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Consumer Reports

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    Don't treat your lawn tractor like a car

    Trading up to a lawn tractor or other riding mower can be a liberating experience for anyone who’s been pushing a mower over a half-acre or more. But with all that capability comes more ways to hurt yourself or others. An estimated 15,737 people went to the ER last year with mower related injuries and eight people died, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission. These tips from the experts at Consumer Reports and the Outdoor Power Equipment Institute can keep you safe:

    Know the equipment

    Don’t treat your tractor or rider like a car that mows. Read the operator's manual to understand the controls, and be sure that any other family member who uses the machine does the same. Practice how to stop your mower quickly and to disengage the controls. And never remove or disable guards or other safety devices.

    Survey the terrain

    It’s harder with bigger properties to check in advance for holes, ruts, bumps, rocks, or other hidden objects. But all of these can pose a hazard or damage your blades. Tall grass—the reason you’re mowing—can hide obstacles. Hitting uneven terrain can even overturn the machine.

    Dress appropriately

    Sure, sandals and shorts feel good when you’re out in the hot sun. But you’re safer wearing sturdy shoes, long pants, and close-fitting clothing. You’ll also need hearing protection with all gasoline-powered tractors and riders.

    Watch for hills and hazards

    Especially on a slope, it’s very possible to slip, slide, and otherwise lose control. Be aware of the risks of rolling backwards and of dropping off a wall or bank—and perhaps into water. With zero-turn-radius riders in particular, rear-steering wheels give these riders their tight turns but make them difficult to control on steep slopes. Exceptions include riders that have steerable front wheels and steering wheels instead of the usual lap bars. And when mowing in reverse, be sure to check behind you for people, pets or obstacles.

    Need a new tractor or rider?

    Our walk-behind and riding mower Ratings include more than 180 models sold at home centers, Sears, dealers, and other retailers, including the $3,000 John Deere X300 and $3,500 Craftsman 20445 lawn tractors, and the $2,300 Troy-Bilt Mustang 42" 17WFCACS, a zero-turn-radius rider. Be sure to see our lawn mower buying guide before you shop.

    —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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    3 myths about dairy-free foods

    Have you sworn off dairy? Maybe you think it will ease your stomach woes. Or, now that you're middle-aged, you assume your bones don't need as much. Or maybe you're just drawn to all the dairy-free options now on supermarket shelves, including dairy-free ice cream, yogurt, and coffee creamer. Should you join the crowd? Probably not. "Unless you have a medical reason to skip dairy, such as an allergy to milk protein, adults can benefit by eating some dairy every day," says Consumer Reports chief medical adviser Marvin M. Lipman, M.D.

    Here we take a look at some common myths about milk and other dairy products.

    Myth 1: After age 30 you don't need calcium for your bones

    It's true that you reach peak bone mass by age 30, so getting calcium before that age is key, so you build as much healthy bone as you can. But calcium is still important. That's because after age 30 your bone mass begins to decrease, and not getting enough calcium in your diet speeds that loss. Adults age 19 to 50 need 1,000 milligrams (mg) of calcium per day, according to the National Institutes of Health. Women 50 and older and men 70 and older should aim for a daily dose of 1,200 mg.

    Calcium is critical for many of the body’s basic functions, including regulating your heartbeat, says Victor Khabie, M.D. chief of sports medicine at Northern Westchester Hospital in Valhalla, New York. “The bones are a storehouse for calcium and if you're not ingesting enough orally then the body will take calcium from your bones to keep the level of calcium in your blood normal.” And that can lead to osteoporosis, or brittle bones. The body also requires adequate protein and vitamin D to “remodel” bone, the process that keeps bone healthy.

    Myth 2: Calcium from pills is as good as calcium from food

    Getting your calcium from dairy products is a good idea for several reasons. First, to keep bones healthy you need calcium, protein, and vitamin D. Dairy products deliver all three in one tidy package. For example, three cups of fortified non-fat milk provides about 900 mg of calcium, 25g protein, and 350 IU of vitamin D.

    To get a day’s calcium supply without dairy takes careful planning. For example, you could eat 8 ounces of cooked broccoli, 3 ounces of canned sardines (with the soft bones), 2 oranges, 8 ounces of frozen collard greens, and 8 ounces of frozen green soy beans. And some research even suggests that getting too much calcium from supplements may be bad for your heart.

    If you don't like milk, "Try adding yogurt to your diet," says Maxine Siegel, Consumer Reports registered dietitian Maxine Siegel, "and if it contains live-active cultures you'll also get a dose of probiotics, which may have health benefits."

    Find out the truth about high-protein, low-carb diets and whether organic milk is worth the money.

    Myth 3: I have to give up all dairy because I'm lactose intolerant

    If you’re forsaking dairy because eating it brings on diarrhea, abdominal pain, and flatulence, there’s a good chance you are lactose intolerant—you don’t produce enough lactase, the enzyme that breaks down lactose.

    The problem is common. It affects 80 to 95 percent of Native Americans, 65 to 75 percent of African Americans, and 7 to 20 percent of Caucasians. Among Asians the rate can exceed 90 percent. But just because lactose intolerance is common, don't assume that you are. Instead, if you suspect the condition accounts for your stomach woes, ask your doctor to test for the problem with a simple blood or breath test.

    And even if you are intolerant, that doesn't mean you have to give up dairy entirely. There's an array of lactose-free dairy products on store shelves. "Lactose-free milk, cheese and yogurt contains all the beneficial ingredients without the lactose," Siegel says.

    The bottom line

    Dairy foods have garnered a bad reputation in some circles, but according to our experts, that bad rap is based on myths rather than actual science. In addition to promoting bone health, research shows that low-fat milk drinkers have a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes. “Looking at the evidence, not only is milk not harmful, but for the average individual, milk is beneficial," says Robert Heaney, M.D, a calcium researcher at Creighton University in Omaha.

    It's a good idea to limit whole milk and other full-fat dairy products that are high in saturated fat, which can put you at risk of heart disease. But unless you have a diagnosed medical reason to avoid it, low-fat or fat-free milk, cheese and yogurt deserves a place on your daily menu.

    —Lauren Cooper

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

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    Dehumidifiers that keep damp basements dry

    As the old saying goes, “It’s not the heat, it’s the humidity.” And with the most oppressive part of the summer still to come, it’s a good time to consider buying a dehumidifier to make your home more comfortable. A capable air conditioner also draws moisture from the air but if you have a damp basement or another clammy space, it may take a dehumidifier to get the job done. In Consumer Reports' dehumidifier tests, we recommend a number of models that cost as little as $200.

    If you have a dank basement, buy the largest dehumidifier you can. Capacity is measured in pints of water collected over a  24 hour period and the largest in our tests have a capacity of 60 to 70 pints. Our top-scoring large dehumidifier is the Kenmore Elite 54571, $330, which also has the advantage of being quiet. It earned excellent scores for water removal and energy efficiency. The tank is only 12 pints so you may be emptying it often. A better bet is to attach a hose and let the water drain into a floor drain or slop sink.

    Medium-sized dehumidifiers have a capacity of 45 to 50 pints. Our top mid-sized model is the Kenmore 54550, $230, which also got excellent scores for water removal and energy efficiency. One of the smallest dehumidifiers in our tests, the Sunpentown SD-31E, $200, also got the highest marks overall. It has a capacity of 30 pints.

    Find the source of the moisture

    Weather isn’t the only reason you may have moisture in your basement. To keep the dampness to a minimum, that are some steps you can take outdoors to ensure your comfort indoors. Here are some recommendations from Energy Star:

    • Extend downspouts from your gutters away from the foundation of your home.
    • Keep gutters and downspouts clear and open.
    • Ensure that the soil slopes away from your foundation to avoid pooling of water around your home.
    • Avoid over-watering of foundation plantings and make sure your outdoor faucets aren’t leaking.

    Indoors, make sure your dryer is properly vented to the outdoors and make a habit of using the vent fans in your kitchen and  bathroom to rid your home of humidity at the source.

    —Mary H.J. Farrell (@mhjfarrell 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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    Costco grows to become a leading car seller

    (via Consumerist) Toilet paper, giant jars of mayonnaise, enough shampoo to last a year: These are all items one might imagine being on a list for a quick trip to Costco. One thing we generally don’t expect: a new car. But that’s exactly what consumers are picking up at the warehouse store.

    Bloomberg reports that Costco has quietly climbed the list of top car retailers – selling nearly 400,000 vehicles of all makes and models at its stores across the country last year – putting it right behind the No. 1 car seller AutoNation.

    However, purchasing a car on your next trip to Costco won’t be the same as doing so at your local car dealership. In fact, a recent car buyer tells Bloomberg that the experience was void of the typical haggling and upselling one might expect.

    The other out-of-the-ordinary aspect: the big discount. The man says he spent $39,000 on a new Toyota Highlander, about $4,000 less than the recommended price.

    The relatively stress-free and discount-laden process is all because Costco’s foray into selling cars isn’t really about selling cars, Bloomberg notes.

    Instead, it’s all about the members. The company moves the vehicles through an auto-buying service called Affinity Auto Group. Costco uses its massive membership to leverage local dealers selling through Affinity into offering exclusive discounts.

    For example, Costco and General Motors offer buyers a store gift card of $500 and a non-negotiable price for most vehicles. The deal led to the sale of some 43,000 vehicles at the retailer in the last part of 2014.

    To ensure that dealers maintain the discounts they’ve promised the store, Costco sends in a team of mystery shoppers.

    Perhaps the most bizarre part of Costco’s sales strategy: Much like its unprofitable practice of selling rotisserie chickens to keep members loyal, the retailer doesn’t actually make money on the car sales it helps broker. Instead, Costco only offers the discounted vehicles to attract and keep members.

    While it was once difficult to get carmakers to sell through Costco, the company says it now has a waiting list of dealers.

    Ashlee Kieler / Consumerist

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

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    Safety standards for window blinds and shades need to be tougher

    About once a month a young child dies from strangulation in the cords of a window blind or shade, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

    The CPSC has recalled millions of window coverings with cords in recent years, and it has repeatedly pressed manufacturers to make their products safer. But the industry has resisted making the changes needed to meaningfully reduce the risk to children, and right now, the only safety standards for window coverings are voluntary.

    At Consumers Union, the policy and advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, we believe these voluntary standards are not enough. Decades after the risks were first identified, companies have not significantly reduced the serious hazards that these cords pose to infants and young kids. The number of injuries and deaths continues to grow.
     
    Child strangulation in window covering cords can happen quickly and silently, and it can happen to any family, no matter how vigilant a parent or caregiver might be.

    Visit the CPSC’s window covering information center to learn more about what you can do to avoid a tragedy in your home.

    That’s why we’ve pushed hard for mandatory safety standards. A coalition of public-interest organizations filed a petition at the CPSC to put strong standards in place. The commission voted to move forward on our petition, but industry continues to lobby for delays.

    We recently joined 30 groups, including the Consumer Federation of America, in writing the CPSC to thank the agency for addressing this issue in an effective way and to urge it to issue a mandatory standard as soon as possible.

    “There are [window covering] products on the market that do not pose strangulation risks to children,” the groups wrote. “This means that the research and technology already exists to design products without strangulation risks. Manufacturers know how to do this. If the CPSC enacts a mandatory rule, it will ensure that this minimum level of safety is applied to all products for sale in the market.”

    We encourage you to make your voice heard on this important public-health issue by sending your comments to the CPSC here. We will keep working to make blinds and shades safer by advocating for better standards for the marketplace.

    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 past 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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    Worried about the federal employee data breach?

    Millions of current and former U.S. government employees’ information was stolen in a massive data breach at the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), that, according to reports, included the theft of social security numbers and other information. In a post on its website, OPM confirmed the breach and said it will contact affected individuals directly in the coming days to offer help, including free credit monitoring.

    Given how common data breaches have become, we have tips for consumers on our website. However, as this data breach appears to include social security numbers and other sensitive information that isn’t typically stolen when a retail store suffers a data breach, we’ve revised our tips.

    Here are our suggestions for folks affected by the OPM data breach:

    1. Be on watch for scammers

    According to the OPM announcement on its site, affected parties will be notified by an email from opmcio@csid.com.

    But be warned. Scammers may try to contact you by email, phone or other means. They may know enough about your to sound convincing. So take these steps to outwit them:

    • Do not share any personal information with anyone who calls out of the blue;
    • Do not press numbers on a phone call that you did not initiate;
    • Do not click on any email links in emails. Period. Copy and paste the link into your browser if you think it is legit.

    Following these do’s and don’ts is important because someone might be emailing or calling you now and into the future to get more personal information from you or to rip you off.

    Sign-up for free credit monitoring

    This is an ongoing review of your credit history that a credit reporting bureau does. Doing this won’t let you know if someone is using your existing accounts without your permission, but it will let you know if someone opened a new account in your name. The OPM is offering this service for free, so be sure to sign up. According to OPM, you can get more information at www.csid.com/opm, or by calling toll-free 844-222-2743 (International callers: call collect 512-327-0700).

    Check your credit reports regularly

    You can check your big 3 (Experian, Trans Union and Equifax) credit reports for free once a year each at annualcreditreport.com. In some states, victims of ID theft can get additional free reports.

    A credit report is an overview of your credit history. It will show you accounts open in your name. If you see anything on your report you don’t recognize, act right away.

    • For what to do if you spot something wrong on your credit report, see our tips.
    • For what to do if you have been the victim of identity theft, see these tips from the FTC.

    Consider a fraud alert or security freeze

    If you set up a fraud alert that means that anyone who might issue new credit in your name would need to take extra steps to verify your identity first. This can help protect you against someone opening up a new account in your name without your permission. But — a fraud alert won’t tell you if someone is making charges to your current accounts, so keep watching your current accounts closely.

    It’s free to set up a fraud alert online: http://www.consumer.ftc.gov/articles/0275-place-fraud-alert. A fraud alert lasts 90 days, but you can renew it if you want to keep it going.

    If you are really worried, consider a security freeze. A freeze means that a credit bureau will flag your credit file so that no one can view your credit report without your permission and issue a new credit account in your name. You can find out more about both here: http://www.consumer.ftc.gov/articles/0279-extended-fraud-alerts-and-credit-freezes

    —Christina Tetreault

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

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    Alternative breast cancer therapies that can help

    Advances in breast cancer treatment in recent years have saved and extended the lives of tens of thousands of women. But many of those treatments—chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery—can also have harsh side effects, including depression, insomnia, pain, and stress. To combat those effects, as many as 80 percent of women diagnosed with breast cancer turn to complementary and alternative therapies. But are those “extra” treatments—including mind-body practices like yoga and supplements—really worth a try?

    Some are, according to recent research-based guidelines from the Society for Integrative Oncology, an international group of top cancer doctors who study and use integrative therapies with their patients. They reviewed 203 studies, and according to their findings, these are the most effective therapies:

    Meditation and relaxation

    These calming practices, which are also sometimes referred to as mindfulness-based stress reduction, are best for easing depression and improving quality of life during treatment, as well as after.

    Music therapy

    Listening to tunes can help improve mood and ease the immediate anxiety commonly experienced during chemotherapy and radiation sessions.

    Stress management

    Ongoing group programs may work best for reducing the longer-term anxiety experienced during cancer treatment

    Yoga

    Experts now recommend that cancer patients participate in regular physical activity during and after their treatment. Yoga can help relieve depression and may also lift fatigue, improve sleep, and soothe anxiety.

    One to skip

    A supplement called acetyl-L-carnitine is sometimes used to alleviate chemo-induced neuropathy—nerve pain, weakness, and numbness. But one large study found that it actually increases all three of those symptoms instead.

    Learn about the cancer tests you need and which ones to question.

    A version of this article appeared in the February/March 2015 issue of ShopSmart magazine.

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

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    Pint-sized 2016 Mazda CX-3 SUV impresses

    When sampling the current compact SUV offerings, it's easy to think that they were cooked up with a light bulb in an Easy-Bake oven. Entries like the Chevrolet Trax, Jeep Renegade, and new Honda HR-V each have an unfinished feeling to them. But the new Mazda CX-3 SUV is different. It’s the first vehicle in this segment that feels cooked all the way to completion.

    The CX-3 rides on the same platform as the next-generation subcompact Mazda2, but it has SUV proportions and styling cues. Overall, we found the cute CX-3 quite pleasing during our brief initial drive.

    Power delivery from the CX-3's 146-hp, 2.0-liter, four-cylinder engine (shared with the Mazda3) is linear and polished. Don't expect an invigorating, sporty exhaust note, however.

    While the 2016 Mazda CX-3 SUV’s ride is quite tight and firm, it’s not overly stiff. Quick steering response and minimal body roll give this compact SUV a dynamic road feel you won't find in the Chevy, Jeep, or Honda. It feels like the Miata of tiny SUVs making it fun to drive. And those small dimensions make it easy to park, too.

    The cabin makes great use of its limited space. Despite being a compact SUV, it doesn't feel cramped. The combo touch screen and control knob take some getting used to, but this design consolidates the controls, leaving a clean, minimalist dash layout. You’ve also got touches such as the rich-feeling, suede-like accents and padded panels on the doors and the sides of the console.

    What's also impressive is that the CX-3 packs a ton of features into a small package and at a competitive price. Unusual for the class, it offers blind-spot monitoring, lane-departure warning, smart autonomous emergency braking, and even an available head-up display (HUD).

    The HUD is presented on a stub of glass that rises up from above the instrument panel. It's useful enough, but the system would work better if the readouts were beamed up higher, directly on the windshield.

    Still, you’re getting a ton of features for around $26,000 for a loaded GT-trim model.

    Good luck getting such equipment in a Chevy Trax, at this price–or at all. A base CX-3 Sport starts at around $20,000. A mid-level Touring trim will cost around $23,000. That’s very much in line with the Honda HR-V, but the Honda lacks the sportiness and flair of the Mazda

    So far, out of this whole new class of tiny SUVs, the CX-3 comes across as having the feel of a finished, polished product that is truly desirable and a great value.

    We have plans to buy our own 2016 Mazda CX-3 SUV when it goes on sale later this year. Check back to see how it stacks up with its peers.

    Jon Linkov

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

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    Why Android’s 'factory reset' isn’t really secure

    One day soon you may want to trade in your smartphone for a newer, better model. And before you do, you’ll want to delete all your photos, e-mails, app accounts, and other personal data—anything you wouldn’t want to get into a stranger’s hands.

    The standard advice is to do a factory data reset, which you can access in the phone’s Settings menu. The name implies that hitting reset will take your phone back to the clean, data-free state it was in when it left the factory. But that’s not quite true, at least on an Android phone. Hitting the reset button is like clicking “empty trash” on a desktop computer. The data may still be there, but there’s no longer a file name pointing to it, and the space it is occupying is now free for the next bit of data that comes along looking for a home.

    For that reason, a skilled technician often can recover data from an Android phone that has gone through a factory reset. Steve Hruska, a hardware R&D engineer at a data-recovery service called Kroll Ontrack, does this for a living. He rescues files from devices that would otherwise have been lost to floods, fires, even fits of rage. (It’s an expensive service—Kroll Ontrack’s fees start at $500.) This is good if you’ve broken your device, but bad if you’re trying to sell it.

    There are three steps you can take to make your data harder to recover.

    Step 1: Encrypt your phone

    The simplest method is to encrypt your phone. Newer Apple phones and Blackberries encrypt their data by default, which boosts security throughout the life of the device. If you’ve got an Android phone, go to Settings, then tap Security, then Screen Lock or Encrypt Device. Create a PIN or password, if you haven’t done that already. Then, encrypt the device. Just remember to plug in your phone to its charger first, as the process can take more than an hour, depending on your hardware. Ideally, you’d encrypt your phone the day you bring it home from the store, in case it’s ever lost or stolen. But if you want to safely sell your phone, encrypt it before doing a factory reset.

    Surprisingly, this step may not make your phone as secure as you’d like, according to Hruska. “Even on an encrypted Android phone, a factory data reset performed via the OS can leave behind the encryption keys that would allow someone to recover files,” he says. The details vary depending on the specific Android device you own—and, by the way, there’s some inconsistency in Apple devices, as well. On some of Apple’s devices, a factory reset will delete the encryption keys necessary to read the data, while on other devices the data will be overwritten with dummy data.

    Shopping for a new smartphone? Learn about key features in our cell phone buying guide.

    Step 2: Do a hard reset

    The second step you can take is to do a Google search for “hard reset” and the name of your Android phone. You should get results from the phone manufacturer and your cell phone company, among others.

    The procedure varies by manufacturer and model, but you’ll probably end up holding down the power and volume buttons, selecting an option such as “reboot” or “factory reset” from a rudimentary menu, and restarting your phone several times. (You might also have to stand on one foot while humming "La Marseillaise.")

    One site I like, www.resethard.com, provides written and video-based step-by-step instructions for hard resetting many old and new Android phones.

    This step should securely kill the encryption keys and make data recovery much more difficult.

    Step 3: Remove the memory card

    The third step you can take—and this should be considered mandatory—is to remove the memory card, if that’s possible with your phone model. You can save it for your next phone, or smash it with a hammer.

    Here’s how you’ll find out if the card is removable:

    • If your phone has a removable back cover, pry it open open and look for the card (about the size of a thumbnail) under or next to the battery and SIM card (also about the size of a thumbnail).
    • If your phone’s cover doesn’t come off, stick a pin or the tip of a paper clip into the pinhole along one side of the phone. That should pop out a tray with the memory card. Sometimes the SIM card will be next to it, which you might need if your next phone will be with the same carrier.
    • Don’t poke anything into the holes near the top or bottom of the phone because they’re likely there for a speaker or microphone.

    As a final note, even these steps might not make it absolutely impossible to recover data off your phone. But the reality is, there are easier ways to steal someone’s data, from phishing scams to bogus apps that trick you into typing in your user IDs and passwords.

    Unless you’re a high-profile CEO, government official, or sexy celebrity, it’s highly unlikely anyone will devote enough effort and skill to hack into your old Samsung Galaxy S4 just to retrieve your Facebook ID.

    Take reasonable steps to erase your phone’s data, and you should be fine.

     —Mike Gikas

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

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    Are silica gel freshness packets toxic?

    Q. My two-year old daughter got a hold of the little packet that comes in her pill container. She tore it open and put some of the beads in the packet in her mouth. Are those beads toxic? And what should I do?

    The good news is that although those packets are stamped with the phrase “DO NOT EAT,” the beads inside aren’t actually poisonous. They're made of silica, a nontoxic agent used in certain containers of medication, dietary supplements, and vitamins to absorb moisture and keep the pills dry.

    “They are not toxic or posionous in any way,” confirms Keith Boesen, director of the Arizona Poison and Drug Information Center (APDIC). “The main concern they pose is that they are a choking hazard.”

    If your child is choking after accidentally swallowing silica beads, then call 9-1-1, Boesen says. But if your child isn’t choking and is eating and drinking without a problem, then there’s no need to go to the emergency room or hospital, he adds. The silica beads will pass through their system without being absorbed.  

    If you're still worried, contact your local poison control center by calling 1-800-222-1222, says Liz Barta, a nurse and health education specialist at APDIC. The free, confidential number works in any part of the U.S. and automatically connects you to experts at your nearest poison control center.  

    Worried that your child might be sick from something they swallowed? Contact your local poison control center by calling 1-800-222-1222.

    It might be tempting to remove and throw away the freshness packet to avoid the risk of your child accidentally swallowing it, but it’s best to leave it in, says Barbara Young, Pharm.D., editor of consumer-medication information for the American Society of Health-System Pharmacists.

    Some tablets and capsules are sensitive to moisture, so these packets can help protect them from humidity. Case in point: freshness packets included with the blood thinner vorapaxa (Zontivity) should not be removed, according to the drug's label. And, dabigatran (Pradaxa), another blood thinner, has special freshness packaging built into the cap, so it's recommended to keep those pills in their original container.

    Finally, always store medication in a high, safe place, so that your child cannot reach or access it.

    —Steve Mitchell

    This article and related materials are made possible by a grant from the state Attorney General Consumer and Prescriber Education Grant Program, which is funded by the multistate settlement of consumer-fraud claims regarding the marketing of the prescription drug Neurontin (gabapentin).

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

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    The best places to buy large and small appliances

    Chances are that when you need to replace a major appliance you visit your nearest Home Depot, Lowe’s, or Sears to find a refrigerator, range, or dishwasher. But if you’re like many of Consumer Reports' readers, you likely were less than thrilled with the selection and service.

    About 60 percent of the more than 21,000 readers we asked about nearly 32,500 purchases they made, shopped at a home center for major appliances. Amazon.com is where most people go for small appliances. Here are the retailers that came out best in our annual appliance-retailer satisfaction survey:

    Major appliances

    Abt Electronics. Superb selection is among the pluses that again landed Chicago area-based Abt and its 100,000-square-foot showroom on our large-appliance winners’ list. Abt delivers free within 100 miles of its store, and orders of $35 or more shipped within the continental U.S. are free also. Our readers gave the retailer high marks across the board.

    Independent local retailers. From a local mom-and-pop store, you might expect to like everything except the selection—the stores are smaller—and price. And that’s just what our readers said, lauding the service, checkout, and everything beyond, such as installation. Another plus: Readers we surveyed thought most highly of the knowledgeable sales staffs, seconded closely by Abt.

    Costco. Care just about price? This warehouse club, with hundred of stores and other outlets, was the only retailer to earn top marks for price. Its product selection got our readers’ lowest marks, but if you can find the product you want, the survey suggests, you’ll like its price.

    Nebraska Furniture Mart. This retailer uses its own trucks to deliver within a six-state region—and uses carrier services beyond the vicinity of its five stores. Respondents who shopped there gave top marks for selection and product quality, with price and checkout ease just a notch lower.

    Small appliances

    Amazon. A perennial favorite for buying vacuum cleaners, coffeemakers, grills and other small appliances, Amazon didn’t get our highest grade for small-appliance price—that was Costco. But for selection, product quality, ease of checkout, and customer support, they got top honors.

    Williams-Sonoma. This upscale retailer got top marks for only product quality and checkout ease, but impressive service and customer support at its website seemed to help raise satisfaction overall. Another possible plus: To attract customers, the retailer often makes limited exclusivity deals for newly announced products.

    Ace Hardware. Larger in scope than your average mom-and-pop store, our readers touted the chain for its quality of products and service. Checkout ease also got top scores. On the down side, the retailer did no better than independent local retailers for price and selection. Still, overall satisfaction was high.

    Need a new appliance?

    We’ve updated our Ratings of appliance stores, which are sorted by major appliances (including refrigerators, washers and dryers, ranges, and dishwashers) and small appliances such as coffeemakers, vacuums, and gas grills. See which retailers our readers liked best before you settle on your next purchase.

    —Ed Perratore (@EdPerratore on Twitter)

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    2016 Ford Explorer receives cosmetic and powertrain updates

    Long gone are the days the Ford Explorer single-handedly dominated SUV sales charts like it used to in the 1990s. Today’s shopper has an abundance of modern crossover choices, and the Explorer doesn’t stand out the way it once did. Amid such competition, Ford has updated the Explorer for 2016, including several tweaks to make its appearance less truck-like.

    More importantly, there’s a new available engine: a 2.3-liter turbocharged four-cylinder that makes 280 hp. This EcoBoost powerplant is shared with the Mustang and Lincoln MKC. Thanks to plenty of torque, it does a pretty good job pulling around the Explorer, even with the optional all-wheel drive. It doesn’t sound all that refined, though. The standard engine remains a 3.5-liter V6 that produces 290 hp, but the 2.3-liter four cylinder actually has more torque. Top-trim Sport and Platinum versions gild the lily with the 3.5-liter twin-turbo V6 and exclusive interior and exterior enhancements.

    Ford retuned the suspension, but this family bus still feels rather big to drive with reluctant handling. Most rivals are much more sedan-like in their reflexes, particularly the Dodge Durango, Hyundai Santa Fe, and Toyota Highlander. To its credit, ride comfort remains mostly settled and the cabin is quiet, except for the raspy engine.

    An update can only go so far given the basic architectural shortcomings, and there are lots of them on this dated platform. Outward visibility is problematic, with massive front windshield pillars and a small rear window. It doesn’t help that it feels like you’re sitting deep in a pit inside, surrounded by high door sills. There’s tons of wasted space between you and the door. With all of that room, you’d think the narrow-feeling seats could have been made wider. The left foot rest is pushed so far inboard that it makes you sit crooked, and over time, you begin to feel that in your lower back.

    This Explorer has the MyFord Touch infotainment system, which is convoluted and can be frustrating to use. Explorers fitted with the simpler Sync 3 system most likely won't be on sale until later in the 2016 model year. Either way, the Sony stereo now gets regular buttons to replace the horrible touch-sensitive flush switches from before, but did they have to cram all of these buttons into a two-inch high strip?

    On the plus side, there is plenty of passenger room inside, even in the third row. And like other Fords, there are some clever options here, like a surround-view camera system and inflatable rear seat belts. And not only will the SUV find a parking spot and slot itself into it automatically, it also knows how to get itself out of it. Impressive trick.

    Ultimately, even with the updates, it feels like Ford is buying time with this late-life update until a complete redesign arrives, likely based on the much more modern Fusion-based platform.

    Tom Mutchler

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    FCC to vote on broadband stipends for low-income families

    On June 18, the Federal Communication Commission will vote on a proposal to include broadband Internet service in its Lifeline subsidy program. On the face of it, the whole idea sounds like a farce.

    If the commissioners (three Democrats and two Republicans) vote to approve the plan—and they almost certainly will—low-income families that already qualify for a $9.25 a month stipend to help them pay for cell service will also be allowed to use the funds for broadband. Gee, thanks. How can people who can barely afford to put food on their plates acquire cell phone service and/or Internet service for under 10 bucks? It would seem smarter to either boost the subsidies enough to make a real difference, or just scrap the program altogether.

    So here’s the surprising part of the story—the broadband subsidy can work. Back in 2011, when it was eager to win the FCC’s approval for a merger with NBC-Universal, Comcast launched something called the Internet Essentials program. It made Internet service available to families with kids in the nation’s school lunch program for the incredibly low fee of $9.95 a month. And in March of 2014, when Comcast was eagerly awaiting the FCC’s decision on the firm’s proposed merger with Time Warner Cable, company executives extended that program indefinitely. (The merger never went through.)

    To be clear, this is a no-frills service. Its 5.0 Mbps download speed is a good heap less than the FCC’s recommended 25.0 Mbps standard. It only helps families with school-age children, and it excludes current Comcast subscribers. But the program does demonstrate that Internet service can cost just 10 bucks a month.

    And that’s the point. By granting low-income families the option to put that $9.25 a month toward Internet service, the FCC hopes to demonstrate that there’s an eager market. If Comcast doesn’t want to seize it, perhaps some other broadband provider will. Time Warner, Cox and Charter have all flirted with the $9.95 price point.

    And, by the way, if you’re wondering why the FCC didn’t just add $10 onto the existing Lifeline subsidy—helping families to pay for both cell service and broadband—the answer is funding. The money for the program (roughly $1.7 billion a year for 12 million families) comes from the universal service fee attached to everyone’s mobile and land-line phone bills. And most Americans think their monthly bills are high enough.

    —Chris Raymond

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    Safer tick repellent for kids that really works

    You want to let your kids run around outside this summer, but how do you keep them safe from tick bites and the diseases that the nasty bugs can carry without dousing children in harsh chemicals?

    Consumer Reports' top-rated insect repellents, against both ticks and mosquitoes, contain ingredients called picaridin and oil of lemon eucalyptus. Both are synthesized to be chemically similar to naturally occurring plant compounds, and both are safer than the chemical deet, especially for kids. But even those ingredients can cause some irritation of skin, eyes, and lungs.

    Learn five ways to avoid a tick bite, and which repellents were best against mosquitoes.

    So if you want a product that may be even safer for you or your child, you could consider one of the "all-natural" plant-oil products in our Ratings—but only if you're looking for a repellent that just works against ticks.

    That's because while those products did not fare well in our lab tests against mosquitoes, several of them—made by All-Terrain, Babyganics, Burt's Bees, California Baby, and Cutter—did do a good job of warding off ticks for at least 6 hours. They contain ingredients such as citronella, geraniol, lemongrass, and rosemary oil. But EcoSmart Organic, which contains 1 percent geraniol and 0.5 percent rosemary oil, only kept ticks away for about an hour.

    Because the Environmental Protection Agency considers those ingredients to be minimum risk, it doesn't scrutinize products containing them as closely as other insect repellents. Still, Consumer Reports' safety experts say that the naturally occurring ingredients pose fewer health risks. Some people are more sensitive to natural plant oils, however, and they caution that the sprays may cause skin irritation, an allergic reaction, or breathing problems, so test on a small patch of skin first. 

    Application tips

    Don’t let young children spray on tick repellent. Instead, put it on your own hands, then rub it on. Limit use on children’s hands, because they often put their hands in their eyes and mouths. And always wash it off before going to bed.

    Note that most repellents can damage leather and vinyl and remove nail polish. So use them only when you really need them, and only spray enough to cover clothing and exposed skin, but never spray them near cuts.

    If you find a tick

    Use tweezers to remove the tick, making sure you get the entire body and head.

    When to see a doctor: Deer ticks usually have to be attached for at least 36 hours to transmit Lyme disease. But if you develop a bull’s-eye rash or chills, fever, fatigue, headaches, and muscle or joint pain, call your doctor. Getting treatment early can stop tick-borne infections and prevent any complications.

    —Sue Byrne

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    5 things you need to know about Apple OS X El Capitan

    Apple kicked off its Worldwide Developers Conference today with a few announcements about OS X El Capitan, which will be available as a free download this fall. There's nothing game-changing about this latest version of the Apple OS, but there were a few notable announcements. Here are five things you need to know about the upcoming update to Apple's computer OS.

    1. El Capitan comes from the rock formation within Yosemite, itself the name for the current version of OS X (OS 10.10.x). That close connection suggests this is not a huge update. Judging by the features shown during the WWDC keynote, it isn’t. Still intact is the Yosemite interface, which many have described as “flat.” Apple showed no new fonts or colors with El Capitan.  

    2. Search will emphasize natural language even more than it currently does. You might call it “use your own words” search, as Apple's senior VP of software engineering Craig Federighi did during the keynote. A couple of examples: “Find the mail I ignored from Phil” and “Find all the documents I worked on five months ago.” Spotlight, Mail, and Finder will all use the improved search function.

    3. Apple takes a page from Android and Windows. In particular, it seems that Apple is borrowing a few gestures pioneered on mobile Android devices. Split View, for example, lets you run two applications side by side and share info from one to the other. So, for example, you can drag a link from Safari into an e-mail message. Samsung was first to market in 2012 with a similar feature for its Android phones and tablets, you’ll also find it in Windows.

    Before you buy a new computer, check our buying guides and reviews for laptops, desktops, and Chromebooks and tablets.

    4. A few new gestures have been added to Apple’s repertoire. You can mark an e-mail unread with one gesture and delete e-mails with another. Mission Control, which lets you easily switch among open windows and apps, has been improved with a few new gestures, including a three-finger swipe that provides an overview of Mission Control.

    5. You can swipe your finger around on the trackpad or shake your mouse if you can't find the cursor on the screen. OK, it’s not the biggest OS improvement ever, but it made the list because we’re pretty sure you’ll use it.The small mouse cursor, which can be difficult to find, temporarily becomes large and easily visible. You heard it here first: You’ll use this feature a lot.

    —Donna Tapellini

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    High chair highlights from Consumer Reports' tests

    Safety is the first thing parents want in a children's product and that’s why Consumer Reports considers safety features first when it tests high chairs. But as anyone who has endured a messy feeding session knows, ease of use, and ease of cleaning are also must-haves. So we consider those too. Here’s how we test high chairs.

    Safety. Based on a voluntary industry safety standard, our tests evaluate the restraint system—a 5-point harness is best—and the chair’s stability, among other factors.

    Ease of use. This is based on the assessment of trained panelist who consider the harness adjustment and use, folding and unfolding the chair, removing and replacing the tray and/or tray insert, adjusting the seat back and height when applicable, and removing and replacing the seat cover.

    Ease of cleaning. This reflects how easy or difficult it is to clean the high chair, taking into account the configuration and materials used in the chair frame, seat, seat pad, tray and tray insert. Easiest-to-clean surfaces should be smooth with minimal seams or crevices to collect food debris. Seat pads should be machine washable and/or easy to clean effectively with a damp cloth or sponge.

    The best in our tests

    No high chair in our latest tests earned top marks on all three tests. The good news is that of the 30 high chairs in our labs, 22 earned excellent scores for safety and eight made our list of top high-chair picks. Our highest-rated high chair is the Peg Perego Prima Pappa Best, $250. It was among the easiest to use of the batch and has a seat with seven height adjustments and four seat-back positions. Scoring almost as high but costing much less is the Fisher-Price EZ Clean, $85, and a CR Best Buy. Both the seat height and back are adjustable. Despite its name it didn’t get the top mark for cleaning but came close.

    The Ingenuity Trio 3-in-1, $90, is another CR Best Buy and may be an even better buy because it grows with your child. It’s a full-size high chair with a removable booster seat that can be used on its own. And the base of the chair serves as a “toddler smart chair,” a separate seat that can be used for an older child.

    The two chairs that got top marks for cleaning in our tests are both made of molded plastic, doing away with seams and crevices that can trap food. The BabyBjorn, $280, is compact and folds up even smaller. It’s a recommended model. The Joovy HiLo, $400, didn’t make our list of picks but its interesting design sets it apart from the other chairs in our tests. Available in crayon colors, the Joovy HiLo flips over from a "Hi" chair for babies to a "Lo" chair for toddlers. It missed our picks list because the harness was difficult to use and positioning a squirmy child in the seat may take both parents.

    For more choices, see our full high chair Ratings and recommendations.

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

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    Why Apple Music might be worth $10 a month

    After months of speculation, Apple today unveiled Apple Music service, a hybrid offering that combines music streaming, a 24/7 worldwide live radio station, and a platform that allows both established and indie artists to connect with fans. Apple Music, which launches on June 30, will cost $10 per month; a family plan that allows six simultaneous users will cost $15 per month.

    Apple says that you can listen to the Beats 1 radio station and explore the Connect feature without subscribing. But it's betting that you'll be willing to pay to get those capabilities plus the streaming service combined in a single app, with humans—music experts, rather than algorithms—compiling curated playlists and recommendations for both the streaming and radio services.

    The big question, of course, is whether those offerings will be enough to lure music fans away from Spotify, Pandora, and other established subscription services. Unlike Spotify or Pandora, Apple Music doesn't come in a free version, though there will be a three-month free trial when the service launches.

    Apple Music provides access to music you already own, plus Apple's library of about 30 million songs. Showing its Beats Music pedigree, Apple Music has a "For You" section where music curators will create a personalized mix of albums, new releases, and playlists based on your preferences and listening habits. The Siri voice assistant is integrated into the service, so, for example, you could ask for last year's No. 1 song and have it playing within a few seconds.

    Check out the 5 things you need to know about Apple OS X El Capitan, which was also unveiled at the Worldwide Developers Conference.

    Like the streaming service, Beats 1 radio is being curated, this time by popular DJs in New York, Los Angeles, and London. The live, around-the-clock radio station will include exclusive interviews, guest hosts, and updates about the music world. While you can listen to Beats 1 radio without a subscription, paying for it will enable some features, such as unlimited song skips, similar to what Spotify does for free mobile users.

    What's truly different about Apple Music is its Connect feature, which lets artists—both signed and unsigned—connect directly with fans. Solo artists and bands can post songs or demos, behind-the-scenes videos, tour photos, and lyrics directly from their iPhone. You can comment on the posts and share them on social media, and artists can communicate directly with you.

    With Apple Music, Apple is in the unusual situation of playing catch-up with more established players. Based on several industry reports, Beats Music, which Apple acquired last year, has fewer than a half-million U.S. subscribers, while Spotify has an estimated 4.7 million paid subscribers here. Apple's advantage is clearly the number of people who already own its devices and use its other services.

    —James K. Willcox

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    Apple WatchOS 2 adds new faces, new functions, and more opportunities for app developers

    At its Worldwide Developer’s Conference, Apple announced its upcoming Watch interface, WatchOS 2, which cracks open many core device features to third-party developers while adding new features and making the Watches more independent of the iPhones that synchronize with them. There will be more customizable watch faces with intriguing effects, a Friends list that can expand beyond the current 12-contact limit, and new freedom for native apps to tap into the Watches’ on-board processors and sensors. (The company also announced a music streaming service and updates to its desktop and mobile operating systems.) Here’s a brief look at some of the new things you’ll be able to do with an Apple Watch when WatchOS 2 debuts to consumers in the fall—software developers can get a version now.

    Going native. Many apps, including those from third-part developers, will be able to run on the Watch without checking back with an iPhone. Fitness apps will now work on the Watch, even without connection to an iPhone, and Siri will be able to handle many functions, including initiating an exercise routine. Apple says this will help apps load faster and offer more features.

    Third-party developers will, for the first time, have access to the Watch’s Taptic engine, Digital Crown, accelerometer heart-rate sensor, and even video capabilities (details to come).

    There’s also a home-control option for Insteon products.

    New face, new tricks. Apple will put a friendlier face on its Watch interface: your friendlier face. You’ll be able to supplant a boring watch-face background with a personal pic or an entire photo album. If you choose an album, you’ll be greeted by a new face every time you tilt your wrist up to view the Watch. Apple will initially offer some interesting prerecorded time-lapse-photography scenes from around the world, such as a London sunrise to sunset, and you’ll eventually be able to create your own. Also, third-party developers will be able add their own elements to the Watch’s face.

    One click forward, two clicks back. WatchOS 2’s Time Travel feature will let you scroll forward or backward in your schedule, including the weather and headlines for that day, by rotating the crown. (Some users will no doubt be disappointed that the Watch won’t show you future headlines.)

    Looking for a high-tech timepiece? Check our smartwatch buying guide and Ratings.

    Good night. Apple found a new use for your Watch while you’re charging it at night. Nightstand mode lets the Watch act as a bedside alarm clock showing you the time and date, and waking you up with an alarm. Just tap the Watch crown if you want to keep snoozing.

    The more, the merrier. While the current Watch OS limits your circle of friends to 12, WatchOS 2 will let you maintain several pages of frequent contacts. You can add contacts from the Watch, and also rearrange them on your iPhone’s larger screen.

    Apple Pay expands. Apple Pay, which can be accessed through the Watch, will reach beyond credit cards with the addition of store cards from JC Penney, Kohls, and BJs. Rewards cards, including Walgreens’, will also be added. And, for the first time, Apple Pay will be accepted outside the US. First stop: 250,000 locations in the U.K., including mass transit. Also, Apple says it will coordinate with Square, which makes widely accepted portable credit-card scanners, to make Pay available at more retailers.

    More reply options. WatchOS 2 will now let your reply to FaceTime calls (audio only) and e-mails.

    A better way to travel. In addition to driving directions, iOS 9 will let you plan a trip using a variety of transportation forms (foot, bus, train). The Watch will also show you more details of such trips, including transportations schedules and estimated times of arrival.

    We’ll have more on WatchOS 2 in the coming weeks. Stay tuned.

    —Mike Gikas

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    5 things you need to know about iOS 9

    Apple focused much more on its iOS operating system during its Worldwide Developers Conference today than it did on the Mac OS X platform. It looks like iOS 9 will have a lot going for it when Apple releases it as a free upgrade this fall. Apple says the upgrade will require much less space than the iOS 8 upgrade, just 1.3GB, down from 4.6GB.

    Here are five of the most interesting changes you’ll see when the mobile platform is finally available.

    1. Apple has added a low-power mode. When you’re bleeding battery life, the last thing you want to do is hunt around your settings to turn off Wi-Fi, location settings, and so on. Apple is making it easier to save battery life with the addition of a low-power mode that you can turn on with a single switch. The company claims that will add three hours of battery life to your mobile devices. Even without the low-power mode, other improvements to the OS will tack on an additional hour of battery life, Apple said.

    2. The Maps app in iOS 9 gets a major upgrade with the addition of Transit, which provides maps and departure times for public transportation. If you’re trying to get somewhere in New York using public transit, directions in Maps will be multi-modal, meaning if you need to take a bus to the subway station, you’ll get both bus and train routes, and your arrival time will include all the time needed to get from one to the other. The maps in Transit include the locations of entrances and exits, along with the time it takes to walk to them. The first group of Transit maps will include New York, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Chicago, London, Beijing, and select other cities. The Notes app will also be enhanced. For example, it will be easy to drag photos into a note, among other things. And a new app called News will provide a way to create a personalized news page that includes a variety of sources—local and national newspapers, magazines, blogs, and specialized publications—and topics.

    Check out the 5 things you need to know about Apple OS X El Capitan and learn why Apple Music might be worth $10 a month. And check our buying guide and Ratings for tablets

    3. Apple Pay will reach beyond credit cards with the addition of store cards from JCPenney, Kohls, and BJ's Wholesale Club. Rewards cards from stores such as Walgreens will also be added. It will also extend its reach geographically. For the first time, Apple Pay will be accepted outside the U.S. First stop: 250,000 locations in the United Kingdom, including mass transit. Also, Apple said it will deploy a new, inexpensive credit card reader, called the Square, to promote Apple Pay's acceptance among smaller businesses. 

    4. Siri becomes much more proactive with iOS 9. If you’re looking at an e-mail about a task you need to complete later, just tell Siri, “Remind me about this when I get home,” and you’ll get a reminder when you pull into the driveway. It’s also context-sensitive, so when you plug in headphones in the morning—once Siri has “learned” that running is part of your morning routine—your music will automatically show up on the lock screen. If you usually listen to e-books in the car, your current book will pop up when you plug your phone into the car’s speakers.

    5. Picture-in-picture on the iPad? iOS 9 adds this feature to the iPad Air, iPad Air 2, iPad mini 2, and iPad mini 3. A simple tap will let you reduce the video screen so you can multi-task while watching a movie.

    —Donna Tapellini

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    With Delta Early Valet, your carry-on luggage boards before you do

    Word recently leaked that Delta Air Lines is testing a program in which airline employees “preload” passengers’ carry-on luggage into the overhead bins above their assigned seats. The goal with what Delta calls Early Valet is to decrease the time it takes to get flyers seated, with all carry-on luggage securely stowed before passengers board the plane. The faster 

    Airlines are motivated to get planes in the air. One study of airplane-boarding methods discovered that each minute on the ground costs $30. And with more passengers hoping to avoid checked-bag fees, it's not hard to imagine that it's taking longer to get everyone on board as people cram overstuffed carry-ons into overhead bins.

    Planning a trip this summer? Check our luggage buying guide and brand reviews.

    So, if Early Valet is good for Delta, is it good for you? It's unclear whether any cost savings will be passed on to passengers. And there’s speculation that the currently free Early Valet, available in limited markets to start, is merely a trial run for an eventual upsell service.

    More important, would you want to be separated from your carry-on luggage? Delta Early Valet is voluntary, but you might not want to relinquish a carry-on bag containing your laptop, jewelry, and other valuables or important items.

    Of course you could separate belongings you take on board: Nonvaluables go in the 22-inch-high x 9-inch-deep x 14-inch-wide carry-on bag that you hand over for Early Valet, and valuables stay with you.

    Early Valet could reduce the number of oversized bags that elude the eyes of the gate agents—and which slow boarding down for everyone. With airline personnel handling that baggage, it’s another opportunity to nab bags that are not size compliant, dispatch them to the cargo area, and—drumroll, please—slap a fee onto the passengers' tab.

    —Susan Feinstein

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