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Consumer Reports

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    Why you should wait to buy a new laptop

    If there’s one thing Intel is known for, it’s regular—and frequent—updates of its processors. The company follows what it calls a tick-tock model of upgrades. Processors from a tick update represent a change in manufacturing, usually making the processor smaller and more efficient. Tock updates, on the other hand, bring faster performance.

    But things were a little different with the latest update. Intel missed a few release dates with its latest tick, the fifth-generation Core processors known as Broadwell. Now, systems equipped with fifth-generation processors are finally making their way into stores. Broadwell processors measure 14 nanometers compared to the last tick’s 22nm processors. They are more efficient than previous chips, and are helping manufacturers make computers thinner, with improved battery life.

    The new processors are good—one laptop with a fifth-gen chip got the longest battery life we’ve ever seen. But we’ve got some contrarian advice for you. Unless you absolutely need a new computer right away, wait it out until summer.

    Need more info on buying a computer? Our Buying Guide is packed with advice to help you make the right choice.

    The delays Intel experienced with Broadwell caused the chip's introduction to bump right up against the next update of its processors, due some time around August. That’ll be a tock, the sixth-generation Core processor Intel has nicknamed Skylake. If you hold off on a new computer purchase until then, you’ll benefit from the better battery life of the current batch of processors and the speedier performance of the sixth-gen crew. And if you don’t want a top-of-the-line computer at that point, you might be able to save a few bucks on the “older” fifth-generation machines when they go on sale.

    In addition, we should have a release date for Windows 10 by April, when Microsoft holds its developers conference. Rumor has it the release could be as soon as summer. That's another good reason to hold off on a new computer purchase, since it's easier to buy a system with the latest operating system already installed.

    If you really need a new computer right away, we turned up a few models in our Ratings that take advantage of the fifth-generation Core processors’ efficiency. The Toshiba Portege Z30-BSMBN22, for example, is a 13-inch laptop that achieved a jaw-dropping 19 hours of battery life in our tests. Performance was excellent, and it weighs just 2.6 pounds. Best of all, it’s moderately priced for a small laptop, at $900.

    Take a look at our new Ratings for more desktops, Chromebooks, and laptops, including several with Core M processors, the super-low-power mobile version of the fifth-generation Core line-up.

    —Donna Tapellini

     

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

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    The medical bills you should never have to pay

    Back in 2007, Consumer Reports put out a call for stories about the health insurance coverage problems that consumers were facing. We received thousands of accounts of families left without coverage.

    The health reforms of the Affordable Care Act have helped, creating new coverage options and closing many loopholes that left people stranded.

    But new stories keep rolling in. We frequently hear that consumers with health insurance are getting hit by surprise med­ical bills after a hospital visit or planned procedure. Consumers tell us they are taking careful steps to make sure doctors and hospitals are in their insurance network—only to find out later that one of the many doctors who took part in their care was out of network.

    Share your surprise medical bill stories with us.

    What usually occurs in that situation is “balance billing,” which allows doctors to bill patients for the portion of their charges the insurance company didn’t pay under out-of-network coverage. It is legal in most states.

    “Patients are confused and overwhelmed by these bills,” says Blake Hutson, senior associate for health reform at Consumers Union, the advocacy division of Consumer Reports. “You’re basically at the mercy of the doctor as you try to negotiate a discount on the bill or acceptance of the insurance company’s coverage as payment in full.”

    Consumers Union is pushing for state laws that will end the practice. And we are seeing some progress. New York state’s new law, which took effect April 1, bans balance billing in emergency medical situations. We think it serves as a good model for other states. Until your state acts to end surprise medical bills, take these steps to protect yourself:

    • Familiarize yourself with your out-of-network coverage and when you need advance approval for care.
    •  Always call your insurance company to confirm that a provider, hospital, or lab is in your network; online and paper directories may be out of date.
    • Before you have a procedure, tell the hospital and surgeon that you want to use only in-network providers, and try to confirm that they are in network. Make sure you consider services for which you won’t see a provider face to face, such as radiology.

    —Diane Umansky

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

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    Mercedes-Benz makes a pickup? Giddy up, partner

    By the end of the decade, Mercedes-Benz will launch its first ever pickup truck. Yes, a real get-dirty midsized truck with a three-pointed star in its grille.

    While premium-branded trucks are virtually non-existent today, premium-priced trucks are everywhere. Forget the ultra-expensive heavy-duty models from Detroit. Just price out a few top-level Chevrolet Silverados, Ford F-150s or Ram 1500s. They can easily crest $59,000. For a truck.

    Mercedes says its future pickup will have a payload of about one metric ton, likely to fulfill most peoples’ needs. The new vehicle will also have “attributes that are typical of the brand with regard to safety, comfort, powertrains, and value.”

    Mercedes currently sells work-type vans vans—and even the hulking Unimog—around the world. So, it almost seems natural that a pickup truck could fit into the mix.

    Back in 1997, Mercedes raised eyebrows with its first M-Class SUV. After all, the company was best known for building premium sedans, coupes, and convertibles. But the ML sold well and soon spawned the larger GL and compact GLK and GLA.

    Learn more about the latest pickups in our trucks buying guide.

    Mercedes officials said that new pickup will initially be targeted at Latin America, South Africa, Australia, and Europe, “all of which are posting sustained growth in this segment.”

    Industry trade magazine Automotive News reports that the automaker hasn’t yet decided whether to sell the pickup in the U.S. market.

    “We can perfectly serve customers looking for a vehicle that offers a high level of utility and at the same time has the comfort, safety, and design of a Mercedes-Benz passenger car,” said Volker Mornhinweg, Head of Mercedes-Benz Vans. “We will design our brand’s first pickup according to this recipe for success.”

    No word yet if BMW or Audi will follow suit.

    —Mike Quincy

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

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  • 03/28/15--02:59: Eat slow, lose weight
  • Eat slow, lose weight

    Q. Does eating more slowly lead to eating less?

    A. It can, especially if you’re not overweight or obese. A recent study conducted at Texas Christian University found that when 35 normal-weight subjects and 35 overweight or obese ones ate pasta lunches quickly one day and slowly another, the lighter participants reduced their calorie intake significantly on the “slow” day. And both groups reported less hunger after eating slowly.

    Another small study done in 2010 at the University of New Mexico found that obese people might benefit from participating in a six-week Mindful Eating and Living (MEAL) intervention program that emphasizes meditation and awareness. The study found that the program might lead to weight loss and less binge eating.

    Anyone looking to lose weight should make eating healthy the focus of their diet plan. While

    See our diet plan Ratings to see how differt weight loss strategies compare. And find out why you should skip weight-loss drugs.

    slowing down is a good start, paying attention to eating behavior and one's relationship with food can bring about long-standing changes. Try the following mindful eating techniques:

    Focus on what and how you are eating. Become more aware of the taste and texture of the food.

    Listen to the clues your body provides about your hunger throughout the day. Notice when you are no longer feeling hungry, rather than stopping only when you are painfully full.

    Observe your emotions as you eat. Does delicious food make you feel happy? Do you feel angry or upset when eating something you know isn't good for you? Is it a combination of both?

    —Ian Landau

    A version of this article also appeared in the December 2014 issue of Consumer Reports on Health.

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

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    Tax Gripe-o-Meter airs taxpayers' complaints

    What's really bugging us about preparing and filing our tax returns? Consumer Reports' Tax Gripe-o-Meter highlights a few of our biggest gripes, including fears that someone will steal our identity and grab our refunds; concerns our returns won't make it to the IRS; annoyance about late refunds; and worry about a potential tax audit. But as the Gripe-o-Meter shows, there are ways to cope will the things that irk us—except having to pay taxes in the first place.

    Learn more about saving money on tax prep and getting more back in your refund with Consumer Reports Tax Guide.

    This article appeared in Consumer Reports magazine.

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

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    The truth about sleeping pills

    Heavily advertised prescription sleep drugs such as Ambien and Lunesta are sold with the promise of a good night’s rest. For the estimated 25 percent of Americans who occasionally struggle with sleep or the 10 percent with chronic insomnia (trouble falling or staying asleep at least three nights per week for a month or more), the drugs may seem like a quick route to relief.

    But new evidence suggests that they aren’t as useful as once thought. They can pose significant risks, especially for older adults. And new drugs keep coming; the latest is suvor­exant (Belsomra). Here’s what you need to know about sleep drugs:

    Recent analysis by Consumer Re­ports Best Buy Drugs found that people who take newer prescription sleeping pills fall asleep only 8 to 20 minutes faster than with a placebo. That category of sedatives includes eszopiclone (Lunesta and generic); ramelteon (Rozerem and generic); zaleplon (Sonata and generic); and zolpidem (Ambien, Ambien CR, Edluar, Zolpimist, and generic).

    Ambien and Lunesta, for example, help people fall asleep only about 20 minutes and 19 minutes faster, respectively, than a placebo, on average. In addition, Best Buy Drugs found that the drugs add just 3 to 34 minutes to total sleep time. Their effectiveness is so limited that as of late 2014 they were no longer considered a first-choice treatment for chronic insomnia by the American Aca­demy of Sleep Medicine (AASM).

    Safer strategy: Try sleep therapy (see below). Our analysis found that it might be as effective, if not more so, as drugs.

    Want to read more details about drugs to treat insomnia? See our Consumer Reports Best Buy Drugs report.

    Older prescription sedatives called benzodiazepines are used primarily for anxiety. But several are FDA-approved for insomnia: estazolam (generic), flurazepam (Dalmane and generic), quazepam (Doral), and temazepam (Restoril and generic). Our analysis found them to be generally no more effective than the newer sleeping pills. Studies suggest that they have a higher risk of day-after sleepiness and grogginess, dependency, and rebound insomnia. Despite years of concern, those drugs are prescribed to older adults at a disproportionate rate. And a new study in JAMA Psychiatry found that older adults are more likely to take them for far longer than recommended.

    Safer strategy: Consider a benzo­diazepine only if you have a diagnosed anxiety disorder that disrupts sleep, and use it only intermittently.

    Although they seem to cause fewer side effects than benzodiazepines, drugs such as Ambien and Lunesta can cause dependency, daytime drowsiness, and dizziness, and may worsen sleep problems if you stop taking them after regular use. And in rare cases, people have reported sleep driving, sleep eating, amnesia, and hallucinations. In addition, the older you are, the more intense the sleep-inducing effects and side ­effects may be.

    Taking any of those drugs (or a benzodiazepine) can impair your driving ability and increase your risk of falls and hip fractures. And a 2013 government report noted a 220 percent jump in emergency room vis­its for adverse reactions to zolpidem between 2005 and 2010. A study published in JAMA Psychiatry in 2014 found that about 21 percent of psychiatric drug-related ER visits were by people 65 and older taking zolpidem.

    Safer strategy: It’s best to take the lowest dose possible for no longer than a few days.

    Older over-the-counter antihistamines such as diphenhydramine (Benadryl Allergy, Nytol, Sominex, Tylenol PM, and generic versions), and doxylamine (Unisom and generic) may be useful for very short-term insomnia. But rebound insomnia is a concern, as is daytime drowsiness, confusion, constipation, dry mouth, and problems urinating. And a 2015 study published in JAMA Internal Medicine reported a higher risk of dementia in people who regularly used those type of drugs, which are known as anticholinergics.

    Safer strategy: Use OTCs for no more than one or two nights at a time. If your insomnia lasts longer than a few days, check in with your doctor.

    Trazodone, an older antidepressant, is commonly prescribed off-label for insomnia. But in the one study that tested it against a placebo and Ambien, it was only slightly more effective than the placebo and less effective than Ambien. The drug can cause next-day drowsiness and very low blood pressure, which can lead to fainting.

    Safer strategy: Unless your doctor has diagnosed depression, or until other studies show it effective for use in those without depression, skip trazo­done for sleeplessness.

    What’s the bottom line? Hypnotics, or sleep-inducing medication, “can be helpful under certain circumstances,” says Timothy Morgenthaler, M.D., president of the AASM. Brief use may help if you develop short-term insomnia caused by jet lag or a major life change. They may also let you get some rest as you learn lifestyle strategies. But:

    • Take them only if you have time for at least 7 to 8 hours of sleep, so the effect has time to wear off.

    • Never mix a sleep drug with alcohol or sedatives.

    • Don’t rely on them every night (or almost nightly) for months or more. That boosts the likelihood of adverse effects.

    • Take the lowest effective dose.

    • If you’re offered a sleep drug in the hospital, think twice. A 2014 study found that 26 percent of subjects received sleep drugs while hospitalized. And 34 per­-cent of those who hadn’t used a sleep aid before admission left with a prescription for one.  

    Try one or more of the following approaches before you take a sleep aid. Over time, they may be your ticket to a good night’s rest.

    • Stay on schedule. Go to bed and get up at the same time every day. Can’t sleep? Leave the bedroom and do something restful, such as reading, until you feel sleepy. If you nap, do so before 3 p.m. for no more than 30 minutes.
    • Make changes in your bedroom. Block out noise and outside light. Make sure that your mattress and room temper­ature are comfortable. Remove the TV.
    • Eat and drink wisely. Avoid or minimize alcohol, caffeine, and nicotine; they can affect sleep. Don’t eat heavily within several hours of bedtime.
    • Exercise regularly. It promotes healthy sleep (but not shortly before bedtime).
    • Get natural light. A study at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign found that people exposed to natural light at work slept better and longer.
    • Turn off e-readers and other devices 2 hours before bed. They can emit blue light, which suppresses levels of melatonin, the hormone that regulates sleep. If you can’t unplug, dim the device and hold it at least 14 inches from your eyes.
    • Reduce stress. Meditation, yoga, and tai chi can help. For example, a study published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society found that six months of tai chi three times per week helped older adults fall asleep faster and sleep longer.
    • Get a checkup. Some medications and health problems can disrupt sleep, so see your doctor if lifestyle strategies haven’t helped after a month.
    • Try sleep therapy. Research has found that cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBT-I) is quite effective at helping people with sleep problems fall asleep and stay asleep. “CBT-I rebuilds people’s confidence in their ability to sleep,” says Ryan G. Wetzler, Psy.D., director of Behavioral Sleep Medicine at Sleep Medicine Specialists in Louisville, Ky. CBT-I is often covered by insurance and doesn’t require a significant time commitment. Wetzler says that his patients usually see improvements after only six visits.

     

     

    This article originally appeared in Consumer Reports On Health May 2015 newsletter. These materials were made possible by a grant from the state Attorney General Consumer and Prescriber Education Grant Program, which is funded by a multistate settlement of consumer fraud claims regarding the marketing of the prescription drug Neurontin (gabapentin).

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

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    Should I buy an extended car warranty?

    After dedicating an afternoon (or more) to test driving, negotiating, and completing a pile of paperwork for your shiny new car, don't be surprised if a bubble-bursting finance manager at the dealer gives a compelling pitch for an extended warranty. It is for your peace of mind, right? Well, not really.

    The last-ditch effort to sell you a warranty, or various other unnecessary services, is the dealership's final assault on your checkbook before you tuck it securely away and drive off. Sure, the pitch is convincing: Should an expensive repair be necessary after the factory warranty ends, you'd be protected. No one wants a big, financial surprise, nor wishes to be stranded roadside. (Read "Watch for These Dealer Sales Pitches.")

    But breathe deep and think this through. A survey conducted by the Consumer Reports National Research Center in late 2013 found that 55 percent of owners who purchased an extended warranty hadn’t used it for repairs during the lifetime of the policy. And, on average, those who did use it spent hundreds more for the coverage than they saved in repair costs.

    Among survey participants who used their policy, the median out-of-pocket savings on repairs covered by extended warranties for all brands was $837. Based on a $1,214 average initial cost, that works out to a net loss of more than $375. Factoring those who didn’t use their policy, the median savings was zero. And that may have something to do with why satisfaction with auto­mobile extended warranties is among the lower rated of all products and services surveyed by Consumer Reports, and why only about a quarter of respondents said they would definitely get it again.

    Read our complete report: “Extended Car Warranties: An Expensive Gamble.” And check our car buying advice.

    Clichés about reading the fine print are especially appropriate when talking about extended warranties. The brochure may present the service plan as "comprehensive," but the contract will likely have numerous limitations, such as requiring documented service at in-network shops and covering only certain parts, rather than whole systems.

    Rather than invest in an extended warranty, we recommend buying the most reliable car that suits your needs, budget, and taste . . . and then taking good care of it. Sometimes, this can mean spending more upfront for the right car, but the reward is typically lower ownership costs and even better resale value. But, if your heart is set on a model known to be unreliable, an extended warranty can provide some protection. Just approach with caution, negotiate the price, and be aware that if you roll the cost into your financing, you'll be paying interest on it for years to come.

    Jeff Bartlett

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

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    Chia seeds deliver a nutritional boost, but they're not for everybody

    Tiny “superfood” chia seeds are being mixed into dozens of food products—cereals, snack bars, yogurt, and drinks—just to name a few. These little black and white gems, which come from a plant (Salvia hispanica) in the mint family, are pretty nutritious. For a 60-calorie tablespoon, you get 4 grams of fiber, plus antioxidants and some protein, omega-3s, and calcium.

    Some studies have shown that chia seeds might help lower blood pressure, reduce blood sugar in people with type 2 diabetes, and cut the risk of heart disease and stroke. But they’re not for everybody.

    For example, men who have prostate cancer or who are at high risk for it should probably avoid large amounts because the omega-3s in chia seeds are in the form of alpha linolenic acid  (ALA), and a high intake of ALA might contribute to prostate problems. And people with high triglycerides should choose only the Salba variety of the seeds, since other types might raise triglycerides.

    Perhaps the most intriguing claim for chia seeds is that they can help with weight loss. That makes sense because they’re high in fiber and have the unique property of turning into a gel when mixed with liquid, so they may make the foods they’re added to more filling. But in one study where 76 overweight adults ate chia seeds before breakfast and dinner daily for 12 weeks, no one lost weight.

    Find out whether your snack bar is a dud. Get more reviews in our Food and Drink Guide.

    Taste test

    Our professional tasters sampled one brand of chia seeds, Shiloh Farms, straight up. The verdict: they’re crunchy, but have very little flavor. When mixed with water they develop a consistency that would be good for thickening smoothies, soups, and sauces. A 3 tablespoon serving has about 150 calories, 10 grams of fat, 12 grams of fiber, 5 grams of protein, and 20 percent of the daily value for calcium.

    It's one thing to take the seeds and mix them into your own foods, but another to buy the chia-seed-containing products you see on store shelves. We wanted to find out how they stack up nutritionally and how they tasted, so we looked at four chia-seed products from four manufacturers.

    • Chia Star Lemon Berry Splash beverage. The texture might take some getting used to; you might think you’re drinking gelatin. One 8-ounce bottle has about 50 calories, 0 grams of sugars, and 4 grams of fiber.
    • World of Chia Chia Strawberry Fruit Spread. The texture was OK, but the strawberries tasted “cooked” instead of fresh. A 1 tablespoon serving has 30 calories, 5 grams of sugars, and 1 gram of fiber.
    • Kashi Crunchy Granola & Seed Chocolalte Chip Chia Bar. Tasty, but the chia seeds are listed near the bottom of the ingredients list, so you’ll get more oats and grains than anything else. A two-bar serving has 180 calories, 9 grams of sugars, and 3 grams of fiber.
    • Roo’ Bar Hemp Protein & Chia Bar. No one on our panel was impressed with this one. It had very little flavor and was quite bitter. A one-bar serving has about 120 calories, 11 grams of sugars, and 4 grams of fiber.

    Consumer Reports’ take: If you like the texture, mix chia seeds into salad dressings, smoothies, soup, and yogurt for a little nutrition boost. Read nutrition fact labels on chia seed-containing products carefully. Look at the food as a whole, checking calories, fat, and sugars. And scan the ingredients list; if chia seeds are toward the bottom, the product may not contain very much of it anyway.  

    —Linda Greene

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

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  • 03/30/15--06:39: Ten for the long haul
  • Ten for the long haul

    Almost any car can make it to 200,000 miles if you’re willing to throw enough money at it. But that doesn’t mean that keeping it is a good idea. A less expensive and more hassle-free way to go is to simply buy a safe and reliable model in the first place, and properly maintain it for the long haul. Just follow the maintenance schedule in your owner’s manual, take care of minor problems as they arise, keep it clean, and you should be good to go.

    The models listed below are all safe bets. Of the 1.1 million vehicles represented in our annual subscriber survey, these are the ten cars, SUVs, and minivans respondents most often reported as having more than 200,000 miles. As a bonus, all happen to be models that were Consumer Reports recommended when new. That means they’re not just reliable, but they scored well in our road tests.

    —Jim Travers  

    Toyota Prius

    Base MSRP price range: $24,200 - $34,905

    With seating for five, hatchback versatility, rock-solid reliability, and an amazing 44-mpg overall in our tests, there’s a lot to like about the Prius. That’s why it’s a top-scorer in our Ratings, and a perennial favorite in our owner satisfaction surveys. And those owners like to drive them, with more examples on the far side of 200K than any other model in our survey.

    Toyota Camry

    Base MSRP price range: $22,970 - $31,370

    Spacious, quiet, and comfortable, the Camry is one of the most reliable sedans you can buy. It may not pack a lot of excitement, but it makes a nice place to be while the miles roll up. All powertrain choices are pretty bullet proof, but the four-cylinder Camry is the one most often past 200K, combining reliability with being the biggest selling car in America.

    Honda Odyssey

    Base MSRP price range: $28,975 - $44,600

    If you’ve got a crowd with places to go, there’s no better bet than the Odyssey. The cavernous and versatile interior has room for up to eight passengers and a whole lot of gear, several storage cubbies, and is very child seat friendly. Comfortable on the highway, the Odyssey gets bonus points for more responsive handling than you’d expect from a minivan.

    Honda Pilot

    Base MSRP price range: $29,870 - $41,620

    Another family favorite, the Pilot offers a spacious interior with room for eight, and the security of all-wheel drive. Second- and third-row seats fold into the floor for more cargo room, and the powertrain is as smooth as it is reliable. A redesigned Pilot arrives soon. If its track record is any indication, the new one should be up for going the distance.

    Toyota Corolla

    Base MSRP price range: $16,950 - $22,955

    One of the longest-running nameplates in the business, the Corolla also makes an excellent choice for the long run. Its compact dimensions and good fuel economy make it an excellent choice for commuting, running errands, or road trips, and ironclad reliability means you won’t be seeing much of your mechanic.     

    Honda Accord sedan (4-cyl.)

    Base MSRP price range: $22,105 - $35,055

    A smooth, reliable powertrain and good fuel economy are good qualities in a car you’re going to keep for a while, and the Accord checks in with both. Add to that a relatively spacious, quiet interior and responsive handling, and it adds up to a winning formula for going the distance.

    Honda CR-V

    Base MSRP price range: $23,445 - $32,895

    Combining compact exterior dimensions with a spacious interior, all-wheel-drive, decent fuel economy and an aversion to spending time in the shop or by the side of the road, the CR-V comes close to universal appeal. Lots of our readers like them enough to really rack up the miles.

    Toyota Sienna

    Base MSRP price range: $28,600 - $46,150

    A traveling companion you can really rely on, the Sienna has plenty of room for families and cargo, and the ride is comfortable and composed. The engine is strong and smooth, and fuel economy is decent for its size. The Sienna is also the only minivan available with all-wheel-drive.

    Toyota Highlander (V6)

    Base MSRP price range: $29,665 - $50,240

    Another popular choice with families, the Highlander offers a comfortable ride, quiet, roomy, and well-finished cabin, and a smooth powertrain that’s good for many miles of hassle-free driving. With virtues like that, it’s no wonder the Highlander has long been one of our top-Rated midsized SUVs. The Hybrid version gets you even further on a tank of gas.

    Honda Civic (non-hybrid)

    Base MSRP price range: $18,290 - $29,390

    Like a good citizen, the compact Civic sedan goes about its business without complaint, rolling up the miles and staying out of trouble. A reliability champ, the Civic is also easy on gas and more fun to drive than some competitors. Stick with the basic gas four-cylinder for better reliability than the hybrid which had high incidence of hybrid battery problems with some model years.

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

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    Mazda announces pricing of 2016 MX-5 Miata

    Last year, drivers were treated to the first glimpses of the fourth generation Mazda MX-5 Miata. The roadster departs from previous models in styling, but holds true to its original ideals of darty, lightweight performance. We knew the weight, we knew the horsepower specs, but one key component had been missing until now—the price.

    Mazda has announced that a base-model 2016 Miata will cost $25,735, including its $820 destination charge. That puts the new roadster about $1,000 above the outgoing Miata.

    For that money, you get two seats, a 155-horsepower engine, a convertible top, and the potential for countless miles of driving enjoyment. According to Mazda, the 2016 MX-5 is smaller and lighter than the model it replaces. In fact, the automaker claims the new ragtop weighs scarcely more than the second-generation Miata from 1994.

    Mazda says when the MX-5 hits dealerships this summer, the base Sport will be one of three trim levels, including Club and Grand Touring models. The Club will be a performance-focused model with a more race-inspired appearance, while Grand Touring will deliver more creature comforts. Pricing and more details on these other models will become available closer to launch.

    —George Kennedy

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    2016 Mercedes-Benz GLE SUV replaces ML, adds plug-in hybrid

    Mercedes-Benz has followed Infiniti and Cadillac by renaming large parts of its model line. Making its world debut at the 2015 New York auto show is the GLE, formerly known as the ML. Following the introduction of the GLE Coupe version at the Detroit Auto Show, the GLE line has been revised and upgraded compared with the ML.

    The future GLE lineup includes the GLE350 (formerly ML350); GLE400 (formerly ML400); GLE300d (formerly ML250 BlueTec) and GLE550e (Mercedes’ first plug-in SUV). The high-performance AMG models are now called AMG GLE63 and GLE63 S.

    The plug-in is clearly in New York’s hot spotlight. It gets a 329-hp V6, with the hybrid system adding another 114 hp of electric power. The torque rating is also a very chunky 479 lb.-ft. Hence, Mercedes posits that the GLE550e will have quick acceleration. Fuel economy numbers were not disclosed.

    Mercedes says this plug-in will deliver over 18 miles of all-electric driving. The electric juice is stored in a lithium-ion battery and can be recharged using public charging stations, an available home charger, or on a conventional 220-volt power outlet. Mercedes says the charging time using the home charger or charging station is around two hours.

    The GLE550e also comes with a switch that lets the driver choose between four operating modes. There is regular hybrid mode; all-electric mode; “E-SAVE,” (which allows you to preserve the battery’s current state of charge for future all-electric mode), like in stop-and-go traffic; and charge mode when the vehicle is parked.

    Other SUV choices for green-minded buyers include the company’s 201-hp four-cylinder diesel, dubbed GLE300d. Again, Mercedes didn’t announce any fuel economy figures, but, according to the EPA, the 2015 ML diesel returned 25 mpg overall.

    The hot rod AMG models muscle a 5.5-liter twin-turbo V8 engine under the hood, belting out 550 hp in the GLE63 and 577 hp in the GLE63 S. Mercedes says the chassis was revised to deliver “even better driving dynamics and agility.” The AMG models also have a special transfer case for their all-wheel drive systems that allows them to split the torque at a ratio of 40:60 between the front and rear axles. No surprise: these beasts’ EPA mpg numbers in the company’s press release were not mentioned.

    The GLE’s interior is treated to the usual Mercedes attention to detail, including standard aluminum trim, available black piano lacquer or various grains of wood. AMG models can be fitted with carbon-fiber trim.

    Available safety equipment for all versions includes crosswind assist; collision prevention assist; cross-traffic alert; blind-spot detection; and lane-keeping assist. You can also opt for a 360-degree view camera and LED lights.

    The new GLE hits showrooms this August.

    —Mike Quincy

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

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    Spring all-stars from Consumer Reports' tests

    After a rough winter, it’s time to reclaim your yard. At Consumer Reports we just finished testing a new crop of mowers and a new batch of grills and found some winners. We also discovered a quirky cart that doubles as a wheelbarrow yet doesn’t take up much space in the shed as well as some other head-turners. Here are five products that our editors, testers, and market analysts think are worth a look this spring.

    A sturdy grill with lots of extras

    Kenmore is giving Weber a run for its money in the grill department. While the Weber Spirit SP-320 , $600, is still our top mid-sized grill, the Kenmore Elite 33577, $950, has a sturdy enamel cabinet and plenty of extras.
    Why we like it. The solid construction and high-grade stainless are impressive, and the main cooking area is the largest of all the mid-sized grills in our tests. There are four main burners, stainless steel grates, an electronic igniter, side burner, tank gauge, lights that make it easier to cook after dusk, and an LED-lit control panel. The Kenmore comes with a generous 15-year burner warranty. The grill can be converted to run on natural gas.
    Here’s the score. In our gas grill tests, the Kenmore Elite 33577 was excellent at low-temperature heating and very good in our tests of high temperature heating, preheating, indirect cooking, and temperature range. And with all the bells and whistles it earned top marks for convenience.

    A mower that doesn’t need an oil change

    For some homeowners, maintaining a mower is enough to make them hire a lawn service. The Toro 20353 self-propelled mower comes equipped with a well-sealed Briggs & Stratton engine that the company claims doesn’t need oil changes.
    Why we like it. If you have a hilly property that’s hard to mow, this all-wheel-drive, self-propelled mower can make the job easier. In addition to no-prime starting, the premium, overhead-valve engine is likely to run more efficiently and start more easily than traditional side-valve engines. And Briggs & Stratton claims that better sealing ensures you'll never have to change this mower's oil—just top it off. It lacks the convenience of an  electric start, and the all-wheel-drive transmission makes the mower harder than usual to push when the engine isn't running.
    Here’s the score. In our mower tests, impressive cutting evenness in bagging and side-discharge mode—and even better mulching without leaving clumps—were among the Toro’s attractions. And a washout port makes it easy to keep clean.

    A convertible cart that’s a workhorse

    After seeing claims that the Worx Aerocart is an “8-in-1 all-purpose lifter, carrier, and mover that lightens every load,” we brought it into our labs for testing. The $160 hauler  converts from a garden cart and wheelbarrow to a hand truck.
    Why we like it. The versatile cart is just the ticket for space-constrained homeowners. Because the cart 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 so they won’t go flat between uses.
    Here’s the score. When you need a hand truck, a blade in the cart’s front locks in place at a 90-degree angle. 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. That said, the cart wasn’t perfect in every configuration. But the fact that you can store it on end makes it a winner.

    A freezer that doubles as a refrigerator

    The Frigidaire FKCH17F7HW is the industry's first stand-alone freezer that can also double as an extra refrigerator, say to hold catering trays and drinks before a big party.
    Why we like it. The convenience of switching from freezer to fridge mode is the perfect solution for those occasions when you're entertaining and need extra cooling. You’ll get 12.7 cubic feet of extra capacity and lots of well-placed shelves and bins.
    Here’s the score. In our refrigerator tests, the Frigidaire delivered excellent temperature control and energy efficiency. In our freezer tests, the Frigidaire also delivered excellent temperature control, plus it’s self-defrosting, so you won’t have to periodically do that task by hand. Note that the unit's energy costs will vary depending on what mode you use it in. As a refrigerator, the Frigidaire costs $31 per year to operate, while as a freezer the annual costs go up to $83.

    A comfy mattress that arrives on your doorstep

    While a mattress seems like something you wouldn’t typically order online, Tuft & Needle
    promises a mattress packed in a 66x16x16-inch box will arrive at your home in a week. You can order the mattresses from tuftandneedle.com or on Amazon.com.
    Why we like it. In addition to the bargain price and hassle-free delivery, the well-priced Tuft & Needle Ten foam mattress, $500, has a number of good points. The company offers a “30-night trial” and if you don’t like the mattress they’ll help you donate it to a local charity or arrange a pickup. After donating the mattress, you’ll need to send the donation receipt to Tuft & Needle and they’ll process a full refund.
    Here’s the score. In our mattress tests, the Ten was so-so for both back and side support but where the mattress did stand out was in how it showed only minor changes in performance after eight years of simulated use. Plus it transmitted little vibration from one side of the bed to the other, and changing positions was no problem. We also found it very breathable, important for shoppers who feel that foam beds "sleep hot." And since it measures only 10 inches high, you won't need deep-pocket fitted sheets.

    —Mary H.J. Farrell (@mhjfarrell on Twitter)

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  • 03/30/15--11:14: Smart ways to borrow
  • Smart ways to borrow

    Debt has gotten a bad rap for a very long time. The Bible, the Koran, the Talmud, Shakespeare, Adam Smith, and countless other sources of wisdom have all have gotten their jabs in. “A man in debt is so far a slave,” Ralph Waldo Emerson opined. “The second vice is lying,” Benjamin Franklin wrote. “The first is running in debt.”

    But used correctly, debt is a powerful way to build wealth. It helps us become home­owners and often fuels our education. It can create or improve prospects for earning. Managing debt, notes Larry Rosenthal, founder and president of Rosenthal Wealth Management Group in Manassas, Va., helps people put capital where it’s best deployed. In the past several decades, for instance, home­owners who focused on paying down their mortgage would have made more money investing in stocks. That’s because the stock market has performed better in the past three decades than home prices nationwide.

    “What you’re looking for is whichever instrument lets you pay the least out of pocket and optimizes your cash flow over time,” Rosenthal says. The goal is to pursue good debt—borrowing to help improve your financial prospects—and avoid bad debt, for unnecessary expenses. All the more power to you if the debt you choose is tax-favored and payments are deferred.

    To learn more about how to better manage your money, visit the Investing Center.

    The key to employing debt properly is knowing what and when to borrow, where to borrow from, and when to refrain. Here’s a rundown of how best to leverage your money in several life situations:

    National data published by Home Re­mod­el­ing magazine shows that you can’t completely recoup your investment in improvements when you sell. So right off the bat, understand that you probably can’t turn a kitchen redo or new deck into a profit. But the IRS rewards certain types of loans for home improvements with special tax treatment, making that type of borrowing quite attractive. Joint filers can deduct interest on debt of up to $1 million that’s used to buy, build, or improve a first or second home; single filers can deduct up to $500,000.

    ReKeithen Miller, a certified financial planner with Palisades Hudson Financial Group in Atlanta, maintains that a home equity line of credit is the best type of loan for that purpose because though its interest rate floats, it is usually less than those of other types of loans. A $50,000 HELOC at, say, 4 percent—the average rate in late summer for borrowers with stellar credit, according to Bankrate—would actually cost just 3 percent after factoring in the tax deduction, assuming a marginal tax rate of 25 percent.

    Next best to a HELOC? A home-equity loan, Miller says. It gets the same tax treatment as a HELOC, but its interest rate, although fixed, is usually higher. When we went fishing for home-equity loan rates on Bankrate in late summer, annual percentage rates were around 6 percent, vs. 4 percent for HELOCs. But Bankrate showed one lender—Pentagon Federal Credit Union—that offered a lower rate (3.24 percent annual percentage rate) than that of the average HELOC.

    After exhausting scholarship and grant options, students and families should turn to federal direct student loans. Currently, the fixed rate for subsidized and unsubsidized Stafford loans is 4.66 percent for undergrads, with a 1.073 percent up-front fee. (Students qualify for subsidized loans if their school determines they have financial need, defined as the cost of attendance minus the family contribution.) With subsidized loans, the federal government pays the interest while the student is in school; with unsubsidized loans, students can opt to either pay the interest while in school or have it accrue unpaid while they’re in school and added to the principal when they leave. Then they begin to pay back principal and interest.

    Many taxpayers may be able to exclude up to $2,500 of qualified student loan interest from adjusted gross income. Because a lower AGI lowers your taxable income, it also might improve your ability to itemize income-based deductions.

    Fixed-rate, direct federal Plus loans for parents, like direct unsubsidized loans for students, can be taken out regardless of ­income, assuming the borrower has no adverse credit history. But those federal education loans carry higher rates of interest than Stafford loans, currently 7.21 percent, plus a 4.29 percent loan fee. They’re an option for remaining education costs once the student borrows the maximum $27,000 in direct loans. Though there’s no borrowing cap, it’s best not to borrow beyond a student’s needs.

    Parents with great credit who can qualify for a HELOC with a significantly lower rate of interest might want to use that option first. But they’d have to start paying interest on the loan right away. And interest on a HELOC can be counted only as an itemized deduction. And the higher the income, the greater the likelihood that a portion—or all—of the deduction will be disallowed.

    Mark Kantrowitz, senior vice president and publisher of Edvisors, a college-­finance website, says students and parents shopping for loans should take into account interest rates and other loan features. Indebted students who enter public-sector jobs and not-for-profit jobs in public service can have their federal loans forgiven after 10 years of good payment history; they also can take advantage of flexible payment options such as deferments, forbearances, and income-based repayment schedules for graduates who don’t make much money. (Plus loans don’t qualify for income-based repayment plans.) “Nobody plans on running into financial difficulty,” Kantrowitz notes. “Students tend to assume that they won’t need these repayment benefits.”

    But based on interest rates and fees alone, Kantrowitz says a HELOC is about on par with private student loans from banks (no flexible repayment or forgiveness options). He says it’s far better than other financing options, such as unsecured personal signature loans from a bank or credit union (high interest and little flexibility), 401(k) loans (see box at left), and credit-card debt (very high interest and potentially fee-laden). As a general rule, students should not borrow more than they can earn in their first full year of employment, he says.

    Small-business owners with good credit and some collateral may be able to take advantage of bank loans or loans through the U.S. Small Business Administration (sba.gov). With an SBA loan, a bank makes the loan and the SBA guarantees it. The most common SBA loan, the 7(a), can lend up to $5 million; loans of up to $150,000 have no fees and are guaranteed up to 85 percent by the SBA. Interest is based on one of three base rates chosen by the lender: the published prime rate, the London Interbank Offered Rate (LIBOR), or the SBA “optional peg rate.” (In early September the SBA peg rate was 3 percent.) For fixed-rate loans of up to seven years, lenders can add up to 2.25 percent to the base rate, so it pays to shop around. Among the SBA’s many requirements, applicants must have some of their own equity invested in the business and must have used alternative financial resources before seeking a loan.

    A number of small businesses use credit cards as a source of funding. A 2012 study by the National Federation of Independent Business found 22 percent using their cards for long-term credit. But as we show in the box at right, businesspeople­—and others—should approach that method with caution.

    Be cautious about loans from friends and family, too. Mess up the deal and you’ll hear about it forever—if the two of you are still talking. So create and sign a written contract with your lender, specifying factors such as the amount, rate of interest, and method and duration of repayment. Have it notarized. To avoid having the IRS consider the loan a gift—potentially subject to gift tax—pay at least a minimum interest rate, known as the applicable federal rate. In September, the annual AFR for loans of one to three years was 0.36 percent. For loans of more than three years and up to nine years, it was 1.86 percent. Buy and download a promissory note for less than $15 from Nolo or Legal Research Group (ilrg.com/forms/promisry.html).

    You also could ask for help from strangers. Websites such as Lending Club and Prosper help pair individual borrowers and lenders. You apply for a loan and indicate how you will use it, for how long, and other factors. Lenders pull your credit score and make offers. You receive a lump sum, with an interest rate of about 6 percent to about 30 percent (Lending Club) or 6 percent to 40 percent (Prosper), depending on your credit score. The good news: Both sites say your credit score isn’t affected when you request a quote.

    Miller warns business owners to avoid borrowing from home equity. “It’s one thing to lose a business but another thing to have a bank foreclose because your business went under,” he says.

    No matter how you borrow, protect your family and home from foreclosure by setting the business up as a limited-liability corporation. “That way, your home and other personal assets will not be at risk if your business were to go under,” Miller notes. But an LLC won’t protect you if your home is used as collateral.

    Mandated health insurance for all Americans means that in theory most people will no longer face extreme health care bills of hundreds of thousands of dollars. There are limits on the out-of-pocket costs for plans purchased through state insurance marketplaces. For 2014, those out-of-pocket maximums amounted to $6,350 for individuals and $12,700 for families. Those with employer-sponsored coverage also may face high costs. In 2015, high-deductible health plans are permitted to charge families as much as $12,900 a year in deductibles and co-pays, according to the IRS.

    Before shouldering any medical debt, make sure the health provider hasn’t made billing mistakes that have run up your bill. Such errors are common, according to Mark Rukavina, principal at Community Health Advisors, a health care consultancy. Question charges, and ask whether the provider offers financial assistance. (Nonprofit hospitals are required to have financial-­assistance policies; many other providers have them, too.) Negotiate with your providers for lower payments and flexible payment options. The not-for-profit National Foundation for Credit Counseling (nfcc.org) can connect you with a credit counselor who may be able to exert more muscle in negotiating.

    Avoid putting medical debt on a credit card, especially if you carry a balance. Unless you’re confident juggling zero-interest cards, the regular interest rates can be crushing. 

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

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    2016 Smart ForTwo is safer, more powerful, and (hopefully) more refined

    When the first Smart went on sale in the United States, it gained a ton of interest for its distinct appearance and tiny size. This diminutive city car was relatively affordable, relatively safe, and had impressive estimated fuel economy. The ForTwo was full of promise and whimsy, but its numerous shortcomings quickly rendered it a forgettable novelty act.

    So now, seven years after the original model officially launched Stateside, the Smart division of Mercedes-Benz has brought version 2.0 to our shores for the 2015 New York auto show. Overall, the ForTwo is similar to the original: a two-door, two-passenger microcar powered by a three-cylinder engine, all packed into a vehicle that measures 8.8 feet in total length.

    The next-gen Smart gets an all-new turbocharged engine, producing 89 hp (compared with 71 hp) driving through a choice of all-new transmissions: a five-speed manual or a six-speed automated dual-clutch unit. This updated powertrain promises to improve upon the glacial acceleration from the previous edition. Fuel economy figures, however, haven’t been released for the North American ForTwo. Top speed with the manual is set at 96 mph.

    Hopefully the all-new transmissions are better calibrated than in the original ForTwo... That automated-manual delivered jerky, jarring gear changes.

    Crashworthiness is something many people question about the ForTwo, given its small footprint. Mercedes-Benz says it focused development on car-to-car crash compatibility with “substantially larger and heavier vehicles,” resulting in a model that “performed well in frontal collisions with the S- and C-Class” models.

    With its tall profile, the Smart is susceptible to being blown about, whether by winds or even by larger vehicles passing by. The 2016 ForTwo comes with Crosswind Assist, a system that uses the electronic stability control (ESC) to settle the vehicle at speeds above 50 mph. The system activates ESC to lessen the need for the driver to countersteer to keep the ForTwo on its intended path. Forward-collision warning is optional, and works at speeds between 5 and 56 mph.

    Mercedes emphasizes that the redesigned ForTwo is has a more comfortable ride than the previous model, thanks to new front and rear suspensions. Given the harsh, unpleasant ride of the original ForTwo we tested, this would be a major improvement.

    Base models will come equipped with LED daytime running lights, remote lock/unlock, Bluetooth, and a 3.5-inch color display in the instrument cluster. Options such as a seven-inch touch screen, heated seats, power and heated mirrors, height-adjustable driver seat, panoramic roof, a Sport package, and rear-parking assist are available on uplevel models.

    —Jon Linkov

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    Lincoln Continental returns big, bold, and high tech

    The Lincoln Continental nameplate returns on a new concept car to be displayed at the New York auto show, previewing an all-new flagship sedan.

    Big bold, and thoroughly high tech, the new Continental’s mission is to re-establish the marque as a standalone luxury brand, and not just a peddler of rebadged Fords with softer springs and more wood trim.

    To that end, the Continental gets its own 3.0-liter Ecoboost V6, said to be exclusive to Lincoln. The Continental also gets an electronically enhanced ride and adaptive steering.

    Electronic wizardry includes doors that open with the touch of a button, a sunroof with adjustable tint that can block up to 99 percent of UV rays and cool the interior by up to 18 degrees, and LED matrix headlights with laser-assisted high beams.

    Lincoln is promising new levels of luxury for the brand, with a vastly upgraded interior. Rich leather covers the seats and door panels, with Alcantara accents for the seating surfaces and armrests. The headliner in this concept is satin, while carpets are made of shearling wool. Detachable leather travel cases are mounted on the rear of the 30-way adjustable front seats. The passenger seat fully reclines, and those in the rear get their own climate and audio controls, with three surround-sound modes. There’s a laptop tray that deploys from the center console for mobile office duties, along with a champagne storage compartment for when work is done.

    Safety features include pre-collision assist with pedestrian detection, park assist, and a 360-degree camera.

    The production version of the Continental is due to arrive in 2016.

    —Jim Travers

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  • 03/31/15--02:59: Borrow from your 401(k)?
  • Borrow from your 401(k)?

    Why do we argue against 401(k) loans? There are many reasons. First, you diminish the growth of your assets in the plan. And once you take it out, your money misses having enough time to grow.

    And there are other downsides: While you’re not contributing, you miss any employer match. And many plans say that if you lose or leave your job before age 59½, you must repay the money in full within 60 days or face ordinary income tax on the outstanding amount, plus an early-­withdrawal penalty of 10 percent. Repayment in a pinch might require liquidating other investments, possibly at a loss.

    Is there any benefit to taking a loan from your 401 (k)? Yes. With a 401(k) loan, you’re both the borrower and the lender; you pay yourself the required interest from your loan repayment through a pretax payroll deduction.

    A 401(k) loan might work if you know for a fact that your job is secure; can predict how markets will move; will be 59½ during the loan period; and don’t have other options, such as home equity. Still, the negative effects outpace any benefits. Larry Rosenthal, a financial planner based in Manassas, Va., strongly urges using other options before digging into your retirement plan. “You can’t just turn your retirement account into an ATM machine,” he says.

    Visit our retirement planning guide to prepare for financial security in your golden years.

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    An apple a day keeps the prescription drugs away

    Does an apple a day really keep the doctor away?

    The saying has been around for over 100 years, but c’mon: You’re supposed to eat five to nine servings of fruits and vegetables every day, with an emphasis on the dark green and deep orange sort. Can a single apple really make a difference? Turns out yes, but not in the way you might think.

    Several studies have analyzed the health benefits of eating apples—a 2011 Dutch study found that eating apples and pears was associated with a lower risk of stroke, for example—but until now, no one had examined whether the aphorism was literally true.

    Researcher Matthew A. Davis, an assistant professor at University of Michigan, was intrigued. So he and his colleagues designed an apple study. Armed with dietary information from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, which had asked more than 8,000 adults what they ate during the previous 24 hours, the researchers were able to identify 753 apple-a-day eaters and over 7,000 people they called “non-apple eaters.”

    The apple-a-day eaters were not more likely to keep the doctor away. They weren’t hospitalized less than non-apple eaters, either, and they didn’t see mental health professionals less.

    But they did keep prescription medications at bay: these people were slightly less likely to use a prescription drug than the non-apple eaters.

    The study, published in JAMA Internal Medicine, doesn’t prove a cause-and-effect relationship between eating apples and using less medication (or not keeping the doctor away); it’s merely an association.

    “I don’t want to overstate the findings,” Davis said, “but we definitely called into question the age old saying that an apple a day keeps the doctor away.”

    Asked whether he eats an apple every day, Davis said, “Occasionally.”

    Whether you eat them daily or not, buy apples grown in New Zealand or else buy organic. Apples contain fiber, vitamins, and minerals—but a recent Consumer Reports analysis found those grown conventionally in the U.S. are high-risk for pesticide residues. Conventional New Zealand apples and organics from any location are low risk.

    —Roni Caryn Rabin

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    2016 GMC Terrain SUV gets a facelift, adds safety gear

    Stretching out a long model run, the GMC Terrain is freshened for 2016 with a smattering of cosmetic updates and additional advanced safety features.

    The Terrain’s exterior evolution brings more bling, with abundant chrome accents, plus a new grille and hood. Higher trim levels boast LED daytime running lights.

    Cabin changes are limited to upholstery, trim bits, revised graphics on the IntelliLink infotainment system, and a new storage shelf below the climate controls that replaces the old CD slot. Again, IntelliLink offers 4G LTE connectivity and built-in Wi-Fi hotspot capability. The top-trim Terrain Denali gains a new two-tone black and tan leather interior with wood inserts on the door panels and steering wheel.

    Less obvious, the Terrain gains available blind-spot monitoring and rear cross-traffic alert, which join the forward-collision and lane-departure warning systems.

    The 182-hp, 2.4-liter four-cylinder and 301-hp, 3.6-liter V6 engines carry over. When tested, we found that both powertrains feel sluggish and neither is particularly fuel efficient.

    The appearance-focused updates don’t address other shortcomings that prevent us from recommending the Terrain, such as tepid acceleration, sluggish transmission, limited side and rear visibility, and wide turning circle.

    Like its mechanical sibling, the Chevrolet Equinox, the Terrain is improved for the upcoming model year, but there remain better choices for the size and price.

    See our complete 2015 New York auto show coverage.

    Eric Evarts

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    Yes, you do need sunscreen in the spring

    It’s been a rough winter, and many of us are looking forward to the first warm day we can eat lunch out on the patio, work in the garden, or take a walk without bundling up. But remember, before you turn your face toward the sun make sure you’ve covered it in sunscreen.

    Even in the spring, the sun’s rays can be harmful. In fact, ultraviolet (UV) radiation from sunlight is greatest in North America during the late spring and early summer, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And if you've been hiding inside all winter long, your skin may be especially vulnerable to sunburn, too.  

    Can you use last summer's sunscreen? Is a moisturizer with SPF ok to use? Our experts have the answers.

    So no matter how much you missed the warmth this winter, adopt these sun safety habits now and keep them up through the summer:

    • Try to stay indoors or in the shade between the hours of 10 and 4, when the sun is the strongest.
    • When you go out, dress right. Sunscreen is just one part of a smart sun protection program. Cover up with a long-sleeved shirt or light jacket to protect your arms and a broad-rimmed hat to shield your face and neck.
    • You can’t skip sunscreen on cool and overcast days. Clouds let a good deal of UV rays through; up to 80 percent of them reach the earth.
    • Think ahead. Apply sunscreen to exposed areas—face, ears, back of the neck, and hands—15 to 30 minutes before you go out to give it time to start working. And reapply sunscreen every two hours, if you’ll be outside that long.

    —Roni Caryn Rabin

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    5 ugly-duckling electronic gadgets

    When it comes to electronics, performance and ease of use trump style, so those are the attributes we test in our labs. But wouldn't you prefer a good-looking gadget to a plain-Jane or downright homely device that performs just as well?

    With that in mind, we looked through the products we have in-house to find those that are, well, stylistically challenged, to put it kindly. But an interesting fact emerged. Although some staffers cringed at the design of the models below, others actually liked some of them. See what you think.  

    —Eileen McCooey

     

    Neptune Pine smartwatch $300 (16GB); $450 (32GB)

    Neptune says this smartwatch "makes a bold statement." That it does—but you decide exactly what it's saying! The Pine is bigger and squarer than most smartwatches we've seen, somewhat like a digital blood-pressure monitor, and it looks positively gargantuan on a woman's wrist. In fact, it'd look huge on anyone but an NFL player. If this appeals to your inner nerd, plan on rolling up your sleeves, because this wouldn't fit under anything but Seinfeld's infamous puffy shirt. We haven't tested the Neptune Pine so we can't comment on its performance, but nobody here was a fan of its appearance.

    Google Glass (no longer available)

    This once-much-hyped product has fallen out of the headlines in recent months. (Google has stopped selling Google Glass to consumers as it explores future options, but the company says "the journey" hasn't ended.) The design is polarizing, to say the least. Some consider it the ultimate in nerd chic, but others find it cumbersome and ultra-geeky. It can also be uncomfortable, especially when worn with prescription glasses. Our in-house expert had mixed feelings about its performance.

    BlackBerry Passport smartphone (unlocked, $600 on Amazon.com)

    This isn't what you'd call a sleek, shapely smartphone—not by a long shot. The latest BlackBerry, dubbed the Passport, is almost square, with a wide body that's hard to handle, especially with one hand. And it can be awkward to hold this blocky black slab up to the face for phone calls. The design, which includes a physical keyboard, is quite a departure from the all-screen phones that dominate the market today, and from the curves and colors that have become so popular. There are some advantages to the design, though, including that aforementioned keyboard as well as more screen real estate than other phones offer. The Passport did very well in our tests, overall, and stood out for its excellent display and battery life.

    Ricoh WG-M1 camcorder (less than $200)

    If you have a sense of déjà vu looking at this action cam, there's a reason for that. We included the WG-M1 in our recent blog on nice-looking products, lauding it for its colorful, futuristic design and macho swagger. Well, other staffers described it very differently when they nominated it for this week's roundup. They described it as bulky and much more "mechanical looking" than action cams like the smaller, sleeker GoPro and Sony HDR-AS100V. Clearly, beauty is in the eye of the beholder! There was no disagreement about performance, though; it's our top-rated action cam.

    Blue Microphones Mo-Fi headphones ($350)

    Here's another product that provoked a love-it-or-hate-it response. Several members of our team find the Mo-Fi design offputting. One described it as "alien" while another said it conjured up images of Dr. Who's Cybermen. However, others on our team loved its industrial chic. These headphones are certainly distinctive, much larger and more angular than most, with unusually shaped earcups. You'll have to decide whether the style works for you. It did very well overall in our tests, delivering very good sound quality with a warm character.

     

     

     

     

     

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