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    Google Play App Roundup: CloudPlayer, Xenowerk, and Geometry Wars 3

    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.

    CloudPlayer

    There are a dozen different subscription music services, but what if you've already got a large music library and you don't want to mess around with something new? CloudPlayer from doubleTwist can turn your existing cloud storage accounts into a handy online music library.

    CloudPlayer works with Google Drive, Dropbox, and OneDrive. Simply dump your music (supports all major formats including lossless) into whichever cloud account you have with sufficient storage, and log into it via the CloudPlayer app. The first indexing will take a while, especially if you have a lot of music. Once you've got everything ready to go, the app acts very much like other music players.

    You can see all of your music filtered in various ways by opening the navigation drawer on the left. It has quick links for artist, album, song, playlists, and so on. CloudPlayer pulls down artist images automatically and shows everything in a card layout. Starting playback seems very quick with my Dropbox test account and WiFi/LTE, but that will vary based on your connection. There's also an option to cache songs offline so you can listen without a connection.

    When listening to music via the app, there's a persistent playback bar at the bottom that brings up the Now Playing screen. You get the album art, playback controls, and everything else you'd expect from a music app. I will note that the way you drag up to see the full queue is really neat, though. There's also a built-in 10-band EQ that's accessible from the Now Playing screen.

    One of my favorite parts of the app is its built-in Google Cast and AirPlay support. Just hit the cast button on the main screen to select a device on your local network and send audio there. This has been working very well for me and really makes the app a viable alternative to Play Music.

    My only real concern with the way CloudPlayer works is that it scans the entire online storage directory. There's no way I can see to point it to a specific folder. So if you've got audio files in your Dropbox (or whatever service) that you don't want showing up in CloudPlayer, you'll have to move them elsewhere.

    Cloud Player is free to try for 7 days, but after that it costs $4.99 to buy the full version of the app.

    Testing: Asus ZenFone 2 Smartphone

    In the United States, on-contract subsidies for phones is slowly being supplanted by leasing and "easy-pay" deals where users can get new phones for no money down--the full price of the phone is amortized over the term of the contract. It's another way that carriers are trying to hide the fact that the latest flagship phones are more expensive than most people think--$600 and up in the bottom line. That's why we take note when phones like the Nexus 5 and OnePlus One are released for half that price, off-contract and unlocked for use with any GSM carrier. The latest of these low-cost high-end phones is Asus' ZenFone 2, which I've been using for the past few weeks. Its recent US release turned heads because of its price: $200 for a 1080p phone with really good technical specs. Sounds great on paper, and I'm happy to report that there aren't many catches (at least not any you can't work around).

    The Asus ZenFone 2 is also interesting because it runs on an Intel Atom processor. The quad-core SoC is on the top end of Intel's Silvermont architecture, paired with a PowerVR graphics component. It's actually the same chip found in the Dell Venue 8 7000 tablet I tested at the beginning of the year, which was a great performer. As with the Dell tablet, you shouldn't have to worry about Android app compatibility with X86--Android Lollipop's ART runtime takes care of that. And running on a 1080p smartphone, the performance of the chip is competitive with the latest ARM SoCs from Qualcomm and Samsung. My benchmarks showed it fitting between the performance of the Galaxy S6 and LG G4--definitely flagship material. At that level, I couldn't notice performance differences in day to day use, even in gaming.

    I should mention that the ZenFone 2 does come at two price points, with meaningful differences. The $200 entry-level runs a slightly slower 1.8GHz processor, with 2GB of RAM and 16GB of storage. The $300 model I tested has a 2.33GHz Atom, 4GB of RAM, and four times the storage at 64GB. RAM and SoC are the notable differentiators between the models, since you can expand storage on both with a microSD card. Both models also have dual microSIM slots. But even at 1.8GHz and 2GB of RAM, you're going to be able to run any new Android app and game without problems.

    The respectable performance doesn't come as a surprise, so we turn to the areas that really differentiate the day-to-day use of a smartphone: display quality, camera, and battery life. On these counts, the Asus ZenFone is above average, but doesn't claim any crowns. Let's start with the screen.

    Google Play App Roundup: Portal, TransPlan, and Chronology

    Grab your phone and prepare to shoot some new apps and games over to it from the Google cloud. It's time for the Google Play App Roundup where we tell you what's new and cool in the Play Store. Just click the links to head to each app's page to check it out for yourself.

    Portal

    Pushbullet has been one of the most consistently useful apps on my devices for a long time, and now the developers have released a new app that addresses one of the shortcomings of Pushbullet. It's called Portal, and it provides a quick and easy way to send big files from your computer to your phone.

    Portal works over your local WiFi to send files of any size to Android. This is not a completely new idea, but Portal improves things quite a bit. For example, Pushbullet allows you to send files, but the process is a little cumbersome and the file size is functionally unlimited. I also recall an app some years back that had very similar functionality called Awesome Drop. The company was acquired by HTC and the app was eventually killed. Portal is like a turbo charged version of that.

    Using Portal is really slick. Just install the app on your phone or tablet and open the Portal website on your computer. The site will generate a unique QR code that connects your phone and computer. Tap the scan button in the app and point it at the screen to pair them -- it recognizes the QR code almost instantly. The browser window will become a drag-and-drop target so you can take any file on your computer and push it to the phone or tablet.

    I've tested this with files up to several gigabytes in size, and they transferred fine. This only works over WiFi, remember. So you won't use your data plan to send the files. Portal is light on settings because it really just does this one thing. You can optionally have images and music routed to different folders to keep your storage a little more tidy. The general Portal download folder can also be specified. If you're on Lollipop, it can also request SD card access to put files there.

    Portal is a handy thing to have around, and like Pushbullet, it's completely free.

    Everything You Need to Know about RAW Photography on Android

    Android camera hardware has gotten very good in the last few years, but the quality of the images you get are largely dependent on the processing technology that a device maker has chosen to implement. When most phones have very similar image sensors, this software can make a huge difference. Slowly but surely, the power to produce better images is being granted to the users with support for RAW image capture.

    If your phone can capture in RAW, you don't have to worry about substandard processing algorithms in the phone. You can take matters into your own hands. Here's how to make RAW photo capture work for you on Android.

    What is RAW and which phones support it?

    Most Android phones are only set up to spit out processed images that have been compressed into JPEGs. This is usually fine, but you're relying on the ability of the stock software to do the scene justice. A lot of data is thrown away in the process, and a RAW file gives you access to all of that. A JPEG from a high-resolution camera sensor might be 4-5MB on Android, but a RAW file could easily be upwards of 30MB.

    These files come with file extensions like .dng and .nef (Android uses .dng). They contain virtually all the data from the sensor, so they're not ready to be tweaked with a standard image editing program or posted on your favorite social network. You need to work with each file and make changes to the colors, white balance, exposure, and more. It can be a significant amount of work, but you're not doing this because it's easy.

    On Android, RAW image capture can be done in a few ways. Both LG and HTC have opted to add the ability for users to snap both JPEG and RAW with the stock camera app on the G4 and One M9. You don't need to do anything other than pop into the settings to make this work. When you press the shutter, the phone outputs a DNG to the internal storage (or microSD card in the case of the G4) along with the JPEG. Samsung is supposed to be adding RAW support to its stock camera app in Android 5.1 for the Galaxy S6, which should be out in a month or so.

    Google Play App Roundup: Pounce, Feed Me Oil 2, and Outside World

    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 yourself.

    Pounce

    There may be times when you see something you want in real life, but you're not sure what it's called. Maybe you're also simply too lazy to type it into a search. No problem, there's Pounce. This new app lets you take a photo of objects to have them identified almost instantly. Then the app shows you where you can buy that item and similar ones on the spot. It's not the first app to do it, but Pounce seems like it might be the most accurate yet.

    When you open Pounce, it goes right to a camera viewfinder. To begin a search, simply point it at a thing you might be interested in buying and press the capture button. There's a switch to turn on the flash in the event there's not enough light, and it does seem somewhat picky about focusing on certain phone. For example, the Nexus 6 is fine, but the One M9 seems to lose focus entirely too quickly. There is an option to use an existing photo from your device as well, which might be a better option if it doesn't like your phone's camera.

    The image will be uploaded and processed on Pounce's servers. The technology backing it has been used in a few apps before (called Slyce visual search). It looks for general shapes and logos to figure out what things are. It's actually surprisingly good at a number of things. I pointed it at some game controllers, phones, and other things, and it got the gist. A few times it knew the exact product. Other times it was more generic (like gray HTC phone for the M9).

    The next step is where Pounce makes its money. It shows you shopping results with the thing you snapped a photo of, or at least some similar listings. The items come from a variety of stores like Amazon, Best Buy, and eBay. Should you see something you like, you can buy it instantly (after adding payment and shipping details in Pounce). Alternatively, it can be saved to your favorites.

    Pounce is a free app and it does what it says. It's worth checking out if only to see if you can fool it.

    How To Make the Most of Android 5.0 Lollipop's Lock Screen

    If you've picked up any modern Android device recently, you probably noticed the lock screen is all shiny and new on Lollipop. There are notifications, plenty of new security options, and a few features that didn't make the cut. Let's go over everything you can do with Android's updated lock screen.

    Notifications and sensitive content

    The Android lock screen has notifications on it now, which is a change from previous versions. While notifications were accessible by pulling down the shade (only on unsecured devices), now they're staring you in the face every time you turn on your phone. The lock screen has actually become the notification shade in a lot of ways. If you swipe something away on the lock screen, it's gone from the shade too. The quick settings from the notification shade can also be accessed from the lock screen as if you had the standard notification shade open.

    Now that you can see full notifications on the lock screen, you might be wondering about privacy. That's where notification priority scheme comes into play. A sensitive notification will not have the text visible on the lock screen of a secured device, but you need to set which apps count as "sensitive." Note, you have to choose to hide sensitive content on the lock screen when you set your PIN, pattern, or password lock.

    There are two ways to check the setting of your notifications. The standard way is to find the notification menu in your system settings. The location will vary by device, but you should find it if you want to tweak multiple apps. On stock Android it's in Sound & Notification > App Notifications. This menu lists all the apps you have installed, and when you tap one, you get the notification setting. This is where you can set something as sensitive.

    A quicker way to access the settings for a single app is to long-press on one of its notifications. Tap the "info" button that appears, and you'll be in the same notification setting menu as above where you can set it to sensitive mode.

    Google Play App Roundup: Office Lens, You Must Build A Boat, and Robbery Bob 2

    Apps move quickly on Android. No sooner have you found an app you can get cozy with, than a better alternative has come along. We're here to make sure you're ahead of the curve -- that you're always on the bleeding edge. That's what the Google Play App Roundup is for. Just click on the links to head to Google Play and get the best new apps and games for your device.

    Office Lens

    Microsoft's Office Lens app has been in beta for several weeks, but it just recently hit the full Google Play Store. This app provides a quick and easy way to save a document using your device's camera, though it does tie into the Microsoft ecosystem quite deeply. Even if you're not using other Microsoft apps on your phone, this might be something to check out.

    Office Lens opens right to a camera viewfinder, allowing you to quickly frame the document you want to capture. The buttons in the upper right control the settings used in the capture. The default mode is a document, but you can also choose whiteboard and photo. Document and whiteboard modes will automatically search the viewfinder for the subject you want to capture (a lighter rectangular shape). When it looks to have the object framed, you can hit the capture button.

    After capturing the image, Office Lens automatically crops the document, but you have the option of changing the framing before moving on. This is a little awkward as you can't quite see the selection box through your finger as you drag it around. It's still sufficient to fix small errors, though. You can also switch between capture types at this point.

    You don't have to line up the shot perfectly to get a readable image. Office Lens is actually quite good at transforming an off-center image of a document or receipt into a balanced square/rectangle. Keep in mind that if you're taking an image of something with very small text, you should go to the settings and increase the image resolution. The default setting is 6MP, which is lower than virtually all phone cameras these days. As long as you've got a moderately powerful device, you should still be able to process the images pretty quickly.

    After you've got the image you want, there's the catch (maybe). If you don't use many Microsoft products, you'll probably want to install some. You can export a cropped JPEG to the gallery with no issue, but if you want a PDF (you probably do), it can only be saved to OneDrive. That's not a huge deal, as you get free OneDrive storage, and the Android app is actually rather good. You can also export directly to other Microsoft apps like Word and OneNote.

    This is probably the best app I've seen for quick scans of single documents. It's not good for multi-page content, but it's free and great for keeping track of receipts and whatnot.

    Android at Google I/O 2015: The Stuff We Care About

    Google I/O is always a place for Google to impress us with the past present and future of its products, but it's also become something of a coming out party for Android. Not only are new versions of the platform demoed at I/O, new Android-based products are unveiled too. We got some of both this year, so let's take a look at the future of Android on your phone, tablet, and maybe even in your lightbulbs.

    Android M developer preview

    Google announced the latest version of Android last week, but we didn't get a version number or a real name. As with Android L last year, we're walking away from I/O with a mysterious new OS build called "Android M." This piece of software is designed only for a few of Google's recent Nexus devices, and it requires a complete reinstall of the OS. If you've got a Nexus 5, 6, 9, or Nexus Player, you can try Android M right now.

    Some of what's included in Android M is specific to the new platform, and some of it will come to more phones and tablets sans M updates. I'm going to break out the big features into their own sections below, but there are a few important things to know about this dev preview.

    The Best Android Smartphone for Your Network (May 2015)

    Another month has come to a close, and that means it's time to check on the Android device offerings out there. There are dozens of devices to choose from on the big four carriers, and the choice is harder than ever with so many premium phones. You don't want to make the wrong, call, though. Two years with a phone you hate is a long, long time.

    The Samsung Galaxy S6 is still a top pick on all four carriers, but the LG G4 is now available for pre-order everywhere and is even shipping on some carriers.

    The Samsung Galaxy S6 vs. The LG G4

    This is the main event -- most users should be perfectly happy with one of these devices. Since these phones are both available on all carriers, we're going to see how they stack up, then find a potential alternative for each carrier if neither of them strike your fancy.

    Samsung talks up the AMOLED screen on the Galaxy S6 (and S6 Edge) quite a lot, and with good reason. It's stunningly beautiful. It's one of the few screens on a phone that I just can't find fault with. It gets very bright, very dim, the colors are good, and it's extremely crisp. It does consume a lot of power, but that's not really the fault of the screen. This is a 5-inch 1440p AMOLED, after all.

    LG does produce some AMOLED panels, and in fact it has used them in a few devices like the G Flex 2. However, they aren't particularly great screens, and can't compete with Samsung. The LG G4 has an LCD as its past flagship phones have, but this one is slightly curved (like a banana). I don't know that there's any usability advantage here. As with the Nexus S days, it's mostly a gimmick. The resolution is a 5.5-inch 1440p, though, and LG has bumped up the brightness and colors compared to the LCD on the G3.

    Comparing the screens, Samsung wins in overall quality. The colors, viewing angles, and brightness are noticeably better. The G4's size is actually very nice, though. If you feel like a 5-inch phone is a little too small, the G4 might be just right at 5.5-inches.

    Inside the LG G4 runs on a Snapdragon 808, which is probably quite embarrassing for Qualcomm. The Snapdragon 810 has been plagued by heat and throttling issues in the first few devices it has powered, but the 808 is a more modest chip. It's hexa-core rather than octa-core, but it's still a 64-bit chip. The two Cortex-A57 cores do all the heavy lifting, and the four A53s handle the small stuff. It's more than fast enough in daily use, but the Exynos in the Galaxy S6 is a beast.

    Samsung's octa-core Exynos has those two extra A57 cores, and it doesn't overheat like the Snapdragon 810. It does get warm, but that's an inevitability. The benchmark scores are off the chart and it might handle some high-end games and complex apps a little better. This isn't a big consideration, though. Both phones are fast enough.

    Tested In-Depth: LG G4 Smartphone Review

    We test the new LG G4, an Android flagship that may have the best camera we've ever seen in a smartphone. Plus, it has a removable battery and expandable storage--something missing from other flagships. Will and Norm sit down to talk about how its photos compare with ones taken on the Samsung GS6 and iPhone 6 Plus, and whether the high-resolution LCD screen is needed.

    Google Play App Roundup: Periscope, iO, and One More Dash

    The time has come again to shine a light into all the shadowy corners of Google Play to find the best new and newly updated stuff for your phone or tablet. The Google Play App Roundup is where you can come every week to see what's cool on Android, and this week is no exception. Click on the links to head right to Google Play and download for yourself.

    Periscope

    Odds are that you've heard about Periscope before -- this streaming video app from Twitter has been available on iOS for a few months. Now it has come to Android, making it even easier to stream the minutiae of your life, assuming that's of interest to anyone other than yourself. If not, well, you can still stream things with Periscope.

    The functionality of the app is mostly the same as the iOS version. You sign up with your Twitter account and can automatically add people on Periscope that you have on Twitter. There are also some suggested popular accounts you can follow. If you just want to watch streams, you've got a stream of content from everyone you follow. At the top is anything that's currently live and below that are recent streams that you can rewatch. If no one you know is broadcasting, you can go over the the global feed and see what's happening live that people are interested in.

    As a viewer, you can send messages via text to the broadcaster, but they don't type back. If they want to converse with you, it'll be by voice. Or obscene hand gestures, I suppose. You can also have the Periscope app alert you when one of your friends starts a live broadcast.

    If you want to start a broadcast, there's a floating action button down at the bottom of most screens. The FAB isn't the only modern UI element in the Periscope app. It also has a proper tinted status bar and material animations. At any rate, you can start a broadcast in public or private mode. If you do public, you can enable or disable location sharing, unrestricted chat, and Twitter announcement post. Both public and private allow you to set a name for the broadcast. If you want to make the broadcast private, you can manually choose the Periscope contacts you want to have access.

    The actual stream works the same whether it's public or private. That is to say, it's okay. The lag between the broadcasting device and viewers is only about a second. but the bitrate isn't very high. I've also noticed a few autofocusing issues with the broadcasting device. I can't fault Periscope too much, though. Live video is hard to get right, and this app makes things almost frictionless. It only takes a minute to get up and running and share a video. It's something to take a look at for sure.

    Google Photos Launches with Unlimited Backup

    Google's relaunched Photos service and app are here, and it's a big deal for the company. As we've discussed on This is Only a Test, Photos is our favorite part of Google+, for its automated backup feature and ease of downloading and sharing pics. Now it's split off of Google+ completely, relaunched as a sort of Gmail for Photos. That could be a good thing for Android and iOS users who have hundreds if not thousands of photos saved on their phones. But as with typical Google services, you should also think about what Google gets out of it too.

    Here's how the new Photos service works. On the app front, it's the updated version of the Photos app for Android, which Google has been using to compete with default Gallery apps on OEM phones. The app is as useful as its ever been, allowing automated uploading of every photo and video saved on your phone, either over Wi-Fi or cellular. "Full resolution" photos are now saved, up to 16MP, though they're actually high-quality compressed versions of the JPEGs found on your phone. Each phone compresses their JPEGs differently, so we'll have to do more comparisons to see whether Photos backups are truly archival quality. Still, we're just talking about smartphone photos, so most people don't care about a little bit of compression. Videos are saved up to 1080p resolution, and Google is touting unlimited backup storage using the high-quality compression setting. (You can still archive actual original photos, with a storage quota.) Detected duplicate photos on your phone can also automatically be deleted, saving you some local storage. The app is also now available on iOS with the same features, making it at least a solid complement to Photostream.

    What's new is mostly on the web side, where Photos has been streamlined for better archiving and search of your photos. This is where the Gmail analogy is most appropriate. Instead of treating Photos as a Flickr or Instagram like showcase of the photos you want to share, the thought is that it's an archival service first, sharing service second. The thought is that you don't have to worry about curating anything--just let Photos handle all the sorting and backup of your photo dump, and allow it to tap into Google's image-processing algorithms to digest it. Then, just like searching through old email, you can dig through old photos by searching for people, locations, and even objects Google has recognized in your photos (eg. animals, food, plants, etc). Backend work has clearly been going on for a while, since the new Photos is already up and running, and surprisingly fast. It's like Lightroom for the smartphone photos you don't plan on tweaking to death.

    So what does Google get out of it? The company said that it has no plans to monetize it with ads, but that doesn't mean that it doesn't have advertising--its core business--in mind. What Google gets is an incredible dataset of user photos to refine its image-recognition algorithms. It really sounds like a play a computer vision, like Stanford researcher Fei-Fei-Li's use of photosets to teach AI how to recognize an image of a cat. Except in that case, the dataset was only 15 million photos--Google has access to orders of magnitude more data, with both active and passive user feedback just through the use of the Photos service. Improving image search puts us one more step toward better video search, as well. And unlike Flickr or Instagram, search is something that Google actively monetizes.

    For more on Google Photos, Steve Levy of Medium has an insightful interview with the service's director, Bradley Horowitz.

    Android M Rumor Roundup: Privacy, Android Pay, and More

    Google turned Android upside down last year with the unveiling of Lollipop, known at the time only as Android L. Just one year later, Google is set to move on to another sweet treat, this time starting with M. With Google I/O just days away, the rumors are swirling.

    What can we expect from Android M? Let's go over the possibilities.

    A Privacy Overhaul

    Android has become successful because it offered a distinct alternative to the Apple way of doing things. Android fans have responded positively to that over the years, but one place everyone seems to wish Google would borrow more from Apple is in the realm of app privacy controls. Android has none, but iOS puts that power in the users' hands.

    A few years ago, Android's system of application permissions was seen as superior to iOS. When you install an app, the Play Store shows you what system permissions it wants. That could be something as innocuous as accessing the vibration motor or as serious as reading your contact list. The problem is there's no way to selectively deny permissions. If you install, the app gets everything it asks for. on iOS, the device pops up a notice when an app asks for access to sensitive information like your location or contacts. It's not the most elegant solution, but you can turn simply block it and still use the app.

    There was a hint that Android had the capacity to do more with permissions when the AppOps permission control interface was uncovered in Jelly Bean a few years ago. However, that was just an internal dev tool, and it was subsequently pulled from public builds. The damage was done, though. People wanted this kind of functionality. Android M could finally give it to them.

    According to several rumors, the next version of Android will include an overhaul of how permissions are managed on Android. This is a tricky thing because apps need to fail gracefully when you block a permission. AppOps could break things, but whatever Google does needs to support legacy apps.

    There aren't currently details on how this would be handled, but I'd bet Google won't go so far as to clone AppOps for Android M. That tool was far too complex for average users to make heads or tails of. More likely is a series of toggles in the app management interface. Maybe you'll be able to selectively disable the more sensitive permissions like location access and read/write to the internal storage.

    Google Play App Roundup: Randomly RemindMe, Atlantic Fleet, and MixRadio

    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 link to head right to Google Play.

    This week reminders are more random, the seas are not safe, and there's music to stream.

    Randomly RemindMe

    No matter what phone you have, you can ask Google Now to remind you about something. Although, many of us are prone to procrastination and might ignore Google's gentle urging. That's where Randomly RemindMe comes into play. This app creates recurring reminders on a set schedule, or spaced randomly throughout the day.

    So why would you want something like this? I can think of a few use cases, but I've been testing it as a way to remind myself to get up and move occasionally (I sit at my desk all day writing, as you might imagine). Setting reminders at regular intervals can be distracting because when you know another reminder is coming up soon, you can become sort of "hyper-aware" of it. Randomly RemindMe seems less disruptive to my workflow and could be used for plenty of things. Maybe you want to be reminded to drink more water or check on your kids/pets?

    The app has a largely material design aesthetic. When you set a new reminder, you can pick between the default random mode and a traditional set interval for reminders. Choose the mode, the number of reminders, notification icon, and fill in all the blanks. You can even set a notification LED color if your phone supports it. Randomly RemindMe is essentially letting you build a rich notification that will show up in the shade when the time comes.

    Randomly RemindMe has acknowledge and dismiss buttons on the notifications. Acknowledge basically signifies that you saw the alert and will (ideally) do what you're supposed to do. Dismiss signifies that you didn't do whatever you were supposed to do. So these two buttons are more or less a way to track how often your reminders successfully spur you to action.

    I'm surprised that Randomly RemindMe is free and contains no in-app purchases--there aren't even any ads. There's probably some functionality here that people would pay for. Maybe some sort of paid add-ons will happen later. For the time being, go ahead and take advantage of it for free.

    Show and Tell: Mpow Streambot Bluetooth FM Transmitter

    For this week's Show and Tell, Norm shares a car accessory that has been essential in numerous road trips this year. If you don't have bluetooth or a line-in jack for media in your car, the Mpow Streambot FM transmitter is an easy way to play podcasts and music over your stereo system. The Wirecutter recently selected it as a great Bluetooth car stereo pick for music streaming! (Thanks to B&H for providing the One Man Crew system for this video. Find out more about it here!)

    The State of App and Game Backup on Android: Not Pretty

    Comparing the Android we have today to what was available several years back is stark not just in terms of UI. Google has addressed many pain points in the realm of usability and features over time. Many of the things we used to need root access to get done are now possible on completely stock devices, even on the stripped down Nexus variant of Android. One notable exception is the state of application backup on Android. It's an absolute mess, and Google has tried to fix it with little success. Let's go over your options and find out where things stand.

    What is app data?

    When people talk about app data, they are usually referring to the content stored under each application or game's folder in the system directory of Android. You can see how much data an app has accumulated by going into the application settings. Android gives you the option to delete this data, but that's all. If you do so, it reminds you that you're going to lose all your settings, accounts, and so on. That's what we're talking about -- your stuff.

    For an app, this directory might contain your account information for an app that needs you to log in. It also contains any data you've input into the app since you started using it. For example, a fitness tracker app will have all your workout records and history. If you delete the app or clear the data, that's all gone. The developer needs to specifically make allowances to back that data up in such instances (more on the alter). For games, the app data folder contains save games and settings. Again, if you delete the data or uninstall the game, your progress is gone with it.

    So why can't you simply copy the data from these directories and save it somewhere? App data is all in the system partition, meaning you need to have root access to do anything with it. That might seem like a kick in the pants, but it's a common security measure. You don't want one app being able to just snoop around in the data of another app. The only way to back up and restore app data is through rooting or a system component. Google has thus far really dropped the ball on the latter.

    Google Play App Roundup: Bleep, Knights of Pen & Paper 2, and Sunburn!

    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 yourself.

    Bleep

    BitTorrent's various projects are mostly about leveraging the power of many individuals to create decentralized services. However, the newly released Bleep messaging app is a little different. Rather than dealing with the many, this secure messaging client relies on direct one-on-one connections and local encryption.

    Bleep was released as an Alpha several months ago, but now it's "done." BitTorrent has cleaned up the interface, squashed some bugs, and added new featured over the course of the beta. What we have now seems like a capable messaging service, and it supports completely anonymous usage. You can install Bleep and pick a nickname without adding your phone number or email. This is simply the name others will see when chatting with you.

    Should you choose, you can also verify your information with Bleep so any of your friends who sign up will see you in their contact lists. Otherwise, adding Bleep contacts is done by sharing your ID or letting the other party scan your QR code if you meet them in meatspace. All messages sent over Bleep are encrypted locally and sent directly to the recipient, making it difficult to eavesdrop on the conversation. You can also send pictures and initiate VoIP calls.

    The big new feature added for the launch of Bleep is called Whisper. It's basically an off-the-record chat with Snapchat-like automatic deletion. Any message or image you send will be deleted 25 seconds after it is viewed. BitTorrent opted for an odd method of privacy protection for Whispers. The message only shows up when the sender's name is hidden. If you toggle the name display on, the message is blurred. This is intended to disassociate the sender and message in screenshots and photos taken of the Whisper. It's a nice sentiment, but I can't help but note you can take two screenshots and match them up pretty easily.

    Bleep messages seem to come in reliably in just a few seconds, and I'm not seeing any appreciable impact on battery life. It seems like a really neat service, but you'll have to convince your friends to use Bleep before you can do much with it. It's worth a shot if you've got privacy concerns with services like Hangouts and WhatsApp.

    Google Play App Roundup: VoxelMaker, Earn to Die 2, and GoatZ

    It's that time of the week again. Time to shake off the weekend vibe and get back to work. But you can probably spare a few minutes to check out some new apps. This is the Tested Google Play App Roundup, which is where we tell you about the best new and newly updated apps on Android. Just follow the links to Google Play.

    VoxelMaker

    This might look like a game at first--maybe some sort of Minecraft knockoff. However, VoxelMaker is actually a 3D art and modeling app. It gives you the tools to create nifty pixel art 3D designs on your Android device in just a few minutes (after you learn how to use it). You can even apply lighting, depth of field, and more before exporting as an image or a 3D file.

    So what's a voxel? You can probably guess from the look and feel of this app, but it's a grid of blocks that are essentially the 3D counterpart to a pixel. It's a mashup of the words volume and pixel. There are plenty of games, like the aforementioned Minecraft, that are based on voxel art. In addition to the obvious stuff, a number of game engines and rendering technologies make use of voxels as a way of approximating shapes and lighting. For example, Nvidia's Maxwell GPUs use voxel mapping to generate realistic surface lighting in real time.

    VoxelMaker is a little confusing at first, but there are a few example scenes available in the app. You might want to start by taking these apart and seeing how all the tools work. You've got four basic modes to create and edit images. There's draw, select, paint, and light. The drawing mode is where you should start. This is how you create new blocks in your 3D canvas. There are three lines that intersect on the screen to show you where the cursor is. This is important because you are operating in a 3D space with a 2D interface, and these lines keep you oriented. You can tap anywhere to move the cursor there, but VoxelMaker also has a few arrow buttons in the lower left corner for finer control.

    The selection mode lets you grab large areas of your design to copy, delete, or insert elements. Painting mode similarly lets you change large sections of the image at once, but by altering the colors of the voxels. This is faster than replacing the voxels with the correct color ones. Then there's lighting, which is the simplest, but also has a dramatic impact on your designs. This mode simply lets you choose from where the light is coming.

    The Best Android Smartphone for Your Network (April 2015)

    The big US carriers have traditionally had a lot of variation in the selection of phones they offer, and that's still true to a degree. However, we're in a place right now where there's one phone that is probably best for most people, and it's available everywhere. Of course I speak of the Samsung Galaxy S6. It hasn't been so clear cut in my opinion since the Galaxy S3 was the hot new phone. Still, the Galaxy S6 isn't the perfect phone, and depending on what you want, it might not be an option at all.

    So let's do things a little differently this month -- let's check out the lineup of each carrier and see what you might want to get if the Galaxy S6 isn't a good fit.

    Why the Galaxy S6?

    The Galaxy S6 is the default choice right now if you want a flagship smartphone. Norm and myself have both posted our thoughts on this phone, and the consensus is that Samsung hit one out of the park. Let's first quickly go over why you should (and maybe shouldn't) settle for this phone. You can read our field reports for all the details.

    If you thought the Galaxy S5 was boring and expected, Samsung agrees. They changed so, so much with the Galaxy S6 it seems like a phone made by a completely different company. The metal and glass construction feels very premium and precise in the hand. You may remember some issues with manufacturing tolerances on the Note 4 (mostly in the way the glass met the bezel), but the Galaxy S6 is pristine.

    Tested In-Depth: Samsung Galaxy S6 Smartphone

    Samsung's new Galaxy S6 smartphone is a bit controversial, with its familiar design to the flagship's omission of a removable battery and microSD card slot. But its brilliant screen and camera make it very compelling. We sit down to run through all the important things about this phone and compare it to the iPhone 6. Here's why the Galaxy S6 is the best phone Norm has ever tested.