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    Warren Buffett's Woodstock, 2015 edition

    The premier event of the weekend may have taken place not in not Las Vegas or Kentucky, but Omaha, Nebraska where Berkshire Hathaway's annual meeting is held. Chairman and CEO Warren Buffett fielded questions from some the 40,000 shareholders in attendance.

    As usual, most of Berkshire's products were available for purchase at the annual meeting, from Heinz ketchup to chocolate from See's Candies. But Buffett's opinions of Berkshire products aren't always the same as our readers and testers. For example:

    Read more about how to do well in the stock market in our story, " Invest like Warren Buffett."

    • Buffett may have detected value when Berkshire Hathaway joined with 3G Capital to purchase Heinz in 2013. But in our condiment taste-off, nearly half of our tasters preferred a store-brand ketchup to Heinz’s. Nor were Kraft's salad dressings any better—the three we tested all ranked in the bottom half of our store-bought salad dressings ratings. (Heinz announced that it was acquiring Kraft Foods earlier this year.)

    Over the weekend, Buffett also took a jab at Whole Foods, suggesting that Coca-Cola makes people happy, and that he doesn't see many smiling people shopping at Whole Foods Markets. (For the record: Consumer Reports' readers are relatively satisfied with Whole Foods, except for the prices). And some unmentionables remained unmentioned. Although we've no doubt Buffett stands behind Berkshire's Fruit of the Loom products, Buffett apparently wasn't asked about them. Fair enough: Consumer Reports hasn't rated tightie whities or other men's undergarments, for years. 

    –Chris Horymski


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

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    Watch out for tax-season robocall scams

    The phone message literally scared me silly. An official-sounding voice purporting to represent the IRS claimed I owed money on my taxes and that I had to pay immediately or risk a severe penalty. I like to think that I’m reasonably savvy about phone scams but due to a mistake by my accountant, I did owe the IRS. Without thinking things through, I assumed the call meant our ongoing dispute had been decided–against me–and I had to pay up. Heart pounding, I called my accountant to report that I was prepared to write a check.

    And that’s how I learned that I had nearly fallen for one of this year’s most pernicious—and prevalent—phone scams.  

    Robocalls can turn you into a scam victim. Read more about how to Protect yourself from robocall

    Aggressive and threatening telephone calls by criminals impersonating IRS agents are at the top of the list of the Internal Revenue Service’s annual “Dirty Dozen” list of tax scams for the 2015 filing season. The Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA) has received reports of nearly 300,000 attempts to perpetrate this scam since it first appeared in October 2013; nearly 3,000 victims have collectively been defrauded of over $14 million as a result.

    As tax season approaches its peak, be alert for phone scams like this one. 

    How you get scammed

    Scammers “spoof” caller ID numbers to make it look as though they’re calling from an IRS office. They use fake names and bogus IRS badge numbers; sometimes they say they represent the IRS Criminal Investigation and threaten police arrest, deportation, revocation of your driver’s license and heavy penalties. They may claim to know the last four digits of your Social Security number. They leave “urgent” callback requests. They often demand that payments be made by prepaid debit card.

    In a related scam, IRS impersonators may say you have a refund due and ask you to provide personal information so you can claim it–and they can steal your Social Security number.

    “These criminals try to scare and shock you into providing personal financial information on the spot while you are off guard,” says IRS Commissioner John Koskinen. “Don’t be taken in and don’t engage these people over the phone.”

    How can you tell if it’s a scam artist on the phone, not the real deal?

    How to tell if the caller is a scammer

    The real IRS will usually contact you by regular mail or a certified letter, if it needs to contact you at all. It will never:

    • Call to demand immediate payment, nor will the agency call about taxes owed without first having mailed you a bill.
    • Demand that you pay taxes without giving you the opportunity to question or appeal the amount they say you owe.
    • Require you to use a specific payment method for your taxes, such as a prepaid debit card.
    • Ask for credit or debit card numbers over the phone.
    • Threaten to bring in local police or other law-enforcement groups to have you arrested for not paying.
    • Use email, text messages or any social media to address your personal tax issues involving bills or refunds.

    If you do get a phone call from someone claiming to represent the IRS and asking for money, protect yourself by doing the following:

    • If you know or think you owe taxes, call your accountant or the IRS at 800-829-1040.
    • If you know you don’t owe taxes, report the incident to the TIGTA at 800-366-4484 or at
    • Report the scam to the Federal Trade Commission’s FTC Complaint Assistant.

    And remember, it’s important for regulators and policymakers to keep hearing from consumers. Consumers Union, the policy and action arm of Consumer Reports, has launched a campaign to push the major phone companies to provide free tools to block unwanted robocalls before they reach your phone. Right now, one of the most effective actions you can take is to make your voice heard by signing the petition at our website at

    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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    Apple Watch comes out tops in Consumer Reports smartwatch tests

    We’ve been spot-testing smartwatches for a while now, but the with the arrival of the Apple Watch, the category has catapulted into mainstream status (even analysts who are down on the Watch’s prospects have Apple selling 30 million of these devices next year). But Apple isn’t the only game in town. Manufacturers such as Samsung, Pebble, and Martian have been selling high-tech wristwear for years, and some of the watches from these companies are in their second and third generations.

    For the last several weeks, we’ve run 11 smartwatches through our labs to test for durability, health functionality, readability in bright and low light, ease of use, and ease of interaction.

    As part of our durability testing, we run all smartwatches through a scratch-resistance test with a series of picks calibrated to the Mohs scale, which uses 10 minerals of increasing hardness as reference points. As we’ve reported previously, the stainless-steel Apple Watch, with its sapphire crystal face, was a standout in this test. It survived a number 9 Mohs pick (just below diamond hardness) and earned an excellent rating. The Apple Watch Sport with an Ion-X glass face, along with other watches sporting Gorilla Glass, scored slightly lower in this test.

    Looking for a high-tech timepiece? Check out our Smartwatch Buying Guide.

    For water resistance, we use a depth-test chamber that can be pressurized to simulate any depth up to 230 feet. Although Apple doesn’t claim that its smartwatches are waterproof, the company says the devices conform to IPX7 under IEC standard 60529, which means that it should be able to withstand submersion in 3.3 feet of water for 30 minutes. We set our depth-test chamber to match the water-resistance specification claimed by each smartwatch manufacturer. We submerge the watches, then check them for proper functionality immediately upon removal from the chamber, then again 24 hours later. The stainless-steel Apple Watch passed the test on the first try. The first aluminum Apple Watch Sport we put through our immersion test seemed fine when we took it out of the tank, but we experienced problems with it 24 hours later. We then tried two more samples, which showed no problems, so the Apple Watch Sport passed our water-resistance test.

    Sony’s SmartWatch 3 was the only watch that did not pass our water-resistance test. Two consecutive samples did not function properly after being submerged for 30 minutes at 3.3 feet. Because of its poor performance in this test, the Sony fell to the bottom of our rankings.

    In the end, our top-Rated smartwatch is the stainless-steel Apple Watch. Its performance on the scratch-resistance test, along with excellent scores for ease of pairing and ease of interaction makes our top choice. Not an iPhone user? Not to worry, several Android-compatible models, and one multi-OS compatible smartwatch, got very good Ratings as well. Check out our Smartwatches page for more information.  

    —Glenn Derene

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

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    A genetic test for eye vitamins?

    If you have macular degeneration, can a simple genetic test taken with a cheek swab accurately determine which eye vitamins are best for you? Some eye doctors are telling their patients just that.

    The test involves analyzing DNA cells, and the idea for it stems in part from a November 2013 study in the journal Ophthalmology, which claimed that some people respond best to zinc supplements alone, while others should take an antioxidant pill combin­ation known as AREDS (a  specific blend of vitamins C and E, plus copper, lutein, zeaxanthin, and zinc).

    Get clear advice on macular degeneration, glaucoma, and cataracts.

    But that study was funded by the lab that performs the DNA analysis. And Emily Chew, M.D.—a deputy director at the National Eye Institute who authored the main study to date of eye sup­plements and macular degen­eration and who has also researched the possible connection between eye supplements and genetic subgroups—is dubious.

    “Genetic testing is a valuable research tool, but our study found it provides no benefit in determining which sup­plement to take,” she says. In all groups, she found that “zinc helps, but not as much as the combination.”

    Note that not all eye supplements contain the proper AREDS formulation. In an analysis of 11 eye-health supplements in the March 2015 issue of Ophthalmology, only four contained the right mix: PreserVision Eye Vitamin AREDS Formula, PreserVision Eye Vitamin Lutein Formula, PreserVision AREDS2 Formula, and ICAPS AREDS.

    Consumer Reports' advice: Skip the test, which can cost up to $750 and may have to come out of your own pocket. And be wary if your doctor tries to sell you special supplements, too.

    —Sue Byrne

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

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

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    8 products on deep discount in May

    Consumer Reports analysts track prices all year-round, so we can tell you when things are at their deepest discounts, month by month. If you crave a new MP3 player, carpeting, or a lawn mower, you can find great deals on them in May.

    Planting May flowers? This is the month many of us can finally get out and work in our yards and start exercising outdoors; luckily you'll also find great prices on athletic apparel and shoes. Nature-lovers will benefit from sales on outdoor gear such as camping equipment.

    Small consumer electronics and cordless phones will be discounted, and you can find lower prices on mattresses. This year you'll also find some deals on hybrid cars.

    If you're in the market for any of those discounted items, we've got shopping tips and buying guides that can help you find the right models. Want to know what's on sale the rest of the year? Check our calendar of deals.

    ––Mandy Walker (@MandyWalker on Twitter)


    Our panelists have logged thousands of miles evaluating running, walking, and cross-training shoes. We've tested them on pavement, in gyms, and in our labs, too. We've checked whether the front of the shoe flexed enough to let you push off easily with the ball of your foot. And we've measured stability (control of ankle motion), shock absorption at the forefoot and heel (where the impact is greatest), and breathability (the ability to dissipate moisture).

    Shopping tips:

    Weight matters. The lighter the shoe, the better—as long as cushioning and stability don't suffer. For more tips, see our athletic shoe buying guide.

    Time it right. Ask salespeople at your favorite retailers when markdowns tend to occur. An associate at Kohl’s, for example, told us they typically mark down the most stuff on the second and fourth Saturday of each month. And don’t forget about outlets. Additional price slashing generally takes place on holidays, including the 4th of July. To avoid the crowds, plan your trip for Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday, when there are fewer shoppers. Plus that’s often when new merchandise is delivered.

    About 40 million Americans go camping each year. That's more than the number who play golf.

    Shopping tips:

    Consider size carefully. When we tested tents in the past, we found you'd be wise to doubt most tents' claimed accommodations. If a package says the tent fits eight people, that may be true only if they're stacked like cordwood or stash their gear in the car. Also keep in mind that large tents can weigh more than 30 pounds and often require two people to set up. Small tents generally weigh 6 to 11 pounds, but they can feel confining.

    Shop around. To find the best tent for you and your family, visit several stores, including big box stores such as Sears and Walmart, and sporting-goods chains. You can also buy online, but set it up in a store first to see how easy it is to put up and and walk (or crawl) inside to check how many people it will comfortably fit. While you're at the store, see if the staff will beat any deals you found online.

    Even the most luxurious carpet doesn't have to cost a fortune. Shop around to find carpet that fits your lifestyle and budget.

    Shopping tips:

    Get a complete quote. Always request separate pricing for materials and installation so you can make an "apples-to-apples" comparison among different suppliers.

    Think about carpet care. The wrong carpet may wear out quickly, fade, or show stains that resist your best cleaning efforts. Our carpet cleaner buying guide lists the pros and cons of DIY carpet cleaning versus hiring an expert. Our Ratings of carpet cleaning machines show which ones did best in our tests. We also have stain-fighting tips in our carpet stain remover buying guide, and Ratings of the most effective stain-removing products. And we've found that upright vacuums, especially with a bag, clean carpets best.

    Our tests show that many new cordless phones have very good overall voice quality. Some are excellent, approaching the voice quality of the best corded phones.  

    Shopping tips:

    Give it a try. In the store, hold the handset to see whether it fits the contours of your face. The earpiece should have rounded edges and a recessed center that fits nicely over the middle of your ear. Check the buttons and controls to make sure they're reasonably sized and legible.

    Get some backup. Most cordless phones won't work without electricity unless they have some kind of power backup system. Look for a compartment in the charging base for a spare handset battery pack or for alkaline batteries for base-power backup. For more shopping tips, see our cordless phone buying guide.

    Lower gas prices have cooled car buyers' interest in hybrids. To lure them back to showrooms, automakers have rolled out some of the biggest incentives in the industry on hybrids and electric cars. Some of the deals won't last through this month, but a couple will be around through early July.

    Shopping tips:

    Check our fuel economy figures. Hybrid technology comes in many forms, and not all hybrids are ultra efficient. Our data show that full-hybrids (those capable of driving on electric power alone for at least short distances) yield the biggest improvements in fuel economy.  

    New vs. used If you're considering whether to buy a new or used hybrid, there are several factors to consider. The most important may be obsolescence. Hybrid technology is moving at almost personal-electronics speed. Reliable used hybrids can be a welcome alternative. The used-car market is about three times the size of the new-car market, so there's plenty of choice out there. For more tips, check out our Hybrid/EV buying guide. Subscribers can find out which models shine in our Ratings.  

    While you're checking out the great deals on mowers this month, read our buying guide to decide which type of mower fits your needs; subscribers can find our recommended models in each category in our Ratings.

    Shopping tips

    Don't be swayed by numbers. Our latest tests confirm that more horsepower doesn't necessarily mean higher-quality mowing. Mower manufacturers have swapped horsepower numbers for engine-size and torque specifications, but even those don't guarantee better results.

    Consider your lawn. A gas or electric push mower is fine for a small lawn. But you'll probably prefer a self-propelled gas model for slopes and a lawn tractor for a lawn one-half acre or larger.

    Manufacturers usually modify innerspring mattresses for different sellers, changing the color, padding, quilting pattern, and so forth. Then each seller can call the mattress by a different name. Because such mattresses are at least somewhat different, and the names vary, you can't comparison shop. (A big chain such as Sears or Bloomingdale's has the same model names for the same beds at all of its stores, usually at the same price.)

    Shopping tips:

    Take them for a spin. Buy at a store, not online or over the phone, unless you've already tried the identical mattress in a store. A product manager for Tempur-Pedic told us that more online customers return their mattresses than shoppers who buy in a store.

    Shop back to front. Start out with the least expensive bed from a few top brands, and work your way up in cost. Stores keep the priciest models up front, so head to the back of the store first. Our mattress buying guide contains lots of additional shopping tips. We put mattresses to tough tests; you can see which ones came out on top in our Ratings.  

    Early fall is a good time to buy many small consumer electronics such as MP3 players, DVD players, and Blu-ray players. As with many items you buy, deciding which ones are right for you depends on which type fit your needs and come with features that are important to you. Our buying guides can help; for example, we have one for MP3s, DVD players, and Blu-ray players, and a list of other electronics guides. Subscribers can also access our ratings of MP3s and Blu-ray players.

    Shopping tips

    Give them a try. For example, whichever type of MP3 player you choose, make sure you'll be comfortable using the device. Look for a display that is easy to read and controls that can be worked with one hand, useful features iPods lack. When it comes to home theaters, audition systems in the store and ask about a return or exchange if the one you buy doesn't suit you.

    Consider online retailers, too. In recent years, the Consumer Reports readers we've surveyed who shopped online were more satisfied overall than those who shopped at a walk-in store. In fact, websites as a whole outdid walk-in stores for quality, selection, and price.

    Wondering where you should go to get the best deal on electronics? Watch the video below to find out.

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

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    Bed Bath & Beyond tightens return policy

    Bed Bath & Beyond may be recognizable for those signature blue 20 percent-off coupons that routinely show up in your mailbox, but the home and decor chain is equally known for its generous, hassle-free return policy. However, a recent policy shift now means a penalty for those who bring back goods without a receipt or other verification.

    While Bed Bath & Beyond will continue to take back unwanted merchandise without time limit, restocking fees, or shipping charges for online orders, customers who lack a receipt will receive a merchandise credit for the current selling price minus 20 percent. Customers who can’t produce the credit card used in the transaction will be similarly penalized. The same holds true if a purchase was made off of a gift registry but there’s not record of it.

    Previously, these types of returns were allowed but without the 20 percent hit.

    Read about the best shopping sites to visit if you want to make purchases online.

    The new policy took effect in late April, though customers were alerted to it well in advance via in-store signage and handouts, says Jessica Joyce, public relations manager for the company, which operates around 1,400 stores. The policy also applies to the chain’s sister merchants Buy Buy Baby and Harmon Face Values.

    Joyce wouldn’t explain the reason for the policy revision, saying only, “We pride ourselves on providing customers with a noticeably better shopping experience and modifications such as this will allow us to continue to deliver exceptional service in the future.”

    But retail industry consultant Jack Abelson is convinced the change was prompted by internal auditing that revealed “at least a hint of (return) fraud or something akin to it,” resulting in financial losses. Return fraud takes make many forms including when criminals attempt to return stolen merchandise for cash or credit.

    “I’ve never seen a number (20 percent) like this attached,” says Abelson, who described the penalty is reasonable, though it’s too early to tell if it will result in a consumer backlash. “If the sales impact is large enough, Bed Bath & Beyond can always revert to the old policy.”  He predicted other retailers would adopt similar policies.

    We checked with a handful of companies, and two responded. A Kohl’s spokeswoman referred us to the company’s written policy, which makes no mention of a penalty for receipt-less returns. At Macy’s, senior vice president of corporate communications Jim Sluzewski said the chain doesn’t have any plans to amend it’s policy.

    “We will accept for return or exchange any merchandise that does not completely satisfy the customer,” Sluzewski says. “Our goal is to refund the original price paid whenever possible. In addition to providing a receipt to the customer, we also attach a separate Merchandise Return Label (with a barcode) to each item. That label records the actual price paid for the item so we can return the appropriate amount paid if it is returned. We ask customers to keep their receipt, gift receipt, or merchandise return label. If there is no receipt and we are unable to determine the actual price paid, we will refund the lowest selling price on that item within the last 180 days.”

    —Tod Marks


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

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    How to stay safe on exercise equipment

    The sudden death of Silicon Valley executive Dave Goldberg is a tragic reminder of how dangerous exercise equipment can be. The 47-year-old Goldberg, who was on vacation with family and friends in Mexico, died on Friday, reportedly of head trauma and blood loss after falling off a treadmill. Between their powerful motors, fast-spinning belts, and dangling cords, treadmills cause tens of thousands of injuries each year, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. Many of the injuries involve children, though adults are vulnerable as well, as this latest tragedy shows. The following safety tips from Consumer Reports’ exercise experts will help minimize the risks, whether you’re operating a treadmill at home or at an outside gym. 

    Clear the area

    Some of the most dangerous treadmill accidents involve people who loose their footing and end up pinned between a wall and the machine, whose spinning belt can cause serious skin burns and shearing. Clearance requirements vary by machine, so always follow the manufacturer's recommendations. If that information isn’t available, a good rule of thumb, according to ASTM International, a standard setting organization, is to leave at least 6 1/2 feet of free space at the back of the treadmill and about 1 1/2 feet at either side.        

    Use the safety key

    Even with adequate clearances around the treadmill, you should always use the safety key that’s found on all machines. One end plugs into the console and the other end clips onto your clothing. If you fall, the key will pop out of the console and the treadmill should come to a safe stop. 

    Straddle the deck

    Avoid starting the treadmill while standing on the belt. The motion could catch you by surprise and knock you off balance, sending you flying. Get into the habit of straddling the deck and allowing the belt to start moving before stepping on it.  

    Keep your head up

    If you’re new to the treadmill, you may be tempted to look at your feet as you run. But looking down (or off to the side) can cause you to lose your balance and fall. Always keep your head up and look ahead at the console or another focal point in the room.

    Don’t overdo it

    Keep track of your heart rate while you exercise. Many treadmills have hand contact heart rate monitors or you can use a separate monitor with a chest strap. We prefer chest strap monitors because they’re generally more reliable and you don’t have to worry about holding onto contact sensors while running, which can present its own balancing challenges.  

    For normal healthy people, working at a moderate level of intensity is recommended. That means a target heart rate of between 64 and 76 percent of maximum heart rate (which is 220 minus your age). To work at a vigorous intensity, you should have clearance from your physician or have been exercising for a while. If you experience any signs or symptoms associated with heart attacks (chest pain, left arm or jaw pain, or numbness or dizziness) stop immediately and seek medical attention. 

    Come to a complete stop

    Trying to save time by hopping off the treadmill before it stops is another possible cause of injury. Always let the belt come to a complete stop before dismounting. It’s also important for you to know where the emergency shut-off button is located on the machine so that you can disable it immediately if necessary.

    Keep children away

    Children between the ages of 1 and 6 sustain more injuries from treadmills than any other age group. The injuries are often caused by falls leading to contusions and abrasions after the machine is accidentally turned on. Always remove the safety key and keep it out of reach when the treadmill is not in use. There have also been cases of children dying by asphyxiation after their necks become entangled in electrical wires hanging from the control panel. So the best policy is to keep children away from your home treadmill at all times.         

    —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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    Is the new Jeep Renegade a real Jeep?

    Most car companies would love to have a brand like Jeep. Rooted in wartime history and celebrating the pastime of off-roading, the brand's appeal spans all incomes and ages. Need more evidence? Look at Jeep's record-setting sales. Driving those numbers are models, such as the new Renegade, that lack the rugged cred of “true” Jeeps like the Wrangler. These models might benefit Fiat-Chrysler Group’s balance sheet, but do they risk alienating traditionalists?

    To find out, for this episode of "Talking Cars" we’ve invited one of our Jeep-owning staff members, George Kennedy, to bring in his off-road-ready 1999 Jeep Cherokee. (Several other staffers own older Wranglers in various states of repair.) Other than mercilessly mocking George for his project Jeep’s various shortcomings, we talk about how the Renegade fits with the brand and how it matches customer expectations and discuss whether it’s a good value or not. (Read our Jeep Renegade first drive.)

    Next we answer some reader complaints about reliability and recommendations, particularly comparing the Jeep Cherokee and Volkswagen Golf. Finally, we look at the VW Golf R, the top-trim model of the legendary GTI hot hatch. As expected, the gang is split on that car’s appeal and value.

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

    Also view:

    Tom Mutchler

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

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    10 small specialty appliances for special occasions

    The race for space on your counter is on. Big brands like KitchenAid and Electrolux are launching lines of small appliances to complement their large ones. And both new and established brands are coming up with clever ways to help you prepare and cook tasty meals.  Consumer Reports has tested a variety of small specialty appliances to see which deserve a place on your counter and which don’t. Here’s the details.

    KitchenAid Multi-Cooker

    We paid $400 for the 4-quart KitchenAid Multi-Cooker and an optional Stir Tower accessory.  KitchenAid claims it, “delivers consistent culinary results with more than 10 cooking methods for amazing versatility.” Pre-programmed settings are sauté, sear, soup, yogurt, risotto, rice, boil/steam, simmer, keep warm (up to 24 hours), and slow cook low and high.
    Worth the space? We caramelized onions (yum!) and cooked chili, ham, grits, and much more.  The KitchenAid Multi-Cooker might be just the right gift for the person who likes to cook.
    Read the full story.

    Stirio Hands-Free Stirrer

    The Stirio Hands-Free Stirrer, $54, “clamps onto your pot and will stir any food; for example, porridge, risotto, or stew, while you can put your feet up and enjoy a glass of wine or set the table.” The Norway manufacturer, Unikia, also claims that Stirio is safe to use with nonstick coated pots, the rechargeable motor provides at least one hour of stirring before you recharge it, the motor is “silent.”
    Worth the space? Stirio works best on sauces and soups, which usually don’t require constant stirring. Making risotto was a challenge and Stirio wasn’t that quiet.
    Read the full story.

    Ronco Ready Grill

    Ronco claims the $120 indoor grill makes delicious, grilled meals in just 20 minutes. Ronco says the smokeless grill offers true grilled flavor and that it even cooks frozen foods straight from the freezer. The removable grill basket and drip tray make cleanup a snap.
    Worth the space? We tested the Ronco by cooking fried chicken, French fries, steak, sausage, bacon, toasted cheese sandwiches, and burgers and found the Ronco grill preheated fast, cooks much faster than a regular oven, and was even faster than a convection oven.
    Read the full story.

    Philips Digital Airfryer

    Philips claims this odd-looking appliance “fries, bakes, roasts, and grills with a tablespoon of oil or less.” It says the $349 appliance cooks fast with perfect results, and that it’s easy to use.
    Worth the space? Testers were sad to see the Philips Airfryer leave our labs. It quickly preheats, cooks much faster than a regular oven and turned out delicious meat and potatoes. The instructions suggest cutting cooking times in half and reducing conventional oven temperatures by 70° F for pre-made packaged foods, but you’ll have to experiment.
    Read the full story.

    Wolfgang Puck Pressure Oven

    Celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck wants families to gather at the dinner table and enjoy a great meal together. He admits that’s hard to do, and his solution is the Wolfgang Puck Pressure Oven, $250. Puck promises that you can cook extraordinary meals just like he does and that food cooks in one-third the time. He adds that the $249 Pressure Oven can replace your oven, toaster, and microwave.
    Worth the space? It works, but not as dramatically as claimed. And don’t give away your toaster or microwave yet. The manual for the Wolfgang Puck Pressure Oven says it takes 7 minutes for lightly toasted bread—most toasters pop up medium toast in about 2 minutes—and a cup of water won’t come to a boil like it does in a microwave.
    Read the full story.

    Crock-Pot Smart Slow Cooker

    Fuss-free functionality is still the biggest appeal of slow cookers. You simply add in the ingredients, turn on the cooker, and some hours later, dinner is served. Now Crock-Pot, the brand synonymous with slow cooking, is rethinking the product with the WeMo-enabled Smart Slow Cooker, the first slow cooker that you can control and monitor from your smartphone.
    Worth the space? The smart Crock-Pot, $150, did a fine job of heating water and it also turned out a pretty nice beef stew. But so did lower-cost models without the connectivity.
    Read the full story.

    BakerStone Pizza Oven Box

    What if you could turn your gas grill into a gourmet pizza oven for about $150? The BakerStone Pizza Oven Box is supposed to do just that, and fast, turning out pizzas in two to four minutes. The grill pros and pizza master at Consumer Reports ate a lot of pizza to put these claims to the test.
    Worth the space? The pizzas took about four minutes to bake in the box and less time to devour.
    Read the full story.

    Remington iCoffee

    The Remington iCoffee, $150, looks like a conventional drip coffeemaker with a giant basket. But the differences are more dramatic. While a traditional drip coffeemaker showers the coffee grounds with water from above, the iCoffee uses SteamBrew, a process that uses hot water jets to soak and stir the grounds in a swirling soup, akin to a French press.
    Worth the space? At the beginning and end of the brewing process, the machine plays notes from Mozart’s "Eine Kleine Nachtmusik" perhaps a suggestion that you and your coffeemaker will make beautiful music together.
    Read the full story.

    Cuisinart Steam Advantage CSO-300

    The Cuisinart Steam Advantage CSO-300, $300, looks like a regular toaster oven, which means its size limits you to cooking one dish at a time, but it has a removable reservoir that you fill with tap water. The results were impressive in our tests. When set to 450° F steam-bake mode, the Cuisinart cooked a fairly evenly browned 4-pound chicken in about 40 minutes—half the time needed for a conventional electric oven set to 350° F.
    Worth the space? We liked the chicken but didn’t save any time cooking rice or broccoli, compared to when we prepared them on a cooktop and in a microwave. Our steam-baked loaf of bread was slightly crispier than the bread turned out by a conventional oven.
    Read the full story.

    Breville Juice Fountain Elite

    Breville makes a lot of exceptional small appliances, including our top-rated food processor, the Breville Sous Chef BFP800XL/A, and our number one toaster oven, the Breville Smart Oven BOV800XL. It can now add juicer to the list of things it does well, after the Breville Juice Fountain Elite 800JEXL/B, $300, landed on our list of top juicer picks.
    Worth the space? Breville's extractor-style juicer cranked out very good juice, plus it has many of the convenience features we look for, including an extra-wide feed tube, which means less cutting up of fruits and vegetables, plus a separate juice jug and pulp container.
    Read the full story.

    —Mary H.J. Farrell (@mhjfarrell on Twitter)

    Small appliance Ratings and recommendations

    Food processors


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    Is Hawaii your frequent flyer award dream?

    Hawaii is something of a Holy Grail of frequent flyer award destinations: Beautiful beaches, warm ocean breezes, an exotic tropical paradise. But if the Aloha State is your award dream, you better know, long before you try to redeem your miles and pack your luggage, which airlines are most likely to deliver the goods.

    As the chart below shows, Delta booked the greatest percentage of Hawaii round-trip tickets for award travel in the fiscal year ended September 30, 2014, from points all over the U.S. to Hilo, Honolulu, Kapaa, and Kahului-Wailuku-Lahaina, excluding island-to-island travel. To clearly identify visitors to Hawaii, we counted round-trip tickets from a U.S. Department of Transportation database, which contains a quarterly 10 percent sample of all airline tickets booked in the United States.

    Although United booked a greater number of award tickets, that represented only 14 percent of its total passenger traffic to Hawaii.

    Biggest twist: Hawaiian Airlines booked the lowest percentage of award tickets, and Alaska Airlines logged more than twice the number.

    For more insight and advice on how to get the most from your frequent flyer program, see The ultimate frequent flyer guide.

    —Jeff†Blyskal (@JeffBlyskal on Twitter)



    Number of round-trip award passengers to Hawaii

    % of Hawaii trips booked for awards
















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

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    Don't bring a deadly infection home from the hospital

    You go to the hospital to get better. But too often, the opposite hap­pens. One in 25 patients, or about 720,000 Americans each year, pick up an infection while in the hospital. Nasty ones, too, that may not be treatable with antibiotics and, too often, are fatal.

    Just one of those infections—caused by the bacter­ium clostridium difficile, or C. diff—sickens about 450,000 people per year and kills almost 30,000, according to the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And Consumer Reports’ research shows that many hospitals don’t do a good job of controlling the infections: Three out of 10 hospitals in our hospital Ratings got low marks for not keeping C. diff in check, and four out of 10 got low marks for not reining in another deadly in­fection, MRSA, or methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus.

    Those and other infections are spreading to doctors’ offices, nursing homes, other health care facilities—­even people’s homes. That’s partly because many patients don’t know they have developed an infection until after they’re discharged: Though two-thirds of C. diff infections were linked to health care facilities, only 24 percent of infected people developed symptoms while hospitalized, according to a February 2015 study in the New England Journal of Medicine. Here’s how to protect yourself:

    See our Ratings of hospitals in your area on infections and other measures. And read more about how to stay safe in the hospital.

    Hospitals are breeding grounds for dangerous infections, in part because of rampant misuse of antibiotic drugs. In 2010, almost a third of hospital patients were given at least one dose of powerful broad-spectrum antibiotics, which target multiple bacteria types at once. Those drugs should be reserved for the hardest-to-treat infections. But at least 30 per­cent of prescriptions written for antibiotics in hospitals are unnecessary or inappropriate, according to the CDC.

    The drugs increase infection risk in two ways. They can kill off healthy gut bac­teria, allowing harmful bacteria to strike, says Clifford McDonald, M.D., a senior advisor at the CDC’s Division of Healthcare Quality Promotion. And anti­bi­otic overuse breeds “superbugs,” bacteria that are resistant to many of the drugs.

    So it’s vital that your doctor and hospital use antibiotics appropriately. “That doesn’t mean avoiding them altogether,” says John Santa, M.D., medical director for Consumer Reports Health Ratings Center. Instead, if you’re prescribed an antibiotic, ask the doctor to first determine what type of infection you have, if any, and to prescribe a drug, for the shortest time needed, that targets the in­fecting bacterium.

    Also ask your doctor about probiotics. Some research suggests that hospital patients who take certain good bacteria—in pills or possibly just in yogurt—are less likely to suffer from C. diff. The probiotics may encour­age the growth of healthy gut bacteria, which may protect against the harmful kind. Last, insist that everyone—doctors, nurses, and visitors—wash their hands before they touch you.

    “Everyone leaving the hospital needs to assume they may have been infected,” says Lisa McGiffert, director of Consumer Reports’ Safe Patient Project. So watch for diarrhea, fever, or other warning signs. Adults over 65 are especially vulnerable, in the hospital and at home. But anyone on antibiotics, infants, and people with a compromised immune system also face increased risks.

    “So good hygiene after a hospital stay is key,” McGiffert says. That means careful hand washing and, if someone has an infection, these extra precautions:

    • Clean frequently touched surfaces with 1 part bleach mixed with 10 parts water.
    • Try to reserve a bathroom for the infected person. “Think about what they do in hospitals,” McGiffert says. “They isolate infected patients.”
    • Don’t share towels or toiletries.

    —Ian Landau

    This article also appeared in the June 2015 issue of Consumer Reports on Health

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    5 best superzoom point-and-shoot cameras

    Many of us prefer shooting photos and videos on smartphones because they’re so convenient. But a smartphone isn't the best choice in all circumstances. Say you’re hoping to catch your favorite band at an outdoor concert. Your phone’s camera just can’t get in close enough to capture the guitarist wailing out a lead or the drummer pounding out the beat. You might try to use the digital zoom on your phone, but your results will be middling at best since that type of zoom degrades image quality. What you need instead is a camera with a long optical zoom lens. This superzoom will produce better images since it uses optical elements in the lens to get closer to the action.

    The latest superzooms are thinner, more compact, and lighter than their predecessors, which makes them ideal for traveling and getting in close can make for a great shot, whether you’re photographing the Caryatids on the Acropolis or the gravestones near Disney World’s Haunted Mansion.

    Here are five superzoom models to consider.

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

    Nikon Coolpix P610, $500

    This model includes an extremely long (60x) zoom, which will allow you to get in very close to your subjects. In fact, you can probably capture the craters on the moon with the Nikon Coolpix P610. Although it’s a bit heavier and bulkier than many in its class, this Nikon is a nice travel camera because it includes a GPS mode, which embeds geotagging into image files.

    Olympus Stylus SP-100, $400

    One problem with a model like this, which has an extremely long (50x) lens, is that it's easy to lose track of a subject once you zoom in, especially if it's moving. As a solution, Olympus included a special dot sight feature: Flipping up the popup flash reveals a glass panel below it (between the flash and the camera body), which has a red crosshair target projected on to it. Use this target to track your subject while you're composing the image on your LCD. The Stylus SP-100 has other nice extras that you won’t find on most point-and-shoots, such as an electronic viewfinder, which can be very useful in sunny situations where bright light washes out the image on your LCD.

    Canon SX710 HS, $350

    Compared to the larger, bulkier superzooms of the past, this Canon has a much smaller footprint. It’s slim and lightweight, but still has a 30x optical zoom lens. Because it has a highermegapixel count than most point-and-shoots, you can generously crop without losing too much detail. The Canon SX710 HS includes some fun shooting modes, too. For instance, its Creative Shot mode applies Instagram-type filter effects to your shots.

    Nikon Coolpix S9900, $350

    Like the Canon SX710, this superzoom packs a lot of features and performance into a lightweight, slim camera body. It has a 30x optical zoom lens, and also includes a swiveling LCD, which is great for capturing selfies and hard-to-reach shots. And travelers will appreciate the Coolpix S9900's built-in world map, which includes points of interest, an electronic compass, and built-in GPS for geotagging, just like the P610.

    Nikon Coolpix L840, $300

    What makes this superzoom stand out is that it’s one of the few contemporary cameras that runs on AA batteries. That can be very convenient if you're traveling and you run out of power, since it's easy to buy replacement batteries. Additionally, the camera has longer battery life than most point-and-shoots, so you might not need to run out so quickly to get those AAs. The Coolpix L840 also has one of the widest angle lenses of any point-and-shoot, at 22.5mm. That can be great when you want to capture the entire expanse of a landscape or when you want to cram as many people as possible into a group portrait.

    —Terry Sullivan

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    Nothing runs like a Deere you buy at the dealer

    The deep-voiced announcer on a current John Deere commercial makes it plain: “When it’s time to pick a mower, you gotta get on one,” a practice Consumer Reports routinely recommends. The commercial ends with the company's slogan, "Nothing runs like a Deere." But in our tests we discovered that even though John Deere lawn tractors and riders are among the best you can buy, some run a little better than others.  Deere's dealers sell machines that you can't find at your local home center. Here's the difference.

    At the dealer

    Select Series X-class John Deere lawn tractors ($3,000 to $4,000), sold by authorized dealers, have long been top picks in our lawn tractor Ratings. The John Deere X300, John Deere X304, and John Deere X310 sport twin-cylinder Kawasaki engines, considered among the longest-lasting; heavier-duty transmissions that are well-suited to towing or pushing; and sturdy construction you can feel when you're driving it.

    At home centers

    Deere's D-class tractors such as the John Deere D125 or John Deere D110, sold at Home Depot and Lowe’s, typically make our top picks list yet cost under $2,000. These models feature Briggs & Stratton engines, capable transmissions, and lighter-weight construction all-around. Unfortunately, while you can sit on one at the home center, you can’t give it a test drive except on certain “demo days.”

    How to compare

    If you’re committed to the Deere brand, which is among the most reliable lawn tractors, you can visit an authorized dealer to get some perspective. Dealers, especially those that service machines sold at home centers, often stock D-class as well as Select-Series tractors. So you can drive tractors of both tiers to see which you prefer. True, the Select-Series tractors cost more. But in addition to their sturdier parts and construction, dealer-sold machines have warranties that are twice as long.

    An affordable option

    The attraction of home-center tractors, of course, is the price but Deere fans will be happy to hear there's an in-between choice—the John Deere Sport Series S240—that's not a compromise. You can buy it at the dealer for $2,500. This recommended model offers a twin-cylinder Kawasaki engine and other components similar to what you find in the Select-Series tractors. But it’s built on a D-class frame.

    Our lawn tractor Ratings represent 10 brands, including Deere. If it's been years since you last shopped for mowing gear, be sure to see our mower buying guide.

    —Ed Perratore (@EdPerratore on Twitter)

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  • 05/06/15--12:29: New ETFs to watch
  • New ETFs to watch

    While some are waiting with bated breath for the world’s first, and perhaps only, bitcoin ETF (courtesy of the Winklevoss twins), 36 other exchange-traded funds have already been launched in the first two months of 2015. Which, if any, may be worthy of your attention?

    Probably the most important ETF launch so far is the SPDR DoubleLine Total Return Tactical ETF (ticker: TOTL), which is positioning itself as an alternative to another gigantic bond investment, the Pimco Total Return ETF (ticker: BOND). Both ETFs are unusual in that they don’t track a particular bond index like the Vanguard Total Bond Market ETF. Instead, they track the actively managed mutual funds with the same name. Both ETFs currently have the same expense ratio of 0.55 percent, so the difference between them will come down to which does the better job of managing its exposure to bonds in a year when the Federal Reserve is expected to raise rates.

    Another ETF worth following is the SPDR S&P 500 Buyback ETF (ticker: SPYB). Corporations have unusually large amounts of cash on the books. But many firms, instead of returning that cash to shareholders in the form of dividends, have chosen to purchase their own stock, thereby increasing the earning power of the company’s remaining shares. With an expense ratio of 0.35 percent, it’s less expensive than an established rival, the PowerShares BuyBack Achievers Portfolio (ticker: PKW), which sports an expense ratio of 0.68 percent.

    DoubleLine won’t have trouble attracting investors to its new ETF. But for most other fund issuers, there’s always a catch-22: They need to gather assets in order to be financially viable to the ETF sponsor. But many investors are reluctant to invest in an ETF until it gathers those assets. Though there’s no definite minimum, you would be wise to wait until an ETF manages at least $100 million before considering it as an investment. Otherwise, you may be left with the inconvenient task of dealing with a liquidated ETF in the future.

    Last, no one ETF is a silver bullet. It’s only of value when evaluated in the context of the rest of your portfolio.    

    –Chris Horymski

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

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    Why you should skip 'anti-aging' pills

    A slew of supplements are alleged to stave off aspects of aging. Widely sold ones include DHEA, which can, in theory, modestly raise levels of testosterone and estrogen; coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10), a vitaminlike substance that helps provide energy to cells; and the sleep-regulating hormone melatonin. Proponents claim that high doses of those substances can help ease depression, enhance sexual function, and more.

    Well, we hate to break the news, but there’s little evidence in humans that any supplement has anti-aging properties. And you can’t be sure that what’s listed on labels is what’s in the container. In addition, all of the supplements listed above may interact with drugs you take. Yet, like all supplements, they haven’t gone through the Food and Drug Administration approval process required for prescription medications. Also, some supplements pose health hazards, especially at the high doses that proponents may recommend.

    Learn more about supplements, including  contaminants in some weight loss and muscle-building products.

    “You might hurt yourself more than help yourself,” says David S. Seres, M.D., director of medical nutrition for the Institute of Human Nutrition at Columbia University and a member of Consumer Reports’ advisory board. DHEA supplements may pose the same risks as testosterone therapy. Melatonin was responsible for more than 5,000 calls to poison control centers in 2011, more than any other supplement, he adds. And it may interact with blood pressure drugs, blood thinners, and drugs for dia­betes.

    —Catherine Winters

    A version of this article appeared in the June 2015 Consumer Reports On Health newsletter.

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    How to care for six types of cookware

    When you invest hundreds of dollars in a cookware set, you expect it to last. And it will if you treat it right. Scouring and abrasive cleaners can scratch the surface of your pots and pans causing food to stick. Here are some tips from the experts at Consumer Reports on how to care for six common types of cookware.


    Wash as soon as possible after use, and dry thoroughly to avoid pitting. Aluminum dulls easily, so occasionally shine up the surfaces with a soapy scouring pad.

    Cast iron

    Season cast-iron cookware before using it. Brush the sides of a pot, pan, or saucepan with unflavored vegetable oil, then pour in enough oil to cover the bottom. Heat in the oven at low temperature for an hour. Remove, let cool, pour out the oil, and wipe away any residue with a paper towel. After each use, wash with hot water and dishwashing liquid, and dry thoroughly to prevent rusting. If you notice rust spots, scour with steel wool and a little vegetable oil.


    Instead of scouring, which can destroy the tin lining, wash pots and pans with warm water and dishwashing liquid and soak in the same solution, if necessary, to remove baked-on food. Clean the exterior of the cookware with a solution of white vinegar and salt, then rinse and polish. Or use a commercial copper cleaner.


    Aluminum, cast-iron, or pressed-steel pans and baking dishes covered with enamel can be washed by hand or in the dishwasher. Avoid abrasive cleaners and scrub pads to prevent scratching.


    Check care instructions. Most are not meant to be washed in the dishwasher and are easily cleaned with hot water and dishwashing liquid. Use plastic or nylon scrubbers on burned-on food.

    Stainless steel

    Wash stainless steel with detergent and water as soon as possible after use to reduce the chance of staining. Don’t use scouring powder or steel wool, which may scratch surfaces and leave them prone to staining, and don’t leave stainless-steel pans to soak for long periods, because mineral salts in the water may cause them to pit.

    Best cookware from our tests

    Consumer Reports tests pots and pans for cooking evenness, durability, ease of cleaning, and handle comfort and sturdiness, among other factors. Non-stick cookware tends to do better in our tests but if you’re a committed user of cast iron, copper, or other types of cookware, be sure to treat it right.

    10-piece cookware sets

    10-inch frying pans

    For more choices see our full cookware Ratings and recommendations.

    —Mary H.J. Farrell (@mhjfarrell on Twitter)

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    Men v. women: Different views on retirement

    What do you want for yourself in retirement? What fears do you have about that new life stage? They may not be the same dreams and concerns your partner has. Which is why, long before you leave your day job, you need to have some serious conversations with your significant other. 

    That message resonated with me recently while attending a weekend-long Paths to Creative Retirement workshop, sponsored by the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) at the University of North Carolina, Asheville. The workshop is designed to help pre-retirees and recently retired folks figure out how and when they'll retire, and to plan what they'll do afterward. If you can afford the steep, $850-per-person charge, it's worth a look. 

    Throughout the weekend, the 32 attendees—16 men and 16 women close to retirement, or already retired—participated in sessions designed to help them examine their personal views on money; consider how they'd like to allocate their time in retirement; devise, plan and initiate a retirement goal or dream; find a post-retirement volunteer or paid vocation; deal with new family roles in retirement; and numerous other topics. The workshop, held twice yearly, was generally not about the money aspects of retirement. It was about understanding one's goals, dreams and challenges for the next stage of life, and planning for them. 

    Notable was how men and women viewed the challenges of retirement differently. Many of the men expressed anxiety about losing their work identity. How would they craft a new role in retirement? How would they describe themselves when meeting new people? (Staffers at OLLI Asheville say they have a phrase for folks who can't shake their old, elevated roles: Previously Important Person, or PIP.) 

    A number of the women had the opposite concern. After years of tending to family, home, and paid or volunteer jobs, would they be able to find their identity again? "I don’t know who I am anymore," said one woman. "When I’m retired, am I gonna get sucked in to everyone else’s stuff?" (As we've written, women who are single, divorced or widowed have additional retirement concerns.)

    Consumer Reports' Retirement Planning Guide offers advice for making your second career fulfilling and financially secure.

    Several couples attended the workshop. They had a particularly enlightening experience. Pairs were separated for several sessions so that they could talk freely, without their partners listening. When the group reunited to share what they learned, the sexes sometimes were at odds. One married man described his hope that once he was retired, he could shed the mantle of being responsible for supporting the family, a burden he didn't think women shared. Several women in the room shook their heads vigorously. "A lot of us have our own mantles we'd like to shuck," one of them said.

    "With one or two exceptions, a common theme is that couples have not had the dialog about what they want and their shared vision," said a man from Florida who attended with his wife. "Having now had this shared experience, we also have the shared vocabulary. We’re going to start these discussions on the drive home." 

    Of course, you don't have to spend $1,700 per couple to go through the exercises we experienced in the workshop. Numerous books, recordings, magazine and web articles address the issue of the "softer" side of retirement planning. Or, you can just wing it.

    The important point is to start talking to your partner early in your retirement planning. You may find your views are wildly polarized, but more likely you'll find enough common ground to begin serious financial, logistical, and emotional planning. And, as some recently retired presenters at the weekend recounted, that can be the beginning of a very exciting time. 

    "Retirement gave me the freedom to reinvent myself," one retiree said.

    Said another: "I have never been as happy in my life as I am today."

    —Tobie Stanger (

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    Keeping your car safe from hacking

    Picture this: You’re driving along a stretch of road, and an unseen force takes over. The car picks up speed, then swerves—without your touching the accelerator or turning the wheel. You're no more than a helpless passenger. What just happened? Your car has been hacked.

    It’s a frightening scenario. But how real is this threat? Real enough that car manufacturers and security experts from the federal government are taking it seriously.

    “Any cyber expert will tell you that you can’t prevent it; it’s just a question of when,” says Mark Dowd, assistant general counsel for Global Automakers, a coalition of car manufacturers working to combat the looming threat of cyber attacks.

    Part of the heightened concern about the risk of a car being hacked comes from the increased use of computerization and electronic features in new cars. Systems such as self-parking capability, steer-by-wire, and automatic cruise control give vehicles the ability to partly drive themselves—and that theoretically increases the risk of vital controls being hacked. (Read "Can Your Car He Hacked?")

    As of now, a hack is difficult to pull off. But if carmakers standardize their software and firewalls, and become more uniform, it could attract the attention of hackers.

    However, if software engineers with the automakers and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) have anything to say about it, these attacks will never happen. It’s their task to stay a step ahead of anyone who might seek to hack a car or groups of cars—whether it’s terrorists, tech-pranksters, or someone seeking personal revenge.  

    At a lab on the grounds of the sprawling Transportation Research Center in East Liberty, Ohio, a team of NHTSA engineers spends their days hacking into vehicles. Consumer Reports was recently invited for an exclusive, behind-the-scenes demonstration to find out what the agency is doing to keep cars safe from a cyber attack. (Watch our video, above.)

    NHTSA Electronics Project Engineer Frank Barickman and his team showed us what kinds of hacks are possible—and which are not—using two test vehicles, a Ford Fusion and a Toyota Prius. The cars were chosen simply because they are commonplace, not because they have any particular vulnerability. The project team has uncovered ways to manipulate the ventilation fans, windows, lights, horns, door locks, seat-belt tension systems, instrument panels, brakes, steering, and engines—all while the cars are in motion.

    NHTSA’s computer engineers are able to perform their hacks thanks to high-powered engineering talent, intimate knowledge of the car’s software coding, unlimited access to the car, and a hard-wired connection to the car’s control center. Barickman is not aware of any real-world hack without physical access to a car—despite what a consumer might conclude from certain news reports and online videos.

    However, NHTSA is using those learnings to determine the extent of what automotive systems could be hacked and how vulnerable these systems are, as well as how soon and how easily these hacks could be performed routinely and remotely. (Read "Your Personal Driving and Car Data Could Be at Risk.")

    In concert with NHTSA, a consortium of automakers is working to combat the threat of cyber attacks, through the planned formation of an industry Information Sharing and Analysis Center (ISAC).

    The automotive ISAC also will address the larger issue of consumer data privacy. However, how soon there will be any substantive improvements to car security and privacy has not been publicly stated.

    In the interim, what can you do to be as vigilant as possible?  

    Don’t plug any unknown or unscreened devices into your car’s USB or OBD-II diagnostic port, including thumb drives used to store music. Those are connections that could introduce malware—malicious software that could change or render vulnerable your car’s computer system.

    Also, use only a mechanic you trust, because your car’s diagnostic connection is a “vector” where malware could be installed that could allow a gateway for a remote hack. Locate your car’s OBD-II port (typically under the dash on driver’s side) and familiarize yourself with what it looks like. If there's ever anything unusual plugged into it, or if it looks as if it's been tampered with, call your dealership.

    Consumer Reports will stay on top of this topic as it evolves and will update readers as we learn more.

    Read our special report, “In the Privacy of Your Own Home,” to learn about the connected devices that are tracking your daily routine.

    —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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    10 great used cars for teens under $10,000

     Choosing a car for a teen driver requires making tough financial decisions just as college bills loom on the horizon. The temptation, and often the necessity, is to buy an inexpensive older model. But going too cheap has trade-offs that could jeopardize the safety of your child.

    Automobile crashes are the leading cause of death for 14- to 18-year-olds. And the fatal crash rate for teen drivers is three times as high, per mile driven, as for the rest of the population. That means you shouldn’t skimp on safety when choosing a used car for your young driver.

    We’ve identified a few critical features for your teen’s first car that will help keep him or her safe without depleting the college piggy bank. One must: Be sure your kid’s car comes with electronic stability control—the most effective safety advance in cars since the seat belt—as well as side and curtain airbags.

    Other important considerations: Cars should handle well in our emergency maneuver test and have good stopping distances (measured on factory tires). There’s also the tricky middle ground of finding a car quick enough to get out of the way of trouble but not so fast as to get into it. All of the cars here meet those requirements.

    Weight and size play a crucial role in safety. But we believe teens should drive sedans and not SUVs because SUVs’ higher center of gravity tends to make them less stable and because they encourage bringing a gaggle of distracting friends along for the ride.

    Phoning while driving—even hands-free—is something we strongly discourage among teens. However, emergencies arise. So this list calls out cars that feature Bluetooth connectivity to reduce distraction.

    While you’re waiting for your new driver to return with the keys to your own prized ride, check out our top 10 affordable suggestions for his or her first car.

    Starting at $8,125

    It may scream “rental car,” but the Malibu is solid, comfortable, and quiet. Its straightforward controls are a big help for teens. The pedals and steering wheel adjust for reach, which could make it an especially easy fit for teens who haven’t yet hit their growth spurt. There’s plenty of elbow room, and the seats are well-padded, especially if you find a Malibu with optional leather. Steering feel is light but accurate, and handling is responsive to help your teen swerve away from trouble. The four-cylinder engine is quiet and refined, and the car gets a respectable 25 mpg overall.

    Read the complete Chevrolet Malibu road test.

    Starting at $6,050

    The fun-to-drive Focus has an upright seating position that provides a good view down the road. The optional Sync infotainment system makes phone connections hands-free. For a compact car, the cabin has easy access and a larger backseat for two than you would expect from the outside. An optional manual transmission allows a kid to learn to drive a stick—which also will keep his or her hands busy and away from texting. The biggest downsides are a noisy and cheap-­feeling interior, although that won’t matter much to teens happy to have their own wheels.

    Read the complete Ford Focus road test.

    Starting at $8,075

    Bigger than the Focus, the midsized Fusion offers a more sophisticated interior and better handling and ride than its little brother. Sync Bluetooth con­nectivity and voice commands are available, but the distracting MyFord Touch system is an option to avoid. Center-console controls are simple, although some are oddly placed. The Fusion has a spacious interior and better-quality seats than other cars in the segment. The four-cylinder engine is backed by a smooth, quick-­shifting six-speed automatic transmission, though the engine is noisy when accelerating.

    Read the complete Ford Fusion road test.

    Starting at $5,225

    Comfortable, quiet, and daresay almost luxurious, the midsized 2006-2010 Sonata has a pillowy ride—although the trade-off is numb handling. Freshened for 2009, the four-cylinder engine and five-speed automatic deliver quiet acceleration, with very good gas mileage at 26 mpg overall. The backseat will hold three across comfortably, but front-seat support sags on long trips. A redesign in 2011 brought swoopy, coupelike styling, but at a sacrifice of rear-seat head room for double dates. The newer models racked up an impressive 27 mpg overall.

    Read the complete Hyundai Sonata road test.

    Starting at $8,650

    Kids bouncing off to college tote lots of boxes. And the Soul may be just the boxy appliance to deliver them. It gets impressive mileage and offers all of the features your child wants along with all of the safety features you demand. Kia’s Uvo connection system will play songs from a smartphone and enable hands-free calling to reduce distraction. The tall, upright driving position gives a good view ahead—although thick rear pillars create big blind spots. The engine revs loudly, and the Soul’s ride is jouncy. Still, the distinctive hatchback shape and versatility give the Soul a cool personality for your hipster-in-training.

    Read the complete Kia Soul road test.

    Starting at $9,825

    We should get commission checks for how many people we’ve advised to buy this car. The Mazda3 is safe, fuel-efficient, reliable, and a blast to drive. It comes in either sedan or hatchback form. Mazda3 s models have a more powerful engine than Mazda3 i models, but we don’t think teens need the extra boogie. Either way, the Mazda3 has spacious front seats and provides a nimble but reassuring ride, unusual for an econobox. You can get leather, navigation, and seat heaters, as well as rudimentary Bluetooth phone pairing. Its responsive handling and tidy size make it easy to dart away from trouble.

    Read the complete Mazda3 road test.

    Starting at $8,375

    One of the sportier midsized sedans on the market, the Mazda6 has a supple ride, with sharp steering and composed handling. The four-cylinder engine has no problem propelling this sedan, but cost cutting is evident in the pronounced road noise that seeps into the cabin. A long seat cushion and telescoping steering wheel make the Mazda6 a perfect fit for tall teens. Find a model with blind-spot monitoring—a boon to young drivers. Grand Touring models have larger, grippier tires, along with better seats and a nicer interior. Heck, you might borrow this car from your child.

    Read the complete Mazda6 road test.

    Starting at $7,300

    If your teen needs the cargo space of an SUV for a cello or hockey pads, check out the RAV4. It’s maneuverable, with precise handling, and has available all-wheel drive for inclement weather. The ride is choppy but still better than that of its competitors. The 2006 redesign has a longer wheelbase, providing more room for carrying dorm supplies with the backseats folded down. Blue­tooth hands-free phone pairing became available with the 2006 redesign. We recommend staying away from third-row-seat versions; accident rates rise dramatically as more teens pile into a car.

    Read the complete Toyota RAV4 road test.

    Starting at $7,250

    A sophisticated small car, the Jetta handles enthusiastically and rides smoothly, with good stability under duress. The 2.5-­liter, five-cylinder engine gruffly snorts power to the wheels, but fuel economy is below aver­age. Large windows give it wide-open visibility. Controls are intuitive. Seats are firm and comfortable; the backseat and trunk are spacious. The interior is dressed in materials and features that feel pulled from a pricier car—such as an air-conditioned glove box and center console to keep sodas and snacks cool. Reliability is good. Its cuteness quotient is high.

    Read the complete Volkswagen Jetta road test.

    Starting at $7,700

    Call it geek chic. The Rabbit and Golf have been among the best-selling cars worldwide for decades—but haven’t really caught on in America. The hatchback’s interior packaging is remarkably handy, whether transporting second-­row passengers or loading up for a road trip. The Rabbit feels a bit built-to-price, but simultaneous with its rename to “Golf” in 2010, the interior fit and finish and features improved markedly—without detracting from the agile and secure handling, comfortable ride, and supportive front seats. It has the same thirsty engine as the Jetta.

    Read the complete Volkswagen Golf road test.

    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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    Why you need renter's insurance

    The share of all households in the United States that rent rather than own is on the rise, yet many people have either never heard of renter’s insurance or ignore it. According to a 2014 survey by the Insurance Information Institute, 95 percent of homeowners had homeowner’s insurance but only 37 percent of renters had renter’s insurance. In other words, over 60 percent of renters had no basic protection for their possessions.

    That’s a sobering statistic. It’s easy to be blasé when most rental leases make the renter responsible only for what happens “from the paint in.” After all, you may think, building problems may make your life uncomfortable but the repair bill ultimately goes to the landlord. In fact, while your landlord’s insurance covers damage to the building, it doesn’t cover your belongings. 

    If you own your home, read our homeowner's insurance buying guide.

    Consider the costs of water damage caused by a neighbor’s leaky bathtub or the smoke from a grease fire. Even if you don’t think your possessions are valuable, imagine the implications of losing and having to replace everything you own. “You try to replace your bed, mattress, comforter, sheets, pillow—we’re talking a lot of money here,” says Jeanne Salvatore, senior vice president of the Insurance Information Institute. “If you have to re-buy everything, it’s going to cost thousands, even for the most bare-bones apartment.”

    Renter’s insurance provides financial protection against the loss or destruction of possessions from fire or smoke, vandalism, theft, explosion, windstorm and water damage (not including floods). If the individual is unable to live in his or her apartment, the policy also covers the cost of living in a comparable apartment for a certain amount of time. Because in most cases, renter’s insurance covers only the value of someone's belongings, not the building they’re housed in, the cost is relatively inexpensive: The average annual premium is less than $200.

    Most major companies offer renter’s insurance policies. You may even get a discount by bundling it with your auto insurance policy.

    Renter’s insurance is a given for millenials: 72% of householders under age 30 live in rental housing, according to the National Multihousing Council. But it also provides a safety net for the increasing number of older people who are moving from the suburbs into the city or selling the house they raised their family in and testing out a new lifestyle elsewhere. Moreover, all of the 18- to 24-year-old renters and those 65 and older who had insurance needed to use it at some point, according to

    For most Americans, buying auto and health insurance is a no-brainer. Renter’s insurance should be, too. “Absolutely, positively, purchase renter’s’ insurance,” says Salvatore. “It’s an essential.”

    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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