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    How to go to college for free

    Starbucks made headlines when it partnered with Arizona State University last year to finance four-year college degrees for employees. Through a combination of ASU grants, federal grants, and Starbucks kicking in the remainder, eligible employees of the coffee giant are able to cover 100 percent of tuition and fees for the school's online degree program.

    The savings are enormous for budget-minded baristas. Tuition for in-state students at public four-year institutions averaged $9,139 in the 2014-15 academic year, outstripping the five-year inflation rate by 17 percent, according to the research arm of the College Board. At a private four-year institution, the average annual tuition was $30,094 last year. All in, the total per-year cost, adding in room, board, and fees, at some private institutions exceeds $60,000.

    But you don't have to be a macchiato-making maven to get a free college education. Consumer Reports has identified many ways to go to college free, no matter your household income. Some colleges do not charge tuition. Others have special tuition-free programs based on geography, high school achievement, or achievement relative to the rest of the school's incoming freshmen. Some programs require a service or work commitment—integrated on-campus work, specified post-graduate employment, or military service, for example—in exchange for tuition.

    Here we highlight tuition-free colleges. Under various arrangements, at least eight U.S. colleges do not charge tuition (and that's not even accounting for the five U.S. Service Academies, which are also free-tuition options for students so inclined). Some even provide free room and board too. They might not be the typical State U., but they are accredited and, in most cases, highly rigorous academic programs with a real campuses.

    If money is the limiting factor in choosing a college—or in choosing to go to college at all—search among these options to see if a free college program works for you.

    Free nonsectarian colleges

    Alice Lloyd College (Pippa Passes, Ky.)

    Alice Lloyd College grants every student the Appalachian Leaders College Scholarship, which covers the cost of tuition for 10 semesters for qualified candidates from 108 counties in five states in Central Appalachia. Students are required to work at least 10 hours per week in jobs necessary for the normal operation of the college, such as computer technician, groundskeeper, lifeguard, and bookstore clerks. The college offers 13 degree programs and prepreprofessional programs.

    Curtis Institute of Music (Philadelphia)

    At this Philadelphia music conservatory all undergraduate and graduate students receive full-tuition scholarships, regardless of financial need. Admission is by audition. There is no age requirement—minimum or maximum—to audition and to be eligible for the full-tuition scholarship.

    Deep Springs College (Big Pine, Calif.)

    Full scholarships that include tuition, room, and board, cover all expenses for students at this small liberal-arts college now in its 98th year. Situated on a cattle ranch and alfalfa farm in the remote desert, the college is based on self-governance, intense contact with nature, ideas, and work (students milk cows, tend gardens, pitch hay, collect eggs, cook, clean, and do office work). Most students attend for two years then continue at competitive four-year institutions. The college says that in recent years it sent seven grads to Yale University. Deep Springs is a male-only college, but anticipates a change to co-ed within the next few years.

    Webb Institute (Glen Cove, N.Y.)

    This school, on the north shore of Long Island, gives each of its 80 undergraduates a full-tuition scholarship and boasts 100 percent job placement. Students' costs are limited to room, board, books, laptop, and software. Webb is highly specialized: All students double major in naval architecture and marine engineering. Admission is highly selective.

    William E. Macaulay Honors College (New York, N.Y.)

    For New York State residents, admission to Macaulay comes with an automatic full-tuition merit scholarship, a free laptop, and a $7,500 grant to pursue research. Part of the City University of New York (CUNY), Maccaulay offers 475 different majors across the eight senior campuses of CUNY, but also has its own, separate building in Manhattan for its 1,900 students.

    Read the Consumer Reports back-to-school shopping guide for info on everything from cars to computers, for grade school to graduate school.

    Free religious colleges

    Barclay College (Haviland, Kan.)

    This Christian Bible college provides an automatic full-tuition scholarship to all students who are admitted and who will reside at the college. Founded by Quakers, Barclay College offers degree programs related to religious pursuits, such as youth ministry, pastoral ministry, and Christian elementary education.

    Berea College (Berea, Ky.)

    Offering 28 different bachelor’s degrees, the college provides a four-year tuition scholarship to every admitted student. Most are from the Appalachian region, and the college seeks out students who have little or no ability to pay. The college has a “Christian identity” and is committed to social justice. Each student is expected to work at least 10 hours per work through the Berea Labor Program, which provides jobs that contribute to the university. 

    College of the Ozarks (Point Lookout, Mo.)

    No student pays tuition at this Christian liberal-arts college. The College of the Ozarks Cost of Education scholarship promises to cover all expenses that are not met by federal grants and the college’s Work Education Program. Every full-time student works a campus job 15 hours per week and two additional 40-hour weeks.

    Service academies

    The five United States Service Academies are four-year colleges that also prepare their students to be commissioned officers in the U.S. armed forces. In exchange for a completely free college education, students commit, for the most part, to serve a specified term of duty plus an additional time period in the reserves. The academies:

    United States Air Force Academy (Colorado Springs, Colo.)

    United States Coast Guard Academy (New London, Conn.)

    United States Merchant Marine Academy (Kings Point, N.Y.)

    United States Military Academy (West Point, N.Y.)

    United States Naval Academy (Annapolis, Md.)

    —Susan Feinstein

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

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    Chevrolet Silverado, GMC Sierra freshened for 2016

    The full-sized pickup truck arena is highly competitive, and profitable, ensuring regular updates to these high-volume cash cows. Facing a recently launched, all-new Ford F-150 and soon a redesigned Nissan Titan, General Motors is freshening its trucks for the 2016 model year.

    Most notably, the Chevrolet Silverado sees expanded use of the eight-speed automatic transmission for better fuel economy and drivability. It also brings the next-generation MyLink infotainment system with support for Android Auto and Apple CarPlay. Outwardly, the most noticeable changes are the revised hood, front fascia, and lighting.

    Likewise, the GMC Sierra gets a cosmetic makeover with C-shaped LED daytime running lights and LED headlamps, LED fog lamps, new fascia and grilles for each trim level, and new bumpers. It will also receive an updated infotainment system. Although the brand is mum, the Sierra is expected to receive the same transmission proliferation as its Silverado sibling. So far, the eight-speed has been linked to the 6.2-liter V8 engine only; now it’ll make its way to the more popular 5.3-liter, as well.

    The trucks will be available in late 2015, with more details promised before launch.

    Read our latest Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra road tests.

    Jeff Bartlett

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

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    Get the best cell phone plan for your family—and save up to $1,000 a year

    Editor's note: Got your own ideas on how to save on cell service? Leave a comment below.

    Update 7/15/15: T-Mobile’s new, “limited time” 10GB Family Plan offers substantial savings to data-hogging households. It starts at $100 a month for two phone lines, each with a data allowance of 10GB plus unlimited texting and calling. Add a third line for just $20 and a fourth for free. You can also get a fifth line for $20 more ($140 a month). The “limited time” part is until Labor Day, though a T-Mobile official told us the offer may continue longer.

    Oddly, T-Mobile, which bills itself as a no-nonsense cell provider, snubbed single-line users this time around. It also made this plan a bit hard to find for qualified users. If you search T-Mobile’s website, you’ll be steered to the carrier’s Simple Choice plans (see our rate-comparison tables below). Follow this link to the plan.

    You can also ask for the deal in person at a T-Mobile store, or contact Customer Care Service at 800-866-2453.

    Update 7/1/15: Sprint’s new All-In plan puts a top-notch smartphone in your hands with no money down and then charges you only $80 a month (plus taxes and a one-time $36 activation fee) for unlimited data, text, and voice minutes. That seems like a good deal considering other plans, including those from Sprint, charge about $65 to $90 per month per phone (including access fees) for about 4GB or 5GB of data—without the phone. The hitch: Phone choices for the All-In plan are limited to a 16GB iPhone 6, a 32GB Samsung Galaxy S6, or an HTC One M9. What's more, you'll never own the phone. It's just a lease—$20 of the $80 of your monthly bill is a phone-rental fee that never goes away.

    Often, we steer people away from that kind of arrangement, but in this case, the pricing should work out well for a lot of consumers. Let's crunch the numbers for someone who needs just one phone line. With All-In, you can get a 16GB iPhone 6 and use it for two years for $1,920 (that doesn't include the activation fee.) The same phone and 24 months of service would cost $2,210 on the company's 4GB Family Share Pack data plan ($65 a month, plus about $27 while you paid off the phone, which costs $650).

    What if you keep your iPhone for a third year? All-In will end up costing $2,880 ($80 per month for 36 months). If you have the Family Share Pack, the monthly bill will drop to $65 after two years, once the phone is paid off, but the total for three years is still higher, at $2,990.

    That doesn't mean the All-In is better for everyone. You need to do some arithmetic to get the best deal. If you need multiple phones, the price-per-phone drops for most plans, but not for the All-In. You can economize on data usage to bring costs down on most plans, but not the All-In. And if you keep a phone you've paid off for a fourth year, trade it in—or just decide to sell it on E-Bay—the numbers change again.  

    Update 2/5/15: Thanks to price-war incentives and greater plan flexibility, there are more opportunities now to save a few bucks on the new, no-contract plans from AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon Wireless—a.k.a. the Big Four.

    These plans separate the purchase of the phone from the service charges, effectively giving you an interest-free loan you can pay off in about two years. When you’ve paid off the phone, your monthly bill goes down accordingly. And there are no termination fees; if you want to leave the carrier, you just pay any remaining balance on the phone.

    Although our recent report, "Small carriers outrank the big ones in Consumer Reports' latest cell phone service survey," covering 63,352 subscribers in 26 metro areas, found some very happy customers who switched to smaller cell providers, there are still good reasons for staying big.

    Verizon, for example, earned decent marks across the board for voice, text, and data service, while AT&T was a standout for its 4G service. It recently slashed prices on its More Everything plans, added more data tiers to allow customers to better fine-tune plans, and monkeyed with the access fees it charges (for a limited time) to lower costs further.

    T-Mobile was tops for value and customer service. And Sprint, which didn’t do particularly well in any category, has recently become very aggressive about pricing—and some people actually do like the company.

    Thinking about changing your wireless company? We'll help you find the best cell phone carrier.

    Unfortunately, these plans are rather complicated, and the carriers have done their best to make apples-to-apples comparisons difficult among one another’s offerings. For example, they charge different rates for additional phone lines, break data allowances into chunks that don't match the competition’s, and provide differing discounts for multiple phones. In fact, plan pricing is so bizzare and counterintuitive that customers, particularly those with multiple phone lines, can often save money by buying more data for each phone.  

    The good news: We’ve already done the math for you in the tables below to help you find the best deal. And to make sure your needs are covered, we’ve presented the service-cost breakdowns for one to five family members for light, medium, and heavy data service. All you need to do is figure out how much data your family needs, which we also help you do in  "How much service do you need?"

    Looking to save money on your Internet, TV, and home-phone service? Here's how you can create your own triple-play bundle and save money.

    T-Mobile Simple Choice

    Number of people

    1GB of data per phone

    3GB of data per phone

    5GB of data per phone

    1

    $50

    $60

    $70

    2

    80

    100

    120

    3

    90

    120

    150

    4

    100 (2.5GB per phone)

    100 (2.5GB per phone)

    180

    5

    110 (2.5GB per phone)

    110 (2.5GB per phone)

    210

     

    Sprint Family Share Pack

    Number of people

    1GB of data per phone

    2GB of data per phone

    4GB of data per phone

    1

    $45

    $50

    $65

    2

    75

    90

    100

    3

    115 (1.3GB of data per phone)

    115 (2.7GB of data per phone)

    135

    4

    140

    130

    160 (5GB of data per phone line)

    5

    145 (1.6GB of data per phone)

    165 (2.4GB of data per phone)

    175

     

    AT&T Next on Mobile Share

    Number of people

    1GB of data per phone

    2GB of data per phone

    4GB of data per phone

    1

     $50

    $65 (3GB of data)

    $95 (6GB of data)

    2

     90 (1.5GB of data per phone)

    120 (3GB of data per phone)

    130 (5GB of data per phone)

    3

     115

    145 (3.3GB of data per phone

    175 (5GB of data per phone)

    4

    170 (1.5GB of data per phone)

    200 (2.5GB of data per phone)

    210 (5GB of data per phone)

    5

     195 (1.2GB per phone)

    175

    225

     

    Verizon Edge More Everything

    Number of people

    1GB of data per phone

    2GB of data per phone

    4GB of data per phone

    1

     $55

    $65

    $85

    2

     90

    110

    110 (5GB of data per phone)

    3

     125  

    115  

    145 (5GB of data per phone)

    4

     160  

    140 (2.5 GB per phone) 

    200 (5GB of data per phone)

    5

     145 (1.2GB of data per phone)

    155

    215

     

    Note that in comparing rates, we couldn’t always find perfect matches, but we used the most similar plans.

    For instance, AT&T, Verizon, and now Sprint sell their data in chunks that can be shared by all the phones on one account, while T-Mobile requires you to buy data plans for each phone. So we selected sharable data plans that matched (or came as close as possible to matching) the per-phone data plan of T-Mobile.

    Then there's the question of what happens if you don't use your full data allotment. T-Mobile and AT&T both provide ways for you to "bank" unused data from your monthly allowance for later use. With the T-Mobile Data Stash plan, you get a “gift” bucket of 10 gigabytes of data per phone line, plus the ability to roll over unused data into the following months—it just needs to be used within a year. The AT&T Rollover Data offer is more stingy. There is no data bonus and you have to use rolled over data by the end of the following month.

    Another adjustment: T-Mobile offers unlimited data plans, while AT&T's and Verizon's plans cap off at 50GB, and Sprint's at 60GB, at rates north well north of $200. We determined that 4GB to 5GB per phone would be comparable to having unlimited data, for most users.

    —Mike Gikas

    How much service do you need?

    1. First see whether a 500MB to 1GB data plan is enough for you. It will be for many consumers, especially if you confine your cellular-data activities mostly to browsing the Web, using news and e-book apps, and sending and reciving e-mails without large attachments. Save video calls, media streaming, and big-file uploads for when you have Wi-Fi access.

    2. If you stream a fair amount of music and video on the road, such as during your commute to work or on business trips, you'll probably need 2GB to 3GB per month.

    3. If your eyes are permanently glued to Netflix, YouTube, and other other data-draining activities, you might want to consider a high-limit or unlimited data plan.—M.G.

    If you're thinking about what your next smart phone should be, check our cell phone buying guide and Ratings.


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

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    That extra refrigerator is running up your utility bill

    Remember those Harvest Gold and Avocado Green refrigerators from the 1960s and ‘70s? Well, if you still have one in your basement, it’s costing you almost seven times more to run than a new Energy Star model. Keeping an old refrigerator when they buy a new one is a mistake made by more than 40 percent of appliance owners, according to GE, and prevents them from realizing the savings from today’s much improved models. When Consumer Reports tests refrigerators it estimates annual energy use. All of our refrigerator top picks cost well under $100 a year to run and some less than half that.

    Thanks to better insulation, more efficient compressors and other innovations, today’s refrigerators use much less energy. For example, an ugly gold refrigerator from 1972 costs $270 to run each year and a 1999 model costs $95. An Energy Star refrigerator of the same size costs $40, says GE.  But if you keep the old one, your energy costs will multiply.To find out how much you can save by unplugging that extra refrigerator or freezer, use Energy Star’s Refrigerator Retirement Savings Calculator. Then tell us what you found out by commenting below.

    Energy-efficient refrigerators

    Below, listed by type, are some of the most energy-efficient models from our list of recommended refrigerators. Keep in mind that the cost is based on the average national electricity rate. Your cost will vary depending on the rate in your state. Generally, the larger the refrigerator, the more energy it uses. The most energy-efficient models are typically 16-20 cubic feet, according to Energy Star.

    Top-freezer
    Frigidaire Gallery FGHI2164QF
    , $1,100; Cost to run: $39

    Conventional bottom freezer
    Kenmore 69313
    , $950; Cost to run: $44

    Three-door French door
    GE Profile PWE23KMDES
    , $2,600; Cost to run: $47

    Four-door French door
    Samsung RF25HMEDBSR, $3,000; Cost to run: $66

    Side-by-side
    Kenmore 51813, $1,400; Cost to run: $61

    Built-in
    Bosch Integra 800 Series B36BT830NS, $7,500; Cost to run: $64

    What about compact refrigerators and wine chillers?

    If you’re just using the second refrigerator to chill beverages, consider a compact refrigerator or a wine chiller. But be aware that some compacts use as much energy as a full-size model and some wine chillers use two to three times more so choose carefully.

    Compact
    Frigidaire FFPH44M4L[M], $220; Cost to run: $27

    Wine chiller
    Electrolux IQ-Touch EI24WC65GS, $1,530; Cost to run: $62

    More great choices. For more energy-efficient refrigerators see our full refrigerator Ratings and recommendations.

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

     

     

     

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    Moving aging parents into your home

    A year ago, Wendy and Don Wintman received a tearful call from Don’s mother, Joan. She had lived alone in her Florida home since the death of her husband a decade earlier. But after some minor falls, she reluctantly concluded that it was time to make a move.

    “We knew the direction the situation was headed,” Wendy recalls, “My husband Don, our two children, and I had already decided we would add an addition so she could live with us.” Wendy, 58, works for Consumer Reports, just down the hall from the Money Adviser staff.

    Joan, 89, moved into the house in Rockland County, N.Y., last November. She spent about $135,000 on a first-floor bedroom, kitchen, and bath; Wendy and Don paid $90,000 to cover, in part, more bedroom, bath, and closet space upstairs for the rest of the family. Joan has her own entrance, and there’s a door that can be closed to separate her space from the rest of the house. But it’s usually left open so that everyone, including the family’s two dogs, can visit. “We’ve always been a close family, but I haven’t received so many hugs and kisses in years,” Joan says. “I just love living here.”

    As our parents get older, many of us consider letting them move in with us. But the financial ramifications–including remodeling costs, reduced income, and the tax consequences–are often greater than people anticipate, says Bradley Frigon, an estate-planning attorney in Englewood, Colo. Here are some factors to consider before you extend an invitation:

    Home-remodeling needs

    If your house or apartment is too small to accommodate a parent, one option is to add space, like the Wintmans did. But the cost can be substantial: A master-suite addition costs $111,245 on average, according to Remodeling magazine’s 2015 Cost vs. Value Report. Even if a major renovation isn’t required, you might need to make changes. For example, doorways should be 36 inches wide to accommodate a wheelchair or walker. Widening them can cost $500 to $5,000, depending on construction needs, says Bill Owens, a builder in Columbus, Ohio, who is a certified aging-in-place specialist, a designation given by the National Association of Home Builders. Or you can install swing-clear hinges, which allow doors to open entirely out of the door frame. Each hinge costs about $20 to $100.

    An occupational therapist can assess the way your parent does everyday tasks to recommend renovations that will increase his or her safety. Projects might include additional lighting and adding grab bars. Ask your physician for a referral to an occupational therapist in your area. The average hourly wage is about $38, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

    Smart adaptions will help an elderly parent live safely in your home, and allow you to remain there as you get older.

    Possible reductions in income

    If your parent is still healthy, she can help around the house and contribute financially. But if she needs daily assistance and you decide to provide the care yourself, that usually requires taking time from work. For female caregivers 50 and older, the average amount of lost income, Social Security, and pension payments totals about $324,000, according to a 2011 MetLife study. For male caregivers 50 and older, the loss is $284,000.

    A home health aide can provide such services as cooking, cleaning, reminding your parent to take medications, and taking him to appointments. They make a median of $20 per hour, according to the 2014 Genworth Cost of Care survey. Your local Area Agency on Aging office can help you find an aide, in-home skilled nursing care, and more.

    Tax consequences

    If your parent pays you market-rate rent, you’ll have to declare it on Schedule E when you file your taxes. But any additional expenses you have as a result of her stay, such as higher bills for electricity and food, can be counted against that income. Details are in IRS Publication 527.

    You might be able to get a tax break by claiming your parent as a dependent. The biggest hurdle is your parent’s gross income, says John W. Roth, senior federal tax analyst at Wolters Kluwer Tax & Accounting in Riverwoods, Ill. Your parent can’t earn more than $3,950 if you claim him as a dependent. (Social Security payments generally don’t count.) You also have to cover more than half of his expenses for the year. And there are additional requirements; IRS Publication 501 explains the ifs, ands, or buts, and includes a work sheet.

    If your parent qualifies as a dependent and needs continual care, you might be eligible for another tax break. If care is required so that you can go to work, you can claim the dependent-care credit. It can be worth up to 35 percent of your qualifying costs, depending on your income. Read Form 2441, Child and Dependent Care Expenses, to see how the rules apply to you.

    Sharing support

    If you have siblings, decide how each of you will contribute to your parent’s care. If no one covers more than half of her support but you each contribute at least 10 percent, one of you can claim her as a dependent on IRS Form 2120. The others must sign a document saying that they waive any tax-exemption claims for that year. You can rotate who claims the deduction annually if you’d like.  

    ––Mandy Walker (@MandyWalker on Twitter)

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

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

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    Retirement planning: 4 safe ways to boost income

    Even retirees who do everything right can find themselves coming up short when it comes to affording some of the little luxuries they had planned for their remaining years. Just take a look at Mike and Judy, a hypothetical couple very similar to many retired couples, who saved and invested for decades in order to enjoy a secure yet stimulating retirement.

    Mike, 75, and Judy, 72, retired from their stable, remunerative careers a couple of years ago. Mike, an executive with an insurance company, always made a better-than-average wage in the low six figures. Judy did, too, thanks to a long and successful career in hospital administration. They took advantage of their employers’ matching contributions to their 401(k) plans and made annual contributions to their IRAs in order to claim the tax deductions. Together, they have just under $700,000 in retirement savings, roughly the average of what Consumer Reports readers about to enter retirement have accumulated, according to a recent survey.

    In other words, Mike and Judy did what they were supposed to do. But now in retirement, they—and many people like them—can’t afford to do all of the things they dreamed of. One of the cold, hard facts of retirement is that even after a lifetime of saving, many retirees face challenges they didn’t expect.

    Though even a sizable nest egg may be enough to cover basic living expenses and taxes, you may also have to factor in the cost of Medicare, and supplemental Medicare premiums, co-pays, and deductibles; the cost of long-term care insurance; and prescription drugs. On top of that, some retirees are paying college expenses. And inevitably, there are the unexpected costs that come from health problems or a financial crisis. Social Security helps: People like Mike and Judy can expect about $50,000 in Social Security benefits per year between the two of them.

    The result is that there often isn’t enough saved to meet ambitious dreams, such as raveling internationally, maintaining a second home, and leaving some wealth to children and grandchildren.

    So what can you do? Fortunately, there are a number of options for generating extra income without taking undue risks. The improving economy certainly helps. And interest rates, which have only one way to go—up—are something that retirees can use to their advantage. Here are some of the best options to generate a steady, low-risk income in a rising-rate environment:

    1. Annuities

    Not too long ago a number of financial planners and advisers looked askance at annuities. Now they’re more likely to wonder why more people don’t buy them. Yes, in certain cases annuities can be complicated and have pricey fee structures. But that’s not true of all of them. Most importantly, to generate guaranteed income in retirement, annuities are a slam dunk.

    An annuity is a contract with an insurance company. In exchange for a lump-sum payment now, the annuity holder receives a guaranteed payout every month for either a fixed term or for the rest of his or her life.

    If your biggest fear is that you will outlive your money, an annuity is the ultimate safety net. Be forewarned that you’ll have to work closely with your financial planner or adviser to get the best annuity for your needs. After all, there are 1,600 kinds on the market.

    To get a sense of what you can expect to see from a popular type of annuity, consider this: A 60-year-old male making a lump-sum payment of $200,000 could buy an immediate annuity that pays income for life of about $1,000 per month. A $500,000 annuity would generate income of about $30,000 per year.

    Of course, there are some downsides to annuities. One can be the fees. Many annuities are sold by insurance brokers who take a commission that can be as high as 10 percent of the amount invested. Instead, opt for “direct sold” annuities from a large brokerage firm, such as Vanguard, where there is no commission. Also, if you pull your money out of an annuity in the first several years after you buy it, you could have to pay a surrender charge that’s often about 7 percent of the account value. Annual fees are also common among variable annuities—they can run about 2 percent or more of your investment per year.

    Factor in, as well, the opportunity cost of an annuity. If you sock $200,000 into an annuity, that’s $200,000 you can’t invest in anything else, such as a fast-rising stock market.

    Annuities are illiquid—meaning they are hard to turn into cash when you need it—so they should be used for only a portion of your savings. There may be no guarantees in life, but adding an annuity to a multifaceted retirement portfolio is the closest you can get to a sure thing. No matter what happens, those checks will keep coming.

    Consumer Reports' Retirement Planning Guide offers expert, unbiased advice on making the most of your next life chapter.

    2. Bond funds

    Often, passive investments such as exchange-traded funds and index mutual funds are the best way to go for most investors. They have the lowest costs and are never going to underperform the market or a relevant benchmark. By comparison, actively managed funds are more expensive and often fail to perform as well as index funds.

    These days, however, retirees should probably embrace at least some the advantages of having an experienced bond-fund manager directing their investments. That’s because when interest rates rise, bond prices fall—a combination that can be scary to investors. Though some investors may choose to sell their investments in such a market, seasoned bond-fund managers will know how to protect the funds and position them for the best possible returns.

    Keep in mind that not all bonds react to rising rates in the same way. Short and intermediate bonds aren’t as sensitive to interest rates as longer-term debt is. A bond-fund manager can use that distinction to minimize volatility and maximize returns.

    And, of course, higher rates also mean that a bond fund can generate higher yields. That is a critical piece of good news. Yes, the value of a bond fund will fall when rates rise, but that only matters if you intend to sell some of your bond-fund holdings. If your aim is to hold on for years in order to collect the income, rising rates are the best news you can get. Bond-fund yields will grow. Given enough time, prices will recover, too.

    Treasury bonds, high-grade corporate debt, municipal bonds, Treasury Inflation-Protected Securities (TIPS), and even high-yield corporate debt (junk bonds) can all have a place in a diversified portfolio of bond funds. Treasuries dampen risk, for example, while corporate debt—especially junk bonds—can boost an income stream.

    Examples of diversified bond funds you might want to consider include the T. Rowe Price Spectrum Income Fund (RPSIX), yielding 3.22 percent with a 0.67 percent expense ratio; or the Loomis Sayles Fixed Income Fund (LSFIX), yielding 4.5 percent over the last year with an expense ratio of just 0.57 percent.

    3. Certificates of deposit and CD laddering

    Few investments have been stripped of their savings power by ultra-low interest rates like certificates of deposit have. So today, they won’t offer you much income. But because CDs are going to be a big beneficiary of rising interest rates, you can incorporate them into a plan to generate income for you in the years ahead.

    Any CD sold by a bank covered by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. is insured for $250,000. That puts a large cap on risk, but a one-year CD today will offer you a maximum annual percentage yield (APY) of only about 1.3 percent. The highest yielding five-year jumbo CDs (those with a minimum deposit requirement of $100,000) sport an APY of 2.3 percent.

    One way to take advantage of rising rates is to construct a laddered CD portfolio. You put an equal amount of money into CDs with different dates of maturity—say, one-year, two-year, three-year, and five-year CDs. As the CDs come due, you take the principal and buy CDs with a longer term. So when the one-year matures, you take the proceeds and buy a five-year CD. A year later, when the two-year comes due, you put that cash into a five-year CD.

    By cycling through term lengths that way, you won’t have your entire principal tied up in relatively low-yielding CDs as interest rates rise. Instead, some capital is freed up to invest at higher rates.

    4. Dividend stocks

    Like bonds, prices for dividend stocks tend to fall as interest rates rise. But it won’t matter to you if you have no intention of selling your dividend stocks. What’s even better is that the yield on a dividend stock rises as its price falls. Heck, anyone looking to buy shares of a dividend stock for a healthy stream of income should welcome a drop in stock prices.

    Another benefit of dividend stocks is that any hit they take from rising rates is usually short-lived, and history shows that they usually maintain the potential for price appreciation. Between price and yield, dividend stocks have an excellent long-term track record. Since 1928, dividend stocks have generated average annualized returns of anywhere from 9 percent to almost 11 percent. Non-dividend-paying stocks generated an average annualized return of 8.32 percent. Favorable tax treatment and a long history of dividends growing faster than inflation are other attractive attributes.

    You might want to consider dividend mutual funds and exchange-traded funds (ETFs) to diversify dividend stock holdings. You could also create a portfolio offering higher yields. The most popular dividend ETF has a yield of 2 percent, but roughly 33 companies in the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index sport yields of at least 4 percent.

    Colgate-Palmolive (CL), Procter & Gamble (PG), and Coca-Cola (KO) are just a few companies that have paid rising and uninterrupted dividends since the 1880s. Any stock that chugged along making rising dividend payments through two world wars, the Great Depression, and the Great Recession is likely to keep the payouts coming through the span of a retirement.

    Every one of the above options offers steady income with comparatively little risk. If our couple, Mike and Judy, put $200,000 of their almost $700,000 in savings into an annuity, that could generate around $12,000 per year. Then they could spread the rest of their nest egg—almost $500,000—among bonds and dividend stocks. At a 3 percent interest rate, that would generate an additional annual income stream of $15,000. Together with the income from Social Security, that would be enough, perhaps, to fulfill more of their retirement dreams. 

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

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    8 steps for staying healthier longer

    Your genes play the biggest role in how long you’ll live. But “if you adopt a healthy lifestyle, you maximize your genetic potential,” says S. Jay Olshansky, Ph.D., a professor of public health at the University of Illinois in Chicago. Maintaining social relationships is a way to stay young at heart, but these other strategies may also boost your life expectancy and improve your quality of life:

    1. Stay active. Exercise is good for your body and may keep your brain sharp and increase your life span. In a study of Taiwanese people, those who exercised for just 15 minutes per day extended their lives by three years; those who exercised 30 minutes per day boosted life expectancy by about four years.

    2. Eat your fruits and veggies. People who consumed five daily servings lived three years longer than those who never ate produce. That’s accord­ing to a study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition that looked at more than 71,000 people for 13 years.

    3. Reach for whole grains. Harvard School of Public Health researchers recently reported that people in a large study who ate 28 grams daily—the amount in less than two slices of 100 percent whole-grain bread—reduced their overall risk of death by 5 percent and their risk of dying from cardiovascular disease by 9 percent.

    4. Don’t smoke. Life expectancy for smokers is at least 10 years less than it is for nonsmokers, says the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

    Read about anti-aging supplements and see our Retirement Planning Guide for unbiased, expert advice on planning for your next chapter in life.

    5. Sleep enough, but not too much. Researchers in Europe reported that regularly sleeping less than 7 hours per night upped the risk of death by 12 percent; sleeping 9 hours or more boosted risk by 30 percent.

    6. Maintain a healthy weight. Research has found the lowest death rates among men and women with a normal body weight.

    7. Minimize red meat. “The more often you eat vegetarian, the better,” explains Thomas T. Perls, M.D., director of the New England Centenarian Study.

    8. Manage stress. Consider trying meditation as a stress-reducer. It preserves brain neurons as we age, helping to keep memory sharp, according to recent research from UCLA.

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

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

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    The problem with laundry detergent pods

     Since single-load laundry detergent pods hit the mainstream market in early 2012, two things have become clear: The product is a convenient, often effective way to do the laundry—and it’s a serious health hazard for young children. In the first six months of 2015, poison-control centers nationwide received 6,046 reports of kids 5 and younger ingesting or inhaling pods, or getting pod contents on their skin or in their eyes, according to the American Association of Poison Control Centers (AAPCC). That’s a pace set to pass the 2014 total of 11,714.

    As early as September 2012, Consumer Reports called on manufacturers to make pods safer. Many responded with positive change—for example, switching from clear to opaque plastic for outer containers and, on some, adding child-resistant latches to make it more difficult to get to the pods. But too many kids are still getting their hands on them, often with grave consequences.

    Given the continued danger, we have made the decision to not include pods on our list of recommended laundry detergents. (None makes the cut in our latest tests, but some have been picks in the past.) And we strongly urge households where children younger than 6 are ever present to skip them altogether; our new position doesn’t apply to laundry (or dishwasher) pods that contain powder, because injuries associated with them are less frequent and less severe.

    It’s not unprecedented for us to withhold recommendations based on external safety data. In 2005 we did so with sport-­utility vehicles that failed the federal rollover test or didn’t have electronic stability control, or ESC. We think that encouraged certain manufacturers to put ESC on their vehicles ahead of the federal mandate that took effect in 2012.

    We recognize the role parents and caregivers play in keeping children safe, but we believe the unique risks posed by liquid laundry pods warrant this action, at least until the adoption of tougher safety measures leads to a meaningful drop in injuries.

    Tell us and other readers what you think about laundry detergent pods by adding a comment below.

    In the blink of an eye

    Sept. 3, 2014, was laundry day at the home of Jill and Peter Koziol, who had recently moved from California to New York City with their two young daughters, 2-year-old Clare and 8-month-old Cate. The family was living in an apartment building with a separate laundry room, so out of convenience they’d made the switch from bottled detergent to Tide Pods.

    Jill pulled a pod from its container, which was stored on an upper shelf in a closet, and set it on top of a tall laundry hamper. “I’d always heard that life happens in a split second, and it did for me that day,” Jill says, recalling the instant when she turned to help Clare clean up some toys just as newly mobile Cate pulled herself onto the hamper and bit into the pod. “I heard her gag and turned to see the packet drop from her mouth,” she says.

    Jill accepts responsibility for leaving a household cleaner within reach of her children. But she thinks the events that followed reveal a systemwide confusion. First there was the call to poison control, whose operator treated the situation like any laundry detergent exposure, basically advising a wait-and-see approach. When Cate began vomiting, Jill called 911 and within 20 minutes Cate was at the pediatric ER. Again, the doctors and nurses approached the situation as they would a routine detergent exposure.

    Cate did appear to stabilize. But 30 minutes later she went into respiratory distress, marked by severe wheezing, gagging, and drooling. Jill watched as her baby was intubated and transferred to an intensive care unit, where she would spend the next two days. Cate’s breathing eventually normalized, and a gastrointestinal scope revealed no damage to her esophagus. “We’re very blessed,” Jill says. But other children have not been so lucky.

    A different kind of danger

    When curious kids find their way into regular liquid laundry detergent, the result is often nothing worse than an upset stomach. Laundry deteregent pods are presenting more serious symptoms. Along with vomiting, lethargy, and delirium, some victims have stopped breathing. Eye injuries are another common hazard. And since 2013, at least two children have died after ingesting a pod.

    Many consumers don’t know about those enhanced risks, and even the medical community is still trying to make sense of them. “No one is really sure why liquid pods are so much more toxic than other types of detergent,” says Marie Steiner, M.D., a professor of pediatrics at the University of Minnesota. “As the number of exposures increase, the breadth of symptoms seems to be increasing.”

    Given the varied dangers of laundry detergent pods, it’s not surprising how many kids are ending up in emergency rooms or other treatment facilities. Based on an in-depth analysis of 2013 data by the AAPCC, 4,692 of the 10,877 reported pod-related exposures required medical attention, more than all other laundry detergents combined. (See below for more details.)

    The push for more protections

    Soon after the launch of liquid laundry pods, manufacturers started looking for ways to make the product safer. Procter & Gamble, maker of Tide Pods, came out with an opaque hard-plastic container with three safety latches and added more prominent safety warnings. Kirkland Signature, Costco’s private label, implemented similar package improvements. And the American Cleaning Institute, which represents the detergent industry, launched a 2013 campaign to educate consumers about the proper use of liquid pods.

    From the industry’s perspective, those efforts are paying off, especially in light of pods’ growing market share, which is currently around 12 percent. “We are seeing signs that the rate of accidents relative to the number of P&G laundry pacs sold is declining from when they were first were introduced to the marketplace,” says Anitra Marsh, P&G’s associate director of brand communications.

    Manufacturers’ injury data (like their proprietary product formulas) are not public information, so we can’t confirm P&G’s claim. But we believe that 10,000-plus exposures per year are still too many, regardless of market share. In addition to making the decision to not recommend liquid laundry pods, our safety experts have been active participants in the development of a voluntary safety standard for pods led by ASTM International, the global standards-writing organization for a variety of consumer products. “Parents and caregivers deserve a robust standard that makes it as difficult as possible for children to be poisoned by these packets,” says Elliot F. Kaye, chairman of the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

    The process is ongoing, but the latest draft, released in June, called for several important changes to pods that have already been implemented in Europe, including the addition of a bittering agent to give them a bad taste; a higher “burst strength” to make them more difficult to bite into; and a slower dissolve rate, so they’ll be less likely to open in a child’s mouth. (As we were going to press, P&G announced that it would be making those changes regardless of the standard’s final vote, and Dropps and Sun Products, maker of All and Wisk, said they would add a bittering agent.) During the comment period to the standard’s initial draft, we also called for each pod to have an additional individual wrapper, providing another line of defense, but that measure was not adopted.

    Members of Congress, including Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., and Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., have also weighed in with the introduction of the Detergent PACS (Poisoning and Child Safety) Act of 2015. The bill would require the CPSC to establish safety standards with additional protections. Manufacturers would have to make the design of the pods less attractive by, for example, eliminating their enticing candylike appearance and scent. They’d also have to address the composition of the detergent itself to make the consequences of exposure less severe.

    The road ahead

    Neither safety measure is a done deal, but experts are optimistic. “I expect the ASTM subcommittee to move swiftly toward a final vote on this standard, which we will monitor closely to gauge its effectiveness,” Kaye says. “Should the voluntary standard prove insufficient in protecting children from this toxic hazard, all options to do so will remain on the table.”

    The same continuous monitoring will determine if and when we’ll again recommend laundry detergent pods. The product does have benefits for certain groups of consumers. But until the pods are proved to be as safe as they are effective, they’ll have no place on our winners’ list.

    Finding the pods

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

     


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    Consumer Reports Will No Longer Recommend Liquid Laundry Detergent Pods

    Citing continued danger to young children, CR calls for tougher safety standards

    CR September 2015 CoverYONKERS, NY Consumer Reports today announced that it would no longer recommend liquid laundry detergent pods because of the continued high-rate of accidental poisonings of young children attributable to those products. The organization now strongly urges households where children younger than 6 are ever present to refrain from purchasing them.  

    In the first six months of 2015, poison-control centers nationwide received more than 6,000 reports of kids 5 and younger ingesting and inhaling pods, or getting pod contents on their skin or in their eyes. That’s a pace set to eclipse the 2014 total of 11,714 and 10,877 in 2013, according to the American Association of Poison Control Centers.

    “We recognize the role parents and caregivers play in keeping children safe, but we believe the unique risks posed by liquid laundry pods warrant this action, at least until the adoption of tougher safety measures leads to a meaningful drop in injuries,” said Dan DiClerico, senior home editor for Consumer Reports.

    Consumer Reports’ safety experts have been active participants in the development of a voluntary safety standard for pods led by ASTM International. The draft proposal, which is scheduled for a vote this week, calls for several key changes that have already been implemented in Europe, including the addition of a bittering agent to give them a bad taste; a higher “burst strength” to make them harder to bite into; and a slower dissolve rate, so they’ll be less likely to open in a child’s mouth.  

    While CR's experts recognize the proposed draft is certainly a step in the right direction, because there is no data yet to support that the product changes will reduce injury rates, its safety experts abstained from the vote. This is consistent with the organization's decision to no longer recommend liquid pods until injuries meaningfully decline. In addition, CR’s advocacy arm Consumers Union is pushing for bills in the U.S. Congress that would require tough safety standards for pods. 

    The full report, along with Consumer Reports’ latest Ratings of laundry detergents, is available online at ConsumerReports.org and in the September 2015 issue of Consumer Reports magazine. 

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    Cadillac Escalade amends its bad ride manners

    Our main complaint after testing the Cadillac Escalade was that it suffered from a harsh, uncomfortable ride. That’s undesirable in any vehicle, let alone a luxury model that costs nearly $90,000.

    Clearly, we weren’t alone. Customers who bought the vehicle complained as well, and as a result, GM came up with a remedy in the form of a technical service bulletin. This customer service campaign covers not only the Escalade but also the Chevrolet Tahoe LTZ and Suburban LTZ, and GMC Yukon Denali. These are all the versions of these large SUVs that are equipped with magnetic ride control. Identified as TSB #PIT5429, the campaign notice was issued to dealerships on June 1, 2015.

    Here’s what it entails: Service centers are equipped to replace the front springs and shock absorbers and the rear shock absorbers. Then the dealer will reprogram the suspension control module, which is part of the magnetic ride control system. The process should take 3.5 hours.

    Find out how to get your car fixed for (almost) free. And if you've ever had a fix done via a TSB, tell us about your experience by adding a comment below.

    Our Escalade went through this process, and the ride indeed improved some, but it’s not a dramatic change. Where the harshness could reach an offensive level before, it now makes the ride merely tolerable. Instead of imperfect pavement striking through with frequent jarring impacts, now the SUV just feels stiff and a bit unsettled. But even with the improvement, the ride still doesn’t meet expectations for the class.

    That exact change took place in production as off February 9th. So any one of these models found on dealers’ lot are likely to have this improvement built in, but check the production date on the label affixed to the door jamb to be sure.

    Our Suburban LTZ didn’t garner the same complaints due to its 20-inch tires as opposed to the 22-inch tires the Escalade is shod with. Those supersized wheels might look good on the Escalade, but they leave just a narrow band of rubber between the pavement and the rim, which definitely doesn’t do the ride any favors.

    We appreciate the running change to improve comfort, but for the amount of work this fix entails, the benefits are modest.

    Gabe Shenhar

     

     

     

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    Smart strategies for when you turn 65 and 70 1/2

    Many people assume that all of the decisions about their retirement income are set in stone by the time they reach 65. Many of those people are wrong. Some of the most important moves you can make with your individual retirement account (IRA) occur between 65 and 70½.

    According to government regulations, you may begin tapping your IRA without a penalty at age 59½, and you must start taking required minimum distributions (RMDs) at age 70½ , or pay a substantial penalty. (401(k)s are subject to the same rules.)

    To learn more about preparing for your financial future, read "Smart Strategies for When You Turn 60."

    One of the major milestones of retirement planning is the age at which you’re eligible for full retirement benefits from Social Security. (If you were born after 1937, your full retirement age will be older than age 65, on a sliding scale going up to 67 if you were born in 1960 or later.) With that milestone comes a major decision: Should you take Social Security at full retirement age or wait and tap your IRA instead? Figuring out which financial faucet to turn on first is a balancing act.

    • Tap your IRA now to reduce your future RMD. If you expect a large RMD, this strategy has obvious attractions. At the same time, delaying Social Security benefits from your full retirement age until you are 70 will bump up the payout by 8 percent every year—a locked-in rate of return that may not be matched by your investment portfolio. However, warns Marcia Mantell, a retirement specialist in Needham, Mass., “Taking more from your IRA initially is not sustainable. It’s a bridge strategy.”
    • Consider the consequences for your Medicare premium. When you enroll in Medicare, your income from two years ago will affect your Part B premium, which covers doctors and most other outpatient care. Tapping your IRA during this period could cost you, says Dana Anspach, founder of Sensible Money, an investment advisory firm based in Scottsdale, Ariz. “If your modified gross income is higher than $85,000 for individuals or $170,000 for married tax filers,” she says, “then your Medicare Part B premiums will go up” above the standard $104.90 per month.

    One solution: Convert your traditional IRA to a Roth IRA. Roth IRA withdrawals don’t affect your Medicare Part B premiums. A Roth conversion will increase your modified adjusted gross income (MAGI) in the current tax year, but because Roth IRA withdrawals are tax-free, your MAGI will be lower in future years. Consult a financial adviser to see whether it’s worth it. 

    At 70 ½, the amount of money in your retirement reservoir is pretty much set. Now, the big question is how to channel the income stream.

    • Make the calendar work for you. RMDs don’t kick in until you’re 70 ½, but you have until April 1 of the following year to take your first distribution. The downside of delaying is that you have to take that year’s distribution in the same year as the next one—which can result in a double whammy to your tax liability. Mantell suggests that you take the first RMD by December 31 of the year in which you turn 70½, no matter when your birthday falls, so you’ll be taking just one RMD annually in subsequent years.
    • Annuitize your distribution. Take the RMD as equal periodic payments. That produces a nice income stream, and you’ll be able to benefit from reverse dollar cost-averaging. Furthermore, if the market tanks before your distribution, the principal won’t suffer as big a bite.
    • Do good with your RMD. If you don’t need the money, use your RMD as your charity cash stash. Thanks to the passage of the America Gives More Act of 2015, individual taxpayers aged 70 ½ and older can donate up to $100,000 from their IRAs to charitable non-profits tax-free. 
    • Don’t procrastinate. Make sure you are taking all your RMDs on time and in the right amounts. The IRS is cracking down on IRA accounting mistakes. People who fail to take their RMDs can be hit with a penalty of 50 percent of the amount they should have withdrawn – and there’s no statute of limitations. This is another good reason to consolidate multiple IRAs for easier bookkeeping. 
    Catherine Fredman

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

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    The Top 10 most complained about companies

    Credit-reporting agencies Equifax and Experian, as well as Bank of America received the most gripes from consumers from February through April of this year, according to a new monthly report by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Complaints about Equifax rose the most: 8 percent in that period, compared with the same period last year, the CFPB said. 

    Consumers were most perturbed about debt-collection issues; more than 7,400, or 32 percent, of the 23,400 complaints handled by the CFPB related to that financial service. The biggest debt-collection complaint was about continued attempts to collect debt not owed, according to the report. Consumers also complained about the communications tactics used by debt collectors, such as calling too frequently or at inconvenient times of the day and about making calls to third parties or to the consumer’s place of employment.

    Does complaining to companies make a difference? Read "How to Rattle a Company's Cage"

    Next in line were mortgages, with more than 4,700 gripes; and credit reporting, with more than 4,300 complaints.

    Consumer loan complaints rose the most compared the same period last year, nearly doubling from 660 to 1,100 on average per month. 

    This was the first such monthly complaint report published by the CFPB. The consumer protection body, which regulates consumer lending, has published annual complaint reports since its inception four years ago. The new, monthly reports "will enable us to share that data with the public more regularly, so that everyone can benefit from the information," said Richard Cordray, the bureau's director.

    Recently the CFPB began publishing consumer narratives, which allow consumers to report details about their problems with specific consumer financial service companies. Consumers now can search the CFPB's database to read what others are saying about a particular company or service. 

    —Tobie Stanger (@TobieStanger on Twitter)

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    5 signs your gas grill is over the hill

    Even if you keep your gas grill clean and covered, parts can wear out. If your grill is still under warranty, fixing it is a no-brainer. Otherwise, compare the cost of new parts and the grill’s overall condition with the cost of a new one. Here are five signs that your old grill might be a goner plus some good choices from Consumer Report's gas grill tests if you need a new one. (Tell us whether you prefer gas or charcoal in the comments below.)

    A rusty or cracked firebox. A little rust can be removed with a stainless-steel brush. If the box has extensive rust or cracks, it’s time to get a new grill.

    Yellow or uneven flames or heat. Those are clues that you need to clean the burner tubes or ports; try using a toothpick. If the flames are blue and even when you turn the heat back on, the burner is fixed. If you need a new one, it could cost $40 to $150. Before you buy, check your warranty. Many grill burners come with a 10-year warranty or longer.

    Flaking or cracked grates. Scrub icky stainless-steel grates with a wire brush before tossing them; new ones cost $30 to $250. Coated cast-iron grates that are flaking or cracked should be replaced because flakes of coating can stick to your food. New ones cost $40 to $180.

    Cracked hoses and connectors. Replacing a cracked gas hose is a safety must; it will cost $15 to $80, including the regulator for propane or natural gas. Do the bubble test: Mix a bit of dishwashing liquid and water in a spray bottle, then spray over hoses and connections to the gas tank. Bubbling is a sign of a leak.

    Iffy igniter.
    One that’s integrated into the burner controls, such as those on gas ranges, is harder to replace than an igniter that’s separate from the controls. You’ll pay $10 to $40 for a new one.

    Need a new grill? Our top picks.

    Small gas grills (18 burgers or fewer)

    Medium gas grills (18 to 28 burgers)

    Large gas grills (28 burgers or more)

    More great grills. For more choices, see our full gas grill Ratings and recommendations.

    —Kimberly Janeway

     

     

     

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    Brand-by-brand guide to car infotainment

    Automakers continue to innovate and push in-car entertainment boundaries. Most new vehicles’ systems can navigate to a destination, operate a smartphone hands-free, and an entire digital music collection over Bluetooth. 

    Problem is, some automakers’ systems are more cooperative and intuitive than others. The worst ones are distracting while driving, even after you figure them out. With less-intuitive systems, performing everyday tasks can be a problem. For instance, a conventional volume knob can be more user-friendly than a “haptic” touch-sensitive control. Everyday functions should be readily accessible, not buried in menus.

    Reliability can be another problem. Our latest Annual Auto Survey shows that buggy systems come from Cadillac, Chrysler, and Infiniti. Our charts highlight Consumer Reports’ findings of what each major automaker offers in its cars. Few infotainment systems are a slam dunk for usability and reliability, but most are evolving and improving.

    BMW

    System The good The bad
    iDrive BMW’s knobs and buttons are intuitive and respond promptly. The big central display screen has large, easy-to-read fonts. Steering-wheel controls speed many selections that can be monitored through the instrument cluster. Some iDrive functions, such as navigating menu layers, can be done by feel. Some of iDrive’s functions are marked by cryptic hieroglyphics, necessitating some in-depth exploration time spent twisting, pressing, or jogging of the knob to see what each one means.

    Chrysler

    System The good The bad
    Uconnect There are many reasons why this is among the best systems: Its fairly mild learning curve, simple logic for the touch screen, and good old-fashioned knobs and buttons make it easy to use. And that’s for the basic version. Opt for the uplevel Uconnect 8.4 system and you get large fonts and onscreen buttons that take that simplicity to another level. A new feature for 2016 allows users to drag often-used icons to the favorites bar at the bottom of the screen. Some fonts are too small with the basic Uconnect, which only has four visible radio station presets unless you press a button to show more. You can’t pick phone contacts via the steering wheel controls. The latest version is less reliable than earlier systems, but it may have improved with updates.

    Ford

    System The good The bad
    Sync/MyFord Touch,  Sync/MyLincoln Touch

    Comprehensive voice commands save the day for audio, climate, and phone tasks. It’s easy to pair a smartphone with the system and use it to stream music through the car’s audio system. Ford has improved the system over the years.

     

    A new Sync 3 system is due later this year. We’ve tried early versions and found it to be a responsive, streamlined, and much-improved system. The first vehicles to get it, the 2016 Ford Escape and Lincoln MKC SUVs, are due in showrooms late this summer. And you may want to wait to buy the recently redesigned F-150, Mustang, and Edge. They’re still rolling off the production lines with MyFord Touch.

    Frustrating and distracting, with some versions having small, fiddly touch-activated buttons on the center console for basics, such as volume control and fan speed. The touch screen has some small text and tightly packed buttons that are hard to operate while driving. System crashes and sluggish response times still happen, even after reliability improvements.

    General Motors

    Systems The good The bad
    Buick/GMC: IntelliLink, Cadillac: Cue, Chevrolet: MyLink Overall, the Buick, Chevrolet, and GMC systems are relatively simple to master. They all have clearly labeled onscreen menu items and pairing a phone is a quick, easy process that can be done using voice commands. Audio, phone, and trip information can be interacted with by steering-wheel controls and viewed in the instrument cluster, which helps reduce distraction.     Cadillac’s CUE is an Achilles’ heel for GM. It substitutes touch-sensitive buttons for most controls, but they frequently don’t respond as expected and are often hidden until you reach for them. Adjusting the volume is almost impossible when in motion. CUE is almost a deal breaker if you are considering a Cadillac, although an updated system will debut with the new CT6 sedan.

    Honda

    Systems The good The bad

    HondaLink, AcuraLink

     

    Basic Hondas have friendly non-touch-screen infotainment systems that use big buttons and a large screen that displays relevant information. Most Hondas and Acuras no longer have a tuning knob. On high-trim versions of the Civic, CR-V, HR-V, and Pilot, there isn’t even a knob to adjust the volume. Many cars have versions that use two separate screens—which can be confusing. The system logic is unintuitive, requiring flipping through multiple oncreen pages to complete simple functions.

    Hyundai

    System The good The bad
    BlueLink Both Bluelink and UVO have more standard, easy-to-use features than found in pricier cars. The up level audio system with navigation brings a refreshingly simple control interface. Basic voice prompts or onscreen buttons are intuitive and the graphics are clear. Voice command software is among the best. Some screen fonts, such as for the radio presets, are small. Basic systems have a smaller screen, only showing three presets at once. The UVO system doesn’t let you scroll through phone contacts via the steering wheel buttons, a convenience offered by some competitors’ systems.

    Mazda

    System The good The bad
    Connect Pairing an iPhone is quick and easy. Onscreen graphics are uncluttered and the fonts are large and clear. This isn’t an easy system to learn, often requiring several steps to conjure simple functions. More hard keys would help. It’s a long reach to the touch screen, but that hardly matters because even the simplest functions can’t be used when driving, or you’re likely to use the handier control knob. Voice command procedures are demanding. Some icons aren’t intuitive and the system doesn’t allow you to interact with the phone through the steering wheel controls.

    Mercedes-Benz

    System The good The bad
    Comand Most of the system’s major functions (nav, radio, phone, etc.) are easy to navigate. It’s easy to choose which function you prefer to view and interact with it through the cluster in the instrument panel. Onscreen fonts are clear and easy to read. Newer models like the S- and C-Class have fewer buttons and more complex menus. Going through the list of radio stations is a lengthy process. Irritatingly, the touch pad sits where you would naturally rest your hand, making inadvertent radio station changes a common event. Older Mercedes systems are easier to master. Turning off the radio also disables the backup camera. Voice commands aren’t always standard.

    Nissan

    Systems The good The bad
    Nissan Connect, Infiniti InTouch Nissan Connect has a simple button layout. Frequently used controls, such as radio presets, station name, cell-phone battery/signal strength, and time of day, are displayed regardless of which screen menu you are in. Connecting a phone is easy. Many Nissan systems have dated graphics that don’t make full use of the screen. Radio preset buttons are too small. Navigation point-of-interest menu doesn’t work well. Infiniti’s InTouch system is slow; after starting the car, you can’t change radio stations until the system ponderously loads. Repeated voice commands will result in a “Voice Commands Loading” message, as the system struggles to catch up.

    Subaru

    Systems The good The bad
    Starlink Pairing phones and streaming online audio is easy. Good old-fashioned knobs handle volume and tuning. The touch-screen has simple and intuitive page logic. Most fonts are large and easy to read. You can set up the system to read incoming text messages and send pre-written “replies.” Some onscreen buttons are too small or close together to tap accurately at a quick glance while driving. Some iPhone users found that Bluetooth audio didn’t play through the car’s speakers when connected to the USB port. The navigation system requires a frustrating multi-step process to program. You can’t interact with the phone via the steering wheel and instrument cluster.

    Tesla

    Systems The good The bad
       
    Sized like two iPads, the touch screen has straightforward logic and the layout allows some custom configurability. Functions are well delineated, buttons are large, and response-speed is instantaneous. Updates are sent over the air. The nav system uses Google Maps, making searches easy. Some dynamic functions, such as “insane mode” and regenerative braking, are controlled here. The screen can wash out in bright sunlight. Most functions can’t be done by feel alone; you always need to look away from the road for confirmation, which is distracting. Even sunroof operation is controlled via the touch screen.

    Toyota

    Systems The good The bad
    Toyota: Entune, Lexus: Enform Toyota’s interface has simple menus and customizable screens that make it easy to find what you need, as well as knobs for volume and tuning. Onscreen fonts and buttons are large—a big help for legibility. Entune has one of the most comprehensive Bluetooth streaming audio interfaces we have encountered.            Touch-screen preset buttons are packed tightly together; touch-sensitive capacitive switches look flashy, but it’s easy to accidentally brush across them when reaching for something else. The system blanks out the phone contact list (except for recent calls) when you’re driving, forcing you to either reach for your phone or use voice commands. The optional Lexus “Remote Touch” mouse controller is fussy—that’s OK at a desk but bad when driving. Neither system allows phone interaction through the steering wheel.

    Volkswagen

    System The good The bad
    VW: MIB, MIB2, Audi: MMI Pairing phones is fairly seamless, and VW’s touch-screen infotainment system is mostly easy to master. Radio controls are straightforward and work well. Audi’s MMI has added more hard buttons over the years. Both systems have well-designed steering-wheel controls for shortcuts.        Both use a proprietary adapter that fits a single type of device. That’s a problem if an iPhone user shares the vehicle with an Android owner. Audi’s MMI controller rotates counterintuitively when scrolling through radio stations. Some choices require you to look down at the console.

    Android Auto & Apple CarPlay

    How many times have you thought, “Wouldn’t it be great if a car’s infotainment system was as easy to use as my smartphone?” Like many drivers, we’ve found it frustrating to deal with complicated in-car infotainment systems.

    With their systems, CarPlay and Android Auto, Apple and Google have tried to solve that conundrum. Both platforms offer similar functionalities, such as navigation, read/dictate text messages, and play music. And since they’re phone-based, system software and features can be continually updated, unlike most car-based systems.

    Our first look at early versions of each system shows some shared integration challenges, including the inability to control AM/FM and satellite radio without leaving the system. Beyond that, the two platforms have somewhat distinctive characteristics.

    Android Auto

    Android Auto works by mating your Android phone to your car’s USB port and turning the central screen into a larger monitor.

    Unlike CarPlay, Android Auto’s interface and menu structure for apps such as Spotify is not same as on your Android phone; Google went for a more unified look across all apps. Also, only selected phones with the newest version of Android  (Lollipop) will work.

    Apple CarPlay

    With CarPlay, Apple brings its iPhone-like interface and excellent Siri voice command integration to vehicles. The system mirrors CarPlay-approved smart-phone apps on the car’s screen. Integration with Siri by using voice with natural speech, rather than menu-driven—formulaic commands—is a strong point.

    While we’ve tried them on aftermarket stereos, we’re looking forward to seeing how well manufacturers integrate the systems into their vehicles. Eventually, nearly every carmaker will offer both platforms.

    The original article also appeared in the April 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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    Amazon takes a social-media beating over Prime Day—but says sales were strong

    Amazon took a beating on social media over its Prime Day sales event—commenters on Twitter likened it to a crappy garage sale, though there must people hankering for 24-inch shoehorns and a lotion to help beards grow faster. Nevertheless, the retailer apparently still sold a ton of stuff yesterday. In fact, Amazon says unit sales outpaced last Black Friday's.

    Seeming to be in a defensive mood, the retailer sent out this list of facts about what sold during the 24-hour shopping event.

    • Tens of thousands of Fire TV Sticks sold in one hour, making it the fastest-selling deal on an Amazon device ever.
    • Fire tablet sales exceeded those from Black Friday last year.
    • Members ordered thousands of e-readers and thousands of Echos in just 15 minutes.
    • 56,000 Lord of the Rings: The Motion Picture Trilogy sets went.
    • 47,000 televisions sold, a 1,300-percent year-over-year growth.
    • 51,000 Bose headphones were sold, compared to eight pairs the previous Wednesday.
    • 28,000 Rubbermaid 42-Piece Easy Find Lid food storage sets were purchased, compared to 428 the previous Wednesday.
    • 24,000 Instant Pot 7-in-1 programmable pressure cookers went, compared to 182 the previous Wednesday.
    • 14,000 iRobot Roomba 595 Pet Vacuum Cleaning Robots were bought, compared to 1 the previous Wednesday.
    • 12,000 Fifty Shades of Grey Unrated Edition on Blu-ray were sold, compared to 121 the previous Wednesday.
    • 10,000 Meguiar's X2020 Supreme Shine Microfiber Towels sold, compared to 244 the previous Wednesday.

    Did you check out Amazon Prime Day? If so, what did you think? And what, if anything, did you by? Please leave a comment.

    The main complaints from Prime customers were that the roster of discounted goods was random and uninspired, and that many of the items that were worthwhile sold out early. The company felt so put-upon by social-media slags that it posted a response mid-day saying that peak order rates were exceeding those on Black Friday.

    The good—or bad—news, depending on your take: The company felt the day was so successful it's promised to do it again next year.

    If you checked out Amazon's Prime Day sale, let us know what you thought.

    —James K. Willcox

     

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

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    With Darkode gone, is your private data safer?

    Psssst….wanna buy some malware? That’s not as easy today as it was a few days ago.

    With the shutdown of Darkode, an online forum where botnets, malware, credit-card info, and other tools for cybercrime were traded and sold, it just got harder for thieves to stock up on the tools of their trade.

    Operation Shrouded Horizon, as the FBI called it, resulted in the arrest on Wednesday of Darkode members in 20 countries. According to Jean-Philippe Taggart, senior security researcher at Malwarebytes Labs, “it’s a good possibility that people who frequented Darkode had something to do with” the big data thefts—such as those of Home Depot, JPMorgan Chase, and Sony—that have occurred over the past two years and affected tens of millions of Americans. Officials haven't yet said what incidents those arrested may be responsible for, but security expert Brian Krebs has profiled several Darkode members.

    Now that Darkode is history, are we any safer from big, headline-producing cybercrime? In the short term, the answer is yes. “Darkode was absolutely a very prolific forum with individuals selling significant amounts of access to [cybercrime] tools,” says Raj Samani, CTO of Intel Security.

    But any reprieve will only be temporary, according to experts including Taggart: “This is how these people make their money, and they will get back to business pretty quickly, regrouping and creating another forum elsewhere.”

    Security software can help protect you from malware and more. Consult Consumer Reports' Buying Guide to find the best package.

    Darkode was not only prolific, it was also long-established. Most similar markets open and close frequently. The participants who escaped arrest are highly experienced, and they will likely make their future forums even more secure from law enforcement. “They’ll just go further underground,” says Satnam Narang, senior security response manager at Symantec. “It’ll be harder to find them.”

    The appeal of Darkode was its ability to make cybercrime easier to commit. Its members sold items such as exploit kits, which detect vulnerabilities in computers in order to deliver malware, that didn’t require much technical skill to utilize. “The reality is, when we look at cybercrime, everything is being commoditized,” Samani says. “These are well-run, well-funded businesses, with people collaborating and working together. It’s really an industry.”

    Even with Darkode gone, there are still a seemingly endless number of botnets, exploit kits, and malware packages to sell, and an equally limitless demand. “At the end of the day, it’s a victory,” says Narang. “But it’s still more like a bump in the road than a road being blocked off.”

    —Donna Tapellini

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    InstantWatcher is a better way to search for Amazon Prime and Netflix videos

    Amazon Prime Instant Video and Netflix both provide a wide variety of movies and television shows on their video streaming services. But finding the show you want to watch can be frustrating. Why? Both services suffer from inept TV-screen interfaces that make it hard to search their video catalogs. And for both you must use your streaming video player's remote to hunt and peck each letter of the movie that you want to watch. If the title you want isn't available, you have to start all that hunting and pecking again. Amazon Prime and Netflix also let you search through a home page of movie icons representing each video, but that process is just as user-unfriendly. 

    Fortunately, there's a better way to sift through the thousands of titles they offer. InstantWatcher is plugged directly into the databases of both Amazon Prime and Netflix and offers a much more efficient, easy, and comprehensive video title search engine.  

    How do Amazon Prime and Netflix differ? Check the results of our video streaming face-off.

    Easier filtering

    InstantWatcher gives you the power to search in many different ways. For Amazon Prime, you can filter your options by specific title, 29 film genres, actor, popularity or new on streaming, maturity rating, standard or high definition video quality, or all titles arranged alphabetically. The system also makes recommendations.

    The search engine for Netflix offers all that plus deeper search capability by 388 genres and subgenres, critic and audience ratings, popularity in the last 24 hours, and super HD and ultra HD video quality. 

    Greater transparency

    While searching is better, InstantWatcher's service is more clear about the variety of shows that are available. For example, as recently as last February, Amazon was advertising "over 40,000 choices." After we published an article with InstantWatcher data in June, Amazon took the number out and instead told consumers it offered "thousands" of videos. The reason for the change? We pointed out to readers that according to InstantWatcher, Amazon actually offered far fewer movies than it claimed. Part of the reason for the discrepancy had to do with the fact that Amazon counted every individual episode of its TV series as separate titles, while InstantWatcher counts each TV series as only one title, which we think is more reasonable.

    You can get the latest tally by clicking "all" on the menu bars. The last time we looked, Amazon Prime had 17,948 titles, while Netflix had 7,984 titles.

    The wealth of data available through InstantWatcher can also help you assess quality. For example, only 20 percent of Netflix' catalog received user ratings of 4 or better, vs. 43 percent of Amazon Prime's catalog. In terms of video resolution quality, however, only 21 percent of Amazon Prime's selections were in high definition, while 80 percent of Netflix' offerings were in HD, superHD, or ultraHD. 

    One feature we liked, which is now missing from InstantWatcher, was access to the entire Amazon instant video catalog, which included 55,000 more non-Prime titles that required additional payment to buy or rent. We found that useful for efficiently shopping the pay streaming marketplace. But the full Amazon streaming video search capability will be back later this summer, according to Hoony Youn, a partner at Kaja Software, the Cambridge, Mass., company that created the site.

    If you're streaming via your desktop or laptop, InstantWatcher lets you click through directly to Amazon or Netflix to play the video. Since you can't do that on your TV, we recommend that you use InstantWatcher on your laptop or a tablet to search for what you want to watch. Then, after you've made a decision, you'll still have to type the title into that still-awkward search tool on your video streaming player to watch it on your television.

    –Jeff Blyskal (@JeffBlyskal on Twitter)

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    Ways to save with student discounts

    With the start of school just around the corner, you may be fretting about how much you'll have to spend on clothing, electronics, and other back-to-school must-haves.

    Luckily, if you or your child is a college student, many stores and services offer discounts that make purchases more affordable. Some even extend the invitation to high school or even kindergarten through 12th grade students. Only one thing is required for most stores: evidence of enrollment. For online purchases, this can be as easy as filling out the site's student-discount registration form and stating the school you attend. For in-store purchases, simply flash a student ID at the register. It's that easy. So lower your anxiety with these great offers.

    Apparel, sporting goods, and footwear

    Ann Taylor and Banana Republic: Both companies offer a 15 percent discount for full-priced purchases in store when shown a college student ID. Ann Taylor extends this offer for online purchases too. In order to receive the discount online, registration with UNiDAYS—a student discount service—is required. Registration is free.

    Through UNiDAYS, other discounts are available from stores such as Claire's, Urban Outfitters, TOMS, and more. Be sure to visit UNiDAYS for the full list of participating stores.

    J.Crew and Madewell: Both companies offer a 15 percent discount for in-store purchases when shown a college student ID. Teachers are also eligible to receive the discount.

    Footlocker and Lady Footlocker: Offers 10 percent off a purchase of $50 or more with a Student Advantage Discount Card, a program that offers reduced prices at various retailers and service providers. These discount cards are available for purchase online for $22.50 for one year (add $10 for each additional year). This price includes shipping and handling costs. To be eligible for this card, students have to be 16 or older.

    Food and entertainment

    Dairy Queen: High school and college students are eligible to receive a discount card or a “Student Meal Deal” at participating locations. The amount of the discount depends on location.

    Regal: Offers student discounts on select shows, times/dates, and locations. For eligibility requirements and availability, contact your local Regal theater.

    AMC: Select AMC theaters have “Student Day” every Thursday. You, or your child, can get a reduced-price ticket price when you show a college or high school ID. Those who have the above-mentioned Student Advantage Discount Card are eligible to receive up to 40 percent off prepaid tickets.

    Cinemark: Participating Cinemark theaters offer student discounts. Discount days and times vary by location.

    Want to know more ways to save through student discounts? Read "Best Computer Discount Programs for Students."

    Electronics

    Apple: Offers education pricing online for college students or high school graduates anticipating the start of college. Parents buying for college students are also welcomed to use the discount. You can save up to $200 on a new Mac and up to $20 on a new iPad.

    Sony: The Sony Education Store offers online discounts of up to 10 percent for college students. In order to receive the special pricing, students must first register with Sony.

    Lenovo: The online Academic Purchase Program offers college students and those K through 12 discounts on laptops, tablets, and desktop computers. All you need to do is indicate which educational institution you or your child attends. For those whose schools are not listed, simply click "Enter here to shop special deals" under "Can't find your school?" and you will be directed to student deals. Student Advantage Discount holders can save up to 25 percent on purchases.

    HP: With HP Academy, college students and those K through 12 can save up to 20 percent off HP products online. Other benefits include free shipping on all orders and personalized product recommendations. Registration is required.

    JourneyEd: College students receive a discounted price on software and other merchandise online. JourneyEd offers discounted products for K through 12 students too. 

    Travel

    General Motors: Through the General Motors College Discount Program, college and graduate students are eligible for a discount on any qualifying Chevrolet, Buick, and GMC vehicle. Size of the discount depends on the vehicle. See the full list of eligible vehicles here.

    Greyhound: Student Advantage Discount cardholders are eligible to save 20 percent on Greyhound fares purchased online or in person. 

    Amtrak: Student Advantage Discount cardholders are eligible to save 10 percent on Amtrak tickets purchased three days in advance online.

    Geico and Statefarm: Through the "Good Student" discount, Geico offers up to 15 percent on certain coverages and Statefarm up to 25 percent. Certain restrictions may apply.

    Marcy Robles

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

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    3 steps to choosing the right kitchen cabinets

    Cabinets Can be the biggest expense in a full kitchen remodel, accounting for up to 40 percent of the overall budget. They also set the visual tone for the kitchen, and they’re a huge part of how well it functions. Bottom line: Get the cabinets right and your chance of loving your new kitchen will go way up. (Planning a kitchen remodel? Tell us about it in the comments below.)

    Step 1: Set the budget

    Cabinets fall into three categories: stock, semi-custom, and custom. Stock cabinets start around $70 per linear foot (a typical kitchen has 25 to 30 linear feet of cabinets). Home centers sell them fully assembled or stores such as Ikea offer flat-pack versions that will need to be put together onsite; styles and sizes tend to be fairly limited. Semi-custom cabinets, which range from $150 to $250 per linear foot, come in more configurations, so they’ll fit your kitchen more precisely, if not perfectly. Custom cabinets can easily cost $500 or more per linear foot; they’re crafted to your exact specs and can include many personalized features.

    Step 2: Choose a style

    The big decision is between framed and frameless. Framed cabinets consist of a box and face frame, to which doors and drawers are attached. Frameless cabinets, often referred to as European-style, eliminate the face frame; doors and drawers attach directly to the cabinet box. That provides great accessibility and a more contemporary look. On the downside, the absence of a face frame can compromise rigidity; better manufacturers compensate by using a thicker box—say, ¾-inch plywood instead of ½-inch particleboard. For the European look in a framed cabinet, opt for a full-overlay door, which covers all or most of the face frame.

    Step 3: Pick the features

    Accessories can improve cabinet functionality, but they’ll also increase the cost by 20 percent or more. A pull-out trash can is a worthwhile addition. Built-in charging stations are helpful, too, because they keep the countertop clear of electronic devices. Appliance garages, those countertop compartments designed to conceal small appliances, don’t always offer the best organization. Instead, consider a lift cabinet with a spring-loaded shelf that swings up and out, providing easy access to a mixer, food processor, or other hefty device.

    You’ll save money by keeping features to the essential. But it doesn’t pay in the long run to skimp on the construction. A well-built cabinet has solid wood drawers with dovetail joinery, not stapled particleboard; full-extension drawer guides rather than an integrated rail; and doors with solid wood frames surrounding a solid wood or plywood panel, as opposed to veneered particleboard or a medium-density fiberboard (MDF) panel.

    Check our Kitchen Design & Planning Guide for our latest articles and videos on kitchen remodeling.

    Design tips from the pros

    Lighting

    “Integrated lighting has become very popular. As soon as you open the drawer, the light comes on. We also do a lot of undercabinet lighting, including LED fixtures with a built-in plug for countertop appliances and a USB port to charge your smartphone and other electronics.”—Kathleen Wilber, Ikea, U.S. sales leader for kitchens

    Finish

    “There’s still plenty of interest in lighter-toned cabinets. But we’re starting to see an uptick in our pebbled gray and chai finishes, as more customers go for a tinted neutral color instead of stark white.”—Tracy Riel, KraftMaid Cabinetry, manager, designer services

    Features

    “Easy-access, touch-to-open door and drawer releases are catching on. There’s also a preference for more paired-down door styles and greater interior functionality. That includes task-specific features like coffee-service components and pull-out storage that alleviates physical strain while eliminating dead space.”—Amy Benton, BauformatUSA, accounts and marketing manager

    Spruce up what you have

    If your cabinets are structurally sound and you like the layout, a fresh finish can update your entire kitchen. Repainting is the cheapest option, though to do the job right you’ll need to remove the doors and drawers, clean them with a degreasing agent, sand them, and apply a primer and multiple top coats (or pay a pro about $50 per door).

    Cabinet refacing is the other way to go. Best suited to framed units, it involves replacing the doors and drawers and applying new veneers to the face frames and ends. Figure about $150 per cabinet.

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

     

     

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    Finessed 2016 Audi A6 remains a class leader

    The Audi A6 has been our Top Pick among mid-sized luxury sedans for a couple of years now. With its well-mannered ride, supremely quiet cabin, athletic handling, punchy performance, all-wheel-drive and decent fuel economy, it’s no wonder. And a 2016 freshening brings some welcome updates, ensuring the A6 remains a leader in the tough luxury sedan class.

    Chief among the notable changes, the supercharged 3.0-liter V6 makes 333 horsepower now, and the new 2.0-liter turbo four is good for 252 ponies. The infotainment system got an update, and thicker window glass makes this executive express even quieter. The front-drive version, available only with the 2.0-liter, sheds its CVT in favor of a seven-speed dual-clutch automated unit. 

    Audis’ interiors have always been top-drawer, elegant but not gaudy, as exemplified here by matte-finish walnut, brushed-chrome trim, and supple leather upholstery. As before, the A6 offers plenty of space—and very comfortable seats—front and rear.

    We recently sampled an updated 2016 A6 Quattro (all-wheel drive), equipped with the 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder, which routes its power through a smooth, responsive eight-speed automatic.

    If we had misgivings about a smallish four-cylinder engine taking responsibility for a good-sized luxury car, this powerplant quickly set our collective mind at ease. It packs plenty of grunt, and someone would need a keen ear to discern this Four from a V6. One feature we found subpar was the gas-saving automatic engine stop/start system, which doesn’t operate very smoothly. Thankfully, you can shut it off. If excellent fuel economy tops your wish list, consider the diesel version, called TDI in Audi parlance. A while back we tested a V6 diesel in an Audi A7, and averaged 28 mpg overall. Though the diesel was plenty strong, it wouldn’t match the effortless and velvety thrust of the supercharged V6.

    Refinement is impressive, with a super-quiet cabin and bump-smothering suspension that produces a composed ride on even the most ravaged roads. While the A6 is responsive and rewarding to drive, with athletic handling and well-judged steering, it doesn’t stack up to a BMW or Mercedes-Benz when pushed to the hairy edge.

    As if to compensate, Audi tries to beat its German rivals in the infotainment department. That’s just as well, because we suspect that many customers care more about their car’s audio and communications infrastructure than its race-track behavior anyway. Connectivity is comprehensive, and the vivid map graphics on the dash display screen are even clearer than those of the impressive Tesla Model S. The built-in Wi-Fi hotspot is a cinch to use, as well.

    At first glance, Audi's MMI infotainment system has a lot going on, but the system’s logic is easy to comprehend. A good-sized screen emerges from the dash in a well-choreographed way, while a big, easy-to-grasp center-console knob manages audio, phone, navigation and other functions. There’s also a touchpad for tracing out letters for entering destination addresses with your finger. It all works rather well especially when you learn to use the steering wheel controls and convenient, simple-to-operate instrument-cluster display for scrolling through and choosing radio presets or phone contacts.

    Conventional touches are also appreciated. The climate controls are separated from other systems, making them easier to use while driving than the setups in rival luxury sedans. The instrument cluster display screen shows trip-computer info, such as fuel use, or, when using the navigation system, and Google Earth map images and information.

    It’s nice to see that Audi has finally gotten with the program, supplying simple USB ports for connecting smartphones and such, rather than relying on fussy proprietary interface cables.

    No one ever said that high quality and a gourmet palate come cheap. This A6 2.0T Quattro, in typical mid-level Premium Plus trim, brings the uplevel infotainment system, a warm-weather package with side and rear sunshades, stylish 19-inch wheels, and walnut inlays. All in, this car stickers for $55,775. Considering all the boxes this car ticks off, though, that’s not outrageous. And more importantly, this pampering package exhibits why the Audi A6 has become a class leader.

    Gabe Shenhar

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