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    Testing the Liftoff Drone Racing Simulator

    I've written about several RC flight simulators over the years. There is no doubt that they are excellent tools for developing and polishing your piloting skills. Many sims let you fly multi-rotor models. Some also have First Person View (FPV) features. But very few programs are actually designed to emulate the specific demands of flying a high-speed FPV quad through a challenging race course. Liftoff is one of those simulators.

    The Basics

    Liftoff is a Steam game. I assume that most of us here are familiar with the Steam platform. The minimum system requirements are pretty reasonable. In fact, I have been running Liftoff on a mid-range laptop that doesn't quite hit all of the minimums. The game has been running just fine in single player mode. With that being said, there are still quite a few features that I have not yet utilized. It is possible that some of those features could require more horsepower to run well.

    Don't expect life-like graphics here. You won't find them. However, I think that the image quality is good enough for the sim's intended purpose. What's important to me is that the game runs smoothly and without lag on my machine. It does this even at the highest video quality settings.

    Flying a speedy racing quad through air gates is tougher than it looks. Training on a simulator helps.

    Knowing that it isn't really practical to review all aspects of this simulator, I decided to focus on its core functionality: training to become a better racing quad pilot. For some, that might mean starting at square one. As you will see, I came in with a fair bit of varied experience flying all types of multi-rotors…and perhaps an over-inflated confidence in my abilities.

    In addition to the single-player flight simulation, you can race against other people online, create your own race course, design a cyber multi-rotor, and other neat things. But those capabilities are garnish to the fundamental purpose of the sim. People who are really into gaming may have an interest in such features. I'm okay ignoring them.

    Tested: Glowforge Laser Cutter Review

    After using the Glowforge personal laser cutter for six months, Jeremy and Norm talk about the projects they've done, the lessons they've learned from using the machine, and caveats of its operation. The Glowforge definitely has its limitations, but being able to easily laser cut in our own homes has changed the way we think about making things.

    Hands-On with Skydio R1 Autonomous Drone!

    We go hands-on with the Skydio R1, a camera-equipped drone that not only flies autonomously, but can actually track you and avoid almost any obstacle in its flight path. And from our first test, it actually works--we couldn't get it to crash. Skydio CEO and co-founder Adam Bry walks us through the computer vision technology that makes the R1 work, and we share our impressions from the impressive test flight.

    Show and Tell: Augmented Reality Model of the Moon

    We check out Astroreality's Lunar Pro, a detailed model of the moon that works with a companion app to show some extra details through augmented reality. While the model itself is nicely made and finished, the software experience leaves much to be desired. It's a neat concept that disappoints with its execution.

    Testing: Traxxas TRX-4 RC Rock Crawler

    Portal axles are a feature sometimes found on full-scale off-road cars and trucks. The basic concept is that gears located near the wheel hubs allow the axle to be offset above the middle of the wheel. This provides increased ground clearance, which is often a handy feature when off-roading.

    Until recently, I had never seen an RC vehicle with portal axles. That changed when I found an advertisement for the Traxxas TRX-4. It includes these types of axles as standard equipment. I was interested to see if portal axles are actually useful in 1/10-scale. Traxxas provided a TRX-4 Tactical Unit ($450) for this review.

    TRX-4 Overview

    The TRX-4 is a factory-built model that includes a 4-channel 2.4GHz radio system. You will have to provide four AA alkaline batteries for the transmitter as well as a battery for the vehicle. There is a wide variety of applicable vehicle batteries, so I'll cover that in more detail a little later.

    My first impression while unboxing the TRX-4 was that it is quite heavy. I later weighed it and confirmed that this truck is indeed beefier than my other 1/10-scale vehicles. The TRX-4 comes in at 7.2 pounds without a battery. My other 1/10-scale vehicles average about 4 to 5 pounds. As you will see, the TRX-4 is heavier for good reason.

    The polycarbonate body is factory painted and includes bolt-on scale details.

    Even the body is notably heavy. Like most RC truck bodies, it is made of polycarbonate (Lexan). This one comes pre-painted in a 3-tone camouflage pattern. Its extra weight comes from bolt-on scale details such as a spare tire, gas can, and fender skirts.

    The good news here is that the TRX-4 is a rock crawler, trail rig, and basher, so a little extra weight is usually no big deal. Once you include the "cool factor" of the features that make this truck big-boned, I doubt you'll mind the extra baggage. It certainly hasn't bothered me.

    Show and Tell: Fat Shark 101 FPV Quadcopter

    We take the new Fat Shark 101 quadcopter for a spin to see if this ready-to-fly system can be a good entry point for FPV drone racing. Fat Shark puts quadcopter, transmitter, and FPV goggles in one package that works outside the box, but its features may be too limiting for drone fans.

    Tested Mailbag: Power Loader LEGO MOC!

    The first mystery mailbag of the new year! Dan Schlumpp sent us a care package with some of our favorite things: custom LEGO sets! We put together his beautiful power loader and Alien queen kit, and Dan has made the build instructions free to download! Find Dan's MOC designs and other LEGO creations here.

    Quick Look at the Shaper Origin Handheld CNC!

    We have the new Shaper Origin CNC machine in our workshop! This is a handheld CNC that uses computer vision to align itself to the material you're routing, like plywood or MDF. We take it for a spin with a simple test project to show you the basics of how it works and the quirks of its operation.

    Testing: Fat Shark 101 Drone Training System

    Flying First Person View (FPV) racers isn't easy. Weaving through the small gates that define a FPV race course demands confidence and skills that must be earned. Those first baby steps of becoming an FPV pilot can be rough for some. While there is no single training path that is guaranteed to work for everyone, there are definitely high-yield, low-risk methods to becoming a competent pilot.

    Fat Shark recently announced a setup that combines several popular training tools into one box. Called "Fat Shark 101" ($250), this package includes simulator training as well as a flight-ready multi-rotor and goggles. The goal is to elevate you out of noob status and get you on the race course without leaving a trail of expletives and broken parts.

    About Fat Shark 101

    The 101 package is all-inclusive. I didn't have to add a thing to get it going. Even AA batteries for the transmitter are included. The core of the 101 set is a 105mm quadcopter. This quad uses brushed motors and is powered by a 2-cell 260mAh LiPo battery. Two batteries are provided in the kit, along with a USB charger for them.

    No assembly is required for the quad. You can decide for yourself whether the shark-like profile is cool. I happen to like it. From a practicality standpoint, the tail really improves in-flight orientation when flying by line-of-sight.

    The Fat Shark 101 kit is intended to provide all of the necessary tools to get rookie drone pilots race-ready.

    I've always preached about the practicality of using small, indoor-capable quads as training tools. The prime drawback with that approach is that most of the smaller, beginner-oriented quads include an undersized control transmitter. Some are ridiculously small. You are often forced to readjust to the feel of the control sticks when you transition to a full-size transmitter.

    Testing: Prusa i3 Multi-Material 3D Printing

    Most FDM 3D printers can print in one color at a time, and just a few can use two filaments at once. But the newest upgrade to the Prusa i3 printer gives us the ability to print with four colors! Jeremy and Sean test this upgrade and explain how multi-material printing works, along with its potential and pitfalls.

    Testing: Kyosho Ultima RB6.6 RC Off-Road Racer

    Not long ago, I reviewed Kyosho's re-release of the Optima 4-wheel-drive off-road RC racer. I was pretty excited to do that review because I had always pined for an Optima as a kid. This time around, I'll be looking at another off-roader from Kyosho: the 2-wheel-drive Ultima RB6.6. I'm feeling a little nostalgic here as well because an Ultima was the car that I did get as a kid.

    The RB6.6 is not a re-release of the vintage Ultima. Rather, this is the latest iteration in a long line of variants dating back to 1987. The design has evolved to stay competitive while keeping pace with ever-changing technology and racing trends. A cursory glance reveals that this car shares only its name with my former Ultima.

    About the Ultima RB6.6

    Kyosho offers the latest Ultima in two forms. The kit version ($400) is intended for hard-core racers, while the Readyset ($250) is better-suited for beginning racers and backyard bashers. This review covers the Readyset variant.

    The core design of both cars is the same. The kit version includes higher-end racing hardware such as aluminum-bodied shocks, a ball differential, and even several different transmission configurations. You must assemble the kit (not a bad thing) and provide all of the electronics. One advantage of the Readyset option is that it includes a 2.4GHz radio system and the onboard electronics. The only things you have to add are a battery, charger, and four AA cells for the transmitter.

    The Readyset arrives factory-assembled. You could literally open the box and be driving the Ultima a few minutes later. A positive aspect of this situation is that rookie RC mechanics need not worry about knowing the correct way to install a given component--it's already done. The flip side is that they will eventually need these skills. Maintenance and repair is an important aspect of owning an RC car. Thankfully, the hefty manual dedicates many pages to proper maintenance steps.

    Testing: SmartPlane Pro FPV Fixed-Wing RC

    The thrill of First Person View (FPV) flying is a big draw for many aspiring RC hobbyists. Everybody wants to experience the sensation of flying from their model's perspective. While there are lots of beginner-oriented FPV multi-rotors on the market, there are very few fixed-wing options. A new entry in the fixed-wing column is the SmartPlane Pro FPV from TobyRich ($300).

    I'll be honest. I didn't expect much from this model. The marketing material made it seem like something you might find in a Sky Mall catalog…plenty of cool factor, but no real substance. I've tested enough of those types of products to know that I shouldn't get my hopes up.

    You can imagine my surprise when I discovered that the SmartPlane Pro FPV (SPPF) is actually a great-flying little airplane. In fact, the entire package works much better than I expected. I've really been enjoying it. Keep reading to find out what makes the SPPF stand out. I'll also share some things that could use improvement.

    Quick Look at LG's 43-Inch 4K Monitor

    How big is too big for a desktop computer monitor? Norm lives with LG's 43-inch 4K monitor for a month, and shares his experience using it for daily web browsing, photo editing, and gaming. The extra screen real estate of the 43UD79-B takes getting used to, but there are some tradeoffs.

    Machination Studio's Mechanized Armored Walker!

    We're huge fans of Michael Sng, a toy designer who successfully launched his first mechanized scale model on Kickstarter a year ago. Michael visits our studio to show off his newest creation: the Schnauzer Armored Walker prototype that he hopes to bring to collectors. Its movement, detail, and paint finish are most impressive!

    A New Battery Option for RC Cars

    My inbox is often filled with press releases about the latest RC hobby products. I try to focus my attention on the truly unique and innovative stuff. That's why the ARRMA Granite Voltage ($140) caught my eye. On the surface, it appears to be a run-of-the-mill 1/10-scale monster truck. But this is no ordinary backyard basher. The Granite Voltage is equipped to use a power source that I've never before seen in an RC truck, cylindrical Lithium-Ion (Li-Ion) batteries. I'm a battery nerd, so I had to take a closer look.

    The 18650-sized (18mm diameter, 65mm long) Li-Ion batteries used by the Granite Voltage are not new. Derivatives of these cells have been around for more than 20 years. They've always been a popular choice for small electronic devices because of their high energy density, convenient size, and robust housing. However, these cells never really captured the interest of RC hobbyists. The issue was that Li-Ion cells couldn't discharge rapidly enough to meet the high-current demands of most RC vehicles. Simply put, Li-Ion batteries were great at storing energy, but not so great at expending that energy quickly. Most hobbyists adopted a different flavor of Lithium-Ion technology with more favorable discharge characteristics, the soft, flat Lithium-Polymer (LiPo) cells that now dominate RC applications.

    Recent developments with cylindrical Li-Ion batteries have finally made them contenders for hobbyists. The latest generation of 18650 cells have high discharge capabilities, giving backyard drivers another battery option. I also found it interesting that Tesla and the vaping community have also embraced the allure of modern 18650 Li-Ion batteries.

    Quick Look at the Razer Phone

    We go hands-on with the brand new Razer Phone, the first smartphone from laptop and gaming accesory maker Razer. This monolithic Android phone stands out with a 120Hz screen--the first for a phone. We show how smooth and responsive this display is compared to other flagship hardware with our high-speed camera, but you can even see the differences in real-time.

    Hobby RC: Testing the VIFLY R130 Racing Quad

    How much smaller can racing multi-rotors get? When I built my first racer a couple of years ago, I thought it was difficult to cram all of the necessary components into a 250mm frame. Now many quads are half that size or less. Maybe that's why there is also a rising trend in prebuilt racing quads. Sure, there is plenty of benefit to the DIY approach. But when space is this tight, some people can save their sanity by letting the factory fit all of those parts into the right places.

    The VIFLY R130 is one of these newer, factory-built racing quads. VIFLY offers the R130 in a bind-n-fly package ($170) that includes pretty much everything you need except a radio transmitter, flight battery, and FPV goggles. You can choose from versions that are compatible with either Spektrum, FrSky, or FlySky transmitters. I tested the Spektrum variant. There is also a ready-to-fly version of the quad that includes a RadioLink 8-channel transmitter ($230).

    About the R130

    As the name suggests. The R130 has a 130mm frame. It actually measures 134mm between diagonal motors. But let's not nitpick. This is a small quad no matter how you look at it. The main structural components are made of carbon fiber. Most of the electronics are hidden within the double-decker main frame. In fact, the upper deck is a circuit board containing several integrated components.

    The R130 uses a 4-in-1 Electronic Speed Control (ESC) rather than four individual units. This approach conserves precious real estate within the quad's small footprint. The only downside is that you have to replace the entire board ($40) if one ESC goes south. VIFLY sells the ESC and other replacement parts on their website.

    These miniature brushless motors really sing. The R130 darts around like a hummingbird.

    The ESCs are linked to tiny brushless motors spinning 3-inch-diameter (76mm) 3-blade propellers. In some places, the gap between the propeller arc and a part of the frame is just a few millimeters. Like I said…space is tight. Two of the motors use reverse-thread nuts to secure the props. This helps them to stay tight during flight.

    A 700-line FPV camera is mounted on a swivel at the front of the quad. It appears to be well-protected from crash damage. You physically tilt the camera to your desired angle before taking off. I was concerned that the camera angle might drift during flight, but it has not been a problem. The R130 does not include any provision for mounting an action camera to record onboard video. I'm sure it would be a simple matter to whip up a simple mount, but I have not yet done so.