How to make a DIY smartphone stand for under $1

7816754688_487dd75457_hSmartphone stands are a great way to watch content on your phone without having to hold the phone upright, and there are a ton of different DIY methods for making them. A lot of them are made so that they’ll hold your phone horizontally, but some users want stands that prop up their phones vertically, similar to an iPhone dock from Apple.

If you want to make something similar, I’ve discovered an insanely-cheap method for building a smartphone stand that will prop up your phone vertically. It’s cheap, but it does take a little bit of assembly. Here’s how to do it.

Supplies You’ll Need

  • MiniDV tape case or a regular cassette tape case
  • A handful of pennies
  • Hot glue gun w/ glue sticks
  • Rubber tape
  • Dremel power tool

How to Make It

Technically, just the tape case will do the trick if you want a barebones solution; just open up the case all way and stick your phone in the slot. A MiniDV tape case is the perfect size for most phones, but a regular cassette tape case will do the trick.

However, if you want to take the stand to the next level, you can add a few things to make it perfect:

1. Take your pennies and hot glue gun and glue the pennies inside the case. This adds weight to the stand so that it doesn’t slide around. Pennies aren’t the best option, since they’re currency and all, so if you have any other tiny objects that weigh a lot, you can use those instead.

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2. Next, use the rubber tape to line the stand so that the phone won’t slip around when it’s in the stand. Since my iPhone doesn’t fit perfectly in the slot, I cut out small strips of the rubber tape and glued them into the slot to add a little padding so that my phone would fit perfectly.

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3. Lastly, take your Dremel power tool and use a small drill bit to carve out a small hole on the bottom of the tape case slot so that the phone’s sound can exit through the speaker without it being blocked by the stand.

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Conclusion

It’s a pretty janky-looking smartphone stand, but it’s dirt cheap and it does its job. Plus, it still folds up just like cassette tape does so that you can toss it in your bag and take it with you on the go.

Of course, buying a pre-made smartphone stand may be a good investment if you plan on using it all the time. Good smartphone stands can cost as much as $30, but that’s a small price to pay for something that you’ll use every day into the future.

Build it on a budget: A $500 workhorse PC

You may remember well over a year ago when we first introduced a budget build guide for DIY PC builders, and it’s long overdue for a refresh. Computer components have come a long way since then, and Intel recently launched their new 4th-generation Core Haswell chips.

As I mentioned in last year’s guide, not everyone needs an end-all tricked out custom PC with water cooling and all the bells and whistles. You most likely just want a computer that can get work done. This budget system will be great for most everyday tasks, as well as more slightly intensive activities like some gaming, streaming movies and music, and editing photos and home movies.

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This budget build assumes that you already have a mouse, keyboard, and a monitor lying around to use with your new system, and that you’ll only need the basic components to get up and running. I’ll also only be listing off my recommended parts, so if you don’t know how to build a computer but want to learn, Lifehacker has a great guide that’s perfect for the computer-building novice. With that said, let’s get to it.

Case and PSU

Thermaltake V3 Black Edition ATX Mid-Tower with 430W Power Supply – $60

We decided to go a bit more expensive with the case and power supply bundle this time around, and we think the upgrade is worth it. The Thermaltake case is way better looking than the Rosewell that we chose last time, and the 430W power supply should be more than enough to handle anything with this machine.

Motherboard

MSI B85M-P33 Motherboard – $65

It’s a low-cost motherboard, but it has all the bell and whistles that you’d need; SATA III, USB 3.0, six total USB ports, and both DVI and VGA connectors. Plus, MSI is a good brand that we trust.

Intel_i3_SB_2011Processor

Intel Core i3-4130 3.4GHz Dual-Core Processor – $130

This is Intel’s latest 4th-generation Haswell chip, and with 3.4GHz of dual-coreness, it’ll be speedy enough to breeze through most tasks you throw at it. The 4130 is one of Intel’s slowest Haswell chips, so it certainly won’t be as fast as other options, but for a budget build, this will be pretty solid.

Graphics

Intel HD Graphics 4400

We didn’t include a dedicated graphics card, mostly because we’re trying to keep this build around $500, but the 4400 integrated graphics that come with the Core i3 CPU are actually pretty solid. They won’t be able to play any of the more graphic-intensive AAA titles, but HD video playback will be flawless and casual gamers will still be able to enjoy their selection of games.

RAM

G.Skill Ripjaws Series 8GB (2 x 4GB) DDR3 1600 – $72

While we chose 4GB as the sweet spot with the last time we picked out a budget build, we feel that 8GB is now the new norm. Any more than that would be mostly unnecessary unless you plan on rendering a lot of HD video and such.

Hard Drive

Western Digital WD Blue 1TB SATA III Hard Drive – $75

WDC-Caviar-BlueHard drive prices have gone down tremendously since our last budget build, so we decided to go with a 1TB drive this time around. We feel that this is an ample amount of storage for those who have a lot of photos, music, movies, etc., but it’s also not too much storage that you wouldn’t know what to do with it.

Of course, you can never really have too much storage, so feel free to bump it up to 2TB if need be. You can usually find some pretty good deals on high-capacity hard drives.

Optical Drive

Asus 24x DVD Burner – $20

This one’s pretty simple and easy; find a 24x DVD burner and buy it. They’re stupidly cheap and there’s no reason not to get one.

Operating System

Windows 7 Home Premium – $100

Yeah, we know that Windows 8 has been out for almost a year, but we’re still sticklers for Windows 7. However, if you really want Windows 8, it’s the same price as its predecessor. You can also get a copy of Linux for free, allowing to spend that saved $100 on upgrading other components.

Total Cost: $522

That final price doesn’t account for shipping, so you’ll want to make sure you set aside some cash for the guys at UPS or FedEx, but if you can find the parts at an online store with free shipping, then all the more power to you.

Obviously, don’t take my word for everything I suggested here. I know everyone has their own opinions on components. If you have any questions about your own budget build, you can leave a comment below or you can visit the many online resources available to you. Tom’s Hardware Forums is just one place that can provide you with a lot helpful feedback.

Image Credit: kodomut

Thinking about getting a standing desk? Here are some tips

You may have heard of a new trend called standing desks. They’re certainly not new by any means – Winston Churchhill used a standing desk, and so did Leonardo da Vinci and Ernest Hemmingway – but they’ve been gaining in popularity recently. It’s becoming more well known that sitting down all day is bad for your health. So bad, in fact, that exercise can’t even negate the effects of sitting all day.

standing-desk

With that said, I probably scared you enough that you’re wanting to give standing desks a try, but where do you start? First off, it’s critical to point out that a proper, professionally-built standing desk can cost well over $1,000, with the cheapest models costing at least $500, so if you’re wanting to get one without spending a lot of money, prepare for the DIY method. Plus, you don’t want to go out right away and spend $1,000 on a standing desk when you’re just wanting to give it a try.

Before you begin

The most important things to remember when trying out standing desks is to ease into it and don’t spend a lot of money. In fact, find a countertop or other standing desk-height surface that you can essentially “practice” on to get a feel for what standing while working feels like. You won’t be spending any money at all, but you’ll still get to see what it’s like — sort of like test-driving a car that you might want to buy.

Once you’ve officially decided that you’re all-in with a standing desk, it’s time to find one to build (that is, if you don’t want to spend a lot of money). Personally, I swear by the sawhorses and door desk, which essentially is just two sawhorses with a door laid across them to make a desk. From there, you can sand down the door, stain, and seal it to make it look nice.

However, there are literally tons of other ways to make a standing desk, and you’ll no doubt find a DIY project that fits your budget and your style. You can make a desk out of various Ikea parts, use metal piping with a piece of butcher block, or just put some paper reams under the legs of a regular desk to make it standing height.

Ergonomics are key

drafting-stoolBefore you measure and cut, though, it’s important to build your standing desk so that it’s ergonomic to your body. Most importantly, the height of your standing desk should be elbow height, so that when you type on your keyboard, your arms bend at a 90-degree angle. Your monitor should also be propped up on a second shelf so that it’s at eye level.

However, before you go standing all day long, it’s important to note that standing all day is just as bad as sitting all day (just with different effects). Standing all day can cause things like varicose veins, so it’s all about moderation; stand for a while and then sit for a little bit. I usually like to stand for a couple of hours and then sit for a half hour or so, and then repeat that until the work day is over. This is where something like a drafting stool can come in handy, but if you get one of those fancy electric standing desks, you can adjust the height easily whenever you want.

It’s all about movement

What if you work in an office that doesn’t allow standing desks? That sounds like a silly question, but many companies like their office buildings to be uniform and everything consistent, including the desks; a standing desk would pop out like a sore thumb in an office building. So, if you can’t get a standing desk, don’t sweat it. One of the main reasons for a standing desk is movement, so if you don’t have a standing desk, just make sure you get up out of your chair every half hour or so and walk around for a few minutes. Standing desks simply get you moving, and you’re a lot more likely to start walking around if you’re already standing up.

How to install a SSD in a MacBook Pro

Upgrading your computer with a solid-state hard drive is probably one of the most beneficial upgrades you could make. Boot-up times decrease tremendously and programs launch almost instantly. I finally made the plunge to an SSD recently and haven’t looked back.

However, many of the how-to guides that I needed in order to properly install my SSD turned out to be pretty vague, which left me in a rut halfway through the installation. So, I’ve decided to write a proper how-to on installing an SSD in a MacBook Pro.

Note: This method can be easily translatable to any other laptop or computer, so if you don’t have a MacBook Pro, you can still follow along with your own laptop and successfully install your SSD.

Materials

Disassembling your laptop

First thing’s first: Completely turn off your laptop and make sure it’s unplugged from its power source. Lay down your small towel on your desk, table or any other flat surface and put your laptop on top of it with the bottom side up. The towel will prevent the laptop from getting scratched up while its laying on the hard surface.

Next, remove the screws from the bottom plate. These are the ten screws that are placed on the outer edge (pictured below). The screws are very tiny and can be lost easily, so put them in a small bowl — just make sure you know where they all go (three of the screws are longer, and they go in the top three holes to the right. Other than, it doesn’t matter where the rest of the screws go since they’re all the same).

After you remove all the screws, carefully lift up the bottom plate to reveal the innards of your MacBook Pro — it should pop off pretty easily.

The hard drive is located in the bottom-left corner. There will be a plastic tab that you can pull on to get the hard drive to pop out, but before you do that, you have to remove a small black plastic retaining bar that holds the hard drive in place. It’s located directly north of the hard drive and is held down by only a pair of screws (pictured below).

Remove the bar and pull on the plastic tab to pop out the hard drive. Make sure not to get too greedy, since the hard drive is still attached to the laptop via the SATA cable. In this case, the SATA cable is an extremely thin ribbon cable, so be extra careful here when unplugging it.

A view of the thin ribbon cable. Be extremely careful here!

Once the hard drive is completely out, unscrew the four torx screws on the sides of the hard drive using your T6 screwdriver (below). You’ll need these screws for your SSD, as they’re essential to holding the drive in place while it sits inside your laptop.

Go ahead and put the four screws on your SSD. All there is to do now is to plug in the SATA ribbon cable to your SSD, mount it inside, put the retaining bar back on, reattach the bottom plate with the screws, and the hardware portion is all done!

The last thing to do is insert your OS X install disc (or plug in your OS X boot USB drive), hold down the alt/option key during the boot process, and then install OS X like you would with any other drive.

Congrats! You’re all done and you should now be experiencing blazing fast speeds.

How to make a DIY laptop stand for $8

A laptop stand is a great thing to have if you’re working at a desk. It not only allows your laptop to breath more easily and run cooler (since it’s propped up), but it also makes your setup more ergonomic by having your laptop’s display at eye level.

You can buy laptop stands pretty much anywhere, and they come in all different shapes and sizes. However, they’re pretty expensive — one of my favorite laptop stands is the Griffin Elevator, which rings in at a cost of almost $35 on Amazon.

I wanted to see if I could make my own laptop stand that closely models the Griffin Elevator, but build it for the fraction of the cost, and I believe I have succeeded greatly. Here’s how to do it.

Materials

  • 10-foot length of 1/2-inch PVC pipe – $1.49 (Sometimes you can find 5-foot lengths, but 10 feet is the better deal. Plus, you can use the leftover for other DIY projects!)
  • Six 1/2-inch PVC elbow joints – $2.76
  • Two 1/2-inch PVC end caps – $0.52
  • Kitchen drawer & shelf grip liner – $3.23

Total Cost: $8.00

Assembly

Putting this PVC laptop stand together is straightforward and easy, and there’s no pre-determined measurements that you need to follow, since all laptops are sized differently. All you need to do is cut your PVC pipe into seven different lengths. One of the pipes should be roughly the length of your laptop, four of them should be roughly the width of your laptop, and the other two determine the height of your stand, which is completely up to you.

After you have your seven lengths of PVC pipe, it’s time to start assembly. Simply just attach the pipes to the joints. Refer to the photo above as a guide. If you want to make the stand really sturdy, you can glue the pipes and joints together with some PVC cement.

After you’ve assembled the stand, ideally you want to add some kitchen drawer grip liner to the base and at the top. This stabilizes the stand and keeps it from sliding around. It also prevents the laptop from accidentally sliding off the stand easily. Cut out small squares of grip liner and glue them on (pictured above) using some super glue or any other glue you have lying around.

You’re done! That was all there was to it. It’s arguably the best DIY project that I’ve ever done because it’s quick, simple, useful, and it hardly cost anything.

Gaming on a budget: An exhaustive guide

Gaming is expensive, plain and simple. With the price of a new game being around $60, it’s hard to justify spending that kind of money on a new title that you really want when your budget can’t compete with it. However, with a few tips and simple methods that you can keep in mind, you’ll soon be doing some hardcore gaming with only a fraction of the cash it normally takes.

Note: When I refer to any kind of console gaming throughout this guide, I’m referring to the Xbox 360, since that’s what I use and have the most experience with. However, most of the tips that you’ll read about are easily transferable to any console.

The Number One Tip

Before I dive any deeper into this guide, the number one tip that you must remember when gaming on a budget (or doing anything on a budget) is to never pay full price for anything. If there’s one thing that you learn from this guide, I hope it’s this. There’s no reason to pay full price for something, even if it’s brand new. This might seem obvious in a way, but too many gamers will go ahead and pay $60 for a game when they easily could have gone online or waited a few weeks and bought it for less.

Find a console (or computer) for cheap

Image Credit: YuMaNuMa

First thing’s first: You need a console (or a computer) to do your gaming on. If you already have either one of these things, skip to the next section. However, if you’re just getting into gaming for the first time (either console gaming or computer gaming) and don’t have a machine where you can stick game discs into, then you’ll want to stick around.

Gaming Consoles

There are tons of places where you can buy used gaming consoles, and some of these places I cover later in this guide, but I’ll give you a quick overview. eBay, Craigslist, and even Gamestop offer used gaming consoles. You can sometimes even buy brand-new gaming consoles at a discounted price. All you really have to do is wait for a seller who’s desperate for cash that needs to sell his just-purchased console because his car broke down. I’ve seen plenty of never-been-opened Xbox 360 Kinect bundles sell for around $250 on eBay (retails for $300), and I’ve even spotted one for $200 brand new on Craigslist.

Computers

Just like gaming consoles, there are tons of places to find used computers or even used computer parts to build your own custom rig. I’ve had great luck with eBay finding used parts for my gaming rig, and I probably spent half the cash it would’ve taken to build it brand new. However, some computer builders get nervous buying used parts from random strangers on the internet. The only solution to this is to either buy from a trusted friend, or wait for a sale at a reputable e-tailer and either buy brand new, or refurbished for an even bigger discount.

Be willing to compromise

I can tell you really want to play Forza 4, and it’s old enough now that you can get it used for around $30. But do you really need Forza 4 or could you get by with Forza 3? It would still be an excellent game and you can grab it for as low as $5 on eBay or Half.com. One of the biggest things that you must do in order to game on a budget is to be willing to compromise. You probably don’t need the latest and greatest sequel that’s out, especially for a series that releases a new title every year. Go with a game in a series that’s a year or two old in order to save some major cash.

Be patient

This sort of goes along with compromising, but to save yourself a lot of dough, be willing to wait a few months or even a year before buying that new release — it allows time for the used copies of a new game to start appearing on eBay and such. I can’t even tell you how much money I could have saved if I just waited to buy Call of Duty: Black Ops once Modern Warfare 3 came out. Usually when a sequel to a game comes out, you can get the prequel for a lot cheaper.

I’ve been finding a lot of great games for under $10 on eBay and Half.com recently. Titles like Forza Motorsports 3, Tiger Woods PGA Tour 11, Grand Theft Auto IV, Mass Effect 2Halo 3: ODST, and Batman: Arkham Asylum all were under $10 each at various online spots and stores. Sure, they’re older games that might have lost their hype, but that doesn’t mean that they’ve lost their appeal.

Places to find cheap games and gear

eBay

eBay is easily one the best place to get cheap used games and gear. However, the best things to buy on eBay are huge lots of stuff.  You’ve probably heard the saying that it’s much cheaper to buy in bulk, and the same concept applies for big bundles of stuff on eBay. A lot of sellers simply throw all of their games and accessories in one listing and sell it at a single price. This is what we bargain hunters refer to as a “jackpot.” It’s much cheaper to buy a ton of games at once than to buy ten or twelve single game. Plus, whatever games you don’t want out of the lot, you can simply put back on eBay to make back a few dollars.

Half.com

Half.com is another awesome place to find cheap games. However, I would only recommend it if you couldn’t wait for an eBay auction to end. Half.com allows you buy cheap games right away, but sometimes you can find it cheaper on eBay if you just wait a few days for the auction to come to a close.

Amazon Marketplace

The Amazon Marketplace is a great alternative to Half.com. Prices of used games and gear are very competitive, so if you prefer doing business the Amazon way, there’s nothing to lose. You can still find some great deals through Amazon’s offering as you would with Half.com.

Gamestop

Gamestop wouldn’t be my first choice for looking for cheap stuff, but it’s at least worth a mention. Most pre-owned games they have can usually be found for a few bucks cheaper online, so I tend not to go to Gamestop too often. However, don’t cross it off your list completely. They do have a plethora of games under $10 and even a few for as little as $3. You can even find great deals on pre-owned gaming consoles. During my last trip to Gamestop, I spotted a used Xbox 360 Slim with a wireless controller for $130.

Steam

If you’re a PC gamer, Steam is pretty much your go-to place for awesome, cheap games. They have numerous free-to-play titles, as well as tons of games under $10. You can also find crazy sales going on year-round on A-list titles, especially during the holidays.

Humble Bundle

This is also another computer-only option for budget gamers. The Humble Bundle offers an assortment of 5-8 indie games for a price that you choose. That’s right. Pay whatever you want for a bundle of games. Only thing is, the Humble Bundle comes around only a few times a year.

Craigslist

Just like Gamestop, Craigslist isn’t my first choice to look for used gaming stuff, but you can get lucky at times by finding a good seller who’s selling his gaming gear for cheap. And like I mentioned earlier, a lot of Craigslist users get desperate and need money fast. Thus, you can grab some great deals.

Garage Sales

Garage Sales are a hit or miss when it comes to used gaming gear. Actually, I should be more specific. Garage sales are a hit or miss when it comes to good-quality, used gaming gear. Sure, you might find a couple of beat-up gaming systems bundled with a few B-list games, but you’ll have to look a little harder to find the good stuff. However, when that time comes — that time when some ignorant old lady is selling all of her grandson’s unused gaming gear for really cheap — that’s when you pounce.

Auctions

Same thing goes for auctions as with garage sales. It’ll be a little bit more difficult to find the good stuff, but once you do, you’ll be the proud new owner of some awesome gaming gear that you bought for mere dollars.

Conclusion

Gaming on a budget certainly takes a little bit of effort. It’s not as easy as just going to your nearest store and simply purchasing a game off the shelves. In order to save a lot of money, you have to be patient and be willing to compromise in order to get not only the good deals, but the best deals. Hopefully this guide will help you for your future budget-gaming endeavors, and if you have any of your own tips or tricks for saving money on gaming gear, let’s hear them in the comments!

Set up your own professional podcast studio for less than $175

Whether you run a blog and want to add a podcast or just want to start up a podcast from scratch, it’s very possible to set up your own podcast studio for a relatively low budget while still making it sound and look professional. Obviously, you can simply connect a headset to your computer, fire up Audacity and away you go, but if you’re willing to spend just a little more money to get a better-quality podcast, this is for you.

Before we begin, be sure to think about what room you want your podcast studio in. Think about room acoustics, as well as ancillary noise — try not to be close to anything that will be relatively loud (such as the laundry room), and if your room is particularly “echo-y,” hang up some blankets on the walls to dampen the noise and make it more soundproof. Other than that, feel free to do what you see fit to the room, just as long as you have the essentials — a desk and a couple non-swiveling chairs that aren’t squeaky.

Microphones

This is obviously the most crucial piece of equipment that you need, and there are literally hundreds of mic options ranging from low-end models at discount retail stores all the way up to really-expensive models from Shure, AKG, and Neumann. Ideally, you’ll want to look for a large-diaphragm condenser mic, since those are the best for voice recording. They give you a deep, rich sound that will be great for your podcast.

MXL 990 Condenser Microphone – $59.99
Audio-Technica AT2020 Condenser Microphone – $99.99

Pop Filter/Screen

Since condenser mics are very sensitive to mouth noises like “P” and “Sh,” it’s important to get some kind of pop filter or screen. You don’t need to spend a lot of money on this — you can find decent ones for under $20.

Musician’s Gear 6″ Pop Filter – $14.99

Mixer

The mixer is what will allow us to fine tune the volume, bass, treble, etc. of each mic. It will also act as a device to connect your XLR microphones to your computer. You don’t need anything too outrageous here — a 4-channel mixer will do just fine for your podcasting needs. Just make sure whatever you pick has the same number of XLR connectors as the number of microphones (or more). It should also have phantom power to power your condenser mics.

Behringer XENYX 802 Mixer – $64.99
Behringer XENYX 1202FX Mixer – $108.99

Stands

You’ll obviously need microphone stands to hold up the mics. If you have enough room on your desk, you can get shorter stands that sit on your desk. This is a cheaper option, but if you don’t want to sacrifice desk space, you can get regular boom mic stands.

Musician’s Gear Low Profile Die-Cast Mic Stand – $10.99
Hercules Stands EZ Clutch Mic Stand – $49.99

Cables

You’ll need XLR cables to connect the microphones to your mixer and you’ll also need a cable to connect the mixer to your computer. This type of cable tends to be a 1/4″ cable with male connectors on both ends with a 1/4″ to 3.5mm adapter to plug into your computer’s sound input. However, some mixers can connect to computers via USB, so be sure to check the outputs of your specific mixer.

Musician’s Gear Lo-Z Microphone Cable – $4.99
Live Wire Advantage Series 1/4″ Straight Instrument Cable – $4.99

Software

The software that you use to record your podcast with is completely up to you. Budget-minded podcasters would most likely go for the free open-source audio program Audacity, but others may choose a paid program like Adobe Audition or Apple’s Logic Pro.

Accessories

The only accessory that you’ll really need is a pair of headphones so that you can monitor the audio. They also come in handy if you’re podcasting with someone over Skype — you don’t want sound coming out of your speakers to be picked up by the mic. It doesn’t really matter what headphones you use, just as long as you have something over your ears.

Conclusion

This article is meant to get you headed in the right direction and get started setting up your podcasting studio. Don’t feel that you must take my recommendations whole-heartedly. It’s just what worked for me and it may be different for someone else. Also, keep in mind that the more people you want on your podcast, the more money you’ll have to pay for microphones and such. In any case, good luck and have fun!

Image Credit: Christine Young

Tips and Tools for Better, Faster Writing

I’ve been writing here at Techerator for over a year, but only recently have I decided to take steps to improve my writing and time efficiency. You probably know the drill: sit down at your desk, check out Twitter, open your word editor, Tweet something, check out Facebook, decide on a title, Facebook about how hard it is to write, go reward yourself with a cup of coffee, I wonder what’s on CNN…

We can do better than this. Without the massive amount of distractions inherent to the Internet our writing has more substance and fewer errors. Writing can be such a joy, but it’s so easy to get off track — how can we sweep away the distractions and get the best version of our content on the page quickly? Here are a few tips and tools that have cut my typical write time in half, and I like to think these tricks have made my writing better as well.

1. Do your research before you start writing

This seems like a no-brainer, but I think a lot of people (myself included) ignore this very basic concept. Until recently, I had a tab in my browser dedicated to my WordPress post editor and I would rapidly switch back and forth typing a sentence or two at a time as I figured out what I planned to say.

Grab a notebook (you know, that old paper version of the internet) and jot down your ideas as you’re reading. Collect all of the images you plan to use, and formulate an outline on paper. After 15-20 minutes of dedicated reading and establishing your position on a topic, you’ll be amazed how prepared you feel to write. When we have a solid stance on something, our natural instinct is to share that feeling.

2. Use BreakTaker

You need to take breaks while you’re working. It’s easy to get sucked into your project and forget to stretch, sit up straight, or even breath properly — this costs you productivity, and more of it than you’d expect. Techerator’s own Evan Wondrasek created a useful tool called BreakTaker that will remind you to take a break at user-defined intervals and offer suggestions for your 60-second breather. Set it up and use it. Evan is working on a feature that will kick you in the groin if you ignore your BreakTaker.

3. Eliminate the distractions and write… JUST WRITE

This is the meat of my argument, and trust me, eliminating your distractions will make writing so fast that you’ll be back to your Xbox in surprising time.

Here’s what you do: Gather your materials; you should have everything you need to complete your article. Disable your wi-fi and close your browser. Now, open your text editor… but screw your old text editor. If you’re running on a Mac, WriteRoom is the tool for you, and if you’re on Windows, Dark Room is almost the exact same thing.

WriteRoom and Dark Room are minimalistic editors that occupy your entire screen and allow you to fully engage your material. You can change the colors to fit your preferences, but seriously, green on black is so awesome I don’t know why you’d want to change it. Try these editors with the lights off — writing in a dark room is a technique some of the most successful bloggers use (like @arrington). Combine with headphones; now you’re big-time. With nothing else to draw your attention, you will absolutely blaze through your article.

4. Proof read with a partner

I know, this seems over the top —  but believe me, it is completely possible and makes a world of difference. If you’re a writer, you probably have writer friends, or at least writers that contribute to the same blog or newspaper. Coordinate with a writing partner to exchange articles at a specific time to quickly proof, edit, and offer notes for each other. It takes 10-15 minutes at most, and the perspective offered by a reader will improve your word choices, your story flow, and on rare occasion they’ll recommend that you scrap it… because sometimes we convince ourselves that total garbage is worth publishing. Get a buddy and your writing will be better and your editing much quicker. Your managing editor will thank you.

These tricks have helped me reduce my write time and improve the quality of my content, and if you’re diligent, they’ll work for you, too. Good luck out there, and if you have tips that work for you, please share them in the comments.

Holiday Gift Guide 2011: Build a Gaming PC Edition

This year I decided to use my holiday wish-list to build an entire desktop PC. I mean, as long as a majority of the parts needed to build a high performance machine are gifted to me over the holidays, in the end all of them can be combined for the common goal of playing Skyrim for 100+ hours with the maximum refresh rate and graphics settings.

So from one PC gamer to another, here are a few essential and non-essential recommendations to build a high-end gaming machine. Let the PC gaming rig wish-list begin.

CPU / Motherboard

The year 2011 showed the world some great processors (most notably Intel’s Sandy Bridge architecture and AMD’s Bulldozer), and it should not be difficult to pick out one for the list that satisfies all your gaming needs (as well as your Secret Santa’s budget).

1. Intel Core i7-2600K or Intel i5-2500K CPU ($220-$320)

This is where it all begins

According to this article by Tom’s Hardware, Intel has the best CPUs around for $200-$300. In the article, the quad-core i5-2500K is recommended for its lower cost and 3.3 GHz clock frequency with the Sandy Bridge architecture, but the i7-2600K gets a step ahead with its 3.4 GHz processing speed and by having hyper-threading technology (essentially making it 8 cores instead of 4) as well as an integrated memory controller that quickens the access rate of the DDR3 RAM.

In the end, the only noticeable difference here is price ($220 for the i5, $320 for the i7), so don’t immediately jump on the Core i7 train if you don’t think the family will fork out the extra $100.

2. EVGA Z68 Motherboard ($299)

Once the CPU is picked out, be sure to then find an appropriate motherboard suitable for the architecture. This EVGA board was chosen not only because it has the right socket for the Core i5 and i7 (the LGA 1155), but mostly because it has six PCI-Express 2.0 slots. That’s right, six. That means that technically you could put six video graphics cards in parallel and run them simultaneously. Furthermore, it allows for DDR3 Memory with speeds up to 2133 MHz (which is fast, by the way) and plenty of SATA/RAID connectivity.

Sounds like a bit overkill for the wish-list? Then I guess the ASUS P8Z68 would work as well. That one is under $300 and comes with just two PCI-Express 3.0 slots for graphics cards.

Graphics Card / Memory

Speaking of graphic video cards, there are lots of beautiful options to choose from this 2011 season and each one has its share of pros and cons (see: Tom’s Hardware for more research). But most notably, here are two options from both ends of the arena.

3. GeForce GTX580 or Radeon HD 6950 ($269-$499)

Two graphics card options; two different prices. The GeForce GTX580 is from EVGA and comes with 1.5GB of video memory and a 772 MHz clock, while the Radeon HD 6950 is from HIS and comes with 2GB of memory and an 840MHz core clock. Both allow for DirectX 11, 2560 x 1600 screen resolution, and at least three DVI/HDMI ports for output.

So why the price difference? Well the GTX 580 is SLI capable, meaning that it can be run in parallel with a similar device (like a second or third GTX580) and share the graphics processing power. How crazy is that? The only issue there is that if one wanted to run two at a time, that means that at least $1000 would have to be spent to achieve this goal. So maybe save one of them for next year.

4. G.Skill Ripjaws 8GB DDR3 Memory 2100MHz ($50-60)

Nowadays, memory comes in sticks of two and runs with DDR3 from 1300 MHz to 2100 MHz. These G.Skill Ripjaws (really, they are called that) are at 8 GHz and can run up to 2133 MHz. And they’re not $300, which is a pretty nice change from the other items on our wish-list.

Since the motherboards I’ve recommended in this article come equipped with four DDR3 dual channel slots, up to 16GB of memory is possible.

Power Supply / Drives

Now that the brains of the gaming PC have been chosen and added to the wish-list, the next step is to pick the other internal organs that complete the base computing components.

5. Corsair 750W Power Supply ($90)

This is the component that will give your future Frankenstein PC life, so don’t be stingy on the wattage or the price when adding this one to the list. This 750W beauty by Corsair linked above is an acceptable option for giving juice to the overpowered components, but if you’re feeling the need to go overboard the 950W option goes for just $150. That’s almost a thousand watts of gaming power!

6. Hard Disk Drive ($119-$249)

Right now, hard drives are not that cheap. So for the sake of the wish-list as a whole, a 500 GB drive at 7200 RPM is a good starter at a slightly reasonable price of $119. Western Digital still seem to be the king of the hill in terms of reliability and operating speeds, so any one of their Caviar Black, Blue, or Green products would be sufficient for one’s wish-list.

7. LG DVD/Blu Ray Drive ($65)

This is no-brainer for computer components: If you buy a PC game, most likely you will have to insert a disk of some sort to install/play it (unless one has jumped onto the digital download bandwagon). So when building your new PC, it wouldn’t hurt to add the Blu Ray reader/burner drive option to the holiday list just in case that whole digital streaming revolution doesn’t pan out.

Peripherals / Externals

Now that the internals have been selected, it is time to add the external inputs to the list as well. These recommendations are a bit fuzzier than the others, mainly because the price of these components will depend on how much your Secret Santa feels like spending on you (case in point, an optical mouse can be as cheap as $7 and a keyboard as inexpensive as $5).

This looks 'shopped. I can tell by the pixels

8. A Good LCD Monitor or Two ($190 each)

For a couple hundred bucks each, one can get their monitoring set up quite nicely. The LCD monitor shown in the picture above is a standard 23″ monitor with a 1920 x 1080 screen resolution and DVI/HDMI ports. Just don’t stare too long at it, you may hurt your eyes.

9. Gaming Keyboard ($9-$199), 10. Optical Mouse ($12-$69), 11. Audio Speakers ($20-$49)

In reality, these are going to be based on your personal preferences. Once again, for the sake of the list I would recommend going cheap on these so that money can be spent on the more crucial components, but if you’re curious as to what might be “cool” and “extreme” for your PC, here are some options.

For a keyboard, the $110 AZIO Levetron Mech4 seems to be right up the alley of gamers with its mechanical keys, modular design, and anti-ghost technology. For a mouse, try out the $69 Corsair Vengence M60, designed with a special “sniper” button and FPS gaming in mind. And finally, for a simple audio speaker bundle try out the $45 Creative Inspire T3130 speakers with 2.1 watts of acoustic harmony.

12. Computer Case ($40-$300)

Keep your computer from running around naked. Buy a tower for it.

Finally, let’s pick a computer case to drop all these gifts into. Again, this choice is entirely based on preference. Pick a case that suits your personal likes and dislikes (preferably medium to large to fit all these beastly components) and add it to your wish-list. The Antec Nine Hundred mid-size case for $99 is not a bad choice in terms of space and affordability.

Grand Total

So now, here’s the brilliance of this combinational theory. Since your family and friends will be buying your components individually, they can expect to spend around $100 to $400 for just one gift. But once all the computer gifts come together, you end up with a single PC gaming work horse at a total cost of about (let’s see here…carry the one, subtract the two, divide by the sales tax): $1500 to $2400. So just think, the bigger your family is, the more they can spread this cost over all your gifts!

One other thing to note is the factor of un-gifted gifts. It is a known fact that during the holidays, we don’t always get what we want. But the beauty of the theory is that even though you may get only 7 out of the 12 computer component items I mentioned, those 7 are still bundled to a common goal and value, so you still feel like you accomplished something with your wish-list. Let’s see Aunt Edna’s knitted socks gift do that.

So PC gamers, if you’re in the market for a serious new platform this holiday season, be sure to put my theory to work. What could possibly go wrong?*

*Actual results may vary, things might actually go wrong.

How to Create an Audio Podcast with Professional-Quality Sound

Podcasting is a fun and increasingly popular form of online entertainment that has seen steady gains in the number of viewers in recent years. Companies like TWiT and Revision 3, homes of Leo LaPorte and Kevin Rose of Tech TV fame, have shown that fully web-hosted television is a viable business model. Interestingly, many of the most popular podcasts are nothing more than a few people at a desk, a microphone, and an engaging topic of conversation. The simplicity and low start-up costs are intriguing, aren’t they?

After a few beers, a lot of people think to themselves “I have things to say! I should start a podcast!” OK, so maybe that isn’t the typical point of entry for most podcasters, but that’s exactly how it went for me as my friend Devon and I decided to start a beer-centric audio podcast a couple months ago. We wanted to start something long-lasting and of sufficient quality that we’d be able to keep the poor listeners that became ensnared in our drunken diatribes.

We decided that quality sound requires quality equipment — we were right! Fortunately, quality equipment for an audio podcast won’t knock you back more than a few hundred bucks if you’re smart about it. Here’s what you’ll need:

1. Computer

It doesn’t need to be special, but the better your soundcard, the better off you’ll be. I use an old, beat up Lenovo Thinkpad that I’ve used for years. I am assuming that you already have a desktop or notebook PC, so I’m not including this in our equipment costs. No need for something special, but if you need to replace that haggard and terrible soundcard in your e-Machine, no worries. Even a high-end audio card (SoundBlaster for instance) won’t run more than $30 or so.

2. Microphone(s)

This is probably your most important decision and deserves careful consideration. If your podcast is audio-only, you can use a high-quality USB gaming headset (~$100) though I wouldn’t recommend it. If you’re serious about your audio, invest in a real microphone, either USB or analog.

If your podcast includes multiple hosts, it’s wise to have a microphone for each person. Here’s where it gets a little tricky. Computers typically can only support a single USB microphone at a time. I say typically, but I’ve never heard evidence to the contrary. If the podcast is just you speaking, no problem, pick up a Blue Yeti USB condensor microphone (~$100 used). The Blue Yeti USB is rugged, picks up great sound, and easily plugs into any USB port.

If your podcast will have multiple hosts, your best bet is to get an analog microphone like the Rode Procaster (~$150 used). These microphones are often used by professional podcasters and have a 10-year warranty. I own two, and the sound is impressive, especially with the built-in pop filter. Definitely a good investment. Now, you may be wondering how two or more analog mics can interface with your computer — read on.

3. USB Mixer (optional)

Mixers are a good idea if you want to keep a close eye on your sound levels or if you want to use multiple microphones in your podcast. A good mixer will allow you to plug-in 2-4 (or more) microphones and adjust the gain for each, as well as accommodate an array of post effects (such as a delay) if you decide to go that route. You can do a lot with a good USB mixer, which will compile your microphone inputs to a single stream for delivery to your computer, so hold onto that manual! A good used USB mixer, such as the PV6 USB, will run about $80 used.

4. Software

You can do raw, unedited recordings of your podcast, but I reeeeally hope you consider some mild post-recording edits. Basic audio editors will let you clean up noise, add transitions to your show, and even a bit of cut/paste if necessary. There are a lot of options out there, but you probably won’t need anything more sophisticated than Audacity, a free and open-source editor that is pleasantly easy to use. Don’t worry, no PhD in audio manipulation required.

Bear in mind that most good audio equipment is durable, so don’t be afraid to head to Ebay and get something used. In fact, buy it all used if you can, because you won’t notice a difference. Just make sure the equipment is still covered by the warranty and you’ll be golden. For less than $300 you should be ready to record with the same quality as the big shot professionals.

Remember that good equipment will only take you so far — you still need to have an interesting show. But hey, solid audio is the cherry on top of a good production. Good luck, future podcaster.