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    Snake Robot Helps Roboticists and Herpetologists

    Howie Choset's team built Elizabeth, a snake-like robot designed to explore parts of caves that were unsafe, or too small, for humans. Elizabeth performed really well in most situations, but it had problems climbing sandy slopes. As is often the case, the roboticists looked to the natural kingdom for engineering help. By mimicking the movement of sidewinder rattlesnakes, Elizabeth can now climb steep, sandy slopes. Ed Yong has a full writeup about the project.

    In Brief: Hacking Star Wars: Yoda Stories

    You don't have to be a video game programmer to appreciate this post by Zach Barth. Like many of us, Barth tinkered with computer game data files and modifications back in the late 90s. Remember how easy it was to dive into .pak files and swap out textures in games like Quake? Open up config files and change variables with Notepad? Well it's not so easy when a game's data file can only be read with a hex editor. That's the case with the LucasArts adventure game Star Wars: Yoda Stories, which stored all its assets in a 4MB file. Barth explains how he parsed through the data--a vast matrix of ASCII--to extract and color correct 2000 game character sprites and maps. I could only follow along a bit of his problem-solving, but what a fun experiment in data archeology!

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    Tested In-Depth: Windows 10 Technical Preview

    The next release of Windows is going to be...Windows 10. We install the Technical Preview and show off the its new features, including refined touch on the Desktop, new multiple Desktop management, and the return of the Start Menu! This is software we don't recommend running on production systems, but we like what we see so far!

    In Brief: Hands-Free Systems In Cars Are Still a Major Distraction

    The AAA and University of Utah released a pair of studies this week that attempted to quantify the the mental workload required to use voice-activated, in-car entertainment systems. For the first time, they used the actual systems found in cars, as well as Apple's Siri.

    Their results indicate that the voice-activated systems require enough mental processing on the part of the driver that they present a significant degradation to a driver's performance, even if he's able to keep his eyes on the road and hands on the wheel. The only good news is that the amount of degradation seemed directly tied to the number of errors on the part of the in-car system. Systems that had less trouble understanding what the user wanted rated better than systems that required correction. Toyota's Entune system rated best, while Chevy's MyLink was the worst in-car system. What about Siri? It caused the most distraction of anything that was tested. (via Ars Technica)

    Google Play App Roundup: MyScript Smart Note, Hellraid: The Escape, and Nimble Squiggles

    There are a great many apps in the Play Store. Some of them are good, and some of them are not so good. Which ones are which, though? The best way to find out is to check our Google Play App Roundup. Every week we bring you the best new, and newly updated apps in the store. Just click the links to head right to the Play Store and download everything for yourself.

    MyScript Smart Note

    I don't always need to calculate things on my phone or tablet, but sometimes I play with the MyScript Calculator just for fun. It uses incredibly good handwriting recognition to create and solve mathematical equations as you input them. Now the developer has turned that technology to the note taking arena with MyScript Smart Note. It's still scary accurate--it even understands things I have trouble reading immediately after I write them.

    You can have multiple notebooks to organize your thoughts in MyScript Smart Note, but the free version limits you to a single entry with 10 pages. Upon opening a notebook, the app presents you with two toolbars at the top of the screen. One is for writing input and the other is drawing. The only difference is that the app won't try to turn your drawings into letters. Both have adjustable colors and line thickness, but the writing panel also includes font options.

    When you start writing in MyScript Smart Note, the app will transcribe your words into text, but only behind the scenes. So you can still have your own handwriting, while also having the text searchable. Writing on a touchscreen is never quite as easy as writing on paper, so I find my handwriting is a little less legible, which is why the font transcription is so useful. Just pick a font from the list and Smart Note will turn your writing into standard text as you go.

    The app also has a series of gestures that can be used to edit text without resorting to any keyboard nonsense. For example, a strikethrough will delete something, and drawing a vertical line through a word will insert a space. But what about the actual writing? You can use your finger or a stylus. Devices with their own built-in styluses like the Galaxy Note series and Nvidia Shield will probably work best as they have proper palm rejection. Smart Note does include this functionality, but it's not perfect.

    If you buy the full version upgrade via in-app purchase for about $3, the app will gain unlimited notebooks and pages, drag and drop between notebooks, and data export to PDF, Evernote, and more. If you are taking a lot of notes, MyScript Smart Note is something you should consider incorporating into your life.

    Show and Tell: Astro A38 Bluetooth Headset

    For this week's Show and Tell, Will shares a new bluetooth headset that he's been testing: Astro Gaming's A38. While the company is known for its gaming headphones, these wireless headsets are made to be worn outside the home, with good active noise-cancellation. Here's what Will thinks about them after some use.

    Living with Photography: The Nonprofessional

    Surprise, time for a long overdue Living with Photography column--I missed writing this regularly. I'm returning this week to talk about something that's been on my mind for a while now--a question I've been struggling to wrap my thoughts around since the summer: what defines a professional photographer? Or more specifically: what's the line that separates an amateur and a professional photographer?

    This question started bothering me at this year's Comic-Con, where I met a bunch of Tested readers at our Incognito party. A few of you brought up the photo galleries I post on on the site (mostly praise--thanks!), and there was even a request to schedule a photo shoot back in San Francisco. I had to respectfully decline, because I honestly don't think I would be qualified to do so as a hired photographer. I really don't consider myself a professional photographer.

    In the work I do for the site and in my own time, I've taken thousands of photos of products, events, and people. Through that experience, there are types of photos that I'm well on my way to having spent the requisite 10,000 hours of practice taking. If you need a photo of a smartphone for an article, my brain can immediately pull up the dozen different ways to illustrate its features to a viewer. If you need a photo of a cosplayer posing outside the San Diego Convention Center on one of the last weekends of July, I'll know how to frame a few good shots. There are photos in my Lightroom library that I really like, and some that I think could be considered "professional" in quality. But I am not a professional photographer. No way. And every time I get a compliment from people I respect, I feel like an impostor.

    Which leads to my original question, which I want to discuss and explore with you guys: what defines a professional photographer? Maybe the best way to start is to consider the attributes that I don't think define a Professional with a capital P.

    Education is probably the most logical attribute belonging to a professional photographer. The study and practice of photography under an academic setting--whether it's a photojournalism class or at one of those photography seminars or retreats run by notable photogs. Education is great, and goes a long way to giving you a structured understanding of the important technical aspects of taking photos. I've always wanted to take a few weekend classes for myself. But I don't think it's a requirement. It's not essential. There are plenty of working photographers who are self-taught or never had any formal training.

    Ah, so maybe that phrase--working photographers--can point us in the right direction. Is a photographer a professional if they've been paid for their work? I suppose that in the strictest sense, making money from photography would define you as a professional. But I don't think that's the case, either. Paid photography says as much about the photographer as it does about the client purchasing the photos. It's subjective. And just because someone liked a photo you took enough to pay you to license it, doesn't necessarily mean you would be qualified to do the same kind of work again. I've sold two photos before, but they were far from my favorite photos--they just suited what the licensee needed. Just because you see a great photo on Flickr doesn't mean that the photographer would be capable of taking an assignment to produce the same caliber of work. Photography is fickle, and new technology has made it easier than ever to take a good photo without explicitly knowing what you're doing.

    That's not to say I don't take the photos I shoot for Tested seriously. When I shoot product photos for stories, YouTube thumbnails, or behind-the-scenes materials, my mind is absolutely "on-assignment." So can the definition of a professional photographer be something literal: a sense of responsibility and professionalism? Again, I think that falls short of a proper definition. Professionalism and a purposeful approach to photography are valued qualities of a professional photographer, but not what I would consider essential for professional practice. We're getting closer, I know it.

    How about that Gladwell-notion of mastery, then. Is the number of photos taken or how many hours you've spent practicing the craft that makes you a professional photographer? I don't doubt that 10,000 hours spent taking photos would give anyone a technical mastery of photography, but this is still talking about experience in terms of quantity, and not quality. There's likely a strong correlation between quantity and quality that converges as you reach a certain amount of experience, but this still is too abstract an association that doesn't satisfy a concrete personal definition. As someone who isn't a professional photographer, I want a objective definition that doesn't feel like an arbitrary goal.

    So after much thought, here's my proposed definition of a professional photographer--the standard I hold myself against as an amateur:

    The Best Android Smartphone for Your Network (September 2014)

    So many phones, but most people only get the chance to decide which one to buy every year or two. It's a tough decision, and one you don't want to screw up. If you must have the best of the best, you've come to the right place. We're going to dissect the current state of the Android offerings on each of the big four US carrier and tell you what your best bet is.

    This month the Moto X is on the scene, the Note 4 is ready to ship, and LG continues to impress.


    There are a few new devices that have hit AT&T stores in the last few weeks, not least among them is the new Moto X. Not all carriers offer the device, so AT&T customers in particular should take a close look at this phone. Of course, the LG G3 is still a top phone on AT&T with a different feature set. So which one should you get?

    Let's start with the new Moto X, which just started shipping in the last week or so. The device looks similar to last year's Moto X, but the screen size has been bumped up from 4.7-inches to 5.2-inches. The resolution has increased as well to 1080p. The AMOLED panel used here is very similar to the one on the Galaxy S5, so it's very nice. The device isn't as good for one-handed use, but the curved design feels very comfortable to hold. The curved glass edges are also a joy.

    The new Moto X also has 2GB of RAM, a Snapdragon 801, and a 2300mAh battery. The smallish battery is a sticking point for some--it won't be able to eke out multi-day battery life like the LG G3 can, but it will get you through a full day with a bit to spare. The more sophisticated metal casing and ample customization choices are awesome too. You can get different back/front colors, materials, and accents. The Moto Maker stuff is a big selling point.

    On the software side, the Moto X ships with Android 4.4.4 with a promised update to Android L as soon as it's ready. Motorola is keen on saying the X runs "pure" Android without andy heavy skins or unnecessary features. Motorola instead adds new features to Android that really make a difference in the way the device works. For example, Moto Display shows notifications on the screen while the device is asleep. You can even wave your hand over the phone to wake the screen up. It also listens for voice commands while asleep, whether it's charging or not. Other Android devices can only do that when charging.

    Motorola's 13MP camera is still not the finest sensor on an Android device, but it's better than it was last year. The stock interface should also make it easier for Motorola to get the phone updated to Android L in a timely manner. AT&T is offering the new Moto X for just $99 on contract.

    The other device you should consider is a big departure from the Moto X. The LG G3 is a phone that creeps solidly into phablet territory with a 5.5-inch 1440P LCD. The device does, however have very narrow bezels that makes it feel less gigantic than you'd expect. LG is also continuing with its tradition of placing the power and volume buttons on the back. They're really easily accessible, and the presence of this structure gives you a bit more leverage when holding the device.

    In Brief: Check Out This Amazing 3D Printed Samus Armor

    Before you do anything else, go look at the finished pictures of this amazing Metroid armor 3D printed by RPF user Talaaya. Go on, I'll wait.

    If you want to know the story behind such an incredible build, head over to her blog, where she shows a bunch of in-progress photos, including the project's origins as a pepakura build, the process for finishing the prints (she and Matt Serle used a pair of Zcorp 450 printers and did tons of finish work), painting, and using EL wire to create the appropriate accents. I hope I get a chance to see this incredible costume in person someday.

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    Testing Nvidia's GeForce GTX 980 Video Card

    The final piece of Norm's new Haswell-E system build is the graphics card, and as it turns out, Nvidia has just released its new GeForce 900 series of GPUs. We run through what's new in the high-end Maxwell architecture, how the GTX 980 performs, and give recommendations for practical upgrades. What graphics card are you currently using, what screen resolution do you run at, and do you play games with AA turned on?

    Turning Tiny Satellites into Cheap, Deep Space Drones

    There are lots of tiny little satellites orbiting the earth above your head right now. But that’s all they do: orbit, around and around. There is a plan, however, to give these cheap, so-called CubeSats the ability to strike out on their own. With the aid of some relatively simple propulsion technology, the goal is to push these tiny satellites beyond earths’s gravitational pull and into the outer reaches of space.

    The idea is that, in the not so distant future, unmanned space exploration will be accessible to everyone, and not just the NASAs of the world – like tiny little drones in space.

    Image credit: University of Michigan

    Key to all this is little more than water. Using an electrolysis propulsion system, researchers from Cornell University have been working since 2009 on a system that splits water into hydrogen and oxygen gas that can then be ignited to create thrust. The plan is to launch two of these water-propelled CubeSats into space, and send them orbiting around the moon. Another CubeSat propulsion project is being conducted at the University of Michigan, and raised money through a successful crowdfunding campaign.

    “It kind of levels the playing field for a lot of science inquiry. Not everybody is capable of running a billion dollar spacecraft mission for NASA,” explained Mason Peck, former chief technology officer for NASA, who is now working with fellow researcher Rodrigo A. Zeledon at Cornell on the electrolysis propulsion system. “This actually democratizes access to space.”

    Unlike, say, a communications or military satellite, CubeSats are practically microscopic by comparison – mere 10cm cubes, according to the specification first defined in 1999, that have a volume of just 1 liter and can weigh no more than 1.33 kilograms. But, surprisingly, it’s not size that’s held CubeSat propulsion efforts back.

    It's not the CubeSat's small size--10cm--that has held propulsion efforts back.

    “It’s primarily the fact that CuebSats are secondary payload,” Peck explained. “They’re hitching a ride on some other space craft, and that other space craft does not want the little CubeSat to destroy its expensive payload. So for that reason, the CubeSat specification that allows you to launch these as secondary payloads, prohibits you from using material under pressure, or material that’s explosive, or material that’s volatile, in the sense that if it leaks out it would evaporate and poke the surfaces of the spacecraft.”

    But water, explains Peck, is not only non-volatile, it’s “pretty much the ultimate green propellant.” It sits in a tank, gets zapped by an electrolyzer, which separates the hydrogen and oxygen, and is then sent to a combustion chamber until enough pressure builds up to ignite the whole thing. Safe and simple! In theory.

    Tested In-Depth: iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus

    After living with the new iPhone 6 Plus for a while, Will sits down with Norm to discuss the merits of Apple's biggest smartphone. How well does iOS 8 work on a 5.5-inch screen? Does the stabilized camera and extra battery life matter? We compare the new iPhone models and help Will decide if he wants to stick with the Plus or return it.

    In Brief: Arduino Announces $1000 3D Printer

    Arduino today announced its Materia 101, a $1000 pre-assembled 3D printer that will debut at Maker Faire Rome early next month. It also will be sold as an $800 kit. The 1.75mm PLA printer was designed in collaboration with ShareBot, and looks like a rebadged ShareBot running an Arduino Mega 2560. The printer has is 31cm x 33cm x 35cm large, and its print bed is 14cm x 10cm x 10cm. Not too big, and it doesn't look like it'll be upgradable, either. This announcement comes shortly after the unveiling of Dremel's new desktop 3D printer at Maker Faire New York, though the Arduino model doesn't look like it's bringing more to the table than you could get building an established kit like the PrintrBot.

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    Microsoft Announces Windows 10

    This morning at a San Francisco press event, Microsoft's Windows Chief Terry Myerson announced that the next version of Windows would be called Windows 10. Like Windows 8 and 8.1 (which I guess was Windows 9), Windows 10 will be one operating system that runs on traditional desktop and laptop PCs, as well as touch-only and hybrid devices like tablets and Microsoft's own Surface. It will also be Microsoft's mobile OS, as well as their Enterprise OS.

    For desktop Windows users, we'll see the long-awaited return of the Start Menu, with familiar functionality like pinned programs and system shortcuts, as well as Modern UI tiles nested alongside. It's an explicit callback to the features that Windows 7 users missed when Microsoft introduced the Start Screen--hence the 18% adoption rate of Windows 8 since it was released two years ago. For example, universal search is now back on the Desktop with the Start Menu, so users won't have to slide into the Start Screen to use it. Modern UI apps--now called Universal Apps--can run windowed on the Desktop, and snap alongside "Classic" programs.

    Other new features include a Task View button that is the new equivalent of Alt-Tab/Windows-Tab. Running applications tile next to each other in a grid so you can see what you're running and switch to any app. It's a lot like OS X's Expose, which third-party apps like Switcher have been mimicking for years. Windows is also getting better multiple-Desktops support, a feature I use heavily on small-screen laptops like my MacBook Air. This will make the Surface Pro that much better.

    Other features demoed today included a new Desktop Command Prompt (woo!), a new Start Screen mode, and improved app snapping. The Charms Bar is not going away.

    Microsoft is releasing a Technical Preview of Windows 10 soon for Desktop and Laptop users--interested parties should register at the new Windows Insider website. Windows 10 will be released "later in the year" in 2015, after Microsoft's Build conference. Watch Microsoft's Joe Belfiore introduce Windows 10 in the video below:

    Building a Custom Arcade Cabinet, Part 6

    With the frame of the arcade cabinet constructed, Norm and Wes head back to the garage to begin the wiring of the buttons and other electronics. In this episode, we discuss the different types of custom arcade controls, the hardware to link them all together, and the tiny computer we're going to build to run the software. (This video series was brought to you by Premium memberships on Tested. Learn more about how you can support us by joining the Tested Premium community!)