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    Living with Photography: Shooting San Diego Comic-Con

    So how about those cosplay photos? Today marks the culmination of months of anticipation/trepidation, planning, and photography practice to bring you guys my favorite Comic-Con cosplay gallery yet. Earlier this year, I wrote about how taking cosplay photos at conventions was basically my on-location schooling for learning DSLR photography, starting with my time fumbling with a Canon 40D at Maximum PC. It's something I take pride in, not because all of my photos have been good--but because these thousands of photos are a visual timeline of my evolution as a hobbyist photographer (someone on the forums generously called me a gifted amateur), with each year's Comic-Con a milestone for checking in on personal growth. To look back and scoff at my past years' photographs is a wonderful feeling, and I can't wait to look back on this year's photos in 2014 and hopefully feel markedly improved (maybe I'll even start using a flash!).

    Photo credit: Nathan Buxton

    But let's talk about gear and techniques, since at this point, my process for every con is a departure from the last. Last year's Comic-Con was shot with the Sony NEX-C3 compact mirrorless camera, when I was still shooting only with JPEGs. WonderCon in March was shot with my then-new Canon 6D, using two lenses: a 17-40mm f/4 wide-angle lens and a 50mm f/1.4 Sigma prime lens. I lugged my gear around in an InCase DSLR Pro backpack (still my current daypack), which I found to be a little bit too big for maneuverability on the convention floor. Putting the bag down to swap lenses took more time than I anticipated, and I felt uncomfortable holding up a cosplayer to snap more photos while they had somewhere to go. The plan for Comic-Con--a much larger and denser event--had to be different.

    Fortunately, I was given the opportunity to borrow some of Adam's gear to shoot cosplay photos (as well as photos for Adam Incognito). As a like-minded gearhead, Adam doesn't skimp on camera equipment, but I didn't want to bring his entire collection of lenses. In the end, I borrowed his Canon 5D Mark III, 35mm f/1.4 prime, and 50mm f/1.2 prime. Along with my 6D and 17-40 wide-angle, I would have two camera bodies and three lenses to work with at Comic-Con.

    To carry the cameras and lenses, I brought along a new Crumpler Six Million Dollar Home shoulder bag, which is advertised to be large enough to to hold a camera body and two lenses. As this would be my first on-location testing of both the bag and the 5D Mark III, I came back with plenty of thoughts on both those products. In short: the camera is great but the bag wasn't big enough.

    The Living Room PC, Part 2: The Keyboard and Mouse Problem

    Hello, and welcome back to What Are You Doing With That Computer In Your Living Room (working title). Last week we talked about setting up a living room PC with XBMC and Steam and controlling it with an Xbox 360 controller, smartphone app, or universal remote. I really believe that a full keyboard and mouse are both unnecessary and undesirable in the living room.

    Unless, of course, you want to play some types of PC games.

    The Xbox controller (or any similar gamepad) is perfect for many games, including those that you're most likely to play in the living room--platformers, action-adventure games, RPGs, and casual shooters. Anything that can be easily ported to or from a console, essentially (insert booing, hissing noises). But there are some types of games that are awful without a keyboard and mouse: MMOs, real-time and turn-based strategy games (like Starcraft II and Civ V), and MOBAs (like League of Legends and DOTA 2). And, of course, twitchy shooters. There are plenty of shooters developed for controllers, of course, but if you're playing on the PC you're playing against PC players, and all the auto-aim and thumbstick sensitivity in the world won't save you from a good player with a keyboard and mouse.

    So you want a keyboard and mouse in the living room. But there are problems with this, and rather more problems than solutions.

    As it turns out, the couch is not a good place to use a keyboard and mouse. Let’s dive into why that is.

    The Volpin Project, Part 13: Weathering the Needler

    Ladies and gentlemen, we are at the home stretch! All the Halo Needler prop parts are basecoated, shiny and new, and they just require a little bit of faux history infused into them to complete the transformation from plastic to replica. One part storytelling and one part fakery, this is the process known as weathering.

    If you’ve got any decals or smaller detail paintwork to complete, this is the time to do it. The Needler has a few highlight areas scattered here and there across its surface; you might recall I used tiny pieces of vinyl on the master sculpts before molding. These need to be painted silver, so I made up a few paint masks (laser cut masking tape!) and airbrushed the details.

    The handle and lower detail prong are a slightly blue tint in the official artwork, so these needed another quick pass with the airbrush as well to give them their proper color. Testor’s metallic blue was used, mixed 50/50 with satin enamel clearcoat in order to get a semi transparent layer.

    The Best Small TV Today (32-Inches or Smaller)

    The $280 Vizio E320i-A0 offers the best value out of any 32-inch TV, thanks to its solid image quality, built-in Wi-Fi and streaming apps.

    You can find 32-inch TVs with better overall picture quality for around $300, but you won’t find the built-in entertainment apps and Wi-Fi connectivity that the E320i-A0 offers. Usually, we’d recommend a Roku box, but in this case it doesn’t make sense to spend $100 to enhance a $300 TV while adding an extra box to a presumably crowded space. So unless you already own an external streaming box, the Vizio’s one-two punch of features and performance trumps the picture quality advantages of competing Samsung and Toshiba sets.

    Who Should Buy This

    Anyone looking for a bedroom TV with built-in Netflix and other streaming services, or someone looking to supplement their primary TV or projector with a smaller TV in a spare room. This set is also a good low-price, full-featured option for a dorm room.

    You shouldn’t buy this set primarily as a computer monitor, though. It doesn’t have DVI or VGA inputs. Plus, you’d want something with higher resolution that’s also a little bit smaller.

    What To Look For In A Small TV

    We define a small TV as one that is 32 inches or smaller. That’s enough screen size for a lot of environments, but if you’re not constrained by space, there’s little reason to go with a TV of this size because you can get a cheapie 40″ or larger screen for around $400. You should be aiming for a small TV because you have a small room.

    Nobody makes a 32-inch plasma, so you don’t have to worry about the whole “LCD/LED vs. plasma” argument at this size. You’re limited to LED- or CCFL-backlit LCD sets.

    How To Build a Custom Timer Clock and Learn Arduino In The Process

    I’ve written a couple of times about Arduino on Tested—first to explain the platform from a top-down perspective, and then to examine the individual boards that are on the market. Before moving on to other topics, I want to take a step-by-step look at a single Arduino project, from start to finish. By doing this, I hope to show just how easy it is to get started with the platform.

    But what to build? I wanted the project to be as simple as possible, because I knew that I would want to explain the whole thing, including the code, in a single article. I also wanted to avoid any specialized hardware, since I don’t want to get bogged down describing how to incorporate a breathalizer into your Arduino project, when that’s not going to be relevant for 99% of the stuff you might want to try at home.

    With that in mind, I decided on a chess clock. It’s the simplest thing I could think of—just two buttons and a screen—that I could actually get some practical usage out of. Yeah, I’m sure there’s a dozen iPhone apps that’ll do the same job, but nothing’s as fun (and as deliciously nerdy) as an Arduino-based do-it-yourself solution.

    Part 1: Preproduction

    Like with any project, a little bit of planning will make your Arduino build go a lot smoother. A simple diagram is often all you need. Here’s mine for the chess clock:

    Obviously not a work of art. But by quickly drawing it out I was able to figure out exactly what I’ll need for the build. First, I need an Arduino board. I already have an Uno R3, so I’m just going to stick with that and save some money, but you could use a Leonardo just as well. A more powerful Arduino board like the Due would be wasted here, and a smaller board like the Micro wouldn’t work because I plan to use a shield.

    For the display, I’ll be using an LCD shield—an add-on board that mounts directly onto the top of the Arduino Uno. It’s perfectly possible to incorporate an LCD screen into your project without using a shield, but the shield streamlines the process, is really easy to reuse in other projects, and ties up fewer of the Arduino’s I/O pins than an LCD display by itself would. I bought the 16x2 RGB LCD shield kit from Adafruit, which comes with some onboard controls. I won’t need the controls for this project, but I could imagine using them in the future.

    Finally, I’ll need some buttons, wires, and a box. I have plenty of the first two lying around (of course, if you don’t you can order them online for next to nothing), and I bought a lovely plastic box to build the project in. All the parts cost well under $100, and you can shop around for the best prices for Arduino components. Now to put it all together:

    The Best USB 3.0 Thumb Drive

    The 32 GB SanDisk Extreme USB 3.0 Flash Drive is the best flash drive and the one to buy. Not only is it the fastest flash drive we tested after scouring the field, it costs only $45–virtually the same price as our old pick despite being twice as fast at both reading and writing.

    Actually, it’s more than twice as fast when it comes to writing data. The SanDisk Extreme Flash Drive reads files at about 230 MB/s and writes them at 200 MB/s. Our old pick, for reference, topped at a write speed of 85 MB/s. In practical terms, the SanDisk’s write speed means I can copy a 1.44 gigabyte folder of images to the drive in about 18 seconds, or copy a 5.45 gig movie rip in around 39 seconds.

    More like thumbs up drive amirite?

    Everyone who has a computer and who needs to move files around should have a USB flash drive. This is the one to get.

    What Makes A Good Thumb Drive?

    In a word: performance.

    Sequential read and write speeds, as you’d get from a big file transfer, are the most important general measurements.

    Most of the USB 3.0 flash drives on Amazon hover around that 100 MB/s write speed mark, so cresting the 200 MB/s mark is damn fast as of mid-2013.

    All my old USB 2.0 flash drives had write speeds of about 10-15 MB/s. We considered our previous USB 3.0 pick from early 2012 to be fast with 85 MB/s write speeds. Most of the USB 3.0 flash drives you’ll see on Amazon hover around that 100 MB/s write speed mark, so cresting the 200 MB/s mark is damn fast as of mid-2013.

    Another measurement, 4K random read/write speed, matters if you plan on running an OS off of a flash drive (it’s pretty easy these days to install Windows on a USB drive for portability), but for most users, copying and reading files quickly is all you need.

    Performance is by far the most important element of a flash drive, but design matters too. It can make the difference between a drive that’s pleasurable to use regularly and a drive that’s sort of awkward. If a drive is too wide, for example, it might block two USB ports. If it has a separate cap, that cap will probably be easy to lose.

    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’s founder DashCam Man (who asked to remain anonymous) and Andrew Lam, head of, 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.