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    What it will cost to get your car to 200,000 miles

    Getting to—and passing—200,000 miles on the odometer is an impressive feat, but it’s by no means unachievable. Reliability in many new cars has improved, and even the maintenance schedule in owner’s manuals has been changed to help you get more miles out of your car.

    As you approach that milestone, many of your car’s components will start to wear out. We recommend that you closely follow the service interval schedule.

    Despite your best efforts, though, certain problems will crop up as you near the 200K mark.

    We calculated the cost to repair certain items in a typical 2008 Toyota Camry V6 using the Consumer Reports Car Repair Estimator. Your repair costs might be different.

    1. Exhaust systems that rust out

    You can tell because your car will get increasingly loud and will probably fail emissions tests come inspection time. According to our estimator, the job could cost $1,880 to $3,230.

    2. Spark plugs

    If maintained well, they can last 100,000 miles. But by the 200K mark, you could be overdue for a third set of plugs. Cost to replace: $100 to $300.

    3. Shocks and struts

    Does your car look like it’s sagging, or does it shudder like it’s in an earthquake every time you drive over a pothole? Then you probably need new shocks and struts. Cost to repair: $280 to $400 for one strut (you should replace them in pairs). But if you need a full set of shocks and struts all around, expect to pay closer to $900 to $1,300.

    4. Oil

    Increased oil consumption is common in older cars, so don’t panic. You should routinely check and top off the oil between changes, especially before long trips. Cost to replace: A few bucks as needed.

    5. Hoses, etc.

    Oil lines, vacuum lines, and all kinds of seals and gaskets can start to wear. You should look over your engine routinely for signs of leaks. Cost to repair: $200 to $370 for a new exhaust manifold. But if your head gasket needs replacing, you could pay into four figures.

    6. Moisture buildup in the cabin

    Almost 10 years of hopping in the car with muddy boots will take its toll, and a lot of the moisture will remain to fog up the windows and give you that old-car smell. Cost to repair: A soggy interior is forever, but you should be able to hold off the fog with a splash of Windex or another window cleaner. As for that musty smell? Blast the carpet with Febreze.

    7. Electrical components

    Years of water splash and spray can wreak havoc on your wiring and circuitry. Don’t be surprised if features like power windows, windshield wipers, and even the instrument panel go on the fritz. The gremlins can be frustratingly difficult to trace. Cost to repair: $370 to more than $1,300.

    8. Brake lines that begin to wear

    They should be checked often as you approach the 200K mark. Have a car that won’t start? That’s a problem. A car that won’t stop? That’s a problem. Cost to repair: $900 to almost $2,000.

    9. Mechanical components

    Many original parts seem like they’ll last forever, but even the strongest ones can wear out. Don’t go cheap on replacement parts. If you did replace worn parts with substandard knockoffs, they might be on their way to failure much sooner than the original equipment. Also, if you buy certain premium parts, they might come with a lifetime warranty.

    10. Rust

    If you see even a little bit of rust forming around the wheel wells, hood, trunk, or suspension mounting points, there could be a serious problem beneath the surface. That structural weakness will make your car less safe in a crash. Cost to repair: Not worth it. Time to get a new car.

    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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    Get your car to 200,000 miles

     

     When Laura White of Oxford, Mass., bought a Toyota Corolla in 1997, her son was just 3 years old. Fifteen years later, he drove that Corolla to college.

    By the time the car landed on the junk heap—victim of a car-totaling accident—it had more than 300,000 miles on it. That sort of durability isn’t far-fetched if you take proper care of your car, because today’s vehicles are more reliable than ever. A few easy tricks can help you nudge the odometer well into six figures.

    “We changed the oil every 3,000 miles and the timing belts regularly,” Laura says. “I never dreamed I would give the kids the car to drive when I bought it years ago.”

    You might not end up sending your toddler to college in a car you buy today. But improvements in rust prevention, engine technology, safety features, and electronics mean that 200K cars are pretty common now. Especially if, like Laura, you start with a safe, reliable model and maintain it properly.

    When new, the 1997 Corolla was a Consumer Reports Recommended model in part because of excellent reliability, good crash-test results, and impressive performance in our battery of more than 50 tests. Today, the Corolla is on our list of the top 10 models that are still on the road after 200,000 miles. That’s according to our most recent Annual Auto Survey, which gathered data on 1.1 million vehicles owned by our subscribers.

    Life Extenders

    To improve your odds, start by choosing not just a safe and reliable model but also one with all of the features you want. If you’ll be driving it for the long haul, it might as well be a car that you enjoy as the miles and years roll by.

    Read the owner’s manual. It’s amazing how many people keep it tucked away in the glove box. Simply familiarizing yourself with the maintenance schedule can add years of trouble-free driving. The manual spells out how often your car needs basic services like oil changes and tire rotations, as well as bigger jobs like timing-belt replacements.

    Change the oil. Missing even one oil change can contribute to premature engine wear. Forget about your timing belt and your engine can suffer severe damage.

    When we asked our online readers how they got to 200,000 miles, an overwhelming number mentioned that regular oil changes and proper maintenance were important.

    Sign in to read the complete advice and see the list of the cars most likely to go the distance.

     

    The full article is available to ConsumerReports.org subscribers. Sign in or subscribe to read this article.

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

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    BMW i3 is the most energy-efficient car yet

    With its quirky looks, space-age construction, tree-hugging electric powertrain, and luxe-Ikea interior, the BMW i3 has shocked the automotive design world. This narrow, Picassoesque city car is the first widely available vehicle to have its underpinnings mostly constructed from carbon-fiber-reinforced plastic.

    The i3’s exotic lightweight construction helps make it the most energy-efficient car we’ve tested—the equivalent of 139 mpg when battery powered. That trumps the 84 MPGe of the Tesla Model S and zaps the Nissan Leaf’s 106 MPGe.

    Still, the i3 has the limitation of most electric cars, running only 75 miles before the charge runs out. Like training wheels for electric-car newbies, BMW offers an optional range-extending, two-cylinder gasoline-engine generator, which continues to provide electricity to the i3’s 127-kilowatt motor.

    That doesn’t entirely relieve you from dreaded “range anxiety,” as the minuscule 1.9-gallon gas tank provides a mere 50 additional miles of travel. It’s designed to get you home, but not much more. Motor running, it returns only about 30 mpg—on premium fuel—so this is not a car for cross-country trips. So far, most buyers are opting for the range-extending REx engine, for an additional $4,000. The i3 works with some DC fast-chargers that can bring it to 80 percent battery level in 20 minutes.

    In the i3, BMW brings its Teutonic dynamism to an electric car, with a spookily silent 0-60 time of 7.5 seconds. The aggressive regenerative braking drops anchor the instant you ease off the accelerator. And it wouldn’t be a BMW without uncanny stability in corners—although its occasionally abrupt ride isn’t befitting a $50,000 car.

    The i3 fits four inside its compact dimensions. But the rear-hinged back doors won’t let out rear occupants until the driver or front passenger removes his own seat belt and opens a front door. Just the same, the i3’s minimalist teak, leather, and tweed interior is sure to tickle the hearts of Dwell readers.

    The future doesn’t come cheap. Before a $7,500 tax credit, the i3 starts at $43,350, or $47,200 with the REx engine.

    Given its price, Playmobil exterior design, and short cruising range, it’s easy to be skeptical about the i3. But its originality, impressive road manners, and pure efficiency give it a certain geeky charm.

    Check our complete BMW i3 road test.

    Highs Energy efficiency, acceleration, agility, reduced range anxiety with optional gasoline engine
    Lows Requires frequent top-ups, seats only four, awkward rear-seat access, scant cargo space
    Battery 22 kWh lithium-ion
    Engine 170-hp electric motor; plus 34-hp, 647-cc, 2-cyl. gas generator
    Charge time 4 hours (240 volts)
    Fuel 139-mpg equivalent (4.1 miles/kWh)
    Price $43,350-$50,250

    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--07:29: Driving the 2016 Honda HR-V
  • Driving the 2016 Honda HR-V

    If you’re looking for an SUV but your budget and parking space are small, Honda’s hoping you’ll check out its new HR-V. Based on the Honda Fit subcompact, the entry-level HR-V joins the category of smaller SUVs that may appeal to buyers seeking all-season traction in a versatile, urban-friendly package.

    The HR-V will compete in a growing segment, populated by the Chevrolet Trax, Jeep Renegade and upcoming Mazda CX-3. Starting price for the Honda is likely to be under $20,000.

    While slightly longer and taller than the Fit, the HR-V is smaller (and less costly) than the popular CR-V. And like the Fit, the HR-V gets a trick rear seat that flips up or folds down flat, which allows it to accommodate a surprising amount of cargo. It swallowed four garden chairs with space to spare.

    Power comes from a 141-hp, 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine, driving either the front or all four wheels. Most HR-Vs will be bought with a continuously variable transmission; only the front-wheel-drive version offers a six-speed manual.

    EPA fuel economy estimates for the AWD model are 27 mpg in the city and 32 mpg on the highway.

    On the road, the engine has to work pretty hard getting the HR-V up to speed and it makes a noticeable racket when doing so.

    The ride is reasonable for a small SUV — and better than we thought it would be from a subcompact vehicle. But the underlying basic small-car architecture rears its head when the HR-V is pushed toward its limits or rolling over ugly pavement.

    While the HR-V looks quite small from the outside, the cabin actually has a fair amount of passenger space. Adults will find the back seat tolerable—for a short time. The HR-V can be equipped with heated leather seats, a sunroof, and keyless entry.

    Unfortunately, high-end models come with Honda’s lousy touchscreen-only radio. We hated this in the last CR-V we tested, calling it one of the most frustrating designs we've seen in a while.

    You can work around some of its idiosyncrasies with the steering-wheel controls, or you can wrestle with Honda’s typically hard-to-use voice commands.

    Another negative is the very limited view to the back. The thick roof pillars and large rear headrests significantly impede your view aft. At least a rearview camera is standard, and Honda’s LaneWatch — which displays on the center screen what’s lurking in your right side blind spot — is optional.

    In a weird and annoying design affectation, the rear door handles are located farther up the door pillars than you’d expect – which makes it particularly troublesome for small kids, who probably can’t reach them.

    The HR-V offers functionality with a small footprint but it may fall short on fun and pizzazz.  We’ll be buying our test model next month.

    —Mike Quincy

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

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    Car insurance tips: What to do after an accident

    May—Memorial Day in particular—kicks off the spring/summer season with the highest number of traffic accidents. But if you have one, do you know what information you need to collect from the other driver? A free mobile app from the National Association of Insurance Commissioners, WreckCheck, provides a checklist. It's available in iOS 5.0 or later, and Android 2.2 or later. You can also print out a checklist at naic.org.

    Among the tips: Don't take photos at the scene if it will put you or others at risk or injury or further damage. But if you can take photos, include:

    • License plate(s) of involved vehicles
    • Damage to your vehicle
    • Damage to other vehicles
    • Landmarks to identify street location (or activate the GPS on your smartphone's camera)
    • Damage to any property or objects at the scene, such as debris, skids, and fallen trees.

    Though state laws vary, you’re usually required to provide only your name and car insurance information to the other driver. Sharing your address or driver’s license number could put you at risk for identity theft

    Consumer Reports offers advice on getting the best car insurance deal.

    A version of this article appeared in the May 2015 issue of Consumer Reports Money Adviser.

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

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    Range against the machine: A tale of two Teslas

    With the advent of the Tesla Model S’s latest variant, the 691-hp, all-wheel-drive P85D, one big question is how all that horsepower affects the driving range, since it uses the same battery as a rear-drive 362-hp Model S 85.  So we set up a little duel, pitting our new P85D against our two-year-old Model S 85. The test consisted of a long highway cruise, from our central-Connecticut test center up to Western Massachusetts and back.

    The point was to compare them using a typical consumer's approach to a long-distance trip, which means lots of time on the expressway at about 70 mph. By the finish line we found that the more powerful, all-wheel-drive P85D did indeed have a shorter range, but not by much: just 20 miles less, in fact, after a 190-mile trek.

    If someone wanted to squeeze out more miles, they could tool along a country road at 45 mph. But a slow meander probably isn’t what most people have in mind when they actually want to get somewhere.

    In this case, we started by fully charging both our Teslas in their “trip” mode, which makes more of the batteries’ capacity available than the everyday commute mode does. Then my colleague Eric Evarts and I took a jaunt from our central-Connecticut test center to Deerfield, Mass., 95 miles away. To minimize variations we kept up a nominal speed of 70 mph with the climate controls set to 68 degrees. One car led on the outbound leg, the other on the return. It was a perfect spring day with an average temperature of 58 degrees through the trip.

    We started out with 254 miles of predicted range showing on the 85 and 252 miles indicated on the P85D. When we arrived at Deerfield 95 miles later, the two cars had 144 and 136 miles left, respectively. After 45-minute lunch break, without recharging, we headed back onto I-91 South. Returning to our starting point in East Haddam, CT, our standard Model S 85 (the blue car) had 48 miles of remaining range, while the red P85D showed just 27.

    For the record, the P85D is 268 pounds heavier than the regular 85 and likely the wider, lower, stickier performance-oriented tires of the P85D contributed to the difference.

    Tesla’s latest software, which both our cars have, directs you to Tesla Supercharger sites near your route. On the ride back, the P85D’s display screen urged me to visit the West Springfield, Mass. Supercharger. But since I could see I had enough range left to reach our homeport with relative ease, I passed up the chance. No disrespect to Springfield, of course.

    If we had extended the trip, keeping the same pace, we estimate that the regular 85 would have gone as far as 230 miles and the P85D could have covered 210 miles before the white-knuckle "range anxiety" known to all electric-vehicle drivers began in earnest.

    Gabe Shenhar

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

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    Sync 3 system arrival means you should wait to buy a Ford

    If there’s a new Ford on your shopping list, you might want to wait before signing on the dotted line. Why? The carmaker’s problematic, trouble-prone, and much maligned MyFord Touch control interface is being phased out and will be replaced by the new Sync 3 system, which promises to be simpler and more intuitive to use.  

    The problem is, some of the brand’s biggest selling models, including the recently redesigned F-150, Mustang, and Edge are rolling off the production lines with MyFord Touch. That means that buyers of these new models will be stuck with an obsolete—to say nothing of distracting—system within a few months.

    Read more about the Sync 3 and see it in action, and watch the video below of the soon-to-be-outdated MyFord Touch.

    We had a chance to demo the new Sync 3 control system at CES 2015, and our early impressions were good.

    A simpler layout and larger buttons give Sync 3 a cleaner look than MyFord Touch. Sync 3 not only looks better but also translates to an easier and less distracting experience while driving. The menu structure is more intuitive, and the demo unit had a faster response time, which Ford promises will carry over to production versions. Seamless app integration and easy-to-use voice controls that respond to natural speech add to the appeal.

    Sync 3 also includes the capability for over-the-air updates, à la Tesla, delivered to the car as soon as they’re available, along with a notification that they’ve arrived.

    A notable change will be if the new operating system driving the Sync 3 system eliminates the screen freezes and other glitches that have plagued MyFord Touch and resulted in the carmaker getting lower scores in our reliability and owner-satisfaction surveys.

    We’ll know more once Sync 3 rolls out later this year. The first vehicles to get the new system will be the 2016 Ford Escape and Lincoln MKC SUVs, due in showrooms late this summer. Ford tells us Sync 3 will then migrate to the rest of its lineup by the end of 2016.

    —Jim Travers

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

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    High-end grills that are worth the price

    Spend $300 or less on a gas grill, as most Americans do, and it will probably be at the curb in three years. For $450 to $1,000 you can get a grill that delivers impressive or even top performance with some midgrade stainless steel and sturdy construction. At $1,000 and up, cooking performance may not be better than the top midpriced grills Consumer Reports has tested—and it can be worse—but expect superior construction and more features.

    Grills $1,000 to $2,600 are mostly stainless or even all stainless and are sold at specialty stores and at the websites of big box stores. Higher quality stainless and thicker grates made of stainless steel or cast iron are part of the deal, and so are burner warranties of 10 years or longer and added features, such as independently controlled burners, LED lights on the interior or controls, and a pull-out tray for the propane tank. Here’s a look at some high-end gas grills that we’ve tested that offer impressive performance. They’re also available in natural gas versions or you can buy a natural gas conversion kit.

    Midsized grills (fit 18 to 28 burgers)

    Large grills (fit 28 burgers or more)

    Our gas grill Ratings have the details on every model and you can use the compare tool to look at five models at a time. Reviews from our readers offer useful information and so does the gas grill buying guide. Questions? Feel free to e-mail me at kjaneway@consumer.org.

    Kimberly Janeway 

    Ultimate guide to outdoor entertaining

    Spending more time outside? Here's our outdoor entertainment guide on how to find the best gas grills, furniture, fire pits, and wireless speakers for your backyard. It's a good idea to paint or stain your deck before party season begins.

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

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    Every smartphone should have a kill switch

    Smartphones keep getting smarter, allowing you to store your financial, health, and other sensitive information all on one device. But in the event your phone is stolen, there isn’t always a smart way to deactivate your phone or delete its wealth of data. And that missing "kill switch" just makes your smartphone more attractive to thieves looking to resell not only your device but also your personal information.

    Smartphone theft is a growing problem, with the Federal Communications Commission reporting that nearly one in three robberies involves cell phone theft. Consumer Reports estimated that 3.1 million smartphones were stolen in the United States in 2013 alone, nearly twice the number of thefts we projected for the previous year.

    Consumers Union, the policy and advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, believes that every smartphone should be equipped with a kill switch that allows you to deactivate the phone and remove all information from the device. By making stolen smartphones inoperable—and ultimately unsellable—they’re less attractive to criminals.

    While there have been voluntary industry commitments to provide antitheft tools for smartphones and state laws to better protect consumers, we’re advocating for a national standard that would allow all consumers to easily deactivate their phone if stolen.

    Read "In the Privacy of Your Own Home," our special report on privacy in the era of the Internet of Things.

    That’s why we’re strong supporters of the Smartphone Theft Prevention Act. The recently reintroduced legislation, sponsored by Senators Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), and Mazie Horono (D-Hawaii), would require all phones sold in the United States to include kill switch-type technology free of charge that would allow the consumer to wipe personal data off a phone, render the phone permanently inoperable to anyone but the owner, and prevent it from being reactivated on a network by anyone but the owner.

    We especially like that the bill would require smartphones to prompt consumers to activate this switch during a phone’s initial setup. A companion bill was also introduced in the House by Rep. Jose Serrano (D-N.Y.).

    In addition to our endorsement, the Smartphone Theft Prevention Act has received support from a diverse set of stakeholders, including law-enforcement officials, district attorneys, and safety advocates who all agree that these features ought to be universally available.

    As smartphones play an ever-increasing role in our everyday lives, it is critical that consumers have access to the tools that help protect their information. This legislation would go a long way toward removing the incentives for criminals to target your phone, and cracking down on the secondary market where millions of stolen devices are sold each year.

    Update: Controversial for-profit college close down

    The for-profit college chain Corinthian Colleges is closing its 28 remaining campuses following a year of fines and allegations of falsified job placements, predatory lending schemes, and abusive debt-collection tactics. Consumers Union has pressed for tougher standards for for-profit colleges such as Corinthian. We are asking the Department of Education to help students who were harmed by Corinthian, which once operated more than 100 campuses under the names Everest Institute, Wyotech and Heald College. We are also supporting legislation introduced in Congress to strengthen student’s legal rights in the wake of the Corinthian closure.

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

    Read other installments of our Policy & Action feature.

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

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    3 chain saw alternatives that make the cut

    A chain saw can be an intimidating power tool and to be safe you need to learn how to handle one. Maintaining a gas-powered handheld chain saw takes some expertise—you need to keep the chain tensioned, sharp, and oiled, and replace it now and then. Unless you own a large piece of property with lots of trees, the hassles of ownership may outweigh the benefits. If so, you’ve got plenty of options that will work for all but the biggest jobs. Here are three other tools to consider:

    Bow saw

    Even if you have a well-running chain saw, sometimes you just need to make a quick cut or two. A bow saw can handle many of the same cuts while saving wear and tear on a chain saw. Bow saws are capable of handling up to about a 10- to 12-inch tree, and replaceable blades mean that there’s nothing to sharpen. Look for a minimum 24-inch blade—smaller ones are suitable only for small branches—or even 30-inch. You'll need a sturdy blade guard for safe storage between cuts; lightweight guards tend to break easily. Some saws have hand guards to protect your knuckles.
    Cost: $25-$45 for a quality 24-inch saw. Extra blades cost about $10.

    Lopper

    With long handles and pincers, loppers are great for snipping off lots of small branches and twigs in a slower, safer way than you might with a power tool. Loppers typically handle branches and roots up to 1 ½ to 2 inches and come with anvil or bypass blades. The latter are claimed to offer easier cutting, though we haven’t tested the claim. Want more power for slightly larger branches? Consider the corded-electric Black & Decker Alligator Lopper LP1000, $75. It cuts branches up to about 4 inches but, like a chainsaw, requires the usual chain maintenance.
    Cost: $20-$35 for a typical hand-operated tool

    Reciprocating saw

    Suitable for cutting lots of branches in a hurry, these powered saws are also just right for cutting out roots in places where the blade might get damaged when in use.  Reciprocating saws typically come with 3-inch blades (for other materials as well as wood), but for about $3 each you can buy replacement blades up to 9 inches for wood or branches up to about 6 inches. Cordless models cost more than corded, and they’re more maneuverable.
    Cost: $100-$200 for a cordless model with battery; $65-$120 for most corded models.

    When only a chain saw will do

    All three of these tools are a handy backup to a chain saw as well as a replacement for more modest tasks. But when you need a chain saw, you’ll know it. Our chain saw Ratings of more than 40 models includes heavy-duty gas models such as the Echo CS-590-20, $400, lighter-duty gas models including the Stihl MS 180 C-BE, $230, the corded-electric Worx WG303.1, $100, and the battery-powered EGO CS1401, $300. For more information, be sure to check our chain saw buying guide.

    —Ed Perratore (@EdPerratore on Twitter)

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

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    Lawn care without the chemicals

    The average yard contains 10 times more chemicals per acre than a typical commercial farm. You can make your lawn less toxic by skipping the nitrogen-rich, fast-releasing fertilizer. Instead, mulch grass clippings when you mow and apply compost once or twice per year.

    But what about all of the weeds that can ravage a yard, especially during the summer months? Thick, healthy turfgrass is the best defense because it won’t allow weeds to take root in the first place. Overseeding thin spots in the lawn will help maintain a thick carpet. In garden beds, a layer of mulch, whether bark chips or mulched leaves, will keep weeds down and retain moisture in the soil.

    Even with those precautions, some weeds are bound to infiltrate your property. Blasting them with Roundup isn’t the best idea because the health effects of glyphosate, an active ingredient, and other herbicides like it aren’t fully understood. (The International Agency for Research on Cancer, a division of the World Health Organization, recently determined that glyphosate is a probable carcinogen.)

    Here are 10 common weeds and pests that plague homeowners nationwide, along with chemical-free measures that should be effective in bringing them under control. For more information, go to the websites of Beyond Pesticides and the Great Healthy Yard Project.

    Dandelion

    What is it? A perennial weed whose common yellow flowers turn to windblown seed.
    Telltale signs. Though a handful of dandelions is no big deal, a lawn that’s ablaze in yellow has underlying problems that need to be addressed.
    How to treat.
    Like many broadleaf weeds, dandelions prefer compacted soil, so going over the lawn with a core aerator (available for rent at home centers) might eradicate them. It also helps to correct soil imbalances, especially low calcium.

    Barberry

    What is it? An invasive shrub with green leaves and yellow flowers, often found in yards near wooded areas.
    Telltale signs. Left unchecked, the shrub’s dense thickets will start to choke off native trees and plants.
    How to treat. Cut back the stems and paint their tips with horticultural vinegar or clove oil (repeated ­applications may be needed). ­Burning the tips with a weed torch might also work.

    Crabgrass

    What is it? An annual weed with a spreading growth habit. It’s common in the Northeast, in lawns with poor soil conditions.
    Telltale signs. Lots of bald spots, especially after the first freeze, when crabgrass dies off.
    How to treat. Have your soil tested. Lime or sulfur may be needed to adjust the pH. Aeration is also recommended. Corn-gluten meal, applied in early spring, can be an effective natural pre-emergent herbicide.

    Kudzu

    What is it? An aggressive climbing vine that’s common in parts of the Southeast and the Midwest.
    Telltale signs. The thick vine forms a canopy over trees and shrubs, killing them by blocking out sunlight.
    How to treat. Pull out the vine and, if possible, its taproot. Be sure to bag and destroy the plant or its vines will regerminate. If the root is too thick, paint the stump with horticultural vinegar or clove oil repeatedly, or burn it with a weed torch.

    Canadian Thistle

    What is it? An aggressive creeping perennial weed that’s found throughout the U.S.
    Telltale signs. Look for outbreaks in vegetable gardens, particularly those with peas and beans.
    How to treat. Repeated hand weeding and tilling of the soil will weaken its extensive root system. Planting competitive crops, such as alfalfa and forage grasses, will keep it from returning.

    Fig Buttercup

    What is it? A perennial weed with yellow flowers and shiny, dark green leaves. It’s common in many parts of the East, Midwest, and Pacific Northwest.
    Telltale signs. The weed will start to crowd out other spring-flowering plants. It can also spread rapidly over a lawn, forming a solid blanket in place of your turfgrass.
    How to treat. Remove small infestations by hand, taking up the entire plant and tubers. For larger outbreaks, apply lemongrass oil or horticultural vinegar once per week when the weeds first emerge. It might take up to six weeks to eradicate.

    Phragmites

    What is it? An invasive grass species found nationwide, especially in coastal wetlands.
    Telltale signs. Dense weeds can crowd out other plant species without providing value to wildlife.
    How to treat. Cut back the stalks and cover the area with clear plastic tarps, a process known as solarizing. Then replant the area with native grasses.

    Grubs

    What are they? A variety of white C-shaped beetles that live in soil and feed on plant roots.
    Telltale signs.
    Large, irregular sections of brown turf that easily pull away from the soil.
    How to treat. Release beneficial nematodes into the soil each year; these tiny roundworms feed on grubs. Milky spore powder works longer-term on Japanese grub beetles. If you’re up for raising chickens, they eat grubs.

    Chinch bugs

    What are they? Insects 1/6-inch long with a gray-black body, white wings, and reddish legs.
    Telltale signs. Copper-colored patches, usually seen during the summer months.
    How to treat. Give the lawn a little extra water. Prevent thatch by not overfertilizing or cutting grass too short. Remove thatch with a dethatching rake. For small infestations, drench area with soapy water and cover with a white sheet; the bugs will cling to it, making disposal easy.

    Bagworms

    What are they? The larval stage of moths, these worms, a half-inch to 3 inches long, hang from the branches of evergreens and ornamental plants.
    Telltale signs. Early signs include brown or stressed needles and leaves. Heavy infestations can defoliate a tree or shrub.
    How to treat. Plant asters or black-eyed Susans nearby. They attract bagworm-killing insects, such as parasitoid wasps and tachinid flies. For major outbreaks, apply Bacillus thuringiensis, a naturally occurring bacterium sold at most garden stores.

    Sometimes you have to use your hands

    When faced with just a few weeds, it’s best to remove them by hand. Mechanical tools keep you off your knees, though in the past we found they couldn’t always pluck weeds with long taproots, especially from highly compacted soil.

    Diane Lewis, whose Great Healthy Yard Project shows homeowners how to maintain attractive yards without chemicals, likes Fiskars’ uproot weed remover, $30. With its step-down and pullback action, the tool’s stainless-steel tines are designed to pull up the weed and root system. “After a good rainfall is the ideal time,” Lewis says, “since the loosened soil will give up the whole weed.”

    Editor's Note: This article also appeared in the June 2015 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.

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    Great books to read on retirement planning

    Retirement planning isn't just about amassing funds and figuring how and when to take required minimum distributions from your savings. It's also about facing feelings related to losing one's work identity, finding new and meaningful activities and friendships, and integrating yourself into a new schedule and sometimes a new community

    Catherine Frank, executive director of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at the University of North Carolina, Asheville, collects reading material on those transitional issues. Below is an alphabetical listing she provided to participants at a recent, 2 1/2-day workshop called "Paths to Creative Retirement." The accompanying descriptions are adapted from her comments. 

    • Aging Well: Surprising Guideposts to a Happier Life from the Landmark Harvard Study of Adult Development (NY: Litte Brown and Company 2002). George Vaillant, the director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, looks at data from a five-decade study and reaches some interesting conclusions about the importance of choice, genetics, wealth, race, and other factors in determining people's sense of their happiness in later life. Valliant's most recent book, Triumph of Experience: The Men of the Harvard Grant Study (2012), follows the men of the study into their 90s, as Vaillant continues to determine what factors predict and sustain a happy life.
    • The Big Shift: Navigating the New Stage Beyond Mid Life (New York: Public Affairs, 2011). Social entrepreneur Marc Freedman, founder of Civic Ventures and cofounder of The Purpose Prize and Experience Corps, examines the personal stories of people who have found meaning in the years after 50, but also focuses on social changes that will support a vision of later life as a time when individuals can continue to work for social change and contribute to evolving life patterns.

    • Composing a Further Life: The Age of Active Wisdom (NY: Knopf, 2010). Mary Catherine Bateson, an anthropologist and literary scholar, uses profiles of women to suggest the importance of approaching our lives after 50 with "active wisdom" and a sense of enthusiasm and potential.

    • The Couple's Retirement Puzzle: 10 Must-Have Conversations for Transitioning to the Second Half of Life (Waltham, MA: Lincoln Street Press, 2011). Psychologists and life coaches Roberta K. Taylor and Dorian Mintzer offer practical guidance for tackling tough issues like finances, intimacy, relationships, and purpose.

    • The Encore Career Handbook: How to Make a Living and a Difference in the Second Half of Life (NY: Workman, 2012). Marci Alboher, vice president of encore.org, offers practical guidelines, resources, and inspiring stories. (Consumer Reports also has addressed the issue of creating a new career in retirement.)

    The Consumer Reports Retirement Planning Guide offers practical advice for your second act.

    • How to Retire Happy, Wild and Free: Retirement Wisdom You Won't Get from Your Financial Advisor (Edmonton, AB, Canada: Visions International Publishing, 2009). Entrepreneur and life coach Ernie J. Zelinski offers an optimistic and hoilstic approach to retirement planning, with exercises and advice about ways to have a satisfying retirement without a million dollars.

    • A Long Bright Future: Happiness, Health, and Financial Security in an Age of Increased Longevity (New York: Public Affairs Books, 2011). Laura Carstensen, the founding director of the Stanford Center on Longevity, writes in an inspiring way about the personal and public consequences and opportunities created by increased longevity.

    • The Longevity Project: Surprising Discoveries for Health and Long Life from Landmark Eight-Decade Study (NY: Hudson Street Press, 2011). Using data gathered by Stanford researchers, UC Riverside researchers Howard S. Friedman and Leslie R. Martin examine some commonly held beliefs about who lives a healthy life and what really contributes to longevity and satisfaction.

    • Looking forward, An Optimist's Guide to Retirement (New York: Stewart, Tabori and Chang, 2004). Ellen Freudenheim's highly readable work covers topics such as sex, spirituality, money, careers, and volunteering. Includes a list of resources.

    • Successful Aging (New York: Pantheon Books, 1998). John W. Rowe and Robert L. Kahn's comprehensive approach to physical and mental health is a non-technical but seriously informative summary of the MacArthur Foundation Study of Aging.

    • The Mature Mind: The Positive Power of the Aging Brain (New York: Basic Books, 2005). Psychiatrist Gene Cohen craws on studies of the aging brain to show it's never too late to use it, not lose it.

    • The New Love and Sex After 60 (New York: Ballantine, 2002). The gerontologist couple Robert N. Butler and Myrna Lewis discuss the physical changes affecting sexuality, related medical conditions, dysfunctions, sexual fitness, dating, remarriage, emotional problems, and where to go for help.

    • The Number: A Completely Different Way to Think About the Rest of Your Life (New York: Free Press, 2006). Lee Eisenberg offers a revealing look behind our most common financial and emotional conflicts about money and retirement.

    • The Third Chapter: Passion, Risk, and Adventure in the 25 years after 50 (New York: Farrar, Straus and Girous, 2010). Researcher Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot explores the stories of men and women who have used those years to channel and revitalize their energy, talent and passion.

    • What Color Is Your Parachute?" For Retirement: Planning a Prosperous, Healthy, and Happy Future (Berkeley: Ten Speed Press, 2010). John E. Nelson and Richard N. Bolles continue their best-selling series of careers books with this practical guide. Includes tips and exercises to encourage thinking beyond the financial aspects.

    • Your Retirement, Your Way (New York: McGraw Hill, 2007). Alan Bernstein and John Trauth show readers the way to a new and dynamic definition of retirement while providing a variety of guides and road maps.

    — Tobie Stanger (@TobieStanger on Twitter)

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    Why don't mobile phones have better voice quality?

    Q. I read with interest your most-recent mobile phone reviews and Ratings, and noticed that none of them scored Very Good or Excellent for voice quality. Why is that? One would think that with all of the processing power and precision parts in mobile phones, they could capture and reproduce audio quality as well as their landline counterparts.—Richard Stuart, Lewiston, ID
                            
    A. Cell phones have tiny microphones and speakers that use voice-compression technology, and signals travel a long, winding road between callers. Carriers are beginning to use one of the more promising developments for improving voice quality: high-definition (HD) voice, which transmits calls over wider frequency ranges at a higher number of audio samples carried per second. In the meantime, try one of the following.              

    • Max out the volume on your phone app (not the same as the “sound” volume for multimedia playback, which won’t raise call volume).                        
    • Check your phone’s Settings menu and trying options such as “noise reduction,” “personal call settings,” and “HD Voice” or “VoLTE.”                        
    • Find the sweet spot of your microphone and your earpiece. It’ll help both sides of a conversation.

    For more helpful tips and information check our cell phones and services buying guide, and watch our video below. 

    Send your questions to ConsumerReports.org/askourexperts.

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

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    5 Mother's Day gifts that will entertain Mom all year long

    Treat one of the moms in your life (or all of them!) to a Mother's Day gift that will bring enjoyment all year long: a speaker, headphones, camera, tablet, or smartwatch. We've chosen five gadgets she would be happy to unwrap, and every one is recommended by the experts at Consumer Reports. (If your budget doesn't stretch quite this far, check out these 5 Mother's Day gadget gifts that cost $100 or less.)

    Just think about everything that your wife, mother, and grandmothers have done for you and start shopping!

    —Eileen McCooey

    Bose SoundLink Color Bluetooth speaker, $130  

    This cute little wireless speaker is a great gift for a Mom on the move. She can take her tunes almost anywhere—relaxing by the pool, on the deck, in the family room—without searching for a power outlet or struggling with cords and connections. The Bluetooth-enabled SoundLink can play music from a smart phone or tablet as long as it’s within 30 feet or so. It can remember eight devices, so it’s easy to switch from music stored on one device to another. Weighing only 1.25 pounds and not much bigger than a clutch purse, the speaker is easy to carry around, and the rechargeable battery is rated for 8 hours of play. The SoundLink Color delivers good sound quality with a surprising amount of power for its size. And you can buy one in her favorite hue: The speaker comes in a choice of blue, mint, red, black, and white.

    Beats by Dre Powerbeats 2, $150

    Help Mom cut the cord! These wireless headphones will let her enjoy her favorite music even during a grueling spin class, thanks to flexible hooks intended to keep the earphones in place and a sweat-resistant design. She can leave her phone on the sidelines, because these will communicate up to 30 feet via Bluetooth. Sound quality is very good, with decent bass. The black-and-red inline remote has an integrated microphone for voice-activated dialing, plus volume, music player function, and call connect/disconnect controls. (They’re fully functional with Apple devices but also work with Android and Windows gear.)  The Powerbeats 2 come with a hard carrying case, four pairs of earpieces of various types and sizes, and a USB charging cable.

    Samsung WB350F, $170 

    Is Mom a regular at the kids’ soccer games or dance recitals? Then she’ll love this compact camera’s 21x optical zoom lens, great for capturing shots way across the field or on the stage. And she’ll be able to share those photos quickly and easily, thanks to built-in Wi-Fi, plus NFC (near-field communication), which makes it easy to pair the camera with phones and tablets. The camera takes very good photos and has manual focus and controls, perfect if she wants to get creative. The retro styling and choice of colors (including black, red, white, and blue as well as brown) might appeal to her fashion sense, too. We've seen this selling for $170 at Amazon to $230 at Best Buy and $260 at Walmart, so shop around.

    Amazon Kindle Fire HDX 7" (Wi-Fi, 16GB), $180  

    A great display, lots of content (especially for subscribers to Amazon Prime, which costs $99 a year), and free, quick tech support on-screen make the Kindle Fire HDX a tablet any Mom would love. This 7-incher is light and comfortable to hold for long stretches, the brighter-than-usual screen stands up to sunlight, and battery life is more than 9 hours. All that makes the Kindle Fire HDX perfect for binge-watching “Veep” or devouring this year’s hottest beach book in a single marathon session. Is Mom into games? No worries, this baby has the oomph to handle ‘em.

    Asus Zenwatch, $200

    Some smartwatches are so clunky that a stylish Mom wouldn’t dream of wearing them. The Asus Zenwatch smartwatch is different, with a slim, curved design, a stainless steel case with a “rose-gold-colored” inset, and an Italian leather band in a choice of three colors. But it’s not just a pretty face—it has all the smarts you’d expect from an AndroidWear watch. It will let Mom view incoming calls and notifications so she can leave her phone in her purse, and she can perform Google searches and send messages using voice commands. It has other talents, too, including a pedometer, heart-rate monitor, and fitness app, and the ability to serve as a remote for the phone’s camera, complete with a viewfinder, shutter button, and self-timer. And the FindMyPhone feature will ring the phone remotely to lead Mom to its hiding place. Talk about lifesavers!

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

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    Driving the 2016 Hyundai Tucson

    You can’t really call it a comeback. The Hyundai Tucson never had a summit from which to fall. Rather, it spent the last decade traversing a plateau of mediocrity. But early indications are that the 2016 the Tucson breaks free of that cycle, joining the lead pack among the crowded herd of small SUVs.

    Hyundai wipes the slate clean with the 2016 Tucson. Anonymous styling is replaced with a well-defined aesthetic, announcing just how far this five-passenger SUV has come.

    For one, Hyundai has learned a thing or two about space management. Despite being only two and a half inches longer and less than an inch wider than the outgoing Tucson, the cabin space has grown. Passengers over six-foot-two can sit behind a like-sized driver without fear of knee pain, and head room is plentiful.  

    We borrowed two different Tucson’s from Hyundai–a base model and a Limited with the Ultimate package. One of our staff members called the base version “the best ‘Plain Jane’ car out there,” thanks to its simple and intuitive controls that never felt basic.

    The base 164-hp, 2.0-liter four-cylinder gets a conventional six-speed automatic. At the risk of causing confusion, the Limited trim actually gets a smaller, 1.6-liter engine. With the help of turbocharging, this unit makes 175 horsepower, sent through a seven-speed dual clutch transmission, or DCT. Rather than moving to a continuously variable transmission, like many Japanese manufacturers, Hyundai is taking an European-like approach with an automated manual and small-displacement turbo combination.

    While built on different platforms, the new Tucson comes across as smaller Santa Fe by virtue of its substantial feel and impressive interior fit and finish. In particular, the top-end Tucson Limited calls into question the existence of the Santa Fe Sport in Hyundai’s lineup. Our press version came with the Ultimate package, which included a massive sunroof, hands-free power tailgate, heated and ventilated front seats, and an eight-inch touch screen. Some automakers have infotainment systems that make it a struggle just to change the radio station, but Hyundai’s digital layout is mercifully logical. 

    We’re hard pressed to think of any other car in this segment that offers as much as the loaded up Tucson, and we suspect you’ll get it all for a competitive price.

    “Suspect” because pricing for the Tucson has not yet been disclosed, but Hyundai claims it would not be much more than the outgoing model. That could mean a base price of around $22,000, a mid-pack SE with popular equipment for around $27,000, and a Limited for around $32,000.

    The substantial feel and mature styling give the 2016 Tucson strengths that could shake up the small SUV market. It has grown up in many ways and while we’re far from knowing how it will rank among the pack of small SUVs, the 2016 Tucson has made a strong first impression.

    —George Kennedy

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

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  • 05/03/15--02:59: No-brainer backups
  • No-brainer backups

    Have you backed up your computer lately? That question seems to strike fear into the hearts of many computer users. Yet backing up is crucial to protecting the data you store on your computer, from financial information to precious photo memories.

    There’s no need to dread this task. In fact, it’s pretty simple. This guide will tell you how to set up Windows and Mac operating systems so all your files are automatically backed up. 

    Before you get started, you’ll need to decide where you’ll store your backed-up data. Backing up to the cloud, using a service like Apple’s iCloud or Microsoft’s OneDrive, places the data physically out of your house. Should a disaster like a flood or fire occur, your files will be safely tucked away on a server (actually, many servers) far from home. In contrast, using an external drive keeps the data in your hands, and there are no concerns about a cloud service being hacked or going out of business. Other options include DVDs and network drives, depending on which operating system you’re using.

    If you decide to use an external hard drive, choose one that’s got double the storage of your computer. Depending on how you set things up, you’ll need room for different versions of files, for a system image, and for applications. Get a USB 3 model, which will transfer files much more quickly than the older USB 2. You can use a USB 3 drive even on a computer with a USB 2 port, and you’ll be future-proofed in case you buy a new computer later with USB 3. Apple’s got a proprietary interface called Thunderbolt that’s very fast but works only on Macs. Skip that and stick to USB 3, which you’ll be able to use even if you switch later from Mac to Windows.

    You’ll need to choose the cloud service that works best for you if you decide to back up an online provider. Many offer a relatively small amount of storage space free, then charge you to increase that base amount. We’re taking a closer look at the various options and will post our results soon. 

    Once you know where your files are going, you’re just a few easy steps away from automating your backup. Here’s how to do that for Mac OS X, Windows 8, and Windows 7.

    Looking for the perfect laptop, desktop, or Chromebook? Consumer Reports' Buying Guide can help you navigate the market.

    Mac OS X 10.5 (Snow Leopard to Yosemite)

    Apple’s Time Machine makes backing up to an external device easy. You’ll find the controls in System Preferences (click the Apple icon on your toolbar). You can also do a search for it in the Spotlight search window. Time Machine does a full backup the first time you launch it, then keeps hourly backups for 24 hours, weekly backups, and daily backups for the previous month. If your drive becomes full, the oldest backups are deleted first. 

    It’s easy to restore a file from Time Machine. Click the Time Machine icon on the toolbar, and navigate to the file or folder you want to restore. Then press the control key, choose “Restore <name of file> to,” and select the folder you want. Since Time Machine backs up every time you change a file, and saves prior backups, you can restore older versions of files as well as the most current.

    You can also use Time Machine to move your files from an old Mac to a new one. Before you make the switch, run a manual Time Machine backup to make sure you get the latest version of everything. When you set up your new Mac, it will ask if you want to restore from a Time Machine backup. Connect your hard drive to the new Mac and follow the instructions to transfer your files.

    Windows 8

    The latest version of Windows also makes it remarkably easy to back up. In fact, Windows 8’s File History uses a scheme that’s similar to Apple’s Time Machine.

    When you connect a new external drive, Windows will ask if you want to use File History to configure the drive. Otherwise, swipe in from the right and search for “File History.” If you already have an external drive attached, Windows will detect it and suggest that drive for storing your backups. If there is no external drive detected, Windows will prompt you to connect to the Internet, a hard drive connected to a router, or a server drive. Once your backup destination is determined, click Turn on and you’re finished

    An initial backup automatically keeps copies of files in your Library (Documents, Music, Pictures, and Video), Desktop, Contacts, Favorites, and offline OneDrive folders. (You can’t add folders to File History, so make sure all your files are saved to one of those default folders—it’s likely that all are by default.) After the first backup, File History searches your libraries every hour and backs up when you change a file or folder.

    It’s just as easy to restore files. Search for “File History” and select “Restore your files with File History.” You can then navigate to the file you want to restore (you’ll find it in a folder with the same name as the original). By selecting the appropriate back and forward buttons, you can choose the date and time of the file version you’re looking for. To restore the file, you can overwrite the current file or restore it to a different location by right-clicking the file or folder and selecting “Restore” or “Restore to.” Like Time Machine, File History saves different versions of your backups, so you can retrieve an older version of a file if you need to.

    Windows 7

    This version of Windows uses a utility called Backup and Restore for automatic backups. (If you upgrade from Windows 7 to Windows 8, you won’t be able to directly transfer files backed up using this software.) To launch Backup and Restore, click the Start button, type “Backup” into the “Search programs and files” box, and click on “Backup and Restore.” Choose “Set up backup,” then “Let Windows choose,” and Backup and Restore will automatically copy all files saved in Windows Library (My Documents, My Music, My Pictures, and My Video) and on the Desktop.

    There’s also an option that lets you choose individual folders, libraries, and drives yourself. It’s called, not surprisingly, “Let me choose.” But you’re limited to using an external hard drive or a DVD for storing your backups. Automatic backup to a cloud service is not an option with Windows 7.

    A weekly backup is scheduled by default, but you can change that during setup to daily or monthly. If you wish, you can get really specific by selecting day of the week and time of day. If you only use your computer a couple of times a week, then a weekly backup should be sufficient. If you’re using it more than that, a daily backup will do the best job of protecting you.

    If you think you’re using an uncommon application that saves files in different locations or in uncommon file formats, take a look after your first backup to make sure those files are being saved. If they’re missing, return to the “Set up backup” menu, select “Let me choose,” and pick the folder that contains those files as well as all the default folders.

    If you need to restore a file, go into the Backup and Restore program, click “Restore files,” and you’ll see a directory of your folders and files. Navigate to, then select, the items you want to restore.

    Unlike with File History and Time Machine, Backup and Restore saves only your most recent backup. If you want to save different versions of your files, you’ll need a utility called Previous Versions. You’ll find it in the Control Panel under System/System Protection.

    —Donna Tapellini

     

     

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    Luggage and accessories that make great Mother’s Day gifts

    A new piece of luggage or two for Mother’s Day is a gift that will endure for years. And with frequently changing airline luggage rules and fees. Here are a few ideas for how to select luggage that Mom will love.

    Luggage to bring on board

    These days you can board most planes with one “carry-on” (stowed in the overhead bin) and one “personal item” (under the seat). Mom can pack a lot of punch in just these two pieces, so why not get her the proper size bags? With the right personal item and carry-on, she can avoid baggage claim for even a week-long trip.

    When shopping for the personal item, look for bags called under-seat carry-on, cabin bag, or boarding bag. Make sure the personal item has a sleeve or piggyback strap to slide over the handle of the larger carry-on to create a single rolling piece. Remember, don’t rely on the merchandise tag or the website description to tell you if it’s a personal item or a carry-on. Allowable sizes vary, so check with the airline. Then measure the bag yourself.

    Check luggage buying guide and use these tips for preventing luggage theft.

    Luggage locators

    Mom will breathe easier knowing that she can always locate her checked luggage—even if she's at JFK and the luggage ended up at LaGuardia. Luggage locators use cellular networks and/or Bluetooth technology to tell you where your bag is located. Examples of this type of device are Trakdot and LugLoc. Drop one of these palm-size units into your suitcase, and your phone will tell you where your luggage is. 

    Packing organizers

    Help Mom get the most out of her packing space with various types of packing organizers. For example, packing cubes come in various sizes and keep a suitcase organized and neat. You pack your items inside the nylon cubes, zip them closed, and place the cubes inside the suitcase. A flat toiletry kit avoids the bulkiness of a typical toiletry bag. If Mom treasures neatly folded shirts, she will be thrilled with this Eagle Creek Pack-It Specter Folder.

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    Do new front-loading washing machines still have mold problems?

    Q. I’m about to replace my 10-year-old Kenmore HE3t front-loading washing machine. I’m leery of another front-loader because of my constant battle with mold. Have new front-loaders been cured of that problem, or should I change to a top-loader?—Karen Corson, Bel Air, MD

    A. Manufacturers have taken various steps to alleviate the problem some front-loading washers have had with mold. That said, because multiple factors could have led to your problem, we can’t guarantee that it won’t happen again. If you’re still interested in a front-loader, read the user reviews on individual model pages for the front-loading washing machines that we review to see whether anyone has encountered a mold problem in a model you’re considering. There are a number of HE top-loaders we recommend, but they don’t achieve the same level of performance in our tests that front-loaders do. They may have advantages over front-loaders, however, in terms of loading and unloading, and fewer potential vibration issues.

    For more information check our washing machine buying guide and Ratings and watch our video below.

    Send your questions to ConsumerReports.org/askourexperts.

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

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    Picking a paint palette you can live with for years

    Susan Hable approaches color as a textile designer and artist, not an interior designer, and is the author of the recently published “A Colorful Home: Create Lively Palettes for Every Room.” But it’s not just her artistry and expertise that draws you in. When talk turns to the challenges of picking paint colors for walls, she offers terrific advice but adds, “At the end of the day it’s just paint. It’s not life or death and it should be fun.”

    For Hable, there are two approaches to color in a space. Minimal spaces are white rooms that drop in a burst of color; maximalist rooms are wrapped in color, a full commitment. And where does choosing paint colors go wrong? “Looking at the small paint chip and not thinking that you’ll be engulfed in this color is a big mistake,” she says. And so is painting the walls bright and colorful in a child’s room when children already have many bright and colorful things in the room. “So the walls don’t have to do this,” Hable says. “If orange is a favorite color you can use color a few steps down that will enhance it, like a pale coral wall.” Here’s some advice from Hable’s book and our chat with her.

    Look to your favorite things

    Create a palette for your home by gathering up four or five of your favorite objects. You’ll start to notice that you’re drawn to certain colors. Then pick four or five colors from this group to start a palette.

    Step outside

    A store’s lighting will affect your take on the colors shown in paint chips so step outside the store to get another look in natural light and a better feel for the color’s undertones.

    Factor in finish

    The paint’s finish absorbs light or reflects it, says Hable, adding that high gloss walls draw your eye up and adds impact while a more matted, eggshell paint has a softer appeal for open space.

    Zero in on the palette’s core color

    Paint sample colors on heavy paper to use as your backdrop. Add in inspiration you’ve collected—swatches, natural elements, and spices—to figure out the combinations you want to create. Live with the palette for a few weeks, observing the effects of changing light on the colors throughout the day and swap colors, as you like. Happy? Now you can translate the palette into a room.

    Think how you want to feel in this space

    “I’m not afraid of color but consider that you are going to be wrapped in this color,” says Hable. “There are emotions that come with colors and how they make you feel. A red room to sleep in?” She leans to pale blue since she finds it calming. Do you want to feel calm, relaxed, happy, or energized in this room? And how will you use this space, what activities will occur here?

    Consider the room’s location

    Take a look at what the room connects to and what the room you’re going to paint looks like from other rooms. “I like rooms to flow somehow. I stand in each room and see the color in the next room,” says Hable.

    Be patient

     “I came about a pale pink room after many tries,” she says. “Buy the small paint samples and test on your wall. Let it be there for a day or two. If you’re trigger happy and pick a paint you’re setting yourself up for heartbreak, even interior designers take their time.” Paint big swaths in different areas of the room and notice the effects of the changing light throughout the day.

    And as Hable says, have fun. Check out our interior paint Ratings to find the best and worst paints we tested. Our ratings include Behr, Valspar, Clark+Kensington, Benjamin Moore, Sherwin-Williams, Farrow & Ball, and more. Our tests found that a brand's flat, eggshell, and semi-gloss paints perform similarly overall, so we've combined the scores to make it easier for you to compare. Questions? E-mail me at kjaneway@consumer.org.

    Kimberly Janeway

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

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    Take the guesswork out of mower maintenance

    Keeping track of when to change the oil, sharpen the blades, or replace the filters of your riding mower used to be a combination of checking the mower's hour meter and following guidelines in your owner's manual. But now MTD is giving owners of their latest Cub Cadet tractors the option to use their smartphone and a Cub Connect app to help schedule routine maintenance.

    Setting up the Cub Connect app with the Cub Cadet XT tractor Consumer Reports tested was no trouble. The module is built into the hour meter in many of the brand’s latest models, and it connects via Bluetooth to the Cub Connect app, which can run on iOS or Android phones. In little time we could spot-check maintenance needs, and the app lets you take the lead on who does the necessary upkeep.

    Like to do it yourself? The app shows you how, step-by-step, with videos where appropriate. You also get a parts list for any given procedure, and a way to order them online. Prefer to have your local dealer do the work? The app will help you locate dealers and schedule a tune-up.

    During our tests, we observed what the app was tracking and saw the air filter (replaced every 100 hours), engine oil (change initially after five hours), blades (sharpened every 50 hours), and battery. There are also scheduled tasks recommended for every 10, 25, 50, and 100 hours. Once you’ve completed a task, you reset the monitor for that task, and the app will log it as completed.

    The app is designed to operate more in the background than in your face—nagging isn't part of the program. And if your phone is out of commission or off while charging, it’s no problem: The meter in the tractor will keep track of the hours and update the app once you reestablish contact.

    The one caveat to mention is that Cub Cadet is among the more repair-prone brands of lawn tractors and zero-turn-radius riders. Perhaps with regular use of the Cub Connect app, you could help the odds that your machine will last as long as it should.

    Be sure to check our lawn mower buying guide if you’re in the market for some new gear. Top picks from our riding mower Ratings include the 42-inch John Deere X300 lawn tractor, $3,000; the 54-inch, wide-deck Craftsman 20445, $3,500; and the 42-inch Troy-Bilt Mustang 42" 17WFCACS, $2,300, a zero-turn-radius rider.

    —Ed Perratore (@EdPerratore on Twitter)

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

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