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  • 04/02/15--02:59: Bitcoin: Beyond the buzz
  • Bitcoin: Beyond the buzz

    If you’re still wondering what’s the big deal about bitcoin, that’s understandable. There are many questions about how it works and whether it will ever really be embraced by consumers. Here are some of the basics:

    Started in 2009, bitcoin is a digital currency created and exchanged independent of banks or governments. It resides in a virtual wallet on your computer or smart phone, and some retailers accept it as payment. Bitcoins are a finite commodity: Only 21 million can be produced, making the currency inflation-proof.

    Read about whether you should invest in bitcoin and if it could be the next investment bubble.

    No. Consumers can obtain bitcoin, using dollars, through bitcoin exchanges such as Coinbase and Bitstamp, which also store the currency. (About 14 million bitcoins already exist.) You may also be able to invest in the currency one day. The Winklevoss Bitcoin Trust is currently seeking approval from the Securities and Exchange Commission to launch a bitcoin-based exchange-traded fund.

    It doesn’t have any of the consumer protections that are available with debit and credit cards, and there isn’t an equivalent to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, which protects money in banks and savings institutions. And there’s no remedy from a third party (such as a credit-card issuer) in the event of fraudulent transactions. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has warned consumers about the risks of bitcoin transactions and investments, and several states have proposed regulations.

    Yes. Relative to the U.S. dollar, bitcoin fell in value by 57 percent in 2014. At the beginning of last year, one bitcoin was worth more than $700. By last February, it was worth only $236.

    If there is, it’s that bitcoin’s promise—to make financial transactions fast and frictionless for consumers—could fill a need. At a bank, it can still take days for a check to clear. If bitcoin spurs the banking system to be more nimble, it might, at least indirectly, be the catalyst for a future consumer victory.

    This article also appeared in the May 2015 issue of 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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    How to avoid home improvement scams

    Now that warmer weather is here, your thoughts naturally turn to all of the around-the-house projects soon to occupy your weekends. Certainly a little help wouldn’t hurt, but be careful whom you hire: Along with the crocuses, spring is also the season when crooked contractors and home improvement scams start popping up everywhere.

    There are many variations on the scheme. Some home improvement scams involve contractors showing up at your door offering to repair your roof, repave your driveway, or do whatever chore you need for a price that seems fair. They ask for payment in advance but then do either shoddy work or none at all. It can be difficult to catch and prosecute these con artists. Even so, in the state of New Jersey alone, officials are seeking more than $2.1 million in consumer restitution and penalties from 130 contractors accused in 2014 of performing poor work or leaving projects unfinished. Here’s how to protect yourself from home improvement scams:

    • Get recommendations. Avoid contractors that contact you unsolicited. Don’t hire a contractor based solely on an ad in a local newspaper, even if you’re offered a big discount or another incentive. Get recommendations from friends, neighbors, or relatives.
    • See what others are saying. Before hiring a contractor, check his or her work history with your state consumer protection agency (go to usa.gov/directory/stateconsumer for a list) and the Better Business Bureau. Search the Web using the company or individual’s name and such words as “reviews” and “complaints.”
    • Check credentials. Verify with your state that the contractor has the required license or registration. Some states have funds that reimburse consumers who obtain judgments against licensed contractors.
    • Know your rights. Some states give consumers three days or so to cancel home-improvement contracts. Under federal law you have three days to cancel most contracts that are signed in your home or outside the contractor’s regular place of business.
    • Get everything in writing. Don’t rely on spoken promises. Demand a written contract, and get all warranties in writing, too.

    Planning a project at home? Check our kitchen planning and home improvement guides.

    1. He just happens to be in the area

    He knocks on your door and says he can offer you a great deal because he’s working nearby and has leftover material. It’s a ruse.

    2. The deal is good "today only"

    He says you must act immediately to get his special offer. Don’t let him muscle you into making a decision without doing your homework.

    3. You're told your safety is at risk

    He creates a sense of urgency by saying you may be in danger unless he makes immediate repairs. Contact authorities if you have concerns.

    4. You have to pay up front

    He demands you pay a substantial amount before work commences. It’sa sign that he’s out to rip you off or that he’s in financial trouble and has no credit to buy supplies.

    5. He lacks professionalism

    He’s hard to reach: He has no address, his vehicle is unmarked, and there’s no info on him at the Better Business Bureau, or anywhere.

    This article also appeared in the May 2015 issue of 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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    America's best supermarkets—and worst

     What makes a supermarket great? Years ago, the answer might have been low prices, checkout speed, or variety. Now another consideration is top-of-mind: “fresh.”

    When the typical shopper makes each of 83 yearly grocery trips (running up an annual tab of about $5,400), he or she is demanding a wider-than-ever choice of healthy, unprocessed fruits, vegetables, meat, and fish—as well as more organics and local produce. The clamor for “fresh” also extends to freshly prepared meals that can be taken home.

    So when we at Consumer Reports did our annual supermarket survey to find America's best supermarkets, we asked readers to rate their grocers on traditional characteristics such as service and cleanliness—but we also asked them to rate the selection of local produce and the price of organics at their stores.

    We received responses from 62,917 subscribers, crunched the numbers, and discovered that the “freshest” stores tend to be the best stores overall, too. So Wegmans, a top-rated store since 2005, also gets top marks for freshness; longtime bottom-of-the-barrel Walmart Supercenter gets some of the lowest scores for freshness.

    Learn about the the cost of organic food. Hint: Don’t assume that organic is always pricier.

    For many Americans, food is the new medicine: We believe we can eat our way to good health. As a result, consumers have become increasingly savvy label readers, wary of preservatives, chemicals, and unpronounceable ingredients. It’s no surprise, then, that since 2007 the demand for minimally processed foods with shorter ingredients lists has risen significantly, according to The Hartman Group, a consumer research firm.

    “There has been a tremendous evolution in the term ‘fresh’ as it applies to super­markets,” says food-industry expert Richard George. For years, supermarket-industry insiders have lamented the decline of the “center store,” a euphemism for the middle aisles stocked with bagged, boxed, and heavily advertised products.

    “There’s a growing rejection of overly processed and packaged foods, especially among younger consumers,” says Jim Hertel, managing partner at supermarket-industry consultant Willard Bishop. “They’re suspicious about food additives and so sure ‘less is more’ that they buy gluten-free even if they’re not allergic to gluten.”

    On the flip side, Hertel says, young people who have grown up with higher-quality fast-casual restaurants, including Panera and Chipotle, “know quality food doesn’t have to cost an arm and a leg.”

    Supermarkets are taking seriously their new role in the health of their customers. In the 1980s, just two chains had a registered dietitian. Today, dietitians influence merchandising and marketing decisions in 95 percent of chains. Some stores participate in nutrition-scoring programs such as NuVal (available at Kroger, Price Chopper, and other chains); others, like Whole Foods Market, publicize food-safety commitments that include stocking only antibiotic-free meat.

    Consumers’ food-safety concerns have also prompted stores to carry more locally sourced selections, Hertel adds. Some chains even display the names of their local producers, along with their family photos. Says Hertel: “There’s a sense of ‘we know them, we know their operations, and we trust them, so you should, too.’ ”

    The growth of farmers markets—a fourfold increase nationwide in two decades—is also a factor, says Judy Harrison, a professor in the foods and nutrition department at the University of Georgia. She says that many people are likely to think local produce is fresher and maybe safer (though there’s no data to back up the notion), as well as more environmentally friendly because it has not been transported as far.

    Though the jury’s out on how eating locally connects to health, there’s no question that fresh, unprocessed food is better for you than choosing a prepared meal high in sodium and fat from the freezer aisle of a supermarket.

    Read our special report on pesticdes in produce, and learn about glyphosate, the most commonly used agricultural pesticide in the U.S. on farms.

    What, then, explains the rising demand for store-prepared meals? “We’re increasingly time-starved,” says Sean Coary, a professor of food marketing at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia. “Purchasing store-made meals buys time for the family.” To capture those “5 o’clock” shoppers (industry-speak for consumers prone to last-minute meal decisions), many grocers are developing ready-to-eat entrées, salads, sandwiches, and sushi. Some even bring a restaurant feel into the experience.

    Mariano’s, a Chicago-area grocery chain, is a good example: Many of its locations offer a sit-down sushi bar, oyster bar, and wine bar. And shoppers can head home with a wood-fired pizza or even a grilled-to-order steak from the butcher.

    Television also influences eating patterns and food cravings, Coary says. “Once there was only Julia,” he adds, saluting pioneering TV chef Julia Child, who expanded our vistas to new recipes and fresh ingredients. “Now entire networks are devoted to food. Food’s all around us.”

    Find out why a roasted chicken at the supermarket is cheaper to buy than to make yourself.

    Why can’t all stores be like Wegmans? The chain got top marks in our survey for freshness, baked goods, and overall shopping experience.

    “It’s going to sound cliché, but our employees are our secret sauce,” says Jo Natale, Wegmans’ vice president of media relations. Natale also points to the fact that the chain is family-owned, not publicly traded, which “allows us to take a long-range view, invest in people, and grow at a controlled rate.”

    Nationwide, stores need to do a much better job when it comes to fresh offerings. Only around six in 10 shoppers were completely or very satisfied with the quality of their store’s produce, meat, and poultry offerings. (And about 50 percent of respondents were highly satisfied with their store’s prepared food and bakery items.)

    Just three of the 68 chains—Wegmans and national chains The Fresh Market and Whole Foods—earned stellar produce scores. Seventeen were below average. Eighteen retailers received low scores for produce variety, notably two big warehouse clubs—Sam’s Club (part of Walmart), and BJ’s Membership Club (in the East)—as well as Target and Target Supercenters.

    Standouts for prepared foods were Wegmans, Publix, Costco, Whole Foods, and Fresh Market. Pathmark and Waldbaum’s, in the Northeast, and Aldi, in the eastern U.S., received low marks in that category.

    Aldi is an anomaly: a highly-ranked chain earning low scores for most perishables. In fairness, those products aren’t a priority at the chain, which specializes in low prices. Aldi carries 1,300 of the most commonly purchased grocery items sold under their private label brands, spokeswoman Liz Ruggles says. (A mainstream supermarket stocks around 44,000 items.)

    And what of Walmart, consistently one of our lowest-rated grocers dating back to 2005? This year, the nation’s largest grocer—the primary shopping destination for 10 percent of those surveyed—earned low marks in every category other than price. We contacted the company for comment and received a statement that CEO Doug McMillon originally gave at an investors meeting last October:

    “Every store I go in has room to improve. I can take you to stores right now and we can walk out of that store with a list of things that we can go do better. And if we nail those, one store at a time, our short-term performance gets better.”

    OK, Walmart, we’ll be watching.

    Stores freely use terms such as “fresh” and “local”—but most don’t mean much. “The USDA does not have standard definitions for those labels,” spokeswoman Wendy Wasserman says. Here, food insiders give their definitions:

    Term

    What it means

    Artisan

    Conjures handmade, small-batch products. Consumer research firm The Hartman Group says fast-food chains such as Domino’s, which sells “artisan” pizza, attempt “to create a shortcut to denote higher quality and premium, inverting the original meaning when it’s put in the context of mass-produced foods.”

    Fresh

    Has myriad meanings: just picked, gathered, produced, live, or unprocessed, per FMI. Darren Tristano, executive vice president for Technomic, sees it more narrowly. “Dishes prepared during the day that they’re sold,” he says.

    Local

    Might be defined by one retailer “as products from their state; another might include bordering states,” says Matt Seeley of produce company Nunes. Others, he says, might define it as “anything in stores within 24 hours of harvest.”

    Natural

    When seen on meat, poultry, and egg products, means that they’re minimally processed and contain no artificial ingredients, according to the USDA. But the label applies only to those three foods.

    Organic

    Does have strict guidelines, certifying that the food was processed in accordance with Department of Agriculture regulations that promote sustainability and minimize exposure to pesticides and other synthetic materials.

    Seasonal

    Is relative, says Kathy Means of the Produce Marketing Association. “I define it as what’s being grown near me now.”

    This article also appeared in the May 2015 issue of 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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    10 ways to take back your garage

    “The garage is where clutter goes to die,” jokes Amanda M. LeBlanc, a professional organizer in Birmingham, Ala.

    Many of you said the same thing in Consumer Reports' recent nationwide poll of almost 1,000 garage owners. Filled with tools, lawn mowers, sports equipment, and more, the garages of 62 percent of Americans are crowded, disorganized, or a mess. Shocker: Almost a third of us don’t park our car in the garage no matter how large, and only 25 percent of people with three-car garages actually park three cars there.

    Sound familiar? Even if you can still squeeze into your garage, getting from the car to the house shouldn’t be an obstacle course. Help is at hand.

    First, cull (be ruthless). Then plan.

    Divide items in your garage into four groups: sell (watch our video, below), donate, trash, and keep. That will give you a better idea of how much storage you need, and what kind. And if you call in a pro to install a system, you won’t wind up with one that’s more extensive and expensive than necessary.

    Overall, your objective in this step is to get as much as you can off the garage floor and onto the walls or shelves. With that done, you can start planning. Ask yourself whether you prefer to store items behind closed doors, on open shelves, or a mix of both. Also, are there items cluttering up indoor living spaces that you’d like to store in the garage? And last, think about future needs. If you own a Mini Cooper but will be trading it in for an SUV, or vice versa, consider the size of future cars.

    Remember to allow for the swing of car doors, plus room to exit and enter, when measuring. That way you’ll know how many linear feet are actually available for storage. Typically, the wall facing the hood will have room for deep shelves or cabinets, but side walls will have space only for shallow storage.

    Consider our four scenarios, no matter what you’re storing. Tackle one problem or all of them if you’re feeling ambitious. Then you might be able to park your car—or even another car—in your garage.

    Send your tips and photps

    Inspired by our organization advice? Please send your garage storage before-and-after photos to garagemakeover@cr.consumer.org.

    A whopping 78 percent of people surveyed store tools or a workbench in their garage, and 44 percent use the space as a workshop. A slat wall, wire grid, or pegboard will keep your tools in plain sight. Opt for cabinets with doors and drawers if you prefer things to be stowed away or you want to keep them from young children. Unless you have an oversized garage, cabinets that are 24 inches deep and a workbench will probably fit only at the rear of the garage.

    • If space is a premium or you maintain your own car, consider tool cabinets on wheels, which you can move into the center of the garage or the driveway.
    • A workbench that lets you adjust the height is handy for different jobs and for users of different heights.
    • Consider a workbench with a sealed, laminate, or plastic surface. Those types resist stains best, according to our tests. A wood or metal table is also a good option.

    You’ll probably want wall storage and shelves for hand tools, potting soil, peat moss, and fertilizer. Lawn mowers and heavy pots will need space on the floor. If you need a new mower, consider the Toro 20339 SmartStow, $350. It can be stored upright to save space and performed very well in our tests, though it was a bit difficult to push, pull, and turn.

    • Use a wall system for your rakes, hoes, and other tall items. An ideal place is along a side wall because those items don’t protrude much. Mount trowels, bulb planters, and other hand tools on a pegboard, either on individual hooks or perhaps in wire or clear plastic bins for visibility.
    • If there’s space, consider a potting bench along the back wall, with some grow lights. Benches made of cedar, cypress, or galvanized steel will stand the test of time.

     

     

    “If kids have to open a door, put in something, and close the door, forget it,” says Derrek Holland, who owns The Closet Doctor in Lincoln, Calif. “They’ll leave it on the floor.” A slat wall, track, or grid system can be fitted with hooks for specialized holders for balls, mitts, backpacks, rackets, skateboards, skis, bikes, and more. You can also mount hooks and other holders directly on the wall. Ditto for pegboards, which also come in galvanized steel. More tips:

    • A slat wall or grid system allows you to easily raise hooks and accessories as kids get taller.
    • Wall-mounted wire baskets, mesh bags, and clear, open bins stow items in clear view.
    • An exception to the keep-the-floor-clear rule is a floor bike rack, which allows youngsters to ride right into the garage and park. When they’re older and stronger, swap it for a wall-mounted rack. No kids? Consider suspending bikes from the ceiling with a bike lift, either motorized or manual.
    • A hoist allows you to get your canoe or kayak up and down without damaging it or harming yourself in the process. Be sure to check the weight that the units can hold as well as the head room your garage door needs.

    The ceiling has become the new frontier in garage storage, with systems designed to hold items as varied as hurricane shutters, big coolers, and surfboards. Overhead storage is an economical alternative to a cabinet for large, long, and relatively flat objects.

    • A ceiling-mounted shelf is the ideal place for such lightweight items as holiday decorations and out-of-season clothing. Most are designed to allow plastic bins to sit securely in slots. Mesh sides add another measure of stability.
    • For bulk purchases, keep extra cleaning supplies and nonperishable foods near the inner door to the house.
    • Paper records can go into bins, but the weight makes them better for a shelf mounted high on a wall rather than above a car. Some rail-storage systems have wall braces and accommodate bins above.
    • Use clear plastic bins to hold more than one type of item. Opaque bins are fine for out-of-season clothes, old business records, etc., if they’re clearly labeled.

    3 things you shouldn’t keep in your garage

    Paint or solvent: Wide temperature swings can damage paint. Cold is especially bad because it can freeze the water in paint.

    A refrigerator or freezer: When your garage is cold, the machine’s compressor won’t run long enough to properly cool the freezer. When the garage is hot, the fridge will work overtime to stay cool, driving up your electric bill. 

    Gasoline or oil: Pilot lights, like those on a water heater, and flammable vapors are the problem here. The vapors could cause a fire or an explosion. Even in a detached garage, you want to be sure that gas is stored in an approved container. Keep only as much gas as you’ll use in a few weeks.

    Depending on how many components you select and which types, you should be able to outfit two walls in a standard garage with open shelving for $1,000 to $2,000. Adding some cabinets will probably push the cost above $2,500, as will hiring an installer.

    Hooks and baskets

    The most basic and inexpensive approach is to simply install hooks, baskets, or other devices directly on a wall, using appropriate fasteners for studs, concrete/cement blocks, or gypsum board surfaces. Pegboard (now also available in sleek galvanized steel) with an array of hooks and fasteners is another easy and inexpensive option.

    Track system

    A track system can simply be a horizontal rail that allows you to attach various kinds of hooks, baskets, or mesh bags; others can also support cabinets or shelving. The highest-quality tracks are made of steel, preferably with an enamel coating, which can handle more weight and won’t rust unless scratched. You can reconfigure the system as your needs change.

    Wire grids

    Wire grids are usually made of metal with an epoxy or vinyl coating, although some are made of a strong polymer that looks like brushed chrome. Wall grids come in a variety of sizes, can be mounted vertically or horizontally, and come in different strengths to handle different weight requirements. When fitted with hooks, fasteners, and accessories, they can hold almost any item you want to stow. Reposition fasteners and accessories at any time or even move the grid up the wall as your kids grow.

    Slat walls

    Originally made of melamine clad particleboard or medium-density fiberboard for store displays, slat walls are the latest trend in garage storage. And now they also come in aluminum, PVC, resin, and steel, all of which are more durable than melamine. Horizontal grooves in the board accept baskets, bins, hooks, and other accessories. You can go whole hog by lining an entire wall with 4x8-foot panels. Some systems ­offer cabinets that can be mounted right on a slat wall and repositioned as desired. Or run two, four, or more horizontal slats at selected points on the wall.

    Cabinets

    Cabinet options include melamine laminated on MDF or plywood, injection-molded resin, or steel. Laminated cabinets may not hold up well if your workshop area gets a lot of use or is exposed to frequent moisture. Ditto organizers with cardboard backs. Avoid thin, flexible plastic cabinets; the shelves may sag, and the doors may not close properly. Thin steel cabinets can have similar problems. Look for thicker, lower-gauge steel, which is stronger.

    Hanging cabinets reduce the likelihood of moisture transfer from the garage floor, which can delaminate melamine cabinets and rust steel ones. Hanging cabinets also ensures that they will be level; otherwise, the slight downward pitch of the floor that diverts water toward the garage doors means the cabinets may not line up perfectly and the doors may be more difficult to open. Some companies add front legs to deep cabinets for added support. Sliding cabinet doors make access easier than swinging doors when a car is parked nearby.

    No matter the storage system and the clarity of the directions, a second set of hands will usually make the work easier. These simple—though often ignored—steps can help avoid problems:

    • Plan to spend several hours assembling and installing a unit.
    • Read all of the directions before you start putting the pieces together.
    • Find and mark wall studs before attaching anything to the walls. Most studs are 16 inches from center to center.
    • Do an inventory of the parts. If somethingis missing, it’s better to find out early so that you can request a replacement. If it’s a crucial part, you might want to wait until it arrives to get started.
    • Measure twice, cut once. Before you cut wall brackets and other pieces, make sure that your measurements are accurate.
    • Use a cordless screwdriver or drill to speed the work of driving many screws.

    This article also appeared in the May 2015 issue of 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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    Wegmans, Publix, & Trader Joe’s Continue to Dominate Consumer Reports’ Supermarket Ratings

    Walmart Supercenter still among lowest-rated grocers in latest survey; Fresh, high-quality produce & store-made meals a top consideration

    YONKERS, NY — In Consumer Reports’ new supermarket survey, Wegmans, Publix, and Trader Joe’s remain at the top of the Ratings of 68 of stores nationwide.  Also earning high overall satisfaction scores were Fareway Stores, Market Basket (Northeast), Costco, and Raley’s.  Once again, America’s largest grocer, Walmart Supercenter, landed at the bottom, along with A & P and Waldbaums, two smaller regional chains.

    The report, “America’s Best, Freshest Supermarkets,” which includes the complete Ratings of grocery stores, is available in the May 2015 issue of Consumer Reports and at www.ConsumerReports.org

    Consumer Reports National Research Center surveyed 62,917 subscribers about overall satisfaction with their supermarket shopping experiences based on 111,208 visits between March 2013 and July 2014. The top-rated supermarkets also received high scores for overall freshness – quality of produce, meats, poultry, bakery items, and store-prepared foods as well as store quality, which included scores for staff courtesy and store cleanliness.  Walmart Supercenter, consistently one of Consumer Reports’ lowest-rated grocers since 2005, earned low marks in every category other than price.

    “Once upon a time, low prices, checkout speed, and variety were attributes that mattered most to supermarket shoppers,” said Tod Marks, senior project editor at Consumer Reports.  “While these aspects are still critical, more and more consumers demand better fresh foods, more organics, and a greater variety of locally made and grown foods.”

    Many Americans believe that good health starts with a good diet.  As a result, consumers have become increasingly savvy label readers, wary of preservatives, chemicals, and unpronounceable ingredients and the demand for minimally processed foods and shorter ingredients lists has risen significantly. And supermarkets are taking seriously their new role in the health of their customers.  Consumer Reports found that 95 percent of chains have a registered dietician on staff to assist with merchandising and marketing decisions.  And, more than 75 percent of stores say they carry more locally grown or made goods than they did in 2012.

    In addition to traditional characteristics such as service and cleanliness, Consumer Reports asked subscribers to rate their grocers on the selection of local produce and the price of organics at their stores. Only around six in 10 were completely or very satisfied with the quality of their store’s produce, meat, and poultry offerings, according to Consumer Reports’ survey.

    Just three of the chains – Wegmans and national chains The Fresh Market and Whole Foods – earned stellar produce scores.  Seventeen were below average.  Eighteen retailers received low scores for produce variety, notably two big warehouse clubs – Sam’s Club (part of Walmart) and BJ’s Wholesale Club (in the East) – as well as Target and Target Supercenters.

    Consumer Reports also asked subscribers about the prices of organic options available at their stores: Trader Joe’s, Wegmans, Costco, and Sprouts Farmers Market received high marks.  And, to determine the real-world price differences, Consumer Reports conducted a study by shopping for 15 similar organic and conventional goods including bananas, milk, and chicken, at eight national, regional, and online grocers.  The organic items cost 47 percent more, on average, although in some cases, some of the organic versions cost the same or less than the conventional ones.  For example, organic Grade A maple syrup cost 11 percent less than the conventional version at Price Chopper.

    When it came to prepared food and bakery items, about 50 percent of respondents to Consumer Reports survey were highly satisfied with those offered by their store.  Standouts for prepared foods were Wegmans, Publix, Costco, Whole Foods, and Fresh Market.  Pathmark and Waldbaum’s in the Northeast, and Aldi, in the eastern U.S., received low marks in that category.

    For more information on America’s best and worst supermarkets, pick up the May 2015 issue of Consumer Reports, on newsstands now, or visit www.ConsumerReports.org.  The feature also decodes common terms such as “fresh,” “natural” and more.

    About Consumer Reports
    Consumer Reports is the world’s largest and most trusted nonprofit, consumer organization driving marketplace change to improve the lives and amplify the voices of consumers.  Founded in 1936 Consumer Reports has achieved substantial gains for consumers on food and product safety, financial reform, health and other issues. The organization has advanced important policies to cut hospital-acquired infections, prohibit predatory lending practices and combat dangerous toxins in food. Consumer Reports independent testing and rating of thousands of products and services is made possible by its member-supported 50 plus labs, state-of-the-art auto test center and consumer research center. Consumers Union, a division of Consumer Reports, works for pro-consumer laws and regulations in Washington, D.C., the states, and in the marketplace. With more than eight million subscribers to its flagship magazine, website and other publications Consumer Reports accepts no advertising, payment or other support from the companies whose products it evaluates.

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    2016 Volkswagen Golf SportWagen Alltrak brings AWD and attitude

    Offering an alternative to the recent glut of small SUVs, the Volkswagen Golf SportWagen Alltrack delivers a host of capability and practicality in the latest Golf variant.

    Just as the standard version of the Golf SportWagen enters dealer showrooms, Volkswagen unveiled the Alltrack version at the New York Auto Show. It enters a segment of active-lifestyle wagons, like the Audi Allroad, Subaru Outback, and Volvo XC70. The common bond among all these is a wagon profile, raised ride height, all-wheel drive, and in some cases, beefed up fenders and underside protection.

    Along with the lengthy name, the Golf SportWagen Alltrak has an added inch of ground clearance, additional side moldings, and VW’s 4Motion all-wheel drive with Haldex-5 coupling. The Haldex system allows it to route power to where it is needed. In normal driving, it operates like a front-drive car, and when it senses wheel slip, it can send up to 50 percent of power to the rear wheels.

    Other updates include a revised bumper design and a more upscale interior. The standard Golf SportWagen is on sale now with either a 170-horsepower 1.8-liter turbo four-cylinder or a 150-horsepower TDI diesel engine. No word from Volkswagen on pricing or which engines will be available, but it is reasonable to expect the powertrains to be familiar.

    The Golf SportWagen Alltrack comes to U.S. dealers some time next year.

    See our complete coverage of the 2015 New York International Auto Show.

    —George Kennedy

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

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    Separate laundry rooms top Millennials' wish lists

    What feature do you want most in a new home? A separate laundry room tops the list for Millennials—adults 34 or younger—according to the American Housing Survey. Fifty-five percent of survey respondents said they would pass on a house without one. It’s not that Millennials want it all. The survey found they want smaller homes, but with a laundry room please. Whether you’re house hunting or shopping for new laundry appliances, keep in mind that washers and dryers have changed in recent years in ways that relate to your space.

    Wide load coming through

    Some high-efficiency top-loaders and front-loaders, like Consumer Reports' top-rated Samsung WF56H9110CW, $1,450, are two or three inches wider than usual; same with dryers. It’s one way to increase capacity. In our ratings a machine that scores excellent in capacity held about 25 or more pounds of our laundry. Those machines are typically bigger. A very good capacity score indicates about 20 to 24 pounds; good, around 15 to 19 pounds.
    Tip: Look at the dimensions in our Features & Specs box on the model page for each washer and dryer. Measure the space you have to work with and allow room behind the dryer for the vent, and measure the door to the house and to the laundry room for moving day.

    Height enhancers

    Many front-loaders we test are excellent at cleaning, but the design isn’t that convenient and requires lots of bending. That’s why for $500 to $600 you can buy pedestals for the washer and its matching dryer. They raise the machines from 11 to 15 inches. And the GE GFWR4805FMC, $1,200, has a built-in riser that boosts the machine’s height by about seven inches. So does its matching electric dryer, the $1,200 GE GFDR485EFMC.
    Tip: If you’re considering pedestals tally the height of the machine plus pedestal, especially if you plan to install your appliances below cabinets or shelves.

    Stack ’em

    For small laundry rooms or dual-purpose rooms—a mud and laundry room eliminates the middleman—stacking your appliances saves space. Most front-loaders we test can be stacked with a dryer, and we note this in the Features & Specs page in the Ratings so you can compare front-loaders. It’s also mentioned on each washer model page, as it is for the $700 Kenmore Elite 41472.
    Tip: Use the washer and dryer dimensions in our ratings to get an idea of how tall the stacked machines will be. When shopping ask the salesperson to add it up as the actual height may differ slightly depending on how the dryer attaches to the washer. With height in mind, will you be able to reach the dryer controls and inside the drum?

    Quiet, please

    Agitator top-loaders cost less than high-efficiency top-loaders and front-loaders and the best do a very good job cleaning, such as the Whirlpool WTW4850BW, $580, and the GE GTWN5650FWS, $650. But agitator washers are usually noisy.
    Tip: Look at the washers and dryers that scored very good or better in our tests for noise if you're placing these appliances near bedrooms or the family room. You'll know they're working but they shouldn't disturb you. You'll hear the machines that scored good or lower—they make sustained sounds that can be annoying. And while most manufacturers have reduced front-loader’s vibrations, keep in mind that concrete floors can absorb vibrations well, unlike wood-framed floors. You’ll see vibration scores in our washer Ratings.

    Think like a kid

    Keeping a front-loader’s door ajar between loads allows air to circulate and helps prevent mold and funky odors from developing if water collects around the rubber door gasket. But with washers and dryers moving to a space adjacent to the family room, kitchen, or bedrooms, young children may have unrestricted access. So if you have young ones running about, think how you’ll keep them safe—and be sure to keep detergent pods out of their reach.
    Tip: See “How to prevent smelly mold buildup in front-loading washers” for more tips and consider a high-efficiency top-loader, such as the Samsung WA45H7000AW, $700.

    Consumer Reports' washer and dryer Ratings offer all the details and you can easily compare models. Check the buying guides for news on features and the pros and cons of washer types. And if you have questions, e-mail me at kjaneway@consumer.org.

    Kimberly Janeway

    Best matching washers and dryers

    Find the best matching washers and dryers from Consumer Reports' tests. And don't miss the:

    Washing machine buying guide.

    Clothes dryer buying guide.

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    2016 Toyota RAV4 Hybrid puts on the green

    For the first time, the Toyota RAV4 is available in a hybrid model. Since Toyota is no stranger to hybrid technology. (They’ve practically owned the segment since 2000.) Our only question is, “What took so long?” But coming on the heels of the recently introduced Lexus NX 300h hybrid, the timing for the unveil at the New York auto show certainly makes sense.

    Toyota is quick to point out that the new RAV4 hybrid will deliver both boosted performance and better fuel economy compared to the standard RAV. While fuel economy estimates weren’t released, the all-wheel-drive NX 300h gets an EPA-rated 33 mpg city, 30 mpg highway, and 32 combined. Toyota also didn’t disclose drivetrain specifications, but it’s probably a safe bet that the RAV4 hybrid will get the NX’s 2.5-liter four cylinder. In Lexus trim, this 2.5 liter produces 194 horsepower; the non-hybrid RAV4 puts out 176 hp.

    You have the choice between two hybrid trim lines: XLE and Limited. Both come with standard all-wheel drive.

    Other news for the 2016 Toyota RAV4 includes a new sporty SE trim line added to the non-hybrid model. The SE comes with a sport-tuned suspension, 18-inch wheels, paddle shifters, and unique interior and exterior treatments.

    Other models get new exterior styling, available LED lights (headlights and daytime running lights), an additional USB added up front, one 12-volt power outlet to rear, and front and rear parking sensors. Optional features include a new “Bird’s Eye View Monitor” that utilizes four cameras mounted on the front, side mirrors, and rear of the vehicle to give the driver a panoramic view of their surroundings.

    If you’re considering the top-shelf Limited model, you’ll get the “Toyota Safety Sense” package, which comes with a forward-collision warning, lane-departure alert, pedestrian pre-collision system, and radar-guided cruise control.

    With the demise of the Ford Escape hybrid, the new green RAV4 will give small SUV buyers something to cheer for. Will it deliver on its fuel-efficiency promise? We’ll have to wait until the fall when the RAV4 hybrid goes on sale to buy one, test it, and find out.

    See our complete 2015 New York auto show coverage.

    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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    Volkswagen Beetle Special Editions portend a colorful swan song

    At the 2015 New York International Auto Show, Volkswagen took the wraps off a quartet of special-edition Beetles. Each concept has its own unique style and color, and each nods to the Beetle’s past, as well as its present and future.

    Though its lifespan was not nearly as long as its predecessors, the current generation of the Volkswagen Beetle may be coming to a close soon. According to Autoblog, there will be another generation of the Beetle, arriving within three years, and on the same platform as the current Golf hatchback. So as much as these Bugs commemorate the past, they might also be celebrating the imminent end of the current-generation Beetle.

    See our complete 2015 New York auto show coverage.

    —George Kennedy

    Beetle Convertible Denim

    Inspired by a Jeans Edition that was sold in Europe in the 1970s, this convertible Beetle uses different blue hues that resemble denim. The convertible top is a dark navy blue, while the stonewashed blue metallic was designed for specifically for the special-edition Bug. Inside, the surfaces come in various hues of blue, with “pockets” sewn into the seat backs.

    Beetle Pink Color Edition

    This model is supposedly to test the interest in a pink-colored Beetle—something Volkswagen says there is already demand for in the United States and China. The car is painted in Pink Metallic, while side mirrors and some body accents were painted gray for contrast. The Beetle Pink Color Edition also gets some R-Line front and rear bumper updates. If enough positive reaction is received, Volkswagen could put the Pink Beetle into a limited production run.

    Beetle Convertible Wave

    Outside, the Beetle Convertible Wave should draw show-floor attention with its Habanero Orange Metallic paint job. Inside, the houndstooth seat inserts are said to be an homage to the fashion and style of the 1950s and 1960s. The wood dash is inspired by surfboards. Volkswagen wants to use this striking concept to bring attention to cars like the Beetle Dune, which is actually going on sale early in 2016.

    Beetle R-Line

    The R-Line concept is the most exciting variant for speed freaks, or anyone concerned about the Beetle’s future. It is a performance-minded concept shod in Oryx White Pearl, with new front and rear fenders, a track that is 0.6 inches wider, and 20-inch aluminum-alloy wheels. Power comes from 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder making 217 horsepower. The cabin of the R-Line is fitted with sport bucket seats, carbon-fiber inserts throughout, and contrasting yellow finish on the instruments and select interior accents.

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

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    Redesigned 2016 Nissan Maxima delivers the goods

    There’s a lot to like about Nissan’s redesigned flagship sedan, the Maxima.

    The styling is fresh inside and out, complete with Nissan’s signature flowing body creases, “boomerang” taillights, coupe-like silhouette, and an upscale cabin festooned with double-stitched padded trim on dash, doors, and seats. Power comes from Nissan’s excellent 3.5-liter V6, boosted here to 300-hp, and running through a CVT transmission—a technology Nissan executes better than almost anyone else.

    The new Maxima offers five trim lines, all of which incorporate specific feature sets with no extra options available. Standard across the board are a backup camera and a navigation system with an eight-inch touch screen that responds to smartphone-style gesture commands like a swipe or pinch-to-zoom. Also standard is a remote-start function on the key fob. That lightweight transceiver fob, by the way, fits easily in a trouser pocket, unlike many on the market, which feel more like you’re packing a hand grenade in your pants.

    Prices range from about $33,000 for the base S to just under $40,000 for the upscale Platinum. Most Maxima buyers will probably choose the mid-trim SL for about $37,000, which has loads of gear, including heated leather seats and steering wheel, pushbutton start, panoramic moon roof, and a wide range of electronic collision-avoidance technologies.

    While the Maxima is larger inside and out than the midsized Altima, it’s not bigger by much. Most dimensions are pretty close to those of the roomy, midsized Honda Accord, which means the Maxima is appreciably more compact than other “flagship” sedans such as the Chevrolet Impala or Toyota Avalon. Nissan itself seems to dither on this point, with one of the 2016 Maxima’s press releases calling it “a new standard…in the midsized sedan segment” and another calling it “a new standard…in the large sedan segment.”

    What we found from just sitting in one was that the front cabin feels quite spacious and also comfortable, the rear is adequately roomy, and head room is somewhat skimpy both front and rear. The center rear seat is a narrow high perch with barely enough head room for a half-grown child. Rear ingress and egress are a little tough, too, because the door opening is narrow and the floor sills are high and wide.  

    Something most drivers will like is the control layout, which is a model of simplicity. You can control basic audio functions, for instance, with convenient knobs on the radio faceplate, from a central control knob on the console, or redundant controls on the steering wheel. Touch-screen menu displays are also crisp, clear, and intuitive.

    The high-end Platinum has Nissan’s 360-degree camera system, which is a terrific parking aid, and incorporates moving-object detection (MOD) to warn you of cars, bikes, or other things approaching from any direction. Also included is a nifty safety system called Driver Attention Alert (DAA), which monitors steering movements and sounds a warning if steering gets erratic, such as when a driver becomes drowsy.   

    Nissan puts heavy emphasis on the Maxima as a “4-door sports car,” and that it may turn out to be, but we’ll have to wait until summer when it goes on sale to see how it stacks up against our existing fleet of sportsters, whether equipped with four doors or the traditional two. 

    See our complete 2015 New York auto show coverage.

    —Gordon Hard

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    Samsung's high-priced SUHD TVs hit stores this month

    Ever since CES 2015, we've been wondering about the pricing of Samsung's flagship SUHD TVs, which use quantum dot technology for a wider range of colors. 

    At a press event earlier today, we found out: Prices start at $3,000 and climb to $10,000 for screen sizes ranging from 40 to 88 inches. The first of these sets, which will include a mix of both curved and flat screens, hit stores this month. Like other smart TVs announced this year, these use a new Tizen operating system that Samsung claims offers a more intuitive user interface, along with what it calls an "OctaCore" processor, presumably more powerful than the quad-core processors it used in last year's step-up models.

    Here are some details about the new SUHD TV lineup:

    • The top series is the JS9500, which has all the company's bells and whistles, including the quantum dot nanocrystals, a full-array LED backlight with local-dimming, and Auto Depth Enhancer (which is supposed to produce a greater sense of depth). The TV has a curved screen and comes with a new upgradable One Connect Box, which houses the TV's brains and connections. The JS9500 curved SUHD TV Series starts at $6,500, according to Samsung. On Samsung's website the UN65JS9500FXZA is selling for $6,000, on sale from $8,000.  
    • For those with both big rooms and big TV budgets, the JS9100 series will kick off in May with a single model: a 78-inch set that will cost $10,000. The TV has a curved screen and as you'd expect, a ton of features.
    • For those living in slightly smaller abodes, the JS9000 curved sets are available in more reasonable screen sizes: a 48-set is $3,500, the 55-inch TV is $4,000, and a 65-incher can be had for $5,000. These TVs feature a stylish metal-bezel look.
    • If curved screens aren't your thing, the JS8500 SUHD TV series 55- and 65-inch sets ($3,000 and $4,000, respectively) might be just the ticket. The sets are available now.

    We'll follow up this article with a more detailed look at some of the features; we already have one of the new SUHD Tvs in our labs for full testing. We'll also provide more information about how beneficial some of the new features really are.

    —James K. Willcox

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    2016 Mitsubishi Outlander has whole new face, other mild updates

    Things have been rather quiet over at Mitsubishi as of late, so when an all-new production model makes a debut, it is worth attention. The Mitsubishi Outlander is a seven-passenger SUV that has been redesigned for the 2016 model year.

    The most notable exterior update is the new design for the grille, headlights, and surrounding areas. It is commanded by a large black bumper section, flanked by chrome accents. Mitsubishi says the updates go beyond skin-deep, with upgraded suspension, structural rigidity, and efforts in noise reduction.

    The new CVT is also claimed to offer improved acceleration and shift feel. ES, SE, and SEL trims come with a 166 horsepower 2.4-liter four-cylinder. The top-tier GT trim comes with a 3.0-liter V6 that makes 224 horsepower. These powerplants carry over, so don’t expect fuel economy or performance gains.

    The cabin of the Outlander looks largely the same, but its occupants can be protected by a suite of available safety technologies. Forward-collision mitigation, lane-departure warning, and adaptive cruise control are all features available on SEL and GT trims.

    No mention of pricing or when the 2016 Mitsubishi Outlander goes on sale. The model it replaces is mediocre and dominated by numerous better competitors in a popular class. Improving on the current Outlander shouldn’t be hard, but what Mitsubishi really needs is a home run. The pressure is on. We’ll see if it scores when drive one.

    See our complete 2015 New York auto show coverage.

    —George Kennedy

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    New rules are needed to crack down on payday loans

    Payday loans are short-term loans loaded with high fees that are often promoted as an advance on your next paycheck. And while these loans are easy to get from storefront lenders or online, they can be very difficult to repay: A payday loan can quickly turn into overwhelming debt. For instance, if you take out a $375 payday loan, you could wind up paying an extra $520 in fees, according to the Pew Charitable Trust.

    For someone living paycheck to paycheck, the short time frame of a payday loan can make it hard to accumulate the money needed to cover the loan and fees before they’re due, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau said. And that’s when a vicious cycle can begin.

    “Borrowers who cannot repay [a payday loan] are often encouraged to . . . pay more fees to delay the due date or take out a new loan to replace the old one. [F]our out of five payday loans are rolled over or renewed within two weeks. For many borrowers, what starts out as a short-term, emergency loan turns into an unaffordable, long-term debt trap,” the CFPB said.

    At Consumers Union, the policy and advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, we believe that consumers who get in a financial jam and seek emergency loans shouldn’t be charged outrageous fees and interest rates that only leave them worse off financially. For years, we have been advocating for reforms to clean up the payday-loan industry.

    The CFPB recently announced it is considering rules that take aim at some of the biggest problems. Under the proposed rules (PDF) a payday lender would have to make sure borrowers can pay back the loan before they sign their name on the dotted line.

    This step might seem obvious, but when you look at how these lenders are generating repeat business with extra loans and extensions, you can understand why this simple standard is so important.

    The CFPB proposal would also apply to other types of loans, such as vehicle title loans, deposit advance products, and certain high-cost installment loans and open-end loans.

    We think these kinds of rules are long overdue. But we want to make sure there are no loopholes. The ability-to-pay requirement should apply to short-term and long-term loans alike. There is an important role for the states to play as well, to help ensure that their residents are further protected across the board from abusive lending practices.

    These rules under consideration are just the first step in the process. We look forward to working with the CFPB over the next several months to help people avoid payday debt traps.

    This feature is part of a regular series by Consumers Union, the policy and advocacy arm of Consumer Reports. The nonprofit organization advocates for product safety, financial reform, safer food, health reform, and other consumer issues in Washington, D.C., the states, and in the marketplace.

    Read other installments of our Policy & Action feature.

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    Two smartphone settings you won't regret changing

    Most people, when they get a new phone, make very few changes to it beyond setting up favorite apps and logging into Wi-Fi networks. And for the most part, that’s okay because smartphones are set up to run smart out of the box. For instance, they’re already preprogrammed to automatically switch to available Wi-Fi networks to keep you from burning up your phone plan’s data allowance. Also, the newest models can automatically reduce power consumption at bedtime or any time they “sense” you’re not using them.

    But there are two settings not typically on by default that you may appreciate. The first could improve the clarity of your phone conversations, and the second automatically sends photos and videos to the cloud service, often for free, to simplify sharing or to ensure they’ll be safe in case your new device is broken, lost, or stolen.

    HD voice

    One of the more promising developments for improving voice quality is High-Definition (HD) Voice, which transmits calls over wider frequency ranges at a higher number of audio samples carried per second. Also known as or VoLTE (Voice over LTE), or Advanced Calling (Verizon), it’s a technology offered by the major carriers and some of the smaller providers that piggyback on their networks.  

    Deployment is still in its early stages, but many new smartphones already support it. For instance, all Sprint Spark phones are HD Voice ready, as are select Android phones from Samsung, LG, HTC, Motorola, along with the Apple iPhone 6 and 6 Plus. On iPhones, you can turn on HD Voice by selecting Voice & Data in the Enable LTE sub menu of Cellular settings. On Androids, it’s a little more varied. For instance, on Verizon the HD Voice switch, called Advanced Calling, is next to a green square with the letters “HD” in it.

    Learn how to save money on your phone plan and get the best cell phone plan for your family. And find out why small carriers outrank the big ones.

    Don’t fret if the phone you’re holding doesn’t have an HD Voice option. Some older Samsung and LG Android phones have other tweakable voice-quality settings, such as Noise Reduction or Personal Call settings, in the main Settings menu. On late-model Samsung Galaxy phones, for example, these menu items are called Noise Reduction and Personal Call settings. On LG phones, there's a Personalize Call Settings tab.

    Back up your phone’s camera

    Smartphones give you lots of convenient—and free--ways to back up photos. But they can’t help you unless they’re turned on. Here’s how:

    For iPhones. These offer two pre-installed photo or video backup options: My Photo Stream and iCloud Backup, both of which are part of the iCloud constellation of services. My Photo Stream, a free service designed for sharing photos with other Apple device owners, stores up to 1,000 photos (not videos). But after 30 days, Apple deletes them. iCloud Backup has no expiration date and also automatically backs up your videos. The first 5 gigabytes are free, but you can buy more for an annual fee: 15GB for $20; 25GB for $40; and 50GB for $100.

    For iPhones, Android, or Windows phones. For Android phones (and iPhones if you download the Google+ app, or Windows phones if you get the Google Station app), Google Drive gives you 15GB of free storage for photos and videos (full-size photos can be no larger than 100MB and videos no longer than 15 minutes or saved at a resolution higher than 1080p). Upping storage to 100GB will cost you $2 a month, and data hogs can up storage to a terabyte for $10 a month. On Android phones, you'll find the Auto Backup option in Google+ settings, after tapping the Google icon under Accounts in the phone's Settings menu. On iPhones and Windows phones, you can access settings after launching the Google+ app.

    Microsoft OneDrive (formerly Sky Drive) provides 7GB of free storage for photos, videos, and more. Upping storage to 50GB costs $50 a year. But each file can't be larger than 2GB. Pre-installed on Windows phones, the app is a free download from Google Play on Android phones or the App Store on iPhones. On Androids and iPhones, you may have to fiddle with additional phone settings to make the backups automatic.

    —Mike Gikas

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

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    Car batteries that won't let you down

    Waiting until your car won’t start isn’t the best time to start shopping for a new battery. But according to our research, that’s exactly what most people do.

    Chances are you won’t find the best bargain when you’re standing by the side of the road with a dead car, and you’ll be lucky to even procure the right battery for your vehicle. A better plan is to have your battery’s condition checked every year by a mechanic, especially once it’s a couple of years old.

    If you can’t remember when you last replaced your battery or had it checked, now would be a good time to get up to date. Summer is right around the corner, and contrary to what you may have heard, hot weather is tougher on car batteries than cold winters.

    To keep shopping simple, here’s our list of the best performers in each of six common sizes. These picks are based on our extensive tests of more than 60 batteries; multiple examples of each model are repeatedly drained, recharged, and exposed to extreme temperatures to find out which ones hold up best.

    Several of the models featured here are absorbent glass mat (AGM) batteries, as indicated. These cost significantly more than conventional batteries, but they excel in our tests. Further, they are spill-proof, usually last longer, have a low self-discharge, can better tolerate deep discharge, and stand up well to extreme temperatures. Thus, AGM batteries are especially well suited to certain conditions, such as for cars that might be parked for extended periods or vehicles with high power demands due to accessories.

    Check your owner’s manual for the right size for your car. Click through the model names for complete test findings.

    Jim Travers

    Group size 65

    Interstate MT7-65 (AGM), $280

    Available at independent garages and auto parts stores, Interstate batteries aren’t cheap. But they are consistently strong performers in a variety of group sizes.  

    Group 34, 78 & 34/78

    DieHard Advanced Gold 50778 (AGM), $165

    Probably the most recognized name in car batteries, DieHard batteries have been sold by Sears and Kmart for decades. But don’t just shop by name, because not all DieHards are good performers. This one is.

    Group 24 & 24F

    EverStart MAXX-24FN (North), $85

    EverStart MAXX -24S (South), $80

    Available only at WalMart, EverStart batteries combine good performance with bargain pricing. That’s always a welcome combination.

     

    Group 35

    EverStart MAXX-35N (North), $90

    EverStart MAXX-35S (South), $90

    EverStart batteries from Walmart offer more than competitive pricing and long-lasting capability. They carry a limited replacement warranty, and installation is free.

     

    Group 75

    Interstate MT7-75DT (AGM), $250

    A side-terminal battery with excellent scores across the board in our tests, the Interstate MT7-75DT was one of the top batteries—and not just in its category, but overall.

    Group 48

    Interstate MT7-48/H6, $260

    Another strong performer from Interstate, the MT7-48/H6 cost us twice as much as some competitors. But if you’re looking for peace of mind, it far outshined all others in its group size.

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

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    Why you're not sleeping and what to do about it

    You may already be avoiding caffeine, heavy meals, alcohol, and intense exercise in the hours before bedtime. But one habit—staring into screens until you shut your eyes—might be the hardest to break. Ninety percent of Americans use some type of electronics within an hour of bedtime at least a few nights per week, according to a recent survey.

    The problem with that? The blue light in the backlit screens of electronic devices fools the brain into thinking it’s daytime, resulting in less secretion of melatonin, which among other functions helps regulate circadian rhythms. And watching TV might not be the greatest culprit. “The smaller the screen, the closer you hold it to your eyes,” says Dr. Charles A. Czeisler, who heads the Division of Sleep and Circadian Disorders at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston. “That concentrates the light, filling your visual field with it, which is why phones, tablets, and laptops have such an impact on your ability to relax before bedtime.”

    If you must use your portable electronics right up to bedtime, consider a pair of blue-light blocking glasses, which may help reverse the effects on melatonin levels, according to a recent study by researchers at the University of Basel, Switzerland. In one study conducted at the Université Laval in Quebec, orange-lens glasses helped reduce the blue-light levels reaching your eyes.

    Even if you don’t use electronics before bed, light from a bedside lamp can affect sleep. (So much for curling up with a good, old book.) Bulbs with a warmer color temperature, about 2,700 kelvins, tend to emit the least blue light. One from our tests: The Definity Digital Good Night LED from Lighting Science substitutes for a 60-watt incandescent and indeed emitted significantly less blue light than other LEDs. At $70, the price of a single bulb might be enough to keep you up nights. But the company does claim it will last 50 times longer than traditional bulbs.

    A good mattress for a good night's sleep

    An old lumpy mattress may be another reason you're tossing and turning at night. Here are the winners from the three types of mattresses tested by Consumer Reports. You'll find plenty more in our full mattress Ratings and recommendations.

    —Ed Perratore (@EdPerratore on Twitter)

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    5 products on deep discount in April

    Consumer Reports tracks the prices of lots of products all year long, which means we can let you know which month (or, in some cases, months) you can find the deepest discounts on those items.

    The five products listed below should be available at their lowest annual price in April. Just keep our usual caveat in mind: Great great discount offens occurs at the end of a season when inventories are thin, so you may not have a huge selection from which to choose.

    As a result, it's important to check our buying guides (and for subscribers to check our Ratings and Reliability data) to make sure you also get a great performing product.

    Want to know what's on sale the rest of the year? See our calendar of deals.

    ––Mandy Walker (@MandyWalker on Twitter)

    As temperatures rise, retails want to move out spring gear to make way for summer goods. As a result, you'll find good deals on pring clothing this month.

    Shopping tips

    Time it right. You'll get the deepest discount on spring gear by timing it right, say the editors at Shop Smart magazine. It has found Kohl's fans could head to the "Gold Star Clearance" racks, where prices are slashed up to 80 percent on weekend nights. Every Wednesday, shoppers who are 60 years old and older received an extra 15 percent off. At Target, women's clothing was generally marked down on Tuesdays, men's on Wednesday, and kids' on Mondays. Markdowns at Marshalls and T.J. Maxx usually happened on Wednesday. Each store can be different and the policies can change at any time, so have a chat with store salespeople to find out what the deal is in the stores you frequent.

    Look for deals from other seasons. If you can find winter clothing on the racks in stores, the prices should be slashed. And luxury consignment shops are good places to find first rate deals on second-hand designer goods any time of year.

    Desktops deliver more performance for the money than laptops and are less costly to repair. They allow for a more ergonomically correct work environment, let you work on a larger screen, and typically come with better speakers. Desktops are available in various styles and configurations, all designed to appeal to different tastes—and uses.

    But, with the exception of all-in-one or compact computers, most take up a lot of space, even with a thin monitor. For tips on getting the right model for you, read our buying guide. To see which models did best in our lab tests, subscribers should check out our Ratings.

    Shopping tips

    Think about type. All-in-one models incorporate all components, including the monitor, in one case. The components are tightly packed behind and underneath the display, making them difficult to upgrade or repair, but they can be space-savers. Compacts or slim desktops are ideal if you lack the space under your desk or you plan to put the computer on your desk. Like their larger brethren, compact desktops tend to be inexpensive, but they also may be more difficult to upgrade and fix. Full-size models require a lot of room under or on top of your desk, but they are the least expensive and the easiest to upgrade and repair. They also offer the most features and options.

    Before you toss an old model, try recycling. Most manufacturers have recycling programs that help you to dispose of your old computer, but the programs vary considerably by company.

    DWhether you're looking for a basic digital camera (simple point-and-shoots with just the features needed for routine shots), or an advanced model (feature-laden cameras that include sophisticated models that let you change lenses), now is a good time to shop. Our digital camera buying guide and our Ratings give you the details on different models, and infomation on features and brands.

    Shopping tips

    Do your research. Buying a digital camera can be confusing. There are hundreds of cameras available at many different types of retail outlets (online and in traditional stores), with prices ranging from $75 to several thousand dollars. Some cameras are small enough to fit in a shirt pocket. Others are large and can weigh up to two pounds. Some are easy to use. Others look like you need an engineering degree to operate them.

    Take the next steps. After you consider the type of camera you want and the number of megapixels you need, but before you dive into specific models, be sure to check out our brand profiles, which outline many of the most popular camera product lines and their respective character traits.

    Laptops let you use your computer away from your desk, but you pay for that mobility with a keyboard that's a little more cramped, and a higher price. They're also more expensive to repair than desktops.  

    Whether your main consideration is portability or power, screen size will be an essential factor in deciding which type of laptop is right for you. To help you select the right model, see our buying guide. Subscribers can see our Ratings and reliability data.

    Shopping tips

    Ergonomics can make or break a laptop Try it before you buy it, if you can. The keyboard shouldn't bend under continuous tapping, the touchpad should be large enough so that your finger can cover the span of the screen without repeatedly lifting it, and touchpad buttons should be easy to find and press.
     
    Carry it around for a few minutes. Make sure it isn't too heavy or too big. If it's been on for a while, feel the bottom. A laptop shouldn't get uncomfortably hot during use, and it should run quietly. Finally, manufacturers are emphasizing design as much as substance; find a laptop that suits your style.

    Even if you don't plan to shop for a mower, you could end up doing so if you own an older model and it breaks. The latest data from the Consumer Reports National Research Center show that push mowers usually aren't worth fixing after four years and self-propelled mowers after five years. Older tractors might be worth repairing, but getting them to and from the shop can add expense.

    Shopping tips

    Consider how you'll use it. Most models come ready to mulch, bag, or side-discharge clippings. But mulching or bagging with a riding machine usually requires a kit that costs $50 to $500.

    Check the features and controls before you buy. Most tractors and riders let you speed up or slow down with a convenient pedal instead of a lever. Among self-propelled mowers, Toro models let you vary speed simply by pushing the handlebar, while Hondas let you adjust the ground speed without removing your hands from the handlebar.

    For more tips, read our lawn mower and tractor buying guide; subscribers can also review our Ratings.

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

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    Pros and cons of walk-behind and riding mowers

    Even if you limit the size of your lawn and let the grass grow a bit longer, you’ll have to mow it eventually. The mower you choose depends on the size of your property, the amount you want to spend, and how much energy you want to exert. Here are the pros and cons of the four types of mower as well as some recommended models from Consumer Reports’ mower tests.

    Reel mower

    Price range: $70-$200
    Best for: Small lawns. They don’t pollute. They’re quiet, inexpensive, and ­relatively safe.
    But: Cutting tends to be uneven. Also, be prepared for a hard slog if you let grass grow higher than a few inches.
    Calories burned per hour (by a 150-pound person): 434

    Push mower

    Price range: Gas, $150-$350; electric, $160-$690
    Best for: Level lawns smaller than a half-acre. Electrics start with a button.
    But: You’ll do all of the pushing when mowing. Gas units need maintenance.
    Calories burned per hour: 362
    Recommended gas mower: Craftsman 37432, $220
    Recommended electric mower: EGO LM2000, $500

    Self-propelled mower

    Price range: Gas, $250-$800; electric, $380-$500
    Best for: Most lawns. They mow more evenly and are better for slopes.
    But: Self-propelled mowers tend to need more repairs than push mowers.
    Calories burned per hour: 325
    Recommended gas multiple speed: Honda HRX2175VYA, $800
    Recommended gas single speed:
    Toro 20339, $350
    Recommended electric mower:
    Black & Decker SPCM1936, $450
    Recommended wide-deck:
    Toro 20199, $1,000

    Lawn tractor or rider

    Price range: $1,200-$4,000
    Best for: Lawns of one-half acre or more; lawn tractors are better for slopes.
    But: You’ll need roughly 4x6-foot storage space. Add-ons may use more fuel.
    Calories burned per hour: 181
    Recommended tractor: John Deere X300, $3,000
    Recommended wide-deck tractor:
    Craftsman 20445, $1,500
    Recommended zero-turn-radius rider:
    Troy-Bilt Mustang 17WFCACS, $2,300
    Recommended rear-engine rider:
    Troy-Bilt TB30R 13BC26JD, $1,000

    More great choices

    Find more mower picks of every type in our full mower Ratings and recommendations.

    —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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    Video highlights from the 2015 New York Auto Show

    Talking Cars with Consumer Reports” hit the road this week, covering the 2015 New York Auto Show right from the show floor. The New York show has often been considered a weak-kneed stepsister, being the last event in the new-car show season, but this year’s show was chock full of important debuts.

    Honda surprised everyone with a 10th-generation Civic concept, but details are sparse, especially for a car that comes out this fall. Hopefully Honda makes up for the sins of the previous Civic redesign that sent the car close to the bottom of our small car ratings.

    Old-school rivals Cadillac and Lincoln face-off, with the soon-to-production CT6 and the Continental concept, respectively.  As we discuss, each heads in a different direction, with Cadillac emphasizing sporty driving and Lincoln pushing decadent luxury. Meanwhile, Lexus heads in a new direction with the sportier RX, which makes us wonder if this threatens the legions of previous owners who bought the RX for its isolating comfort.

    Practical sedans also get their day in the spotlight. The new Chevrolet Malibu sheds hundreds of pounds, yet grows four more inches. It looks completely different, while the redesigned Kia Optima is more of the same. Nissan makes their own segment with the Maxima, trading on the model’s brand equity as a sportier, more luxurious front-drive sedan.

    In sports car news, Subaru teases us with a BRZ STI, and we get our first look at the Ford Focus RS. Following Toyota’s trend of outsourcing all of their fun-to-drive products, the Scion iA is essentially a Mazda2 with botched rhinoplasty. Finally, the Volkswagen Golf Sportswagen Alltrack sets off a discussion about mainstream vs. enthusiast wagons.

    Catch the discussion in the video above, or via iTunes. And see our complete New York auto show coverage of these models and many more.

    As with the other shows, this episode is also available free through the iTunes store. Subscribe to the video or audio. You'll also find the video on YouTube.

    Also view:
    Tesla and the self-driving car - Talking Cars, episode 64
    Ford Edge, Lexus NX - Talking Cars, episode 63
    Behind the scenes of 2015 Top Picks - Talking Cars, episode 62
    Chevrolet Trax, Kia Sorento - Talking Cars, episode 61
    Cadillac Escalade, Lincoln Navigator - Talking Cars, episode 60

    Tom Mutchler

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

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    America's cheapest supermarkets

    Competitive—if not downright cheap—prices are the cornerstone of shopper satisfaction with their primary supermarket. It matters more than cleanliness, how friendly and helpful the service is, the quality of the fresh foods, even how it takes to get through the checkout lane. High prices are also the reason why most shoppers abandon a particular store.

    In Consumer Reports latest Supermarket survey, in which we asked nearly 62,000 subscribers about 111,000 recent shopping experiences, only 60 percent of respondents were completely or very satisfied with their store's prices.

    Of course, not all grocery stores try to appeal to penny-pinchers. Whole Foods Market, for example, is known for its array of fresh organic produce, meats, and lavish store-made meals. Prices are extremely high—among the highest of any chain, according to our survey— but the grocer’s demanding customers don’t mind the premium. The company’s business model is so successful that new stores are opening every few weeks. There are around 400 Whole Foods Markets from coast to coast.

    Conversely, chains like Aldi, a rapidly growing limited-assortment store, caries only around 1,300 staples. The prices are great-—that's what the appeals to Aldi's customers—but if you’re looking for top-notch perishables, there are better choices.

    It’s too bad that more supermarkets aren't like Wegmans, a chain of about 100 stores in the East, which delivers the winning one-two punch of great quality produce, meats, baked goods, and prepared foods, and lower-than-average prices.

    The good news is that most shoppers have the option of shopping at a store that offers good food and at least reasonable deals. In fact, the chains with the best prices were among the most highly rated overall. Here's the breakdown between the cheapest and most expensive stores in our survey.

    Best Prices

    Chain

    Locations

    Trader Joe’s

    Nationwide

    Fareway Stores

    Midwest

    Market Basket

    Northeast

    Costco

    Nationwide

    WinCo

    West

    Worst prices

    Chain

    Number of stores

    The Fresh Market

    Nationwide

    Whole Foods Market

    Nationwide

    Harris-Teeter

    South

    Brookshire’s

    Ark., La. Texas

    Giant Eagle

    Pa, Ohio, W Va., Md.

    Randalls

    Texas

    Jewel-Osco

    Midwest

    Acme

    Northeast

    Shaw’s

    New England

    A&P

    North East

    Waldbaum’s

    Northeast

    -—Tod Marks

    For an inside peak at the nation's best grocers, click here. (Full Ratings are are available only to subscribers.)

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

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