Apple’s MagSafe Battery Pack: A Review

It may seem a bit odd that Apple released a new battery pack for the iPhones a full 10 months after introducing the devices, but that is what they have done. In fact the MagSafe Battery Pack was quietly released just over a week ago. The world is opening up a bit more and people are beginning to travel, so it may actually be the right time to release it.

The MagSafe Battery pack is reminiscent of the older Battery Cases that Apple created for the iPhone XS in that it will provide some extra power for your iPhone. The biggest difference with the battery pack, as compared to the battery case, is that it is magnetic and does not need to be attached to your phone all of the time.

The MagSafe Battery Pack is designed to be able to change any MagSafe iPhone. This includes the entire iPhone 12 line from the iPhone 12 mini, to the iPhone 12 Pro Max.

The MagSafe Battery Pack

Magnetic side of the MagSafe Battery Pack

The editor of my books, Barry J. Sullivan, provided a review and it is short and to the point. His review is: “The battery magnets are strong and the phone and battery aren’t going to separate easily. The battery and phone combined is heavy.”

In reality, that is probably the best summation of the MagSafe Battery Pack. The magnets are indeed strong, and the battery pack and iPhone it is on will not separate during normal use, and the combination is indeed quite chunky.

The MagSafe Battery Pack has only one port, a lightning adapter, to plug in the lightning cable to charge. The MagSafe Battery Pack also has a light indicating whether the MagSafe Battery Pack is charged, or charging. If it is charged it will be green, otherwise it should have an orange light.

The MagSafe battery pack has a matte finish to it, which does provide a bit of grip. And when it is connected to the iPhone 12 mini, it will go edge to edge. However, with the iPhone 12, or iPhone 12 Pro, and iPhone 12 Pro ax, the battery pack will be within the edges of the device.

Even though it does not go edge to edge, it can actually be an advantage. This is because it can provide a bit of a lip so you can rest your finger underneath the battery pack while holding it.

Using the Battery Pack

MagSafe Battery Pack on iPhone 12 Pro Max

If you are charging your iPhone from the MagSafe Battery Pack you will only get 5-watts of power. The reason for this is likely to minimize the heat and provide the maximum change of your device. This is because any excessive heat will cause the battery to drain faster, resulting in less of a charge overall.

It should be noted that the MagSafe Battery Pack is not a pass-through charger, meaning that you cannot charge the phone, charge the battery pack, and then charge something else. There is no MagSafe charger on the back of the battery pack that would be needed to make this possible.

However, if you are charging the battery pack itself, that is a different story.

Charging the Battery Pack

The MagSafe Battery Pack has a lightning port on it. This is designed to allow you to charge an iPhone. However, the MagSafe Battery Pack itself needs to be charged. There are two different ways of changing the MagSafe Battery Pack. One is to charge it by plugging a lightning cable into it directly. The second is to plug in an iPhone with the MagSafe Battery Pack attached.

Either method will charge the both the iPhone and the MagSafe Battery Pack, provided that you use a 20-watt power adapter.

When you charge the MagSafe Battery Pack through an iPhone, it is possible that your iPhone will charge to 80% before the MagSafe Battery Pack begins to charge. This is to make sure that your iPhone has enough charge before the MagSafe Battery Pack.

When you are charging your iPhone with the MagSafe Battery Pack, it will charge at a maximum of 15 watts when plugged into a powerful enough power brick, meaning that the small 5-watt charger just is not going to cut it.

Checking the Charge

While the MagSafe Battery Pack does have a light to indicate whether or not it is charged, there is no way to see the percentage of charge on the battery pack itself. Instead, you will need to use your iPhone. This is done by checking the charge by using the Battery Widget on the iPhone.

The Battery Widget will show you the charge of the MagSafe Battery Pack and whether or not it is currently charging.

Possible Tip

The MagSafe Battery Pack is designed to attach to the back so there is none of the battery pack showing. However, given that it is magnetic, and the magnets are strong, you can technically attach the MagSafe Battery Pack at a 90-degree angle so it sticks out one of the sides. When in this configuration, you can technically use your iPhone with one hand.

It should be noted, that this is not the designed behavior and is likely not recommended by Apple.

A second thing to note is that the MagSafe Battery Pack is indeed a MagSafe charger, meaning that you can charge other Qi-enabled devices, like AirPods. While the MagSafe Battery Pack is quite useful, it does have a couple of downsides.

Downsides

The MagSafe Battery Pack is not perfect, and it does have some flaws. The chief amongst these is that it cannot provide a full charge an iPhone 12 Pro Max. You would think that a battery pack that is designed for the entire iPhone 12 line would be Abel to provide one full charge to the entire line, but that is not the case.

The second downside is the limited color choices. You can have any color you want, provided it is white. Do not get me wrong, if Apple is going to provide only a single color, it will absolutely be white, but it does seem like a lost opportunity to at least match the iPhone colors that are in the iPhone 12 line.

There is one last thing that is not directly related to the MagSafe Battery Pack, but also applies to many of Apple’s other devices. On the battery pack there are the required registration markings. The problem is not that these are there, in reality, it makes sense that they are where they are, because they are hidden most of the time. The problem, as I see it, is that there is absolutely no contrast between the gray used for the battery pack and the gray used for the text is effectively non-existent. While in most cases this is not a problem, it can become one should you ever need service and you cannot read the text on the battery pack.

Closing Thoughts

The MagSafe Battery Pack is great idea in concept and has been executed pretty well. The fact that it only charges at 5 watts can be problematic if you just needed a quick charge. If that is the case, then you might just want to plug your iPhone in using a cable.

The MagSafe Battery Pack is primarily used to charge an iPhone, but since it is a MagSafe charger it can be used to charge other Qi-compatible devices. When charging an iPhone it will not full charge an iPhone, but it can provide enough charge to get you through the day, if you need it.

The MagSafe Battery Pack is $99, or the equivalent in your local currency, and is available now. It is only available in one color, white.

Review of the Apple TV 4K (2021)

In today’s modern world there are infinite ways of spending free time. You can go for a walk, bike ride, take a hike, or play a sport. If you are more inclined towards a more laid back experience idea you can spend your time chatting via social media using sites like Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, Snapchat, Clubhouse, and Twitter. Alternatively, you can play games on your iPhone, iPad, or a dedicated gaming console like the Xbox, Playstation, or Nintendo Switch. 

Each of the activities listed above is one that typically requires active participation. In today’s “go go go” world, there is the need to take a more passive approach. For these times, you sit down watch a movie or tv show. 

There are a number of different methods of doing just that. While you could use an iPhone or iPad, and many people do, yet there are those times when you want to minimize digital distractions and just focus on the show or movie. 

Almost every television sold today is a Smart TV and in this case “smart” means that it is capable of running applications. For most people, this is an adequate solution. However, there may be those who want a bit more of a nice experience. For those individuals, there are dedicated devices. These can include a Roku Box, an Amazon Fire Stick, or a Google Chromecast stick. Apple has its own solution for this called the Apple TV.

History of Apple TV

Original Apple TV, 1st generation

Back in September of 2006, at its iPod event Apple provided a preview of a brand new product code-named iTV. This product was a modified Mac mini that ran an Intel processor and had an HDMI output as well as component cables. This Mac mini ran a modified version of macOS, at the time named Mac OS X. Having had one of these it did do what it was intended do. When it was introduced, in February of 2007, it was officially named the Apple TV.

The fact that the original Apple TV was introduced at the iPod event was quite appropriate. The original Apple TV was effectively a large iPod. The device had a 4200 RPM hard drive that came in 40GB or 160GB options. Given that the Apple TV was effectively a giant iPod, it was handled just like an iPod. You would connect it to iTunes on your Mac, or PC, and you could then watch your movies and TV shows.

No streaming box is complete without a way of controlling the device. The original Apple TV included a white infrared remote, the same one that was included with the Macs. This remote included a volume up, volume down, fast forward, rewind, a play/pause, in a d-pad configuration, and a menu button directly below that. The remote layout was very reminiscent of the iPod click wheel, although there was no touch surface on it. 

The original Apple TV was not a one and done product, it has definitely had some successors.

2nd Generation Apple TV

2nd Generation Apple TV

It was approximately three years after the release of the original Apple TV when Apple released a new and improved Apple TV, the 2nd Generation Apple TV. This would be a compete rethinking of not only the hardware, but the software. 

The biggest change was that you no longer synchronize media. Instead all media would be streamed. This could be streamed from a computer, or using one of the apps. The operating system also changed from running a version of macOS to running a custom operating system, called Apple TV Software.

The 2nd generation Apple TV switched from the Intel Pentium M processor to a custom Apple processor, the same one that was in the original iPad, the A4. This processor changed a few other things. The size of the Apple TV box shrank from 7.7 inches square, and 1.1 inches high, to 3.9 inches square and 0.9 inches tall. The physical size change required a change from a standard hard drive to a solid state drive.

The second generation Apple TV was a vast improvement over the first generation and set the stage for future Apple TVs. The remote that came with the 2nd Generation Apple TV also changed. It was very similar to the white remote, but it was made of aluminum. It was a bit taller, yet still very functional. 

3rd Generation Apple TV

The 3rd Generation Apple TV was released in 2012, approximately two years after the release of the 2nd generation. The 3rd generation Apple TV was a slight improvement over the previous model. Hardware wise, the processor was swapped to a single-core A5 and twice as much RAM at 512MB. The other change for the hardware was that it supported 1080p, whereas the previous models supported 720p.The physical size of the box remained the same, at 3.9 inches square by 0.9 inches high. The aluminum remote was included with the 3rd generation Apple TV.

4th Generation Apple TV

Apple TV 4K, 5th Generation

In 2015, Apple unveiled the 4th Generation Apple TV was a major shift in not only hardware, but also in software. Let us start with the hardware. 

The first change is the physical size. The Apple TV remained 3.9 inches square, but it was a bit taller, half an inch to be exact, to 1.4 inches high. The internals also changed to use an Apple A8 processor. The A8 process provided a significant improvement over the A5. 

Sometimes it is easier to let benchmarks provide the data. The data is from Geekbench 3:

  A5 A8
Single Core 218 1623
Multi-Core 415 2910
AES Single Core 14,800 Mbps 993,000 mbps
Overall 784 1678

The processor, as well as the solid state storage, was needed to be able to run the software for the device. It was not the standard Apple TV software, it was a new operating system that Apple calls tvOS.

tvOS

tvOS Interface

Previous versions of the Apple TV software was somewhat limited. Not necessarily in its capabilities, but in the fact that the entire experience was controlled by Apple. New apps could not be installed by end users and instead were pushed by Apple. This approach made it a bit easier to add new services as they became available, because it could be pushed form Apple’s servers. The downside to this though, is that there was no control by end users, nor any way for third-parties to add new services.

tvOS changed all of this. Built with the knowledge Apple gained over the years of building iOS, Apple was able to take this knowledge and put all of it into an operating system designed for the largest screen in most homes. 

tvOS is capable of running applications, just like on iOS and watchOS, but these apps are designed to provide games, video service, or other application. The first version of tVOS, tvOS 9, provided an opportunity for third-party application developers to provide their own applications. 

Apps are not the only function that the Apple TV with tvOS is capable of doing.

Home Hub

With so much power in the Apple TV, there may be some extra power available for other tasks. One of these is that the Apple TV can do is be a Home Hub. A Home Hub is a home-based device that can control your HomeKit-enabled devices. The Apple TV is able to function a a central spot for controlling all of your HomeKit devices. The purpose of a HomeKit hub is to make controlling your Smart devices faster.

In order to control the Apple TV you need some sort of way to control the Apple TV. Apple did not include the standard remote with the Apple TV, at least in most markets.  Instead, this new Apple TV required a new remote. Apple called this new remote the Siri Remote.

Siri Remote

The Siri Remote is a remote that is more than just a standard remote. The top third of the Siri Remote is a touch pad, below this are the buttons. There are six, the Menu button, a TV button, a microphone button, a play/pause button, volume up, and volume down. 

The Microphone button is a dedicated button for Siri. Given that tvOS is built on iOS, that means that tvOS has access to Siri. This means that you can ask Siri questions, to find movies or tv shows, and even to control aspects of the Apple TV, like jumping ahead or backwards, or even control your HomeKit-enabled devices. 

The 4th Generation Apple TV was not the last Apple TV model.

Apple TV 4K (5th Generation)

Apple TV 4K, 5th Generation

The 4th Generation Apple TV is a decent set of hardware. However, there was one feature that many users would really like, and that was the ability to watch 4K movies and 4K TV shows. The 5th Generation Apple TV did just this, and Apple named the product the Apple TV 4K. 

The Apple TV 4K was released in September of 2017, just a couple of years after the release of the 4th generation Apple TV. In order to be able to display 4K properly, the processor was upgraded to the A10 Fusion processor. While this did not provide as much of an improvement as from the 3rd generation to the 4th generation, it was still an improvement. 

When the Apple TV 4K was released, the 4th Generation Apple TV remained on sale. This model was retroactively renamed to be the Apple TV HD. This was done in order to more easily differentiate the two models.

Users of the Apple TV HD did have some issues with the Siri Remote. One of the bigger complaints was that the remote was not able to be easily recognize the orientation. In order to help users easily identify the orientation, Apple added a white ring around the Menu button. While this would help, in some respects, it did not appease all users.

At the April 2021 “Spring Loaded” Apple unveiled a new Apple TV 4K, let us look at that now.

Apple TV 4K (6th Generation)

Apple TV 4K 6th Generation Box

The 6th Generation Apple TV 4K improves upon the 5th generation Apple TV. The 6th Generation Apple TV is a minor update, compared to the previous upgrade. The Apple TV 4K keeps the same physical size of 3.7 inches square, by 1.4 inches high. 

What has changed is the internals. The Apple TV 4K now has an A12 Bionic processor.  While it may seem as though a jump of two processor generations, the improvement is quite a bit. For starters the A12 has a total of six cores, two performance cores and four high efficiency cores. This is an increase of two efficiency cores over the A10 Fusion.

While the processor is a significant improvement, that is not the only aspect that has seen improvement. There has also been an improvement to the wireless chipset. Specifically, the new Apple TV 4K supports W-Fi 6, also known as 802.11AX. Wi-Fi 6 can provide even faster connectivity for devices, provided your network is compatible. Even if you do not have a Wi-Fi 6 network, the Apple TV 4K will still be able to connect to other 802.11 networks.

HomeKit Hub

One of the functions of the Apple TV is to act as a HomeKit Hub. As with any new technology, there come competing standards. Some of these are Zigbee and Z-Wave.  These two standards each have their own positives and negatives. One of the requirements of Zigbee and Z-wave is that require a hub in order to communicate with devices. These hubs are needed to connect between a network and the devices. Typically, this is done with a hard-wired ethernet connection.

There is a newer smart device standard that is implemented in the Apple TV 4K, called “Thread”.

Thread 

Thread is a mesh-based protocol that allows for direct connections between the Thread Hub, in this case the Apple TV 4K, to the end devices. This eliminates the need for a second hub, like those you would see with the Hue lights. This will not only free up spots in a power strip, but it will also allow a wider range of devices. With Thread, no longer will you need to worry about which protocol a device uses. 

Beyond this, Thread also has an additional benefit, it uses a mesh network for connecting all of the devices. This allows the devices to connect to each other, meaning that if one device cannot be found, other devices can pick up the slack and take over and relay communications, if necessary.

Having Thread embedded right in the Apple TV should make connecting smart home devices even easier than before. Yet, this is not the last of the hardware changes within the new Apple TV 4K.

The Apple TV 4K also includes support for HDMI 2.1. In most cases, this will not have much of an impact. However, HDMI 2.1 is needed for a new feature called High Frame Rate High Dynamic Range.

High Frame Rate High Dynamic Range

High Frame Rate High Dynamic Range, or High Frame Rate HDR, is a technology that will allow playback of video at 60 frames per second, for video that includes High Dynamic Range. There are not many videos that shot in 60 frames per second with High Dynamic Range. If you have a capable iPhone you can watch any of your 60 frame per second videos with high dynamic range.

High Dynamic Range HDR should make any video that you watch even better. Beyond fast-moving video, this should also help with things like gaming. 

Gaming on the Apple TV

Lego Battles on Apple TV

On the topic of gaming, the Apple TV 4K also supports game controllers, like the Playstation 5 controller as well as the Xbox Series X|S controller. For those who want to play games with a controller, this is great addition.

Since the release of the 4th generation Apple TV in 2015, Apple has positioned the Apple TV hardware as a viable gaming box. When the Apple TV was first released, Apple had a requirement that all games support the Siri Remote, but could also support a gaming controller. 

It did not take long before Apple changed this requirement. The reason this was changed is because not all games can be played effectively with only the Siri Remote. 

However, controllers are not the only way to control items on the new Apple TV 4K. There is another way, and the one that is primarily used, the Siri Remote. With the 6th Generation Apple TV this has received a huge change, a complete redesign.

Siri Remote (2nd Generation)

Each of the remotes included with each Apple TV oldest on the left and newest on the right.

As mentioned above, each Apple TV included a remote. The original had the white Apple remote, while the second and third generation Apple TVs included the aluminum remote. The fourth generation had the original Siri Remote, and the fifth generation Apple TV included the Siri Remote with the white ring around the menu button.

When the Siri Remote first got into people’s hands, it quickly became divisive. Some people, like myself, do not have any problem with the Siri Remote. Yes, it did take some time to get accustom to, but eventually got used to using the remote and navigating the tvOS interface with the touch sensitive remote.

Even though some had no problem with the remote, there is a contingent of users who do not think the Siri Remote is a good remote and that the remote was a mistake. Many expected Apple to change up the Siri Remote with the Apple TV 4K, but they only did a minor upgrade. With the 6th Generation Apple TV 4K, there is a new Siri Remote.

The 2nd Generation Siri Remote is a complete redesign of the Siri Remote. The remote harkens back to 2nd generation Apple TV remote in that it is aluminum. The 2nd Generation Siri Remote is a different size than the first Siri Remote. 

However, the differences are only slight. The height of the Siri Remote is 5.44 inches, or 136mm, the width is 1.4 inches, or 35mm. The first generation Siri Remote was 4.88 inches, or 124mm, in height and 1.5 inches, or 38mm, wide. These are slight differences, but noticeable. 

Button Layout

The biggest change to the Siri remote, besides the build materials, is the button layout. There are seven buttons and a five way touch surface. There are still a volume up and volume down button, as well as the TV button and the play/pause button. 

There are a couple of new buttons though. The “Menu” button has been placed by a left arrow button. This button still behaves the same as the Menu button, but better represents its overall function. The Back button functions the exact same way as the Menu button did. The back button is concave, which should help you orient the remote when you pick it up.. This covers the existing buttons. However, this is only five buttons, which means that there are two new buttons. 

The two new buttons are ones that will make many users very happy. These are a dedicated mute/unmute button and a dedicated power button.

The mute/unmute button is a great addition because there are those times when you want to be able to mute the audio but not necessarily pause what is playing; which was the behavior with the first generation Siri remote, but no longer.

Power Button

There is a similar thing when it comes to powering off the Apple TV. With the 1st generation Siri Remote the way that you would power off the Apple TV would be to hold down the TV button to bring up the Sidebar, and then scroll down to the Sleep button to put the Apple TV into sleep mode.

With the 2nd Generation Siri Remote you now hold down the power button to turn off the Apple TV, as well as your TV, provided your TV supports HDMI Consumer Electronics Control, or HDMI-CEC. Now, with the dedicated power button you are able to turn off both your television as well as the Apple TV all with one button. This is a huge improvement and a much welcome one. 

Five-Way Directional Pad

The last change is that the top of the Siri remote it is that the top of the Siri remote has changed. With the previous Siri Remote, the entire top portion was a touch surface. This is no longer the case. In place of the touch surface is five-way directional pad that has a touch surface.

The directional pad has four directional buttons, up, left, down, and right. The directional pad is circular and with the entire directional pad supporting touch means that you can use the outside ring as a jog wheel. 

With the outside circle you can quickly scrub through video, or to move between items on the screen. Additionally, you can use the button clicks to quickly move jump forward and backward. 

Siri

In order for the Siri Remote to live up to its name, it needs to be able to access Siri. On the 2nd Generation Siri Remote there is a dedicated button, like on the previous version. However, the placement of the button has moved. Instead of being on the face of the remote, it is now on the side. You can bring up Siri just like you would on an iPhone. You can simply hold down the Siri button and it will appear on the Apple TV as you would expect. 

Now that we have covered all of the new buttons, let us see which devices the 2nd Generation Siri Remote is compatible with.

Compatibility

Typically, when you have a new accessory it is only compatible with the device that it comes with, or new devices. However, that is not the case with the 2nd Generation Siri Remote. In fact, it is actually compatible with both the 4th Generation Apple TV as well as the 5th Generation Apple TV. This means that you can create a consistent experience between all of your Apple TVs. 

Weight and Feel

Every generation of a device is likely to have different characteristics from the generation before. The Siri Remote is no exception. The 2nd generation Siri Remote is actually heavier than the 1st generation. In some respects this makes sense, given that the entire 2nd generation remote is made of aluminum. 

Even though the Siri remote is heavier, it still has a good feel to it. When you are holding the remote, it has a natural fit in your hand. The slightly rounded back feels a bit more natural than the straight back of the previous generation of Siri Remote.

Missing Features and Issues

It should be noted that the Siri Remote does not have a U1 chip. The U1 chip is used to  help you locate the exact position of a device. It seems a bit strange that the 2nd Generation Siri remote does not have at least some method of being able to locate the remote. While it is possible that some do not lose their remotes, there are probably more than a few who will lose one from time to time. There are various reasons why a Siri remote may go missing, but the remote being misplaced by someone, including kids, is quite possible. 

I would hope that there might eventually be a revision of the Siri Remote to include at least a speaker that can be used to have the remote make noise so it can be found. However, if there is going to be a revision, a U1 chip, as well as a speaker, similar to an  AirTag. This would allow a user to use an iPhone to locate the Siri Remote.

I did run into an issue while using the Siri Remote. This is not an issue with the remote itself, per se. The issue I ran into was the fact that I kept hitting the mute button instead of the play/pause button. This is because the mute button is in the same place as the previous play/pause button. I am sure it will take some time to retrain my brain, and muscle memory, but eventually I should stop hitting the mute button instead of play/pause, but even a week on, it is still a problem.

I have a 5th generation Apple TV 4K, and I have not had any issues going between the two Siri Remotes. I know there are some that have opted to replace all of their Apple TV remote with the 2nd generation Siri Remote. I have not ruled out doing this in the future, but I have not ordered any additional Siri Remotes yet.

Apple TV and Siri Remote Pricing

The 6th Generation Apple TV is available in two different storage sizes, 32GB and 64GB. The 32GB model is $179, and the 64GB model is $199. Both of these are available to order today, and ship within a week or so.

The Siri Remote is available on its own for $59. It is available to order today. This also has the same shipping time frame of a week or so for shipping, at least as of this writing.

Closing Thoughts

The 6th Generation Apple TV 4K is not a huge change, externally, there are no changes at all. Instead, all of the changes have been made on the internals. There is a new processor, the A12, which is the same processor that is in the iPhone XS. This is a two generation jump from the previous A10. The A12 processor provides the ability to display High Frame Rate video. High Frame Rate Video is 60 frame per second video that has High Dynamic Range.

The biggest change with the new Apple TV 4K is the 2nd Generation Siri Remote. The new Siri Remote is a complete redesign of the remote. The new remote is aluminum and the top portion is no longer a full touchpad. Instead, there is a circular touch pad, with directional buttons. The directional pad allows you to navigate up, down, left, or right. The ring around the touch pad will allow you to navigate as well as scrub video, or navigate through the interface. 

The 2nd Generation Siri Remote is a big heavier than the 1st generation model, but I suspect that many people will prefer the newer remote over the older one. Even if you do not purchase a new Apple TV 4K, you can use the Siri Remote with the 5th Generation Apple TV, as well as the 4th Generation Apple TV. it may take some adjustment given the difference in the button layouts as compared to the previous Siri Remote, but the second generation is a significant improvement.

Both the new Apple TV 4K and the Siri Remote are both available today. The Apple TV 4K is available in two sizes, 32GB and 64GB. These cost $179 and $199 respectively. The Siri Remote is available for $59. 

If you have a 4K TV and you want a standalone box from Apple, you cannot go wrong with the Apple TV 4K.

M1 Mac mini: A Review

There are some things that I purchase on a regular basis. Among these are groceries, gifts, and other various things. In terms of technology the chief among these is purchasing a new iPhone, iPad, and Apple Watch. I have purchased an iPhone and an Apple Watch each year since their respective introductions. I have purchased a number of iPads, but I have not purchased a new one every time one has been released. One type of device that I have not purchased on a regular basis is a computer, in particular Macs.

In my lifetime, I have purchased a total of five different Macs, three of these have been and two of these have been laptops. The first Mac that I purchased was a 20-inch 2.16GHz Core 2 Duo iMac that I purchased in March of 2007. The reason I ended up with a Mac was because I had nothing but issues with Microsoft Vista. I got tired of dealing with the constant crashing of the video drivers, even 6 weeks after its release, I opted to buy a Mac. This was in March of 2007, so it was after the transition from PowerPC to Intel. Here is the list of the other devices that I have purchased:

  • 2007 – 20-inch iMac – 2.16 Core 2 Duo, 8GB RAM, 500GB 7200RPM HD
  • 2007 – 13.3-inch MacBook – 2.16 Core 2 Duo, 8GB RAM, 750GB 7200RPM HD
  • 2011 – 21.5-inch iMac – 2.7 GHz Intel Core i5, 12GB RAM, 1 TB 7200 RPM HD
  • 2015 – 13.3-inch MacBook Pro – 2.7GHz Dual-Core Core i5 16GB RAM, 256GB SSD
  • 2017 – 27-inch – 4.2 GHz Quad-Core Core i7 with 24GB RAM, 3TB Fusion Drive HD

All of these devices have one thing in common, they are all Intel-based devices. 

Apple announced that they would be transitioning away from Intel processors to their own Apple Silicon. This announcement was made at their 2020 World Wide Developer Conference. At the announcement Apple indicated that the first machines would be released this year and that the entire transition would take approximately two years. While many suspected that Apple would announce a laptop, they announced more than just a single device.

Apple announced two laptops, that had Apple Silicon chips in them. These are the 13-inch MacBook Air and the 13-inch MacBook Pro. As a surprise, Apple announced a desktop machine would have Apple Silicon in it as well, the Mac mini. All of these machines have the first Apple Silicon chip, which Apple has called the M1, inside them. Let us discuss a bit about the M1.

Apple’s M1

A processor with an Apple M1 logo on it.

Computers, for most of their history, have been comprised of distinct chips. Some of these include the processor, the system memory, the graphics chip, and storage. As time has gone on, some of these items have been integrated onto a single board. Most commonly the processor and graphics. Many computers these days also have their system memory soldered in, so that this cannot be expanded. This is quite common with laptops and less common with desktop machines. This type of configuration is consistent between both Intel-based and AMD-based systems. Apple’s M1 takes a different approach.

The M1 is not just a processor. Instead it is a System on a Chip, or SoC. The M1 is not Apple’s first custom SoC. In fact all iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch devices that have been equipped with an Apple A-series chip have been an SoC. This is also the case for the Apple Watch, Apple TV, and HomePods.

For the M1, the SoC consists of more than just the central processor. In fact it includes the processor, graphics, and a 16-core Neural Engine. Along with this, comes the Unified Memory Architecture, or UMA. In traditional computer configurations, you have memory that is a separated from the rest of the system and on their own dedicated chips that connect to the system on the motherboard. A Unified Memory Architecture is one where the the processor, graphics, and in Apple’s case, neural engine, all share the same memory. 

In a traditional computer, each subsystem would have its own memory. For instance, there is the main system memory, which is accessed by the central processing unit, or CPU. The graphical processing unit, or GPU, has its own dedicated memory. There are some tasks that are better suited for a graphics chip while others that are better suited for the CPU. In order to be the most efficient and process things most efficiently, different segments of the memory need to be transferred between the two processors. This transfer, while it takes very little time in reality, it can still take some time.

With the M1, this processor, graphics processor, and neural engine all share the same memory pool. What this means is that there is no delay in switching between using the CPU, GPU, and Neural Engine. This results in the system processing items significantly faster.

The M1 chip is an 8-core chip, with four performance cores and four high efficiency cores. When you do not need top performance the efficiency cores will be utilized. However, when you need speed those processors will be used. This is beneficial for all Macs running the M1, but there is a specific benefit for portable systems. Significantly increased battery life. In particular, for the MacBook Air, you can get up to 50% more battery power, which is a significant increase, and a very welcome one.

Line drawing image of Apple's M1 with the Graphical Processing Unit outlined.

The shared memory pool, for the current machines, all come with 8GB standard. These machines are configurable for up to 16GB of memory. While this seems like a small amount, the machines that have been released are not aimed at those who need significant amounts of memory. Instead, they are aimed at the general consumer. This is most apparent with the fact that the 13-inch MacBook Pro and Mac mini still have Intel models that can be configured for higher specifications available to order, should users need the extra memory.

The M1 Macs are based on the same technology that is used within Apple’s other devices. This has a side benefit, the ability to run iOS and iPadOS apps natively, right on the Mac. It is up to the developer of the app to determine if their app is available on the M1 Macs or not.

If you look at the machines I have purchased, I end up purchasing a new Mac desktop every four years, and a new laptop every 8 years, although with two data points I doubt that this will be the case. There is one more computer to add to that list, the M1 Mac mini.

M1 Mac Mini

Top view of an M1 Mac mini box

Initially, I had not planned on buying an M1 Mac, at least not right away. My 2017 iMac works quite well and in reality my MacBook Pro needs to be replaced first, since it is older. I kept going back and forth on which configuration to get. Do I need the MacBook Pro, or would the MacBook Air suffice? I was not sure if I wanted to get the first-generation machines. Not because I think there would be any issues, but because I would want something with more than 16GB of RAM, and since I was looking at replacing my MacBook Pro, I wanted something with more than 2 ports. None of the devices that were released has more than two ports, so I was planning on waiting until the higher-end models were available.

Things came to a head when I asked a friend, who did get an M1 MacBook Pro, to try my app on the M1. He was able to install and most everything worked. Except there were a couple of things that ended up crashing. I could have attempted to trouble-shoot them, but that is not easy to do without being able to debug as you co.

Because of this, I had to order an M1 Mac. I decided to get the base model Mac mini, which comes with 256GB of storage and 8GB of ram. I opted to get the base model Mac mini for two reasons. The first is because it was the cheapest and second it was able to shipped right away. I ended up just getting the base model, because I primarily need it for development and since it will be a dedicated development machine, and not my main machine, I did not need it to be completely upgraded. In some respects, I wish I had upgraded it, but that is for discussion later. 

I was able to figure out the issues that were crashing the app. The problem was not with the M1 specifically, instead the issue that my friend was experiencing turned out to be a server-side issue. I ordered the M1 Mac mini in late November, and doing so extended the return window to be in early January. I have not returned the Mac mini yet. I do not think I will. In fact, I had not purchased Apple Care initially with the Mac mini, but I did just purchase Apple Care for my M1 Mac mini.

Overall Thoughts

The M1 Mac mini is fast. When I am using it, I can generally use it without any issues, slowdowns, or performance losses; most of the time anyway. Even though the model I have only has 8GB of RAM, this seems to be enough, and the 256GB of storage should be plenty since I am not using it as my primary machine.

The M1 Mac mini is the same physical form factor as the previous Mac mini, albeit in silver instead of Space Gray. The fact that it is the same form factor means that it includes a spinning fan. In the time that I have had the Mac mini I have not heard it spin up, even when performing system updates. This is not the experience that I have had with the 16-inch MacBook Pro. The fans on that will spin at full speed while updating. So, this is a nice departure. As a side note, the M1 MacBook Air does not have a fan, so you will never hear the fan on that machine ever.

The M1 Mac Mini does not have the same port configuration as the previous models. The M1 Mac mini has 2 USB-A ports, 2 Thunderbolt/USB 4 ports, a gigabit ethernet jack, and an HDMI 2.0 port. For most users this port configuration is plenty. I know it is more than I need. The Intel model has the option of configuring the ethernet port to 10 gigabits per second and includes four Thunderbolt/USB-C ports. 

The M1 Mac mini includes Bluetooth 5.0 and a 3.5mm headphone jack. This is the same as on the Intel-based Mac mini. There is one last difference, and that is in wireless connectivity. The M1 Mac mini supports 802.11ax, also known as WiFi-6. If you have an 802.11ax router, you should see significantly faster speeds, when going between other 802.11ax devices. 

The M1 Mac Mini is capable of supporting two monitors, including Apple’s Pro Display XDR, as well as a 4K monitor. You can also use the USB-C ports for a display, along with the standard HDMI port.

Upgradeability

This should be a pretty quick section, as there is no way to upgrade the internals. The memory and storage are soldered onto the board, so nothing can be upgraded. Any storage upgrades would have to be external. There are not even any pins on the board to even begin to connect something internally.

Intel-based Apps

One of the benefits of the M1 is that you are able to run both Apple Silicon-based apps and Intel-based apps on the same machine. The ability to run Intel-based apps on the M1 is done through Apple’s translation layer, called Rosetta 2.

I have only used one app that has been Intel-based on the M1 Mac mini and I have not experienced any issues with that app. It is likely that you will not experience any issues with Intel-based apps on an M1 Mac, but it is possible that some issues might exist depending on the app, but most should work without any issues. There might be some performance issues, but they should be minimal.

Having articulate the speed difference with the M1 Mac mini as compared to other devices. So, I opted to use unarchiving the Xcode 12.3 beta. Let us now look at quantifying the speed increases, with some benchmarks. What would a review be without them?

Obligatory Benchmarks

I was trying to find a way to be able to articulate just how fast a Mac running an M1 really is. I decided to unzip the Xcode 12.3 beta on a number of different devices that I have access to, and here are the results from slowest to fastest, formatted in minutes and seconds:

Device Time (Hours:Minutes:Seconds):
Mid 2011 21.5-inch iMac (2.7 GHz Intel Core i5), 12GB): 1:36:35
Mid 2014 iMac (1.4 GHz Dual-Core Intel Core i5 8GB): 45:25
Early 2015 MacBook Pro (2.7 GHz Dual-Core Intel Core i5 16GB): 26:21
Late 2019 16-inch MacBook Pro (2.6GHz 6‑core Intel Core i7, 16GB): 17:57
Mid 2017 27-inch iMac (4.2 GHz Quad-Core Intel Core i7, 24GB): 12:58
2018 Mac mini (3.0GHz 6-core 8th-generation Intel Core i5, 8GB): 9:05
2020 Developer Transition Kit (A12Z, 16GB): 8:29
2020 M1 Mac mini (8GB): 5:00

As you can see, the M1 Mac mini is blazingly faster when it comes to unzipping a 11.2GB xip file to its full 27.2GB size. This is just part of the speed that the M1 offers.

Any time you use a newer machine, whether you replace an older machine or just add another machine to your existing computers, you expect the machine to be faster. This is definitely the case with the Mac mini. It is not faster just in Geekbench benchmarks, it is, see the chart above, but just in the general feel it seems faster. I am sure part of this is the fact that it is an SSD only machine, as well as not having all of my usual apps on the machine, and the fact that it is a new machine.

However, the actual difference is borne out through the benchmarks that have been done using Geekbench 5.

Device Single Core Multi Core
iPod touch (6th Gen) 258 528
iPod touch (7th Gen) 553 1077
iPhone 7 Plus 740 1355
Early 2015 13.3-inch MacBook Pro 746 1652
Late 2018 Mac mini 992 4442
Mid-2017 27-inch iMac 1068 4377
12.9-inch iPad Pro (3rd Gen) 1124 4680
Late 2019 16-inch MacBook Pro 1170 5391
iPhone 11 Pro Max 1328 3252
iPhone 12 Pro Max 1604 4297
M1 Mac Mini 1739 7366

In Single Core performance, the M1 mac mini is 8.4% faster than my iPhone 12 Pro Max, 54% faster than my iPad Pro, and a whopping 62.8% faster than my 2017 iMac.  Even crazier though, is the multi-core benchmarks. The M1 Mac mini is 57.4% faster than my iPad Pro, 68.2% faster than my 2017 iMac, and 71.4% faster than my iPhone 12 Pro Max. This difference is absolutely noticeable. 

The biggest speed improvements that I have seen are actually while I have been doing development.

Developing on an M1 Mac mini

As mentioned earlier, the primary reason that I bought an M1 Mac mini was that my app was crashing on a friend’s M1 Mac. Although, the issue ended up being on the server-side, and not the app itself, I have done quite a bit of development using the M1 Mac mini. I have some things that I have noticed along the way, so let us look at some of those now, starting with the screen.

Screen, or lack there of

One of the possible downsides of the Mac mini is that it does not include a screen. While I can purchase a monitor, including a 4K or 5K monitor, it is not likely to be a P3 color gamut monitor, and since the Mac mini is not my primary machine, I do not want to invest too much into it. I do have a 27-inch 1090p monitor that I purchased earlier this year, and have been using that.

Using this setup is definitely not ideal and is a significant departure from what I am used to with my 27-inch iMac. The difference is not only in the color, but also in the amount of screen real estate. On my iMac I use a scaled resolution, to provide me more usable space. This does result in smaller font, which I have no problem seeing, for the most part. 

However, with the Mac mini and a 1080p monitor, I am limited in the amount of space that I have available to me, so I have to do some juggling in order to be the most efficient. Sometimes I have multiple windows open, one for the current file I am looking at and another for the simulator that I have running. With the amount of space on the iMac, I am able to position all of the windows to be able to see everything at once. That is just not possible on the 1080p monitor I have. It is situations like this where I wish Apple had continued to sell a stand alone monitor. I understand that it is a very small market, but having quality monitors that work well with Apple’s hardware would be ideal.

Even though I have to do some juggling, I am able to get some development done. I do not necessarily need to use the Xcode simulator all the time. This is because I have begun using a slightly different way of doing development.

Most general computing tasks do not process things using more than a single core. Yes, there are a number of applications that are specifically designed to utilize all of the cores of a machine, but most do not necessarily utilize these to their fullest extent.

One area that can utilize the multiple cores simultaneously is when you are building an app. The reason that this is possible is because the compiler is able to handle multiple tasks at once. This is most noticeable when using a specific feature of Apple’s Xcode app, called SwiftUI Previews.

SwiftUI Previews

Despite having a 27-inch iMac, which should be able to handle most development tasks, there are some things that it is not able to do. Most notably, it is not able to use SwiftUI Previews. SwiftUI Previews is a technology built into Xcode that allows you, as the name states, preview SwiftUI views. SwiftUI is a user interface that takes the core aspects of the Swift language and builds a series of user interface elements on top of the language. When you create SwiftUI Previews, they are in almost real-time. This is possible because when you use SwiftUI Previews, your screen is divided in half. On the left side you see your code and on the right side you see the SwiftUI Preview. With this arrangement, when you make a change it should be instantly reflected in the preview. This has been my experience on the Mac mini, and is the intended experience for anyone using SwiftUI Previews.

The way that this works is by constantly re-building your app. If you have done development for any amount of time you likely realize that this seems like it would be a constant drain on the system. In most cases, it would be. However, Swift is able to recompile only the parts of the app that need to be recompiled, and this technique allows SwiftUI previews to work. 

My initial thought is that the reason SwiftUI Previews has not worked on my iMac is because it has a fusion drive, where a majority of the drive is a traditional spinning hard drive and a smaller portion is an SSD. So, I thought I would try SwiftUI Previews on my 2015 MacBook Pro, which is a pure SSD. However, I never ever been able to satisfactorily use them either. I have a 16-inch late 2019 MacBook Pro for work, and while SwiftUI can work on this, there are times that it even has issues with SwiftUI Previews.

That is not the case on the M1 Mac mini. I am able to use SwiftUI Previews without any issues, including the near real-time recompiling of my app. Changes that I make are reflected in the previews, and that is previews plural. With SwiftUI Previews you are able to have multiple devices show in the preview canvas simultaneously. This can allow you to easily see how an app will look at various screen sizes.

Each of these previews is its own simulator. Any simulator requires some memory, and if you have a large number of SwiftUI previews, even for a single SwiftUI View, they can use significant amounts of memory. This can be problematic in some situations. On the topic of memory, let us look at that next.

Memory Usage

Throughout most of the time I spent working on my app on the M1 Mac mini I did not experience that many issues. However, it seems as though Xcode will use as much memory as it can. At one point I started running into some performance issues and realized that Xcode was using 10.2 GB of memory, the LLVM process was using nearly 3GB of memory on its own. The amount of swap being used was 6.3GB.

This resulted in the Mac mini needing to use some swap, which I never experienced on my iMac. The reason for this is because my iMac has 24GB of memory in it The 8GB that came with it, and the 16GB of memory that I added after the fact. The 2017 iMac still has an access door for being able to add memory.

As you might expect, once I quit Xcode and waited for all of the processes to close and then restarted Xcode, I was back to having my regular performance. I guess that proves that sometimes it is best to just quit the app and restart it. However, the 8GB of memory does seem to be a bit of a bottle neck. This is most noticeable if I am working on SwiftUI Previews while also having simulators running at the same time.

Just as is the case with a tradition architecture, if the memory that is being used is full, anything not being used is swapped to the SSD. The speed of the SSD is fast enough where you will not likely notice the memory being swapped. However, as I experienced, there is a limit. Even though the memory swapped very fast, and I did not even notice it being done, it can have a slight performance impact.

One of the benefits to the M1 Macs is that users can run iOS apps natively, provided a developer opts in. Now, as a developer this has a benefit for you as well. You are able to test your iOS apps natively, including all of the features that are supported, such as handoff. This means that if you have an M1 Mac and an iPhone, you are able to do full handoff testing to verify that everything will work as expected without needing to have multiple iOS devices. Granted, this is provided that you are not offering a native macOS app, but only offering your iOS app for use on the M1 Macs.

Even though the M1 Mac improves your experience with macOS, and development using some of Apple’s most intensive development tools, it has not been entirely smooth sailing. So let us dive into some of the issues that I have experienced.

Problems

As much as we would like it to be the case, nothing is perfect. To quote John Siracusa, “Nothing is so perfect that it can’t be complained about.” I have actually experienced a few different issues with the M1 Mac mini. The first of these, and the most annoying as well as most prevalent, is with an item I use all the time, the Magic Mouse.

Magic Mouse

Apple Magic Mouse 2

I use a Magic Mouse 2, and a Magic Keyboard, with my Mac mini. I did not buy these new when I got ordered the Mac mini. The whole idea of the Mac mini is to be able to use your existing Keyboard, Video, and Mouse, which is what I did. Most of the time these just work, however, the Magic Mouse seems to randomly disconnect. This happens right in the middle of me using it. Sometimes I am pasting text and other times I am simply scrolling. There is no rhyme or reason as to why it happens that I have been able to ascertain, yet.

Once the mouse disconnects, it will reconnect, then immediately disconnect again, and then reconnect again. Again, this is not consistent. There are times when the disconnect and reconnect only occurs once, sometimes it is twice, and yet on a few occasions it has been three times. Sometimes, the mouse will work after it reconnects, but sometimes it does not. I have tried manually disconnecting and then reconnect the mouse, and it will work again for a while. This could be a half hour, an hour, or even longer, but it will inevitably happen again.

At first, I thought it could be an issue with macOS Big Sur 11.0.1. It was the first release of macOS Big Sur after the M1 Mac launched. While using the Mac mini macOS Big Sur 11.1 was released. I, of course, updated to this version. I updated not just because of this issue, but because I prefer to stay on the latest version of macOS. After installing the update, the issue continues. So that did not fix it. 

The next thing I tried was a different Magic Mouse, a first generation one, that requires batteries and is not rechargeable with a lightning cable. Unfortunately, this did not fix the issue either. While it seemed that the issue happened less often with the first generation Magic Mouse, it did still happen. The issue is transient and does not happen consistently enough for me to be able to identify a pattern. I will continue to see if I can identify what is causing the issue. I have not experienced any issues with the Magic Keyboard disconnected, that I know of, so I think the issue may be isolated to the Magic Mouse.

I am beginning to suspect that the issue is entirely related to Xcode. I have used the mouse quite extensively while browsing the web and other tasks on the Mac mini and they did not happen when I was doing that, so it seems like it might be an Xcode-specific bug. This is still problematic because I am intending to use the Mac mini as a development machine, so Xcode is pretty important.

The issue with the Magic Mouse has not been the only issue I have experienced. I have encountered some issues while doing development.

Problems with Development 

The second issue is one that I have only experienced twice, and may only be due to the 8GB of memory on the machine. I was working on my app and I came across an error, while using Xcode, that states:

The current system settings are not sufficient to allow booting additional simulators: maxFiles: 1288, openFiles: 1163, enforcedFilesBuffer: 1868. Please see Simulator help for information on adjusting resource limits.

Xcode with error "The current system settings are not sufficient to allow booting additional simulators: maxFiles: 1288, openFiles: 1163, enforcedFilesBuffer: 1868. Please see Simulator help for information on adjusting resource limits."

I have never seen this error before, or anything even like it. Even with my usual build and run cycle on my iMac I have never come across this, or anything similar. Now, when I saw this error I was a bit confused because I was not trying to actually boot a simulator. I was actually in the middle of coding and just trying to build the app. I am sure that the reason that I got this error was because I have been using SwiftUI Previews. SwiftUI Previews can have multiple previews and each preview can rebuild the current view in an incremental manner. This results in quick builds and I suspect that there were just too many preview windows that ended up using up the available resources.

Furthermore, I am thinking that the fact that I only have 8 GB of memory in the Mac mini is part of the cause. It could be that I have not experienced this on my iMac because it has 24GB of memory, therefore it has enough resources to handle this. Additionally, as mentioned earlier, SwiftUI Previews has never worked properly on my iMac. Therefore, it could be a combination of me not using and it not working properly on my iMac as the reason I have never experienced this.

The fix was quite simple and an easy one. I simply closed Xcode and made sure the simulator, and all of its associated processes were closed. After restarting Xcode, I was back in business. I have not experienced this issue again, but who is to say that I will not again in the future.

LSBundleWrapper

I did get another issue, one that is not related to memory, but what seems like a compiler bug. This is the error I received:

Please try again later. Failed to finalize LSBundleWrapper mutator instance for [bundle identifier]

Xcode error that states "Please try again later. Failed to finalize LSBundleWrapper mutator instance for [bundle identifier]"

One of the things that you can do with an M1 Mac is run iOS apps. In addition to this, you can run your iPad app right on your M1 Mac. In order to do this, you select the build target of ““My Mac (Designed for iPad)”” in Xcode. Each time you successfully run a build using this target, your iOS is wrapped in a bundle and copied to your debug folder. As is the case with other apps, if there is already an existing app with the same name the app is incremented. For instance, for my app wwriteLite, the first build would be “wwriteLite”, the next would be “wwriteLite 2”, the third “wwriteLite 3”, etc.

At first, I thought that I ran into the issue because the Mac mini has a limit on the number of builds allowed in the directory, but I do not think that is the case. I attempted to replicate the issue by purposely building and running, but I could not replicate the issue.

When this happened, I tried the first step in any troubleshooting, I tried quitting Xcode and re-opening it, but that did not fix the issue. I then decided to google the issue. The only result that I could find indicated that you needed to enable Mac Catalyst, build the app, and then disable it. To me, this does not seem like an appropriate solution because I was not building a Mac Catalyst app, and I did not want to deal with any possible problems that might arise from doing that.

At this point I opted to do the equivalent of nuke and pave for development: Clean the build folder and build the app again. Guess what, this fixed the issue. So, if you run into issues sometimes just doing a clean build folder and rebuilding the app fixes it. It the development equivalent of “quit and relaunch”.

There is yet another last issue I ran into, and this was also related to compiling.

Compiling Issue/Resource Utilization issue

A few times while I was compiling my app, I have had the entire system just stop responding. The mouse was able to move but that was it. Ironic, I know that the mouse, which has been causing other issues would continue to work, but I could not click on anything, I could not hit command-tab to switch to another app, nor could I bring up any windows. When this did happen, I let it sit and it would eventually catch up. Of course any actions that I had performed would replay. Obviously something locked up the system, but I am not sure what it was. 

Read Only File System?

The last weird error that I have encountered while using the M1 Mac mini is an error that stated:

You can’t save the file ‘About.swift’ because the volume “Macintosh HD” is read only.

Xcode error that states "You can't save the file 'About.swift' because the volume "Macintosh HD" is read only."

Now, when I got this message I was definitely confused, because I had been using the system, and therefore it the volume that the app is on is definitely “read only”. I do not use iCloud Document and Desktop syncing for my development iCloud account, because I do not need the feature since I do not have more than one machine dedicated for development. Even if I did, all of my code is source controlled, so I can just pull from source control.

As has been the case with many of the issues, quitting Xcode and restarting it fixed the issue. I have not experienced the same issue again. It is possible that I happen to try and save the file when the file system was taking a local Time Machine snapshot, but if so, then that was some really good timing on my part.

Closing Thoughts

The M1 Mac mini is fast, even in its base configuration. The M1 Mac Mini is speedy with everything it does, from just interacting with Finder, to building the incremental SwiftUI previews, and even building an app from start to finish.

If you are a developer, I recommend getting an Apple Silicon Mac as your next development Mac. This is particularly true if you plan on supporting your iOS to run on the M1 Macs, but a necessity if you have a native Mac app. If you do need one, you do not need to break the bank to get a great machine. However, you may want to wait for larger memory configurations.

The speed of the Mac mini alone is worth it. This is particularly true if you use SwiftUI and utilize SwiftUI Previews. The Mac mini is able to render these in near-real time is quite nice. Furthermore, the speed of the Mac mini allows you to be more productive. The fact that the system can compile builds, and incremental builds, so quickly means that you will spend less time waiting for the system and more time actually developing. 

One thing I would recommend would be to get at least 16GB of RAM. At the time of this writing, the maximum you can get is 16GB, and I would definitely recommend it. I am sure that some of the issues that I have experienced have been due the fact that the Mac mini I purchased only has 8 GB of memory and not 16GB. In some ways, I regret not ordering a machine with 16GB of RAM, and time will tell if this was ultimately the wrong decision.

On a similar note, since I am only using the Mac mini as a development machine, the 256GB of storage should be sufficient, but I will not really know until I have used the machine for a bit longer. The reason that I say this is because half of the space is already used up, and I do not have a lot on the device. I have Apple’s built-in apps, Xcode, BBEdit, and a couple of other small applications. I do not have much else on the machine. As any developer knows, Xcode and its associated files do take up a lot of space. I wish Apple would have some sort Xcode cleanup utility, or have ways of cleaning up some of the excess Xcode files.

While I think 256GB should be enough for this device, for my needs. If this was my main machine, it would definitely not be enough storage space. So, take that into consideration if you do decide to purchase an M1 Mac. Even thought I have experienced some issues, I can still recommend getting an M1 Mac, even if you are not a developer.

I am not the first one to say this, but it does need to be said, these are the SLOWEST Apple Silicon Macs we will ever see, and these are already super fast. I do not expect to see the same type of speed increases in the future, but this is a great baseline to compare to with future M1 Macs. These machines absolutely blow away all Intel machines, and even most of Apple’s other Apple Silicon-based devices, like in the iPad and iPhone.

Ultimately, I may end up getting a different Apple Silicon-based Mac in the not too distant future, depending on what Apple releases. Even if I do end up buying another Apple Silicon Mac and using that for development instead, the current Mac mini can be used for a number of different things, like a server. If used as a server, the limitations of the smaller internal storage and 8GB of memory would not necessarily be limiting factors in that, since storage can be external, and while possible, it is hard to see 8GB of memory not being enough, for a server.

Here is one last thing to keep in mind. Even if you are not planning on getting a Mac mini, because you would prefer a laptop, everything I have written also applies to those machines as well. This is because all of the M1 Macs are using the same processor. Therefore, regardless of M1 Mac that you get, you should see significant improvements. Furthermore, even if you are not a developer and just need a new Mac, I recommend getting an M1 Mac, it should be able to serve your needs for many years to come. Now, if Apple would only release a standalone 5K monitor, but again, that is a whole other story.

Xbox Series X: A Deep Dive and a Review

If you were to ask anybody if they play games, you will very likely get an affirmative answer. Everybody has played at least one game in their lives. It may not be a video game, but it is a game of some sort. Gamers are simultaneously the same and unique. We are all the same because we have all had triumphs and heartbreaks, while playing a game. We have all felt the anticipation of a new game, and the let down when a game did not live up to our expectations. We have all been frustrated and elated all while playing games.

Even though we have all felt those experiences, none of us have had the exact same overall experiences when it comes to games. We all have different favorite types of games, games we have played, and even when, where, and what games we had access to and played.

I have played games on a range of devices and consoles. Over my life I have played games on a wide variety of devices, ranging from the Apple II/e to the Xbox Series X. The entire list includes:

  • Nintendo Entertainment System (NES)
  • Sega Genesis
  • Sega Game Gear
  • Nintendo 64
  • Sony Playstation 2
  • Microsoft Xbox
  • Nintendo Game Cube
  • Nintendo Wii
  • Microsoft Xbox 360
  • Sony Playstation 3
  • Xbox One
  • Sony Playstation 4
  • Nintendo Switch
  • Xbox Series X

I have also played games on Microsoft DOS, Microsoft Windows 95, 98, 2000, XP, and even on the Mac, iPhone and iPad. The games that I remember most will always be ones that I enjoy playing. These games are ones that I have undoubtedly purchased multiple times. Some of these include Super Mario Bros 1, 2, and 3, Sonic the Hedgehog 1, 2, and Sonic & Knuckles, Wolfenstein 3D, Doom, Quake, the entire Half-Life series, Duke Nukem 3D, and a bunch of other games.

I have purchased a new iPhone each year since its original introduction in 2007. Having purchased a new iPhone each year, I have been able to figure out what areas I need to cover in each review that I post about the phones. 

Having owned an iPhone for so long I have played a bunch of games on the iPhone, as well as the iPad. While I do not play that many new games on the iPhone, there are four games that I play almost daily.  Given that I spend so much time with my iPhone, you would think I would spend more time playing games on there, but I do not. For the last seven years worth of iPhones, I written a review. 

Even though I have played many games, across the various consoles, I have never actually written a review of a gaming console, as far as I can tell. So, this is somewhat of a first for me. I have written about the Xbox One and Playstation 4 in two separate e-books, but never a full review.. But I will give it a go. With that, let us dive into various aspects and my thoughts on the latest Microsoft console, the Xbox Series X, starting with a bit of history of gaming.

Brief History of Gaming

When you look at the tech industry in general, you will see a new phone being released at least every month, sometimes even every week, and that is just from a single manufacturer. There are some manufacturers, like Apple, who release their new phones only once a year. There is one industry that makes even Apple look like speed demons when it comes to releasing new products. There are some types of devices that do not get new releases every year, or even every few years. One type of device that meets this definition is. gaming console. 

When new phones are released, they are typically generally incremental changes from the previous versions. That is not to say that they do not make leaps from time to time, they certainly do, but they are just not nearly as significant of shifts.

The same cannot be said for gaming consoles. Typically, console manufacturers tend to release new console generations every five to seven years. The primary reason for such a long time span between console generations is due to development times. One of the factors that contribute to the time is that the entire platform may change. This has happened more than once in recent history. Another factor is that console manufacturers must get game developers on board and developing for the new system in order to have titles available at the launch of the new console.

While console manufacturers release new console generations in longer spans, there are typically incremental versions of the console that are released at some point between the generations. Typically, these incremental versions include additional storage, smaller designs, and other internal refinements. Some of the recent incremental consoles include the Xbox One S, the Xbox One X, the Sony Playstation 4 slim, and the Playstation 4 Pro. The question becomes, what defines a “console generation”?

Console Generations

Depending on whom you ask, a console generation can be defined in a number of different ways. However, there has been some consensus of what each console generation is. The early console generations were marked by significant advances and included things like hardware changes. For instance, in the first five generations we go from the original Pong machine, all the way to the Sony Playstation 1. These generations include going from 4-bit consoles, to 8-bit to 16-bit, or 32-bit to 64-bit consoles. This also includes going from 2D graphics to 3D animated graphics. The first five console generations spanned from 1972 to 1999, while the sixth to 9th generations span from 2000 to now.

Each console generation has its own iconic consoles, below are the big names for each generation.

1st Generation

Original Pong

2nd Generation

  • Atari 2600
  • Intellivision
  • ColecoVision
Atari 2600 Console
Atari 2600 Console

3rd Generation

  • Nintendo Entertainment System (NES)
  • Commodore 64 Gaming System
  • Sega Master System
Nintendo Entertainment System Console.
Nintendo Entertainment System Console.

4th Generation

  • TurboGrafx-16
  • Sega Genesis
  • Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES)
Sega Gensis Console.
Sega Gensis Console.

5th Generation

  • Sega Saturn
  • Nintendo 64
  • Sony Playstation 1
Nintendo 64 Console.
Nintendo 64 Console.

6th Generation

  • Microsoft Xbox
  • Nintendo GameCube
  • Sega Dreamcast
  • Sony Playstation 2
Original Xbox Console.
Original Xbox Console.

7th Generation

  • Microsoft Xbox 360
  • Nintendo Wii
  • Sony Playstation 3
Nintendo Wii console.
Nintendo Wii console.

8th Generation

  • Microsoft Xbox One
  • Nintendo Switch
  • Nintendo Wii U
  • Sony Playstation 4

9th Generation (Current) 

  • Microsoft Xbox Series X|S
  • Sony Playstation 5
Playstation 5 Console.
Playstation 5 Console.

As time has gone on, the number of distinct consoles being manufactured has been dropping to only a few manufacturers. The first generation saw 888 different consoles, whereas the last four generations have only had three or four consoles being released.

The reason for such a precipitous drop is that a change happened with the second console generation. Instead of having a device being dedicated to a single game, the consoles become platforms with the ability to play multiple games. A significant number of consoles utilized cartridges. These hard plastic cartridges were durable and allowed you to use swap them out easily.

Stating with fifth generation, games began switching from cartridges to using CDs, or DVDs for their games. The reason for this was storage density and the need to be able to store more information than a standard cartridge could hold. 

Another shift happened with the seventh generation of consoles. That change was the ability to download games to your console and not need a physical item to be able to play your game. This had the advantage of allowing you to re-download your games again, as well as allowing updates to games. 

Nintendo has typically done its own thing, and continues to do so by going back to using cartridges for their Nintendo Switch system. There are two reasons for this shift. The first is that the Switch is meant to be portable, so having a spinning drive is not possible. Secondly, the storage space available on cartridges has increased to the point where they can put games on cartridges. The Nintendo Switch does support digital downloads, so you do not need to use a cartridge, but you can if you would like.

As you can see there have been three major manufacturers, Microsoft, Nintendo, and Sony, for the lsat three generations. Each of these manufacturers have their own line of consoles. It is possible that another console manufacturer will enter into the market, however, it does not seem likely.

As mentioned above, gaming consoles are not released every year, there are typically refinements released at about half-way through a console generation’s lifetime. This has been true with the release of smaller versions of each of the most recent consoles.  When there is a revision released, it is typically smaller, or in the case of Nintendo, a bit more powerful, or a different form factor. 

When it comes to console gaming, I primarily play games on the Xbox. I do have a Playstation 4 and a Nintendo Switch, so I can play games on those as well. I typically only play console-exclusive games on those devices. 

Because I primarily game on the Xbox, I was excited to hear that Microsoft was releasing a new console this holiday season. Unlike so many others, I was able to get a console for launch day, although I did have some trouble. You can read about the problems I had here.

Now, that we have covered some history, let us get to the review of the Xbox Series X by starting with the unboxing.

Unboxing

Xbox Series X in its box

There are a slew of different unboxing videos of the Xbox Series X available. Like this one from What’s Good Games, but here are some pictures of the unboxing of my Xbox Series X.

I have watched a few different unboxing videos, so I knew what to expect. When you open the The Xbox Series X packaging, you are presented with the Xbox console right up front. It is nicely wrapped in a soft wrap to protect the console.

Behind the console is a box that contains the power cord, an HDMI cable, and the included controller. In order to setup the console you need to take it out of the box. The Xbox Series X console is HEAVY, at 9.8 pounds or 4.45 kilograms.. The console is not unwieldy, but it is dense and would be problematic to cart around. So, it is a good thing that it is designed to be stationary. This compares to the Xbox One, which was 7.7 pounds, or 3.5 kilograms. Therefore, this newer console is 27% heavier than the original Xbox One.

Ports on the back of the Xbox Series X
Ports on the back of the Xbox Series X

The Xbox Series X has a number of ports on the back of the console. The ports include:

  • Two USB 3.1 gen 1 ports, using the USB-A style connector.
  • One gigabit ethernet port
  • One power cord plug
  • One HDMI out
  • One dedicated proprietary storage expansion port.
  • One Kensington lock port

The layout of the ports for the Xbox Series X are pretty good. Each port has its own shape, so they are easily identifiable by sight. There is a nice touch that many users may not need, but it can be vital for a certain segment of the population. There are unique bumps beneath each of the ports. This is designed for those who may have visual issues and need to identify a port by touch. 

The USB ports have 3 single dots on them. The ethernet port has two dots, the power port has a single dot, the HDMI out port has a long bar, and the storage expansion port has four dots beneath it. These will allow you to easily identify the ports should you need to be able to identify the ports without looking at them.

As mentioned above, the Xbox Series X includes a gigabit Ethernet port. While some will end up using this port, many will likely use the wireless connection instead. The included wireless is dual-band the 802.11ac. This means that it can support 802.11b,g,n,a, and AC, at 2.4GHz and 5GHz frequencies. This all sounds like a bunch of mumbo jumbo, and unless you are steeped in wireless connectivity it may not mean much. To make things easier the Wi-Fi working group has retroactively re-named some of these using straight numbers. The Xbox Series X supports Wifi 5, 4, 3, 2, and 1. It does not support Wifi 6, which would be 802.11ax. Even though it does not support the latest wireless connectivity, 802.11ac should be sufficient for most everyone. 

All of these ports are on the back, now let us flip it around and look at the front. There is one port on the front as well, another USB 3.1 gen 1 port that uses the USB-A style plug. There are three buttons on the front of the Xbox. There is the disc eject button to remove physical discs. Close to the disc eject button is the Power button. In the opposite corner from the power button is the controller synchronization button.

Outside of the console, you also receive the power cable, a controller (more on that in a bit), and an HDMI 2.1 cable. This cable is a “Ultra High-Speed” cable because it needs to be able to deliver all of the data to your TV, again more on some of the new technology in a bit. Now that we have covered what is in the box, let us look at the internals for the design of the Xbox Series X.

Design

Internals of the Xbox Series X
Internals of the Xbox Series X

The Xbox Series X console is a rectangular device, that is 5.94 inches wide by 5.94 inches deep, by 11.85 inches high. When consoles are released there are generally designed to lay flat. Technically, the previous Xbox consoles, except for the original Xbox, can be placed on their side, but it is likely that many use it while laying flat.

The Xbox Series X is designed to be used in either orientation. I typically use my Xboxes with the disc drive being horizontal, where the top of the disc will be towards the top of the console. This is because it makes it much easier for me to know which way the disc is supposed to be inserted. I still buy most of my games in physical format, because I can do what I would like with the physical disc afterwards. That is not to say that I have not purchased digital games, I have, but I just prefer to get the physical games. 

Modern gaming consoles are very much like PCs, and contain many of the same type of components. What separates gaming consoles from standard PCs is that gaming console hardware is typically static and highly customized, meaning that they do not typically use off the shelf components.

The Xbox Series X is designed to have the air flow through the core of the console. In order to facilitate this, on the bottom of the console there is a foot that will allow the console to sit slightly above the surface it is placed on. This foot is on the console in order to allow enough to flow over the internals. In order to get enough airflow and to keep the console cool enough, some of the internals have been specifically designed. The biggest example of this is the motherboard.

The motherboard of the Xbox Series X is actually a unique design with two individual boards. One of the boards has the processor, graphics, and memory on it. The second board has all of the input and output, like the wireless, USB ports, HDMI port, and disc drive.  The two boards are attach to a metal chassis, which lines up the boards and allows them to interconnect so everything works well together.

Xbox Series X Split Motherboards
Xbox Series X Split Motherboards

This is very reminiscent of the 2013 Mac Pro, in that it has a unique layout, and the design of the Mac Pro had air flow over the internal core. One of the issues with the 2013 Mac Pro was that it was very limited in terms of thermals, which limited its upgradeability. Luckily, that is not likely to be a problem with the Xbox Series X, because it is not designed to be upgradeable in anyway, and typically game console generations do not change significantly, except in their size.

Internal Chip on the Xbox Series X
Internal Chip on the Xbox Series X

On the motherboards you will find an 8-core 3.8GHz custom processor and a GPU that is capable of running at 12 teraflops, or 12 trillion operations per second. To complement this is 16GB of system memory. This memory has two different speeds, there is ten gigabytes of memory that runs at 560 gigabits per second, and six gigabytes of memory that runs at 336 gigabits per second. The reason that there are two different types of memory is for throughput. Some tasks need to be able to read and write memory as fast as possible, so it would use the ten gigabyte block of memory. Whereas memory that does not necessarily need to be that fast can use the six gigabyte block of memory.

The types of items that may be stored in memory are loaded from the permanent storage, or non-volatile memory. The Xbox Series X has 1 terabyte of custom storage. This uses the Non-Volatile Memory Express, or NVME, protocol. This protocol is designed to connect directly to the CPU. This connection means that the CPU will be able to access the memory faster than going through traditional buses. This should provide faster speeds.

While the Xbox Series X comes with 1 terabyte by default, you can expand the storage in two ways, using the dedicated expansion port, or USB 3.1. Each option has its own trade-offs.

Xbox Series X Expansion Storage Port
Xbox Series X Expansion Storage Port

If you use the dedicated expansion port, you will have to get the custom Seagate Storage Expansion Card. Using this expansion card allows you to use the storage just as if it were internal storage. This would increase your overall storage to 2 terabytes. The downside to this is that it is not cheap. As of this writing, the expansion card has a retail price of $219.99, but it does match the internal storage exactly.

If you opt to go with the USB 3.1 external drive route, you can get much larger storage sizes, upwards of 8 terabytes. While these are typically cheaper, particular for a 1, 2, or 4 terabyte drive, you are not able to use these type of drives for playing games directly off of. Instead, you would need to copy the games from this drive to the internal storage. While this would be significantly faster than re-downloading a game from the xbox servers, or re-installing from disc and then updating the game, it will still take some time. Furthermore, it will take some manual management of your games.

All of these internals support the whole reason you are using the Xbox, to play games. In order to be able to see what you are doing, you need to have some graphics. The Xbox Series X can output games at true 4K, meaning a resolution of 3840 pixels wide x 2160 pixels tall, provided you have a 4K television. The Xbox Series X is capable of handling high-dynamic range, or HDR, content. 

HDR is a technology that allows more vibrant colors. For instance, lighter colors will be brighter, while darker colors will be richer. This can add more contrast to a game and can enhance your overall game play. If you have a capable television, or monitor, you can even play games at 120 frames per second. This would allow the game play to be even smoother than playing at 60 frames per second.

There are a few different types of HDR standards. These include HDR10, HDR10+, HLG, Dolby Vision, and Advanced HDR. The Xbox Series X supports HDR10, HDR10+, and Dolby Vision. These are the most common types, so it is good to have these supported.

While not all monitors can display content at every refresh rate, described using frames per second, or fps, many monitors can support multiple refresh rates. The Xbox Series X can handle the following refresh rates, 24 frames per second, 30 fps, 60 fps, and 120 fps. The various refresh rates can be used within a single game, depending on the content. For instance, if there is a video cut scene that plays at 24fps, while most of the remaining gameplay is 60fps, the Xbox Series X can seamlessly switch between the two modes, and if your monitor supports it, can adjust on the fly without you ever noticing. 

While video is probably the most important aspect of any media on the Xbox Series X, sound can be just as important in some contexts. The Xbox Series X is capable of handling Dolby Digital 5.1 sound, DTS 5.1, Dolby True HD with Atmos, up to 7.1. This is all provided that you have the proper sound setup in order to support the sound.

With all of this technology in such a dense package, it is time to actually get to to playing some games, so now that the technology has been covered, let us move onto to actually setting up the Xbox Series X.

Setup

Xbox App connected to console.

When I first turned on the Xbox, as you might expect, there was a day one firmware update. This patch was only about 800 megabytes, so not terribly large, particularly as compared to some day 1 game updates. Yes, I am looking at you Call of Duty and your 135GB of downloads, but that is a different story. This was actually smaller than I had expected, but I did expect an update to be needed. Just about every modern devices will need to be updated as soon as they are plugged in and powered on, it is just the modern way of technology.

Xbox Series X performing initial update.

It has been quite a long time since I had to set up an Xbox. There are a few different ways to setup an Xbox console. The first is to use the on screen guide, which will walk you through step by step. The second option is to use the Xbox app to help set up your Xbox. I opted to use the Xbox app on my phone. The reason I opted for this was because I have a complicated password for my xbox account and trying to enter this via the controller would be a pain to do. Combine this with two factor authentication and it would probably take 10 minutes to get past the login screen.

When you setup and Xbox, you have an option to transfer the settings from an existing Xbox, or to set up the Xbox as a new console. I opted to transfer my settings. This took a lot less time that I expected. The amount of time was short because the transfer was only for the settings and account information. It did not transfer game data, like I had initially thought. Of course, this was my own ignorance. 

The Xbox app will walk you through all of the steps needed. This includes updating the console, selecting power options (energy saving or instant on), setting up automatic updates, enabling remote features, naming the console, and then finally copying the settings from another Xbox.

There was one last thing that happened after I finished the setup. My Xbox Series X controller needed to be updated. Which is not a new thing, since my previous Xbox controllers needed updates from time to time, but I was a bit surprised to see that was immediately after finishing setup. 

There was one last thing that happened after I finished the setup. My Xbox Series X controller needed to be updated. Which is not a new thing, since my previous Xbox controllers needed updates from time to time, but I was a bit surprised to see that was immediately after finishing setup. 

Xbox Series X performing controller update

After the setup comes installing games onto the console. Let us move to that for a bit. 

Installing Games

After you have setup an xbox, you do have the option of transferring over game data after the fact. This is done via the settings. After I had finished my setup I contemplated transferring over the game installation data. However, I opted to not do this because there is a new feature for this generation of Xbox consoles.

The Xbox Series X, as well as its cousin the Xbox Series S, have a feature called “Smart Delivery”. Smart Delivery will only download the assets that are necessary for that console. Let us say for instance that you have an Xbox Series S. The maximum resolution for the console is 1440p. This means that you will not need the full 4K resolution images. Similarly, if you have an Xbox Series X, you will not need to download the 1440p assets. This means that you should be able to save some space on your console. If you have an Xbox Series S, you will save more space than the Xbox Series X, but both consoles should save some space.

Xbox Series X list of games including optimized games for the console.
Xbox Series X list of games including optimized games for the console.

Since I was going from a non 4K gaming device, the Xbox One S, to a 4K one, the Xbox Series X, I opted to get the optimized versions of the game data delivered so that I could experience the games I chose to install in their full 4K resolution.

There are two downsides to this technology. The first is that the game developer has to support this technology. I honestly do not know what it takes to support Smart Delivery. It might be as simple as tagging different assets for which console or indicating its maximum size. If a game supports Smart delivery it should indicate “Smart Delivery” on the game’s information on the Xbox console or xbox.com. Similarly, if you purchase a physical game, it will have the wording “Series X” on the front cover of the case. 

The second downside is that it will take time to download the optimized version. Game assets that use 4K will take up more storage space, so they will take longer to download, even if they are compressed. This is due to having significantly more resolution, and therefore being of larger size, than standard 1080p or 1440p assets.

On the topic of software, let us move onto the Xbox dashboard software.

Xbox Dashboard 

One of the benefits of software is that you can update, change, and adapt software over time. The software that is used to handle the non-gaming interface of the Xbox is the Xbox dashboard software. If you upgraded from an Xbox One to the Xbox Series X you should notice absolutely no difference between the dashboard of the two consoles. 

Where you would notice some differences is with the capabilities of the console. There are a couple of new options for the Xbox Series X that were not in the Xbox One S, which is what I upgraded from. These include some HDR options, which are outlined above, and another new feature supported by the Xbox Series X.

Game Play

My old Xbox was an Xbox One S. I got this from my brother after he upgraded to a different Xbox One model. The Xbox One S had a 500GB spinning hard drive that ran at 5400RPM. The fact that it was a 5400 RPM hard drive did mean that things were going to take a bit longer, but should be sufficient for game play. The Xbox One S does support 4K Blu-Ray playback, but not 4K gaming. Even the Xbox One S was an upgrade from the original Xbox One that I purchased back in 2013, because that did not include any 4K capabilities at all.

The first thing I noticed with the Xbox Series X is how fast games load. This was most notable when comparing the load times on Watch Dogs: Legion. On the Xbox One S I could get up, go and grab something to drink and come back and still not have the game be loaded. With the Xbox Series X it would take approximately 15 seconds to load, which was a significant improvement.

There are two factors that allow this. The first is that there is an SSD on the Xbox Series X, and the second is the NVME storage, given that it is significantly faster than a spinning hard drive. Solid State drives, by their nature, are faster than any spinning hard drive. This is because solid state drives can read random parts of the drive, where as a spinning hard drive must seek out a specific spot and may need to make a few revolutions before finding the particular sector.

Now, let us switch to a whole new feature for the Xbox Series X, one that will make aspects of game play a bit richer. That feature is called Ray Tracing.

Ray Tracing

Ray Tracing is a newer technique that allows more accurate shadows and lighting around objects. Say for instance you have a. Desk with a light shining on it. In the past it would take a lot to render the exact lighting that would move while a character moves. You would not always be able to take into account how a player would move. Therefore, you would be more likely to render consistent lighting, so that you could have a predictable result. 

However, with todays technology this information can be computed and rendered in near-real time. This technique will allow for even better game play experiences.  Here are two examples from Microsoft’s game, Minecraft. The first one does not have Ray Tracing enabled, while the second one does hav Ray Tracing enabled.

Xbox Series X with Ray Tracing off within the game Minecraft.
Xbox Series X with Ray Tracing off within the game Minecraft.
Xbox Series X with Ray Tracing on within the game Minecraft.
Xbox Series X with Ray Tracing on within the game Minecraft.

Not every game supports Ray Tracing, but for the ones that do, there may be an option to turn off Ray Tracing within the settings of the game. This is the case for Call of Duty Black Ops: Cold War. Since Ray Tracing is still new to the Xbox, it may not be optimized and may have issues. If you do experience any, it might be best to turn it off until the issues can be rectified. I have not experienced any issues specifically related to Ray Tracing, that I know of, but that is not to say that there have not been any.

Now that we have finished with the game play, let us switch to how you play games, using the controller.

Xbox Series X Controller

Xbox Series X Controller Box
Xbox Series X Controller Box

The way that you control a game depends on the platform. For desktops and laptops, you may be able to use a keyboard, mouse, joystick, or another input device. Remember the old ThrustMaster racing wheels? There are some consoles, like the Nintendo Wii and Nintendo Switch that have their own unique controllers, like the Wii Remotes, and the Joycons on the Nintendo Switch. Even though the Switch and Wii have their own unique controllers, there is another controller available, the Pro controller, which has a controller that is more akin to traditional console controllers.

Some gamers are not able to use traditional controllers and instead need to be able to adapt a controller to their needs. For these gamers, there is the Microsoft Adaptive Controller. While it is not covered in this review, it is available for those gamers who need it.

If you were to just make a quick glance between an Xbox One controller and the Xbox Series X controller you might not think there is any difference between the two. However, there are some differences, but they are subtle. 

Xbox Series X Controller
Xbox Series X Controller

All Xbox controllers, excluding the Xbox Adaptive Controller, have a number of items on the front of the controller. These items are:

  • Two joysticks, one on the upper left, and one on the right side towards the bottom.
  • A directional pad on the left button side.
  • Four buttons in a diamond pattern, from top going clockwise you have Y, B, A, and X.
  • An options button on the left.
  • A start button on the right..
  • In the middle at the top is the controller power button.

The buttons and joysticks on the front are not the only buttons. There are some along the back as well. These are:

  • Two bumper buttons on the shoulders of the controller, one on the left and one on the right.
  • Two trigger buttons on the back, again one on the left and one on the right.
  • A power port between the bumpers.
  • A pairing button to the left of the power port.

There is one last port on the bottom of the controller, an accessory port. This is used to connect additional items like headsets. The Xbox Series X controller also has one additional button, that is in between the options and start buttons, and that is a dedicated share button.

The function of the Share Button can be customized through the Settings on the Xbox Dashboard. You have a few different options. This can be “Record what happened”, “Take Screenshot” or “Start/Stop recording’. Now, the “Record What Happened” option depends on your default capture settings. For 4K game captures you can capture the last 30 seconds, for 1080p, it is 1 to 2 minute, 720p is up to 3 minutes. The screenshots will be in 4K. The option for “Start/Stop Recording” will begin a record when you press it, and then stop the recording. This allows for a more customized length of video, which can save time in editing later. Even if that editing is just trimming the beginning and the end, it is still time saved.

Besides the power port, the directional pad has changed. The directional pad on the Xbox One controller is designed to allow you to more easily hit the up, right, down, and left arrows. These sit at 90 degree angles to each other. The modification with the Xbox Series X controller is that it is much easier to hit the diagonals, or 45 degrees from the standard directional buttons. This configuration can provide for more control during a game, particularly puzzle games or any other game where exact controllers or small adjustments in those specific directions are needed. This is not the first controller to have this type of configuration. The Xbox Elite Controllers have had this type of directional pad.

Having these additional directional options make playing some type of games a bit better and can make some actions a lot easier. Along with the directional pad there are some other changes, most notably to the back of the controller. This change can also allow for a better overall experience.

Increased Grip

The original Xbox One controller took the shape of the Xbox 360 controller and refined it. One of the aspects of the original Xbox One controller was that the area where you wrap your fingers around the back were smooth. While this felt nice, and provided a uniform feel across the entire controller, it could be a bit problematic. 

Imagine if you will, you are heavy into a gaming session, fighting the last boss of a game, you are low on health and barely surviving. Or maybe you are in a multiplayer match, and you are on a hot streak, going 10 and 0, and you need to keep going, or maybe you are playing a Dance Dance Revolution game and you are hitting every single beat perfectly. Because everything is a bit stressful your palms begin to sweat and with the controller being smooth it may be a bit difficult to hold onto the controller and you may end up dying or failing to hit that button at right the right moment.

Xbox One S Controller's grip
Xbox One S Controller’s grip

Microsoft took the feedback about this and with the Xbox One S controllers, as well as the Xbox Elite Controllers, and added some gripping material to the back of the controllers. This would help during those intense gaming sessions and would allow air to flow through the bumps on the controller.

Xbox Series X Controller's grip
Xbox Series X Controller’s grip

The Xbox Series X controller take this a bit further and adds just a bit more grip material. When I compare the Xbox One S controller and the new Xbox Series X controller, the Xbox Series X controller does seem to have additional grip material on it. I will concede that it is possible that the grip material on the Xbox One S controller has been worn away over time and it might have the same amount of grip material when it was new. Regardless, it does have more grip material than the original Xbox One controller, which did not have any grip material at all.

There is one last item to discuss about the controller itself, and that is the port on the controller.

USB-C

It is likely that many players use their Xbox controllers wirelessly, but that is not the only method. You can also used them wired to your Xbox as well. If you use rechargeable batteries, or the charge kit, you will need to plug in your controller from time to time. The primary purpose of these ports is to allow the controllers to be connected via a cable. 

The Xbox series of consoles have all had Universal Service Bus, or USB, ports included in them. USB is designed to allow a standard physical interface between devices. At this point USB is considered an “old” technology. It is not outdated, but it has been around a long time. USB was finalized in 1996, with the first devices coming out later in the same year. USB really is universal. While it is being replaced by new ports, it is still in use today on a large number of products, including newly introduced ones.

The original Xbox had a proprietary USB connection that was used for the controllers. Since the Xbox 360, the Xbox consoles have all had standard USB ports, available to the end user. These have been USB-A ports. 

The Xbox Series X continues to have USB-A ports on the console. There are two ports on the back of the console and one on the front. However, what has not remained the same is the type of connection on the controller. The Xbox 360 had a proprietary connector that would allow even a wireless controller to connect to the Xbox 360, and would charge the controller if you had rechargeable batteries in the controller.

While the ports are used primarily used to connect controllers, there have been some other accessories that have also used USB ports. This includes the Kinect, controllers like guitars and drums for rhythm games, and hard drives for storage. These are just a few of the many other accessories that have been available over the years.

With the introduction of the Xbox One in 2013, the port included on the controllers was a standard one, a Micro-USB port. Unlike other systems, these ports are standards compliant. Changing to a standard port would allow gamers to purchase any USB-A to Micro-USB cable to be able to connect their controller to their console. One of the downsides of the Micro-USB port is that you need to plug in the cable in a specific direction.

With the Xbox Series X, the port has changed again, but only on the controller. It is no longer Micro USB port as it was on previous controllers, but has been replaced. With a USB-C port. The fact that it is a USB-C connection is actually a good thing, for a couple of reasons. First, you longer need to worry about plugging in the power cable incorrectly. This is because USB-C is designed to be reversible. Secondly, USB-C is quickly becoming the de-facto standard for connecting most peripherals. Furthermore, if you have another USB-C cable, you can use that to charge your controller.

The thing that I am confused about is why there is not at least one USB-C port on the Xbox Series X console. I can understand needing to retain one or two USB-A ports, given that many users have existing accessories that will work on their Xbox Series X, but not having a USB-C port on the console itself does seem a bit strange. As mentioned earlier, USB-C is quickly becoming the go to standard for not just accessories, but for all other types of devices, like phones, laptops, tablets, and other gaming consoles. 

I would hope that when the next revision of the Xbox Series X comes about, if tradition holds in about in 3 to 4 years, that it would have at least one USB-C port on it, if not having all of the ports being USB-C. While it is a minor issue, it does seem a bit odd to not have a single USB-C port on the console, particularly considering that USB-C has been around long enough where there would have been time to change one or two ports to USB-C. There one last thing to mention related to the bundled-in controller and USB-C, and that is the cable.

USB-C Cable

As mentioned above the Xbox One controller used Micro-USB for its connection to the Xbox One and to charge. The cables included with these controllers were somewhat unique in that they included a light to indicate the current charging status of the controller. If this indicator was orange the controller was charging and if the light was white the controller was fully charged. 

The USB-C cable bundled with the controller does include this indicator. The controller will vibrate when you plug it in, so there is some feedback regarding the controller. However, there is no easy way to see on the cable, or the controller, the current charge status. You can use the Xbox dashboard to see the current charge status, but this does require you to turn on the Xbox in order to see the information.

The USB-C cable does have another difference, compared to the Micro-USB cable provided with the Xbox One. It is much thicker. One thing I did notice over the years of using the Xbox One, and the Xbox One S, is that the Micro USB cable would eventually fray and need to be replaced. I have owned three “Plug and Charge Kits” for the Xbox One. I would either buy a new one because the rechargeable battery would not hold a charge long enough or because the cable frayed. Since Micro USB is a standard I could have just purchased or used a standard cable, but the cables included in the “Plug and Charge Kit” was always a longer one, so I could, as the name suggests, plug in the controller and charge it simultaneously. Furthermore, it had the indicator light. So both of these items kept me purchasing the cords. The good thing about having purchased so many is that I now have a number of rechargeable batteries that can be used.

The thicker USB-C cable should provide a bit more reliability and the cable should not wear out as quickly. At least that is my hope. Again, since it is not a cable with any additional features, should it happen to break in the future, I can just order a new cable in the length I would like so that I will be able to continue charging the controller while playing. It would be nice to see Microsoft come out with a USB-C cable with a charging indicator. It was a nice feature to be able to easily see the charging status.

Even though the controller has USB-C, the console only has USB-A ports. There might be another reason why there are so many USB-A ports on the Xbox Series X, and that is backward compatibility.

Backward Compatibility

When gaming consoles first came to market, you would not have any expectation of being able to play games from another console on the current one, even if the consoles were from the same manufacturer. This was the way that gaming worked until approximately 20 years ago, when the Playstation 2 was released. The Playstation 2 allowed you to play games from the original Playstation. Microsoft did not have its own gaming console until November of 2001 with the introduction of the original Xbox, so it did not have to worry about supporting older games.. 

If Microsoft had been releasing its second console in 2001 instead of its first, they might not have included support for the original Xbox, and some may have been okay with that.. However, Microsoft’s second console did support backward compatibility.

Being able to support older console games is not as simple as snapping your fingers and having it function properly. Each game console is its own platform, has its own specifications and idiosyncrasies. Another reason this is not simple is due to the underlying platforms possibly being significantly different between console generations. 

For instance, the original Xbox console was built with parts that were similar to standard PCs. This was chosen because Microsoft knew PC parts quite well having worked on various operating systems that support the PC market for 15 years at that point. Whereas the Xbox 360 used an entirely different architecture. The Xbox 360 used an IBM Power-PC architecture. You would not be able to play games from the original Xbox on the Xbox 360, at least not without some additional work being done to support the functionality.

When the Xbox 360 was released it was announced that it would support some original Xbox games. This was possible due to technological advances that were made in the four years between the release of the original Xbox and the Xbox 360. In order to be able to run original Xbox games, the Xbox 360 would need to emulate the original Xbox’s software. 

Four Star Wars Games that are backward compatible on the Xbox Series X, from the original Xbox to the latest console.
Four Star Wars Games that are backward compatible on the Xbox Series X, from the original Xbox to the latest console.

When you do any sort of emulation, you will invariable see a loss of performance. Luckily, the Xbox 360 had enough power to be able to play the original Xbox games fast enough, even through emulation, that most users likely did not notice a difference.

When the Xbox One console was released in 2013, Microsoft had made some additional changes. Amongst these was the switch back to more standard PC-like hardware. This would allow the Xbox One to more easily emulate the original Xbox games, but with the different architecture would make it a bit more difficult. This is where the second change coms into play. That change was the way that the underlying Xbox operating system architecture had been changed. 

In the intervening eight years between the release of the Xbox 360, in 2005, and the Xbox One, in 2013, a new type of technology became more viable as a solution. That technology is what is called a hypervisor. A hypervisor allows you to run multiple operating systems simultaneously. If you have ever used some like VirtualBox, Parallels, or Microsoft’s Hyper-V, you are well aware of how you can run multiple operating systems on the same machine at the same time. This is how the Xbox One console functioned. The Xbox Dashboard was run in one virtual machine, while games were run in another. In fact, the Xbox 360 operating system would effectively virtualized, albeit with modifications, to allow the Xbox 360 games to run, even though the underlying architecture were different. The same approach continues to be the case with the Xbox Series X. 

These two changes, back to PC-like hardware and the transition to using a modified version of Microsoft’s Hyper-V, allowed backward compatibility to thrive. Since the architectures between the Xbox One and the original Xbox were similar, being able to run the original Xbox games would be expected. However, since the architectures differed between the Xbox One and the Xbox 360 so much, you might expect backward compatibility for those games to not be present. 

This is where the hypervisor comes in as well as the length of time between console releases. With the eight year difference the capabilities of the hardware improved significantly. Much like the Xbox 360, the Xbox One had enough spare processing power to be able to play the Xbox 360 games without much difference being noticed by the gamer, even when emulated. All of the Xbox 360 games that I have played on the Xbox One worked flawlessly and felt just as though they wee running on the Xbox 360.

Providing compatibility for software is core to Microsoft. However, the Xbox Series X introduces a new type of compatibility, and that is with some hardware. So, let us look at that compatibility next.

Hardware Backwards Compatibility 

Gaming is neither strictly personal nor strictly communal. It can be either one, or both at the same time. It is likely that you will end up playing a game with others from around the world, however your setup will likely be unique to you. One way that you can make gaming your own is by finding just the right controller. This could be a standard Xbox controller, or possibly even one from the Xbox Design Labs, or even a third-party controller. When you find the right controller you will likely want to be able to keep using it. Unfortunately, this has not been possible with previous generation changes.

When you think of Microsoft, you may think about their operating system, Windows, even though the have de-emphasized Windows in recent years, it still may come to mind. When you think about Microsoft Windows you might think about “backward compatibility”. If Windows has anything going for it, it is that it is highly backward compatible. As an example, if you installed Windows 7 in 2009, you could run software that was originally built for Windows 3.1, or even DOS. This type of compatibility is highly unusual.It appears that the desire for hardware backward compatibility has migrated to the Xbox Series X.

Typically when you buy a new gaming console you will get a new controller to go along with it, so you can play right out of the box. However, you may have to buy an additional controller, as well as all new accessories. While some may be compatible, it is possible that some will not. As was mentioned earlier, each time an Xbox console was introduced the previous generation’s controllers would not be compatible. What this would mean is that you would have to buy all new controllers and accessories. This is not necessarily the case if you were to upgrade to an Xbox Series X, or Xbox Series S, at least for controllers.

Original Xbox, Xbox One S, and Xbox Series X controllers
Original Xbox, Xbox One S, and Xbox Series X controllers

That is right, you are able to use your Xbox One controllers with the Xbox Series X. This is easy enough to do. It is as simple as pairing any other controller. You simply perform the following steps:

  1. On the Xbox Series X console, press the controller pairing button, which is on the front near the USB port. The on/off button of the Xbox Series X console should begin blinking.
  2. On the controller tap the pairing button on the top of the controller. This is next to the power port. The one/off button on the Xbox One Controller should begin blinking.

The two devices should begin pairing and once they have paired both on/off buttons will stop blinking and become solid. Once the devices have been paired, you can begin using your Xbox One controller with the Xbox Series X console. The controllers that you can pair are not just the Xbox One S controllers, or Xbox One X controllers,, but you can even pair an original Xbox One controller. This includes any of the stock controllers, Xbox Design Lab controllers, or even the Xbox Adaptive Controller.

There is one additional benefit that this ability has. Say that you are having a gaming party, but you do not have enough controllers. Now, with backward compatibility, you can ask your friends to bring their own Xbox One controllers so you can all play with a familiar controller.

The fact that all Xbox One controllers will work with the Xbox Series X is a great change to see. This is particularly true given that some users have already purchased some expensive controllers and want to keep using them. Let us now power on through to another accessory for the controllers.

Xbox Rechargeable Battery

Xbox Rechargeable Battery and USB C Cable box
Xbox Rechargeable Battery and USB C Cable box

Controllers since the Xbox 360 have had the ability to be used wirelessly. Even though the controllers can be wireless they need to be powered. This is possible by either using two standard AA batteries, or by using some rechargeable batteries. Microsoft does sell a rechargeable battery with an appropriate charging cable. They call this the Xbox Rechargeable battery. 

The kit for the Xbox Series X contains a rechargeable battery, which fits nicely inside the Xbox Series X controller as well as a USB-A to USB-C cable, so you can use the battery in your Xbox Series X controller . You do not need to use this specific set for the newer controllers. You can use the older version of this set, called the “Xbox One Plug and Charge Kit”. 

I like the Rechargeable Battery kits because they can charge while you play, provided you plug in the controller while the rechargeable battery is inserted into the controller. All batteries will degrade over time, so it is likely that you will need to replace the battery in a couple of years in order to be able to get the same amount of gameplay as when it was new.

Battery Life of the Controller

The battery life on the Xbox Rechargeable battery is quite amazing. I have had the Xbox Series X for about a month now and I have only had to charge the controller twice in that time. That means that I get approximately ten days to two weeks of game play time before needing to recharge. I do not always play the same amount of time eery day, it varies as you might expect. This is likely due to the rechargeable battery being new, but it is nice to not have to charge the controller every few days. 

My experience with Xbox Series X has not been all fun and games, although it has been mostly that. I have run into some issues while using the console. 

Problems

Xbox Series X on its side

As is the case with just about anything these days, I have experienced problems with the Xbox Series X. The biggest problems that I have experienced, has been the Xbox Series X freezing. And when it does freeze, the entire console just shuts down. Basically, it is a hard crash. This has happened in with more than one game, therefore it is not necessarily game-specific. I have even had this happen while scrolling through the user interface. I hope this is a transient issue that is fixed with a future update. 

I have not been the only one to experience this issue, there are others that have. Some indicate it is due to ray tracing, but that is game specific setting. I suspect it is actually due to airflow problems. I set my Xbox Series X on its side with the disc drive at the top of the, and with what I thought was enough airflow around the console. However, after I moved the Xbox into an area with a bit more airflow the issue has not re-arisen, at least as of this writing. 

Airflow through the Xbox Series X
Airflow through the Xbox Series X

I have also experienced crashes of games. For one game it would crash and when I realized it had crashed I would try to go back to the Xbox dashboard, but the Xbox dashboard would end up freezing. Eventually the game would actually crash and allow me to start it up again. Typically, the game took a minute or two to actually crash.

I know that this issue was not related to airflow, because I have experienced this after moving the Xbox. I do have automatic updates enabled for both game and system updates, so it is possible that these have already been fixed, and that they may not re-occur.

I know that developing software is not an easy task, and that any piece of software is going to have bugs. Sometimes these bugs do not manifest themselves until they are in the hands of users. Hopefully, no major issues come up during my usage of the console and I hope that these issues were just software related and not an issue with the hardware.

Closing Thoughts

When you unbox the Xbox Series X you will notice notice that it is indeed heavy for a gaming console. It comes in at 9.8 pounds, or 4.45 kilograms and it is rectangular in shape. Inside the box are the split motherboards, central cooling. Powering all of this is custom CPUs and custom GPUs that are capable of handling 12 trillion processes per second. To help handle the gaming, you get two different speeds of memory, 10 gigabytes of faster memory and 6 gigabytes of slower memory.

In order to store your games and media you get 1 terabyte of storage standard on the Xbox Series X. This storage is a powerful custom solid-state drive. This SSD is faster than a standard hard drive, but also due to the speed of the SSD, which uses the Non-Volatile Memory Express, or NVME, memory. This memory allows the console to be fast not only for launching titles, but also allows for faster load times while playing games. It will be interesting to see if Microsoft introduces even larger storage options for the Xbox Series X in the future, which could add to the longevity of the console.

Once you get past the initial setup and update, you can then begin playing. When you do begin playing you can play the most current games, like Watch Dogs: Legion, Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla, or even NBA 2K21. While at the same time, due to backward compatibility, you can play games from previous Xbox generations, including some games that were only available on the original Xbox console. It is still mind boggling to be able to play games that were released nearly 20 years ago, all as if it were on the original console. 

If you are upgrading from an Xbox One, you may get the game data that is optimized for your console. This is known as Smart Delivery and can allow you to save some space by not downloading unneeded data. Once you do upgrade, for newer games, there may be some new technologies that enhance the game. If the game supports Ray Tracing, you may be able to have even better game play with improved shadows including very realistic rendering of the shadows in real-time. If you have the proper television setup this can make for more immersive games.

You will most likely be playing with a controller. You can use the included Xbox Series X controller or you can use any Xbox One controller. This backward compatibility with hardware is a great addition that can protect your existing investment in Xbox One accessories. So if you really like that Xbox One Elite controller, you can use still use it with your new console.

Overall, I like the Xbox Series X thus far. In most cases, it is not easy to spot any difference between playing on my old Xbox One S and the Xbox Series X. The place I notice the most change is with the amount of time that it takes for some games to load. It is noticeably faster than the older consoles, particularly if you are coming from a console that has a 5400RPM spinning hard drive.

The Xbox Series X is a great platform for gamers. The inclusion of full 4K gaming allows the highest quality of gaming. Once you add High Dynamic Range, or HDR, in with the games you will have the latest and greatest technology available and this will provide you with the best gaming experience that you can get today.

As of this writing it is difficult to get an Xbox Series X, but availability should improve over the next few months. If you are looking to either get into the Xbox, or upgrade an existing Xbox One, you cannot go wrong with the Xbox Series X. It should prove to be a great console for years to come.

A Review of Watch Dogs: Legion

There are a variety of different types of games available. Some of these are puzzle games, others are action games, and some are classic card games. Bringing any game to market, no matter how big or small, is a major undertaking. Sometimes the game becomes a hit, sometimes it flops.

When you have a hit, there is a possibility that it will allow further games. In some cases, the entire story is a one-off and does not warrant a sequel, but sometimes you get a new series of games. No matter if it is a new intellectual property or another game in an existing franchise every game has a lifecycle to it. It goes from concept, to prototype, to active development, to actual release, or maintenance.

If a game sells well enough there may be a sequel, once you have at least two games you have a franchise. The first game in a series was released in 2014 called Watch Dogs. Watch Dogs was highly anticipated titled and I think it lived up to the hype. 

Watch_Dogs

In Watch Dogs, you play as Aiden Pearce, a brilliant hacker and former thug, whose criminal past led to a violent family tragedy. Now on the hunt for those who hurt your family, you’ll be able to monitor and hack all who surround you by manipulating everything connected to the city’s network. Access omnipresent security cameras, download personal information to locate a target, control traffic lights and public transportation to stop the enemy… and more.

Watch Dogs 2

Watch Dogs was not the last in the series. In 2016 the sequel, Watch Dogs 2, was released. In Watch Dogs 2, it’s 2016, ctOS 2.0, an advanced operating system networking city infrastructure, was implemented in several US cities to create a safer, more efficient metropolis. Play as Marcus Holloway, a brilliant young hacker living in the birthplace of the tech revolution, the San Francisco Bay Area. Team up with Dedsec, a notorious group of hackers, and expose the hidden dangers of ctOS 2.0, which, in the hands of corrupt corporations, is being wrongfully used to monitor and manipulate citizens on a massive scale.

I wrote up a review of Watch Dogs 2 in 2016, so be sure to check that out. Now, four years after the release of Watch Dogs 2 comes the third in the series, Watch Dogs: Legion, which is the topic of this review and provides some twists from what was in Watch Dogs and Watch Dogs 2.

Watch Dogs: Legion

Watch Dogs: Legion goes across the pond from the United States and places you in London, England. “London’s facing its downfall courtesy of state surveillance, private military, and organized crime. Recruit a well-rounded resistance to overthrow the wankers ruining this once-great city. The fate of London lies with you.”

Basic Story

The game starts off with you playing as Dolton Wolfe who is working with London’s branch of DedSec. DedSec finds that there are explosives set to go off at multiple places in London, including the Houses of Parliament. Wolfe tries to disable the bombs that are set to go off, Guy Fawkes style, and discovers that those trying to set off the bombs are part of a group calling themselves “Zero Day”.

Due to these bombs, the British government allows a company called Albion to take over and restore order to the streets of London. DedSec are being blamed and held responsible for the bombings, and therefore they are being targeted. It is your job to rebuild DedSec and help the city rise up against Albion, the criminals, and the government, and take back the streets of London.

Team

Team in Watch Dogs: Legion

When you start a Watch Dogs: Legion, you are able to pick your character from a selection of characters. Along with this you also get to choose a mask. The mask is what the character will don when they are either in a restricted area or in a fight. 

The original Watch Dogs game allowed you to hack anybody to obtain information about them and steal their money. This was not nearly as prevalent in Watch Dogs 2, but has made its way back to Watch Dogs: Legion, but with a twist. Instead of hacking someone to steal their money, you hack someone to see if they might be useful for your team. Each individual that you hack has some abilities, some may be good for your team, while others may not be as useful.

For instance, a character that I had allowed uniform access to Albion sites. This is great, except he would get hiccups, so this made him a bit more noticeable by others. Similarly, there are some characters who have gambling addictions and may randomly gamble ETO. ETO is money in Watch Dogs: Legion. Yet, other characters may be public figures so they will be noticed in public. There are even characters who will randomly die. I am not sure what happens if you have perma-death enabled, because I did not play with perma-death enabled, but more on that in a minute.

List of potential recruits in Watch Dogs Legion

Along with being able to find people throughout the city, some may be recommended recruits. When someone is recommended it is because you may be able to use them in an upcoming mission, or they may have one aspect that can help the team overall. This may be something like faster healing or reduced jail time.

Because you are able to recruit just about anyone, no two people will ever be able to play the exact same game. Yes, the missions may be the same, but the experiences will never be the exact same between two people due to the variety of teams, the team’s talents, and the approach they take to the game overall. There is one setting that was mentioned earlier that may change your game play experience, and that is a setting called “perma-death”.

Perma-Death

When you start the game you have a choice to make besides which character to choose. You have to choose whether or not enable a feature called “perma-death”. When enabled “perma-death” will cause any of your team members who are killed to be dead, permanently. This means that the player cannot be revived and cannot be played again. Once enabled, this cannot be disabled. similarly, once you have chosen to disable it, it cannot be re-enabled later.

Enabling perma-death can add an interesting twist on the game, but since you are able to recruit anybody, you can always recruit additional individuals should one of your characters die. I did not enable perma-death when I played through the game, but if I go through and play again at some point in the future, I may enable it.

Game Mechanics

Watch Dogs Legion has many similarities to the previous games in the series. One aspect of game play that continues within the game is needing to unlock areas by turning electrical lines. This has always been one of my favorite aspects of the Watch Dogs series and it continues in Watch Dogs: Legion. Although, it is not nearly as prevalent as in the previous games, but they still are present.

One detail that you might not think about for a game is the driving. Not that a developer would not take into account such a large aspect of a game, they would, but there has been careful attention paid to driving within Watch Dogs: Legion. Each different type of vehicle has its own driving and handling characteristics. Here is an example of driving a car.

For instance, a motorcycle handles differently than a luxury car, which handles different than the iconic double-decker bus (yes, you can drive one), and all of these handles differently than an Albion police car does. This attention to detail is a nice touch and choosing the right car may be able to to get you out of a sticky situation. Next, let us turn to a large aspect of the game, hacking.

Hacking

The biggest aspect to the Watch Dogs series is the idea of “hacking”. What you are hacking depends on the game. The original Watch Dogs game had the ability to hack people for their money, you could hack cameras, cars, and many other elements. The same held true in Watch Dogs 2. However, in Watch Dogs: Legion you are able to hack a lot more within London. You can hack people to recruit them, as mentioned above, however you can also hack other items.

These items include barriers, cars, and drones. There are a variety of different types of drones. The different types include:

  • Cargo Drones
  • ctOS Drones
  • Delivery Drones
  • Chase Drones
  • Riot Drones

You can perform a number of tasks on drones, including disabling them, hacking them, or betraying them. Disabling a drone will temporarily stop it from working. Hacking a drone allows you to take over the drone, which can be useful in some situations. When you betray a drone, it will autonomously operate on your behalf. This last option is not available for all drones, but only for those with weapons.

Along with the drones, you are also able to hack cars, causing them to go in a specific direction or just to crash so they are out of your way.

Hacking is still a major part of the game play, but it is not necessarily the primary means of completing the game. This may not be 100% true, because after a while having to hack things just became second nature again and faded into the background and just became habit.

Side Quests

Watch Dogs Legion has a main story line. Along with this, you can perform some side missions in order to obtain more items. These may be used to recruit team members or just to fill in the overall story line. 

When you hack a person to see if they might be a good fit for your team, you can save their information to recruit them later. When you recruit a person, you will have to perform a task for them before they will join your team. Some of these tasks are easier than others. Try not to fail when doing these, because the characters may hate you and then you can no longer recruit them. Luckily, since you can recruit just about anybody, you can find another similar character and recruit them instead.

There is one mission within the game that I would totally play an entire set of puzzles that were just flying the mini-drones through different levels.

Collectibles

Many games have different collectibles, and Watch Dogs Legion is no different. There are a few different types of collectibles. These include:

  • Paste ups
  • Relics
  • Text files
  • Audio files
  • Tech Points
  • ETO
  • Masks

Some of these are out in the open, while others require a bit more  ore ingenuity to figure out. Some of these items are also only available while within a mission.  None of these items are needed to complete the game, but obtaining some of them, like ETO and Tech Points will allow you to purchase items. Getting things like relics, text files, and audio files will help fill out the entire story. If you collect a relic, text file, or audio file, you can look at it in the menu.

Here is a video of what performing a “Paste Up” looks like. You can also see me do something stupid at the end of the video.

Tips

After you play a game you may find ways that you could have improved your game play. Now that I have finished the game, I have some tips for those who have not yet played it.

Tip 1: Early in the game, use auto drive. One of the things that you can do is grab a car and almost every vehicle has the ability to automatically take you to your destination. I recommend doing this early on so you can become accustomed to not only the layout of the city. Furthermore, when you drive in London, you drive on the left side of the road, not the right side. Therefore, auto drive may help you acclimate to driving on the left side oft the road and learn the rules of the road.

Tip 2: Recruit an Albion character. This will make things a lot easier during the game, particularly since many of the areas that you need to go into can be done stealthily with an Albion character.

Tip 3: Use stealth as much as possible. There are a number of tasks that do not require you to go all “run and gun” and instead, might be better completed by either hacking cameras or using a spider. Use these as much as possible.

Tip 4: Similar to using stealth, also use melee attacks as much as possible. Doing this may allow you to subdue an enemy without other enemies being alerted.  Here is a melee video as an example.

Tip 5: There is a mission where you must chase a van, get a tough vehicle, like an Albion Hummer and use that to tip the van. It will make completing the job significantly easier. Also, use the drones that attack during that mission to your advantage.

Tip 6: If the game says “you are no longer online”, quit the game and restart. Anything you do will not be saved and you will be wasting your time.

The last tip brings us to the next section, issues that I ran into while playing.

Problems with the Game

No modern software, let alone a large game, is 100% bug free. Bugs are to be expected. Even so, I ran into some pretty severe problems with the game while playing it.

The first issue that I experienced was the game randomly crashing. The game would just randomly freeze and crash. 

Of course, when a game crashed progress that I would have made would not be saved. Sometimes, this was just a minor annoyance, but more often than not, it was a bigger issue.

The biggest issue I ran across was that the game would not save my progress. I do not mean that I would die and would have to go back. What I mean is that I would do a lot of work in the game and the game would crash.

The biggest one of these was when I was working on the last main mission, literally at the end of the game, and the game froze. Not only did it not save that mission, I lost SIX MISSIONS worth of progress. I had to redo six missions to get back to where I was.

THIS IS ABSOLUTELY UNACCEPTABLE. Losing progress for a single mission, or one leg of a mission, is one thing. But having to redo multiple missions is just hostile. Ubisoft needs to have more robust saving system where the game is saved locally and then uploaded to their servers. If this is how it actually works, then it is absolutely broken. If not, then this is how it should work.

Besides the pervasive not saving progress issue, I also ran across some other bugs. For instance, I took down a person who had an access card, but they fell into a column. When this happened, I could not hack the access code, therefore I could not access the area that the card opened up. As proof, here is a photo of the character in the column.

Bug in Watch Dogs: Legion where a character is stuck in a column.

Another example of that is this video where I tossed a spiderbot onto a building and it got stuck.

Another bug that I ran into, literally, is where I tried to turn the corner on the balcony of a building and the only thing that happened is that I was stopped. It was like a barrier extended beyond where it should. Here is the video showing what I experienced.

Here is another bug that I ran across, a missing person that I was supposed to rescue. I was able to rescue them, but it is still odd to not have the character show at all. Here is the video for that.

These last few items were minor annoyances and did not really affect game play all that much. The inability to get the access card did cause me to have to leave the area completely and come back to that spot later on. As you can see from the video, I was able to get around the invisible barrier, but it still should not have been there.

Closing Thoughts

When the original Watch Dogs game as first announced, I was immediately intrigued. Not only because of the unique hacking of the game, which was the primary draw, but also because it was based in Chicago. 

When Watch Dogs 2 was announced and released, I knew it was a game I would instantly buy and play, because it continued the same type of game. When I heard that Watch Dogs: Legion was going to be set in London, I knew I would going to buy it, but I was a bit apprehensive because I was unsure about how the “recruit anybody” mechanism would work. 

The game is really good. The fact that it is based in London is what really grabbed me. I have only ever visited London once, but I really want to to back. Maybe one day. The Watch Dogs series of games are some of my favorites, not only for the story lines, but for the actual game play. 

If you enjoyed the original Watch Dogs or Watch Dogs 2, I would absolutely recommend you pick up Watch Dogs: Legion. The new recruitment within the game is a nice twist on standard game play, as is the ability to do just about anything within the game.

Even though there are issues with the game, like the crashing and lost progress, the game is still worth playing and an enjoyable game. All of this is before the first expansions for the game are available, so even just for the core game, it is one that you should look into getting.

Here is a group of photos taken from within the game.

A picture taken of the moon in Watch Dogs: Legion
A picture taken of the moon.
The Millennium Wheel in Watch Dogs: Legion
The Millennium Wheel
The Parliament Building with Big Ben in Watch Dogs: Legion
Tower Hill in Watch Dogs: Legion
Tower Hill
The Tower Bridge in Watch Dogs: Legion
The Tower Bridge