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Consumer Reports

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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

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

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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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    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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    Should you buy a mattress online or at Costco?

    At Consumer Reports, we usually advise you to lie on any mattress you’re considering for at least 15 minutes. But because warehouse clubs display mattresses standing up and websites offer only pictures and descriptions, you need to rely on those companies’ return policies. And from our research, buying from them is fairly low-risk. Here are three top-pick memory foam mattresses from our mattress tests that you can buy online or at Costco.

    Costco

    This warehouse club received the second-highest satisfaction score from readers in our survey of subscribers’ experiences with mattress stores. Costco doesn’t say outright what its return policies are for mattresses, but from what we can tell, the company aims to satisfy and won’t charge for shipping and handling if you contact them within a reasonable period of time, such as a few months after purchase. That goes for the website and the stores. You don’t need to save the box.
    Recommended mattress from Costco:
    Spring Air Back Supporter Natalie, $1,200.

    Casper

    If you really need to try the company’s mattress, you’ll have to go to the Casper Apartment in New York City (currently its only physical showroom). Casper offers just one model in six sizes. Otherwise, you get 100 nights to decide whether to keep it. If not, Casper will let you exchange or return it for your money back with no restocking or other fees. Shipping is free, too.
    Recommended mattress from Casper:
    The Casper, $850.

    Tuft & Needle

    You can try both mattress models that Tuft & Needle offers at its showroom in Phoenix, and it has a 30-night trial period. No mattresses actually go back to the company; instead, you’re asked to donate it to a charity and show the seller the receipt for a full refund—or full credit toward an ­exchange. (If no charity is nearby, the company will arrange to have the mattress picked up.) No need to save the packing materials.
    Recommended mattress from Tuft & Needle:
    Tuft & Needle Ten, $500.

    Prefer to try it in a store?

    For more choices, including top-rated innerspring, memory foam, and adjustable air mattresses see our full mattress 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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    7 ways to save big at the home center

    April kicks off the busy home improvement season. That means retailers like Ace, Home Depot, Lowe’s, Sears, and Walmart will be vying hard for your business in the weeks and months to come. Consumer Reports has tested a slew of products sold at these and other home centers and hardware stores. We’ve also combed through the spring-season circulars to find the hottest deals. Here are seven ways to save as you make essential spring upgrades to your home and yard.

    Pick up top paints

    Whether you’re refinishing the front door or painting over your kitchen cabinets, our latest interior and exterior paint tests turned up many excellent home center exclusives. Regardless of the brand you settle on, remember that buying bulk 5-gallon containers will mean extra savings on major projects. 

    For one-stop shopping, Home Depot is your best bet. Its exclusive Behr Marquee, $43 per gallon, tops our interior paints Ratings, though for about $10 less we also like the Behr Premium Plus Ultra. Among exterior paints, go for the Behr Premium Plus Ultra Exterior, $39. Ace also has several winners, including the Clark + Kensington Enamel interior paint, $32 per gallon and Clark + Kensington Exterior, $35 per gallon. And Lowe’s has some well-priced, top interior paints in the Valspar Signature, $34 per gallon, and the Valspar Ultra, $29. 

    Check for online savings

    Knowing how many consumers start their search online, retailers offer a lot of teaser deals on their websites. Home Depot’s Spring Black Friday kicks off today and runs through April 19th. Each day the retailer will offer a special deal on seasonal items like patio furniture, grills, and landscaping materials. Today’s deal is pretty small potatoes—$2.50 shrubs in a gallon container—but lawn mowers and paint are coming down the pike. The Lowe’s website has similar deals on cordless drills, gas grills, and outdoor power equipment. And Ace Hardware is offering 10 percent off select patio sets through April 14th.

    If you like apps, those from Home Depot and Sears have handy search functions that help you locate items in the store quickly, which can save you time, if not money (but then again, time is money, right?). The Sears app also allows you to track and clip coupons. Home Depot’s connects you to additional online options for select product categories, which can be helpful if you can’t find what you need on the shelf.

    Get your grill on

    Many of our top-rated gas grills are home center exclusives. Best of the bunch is the Char-Broil TRU-Infrared 463435115, sold at Walmart for $260. That’s less than half the price of our top-rated Weber, which scores only slightly better overall. Char-Broil also makes a very good grill for Lowe’s, the $300 Char-Broil Advantage 463240015, and for Home Depot, the $400 Char-Broil Gourmet TRU-Infrared 463251713. Char-Broil also has several duds in our gas grill Ratings, so make sure you check the model numbers carefully.

    Consider renting

    Home centers rent seasonal equipment that you’d probably never buy, but that can improve the look of your yard. For example, going over the lawn with a rented core aerator will improve the soil structure and do wonders for your turfgrass. Renting a drop seeder to overseeed thin areas of the lawn will reduce weed infiltration. And a pressure washer can be used to clean up a grimy deck, siding, or outdoor furniture. Follow these power washer tips for safe operation.

    While Sears doesn’t rent items, it does have a leasing program with flexible payment schedules and available early purchase options. That can be a good way to test out new tools or equipment you’re not sure about. Sears also offers layaway programs, which can help spread out payments, say if you’re tackling a major home improvement project.

    Upgrade your lawn equipment

    Home centers often drop the price on mowers and tractors in April and May since they know a lot of consumers will be in the market. They’ll take a loss on this equipment, hoping you’ll spend a lot more on other merchandise. Home Depot carries many of our top-rated Honda models, including our top-rated self-propelled lawn mowers, the Honda HRX2175VYA and the Honda HRX2175VKA. Both models are selling for about $100 less than Honda’s list price. Lowe’s is selling the Husqvarna YTH22V46, one of our recommended riding lawn tractors, for $1,600, which is also about $100 off the list price.

    Score big on landscaping staples

    You might want to stay loyal to your favorite nursery for showpiece flowers and plants, but don’t rule out the home center for yard care essentials. Organic fertilizer and potting soil is the fastest growing category in Home Depot’s garden center. The retailer has also seen double-digit growth in succulents, which are an excellent water-smart choice for homeowners living in drought-stricken regions.   

    You’ll find compost too at home centers. Our lawn-care experts recommend applying a half-inch top dressing each spring to the lawn to reduce the need for fertilizer. If you do go for the rented core aerator, applying the compost right after you’ve aerated will help the organic matter mix in with the soil. Mulch, on sale now at many home centers, will minimize weeds and retain moisture in garden beds. Read our additional lawn care advice.

    Stock up on lightbulbs

    The days may be getting longer, but the best bulbs from our tests will last long into next winter—and the next twenty or so winters to follow. In the age of long-lasting LEDs, home centers have become the go-to place. Top picks from our current Ratings include a pair of general-use 60-watt equivalents: Walmart’s Great Value 60W Soft White A19 LED Dimmable lightbulb for $10 and Home Depot’s EcoSmart 12-Watt 60W A19 Bright White lightbulb for $20. For outdoor applications, consider the Lowe’s Utilitech 13-Watt (75W) BR30 Soft White Outdoor Flood lightbulb, $12.

    —Daniel DiClerico (@dandiclerico on Twitter)

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

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    More concerns about glyphosate and other pesticides in produce

    If you’re worried about pesticides in produce, Consumer Reports’ recent risk analysis of 48 fruits and vegetables can help you make smart choices. But we still think the produce aisle can be made a lot safer. That’s why Consumers Union, the advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, shared our pesticide report with several government agencies. We urged both the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration to expand and improve efforts to measure pesticide residues.  

    We also recommended that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reexamine the research it currently uses to set pesticide tolerance limits for produce and other foods. The fact that pesticide residues on fruits and vegetables are generally below EPA tolerance limits sometimes leads people to conclude that any pesticide-related health risks from fruit and vegetables are negligible. But our experts say that in setting those limits, the agency doesn’t sufficiently factor in pesticides’ potential to increase risks of cancer, neurological damage in children or disruption to the body’s endocrine system, which can cause reproductive disorders, birth defects and immune system damage.

    Consult our special report on pesticides in produce for more information on the risks pesticide exposure for dozens of fruits and vegetables, and read more about the risks of glyphosate in our diets.

    Concerns about pesticide-tainted food were heightened recently when the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer announced that based on a review of current scientific evidence, glyphosate—the active ingredient in the weed killer Roundup, —should be classified as “probably carcinogenic to humans.” That decision was made unanimously by a group of 17 oncology experts from 11 different countries who were selected not only for their experience in the study and treatment of cancer, but also because they met WHO conflict of interest standards. Glyphosate is the most commonly used agricultural pesticide in the U.S.

    The risk from glyphosate exposure is largely unknown—but potentially huge. It has been detected in the air and water near fields where it is sprayed, but we don’t know how much of it is in the food we eat because the federal government doesn’t routinely test fruits, vegetables or other crops for glyphosate residues.

    Glyphosate is now found not just in Roundup but more than 750 products, including those used to kill weeds on farms and in suburban lawns and gardens. The use of the chemical has increased tenfold in the past 20 years because many crops-—including the vast majority of corn and soybeans grown in the U.S.—are genetically engineered to survive being doused with the weed killer.   

    “This new evidence that glyphosate may pose a more serious health threat than previously believed urgently underscores the need for federal regulators to expand and improve safety assessments and monitoring for glyphosate and all commonly used pesticides,” says Michael Hansen, Ph.D., senior scientist at Consumers Union.

    —Andrea Rock

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

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    Will HBO or Sling TV crash during "Game of Thrones" season premiere?

    Streaming services are a real boon for TV watchers, unless of course your service goes on the fritz while you're viewing. Just ask anyone who experienced Sling TV's crash during the recent NCAA men's Final Four or HBO Go's problems during last season’s first episode of "Game of Thrones" and the season finale of "True Detective."

    That's why we're interested in seeing what might happen this Sunday evening when the new season of "Game of Thrones" premieres to what should be a huge audience. Will people who stream the episode on Sling TV or via HBO Go get to see the show without any complications?

    Streaming services can be susceptible to problems. Streaming video travels a much more circuitous route than cable TV does, which can result in buffering issues and outages. And then there's network overload at peak viewing times or broadband that's just not broad enough.

    Such issues give cable companies a delivery edge over streaming services. (Storm-based outages do affect cable service.) Frankly, it's surprising cable companies haven't taken out ads touting the reliability of their service.

    Sling TV and HBO have taken preventive measures in advance of the "Game of Thrones" season premiere:

    • Sling TV said in a company blog that its software is being updated this week to better handle increased traffic. The company also says that if Sling detects congestion on the primary network, it will be able to reroute traffic to a backup Web-service provider.
    • And since its issues last year, HBO has abandoned its own streaming technology and is instead outsourcing a streaming platform from MLB Advanced Media, which provides the technology for sites such as MLB.com and the WWE network. The switch is supposed to provide a more stable viewing experience for the growing number of HBO streamers.

    Check our streaming media player buying guide and Ratings and reviews of telecom service providers.

    We're also wondering whether HBO will start cracking down more seriously on account sharers. Some people have suggested on Twitter that HBO crashes aren’t being caused by subscribers but rather by those who mooch off other people’s accounts. On the help page for HBO Now, the company says it won't impose stricter password-sharing limitations than those for HBO Go, though it warns that it might impose “other tools of enforcement” if the company sees account-sharing levels that affect its business.

    If HBO or Sling TV falters during "Game of Thrones" on Sunday night, we might later find out what those other tools of enforcement really are or whether disgruntled customers decide to return to cable.

    —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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    Neato robotic vacuum overcomes messy situation

    The promise of a vacuum that picks up around the house while you put your feet up is part of the allure of robotic vacuums. But an early version of one of six robotics just tested by Consumer Reports revealed that the $550 Neato Botvac 80 needed more time and attention than a robotic normally would. But after we brought its faults to the manufacturer's attention, they told us they had a fix. Here's what happened.

    The dirt bin for the Neato Botvac 80 is affixed to the top hatch, which must be closed before the vacuum will operate. The first sample we tested had issues right out of the box, when the unit didn’t recognize that the lid was closed and displayed an alert, “Please put my Dirt Bin back in,” on its screen. The second sample initially worked fine but hit the same problem partway through our tests. When we pressed down the lid with a little force, the alert would vanish. But of course, that won't work with a vacuum that's designed to run unattended.

    We contacted the company, which traced the problem to last summer, when a production issue affected a small fraction of the units’ circuit boards. While four models in all have the problematic circuit board—the Botvac 70e, 75, 80, and 85—we saw relevant online complaints primarily about the Botvac 80, the model we tested. Neato says that all models from that production period have passed through retail channels, with none on the shelves today. Still, anyone whose Botvac exhibits the problem should contact Neato (877-296-3286), which told us it will replace those models, with shipping on them.

    Once we purchased two newer samples of the Neato, the vacuums worked as promised. Most other robotic vacuums we tested, such as the iRobot Roomba 880, $700, and iClebo Arte YCR-M05, $450, performed better overall. Still, the Neato Botvac 80 had impressive pickup from carpets and bare floors—though not the edges of bare floors—with top-notch navigation.

    Need a new vacuum?

    As with hand and stick vacuums, no robotic vacuum can ever take the place of a full-size upright or canister vacuum for deep-cleaning carpets. Still, the better models were fine at what you need between full cleanings. Be sure to see our vacuum cleaner buying guide before checking our vacuum Ratings of about 150 models, which include survey-based information on brand-repair history.

    —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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    Retirement savings need stronger protections

    Consumers who are saving for retirement often rely on professional financial advisers to recommend how and where to invest their money. You might assume your adviser is obligated to act in your best interest. But the rules covering advice doled out for retirement savings are seriously outdated.

    Under current federal standards, loopholes allow advisers to recommend investments that benefit them at the expense of their clients. You might be steered to investments with higher fees, riskier features, and lower returns because of side deals between your adviser and outside companies.

    These loopholes are having a significant impact on the nest eggs of millions of Americans. On average, they result in annual losses of 1 percentage point for affected investors. That might not sound like much at first, but a 1 percentage point lower return could reduce your savings by more than a quarter over 35 years. Americans who invest in Individual Retirement Accounts are losing up to $17 billion a year because of conflicted and bad financial advice, according to a recent report by the White House Council of Economic Advisers (PDF).

    Are you set for your retirement? Check our retirement planning guide.

    At Consumers Union, the policy and advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, we believe the rules covering retirement advice—which haven’t been updated in four decades—should be strengthened.

    The Department of Labor is now considering stronger standards that would require financial advisers who recommend investments for retirement accounts to be held to a “fiduciary standard.” Advisers would have to put the customers’ interests first.

    Current standards require only that investments be “suitable” for the investor, which allows advisers to choose investments that are good for their bottom line, but not necessarily good for you.

    The Department of Labor’s proposal for updated rules is currently under review at the White House’s Office of Management and Budget. Once OMB okays the proposal, the specific details will be published for the public to see and comment, which would lead to final rules. Consumers Union will be actively involved in this process to ensure consumers get a fair deal.

    Raising the standards for financial advisers will help put an end to conflicted retirement advice that depletes your savings, and it will help you plan for a more secure retirement. Your hard-earned money should be invested in your best interest.

    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.

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

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    12 reasons Americans hate grocery shopping

    Americans have a love-hate relationship with their supermarkets. One minute, we're blissfully taking in the intoxicating aroma of fresh ripe peaches, the next we're livid over getting stuck on the slowest checkout lane in the store. No doubt a lot of the frustration has to do with the huge investment we make in our stores. Last year, consumers averaged 83 trips and spent $5,400 grocery shopping. While it’s unrealistic to expect smooth sailing on every occasion, some chains make the experience more irritating than others.

    In our new report on America's best and worst supermarkets, 55 percent of subscribers surveyed experienced at least one problem during the store visit they told us about. But there was quite a range among chains. For example, Publix was the least problematic; only 29 percent encountered any single problem. Conversely, 83 percent of Walmart shoppers found one thing to complain about, more than any other supermarket. Sixty-two percent of Walmart's customers had two or more problems, while 41 percent encountered at least three.

    Not all gaffes, of course, are equally egregious. Some are particularly aggravating and occurred well above the average for all supermarkets. For instance:

    • 8 percent of Pathmark shoppers said they were the victim of scanner overcharges; 13 percent said the encountered missing or spotty price labeling.
    • 9 percent of those who shopped at A&P complained about their store selling damaged or expired goods.
    • 11 percent of respondents who shopped at Walmart, Pathmark, and Waldbaum’s were put off by dirty floors and shelves.

    Learn about the cost of organic food. (Hint: Don’t assume that organic is always pricier.) And check out the best store brands and America's cheapest supermarkets.

    Here are the 12 most common problems, the grocers that stood out—for better or worse— and the percentage of subscribers who complained.

    Problem

    Winner

    Percent

    Loser

    Percent

    Too few open checkouts

    Trader Joe’s

    3%

    Walmart

    57%

    Congested aisles

    BJ’s Wholesale Club

    3

    Market Basket (Northeast)

    35

    Too few choices

    Raley’s

    3

    Aldi

    30

    Poor selection of locally-produced products

    Wegmans

    1

    Walmart

    19

    Uninformed or indifferent staff

    Trader Joe’s

    <1

    Walmart

    30

    Confusing layout

    Brookshire’s

    1

    Schnucks

    12

    Out of stock on basic, non-sale items

    Fresh Market

    1

    Walmart

    23

    Inept bagging

    Trader Joe’s

    1

    Giant (Pa.)

    10

    Out of stock on advertised specials

    WinCo

    1

    Pick ‘n Save

    24

    Inadequate parking

    Bi-Lo (Ga., Tenn., N.C., S.C.)

    <1

    Trader Joe’s

    19

    Store offers more junk food than healthy food

    Sprouts Farmers Market

    <1

    Walmart

    10

    Spotty labeling of prices

    Lowes Foods (N.C.)

    <1

    Pathmark

    13

    —Tod Marks

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    Is the Tesla Model S P85D the quickest car ever?

    For the past 25 years, I've made a living testing some of the wildest vehicles on the planet at felonious velocities. Ferraris, Lamborghinis, Porsches—you name it. I have lit the wick of the Suzuki Hayabusa and GSX-R 1000, two of the fastest zero-to-100-mph street-legal motorcycles ever built.

    And when I've reached the limits of my own courage and talent level, I've co-piloted exotics and race cars around tracks with pro drivers who have won Formula 1 and the LeMans endurance races. It’s tempting to become a bit jaded by it all.

    That is, until I got behind the wheel of the Tesla Model S P85D, eased out to Consumer Reports’ half-mile test-track straightaway, and pressed the “Insane Mode” button. (Read: "Consumer Reports Buys a Tesla Model S P85D.")

    Aside from flooring the go-pedal of the Tesla, the only other accelerative force that has spawned the same visceral, palm-clammying, pants-wetting, expletive-spewing, fight-or-flight reaction from my lizard brain was when I bungee-jumped out of a balloon 300 feet over the California desert. This is terminal velocity, in an instant.

    Videos bouncing around YouTube show the Tesla P85D drag-racing various high-performance cars. The Tesla wins some, and it loses some.

    But even if it is a tick slower to go-to-jail-now speeds than other supercars on the road, I can unequivocally say that the Tesla P85D seems like the quickest machine of anything on the planet.

    Why? Because the Tesla is dead silent. Aside from a calm whirring of its electric motor, your brain has nothing to corroborate and process the sensations occurring around it.

    In contrast, you sit astride a Yamaha VMax or in the cockpit of a Dodge Hellcat at rest, and you hear the gurgling, spitting, fizzing demons lurking in the engine mere feet from you. Stomp on the gas in an extreme machine, the furious engine thunder and exhaust bellow allows your ears to inform your other senses that there is indeed good reason for the sudden compression of your neck and spine, the retreat of your gonads, the clench of your sphincter.

    But a stock-still Tesla P85D gives no suggestion of the havoc and castigation that its 691-horsepower electric powertrain is about to inflict on your body. Even as you hover your foot over the accelerator, preparing yourself as best you can for the inevitable, the rest of your senses argue that you are playing a practical joke on them.

    A sudden downward twitch of your right foot, and the rush of blood to the head happens far too quickly for your brain and body to respond in sentient fashion. A lifetime of experience that such powerful forces must be accompanied by raging sound and fury is denounced by silence. You become divorced from logical thought. It takes actual conscious action to keep yourself from reaching for the door in a panic, to eject yourself from this silent maelstrom. It is frightening, gleeful punishment.

    It's been nearly 24 hours since the Tesla abused me so, and in jogging my memory to type these passages, my hands are visibly shaking. We’ll discover the real test numbers after our new P85D has logged its obligatory 2,000 break-in miles. But suffice to say, there is truth in the simple touch-screen button that dials this otherworldly machine up to Insane.

    Read our current road test on the Tesla Model S.

    Mark Rechtin

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

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    Botnet takedown removes malware threats

    The Internet just got a little safer, thanks to a task force of public and private cybercrime fighters from the U.S. and Europe that has shut down a network of servers that was spreading particularly nasty malware.

    The Beebone botnet is known to have infected at least 12,000 computers, although the real number is likely much higher, according to Europol, the EU’s law-enforcement agency. The task force included Europol, the FBI, Intel Security, Kaspersky, and others.

    Malware spread by the now-defunct network included cryptolocker programs that would encrypt users' personal files and demand a ransom to restore them, according to US-CERT (U.S.-based Computer Emergency Readiness Team). Beebone, also known as AAEH, was also responsible for “fake antivirus” programs that demanded money to clean your computer of the malware it placed there, as well as password-stealing malware.

    Get the right protection for your computer by consulting Consumer Reports' Buying Guide for security software.

    This takedown should reduce the incidence of these damaging infections, at least until cyber-criminal hackers figure out another way to spread their malware.

    You can reduce your computer's “attack profile” by following our suggested practices.

    Take a look as well at GetSafeOnline.org, which provides several tools you can use specifically to search for the effects of botnets like Beebone.

    —Dean Gallea

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    Is driving with an Apple Watch safe? Is it legal?

    You’re driving home one evening after a long day at work when suddenly your Apple Watch massages your wrist to get your attention. You look at your wrist and see it’s just another celebrity update on Twitter. Okay, so those two seconds you took your eyes off the road were a waste of time. Was it a risky thing to do? Probably. Was it against the law? That depends.

    There are currently no distracted driving laws specifically addressing smartwatch use in motor vehicles, nor are any brewing, according to Deborah Hersman, president and CEO of the National Safety Council, a consumer-safety organization that focuses on such legislation. “Technology is moving at a much faster clip than our laws can keep up with,” she says.

    It's not as though smartwatch-induced distracted driving is a major problem right now—smartwatches don't adorn many wrists yet. But the introduction of the Apple Watch this spring is bringing new attention to the category, as analysts predict consumers will gobble up 28 million smartwatches this year—15 million of them made by Apple.

    Even when laws do catch up with smartwatches, enforcing the rules is going to be quite a challenge for police, according to Jeffrey Levine, a New York City-based attorney who specializes in traffic-violation cases. (New York City law-enforcement agencies issue 10,000 cell-phone-related summonses a month.) That's because police can act only on what they can observe.

    How does the Apple Watch stack up against other high-tech wearables? Check out our smartwatch comparison page.

    “The law expects you to have both hands on the wheel and both eyes on the road,” Levine says. “If you’re holding your phone, a cop knows your hand is off the wheel. And a cop can notice you pick a phone to read a text.”

    “Now imagine you’re looking at a text on the smartwatch on your wrist. To a cop it’s going to seem as though you’re checking the time, which is, of course, legal," he says.

    Levine, who has handled quite a few horrific accidents in which a mobile device was involved, acknowledges the danger of even quick glances away from the road. “If you're in a car traveling at 50 miles an hour, your car will have moved another 150 feet in the few moments you took to look down at your smartwatch."

    In the National Safety Council’s view, that’s only one part of the problem with all laws governing mobile devices in cars. The emphasis on hands-free technology is giving consumers a false sense of security. For instance, 80 percent of drivers polled in a 2014 NSC survey believed that using a hands-free device is safer than using a handheld phone.

    “But that’s wrong," Hersman says. “The problem is the cognitive distraction of the brain that causes you to take your mind off the task of driving—not what you do with your hands.”

    The organization says at least 30 scientific studies confirm this phenomenon. What’s more, it estimates that 26 percent of car crashes involve some form of cell phone use—talking on a handheld or hands-free device, or texting. Those figures are not likely to improve with a spurt in smartwatch sales.

    In one experiment done in the U.K., a driver reading a text on a smartwatch took an average of 2.52 seconds to react to an unexpected event, compared with 0.9 seconds when he was talking to a passenger in the car. His reaction time was 1.35 seconds when he was holding a hands-free phone conversation. He also veered out of his lane four times while using the smartwatch.

    “With people in your car, that’s different,” Hersman says. “They’re like your co-pilot because they’re likely to be paying attention to the road as well, and can help spot upcoming hazards.” And even fiddling with the radio or climate controls just don't take as much time, or attention, as talking or texting.

    Stay tuned for the results of our tests of the Apple Watch and its leading Android competitors. Among the things we'll be examining is their impact on driving safely.

    —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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    Volvo V60 Cross Country SUV-ifies a compact station wagon

    Americans pretty much like their station wagons in just one flavor: imitation SUV, with an added helping of raised ground clearance and a dash of rugged-looking body cladding. This trend makes Volvo’s V60 wagon a bit of an odd duck; it is a simply a traditional wagon. Not surprisingly, after months of tepid sales, Volvo has introduced the V60 Cross Country.

    Of course, Volvo has followed this path before. Known for station wagons, Volvo sales took off when the larger V70 wagon morphed into the XC70 nearly 20 years ago. Volvo eventually stopped selling plain-Jane wagons, following the same soft-roader trail as Audi (no more A4 wagon, just the Allroad) and Subaru (Legacy wagon is gone, leaving the focus on Outback).

    Sticking to the proven recipe, the SUV-ified V60 Cross Country gains plastic body cladding around the wheels and adds 2.6 inches of ground clearance.  Inside are heavily bolstered “contour” seats, covered in fetching Beechwood brown leather in our test car. Volvo made some equipment upgrades for “2015.5” models, including standard navigation, simplified logic for the Sensus infotainment system, and—finally—power lumbar adjustment for the front seats.

    While the S60—the sedan basis for the V60—offers a new 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder and an eight-speed automatic transmission, Volvo hasn’t worked out offering all-wheel-drive with that drivetrain yet in this platform. That means you get the Swedish brand’s familiar 2.5-liter turbocharged five-cylinder, mated to a six-speed automatic. This engine doesn’t escape the sound harmonics peculiarities inherent with odd-number cylinder counts, but engine noise is pretty well isolated. Wish we could say the same about filtering out rough roads; like other Volvos, the ride is on the stiff side.

    Like the Allroad, the V60 Cross Country seems like a tough sell next to the brand’s own small SUVs. Sized for dual-income-no-kids couples, the V60 has a snug rear seat and modest cargo area. By comparison, the XC60 has a lot more room.

    And it’s not like going with the smaller V60 Cross Country is saving you much money, either. Equipped with the Climate, Convenience, and BLIS (blind-spot monitoring) packages, plus metallic paint, our V60 Cross Country stickered at $46,475. A comparable XC60 T5 AWD Premier goes for $47,280; that’s not much more money for a lot more space.

    No doubt there are a handful of wagon aficionados who will welcome the V60 Cross Country. I get it. After all, I’ve owned two European station wagons myself. But gone are the days when station wagons had a lock on car-like driving dynamics. Add in the SUV’s habit-forming higher seating position and extra room, and wagons become a hard sell—even if they are gussied up to look like SUVs.

    As our new V60 Cross Country goes through its break-in period and on to formal testing, we’ll see how the Cars team responds, either embracing its car-like packaging or left pining for crossover.

    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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    How often should you change smoke alarm batteries?


    Q. I just spent $20, again, on batteries for my smoke alarm. The Duracell batteries I bought are good for five and 10 years. Is the old idea of replacing batteries every six months still relevant with the new-technology smoke alarms?—Ken Vanhoesen, South Walpole, MA

    A. You have installed those smoke alarms in order to stay safe, and the battery-change schedule is conservative because of an abundance of caution. It’s true that a lithium 9-volt battery will probably last longer than an alkaline 9V (which in turn should last longer than a carbon-zinc 9V). But how much longer depends on a smoke alarm’s power drain. If you think that your alarm’s old battery has some “life” left, use it in a product that doesn’t have to do with safety. Or consider a switch to a newer model of smoke alarm with a lithium-ion power source that lasts 10 years.

    For more on smoke alarms and carbon monoxide alarms check our buying guide, plus you can read more tips on battery use and storage.

    Send your questions to ConsumerReports.org/askourexperts.

    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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    Do people like the Apple Watch after they first try it?

    The Apple Watch went on sale on April 10, and promptly sold out, though that might have been as much a factor of supply as demand. Apple also started giving demos of the device that day. We've tried the Watch twice now, and you can see our early impressions here and here—but this was the first time the general public got to try it out.

    We wanted to see how the first genuinely new Apple product since the 2010 launch of the iPad was going over with prospective customers, so we sent a crew to the Ridge Hill shopping center near our Yonkers, New York, headquarters to get their reactions, captured in the video above.

    —Glenn Derene

    Interested in a high-tech timepiece? Check out our smartwatch reviews. And read about distracted driving and smartwatches.

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    Are HEPA vacuum filters really better than normal filters?

    Q. I’ve noticed that HEPA filters are advertised as being better than normal filters for new vacuum cleaners. Are they really better, and is it worth it to buy a vacuum that has one?—Dillon Yanick, Seattle

    A. If you’re concerned about a vacuum’s emissions, buying one with a HEPA (high-efficiency particulate air) filter is a good choice. But many vacuums without one are just as good. Check our vacuum Ratings and choose a model that scored well for emissions. Two that fit the bill are the Kenmore Elite 21814 and the Panasonic MC-CG937—both bagged canister models.

    For more information on vacuum cleaners check our extensive vacuum buying guide and watch our video below.

    Send your questions to ConsumerReports.org/askourexperts.

    This article also appeared in the May 2015 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.

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    How to limit ad tracking on your iPhone

    Some people aren't bothered by the idea that all of their electronics devices are tracking their behavior on behalf of advertisers. But if you're an Apple iPhone user and you'd rather not receive behaviorally targeted advertising, there's something you can do about it. You can turn it off.

    There's a simple menu setting three levels deep into the settings of iOS that gives users a degree of control over just how much information Apple's iAds send out to advertisers. Here's where to find it.

    Step 1: Find the Privacy menu in settings.

    Step 2: Scroll all the way down to the bottom of the Privacy menu to find the Advertising submenu.

    Check out all our coverage of the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus. And if you're looking for a new smartphone, compare it against the competition in our Ratings.

    Step 3: In the Advertising submenu, you'll find a switch allowing you to "Limit Ad Tracking," and the default setting is off. It may feel counterintuitive to turn on a setting for ad tracking in order to prevent it, but that's what you'll want to do here.

    Step 4: If you want to learn more about exactly what the iAd tracking is doing, Apple explains it when you click "About Advertising & Privacy". Tap it and a page pops up describing how Apple's "Advertising Identifiers" work.

    By the way, if you'd like to limit ad tracking on your Apple TV and in the iTunes Store, you can do that, too. Here are Apple's instructions on how to do so.

    —Glenn Derene

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    What goes wrong on motorcycles

    Motorcycle riding is all about escapism. Freedom, adventure, friends, and travel. The last thing a motorcyclist wants to worry about is a breakdown out 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 do sometimes go wrong.

    In our latest motorcycle reliability survey, we collected data on over 12,300 motorcycles, focusing on failure rates for four-year-old bikes that were purchased new. Based on this data, we estimate that more than 1 in 5 motorcycles will need a repair by the fourth year of ownership.

    Among these bikes, there were no expenses incurred for 45-percent of the repaired motorcycles, suggesting that many riders are performing the work themselves and/or having the bikes repaired under warranty. We found that the median repair bill cost $342 for parts and labor. Of the brands for which we have enough data to report, the price spanned from Kawasaki at $269—the only one below $300—to BMW at $455. When looking at motorcycle types, there was a much narrower spread in the costs, from $313 for dual-sport/adventure bike to $383 for a sport tourer.

    Among motorcycles that were repaired, nearly a quarter of them had work done on the electrical system. Accessories (19 percent), brakes (18 percent), and fuel system (13 percent) also stand out as areas of potential concern. In contrast, other mechanical systems had a relatively low frequency of repair.

    Repaired motorcycle parts Percent of repaired motorcycles
    Electrical system 24%
    Accessories 19
    Brakes 18
    Fuel system 13
    Clutch 8
    Body panels 6
    Drive system 6
    Valvetrain 5
    Front suspension 5
    Cooling system 4

    The key takeaway is that no matter the 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.

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

    Jeff Bartlett

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    How clean is your supermarket?

    Cleanliness can reveal a lot about a store, its management, and the chain’s commitment to overall excellence. A scruffy store doesn’t necessarily mean a grocer is lax about hygiene, but it raises understandable concerns at a time when food safety is clearly on the mind of many shoppers. A less-than-sparkling shopping environment is also a key reason why many Consumer Reports subscribers who participated in our latest supermarket survey gave the heave ho to a particular grocer. So there’s a lot at stake.

    While only 5 percent of respondents were dissatisfied with their stores’ cleanliness—and most of the 68 chains in our survey earned above-average scores—readers chided five grocers as subpar. 

    The list below identifies the supermarkets at both ends of the spectrum, based on shoppers’ response to the question: How satisfied are you with the cleanliness of your store?

    Top

    Bottom

    Wegmans

    Pathmark

    Publix

    Walmart Supercenters

    Trader Joe’s

    Country Market

    Raley’s

    A&P

    The Fresh Market

    Waldbaum’s

    Hy-Vee

     

    Whole Foods Market

     

    Harris Teeter

     

    —Tod Marks

    Check out the results of our latest supermarket study for the inside story on America's supermarkets. Subscribers can click here to access the full Ratings. There's plenty of free advice in our Buying Guide, too.

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