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    The Best Ways to Watch Your Video Files on Android

    Android has come a long way with its managing and playing your personal video files. Of course, it was always a preferable experience to other platforms that lacked user-accessible file systems all together. With web technologies and apps advancing nonstop, what's it like watching video on Android these days? Well, it's pretty good, especially now that the Chromecast is in the mix.

    Let's take a look at the various methods of watching video on Android and figure out what makes sense for you.

    Ideal Video Formats

    Android devices have various levels of video codec support. For example, Samsung phones usually know how to decode files encoded in all sorts of formats like DivX, Windows Media, and MPEG4. The thing to be aware of here is that most of these formats are being decided in software. It's the same as if you install a third-party video player that is capable of decoding these files. It's basically using the CPU to do all the work of playing the file.

    The quality you get with this approach is probably going to be fine. The thing you have to watch out for is battery life. This is more of a concern with phones than tablets, which usually have juice to spare. A video that is encoded with H.264 (usually in a .MOV or .MP4 wrapper) has special status on a mobile device. There is hardware support for deciding this type of video, which is much more efficient when it comes to battery life.

    So the first decision you have to make is whether or not you're going to bother with re-encoding all your video to H.264. Luckily, this format has become considerably more common, so hopefully you won't have many AVIs sitting around. If you are in that unenviable situation, converting with Handbrake is a good idea. It has a handy automatic setting for Android phones and tablets, so all the work is done for you. When ripping your media, H.264 is the way to go -- it's just easier in the long run.

    How to Get Started with Circuits and Electronics

    As you get started building projects with electronic components like Arduino, you can make some progress without knowing much about electricity and circuits. By following online guides you can attach sensors, displays and motors to an Arduino or other microcontroller, without fully understanding what it is you’re actually doing. However, if you want to get past the beginner stage, and start making exciting, custom projects, you’re going to have to start to learn the basics of electrical engineering.

    If you've ever encountered online discussions about circuitry, the prospect of joining in might seem pretty daunting—there’s a lot of jargon, a lot of arcane symbols, and a lot of math. And, truthfully, it’s a complex topic, with a lot to learn. Fortunately, you don’t have to jump into the deep end all at once. In this starter guide, I’m going to cover the most basic principles of circuit-building, with just enough detail to get you ready to build and understand some simple circuits of your own.

    First, I’m going to cover a few topics that you have to understand, then I’ll describe how to use these concepts to build a simple circuit with Arduino.

    What is a Circuit?

    There’s a lot of very interesting science about how, exactly, electricity works, but for a practical understanding of simple electrical circuits, you don’t need to get into the really low-level stuff. The thing that you need to understand is simply that electrical charge flows through conductors, like wires, and through all sorts of electrical components, having various effects on those components as they flow through them. A simple electrical component is a light bulb—the effect of an electrical charge flowing through a light bulb is that the bulb lights up. If your various wire and components are hooked up so that they form a loop—so that the electrical current can keep flowing around and around—you've created a circuit.

    The Best Budget Laptop Today

    If I had to buy a Windows laptop for $600 or less, I'd get the ~$550 configuration of the Lenovo IdeaPad Flex 14 or something very similar. But first I'd think long and hard about whether I needed a full-sized Windows laptop at all.

    Who Should(n’t) Buy This?

    If you have regular access to a full Windows or Mac computer and want a secondary machine for web browsing, email, and basic document editing (i.e. something more than a tablet but less than a full-sized Windows computer), don’t buy a $600 Windows laptop as your secondary machine. Consider a $250 Chromebook or a $400 Windows convertible tablet instead. Neither can do quite as much as a full Windows laptop, but they often give a better experience in the things they do than a more expensive general-use machine.

    But if you do need a real computer—if this is your primary, do-everything computer—and you need the best all-around thing you can get for under $600, you should get something like the Lenovo IdeaPad Flex 14.

    Our Pick

    We like the $550 configuration of the Lenovo IdeaPad Flex 14 (listed on Lenovo’s site as the “Flex14-59393810“). It’s not perfect, but for its price it hits “pretty good” levels in a lot of important areas while managing to avoid deal-breaking flaws. It is powerful enough for day-to-day tasks, portable enough to bring with you without breaking your back, and has enough battery power to last all day. It also has a hinge that bends back around 300 degrees, just in case you wanted to use it like that.

    The Best Android Smartphone for Your Network (January 2014)

    The news never stops rolling in when it comes to Android. With so many different companies and business interests affecting the device ecosystem, things can change from one week to the next. That's why you need to be careful when the time comes to get a new phone. It's a big investment that you want to last you at least until the next great device shows up. Just like we do every month, it's time to look back at the recent history of Android and see what you should get on each of the big US carriers.

    The Elephant in the Room

    Okay, let's talk about the Moto X really quick. Yes, Google sold Motorola to Lenovo, and that's kind of a bummer, I guess. I'm personally a little worried about how Motorola is going to work going forward, but the Moto X is still one of the best phones I've ever used. Let's not get carried away and condemn the phone before anything has happened. So, I'm going to stick to the facts here and talk about the Moto X as it currently exists, not speculate endlessly on what the sale might mean for Motorola in a year or two.

    Lifehacks To Make Your Job Easier

    Work – it’s tough on a body. But even though you’re stuck at a desk for eight hours a day, there are things you can do to make things more pleasurable and efficient. And you can even use science to do it. Here are ten lifehacks that will make your job easier.

    The Zoidberg Project, Part 7: Sculpting the Details

    A lot of sculptors I know agree that the major shapes and forms of a sculpt are more important than the smaller details. You have to get the macro design right before you work on the micro. I think about sculptors like Henry Alvarez who did a ton of the sculptures for Rob Bottin back in the day. If you look at Henry's sculpt of the Darkness makeup from the movie Legend, there is practically no texture or fine detail. It's all about the forms. But like with other aspects of art, poor finishing can ruin a sculpture.

    The good news is that I have the form of Zoidberg pretty well-figured out. I landed at more of a smooth and cartoony interpretation of the character than some of the more intricate or monster-y designs that I dug up as reference and inspiration. I'm still trying to incorporate some natural human and animal anatomy--always thinking about that bone, cartilage, or muscle structures might be going on underneath the “skin” of the sculpt.

    In some of my photos from past updates, you can see a line carved down the middle of his face--this helps to keep things symmetrical. It's sometimes difficult to notice if I'm sculpting one side lower or heavier than the other, and I tend to favor my left side (the sculpture’s right side) because I'm predominantly left-handed. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to sculpt and paint ambidextrously, but I still favor my left. Once I get the forms raked out and uniform between those sides, I want to start smoothing out the surface. This happens in a few steps. First I’ll start with larger rakes and move to smaller rakes, eventually moving down to a scotchbrite pad.Then maybe I’ll apply a little bit of naphtha with the scotchbrite pad to get it very smoothed out, or at least good enough for the next step.

    In terms of sculpting, I often get asked about what solvents to use with clay. I spoke about WED clay when I was making the arm sculptures, and the solvent for that clay is water (since it's a water based clay). When I use Chavant, Kleen Klay, or Roma (which are oil-based clays), I will use 99% alcohol as the solvent. And with Monster Clay, which is technically an oil-based clay, but much more like a wax, I use naphtha.

    Solvents should be used sparingly, though. When I was starting out, I had the tendency to slurry up all of my sculptures and just scrub everything down. But as I became more aware of my sculpting technique, I use the solvents much less, or only to achieve certain finishes. Sometimes you have to just let the clay do what the clay is going to do.

    The Best Indoor HDTV Antenna (For Cities) Today

    According to our tests, the HD Frequency Cable Cutter is the best-performing indoor antenna you can buy if you live in the thick of a city. It outperformed 12 other models in midtown Manhattan as part of a test pool that included both amped and unamped antennas.

    In Manhattan, the unamped Cable Cutter pulled in the most stations with very little interference and offered a perfect-looking picture for many channels. The antenna also fared well in our follow-up tests in Chicago and the San Francisco Bay Area.

    However, it’s worth noting that the antenna didn’t perform well in our Brooklyn tests, where it finished near the bottom of the pack (although it performed decently in subsequent Chicago and Bay Area suburban tests). This antenna is also pretty big, costs $90 to $100, and doesn’t come with a stand.

    If you live more than 10 miles from a broadcast tower, have a ground-level unit, or care how your antenna looks in your living room, you should go with one of the better-amped models that also did well in our tests: the Mohu Curve 50 or the budget but high-performing Monoprice 7976 MDA Indoor/Outdoor Antenna With Low Noise Amplifier.

    The Trouble with Antenna Recommendations

    TV antennas are notoriously hard to recommend; a recent Consumer Reports roundup concluded that they couldn’t really rank antennas based on performance.

    You might be best off trying the cheapest antenna and then upgrading to our higher-priced recommendation if the cheapie isn’t up to snuff.

    That’s because there are a lot of variables to consider: how close you are to a broadcast tower, which direction your window is facing, how many tall buildings are between you and the transmitter, what the terrain is like in your immediate environment, which stations are most important to you, how much you’re willing to spend, and whether you care what the antenna looks like. When you throw in the unpredictable performance variations between locations, it’s nearly impossible to come up with a “one size fits all” pick.

    We knew all this going into our tests, but that’s exactly why we wanted to take on the challenge. So while we recommend the Cable Cutter and the two alternate picks for city-dwelling folks, be prepared to experience very different results in your own location. You might be best off trying the cheapest antenna you can find, seeing how it performs, and then upgrading to our higher-priced recommended models if the cheapie isn’t up to snuff.

    The Best Bluetooth On-Ear or Over-Ear Headphones

    If I really needed a pair of Bluetooth headphones, I’d get the Jabra REVOs (also available from Apple), which (currently) carry an average price tag but have better build and sound quality than your average Bluetooth headphones. However, as relatively good as they are compared to peers, you can get better wired headphones for a lot less. Unless you really need wireless capabilities, you’re better off with traditional headphones.

    After researching extensively, considering 50 pairs and testing the best-reviewed 16, our panel of experts all agreed they liked our pick. Not only did the REVOs sound great, they were comfortable and built to last, and they have some really nice extra features: NFC pairing, cool touch controls, a cord with a remote and mic, a free app that allows you to tweak the EQ, and a helpful voice prompt that talks you through pairing.

    How Did We Pick a Winner?

    First, I interviewed a number of experts. However, many headphone enthusiasts are loath to use/recommend Bluetooth headphones because of the audio quality and cost. In fact, one well-known reviewer replied to my inquiries with a simple “Sorry, I’m no fan of BT.” That was the entire email. Another reviewer, Tyll Hertsens of Innerfidelity, could only recommend one pair of Bluetooth headphones. As a result, identifying a pool of headphones to test was an uphill battle.

    I then took to user reviews on Amazon, Best Buy, CNET, Crutchfield and more to see what real people had liked. From there, I looked to see what was new on the market and untested; based on that list, I came up with 16 that looked the most promising and called them in to put them through their paces.

    Each of the panelists…spent several hours pairing, listening…and then selecting their top three.

    We then brought in a faceoff panel consisting ofGeoff Morrison, A/V Editor for the Wirecutter and writer for CNET, Forbes, and many other AV magazines; John Higgins, a session musician and music/audio teacher at The Windward School, and me, Lauren Dragan, a writer for Wirecutter and Sound&Vision and a professional voice actor with a dual bachelors degree in music and audio production.

    Each of the panelists brought their own device and music selections and spent several hours pairing, listening, adding the cord, listening again and then selecting their top three. After I took into account price and features, we had a clear winner.

    The Best Gear for The New Year

    After the caloric free-for-alls of Thanksgiving and Christmas, how many of us resolve to be more fit on New Year's Eve? Don’t worry, we’re not trying to pile on the guilt. But we try to prioritize fitness and stress-reduction in our personal lives here at the Wirecutter and the Sweethome, and the new year is a great time to hit the reset button.

    Think of fitness as an investment in the rest of your life and the lives of your loved ones. Even a bit of weight loss and as little as 75 minutes of activity every week can prevent heart disease, the leading cause of death for men and women in the U.S.

    Good health is free to maintain and difficult to “buy” back once it’s gone. But it also just makes the rest of your life more enjoyable. Although just acquiring this gear isn’t enough to get you in shape, having the right stuff can make the process more convenient and fun.

    The Best Instant Camera Today

    With a smartphone, showing a photo to hundreds of your followers is as easy as pressing the share button. But if you want to create something tangible and more exclusive to share with those close to you, an instant film camera can add a fun and welcome dose of analog charm to your digital world. The best instant film camera we’ve found is the $93 Fujifilm Instax Mini 50S.

    What Is an Instant Camera?

    Instant cameras use packs of film emulsion that include all the chemical developers and substrates needed to print a photographic image within minutes of pressing the shutter button. Each film pack includes the negative to capture the image and the positive paper needed to produce the finished print.

    As the print emerges from the camera, the development process begins. Soon, a blank sheet turns into a color photograph.

    As the print emerges from the camera, the development process begins. Soon, a blank sheet turns into a color photograph. Film packs come in bundles of 10 exposures and the cameras have countdown windows that let you know how many shots are left before you’ll need to swap in a new pack.

    Referred to most commonly as a “Polaroid” (after the company that popularized the technology) the instant camera foreshadowed some of the convenience that digital cameras would later bring. With an instant camera you could see your photograph within minutes of taking a picture instead of having to take a roll of film to the lab and wait for it to be developed.

    Although digital cameras have made the instant camera obsolete in almost every way, there is an undeniable charm and whimsy to pressing the shutter button and having a physical print emerge from the camera, watching an image develop right before your very eyes. Even for a photographer like myself who remembers spending hours in the darkroom, the whole process still feels like magic. No, you won’t get the brilliant colors and wide range of highlight and shadow tones that even an entry-level digital camera can offer, but each print is a one-of-a-kind memento that can be physically passed around and shared in a face-to-face, rather than virtual, environment.

    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.


    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.