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    The Best Android Smartphone for Your Network (June 2015)

    There are a ton of Android phones available for purchase, and new ones are coming out all the time. You don't want to get the wrong thing and regret it on a daily basis. What's a phone nerd to do? Well, let's try to figure that out.

    This month is still a close call between the LG G4 and the Galaxy S6, but there are a few options beyond these two flagships for the discerning buyer.

    The Galaxy S6 and LG G4

    Both the Samsung Galaxy S6 and LG G4 are available on all four major US carriers, so I'm breaking these two out for a direct comparison. After laying all this out, we'll figure out an alternative for each carrier, just in case neither of these is the right fit for you.

    Samsung is using a new version of its Super AMOLED screen on the Galaxy S6 (and S6 Edge) and the company has reason to gloat a little. It's a stunningly beautiful screen. It gets very bright, very dim, the colors are good, and it's extremely crisp. It's really impossible to find fault with. Perhaps down the line it will develop some burn-in as AMOLEDs sometimes do, but Samsung has been working on that. It does consume a lot of power, but that's what you get with a 5-inch 1440p AMOLED.

    LG has stuck with an LCD for the G4 as its AMOLED efforts are still lacking compared to Samsung. The only unique thing about this panel is the slight top to bottom curve it has. I don't know that there's any usability advantage here, but there you go. It's 5.5-inches and 1440p in resolution. LG has bumped up the brightness and colors compared to the LCD on the G3, which is a good thing.

    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.

    The Best Portable USB Battery Pack for Daily Use

    This post was done in partnership with The Wirecutter, a list of the best technology to buy. Read the full article below at TheWirecutter.com.

    Smartphone batteries don't always last through a busy day, but a pocket-size USB battery pack can give your handset enough of a boost to survive the evening. After 40 hours of research and 65 hours of testing, the one we like the most is Anker's 2nd Gen Astro 6400. It fits in any pocket or purse, and it charges phones and small tablets about as fast as any pocket-friendly pack out there. At 6,400 mAh, it has a larger capacity than most, too.

    The Anker 2nd Gen Astro 6400 can slide into a relaxed-fit pants pocket alongside a smartphone, though a jacket pocket or purse will be a more comfortable fit.

    The Anker 2nd Gen Astro 6400 can slide into a relaxed-fit pants pocket alongside a smartphone, though a jacket pocket or purse will be a more comfortable fit.

    How we decided

    We started by looking for packs that could slide into a relaxed-fit jeans pocket without bulging too much. We also wanted a pack that could fully charge power-hungry phones like the Apple iPhone 6, Motorola Moto X, and Samsung Galaxy S6 at least once, and at full speed. From there, we favored packs with the best cost-to-capacity and size-to-capacity ratios and higher-current power output (up to a point).

    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.

    Testing: LG G4 and Android Smartphone Cameras

    This is a follow up to our review of the LG G4 smartphone we posted last week. I wanted to give you a better look at the photos I've been able to take with the G4, and also to elaborate more on the state of Android cameras in general. The last two Android phones we've tested--the Samsung GS6 and LG G4--have produced the best photos I've seen from any smartphone, iPhone 6 Plus included. But we're still seeing stories like this Motherboard column, proclaiming that Android cameras still suck. It's a hyperbolic headline, but the point of the post has merit: smartphone photo quality is a product of more than just the camera sensor; it's dependent on factors like optics, post-processing, JPEG compression, and even the screen you're using to view those pictures. Apple has done well optimizing its camera hardware and photo software, while Android is at the mercy OEMs' hardware choices and in-house camera apps.

    For example, HTC One M9's harsh photo processing hurts its camera performance, but shouldn't be considered representative of other recent flagships. Samsung and LG are role models when it comes to excellent integration of camera hardware and software--I am loving the photos I've been able to take with them. The GS6 and G4's photo processing algorithms seem to make the most of the raw image data that that passes through their respective optics and sensors. A good image processing algorithm is the result of choices and tradeoffs. Engineers have to prioritize factors like sharpening, tonal adjustments, compression, processing power, speed, and file size. On Android, something that helps is the ability to give that algorithm the best possible image in advance by letting photographers configure manual camera settings. It all starts in the camera app interface.

    The camera app on the LG G4 is one of the most robust I've used on a smartphone. Users have almost all the settings you would find on an entry-level DSLR: white balance, exposure adjustment and lock, ISO, shutter speed, and even manual focus. That lets you effectively shoot in full manual, aperture, or shutter priority (with a fixed aperture, of course). The manual focus "dial" in the camera app threw me off a bit, since autofocus has been sufficient in most smartphones. But I liked the ability to use it for focusing on densely layered subjects like a bouquet of flowers. With the shallow depth-of-field offered by the camera's f/1.8 iris, manual focus was also very useful for macro shots.

    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's Project Soli Tracks Finger Gestures with Radar

    Announced at this week's I/O, and developed in Google's ATAP division: "Project Soli is developing a new interaction sensor using radar technology. The sensor can track sub-millimeter motions at high speed and accuracy. It fits onto a chip, can be produced at scale and built into small devices and everyday objects." Lots of potential applications with this technology, assuming it is accurate and responsive. It makes sense for smartphones (think lock-screen gestures), wearables, IOT devices, and of course, virtual reality.

    Testing: Gear VR for Galaxy S6 Impressions

    I just got the new Samsung Gear VR for Galaxy S6, the second Innovator Edition developer headset released in partnership with Oculus. We had tested the first Gear VR with the Note 4 earlier this year, in time for the launch of paid apps in the Oculus store. Since then, few new apps have been introduced to the store, though events like the current Mobile VR Jam is encouraging devs to put their ideas in front of early adopters. Momentum in software and hardware is leading up to Oculus' consumer release in the first quarter of next year, but they've also said that the next Gear VR release will be a consumer-ready one. So while this new Innovator Edition is still a developer kit, it's interesting to see how Samsung is iterating its hardware based on some short-term feedback and also adapting it to fit the 5.1-inch 1440p display in the new Galaxy S6. 577 PPI!

    The physical design of the Gear VR for GS6 (I'll just call it "new Gear VR" from now on) is slightly improved from the original. Yes, it's a little smaller, but the ergonomic improvements aren't night and day. Much of the reduced size is due to the lack of the bulky plastic cover plate that fit over the Note 4 when mounted in the headset, which I don't think many people used anyway. In its place is a smaller plastic protector plate that fits into the slot where the GS6 sits when not in use, to protect the lenses. You don't have a way of covering up the phone when it's slotted in the new Gear VR, and that's just fine. Overall, the headset weighs a little less with the phone plugged in, partly due to the GS6 being significantly lighter than the Note 4 as well. I still found the head straps a little too short for my liking, though. With enough slack, the whole unit fits relatively comfortably over my glasses, but I ended up using it without glasses for tonight's tests.

    On the bottom of the new Gear VR is a micro-USB port for charging the GS6 while it's mounted. That's a much-needed addition from the Note 4, and my GS6 was draining its battery really quickly when running VR demos unplugged. I don't have the Note 4 any more for a direct power consumption comparison, but I'll be conducting a VR battery test soon with Oculus Cinema and Hero Bound.

    The touchpad is a tad smaller on the new Gear VR, and now has an indent to help guide your finger to its center point. For some reason, the back button was also moved slightly toward the front of the headset. These changes didn't affect my use of the touchpad, and I still prefer using a bluetooth gamepad for both UI navigation and games.

    On the left side of the headset, Samsung added a small fan and opening for airflow. When I first heard about this, my thought was that the fan would be used for cooling down the mounted phone, since the Note 4 had a tendency to overheat and slow games down in long sessions. However, the fan in the new Gear VR--which is powered by the phone--is actually used to reduce lens fogging. In practice, it works really well, too. I didn't have to wipe the inside of the Gear VR once while running demos tonight, something I had to do every 15 minutes or so with the Note 4. Some people have reported that their new Gear VR arrived with a busted fan, but it's really just quiet. It also only activates when your face triggers the proximity sensor on the inside of the headset.

    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.

    In Brief: LG Announces G4 Flagship Smartphone

    LG was the first to make a mainstream smartphone with a 1440p display, but Samsung's Note 4 and recent Galaxy S6 have found more success. That may soon change with today's announcement of the LG G4, LG's latest flagship. The important stuff: it still has a 5.5-inch 1440p LCD panel, but it's now slightly curved (not as much as the G Flex 2) and has an expanded color gamut that may approach AdobeRGB. The new 16mp camera is also a big deal for LG--it's paired with an f/1.8 lens and uses a new OIS system. But the things that may get Android fans on board are the inclusion of a user-replaceable 3000mAh battery and microSD card slot. Not sure about that textured leather back plate, though. The G4 ships this summer on all major US networks.

    Norman
    Testing: Samsung Galaxy S6 Smartphone

    The new Samsung Galaxy S6 released last Friday sure looks more like an iPhone than any of Samsung's Galaxy phones before it. Unibody aluminum construction, glass front and back, and nary a screw or chunky piece of plastic in sight. Is the design an egregious rip-off? That's for lawyers to argue. But it is absolutely a concession by Samsung that the design ethos we've seen from Apple since the iPhone 4 has merit: a beautiful unibody phone is worth the omission of "power-user" features like a user-replaceable battery and memory card slot. And in this case, I think the tradeoffs may be worth it. There's so much to like in the new GS6.

    I picked up my Galaxy S6 from Best Buy when it was released and have been using it for the past three days. That's not enough time for a thorough evaluation of its technical performance and nuances of long-term use, but enough to share some impressions of the attributes that stand out. Let's run through those, starting with the design.

    The GS6's Design is Beautiful

    Regardless of how Samsung came to the design of the Galaxy S6, they ended up with one of the best-looking and feeling Android phones I've used. It looks especially fetching in white, where the illuminated menu and back buttons fade into the glass of the front face. But it's less about the glass on the front and back of the phone than it is about the aluminum band wrapped around the phone. Yes, from the bottom, it looks very much like an iPhone 6, speaker grille, headphone jack, and all. But the aluminum on the long sides of the phone is a flat edge, making it much easier to grip than the fully-curved sides of the latest iPhones. The GS6 is light, thin, and doesn't make me worry that it'll slip out of my hands when typing single-handed.

    Using glass for the phone's back may be the most questionable design decision for this phone. Glass may be prettier than aluminum, but this is a phone that will shatter if you drop it on concrete. I'm not going to get a case for it, but I am definitely treating it more carefully than the OnePlus One and Moto X I was using before. And no, I'm not going to try to bend it to the point of breaking.

    Hands-On: Virtuix Omni Treadmill + GearVR at GDC 2015

    At GDC 2015, we got to test out the near-final build of the Virtuix Omni, the virtual reality treadmill that's headset agnostic. We use the Omni with a GearVR running Dreadhalls, and then share our thoughts on how walking around can enhance a VR gaming experience.

    How To Keep Your Android 5.0 Lollipop Phone Secure

    Android has come a long way with regard to security in the last few years. Not only can you more easily secure your device to protect personal data, there are more tools that make all your other devices and accounts safe. Of course, none of that does you any good if you aren't taking advantage of it. Let's go over everything you can do to make Android as secure as it can be.

    Lock Screen and Pinning

    Some of your built-in security options will vary from one device to the next depending on OEM and Android version. As Android 5.0 Lollipop is finally starting to roll out en masse, it's worth going over the new security features you'll find. One of the most significant changes is the way the lock screen is handled. It will show your notifications by default, and if you choose to have a pattern, PIN, or password, lock, you can restrict which notifications show up there.

    In Lollipop, you can control which apps contain "sensitive" content in the sound and notification menu. Under "App Notifications" you'll find a list of everything installed on your phone. Each entry includes an option to mark it as sensitive, which keeps it from showing up on the lock screen. No matter what version of Android you have, the secure lock screen is your first line of defense. Some OEMs like LG and Samsung add extra unlock methods like Knock Code and the fingerprint reader, respectively. If security is even a passing concern, you should use one of the available methods.

    So what if you don't want to enter your unlock code every single time? On all recent versions of Android there's a handy little feature in the Security menu. The "Automatically Lock" setting lets you choose how long after the screen goes off that the secure lock should kick in. There's also a toggle to have the power button automatically lock or not. This way you can wake up your phone a few times without entering the password constantly. However, if you leave it sitting for a certain amount of time, it locks.

    Android 5.0 Lollipop adds a new set of lock screen features called Smart Lock. You can set a location, device, or face that the phone will consider "trusted." When this criteria is met, you can just swipe to unlock. Location is straightforward--simply choose a location and the phone will remain unlocked there but will revert to your secure lock screen when it leaves. The trusted device setting lets you mark a Bluetooth or NFC connection as trusted so when that device is connected, the phone will unlock without asking for your code.

    Show and Tell: Seek Thermal Imaging Camera

    For this week's Show and Tell, Norm tests out a thermal imaging camera accessory for his Android phone. The Seek Thermal camera connects to a smartphone over microUSB to gauge the temperature of anything in its sights--like Predator vision! The image resolution is a little low, but we've been using it for laptops, tablet, and phone testing.

    The Best Android Smartphone for Your Network (January 2015)

    We took a month off from bombarding you with phone recommendations over the holiday season, but now it's time to dive back in. This is a crucial time if you're up for contract renewal or have saved up the cash to get a new device. Flagship phones are going to be announced in the coming weeks, which could make you feel quite behind the times with your previously top-of-the-line device. Let's try to keep that from happening.

    AT&T

    Ma Bell has taken a more cautious approach to updates than many of the other carriers, so there's not much movement amongst the top phones. I think your best bets right now are the Moto X or the LG G3. However, we know that HTC's upcoming flagship, which will probably be announced in mere weeks, will be for sale soon on AT&T. Samsung too is probably a little further off, but not much. That affects the calculus.

    Starting with the LG G3, You're looking at a 5.5-inch LCD with an excellent 2560x1440 resolution. A fwe months ago this was a huge device, now it simply feels big. I even feel like a giant after using the G3 after carrying around a nexus 6. The bezels are incredibly thin and there are no buttons around the edges. Instead, LG stuck those on the back, and that's a good place for them. The frame and back are entirely plastic, but they're very solid premium-feeling plastics. I don't feel like I'm going to break the G3 when I take the back panel off. Speaking of, that's where the removable battery and microSD card slot are.

    The LG G3 is packing some impressive hardware including 3GB of RAM, a 3000mAh battery, a Snapdragon 801, and 32GB of storage with a microSD card slot. It's a fast device, and LG's skin is mostly free of bloat. The battery life is very good in standby, but you won't get as much screen time as you would with a 1080p screen. 4-5 hours is still doable on the G3. The software is also very reliable in that it won't start wakelocking for no reason.

    The G3's 13MP camera is the same resolution as the Moto X and the Nexus 6, but it's probably a better overall camera. Low light performance is solid, if perhaps a little aggressive with noise reduction. The laser autofocus system totally works and outdoor images are stunning.

    I find myself not disliking LG's Android skin, and what I've seen of the impending Lollipop update has me excited. Most of the strange UI choices LG made on the G3 (and there aren't many) are being covered up by proper Lollipop elements. The fact that LG is now finally using the proper on-screen buttons setup is hugely encouraging too. LG also didn't spend time on crappy features no one will care about. Instead we get cool stuff like guest mode and Knock Code. Knock Code is a particularly cool feature that lets you securely unlock the phone while also waking it up with a series of taps on the screen.

    The G3 is still $149 on-contract from AT&T, but it does go on sale fairly often. It compares favorably to the competition.

    Testing: Google Nexus 6 Smartphone

    For most of 2014 it looked like we weren't going to see a new Nexus phone at all, but the rumors turned out to be wrong and Google announced the Nexus 6 alongside the Nexus 9. The Nexus 6 is the most expensive Nexus flagship phone ever made, and it's also by far the largest. It marks Motorola's first attempt at a Nexus as well.

    With so many changes to the Nexus strategy, you're probably wondering how it all turned out. Well, let's dig in.

    Yes, It's a Very Large Phone

    The Nexus 6 packs a 5.96-inch AMOLED display clocking in at 2560x1440. This has become the new top-of-the-line for a premium smartphone, but it hasn't always turned out well. For example, the LG G3 has a 1440p LCD, but it's rather dim. The Nexus 6's screen compares favorably to the competition with average brightness and power consumption. The pixel density is a whopping 493 PPI, which is all you could ever need on a screen that size. As for burn-in, I'm not seeing any.

    Surrounding that huge screen are narrow bezels that keep the device itself from being as huge as it might have been. Don't get me wrong, it's a big phone, but Motorola has improved its industrial design lately and can manage slimmer bezels. It also helps that the screen glass curves down to meet the edge of the phone just like the new Moto X. You can hold the Nexus 6 in one hand, and even use it a little if you've got an average size mitt, but any prolonged use needs to be done with two hands.

    It actually does feel a lot like a blown-up Moto X--even the buttons on the right side are a dead ringer for the Moto X's buttons. The only difference here is that they've been moved down toward the middle of the device so they're easier to reach. One improvement from the Moto X is the inclusion of stereo front-facing speakers. The Moto X only has one.

    The back panel feels like the Moto X too. It's made of a soft, somewhat grippy plastic emblazoned with the traditional Nexus logo. I wasn't as in love with the larger dimple on the 2014 Moto X, but happily, the Nexus 6 has the smaller plastic dimple seen in the first-gen Moto X. It's in just the right place for your index finger to rest and helps to stabilize the device while you're holding it.

    Testing Apple's Touch ID with Fake Fingerprints

    How secure is Apple's Touch ID? We explain how it recognizes your fingerprints, and then put it to the test by making fake fingers and fingerprints of our own. A German computer club claimed to have spoofed the security system last year, and we retrace their methods as well as experimenting with a few of our own. (This video was brought to you by Premium memberships on Tested. Thanks to our members who've supported us. Learn more about memberships here.)