original unused earbuds in a bag in the box. Not that I would use those, I much prefer either my AKAI Bluetooth/wired ones or my LG buds. It didn't have the original charger but they helpfully swapped it with the original one from the one I returned.


Once I got home, I restored all my apps and settings from Google, (apart from Google Camera since the latest version is Oreo only, so I had to find an older version on APK Mirrror) and restored my Nova Launcher settings from a backup off my SD card, along with the Google Now Companion. I have tried lots of launchers but always end up back on Nova. I also paired and setup my Pebble and Bluetooth headphones. Oh and I also had to download and install 3 security updates to get it up to the December Security Patch level. So far it has been trouble free, hopefully I shall keep this phone for awhile, for as long as it gives me no problems.




Sunday, 4 February 2018

Asus Google Nexus 7… A 2013 Tablet In 2018.

My wife was looking for something a little bigger than her phone for social media, light gaming and writing. She doesn’t own a laptop and decided a tablet would be a good option. Looking around, new tablets are quite pricey and the lower end ones offered terrible specs, so we started looking at local ads and found a Google Nexus 7 tablet locally at a good price, it is the second generation 2013 model.

It features a 7" screen, quad core processor, 2GB RAM, 16GB internal storage, no SD card slot, a 5mpx camera and a 1.2mpx front facing camera. It shipped with Android 4.3 and was updated through to Android 6.0.1. It might not sound too impressive, but there are a lot of new devices with less specs - some even now ship with older versions of Android than that. A quick look over the device and it’s build quality can't be beaten. It has a good weight and overall feel in the hand is great. However, the key question is how does this once high end tablet from 2013, perform almost 5 years on in 2018. I have to say I was a little dubious, but after a few minutes of setting it up and playing around with it, this tablet screams along. The 7” screen is beautifully bright and crystal clear even at different viewing angles, helped by its 323ppi. You can tell this certainly wasn't a budget device.

Navigating around the device is slick and fast. While the quad core may not be top end these days, its no slouch and certainly helped by the 2GB of RAM. The OS navigates fast, general apps have no lag such as FaceBook, Messenger and Google Docs. My wife loaded her selection of games - nothing heavy - HayDay and card games etc and these performed fantastically. The 16GB internal storage and no MicroSD slot may be limiting to some, but she has never filled her phone so it shouldn’t be a problem. The cameras are fairly good. It is one area older devices tend to fail. The 5mpx autofocus on the back is great, but it has no flash so low light shots can be a bit grainy. The front 1.2mpx camera is really just a selfie or video call camera and it suffices for that purpose. Sound is good for a tablet. YouTube videos came through loud and with as decent audio as you expect from an 8mm piece of tech. Things alway improve when you plug in a good pair of earphones and the sound performance was great. Battery life is also impressive. At 3950mAh it may not match some of the 6000mAh behemoths in some of the Samsung devices, but its smaller screen certainly helps and should keep you going for a few days of heavy use. A mobile phones battery consumption is heavily taken by having a SIM card in connected to a phone/data signal all the time, remove this feature in a tablet and the battery lasts a lot longer.
I have had zero issues with this Nexus 7 and my wife hasn’t complained about anything. It is a solid device which still outpowers even modern tablets with the beauty of having a high class quality screen. If I was to pick one downside to it, it would be the placement of the volume and power buttons. They are not directly flat on the side, but follow on the curve of the back, which can make them a little difficult to press and you find yourself fumbling around sometimes.

If you are looking for a low cost tablet I highly recommend going for an older high end model rather than a new low budget offering. The Nexus 7 2013 model is a superb example and superb device.

Written by Simon Royal. Follow me at twitter.com/simonroyal


Saturday, 28 October 2017

From Moto X Play to Moto Z Play

I decided this year to replace my Moto X Play with something better and after a couple of brief and disastrous attempts at getting a secondhand Nexus 6P, I decided to fall back to plan B, good old reliable Motorola, specifically a 32GB Moto Z Play. It was in budget, (slightly less money than the 6P) has a decent camera, good size battery and close to stock Android. I went for the Play over the Force or plain Z because the Z Play is the only one of the Z series to still have a headphone jack. I ordered a Grade B example from CEX using the voucher I got back from them for returning the last 6P. My budget could not quite stretch to a Z2 play but I have heard that is a bit of a step down from the Z Play in some ways, particularly battery life and price.


Unboxing

Well today I received the Z Play and I am amazed how great this device looks and feels. It certainly looks and feels better than the white Moto Z I handled in the shop a few weeks ago. The sides feel of reassuringly cold aluminium and the grippy textured back cover stops it slipping out of your hand. I will however be putting it in a case as soon as possible to protect that nice 5.5 inch 1080P Super AMOLED screen. The only scratches on the device are on the glass back, which is hidden by the back cover that is held on by magnets, covering up the pins used for Moto Mods. It does look much better with the cover on than with the back naked. The Power and Volume buttons take some getting used to as they are equidistant from each other and all the same size so I sometimes hit the wrong one when not looking, they do feel solid though. Despite being the budget model of the Z range, it still feels premium, more so than my X Play did.


It came with the original box, instructions and original charger. The only thing I would have liked in the box would have been a USB data cable, because the charger has a fixed cable. There is even a SIM tool in the box too. It was also already charged to 100%, which saved some time, and I installed a couple of security updates that were pending. It currently runs Nougat (7.1.1), with the 1st September security patch level, and Motorola promises it will get Oreo at some point.


Screen

Being AMOLED, the screen only powers lit pixels and has motion sensors so you can wave your hand over the screen to wake it up, unlike with the IPS screen of the X Play. The last time I had the feature was on my old 2014 Moto X a while ago. I really like having Moto Display (which replaces Ambient Display from the old Moto X days) and Raise To Wake for quickly checking notifications. And when I want to get something done quickly, the front fingerprint sensor beneath the screen is very fast to unlock and lock the phone. At 1080P on a 5.5 inch display it might not have a particularly high pixel density but it still looks decent for a budget flagship.



Software

As with every Android device I have had for a long while now,  I installed Nova Launcher Prime and have a simple setup of clock widget (this time Motorola's own Z widget) and Ampere widget on the Home screen, Google Now to the left and a second screen with Google Play Music and BBC Weather widgets. I like being as close to stock Android as possible so I have replaced the Motorola Contacts app with Google's own and installed a Pixel Nougat icon pack, mainly because the Motorola dialer icon is very ugly. This is how my Home screen looks now:


Cameras

After setting up the Z Play, I went into town and took some photos and videos, and I was impressed, it took photos just as quick as the 6P and even quicker than my old X Play. However I have found some shots had blurry edges with a sharp centre section, I think I may need to give it longer when using Auto HDR. Also having 4 less Megapixels than the X Play (and the others in the Z range) means not being able to enlarge them as much. The only slight puzzling thing is why Motorola have seemingly removed the shortcut where you double tap the power button to open the camera, but at least twisting your wrist can also quickly open the camera. The rear camera has phase detection and laser autofocus (which the X Play did not have), dual-LED (dual tone) flash, which the same as the Nexus 6P but with 16MP instead of 12.3MP. It’s also nice having 32GB of internal storage and SD card storage, particularly as it can take 4K videos. I used to bump up against the 16GB of internal storage on my X Play far too often due to having plenty of apps that refuse to use (slow and unreliable) SD storage. I still managed to get some decent photos despite it being such a dull overcast day.


I also took some videos too, to make sure everything worked and it seems to handle high volumes like a road drill better than my old X Play did. I also tried the 4K mode out too.



For the first time on one of my phones, there’s a flash for the front (or "selfie") camera, though I tend not to use flash if I can help it. It's still 5MP, the same as the X Play.


It also has a gyro and compass which the X play didn't which means I can finally take Photospheres again.

Battery

The battery life from the 3510mAh battery is amazing, I have managed over 5 hours screen-on time and over 17 hours of quite heavy usage! And over 6 hours screen-on time and 23 hours on light to medium usage. This is even better than I got with my Moto X. I've no idea what the Nexus 6P would have got given I did not find one with a decent battery. Of course I could add a battery Mod to this to get even more battery life, but I don't think I need to.



Conclusion

Overall I am very pleased with the Moto Z Play, it is a worthy successor to my old Moto X, and my only real criticism is photos are not quite as pin sharp as on the X Play, but it takes better videos at higher audio volumes. It also feels much more like a premium device. I am most impressed with the performance, nice AMOLED screen, close to stock Nougat and the absolutely amazing battery life. Hopefully it will last me a long while, and should be even better when it receives Oreo. Only time will tell.