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    The Best Unlocked and Carrier Android Smartphone (July 2016)

    We are quickly approaching a new Android release with the official unveiling of Android 7.0 Nougat, and not all phones will be getting that software quickly. That makes your decisions at this time somewhat more complicated. There are some great phones available from your carrier, but unlocked phones get updates faster. What's an Android nerd to do? Let's sort it all out.

    Carrier Phones

    Things are simpler on the carrier side this month with very little change. You should consider the Galaxy S7 and the HTC 10. If you're on AT&T, you won't be able to get the HTC 10 direct, so that's an easier choice. What of the LG G5? I think the only reason you should pick that phone up is if you really, truly cannot live without a removable battery.

    Let's start with the Galaxy S7, and why you might want it. Samsung is still using a solid metla and glass design for the GS7. The glass back will collect fingerprints like mad and you could damage the body of the phone if you drop it. Samsung made the GS7 about a millimeter thicker than the GS6, which might not sound desirable, but there's more room inside for a bigger battery now. The glass panel on the back also has curved edges to make it more comfortable in your hand.

    The slightly thicker frame means the regular GS7 has a 3000mAh battery, and the GS7 Edge has 3600mAh. Both phones are also water resistant, which the Galaxy S6 wasn't. The Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge have new Super AMOLED panels at 2560x1440 resolution. The GS7 is 5.1-inches, while the Edge variant has a larger 5.5-inch display. The Edge, of course, has a screen that curves down on the left and right edge. The Edge phone does look very nice, but it's not as comfortable to hold thanks to the larger size and narrower metal band around the rim due to the Edge screen. None of the software features that are supposed to take advantage of the Edge display really do anything special. Most of them would work on the regular phone too. It's just an arbitrary attempt to justify the design.

    Samsung is using a Snapdragon 820, which is a quad-core 64-bit SoC that's easily as fast as last year's octa-core parts. The GS7 also has 4GB of RAM, and it multitasks much better than the GS6. There's also a microSD card slot in these phones, another improvement over the Galaxy S6, but it doesn't support adoptable storage in Android 6.0.

    Samsung is using a 12MP camera sensor this year, and the performance is really impressive. It has excellent low-light clarity and color balance, and the outdoor shots are realistic and vibrant. Samsung also implemented an autofocus technology that lets it use all the available pixels to locate the subject. I've found this to be faster than any other phone, even those with laser autofocus sensors.

    Test Riding the Segway MiniPro Personal Transporter

    Norm and Simone test the new Segway MiniPro electric personal transporter. Here's how it works, our first impressions from riding, and our confusion of what to do with our hands while standing on it. We're not calling it a hoverboard, so it's up to you to come up with a better name for this kind of device!

    Google Play App Roundup: Smart Wallpapers, Redungeon, and CSR Racing 2

    We're really getting spoiled these days. There are great Android apps coming out all the time, but it can still be hard to find them amid all the clutter. The Google Play App Roundup is all about clearing the junk out of the way so you can find the best apps. Just click on the app name to go straight to the Google Play Store and pick up the app.

    Smart Wallpapers

    Live Wallpapers have existed since Android 2.1, and I'm always mildly surprised when a new version of Android comes out with support for them. Google has essentially ignored live wallpapers for years, but third-party developers have managed to do some cool things without completely killing battery life. The latest example of innovative live wallpaper design is Smart Wallpapers. They behave like static images, except there are embedded live device stats.

    You can set Smart Wallpapers like any LWP by going through the system interface. However, to customize you should open the Smart Wallpapers app itself. At the top you can pick which data points you'd like to add to the wallpaper (up to 8). The free version of the app only includes a few, but the full version ($0.99) includes things like network speed, steps (Google Fit), missed calls, message count, storage usage, and so on.

    You can access this information is other ways, of course. You could even use widgets to see it on the home screen. The advantage of Smart Wallpapers is that the stats are part of the background. That means you can place other icons and widgets around (or on top of) the readouts. The settings app even has an interface where you can preview and move the data widgets around. Wherever you place them is where they'll be on the actual wallpaper applied on your device. This works fine for the most part, but I really wish the app could snap the widgets into columns or rows so it wasn't such a pain to line things up.

    Adding a wallpaper image is the other side of customizing Smart Wallpapers. It includes a few options, but you can also add your own. The readouts are white, so a darker image is best. The color of the numeric values can be changed, but not the gauges.

    I think Smart Wallpapers is very interesting, and could be ideal for someone working on a minimalist home screen setup. It works nicely with the Marshmallow UI tuner, which allows you to remove icons from the status bar. With Smart Wallpapers, you can just put that data on the home screen.

    What Killing the 3.5mm Headphone Jack Could Mean for Android Phones

    When choosing a new smartphone, it's often hard to find something with literally every feature you want. You might have to go without things like wireless charging or the latest and greatest processor in order to get the best overall fit. However, one thing you haven't had to worry about losing is the headphone jack. That may well be a real concern in the not too distant future.

    Motorola is has announced the Moto Z without a headphone jack, and although this isn't the first foray into Android phones without a standard 3.5mm jack, it's certainly the most high profile.

    Headphone History

    In some ways, this feels like a real blast from the past. The first few Android phones in 2008 and 2009 didn't have headphone jacks either. Back then, HTC was fond of the extUSB port, a tweaked version of a standard miniUSB with a few extra pins that could carry analog audio. This graced such iconic devices as the HTC Dream (T-Mobile G1) and HTC Magic (Google Ion/T-Mobile MyTouch 3G). A version of the latter was re-released later with a 3.5mm headphone jack because let's face it, not having a headphone jack is annoying.

    A headphone jack is the standard way of outputting analog audio, but the early experiments in jackless phones were doing that as well. You could use an adapter for the extUSB port to get a standard 3.5mm jack, or use headphones with extUSB. I think about four of those ever existed because it was far too early to ditch the 3.5mm jack.

    However you get audio out of your phone, it needs to be an analog signal when it reached your ears -- something has to process the digital signal, and thus far that has always happened in the phone with a DAC (digital to analog converter). Some phones have toyed with using more powerful, high-end DACs for a supposedly better audio experience. LG even sells a DAC module for the G5 in some markets.

    A few OEMs think that the move to the reversible USB Type-C plug is the perfect time to get rid of the old standard, but it might not be a clean break with the past.

    Tested: eVGA GeForce GTX 1070 Video Card

    I'd crown the new GTX 1070 as the new God-Emperor of gaming GPUs, except that this card really the baby sister to the GTX 1080, which offers even better performance. On the other hand, eVGA's GeForce GTX 1070 SC costs $439 -- $10 shy of Nvidia's own "Founder's Edition" -- while delivering clock frequencies roughly 6% higher than the reference clocks. Audible noise levels seem slightly lower as well.

    While I ran the usual set of benchmarks on the card, I've been living with with eVGA's GTX 1070 in my main system for nearly a week, running games on my 3440 x 1440 pixel Dell U3415w display. Subjectively, I could tell little difference between this card and the GTX 1080 Founder's Edition I'd been running. I did have to dial back ambient occlusion a bit in Tom Clancy's The Division. Doom, Mirror's Edge Catalyst, XCOM2, and several VR titles on the HTC Vive all seemed to run with excellent frame rates on gorgeously high settings.

    So What's a GTX 1070?

    Take a part that starts out life as a potential GTX 1080 GPU, disable one graphics processing cluster, and voila! You now have a GTX 1070 chip. Each graphics processing cluster consists of 5 graphics compute cores (which Nivdia dubs "streaming multiprocessors" or SMs for short). Let's break down the differences with the reference design -- er, Founder's Edition –in the table below.

    The GTX 1070 uses less exotic GDDR5 memory, clocking said memory at a pretty serious 4GHz – faster than the 7gbps memory used in previous generations. So the GTX 1070 includes fewer shader cores, slightly lower clock frequencies, slower memory, and should cost roughly $300 less.

    Nvidia suggests some 3rd party cards will be priced as low as $379, though all currently available 1070 cards seem to cost more than $400. Availability remains tight, but a cards from MSI and Gigabyte seem to be available. Supply will no doubt catch up with demand after several months.

    Tested: Kyosho RC Surfer 3 Electric Surfboard

    I really dig unique RC models, and Kyosho's RC Surfer 3 definitely fits that description. While it looks just like a model surfboard--right down to the handsome dude riding on top--it is also part powerboat. It can ride waves at the beach or make waves of its own further inland.

    A Powered Surfboard

    RC surfboards are not a new thing. As the name suggests, the RC Surfer 3 ($230) is Kyosho's third variation on the theme. The basic design is a carryover from earlier models, but there are numerous equipment and cosmetic updates that make the most recent version more contemporary.

    The surfboard itself is comprised of a molded plastic hull. A waterproof servo actuates a rudder at the tail of the board. This unique rudder resembles an inverted "U" shape. I'm not sure if the intent of this shape is to allow the rudder to double as a kickstand when RC Surfer is on land, but that functionality is there.

    Kyosho's RC Surfer 3 is an updated version of a design that has been around for years. It can be driven at the beach or on a pond.

    The onboard electronics are an interesting mixture of old and new technology. Propulsion is provided by an old-school brushed can motor with a direct-drive link to the prop via a solid shaft in a stuffing tube. It is undeniably low-tech, but also dead simple and reliable.

    A modern ESC is provided for throttle control. Like the steering servo, this device is also waterproof. The ESC has two physical jumpers that are used to enable/disable reverse capability and to choose low-voltage cut-off for NiMH or LiPo batteries.

    Why You Need a Dedicated Testbed

    I admit to a certain laziness in my advanced years. When I was editor of ExtremeTech years ago, I maintained a certain rigor about having dedicated testbeds for graphics and CPU. A dedicated test system requires some specific tender loving care to ensure you get reproducible results. In addition, you want the test system to allow the component under test to shine. So several key aspects need to be maintained:

    • You need to keep the OS fairly clean. In the era of Windows 10 and SSDs, the OS doesn't need to be pristine, but you need to be sure you don't have a lot of background stuff running. That may seem obvious, until you realize that performance testing these days often require always-connected service applications such as Steam or Adobe Creative Cloud. If any of this class of apps start downloading updates in the background, that directly affects performance testing.
    • The same goes true with Windows updates. If you're testing on Windows 10, you really need to use Windows 10 Pro so you can have some control over update scheduling.
    • Check to make sure no extraneous applications might be running while you're running performance tests. For example, installing AMD Radeon graphics drivers often happily default to recording game videos while you play, which will adversely affect benchmarking.
    • Check for VSYNC anomalies, such as Nvidia drivers with adaptive or fast sync enabled.

    I've been out of the benchmarking game long enough that I needed to run performance tests on my production system, which is not ideal. While I've been careful to disable or mitigate performance-sucking background apps, doing so proved tedious every time I needed to run a performance test. An interesting side effect of swapping out numerous graphics cards included the need to re-authenticate Steam and Origin, as well as Chrome and some other online apps.

    So I'm building a duplicate system as a dedicated test system. I believed with all sincerity that modern PCs running Windows 10 would result in highly similar benchmark results on identical systems, even if one system included applications cruft. I discovered I was wrong — the clean system generates performance test results roughly 5-7% better than the older system. On the other hand, I experienced some sense of relief when I found that the relative order of the results remained unchanged — the differences were 5-7% across the board.

    Google Play App Roundup: Calendar Widget: Agenda, Rodeo Stampede, and Zombieville USA 2

    Another week is upon us, and that means it's time to check out the state of the Google Play Store. Your phone is only a shadow of itself without the best apps, so it's a good thing we're here to save the day. Just click on the app name to pull up the Google Play Store so you can try things out for yourself.

    Calendar Widget: Agenda

    A few years ago, Candl Apps released the "Month" calendar widget, and it was a pretty big success. Now, the developer has published Calendar Widget: Agenda. You can probably guess what it does from the name. Like Month, this app comes with a multiple skins and a couple extra features but directly related to your schedule.

    There's no entry for Agenda in your app drawer after installing. It's settings are only available from the widget after you've placed it in there home screen, so go ahead and do that. There's only one size in the weather list, but it's resizable to add small as 2x2 or as large as whatever your device's maximum grid size is. To change the theme, tap the settings gear on the widget.

    There centerpiece of this app is the assortment of neat themes for the widget. A few look like tweaked versions of the stock Google Calendar widget, and none of them are super-weird or unattractive. I particularly like the ones that separate the days out as cards. When selecting a theme, you also have the option of tweaking the colors and opacity.

    Like other agenda widgets, you can scroll through to get a look at all the event coming up on your calendars. In the settings, you can choose which calendars you want shown on the widget if you've got more than one attached to your account. There's also an option to have weather shown next to each day. This is part of the full version upgrade, though.

    You get a handful of themes in the free download. Most of them are the note generic ones, but for $1.49 you can get another dozen themes and the aforementioned weather feature.

    Meet the 2016 BattleBots, Part 2

    We're back in the builders' pit at this year's BattleBots, where we catch up with some teams from last season and meet some new competitors and their innovative bots. Check out one humanoid BattleBot that's puppetted like an animatronic boxing robot! The new season premieres tonight on ABC!

    Meet the 2016 BattleBots!

    The new season of BattleBots premieres this week! We were on set during the filming of this year's BattleBots, and met with some of the teams, old a new, backstage in the builder's pit area. Meet their new bots!

    Google Play App Roundup: ADW Launcher 2.0, Lost Frontier, and _PRISM

    You probably want more apps, but more than that, you want the right ones. That's what we're here to deliver with the weekly Google Play App Roundup. This is where you'll find the best new and newly updated apps and games on Android. Just click the links to head right to Google Play.

    ADW Launcher 2.0

    Anyone who has used Android devices for a few years has probably heard of ADW Launcher. It was one of the best custom home screens for Android in the days before Nova appeared on the scene. It hasn't been updated in years, but the developer has reappeared with a beta release of ADW 2.0, and you can give it a shot right now.

    This is a completely redesigned version of ADW that seems competitive with the top alternative launchers today. Note: you'll have to opt into the beta test for this app before the new version will show up for you. It's using the same listing as the original app, so install that one and your devices will update to the beta automatically.

    ADW 2.0 is highly configurable and colorful, a good mix of qualities from other launchers. At the top of your screen is a Google search bar, but that's actually a custom widget. You can modify it, or even create entirely new widgets for that spot or anywhere else on your home screen. These widgets aren't as powerful as the various standalone apps that let you build custom widgets, but you can do some neat stuff. It does lead to some unnecessary complication, though. An example: ADW's custom all-in-one widget add-on defaults to celcius. If you want to use Fahrenheit, you have to actually go into the widget editor, find the temperature layer, and change it to imperial. It's a very "power user" way to do things.

    The launcher also has an automated theme engine built-in, which is one of the things I really like about Action Launcher. By default, it's based on your wallpaper image. Your search bar, app drawer, and folder background will pull colors from the wallpaper. You can change the colors in settings if you like. In another nod to Action Launcher, you can set folders to show only the top icon (launched with a tap), but still make the rest of the folder accessible with a swipe.

    I really like the way ADW groups widgets and makes managing your home screens easier. However, some of the features here aren't completely obvious. For instance, it took me a minute of experimenting to figure out how to get rid of a home screen panel. It's beta, so I assume that the tutorial will be fleshed out before the final release. In the app drawer, there's also a categorization option for apps, but it's all manual. That's fine if you want things a certain way and don't mind organizing everything by hand.

    ADW 2.0 does all the basic stuff you'd expect from a custom launcher like gestures, page transition effects, and icon packs. Almost all of this is available for free in the new beta, but you can upgrade to the full version for $2.99. The free version does have a "promo apps" icon, which is essentially an ad. You can remove it from your "all apps" category to hide it, though.

    Hands-On with Raw Data's New Multiplayer VR Demo

    We visit the offices of Survios, a VR game company making a sci-fi multiplayer shooter for the HTC Vive and Oculus Touch. The new demo of Raw Data includes teleportation for moving around the map, hero classes, and special powers. We chat with Survios' Chief Creative Officer about some of their VR design ideas.

    Hands-On with Manus VR Virtual Reality Gloves

    Seeing your hands and arms in virtual reality is going to be a big deal, but there's no perfect solution yet for accurate and robust hand presence. That's what Manus VR is trying to achieve with its VR gloves, which we test at this year's E3. We learn how the gloves work and how it integrates with HTC Vive and Steam VR.

    Oculus Touch Hands-On and Interview at E3 2016

    We stop by the Oculus booth at E3 2016 to get hands-on time with Oculus Touch games, including Wilson's Heart and The Unspoken. Here's some of that gameplay, our impressions on those demos, and our hopes for hand presence in virtual reality. Plus, a chat with Palmer Luckey and Nate Mitchell about the Oculus Rift's launch, game exclusivity, and what's coming next.

    Hands-On with Razer OSVR HDK 2 Virtual Reality Headset

    We're at E3 this week checking out new virtual reality games and hardware. First up is Razer's new OSVR Hacker Development Kit 2. We learn about its display and lens system, how Razer is making this more of a consumer device, and get a hands-on demo. Here's why we're hopeful but cautious about this $400 headset.

    Just the Essentials: Sony’s E3 2016 Announcements

    Sony capped off a day of E3 press conferences with a surprisingly short event. They had a fairly decent showing in terms of overall software, but only showed a few VR game trailers.

    For the PlayStation faithful there was a strong line-up of exclusives including God of War with Kratos now as a Viking, another great looking Horizon Zero Dawn demo, Crash Bandicoot remastered, and an exclusive Spider-Man game made by Insomniac Games.

    The PlayStation VR segment was brief, especially when compared to previous showings, and was devoid of any context for the trailers shown. Resident Evil 7, which looks more like Silent Hills rather than any of the previous games in the RE series, will be completely playable in VR. You'll have to wait until January 24th, 2017 to crap your pants to that one though.

    Farpoint, a PS VR exclusive from Impulse Gear, is a first person shooter that takes place on an alien world. The game is meant to be played with the new Aim Controller, which is a vaguely gun shaped accessory with the Move controller bits built in. Sony claims it will provide one to one tracking accuracy. But you wouldn't know that if you had watched the press conference because they didn't talk about it or show the game being played.

    And those two games were the only seemingly full length titles shown during the briefing. Criterion Games, famous for the Burnout series, is making a VR X-Wing expansion for Battlefront. The trailer was really cool! But it's going to be only one mission.

    What You Should Know: Microsoft’s E3 2016 Announcements

    The annual E3 video game conference is underway, and Microsoft showed up in a big way. They announced not one, but two new consoles. All of the first party titles showed off will be cross-buy on Xbox and Windows 10. And more features coming to Xbox expands it from a console service to a platform.

    Old hardware gets a facelift

    Microsoft's live briefing kicked off with the announcement of the Xbox One S, a slim model of the launch Xbox One. This sleek, white box is 40% smaller, has an internal power supply, and the ability to function vertically. It supports 4K Ultra HD media and blurays, as well as HDR for both media and games (meaning an increase from 8-bit to 10-bit for color range and contrast). There's also an IR blaster on the front for use in controlling TVs and audio systems.

    It's worth noting that the Kinect port has been removed. If you'd still like to use a Kinect, a USB to Kinect adapter will be available for $49. However, if you provide Microsoft with the serial number of your original Xbox One console, your Kinect, and your new S model, they'll send you one for free. If it's the same adapter as the one for PCs, then it will be a couple of small boxes and will need to be plugged into an outlet, so something to keep in mind.

    A slightly improved controller will come packed in featuring a similar textured grip on the back as with other standalone Xbox One controllers, improved analog sticks, and bluetooth support to more easily connect to PCs.

    The Xbox One S launches August 2nd, first with a limited edition 2TB model for $399. Soon thereafter 1TB and 500GB models will be made available for $349 and $299 respectively.

    And if you're a fan of Moto Maker, there's something like that now for your Xbox controller. Xbox Design Lab gives you a plethora of color options to customize a controller. Unique controllers will start at $79 and ship this fall.