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    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.

    The Volpin Project, Part 7: Introduction to Moldmaking

    Our Halo Needler prop is somewhere around 15 pounds at the moment, an amalgamation of wood, foam, bondo and various types of plastic. While the shape of the whole thing is spot-on, the prop leaves a little bit to be desired with how heavy and fragile the mishmash of materials ends up being. The parts we’ve got so far have to be molded, then cast in urethane plastic. This will yield a piece that is both far lighter as well as more durable, since it’ll all be one cohesive material through and through.

    There are many types of techniques to make molds, and just as many types of materials to make molds with. The techniques covered in this and the next build installment will give an overview on the processes for making hard copies--that is, a piece that ends up being cast in rigid plastic. First, to those who aren’t familiar with moldmaking, I’ll cover a bit of terminology. Important moldmaking terms will be bolded.

    The part to be molded is referred to as a “master” or sometimes as the “sculpt." For the purposes of this article I’ll be covering molding the grip section of the Needler. The grip here is made from MDF, Acrylic, PVC, Bondo and some epoxy clay. This is the grip master.

    (Of note in the shot above is a little trick I learned from some of the modelmaking guys at the Replica Prop Forum. The little black arrows on the grip were cut at a local sign shop and adhered to the grip before molding. After making the mold and pouring a casting in resin, this will create small raised details in the final part.)

    How To Brew Coffee with the Able Kone Brewing System

    Will shows you how to make a great cup of coffee using the new Able Brewing manual pourover coffee system. Precise timing, temperature, and quantity of both coffee and water used are all important to the chemistry of coffee brewing--here's how to do it right.

    Living with Photography: Reading a Camera Lens

    Adopting an interchangeable camera system, whether mirrorless or DSLR, means that you have an intent to use more than one lens with that camera. Bundled kit lenses are typically good general purpose lenses, but the whole point of going interchangeable is to be able to swap out lenses for different situations and types of photos. Otherwise, you're better off with a good fixed lens compact, like the RX100 or Fuji X100. And while choosing lenses isn't as complicated as deciding on a DSLR body, there are many more lens options than camera body options. Even if you've settled between a Canon, Nikon, or Sony camera--and hence, a lens mount ecosystem--there are many categories and brands of lenses, each with different specs and specialties.

    Most people starting off with a DSLR--myself included--are in no rush to fill out their lens collection. It's best to start off with one or two lenses, maybe kit lens included, and build experience from there. And in choosing those starter lenses, online guides I've read tend to use focal length as the starting point for recommendations. As a refresher, the focal length denotes the field of view covered by a lens, which is determined by a combination of the optics and camera sensor. As we've written before, 35-50mm is a good starting point for a prime lens (fixed focal length), with focal length 70mm or longer being considered telephoto and 28 or shorter considered wide-angle.

    But focal length is just the tip of the iceberg for lens specs, and while it's the most defining characteristic of a lens, it's also probably the least nuanced trait. Today, I want to go over the other specs you'll find etched on the side of a lens, and the important ones that aren't.

    Let's use the kit lens on the Sony camera above as an example. There are three sets of specs listed on the front of the lens--these alone will give you a good sense of what the lens is capable of. Ostensibly, the most important string of text is at the top, so let's parse its components.

    Everything You Need to Know About Benchmarking Android

    The specs of Android hardware continue to increase at an almost obscene rate. Not two years ago a dual-core phone was a novelty -- the highest of high-end. Now we’re on the cusp of eight-core devices with the Galaxy S 4, and the clock speed of ARM chips is beginning to rival those of recent desktop processors. The numbers are getting incredibly large, but what does any of that mean to you? Can you just run the new 3DMark for Android and call it a day?

    Benchmarking devices has been a pastime of modders and enthusiasts for years, but not all benchmarks are created equal on Android. While some have real-world applications, others are merely a distraction. Let’s take a closer look at what benchmarking can tell you.

    The 2013 US Aeropress Champ Recipe

    We didn't make it to this year's SCAA Event in Boston, where the US Brewer's Cup and US Aeropress Championships were held this past weekend. But Sprudge has chatted with Andy Sprenger, the winner of this year's top US Aeropress award, about his winning brewing method (which was also awarded most innovative). Sprenger is a well known name in the coffee brewing competition circuit, having won the past (and only) two US Brewer's Cups in Houston and Portland, and was the close runner up at the World Brewers Cup. This year, he participated in the US Brewers Cup as a judge. He was also formerly the head roaster at Ceremony Coffee Roasters in Annapolis, Maryland, though he recently announced that he is starting his own coffee company in Colorado.

    Photo credit: Flickr user mdales via Creative Commons.

    Sprenger's winning Aeropress recipe marks a return to the inverted brewing method, after last year's US champion Charlene De Buysere won with a normal non-inverted recipe. But Sprenger incorporated something even more unique: an additional Hario V60 conical filter trimmed down to fit the Aeropress to pre-filter 18 grams of coffee before it goes through the standard Aeropress filter and cap. Crazy, right? Of course, the process is a little more complicated and precise than that. The full recipe is from Sprudge's report of the event:

    Place inverted Aeropress on a scale, tare, add 10 grams of coffee. “I used a fine drip grind,” Andy tells us after the competition. Trim down and pre-wet a V60 filter and carefully fold it on top of the Aeropress chamber. Add an additional 8 grams of coffee to the V60 filter.

    Start your timer, and pre-infuse the V60 filter for about ten seconds with 203-205 degree water. Pulse pour 120 grams of water total over the course of a minute and a half. Carefully remove the V60 filter. Add an additional 150 grams of water to the Aeropress chamber (this’ll take around 20-25 seconds).

    Pre-wet that Aeropress paper filter, cap the chamber, invert the Aeropress – and very slowly press it down. Gentle. Pour and enjoy.

    US Aeropress Championship judges pick Andy's cup. Photo credit: Aerobie

    Watch Sprudge's tutorial video of Andy Sprenger's winning brewing method below. Recipes from previous years' Aeropress champions can also be found here.

    How To Choose an All-in-One CPU Water Cooler

    Welcome back, deep divers. Last week, we talked about air and liquid cooling options for your PC. This time we'll dig a little deeper into all-in-one liquid cooling loops, the middle ground between air coolers and fully custom liquid cooling loops.

    I mentioned that a good liquid-cooling loop will have better performance than all but the best air coolers, but Tested member Sweetz brings up an excellent point:

    The thing about the closed loop coolers is that they have smaller thermal range and nonlinear cooling performance as compared to air coolers. Meaning that at CPU idle, when not stressed, they'll generally produce higher temperatures than competitive air coolers. However, when stressed, they can produce lower temps than the same air coolers that outperformed them at idle - again because they have a different thermal performance curve vs air coolers. You have to get used to this quirk when comparing them to air coolers. Ultimately, I believe lower highs are better than lower lows.

    Large radiators do allow lower fan speeds than the entry level models, but the entry level models already allow lower fan speeds than many air coolers in the same price range. Given that air coolers in the same price range is what they'll be shopped against, I'm not sure I see their noise levels vs larger, more expensive water cooling systems as an argument for not buying the entry level models.

    Choosing a cooler has a lot to do with your specific case. The all-in-ones with the best performance also have the most radiator area, and they won't necessarily work with every case. If you're building a new computer, of course, you get to choose a case and cooler at the same time, so make sure they're compatible.

    Let's dive even deeper into the world of all-in-one coolers and discuss the nuances of radiator placement and airflow.

    The Best Wi-Fi Extender (If You're Out of Options)

    There's something important you should know about wireless range extenders before you buy one: they're not very good. If there are dead zones in your house where Wi-Fi signals can't reach, there are better ways to improve your coverage than Wi-FI extenders. But if you're set on one, the Netgear WN2500RP is the least bad.

    You probably shouldn't buy an extender. The first thing you should try is moving your router to a central location in your house, if possible. Better placement may solve all your problems. If that doesn't work and the router you have is a few years old, I recommend getting a new one like the ASUS RT-N56u or the ASUS RT-N66u, our top picks. I'll explain why, and lay out all the alternatives to a wireless extender that I think will work better for you. After the explanation, if you still decide you need a Wi-Fi Extender, I'll tell you why the Netgear WN2500RP is the one I'd get.

    Briefly: The Problem with Wi-Fi Extenders

    Wi-Fi extenders (sometimes called wireless repeaters) seem like the obvious choice for helping a wireless router cover an entire house with Internet access. Essentially, they pick up a wireless signal just like your tablet or laptop, then rebroadcast that signal, giving you a second access point to connect to. But there's a big problem with that, which kind of cripples the functionality of extenders. Networking expert Tim Higgins wrote this about extenders on SmallNetBuilder in 2011:

    "No matter what they are called or technology they use, repeaters start out with a minimum 50% throughput loss. The reason is that a repeater must receive, then retransmit each packet using the same radio on the same channel and with the same SSID. If the repeater is very efficient, then your loss will be close to 50%. But if it's not, throughput loss can be higher."

    Thanks to that 50% loss in bandwidth right off the top, just about all wireless extenders suck.

    Thanks to that 50% loss in bandwidth right off the top, just about all wireless extenders suck. But the technology has gotten a little better in the past year. If you have to get a Wi-Fi extender, it should be the $80 Netgear WN2500RP, which has a dual-band 2.4GHz and 5GHz radio. The extender can use one frequency to communicate with a router and another frequency to communicate with client devices, which bypasses that 50% hit to bandwidth.

    Even so, a Wi-Fi extender is the last thing you should buy to improve your wireless network. The simple truth is that there are two better alternatives to consider first:

    How to Best Cool a PC: Your Air and Water Cooling Options Explained

    PC building is a gateway drug. It starts out innocuously enough--picking out components, researching cases, hard drives, video cards, and so forth. And then you find out that you don't have to use the CPU cooler that came with your CPU--that there are aftermarket coolers that can make your CPU run even cooler, so you can overclock it more. And then next thing you know your credit card company is calling you to make sure you really meant to buy $200 worth of MOSFET and southbridge waterblocks from Slovenia.

    So what is water cooling? How does it compare to air cooling? Is it even necessary?

    Photo credit: Flickr user azwolskiart via Creative Commons

    First, let's cover the basics. Electronics turn energy into calculations, and the byproduct is heat. The hotter your processor, the worse it performs--modern CPUs will clock themselves down and finally shut off before they damage themselves, but in the old days it was easy to fry your CPU by running too hot. You can increase the performance of your CPU (and your RAM, and your GPU) by overclocking and overvolting, but that requires more energy, and thus puts out more heat. Basically: the better you cool your components, the better they'll perform and the longer they'll last.

    If you recall from thermodynamics lectures, heat likes to equilibrate. So if you put something with the capacity to absorb heat next to something that is hot, and as long as there's some way for heat to transfer between them, the hot thing cools down and the cool thing warms up until they reach equilibrium.

    All CPU coolers work in the same basic way: A heatsink, usually made of copper, but sometimes aluminum or nickel, sits atop the CPU's heat spreader (that's the square metal plate on top of your CPU). A thin layer of thermally conductive paste also sits between the CPU heat spreader and the heatsink, to smooth out the microscopic gaps between the two metal surfaces and provide as much heat transfer as possible. On an air cooler, the heatsink has special heat pipes attached within it or on top of it. The pipes themselves are filled with a fluid that vaporizes as it heats up and rises to the end of the heat pipes, which are usually festooned with thin aluminum or copper heat fins. These fins provide as much surface area as possible. A fan (or several) provides a steady stream of cool air over these fins, and as heat transfers from the fins to the air, the air heats up and the fins cool down. The fins cool, the heat pipes cool, the heatsink cools, and presto, the CPU cools.

    Photo credit: Flickr user marx0r via Creative Commons

    In a liquid cooler, liquid flows through channels carved directly into the top of the heat sink, and is pumped away from the CPU toward a radiator (which actually cools via convection). The radiator has a fan (or several fans) that constantly blow over its fins, heating the air and cooling the fins. The fins cool the radiator, which cools the water, which is constantly circulating through the loop and keeping the CPU cool. Whew.

    How To Get Started with Arduino

    Getting started making things isn't difficult, but the sheer amount of tools and materials for you to work with can be daunting. In this series of posts, I will focus on individual, awesome components, and show how you can get started using them in your own DIY projects. LED strip lighting last time was a nice warm up, but when it comes to awesome components, I truly cannot think of one that beats Arduino.

    Arduino has done a ton to bring electronics tinkering into the mainstream in the last few years, but it’s still far from a household name. If you’re not familiar with Arduino, or you’ve heard of it but don’t quite understand what it is and how it works, read on—this article will tell you everything you need to know to get started building your own electronic projects, right now.

    Photo credit: Flickr user beraldoleal via Creative Commons

    Let's start with the basics.

    Aliasing Be Gone: How To Downsample PC Game Graphics

    Anti-aliasing isn't always there for us when we need it. Jaggies are the enemy, and PC gaming typically arms us with a few ways to beat them back, smoothing out those harsh lines and minimizing that unsightly simmer. But sometimes even minimal anti-aliasing hits performance hard. Sometimes AA options can cause graphical glitches; temporal anti-aliasing offers clean lines in exchange for unsightly ghosting. And, worst of all, some games don't offer anti-aliasing options at all. There are often ways to force anti-aliasing in games, but there's another solution: Downsampling.

    It's a simple concept. Downsampling involves running a game at a custom resolution higher than the native output resolution of your monitor. For example, if your monitor outputs a 1920x1080 image, downsampling would require telling a game to run at, say, 2560x1440. That's a total increase of 1.6 million pixels! When that 2560x1440 image is rescaled, or downsampled, to 1080p, the extra pixels help smooth out those jagged edges and produces a sharper, cleaner picture.

    Image Credit: Kasra Korki

    Downsampling is performance intensive, of course. A guide on Guru 3D elaborates that "the performance impact will be proportional to the increase in resolution or total number of pixels; however, graphics card memory may also need to be considered." The upside, though, is that downsampling "should provide image quality comparable to full screen antialiasing but with far less compatibility issues and in many cases higher performance." And if your graphics card is especially powerful, you can combine anti-aliasing with downsampling for even better image quality.

    Downsampling PC games starts with setting up a custom resolution through an Nvidia or AMD control panel. Finding the right resolution--high enough to improve image quality, but not too high for the GPU to handle--takes some tweaking. The type of monitor you have, the bandwidth of the cable used to connect to it (DVI, DisplayPort, etc.), and your graphics card drivers can all affect how well downsampling will work on your machine. That all sounds like bad news, but the good news is better: finding out if you can downsample will only take about 10 minutes, and the resulting custom resolution should work in just about any PC game you play.

    Image Credit: Kasra Korki

    We've worked up separate guides to downsampling for AMD and Nvidia graphics cards and thrown in some additional links to longer walkthroughs and more information on different types of anti-aliasing. If you're inspired by some of the amazing screenshots downsampling enables, give it a shot.

    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.