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    The Living Room PC, Part 1: No Keyboard, No Mouse, No Problem

    There are plenty of good reasons to have a PC hooked up to your TV. Maybe you have a really small place and don't have room for both a desk area and a TV area. Maybe you have a large media collection on your computer and don't want to buy a separate device to stream that media to your TV.

    Maybe you're a cable cutter, or maybe your HTPC is your cable box. Maybe you'd rather game on a fully armed and operational PC instead of an eight-year-old console. Whatever the reason, you need to get the picture from your PC to your TV, and then control the PC from the couch. Since this is such a big topic, I'm splitting it into two parts. Today's guide is to discuss everything except gaming with a mouse and keyboard, and the second part is, well, that. The first part is a lot more forgiving, and the second part...may not have any good solutions.

    Photo credit: Flickr user doggie52 via Creative Commons.

    For the purposes of this article, I'm going to assume that you want to use your living room PC for gaming and media, rather than productivity.

    Getting The Picture (and The Sound)

    If you just want access to the stuff on your PC, you can use DLNA or UPnP from an Xbox 360, PS3, or any of a number of other devices (although the PS3 and Xbox 360 are picky about what codecs and containers they'll accept), or even from your TV screen itself. My official recommendation is to use Plex Media Server and a Roku 3. But if you want to view your actual desktop from your TV, you have a couple of options.

    The easiest way to get picture and sound from your PC to your TV is via HDMI. Why HDMI? Well, all modern HDTVs have HDMI support, and your PC should have either HDMI or DVI, which can be converted to HDMI via an inexpensive cable. If you've hooking up to a TV rather than a monitor, though, It's better to use HDMI, so you can pass digital audio over the same connection. If you do DVI to HDMI, you'll also need to pass audio to your TV or receiver--ideally via digital optical cable.

    Modern graphics cards from Nvidia and AMD can output protected digital 7.1 surround sound over HDMI, including DTS-HD and Dolby TrueHD, so all the digital-to-analog conversion can be done by your receiver--avoiding the need for a dedicated sound card if you have a receiver that supports these codecs.

    But in my case, I don't have a receiver.

    The Best Kitchen Trash Bag

    The best trash bag for hauling garbage that is heavy or sharp or simply kitchen detritus is the Glad Tall Kitchen drawstring bag (labeled “Stronger with Less Plastic”). It’s the favorite of Consumer Reports and Good Housekeeping and consistently stood up to our testing, holding vastly more weight and demonstrating more resistance to rips and tears than other trash bags.

    What You Need In A Trash Bag

    Trash bags have one job: to move garbage from your hand to the dump while keeping it off the floor.

    You can buy trash bags with all kinds of neat features but the most important thing is durability. All the odor-blocking technology in the world won’t matter if 10 pounds of dirty diapers are scattered on your living room floor. Trash bags need to be able to carry as much weight as possible without breaking. Likewise, they need to be able to stand up to sharp objects, like the occasional broken coffee mug or sharp box corner.

    Cost isn’t a major factor. Most garbage bags cost between seven and twenty-five cents apiece. Even if you used one bag every day for a year, the cost difference between those extremes is only about $66. If you’ve ever had to clean up a mix of cat litter, coffee grounds, dirty diapers and leftover soup from your floor, you know that you’d probably pay someone $66 just to never have to do that again.

    Photo credit: Flickr user kengikat via Creative Commons.

    Nor are odor-blocking features a real factor. Let’s be honest: no amount of baking soda or chemical treatments are going to make a rotten head of garlic or a bulging container of spoiled milk smell better than taking them out as soon as possible. (And you can always dust the inside of your bags with some inexpensive baking soda.)

    You might say you’d like a greener solution. Well, in that case, your best bet is to recycle and compost—and that’s a whole other guide. You can buy “biodegradable” bags, but they’re a waste. Here’s the problem: for even biodegradable plastic to break down, it needs sunlight and fresh air, neither of which can be found in the depths of a landfill. Even better, while “compostable” bags are a disappointment, the Glad bag we choose is environmentally friendlier than most. Per Consumer Reports, “The Glad bag is advertised as using less plastic, based on thickness: Its maker says the top section is 0.95 mils thick; the rest, 0.78 mils thick. Most other bags are about 0.9 mils throughout.”

    The Best Dash Cam For Your Car Costs $60

    If I were buying a dash cam, I would buy the DVR-027. After over 20 hours of research, several hours of hands-on testing, and interviews with DashCamTalk.com’s founder DashCam Man (who asked to remain anonymous) and Andrew Lam, head of CarCamCentral.com, I think it’s the best video recorder for most drivers. You can get one for around $60.

    Why Use A Dash Cam?

    If you’re reading this, you’ve probably seen the meteor and accident footage shot by Russian drivers. As WIRED explains, drivers in Russia and elsewhere use dash cams to have legal evidence to protect them from getting swindled. In a place like Russia (or anywhere with flawed or difficult legal systems) there’s the potential for depraved drivers to, for example, back into your front end and claim that you rear-ended them. With a camera rolling, you have proof of the grift. With globalization and the quick shrinking of technology, dash cams are cheap and reliable enough to be a worthwhile buy for anyone who drives often and wants some extra security.

    Night Vision, Motion Detection, And Memory Management (A.K.A. What To Look For)

    Good dash cams have a few key features that make them easy enough to use every day, ideally without interrupting your driving routine. You can circumvent the daily process of connecting the cam into your car’s 12-volt plug by hard-wiring your dash cam to your car. This costs $30 and a trip to a Best Buy with an auto center or your local indie car stereo shop. If you do this, the dash cam will fire up with the car and start recording automatically. That’s the idea—to have a dash cam that you can ignore until you need the footage.

    When it comes to storing footage, most cams record to SD cards, which have storage up to the 32 GB range—most models don’t come with a card, so you’ll need to buy one separately. Two minutes of high definition video will take up about 100 MB of memory, so you don’t have to worry about lack of storage.

    Good models, like our pick, have a special feature: once they fill the memory card, they automatically loop back and start recording at the beginning of the card over the old content. That way, you don’t need to worry about deleting the old, unimportant files of video of a drive to the grocery store without incident. This automatic file management, along with automatic recording on startup, are what make a dedicated camera a much better option than using something that needs to be reset every time, like a smartphone or a GoPro.

    The Best iPhone 5 Battery Case is the Lenmar Meridian

    If you need a battery pack case for your iPhone 5, there are a handful of options that are Apple-approved -- meaning, their charging technology will continue to work throughout multiple software updates. We like the Lenmar Meridian the best because it can take a dead iPhone 5 to full charge with its class leading 2300MAh power rating, is easy to attach and remove, and is simple to operate.

    Why A Battery Case?

    Battery cases give you a thin, unobtrusive backup power source built right into the case. The design is easier to carry than external battery packs that require you to haul a charge cable around with you, but what you gain in portability over an external battery pack, you lose in charge capacity. For example, the Satechi Energy Station 10,000, which is our pick for best external battery, has almost seven times the charge capacity of the popular Mophie Juice Pack Helium. But if you consistently run your iPhone battery dry before the day is through and don’t want the hassle of plugging into an external battery pack, these cases are your only option.

    Amazon is full of obscure brands with iPhone 5 battery cases, but we wouldn’t buy anything that’s not Apple-approved. Nick Guy, iPhone case guru at iLounge, and best iPhone/iPad case reviewer in the world, explained it to me: “I’m 99.9% certain none of [the no-name models] are licensed. I think in general it’s better to stick with something that won’t potentially stop working.” We wouldn’t gamble $70-plus on an unlicensed model and as such, we didn’t bother considering any that did not explicitly mention that they were “Made for iPhone”, “Apple Approved” or something similar.

    Know Your Arduino: A Practical Guide to The Most Common Boards

    Arduino is, as I’ve written about before, a great hardware platform for anyone interested in building almost any sort of homebrew electronics project. One of the best things about it is that it’s undergoing constant innovation. There are dozens of different Arduino boards on the market, so you can find the perfect hardware for any kind of project you’re working on.

    Unfortunately, that same huge selection of Arduino boards can make it hard for a beginner to get started with the platform. On the official site alone, there are almost 20 current- or last-gen Arduino boards listed, and there are dozens more unofficial boards for sale on other sites. Picking the one that's exactly what you need is daunting—especially if you're not familiar with the vocab used to describe the various microcontrollers and boards.

    To help make the process a little easier, I'm going to look at the most common Arduino boards on the market right now, and I'll explain how to distinguish between them.

    There are three broad ways to differentiate the various Arduino boards. The first is to look at the board’s processing capabilities—the microcontroller’s memory, clockspeed, and bandwidth. The processing hardware is generally entirely determined by which microcontroller chip the board uses, and constrains what kinds of software can run on that board.

    The second way to differentiate between the boards is their feature set. This includes all the stuff on the board other than the microcontroller, such as input and output pins, built-in hardware like buttons and LEDs, and the interfaces available on the board (USB, Ethernet, etc).

    Finally, because Arduino is meant to be built into physical projects, form factor is very important. Arduino comes a variety of shapes and sizes.

    With all that out of the way, let’s look at the boards you're most likely to want to use in your project (as of June 2013). I’ll break down the distinguishing characteristics and features of each model, as well as what kind of project that board is best for.

    How To Buy RAM For Your Next PC

    As I said in my very first PC building story, I think 8GB is the sweet spot for RAM right now, across AMD and Intel platforms. To quote that post:

    "RAM is cheap these days. 8GB is plenty for gaming, and an 8GB kit of DDR3/1600 costs around $40. There’s no need to cut corners farther than that. Get a kit with two 4GB sticks, so you can utilize dual-channel mode on your motherboard. You’ll be able to add another 2 x 4GB kit later, or even a 2 x 8GB kit, as you’ll be getting a motherboard with four RAM slots. That’ll let you upgrade to 24GB of RAM before you even consider tossing the RAM you have."

    I could stop this guide right there, but it bears fleshing out a little bit. So we'll take it step by step: first we'll talk about how much RAM you need, then what speed. We'll dip into multi-channel mode, speeds and timings, and making sure your RAM works well with your system. Don't worry--we'll talk about the just-announced Haswell chipset from Intel, too.

    Photo credit: Flickr user jjackowski via Creative Commons.

    Eight Is Enough (For Now)

    Why 8GB? I'd consider 4GB the rock-bottom, barrel-scraping minimum amount of RAM necessary to run a modern computer--say, an ultrabook--in such a way that it doesn't usually feel like it's getting hung up on everyday tasks. Even then, I'd try my damnedest to get more RAM. But if you're building a desktop, it's likely because you want more computing power than you get from an ultrabook--either for gaming or some other high-performance task. 8GB is enough for even very intensive games, though video editors, programmers, and people who do a lot of memory-intensive work will want more RAM. 8GB is a good starting point, and you can build from there if you find it isn't enough.

    Just by way of comparison, here's my PC using 4GB of RAM while only running CrashPlan, Dropbox, Rdio, and about 15 Chrome tabs (including several Google Docs tabs). Imagine if that's all the RAM you had to work with.

    For most general-purpose and gaming rigs, 8GB is the price/performance sweet spot, and this is likely to remain the case with the next generation of AMD and Intel chipsets as well.

    Interestingly, DDR3 prices have gone up in the past few months: A good 8GB DDR3/1600 kit now costs around $60, rather than the $40 it cost when I wrote my first column in December. Acer's JT Wang says it's because DRAM factories are prioritizing smartphone DRAM over desktop DRAM.

    How To Make Animated GIFs Incredibly Easily with GifCam 2.0

    Making a great animated GIF is an art form. Or it's a science. Either way, it's often a ton of work--editing GIFs is awkward in Photoshop and GIMP, and making a GIF from a video usually requires editing footage down into a small clip and importing that clip into dedicated GIF-making software. It's a pain, and GifCam is the cure. If this little app isn't already the de facto GIF-making software on the Internet, it probably will be soon.

    GifCam is about as straightforward as a piece of software can be, and it just hit a 2.0 release on June 3, which makes it even better. Let's run through the basics before getting into the new features. And this is a good time to point out that GifCam is a Windows-only app, but it is free. There's not even an installer--just an EXE, which you can grab here.

    GifCam essentially works like a screen recorder--you drag the window over a section of your desktop, resize it as you see fit, and press record. Want to turn a Youtube video into a GIF? Drag the box on top of the browser, click play, and click record. The record button's right-side drop-down menu also offers the choice between the default 10 fps, an intermediate 16fps or a high-speed 33 fps.

    Now, chances are you'll end up with a few frames at the beginning or the end you don't want in the GIF. Maybe you want it to loop more seamlessly. GifCam's Edit button brings up a horizontally scrolling window of each frame in your new GIF-to-be.

    Here you're given a few options.

    How To Test a Gaming Mouse for Tracking Accuracy

    Let's start with a simple question: how accurate is your gaming mouse? If your answer is in terms of DPI--maybe the number you've read off the side of the mouse' package--you're omitting a lot of attributes and variables that affect the accuracy and performance of a typical mouse. That's part of the reason it's difficult to objectively evaluate a gaming mouse. So much of user experience lies in subjective factors: the physical sculpting and weight of a mouse, your preference for button surface textures, etc. These are the things that you notice immediately and affect your day-to-day use, while sensor quality more often than not just has to pass a threshold of acceptable responsiveness and accuracy for non-professional gamers.

    When I visited Logitech's Borel Innovation Center facility last week, I spoke with the company's engineers about the process of designing a gaming mouse and learned about the tracking variables that they care about when testing mouse accuracy.

    Full disclosure: Logitech paid for my trip to their laboratories in Lausanne, Switzerland, but we were under no obligation to produce video or write about anything I saw there. The information I learned from Logitech's engineers is genuinely interesting to me from both a consumer and product reviewer's perspective, and the insights about mouse tracking variables are applicable any gaming mouse, whether it's made by Logitech or a competitor.

    Living with Photography: "The Mechanical Prophylactic"

    Apologies if the title of this week's column is a little crude--it's attributed to Ken Rockwell, a no-nonsense photographer who gives very useful practical advice about gear and techniques on his site. In this case, Rockwell was referring to a UV lens filter for DSLRs, which he says doesn't have any optical benefits for today's cameras. It's a topic we've broached before--whether or not a UV filter is necessary at all. Photographers are split into two camps in this debate.

    The first camp believes that UV filters not only are optically useless, but unnecessarily degrade the quality of your images. Putting a piece of flat glass, no matter its build quality, on top of a $2000 lens is going to affect the quality of light hitting the sensor. UV filters were originally designed to block out wavelengths of light that can't be perceived by the human eye, but affect film. Ultraviolet light on film can leave a haze effect and reduce contrast, but this effect doesn't apply to modern digital cameras, which compensate for UV in the sensor and image processor. So for DSLRs, the purpose of UV filter is now primarily to protect the front element of the lens from any potential damage. In fact, when you buy a UV filter from a company like Tiffen, the image on the box shows a cracked lens--the manufacturer doesn't hide behind the fact that UV filters aren't really for UV protection.

    But damage protection is exactly what the second camp feels is necessary about using a filter. That extra insurance against dropping a lens element-first into the ground warrants what they consider negligible image quality loss, which makes sense if the camera is being used for web photos or is equipment on loan, like shared office equipment. UV filter users believe that lens resale value is higher with a UV lens, too. It's the photography equivalent of putting a plastic screen cover on your new smartphone.

    With my two lenses, I wanted to see for myself not only if having a lens filter/protector significantly affected photo quality, but also if there were any noticeable differences between a cheap UV filter and a more expensive one. I bought two filters to test: a dirt cheap $9 Tiffen UV filter, and an expensive $70 B+W UV filter with "multi-resistant coating". But as of today, I'm ditching the Tiffen filter and going to use the B+W filter on new lenses.

    How Important is Coffee Brew Water Temperature?

    Santa Cruz-based Verve Coffee Roasters examines the importance of precise water brewing temperature for coffee extraction. Water boils at 212 degrees F, and we've recommended waiting for the water to cool to between 195 and 205 degrees before pouring on your grounds. Verve's testing shows that waiting 30 seconds before pouring doesn't significantly affect temperature--preheating your brewing vessel has more of an effect. The video concludes with some practical advice: water temperature is important for brewing coffee, but it's not something you should freak out about. (Thanks for the tip, Josh!)

    The Best $150 Over-Ear Headphones

    If you are looking to buy over-ear headphones for about $150, the Sony MDR-7506 are the pair I would buy. After researching literally every pair of over-ears in this range available (old and new), reading countless professional reviews, Amazon reviews, and conducting an actual listening panel consisting of audio professionals and lay-people, the Sony MDR-7506 are the clear winner. Not only did they finish first in our tests, they are also built to last, and are the least expensive (by a lot!).

    Photo credit: Flickr user flavouz via Creative Commons.

    Why $150? Why Over-ears?

    This price range and headphone design is made for someone who is looking for a first purchase to immerse themselves in their listening experience. Over-ears should close out ambient sound, and a good pair at this price level should create a clear, balanced sound that accurately represents what the recording artist (be it music, movie, or game sound designer) intended. They should be built relatively solidly, and last for years. And at this price level, you can feel comfortable taking them for a walk, on the subway, or relax at home.

    The Volpin Project, Part 9: The Casting Process

    We’ve now burned through a few gallons of very expensive silicone rubber to make molds of every one of the Halo Reach Needler prop's 12 individual parts. There are a bunch of Needler-shaped cavities that need to be filled with something, and in a similar theme to making the molds themselves, there’s a variety of ways to go about doing so.

    Techniques and materials will vary depending on the final use of the piece, but for the purposes of this tutorial we’ll be concentrating on urethane casting resin and leaving out other plastics such as epoxy or polyester. I’ll cover solid casts, hollow parts, and translucent/clear pieces as well.

    The most basic parts to be made will be the solid pour castings. For these parts I’ll be using Smooth-On’s product “Smooth Cast 320” and the detail bit that sits underneath the upper casing will be used as an example (apologies for the process photo, I didn’t have a shot of the completed master before molding.)

    The initial step after removing your master part from the mold will be to apply a powder layer to all facing edges of the mold. Personally I use baby powder, but I have heard other propmakers use talcum as well. This may seem like an odd step, but this will help reduce bubbles in the finished part. You can think of the thin layer of powder like a paper towel over a spilled drink. Just like a napkin will wick up moisture, a thin coat of powder in your mold will allow the resin to flow more easily into detail edges. What you’re working against here is the surface tension of the liquid, which will have a more difficult time seeping into detail areas without this step.

    The Best Waterproof iPhone Case

    Rather than risk losing your iPhone, we think a true waterproof camera or a GoPro or a waterproof camera is the best way to get photos in the water. But if you have to protect yours from impact, liquid and dust, the best tough waterproof iPhone case, overall, is the $80 Incipio Atlas.

    We think the Incipio is the most well rounded phone case, more secure yet just as slim as last year’s favorite.

    It has a depth rating of 6 feet, but was among the driest in our endurance pool tests when many others simply flooded. It even has a 1-year warranty against water damage to your phone.

    But we also have a pick for a sport camera case to turn your smartphone into a quasi-GoPro action sports camera. And finally, I recommend a serious dive case for an iPhone that can go to over 100 feet of depth.

    Why You Should Believe Us (and How We Tested)

    My editor Brian Lam helped me test this case and the competition in Mexico and Indonesia, as well as the ocean and a pool in Hawaii. As an ocean exploration journalist and founder of the Wirecutter, I don’t think any technology writer is as equipped to test these cases as he is.

    He lives in Honolulu and tested all of these cases by verifying their seals were dust free and by swimming a half mile in open water dragging them behind him and roughing them up up to 10 feet underwater during freedives. He also kept them in a pool overnight at six feet of depth, to challenge their seals over time–most cases are only rated for an hour at their given depth so this is a really great way to test minor design flaws that would expose them over time or keep them from going deeper than their rated spec in case you needed to drop down for a moment. He also tested the deep dive case on an expedition as a fellow with MacGillivray Freeman films in Indonesia, to 80 feet.

    For non-water sports, ruggedness, shock absorbing designs and materials as well as build quality was factored in. For action sports camera cases, meant to take a smartphone and transform them into a GoPro kind of camera, things like accessories (mounting options) were also important.

    How To Back Up Your Data (and Access The Important Stuff Anywhere)

    One of the most interesting messages Google tries to get across in its Chromebook campaign is the idea that the hardware is disposable. If your Chromebook falls into a volcano or gets run over or stolen, you're out the cost of the hardware, but that's it. You don't lose any data, and the crook/volcano god doesn't get access to it either. All you have to do is grab a new Chromebook (or any PC that can run the Chrome browser) log in, and you're back in business.

    Photo credit: Alex Washburn/Wired via Creative Commons.

    Most of us can't use a Chromebook full-time. We use programs that don't yet run in a web browser, we play games that require local asset files and don't sync to the cloud, and we have a lot of data we need to hold onto--more than will fit onto a few lousy gigabytes of local storage. But we can take a page from the Chromebook, as it were, and make our data resilient and flexible--resilient, so a hardware loss doesn't mean data loss, and flexible, so that we can pick up pretty much any computer with an Internet connection and be able to work. After all, if you lose your Chromebook, you don't need to find another Chromebook to access your data; you just need to log in to your Google Account from anywhere.

    In order to get Chromebook-level data security on our "real" computers, we need two things: good backup software, and good syncing software. All of your data deserves to be backed up, but not all of it needs to be immediately accessible. With a good backup, your data is safe, and with a good sync setup, you can have near-instant access to whatever subset of that data you deem worthy. The good news is that this is now really easy.

    I'm not just idly pontificating; I just did some spring cleaning, including a clean Windows install on my desktop, and this is how I prepared, backed up, and synced my data.

    Note that this guide is written from the perspective of a Windows user, but the main points are valid for Linux and Mac OS X users as well.

    The Volpin Project, Part 8: More Complex Moldmaking

    Last time, we covered the basics of simple block-style moldmaking. While this technique is versatile and can produce very good results, it’s often not the best solution for molding complex or larger parts. The Halo Needler prop has many parts both complex and large, so we’ll need to look into other methods. But first, a little show off of the completed master sculpts all sitting pretty. Now I just need to make copies of everything!

    I’m going to use the upper casing as the test mule here for showcasing a technique called “brush-on” moldmaking. The basic premise is gradually building up layers of silicone onto a part until the desired mold thickness is achieved. It’s a bit more complicated than just slathering some rubber on though, so let’s take a look at the individual steps.

    First off, you need to determine if your master part will need to be molded in sections; and if so, where should the seam line be positioned. There is a significant amount of spatial organization to consider - most notably where will seam lines be the easiest to conceal and clean up later - but also things like how easily the parts will be to de-mold and how the mold will be disassembled and reassembled after use. For this upper casing, I chose to follow the lower seam line around the base of the part, then follow this hard edge line up the front. Any seam lines will be easy to sand off in these areas, and the resulting silicone mold parts will be easy to remove from the cast part. I also added a section of ¾” PVC conduit to act as a pour spout. This area will be covered up by another part after assembly, so we don’t have to worry about losing any detail here. Non-sulfur clay is used to create the parting seam, and small indentations (registration keys, as we learned last time!) are marked into the clay.

    Tap Emergency Power from a Phone Line

    Make Magazine's Jason Poel Smith demonstrates this nifty hack to tap into the power of a phone line. Even during blackouts, there is a small amount of power that flows through some traditional land lines, which is maintained independently of the electric company. Smith shows how manipulate RJ11 wiring with a voltage regulator circuit so that a smartphone can safely access some of that power to make an emergency call. Pocket this one under "MacGyver plot devices," Hollywood screenwriters.

    Recommended Essential Camera Cleaning Gear

    So you’ve bought an SLR or Mirrorless camera. You’ve got your first few lenses. And you’ve started taking some really interesting photographs. Congrats, that’s awesome! Now we just need to get you sorted out with the stuff you should have to keep all your gear in good condition, so that you can keep on shooting without trouble.

    Photography isn’t a sterile business. Unless you’re shooting in a studio at all times, dust, mist, mud, rain, sea spray, and all manner of other outdoors filth can easily get on your camera. And lets not forget how easily oil from our fingers can smudge a lens. So with this gear guide, you should be set up to clean any problematic dirt that gets on (or in) your camera.

    Photo credit: Flickr user tiagoafpereira via Creative Commons.

    For cleaning the front element of your lens, and a rare scrubdown of your sensor, we recommend the $9 Giotto’s Rocket Air Blaster, a $6 Lenspen, a $10 set of PEC-PADS, a $12 vial of Eclipse Cleaner, and if you need to get into your sensor, a $35 set of Sensor Swabs. Between these different cleaning products, you should be able to keep your images spotless.

    Best Practices

    You know how it goes. An ounce of prevention and all that. The first thing you can do to prevent your lenses from getting dirty and scratched, and your sensor from getting dusty, is to take some basic steps to keeping everything from getting gross in the first place.

    For your lenses, keep the lenscap and rear cap on them when not in use. It’s also worth putting a basic UV filter on the front of your lenses, so that if the worst should happen and it gets damaged, it’s a filter that bears it, and not the lens. The downside of this is that it’s adding an extra element to the lens, and so gives an opportunity for image quality to drop, specifically in terms of getting more lens flare and color fringing. A good general purpose brand for this is Hoya, who offer filters that range from $15 up to more than $100, depending on how much lens quality you’re trying to preserve.

    Photo credit: Flickr user so_wrong_its_kelly via Creative Commons.

    Also, don’t do that thing where you breath on the lens, and then wipe it with your shirt. That’s a really bad idea. Nikon used to specifically recommend against breathing on your lens as they claimed your breath might hurt the lens coating (though the support page no longer says that). What’s probably much more of an issue is what’s on the edge of your shirt that you’re rubbing into the glass. That’s a very easy way to scrape the hell out of your lens.

    Be as quick as possible when swapping out lenses, so that the internals of your camera are exposed to dust and air as little as possible. If your camera has a built-in sensor cleaning tool, see if you can’t set it up to run every time you turn the thing on or off, that way it’ll shake loose any gunk that gets on quickly.

    See? Easy.

    Worklog: Arduino-Controlled Pantry LED Lighting

    I have a pantry that isn’t particularly well lit. In fact, it would be safe to say that it’s very poorly lit. It’s deep and narrow, which makes it really hard to see the stuff in the back and even harder to reach back there. Over the years, we’ve tried adding those cheap stick on LED lights to the underside of the shelves—you know, the ones that turn on automatically when they detect light--but the pantry is so dark that those lights don’t turn on reliably. Even when they do turn on, they don't add enough light to be useful.

    Enter LED strip lighting. For about $15, you can buy a strip of warm white LEDs on a long strip that’s part conductor, part mounting surface. It would have been pretty easy to wire up a few strips of LED lights, and hook them up to a simple circuit controlled by a microswitch that was triggered when my pantry door opens or closes. But once I looked into adding a microcontroller to the mix, I figured it was time to learn more about Arduino.

    I didn't need anything as complex as the individually addressable RGB strip lights Alex showed us a month or so ago, but I did want more than I could do with a simple switch. Instead of using a mechanical switch that would require installation and wear out over time, I wanted something that would work through the floor. Power isn’t a problem—I happen to have a handful of power outlets in the crawlspace directly under the pantry (the entry to my house’s crawlspace and the home run for my home network are both beneath the pantry, so I have power for the Ethernet switch that lives down there). Once I decided to use a microcontroller, I wanted the lights to gradually brighten when the door opens, instead of just blasting on at full power. I didn’t say I had anything vital to do with the microcontroller, sometimes it's the small things.

    The Best Android Smartphone for Your Network (April 2013)

    The next-generation Android phones are upon us, and anyone that’s been itching for an upgrade should be sitting at attention. It’s going to be a tough decision between top devices from the likes HTC and Samsung, but let’s take a closer look at what makes the most sense on each network. This is your chance to get a phone you’re going to be happy with for the next year or two, so you’ll want to cover all your bases.

    Photo credit: Flickr user learnkids2003 via Creative Commons

    This month Verizon takes its time, Sprint catches up, and T-Mobile keeps being different.

    Three Behind-the-Scenes Reasons to Jailbreak Your iPhone

    A few months ago, when the evasi0n jailbreak for iOS 6 devices was released, I quietly jailbroke an iOS device for the first time since before iPhone OS 2.0 was released. Using the evasi0n makes jailbreaking simple for any device running a supported versions of iOS. While jailbreaking is easier, keeping an iOS device jaillbroken can be a little tricky--it's important to avoid iOS updates until they've been cleared by the maker of your jailbreak tool. Why wait so long to jailbreak? Quite simply, I hadn't seen anything worth the hassle. I'm not interested in the instability that typically comes with major UI modifications and I didn't need any of the underlying changes to iOS that a jailbreak can enable.

    That's all changed over the last year. As I've shifted away from using Apple's default web browser, mail client, and maps app, I finally found a good enough reason to bother with jailbreaking on iOS. And once the jailbreak was done, getting Siri to talk use Google Maps for voice navigation and having quick access to Google Now was icing on my jailbroken cake.