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Consumer Reports

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    Verizon rips up FiOS TV package and lets you pick a skinny bundle

    Burger King might have abandoned the “Have It Your Way” slogan, but Verizon seems to be picking up the mantle with a new "skinny TV" package that combines broadband with a customizable TV service that includes a set number of basic channels—including local broadcast channels—with add-on programming packs that can be swapped out each month.

    The new service, called FiOS Custom TV, launches this Sunday. The lowest-priced TV plan starts at $55 per month, but it doesn’t include broadband. A better deal, we think, is the $65-per-month package that bundles 25Mbps broadband service with about 35 fixed basic channels, both local broadcast channels and cable TV networks such as AMC, CNN, Food Network, and HGTV. As part of the plan, you can choose two of seven available genre-based add-on packs, each of which contains an average of 10 to 17 channels. If you decide you don't like the add-ons or simply want to try another, you can change them every month at no charge.

    Other channel packs include Kids, Entertainment, Lifestyle, News & Info, Pop Culture, and Sports. The Kids pack includes Nickelodeon, while sports fans get two options: the Sports Channel Pack, which includes ESPN, FOX Sports and more; and the Sports Plus Channel Pack, which includes regional sports networks and specialty programming such as NFL Network, MLB Network, NBA TV, NHL Network and Golf Channel. You can choose from two of these packs as part of you service and add more packs for $10 each per month.

    You can also boost the broadband speed for an additional monthly fee. The plan with the base TV package and 50Mbps broadband costs $75 per month, while a 75Mbps plan costs $85 a month. Triple-play deals that include phone are also available, and cost from $75 per month (for TV, two channel packs, and 25Mbps broadband) to $95 per month (with 75Mbps broadband).

    FiOS Custom TV might not be the best plan if you're trying to save a ton of money on your monthly expenses, but $65 for both decent broadband and a respectable TV package may be less than what you are paying now. No premium cable channels, such as HBO, are included, though you can add HBO Now separately for $15 more per month.

    But Verizon's new service does include something missing from many other alternative online TV packages: a way to get broadcast TV without having to resort to an antenna for over-the-air reception. And the ability to swap add-on packs every month will not only give you a chance to check out other packages but also to see which ones you're actually able to live without.

    While it still seems unlikely that we'll see true à la carte TV programming any time in the near future, Verizon—and some other Internet-based services, such as the recently launched Sling TV and Apple's upcoming TV service—are offering an unprecedented number of alternatives to traditional pay TV services. Increasingly, you can can choose the channels and shows you actually want to see, without having to pay for those you don't. And that's a positive trend, anyway you look at it.  

    —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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    Taking a closer look at contact lens pricing

    Last summer, Consumers Union, the policy and advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, testified at a Senate hearing about a troubling shift in the pricing policy of major contact lens manufacturers. The lens makers were prohibiting retailers from charging less than a minimum price, which effectively blocked retailers from offering discounts to consumers.

    These manufacturers claim they each decided on this move independently, but the Senate Antitrust Subcommittee was rightly skeptical. The manufacturers knew that if they were coordinating with one another or with high-price retailers to stop discounting that would get them in hot water under the antitrust laws. This area of law has become less clear-cut in recent years. But the surest way to avoid antitrust trouble is to act independently, or as the antitrust cases refer to it, “unilaterally.” That’s why the manufacturers all call their anti-discount edict a “unilateral pricing policy.”

    Today the manufacturers that account for about 98 percent of all contacts sold in the U.S. are setting minimum retail prices. Who benefits from denying discounts to price-conscious consumers? High-price retailers, including eye doctors who sell contact lenses directly to their patients. And the eye doctors determine which contact lenses to prescribe for each patient. So each manufacturer wants to stay on the doctors’ “good list.”

    Without this warped incentive, contact lens manufacturers would likely welcome retail discounting, because more consumers could afford to buy contacts. Manufacturers would still set the wholesale price, so each retail sale, at any price, would provide the same benefit for the manufacturer. That’s how a healthy competitive market should work.

    Consumers Union fought this battle more than a decade ago. It used to be that eye doctors wouldn’t even give patients the contact lens prescription, making it exceedingly difficult to get contacts anywhere else but at the doctor’s—and at the price the doctor charged. That finally changed in 2003, when Congress passed the Fairness to Contact Lens Consumers Act, requiring eye doctors to hand over that prescription.

    Today, while consumers are free to buy contacts wherever they want, they can’t get discounts on the lenses. This is an important pocketbook issue for the nearly 40 million Americans who spend more than $4 billion each year on contact lenses. Modern-day contact lenses are made to be replaced frequently, and a markup on each pair adds up quickly.

    Federal regulators are reportedly taking a close look at this situation. State legislatures are considering directly prohibiting these restrictions on retail discounting. Legislation has been enacted in Utah and is in various stages of consideration in Arizona, California, Florida, Idaho, Illinois, Minnesota, Mississippi, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, and Washington State.

    Consumers Union supports these efforts, and we’re pleased they are making headway. We’re going to keep pressing for reforms to restore your ability to seek a discount on your lenses.

    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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    Protect yourself from debt collection scams

    A new scam could be coming your way: Con artists posing as debt collectors and collection agencies.

    Phony debt collectors probably predate recorded time, but these fraudsters are adding a sophisticated twist: They troll Internet databases for your personal or financial information, so that they appear to be “collecting” debts that you actually owe, making the scam that much more convincing.

    For more information on debt collection fraud, read: The problem with the debt collection industry.

    Here’s how it works: The scammer may say that she is collecting an American Express debt. You may actually owe money to American Express, so you may believe the caller works for American Express. Of course, the money isn’t going to American Express at all. It’s going to the scammer, along with any other funds the scammer can access through the financial information you provide.

    You can also sniff out a scam by asking these three simple questions:

    • What is your professional license number and the name, address, and phone number of the company you’re calling from? Many states require debt collectors to be licensed. If the caller refuses or is unable to provide you with the information or you can’t verify it with the state licensing agency, hang up. Even if the caller provides a phone number, stay suspicious. Real collection agencies have complex phone systems; if you call and a collector answers directly, he’s likely using a cell phone, a sure sign of a scammer.
    • Will you send me a “validation notice?” Even if the caller gives plausible-sounding answers, request a “validation notice” to verify the debt. The notice, which must be sent within five days of initial contact, must include the amount of the debt, the name of the creditor, and a description of your rights under the federal Fair Debt Collection Practices. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has sample request letters. Refuse to discuss any debt until you receive the notice. 
    • What are the last four digits of the debtor’s Social Security number? Legitimate debt collectors will never answer this question because doing so violates the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA). Even if the caller cites correct numbers for your bank account, credit card, or Social Security number, don’t confirm them over the phone. Scammers can use the information to commit identity theft by charging your existing credit cards, opening new credit card or checking accounts, writing fraudulent checks, or taking out loans in your name.

    Remember, even if the debt is legitimate, the person calling isn’t necessarily entitled to collect the debt. Request a “validation notice” and hang up the phone. If you suspect the call was a scam, while you’re waiting for the letter, report the call to the Federal Trade Commission.

    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 home security without the monthly fees

    With their monthly monitoring fees, installing a professional security system can be a costly undertaking. But you can protect your home without the monthly hit with a number of smart do-it-yourself systems now on the market. Granted your home won't be an armed fortress but the devices may provide all the extra protection you want. Consumer Reports tested three products from Nest, Piper, and iSmart Alarm—ranging from a single device to a suite—and found they mostly deliver what they promise. Here are the details:

    Dropcam Pro, $199

    Nest’s camera-only product is the simplest of the three solutions, yet it has plenty to offer. You can stand it on its pedestal or mount it to a wall, and it will stream HD video to your phone, tablet, or computer with a 130-degree field of view and 8X zoom. While you have to set it to capture video during the time you want, it can also alert you of motion activity or abrupt changes in light levels. Another plus: It allows two-way conversations using its built-in microphone and speaker. You can also integrate the product with the Nest Learning Thermostat or the Nest Protect Smoke and CO Alarm so that, for instance, the camera can shoot and save video automatically if the smoke or CO alarm senses a problem. The app is available for iOS or Android. The camera requires AC power through its USB power supply; there’s no battery backup. Want to record video? Nest will let you store the past seven days’ worth to the cloud for $99 a year; to capture 30 days’ worth, it’s $299 a year. Keep in mind, though, you might prefer that the camera not always be on, recording all that it sees and hears.

    Bottom line: We found this a helpful entry-level device. For smaller homes and apartments without multiple entry points, it can give you ample notification of what’s going on without a lot of fuss, including the need to set up and position multiple devices.

    Piper classic + Z-Wave Pack, $339

    The Piper classic is a combination HD camera, motion detector, and alarm that is sold by itself for $199; a newer version, the Piper nv, offers night vision and costs an additional $80. The package we tested includes the Piper classic plus a choice of three from a set of five additional accessories: a door/window sensor, smart switch, smart dimmer, range extender or, for installation in electrical boxes, a micro-smart switch.  The components connect to the camera via the Z-wave wireless signaling scheme, but the camera itself connects to your home’s Wi-Fi network.

    Like the Dropcam Pro, the camera allows two-way conversation. It offers four modes—home, away, vacation, and notify—and it can perform actions based on motion, loud noises, temperature changes, or the opening of a sensor protected door or window. All devices are line-powered except for the door/window sensors, which take batteries. There’s also a panic mode. Possible alarm actions include sounding a siren, turning lights or the dimmer on, notifying you (via phone, e-mail, or text), or letting a trusted contact know what’s going on.

    Bottom line: We found this perhaps the best overall home monitoring system, and opting for the night-vision version ($399 for the package with three accessories) would improve it further. Its multi-mode monitoring and several contact options make it very flexible, and the temperature-monitoring function seems ideal for homeowners who are away a lot.

    iSmart Alarm Premium Package, $349

    This product suite starts with CubeOne, the system’s AC-powered controller, which you connect directly to your home network’s router using an ethernet cable; it includes an ear-splitting 110-decibel siren. Other parts of the package are the iCamera, which shoots low-res, 480-line video. Also, there’s a motion sensor, two door/window sensors, and two remote tags—essentially key fobs. (Options include arming or disarming the alarm and setting off the siren.) A separate “preferred” package without the camera costs $150 less. An optional camera that shoots 720-line HD video costs $150.

    While the camera lacks a built-in microphone and speaker, it does offer night vision and can be remotely swiveled and tilted using the iOS or Android app. It operates wirelessly, like all but the CubeOne controller, but for initial setup it needs a temporary wired setup.

    Bottom line: The iSmart Alarm is a little closer to how a typical home-security system operates, and the security controls are well done. The key fob is a good accessory, and you can even track children and pets through it. But we have a few caveats. The camera is lower-res than the others and lacks communication features. And in a large house, you might need a Wi-Fi repeater with multiple ethernet ports—and a change in your router’s settings to allow port forwarding. Still there’s much to like.

    Interested in connected-home innovations? See our feature, “Run Your Home from Your Phone,” and watch for our continuing coverage of the so-called Internet of Things.

    —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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    The best and worst walk-behind mowers

    Every year Consumer Reports tests a new batch of mowers at its test lawn in Fort Myers, Florida. This year we bagged more than 1,500 pounds of grass clippings and found out that not every mower measures up to our cutting, mulching, and bagging tests. While even the lowest-rated tractors and riders we tested performed passably, several walk-behind mowers left ugly clumps in their wake and scored just 40 or lower. Here are the best and worst walk-behind mowers from our tests.

    Best self-propelled mowers

    Self-propelled mowers require less effort on your part, especially on graded areas of your lawn. Paying more for the Honda HRR2169VLA, $500, buys superb mulching and bagging, no-prime starting, and an electric-start feature whose battery gets charged while you mow. Among the other multispeed mowers, choose the Toro Super Recycler 20381, $500, for its bagging; Toro Recycler 20333, $400, for its blade-brake clutch; and Troy-Bilt TB-280ES 12AGA26G, $340, for its low price and electric start.

    The Toro Recycler 20339, $380, tops our single-speed picks and offers unique stand-up storage. Also consider the all-wheel-drive Toro Recycler 20353, $400, for steep slopes—as well as the quiet Craftsman 37545, $340, which just missed making our picks—if you mostly mulch and would rather not wear ear protection.

    Best push mowers

    Among push gas mowers, choose Yard Machines 11A-B96N, $240, for its impressive mulching and bagging and stellar evenness in side-discharge mode. Among battery mowers, pick the Black & Decker CM1936, $400, for its impressive mulching and the Black & Decker SPCM1936, $450, for its driven wheels and smoother side-­discharging. Willing to live with a cord? The Black & Decker MM875, $240, is still a cut above the others in this group.

    Worst walk-behind mowers

    Earthwise 60318, $300. Most self-propelled cordless mowers cost more, and for good reason. This one clogged and left clippings when bagging, and we found it hard to maneuver.

    Murray M22500, $170. This gas push mower wasn’t designed to bag, was mediocre in the side-discharge mode, and left visible clippings when mulching. Many push mowers adjust cutting height with one lever per wheel, but for this one you’ll need to remove and reattach each wheel.

    Earthwise 50120, $160. It’s the least expensive of the plug-in mowers we tested, but it’s no bargain. Mulching and bagging were subpar, and—with many leftover clippings—side-discharging was so-so.

    —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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    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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    Why do my pills look different?

    Q. Sometimes when I refill my prescriptions, the pills look different. Why is that?

    A. U.S. trademark laws prohibit generic drug manufacturers from copying the shape, color, or size of a brand-name pill. Many companies also choose to produce drugs that look different from competitors’ generics. The result? Different versions of the same drug can look different depending on who made them, making pill identification difficult.

    The good news is that cosmetic differences aside, all versions of a particular drug must contain the same active ingredient as the brand-name drug and meet the same requirements for dosage, safety, strength, and quality.

    The major difference between generics and brand-name medicines is price: generics usually cost less. About half of the prescription medications sold in the U.S. have a generic equivalent. If you don’t know whether you’re taking a generic or not, ask your doctor.

    You may find that your pills look different than you expected when your pharmacy changes suppliers—which can happen often due to drug price fluctuations among suppliers. If you’re worried, always open the pills at the drugstore; if they look unfamiliar, ask the pharmacist to confirm that you’ve been given the right medication.

    If you receive pills by mail, call your mail-order pharmacy to check. You can also use the National Library of Medicine pill lookup, at pillbox.nlm.nih.gov. All drugs can be identified by a combination of their shape, color, scoring marks, and the letters and numbers imprinted on them.

    For more information on drugs, including cost-effective medication choices and in-depth reports on drugs for many common conditions, see our Consumer Reports Best Buy Drugs.

    A version of this article also appeared in the May 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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    ESPN calls foul on Verizon FiOS Custom TV

    Well, that didn't take long. Shortly after announcing Custom TV, a streamlined, customizable TV package that targets would-be cord cutters, Verizon was told that its current contract with ESPN doesn't allow it to offer the sports giant's channels as part of a separate, add-on package.

    Announced last week, the Verizon FiOS Custom TV plan combines broadband with a TV service that offers a set number of basic channels—including local broadcast channels—and a choice of add-on programming packs. ESPN, Fox Sport,  and other channels are part of a sports-themed add-on pack.

    Apparently, breaking ESPN off into a separate add-on package isn't allowed under the existing contract. In a statement obtained by re/code, an ESPN spokesperson said that as described, Verizon's approach would violate the companies' existing agreements. "Among other issues, our contracts clearly provide that neither ESPN nor ESPN2 may be distributed in a separate sports package.” ESPN says that its deal requires that it be carried in a company's base, most widely distributed cable package.

    That's a major difference between Verizon's approach and Dish's recently launched Sling TV service, which includes ESPN as part of the base $20 monthly subscription.

    We're waiting to hear back from Verizon, but one quick fix would be to move ESPN to Custom TV's basic programming tier and combine the other sports channels into a single sports add-on pack. However, it's not clear whether that would affect the price of the service, currently $65 a month with 25Mbps broadband. But it could certainly hamper Verizon's ability to offer skinnier TV packages that contain only those shows its customers want without paying for others they don't.

    As more Internet TV services launch over the next several months, it will be interesting to see how existing contracts will affect their ability to provide lower-cost, more streamlined programming bundles.

    —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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    2016 Buick Envision fills gap in brand’s SUV lineup

    Buick recently unveiled the long-awaited Envision SUV at the Shanghai auto show, previewing a new crossover destined to slot between the little Encore and the large, three-row Enclave.

    Based on hardware that underpins the next-generation Buick Verano and Chevrolet Cruze sedans, the Envision will effectively form the basis of the next Chevrolet Equinox and GMC Terrain SUVs.

    Slightly smaller than the current Equinox, the new Envision will use new turbocharged four-cylinder engines from the 2016 Chevrolet Malibu, including a 160-hp, 1.5-liter and a 250-hp, 2.0-liter. The Envision shown in Shanghai used a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission new to GM, but American models may get a six- or eight-speed automatic instead. An all-wheel-drive system will be available that distributes torque on demand.

    Befitting a luxury brand, the Envision boasts an elegant looking interior, with a dual-panel panoramic sunroof, multifunction steering wheel, and dual-zone automatic climate controls.

    Expect a full suite of active safety features, like those added to the Equinox for 2016, along with adaptive cruise control to automatically maintain a safe distance from cars ahead and automatic parking assist that can parallel park for drivers who don’t have confidence to do it themselves.

    The Envision will go on sale in the United States next fall.

    —Eric Evarts

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

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    All-new 2017 Buick Verano sedan breaks cover

    Buick is replacing its entry-level Verano luxury sedan with a redesigned model, unveiled at the Shanghai auto show, that draws styling elements from the stunning 2015 Buick Avenir and 2008 Regal concept cars.

    GM claims the sinuous styling will give the Verano a super-slick drag coefficient of 0.27—aerodynamics that should aid highway fuel economy. The exterior is further distinguished with wing-shaped LED headlamps and taillights that promise to become new Buick signature elements.

    Power will come from GM’s new corporate 160-hp, 1.5-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine. In China (where Buick sells a lot of cars), it will get a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission. However, we expect it will get a six- or eight-speed automatic when it comes to the United States next year.

    The 2017 Verano’s chassis architecture will be shared with the the next-generation Chevrolet Cruze, as well as the Buick Envision, Chevrolet Equinox, and GMC Terrain, SUVs.

    Eric Evarts

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

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    The pros and cons of supermarket self-checkout

    There’s a lot to like about your supermarket's self-checkout. It's usually a fast track out the door, shoppers who use it tend to have fewer items in their carts, and you can pack your bags more carefully because you're in complete control. Three-quarters of the 62,917 subscribers who participated in Consumer Reports’ latest grocery-store survey tried to check themselves out over the past year, and nearly three out of four who did so applauded it as a time-saver.

    Considering that the top complaint among those surveyed is too few open checkout lanes, self-checkout has the potential to make or break the shopping experience. Or at least have an impact on whether you walk out with a smile or a frown.

    While our survey revealed few complaints about insufficient checkout lanes at chains like Fareway Stores, Trader Joe's, and Whole Foods Market, those problems plagued many others including Pathmark, Waldbaum's, and Walmart.

    The mere presence of self-checkout, however, doesn't ensure satisfaction. Three out of 10 respondents who used self-checkout complained that it didn’t work properly; 27 percent were ticked off that the customer ahead of him or her dawdled. Twenty-two percent were irritated because they couldn’t find a staffer at the front end—industry-speak for the checkout area—to resolve a problem, while 14 percent confessed that they had a hard time simply trying to figure out how to navigate the system.

    The table below breaks down by gender and ages the self-checkout problems experienced by Consumer Reports subscribers.

    Why self-checkout can be annoying

     

    Men

    Women

    18-34

    35-44

    45-54

    55-64

    65+

    Self-checkout didn’t work properly

    30%

    32%

    38%

    38%

    36%

    33%

    26%

    The customer(s) ahead of me took too long

    30

    22

    36

    42

    35

    27

    21

    I needed help, but staff was not available

    20

    2

    30

    32

    29

    23

    16

    It was hard to figure out how to use

    14

    14

    10

    7

    9

    12

    18

    —Tod Marks

    Read our article about 9 ways to save at the supermarket. Be sure to also check out our free supermarket buying advice

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

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  • 04/21/15--05:59: Invest like Warren Buffett
  • Invest like Warren Buffett

    Warren Buffett likes to say that price is what you pay, value is what you get. It’s as good an encapsulation of what value investing is all about as you’re going to find. If you can uncover stocks trading at a discount to their true, long-term value, you greatly increase your odds of enjoying market-beating returns over the long haul.

    That’s because cheap stocks tend to outperform and expensive stocks are more likely to underperform, given a long enough time frame. If you can buy a stock when that valuation is below average, you have a much better chance of success.

    For investors, finding cheap stocks these days might seem difficult. There aren’t as many deals available when you’re in the sixth year of a bull market. The problem, though, isn’t that stocks don’t have more gains left in them—many do. It’s that the risk of buying high is much greater now than it was a few years ago. If you overpay, that’s a sure way to consign yourself to below-average returns over the longer term.

    One way to assess whether a stock is expensive or not is to consider its price-to-earnings ratio (P/E). When you buy shares in a company, you benefit from earnings paid out as dividends or kept on the books for future investment. P/E works as a proxy for that way of valuing a stock. If the P/E is too low to reflect a company’s true, long-term earnings potential, there’s a good chance you’ve found yourself a bargain—a stock that is on sale.

    A common method to understand whether a P/E ratio is high or low is to compare the P/E of the stock with that of the U.S. equity benchmark Standard & Poor’s 500 Index. The broader market’s P/E stands at about 19, so a stock with a P/E ratio below that might be a bargain. Energy stocks, for example, have been crushed by tumbling oil prices. This year, ExxonMobil (XOM) has traded at about 11 times earnings—40 percent cheaper than the broader market and below XOM’s long-term average of 12. The shares of fellow blue-chip Chevron (CVX) offer similar discounts, as do those of ConocoPhillips (COP).

    But don’t be fooled into thinking that all energy stocks are good buys. There are plenty that still look too risky, such as the exploration and production companies.

    Read why popular stocks may not be the best investment.

    Among technology stocks, Apple (AAPL) usually trades at a low P/E, partly because its market capitalization is huge and there are still concerns about the future without Steve Jobs. But it still looks like a good deal. Shares of AAPL sell for 17 times trailing earnings these days. True, that’s essentially in line with its five-year average, but consider this: AAPL is 10 percent cheaper than the S&P 500 despite its strong growth prospects.

    Something else to keep in mind is that while the stocks mentioned here may be good investments for the longer term, some sectors always trade at a lower P/E than the broader market. Banks, for example, get a low P/E because of interest-rate risk. Shares of JPMorgan Chase (JPM)—the nation’s biggest bank by assets, for example—has a P/E of 11, lower than the broader market but in line with its long-term average. So if you find a bank trading at a low P/E, that doesn’t automatically mean it’s a good deal.

    Also think about whether the broader market itself is cheap or not. The P/E of the S&P 500 stands around 19, which may seem expensive because it’s higher than its long-term average of 15. But it’s not even close to the levels associated with the last two crashes. In the dot-com boom, for example, the stock market’s P/E hit 45. And before the Great Recession, the S&P 500 fetched as much as 65 times earnings.

    It can pay to look overseas for great opportunities. Sluggish economic growth or outright recession has soured sentiment on a number of foreign equity markets. Russian stocks, for instance, are dirt cheap, but investing in them is probably not worth the risk given the worsening situation in Ukraine and the chance that Standard & Poor’s might downgrade the country’s credit rating.

    Japanese stocks, though, are also in the bargain bin. Policymakers in Japan are determined to use quantitative easing to crush the deflation that has hamstrung the economy for the past two decades. That could mean that an exchange-traded fund for Japanese stocks—the iShares MSCI Japan (EWJ)—which ended 2014 just about where it started, could be a good performer over the long term. 

    This article also appeared in the April 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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    Driving the 2016 Toyota Mirai—on the hydrogen highway

    This fall, Toyota will give early adopters another incentive to try driving a hydrogen fuel-cell car: free fuel. That’s right, when the 2016 Mirai sedan goes on sale, Toyota’s $499 monthly price lease will cover all fueling expenses for three years.

    Toyota brought a Mirai to our test track to give us a glimpse of this hydrogen future. If you can get past its angry-space-lizard styling to try it out, the $57,500 (before clear-air incentives) Mirai drives pretty much like any other car. Power delivery from the 153-hp electric motor is a bit on the sluggish side as it attempts to motivate this 4,100-pound, Camry-sized car. Still, the suspension soaks up bumps well, and handling is not that much different from a Prius. Also, because electric motors provide the power, the Mirai is very quiet inside.

    Toyota claims the Mirai can go up to 300 miles on high-pressure gaseous hydrogen stored in its two carbon-fiber tanks. This range is the big advantage of fuel-cell cars, according to automakers. They’re not inherently limited to shorter trips like battery-powered cars such as the Nissan Leaf. And unlike the Tesla Model S—the one battery-powered car with decent range—the Mirai can be fully refueled in less than five minutes.

    Inside, the car feels like a cousin of the Prius, with a similar electronic shifter and two-tiered dash. The Mirai seats four adults and comes fully equipped with front and rear heated leather seats, dual-zone climate control, and a navigation system. The only option is a feature that will let owners send power from the Mirai back to their home during a power outage.

    Despite Toyota’s attempt to make the Mirai a seamless transition from a gasoline-powered car, the harsh reality of fuel-cell vehicles is the limited availability of hydrogen fueling stations. We experienced the refueling process with the Hyundai Tucson Fuel Cell Vehicle we rented from Hyundai last winter.

    Initially, the Mirai will be sold only in areas near existing hydrogen stations, limiting it to small pockets of Northern and Southern California. But Toyota is working with California and some private companies—including Honda and Hyundai—to fund construction of a planned 100 stations throughout California, with 12 additional stations located in five northeastern states.

    Toyota hopes to sell 200 Mirais in California by the end of 2015 and as many as 3,000 in coastal U.S. cities by the end of 2017. Whether consumers snap them up will go a long way toward determining the viability of the hydrogen economy.

    Eric Evarts

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

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    Why is there so much interest in Mazda?

    The Consumer Reports YouTube channel and car forums have been abuzz with more than their share of Mazda discussions recently. Why are viewers of our “Talking Cars with Consumer Reports” video podcast so interested in Mazda? The brand isn’t a big player in the American automotive landscape. And yet, we frequently get questions about the CX-5 small SUV and Mazda6 sedan. This episode discusses what makes Mazda different and looks at updates in both models for 2016.

    While some brands struggle to form a cohesive identity, Mazda is laser focused on honing what makes their cars different. Inherent brand traits like sporty handling, aggressive styling, and impressive fuel economy form a combination that no other manufacturer offers. Revisions for 2016 help address the brand’s Achilles heel—noisy interiors—but as we discuss, the cars remain relatively loud inside.

    High levels of owner satisfaction in Consumer Reports survey data suggest that Mazda owners might be willing to make that trade-off. In contrast, the Acura ILX’s history of low owner satisfaction suggests why that compact sedan gets an extreme makeover for 2016. Updates include a new powertrain, Acura’s confounding infotainment system, revised suspension tuning, and additional noise isolation. But our experience with our test car shows that this effort still fails to hit the luxury mark.

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

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

    Also view:
    We buy a Tesla Model S P85D - Talking Cars, episode 66
    New York auto show - Talking Cars, episode 65
    Tesla and the self-driving car - Talking Cars, episode 64
    Ford Edge, Lexus NX - Talking Cars, episode 63
    Behind the scenes of 2015 Top Picks- Talking Cars, episode 62
    Chevrolet Trax, Kia Sorento - Talking Cars, episode 61

    Tom Mutchler

     

     

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    What happens to your Facebook profile after you die?

    Life used to be so simple. You lived, you died, and the assets you amassed during your time on earth were passed on to your heirs. Now, however, there is some new unfinished business that needs to be taken care of before you go: your personal digital assets.

    What are these? Well, your Facebook wall is one of them. The digitized thoughts, photos, and videos that you post there are stored at data centers in the U.S. and Sweden. And think about all of the other Internet services with storage features that you’ve come to rely on—among them mobile bank accounts, online mutual-fund accounts, and bill-pay accounts.

    If you write a blog, you may have years of published material online. If you operate an Etsy account, sell stuff on eBay, or own an online business, you have even more property scattered about on so-called cloud servers. We’ve all amassed a king’s ransom of those personal digital assets. One study released by McAfee, the security technology company, estimated their average value at almost $55,000 in the U.S.

    The problem is, “after you die, there’s no one monitoring all these assets anymore, which makes them vulnerable to theft,” says Gerry W. Beyer, a professor at Texas Tech University School of Law and a leading expert on the estate-planning aspects of digital assets.

    Complicating matters, secret usernames, passwords, and other login codes used to keep intruders out die with you. That makes it very difficult or even impossible for your survivors to take proper control of your digital assets. State laws granting rightful access to survivors are in their infancy, while user agreements usually bar access by others to protect their customers’ privacy.

    Here is Beyer’s advice for properly protecting your digital afterlife.

    Because it’s easy to save frequently visited website addresses on your Internet browser’s bookmarks bar, the first entry in your paper-based inventory should be a list of the usernames, passwords, and other login access codes to your computers, tablets, smart phones, and other connected devices. Do the same for your encrypted hard drives, flash drives, and other storage devices; encrypted home network routers; voice mail; and any fobs, cards, or other physical digital-key devices that require multifactor authentication security.

    Your inventory on paper should then list the Web addresses where your trusted agent can access your account-login pages, along with the necessary e-mail accounts, usernames, passwords, security codes, and login procedures. Don’t forget the information needed to reset the password, often your e-mail address where a reset code will be sent, and the secret “Who was your best childhood friend?” question(s), whose answers only you know.

    When it comes to estate planning, there's plenty to think about in addition to your digital assets. Check out our Parents' guide to creating a will

    Because there may be indecorous photos or e-mails or other digital secrets you don’t want your survivors to see, take steps to prevent a family National Enquirer eruption. Neatly segregate the indelicate material from the harmless, find and retain a trusted third party to handle your digital affairs, and instruct him on how to manage it. This is best handled by a family attorney, executor, or estate administrator.

    Don’t put instructions and access information into your will because that becomes a public document once it’s admitted into probate. Instead, have your estate attorney draw up a digital-assets durable power of attorney. That will legally authorize your attorney or the trusted agent you name to gain access to your accounts and devices, should you become incapacitated, incompetent, or otherwise unable to handle your own affairs. Your agent’s authority under the durable power of attorney ends when you die, but thereafter, your personal representative (executor under a will, administrator if intestate) picks up the authority to act.

    Of course, all of your access codes are the keys to your digital kingdom, so the printed inventory should be kept securely in a safe-deposit box, Beyer says. Maintain a digital version of your print inventory to note changed passwords or newly added Web services. Store that on an encrypted flash drive, and retrieve and update the paper version as often as is feasible. Destroy the old print list after the new one replaces it.

    Online services have not yet caught up with the digital afterlife concern. “Many have some sort of policy in their user agreement that may allow access to an executor or authorized agent upon submission of a death certificate and documentation,” Beyer says. “The industry could solve the problem by providing a screen when you open an account, asking who you authorize to have access if you become disabled or deceased.”

    But Beyer expects companies to get up to speed on this in the coming years, and some have already done so. Google’s Inactive Account Manager, launched in 2013, lets you instruct the Internet giant on what to do if your account becomes inactive for any reason, including your death. You can choose to have your data deleted after three to 12 months of inactivity or authorize trusted contacts who can receive data from some or all of your Google services, including Blogger, Drive, Gmail, and YouTube. 

    —Jeff Blyskal (@JeffBlyskal on Twitter)

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

     

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    Pioneer brings Android Auto to aftermarket car audio systems

    With the introduction of Pioneer’s latest aftermarket car audio systems, Android users with Apple CarPlay envy now have access to the same kind of in-car phone integration that iOS fans enjoy—as long as they’re willing to spring for an aftermarket radio to get it.

    That's because for now, at least—like Apple CarPlay—Android Auto has yet to make an appearance in a system from a mainstream automaker. The Android Auto website does list 28 carmakers set to roll the system out soon. (Android Auto is compatible only with Andoroid OS 5.0—aka Lollipop—or later.)

    We just bought a Pioneer AVH-4100NEX ($700), one of the three new Pioneer Android Auto-compatible units, and installed it in our Volkswagen Jetta test car. This is the same car that got a CarPlay-ready Pioneer head unit last year.

    The new unit is very similar and the same size as our old AVIC 5000NEX, which made for a plug-and-play installation since the Jetta has the matching faceplate and wiring harness. The easy installation ease limited our cost to the $700 we paid for the system. If you have to pay to have it installed in your car, add on $300 to $400.

    The Pioneer AVH-4100NEX has made good early impressions. The system presents a look, feel, and menu structure Android phone users will recognize. And its large, 7-inch touch screen is much easier and safer to see and use on the road than a phone. Better still, the AVH-4100NEX uses Bluetooth and comprehensive voice controls to avoid using the screen altogether, yet still have access to your phone for navigation, music, phone calls, weather, reminders, and more. (And yes, it’s compatible with CarPlay, too.)

    The AVH-4100NEX also includes and FM receiver and CD player, along with a USB port and audio input jacks.  

    We’ll be back with more news about Android Auto and our experiences soon.

    —Jim Travers

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

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    Surprising junk food in the dairy aisle

    When you’re scanning the supermarket for healthy snacks, you probably stop at the dairy case. It’s loaded with nutritious-sounding smoothies, dips, cheese sticks, spreads, and all types and flavors of yogurt. At first glance, all of those options might sound like tasty ways to get more protein, calcium, vitamin D, potassium, and other nutrients into your diet.

    So why not go for a berry-flavored smoothie instead of a glass of skim milk? Here’s why: Because many dairy foods are junked up with sugars, salt, and additives—and few come close to just plain milk when it comes to nutrition.

    “With these industrialized products, we’ve gotten so far away from what these foods originally were,” says Michele Simon, a lawyer and the author of the report “Whitewashed: How Industry and Government Promote Dairy Junk Foods.”

    On the plus side, dairy products will usually give you a bone-healthy calcium boost, though probably not as much as you think. The trick is to read nutrition labels to check for fat, sweeteners, and other additives, says Melissa Dierks, a dietitian nutritionist and an owner of Supermarket Savvy, a website that keeps track of food and beverage trends.

    Of course, avoiding dessert-flavored yogurt with candy and cookie toppings is a no-brainer. But some dairy junk foods aren’t as obvious. We scouted the supermarket aisles to help you separate the good choices from the bad ones.

    Many of those grab-and-go drinks have calcium and gut-friendly probiotic bacteria. But they can be just as bad as candy and soda when it comes to calorie and sugar levels, depending on the flavor and size you pick.

    For example, a 7-ounce bottle of Dannon Drinks (mango) has 150 calories and 28 grams of sugar, the equivalent of 7 teaspoons—almost the amount in a 7.5-ounce can of Coke!

    What to look for

    Low-fat versions. And choose plain or vanilla over sugary fruit flavors, which can venture into candy territory nutritionally. A 10-ounce container of Stonyfield Organic Peach Smoothie packs 40 grams of sugars, almost as much as a full-sized 3 Musketeers bar. Also avoid added thickeners like starches and gums.

    Junky choices

    • Dannon Drinks (any flavor)
    • Stonyfield Organic Smoothies

    Smart choices

    • Evolve Kefir Probiotic Smoothie (plain)
    • Lifeway Original Kefir (plain)
    • Siggi’s Filmjölk Plain 

    When you’re looking for a good-for-you nosh on the run, a squirtable yogurt that doesn’t even need a spoon may be tempting. But the small tubes—just 2 to 4 ounces—are often packed with sugars and fall short of nutrition recommendations for dairy. Most average just 8 to 10 percent of the daily value (DV) for calcium.

    What to look for

    Watch for sugars in any of their many guises (fruit-juice concentrates, fructose, cane sugar). Also, clean-label dairy foods don’t have loads of starches and other thickeners like carrageenan and gelatin.

    Junky choices

    • Yoplait Go-Gurt Portable Lowfat Yogurt (any flavor)
    • Stonyfield Organic YoKids Squeezers

    Smart choices

    • Siggi's Icelandic-style Yogurt Tubes (any flavor)

    They’re an improvement over the fat-laden sour-cream variety, but don’t think you’re dipping into pure, healthy yogurt. Artificial flavorings and salty seasonings can drive up the sodium content. Plain Greek yogurt is almost sodium-free, but a 2-tablespoon serving of Heluva Good Greek Style Yogurt Dip French Onion has 180 milligrams—more than in a small serving of McDonald’s fries.

    What to look for

    Seek out products with the shortest ingredients lists and those that keep modified starches and salty seasonings to a minimum, particularly MSG, a flavor enhancer that triggers headaches and other symptoms in some people. And read labels; nutrition can vary significantly, even among different flavors of the same brand. For example, Sabra’s Cucumber Dill and Tzatziki Dips have just 95 milligrams of sodium per serving; Sabra’s Diced Onion Dip has 135 milligrams.

    Junky choices

    • Heluva Good Greek Style Yogurt Dip (Herb Ranch and French Onion flavors)
    • Dannon Oikos Greek Yogurt Dips

    Smart choices

    • Sabra Cucumber Dill and Tzatziki Greek Yogurt Dips

    The label for Frigo’s Cheese Heads boasts “More of what’s in milk!” Sargento’s website touts that “Cheese has protein.” Despite the claims, gobbling a cheese stick will never replace downing a glass of milk.

    For one thing, the sodium is stratospheric; most products average 180 to 200 milligrams per stick, more than you’ll find in a 1-ounce bag of potato chips (170 milligrams). Even the reduced-sodium versions still average 100 to 120 milligrams apiece. A glass of skim milk will give you as much or more calcium and vitamin D with barely any fat or sodium.

    What to look for

    Go for low-fat or reduced-sodium versions, depending on what’s most important to you. No product offers both options—and less of one generally means more of the other. Products fortified with vitamin D and calcium are also a plus. Cheese is a relatively simple food, so almost all brands have simple ingredients lists.

    Junky choices

    • Frigo Cheese Heads Light String Cheese
    • Organic Valley Stringles

    Smart choices

    • Sargento Reduced Sodium Colby-Jack Cheese Snacks

    Despite its healthy-sounding reputation, the fat and calories in some frozen yogurt isn’t that much different from ice cream. For example, half-cup servings of Ben & Jerry’s Vanilla Greek Frozen Yogurt (210 calories, 14 grams of fat) and its superpremium vanilla ice cream (250 calories, 16 grams of fat) are very similar nutritionally.

    What to look for

    Try brands with live active cultures, which provide probiotic-bacteria benefits. Choosing Greek over regular will give you a little more protein. Watch for sugars, artificial sweeteners, and dyes. Plain and vanilla tend to be lowest in sugars. Gums and other texturizers are needed to keep the yogurt smooth; choose products with the fewest. Hood and Healthy Choice Greek frozen yogurts and Yoplait bars have a lot of thickeners.

    Junky choices

    Bar

    • Yoplait Original Low-Fat Frozen Yogurt Bars (peach or strawberry-banana flavor)

    Containers

    • Hood Greek Frozen Yogurt (all flavors)
    • Healthy Choice Greek Frozen Yogurt
    • Ben & Jerry’s Greek Frozen Yogurt

    Smart choices

    Bars

    • Yasso Frozen Greek Yogurt Bars (vanilla bean or berry flavors)
    • Lifeway Frozen Kefir Bars (all flavors)

    Containers

    • Lifeway Frozen Kefir Tart and Tangy Original (vanilla)
    • Yoplait Original Frozen Yogurt (vanilla)

    Once synonymous with diet food, it remains an excellent way to get a cheese fix with fewer calories and fat. But like any cheese, it tends to be high in sodium and—unless you go for lower-fat versions—saturated fat. And a half-cup serving supplies only 8 to 10 percent of your daily value. Low-fat and fat-free types tend to have more additives like gums and thickeners, so read labels carefully.

    What to look for

    Try low-fat or fat-free plain varieties, and choose those with the least amount of added starches, gums, and other texturizing agents. If you can find them, go for “no salt added” or “reduced sodium” varieties. Taste and texture might not be as exciting, so jazz them up with your own fruit, herbs, or spices. Avoid vegetable flavorings, which provide negligible (dried) vegetables and even more sodium. Also skip fruit-flavored varieties, which amp up the sugar considerably without boosting real-fruit benefits like fiber or vitamin C.

    Junky choices

    • Hood Cottage Cheese with Garden Vegetables or Peaches
    • Friendship 1% Low-Fat Cottage Cheese with Pineapple
    • Breakstone’s Cottage Doubles with Fruit Topping (all flavors)

    Smart choices

    • Hood, Crowley, or Friendship no-salt-added low-fat cottage cheese

    Dairy foods can pack an astounding amount of sugars and sodium, which is why it’s critical to read labels before you put anything in your shopping cart. Two of the worst examples we found:

    The YoCrunch strawberry lowfat yogurt with granola (6 ounces), top, has 25 grams of sugar, more than in two fun-sized bags of Skittles candies.

    The Frigo Cheese Heads light string cheese stick, bottom right, has just 50 calories, but 200 milligrams of sodium, more than in a 1-ounce bag of potato chips.

    This article also appeared in the January 2015 issue of ShopSmart magazine.

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

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    Tips and tricks for ironing your best clothes

    With such special occasions as proms, graduations, and weddings coming up, it’s a good time for a refresher course on ironing. Your clothes will come out smoother if they’re ironed when damp, so if possible remove them from the dryer before they are fully dry. Alternatively, use the spray on your steam iron or use it as a vertical steamer as you go. The best irons in Consumer Reports’ tests have a prodigious steaming rate that’ll speed this job along.

    Shirts and jackets

    1. Start at the point of the collar, working toward the middle.
    2. Next, iron the yoke by arranging one shoulder over the narrow end of the ironing board, then repeat the same process for the opposite shoulder.
    3. Do the sleeves next, working down from the underarm. A sleeve board is a big help with ironing; you can find them at housewares stores like Bed Bath & Beyond or Target. Then open the cuffs and iron them flat.
    4. Iron the back of the shirt next, slipping it over the wide end of the ironing board and shifting it as needed.
    5. Iron the two halves of the front. Or if the shirt doesn’t open, slip it over the ironing board.

    Pants

    1. If the pants have cuffs, unfold them and brush out any loose soil.
    2. Turn the waistband inside out and pull out pockets to iron them flat.
    3. Iron the zipper placket.
    4. On the right side, iron the waistband and the rest of the top. Repeat on the left side of the garment.
    5. Put leg seams together in the middle and fold pants the long way. Lay them flat on the board, then fold back the top leg. Iron inside of the lower leg, then turn and iron the outside. Repeat with other leg.
    6. Iron the two legs together (all four thicknesses at once).

    Skirts

    Iron from hem to waist in long strokes, but press (lift and lower) when you reach the gathers. Pleated skirts Arrange pleats on the ironing board and hold them or pin them in place. Iron from top to bottom, but not directly over the pins.

    Dresses

    1. Start with the lining.
    2. Continue to the top of the dress as if you were ironing a blouse. A dress that doesn’t open should be pulled over the end of a board; iron both sides.
    3. Lift and press underneath any collar; then press the collar itself.

    Delicate fabrics

    Lace, silk, and wool. Press inside out. If that’s not possible, use a dry pressing cloth. Lower and lift the iron; don’t slide it back and forth. Prevent imprinting inside detail by placing a piece of brown paper or tissue paper under folds, seams, or darts.
    Sequined, beaded, or metallic fabric. Place it face down on a soft surface—such as a thick towel or two—and press on low.
    Velvet. To restore the nap. hold the steam iron about an inch or two above the fabric and slowly move it around. Or hold the garment over a steaming kettle. Hang it in the bathroom and run a hot shower. Or use a fabric steamer—an appliance sold for this purpose.

    Best steam irons from our tests

    Rowenta Steamforce DW9280, $140
    Panasonic NI-W950A, $100
    Kenmore 80598, $75
    T-Fal FV4495 Ultraglide, $45, CR Best Buy
    Singer Expert Finish EF, $60
    Rowenta Effective Comfort DW2070, $50, CR Best Buy

    More choices. For more models including ironing systems, see our full steam iron Ratings and recommendations.

    —Adapted from "How to clean (practically) anything" by Consumer Reports

    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 tell if the food in the fridge is still good

    Is the finger food left over from your party a few weeks ago still good? Will you make your family sick if you broil the fish you defrosted three days ago? And that broccoli in the fridge—does it just look down on its luck, or do you need to chuck it?

    There’s an app for that now.

    It’s called FoodKeeper, and it gives you a quick and reliable way to check on the shelf life of hundreds of foods and beverages—from dairy and meat to produce and pantry staples. Downloading FoodKeeper on your device can save you money on your grocery bill: Americans toss about 36 pounds of food per person every month, much of it because people are confused about how long different foods last.

    Check our Food Safety & Sustainability Guide for more on food handling and reports on food safety.

    FoodKeeper, which was developed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture together with Cornell University and the Food Marketing Institute, lets you search by food or food category or enter the date of your purchase in your calendar and get notifications alerting you when food is past its prime.

    By the way, if there's brie left over from the party, it should be eaten within a week or two (it lasts six months in the freezer); broccoli should be eaten within three to five days. And that fish? Sorry, you should have eaten it within a day of defrosting, max.

    Roni Caryn Rabin

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