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    Back away from back-to-school stocks

    It feels as if summer vacation has barely started and the back-to-school ads are already showing up in flyers and on television. As you rush to meet the needs of your kids—buying everything from pencils and paper to smartphones and laptops—plenty of stock-market pundits are touting something else: back-to-school stocks.

    For years, investing in those kinds of stocks seemed like a wise idea. The shopping season filled the nation’s retailers with optimism and excitement because it was second only to the end-of-year holiday period for total retail activity. So investors and analysts kept a close eye on the stocks that would benefit—companies such as Apple (ticker: AAPL), Staples (ticker: SPLS), and Gap (ticker: GPS). That’s because they gave important clues about the willingness of consumers to spend—and pay for brand names—and how likely they were to wait until the last minute to get deals on sales.

    Be sure to also read "Your Guide to Back-to-School Shopping."

    Risky buys

    Investing in seasonal stocks, though, is never a good idea. That’s particularly true for back-to-school stocks. One reason: Investors who try to time the market are usually disappointed. It’s far too risky, and most individuals don’t know more about those stocks than the broader market. A better approach, in our view, is to dollar cost average purchasing shares of stocks over a longer period of time.

    Another reason to be wary is that consumers don’t spend the way they did before the Great Recession. In recent years, to entice them to spend more, some retailers have been offering bigger than usual discounts on their products, which makes it harder for investors to forecast retailer margins and profits. Last year, for example, total back-to-school spending declined to $26.5 billion from $30.3 billion just two years earlier, according to the National Retail Federation. With consumer spending stuck in a funk, it won’t be a surprise to see another disappointing back-to-school season for retailers.

    Why aren’t consumers spending more? A combination of economics and attitudes are to blame. True, the labor market is much improved, but wage growth has barely budged. At the same time, consumers have become more sober custodians of their discretionary dollars. By some estimates, the decline in gas prices was supposed to boost consumer spending by $70 billion over the past year. Of course, that didn’t happen. Rather than spending the gas windfall at a mall or big-box store, the average American chose an alternative: to save or pay down debt.

    What about Walmart?

    As a result, it’s been hard to find any back-to-school stocks that have consistently exceeded analysts’ earnings and revenue estimates in the past couple of years. Old back-to-school stalwarts like Wal-Mart (ticker: WMT) and Target (ticker: TGT) are suffering from stagnant sales. Some of the mall-based teen retailers such as Abercrombie & Fitch and Wet Seal are struggling to survive. Shares in retailers like Macy’s (ticker: M) and the Gap (ticker: GPS) have barely remained in positive territory for much of the year. In many cases, bets on individual retail names have either been money losers or they have failed to match the performance of the broader market.

    The Dynamic Retail exchange-traded fund (PMR), has also suffered. The ETF is heavily weighted toward typical back-to-school names like Walgreen Boots Alliance (ticker: WBA), Costco (ticker: COST), and Kohl’s (ticker: KSS), and it has trailed other retail ETFs and the broader market, falling almost 1 percent since the beginning of the year.

    A better bet

    By comparison, more diversified ETFs have fared better. The SPDR S&P Retail ETF (ticker: XRT), for example, includes non-back-to-school stocks such as Netflix (ticker: NFLX), Rent-a-Center (ticker: RCII), and the Asbury Automotive Group (ticker: ABG). Since the beginning of the year, it has gained almost 2.5 percent. The same goes for the Market Vectors Retail ETF, which is heavily exposed to Home Depot (ticker: HD) and Lowe’s (ticker: LOW) and has risen 5.5 percent so far this year.

    The bottom line is that relentless macroeconomic headwinds make investing in so called back-to-school stocks a risky prospect. Our advice: When the back-to-school ads start showing up on TV, the radio, and the Internet, invest your money in binders, backpacks, and calculators (and smartphones and smartwatches, if necessary). But don’t risk investing in the hopes of profiting from the back-to-school season. It very likely won’t happen. $

    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 keep indoor air clean during a wildfire

    The smoke and smell from burning wildfires like those in the West can create unhealthy air quality both outside and inside your home. If local authorities have asked you to evacuate your home, you should listen.  If not, you can check local air quality at airnow.gov.  Type in your zipcode to get detailed information and also check the wildfire map. Here are some dos and don’ts for dealing with wildfire smoke inside your home plus some air purifier picks from Consumer Reports tests.

    How to clear the air

    Keep doors and windows and fireplace dampers closed. Even if you have a portable air cleaner, it can become overwhelmed when too many particles are in the air and won’t clean as effectively.

    Buy extra filters to have on hand. Activated charcoal filters typically need to be changed every three months. But you may need to change them more often if wildfire smoke hangs in the air for days or weeks. A lingering smoke smell while the air purifier is running is a sign you need to switch to a higher setting, or change the filter if the unit is already on high.
     
    Run your window or central air. But set the fan on recirculate or close the fresh air intake so smoky air isn’t coming in. And remember to change that filter too. In Consumer Reports’ tests of whole-house air purifiers, Filtrete’s Healthy Living Ultimate Allergen Reduction 1900 MPR, $20, did an impressive job of removing smoke and dust.

    Don't make matters worse. Burning candles or wood in the fireplace and smoking cigarettes or other tobacco products will add to the smoke in your home.  And don’t vacuum when air quality is at its worse as it can stir up particles already in your home.

    Top air purifiers from our tests

    Portable air purifiers with activated charcoal filters can help remove small particles in smoke. The Honeywell HPA300, $250, and the Whirlpool Whispure AP51030K, $300, removed the most smoke at lower, quieter settings in our tests. Both can clean large rooms. The Honeywell 50250 and Honeywell 50255 are less expensive, $160 and $180, but weren’t as effective on lower settings and were very noisy on higher, more effective settings.

    For more choices check out our air purifier Ratings of 40 portable room and whole-house (labeled home) air purifiers. Our air purifier buying guide will give you a rundown on the latest advances in this product category.

     –Celia Kuperszmid Lehrman (@cklehrman 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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    Testing sun protective clothing

    In addition to using sunscreen, it’s important to wear sun protective clothing. Many hats, shirts, and other garments sport a UPF (ultraviolet protection factor) number. What we found: The UPF shirt we tested more than delivered on its claims. Even better: You may not need to shell out for pricey UPF clothing to get good coverage.

    We measured the UPF in three white shirts. The Coolibar Girl’s Rash Guard UPF 50+, $32, delivered a UPF of 174. Because UPF indicates what fraction of ultraviolet radiation can penetrate fabric, that means that the garment—which is a blend of 84 percent polyester and 16 percent spandex embedded with titanium dioxide that is claimed to last the lifetime of the shirt— allows just 1/174th of UVA and UVB rays to reach the skin.

    As impressive as those results are, they don’t seem so remarkable when you consider that the two other garments we tested, which aren’t claimed to provide any UV protection, did very well, too. A cotton Hanes Beefy-T long-sleeve T-shirt, $13, and an Eastbay Evapor long-sleeve compression crew made of the same polyester/spandex blend as the Coolibar top, $18 delivered UPFs of 115 and 392 respectively. Even when wet, the Hanes Beefy-T, which is thicker than a regular T-shirt, offered a UPF of 39, which we judge to be a respectable level of protection. Coolibar’s UPF actually increased when it got wet, to 211, and Eastbay’s dipped to 304.

    Get more sun safety advice and the latest sunscreen Ratings from Consumer Reports.

    This article also appeared in the July 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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    The best top-freezer refrigerators

    If you’re looking for the latest and greatest in refrigerator design, the bottom-freezer category has the most to offer—maybe a sleek French-door model or one of the new four and five-door fridges on the market. But there’s a reason top-freezers are still the best-selling configuration. For thousands of dollars less than their more stylish counterparts, a capable top-freezer delivers comparable performance, storage, and energy efficiency, especially if you choose one of these top picks from Consumer Reports' latest refrigerator tests. You might even be able to get it in attractive stainless steel.   

    Haier HT21TS45SW, $800

    While all top-freezer deliver value, this 32-inch-wide model from Haier goes above and beyond, enough for a CR Best Buy designation. At $800, its price is about average for the category, but it earned a top spot in our refrigerator Ratings thanks to its outstanding energy efficiency, solid temperature control, and quiet operation. It also serves up an impressive 17.5 cubic feet of usable capacity, enhanced by such features as gallon door storage and spillproof shelves. 

    Frigidaire Gallery FGHI2164QF, $1,100

    This top-freezer comes in smudge-proof stainless steel, which is partly why it costs more than most. Our testers were impressed by the 30-inch-wide model’s solid temperature control and superb energy efficiency. Its respectable 15 cubic feet of usable capacity feels larger thanks to the customizable door bins and pullout shelf, designed for snacks, beverages, and other items you reach for often.

    GE GTE18ISHSS, $900

    This $900 refrigerator is among GE’s top-freezers manufactured at its home factory in Louisville, if you want to buy American. It scored solid marks in our temperature and energy-use tests to earn a spot on our recommended list. Its 14 cubic feet of usable capacity is on the smaller side, though it has some helpful organization features, including gallon door storage and half shelves, handy when you need to keep taller items in the refrigerator.

    Frigidaire FFHT1821QS, $600

    Spending $600 on a refrigerator could mean serious compromises—unless it's this 30-inch-wide model from Frigidaire. The 30-inch-wide model is extremely energy efficiency, maintains very good temperature control, and its usable capacity is just shy of 15 cubic feet. The tradeoff for all that value is a lack of convenience features. But if you can live with the bare bones design, this workhorse should deliver years of service.

    Kenmore 78032, $1,000

    This $1,000 Kenmore, which is Sears house brand, combines value and reliability—in fact, Kenmore is the least repair-prone brand in our latest appliance reliability survey. As for performance, temperature control is about average, or a notch below the best top-freezers, but it offers the most usable storage capacity by a good margin, and it’s pretty full-featured for a top-freezer, with touchpad controls, spillproof shelves, and more.
                 
    With all this praise for top-freezers, we wouldn’t want to leave the impression that every model in the category is a winner. In fact, our latest tests turned up some serious duds, including models from Frigidaire, Maytag, and Whirlpool that all delivered subpar temperature control. Be sure to check our refrigerator Ratings before making any final purchase.       

    —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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    The guide to all your electric car questions

    Once a high-tech novelty, electric cars are becoming increasingly common, as several models from mainstream brands have now been sold for years. But most consumers have limited exposure to electric vehicles (commonly referred to as "EVs") and may have many questions regarding whether an electric car might fit into their lives. Some bigger questions may linger, such as whether electrics are here to stay, and even whether electrics really count as cars, when most can’t fulfill the dream of driving anywhere, any time you want, no matter how far. For sure, electric cars are very different from gas-powered cars.

    With so many questions, we’ve set up this quick-and-easy guide to provide key answers and help you to determine whether an electric car could fit into your life.

    What models and types are available?

    There are currently fewer than a dozen fully functional, all-electric cars on the market. They include tiny two-seaters, an SUV, and even a high-end luxury car. But most are traditional small five-passenger hatchbacks:

    Pure electric vs. plug-in hybrid?

    An alternative to traditional, gasoline-fueled cars, EVs run purely on electricity. Other battery-enhanced models, known as plug-in hybrids, are essentially semi-electric cars. Some plug-ins can run solely on electricity, but they all have a gasoline engine, giving them a backup power source. The main difference is that pure electrics are limited by their range and have to be plugged in for hours to replenish their juice.  (Learn more in “Hybrids 101.”)

    Several plug-in hybrids are also now on the market or coming soon, including:

    Why should I buy an electric car?

    Electric cars use far less energy than gasoline-powered cars and cost about a quarter as much as a gas car to run. Electricity costs the equivalent of about $1-a-gallon gas.

    • A typical EV costs about 3 cents per mile to run compared with 8 cents a mile for a Toyota Prius Hybrid based on the national average cost of 11 cents/kWh.
    • EVs produce no tail pipe emissions.
    • EVs are quiet.
    • EVs don’t rely on imported petroleum.  

    Why shouldn’t I?

    With their high purchase price, limited range, and long recharge times, electric cars won’t work for everybody. Their primary target is urban and suburban home owners who have a relatively short commute.

    Statistics show that 78 percent of Americans drive fewer than 40 miles a day, and 90 percent drive fewer than 50 miles a day. Simply put: If you’re not one of those people, an electric car isn’t for you. Everyone else who is considering going electric, spend a week tracking your mileage and see how far you really drive before deciding whether an electric car would fit your lifestyle. When tracking the mileage, you might find occasional (and essential) side trips or errands may put you outside the reasonable range for an electric car.

    People who live in inner cities or apartments are also usually not good candidates at this point, because many don’t have dependable access to electrical outlets outdoors or in a garage, nor a place to install an electric-car charger.

    And in some urban locations—especially in Connecticut, New York, and a few parts of California—electric utility rates are so high that it can be cheaper overall to drive an efficient hybrid such as the Toyota Prius.

    Also, if you live between the heart of the Midwest and the Mid-Atlantic region, your electricity probably comes from coal, so driving an electric car there may not generate much environmental benefit, should that be a primary motivator.

    What's the cost to buy?

    Base prices range from $21,750 for the Smart Electric Drive to more than $125,000 for our high-performance Tesla Model S test car. In some cases, that’s thousands more than similarly-sized gas-powered cars. But electric cars (excluding low-speed neighborhood vehicles) are eligible for a $7,500 federal tax credit to offset the extra cost. Additional city and state tax credits are available in California, Colorado, Georgia, and elsewhere that can make the costs of electric cars very compelling, especially for consumers with a home solar system.

    The most popular electric and plug-in cars are sticker priced at $26,000 to $32,000 before the tax credit. Leases are available for as little as $170 a month (after you sign the tax credit over to the leasing company).

    Plug-in hybrids are sticker priced between $30,000 and $75,000, but they have been advertised with lease deals as low as $170 a month.

    What's the cost to drive?

    We’ve seen pure-electric cars return a little over 3 miles per kilowatt-hour, which gives them a cost to drive of about 3.5 cents per mile (for the Nissan Leaf). For comparison, the 32-mpg Toyota Corolla costs about 12 cents per mile.

    Electric cars also require no oil changes and minimal maintenance. Our Annual Auto Survey shows that the low operating costs should offset the cost of buying in just the first year for a Nissan Leaf, for example.

    What are they like to drive?

    We’ve found most electric cars are smooth and quiet, with instant power from a stop. Most ride well, and despite their heavy batteries, most (though not all) handle respectably. Acceleration at speed tends to be leisurely (with the notable exception of the Tesla Model S); driving enthusiastically just depletes the batteries that much faster, anyway. 

    In addition, some EVs have complicated, fussy controls and compromised space inside. Others are simple and straightforward.

    How far can they go?

    EV range varies from about 60 to 100 miles, although some versions of the expensive Tesla Model S can go a lot further – about 240 miles. Count on range being about 25-percent less than manufacturer claims in the real world. In particular, driving in cold weather will shorten the range noticeably, especially when the heater is used. The headlights, wipers, and defroster can likewise exact a toll.

    Gasoline-fueled cars will typically go 350 to 400 miles between fill-ups and take 5 minutes to fill. Driving an EV requires more planning.

    How long does it take to charge one?

    Charge times vary greatly, depending on the size of the battery and the speed of the charger.

    On a typical 240-volt charger, it can take between 4.5 and 6 hours to fully charge a pure-electric vehicle, depending on the car, battery size, and the speed of the charger. (Those figures are based on our test data on Ford Focus EV and the Nissan Leaf, respectively.) But no EV driver wants to experience a completely depleted battery. Plug-in hybrids can take significantly less time to recharge, ranging from an hour and a half charge for the Toyota Prius Plug-in to about 4.5 hours for the Chevrolet Volt.

    Expect a little more than double those times when charging from a standard 110-volt household outlet. Put another way, on a standard household outlet, expect to get about four miles of driving for every hour of charging (and twice that on a dedicated 240-volt charger).

    A wider variety of 240-volt chargers are coming on the market that charge at different speeds, so some aren’t as fast. Others, such as Tesla’s High Power Wall Connector home charger, ramp-up much faster.

    How much do they cost to charge?

    A full charge at the national average rate of 11-cents per kilowatt-hour costs about $3 for a typical, limited-range electric car. Due to their massive battery packs, Teslas can cost as much as four times that. As a rule, in a typical 2,000 square-foot air-conditioned home (without its own solar electricity generation), you can expect to about double your electric bill. That’s still probably far less than you’re spending on gas for a typical car. If you drive the national average mileage, you could expect to pay about $40 a month for electricity for an electric car—less than a single fill-up of gasoline for many cars.

    What about home chargers?

    Electric cars achieve the biggest benefits when they’re charged overnight at home when electric rates may decrease. As another benefit, most electric-car drivers say they find it much more convenient to just plug in at home than to have to stop at gas stations.

    It’s easy to charge a plug-in hybrid overnight, even on a standard 110-volt household outlet. Fully depleted, pure electric-car batteries can take almost a full day to charge on such low power. Practically speaking, owning a pure EV means installing a 240-volt, Level 2 home charger. These chargers sell for $400 to  $700, depending mainly on amperage and the length of the cable. Installation can run an additional $300 to $500, or more. These units will allow you to charge in less than half the time of a standard wall outlet, or as little as four hours for some electrics. The latest models will charge four times as fast as a home outlet.

    Public chargers are being installed in some cities throughout the United States, but their distribution varies widely. Even if there are chargers in your city, it doesn’t make them convenient and some may only charge at 1,500 watts, a slow trickle for a full electric car.

    The good news is that the nation has the foundational infrastructure for electric distribution. The problem is just covering the last 50 ft. from the nearest high-powered cable to the car.

    Couldn’t electric cars cause a power blackout?

    Theoretically, yes, if enough of them were charged during peak times in a local area. But we’re a long way from that in terms of electric-car penetration. And the risk is mitigated by the fact that most people will prefer to do most of their charging at night, when demand on the power grid is much lower.

    According to studies by Idaho and Pacific Northwest National Labs, the United States has enough power to charge at least 1 million electric cars at off-peak times, without building a single additional power plant.

    Utilities are legally committed to building more infrastructure to meet the demand from electric cars.

    Can I buy an electric car near me?

    Yes, depending on which model you’re interested in. Some electric cars, such as the Nissan Leaf and the Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid, are available in all 50 states. Others are rolling out primarily in California and Oregon, along with a few other states that follow California emissions mandates. Most automakers have plans to eventually market EVs nationwide.

    Why electric cars?

    The biggest motivators driving the production of electric cars are ending dependence on imported petroleum and reducing carbon-dioxide emissions. 

    Nationally and politically, it is largely agreed that the United States needs to reduce its dependence on fossil fuels and specifically upon petroleum. Electricity is not a fuel; it is energy produced from a wide array of domestic sources. An increasing percentage of those sources are cleaner than coal or oil, ranging from new natural-gas power plants to increasing wind and solar generation. The power grid in the United States is currently underutilized, having been built for the hottest day of the year. Transportation, particularly charging at night, can utilize that surplus.

    Doesn’t the power just come from dirtier coal instead of gasoline?

    Some does, but mostly not. About 45 percent of America’s electricity today comes from coal, primarily in the Midwest and around Washington, D.C. But America’s population centers are on the coasts, where electricity production comes from much cleaner sources, such as nuclear and natural gas. Most electric cars are sold in California, which uses no coal and has the cleanest electric grid in the country.

    What does the future look like for electric cars?

    Stringent new fuel-economy standards will push automakers to produce increasing numbers of electric cars by the end of this decade. Most will probably be plug-in hybrids. While batteries will remain larger and more expensive than a tank of gas, and will carry less energy, larger-scale adoption is bringing down costs. Breakthroughs in battery technology will drive even lower prices and wider adoption. Also, more public charging options are planned to make charging more accessible.

    EVs will eventually transition from being novel second cars in a household to being more primary-use cars, and a wider variety of types of EVs (including SUVs and sports cars) are certain to expand EVs’ appeal.

     

     

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

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    The quest for the best callus remover

    Keeping your feet in top condition takes time, so we wondered whether products such as the new battery-operated PedEgg could make it faster and easier. In previous tests, Consumer Reports' volunteer panelists found the original PedEgg—which works sort of like a kitchen microplane—to be a better callus remover than a pumice stone.

    But the new battery-powered versions claim to give you smooth, beautiful feet in minutes, without manual rubbing. So we pitted two heavily promoted brands, the Amopé Pedi Perfect and PedEgg Power, against the original PedEgg.

    For our test, we asked 20 volunteers to use one of the battery-run gadgets on one foot and the original PedEgg on the other. Most agreed that the motorized gadgets took less work, but all three devices did the job.

    The downside: You won’t get perfectly baby-soft feet with these gadgets, and the battery models left lots of skin dust on our testers’ floors. Also, most of the skin experts we talked to cautioned that the devices contain sharp blades or mechanized grinding surfaces that can damage your skin if you’re not careful.

    Don't let stylish shoes give you unhappy feet.

    Original PedEgg Professional, $12

    The claim. “Gently removes dry skin.”

    Testers’ notes. This manual foot file isn’t as quick and easy to use as battery-operated devices, but it’s just as good a callus remover. Several test panelists said it was easier to control than the battery-powered foot files.

    PedEgg Power, $21
    (batteries not included)

    The claim. “The fastest, easiest way to remove calluses.”

    Testers’ notes. Panelists gave it high scores, but several noted that they were disappointed in the amount of time it took to remove calluses. Some said the design of the roller—narrow and a bit indented—made it difficult to get at some calluses. It also created a mess of skin dust.

    Amope Pedi Perfect, $38
    (with batteries)

    The claim. “Beautifully smooth skin after one use.”

    Testers’ notes. No device will get rid of really thick-skinned calluses in one swipe. All three of the devices we tested took a while to remove those areas. And one panelist said it was “easy to go too far” with the Amopé Pedi Perfect, which took off too much of her skin. It also left behind big piles of skin dust.  

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

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    7 best mattresses for couples

    You may have the best mattress money can buy, but if you’re being kept awake at night when your partner is tossing and turning, you may want to reconsider. Some mattresses are better than others at muting vibrations from one side of the bed to the other when someone changes position or gets up during the night. That’s why Consumer Reports conducts a stabilization test on every mattress it tests. Here are the seven best mattresses for couples—they make it easier for both partners to get a good night’s sleep.

    No more bouncing

    All of the best mattresses in our tests meet or exceed the threshold that earns our judgment of bounce resistance. These mattresses are less likely to relay vibrations when someone shifts positions. Still, some innersprings we recommend do better than others in this test. Among those, the $1,100 Charles P. Rogers St. Regis Pillowtop was among the best in our tests and delivered impressive back support. (All prices listed are without the foundation.) The $1,275 Sealy Posturepedic Hybrid Trust Cushion, a bit better for side sleepers, did about as well at muting vibration.

    Moving with ease

    The foam beds we recommend are fine at muting vibration and all except the $2,750 Comforpedic IQ180 are notably good at making it easy to change positions. Keep in mind that lower scores on the stabilization test indicate mattresses on which changing positions is more likely to wake up your partner, particularly a light sleeper. Of the foam mattresses in our tests, the Ikea Morgongava, $1,000, was among the best at allowing easy movement. The Spring Air Back Supporter Natalie, $1,200, from Costco did about the same.

    Firmness options

    Choose the Bob’s Discount Furniture Bob-O-Pedic, $800, and you can get it in firm or soft—or, for couples who can’t agree, a combination of the two. And both the Sleep Number i8 Bed, $3,000, and the less pricey Sleep Number c2 Bed, $700, have separately inflatable air bladders beneath their foam layers. That way you can adjust each half to the respective sleep partner’s preference. Both Sleep Number beds are especially good at resisting bounciness and easing movement. But don’t assume that any adjustable-air bed lets each sleep partner adjust firmness individually. The Tempur-Pedic Tempur-Choice Supreme, $3,200, which missed our picks list, has air bladders that go left to right rather than head to foot—meaning that adjustments made to one side affect the other as well.

    Full Ratings and recommendations

    Only by trying out a mattress for at least 15 minutes in each of your favorite sleep positions can you truly know how comfortable a bed feels. In addition to our stabilization tests, we also measure back and side support. For those sleeping preferences, see our Ratings of 35 mattresses, along with our survey-based Ratings of mattress brands and stores. And be sure to read our mattress buying guide before shopping.

    —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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    New Ford Sync 3 Infotainment System Cures MyFord Touch Woes

    The Ford Sync 3 infotainment system hopes to remedy the woes that affected its predecessor, MyFord/MyLincoln Touch. After driving with the Ford Sync 3 for more than a week, it's clear that Ford learned much from their previous mistakes. (Read "Ford Sync 3 Infotainment System Is Coming Soon to a Car Near You.")

    There's always a risk in being an industry leader. Arguably, Ford did more to push touch-screen-based infotainment systems into the mainstream with the 2011 introduction of MyFord Touch than any other company. But this system suffered major teething pains, with both consumer and expert complaints about the interface design, slow system response, and buggy reliability. Despite updates, MyFord Touch never measured up to industry benchmarks like Chrysler's Uconnect 8.4 system.

    New From the Ground Up

    Ford Sync 3 is being introduced on many of the company's products for the 2016 model year. Unlike MyFord Touch's Microsoft-based platform, Ford Sync 3 features QNX, a well-regarded operating system used by many other car companies. Upgraded processors contribute to an immediately noticeable improvement in response time. (Cars with MyFord Touch can not be upgraded to Ford Sync 3.)

    You also immediately notice the new touch-screen layout. Cosmetically, Ford Sync 3 lacks the glossy high-tech look of MyFord Touch. It's more straightforward and earnest, almost like it emerged from elementary school rather than a design college. But forget about static showroom or brochure appeal; Sync 3's resulting big fonts and huge onscreen buttons are just what you want when driving.

    Ford Sync 3 shows the value in the "less is more" strategy of interface design. It felt like MyFord Touch had no editor during its initial design; seemingly no conceivable feature was left on the cutting-room floor. In stark contrast, Sync 3 sticks to the essentials, and it proves to be far better for that discipline.

    Nowhere is this philosophy more apparent than Sync 3's navigation system. Programming a destination is stripped to the bare necessities. Much like Tesla's class-leading navigation system, searching for points of interest by typing out the name is impressively quick. Arcane navigation settings are hidden unless you really need them.

    A literal cornerstone of MyFord Touch was its color-coded corners for each major function, like navigation, phone, audio, and climate. That took some getting used to, and it was never as clear as Sync 3's large onscreen buttons running across the bottom screen. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Chrysler's Uconnect 8.4 must be feeling especially honored by this particular feature.

    All high praise indeed. But since Sync 3 is moving into existing dashboard designs across the Ford lineup, some legacy issues still remain. For instance, on the Ford Escape that we drove, the dashboard design blocks some view of the corners of the screen, and the screen is a far reach away. Ford's screen size is also smaller than that of some competitors. Happily, Ford's fascination with banning knobs in favor of capacitive buttons is almost fully eradicated across the lineup; those flush touch-sensitive controls were frustrating in their unpredictability and couldn't really be used without looking away from the road.

    Finally, we don't know if Sync 3 will be more reliable than MyFord Touch. Time will tell, as will our annual reliability survey results. But we do know now that Sync 3 is considerably easier to use, making it a welcome addition across the Ford line-up.

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

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    Sears makes a big bet on the connected home

    Look for smoke alarms, thermostats, lighting, and other home products you can control using your phone or tablet, and you'll find a selection at your local home center or even Staples. But if you also want to browse electronics, fitness trackers, and exercise equipment, you'll have to look elsewhere. Sears is hoping to be the go-to-place for “all of the above.”

    The retailer initially told Consumer Reports of its plans to roll out store space in more than 200 stores in addition to one San Bruno, California, store in which it has devoted 3,900 square feet to a Connected Solutions department that’s organized like rooms of a home. Three other stores, in the Chicago area, will have smaller, 2,000-square-foot Connected Solutions departments.

    The other stores won’t get such royal treatment, but for 200 selected stores, Sears will be adding a Connected Solutions section. You can find it adjacent to the electronics department, whose sales staff will be trained to answer questions on the smart products—for example, on product compatibility and installation.

    In other Sears stores, many connected products can still be found but in the particular departments where they would be located if they're not connected, such as smoke alarms in the home products section. Sears has also given connected products their own space on Sears’ website. One lagging exception to the inventory—smart major appliances. GE, LG, Samsung, and Whirlpool offer smart functions with several models for remote monitoring and control plus easier diagnosis, but so far you'll only find remote-service diagnosis in the Kenmore line.

    All bets are off, however, on what the increased focus on smart products might do to the overall bottom line. Not long after we attended a Manhattan demonstration of the Connected Solutions line, Sears Holdings released second-quarter figures that showed a more than 14-percent loss for its year-to-date domestic store sales.

    Want a look at more smart products?

    Consumer Reports has tested many connected products, some of which we grouped together in the report, “"Run your Home from your Phone." We continue to buy additional, similarly connected products and describe their additional functionality on the products’ individual model pages.

    —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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    Are you paying more for your Rx meds?

    Not all surprises are good, especially when that surprise means you pay more for a prescription drug you take all the time. Yet in the last 12 months, that’s exactly what happened to one third of Americans in our survey. People said they paid an average of $39 above the usual cost for their prescription—and one in 10 said they paid a whopping $100 or more out-of-pocket. That’s according to a new Consumer Reports poll of 1,037 U.S. adults who currently take a prescription medication.

    Denise Nolan, 49, of Lincoln, Nebraska, found out first-hand how pricey some drugs have suddenly become when she went to fill her prescription this past July for a common and usually inexpensive medication to treat rheumatoid arthritis. She was shocked when she was told by her pharmacist at a large, chain drugstore that the price for generic hydroxychloroquine had suddenly doubled to more than $500 for a three-month’s supply. “I about fainted because we don’t have insurance,” says Nolan.

    Want to learn how to save money on your meds? Check out the new and improved Best Drugs for Less magazine, available in both English and Spanish!

    What’s going on?

    Unfortunately, Nolan’s situation is increasingly common. Rising drug prices, especially for generic medications, have become such a problem that two members of Congress, Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Maryland) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont), asked the Office of the Inspector General earlier this year to investigate—especially since the federal government pays for more than one-third of all prescription drugs in the U.S.

    One recent analysis by the research firm Pembroke Consulting found that from August 2013 to August 2014, half of all generic drugs had increased in price, while one-tenth had gone up by 100 percent or more. The most outrageous price hike researchers found? During that time, the wholesale price of the antibiotic tetracycline, in the 500-mg dose, skyrocketed by 17,711 percent, from $.05 to $8.59 per pill. Analysis done by the firm since then still shows some generics have increased in price (37 percent), but by much smaller amounts; while two-thirds of drugs dropped in price.

    Drugs to treat asthma, high blood pressure, and irregular heart rhythm medications top the list of drugs that have seen prices increases in the last several years.

    In Denise’s case, her pharmacist said the price hike for her drug stemmed from a shortage in the market. That can happen when fewer manufacturers make a drug, if demand for the product increases, or there’s a reduced supply of an active ingredient. Or, more commonly, generic manufacturers may have production problems that result in reduced quantities of a product, or delays in getting the drug to market. That’s according to an analysis by the American Society of Health-Systems Pharmacists (ASHP) prepared for Consumer Reports.

    Shortages or even reductions in supply can trigger sudden price changes, which can then affect how insurance companies categorize a drug on their formulary, a list of drugs that insurance covers. You'll get the lowest out-of-pocket costs or co-pay when you buy the coverage plan's "preferred" generic drugs, typically called “Tier 1.” Another category sometimes seen is called "acceptable" generic drugs” are slightly more expensive, followed by preferred brand-name drugs, then acceptable brand-name drugs. The highest tier, typically called “Tier 4,” is for very expensive drugs such as those to treat cancer or hepatitis C.  A drug that isn’t listed on the formulary will have the highest out-of-pocket cost; you may pay a pre-negotiated, higher rate, or it simply won't be covered at all.

    Insurers may opt to reduce coverage of a drug—moving it from a Tier 1 into a more expensive tier, for example—or stop covering it all together. Other common scenarios can also result in price hikes. For example, people on Medicare Part D face the “donut hole”—the situation where, after you and the plan pay $2,960 together, you have to pay for medications out of pocket until the total reaches $3,310. In other cases, a growing number of people have high-deductible insurance plans from their employers, which can require paying a higher amount for medications out of pocket before their insurance kicks-in.

    “This never used to be an issue,” says Chris Roberts, operations manager for Liberty Pharmacy, an independent drugstore that opened in Austin, Texas seven years ago. He’s in charge of ordering medications to stock the pharmacy. “Price increases started about a year and a half or so ago, says Roberts. “For whatever reason, raw material shortage or some other problem, literally overnight we’ll see a dramatic increase.” He says that their pharmacy tries to help patients by getting medications switched to lower-cost drugs, working with their insurance company to get a drug covered, or even looking for manufacturer coupons when it’s a branded drug.

    High costs hit the bottom line

    The problem is that surprise price hikes usually leave people with two options: Either pay the high price or leave without filling the prescription. That was the case for Denise, who simply paid the more expensive price for her medication out of her pocket. “We’re sort of at their mercy,” says Nolan.  

    In our poll, most people (81 percent) said they, too, paid for the drug despite their sticker shock. But some still scrambled to get a lower price. One-quarter of people said they called their insurance company to see if it would cover a greater percentage of the cost, or asked their doctor or pharmacist to switch their prescription to a lower-cost medication (some did both). Just 17 percent of people said they tried shopping around at other pharmacies for a lower price.

    Most alarming, some said that higher drug prices affected their ability to pay for other medical care. People who faced unexpected high costs were more than twice as likely to avoid seeing their doctor or forego a medical procedure than those who didn’t.

    And that’s not all. Nearly 40 percent of people in this situation cut at least one corner with their medication in order to save money.

    Higher drug costs = changes in spending habits

    Higher drug costs exacted another toll on American’s finances: The need to cut costs in other areas of personal spending to make ends meet. Nearly three-quarters of people with higher drug costs said they economized in other ways during the last year in order to afford their medications, even affecting how much money they spent at the grocery store and whether they chose to retire last year.

    In the last six months alone, 42 percent of people who experienced a surprise drug price increase also suffered at least one economic setback. The number one problem? One of out every four people facing higher drug costs were also unable to afford medical bills or medications; one in five said they missed a payment on a major bill. (That could mean credit card bills, car payments—anything other than a mortgage payment.)

    What your doctor can do

    In spite of the difficulties some consumers face paying for their medications, many people rarely discuss the problem with their doctors. That’s partly because most people don’t even know how much a drug costs until they fill the prescription. In our survey, nearly two-thirds (63 percent) of people said they first learned about a drug’s cost when picking it up from the pharmacy, while only 5 percent found out at the doctor’s office.  That’s not surprising: Doctors say they’re often unaware when drugs have large price increases.

    So, when your doctor writes a new prescription, ask him or her how much it will cost you; if they can’t tell you that, ask if they can find out if the drug is covered by your insurance. And insist that they at least take steps to keep your costs low by prescribing low-cost generics when they are available. One problem we found is that although generics can still provide major savings, four out of 10 people said their doctor “sometimes” or “never” recommends generics over brand-name drugs.

    Consumers weren’t shy when it came discussing drug safety – 70 percent reported speaking to their doctor or nurse about side effects when starting a new drug.

    A savings checklist: What you can do

    Chasing down affordable drug prices is not always easy, but it can pay off.  Try these steps.

    Ask your doctor or pharmacist to review all of the drugs you take and determine if you can stop taking any of them. Our poll found that 44 percent of adult Americans say they regularly take at least one prescription drug; but the average was almost five medications. Your doctor or pharmacist may be able to determine if some medications are duplications or no longer needed. Not only could this save money, but reducing the total number of medications you take also lowers the chances of experiencing an accidental drug error or side effect.

    • Make sure your prescribed drug is covered by your insurance. If it’s not, ask your doctor to prescribe a different drug that is on your formulary. If that's not possible or your doctor says it's not a good idea, ask him or her to petition your insurance company to cover the drug. If your health plan denies your request, you can file an appeal.

    • Consider other medications if the price is too high. Ask the pharmacist or call your doctor to find out if there is a more affordable drug in the same class of medications or if there’s an acceptable alternative. Ask for a generic version if you’ve been taking a brand-name drug.

    Use your insurer’s preferred pharmacy: Some commercial plans, as well as Medicare Part D and Advantage plans, have preferred, retail pharmacies. Check with your plan to make sure you are using one of those in order to get the best price.

    Consider your insurance company’s mail order service. For certain medications, using mail order may help you save money.

    • Try getting your prescription from Costco. If you suddenly find that you’ll need to pay for your prescription entirely out of pocket, put Costco on your list of places to price check. Our secret shoppers have found that Costco usually offers the lowest retail prices on medications. For example, a month’s supply of the generic antidepressant duloxetine (Cymbalta) cost $220 both at a Kmart and at a Walgreens in Raleigh, N.C., but just $55 at a nearby Costco. Bonus: You don’t need to be a member, either.

    • Shop around. Call other drugstores in your area too. Independent pharmacies may also offer extremely low prices, though some charge high prices as well. For example, in the Des Moines, Iowa area, our secret shoppers found the generic drug pioglitazone (Actos) for wildly different prices at two independent pharmacies: One store charged $328 for a month’s supply; another charged $20. And, if you live in a metropolitan area, consider checking with pharmacies outside the city because prices can sometimes be less expensive in pharmacies that are located in suburban and rural areas.

    Ask the pharmacist, “is this the lowest possible price you can offer?” That’s especially true for when you are paying for a drug entirely out of pocket. But, it could still worth asking even if you use your insurance. Our secret shoppers found that by asking for the lowest possible price, they could occasionally get additional discounts. Case in point: A Target pharmacy in Des Moines, Iowa, first quoted a price of $191 for duloxetine. Our analysis suggested that the price was too high, so we called again and asked for the lowest price the store could offer. Our new deal: $160. (See tip above, because after that, we kept calling around in the area and were quoted a price of $7.50 for the same drug at an independent pharmacy just 7 miles away.)

    Try to negotiate. Independent, mom-and-pop pharmacies say they will often try to work with people who need to lower their medication costs. Neighborhood pharmacies may not have formal discount programs like the big chains offer, but they are usually willing to match or beat their competitor’s prices.

    This article is made possible by a grant from the state Attorney General Consumer and Prescriber Education Grant Program, which is funded by the multistate settlement of consumer-fraud claims regarding the marketing of the prescription drug Neurontin (gabapentin).

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

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    Consumer Reports Poll: One-Third of Americans Slammed By Sticker Shock at The Pharmacy As Drug Costs Soar

    Nearly 75 percent of people hit with higher drug prices have been forced to adjust their personal spending habits, even cutting back on groceries; New, free e-pub with tips for saving on drug costs

    YONKERS, NY— The rising cost of prescription drug prices – even on traditionally low-cost generics – is taking a toll on many consumers’ wallets. According to a new nationally representative poll from Consumer Reports, one-third of consumers who currently take a prescription medication said they paid higher drug prices at the pharmacy, paying on average an extra $39 for their prescriptions.  And, one in 10 reported paying a $100 or more out-of-pocket.

    And of those who told Consumer Reports they paid higher drug costs, nearly three-quarters said that during the last year they economized in other ways in order to afford their medications, including spending less at the grocery store, increasing credit card usage and postponing payments of other bills.

    “These cost hikes don’t leave people with many options: they either pay for the drug or walk away and don’t get it,” said Lisa Gill, prescription drug editor at Consumer Reports. “Consumers shouldn’t have to choose between taking medication and going grocery shopping.”

    To help consumers make smart health choices and save money, Consumer Reports has released the latest version of its prescription drug guide, Best Drugs for Less, for free, in English and Spanish, at CRBestDrugsforLess.org.   

    Consumer Reports found that consumers who reported drug increases experienced greater difficulty in paying for other medical care, too.  They were also more than twice as likely to avoid seeing their doctor or to put off having a medical procedure than those who were not confronted with higher drug costs.   

    Consumer Reports encourages consumers who are faced with higher drug prices to find ways to save on prescription drugs, and found that some are already doing so.  A quarter of respondents said they called their insurance company to see if it would cover a greater percentage of the cost or asked doctor or pharmacist to have their prescription switched to a lower-cost medication.   And, 17 percent said they shopped around at other pharmacies for a lower price.  

    Although the prices of some generic drugs are going up, they can cost up to 95 percent less than their brand name versions.  Yet Consumer Reports’ poll found that four out of 10 people said their doctor sometimes or never recommends generics over brand-name drugs.  

    Now in its sixth edition, Best Drugs for Less, lays out strategies for economizing on prescription drugs. Consumer Reports’ free e-pub provides information about prescription and over-the-counter drugs for all types of health conditions including allergies, depression, insomnia, hypertension, and more.   It also features advice on where to find the cheapest medicines, how to read drug labels, and more. Best Drugs for Less relies on a panel of doctors to provide trusted information about nearly 650 medications.

    Some additional ways consumers can save on prescription drugs include the following:

    • Patients should ask their doctors or pharmacists if lower-cost or generic options are available.  And, make sure the prescribed drug is covered by insurance.  If not, ask the doctor to prescribe a different drug listed on the formulary.

    • Shop around. It can pay to comparison shop.  Try independents and chain pharmacies and see which one offers the best price on the drug needed.  Also, consider calling pharmacies out of metro areas because prices can sometimes be less expensive at ones located in suburban and rural areas.

    • Ask for the lowest price possible.  Consumer Reports’ secret shoppers have found that doing so can save consumers lots of money whether or not they are paying for the prescription medication through insurance or out of pocket.  

    About Consumer Reports
    Consumer Reports is the world’s largest and most trusted nonprofit, consumer organization working to improve the lives of consumers by driving marketplace change. Founded in 1936, Consumer Reports has achieved substantial gains for consumers on health reform, food and product safety, financial reform, and other issues. The organization has advanced important policies to cut hospital-acquired infections, prohibit predatory lending practices and combat dangerous toxins in food. Consumer Reports tests and rates thousands of products and services in its 50-plus labs, state-of-the-art auto test center and consumer research center. Consumers Union, a division of Consumer Reports, works for pro-consumer laws and regulations in Washington, D.C., the states, and in the marketplace. With more than eight million subscribers to its flagship magazine, website and other publications, Consumer Reports accepts no advertising, payment or other support from the companies whose products it evaluates.

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  • 08/13/15--05:59: 4 Great Workout Headphones
  • 4 Great Workout Headphones

    Nearly two-thirds of headphone users listen to music or other forms of audio while they exercise, according to research firm NDP. If you're among them, what's important is a pair of headphones that's sweat-resistant, lightweight, rugged, and able to stay in place when you exercise. The workout headphones here tick all of those boxes.

    Two of the workout headphones listed here, the Jabra and the Beats by Dre, include Bluetooth. We don't consider that a requirement for exercise, but it's useful: With either model, you can connect wirelessly to a smartphone or laptop from up to 30 feet away—and that means you can go for a run without having wires flapping against your neck.

    If you can, try on these workout headphones in the store to make sure they're comfortable and secure.

    Scosche SportClip 3 Headphones ($30)

    The Scosche SportClip 3 workout headphones are billed as splashproof and dustproof; in our testing, they provided very good sound quality. A set of earhooks help them stay securely in place even if your bobbing and weaving through a kickboxing workout. It's a small detail, but we like the carrying bag, which keeps the wires from getting tangled up in your backpack or purse.

    Jabra Sport Pulse Wireless Headphones ($200)

    The Jabra Sport Pulse workout headpones combine elements of in-ear and earbud earphones and delivers very good sound quality, along with the convenience of Bluetooth connectivity. What sets this model apart is that it has a built-in heart-rate monitor function: A sensor in the earbuds picks up the wearer’s heart beat, and a free mobile app (on your iPhone or Android device) calculates the heart rate. Our tests found the app to be impressively accurate. 

    Bose FreeStyle Headphones ($130)

    The Bose FreeStyle headphones are good-looking workout headphones that come in one of two bold colors: ice blue or indigo. They work with all Apple devices, but aren't compatible with every non-Apple phone. The Freestyle comes with three “Stayhear” earpieces, which combine elements of in-ear and earbud-style earphones. Once you choose the right size, they provide a very secure and stable fit, even when you're extremely active. The sound quality is very good, with a warm character.

    Beats by Dre Powerbeats 2 Wireless Headphones ($200)

    Like the Jabra model, the Beats by Dre Powerbeats 2 wireless Bluetooth headphones has built-in Bluetooth, for wirelessly connecting to your mobile device. These workout headpones also combine elements of in-ear and earbud earphone technology, and provides very good sound quality. These headphones are nicely styled, with black earpieces and black-and-gray ear loops that help secure the fit. 

    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 remove bloatware from Lenovo computers

    Lenovo is having a bad week, as news circulates that the PC maker has been preloading its laptops with potentially unwanted software persists even if the you wipe the machine clean and reinstall the operating system. That means that if you've just upgraded to Windows 10, the software is present.

    By itself, the preloaded software might just be annoying. However, the mechanism that Lenovo used to achieve this persistent reinstallation opens a security hole that leaves your computer vulnerable to attack. Lenovo has posted a list of affected laptops and a disabler tool. And there's a separate page for Lenovo desktops built between October 2014 and April 2015.

    If you own a Lenovo computer, you should check out those pages. (And yes, Lenovo is the company that made its customers targets for hackers last year by installing Superfish adware on its products.)

    Lenovo isn't alone in preloading PCs with a lot of software that is of little benefit to consumers. And the company also isn't alone in using persistent installers. Whenever they detect a reinstallation or a new version of Windows, these tools will try to reinstall factory-provided drivers (probably good), system utilities (maybe good), and marketing software (not so good).

    After upgrading to Windows 10, if you see a utility launch to reinstall manufacturer-provided programs you don't need, you can cancel it—if that's allowed. However, you might just have to let it proceed and then come back later to remove bloatware or uninstall the programs you don't want.

    The procedure to remove bloatware has changed with each new version of the operating system. Here's a crib sheet.

    Windows XP

    The Control Panel item for this was simply called "Add/Remove Programs."

    Windows Vista and 7

    The Control Panel was changed to "Programs and Features" within a Control Panel group labeled "Programs."

    Windows 8

    To get to this Control Panel from the desktop view, you can open the "Charms" bar on the right of the screen, and select "Settings," "Change PC settings," "Control Panel." Or you can switch to the New UI (tile) interface and start typing "Control Panel" or "Programs and Features" until you see it come up in the search list. The Control Panel uninstaller will work only on traditional desktop applications; to remove Windows Store apps, you can right-click or long-press on the app's tile and select "Uninstall" from the pop-up menu.

    Windows 10

    Microsoft has unified the traditional and New UI programs into one list in the Start menu. You can right-click or long-press on one of the apps and a drop-down menu will open with the app's uninstaller. You can also uninstall from the Settings, System, Apps and Features Control Panel.

    If there's an unwanted program you just can't find a way to remove, do a Web search on it with the word "remove" to see whether others have faced and solved the same issue. If not and you want to remove bloatware, it's time to take the manufacturer up on its offer of tech support.

    —Dean Gallea

     


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    3 finishing touches for your bathroom remodel

    A dated bathroom can scuttle a home sale. Drab tile and dated fixtures are a turn-off, especially if the color scheme is reminiscent of a bygone era. And even if your house isn't on the market, it pays to update the bathroom to make it both safer, more comfortable, and easier to access for everyone. If you're in the middle of a remodel or considering one, here are three nice touches to consider.

    Running out of hot water?

    Before you blame your teenager or spouse, the culprit may be in your utility room. If you’ve recently remodeled your bathroom (folks with multiple showerheads and body sprays or soaking tubs, we’re talking to you), then you may need a larger water heater to keep up with increased demand. That’s because running several showerheads or body sprays at once, even water-saving ones, adds up. And filling up a soaking tub can easily drain a small water heater. Check out our water heater buying guide for what you need to know before you replace your old one.

    Look, Ma, no hands!

    The best touchless-toilet we found isn’t a toilet at all. It’s a retrofit kit that installs in the toilet tank and replaces the trip lever with a cap. A hand-icon decal tells you where to wave. The Kohler K-1954-0 kit, $50, runs on four AA batteries and beeps when they’re running low. But the kit can’t be used on toilets with a flush button on top or on dual-flush, pressure-assist, ballcock-valve toilets. For more on toilets, see our full toilet Ratings and recommendations.

    Go for the flow

    Speakman claims that its Reaction low-flow showerheads, $25 to $66, offer water savings and a powerful spray. It claims the built-in turbine concentrates and optimizes pressure, boosting the velocity of water without letting in cool air. In addition to testing the showerheads in our labs, we installed the 2- and 2.5-gallon-per-minute versions in the showers in the locker rooms at Consumer Reports. More than 20 staffers “took one [shower] for the team.” (We didn’t ID which showerhead used 2 gpm and which used 2.5 gpm.) Both met their claimed gpm.

    Staffers liked the feel and forcefulness of the 2.5-gpm showerhead slightly more than the 2-gpm version. About half said they’d buy one of the two models. The biggest gripe: The Reactions have only one setting. They’re available with a translucent gray, blue, or green frame. For more choices, see our full showerhead Ratings and recommendations.

    Bathroom remodeling

    For more news and information on bathroom remodeling, see:

    Create a beautiful bathroom for the ages

    5 steps to a safer bathroom

    4 easy bathroom updates you'll be happy you made

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

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    First Look: Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge+ and Note5

    The new Samsung Galaxy S6 edge+ and Galaxy Note5 are good examples of how much variety a phone maker can squeeze out of two devices that share the same chassis. These sleek glass-and-aluminum phablets, which have 5.7-inch Quad HD displays and measure about 6 inches x 3 inches x 0.3 inches, have nearly identical specs and capabilities, but they each offer something unique. Both will be available later this month on AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, U.S. Cellular and Verizon Wireless (and smaller carriers are likely to follow).

    The Note5 looks very much like earlier Notes, except for its sleeker, slightly thinner unibody construction. The display of the S6 edge+, on the other hand, curves away from the viewer on the right and left, which makes it look like a giant Galaxy S6 edge. That’s one reason Samsung dropped “Note” from its name. The other reason is that it lacks one of the most defining features of a Note phone: the S Pen stylus. S6 edge+ owners will just have to learn to do more with their fingers. As compensation for not having a stylus, Samsung lets S6 edge+ users pull up their five most-important contacts with the sweep of a finger from either side of the display. A second sweep summons the five most-used apps.

    Like the Galaxy S6 models that launched this spring, these new Samsungs support both Qi and Powermat wireless charging pads out of the box. They can also be rapidly charged. Samsung says you can fully resurrect a near-dead battery in just 2 hours (compared with 3 on the Galaxy S6). And you’ll need that advantage because these models don’t have removable batteries.

    Also, there are no memory-card slots, so if you need more storage, you’ll have to find it in the cloud or buy another—more expensive—phone. For now, there are just two storage-capacity options: 32GB (roughly $700 to $800 without contract) or 64GB (about $800 to $900). We suspect Samsung dropped the 128GB storage option because the price would have caused a riot.

    The Highlights

    Show me the money. At its New York headquarters last week, Samsung also demoed its new tap-to-pay system, which launches in September. Samsung Pay is like most NFC-base payment systems in that it will let you purchase things in stores by tapping your phone against a terminal near the register. An app on the phone, which holds links to one or more of your credit or debit cards, communicates with the terminals via a short-range wireless technology called NFC (near-field communication).

    Samsung Pay, however, is much like Apple Pay in two important respects: Thanks to a scanner built into the phones’ home button, you’ll be able to authorize transactions with your fingerprint. And a secure element chip in the phone will allow you to authorize a limited number of transactions (five to 10) even when that phone can’t connect with your financial institution—something you can’t yet do with Google Wallet or Android Pay.

    You may think a fledging payment system like Samsung Pay doesn’t have a chance when even Apple Pay and Google Wallet terminals seem so rare. But Samsung says its payment system will work at millions of registers—even the old-style mag-stripe readers already installed in your favorite store. That’s because Magnetic Secure Transmission (MST) technology is embedded in even the creakiest card readers. MST was developed by a company called LoopPay, which Samsung bought in 2014. The downside: Samsung Pay does not support loyalty cards, which means you still have to whip out your CVS card to get that discount.

    Smile, you’re on YouTube Live. If you have a solid Internet connection, you can beam your camcorder videos up to YouTube in real time. When you’re done, you have an instant link to share with friends on any social-network platform. Just one hitch: If your broadcast gets interrupted at any point during the recording process, you have to start over.

    Sign on the dotted line. If your lawyer sends you a contract in pdf form, you’ll be able to sign it right on the phone with the S-Pen or a finger. Unlike other apps, which just let you scribble notes on the jpeg copy on your screen, the pdf editing tool will enter your edits into the actual document, making your input official.

    Making sweet sounds from sour notes. Samsung says its ultra-high-quality audio app (UHQA) can help even sketchy music files sound better by filling in whatever it thinks is missing. We’ve seen these apps before, and some do a decent job, but Samsung sweetened this app by making it compatible with music from YouTube, which other apps have trouble handling.

    The big picture. Screen grabs aren’t new, but these models can capture shots that go on for several pages—with just one tap.
     

    Samsung also promised better low-light performances from its main and front-facing cameras, as well as faster, more efficient performances from other hardware. But our engineers will confirm those claims when we get these phones into our labs within the next two weeks. In the meantime, check out the other cool phones in our Ratings. 

    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 remove six common household stains

    Before you toss a shirt soiled with wine, gravy, or mustard into the washer, make sure you make every effort to remove the stain first. It's good to plan ahead for such mishaps and to keep dishwashing liquid, nail-polish remover, Fels-Naptha and other cleaning agents on hand. In addition to the items that you toss in the wash, most of these remedies will work on carpets and furniture, too.

    Juice

    Blot with solution of 1 teaspoon dishwashing liquid (like Ivory) in 1 cup warm water. Red-dye remover works on red fruit punch.

    Gum

    Dab with extra-strength Bengay, heat with hair dryer, scrape with press-to-seal bag. Blot with detergent solution and rinse.

    Gravy

    Pretreat with a paste of Fels-Naptha soap, then wash. Repeat if necessary. Don’t put item in the dryer until the stain is gone.

    Mustard

    Apply repeated applications of detergent solution to remove solids. When stain is reduced, rinse and dry in bright sunlight.

    Lipstick

    Blot with acetone-based nail-polish remover, followed by the detergent solution, and rinse.

    Wine

    Blot with water. If stain remains, try detergent solution. 3 percent hydrogen peroxide is effective on red wine.

    Best laundry detergents from our tests

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    Looking for the lowest prices on textbooks?

    Many students head to college every fall distraught over how much they will have to pay for textbooks and supplies. The College Board estimates that students attending a four-year public college will have to spend an average of $1,200 annually. That's because an accounting textbook can easily cost $270. A human anatomy and physiology textbook can cost well over $200.

    The burden is so great that according to a 2014 survey conducted by the U.S. PIRG Education Fund, 65% of students opted out of buying a textbook and most of them then worried about how that decision would affect their grade. 

    There may be a better way. A number of textbook price comparison tools now exist on the Web that allow students to find textbooks at much more reasonable prices. These tools can help you find the best price on the textbook that fits your needs, whether a used, new, rental, or e-textbook. Keep in mind that these sites do not sell you the textbook directly—they provide you with links that redirect you to the seller of your choosing.

    Here are three sites that you could consider using:

    For more ways to spend less on school supplies, read "Ways to Save With Student Discounts" and "Save When Shopping Online for Dorm Supplies."

    Booksprice

    Key Features:
    • Booksprice allows users to search up to 10 International Standard Book Numbers (ISBNs) at the same time. This is the numeric code assigned to identify book titles.
    • The site lets you compare prices of over 50 vendors. Be sure to check out Booksprice's full list of stores that is included in the price comparison. 
    • Booksprice's Multiple Book Comparison allows for users to find the best overall price among several books. Users can find the best price on combinations of multiple new books, multiple new and used books, or by searching for the store that will give you the lowest price on your total purchase. 
    • The site will also tell you the estimated shipping price for your purchase

      There are some drawbacks, though.  A warning on the bottom of the price comparison rates reads, "It is not technically possible for the prices displayed above to be updated in real-time." That means that prices shown may not reflect the current price.

      Another drawback is that some stores may be excluded from price comparison searches. This may be because Booksprice is not able to search in that store, the website of the store is not working, or there is Internet network congestion, among many other possible reasons.

    Textsurf

    Key Features:

    • Textsurf allows users to subscribe to a mailing list in order to receive textbook saving reminders.
    • The number of retailers included in the price comparison are not specifically stated on the website but when we searched for five books, each one showed prices at six vendors: Amazon, AbeBooks, ValoreBooks, Chegg, BookRenter, and RedShelf
    • Textsurf provides visitors with a few "Saving Tips."

    CheapestTextbooks

    Key Features:

    • The number of retailers CheapestTextbooks included in the price comparisons are not specifically stated on the website. However, as I searched for the five textbooks, I noticed that a little over 10 different retailers were included. Among these retailers were Amazon, Chegg, and Ebay. Like Textsurf, CheapestTextbooks did not include Barnes and Noble in the comparison.
    • The estimated shipping is shown on CheapestTextbooks.
    • When informing users of the prices, CheapestTextbooks gives users the time span of when the price was last checked. For example, when I checked the pricing for "Rules for Writers", CheapestTextbook showed the price as $36.05 since 19 hours ago for one retailer and $30.98 since one second ago for another retailer. 
    • CheapestTextbooks provides users with information on "Coupons and Deals" from various retailers.

    Bottom Line: Textbook price comparison sites may help you in your search to find the best textbook price for your budget. But the results can vary greatly depending on which tool you use, how many stores they search and how frequently they update their book prices.  

    –Marcy Robles

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

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    New law to help protect seniors from exploitation

    A Missouri law that goes into effect later this month could help protect older investors and adults with certain disabilities from financial exploitation. The Senior Savings Protection Act, effective August 28, will enable certain brokerage employees to delay investment trades requested by people ages 60 and up, and adults ages 18 to 59 with certain disabilities, if they think completing the trades would result in financial exploitation. 

    The investment professional must then notify the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services; the state's commissioner of securities; and individuals connected with the account or the vulnerable adult, including family members, conservators, guardians, and those with powers of attorney. 

    The delay can only last up to 10 days. The law protects the professionals from civil lawsuits resulting from the trading delay if they act in good faith. The law doesn't apply to all disabled adults; rather, it focuses on people with physical or cognitive disabilities that might interfere with good financial decision-making, said Ron Long, director of regulatory affairs and elder client initiatives for St. Louis-based Wells Fargo Advisors. His company and three other brokerages pushed for the legislation.

    Consumer Reports Retirement Planning Guide offers advice on creating a safe and secure retirement.

    The law also allows for brokers to contact relatives or other people close to the senior who aren't even named on the account, Long explained. That could be crucial if a guardian or person with power of attorney is the one actually doing the exploitation, a common occurrence. "This law allows a firm suspecting misconduct to have the eyes of a regulator and adult protective services agency to look at a situation at the time of or soon after financial misconduct occurs," Long said. "It is that extra scrutiny that often is missing in the majority of financial abuse cases."

    Brokers can't act spontaneously in blocking trades; they must first check with a compliance officer, legal department or supervisor. The law only applies to employees of broker-dealers, though Long said he thought other types of financial entities could be subject to similar regulations in future years. 

    The law doesn't require brokers to report abuse. Rather, it offers guidelines in the event they do. It also mandates that, by September 2016, the state's commissioner of securities set up a training website for those professionals, including how to identify elder financial fraud, and how to report it. 

    Delaware and Washington have similar statutes.

    The Department of Labor has proposed that broker-dealers be subject to fiduciary standards that require financial advisers to act in their clients' best interests. Consumers Union, the advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, supports that initiative. But Long maintained that new fiduciary standards would not prevent adult financial exploitation, because the rules relate to investment recommendations, not to actions an investor takes on his or her own.

    "The fiduciary rule does not say a client must act in her own best interests," Long noted. "No fiduciary rule will allow an adviser to say, 'I know you want to sell this XYZ stock, Mary, to use the proceeds to gamble in Las Vegas. But as your fiduciary, the law requires me to prohibit you from doing it because it is not in your best interest.'"

    — Tobie Stanger (@TobieStanger on Twitter)

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    Picking a home health agency just got a bit easier

    The federal government's recent introduction of a new, 5-star ratings system judging home health agencies could help ease the decision that millions of Americans make each year regarding home health care for an older or disabled person.

    The new, free ratings, called Home Health Compare, hosted by the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, judges about 9,300 private and public home health care providers (about 2,900 are not included). The five-star rating is based on nine measures. Another 20 measures are judged, but aren't included in the rating. 

    On the Home Health Compare page, when you type in a zip code, a list of local home health agencies pops up. From the list, you can choose to compare reports on up to three agencies at a time. Or, you can type in the name of just one home health agency and get its report. 

    The information is split into three categories: general information (is the agency public, private, or religious; services offered), quality of patient care (helping patients manage daily activities; managing pain and treating symptoms; treating wounds and preventing pressure sores; preventing harm, preventing unplanned hospice care), and results of patient surveys judging professionalism of care and communication, among other factors. You'll also see how the home health agency's rating stacks up against national and state averages.

    I found the footnotes and links quite useful. Clicking on "Learn more about all the quality measures," for instance, led to a page listing five quality measures that contributed to the home health agencies' evaluations. The page included very specific sub-categories, and explained why each was important. Under "managing daily activities," for instance, were the quality measures "How often patients got better at walking or moving around," "How often patients got better at getting in and out of bed," and "How often patients got better at bathing." The accompanying explanations were detailed and informative.

    Home health agency ratings by stars

     

    Star rating

    Number of agencies

    5

    239

    4.5

    776

    4

    1,442

    3.5

    2,159

    3

    2,115

    2.5

    1.595

    2

    832

    1.5

    195

    1

    6

    Not rated

    2,902

     

     
    Total 12,261

    Source: Kaiser Health News analysis of Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services 

     

    The drawbacks

    The star ratings have some drawbacks, said Doris Peter, Ph.D., director of Consumer Reports Health Ratings Center. Some of the data in the ratings are based on self reporting, suggesting the agencies could game the system, she noted. With two of the measures, performance among all the agencies is so high that there is no true variation. More crucial, because of the method used, most home health agencies earn overall ratings of 3 to 3 1/2 stars—middling to slightly above that for the state and the nation. "If you compare three providers at a time, you aren’t likely to find a high or low performer," Peter said.

    In spite of that, Peter sees a benefit. "Most people get word-of-mouth recommendations, and this will be helpful because they can look up the ratings for an individual provider," she explained.

    The star ratings don't allow users to sort from the best to the worst in a given market. But because the data are available to the public, "I’m sure somebody will eventually make a tool to download the data and sort it," Peter said.

    The federal government also has created Nursing Home Compare, and is working on hospital ratings. Consumer Reports has its own Ratings of hospitals, as well as heart bypass surgical groups (by subscription), and health insurance plans

    —Tobie Stanger (@TobieStanger on Twitter)

    Need to retrofit your home for an older person? Consumer Reports Home Improvement Guide has ideas.

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    Why your retirement savings plan may be overdiversified

    It’s the time of year when your 401(k) plan administrators are showering you with annual disclosure statements. It’s tempting to toss them, but before you do, check your portfolio to make sure you haven’t fallen into the overdiversification trap.

    Most financial advisors will tell you that diversification—spreading your money across several asset classes and investment styles—is the best way to protect your portfolio from risk and volatility. But what if an investor overdoes the advice not to put all her eggs in one basket and has too many eggs in too many baskets? Overdiversification—buying more and more mutual funds, index funds, or exchange-traded funds (ETFs)—can actually amplify risk, stunt returns, and increase transaction costs and taxes. 

    Is your portfolio properly balanced? Read "Right-sizing your asset allocation" to find out. 

    Too much of a good thing

    Overdiversification is a situation that sneaks up on you—especially as you collect funds in your retirement accounts without considering the overall impact on your portfolio.  

    Craig Adamson, president of Adamson Financial Planning in Marion, Iowa, describes a typical case. As a result of changing jobs a few times, a client had four different 401(k)s, a Roth IRA and a regular IRA.  The client stated that he didn’t want to invest in foreign stocks, yet after analyzing the funds in the portfolio, Adamson discovered that 30 percent of the fund holdings were in international equities—a huge overweighting. “He thought he was diversified because he had money in four different 401(k)s and two IRAs, instead of looking at his underlying investments,” Adamson notes.

    A bloated portfolio can negate the benefits of diversification in a variety of ways:

    • Owning too many funds increases risk by concentrating your holdings in a few areas. A typical joke after the technology bubble burst was that investors thought they were diversified because they held Janus Twenty, Janus Mercury, and Janus Growth; in reality, each of those funds held almost the same technology stocks.
    • Funds with completely different strategies can, in fact, hold large concentrations of the same stocks. For example, five of the top ten holdings of an index fund tracking the growth stocks in the S&P 500 (ticker: IVW) are also in the top ten picks of a well-regarded technology mutual fund (VGT).
    • Returns suffer for the simple reason that if you have too many investments, the positive contribution of one won’t be big enough to make a difference. For example, if a fund only makes up 1 or 2 percent of your holdings, even a significant gain in that investment won’t sway the overall portfolio.  
    • In addition, if you have too much of the same kind of asset class, such as large-cap stocks, you risk “index-hugging,” the term for when your holdings mirror one of the standard indices, such as the S&P 500. In that case, your return will revert to the mean, or average. But because the portfolio might not be balanced to match the index, it could actually lead to lower returns.
    • Overall performance can also be eroded by unforeseen trading costs, tax inefficiencies, or, operating expenses. Paying for trades or sales charges in actively managed funds can add up; similarly, high turnover in a taxable portfolio can create an expensive tax bill at the end of the year.
    • Last, an overdiversified portfolio can become too unwieldy to monitor, leading to what financial advisors call “analysis paralysis.” “There are too many elements to keep track of,” says Adamson. “Investors just get overwhelmed.” 

    Avoiding portfolio bloat

    There’s no flashing light that says, “I’m an overdiversified portfolio.” It’s up to the individual investor to take a deep dive.

    • Look up each fund’s description of its investment strategy: Is it focused on U.S. large-cap growth stocks or foreign developed markets? If the description of one fund’s strategy sounds eerily familiar to that of another fund, alarm bells should starting ringing.
    • Check each fund’s top ten holdings for duplication. If you see Apple or Google in too many top ten holdings, you might want to question whether you bought the same thing five or ten times.














    Finding the right balance

    • For novice investors, start with one low-cost fund that covers the total U.S. equity market or a target date fund that includes U.S. and international stocks and bonds.
    •  It makes sense to diversify into specific asset classes when your portfolio reaches $10,000.
    • Five to seven funds are sufficient. Divide them among: large-cap growth and large-cap value stocks (or both, through a large-cap blend); small-cap growth and small-cap value; international equities (including developed and emerging markets); and U.S. bonds.

    — Catherine Fredman

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