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    Shop Tips: Covering Your Work Tables

    A simple yet essential shop tip from Frank's shop today: covering your work tables with a big sheet of paper. Frank talks about what type of paper he uses and why it perfectly suits his projects and table dimensions. It's time to paper up our tables!

    How To Choose Your PC Processor

    Choosing the right PC processor lies at the intersection of what you need, what you can afford, what you want to accomplish, and your self image.

    The focus here is on desktop processors — in particular, desktop systems you plan on building youreself. Since laptop CPUs ship inside complete systems, that's a topic for another day. Note also that these are my rules of thumb. You may see things differently. When I've written these articles for other publications, I try to be dispassionate, but this time it's all about my choices.

    Let's run down each of these intersecting elements, shall we?

    Need

    I used to believe understanding your need to be the most important factor. I'm not convinced that's true any longer, mostly because even relatively low-end processors offer outstanding performance these days. Entry-level quad-core AMD processors can be had for under $100, while Intel's lowest-cost quad-core CPUs cost just a bit under $190, going back to Ivy Bridge, now three generations back. I'd steer away from dual-core desktop processors these days, since even web browsers now spawn multiple threads.

    Molding and Casting Tiny Prop Parts

    I don't know about you, but I tend to jump from one project obsession to another. Just as I was getting over my space gun prop obsession I slipped right into a deep fascination with tiny robot models. My current project is a 1:6 scale Mister Handy robot model from Fallout 4. The majority of it is 3D printed, but I'm molding and casting all of the parts for durability and so that I can make multiples of repeated parts like the arms and eyes.

    I've made a whole bunch of silicone molds in my career. Most of them have been of a moderate scale; roughly space pistol sized. Some of them, on the other hand, have been ridiculously large. For example, the District 9 alien rifle main body mold is over 44" long and took my wife and me 4 days to build.

    With this latest tiny robot project, I've gone in the opposite direction. The molds and pieces for such a small model kit are comically tiny compared to the rifle molds. Some of the parts for this pint sized robot are only a couple of centimeters long! Making gigantic molds and castings is extremely challenging, but I quickly learned with this new project that small molds have their own, different set of hurdles.

    Shop Tips: Working with Water-Based Clay

    In many of Frank's projects with us, he's used clay for both sculpting and mold-making. Today, we stop by his shop to learn about the different kinds of water-based clay he uses, along with his favorite sculpting tools. Post your own shop tips in the comments below!

    How To Build a $1000 Virtual Reality Gaming PC

    It's been too long since we've built a PC! We bring back illustrious technology journalist Loyd Case to talk about the state of computer hardware, the technical requirements of VR rendering, and then put together a $1000 virtual reality-ready gaming PC! Here's how to build a computer from scratch in seven steps. (This is the PC we've been using for all of our VR testing!)

    How to Balance 3-Blade Propellers

    I've often written about the importance of balancing the props on your multi-rotors and airplanes. An out-of-balance prop is only going to cause negative side effects to your equipment and rob your model of useful power.

    There are lots of tutorials out there that explain how to balance 2-blade props and I've touched on the process a bit in previous articles. It's a pretty straightforward procedure, so I won't rehash it here. Balancing 3-blade props, however, is a bit more challenging. Today, I'll explain how I tackle that task.

    When balancing 3-blade props, I use a magnetic balancer, tape, scissors to cut the tape, and a Sharpie to mark the blades.

    Inspection and Prep Work

    Regardless of how many blades your prop has, it's a good idea to inspect it before balancing. There can be deviations in manufacturing or during packaging that could create variances even among props produced in the same lot. If the prop has a thru-hole, I visually check to make sure that it is centered on the hub. This is especially important if you're working with second hand props. Some people use poor methods to enlarge prop holes and end up getting them off-center. I consider a misaligned thru-hole a death sentence for the prop. Toss it and move on.

    Another thing to look for is flash on the prop. Flash is thin, superfluous plastic along the outer edges of the prop. You plastic model builders out there know what I'm talking about. Flash is caused by leaks between the mold halves during the injection molding process. I trim it off with a hobby knife or sandpaper.

    It's best to just throw away a prop that has any sort of damage from a crash or other mishap.

    It's best to just throw away a prop that has any sort of damage from a crash or other mishap. The thin plastic blades on many smaller props are especially prone to damage. It can be tempting to massage a lightly damaged prop back into shape, but it can also be risky. There are two issues at hand if the damaged prop comes apart in flight. First of all is the potential danger of loose propeller blades sailing through the air. Secondly, the remaining parts of the prop will be extremely out of balance once the damaged blade parts company. The resulting vibration can shake an aircraft to pieces in an instant. I've seen it happen.

    If the only damage to a prop is scuffed blade tips from a tip-over, it can sometimes be salvaged. Just make sure there are no hidden hairline cracks or jagged edges. You should rebalance the prop before using it again.

    Shop Tips: Know Your Hot Glue Guns

    Every time Frank comes up to San Francisco to work on a project, he criticizes our hot glue guns. So we had to visit his shop to learn about Frank's favorite hot glue guns. For this week's Shop Tip, Frank explains the difference between high and low temperature hot glue, and how he uses each.

    How To Make Shiny Metal Prop Finishes

    Over the last month or so, I've been plugging away at building a replica of Rey's LPA NN-14 Blaster Pistol from Star Wars: The Force Awakens. I suspect that the prop in the movie was made from a combination of found objects and milled aluminum parts. Mine, on the other hand, was made from scratch and cast with urethane resin parts. This made achieving a similar, convincing metallic finish a bit of a challenge. There are lots of different ways to finish resin parts to look like metal. I could have gotten the pieces chromed or vacuum metalized, but those processes are a bit cost prohibitive. On the other end of the spectrum, I've had less than stellar results with rattle can "chrome" paints. So instead I opted for an airbrushed finish!

    I've dabbled a bit with Alclad II metallic lacquer paints in the past and have been looking for an excuse to get more familiar with them. This project provided the perfect opportunity to expand my paint collection a bit further and do some experimenting. Their paints are generally used together in a set of two or three combined finishes. To get a real metallic "shine" it's necessary to lay down your metal paint on a glossy black finish. You also want a way to protect that finish once it's all done. So I went with their glossy black finish, the "polished aluminum" paint, and their Aqua Gloss clear sealant.

    Note: All of this finishing work, aside from the priming, was done with an airbrush. I like my Iwata Eclipse gravity fed brush for this kind of work.

    Shop Tips: How To Pour from Large Containers

    We're starting a new series this week with effects artist Frank Ippolito: Shop Tips! Frank shares his favorite tools, techniques, and processes that he's acquired over the years running his own effects and fabrication shop. This week, we kick off with a seemingly simple task: pouring liquid material out of one gallon and five gallon containers.

    The Best Android Smartphones for Your Network (February 2016)

    We're on the verge of big things in the Android ecosystem. Well, you could make the argument that we always are, but this month in particular things are about to break loose. New phones from Samsung and LG are a lock for Mobile World Congress in a few weeks, but in the meantime there are still some excellent devices out there. Let's see what your options are, and when you should hold off.

    Carrier-branded Phones

    In recent months, I've cited the Samsung Galaxy S6 and LG G4 as the best devices you can get direct from your carrier. That's still true, but the Galaxy S7 and Lg G5 are only weeks away. Let's examine some of the rumors and compare that to what you can buy right now.

    The GS6 has a 5.1-inch Super AMOLED panel, which continues to be one of the best screens available on a smartphone. It's 1440p and the colors are amazing. At 5.1-inches, it's actually comfortable to use one-handed too. The reasonably sized and fantastic screen continues to be one of the primary selling points of this phone. Based on what I've heard from reliable sources, the Galaxy S7 will have the same resolution and form factor. The screen's characteristics will probably be improved, but not dramatically.

    The Galaxy S6 has an aluminum frame and Gorilla Glass front/rear panels, and the GS7 will be much the same. Samsung's phones feel solid, despite having glass rear panels. You can expect the GS7 to also have a non-removable battery like the GS6.

    Samsung still has the best overall camera available on an Android smartphone. Even if you buy it now, you won't be disappointed. The Samsung Galaxy S6 has a 16MP shooter with optical image stabilization and an f/1.9 lens. The exposure quality and consistency are better than any other phone right now, even in low light. The GS7 will probably step down to a 12MP sensor, but with a much wider aperture for better low-light performance.

    Inside, the Galaxy S6 has an octa-core Exynos chip with four faster Cortex-A57 cores and four light-duty A53s. This was a stopgap measure to counter Qualcomm's 810 overheating issues, but the Galaxy S7 will reportedly switch back to a Snapdragon chip, the 820. This is one of the big reasons you might want to wait -- the GS7 will be faster and more power-efficient.

    The GS6 also has 3GB of RAM, 32/64/128GB of storage, and 2550mAh non-removable battery. It's very fast in daily use, but battery life is just average. I regularly see 4 hours of screen time in a single day, but some people are a little higher or lower. It's not going to make it through two full days, but a little more than one is feasible. The GS7 is said to have a larger battery, but the big improvement here is the addition of a microSD card slot. This isn't 100% yet, but it seems very likely.

    Making Props with the Inventables X-Carve CNC Router

    Greetings Tested readers! I'm Bill Doran, prop maker from Punished Props. You may recall the District 9 Alien Rifle project I did with the gang for last year's San Diego Comic-Con. That was a super fun collaboration and we're looking to do more of that in 2016. I'm also slated to write some articles for the site throughout the year. These articles will be on various subjects relevant to prop and costume making.

    Today I want to talk a little bit about CNC routing, particularly with the X-Carve from Inventables. Inventables reached out to a bunch of makers on YouTube to share some demo units and I was fortunate enough to get my hands on one. I've built up my tool collection significantly in the past few years so I'm not hurting for options, but I was particularly excited about this machine, for a number of reasons.

    First, it's big. The version I received has a 1000mm x 1000mm cutting area. Compared to the 20" x 12" area in my Full Spectrum laser cutter, the X-Carve is a monster. The CNC router can also cut materials that would be dangerous in a laser (like PVC plastic) or materials that would be impossible in my laser (aluminum).

    The X-Carve can also cut materials into 3D forms, similar to my 3D printer, but it has a couple of distinct advantages over that machine as well. For starters, my Dremel Idea Builder is limited to just one material: PLA. The X-Carve can tackle just about any plastic or wood you throw at it. In many cases, it's also significantly faster than a 3D printer. The Z-axis depth is much more limited than the 3D printer at just a couple of inches, but as I said before, the X and Y axis can travel 1000mm in either direction; much more than my 3D printer.

    Does this make the CNC router the only tool I'll need in my shop? Of course not! It is, however, an extremely powerful and versatile tool that boosts what's possible in my small prop making shop. I'm really stoked to see what I can make it do. I'm also looking forward to the day when my CNC router, 3D Printer, and laser cutter are all running concurrent jobs while I cackle maniacally like a mad scientist. At least until they all become self aware and destroy humanity.

    Testing SAFE Plus Stabilization for RC Aircraft

    If you've ever flown a fixed-wing RC model with artificial stabilization such as SAFE or WISE, then you know that these systems are not some magic wand that prevents all crashes and makes new pilots expert flyers overnight. Artificial stabilization is merely a useful training tool. When used correctly, it can significantly shorten a rookie pilot's learning curve—and perhaps help avoid some carnage along the way.

    Artificial stability systems continue to become more sophisticated and capable. The SAFE Plus (SAFE+) system installed in the Hobbyzone Sportsman S+ model is a prime example. This system is unique in that it utilizes GPS and a compass in order to realize heretofore unseen capabilities in fixed-wing models. In some cases, those new capabilities address shortcomings that I found in other stability systems.

    My original plan for this article was to exercise the various features of SAFE+ and report how well it performs. I'm still going to do that. Yet, as I spent more time flying the Sportsman S+, I slowly began to realize that artificial stability has turned a very significant corner. I think that these systems which are meant to assist new flyers could actually make learning more difficult and confusing for some pilots. I'll explain my reasoning for that opinion as well.

    Why GPS and Compass?

    The core functionality of a fixed-wing stability system is to know what straight and level flight is and then command the model to get there when asked. If a pilot gets disoriented or puts the airplane in a bad attitude, the system will execute recovery maneuvers and save the day. The pilot can then resume control with no harm done. One problem that I've found with these systems is that they still require the pilot to execute turns to keep the model in sight. Even a few seconds of unsure hesitation on the controls could be sufficient to send the perfectly stabilized model flying off into the horizon. That's one reason why it is still a good idea to have an experienced pilot on hand to coach you through those first awkward steps.

    This GPS module permits the SAFE+ system to overcome the shortcomings of other fixed-wing stabilization units.

    By integrating GPS and compass into SAFE+, the dreaded "fly away" scenario is mitigated. We've become accustomed to (and perhaps dependent on) the GPS and compass-enabled features in multi-rotors. By knowing where the model is and which way it is pointing, multi-rotors can automatically hold their position in the sky when the wind blows or return to their takeoff location with the push of a button. SAFE+ brings similar capabilities to fixed-wing aircraft.

    The Best Replacements for Stock Android Apps

    The assortment of apps that come with your phone will get the job done, and in some cases they might even be great. that doesn't mean there aren't viable alternatives out there. You may even find that a third-party alternative app is far better for you than the one that came with your phone. Let's take a peek in the Play Store and see what your best options are for replacing the built-in functionality of your Android device these days.

    Gmail/Email: CloudMagic

    Until recently, I probably would have said Mailbox offered the best overall email alternative on Android, but now Dropbox is shutting down the app. Luckily, there's also CloudMagic. It's been a moderately popular app for a few years, but doesn't seem to get much attention.

    It supports instant push notifications and threaded messages for all types of email including Gmail, Yahoo, Outlook, Exchange, and more. For Gmail users, it has full tagging/folder support. If you use multiple email services, there's also a unified inbox mode. The swipe actions make it easy to manage a large volume of email too. With modules for apps like Todoist, Evernote, and OneNote, you can actually get work done from inside CloudMagic.

    All that and it's a free app! Next up, search and camera replacements.

    How to Take Apart and Clean an Airbrush

    Proper care and maintenance of your tools can greatly extend their lifespan and make them more reliable! This week, Frank stops by to teach us how to properly take apart and clean an Iwata Revolution dual-action airbrush. Even if you don't use an airbrush, it's a fascinating process to watch!

    The Best Android Smartphone for Your Network (November 2015)

    All the carriers and OEMs are locked in for their holiday phone lineups now, so which ones are worth getting? We live in a world now where the price of phones matters with most carriers charging monthly for the full price rather than simply selling them on contract for $200. And if you don't want to go through the carriers, that's never been easier. Let's dive in and see where you stand.

    Carrier-branded phones

    Even with the plethora of unlocked devices out there, it can often be easier to go through your carrier. You can get a payment plan to make it less expensive to upgrade and more easily return devices if you change your mind. If that's the way you're going, there are two devices that I still think are worth your money, even though they came out last spring -- the Galaxy S6 and the LG G4.

    The GS6 has a 5.1-inch Super AMOLED panel, and it's one of the best screens available on a smartphone at 2560x1440 resolution. So many phones are phablets these days, making one-handed use an increasing rarity. The GS6 is easily one-handable, though. The reasonably sized and fantastic screen continues to be one of the primary selling points of this phone.

    Samsung still has the best overall camera available on an Android smartphone. The Samsung Galaxy S6 has a 16MP shooter with optical image stabilization and an f/1.9 lens. Images are almost always properly exposed with accurate of colors on the first try, even in poor light. I've actually started taking a lot of my review photos with a Galaxy S6 because it's easier than dragging out my DSLR for a minor improvement in image quality.