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    Wireless gadgets for summer: Declare your independence from cables and plugs

    Whether you want to crank tunes at a backyard barbecue or share photos from the beach over the upcoming July 4th holiday, these three wireless gadgets for summer will let you unplug but remain connected.

    —Calla Deitrick

    This wireless speaker is easy-to-use and portable, and it delivers good sound. The TDK Life on Record Trek Max is weather-resistant, as well, so you don’t have to sweat setting it up in the backyard for your July 4th celebrations.

    The rugged Nikon Coolpix AW130 is an excellent tool for recording your summer adventures. The image quality is very good, and the camera provides a 16-megapixel chip, 5x optical zoom, a 3-inch LCD, and an image stabilizer. Waterproof to 98 feet, the camera can also survive a 7-foot drop. There's even a “Fireworks Show” mode, which should be useful this time of year. And, the camera's Wi-Fi and NFC chops make it easy to transfer photos to a compatible smartphone to share them with your friends.

    These over-the-ear home/studio-style Bluetooth headphones are just what you need for listening to “Born in the USA.” The closed design delivers very good sound while also muffling the raucous chatter from the revelers on nearby blankets. The Pendulumic Stance S1+ comes with a detachable audio cable featuring an answer/play button in case you want to plug the headphones into your smartphone.

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

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    New federal safety rule for electronic stability control misses the bus

    The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has enacted a new rule that would require electronic stability control, or ESC, on many types of heavy trucks, including tractor trailers and intercity buses. The rule has the potential to save many lives. But much to our dismay, school buses were exempted from the requirement.

    Consumers Union, the policy and advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, lobbied for ESC on school buses during this rulemaking process. ESC is a proven, significant life-saver on cars and light trucks, on which the technology has been mandated for several years. Other safety organizations such as the National Transportation Safety Board and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety agree.

    The final rule acknowledges Consumers Union’s comments, but regards our position on the benefits of electronic stability control to school buses as “speculative,” since nearly three-quarters of “large bus” fatalities are related to cross-country travel in motor coach type buses, not school buses. However, it is precisely this type of travel where electronic stability control offers the most benefit for school buses, as well.

    See our complete guide to car safety.

    School-bus crashes that tend to have the most potential for causing injury or fatality often take place on roads with higher posted speeds as kids are transported to extracurricular activities or field trips, not the slow, multiple-stop routes typical of going to and from school.

    The lack of a verifiable benefit is also due to the fact that school buses are a very safe mode of transportation and thus don’t show a “present safety need” in NHTSA’s opinion. Indeed, school buses are quite safe. It’s been estimated that a kid riding in a school bus is eight times less likely to be killed than when riding in a car.

    Nevertheless, school-bus crashes do happen, and even if relatively few of them involve a driver losing control or the bus colliding with an obstacle or rolling over, we believe electronic stability control would help prevent those crashes. A technology that could aid a vulnerable population, such as children, is always worth taking seriously.

    The very fact that electronic stability control has proved useful in small and large vehicles and is valued enough to spread its benefits to most other vehicles on our highways supports the case for applying the technology to school buses.

    The coach and public-transit bus industry will realize the safety benefits from electronic stability control. NHTSA pointed out in the rulemaking that even without the new rule, 80 percent of large intercity buses will likely be equipped with electronic stability control by 2018. Applying that technology to school buses seems a logical next step. For a modest cost of just $269 per bus, based on NHTSA estimates, we feel the benefits justify the expense. When amortized over the service life of the typical school bus, the per-year and per-student costs are nominal.

    We recognize that NHTSA’s top priority right now is reforming its seriously flawed process for identifying safety defects. However, we think those effort shouldn’t preclude the agency from issuing the strongest possible safety standards.

    NHTSA should recognize the present safety benefits of electronic stability control on school buses and require this technology on them as soon as possible.

    Gordon Hard

    Support auto safety!


    There are 265 million cars on U.S. roads but only 50 people looking at defects.

    Join Consumers Union in calling upon Congress to give NHTSA the resources it needs to keep motorists safe.

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

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    Beyond the Echo: Amazon opens its Alexa digital assistant to developers

    Amazon has long thrived on making life as simple as possible for its customers—drawing them ever-deeper into its ecosystem. Now, it has expanded on that mission with a series of moves designed to provide homeowners with sweeping access to Alexa, the personal assistant service it introduced with its Echo speaker.

    Only two days after making the voice-activated Echo widely available to the public, the company announced that third-party developers, inventors and hobbyists are welcome to integrate Alexa into any device with an Internet connection, a microphone, and a speaker by using a few lines of free code.

    This announcement accelerates Amazon's push into voice-controlled computing while also addressing the Internet of Things—an area already being targeted by Google with its Nest ecosystem, Apple with HomeKit, and other competitors. Amazon hopes that Alexa will be the interface people use to ask their alarm clocks for weather reports, their sprinkler system to water the lawn, and their TV to turn on a baseball game. The personal assistant service already links to Pandora, Audible and devices manufactured by WeMo, Philips Hue, and IFTTT—not to mention traffic reports, sports scores and team schedules. With today’s announcement, Amazon hopes to add home security systems, kitchen appliances, autos, and ticket sales to the mix.

    To lure more devices onto the platform, the company introduced a developers kit and a $100 million investment fund, which it will use to support new applications. "Experiences designed around the human voice will fundamentally improve the way people use technology," said Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. "With the Alexa Fund, we want to empower people to explore the boundaries of voice technology."

    Chris Raymond

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

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  • 06/26/15--09:29: Don’t weaken GMO labeling
  • Don’t weaken GMO labeling

    At Consumers Union, the policy and advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, we strongly support labels that give consumers valuable, meaningful information about the products they purchase—whether it’s for food, cars, or any other product.

    For more than 20 years, we’ve supported the labeling of genetically engineered foods, also known as genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. And consumers agree with us about GMO labeling. Survey after survey, including our own, has shown that more than 90 percent of consumers want GMO foods to be labeled accordingly. Some 64 countries currently require GMO labeling, and several states, including Connecticut, Maine, and Vermont, have passed legislation requiring GMO labeling. (Share your thoughts about GMOs by leaving a comment below.)

    But legislation currently moving through Congress would bring these and any future efforts to an end by prohibiting GMO labeling requirements at the local, state, and federal level. The misleadingly named Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2015, introduced by Representative Mike Pompeo (R-Kansas) would also make current federal voluntary labeling policy permanent, even though these guidelines have not produced a GMO-labeled product in their 15-year history.

    ​And that's not all. A new draft version of this anti-consumer legislation that is being discussed in the House of Representatives is far more sweeping, also barring states and local communities from regulating genetically modified crops in other ways. Several counties in California, Hawaii, Oregon, and Washington have measures in place that restrict where GMO crops can be grown. The bill would nullify these measures.

    Read our report "GMO Foods: What You Need to Know" to learn more about GMOs. And visit our Food Safety & Sustainability Guide.

    Moreover, this new version would also further prevent businesses from creating voluntary labels for non-engineered products that are more stringent than a yet-to-be-determined U.S. Department of Agriculture standard. For example, the Non-GMO Project Verified seal (shown) which now appears on thousands of products, establishes a threshold of GMO contamination (0.9 percent). This legislation, however, could potentially force such​ meaningful non-GMO labeling programs to weaken their standards.

    Consumers Union strongly opposes this legislation and has called on lawmakers repeatedly to reject it. In letters to Congress, we have also voiced support for other legislative efforts, such as the Genetically Engineered Food Right-to-Know Act introduced by Representative Peter DeFazio (D-Oregon) that would require genetically engineered foods to be labeled and recognize consumers’ right to know what they’re buying.

    And we need your help with GMO labeling. Consumers Union encourages you to make your voice heard and share your support for GMO labeling with your members of Congress. Visit NotInMyFood.org to take action and send Congress the message that you want, and have the right, to know what’s in you food.

    GMO labels make good sense


    Marta Tellado, president and CEO of Consumer Reports, recently wrote about GMOs on CNN.com. Here's an excerpt from her commentary, “GMO Labels Make Good Sense.”

    "Recently, at my neighborhood supermarket, I spotted a young mom pushing a cart with two children and a week's worth of groceries. I watched as she checked each item's label carefully before putting it into her cart. Was she looking for peanuts that could send her kids to the emergency room, checking the nutritional content to make sure they get enough vitamin D, or seeing if there were additives or sweeteners she'd rather have them avoid?

    "It could have been any of those reasons or a dozen more. Everyone deserves to know what's in their food so they can make informed decisions about what to feed themselves and their families."

    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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    Apple CarPlay coming soon to 2016 General Motors cars and trucks

    In our smartphone-addicted culture, car buyers are increasingly expecting deep integration of their most common used apps into their next car. So far, most factory infotainment systems haven’t lived up to their promises. Most are clunky, slow, and often buggy. But that is about to change.

    Enter Silicon Valley: Apple’s CarPlay system and its Google counterpart, Android Auto, will soon bring their familiar smartphone screens and functionality, complete with all the intelligence and voice control technology, right to your dashboard.

    Automakers are racing to integrate these systems, with brands vying to be first to market. Joining the fray, General Motors will roll out CarPlay across most of its 2016 lineup. Android Auto will also be available in a few entry-level models and will follow in more cars later in the year.

    Rather than mirror the whole smartphone screen, CarPlay displays a few large icons for the apps you’re most likely to need on the road—a collection of music and podcast players, text-to-voice apps, maps, and contacts. Arguably, Siri voice commands are the best feature on the road. Paired to GM’s audio system, you can use Siri to program destinations, dial contacts, or dictate text messages on the road. CarPlay requires iOS 7.1 to operate and a lightning cable. Unfortunately, one of the most common navigation apps, Waze, won’t be part of it at this point

    Mapping data and even audio streams—such as podcasts or Internet radio—come over your phone, rather than the car’s stereo unit. So it’s crucial to have an adequate data allotment on your cell-phone plan.

    Android Auto works pretty much the same way. It needs Android Lollipop operating system.

    We’ve sampled CarPlay and Android Auto in some aftermarket stereos (as well as Android Auto in a 2016 Hyundai Sonata) and found that the systems are helpful for finding the latest points of interest and less distracting than picking up your smartphone to do the same functions. Our biggest gripe is that neither integrates your car’s stereo functions well, such as listening to satellite or terrestrial radio, or a CD. You have to keep switching back and forth.

    GM will roll out CarPlay and Android Auto along with upgraded touch-screen hardware for 2016. Oddly, only the smaller 7-inch screen in the 2016 Chevrolet Camaro, Cruze, Malibu, Silverado, and Spark will get Android Auto to start with. Higher-end models with the 8-inch screen won’t get Android Auto for a few more months.

    The only GM models that won’t get CarPlay this fall are the Chevrolet Equinox, Sonic, SS, Trax, Traverse, and commercial Express vans; GMC Acadia and Terrain; Buick Encore, Enclave, and Verano; and Cadillac SRX. The SRX (likely to be named XT5) will get CarPlay with its upcoming redesign early next year. The Sonic and Trax may get the update next year. The others will wait for their next full redesigns.

    —Eric Evarts

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

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    How the Supreme Court ruling impacts the finances of same-sex couples

    Same-sex couples stand to gain considerable financial benefits from the Supreme Court’s decision today effectively legalizing their marriages nationwide. Now, no matter where they live or were married, couples can file their state taxes jointly, file for spousal and survivor benefits through Social Security, and enjoy other financial perks that previously belonged only to heterosexual couples or same-sex couples living in states that recognized their marriages. Among the changes:

    Couples now have the option to file both state and federal tax returns as married filing jointly, or married filing separately. In the past two years, the IRS recognized same-sex marriages nationwide and allowed for those options, but states that didn’t recognize their residents’ marriages required same-sex couples to file returns either as individuals or heads of household. That mismatch was confusing and costly, as couples had to file three returns and spend time and money with tax professionals figuring out the discrepancies. (Filing jointly is a double-edged sword; it often, but not always, leads to tax savings.)

    An employee no longer has the potential to be taxed extra on the value of employer-provided, family health insurance. In the past, same-sex couples living in a state that did not recognize their marriage could find that benefit taxed on the state level as ordinary income; health benefits for heterosexual couples were not similarly taxed. (Federal taxation of health benefits was eliminated after the last Supreme Court decision on same-sex marriage in 2013.)

    One spouse can now file for spousal and survivor retirement benefits on the work record of the other spouse, and potentially take advantage of sophisticated claiming strategies that can add thousands to their retirement benefits. In the past two years since the last, somewhat ambiguous, Supreme Court decision on same-sex marriage, Social Security had said it would only allow those claims from couples that were domiciled in states that recognized their marriages.

    Karen Loewy, a senior attorney for Lambda Legal, national legal organization advocating for the LGBT community and people living with HIV, noted that Social Security still needed to clarify how the new ruling would affect some prior claims for same-sex spousal and survivor benefits. For example, someone living in a state that did not recognize same-sex marriage at the time he or she applied for survivor benefits still might be at risk of not receiving those benefits. "We’re hoping that the Social Security Administration will recognize that basing their spousal determinations on state laws that are now held unconstitutional are similarly impermissible,” Loewy said. Lambda Legal is involved in two pending cases on that topic, in federal district courts in the Illinois and the District of Columbia. 

    Married couples get some nice financial perks. Read more about the tax benefits of marriage

    Couples already benefit from the federal gift-tax exclusion (currently $14,000 per year), allowing each partner to give that amount to any number of relatives without incurring the gift tax. Now those gifts are eligible for applicable state gift-tax exclusions, too.

    The decision could encourage more people who physically or financially could not travel to wed out of state to get married locally, Loewy noted. As a result, more people could now gain access as beneficiaries to private retirement accounts, or to previously-denied spousal benefits through state and local government employers. “For folks who hadn’t been able to marry, being able to marry now will hopefully give them access to greater retirement protections,” Loewy said. “To be able to just go to city hall and have those protections in place can have a huge impact.”

    Lambda Legal has partnered with several organizations to outline the impact—financial and otherwise—of today's decision.

    —Tobie Stanger (@TobieStanger 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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    Robocallers want your debit card information

    M&T Bank is warning its customers about a robocall scam that aims to gather customer debit card numbers, reports Rochester’s Democrat and Chronicle. Sadly, this scam has been around for some time, targeting customers of banks and credit unions all over America. Here’s what you need to know to avoid falling victim.

    How it works

    The scam goes like this: 

    • you get a call with either a live person or a recorded message; 
    • they say that they are calling ‘to warn’ you that your account has been frozen until you ‘verify’ some personal information; 
    • you are then asked to either punch in to the key pad or say your card number and maybe even the PIN, security code and expiration date; 
    • the scammers then use this information to make fake cards, and before you know it your bank account is empty or your credit line has been run up with fraudulent transactions.

    Read more about how to put an end to robocalls.

    How to avoid it

    • Don’t rely on caller-ID
      Scammers can easily spoof legit phone numbers, making it appear that they are calling from your bank or credit union. Don’t fall for it!
    • Just hang up
      Banks don’t call to ask for customer account information. They already have it. Hang up if anyone – via prerecorded message or live agent - asks for your card number, PIN, security code, expiration date, or other personal information.
    • Check with your financial institution
      Security breaches happen, and banks and credit unions may contact customers about fraud on their accounts, but don’t take a call or text or email as the truth. Use independent means, such as signing in to the bank’s website or calling the bank directly yourself using the phone number on the bank of your card, to find out what’s really up with your account.
    • Join with us
      Robocall scammers shouldn’t be able to get to us. That’s why we and more than 300,000 others are calling on the phone companies to provide us with tools to stop robocalls as part of the End Robocalls campaign. Just last week the Federal Communications Commission called on the phone companies to do more to stop robocalls and spam texts. It's time for the phone companies to act. Join with us as we work to get the phone companies to do what the FCC and their customers want and need them to do.

      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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    5 large appliances that save lots of time

    Chores like laundry and dinner prep are probably chewing up more of your day than they need to. That’s what Consumer Reports learned when our testers timed hundreds of appliances in six categories, including washers, dishwashers, ovens, and coffeemakers. Pick the right machines, and you can cut laundry time by a third and churn out clean dishes in less than half the time. The appliances shown here are among the fastest and slowest. The time saved information is the difference between the speediest models and the slowest ones.

    Dishwashers

    Slowest: Electrolux Wave-Touch EW24ID80QS, $1,950, 200 minutes
    Fastest: Blomberg DWT54100SS, $750, 85 minutes
    Time saved: 115 minutes
    The top-rated Blomberg is the fastest dishwasher we’ve tested and is also tops in energy efficiency. The normal cycle takes 85 minutes, and the quick cycle, designed for lightly soiled dishes, takes a mere 35 minutes. The slowpoke Electrolux takes more than 3 hours using the normal cycle.
    Testers’ tip: Before turning on any dishwasher, run your kitchen faucet until the water is hot. That’s faster than having the dishwasher heat up the water.

    Top-loading washers

    Slowest: Frigidaire Affinity FAHE1011MW, $550, 115 minutes
    Fastest: LG WT5680HVA, $1,200, 75 minutes
    Time saved: 40 minutes
    Normal wash time for the LG is just an hour and 15 minutes on the heavy-soil setting, and the superfast TurboWash cycle shaves off 20 minutes without sacrificing performance. That can save you a full hour over slower machines such as the Frigidaire. The LG also has a jumbo drum that can wash more laundry—up to 26 pounds (other machines we tested hold as little as 15 pounds)—in fewer loads. And it’s one of the few top-loaders that got top scores for cleaning power. The Frigidaire is also great at cleaning, but it doesn’t hold as much, is tough on clothes, and uses more water and energy.
    Testers’ tip: Always measure your detergent. Using too much can prolong the rinse cycle.

    Front-loading washers

    Slowest: Kenmore 41382, $800, 110 minutes
    Fastest: Samsung WF45H6300AG, $1,050, 80 minutes
    Time saved: 30 minutes
    The Samsung takes 80 minutes on the heavy-soil setting, but the SuperSpeed option shortens that by about 20 minutes for the same great cleaning results. So you could save up to 50 minutes. Like most front-loaders, it spins out more water than top-loaders, so dryer time is also shortened.
    Testers’ tip: Use the longer heavy-soil setting only for the dirtiest stuff.

    Cooktops

    Slowest: GE PP912SMSS electric smoothtop, $800, 13 minutes
    Fastest: GE Profile PHP900DMBB induction smoothtop, $1,400, 8 minutes
    Time saved: 5 minutes
    We timed how long it takes to bring a pot of water to a boil. Saving 5 minutes might not sound like much, but when you’re trying to get dinner on the table and you’re waiting for the pasta water to boil, every minute counts. The GE is superfast, thanks to induction technology. But it requires magnetic cookware: Look for induction-ready stainless, cast iron, or enameled steel. Though slower, the other GE smoothtop is a lot cheaper and is still very good at simmering and high-heat cooking.
    Testers’ tip: No matter what cooktop you use, match the pot size to the burner size. Heat and energy are wasted when the burner is bigger than the pot.

    Wall ovens

    Slowest: Frigidaire FFEW3025PW, $850, 18 minutes
    Fastest: Whirlpool WOS92EC0AH, $1,500, 10½ minutes
    Time saved: 7½ minutes
    In addition to being quicker to preheat to 350° F than the Frigidaire, the Whirlpool is better at baking and broiling. Its convection feature can also speed up cooking time, though the Frigidaire’s interior is roomier.
    Testers’ tip: Skip preheating any oven when you’re cooking foods that take an hour or longer to cook, such as roasts and casseroles. It’s not necessary.

    —Adapted from ShopSmart

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

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    4 smart sun safety strategies

    Your skin is on display more at this time of year than any other. But as you shed layers, you’re also exposing it to ultraviolet rays from the sun, which can be harmful. Survey after survey has found that many people have misconceptions about how to stay safe in the sun or that they don’t put into practice what they know. Here are four common mistakes to avoid.  

    Mistake 1: Using sunscreen, but incorrectly.

    Last summer we interviewed 135 consumers at a beach near our headquarters in Yonkers, N.Y. About 60 percent said they did what our experts advise—put sunscreen on 15 to 30 minutes before heading out so that it has time to form a protective film. But only one-third said they reapply it every 2 hours, which most sunscreen labels instruct.

    Other evidence shows that people use about half the amount needed for full protection. And according to our testing, half the amount applied means you get half the SPF. Use a teaspoon on each body part or area exposed to the sun: one for your ears, face, and neck, for example, and another for each arm.

    Check out our ratings for sunscreen and face sunscreen and get more advice on sun protection in our stay safe in the sun guide.

    Mistake 2: Going without additional protection.

    No sunscreen keeps out 100 percent of UV rays, so you need other sun-shielding strategies. Seeking shade is a good move, but even canopies, trees, and umbrellas won’t block all UV light. Dressing right is important. Clothes with built-in sun protection (ultraviolet protection factor, or UPF) work well, but we found that tops made of tightly woven cotton or a polyester-­spandex blend provide a UPF above 100. Add a broad-brimmed hat and sunglasses that block 99 to 100 percent of UV rays, and you’re all set.

    Mistake 3: Not knowing which med­ications make you sun sensitive.

    You could be more susceptible to burning or get a painful rash. Those drugs include antibiotics (fluoroquinolones, tetracyclines, and sulfonamides), diuretics (fu­ro­semide and hydrochlorothiazide), pain relievers such as ibuprofen and naproxen, tricyclic antidepressants, statins, and sulfonylureas. The same holds true for anti-aging products such as retinoids (isotretinoin and tretinoin) and glycolic and salicylic acids.

    Mistake 4: Not following the appropriate screening strategy.

    You might find that annual skin exams by a professional are reassuring. But the best strategy is to become familiar with your skin and alert your doctor if you see something out of the ordinary, such as an existing mole that begins to change or a new mole that looks different from others you have. Talk with him about how and when you should be screened if you have a family history of melanoma, a personal history of frequent sunburns, or a large or increasing number of moles (they might be precancerous), or if you’re fair-skinned or heavily freckled.

    —Karyn Repinski

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

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    The reality of child seats and rental cars

    When renting a car, it is often possible to also secure a child seat from the rental agency for your little one, but is it a good idea?

    Consumer Reports’ child passenger safety technicians checked out the child seats available for rent at a couple of large rental car agencies and found the quality of inventory was drastically different between agencies. (Learn how to save on car rentals.)

    At one agency, the child seats were neatly stored in clear plastic bags and each seat had its owner’s manual zip-tied to the cover. This was encouraging to see, as the instructions are critical to ensure the seat is properly installed.

    In contrast to the neatly stored child seats at the first agency, the child seats at a second rental company were kept outside in the parking lot, in a shed. They were not in plastic bags, and most of them were missing their owner’s manuals. Many of the seats were not suitable for use due to broken parts, missing labels, infant seat carriers separated from their bases, or they were expired (see when to retire a car seat). When we inquired as to whether these were really the seats for rent, we were told there were new seats available, though we did not investigate those.

    Prices for renting a seat averaged about $10 a day. If you’re planning to be at your destination for longer than a couple of days, that can quickly add up, approaching the price of a new seat.

    In any case, knowing which seat is appropriate for your child to use and being comfortable with how a seat is installed and familiarizing yourself with the details of its instructions can be confusing. The employees of the rental agency, though well-intentioned, are not likely to have been trained in child passenger safety and may not be able to offer much guidance. When you combine that with the price and the potential for unpredictable quality of seats at a rental agencies, it leads us to recommend bringing your child’s car seat when travel plans include a rental car. It may also be helpful to purchase an extra set of car seats just for travel, so you do not risk your everyday seat being damaged during transportation or baggage handling. Such travel seats could be selected for ease of carrying and price, in addition to safety. (As always, check our car seat buying guide and Ratings. There are good-performing seats at a wide range of prices.)

    Fortunately, most airlines allow car seats to be gate checked free, and they can often be picked up right on the jet way after landing, potentially limiting damage from luggage handling.

    Another option that you may not have considered, but that some seasoned travelers swear by, is to order a seat before your trip and have it shipped to a friend or relative who can either bring it to the airport for you to use in a rental car, or have it installed in their own vehicle to pick you and your child up from the airport. This alternative requires some advanced planning to allow for choosing, shipping and familiarizing yourself with the new seat; fortunately most child restraint manufacturers have on-line owner's manuals and even installation videos that can be reviewed ahead of time.  This option has the added benefit of eliminating the risk that your everyday car seat will be damaged during transportation or baggage handling.

    Whichever strategy works best for your needs, we think it is best to use your own seat rather than putting yourself (and your child's safety) at the mercy of the car rental agency.

    For more on driving with kids, see our special section.

    Michelle Tsai Podlaha

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

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    Will an old TV wall mount fit a new TV?

    Q. I have a plasma big-screen on a TV wall mount that can be pulled out from the wall and angled. If I replace my old TV, will its wall mount be compatible with a new one? Is there a universal standard for hook-up attachments?—David Sawyer, Wilmington, NC

    A. Most new TVs are VESA-compliant, that is, they meet guidelines set by the Video Electronics Standards Association. That means they conform to standards for features like the mounting holes on the back. (A VESA 75x75 means that the holes are 75 millimeters apart horizontally and 75 millimeters apart vertically.) Once you remove your old TV, measure the distances between the holes. Then check the manuals for the new TVs you're considering purchasing for the VESA standard to see whether your old TV wall mount is compatible. If it’s not (or if the new set is a lot heavier), you’ll probably need a new TV wall mount.

    For related information about TVs check our TV Buying Guide.

    Send your questions to ConsumerReports.org/askourexperts.

    This article also appeared in the August 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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    What if you get sick while traveling abroad?

    You’ve reserved your flights and hotels, got your passport, and maybe even selected your wardrobe. But if you’re traveling abroad, have you planned what you’ll do if you become sick or injured? Where you’ll go for medical treatment, how you’ll pay for it, and how quickly you’ll be able to get back home?

    If you can’t answer those questions, you’re not alone, says Julie Loffredi of InsureMyTrip.com, a travel-insurance comparison site that recently surveyed 800 travelers. “Most people don’t know if their insurance covers them outside the U.S.,” she says.

    The answers can be tricky. Though most big health insurers advertise coverage for emergency and urgent care abroad, “their standard policies offer only the bare minimum,” says Devon Herrick, Ph.D., a senior fellow and health economist at the National Center for Policy Analysis. “A life-threatening emergency visit may be covered,” he says, but you might have to return to the U.S. for follow-up care.

    That’s why your trip preparations should include calling your health insurance carrier to find out what coverage you have overseas. Medicare generally doesn’t cover hospital or medical costs on foreign soil. And very few insurers will pay for a medical evacuation from a remote, resource-poor area to a hospital where you can receive adequate treatment or a flight back home. “Explain what kind of trip you’re taking,” says Damian Tysdal, founder of Travel Insurance Review. “Make a list of the gaps you’re concerned about.”

    Depending on what you learn from your carrier, add the following to your to-do list:

    Generally, there are two types: a travel health plan or a vacation package. Travel health plans are typically stand-alone policies that cover only medical emergencies and cost a few dollars a day. A vacation package, also known as a comprehensive plan, provides coverage that includes medical emergencies, trip cancellation, trip interruption, baggage loss or damage and flight cancellations. “The average comprehensive plan runs about 4 to 8 percent of all your pre-paid, non-refundable expenses, such as hotel, airfare, excursions and tours,” says Loffredi. Medical evacuation coverage can be purchased in conjunction with it, or separately to supplement your own health insurance.

    You can compare policies and premiums on sites such as Squaremouth.com and InsureMyTrip.com, which provide links to full policy documents from dozens of carriers and numbers to call licensed agents who can answer questions.Examine policies closely and ask the agent to point out the words are that prove coverage. Be sure to inquire about exclusions for pre-existing conditions and injuries that are due to high-risk activities such as mountain climbing; preauthorization requirements for hospital admission or other services; and requirements for a second opinion.

    Some countries that have subsidized national health care will provide free care to visitors; check with your host country’s embassy or consulate to find out. There are some countries where you’ll need proof of health insurance as an entry requirement, and others where medical facilities won’t accept health insurance at all. In that case, you will have to pay by cash or credit card and file for reimbursement later, so be sure to keep all paperwork.

    The International Association for Medical Assistance to Travelers, or IAMA, is a nonprofit that advises travelers about health risks, provides information about vaccinations, and has a network of English-speaking doctors throughout the world who treat patients at a fixed rate. “If you’re not covered by travel insurance, or if travel insurance does not cover a pre-­existing condition, that’s where we might come in,” explains Tullia Marcolongo, the association’s director of programs and development. It provides a directory of hospitals and fees.

    The cost of membership is a voluntary donation; the average is $30. Does that mean you don’t need insurance? Maybe. “Our doctors can take care of you,” Marcolongo says. “They have been trained in North America or Europe and have been vetted through our own inspections, references from other doctors, and our members.” She added that although the fees can be reimbursed by your travel-insurance company, “some have their own networks, and your claim may be denied if you don’t use one of their providers.”

    Have your health-insurance ID and claim forms with you while traveling, as well as a letter from your doctor describing any condition you have and medications you take. Keep meds in their clearly labeled original containers; some countries have restrictions on medications lacking proper documentation.

    Personnel there are available 24/7 to give emergency assistance to U.S. citizens, including transferring funds from the U.S. for out-of-pocket medical costs, help in getting appropriate medical services, and informing your family or friends.

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

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    Subaru recalls cars with EyeSight active safety

    Subaru has issued a stop-sale and recall on 2015 models equipped with the EyeSight active safety system. This action includes the Impreza, Legacy, Outback, and XV Crosstrek, as well as the 2016 WRX. Owners of these models will be sent a notice by the end of June, but dealers are already equipped to remedy the problem.

    According to the report submitted to National Highway Traffic Administration (NHTSA), this recall affects about 72,000 vehicles. The recall addresses a brake light switch that can interfere with the software that triggers the automatic braking, potentially causing the automatic braking to not function as intended. There are no reported injuries due to this risk.

    EyeSight is a camera-based safety suite that can automatically bring the vehicle to a stop in emergency situations from speeds below 30 mph. According to Subaru, EyeSight customers have been receptive to EyeSight and the system has about a 30-percent penetration rate.

    If you are one of the Subaru EyeSight owners, you’ve chosen wisely. The system brings peace of mind and works as intended, as we have experienced. Owners are encouraged to head to the dealer at their earliest convenience and have this recall work performed. The recall campaign number is WQS-54. The software update process should take about an hour.

    Check for recalls on your car.

    —Gabe Shenhar and Seung Min “Mel” Yu

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

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    Best & worst three-row vehicles

    The main appeal of three-row vehicles is their ability to carry up to eight people and cargo, as well.  They’re great for carpooling and carrying all types of gear. The list includes minivans and SUVs, although larger SUVs provide both better access and more cargo space, minivans have a better third-row seat for children as well as adults.

    Our list highlights the best and worst of three-row vehicles based on seat comfort and ease of access to the third-row seat.

    Chevrolet Suburban

    The Suburban is a huge, old-fashioned, truck-based SUV, the quintessential family truckster for large families who live beyond the suburbs. What sets it apart from other SUVs is that it provides three rows of seats--for carrying up to seven, eight, or even nine people--yet still retains generous cargo space.

    Dodge Durango

    Sharing its platform with the Jeep Grand Cherokee, the Durango adds an available third row with seating for seven. Two adults can fit in the third row with adequate room and decent seating posture, but it's not the place for a long trip.

    Ford Expedition

    The Expedition competes with the Chevrolet Suburban in the "huge SUV" class. It's available in two lengths, with the extended-length EL offering massive cargo space and seating for up to eight. The roomy third-row seat folds flat into the floor and seats three adults with ease.

    Honda Odyssey

    A minivan is your best bet in a three-row vehicle. The Odyssey can seat eight people with ease and the comfy second-row chairs and third-row split bench can be deployed numerous ways for varying cargo and passenger needs.

    Lincoln Navigator

    The Navigator is based on the Ford Expedition and also offers a longer version with increased cargo space behind the third-row seat. The power-operated third row folds flat into the floor and is as comfortable as the second row.

    Mercedes-Benz GL

    The GL SUV has one of the best rear seats in the business and it's even rarer to find a true three-row turbodiesel. Big families will really appreciate the third-row seat, which is one of a very few with room for two adults.  

     

    Nissan Quest

    The Quest is the most luxurious minivan on the market, but only seats seven, not eight due to the second row captain's chairs. However, three adults will fit comfortably in the third row, which also reclines.

    Toyota Sienna

    The Sienna, like the Odyssey also seats eight people. The third row is acceptably comfortable for three adults, and not too difficult to access. The eighth seat cleverly stores in the back when it isn't installed in the center of the middle row.

    Land Rover Range Rover Sport

    While it's an appeal for families, the optional third row in the Range Rover Sport can hold two kids, but it’s cramped and a chore to access.


    Kia Sorento

    Third-row seats have a bolt-upright backrest, tight headroom, and a low bottom cushion that forces your knees into the air. These seats are best reserved for kids. Second-row passengers can slide the seats forward to make more legroom for those banished to third-row steerage.

    Best and worst new cars

    See our best and worst section to help filter down your purchase considerations including best new cars under $25K, best and worst new car values, and most fun to drive.

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

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    Why marijuana stocks might go up in smoke

    If you’re like many investors, you always have an eye out for the next big growth market. If you can get in early, you might be able to profit handsomely—maybe even make a killing. For many, the market for marijuana stocks, much like the market for tech stocks in the early 1990s, seems to offer such an opportunity.

    The main reason is that the marijuana market is growing rapidly. Over the past year, retail sales in Colorado alone generated about $700 million, almost half of which came from sales of medical marijuana. Cannabis is now legal in four states, with perhaps five more planning to join them in 2016. Twenty states allow the use of medical marijuana. It seems clear that the trend will continue and that marijuana will become a multibillion-dollar industry.

    Dozens of cannabis companies have sprung up as a result of a wave of legalization and decriminalization. Investors can now bet on them through so-called marijuana stocks—and do they ever. When laws legalizing marijuana in Colorado and Washington state went into effect, shares in many of those companies soared.

    But it wasn’t long before they came crashing down. The harsh reality is that if you buy shares in pot stocks today, your investment stands a good chance of fizzling out.

    Part of the reason has to do with how marijuana stocks, also known as penny stocks, trade. Medical Marijuana (ticker: MJNA), Cannabis Science (ticker: CBIS), and GrowLife (ticker: PHOT), to name a few of the largest, trade on the over-the-counter market. The companies that register them are subject to almost no listing requirements and are barely regulated by the Securities and Exchange Commission or the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA). (A number of legitimate foreign firms are on the OTC market for reasons of convenience, but that’s another story.) Those companies don’t have to file reports with the SEC, so reliable information about their income statements and balance sheets can be difficult for investors to come by.

    Think you've spotted the next big trend? Read "An alternative approach to investing in stocks." 

    That makes the OTC market a kind of Wild West of capitalism and a great place for con artists to run “pump and dump” schemes, luring investors into stocks with promises that the market for marijuana will soon be worth billions of dollars. As investors pile in to buy the shares, the stock prices rise. Then the con artists sell their shares for a profit while small investors watch their holdings disappear as the stock plummets.

    Such behavior led the SEC to put temporary trading halts on five of the better-known marijuana stocks last year: Fusion Pharm (ticker: FSPM), Cannabusiness Group (ticker: CBGI), Advanced Cannabis Solutions (ticker: CANN), Petrotech Oil and Gas (ticker: PTOG), and GrowLife. The reasons included doubts about the accuracy of financial information, potentially illegal sales of securities, and market manipulation.

    Another problem: Some of the people who run the companies have less than stellar backgrounds. Medical Marijuana in San Diego, for example, was founded by Bruce Perlowin, who spent nine years—from 1983 to 1991—in prison for smuggling marijuana into San Francisco from Colombia. And a board member at the company was arrested for possession in Alabama in 2013. Perlowin is now CEO of Hemp, based in Las Vegas, which would like to become a leader in the industrial hemp industry.

    Another pot executive, Michael Llamas, the former president of Medical Marijuana, was indicted by a federal grand jury in 2013 for his involvement in mortgage fraud that caused $10 million in losses. He has pleaded not guilty.

    Given that many marijuana companies have dubious financial records and questionable management, and that they’re influenced by con artists, it’s surprising that any investor would be interested. Yet there continues to be considerable interest in the subject on Internet forums and a bevy of activity. Some stocks, such as Cannabis Science, trade more than a million shares per day. Even GrowLife, which went from 50 cents per share to 3 cents before the SEC temporarily halted trading, has an average daily trading volume of 1.6 million shares.

    But investors shouldn’t be fooled into thinking that they can handle the risk just because the penny stocks trade for, well, pennies. They also shouldn’t be swayed by the incredible gains the companies have had because their losses were equally incredible. Wait to see whether marijuana is legalized at the federal level. If that happens, there will be legitimate publicly traded companies in which to invest. 

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

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  • 06/28/15--03:59: Most fun cars to drive
  • Most fun cars to drive

    Fun to drive is a subjective measure—an elusive quality that can mean different things to different people. From our experience, a car can have a very powerful engine and accelerate quickly, but without handling agility, it's not much fun.

    For us, fun is a combination of factors such as handling response, sound, and the nature of the power delivery that lead to grin-inducing satisfaction.

    To come up with our list of the most fun cars to drive, we first took a slice according to our scores for handling, steering feel, and body control. Then we looked at acceleration, but found most cars today have plenty of power. Finally, we took a secret ballot to give our testers a chance to capture those elusive subjective qualities, including sounds. Below, we present our picks for the cars that are the most and least fun to drive.

    Category Most fun Least fun
    Sports/sporty cars BMW M235i, BMW 328i, Cadillac ATSChevrolet CorvetteFord Fiesta ST, Ford Focus ST, Ford Mustang GT, Mazda Miata, Mini Cooper S, Porsche 911, Scion FR-S, Subaru BRZ, Porsche Boxster, Subaru Impreza WRX, Volkswagen GTI Acura ILX, BMW Z4,
    Chevrolet Camaro, Nissan 370Z
    Luxury cars Audi A6, Infiniti Q70, Jaguar XJ, Porsche Panamera, Tesla Model S
    BMW 750Li
    Compact & subcompact cars Ford Focus, Mazda3, Mini Cooper, Volkswagen Golf Nissan Versa, Scion iQ, Smart ForTwo
    Small SUVs BMW X1, Ford Escape, Mini Cooper Countryman, Nissan Juke, Porsche Macan, Volkswagen Tiguan 
    Jeep Compass
    Midsized SUVs Porsche Cayenne Toyota 4Runner
    Best and worst new cars

    See our best and worst section to help filter down your purchase considerations including best new cars under $25K, best and worst new car values, most fuel-efficient, and best for comfort.

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

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    10 tips for a stress-free road trip with kids

    Many budget-conscious families are opting to travel by car, instead of by plane, but driving with kids can be especially challenging. “Are we there, yet?” “I’m bored.” “He’s picking on me.” “I’m hungry.” And the list goes on. But with proper planning, the ride can be fun and relatively painless for all. Consider following a few important tips.

    Here are 10 tips to ensure you have a fun, safe, and smooth trip.

    1. Service your car. There is nothing worse than setting off on a road trip and breaking down along the way—especially on a hot day with kids in tow. Get your car checked out before you take off. Make sure fluids are topped off and tires properly inflated or purchase new tires if they are worn out. (See our guide to car maintenance and tire ratings.)
    2. Plan properly. Before you even get in the car, plan your destination and route. A portable GPS device or smart phone navigation app can help guide you to your vacation spot, but it may be worth having a paper map as backup. Try to drive during off-peak hours to avoid traffic or other delays. (See our GPS buying advice and ratings.)
    3. Check your car seats. As many as 80 percent of car seats may not be properly installed. Also, have your seat inspected to make sure it’s safe. Find a station near you at: seatcheck.org or safercar.gov. Children should be seated in a proper car seat based on their height and weight and those under 2 should stay rear facing. Also, make sure all children under 13 ride in the backseat.
    4. Pack well. Loose items in the car can become dangerous projectiles in a crash. Secure all luggage and gear in the trunk or cargo area. If children are playing with toys, try to keep ones they are not using tucked away. (See our tips for smart parking.)
    5. Bring all the necessities. Driving with kids means you need to make sure you have enough drinks and snacks, not just for the trip, but in case there is a problem and you are stuck on the road longer than expected. Carry an emergency kit. If traveling during cold weather, be sure to bring blankets and coats. Also, don’t forget garbage bags, baby wipes, and paper towels, just in case.
    6. Keep them entertained. Kids can get bored driving long distances, so prepare by bringing all types of music, movies, books, and games to keep them occupied. Tablets and smartphones can also be helpful and portable for keeping children busy. Be sure to grab any essential power cords and batteries (including USB adaptors, if needed), as well as head phones. Low-tech options include driving games such as I-Spy, looking for red cars, or counting exits.
    7. Connect to your location. Speaking of smart phones, there are some great apps for the co-pilot to use to plan where to stop for gas, food, or rest stops. Google search to find places "near you" can be helpful as well. Many in-car systems such as Toyota's Entune can help you find places to stop.
    8. Keep focused. Driving on a long trip can be very tiring. Avoid distractions and focus on the road, having the front passenger manage the children, navigation, and cell phone.
    9. Take a break. It’s a good idea to stop every two hours for a stretch, bathroom break, and exercise to get the blood flowing. Kids can especially benefit by running around, even for just a few minutes.
    10. Know the laws. Traffic laws vary by state, so check out the rules such as right-turn-on-red laws and local speed limits. And always buckle up.

    Liza Barth

    Summer travel

    See our related special sections for more tips.
    Summer travel guide
    Kids & car safety
    Guide to fuel economy
    Guide to car maintenance
    Car seat buying advice & ratings

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

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    Are stock splits good for investors?

    Stock splits are back. Netflix is the latest Standard & Poor’s 500 company to announce that it’s splitting its shares. Owners of 100 shares of Netflix, worth roughly $700 each in June, will soon own 700 of them at one-seventh the price. Netflix's split announcement resembles that of Apple, which also split its shares 7 for 1 in 2014.

    Mere cosmetics, you say? Many in the financial media seem to think so. Even Jim Cramer doesn't seem to think the split matters much. So why do companies bother?

    Engaging users

    Stock splits, at least in part, may be moves companies make to continue engaging the interest of individual investors, and that may be even more true when it comes to big household names like Netflix and Apple. By splitting their shares, these companies appear more accessible to individual investors, even though the fundamentals of the company don't change. In addition, the companies are signaling to investors the future prospects of the company remain positive. Indeed, many stock splits are announced simultaneously with dividend initiation or increases, the other positive signal corporations offer investors.

    Not all companies split shares in exchange for a fleeting spotlight and possible near-term gains. The most obvious example is Berkshire Hathaway, a company that has never split its stock in its 50 years. In his biography "The Snowball", Warren Buffett suggests that splitting Berkshire's stock would be a losing proposition for all concerned—disappointed traders looking for a quick buck, and Buffett having to respond to these short-term owners. Nonetheless, even Berkshire Hathaway offers a more friendly version for smaller investors: the Berkshire "B" shares trade at 1/1500th the price of the traditional A shares, the latter of which are currently valued at over $200,000 per share. (Initially 30 B shares were equivalent to one A share, but the B shares were split by Berkshire 15 years after their 1994 launch.)

    Read about a new exchange-traded fund that focuses on stocks that are buying back their own shares.

    But despite the emotional appeal of a "smaller" price, stock splits are becoming somewhat of an artifact. A half-century ago, corporations split their stock in order for investors to trade them in lots rounded to the nearest hundred; otherwise, the commission would increase for buying and selling "odd-lots." Today, investors don't need to worry about additional fees for odd-lot trading: None of the major online brokerages charge additional commissions or fees for trading, say, 26 shares of Netflix instead of 100

    In addition, individual investors are no longer the market they once were. If you look back 40 years, individuals still traded more stocks on an average trading day than institutional shareholders. But today, trading by hedge funds, pensions, and mutual funds dwarf that of trades done by individuals. 

    Short-term benefits

    Are stock splits even good news for shareholders, no matter who the owners are? According to research, the results appear mixed. One study, focusing on stock splits from the 1920s through 1950s, found that they didn't matter; after 30 months, split stocks did no better than others. But research focusing on more recent history found that stocks that split outperformed the market by about 8 percentage points in the year following the split.

    And since there is seemingly an exchange-traded fund for every market phenomenon, it may come as little surprise that there's an ETF that owns shares of companies that have recently split shares. The Stock Split Index fund (ticker: TOFR), launched last September, invests in 30 recently split stocks.  Since its September 2014 inception, the ETF has returned 9.7 percent, more than the 3.9 percent of the broader market, as measured by the Vanguard Total Stock Market ETF. But be aware that, according to Morningstar data, it currently only manages some $5 million in assets. ETFs this size are often liquidated, with cash (and sometimes capital gains headaches) returned to shareholders.

    Reverse stock splits

    Finally, there's one type of stock split that almost always is bad news for investors. Those are companies that engineer reverse stock splits, by combining existing shares into one new share. For example, a 1-to-10 reverse stock split would trade 40 old shares priced at $2 per share into 4 shares priced at $20.  

    Often, the reason companies do this is to meet the listing requirements of major stock exchanges like the New York Stock Exchange and Nasdaq, both of which require stocks listed on their respective exchanges to have a minimum value of $1 per share. Generally, the prognoses of companies that undertake reverse splits are poor. A recent study confirms a suspicion that reverse-split stocks will continue to lose value.

    –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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  • 06/29/15--13:24: Hands-on with Google Photos
  • Hands-on with Google Photos

    Are your photos of family and friends important to you? Of course, they are. But organizing them can be torturous.

    If you’re like me, you’ve shot photos and video with lots of devices. You have images and video stored on a variety of smartphones, tablets, cameras and probably computer hard drives, too. And that means you never have them all in one place to look at, sort, edit, or share. I’m continually asking myself: Did I shoot those photos on my phone or SLR? Did I back them up on my computer? And where the heck is that precious shot I took of my kids last year?

    This is the problem Google has tried to fix with Google Photos, a recently introduced web service and mobile app (for iOS and Android). It's an online photo organization and backup tool that offers free unlimited storage, along with a unique act of digital magic: The service scans your photos, IDs people and places, and groups everything accordingly. Then it will even create its own animations and collages using your material. I've spent the past few weeks testing Google Photos. Overall I have seen a lot to like, but I've also uncovered a couple of privacy concerns—and a few glitches.

    Google Photos vs. the competition

    To test the site, I uploaded a relatively small batch of photos and videos from my phone—about 1100 photos and 45 HD videos. I also uploaded a bunch of pictures from my computer. The process was easy, but it did take a long time—about 24 hours—to complete.

    You've got two options for backup and storage when you set up a Google Drive account. You can get unlimited storage of photos up to 16 megapixels and HD videos (up to 1080); or you can choose 15 GB of storage for image and video files of any size. If you choose the limited option you'll actually be tapping into your Google Drive storage allotment; Google offers paid options if you go beyond 15 GB.

    I chose the unlimited option, and 16 megapixels is plenty for the majority of shooters. However, it may not be a good choice for serious photographers. If you're shooting with the 50-megapixel Canon EOS 5D S, your super-detailed photos will be downsized to 16-megapixel shots. And if you shoot 4K ultra-high-definition movies your videos will be downsized.  

    So, how does Google Photos compare to its competitors? There are a number of them out there, but none offer free unlimited storage. The one that comes closest is Flickr, which offers users a massive 1 terabyte for free. One major advantage of that service is that Flickr stores photos uncompressed and doesn't scale them down. Your pictures from that Canon EOS 5D S won't lose anything when they arrive on Flickr's servers. (Additionally, Flickr has more comprehensive editing tools.)

    The other photo storage services offer far less storage space. For instance, Apple's iCloud Photo Library offers just 5GB of free storage. If you need more, you'll pay a monthly fee: 20 GB (about $1), 200 GB (about $4), 500 GB (about $10) and 1 TB (about $20). There's also Amazon Prime, which offers a "free" unlimited photo plan—provided you have a $99 yearly subscription.

     

    Interface

    One thing I like about the Google Photos app and service is its clean and consistent interface; it looks very much the same across platforms—that's not true for some of its competitors. Whether you’re using iOS or Android, or any browser on either a Mac or PC, you can get access to your photos using the tools, positioned in the same spots on the screen. (There are some features available on the app that aren’t available on the web browser.) 

    In general, I was impressed with the help and tutorial features on Google Photos. For example, I loved the introductory “cards” that you scroll through, which run through the process of uploading and organizing your photos and videos.

    More comprehensive help features are found in the app’s Assistant section: It provides quick step-by-steps on how to accomplish various tasks, such as removing an incorrect photo or video. It also suggests groups of photos that may make a great animated GIF. (It will often pick out groups of photos taken in a burst.) And it gives you access to a help forum, where you might be able to find information from others who have experienced the same problem.  

    Importing and searching photos

    One of the biggest problems people face in the age of unlimited photo-shooting is that it's getting harder and harder to find any one image. Google Photo tries to solve that by applying facial recognition (plus Disney, skiing, beach, and Vegas recognition) to every photo that gets uploaded. This was the feature I was most interested in exploring.

    Once my images and videos were imported, I tried searching through them. When I typed in “baseball” in the search bar, I came up with several photos of my son at Yankee Stadium and from Little League. Google also added another layer of automatic search and categorization to this app. Once your uploads are complete, hit the magnifying glass (either on the app or web version), and photos are divided into People, Places and Things.  

    How well did Google Photos categorize my images? For the four members of my immediate family, including myself, the app did a decent job of grouping shots from the past several years. However, there were some mistakes and glitches with this automation. The service didn’t group baby shots of my son together with photos taken when he was older. However, it did succeed in doing that for with my daughter's baby shots—perhaps because she has red hair, which may be an easily identifiable characteristic.

    One glitch was actually pretty fun: On my phone, I had images of my college friends. Google Photos grouped some images of one of my college friends together with a shot of my son and I standing next to a Yankees monument to Babe Ruth, which includes a relief sculpture of the Hall of Famer. I can only guess that Google Photos identified the smile of the Great Bambino with my college buddy’s grin!

    While People and Places worked fairly well, I was disappointed in the Things section. I have tons of shots of guitars, but they didn’t automatically show up under Things.

    One broad criticism I have of Google Photos is that it doesn't allow you to manually tag your photos, or change the automatically applied tags. Many photographers I know take a lot of time to set up tagging and keywords on their photos—none of that works in Photos.

    Editing and creations

    Two more important areas of the app are the editing and creations features. Unlike some photo apps, Google Photos has a minimalist approach to its editing features. You only have a handful to choose from: Light, Color, Pop (which provides a high-dynamic range type of effect), and a Vignette feature. You also have access to a number of Instagram-like filters and a cropping tool. Lastly, you can opt to use an Auto feature, which combines several of these editing features. As I noted earlier, I think Google Photos offers too few editing tools: In particular, the app needs more manual and granular editing functions if it wants to be competitive with services such as Flickr.

    Google Photos also includes ways of creatively combining images. One is via its animations feature, which lets you quickly combine images into an animated GIF, which I found to be addictive and fun. Another way is to create a narrative segment in its Story feature (only available on the mobile app, not on the computer), which lets you combine the images or video with text to highlight an event or maybe a trip. For me, this feature wasn’t quite as intuitive as the GIF creation tool, but I think it has a lot of promise.

    Google Photos will also build its own animations and collages using your photos. The app sends you text messages to let you know that the app has generated a new file, and you can then choose whether to save it. I found the suggestions to be hit or miss, but I did choose to save several of them.

    Privacy concerns

    There are some aspects of Google Photos that may raise privacy concerns. The most pressing is that when you want to share your photos, you can send a weblink, which generates a page displaying the number of photos you selected to send. The people you share the photos with can then download the photos they want from that webpage. The upside is that it's convenient to send lots of photos without clogging up someone’s email service. But there's a big downside: This link can be shared with anyone.

    I asked Google about this security issue and got an email back from a product manager: “The links are secret, not indexed by web crawlers, and mathematically impossible to guess, so effectively the ‘password’ is baked into the link itself. If you give it to someone, they can access the photos. However, you have full control to revoke that link at any time.” But you won't know if someone has sent that link on to someone else and compromised your security.

    Google says there’s no way for your photos or videos to accidentally appear in Google’s public search, unless you decide to share them and make them public.  

    A larger concern may be how Google could eventually try to monetize the vast amounts of photo and video data its users will be uploading to the company's servers. After all, Google's business is based on providing free services and using the resulting data to sell ads. I wondered if Google planned use the metadata attached to users' photos for placing online ads. For example, would I start seeing advertisements for ski jackets because I post and back up a lot of skiing photos? According to the company, the answer is no—at least for now. In an email, a representative said: "Our first priority—as with most products that Google builds—is to get the user experience right. So we’re not focused on monetization right now. Google Photos will not use images or videos uploaded onto Google Photos commercially for any promotional purposes, unless we ask for the user's explicit permission." We'll keep an eye on how this develops.

    Highs, lows, and bottom line

    Although I was impressed with most of what Google Photos has to offer, I did have issues with some aspects of it. For example, Google Photos should have a way to more securely share photos than just sending out a URL. At the least, I'd like to see it include an option for signing in to the webpage. (Consumer Reports has an extensive guide to protecting yourself online.)

    In terms of features, photographers could benefit from stronger editing options, and a way to tag images manually. Most casual photographers will probably be okay with the 16 megapixels or 1080 HD video limits. But I do believe it will be an issue for more serious photographers, even with the ability to back up photos and video at original resolutions without downsizing them.

    However, I was very impressed with the service's ability to quickly group like images via face recognition, geotagging and landmarks within photos. Even with the mistakes and glitches I found, the automation, at times, is downright miraculous. I also believe it’s just the first step for Google Photos. When I asked if there are plans to eventually add more customization and tagging features in to the app, the Google product team replied, “stay tuned.” So my guess is that this is just the start.

    —Terry Sullivan

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

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    2016 Hyundai Sonata Plug-In Hybrid is a refined, technologically advanced car

    The best hybrids from Ford and Toyota are about to get some competition from Hyundai. We just had a chance to sample the 2016 Hyundai Sonata Plug-In Hybrid and found that it’s a refined, technologically advanced piece of machinery.

    Like the old Sonata Hybrid, the 2016 Hyundai Sonata Plug-In Hybrid sandwiches its electric motor between the engine and a conventional six-speed automatic transmission. Unlike the old Sonata Hybrid, this one switches between gas and electric power almost imperceptibly. There’s no surge when gas power comes on.

    The plug-in version has a 9.8-kWh lithium-ion polymer battery that Hyundai claims is good for about 24 miles of electric-only driving before the gas engine is needed. With its 50-kw electric motor the car can cruise at up to 75 mph in EV mode, which means it’s easy to drive on electric power without the engine jumping in every time you climb a hill or accelerate hard, something most other plug-in hybrids do. Because the hybrid battery is mounted behind the rear seats, though, the seatbacks can’t fold down to expand trunk space—a minor drawback.

    The Plug-In allows drivers to switch among three driving modes: Hybrid, Electric, and Charge. When you start the car, it begins in Electric (EV) mode, using whatever battery charge is available before starting the engine to replenish and supplement the battery pack. Hybrid (HEV) mode preserves the charge in the battery for later use and lets the car operate in regular hybrid mode which means the engine kicks in more often.

    The third mode, Charge, uses the engine to recharge the battery on the highway; this mode can be handy if you have cities on each end of your commute and need more battery power at your destination for city driving than would otherwise remain after you set off. Of course, using the engine to charge the battery unravels any efficiency gains you may have made by driving on electric power. The engine on the 2016 Hyundai Sonata Plug-In Hybrid is an extremely inefficient source of electricity, so you’d probably be better off just driving on gas power. Hyundai suggests only using Charge mode on the highway, when the engine might be running anyway.

    Although Hyundai claims 24 miles of EV range, we found that by using a gentle foot we could eke out 33 miles on meandering country roads. Maximizing EV operation certainly makes the Sonata PHEV feel more like an electric vehicle than the Toyota Prius PHEV, which starts its engine much more often. Brake pedal feel also was refreshingly “normal.” In many other hybrids, the regenerative braking function is more abrupt and takes getting used to. Apart from any green-car considerations, we found this loaded Sonata to be a roomy, pleasant sedan that does many things well. If it fails to excite like a sports sedan, no one should expect that it would.

    While the green EV square in the instrument cluster gave good feedback, even with multiple displays in the instrument cluster and on the dashboard, there is no ability to view all the information we wanted at the same time: Miles driven on electricity, miles remaining on the battery, and overall trip mileage. Even getting the first two simultaneously required using the efficiency display on the big center screen, which meant that we couldn’t see the navigation map or the radio display. We ended up spending a lot of time—and attention—toggling between various screens to see what was happening. That seems like an unnecessary distraction.

    The Plug-In’s battery took about 2 hours and 45 minutes to charge about 9 kWh from empty on a 240-volt (Level 2) connector. On an ordinary household circuit, it needed more than seven hours.

    Hyundai has not released pricing for the Sonata Plug-In Hybrid. The Hybrid goes on sale next month, with the Plug-In Hybrid arriving in the fall at California and Oregon dealerships. Eight northeastern states will follow, although buyers in any state can buy the Plug-in via special order.

    Read our complete Hyundai Sonata road test.

    —Eric Evarts

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

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