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    Comcast Stream shows why consumers' choices for TV may remain limited

    Given the popularity of streaming services such as Netflix and the early promise of Sling TV, this would seem like an opportune time for cable companies to broaden their reach by offering their programming to everyone. Right now, firms like Comcast and Charter are restricted by the span of their physical cables. But, presumably, thanks to net neutrality rules, they could offer their lineup of TV shows to any computer owner in the country via the data pipes of fellow cable providers. In effect, they'd be selling subscriptions the way Netflix does.

    But that's not happening. When Comcast introduced its $15 Stream package this week, offering to stream TV content to laptops and phones, critics were quick to pounce on the plan's limitations: the fact that it doesn’t include TV viewing (even via Roku or Amazon Fire TV); that it can only accommodate two devices at once; and that it’s solely available to customers of Comcast’s broadband service.

    That last complaint is the most interesting. If Comcast can provide HBO, the country’s major broadcast channels, and a cloud-based DVR at such a great price via Stream, then why not go big and let everyone in the country in on the deal? Imagine what it would do for you, the consumer: You'd suddenly have a real alternative to the local cable company. You'd still have to pay your old provider for broadband service to get the content into your home, but you could shop around for a TV bundle that best suits your needs.

    There's no important regulatory or technical barrier stopping the CEO of Comcast—or any of his rivals for that matter—from giving it a try. But the truth is that it won't happen, because the numbers just don't add up for the people in the cable and entertainment industries. And that says a lot about how this business works, and why consumers won't get the choices they'd like anytime soon.

    Here are three reasons why cable companies resist becoming streaming-media networks.

    1. Rights are limited

    First off, Comcast isn't allowed to transmit its content all over the Internet. By and large, the current deals signed with HBO, NBC, ESPN, and so on don't give TV providers carte blanche to do what they want with the programs they carry. In fact, the rights are specifically curtailed. They permit the service to transmit content to subscribers via cable lines and to a lesser degree via mobile technology. That's it. “If we wanted to explore over-the-top service that would be available to anybody in the country, that would be a totally separate set of rights,” says a Comcast rep.

    And negotiations for rights like those can be gnarly—just ask Apple, which has reportedly been trying to launch its own service for more than a year.

    Are you getting a fair deal from your cable company? Leave a comment to let us know.

    2. The content is too costly

    Comcast already invests $10 billion annually for those limited programming rights, according to the company spokesperson. If the company wanted to beam the same content across the web, the price would be even higher.

    Consider the costs borne by Netflix, an actual streaming company with 65 million subscribers. This year, the company will spend $3 billion for content—none of which includes live TV broadcasts, sporting events or even first-run movies. And it will double that expense in 2016. “When Netflix spends $100 million to create one season of House of Cards, that tells you how expensive this stuff really is,” says streaming media analyst Dan Rayburn of Frost & Sullivan. In fact, Netflix has now warned investors not to expect any profits until late 2016.

    “Nobody can come to the market—including Apple—and roll out a competitively priced service with the same content as cable because the licensing costs are just too expensive,” Rayburn insists. “You’ll never have enough people willing to pay enough for it online.”

    3. No one in charge wants to lower profits

    Content prices aren't the only financial concern for cable companies, according to Rob Frieden, who helped shape FCC policy decisions as a lawyer in Washington, D.C. “I don’t think Comcast wants to do anything that would in any way jeopardize its billion-dollar-plus annual revenue from set-top box rentals,” he says. “The last thing it would want to do is have a customer substitute its set-top box with all of its digital rights management, ID protection, and rental revenue for a Roku device.”

    So why are Comcast, Dish, and others experimenting with Internet TV? Well, that brings us to the wild card in this whole equation: the young guns who make up the next generation of consumers. Frieden has observed them up close as a telecommunications professor at Penn State. “My students have no patience for old-school appointment television,” he says. “They want on-demand, anytime, anywhere, via any device, any format. And the concept of paying for 50 or 60 channels—80 percent of which they don’t watch—is just anathema to them.”

    Indeed, the target audience for Stream is recent college grads, says the Comcast spokesperson. That’s why the service is mobile-centric (just like the company’s college-based package Xfinity on Campus). It’s also why customers have the option to sign up online (a first for Comcast). And why they can cancel the service the very next day—without penalty—if they’d like. The goal for Comcast and its rivals is to learn what those emerging TV viewers want—and what they're willing to pay for. And so, you can expect to see a lot of trial balloons from traditional pay TV providers in the next year or so.

    Whether entertainment and cable companies like it or not, millennials could end up forcing changes in the business model. And that means all consumers should take an interest in what those 20-somethings do with Comcast’s latest offering. Because if the group refuses to ever graduate to a set-top box, we may all catch a break one day.

    Chris Raymond

     

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

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    New auto-safety bill doesn't do enough to protect Americans

    Last year, automakers recalled nearly 64 million vehicles for safety problems. That was more recalled cars and trucks than the previous three years combined. And the head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has said there could be another increase in recalls in 2015.

    You have probably read the tragic stories about deaths and injuries linked to General Motors’ defective ignition switches and Takata’s potentially explosive airbags, which together helped spark this massive wave of recalls. These incidents have exposed serious problems, not only among the car companies but also at NHTSA, the government agency that works to ensure our cars and roads are safe.

    NHTSA has initiated reforms to be more proactive, but to fulfill its mission, it needs Congress to step up and provide the necessary resources and enforcement tools.

    The U.S. Senate is currently considering proposals to authorize federal transportation programs for the next few years. A Senate committee just approved a bill that could come up for a vote by the full Senate later this month.

    This auto-safety bill, the Comprehensive Transportation and Consumer Protection Act (S. 1732), aims to advance auto safety, but it has several major flaws. Consumers Union, the advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, opposes the bill as currently written and urges senators to make significant changes to the legislation.

    Find out whether your car has been recalled and get more information from our driving safety guide. And uncover the truth about car recalls.

    One of our primary concerns is that the Senate is not authorizing enough funding or tools for NHTSA to adequately collect safety data, analyze trends, or identify defects. NHTSA is chronically underfunded and understaffed. The agency’s Office of Defects Investigation has only 50 employees responsible for identifying safety defects in more than 265 million passenger cars on our roads. That’s fewer than it had in 2002, despite an ever-increasing workload.

    This auto-safety bill also fails to address a long-standing problem with recalled used cars. It’s hard to believe, but under federal law it is perfectly legal for an auto dealer to sell you a used car under a safety recall before it is repaired. We have long advocated for changing the law, but this bill preserves the status quo.

    The bill does address a related issue by requiring rental-car companies to get recalled vehicles fixed before they are rented, which we have also been advocating for years. We are appreciative that senators have added this provision, but they should do the same for used cars.

    Plus, the auto-safety bill does not meaningfully improve truck safety, which can affect all drivers and passengers. Truck crash fatalities have increased 17 percent and truck crash injuries have increased 28 percent over the last four years. Some senators have recommended beefing up the bill’s provisions for truck safety, but to no avail so far.

    NHTSA was created to help save lives. Congress must do more to support the agency and help it get the job done. We urge you to contact your senators today and tell them to stand up for auto safety.   

    Has your car been recalled? Share your experience with other readers by leaving a comment below.

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

    Read past installments of our Policy & Action feature.

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

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    Tesla Model S performance goes from Insane to Ludicrous

    Tesla Motors continues to evolve the Model S electric car line, with ongoing improvements to models that consumers own, as well as introducing new production variations.

    The range expands with a more affordable Model S 70 in late August, available for $70,000—$5,000 less than the dual-motor version and same as old 60-kwWh rear-drive model of last year, before it discontinued. At the other end of the expanding product portfolio, there is a new top model, a P90D with a 90-kw battery with deliveries also starting in late August.

    Current Model S P85D owners will be able to upgrade to a 90-kw pack for $3,000. This configuration promises range increases of about 5-7 percent. No EPA official rating has been given, yet. In fact, Tesla Motors Co-founder and CEO Elon Musk says he expects about a 5-percent efficiency increase with each passing year to their energy packs. He recommends car owners consider upgrades every 3-4 years to take advantage of the latest battery developments.

    The other key update announced today is in the electronics, enabling an even higher-performance mode beyond “Insane” to “Ludicrous.” Musk admits, this isn’t something that customers were asking for, but it is nonetheless “incredible fun.” And in a cheeky "Spaceballs" reference, Musk suggested that a "plaid" (aka beyond ludicrous) model may be in the offing. (Read "Is the Tesla Model S P85D the quickest car ever?")

    Engaging “Ludicrous” cranks up performance, dropping 0-60 mph times to a mere 2.8 seconds (down from 3.1 seconds) and reducing time to 155 mph by 20 percent for the Model S Performance. The company claims straightline acceleration will be at 1.1 g—which is greater than the force experienced in free-fall.

    Consumer Reports recently conducted a g-force shootout between a P85D and a Dodge Challenger Hellcat, finding the high-tech Tesla sedan trounced the 707-horsepower muscle car. That even greater performance is readily available is indeed ludicrous. For current P85D owners, the electronics upgrade is $5,000 plus installation. It adds $10,000 to the cost of a new car.

    While big improvements to the Model S garner much attention, Musk says that on the average week, there are 20 engineering changes made to the Model S, from mass savings to interior trim improvements. Musk defines Tesla as a “continuous-improvement company.”

    Next up is the much-anticipated Version 7 software updated that will enable interactions with AutoPilot, AutoSteering, and parking features. With the hardware now standard on the latest Model S cars rolling out of Tesla’s Fremont, Calif., factory, Version 7 will allow drivers to summon the car to come pick them up in a private parking lot or to go find their own parking space after dropping you off. It can also steer itself on the highway. Both the Model X and Version 7 software were scheduled for release this summer. Musk today said that this update is still being developed. In particular, fine tuning is underway to address the challenges in New York City and the 405-freeway in Los Angeles.

    One thing is clear, these impressive cars to continue to improve. We have almost finished our extensive multi-week test of the Model S P85D. Look for a full report later this summer.

    See our guide to Tesla news and reviews.

    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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    3 foam mattresses that are easy to ship

    When your child is heading off to college, your shopping list expands beyond the usual supplies to also include towels and toiletries. But if off-campus housing is in the plans, you may need to buy something else, a mattress. Here are a few good choices from among Consumer Reports' list of top mattress picks. All are foam mattresses that come either rolled up or folded, accordion-like, in a box for easy shipping. And since all the prices we quote are for queen, full-size or twin versions will cost relatively less.

    Casper’s The Casper, $850

    From a relatively new brand, Casper has a winner in this memory- and latex-foam mattress, which scored impressively across the board in our tests. Few mattresses in our mattress Ratings score equally well for both back and side support, but Casper has achieved this goal without a thousand-dollar price. This $850 mattress showed only minor changes after eight years of simulated use.

    Ikea’s Morgongava, $1,000

    The Ikea Morgongava latex-foam mattress, $1,000, made our picks with its impressive back support, though in our side-support test, which assesses how well a mattress keeps the spine horizontal in that position, it was only so-so. Still, there are other pluses. It showed only minor changes in performance after eight years of simulated use.

    Tuft & Needle’s Ten, $500

    This well-priced foam mattress from the relatively new Tuft & Needle has a number of good points, but buy it more for the $500 price than for stellar support: It was mediocre for both back and side support. Where the mattress did stand out was in how it showed only minor changes in performance after eight years of simulated use. We also found it very breathable, important for shoppers who feel that foam beds "sleep hot."

    With the Ikea, your son or daughter can try out the bed at any of the stores. With both the Tuft & Needle and the Casper, there are few showrooms, but both stores have generous return policies if the mattress isn’t right. Be sure to see our mattress buying guide if you haven’t bought a mattress in some time. Then view our Ratings of 35 innerspring, memory foam and adjustable air mattresss.

    —Ed Perratore (@EdPerratore on Twitter)

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

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    Driving the all-new 2016 Hyundai Tucson

    The Hyundai Tucson spent the last decade mired in mediocrity, but the redesigned 2016 model may have broken free of that cycle, shouldering its way forward among the crowded herd of small SUVs.

    Based on the Tucson and recent products, it seems Hyundai has learned a thing or two about styling and giving their vehicles a premium feel.

    For a fee, we borrowed two 2016 Hyundai Tucsons—a base model and a Limited.

    The base 164-hp, 2.0-liter four-cylinder gets a conventional six-speed automatic. It does the job without drama, but the engine can get a bit raucous.

    It sounds odd, but the Limited trim actually gets a smaller engine. This 175-hp, 1.6-liter turbo is mated to a seven-speed automated manual. This gearbox feels like a conventional automatic, which is a good thing. Power is readily available, and acceleration feels effortless.

    Ride comfort also takes a big step forward. Over rough roads, the 2016 Hyundai Tucson is settled and absorbs impacts well. Wind and road noise are well contained for this class.

    Handling is responsive, notably more so with the uplevel 19-inch wheels. An added bonus is that they don’t make for an overly-stiff, uncomfortable ride.

    While built on different platforms, the new 2016 Hyundai Tucson comes across as a smaller Santa Fe by virtue of its substantial feel, good interior fit and finish, and more than a passing family resemblance. Cabin space is impressive. Tall passengers can easily sit behind a like-sized driver, and headroom is plentiful.

    The Limited’s power leather seats have a wide range of adjustments, and they are more supportive and comfortable than the cloth seats in the base version.

    Controls are simple and intuitive to use, and Hyundai’s digital layout is mercifully logical. The base Tucson features a smaller touch screen, while the Limited employs an easier-to-read eight-inch screen.

    The Limited trim that we tried included the Ultimate package. Its massive sunroof, heated and ventilated front seats, and hands-free power tailgate are premium features uncommon in this class.

    Pricing starts at $22,700 for a front-drive SE with the 2.0L engine. Step up to AWD and the turbo 1.6L engine for $25,550, with the range peaking at $31,300 for the Limited, before options.

    So far, the third-generation Tucson comes across as a very competitive player in this increasingly popular segment. We’ll dig deeper when we buy our own to test.

    Jon Linkov

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

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    Top picks in pro-style ranges

    As soon as pro-style ranges became the crown trophy in many a kitchen—even when they didn’t perform at “Top Chef” level—the bar for style was raised for all ranges. Pro-style stainless-steel finish, beefy knobs, and heavy grates soon showed up on mid-priced ranges. Now the ever-popular freestanding range has its own stylish makeover. The back panel is gone, and cooktop and oven controls are in front. (Do you covet a pro-style range? Let us know by adding a comment below.)

    Freestanding ranges have finished sides, are easy to install, and cost less than other types, although moving the controls up front raises the price. The ones tested by Consumer Reports cost $1,600 to $2,300. Slide-ins are usually $2,000 to $3,000, and overlap the counter on both sides to look built-in. Some slide-ins and a front-control smoothtop range made our list of top range picks, but several stylish new models had disappointing performance. We’ll keep testing this new range type to find out whether manufacturers can deliver great style and performance for less than the cost of a slide-in.

    If a pro-style is what you want, we have recommended models that are very good. But they aren’t the best we tested. Some have small ovens, especially in 30-inch ranges, and others lack a self-cleaning mode. If you’re remodeling (or designing from scratch), consider a cooktop and wall-oven duo. Set the cooktop into a counter that allows you to face out into the kitchen, so that you can interact with others, and install a wall oven (or two) at a height that’s easy for you to use.

    Best pro-style ranges

    More great choices. To find the right range, check our full range Ratings and recommendations.

    Best range brands (gas and electric)

    We analyzed our test results for 30-inch single and double oven ranges from the past three years to see which brands fared best. A strong track record raises the odds of getting a good model, though it’s no guarantee.

    Safe bets

    Electric smoothtops. GE, Kenmore, LG, and Samsung have consistently been top performers.
    Gas and dual-fuel ranges. Electrolux, GE, LG, and Samsung were tops.

    Relatively safe bets

    Electric smoothtops. Frigidaire, Maytag, and Whirlpool have performed well but less consistently.
    Gas and dual-fuel ranges.
    That’s also true for ranges from Frigidaire, Kenmore, and Whirlpool.

    Avoid

    Electric smoothtops. Electrolux, Jenn-Air, and KitchenAid ranges have been repair-prone.
    Gas and dual-fuel ranges.
    KitchenAid and Maytag gas ranges have also been repair-prone.

    Kitchen Remodeling Guide

    Find everything you need to know about undertaking a kitchen remodeling project in our Kitchen Remodeling Guide including the results of our tests of kitchen appliances and remodeling materials.

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

     

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    Should you buy a 2-in-1 laptop?

    If you’ve shopped for a computer lately, you’ve seen a growing number of 2-in-1 laptops that either detach from the keyboard or twist around to become a tablet. The number of models available has ballooned in the past two years. A 2-in-1 laptop  can be particularly useful for students who want the mobility of a tablet and the power of a laptop, but don't want to pay for two separate devices.

    That sounds great, but only if the 2-in-1 laptop performs as well as a conventional laptop—no one wants to buy a product that tries to be a laptop and tablet, but fails at both jobs. However, our testing shows that you don’t have to pay a premium to get a 2-in-1 laptop that’s just as good as an ordinary laptop. In fact, even if you never detach the keyboard or twist into tablet mode, two-in-one devices can make excellent choices.

    Here’s a roundup of five 2-in-1 computers that will work for many college students, and lots of other people, too.

    Are you considering a 2-in-1 laptop for your next computer? Let us know by adding a comment below.

    —Donna Tapellini

    HP Spectre xp360-13t Touch ($900)

    This 2-in-1 laptop topped our Ratings of 11- to 15-inch convertibles. It’s a 13-inch model, with exceptional battery life—16 hours—that was longer than what most other laptops delivered. It folds into four positions: laptop, stand, tent, and tablet. The aluminum chassis helps keep the weight down a bit, but it’s still 3.3 pounds, which is heavy for a tablet. Performance was as good as the best, equally priced 13-inch laptops. Of course it has a touchscreen (which did well in our tests, as did the others in this group), a feature some other laptops in the same price range are lacking.

    Acer Aspire R7371T-50ZE ($1,000)

    Another 13-inch convertible, this Acer model also performed well, and was one of the fastest laptops we tested. A unique hinge lets you easily fold this 2-in-1 laptop into a tablet with one hand, and you can use function keys to disable the touchscreen or touchpad. Battery life was 12.5 hours. You can use the USB sleep-and-charge feature to charge devices when the laptop is in sleep mode. This one comes with a 256GB solid-state drive.

    Lenovo Yoga 3 ($800)

    For a slightly larger model, consider the Lenovo Yoga 3, a 14-inch convertible that pivots into four positions. It weighs just 3.7 pounds, which is considerably less than many traditional 14-inch models. (But remember, that’s a hefty weight for a tablet.) In terms of performance, it scored nearly as well as the Acer and HP, and better than many 14-inch laptops, and battery life was 13 hours. Like many Lenovo laptops, this 2-in-1 laptop includes facial-recognition and voice-control software.

     

    Check our laptop and tablet buying guides and Ratings before you start shopping.

    Lenovo Flex 3 14 ($650)

    Another 14-inch convertible from Lenovo, the Flex is Lenovo’s budget counterpart to the Yoga. It’s got a standard hard drive, rather than the speedy 128GB solid-state drive in the Yoga. But that means it’s also got a lot more storage—500GB. As for performance, it also did better than many other 14-inch models we tested. Battery life is shorter, at 8 hours, but that’s still a day’s work. And the Flex’s weight is more in the ballpark of other 14-inch laptops at 4.1 pounds. Like the Yoga, the Flex twists into four positions.

    Acer Aspire Switch 11 SW5-111-102R ($375)

    This is a great price for a laptop, and an even better price for a laptop/tablet combo. It’s an 11.6-inch detachable, and while performance wasn’t as speedy as in the other models listed here, it was good enough for typical productivity tasks like word processing, and even photo editing and some gaming. In fact, its performance is as good as or better than some traditional laptops in that price range. It’s the smallest of this group, and weighs 3.2 pounds with the keyboard. But for tablet weight, it gets the advantage, since it’s just 1.7 pounds without the keyboard. Battery life is 11.5 hours.

     

     

     

     

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    Save money by haggling for your next vacuum

    Haggling is typical if not expected at a flea market. But in our most recent recent report on the  best places to buy appliances, it was also a winning strategy for many who shop retail—including vacuum shoppers. Even Consumer Reports benefited from haggling the price down on two vacuums we purchased for our vacuum tests, as one of our secret shoppers recently told us. We’ll tell you where.

    Shoppers in our appliance retail survey who tried to negotiate prices typically saved about $100 on major appliances and $40 on small ones. For vacuums—considered “small” compared to refrigerators and washers—only eight percent of shoppers tried to bargain the price down. But those shoppers were successful 66 percent of the time—about two out of three tries—and saved a median $43 on their purchase.

    Just like you, our secret shoppers try to get the best prices possible for what they buy. In this case, our colleague bought two of the vacuums we’re testing now, the $1,370 Kirby Avalir bagged upright and the $1,000 Electrolux UltraOne EL7085A bagged canister, from an independent storefront dealer near our Yonkers, New York, headquarters. Our respondents didn’t rank independent dealerships especially high for prices paid for both small and large appliances. But negotiating with an owner/dealer who knows what he paid for a product—as opposed to a department-store floor staffer—clearly can reap benefits.

    Wherever you shop, for whatever appliance, it never hurts to try to negotiate prices. The worst that can happen? You’ll hear the word “no.” As our survey demonstrates, though, the odds are with you.

    Need a new vacuum?

    Our vacuum cleaner Ratings of upright, canister, hand, and stick vacuums currently list more than 120 models and now include results of a half-dozen robotic vacs. (Alongside our performance Ratings are survey-based brand-reliability Ratings.) Be sure to see our  vacuum buying guide before narrowing down your choices.

    —Ed Perratore (@EdPerratore on Twitter)

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    FilmOn might soon be able to offer broadcast-TV shows

    Remember Aereo, the now-defunct company that set up a warehouse of TV antennas that let people get over-the-air TV broadcast via the Internet? A pair of court decisions put that company out of business, but now a lower court has decided that a company called FilmOn that runs a similar service may be treated like a cable company and get the compulsory licenses it needs to transmit TV offerings.

    If FilmOn is ultimately successful, it could be a huge win for consumers looking for more TV service choices. The company and other emerging digital services would be able to automatically license programs from the major broadcasters, such as ABC, CBS, Fox, and NBC, at a special, discounted rate—just like a cable company.

    However, it's not a done deal. In making his ruling, the U.S. District Court judge acknowledged that his preliminary decision is at odds with the Aereo case, and he is allowing an immediate appeal. Like Aereo, FilmOn was sued by the major broadcast networks, and is currently enjoined from operating its service.

    Legal twists

    The ruling comes as a bit of a surprise, since Aereo lost its case in the Supreme Court. Aereo had been offering a service that combined major network broadcasts plus a cloud-based DVR to subscribers for $8 to $12 per month. The company wasn't paying anything to the broadcast networks, basically arguing that since it provided tiny individual antennas for every user, it was really more in the antenna-rental business than in the re-broadcasting business. Aereo won many of its earlier legal battles, but the Supreme Court essentially said that Aereo looked too much like a cable company to avoid paying licensing fees for the broadcasts, and was violating copyrights.

    After that decision, Aereo went back to a lower court to see if it could obtain a compulsory license to rebroadcast the channels, just like a cable company. But a New York district court, citing an earlier case against a company called Ivi, ruled the company wasn't entitled to the license, and Aereo went out of business, selling some of its assets and technology to TiVo. Ivi, one of the first digital re-broadcasting services, claimed that it should be considered a cable system under Section 111 of the Copyright Act (enacted in the 1970s to make licensing broadcast content easier for cable companies), and therefore was entitled to a statutory license. The court disagree and Ivi was shut down.

    Would you consider subscribing to a service such as FilmOn? Should consumers have more choices for TV watching? Share your opinion by adding a comment below.

    In ruling for FilmOn last week, the judge acknowledged the Ivi decision, but disagreed with its conclusion. Given the importance of the case, he authorized an immediate appeal, and the injunction against FilmOn remains in effect until the case is decided.

    "We are pleased that this court has is backing greater competition in the video marketplace," said Delara Derahkshani, policy counsel to Consumers Union, the policy and advocacy arm of Consumer Reports. "Consumers want and deserve more options than what's currently offered by the biggest cable operators.  We hope this decision begins to pave the way to robust competition."

    Broadcasters, not surprisingly, weren't as thrilled. In a statement, Fox said the opinion "contravenes all legal precedent" and said it would appeal the ruling.

    Why the FilmOn case matters

    If FilmOn wins its case, the ruling will not only allow the company to operate its business but will also open doors to other competitors that want to develop and run similar services. The case comes at a time when the FCC is reviewing the definition of an MVPD (multichannel video programming distributor) to see whether it should encompass new digital services as well as traditional pay-TV providers, such as cable and satellite companies.

    —James K. Willcox

     

     

     

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    Splashy dishwasher features that save water

    WaterWall, Storm Wash, PowerWash Plus—they all sound like something you’d find at a theme park, not in the dishwasher section of your appliance store. Yet despite the fact that today’s dishwashers use less water per cycle than ever before, manufacturers are making splashy claims about sprays and water features that they say get dishes cleaner.

    Of course, not every innovation is an improvement, as Consumer Reports discovered in its latest dishwasher tests. Our first foray with a Samsung Chef Collection dishwasher with the WaterWall feature, in which a sheet of water moves back and forth across the tub floor, was one example. The filter clogged, stopping the cycle, and we got an error message. But after Samsung made a software fix, the machine got excellent marks for cleaning even with a heavily soiled load.

    Water works

    Rotating jets mounted in the Turbo­Zone of the Kenmore Elite 12783 provided a cleaning boost. The Kenmore Elite 12793, in an industry first, has a motorized spray arm—360° PowerWash Plus—that can change direction if a dish or utensil blocks its path. At least one GE Profile dishwasher has special bottle-washing jets on the top rack that are worth a look if you tote your water bottle wherever you go. But Storm Wash, a feature on the Samsung DW80F800UWS that briefly directs extra spray to a Storm Zone, was more like a passing shower.

    Like other appliances, dishwashers have had to meet tougher and tougher standards to earn Energy Star status. In their quest to develop machines that use less water and energy but still turn out loads of clean dishes, manufacturers have added soil sensors, extra water jets, new rack designs, improved water filtration, and better temperature controls. New standards coming in January will be more stringent still, and certain dishwashers from Bosch, Kenmore, and KitchenAid already meet them. The trade-off can be longer cycles, but you probably won’t mind once you see your utility bill.

    We’ve also noticed a trickle-down effect: Features once seen only on high-end models are appearing in more moderately priced machines. All-stainless tubs, adjustable upper racks, and ample flatware slots are common, and all but the cheapest dishwashers have soil sensors. Third racks for laying flatware flat, built-in water softeners for homes with hard water, and time-remaining displays are other affordable conveniences.

    And dishwashers are getting their due in the design department. Kitchen­Aid has introduced a dishwasher with a window and an illuminated interior as part of its new signature kitchen suite. Miele has seized on the hands-free trend with a Knock2Open dishwasher: The door unlatches with a gentle rap of the knuckles. We’re bringing them into our labs this summer and will let you know how well they wash dishes.

    Kitchen Remodeling Guide

    Find everything you need to know about undertaking a kitchen remodeling project in our Kitchen Remodeling Guide including the results of our tests of kitchen appliances and remodeling materials.

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

     

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

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    Are portable air conditioner claims a lot of hot air?

    Think of portable air conditioners as the cooling choice of last resort. They’re better than a fan but not much. That’s what Consumer Reports discovered in its tests of eight portable air conditioners that, despite their claims, barely got a room below sweltering let alone the 78 degrees that’s considered the upper threshold of indoor comfort.
     
    Portable air conditioners are intended for homes in which window configurations or building regulations prevent installation of window units. But getting one is a compromise you may not want to make because they’re typically bigger, noisier, more expensive, and use more energy. In fact, retailers report that many portable air conditioners are returned each season by dissatisfied customers.

    How they work

    Unlike a window air conditioner, all the mechanical parts of a portable air conditioner are sitting in the room you’re trying to cool. This contributes to the noise and less-than-capable cooling, as the portable unit is using conditioned air from the room to cool the condenser and exhausts the hot air out an ungainly exhaust hose that resembles a dryer vent. That creates negative pressure causing unconditioned warm air from surrounding rooms or outdoors to be drawn into the room you’re trying keep cool.

    How portable?

    And it’s debatable how portable they are, since once the hose is connected to the kit in the window, you won’t want to move the unit, especially since they typically weigh 50 to 80 pounds. While they do have wheels, portable air conditioners can be difficult to roll on carpets and over raised thresholds between rooms.  They also need their space—the hose is 5 to 7 feet long and the air conditioner must be positioned away from any walls or furniture that may block its airflow.

    How we test

    In our tests, we measured how long it takes a portable air conditioner to lower the temperature in a room appropriate for its claimed size from 90 degrees to 75. But few made it to even 80 after 100 minutes. None made our list of recommended air conditioners but if you have no alternative, consider the Friedrich ZoneAir P12B, $600. While only fair at cooling, it was a champ in our tests simulating brownout conditions, as were 10 other models.
     
    While we test portable air conditioners the same way we test window units, most manufacturers don’t. The Department of Energy is reviewing the current industry test for portable air conditioner capacity and efficiency. The current test doesn’t account for what is often significant leakage and transfer of hot air into the space being cooled. One alternative being investigated by the DOE is that the industry adopt the window air conditioner test for portables as well, because it more accurately measures actual cooling. This would make it easier for consumers to compare portable and window air conditioners. In the meantime. don’t assume that a portable air conditioner rated at 5,000 to 15,000 British Thermal Units will cool like similarly rated window models.
     

    If a portable is your only choice

    Install it right. All portables come with a kit that you install in a window. Make sure all your connections are tight and seal any air gaps.
    Get a ceiling fan. Create a cool breeze by running a ceiling fan.
    Block the sun. Close the curtains and shades to keep the sun from overheating your room.

    The best window A/Cs from our tests

    When buying a window air conditioner, make sure you get the right size air conditioner for your room. Too small and you’ll be uncomfortable, too big and your room will cool too quickly without removing enough moisture from the air, leaving you cold and clammy. Here’s the top performer for each size.

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

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

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    How to complain and get results with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau

    When Harry of Hull, Mass., learned that his son Ari, a soldier about to be deployed to Iraq, was struggling with a predatory auto loan that was targeted to service members, he knew just what to do. He wrote to the Consumer Financial Protection BureauHarry's complaint (the CFPB would not give us his last name) launched an investigation that uncovered deceptive practices by U.S. Bank and one of its nonbank partners, Dealers' Financial Services, in selling subprime auto loans to active-duty service members. As a result, U.S. Bank and DFS were ordered to return more than $5.5 million to those affected. "It's great to have someone in our corner," Ari said.

    The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau opened for business four years ago as the nation's first federal agency specifically mandated to protect American consumers in the financial marketplace. Consumers Union, the policy arm of Consumer Reports, fought for it. The agency writes and enforces rules for financial institutions and maintains a website where consumers can make inquiries and file complaints.

    Since the first complaint was registered on July 21, 2011, the bureau has handled more than 600,000 of them regarding financial products and services, from mortgages and credit cards to student loans, auto loans, bank accounts, debt collection, payday loans, prepaid cards, and credit reporting. Its enforcement activity has resulted in more than $10.1 billion in relief for over 17 million consumers. Yet many consumers still don't know about the CFPB or how it can help them.

    For more information on how to complain about products and services read, "Speak Up to Resolve Complaints."

    Here’s how it works for you:

    File a complaint. To begin, consumers can submit a complaint on the agency’s website in English or by phone (855-411-2372) in more than 180 languages. You can also write a letter or send a fax. Ultimately, each complaint is assigned a case number and put into the Consumer Complaint Database, a searchable resource available to the public and updated nightly. 

    To make the process easier, the website breaks down the complaint universe into categories, such as debt collection, mortgages, and auto loans. Say you want to complain about a debt collection. An online form at Ask CFPB will ask you to describe the type of debt (credit card, for example), explain what prompted the complaint (for example, harassing communications), and describe what a satisfactory resolution might be. you're encouraged to upload supporting documents. A live-chat function connects you with a CFPB staffer if you have questions. 

    After you submit your complaint and you’re issued a tracking number, the complaint is forwarded to the company. It has 15 days to respond and up to 60 days to provide a final response. For example, on May 18, a consumer in the New York ZIP code of 11374 submitted a complaint that Stella Recovery Inc. insisted on attempting to collect payment even though “the debt is not mine.” The complaint was forwarded to the company the same day; it responded promptly and the case was closed with an explanation. If the consumer disputes the response, the case might be referred to the CFPB’s enforcement division for further investigation.

    Read about existing complaints. The database also helps consumers who want to prevent problems. Say you want to establish a relationship with a bank. Type in your location to see all of the complaints filed about the banks in your area. Or, if you have a specific bank in mind, use the database to check its reputation. In addition, the CFPB just launched a monthly consumer complaint report series that includes a list of the most-complained-about companies. Each month will spotlight a particular industry, starting with debt collection. 

    Help others. A shortcoming in the complaint database had been the lack of detail. That’s been remedied with a function that allows consumers to include narrative descriptions of their complaint. That will give people the opportunity to add context. If you elect to permit the CFPB to publish your story on its website—it will be scrubbed of personal identifying details—others can learn from your experience.

    If they wish, companies can respond to the complaint from a set list of response categories. In addition, a separate “Tell Your Story” website feature invites consumers to share their experiences—good or bad— privately with the CFPB. The stories won’t be published, but they will indicate trouble spots that warrant a closer look from the bureau.

    “Consumers should know they have a voice,” says Darian Dorsey, chief of staff in the agency's Office of Consumer Response, adding that they will become "part of the public discussion."

    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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    What car engines require adding oil between changes?

    Some cars burn a lot of oil, requiring frequent top-ups between changes. Consumer Reports doesn't think this should happen, especially on a newer car. This episode of “Talking Cars with Consumer Reports” highlights our extensive analysis of survey data, uncovering which engines are most likely to consume oil.

    Turns out the biggest offenders are mostly German, with engines from Audi, BMW, and Porsche leading the thirsty list. While a much lower percentage of Subarus habitually consume oil, they also rank among the top 30 cars likely to need added oil between changes. We discuss why this is occurring, how manufacturers are responding, and what consumers can do. (Read the full report "Excessive oil consumption isn't normal.")

    Moving to other topics, our last episode included a viewer question about buying a sports sedan, and how difficult it is nowadays to find one choice that is fun, luxurious, and reliable. That generated a lot of viewer feedback. We sort through those suggestions and questions. Finally, we help a viewer choose between a Tesla Model S and a Land Rover Range Rover Evoque for his mom. Awww.

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

    Share your comments on this show below, and let us know if you need any advice for choosing a car.

    Also view:

    Tom Mutchler

     

     

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    Stick-style streaming media player review

    So you want to get a new streaming media player but don't want to deal with yet another settop box, even one as small as a hockey puck. My friend, you're what stick-style media players are all about.

    Google Chromecast helped create the market, which now includes several other stick-style players, notably the Amazon Fire TV Stick and the Roku Streaming Stick. All are about the size of a USB thumb drive and plug into a TV's HDMI input, drawing power from a USB port on the set or via an AC adapter plugged into an outlet. They're all relatively inexpensive, ranging from about $35 to $50, though they're sometimes even cheaper during sales.

    Which one to get? Despite their similarities, there are some significant differences among the players. Chromecast is the least expensive, and it's notable for being able to "cast" anything you call up in a computer's Chrome browser to your TV. The Amazon Fire TV Stick, the newest entry, shares some unique features with the company's larger, pricier Fire TV settop box. The Roku Streaming Stick has that platform's extensive assortment of content.

    Here's a closer look at the pros and cons of these three top stick-style players.


    Amazon Fire TV Stick, $40

    When we first heard about Amazon's Fire TV streaming media platform, we cynically assumed it was just a guise to get you to buy more stuff from Amazon.com. But both the Fire TV and the Fire TV Stick are credible streaming media players with fine overall performance. The Stick has many, but not all, of the features found on the pricier Amazon Fire TV settop box (also in our full Streaming Media Player Ratings, available to subscribers). Fire TV Stick automatically loads your Amazon Prime account info, so setup is easy. But like Fire TV, the Stick favors Amazon content and services; it will let you know if a show you're searching for is available on another service, but only after Amazon content is displayed.

    Also, the Fire TV Stick's remote is more basic than the Fire TV remote, and it lacks a built-in microphone for voice searches, though you can use this feature when using a phone or tablet loaded with the Fire TV app. The Stick has access to several major streaming services, including Amazon (Prime and Instant), Hulu, Netflix, Showtime, Sling TV, and YouTube.com. Earlier this year the company updated its software with several new features; though some are relegated exclusively to the bigger Fire TV player, the Stick can now be used in hotel rooms with Wi-Fi that requires authentication, and you can now tap into one of a number of curated playlists from Amazon Prime Music directly. Not all the Fire TV games are playable on the Stick, and the optional game remote costs as much as the Fire TV Stick itself. Also, Amazon's FreeTime area for kids, which includes parental controls for content and time limits, isn't available on the Stick.

    Unhappy with your broadband? Is your Internet service provider letting you down? Check our buying guide and Ratings for telecom-service providers.

    Google Chromecast, $35

    When it first came out, Google's low-priced Chromecast was markedly different from other streaming media players, in that much of its utility comes from being able to wirelessly send—or "cast," in Google's parlance—content from specific apps on a mobile device or from a PC or Mac using a Chrome browser to a TV set. Though some other players now have this capability in a more limited fashion, Chromecast--as well Google's more conventional Nexus Player—has more extensive casting abilities, since it can pretty much send anything found using the Chrome browser to your TV, or from any apps that support Google Cast.

    Chromecast is the only streaming stick that doesn't come with a remote control; instead, you use a smart phone or tablet (loaded with the specific app) or computer to control the device. Also, it doesn't really have a TV interface, since most of the control is done via a mobile device. Since our early review, Google has continued to update Chromecast, so it now supports Google Play (Google Video, Google Music), HBO Go, Hulu, Netflix, Showtime Anytime, WatchESPN, and YouTube.

    Roku Streaming Stick, $50

    If you like Roku's wealth of content but prefer an even smaller presence in your room, then the Roku Streaming Stick may be just the ticket. In addition to its ability to access tons of content, including streaming movies and TV shows from all the major services—including Amazon (Prime and Instant Video), Hulu, M-Go, Netflix, and Vudu, among others—the Streaming Stick has a beta version of screen mirroring--which has to be enabled in the menu first--and casting capability, letting you cast Netflix and YouTube directly from your phone or tablet to your TV. The player has dual-band Wi-Fi and the updated Netflix app, and it comes with a remote control; you can also use an app on a smartphone or tablet. The Play On Roku feature can stream photos, movies, and music stored on your mobile device to the stick. It's not as fast as the updated Roku 2 and Roku 3 players, and the included remote doesn't have the headphone jack found on the Roku 3, but its $50 price tag might make up for that.

    And the winner is . . .

    The Roku Streaming Stick and the Fire TV Stick both end up ahead of the Chromecast, which is really a different beast. The Roku has the most content, and it's a highly rated stick-style player. But if you're already an Amazon Prime member, you might want to opt for the Fire TV Stick. It's $10 cheaper, and it has most of the top services offered on the Roku, including HBO Go, which it was missing at launch. But we think either of these players will suit the needs of most families.  

    If you're in the market for a new streaming media player and you'd prefer a more conventional settop box-style player, check out our recent streamer shootout, which compared Apple TV to the Fire TV and Roku 3 players. 

    —James K. Willcox

     

     

     

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    Will you be able to help your college-age child in a medical emergency?

    Early one October morning, Sheri E. Warsh, a mother of three from Highland Park, Ill., stepped out of the shower to a ringing phone. On the other end, her 18-year-old son’s college roommate delivered terrifying news: Her son—270 miles away at the University of Michigan—was being rushed by ambulance to a nearby emergency room with severe, unrelenting chest pain. “I was scared out of my mind, imagining the worst,” Warsh said.

    In a panic, she called the ER for details. What she got instead was a rebuff from the nurse. “She asked me how old my son was, and when I said 18, she told me I had no right to talk to the doctor,” Warsh said.

    Was the nurse acting within her scope by shutting out the anxious mom? In fact, she was. The ER chose not to disclose the son’s medical condition due to the Privacy Rule of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA. 

    “Once a child turns 18, the child is legally a stranger to you,” said Jane F. Wolk, a trusts and estates attorney practicing in New York and New Jersey, referring to the legal age in almost all states (in a few it's older). “You, as a parent, have no more right to obtain medical information on your legal-age son or daughter than you would to obtain information about a stranger on the street.”  And that is true even if the young-adult child is covered under the parents’ health insurance, and even if the parents are paying the bill. 

    Use our parents' guide to saving for college, or learn how to send your kid to college for free.  College seniors should plan ahead for getting health insurance. Check out Consumer Reports' hospital survivial guide, and know why you should not ask your doctor for antibiotics.

    A medical provider can chose to disclose protected health information to a family member, even without the patient's authorization, if, in her professional judgment, it serves the best interest of the patient. But providers often come down on the side of patient privacy, particularly if they have never met the family member.

    In this case, Warsh’s son didn’t intend to keep his parents in the dark. In the midst of cardiac-care chaos, he was in too much pain to give authorization. But a simple, signed legal document (or two, in some states) would have smoothed the way.

    “Nobody is talking about this, even after I went to so many college meetings and orientations,” Warsh said. The irony of her story is that Warsh is an attorney specializing in the practice of trusts and estates as a partner at a Chicago law firm. “Now in my practice I have made it my goal to educate parents on what they need to do,” she said.

    Moms and dads who still think of themselves as protectors and advisers, even after their children become legal adults, often don’t consider the real-world implications of that milestone birthday. They and their young-adult children need to think about the unthinkable in advance. Three forms—HIPAA authorization, medical power of attorney, and durabe power of attorney—will help facilitate the involvement of a parent or other trusted adult in a medical emergency.

    If a student attends college out of state, fill out the forms relevant to the home state and school state to avoid any challenges. If the school has its own form, sign that one too, Warsh said. “When the doctor or medical institution sees it, you want them to be familiar with it and recognize it,” she said.

    Once the forms are completed, it’s a good idea to scan and save them so that they are readily available on a smart phone or home computer.

    You don’t need a lawyer to do this. Many websites have downloadable forms. But a lawyer’s involvement can benefit in making sure you are using the right form, explaining it, and advocating on your behalf in case something goes wrong.

    —Susan Feinstein

    Thinking about the unthinkable: 3 forms that help

     

    HIPAA authorization

    signed HIPAA authorization is like a permission slip. It permits health-care providers to disclose your health information to anyone you specify. A stand-alone HIPAA authorization (not incorporated into a broader legal document) does not have to be notarized or witnessed. This document alone, signed in advance by her son, would have sufficed for Warsh to get information from the hospital treating her 18-year-old son. Young people who want parents to be involved in a medical emergency, but fear disclosure of sensitive information, need not worry; HIPAA authorization does not have to be all-encompassing. They can stipulate not to disclose information about sex, drugs, mental health, or other details they might want to keep private.

    Medical power of attorney

    In signing a medical POA you appoint an “agent” to make medical decisions on your behalf in case you are incapacitated and cannot make such decisions for yourself. Each state has different laws governing medical POA and, therefore, different legal forms. In many states, the HIPAA authorization is rolled into the standard medical POA form. Whether the medical POA requires the signature of a witness or notary varies state by state.

    For the sake of clarifying often-used terms: A medical POA sometimes goes by other names, such as health-care power of attorney, designation of health-care proxy, or durable power of attorney for health care. It is one type of advance directive. The other type is a living will, which specifies your wishes with regard to interventions in life-or-death scenarios in case you are unable to do so. In many states, the language for the living will is also incorporated into a hybrid document that includes the medical POA and HIPAA release.

    Durable power of attorney

    As an additional step, young-adult children might consider appointing a durable power of attorney, enabling a parent or other designated agent to take care of business on the student’s behalf. If the student were to become incapacitated or if the student were studying abroad, the durable power of attorney would be able to, for example, sign tax returns, access bank accounts, and pay bills. Durable POA forms vary by state. In some states the medical POA can be included in the durable POA form. “The durable power of attorney is sweeping,” Wolk said. “You do not want to give it to someone who you do not trust.”

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

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    What you need to know about medical privacy

    What is HIPAA?

    It's the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, a sweeping law passed by Congress in 1996—well before the Affordable Care Act was in the mix—whose primary purpose was to help protect employees and their families from losing health-insurance coverage after a job change or loss.

    What does HIPAA have to do with privacy?

    One of the provisions of HIPAA—and perhaps the most well-known among consumers—is the HIPAA Privacy Rule, which regulates who can look at and receive your individually identifiable health information. The HIPAA Privacy Rule applies to all forms of protected health information, whether electronic, written, or oral. It is an important tool in helping to protect against health care identity theft.

    What type of health information has to be kept private?

    HIPAA calls it Protected Health Information (PHI), and it includes any individually identifiable information about your health status, health care that you have received, or payment for health care. The HIPAA Privacy Rule does not apply when the information is used as part of a large data set with no identifiers that connect information to individual patients. Also, the HIPPA Privacy Rule does permit release of your medical files for the purposes of coordinating treatment with another provider, payment, or other health care operations.

    Who has to keep my medical information private?

    This is a key point. Only "covered entities" are bound by the HIPAA Privacy Rule. Covered entities include:

    • individual health care providers, such as doctors, psychologists, chiropractors, dentists, pharmacists, and nurses.
    • medical establishments, such as hospitals, clinics, urgent care centers, and nursing homes
    • health plans, such as health insurance companies, HMOs, company health plans, and certain government programs that pay for health care, including Medicare and Medicaid
    • health care clearinghouses, such as organizations that work with converting health information into electronic format.

    Importantly, many entities are not covered by HIPAA. These include your employer, life insurance companies, workers' compensation carriers, and most schools and school districts. Nor does it apply to companies that collect your information through health-tracking apps or activity trakers. And, to the chagrin of many, the HIPAA Privacy Rule does not apply to a friend or family member who breaches your confidence, to your coworker who overhears you talking on the phone, or to the sanitation worker who finds your paperwork in the trash.

    How is the HIPAA Privacy Rule enforced?

    The federal Office for Civil Rights  (OCR), which is within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), is in charge of enforcement. You, as a consumer, can file a complaint, but you have no standing under this law to sue for a HIPAA Privacy Rule violation. Only the OCR or the U.S. Department of Justice can file an action. 

    Susan Feinstein

    Read more Consumer Reports coverage about how HIPAA may affect you:

    Will you be able to help your college-age child in a medical emergency?

    Is my prescription information private?

    For additional information about HIPAA, see the HIPAA FAQs from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

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

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    Best small appliances for college students

    If you are among the parents packing college students off to school for the first time, you may be tempted to equip their dorm rooms with all the creature comforts of home, including small appliances to satisfy their needs. But before you do, check the university’s website for what to bring and what not to. Typically, small appliances with exposed coils, such as toasters, are prohibited. For example, the University of Indiana at Bloomington says not to bring toaster ovens but allows irons, while New York University permits the use of  blenders, hand vacuums, and humidifiers, but not hot plates. Of course, students living off-campus can bring whatever they need. Here are some affordable, top-rated small appliances from Consumer Reports tests.

    Blenders

    Students with early classes may not have time to eat breakfast in the dining hall. But with a personal blender, they can whip up a smoothie and drink it on-the-go. The Ninja Nutri Ninja Pro, $90, was a good, not great, performer in our smoothie test and aced our purée test. It comes with a travel lid, which makes it easy to carry to class without spilling your drink.
    Tip:
    Blend two cups of any kind of frozen fruit with a cup of skim milk, one banana, and two spoons of peanut butter for a quick and healthy breakfast.
    Full blender Ratings and recommendations.

    Toasters

    Toasters are typically forbidden in dorm rooms but allowed in common cooking areas and campus apartments with fully equipped kitchens. That and a box of Pop-Tarts and you’re good to go. Or choose some whole-grain toast with jelly. Our experts named the Calphalon Stainless Steel HE200ST, $60, our top two-slice toaster. It makes evenly browned toast batch after batch. If you plan to cook frozen pizza or reheat leftovers, you'll want a good toaster oven like the Oster TSSTTVMNDG, $80, which was very good at baking and broiling and a CR Best Buy.
    Tip: Clean the crumb tray a few times a week to lessen the chance of the crumbs starting to smoke or smolder. Remember, the smoke alarms installed in student housing are very sensitive.
    Full toaster Ratings and recommendations.

    Coffeemakers

    While they cost more than drip coffeemakers, pod coffeemakers allow you to brew coffee directly into your travel mug without the need to measure coffee or clean filters and the carafe. The DeLonghi Nescafé Dolce Gusto Genio EDG455T is our top-rated model and had excellent brewing speed on the first and subsequent cups. It costs $130 and takes up less space than most pod coffeemakers.
    Tip: To get the most coffee flavor from a pod machine, adjust it for the strongest cup and choose a smaller serving size. Do the opposite if you like a weaker brew.
    Full coffeemaker Ratings and recommendations.

    Steam irons

    Your student may not think she needs an iron but there’s always dinner with the Dean or an interview for an internship. Any student would appreciate an iron like the T-Fal FV4495 Ultraglide, $45, which heats up quickly, has an excellent steaming rate and was an excellent performer overall. It also has auto-shutoff, an important safety feature. And at that price we named it a CR Best Buy.
    Tip: Iron your silk garments first, followed by cotton and linen, because it’s easy to get your iron hotter, but it may take an hour for the iron to cool down. High temperatures can damage delicate fabrics.
    Full steam iron Ratings and recommendations.

    Compact refrigerators

    Many colleges let you bring or rent a compact refrigerator and they’re handy to have to keep cold milk for your cereal. None of the iconic cube models in our tests made our list of top compact refrigerator picks. The best of the lot was the Danby DCR059BLE, $100, which got excellent marks for keeping food cold and very good freezer performance. But it uses almost as much energy as a full-size refrigerator. If you have a little more space and twice as much money, consider the tall compact Frigidaire FFPH44M4L[M], $220, which we recommend. You can buy similar Frigidaire models for a bit less at Lowe’s and Best Buy.
    Tip: Before buying a refrigerator check with your roommates to make sure they aren’t shopping for one as well. If so, you can split the cost. Some schools only allow rentals.
    Full refrigerator Ratings and recommendations

    Microwave ovens

    A microwave oven is a must for students living off-campus and will guarantee that your student gets a good meal now and then. Our top mid-sized countertop microwave is the Avanti MO1250TW, $130. It earned very good scores across our tests, heats evenly and bring water to a boil at a good clip.
    Tip: Keep in mind that the claimed capacity may be larger than the actual usable capacity, which we measure in our tests. Take a dinner plate when you shop to make sure it fits.
    Full microwave oven Ratings and recommendations

    Humidifiers

    Dorm rooms can be very hot and dry. A tabletop humidifier can make a room more comfortable during the heating season. The small Safety 1st Ultrasonic 360, $30, a CR Best Buy, scored excellent in overall performance and was quiet, a plus when sharing a room. The humidifier also shuts off automatically when empty.
    Tip: Clean the humidifier after each use to prevent the build up of bacteria.
    Full humidifier Ratings and recommendations.

    And don't forget a fan

    Although Consumer Reports does not test fans, every college student should have one. Dorms in older buildings typically are not air conditioned and in the winter, some rooms get overly hot. Tower fans are great space-savers and can be found at a good price at many big box and department stores.

    —Izabela Rutkowski

    Back-to-school shopping guide

    From backpacks to cars and for grade school to grad school, our back-to-school guide has you covered.

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

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    7 notable new cars coming soon

    Even as manufactures make small tweaks for the model year changeover, they are introducing some brand-new and totally redesigned models.

    While small SUVs have been all the rage, the classic four-door sedan hasn’t been left alone.

    General Motors takes a crack at two segments with the all-new Malibu midsize sedan and the large, luxurious Cadillac CT6, while Jaguar has tweaked its impressive XF sports sedan.

    Toyota has introduced the Mirai fuel-cell car, and it’s Scion brand has two new models, the iM and iA, and Honda has introduced an all-new Civic. On top of that, Ford has finally decided that it is time to let America experience the rip-snorting Focus RS.

    Cadillac CT6

    Cadillac’s flagship-shaped void in its lineup may finally be filled by the new CT6. It’s six inches longer than the midsized CTS that it is based on, but a whopping nine inches longer than the BMW 5 Series.

    The top engine is a new 400-hp, 3.0-liter twin-turbo V6. Buyers can also opt for a 265-hp, 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder or a 335-hp, 3.6-liter V6. Both V6s come with all-wheel drive, while the four-cylinder is rear-drive only.

    Buyers can opt for the Active Chassis System, which consists of rear-wheel steering and GM’s Magnetic Ride Control active dampers.

    Cadillac claims extensive use of aluminum—including the doors, hood, and trunk—result in a curb weight under 3,700 pounds. That’s about 200 pounds less than the smaller CTS.

    A new iteration of the CUE infotainment system uses a 10.2-inch touch screen that incorporates hard keys and a touchpad that recognizes handwriting. The new system also reacts and scrolls faster than the laggy older one.

    Passengers get a quad-zone climate control system and a rear seat that can recline up to 3.3 inches. Premium leather front seats feature five massage programs.

    CR’s take: Building a stately frigate with real sporting intent is difficult. And whether the CT6 lives up to that promise remains to be seen. But it carries impressive credentials.

    On sale: Fall 2015.

    Chevrolet Malibu

    Nice. That pretty much sums up the current Malibu. But nice doesn’t cut it in the midsize sedan category. So Chevy’s short-cycle redesign addresses a few shortcomings, including rear passenger room and fuel economy.

    The new car has a 3.6-inch longer wheelbase, helping deliver adult-scale space in the back. Despite the growth, Chevrolet says the Malibu weighs 300 pounds less than the old car. This savings should aid efficiency and overall performance.

    Base models get a 160-hp, 1.5-liter four-cylinder, while the 250-hp, 2.0-liter four-cylinder carries over from the current car. A full-hybrid version will be offered, using a 1.5-kWh lithium-ion battery and an electric motor connected to a 1.8-liter gas engine. Chevy says it expects an EPA rating better than 45 mpg.

    Safety gear includes available blind-spot monitoring, lane-keeping assistance with lane-departure warning, forward-collision alert with a following distance indicator, and rear cross-traffic alert. The new Teen Driver system monitors where the car is driven and lets parents see the drivers’ highest speed, how far they went, and if some safety systems were activated.

    CR’s take: With sleek new styling, a larger backseat, and a real hybrid system, the Malibu may follow its impressive big brother, the Impala, which went from rental-car-special to the top of our Ratings with its last redesign.

    On sale: Fall 2015; Hybrid winter 2016.

    Ford Focus RS

    Ford has put Subaru and Volkswagen on notice: they don’t own the hot-hatch sandbox. Next year the raucous Focus RS joins the wildly fun Focus ST to kick some sand in faces.

    While the ST is nothing to sneeze at, the RS gets a 2.3-liter, 315-hp turbo four-cylinder from the Mustang, matched with a six-speed manual and upgraded clutch. Unlike the front-drive ST, the power is sent to all four wheels.

    The suspension uses stiffer springs and thicker anti-roll bars, and power can be sent to the outside rear wheel to help steer around corners. Adjustable drive modes range from a “I’m being good, officer” street setting to a hoonigan-ready track mode. There’s even a drift mode if you want to shred the RS-specific 19-inch Michelin Pilot Super Sport tires. Brembo disc brakes help keep things under control.

    Subtlety takes a back seat here, with a menacing looking front fascia, bi-xenon headlights, functional brake cooling ducts announcing the RS’s arrival.

    Inside, the Recaro seats, leather–wrapped steering wheel, alloy pedals, and plethora of RS logos remind you this isn’t an ordinary Focus hatch. But it’s not all drifting and racing: Ford’s new Sync3 control interface will be standard.

    CR’s take: This witches’ brew sounds ready for a showdown with the Volkswagen Golf R and Subaru WRX STI.

    On sale: Spring 2016.

    Honda Civic

    Just when we expected Honda to announce a freshening of the Civic, it’s introduced a full redesign. Even though it’s called a concept, this Civic is the real deal.

    Honda says the aggressive, chiseled look more than just style, promising class-leading performance from both the base 2.0-liter four-cylinder and uplevel 1.5-liter turbo four-cylinder. Transmission choices will include a short-throw six-speed manual or a CVT automatic. A hybrid version won’t be offered.

    This all-new platform has a three-inch longer wheelbase for more cabin room. Honda claims a spacious, more refined, and upgraded cabin with a high level of connectivity and near-luxury levels of quiet.

    The rollout begins with the launch of the new sedan in the fall, followed by a coupe and a hatchback. A Type R will also be available, but not before 2016.

    CR’s take: An early reboot for the humdrum Civic shows just how far the current model has fallen against strong competition.

    On sale: Fall 2015.

    Jaguar XF

    Already a compelling luxury sedan, the 2016 XF sports evolutionary styling updates. But the real changes lie beneath its shapely skin, with new engines and a lightweight, aluminum chassis.

    The new aluminum construction contributes to cutting 132 pounds from the rear-wheel-drive model and 265 pounds from all-wheel-drive ones. Underhood, buyers will find one of two supercharged V6 engines, making either 340 or 380 horsepower. Power is routed through an eight-speed automatic. According to Jaguar, the 380-hp version with all-wheel drive can claw its way from slumber to 60 mph in 5.0 seconds.

    The cabin remains luxurious and refined, capped off with Jaguar’s new InControl Touch infotainment system. In base form, the system has an all-new interface and an eight-inch touch screen. The uplevel InControl Touch Pro features either a 10.2- or 12.3-inch touch screen. The navigation system also features door-to-door route planning, which uses memory of past drives and real-time traffic information to offer alternate routes.

    Pricing will be announced closer to the on sale date.

    CR’s take: Sure, we’ll take lighter weight and more-powerful engines. But the InControl Touch system needs to be more like Audi’s MMI in terms of responsiveness, ease-of-use, and clarity and less like Jaguar’s current system.

    On sale: Fall 2015.

    Scion iM / iA

    These two models are part of Scion’s most significant model-year transformation in its short history.

    Despite being launched together, these are different cars. The larger iM is based on a version of the Toyota Corolla sold in other markets, while Mazda will build the iA (and similar not-for-the-U.S. Mazda2).

    The sportier, larger iM gets a 1.8-liter, 137-hp four-cylinder hooked up to either a six-speed manual or a continuously variable transmission. EPA fuel economy estimates are 28 mpg city, 37 mpg highway, and 32 overall with the CVT.

    Power for the iA comes from a 1.5-liter, 106-hp four-cylinder, mated to either a six-speed manual or automatic. Scion estimates fuel economy at 33 mpg city, 42 mpg highway, and 37 mpg combined.

    Both cars get a large infotainment display screen and Bluetooth connec-tivity. USB and aux-in ports, a tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel, and 60/40-split folding rear seats are also standard.

    On the safety front, the iA comes with a standard low-speed pre-collision system that uses a laser sensors to help the driver avoid collisions. The iM gets eight airbags, including a front passenger seat airbag. A backup camera is standard.

    Pricing for the iA starts at $15,700 and $18,460 for the iM, competitive to the four-door hatchback Toyota Yaris or the Corolla sedan.

    CR’s take: With aggressive styling and tech features, this first-ever sedan (iA) and Toyota Matrix-like iM highlight Scion’s need to appeal to younger buyers.

    On sale: Fall 2015.

    Toyota Mirai

    Toyota is using a big come-on to boost interest in the Mirai: free fuel. Lessees of the 2016 Mirai will get free hydrogen as part of their $499 per month payment.

    If you can get past its angry-space-lizard styling to try it out, driving the Camry-sized Mirai is a pretty normal experience. However, the 153-hp electric motor feels sluggish while it tries to motivate this 4,100-pound car. Still, the suspension soaks up bumps well, and handling is not much different from a Prius.

    Inside, the electronic shifter and two-tiered dash continue the Prius theme. The Mirai seats four adults and comes fully equipped with front and rear heated leather seats, dual-zone climate control, and a navigation system.

    CR’s take: Massive hydrogen infrastructure improvements are needed for sales goals of 200 in California in 2015 and up to 3,000 on the coasts by the end of 2017.

    On sale: Fall 2015.

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

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    Consumers Union: Tell Your Representative to Vote No on Banning GMO Labeling

    WASHINGTON, DC – In advance of a Thursday vote in the House of Representatives, Consumers Union, the policy and advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, is urging consumers to call on their representatives to oppose the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2015 (H.R. 1599) that would ban the mandatory labeling of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in foods at any government level – federal, state, or local – and override current pro-consumer state laws already in place.

    Jean Halloran, director of food policy initiatives for Consumers Union, said, “The simple truth is that the vast majority of Americans want to know what is in their food. For years now, polls have consistently found that more than 90 percent of consumers support mandatory GMO labeling. Lawmakers should listen to their constituents and give consumers more information, rather than riding roughshod over state laws already in place that recognize consumers’ right to know. That’s why we’re encouraging consumers to call their Representative today and tell them to vote no on this bad bill.”

    Consumers can click here or visit ConsumersUnion.org to learn more and contact their representative.

    The consumer group voiced its strong opposition to the legislation authored by Congressman Pompeo in a letter sent to all House lawmakers this week. Not only would the deceptively-named bill make current federal voluntary labeling policy permanent – despite these guidelines failing to produce a GMO-labeled product in the last 15 years – but it would also broadly preempt state GMO labeling laws in development or already enacted, such as in Vermont, Maine, Connecticut and New York.

    Consumers Union also highlighted that the legislation would permit the use of “natural” claims on the packaging of GMO foods until FDA finalizes a rule defining “natural” and decides whether it will continue to allow this practice, while prohibiting states from taking their own steps to regulate the use of these claims. 

    Halloran said, “The ‘natural’ label is inherently misleading to consumers, who think they’re buying one thing and getting another. Consumer Reports polling found that more than 60 percent of consumers believe a ‘natural’ label on a product means it does not contain genetically modified ingredients, while an overwhelming 85 percent think that the ‘natural’ on packaged or processed foods should mean no genetically modified ingredients were used.  Yet our own testing last year identified five food products labeled ‘natural’ that did, in fact, contain GMOs.”

    Consumers Union’s letter also refuted claims that mandatory GMO food labeling would add to food costs.  An analysis commissioned by Consumers Union and conducted by an independent economic research firm found from a review of published research that the median cost of requiring GMO food labeling is $2.30 per person annually – less than a penny a day for each consumer. 

    “We strongly urge House members to vote no on H.R. 1599, which is contrary to what consumers want, and which would profoundly interfere with the ability of state and local governments to respond to the needs of their citizens,” said Halloran.

    The full letter is available here or by contacting David Butler or Kara Kelber.

    Media Contacts
    David Butler, Consumers Union, 202.462.6262 or dbutler@consumer.org
    Kara Kelber, Consumers Union, 202.462.6262 or kkelber@consumer.org

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    45 State Attorneys General Call on Phone Companies to Help Stop Robocalls

    Pressure Builds for Phone Carriers to Provide Customers With Call-Blocking Tools

    Attorneys General from 45 states around the country called on the major phone companies today to provide their customers with effective tools to help stop the flood of unwanted robocalls.  The effort comes just weeks after the Federal Communications Commission made clear that phone companies can and should offer such tools and as nearly 330,000 Americans have joined Consumers Union’s End Robocalls campaign calling on them to do so. 

    “Robocalls ring day and night and too often target vulnerable consumers with costly rip-offs,” said Tim Marvin, manager of Consumers Union’s End Robocalls campaign. “State law enforcement officials, federal regulators, and the public all agree -- the phone companies need to do more to stop robocalls before they invade our homes.  Phone carriers are in the best position to provide their customers with relief and it’s time for them to act.” 

    In a letter sent to AT&T, Sprint, Verizon, T-Mobile and CenturyLink, 45 state attorneys general noted that they have received numerous consumer complaints about robocalls and urged the phone companies to “act without delay” to offer call-blocking technologies to their customers.  The letter notes that law enforcement alone cannot stop unwanted robocalls and that “[t]he better solution is to stop intrusive calls before they ever reach the consumer.”  

    Robocalls are unsolicited pre-recorded or live phone calls made using a computerized auto-dialer.  Americans have registered more than 217 million phone numbers on the Federal Trade Commission’s “Do Not Call” list, yet robocalls are rampant.  Last year, the Federal Trade Commission received 3 million complaints from the public about unwanted calls, many from scammers or illegitimate companies that flagrantly violate the law.   Telephone scams cost consumers an estimated $350 million in financial losses in 2011. 

    Technology is already available to stop robocalls before they reach a consumer’s landline and wireless phone, but the phone companies have resisted making these tools widely available to their customers. 

    Media Contacts:
    Michael McCauley, Consumers Union, 415.431.6747 ext 7606 or mmccauley@consumer.org
    David Butler, Consumers Union, 202.462.6262 or dbutler@consumer.org
    Kara Kelber, Consumers Union, 202.462.6262 or kara.kelber@consumer.org

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