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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    How To Buy RAM For Your Next PC

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

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

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

    Photo credit: Flickr user jjackowski via Creative Commons.

    Eight Is Enough (For Now)

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

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

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

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

    How To Make Animated GIFs Incredibly Easily with GifCam 2.0

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

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

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

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

    Here you're given a few options.

    How To Test a Gaming Mouse for Tracking Accuracy

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

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

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

    Living with Photography: "The Mechanical Prophylactic"

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

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

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

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

    How Important is Coffee Brew Water Temperature?

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

    The Best $150 Over-Ear Headphones

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

    Photo credit: Flickr user flavouz via Creative Commons.

    Why $150? Why Over-ears?

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

    The Volpin Project, Part 9: The Casting Process

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

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

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

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

    The Best Waterproof iPhone Case

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

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

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

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

    Why You Should Believe Us (and How We Tested)

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

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

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

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

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

    Photo credit: Alex Washburn/Wired via Creative Commons.

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

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

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

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

    The Volpin Project, Part 8: More Complex Moldmaking

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

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

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

    Tap Emergency Power from a Phone Line

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

    Recommended Essential Camera Cleaning Gear

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

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

    Photo credit: Flickr user tiagoafpereira via Creative Commons.

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

    Best Practices

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

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

    Photo credit: Flickr user so_wrong_its_kelly via Creative Commons.

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

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

    See? Easy.

    Worklog: Arduino-Controlled Pantry LED Lighting

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

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

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

    The Best Android Smartphone for Your Network (April 2013)

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

    Photo credit: Flickr user learnkids2003 via Creative Commons

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

    Three Behind-the-Scenes Reasons to Jailbreak Your iPhone

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

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

    An Awesome Projector That I Would Buy

    If I was looking to buy an awesome projector, I’d get the $2,600 Epson PowerLite Home Cinema 5020. I base this on multiple professional reviews, plus my own experience with it and similarly priced projectors. I review projectors for Sound+Vision magazine, and have reviewed and written about projectors for CNET, Men’s Journal, Home Theater, Residential Systems, and other magazines and websites over the past 12 years.

    What Makes a Good Projector?

    Of course the best projectors have good picture quality, but what does that mean? All but the cheapest projectors are 1080p, the same resolution as most HDTVs. They almost all also have colors that look realistic. So all that leaves is brightness and contrast ratio.

    Brightness, also called “light output” with a projector is crucial. This determines how large of a screen you can have, what type of screen you can have (more on this in a moment), and of course, how bright the image is. Projectors don’t need to be as bright as a television, as they’re not normally used in bright rooms.

    Contrast ratio, or the difference between the darkest part of the image and the brightest, is the most important factor when it comes to picture quality. A projector (or TV for that matter) with a low contrast ratio will appear flat, washed out, and boring.

    In many cases, the picture quality of the ultra-large LCD TVs is worse than a comparably priced projector.

    Presuming decent picture quality, why choose a projector over a TV? First and foremost: size. Even with many inexpensive projectors, screen sizes of 100- to 150-inches are possible. In many cases, the picture quality of the ultra-large LCD TVs is worse than a comparably priced projector. Check out Don’t buy a jumbo LCD TV, buy a projector for a direct comparison.

    All high-end, and most lower priced, projectors are 3D capable. All use active 3D glasses, but don’t require a special screen.

    There are a few Ultra HD “4K” projectors starting to hit store shelves. These have four times the resolution of “normal” 1080p projectors. At the moment, they’re all exceptionally expensive (over $20,000). Since there is no readily available Ultra HD content, there’s little reason to consider these projectors at this time.

    Photo credit: Flickr user SFB579 via Creative Commons

    One of the biggest questions people have with projectors is what to use as a screen. Screens can range from free (your wall, or a sheet), to multi-thousand-dollar motorized screens that drop down from hidden compartments in ceilings. Generally speaking, it’s worth spending some money on a screen, as the surface is going to be smoother than any painted wall. Some screens can boost the image brightness, making for a brighter image. Check out screens from Stewart Filmscreen, Da-Lite, Elite, Screen Innovations, dnp, for starters.

    Tested's Podcasting Setup—Hardware and Software

    One of the most common questions we get is “What do you use to podcast?” When we launched Tested, we had a fully-fledged podcasting setup courtesy of Giant Bomb. That setup was perfect for our needs then; we almost always recorded in a dedicated space, we had plenty of ports available for guests, and most importantly, it sounded great. It wasn’t particularly portable though. When we relaunched the site last year, I knew we needed a more portable podcasting rig—at first because we were recording the show at my dining room table, but later because we needed to record Still Untitled around Adam’s schedule. I also wanted a kit that I could set up and break down as quickly as possible. When we have a few minutes to record a podcast at M5.

    My goal was to assemble an easily portable podcasting rig that would fit into one bag, give us the ability to record four XLR mics, and work with Garageband and Final Cut Pro. With that in mind, here’s the hardware we purchased to build out the podcast kit, and the reasoning behind each of those purchases. I’ll also give some lower-budget alternatives at the end of the article.

    How SD Card Speeds Are Often Limited By Slow Memory Controllers

    When shooting digital photographs, you can usually feel the difference between a cheap Class 4 SD card, with its minimum 4 MB/s write speeds, and a faster Class 10 or UHS (Ultra High Speed) card. SD speed classes can be really confusing--Class 10 cards are technically the fastest, with required 10 MB/s minimum read and write speeds, but there's a world of difference between a basic Class 10 card and a Class 10 UHS card, which can operate at quadruple the standard SD clock speed. Slap one of those cards, like the SanDisk Extreme Pro, into a camera, and you'll feel the difference--photos write to the card in a snap and reviewing a shot won't leave you staring at a blinking LED for three seconds.

    The speed of the card makes a difference, but a fast card isn't guaranteed to reach its potential in every device you use it in. Devices like digital cameras talk to SD cards with host controllers, and those host controllers can vary in speed and compatibility. For example, older host controllers only support the SD and SDHC formats, not the more recent SDXC. Using a really fast SD card with a slow host controller is a bit like plugging a USB 3.0 flash drive into a USB 1.0 port. You're not going to come close to maxing out what the card is capable of.

    Unfortunately, age isn't the only factor that accounts for SD controller performance. Last year, while researching SD cards for The Wirecutter, I talked to Nikon, SanDisk, and some photographers, including the experts at Imaging Resource. I also looked at Rob Galbraith's extensive database of SD and CompactFlash performance numbers. Next time you buy an SD card--or anything that uses one--keep in mind that hardware like the memory controller and CPU, even in a brand new camera, may dramatically undercut what the card should be able to deliver.

    Living with Photography: Learning Adobe Lightroom

    Let me take a deep breath, because this is not an simple topic to broach. Since I've started shooting with my Canon 6D, and based on the recommendations of many of you, I've been saving all my photos to both JPEG and RAW formats. My mirrorless camera also could save RAW images, but I never really used it for numerous reasons. Primarily because I was already accustomed to my workflow for quickly posting photos to accompany stories on the site, partly for file storage and management considerations, but also because I knew that adopting a RAW workflow would require both new software and knowledge of new image processing techniques. I simply wasn't ready to tread those deep waters.

    But took the dive I did, and just like the jump from an APS-C-sized sensor camera to a full frame one, it's difficult to see myself going back. Processing photos is a lot of fun, and even therapeutic. So here's what I've learned from dabbling in RAW photo processing for two months, which just skims the surface of what you can do with a RAW file that you can't do with a JPEG.

    A RAW file, unlike a JPEG, is not an image file in the traditional sense. It's not a single standardized file-type that you can open with any image editor or web browser--each camera company and even individual camera models store RAW data differently. Instead of the file denoting the color values of individual pixels, a camera's outputted RAW file encompasses all the light data captured by a camera sensor run through that camera's image processor. Data from different parts of the color spectrum aren't combined and flattened with luminosity settings--that's to be done on your computer. And so special RAW photo software is needed to process that data into a visual image, and lets you tweak that data to manipulate the final image.

    But just as different cameras store RAW data slightly differently, RAW photo editing software have different algorithms in their engines to interpret that data. Adobe's Lightroom and Apple's Aperture will read RAW files in their own way before giving you an image to work with. That's not hugely consequential since all RAW editing software will let you tweak in myriad ways to eventually get your desired result, but it's important to remember that not all RAW converters are created equal. Some are favored for speed, some for compatibility with software suites, and some for unique features like direct camera tethering.

    In my case, I chose to start with Adobe Lightroom 4, which is one of the more popular RAW converters. I chose it because it's cross platform (I image edit mostly on my Windows desktop), and because Adobe dropped the price of Lightroom significantly last year with the version 4 release. Even without an educational discount, you can find it for around $160, and I've seen it drop to below $100 during holiday sales. If you favor another RAW editor, please share why you like it in the comments!

    Lightroom 4 isn't just a RAW photo editor, it's also a very good file manager. The first thing that happens when you plug in a camera or memory card is the import process, which transfers photos (both RAW and JPEG) to the directory of your choosing. As a file manager, Lightroom has many sorting and tagging options. I have it automatically file photos away according to date taken, and then create groups based on events for processing. In tests conducted by DPreview, Lightroom 4 wasn't as fast as some other RAW editors to import photos, but that's because the software also creates high-resolution thumbnails for each image in the library, which are also customizable. Imports can take several minutes for a few dozen photos, but the ability to instantly preview thousands of photos in high-resolution makes it worth it.

    This is also a good place to point out that an SSD is extremely useful for RAW processing. I originally had my photos stored on a 1TB hard disk drive, but the software chugged when calling up 25MB file after file to edit. Now I keep my Lightroom library on a 256GB SSD.