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    6 Android Projects to Try This Holiday Break

    No matter which Android device you've chosen as your daily driver, it's jam packed with a variety of neat features. However, if you've got a little time this holiday season and curiosity to tinker, you can expand on the stock functionality or even completely change the experience. With many folks getting new Android phones and tablets over this holiday break, what better way to spend that free time than embarking on an Android project or two? Here are some tweaks that you shouldn't be afraid to try out. And don't worry, nothing's permanent!

    Get the Google Experience Launcher

    Let's start off slow with an easy one. If you're not looking to get your hands too dirty, but you still want to try something new on your device, install the still semi-secret Google Experience Launcher. It only takes a few minutes and it should work on almost every Android phone and tablet out there.

    It's more or less common knowledge now that Google is readying a new home screen launcher for Android devices, and it's probably already on your phone. The Google Search app, which started as just a quick search box, became a full app, then evolved into Google Now, is also a launcher these days. To access the Google Experience Launcher in your search app, you'll need to get the GEL stub app and install it on your phone or tablet.

    Make sure Unknown Sources is enabled in your device's security settings, then download the APK linked above. After it is installed, your device will ask you which home screen you want to use, just like installing any number of third-party launchers. The difference here is that updates to the Google Search app through the Play Store will actually tweak your home screen.

    This is a work in process -- in fact, Google just recently made some major changes to GEL on tablets. You're seeing the bleeding edge of Android if you sideload the Google Experience Launcher, and making your home there is a fun and low-risk project.

    Which Headphones Should I Get?

    As The Wirecutter’s resident headphone tester and an audio engineer by training, I hear a lot of the same questions over and over again. Like: “How much should I spend on headphones?” and “Are Beats By Dre good?” and “What’s the difference between in-ear and over-ear headphones?” Let me answer these questions for you.

    Why Should I Buy In-Ear Headphones?

    In-ear headphones are portable, help seal out the noises around you and are light for wearing during a commute, a workout, or really any activity that involves moving around. This is in comparison to over-ears, which are much bulkier and heavier, and which take up more space in your bag. Buy in-ears if you are someone who likes music on-the-go and don’t mind having things inside of your ear canal for more than a few minutes. What you give up versus over-ear headphones is sound quality in any price range, as it is harder to make things both smaller and sound as good.

    Whay Should I Buy Over-Ear Headphones?

    Over-ear headphones are made for more prolonged, often stationary listening.

    Let me begin by saying that some people just dislike the feeling of in-ear headphones. If that’s you, problem solved. Get yourself some over-ears. Over-ear headphones are made for more prolonged, often stationary listening. They’re bulkier than their in-ear counterparts, and carrying case or no, they’re still going to take up much more precious bag space. In-ears and (closed back) over-ears solve the same problem in a different way. In-ears seal out external sounds from the inside, over-ears seal out external noise by covering the ear from the outside.

    A word about sound quality. Not too long ago, the argument would be made that in-ears simply could not reproduce the same sound quality as over-ears. And to be fair, it is definitely more difficult to make drivers small enough and delicate enough to make for a similar listening experience. In more recent years, the technology has gotten better; you can get in-ears that rival over-ears in terms of sound quality. However, be prepared to pay for it. Conversely, one could argue that you can get better sound quality for less money when investing in over-ear headphones as compared to in-ear headphones.

    The 10 Best Android Apps and Games of 2013

    Every week you get to check out the best new stuff on Android with the Google Play App Roundup here on Tested. Over the course of the year that works out to over 150 apps and games. That's a lot of apps, but what if you only want the absolute best of the best? That's just what you'll get here. These are the top 10 Android apps and games from 2013.

    We've got everything from widgets to tower defense, so grab your Android device and get ready to ensure you have the best stuff from the last year.

    DynamicNotifications

    The Moto X was a notable phone for a myriad of reasons, but one of its coolest user-facing features was Active Notifications. Rather than rely on a little flashing LED that conveys very little information, the Moto X can wake up the screen and show a snippet of text with an icon. With a tap, you can see what's seeking your attention and act on it. Very shortly after the Moto X came out, an Android app called DynamicNotifications arrived in Google Play that offers very similar functionality for all devices.

    I have been using this on my phones continuously since it came out, and it is only getting better with each update. Just like the Moto X, this app wakes up the screen by plugging into the notification listener or accessibility options (pre-4.3 devices) to put your notifications on the screen. If you're on Android 4.3 or higher, you can even dismiss all the notifications right from that interface. It supports DashClock extensions too.

    When a notification comes in, you get a little icon in the middle of a black screen to indicate which app has spawned a notification (with immersive mode in Android 4.4!). Pressing on it gives you the first few bits of text from the notification shade. From there, you can open the notification, just unlock the phone, or dismiss and shut off the screen. These options and the direction you swipe to activate each one is configurable in the settings.

    The settings can do a lot more than that too. If you get the $1.99 pro key, you can set quiet times where the screen won't wake up, control the brightness, and more. The free app allows you to pick which apps will be picked up by DynamicNotifications, which is essential to making this app work in practice. Otherwise the screen would be on constantly.

    As long as the screen timeout isn't too long, I've found little to no battery drain from this app, so I have no trouble calling it one of the best of 2013.

    How To Use a PlayStation 4 Controller on PC

    The Xbox 360 controller managed to do something unprecedented for PC gamers: It standardized gamepad controls for the PC, giving developers a single input to account for and a common set of buttons to integrate into UIs. The XInput API made the Xbox 360 controller plug and play. It just works. And now so does Sony's new DualShock 4, thanks to an intrepid modder named InhexSTER and his DS4Tool.

    InhexSTER used the ubiquity of Microsoft's XInput API to bring the DualShock 4 to life on PC, with rumble motors rumbling and RGB lights aglow. DS4Tool is a wrapper that essentially tricks Windows into thinking the DualShock 4 is an Xbox 360 controller. After a couple minutes of setup, it can automatically detect a DS4 synced via USB or Bluetooth and map the buttons automatically. InhexSTER is also updating the tool regularly; since the first release in November, he's reduced latency and added rumble, LED color sliders, and touchpad support (as a mouse cursor).

    DS4 to XInput Mapper is currently on version 1.1 Beta 3. Here's how to set it up on your PC in a few minutes, step by step.

    Joining the Quad Squad: How To Get Started with RC Quadcopters

    A cursory search on YouTube or Vimeo will yield a bountiful selection of footage captured from radio-controlled (RC) model aircraft known as multi-rotors. The name comes from the fact that these particular models rely solely on horizontal propellers (rotors) to provide lift and directional control. Most multi-rotors have four propellers, so they are called “quad-rotors”, or just “quads”. For the sake of simplicity in this article, I’ll brand all multi-rotors as “quads”, while recognizing that there are versions with three to eight airscrews…sometimes more.

    Despite their unaerodynamic appearance, quads are ideal for capturing photographs and video footage from the sky. Many of them can heft a surprisingly heavy payload (i.e. good quality imaging equipment) and hold a steady posture in the air. With the ability to hover in place and fly in confined spaces, quads can often provide perspectives that no other filming technique can mimic. Watch some of those YouTube videos and you’ll see what I mean. Not only that, but quads are fun to fly with or without a camera attached.

    But before you zip out and buy a quad of your own, there is one more thing you should know. Switch over to a news site and it won't take a lot of digging around to find the unglamorous B-side of quads. How about the wedding photographer who flew his camera-toting quad into the bride and groom? Then there is the wise guy who took his quad over Manhattan, only to crash into the side of a high rise, where his machine plummeted to the sidewalk 300 feet below. Let’s not forget the genius who flew his quad so high and so near JFK airport that it was spotted by a passing (and quite perturbed) airline captain! This unfortunate list goes on and on, yet the takeaway is but twofold:

    1. Multi-rotor models are capable of inflicting surprising amounts of injury and/or damage…think “flying Cuisinart”.

    2. Multi-rotor models require diligence and practiced skill to fly competently…think “unicycle”.

    If you’re still reading, I assume that you have some aspiration of owning a quad and perhaps racking up those YouTube views. That goal is reasonable and attainable even if you’ve never operated a RC vehicle before. Just recognize that diving into multi-rotors without heeding the lessons above could render you the next bungler featured on the evening news. Not to mention that doing something with your quad that captures the attention of CNN is also likely to attract the attention of local police, the FAA, and quite possibly the FBI…and that’s no joke. My point is not to discourage you from buying a quad, but to inform you of the aspects of quad ownership that are often unintuitive.

    Let's get started!

    The Best Fitness Tracker Today

    Every fitness tracker currently available has its shortcomings, but the $130 Fitbit Force’s flaws are easy to forgive given the convenience of its wrist-mounted design and legible screen that tracks your stats in real time. It is the only fitness tracker that combines all those features with the added accuracy of an altimeter. The fact that it’s a part of the most comprehensive fitness ecosystem around is gravy. Unfortunately, the wrist strap can be a bit tricky to latch and it’s not as water-resistant as other options, but it’s still the one we’d get.

    If you can do without the wrist strap, the Fitbit One has more consistently positive user reviews and is still your best bet. At a bit under $100, it’s a better deal as well. But unless you’re opposed to wearing a tracker on your wrist for style purposes or what have you, the Force’s wristband design is a lot more convenient and harder to forget.

    Finally, if you have an older Android phone, then the Withings Pulse is your only option for Bluetooth syncing. Withings’ ecosystem isn’t as robust as Fitbit’s and syncing takes about 45 seconds to complete as opposed to the automatic background syncing of the Fitbits, but at least it will work with your older phone.

    Living with Photography: Don't Be So Shallow

    I'm back to regularly writing this column. No more excuses. I swear it. And all it took to galvanize me back to action was a disagreement on Twitter. Late last week, Alexis Madrigal of The Atlantic (one of my favorite tech writers) tweeted a link to a guide to taking good photos on the relatively cheap. It was written by Stu Maschwitz, a cinematographer and ex-visual effects supervisor at ILM. The guide makes some pretty good recommendations, and I have no doubt that Stu knows what he's talking about. But I disagree with a few of his tips and wanted to give a second opinion, especially since his guide has been well-praised and linked around quite a bit now. It's not that I think he's wrong about any specific point, but that I think beginners should have more context as to what they're doing when following someone's catch-all recommendations.

    The purpose of the guide was to get amateur photographers comfortable with the idea of buying a dedicated DSLR camera, and to show that an investment of $1000 will yield much better and more usable (eg. printable) photos than ones taken with a smartphone or cheap point-and-shoot. In that regard it's great, and I agree with the basic gist: buy a used DSLR body for under $500, a 50mm f/1.8 lens for around $100, and shoot a ton of photos so you can learn the hardware. You can also do the same with a good Micro Four Thirds or APS-C sensor mirrorless camera (refurbished Sony NEX-5N would be my recommendation), but you have more affordable-yet-great lens options with a Canon or Nikon DSLR. I also totally agree with shooting in Aperture Priority mode, using manually-set autofocus points (center), and shooting in RAW if possible. You get the most automatic bang for your buck just by switching from JPEG to RAW, and spending some time tweaking in Lightroom. And I want to give Stu a high-five for hammering home the idea that the biggest hurdle to taking good photos is not getting off your butt and actually taking photos. "Actually do this" is the best photography advice I could give, too.

    Where we disagree, then, is on the blanket recommendation of how to configure your camera settings when shooting in Aperture Priority mode. Specifically, Stu's tip of shooting with the aperture of your lens wide open. In the context of his recommendations, that's using something like a Nifty Fifty on a Canon Rebel T3i at f/1.8. His rationale for that setting: "Shooting wide-open will result in two things: First, you can shoot in lower light, and even capture fast motion like kids on a carousel. Second, you’ll get that wonderful shallow depth of field that mushes busy backgrounds into pleasing blobs of light." I think both of those reasons are slightly flawed. In the first case, Aperture Priority and Auto-ISO isn't optimal for fast motion--the camera-dictated shutter speeds in Aperture Priority don't take into account a fast-moving scene, and you actually want to shoot in Shutter Priority or manually lower exposure compensation to avoid blur. In the second case, where Stu champions background defocusing--bokeh--I actually am in the camp that believes that it's too easy to overuse bokeh to ruin portrait photography. In fact, I think that shooting with aperture completely wide open on any "fast" prime lens (f/1.8 or wider) should only be used in very specific circumstances.

    Here are four reasons why I rarely ever shoot with my 50mm lens wide open.

    Everything You Should Know about Micro Four Thirds Mirrorless Cameras

    While DSLRs get the lion’s share of the sales for interchangeable lens cameras, mirrorless cameras often get more attention. Maybe it’s their petite size, like the recently shipping Panasonic GM1. Maybe it’s the ability to cram a 36 megapixel full frame sensor into a relatively compact body, as with Sony’s new Alpha 7 series. Pro photographers often use Fuji X-series mirrorless cameras as backups to their normal DSLR rigs. Whether its size, technology or marketing, mirrorless cameras are the hot trend in photography.

    DSLRs are bulky, because they require substantial interior space for the flipping mirror and the pentaprism or pentamirror. It’s true that companies have been putting DSLRs on a diet, like Canon’s EOS SL1, but the SL1 is a fairly stripped down, entry level camera. Enthusiast or pro DSLRs tend to be more bulky, like the EOS 6D that Norm’s been using lately. I’ve carried Nikon DSLRs for years, most recently the Nikon D600 full frame DSLR. But I yearned for something more compact and lighter. But I’d become attached to the rich ecosystem of lens possibilities with Nikon’s F-mount.

    Shooting with a full frame Nikon DSLR gave me nearly unlimited lens possibilities.

    Of all the mirrorless cameras in the market, one standard stands out as having the most substantial lens ecosystem: Micro Four Thirds. Since both Panasonic and Olympus support Micro Four Thirds, there’s a wide array of lenses available. But what is Micro Four Thirds, and where does it fit into the larger mirrorless camera market?

    Four Thirds begets Micro Four Thirds

    Relative sensor sizes compared to 35mm “full frame” (the blue rectangle.) Four thirds offers a roughly 2x crop factor. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

    The original Four Thirds, launched in 2001, created a standard sensor size and aspect ratio. The sensor size is roughly half the area of a typical full-frame DSLR sensor. The aspect ratio of 4:3 (hence “Four Thirds” is similar to some types of medium format cameras and makes printing on standard 8 x 10 photo paper easier. Four Thirds was designed from the ground up to be a purely digital standard.

    When Four Thirds launched, a number of companies joined the bandwagon. Olympus and Kodak were the key developers of the standard, but Panasonic and Leica also shipped Four Thirds bodies. These were DSLRs, complete with flipping mirrors and pentaprisms. At the time Four Thirds launched, Olympus viewed the standard as the next generation of professional cameras. Consequently, they developed a rich set of lenses which are still available, some of which are equal to or better than the best Nikon or Canon lenses. Since the sensor offered a 2x crop factor, lenses could be more compact and lighter.

    In reality, Four Thirds never really took hold among pro photographers. The biggest guns in the professional camera field, Canon and Nikon, stuck with DSLRs, and relatively few pros picked up on the new standard. Sensor technology was an impediment: a decade ago, small sensors meant poor low-light performance. Olympus made up for this by offering a number of f/2.0 and faster lenses, but these were expensive, and building f/2.0 capable zoom lenses meant that they weren’t as small as they could have been.

    In 2008, Panasonic and Olympus developed a new standard, Micro Four Thirds, often abbreviated to Micro 4/3. The sensor size and aspect ratio is the same, but the standard was designed for mirrorless bodies. This allowed the two companies to shrink the bodies even more, but did change the distance from the inner lens surface to the sensor (the flange distance) from the original Four Thirds standard. Micro 4/3 cameras can still use older Four Thirds lenses, but an adapter is needed to extend the length from rear element to the sensor.

    The Best Portable Bluetooth Speaker Today

    After looking at almost every option around, I decided to use the Logitech UE Mini Boom to play music around my house and outside. It’s compact, has a long battery life, works as a speakerphone and delivers exceptional sound for under $100.

    Why a Bluetooth Portable Speaker?

    If you’re going to be sharing your music on the go…you’ll want something that sounds better than your phone’s screechy speakerphone.

    If you’re going to be sharing your music on the go with other people, you’ll want something that sounds better than your phone’s screechy speakerphone. The dock-based speaker is dead, especially since Apple replaced the 30-pin with the Lightning connection on the iPhone 5. Wired speakers are also becoming harder to find. Basically, wireless is your only option. But devices that use Sonos or Airplay are prohibitively expensive for most people whereas Bluetooth comes baked into virtually every modern tablet, phone, and computer. Unlike other wireless standards, Bluetooth is not platform-specific. It’s also easy to pair and is a hard connection to inadvertently break. Basically, it’s everything you need from a wireless streaming protocol. Unfortunately, it may lack some of the features you want.

    Sound quality is Bluetooth’s Achilles’ heel. Make no mistake, you will lose some of the fidelity that would otherwise be preserved if you connected via AirPlay or a 3.5mm headphone jack. But that probably won’t matter in most cases for a couple of reasons. First of which is the speaker itself. A portable speaker needs to be, well, portable. Otherwise what’s the point? However, size matters when it comes to sound. You’re simply not going to be able to get as much bass out of a 1-inch driver as you would from an 8-inch sub–or even a 3 inch driver for that matter. So even in the best case scenario, you’re going to lose a chunk of sound quality. The second reason has to do with the source material. Streaming services are quickly becoming the preferred method of listening to music but truth be told, often times their quality can’t even match what you buy on iTunes, let alone CDs or vinyl. For example, you won’t notice any drop in quality if you’re listening to music using Spotify’s “Normal” and recommended streaming rate of 96 kbit/s. It’s also worth noting that some new music is deliberately mixed to be cruddy so it’ll sound acceptable on cheap headphones. The third reason is that your phone belongs on your person, not on a tabletop with a speaker on it, too far to check your messages.

    Basically, lossy songs played through small speakers can only sound so good, and you’ll hit the limitations of the source and speaker well before you notice the drawbacks of Bluetooth.

    The Zoidberg Project, Part 4: Let's Start Sculpting!

    Ok, after building out our core lifecast and having a life-sized figure to work on, we are finally on to the sculpting stage. This is the part where I take some clay, and start making the character that will eventually become the one and only Zoidberg.

    There are a million sculpting techniques and a million ways to approach a new sculpture, so don't take my methods as gospel--it's just what seems to work for me. But to start, the thing I think about is really wanting to try and get the scale right. Shape placement and general forms and anatomy are what I'm focusing on right now. Anatomy is something that I picked up from general observation and a bit of research (on the internet or in books). Human, animal, insect, or in this case decapod--really anything that you can look at and apply will make it more realistic and believable.

    Sometimes I can get lucky and attack a sculpture and go right to the character that I am trying to find, other times it takes a lot of pushing and pulling on the clay to get there. Forms are always more important than the details.

    We’re going to be sculpting on the lifecast that I have of our model, because we want it to fit on top of his head and line up with his mouth and eyes (so he will be able to eventually see and speak and breathe in this thing).

    For clay choices, there are two main categories: water-based and oil-based. With water based clays (such as Laguna EM-217, otherwise known as WED) you have to stay aware of how wet or dry the clay is getting. If the water clay gets too dry, it will start to crack and crumble. If it's too wet, it's like sculpting with soup. Oil-based clays offer more versatility. Out of necessity, I stay away from clays with sulfur in them because sulfur will inhibit platinum-based silicones when you are making your mask molds.

    My two main choices in oil clay are Chavant Medium and Monster Clay. Both of these clays have their quirks and which one I pick sometimes just depends on what mood I'm in. In general, I love Chavant for prosthetics, and love Monster Clay for everything else. For Zoidberg, I'll be using Monster Clay. Its high wax content is really nice for both crisp details and smooth shapes.

    Everything You Need to Know about The Beaglebone Black

    In the past, I’ve exclusively covered Arduino-based projects, but that platform is far from the only option for makers and anyone into D-I-Y electronics. Sometimes, you need more than just an electronics controller board, you need a full computer system. Among other options, the most significant single-board computers today are the Raspberry Pi and the Beaglebone Black. There’s been a lot of digital ink spilt about the Raspberry Pi since it launched early last year, but the Beaglebone Black hasn’t enjoyed nearly the same level of coverage (even though it's used in projects like OpenROV). I think that’s a shame, because the board actually has a lot to offer the amateur builder, and for many is a compelling alternative to the Pi. In this guide, I’ll take an in-depth look at the Beaglebone Black, discussing what it is, what you can do with it, and how to get started.

    What is the Beaglebone Black

    First, a bit of vocab: the Beaglebone Black is a single-board computer, like the Raspberry Pi. A single-board computer is pretty much what it sounds like—all the hardware you would expect to find in a desktop or laptop computer, shrunken down and soldered to a single circuit board. A processor, memory, and graphics acceleration are all present as chips on the board.

    To contrast, Arduino boards also have a processor and memory on board, but are orders of magnitude less powerful, and lack the specialized I/O hardware you need to connect the board to a monitor. In more concrete terms, you can hook a Beagleboard Black up to a display, speakers, a keyboard and mouse and an Ethernet network, and boot into a Linux-based operating system. From there, you can do anything you could do with a (low-powered) Linux computer. You can’t do that with Arduino.

    The original Beagleboard, launched in 2008 and was a little bit bigger and a lot more expensive. By 2012, the Beaglebone was released, which brought the size in line with the credit-card-shaped Raspberry Pi, but still cost $90. The Beaglebone Black came along earlier this year, and finally brought the price down to just $45, making it suddenly very competitive with the Raspberry Pi and other DIY-oriented Single-board computers.

    Tested: The Right $250 PC Graphics Card

    There’s an arms race happening in PC gaming. GPU manufacturers are beefing up the capabilities and performance of their graphics chips while PC game developers keep ladling on additional eye candy. If you’ve played the latest Assassin’s Creed or Battlefield, their lush graphics are easily capable of reducing systems running older graphics cards to a whimpering, huddled mess. Okay, maybe that whimpering mass is the owner of said system. Even slightly older games, like Tomb Raider and Metro: Last Light can easily hammer older PCs if certain graphics features are enabled.

    Upgrading your graphics cards offer the best bang-for-the-buck when you want to boost performance in modern PC games. However, not anyone wants to buy, or can afford, a $700 GPU. Also, most PC gamers run their games on a single monitor at full HD resolution: 1920 x 1080, usually shortened to 1080p. The problem is that the mid-range GPUs, running in cards costing between $200 and $300, are in a holding pattern. While both Nvidia and AMD have ramped up the high end substantially in an effort to become king of the GPU mountain, the mid-range cards are mostly rebadged GPUs – old wine in new bottles.

    Take the Radeon HD 7870 GHz Edition. AMD has added clock rate boost capability and called it the R9 270X. The GPU is otherwise the same. Nvidia has taken a slightly different approach. The GTX 760 is ostensibly replacing the GTX 660 Ti. Both use cut-down GK104 GPUs (the same GPU used in the GTX 770). But the GTX 760 offers fewer shader cores and texture units than the GTX 660 Ti, while beefing up the clock speed. On the other hand, the GTX 760 has more of everything than the somewhat anemic, GK106-based GTX 660 non-Ti variant. Confused yet?

    Where both companies gain back some favor is that they’ve cut prices back. The original Radeon HD 7870 cost $350 when they originally shipped in early 2012. The cards I tested for this review are all $250 or less. Here are the contenders.

    The Best Small TV Today (32-Inches)

    The $298 Samsung UN32EH5300 is the best small TV. For not much more than a decent 720p display, you get full 1080p resolution and smart TV functionality built-in. Based on the non-smart version, it has better image quality than competitors as well. The catch is that it’s a 2012 model; it only recently dropped in price and therefore could go out of stock soon. In that case, we have other picks as well.

    Our old pick, the Vizio E320i-A0, is a current model that costs $288. That’s a great deal for a 720p panel with Netflix and other streaming content, but the Samsung is better at the moment. The reason we are changing the pick is because the UN32EH5300 cost well over $350 until just recently (which is too much for most people to pay for a TV of this size). It’s likely that the price drop is intended to clear out stock in order to make room for the 2014 models. Until then, the Samsung is the better buy.

    We also recommend the Samsung UN32F5000 if you want a thinner TV to hang on the wall. The image quality should be very similar to the EH5300 and it’s edge lit so it is almost 2” slimmer. It does, however, lack the smart TV features. There is just a general lack of thin 720p sets, so we are recommending a 1080p set instead.

    If you already have a streaming device to use, you should save even more and get the Samsung UN32EH4003. It is only 720p, but it has a nice image and is the cheapest 720p set out there from a major manufacturer today. The main caveat is that it won’t work with a sound bar.

    The Best Android Smartphone for Your Network (November 2013)

    Another month has gone by, and the deal making has really kicked up a notch. With the holiday season closing in, everyone wants to move more phones. That's great news for anyone in the market. Still, there's the dilemma of deciding on a new handset. It's a decision most people only get to make once every two years, so you don't want to screw it up. Let us help.

    Photo credit: Flickr user mesfoto via Creative Commons

    This month the Moto X shows us that specs aren't everything, the Nexus 5 keeps on rolling strong, and the Note 3 is still really (physically) big.

    How To Stream Your PC Gaming Online, Step-by-Step

    There are lots of ways to stream your gaming session online, and we’ve talked to a bunch of prominent members of the streaming community to get their recommendations for the easiest way to get started. Their recommendation for the best flexible, powerful, and free way: streaming on Twitch.tv using the Open Broadcaster Software. Getting this set up isn’t difficult, and we’re going to walk you through the process to make sure you get every setting optimized. Our goal is to broadcast the game itself, plus video and audio of the player. That's you! Well, me, for the purposes of this guide. Here's what you need, and how to set it up.

    Photo credit: Flickr user vsmak via Creative Commons

    A Decent PC

    Encoding and streaming your game, your voice, and your ugly mug takes processing power and RAM. As I mentioned in my last story, Twitch recommends an Intel Core i5-2500K CPU (or "AMD equivalent") or higher, plus 8GB of RAM. This is to ensure you have enough processing power and memory to encode while playing your game. djWHEAT says, "You could stream using lower-rated hardware, but the quality output will suffer." You also need a graphics card powerful enough to play the game, and an internet connection with enough upstream bandwidth to stream your video. The Open Broadcaster Software website has an estimator to help you figure out what streaming settings to use. The higher the resolution and the frame rate, the more CPU- and memory-intensive the encoding process will be.

    Photo credit: Flickr user robscomputer via Creative Commons

    I'm using a desktop PC with an i5-2500K, 16GB DDR3/1600, Windows 8.1, and a GeForce GTX 680. My upstream bandwidth is about 6Mbps. In order to get decent frame rates, I'm going to aim for a broadcast resolution of 1280x720. This isn't the resolution I'll be gaming at, just the resolution I'm sending to Twitch's servers. Further down I'll discuss how increasing your resolution impacts your computer's performance.

    The Best Mirrorless Camera Over $1000 Today

    If you want to get the best mirrorless camera and are willing to pay for that excellence, the way to go is the Olympus OM-D E-M1. Its combination of speed, rock-hard build quality, optical excellence, a huge lens library and an advanced control scheme makes it perfect for the high-end enthusiast or pro. It’s $1,400 for just the body of the camera, but it’s worth the investment.

    The mirrorless camera market right now is going through a blossoming of high-end devices. Over just the last couple of months, a number of pricey and excellent cameras have been announced that promise to push mirrorless cameras more firmly into the world of professional shooters. We now have tougher bodies, larger sensors and more lenses. Where mirrorless cameras for a while were pushing up against the low-end DSLRs, now they’re aggressively going after the much bigger and better models, too.

    Photo credit: Flickr user antonylin via Creative Commons

    With all these new models popping up, our previous pick of the OM-D E-M5 ($1,230 with lens, $1000 body only) has been eclipsed, and we need to figure out which camera is now the best. Despite falling in rank, the OM-D E-M5 is still a very good camera; if you don’t see yourself benefiting from pro-oriented features like super-tough build quality and external control dials, it remains our pick for a step-down option.

    The Zoidberg Project, Part 3: Making a Mold Jacket and Eye Blanks

    The head cast I wrote about making last time is only the first step in making a core to sculpt on for The Zoidberg Project. While there is a way to cast a proper, useable core straight out of the Body Double mold, I want to make some alterations and have a longer-lasting master mold for future use.

    Out of the Body Double life cast mold we discussed last time, I pull a hydrocal casting. There are two kinds of plaster stone that we primarily use in the effects industry for casting: Hydrocal and Ultracal. They differ in their dry hardness. Hydrocal is a bit more porous and fragile, but can be cast quickly for "waste" molds, while Ultracal is stronger and can be used for molds that need to be baked or repeatedly used. Hydrocal my choice for casting this first copy of the head because I can do it in one batch very quickly.

    Painting plaster in the ear section of the mold first.

    To make this first Body Double cast, I fill the mold at the ears first, one at a time while the life cast is on its side, so that I won't get any air bubbles in that delicate area. Then once those are set up I'll brush a layer of plaster throughout the entire mold and scrub it into the details, and then continue adding plaster until the cast has a decent thickness (about 1/2" thick).

    Next, I’ll prop this first cast up a little higher with wood blocks to build out a sturdier base. In making the Body Double mold, I only cast my model to just below the shoulders, but will need more of a base in future casts for sturdiness. To make this base, I simply spatualate some Ultracal below the cast to build a quick-hardened surface. I'm using Ultracal here because I have a little more work time to refine the surface and make it smooth.

    Making a sturdier plaster base for the life cast.

    Once that’s all set, I’ll need to make a silicone jacket mold, also known as a case mold. I want to make a new mold so that it will be easier to cast parts and make multiples. Because i know that I’ll be using this a lot in the future and for this project, I want a more long-term and durable mold. The Body Double mold that we made directly from the life cast is great for a few castings, but after a while, it will be more prone to ripping and wear-and-tear. I have some Body Double molds that have had dozens of castings out of them and are still fine, but I really just want this mold to be made a certain way for future steps. You can make a jacket mold a few different ways, but I know I’ll end up pulling multiple castings of this head, so I want a mold that will last a long time, so the following guide is my preference for making one. (The other way is to do a brush-up, which is a process that I will do later in the project and explain then).

    The Best Travel Power Strip (with USB) Today

    The best travel-size surge protector is the ~$16 Accell Home or Away surge protector. Its compact size, outlet placement and powerful, full-sized-tablet-ready built-in USB charger make it the most convenient and well-designed mini surge protector.

    Why a Mini Surge Protector?

    Whether you’re jostling for one of the few available outlets at an airport or in a tiny hotel room, wall sockets are often at a premium when traveling. Having a mini surge protector on you can mean the difference between enjoying fully charged devices or trying to stretch the last 10% of your battery over an hours-long flight.

    What Makes a Good Mini Surge Protector

    Most importantly, a mini surge protector needs to be, well, mini. It should be easy to pack in a small bag or carry-on. Ideally, the plug should retract or fold in when not in use. This not only makes it easier to fit into smaller pockets but also makes the plug less likely to catch on or scratch other items in your bag.

    You should be able to plug in all of your devices without blocking adjoining outlets, regardless of plug shape or size.

    Outlets should be spaced out, not placed right next to each other. You should be able to plug in all of your devices without blocking adjoining outlets, regardless of plug shape or size. High-output (at least 2.1 A) USB ports are essential for charging smartphones and tablets quickly. Exactly how many outlets you need will vary from person to person, but two or three AC outlets and two USB ports should be enough to satisfy the needs of most while keeping the surges to a travel-friendly size.

    Finally, it should provide peace of mind that gadgets plugged into it are adequately protected. A power surge may last less than a second, but that is more than enough time to destroy your devices. The best way to tell how much protection you’re getting from a surge suppressor is to look at the Joules rating.

    “The higher the surge protection rating, the more energy it can absorb, so the better it is,” explained Richard Baguley, who designs tests for us and Reviewed.com. “Joules is an energy measure, so the number indicates how much energy the device can shunt away from your electrics before it blows, leaving your electrics unprotected.”

    So how many joules do you really need? To some extent, this will depend on how many and what types of devices you are trying to protect. The mini surge protectors we looked at had joules ratings ranging from 612 to 1,050. Full-sized power strip surge protectors, on the other hand, can have joules ratings up to 3,000 or higher. All that said, anything above 600 is enough for most people’s needs. And, considering the surge protectors we tested will have a maximum of five connected devices at once, all of our models offer more than adequate surge protection for the laptops, tablets and handsets most people will use them for.

    Given that we rely on surge suppressors to protect our most valuable devices, a surge protector should guarantee surge protection by offering a warranty covering connected devices should the surge protector fail or malfunction. These warranties vary, but the brands we looked at had warranties covering connected devices ranging from $75,000-$100,000.

    Tested: PlayStation 4 Hard Drive vs. SSD vs. Hybrid Drive

    The PlayStation 4's built-in storage drive is more important than ever, but the 500GB hard drive included with the next-gen console is slow to install and load games. Good thing it's easily replaceable. We test the benefits of replacing it with an SSD and a hybrid drive (SSHD) to see what difference a $100 upgrade can make.