The Best Investing Apps for Newbies

It’s a dangerous business, Mr. Frodo, going
into investing. You step into the market, and if you don’t keep your feet,
there’s no knowing where your money might be swept off to.

While Gandalf might have had great advice for an adventurous life, investing was not the most developed concept in Middle Earth. Lucky for you, we have compiled a list of the best apps for investing-on-the-go.

If you’re just starting out and want to get your feet wet without committing a large sum of money the a volatile stock market, these apps are the best places to look.

1. Acorns (Website)

Acorns is a “micro-investing” app
that works with your spare change. Literally. When you make a purchase, Acorns
rounds up to the nearest dollar and invests the difference. When you grab a cup
of coffee on the way to work in the morning for $2.15, Acorns rounds the
purchase up to $3 and invests $0.85 into your portfolio.

You can then choose from five different
portfolio profiles that range from conservative to aggressive. The conservative
profile means your money will likely grow at a slow pace, but in more stable,
reliable accounts. An aggressive profile means there is greater risk for loss,
but also greater risk for growth. Choose the one you’re most comfortable with
and watch the results.

Acorn was designed as a mobile-first app,
but a web portal has become available for anyone that prefers to use the
internet over a mobile. While not free, Acorn is affordable—$1 per month for
all accounts under $5,000, and then 0.25% of the balance per year for accounts
over $5,000.

2. Stash (Website)

Stash has an identical pricing structure to Acorns, it doesn’t automatically invest for you. Stash provides users with educational content catered to their investing preferences.

If you’re just starting out, all of the terminology and acronyms can be overwhelming. While you won’t get in-depth analysis on all of the potential companies you can invest in, Stash helps you understand what all of the phrases mean.

You can choose between a values-driven
portfolio or build your own customized portfolio. Once you’ve done that, you
can set up the “Auto-Stash” preferences for recurring investments to
create a sort of automated system based on your end goals.

It won’t take the process out of your
hands, but Stash gives you the resources and information you need to get
started in what can often be a confusing world. Stash is available on both iOS
and Android devices.

3. Robinhood (Website)

One thing you should know about investing:
it costs money to invest, but it also costs money to trade stocks. There are
often brokerage fees associated with moving around your stocks, which can eat
into any potential profits you make from their growth. Robinhood is a
completely free app that lets you trade stocks without cost.

Of course, you can only trade during
certain hours, but you can extend that time by signing up for Robinhood Gold, a
subscription service that gives access to a wider range of features than the
base-level app.

This may sound too good to be true, but
Robinhood as a company is designed to have minimal overhead. This means their
expenses are low and they’re able to pass those savings onto their users
without charging brokerage fees. The app may not educate you on investing, but
if you know what you’re doing then it’s a great way to move stocks without the
typical costs.

4. Ally Invest (Website)

Ally Invest is the investment portion of
Ally Bank, an online-only entity with low overhead fees that caters to people
that want to keep their costs low. It’s a popular platform with daytime stock
traders, but it’s also a great way for beginners to get started. The cost per
trade is $4.95, but there is no account minimums to worry with and plenty of
tools to help you along the way.

Ally also provides educational resources to help you learn how things work. It’s a great option for the DIY investor. All ETFs are commission free, but you will see a small fee for mutual fund trades.

You should also know that Ally Invest does not have automatic investing or rebalancing options—everything is done by hand, but it helps you learn more about your investments and your portfolio.

If you know absolutely nothing about
investing, Ally Invest might not be the best option—but if you’re willing to dig
your heels in and educate yourself on what everything means, it can be a
powerful tool for growing your wealth over time.  

Quicktime vs VLC vs Plex – Which is the Best Media Player?

The right media player can make a huge difference in how you view your favorite movies and television shows. There are dozens to choose from, but it can be hard to narrow down exactly which media player is the right choice.

While most players have basically the same features, there are subtle differences between the various options that heavily influence your experience.

We’ve taken a look at three of the most
popular options—VLC, Quicktime, and Plex—to help you pick the right media
player to give you the best overall experience. Let’s start with Quicktime.

QuickTime

QuickTime Player becomes the default option
for a lot of users simply because it is bundled into the macOS, but even if you
don’t have the program by default there are a lot of reasons to consider it.

For starters, QuickTime Player can play
iTunes files. VLC Media Player
cannot play iTunes files due to their DRM encryption. If you’re a Mac user
immersed into their ecosystem, then you may lean toward an option that allows
you to play iTunes purchases with ease. The downside, of course, is that
QuickTime Player is only available on Mac systems. Apple officially ceased
Windows support of the program in 2016.

QuickTime Player is the go-to option for
videos you recorded with your iPhone, but may not fare so well with downloaded
videos or more obscure file formats. Another downside is that QuickTime cannot
play .srt files, the most common subtitle format. If you like to have subtitles
on while you watch, QuickTime might not be the best option.

QuickTime has an intuitive, easy-to-use
interface that makes it easy to navigate and find the media you’re looking for.
You can also record and edit video with QuickTime, but it requires a QuickTime
Pro subscription—a fee of $29.99.

Pros:

  • Automatically included with
    macOS
  • Works with iTunes files
  • Easy to use interface

Cons:

  • Not compatible with Windows
  • Doesn’t work with common
    subtitle files
  • Less breadth of compatibility
    than competitors

VLC

While QuickTime is the default media
player, VLC is often the best option for a host of reasons. The main one is
that it supports a massive number of both audio and video file formats. The
media player is also open-source and available on Windows, Mac, and Linux.

While no external codecs are necessary, VLC is compatible with an almost-silly number of plugins that allow you to expand functionality far beyond the basics. You can stream audio across your home network with ease through the use of sftp/ssh protocols.

VLC has keyboard shortcuts for nearly every function you can imagine. While not the most vital part of media player for most people, those that value convenience will enjoy the added flexibility this adds to the program.

The downside is that VLC doesn’t have the most attractive interface in the world. The color choices are bland with a late-90s style. All function, no grace. Of course, aesthetics aren’t the most important thing in the world, but VLC also doesn’t have the widest range of function as a music player.

The program lacks functionality when it comes to sorting your music. VLC is intended as a video player. While it can play audio, that isn’t its primary purpose, and that shows in the interface.

Pros:

  • Works  with Mac, Windows, and Linux
  • Huge number of plug-ins
  • Streaming capabilities
  • Huge range of file
    compatibility

Cons:

  • No music sorting capabilities
  • Bland user interface

Plex

Buckle up—Plex is a lot to talk about.
While it is a media player, it’s more of a server than anything else. When you
get Plex up and running, you can stream your media from your devices to almost
any other device in your home with the right equipment. If you have a lot of
music and movies saved on your computer that you want to watch on the big
screen, Plex is the place to go.

There are two versions of Plex: one free,
one paid. The great thing about Plex is that the free version is already fully
featured. The paid version just adds in a few more benefits that may appeal to
smaller numbers of users, like virtual reality support and Sonos integration.
For the vast majority of users, the free tier will be more than enough.

If Plex sounds too good to be true, it’s pretty close to it. That said, there are a few areas where it is more of a hassle than a benefit. You can set up your Plex server with ease, but trouble arises when you add media to it.

Actually adding content requires a naming folders and subfolders with specific titles, a task that quickly becomes tedious. If you make it through this process, you’ll be rewarded with a media library you can access from nearly anywhere.

Plex is available for both Mac and PC, but
can be streamed to almost any device including mobile phones. It also has Alexa
integration, so once a file is added to the Plex directory you can ask Alexa to
play it and it will appear.

Pros:

  • The free tier is fully
    functional
  • Paid version is inexpensive
  • One of the best options for a
    home media system
  • Alexa compatibility

Cons:

  • Complicated to add media
  • More features than are
    necessary for the average user

The Verdict

It’s a tough choice, but our vote goes with VLC. It provides the most features and widest range of compatibility with audio and video formats. Plex is a close runner-up, but is just too complex and featured for the average user.

If you are a power user that wants to turn your computer into a multimedia mega-center, then Plex is a great choice. On the other hand, if you only need the bare minimum of functionality and you have a Mac, then the built-in QuickTime Player is a solid choice.

The Best Smart Home Starter Kit

A smart home improves your home’s security, makes day-to-day tasks more convenient, and brings a cool factor that few others additions to your home can even dream of.

The one downside is the installation process. Because a smart home is made of so many different parts, it can be hard to figure out exactly what devices work with others and what you should start with.

To help expedite this process and let you
drive head-first into smart home tech, we’ve put together the Smart Home
Starter Kit to help you decide exactly what type of device is right for you.
We’ve recommended our top choices for products and provided links to other
articles that cover all of these subjects more in-depth.

Let’s start with the front of the house.

Smart Locks

Smart locks are about more than just added
security. They make it easier to enter and leave your home. How many times have
you fumbled to find the key when your hands are full? How many times have you
had to leave a spare key hidden under the doormat to let in the dogwalker?

We recommend the August Smart Lock. It’s one of the most popular options for smart locks available to consumers. It fits over a deadbolt and can be installed in just 10 to 15 minutes with nothing more than a screwdriver.

Once you have set up the August, it will automatically unlock when your phone comes within range and automatically lock again after a certain amount of time.

The August can’t be picked or opened with a
bump key. Guests can download the August app and be given a temporary code to
unlock the door, which makes it the perfect solution to uncommon visitors that
need access to your home. The August also logs every person who enters and
exits so that you always know what is happening around your home.

To find out more about smart locks, check out our write-up here.

Smart Security Cameras

Your security camera should be tied to an
overall home security system, preferably one with third party monitoring. This
means you don’t have to be present or connected at all times to respond to a
problem; if something happens around your home, the monitoring company can
reach out to the authorities in your stead.

On the other hand, additional security cameras are always helpful. If you’re looking for a smart security camera just to monitor a specific area of your home, we recommend the Nest Cam Indoor for indoor use, or the Nest Security Camera for outdoor use.

Both cameras stream in real-time at 1080p and provide two-way audio, night vision, and motion detection. The cameras only record when motion is detected, so you don’t have to worry about filling up your cloud storage.

You’ll receive a push notification alerting you to activity. From there, you can decide to ignore it (if your dog triggered the camera) or call the authorities.

To learn about more types of security cameras, check out our full write-up here.

Smart Door Bells

A smart doorbell is kind of like a security camera, but it covers only one area: the one directly in front of your door. These are the perfect solution for “porch pirates”—people that like to snatch shiny Amazon Prime boxes off of porches in the middle of the day.

In our society of online shopping and delivery, you can’t always be home to pick up a package when it arrives, but you can keep an eye on it.

For front-porch security, few options are better than the Skybell HD video doorbell. If you know anything about smart doorbells, this may come as a surprise. The Nest Hello and the Ring are both popular options, but the Skybell HD beats them out in a few significant areas.

First of all, it is less expensive than either of the other options and integrates with Nest, IFTTT, and Alexa. Best of all, Skybell HD offers free cloud storage.

The downside is that there is no web app,
but most people wouldn’t use the web for checking in on their home anyway.
Two-way audio makes it easy to let a delivery driver know to drop a package
somewhere out-of-sight, or to warn someone that you’re watching. After all, few
things deter a thief quite like knowing they aren’t as invisible as they think.

To find out about other smart doorbells and which brand might work best for you, check out our review here.

Smart Lighting

Smart lighting is one of the original pieces of smart home technology. Turning your lights on or off with the tap of a button was nothing short of brilliant, but it’s safe to say that they are old news.

The technology is still incredible, but smart lighting is readily available almost everywhere. The market is full of dozens of options that can be hard to sort through. Brands like Philips Hue and LIFX dominate sales, but are they really the best options?

The answer lies in whether you want smart white lights or smart color-changing lights. Unless you’re a color aficionado, the 16 million different shades that Philips Hue and LIFX offer will be wasted. For control over lights that you want to be bright—such as in the kitchen or the bathroom—white lights are perfectly fine.

Color lights are best used to create ambience, and that usually means indirect lighting. Shaded lamps, desk lights, and other lighting systems benefit most from color-changing bulbs.

For standard white lights, you won’t find a better bulb than Ikea’s Tradfri smart lights. At just $13 per bulb, these are some of the most affordable smart lights on the market. They work with Amazon Alexa and Apple HomeKit. You can choose between three color settings: warm white, warm glow, and cool white. For outfitting an entire home with adequate lighting, the Tradfri bulbs are the best option.

However, for color changing bulbs, it’s hard to go wrong with Philips Hue. The company was first founded in 1891, and though their lamps haven’t always been smart, Philips has always been in the business of lighting. The color-changing Hue bulbs sell for a premium, with a starter kit coming in around $200, but the functionality more than makes up for the price.

The starter kit contains three bulbs and the Hue Bridge. Once you set up the system, you can schedule the lights to come on at different times, choose from multiple color presets (or make your own), and even set the lights to pulse in time to music.

If you’d like to learn about the other types of smart lights on the market, check out our write-up here.

Smart Thermostat

Smart thermostats bring more than just convenience to your home—they make it easy to cut down on utility costs. Smart thermostats learn your daily patterns and automatically adjust to suit your lifestyle.

When everyone leaves home for the day, the thermostat shuts off until a few hours before you come home. Smart thermostats make micro adjustments throughout the day to keep your home at a consistent temperature without driving up expenses.

Nest is the go-to name in the market, but it isn’t our recommendation. If we had to pick a single smart thermostat for the average person, it would be the ecobee4. This smart thermostat is said to save homeowners as much as 23% per year on heating and cooling costs, but the true appeal lies in its room sensors.

The majority of smart thermostats base temperature readings only on the room they’re in, but the ecobee4 lets users place sensors throughout their home to give the thermostat a better reading on the ambient temperature in the entire house.

Installation only takes around half an hour. Once you’re set up, the ecobee4 has a built-in Amazon Alexa that allows users to adjust the temperature with just their voice. 

The ecobee4 is the latest addition to the market, and while the only difference from the previous iteration is the addition of Alexa, there isn’t a step up in price. For roughly $238, you can get a great thermostat that will, in time, pay for itself.

To find out more about smart thermostats and what your options might be, check out our write-up here.

Smart Assistants

A smart home is convenient, but voice control takes it to another level. The three main options for controlling your smart home are Google Home, Amazon Alexa, and Apple HomeKit (or Siri.) While each one of these has pros and cons, Google Home and Amazon Alexa grant essentially the same level of control over your home.

Apple HomeKit is far more limited in its compatibility and not the best choice for home control, although the HomeKit-compatible HomePod has the best sound quality of any smart speaker.

Our recommendation lies with the Amazon Echo Show. The screen can link to compatible smart doorbells, display the weather, check your calendar, and much more. You can also issue voice commands to the display. The only thing the Echo Show lacks is YouTube due to the constant rivalry between Amazon and Google.

The Google Home has a slightly more appealing voice than Alexa, but the Echo’s functionality is unmatched. Amazon consistently releases updates to the Echo that make it even more of a powerhouse than it was before.

To see a deep-dive comparison of the various smart assistants on the market, check out our write-up here.

Other Smart Home Tech

There are hundreds of devices you can add to your home. Smart plugs are useful for controlling the power remotely and monitoring energy usage, while more advanced equipment like smart ovens and smart washers and dryers give you voice control over everyday tasks. These aren’t absolutely necessary for a smart home, but they can be nice additions if you decide to expand.

Smart home hubs enable compatibility between normally incompatible devices. For example, a Zigbee device and a Z-Wave device (the two primary types of smart home protocols) do not normally work with one another—but using something like the Samsung SmartThings Hub can streamline your smart home and grant control over all of your systems from a single app.

Use this article as a guide to getting started, but remember that your desires for your home are unique. What we recommend may not be the best option for you.

Take the time to familiarize yourself with what’s available and then decide what devices best work for you. Before you know it, you’ll have forgotten the last time you flipped a light switch.

5 Great Cases for iPhone XS, XS Max, XR

In the early days of cellphones, no one
needed a case—the phones themselves could withstand nearly anything short of a
stick of dynamite. But with new phones and more sensitive technology inside,
cases are necessary not only for protection, but for accessorizing.

iPhone cases do more than look great. Cases can add extra features like extended battery life, improve wireless charging, and more. The only downside is the number of cases on the market—it can be hard to choose which case is the right one for you.

We’ve rounded up our picks for the best iPhone XS, XS Max and XR cases and listed them out here.

1. Otterbox Traction (Otterbox)

The Otterbox Traction is a fantastic case for two reasons. The first is the reputation and durability of Otterbox cases. No matter how rough you are with your phone, this case will protect it (unless you are really determined to break the phone.)

The second is the clear, translucent back. While the Otterbox Traction doesn’t add any additional features to the phone, it does allow you to show off the color of the phone.

So many cases cover the back of the phone
that your color choice doesn’t seem to matter, but everyone knows that Space
Grey is the best color. Why not show it off a bit? The Otterbox Traction starts
at around $40.

2. Apple iPhone XS Smart Battery Case (Apple)

The one thing to keep in mind about Apple’s
Smart Battery Case is that it contains a battery—which means aesthetics go
right out the window. This is my no means an attractive case, and with only
three color options, you have to ask: what was Apple thinking? Why not just
give customers the option to buy the same color options they buy phones in?

Despite the rather bulky look of the case,
you can’t deny the utility. The iPhone XS Smart Battery Case extends the
default battery life from just under ten hours to up to 37 hours of talk time
and 20 hours of internet use and video playback. Just make sure to charge both
the case and the phone for maximum results. The Smart Battery Case starts at
$129.

3. Silk Wallet Slayer (Amazon)

There are a host of leather wallet-style
iPhone cases, but they tend to be outside of any reasonable price point for
average consumers. Some of the higher-end leather cases cost one-third the
price of an iPhone XR. That’s too much, even if you have the money to spend on
it.

The Silk Wallet Slayer is a much more
affordable and reasonable option. Starting around $23, the Silk fits three
credit cards and cash while remaining wireless charging compatible. It’s the
perfect way to ditch your old, bulky wallet and keep only the essentials on
you—and since your cards and cash will be packed into your phone case, you
aren’t likely to forget them.

4. Lifeproof Fre (Amazon)

Some phone cases offer protection on par
with football gear, while others offer the protection of an Abrams tank. The
Lifeproof Fre is the latter. If you work outdoors and find your phone in the
way of harm, this is the case for you. The Lifeproof Fre is drop, dirt, and
snow-proof, according to the company.

The case wraps around the back and side of your phone and has a built-in screen cover. Once you’ve secured your phone inside, the Lifeproof Fre claims it can be submerged in up to 2 meters of water for an hour without worry—on top of surviving a 6-foot drop.

It’s a tough-built case for people that are tough on their phones. The only downside is the price. The Lifeproof Fre is $61 on Amazon at the time of writing.

5. UAG Monarch (Amazon)

Sturdy phone cases are worth their weigh in gold, but they often add a lot of extra bulk to the phone. On the other hand, thin cases barely offer any protection against drops or dirt.

The UAG Monarch series strikes a balance between both by offering reliable protection without adding a lot of bulk to the phone. The honeycombed case lends extra grip to your device, while a mixture of leather and metal protect it from harm.

The UAG Monarch is said to meet military
drop-test standards and comes in six different color choices. One thing no one
can dispute are the looks—this is an attractive, striking case. It’s also more
affordable than most, starting at $50.

Deciding on the Right Case

There are five great choices on this list, but there are dozens more that didn’t make the cut. That said, a lack of mention here doesn’t mean the cases aren’t worthwhile. Take a look at what’s out there and decide what sort of case best suits you.

If you do a lot of gaming or watch a lot of videos and find yourself charging far too often, pick up a battery case. On the other hand, if you’re an outdoorsman with a tendency to drop your phone, a Lifeproof or Otterbox case might be a good choice.

Best Camera Attachments for Smartphones

Smart phones today have cameras that rival all but the most high-end DSLR cameras. With a bit of practice, even an amateur photographer can take professional-grade pictures with just their camera.

This becomes even easier when you think about the slew of attachable, portable camera lenses for phones. Many of these just snap on your phone and fit in a pocket, so you can take them anywhere without the need for a specialized camera bag.

We’ve studied the market and rounded up the
best camera attachments for phones to help you up your Instagram game.

Olloclip (Amazon)

Olloclip is one of the original iPhone camera accessory makers. The company produces clip-on lenses for a wide range of phones from the iPhone 8 all the way to the X.

Although earlier models are no longer in production, a smart shopper can still dig up lens attachments for the iPhone 6. The most recent iteration caters to the iPhone X and includes a Macro lens with 15x magnification, a Fish-Eye lens, and a Super-Wide lens.

Olloclip also makes other accessories like
grips and carrying cases. If you want to get into photography without a lot of
hassle, the Olloclip is a great place to start—if you’re an iPhone user.

Moment (Buy from
Moment
)

If you’re a serious photographer, then Moment is the company for you. Moment caters toward high-end, high-quality mobile photography gear, and their prices reflect that.

Where Olloclip might sell a full lens set for around $90, a single lens from Moment can cost more than $120. Moment sells everything a photographer might need, from an 18mm wide angle lens to a 62mm UV filter.

Moment sells counterweight gimbals and lighting accessories, too. In addition to the photography gear, the Moment Pro Camera app is one of the most versatile, powerful camera applications available to iPhone users.

It overhauls the basic functionality of your phone’s camera and grants full manual control of ISO, shutter speed, white balance, and much more.

Aukey Ora (Amazon)

If Olloclip is the easy solution for
phone-based photography, then the Aukey Ora series is the budget version. For
just $19.99, users get a two-in-one lens kit that includes a 140-degree
wide-angle lens and a 10x macro lens. The lenses clip onto your phone with ease
for easy swapping between the two types.

The downside is that the Aukey Ora only
works with iPhone 6, 7, and 8, Samsung phones, and “other Android
smartphones.” To find out whether it works with your device, you might
need to do a bit of digging. The one thing no one can debate is the quality.
The Aukey packs quite the photographic punch for such a low price.

Sony QX10 & QX100 (Amazon)

Sony has long been known for quality cameras, but the QX10 and QX100 definitely fall into the “experimental” category. Marketed as a camera for smart phones, they actually use the phone itself as a viewfinder.

The lens link to the phone and grant complete control to the user. While you can purchase clips to attach the lens to the phone, it is not always the most elegant solution.

On the other hand, the specs on these
cameras are impressive. The QX10 gives 10x zoom, while the QX100 has
significantly higher technical specs with a 20 megapixel sensor and a 1.8
aperture for low-light photography. These are not the cheapest solutions, but
if you love Sony cameras an want a portable solution, the QX10 and QX100 might
be a great fit for you.

A Tip for Android Users

If you search for phone camera lenses, the majority of results will be for iPhone. Android cameras are powerful, but Apple has done a fantastic job of marketing their line of phones as having the best cameras of any phone.

As a result, a lot of manufacturers cater their equipment toward iPhone users. However, a bit of digging will help you find a lens that fits your phone camera, as long as you have a mainstream Android device.