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1 week ago

First 6 things to do with your Google Pixel 2 or 2 XL

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Google Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL

We're all excited about our new phones — but let's remember some of the basics.

Opening up the box and pulling out a new Pixel 2 or 2 XL is a wonderful feeling, no matter how many times you've done it or what phone you're upgrading from. The excitement of the new device may drive you to hop right in without thinking about some of the basic things — forgetting the core features that work best when you set them up from the start rather than getting to them later.

Here are a handful of tips to keep in mind when you unbox your Google Pixel 2.

Add lock screen security

Google Pixel 2 lock screen settings

We know this is an integral part of the setup process on all new phones, but there's a chance you were so excited about your new phone that you skipped the lock screen setup portion. If you're reading this now and don't have a secure lock screen on your phone, do it now. It may seem inconvenient at first, but there's little reason to leave our phone unsecured from anyone who has their hands on it.

Going into Settings then Security & location, you'll see your various options for keeping your phone secure but also accessible. You'll want to go to Pixel imprint and enroll both of your index fingers, and that'll serve as the fastest way to keep your phone secure. You'll need to back that up with another screen lock of some sort, and while most people choose a pattern you can do a PIN or even a long password if you prefer.

If you need more flexibility, check out Smart Lock for options to keep your Pixel 2 unlocked when it's connected to a Bluetooth device, at a specific location and more. Just remember that these options are inherently less secure than a fingerprint!

Set up Google Photos backup

The Pixel 2 includes unlimited photo backup at original quality to Google Photos until the end of 2020 — but only if you actually set up the app to back up your photos! To make sure you don't have to think about it later on when you've already taken photos, open the Photos app and go into the settings to find "Back up & sync."

Make sure the toggle is turned on, and then check to make sure you haven't accidentally also turned on cellular data and roaming backups — that is, unless you have an unlimited data plan and don't care. While you're in here you can also choose which on-device folders are backed up, such as screenshots or edited Instagram photos.

Learn the camera's capabilities

Google Pixel 2 XL camera

The Pixel 2 has a fantastic camera, and for the most part can take great photos without any real work on your part. But to make the most of the camera, you'll want to hop into its settings and get acquainted with a few of the features and options.

  • Turn on location: It seems simple, but make sure that your location is turned on in the camera. It lets Google Photos search by location, and gives you an extra bit of context years down the road when you look at old shots.
  • Use Smartburst with moving subjects: Press and hold the shutter button to take up to 10 frames per second. Super useful when you or your subject (or both) are in motion for a must-have shot.
  • Choose your grid lines: It may feel distracting at first, but turning on grid lines will help you mind the proportions of your photos and line up horizons for great sunset shots.
  • Use focus and exposure lock: One of the only "manual" controls is the ability to lock focus and exposure after adjusting them. Tap the viewfinder to set exposure and focus, then tap the lock button to keep it there.
  • Don't be tempted by the flash: The flash should only be used as a last resort. Google's HDR+ processing is fantastic, and it really doesn't need a flash as often as you'd think.
  • Increase the panorama resolution: By default, panoramas are set for speed of processing rather than maximum resolution. You want maximum resolution — change the setting, and wait a few extra seconds for it to process.

How to take the best photos with your Google Pixel 2

Rearrange your notification quick settings

Google Pixel 2 quick settingsGoogle Pixel 2 quick settingsGoogle Pixel 2 quick settings

You know those quick settings found at the top of your notification shade? Those can be rearranged and set up however you like. After expanding your notification shade, give it a second swipe and tap on the pencil icon at the bottom of the shade.

Press and hold icons to drag them into their desired positions. The first two rows of the expanded view become the six icons you see with a single swipe of the notification shade, so choose wisely. If you don't want an icon at all, drag it down to the darker portion of the window, then maybe bring up a less-used icon to the top so it's available. If you add more than nine icons, the 10th and beyond go onto a second page you'll have to swipe one more time to access.

If you go overboard and want to just put them back how they were as default, go into that edit mode, tap the menu button in the top-right corner and tap Reset.

Check out the wonderful wallpapers

Google Pixel 2 wallpapers

Google has seriously upped its wallpaper game since launching the original Pixel and Pixel 2 back in 2016, and it continues the trend. There are just a handful of "pre-installed" wallpapers, but that's augmented by a regularly updated catalog of great wallpapers (from Google's Wallpapers app) in a whole bunch of different genres and styles.

You can wade through the dozens of wallpapers to find something that fits your style, or in some categories you can set a "daily wallpaper" and get a fresh one of that style each day. If you don't like the particular wallpaper that shows up, you can hop back into the wallpaper section and tap once to load a new one in that category.

Keep track of that headphone adapter

Yup, this is a thing now. There's a good chance this is your first phone without a headphone jack, and that means keeping an eye on that USB-C to 3.5 mm headphone adapter that comes in the box. If you regularly use one pair of wired headphones it's a good idea to just keep the adapter attached to the headphones themselves, but if you swap around often you should keep in the back of the mind where it is — being left out somewhere without the adapter sure sucks.

Google sells replacement adapters for $9, but since the Pixel 2 and 2 XL were announced they've been out of stock more often than not. And right now it's far from a guarantee that other USB-C to headphone adapters, if you somehow come across them in the wild, will work with your phone.

Google Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL

Google Store Project Fi Verizon Best Buy

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1 week ago

13 essential Nova Launcher tweaks you need to know

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Nova Settings

Getting the details right matters in a launcher, and no details are more important than your settings.

Nova Launcher is one of the best launchers on the market, with users praising its reliability, customizability, and its ease of use. And once you've gotten the hang of Nova Launcher, it is indeed quite easy to find your way around the launcher, but it's no secret that Nova Settings can be a bit daunting to new and casual users. Never fear! We've searched every submenu and found our favorite settings and some of the best secrets hiding in Nova Settings.

Nova Launcher review: still king of the mountain

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1 week ago

How to fix Snapchat login errors on Android

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How do I fix login temporarily failed on Snapchat?

Unfortunately for users on Android devices, Snapchat has a habit of not always logging people into their accounts. While trying to open the app, some users have come across a message that reads:

"Oh no! Your login temporarily failed, so please try again later. If your login continues to fail, please visit https://support.snapchat.com/a/failed-login :)"

Snapchat has stated that Snapchatters using a rooted Android device may encounter this message more than others. While this is frustrating, there are a couple of other reasons this message could be appearing on your phone screen. Snapchat recommends three things to try if your login isn't working:

  1. Make sure you're using the official Snapchat app from the Google Play Store on your Android device.
  2. Double check that your system clock and date is correct.
  3. Confirm that you have a valid Google Account on your Android device.

Once you verify that you have a valid Google Account, you can manually sync your account to your phone to make sure your Google Account is working.

How to sync and verify your Google Account on your Android phone

  1. Launch Settings from your home screen, the Notification Shade, or the app drawer.
  2. Tap Accounts. You may have to scroll a bit to find it.
  3. Tap Add account.

    Launch Settings from the home screen and then tap accounts. Tap add account.

  4. Tap Google.
  5. Enter your email.
  6. Tap Next.

  7. Enter your password.
  8. Tap Next
  9. Tap Accept in the lower right corner.

  10. Tap Next in the lower right corner.
  11. Tap payment information option.
  12. Tap continue in the lower right corner.

  13. Tap Google.
  14. Tap the more button; it's the three vertical dots in the upper right corner.
  15. Tap Sync now.

If your Google account isn't valid, you may see a Sync Error message appear.

Other potential fixes

If the above fix doesn't work for you, there are a couple other things you can try. If you're on 3G or LTE, try switching to a Wi-Fi network; if you're on Wi-Fi, try turning it off. Sometimes, it's not Snapchat itself but your connection to it.

Another thing to try is rebooting your phone. It sounds simple, but apps can be finicky, and they made need a freshly-booted device to log in.

Finally, be patient. The issue is likely on Snapchat's side, which can be frustrating, but there's nothing you can do. Maybe try Instagram — it stole Snapchat's best features, anyway.

What do you think?

Is there a way you've tried that helps get rid of Snapchat's error message on your Android phone? Let us know what other techniques have worked for you and which ones haven't.

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1 week ago

Will my phone adjust to Daylight Saving Time automatically?

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Date and time settings

Let's do the timewarp again ...

Twice a year the clocks change (for most of us). We "spring forward" and "fall back," and depending on where we live that happens on a different day. It's all sort of convoluted. And this inevitably leads to folks wondering what they have to do to their Android phone so things work right after the switch. If this sounds like you, we've got good news:

You don't have to do anything.

This is the best thing you'll never have to do for your phone!

Unless you've went into your phone's settings and switched away from the automatic network time (in which case you already know what to do), you won't have to do a thing. Your Android will check the network for the correct date and time and switch itself on it's own, changing the system time so that things like calendars and alarms will still be right. The same thing applies when other parts of the world move an hour forward or back on their schedule, and still apply in six months when we change again. And more practically, it's also what lets our phones know the right time when we fly or drive to a different time zone.

If you're worried about your phone's ability to switch the time automatically, go double check your "date & time" settings and make sure your time zone is set properly and that you have "automatic date & time" turned on. The network and phone will handle the rest while you sleep.

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2 weeks ago

Verizon's Unlimited plans: Everything you need to know

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A complete breakdown of Verizon's Unlimited plan and everything else you can get when you sign up for service.

In the United States, there are a lot of companies that can get you and your phone online, but most people use one of the four biggest: AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon. Choosing between them can be difficult. Your first priority should be what service works best in the places you spend your time. It's not worth saving $10 a month if the service is bad. Once you have that sorted, you can look at what each company has to offer and the prices they charge for it.

More: Which unlimited plan should you buy?

Let's take a look at Verizon to see what they can give you and what it will cost.

Verizon Unlimited plan details

Verizon used to have a single unlimited plan, but it has since expanded that to two, offering various levels of value depending on customer need.

Go Unlimited

Go Unlimited is the cheaper of the unlimited plans, aimed at users that don't necessarily need the fastest performance at all times or high-quality video streaming.

  • One line: $75/month
  • Two lines: $65 per line/month
  • Three lines: $50 per line/month
  • Four or more lines lines: $40 per line/month

Paper-free billing and $5/mo AutoPay discounts apply.

The Go Unlimited plan offers unlimited LTE data, but you're subject to reduced speeds (throttling) when the network is congested. Verizon may choose to throttle at any time of the billing cycle, which is unlike most other unlimited plans that only do so after a certain amount of data is used.

On Go Unlimited, all video streaming is capped at 480p on phones and 720p on tablets. And while the Go Unlimited plans offer unlimited mobile hotspot (tethering), the speed is capped at 600kbps, which is likely too slow for most people do anything other than browsing the web — slowly.

As of November 3, 2017, customers can pay $10 per line to remove streaming restrictions and have video delivered at its original resolution.

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Beyond Unlimited

Beyond Unlimited is basically Verizon's original unlimited plan with some slight tweaks.

  • One line: $85/month
  • Two lines: $80 per line/month
  • Three lines: $60 per line/month
  • Four or more lines: $50 per line/month

Paper-free billing and $5/mo AutoPay discounts apply.

The Beyond Unlimited plan offers unlimited LTE data, but you're subject to reduced speeds (throttling) at times of network congestion if you exceed 22GB in a billing cycle (customers that sign up on a two-year contract get 25GB per month before throttling).

Video streaming is capped at 720p on phones and 1080p on tablets. Mobile hotspot use is unlimited, with 15GB of LTE data in each billing cycle. Laptops or other devices used through the hotspot have a 1080p hard cap for streaming video.

As of November 3, 2017, customers can pay $10 per line to remove streaming restrictions and have video delivered at its original resolution.


Business Unlimited

Verizon is also rolling out an unlimited business plan for companies with four or more lines. Pricing is generally the same per line as the Beyond Unlimited with some minor changes.

Verizon Unlimited plan add-ons

Verizon's Beyond Unlimited plan lets you call, text and use data inside Canada and Mexico back to the U.S. at no additional charge, and call to those countries from within the States as well. Data use is capped at 500MB per day in each country, after which it is throttled to 2G speeds. The company does keep an eye on how much data you're using, though: if more than 50% of your data in a given month comes from outside the U.S., Verizon will slow down your speeds and holds the right to cut off service.

If you need other international services, Verizon has you covered.

  • The free International Messaging add-on lets you send text messages to over 200 countries and multimedia messages to over 100 countries
  • The Unlimited Together - North America add-on gives you discounted calling rates to over 230 locations for $5 per month
  • The Unlimited Together - world add-on gives you discounted calling rates to over 180 locations for $15 per month
  • A daily Travel Pass gives you unlimited data and calling when you're in one of over 100 countries for $10 per day
  • A monthly Travel Pass gives you discounted calling and messaging rates as well as a data allotment based on your needs (prices vary, see Verizon's International Travel page)
  • Cruise ship rates are $2.99 per minute for voice calls and $0.50 per message sent / $0.05 per message received for texting.

Verizon also has a program that gives you a prepaid card of up to $650 in value for a trade in if you switch from another network. The details are on the Switch to Verizon page of its website. It also has a referral program and a rewards program that can put money back in your pockets.

If you're both a Verizon Wireless and Verizon Fios subscriber, you can use the Fios Mobile App to watch your shows from home without using your data.

It also offers a wide range of its own services, including its own RCS messaging app, a personal cloud and an excellent account management app. You can find them in Google Play.

See at Verizon

Update, November, 2017: This article has been updated to reflect the recent changes made to Verizon's unlimited plans.

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2 weeks ago

How to use Autofill in Android Oreo

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Android Oreo wasn't a monumental shift in design or user experience, but it introduced Autofill, and that's enough for us.

Most changes in Android 8.0 Oreo came in the form of under-the-hood improvements, ways of making your phone run faster, cooler and smoother. But Autofill is a change that benefits both users and developers, since it makes it super easy to people to enter usernames and passwords in apps that support them.

But how does it work? And why should you use it? Let us explain.

What is Autofill?

When you load a new phone, there are often dozens of apps to log into, requiring you to remember your unique username and password for each. Google has, for a long time, provided its own password manager, which securely (but not that securely) stores that information in a database in its cloud. The database is mainly used for web pages, but it also works inside apps that use Google's WebView.

The notion of automatically filling in usernames and passwords for websites and apps is called Autofill. Other apps, too, from LastPass to Everpass to 1Password to Dashlane, perform the same thing, often much better than Google's own. Before Oreo, these apps offered their own clunky ways of automatically filling in usernames and passwords, often utilizing hacks to get the job done. No more!

In Oreo, Google added a framework for apps like 1Password and Dashlane to prompt users to automatically and securely enter their login information when an app opens for the first time, or when a webpage prompts for authentication. As with default messaging apps, Google forces the system to have a default Autofill service so they're not competing with one another.

How does it work?

If you're already a password manager user (and you should be!) setting up Autofill in Oreo is fairly easy. By default, the system chooses Google's own solution, but it's very easy to switch to your own once the app is installed. Right now, there are only a handful of popular cross-platform services that support Autofill on Oreo:

Some, like 1Password, are still in beta, while others are available in the public build. Either way, they're really easy to set up and use.

Note: This guide takes you through the steps to enable and change Autofill defaults on the Pixel 2 running Android 8.0 Oreo, but the steps should be similar on most phones running Oreo.

  1. Download and install a supported password manager. (We're using 1Password here as our example).
  2. To switch to it, swipe down on the notification shade from the home screen.
  3. Select the Settings icon (looks like a cog**.
  4. Scroll down to and tap on System.

  5. Tap on Languages, inputs & gestures.
  6. Expand the Advanced menu by tapping on it.
  7. Select Autofill services.

  8. Select your service.
  9. Now, open an app and, when prompted, tap Autofill with 1Password.
  10. Authenticate yourself using a fingerprint or password.
  11. Log in to the app.

That's it! Now your Autofill prompt will automatically ask you to enter your credentials using a password manager whenever it detects a compatible app.

Why isn't every app prompting me to use Autofill?

Right now, the Autofull API is a bit buggy, and not every app will prompt you to use the service in every instance. For example, Twitter, which supports Autofill very well, sometimes just forgets it exists and I have to close the app and re-open it for the prompt to appear.

Other apps just don't support Autofill at all. In that case, you can always open the password manager app separately to copy and paste the username and password, but I know that's not ideal. If an app you often use doesn't prompt for Autofill, you may want to contact the developer.

What about saving passwords to a password manager?

Another awesome aspect of the new Autofill feature is that if you have a new username or password, or haven't logged it into your favorite password manager, once you do so for the first time, the app should prompt you to save the information into the default manager.

In the case of 1Password, it's prompted me to create entries for apps that are already in my database, but because the Android app has a different "address" than the website, it doesn't already know it's in there. Bug? Maybe. Feature? Maybe. Either way, you'll likely have a few duplicates once you start using the Autofill feature.

Coming next

The whole Autofill experience is supposed to get better in Android 8.1, which should be released to the public in December of 2017. Here's what Google's saying about it:

Autofill enhancements -- we've made it easier for password managers and other Autofill services to use the Autofill framework. For example, we've added support for more UI customization of the Save dialog, as well as setAutofillOptions() for users to set credit card expiration using a spinner.

So there's a lot more to come with Autofill, and it may not look so ugly in a couple months. Until then, let us know how you like the feature, and what you'd like to see improved about it.

Android Oreo

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2 weeks ago

How to make the most of Android home screen folders

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Android folders aren't just places to put apps. Here's what you need to know! {intro}

Folders are by no means a new concept for launchers, but they come with no small amount of stigma, especially when it comes to their looks. Thankfully, there are a few tricks for both using them and theming them that might help you learn to bite the bullet and fill up some folders.

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2 weeks ago

Samsung Gear Sport vs. Gear S3: Which should you buy?

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Samsung Gear Sport vs. Gear S3

The wearable landscape is heading toward fitness, and there are plenty of choices.

Samsung offers a nice three-pronged approach to wearables, starting at the bottom with the fitness-driven Gear Fit 2 Pro, notching up to the fence-sitting Gear Sport and impressing at the top with the all-around performer Gear S3. For someone who wants comprehensive fitness tracking but also a bigger screen that can handle more traditional smartwatch functions, they will instantly narrow down to just the Gear Sport and the larger Gear S3.

So which of these two Tizen-powered smartwatches is right for you? We're here to lay out the details and help you decide.

See Gear Sport at Amazon See Gear S3 at Amazon

What's the same

Despite a few spec and size differences, Samsung uses the same software and interface paradigm across its Gear S2, Gear Sport, and Gear S3. It's the same Tizen OS we've been using for a couple of years now, with an emphasis on maximizing its circular interface and rotating bezel (plus a couple side buttons) for navigation.

Samsung Gear Sport review

Both watches offer you the same apps, core software capabilities, connection to your phone directly via Bluetooth or remotely via Wi-Fi, and some standalone features. They have the same 768MB of RAM, 4GB of storage, and a 1GHz processor inside. The screen resolution between the two is even the same, 360x360, though the diameter is different.

The core specs, experience, and even design, is shared between these two.

As you can see in the photos, the Gear Sport very much feels like a shrunken version of the Gear S3 Frontier. There isn't a "Classic" version of the Gear Sport, but if you compare directly to the Frontier, you get most of the same design cues. The gunmetal exterior and combination of a couple different textures looks good, and the rotating bezel remains with a slightly different knurl to it.

Even though the Gear Sport is smaller and therefore has a smaller battery, Samsung's battery claims remain consistent with the Gear S3. That's thanks to a smaller screen size, and it's great to see that you can use either one for a couple solid days without rushing for the charger. With simple use and turning off always-on watch faces, you could stretch that out for three whole days on either one.

What's different

The differences between these two smartwatches effectively come down to size. The Gear Sport, as its name implies, is more focused on being a fitness tracker and therefore had to shrink down in size to keep from being cumbersome. Compared to the Gear S3 Frontier, the Gear Sport is 3mm narrower, 4.5mm shorter, 1.3mm thinner and 12g lighter (sans strap). Talking about millimeters and grams doesn't seem like much, but not a watch it makes a big difference: the Gear Sport stays closer to your wrist and isn't as likely to get in your way when you're on a run or hitting the gym. It also has more heavy-duty water resistance, staying safe up to 5 ATM, with included swim tracking if that's your exercise of choice.

It really comes down to overall size and some relatively fringe features.

Being an overall smaller watch, the Gear Sport also uses a smaller watch band attachment. It will still let you use any standard watch bands you'd like, but you'll need to shop for 20 mm straps rather than the 22 mm you can currently find for the Gear S3. Outside of the dozens Samsung will make available designed to specifically match the Gear Sport, you should have no trouble finding other great-looking bands from retailers like Amazon

In that smaller package, the Gear Sport misses out on a few hardware features you can find on the Gear S3. It notably offers Samsung Pay, but only via NFC and not the neat MST technology that enables payments at any swipe-style card terminal. It doesn't have any LTE option, so you'll be on Bluetooth or Wi-Fi only. It has a smaller screen, 1.2-inches instead of 1.3, and a corresponding smaller battery.

Which should you buy?

With so much shared between the Gear Sport and Gear S3, for most people this will simply be decided by what size watch they want to wear and how often they'll use some of the niche features of the larger watch. The Gear Sport at $299 is darn close to the now-discounted Gear S3 that hovers around $325 and even drops down to the same $299 price as the Sport, making the price of little consequence.

The Gear Sport offers the same core experience in a smaller package at a lower price.

With price differences so small, the Gear Sport gives you the same core software experience as its larger sibling surrounded by a smaller casing that's easier to exercise with but also simply more compatible with a wider range of wrist sizes. It lacks a few extra features like full Samsung Pay support, LTE connectivity and a larger display, but that's probably a worthwhile trade-off for many people to have something that's comfortable for everyday wear.

The Gear S3 Frontier and Classic will still stand as the top-tier options for people who are less focused on fitness but would prefer to have something big and even more capable on their wrist. If you're going to spend more time moving through on-watch apps and managing dozens of notifications rather than tracking a gym workout, the Gear S3 may be worth it.

See Gear Sport at Amazon See Gear S3 at Amazon

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2 weeks ago

Sprint buyer's guide: Everything you need to know

Find out what Sprint has to offer.

Sprint may be fourth amongst America's top four carriers (AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon, Sprint), but it's still a big player in the national wireless market, with nearly 60 million subscribers across the country. It was the first carrier to offer "truly unlimited" plans for data, which are still a cornerstone of its mobile business. Sprint operates a nationwide CDMA network in the 800,1900, and 2500 MHz frequency bands, and even combines the three to provide higher throughput with its "LTE Plus" service on certain devices and plans.

Sprint offers unlimited talk, text, and data plans that can be configured for individuals or with multiple lines added for families. They offer deals on the latest phones, including the Samsung Galaxy Note 8, Galaxy S8 and LG G6.

Sprint has a lot to offer, so read on and find a plan that works for you!

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Best Individual Plans

All of Sprint's contract plans include unlimited talk, text, and data, and start as low as $50 a month for a single line. Sprint also offers prepaid plans for those looking to avoid annual contracts and wanting to avoid credit checks and late fees.


Unlimited plans

Sprint offers some of the most competitive pricing for Unlimited plans amongst the Big Four carriers, as it prominently displays on its website with a comparative graph. According to Sprint, you could get an unlimited plan for two lines at a better price than AT&T and Verizon's unlimited plans for just one line.

You can get a single line with unlimited data, talk, and text for $60 a month. That's before any taxes, fees, or device leasing costs, but it's still a great deal. Enjoy unlimited video streaming in 1080p and take advantage of 10GB of high-speed mobile hotspot access for your tablets and laptops.

Sprint's advertised prices do not include monthly surcharges, taxes, fees and other charges, which you can learn about on Sprint's website.

Learn more

Sprint Prepaid

Sprint offers prepaid plans for individuals and families, which start as low as $45 a month for unlimited talk and text and 3GB of high speed data, with a $5 discount per month for signing up for AutoPay. There's an option for unlimited data if that's important to you, for $60 a month with the AutoPay discount before surcharges and fees.

Prepaid plans include a free mobile hotspot (tethering), which you can use with tablets, laptops, or other Wi-Fi connected devices. There's no credit check required for a prepaid plan, and if you make 12 consecutive on-time payments, you can upgrade to a Sprint postpaid service with no credit check and upgrade to a new device with no activation fee.

Learn more

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Best Family Plans

Sprint offers an Unlimited Freedom family plan that gives you unlimited data, talk, and text for your family, along with 10GB of hotspot data per line for any tablets, laptops, and other connected devices you or your family may own. Right now, they're currently offering a great deal for plans with multiple lines.

Pricing starts at $60 a month for the first line, $40 for the second, and for a limited time you can add up to three any additional lines at no additional cost. Sprint is advertising this as 4 lines for $25 a month with the 5th line free. Other monthly fees will be applied, including any lease agreements for new phones, and the advertised pricing includes Auto Pay discounts.

Sprint also offers a similar deal for prepaid family plans, which start at $100 a month for three lines and include unlimited talk and text and 3GB of high speed data. Prices will vary depending on how much data you require on each line.

Learn more

Best Phones

Sprint has a very particular network that doesn't let you bring your own device from another carrier, so your best bet will be buying your next phone through Sprint and paying for it on contract. The good news is that Sprint offers many of the latest and greatest Android phones:

If you plan on buying a phone from Sprint, you have a couple payment options to consider. If you have good credit, you can lease or buy the phone via monthly contracts with no money down — if you're still building your credit or have credit issues, you'll have to put money down on the phone (typically around $200). If you've got the cash to buy a phone outright, that option is also available.

If you opt to buy the phone outright or on a 24-month installment plan, Sprint often bundles accessories with its biggest selling phones. For example, if you were to get a Galaxy S8, you'd get a free "entertainment kit" for the Galaxy S8, which includes Samsung's Clear View Standing Cover along with a 64GB EVO+ memory card. Buy the LG G6 and Sprint will throw in a free Google Home.

Learn more

Best Deals on Sprint

Sprint has a section on its website with all of its latest deals, mostly for customers opening new accounts, subscribers upgrading their plans, and deals on leasing brand new devices.

As of October 2017, the best deals Sprint is offering for Android devicesinclude:

— Save 50% instantly on a brand new Galaxy S8 when you switch to sprint and sign up for Sprint Flex Lease. This also lets you upgrade to the latest Galaxy phone every year after 12 lease payments. — Save 50% on the Essential Phone with a Sprint Flex Lease. — Lease a LG V30+ with Sprint Flex Lease and get a second LG V30+ for Free. Sprint will als othrow in a new Google Daydream VR headset and a VR content bundle. — Save 50% off the Moto Z2 Force Edition when you sign up for a Sprint Flex Lease and Sprint will als othrow in the Moto Insta-share Projector (while supplies last) — Save $100 on any tablet Sprint sells (iPads and Samsung Tab A/E) — Sprints Unlimited plans.

There are more deals to be had. Check out Sprint's site or head in-store to find out more information!

Learn more

How to cancel with Sprint

You can cancel your Sprint service at any time, but if you cancel it before your contract is done, you'll have to pay early termination fees on top of the balance remaining on your cell phone bill.

You may be able to get out of paying them if you don't think you received the service you paid for (might be your reason for cancelling), or sometimes your new carrier may have a deal to pay them on your behalf. Whichever way you deal with it, you are the one who is ultimately responsible for paying them.

You'll need to call Sprint Customer Service to cancel or change your plans. Call 1-888-211-4727 or dial *2 from a Sprint phone. When you get on the line, ask to speak to someone from the retention team. They may try to offer you deals to keep your business, but will also have the authority to cancel or change your service.

How to unlock a Sprint phone

Not all Sprint phones are available to be unlocked, and even when they can be unlocked, Sprint does not guarantee that they will be fully compatible with other networks. Only Sprint phones released after February 2015 are eligible for domestic unlocking. Of those, the only Android phones that are confirmed eligible for domestic SIM unlock on Sprint's website are the HTC One M9, LG G Flex2, Samsung Galaxy S6 and S6 edge, and Galaxy S7 and S7 edge. If your phone is not eligible for a domestic SIM unlock, Sprint may be able to provide a Master Subsidy Lock code.

To get your Sprint phone unlocked, your phone and/or Sprint account must meet the following criteria:

  • Your phone must be Domestic SIM Unlock capable.
  • The device must be or have been active on the Sprint network for a minimum of 50 days.
  • If you have any outstanding lease payments, bills, or early termination fees, you'll need to settle up with Sprint before it will unlock your device. Depending on your contract, you may need to buy out the remaining cost of your Sprint phone.
  • Your Sprint account must be in good standing.
  • The phone hasn't been reported as lost or stolen, or 'otherwise flagged as ineligible to be unlocked'. Basically, as long as you can prove that it's yours and there's nothing sketchy about it, you should be good.

Sprint offers temporary unlocking for international travel — and most devices they sell are compatible. Same rules apply above, except the phone must be currently active on a Sprint account. This will allow you to use a SIM card from the country you're travelling to.

Even if Sprint unlocks your phone, Sprint will not guarantee its phones will operate on another network. You may get limited functionality, such as voice services but no data services. It's the risk you run when you buy through Sprint.

Sprint does partner with a wide variety of alternative carriers. They use Sprint's network, which allows you to easily bring your own Sprint device over to their carrier.

Learn more

Finding an alternative carrier that uses Sprint's network

Sprint offers its network up to a whole bunch of alternative carriers. Alternative carriers — also known as MVNOs — work by partnering with one or more of the Big Four carriers to piggyback on their networks. This allows them to offer better deals to consumers without needing to worry about infrastructure upkeep.

They've become increasingly reliable over the years and offer the cheapest plans in the mobile industry. There are 26 MVNOs that operate on Sprint's network, including Boost Mobile, Straight Talk, Project Fi and Virgin Mobile USA.

Learn More

Updated October 2017: Included the latest deals and phones offered by Sprint.

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2 weeks ago

Which unlimited plan should you buy: AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile or Verizon?

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All four major carriers in the U.S. offer unlimited data plans. But which is the best?

The big four networks in the United States (AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon) all carry an unlimited data plan (or several). That's important for power users as well as anyone who uses their mobile broadband internet as their sole way to stay in touch or for entertainment. The cost of data overages means that unlimited data is a must for many of us.

But just because everyone offers unlimited data doesn't mean that all plans are equal. Pricing is important as are "extras" like tethering and the hidden data cap that pushes you back to slower 3G speeds when you reach it. And of course, zero-rating means we have to pay attention to what unlimited means when it comes to the quality of streaming media as well as the source.

We took a look at what each carrier has to offer so we can decide who delivers the very best unlimited data package. Let's start with a look at the details for each carrier.

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AT&T

Unlimited Plus

  • Unlimited talk, text, and data
  • 10 GB mobile hotspot (tethering)
  • Unlimited talk and text to Canada and Mexico
  • Advanced messaging between compatible phones on the AT&T network
  • Unlimited talk, text, and data in Canada and Mexico with free Roam North America Feature (if more than 50% of use is outside the U.S. the plan can be terminated)
  • Unlimited music and video streaming with optional Stream Saver for less data use
  • $25 monthly credit for DirecTV services
  • One line of service on an AT&T Unlimited Plus plan is $90
  • Two lines of service for $145
  • Up to eight additional lines (includes any phone, LTE tablets, LTE hotspots and connected cars) for $20 per line
  • Add a wearable for $10 per month

Unlimited Choice

  • Unlimited talk, text, and data
  • Data speeds capped at 3Mbps
  • Standard definition video streaming
  • One line of service on an AT&T Unlimited Choice plan is $60
  • Two lines of service for $115
  • Up to eight additional lines (includes any phone, LTE tablets, LTE hotspots and connected cars) for $20 per line
  • Add a wearable for $10 per month

Everything you need to know about AT&T's unlimited plans

Sprint Unlimited Freedom plan

  • Unlimited talk, text, and data (with certain restrictions)
  • Unlimited data for streaming video up to 1080p
  • Unlimited data for gaming up to 8Mbps
  • Unlimited data for streaming music up to 1.5Mbps
  • 10GB high-speed mobile hotspot with VPN and P2P support
  • Add a tablet with unlimited data for $25 per month
  • One line of service is $60
  • Two lines of service is $100
  • Three lines of service is $100
  • Four lines of service is $100

Sprint's pricing is scheduled to change January 31, 2019. The "free" third and fourth lines are a current promotion and will probably go away.

Everything you neeed to know about Sprint's Unlimited Freedom Plan

T-Mobile

  • Unlimited talk, text, and data with 200MB of roaming data
  • Unlimited talk, text, and data in Canada and Mexico
  • One hour of free Gogo in-flight Wi-Fi and unlimited texting on enabled flights
  • Unlimited data and texting in over 140 locations at 2x speed (264kbps) (limited time offer)
  • 10GB 3G mobile hotspot use
  • One line of service on a T-Mobile ONE plan is $70 (including taxes and fees)
  • Two lines of service for $120 (including taxes and fees)
  • Three lines of service for $140 (including taxes and fees)
  • Four lines is $160 and each additional line adds $20 to the total (including taxes and fees)

T-Mobile's One plan has some limitations. Streaming video is compressed and delivered at 480p and tethering is limited to 3G speeds. You can add One Plus to any plan for an extra $10 per month per line and enable 1080p HD video streaming and 10GB of high-speed 4G LTE tethering. The One Plus International offers unlimited 4G LTE tethering for an extra $25/mo per line.

Everything you need to know about T-Mobile's unlimited plans

Verizon

Verizon used to have a single unlimited plan, but it has since expanded that to two, offering various levels of value depending on customer need.

Go Unlimited

Go Unlimited is the cheaper of the unlimited plans, aimed at users that don't necessarily need the fastest performance at all times or high-quality video streaming.

  • One line: $75/month
  • Two lines: $65 per line/month
  • Three lines: $50 per line/month
  • Four or more lines lines: $40 per line/month

Paper-free billing and $5/mo AutoPay discounts apply.

The Go Unlimited plan offers unlimited LTE data, but you're subject to reduced speeds (throttling) when the network is congested. Verizon may choose to throttle at any time of the billing cycle, which is unlike most other unlimited plans that only do so after a certain amount of data is used.

On Go Unlimited, all video streaming is capped at 480p on phones and 720p on tablets. And while the Go Unlimited plans offer unlimited mobile hotspot (tethering), the speed is capped at 600kbps, which is likely too slow for most people do anything other than browsing the web — slowly.

As of November 3, 2017, customers can pay $10 per line to remove streaming restrictions and have video delivered at its original resolution.

Beyond Unlimited

Beyond Unlimited is basically Verizon's original unlimited plan with some slight tweaks.

  • One line: $85/month
  • Two lines: $80 per line/month
  • Three lines: $60 per line/month
  • Four or more lines: $50 per line/month

Paper-free billing and $5/mo AutoPay discounts apply.

The Beyond Unlimited plan offers unlimited LTE data, but you're subject to reduced speeds (throttling) at times of network congestion if you exceed 22GB in a billing cycle (customers that sign up on a two-year contract get 25GB per month before throttling).

Video streaming is capped at 720p on phones and 1080p on tablets. Mobile hotspot use is unlimited, with 15GB of LTE data in each billing cycle. Laptops or other devices used through the hotspot have a 1080p hard cap for streaming video.

As of November 3, 2017, customers can pay $10 per line to remove streaming restrictions and have video delivered at its original resolution.

Everything you need to know about Verizon's unlimited plan


The best unlimited data plan

The best plan is the one that works where you need it to work, not the one that's the cheapest. And we can't tell you which that one is because it's different for each of us. Paying more than you need to for phone service is a bad idea, but so is paying for service that doesn't work.

Generally, if you live outside of a metropolitan area that means Verizon. A look at live, user-generated coverage maps from Open Signal shows there are significant gaps in T-Mobile's coverage outside of metro areas. You will pay more for Verizon service when compared to T-Mobile (especially once taxes and fees are applied) but chances are Verizon will have the best coverage if you're in a rural area. There are exceptions, so be sure to investigate before you give any company your money.

If you're part of the 90% of the U.S. population who lives in a large town or city, your choices are expanded. T-Mobile is a great choice, as even with the One Plus add-on fee of $10 per month you'll still save money because they include taxes and fees in the cost.

Sprint's pricing offers an incredible value, but there are some very valid concerns about their network footprint. These can't be ignored when talking about "the best", though. Sprint has taken great strides to improve their coverage, and if Sprint works everywhere you need it to work, you should definitely take a look at what they have to offer.

Of course, none of this includes any customer-loyalty offerings or legacy plans you might be using. In those cases, you might want to stick with the carrier you have now instead of switching because of new pricing or new promotions.

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All this makes it very difficult to make a one-size-fits-all recommendation about which plan is the best. If you need nationwide coverage in places that might be a little out of the way, Verizon is a better value than AT&T and generally has a better network according to independent studies from sources like Root Metrics. If you stay on the beaten path, T-Mobile offers the better deal.

We can't tell you which carrier will be the best for you. But we can tell you what to look for and where to start. Talk to your friends and see what service they are using and how well it's working, and call each company to see exactly what they have to offer. Most carriers have plans they don't advertise and one may fit your needs better than the default unlimited plans.

We just want you to enjoy the service you're paying for!

See plans at AT&T

See plans at Sprint

See plans at T-Mobile

See plans at Verizon

Your turn

What carrier do you subscribe to? Are you happy or are you looking for something new? Add your experience to the comments and help sort this mess out!

Updated October 2017: This article has been updated to reflect changes to Verizon, T-Mobile, and Sprint's unlimited plans.

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2 weeks ago

How to take the best photos with your Google Pixel 2

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Google Pixel 2 camera

For many, the most important feature of a smartphone is its camera.

The Google Pixel 2 has a superb camera. There's no doubt about that. But we know that with all photography, it's not just the tools — it's how you use them that makes a huge difference. Even though you can open up your Pixel 2 with no knowledge of photography and take some great shots, you should strive to do more — and we have a handful of great tips to help you get the most out of this phone's camera.

Turn on location

Google Pixel 2 Google Photos search

Every time you take a photo with a modern smartphone, it's capable of having its GPS-based location tied to that photo — that is, if you turn on this setting. Keeping a location tied to a photo may not seem important right now, but think about years down the road when you want to remember even more about the photo that you took — knowing more than a date and time will be super valuable. It also lets services like Google Photos easily group and make your photos searchable by location.

To turn it on, hop into your camera settings and you'll see the toggle for "Save location" right at the top. You can always turn this feature back off later, and Google Photos will also remove location information from photos when you share them from the app.

Use Smartburst with moving subjects

Google's camera app has a typical burst function: press and hold the shutter button, and it'll take photos in quick succession until you release it. But behind the scenes, this isn't actually a regular burst shot — it's a "Smartburst." Basically what this means is that the camera app will take a whole bunch of photos in quick succession, as expected, but also pick out what it thinks are the best ones after processing. The camera takes roughly 10 shots per second to hopefully grab one that's just right.

Smartburst can do a better job than you can.

This is super useful when you or your subject (or both) are moving, where Smartburst will very often get photos you'd never get by guessing when to hit the shutter yourself. If you're in a situation like this, just press and hold that shutter and see what the results were later. You may not have another opportunity for that exact shot, so do it when you can.

When you go to review the burst shots, you'll see them grouped together with the "best" one highlighted. It's then easy to keep that photo and delete the rest.

Choose your grid lines

Google Pixel camera grid lines

You may think that having grid lines on your viewfinder will be distracting, but they can be super useful for helping you line up shots from the get-go. Tap the grid-like button on the side of the camera viewfinder, and you'll see four different options — no grid, 3 x 3, 4 x 4 and Golden Ratio — to choose from. Most people will be best off with the 3 x 3 grid.

Use these lines to easily center your subject, get a flat horizon on that next sunset shot, or fill out the frame evenly with various elements dispersed into the three sections. Don't let the initial distraction of the lines put you off — this is super helpful to have!

Use focus and exposure lock

Google Pixel 2 camera exposure lock

Unlike most phones, the Pixel 2 doesn't have a "Pro" or "Manual" mode that lets you tweak settings for a custom shot. The closest thing it has is an option to change the exposure manually, as well as lock the focus and exposure when you change it.

You don't get a full manual mode, but this is pretty helpful

When you tap on the camera viewfinder, the phone will focus on that point and also set the exposure to what it thinks is right for the point. But you can override that by moving the exposure slider on the right side of the viewfinder after tapping — up to +2 or down to -2, as you see fit. As soon as you move the camera, though, it'll re-focus and re-expose the image — that is, unless you hit the little "lock" button at the top of the exposure slider. Once you lock it, the settings stay put no matter how you move the camera or subject.

Most of the time you'll want to just let the camera choose the exposure and even the focal point. But if you need a different part of the frame to be your subject or want to change the exposure for a unique look, you have the option.

Don't be tempted by the flash

Google Pixel 2

Lighting is everything in photography, so many amateur photogs will immediately think "more is better" and want to turn on their flash to get a "better" photo — but this is hardly ever the case. With the advanced HDR+ processing in the Pixel 2, chances are you can get a better photo by leaving the flash off and letting the camera do its magic.

Take control of the light — just don't do it with a flash.

In other cases, re-positioning the camera to direct the light in different ways will have a better effect on quality as well. It is true that many pro photographers use flashes in certain circumstances, but the inherent issues of having a very small, direct flash on a phone so close to the lens makes it far less useful than a professional camera flash.

The best way to look at it is this: the flash on your phone should be used as an absolute last resort. Try a few shots, reposition, find other light sources, exhaust your other options — and if you need to get more light, then you can turn on the flash.

Increase the panorama resolution

The Pixel 2 can take super-high-resolution panorama shots, but by default it actually isn't set to the highest possible resolution — presumably for size and processing time concerns. But you should be willing to deal with those things in order to get the best possible panoramas.

Go into the camera settings, scroll down to "Panorama resolution" and select "High" — now you'll take the best possible panoramas, even if it means dealing with a larger file and longer processing time in the end.

Google Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL

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2 weeks ago

Cheapest Way To Try T-Mobile Service Without Porting Your Number

8

Just $25 will let you test T-Mobile's network for a month through Walmart Family Mobile.

You should always do your homework before you switch carriers. Start with the online coverage maps, even though you know they can be a little optimistic — especially at the fringes, but a better option is to ask the people you know and trust what they think. There's only one problem with that: what if you don't know anyone using the carrier you're thinking of switching to? If you're thinking about jumping to T-Mobile, or any carrier, really, you need to make sure you know what to expect.

Forums and blog comments can be helpful to get an overall picture of things. If everyone says T-Mobile has great coverage in Miami, FL. north to Pompano and west to Opa-locka, it probably does. (It really does.) What you won't know is where those pockets of bad service are and if the places you spend time in are one of them. Sometimes, you just have to check for yourself.

Thankfully, that's actually pretty easy to do.

An MVNO to the rescue

There's a lot of talk about T-Mobile's unlimited One plan, but T-Mobile also does the same thing every other U.S. carrier does — it sells service to MVNO providers. One of those providers is Walmart, and they have just the ticket if you need a cheap way to try out T-Mobile service through their Walmart Family Mobile plans.

For $25 you'll 1GB of LTE data (ignore that "unlimited" bit because they mean 2G data there) and unlimited talk and texting. A SIM card will cost you $1.68. Walmart Family Mobile uses T-Mobile's network for 100% of their service so you'll know exactly what T-Mobile is like where you are.

A gigabyte of LTE certainly isn't a lot of data, but it's more than enough to do a handful of speed tests in different places or try streaming some video. T-Mobile still offers prepaid service, but its plans start at $45 and a SIM card costs $25 on its own before any discounts, so using Walmart Family Mobile to take a test drive is a complete no-brainer. You can buy both a SIM card and the $25 starter kit at any Walmart store or you can order them online. Walmart also has a selection of inexpensive phones if you're looking to buy a budget model once you know things work.

See at Walmart

You'll need a compatible phone, of course. The good news is that most unlocked phones will work just fine, and all phones made for T-Mobile will work even if they aren't SIM unlocked. You'll even be able to test Wi-Fi calling routed through T-Mobile's service and using the Walmart Family Mobile number.

More: The best unlocked phones

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You can, of course, continue to use Walmart Familt mobile if you like the pricing, but they don't offer some of the extras you'll get from T-Mobile or other T-Mobile MVNO partners. But you don't need international calling or bulk discounts to test things.

We always say that having the right service is the most important part of enjoying your phone; maybe even more important than the phone itself. Knowing what to expect before you port out your number and sign into any financing agreement or contract means one less surprise down the line.

Alternative carriers (MVNOS)

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2 weeks ago

Top 5 things to do after switching to Nova Launcher

90
Nova Launcher is in a galaxy all its own

There's a lot to love in Nova Launcher.

Nova Launcher has a lot of great settings for you to explore, and plenty of potential for awesome themes and customizable layouts. First things first, though, you have to actually download the launcher and get yourself used to it. Now, there is a learning curve to every launcher out there, but we have a few simple tips to help make your transition as smooth as possible.

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2 weeks ago

Does my phone have a DAC? Explaining DACs and Amps in smartphones today

32

Everything you wanted to know about smartphone audio but are too afraid to ask.

We get this question a lot, and now that so many phones no longer have a headphone jack, it's even more common: Does my phone have a DAC? What exactly is a DAC and what does it do? What about an amp?

Let's see if we can figure out the answers and, more importantly, make some sense of how this all works and why we need this DAC thing with its funny name and how an amp makes it sound better or worse.

More: The state of smartphone audio: DAC, codecs, and other terms you need to know

What is a DAC?

Image courtesy of LG.

A DAC takes a digital signal from its input and converts it into an analog signal on its output. A digital audio signal is easy to explain but a little harder to wrap your head around. It's an electrical signal that's converted into bits. The bits are in a pattern that has a specific value at each point, and the more times the original signal was sampled, the more precise this pattern and those values are.

An analog signal is what you picture in your head when you think of a waveform. It's a continuous signal that varies in amplitude along a timeline.

Audio is converted into a digital copy because it's easier to compress and the electronic things we love, like our phones, can't store an analog signal like a tape can. They also can't read one back, in case you were thinking about attaching a tape-drive to your phone. A digital signal is very different from an analog signal, and the easiest way to understand this is a handy little diagram.

The digital signal follows very rigid and calculated lines, while the analog signal is more freeform. This is because of the sample times; more sample times would be closer together along the bottom axis (TIME) and make a smoother digital signal that's closer in shape to the analog. The right axis measures the amplitude of an audio wave. When you see the signal between the third and fourth sample time in our example, you can see how the two signals are different, which means the sound produced will be different.

Physics and the limitations that come with being human means that this isn't as important for playback as it appears. But it's very important for studio work and preserving the original quality of a recording. Conversion is a very complex procedure and a DAC does a lot of work. What's important is to recognize why a digital audio file may sound different from an analog recording.

The amp

An amplifier only does one thing — drives an analog signal (the amps we're talking about, anyway) so it's more intense and will be louder when it comes out of a speaker. An analog signal is just electricity. Boosting electricity is really, really easy and you use what amounts to a transformer (settle down engineers, this needs to be simple) to take the input, grab some power from elsewhere, and crank the input up. It transforms the source.

Building an amp is easy. Building a good amp isn't.

A few specifics can show the easy part. To amplify a fluctuating signal — like any kind of audio — you use a three-wire component called a transistor (or its equivalent in an integrated circuit). The three connections are called the base, the collector, and the emitter. Feeding a weak signal between the base and the emitter creates a more intense signal across the emitter and the collector when provided with external power. The original signal is attached to the base and the speaker is attached to the collector. You can do the same with a vacuum tube but that's not going to fit inside your phone.

The hard part is doing all this while maintaining the original frequency and amplitude. If the amp can't reproduce the frequency of the input signal, its frequency response isn't a good match and some sounds get boosted more than others and everything sounds bad. If the input amplitude (let's call that volume) increases to a level that the output can't match (a transistor can only output so much power), the volume from the amp levels off and your sound starts clipping and distorting. Finally, if you're listening while recording (we used to call that a phone call), an amp has to be careful it doesn't boost the signal high enough for the microphone to pick it up or you'll get feedback. This doesn't apply to just the output you can hear, but the signal itself. Electricity = magnetism.

A quality amp can mitigate all the distortion it creates.

When you're talking about big amps that are used on stage there are a lot of other things in the mix like pre-amps or multistage amps or even complicated op-amp setups that can affect the sound. But small amps have their own difficulties if you want to make a good one, too. You can't boost an analog signal without affecting the gain (volume), fidelity (faithful sound reproduction), or efficiency (battery drain). Making a good amp for a phone is hard. Way harder than using a good DAC, which is why we see phones with a good 24-bit DAC that still sound poor when compared to a phone like the LG V30 that also has a great amplifier.

Bit depth and sampling rates

We can't hear digital audio. But our phones can't store analog audio. So when we play our music, it has to pass through a DAC. Our little diagram above shows how important it is to sample an analog signal as many times as reasonably possible when converting it into a digital file. But how "deep" you sample makes a difference, too.

Without getting too technical, the more accurate you want each sample to be, the higher the bit depth you need to use. Bit depth is represented by a number that can be deceiving. The difference in size between 16 and 24 and 32 is more than you think. A lot more.

When you add one bit, you double the amount of data patterns.

A bit can only store two values (0 and 1), but you can count using them just like you can with "regular" numerals. Start counting at 0 and you hit 9; you add another column to the number and get 10. Using bits, you start at 0 and when you hit 1 you add another column to get 00 which becomes a 2-bit number. A two-bit number can have four different data patterns or points (00, 01, 10, or 11). When you add a single bit, you double the number of data points and a 3-bit number can have eight different data patterns (000, 001, 010, 011,100, 101, 110, or 111).

Don't worry. We're done with math. It's just important to understand what the bit depth really represents. A 16-bit signal has 65,536 separate data points, a 24-bit signal has 256 times more data with 16,777,216 points per sample, and a 32-bit signal has 4,294,967,294 points per sample. That's 65,536 times more data than a 16-bit file.

Sample rates are measured in Hertz, and 1 Hertz means one time each second. The more times you sample a file, the more of the original data you can capture. CD-quality audio encoding captures data at a rate of 44,100 times per second. High-resolution encoding can realistically sample at 384,000 times per second. When you capture more data with a higher bit depth and do it more times per second, you can recreate the original more accurately.

Building a good DAC and amp isn't the only complicated part of the process - encoding audio uses millions and millions of calculations every second.

These same factors matter for streamed audio (which is digital) as well but streamed audio adds another layer of complication because it's quality also depends on bitrate — bits processed per unit of time. We measure this the same way we measure internet speeds: kbps (kilobits per second). Higher is better. The codec used to compress a digital audio signal is also important, and lossless codecs like FLAC or ALAC keep more of the digital data that lossy codecs like MP3. A lot of work is involved to make sound come through your speaker or headphones.

Real-world numbers

We mentioned earlier that encoding a recording for storage (as a master) is a bit different than encoding it for playback. Machines and computers can't hear, and this is all a numbers game. When you encode and decode an audio signal, you're doing a lot of math. The more information you use to calculate the amplitude of a signal, the more accurate the calculations will be. But our ears are not computers.

Even perfect hearing won't help you hear any benefit from a 32-bit sudio system. For now, anyway.

An audio file is filled with "sounds" that we can't hear. Most of the data in a 32-bit encoding is of no use when listening, and a sample rate that's too high can actually sound worse because it introduces too much electrical noise. Producing a digital audio file that holds the right amount of information takes this into consideration, as does the design of a DAC. But like all things, higher numbers look better to the people who market them. Knowing the how and why all this works is really cool, but knowing what you need is more important.

A digital audio file encoded at 24-bits and 48kHz, and a DAC that can convert them offers the best quality we can hear. Anything higher is a placebo and a marketing tool.

The physical limits of our bodies and the way our current tech works mean data collected at a bit depth greater than 21-bit and sampled more frequently than 42kHz are the limit of "perfect" hearing. It's important to have a digital copy of recorded audio at extremely high data rates in case there's a technological breakthrough, but the files you listen to today and the hardware that can play them back have a reasonable ceiling. But that breakthrough will never happen with hardware we use today, so that 32-bit DAC in your LG V30 is a lot of overkill.

So, let's go through this DAC and amp thing again

A DAC is an audio component that is used to turn the digital audio files stored on our phones into an analog signal. There is a lot of complicated math involved that tries to make the copy of a copy sound close to the original, but much of the audio data is something we can't hear. You can even make things sound worse if you try to do too much when encoding a file.

An app plays the file. A DAC converts it to analog. The amp boosts the signal. And the cheese stands alone.

An analog signal is fed into an amp that boosts the signal's intensity so it gets louder. But making things louder without making them sound bad is very hard. When you're doing it on something as small as a phone which also has a limited amount of battery power it becomes especially complicated. The amp can (and usually does) have more impact on how things sound to our ears than the DAC does.

The analog output from the DAC and amp is something that our headphones can play and our ears can hear, but our phones can't properly store one, so a digital file is needed. And in case an engineer somewhere makes a significant breakthrough in digital audio encoding and decoding, original works are stored with astronomical amounts of data, much of which gets thrown out when encoding a file that sounds best.

All you ever need is a DAC that can convert 24-bit/48kHz files, an amp that boosts the signal without adding distortion or noise, and high-quality files to play.

Whew.

Does my phone have a DAC and an amp?

Does it make any sounds at all? If so, it has a DAC and an amplifier.

We talked about why recorded audio is converted to a digital copy earlier, but what about an analog signal? Why is it special and why do we have to convert audio back to analog? Because of pressure.

Every electronic thing that can play sounds has a DAC.

One way to measure an analog signal is by its intensity. The more intense (further away from the zero spot in a waveform) each frequency in a signal is the louder it will be when recreated by a speaker. A speaker uses an electromagnet and paper or cloth that moves to convert the signal into sound. The analog signal keeps the coil moving and the paper or cloth elements push the air to create a wave of pressure. When this pressure wave reaches our eardrums it makes a sound. Vary the intensity and frequency of the pressure waves and you create different sounds.

It almost seems like magic, and the scientists who figured out how to record and playback audio were on a whole 'nother level of smart.

A DAC and amp can live happily ever after in your headphones or a cable.

Some phones have a better DAC and amp than others, and phones without a headphone jack don't have to use a DAC/amp combo to send audio to a pair of headphones. All phones have them for system sounds and voice calls, but a DAC and amp can also live inside your headphones or even in the cable that connects headphones to your USB port. USB-C can send analog and digital audio out and both regular headphones (with an adapter) can be used to play analog audio from the port and headphones with their own DAC can receive digital audio to decode and convert themselves.

And you probably have headphones with a DAC and amp inside them, because that's how Bluetooth works.

Bluetooth audio

A DAC and amp have to sit inline between the digital file being played and your ears. There's no other way we can hear any sounds. When we use Bluetooth to listen to music or a movie (or even a phone call) we're sending a digital signal out from our phone and into our Bluetooth headphones. Once there, it's converted on the fly (that's what audio streaming means) into an analog signal, routed through the speakers and carried through the air as a pressure wave to your ears.

Bluetooth adds another layer of complication into the mix, but there is still a DAC and amp involved.

The quality of a DAC and amp when using Bluetooth is just as important as it is with a wired connection, but other components can affect the sound, too. Before audio is sent through Bluetooth, it gets compressed. That's because Bluetooth is slow. A smaller chunk of a file is easier to send than a larger one and compressing audio makes it easier to stream. When the chunk of a compressed audio file is received by your headphones it must first be decompressed then sent in the right order through the DAC and amp in your headphones. There are several different ways to compress, chop up, transfer and reassemble audio over Bluetooth using different Bluetooth audio codecs. Some bring a better digital file (a higher bit depth and sample rate) than others to your headphones' DAC and amp, but once that data arrives your Bluetooth headphones work exactly the same way an internal DAC and amp do.

A summary and what matters

There are a lot of ways to get music from a song you downloaded on your phone out to your ears. But every single one of them requires a DAC and an amp.

You don't have to be an audiophile to enjoy listening to music. What matters is how it sounds to you.

High-end audio components can process more audio data and offer better sounding audio, but everything in life has a trade-off. A DAC that can convert more than 16-bit audio is more expensive to buy and incorporate into a phone because it's also more sensitive to interference from other parts. The same goes for an amp — especially powerful amps that can drive high-impedance headphones. Even the audio files themselves have a drawback, as "hi-res" audio files can be quite large and take more storage space or a faster connection to stream.

You really don't have to know any of this to like the way your phone sounds. And that's the key — you are the one who decides what sounds good. Don't let any discussion about what's best or what's wrong with Bluetooth influence what you hear, especially if you are happy with how it sounds.

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2 weeks ago

These are the Halloween themes you need right now

7

This is Halloween! This is Halloween! Smartphones scream in the dead of night!

This is Halloween, everybody pick a theme! Trick or treat till the app is gonna crash in fright!

You've probably got a costume for tonight, right? Well, do you have one for your phone? You don't want to leave your most important device out of the fun, do you? Especially when you can make your Android phone look like anything, from an old iPhone to a Pokedex and everything in between. Android themes are amazing, and there's no better time to try one of our many Android themes than Halloween! So dress up your phone! Who knows? Maybe you'll like it so much you keep these decorations up 'til Christmas.

Updated October 2017: We've added another year's worth of themes and doubled our selection for Halloween 2017!

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