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    The Best Cheap Printer Today

    Color is swell, but for most documents, black and white look just fine. Monochrome laser printers and avoid the waste and hassle of inkjet machines (no cleaning purges!), the cost and bulk of color laser (only one toner cartridge!), and still churn out a couple dozen pages per minute with razor-sharp text. For students, small-office denizens, or anyone with modest printing needs, the Samsung Xpress M2835DW is the most efficient way to make hard copies of term papers, tax forms, or any other documents that look great in grayscale.

    I spent more than 20 hours researching the mono laser category, looking over dozens of expert reviews and hundreds of user testimonials for the best, most affordable black-and-white printers. Meanwhile, Wirecutter researcher Audrey Lorberfeld spent another 32 hours analyzing existing professional printer reviews and comparing them to user reviews to identify how we could improve upon them with our own testing. With her findings in mind, I’ve spent 23 total hours testing a handful of the top contenders, jumping through hoops to set them up on a smorgasbord of devices and operating systems and printing stacks of monochrome documents to measure speed and print quality.

    Like any worthwhile laser printer, the M2835DW spits out crisp text fast and at a wicked low cost per page.

    Like any worthwhile laser printer, the M2835DW spits out crisp text fast and at a wicked low cost per page. It’s affordable to buy, yet still includes cost- and time-saving features like automatic two-sided printing and wireless networking, which are often missing from some pricier models. And for what it’s worth, it’s the candidate least likely to send you into fits of rage, Office Space-style, during setup.

    How To Shop for a Home 3D Printer

    3D printing's popularity continues to grow and more people are taking the plunge into this new consumer technology. With Will and Norm having built a Printrbot Simple for us, I thought it would be a good time to talk about buying your own printer. There are a many choices out there and it can be a lot of confusing misinformation which overwhelms you. It's not possible to cover all the printers out there, so we'll cover the basics and things to consider when buying a printer and places to look for information.

    The Basics

    As a refresher, let's walk through the fundamentals of a typical home 3D printer. Most are going to be Fused Filament Fabrication (FFF) machines that use plastic filament pushed through a heated extruder which 'draws' onto a print bed, layer by layer until the model is finished. Many machines print with Polylactic Acid (PLA), a biodegradable, non-toxic plastic that produces nice, but semi-brittle prints. The other common plastic is Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene (ABS)--the same stuff LEGO is made from. ABS is a little trickier to print with and does produce some fumes but it's also more flexible and durable than PLA.

    A higher-end choice but still in the realm of home printers are some SLA (Stereolithography) and DLP (Digital Light Processing) machines which print with liquid resin which is cured with light. They produce highly detailed prints but tend to cost more for both the printer and materials and we'll cover those in a later article.

    The Best Blu-ray Player Today

    After spending almost 20 hours with the best new Blu-ray players for 2014, the $90 LG BP540 came out on top after our previous pick was discontinued. The LG fits our criteria for a good player thanks to integrated Wi-Fi and the most popular streaming apps. More importantly, it has a better interface and video quality than the competition and offers the best combination of price and performance of those we looked at.

    Who am I to make that claim? I’ve been handling almost all the Blu-ray reviews for Secrets of Home Theater and High Fidelity since 2010 and have had nearly three dozen players come through my hands. I’ve subjected them to countless objective and subjective tests. I’ve even thrown them on a $15,000 HDMI Analyzer to verify their performance. Often, as is the case with the LG, the picture from a cheap player is 100 percent identical to an $8,000 player’s.

    If the LG BP540 sells out, the $90 Sony BDP-S3200 is our runner-up choice that is almost as good. The menu system is more confusing than our top pick’s and the overall interface leaves a lot to be desired, but it offers a wide selection of streaming content, and Blu-ray content does very well. Be warned, though: The Sony shows some jaggies while watching DVD content with diagonal lines.

    With more expensive players, you’re usually paying for better CD playback quality or niche features. Along those lines, and if you also want the absolute best in audio and video quality, the $600 Oppo BDP-103D is the best high-end player you can buy. It has better DVD scaling than any other tested player, performs flawlessly even with foreign content and weird frame rates, and supports all audio formats as well. The integrated Darbee video processing is a favorite of most reviewers, including video purists, and Oppo has better service and support than other companies. For most people, though, the price difference isn’t justified.

    Our pick from 2013, the Sony BDP-S5100, would still be our recommended pick if it were still being manufactured.

    If you only want Blu-ray playback and don’t care about streaming whatsoever, the Samsung BD-H5100 is our step-down choice at $63. It does fine with Blu-ray content and the lack of Wi-Fi saves you some money, though it also means you’ll have to perform firmware updates manually or have hardwired Ethernet to do so. You’ll want to have updated firmware since it may affect your ability to play newer Blu-ray discs in the future.

    Our pick from 2013, the Sony BDP-S5100, would still be our recommended pick if it were still being manufactured, but alas, it is not. It was less expensive than the LG, had the same streaming options, and loaded discs faster. If you bought our pick from last year, or you happen to find it somewhere on closeout, there is no real need to upgrade.

    How To Build a Life-Size Dragon

    Norm's note: Frank first showed us his Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate dragon sculpt before this year's E3. Frank has since written up his build, which we wanted to share ahead of this week's Comic-Con--where the Gore Magala creature will be on display at the Capcom booth.

    I love video games and video game culture, and last year was stoked to be asked to be a part of a team doing the Zombie makeups for Capcom's Dead Rising 3 booth at E3. It was there that I befriended the creative services team in charge of all of these cool trade show events and displays. Jump ahead to a few months ago, when I received a call from the team lead at Capcom to bid on the making of a display sculpture for one of their upcoming games: Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate!

    The concept was to have a 20-foot tall backdrop with a huge image of one of the game’s monsters, and have the front third of it coming out of the backdrop. Big is sort of an understatement here; once I did some quick math to put it into scale, the sculpture I would have to create would be almost 8 feet tall, 14 feet wide, and 12 feet long. To bid on something of this size is really tough. Most trade show displays are carved or milled out of bead foam and then hard coated, which leaves very little finished detail. But this monster has a lot of detail. So I had to figure a solution that could provide that kind of detail while keeping costs reasonable. After that came an engineering problem: how would this thing support itself? Additionally, it has to be transported to multiple venues and be durable enough for the public to interact with. So it also needed to come apart. Not easy!

    After some back-and-forth details of the deliverables and specifications, and some careful planning and budgeting, I was awarded the job, which would be guilt in my newly expanded shop. Here is what my team and I came up with for the design of this build.

    How to Get Into Hobby RC: Taking Off with Airplanes

    Previous installments of this series have covered tips for getting started with RC quadrotors, cars and boats. While those are all fun RC vehicles (and there is more to come regarding each of them), my greatest enthusiasm for RC revolves around airplanes. The reasons for this are difficult to pin down. I suppose I was born with an incurable fascination for flying things. Aeromodeling has always provided an avenue for hands-on exploration of that interest on a practical and affordable scale.

    The Delta Ray’s SAFE stabilization system does indeed make the airplane very easy to fly…even for beginners. It does not, however, remove all crash risks.

    In a more cerebral sense, creating RC airplanes simultaneously feeds my cravings for scientific and artistic stimulation. On top of all that is the excitement and challenge of actually flying these widely varied machines. I don’t expect that all RC enthusiasts share my depth of interest and satisfaction in the hobby, and that’s OK. It’s an activity that you can simply mingle in if you choose. There are, however, a few initial summits that you must climb in order to get started at a practical level.

    Choosing the Right Path

    The most common misconception about RC airplanes is that flying them is intuitive…it’s not.

    The most common misconception about RC airplanes is that flying them is intuitive…it’s not. Even pilots of full-scale aircraft often lack all of the key skills to be RC flyers. There are countless stories of a father and son bringing their new RC plane to the park the day after Christmas. They arrive full of excitement, perhaps fueled by Snoopy-like dreams of vanquishing the Red Baron. More often than not, those dreams end up in the same garbage bag as their short-lived model aircraft. It’s a shame to hear these stories because a little guidance on the front end can often make the difference between disgruntled one-timers and enthusiastic rookies.

    In my opinion, making a successful first flight in this hobby requires three basic things:

    1. A rudimentary understanding of aerodynamics

    2. An airworthy model suitable for beginners

    3. Basic piloting skills

    There are many ways to attain this triad. Some roads are worn, while others are less-travelled. I will attempt to explain a few of these approaches and you can choose the path that suits you.

    The Best Television You Can Buy Today

    If I was in the market for an awesome television, I’d get the Samsung F8500 series, either in 51-, 60-, or 64-inch sizes (about $1,800, $2,400, or $3,100, respectively). This is a fantastic looking television, with a punchy brights, deep darks, lifelike and accurate color, excellent detail, and great performance in rooms with lots of light. While pricey, it has one of the best pictures of any TV in recent years according to all the major TV reviewers.

    The F8500 is likely the last great plasma TV (more on this later). We think that those looking for the “best” TV will love the F8500. Its combination of a bright image, dark black levels (and correspondingly high contrast ratio), lack of motion blur, and highly realistic color make for an addictively gorgeous image.

    If it doesn’t fit the bill, we have some other options that may suit you. However, this is still early in the year for TV reviews, so we strongly recommend you wait if you can. We can recommend some “good” TVs, but we won’t know what’s the (truly) best runner-up until more models are reviewed.

    The Samsung F300 is a good step-down pick if you want to save at least $1,000 (or more, depending on which size you buy). It’s not as bright and doesn’t have as good contrast ratio as our pick, but it still has very good picture quality.

    If stepping down, we recommend the F5300 from Samsung, which costs much less, though it doesn’t have quite the same level of picture quality. It comes in 51-inch ($1,000 cheaper), 60-inch($1,500 cheaper), and 64-inch ($1,800 cheaper) screen sizes. The F5300 isn’t as bright as the F8500, doesn’t have as good a contrast ratio, and doesn’t look as good in bright rooms, but still has very good picture quality.

    If saving a lot of money is your goal, we recommend getting our pick for Best $500 TV, which is only 720p but has excellent picture quality for the price. And it is, you know, $500. Similar to the F5300, the F4500 (our $500 pick) isn’t as bright as the F8500, nor is its contrast ratio as high. And it’s got that lower resolution of 720p (the F8500 and F5300 are both 1080p sets). So the F8500 looks a lot better, for a lot more money.

    The Best Android Smartphone for Your Network (June 2014)

    We're in the thick of new phone season right now, which makes it a particularly perilous time to buy anything at all. Whether you're signing on for a two-year ride or doing a payment plan, it's a big commitment, and you don't want to regret it. Just like we do every month, we're going to go over the best devices on each of the big four US carriers and see what you should do.

    The Galaxy S5 and HTC One M8 are hitting their stride, but there's new reason to consider a device like the Nexus 5. And what about that LG G3? Let's dig in.

    Photo credit: Flickr user punk17er via Creative Commons.


    Ma Bell is keeping things comparatively easy for us by dragging its feet announcing new devices. We know the G3 is coming to AT&T, but there are no pre-orders yet. That takes it out of the running for our purposes. That leaves us with the continued struggle between the HTC One M8 and the Samsung Galaxy S5. Both are excellent phones -- there's no doubt many people will be perfectly happy with each of them for different reasons. At this point, I think we need to identify the strong points so you know which one works for you.

    Let's start with the Galaxy S5, but first some specs. The Galaxy S5 comes with a Snapdragon 801 processor clocked to 2.5GHz, 2800mAh battery, 2GB of RAM, and a killer 5.1-inch Super AMOLED screen. I think the screen in particular is great and fixes many of the long-standing issues with AMOLED tech. The whites are whiter and the colors are more accurate, but still vibrant.

    Around back is another of the Galaxy S5's selling points -- a 16MP camera that takes some of the best images I've ever seen come out of a phone. It has live HDR capture, 4K video recording, and nails the exposure almost every time in good light. It could be better in dim indoor light, but it is otherwise top of class. The thin plastic shell making up the rest of the back is less great, but maybe you can forgive that.

    The Samsung Galaxy S5 is IP67 water and dust resistant so you'll notice less flex in the overall design than some past Samsung devices. It's still a plastic Samsung phone, but it's definitely more solid. It can technically withstand 30 minutes in one meter of water, but I wouldn't put that to the test.

    On the software side of things, Samsung is currently rocking Android 4.4.2 with TouchWiz on the Galaxy S5. That's close enough to the current Nexus build that it's probably safe to say it's up to date. TouchWiz on the GS5 is not ideal, but it's greatly improved compared to some past devices. The colors are more cohesive and most of the stock apps are usable. There's still plenty of carrier bloatware to be killed, though. Features like Ultra Power Saving Mode and Private Mode are cool innovations that make this device more desirable.

    The Galaxy S5 is sure to fall behind in the software department later this year when Android L comes out, but Samsung has been doing a fairly good job getting updates out the door. This device is $200 on contract from AT&T.

    The Best Wi-Fi Router (for Most People)

    If you have a laptop or smartphone that uses wireless-ac technology and you're ready to upgrade your router, you should get the Netgear R6250. The R6250 has the best combination of speed, price, stability, and features of any router in its price range. It can make your new device's Wi-Fi connection up to three times faster than a wireless-n router could. It's a smidge more expensive than the sweet spot for a router of its class (hovering around $130-$145 on Amazon), but we feel the benefits are worth the slightly higher cost.

    A $200 router can be faster, but only if your devices can take advantage of the improvements it provides. If you don’t have anything that can (like most people), you’d be paying for performance you’ll never use. And don’t buy more than you need with the idea of futureproofing your network. Prices will drop over time and networking tech will improve before you know it. On the flip side, if you pay less than $100 for a wireless-ac router, you’ll lose out on features, speed, or range (or all three). The best combination of price and performance right now is in the $100 to $130 range.

    How To Shop for a New 2014 Android Phone

    There are plenty of Android devices out there to choose from, and it's easy to make general statements about which ones are the "best." This is something we try to do each month, in fact. However, when you're buying a new phone this year, it's worth taking a look at the state of the industry as a whole and consider what's important to you. How important are the internals? What about OS updates? Are there must-have hardware features on today's Android phones?

    Let's dive in and check up on the state of Android in 2014 so you'll know what to look for in a new device.

    The Guts That Matter

    OEMs are fond of saying how many CPU cores a device has and how fast they are, but this is not the aspect you should be looking at when considering ARM chips. The model number tells you much more about what a processor is capable of, and you might have to dig a little to see which one it is.

    Qualcomm is dominant in the mobile device sphere currently, and the Snapdragon 801 is the top-of-the-line for the moment (805 is still in its infancy). It's not that it's much faster in absolute terms than the Snapdragon 800, which is still shipping in a great number of high-end devices. The big improvements in 801 come in the form of additional power-saving features, which is what allows devices like the HTC One M8 and Samsung Galaxy S5 to implement their super power saving modes. It's a slightly more efficient chip in general, but yes, it's also very fast.

    The Best USB Car Charger Today

    The best USB car charger is the compact but powerful Scosche reVOLT 12 W + 12 W. At 4.8 amps, it’s rated as one of the most powerful car chargers you can buy. When we had an engineer test the claim, it exceeded advertised performance specs, which means it provides the fastest charge possible for tablets and phones outside of a wall plug. We seriously considered and tested 8 models to find that though other chargers are as powerful, the Scosche exceeds its power claims, is by far the most compact charger available, and has the benefit of being cheap as well.

    But there’s an important note to Android users: this will NOT work with a Samsung Galaxy S5 (even Scosche doesn’t know why). For all other phones, tablets, or USB-charged items, it’s the best charger for your car.

    Bits to Atoms: Testing Adobe Photoshop's 3D Printing Feature

    Adobe has been adding 3D functionality to Photoshop over its last few versions, and with this past January’s release they have also implemented 3D printing features. Adobe supplied me with access to Creative Cloud and a credit at the online 3D printing service Shapeways so I could give those new features a try. My experience with processing a 3D model for printing in Photoshop was mixed, with many bumps and hiccups along the way, but I ended up with a fairly nice print by the end. Here’s what 3D printing enthusiasts can expect if they want to integrate Adobe Creative Cloud software in their modeling and printing workflow.

    Photoshop CC’s 3D features allow you make or modify 3D models and even texture (paint) them which is particularly nice as it can be a frustrating process with most other pure modeling applications. The new 3D printing module allows you to size the model for printing, choose the level of detail and send it to a local printer or prepare it for online printing through Shapeways. It’s possible to build and modify 3D models purely within Photoshop CC, too. If you’re an Adobe-whiz and very comfortable in the CC suite of apps, this may be a good option as it utilizes familiar tools. With my more traditional modeling background, I actually found it frustrating. But that doesn’t mean it’s bad--it’s just different. If someone were to ask me how they should get started with modeling, I would still recommend more traditional programs, like what we’ve covered before. But for testing and curiosity, I attempted to use Photoshop to process a fairly complicated 3D model for printing.

    CREDIT: Smithsonian Institute

    To put Photoshop’s 3D printing feature through its paces I wanted to test it on a model with lots of detail. So I turned to the Smithsonian Institute, which has been releasing high-resolution 3D scans of select pieces from its collection. I chose the wooly mammoth skeleton for its fine surface detail and because Norm and I thought it would be a cool piece to see printed. The Smithsonian is kind enough to provide a print-ready model, meaning it’s been converted to an STL file, unified into one complete shell and run through mesh repair to ensure there are no holes or other problems that would cause the print to fail. (See here for a refresher on 3D print prep.)

    The Best USB Battery Pack for Travel Today

    We spent 15 hours researching nearly 30 USB battery packs, eliminating models that were either too expensive, too bulky, or too short on storage. We settled on 5 finalists based on their ratios of size, weight, and cost compared to the advertised capacity. We then had an electrical engineer spend almost 245 hours testing these finalists in order to find that the $30 IntoCircuit Power Castle 11,200 mAh is the USB power bank that most travelers should carry in their bags or briefcases. Little touches like an LCD that displays the remaining charge by percentage and automatically starting to charge devices you plug in without a button press make it feel more thoughtfully designed than the competition. It’s also the battery pack that held the most mAh per dollar.

    The IntoCircuit Power Castle can keep a smartphone running for a few days away from an outlet, and it can add hours to the life of a big tablet when you’re stuck on a long flight. Portable USB battery packs are a dime a dozen, but this one saves space, weight, time, and money—even if just a little bit of each.

    If our top pick is sold out, or you really think you’ll need the extra juice, the $40 RAVPower Deluxe 14,000 mAh is our runner-up. However, you should know that it was noticeably slower to charge other gadgets and itself. This isn’t a huge deal, but it can be annoying if you often find yourself in a bit of a rush. Some users also report hearing a slight, high-pitched whine that may or may not be noticeable to you.

    Our electrical engineer spent nearly 245 hours monitoring the charge and discharge cycles of these power banks as they were hooked up to an iPad and an Android phone. We measured some surprising real-world behaviors that aren’t revealed on spec sheets, like charging inefficiencies and underpowered currents; those results flipped some of our early predictions on their heads.

    TV Quest 2014: Shopping for a Bedroom Television

    A month ago, I decided that I needed a TV for my bedroom. And then two weeks later, I bought that TV, a 40-inch Vizio E400i-B2. As far as "TV Quests" go, it was a relatively short process from shopping research to purchase. Not because I was in a rush to buy a TV, or because I didn't care about the quality of the set. What I found is that finding the right TV for your needs is actually easier than ever. With guides like those on TheWirecutter and a plateauing of unnecessary optional features for 1080p sets, it's not difficult to match up your shopping criteria with what's available on the market. The hurdle to TV shopping is coming to terms with what you need, and having an understanding of how those requirements are addressed by the various TV manufacturers. More often than not, that also means adjusting your expectations and preconceptions of those needs when you see the TV in person.

    This is a walkthrough of how I came to choose the Vizio set, how using it has changed my perception of built-in apps, and why I bought my TV in store at a brick and mortar store instead of ordering one online.

    Building the Perfect Desk Part 3 - Beginnings Are Tough

    My desk is progressing nicely, thanks for asking. After absorbing last week's feedback from a bunch of people, I made some modifications to the initial design for my legs and made triple sure I was good with the height of the tray, the desktop, and the overall dimension of the desk. Assuming everything continues to go well, I'm set on the design, I just need to build it.

    I started actual construction this week (we'll have video up on the site in the next week or two) with the wooden top. After consulting a few people, the universal suggestion was to start with the piece I was most comfortable with, which will then serve as a template for the welded steel frame.

    After I put together my cut list I realized I could build the entire top out of a single sheet of plywood. I went down to our local hardwood supply shop, MacBeath Hardwood, and picked out a lovely sheet of A/C maple plywood. But I'd forgotten how tough actually making the first cut is. After measuring, remeasuring, squaring everything and spending as much time as I could delaying, I finally made the first cut. While I didn't get quite as much done as I'd hoped on the first day, I did managed to completely break down the sheet of plywood and get the first few pieces glued, and I did one of the trickier bits of carpentry that will be required. I have a bit more gluing to do next week, when I'm back in the shop, and then it's on to welding.

    So, what are you working on this weekend? Are you working on a project, cooking something, playing board games, or something else? Post your weekend plans in the comments below!

    The Best $500 Projector Today

    If I were in the market for a $500 projector, I’d buy the Acer H5380BD. I base this on 40 hours of research and objective testing with over $20,000 of test gear and side-by-side comparisons with the main competition. The H5380BD offers the best overall picture quality in its class; minus a slight resolution bump (720p down from 1080p), our pick here is surprisingly comparable to our $1,000 projector pick. The H5380BD is bright, has a decent contrast ratio, and its color accuracy is similar to other projectors in its price range

    Fed decent video content (like Blu-ray), the H5380BD puts out an extremely watchable image. And its input lag is low—faster than most TVs and high-end projectors—making it a good choice for gaming.

    However, the difference between several runners-up was very close. The H5380BD is very similar to the $389 Vivitek D557W and $604 D803W. All perform reasonably well, given their prices, and each has its own picture quality issues. So while we feel the H5380BD is the best for reasons we’ll explain in this guide, the difference between it and its two main competitors is very close.

    The Acer H5380BD compares well to our favorite $1,000 projector for half the price. It’s bright, has good contrast ratio, and has great overall picture quality.

    If for whatever reason the Acer becomes unavailable temporarily, we recommend getting the aforementioned $389 Vivitek D557W. It doesn’t look quite as good, with slightly more washed out colors and a lower contrast ratio, but its picture quality is fairly similar, just as bright, and a bit cheaper.

    If you’re susceptible/hateful of the DLP artifact known as “rainbows,” check out the Epson 730HD. It’s brighter than our pick but has a much worse contrast ratio, so it doesn’t look as good overall. It’s LCD, though, so no rainbows.

    If you have a small room or want a “short throw” projector that only needs to be a few feet from the screen, consider the $589 Optoma GT760. It puts out a similar image to the Acer and Vivitek, but isn’t as suitable for a more traditional projector/screen placement.

    Living with Photography: Eyes Up Here

    Going to run through a simple but practical tip today--something I've been trying out lately and has been working well. It's about being able to properly focus on your subject when you're using your camera's autofocus system. As I've mentioned before, one of the reasons I prefer using a DSLR over a mirrorless camera is the optical viewfinder. The clarity of the real-time image you see through a DSLR's lens, by way of mirror, cannot be matched by an LCD or EVF, even though those systems let you see exactly what the camera sensor is registering. It doesn't matter if your camera's LCD or EVF has 3.8 million dots; the resolution of reality is only limited by the rods and cones in your eyes. That degree of clarity is a tremendous help with finding focus, with the trade-off being that you don't get the same kind of digital overlay that you would get on an LCD, like edge peaking.

    My method for finding focus is a pretty standard one--using the center focus point in one-shot AF mode to find my focus and then reframing the shot to get the composition I want. There are a few reasons I choose center focus instead of full-on autofocus, which may apply to your shooting style. The first is that DSLRs have a limited number of autofocus points. On the Canon 6D, that number is on the low side, at 11. A high-end model like the 5D Mark III has many more (61 points), which makes autofocus much more useful and accurate as a guiding tool. But even with many auto-focus points, not all of them have the same abilities. The autofocus points on a DSLR are phase-detect sensors, but some of them can only detect contrast along one dimension (either vertical or horizontal), while some are cross-type, meaning that they can detect details across two axes. The center autofocus point is also typically the best at doing its job, with the center point on the 6D rated to detect detail at a full stop of lower than its siblings.

    Additionally, the array of autofocus points on a camera sensor are usually grouped toward the center of the frame, in a cross-like pattern. You're not going to get autofocusing ability near the edges of the frame, much less the corners. So while you can manually set which specific autofocus point (or grouping of points) to use in a specific shot, that's only going to work if the subject you want in focus is covered by that array. In the simulated viewfinder image below, the auto-AF system wouldn't be able to focus on either of the players' faces, or even the basketball. Even if your subject is withing the AF grid, manually selecting that point can take precious seconds away from the shot, and compromise your ideal composition. By default, DSLRs require that you press the AF Grid button before tapping the directional pad to select your AF point. But even when you turn this off in the camera's menus, I find that it's not as fast as using center focus and then readjusting the framing .

    Image credit: DPReview

    The problem with using the center point autofocus method, though, is that you leave yourself susceptible to losing that focused point through the simple act of reframing.

    The Search for the Perfect Desk—Redesigning

    Last week, I told you about my plans to build a custom desk for myself and asked for your feedback. Boy did you have feedback.I thought about the design most of the week and sat down last night to work on an updated design before deciding to simply start over from scratch. I kept the desk's top itself basically the same, but I removed the monitor stand because several people suggested that attaching articulated VESA mount arms to the wall is cheaper and less wobbly than desk mounts. I was bummed to lose an excuse to learn to weld, but c'est la vie. I also ditched the solid wooden sides--while they looked cool in a render, I don't think they'd be as awesome in real life, and they'd make the entire desk crazy heavy. I talked about routing holes out of the wood with a couple of people, but that didn't particularly appeal to me, it seemed like it would be difficult to duplicate on two sides, and it would waste a ton of material. Even if I wasn't using some fairly expensive plywood for the desk, a design that wasted a third of my material doesn't appeal to me.

    Eventually I realized the answer to my leg problem included welding, and I was much happier. I realized that I could make the desk's frame out of either 1-inch (as sketched up now) or maybe 3/4-inch (if 1-inch is crazy overkill instead of just overkill) square steel tube. And best of all, because it's my desk, I could make the legs exactly the right height for me--they don't need to be adjustable.

    With that figured out, I was able to move forward quickly. I designed the desktop to rest atop the steel tube frame, held in the appropriate place by a couple of notches. I also built a sliding tray with a rigid fold-down door that mimics the one on my wife's desk, which I've long admired. I currently have the keyboard tray mounted to the square steel tubes, but I may actually attach it to the wooden desk top itself. It will require a little tweaking and may be slightly more difficult to make, but I'd be able to convert the entire desk into a flat work bench just by lifting the top off. Without a monitor resting on the top surface, my thought is that this should probably be easier than it sounds.

    As before, I'd love feedback. I still need to add a couple of shelves and figure out cable management. I'm planning on adding at least two shelves--one hanging shelf designed to fit a decent-sized mid-tower PC case plus a wide but shallow shelf sized to fit a power strip, network switches, USB hubs, consoles. Since I'm mounting my monitors on the wall, I'll likely run the cables needed for them through the wall itself, but that will require the addition of a HDMI switcher and a few other tricks. Even with the additional hardware, mounting two monitors on the wall will be cheaper than a single articulated arm designed to be mounted on a desk. What do you guys think? I'm planning on starting construction next week, so my next step will be planning materials, sketching my cuts on a piece of 4x8 plywood, and, you know, learning to weld.

    How To Get Into Hobby RC: Boats Boats Boats!

    Although I’ve owned a few RC boats over the years, they are my least familiar RC vehicle by far. In many regards, writing this guide has been an example of “learning by teaching”. Looking back to the first article of this series, you may recall that I recommended the AquaCraft Reef Racer 2 for anyone just starting out in RC power boats. I own a Reef Racer myself--three of them actually. They’re a little addictive. I recently stepped up to a brushless-powered speedboat as well. And both boat types have been unexpectedly fun in unique ways. Let’s take a look.

    The AquaCraft Reef Racer 2 is an ideal boat for beginners. It is not very fast, but it is extremely nimble.

    Inside the Reef Racer 2

    The Reef Racer comes as a complete package with the boat, a pistol-grip radio, battery, and charger. It is available in six different colors. Each boat color also represents a different radio frequency, so you can operate different color boats simultaneously. The Reef Racer also comes completely assembled as well. All that you have to is charge the battery and head to the nearest lake.

    The drive system for the boat is very simple. An electric motor near the front of the boat is connected to a shaft that runs towards the back of the boat and out through the bottom of the hull. This shaft is contained within a tube that is filled with grease (called a stuffing tube). The grease in the tube provides lubrication and also prevents water from entering the hull. At the end of the shaft is the propeller.

    With the top shell and watertight covers removed, you can see the layout of the components within the Reef Racer’s hull. Note the on/off switch that I felt was unnecessary and removed.

    To keep the motor running relatively cool, it is wrapped with a coil of aluminum tubing. This coil is connected with flexible tubing to a water pickup in the bottom of the hull. As the boat moves forward, water is forced into the pick-up and through the coil to provide conductive cooling of the motor. Once through the coil, the water is dumped overboard.

    Steering for the Reef Racer is accomplished via a completely submerged rudder placed just behind the propeller. A shaft on the rudder protrudes into the hull where a small servo actuates it in either direction. It is a very simple and effective system.

    How To Make Your Own Giant Papercraft Head

    If you saw us at Maker Faire this year, you may have caught us bumbling about wearing big versions of our heads, giving high-fives and confusing children. A bunch of people we met asked what these masks were made of, and how we built them to look so much like our own heads. These paper heads were constructed using a combination of cool techniques and software: photogrammetry with PhotoScan, modeling in Maya, and papercrafting with Pepakura. The heads took about about two weeks to build from start to finish, including several long nights of paper cutting and gluing, right up until the morning of Maker Faire. They were laborious to make, but it's technically a project that anyone can do without previous papercrafting experience. Of course, knowing what I know now about the process, I would've done several things differently to streamline the build. Having just a few more days of time for putting the heads together would've gone a long way to making them look so much better, but I think they still turned out great for the first attempt.

    So for anyone who wants to build their own giant papercraft heads, I'm going recap the steps of the project from start to finish, guiding you with tips that I learned from time around. Photogrammetry expert Brandon Blizard, who did the modeling work on this project, also has some tips for how to image your visage for use in Pepakura. And for those with more experience with this kind of Pepakura papercrafting, please share your own tips in the comments below.

    Step 1: Capture Your Head with Photogrammetry

    The first thing we needed to do was get a digital copy of our heads. This could've been done a few different ways, ranging from a completely manual process to a fully-automated one. On one end, we could have sculpting a model from scratch in a CAD program like Maya or Sketchup, which requires 3D sculpting skills we didn't have. This method also doesn't give us an image texture for our faces. On the other end, we could have generated a computer model of our heads using a 3D imager, like a hand-held laser or optical scanner. 3D Systems makes one, but these tools are generally pretty expensive.

    We went with a middle ground--somewhat automating the modeling with photogrammetry. That's the process of generating a 3D model computed from the processing of numerous photographs, all taken around one subject from a multitude of angles. Photogrammetry apps like 123D Catch would've worked for our needs, but we invited Brandon to our office to take high-resolution photos using a DSLR rig to import into a piece of software called PhotoScan.

    We've previously detailed the basics of Photogrammetry software and hardware along with some best practices for taking your photogrammetry pictures in these guides.

    The Best Cheap Camera Under $200

    If you want to buy a decent, basic point-and-shoot for less than $200, you’ll probably be best off buying the $179 Canon 340 HS (the IXUS 265 HS elsewhere). It combines extreme ease of use with sharp photo quality, complete with vibrant colors and low noise levels. This means you’ll be able to just flip this thing on and take a good photo without having to fiddle with manual controls (good for situations where you won’t have time or patience to focus much on your camera, like outings with friends or kids’ birthday parties). The 12x zoom capabilities and built-in Wi-Fi that can sync photos to your computer are nice features to have as well.

    This is a replacement for our pick from last year, the Canon 330 HS, that manages to fix some of the more frustrating problems with that model. Notably, the old 330 HS had a major battery life bug that made it just about unusable for recording videos.

    The Canon 340 HS can fit in your pocket, has a 12x optical zoom, and the automatic image quality to ensure that, really, all you have to do is point and shoot.

    But the 340 HS isn’t perfect: Though better than its predecessor’s, its battery life leaves something to be desired. Photos taken while zoomed in all the way at 12x can be fuzzy due to the nature of shooting at full zoom. And its high-burst mode, while useful, can’t shoot at full resolution, meaning you’re sacrificing speed for image quality if you shoot in that mode.