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    The Best Android Smartphone for Your Network (August 2013)

    If you're in the market for a new Android device, you've got big decisions to make. We're entering the latter part of the year, and that's when the major new phones show up. There's going to be a new Nexus, a new Galaxy Note, and probably a few surprises. The selection on the big four carriers is going through a refresh right now, so you must choose carefully to avoid two years of regrets.

    This month AT&T and Verizon get out in front of the pack, while Sprint and T-Mobile play the pricing game.

    The Best SSDs Today

    If I was upgrading a laptop or desktop computer with a solid-state drive, I'd buy a Samsung 840 EVO SSD in either 250 GB (~$190) or 500 GB (~$370) sizes, depending on the exact setup. Using a new caching tech, it can write up to 2x faster than its similarly priced predecessor.

    (Note that ultrabook and MacBook Air/Pro owners might have to choose our alternative picks below.)

    The Samsung 840 EVO is one of the best values in solid-state drives right now: the drives are super-fast and they’re priced aggressively. Plus, Samsung has a reputation for reliability that a lot of other vendors lack. The 840 EVO isn’t the fastest SSD out there (but it’s close), and it’s not for everyone. But I think it’s the best option for most people who are upgrading a laptop or desktop. If you spend less, you’ll get drives that are slower, and you won’t save that much money. If you spend more, you’ll get a little more speed and a lot more endurance, good for enterprise servers and people who do professional video editing or other write-intensive work. Still, the vast majority of people will be fine with the endurance of the Samsung 840 EVO. This is the sweet spot in solid-state drives, and for the first time ever, the higher-capacity versions are around the same value as the smaller sizes.

    Who Should Get This?

    Someone with a computer that is one or two years old, with a traditional hard drive, that they plan on keeping for at least another year. (There’s no sense in upgrading a machine that you’re about to replace, unless you know you’ll be able to bring your SSD with you to your next computer.) Someone who has already upgraded their RAM to 4 GB or 8 GB but wants their laptop to boot, launch programs and load files faster. Someone whose laptop is from 2010 or later. If your computer is older than that, depending on the computer, you may want to start saving for a new computer rather than get an SSD. It all depends how much more life you think you can get out of it.

    This also works for someone who wants a good boot SSD for their desktop to complement a larger mechanical drive for storage.

    Living with Photography: Big Budget vs. D-I-Y Camera Strap

    I recently came across a somewhat controversial notion: an easy way to spot an amateur photographer is to see if they're using the shoulder strap that came bundled with their camera body. You can imagine how reading that felt, as I looked over to my DSLR to see the recognizable red stitching of the generic Canon strap draped over the side of my camera bag. Ouch. But as pretentious as that statement sounds, there's logic behind the claim. Some professional photographers choose not to use any camera strap at all. A DSLR draped around your neck hurts after minutes of walking around. When slung around your shoulder and across your chest, a strap can get in the way of positioning the camera for composition, and a swinging loose strap can affect the stability of your shot. In a photography studio or when using a tripod, a strap is rarely needed.

    Another argument against the use of the bundled camera strap is that it's just a cheaply made piece of nylon that gives free advertising to the camera manufacturer. Canon and Nikon straps have very distinct designs, and like the red ring around EF lenses, add to overall brand awareness in public. I don't subscribe to this concern, though I can understand the argument of keeping the bundled strap unwrapped in the box to help retain perceived resale value.

    The final argument against the use of bundled straps is that they're just not very good. They don't provide enough padding on the shoulders for heavy camera bodies (and equally heavy lenses!), and trying to quickly swinging a camera up from the hip to take a spontaneous photo is cumbersome. When using the generic Canon strap at events, I've taken to wrapping the strap around my arm and elbow, which makes it more of an arm brace than shoulder sling to keep my hand locked in a comfortable position. But I was in the market for a new strap--something that would be more comfortable and functional than the stock one.

    A few of you recommended Black Rapid straps, so I bought the RS-4 model to test. It was $54, which felt expensive for a camera strap. But I bit the bullet because I wanted to see if a "high-end" camera strap could make a difference. The Black Rapid RS-4 is a gliding camera strap, meaning that the camera hangs loose on a loop around the nylon so it can slide up and down from hip to chest without moving the strap itself. And unlike non-gliding straps, it attaches to the camera using the tripod mount on the bottom instead of the two small metal loops on the frame. The 1/4" fastener screws in tightly and securely. The strap itself is light, the shoulder pad is comfortable, and there's even a small zipper compartment in the shoulder pad to store memory cards. But it's also $54, plus tax and shipping.

    And if you study the build of the Black Rapid RS-4, you can see that it's not much more than a few common pieces of hardware strung together and attached to a padded strap. Using this CNet guide as a starting point, I went to the hardware store to find suitable pieces to make my own budget gliding camera strap.

    The Best USB Microphone Today

    If you are looking to buy a USB microphone, the Yeti by Blue is what I’d recommend. I'm basing this on extensive research that includes professional and retailer reviews, interviews with industry professionals, tests that involved a blind listening panel, and my years of experience in audio engineering and voice acting. The Yeti is the best buy for the money--it has a solid build quality, a rounded mellow sound, and features that many more expensive mics lack. At under $100, it's a steal.

    Photo credit: Flickr user jmangino

    Why Buy a USB Microphone?

    USB microphones are made for easy, plug-and-play use. They’re fantastic for podcasters, musicians looking to share their work online, voice actors, music/audio students, and people who just want something better than the microphone built into their laptop.

    What to Look For in a USB Microphone?

    A good USB mic will capture high quality sound at an affordable price and will eliminate the need for a secondary element (called an analog-to-digital or A/D converter) between the mic and your computer. Aside from recording sound, we also looked for mics that had zero-latency headphone inputs and an in-mic gain control. You can read more on why those are important and how they factored in the Yeti winning below.

    My 10 Rules for Success

    Editor's Note: Adam was the closing speaker at this past weekend's BoingBoing Ingenuity theatrical event. He gave a rousing speech about being a maker, and shared his ten rules for success in his work. For new Tested readers, these are themes we've touched on in many episodes of Still Untitled: The Adam Savage Project.

    Photo credit: Kent K. Barnes /

    Adam's 10 rules for success are below. Which ones do subscribe to in your own work and maker experience?

    15 Essential Tweaks to Perform on Your New 2013 Nexus 7

    So you've picked up the new 2013 edition of the Nexus 7 tablet. Google had a sales success with the original Nexus 7 at the $200 price point, but the device didn't hold up particularly well over time. At $230 for this year's 16GB model, the entry price is higher, but you end up getting a lot more for your money. It's a great device, but prying open the box is just the start. To truly appreciate the Nexus 7's fast Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Pro processor and glorious 2GB of RAM, you have to get everything set up just right.

    There are some tweaks you can do to make sure the experience is the best it can possibly be, and to help familiarize you with this new tablet (in case it's your first Android device!). We're going to dig down into the inner workings of Android, get specific on hardware features, and talk about the apps you need. Read on for the 15 essential tweaks you should make on your new 2013 Nexus 7.

    The Best External Desktop Hard Drive Today

    If I needed a new external desktop storage solution, I’d buy Buffalo’s 3 TB DriveStation DDR for around $200. It’s a bit on the expensive side, but the math checks out: for around 50% more money you get 100% more speed. Some tests even show it being faster than Thunderbolt setups that cost an order of magnitude more! It’s this insane speed that earned it multiple editor’s choice awards and our pick if you have or will soon have a USB 3.0 computer.

    Who’s This For?

    You might be thinking to yourself “that kind of speed sounds like it’d be nice to have, but I don’t think I really need it if it costs extra,” which is perfectly rational. We would respectfully disagree for a number of reasons.

    When it comes to backing up your computer or transferring files, speed is the most important measurable drive metric. So when you need to go shopping for an external storage solution, paying 50% more to go 100% faster is entirely reasonable.

    When it comes to backing up your computer or transferring files, speed is the most important measurable drive metric.

    This sounds counter intuitive, but it still makes sense to spend more even if your current computer is too old to take advantage of all the speed a piece of hardware like the DriveStation DDR can offer. Assume you’ll have this thing for at least three years (which is the length of its warranty). Considering the fact that all new computers come with USB 3.0, the only reason not to buy a fast drive now is if you don’t plan on upgrading your computer over the next three years.

    The exception to this rule: if you’re on a 2011 Mac with Thunderbolt and have no intention to upgrading to a new computer anytime soon. But we’ll explain more later.

    So unless you’re planning to use your old hardware for years to come, the Buffalo drive is the smart choice.

    Living with Photography: Choosing Your Drive Mode

    Every photographer has their own preferences when it comes to the camera settings they use for everyday shooting, but it's easy to get locked into one set of settings without experimenting with what else is available. This was the case for the Drive Mode for my camera. For the longest time, I was very comfortable using Single Shot. It served the purposes of my on-location workflow: frame up a shot, find focus, hold my breath, tuck my arms in, and snap a photo. But I've since abandoned the Single Shot method and have found that there's a better Drive Mode alternative for almost every photography scenario.

    Let's quickly review what a camera's Drive Mode is and what options may be available to you on your camera (every camera model is different). This is the setting that determines what happens when you press the shutter button. Most cameras, including point-and-shoots, have at least three Drive Modes. There's Single Shot mode, usually indicated by a single rectangle, which means the camera will take a single photo immediately after you depress the shutter. There's Continuous Shutter (or Burst Mode), which looks like a series of stacked rectangles, which tells the camera to keep on taking photos in succession as long as you keep the shutter button depressed. And then there's a time-delay Drive Mode, which sets the camera to take a photo at a predetermined number of seconds after you press the shutter.

    Other Drive Modes that cameras may have: Single AF Burst, which is faster than Continuous Burst because the camera doesn't recheck focus between shots, Remote Shutter, which lets you take photos with a wireless trigger, and Silent Mode, which reduces the audible sound of the physical shutter at the cost of continuous shutter speed.

    The Drive Mode I'm now most accustomed on the Canon 6D is the combination of Continuous Shutter + Silent. And when mounting the DSLR on a tripod, I set my camera to the 2-second Timer Mode. Here's why both of these modes are preferred over Single Shot.

    Rent No More: The Best Cable Modem To Own

    Recently, Time Warner Cable joined the ranks of Comcast and Cox by charging $6 a month (up from $4) to lease one of their subpar (read: dated) cable modems. Here’s one way of getting around it, as noted in “How to Beat Time Warner’s Bullsh*t Modem Rental Fee.” (To be fair, Comcast and Cox have been charging subscribers a whopping $7 a month to lease cable modems for some time.)

    Should you decide to buy a modem as a Time Warner customer, it’ll take 15 months to recoup the cost of buying a modem like the SB6141, and at the other two carriers it only takes 13 months—not to mention you can always sell the modem if you ever decide to for a few bucks.

    Let’s assume you want the most future-proof cable modem currently available and that you’re subscribed to a fairly high-speed service plan. If those two variables are checked off, then the SB6141 is the right choice for you. Why? For starters, It’s approved for use with Comcast, Time Warner Cable and Cox. It earned 75% five-star reviews on Amazon and the lowest percentage of one-star reviews at 3.1.

    In’s FAQ about which cable modem they’d recommend, their answer is officially this:

    “I would have to update this question every week, so I won’t provide a list here. Let’s just say that Motorola Surfboard line seems to be the favorite among a lot of people right now.”

    To back that up, the Comcast community on has been the most vocal about the topic and consistently recommended or concluded that one of Motorola’s Surfboard modems is the best in annual polls since 2004. And according to Jeff Heynen an analyst at Infonetics, a telecom market research firm, the 6141 is the most popular DOCSIS 3.0 cable modem in terms of units sold.

    The Best Android Smartphone for Your Network (July 2013)

    The last few weeks have been full of Android news like you wouldn’t believe. New phones, new operating systems, and a lot of new things to consider if you’re about to upgrade. It can be a bit overwhelming to step up and make a decision that’s going toa ffect you for the next two years, so it’s best to go in with the most information possible, which is why we’re here with a rundown of the best phones on big four US carriers a few days late. The Mot X was announced just the other day, and it’s definitely relevant to your decision.

    Photo credit: Flickr user viipeer via Creative Commons

    Let’s see what phones are safe, and which are threatened by the Moto X. For each carrier, there will be a brief analysis of whether or not you should wait for the Moto X.

    Living with Photography: Filling In for Fill Light

    When I reviewed Adobe's Lightroom 5 a month ago, I said that its best feature was Smart Previews, which effectively let me work off of one shared Lightroom Catalog saved to Dropbox. That was so very useful when it came to processing over a thousand photos taken at Comic-Con a week and a half ago. But while developing those photos, I became acclimated to another of Lightroom's tools that I had dismissed in the past: Radial Gradient Filters. In my testing of Lightroom, my use of Radial Filters was limited to creating artificial vignetting around the edges of photos, as when simulating Instagram filters. But the Radial Filter tool turned out to be one of my most-used tricks for developing Comic-Con photos. It helped compensate for the fact that I still haven't started to use flash lighting.

    Let's examine the photo above, opened in Lightroom. If the photo looks muted and flat, your eyes aren't deceiving you. This is how most of my RAW photos look when they're first imported into Lightroom. I tend to shoot with exposure set 1/3rd or 2/3rd of a stop down, which produces darker photos but at a higher shutter speed (trading brightness for a potentially sharper image at my chosen ISO). Clarity, colors, and white levels are bumped up in the first development pass, which makes the photo pop a lot more. But even with the color information accessible in the RAW photo, there are details that can't just be pumped up with a slider bar. For photos shot without any assistive lighting, it's facial details that suffer. Most notably, the side of the face hidden in shadow.

    The Best Popsicle Molds for Awesome Ice Pops

    After eating enough ice pops to make myself sick, I’ve found that the Zoku Round Slow Pop Mold works best with all kinds of ingredients, fitting most budgets and mouths.

    It’s durable, consistent and dead simple to use, and the round pops it produces are the perfect size and shape for children and adults.

    Why Do You Need A Dedicated Ice Pop Mold?

    Popsicle molds could be as simple as you want: people have repurposed Dixie cups and ice cube trays with sticks in them to make DIY popsicles on the cheap. But if you’re seriously looking for a way to cool down in the summer, or if any of the myriad ice pop recipesavailable online look delicious to you, you’re going to want a dedicated mold. Molds solve a lot of the problems Dixie cup pops don’t: it’s easier to get pops out quickly (great if you have antsy children); built-in drip catchers make spills less likely and clean-up easier; and they’re washable and reusable.

    If you don’t eat many ice pops right now, you might not think a mold is a great investment. And maybe you’re right. But thanks to the internet’s ingenious food testers aplenty, ice pops have moved beyond sugary snacks: you can eat them for breakfast (a great way to sneak your kids some spinach), you can use them to hide the taste of protein powder and you can even swap your evening cocktails for poptails.

    Why It's Sometimes Better to Buy MicroSD Instead of Full Size SD Card

    Which is the more useful card: the SD, used by millions of cameras, the Nintendo 3DS, and hobbyists playing around with microcontrollers like the Arduino--or the microSD, used by millions of smartphones, some tablets, and newer video cameras like the GoPro Hero 3? Because the baby-sized microSD format uses the exact same standard as the full-size SD card, a simple adapter makes the microSD compatible with the entire range of Secure Digital devices.

    Doesn't that, alone, make the microSD the more versatile card? Why should we ever buy full-size SD cards when microSDs can fit in so many more devices?

    Two reasons: Speed and price.

    My go-to SD card is the SanDisk Extreme, which is a Ultra High Speed I card rated for 45 MB/s performance. When researching SD cards for The Wirecutter, I couldn't find any competitors with the bang-for-your-buck value of SanDisks or the same reliability. Other companies like Samsung and Kingston make perfectly good cards, but they're often slower or more expensive.

    Last week SanDisk sent me their newest microSD card, another in the Extreme line, to test out. It seemed like this might be the card to prove that microSDs can be fast enough to replace their bigger brothers in cameras, while still being the most common expandable storage format for smartphones. Here's what I found.

    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.