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Consumer Reports

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    6 ways to avoid a car accident

    Cars are amazing machines. They provide freedom and comfortable transport, capable of moving a family hundreds of miles with just a tank of gasoline. But, they are also massive metal projectiles, essentially Weapons of Mobile Destruction (WMDs) filled with flammable liquid and often your loved ones. Keeping them safe and the ride enjoyable should be paramount for all drivers.

    The risks are real. For 2013, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) recorded 5,687,000 police-reported crashes, with 2,313,000 injuries and 32,719 fatalities. Allstate insurance has put a different perspective on the numbers, finding that drivers average about one accident per decade.

    There are simple steps that can be taken to reduce your risks, as outlined below. The key points are to obey the traffic laws, be predictable, avoid distractions, drive rested, and steer clear of alcohol and drugs. Do this, and you’ll help make the roads safer for all.

    Visit our guide to car safety.

    Buzzed driving

    The sobering reality of drunk driving is that it is obviously a dangerous behavior, yet too often drivers get behind the wheel with alcohol in their bloodstream, impairing judgment and slowing reaction time. Sadly, drunk driving claimed more than 10,000 lives in 2012, and alcohol-impaired motor vehicle crashes cost more than an estimated $37 billion a year, according to NHTSA. If you’re out having a good time, designate a driver. Or simply don’t drink till you’re home.

    Distracted driving

    Commute in any populated area and you’re bound to see people driving too slowly, occasionally weaving while talking on the phone. NHTSA reports that 3,154 people were killed in distracted driving crashes in 2013, but it is easy to see that the near-misses were likely a multiple of that. As the slogan says, hang up and drive. And whatever you do, don’t text. In many states, it is now illegal to drive and operate a hand-held phone, but in all states, it is a bad idea.

    Speed

    A speed limit exists for a reason, and it isn’t just to be a broken. Exceeding a posted speed limit means you have elected to drive faster than was intended for that road, putting others at risk, all while consuming more fuel. The faster you go, the less reaction time you have and the more skills are necessary to avoid an accident. As the speed climbs, so do braking distances and all other force measures that can lead to catastrophic collisions and rollovers. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) reports that in 2013, speeding was a factor in 29 percent of motor vehicle crash deaths. This figure has been around 30 percent for the past decade. Further, 32 percent of those crash deaths occurred between 3 p.m. and 9 p.m., with a significant portion being after dark. One clear finding from our testing is that if you speed, you will be out-driving your headlights—meaning, you won’t have time to appropriately react to the unexpected when it appears in your field of vision. Follow the speed limit and be especially attentive after dark.

    Parking lots

    It's important to be on alert when you're driving in the parking lot. Most people behind the wheel are so focused on finding a parking spot that they aren't watching what else is going on. Children can be very difficult to see in a busy parking lot, especially at night. An excited child can dart out from between cars and in front of you in an instant. A car with a backup camera will give you a look at the space behind the car that would otherwise be unseen. Better yet, rear cross-traffic alert can sense if there is a car approach down the aisle as you begin to back out of a parking space.

    Drive the right car

    In addition to being conscientious with your driving behavior, choosing a good-performing car with excellent safety marks and proven reliability can further reduce your risks. Among the many tests Consumer Reports performs, we look at accident avoidance (through a simulated maneuver) and both wet and dry braking. As we evaluate cars, we rate handling, ease of use for controls, and visibility—all factors that can help avoid trouble. Our road tests are supplemented with insurance industry and government crash test data, showing how cars perform in their various crash tests. Any poor crash scores costs a car a CR recommendation. Reliability can be a safety concern, as well. In extreme cases, a car can breakdown on the road, putting you in harm’s way.

    Advanced safety systems

    Standard on new cars since 2012, electronic stability control has been shown to lower the risk of a fatal single-vehicle crash by about half and the risk of a fatal rollover by as much as 80 percent, according to IIHS. The latest cars can benefit from advanced safety features, such as front-collision mitigation, that can actively help avoid an accident, or at least reduce its severity. Other technologies such as lane-departure warning, blind-spot monitoring, and rear cross-traffic alert aid the driver by watching around the car for potential trouble and signaling danger. Data shows these systems are effective in preventing crashes, and we recommend them to car shoppers. Fortunately, they are becoming widespread, especially as we look to the 2016 model year.

    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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    Survival guide to buying a new car

    Buying a new car can be intimidating, but if you approach the process methodically, do your research, and keep the dealership experience organized in distinct steps, you can drive a great deal.

    With this high-level survival guide, we walk through the basics to lay the ground starting with initial research and ending with keys in your hand. For more specific guidance, read through the articles on our new-car buying guide.

    Choose your exact car

    It’s important to identify which car you want, down to the trim level and options. Use the ratings and advice available online to help narrow down your choices. There are great models at all prices, but there are also ones that come up short in road test performance, crash tests, owner satisfaction, owner costs, and reliability. Let the data and Consumer Reports' recommendations filter the contenders.

    Every automaker lets you configure a car on its website, and most let you search their dealers’ inventory. It’s also vital that you test drive any models you’re considering before you get deep into the process; cars can feel very different when driven back to back, and less obvious things, such as seat comfort, visibility, and dash controls, can make a big difference.

    Pricing information today can readily identify the sticker price, invoice price, and available incentives. But go a step further to check the average price paid and bottom-line price (both are listed on model pages at ConsumerReports.org) to be fully empowered to negotiate.

    Learn more:
    Pick the right model

    Set up your financing in advance

    Once you know approximately how much your car will cost, you should focus on your financing options. Shop around for the lowest interest rate. You can get a good idea of current rates at bankrate.com. Ask your lender for preapproval, and get it to issue a bank check that you later fill out at the dealership. That option gives people “more negotiation power with the dealer and as much flexibility as possible when shopping,” says Amy Doane, a spokeswoman for PenFed, one of the country’s largest credit unions. Getting approved in advance takes a lot of stress out of the buying process. And you can still choose the dealer’s financing if the terms are better.

    Learn more:
    How to get the best loan
    How to get the best lease

    Get dealers to compete

    That is one of the most effective ways of getting a good discount on a new car. Call or email several dealers in your area, or request a quote through their websites. Tell them the exact car you want and ask for their lowest price. Also, let them know that you are shopping around and that you will buy from

    the dealership with the lowest price. With your pricing research, you will be able to assess the offers. Some dealers may not have the exact vehicle you configured, so double-check any prices that seem out of the normal range. And resist their attempts to draw you in to the dealership to negotiate.

    You can also get quotes online through automaker websites or at such sites as AutoTrader.com, Cars.com, CarsDirect, and TrueCar. Consumer Reports subscribers can use our Build & Buy car-buying service to get up-front dealer pricing and guaranteed savings in most states from local dealers who are dedicated to high customer satisfaction. There is no obligation to buy, and you remain anonymous until you choose your dealer. The more quotes you get, the better. And you can always use lower quotes as leverage to negotiate with other dealers.

    Learn more:
    How to negotiate effectively

    Get the most for your trade-in

    If you plan on trading in your current car, give it some attention before going to the dealership to close the deal. Find out how much it’s worth by going to Edmunds (edmunds.com), Kelley Blue Book (kbb.com), or the National Automobile Dealers Association (nada.org), or buy checking on ConsumerReports.org.

    To maximize your car’s value, it’s worth putting a little effort into its curb appeal. Wash and wax the exterior, and clean the interior. “If you bring us an especially clean car, you can get a lot more money,” a Seattle-area dealer told us. But don’t go overboard, he says. “We can deal with scuffs and scrapes cheaper than you can.”

    It does pay to do major repairs. A dealer can’t sell a car with a chipped windshield, so it will deduct about $300 to get it fixed, the dealer told us. They will also take off $500 to $600 for worn tires. So replace them if you can do it for less.

    Once in the dealership, nail down the new-car transaction before discussing the trade-in. Don’t let salespeople roll the transactions—or the financing—together into one monthly payment figure. That gives them too much leeway to manipulate the figures to the dealer’s advantage. And be ready to negotiate the trade-in value if you feel you’re being lowballed.

    Learn more:
    How to sell a used car

    Just say no to dealer extras

    You should have the price locked down when you go to the dealership to finalize the sale. But the staff will still try to sell you extras to pad the dealer’s bottom line. Those can include undercoating, fabric and paint sealants, and VIN etching, in which the dealer etches the vehicle identification number (VIN) into the windows to help prevent theft. Don’t bite.

    All modern cars are factory-treated for rust protection, and additional undercoating can do more harm than good. You can get a can of fabric sealant or paint protectant or wax at an autos parts or other retail store for a few dollars and apply it yourself. And if you want VIN etching, you can often have it done at an independent shop or do it yourself for a lower price.

    Dealers will also try to sell you a service contract, or extended warranty. But if you’ve picked a reliable car, in many cases you’ll spend more for the warranty than you’ll save in repairs.

    Review the paperwork carefully. If you’re financing through the dealer, verify that your payments equal the amount of the loan, plus interest. Most dealers will include a documentation fee and sometimes a regional advertising fee. We’ve found that it’s difficult to negotiate those away, but you may be able to bargain for an extra set of floor mats or another low-cost accessory in return. Also check the fine print on the back side of the contract. Many dealers will include a clause requiring you to agree to binding arbitration and give up your right to claims under fraud and lemon laws. We’ve had mixed results when asking to strike such language.

    Learn more:
    Watch for these sales pitches

    Consumer Reports Build & Buy

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

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

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    The myth of the $5,000 mattress

    Is it time to buy a new mattress? You have more options than ever before. The big news is that department and specialty stores such as Macy’s, Sears, and Sleepy’s are no longer the default destination. Now great mattresses—at great prices—can be found at Costco and online sellers such as Casper and Tuft & Needle.

    Not only are those companies lower-pressure—no pushy salespeople—but their prices are often gentler than you’d expect. And though you can’t try out mattresses at a warehouse club or website, those sellers’ return policies don’t penalize you for changing your mind. These days even electronics retailers such as Abt Electronics, P.C. Richard & Son, and HHGregg are getting in on the game in hopes of bolstering the razor-thin margins of entertainment gear with the fat markups that usually accompany mattress sales. All of that choice means you can find an excellent deal.

    But no seller, whatever its selection, offers the perfect mattress. In our tests, no single mattress earned top-notch scores across the board. In our back-support test—which measures how well a mattress supports the curve of the spine—the top scorers were the Sleep Number i8 and Sleep Number c2 adjustable air beds. But they rated a notch lower for side support—a measurement of how well a mattress keeps the spine horizontal in that position.

    At Consumer Reports, we test for ­attributes such as back and side support ­because a mattress that feels comfortable in the store may not be supportive enough night after night. So use our mattress Ratings to find the most supportive options, then lie on the mattresses, if possible, to find the one that is most comfortable for you.

    Paying more doesn’t guarantee a better bed, either. The priciest mattress in our Ratings, the Dux 515 from the boutique retailer Duxiana, costs $7,600. Although it made our list of picks because of fine side support and durability through a simulation of eight years of use, the latex-topped innerspring was softer than claimed and offered less consistent back support. For that price, you have every right to expect stellar performance across the board.

    Keep your old mattress going

    Once your mattress is about 10 years old, start thinking about a replacement. In the meantime, you can flip or rotate some older innersprings to address minor dips. And if your mattress is newer and doesn’t have significant sagging, you might get away with adding a mattress topper. If you’re waking up achy, simply try a new pillow first.

    Try lying before buying

    Lying down on a mattress in a store can feel awkward, but more than 80 percent of subscribers we surveyed who’d done so told us they were satisfied with their purchase. Spend at least 15 minutes on a mattress. Shift positions and lie on your sides, back, and stomach, depending on how you sleep. But don’t write off online sellers or other stores just because tryouts aren’t possible; you might be passing up a bargain.  

    Consider negotiating

    Many businesses, such as warehouse clubs, have fixed prices that won’t budge. But for retailers that do negotiate—particularly specialty chains—huge markups let them lower prices by 50 percent or more during their frequent sales. Unless you’re switching from an innerspring to a foam or adjustable air mattress, you might also save $150 or more by keeping your old foundation (a box spring or other type of base, depending on what kind of bed you have). One strategy: Any time of year, insist on a sale price for a mattress you know you want, and don’t be afraid to walk out if you feel you’re getting a raw deal.

    Ask about returns

    Ask about trial periods, return policies, and restocking and pickup fees before buying. Most companies let you sleep on a mattress for 30 to 60 days before deciding to return or exchange it, but it helps to confirm that before buying. Keep in mind that many sellers will charge a 15 to 25 percent restocking fee on top of shipping, though you might at least be able to save on shipping by driving the mattress back yourself.

    Come-on prices. Advertised specials are meant to get you into the store, not to sell you the best mattress. Because stores usually keep the most expensive models up front, start in back with the least expensive beds from a few top brands, and work your way up in cost. But you can aim too low; our tests often show that the cheapest mattresses are just that.

    The old switcheroo. Ask for a particular mattress at a store and you’ll often be told it was replaced by another nearby that’s “exactly the same.” But the Serta iSeries Vantage inner­spring, which we’re told has replaced the top-ranked Serta Perfect Day iSeries Applause, scored significantly lower for back and side support. So using our mattress Ratings as a guide, stand your ground and accept no substitute—you can’t trust a sales rep’s word on the subject of identical or similar mattresses. Many model names are also exclusive to a given seller, so you won’t find what Sears or Macy’s carries at Sleepy’s.

    The upsell. Salespeople can get incentives for pushing certain models. So if you feel you’re being steered toward a particular mattress or extras (such as a mattress protector), you ­probably are. Go by our mattress performance scores, and stick with what best matches how you sleep.

    The overhyped warranty. Warranties usually cover only manufacturing defects, not ­normal wear. Sagging isn’t ­usually covered unless it’s at least 1½ inches deep.

    Editor's Note: 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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    5 ways to find the right paint hue for you

    Talk to realtors and home stagers and they usually tell you to paint your walls white or off-white when you’re putting your house on the market. If you’re staying put, using color can transform a room and liven it up. But the fear of choosing the wrong shade is one reason so many people stick with white. Here’s how to nail the right color.

    Get inspired

    To find the color you love look in your closet, says Debbie Zimmer of the Paint Quality Institute. Pour over vacation photos—nature’s colors are inspiring—and look at paintings and rugs for ideas. Are you drawn to muted or bold colors?

    Set the mood

    Blue can be perceived as calming, making certain shades a fine choice for the bedroom. Red is energizing. So figure out if you’re going for warm and cozy or cool. And now’s the time to consider the room’s floors, rugs, furnishings, and light.

    Use online tools

    Manufacturer and retailer websites offer tools, including ones that let you play with color. Some let you upload a photo of your room and then click to change the color of your walls. Behr’s ColorSmart, Benjamin Moore’s Personal Color Viewer, and Valspar’s Virtual Painter are a few of these tools. 

    Buy three samples

    If you’ve found a color you like buy the color you’re drawn to, and a shade lighter and one darker. Paint a sample next to a window and in an area that’s dark, viewing the colors in daylight and at night, with the lights on and off. Give yourself a day or two before deciding.

    Matching colors

    Let’s say you found a color you love but you’re not wild about the brand of paint. Color-matching systems have improved and you can get very close to the original color. A salesperson with a good eye and mixing equipment with clean nozzles can help too, and so does shopping when there are fewer customers. So pick the color then the paint brand. Keep in mind that the paint base and sheen can differ slightly among brands so ask the salesperson to put a dab of the freshly mixed paint on your paint chip and then dry it. Retailers often keep hair dryers within reach for that purpose.

    Be sure to read “Don’t buy a beautiful shade of mediocre paint” for more ideas and the list of the top paint picks from our tests. Our interior paint Ratings give you all the details. If you have questions for our paint pros e-mail me at kjaneway@consumer.org.

    Kimberly Janeway  

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

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    Revamped Roku streaming media players make it easy to find movies

    Roku has introduced new Roku 3 and Roku 2 streaming media players as well as revamped its entire lineup of models with new search and discovery features.

    Among the highlights: voice-search capability for the Roku 3, and Roku Feed, which tracks when content—initially just movies—will be available through various streaming services. This "Movies Coming Soon" feature will also let you know how much the movies cost on all available services and can alert you to price drops when they occur.

    Although Roku has continued to add new content to its service, this is the first real update to its players since 2013.

    Revamped Roku 3 and Roku 2

    Compared to the older, top-rated Roku 3 streaming media player, the new Roku 3 offers faster performance.

    The new model, priced at $100, adds a built-in microphone for voice searches to the remote control and retains the earlier model's built-in headphone jack for private listening and motion control for casual gaming. Roku has been offering a $10 price cut on the previous-generation Roku 3, but only the new Roku 3 has voice search capabilities.

    While the new Roku 2, priced at $70, has the same fast operation as the Roku 3, it no longer has the headphone feature on the remote, and it lacks a built-in microphone. The main difference between the two players is the remote, so if you don't care about the headphone jack or voice search you can save $30.

    Other Roku models—including the Roku Streaming Stick and the Roku 1—aren't being replaced. But they are being refreshed with software updates, including improved speed and enhanced search capabilities.

    Get more guidance on streaming media: Check out our streaming video player buying guide and Ratings.

    New search features for all

    With the new enhanced search, you can look for movies, TV shows, actors, and directors across 17 streaming channels. Roku says more channels will be added to search throughout the year.

    And unlike some other players, Roku says, it doesn't prioritize content from one service over another, so you'll see the lowest price available listed first regardless of where it appears.

    You can also search by streaming service name, such as Sling TV or HBO Go, within the Roku Channel Store.

    Roku says these updates should be completed and available to Roku players by the end of this month.

    Other Roku news

    The company also says that two new TV brands—Haier and Insignia—will offer Roku TVs this year, joining TCL and Hisense. These sets, previously announced at CES back in January, have Roku capability built-in as the sets' smart TV service.

    While Roku didn't announce any 4K UHD capability in any of the new players, it is planning to update its iOs and Android mobile apps, enabling you to control its players with your phone or tablet.

    We believe you can also use the microphones in these portable devices for voice search on models other than the Roku 3, but we'll know for sure as soon as the new Roku players arrive in our streaming media lab for testing. Stay tuned for our First Looks at these new players.

    —James K. Willcox

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

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    Consumer Reports Names Jason Fox as Vice President, Digital

    Former Global Head of Product for Reuters News Agency

    Jason-headshotaYONKERS, NY — Consumer Reports, the largest and most trusted consumer organization in the world, has named Jason Fox as Vice President, Digital. In his new role, Mr. Fox will lead efforts to strengthen the organization’s digital products, forge digital partnerships to expand reach, and bring Consumer Reports to new communities.

    Mr. Fox will report to Leonora Wiener, Vice President of Brand, Product Strategy and Integration at Consumer Reports.

    “Jason Fox will fill a vital position, leading our efforts at Consumer Reports to reimagine the brand’s digital experience to have a more vibrant impact on consumers’ lives,” Ms. Wiener said. “His talent and exceptional experience has already produced many award-winning, industry-recognized digital products.”

    Marta Tellado, president & CEO, added that “effective digital communications are imperative so that we as the country’s leading consumer organization can continue to advance our mission and help the next generation of consumers become change agents in a highly complex, rapidly evolving marketplace.  Jason will play a lead role by developing our digital portfolio.”

    Prior to joining Consumer Reports, Mr. Fox was the global head of product for Reuters News Agency, the world’s largest multimedia news organization. At Reuters, he led a complete rethink of Reuters’ flagship business-to-business product, Media Express. He also launched several innovative products, including Reuters Live Online, Reuters Access, Reuters Essential Video Archive, white-label solutions for the Olympics and World Cup, as well as a new business, Reuters-TIMA Location Services.

    Before Reuters, Mr. Fox held several senior-level positions at Time Inc. where he helped reinvent leading digital properties including TIME, Fortune, and LIFE, and built critical partnerships with Facebook, Twitter, Google, Tumblr, and many others.

    “Consumer Reports’ mission to create a safer, more transparent, and fairer marketplace for all has never been more relevant," said Mr.  Fox, who is a longtime subscriber himself.  “I see tremendous opportunities to bring new digital products to market and transform the organization's online offerings to achieve this goal, as well as reach new audiences and communities.”

    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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    How robocalls scam the Do Not Call List

    Like millions of Americans, you’ve probably listed your phone number on the National Do Not Call (DNC) Registry. So why are you still receiving all those unwanted robocalls?

    Established by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the DNC ought to work. Once you register your residential telephone number – including wireless numbers – commercial telemarketers are not allowed to call those numbers.  The only exceptions are: calls from organizations with which you have established a business relationship; calls for which you have given prior written permission; calls which are not commercial or do not include unsolicited advertisements, such as school closings, tornado warnings or other civic notices; and calls by or on behalf of tax-exempt non-profit organizations, which includes political solicitations. (Although there’s a slight difference between telemarketing and robocalls—the latter are unsolicited auto-dialed telemarketing calls that are either pre-recorded or from a live person—most people conflate the two terms, and so do we.)

    It’s typically illegal to make a telemarketing call to consumers who haven't given their express consent to receive such calls. However, many robocallers simply ignore the laws, betting that the regulators are too busy to come after them. And, unfortunately, they’re often right.

    Read more about how to put an end to robocalls.

    As reported in a recent article by our colleagues at the Consumerist, FTC associate director and top scam-spotter Lois Greisman explained that the number of telemarketing complaints has been “skyrocketing” in recent years. The FTC receives anywhere from 250,000 to 300,000 complaints per month, she said, and calls with pre-recorded messages are responsible for around 60 percent of those complaints.  

    That’s because the same Internet-powered phone systems that have brought down the cost of making a phone call for consumers also make it cheap and easy for scammers to make illegal calls from anywhere in the world. And the ability to spoof—to display fake caller ID information—makes it difficult for regulators and law enforcement to track them down.

    FCC deputy chief Kristi Thompson explained that it can take her anywhere from five to ten subpoenas to trace a single robocall back to its origin—and that’s only if the information is still there. Phone service providers don’t hold on to all their records indefinitely. For example, AT&T alone processes 3 billion phone records each day.

    Furthermore, points out Aaron Foss, whose Nomorobo call-blocking service shared first place in the FTC’s first robocall-related competition, robocallers change their numbers as often as every hour, making it nearly impossible to identify them.

    Telephone companies offer some call-blocking options, but they typically put the onus on the consumer to create a blacklist of numbers to nix . And, this sort of service offers next to no protection against spoofers that frequently change their numbers.

    Signing up with the Do Not Call Registry is worthwhile as an initial shield. But Consumers Union, the policy and action arm of Consumer Reports, believes the telecom industry can do more to protect its customers in the first place. Its campaign to push the major phone companies to provide free tools to block unwanted robocalls before they reach your phone has already garnered over 230,000 signatures. Keep up the momentum and make your voice heard by signing the petition at our website.

    — Catherine Fredman

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

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    Get long term care from whole life insurance

    Worried about the nighmarish cost and limitations of long term care insurance?

    A new feature offered by certain whole life insurance policies is a rider that lets you start drawing up to 2 percent or $330 per day of your death benefit—not your cash value—for long term care needs.

    It's not too difficult to qualify for this benefit if aging starts impairing your physical or mental abilities. To start collecting, you must need help with at least two of six activities of daily living (including eating, dressing, and bathing) or have a cognitive impairment, such as Alzheimer’s disease.

    The cost of the rider varies by your age and health status. But it added only $315 per year to an example policy we got a quote for involving a 40-year-old Illinois man in perfect health who wants a $500,000 policy with level annual premium payments.

    That $315, of course, is on top of a base premium of $6,760 per year for the whole life policy, which provides a life insurance death benefit and builds cash value for as long as you pay the premium. See the story, Is whole life insurance right for you?  for more details. You'll need to get a premium quote from a licensed insurance agent, based on your specific age, health status, and other factors.

    If you can afford the cost of whole life insurance, which is significantly higher than the premium for an equivalent term life insurance policy, this benefit can allow you to avoid the high and rising cost of a more restrictive straight long-term care policy. That coverage comes with a 30- to 180-day waiting period before benefits start.

    With the long term care rider, as soon as you qualify for benefits, you no longer need to pay your premiums to keep the whole life policy in force, as is usually the case with long-term care policies.

    —Jeff Blyskal (@JeffBlyskal on Twitter)

    This article also appeared in the February 2015 issue of the Consumer Reports Money Advise

    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 plays the name game with its SUVs

    Mercedes-Benz said in its press conference at the New York auto show that it was changing the name of its SUV lineup. In this case, the SUV formerly known as the “ML” is now called the GLE.

    All models will now carry a “G” in their name as a respectful nod to its legendary G-Class. The full name will be a combination of three letters, with the “G” always followed by an “L.” The third letter designates the model’s place in the SUV line-up.

    Here’s a quick guide to the new Mercedes SUV names:

    • GLA = A-Class segment
    • GLC = C-Class segment; formerly GLK
    • GLE = E-Class segment; formerly M-Class
    • GLE Coupe = E-Class Coupe segment
    • GLS = S-Class segment; formerly GL

    The long-lived, military-derived G-Class gets to stand on its own. Elder statesmen have privileges, you know.

    However, the ML has been a steady seller for Mercedes since the 1990s. Why risk the potential alienation of loyal customers with a confusing naming structure?

    And are manufacturers well-served by switching things up? Look at Infiniti. Nissan built this brand from scratch, and eventually produced some honest street cred with the G-series sports sedans and coupes. We liked the G. A lot. In fact, the G37 was once a Consumer Reports Top Pick. Then the G was gone and replaced by the Q. Now, all Infinitis are a Q or QX. Good luck identifying them by name.

    And over at Lincoln, all models except the Navigator begin with “MK.” The problem is, consumers can struggle to tell the MKS from the MKZ with a casual glance.

    Years ago Acura also changed it nomenclature from established marques like Integra, Legend, and Vigor to plain letters. It is debatable how that worked out.

    But think about some of the most successful nameplates in the last 30 years or so: BMW 3 Series, Chevrolet Corvette, Ford F-150, Honda Accord, and Toyota Corolla. Do you think that any of these automakers would mess with such success?

    Pity the Mercedes salespeople who have to spend their time explaining the new names. But, now you know.

    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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    How to make your digital music sound better

     There’s been a bit of a paradox in the world of consumer audio for the past few years. Customers are springing for pricey headphones and wireless speakers that are capable of providing great sound. But at the same time, they’re ditching CDs and high-quality digital downloads in favor of streaming audio, which can be lower quality, from services such as Pandora and Spotify. Audiophiles have rebelled and are now embracing new high-resolution digital-audio formats and players that are promised to deliver greater fidelity.

    So what does it all mean to the everyday music lover willing to spend a little money to get great sound but confused by all of the formats, services, and crazy lingo of the audio world? We’ve crunched the numbers on streaming services, found some great gear, and tested standard music files vs. fancy new formats. We also had experts and amateurs listen so that we could bring you some answers.

    Audio streaming services have become enormously popular. Streams rose almost 55 percent last year, while sales of CDs and digital downloads fell 15 percent and 13 percent, respectively, according to research firm Nielsen. And streaming can be a pretty sweet deal. Instead of the limited number of songs that fit in your phone’s memory, a streaming service can run in apps on your phone, tablet, or computer, and put millions of tunes at your fingertips at little or no cost (See our Streaming music services comparison chart).

    But streaming audio raises a serious question for music lovers: Are you sacrificing quality for convenience? Some music fans—including rocker Neil Young, who’s backing the Pono high-res player and service—believe that sound quality has been on the decline since the CD replaced the LP. Others consider that shiny disc the benchmark for top audio quality because it was designed to capture all frequencies to the limits of human hearing.

    Check our buying guide and Ratings for Wi-Fi and Bluetooth speakers and headphones.

    Both camps agree that streaming music and highly compressed AAC and MP3 files—the most commonly used download formats—generally don’t measure up to CDs (or, some would argue, vinyl) for sound quality. Compressed files remove data, and with music files the more data you lose, the less audio fidelity you get. That has spawned a push for high-res audio that promises a better-than-CD listening experience. But embracing high-res audio isn’t simple or cheap. High-res files tend to cost at least twice as much as regular downloads, and you need a player designed for the format. But even without investing in high-res audio, you can improve your listening experience with the right equipment.

    Even if you’re not interested in buying in to a new audio format, you can still improve your listening experience. One of the most effective steps you can take is buying new headphones or speakers. (See The right gear for your ear.)

    Just $10 or $20 can get you earphones that did well in our tests, offering a big upgrade from the cheap earbuds that come with many devices. For $100 or so, you can get headphones with excellent sound. Just don’t get suckered into buying special “high res” headphones; any great-sounding pair will do.

    A good wireless speaker system will range in price from less than $100 to several times that. But you don’t need to go too high-end to get high-quality sound. A few of the models we recommend are modestly priced.

    There are two types of wireless speakers: Bluetooth and Wi-Fi. Both will let you play music from mobile devices, and some provide direct access to streaming services and Internet radio stations.

    Each type has its advantages. Bluetooth speakers have a 30-foot range. Many have rechargeable batteries that let you take them almost anywhere. All smart phones and many tablets support Bluetooth, and some have NFC (near field communication) technology for pairing devices simply by tapping them together.

    Wi-Fi models are designed primarily for home use and are able to play songs from multiple devices on your network. Wi-Fi speakers have a greater range than Bluetooth models, and you can send music to several speakers at once, even in different rooms. But configuring a Wi-Fi speaker to work with your network isn’t as easy as pairing Bluetooth devices. Also, there are competing and incompatible wireless standards (Apple’s AirPlay, Sonos, and proprietary systems from LG and Samsung), and once you buy in to one, you’re stuck with it.

    In the end, there is no perfect audio source or setup (except, perhaps, a band sitting right in front of you). Just spend your money wisely, and have faith in the best audio equipment you already own—your ears.

     

    Choose the right device and streaming service to match your audio profile.

    Listening lifestyle

    Top speaker

    Top headphones

    Top streaming service

    Sound hound
    You know the type, still weeping into the protective covers of their 180-gram, remastered vinyl over how bad MP3s sound. If that describes you, you might well be among the first to get a high-res audio player. Pair it with a Sony speaker that supports 192-kHz/24- bit high-res audio via its USB port. The over-ear Grado headphones top our Ratings with excellent sound, and Tidal is a new service with CD-quality streaming.

    Sony SRS-X9 Wi-Fi and Bluetooth speaker, $700

    Grado Prestige SR325e, $300 Streaming Service:

    Tidal, $20/month

    Deal hunter
    Do you get as much of a kick from a great deal as you do from a great song? TDK’s rugged speaker is our highest-rated Bluetooth model that costs less than $100. Another deal: Panasonic in-ear earphones, which o¢er very good sound for about the price of two lattes. Pandora’s free ad-supported streaming service is a great way to discover new artists similar to those you like. (For $5 per month, you can skip ads.)
     

    TDK Life on Record Wireless Weatherproof Speaker (A33), $90

    Panasonic RP-TCM125, $10

    Pandora, free

    Tuneful traveler
    This Bluetooth speaker from Bose, offered in five colors, o¢ers good sound and surprising power, and is small enough for your carry-on. The SMS Audio over-ear noise-canceling headphones have very good sound and excellent noise reduction for about $100 less than bigger-name brands. Beats Music is a great on-the-go choice. There are no ads, and you can download songs to enjoy when you’re not near Wi-Fi.
     

    Bose SoundLink Color, $130

    SMS Audio Street by 50-ANC, $180

    Beats Music, $10 per month

    Casual listener
    If you’re not an audiophile but still care about sound, here’s your game plan. The Sonos speaker sounds great, and you can add speakers to create a whole-home system. The Onkyo earphones are well priced and o¢er very good sound. The free version of Spotify is great; the premium version has no ads and better sound quality, and lets you play songs on demand.

    Sonos Play:1, $200

    Onkyo IE-FC300, $100

    Spotify, free or $10 per month

    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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    Is whole life insurance right for you?

    We’ve long advised younger, budget-conscious families to buy term life insurance. The main reason—it offers bargain-price protection that pays a large benefit to your survivors if you die during the typical 20- to 30-year term of the contract. Consequently, we’ve tended to short-shrift whole life insurance because it’s a murky mix of life insurance and savings or investment vehicle that builds cash value after several years and into the ­future—again, as long as you pay the premiums, which can be 10 times as high as those on a same-sized term policy.

    Our advice—that term life is a better deal for most families—hasn’t changed. But because bigger annual premiums result in larger commissions for insurance sales­people, sooner or later an agent may try to sell you a whole life insurance policy, also known as “cash-value” and “permanent life.” But whole life is a lot more complicated than term, and you should understand how both types work.

    The confusion starts with the fact that whole life insurance combines two financial products—life insurance and an investment—into one that is supposed to serve your needs over your entire lifetime. But life is unpredictable, and the circumstances that drove your initial purchase can be very different a decade later. A period of financial stress, say, may prompt you to eliminate the high annual payment and surrender the policy for its cash value.

    To grasp the value of whole life insurance, you need to see how it and term life insurance operate in practical terms. We got term and whole life quotes from AccuQuote, an online broker that sells policies from about 100 insurers nationwide, for a 40-year-old Illinois man in perfect health who wants a $500,000 policy with level annual premium payments (click to enlarge the chart, right).

    When you’re young and have a family, term life insurance (dotted-red, then solid red line) provides a big death benefit for a bargain price (turquoise line). But at age 70, in our example, the 30-year term protection ends. That’s also when the term life starts becoming prohibitively expensive because of the insured’s age and declining health, and the increasing probability of death.

    A traditional whole life insurance policy purchased at 40, keeps the death benefit in force beyond age 70, as long as premiums are paid (dashed-blue, then solid-blue line). Whole life premiums are steep, though: $6,760 per year vs. $660 annually for the term policy. But the “excess premium” goes to guaranteed savings, which build cash value over time (light-gray line).

    Alternatively, you could buy the 30-year term policy and each year invest the difference between the whole- and term-life premiums in conservative 10-year Treasury notes. (T-notes are a comparable alternative to investing in whole life, in terms of liquidity, risk, and resulting returns; a stock mutual fund would not be comparable.) In this illustration, which assumes that the current 2.17 percent 10-year T-note rate remains level, the T-notes can provide a higher return on your money (dark-gray line) vs. the guaranteed return (light-gray line)—but no death benefit past age 69.

    So one value of whole life is the continuing death benefit (dark-blue line) for your heirs while you continue to build cash value.

    But some whole life policies also pay dividends based on the insurer’s financial performance. Those returns, not guaranteed but likely, can be reasonably estimated. When the dividends are used to buy additional “paid-up insurance,” that can add an estimated $500,000 to cash value by age 90 (light-blue line) and boost the death benefit to $1.1 million (gold line).

    However, the average annual rate of ­return—1.5 percent for the whole life guaranteed cash value, 2.2 percent for the Treasuries, and 3.5 percent for the whole life possible cash value—is undercut by inflation, currently about 2.2 percent per year.

    So your savings tread water while providing lifelong life insurance, and you can pass on the assets tax-free to your heirs.

    Whole life insurance can provide benefits while you're still alive. Check out the worthwhile long-term care rider

    The name of the game is to hold on to your policy until you die. About 4 percent of whole life policies per year lapse, according to a study of 47 million policies issued by 20 insurers over more than two decades, by LIMRA, an industry research company. That means the value of a whole life policy depends on how long you own it. Here's what to look for:

    Less than five years

    If a reversal of fortune causes you to quit the policy in less than five years, whole life is a lousy investment. Huge front-end sales commissions and policy-surrender charges eat up the cash value, and you’ll probably lose all or most of your investment. You will have received the value of the life insurance protection for that period, but that will be wildly overpriced because you could have paid significantly less for a simple term policy.

    Our advice: If you worry that you won’t be able to maintain those high whole life premium payments for even a few years, buy term insurance instead.

    Sixteen years

    If you dump your policy around the 16th year, your cash surrender value plus the value of the insurance you received will be about what you put in. So that’s the earliest you can drop the policy without losing your shirt.

    Our advice: If you’re wealthy, you can probably gamble on whole life over that long period. If you’re struggling, go with term.

    Two decades and beyond

    As our chart shows, if you steadily maintain your payments for two decades, the returns on whole life, including dividends, start significantly pulling away from the term plus Treasuries alternative. Meanwhile, surrender charges have usually disappeared, if you want to cash out. “If you hold a cash-value policy long enough, it can compete with alternative investments of comparable risk,” says Glenn Daily, a New York City fee-only life-­insurance consultant.

    Our advice: Higher-income folks in the 20+ years club have options: If you’re building a legacy for your heirs and have the money to keep going, the rising return trajectory and insurance coverage should give peace of mind. If you need to leave whole life, you can.

    Whole life provides a death benefit until age 100 to 121, depending on the policy, but you have to keep paying the premium as long as you live. However, for an additional premium, if you become disabled before age 65, the insurance company pays the premiums for the rest of your life.

    This mixed bag of potential benefits and costs is complicated enough for consumers to navigate, but poor disclosure robs consumers of the information they need to comparison shop.

    Although most states have adopted model disclosure regulations promoted by the National Association of Insurance Commissioners, no state or federal agency requires them to mention such basics as investment-­management fees, rate of return, and (with the exception of New York) sales commissions.

    Insurers also don’t disclose what part of the annual premium goes to pay the life insurance vs. savings components of the policy. If you don’t know how much is going to your cash account, you can’t accurately calculate your rate of return on that asset.

    That makes it difficult to compare one policy with others. And yet there are large differences in prices among companies for essentially the same coverage, industry experts say. Brian Fechtel, a chartered financial analyst and 27-year life-insurance agent, says commissions on whole life can be 130 to 150 percent of the first-year premium.

    “If the industry disclosed the commissions, whole life sales costs would have to come down to be competitive,” Fechtel says.

    —Jeff Blyskal (@JeffBlyskal on Twitter)

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

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

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    Consumer Reports names the best and worst cars by brand

    We’re often asked, “Who makes the best car?” The reality is, every brand offers models that perform across a spectrum, with some being demonstrably better than others. To further aid water-cooler discussions, we have analyzed our test results to compile a list that chronicles the best and worst models.

    The overall test score variation differs from brand to brand, with some brands' worst model being still doing rather well, while others span a wide range, making any generalities quite misleading.

    For instance, the Buick and Cadillac line-ups are quite consistent, with just a 14- and 15-point spread, respectively. However, Chevrolet (admittedly with a broader product portfolio) has a 50-point difference separating the lowly Spark from the coveted Corvette.

    Some other brands with a significant point spread include Hyundai (25 points), Honda (31 points), Lexus (31 points), Mercedes-Benz (32 points), Toyota (40 points), and Mitsubishi (43 points).

    The list below includes all brands for which Consumer Reports has tested at least three different models recently, thereby excluding Maserati, Ram, Smart, and Tesla.

    Click the names below to access the complete road tests, reliability, owner satisfaction, owner costs, pricing, and other key data.

    Make Best Worst
    Acura MDX
    RLX Tech
    Audi A8 L* A5 Premium Plus (2.0T)*
    BMW M235i Z4 sDrive28i
    Buick Regal Premium I Encore Leather
    Cadillac XTS Premium SRX Luxury
    Chevrolet Corvette Stingray 3LT Spark 1LT
    Chrysler 300 Limited (V6) 200 Limited (4-cyl.)
    Dodge Durango Limited (V6) Challenger R/T (V8)
    Fiat 500 Abarth 500L Easy
    Ford Fusion SE Expedition EL Limited
    GMC Sierra 1500 SLT (5.3L V8) Yukon SLT
    Honda Accord LX (4-cyl.) CR-Z EX (MT)
    Hyundai Genesis 3.8 (AWD) Genesis Coupe Grand Touring (V6)
    Infiniti Q70 (M37, V6) Q60 (base)
    Jeep Grand Cherokee Limited (V6) Wrangler Unlimited Sahara
    Kia Cadenza Rio EX hatchback
    Land Rover Range Rover HSE (3.0L) Range Rover Evoque Pure*
    Lexus LS 460L IS250 (AWD)
    Lincoln MKZ 2.0 EcoBoost MKS (base, 3.7)
    Mazda MX-5 Miata Grand Touring Mazda3 i Touring (2.0L)
    Mercedes-Benz S550 (AWD) CLA250
    Mini Cooper S Cooper (base)
    Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution GSR Mirage ES
    Nissan 370Z Touring coupe Versa SV sedan
    Porsche 911 Carrera S Cayenne (V6)
    Scion FR-S tC
    Subaru Legacy 2.5 Premium XV Crosstrek Hybrid
    Toyota Camry Hybrid XLE Yaris LE
    Volkswagen Passat SE Premium (1.8T) / Golf (1.8T) Jetta SE (1.8T)
    Volvo S60 T5 (2.0T) XC60 T6

    *Powertrain has changed since last test.

    Even if you have models in mind when you're shopping, it is wise to look at their Ratings. You just might be steered to a better car than you would have otherwise considered, and as we often find, the smart choices often are not necessarily the most expensive.

    For detailed ratings and road test on any model featured here, just click on the name to visit the appropriate model page.

    Jeff Bartlett

     

    2015 Autos Spotlight

    Visit the 2015 Autos Spotlight special section for our 2015 Top Picks, Car Brand Report Cards, best and worst new cars, best and worst used cars, used-car reliability, new-car Ratings and road tests, and much more.

    Stay on top of the automotive news by signing up now for our free cars e-newsletter!

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

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    Motorcycle reliability and owner satisfaction

    For some, the allure of the open road, a rumbling exhaust, and the wind in your face are ­irresistible. Throw in camaraderie, lifestyle, and spirit of adventure, and it’s easy to understand motorcycle riding’s escapist appeal.

    Over the years, motorcycles have increased in refinement, sophistication, comfort, and safety. That makes them both more accessible to entry-level bikers and treats for empty-­nesters who see the new machines as more ridable than the ones they remember.

    The motorcycle landscape, though, is changing. The recession took a 50 percent bite out of sales (to about 560,000 units per year), and they have not recovered. The average age of bikers has crept up slightly to 43. But also, the ratio of female bikers has doubled to 12 percent of the riding population in the past decade.

    With those demographics in mind, Consumer Reports surveyed owners to find out two things: how reliable top-selling brands are in terms of frequency of repair and how happy those brands make their owners.

    What we found is that reliability and satisfaction are not necessarily tied together. The most beloved bike belonged to an American brand—Victory—even though it was not among the more reliable brands. That distinction belongs to the perennially strong Japanese-­built machines.

    Learn more about motorcycles and check our motorcycle buying guide.

    The last thing a biker wants to worry about is a breakdown on the open road. Choosing a bike from a brand with a better-than-average reliability track record can tilt the odds in your favor. But the reality is, things can and sometimes do go wrong.

    Consumer Reports’ survey of our subscribers shows that the Japanese brands are significantly more reliable than most bikes from other regions—led in order by Yamaha, Suzuki, Honda, and Kawasaki. Domestic brands Victory and Harley-­Davidson were midpack, and Triumph, Ducati, BMW, and Can-Am were the more trouble-prone brands.

    Our survey of subscribers who reported on more than 12,300 motorcycles from model years 2008 to 2014 also showed that bike categories have differing levels of reliability. For this analysis, we adjusted for mileage driven over a 12-month period and estimated repair rates for 4-year-old models without a service contract.

    See our motorcycle reliability by brand.

    But owner satisfaction—i.e., happiness—is an entirely different measure from reliability. Eighty percent of Victory owners said they would definitely buy the same bike if they were to do it all over again. Harley-­Davidson owners were quite happy, with 72 percent responding likewise, trailed closely by Honda at 70 percent. All other brands were below 70 percent.

    If you want to know how satisfied riders are with their motorcycle, ask them about comfort. We found that comfort ratings track most closely with overall satisfaction scores. And among the 10 brands surveyed, only Victory earned our highest rating for comfort; it also beat out the other brands for overall satisfaction and got a top mark in almost every category.

    Ducati, Kawasaki, Suzuki, and Triumph each garnered our lowest mark for comfort.

    Most other satisfaction categories—­acceleration, fun, and styling—saw close ratings across the brands. But there was one exception when it came to handling. The Can-Am, from Canadian maker BRP, with its distinctive three-wheelers (or trikes), was judged to have average handling satisfaction—a lower rating than every other brand.

    See our motorcycle owner satisfaction ratings.  

    Cruisers appear to require fewer repairs than other types of motorcycles, with just a 15 percent failure rate by the fourth year of ownership. The range of problems from cruiser, dual-sport/adventure, standard, touring, sport touring, and sport bikes ranged from 15 to 23 percent, in that order. But none is statistically more failure-­prone than the others.

    At the other end of the spectrum, three-wheeled bikes had significantly greater risk of repairs, especially those with two front and one rear wheel. Can-Am, which makes only trikes, was almost twice as likely to experience a problem as most other types of motorcycles.

    Among those bikes needing repair, 45 percent incurred no expense—suggesting that many riders are performing the work themselves or having the bikes repaired under the original manufacturer’s warranty.

    Of those that did incur out-of-pocket expenses, the average motorcycle repair bill was $342, with the cost being heavily dependent on brand and type. For those brands that we have adequate data on, median repair costs ranged from $269 for Kawasaki to $455 for BMW. Dual-sport/adventure bikes and cruisers were less expensive to repair, costing $313 and $322 on average, and sport touring models were pricier at $383.

    We realize that buying a motorcycle is often more about passion than practicality; even so, our findings can help you make an informed purchase decision. If you’re riding locally, and usually with friends, reliability may matter less than if you intend to take long-distance trips. Your own wrenching talents and proximity to repair shops can also factor in.

    The main takeaway is that no matter which brand you favor or type of motorcycle you buy, squirreling away $400 to cover surprise repairs would be wise. And if you plan to customize your bike, leave the complicated work to the professionals.

    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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    Who makes the most reliable motorcycle?

    What began as a battle of the motorcycle brands to show who makes the most reliable motorcycle, has resulted in a nationalist showdown. Yamaha, Suzuki, Honda, and Kawasaki are all among the more reliable brands, based on our survey of more than 11,000 Consumer Reports subscribers, followed closely by Suzuki, Honda, and Kawasaki. The predicted failure rates for four-year-old motorcycles ranged from 11 to 15 percent in this group.

    The domestic brands Victory and Harley-Davidson fell in between the extremes, with 17 and 26 percent, respectively.

    The remaining brands—Triumph, Ducati, BMW, and Can-Am—were among the more trouble-prone. In fact, BMW and Canada-based Can-Am are both estimated to have failure rates of around 40 percent by the fourth year of ownership.

    Reliablity by brand

    Brand Percent failed
    Yamaha/Star 11%
    Suzuki 12
    Honda 12
    Kawasaki 15
    Victory 17
    Harley-Davidson 26
    Triumph 29
    Ducati 33
    BMW 40
    Can-Am 42

    With a larger sample size than in our previous motorcycle survey, now counting 12,300 motorcycles, we were able to add more brands and resolution this year.

    Reliability is but one measure. We found that owner satisfaction creates a much different picture...

    Visit our motorcycle buying guide to see our full motorcycle reliability and owner satisfaction ratings.

    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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    How to boost the health benefits of fruits and vegetables

    Summer’s bounty of fruits and vegetables does more than tempt your taste buds; it can have a powerful impact on your health. When you have more choices, there’s a greater chance that you’ll eat more produce, and that’s likely to lead to a lower risk of chronic conditions, such as heart disease, most cancers, type 2 diabetes, and obesity.

    To maximize the health benefits, make these four easy changes to the way you shop for, prep, and store your fruits and vegetables.

    Be organic savvy

    When you buy organic, you reduce your exposure to pesticides and support a way of farming that’s good for the planet. A new analysis by Consumer Re­ports’ scientists has good news for people who find that organic produce is unavailable or too expensive. It identified 23 conventional fruits and vegetables considered low risk for pesticide residue.

    Many summer favorites (blueberries, cherries, raspberries, and watermelon, for instance) are on the list. But you might want to consider organic for nectarines, peaches, and peppers (sweet or hot) because they have a high or very high pesticide risk.

    See our special report on pesticides in produce and use our interactive tool to help you make smart choices in the produce aisle. And learn about the cost of organic food (it's not always pricier).

    Know when to cook it

    “Vitamins and minerals are lost when some foods are heated,” says Maxine Siegel, R.D., Consumer Reports’ food-testing manager. “But for some fruits and vegetables, cooking makes the nutrients more available, so your body absorbs them better.”

    Cooking asparagus, cabbage, carrots, mushrooms, and peppers boosts levels of several antioxidants. And research has found that your body can extract more cancer-fighting lycopene from tomatoes if they’re cooked.

    Make them last

    Americans throw out almost 100 pounds of produce per person each year, on average, which isn’t good for the wallet. There are several ways to prevent produce from shriveling up and rotting before you can eat it.

    Temperature and humidity are two key factors. Asparagus, broccoli, carrots, celery, grapes, lettuce, and spinach should be stored under cold, moist conditions. Put them in plastic bags that have holes, then in your refrigerator’s crisper. Stored that way, broccoli and spinach can last up to two weeks, lettuce up to three weeks, and carrots up to five months. Also, keep fruits and veggies separate. Many fruits, including apples, apricots, avocados, bananas, peaches, and plums, produce ethylene gas as they ripen, which can make other produce spoil faster­.

    Buy local, wisely

    When food shopping, two-thirds of Americans check to see whether what they’re buying is locally produced, according to a survey by the Consumer Reports National Research Center. That’s a good thing. “Fruits and vegetables are often the most attractive and health-promoting when harvested at the peak of maturity,” says Diane M. Barrett, Ph.D., a specialist in the department of food science and technology at the University of California, Davis.

    Because it doesn’t have to travel as far to reach your table, local produce can be picked when it’s ready. But “local” isn’t a regulated term; each market can have its own definition. Nor does it automatically mean that an item is certified organic. Organic produce should be labeled as such, and ask the seller how it defines local.

    —Ian Landau

    How to eat enough fruits and veggies

    Most Americans don’t eat enough produce. Maybe that’s because the “eat five to nine servings a day” advice seems daunting. But one serving is a half-cup of cooked vegetables, 1 cup of raw vegetables, or 1 cup or one piece of fruit. For people over 50, that’s 4½ cups of produce per day for men and 3½ cups for women.

    To get enough:

    • Grill fruit, which concentrates its sweetness. Try nectarines, peaches, pineapple, or plums with a little yogurt or ice cream.
    • When making a salad, think “entrée” and prepare several servings. And go beyond lettuce and tomatoes.
    • Add veggies to chili, omelets, pasta dishes, and soups.
    • Don’t forget chickpeas, lentils, and other kinds of beans, which count as vegetable servings.

    This article also appears in the June 2015 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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    Are Netflix Recommended TVs better than regular smart TVs?

    Does a TV bearing a new Netflix Recommended TV, or NRTV, sticker have better smart TV performance than sets that don't? That remains to be seen. Netflix says that TVs meeting its requirements will turn on quickly and launch and resume apps faster; they also come equipped with the latest version of Netflix.

    Among the first companies to offer TVs with the NRTV logo are 4K webOS smart TVs from LG, Android-powered Sony smart TVs, and Roku TVs from Hisense, Insignia, and TCL. Netflix says it will also test TVs from manufacturers that don't officially join the NRTV program to see whether they meet the minimum requirements. If so, they'll be listed on the Netflix Recommended TV website, though the TVs may not bear the NRTV logo.

    Netflix announced the Netflix Recommended TV program at CES in January as a way to help consumers identify TVs that can provide a consistent smart TV experience. To carry the Netflix Recommended TV logo, a smart TV must meet at least five of these seven criteria:

    • Fast app launch.
    • Fast app resume.
    • Fast video playback.
    • A dedicated Netflix button.
    • Netflix featured prominently in menu.
    • The TV turns on right away.
    • It comes loaded with latest version of Netflix.

    With Roku TVs and Sony Android TVs, you can turn on the set and launch Netflix with a single press of a button, Netflix says. LG's 4K webOS 2.0 TVs have been optimized for faster streaming performance. Roku TVs have an Instant On feature that wakes up the TVs quickly, and the set will remember where you left off. 

    We don't have any sets with the Netflix Recommended TV logo in our labs, though we do have the LG 65UF9500, 65UF8500, and 60UF7700 4K UHD smart TVs in for testing. We're checking to see whether these TVs simply shipped too early to be able to use the NRTV logo. If so, we'll be comparing them to other models that didn't earn the NRTV badge to determine whether there's a noticeable difference in performance. 

    —James K. Willcox

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

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    All-wheel-drive mower from Toro is a winner

    The way a self-propelled mower handles depends on which wheels are being powered by the transmission. If you’re bagging clippings with a front-wheel-drive mower, the weight of the bag in the rear can cause the front wheels to lift, especially on a slope—meaning you end up doing all the pushing. Rear-wheel-drive mowers solve this problem, but steep hills can still pose a challenge, as can thick grasses such as St. Augustine and other southern varieties. These tricky situations are where all-wheel-drive mowers work best, and Toro has announced its first AWD mower, the $400 Toro 20353. The company joins Husqvarna and Craftsman, the only other brands with AWD models, but overall theToro performed the best.

    The Toro's best cutting is in mulching mode, the most common for walk-behind mowers, but we found it impressive for bagging and side-discharge modes as well. We liked its premium, overhead-valve engine, which runs more efficiently and is easier to start than engines with side-valve designs, and there’s no-prime starting, too. This mower is one of seven we’ve seen with the Briggs & Stratton EXi engine, that we recently wrote about, whose oil should never need changing—though the manufacturer says you’ll still occasionally need to top it off.

    Perhaps to keep the price lower in a machine that's sold at Home Depot, there’s no electric start. And because all four wheels are connected to the transmission, pushing the mower is easiest while the engine is running. Switch it off, and pushing it to your shed or garage can be a hard slog. We’ve seen this on every AWD mower we’ve tested.

    There’s plenty more to talk about from our latest mower tests, so watch our news pages for further reviews. Be sure to check out our lawn mower buying guide for mowers and riders before viewing our lawn mower Ratings of 185 walk-behind models, lawn tractors, zero-turn-radius riders, and rear-engine riders. Our Ratings include survey-based brand-reliability scores.

    —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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    Is high-res digital audio worth the money?

    TVs, phones, and tablets can present beautiful video that has gotten steadily better in recent years. But audio quality has gone up and down, and some listeners believe it’s now worse than it was 10 or 15 years ago.

    One of the most vocal critics is rock legend Neil Young, who believes digital audio is missing something and is pushing for “high resolution” audio. We recently bought three high-res players and listened to regular and high-res songs.

    File size affects quality

    The most widely used digital music formats, MP3 and AAC, were developed in the ’90s as a way to shrink the size of a CD recording to make it easier to store and download. Both files use “lossy” compression, meaning bits of data—presumably those you’ll miss least—are permanently removed. The more data that’s removed, the smaller the file but the greater the likelihood that the sound will be noticeably degraded. Higher bit-rate AAC and MP3 files have less information removed, so the files are larger, but they’ll sound more like a CD.

    Young and others are championing high-res audio, or better-than-CD sound, which some have likened to 4K TV for the ears. “Lossless” compressed files, such as ALAC (Apple Lossless Audio Codec) and FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Codec) maintain all of the original information when a song is uncompressed, so they should sound exactly the same as the source material. The downside is that they’re considerably larger than AAC and MP3 files.

    You can get high-res songs and albums from several websites, including Acoustic Sounds, HDtracks, and PonoMusic. Higher-­quality downloads are pricey, about $20 to $25 for an album, compared with $10 for a typical iTunes album.

    You need special gear to play high-res audio. Players range in price from $100 to well over $1,000. A handful of compatible smart phones from LG, Samsung, and Sony—and some software, such as Winamp—support high-res files.

    Check our MP3 player buying guide and Ratings.

    Real-life listening tests

    The big question, of course, is whether most listeners can hear a difference. To find out, we compared the sound quality of high-res files to CD-quality WAV files and songs downloaded from Apple iTunes (compressed 256-kilobit-per-second AAC files). We played the high-res tracks on the players above, and the CD-quality and iTunes downloads on the fifth-­generation Apple iPod Touch.

    Our experts listened to the players through our high-quality audio system and through three sets of headphones: the $300 Grado Prestige SR325e, our top-rated model, with excellent sound quality; the $80 Grado Prestige SR60e, which have very good sound; and the $75 Harmon-­Kardon CL, which scored slightly lower but are still very good. Then 10 staffers with no audio expertise listened to the same music on the Grado Prestige SR325e headphones.

    The verdict

    The audio engineers could sometimes hear a bit more detail and clarity in high-res files compared with CD-quality and compressed audio files. The subtle differences were most noticeable using the audio system and the Grado Prestige SR325e headphones, less so on the SR60e, and barely perceptible on the Harmon-Kardon CL headphones. Most of the regular staffers also thought the high-res files sounded better, from a little better to significantly so, though they really had to concentrate to pick up on the differences.

    Given the small difference in quality and big difference in price and storage, high-res audio is probably not worth the splurge for casual listeners who store music on a portable device and listen through average gear. It might make sense for audiophiles. Listen yourself before you decide.

    Sony NWZ-A17 Hi-Res Walkman, $300

    The NWZ-A17 is the lowest-priced and smallest of this trio, so it will fit easily in a pocket or bag. The attractively styled player has a 2.25-inch color LCD screen. It comes with 64GB of built-in memory; you can add up to 128GB more via a microSD slot. The player supports MP3, AAC, WMA, WMA Lossless, AAC, FLAC, AIFF, WAV, and ALAC files—but not Sony’s own DSD—with audio resolutions up to 192 kilohertz/24 bits. It has an FM tuner and Bluetooth and NFC technology. Unlike the other players, it can’t be hooked up to a computer as a digital-to-analog converter (DAC).

    Pono PonoPlayer, $400

    The PonoPlayer’s wedge-like shape makes it almost impossible to stuff into a pocket, but it provides a stable base and good viewing angle when set on a table. It has a 2.5-inch touch screen, and it has 64GB of memory plus a 64GB card in a microSD slot (expandable to 128GB). The Pono supports most file formats, including DSD, with playback up to 192 kHz/24 bits. One of its two 1.8-inch audio jacks can be used as a regular headphone jack and the other as a line out to a home system. You can also use two sets of headphones at once or—if you have really fancy gear—one pair with balanced audio inputs.

    Astell and Kern AK100II, $900

    This is the priciest of the three players, and it looks it, with a brushed-aluminum design and a handsome carrying case. Unlike most digital players, it has a knob that adjusts volume in precise increments, and the 3.3-inch OLED touch screen is the largest and best of those we tried. Like the other players, it has 64GB of internal memory and takes a 128GB microSD card. The player supports all of the formats mentioned plus OGG. It has Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, and includes music-­streaming software. Like the Pono, it can be used as a USB DAC, and it has standard and balanced audio outputs.

    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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    What if you can't pay your taxes?

    A rude awakening, tax-style, may visit more folks than usual this filing season. If you got coverage for 2014 through your state’s Health Insurance Marketplace and your income turned out to be higher than you’d anticipated, you may need to pay back to the IRS a portion or all of any tax credit toward coverage you received in advance.

    Other causes for an outsized tax bill: You underestimated your withholding. Or you sold investments that put you in a higher tax bracket. Whatever the reason—and there are many—an unexpectedly large tax bill can cost you in penalties and interest if handled wrong.

    For this tax season only, the IRS says it won’t levy late-payment or underpayment penalties on those who need to repay part or all of their health insurance tax credit, assuming they file on time. Others who owe also should still file by April 15 and pay as much as they can. Delay can result in a failure-to-file penalty of 5 percent of the total amount you owe for each month you wait, up to 25 percent. On top of that, a return that’s late by 60 days or more can generate a late-filing penalty of $135 or 100 percent of what you owe, whichever is less.

    Applying by April 15 for a filing extension until Oct. 15 may help you avoid the failure-to-file penalty. And paying at least 90 percent of what you owe gets you out of a late-­payment penalty. The IRS charges a late-payment penalty that grows by 0.5 percent of the amount due for every month in which you still owe—again, up to 25 percent. (The two penalties don’t accrue together or generally exceed a total of 5 percent monthly.) Monthly interest is established by adding the floating federal short-term rate—it was 0.41 percent for the first quarter of 2015—plus 3 percent. It’s compounded daily.

    Say you owe $2,000 and don’t file or start paying for three months. You’ll owe a failure-to-file penalty of $300 (3 times 0.05 times $2,000) plus interest of about $20, for a total of about $320. Annualized, that’s an interest rate of 64 percent.

    In some instances—say, you’re active-duty military working abroad or the victim of a federally declared disaster—you can avoid penalties for late tax payments. You’ll need to submit a detailed explanation and backup documentation. If the IRS has announced an extension in a disaster area or you’re serving in a combat zone, you avoid the penalties without asking or submitting documentation.

    Consumer Reports Tax Guide offers expert help on preparing, paying, and saving money on your taxes.

    The IRS offers several options for paying over time. To reduce penalties and interest, pay off your debt as quickly as possible.

    • Set up an installment agreement. If you owe $50,000 or less in combined tax, penalties, and interest, you can arrange to pay each month until the debt is wiped out. Here's the page for the application. The IRS usually responds within 30 days.

    Installment agreements require a one-time fee of $43 to $120. You’re also still subject to penalties and interest. On the plus side, the failure-­to-pay penalty grows at just 0.25 percent per month while the installment agreement is in effect.

    • Ask for a payment extension. The IRS allows for one such extension, for up to 120 days. With that plan, you’ll avoid user fees.
    • Apply for an offer in compromise. In rare instances—and after you’ve exhausted other avenues—the IRS may agree to reduce your tax liability permanently. Fill out the IRS's “Offer in Compromise Pre-Qualifier” tool to determine your eligibility. Check out IRS Form 656-B, “Offer in Compromise Booklet,” for details on the application procedure. A nonrefundable $186 application fee applies. 

    —Tobie Stanger (@TobieStanger on Twitter)

    This article appeared in the April 2015 Consumer Reports Money Adviser.

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

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    8 string trimmers that edge out the competition

    The winners in our most recent tests start with fewer pulls and offer fast cutting even in tall grass and weeds. But the standouts are the latest battery-powered string trimmers. With new highs in voltage, they offer performance rivaling some gas-powered models. The downside: They often also match the gas models for weight and price.

    Top performers

    Consider one of these three CR Best Buys. Our best overall, the curved-shaft Stihl FS 38, $130, starts easily, and its engine is certified to stay efficient longer than many others. The Snapper S28BC, $170, had generally top-notch cutting and is well-priced for a straight-shaft model. The Poulan Pro PP25CFA, $110, a relative bargain, didn’t edge quite as cleanly but was especially easy to use—and was fairly quiet for a gas trimmer.

    Best for less-frequent trimming

    Three more CR Best Buys make good choices. The Homelite UT33600A, $70, is a light-duty, curved-shaft gas trimmer that matched the top-ranked models for about half the price. The Weed Eater Featherlite SST25CE, $90, was impressive for trimming and edging, but its dual 0.095-inch lines stood out best against tall growth. Moreover, its fixed-line cutting head helps avoid jams and tangles. Choose the battery-powered, straight-shaft Ryobi RY40220, $180, to avoid the maintenance of a gas trimmer. The 40-volt unit was stellar for trimming and edging—though it’s heavy.

    Best for light use within range of a power outlet

    Have a small yard with edges you can reach with a 100-foot extension cord? The straight-shaft GreenWorks 21142, $90, a CR Best Buy, did great for trimming and tall-growth cutting. Among curved-shaft models, the Stihl FSE 60, $110, isn’t a price leader but edged out the competition overall.

    More good trimmers

    For more choices see our full string trimmer Ratings and recommendations as well as our string trimmer buying guide, which will help you find the right one for the size of your yard and your budget.

    —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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