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Consumer Reports

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    John Deere recalls 2,100 mowers with faulty brakes

    A faulty brake arm used in John Deere’s D100 Series lawn tractors has prompted the recall of almost 2,100 models sold in the US and Canada between May and August of this year. No injuries have been reported, but the notice from the Consumer Product Safety Commission states that failure of the tractor’s brake arm poses a crash hazard that could result in serious injury or death.

    All machines assembled in the company’s plants are inspected, according to a company spokesperson, but a select number of these are subjected to even closer assessment. On some of the John Deere D110, D125, D130, D140, D155, D160, and D170 tractors sold during this period, the manufacturer found that the brake arm was not made to specifications and could physically break when stressed. The tractors are sold at Home Depot, John Deere dealers, and Lowe’s.

    The recall notice explains where to locate a given tractor’s model and serial numbers. If your model number corresponds to one of the above products, you should look up your serial number on a list on the manufacturer's website.

    Of the models listed in the recall, our mower Ratings include the John Deere D110, $1,700; John Deere D125, $1,800; John Deere D140, $2,000; and John Deere D155, $2,200.  But the models we tested were purchased before the dates specified in the recall notice. The recalled models were sold between May through August of this year. The D110 and certain other models were also recalled in September 2011.

    If your model’s serial number matches one included on the manufacturer list, you can contact the company at 800-537-8233 between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. (ET) Monday through Friday or Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. To arrange the repair, contact your local John Deere dealer; do not return your tractor to Home Depot or Lowe’s. The spokesperson we contacted told us that any John Deere dealer can make the repair in less than 30 minutes. If you cannot transport your tractor to the dealership, the dealer will come to you.

    For more information on John Deere riding mowers read, "Nothing runs like a Deere you buy at the dealer."

    —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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    Easy exercises to help stop snoring

    Nearly a quarter of women and some 40 percent of men are habitual snorers. The reason for sawing logs is well known: soft tissue in the throat partially blocks the airway, and air flow causes this soft tissue to vibrate, producing the telltale noise.

    How to stop snoring is less clear. Oral appliances, nasal strips, lifestyle changes (such as weight loss and not drinking alcohol), and adjustments to sleeping positions are all recommended treatments.

    But researchers in Brazil found that when volunteers performed mouth “strength training” moves for three months it reduced the frequency of snoring by 36 percent and the intensity of snores by 59 percent. In contrast, a group who wore nasal-dilator strips to sleep saw minimal improvement, as measured by sleep studies and reports by their bed partners.

    The short exercise routine, performed three times a day, includes moves that the researchers say can be done while commuting or after brushing teeth. Here are four exercises to try.

    Check our buying guide to find a new mattress that might help you get a better night's sleep.

    Exercise 1

    Push the tip of the tongue against the roof of the mouth and slide the tongue backward. Repeat 20 times.

    Exercise 2

    Suck the tongue upward against the roof of the mouth and press the entire tongue against the roof of the mouth. Relax the tongue and repeat. Repeat 20 times.

    Exercise 3

    Force the back of the tongue against the floor of the mouth while keeping the tip of the tongue in contact with the bottom front teeth. Repeat 20 times.

    Exercise 4

    Elevate the soft palate (the back of the roof of the mouth) and the uvula (the fleshy protrusion that hangs from the soft palate) while making the vowel sound "A." Repeat 20 times.

    Two additional exercises

    •.Place your index finger against your cheek muscle, inside your mouth. Press the muscle outward. Perform 10 times on each side.

    • Be sure to chew using both sides of your mouth equally. When swallowing keep your teeth closed, lift your tongue to the roof of your mouth, and keep your cheeks relaxed.

     

     

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  • 08/06/15--06:44: Best smartphones for seniors
  • Best smartphones for seniors

    As your eyesight, hearing, or dexterity declines with age, using a smartphone could become a bit more difficult. You might, for instance, find yourself squinting at tiny buttons or struggling with confusing options when you're making a call, taking a photo, sending an e-mail or text, surfing the Web, or using any other feature or app.

    But you don't have to switch to one of those clunky-looking large-buttoned phones. Many high-scoring phones in Consumer Reports’ Ratings have easy-to-use settings to accommodate your needs, making them the best smartphones for seniors and others whose eyesight, hearing, or dexterity isn't as sharp as it used to be.

    Two of the best smartphones for seniors are the Samsung Galaxy Note 4 and the Apple iPhone 6 Plus. Both have a large, high-definition display (5.7 and 5.5 inches, respectively) that is easy to read, even in bright light. They also have great cameras and long-lasting batteries.

    Samsung Galaxy Note 4 Easy Mode

    The Easy Mode on the Note 4 is a quick way to automatically boost the size of app icons, the numbers on the phone or dial keypad, and fonts in apps such as messaging and contacts. Easy Mode pares down to the essentials the features within critical apps—camera, messaging, and phone. With the camera, for example, it eliminates the manual controls for adjusting white balance and ISO settings while keeping the flash mode and HDR options. Swiping the home screen to the right produces a listing of your 12 most important contacts.

    To activate Easy Mode, go to the Note 4’s main Settings menu. To restore the features you eliminated, simply revert back to the standard mode. You can also make additional adjustments in Settings.

    Shopping for a new phone? Be sure to check our buying guide and Ratings. Also find out about the best cell phone carriers and choose the right phone plan for your family.

    Apple iPhone 6 Plus accessibility

    You can make the iPhone 6 Plus less intimidating to use by going to the Accessibility menu in General Settings. In addition to controls for making text larger and bolder, you’ll find a switch called Button Shapes that makes navigation controls more prominent. You can also experiment with the settings for users with hearing and visual impairments. 

    The app icons are easy to distinguish on the iPhone 6 Plus’s spacious display, but you can make them even a tad bigger by activating the Display Zoom feature in the Display & Brightness section of the main Settings menu. To further reduce distractions, move the icons for your favorite apps to the home page and stash the rest in a folder in the corner.

    And while you’re shopping for a new phone, be sure to select an affordable data plan from one of the providers that got high marks for value in our national survey, which covers Consumer Cellular, Straight Talk, Ting Wireless, and T-Mobile.

    —Mike Gikas

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

     

     

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    Are green laundry detergents as good at cleaning?

    In Consumer Reports testing, laundry detergents that make green claims have not delivered the same cleaning power of top-rated brands like Tide or Persil—a newcomer from Europe that crushed it in our lastest laundry detergent report. One possible factor: green detergents may lack the enzymes and other chemicals that give many standard detergents their stain-fighting oomph. But some greens delivered decent results in our tests. Provided you follow best laundry practices—sorting properly, not overloading the washer, and using the right amount of detegent—you might be satisfied with the results. The following picks can be used in all types of washing machines.  

    Legacy of Clean SA8. Part of the Amway family of brands, this ultra-concentrated liquid detergent is our highest-scoring green detergent. It was particularly tough on grass and ring-around-the-collar stains in our tests. It's available through Amway dealers or on Amazon.com for about 30 cents per load.

    Method 8X. This liquid laundry detergent is sold at Target and other major retailers, so it should be easier to get your hands on. It vanquished blood stains in our tests, though struggled in other areas. The 8x concentration makes for extremely compact packaging, so it's a good choice if you don't have room for a full-size detergent container—and they can get quite big. Expect to pay about 26 cents per load.  

    Mrs. Meyer's Clean Day. A staple of independent organic shops, Mrs. Meyer's has a pretty passionate fan base, many of whom identify with one of the brand's trademark scents (basil, lavender, lemon verbena, and so on). At 22 cents per load, it was one of the less expensive green detergents in our tests, and it delivered about average cleaning power overall.              

    Caldrea HE. At 56 cents per load, it's the most expensive of all tested detergents, green and non-green alike. As with Mrs. Meyer's, you're paying more for the potpourri of scents, including ginger-pomelo and sea-salt-neroli. Says the manufacturer, "We believe the scent of your home deserves the same quality and beauty of a perfume." Just know that you're paying top dollar for so-so performance.  

    Seventh Generation Natural. If you prefer powder laundry detergent, this Seventh Generation product is the way to go. At 26 cents per load, it's priced decently and it was very tough on blood stains in our tests. It's derived from 88 percent plant products, in accordance with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's BioPreferred Program. Its brandmate, Seventh Generation Natural 4X Concentrated, did almost as well for the same cost per load.

    —Daniel DiClerico (@dandiclerico 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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    A Tesla Model S gets hacked, but the automaker has a quick fix

    Car hacking is back in the news, this time with two enterprising programmers making a splash by accessing the systems in a Tesla Model S. As with other recent high-profile stories, this is a case where White Hat hackers were testing security protocols, which started with physical access to the car. This was not a criminal scenario, where a high-tech bandit was able to take over a random car remotely.

    This follows a hack in late July of a late-model Jeep Cherokee's infotainment system, after which Fiat-Chrysler Automobiles announced a voluntary safety recall of 1.4 million vehicles.

    The common theme in these recent cases is that the skilled hackers identified vulnerabilities and notified automakers of the hack. Solutions were quickly developed for at-risk car owners, sometimes by the automakers and sometimes in collaboration with the hackers.

    Many of these developments—including a recent hack of GM’s OnStar RemoteLink system—will be part of presentations will be made at the upcoming Def Con hacking convention in Las Vegas.

    To be sure, the rapid computerization and connectivity with cars has opened up new channels for mischief, but they have also enabled innovative solutions.

    For instance, with the recalled Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep, and Ram vehicles, car owners can perform the system upgrade themselves, akin to a software patch on a computer.

    Owners can enter the Vehicle Identification Number, or VIN, of their car online and download the update. We performed this update on our Chrysler 200, and the whole process was straightforward and only took a few minutes. Customers affected by the recall can also receive a USB device that they may use to upgrade vehicle software and add security features.

    Tesla has pushed out an update that is delivered wirelessly to the cars. A Tesla spokesperson explains:

    “Our over-the-air software updates remotely add new features and functionality to Model S. Similarly to how you receive updates to your smartphone, Model S owners download these updates from Tesla via Wi-Fi or a cellular connection. A button will pop up on a Model S’ 17-inch touch screen, and an owner can select a time to download the latest version of software. The ability to receive these features and fixes is free for the life of the vehicle and is one more way that Tesla is redefining auto-ownership.”

    The hacking safety net

    Consumer Reports visited the Ohio lab of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration this past spring, where a team of engineers spends their days hacking into vehicles.

    NHTSA’s computer engineers are able to perform their hacks thanks to high-powered engineering talent, intimate knowledge of the car’s software coding, unlimited access to the car, and a hard-wired connection to the car’s control center.

    NHTSA Electronics Project Engineer Frank Barickman is not aware of any real-world hack without physical access to a car—despite what a consumer might conclude from certain news reports and online videos.

    In concert with NHTSA, a consortium of automakers is working to combat the threat of cyber attacks, through the planned formation of an industry Information Sharing and Analysis Center, or ISAC. The automotive ISAC will also address the larger issue of consumer data privacy.

    We applaud the automakers for rapidly addressing these identified vulnerabilities and support the government efforts to protect motorists.

    Read our complete Tesla Model S road test.

     

     

     

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

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    Can your floor make you sick?

    A few months have passed since Lumber Liquidators suspended sales of laminate flooring sourced from China pending its investigation after a 60 Minutes report accused the retailer of selling floors that emitted high levels of formaldehyde. But another concern, phthalates in vinyl flooring, has also garnered attention since both Home Depot and Lowe’s announced that flooring products they sell will be phthalate-free by 2016.

    Consumers Union, the advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, has long raised concerns about phthalates. Used to make plastics more pliant, these compounds are also endocrine disruptors—and two are classified by the Environmental Protection Agency as possible or probable carcinogens.

    As the video of our testing shows, we ran our own tests for 13 types of phthalates. Our results? Even though the phthalate levels in the flooring itself varied, little made it into the air or onto wipes we ran across the 17 vinyl samples and one sample of wood flooring we tested.

    While phthalate levels were very low in what we tested, we do recommend caution. Parents of toddlers should wet-mop the floor often and wash children’s hands after the little ones have been crawling on a vinyl floor.

    Need a new floor?

    We test for flooring products’ resistance to foot traffic, scratches, stains, dents, sunlight, and other abuse, and our flooring Ratings show results for 55 wood, bamboo, laminate, vinyl, linoleum, and tile floors. Among top picks are the Teragren Portfolio Naturals Wheat TPF-PORTTG-WHT, a prefinished bamboo floor for $7.50 (all prices are per square foot); the engineered-wood TrafficMaster Western Hickory Desert Gold DH77700144, $3 at Home Depot; the laminate Armstrong Coastal Living L3051 White Wash Walnut, $3.50; and the vinyl Tarkett NAFCO PermaStone Collection—Natural Slate-Sand Stone NS-660, $4.70. See our flooring buying guide for pros and cons of the various flooring types.

    —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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    Divorced? How to determine your Social Security spousal benefits

    Q: I was married for more than 20 years before getting divorced, and I haven’t remarried. I understand that I’m entitled to half of my ex-spouse’s Social Security retirement benefits. How can I estimate my spousal benefits? — C.F., Colorado Springs, Colo.

    A. If you were married for at least 10 years, you qualify for up to half of your spouse’s Social Security retirement benefit. If you are divorced, but your marriage lasted 10 years or longer, you can receive benefits on your ex-spouse's record (even if he or she has remarried) if:

    • You are still unmarried;
    • You are age 62 or older;
    • Your ex-spouse is entitled to Social Security retirement or disability benefits and
    • The benefit you are entitled to receive based on your own work is less than the benefit you would receive based on your ex-spouse's work.

    The best way to find how much that will be is to call the Social Security Administration at 800-772-1213 or to visit your local Social Security office. You’ll need to provide names, Social Security numbers, and dates of birth for both of you. Check here with the Social Security Administration to learn more. 

    Consumer Reports' Retirement Planning Guide helps you plan for your next life chapter.

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

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    Take advantage of sales-tax holidays and tax-free days

    This weekend—starting today—12 states are offering shoppers incentives to leave their backyards, beaches, and swimming pools. They're putting on sales-tax holidays, eliminating state sales tax on certain items—typically, clothing and footwear; computers; and school supplies.

    In Iowa and Louisiana, sales-tax holidays are available August 7 and 8. In Alabama, Missouri, New Mexico, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia, the tax-free weekend goes through Sunday. The "weekend" in Florida actually extends through Friday, August 16. In Connecticut, the fun begins on August 16 and goes through August 22.

    Check out Consumer Reports' back-to-school shopping guide.

    You can't go hog-wild on purchases during sales-tax holidays and expect to reap a tax break. All the states have limits on how much you can spend on an item and save on taxes. But some of the discounts are quite generous. Louisiana's tax break saves shoppers its 4 percent sales tax on all items of $2,500 or less, with the exception of vehicles, meals, and various services. Missouri eliminates the 4.225 percent state tax on up to $3,500 spent on personal computers and peripherals. Alabama offers a computer and software tax break of up to $750. Virginia joins the other states in offering a tax break on school supplies and clothing, and also cuts the tax for Energy Star products of up to $2,500; generators of up to $1,000, and hurricane-preparedness items of up to $60. 

    A couple of states already have had their sales-tax holidays. Louisiana and Mississippi offer additional tax-free weekends from September 4 through September 6 for firearms, ammunition, and hunting supplies.

    You can find a complete list of state tax-free weekends and sales-tax holidays here. To get more details on what's eligible, go to your state's tax administration or department of revenue site

    The sales tax break is good on items you buy online as well, as long as you do it within the designated period. Keep in mind that you still may have to pay local sales tax if the municipality or county you're shopping in doesn't adhere to the state tax weekend or holiday.

    —Tobie Stanger @TobieStanger on Twitter

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

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    Eating shrimp may be healthier than you think

    If you read our recent investigation, “How Safe is Your Shrimp?” you might be inclined to avoid these crustaceans altogether. Our tests detected bacteria on 60 percent of the 342 raw frozen samples we tested, and traces of illegal antibiotics on 11 of the samples. But if you buy shrimp carefully and handle it properly, it can be a safe and healthy food. And while shrimp’s nutritional reputation has suffered in the past due to its cholesterol profile, it’s actually full of protein as well as certain vitamins and minerals. It also has less mercury than tuna. Here’s the real deal when it comes to eating shrimp, America’s favorite seafood, plus a simple, healthy grilled shrimp recipe from Consumer Report’s test kitchen.

    Cholesterol

    Shrimp does have a lot of dietary cholesterol: A 3-ounce serving packs 179 milligrams of it, more than the half of the 300 mg per day that the government has long recommended as the daily maximum. But the government is actually contemplating new recommendations that downplay the dangers of dietary cholesterol, since the newest research suggests that it isn’t strongly linked to the risk of heart attack and stroke. “It’s really saturated fat, not dietary cholesterol that is more strongly linked to cardiovascular risk,” explains Consumer Reports dietitian Amy Keating, R.D.  

    Fat

    When it comes to fats, shrimp get high marks for heart-health. A 3-ounce serving contains only trace amounts of saturated and unsaturated fats, compared with 13 grams of fat, 5 of which are saturated, in a typical 3-ounce beef burger. Of course, how you cook your shrimp is important, too. “Avoid pan frying or deep frying your shrimp, which can add fats,” Keating says. “The healthiest option is to grill or steam them.” Another healthy cooking tip: "Try grilling jumbo shrimp in their shells and they will come out moist and flavorful without adding extra fats,” says Claudia Gallo, Consumer Reports in-house chef.

    Find out if antibiotics in shrimp can spark allergic reactions, which bug repellents really work, and which grills aced our ratings tests.

    Calories

    Shrimp can also be low-calorie, says Keating. That same 3-ounce burger has about 212 calories (bun not included), while a 3-ounce serving of grilled or steamed shrimp tops out at about 100 calories. But avoid battered or deep-fried shrimp, and watch out for high-calorie dips and sauces, too. “They all add calories and fats, minimizing shrimp’s health benefits,” Keating says.

    Protein

    Even though shrimp has much less fat and fewer calories than a burger, it has almost as much protein: 19 grams for 3 ounces of shrimp, compared with 22 grams for the burger.

    Vitamins and minerals

    Shrimp is also a good source of vitamins B6 and B12. Our bodies need these vitamins to manufacture neurotransmitters, chemicals that help control alertness and mood. They’re also essential for keeping our immune systems strong. And it delivers a host of valuable minerals including, copper, magnesium, phosphorous, selenium, and zinc.

    Mercury

    Unlike some other types of seafood, shrimp is low in mercury, which can harm the nervous system of a developing fetus or a young child. This makes it a good choice for women who are pregnant, nursing, or may become pregnant, as well as young children, according to Consumer Reports’ fish experts.

    —Lauren Cooper

    Recipe: Spicy shrimp with mango salsa

    In less than an hour you can prepare this delicious shrimp dish created by Consumer Reports test kitchen’s in-house chef Claudia Gallo. It’s colorful and healthy. Each portion provides 240 calories, 5 g of fat (almost none of which is saturated), and 25 grams of protein.

    Placing the shrimp on skewers is a good idea, Gallo says, “It makes it easier to turn them over and provides thorough cooking.” But don’t leave them on the grill too long or they will become dry and tough. “Shrimp only need about two to three minutes of cooking on each side, depending on their size,” Gallo says.

    Ingredients

    1/4 teaspoon salt

    1/2 teaspoon chipotle powder

    1/2 teaspoon smoked paprika

    2 teaspoons olive oil

    1 pound large shrimp, peeled and deveined (CR recommends U.S. wild or responsibly farmed)

    4 lime wedges

    1 mango, peeled and finely chopped

    1 small red pepper, finely chopped

    1 cup fresh corn kernels

    ¼ cup finely chopped red onion

    2 tablespoons fresh lime juice

    ¼ cup chopped cilantro or mint leaves

    ¼ teaspoon black pepper

    Method

    In a large bowl, mix the salt, spices and olive oil.  Add the shrimp; toss well.  Let marinate while preparing the salsa.

    In another large bowl, combine the mango, pepper, corn, onion, lime juice, cilantro, and pepper; set aside.

    Heat the grill to medium-high heat.  Skewer shrimp on metal or bamboo skewers, placing about 4 shrimp on each skewer. (If using bamboo, soak first in water to prevent burning).

    Grill 1-2 minutes per side until the shrimp are opaque and cooked through.  Serve with mango salsa and lime wedge.

    Recipe makes 4 servings

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

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  • 08/07/15--07:59: The cars that women love
  • The cars that women love

    What do women want? Safe, reliable, and fuel-efficient transportation. Men, on the other hand, want power. While those desires might seem clichéd, they're real, according to our latest owner satisfaction survey, which included data on more than 1 million vehicles.

    In the survey, we asked car owners whether they would buy the same vehicle if they had to do it all over again. Many women said they’d go for another Subaru Forester, Toyota Highlander, or Toyota Prius. Men were more likely to list sporty cars like the Chevrolet Corvette and various Porsche models. The one car that got high marks from men and women is the Tesla Model S.

    This is the first year we’ve separated the results of our annual auto survey by gender. (Conducted by the Consumer Reports National Research Center, the survey is limited to the three most recent model years.)

    So what else do women like? Hybrids are more popular with female drivers than with male drivers. Other than the Tesla, the only hybrid to make the men’s favorites list was the Honda Accord Hybrid. But it’s not all about fuel economy. The Chevrolet Silverado and Toyota Tacoma pickup trucks got high marks from women. In the luxury category, women said they would be happy to buy certain models of Mercedes-Benz or Lexus again.

    The most interesting—but not surprising—owner satisfaction finding was that women know what’s good. Whether it’s a luxury car, an SUV, a pickup truck, or a wagon, the list of women’s favorites is comprised almost entirely of vehicles that earned top scores from Consumer Reports. The same can’t be said about the guys’ choices.

    Check our full report on car owner satisfaction.

    Most loved overall

    Tesla Model S

    Price: $76,200 to $106,200

    Testers’ notes: It’s our highest-rated car ever; both men and women agreed. You get smooth power and a luxurious, high-tech interior with this innovative electric vehicle. And you can drive 180 to 225 miles on a charge.

    Most loved luxury car

    Mercedes-Benz E-Class sedan (V6)

    Price: $53,575 to $102,675

    Testers’ notes: The ultimate high-end car, it’s also one of our top-scoring vehicles overall. You get both pampering and performance.

    Runner-up: Lexus ES (gas and hybrid)

    Most loved family car

    Toyota Prius

    Price: $25,025 to $30,830

    Testers’ notes: Excellent fuel economy, solid reliability, and a spacious interior make the Prius easy to fall in love with.

    Runners-up: Volkswagen Passat TDI, Honda Accord, Ford Fusion

    Most loved small SUV

    Subaru Forester (nonturbo)

    Price: $23,045 to $33,945

    Testers’ notes: It’s reliable, roomy, and has an unusually spacious rear seat. The Forester’s other virtues include excellent visibility and intuitive controls.

    Runner-up: Jeep Cherokee

    Most loved midsized SUV

    Toyota Highlander (V6)

    Price: $30,050 to $51,125

    Testers’ notes: A perennial top-scorer among midsized SUVs, the Highlander offers a roomy, family-friendly interior and rock-solid reliability.

    Runners-up: Lexus RX and Lexus GX

    Most loved minivan/wagon

    Subaru Outback (6-cylinder)

    Price: $25,745 to $33,845

    Testers’ notes: With all-wheel drive and a surprisingly roomy interior, the Outback offers carlike handling and SUV utility.

    Runners-up: Toyota Prius V, Toyota Sienna (FWD), and Honda Odyssey

    She likes, he likes
    Women's Top 5 Men's Top 5
    Tesla Model S
    Tesla Model S
    Toyota Prius Chevrolet Corvette Stingray
    Mercedes-Benz E-Class sedan (V6) Porsche Boxster
    Subaru Forester (nonturbo) Porsche Cayman
    Chevrolet Volt Porsche 911
    Least loved
    Women's Bottom 5 Men's Bottom 5
    Dodge Journey Nissan Sentra
    Nissan Sentra Jeep Compass
    Kia Sportage Nissan Versa
    Volkswagen Jetta Kia Optima Hybrid
    Volkswagen Tiguan Ford Escape (4-cylinder, nonturbo)

     

     

     

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    The truth about car insurance: Readers and insurers react

    Hundreds of consumers are speaking up on Facebook and Twitter about the normally hush-hush topic of how car insurers use credit scoring and other non-driving-related factors to set prices. The commentary was sparked by our new investigative report, "The Truth About Car Insurance," which examines the secrecy and inequities in the pricing of automobile insurance. Regulators also stepped up to offer money-saving advice on Twitter, while insurers pushed back on Consumer Reports.

    In a prepared statement, David Sampson, president of the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America, lashed out at our report, which he said "boldly suggests to be letting readers in on a 'big secret', namely that one’s credit history is a factor in the score used to determine automobile insurance quotes."

    But the fact is that insurance companies don't advertise the credit scoring methods they use to set prices, and the scores themselves are confidential. "When I first found out that my credit score had a bearing on the rate I would be charged for my auto insurance, I was shocked!!! Credit scores have NOTHING to do with how badly . . . or how well . . . a person drives!" said Rosella LaChapelle Koeller in her Facebook comment about our report.

    Share your story!

    Do you believe you are being unfairly charged for car insurance? If so, read "The Truth About Car Insurance" and leave us a comment.

    Koeller is not the only one in the dark about how credit scores are being used by insurers to set premiums. Eighty-eight percent of consumers say their insurance agent never told them how their credit score affects their auto or home insurance rates, according to a 2009 survey of 1,240 Iowans by St. Ambrose University, of Davenport, Iowa.

    Insurance credit scoring unfairness

    Readers were also concerned about being unfairly charged higher premiums based on credit scores that were hurt by factors outside their control. "My credit score isn't perfect due to life situations (spousal death, illnesses, and loss of jobs)," said Michelle Williams, another reader, who says she has not had any at-fault accidents in the last 10 years. "My insurance is ridiculous, but I have to have it because it is required by law and it protects me. Why should I have to pay as much or more than someone who has caused one or more accidents simply because my credit isn't that great?"

    Sixty-seven percent of U.S. consumers said they believe that the use of credit scoring to set insurance rates is unfair, according to a 2012 survey of a nationally representative sample of 1,200 consumers by the Consumer Federation of America.  

    But one active Facebook commenter, Melinda Mayfield Pino, who described herself as working in product management for "a major auto insurer," said credit scores are "a wonderful predictor of future losses, probably because more responsible, conscientious people have BOTH fewer accidents and better credit scores." 

    Join the thousands of consumers who have already signed our petition to tell insurance regulators and companies "Price me by how I drive, not by who you think I am."

    Consumer protection

    Pino also compared the lack of transparency surrounding insurance credit scoring to Coca-Cola's secret recipe and explained why insurers keep scoring models hidden even when regulators require that they be open to consumers. "In the states that don’t promise us confidentiality, we have to file “dumbed down” versions of our secret recipe so that our competitors can’t copy it," Pino said.

    "I am terribly disappointed that Consumer Reports, whom I thought had the best interests of consumers at heart, doesn't either understand how insurance is priced, or has a hidden agenda," Pino said. 

    Our mission to protect consumers is hardly hidden. We're asking consumers to sign our petition, which tells the 50 state insurance commissioners to "Price me by how I drive, not by who you think I am." More than a hundred consumers have done so at #FixCarInsurance. We advocate car insurance pricing based primarily on driving-related risk factors, and we make no secret of our belief that black-box pricing based on credit scores and Big Data should be prohibited.

    Better regulation

    By far, the biggest focus of our readers' Facebook comments was on the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of government regulation. 

    Many agreed with Nola Nicholas Deffenbaugh, who said that without government regulation, companies tend to try to get away with as much as they can. Gary W. Addis concurred. "Regulations attempt to protect us from both predatory corporations and from socialistic pricing," he said.

    But some others, like Frank Harrison, expressed frustration that "since the big businesses make the regulations, then lobby them through legislatures . . . the regulations do no good."

    Sue Marston, who describes herself as a 23-year activist, said, "The government has become married to special interest groups." Mary Thoma agreed, saying, "The insurance lobby is powerful because it has so much money."

    In 2014, property and casualty insurers pumped $51 million in contributions into the election campaigns and committees of the same state officials who regulate their business, according to the non-profit, nonpartisan National Institute on Money in State Politics, based in Billings, Mont.

    That makes the industry the fifth largest contributor to state politicians, behind such business interests as casinos and gaming, health insurance, and Wall Street. P&C insurers put as much cash into the palms of state officials as the telecom, oil and gas, and pharmaceutical industries combined. 

    In politics, money often comes with expectations. “Companies give money to candidates as an investment to at least gain access to legislators and possibly influence the legislation,” says Denise Roth-Barber, managing director of NISPM and FollowTheMoney.org.

    Savings advice

    Our readers also offered their own advice for saving money. Peter Page said he's noticed a pattern of 12 to 20 percent annual price hikes that smack of price optimization, an industry practice that raises premiums on customers deemed unlikely to shop around. To combat the increases, Page...shops around. "I change insurance companies every year," he said.

    "Double-check your agent, too," advised Jeanne Healy. "Our 'independent' agent billed us over $2,400 and said that was the best he could do. Before paying I called the insurance company directly, I got the same policy, with a little better coverage for $975."

    Regulators pitched in, as well, with money savers. Fifteen state insurance departments and the National Association of Insurance Commissioners gave consumers links to savings tips via our #FixCarInsurance community on Twitter. 

    —Jeff Blyskal (@JeffBlyskal 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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    Everything about the kitchen sink—and faucet

    Despite marketing hype, when it comes to sinks and faucets price has little to do with performance. Here’s how to save without sacrificing style or quality.

    Sinks

    Pick the sink material

    What the sink is made of matters more than who makes it, according to Consumer Reports' tough tests. That’s why we rate materials. We stained, scoured, dropped objects, and set down hot pots in 18 double-bowl sinks. We compared thick, heavy-gauge stainless steel with thinner versions, and heavy cast iron with lighter acrylic and trendy fireclay. Our sink Ratings show results for the six most common materials.

    If you’re considering stainless steel, don’t spend more for thicker-gauge metal. Do look for sound-absorbing pads on the bottom of the sink’s exterior. They muffled noise better than spray-on coatings. And matte finishes hid scratches better than polished surfaces.

    Select the style

    Drop-in sinks, also called top-mount or self-rimming, fit into the counter with an overlapping lip. They’re easiest to install and work with any countertop material. But grime tends to build up where sink and counter meet.
    Price: $100 to $500

    Undermount sinks sit slightly below the counter, which must be a waterproof surface, for a sleek look and easy cleanup. Faucets are usually installed in the counter or mounted behind on a wall.
    Price: $200 to $1,000

    Farmhouse sinks, also called apron-front, are one deep bowl with the faucet mounted in the counter or on a wall. Stainless-steel models suit modern designs; for a traditional or country look consider copper or enameled cast iron. But they may require special cabinets.
    Price: $900 to $3,700

    Mind the specs

    Double-bowl sinks let you soak a pot in one side while washing items in the other. Be sure at least one bowl can fit large pots or roasting pans. In smaller kitchens, a single bowl might be more practical.

    Rectangular sinks are standard; D-shaped offer more space front to back. Most range in depth from 6 to 12 inches. Deeper sinks reduce splashing, but you might have to bend to reach the bottom.

    Faucets

    Faucet features

    You don’t need to pay hundreds for a kitchen faucet. All but the least expensive models have good-quality valves and tough finishes. As long as a manufacturer provides a lifetime warranty against leaks and stains, feel ­confident in picking whatever style and features you want.

    Single-lever faucets can be easier to install and use than models with separate handles. They also take up less counter space. Models with a side-mounted handle may need more room between the backsplash and handle, or you might end up banging your knuckles when you turn the faucet on or off. Gooseneck faucets have higher clearances, so it’s easier to fit a big pot underneath.

    A spray/stream selector, especially one that has accessible buttons on the side or top of the spray head, lets you switch between spray and stream. Some save the last mode used.

    A pullout spout combines a spout and a spray head with a swivel that adds flexibility. Hoses should reach around to corners.

    Scratch-resistant PVD (physical vapor deposition) finishes come in nickel, copper, pewter, bronze, gold, and polished brass.

    A counterweight helps the hose and spout properly retract.

    Whichever faucet you choose, get one with the same number of holes as your sink (new or existing). Otherwise you’ll need an ugly base plate to cover the unused holes.

    It’s also critical to match the faucet to the sink size. A large faucet for a small or shallow sink can cause splashing. And a small faucet for a large sink may not extend into the sink’s corners for easy cleaning. Plus mismatched scale just looks silly.

    Kitchen Remodeling Guide

    Find everything you need to know, including our top-rated appliances and materials, in our Kitchen Remodeling Guide.

    Planning to remodel your kitchen? Let us about your project by adding a comment below.

    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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    4 ways to get the cleanest clothes possible

    Even the best detergent can’t make up for bad laundry practices. Throw a red shirt in with your sheets and you're now in the pink. Mix and match fabric types and you'll end up with lint on your best blouse. Here are four rules to live by from the laundry pros at Consumer Reports plus some laundry pair picks from our washer and dryer tests.

     

    Get sorted

    Start by separating lights and darks, paying particular attention to red items, which are notorious bleeders. It’s also a good idea to sort items by fabric type. Keep towels, sweatshirts, and other items that shed lint away from sheets and other smooth fabrics that tend to pill. Close zippers; they can snag easily on other items. Wash jeans inside out to avoid streaky lines. If you have a high-efficiency (HE) top-loader that lacks a special cycle for waterproof and water-resistant items, avoid washing those items because they can cause loads to become unbalanced, leading to excessive shaking.

    Pretreat stains

    The sooner you treat the stain, the better. Pretreatment products such as Shout and Resolve are often helpful with many stains. Most liquid detergent can also be applied directly to stains. Powders can often be mixed with water to form a paste that can be applied to stains; refer to package for directions. You can also soak affected items in a solution of detergent and water. Many washing machines have a soak cycle that makes it easy, or you can fill the tub manually if you have a top loader. To treat underarm stains, our tests have found soaking shirts in OxiClean to be effective.

    Load it properly

    An overstuffed washer won’t get clothes clean. Conventional top-loaders hold about 6 to 16 pounds of laundry; high-­efficiency top- and front-loaders hold 20 pounds or more. See the manual or manufacturer site for your model’s recommendations. For best results in a top loader, start filling the tub with water, add detergent, then add clothes. The best time to manually add bleach is a few minutes after the agitator starts running. Bleach is best reserved for white cottons, including sheets and undershirts; note that it can degrade the elastic on underwear and swimsuits.

    Don’t overdose

    In addition to being a waste of money, using too much detergent can leave residue in your clothes, and it’s not great for your washing machine, either. Confusing detergent caps with difficult-to-read fill lines make it easy to overdo it. Purex is on to a good thing with its Power­Shot Super Concentrated detergent, which automatically dispenses the right amount of detergent. It was an also-ran in our performance tests, but we hope other brands adopt similar auto-dosing bottles. In the meantime, use a permanent marker to highlight the fill line you use most regularly.

    Recommended laundry pairs

    More great choices

    For more matching washers and dryers, including the quietest couples and the best pairs for $1,600 or less, read "Washer-dryer pairs that cleaned up in Consumer Reports' tests."

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

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  • 08/07/15--12:59: Robocall blocker review
  • Robocall blocker review

    Consumers are so infuriated with robocalls that when we called for volunteers to try out three widely used robocall blocker devices plus Nomorobo’s call-blocking technology, more than 130 people responded. We asked each person to install the call blocker that we sent them, monitor the number of robocalls that got through for four days, then disengage it and compare the results. We also asked them to describe how easy it was to set up the robocall blocker.

    Some of the devices offer a blacklist, meaning that the software is already preloaded with thousands of spam numbers, which are automatically blocked from coming through. Some offer a blacklist and a "whitelist"; that is, consumer can also manually program the phone to recognize and accept a certain number of known "safe" numbers.

    Separately, we also looked at a whitelist-only device. Such devices are generally recommended for people who are at high risk of being taken advantage of, including those with Alzheimer's. The CPR Call Blocker Protect ($5) is very good for people with that risk because it is very restrictive and blocks all calls, except those specifically programmed to be allowed through.

    With the exception of Nomorobo, all of the robocall blocker devices could be installed on a landline or a VoIP phone ( “Internet phone”) with caller ID; Nomorobo currently is available only for VoIP phones. (We did not try out call-blocking apps for smartphones.) The prices listed are what is being charged at Amazon.com, our purchasing source—not the manufacturers’ suggested retail price. The Sentry model we tested has since been replaced by the Sentry 2, which makes that robocall blocker easier to set up and add numbers to the whitelist.

    Read our special report, "Rage Against Robocalls." And tell us about your experience with a robocall blocker or sound off about robocalls by adding a comment below.

    Digitone Call Blocker Plus: $110. Blacklist/whitelist.

    Nine of the 24 testers found the setup instructions for this robocall blocker confusing. But consumers appreciated that the device operates in silence: “A flashing red light identifies a successful block. I could see incoming robocall attempts, but the phone did not ring,” wrote one tester. Eighteen out of 24 respondents said they would buy the device.

    The buzz: Buy

    Nomorobo: Free. Blacklist/whitelist.

    Nomorobo intercepts all calls after the first ring, compares the number to its vast list of robocall originators, and decides whether to let the call go through. Recipients hear the first ring; if the call is legitimate, the phone rings normally. “Only blocked one call that I wanted,” raved one tester. Once he added the number to the wanted-call list, “they got through the next time. I seriously could not be happier.” Among 40 testers, 25 gave Nomorobo top marks on a scale of 1 to 5, and nine rated it 4.5 or 4.

    The buzz: A winner

    HQTelecom.com Landline Call Blocker: $59. Blacklist.

    One tester wrote, “The device is not ‘proactive,’ i.e., it does not block robocalls until I press the block button.” (He had to answer the call.) “Then further calls from that number will be blocked.” Other testers complained that numbers they had manually blocked continued to get through. Among the 13 respondents, six said they would buy this robocall blocker; seven said they wouldn’t.

    The buzz: Mixed

    Sentry Dual Mode Call Blocker: $59 (Sentry 2). Blacklist/whitelist.

    Respondents thought the Sentry did an excellent job of thwarting unwanted calls; receiving wanted calls was more problematic. “There is no option to manually add numbers to the accept list,” a tester said, leading him to worry about missing infrequent but important messages, such as prescription refills or occasional calls from old friends. Legitimate callers can get through the Sentry’s block by listening to a recorded message and pressing 0 to be connected. But the recording is made in a British accent, leading some callers to assume that they’d reached a wrong number unless they had been warned what to expect. Twenty-seven respondents voted yes; 28 voted no.

    The buzz: Mixed

    An earlier version of this article included a review of the CPR Call Blocker Protect ($45). We originally gave this device a "bummer" review after trying it with consumers. But this device, designed for vulnerable populations, serves its intended purpose.
     

    This article also appeared in the September 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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    Clean Power Plan's benefits go beyond cleaner air

    The White House this week unveiled the first-ever national standards to address carbon pollution from power plants. The Environmental Protection Agency's Clean Power Plan, which would cut carbon pollution from power plants by 32 percent by the year 2030, aims to improve public health and promote greater energy efficiency.

    Consumers Union, the policy and advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, a long-time supporter of efficient energy solutions, praised the plan when it was announced. Not only will it reduce the pollutants that cause dangerous, unhealthy soot and smog and focus on making energy production cleaner and more efficient, but it can also help cut consumers' utility bills.

    After years of gathering input and development, the final Clean Power Plan gives each state individual flexibility to implement the plan. In fact, many states are already well on their way in moving toward cleaner sources of energy. If states continue to look for the most cost-effective energy efficiency and renewable resources available, the benefits are expected to include:

    Consumer savings

    • Save the average household nearly $85 a year on their energy bills in 2030.
    • Save consumers $155 billion from 2020 to 2030.

    Climate and health benefits

    • Reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 32 percent from 2005 levels by 2030.
    • Prevent up to 3,600 premature deaths.
    • Prevent 90,000 asthma attacks in children.
    • Prevent 300,000 missed workdays and school days.

    The Clean Power Plan has a long road ahead of it. Industry groups are expected to challenge it in courts and Congress. But we believe this plan could change the future of our electricity in the United States for the better if it’s given the chance to work.

    Consumers Union will continue to push for more efficient, more affordable energy solutions that benefit consumers—just as we have for years. In addition, we will also work with our many partners to encourage states to make sure their plans are consumer friendly and cost effective. Check back with us for updates on how states are doing on their plans.

    In the meantime, want to know how efficient your state’s power is? Take a look at this infographic to see where your power comes from.  

    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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    Your guide to back-to-school shopping

    Electronics gear & computers

    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.

    Trick out your dorm room
    Surround yourself with our high-rated tech to get the most out of your semester. Whether it’s for cramming a paper the night before it’s due or to take a study break, these electronics are affordable and could help reduce some of the stress of school.

    5 best laptops and tablets for back to school
    Back in the days when all kids needed for school was a pencil and a notebook, buying decisions were pretty easy. After all, a pencil is a pencil, whether you're learning simple addition or calculus. Not so with computers, where the laptop or tablet you buy for your college student will be wildly different from what a young child needs.

    Small appliances & laundry

    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.

    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. (Of course, students living off-campus can bring whatever they need.) Here are some affordable, top-rated small appliances from Consumer Reports tests.

    Laundry tips for college students help them take a load off
    With all the studying and, ahem, extracurriculars that are part of campus life, doing laundry is the last thing college students want to do. Still, unless you're going to pay to get it done or wait until an upcoming break to wash your clothes at home (who has that many pairs of underwear?), it's a necessity. But if you don't do it right, all kinds of problem can ensue.

    Shopping & personal finance

    3 easy ways to prevent theft on campus
    Back in the day—that is, in the 1970s—college students didn’t have a lot of valuable stuff in their dorm rooms. Sure, there was a bevy of stereo gear ideal for blasting the latest Grateful Dead bootleg cassette, but a would-be thief wasn't going to easily slip out of a dorm schlepping a pair of giant speakers.

    Best everyday products for college students
    When children are in elementary school, teachers typically send home a list of school supplies that parents should buy. When they go off to college, students need some of the same everyday items but this time you have to come up with the list. Keep in mind that students will be moving into unfurnished spaces and will want familiar things such as paper towels, tissues, batteries and laundry detergent within easy reach. The experts at Consumer Reports scoured our labs and found some extraordinary everyday products.

    Save when shopping online for dorm supplies
    Brace yourselves for back to school spending. According to a poll conducted by the National Retail Federation, out of 6,400 adults with college aged kids, nearly 30 percent plan to spend more on supplies for back to school season this year than they did last year. And much of that shopping will be done online, according to another poll, this one by Prosper Insight’s & Analytics which surveyed some 6,500 consumers on the matter.

    Discover fails to provide sufficient student loan customer service
    For the past two years, Consumers Union, the policy and advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, has been collecting stories from students and families about their personal experiences when it comes to taking out loans to pay for college. Unfortunately, most of those stories have not been pretty.

    Ways to save with student discounts
    With the start of school just around the corner, you may be fretting about how much you'll have to spend on clothing, electronics, and other back-to-school must-haves. Luckily, if you or your child is a college student, many stores and services offer discounts that make purchases more affordable.

    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.

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

    Best cars and travel safety tips

    10 great used cars for teens under $10,000
    Choosing a car for a teen driver requires making tough financial decisions just as college bills loom on the horizon. The temptation, and often the necessity, is to buy an inexpensive older model. But going too cheap has trade-offs that could jeopardize the safety of your child.

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

    Tips for safe carpooling
    As summer winds down, kids will soon return to school, complete with hectic schedules and extra-curricular activities. For many families, dealing with the logistics of an active child means sharing transportation duties in a carpool. But not every parent adheres to safe practices when it comes to strapping young children into safety or booster seats and that can put your child in danger. Likewise, many are content to buckle a child in an adult three-point belt before they are large enough.

    Smart car-packing tips for heading back to school
    After endless trips to stores to stock up on back-to-school supplies and dorm essentials, you’re ready to send your child off to college. Of course, it never looks like a lot of stuff until you try to fit it in a car. College necessities don’t just include clothes and toiletries, but bigger items such as computers, electronics, furniture, and small appliances. The challenge is to pack your car safely in a way that doesn’t interfere with visibility and secures all items so they don’t become dangerous projectiles. Use our tips on how to pack up your car for a back-to-school road trip.

    Health advice

    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.

    6 back-to-college health tips
    Staying healthy at college is no easy task between busy schedules, limited budgets, and lots of germs. Here are six ways to maintain your well-being when you head back to college.

    Healthy food choices for students on the go
    Raiding the refrigerator is a cinch when you want a late-night snack at home. But when you’re living in a dorm without a full kitchen, it can be slim pickings. Fortunately, there are plenty of good, healthy choices that take little or no preparation and can be easily stored in a dorm room or compact refrigerator. Here are some breakfast foods, snacks, and frozen entrees that received high marks from the food testers at 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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  • 08/08/15--04:59: How to buy your first car
  • How to buy your first car

    Owning a car brings fabulous freedom but also tremendous responsibility. Be ready for significant expenses beyond the purchase price: You’re also on the hook for, fuel, maintenance, repairs, insurance, and taxes. Here we lay out some strategies for getting behind the wheel as painlessly as possible. And remember, because a key element of driving includes sharing the road responsibly, see our guide to teen driving safety.

    What can you afford?

    Establishing a reasonable budget is critical. The money you have available for a down payment and potential for making monthly installments on a loan will determine your car choices. (See our picks for best cars for teens.)

    As a young driver, you are probably budgeting for college or other educational pursuits, so it is important to work with your parents to set a realistic target. In doing so, consider whether this is a car just to see you through high school or whether it will be your traveling companion through college. That distinction will determine how new and reliable the car must be.

    No question, the best way to save money is to buy used. By purchasing used, you can buy more car, meaning you could afford, say, a midsized sedan rather than a tiny econobox. A new car loses almost half its value in the first five years, on average but has more than half its useful life left. Letting someone else take the depreciation hit is a smart bet. But try to buy the newest car you can, in order to get the most up-to-date safety features. And

    As a teenager, financing will be a challenge. Lenders are typically looking for adults with a good credit score, steady employment history, and financial assets, such as a five-figure bank account or a house. In most cases, that will mean a parent will have to act as a co-signer or even take the loan in their own name.

    A loan is a business agreement based on a lender charging interest for you to borrow money. The lower the interest rate and shorter the loan period, the less extra you pay in finance charges. The best solution may be to borrow from a family member, repaying them a fair interest rate that they would have seen from their savings account. That would save paperwork, keep the money in the family, and hopefully allow payment flexibility.

    Do your homework

    With a budget in mind, now comes the fun part: creating a short list of target vehicles. Focus on practical choices—cars that will minimize ownership costs and suit your needs for the next few years.

    To right-size your costs, resist the temptation to target sporty, luxury, or large vehicles. They can be costly to maintain and insure, and tend not to get good fuel mileage. The last thing you want is to raid your college fund to cover car costs. Instead, look to small sedans and hatchbacks from mainstream brands, or even better, midsized sedans.

    It can be tempting to lust after a high-horsepower car or one with the latest-and-greatest high-tech features, but be practical. Money may be made from trees, but it sure doesn’t grow on them. The insurance company will penalize a young driver in a sporty car; big engines cost more to fuel and maintain; and gee-whiz features tend to carry reliability risks. Plus, financed new cars will command higher insurance premiums to cover collision protection. It may not be fun to hear this, but simple is best.

    To reduce the risk of purchasing a trouble-prone vehicle, identify models with a good reliability record before you begin shopping. Consumer Reports collects data on more than a million cars a year to present reliability information covering the past decade. Such data can point you to cars that have been shown to hold up well over time. Reliability is a key factor, as it speaks to potential costs and inconvenience.

    Read online reviews of the cars you’re considering from both automobile publications and owner forums. Balance the different perspectives against your preferences, and use the feedback to highlight aspects that warrant closer attention. For instance, complaints about the seat comfort or ride quality can be evaluated on a test drive. Your opinions may differ from those held by others. And ultimately, it is you who will live with the car.

    Inspect and test-drive

    New cars are presumed to be consistent performers. (For example, each new Honda Civic is expected to drive like any other.) A casual inspection can confirm the car is truly in “new” condition. However, with a used car, every example has led a different life. Some may have been pampered, others abused, potentially by a teenager just like you! The best used cars tend to be owned by a trusted friend or family member who can share details of the car’s history.

    When shopping used, try to bring a car-savvy adult along . Carefully look the car over inside and out, top to bottom. New or used, always inspect during daylight hours when paint flaws that may indicate repairs or other troubles can be readily spotted. Essentially, you’re looking to ensure the car is in the condition claimed by the seller.

    For used cars, the real trick is having the car inspected by a professional mechanic. They will usually charge for the service, but it can be money very well spent.

    Negotiate like a pro

    If the car looks good, then it's time to talk numbers. When negotiating a car purchase, it is essential to have an experienced adult to assist. A professional car salesperson knows all sorts of ways to push people into buying just about anything for the highest possible price. That is, after all, their job. As charming as salespeople can be, remember that they aren’t really your friend. Most car shoppers are outmatched during that phase of car buying. (Think of how competitive your grandparents are with video games, and you get the idea.) Rest assured, a first-time buyer doesn’t have a chance when going solo.

    If you’re buying from a private seller, negotiation is more straightforward. Research online what the current wholesale price is for the car based on its condition, mileage, and location—that is your target. Closer the better, and bonus points are awarded for getting an even better deal.

    A used-car lot or dealership will focus on the retail price, again easily found online, including on our car model pages. Chances are, they bought the car for much less, taking it as a trade-in or picking it up at a wholesale auction. They need to make a profit, of course, but your attitude should be that their most profitable deal of the day isn’t going to come out of your skin. The goal remains to get as close to the wholesale price as feasible, though in reality, you’ll probably end up in between the two figures.

    If financing, pre-arrange a loan so that you know what the interest rate and loan term will be. If the dealership can beat what you arranged for yourself, great. If not, then you’re still covered. You can use an online calculator to figure out what your payments would be, based on the expected purchase price and down payment.

    The salesperson will probably focus on monthly payments, as that enables them to sneak in added profit by stretching out the term of the loan. Monthly payments may look enticingly low but you’ll be paying those for a long, long time. When comparing one loan deal with another, add up the total of all the monthly payments. Because you did your homework, you can focus on the total amount, rather than just the monthly payments.

    Negotiate one element of the deal at a time, establishing the purchase price, then moving on to discussing financing, if interested. Don’t be talked into extras, such as rust-proofing, fabric protector, or even an extended warranty. They aren’t necessary. You’re smarter than that, as proven by the effort put in to find a good, safe, reliable car.

    If the seller won’t meet what you would consider a fair price, walk away. Every year, something like 40 million used cars change hands. Rest assured, there are plenty of other cars out there from which to choose.

    Getting a good deal on the right car can take a lot of patience and persistence but the reward—freedom and mobility—is worth the effort.

    Must-have safety features

    Whether buying new or used, these are the features you want:

    Antilock brake system (ABS): Readily available, antilock brakes prevent the wheels from stopping completely during hard braking. Because the wheels do not lock up, even during emergency braking on slippery surfaces, they enable the driver to retain steering control.

    Electronic stability control (ESC): This feature prevents a car from sliding sideways, such as when going through a turn a bit too fast for the conditions. ESC can be especially welcome in bad weather. All new passenger now have ESC and have for several years. On older cars, ESC may have been optional. Make sure the specific used car you’re buying has it.

    Head-protecting side airbags: Side and side-curtain airbags have been shown to provide real protection in a side impact, such as when T-boned by another car crossing an intersection.

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

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    4 easy bathroom updates you'll be happy you made

    If you’re undertaking a full bathroom remodel, seriously consider outfitting it with aging-in-place features, even if you don’t need them right now. Because they’re so well-designed, they won’t be conspicuous, and if you—or someone you are selling your house to—need them one day, you’ll be good to go. If you can’t do a remodel, you can still retrofit an existing bathroom with some easy yet meaningful fixes:

    Switch showerheads

    Handheld showerheads elegantly solve multiple problems. You can keep the showerhead stationary when you want to and still adjust it daily whether a 6-foot-2 adult needs it or a 4-foot-2 child does. Plus you also get the flexibility of a handheld for hard-to-reach places or those times when the family dachshund needs a spray wash.

    Use the space you have

    If your bathroom isn’t large enough to accommodate a curbless shower, look for a replacement shower enclosure that fits into the tub’s existing footprint and is easy to step into. Choose a color that contrasts with the floor so that the edge is easy to see.

    Replace the toilet

    The seat of a standard toilet is about 14 or 15 inches above the floor. Most comfort- height toilets are 17 to 19 inches high, which can make it easier to get on and off. Ten of the 12 recommended toilets in our tests are comfort height and range in price from $100 to $425.

    Turn up the task lighting

    Lights in the shower should be bright enough for shaving, bathing, and reading shampoo labels. Choose a recessed light and lightbulbs designed for use in wet areas. LEDs have dropped in price, and once you change one, you won’t need to again for years. CFLs are cheaper, but frequent on/off cycling—common in bathrooms—will shorten a CFL’s life.

    Top comfort-height toilets from our tests

    More great choices. For more top-performing toilets, including WaterSense water-saving models, check our full toilet Ratings and recommdations.

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

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    The claims on paint can labels that matter most

    You’d think that choosing a color would be the biggest challenge of paint prep. But stare down a shelf of cans crammed with claims and you’ll see how confusing the labels can be. Consumer Reports' paint experts explain which terms you can take seriously and which ones are just slick marketing. Get more details and tips on selecting the right products by checking our paint buying guide and Ratings.

    Enamel

    The word once indicated that an interior paint was oil-based, providing a tough finish and high gloss. These days, you’ll see it on paint cans for all finishes, including flat. If you think that means the finish is tougher than nonenamel paint, be aware that our tests haven’t found that to be the case.

    Washable

    All the word means is that once the paint dries, you can scrub the surface and the paint won’t come off. As for stain resistance, our testing revealed that there are very few paints that actually repel stains. You might be similarly confused by the term “stain blocking,” which means only that the paint will prevent the sappy knots of bare wood from showing through.

    One gallon

    Sorry, but you can’t even take that claim at face value. We found few cans that contained 128 ounces; some were up to 8 ounces short. Why? Manufacturers leave room for retailers to add a tint.

    Environmentally friendly

    The claim, which isn’t well-defined, suggests that a paint has low levels of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) or none at all. (When paint dries, VOCs are released into the atmosphere. They have been linked to pollution, smog, and respiratory problems.) All of the paints we tested are friendlier to the enviroment because they meet stricter federal standards, although some are better at the job than others. (Our paint Ratings have the details.) But even paints with zero VOCs aren’t odor-free; other paint chemicals emit a smell.

    Mildew-resistant

    You won’t see those words on all cans, but we found that almost every paint we tested did resist mildew. That’s because manufacturers have added chemicals that kill spores and prevent mildew from growing.

    Can you trust "plus"?

    Add a superlative—“premium,” “premium plus,” “premium plus ultra”—to a paint’s name and the price goes up. Performance does, too, but not always. See our paint Ratings for specifics.

    Top paints from our tests

    Interior paints

    Exterior paints

    —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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    How to add a backup camera to your car

    Rearview, or backup, cameras have become increasingly common on new cars, adding a measure of safety and convenience when reversing. If your late-model car is not so equipped, there’s an aftermarket retrofit available that will work as well as a factory original. 

    Mounting evidence shows that rearview cameras help avoid accidents that involve backing into an object or—worse—a child invisible from the driver’s seat. According to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), if all cars had rearview cameras, about 60 lives a year could be saved in the U.S. We consider a rearview camera a must have, especially for an SUV, pickup truck, or any other vehicle with a big blind zone straight back. But beyond the life-saving potential, a rear camera is a welcomed convenience that you would appreciate every day, as you back out of or into parking spots.

    If your car was produced in the last decade, chances are it already has a display screen in the dash used for at least audio functions. These screens can often be used with camera retrofit kits, enabling a very tidy installation. Good packages start around $120 for the Japanese brands and go up to about $600 for the German brands. The kits contain the lens, a camera module for the screen and all necessary wiring and connectors. No splicing of wires is required. This style is much better than some cheapo alternatives that can leave a lens dangling above the license plate or attach a fuzzy screen to the rearview mirror.

    Visit our guide to car maintenance and our repair cost estimator.

    Typically, installing a proper rear camera demands some advanced do-it-yourself skills and will take about three hours due to the careful removal of the rear hatch lining and other trim running all the way to the dashboard. This requires care and expertise. But not everyone has the time or skills to take on such a project in their own driveway. Unfortunately, franchised car dealers are reluctant to install these aftermarket retrofits, and we’ve found nationwide chains like AutoZone and Pep Boys won’t perform such installations, either. The good news is that Best Buy’s Geek Squad will do the installation for $99. Many local car audio/electronics shops can also perform the installation.

    Here’s a list of vehicles that already have the infrastructure to be compatible with a model-specific aftermarket rearview camera:

    Brand
    Prerequisite As of . . .
    Chrysler/Dodge/Jeep
    myGig screen
    2006 and later
    Ford/Lincoln MyFord/MyLincoln Touch 2011 and later
    Buick/Cadillac/Chevrolet/GMC Color screen 2007 and later
    Honda Color screen 2011 and later
    Mazda Color screen 2012 and later
    Mercedes-Benz COMAND screen 2006 and later
    Subaru Color screen 2013 and later
    Toyota/Lexus Color screen 2008 and later
    Volkswagen/Audi Radio/navigation screen 2009 and later

    I bought such a kit online from BimmerTech for my wife’s 2011 BMW X3 for about $600. Having a shop and a few qualified technicians at the Consumer Reports Auto Test Center certainly made installation a lot easier than it would be otherwise. The kit contains a camera integrated into a rear-hatch handle, a few wiresets, and a computer module.

    Once installed, the camera automatically took over the screen when the car was put in Reverse. The model I bought came with optional guidelines on the screen, aiding backup maneuvers. All told, this was a nice upgrade that was worth the investment.

    Many brand-specific retrofit modules are available. Just search online for your car's model and "rear camera retrofit." You can also find them from major online retailers, such as Amazon and Crutchfield, or specialty online sites, such as Coastal Tech (focus on Detroit 3 upgrades). 

    If you had new-car envy because of this helpful feature, know that there are upgrades available.

    Use these tips for deciding if you need a new car.

    —Gabe Shenhar with Seung Min Yu

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

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