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    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.

    The Best Android Smartphone for Your Network (October 2015)

    We're heading into the holiday season, and the device lineup is pretty much locked down. You can also expect carriers and retailers to start tossing out deals on smartphones, but you don't just want to get whatever's cheapest. You want what's best, and that's what we want to find by examining the Android phone landscape like we do every month. So let's take a look at what phones are available on your carrier of choice so you can get the right device.

    Photo credit: Flickr user bestboyzde via Creative Commons

    Carrier-branded phones

    We are thankfully no longer living in a world where carrier exclusives rule the smartphone market. Most phones can be had on any of the big carriers, and that's the case with most of the top Android devices. There are two phones that still warrant your attention and can be purchased directly from the carriers. I speak, of course, of the Samsung Galaxy S6 and 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. It's small enough that most people should be able to use it comfortably one-handed, which is an increasing rarity. This continues to be one of the primary selling points of this phone. There are devices you can get with better software or longer battery life, but none of them are as pleasant to look at.

    Samsung also continues to impress when it comes to the camera. The Samsung Galaxy S6 has a 16MP shooter with optical image stabilization and an f/1.9 lens. This sensor is still one of the best you can get in a phone. I'm constantly floored by how well exposed images are, and the accuracy of colors in even 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.

    The Galaxy S6 has an aluminum frame and Gorilla Glass front and rear panels. There aren't any weird gaps or spaces in the casing as there have been with some past Samsung phones -- it's a solid little phone. The glass back panel is another thing to break, but I've dropped mine a few times and no catastrophic failures yet.

    How To Get Into Hobby RC: Real Flight Drone Simulator

    I focus a lot of my writing on the techniques and tools that can help you become a better multi-rotor pilot. There's good reason for my fixation on training. No matter how fancy and advanced your model may be, the skill with which you operate it is the greatest single factor in determining your success and safety. When things go south, competency trumps hope every time.

    RealFlight Drone includes 14 different multi-rotor models to fly. Each has unique capabilities and performance.

    I've mentioned the RealFlight RC flight simulator in a previous article. RealFlight has historically been a tool for pilots of RC helicopters and fixed wing airplanes. Multi-rotor models were introduced only in the most recent versions of the program. Real Flight's latest release is a simulator package that is intended specifically for multi-rotor pilots, Real Flight Drone ($130).

    What You Get

    RealFlight Drone (RFD) comes bundled with a Futaba InterLink Elite controller. This is a USB device with the same look and feel as a standard RC transmitter. If you have a particular attachment to your actual RC transmitter, the InterLink Elite includes patch cords that allow you to use a Futaba, JR, or Spektrum brand transmitter to operate the simulator.

    The InterLink Elite device is a USB controller with the look and feel of a standard RC transmitter.

    The actual software is on a single DVD. It is compatible with Vista or later versions of Windows. The program will not work on Macs…even when using a Windows emulator. The system requirements are pretty low. So you shouldn't have any problems if you're machine is relatively new. I've been using RFD on an aging Sony Vaio laptop (1.6GHz CPU, 6GB RAM, GeForce GT330M video) and it runs just fine.

    How To Get Into Hobby RC: 5 Multi-Rotor Models Under $50

    I've always said that mini-quads are the best way to get started with multi-rotors. They provide a low-cost way to learn fundamental piloting skills before you put an expensive flying machine (and innocent bystanders) at risk. Additionally, their small size lets them be flown indoors. So you can hone your skills night and day, regardless of the weather. When I first began advocating the use of mini-quads as trainers, a hobby-quality unit would typically cost $100 or more. The price bar has come way down. Numerous mini-quads can now be had for less than $50. We'll look at a handful of those choices today.

    My intent with this article is not to rank the different models, but rather to illustrate the range of options, as well as the limitations that are found at this price point. I think that someone with zero flying experience could be successful with any of the multi-rotors that I tested. With that said, I felt that one of the quads stood out as an exceptional choice for new pilots. You'll have to keep reading to see which one!

    I tried to approach my testing with the mindset of a rank beginner. I think that stable hovering and docile control response are the best attributes to facilitate flight training. So I focused heavily on those aspects. Pilots who already have some stick time may put greater emphasis on other qualities such as aerobatic ability or toughness. Decide what factors are most important to you and choose accordingly. Even within this small sample of multi-rotors, I observed significant differences that could impact which is the best fit for different pilots.

    The Economics of Ergonomics

    The radio transmitters for most larger multi-rotors (i.e. those bigger than mini-quads) are quite standardized in terms of size, form factor and functionality. They follow the decades-old standard that is used for RC airplanes and helicopters. You may have switches and dials for various functions, but the core controls consist of a pair of 2-axis joysticks on the face of a box measuring approximately 6"x6".

    If your end game is to step up to a larger multi-rotor it would make sense to start out with a transmitter made in that image.

    If your end game is to step up to a larger multi-rotor (and thus, one of these standardized transmitters) it would make sense to start out with a transmitter made in that image. The problem is that most inexpensive mini-quads come with transmitters that are nothing like the norm. Some are ridiculously tiny. Others look like gamepads. Most have thumb rests atop the joysticks, making the common "pinch" grip impractical. Regardless of how well the multi-rotor may fly, using these off-nominal transmitters limits the quad's effectiveness as a training tool. You may even pick up bad habits.

    The good news is that an awkward transmitter isn't necessarily a deal-breaker. I have yet to find a transmitter that could not be easily (and cheaply) modified to adequately resemble the standard form factor. In most cases, it's just a matter of attaching the housing to a piece of foam and replacing the thumb rests with aluminum tubing. Of the five quads tested here, I found it "necessary" to modify all but one of them. Three received the foam and aluminum treatment, while one received only aluminum joysticks. See last year's review of the Dromida Kodo for details on my transmitter modification technique.

    How To Get Into Hobby RC: Indoor RC Cars

    Being able to operate an RC vehicle inside the comfort of your own home provides a lot of benefits. There is much to be said for having a little RC fun night or day, regardless of the weather outside. In the case of RC cars, the tradeoff for such convenience is usually sub-par performance. In fact, many living room-capable RC cars are toy–grade rather than hobby-grade.

    The good news is that more and more small and feature-rich, hobby-quality cars are hitting the market. Some are downright tiny. Although not the smallest, Kyosho's Mini-Z line of cars certainly has the best scale-like appearance. It turns out that these minis are rather sporty too.

    The Kyosho Mini-Z line of cars provide hobby-quality components in a small scale RC vehicle.

    Mini-Z Features

    I should start off by saying that there are several types of Mini-Z models. The can be had in 2-wheel-drive or 4-wheel-drive versions and as cars, trucks, buggies, or formula 1 racers. There are further subdivisions within each of those categories. It would take much too long to discuss them all.

    Kyosho USA provided a Mini-Z version of the Ferrari LaFerrari from their MR-03 Sports series ($160) for this review. At 1/27 scale, it measures right at 7" long. Not only does this model compare in size to the 1/24 and 1/25-scale plastic car models that I built as a kid, but the level of detail is right there as well. Most RC cars utilize vacuformed Lexan bodies. Those bodies are extremely tough and resilient, but are short on detail. The LaFerrari wears a complex, injection-molded body that looks better than any static model I ever built.

    How To Get Into Hobby RC: Recording FPV Video

    Most First Person View (FPV) aircraft have two cameras. One of those cameras is typically an action camera such as a GoPro or Mobius. Its job is to record the flight in unflinching high definition. The other camera is a small security-type camera which creates the video feed that is downlinked to the pilot's goggles or monitor. Although the latter cameras offer much less in the way of image quality, they work well for downlink because they adapt quickly to changing light conditions and provide very low signal latency. Today, we'll look at solutions to record video from those cameras.

    While most FPV models have a dedicated camera for HD recording, there are good reasons to record the lower resolution video from the FPV camera as well.

    Why Record

    When it comes time to share video of our FPV flights, we typically reach for the GoPro footage. After all, what's the point of schlepping around an extra camera if you're not going to utilize the hi-def footage that it collects? There are times, however, when you may want to record the downlinked video from your FPV camera as well.

    Even with the help of a spotter who has eyes on your aircraft, a downed model can be difficult to locate. Being able to play back the final seconds of a flight from the aircraft's perspective can reveal vital clues to help find the missing model. Another purpose for recording your video stream is to troubleshoot or tweak the performance of a model. This is especially true if you use an On-Screen Display (OSD) to provide a data overlay on the video downlink. This allows you to have a dashboard that correlates performance data with each moment of the flight. Since it's recorded, you can analyze the data after the flight - without the real-time overhead of piloting.

    Several smaller FPV options, such as this modified Blade 200QX, can't carry two cameras. Recording the FPV stream is the only way to capture in-flight video.

    A third rationale for recording your video stream is that it may be your only image source. There are a handful of ultra-small and lightweight FPV platforms that just don't have the capacity to carry a dedicated hi-def camera. The Blade 200QX, and FPV Nano QX are just two examples among many. Whatever these set-ups may lack in video quality, they more than make up for with versatility. It's perhaps the only way to record an FPV flight that takes place indoors!

    The Best Android Smartphone for Your Network (September 2015)

    Your phone is something you more than likely carry with you at all times and use to run every aspect of your day to day life. It's fine to spend a little money on the perfect phone, but which phone is that? There are a ton of options, and it's only getting increasingly complicated as more unlocked phones start hitting the market. As we do every month, let's dive in and see which phones are available on your carrier of choice, and which of those might be best for you.

    Carrier-branded Phones

    Carrier exclusives are mostly a thing of the past. There are occasional bespoke phones designed for one network or another, but the big flagship phones are usually available on all the major US carriers. I think your best overall option if you're going through the carriers is still the Galaxy S6, which you can get on all of them for $20-30 per month on a payment plan.

    The GS6 has a Super AMOLED panel, and it's really just fantastic. It's 5.1-inches and 1440p in resolution, which is small enough that most people should be able to use it comfortably one-handed. It's a stunningly beautiful screen, and I have no doubt it's the best you can get on a smartphone right now. This continues to be one of the primary selling points of this phone. There are devices you can get with better software or longer battery life, but none of them are as pleasant to look at.

    Everything You Should Know about Android Pay

    Android has had NFC payments since way back in 2011 with the Sprint Nexus S 4G. In the intervening years Google Wallet's usage hasn't exactly rocketed upward, and then Apple Pay happened. To offer a more full-featured alternative for Apple Pay, Google announced a revamped version of its payment platform at I/O this year -- Android Pay. This new way to pay via NFC is now rolling out to devices, but what's different other than the name? Here's everything you should know about how Android Pay works.

    Separating Wallet and Pay

    Before you can start using Android Pay, you'll need to receive an update to Google Play Services. That's the framework that makes all your Google apps and services work. It should happen automatically in the background in the coming weeks, and when it does, the Play Store will update your Wallet app, turning it into Android Pay.

    Going forward, Android Pay is your NFC payment app and Wallet is for sending money to others.

    So the new Android Pay app is actually the same package name that Wallet was using before, which is why it completely overwrites it. Wallet still exists, but it's a new app listing in the Play Store, and it's not for paying in stores. From now on, Android Pay is your NFC payment app and Wallet is for sending money to others via your Wallet balance, as well as managing your Wallet debit card.

    This is very narrow functionality for each app, and I'm really not sure why Google bothered separating them. Couldn't the money sending just be bundled into Pay? At any rate, you'll need to open Android Pay to set everything up, and that's where things get tricky.

    Let's Compare the No-Contract Plans from US Mobile Carriers

    For many years, the two-year contract was king in the US mobile industry. You'd pay $200 to get a shiny new phone, and you'd be stuck for two years. If you broke it or needed to change carriers, you'd have to spend a whole lot more money, and there really were no viable early upgrade options. Contracts also hid the true cost of smartphones, but as no-contract payment plans and early upgrade policies take over, we're faced with a whole new kind of calculation.

    How can you get the best deal? Let's check out the current offerings from the big four US carriers and see if we can figure it out.


    AT&T is the only carrier that's still fully committed to selling 2-year contract phones, although only AT&T stores can offer them. All the third-party sellers of AT&T devices have to use Next, AT&T's payment plan option. I dare say this is one of the more confusing payment plans offered right now as AT&T has bundled the payment plans and early upgrade stuff into one oddly named package. Note, AT&T will not buy out any payment plans or ETFs you have with other carriers. There's a "buyback" program for your old phone, but it's really not a good deal.

    Phones on Next: For your new AT&T Next plan, you pick a phone and the total cost of the device determines how much you'll pay monthly. There are four different versions of AT&T Next. For all of them you own the device and only pay tax (on the full value) at the time of purchase.

    Next 24 is divided into 30 monthly payments (I know, it's dumb) and you can upgrade to a new phone after 24 payments (ah, that's where 24 comes from). You also have Next 18 and Next 12 with a total of 24 payments and 20 payments, respectively. They have upgrade options at 18 and 12 months. Finally, there's Next with down payment. This one has a 30% down payment and smaller monthly fees. You can upgrade here after 12 months.

    Upgrading: AT&T's upgrading system doesn't seem very fair to me. When you've made the required number of payments (or paid that much in a lump sum), you can trade in your phone and get a new one. The payments start over again and AT&T waves the few remaining payments on the old phone. They're basically buying the device back for almost nothing.

    The Best Business Laptops Today

    This post was done in partnership with The Wirecutter, a buyer's guide to the best technology. Read the full article here.

    If you need a business laptop that's tougher and more serviceable than an ultrabook, you should get the Lenovo ThinkPad T450s. After more than 30 hours of research and testing, it's the one we recommend, because it offers the best mix of a great keyboard, speed, durability, configuration options, and user-serviceability over the competition.

    Who is this for?

    Most people, even business people, don't need a traditional business laptop anymore—an ultrabook will be smaller, lighter, and good enough for most people. But some people still need more battery life, more power, more ports, or security features that you just can't get on an ultrabook, and they're willing to deal with a thicker, heavier laptop in exchange for those things and for greater durability.

    How we decided

    Most business laptops have the same guts as ultrabooks. We tested performance just to make sure there were no surprises, but we focused on the things that make business laptops great: the keyboard and trackpad, build quality, battery life, display, upgradeability and serviceability, and warranty and support.