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    In Brief: Samsung's VR Gear Solution Could Launch at IFA

    Engadget's report that Samsung is developing a virtual reality solution in partnership with Oculus VR to work with its Galaxy phones is becoming more believable. While neither Samsung nor Oculus have confirmed that a device is in the works, SamMobile claims to have the first images of the device design, along with details about its name and debut. The Gear VR name sounds believable, as well as the purported IFA unveil (Sept 5-10). Three new technical details stand out from this leak: first that Gear VR would use a cushioned elastic band to hold the headset in place, that it would have a dedicated button to activate the Galaxy phone's camera to let users "see through" the HMD, and that the side controls would be a touchpad. The latter two make sense as good UI, especially the see-through button--something I hope the consumer Oculus Rift will include. If calibrated properly with a camera lens, the see-through option opens up augmented reality potential for this kind of HMD.

    I'm still unconvinced that smartphone screens (as run through smartphone GPUs) can achieve the low persistence of vision that Oculus fans are expecting, but that's based on my experience using Google's Cardboard with an LCD-based phone, not Samsung's AMOLED screens. The other weird thing about this is that we're not expecting the Oculus consumer release any time soon, so Samsung's Gear VR may be the first Oculus-related virtual reality device to hit the consumer market. I'm not sure that would be a good thing for Oculus and the VR community if the reception isn't anything but glowing. If Gear VR does get announced at IFA, it'll be something that may distract from Oculus' agenda just two weeks later at their first Connect conference.

    Norman
    Show and Tell: 3D Messenger Bag

    For this week's Show and Tell, Will picks up a unique bag that he saw someone wearing at Maker Faire. It's a messenger bag that looks like a 2D drawing. But after searching for one online, the one he ended up with doesn't exactly meet his needs. Have you seen bags designed with this concept before?

    The Best Wi-Fi Router (for Most People)

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

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

    Tested In-Depth: Pebble Steel Smart Watch

    What's the point of a smart watch, and how does it complement your use of a smartphone? That's what we wanted to figure out in our testing of the Pebble Steel. Will and Norm both use the Pebble for a month and discuss how it changes the way they regularly interact with their iOS and Android phones.

    The Best 4K Monitor Doesn't Exist Yet

    Like 1080p before it, 4K is the new, ultra-high-resolution format that promises better detail and greater image clarity due to the huge number of pixels packed into your screen. “Buttery-smooth text rendering and wonderfully detailed photos,” promises MakeUseOf. Just consider the quality differences between Apple’s Retina Display MacBooks and its standard MacBooks: it's the same pixel-increasing principle.

    That said, we don’t think it’s the right time to buy one.

    While most 4K monitors are still very expensive, we’re starting to see a growing number priced under $1,000: Samsung’s $700 U28D590D, Dell’s $700 P2815Q, and Asus’ $650 PB287Q are already available. Intel and Samsung even recently announced a partnership where they’ve pledged to try and push high-quality, 23-inch 4K monitors to a super-low price of $399. We think it’s worth waiting for some of that to pan out rather than pushing for an expensive early-adopter monitor right now (though you’d be foolish to buy a 24-inch 4K display, we can only hope that Intel and Samsung’s ambitions can push down prices on larger displays).

    Even expensive 4K monitors struggle with the same major weaknesses right now: outdated display connections, beefy hardware requirements, and lack of OS/application support. Cheap 4K monitors can have all those problems and more, sacrificing image quality in order to cut costs.

    Google's Vision for Android Wear UI

    Google I/O is this week, and we expect lots of details relating to the Android Wear initiative, including possibly some early hardware. Ahead of the developer conference, Google has released this developer preview video giving an overview of how the company wants developers to adapt their apps for the new smartwatch platform. Like with the Pebble system, Android Wear will ideally display the glanceable information from apps, like notifications. But users will also be able to send information back to their phones over the watch's microphone, activating services like Google Now or even voice recording. LG and Motorola's take on Android Wear hardware will be interesting, but it's really the software interface that will make or break Google's smartwatch. (h/t Wired)

    Tested In-Depth: Adobe Ink and Slide Review

    Has anyone ever used a good stylus for the iPad? We sit down to discuss the fundamental problems with writing with a stylus on the iPad, and what tricks hardware companies use to make writing and drawing on the tablet feel as natural as possible. Plus, we test Adobe's new Ink and Slide hardware tools, as well as their new drawing apps.

    The Best USB Car Charger Today

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

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

    Testing: Mobius Action Cam for RC Plane Video

    As good as GoPro Hero cameras are, there are times when they are too big, too heavy, or too expensive for the job. Smaller, lighter, and cheaper alternatives such as key fob cameras have been available for a while now. The problem is that these types of cameras rarely provide image quality even close to what the latest Heros can crank out. There is a new sports camera on the market that may bridge that gap for many users: the Mobius Action Cam.

    The Mobius Action Cam is a small sports camera that fills a void between key fob cameras and the GoPro lineup.

    Personally, I use sports cameras on many of my RC airplanes. Several of my smaller park flyer models weigh less than a pound and they simply can’t schlep my Hero 3 Black camera (5.6 ounces with the housing, 2.6 ounces naked) into the sky. I’ve tried a key fob (ie. spy) camera on these airplanes, but I was never happy with the results. I was tempted to try the Mobius in this application for three primary reasons: it is slightly smaller than the GoPro, it weighs about half as much (1.4 ounce), and its video capabilities are quite similar to my older Hero 2 (which I’m still happy with). The clincher was that the Mobius sells for around $80.

    Here you can see the relative size difference between a GoPro Hero3 Black, Mobius Wide Angle, Mobius Standard Lens, and a generic key fob camera.

    Here's how the Mobius performed after testing it on my RC planes, including some sample videos to compare it to the GoPro Hero 3.

    The Best USB Battery Pack for Travel Today

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

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

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

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

    In Brief: Guide to Shopping for Wire Strippers

    I first saw this on BoingBoing, who republished Steve Hoefer's 2012 guide to wire strippers. This isn't a guide to how to use wire strippers, nor is it a guide to the best wire strippers you can buy for every task. Instead, it's something arguably more useful, a guide that explains the different types of wire strippers available, their pros and cons, and what tasks each family of wire strippers are suited for. Even though we love multitools like the Leatherman Wave, tools made for a specific purpose are often not only better at doing the job, but cheaper. We talked about this with Adam on a podcast about an inexpensive beginner's toolkit last year, with some recommendations here. Our position has been that if you can afford it, don't skimp out and buy a tool that will last your forever.

    Norman 3
    Testing: Life with a Smart Lock

    Friends, we live in the future. Until a couple of months ago I locked and unlocked my front door the way humans have for hundreds of years: by jabbing one cheap piece of pressed and cut metal into another. But now I can unlock my door with a $400 smartphone, with no physical contact between key and lock. I have upgraded to a smart lock.

    But, you might ask, how is that smarter? And more importantly, how is that better? Haven't I just replaced a good, simple piece of technology with a more complex and inconvenient way of doing the same thing? The short answer is yes. But also no. I can also unlock my door with a keypad, or (if all else fails) with a traditional metal key. I'm not sacrificing anything.

    My smart lock makes my life more convenient every day, without a downside--except price. And it's not one of the new, fancy crowdfunded locks, either. This model has been around for years.

    Everybody's talking about smart homes. Home automation. The internet of things. Smart light bulbs, smart thermostats, smart...slow cookers? I'm not sure that I need a lightbulb I can control with my phone. But it looks like we're ready for connected hardware (in the construction sense) in a big way. Home automation was once limited to expensive, custom-installed, finicky systems like Crestron or Control4. Now a new wave of DIY smart-home gear is crowdfunding into existence. Some of it is gimmicky, but some of it is genuinely useful. Smart locks fit into the latter category--at least for me. Here's how it's changed my day to day life.

    The Most Comfortable Ergonomic Keyboard Today

    If buying an ergonomic keyboard to keep my wrists and fingers comfortable while typing for hours on end, I'd get the ~$71 Microsoft Sculpt Ergonomic keyboard (there’s also a ~$84 version with a mouse). Out of 15 ergonomic keyboards I researched and the nine I tested, the Sculpt was most comfortable thanks to a great wristpad design, a removable negative-slope attachment and chiclet keys that should feel familiar to anyone who owns a laptop today. When I'm not gaming, I'd rather use this keyboard than any other keyboard I've ever owned or tested.

    The Sculpt Ergonomic isn’t perfect, though. The keyboard’s keys don’t feel as good as mechanical keys, though they’re still much better than most membrane keys. The function and escape keys are also smaller than I’d like, and not everyone is a fan of the split-off number pad, though I think this is an important trade-off for the keyboard’s ergonomics, as it allows you to place your mouse closer to the main keyboard (which we discuss later on).

    In Brief: Why Apple May Want to Buy Beats

    Last week, the Financial Times reported that Apple was in close talks with Beats Electronics--the makers of Beats by Dre headphones and the recently launched Beats Music streaming service--to purchase the company for 3.2 billion dollars. That would be by far Apple's largest acquisition to date, topping the $400 million they spent on NeXT Computing over a decade ago to revamp its Mac OS business and bring Steve Jobs back into the company. While the deal is still yet unconfirmed, it's looking more likely that it's real, given Beats' Dr. Dre posting a celebratory YouTube video. The prevailing thinking is that Apple may want beats not primarily for its hardware business (which made $1.4 billion in 2013), but for the music licensing rights associated with the new Beats Music service (assuming they're transferrable). iTunes and the music download business is on a downward trajectory, while subscription-based streaming is still in its relative nascency (Spotify has "only" 10 million subscribers). My thoughts on this are more in line with Om Malik's--that even if this is a play for streaming relevance, it is a bootstrap solution at best that's indicative of Apple's larger issues. As VC Fred Wilson puts it, Apple's cloud services lag far behind competitors'. The company's focus on hardware may put it at a big disadvantage in the coming years when Google and Facebook's services become even more integrated into consumer technology. (Other food for thought: HTC previously owned a 50.1% controlling share in Beats via a $300 million investment, before divesting itself of the company through two 25% buybacks, the latter valued at $265 million.)

    Norman 1
    In Brief: Cord Cutting the Computer Mouse

    We spoke about this topic at length in last week's podcast--how there is a new generation of computer users whose first and primary method of interfacing with computer systems isn't a discrete keyboard and mouse, but a touchscreen. And for some of those users, voice control (eg. Google Voice Search) is supplanting touch for UI. While there's no reason to believe that physical keyboards and mice are going away anytime soon, it's not a stretch to believe that there will eventually be computer input technologies that will make those control schemes obsolete. Alexis Madrigal of The Atlantic conducted an informal survey about mouse usage, and found that a not-insignificant percentage of responders had not used a mouse in recent memory. Madrigal ponders on reconciling the persistence of the mouse with the rise of mobile (ie. touch) devices, but I'm more intrigued its use being diminished at all, and what that says about how we use computers and what kind of "computing" we want to get out of them. The mouse still reigns because it is optimized for our anatomy, but I'm excited for the day when HUI researchers develop a technology that can surpass its accuracy, responsiveness, and comfort.

    Norman 8
    The Best $100 In-Ear Headphones Today

    If I had around $100 and had to choose one pair of in-ear headphones to buy, I’d get the Beyerdynamic MMX 102iE. After researching more than 100 headphones and testing more than two dozen with our expert listening panel, the Beyerdynamic MMX 102iE were the one pair our listening panel could all agree on. They’re not perfect—although they have a useful universal remote button that works with iOS and Android devices, along with a functioning microphone and a Skype adapter, they unfortunately lack volume controls. However, they are light, have an exciting sound, and fit well enough that you might forget they’re in your ears, all for $109.

    Our previous pick, the Sony XBA-C10IP, are still technically our favorite. When compared to the Beyerdynamic, not only are they more evenly balanced sonically across the all frequency ranges, they’re much less expensive. Alas, the Sonys have been discontinued (more on this later), which is why we decided to re-visit this guide.

    How did we pick a winner?

    Since we still like our previous pick but it’s unavailable to most of the public, we were forced to find a new favorite. First I interviewed experts. Steve Guttenberg of CNET’s Audiophiliac added a few potential favorites, and I also read as many reviews as possible, including those by Tyll Hertsens on Inner Fidelity, and In Ear Matters’ List.

    Once I had a grasp on what the pros were saying, I took to Amazon and Best Buy to see what customer reviews were available. Anything with four stars or more was considered.

    Finally, I contacted every company that we know makes in-ear headphones in this price range and called in anything that was brand-new to the market since our last review.

    The Best microSD Card Today

    After eight hours of research and 15 hours of testing, we determined that the 32GB Samsung EVO is the best microSD card for phones and tablets. It has fast sequential and random read/write speeds, the latter of which are important if you’re using this card as additional storage for your mobile device.

    The Samsung EVO has fast random read and write speeds for storing and retrieving app data, and is also fast enough to handle 1080p video recording. However, for those using a GoPro Hero 3 Black Edition, we think the 64GB SanDisk Extreme is the best option because it’s the most affordable and lots of Amazon reviewers report back that it’s a reliable option.

    The Samsung EVO card is faster than our previous pick, the 32GB SanDisk Ultra, and also $6 more expensive. We think it’s worth it for the faster 4KB random and sequential speeds across the board. Still, there are no major flaws with the SanDisk Ultra, and it’s a decent option if our (new) main pick is sold out.

    The Best SD Card Today

    After 15 hours of research and another 15 hours of testing, we determined that the 32GB SanDisk Extreme Plus is the best SD card for most people because it’s reasonably priced and it comes with a lifetime warranty. Oh, and it ended up being the fastest of all the ones we tested after our burst shooting tests, file transfers, and benchmark tests.

    The SanDisk Extreme Plus is fast enough to handle 1080p video recording and significantly improves burst shooting and photo transferring over our previous recommendation, the SanDisk Extreme 45 MB/s. Those shooting 4K video and professionals who know they need it should use UHS-3-rated cards recommended by their camera’s manufacturer, but the SanDisk Extreme Plus is fast enough for everyone else.

    How we picked

    …the most important spec for SD cards is write speed.

    The most important features of an SD card are speed, price, reliability, and warranty. Full-size SD cards are most commonly used in cameras for storing image and video files as you shoot them. Because most cameras can take photos faster than they can write them to storage, images are first saved to a small-but-speedy buffer. Once the buffer is full, the images have to be written to the SD card before you can shoot more photos. Many DSLRs have continuous shooting modes—a.k.a. burst shooting—that fill the buffer much faster than the camera can clear it. The faster the card, the faster this buffer clears and you can start shooting again. Therefore, the most important spec for SD cards is write speed.

    Read speed is useful for reviewing photos on the camera and emptying the card onto a computer with a USB 3.0 reader. It’s not as important as write speed but is often faster, so manufacturers like to brag about the read speed on the label.

    Our finalists, all the SD cards we tested.

    Because an SD card holds the only copy of a photo between the time you take it and when you copy it to a computer for editing, it’s important to get a card from a reliable manufacturer with a strong warranty in case anything goes wrong. Many SD cards come with a lifetime warranty.