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    Progress in the fight against robocalls!

    There’s progress to report in the fight against robocalls and consumers are playing an important part in the effort to stop the onslaught of unsolicited pre-recorded telemarketing calls or autodialed texts.

    Last week, 45 of the nation’s Attorneys General called on the five major phone companies to block robocalls for their customers. In their joint letter to AT&T, Sprint, Verizon, T-Mobile and Century Link, the Attorneys General wrote, “Every year, our offices are flooded with consumer complaints pleading for a solution to stop intrusive robocalls. Your companies are now poised to offer your customer the help they need. We urge you to act without delay.”

    Be sure to also read, "Rage Against Robocalls."

    If robocalls were a disease, they would be an epidemic. Aaron Foss, founder of Nomorobo, a call-blocking technology, estimates that 35 percent of all calls that come through his system are robocalls. “If your phone rings ten times, roughly four calls will be unwanted robocalls,” he says.

    Robocalls are more than a nuisance. They are the vector by which scams enter consumers’ homes. Telemarketing fraud is estimated to cost consumers $350 million a year and it often begins with a robocall. That’s why the Attorneys General for the District of Columbia and every state except Arizona, Louisiana, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Oklahoma, and Texas have gotten involved: The leading law enforcement officials know that blocking unwanted robocalls can help stifle telemarketing fraud at its source.

    The problem is that the major telecoms have balked at taking action. When Consumers Union, the advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, launched its EndRobocalls.org campaign earlier this year, telephone company lobbyists claimed that federal law required that phone companies connect all calls—even robocalls. Some 39 Attorneys General disagreed and last year called on the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to clarify whether phone companies are permitted to utilize call-blocking technologies. (While call-blocking devices and technologies already exist, consumers have to invest their own money and time to buy and install them.)

    Share your story!

    Whether you find robo calls a nuisance or they have caused you to be scammed, we want to hear about it.  Leave us a comment below.  

    On June 18, 2015, the FCC announced that federal law does not prohibit telecommunication service providers from offering call-blocking technologies, upon a customer’s request. But they might have repeated the previous week’s weather forecast for all of the response it generated from the carriers.

    Last week, the vast majority of the nation’s AGs lost patience, noting:

     “This clarification by the FCC should remove any doubt about your legal authority to empower consumers by providing call-blocking technology to help stop robocalls, scam text messages and unwanted telemarketing calls."

    Now it’s up to consumers to add their voice. You can amplify the message by signing our petition at EndRobocalls.org. This petition calls on telephone company CEOs to provide free tools to block unwanted robocalls before they reach your phone.   

    Consumer contributions on this issue have made a difference before. Your signatures on a previous petition helped push the 2014 Attorneys General letter through the regulatory process and persuade the FCC to give the green light to call-blocking technology. This time, we’re aiming to deliver half a million signatures to the phone companies.

    Do your part to pile on the pressure! Sign the petition today!

    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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    Sharp exits the U.S. TV business: What you need to know

    Sharp's announcement last week that it would exit the U.S. television business, licensing its brand name to Chinese TV maker Hisense, wasn't exactly shocking, given the very public financial difficulties it's recently experienced. But what does that mean for those of us who already own a Sharp TV, or who plan to buy one this year before the hand-off to Hisense is finalized?

    In the short term not very much, as the switch won't happen until January of next year. Sharp has pledged to continue to support the TVs it's sold with parts and service for several years. So if you already own a Sharp TV, you should continue to contact Sharp for any service-related questions. And the Sharp TVs you buy this year will be made by Sharp. In a statement sent to Consumer Reports, the company said that it would continue to provide both in- and out-of-warranty service, as well as parts, for all Sharp-made TVs for years to come.  

    But starting next year Sharp-branded sets will be made by Hisense, which will presumably take over parts- and service-related issues on these TVs. As part of the deal, Hisense bought Sharp's TV manufacturing plant in Mexico, where many of the sets will likely be made. Hisense also acquired the Sharp Aquos sub-brand, as well as the Quattron name for the technology it uses that includes an extra yellow sub-pixel.

    The other question, of course, is how good the new Sharp-branded TVs will be when Hisense takes over the name. We don't currently have any Hisense TVs in our Ratings, but we have tested these sets over the past few years, and most have been so-so performers, rarely rising above the bottom half of the Ratings for TVs at their screen size.

    What do you think about Sharp leaving the U.S. TV business and licensing its brand name to Hisense? Let us know by adding a comment below.

    But like some other Chinese brands, including TCL, Hisense has ambitious plans for growing its market share in the U.S., something it thinks the Sharp brand will help it accomplish. At CES this past January, the company showed off 4K TVs with higher brightness and quantum-dot-based wider color gamuts, OLED TVs, and even a laser-based short-throw front projector that can produce a 100-inch image from an 18-inch distance. Like TCL, Hisense was one of the early adopters of the Roku smart TV platform, building that company's online interface into a line of Roku TVs. TCL, you may remember, gained its entry in the U.S. by licensing the RCA brand, though it's now building its own brand here and elsewhere.

    A decade ago, Sharp was one of the leading LCD TV brands worldwide, but in recent years it's seen it fortunes fade as brands such as Samsung, LG, and Vizio have surpassed it in market share. Sharp is credited with helping to invent LCD technology—indeed, the first LCD TV I ever saw was in a Sharp panel manufacturing plant two decades ago. The company's 10th-generation plant is still considered one of the industry's most advanced, and supplies larger-sized panels to other TV manufacturers.

    Last year, Sharp actually licensed its name to Best Buy for a series of lower-priced TVs that didn't include the Aquos sub-brand. At the time, we wondered whether this was the first step in a move to exit the U.S. market, and instead fully license its brand in the U.S. "Sharp has not been able to fully adapt to the intensifying market competition, which led to significantly lower profits compared to the initial projections for the previous fiscal year, and has been suffering from poor earnings performance," Sharp said in a statement explaining its decision to leave the U.S. TV market.

    The last few years haven't been kind to Japanese TV makers in general; Sharp is just the latest of a string of formerly powerful companies that have decided to pull out of the U.S. market. Hitachi no longer sells TVs in this country, and the JVC brand is now controlled by Amtran, a Taiwanese company. Mitsubishi and Pioneer both stopped selling selling TVs, and early this year Toshiba pulled the plug on its U.S. TV business. Panasonic stopped selling the plasma TVs it was best known for, and many question if it will remain in the TV market here selling LED LCD TV sets. Fujitsu and NEC exited the TV business in the States years ago.

    If you have fond memories of Sharp TVs, let us know how you feel about the decision in the comments section below. We'd also like to know if you'd consider buying one of the new Hisense-made Sharp TVs when they become available next year.

    —James K. Willcox

     

     

     

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    Teeing up the 2015 Volkswagen Golf SportWagen TDI

    We’re already in love with the Volkswagen Golf—it’s our top-rated small car. But does adding extra cargo space and a diesel engine make a good thing better?

    The fuel economy benefits of diesel should have us gleefully going into this summer’s road trip season—after all, our last tested Jetta TDI had a 500-mile cruising range.

    Unfortunately, the DSG dual-clutch automatic transmission in the Volkswagen Golf SportWagen TDI doesn’t play well with the 2.0-liter, 150-hp turbodiesel. It's gutless and lazy. The DSG feels as if it’s in the wrong gear when you want a power surge—say, when you spot an opening in traffic. You really need to floor the gas pedal to get a downshift. And the VW diesel’s clatter was rather old-school compared to newer, more refined offerings from other automakers.

    Fuel economy for the Volkswagen Golf SportWagen TDI is almost hybridesque with the diesel—we’re seeing around 40 mpg on a consistent basis. That’s a solid 12 mpg better than the more-responsive 1.8-liter gas engine in our Golf hatchback, but its laggardly performance nonetheless had us wondering if the diesel’s price premium is worth it.

    The Volkswagen Golf SportWagen TDI maintains the line’s well appointed and fairly roomy interior. The controls are straightforward. And the sunroof is enormous. Steering, ride, and handling all feel like those of a more expensive car; nothing is lost in the Golf hatchback-to-wagon translation.

    However, our midlevel SE model set us back $30,000, and didn’t include automatic climate control or full-power front seats (only recline is powered). VW makes you trade up to the top-level SEL to get these features. Also, you’ll have to wait a year if you want one with all-wheel drive.

    So equipped, the Volkswagen Golf SportWagen TDI is like a little Audi . . . and priced accordingly. Stay tuned for our complete test. 

    In the meantime, check out our Volkswagen Golf road test.  

    Mike Quincy

     

     

     

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    Bold, high-tech 2016 Volvo XC90 is truly all new

    Many car companies tend to abuse the term “all-new” by claiming a merely freshened model with an updated grille or reshaped taillight is worthy of attention. But in the case of the Volvo XC90, this SUV is as new from the ground-up as it gets. It has a new engine, new platform, new body—all entirely new.

    Volvo had no choice: the outgoing XC90 dated back to 2003 and it showed. Since then Volvo was sold by Ford to a Chinese company, Geely. Through the ownership change, Volvo no longer had access to existing platforms or powertrains, thereby creating a timing wrinkle and numerous engineering challenges.

    Fast-forward to summer 2015 and the new XC90 has just gone on sale, starting $48,900. Typically equipped, most versions will land around $56,000, placing the XC90 somewhere between an Acura MDX and a BMW X5 in the luxury three-row segment.

    Volvo is betting big with the new XC90. It offers one four-cylinder engine—a 2.0-liter powerplant that’s both supercharged and turbocharged. Peak output is 316 hp and a 295 lb.-ft. of torque. This forcefed Four is mated to an eight-speed automatic transmission. In another bold move, the XC also brings a new infotainment system that’s interfaced through an iPad-sized touchscreen.

    Four trimlines are available: Momentum, Inscription, R-Design, and the T8 plug-in hybrid. The latter, which arrives later on, is meant to be a socially responsible answer to competitors’ V8 offerings with its 400-hp and with a claimed 25-mile all-electric range.

    All versions get three rows of seats and a seven-passenger capacity. Folding the third row is now much easier than it was in the outgoing Volvo XC90. Our rented XC90 was the Inscription version—a sumptuous package with buttery soft leather and gorgeous wood. Mamma Mia!

    Volvo takes its Swedishness very seriously and wants to make sure no one perceives the brand as anything else—a capital concern in the era of Chinese overlords. To that end, you get a tiny Swedish flag sewn into the passenger seat and a Thor's hammer light pattern in the headlights. No word as to whether or not actor Chris Hemsworth is buying one…

    Of course, Volvo is long-known for safety and that reputation is built upon with a full available suite of safety systems. On the structural side, there is a lot of high-strength boron steel. Among other things, that material helps make for thin roof pillars that don’t hinder visibility. The optional 360-degree surround view camera is terrific, taking the guesswork out of parking maneuvers. On the advanced active safety front, the Volvo XC90 comes with its forward-collision mitigation system (known as City Safety), driver alert (to watch for drowsy or distracted driving behavior), and lane-departure warning. Also available is a blind-spot monitor, rear-collision warning, cross-traffic alert, and lane-keep assist, which can literally steer the car in case your attention wanders while you’re futzing with the screen.

    Being so closely associated with safety, one might expect an easy non-distracting control interface. Oddly, that’s not the case. And while the 12.3-inch touchscreen is very attractive, bright, fast acting, and pleasing to read, it’s not the most intuitive. It takes frequent flipping among all of the functions and various pages, which means a lot of eye-off-the-road time and hand-off the wheel.

    Android Auto and Apple CarPlay will be incorporated into the screen down the road. 

    Any doubts about the four-cylinder’s ability to haul around this hefty SUV go away after a few miles. It turns out that mid-range oomph is just fine, but it certainly doesn't sound like a smooth, lush V6 with its underlying muted thrum. The automatic shifts very smoothly. It remains to be seen how fuel efficient the Volvo XC90 will be. The EPA rates it at 25 mpg highway. We saw around 22 mpg overall during the car’s stay with us.

    The ride is more comfortable than in any Volvo in recent memory, but with the air suspension and 21-inch tires, some bumps, seemingly out of nowhere, punched through rather harshly. The standard 18-inch tires ought to deliver a more absorbent ride. That said, the cabin stays noticeably quiet. 

    Handling is responsive but this big Swede is not exactly a dancing queen; you’re not getting the agility you’re getting with the German competitors. When you crave more personality, the Dynamic mode stiffens the steering, holds gears longer, and creates a more interesting exhaust sound.

    Being all new and full of novel features, this is a bold move—one with reliability risks. Volvo is almost saying “take a chance on me” as it aims to recast itself as a legitimate luxury player.

    We’ll buy our own XC90 very soon for testing.

    Mike Quincy

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

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    Fiat-Chrysler hit with record $105-million penalty for slow response to recalls

    In the largest such civil sanctions to date, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has fined Fiat-Chrysler Automobiles $70 million and exacted what could be another $35 million in additional penalties over the next three years as a punishment for past wrongs implementing safety recalls and to ensure future compliance with federal requirements. This penalty is half again as much as the previous record, $70 million in fines that Honda Motors had to pay the government last January for sloppy compliance in reporting safety-defect information.

    In a consent order signed on July 24 by Fiat-Chrysler Automobiles, now called FCA, the car company admitted that it had failed to find remedies to vehicle defects in a timely way or to communicate about the defects promptly to dealers or vehicle owners. (Read "Chrysler and Tesla demonstrate two different approaches to a car recall" and "Chrysler and NHTSA at odds over Jeep Grand Cherokee and Liberty recall request.")

    Among other steps, the company has agreed to hire a yet-unnamed “independent monitor” who for the next three years will have full access to company documents and personnel to ensure that the company has complied with and will continue to comply with safety-recall requirements and adopt a series of “best practices” in the future, or face millions of dollars in additional penalties. (Read "Chrysler and NHTSA at odds over Jeep Grand Cherokee and Liberty recall request."

    Fiat Chrysler has been criticized by the NHTSA for being slow to initiate recalls, to perform repair work once a recall is announced, and to keep vehicle owners apprised and NHTSA itself informed of progress in completing recalls. The company admitted as much in the Consent Order, in at least a few cases, but points to independent analyses saying that overall the company’s recall completion rate has been good. (Read "Chrysler agrees to safety upgrade for Jeep Grand Cherokee and Liberty SUVs.")

    To boost that completion rate, FCA is offering a number of incentives to owners to bring their recalled cars in for repair. In some cases, that includes an offer to buy back the car, $100 to bring it in, or a generous trade-in allowance good toward the purchase of another FCA vehicle. (Discuss this action in the comments below.)

    Learn the truth about car recalls.

    Buy-back

    The buy-back offer will be calculated as the initial purchase price less “reasonable depreciation,” plus an additional 10 percent over that depreciated value. Potentially, this applies to some 200,000 vehicles on which the recall work has not yet been done.  

    Covered models include:

    • 2009 Chrysler Aspen
    • 2009-2011 Dodge Dakota
    • 2009 Dodge Durango
    • 2009 Dodge Ram 1500
    • 2010-2012 Ram 1500
    • 2008-2009 Dodge Ram 4500 and 5500
    • 2010-2012 Ram 4500 and 5500
    • 2008 Dodge Ram 1500
    • 2008-2012 Dodge Ram 2500 and 3500

    Cash or trade-in

    Jeep owners could qualify for a $100 unrestricted gift card just for bringing their vehicle in for overdue recall work to remedy a potential fire hazard associated with the placement of the vehicle’s fuel tank. The remedy consists of getting a company-approved trailer hitch installed, free of charge. Alternatively, owners can get a normal trade-in allowance plus $1,000 toward the purchase of another FCA vehicle (Chrysler, Dodge, Fiat, or Jeep).

    These vehicles qualify:

    • 1993-1998 Jeep Grand Cherokee
    • 2002-2007 Jeep Liberty

    Cash only

    Grand Cherokees from model years 1999-2004 also have the potential fire hazard where the repair involves getting a company-approved trailer hitch installed. Those qualify for the $100 gift card as an incentive for bringing the vehicle in for recall service, but not the enhanced trade-in or buy-back offers.

    If you own any of these vehicles, you can find out of it qualifies for an incentive by contacting any of your brand’s franchised dealers or the company’s website. You will need to have your car’s Vehicle Indentification Number (VIN) handy to conduct the check (found at the base of the windshield, on driver’s side). You can also use a VIN-check tool at the government’s car-safety web site, www.safercar.org.  

    The far-reaching sanctions placed on FCA are meant meant as a lesson to other automakers as much as a punishment for Chrysler.

    The rather exacting language in the consent order regarding training and procedures for employees involved with safety recalls indicates that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is sending the strongest possible message to automakers that the agency expects all of them to make vehicle safety a priority not just for new cars, but for cars the automaker may have produced many years ago.

    Find out whether your car has been recalled.

    Gordon Hard      

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

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    Sleuthing a credit card data breach

    Q. For the fifth time, my Bank of America credit card number was changed due to a data breach. Isn’t the credit card issuer required to disclose the merchant that compromised my data? —E.F., Davidson, Md.

    A. Although federal law provides consumer financial data protections, it is the states (except Alabama, New Mexico, and South Dakota) that require that customers be notified. But the state laws apply to the entity where the hacking occurred, not to the credit card issuer. Consequently, the bank that issued the credit card may detect fraud and issue new cards to stop losses, but it may not know which retailer was breached. The merchant, though, should give you full disclosure about the breach.

    Have you had the same problem? Give us your comments, below.

    —Consumer Reports

    Consumers need better protections for their financial data. Read our recommendations.

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

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    Solar power is one way to meet Obama’s energy-saving challenge

    President Obama’s Clean Power Plan, a historic step in the fight against climate change and global warming, aims to cut carbon pollution from power plants by 32 percent by the year 2030, compared with 2005 levels. The president compared this reduction to removing 166 million cars from the road.

    While this effort is focused on power plants, many consumers want to reduce their reliance on dirty energy. In addition to being green, solar panels—also called photovoltaic (PV) cells—can reduce your monthly electric bills by 50 percent. No wonder rooftop solar capacity nearly doubled from the beginning of 2013 to the end of 2014, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration—though solar still provides only a small percent of residential power. But going solar isn’t a slam dunk for everyone. Is it right for you? Consumer Reports answers some common questions to get you started thinking.

    Does my house have to be situated in a very sunny spot?

    A. The more sunshine you have, the more power your system can produce. But the amount you can save on your bills also depends on the price you pay for electricity and the available credits and other incentives from the federal, state, and local government. Most panels are placed facing south, where they get the most exposure. Ideally, your solar panels shouldn’t be shaded by chimneys, trees, or anything else on the rooftop. That includes trees that could grow tall enough to shade the rooftop panels.

    About how much power can I expect to get?

    A. Most systems can provide 25 to 100 percent of a homeowner’s electricity needs. Solar installers will be able to collect information about the amount of electricity you use, how much you pay for it, and what you’ll save if you opt for different size systems.

    Is it possible to save up power to use at night or on rainy, overcast, days—or during a power outage?

    A. Disconnecting from the grid isn’t really practical yet. Though they are fairly pricey right now, you can have batteries installed along with the solar panels that allow you to store power generated during the day for use at night or at a later date. Tesla got a lot of attention when the company announced its Powerwall rechargeable lithium-ion batteries earlier this year. They start shipping in the months ahead and will cost $3,000 to $3,500 before installation. Other companies are introducing similar products, including Daimler AG with its Mercedes-Benz energy-storage units that also use lithium-ion batteries.

    My area is prone to storms. Can hail and lightning damage solar panels?

    A. Better-quality solar panels have impact-resistant, tempered glass that can take a beating without damage. But that doesn’t mean you’ll have warranty coverage if a hailstone ruins a panel. So, amend your homeowner’s insurance so that the cost to repair or replace solar equipment is covered for fire, impact, and other damage. And make sure that the cost to repair or replace your system doesn’t exceed the current coverage limits on your policy.

    Will solar panels damage my roof?

    A. Properly installed panels should not cause any damage to your roof. In fact, the panels tend to protect the roofing materials they cover by shielding them from precipitation, light, and heat.

    That said, a roof’s working life can range anywhere from 15 to 30 years, and a PV system’s service life can be upwards of 25 years. So install the PV system on a roof with at least as long an expected life as that of the solar components. If you have sufficient land, you can have a ground-mount system installed out of view of the house. (Such systems usually cost a bit more to install since wires need to be buried.)

    What the Clean Power Plan means for consumers

    For more information, read “The Clean Power Plan Is Here: What It Means for Consumers,” by Shannon Baker-Branstetter, Policy Counsel, Energy and Environment for Consumers Union the policu and advoacacy arm of Consumer Reports. “This plan could change the future of our electricity in the U.S. for the better, if it prevails against expected legal and legislative challenges backed by industry groups.”

    Aren’t solar systems crazy expensive?

    A. Buying a system outright will likely save you the most money over time, but requires a large upfront investment. The typical installation runs about $15,000 to $21,000 in the U.S., according to the Solar Energy Industries Association.

    If you install a system before December 31, 2016, you’re eligible for a 30 percent Federal tax credit on the amount you spend. So if you spend $18,000, your tax credit will be $5,400. Some states and local governments provide additional incentives. State-by-state discounts are available at Dsireusa.org. And ask your municipal office if there are any local perks. If your home is assessed at a higher value based on your installation, you may be able to dodge a property tax increase, for example.

    Solar panels are usually warranted to last 20 to 25 years, and the systems often pay for themselves after 5 to 10 years, so you have the potential for free electricity for the rest of their lifetime.

    I can’t afford to purchase a system. Is leasing cheaper?

    A. Initially, yes, but you’ll likely pay more over the life of a 20-year contract than if you buy. Though solar is available in all 50 states, leasing firms don’t operate in all areas. You can often have a system installed for free, and repay the company through a monthly fee. Leasing contracts usually include an “escalation schedule” that specifies how much your payments will go up over time. So, be aware that your fee might not be fixed over the lifetime of the lease, but that should be clearly spelled out in the contract. Note that the leasing company keeps all the tax credits and discounts. Make sure your contract spells out who is responsible for maintenance and for repairs to the system and to your roof. Usually it’s the leasing company, not you, because it owns the system.

    You can compare leasing and buying deals for free at Energysage.com. The site, which is paid a fee by the solar companies if you buy or sign up for a leasing deal through them, will obtain quotes on your behalf from several vendors. Energysage requires them to standardize comparison data so you get “apples to apples” quotes.
     
    After you decide if buying or leasing is right for you, solicit quotes from several contractors on your own, to be sure you’ve found the best deal. Get at least three references from your top choices and contact those customers to find out if they were satisfied with the work that was done, and ask if the project came in on budget and on schedule.

    What happens if I sign a lease, then want to sell my house before the lease is up?

    A. If you need to terminate your lease because you are selling your house, you may be able to transfer the remaining lease to the buyer or buy the PV system from your leasing company and include it in the sale of your property.  Regarding owning the system and including it in the sale of your property, a study by the Appraisal Institute, a worldwide association of real estate appraisers, found that making energy-efficient improvements to your home can yield a 20-to-1 increase in its value. So if your solar installation yields a $1,000 per year savings in energy costs, you can expect a $20,000 increase in your home’s value.

    What about maintenance?  

    A. With few or no moving parts, panels usually need little attention. The one exception is the inverter that changes direct current (DC) to alternating current (AC). The inverter should last for about 15 years, replacing it can cost $1,000 to $1,500, which is typically about 10 percent of the cost of a rooftop solar system.

    What should I look for in a PV installer?

    A. The North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners and the Solar Energy Industries Association both maintain state-by-state lists of contractors and solar installers. Beyond that, an installer should have general liability and workman’s compensation insurance, along with a contractor’s license for the region in which you live. Find out if the installer will obtain all the necessary permits. If the installer will use a subcontractor to do the work, verify that they are properly certified, insured, and licensed as well.

    Ideally, a structural engineer as well as a roofer should assess the roof’s condition as well as how much weight it can handle. That includes both the panels, racking, and the potential weight of any snow that might normally fall on the roof. Before installing a rootop solar system, contact the manufacturer of your roofing and ask for written approval of the solar installation to make sure that the roofing warranty will not be voided.  (For roofer referrals, visit the National Roofing Contractors Association).

    —Consumer Reports

     

     

    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 get rid of ticks in your yard

    Does the threat of a tick bite make you think twice before you go in your back yard? You could apply pesticides to your lawn, but there are health and environmental risks that come with doing that. So how to safely get rid of the ticks that threaten you and your family with Lyme and other diseases?

    One method the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has researched and developed is a "bait box" for mice, chipmunks, and other small mammals—the critters that are most responsible for spreading Lyme and other tick-borne illnesses.

    The box doesn't kill the rodents but instead coats them with an insecticide that kills the ticks they're carrying. The insecticide, fipronil, is the same chemical used to control ticks on dogs and cats  (Frontline Top Spot, for example), but at a much lower dose so that, the CDC says, it won't hurt your cat if he happens to catch and eat a mouse or chipmunk.

    Learn what works against bug bites, and the best mosquito repellent for a pest-free backyard.

    A tick's life

    How does this help control ticks in your yard? When an adult tick lays eggs, they hatch into tiny larvae that are about the size of the period at the end of this sentence. To survive, they need a blood meal, and they'll latch on to mice and chipmunks to get it. (One mouse can carry 300 to 400 tick larvae.) When the larvae feed on the rodents they can acquire the pathogens that cause Lyme, anaplasmosis, babesiosis, and other diseases, though the mice and chipmunks won't get sick from those illnesses.

    In the spring and early summer the larvae molt into nymphs that are about the size of a poppy seed. They'll look for another blood meal—from small mammals, a deer, your pet, and even you. (Deer don't carry Lyme disease but can help spread it by bringing ticks into your yard.) In areas where Lyme is prevalent, about 1 in 4 of those nymphs can be infected with disease. Because the nymphs are so small you may not notice when they are attached to your skin and may even mistake them for a speck of dirt or a freckle. That's what makes this stage of tick development so dangerous.  

    Stopping the infection  

    To interrupt this cycle, the CDC developed and tested rodent bait boxes in field trials and found that they can reduce tick populations from 77 to more than 90 percent. To make them available to homeowners the CDC licensed the boxes to Tick Box Technology of Norwalk, Conn. Because they are registered with the Environmental Protection Agency as a professional-use product, the boxes are only available through licensed pest management companies.

    And they're not cheap; one box costs $50 to install and the average home needs between 5 and 15 boxes, says Marc C. Dolan, M.Sc., a senior research biologist for the CDC in Fort Collins, Colo. The 5-by-7-inch childproof boxes are anchored to the ground and need to be replaced after about 90 days with boxes that contain freshly treated wicks and new bait, so the cost for an average yard with eight boxes is $800 for one year.  

    Still, that may be a small price to pay for a family that has spent big bucks on medical bills to treat tick-borne illnesses. "It's an environmentally friendly approach to control ticks and reduce the risk of disease, and you're not applying pesticides to the environment," Dolan says.

    Homeowners don't have to worry about the boxes attracting additional pests, Dolan says. "In studies we’ve done in Colorado, Connecticut, and New Jersey, we never saw a rodent population increase," he says. "If anything, it goes down."

    The CDC is now conducting field trials to find more efficient ways to service the bait boxes so that they may not have to be entirely replaced, which could make them more financially appealing to homeowners, Dolan says. Boxes are usually put in place in May to target ticks at the nymph stage and replaced in late July or early August to kill larvae. Any boxes installed in your yard now would target tick larvae. The bait boxes are registered with the EPA and in 26 states.

    —Sue Byrne


     

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    Natural sunscreens don't work that well

    Recent news reports and Twitter feeds are full of complaints about The Honest Company’s SPF 30 sunscreen—a product that gets its broad spectrum sun protection from the mineral zinc oxide—with users saying they still got burned when using it.

    While Consumer Reports hasn’t tested The Honest Company’s product, we have, over the years, looked at many natural sunscreens—those that contain only the minerals zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, or both. (The Honest Company was co-founded by actress Jessica Alba.) And our results show that while natural sunscreens—also called mineral sunscreens—offer some protection, they don’t perform as well as those that contain chemicals, such as avobenzone.

    A broad spectrum sunscreen protects against both the sun’s UVA and UVB rays. UVA rays are those that penetrate deeply into skin, contributing to aging and skin cancer. UVB are the burning rays, and SPF refers to a sunscreen’s ability to shield your skin from those.

    Check our sunscreen Ratings to find the products that came out on top in our tests and check our guide to staying safe in the sun.

    Two years ago, we gave just one of the natural sunscreens we tested a Very Good rating for UVA and a different one a Very Good rating for UVB. Good was the highest rating for a mineral sunscreen for both UVA and UVB last year. The growing popularity of natural sunscreens led us to test several this year. Our results weren’t much better than in the past: Of the five natural sunscreens for the body we tested, three rated Excellent for UVA—but the same three received Fair ratings for UVB. When it came to SPF, only two met their claims—with the others seriously missing the mark.

    One likely reason natural sunscreens routinely score so poorly: To provide good protection, sunscreens need to form a uniform film on the skin, explains David C. Steinberg, president of Steinberg & Associates, a personal-care-products consulting company in Plainsboro, N.J. And even though most mineral products contain micronized titanium dioxide, zinc oxide, or both, they’re still particles—so they don’t create a smooth, uniform surface.

    Aren’t natural sunscreens safer? Some people think so because they sit on the surface of the skin and aren’t absorbed the way chemical sunscreens are. But natural sunscreens that go on clear—as many do these days—may contain nanoparticles, which may be absorbed. (According to the label, the zinc oxide used in The Honest Company sunscreen is non-nano.) The truth is, there are safety concerns with many active sunscreen ingredients—chemical and mineral. The science to rank them in order of safety isn’t there, but it is clear that the risks don’t outweigh the benefits of using sunscreen.

    —Consumer Reports

     

     

     

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    Can Epson EcoTank printers deliver cheap ink?

    Few products rankle consumers more than pricey ink cartridges for their printers. They generally cost anywhere from $10 to $50 per cartridge, and most printers require at least two or three. You may need replacements every couple of months, depending on how many vacation photos or kids' school reports you're printing out. And the ink inside those cartridges can cost anywhere from $10 to $70-plus an ounce—more than a 15-year-old single-malt Scotch.

    But a new line of printers is promising to provide an alternative. Epson EcoTank printers, which are due to go on sale this September, have large, refillable ink tanks instead of cartridges. The five models will come with enough bottled ink to last for about two years, according to Epson. Once the bottles are empty, you can buy replacements for $13, or $52 for a set of all four colors that you need—cyan, yellow, magenta, and black. (Ink for the priciest models will be more expensive.) Those bottles should last for another two years, according to Epson.

    Fifty bucks for two years of ink sounds like a great deal, and it is. There is one catch, though. These products, which Epson calls supertank printers, will cost a lot upfront compared to other inkjets: Prices will range from about $380 to $500 (with one business model costing $1,200).

    Epson has presented some of its own arithmetic on how much users will save. According to the company, four ink bottles are sufficient to print 4,000 black pages and 6,500 color pages on the new consumer-oriented models. Printing the same number of pages using one of Epson's standard inkjet printers would require 20 sets of cartridges. At $40 each, the total price for cartridges would be $800—about $750 more than what you’re expected to spend on ink for an EcoTank model.

    Find the best printer for your needs and budget: Check our printer buying guide and Ratings.

    We'll be watching to see if this new type of printer takes off in the United States. Similar models were introduced last year in other parts of the world, including Europe. According to some of our partners in International Consumer Research and Testing, an association of independent, not-for-profit organizations that Consumer Reports belongs to, these models have sold moderately well, but they’ve remained niche players. That may be due to the high purchase price, regardless of long-term savings.

    Our European partners also tipped us off to a potential trouble spot. The ink bottles will carry a "best before" date, with a three-year window. What happens if you buy ink that’s been sitting on a store shelf for a while and then only use the printer occasionally? Will the machine start producing poor quality prints as the ink ages? It’s a question we’ll want to explore once we start testing the printers in our labs.

    We will present our initial results soon after the printers become available this fall; as always, we’ll be buying the models through the same retailers that consumers use, to make sure we get true production models. In addition to the costs of ownership and print quality, we’ll want to see how messy it is to refill the printer tanks.

    Here are some details on each of the five new printers. All include built-in wireless connectivity, and all can print, scan, and copy.

    • Expression ET-2500, $380. Using included ink bottles, the claimed print-out yield is 4,000 pages with black text or graphics and 6,500 color pages. All color inks are dye-based.
    • Expression ET-2550, $400. Using included ink bottles, the claimed print-out yield is 4,000 pages with black text or graphics and 6,500 color pages. All color inks are dye-based. Includes a 1.4” LCD.
    • WorkForce ET-4500, $430. Using included ink bottles, the claimed print-out yield is 4,000 pages with black text or graphics and 6,500 color pages. All color inks are dye-based. Includes the ability to Fax and has a 2.2” LCD.
    • WorkForce ET-4550, $500. Using included ink bottles, the claimed print-out yield is 11,000 pages with black text or graphics and 8,500 color pages. All color inks are dye-based, except for black, which is pigment-based. Includes the ability to Fax and has a 2.2” LCD
    • WorkForce Pro WF-R4640, $1200. Using included ink packs, the claimed print-out yield is 20,000 pages with black text or graphics and 20,000 color pages. All four inks are pigment-based, which Epson says will last longer than dye-based. Includes the ability to Fax and has a 4.3-inch color LCD.

    —Terry Sullivan

     


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    A boost for children’s car seat safety

    A year ago, Consumer Reports inaugurated a new crash-test protocol to evaluate child safety seats—a test we believe gauges the relative safety potential of child seats in conditions that more closely represent an actual vehicle interior. The current batch of infant seats was included in the first round of evaluations using our new test, and convertibles are currently undergoing the test. We’ll be expanding its use to other seat types over the next few years.

    We took the lead here because the federal standard for child seats is more than 30 years old. It specifies a 30-mph frontal crash test using instrumented dummies simulating a baby or child. But because it’s a pass/fail test, it’s not that useful to consumers looking to make comparisons among a range of brands.

    Consumer Reports started conducting our own child-seat crash tests in the 1970s and has used the government standard as a basis since the 1980s. But cars and child seats have evolved faster than the standard, so we made some modifications. We wanted to determine which seats give an extra margin of safety by testing closer to real-world conditions.

    How our new test helps consumers

    In some respects, our new test procedure is not that different from our traditional tests. The child seat is still mounted to a sled on rails, which simulates a vehicle seat. A ram slams into the bottom of the sled, initiating the “crash” event. But our new test improves on the old protocol in a few ways:

    • We changed the seat cushion that the child seat is mounted to, adopting one with dimensions and firmness closer to seats in contemporary cars.
    • We raised the impact speed from 30 mph to 35 mph. That raises the crash energy by approximately 35 percent and better replicates how vehicles behave in frontal crashes.
    • We added a surface that simulates the front seatback. Research shows that children are most commonly injured in frontal crashes because they hit their heads on the front seatback or something else inside the vehicle.

    Our overall scores are still based on three main factors: ease-of-use, fit-to-vehicle, and crash-test performance. The first two factors carry the most weight because they are crucial day-to-day considerations for the consumer. If a caregiver can’t connect and tighten a child restraint correctly, the child seat can’t provide optimal protection—regardless of its crash-test performance.

    Crash protection for our new test is rated on a three-point scale: Basic, Better, and Best. Ratings are based on injury criteria for child-sized dummies, whether there was direct contact of the dummy’s head with the simulated front seatback, and whether the car seat remained intact during the course of testing.

    A Basic rating was given to seats where injury numbers were meaningfully higher than those measured on other tested models or that had some structural compromise. Seats rated Basic offer far better protection than no seat, but a seat rated Better or Best offers a greater margin of safety.

    Check our complete car seat buying guide and Ratings and learn more about car seat safety.

    The right seat at the right time

    Waiting until Mom gets labor pains is too late to decide on a car seat. Not only will you need one for your newborn’s ride home from the hospital, but over your child’s early life you’ll also need a range of seats designed for different ages and sizes. Even seasoned parents may be fuzzy on which seat type is correct and when to make a move to the next one. Below you'll find a guide to various seat types, a handy timeline for when to transition your child to the next seat, and key Ratings for each. And because child-seat installation can be a challenge, we’ve added handy car seat safety tips so that you get it right.  

    Car-seat timeline by age and size

    These estimations, based on best practices and child-seat height/weight limits, are our recommendations for the minimum number of seats you’ll need until your child is ready to use just the vehicle’s seat belts.

    To maximize car seat safety it’s important to use the right type of seat, to ensure it remains a safe, comfortable, and convenient fit for your child. Spending more doesn’t necessarily get you the best performing seat, but it may buy you more features. Many midpriced models perform as well as or better than pricier ones. Seats can be reused, but they have expiration dates. And retire the seat after a crash or if it sustains any damage.

    Rear-facing infant seats

    For children 4 to 40 pounds

    $55 to $300

    Infant seats have a detachable carrier, a great convenience because it allows parents to carry the child or snap the seat into a compatible stroller. Our tests show that they also provide the best fit for the smallest babies. Though these seats are designed to accommodate babies that weigh up to 40 pounds, most kids will outgrow them height-wise first. That means you will need a convertible seat in order to keep your child rear-facing through his second birthday.

    Convertible seats

    For children 5 to 45 pounds rear-facing, 20 to 70 pounds forward-facing

    $40 to $450

    Convertibles can be used two ways: rear- or forward-facing. It’s recommended for kids to remain facing rearward until they reach their second birthday. Though you may be tempted to use convertibles for newborns, most don’t provide the best fit for tiny babies, and you lose the convenience of the detachable carrier found on infant seats. Once a child has reached age 2 or the rear-facing height or weight limits of the seat, the seat can be positioned facing forward. Many have limits of 65 pounds or more.

    Belt-positioning booster seats

    For children 30 to 120 pounds

    $14 to $300

    Once your child outgrows the forward-facing harnessed seat, he will still need a booster to allow the seat belts to sit correctly on his frame. Boosters are designed to raise the child high enough to position the vehicle’s seat belt correctly. They are needed until a child is tall enough to use the belts alone—usually when he reaches 57 inches tall and is 8 to 12 years old. High-backed boosters are a better choice because they include some side bolstering, as well as a guide that can better position the shoulder belt.

    Important car seat safety strategies for proper installation and fit

    Your child seat must fit not only your child but also your car. If you can’t test-fit the seat before purchasing it, make sure you can return or exchange it. See SafeKids USA for dates and locations where you can get your installation checked. Here are some tips to help you get the right fit:
    • Carefully read the manuals for both the car and the seat.
    • Check the recline of rear-facing seats. That is critical, especially for infants. An overly upright seat may allow an infant’s head to fall forward, obstructing his breathing. Most seats have a built-in level indicator.
    • Child seats can be installed using your vehicle’s seat belts, but it’s often easier to get a secure fit using LATCH.
    • Attach and tighten the top tether for all forward-facing seats installed with either LATCH or the seat belt.
    • You may have to remove the rear seat’s head restraint to allow a forward-facing seat to fit properly against the seatback.
    • To assure that the harness is tight enough, you shouldn’t be able to pinch more than 1 inch of fabric at the child’s shoulder.

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

     

     

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    Do tiny SUVs make much sense?

    It feels like car companies want to put an SUV into every driveway, cooking up entrees to match every customer taste and budget. But just like it's hard to make a rice cake taste good, mastering the subcompact SUV recipe proves difficult on a budget. The “Talking Cars with Consumer Reports” video podcast looks at this growing segment and samples three of today's specials: Chevrolet Trax, Honda HR-V, and Jeep Renegade. Turns out that some of them are more appetizing than others.

    Part of the challenge here is beginning with rather basic ingredients; in order to meet a price point, these SUVs are based on inexpensive subcompact cars like the Chevrolet Sonic and Honda Fit. Performance and refinement suffer, especially when it comes to cabin noise and ride comfort. At least the upcoming Mazda CX-3 provides hope that driving a tiny SUV doesn't have to be akin to a subsistence diet.

    Next we discuss Consumer Reports' sweeping research into car insurance. Turns out that your premium probably is strongly influenced by factors that have nothing to do with your driving, like your credit score. Comprehensive coverage of this report is available at consumerreports.org/fixcarinsurance. Finally, we answer a viewer question about choosing between two modern-day wagons, the Subaru Outback and Volkswagen Golf SportWagen.

    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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    Do you need a robo-adviser or a human adviser?

    "Nobody thought this was a good idea five years ago," Betterment founder and CEO Jon Stein told an audience of several hundred investment advisers at a conference in New York this summer. He was, of course, referring to his robo-advisory firm, which has since gained 100,000 clients with more than $2 billion in assets. Although they still manage a tiny fraction of the tens of trillions of dollars traded by individual investors, these robo-advisers have been slowly but surely making inroads. 

    So it may not come as a surprise to learn that many of those in the audience who put robots into the "Bad Idea" camp may have been advisers. Many of the criticisms levied on robo-advisers are based on what they still can't do well such as provide some of the more individualized financial advice and service that traditional human advisers provide, like estate planning and charitable giving. Nor have robo-advisers yet been tested during periods when markets are roiled, as in 2008. 

    Read more about low-cost robo-advisers and what they can offer you. 

    But the substantially lower fees that Betterment, Wealthfront, and other robo-advisers charge trump their lack of individualized service from higher-priced traditional advisers, especially among younger savers, many of whom don't yet have complicated estate planning issues to manage. Betterment, for example, charges its clients anywhere from 0.15 to 0.35 percent annually to manage low-cost exchange-traded funds. Compare that to the 1 percent of assets many traditional advisers will charge clients annually.

    For many investors, a combination of the two would be the best option. Enter hybrid advisers: traditional human advisers who leverage some of Betterment's online tools. Here's how it works. If an adviser holds his clients' assets with Fidelity Investments, he can use Betterment's online tools to manage the online platform. By delegating some of the everyday office tasks to the robo-adviser—things like generating quarterly statements—the traditional adviser should be able to spend more time with you. Additionally, it might allow traditional advisers to court younger customers with smaller balances, who might otherwise not have enough assets to effectively manage. 

    The notion of hybrid advisers isn't exactly new: Humans have been using online software to manage client portfolios for years. As one adviser recently pointed out, it's basically turning the computer monitor around so that the client can see it. But if the convergence of the two approaches leads to lower costs for investors, as well as a lower threshold for personalized advice, we're all for it.

    –Chris Horymski

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    Do the new expandable hoses still spring a leak?

    When Consumer Reports tested three lightweight expandable hoses two summers ago we thought they were an acceptable alternative to heavy garden hoses. But as soon as we published the results of our tests we started hearing complaints from our readers and Facebook fans about expandable hoses that burst, split, and leaked. Many said they had returned one, two, or even three hoses to the store. The outcry led manufacturers to upgrade their hoses so, of course, we felt compelled to retest the newest batch.

    The appeal of an expandable hose is that it’s lighter, easier to handle, and doesn’t take up as much storage space as a conventional hose because when there’s no water in it the hose shrinks down to size. This year, the three original brands we tested came out with models with tougher fittings. The DAP XHose makes the DAP XHose Pro and DAP XHose Pro Extreme; Pocket Hose makes the Pocket Hose Ultra and the Pocket Hose Top Brass; and  FlexAble Hose makes FlexAble Hose Extreme. But how extreme are they?

    In our first tests we kinked, knicked, and twisted the hoses, put them in a freezer to simulate cold weather, and otherwise abused them like you would any garden hose. This time we focused on what our readers told us was the weakest link, the fittings. We also evaluated the hoses for how easy they were to repair should they tear. Here’s what we discovered.

    Fitting fittings

    The new connectors are stronger than the older, light plastic versions and stand up to impact much better. The brass fittings of the Pocket Hose Top Brass and the XHose Pro, and the aluminum fittings of the FlexAble Hose Extreme were even better than the brass fittings of a standard garden hose. However, with the exception of the FlexAble Hose Extreme, the hoses were more or less the same, meaning they can rupture if the tubing rubs against the inner edge of the connector.

    To address this problem the Pocket Hose Top Brass adding “connector protectors” at each end that reinforce the section where the hose joins the fittings. And if the XHose springs a leak, we found that it’s repairable, which sets it apart from the other hoses including its brandmate the XHose Pro. But even when used with care, failure of the expandable hoses is common, as our online readers continue to tell us.

    A clear alternative

    We also tested another lightweight, but non-expandable hose, the Clear Flow. The transparent 50-foot hose weighs just a tad over 3 pounds. The hose is compact and the sides flatten when it’s coiled and stored. The manufacturer claims it doesn’t kink and we found that to be true. You can also repair the Clear Flow if it breaks. In short, it’s a good choice if you’re looking for a lightweight garden hose that’s easy to maneuver.

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

    Lawn & Garden Guide

    Find everything you need to know about caring for your lawn and garden, including ratings of top-performing mowers and string trimmers, in our Lawn & Garden Guide.

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    Does canceling a charge card affect your credit score?

    Q. I received a notice saying that the annual fee on my American Express Rewards Gold Card will be going up and that I have a right to reject this change and cancel the card. Will canceling hurt my credit score? —B.D., Fairlawn, N.J.

    A. Canceling a credit card can affect your credit score because it can increase your credit-utilization rate, which is the percentage of your revolving credit that you are using at any given time.

    If you have, say, $25,000 in available credit across your credit cards and your current balances add up to $5,000, your utilization rate would be 20 percent. If you cancel a card, that rate could rise because you’d have access to less credit. Generally, a lower utilization rate is better for your FICO score.

    But the American Express Rewards Gold Card is a charge card. (There is no preset spending limit, and the balance needs to be paid in full every month.) Charge cards don’t affect your credit-utilization rate, so the impact of canceling the card is likely to be small.

    Have you cancelled a credit or charge card and noticed a difference in your credit score? Comment below. 

    Consumer Reports has 11 tips to improve your credit score.

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    5 cheap laptops for college students

    Need a budget laptop to take to college? We combed our computer Ratings to find some of the best cheap laptops—those in the $375 to $650 range. It's not always easy to find a budget laptop good enough to get you through college, but the models we found should do just that.

    We also found lots of variety. Among the five cheap laptops featured here are two detachables, along with a 14-inch and two 15-inch models. All can handily surf the Web, run productivity software, and stream Netflix while maintaining a respectable battery life. Some of these cheap laptops even have enough power to do a decent job with computer games. The models we've chosen all use the Windows 8.1 operating system, which you can upgrade to Windows 10 at no cost through next July.

    There are some great Apple MacBooks in our Ratings, too, but a similarly equipped model costs considerably more. The lowest-priced MacBook in our Ratings, the 13-inch MacBook Air, sells for about $850. 

    Acer Aspire Switch 11 SW5-111-102R (11.6-inch detachable, Intel Atom Z3745), $375

    The Aspire Switch gets you two devices with one purchase. It's a detachable laptop, so when you remove the display from the keyboard, you get a tablet. It's got enough battery life to get you through a day of classes, with time enough left to watch a movie. It doesn't have the oomph of a laptop with a more-powerful Intel Core processor, but you'll be able to write papers, surf the Web, and catch up on e-mail without a glitch. It weighs just 3.2 pounds with the keyboard, so carrying it to class won't be an issue.

    Dell Inspiron I3543-3251BLK (15.6-inch laptop, Intel Core i5-5200U), $500

    This Inspiron includes a touchscreen, so that $500 price tag is all the more appealing. Performance was good enough for getting through those productivity tasks you face every day, including word processing and e-mailing. You'll even be able to do some light gaming on this model. Built-in facial-recognition software can help keep your private files from prying eyes. Battery life was 11-plus hours, providing plenty of time to get things done both in and out of the classroom.

    For more advice on buying a computer, take a look at our Buying Guide. And for a larger selection of computer reviews, visit our Ratings

    Lenovo Z40 (14-inch laptop, Intel Core i-5-4200U), $600

    This speedy laptop is helped along by its hybrid drive, which includes a 500GB hard drive and a solid-state drive for faster startup and performance. The Z40 is powerful enough for video editing and mainstream gaming. Battery life was 8-plus hours. Facial-recognition software is built in.

    Microsoft Surface 3 (10.8-inch detachable, Intel Atom x7-Z8700), $625

    This is the lighter, cheaper version of the Microsoft Surface Pro 3, so it has a smaller screen and a less-powerful CPU than the Surface Pro 3, and just 2GB of memory. Even so, it's a good productivity machine with remarkable battery life. The price includes Microsoft's Type Cover, and when you separate the display from the keyboard, you get a great (though a bit heavy) tablet. It includes a free year of Microsoft Office 365 Personal, which usually carries a $100 annual fee. Just remember you'll have to renew it next year, or buy a copy of Office.

    Lenovo ThinkPad L540 (15.6-inch, Intel Core i3-4000M), $650

    If you need a laptop with a little more power, consider this Lenovo model. Battery life was decent, but it's just a bit on the heavy side at 5.3 pounds. The USB sleep-and-charge feature lets you charge other devices while the laptop is in sleep mode. The matte display, unusual in laptops, helps reduce glare.

    —Donna Tapellini

     

     

     

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    Redesigned 2016 Lincoln MKX shows real substance

    With no stand-alone models and an all-too-close association with Ford brand equivalents, it’s been a real struggle for Lincoln to reestablish itself as a credible luxury brand like Audi, BMW, Lexus, or Mercedes-Benz. But there’s been an ongoing effort to differentiate itself with better products, more advanced technology, and attractive styling.

    Lincoln’s latest entry in this high-stakes game is the redesigned MKX, a midsized SUV related to the Ford Edge. The previous MKX, a kin of the disappointing last-generation Ford Edge, was a luxury poseur. But the 2016 Lincoln MKX has a solid foundation on which to build—the impressive, second-generation Edge. We got to drive a 2016 Lincoln MKX, rented from Ford for a couple weeks, and it made a good first impression with its high levels of sophistication, comfort, luxury, and athleticism. (Read our Ford Edge first drive.)

    Fresh to the market, the 2016 Lincoln MKX offers either a traditional 3.7-liter V6 or a smaller, turbocharged 2.7-liter V6. As before, front- and all-wheel drive versions are available. Prices start at $38,100 and go up to $55,990 for the super-lux Black Label trim that we sampled. It is expected that the most popular configuration will be the Reserve trim line, which with typical options lands in the mid $50,000s.

    Within the first quarter mile on the road you’ll realize that this isn’t your grandmother’s Lincoln. The small-displacement 2.7-liter turbo pulls like a freight train. Effortless, punchy and refined, it supplies enough forward thrust to warm the heart. The only powertrain item that falls a little short of current standards is the six-speed automatic, which can be caught off-guard, occasionally bumping into gear in a rather ungracious way.

    When it comes to carving corners, the 2016 Lincoln MKX proved taut and agile, with a tied-down feel that’s enjoyable and confidence inspiring. This shouldn’t be a total surprise since the that platform is derived from the fun-to-drive Fusion sedan. Even when driven with extra gusto at our track, the MKX kept its composure.

    Ride comfort is impressive, as well. The 2016 Lincoln MKX feels planted and steady. Even with its 20-inch wheels, bumps and ruts are nicely muted and the cabin stays quiet and tranquil.

    Another focus of the brand recast has been spiffing up the interiors. In this car that means you’ll find a super-swanky, high society hunt-club atmosphere here, with leather on the dashboard, a suede headliner, and big chunks of Chilean maple. The furniture includes comfortable, supportive, heated and ventilated seats front and rear. A super-sized glass sunroof brightens the interior.

    The utility part of the equation is addressed with big doors, easy access, spacious rear seat, and plenty of cargo room. A power liftgate and power-folding rear seats lend a helping hand.

    Some indigenous frustrations remain, however: The initial batch of MKXs will have the MyLincoln Touch system. Although full-featured and versatile, MyLincoln Touch has small fonts and tightly-packed buttons. Later MKXs will get the automaker's new Sync 3 system, which promises major usability improvements. The unconventional pushbutton shifter will also take some getting used to.

    Another annoyance is the extremely small labeling of everything in the instrument cluster and onboard computer read-outs. It may be wishful thinking on Ford’s part to assume that new Lincoln customers will be young enough not to need reading glasses for that fine print.

    And speaking of impaired vision, thick rear roof pillars and a fairly small back window takes a toll on the view out the back. A multiple camera system, however, provides a very handy 360-degree view when parking, and that’s some consolation.

    With so many high-tech gadgets fitted to the top-trim Black Label, it’s not a big surprise that the sticker price on the 2016 Lincoln MKX can exceed $60,000. At least Black Label customers get treated to some pampering, including a dedicated liaison as your point person, free car washes, and complementary pickup and delivery when the car needs servicing.

    One can’t overstress the importance of the MKX to Lincoln. Some brands heavily hinge on a good midsized SUV. Ask Lexus. The MKX has all the ingredients to go head-to-head against the Lexus RX, its most direct competitor. But then again, the RX is also newly redesigned and goes on sale this fall.

    On the bottom line, sixty large gets you pretty close to the price of established luxury SUVs from the German brands and Lexus, and let’s face it, those names have more snob appeal than Lincoln. But now the MKX is a legitimate alternative with actual substance. The 2016 Lincoln MKX doesn’t need to make any excuses.

    —Gabe Shenhar

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

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    A room-by-room guide to the right lightbulbs

    Lighting a room doesn’t take much effort, but lighting it properly, well that’s a whole other thing. A center-mounted ceiling light isn’t enough anymore, not when you want lighting for tasks, ambience, security, and more. Consumer Reports asked four lighting designers from across the country for room-by-room lighting advice. Not surprisingly, they all said energy-saving LEDs are the way to go.

    A lighting fixture in the center of the ceiling is visually boring and it can’t do it all. Use a variety of light sources to create layers of light, being careful to avoid glare. Whether the light color is warm or cool is a personal preference. “The further south you go people prefer cooler light because it makes you feel cooler and as you go north you find warm light is more popular,” says Joe Rey-Barreau, a lighting designer and architect in Lexington, Kentucky.

    Light color is noted on the Lighting Facts label on lightbulb packages. Warm light is around 2700 K (the K is for Kelvin, a temperature scale that measures light color). Bulbs 3500-4100K cast a whiter light and those 5000-6500K give off a bluer-white light. “Don’t go above 3000K in any room,” says Rey-Barreau.

    Kitchen and dining area

    Task lighting. Mount dimmable, adjustable undercabinet LED fixtures near the cabinet front to direct light down and back to put light where you’ll be working, but if you have granite or another shiny countertop there can be some reflected glare—bright spots of light from the LEDs.
    Need to know: Cut countertop glare by using LED fixtures with diffusers to soften the light. “And if your backsplash is white or another highly reflective surface, place the undercabinet LED fixtures upfront but aim them toward the backsplash to lessen glare and allow the light to bounce off the backsplash and illuminate the work surface, ” says Terry McGowan, a Cleveland-based lighting designer and director of engineering for the American Lighting Association

    Overhead lights. Dimmable LEDs for recessed lighting can provide directional task lighting and general lighting. “The most common mistake that I’ve seen—even builders do it—is a recessed fixture with a bulb hanging, creating a huge amount of glare,” says Robin Muto, a lighting designer in Rochester, New York.
    Need to know: A true recessed light means that the lightbulb is recessed too. And the color of the can’s interior, which surrounds the bulb, affects light output and the color of the can’s interior, which surrounds the bulb, affects light output and light color. A shiny metal reflector casts the most light but increases glare. A black interior reduces glare but absorbs light so you might prefer brighter bulbs.
    Bulbs to consider: Any of the recommended BR30 LEDs, including the Great Value (Walmart) 65W Soft White Dimmable LED, $11, Feit Electric 65 Watt Replacement Flood LED, $10, both are CR Best Buys, and the $14 Philips SlimStyle.

    Family room

    Use a ceiling fan with a light or recessed lights for general lighting, lamps at different heights and sizes to create an intimate look, track or recessed directional lighting to accent art, wall sconces for added light, and LED tape lighting on cabinet shelves to showcase books and your favorite pieces.
    Need to Know: “Avoid a light above the TV as it will influence the quality of what you’re seeing,” says Rey-Barreau, adding that recessed lights should be off when you’re watching TV. Use bulbs within a 200-degree Kelvin range of other bulbs in the room to minimize noticeable differences in light color in one room.
    Bulbs to consider: For 60-watt replacement bulbs for lamps and open ceiling fixtures, top pick LEDs include the Samsung A19 Warm White, $14. It provides warm yellow light, and the Feit Electric A19/OM/800, $7.50, for whiter light. It’s a CR Best Buy and works in enclosed fixtures.

    Bedrooms

    Recessed lighting isn’t ideal as you don’t want to be looking up from your bed at a glaring light. A ceiling fixture lets you hit a switch for on/off light, and dimmers on your bedside lamps allow you to adjust light within a range of comfortable settings. Skip CFLs in children’s bedrooms. Horsing around may cause a lamp to crash to the floor, a concern since CFLs contain small amounts of mercury.
    Need to know: Use warmer light color, around 2700K, to minimize blue light. Your eyes are especially sensitive to it, and studies have shown that exposure to any light at night is associated with an increased risk of sleep problems, according to our medical experts.
    Bulbs to consider: For lamps or ceiling fixtures, most of the top picks cast warm light, including the dimmable Philips SlimStyle 60W A19 Soft White. It's $7 and a CR Best Buy, but can't be used in a fully enclosed fixture. For that, consider the Feits.  

    Bathrooms

    You’ll want just enough light to get in and out in the middle of the night, yet the right light for grooming. Overhead dimmable light is useful and ideally you want light above the mirror and along both sides.
    Need to know: Choose bulbs with a high color-rendering index (CRI). They more accurately show colors of skin tone—handy when applying make-up. You’ll see color accuracy scores in our lightbulb Ratings. As for light color, Muto prefers bathroom light that’s around 3000K. “It’s not cool yet but it’s more neutral,” she says, “and you perceive the light as being brighter than warm, yellow light.”
    Bulbs to consider: The top-scoring Feit 60-Watt Replacement 9.5W LED, $7, was the best at accurately displaying colors among top picks in this category.

    Outdoors

    LEDs perform very well in cold temperatures, unlike CFLs, which take time to fully brighten. And an LED’s long life makes it ideal for hard-to-reach spots. Continue the layered-lighting look outside, using lighting for safety, security, and accenting landscaping. “Glare is always bad.” says McGowan. “When you put a floodlight over the garage door and aim it down the driveway, you’re blinded when you pull in the driveway and your neighbors passing by on the street or sidewalk won’t appreciate this glaring light either.”
    Need to know: Control the light by installing fixtures with shields so the light shines down and not out, and rather than using one bulb to do all the work use several smaller floodlights with less light output. “The rule of thumb is never try to light a distance beyond 1.5 times the mounting height of the light,” he says. Lights mounted at 12 feet can light up to 18 feet out.
    Bulbs to consider: Depending on where you’re placing the bulbs, these PARs are bright:  the dimmable MaxLite 20W PAR38 replaces a 100-watt incandescent, but it’s $45. The Great Value 90W PAR38 is $22 and a CR Best Buy. It’s sold at Walmart but isn’t dimmable. Some of the BR30 LEDs can be used outdoors if they’re protected from water and aren’t as bright.

    Full lightbulb Ratings and recommendations

    Our lightbulb Ratings include dozens of energy-saving LEDs and CFLs. Click the Features & Specs page to learn more about the bulbs and how they compare.  The buying guide is loaded with useful information. Any questions? E-mail me at kjaneway@consumer.org.

    —Kimberly Janeway

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

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    The best sheets for college dorms

    College students will be off to campus in the coming weeks and are shopping in earnest to furnish the rooms where they'll be spending the next nine months. Towels? Check. Pillows? Check. Sheets. Not so fast. Before investing in a good set of bed linens, check the size of the dorm bed. Most college dorms have beds that are five inches longer than the standard twin so regular twin sheets won't cover them. The extra-long twin sheets aren't sold everywhere so you may want to shop online in advance. Here's how to find sheets that'll last until graduation.

    The longer sheets, known as XL twin or dorm sheets, are often sold in university bookstores but may cost more there. Bed Bath & Beyond, Target and Macy's don't offer a huge variety in their stores, but they do have back-to-school collections on their websites as does Amazon.com. Look for fitted sheets that are 80-inches long (the XL flat sheets are longer). And remember that most twin sets come with one standard pillowcase, which means you'll need to buy an extra pillowcase if you use two pillows.

    Look for sales when you shop as the XL twin sheets are often discounted at this time of year. Or use coupons. Some stores, like Bed Bath & Beyond, send coupons via traditional mail as well as e-mail. And you may also find bargains on standard-sized bedding for students who are living off-campus. No matter what size sheets you buy, consider the fabric. According to Pat Slaven, Consumer Reports' textile expert, some sheet fabrics last longer and are more comfortable than others. Here's what you'll find.

    • Microfiber. "Skip it," says Slaven. Microfiber is not as breathable as other fabrics and may cause the sleeper to become hot and sweaty.
    • Jersey. It's not the most durable fabric. The sheets can stretch out of shape after only a few washings and definitely won't last for four years of college, says Slaven.
    • Cotton-poly blend. An Internet search showed that most dorm sheets are made of 60 percent cotton and 40 percent polyester. "Cotton-polyester blends work well, but 100 percent cotton is going to be much more comfortable," says Slaven.
    • 100 percent cotton. It's the best choice. "If you look around you'll find 100 percent cotton sheets for a reasonable price," Slaven says, adding that a twin set of cotton sheets should cost between $20 and $30.

    And XL sheets aren't the only thing you have to worry about. "The regular comforter is too short, the blanket needs to be longer, the mattress topper has to fit," Slaven says. "And the student needs to know how to do laundry."

    Best buy mattresses

    Students who are moving off-campus may need a lot more than a set of sheets. In our mattress tests, we named two CR Best Buys but mattresses often go on sale around such holidays as Labor Day so if you're patient you can find one at a good price. And here are three CR Best Buys that did well in Consumer Reports tests.

    The Original Mattress Factory Orthopedic Luxury Firm, $540, innerspring mattress scored well for side sleepers but may not be the best choice if you sleep on your back. The Tuft & Needle Ten foam mattress, $500, is a reliable choice and you can have it mailed right to campus because it comes folded in a medium-size box.  The adjustable-air Sleep Number c2 Bed, $800, has impressive side support and even better back support. Ikea shoppers may like the Ikea Morgongava, which we recommend, but at $1,000 it costs more than the others.

    —Izabela Rutkowski

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

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    Best electric ranges from Consumer Reports' tests

    Electric or gas? If you're lucky you have a choice. Cooking with gas has its fans, but electric smoothtop ranges remain the big sellers and induction ranges are slowly catching on. Many electric ranges earned excellent overall scores in Consumer Reports' tests, while none of the gas ranges did. Mostly that's because the high-powered gas burners aren't as fast as the fastest electric elements and broiling isn't as good. Here’s a look at some of the best electric ranges Consumer Reports has tested. All are top picks.

    Smoothtop single oven

    LG LRE3083SW, $800
    Here's the deal: Superb simmering and fast rangetop heat helped put it near the top. Baking and self-cleaning were impressive, broiling was excellent. 
    Need to know: There are four rangetop elements, including two high-power that are handy for quickly bringing large pots of water to a boil and good for searing and stir-frying. The rangetop warming element keeps side dishes warm while you do the rest. The large oven has a convection option, which can trim the cooking time of some foods, and the steam-clean feature is meant for light cleaning.  

    Slide-in smoothtop

    Samsung NE58F9500SS, $1,500
    Here's the deal: It's expensive, but a lot less than most slide-ins, offering a built-in look since the rangetop is flush with the counters. There are four rangetop elements, including two high power that delivered fast heat. Simmering was superb, baking was impressive, and broiling, excellent. Even self-cleaning was impressive.
    Need to know: There's no back panel and controls are on the front of the range. The large oven has convection and a steam-clean function for light cleaning.  

    Smoothtop double oven

    LG LDE3037ST, $1,300 
    Here's the deal: Pairs a smaller top oven with a larger oven below. It was the only smoothtop range to ace all our tests and is top rated. Superb at simmering, it delivered fast rangetop heat. Baking, broiling, and self-cleaning were excellent and combined capacity of the ovens is excellent.
    Consider this: Costs less than most double-oven ranges we've tested and you might be able to get by using the smaller oven for daily dinner and the larger one for hosting holidays and parties.
    Need to know: Four rangetop elements, including two high power, and a warming element. The ovens have a steam-clean function for light cleaning and the lower oven has convection. But since there are two ovens there's no drawer to store pots—something had to go.

    Induction

    Kenmore 95073, $1,530
    Here’s the deal: The Kenmore delivers fast rangetop heat and super simmering. The large oven offers impressive baking and broiling, and this is one of the few induction ranges that excelled at self-cleaning.
    Consider this: It costs less than the other induction ranges we tested but all induction models require magnetic cookware.
    Need to know: It has four cooktop elements, including two high power, convection option, and warming drawer. See the "Pros and cons of induction ranges and cooktops" to learn more about induction.  

    Coil top

    Kenmore 94142, $430
    Here’s the deal: It’s a basic range and a CR Best Buy. Will you see Kelly Ripa hawking it on TV? Nope. But it’s the best of the coil ranges and it costs less than $500. Fast heat, superb simmering, and a large oven that was impressive at baking are what you get. This range even aced our tough self-cleaning test.
    Consider this: Broiling is so-so, and when we said basic, that’s what we mean. Forget convection.
    Need to know: There are four range-top elements, including two high-power. It’s available in stainless.

    More choices. There are dozens of electric, gas, and pro-style ranges in our range Ratings. Use them to find the one that fits your space and budget. Narrow your choices with the compare-model tool and click on the features & specs tab to compare models that way too. And be sure to look at the brand reliability data to see what over 100,000 people have to say about their experience with the range brands. 

    Kimberly Janeway 

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

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