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Consumer Reports

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    Ford recalling 400,000 vehicles for possible faulty door latch

    Nearly seven months after the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration first opened an investigation into thousands of Ford vehicles that may contain malfunctioning door latches, the car manufacturer has issued a recall of nearly 400,000 sedans.

    Ford announced that it would recall 389,585 model year 2012-2014 Ford Fiesta, model year 2013-2014 Ford Fusion and Lincoln MKZ vehicles that contain door latches that may inadvertently open while the car is in motion, increasing the risk of injury.

    The recall comes less than two months after NHTSA upgraded its investigation into the malfunctioning latches to include the Fusion and Lincoln MKZ vehicles. In addition to increasing the scope of the investigation, regulators upgraded the probe to an engineering analysis – a step that can sometimes lead to a recall.

    According to Ford’s recall notice, the door latch in these vehicles may experience a broken pawl spring tab, which typically results in a condition where the door will not latch.

    The manufacturer says it is aware of allegations of soreness resulting from an unlatched door bouncing back when the customer attempted to close it, and one accident where an unlatched door swung open and struck an adjacent vehicle as the driver was pulling into a parking space.

    Prior to Ford’s recall of the vehicles, NTHSA said [PDF] it had received 207 reports related to improperly latching doors. Sixty-five of those reports claimed that the door or doors opened inadvertently while the vehicle was in motion.

    When NHTSA originally launched an investigation into the Fiesta models last September, the agency had accumulated 61 reports of potential door latch failures, of which 12 allegedly occurred while the vehicle was in motion.

    Since then, Ford has provided the agency with 451 additional reports and 1,079 warranty claims related to door latch failures.

    Ford previously said it did not believe that a latched door experiencing this condition would inadvertently unlatch and that there are many overt warnings associated with a door that does not latch.

    Still, regulators said back in March that the “rate of occurrence for this failure is comparable to other door latch failure investigations” and that the agency “questions the effectiveness of warning signals given the number of complainants alleging that the door(s) opened while the vehicle was in motion.”

    —Ashlee Kieler, The Consumerist

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

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    GM ignition death toll rises again, now at 90

    For more than a decade, General Motors staffers and federal regulators ignored signs of defective ignition switches in various GM vehicles. Meanwhile, hundreds of people were being hurt or killed because the car company failed to acknowledge its error.

    The latest report from the compensation fund set up to review claims of injury and death related to the defect now puts the number of approved death claims at 90, nearly seven times as many victims as the car company originally acknowledged.

    Another 163 injury claims have been approved by the fund, which doesn’t disclose amounts offered to victims or their families.

    A claimant isn’t required to accept an offer from the compensation fund, but if an offer is accepted, that claimant gives up their right to pursue any further related legal action.

    The AP reports that 118 offers have been made, and all but five of them have been accepted.

    Though the fund stopped accepting claim applications months ago, nearly one-quarter of those 4,324 claims are still under review. In some cases, this is due to incomplete documentation.

    A bankruptcy court recently ruled that GM could not face certain civil claims related to the recall. As part of the company’s 2009 bankruptcy restructuring, the “New GM” could not be held liable for all the bad behavior of the pre-bankruptcy “Old GM.”

    Even though the recall didn’t occur until 2014, the court disagreed with plaintiffs who alleged that there had been a cover up by New GM executives and that they should be held accountable for their alleged fraud.

    —Chris Morran, The Consumerist

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

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    Kitchen floors that stand up to years of punishment

    Distressed floors are more than just a style statement. Those prefab dents and dings help hide and blend the real-world wear and tear of today’s busy kitchen. Even vinyl floors are capturing the rustic look and feel of vintage wood, without the expense. And many of the best within all types literally make do-it-yourself installation a snap by clicking together and “floating” in place without glue or nails. Here are some standouts from Consumer Reports’ latest tests:

    Better pretenders

    Like other laminates, the Armstrong Coastal Living L3051 White Wash Walnut, $3.50 per square foot, includes a photo of natural material beneath a clear wear layer. It has a weathered look and its toughness under our scratching, staining, fading, and other simulated abuse earned it top scores. Vinyl is an even hardier option: Tarkett PermaStone vinyl tile, $4.70, offers a marbled-sandstone look that stood up to everything we threw at it.

    Wood that wears well

    Superb resistance to stains and scratches helped Armstrong Century Farm Hickory Natural, $6.50, join our top wood picks. But even those woods couldn’t match the toughest bamboos, including Teragren Synergy WidePlank Java, $7, which was among the few natural floorings that resisted dents well.

    Floors with easier installation

    Most of our picks can be floated without glue or fasteners, including Teragren Portfolio Naturals Wheat, $7.50. Want the lower cost and higher dent resistance of vinyl? Shaw Matrix Regency Gunstock Oak, $2 at Lowe’s, is among a growing number of vinyls that you snap together, rather than glue down. Style Selections Antique Oak WD4712, $3, just missed our list of top vinyls. But it’s among the first that offers peel-and-stick installation.

    —Consumer Reports Kitchen Planning & Buying Guide

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

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    2015 Ford F-150 EcoBoost engine shootout

    In the midst of testing our two new 2015 Ford F-150 XLT Supercrew pickups, we discovered a bit of a game-changer. The F-150 with the smaller engine, a new 2.7-liter turbo V6, is not only less expensive than the truck equipped with a larger and higher-horsepower 3.5-liter turbo V6, but it's also more fuel efficient and a little quicker in acceleration.

    This is noteworthy because most people would probably assume that the smallest-displacement engine on offer, especially in a pickup truck, would come with much slower acceleration times. That’s not the case here, thanks to some creative gearing, as well as considerable “lightweighting” by Ford in using aluminum instead of sheet steel for the truck’s construction.

    The performance differences aren’t huge, and both trucks are very capable—significantly more so than the last-generation F-150. In the 0-to-60 mph sprint, the new 2.7 V6 clocked in at 7 seconds flat, while the 3.5-liter took 7.2 seconds. In contrast, our last-generation F-150, which weighed 700 pounds more with a beefy 5.0-liter V8, took 7.8 seconds to hit 60 mph.

    In our fuel-economy tests the turbo-2.7 averaged 17 mpg overall, versus 16 mpg for the turbo-3.5. The one notable plus for the larger engine is in its rated towing capacity, 10,700 pounds, versus the smaller turbo’s 7,600 pounds. But that’s still plenty of oomph to tow a 25-foot Chris Craft power boat, for instance.

    The little-turbo-that-can also knocks off the competitions' bigger engines in our acceleration tests. The 2.7 is quicker than both the Chevrolet Silverado V8 (7.5 seconds) and Ram V8 (7.1 seconds). Only the V8-powered Toyota Tundra was quicker, at 6.7 seconds to 60 mph, the last time we tested one. And aside from the Ram 1500 diesel, which averaged 20 mpg, the 2.7-liter F-150 is the only full-sized pickup that managed 17 mpg in our tests, same as the smaller Toyota Tacoma. The Silverado 1500, meanwhile, got 16 mpg.

    How did Ford’s smaller engine manage this trick? At least part of the explanation lies in its shorter standard rear-axle ratio, 3.55 versus 3.31 in the turbo 3.5. As that number gets higher it brings better acceleration and towing but worse fuel economy. So in return for endowing the smaller engine with more grunt at the rear wheels, Ford scraped off some but not all of its potential fuel savings.

    Learn more about trucks with our pickup buying guide.

    How much does the smaller engine save in price? We equipped our optioned-up 2.7 and 3.5 F-150s comparably, and the 2.7 version came in at $45,750—$1,005 less. But it won’t cost you that much to get into that engine

    The 2.7 isn’t the base engine in the F-150 lineup—that would be a non-turbo 3.5 V6. But it’s only a $795 price bump to opt for the wee turbo. Pricing starts at $27,040 with shipping for a base XL with the 2.7 turbo, rear-wheel drive, regular cab, and 6 ½-foot bed.

    Choosing the 2.7 instead of the 3.5 turbo is not a bad trade-off in our book. A lower price and better performance is all to the good, so long as the lesser towing capacity is not an obstacle.

    We’ll have lots more to report as we continue with our tests, including such key judgments as ride, handling, noise, comfort, towing performance, and so on, not to mention how the new F-150 compares overall with its direct competitors, the Chevy Silverado and the Ram 1500.

    —Gordon Hard

    By the numbers

    2015 Ford F-150 4WD XLT

    2.7L Turbo V6

    3.5L Turbo V6

    Power 325 hp 365 hp
    Acceleration (0-60 mph) 7.0 sec 7.2 sec
    Overall fuel economy 17 mpg 16 mpg
    Rated towing capacity 7,600 lbs. 10,700 lbs.
    Rear-axle ratio 3.55 3.31

     

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    Find the best bike helmet for you

    Do you need a bike helmet? You wouldn’t think that would still be a controversial question, but it is. The anti-­helmet contingent offers arguments such as: “Forcing people to wear helmets makes cycling seem dangerous.” “It’s inconvenient.” “It discourages exercise.” “More bike lanes would be better!” “No one wears them in Amsterdam.”

    They aren’t a panacea, but the answer is a resounding yes, you should wear a bike helmet. Here’s why: 87 percent of the bicyclists killed in accidents over the past two decades were not wearing helmets, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. And when it comes to nonfatal injuries, a 2013 review by a committee at the Institute of Medicine found that wearing a helmet during sports reduces the risk of traumatic brain injury (TBI) by almost 70 percent.

    TBI is a catchall term used to describe a spectrum of head injuries from concussions to skull fractures. Bike-helmet safety standards are designed to measure a helmet’s protectiveness on the catastrophic end of the range—the realm of skull fracture, severe brain injury, and death. Of the 22 helmets we put through our impact tests, all absorbed the force of impact within the limit set by the current Consumer Product Safety Commission standard, and received at least a very good rating for impact resistance.

    Determining how well helmets protect against concussion—which can be serious, but not in and of itself life threatening—is trickier. The brain is a gelatinlike structure surrounded by fluid, which acts as a cushion against shock. A blow to the head or a violent movement (such as whiplash) can cause the brain to slide or rotate inside and bump against the skull. That can disrupt the normal functioning of the brain and alter brain chemistry. You can’t always “see” a concussion on a CT scan or an MRI, and there is still plenty that doctors and other experts don’t know about concussions.

    “There’s no single objective test to determine if someone has a concussion,” says Orly Avitzur, M.D., a neurologist and a medical adviser to Consumer Reports. “They’re diagnosed based on symptoms and the results of a neurological exam.” If there’s no objective test to show whether someone has a concussion, it’s difficult to design a test to see whether wearing a helmet protects against one.

    But the bottom line on helmets is: They work. First, there’s the undisputed fact that helmets are very effective at reducing your odds of suffering a moderate or severe head injury if you fall. And though they may not protect against all concussions, because they are designed to slow the rate at which the head decelerates and to disperse and absorb the energy of an impact, chances are they help at least a little.

    “The best studies done on bike helmets show that they are unequivocally effective in preventing traumatic brain injury—mild, moderate, and severe,” says Frederick P. Rivara, M.D., M.P.H., vice chairman of the Institute of Medicine committee and a professor of pediatrics at the University of Washington in Seattle. “People should always wear a helmet when they ride a bike. And our studies show that when parents wear them, children do, too.”

    Check our bike helmet Ratings and find out how to properly fit your bike helmet.

    Safety is the most important factor when you’re choosing a bike helmet. To test helmets, we put the them through a brutal pounding in our labs using an apparatus that dropped them at 7 mph and 14 mph onto a flat anvil to measure how they absorbed impact. We used an electronic sensor inside a dummy metal head to detect how much force would be transmitted to a rider’s head in an accident. Because you can strike your head in different places in a fall, we hit each helmet at the front, crown, back, and sides.

    We also checked each bike helmet’s ability to pass a test that evaluates the strength and holding power of the chin strap. We dropped an 8¾-pound weight 2 feet; that pulled on the helmet strap to simulate the force that might occur in a accident. We checked to see whether the strap stretched too much, or broke or came loose where it is attached to the bike helmet, and whether the clasp or buckle remained intact. All of the helmets passed that test, except the Cannondale Teramo, which we’ve rated a Don’t Buy: Safety Risk. Because that bike helmet failed our chin-strap test, we did not put it through our impact test.

    No matter how well a bike helmet protects, you’re not going to wear it if it’s not comfortable or is difficult to adjust. So we also looked at ventilation, weight, and fit adjustment. Combining the scores with those of our safety tests, the Scott Arx Plus, $150, came out at the top of our adult helmet ratings. The Arx is equipped with a Multi-directional Impact Protection System. MIPS helmets have an inner lining that is supposed to minimize rotational force, believed to be a prime factor in TBI, and reduce the amount of energy delivered to the head.

    But whether a helmet with MIPS minimizes rotational force any better than a helmet without MIPS is a matter of debate. Some experts argue that your scalp or hair functions similarly to a helmet liner and allows for slide on impact. We did not test that feature because we could not find a standard test for rotational force. We judged the Scott Arx Plus on the same features as we did for every other helmet in our tests.

    By testing for impact resistance at two speeds, though, we attempted to see whether there were any differences in the helmets’ performance in lower-impact accidents. A 7 mph helmet drop simulates falling 2 feet off a bike, and a 14 mph fall is like falling 7 feet. “It’s not only how fast you’re going—it’s also the height you fall from that can have an effect on the severity of the impact,” says Rich Handel, assistant test project leader for bike helmets. As you might expect, a fall from a higher height subjects your head to more force. But we didn’t see any differences in performance between the two heights that would change a helmet’s rating.

    The helmets we tested ranged from $12 to $220. “You might find some of the more expensive models to be more stylish, but when it comes to protection and comfort, you don’t need to spend a lot of money,” Handel says. The $12 Schwinn Merge adult bike helmet got a very good rating overall. That’s a small price to pay to protect your brain.

    Don't buy this helmet

    Late last year we rated the Cannondale Teramo helmet, $120, a Don’t Buy: Safety Risk because it failed our chin-strap strength test. The buckle snapped off or broke into pieces in four of the five samples we tested. We are not aware of any injuries related to the helmet, but a broken chin strap means a helmet might not stay in place in the event of a fall.

    We contacted Cannondale to share our test results in December, and the company disputed our findings, stating that it stands by its third-party independent test results. Cannondale also said its helmets are “tested in accordance with the required [CPSC] protocol and have passed all testing” and that it had not received any reports of injuries. When we asked Cannondale whether the company would consider giving Teramo owners a refund or credit for the helmet, it said, “No issues with buckles or breakages exist.” We attempted to contact the company again before press time, but it did not respond to our requests for comment. If you have concerns, we suggest you contact the company at 800-245-3872.

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

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

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    5 Mother's Day gadget gifts that cost $100 or less

    Breakfast in bed, a bouquet of flowers, a box of candy. . . . They’re all classic—if a bit clichéd—Mother’s Day treats. Instead, give one of the Moms in your life (including your better half or doting grandma) a gadget that combines fun and functionality.

    Here are a few suggestions of electronics that tested well in Consumer Reports' labs and are recommended by our experts. Not only will they make your high-tech mom sit up and smile, but these thoughtful Mother's Day gifts will also last a whole lot longer than pancakes, pansies, or pralines!

    —Eileen McCooey

    Denon Music Maniac AH-C50MA, $50

    Give your mom an earful that she’ll thank you for! These earphones provide very good sound quality in an easy-to-pocket, go-anywhere size. A button on the cord will let her control compatible Android and Apple phones and music players, and a built-in microphone allows on-the-go phone conversations. (Some functions vary by device.) These headphones come with four silicon ear tips in different sizes so she can get a comfy fit, which will help block out noise.

    Roku Streaming Stick, $50

    Moms who love snuggling down in front of the screen will really go for this: a streaming media player that packs endless entertainment options—from Netflix to Amazon Prime, Vudu, HBO Go, and much more—into a tiny, friendly package. It's the motherlode of streaming video! This flash-drive-sized device is a snap to install, plugging right into an HDMI port on the back of the TV, and the cute remote is easy to use too. Thanks to recent updates, the Roku Streaming Stick is faster than ever.

    Amazon Kindle with special offers, $80

    Any bookworm worth her salt would relish the Amazon Kindle e-book reader. Small, light, and able to hold more books than ever, the updated Kindle is exceptionally fast and easy to use, and the latest version has a touchscreen. The monochrome screen has very crisp type and is one of the best for reading in bright light like on a beach. The battery lasts for weeks, so Mom won’t be hunting for the charger every night.

    VTech DS6671-3, $90

    A cordless phone might seem old-fashioned, but models like this one have a new twist: They pair with a cellphone. That means Mom can access wireless service using Bluetooth technology and use the cordless handsets to make or take cell calls—a real plus in parts of the house where cell signals are weak or spotty. She can even beam over contacts from her smart phone. This VTech includes two cordless handsets and a Bluetooth headset for hands-free, cord-free chats. A lighted keypad and built-in answering machine are handy features. We’ve seen this model selling online for $75 to $100.

    Pebble Watch, $100

    Finally, you can get smart with Mom and not get in trouble for it! The Pebble smartwatch will do much more than tell her the time. She'll be able to see who is calling, texting, or e-mailing her without having to dig out her phone. There are tons of apps, including fitness apps, and a lively online community. The Pebble is rated to run for 5 to 7 days without recharging, and our tests showed it keeps on ticking even after it takes a dunk in water. Choose from a variety of colors, including cherry red and orange.

     

     

     

     

     

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    College grads should plan now or risk losing health insurance

    If you’re about to graduate from college, you have an important decision to make. No, not whether to stay on the family cell phone plan, but whether you’ll be covered under their health insurance plan.

    Students who were insured through their college’s student health plan will lose that protection when they graduate, or at least soon after the festivities end. And while you now have several good options to choose from, don’t dawdle: If you want to get back on your family’s employer-provided plan, you only have 30 days to do it.

    That’s because you can enroll in those plans only during the open enrollment period (which is usually in the fall) or if you experience a change in circumstances, such as a job loss, a divorce, or, you guessed it, college graduation, said Karen Pollitz, a senior fellow at the Kaiser Family Foundation, a non-profit organization focusing on national health issues.

    “If you know your coverage is going to end in May, it would be good to have something lined up for June 1st,” she said. “It’s never good to have a break in coverage.” And if you go without insurance for too long, you can get slapped with a fine. Welcome to adulthood.

    The best option: Join your parents' plan, if you can

    The most affordable option—and the one that usually offers the best coverage—is to sign up under your parents’ employer-provided plan, if they have one. You don’t need to live at home to be included in your parents’ plan, or even be claimed as a dependent on their tax returns. As long as you’re under 26, you qualify for coverage, even if you’re pregnant or married. (Sorry, though. your spouse can’t join.) You can also join a family plan if your parents bought one through a state or federal marketplace, and then you have a little more flexibility – 60 days since losing coverage—to enroll, Pollitz said.

    Read more about how to get health coverage under the Affordable Care Act and Medicaid. And use our Health Law Helper to see options are available to you.

    Other options

    If you are over 26, your parents don’t have a family health insurance plan, or you don’t want to join their plan for some reason, there are other options:

    Get it from your employer

    If you’re lucky enough to be starting a new job that offers insurance, and you’re younger than 26, compare your employer’s coverage with your parents’ policy. Consider more than just the premium: What are the out-of-pocket costs, deductibles, and co-pays for each plan? How good is coverage for drugs or other services, such as physical therapy? Do you have coverage for out-of-network providers? Think about access to doctors and hospitals, too. If your parents live on the East coast and you’re in the Midwest, for example, you may not be able to use their network of providers. If you do opt for your employer’s plan, make sure your parents cancel you from theirs. Double coverage can be problematic, because the two plans may argue over who’s responsible for the costs. “Pick the one that makes most sense to you, that is the least expensive, but provides the most coverage,” Pollitz said.

    Enroll in Medicaid

    If you are unemployed or earn less than $15,586 a year, you may be eligible for Medicaid. You can apply for the government health plan at any time. Thirty states have expanded their Medicaid programs and others are considering expansion. Your eligibility is determined by your own income, not your parents’ income. Get more information about Medicaid here.

    Enroll in a marketplace plan

    If you aren’t eligible for Medicaid, you can buy health insurance on the marketplace exchanges and, if your income is low, you may qualify for a subsidy. Fourteen states run their own marketplace exchanges and others rely on federally- supported or facilitated marketplaces or partnerships, but you can buy insurance and qualify for subsidies no matter where you live, at least for now.

    Catastrophic plans

    These are available through the marketplace exchanges, but be leery. If you’re under 30 and have a “hardship exemption”—there are 14 circumstances that qualify young adults for this exemption, including bankruptcy, homelessness and being a victim of domestic violence—you can buy one of these bare-bones health plans on the marketplace. The plans have very high deductibles and out-of-pocket costs but cover some primary care visits and preventive services. But experts like Pollitz advise against these plans, which generally only kick in when there is a dire need like a hospitalization. After all, even young healthy adults need birth control (covered under today’s plans) and primary care, and may have accidents or face other unexpected medical expenses. “Young people tend to think ‘I never go to the doctor, nothing ever happens to me.’ But you don’t want to have just graduated and be working to pay off student loans and end up with $10,000 in medical bills too,” Pollitz said.

    Sign up for COBRA

    After your 26th birthday, you can keep your family’s plan for up to three years under a law called COBRA, but you will bear the full cost of the plan (and it can get pretty pricey).

    —Roni Rabin

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

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    Cardio fitness gear that's easy on your joints

    Want to rack up the running miles without the wear and tear on your joints? That’s the promise of alternative motion cardio machines (AMCM’s), a new type of cardio equipment that borrows elements of the treadmill, elliptical, and stair stepper. Consumer Reports is currently testing three AMCMs from Nordic Track, Octane, and Precor. The machines start at around $2,000, which is comparable with other premium-line exercise equipment, though AMCM prices can climb much higher.   

    The potential benefit. When you run on a treadmill, you control your stride length, but all the pounding can affect your joints. Ellipticals eliminate that impact, but their constrained motion can feel a little artificial. AMCM’s claim to offer the best of both worlds, simulating your running stride while allowing you to change its pace and length at will, without pushing a button. The machines also allow for the quad-and-glute strengthening benefits of a stair stepper. 

    We’re using a panel of testers who regularly engage in cardio exercise to assess those claims, as well as other features. The time-lapse video here shows Peter Anzalone, Senior Project Leader of fitness testing assembling the Octane machine. The process took a little under an hour. It was a fairly easy and smooth process, though that's not the case with all stationery exercise equipment. Plus the machines can weigh hundreds of pounds. So it's worth looking into installation services offered by the retailer, especially if you're not mechanically inclined.        

    It will be a few weeks before the final test results are in on this first batch of AMCM, but here’s what we can tell you about each machine.

    Nordic Track Free Strider FS7i, $1,999

    Nordic Track claims that its Free Strider FS7i is "like floating on air." It has a floating suspension design, with cushioned pedals that ride on belts instead of traditional rails attached to a crank, that's supposed to conform to your movements with minimal joint impact. You control your stride length and path—from short up-and-down steps to elliptical-like strides to long running strides up to 38 inches. You can also focus your workout on different muscle groups by changing the incline or resistance. Custom workouts are available through iFit technology and Google Maps routes, or you can choose from the existing menu of programs.

    Octane Fitness Zero Runner ZR7, $3,299

    This AMCM also claims to replicate natural running motion without the impact. Independent pedals allow you to create the natural running stride that’s best for you (up to an impressive 58-inch stride length). Simulated hip and knee joints on the machine claim to provide a larger range of motion than traditional fitness machines. The Zero Runner also features intelligence to track your pace and stride length. And it comes with Bluetooth connectivity and a wireless heart rate monitor.  

    Precor Adaptive Motion Trainer with Open Stride, $9,395

    This commercial-grade machine is available to consumers, and promises a low-impact, personalized cardio workout that adapts to your stride. You can go from walking to running to stair climbing to deep lunges simply by changing your stride, up to to 36 inches. You can also change the height of the stride, from 6.8 to 10 inches, and resistance is adjustable. Precor claims its machine burns more calories than other cardio equipment; preset workouts let you set your fitness goals.

    We’ll reserve final judgment on the AMCM category until our test results are in. But it’s clearly an intriguing newcomer to the world of fitness equipment—and the fact that major manufacturers have introduced versions means it’s probably here to stay. If you’re researching all cardio options, be sure to check our buying guides and the results of our tests of treadmills, ellipticalsrowing machines, and spin bikes.    

    —Susan Booth  

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

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    Nailing the perfect paint color

    Picking paint colors for your walls is tricky, even when the color is white, and inspiration can come from magazines, websites like Houzz and Pinterest, or your favorite sweater. Clark+Kensington OPI paint colors are based on OPI nail polish colors. That’s right. Nail polish. And here’s why.

    “Choosing a paint color comes first then brand and women dominate when selecting colors,” says Dana Larsen, director at Ace Hardware, exclusive seller of Clark+Kensington paints. “So we paired with OPI, a company that’s expert in color and has a loyal following.” Ask any woman who has her nails done at a salon and she’ll tell you that while there are rows and rows of colors to choose from, she zeroes in on a few favorites. Otherwise it’s overwhelming—just like picking an interior paint color from stacks of paint chips.

    Glamour by the gallon, that’s how Ace markets these colors. For $27 and up per gallon, there are dozens of OPI colors available in Clark+Kensington paints. Our tests of interior paints found that a brand's flat, eggshell, and semigloss paints perform similarly overall, so we've combined the scores to make it easier for you to compare. Clark+Kensington Enamel paint was impressive overall and is a top pick. It’s about $32 a gallon.

    Top interior paint picks

    For more choices, see our full interior paint Ratings and recommendations. Our buying guide is loaded with tips and if you have paint questions e-mail me at kjaneway@consumer.org.

    —Kimberly Janeway

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    Unit price labels can be confusing

    Picture this: You’re at the supermarket trying to find the best deal on AA batteries for your flashlight, so you check the price labels beneath each pack. Sounds pretty straightforward, right? But how can you tell which pack is cheaper when one is priced per battery and another is priced per 100?

    Welcome to the perplexing world of unit pricing. Eight in 10 Americans rely on those labels to determine the most economical brands and package sizes. In theory, they’re the easiest way to see whether purchasing a 59-ounce container of orange juice is cheaper than buying a quart.

    Consumers can be confused or even misled when unit-price labels are inconsistent or unclear. And that’s often the case. There are no federally mandated, standardized requirements for unit pricing as there are for Nutrition Facts labels. They’re actually exempt from the Federal Trade Commission’s Fair Packaging and Labeling Act.

    “Neither industry nor state government perceives a big problem with unit pricing in the marketplace,” says David Sefcik, a weights and measures expert for the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), an agency in the Department of Commerce. “It’s an issue that hasn’t generated a lot of consumer complaints because many people simply don’t know what they’re missing, and that improvement is needed.”

    The major chains feel no need to change without pressure from consumers, he adds.

    Learn about America's best supermarkets—and worst, and check our buying guide and Ratings of dozens of grocers, broken down by region.

    Consumer Reports last uncovered widespread inconsistencies in unit-price labels in 2012, when we worked with NIST to create an ideal label.

    Today, unit-price labels remain essentially voluntary. Only nine states and the District of Columbia have mandatory regulations, but they differ from each other. Ten other states have voluntary regulations that follow recommendations from NIST.

    We recently shopped at nine stores near our headquarters in Yonkers, N.Y., and found a mixed bag in terms of content and clarity as well as layout and legibility.

    Some unite price labels had type as tiny as 0.22 inch, unreadable for impaired or aging eyes. Others had different ways of comparing the same products. We found:

    • Furniture polish priced by the pound and by the pint.
    • Batteries and toothbrushes priced “each” and “per 100.”
    • Salad dressing priced by the pint and by the quart (see above).
    • Toilet paper priced by “100 count,” though the “count” (a euphemism for “sheets”) differed in size and number of plies depending on the brand.
    • Dental floss priced per pack, though containers varied widely in capacity, from around 30 yards to more than 100.

    Since 2012, Sefcik has gathered input on unit pricing from academics, consumer watchdog groups, officials, retailers, and trade associations. He compiled their recommendations into a guide, “A Best Practice Approach to Unit Pricing” (PDF), that is the first comprehensive primer on the layout, design, and presentation of unit-price labels. It was released earlier this year. His goal is to encourage companies to follow the standards, eliminating ambiguities once and for all.

    “Now that retailers have a national set of guidelines of how to implement unit pricing in the most effective way, there is no excuse or reason for them not to provide it,” says Edgar Dworsky, a former assistant attorney general for consumer protection in Massachusetts and a founder of ConsumerWorld.org. “It is part of good customer service.”

    When comparing unit-price labels, make sure that you’re really comparing apples to apples. If some apples are sold by the piece and some by the pound, you might need a scale or calculator to determine the best deal. And if unit-price labels are inaccurate or illegible, don’t suffer in silence: Tell a store manager.

    This article also appeared in the June 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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    The ultimate guide to outdoor entertaining

     Once upon a time all you needed was a grill and a picnic table, but no one stops there anymore. “What home­owners are building outdoors rivals what they’re doing inside,” says Josh Kane of Kane Landscapes in Sterling, Va. “They’re making the outdoor space more functional, with lighting, a fire pit or fireplace, and comfortable furniture.”

    You can start simply by lighting up the night with long-lasting LEDs and a portable fire pit to gather around. Under­foot, gravel walkways and patios are a European design style that’s becoming more popular as a lower-cost alternative to stone and concrete. Overhead, a ceiling fan keeps the breeze moving. Outdoor fireplaces, and especially fire pits, have become popular hot spots as homeowners look to make the most of the space.

    You don’t have to do everything at once. Take a multiyear approach, advises Kane, because poor planning or working with inferior materials to save money are the biggest mistakes people make. This guide offers tips, buying advice, and Ratings of exterior paints, stains, and gas grills. And to liven up things, we’ve recommended speakers for outdoor use and have advice on using other electronics in your fabulous outdoor space.

    Comfortable seating is an invitation to relax. Make a big space cozier by creating several seating areas. Before you add or upgrade your furniture, measure the size of your space—no guessing—because patio furniture can be wide and bulky.

    Furniture. When shopping consider upkeep, as recommended by the manufacturer. Inspect the furniture’s finish for consistency, and look for tight and well-fitted joints. Sit in the chairs. You’ll want ones that are roomy and have comfortable armrests. Cushions should fit well and be well-padded and water-resistant.

    Rugs. Outdoor rugs define a space, add pattern, and smooth what’s beneath them. They’re also a quick fix for spots where nothing will grow. Lay a bedsheet on the area you want to cover to get a sense of the space, and note sheet dimensions so that you can use the info when shopping. If you’re putting the rug under a table, measure the width and length of the table and add at least 4 feet to each dimension. Want to use a rug on your deck? Make sure the deck manufacturer says it’s OK, otherwise moisture can get trapped underneath the rug and damage the deck—and possibly void the warranty. No matter the deck material, take up the rug every couple of months and clean under it. Remember, UV rays will lighten the deck area not covered by the rug.

    Lights. Long-lasting LEDs designed for outdoor use are ideal for hard-to-reach spots, with bright task lights for the grill area and warm light for ambience. Walmart’s Great Value 90W PAR38 soft white nondimmable LED spotlight casts a bright, white light and can be used outdoors if it’s shielded from rain and snow; it’s a CR Best Buy at $22 and works with some motion sensors. For warm yellow light, two CR Best Buy LEDs replace 60-watt incandescents and can be used outdoors if they don’t get wet. They work in enclosed fixtures and with a motion sensor: Walmart’s Great Value 60W Soft White A19 dimmable LED, $10, and the Cree 9.5-Watt (60W) A19 warm white dimmable LED, $8.50.

    For path lighting, low-voltage fixtures with LED lights are fairly easy to install. The wiring can be buried at 6 inches, not the 18 required with standard voltage.

    Seating: How much should you spend?

    New cushions, an umbrella, or a rug can breathe life into old patio sets and cost as little as a couple of hundred dollars. Refreshing metal furniture can be as easy as scraping off flaking finishes and repainting with a can or two of spray paint.

    Cozy outdoor furniture and snazzy lighting will only make peeling house paint or a stained, flaking deck look worse. Start now so that your home looks its best all season long.

    Deck check. After a tough winter, you’ll want to assess how much prep work is needed before painting and staining. Also walk over the deck and check for softness and give, especially in areas that tend to stay damp, and press on railings, banisters, and steps. The deck and stairs should look level without sagging. Look for rot and insect damage beneath the deck platform, and check that the ledger board, which connects the deck to the house, remains tight. Retighten loose screws and lag bolts and pound nails back down. Any doubts? Get a professional inspection. The North American Deck and Railing Association lists certified deck builders on its website.

    Even if you want to tackle the deck rehab yourself, you need to take special care in two instances. A deck built before 2004 is probably made of chromated copper arsenate (CCA) lumber, which contains toxic arsenic. Consult a pro if you’re not sure. Regular refinishing helps seal in the arsenic. If the finish is flaking, call a pro equipped to safely remove the old finish, dust, and debris, and to apply new stain. And if your home was built before 1978, anyone you hire to repaint the exterior or interior must be certified by the Environmental Protection Agency and trained in lead-safe practices.

    Flat and satin paints are what most people use on siding, and semigloss on trim. How much of your deck’s natural grain you want to see—and how often you want to refinish the deck—determines the type of stain you choose. Solids hide the grain in exchange for longer life, and clear finishes show it all but usually need to be reapplied every year. A semitransparent stain shows some of the grain and can still look good after two years. Check our wood stain Ratings for which did best at resisting mildew growth, important in humid, shaded areas.

    Pressure prep. Use a scrub brush or a power washer to remove loose and chalky paint and dirt from your house and deck. A pressure washer costs $200 to $500, but renting one costs about $50 to $80. Read its instructions. Cover landscaping with plastic sheeting and wear long sleeves, long pants, and rubber gloves. The pressure needed for a deck is roughly 1,500 PSI. Use a wide-angle spray tip of 25 to 40 degrees for a wide spray that protects the wood. Angle the spray and keep it 6 to 12 inches away from wood surfaces. Scrape and sand where needed.

    Paint: How much should you spend?

    Buy a bucket. Need 5 gallons of paint or stain? Buy it in one 5-gallon bucket for more consistent color and savings of up to $30.

    Use the right brush. Stick with synthetic brushes for latex paint because natural bristles are hollow and can go limp as they absorb water, making for a harder and possibly sloppier paint job.

    Patio heaters, fire pits, and fireplaces all take the chill off. But patio heaters lack the warm glow of a flame emanating from a fire pit or fireplace. A fire encourages people to gather around and linger. Fire pits and fireplaces use wood, natural gas, or propane, and whether you buy one or have it custom built, consider these tips from Josh Kane of Kane Landscapes in Sterling, Va.:

    • Think about how often you’ll use the fire pit and the number of people usually gathered around it. A fire pit takes up valuable space when set in the center of the patio, so a portable pit or one located near the patio edge might be better. That way you can place some chairs in the grass, allowing more open space on the patio.
    • Install the fire pit or fireplace away from any structure that smoke could stain. The same goes for anything that can burn—a distance of at least 10 feet. The National Fire Protection Association recommends that you not use a fire pit on a wood deck.
    • Check that the diameter of a wood-burning fire pit is big enough to fit good-sized logs for a fire that lasts.
    • Consult a pro if you’re considering a fireplace. It’s crucial that the firebox, throat, smoke shelf, and flue are properly constructed.
    Fire effects: How much should you spend?

    For several hundred dollars you can create a cozy gathering spot with a portable fire pit. Custom-built masonry wood fire pits start around $1,500 to $2,000; gas fire pits cost more. Prefab fireplaces are about $1,600 and more; custom-built models begin in the $5,000 to $10,000 range.

    Push a button and fire up. Grilling is that easy with a gas grill, and there’s no reason to stop as the weather cools. Most grills use propane, but some have a natural gas conversion kit for about $75 or come in a natural gas version.

    With natural gas you’ll never run out of fuel and there’s no need to refill propane tanks, but the grill must stay put. Plus you’ll want to call a pro to run the gas line from your home to the grill.

    Before picking your spot, find out which way the wind generally blows in your area during prime grilling months, at the website of the Natural Resources Conservation Service. Keep the grill away from siding by at least several feet. The heat can warp vinyl and damage paint on wood siding.

    “A lot of people make the mistake of putting it too close to the entertaining space. You don’t want smoke blowing into your party,” says Jason Craven of Southern Botanical in Dallas.

    Here’s what to consider when shopping for a gas grill:

    • Estimate the number of people that you usually expect to feed, then check our gas grill Ratings for the size of the grill to match.
    • In the store, take into account how much space the grill will eat up at home.
    • Gently nudge it from several angles. The more stable, the better.
    • Grip the handle—your knuckles or fingers shouldn’t be too close to the lid.
    • A greater distance between the grates and burners usually means fewer sustained flare-ups.
    Gas grills: How much should you spend?

    Most gas grills sell for less than $300 and are used for three years, on average. Spending $400 to $600 can get you a midsized grill ($600 to $900 can get a large one) that delivers impressive or top performance, some mid­grade stainless steel, sturdy construction, stainless or cast-iron grates, an electronic igniter, and a side burner.

    In summertime, all the comforts of home migrate to the yard. That includes digital devices. But back yards present special challenges with audio-visual gear. Wireless audio systems allow you to set up a speaker (or a few of them) and stream music almost anywhere, but you’ll need one loud enough to stand up to the outdoors. And a digital projector can create a movie night under the stars, but you’ll have to add a screen and possibly speakers. Choose equipment that works for your needs and budget. Are you trying to add atmosphere to a family dinner on the patio or rev up a pool party? We’ll help you find the right gear for either event.

    Speakers for a small gathering

    A compact, battery-powered Bluetooth speaker can be placed right on a table when you’re dining with the family on the deck. And you can pick it up and take it with you as you move around the yard. The devices can play music from a tablet, laptop, or phone up to 30 feet away. The Bose SoundLink Color, $130, strikes a nice balance of size and power. At a trim 5.5x5x3.5 inches, it won’t hog the table, and it comes in five fun colors. In our tests, it ­delivered good sound quality, with a surprising amount of oomph for its size. If you’re worried that a sudden cloudburst will damage the speaker, consider a weather-resistant model such as the TDK Life on Record Trek Max (A34), $150, or the Jabra Solemate Max, $250. Both can use near field communication to pair with another NFC-­enabled Bluetooth device with just a touch.

    Tip: You might find that the music drops out momentarily if someone walks between the Bluetooth speaker and the device with the music because that physically blocks the signal. Position your gear to minimize that possibility.

    Music for the gang

    When it’s your turn to host the party, you’ll want to pump up the volume. The Sony SRS-X7, $200 (above), which works on Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, is louder than the Bose and TDK. You can also connect two or more SRS-X7s simultaneously via Wi-Fi to multiply the sound output as long as the music is stored on a computer. And the speaker is battery-­powered, so you can put it almost anywhere. The Sonos Play:1, $200, is another good option. You can use several of the Wi-Fi speakers (which require AC power) to play the same music, or mix it up with soft jazz near the diners and rock on the dance floor.

    Tip: Wi-Fi range is affected by the distance and physical obstructions between the router, music source, and speakers. Under ideal conditions, you might get reception on a speaker that’s 200 or more feet from the router; 100 to 150 feet is more typical. The range could be less if walls or other obstructions block the signals from the router. Do a dry run and adjust as needed. Heavy network demands can also cause dropouts, so tell your Netflix watchers to stay offline during the party.

    How to get the best sound

    Readjust. Don’t expect sound quality outdoors to be as rich as it is in a room. Bass loses its punch, and treble tends to get lost. Turn up both settings, but not so much that the sound is distorted. Put the speaker near a wall to enhance bass.

    Strategize. If you’re using a few speakers, space them to provide good coverage. Set them on a table so that they don’t get dirty, wet, or tripped over. If you use extension cords (be sure they’re rated for outdoor use), secure them and keep them away from foot traffic.

    Set the mood. Use the mood or genre stations on a service such as Pandora or Spotify to stream hours of music.

    Connect. Can’t get a steady stream of music no matter what you try? Plug in. Many speakers have an input to connect a device using a cable with a 3.5mm plug on each end, and some have a USB port for a thumb drive loaded with music.

    What to know about Wi-Fi speakers

    When you’re shopping, you’ll come across terms such as Apple AirPlay, DLNA, DTS Play-Fi, Heos, and Sonos. Those are wireless standards that a speaker uses to access content on a Wi-Fi network. Many speakers can use more than one. The main things you need to know are:

    1. Apple AirPlay can access content from any computer that has iTunes installed and from Apple mobile devices. With an Android device, you’ll have to use a third-party app. Also, to stream to multiple AirPlay speakers from an iPhone or iPad, you again need a third-party app; you don’t need it with a computer.
    2. The other standards work with Apple and Android mobile devices and PCs, and some work with Mac computers.
    3. If you want to send the same music to multiple speakers at once, you can mix and match brands as long as they use the same standard. In other words, you can’t have one speaker that uses only AirPlay and another that’s Play-Fi only.

    An outdoor cinema can be an elaborate endeavor. You can take a maximalist approach, with a high-end digital projector and an outdoor screen with an inflatable frame, tent stakes, and tethers. Or you could do it more cheaply, like we did: We used a 1080p Epson PowerLite Home Cinema 2000 ($550 at Amazon) and a twin-size bedsheet for a screen, tied up with tarp clamps and paracord.

    The Epson can play video from any Android device that supports the MHL format, or from an Apple iOS device through an HDMI adapter (we used an iPad mini). Our projector had a built-in speaker, but many don’t. With those models, you can use a wireless speaker with your phone or tablet. Our total cost was $630, and it took us just 10 minutes from unboxing to watching a movie. (Full disclosure: We did that when it was 30° F outside, so we stayed inside the atrium at our headquarters in Yonkers, N.Y. But we’ll try it outdoors soon.)

    Did it work out perfectly? Not exactly. Our Epson was bright, at 1800 lumens, but light shining on and through the sheet washed out the images. (Hang it against a wall or play the movie after dark.) And be sure to iron the sheet—we forgot to—because wrinkles kill the experience.

    This article also appeared in the June 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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    Privacy tips for the Internet of Things

    If you don’t like the idea of being tracked by your devices, you might think you have only two options: Avoid the technology altogether or simply surrender to the surveillance. But for most smart products, there are strategies that can at least restrict how much of your information gets collected.  

    1. Password-protect anything that collects personal information. Many smart devices are managed through Internet-based accounts. Some have pass codes you can enter on the device as well. Use both. And yes, you do need to pick unique and complex passwords. We suggest at least nine characters in a combination of letters, numbers, and symbols. Also, if you haven’t already done so, make sure to password-protect the settings on your router as well as its Wi-Fi connection.

    2. Read the privacy policy. We know they’re often long and indecipherable. But if you want an indication of the kinds of information your device is tracking, that’s where you’ll find it. But bring your legal-to-English dictionary. Remember, however, manufacturers can change their policies at any time. And in case of a data breach, all bets are off. Hackers don’t read those policies, either.

    Read our special report, "In the Privacy of Your Own Home," and  learn about connected devices and your privacy.

    3. Find the “off” toggle in the settings menu on your smart device. Often, features that track you are given a line-item on-off toggle. On smart TVs, for example, you can switch off voice control and “interactive” functionality. If anything seems suspicious to you, turn it off—you can always turn it back on later if it disables a function you need.

    4. Don’t leave connected devices on when you’re not using them. Certain Internet-enabled devices are hooked to the Internet 24/7 by necessity (a smart thermostat, for example), but a connected baby monitor doesn’t need to be streaming video from junior’s crib when your baby is in your arms. Just turn it off.

    5. Install security updates. Device makers need to get serious about automatically pushing out security updates. But consumers would be wise to periodically check the manufacturer’s website to see whether their device has a patch, an update, or new firmware. If there is, install it quickly.

    6. Take it offline. If Wi-Fi or cellular connectivity in a product doesn’t offer a tangible benefit to you, buy the non­connected version. If a non­connected version isn’t available, you can still buy the smart product—just don’t set it up on your Wi-Fi network. It may sound obvious, but it’s worth stating: If a device isn’t connected to the Internet, there’s no snooping and no hacking.

    This article also appeared in the June 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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    Connected devices and your privacy

    What it does. Modern multitasking parents can check in on their infants via smartphone using fully networked, motion-sensing, HD video-streaming systems with built-in speakers that let them talk to their baby while loading up the washing machine.

    That type of right-there access is comforting for a parent, but it’s positively sickening if a hacker is also tuning in. The threat isn’t theoretical. In January, it was reported that a nanny in Houston heard an unfamiliar voice coming from a two-way baby monitor made by Foscam. According to reports, the voice said, “That’s a really poopy diaper,” then warned her to password-protect the camera.

    In 2013 and 2014, the British press reported that sadistic hackers took over monitors to scream at sleeping children, and last fall officials in the U.K. warned that live feeds from baby monitors and home security cameras around the world were accessible to the public on the Internet. When Consumer Reports checked recently, we found a site that was still hosting security-camera feeds, including some that appeared to be from people’s homes.

    What you need to know. An unprotected camera is worse than no camera at all. Internet-­connected baby monitors and home security cameras use your home Wi-Fi network, and certain models can communicate directly with a phone using Bluetooth when you’re home. Parents need strong passwords on their home network and on the baby monitor itself to keep the feeds secure.

    Read our special report, "In the Privacy of Your Own Home," and use these privacy tips for the Internet of Things.

    What it does. Blood glucose test results help diabetics manage and treat their condition. Connected meters, such as the OneTouch Verio Sync, send test results to a smartphone app and can even pass the data along to your doctor. The meter can store hundreds of results gathered over time.

    What you need to know. When you use one of these devices at a hospital or doctor’s office, the medical information it produces is protected by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, the law governing the privacy of medical records. But HIPAA doesn’t protect your data when you use the devices on your own outside a medical setting. That leaves the burden on consumers to learn how their data is being protected and how it is shared. OneTouch says it encrypts personally identifiable data and health data it transmits from the device. But not all health apps do. In a 2013 Privacy Rights Clearinghouse report analyzing 43 health and fitness apps, researchers found that very few encrypted their data.

    Use our guide to digital security to stay safe online.

    What it does. Connected thermostats are like ordinary programmable thermostats on steroids. They may sense when people are home, learn a family’s preferred temperature settings, and allow users to make adjustments remotely using a smartphone. Features vary: The Honey­well Lyric employs geofencing—it tracks whether homeowners’ phones are nearby—and the Nest programs itself by observing when users are home or away. Nest, which is owned by Google, is courting connected-­home partners including LG refrigerators, lock companies, and Dropcam security cameras (also owned by Google).

    What you need to know. In order to work, some smart thermostats need to track when you are home. If that unnerves you, you’re not going to want one of those products.

    What it does. Ah, the elixir of wakefulness! Anything that makes coffee faster and easier is welcome in many households. The Mr. Coffee Smart Optimal Brew Wi-Fi-connected coffeemaker is one of several appliances that works on Belkin’s WeMo platform. It can tell you when your coffee is ready, remind you to set up the machine in the evening, and let you change the brewing delay remotely.

    What you need to know. When you interface with your coffee machine via an app, your brewing habits can become the property of the coffeemaker company and the app developer. It may not seem like the most compromising information, but it’s a pretty good indicator of when you’re home, when you wake up, and just how on edge you might be. Plus, in our experience with Mr. Coffee’s Wi-Fi model, if you turn off the network connection, you won’t be able to program the machine.

    What it does. In a fitness-obssessed society like ours, it’s tempting to want to calculate every move you make. Activity trackers can record the miles you’ve walked, how far you’ve swum, how well you slept, and how quickly your heart has been beating. Some will map out your run using GPS capabilities.

    What you need to know. Data transmitted from a tracker to its smartphone app may be sent unencrypted. The information includes the user’s name, address, password, and, potentially, GPS data. A burglar—or stalker—armed with that data could surmise that you go out for a run through a nearby park every day at 6 a.m. Activity trackers are used in many corporate wellness programs; some advocates and researchers worry that such initiatives could lead to intrusive monitoring of employee habits in the future.

    What it does. Want to let the plumber in while you’re away? Leaving a key under the mat is the classic workaround—and it’s a bad one. New connected locks allow the user to provide one-time, short-term, or scheduled access to a home. Certain locks even allow the user to unlock the door remotely through a home Wi-Fi network. Connected locks work with the user’s own smartphone—so you have fewer items to carry, fumble with, and potentially misplace.

    What you need to know. Security researchers have successfully hacked into connected household locks. Certain locks can be linked with home-automation ecosystems, such as Works with Nest and Apple’s upcoming HomeKit. The downside to connected-home ecosystems is that they consolidate a lot of your home’s data on a single corporation’s servers. But those companies are requiring partners to include security and privacy protections.

    This article also appeared in the June 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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    In the privacy of your own home

    Last spring, as 41,000 runners made their way through the streets of Dublin in the city’s Women’s Mini Marathon, an unassuming redheaded man by the name of Candid Wueest stood on the sidelines with a scanner. He had built it in a couple of hours with $75 worth of parts, and he was using it to surreptitiously pick up data from activity trackers worn on the runners’ wrists. During the race, Wueest managed to collect personal info from 563 racers, including their names, addresses, and passwords, as well as the unique IDs of the devices they were carrying.

    Fortunately, Wueest is not a data criminal. He’s one of the good guys—a security researcher at Symantec, the company behind Norton antivirus software. His experiment was done to expose some of the risks associated with the growing constellation of “smart” devices known collectively as the Internet of Things.

    Many of those devices are versions of familiar, even friendly, consumer products: thermostats, refrigerators, light switches, televisions, and door locks. But the new versions connect to the Internet and can be controlled through an app on a phone, tablet, or computer. The smart devices communicate with each other, too, and they offer an appealing level of convenience. Your car can tell your home’s thermostat to turn on the air conditioning as you’re driving home. Your security camera can record a video clip if the smoke alarm goes off. And you can use your activity tracker to control lights in your house.

    But that convenience comes with a trade-off: The devices can also send a steady flood of personal data to corporate servers, where it’s saved and shared, and can be used in ways you can’t control. Websites and smartphone apps have been following our activities for a long time, tracking where we go; what we read, watch, and buy; what we write in our e-mails; and who we follow on Facebook and Twitter. But now connected devices gather data from some of the most private spaces of our lives—the bedside table, the kitchen counter, the baby’s nursery.

    Read about connected devices and your privacy and use these privacy tips for the Internet of Things.

    Without proper safeguards, all of the data that different devices and sites have collected about you can be combined, then exploited by marketers or stolen by hackers. U.S. Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., who released a report on automotive privacy this winter, says the Internet of Things deserves more scrutiny. (Connected cars can share a large amount of personal data.) “Whether it is our cars, our thermostats or our household appliances, if these personal devices are connected to the Internet, they are a potential privacy threat,” he says. “Consumers’ most sensitive information is collected and turned into dossiers that are pure gold in the hands of marketers and pitchmen. We need strong, legally enforceable rules … to ensure personal information is protected.”

    What rights should consumers expect?

    Consumer Reports thinks that manufacturers of Internet-connected devices should tell consumers in easy-to-understand language about the types of information being collected by those devices and how that information could potentially be shared, sold, and used. Device manufacturers should also give consumers options to control the collection and use of their data. We also support the work of the Federal Trade Commission, whose recent report on the topic states that the agency “… will continue to enforce laws, educate consumers and businesses, and engage with consumer advocates, industry, academics, and other stakeholders involved in the Internet of Things to promote appropriate security and privacy protections.” The FTC also urges more self-regulatory efforts by industry, as well as better data security and broad-based privacy legislation.

    Compared with websites and mobile apps, the Internet of Things is in its infancy, but the relatively modest constellation of products out there is already generating a vast amount of information. According to Cisco Systems, the networking giant, there were almost 109 million wearable devices in use around the world by the end of 2014, generating millions of gigabytes of data each month. Those numbers are sure to balloon. Startups and established technology companies such as Apple, GE, Honeywell, IBM, LG, and Samsung are investing heavily in the race to dominate the Internet of Things. Google has recently been on a multibillion-­dollar buying spree, purchasing the companies that make Nest thermostats, Dropcam security cameras, and Revolv connected-home hubs.

    In March, Amazon announced its upcoming Dash program, which invites customers to install Wi-Fi connected buttons around their homes. Pressing one of the buttons will automatically order brand-name household supplies, such as Bounty paper towels and Tide detergent. Amazon already has lined up device makers, such as Whirlpool and Brother, who can build that technology directly into their products so that washing machines can order their own detergent and printers can order ink—all from Amazon, of course.

    Companies are also offering incentives for consumers to share information from their devices. John Hancock is giving new life insurance customers a free Fitbit and plan discount in exchange for their fitness data. By design, such devices pay close attention to their owners and log many of the daily activities of their lives. Some of the companies that sell those products currently promise not to use the collected data for advertising and promotion. But in the absence of regulation, that can change at any time. Do you want the disappointing readout on your smart scale to translate into ads for diet plans on your smartphone? Maybe you do, maybe you don’t—but the choice ought to be yours.

    For consumers, it’s not always clear what information stays on a connected device and what goes out to the Internet. And when people learn the details, they can get seriously creeped out. When Mattel announced plans to launch Hello Barbie, a Wi-Fi connected doll that holds conversations with children (by using remote servers), parents’ groups cried foul. The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood launched a petition aimed at stopping the toy maker from producing the doll.  

    The prospect of ubiquitous, data-collecting smart objects troubles many privacy advocates, including Lee Tien, a senior staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “The selling and renting of your information is routine, it’s happening all the time, and people can create a biography of you,” he says.

    Consumers may or may not worry about being monitored by their appliances—but they need to know if it’s happening. And they need to be aware of how the collected information is being used. But it’s difficult for most of us to determine just what’s going on under the hood of those devices.

    Coffeemakers didn’t used to need privacy policies. Neither did dishwashers, thermostats, and cars. Yet today, connected versions of those products come with reams of legal language that you’re asked to agree to. Arguably, you shouldn’t have to read a privacy policy to learn whether an appliance is tracking you—and if you do try to read those policies, you’ll probably find them difficult to decipher.

    An analysis by Consumer Reports in cooperation with Georgetown Law’s Center on Privacy & Technology shows that many privacy policies for connected devices are vague, confusing, and sweeping. In the absence of strong privacy laws, that legalese matters, says Alvaro Bedoya, the center’s executive director. “Your privacy protections on these devices largely turn on those policies—the little, fine-print promises that companies make about your data,” he says.

    When the effects of policies are revealed, consumers may be surprised, or even shocked. In February the media reported that LG and Samsung smart TVs allowed those companies to transmit household conversations to third parties. At first blush, the technology seemed truly unsettling; if you and your husband argued over your bills during an episode of “The Voice,” would debt-consolidation companies suddenly start texting you?

    In reality, sending your living-room chatter to a third-party company is just a matter of technological convenience for the TV makers. One of the features of those high-end TVs is voice control, and no television has the built-in processing power to do complex voice recognition. So when users hit the button on their remotes to engage voice control, the recorded audio is sent out to a partner company. (It’s the same basic technology that enables Apple’s Siri.) But the privacy policies didn’t clearly explain when the TVs were recording or where the voice data was going—nor promise that the data wouldn’t be used for other purposes in the future. The backlash caused Samsung, at least, to clarify its privacy policy, although the technology remains functionally the same.

    We found other, more intriguing stuff buried in the policies of several smart-TV makers. Many of the sets automatically monitor and identify video that comes across consumers’ screens, including broadcast TV, streaming videos, and even your own DVDs. Our subsequent investigation found that the TVs send the viewing data to partner companies few consumers have heard of, such as Cognitive Networks and Enswers.

    Those companies make no secret of how they plan to use consumer data. In its pitch to advertisers and TV makers, Cognitive’s website describes its business this way: “ . . . we enable TV content providers to increase their revenues by offering enhanced advertising opportunities to their customers. And since they’re using our [Cognitive’s] technology on your [the manufacturers’] TVs, this generates an ongoing revenue stream back to you for every set in market.”

    In other words, the manufacturer can sell you a TV, then continue to make money by monitoring what you watch and sending customized ads to you, and also selling the aggregate viewing data to advertisers and content providers. It’s a potential moneymaker for everybody—except you.

    Even companies that aren’t trying to directly monetize your data can be putting consumer privacy at risk. Profiles of user habits and behavior stored on company servers could be subject to data breaches, as Target’s and Home Depot’s credit-card files were.

    And the devices themselves can be vulnerable to hackers. HP Fortify on Demand, a security business owned by Hewlett-Packard, studied 10 connected products in 2014, including TVs, door locks, and home alarms. Daniel Miessler, the unit’s head of security research, says that eight of the 10 devices did not require a complex password, seven failed to encrypt data during transmission, and six had user interfaces that were so insecure that attackers could reset passwords.

    Poking holes in the security of connected-­home devices has become a popular sport among researchers. Last year a security instructor named Joshua Wright took advantage of a vulnerability in Z-Wave, a wireless standard used to automate home appliances. Using the hack, he was able to open smart locks from several feet away.

    Researchers at a startup called Synack said they found security flaws in 16 devices they tested, including cameras, thermostats, and smoke detectors. And HP’s Miessler was able to gain control of home security cameras by intercepting and modifying software updates that were being transmitted to the devices.

    That type of hacking requires patience and immense expertise—for the first person who attempts it. But hackers share information. Once a vulnerability has been exposed, any malicious actor with a little bit of technical skill can repeat many hacks. Device makers would do well to learn from the lessons of the computer industry. Good digital security is an act of vigilance, and manufacturers need to constantly update the security of their products as new threats emerge.

    Concerns about the Internet of Things have not gone unnoticed by government agencies. The Federal Trade Commission issued a detailed report on the subject this past January that recommended best practices for companies, such as building security into devices in the design process and requiring strong passwords. Then in March the FTC announced the creation of a new division devoted to those products, declaring that from a security and privacy perspective, particular challenges were posed by “the predicted pervasive introduction of sensors and devices into currently intimate spaces—such as the home, the car,” and wearables.

    But laws and policy move slowly, and technology evolves quickly. In March, Facebook launched a platform to help developers create apps for connected devices. Imagine what could happen if the company that mastered the science of turning personal relationships into corporate profit was monitoring the relationship between you and your smart fridge.

    “The Internet of Things is perhaps the clearest example of how technology is outpacing our privacy laws,” Bedoya says. “Our laws just aren’t ready for it.”

    For now, it’s up to consumers to shape the future of these technologies, by buying only products they feel comfortable with—and speaking up when they don’t like what they see. Smart televisions offer convenience; they can also collect data to help TV makers target viewers with advertising. That may be an acceptable trade-off for some consumers but not for others. As the Internet of Things expands and policies shapeshift, the best consumer-protection advocates may be consumers themselves.

    This article also appeared in the June 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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  • 04/30/15--02:59: Can your car get hacked?
  • Can your car get hacked?

    Your car's computers know much more about you than you may realize. They’re constantly tracking your driving behavior, speed, seat belt use, and more.

    Because your car is networked, outside infiltration of your private data represents a serious threat to consumers. But misuse or inappropriate lawful use of that data is also a concern. In 2011, GM’s OnStar division came under fire when it said it had the right to share location data with third parties. Likewise, data from apps used in your car’s infotainment system could be sold to advertisers.

    At a recent conference, Bryan Biniak, Microsoft’s vice president of developer experiences, said those kinds of intuitive corporate interactions with drivers “based upon who I am and what I like” could be a good thing. What does that mean for you? In the future you could see targeted spam appear on your dash screen—perhaps a coupon for an oil change or a suggestion that you stop for a nearby cappuccino.

    Today, some insurance companies offer reduced rates to drivers who install a driving-behavior tracker in their car—but could raise the rates if they speed. Already, some lenders install devices that can remotely halt a car purchased by a buyer who misses a payment.

    But your data can also be hacked. Any time someone connects to your car’s onboard diagnostics system (OBD-II) port, your vehicle’s secrets become accessible. And black hat computer hackers are claiming they can remotely invade your car’s data systems without ever gaining access to the inside of your vehicle.

    Last year, 19 automakers agreed to strengthen their vehicles’ systems against hacking and sharply limit the external sharing of electronic data that drivers voluntarily share with them.

    The takeaway: Driving privacy is under threat, if the auto industry and lawmakers don’t take action, says Thilo Koslowski, automotive practice leader at technology research firm Gartner.

    What’s more, some of those onboard infotainment computers have interactions with your car’s driving controls. Consider the OnStar navigation and emergency-assist system: It tracks your car’s location and history, but it also can disable your car if it’s stolen.

    Though being able to remotely stop a vehi­cle with a drunk driver behind the wheel or a kidnapped child inside can be a good thing, the wider implications are disturbing. Could someone with bad intentions remotely hack into your car’s controls to lock your brakes in traffic or send you careening off a bridge?

    A February 2015 “60 Minutes” television segment raised that specter—and demonstrated how it could be done, complete with a video of occupants sitting helplessly as someone with a laptop took remote control of their car’s horn, windshield wipers, and even its brakes.

    The U.S. government’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration have been working on identifying ways to protect consumers from car hacking for years. Amateur hackers are also proving that the “attack vectors” of cars need to be made more secure.

    For its “60 Minutes” hack, DARPA needed to know the secure phone number that allows the vehicle to interact with the automaker’s cellular network. But it did not need the vehicle identification number of the car or any other specific data.

    Dan Kaufman, director of DARPA’s Information Innovation Office, admits his team “knew the car quite well” in running its hack. Such an attack “would not work on just any random car,” Kaufman wrote in an e-mail to Consumer Reports, “although a similar technique would work on many modern cars.”

    True, the scary scenario is not easy to achieve, but experts expect it to get easier. The worry among computer scientists is—beyond hacks demonstrated in laboratory settings—that a 14-year-old could eventually perform the hack on his laptop.

    At Consumer Reports, we have long been concerned about automotive privacy.

    “As cars include more technological and computer advancements, concerns about the privacy of consumer data become even more pressing,” says Ellen Bloom, senior director of federal policy for Consumers Union, the policy and advocacy arm of Consumer Reports.

    Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., recently authored a report that studied the security systems of 16 automakers—and found them to be lacking. His office plans to introduce legislation to toughen vehicle security and privacy standards. Consumers Union will work with Markey, NHTSA, and the Federal Trade Commission to ensure that your data is better protected.

    If you want greater privacy protection, contact your representative or senator and tell the legislator that you support Markey’s efforts. Keep track of developments on this at ConsumersUnion.org.

    This article also appeared in the June 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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    4 reasons to get a camera instead of using a smartphone

    Smartphone cameras have gotten pretty good, but most still lack some features that can translate into better photos, such as larger image sensors, optical zoom lenses, and effective image stabilization. You can find those capabilities in point-and-shoot cameras, which have gotten good enough to give “serious” cameras a run for their money. Because they’re usually smaller and lighter than SLRs, they’re easier to tote around. Here’s what you’ll find in the latest cameras we’ve tested:

    To capture an image with lifelike detail—say, the gargoyles on the cathedral, a lion’s magnificent mane, or your kid’s face as he waits to catch that fly ball—you need to take a close-up shot. But that’s not always possible (or wise). To take a close-up from far away, you need a camera with a long zoom. Many new point-and-shoot cameras have zoom ranges of 25x to 50x and even longer, which can get you close to the action.

    When you zoom in, the slightest shivers of your hand are amplified, so look for an image stabilizer to ensure blur-free shots. The 20-megapixel Canon PowerShot SX710 HS, $350, has a powerful 30x optical zoom and a very good image stabilizer. At less than an inch-and-a-half thick and weighing just 9 ounces, it’s slimmer and much lighter than many other superzooms. If 30x doesn’t get you near enough to the action, consider Nikon’s recently announced Coolpix P900, a $600 superzoom with an 83x lens. That’s the longest lens we’ve seen on a camera like this, long enough to capture the craters on a midsummer night’s moon. We’ll test it soon.

    Many new cameras have built-in Wi-Fi to allow easy sharing of photos, a capability once limited to phones. With the $300 Nikon Coolpix L840, for example, you can instantly transfer your photos to a phone, then post them to your favorite social-media site. The advantage is that you’re sharing shots from a camera that’s far superior to the one on your phone. Another plus: By wirelessly linking the L840 with an Android or Apple iOS device using Nikon’s Snapbridge app, you can preview shots and control the camera from across the room using your mobile device. This 16-megapixel camera has a 38x zoom, so you could take a selfie from across a football field.

    Find the best model for your needs and budget: Check our camera buying guide and Ratings.

    Point-and-shoot cameras aren’t always the speediest shooters, a downside if you want to capture the exact moment a whale breaches or the split second your daughter stays upright on her first big-girl bike. That calls for quick-fire “burst” shooting of multiple shots per second, which is usually a strength of SLRs. But one advanced point-and-shoot we’ve tested has a speed-shooting mode that puts many SLRs to shame. It’s the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ1000, $800, which can capture 12 frames per second at its full resolution of 20 megapixels. Most SLRs and mirrorless cameras average 5 to 7 fps.

    “Oops!” is the last word many cameras ever hear. Then comes the tumble down the stairs or into the lake. If you’re lucky, you can still get your pictures off the memory card, but your camera—or worse, your smartphone—is often kaput. The good news is that there’s a class of cameras built to handle those klutzy moments. In fact, some cameras are designed to take a plunge, great for scuba diving or riding the rapids at the water park. Our tests showed that our top-rated rugged model, the Olympus Stylus TG-3, $350, can go 50 feet deep and survive a 7-foot fall. The new Nikon Coolpix AW130, $330, is billed as an even deeper diver; it can go 98 feet underwater, according to Nikon. The company claims it can survive a 7-foot drop without breaking. We’ll test it soon.

    This article also appeared in the June 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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    Verizon FiOS Custom TV plans vs. Cablevision's 'skinny' TV plans

    It wasn't so long ago—maybe even last year—that your choices in TV service were pretty much limited to which tier of programming you'd get from your local provider. But thanks to the growing number of Internet-based services, there are now an unprecedented number of options to choose from.

    Two of the most recent are Verizon's FiOS Custom TV service and Cablevision's just-launched skinny TV service. These two services really couldn't be much more different, so we decided to see how they stack up.

    Verizon's lowest-priced Custom 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 25 Mbps 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. If two packs aren't enough, you have the option of adding more for $10 each per month.

    The seven 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. 

    If you need faster broadband, you can up your speed to 50 Mbps broadband with TV for $75 per month; a 75 Mbps 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 25 Mbps broadband) to $95 per month (with 75 Mbps broadband).

    Not everyone is thrilled with Verizon's plan—most notably companies such as Disney (parent of ESPN), Fox (Fox Sports), and NBC Universal, which argue that their contracts with Verizon prohibit their channels from being removed from the core TV package and offered as part of add-on packs. ESPN has now filed a lawsuit against Verizon, claiming breach of contract. Verizon maintains it's within its rights, and it's simply trying to give consumers more choice. Frankly, we'll be surprised if this disagreement isn't settled before the court renders a decision.

    Perhaps a bit odd for a cable company—one that even has "cable" in its name—Cablevision doesn't offer any cable channels with either of its cord-cutting plans. Instead, it's basically tossing a free over-the-air digital antenna, a Mohu Leaf, into its Optimum broadband plan.

    The cheapest option is a $35 per month package that includes the antenna for local broadcast TV stations, 5 Mbps broadband, and Cablevision's Freewheel Wi-Fi-based voice service, which can only be used right now with a Moto G smartphone. There's also a $5 monthly modem fee.

    These days, 5 Mbps isn't going to cut it for many families; if you're in that boat, there's a $45-per-month step-up package that includes 50 Mbps broadband and the antenna, but no Freewheel. Again, you pay a $5-per-month modem rental fee, bringing the total monthly cost to $50.

    Added benefits include access to Optimum's network of Wi-Fi hotspots, and the ability to add the standalone HBO Now service for $15 more per month. Right now, Cablevision is the only cable company offering it.

     

     

    Monthly cost

    What you get

    Pros

    Cons

    Verizon Custom TV

    $65 (25Mbps)

    $75 (50Mbps)

    About $24 in additional monthly fees
    About 35 channels (such as CNN, HGTV, AMC, Food Network)

    Local broadcast channels

    Broadband Internet access
    You can choose 2 of 7 add-on packs, such as sports (ESPN) or kids, as part of the package.

    Extra packages cost $10 each per month.
    ESPN is suing Verizon for removing it from the core package.

    Extra fees.

    No DVR.

    Cablevision plan

    $40 (5Mbps)

    $50 (50Mbps)
    A Mohu Leaf antenna for local over-the-air broadcasts

    Broadband Internet access

    You can add HBO Now for $15 per month.

     

    Access to public Optimum Wi-Fi hotspots.

    No cable channels.

    No DVR.

    Must be able to get over-the-air broadcasts.

    While we imagine that either plan will fit some consumers' needs, we don't think either is a real breakthrough. Yes, you can initially save some money, but you might be giving up a lot of channels for only a minimal monthly savings. And adding some of those missing channels à la carte can be quite expensive.

    That said, we think Verizon's Custom TV will be a better deal for more people. With Verizon, the ability to get both local and some cable channels will likely have broader appeal, though to match the Cablevision broadband speed, you'll have to pay $75, not $65 per month. (However, on Verizon's website we were able to create a custom package with local and cable channels, plus 50 Mbps broadband, for $65. Go figure.)

    But a word of caution if you're considering a Verizon plan: Read the fine print about additional fees and charges. When we priced out that double-play plan, there was a $90 installation fee, plus nearly $24 in monthly charges for things like a broadcast fee, router fee, HD settop box fee, etc. That means you're now near that $100-per-month price point many of us would like to avoid.

    With Cablevision's plan, the company is basically just adding a free antenna to its regular 50 Mbps broadband-only package, which costs $45 per month. And you need to be able to receive over-air broadcasts in your area; not everyone can, as our previous tests of antennas showed.

    On the other hand, you get all the free Cablevision Wi-Fi hotspots, and you can add the streaming HBO Now service for $15 a month. Plus, the company just announced a deal to bring Hulu Plus' catalog of on-demand shows to its service, though it hasn't yet said how it will do so, or how much it will cost.

    —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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    Laundry packet standard doesn’t go far enough

    The convenience of laundry detergent packets has a dangerous downside: Since their introduction in 2012, tens of thousands of children have been exposed to the colorful, bite-sized packages, leading to hundreds of hospital visits for injuries that include seizures, vomiting, and respiratory arrest. ASTM International, the non-profit standards-setting organization, is developing a voluntary standard designed to make the packets safer. Consumers Union, the public policy and advocacy division of Consumer Reports, joined other consumer groups this week in casting a negative vote for the initial proposal, arguing that its protections don’t go far enough.

    The standard calls for child-resistant outer packaging and clearer warning labels. Those are two positive changes, but other tough protections are needed, especially since many children gain access to loose packets that have been removed from their original container. That includes the one known fatality, involving a 7-month old Florida boy who ate a laundry packet that had been left out on the bed where he was sleeping.

    In light of this, we believe the ASTM standard should address the potential failure of outer-package deterrents by also requiring the laundry packets themselves to be individually wrapped. Several varieties of single-use dishwasher detergent, including Finish Powerball Tabs, use this packaging method, so we know it’s feasible. We would also support ASTM efforts to fully adopt requirements (based on those already adopted by the European Union) that address the taste and burst strength of the film covering each packet. That way, even if a child were to access a laundry packet, the chance of actual exposure would be reduced.

    With another 30 or so children being exposed to laundry packets each day, we’re hopeful that ASTM will take our position into consideration as it moves the voluntary standard to the next stage. Meanwhile, we continue to support the Detergent Poisoning And Child Safety (PACS) Act of 2015, introduced earlier this year in the House and Senate.     

    If you have kids or take care of young children, keep detergent packets out of their reach. And if a child does ingest a packet, call the poison-control helpline immediately at 800-222-1222.

    —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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    Help your mower keep its edge this season

    Whether you've got a beefy lawn tractor or a small walk-behind mower, your mowing will go easier and be more effective if you follow a few simple rules. Old mowers can power on if you keep them maintained. And if you need a new mower, check the results of Consumer Reports' latest mower tests where you'll find top push, self-propelled and riding mowers. Here are some tips from our pros:

    Maintain the mower. Have your mower blades sharpened monthly, or at least twice during the mowing season. And clean out clippings and debris after mowing to maintain cutting quality and prevent rusting.

    Plan your cut. Mow only dry grass. And don’t mow too quickly, especially if you’re using the mulching feature on your mower or tractor, because mulchers need extra time to process the grass. Try to alternate directions when you mow; that helps disperse clippings for a cleaner, healthier lawn.

    Let the lawn go brown. The color change is merely an indication that the grass is entering a natural state of dormancy to conserve nutrients. It should green up again after the next rain. Only when grass turns from tan-brown to straw-colored do you need to water it.

    Take care on slopes. In addition to being dangerous, driving mowers at higher speeds and making sudden turns over hills tends to tear up turf. With a walk-behind mower, mow side to side. With a tractor or rider, mow straight up and down slopes unless your manual says otherwise. Go especially slow down hills if you own a zero-turn-radius mower.

    More on mowers

    —Ed Perratore (@EdPerratore on Twitter)

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    Nepal earthquake brings out generosity — and scams

    Disasters bring out the best in people—and the worst. Even as the devastation caused by the massive earthquake in Nepal makes you want to open your wallet, scammers are eagerly figuring out how to profit from your generosity.

    After a natural disaster, emails, telephone calls, websites, pop-up online advertisements, and urgent pleas on social media to help the victims vie to grab your attention and solicit contributions. While some are legitimate, many are created by fraudsters who manipulate your emotions so you’ll click that “donate” button without thinking.

    Stealing your donation money is just the first step. Scammers also attempt to get you to download legitimate-looking content that is actually a virus or key-logging malware. Or they may try to trick you into sharing your personal information (name, password, credit card information) so they can steal your identity. 

    For more information on this subject, read How is Your Favorite Charity Rated by Watchdogs.

    Respond with your head as well as your heart. If you’re asked to make a charitable donation, follow these do’s and don’ts:

    • DO make sure the charity has a proven track record in dealing with natural disasters. Check it out with one of the three major charity watchdogs: The BBB (Better Business Bureau’s) Wise Giving Alliance, Charity Navigator, and CharityWatch.
    • DON’T trust charities that seem to have sprung up overnight in connection with current events. Website URLs with keywords that relate to the event (e.g., help, Nepal, earthquake, disaster, relief, fund, and donations) should raise an alarm. Also watch out for look-alike websites or copycat names that are similar but not exactly the same as those of reputable charities. If you suspect fraud, report it by calling the National Center for Disaster Fraud hotline at 866-720-5721 or e-mailing at disaster@leo.gov.
    • DO confirm the number with the source when texting to donate. The charge will show up on your mobile phone bill, but text donations don’t take effect immediately. Depending on the text message service used by the charity, it can take as much as 90 days for the charity to receive the funds, so you have time to block your donation if the organization turns out to be a fraud.
    • DON’T click on links or open attachments in e-mails that claim to show pictures of the disaster areas in attached files unless you know who sent it and what it is. Opening attachments – even in e-mails that seem to be from friends or family – can install viruses on your computer. Only open attachments from known senders.
    • DO suspect individuals representing themselves as victims or officials asking for donations via e-mail or social networking sites.
    • DON’T assume that charity messages posted on social media are legitimate or have been vetted. Research the organization yourself.

    “People get emotional. They want to give fast and they want to do it conveniently, so they set caution aside,” warned Edward Johnson, president and chief executive of the Better Business Bureau of Metro Washington and Eastern Pennsylvania in an interview in the wake of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti.

    Help out, by all means. But first take the time to ensure that your help goes where it’s truly needed. 

    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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