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Consumer Reports

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    Will my new memory card work with my camera?

    Last week, SanDisk, which produces memory cards for cameras, camcorders, smartphones, and other mobile devices for storing images and video, announced that one of its latest microSD SDXC memory cards would ship with 200GB of capacity. At $400, it’s a pricey card, but for people who shoots thousands of photos or capture hours and hours of video, it could make sense.

    The new card received a lot of attention—at least on tech blogs—but it's actually not the biggest SD (or Secure Digital) memory card on the market. SanDisk also sells a full-size (or non-micro) version of its Extreme PRO SDXC memory card that comes with 512GB of memory and costs around $600. If you have a 16-megapixel digital camera, you’d be able to store more than 90,000 photos on that card (assuming they were JPEG files at the lowest compression setting).

    However, that depends on the card working in your camera—and if you have an older model, it probably won't. There are several generations of memory cards in circulation, and before you buy one, you should make sure it's compatible with your camera. Here's what you need to know.

    Find the best digital camera for your needs and budget: Check our camera buying guide and Ratings.

    What types of SD cards are out there? Essentially, there are three types, which I’ve listed in order from newest to the oldest.  

    • SDXC (at the moment, from 64GBs to 512GBs of storage); prices range from about $30 to $600
    • SDHC (from 4GBs to 32GBs of storage); prices range from about $7 to $120
    • SD (up to 2GBs of storage); prices are less than $10

    Which memory cards are compatible with your digital camera? You’ll have to check your model's manual or the camera manufacturer’s website to be sure, but as a rule of thumb, the newest models are compatible with all three types of cards. And cameras generally are backwards-compatible (new models will accept older cards).

    • Cameras compatible with SDXC cards can also use SDHC and SD cards
    • Cameras compatible with SDHC cards can also use SD cards
    • Cameras compatible with SD cards can only use SD cards

    For more on memory cards, check out the SD Association’s website. (This is a trade group dedicated to establishing SD standards.) There’s also a lot of information on SanDisk’s and Lexar’s website, which both manufacture memory cards.

    —Terry Sullivan

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Must-have car features, and those you can skip

    Consumers looking for their next new car may be overwhelmed by the abundance of available features, especially if they haven’t been in the market for a few years. Great advances in convenience, infotainment, and safety mean tough choices, pricey options, and a cavalcade of acronyms. We can help.

    Consumer Reports buys new cars for testing almost weekly, ensuring our staff has experienced just about every new feature that comes along. Some features are clever innovations that we wouldn’t be without, and some can be as much of a nuisance as a help. (Learn about how we test cars.)

    Based on our experience, here are recommendations for features worth considering and those that you should just skip.

    See our guide to infotainment systems.

    Comfortable seats! Drivers can spend a lot of time in the car. If the seats aren’t comfortable, you won’t be happy with your car for long. Be sure as part of your test drive that you spend adequate time evaluating the seat,. Be sure each driver get’s a chance to assess the seats for at least 15 to 20 minutes.

    Power driver’s seat with height-adjustable lumbar support. With greater fine-tuning ability than most manual seats, power seats can help most drivers find a much more comfortable driving position. Height-adjustable lumbar support is another key to long-term comfort. If the lumbar bulge is in the wrong place, it’s no more comfortable than having too little lumbar support.

    Memory function for seats can be a marriage saver. This allows each driver to save key seatings and switch from one driver configuration to another with a simple button press. Often this feature can also store radio and climate preferences, as well.

    Forward-collision warning, available in many new cars, is proving effective at reducing crashes. Using forward radar or cameras, the system tracks distance to the car ahead and how fast you’re closing on them. If you are closing in too quickly, risking possible collision without appropriate driver reaction (such as decelerating or braking), the system sounds a warning. Better systems can automatically apply the brakes if needed to avoid or minimize a crash.

    A backup camera is like having eyes in the back of your head, reducing the risk for backing over or into something that might otherwise be unseen behind the vehicle. It’s both a safety feature and a convenience for  parking.

    Rear cross-traffic alert takes seeing behind you to the next level by warning you when other traffic is approaching from the side as you back out.

    Blind-spot monitoring signals when there’s a car in the blind spot beside you on the road. The best systems light up little yellow lights in the side mirrors where you should be looking anyway. They emit a chime if you signal a move toward a car next to you. We’ve found these systems to be very effective.,

    Bluetooth connectivity allows you to answer a cell-phone call hands-free, without fumbling to answer the phone or risking a law violation. In addition, Internet-sourced audio can typically be streamed to the car wirelessly, provided you took the time to pair the phone to the car.

    A USB port can be used to charge a device and play music through the stereo.

    Voice controls can keep you from fumbling either with your phone or the car’s controls when  looking for the perfect song or trying to phone home. They’re also handy for entering a destination in the navigation system, even under way.!

    Heated seats and steering wheel can be much appreciated during a cold winter.  Trust us, once you try these, you’ll never want to live without them.

    Dual-zone automatic climate control allows the driver and front passenger to fine-tune temperature settings. Set and forget—the system will make adjustments as needed to keep everyone comfortable. It also has a safety benefit – in Auto mode, you’ll be fumbling less.

    Automatic high beams take the stress out of driving on back roads at night by automatically turn off the high beams for oncoming traffic, and then turning them back up once the cars have past.. We’ve found some systems (such as Toyota’s) work much better than others (such as Chrysler’s), however.

    Spare tire. Lots of cars come without them these days, so check before you buy. In many cases, a spare tire can be added for a fee.

    Keyless entry makes a huge difference when you’re trying to open the car and have your hands full of bags, babies, or a briefcase. Just walk up and open the doors—sometimes by touching a sensor on the handle. Almost all cars with keyless entry also have pushbutton start. But even if they don’t, it’s easier to fish for the key once your hands are free.

    Gesture/character recognition some cars are introducing separate touch pads to interface with their center screens, where you can scribe letters to enter addresses, for example. But they’re just as distracting and no easier to use than scroll wheels or simple touch screens.

    iPod/iPad/HDMI audio/video adapter. Some cars come with special adapters to connect your phone to the car, unnecessarily tying you into one type of connector and one type of phone; they can’t really do anything USB or Bluetooth connections don’t.

    CD/DVD player. With all the modern connectivity in cars and most people carrying their music libraries on their phones, CD players seem redundant. Plus, they take up valuable real estate on the dashboard. Similarly, iPads can carry movies as well as games, making rear entertainment systems another unnecessary expense and complication.

    Start-stop systems turn the engine off at stoplights to save gas. But they often shudder or surge when they restart, and gas savings seem pretty minimal. Most of our drivers override them before they start out.

    Built-in navigation brings a nice big screen and integrates with the car’s controls. But phone-based navigation often has better points of interest and voice recognition, and some factor traffic conditions.

    Apps are feeding into more and more cars. Some of them are handy: Aha, Audible, Pandora, Stitcher, and Spotify, among others, make it easier to control playback than just using the direct Bluetooth connection in the car. But as quickly as new apps come along, any of them could become obsolete before you trade in your car. The systems that seem particularly ridiculous are those that require a separate umbrella app on your phone to interface with any app on the car, such as Toyota’s Entune system.

    Wi-Fi in cars is the latest rage. GM rolled it out across its lineup for 2015, and select luxury cars have offered it for a few years. We don’t get it. Most cell-phone plans offer mobile hot spots. And the signal has to come from somewhere. Wi-Fi routers in your car require their own monthly 3G data subscription in addition to your new car payment.

    Turbochargers are spooling up on engines large and small. The idea is that you can get more power from a smaller engine, and thus save gas compared with a bigger engine of similar power. Our tests haven’t shown any such fuel economy benefit from most turbocharged engines. What they do consistently boost is repair and maintenance costs. Often, turbos are unavoidable, but with many models, they are an option. Consider the full pros and cons before buying.

    Cooled seats. While most of our staff clamors for heated seats, we’ve heard no such outcry for cooled seats, which add a lot of noise and complication for a sensation that’s more strange than comforting.

    Lane-keeping assist is a new system that monitors the lane lines and electrically nudges the steering wheel to keep you between them. We haven’t seen statistics yet, but it seems to us that lane-departure systems are just as effective at warning you if you’re not paying attention, and they’re less annoying because they don’t give you the eerie feeling that someone else is tugging the steering wheel .

    Eric Evarts

    2015 Autos Spotlight

    Visit the 2015 Autos Spotlight special section for our 2015 Top PicksCar Brand Report Cardsbest and worst new carsbest and worst used carsused-car reliabilitynew-car Ratings and road tests, and much more.

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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  • 03/16/15--04:59: Used-Car Disasters
  • Used-Car Disasters

    It’s every used-car buyer’s nightmare: Getting a rebuilt wreck despite doing extensive research.

    That’s because they’re difficult to spot. Even buying a model known for reliability is no guarantee that it won’t have problems. That’s what Deborah Boulet of Canterbury, Conn., found when she bought a used 2011 Mazda3 and discovered ­water leaking into its trunk on the day she took delivery. Upon further investigation, her attorney found that the car had been hit by a snowplow and shoddily repaired. Now towels soak up the water as Boulet fights a legal battle to get the dealership to buy back her car. “I don’t trust this car at all anymore, and I drive it as little as possible,” she said. “It’s been a nightmare.”

    According to Carfax, a service that provides vehicle history ­reports, about 20 percent of cars on the road have some sort of accident damage.

    But a 2009 Consumer Reports investigation showed that reports from Carfax and its main competitor, AutoCheck, can’t catch everything. Differing state laws governing salvage titles allow for loopholes big enough to drive a rebuilt wreck through. Often, even when a car’s title is conspicuously labeled as salvaged, consumers such as Boulet never see it. Ask to see the title before you buy a used car, and be especially wary of any car with a “lost” title.

    See our list of the best and worst used cars.

    Though there is no substitute for hiring your own mechanic to inspect any car you’re serious about buying, look for these telltale signs first to thin the herd:

    • The close-up: Inspect each body panel for scratches, dents, or rust. Masking-tape marks ­under windowsills or fender edges indicate paintwork.
    • Straight and narrow: Uneven panel gaps around the fenders, doors, hood, and trunk can indicate shoddy repair.
    • Blend well: Be sure the paint color and finish are uniform, and check inside doorjambs for dull-looking overspray.
    • Attractive personality: Run a magnet along doors and fenders. If it doesn’t pull toward the car, there may be body filler under the paint, indicating body repairs.
    • Crystal clear: Check for moisture fogging in the lights.
    • Tread lightly Make sure the tires have even tread wear. New tires may hide problems.
    • Rust bucket: A coating of rust on bolts or hinges inside the doorjamb is a clue that the car may have been submerged.
    • Sniff test: A musty, moldy smell in the interior or trunk could indicate water damage.
    • Check the tailpipe: Black, greasy residue inside means the engine is burning oil.

    Eric Evarts

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Chevrolet Volt recalled for carbon-monoxide buildup risk

    The Chevrolet Volt was recalled last week, ironically for being too quiet. It seems that when drivers use the Volt as intended, arriving back home from a round trip on electric power, the car is so quiet that some forget to turn it off.

    The problem arises when owners park the car in an attached garage without plugging it in. In an emailed statement, GM describes the problem:

    “If a driver exits the vehicle and inadvertently leaves the vehicle ‘on’ by failing to react to cues and warning chimes emitted by the vehicle, the vehicle’s high-voltage battery will drain after a period of time and the gasoline engine will begin to run. If the gas engine runs for a long period of time within an enclosed space, such as a garage, carbon monoxide could build up.”

    GM is recalling 2011 to 2013 Volts to update the software so the car will shut off automatically after an hour and a half to reduce the potential carbon monoxide buildup. Volts from 2014 and 2015 already have the update.

    Two people have been injured from the carbon-monoxide buildup, according to the GM statement.

    We’ve seen similar problems with other hybrids, such as when one staff member drove to the office in our 2014 Toyota Highlander Hybrid recently and parked it, not clear that the power was technically still on. Another staffer heard its engine running in the parking lot an hour later, as the engine fired up to provide heat on the cold winter day.

    We think an automatic shutoff seems a sensible solution that makes sense for all cars, especially hybrids.

    Eric Evarts

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    The hottest trends in outdoor entertaining

    The recent Hearth, Patio and Barbecue Expo was a feast for the eyes. On display were high-end grills, wood-fired pizza ovens, and upscale fire pits, among other inspirations for creating an outdoor oasis. If the wares on display were any indication, there will be a lot of posh parties this summer. Consumer Reports' experts walked the floor of the show and here are three trends they spotted.

    Grills go wild with features

    The first thing you’ll notice about the Saber Smart Edge Grill, which won best in show, is its slim profile. The lid on the infrared grill looks almost flat and you can replace it with a ceramic glass lid if you want to see what’s cooking. The smart part comes from connecting the grill to your Wi-Fi so you can use your phone to monitor cooking time, fuel level, and when the grill is cool enough to clean. The grills will ship in May. Other grills on display included:

    • The Fervor IC300-R Grill introduced “Grillsmart” cooking plates that are designed so fat and oil from the food drips down and drains into a waste cup.
    • DCS by Fisher & Paykel introduced a 48-inch built-in grill and a 30-inch freestanding grill. Both can be incorporated into an outdoor kitchen with the company’s other built-ins including a beverage center, trash bin, and storage cabinets.
    • Twin Eagles’ super-premium grills sell at lofty prices. Now the brand is featuring two mere premium lines, Delta Heat and Del Sol, with grills that sell for an earthly $1,200 to $2,200. They’re made in America.
    • Fire Magic also featured a grill with a glass lid. The high-end built-ins can be paired with side burners and other outdoor cabinets. The company claims, “Fire Magic is the last grill you’ll need to buy.”

    Wood-fired pizza ovens are hot

    Unlike the $11,000 built-in pizza oven that we saw at an earlier trade show, most of the pizza ovens at the expo were freestanding or can be installed on top of a cart or other base. The models from New American Ovens can be used right out of the box, no masonry required. The ceramic oven’s two-floor cooking system separates the firebox from the cooking surface. It costs about $2,800. Other pizza ovens included:

    • The Forno pizza oven by Morso is shaped like an Italian stone oven. It’s made of solid enamelled cast iron. The oven comes in two sizes that cost $1,400 and $1,800.
    • Fornetto makes both built-in and freestanding pizza ovens that start at $1,700. Each oven is designed to use any approved combustible fuel including wood, charcoal, briquettes, and fire starters.
    • The Bull outdoor pizza ovens are made in Italy. They’re considered portable but the large pizza oven weighs 238 pounds and the extra-large weighs 305.
    • Called a countertop oven, the Chicago Brick Oven 750 Hybrid Oven includes a two-burner gas system, with an infrared burner and an ambient burner at the back. It also burns wood to attain that smoky wood-fired flavor.

    Fire pits tame the flames

    Its website is called rethinkingfire.com and that’s exactly what Breeo has done with its Luxeve smokeless fire pit. Designed to pull the smoke into the rim, the Luxeve does away with the annoying issue of smoke migrating to wherever you and your guests happen to be sitting. Other fire pits at the expo included:

    • The Alfresco Fire N Table stands at the height of the typical bar and has enough space for 8 to 12 guests to gather around. In warmer weather, you can insert an ice bucket into the pit and use it as a cooler.
    • Forshaw featured a number of fire pits in different configurations including round and rectangular tables and the more familiar low, freestanding fire pits.
    • Waterstone’s fire tables and fire rocks inset the pit in Gneiss boulders from Minnesota. The stone fire pits are one-of-a-kind and come with a hefty price tag.


    How about an ordinary grill?

    Consumer Reports' tests of gas grills include dozens and dozens of top-performing grills at affordable prices. And if you like to grill pizza, you can even trick out your grill with a BakerStone Pizza Oven Box for only $150. Here are top small, medium, and large grills from our tests.

    For more choices, see our full gas grill Ratings and recommendations. In the next few weeks we’ll be adding more newly tested grills to our Ratings.

    —Mary H.J. Farrell with Mark Allwood

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Convertible Worx Aerocart does the heavy lifting

    Worx, a maker of electric outdoor power equipment and related products, calls the Worx Aerocart an “8-in-1 all-purpose lifter, carrier, and mover that lightens every load.” The $160 product converts from a garden cart and wheelbarrow to a hand truck, with several options that, for instance, let a 98-pound editor lift and move an 86-pound potted plant. In our tests, the Aerocart mostly met its claims.

    Because the product has two wheels, it has an advantage over the standard wheelbarrow right off the bat: no tipping with heavy loads. The wheels are large and wide enough to remain stable even over soft soil or grass. They’re also non-inflatable, unlike many standard wheelbarrow wheels that go flat between uses.

    A blade in the cart’s front locks in place at a 90-degree angle to the cart for when you need a hand truck. And when the blade is down, you lock in two extension arms to hook on a plant sling, which can also hold a five-gallon bucket. It’s in this position that the Aerocart’s engineering shines. In fact, the more you push down on the handles to raise the load, the easier it is to hold the object aloft to move it.

    We could not test all of the Aerocart’s optional attachments, which include a seat, a water-hauler bag, a snow-plow attachment, and a wagon you can attach to a trailer ball of a tractor or vehicle. But what we did try out impressed us overall, with these exceptions:

    • The plant sling was a little hard for a single person to use. Clipping the cradle’s rings onto the extension arms’ hooks and then lifting the plant while keeping the rings on the hooks required multiple attempts and lots of stretching;
    • With the lifting arms extended, maneuvering the cart and load in tight spaces can be difficult; and
    • The lip of the wheelbarrow tray doesn’t reach the ground when you lower the front of the cart because it’s offset by the depth of the hand-truck/dolly blade. That can make loading and unloading the cart a little harder.

    And while the Aerocart appears to be well built, it might be less durable than a cart or wheelbarrow in a single configuration. Still, the product’s moving parts—particularly how the wheels fold out of the way into a shallower footprint—also let you stow it more conveniently than a standard garden cart or wheelbarrow. And never needing to buy a separate hand truck further reduces the number of items stored in your garage or shed.

    Mowers and tractors. With the springtime thaw finally on track, we’ll soon be posting Ratings of the latest mowers, tractors, and zero-turn-radius riders we’ve tested. See also our Ratings of string trimmers, leaf blowers, and chain saws.

    —Ed Perratore (@EdPerratore on Twitter)

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    8 tips for surviving St. Patrick's Day on the road

     

    St. Patrick's Day celebrations often involve raising a pint of green beer. But before you head out with friends, consider the sobering reality that 10,000 people died in alcohol-impaired driving crashes in 2012, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. That's one every 51 minutes. 

    Here are eight key survival tips:

    1. Stay off the road. If you really want to avoid a traffic accident, or worse, simply don't be in traffic. This is especially true at night, when most alcohol-related fatalities take place. So stay home. If you're gonna party anyway, have the party at your house, make it a sleep-over for your friends' sake, or plan to stay over if you go to a friend's house for planned overindulgence. Be sure to arrive at your evening destination during daylight hours.
    2. Use a designated driver. If you have to party at night, arrange for a designated, sober driver. It's best if the designated driver is selected before the party, and, of course, is a safe and reliable driver to begin with. When all else fails, take a taxi home.
    3. Be a designated driver. Stay straight, save lives. It's that simple.
    4. Know your limit. Will drinking two beers in one hour impair your driving? It could if you weigh 130 lbs. or less. Maybe not if you weigh 160 lbs. or more. Intoxication is legally measured by blood-alcohol content, or BAC. Any individual may process (metabolize) alcohol faster or slower than average. On the whole, alcohol Impairment is present in the average adult when the BAC reaches .05 percent. The legal limit, meaning the point at which you will be arrested for drunk driving, is .08 in most places. That's when the ability to accurately steer, brake, and judge distances is impaired for the average person.
    5. Ride in a safe car. Some crashes are unavoidable, no matter what time of the year it is. If a driver--drunk or otherwise--swoops into your path, you want to be in a crash-worthy vehicle. In general, we recommend people purchase vehicles that have performed well in both crash tests and our own dynamic evaluations. Understanding no one will buy a car for just one night on the town, consider taking a larger, more modern vehicle over an older model with fewer safety features at this time of greater road risk. (If you want a sobering reality check, see our safety ratings, as well as crash test videos.)
    6. Wear seat belts. Wearing your safety belt is the single best insurance against injury or fatality in any kind of crash.
    7. Ride in the back seat. Sometimes you can't choose the vehicle you ride in or who drives it. But usually you can choose where to sit. In most crashes, the rear seat is a better place to be than the front. Be sure to have the head rest properly elevated and wear a seat belt.
    8. Watch out for the other guy. If you see someone on the road who appears to be under the influence, don't take chances. Get the plate number and call 911. You may be saving someone's life.

    Sober reminder: Don't live to regret
    Party time can end pretty suddenly when a drunk driver kills or maims himself, passengers, and/or people in other cars or pedestrians. The masculine pronoun is used intentionally: In the majority of alcohol-related deaths, the drunk driver was a man. Alcohol-related traffic deaths aren't limited to drivers, though. Alcohol involvement—for the driver and/or pedestrian—was reported in 49 percent of all fatal pedestrian crashes in 2013. Tipsy pedestrians are a risk, too.  

    Be safe and enjoy the holiday!

    —Gordon Hard

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    5 great gadgets that go beyond basic black designs

    Many new gadgets on the market combine fashion and function. The five featured here are just a few of the many we've seen that are as stylish as they are capable. Fun colors, sleek lines, arresting designs—they have it all.

    —Eileen McCooey

    Pentax K-50 SLR camera $600 (color); $500 (black)

    Basic black may be great for cocktail dresses, but for tech gadgets, it’s boooring. Bring on the color! You can choose the hues for the body and the grip of this Pentax SLR. We designed a pretty pink and white version; other choices include mint, aqua, and lilac. This 16-megapixel model is a CR Best Buy that takes very good photos. Its sealed body is designed to resist water, dust, and cold, but it isn’t waterproof.

     

    LG G Flex 2 smart phone ($200 from Sprint with a two-year contract, or $21 a month for 24 months)

    Tired of a rectangular black phone? Then check out this curvaceous, colorful model. The 5.5-inch screen adorns a contoured body that flexes under pressure. We haven’t tested this latest version, but the original G Flex we tested continued to work even after we applied 1,000 pounds of pressure! Sprint offers it in volcano red—talk about hot stuff.

    Motorola Moto 360 smart watch (from $250)

    Unlike some of the chunky choices we’ve seen, the Motorola Moto 360 smart watch stands out for style as well as smarts. The round face gives it the look of a traditional watch, and it fits more comfortably on the wrist than rectangular models. The Motorola Moto 360 has a stainless-steel case and metal or leather straps. It performs the usual smart-watch tricks—alerting users to incoming texts, calls, e-mails, social site updates, and weather information—and it has a built-in heart-rate monitor and pedometer. It’s compatible with phones running Android 4.3 or later.

    Ricoh WG-M1 camcorder (less than $200)

    Now for something completely different: This futuristic-looking action cam, available in orange or black, screams macho swagger. It backs up its rugged good looks with strong performance and a housing that’s waterproof to a depth of 32 feet. It features wireless connectivity and a 1.4-inch LCD screen. We found it selling for $175 to $200.

    Sony Xperia Z3 tablet ($500)

    Sleek and slim, this compact tablet weighs just a bit over a half pound, so you won’t break a sweat carrying it around. The excellent display is surrounded by a narrow bezel. The back is a matte material that's a pearly-white color. It’s not only stylish—it’s also waterproof. Performance is excellent.

     

     

     

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  • 03/17/15--14:59: Best deals on large SUVs
  • Best deals on large SUVs

    With many parts of the the nation still thawing from a tough winter, many car shoppers are gravitating toward the all-terrain and all-weather virtues of a family-friendly SUV. Based on our latest analysis, if you're an informed consumer you can save real money. But with gas prices well below what they were a year ago, we’re not seeing the massive discounts we once did.

    We combed through the available savings, focusing on three-row SUVs with real money on the hood. This list is strictly based on dollars saved. (Our Best New Car Deals list routinely covers just models that meet the stringent performance, reliability, and safety criteria to be Consumer Reports recommended.) Although we highlight one specific configuration, all these models offer similar savings on other variations.

    Each vehicle highlighted below is available with at least a 5 percent discount off the retail price in national incentives. Some may also carry additional regional or other special incentives. Specific pricing details on these and other trim variations are available on the model pages, along with complete road tests, reliability, owner cost, and other key information. The vehicles are listed in alphabetical order.

    Consumer Reports Build & Buy

    When buying a car, in addition to research and reviews, Consumer Reports offers subscribers access to the Build & Buy Car Buying Service at no additional cost. Through this service, a nationwide network of more than 9,000 participating dealers provide upfront pricing information and a certificate to receive guaranteed savings off MSRP (in most states). The pricing information and guaranteed savings includes eligible incentives. Consumer Reports subscribers have saved an average of $2,919 off MSRP with the Build & Buy Car Buying Service.

    Buick Enclave

    Even after six years on the market, the large Enclave remains a competitive three-row SUV. We liked its firm, comfortable, and quiet ride and its agile, secure handling. But like its corporate cousins, the Chevrolet Traverse and GMC Acadia, it's beginning to show its age. The 3.6-liter V6 engine and six-speed automatic are smooth and powerful enough, but at times they work hard in this large SUV, and its 15-mpg overall is paltry. A big plus is the ability to fit adults in the roomy third row. Fit and finish is impressive, and for 2015 forward-collision and lane-departure warning systems are available.

    Make & model Expires MSRP Invoice Potential savings off MSRP
    2015 Buick Enclave Premium AWD 3/31/15 $50,230 $48,751 $2,979

    Dodge Durango

    Spacious, quiet, and comfortable, the Durango blends refinement and capability. It shares its platform with the Jeep Grand Cherokee but is longer and adds the benefit of a third-row seat. Handling is responsive for such a large vehicle, and the ride is composed and comfortable. A slick new eight-speed automatic improved performance and fuel economy with both the V6 and V8 engines. The optional Uconnect 8.4-inch infotainment system is one of the best, with intuitive operation. Cargo room is generous, and the Durango can tow 1,000 to 2,000 pounds more than competitors. Limited visibility is a downside, but a rear-view camera is standard on all but the lowest trim lines. Reliability of the Durango has been average recently.

    Make & model Expires MSRP Invoice Potential savings off MSRP
    2015 Dodge Durango Limited AWD
    3/31/15 $40,390 $38,619 $1,932

    Ford Expedition

    The big news about this big SUV is that the 3.5-liter EcoBoost V6 engine has made its way under the hood with a 2015 freshening. The V6 pulls a double win, delivering more power and better fuel economy than the old V8 it replaces. Paired with the standard six-speed automatic transmission, ours returned 14-mpg overall in testing—a 1-mpg improvement. The V6 also has plenty of torque for trailer towing. New features include Sync with MyFord Touch, push-button start, and blind-spot monitoring. Regular- and long-wheelbase versions are available, as well as eight-passenger seating. And that's where the fun stops. Handling is clumsy, and the aging Expedition still trails all others in the category with its noisy, cheap-feeling interior.

    Make & model Expires MSRP Invoice Potential savings off MSRP
    2015 Ford Expedition EL Platinum 4WD 3/31/15 $65,515 $62,580 $2,930

    GMC Acadia

    Though it's starting to feel a little dated, the Acadia is still competitive among three-row SUVs. Like its twins, the Chevrolet Traverse and Buick Enclave, it has a spacious and quiet interior, with a third-row seat that's roomy enough for adults. Seating for eight is available. Handling is relatively agile and secure, with responsive steering, and the ride is comfortable and steady. Its 3.6-liter V6 is smooth and refined, but it has to work hard and it gets mediocre gas mileage. Upgraded touch-screen infotainment systems bring more capability. Rear visibility isn't great, but clever extra mirrors reduce side blind spots. Denali versions have more features but no better functionality or performance. Reliability has been average.

    Make & model Expires MSRP Invoice Potential savings off MSRP
    2015 GMC Acadia AWD Denali 3/31/15
    $50,615 $49,124 $2,991

    Hyundai Santa Fe

    Hyundai's three-row, midsized SUV is a roomy and comfortable vehicle built for family duty. The long-wheelbase Santa Fe has a 3.3-liter V6 mated to a smooth and responsive six-speed automatic, a combination that attained 20-mpg overall in our tests. Handling is sound and utterly secure, but nobody will call it sporty. Another plus is the settled, compliant ride that blunts pavement imperfections and lets the SUV sail smoothly on the highway. The well-finished cabin brings a lot of features for the money. Rear visibility is severely hampered; a backup camera is now standard. Access is easy to the front and rear but more difficult to the cramped third row. Reliability has been average.

    Make & model Expires MSRP Invoice Potential savings off MSRP
    2015 Hyundai Santa Fe Limited AWD
    3/31/15 $36,895 $35,122 $1,580
    2015 Autos Spotlight

    Visit the 2015 Autos Spotlight special section for our 2015 Top PicksCar Brand Report Cardsbest and worst new carsbest and worst used carsused-car reliabilitynew-car Ratings and road tests, and much more.

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    5 top vacuums for $150 or less

    Consumer Reports’ vacuum Ratings, like most results we provide to our readers, are sorted by overall performance—stressing the comprehensive efforts that go into our tests. But sometimes it’s all about the money. You can filter results in our Ratings to select by price, but here’s a shortcut to the best of our recommended vacuums that cost $150 or less. The five that follow are all upright models, which are cheaper on average than canister vacuums.

    Hoover WindTunnel T-Series Pet UH30310
    This $150 bagged upright packs impressive cleaning and pet-hair pickup into a low-priced, lightweight (17-pound) package. Carpet and bare-floor cleaning are both very good. And true to its name, the Hoover had superb pet-hair pickup. Key features include manual carpet pile-height adjustment, which we prefer over automatic systems for deep-cleaning carpets, and a brush on/off switch for bare floors. You do give up suction control for gentle cleaning of drapes. And adjusting the pile height requires you to bend downto reach the front of the vacuum.

    Hoover WindTunnel T-Series UH30300
    Impressive cleaning in a $140, lightweight package (only 16 pounds) makes this bagged Hoover an appealing choice. It's also superb at sucking up pesky pet hair—a plus for dog and cat owners—with strong airflow for tools. Key features include a brush on/off switch and manual carpet pile-height adjustment. But there’s no suction control for drapes. And here, too, you need to bend to adjust pile height.

    Hoover WindTunnel T-Series Rewind Bagless UH70120
    Fine cleaning and superb pet-hair pickup helped put this $130 bagless upright on our winner's list. This model also delivers lots of suction for tools, manual carpet pile-height adjustment, and a retractable cord—all in a relatively light machine that weighs just 18 pounds. Two things this value-priced model doesn't include: suction control for drapes and a brush on/off switch. And emptying a bagless vacuum's bin can be messy.

    Eureka AirSpeed AS1000A
    Eureka AirSpeed AS1001A Gold
    We tested the Walmart-exclusive, bagless Eureka AirSpeed AS1000A, $120. The more generally available Eureka AirSpeed AS1001A Gold, $10 more, performs similarly but differs slightly in features. Impressive cleaning and pet-hair pickup help make the Eureka AirSpeed AS1000A an appealing model. It's also relatively light (just 18 pounds) and includes manual carpet pile-height adjustment. But the low price includes neither suction control nor a brush on/off switch.

    Need a new vacuum?

    In addition to these and other recommended upright vacuums, our vacuum Ratings include 45 canister vacuums—recommended models start at $250—and 20 hand and stick vacuums. We’re also testing new robotic vacuums. Be sure to see our buying guide for vacuum cleaners before you begin to narrow your choices.

    —Ed Perratore (@EdPerratore on Twitter)

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    10 cheap tricks for spring cleaning

    Stocking up on all kinds of cleaners can give you sticker shock at the grocery store checkout. But you can make your house sparkle for less by relying on some homespun cleaning tricks that have stood the test of time. Here are 10 ways to save money as you do your chores plus some affordable cleaning products from Consumer Reports’ tests.

    Go halfsies. When you buy a box of sponges or scouring pads, cut them all in half. Presto! You’ve automatically slashed your costs by 50 percent. The same trick also works for dryer sheets.

    Banish dust with diapers. Old diapers make great dust cloths that won’t scratch surfaces. Our experts prefer diapers with an 8-ply thickness in the center and 4-ply on the sides. Fold the diaper in thirds so that it fits nicely in your hand. When one side gets dirty, refold to expose a clean surface. Diapers are soft and lint-free, and they can be reused again and again.

    Raid your tool box. If your shower tiles look grungy because of hard-to-remove soap scum, skip the pricey bathroom cleaners. Instead, try scraping off the film with a plastic putty knife. It’s gentler than abrasives, too.

    Instantly brighten interiors. Living room looking a little dingy? Dirty lightbulbs could be the culprit. Make dusting fixtures part of your regular cleaning routine. (Just wait until they’re cool first!)

    Keep outdoor dirt out. A doormat at every entrance can reduce incoming dirt and dust by up to 80 percent. That means less frequent dusting, vacuuming, and carpet shampooing. For added protection, place one inside the door in addition to the one outside to capture the grit that can damage hardwood floors.

    Sponge off pet hair. Instead of going through reams of lint rollers, try a damp sponge to remove pet hair from upholstery. Sponges are also great for getting into corners and crevices.

    Sock it to plants. Ditch the disposable dusting cloths. Instead, dampen a cotton sock with water, and wear it like a glove to gently dust leaves.

    Towel off granite countertops. For sticky gunk, wet a rag with hot water, then put it over the spot for a few minutes. The heat will loosen the stuff so that you can wipe it up.

    Boil away clogs. Pour a gallon of boiling water down your tub and sink drains weekly. That will clear grease and soap buildup without the need for caustic chemical cleaners.

    Take a shine to copper pots. Cut a lemon in half, sprinkle it with salt, and rub it on copper and brass pots to remove tarnish and restore sheen.

    Bargain cleaners from Consumer Reports' tests

    All-purpose cleaners: Pine-Sol Original liquid, $2.48 a bottle.
    Paper towels: Bounty Giant, $2.24 per 100 square feet
    Dishwasher detergent: Member's Mark Ultimate Clean (Sam's Club), 10 cents per load
    Dish liquid: Ajax Lemon Dishwashing Liquid, $2.10 a bottle
    Powdered cleaner: Comet With Bleach, $1.25 a carton
    Laundry detergent: Member's Mark Ultimate Clean (Sam's Club), 12 cents per load

    —Adapted from ShopSmart magazine

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    7 best mattresses for couples

    You may have the best mattress money can buy but if you’re being kept awake at night when your partner is tossing and turning, then you may want to reconsider. Some mattresses are better than others at  muting vibrations from one side of the bed to the other when someone changes position or gets up during the night. That’s why Consumer Reports conducts a stabilization test on every mattress it tests. Here are the seven best mattresses for couples—they make it easier for both partners to get a good night’s sleep.

    No more bouncing

    All of the best mattresses in our tests meet or exceed the threshold that earns our judgment of bounce resistance. These mattresses are less likely to relay vibrations when someone shifts positions. Still, some innersprings we recommend do better than others in this test. Among those, the $1,075 Serta Perfect Day iSeries Applause, which is becoming difficult to find, was among the best in our tests and delivered consistently impressive back and side support. (All prices listed are without the foundation.) The $1,275 Sealy Posturepedic Hybrid Trust Cushion did about as well at muting vibration.

    Moving with ease

    The foam beds we recommend are fine at muting vibration and all except the $3,000 Comforpedic IQ180 are notably good at making it easy to change positions. Keep in mind that lower scores on the stabilization test indicate mattresses on which changing positions is more likely to wake up your partner, particularly a light sleeper. Of the foam mattresses in our tests, the Ikea Morgongava, $1,000, is best at  allowing easy movement. Not far behind is the Spring Air Back Supporter Natalie, $1,200, from Costco.

    Firmness options

    Choose the Bob’s Discount Furniture Bob-O-Pedic, $800, and you can get it in firm or soft—or, for couples who can’t agree, a combination of the two. And both the Sleep Number i8 Bed, $3,000, and the less pricey Sleep Number c2 Bed, $700, have separately inflatable air bladders beneath their foam layers. That way you can adjust each half to the respective sleep partner’s preference. Both Sleep Number beds are especially good at resisting bounciness and easing movement. But don’t assume that any adjustable-air bed lets each sleep partner adjust firmness individually. The Tempur-Pedic Tempur-Choice Supreme, $3,200, which missed our picks list, has air bladders that go left to right rather than head to foot—meaning that adjustments made to one side affect the other as well.

    Full Ratings and recommendations

    Only by trying out a mattress for at least 15 minutes in each of your favorite sleep positions can you truly know how comfortable a bed feels. In addition to our stabilization tests, we also measure back and side support. For those sleeping preferences, see our Ratings of nearly 40 mattresses, along with our survey-based Ratings of mattress brands and stores. And be sure to read our mattress buying guide before shopping.

    —Ed Perratore (@EdPerratore on Twitter)

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    The best washers for $800 or less

    How much should you spend on a washer? You don’t have to pay $1,500 to get a washer that cleans well. Expensive washers offer a jumbo capacity and extra features, but if you don’t need to wash 26 pounds of laundry in one load and using your phone to check your laundry’s progress from Starbucks isn’t a priority, then take a look at these washers from Consumer Reports’ tests. They get the job done and cost $800 or less.

    Agitator top-loaders

    They’re cheaper, have faster wash times, and are still the big sellers. But they use a lot more water and extract less of it than high-efficiency (HE) top-loaders and front-loaders, extending dryer time. The center post agitator takes up space so these machines hold less laundry than HE washers—typically 12 to 16 pounds. And most are relatively noisy and not so gentle on fabrics.
    Consider: Whirlpool WTW4850BW, $580, and the GE GTWN5650FWS, $650. These top picks delivered impressive cleaning in our tests and the normal wash time using the heavy-soil setting is 50 to 55 minutes. You’ll save 5 to 10 minutes by using the normal wash on normal-soil setting.
    Tip: Some washers aren’t so gentle on fabrics so use the normal wash on light-soil setting when possible and the delicate cycle when necessary.

    High-efficiency top-loaders

    HE top-loaders hold 17 to 28 pounds of laundry. Compared to agitator washers they typically clean better, use less water, and spin at higher speeds so more water is extracted and dryer time is shortened. But the high-speed spin can tangle and wrinkle clothing and normal wash time using the heavy-soil setting is usually 65 to 80 minutes. Shave about 15 to 20 minutes off by using the normal wash on normal-soil setting. It’s also known as the medium-soil or mid-soil setting.
    Consider: Samsung WA45H7000AW, $700, Maytag Bravos XL MVWB725BW, $800, Samsung WA45H7200AW, $800, Kenmore 28102, $700, and the LG WT1101CW, $700. They have large capacities and were impressive at cleaning, but some are quieter than others as you’ll see in our washing machine Ratings.
    Tip: Your laundry will tangle less if you wash similar items together and rather than dump everything into the machine at once, add a few items at a time and unbunch sleeves, pant legs, and socks. Before you put them in the dryer shake them out.

    Front-loaders

    The best we tested typically clean better than the best HE top-loaders and use less water. Most can hold about 17 to 28 pounds of laundry and spin even faster than HE top-loaders, usually extracting more water and reducing dryer time. Wash times range from 65 to 100 minutes using heavy-soil setting, so use the normal-soil setting and save about 15 to 20 minutes.
    Consider: Kenmore Elite 41472, $700, Samsung WF42H5000AW, $720, and the Whirlpool WFW72HEDW, $800. All were excellent at cleaning.
    Tip: A front-loader's high spin speeds might vibrate too much for the machine to be placed near a bedroom or family room, but keep in mind that concrete floors can absorb vibrations well, unlike wood-framed floors.

    More choices

    Our washing machine Ratings give you all the details. We rate wash performance, energy- and water efficiency, capacity, gentleness, noise, vibration, and cycle time (normal wash on heavy-soil setting) and let you know if there's a matching dryer. Use our buying guide to compare washer types and features and if you have questions, email me at kjaneway@consumer.org.

    Kimberly Janeway 

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    Everything you need to know about buying wiper blades

    How’s the world looking through your windshield? If your wipers are leaving streaks or blank spots, it’s probably time for a new set.

    Our tests have found that even the best windshield wipers show signs of deterioration in as little as six months. That’s why we recommend replacing yours twice a year, or more often if they begin to lose their effectiveness. (See our complete wiper buying advice and ratings.)

    Fortunately, you don’t have to spend a lot of money to get good-performing windshield wipers. Some budget-priced models cleared as well as more expensive windshield wipers in our extensive 185-car test.

    Regardless of what you pay, most blades quickly degrade after a few months of regular use. Depending on the model, deterioration can show up as streaking (leaving lines of water behind), smearing of the water (instead of clearing it), or missed areas of wiping. An unclean or obscured windshield is a real safety hazard.

    Beyond visibility, it is important not to wait too long to replace a blade, as a torn wiper blade can allow the wiper arm to rub against the glass, possibly ruining the windshield.

    Clear advice

    To get the most from your existing wipers, inspect them periodically. Lift each wiper arm off the glass and run your finger along its rubber edge. If the rubber is rigid or chipped, or produces nonstop streaking, you need new wipers.

    If the wipers are in decent physical condition but not clearing the windshield effectively, try cleaning them. Simply put windshield washer fluid or mild dish liquid on a damp sponge or rag and wipe debris off the rubber and the windshield where the wiper rests. You might be rewarded with a couple more months of a clear windshield without spending money on replacements.

    When the time comes for new blades, remember to replace them in pairs. If one is worn out, its mate can't be far behind.

    Don't forget to check the rear wiper, if your vehicle has one. Even though it may not get as much use as the front wipers, it is exposed to the elements.

    How to choose

    Windshield wiper blades come in many sizes, and chances are your car takes a different size on each side. Look in your car's owner's manual, measure the blade, or ask at an auto-parts store for the proper fit.

    While most wiper blades we have tested performed adequately, there is a dramatic difference between the best and worst blades. Rather than buy whatever replacement blades are cheapest, it is worthwhile checking our wiper blade ratings to find several suitable top models to then price shop.

    Jim Travers

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    Cost of HBO: Is now a good time to get the premium service on cable or satellite?

    Judging by a quick survey of cable, satellite, and telephone-company pay-TV services, HBO's upcoming launch of the HBO Now streaming-only service on Apple TV is already having an impact: Many of those service providers are cutting the cost of HBO as part of a TV package.

    Visits to several of the larger cable company websites show that many have cut the price for adding HBO from $16 to $20 to $10 a month, which we're assuming is in anticipation of the launch of HBO Now. That lets you get the streaming service without a pay-TV package.

    DirecTV and Dish, as well as AT&T, seem to be holding the line on HBO pricing, at least for now. DirecTV is running a special promotion offering new HBO subscribers a $50 Visa gift card, provided they sign up by April 15 and keep HBO for at least three months. That might take some of the sting out of the $18-per-month fee DirecTV normally charges for HBO.

    Where are the deals?

    • With Comcast, you can add HBO to your current Xfinity Triple Play or TV service for $10 a month when you order online.
    • Cox has a similar offer through April 27, but the price appears to be good for only six months; after that, it jumps to $16 a month.
    • Charter is also charging $15 per month; HBO is included in some of its premium programming packages.
    • Time Warner Cable offers HBO's 20 channels for $10 per month, down from $16 a month, and it doesn't seem limited to a promotional period.
    • Verizon has a one-year deal on HBO for $10 a month, half off its regular price.

    Not all cable companies are joining the fray. Cablevision, for example, is still charging $15 a month, but it's the first pay-TV service provider to say that it will carry the upcoming HBO Now service, so perhaps there's less reason to cut regular pricing.

    Just note that many of the deals we're seeing require you to sign up for HBO online, and it's entirely possible—especially with cable—that deals will vary based on where you live.  

    Combined with the recent announcements about new streaming alternatives—Sling TV, Sony PlayStation Vue, and an Apple service expected to launch this fall—the real takeaway is that this is a great time to negotiate with your pay TV service provider to see whether you can strike a better deal on your programming package.

    —James K. Willcox

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  • 03/20/15--10:59: How to choose a used car
  • How to choose a used car

    Sure, new cars are flashy and, well new, but used cars are where the smart money is. Since new cars decline in value so rapidly, a three-year-old used model will likely sell for nearly half what it cost new but still deliver solid performance. Plus, buying used is also a way to get a nicer car than you’d be able to afford new.

    However, with, literally, millions of used cars out there, how do you tell the treasures from the trash?  

    Here’s a tip: You don’t have to be a car expert to figure out when a vehicle has been neglected by the previous owner. In fact, just using your eyes, ears, and nose makes you more qualified than you think.    

    For example, looking at the exterior, you can usually see when body panels have scratches, dents, or rust. Masking-tape marks under windowsills or fender edges can indicate paintwork.     

    Listening to the engine under acceleration, you can tell when it’s knocking. And a black, greasy residue inside the tailpipe means the engine is burning oil.        

    A musty, moldy smell in the interior or trunk could indicate water damage. A coating of rust on bolts or hinges inside the doorjamb can be a clue that the car may have been submerged. Same goes for waterlines in the engine compartment.

    Make sure the tires have even tread wear. New tires may hide problems. 

    See our list of best and worst used cars.

    Even with a careful walk around, trouble signs can slip by. According to Carfax, a service that provides vehicle history reports, about 20 percent of cars on the road have some sort of accident damage.    

    History reports are a helpful tool, but they aren’t perfect. Differing state laws governing salvage titles allow for loopholes big enough to drive a rebuilt wreck through.   

    Ask to see the title before you buy a used car. Be especially wary of any car with a “lost” title, as that can indicate a salvaged car—aka one you do not want.     

    Targeting a model known for reliability puts the odds in your favor, but with used car, each is truly an individual with unique road experience and care. Consequently, there is no substitute for hiring your own mechanic to inspect any car you’re serious about buying.

    Check out our extensive used car section for more buying advice.

    —Mike Quincy

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    BMW learns not to MINImize car-owners’ warranty rights

    Mini owners don’t need to have their cars serviced at a dealership or buy “genuine” parts from the automaker. And neither does anyone else, as confirmed by the Federal Trade Commission today in a settlement with Mini’s parent, BMW.

    The Mini warranty booklet claimed that in order to ensure that automaker would honor the car’s warranty, owners had to:

    “Have maintenance and repair work performed by your Mini dealer. Make sure that the maintenance work is stamped in this Service and Warranty Information Statement. These entries are … a requirement for warranty claims.”

    And:

    “[Mini] is not obligated to pay for repairs that include non-genuine Mini parts.”

    In the settlement, Mini agreed to remove the language from owners’ manuals going forward and to notify Mini owners whose cars are still under warranty that they are under no such obligations.

    The Magnusson Moss Warranty Act of 1975 lays out consumer warranty rights and does not allow manufacturers to set warranty coverage conditions on using factory-authorized parts or service. If a problem was caused by an independent mechanic or unauthorized part, it is the manufacturer’s obligation to prove it. (Read: “Can an aftermarket part void my car warranty?”)

    If an automaker or dealer tries to insist that you use only dealer service or manufacturer parts to get warranty service, don’t believe it. And don’t hesitate to contact the FTC at ftccomplaintassistant.gov.

    Eric Evarts

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    Hottest trends from the Architectural Digest show

    The Architectural Digest Home Design Show, taking place March 19-22 in New York City, is where trends are born. Now in its fourteenth year, the show features thousands of products, including appliances, fixtures, furnishings, and more. Consumer Reports was on hand yesterday for the glitzy premiere. While just about everything on the show floor could be called cutting-edge, several trends rose to the top. If you’re attending the show this weekend, when it's open to the public, or just looking for the next big thing in home design, here’s our take.                

    2015 is the year of the 24-inch appliance  

    Compact appliances designed for small urban kitchens, as well as mother-in-law apartments and other secondary kitchens, were all over the show floor. Bosch has one of the most extensive collections; its “24-inch kitchen” includes a glass-front refrigerator, $2,500, an electric wall oven, $1,700, gas and electric cooktops, $800, and a dishwasher, $1,500. The kitchen appliances hit stores in April, along with a 24-inch stackable washer/dryer set, $1,200.

    We also liked the 24-inch Aga City60 Contemporary, $5,700, which you can get in the British manufacturer’s trademark hues, including rose, lemon, cream, and pewter. Smeg’s suite of 24-inch appliances includes a built-in oven with optional pizza stone base. Miele also had a 24-inch refrigerator, which is perfect for the upscale man cave that's all the rage. 

    If you're remodeling a tight kitchen, another smart product from the show to consider is the Galley Workstation, which turns the sink into a multifunctional space for meal prep, clean up, serving, and entertainment.  

    Big names embrace small appliances      

    Smeg is probably best known for its retro-looking refrigerators. The Italian manufacturer is bringing the same aesthetic to its new line of countertop appliances, including a toaster, blender, stand mixer, and kettle. Many of the trademark finishes apply. According to CEO Vittorio Bertazzoni, mint green is the most popular hue in the U.S. market, while Europeans favor cream. Wolf is also getting into the small appliance game with its line of toasters, countertop convection oven, and blender.  

    Products that hear what you’re saying 

    Voice activation is the next frontier in automated products. Dacor, the California-based appliance manufacturer which is celebrating 50 years, featured the latest generation of its Wi-Fi enabled IQ range. The 48-inch dual fuel range, $11,999, has a built-in Android tablet whose remote app accepts voice commands. So if you’re in the backyard and want to turn the heat down on a roast in the oven, you simply speak the command into your phone.

    We’re seeing this technology applied to more products. For example, the recently tested Honeywell RTH959OWF, $300, is the industry’s first voice-activated programmable thermostat. It's our highest-rated thermostat. That’s good to see, since it suggests manufacturers aren’t using the new technology to make up for otherwise deficient products.  

    More appliances cook multiple ways

    Miele’s new 48-inch dual fuel range claims to be seven appliances in one. The 6-burner cooktop has an optional grill and griddle, so it can handle flapjacks and burgers along with traditional pot and pan-prepared meals. Down below, the range features three separate chambers, which reminds us of the AGA cooker. There’s the main conventional oven, which be switched into a steam-enhanced mode for baking bread. Next to it is a speed oven that uses both microwave and convection technology. And there’s a warming drawer.      

    Multi-cookers were also all over at the International Home and Housewares Show that took place earlier this month in Chicago. The countertop appliances claim 5, 7, and even 10-in-1 functionality. One that we already have in our labs, with promising results so far, is the $350 KitchenAid Multi-Cooker, whose 10 cooking methods include soup, rice, risotto, and yogurt.

    Built-in cooking appliances get even more so

    The show features the next evolution of built-in cooking appliances from several manufacturers, including Miele, Wolf, and Viking. Miele's new line of touch-control induction cooktops can be recessed into the countertop, so they’re perfectly flush with the surface (in the past, the cooktop always sat on top of the counter.)

    Along the same lines, Wolf featured a prototype gas cooktop that’s recessed into a countertop. In this case, the controls are separate and built into the cabinet below. Taking the built-in even concept further, Viking showcased an "invisible" induction burner in the countertop itself. The induction system is underneath the countertop and works through it, with the controls built into the cabinet under the countertop.

    Concrete is having a moment

    One of the biggest showstoppers is the woodform concrete countertops on display at the booth of JM Lifestyles, an artisan workshop located in Randolph, New Jersey. The custom fabricated material, which can be used indoors or out, looks like real wood. It comes in a range of finishes, including oak and mahogany, with the option of bark edges and signature leaves imprints.

    The woodform concrete earned high praise from Fu-Tung Cheng, the father of concrete countertops, who was in the Zephyr booth, showing off some of his sculptural range hoods. Cheng’s 2002 book Concrete Countertops has sold more than 175,000 copies and he’s personally trained about 5,000 contractors in the art of poured concrete countertops. “It’s become very prevalent,” he says. “It’s still not for everyone, including people who want a pristine, glass-like countertops that you don’t have to maintain. But if you’re looking for something with the character of old hardwood floors, it’s a great option, especially if you use the form of it.” No wonder he’s a big fan of JM Lifestyles.

    If you like the look of concrete, but not the upkeep, check out Caeserstone’s new line of concrete-inspired quartz countertops, which we spotted back in January at Design & Construction Week in Las Vegas.  

    Professional refrigerator market gets busy

    The built-in refrigerator category has been dominated by names like Sub-Zero, Jenn-Air, and Thermador, all of which have models on our recommended refrigerator list. A couple of newcomers hope to challenge those brands. True Manufacturing, which has been a major name in commercial refrigeration for seven decades, is attempting its first foray into the full-size residential market with a 42-inch refrigerator. The unit features stainless steel inside and out, including the framing around the glass shelves. It also has soft-close drawers in both the fridge and freezer compartments.

    BlueStar, known for its cooking appliances, is also entering the built-in refrigerator market. Its ranges and ovens stand out for their colorful finishes, so the new refrigerator will allow consumers the option of a fully coordinated kitchen. Pricing for the refrigerators isn’t available yet.

    There’s no shortage of aspiration

    There were plenty of over-the-top products on display at the show, and people didn’t seem to care if things looked expensive and blingy. "I was surprised to see how much gold finishes on furniture, lighting and accessories are holding on," says interior designer Libby Langdon. "I felt like I was seeing it everywhere. It seems like it's moved passed being a trend and has now become a movement!"

    As for actual products, Dynamic Closet’s automated walk-in closet, with its dry cleaner inspired rack system that you can control from your smart phone. A single shelf costs $10,000. There were also multiple icemakers, including one from True that makes up to 70 pounds of clear top hat-shaped ice per day; also cool is the colored LED lighting that changes into 14 colors, like blue, red, and purple. 

    —Daniel DiClerico (@dandiclerico on Twitter)

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    How to stop a people-search site from finding you

    Online people-search firms collect and sell (or distribute free) personal information about you to anyone who wants it. Your name, address, age, date of birth, phone number, relatives’ names, and address history can be had for $1. It’s reasonable to suspect that buyers of the information want to exploit you somehow because it’s all a crook needs to create a profile on you.

    Believe it or not, you have no explicit right to stop what people-search sites are doing. But some website privacy policies let you opt out and have your information removed. And if you do so, your decision must be honored. Sites that don’t have an opt-out provision might rely on major data brokers that do have one. So it pays to opt out of the big ones, including Acxiom, Ameridex, Google, InfoUSA, Intelius, LexisNexis, PeopleFinder.com, and Spokeo.

    But with more than 250 websites in the business, a paid opt-out service might be the easiest way to protect yourself. DeleteMe, a service that costs $129 per year, covers 15 sites and others that aggregate data from those sites.

    —Jeff Blyskal (@JeffBlyskal on Twitter)

    Consumer Reports' Internet security guide offers expert advice on staying safe online.

    This article appeared in the January 2015 issue of Consumer Reports Money Adviser.

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Some pro-style ranges look better than they cook

    There’s nothing subtle about the look of a pro-style range and that’s the point. But when you’re thinking of spending $6,000 for a range, there are a few things you’ll want to consider. Here's what the experts at Consumer Reports have learned testing pro-style ranges.

    Not the best ranges in our tests

    We’ve seen better, for less. Even the $430 Kenmore 94142 electric coil top range outperformed all of the pro-styles we tested, including ranges from Viking, Wolf, Thermador, KitchenAid, and Dacor, but the pro-style look is bold and stunning and probably why you’re considering one. Our pro-style Ratings show the test results for 30-inch and 36-inch models, both gas ranges and dual-fuel, which pair a gas cooktop with an electric oven. The best 36-inch pro-style we tested was the $6,000 KitchenAid KDRU763VSS dual-fuel. The worst? The $2,500 Verona VEFSGE365SS dual-fuel, scoring 25 out of 100.  

    They may look similar, but features vary

    You’ll see pro-styles with six burners such as the $7,500 Thermador PRG366JG—and all six are high-powered—while other pro-styles have four burners. Some ranges have an oven dial for setting the oven temperature; some have a touchscreen. We note features on the model page for each range. Here’s something to keep in mind when shopping. On some pro-styles the oven may be relatively low to the floor, making it a bit inconvenient to use the low-rack position.

    Some have small ovens

    Given their commanding look and width, typically 36 inches or wider, it’s surprising that some pro-style ranges have small ovens, but that’s what we found when we measured their usable space. The $7,200 Viking VGSC536-4G is one of the 36-inch ranges tested that has a small oven, and among 30-inch ranges, the KitchenAid KDRS407VSS, $4,000, Thermador PRG304GH, $4,500, and Wolf GR304, $4,900 have small ovens, to name a few.

    Not all have a self-clean feature

    When a range costs thousands of dollars you expect it to be self-cleaning, but some do not have this timesaver, such as the $6,000 Wolf GR366, a 36-inch pro-style. Here’s how to clean its oven, according to the owner’s manual: “Use mild abrasive cleaners, spray degreasers. Use a razor blade to gently lift baked on foods from oven cavity and window. For stubborn stains, spray with a mild abrasive cleaner or spray degreaser. Wash the entire oven cavity with soap and water to remove all cleaning chemicals.” 

    Warranties vary

    So check the manufacturer’s site online or when you’re at the store. Replacing parts can get expensive on these ranges so read the full warranty and limited warranty details, making note of the electronic control board info, for example.

    More good choices. See our range Ratings for more details. And if you’re on the fence about a pro-style take a look at the slide-in ranges, gas and electric. The controls are up front and there isn’t a back panel, so the look is stylish and less expensive than a pro-style.

    Kimberly Janeway

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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