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    The Risks of Buying A Cheap RC Truck

    It's definitely true that you get what you pay for. But as a noob, it's often difficult to recognize or understand what you sacrifice with a bottom-end model. So let's take a look at one of the least expensive 1/10-scale hobby-grade RC trucks available, the ECX Amp, and analyze the pros and cons of pinching pennies.

    Analyzing the Amp

    The Amp is a 2-wheel-drive truck that comes pre-built or as a kit. Both versions are priced at $130 and include a radio, battery, and charger. You only need to add 4 AA batteries for the transmitter. The kit version also requires paint for the clear plastic body. Obviously, the pre-built version will get you on the road sooner. But the kit version will jump start your knowledge of how RC cars work. Learn now or learn later. The choice is yours.

    I highly recommend choosing a 1/10-scale model for your first RC car. They are large enough that the components are easy to work on. At the same time, these cars and trucks are not so large that replacement parts and hop-ups are prohibitively expensive.

    The ECX Amp is one of the least expensive hobby-grade trucks available. What do you sacrifice by going cheap?

    Like most modern off-road models, the Amp has a molded plastic chassis, long suspension arms and oil-filled coil-over shocks. I've crashed the truck into a few immovable objects and it has proven to be tough.

    The transmission has a gear-type differential. Many racing cars and trucks use limited-slip differentials. While limited-slip diffs allow tuning options, they are also more difficult to assemble and require maintenance. Gear differentials are very tough and work well in most situations. They're definitely the best bet for newcomers.

    Which Network Carrier Has the Best Unlimited Data Plan?

    It was only a few years ago that most of the big US carriers were trying to tell us we didn't need unlimited data, Verizon was even running ads to that effect a few weeks ago. Now, here we are in the midst of a new battle for the best "unlimited" data plan among the top four carriers. Of course, there are a surprising number of limits in these plans.

    Carriers start throttling your usage at different points, and not all plans include full HD video by default. There are also some differences in tethering support. Let's see how they stack up.

    Verizon Unlimited

    It was Verizon that kicked off the latest round of interest in unlimited plans after it brought back the option with much fanfare a few weeks ago. Verizon has allowed users to keep their grandfathered unlimited plans from years ago, but the throttling kicks in faster and more aggressively than with the new plan.

    Cost: Verizon's plan start at $80 for unlimited data on a single line. Two lines is $140, three is $162, and four is $180. The 4-line pricing is the best overall deal on a cost per-line basis. These prices all assume you get the $5 per month discount for auto-pay. Phone payments are extra, of course. The marketing on this is very straightforward.

    Tethering: Verizon's unlimited plan includes 10GB of LTE tethering. After you've used your allotment, you can keep tethering at 3G speeds.

    Throttling: Verizon will deprioritize your connection after you've used 22GB in a single billing cycle. That doesn't mean you'll instantly see your speeds decrease, but your speeds will probably slow when towers are congested. Verizon does throttle video, but at a poorly explained "HD" bitrate. You should be able to stream 1080p resolution fine. No other media types are throttled.

    Google Play App Roundup: Shortcutter, Avalanche, and Gravity Galaxy

    A new week has dawned, and with it comes a new list of great things happening on Android. This is the Google Play App Roundup where we tell you what needs to be on your phone or tablet right now. Just click the links to head to Google Play and grab these apps for yourself.

    Shortcutter

    Google's included quick settings tiles are pretty robust these days, and some OEMs even add a few more for good measure. They don't have everything, though. That's where Nougat's new quick settings tile API comes in. Shortcutter is one of a new breed of apps that add additional tiles to the quick settings. This app has a lot of features in the free version, and there are some goodies exclusively for rooted users.

    After installing Shortcutter, you'll need to open the app to run through a quick setup process. The app needs access to modify your settings and change the do not disturb features. It only takes a few seconds and the app is very clear about what you have to do. The only settings in the app to be modified are the custom URL and app shortcuts. There's only one of each in the free version, but the upgraded premium app (a $2.99 ad-on) increases that the four of each.

    Adding Shortcutter tiles to the quick settings works just like managing the stock tiles. Open the editing panel and long-press to drag in the new tiles. If you're not rooted, you get a reasonable selection of tiles (in addition to the aforementioned custom URL and app shortcuts). There's next alarm, screen timeout, ring mode, haptic feedback, camera launcher, and more. With root, you get tiles for things like Reboot, ADB, ambient display, and network mode.

    It's quite robust for a free app. One thing I would like to see added is a way to disable Shortcutter toggles you don't intend to use. The list of tiles in the quick settings edit panel can be a little unwieldy, especially if you install a few tile managers.

    PROJECTIONS, Episode 1: The Mage's Tale, rEvolve Prototype Hands-On

    Welcome to PROJECTIONS, a new show about the latest in virtual and augmented reality. This inaugural episode kicks off with a discussion of depth in VR games, an exclusive hands-on preview of The Mage's Tale, and a spotlight on the rEvolve accessory prototype for the HTC Vive. Let us know what you think, and what you'd like to see in future episodes!

    AMD's CPUs You Should Consider For Your Next PC Build

    After floundering for the last five years with their Bulldozer architecture and its derivatives, AMD is releasing processors based on a new architecture called Zen. The Ryzen CPUs, starting with the high end chips launching this March, have been made to tackle Intel head on.

    On March 2nd AMD is releasing three high end CPUs aimed at gamers, content creators, and enthusiasts, all with 8 cores and 16 threads. The Ryzen 7 1800X is the flagship with a base clock of 3.6GHz, a boost speed of 4.0GHz, a TDP of 95W, and retails for $500. AMD is claiming that this chip will outperform Intel's core i7 6900K by 9% in multi threaded work and is dead even in single thread performance. The 6900K is also an 8 core/16 thread CPU, has a clock speed of 3.2GHz and a turbo of 3.7GHz. It'll also run you about $1050.

    In the middle is the 1700X with a base clock speed of 3.4GHz and a 3.8GHz boost clock. This is also a 95W TDP chip. AMD claims this will significantly outperform the core i7 6800K, which has 2 fewer cores, in multi threaded workloads by 39%. The 1700X will cost slightly less at $400 compared to about $425 for the 6800K.

    Finally, the 1700 rounds out the high end. For $330 you're getting a CPU with a base clock of 3.0GHz, a boost speed of 3.7GHz, and a TDP of only 65W. Intel's core i7 7700K ($350), which AMD is choosing to compare to, only has 4 cores and a TDP of 91W. The i7's 4.2GHz clock and 4.5GHz turbo will be faster in single threaded performance, but AMD is claiming up to 46% better performance in multi threaded applications.

    Later this year AMD will also release chips for the Ryzen 5 class, which sits in the middle, and the Ryzen 3 class, which will be more budget oriented. Leaked benchmarks of the Ryzen 5 1600X, a 6 core/12 thread CPU, show it outperforming many i7 processors, so that's definitely something to look out for in a few months.

    How Expert Builders Compete with Ultra-Realistic RC Models

    Many modelers get into the RC hobby with dreams of flying a replica of their favorite full-scale airplane. Whether you want a blazing red Fokker triplane, a shiny P-51 Mustang, or even a F-16 powered by a real jet engine, there are models to scratch that itch. For some, the need for scale accuracy goes deeper…much, much deeper. These detail-oriented hobbyists spend countless hours making their model appear as close as possible to the real thing. No nuance is too small to replicate. They also gather for competitions where their creations are judged by how realistic they appear on the ground and in flight.

    Rules for RC scale competition are specifically tailored to include modelers with widely varying skill levels, budgets, and interests. (Dunn photo)

    Something for Everyone

    Many scale competitions in the US are governed by the U.S. Scale Masters Association (USSMA). The event rules are specifically tailored to include modelers with varying skill levels, budgets, and interests. If you love to build, but you're not the best pilot, you can partner with an ace flyer to compete in one of the team categories. Or maybe you just want to test the competitive waters. There are novice classes that allow you to compete with off-the-shelf factory-built models.

    Expert class scale competition modelers build and pilot their own flying replicas.

    The top tier of scale competition is the expert class. These modelers build and pilot their own flying creations. They must be equally skilled in both areas to be a serious contender.

    At any given event, you are likely to find a mix of military and civilian models spanning all eras of aviation. The USSMA rulebook states that competitors can use "any scale model of a heavier-than-air, man-carrying, fixed-wing aircraft that was actually built and flown". Other than blimps, helicopters, and drones, it's essentially wide open.

    USSMA holds regional events all over the US. Participants who score well enough at a regional are invited to attend the annual U.S. Scale Masters Championships…a Super Bowl of scale modeling. The winner of the expert class at this national event is named "Grand Champion". To gain some insight into the realm of RC scale events, I spoke with the current US Scale Masters Grand Champion, Chris Wolfe.

    Google Play App Roundup: EasilyDo Email, Splitter Critters, and unWorded

    Money doesn't grow on trees, and those $0.99 app purchases do add up. It's best to go into the Play Store with some idea of what's up your alley and what isn't. That's what the Google Play App Roundup is here to do. We bring you the best new and newly updated app and games every week. Just click on the app name to head to the Play Store and test it out yourself.

    EasilyDo Email

    Your phone came with the Gmail app, and maybe you've since branched out to the Inbox app. Support for non-Google email accounts in Inbox is poor, but the new Email app from EasilyDo is a bit like Inbox for whatever email account you want to use. It's essentially an email app wrapped around the EasilyDo Assistant app.

    Adding an account is very quick, especially for Gmail accounts you already have on your phone. Just select it and you're done. There's also a guided setup process for popular apps like Yahoo, Outlook, and AOL Mail. You can also plug in any other account via IMAP. Syncing and general app navigation are quite fast.

    Your inbox defaults to a Gmail-style conversation view—the app doesn't try to imitate Inbox's bundling. The style is a little different, though. Instead of seeing all the emails collapsed in one screen, tapping on an email brings up a new screen with a list of all threaded messages. I don't know if I like it more than Gmail's approach, but it's something new.

    One of my favorite things about EasilyDo Email is the customizable swipe gestures. Each message in the inbox can be swiped left or right. You can have those gestures do things like archive, delete, and mark read/unread. The assistant functionality is neat as well. You'll find this in the navigation panel. The app automatically finds emails that fit into categories like travel, subscriptions, and packages. Tap on any of them to get a filtered view of your inbox. Some of these lists will include a handy breakdown of all the relevant details. For example, flights found in the travel list have flight numbers, reservations, seat numbers, and times. The assistant seems reasonably smart, but it does miss some things.

    The subscriptions section also showcases one of Email's main features; one-tap unsubscribing. You'll see this button at the top of any email it detects as a subscription with a supported method of removing yourself from the list. It seems to work on most of my email subscriptions. Simply tap the button, the app thinks, and you're unsubscribed.

    EasilyDo Email is free, so check it out if you want to get a different take on your email.

    RC Indoor Rock Crawling with the ECX Temper

    I've talked about RC rock crawlers before, and I've also taken a look at small-scale indoor cars. This time around, I'll combine the two and also toss in a dash of FPV. Rock crawlers are especially good for indoor driving because you do not need a lot of space, nor do you have to worry about having a smooth, spotless floor. In fact, as driving surfaces go, the rougher, the better.

    The ECX Temper is a 1/24-scale rock crawler. It is about the same size as most plastic model car kits.

    ECX Temper

    The vehicle I chose is the Temper ($80), a ready-to-run model from ECX. This model is available in either 1/24 or 1/18 scale. I chose the 1/24-scale version, which is the same scale as most plastic car models. It is about 6.75" (171mm) long and 4" (102mm) wide.

    In many respects, this downsized crawler is just like my larger 1/10-scale machine (which is a lot like full-scale crawlers). It has full-time 4-wheel-drive, locked differentials, 4-link suspension, super-soft tires…all the stuff you would expect on a rock crawler. The only obvious difference is that the Temper uses friction dampers rather than oil-filled shocks.

    The radio receiver and ESC are integrated into a single unit.

    A 2.4GHz radio system is included. The transmitter looks smaller than most others, but it is a comfortable fit in my hand. It has servo reversing and adjustable control rates. It's a neat, compact piece. The receiver and ESC are combined into one unit aboard the car. Steering is handled by a tiny analog servo.

    Power comes from a 4-cell 150mAh NiMH battery. The battery is removable, so you can buy a few spares ($14) and not have to worry about down time. The included charger is a simple USB-powered device. To be honest, I haven't had much luck with it. I've tried powering the charger from a few different USB sources and it never seems to give the battery a full charge. I've reverted to using my Hitec X4-Eighty charger (huge overkill) with good success.

    Deep-Sea Eclipse: The Forgotten Voyage of the Ben Franklin

    The Apollo 11 Moon landing in the summer of 1969 captured the world's attention and had everyone looking skyward. But while Michael, Neil, and Buzz were swiftly heading away from the surface of the Earth, NASA was also involved with another unprecedented voyage travelling in the opposite direction. Only no one was watching.

    The PX-15 was a small research submarine that could safely reach depths of 2000 feet. (image courtesy of The Grumman History & Aerospace Research Center)

    A small research submarine, called the Ben Franklin, carried a crew of highly-skilled explorers to locations never before visited by humans. Much like the astronauts headed to the lunar surface, the submariners placed themselves in great danger to expand our scientific knowledge and scratch that uniquely human itch to explore the unknown.

    NASA oceanographer, Dr. Gene Carl Feldman, sums up the parallel efforts:

    "I grew up in the 60s, a decade of exploration. We were going to the moon and we were going to explore and colonize the sea. The sea was the next frontier just as space was the next frontier.

    There were two culminating expeditions: one to the Moon, one to the Gulf Stream. These missions were the ultimate voyages of exploration for their respective disciplines. There was no space mission greater than Apollo 11. And there was no expedition to the undersea world greater than the Ben Franklin. What was amazing was that both of these missions took place at the end of July in 1969."

    Grumman marketed the PX-15 for further deep-sea research, but the Gulf Stream Drift Mission was its only significant use. (image courtesy of The Grumman History & Aerospace Research Center)

    The Mission

    The Gulf Stream Drift Mission was an endeavor with many widely-varying scientific goals. Its core objective was to map and study the Gulf Stream, the Atlantic Ocean's northward-flowing current of warm water that stretches from the Gulf of Mexico to Europe and Africa. The effects of the Gulf Stream are wide reaching. It had often been the subject of previous scientific study, including pioneering work by Benjamin Franklin. What made this effort particularly unique is that the 6-man crew and the myriad instrumentation were not housed on a surface ship. Rather, they remained cocooned in a submersible vessel for the entire 30-day voyage covering more than 1400 miles (2250km).

    Testing the Sony a6500 Camera for Photos and Video

    Tested producer Joey Fameli tests the Sony a6500 in his search for his next camera upgrade. Joey talks about how he uses small formfactor cameras for video production and how an interchangeable lens photography camera like the a6500 would fit into his workflow.

    Google Play App Roundup: Peek Launcher, Fire Emblem Heroes, and Glitchskier

    If you're going to be supporting app development on Android (and you should), you might as well pay for the best content you can. That's what the Google Play App Roundup is all about. This is where you can come every week to find out what's new and cool on Android. Just follow the links to the Play Store.

    Peek Launcher

    Most of the alternative home screens on Android are generally similar, but every now and then a developer just goes in a different direction. Such is the case with Peek Launcher. It eschews many of the things that other launchers have, relying almost entirely on T9 text input. It's an interesting minimalist take on the home screen.

    When you start up Peek Launcher the first time, you'll get a regular phone dial pad at the bottom of the display and two rows of icons. The icons that show up are predictions based on what you've been using most lately. Newly installed apps will also pop up here. To find an app, just start tapping the keys to spell out the name. So for Gmail you'd tap 4, 6, 2, and at that point you'd probably be left with just Gmail. It filters the list of apps live as you tap.

    There are other launchers that include features like this, then there are some apps that just do this alone. Peek Launcher is the only one I'm aware of that is based almost entirely on T9 input. In addition to filtering apps, you can long-press the icons to pin important apps so they'll always show up on the main page. There are swipe gestures too. Drag down to get your Google search bar, and drag up to reveal a full scrollable app list.

    Peek Launcher includes options to change the background and button color of the keyboard. It will also change automatically when you set a new background to match the colors. You can set a custom icon pack as well.

    This app is still early in its development, and it's changing fast. It is a little light on features right now, but it's free. I'll be watching to see what Peek can do down the line.

    The Best Unlocked and Carrier Android Smartphone (February 2017)

    The 2017 phone season is just starting to spin up. The lineup is almost unchanged right now, but there are a big couple of months right around the corner. We expect flagship phones from Samsung, HTC, and LG to show up, and that means you have to be more picky than ever when buying a phone. You could wait it out and see what these upcoming phones look like, but there are still good choices right now. Let's break it down.

    Carrier phones

    Despite being almost a year old, the Samsung Galaxy S7 is still the best overall choice for a carrier phone. Samsung is in the process of rolling Android 7.0 Nougat out to the GS7, which makes it a bit more appealing. It's not the only choice you have, though. Verizon customers have the Pixel, and there's the LG V20.

    Let's start with the Galaxy S7, which is still worth considering. The hardware is still fantastic. I pick up the GS7 Edge sometimes and am still wowed by the curves. The front and back are both Gorilla Glass, but it feels so well put together. The phone is IP68 water resistant, so it can take a quick dip and be fine. It's a little heavier than you probably expect when you pick it up, but the back has a slight curve, making it comfortable to hold.

    The Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge have Super AMOLED panels at 2560x1440 resolution. The GS7 is 5.1-inches, while the Edge variant has a larger 5.5-inch display. They are still the best panels you can get (now that the Note 7 is dead). They're bright, have perfect viewing angles, and the colors are very accurate. Then there's the Edge with a screen that curves down on both the left and right sides. It looks cool, but it's actually less comfortable to hold. The Pixel XL's display is almost as good, but it's not as bright and the colors are flatter. Samsung still wins on this front.

    Bad Robots: How Gimmicks Shaped the Android Ecosystem

    Google devised Android in a way that allows device makers to take the lead on modifying the software to support whatever crazy hardware gimmicks they want to try. Sometimes this has led to some interesting innovations, and other times it's been a mess.

    Some of the hardware fads over the years look bizarre and even foolish in retrospect, but this is all part of the process. Some fads ended up changing the nature of the Android devices we have today.

    Dual screens

    Plenty of people use multiple displays on their computers, but on Android devices? This was another famously poor example of mobile hardware gimmickry. A number of Android devices with dwo displays were launched in 2011 and 2012 including the Kyocera Echo, LG Flip II, and the Sony Tablet P.

    Even today, Android doesn't really support dual-screens, and it barely even supported large format screens in 2011. That meant all the code managing the secondary displays of these phone and tablets was integrated by the OEM. Therefore, the only apps that could take advantage of the special features enabled by the hardware were the ones built-into the device. Oh, there were APIs for developers to add support, but guess how many did. Yeah, none.

    This idea was left behind, at least for the most part. The Russian YotaPhone bumped around a few markets until 2015. This device had an e-paper rear-facing display. It was a little better supported, but the niche wasn't very interesting to consumers in practice. Now, there are a few phones with secondary ticker displays (more on that later).

    5 Tips for Hobby RC Rookies

    Getting into the RC hobby has never been easier or more affordable than it is right now. There are tons of high-quality, beginner-oriented RC vehicles to choose from. However, there are also a lot of sub-par products as well. Even with the right equipment, learning the ropes can sometimes be a challenge. Making a few missteps as you're just getting into the hobby can ruin your enthusiasm and sour the fun. Here are a few tips to help potential RC hobbyists make a positive start.

    Get Help

    Whether you are interested in aircraft, cars, or boats there is probably someone in your area who is already up to speed and knowledgeable. Seek out RC clubs, racetracks, or hobby shops. You are bound to find folks who are willing to help you get started.

    If flying is your goal, attend a club meeting even before you buy any RC equipment. Most RC clubs have dedicated instructors who teach newcomers how to fly. The majority of aspiring pilots who try learning all by themselves either fail completely, or destroy many models on their path to competency. Also, an instructor can help you choose the right equipment. Some clubs even have models set aside just for training.

    If you're more interested in surface vehicles (cars, trucks, boats), find out what models experienced hobbyists in your area are using and recommend. It can be a big boost to have local experts who are familiar with your specific equipment. You're bound to receive helpful advice for setup, maintenance, and repairs.

    Having a mentor is the best way to make smart buying decisions and learn the skills you need for the RC hobby.

    If you live in a rural area, you may have trouble finding other modelers nearby. There are numerous online forums such as RC Groups and RC Universe that can sometimes partially fill that void. Just be wary of advice received online. There are a lot of self-proclaimed experts who give out bogus advice. With a little research, the true experts are often easy to identify.

    The bottom line is that RC is as much a social activity as anything else. Finding other modelers with similar interests makes the RC hobby more enjoyable and also speeds up your learning curve.

    Testing Autel Robotics' X-Star Premium Quadcopter

    Autel Robotics is a fairly new player in the world of aerial photography (AP) platforms. They currently offer two multi-rotors in their product line, the X-Star WiFi ($700) and X-Star Premium ($750). Both of these ships have a 350mm plastic airframe, brushless motors, and a 4K-capable camera. Power comes from a 4-cell 4900mAh LiPo battery. The whole thing is factory assembled. You only need to go through a few setup and calibration steps (and read the manual) to prepare for flight.

    This review covers the X-Star Premium. You can view a comparison chart for a summary of the differences between the two X-Star models. There are actually more similarities than variances. But there are two features found only on the premium model that make it the better value in my opinion.

    The X-Star Premium includes a hard-shell case that is useful for storage and transport of the quad and its accoutrements. The package comes with one battery, but there is room for a spare inside the case. If you use a tablet to view the video feed, that will also fit inside the case. If you've ever tried to individually schlep all of the gear necessary for an AP flight, then you know how much of a benefit a carrying case can be.

    The other factor that tips the scale for the premium model is the video downlink system. The X-Star Premium uses a 900MHz system that routes the signal to the quad's radio transmitter (which effectively makes it a transceiver…semantics). This signal then gets to your phone or tablet screen with Autel's Starlink app and a hard-wired USB connection. The X-Star WiFi uses a 2.4GHz WiFi signal directly to your device.

    I'll admit that I've never tested the video system on a standard X-Star. I have, however, flown numerous other AP multi-rotors that used WiFi-based video systems. I've had a few good experiences with WiFi video. Some systems, however, suffered from chronic connection problems and they all had some degree of signal latency. As far as I'm concerned, when there is a non-WiFi option, you should take it.