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The best devices and apps to up your selfie game

The first time a stranger on the train told me I had a nice smile, I didn't believe her. Back then, I hadn't yet had my crooked teeth fixed, and my self-esteem wasn't anywhere as high as it is today. I was an ugly kid, and it took a shocking number of selfies to convince myself that I'm not an ugly adult. It may seem like a superficial pastime, but selfie-taking has real benefits.

I'm not alone in believing there are psychological advantages here. Studies have shown that seeing a good picture of yourself can boost your confidence, while taking a smiling selfie can make you feel happier. Over time, that can improve your self-esteem. But getting selfies to look the way you want requires a very particular set of skills, skills I've acquired over a very long career of testing gadgets that are often designed to help you take better photos. We'll talk about those devices later -- best if you nail your technique first.

The basics

First of all, practice, practice, practice. When you have free time at home, take as many selfies as you need to figure out what angle works for you. Whether it's holding your phone up high, sticking your chin out at a particular angle or figuring out which of your smiles looks best, there are certain key elements that even the most advanced technology won't address.

There isn't a rule that applies to everyone, but in general, holding your camera slightly above your eyes will prevent the appearance of double chins. Tilting your head ever so slightly to the left or right will make your face look slimmer (if that's something you're going for), and it usually helps to stick out your chin slightly to elongate your neck. Ultimately, there are various flattering ways one can pose, and everyone's good angles are different. Your best bet is to experiment and learn what works for your face.

Understanding light

Once you've figured out your best angles (make sure you have a few to avoid becoming a one-trick pony), you'll need to find or create the best lighting. Any photographer will tell you that light is your best friend, and that's equally true with selfies. This is something you won't have much control over if you're outside with ample natural light. But if you're in an environment where light is coming from just one direction, try to face the light source without your hand casting a shadow on you. In fact, try to avoid any shadows on your face at all.

It also helps to understand the type of light you're shooting in. The best condition is natural light, specifically during the hour before sunset. Daylight is ideal for bringing out colors and details -- best for showing off a new outfit or hair color. But your pictures will look better on a slightly cloudy day than under harsh sunlight. Clouds provide a natural filter for a softer effect on your face and prevent the overexposure that can happen on a sunny day.

When you're indoors, very often you'll be stuck under overhead lights that have an orange or greenish cast. In these situations, try to find a neutral light source and face it. It's also better if the bulb is covered with a translucent material like tracing/tissue paper or a light-color lampshade, since this filters the rays to avoid harshness.

Remote triggers to avoid blur

All the prep you do before taking a picture can be ruined by shaky hands. Sometimes, you have to hold your phone in a way that makes the trigger hard to reach. In those situations, using a voice or gesture trigger can be very helpful. Today, many phones from companies such as Samsung and LG offer voice commands to take photos when you say prompts like "Cheese" or "Smile." You can even ask Siri or the Google Assistant to "take a selfie" (though Apple's software is useless since you still have to press the shutter button yourself).

Smartphone on its magnetic tripod

Activate these, as well as gesture triggers, to avoid introducing blur to your image when pressing down on a physical button. If your phone has none of these options, a good workaround is setting a short timer, pressing the shutter button, then framing your shot. You can also get a mini tripod for your phone, as well as a remote control, to take perfectly still selfies. I'd recommend a selfie stick, because they can be very useful in preventing blur, but they've been banned in so many places (I've had them confiscated at various security checks) that at this point they're not worth the investment.

Accessories you can buy

If you're serious enough about selfies to consider buying tools to improve them, the options run the gamut from lights to standalone cameras. Portrait photographers use a ring light to avoid their cameras casting a shadow on their subject's faces while creating a sparkle in their eyes. The phone equivalent would be a selfie case, like the ones from LuMee or Allure/CaseMate. They add bulbs around the screen of your phone that you can turn on when you're in a dark environment or if you just want a glamour boost.

Both the LuMee and Allure options have their strengths -- the LuMee Duo's lights are more flattering, while the Allure has a fold-out ring that makes for better grip and doubles as a kickstand. I prefer the LuMee Duo (and the Kardashians use it, too) but I wish it weren't so hard to pry off your phone once you put it on. I haven't tried other options like the Ty-Lite, unfortunately, so I can't vouch for it.

You can also try a clip-on selfie light like the Chatlight or a plug-in flash like the iBlazr LED if you don't want to swap out your existing phone case. I found both those options effective (if a tad blue) during my testing, but I don't like carrying additional accessories on me, so I prefer the cases.

Of course, strong lights like that can cause oily faces to look shiny, so make sure you blot or powder your skin before snapping a shot. If you don't carry blotters or powder on you, even dabbing your forehead and nose with a napkin or tissue will help.

Some accessories let you get some distance from the camera, so you can see more of yourself in the picture. A mini tripod is a good way to set up your phone far away, but a camera accessory that's controlled by your phone has the added benefit of giving you a preview of your shot before you capture it. Try this webcam-like toy called a Snap Petz that you can set anywhere to take your picture. You may also consider the upcoming Amazon Echo Look, a voice-controlled camera that takes full-length pictures or short videos. The Echo Look also has built-in LED lights, and also senses depth to apply an artificial background blur so you (and your outfits) stand out. The Echo Look still isn't available, though, and we've yet to test it.

If you have money to blow and are happy to be extremely extra, go ahead and take a drone selfie. These flying cameras can recognize your face and follow you as you wander around a picturesque field or mingle with guests at a wedding reception. There are plenty of options, and they typically cost hundreds of dollars. Drone cameras are excellent for aerial videography, capturing stunning landscapes that add drama to home movies and indie films alike.

We don't recommend spending so much just to take an impressive selfie, but if you happen to get the chance to play with one, definitely make full use of it. Be careful to keep your eye on your drone, though. As our UK bureau chief Mat Smith learned, the possibility of accidentally decapitating other attendees or yourself is always looming.

Our favorite is the Hover Passport drone by startup Zero Zero, which Snap Inc is rumored to be buying. But at $550, the Passport is a pricey investment. There are plenty of decent alternatives for less money, including the Parrot Mambo FPV, the Yuneec Breeze 4K and the DJI Spark.

Apps

After you've taken the picture, there's more you can do to improve your selfie. Aside from using your built-in Photos app or Instagram to tweak highlights, shadows, warmth, saturation and more, you can also consider fixing your pictures with selfie apps.

These let you make fixes as subtle as smoothing your complexion or as dramatic as giving yourself a new look altogether. Discussions about misrepresenting yourself aside (a good practice when editing your selfies is to declare if you've done so), a virtual makeover can entertain your friends and followers. You can try out a different hair color, add thick eyelashes and see what your pals think.

My most popular selfies, as determined by number of Instagram likes, have been the ones where I've experimented with wild looks. I achieve most of these with CyberLink's YouCam Makeup app, which not only lets me slim my face, apply digital makeup and smoothen my noticeable acne scars, but can also change the color of my eyes and hair for a dramatic result. YouCam is excellent at detecting my facial features to apply things like eyelashes, eyeliner or blush, but it struggles to recognize hair. You'll have to manually paint an outline of your hair for the app to correctly identify it and change its color.

After I'm done with YouCam, I often use another app called Meitu Xiuxiu to add an overall glow to the picture. You might recall Meitu for its ethereal anime-esque selfie filters, but the app offers so much more. You can stretch yourself to appear taller, turn yourself into the cover star of a magazine or add stickers, doodles and text. I usually use Meitu for its beautifully rosy filters that make Instagram's options look garish by comparison.

There are many other apps that let you edit your face, but I've stuck with the above two for years because they're the most full-featured. For fun, I sometimes use an app called EditLab to add a double exposure effect that blends another picture on top of my selfie, which creates a romantic effect. I also like Snow for its fun Snapchat-like face filters, that superimpose my face onto a cartoon schoolkid or a steaming hot shower. It's a good alternative for those who don't have or want Snapchat but would still like to play with photo effects.

Remember, though, these apps are really more for fun than for achieving perfection; don't go overboard trying to look like someone you're not -- your friends can tell when you don't look like yourself.

Wrap-up

Now that we've gone over the technical skills you can use to improve your selfies, remember to have fun and not try to perfect your pictures for others. Our digital world can get toxic sometimes, and even the best selfies will be subject to scrutiny and ridicule. Even Kim Kardashian gets sensitive about unflattering photos and the subsequent insults. Ultimately, these your pictures are for your own pleasure and entertainment. Experiment, strike a weird pose or share an "ugly selfie" with your friends -- if it makes you happy, it's a good selfie.


How Microsoft embraced ‘messy’ creativity with Windows Ink

Windows Ink isn't Microsoft's first stab at bringing stylus support to PCs -- that would be Windows XP Tablet Edition -- but it is the company's most successful. It made stylus support a core part of Windows 10, and it's a big reason you're seeing so many computer makers shipping digital pens of their own. While the company's renewed push into the space with its hybrid Surface tablets seemed baffling at first, it's ended up looking like a prescient move. It even convinced Apple to compete with the iPad Pro's Pencil.

With the Surface Pen and Windows Ink, Microsoft found a way to let PC users do something completely new: It gave them a way to break free from the constraints of the keyboard and mouse.

"I think it's [Windows Ink] the first time that technology has embraced 'the messy,'" Aaron Woodman, general manager of Windows Marketing, told Engadget. "For me, seeing Pen come to life in a way where you don't have to go from top to bottom, from left to right, you can create in a way before your thought is really complete. I don't think there's a ton of technology that's really embraced that fluidity."

He's got a point. The way we interact with computers hasn't changed much over the years. If you learned how to use a PC with a keyboard and mouse, you'd have no trouble using a modern machine. The advent of smartphones and tablets, with their capacitive touchscreens, was the biggest change over the past few decades. But what if you want to draw a detailed picture, jot down notes in your own handwriting or write out mathematical equations? You'd turn to one of our earliest writing tools: the stylus.

"We're embracing that, yes, [stylus support features with Windows Ink] are hardware-driven; yes, they require a platform that has to be broad in reach; and yes, for part of that, you need ecosystem partners," Woodman said. "That really starts to get people to understand it and see themselves using it in applications like Office. To see that come through in a way that customers don't feel like they're jumping over walls, I think it's really satisfying personally."

Devindra Hardawar/Engadget

In particular, Woodman credits Microsoft's close partnership with Wacom, a company best known for its stylus tablets and displays, for the progress with Windows Ink so far. That allowed the two companies to build a sensor that "essentially allows you to go between pen protocols." For computer makers, that's helpful since it lets them choose between different pen protocols. Basically, it let Microsoft open up the market for styluses, just like Windows did for PCs decades ago.

Now, Woodman says retailers are selling twice as many pen-capable machines, compared to those that don't have them. 43 percent of consumers with stylus machines are also using their pens monthly, according to Microsoft's stats. Given just how well they're taking off, though, it's surprising that Microsoft chose to make the Surface Pen an additional $100 purchase for the Surface Laptop, Pro and upcoming Book 2.

Windows Ink's integration with Microsoft Office is a clear example of how stylus support can breathe new life into programs we've used for years. In Word and PowerPoint, you can use a stylus to edit documents as if you were marking up paper. And, as you can imagine, having a more natural input mechanism is a big help for OneNote. It's not only useful for jotting down your thoughts, but you can also use it for recording complex math equations — the sort of thing that would be tough to type out on a keyboard. OneNote can also convert your handwritten equation into something formatted for a computer, and you can then have it evaluate an equation, factor it and graph it.

It was a long road getting here, though. The first "Tablet PCs" powered by Windows XP (like the Compaq on the right) were woefully underpowered, heavy and generally just hard to use. It was difficult enough to get them to do basic Windows tasks, so there wasn't much chance consumers would spend time with their styluses. There were also some early digital pens available for Windows 8. Really, though, it took the launch of the Surface 2 and Pro 2 for us to really see what a stylus could do in Windows. The Surface Pen was light, responsive and simply felt good to use. Microsoft steadily refined it with future Surface models, giving us better tips and more pressure sensitivity.

Even after the launch of Windows 10, it took over a year for Microsoft to make stylus support truly meaningful with last year's Anniversary Update. That introduced Windows Ink and its accompanying software, including built-in sticky notes and a sketchpad. More importantly, it also gave Microsoft's partners more of a reason to bundle styluses with their computers. Apple entered the fray with the iPad Pro's Pencil in 2015, which is a decent stylus, but is only useful in a few creative apps. And you can forget about seeing it in MacOS anytime soon -- Apple is focusing its touchscreen efforts entirely on iOS.

Embracing a new type of computing creativity seems a bit out of character for Microsoft — at least, the pre-Satya Nadella Microsoft. But the timing for the company's change of heart makes sense. Thanks to faster and more efficient computing hardware, it's finally turning its stylus ambitions into a reality. And more importantly, consumers and computer makers are finally paying attention.

"On some level, we have a responsibility to solve the challenges customers are facing," Woodman said. "Now, watching 3D objects in Powerpoint [via the Fall Creator's Update] is mind boggling. Not because you see it in 3D, but because it saves you infinite steps. I think Pen has the same type of promise. It's more about just feeling like you have that permission to go beyond the boundaries of how people have defined the products so far."


The Morning After: Weekend Edition

Hey, good morning! You look fabulous.

Welcome to the weekend. We'll recap this week's news highlights, plus big stories from Friday like Project Loon-distributed internet going live in Puerto Rico.


Reconnect.Project Loon's LTE balloons are floating over Puerto Rico

Former Google X Lab (and now Alphabet X innovation lab) resident Project Loon is getting its first use in the US, as it's partnering with AT&T to provide service in Puerto Rico. As part of the restoration efforts, the high-flying balloons are launching from Nevada and floating over the island, all in hopes of beaming LTE to areas still without service a month after Hurricane Maria.


The first Cortana speaker sounds amazing.Harman Kardon Invoke review

The good news about this $199 smart speaker is that it sounds great, and Microsoft's Cortana voice assistant is a natural addition. The bad news is that as a latecomer to the game, it has fewer music service integrations, and right now, Cortana isn't as capable as competitors like Amazon's Alexa.


You say replicant, we say repli-can.Bad Password: Apps and gadgets for the 'Blade Runner' future we didn't ask for

This week, Violet Blue explains how technology can help make the best of our dystopian present -- at least until Harrison Ford and Ryan Gosling show up to fix things.


Watch the movie first.Designing the technology of 'Blade Runner 2049'

Of course, if you prefer the distraction of a fictional Blade Runner universe, we have a few treats for you too. Take a walk with Territory Studios to find out how it established "the UI of a broken future" in Blade Runner 2049 -- but mind the spoilers.


So long, wobbly fulcrum hinge. Hello, 15-inch beauty.Surface Book 2 hands-on

The Surface Book 2 sounds like it may fix all of the issues we had with the original model (as well as last year's refresh). It has a stronger hinge, so no more screen-wobble as you're typing, and it's (predictably) more powerful than before. Microsoft also added a 15-inch model, making the Surface Book 2 even more of a competitor to Apple's MacBook Pro line.


Define "partisan."Does social media threaten the illusion of news neutrality?

As reporters become Twitter celebrities, newsrooms begin to adapt.

But wait, there's more...

The Morning After is a new daily newsletter from Engadget designed to help you fight off FOMO. Who knows what you'll miss if you don't subscribe.


Google’s annual report shows more web traffic is encrypted

For several years now, Google has been exerting pressure to increase the usage of HTTPS across the internet. By defaulting to secure connections on both ends, users can be protected from anyone who may intercept or even manipulate data as it flows back and forth -- quite useful in a world where you can't even trust WiFi. For its own products, Google says HTTPS use is up to 89 percent overall, up from just 50 percent at the beginning of 2014. The number of top 100 websites defaulting to HTTPS has nearly doubled since last year (way to catch up), growing from 37 to 71.

Percentage of pages loaded over HTTPS in Chrome by platform

Now that Google is flagging websites that request data without securing the connection first, developers have even more reason to make the switch. In its Chrome browser, Google says 73 percent of pages in the US are now delivered with encryption. One thing holding back the numbers are older mobile devices that don't support encryption due to their hardware, but you can get the full interactive chart breakdowns on Google's report website.

Source: Google Blog, Google Transparency Report


Google’s annual report shows more web traffic is encrypted

For several years now, Google has been exerting pressure to increase the usage of HTTPS across the internet. By defaulting to secure connections on both ends, users can be protected from anyone who may intercept or even manipulate data as it flows back and forth -- quite useful in a world where you can't even trust WiFi. For its own products, Google says HTTPS use is up to 89 percent overall, up from just 50 percent at the beginning of 2014. The number of top 100 websites defaulting to HTTPS has nearly doubled since last year (way to catch up), growing from 37 to 71.

Percentage of pages loaded over HTTPS in Chrome by platform

Now that Google is flagging websites that request data without securing the connection first, developers have even more reason to make the switch. In its Chrome browser, Google says 73 percent of pages in the US are now delivered with encryption. One thing holding back the numbers are older mobile devices that don't support encryption due to their hardware, but you can get the full interactive chart breakdowns on Google's report website.

Source: Google Blog, Google Transparency Report


Apple’s Upgrade Program offers a ‘head start’ on iPhone X

While initial pre-orders for the iPhone X are still a week away from opening, some Apple die-hards will be able to get started early. Apple's installment-based Upgrade Program that lets customers get a new phone every year will, just like it did with the launch of the iPhone 8 / 8 Plus, allow members to get their loan paperwork in order starting on Monday. Combined with the recently added mail-in return option for their old iPhones, it should make staying up to date easier than ever, even if it doesn't guarantee that they'll be able to purchase the new OLED-screened device right away. For that, they'll have to stay up until 3 AM ET Friday morning just like everyone else.

Via: MacRumors, 9to5Mac

Source: Apple


Vector plans three ‘microsatellite’ launches in Virginia

Virginia's governor announced that microsatellite delivery company Vector has arranged a trio of launches from the state's spaceport on Wallops Island. While the notice gave no information on the payloads or customers, they will be very small compared to typical commercial satellites: The company's launch vehicle, the 39-foot Vector-R, can only carry 145 pounds into orbit.

That's entirely the point. Most microsatellites that weigh a couple to just over a hundred pounds often must ride alongside and work around the schedules of big-budget customers putting several-ton payloads into orbit. Unlike Space X's 230-foot Falcon 9, which carries up to 50,000 pounds into orbit, Vector's smaller rocket is likely far more affordable and flexible -- like paying for a charter plane that will go to any small airfield instead of buying a seat on a jumbo jet that can only go to major airports.

When last we saw Vector, they'd launched out of Camden, Georgia for a successful delivery to sub-orbital heights. The company, made of industry vets from SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, McDonnell Douglas, Boeing and Sea Launch, seems aimed to supply the need for much smaller payloads that those bigger companies don't service well. As for Virginia, this is a win for its Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) facility on Wallops Island; Vector has agreed to three launches there over the next 24 months with an option for five more.

Source: Virginia Governor's office


Senators want to know if Apple fought back on China’s VPN ban

Apple CEO Tim Cook wasn't pleased about pulling VPN software from the company's App Store in China, but this July, it happened anyway. As a result, many users who once counted on such software to dodge the country's Great Firewall were left to their own devices (and we've explored the situation at length here). Now, senators Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Patrick Leahy (D-VT) have called on Cook in a letter to explain in detail how that process went down, out of concern that Apple is "enabling the Chinese government's censorship and surveillance of the internet."

The letter (which can be read in full here) poses 10 questions to the Apple CEO. It asks (among other things) whether Apple formally commented on the Chinese government's Cybersecurity Law when it was presented as a first draft, whether Chinese authorities requested Apple removed the VPN apps, whether Apple has made any attempt to reintroduce said apps, and how many apps were removed in total. (A report from the BBC when the apps first disappeared put the count at around 60.)

Apple hasn't issued an official statement on the matter yet, and our request for comment was met with a transcript of Cook's statement on the issue during the company's August 1st earnings call. The thrust of that statement can be summed up in one line: "We would obviously rather not remove the apps, but like we do in other countries, we follow the law wherever we do business."

In other words, Apple complied with the (arguably abhorrent) policy of another country because it makes a lot of money there. That's not likely to change anytime soon, either. The Greater China region (which also includes Hong Kong and Taiwan) has been known to make or break quarterly earnings reports, and mainland China's middle class is only continuing to grow in size and importance. According to a report from The Economist Intelligence Unit last year, nearly 35 percent of the country is expected full under the "upper middle-income" and "high income" umbrellas by 2030 -- that works out to around 480 million people, essentially all of whom will need smartphones.

Cook hopes that these restrictions will be eased over time, but yeah, of course Apple aligned itself with Beijing on this one. The cash incentives here are no joke. The real ammunition that senators Cruz and Leahy have seized on is that Apple seems to embody two reputations that often seem antithetical to each other: that of a shrewd corporate tactician, and that of a principled company willing to take a stand on the important issues of the day. The former has stowed over $230 billion in what The Telegraph calls "offshore subsidiaries" in hopes that it'll one day be able to bring it back to the US without paying an obscene tax bill. The latter is centered around a CEO that won a Free Expression award earlier this year, who said in his acceptance that Apple "defends [the freedom of expression] by enabling people around the world to speak up."

We'll monitor the situation and update this story if Apple explicitly responds to the letter.


Razer’s new webcam and microphone are made for streamers

Razer is known as a gaming laptop, mouse and keyboard maker, but it actually offers a wide variety of products, like Xbox controllers, power banks, and even an upcoming phone. Razer also makes webcams like the Stargazer, which is built for streaming video games. Now Razer is upping its streaming game with two new "streamer certified" peripherals, a webcam with a built-in ring light called Kiyo as well as a USB condenser mic named Seiren X.

The $100 Kiyo's built-in light has 12 levels of brightness to help light your face for those important picture-in-picture streams on Twitch. It also outputs high-def video at 720p with 60 frames per second (FPS) or 1080p at 30 FPS. The Seiren X also retails at $100 and comes with a removable desk stand so you can set it up anywhere you're streaming from. It connects via USB and has 25mm condenser capsules and a tighter recording angle that's optimized for streaming, according to the company.

"Streaming has become an integral part of the gaming community," said Razer CEO Min-Liang Tan in a statement. "We took a hard look at what streamers really needed, and engineered products to support those specific use cases. The result are products that produce professional quality streams while remaining accessible to beginner users."

Ring lights aren't anything new, of course. I had one that you could slide onto Apple's old standalone iSight camera years ago. Still, the Kiyo could be attractive to someone who has a darker room and needs to stream a better image. There are plenty of microphones to choose from, but if you're using other Razer gear, the affordable Seiren X might entice you, too.

Via: The Verge

Source: Razer


Project Loon’s LTE balloons are floating over Puerto Rico

About a month after Hurricane Maria's devastating landfall on Puerto Rico, and a couple of weeks after the FCC gave clearance, Project Loon is bringing wireless internet to people on the island. Part of (Google parent company) Alphabet's X innovation lab, the project uses balloons circling the Earth at high altitude to provide wireless connections. Now, it's partnered with AT&T to light up "limited" internet connectivity with support for text messaging, basic web access and email.

Developing...

Source: X Company (Medium)