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Consumer Reports

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    For the Holidays, Deck the Walls With a Coat of Paint

    A fresh coat of paint can make a dramatic difference to any space in your home. If you’re planning to entertain this holiday season, now’s the time to tackle the project, before you get sucked into the vortex of shopping, menu planning, and party going. Color injected into smaller spaces often has the most impact. Below are three projects to consider. They can each be finished in a weekend and should leave a lasting impression well beyond the holidays.

    The design possibilities are practically endless, given the plethora of inspiring design magazines and websites out there. Manufacturer websites are helpful too, since most offer interactive color-finding tools. And remember that in-store color-matching technologies are so advanced that you can choose your favorite hue from one company and get it in paint from another.  Before you start you'll need the following:

    • One or two gallons of top-performing paint  
    • One 9-inch paint roller frame and two 3/8-inch nap roller covers
    • One 2-inch angled nylon brush for trim work and edging
    • One paint tray with a couple plastic liners
    • One small hand-held paint bucket
    • Drop cloths
    • Painters tape. (FrogTape Delicate Surface, $6 to $9 per roll, left a sharp line and was very easy to remove in Consumer Reports' tests.)

    Energize Your Entryway

    A new paint job in the foyer will help invigorate the surrounding living spaces. And most entryways consist of just one or two walls, making this a manageable project. You might choose a color that’s slightly deeper than the adjacent living room, to make that space feel more expansive. Or if the entry is poorly lit, a lively shade of yellow or other bright color can make it warmer and more welcoming.

    If the foyer isn’t your main entrance, consider paint with a flat finish, which can add richness to the walls while hiding imperfections. Behr Marquee, $43 per gallon at Home Depot, performed very well overall in Consumer Reports' interior paint tests.  If you do use the entryway often, opt for a more durable eggshell or satin finish. Consider another of our recommended paints, Valspar Reserve, $44 per gallon at Lowe's. 

    As long as you’re redoing the entryway, take a look at the front door. A new hue could give your home’s exterior a whole new look. One of our top-performing semi-gloss exterior paints, like Clark + Kensington, $35 at Ace, will provide a durable finish with an extra level of shine. Read "What the Color of Your Front Door Says About You" for design ideas.

    Give the Kitchen a Face-lift 

    Holiday guests are sure to congregate in the kitchen. Replacing the countertops and cabinets is probably more than you want to take on, but you can still freshen up the space by painting the kitchen walls and backsplash. This project requires a bit more prep work, since you need to tape off the cabinets and countertops to protect them. But on the plus side, you probably won’t need as much paint, since most kitchen wall space is consumed by cabinets. 

    A semi-gloss paint works best in the kitchen, since it will wipe down easily while reflecting light. Behr Premium Plus Ultra, $34 per gallon at Home Depot, is a top choice that can fend off scrub marks and mildew and keeps its sheen even after rough cleaning.

    Brighten up Kids’ Spaces

    If your guest list includes younger relatives who will be spending a few nights, your kids’ bedrooms or the main family room will definitely be on display. This is a good opportunity to bring your children into the decorating process. Teens in particular like taking ownership of their personal space, so they’ll enjoy selecting a new color for their bedroom. 

    Kids can also participate in the prep work, for example by moving out furniture and taping off the floors. If they’re old enough to wield a brush, they can even help paint and take extra pride in designing their own living space. A semi-gloss finish is best for this project, especially in a younger child’s room that gets a lot of abuse. Clark + Kensington Enamel, $32 per gallon at Ace Hardware, was superb at resisting stains and scrubbing in our tests.

    —Timothy Dahl 

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

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    Whirlpool Washer Saves By Not Heating Cold Water

    Utility rebates for energy-efficient washing machines are an easy way to save money on a big purchase. So when the Southern California Gas Company announced a $200 rebate for the Whirlpool WTW4715EW, a $520 top-loader, Consumer Reports decided to put this unique washer to the test.

    Unusual in Two Ways
    To save energy heating the water, this Whirlpool uses only cold water for most cycles. That’s why the California utility offers that big rebate. (Heating hot water accounts for 90 percent of the energy a washer uses, according to Energy Star.) You can't do a warm wash with this machine, but hot water is available if you choose the heavy-duty cycle.

    Whirlpool markets this appliance as a high-efficiency (HE) agitator top-loader. HE top-loaders usually don't have an agitator, which allows for a bigger capacity. HE top-loaders use a lot less water than agitator top-loaders and are better at extracting water, so dryer time is shortened, saving energy.

    The agitator in the Whirlpool WTW4715EW eats up space, so it can handle about 17 pounds of laundry, compared with 28 pounds for the highest-capacity HE top-loaders. And this washing machine used 26 gallons of water to wash our 8-pound load. That’s about twice as much water as many of the HE top-loaders we tested. Odd that a washing machine that uses so much water is promoted with rebates to residents of drought-ridden California.

    So How Good Is This $520 Washer?
    Our tests use the normal-wash cycle with warm water and the heavy-soil setting. The Whirlpool WTW4715EW can use only cold water when set to the normal wash cycle, so cleaning in our tests was just fair, and some stains remained, says Emilio Gonzalez, the engineer who oversees our tests of washers and dryers. "To get the best performance of any machine, use a highly rated laundry detergent," he advised.

    This washing machine wasn’t so gentle on fabrics and was noisy. But it was one of the most energy-efficient agitator washers we tested. “While it doesn’t extract as much water as a typical HE top-loader, which trims dryer time and saves energy, it uses negligible amounts of hot water,” Gonzalez says. Wash time was 50 minutes.

    You’ll find this Whirlpool in our Ratings of of agitator top-loaders.

    Top-Loaders to Consider

    Agitator Top-Loaders

    High-Efficiency Top-Loaders

    More choices. When you check our washing machine reviews, use the filter to narrow your choices by price and brand as well as by test results and features. And be sure to check our exclusive brand reliability information to find out what more than 115,000 people have to say about washing machine brands.

    Email me questions at kjaneway@consumer.org

    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 Suspends RushCard Recommendation

    Consumer Reports has removed our recommendation for both versions of the Prepaid Visa RushCard: the RushUnlimited Plan and the Pay As You Go Plan.

    The decision was made due to problems cardholders have had using their cards over the past 10 days. Among the problems facing cardholders: They couldn't use their cards to make a payment. Even if there was money loaded onto the card, it would show a zero balance.

    “These cards are marketed to people without traditional bank accounts, so immediate access to their money is critical," noted Pamela Banks, senior policy counsel for Consumers Union, the policy and advocacy arm of Consumer Reports. "Without access to their account funds, many RushCard holders report that they cannot pay bills or purchase necessities." (Read this update from Consumers Union.)

    A RushCard spokesperson told Consumer Reports that although the company was able to fix the problem for most customers, others were still having trouble using their cards.

    Another problem facing cardholders was that when money was deposited by government agencies or employers directly to the card, the payment was not accepted. Russell Simmons, the celebrity co-founder of RushCard, tweeted that some customers' direct-deposit payroll and government benefits payments had been returned due to inaccurate account information.

    "We have put in new processes to review all incoming deposits beginning this week to ensure deposits are posted in a timely manner," Simmons wrote. "If you were impacted by this issue, please contact your employer/government benefits administrator to verify the funds were returned and either obtain the funds from them or request that they re-submit the payment to your RushCard."

    Since the problems with RushCard became apparent, Simmons has encouraged customers to direct message him (@UncleRUSH) to report continuing difficulties with their cards.

    "The company needs to step up fast, and until we know the problem is fully resolved, we don’t recommend [these cards] to any new customers." Banks said. Consumers Union has reached reached out to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to urge it to look into the problem, she added.

    In the meantime, Consumer Reports recommends that consumers consult our prepaid debit card Ratings for alternatives. The BlueBird card, sponsored by American Express and Walmart, is rated tops among prepaid cards that are used in addition to a bank account. Among prepaid cards used as a bank account substitute, several cards appear at the top of our Ratings, including the Bluebird card; the Chase Liquid Visa card; and the American Express Serve card. Consumer Reports last rated prepaid cards in December 2014. 

    Check our Ratings of prepaid cards used in addition to a bank account and prepaid cards as a bank account substitute. To be recommended by Consumer Reports, a prepaid card must be convenient, easy, and safe to use and provide good value.

    Root of the Problem

    On October 12, 2015, shortly after RushCard began a transition to a new card-processing vendor, customers began having problems accessing their money. On Facebook, Twitter, and other channels, customers announced their balances had dropped to zero. Many reported facing hours-long customer service waits.

    RushCard and other prepaid debit cards are increasingly being used by lower- and middle-income people who are shut out of the traditional banking system. More than 40 percent of RushCard holders use the prepaid cards as bank alternatives. That means the card is a chief source of funds for day-to-day transactions including rent payments and grocery purchases. RushCard is a relatively small player in the prepaid debit card market, with customers in the "hundreds of thousands," according to a spokesman, Larry Kopp.

    Kopp confirmed that issues with most accounts have been fixed, and that just a few thousand people still were experiencing difficulties. He said that cardholders were not and are not at risk for losing their balances. Metabank, the card issuer, is fully insured by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. for balances up to $250,000. RushCard complies with federal regulations to protect electronic funds transfers.

    To compensate current customers—and arguably as an incentive to new customers—RushCard has announced that it will suspend all fees incurred between November 1, 2015, and February 29, 2016. The company also is working to return fees charged to customers while they were without access to their funds.

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

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    Blacktop Patch Is Ideal for DIY Driveway Repair

    Not all the asphalt cracks and potholes in your driveway need the skills of a pro, especially when you can have your pick of blacktop patch products that are designed for those very small jobs. What’s more, these driveway repair products typically cost a fraction of the price of professionally applied hot asphalt. Consumer Reports tested seven different brands of blacktop patch and found significant differences.

    Do-it-yourself blacktop patch, like hot asphalt, consists of small stones (aggregate) coated with a binder. Where it differs from the professionally applied stuff is that you pour it into a hole from a bag or bucket and then compact it—any time of the year. You can do this driveway repair using a tamping tool or any heavy object with a flat bottom, such as the end of a 4x4 post. You can also run back and forth over the spot with your car.

    What We Tested

    Aquaphalt Permanent Pothole Repair (55-lb.), $42.99
    EZ Street Asphalt Premium Cold Asphalt (50-lb.), $16.56
    Perma-Patch Permanent Pavement Repair Patch (60-lb.), $33.06
    QPR High Performance Permanent Pavement Repair (50-lb.), $11.88
    Quikrete High Performance Blacktop Repair No. 1701 (50-lb.), $12.29
    Sakrete All Weather Blacktop Patch (60-lb.), $13.49
    Sakrete U.S. Cold Patch Permanent Pothole Repair (50-lb.), $12.55

    One driveway repair product we tested, the Aquaphalt Permanent Pothole Repair, requires that you wet its binder (to activate the adhesive) before compaction. This product is the only one among those we tested that comes in a choice of different aggregate sizes (four between 4 and 12 mm). The smaller sizes are best for smooth surfaces or smaller holes; the larger, for wider, deeper holes or base layers. We tested the 6 mm, a roughly average size.

    How We Tested

    Over the past few months, we created potholes on a stretch of pavement at our Yonkers, New York, headquarters using a series of square wooden forms. Following the instructions for each blacktop patch, we filled the forms with the seven products. We then drove over them every day, let them weather for a week, and then tested them for resistance to shear—how well they withstood the wheel of a stationary car spinning over the patch, as it would if skidding. We also tested for resistance to penetration using a rounded probe, trying to simulate a point load such as a caster or the foot of a chair. We did this twice, a month apart, to check whether longer weathering improved durability. One check we were unable to make, given the season, was resistance to freezing and thawing.

    How They Performed

    The Aquaphalt, which costs about three times more than the others, was the best performer. It’s easy to use and the top choice of all the materials if your repair involves an edge or having the material built up into a curb. The choice of four different aggregate sizes also lets you choose the best size for your particular driveway repair. Aquaphalt was the most resistant to shear, with just surface discoloration as its coating was removed beneath the car’s turning tire, and it best resisted penetration from a probe.

    Next best was the Sakrete Cold Patch, which was also easy to use, though it was a little less resistant to shear and penetration. It wasn’t as good as the Aquaphalt at edge strength or for use in a built-up curb, but it was far superior to the other five driveway repair products in those applications.

    The others were much less resistant to deformation under shear and to penetration. We suggest you consider them only if the material will be used on a part of the driveway that's just driven over and not in a section where you routinely turn your car around.

    Bottom Line

    None of these tested materials was as strong as hot asphalt, a truly permanent driveway repair that requires a paving company and which might be a better long-term choice. Still, if you’d like to do some repairs before replacing a driveway altogether, these materials could prolong its life.

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

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    Amazon Fire TV Review: How Good Is This New Streaming Media Player?

    From the new Apple TV to Chromecast to Roku 4, hardly a week goes by without word of a new or updated streaming media player. But, despite the crowded field, we managed to get the new Amazon Fire TV into our streaming media labs for an initial evaluation. The verdict: The Amazon Fire TV is a top-performing streamer worthy of consideration, but there's little reason to upgrade if you already own the older Amazon Fire TV.

    Here's why:

    Out of the Box

    Although the new Fire TV looks just like its predecessor, there are a few noteworthy differences. The new model is a fraction larger, but the input for the AC adapter plug is smaller (as I found out when trying to connect the new Fire TV to the old power supply). The new model also includes a microSD card slot that can add up to 128GB of extra storage, but it lacks the digital optical audio output found on the previous model.

    The main differences are under the hood. In addition to support for 4K video, a faster 64-bit quad-core processor powers the new player, and it has a separate, dedicated graphics processor. The new Fire TV box also gets a Wi-Fi upgrade for better Wi-Fi video streaming.  

    The remote control is slightly longer, and it operates via Wi-Fi rather than Bluetooth, which the company claims can reduce latency and improve battery life. Like the older remote, it has a microphone button on top for Alexa and voice searches.

    Firing Up Fire TV

    Setting up the new Fire TV is a snap, especially since, if you're already an Amazon customer, all your info is preloaded in the device. An animation walks you through the basics of using the remote and navigating the menus.

    Although it's not hard to navigate through the options on the left-hand sidebar of the main menu, there are so many of them—13 in all—it makes the interface more complicated than necessary. Unfortunately, you can't reorder the screen or pin favorite content or apps to the subscreens. The good news is that there's a Prime Video tab, so you can quickly find programs and movies included in your Prime subscriptions.

    Amazon continues to favor its own content over that from other services, which is a bit off-putting. Amazon seems to have most of the major content-services bases covered—Hulu, Netflix, HBO Go, Showtime Anytime, Sling TV—but it still lacks any Viacom networks (CBS, Comedy Central, MTV, etc.) and Google Play.

    Although Amazon claims the new Fire TV is 75 percent faster than its predecessor, we're not sure you'll notice it, since the original Fire TV was among the better performers in our streaming media player Ratings.

    For a few tests, we connected both the new model and the older version to the same TV, and in almost all respects, the newer version was a touch quicker. The newer model seemed a bit more fleet-footed when fast-forwarding and rewinding. When we loaded apps or streamed content, the improvements were marginal.

    However, if you weren't comparing the two models head-to-head, you probably wouldn't see the difference, except perhaps when you used voice search or played games.

    Amazon content seemed to benefit the most from the power boost. Netflix didn't load as quickly or as smoothly, for example, but that held true for the earlier version of the player, too. We imagine this is due to Fire TV's ASAP feature, which preloads content it thinks you're likely to watch.

    4K Video and Alexa

    We connected the Amazon Fire TV to one of the 4K TVs in our labs. Based on this initial assessment, the picture quality was consistent with that of 4K content streamed directly to a UHD smart TV. The new Amazon Fire TV also supports up to 7.1-channel Dolby Digital Plus surround sound.

    One thing to note about Amazon's 4K support: The Fire TV comes with an HDMI 1.4 output, not the HDMI 2.0 connections we see on almost all new 4K TVs and 4K-ready streaming players. This means the Fire TV won't be able to support high dynamic range (HDR) content or 60-frames-per-second video. That's a bit strange considering that Amazon Prime is one of the only services currently offering HDR programs. Still, since most available 4K content is either 24 or 30 frames per second, that lack of support might not be an issue for you.

    The Alexa voice assistant is a good addition, although the capability isn't as robust as it is in the Amazon Echo. For example, you can't set timers or alarms or get the latest news updates. Also, things can get a bit squirrelly if you own an Echo: When I was testing the Fire TV in my living room, the excellent microphone array in the Echo in my kitchen picked up my questions and jumped in with responses. 

    Consumer Reports' Take

    If you're in the market for a streaming media player, the new Amazon Fire TV is worth considering. It's a top-performing player and it's less expensive than the new Apple TV or Roku 4. Compared to the previous model, it features some nice enhancements at no additional cost. It's an especially smart choice if you're an Amazon Prime subscriber and use the company's streaming video and music services.

    But there's no compelling reason to upgrade unless you buy a smart TV with no 4K streaming; you're unhappy with the smart TV platform on your current set; and you're hungry for Amazon Prime content unavailable on your TV.

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

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    How Good Are Dell's Black Friday Deals?

    Halloween hasn't even arrived yet, but retailers are busy preparing for Black Friday. Case in point: Dell, whose advertised deals were recently leaked on blackfriday.com.

    According to the ad, the Dell will offer special online prices on TVs, computer gear, and tablets starting at 6 p.m. ET on Thanksgiving Day (November 26) through Black Friday (November 27), or as long as supplies last. Below you'll find our take on those Dell deals.

    As for Consumer Reports, we've already offered these 5 Black Friday predictions, and we'll continue to cover Black Friday deals and more holidays news as information is released in the coming weeks.

    TV Deals

    Vizio M60-C3 60-inch 4K UHD TV, $800
    This 4K set regularly sells for $1,250 at Best Buy and Walmart, so $800 is a great price. But don't be surprised to find the same deal at other retailers since Vizio has been very aggressive on Black Friday for the past two years. For more info on the set's virtues, check our TV Ratings.

    LG 55UF6430 55-inch 4K UHD Smart TV, $700
    Word has it this is a $200 discount. That's hard to verify since the set—a 120Hz UHD TV with the LG webOS 2.0 smart TV platform—isn't available anywhere else right now. Rumors last month suggested that it had been selling for $900.

    Samsung UN32J4000 32-inch LED LCD TV, $178
    This fairly basic 720p model sells for about $230 at several retailers, including Best Buy and Target. As part of the Black Friday special, it comes with a $50 Dell gift card.

    Not in the market for a new TV? Here are some other deals that caught our eye:

    Computer and Tablet Deals

    • Inspiron 14 3000-series Windows 10 laptop for $150, a claimed savings of $150. The Celeron-based model is on sale now for $230 at Dell.
    • Inspiron 15 3000-series Windows 10 laptop for $380, a claimed savings of $220. This model has an Intel i3 processor, 4GB of memory and 500GB hard drive.
    • Inspiron 15 5000 series Windows 10 laptop for $300, a claimed savings of $200. But Dell has this model—a Celeron-based touchscreen notebook with 4GB of RAM and a 500GB hard drive—priced at $350 now.
    • Inspiron Micro desktop for $100. This Celeron-based Windows 10 mini-PC usually sells for $180.
    • Venue 10 5000 Series Tablet for $150. This is a good deal. It's selling for $329 now.
    • Inspiron 11 3000 Series 2-in-1 for $300. You can get it at Dell right now for $350.
    • Inspiron 15 7000-series 2-in-1 for $500. It has a 15.6-inch screen, a Pentium processor, 4GB of memory, and a 500GB hard drive. It looks like this model costs about $550 now.
    • New Alienware 15 Laptop for $1,200. This one has a powerful i7 processor, 8GB of RAM, and a 1TB hard drive. It's $1,600 now.
    • New Alienware X51 Desktop for $1,250. It has an Intel i7K processor, 8GB of RAM, and a 2TB hard drive. It looks like you can get this now for $1,300.

    Game Systems and Headphones

    • Xbox One Gears of War Ultimate Edition Bundle, plus Fallout 4 and an Extra Controller, for $300. The console alone usually sells for $350, so this is a good deal.
    • Sony MDR ZX770BT wireless Bluetooth headphones $73, a claimed savings of $75. That's about right. Several retailers sell the set for around $150.
    • Bose SoundTrue in-ear headphones for $50. It looks like you can get this model for about $70 now, including at Bose.

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

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    Steam Irons That Speed Ironing Along

    New appliances often come with time-saving options—ways to speed up cooking and doing laundry. With irons, the best time saver is plenty of steam. Even the worst irons Consumer Reports tested can remove stubborn wrinkles, eventually. But a hot iron that delivers lots of steam does it faster.

    Of the more than three dozen models in our steam iron Ratings, 10 excelled at steaming. The bottom-scoring irons emitted little steam. We also test for ironing quality, which includes noting the temperature consistency, how well an iron removes wrinkles, and how easily the iron glides across fabrics. Our ease-of-use tests find out how easy it is to fill and empty the iron and to see water levels, markings, and more.

    When you’re shopping, pick up the iron to get a feel for it. Some aren’t ideal for large hands, while other irons are heavy. You’ll see weight noted in the Features & Specs tab in our steam iron Ratings.

    Steam Features

    These convenient features are on many of the irons in our tests and noted in the Ratings.

    • Steam surge or burst-of-steam button provides an extra blast of steam to tame tough wrinkles. This feature is especially handy if you often press linen or heavy fabrics such as denim.
    • Steam gauge or adjustable steam lets you adjust the amount of steam or shut it off. Most irons have an anti-drip feature that is meant to prevent leaks when you steam at lower settings.
    • Vertical steaming allows you to use the iron in an upright position to remove wrinkles from hanging garments and to freshen up drapes.

    The Steamiest Irons

    These scored excellent in our steaming tests and were very good or excellent in our ironing tests. They appear in descending order based on overall test scores. All have auto shutoff. This safety feature turns off the iron when it’s motionless after a bit, sensing that you’ve forgotten a hot iron is on.

    Not-So-Steamy

    These irons scored poor in steaming, so they took longer to get the job done, and have low overall scores. The Continental does not have auto shutoff.

    For all the details see our steam iron Ratings, and our steam iron buying guide highlights features you’ll want to consider.

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

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    7 time-saving cleanup tips for holiday hosts

    Even if you’re not entertaining for the holidays, you probably don’t like spending more time in the kitchen than you have to. That’s what Consumer Reports readers told us in a recent survey. A few cleanup tricks can speed you through a weeknight meal, and if you adopt good habits now you’ll be ready to face the aftermath when you host your next dinner party. Here are some ways to make cleanup a bit less laborious:

    Get organized

    Precious minutes are lost looking for misplaced items and uncluttering countertops so that they can be used for meal prep. Try to put things close at hand. Cutting boards and sharp knives belong near the food-prep area. Check your cleaning supplies, make sure you have some stain removers on hand, and stock up on paper towel (Bounty DuraTowel was tops in our tests).

    Clean as you go

    When preparing your meal, wash dishes, cutting boards, knives and other equipment as you go. Don’t stack dirty dishes or glasses on the counter; put them in the dishwasher immediately. Rinse wine glasses and put them aside to hand wash at another time.

    Choose a speedy dishwasher

    The downside of more water- and energy-efficient machines is a cycle time that can approach 3 hours. Some models are quicker, such as the $700 Bosch Ascenta SHX3AR7[5]UC, $730, which took a relatively brisk 95 minutes in our tests; a 30-minute cycle works for lighter loads. Many dishwashers offer a shorter cycle.

    Skip the pre-rinsing

    Most modern dishwashers can handle a load of dirty dishes. You’ll save time, and you could reduce your household’s annual water consumption by as many as 6,500 gallons.

    Let all-purpose cleaners settle in

    Manufacturers of these products often make “spray and wipe” claims. But based on our tests, letting them sit for a few minutes results in better cleaning power, which could save you time in the long run. Our top-rated spray cleaner is Seventh Generation Natural All Purpose Cleaner. But our top-rated cleaner overall, Pine-Sol Original liquid, was the only one that didn’t leave streaks behind on a mirrored surface.

    Clean smoothtops quickly

    Cleanup is easy with smoothtop cooktops. But food that contains sugar, such as tomato or caramel sauce, can bond with the glass if you let it cool. So clean up spills right away. For routine care, use a cleaner made especially for smoothtops. Cerama Bryte and Cooktop Magic combined value and performance in our tests.

    Consider a small vacuum

    Small vacuums can’t deliver the deep carpet cleaning of a regular vacuum, but they’re perfect for collecting cereal, crumbs, and other surface debris from the kitchen floor. Tops in our tests was the Shark Pet Perfect II SV780, $60, hand vacuum. Our two top stick vacuum picks are Dysons, which cost $300 and $400. So you may want to consider the Shark Rocket HV302, $180. Or consider a robotic vacuum. We’re in the process of testing new ones, but the Neato XV-21, $400, made our list of picks. And watching it work can liven up any party.

    This article was adapted from Consumer Reports' Kitchen Planning & Buying Guide.

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

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    Volkswagen Diesel Emissions Scandal

    Volkswagen was caught by the EPA rigging its emissions testing on about 482,000 diesel models in the U.S. and an estimated 11 million worldwide. As a result, Consumer Reports has suspended its recommended designation of the Jetta diesel and Passat diesel. The recommendations will be suspended until we can retest these vehicles after a recall repair has been done.

    Once the emissions systems are updated, we will assess whether the repair has adversely affected fuel economy, performance, or drivability.

    Marta L. Telllado, Ph.D., president and CEO of Consumer Reports, laid out the organization's stance on the issue in a CNN.com article, "Will Volkswagen's Penalty Be High Enough?"

    Below is our latest reporting on the scandal, and actions you can take:

    From Consumer Reports

    From Consumerist

    Actions You Can Take


    Are you a VW owner?
    Share your story with us!

     

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

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    13 Scary-Good New Car Deals for Halloween

    With the 2016 model year cars now crowding showrooms, there are some scary-good new-car deals available on some appealing leftover 2015s that are still haunting dealerships. The transaction prices on the models included here is at least 7 percent below MSRP, saving on average $3,896 or more.

    To size up the buying opportunities for these October specials, our analysts studied recent nationwide transactions, then layered in current available incentives to predict the average savings available now through November 2. This estimate is labeled "Market average" in the charts below.

    To make sure these cars are more treat than trick, we focused on those that meet Consumer Reports’ stringent criteria to be recommended, meaning they scored well in our testing, have average or better reliability in our latest subscriber survey, and performed well in government or insurance-industry safety tests, if evaluated.

    For this grouping, we ranked the models based on total savings available. Predictably, the best deals are found on the largest, priciest vehicles. But there are several midsized models here that come with generous incentives.

    Specific savings for each model, including other trim variations, can be found via the Consumer Reports car model pages. (Before taking a test drive, read “Should I Buy an End-of-Summer New Car?”)

    Each vehicle featured below is a 2015 model, and all incentives factored expire on November 2. Of course, some might be extended.

    See all current Best New Car Deals, or use our New Car Selector to create your own list of vehicles by sorting and filtering by the factors that matter most to you.

    Consumer Reports Build & Buy Car Buying Service

    When buying a car, in addition to research and reviews, Consumer Reports offers subscribers access to the Build & Buy Car Buying Service at no additional cost. Through this service, a nationwide network of about 10,000 participating dealers provide upfront pricing information and a certificate to receive guaranteed savings off MSRP (in most states). The pricing information and guaranteed savings includes eligible incentives. Consumer Reports subscribers have saved an average of $2,919 off MSRP with the Build & Buy Car Buying Service.

    Cadillac CTS

    The CTS is a luxury sedan with agile handling and a firm, absorbent ride that crowns it as one of the sportiest cars in the class. But as satisfying as it is to drive, the CTS can also be frustrating. Much of the blame goes to the overly complex Cue infotainment-system. The cabin is super-luxurious, with impressive material quality. But rear-seat room is snug and the trunk is relatively small. Neither the four-cylinder turbo nor the 3.6-liter V6 is as refined as the best in class. The high-end Vsport version is better, with effortless thrust. The CTS-V high-performance version can give any of the $100,000 German super-sedans a run for their money, thanks to the 640-hp, 6.2-liter supercharged V8 from the Corvette Z06.

    Make & model MSRP Invoice Market average
    2015 Cadillac CTS 3.6L AWD Luxury $55,965 $53,766 $49,185

    Lexus LS

    The Lexus flagship sedan delivers luxurious, highly refined, and fuss-free motoring with a comfortable and serene ride. It has an exceptionally quiet cabin and is laden with features. Fit and finish is excellent. Its recent freshening made handling a bit more responsive while retaining the silky ride. The strong V8 and eight-speed automatic deliver a very smooth and responsive package. The extended-length version has generous rear-seat room. A self-parking feature and all-wheel drive are optional. The LS 600h hybrid comes with standard AWD. The Entune system and the same overly complicated and distracting-to-use mouse-controlled screen are standard.

    Make & model MSRP Invoice Market average
    2015 Lexus LS 460 L $79,760 $75,029 $74,376

    Kia Cadenza

    The Cadenza banishes any thought that Kia only builds cheap cars. This is a competent and credible competitor among large sedans. There’s a lot here for the money, including a luxurious and quiet interior, a roomy backseat, responsive handling, and a comfortable ride. The only powertrain is a 293-hp, 3.3-liter V6 engine and six-speed automatic, which performs slickly and delivers a competitive 22-mpg overall. Controls are refreshingly easy to use, though some drivers found the steering wheel wouldn’t adjust close enough, and head room could be tight for taller drivers. A host of electronic safety aids are available, but some of the most useful ones are bundled into expensive options packages.

    Make & model MSRP Invoice Market average
    2015 Kia Cadenza Limited
    $44,625 $41,718 $39,722

    GMC Acadia

    Though it’s starting to feel a little dated, the Acadia is still competitive among three-row SUVs. Like its twins, the Chevrolet Traverse and Buick Enclave, it has a spacious and quiet interior, with a third-row seat that’s roomy enough for adults. Seating for eight is available. Handling is relatively agile and secure, with responsive steering, and the ride is comfortable and steady. Its 3.6-liter V6 is smooth and refined, but it has to work hard and it gets mediocre gas mileage. Upgraded touch-screen infotainment systems bring more capability. Rear visibility isn’t great. Denali versions have more features but no better functionality or performance.

    Make & model MSRP Invoice Market average
    2015 GMC Acadia AWD SLT1 $43,745 $42,460 $39,021

    BMW 3 Series

    The 3 Series is an excellent car, boasting commendable ride comfort, noise isolation, and fit and finish. The turbo four-cylinder makes the 328i quick yet returns a frugal 28-mpg overall. The 335i uses a smooth and punchy turbo six-cylinder. Handling is very capable, but steering feel isn’t as sharp as past BMWs and overall the 3 Series isn’t as engaging to drive as past versions. Despite some diesel clatter, the 328d’s 35-mpg overall is a standout in the class, and its driving range of 735 miles is impressive. A hybrid, wagon, and less powerful 320i are also available. The ultra-high-performance M3 can give Porsches and Corvettes a run for their money. A 2016 freshening includes a new six-cylinder engine and a plug-in hybrid.

    Make & model MSRP Invoice Market average
    2015 BMW 328d xDrive Sedan $41,995 $39,815 $37,621

    Buick LaCrosse

    Thanks to its luxurious, well-finished, and roomy interior, and a supple ride, the sophisticated and modern LaCrosse is a competitive large sedan. Buyers can choose from a refined and powerful 3.6-liter V6 or a mild-hybrid eAssist four-cylinder that still delivers good performance as well as 26-mpg overall. We found its stop-start system operates unobtrusively. Handling is responsive and the ride is steady. Rear-seat room is generous, and the seats are well padded and comfortable, though the cockpit is narrow. Controls are quite simple for a luxury car. Exterior styling compromises visibility fore and aft, though a rear-view camera is standard. Additional available safety features include forward-collision alert, lane-departure warning, and rear cross-traffic alert.  

    Make & model MSRP Invoice Market average
    2015 Buick LaCrosse Premium I $38,950 $38,190 $34,674

    Buick Enclave

    Even after six years on the market, the large Enclave remains a competitive three-row SUV. We liked its firm, comfortable, and quiet ride and its agile, secure handling. It actually feels more responsive in corners than some Buick sedans, and it was secure and predictable in emergency maneuvers. But like its corporate cousins, the Chevrolet Traverse and GMC Acadia, it’s beginning to show its age. The 3.6-liter V6 engine and six-speed automatic are smooth and powerful enough, but feel taxed and at times have to work hard in this large SUV. The 15-mpg overall that we got in testing is paltry. A big plus is the ability to fit adults in the roomy third row. Fit and finish is impressive, and forward-collision and lane-departure warning systems are available.

    Make & model MSRP Invoice Market average
    2015 Buick Enclave Leather AWD $46,375 $45,012 $43,182

    Chevrolet Impala

    One of our top rated sedans, the Impala is roomy, comfortable, quiet, and enjoyable to drive. It even rides like a luxury sedan, feeling cushy and controlled. Engine choices include a punchy 3.6-liter V6 and an adequate 2.5-liter four-cylinder, both paired with a six-speed automatic. In our tests the V6 returned 22 mpg overall and had good acceleration. Braking is capable, while handling is secure and responsive. The full-featured cabin stays very quiet, and features a sumptuous backseat and a huge trunk. Controls are intuitive and easy to use, but rear visibility is restricted. Advanced electronic safety features are readily available. Updates for 2016 include Apple CarPlay capability and wireless cellphone charging.  

    Make & model MSRP Invoice Market average
    2015 Chevrolet Impala 2LTZ $36,265 $35,025 $33,271

    Kia Optima

    The Kia version of the older Hyundai Sonata falls a bit short of its cousin in ride comfort, braking, and fuel economy. It handles well, but the ride is borderline stiff and road noise is noticeable. The standard 2.4-liter four-cylinder performs well. Top-level trims get a turbo four-cylinder that's economical and powerful, yet it trails competitors' V6 engines in terms of refinement. A hybrid is also available, but we weren't impressed in our tests of the similar Sonata Hybrid. The front seats are comfortable, but the rear seat is low. Reliability has been average. A redesigned 2016 model, coming out late in 2015, is longer and wider, and will have Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. The Optima will be among the first vehicles on the market to feature both of these systems.

    Make & model MSRP Invoice Market average
    2015 Kia Optima SX $26,615 $25,199 $23,647

    Lexus ES

    Lexus ultimately hurt the ride comfort and made the controls overly complex with the current ES. In our tests, the powerful 3.5-liter V6 and six-speed automatic got a good 25-mpg overall. The ride is on the stiff side and is made worse with the optional 18-inch wheels. Handling is sound but unexceptional. Inside, the quiet cabin looks good at first, but some cheap touches are apparent. The control interface is distracting and convoluted. For those who don’t care about the best driving dynamics, the ES is a simpler, roomier alternative to similarly-priced sports sedans. The hybrid is more appealing, in our opinion, thanks to its combination of size and luxury, and class-leading 36-mpg overall and 44 on the highway in our tests. But after all, a Toyota Camry provides much of the same for less money.

    Make & model MSRP Invoice Market average
    2015 Lexus ES 350 $38,640 $37,008 $35,896

    Chevrolet Malibu

    More than a humdrum midsized sedan, the Malibu has a comfortable ride and a well-finished and exceptionally quiet interior that set it apart. Handling is sound, if a little soggy at its limits. A 2.5-liter four-cylinder with an unobtrusive start/stop system, paired with a six-speed automatic, is standard. The uplevel 2.0-liter, turbocharged four-cylinder delivers plentiful power and gets 24 mpg. Controls are straightforward to use. The wide, soft front seats lack support on long trips, and the backseat is cramped. But trunk room is sufficient, even in the hybrid. Changes for 2015 include a standard built-in Wi-Fi hot spot with three months of complimentary data. A redesigned version goes on sale in the fall.

    Make & model MSRP Invoice Market average
    2015 Chevrolet Malibu 2LTZ $31,305 $30,238 $28,583

    Buick Verano

    The Verano is based on the Chevrolet Cruze, and tries to pack a lot of luxury into its compact package. Its most impressive high point is a commendably quiet cabin. Power from the 2.4-liter four-cylinder is adequate, but the engine is noisy and its 24 mpg overall is among the worst in the class. An available  2.0-liter, turbocharged four-cylinder makes the car quicker and quieter. It rides relatively comfortably, and handling is responsive though not that sporty. The interior is finished appropriately for the price and roomy enough up front, but it’s very cramped in the rear and the lack of power recline and adjustable lumbar support for the driver’s seat is chintzy. Forward-collision and lane-departure warning systems are available.

    Make & model MSRP Invoice Market average
    2015 Buick Verano Leather
    $27,975 $27,434 $25,542

    Buick Regal

    This well-honed and satisfying sports sedan has a European feel, and is the antithesis of the whitewall-tired Buick of old. With its agile handling, quick steering, and a taut, steady ride, the Regal is one of Buick’s best offerings. The 259-hp, 2.0-liter turbo four-cylinder delivers good performance and fuel economy. Our tested Regal was quick and quiet, and delivered 24-mpg overall. The eAssist mild hybrid version gets about 29-mpg. Rich-feeling materials are used in the cabin, which has excellent fit and finish. The front seats are firm and supportive, though the rear seat is quite snug. Infotainment system controls are mostly simple, and all-wheel drive is available on all trim lines. Overall this is a highly capable, yet understated car.

    Make & model MSRP Invoice Market average
    2015 Buick Regal Turbo $30,915 $30,315 $28,583

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

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    Will Black Stainless Steel Finish Off Stainless?

    When it comes to appliance finishes, the demise of stainless steel is predicted every time materials such as Jenn-Air’s Oiled Bronze, GE’s Slate, or Whirlpool’s White Ice hit the scene. Some of these newcomers have fared better than others, but none has come remotely close to supplanting traditional stainless steel.

    So will the new black stainless steel—recently unveiled by KitchenAid, LG, and Samsung—be any different? As the Magic 8 Ball might say, “Outlook not so good.” But black stainless steel is an interesting alternative if the rugged industrial look of conventional stainless steel doesn’t appeal, or if you’re worried about smudges and fingerprints.    

    KitchenAid
    KitchenAid
    calls the new material “a softer, warmer alternative to traditional stainless.” Judging from the new KitchenAid five-door refrigerator in our lab, black stainless steel is definitely less reflective, with more of a matte look and feel. And it resists fingerprints better than regular stainless. In addition to several freestanding and built-in refrigerators, KitchenAid offers black stainless steel on a selection of single and double wall ovens, dishwashers, and range hoods. A KitchenAid suite is shown above.

    Samsung
    Samsung’s black stainless steel, which is similar in texture, tone, and smudge resistance, is available on a select line of premium-priced refrigerators, ranges, dishwashers, and microwaves. Samsung tells us that many customers are using it to mix and match materials in the kitchen, for example doing the range and microwave in black and the refrigerator and dishwasher in traditional stainless steel.

    LG
    As for LG, its black stainless steel is described as “stainless steel coated with a darker hue and topped with a protective coating.” The result is a shade lighter than the blacks of Kitchen and Samsung. It’s available on a suite of appliances consisting of refrigerators, double-oven ranges, a dishwasher, and a microwave. LG has also introduced a contoured-black-glass finish that’s more reflective. It’s available on LG’s new true four-door refrigerator.

    What Kitchen Designers Say

    So what does the design community think? "I love the look of black stainless steel and I would definitely spec it for my more modern and sleeker kitchen designs, particularly if the cabinetry is a medium or dark tone,” says interior designer Libby Langdon. She also thinks the smudge resistance will be a big selling point.

    Adds designer Courtney Cachet: “I’ve been a fan of European black appliances for a while. The Smeg refrigerator and La Cornue oven in black are two favorites, but they’re far more stylized than what's coming out of the U.S. market.” She’d like to see some of the brass and copper accents from those high-end brands find their way into the mainstream. Even with such refinements, Cachet thinks black stainless steel will be a niche product.

    Time will tell. But it’s safe to say that traditional stainless steel won’t be fading away anytime soon.

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

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    Department of Education Issues New Rules to Rein In Campus Banking Card Abuses

    Consumers Union Praises Feds for Protecting Students From Aggressive Marketing, Restricted Choices, and High Fees

    WASHINGTON, D.C. – New regulations issued by the Department of Education today will help protect students from unfair campus banking card practices that can eat into financial aid funds, according to Consumers Union, the policy and advocacy division of Consumer Reports.  The new rules cover banking cards will go into effect in July 2016. 

    “Students deserve safe and convenient access to their financial aid funds without incurring costly charges,” said Suzanne Martindale, staff attorney for Consumers Union.  “We applaud the Department of Education for taking action to protect students using campus banking products from aggressive marketing, restricted choices, and high fees.”

    In recent years, financial firms have increasingly marketed banking products to students at colleges and universities across the country.   According to the Government Accountability Office, at least 852 schools have agreements to market debit or prepaid cards to students.  Campus banking products are often used to disburse financial aid to students and can be linked to debit or prepaid cards.  While these products can be convenient for students and cost-effective for colleges and universities, some have come under scrutiny for controversial fees and policies. 

    A 2014 Consumer Reports investigation of campus banking product offerings from nine financial firms found that, while some offered simple, low-cost fee structures and convenient access to funds, others came with high or multiple usage fees that added up to significant annual costs for those who used their cards frequently.  Furthermore, accessing fee information proved very difficult. 

    “Students shouldn’t get nickeled and dimed with high fees just to access their financial aid funds,” said Pamela Banks, policy counsel for Consumers Union.  “This new rule will ensure students have a choice in how to receive their aid, and it will promote transparency and competition in the market for campus banking products.”      

    The new rules adopted by the Department of Education establish a number of important protections for students, including: 

    • Sets minimum requirements for accounts opened during the financial aid disbursement selection process, as well as those directly marketed to students; 
    • Requires a neutral menu of options for students choosing how to receive their financial aid disbursement, with direct deposit to an existing account displayed prominently as the first option; 
    • Requires affirmative consent from a student or parent to open a campus account before mailing an access device associated with the account, or linking a student’s ID card to the account; 
    • Requires meaningful access to free ATMs for campus accounts; 
    • Bans point-of-sale and overdraft fees on certain accounts, and requires banks to enable students to access their funds at any time without a fee through at least one method (for example by making a withdrawal at a bank branch or getting a lump sum check); and 
    • Requires public disclosure of campus banking contracts, including prominent posting on school websites as well as submission to a centralized database.

    Media Contacts:
    Michael McCauley, Consumers Union, 415.902.9537 or mmccauley@consumer.org
    David Butler, Consumers Union, 202.462.6262 or dbutler@consumer.org
    Kara Kelber, Consumers Union, 202.462.6262 or kara.kelber@consumer.org

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    2016 Toyota Prius: Sportier and More Fuel Efficient?

    The upcoming 2016 Toyota Prius is arguably the most radical redesign of this ubiquitous hybrid car since the second-generation model made its debut in 2004. While we had a preview last month, Toyota has recently shared more details about the upcoming 2016 Prius.

    Bumper-to-Bumper Redesign
    Automakers are just as footloose with the word “new” as are software companies, but the 2016 Prius really has received a wheels-up redesign. Key to the new is an all-new platform with a promised sportier feel. Toyota also lowered the front seating position by 2.3 inches, redesigned the seats, and repositioned the controls to make the Prius feel more like a conventional car. 

    Improved Engine, More Power
    The 1.8-liter gasoline engine has been redesigned for greater efficiency; in fact, Toyota claims its 40 percent maximum thermal efficiency is the highest level in a mass-produced gasoline engine. Specs have not been formally announced for U.S. versions of the 2016 Prius, but a power increase over the outgoing model is expected.  

    Improved Fuel Economy
    Toyota has promised a 10 percent increase in the Prius' fuel economy. Reductions in both the weight and complexity of the hybrid powertrain are largely responsible for the increases. Innovations with the heating system also contribute, with active shutters opening and closing the grille as necessary in response to outside temperatures. You can choose between a nickel-metal hydride and a lithium-ion battery pack, with each touting increased energy density with the redesign. For the ultimate in fuel efficiency, Toyota will offer an Eco model certain to appeal to dedicated hypermilers.  

    A Sportier Drive
    Toyota is determined to put the Prius' reputation as an appliance-like snoozer to rest. The 2016 Prius will be fitted with a fully independent rear suspension to improve  handling response and ride comfort. Toyota has increased the use of high-strength steel in the Prius' bodywork, boosting torsional rigidity, which in turn also bolsters crash protection. 

    Smart Power Mode
    As with the current Prius, the new car will have a few driving modes, including a Power mode. In a new twist, this model will use acceleration and lateral G-force sensors to detect when it is being driven enthusiastically, and it will sharpen both throttle and braking response. 

    More Trunk Space
    By improving the energy density of the hybrid battery, Toyota has been able to reduce its size and place it under the rear seat, freeing up additional cargo space. Toyota claims a 2-cubic-foot increase for Japanese-market models; official EPA cargo volume for the U.S.-market Prius has not been announced. 

    Occupant-Sensing Climate Control
    The new Prius' air conditioning system uses the seats' occupant sensors to determine if the front and rear passenger seats are occupied, and it directs airflow accordingly.  

    Good-Bye LED, Hello LCD
    The center information display—which on the current Prius bears a troubling resemblance to a 1980s-era Speak & Spell—has been replaced by a full-color LCD screen. The 2016 Prius will also offer a color head-up display, which projects information like speed and next-turn directions into the windshield. 

    A Full Safety Suite
    Using both a camera and radar, the 2016 Prius will offer a long list of active safety features, including collision avoidance and mitigation with pedestrian detection, adaptive cruise control, and a parking assistance system.

    The new 2016 Prius will arrive at dealerships early next year.

    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 Protect Your Car on Halloween

    Want to hear something spooky? Halloween tricks typically start before the holiday, and your car is not immune from that mischief.

    Every October, goblins, ghouls, and even zombies prowl the night and "trick" cars. But these cars aren't tricked out, they're hit with broken eggs, Silly String, or smashed pumpkins. If left on the paint for a period of time, this nasty mess can cause permanent stains that are not only unsightly but can lower your vehicle's resale value.

    Egg whites, pumpkin, bird droppings, bug splatter, and other substances contain acids that can eat into your car's finish, says Jim Policare, body shop director at Vinart Collision Center in Allentown, Pennsylvania.

    Fortunately, if you drive a newer car, you might not have to worry: Over the past 10 years, automakers have developed clearcoat paint that is specifically designed to resist the type of acid damage that can result from eggs and Silly String, says Donald White, global technology manager at DuPont Performance Coatings.

    If you drive an older car, however, there are still steps you can take to guard against Halloween pranks. Three auto-finish experts we talked to offer these tips to protect your car:

    • Wax on. Your best defense is a protective coat of wax. The week before Halloween is a good time to apply it. Not only does a good waxing prepare your vehicle for the threats of All Hallows Eve, but, if you live in a snowy area, wax can help protect the paint from the salt, sand, and road grime related to winter driving. For the best protection, we recommend having the wax applied by a detailer or do it yourself by following our experts' tips. Consumer Reports' tests of car waxes have shown that most begin to wear off after only a few weeks.

    • Take cover. If you can, park the car in your garage on Halloween night or use a car cover. This might not be the bravest strategy, but surviving the zombie hordes and avoiding the mischievous youth often demands prudence.

    • Quick rinse. If your car is hit on Halloween night, rinse off solid residue that can scratch the paint, such as eggshells, as soon as possible. (The heat of the sun speeds up these chemical reactions.) Then give your vehicle a thorough washing to get rid of the other material. If you do it yourself, follow our experts' car-washing tips.

    • Be prepared. To clean off any small mess quickly, Policare suggests keeping handy a small spray bottle of water mixed with a dedicated car-washing soap. A spray-on car wax would also work well. Then, whenever you find a contaminant on the paint—whether it's on the morning after Halloween or a bird dropping at the beach—you can just spray the solution on and wipe away the mess with a soft towel. Even if you can't remove it right away, just spraying the solution on will dilute the acid and minimize any damage.

    • Last resort. If a contaminant has had time to set in and cause paint damage but hasn't eaten completely through the clearcoat layer, wash it thoroughly and try using a cleaner wax. These are products formulated with some abrasives; they can remove a thin layer of paint to expose the undamaged paint beneath. (Our car wax Ratings show which waxes provided the best cleaning and gloss improvement.) If the damage extends through the clearcoat and into the color paint or metal, however, that area will need to be repainted.  

    If you have a later-model car, you can feel reassured by the knowledge that modern paint finishes have been engineered and tested to resist common pranks. If your car gets hit with any of this debris, it's likely to resist damage better and be easier to clean than ever before.

    Learn more ways to protect your car with our care and maintenance guide.

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

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    How to Get a Stronger Wi-Fi Signal

    Location, location, location—that  adage definitely applies when it comes to coaxing stronger Wi-Fi from your router. In fact, all those things that make your home, well, a house—doors, walls, windows—are impediments for Wi-Fi signals. Here are a few router placement tips to keep those signals moving along.

    Higher is better. If you live in a two-story house, placing the router on the second floor promotes wider reach. The device's antennas work something like an umbrella: The higher you put them, the more coverage you get below them. Just remember that floors slow signals down. So you may not want to put the router in the attic—especially if you want strong Wi-Fi in the basement.

    Seize the middle ground. Doors and walls are trouble, too. That means the closer the router is to the center of your home, the better off you'll be. Does that mean you have to install it in the guest bathroom? No, but if you can find a spot close by, you may improve the signal elsewhere in the house. If that requires moving wires, your service provider might be able to help.

    Likewise, if the router sits in a room with a closed door, open it. That’s one less barrier to slow down the signal.

    Shift the receiver. It's just as important to think about the placement of the devices receiving the Wi-Fi signal. For starters, don’t put the Apple TV in a cabinet behind closed doors. It might even help to move the device just a few inches back, forward, or to the side.

    Remember the rabbit ears. You might find as many as eight antennas on some routers. They're not there just to make the device look impressive. They really can make a difference. On 802.11ac routers, for example, they can actually segregate signals, pulling those from a device streaming video to one antenna and those from a device used for Web browsing to another.

    Because Wi-Fi signals bounce all over the house, you have to fiddle with the positioning one antenna at a time. Think of the old-school, rabbit-ear TV antenna technique. If shifting the first antenna doesn't improve the Wi-Fi, move on to the second, then the third...

    And, just because you don’t see antennas on your router doesn’t mean they're not there. They may well be inside the device. To redirect them, simply rotate the router or change the orientation (from horizontal to vertical or vice versa).

    Pop your corn before the movie. If you’ve got an older, 802.11n router, devices you wouldn't expect can interfere with the Wi-Fi signal in your home. That includes baby monitors, old cordless phones, anything running Bluetooth, even your microwave. So if you’re planning to stream a movie, finish popping the Orville Redenbacher before you turn on the Netflix.

    If you're thinking about upgrading your router, visit our Wireless Router Buying Guide. Subscribers can check out our Ratings, too.

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

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    5 Cool Refrigerator Features Worth a Look

    If it’s been a while since you bought a refrigerator, it pays to look into the latest innovations, especially since manufacturers regularly crank out new features to differentiate their wares. If nothing else, being conversant with terms such as “linear compression” and “five-door French-door” will let the salesperson know you’re for real.

    With that leg up on refrigerator features, be sure to negotiate the final price. Our surveys show that shoppers who haggle on major appliances save around $100.

    Here are some of the most interesting refrigerator features from our latest tests:

    Speed Chilling
    Adding hot items to the refrigerator, say a warm pot of chili or chicken stock, can send its internal temperature soaring. Even room-temperature items from the supermarket can cause fluctuations, which are bad for foods already in the refrigerator. Hence the arrival of quick-chill settings, including the Maytag PowerCold feature. To test it out, we loaded a 24-pack of room-temperature half-liter bottles of water into the Maytag MFT2778EEZ French-door bottom-freezer. Without the PowerCold feature enabled, the average temperature in the refrigerator went to 43° F—that's 6° F higher than what's recommended for food preservation. With PowerCold enabled, the average temperature was 37° F.

    This test was a kind of worst-case scenario, since the refrigerator was empty; if it had been full of chilled items, the temperature swing would have been less. Nonetheless, quick-chill settings can be useful, especially if you often load hot or warm food into the fridge.  

    Five-Door Configurations 
    Four-door refrigerators are now commonplace. The KitchenAid KRMF706EBS, $4,000, is the first model in our Ratings with a five-door configuration: two pantry-style French doors for the fresh-food compartment; two pull-out drawers, including one with multiple preset temperatures; and a pull-out freezer drawer. The five-door fridge also has a unique interior platinum finish. For the exterior, you can choose between traditional stainless steel and new fingerprint-resistant black stainless steel.

    Trickle-Down Efficiency  
    Linear compressors limit temperature swings inside the refrigerator. That not only decreases power consumption but can also help preserve food. The innovation used to be reserved for pricier models, but we’re seeing this refrigerator feature  on less-expensive top-freezers, including the top-rated LG LTCS20220S, whose $950 price tag is good enough for a CR Best Buy distinction. Thanks to the technology, the 30-inch-wide top-freezer has one of the best efficiency scores of all tested models.

    Built-in Adjustable Humidity
    Humidity-controlled drawers are standard on conventional refrigerators, but we haven't seen many built-in models with the feature, which can help keep fruits and vegetables fresh. The new Viking VCBB5363E 36-inch-wide built-in bottom-freezer, $9,050, is an exception, featuring a pair of adjustable humidity drawers with soft-close slides. While the model misses our recommended list, it delivers exceptional temperature control throughout. 

    Hot Water Dispensers
    Getting water from the fridge is nothing new. We’re seeing more models that give you the option of hot water too, say for a cup of tea. The GE Café CYE22TSHSS is the second generation of this model to serve up this refrigerator feature. Choose from one of four preprogrammed settings, ranging from 90° F to warm a baby’s bottle to 185° F for a cup of instant soup. The 36-inch-wide French-door refrigerator also offers a cabinet-depth design for a more streamlined look.

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    Is Volkswagen's New 1.4-Liter Turbo Engine a Diesel Alternative?

    The Volkswagen diesel emissions scandal has been grabbing headlines for weeks, and the company is still in full-on crisis management mode. VW's 2016 TDI-powered models are not certified for sale, and the company has yet to come up with the specifics about how to bring the 482,000 affected cars currently in U.S. owners’ driveways into compliance. Interestingly, the most recent VW to enter our test fleet might provide an alternative to diesel power for the fuel-conscious buyer.

    Since its 2011 redesign, the Jetta sedan has offered more engines than Spinal Tap had drummers—seven different engines at last count, including two different diesels and a hybrid. A new 1.4-liter, 150-hp turbocharged four-cylinder base engine brings that number to eight.

    We’ve driven other cars with turbocharged 1.4-liter four-cylinder gasoline engines before, notably the Chevrolet Cruze and Sonic, Fiat 500, and Jeep Renegade. But the Jetta might have the most satisfying small-displacement turbocharged engine we've seen. It feels like driving a Jetta with VW’s 1.8-liter turbo four-cylinder, delivering healthy mid-range torque so you don't need to rev the engine much.

    While the 1.8-liter benefits from another 20 horsepower, the difference behind the wheel is subtle in regular driving. Occasionally the 1.4T can be caught off-boost, and the transmission held in too high of gear, but this is rare.

    But how does the new 1.4-liter turbo engine compare with the performance of the TDI? Let's start with fuel economy. We realize that some people buy diesels for long commutes because of their excellent highway mileage. No argument there. But the new 1.4T boasts some pretty impressive fuel efficiency numbers, as well.  

    We haven't completed our own fuel-economy testing on the 1.4T engine yet, but EPA combined estimates put the Jetta 1.4T’s at 32 mpg overall with the six-speed automatic. Compare that to an EPA-rated 36 overall mpg for the 2015 TDI with its DSG dual-clutch automatic. Based on Consumer Reports' testing, the TDI’s numbers could drop after the corrections are in place to make the car emissions compliant, diminishing the diesel's advantage over this new, small-displacement alternative. So far, we have observed 34 mpg in mixed driving with our 1.4T SE, based on the trip computer mileage over the first few hundred miles.

    The 1.4T eliminates the diesel's hesitation off the line and clatter that makes it feel noisy at low speeds.

    Volkswagen limits the 1.4T to relatively basic trim levels, evidenced by our SE lacking some common niceties. For instance, there’s no lumbar adjustment for the heated front seats; the seats are basic cloth rather than VW’s typical leatherette; and dashboard plastics are all hard. (The 1.4T SE w/Connectivity trim fixes the first two shortcomings.) On the plus side, our car benefits from VW’s new infotainment system, which is includes Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. Thus far, we can say CarPlay generally works well, providing Siri voice-controlled navigation and text message read-back and response capabilities.

    Going with the 1.4T over the TDI saves considerable money. There is a $2,850 difference between the 2016 1.4T and the 2015 TDI, both equipped in SE w/Connectivity trim. Our 1.4T SE, which lacks a comparable TDI model, costs even less, stickering at $21,235. Thanks to motivated dealers and available owner loyalty rebates, we paid considerably less.

    We're curious to see how our instrumented fuel-economy measurements for this 1.4T compare to our 2015 Jetta TDI test car, especially after anticipated updates to make the diesel emissions-compliant.

    At first glance, this small gasoline engine considerably weakens the case for the diesel and on more than one level: Purchase price, diesel fuel cost, and emissions.

    Visit our guide to the Volkswagen emissions recall.

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    Top 10 Black Friday Shopping Tips

    Some call shopping on Black Friday America's favorite contact sport after football. So if you plan to go out bargain hunting, you'll need more than sharpened elbows. Often—though not always—electronics items, especially televisions, tablets, and computers, are at their lowest prices of the year, which means it's easy to get caught up in the frenzy and spend more than you really want.

    Here's a Black Friday game plan—a list of holiday shopping tips that ensure you return home with not only the best deals, but also peace of mind.

    1. Be prepared. Only rookies head for Black Friday shopping without having done their homework. This means studying the ads—in print and online—the weekend before Thanksgiving. It's still a bit early in the game, but Black Friday leaks are starting to appear. (We've already weighed in Dell's electronics deals.) You'll find tons of leaked ad scans on Black Friday–focused websites such as bfads.net, blackfriday.info, DealNews.com, gottadeal.com, and theblackfriday.com. Some even let you filter your searches by product category. If you spot a great deal at one retailer, check it out on some of the comparison sites mentioned below to make sure you can’t do better elsewhere.

    2. Don't focus on Friday alone. Black Friday has morphed from a single day of deals to a whole month of savings. In fact, many retailers offer specials in the days leading up to Black Friday, so it pays to start early. Come crunch time, this will also help you judge how good those Black Friday sales really are. The same goes for Cyber Monday, which now stretches into a week of online specials.

    3. Compare prices. Sites such as PriceGrabber.com, PriceWatch.com, ShopAdvisor.com, ShopSavvy, and Shopping.com can lead you to a better deal elsewhere, so they're well worth a look. The app BuyVia not only lets you search for specific items at  local retailers, but it sometimes provides coupons, too. Even Pinterest has price alerts that will monitor items you've pinned on certain websites and email you when they go on sale.

    4. Be loyal. Stores often have loyalty programs that offer sales and promotions to their members first, and then let them earn rewards on what they buy. Sign up for Black Friday shopping alerts about coming promotions, coupons, and discounts. In some cases, you can even learn if products you want are in stock or eligible for a buy-online/pick-up-at-store option that saves you on shipping charges.

    5. Be social-media savvy. The Facebook pages and Twitter feeds of your favorite retailers are a great way to find out about deals and promotions. Those retailers will often reward customers who "like" them or follow them with special alerts to Black Friday discounts and incentives. And, of course, texts, tweets, and posts are an easy way to share Black Friday shopping intel with your friends.

    6. Load your phone with apps. Before you head out to the store, make sure your smartphone is fully charged and loaded with a few of the comparison-shopping apps  mentioned above. In addition to providing pricing info, they can often be used to place orders or monitor items via a personal watch list. Many include a bar-code scanner to help you compare prices and a QR-code reader for coupon codes and special deals. Many of the aforementioned Black Friday sites also have their own shopping apps. And, retailers such as Amazon have apps that let you use a smartphone camera to scan products and price shop online. At some brick-and-mortar retailers, you can use that info to argue for a better deal.

    7. Create a budget—and stick to it. Black Friday sales, especially the doorbuster specials available in limited quantities, are designed to get you into the store so retailers can sell you something else. Decide ahead of time how much you want to spend on your Black Friday shopping spree, and do your best to resist impulse buying, especially if you're not sure how good a specific deal is. If you find that you're too free with your charge cards, try buying with cash this year and see if you have better control.

    8. Check all store policies in advance. It's always good to know a store's price-match and return policies. As noted in our 5 Black Friday predictions, we expect more retailers to price-match specific online and in-store deals this year. Target recently expanded its policy, and both Best Buy and Walmart will price-match to varying degrees. Other stores, however, might suspend their price-match guarantees during the Black Friday weekend, so read the fine print. When you check the return and exchange policies for Black Friday sales, make sure the store won't charge a restocking fee for any item you bring back.

    9. Avoid pricey accessories. You've just scored an awesome 65-inch TV at an all-time low price, so don't blow your savings by splurging on pricey accessories or extended warranties. This is where retailers make their money. Hence the hard sell. If you know you'll need an HDMI cable, buy it in advance from an online retailer such as monoprice.com or bluejeanscable.com. That way you won't be pressed into overpaying at the store.

    10. Be aware that the lowest-priced deals are not always the best. Doorbuster specials draw people in with visions of savings, but they might not offer the best product for their needs. This is especially true for big-ticket items such as TVs. Products like those, particularly derivative models created specifically for Black Friday events, might have lower specs or fewer features than standard products from the same manufacturer. While this might be fine for a second or third set, you probably want better performance and more features from your main TV. Better yet, you might find that a retailer has more wiggle room on a step-up model than a bare-bones set, so during your Black Friday shopping, don't be afraid to ask for a better price on the TV you really want to own.

    We hope these tips make your Black Friday shopping excursion a little less stressful, maybe even more enjoyable. Go get 'em!

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

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    Best and Worst Tires in All Weather Conditions

    Consumer Reports has just finished evaluating 47 all-season and performance all-season tires suitable for cars, crossovers, and minivans and 21 models of winter/snow tires. And we’re ready and able to present the best and worst tires in these popular categories.

    The Michelin Defender (all-season), Continental PureContact (performance all-season), and Michelin Ice XI3 (winter) are some of the top-rated tires we tested this year, but the real news is that there are a lot of really good tires and some are very impressive in specific weather conditions.  

    Stopping on Dry and Wet Roads

    Most all-season and performance all-season tires stop well on dry and wet pavement. In our dry stopping test from 60 mph, the Goodyear Eagle Sport All-Season needed only 120 feet to come to halt on our 2015 Toyota Camry. In the wet, the Michelin Premier A/S (H-speed rated) impressed us with its relatively short stop of 129 feet. Winter tires generally don’t stop well on either dry or wet surfaces, often needing several more car lengths more than all-season tires. So it’s no surprise the longest stopping tire on dry and wet roads was a winter tire, the Toyo Observe Gsi-5. Stops from 60 mph were 168 and 189 feet on dry and wet roads, respectively. That’s reason enough to remove winter/snow tires once the snow stops falling.

    Hydroplaning Resistance

    Consumer Reports determines the speed a tire starts to hydroplane on standing water about 3/8-inch deep. Most all-season and performance all-season tires have good hydroplaning resistance, but winter tires can be great or miserable. Winter tires that have a tight tread pattern with lots of siping (slits) to bite into snow and squeegee on ice don’t resist hydroplaning well. These include the Nokian Hakkapeliitta R2 winter tire, which started hydroplaning at a relatively slow 45 mph, and not much better, were other popular winter tires including the Michelin X-ICE XI3, Bridgestone Blizzak WS80, Dunlop Winter Maxx, and Continental WinterContact SI. In contrast, tires with a blocky tread with lots open channels like the Firestone WinterForce do a better job of remaining in contact with the road. The Firestone started hydroplaning at an impressive 58 mph, just behind the best tire, the performance all-season Nokian enTYRE 2.0, which started hydroplaning at 59 mph.  

    Snow Traction and Stopping on Ice

    No surprise, winter/snow tires deliver the goods. A host of winter tire models excelled, led by the Continental WinterContact SI. This tire on our Camry accelerated from 5 to 20 mph in just 59 feet on moderately packed snow, in contrast to the least tractive tire on snow, the GT Radial Champiro VP1 (T-speed rated), taking 129 feet to make 20 mph. In our 10-to-0 mph brake test on ice, winter tires again meet the challenge with the Nokian Hakkapeliitta R2 stopping the shortest at 26 feet, and GT Radial Champiro VPI (T- and H-speed rated) taking a very long 42 feet to stop in the confines of our ice rink. Tip: Use a set of four winter tires to start and stop, and to offer the best balance of handling in wintry conditions.

    Handling

    Typically performance all-season V-speed rated tires would handle better than the H-speed rated tires. Those H-speed rated tires should in turn handle better than T-speed rated all-season tires, offering crisper steering feel and higher cornering limits. However, those trends seem to be clouded by considerable overlap between the tire categories.

    In our tests, for example, the T-speed rated Michelin Defender held its own among all-season and performance all-season tires. The Michelin Defender hustled through our avoidance maneuver course at 52.2 mph. It was the fastest speed of any tire, but several all-season and performance all-season tires came close to matching it. Winter tires are typically less impressive and several were uninspiring to drive, with the slowest being the Toyo Observe Gsi-5 at just 42.6 mph.

    Bottom Line

    Our suite of all-weather tests show tire design and performance often bring compromises. To be the best in any one test often means conceding to other performance areas. Carefully view our ratings to find the tire that best meets your driving needs, looking past the overall score.

    View the all-weather performance ratings and ratings for tread life, rolling resistance, and comfort at ConsumerReports.org/tires.

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

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  • 10/28/15--14:34: Keep Pets Safe on Halloween
  • Keep Pets Safe on Halloween

    On any given day, pets can get into all sorts of mischief toppling plants or shredding shoes. So imagine the potential of your a pet and a lit candle. As critical as it is to keep kids safe on Halloween, it’s also important to recognize the dangers that abound for pets, and in turn for their owners, around this time of year.

    Candy can be toxic to pets. Chocolate in all forms—especially dark or baking chocolate—can be very dangerous for dogs and cats. Symptoms of significant chocolate ingestion may include vomiting, diarrhea, hyperactivity, increased thirst, urination and heart rate—and even seizures. Candies containing the artificial sweetener xylitol can be poisonous to dogs. Even small amounts of xylitol sweetener can cause a sudden drop in blood sugar, which leads to depression, lack of coordination, and seizures.

    Treats can be tricky

    And cute as it might seem to dress your feline friend or canine companion in a costume, bear in mind that a frightened dog in a cape is nobody’s idea of fun (especially not the dog’s). Here are some guidelines from the Humane Society of the U.S. and the ASPCA  for keeping pets and the people around them safe at Halloween.

    • Keep your pet in a quiet place, away from trick-or-treaters and other Halloween activities.  Dogs and cats can become frightened or agitated by the unaccustomed sights and sounds of costumed visitors.
    • Cats—black ones in particular—often fall victim to pranksters. Keep them safely indoors.
    • Place live flame decorations like candles and jack-o'-lanterns out of your pet's reach. Curious cats or rambunctious dogs can easily knock over a candle with a paw or a wagging tail.
    • Pick up the candy papers. Ingesting tin foil and cellophane candy wrappers can pose a choking hazard or cause intestinal blockage.
    • Don't let the family dog accompany the kids on their trick-or-treat outing. Children may have a difficult time handling a pet during the festivities and your pooch could get loose, especially if she is spooked by neighborhood goblins.
    • Keep decorations that pets could chew on—like streamers and fake spider webs—and wires and cords from electric decorations out of reach. If pets chomp on Halloween decorations they could choke or become ill and, if they chew on electrical cords, they risk a potentially deadly electrical shock.
    • IDs, please! Always make sure your dog or cat has proper identification. If for any reason your pet escapes and becomes lost, a collar and tags and/or a microchip can increase the chances that he or she will be returned to you.

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