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    How To Build a $1000 Virtual Reality Gaming PC

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

    How to Balance 3-Blade Propellers

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

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

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

    Inspection and Prep Work

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

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

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

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

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

    Shop Tips: Know Your Hot Glue Guns

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

    How To Make Shiny Metal Prop Finishes

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

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

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

    Shop Tips: How To Pour from Large Containers

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

    The Best Android Smartphones for Your Network (February 2016)

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

    Carrier-branded Phones

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Making Props with the Inventables X-Carve CNC Router

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

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

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

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

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

    Testing SAFE Plus Stabilization for RC Aircraft

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

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

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

    Why GPS and Compass?

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

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

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

    The Best Replacements for Stock Android Apps

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

    Gmail/Email: CloudMagic

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

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

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

    How to Take Apart and Clean an Airbrush

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

    The Best Android Smartphone for Your Network (November 2015)

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

    Carrier-branded phones

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

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

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

    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.