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    The Best Android Smartphone for Your Network (March 2013)

    If your old phone is on the outs, you find yourself in a tough spot. We now know what the next generation of Android is going to look like, and it looks good. If you make the jump to a new device now, you’re going to be a little sad in just a few months. You’re probably signing up for a two-year contract with a new phone, so making the purchase at the right time is essential.

    Photo credit: Flickr user isriya via Creative Commons.

    This month, we’re going to look at your options on each carrier, and decide if you should wait for one of the upcoming super-phones, or take the plunge.

    How Quantifying My Life Helped Me Lose 40 Pounds in the Last Year

    It happened so slowly, it was easy to miss. Over the last thirteen years, I'd gained between two and five pounds a year. My pants kept getting tighter and I went from slim cut jeans to a balloon seat. At one point last year, I looked up, and I weighed 253 pounds. I'm a tall dude, with a pretty big frame, but I weighed much more than I should and I realized something had to change.

    When I bought this jacket in 2001, it was baggy. By 2010, not so much.

    It was my own fault. I stopped exercising, got a job that involved sitting on my ass for between 8 and 16 hours a day, and ate a ton of fast food. This isn't rocket science--I was consistently eating more calories than I was burning, and most of it was in the form of really damaging junk food.

    The good news is that in the last 12 months, I've lost 40 pounds. Yes, that's probably a week's work on reality TV weight loss shows, but it's attainable and easy to do, if you just pay attention to what you eat.

    Living with Photography: Straight Shooting

    An interesting topic that popped up in our forums this week was the question of whether or not to shoot with an intent to crop and straighten out a photo in post-processing. That is, if time isn't a consideration, should a photographer bother with framing the photo in the viewfinder/LCD while they're shooting it or just leave the final framing to an image editing program that can crop and rotate with fine precision. Given how easy and fast these tools are to use--especially on mobile devices and in mobile photo apps--you would think that it makes more sense to not worry about framing when taking a photo and concentrate on other things like metering and focus.

    But something I've noticed since shooting with a DSLR and editing in Lightroom is how much I prefer framing "in the moment". Specifically, how much I tend to take straight-on shots with a level horizon. I touched on this in an earlier post about zoom lenses and lens distortion, which is why I'm really liking the distortion-free photos from my 50mm prime. And looking into my photo library, a pattern emerges. I either take photos with a very level horizon like the one of the otters above, or shoot to maximize the presence of ~35 degree angles, like in the photo below.

    In fact, I bet if you put a protractor against many of my photos with these apparent angles, you'd find that most of them are close to 35 degrees. And why's that the case? The answer lies with gridlines.

    The Best Compact Camera for Less Than $450

    The Sony RX100 is the best compact camera you can buy, but $650 is a lot of money. If you want to spend a lot less, the $300-$400 Panasonic LX7 is a fantastic advanced camera alternative, with sharp and accurate images, although it is not the smallest camera. It replaces our current pick, the Canon S100, which has been king for a while.

    With smartphones devouring the low-end camera market, manufacturers have been focusing their attentions on the high-end instead, producing great cameras like the $400 Nikon P7700, the $380 Canon S110, the $450 Canon G15, and the Panasonic LX7. All of these are solid choices for bringing some serious manual controls, raw shooting, excellent images, a 1/1.7-inch sensor, and fast lenses to a pocket sized camera. But, after poring over reviews and spending hands on time with all of them, it’s the LX7 that gets our pick.

    Photo credit: Flickr user kongjak1 via Creative Commons

    A good—but not super high end—compact camera needs to focus primarily on a couple of things: sharp, low-noise, and color accurate images for its price, and a stupidly wide variety of manual controls which are preferably on knobs rather than requiring you to dive through menus. Specifically, we’re talking about external buttons for changing commonly altered features like white balance, metering, ISO, and focus mode; an external flash hot-shoe; custom shooting modes; and additional high level tools like expansive noise reduction settings, bracketing, digital levels, and most importantly, shooting in raw. These camera tend to be aimed at photographers who know their way around a camera, and are maybe looking for a smaller backup to their usual DSLR rig, namely people who are more than a little demanding. That means all the manual control of a DSLR in a smaller package, and a combination of a sensor larger than most point-and-shoots (but smaller than a DSLR or mirrorless camera), sharp lens, and good processing in order to take superb photos. But also keep an eye on the size, those plentiful external controls can sometimes make these things blow up to ludicrous proportions.

    You'll also want to consider the difference between a fast lens that lets in lots of light, and one with a longer zoom so you can shoot from further away. The LX7 doesn’t have a super-long zoom, but more than makes up for that with a lens that lets in an abundance of light, with a maximum of f/1.4 at the wide end, and f/2.3 when fully zoomed.

    Also, how does the camera handle in low light? Does it have trouble focusing? Is it fast to shoot? How big is the thing? How tough is it? There's a long tradition of high-end compacts being near bulletproof — you'll probably find a Canon G7 that's weathered a bomb blast if you search hard enough. Also, some users want a compact camera that can take a flash or lens filters, which is another high-end feature to watch out for.

    Before we go any further, It's worth noting that for this same price, you could also pick up an entry-level mirrorless camera that's a year or two old, which is certainly a good alternative. Then you'd be able to tap into the vast world of interchangeable lenses, and if you used a flat pancake lens on one of the smaller bodies, it might even be smaller than the LX7. But, for an all-in-one, ready to shoot, no need to swap lens rig, the LX7 more than holds its own.

    Still Untitled Supplemental: Adam's Inexpensive Beginner's Toolkit

    Knowing what tools to purchase when you're a fledgling maker is tough, especially if you're on a tight budget. And building a tool collection can get downright pricey--the price swing from a cheap version of a tool to the expensive version can be massive. On the March 26 edition of Still Untitled, Adam, Norm, and I came up with a universal list of tools to put in a cheap toolkit for beginners.

    You should really listen to the whole show for context, but the short version is that you shouldn't be afraid to start out with inexpensive or used tools when you start out. I've also broken out the optional, but recommended upgrades or enhancements to the kit. Some of the optional items are only applicable to people who are into electronics or woodworking, while some are simply a bit more expensive than we'd put in a beginner kit.

    One last note: we almost certainly forgot something important and obvious, so please post our omissions in the comments below. And please, be nice.

    How To Get Started with Electroluminescent (EL) Wire

    A few weeks back, I wrote at length about LED strip lighting. Originally, that story had been about more than just LED’s—I’d wanted to cover the entire world of flexible lighting. Since addressable LED lighting proved to be more than enough glowing awesomeness for one article, I never got around to talking about another fun, affordable way to trick out virtually any project: EL wire.

    What is EL wire? Electroluminescent wire—more commonly known as EL wire—is probably the simplest solution for adding lighting to a project. It’s a thin, flexible wire that (when powered) gives off a bright, even glow along its entire length. In appearance, it’s not unlike a chemical glowstick or a neon sign. It’s waterproof, stays cool, can be cut to whatever length you want, and as long as the soldered joints are properly insulated, it won’t shock you. All those qualities (and its more-than-passing resemblance to the piping on the Tron outfits) make it a very popular choice for light-up costumes, clothing and accessories. Because it’s very energy efficient, EL wire is also used as accent lighting indoors and in vehicles.

    Photo credit: Flickr user thematthewknot via Creative Commons.

    EL wire requires an alternating current source, which means that you’ll need to connect it to a transformer—usually a little battery-powered box you can tuck away someone on your project or in your costume. Greater lengths of EL wire require more power.

    How To Set Up Your New Monitor and Treat It Right

    So you've just unpacked your new monitor. Maybe it's one you bought based on part one of my monitor guide, or maybe it isn't. Either way, just because it's awesome doesn't mean it's as awesome as it has the potential to be. There are a few things you can do right away, for free, toknock your monitor up a notch. Let’s walk through the steps you should take to break a shiny (or matte) new monitor into your setup. Don’t worry, we’re not going to do any actual breaking.

    Image Credit: Flickr user jonlk via Creative Commons

    Ergonomics (That's Latin for "Therefore, gnome science")

    First, make sure your monitor is in the most ergonomic position. According to OSHA (the Occupational Health and Safety Administration, not the wildling), that means it should be between 20 and 40 inches from your eyes, with the top of the monitor near eye level. Computing Comfort has a more in-depth ergonomic education tool for guidance. They agree with OSHA that your monitor shouldn't be any closer to your face than 20 inches--farther if your monitor is bigger, though this is a tricky balance with large high-res monitors (with default Windows DPI settings). You don't want the monitor too far away; if you have to lean in to see what's going on, your monitor's too far away, and if you have to turn your head to see part of your monitor, it's too close. Somewhere between 20 and 30 inches is probably the sweet spot; the top of my my 27-inch 2560x1440 panel is about 28 inches from my eyes, and I find that it works well. "Just about arm's length" is a good approximation of the correct distance.

    Your monitor should also be tilted back between 10 and 20 degrees from vertical, so the top of the monitor should be the farthest away from you.

    Find dead pixels

    Photo Credit: Flickr user Berkhakim via Creative Commons

    Few things are as annoying as dead pixels, and they’re something that can be difficult to ignore once you notice them. This is an area where ignorance can be bliss--if you’re the kind of person who can’t ignore a dead pixel, not knowing it’s there on an old monitor may be doing your sanity a service. Most new monitors actually come with a guarantee that lets you exchange for a new panel if you find a certain number of dead pixels (usually no more than five). We investigated dead pixel policies for major monitor manufacturers, too. The LCD DeadPixel Test is a dead-simple way to find dead pixels: it's just a series of one-color fullscreen images. By putting them up one at a time you can see which pixels aren't changing with the rest.

    Huge caveat: Make sure you clean your screen first. When I first ran the dead pixel test on my Yamakasi Catleap, I freaked out at all the purple pixels I saw. Every single one of them ended up being a speck of dust. So use a lint-free cloth and see if that makes the "dead pixels" go away.

    How (and Why) I Replaced RSS With Twitter Lists

    Yesterday Google announced it will be shutting down Reader, its web-based RSS feed reader, in July. Google Reader was the RSS market leader, most other RSS software I’ve used in recent years, including clients like Flipboard and Reeder were tightly integrated with Google’s service.

    Naturally, the death of Google Reader has caused a scramble amongst its users to find something to replace it. This is the moment where I’m supposed to tell you what the next best RSS reader is, right? Unfortunately, I’m not going to. I haven't used a dedicated RSS reader in years.

    You see, I was never particularly happy with RSS. The problem is that RSS feeds are undiscerning. They create an unrelenting torrent of stories to read--if you follow a few dozen sites, you can easily have a queue of a few thousand stories pop up in your queue every day. RSS doesn’t differentiate between a publication’s best work--stories that contain original reporting or unique insights--and the stories that are just links to someone else’s original reporting. While there are news editors and other masochists who need to bathe in a never-ending flood of stories from fifty bazillions sites, I do not. Frankly, too much time spent in Google Reader made me a little crazy.

    Small, Quiet, Fast: Building a Modern Gaming PC

    If you dropped by my basement lab six or seven years ago on a Friday night, you would have seen the Friday Night Follies LAN parties I host most weeks. Back then, you would have been impressed at just how warm the room was. The fast PC of that era were equipped with power-hungry graphics cards, and coupled with the occasional CRT monitor, generated a ton of heat. We also had to crank up the speakers, not so much because we wanted lots of loud gunfire and explosions (which we did), but because the PCs themselves were noisy.

    Recently, I fired up one of those old Pentium 4 systems that’s been languishing in my storage area. I then shut it down as soon as I could, because the noise level was astonishingly loud. In reality, it was probably only around 45-50 dbA, but that’s vastly more noisy than the under 30dbA of my current desktop system.

    In building my 2013 gaming PC--a truly modern machine--I wanted something relatively compact. I don’t mean tiny--just somewhat smaller than your typical mid-tower case. On the other hand, I want room to add additional storage, and the case needs to be big enough to support a high-end graphics card. I’ve also been intrigued by the plethora of mini-ITX motherboards that offer full support for higher end CPUs and come complete with a full size PCI Express x16 graphics slot.

    Then I saw a bright red, Bitfenix Prodigy mini-ITX case. It was love at first sight.

    Yeah, I know, it looks like the bastard child of a Shuttle cube PC and an Apple Mac Pro chassis. But it’s red, capacious, and I like it. And building in it was a little different than in a traditional ATX case.

    Buying Your New Monitor, Part One: What to Get

    As with every component of your PC system, the type of monitor you should get depends on what you’re going to use it for. I use mine for writing, gaming, and some light photo editing--all areas where IPS panels excel. In general, I think most people should get IPS monitors for their primary computers, unless you’re really into 3D gaming or play a lot of competitive first-person shooters.

    If I were buying a new monitor today, I’d get one of two things: either a 24-inch, 1920x1200 IPS panel from Dell or Asus, or a 27-inch, 2560x1440 IPS panel from a Korean vendor. Here’s why, and what each of those options represents.

    New Resolutions

    Your new monitor should have a resolution of at least 1920x1080, or 1920x1200 if you can get it. 1920x1080 is standard 16:9 aspect ratio and it’s the same resolution as an HDTV, so you can watch Blu-Ray and other high-def content at its native resolution without letterboxing. It is the ideal media resolution. 1920x1200 panels used to be more common in computer monitors. These have a 16:10 aspect ratio, and many people who work on computers find the extra 120 vertical lines handy, because they let you fit more information--like text on web pages and photos--on the monitor. I’d personally get a 1920x1200 monitor over a 1920x1080 monitor if I could.

    A mid-range graphics card like a GeForce 660 Ti is more than enough to run a single 1920x1080 monitor at high quality settings for most games.

    For a 1920x1200 panel, you really don’t need a monitor bigger than 24 inches diagonally. A 27-inch 1920x1080 panel has the exact same number of pixels as a 24-inch 1920x1080 panel; the 27-inch is just bigger and much more expensive.

    Not to be constrained by standard aspect ratios like 16:9 and 16:10, Dell, Philips, and LG have introduced monitors based on the same 21:9 aspect ratio 2560x1080 panel. The Dell UltraSharp U2913WM, ($700), LG EA93 UltraWide (not yet released), and Asus MX299Q ($600, not yet released) are all IPS panels with a 29-inch diagonal. The panel makers say the aspect ratio is great for watching movies without any letterboxing, and a wider screen is certainly better for multitasking, but for the money you can get a 27-inch 2560x1440 panel and get more usable vertical space in a 16:9 aspect ratio, which has wider application and gaming support. Or you could get two 24-inch 1920x1080 panels, though then you'd have to contend with a bezel in the middle of your workspace. The 21:9 panels could be an interesting alternative to dual-monitor setups for some people, but I'd stick with the 27-inch 2560x1440 panel and get more screen real estate for the same price.

    How To Get Started with Programmable RGB LED Strip Lighting

    One of the greatest things about the Maker scene is that there’s just so much of it—it encompasses everything from rocketry to hydroponics. And as a maker, just getting started can be the hardest part: deciding what to work on next, or if you’re new to the scene, what to work on first. So I’m starting up a new series of articles that I hope will help you get your bearings on what's possible. But I'm going to refrain from calling out specific projects to work on; not only would my list probably be unhelpful (there’s only so many ways to write “build a fighting robot”), it sort of defeats the point of the whole endeavor, which is to express yourself through creating something suitable to your own abilities and interests. Instead, I’m going to look at some cool components that could be a major part of lots of different projects. Hopefully you’ll be inspired.

    Today, we're going to explore the uses of LED strip lighting—a great, simple component that can add a lot of visual impact to any project. LED’s provide bright, colorful and (in some cases) customizable light, and by buying them in strip form you save yourself a lot of time and effort at the soldering bench.

    In order to examine the world of flexible lighting, I chose to put together a quick project of my own. I have some problems with the lighting in my living room—particularly when watching movies. With all the overhead lights and lamps turned off, the room gets pitch black, aside from the screen. With any room lights on, glare appears on the TV. So for a simple lighting project, I decided to mount a strip of lights to the back of the screen, to provide a gentle glow for the wall behind it.

    Step one was to buy some lights. There are a whole lot of varieties of LED strip lighting on the market right now, but for the most part they fall into three categories, as follows:

    Quick Tip: Send Photos from Your Camera to Photo Stream

    I love shooting photos with my Sony NEX--it’s much more flexible and produces higher-quality photos than my phone camera. But, when I shoot with it, I miss having photos instantly accessible on all my devices using Apple’s Photo Stream syncing service. Luckily, I was able to figure out how to use an Eye-Fi wireless SD card and a PC or Mac in my home to sync shots taken on my real camera to Photo Stream. My trick only works when I’m connected to my home Wi-Fi network, but the Eye-Fi will save my photos when I’m away, and upload anything I shoot when I’m out as soon as I get back home.

    To connect Photo Stream to a regular digital camera, you’ll need an always-on computer running Windows or OSX, and a camera that includes an SD card slot.The Mac procedure varies depending on the software you use to sync Photo Stream photos to your Mac. Eye-Fi has good how-tos for syncing photos to iPhoto and Aperture. Once they're in your imaging app of choice, make sure the “Automatic Upload” option is checked in app's Photo Stream preferences and you should be good to go.

    On Windows, getting photos to Photo Stream was as easy as installing iCloud and telling the Eye-Fi's software to automatically save images from your camera to the Photo Stream Uploads folder--typically in c:/Users/

    The Right Case for Your Next PC Build, Part Two

    Last week we focused on the basic case sizes and form factors available when building a new PC. This week, we’ll talk about specific features to look for when shopping for a new case.

    As always, if something I recommend doesn’t meet your needs, or you just plain disagree, feel free to ignore it. It’s not my goal to evangelize The One Correct Way of Doing Things, just sharing some of the things I’ve learned in a half decade of building PCs and testing components, including scores of cases.

    Cooling it Smartly

    Balance is the name of the game in cooling. It’s easy to go overboard with fans--look at the Antec LanBoy Air for an example. It cools pretty well, but by brute force, rather than intelligent design. Instead, look for a case that has the following three attributes: coherent airflow, positive air pressure, and filtered intakes.

    Directional Airflow

    You don’t want fans blowing in every direction in your case. Try for a case with intake fans in the front and exhaust fans at the rear. This allows cool air to flow over the drives, then motherboard, GPU, and CPU cooler. The now-warm air is then exhausted from the top rear quadrant of the case. Many cases have an additional intake fan on the side panel to provide cool air to the GPU, and some more exhaust fans at the top. This is fine if the GPU is not getting enough airflow from a standard configuration.

    In-the-front, out-the-back is the most common arrangement, it’s not the only option. Silverstone’s FT02, one of the best air-cooled cases, has three 180mm fans at the bottom that blow air straight up to the top of the case. Its motherboard tray is rotated 90 degrees clockwise, so the airflow is parallel to the GPU and the CPU cooling fans.

    The Right Case for Your Next PC Build, Part One

    The right PC for you is the one that meets your needs, and not necessarily someone else’s list of the Absolute Best Components Ever. You get exactly the PC you want by choosing all the parts that go into it, and if you put it together yourself, you get the satisfaction of using something you built.

    Some people build PCs with the assumption that as long as a case holds all the components together, it’s good enough, and you don’t need to worry about anything more than that. That approach lets you go down to Fry’s, grab the cheapest case you can find, and call it a day. We’ll call that the “Charisma is my dump stat” approach, and it is unwise. Budgeting is smart. Spending no more than you need to is smart. But everything else about your build is carefully considered and optimized for you--shouldn’t your case be, too?

    Because there’s a lot to talk about when it comes to cases, I’m splitting this topic up into two parts. This first part is about picking the case size and form factor that’s right for your build. Next week, I'll focus on specific case features to look for when browsing in store or online.

    Size Matters (But Bigger Isn’t Better)

    There are a half-dozen basic form factors and sizes of PC cases, from tiny to desk-shatteringly huge. There are dozens of PC case makers, with hundreds of different models to choose from. I counted 71 cases in Thermaltake’s current lineup alone. That’s just one vendor. How can anyone actually sort through all this?

    As always, start by identifying your needs. What you’re going to do with your PC determines which specific components you’ll need, and how many of each. That determines the size of the motherboard, and case size follows motherboard size. Here are your basic options, from smallest to largest, and the types of builds each is suited for.

    Worklog: Tetris Shelves - Cutting and Assembly

    Last week I talked about research, planning, and rounding up supplies and equipment for my Tetris shelves. After a month or so of careful planning, I had all the stuff I needed to get started, you know, actually building the shelves.

    This is probably worth clicking on, but it has naughty language.

    This week, we’re going to talk about ripping big sheets of plywood down into the appropriate sizes, I’m going to learn to use a plate joiner and biscuits, and we’ll explore the importance of clamps.

    Worklog: Tetris Shelves - Planning, Materials, and Tools

    From the very first time I saw someone’s worklog on the Internet, I’ve always wanted a set of Tetris shelves. Tetris shelves are modular shelves, shaped like the standard Tetris pieces, that you can stack in configurations you’d find in the game. Unfortunately, pre-made shelves are expensive, so I’ve never been able to justify spending the money or taking the time to actually build a set. At least, I couldn't until I had a nursery to decorate.

    That’s right, I’m building Tetris shelves for my daughter’s nursery. Before you ask, yes, I know that they’re nerdy. Yes, I know they aren’t practical. Yes, those shapes are going to be pretty tricky to make. No, I don’t have much experience with woodworking. I’ve built some quick-and-dirty shelves before, but I’ve never done any kind of fine carpentry work.

    I’m happy to share my plans, as well as the CAD files I created, and I’ve recorded video of much of the build process for a series of posts about the shelves. But, this isn’t a guide that explains the proper way to build a set of Tetris shelves. I’m absolutely positive that I made lots of mistakes as I was building--most were likely harmless, but I did a couple of things that were actually dangerous. I’m just learning the basics of cabinetry and furniture building as I go, so I’m not in a position to teach even the most basic stuff. I’d love feedback from people who have more experience, as well!

    This is intended to show you my process as I went about learning a new skill, or set of skills in this case. I did a ton of research, drew diagrams, built CAD files, watched videos on the Internet, and talked to friends, experts, retailers, and even people on Twitter to get advice. Unless something goes horribly wrong as I assemble the last few shelves and finish them, this will likely be a three-part story: Planning, Assembly, and Finishing.

    How To Use LEGO CAD Software To Make Amazing Custom Builds

    Over the last year, I've built about a dozen different LEGO kits, mostly Star Wars stuff, frankly. However, I haven't really explored the options that are available for building your own kits. I tried to change that this weekend, but after a few frustrating minutes sketching and messing with loose bricks, I took to the Internet in search of a better answer.


    That's right, there are a series of open-source projects that let you design and inspect your builds in a 3D CAD environment. You can then export a parts list, and even print a LEGO-style instruction manual to help others build your creations. It all starts with LDraw.

    How To Make the Most of Android 4.2 Jelly Bean On Your Phone

    Android 4.2 Jelly Bean continues the platform's long march toward increasing usability and adds some really great new features. As is common with new versions of Android, it's rare to find phones running the software right now. That’s even more true this time around as the Nexus 4 continues to be almost impossible to order on Google Play.

    While you’re waiting to get the newest flavor of Jelly Bean in your hands, you might as well learn how to make the most of your eventual phone. Let’s go over the best tips and tricks lurking beneath the surface in Android 4.2.

    Tested: Macro Smartphone Photography with a $2 Laser Pointer

    I'm fascinated by novel implementations of macro photography: manipulating optics in cameras to take extremely up close photographs of everyday objects. Cameraphone accessories like the Olloclip let you conveniently take macro photos with the iPhone you have in your pocket--even if the attachment is a little pricey. But the coolest thing about modern macro photography is that you don't necessarily need special lenses or photography equipment to snap those beautiful shots. I've shown you how you can easily take macro photos with your existing interchangeable lens equipment or even use a drop of water to refocus your smartphone's lens. This week, I read about another macro smartphone photography employing a cheap laser pointer and had to test it out. The process turned out to be ridiculously simple and surprisingly effective. The total cost: just $2.11.

    So here's how to use a $2 laser pointer to take macro photographs, and how those photos compare with other D-I-Y methods.