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    Why a Front-Loader Uses So Little Water

    Ever wonder how a front-loading washing machine gets clothes clean, yet uses only about half the water as some top-loader agitator machines? Knowing how a front-loader works can help you decide if it’s for you. Consumer Reports’ engineers offer a look inside.  

    Inside the Washing Machine
    A front-loader has a stainless steel drum that spins inside a tub. Stainless is used because it can withstand higher spin speeds than the plastic or ceramic found on agitator top-loaders. Water flows into the drum, filling the machine to a level below the door opening. As the drum spins, laundry gets caught in the protrusions, known as vanes, and is lifted to the top. Then the laundry drops back into the water. This tumbling provides the action that helps in cleaning.

    In some front-loaders the drum turns in one direction, while in others the drum also reverses direction. All this movement, with the help of HE (high-efficiency) laundry detergent, removes dirt and tackles stains in laundry. This detergent is less sudsy so it’s recommended for front-loaders. Front-loaders lock at the beginning of a cycle, but can usually be opened by interrupting the cycle.

    Advantages
    Most front-loading washing machines deliver excellent or very good cleaning and are gentle on fabrics. They have larger capacities and used 13 gallons of water or less in our tests to wash an 8-pound load. Agitator washers typically used about twice as much. Front-loaders spin faster than other washers, extracting more water and cutting dryer time. They tend to be quiet, and many can be stacked with a dryer to save space.

    Drawbacks
    Front-loaders are often expensive and have longer wash times—70 to 105 minutes using the normal-wash, heavy-soil setting. You’ll save about 15 minutes using the normal-soil setting.

    Their high spin speeds can cause them to vibrate too much (we show vibration and noise scores in our washing machine Ratings). Keep in mind that concrete floors can absorb vibrations well, unlike wood-framed floors.

    Some consumers have complained that their front-loaders developed odors and mold along the front gasket material. Read "Preventing Funky Front-Loader Mold" for details and tips. Keeping the door ajar after every wash is one tip that helps, but if you have young children afoot you’ll want to lock the door to the laundry room.

    Give These Front-Loaders a Whirl

    5 Recommended Front-Loaders
    The Maytag’s normal wash time was the fastest, at 75 minutes using the heavy-soil setting. The other washers have a time-saving option that saves 15 to 20 minutes without affecting cleaning.
    Samsung WF56H9110CW, $1,450
    LG WM9000HVA, $1,800
    LG WM8500HVA, $1,450
    Kenmore Elite 41072, $1,000
    Maytag Maxima MHW8100DC, $1,400

    5 Impressive Front-Loaders Under $1,000
    The Maytag and Whirlpool are faster, but the others have the time-saving option mentioned above.
    Maytag Maxima MHW5100DW, $950 (Recommended)
    Whirlpool Duet WFW87HEDW, $950
    LG WM3570HVA, $800
    Samsung WF42H5600AW, $700
    LG WM4270HWA, $830  

    More choices. See our washing machine washing machine Ratings to see how these front-loaders stack up as well as the results of our tests of AH top-loaders and agitator top-loaders. Questions? Send me an email 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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    The Light L16: One Camera, 16 Lenses

    At first glance, there’s something Frankenstein-like about the Light L16 computational camera. When viewed from the front, it could be any number of things: a funky looking hard drive, a mini-tablet festooned with lenses, a portable speaker riddled with sensors.

    But the creators see nothing strange about this photo device. To them, the Light L16 is a bold new concept, one that's clearly defined by the design: A single camera body with 16 different lenses.

    In truth, it's more than that. The L16 actually marries multiple optics components with powerful software to produce images worthy of an advanced digital camera. The lofty goal is to reproduce the picture quality of SLR cameras, which capture very good images in all lighting situations. The problem, as the L16's engineers see it, is that SLRs are so bulky people are reluctant to use them. So the group set out to invent a simple, portable device with an arsenal of built-in lenses. 

    To start, the group is targeting the highest end of the photography market: That's where camera companies are still seeing growth. The L16 is available for pre-order at $1,300 and will eventually retail for around $1,700. To appreciate the value in those prices, you need to factor in the cost of a full-frame SLR body and, of course, all those extra lenses.  

    How It Works

    What truly sets the camera apart is its ability to stitch photos together. When you press the shutter, the L16 uses several "lens modules" (lenses + sensors) to capture an image, each module functioning almost like a separate camera. Then it uses internal software to instantly combine the data into one frame. Because some frames overlap more than others, the resolution will vary, based on focal length, between 40 and 52 megapixels. Those figures rate right up there with advanced SLRs.

    By allowing the camera to stitch various images together digitally, the inventors were able to create a thin, lightweight body. They reduced the thickness even more by employing a "folded optics" strategy that uses tiny mirrors to direct light periscope-like into zoom lenses laid on their sides.

    The camera has an effective optical zoom range of 35 to 150mm (4.3x zoom), which is slightly longer than the 18 to 55mm, or roughly 3x zoom range, found on most SLR or mirrorless kit lenses. So you get longer zoom range with less bulk. The L16 also offers built-in wireless and captures 4K-resolution video, although the first generation model won’t provide the same sweep of options available for still photos. 

    Never-Before-Seen Photo Ops

    The one-of-a-kind design affords this camera some provocative capabilities. Since each shot uses several lenses, you can adjust the depth-of-field with image-editing software long after you snapped the picture. In the process, you can also adjust the focal point. In this respect, the camera's functionality somewhat resembles that of the Lytro (although the L16's makers insist their camera will be much easier to use).

    You can feasibly take the multiple-exposure benefits of high-dynamic-range photography to a whole new level, too. For example, if you shoot a subject in front of a brightly lit window, you generally have to expose for the indoor subject and blow out all the outdoor details. If you expose for the bright scene outdoors instead, your subject becomes a silhouette. HDR lets you shoot three quick photos and then merge the best parts from all three exposures in one frame. You get a detailed subject standing in front of a detailed backdrop.

    But that all changes when your subject starts moving, because it's hard to combine three successive images when your focal point is dashing across the frame. With the L16's many lenses, however, you can capture all three exposures at once, which means you can potentially freeze the action, maybe a moving car or a sprinting athlete, and still maintain sharp details, according to the company.

    Additional Specs and Availability

    Officially available summer 2016, the L16 will come with an internal, non-removable battery good for roughly 400 shots per charge and a handgrip with an additional cell that doubles the battery life. Instead of memory card access, the camera will ship with 128GB of onboard storage. Additional features include a very large, 5-inch touchscreen LCD and, according to the makers, an easy-to-use interface for point-and-shoot functionality.

    We didn't get to snap any photos with the camera, so we can't yet vouch for the picture quality or any of the other claims made by the company. We’ll be sure to get the L16 into our labs as soon as it’s available, though. In the meantime, feel free to check out our Digital Camera 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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    Is Barilla Premium Pasta Worth the Cost?

    The test

    We pitted one of Barilla’s Collezione Regional Specialties, Abruzzo-inspired Spaghetti Alla Chitarra, known for its distinctive square shape, against plain Barilla Thick Spaghetti. The former Barilla is pressed through a bronze die to create a coarse texture similar to homemade pasta, according to the company. Both Barilla products contain the exact same ingredients and are nutritionally identical.

    Use these 9 surefire ways to save at the supermarket, and read our report on America's best and worst supermarkets.

    The fancy Barilla pasta comes in an elegant dark-blue box emblazoned with gold lettering and a gold seal with a map of Italy, accompanied by the words, “Inspired by Abruzzo, Italy.” At $2.33 per pound (the price we paid locally) vs. $1.49 for the regular version, you might think it came right off the boat. Nope; it’s made in the U.S., though Barilla says its wheat blend and manufacturing equipment resemble those from its plant in Parma, Italy.

    For our test, technicians cooked ahalf-pound of each pasta according to themanufacturer’s directions, then served them twice in blind taste tests—sans sauce—to trained sensory panelists.

    The verdict

    Our experts found both Barilla products quite similar in taste and texture, and concluded that most people wouldn’t notice a difference between them, especially with added sauce. The only real distinction between Spaghetti Alla Chitarra and Thick Spaghetti is the shape of the pasta—and the price. At 84 cents more per pound (and at some stores, we found a much greater price difference), the Barilla Alla Chitarra hardly warrants the premium.

    This article also appeared in the December 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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  • 10/29/15--02:59: 2016 Nissan Maxima Review
  • 2016 Nissan Maxima Review

    Producing an honest sports sedan has eluded Nissan for the last two decades. Unfortunately, the new Maxima still falls short of that promise. Although touted as a sporty four-door, the 2016 Nissan Maxima is nothing of the sort. Is it at least a convincingly luxurious large sedan? Sadly, the new Nissan falters as a haven of opulence as well. Throw in a $42,000 price tag for the Platinum version we tested and—despite some high points—the 2016 Nissan Maxima becomes a questionable purchase proposition.

    We had high hopes for Nissan’s new flagship, thinking that maybe this time the Japanese automaker would get it right. There’s sleek styling. A potent engine. It looked promising. But despite Nissan’s ambitions, the 2016 Nissan Maxima doesn’t tick enough boxes.

    Granted, it’s quick. The 3.5-liter V6 eagerly unleashes every one of its 300 horses, dashing from 0 to 60 mph in just 6.5 seconds while still returning a commendable 25 mpg overall—impressive considering that it doesn’t use a hybrid system and isn’t a diesel. The trade-off is that it recommends premium fuel.

    But those numbers don’t tell the whole story. Every time you need a little extra oomph from the powertrain—say, when merging on a busy highway—the standard continuously variable transmission (CVT) in the 2016 Nissan Maxima produces a lot of angst-inducing engine noise and feels disconnected to the whole acceleration experience. The transmission may be smooth around town, but it’s not particularly kind to your ears and it thwarts any sense of driving pleasure. Every tester complained that the CVT neutered a great engine backed with a seemingly endless well of horsepower.

    For all of its “four-door sports car” sloganeering, the Maxima’s handling is rather mundane and not befitting a car with such a sporty pretense. The steering provides hardly any feedback, and during low-speed parking maneuvers, the effort required from the driver suddenly becomes quite hefty for no apparent reason. It’s as if the software was programmed backward.

    The Maxima’s ride was also a letdown, with some bumps unduly punching through. And it tended to produce unsettling motions that caused some passengers to feel seasick.

    Inside the 2016 Nissan Maxima, the cabin remains quiet. But the driving position is cramped and confining. Head room is tight, and your right leg and knee will probably be snugged up against the side of the intrusive center console (at least it’s padded). And the old-style foot-operated parking brake steals valuable real estate from your left shin.

    Visibility is hurt by narrow windows, sharply sloped front windshield pillars, and a high parcel shelf behind the rear seats. Considering that seeing out of the 2016 Nissan Maxima is akin to peering out of a cave, it’s disappointing that lane-departure warning isn’t offered. Fortunately, a backup camera is standard, and a surround-view system is optional.

    Those seated in back have scant space, with limited head and leg room and tiny toe room under the front seats. Our testers kept wondering how a car so big outside could feel so small inside.

    The controls are a bright spot—incorporating high-tech connectivity and a long list of features into an approachable, easy-to-understand design. Plus, Nissan’s new touch-screen infotainment system is one of the best in the industry. The fit and finish is elegant; the diamond-quilted stitching on the seats of high-end models is a snazzy touch.

    Putting the 2016 Nissan Maxima in perspective, it’s neither a viable alternative to a large, cosseting family sedan such as the Chevrolet Impala or Toyota Avalon nor a genuine competitor to an enthusiastic sports sedan like a BMW 3 Series. That leaves the Maxima in a peculiar limbo.

    Read the complete Nissan Maxima road test.

    Highs Acceleration, fuel economy, controls, fit and finish
    Lows Ride, steering, engine noise, access, snug driving position, visibility, rear-seat room
    Powertrain 300-hp, 3.5-liter V6 engine; continuously-variable transmission; front-wheel drive
    Fuel 25 mpg
    Price $33,235-$40,685

    This article also appeared in the December 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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  • 10/29/15--02:59: 2016 Honda Pilot Review
  • 2016 Honda Pilot Review

    At one time, driving a Honda Pilot meant that driving dynamics, family friendliness, and powertrain refinement were more important to you than the macho, trucklike SUV look. The Pilot was a natural next step for Honda CR-V and Accord owners with growing families who didn’t want a minivan. But something went awry in the late-2000s. Honda changed tack, making the Pilot more trucky and cheap-feeling. Other manufacturers started making a better Honda than Honda. With the 2016 redesign, Honda takes a swing at a softer, more carlike Pilot.

    Built properly, an SUV performs the family-hauling duties of a minivan with added machismo, and without being a poster child for a “Mom-mobile.”

    In that respect, the 2016 Honda Pilot does a commendable minivan impression with its flexible seating for eight; a roomy, versatile, and feature-filled interior; and easy access to all three seating rows. But while it addresses many of the previous generation’s flaws, the new Pilot is still lost in the fog.

    When it comes to handling, this SUV has no connection with the nimble Hondas of the past. On open roads, the 2016 Honda Pilot maneuvers like an apartment building on wheels. Its cumbersome cornering makes the Pilot feel reluctant to turn, and the vague steering chips away at your confidence. Nobody expects sports car handling from an SUV, but the Pilot is inferior to Honda’s hulking Odyssey minivan—whether meandering down the road or darting around obstacles. Plus, the Pilot’s mediocre braking on wet roads trails most competitors.

    The flip side to the Pilot’s ungainly handling is a comfortable ride. This suspension on the 2016 Honda Pilot smooths out bumps with composure. Some road imperfections will rock the Pilot from side to side, but overall a trip in the Pilot is uneventful. Honda loaded up on the sound-deadening materials, resulting in a quiet cabin.

    The 3.5-liter V6 is a gem, smoothly and promptly delivering power throughout its rev range. Drivers are never left feeling in a dead zone of acceleration, with the standard six-speed automatic smoothly swapping gears. Our all-wheel-drive Pilot averaged 20 mpg overall in tests—on par with other vehicles in the segment. Front-drive Pilots are likely to do 1 or 2 mpg better.

    The upmarket 2016 Honda Pilot Touring and Elite trim levels are saddled with a nine-speed gearbox that’s neither smooth nor responsive, and it uses an infuriating and unintuitive push-button shifter. Shoppers should stick with the six-speed.

    Interior materials and details are certainly improved, with hard, cheap plastics exiled to the recycling bin. All sizes of drivers found plenty of room, with good access to the pedals, adjustable steering wheel, and dashboard controls. Windows are big and roof pillars are thin, giving a commanding all-around view from the helm.

    Though the front seats are well-padded and supportive, the lumbar adjusts only for pressure, not height. And some drivers felt that the front of the seat cushion didn’t lower enough.

    The second row in the 2016 Honda Pilot is roomy, and the seats can slide fore/aft to give space to third-row occupants. The rearmost seats are best left for kids.

    Gauges in the 2016 Honda Pilot are easy to read, and the climate controls are super-clear. But like every contemporary Honda, drivers must suffer with a convoluted touch-screen infotainment system. Fonts and buttons are large, but finding menus, changing the volume or radio station, or adjusting settings is frustrating. Consider the steering-wheel controls your co-pilot to handle tasks.

    Advanced crash-prevention tech is available across the lineup, but only the top-level Elite gets blind-spot detection. In its place on most trims is the LaneWatch camera, but studying the display screen takes your attention off the road.

    Honda faithful will recognize this Pilot as an Odyssey in weekend warrior packaging but will still wonder where the brand’s cherished attributes—such as intuitive controls and agile handling—have gone.

    Read the complete Honda Pilot road test.

    Highs Roomy interior, visibility, access, smooth powertrain, crash-test results, available safety gear
    Lows Clumsy handling, infuriating touch-screen radio, blind-spot monitor only on Elite trim, annoying push-button shifter on high-end versions
    Powertrain 280-hp, 3.5-liter V6; six-speed automatic; all-wheel drive
    Fuel 20 mpg
    Price $30,875-$47,300

    This article also appeared in the December 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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    Rewards Cards That Will Maximize Your Benefits

    One smart way to get a deal on the things you buy this holiday season is to pay using rewards credit cards. If you choose the right ones, you can double the fun: Buy an iPad or two for your spouse and kids, shop for your turkey dinner, and pay for a flight to visit grandma, and you’ll wind up giving yourself a gift, too. We found that if you charge your purchases on two cards instead of one, you could earn 10 to 40 percent more in rewards over time in the scenarios shown below.

    Of course, to get the biggest savings you’ll have to use the rewards cards year-round—not just over the holidays. And you’ll need to know the details about the reward programs, such as how much cash back they offer, whether there are caps on the amount you can earn, and what kinds of purchases qualify. One card, for example, might give you 3 percent cash back on gas, 6 percent on groceries, and 1 percent on everything else, and another may give you 2 percent back on all purchases.

    To see how this strategy could benefit you, we used our proprietary credit card comparison calculator to review more than 90 rewards-card programs under six spending scenarios based in part on data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and market research. We evaluated benefits over a three-year period because certain rewards cards offer a generous sign-on bonus but more limited rewards in subsequent years.

    We also considered the actual value of the rewards—whether they come as miles, points, or cash back—and we assumed that cardholders don’t carry balances. A few generous rewards cards came up more than once because they work well for more than one kind of spender. Rewards programs can change at any time, so check them carefully online before you sign up.

    The Family Person

    You belong to a typical American family. You have a spouse and two kids, and you spend about $300 on gas and $500 on groceries every month, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. On a credit card budget of $3,500 per month, you’re also spending on clothes, drugstore goods, entertainment, travel, restaurant meals, and utilities.

    Your Cards: American Express Blue Cash Preferred Card; Capital One Venture

    Your Strategy: Charge your monthly gas and grocery expenses to the American Express card to earn 6 percent cash back on groceries (on up to $6,000 over 12 months) and 3 percent cash back on gas. Use the Capital One card for everything else because it offers 2 miles for every dollar you spend in all categories.

    Rewards Total: $3,550 over three years

    The Traveler

    Whether it’s for work or play, you spend lots of time on planes and in hotels, and you want to earn rewards so that your next trip is free. Seventy percent of your credit card spending is in travel-related categories such as airfare, hotels, rental cars, and restaurant meals, and you charge a total of $3,000 per month.

    Your Cards: Capital One Venture; PenFed Premium Travel Rewards American Express Card

    Your Strategy: The PenFed card gives 5 points on every dollar spent on airfare but only 1 point on all other spending. So use it to buy your airline tickets, but charge other expenses to the Capital One card, which gives you 2 miles for every dollar you spend. It also gives new cardholders 40,000 bonus miles if they spend a total of $3,000 in the first three months. The PenFed card gives 20,000 miles if you spend $2,500 in three months. Neither card charges foreign transaction fees.

    One caveat, though: To get the PenFed card, you have to first join the PenFed Credit Union. Anyone can join, and costs are low. Military personnel and their families can join free; others must make a one-time donation of $14 to Voices for America’s Troops or $15 to the National Military Family Association. Members must keep at least $5 in a savings account.

    Rewards Total: $3,400 over three years.$3,400 over three years.
     

    The Small-Business Owner

    Your ongoing expenses include advertising, communications costs, gas, travel, and dinner with clients. You need rewards cards that either give you cash back that you can reinvest in your business or provide travel points that you can use for future business trips. An analysis by Shoeboxed, which tracks small businesses’ spending, found that owners’ expenses average $2,245 per month. But that study was from three years ago, and business expenditures have been rising, according to the National Federation of Independent Business. So we estimate that you’re charging $2,500 per month.

    Your Cards: PenFed Platinum Cash Rewards Visa Plus; Capital One Spark Cash for Business or Capital One Spark Miles for Business

    Your Strategy: Use the PenFed card for gas because it offers 5 percent cash back. Charge everything else to the Capital One Spark Cash card, which gives you 2 percent cash back (plus a $500 cash bonus if you spend $4,500 in the first three months). To earn free travel perks instead, swap out the Spark Cash card for Spark Miles. You’ll earn an equivalent of 2 miles per dollar spent. You’ll also get the same sign-up bonus you can use for travel. Neither Capital One card charges a foreign transaction fee, and your rewards never expire.

    Rewards Total: $2,500 over three years.

    The Baby Boomer

    You’re closing in on retirement and are at the height of your earning potential. Much of your income goes toward entertainment, groceries, and utilities, though you also spend money on clothing, drugstore goods, home improvements, gas, and restaurant meals. You charge about $4,200 per month.

    Your Cards: American Express Blue Cash Preferred Card; Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite MasterCard

    Your Strategy: The American Express card gives you 6 percent cash back on groceries (on $6,000 annually) and 3 percent cash back at gas stations and certain department stores. But for other purchases, you’ll get only 1 percent back. So charge everything else on the Barclaycard, which gives you 2 miles per dollar spent that can be redeemed as a statement credit for airline tickets, hotel stays, and cruises.

    Rewards Total: $3,800 over three years.
     

    The Student

    You’re in school, so money is tight, but you’re still charging $250 per month or more on credit cards. Spending by those younger than 25, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, includes food, gas, travel, insurance, clothing, utilities, and entertainment.

    Your Cards: BankAmericard Cash Rewards Credit Card for Students; Discover It Chrome for Students

    Your Strategy: Charge gas and groceries on Bank­Americard. That’ll give you 3 percent cash back per dollar spent on gas and 2 percent on groceries. (The amount drops to 1 percent after you spend a combined total of $1,500 per quarter in those categories.) If you have a Bank of America checking or savings account, you’ll earn an additional 10 percent cash back on rewards you deposit into that account. Put the rest of your charges on the Discover card to earn 2 percent cash back on gas and restaurant meals (up to $1,000 in combined purchases each quarter) and 1 percent on the rest of your purchases.

    Rewards Total: $235 over three years.

    The Big Spender

    You charge an average of $5,000 per month on your credit cards, so you could be a great contender for a premium card, according to research firm Mercator Advisory Group. In our calculations, we divided 75 percent of your spending among retail, entertainment, travel, and restaurant expenses. Groceries and gas make up a smaller part of your spending, so cards that richly reward you in those categories are not as important.

    Your Cards: Capital One Venture; Citi ThankYou Premier

    Your Strategy: Charge your entertainment, restaurant, and travel expenses to the Citi card. That way you’ll earn 3 points for each travel dollar spent and 2 points for entertainment and restaurants. Your points are worth 25 percent more when redeemed for airfare, hotels, cruises, and car rentals through Citi’s ThankYou Travel Center. Put all other expenses on the Capital One card to earn 2 miles for every dollar you spend. If you charge $3,000 on the Capital One card during the first 90 days after you activate it, you’ll get 40,000 bonus miles. You’ll get 50,000 bonus points from Citi after charging $3,000 during the first 90 days.

    Rewards Total: $4,650 over three years.
     

    Editor's Note: This article also appeared in the December 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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    Smart Road Tips for Halloween Car Safety

    Halloween is a holiday that is supposed to be scary, but as costumed children hit the roads for treats, safety should be a top priority to ensure no true horrors occur.

    Between the hours of 4 p.m. and midnight on Halloween is the deadliest night of the year, says Sharon Berlin, research analyst at AAA. Pedestrian deaths are very high that night. According to past research, alcohol is a factor in about 72 percent of Halloween deaths; it is not just kids out celebrating.

    A study by AAA found that the risk of severe injury to a pedestrian is twice as likely if they are hit by a car driving 35 mph compared to 25 mph. "A small difference in speed can make a big difference in saving lives," says Berlin. So drivers are urged to slow down and be extra attentive.

    Below are some tips for children and parents to ensure that this year's festivities are fun and not frightening.

    Trick-or-Treaters

    With children of all ages walking along and crossing the street, it's important to make sure children and parents know how to stay aware and safe.

    • Parents should accompany children if they are younger than 12-years old.
    • Children should walk—not run—from house to house.
    • Children should stay on sidewalks instead of walking between cars or on lawns where ornaments or wires can be tripping hazards.
    • Remind children to look for cars backing out or entering when walking by a driveway.
    • Cross streets at corners with traffic signals and crosswalks.
    • Don't assume the right of way as motorists may not see you.
    • Consider a costume that is a lighter color and more visible to motorists. Add reflective material front and back. Make sure costumes don't obstruct vision or drape down so long as to be a tripping hazard.
    • Give your kids a flashlight so they can be seen by drivers. Glow sticks can further aid visibility.

    Find out how to protect your car on Halloween. And check out these 13 scary-good new car deals for Halloween.

    Drivers

    As dusk approaches, drivers need to be extra vigilant and focused on the road.

    • Slow down when driving around neighborhoods and residential streets. Assume children are around and don't see you.
    • Do not drink and drive.
    • Yield to pedestrians and watch for children who may dart out into the street .
    • If you are driving children around for trick or treating, make sure they are buckled up appropriately with a child safety seat or vehicle seatbelt. Do this each and every time they enter the car, and check before driving to the next stop.
    • Pull over to safe locations to let children exit curb side, away from traffic. Use your hazard lights to alert other drivers of not only your car, but to exercise caution. Especially on Halloween, they will be extra wary for children as a result.
    • Try to park in a spot where you won't need to back up, but if you must, have an adult outside to make sure no children are in the way.
    • As you should every day, don't use a cell phone or other mobile device while driving. Pull over safely to check voice messages or texts, as needed.

    By being cautious and safety minded this Halloween, you can make sure the holiday is a treat for all.  

    Happy Halloween!

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

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    AA Batteries That Are Built to Last

     Nothing kills the joy of a holiday morning like forgetting the batteries. So if you don’t want to run to the store in your pajamas, plan ahead and buy the best batteries to power those train sets and talking dolls.

    We recently tested and rated 15 AA batteries for performance and price—13 alkalines and two lithiums (no rechargeables). Prices ranged from just 62 cents per pair to almost $5 per pair. To simulate toy use, we put each battery to work for one full hour per day until it died. To test how well the AA batteries work in a flashlight, we ran each model for 4 minutes per hour for 8 straight hours, let it sit for 16 hours, then repeated the pattern.

    What we found: A Duracell alkaline—priced in the middle of the pack at $2.48 per pair—did as well as an Energizer lithium that cost almost twice as much. And a Rayovac alkaline ($2) surpassed the highest-priced battery we tried, another Energizer lithium ($4.96). Check our AA battery buying guide and Ratings for all the details.

    Does that mean you should avoid lithium batteries? No, they still rate higher than most of the alkalines we put to the test.

    It’s always smart to stock up on AA batteries when they go on sale, especially when you find a good price on larger-sized packages, which are usually a better value anyway. And here’s a sweet deal for Costco members: High-scoring Kirkland Signature alkalines, sold only in packs of 48 or 72, come out to about $1 per pair.

    Find out why batteries leak. And check our holiday gift guide for information on money-saving deals and more.

    To Get the Best Results

    • Don’t mix and match. To avoid leaks and ruptures, always use batteries of the same age, brand, and type to power your devices.
    • Clean the contact surfaces and battery compartment. Use a fresh pencil eraser or rough cloth to do that each time you install new batteries.
    • Don’t keep batteries in your pocket. Exposure to metals—say, loose nickels and dimes—can short-circuit them.
    • Store them in a cool, dry place—ideally in the original packaging. That will protect them from heat, moisture, and short-circuiting. Notice we didn’t say anything about storing them in a refrigerator. Despite what you may have heard, batteries don’t like the cold.
    • Don’t try to recharge them. Unless they’re rechargeable, of course. Regular batteries can explode. Abusing them is a bad idea, too. So put down that sledgehammer!
    • Give them a break. Before you store those singing, blinking holiday decorations, remove the batteries. Better to replace a few AAs a year from now than to lose a family treasure because of leakage.

    Editor’s Note: This article also appeared in the December 2015 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.

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    Redesigned 2016 Smart ForTwo Loses Its Training Wheels

    The ultra-tiny Smart ForTwo is redesigned for 2016. While it’s still styled like the original small, stubby city car, it’s a whole lot better than the low-scoring model it replaces.

    From behind the wheel, the clumsy handling associated with Smart is gone, replaced by a decidedly more nimble demeanor. And as one would expect from the tiny wheelbase, the turning circle is incredible: changing directions or pulling quick U-turns are a snap.

    Driving the Smart ForTwo just a few blocks makes clear that the new dual-clutch transmission is worlds better than that old five-speed automated manual. That was perhaps one of the worst gearboxes we’ve ever tested; it routinely produced shifts that were slow and jerky enough to send the car and its occupants rocking back and forth.

    The new car gets a micro-displacement 1.0-liter three-cylinder engine. Mounted in the back, this wee engine makes an unremarkable 89 hp. But the Smart only weighs around 2,000 pounds—less than Honda Fit, Mini Cooper, or Toyota Yaris. Powertrain refinement is less than perfect, with notable vibrations while waiting for a stop light to turn green.

    The EPA estimates that the new Smart will return 34 mpg in the city, 39 mpg highway. and 36 mpg overall. We’ve been seeing around 38 mpg. The tiny fuel tank (just 7.8 gallons) also gives it really short range—around 200 miles. Then again, this car is designed for city driving.

    Despite the orange and black Halloween-themed colors on our purchased test car, driving the Smart no longer feels scary—it’s got enough power to get up to speed and improved isolation reduces noise. But we wouldn’t call it exactly quiet, especially on the highway.

    Like most small-wheelbase cars, the ride is stiff, jittery, and jumpy. Still, it’s an improvement over the last one.

    Inside, the driver sits up high with terrific visibility—virtues in a city car that make it easy to spot parking places and zip right in. Likewise, the cabin design remains funky. For example, the tachometer and clock are mounted atop the dashboard and to the left of the driver. The temperature adjustment for the climate controls is refreshingly analog, with a magnifying glass type of slider that easily lets you alter the temperature. The dashboard is covered in soft-touch fabrics. And instead of overhead grab handles to help you pull yourself out of the seats, the ceiling houses dual sunglass holders in their place. Honestly, it’s one of the more, shall we say, “original” interiors we’ve experienced lately (with the same nod to out-there design that we liked in our tested BMW i3).

    The Smart ForTwo starts at $15,400. Our Passion model, with a few options, set us back $18,730.

    Overall, the Smart now feels like a real car, with more character than you can imagine.

    We’ll have more on the Smart as we complete the 2,000 break-in miles and start formal testing. Stay tuned.

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    Moto Droid Turbo 2 and Maxx 2 Smartphones Come to Verizon

    Verizon tried to create a stir this week by dropping its new Motorola Droid Turbo 2 onto a concrete block at a press event. This latest flagship model, available Thursday at Verizon and its partner retail outlets, features a five-layer ShatterShield display developed by Motorola to absorb severe shocks and thwart cracking and shattering.

    In the hours since I received my Turbo 2, I’ve dropped it quite a few times, including once from the second-floor atrium in our office to the carpeted ground floor 15 feet below. The display—and phone—survived without a scratch.

    Our Consumer Reports engineers may come up with a more scientific process to test the new Moto’s toughness, but I’m already impressed. As for Motorola, it's so pleased with the feature, it will cover the phone's display and embedded lenses with a 4-year warranty (though scratches and damage to the protective lens are not included).

    (See and share our phone drop on Vine.)

    When Droid Turbo 2’s 5.4-in Quad HD display isn’t fending off attacks from cruel reporters, it presents content with impressive 540 pixels per inch (ppi) resolution. That puts it in the company of the latest phones from LG and Samsung.

    Photography promises to be another strength. The phone's two cameras each have a 21-megapixel sensor. Only three other phones in our Ratings offer resolution that high: the HTC One M9, the old Motorola Droid Turbo, and the Moto X Pure Edition. And higher resolution improves your chances of capturing more details in your photos, though our tests have found phones with lower-resolution cameras that take exceptionally good pictures—including the iPhone 6s.

    The front-facing, 5-megapixel “selfie” camera also has its own LED flash, which is rare among smartphones, though some, including the iPhone 6s, have displays that glow brightly when you're taking still pictures and videos.

    In any case, the camera on last year's Droid Turbo, though not the best, produced very good still images in our tests.

    The other key Droid advantage is battery life. The Turbo 2 promises 48 hours of use between charges. Best of all, you can coax 13 more hours from a dead battery, Verizon says, after only 15 minutes at the charger.

    The Droid Maxx 2, the Turbo 2’s more affordable cousin, also promises 48 hours of battery life between pit stops, but you only get eight more hours with a 15-minute recharge. The phone has a slightly larger, 5.5-inch display—minus the Moto ShatterShield protection—and its resolution is less sharp, though adequate, at 1080P. Sorry, no LED flash on the front-facing camera, either. It has a resolution of less than 5 megapixels.   

    Availability. The Droid Turbo 2 will cost $26 a month for 24 months ($624 retail price) or $30 per month for 24 months ($720) with design refresh. The Droid Maxx 2 will be $16 per month for 24 months ($384).

    These are the first Droids that can be customized on Motorola's Moto Maker's site, which offers consumers a wide selection of case colors and materials, including wood and leather. 

    As a promo, Verizon is offering up to $300 to new customers who trade in their old smartphones for a Turbo 2 — even if the old phone has a cracked screen. One catch: The device must be able to power on.

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    Latest Tesla Model S Software Update Includes Autopilot and a Taste of Autonomous Driving

    Autopilot is one of the reasons we paid $127,000 for the Model S P85D earlier this year. Companies from Google to Mercedes-Benz are working on cars that incorporate self-driving features. And with some self-driving features around for nearly a decade, we were intrigued by how Tesla might advance the technology.

    We wanted to be in a position to test how Tesla could change how we drive, and potentially be a lifesaver by reducing driver error.

    Since making an easy over-the-air upgrade to our P85D, we’ve had a few hours behind the wheel of the car with Autopilot. (Read our complete Tesla Model S P85D road test.)

    How it Works

    • Set the cruise control speed and the car will adjust its speed according to the traffic flow and will even bring you down to a full stop if traffic gets bogged down. Once traffic starts moving, the car will resume its progress. Tesla calls this feature Traffic-Aware Cruise Control (TACC).
    • To experience the full Autopilot system, you pull the cruise control stalk twice toward you to activate the Autosteer function, in addition to TACC.
    • Once set, the car will follow lane markings with the steering wheel moving by itself. Even if you have your hands on the wheel, you feel it tugging. Tesla warns that this is not a hands-free feature and that the driver must keep hands on the wheel; the Model S will display a warning otherwise, but unlike other cars, it won’t disengage the auto-steer.

    We found Autopilot worked quite well, although some drivers would probably apply steering sooner when entering a curve—and return the wheel to the straight-ahead position earlier when exiting the turn—than the system does to have smoother transitions. The system needs clear lane markings or a car ahead to follow. The feature is unavailable on a winding country road; the car will display a note to that effect.

    Signal a lane change and the Model S gracefully transitions into the intended lane—assuming the car senses that it is clear. Change your mind mid-course? No problem, the car will revert to its original lane if you’re no longer signaling. We’re not quite sure what advantage this provides over merely rotating the steering wheel slightly on its orbit, as both actions involve basically the same driver interaction with the car.

    To have the car park itself, the Tesla needs to identify two parked cars with a sufficient gap between them and a curb. You then drive the car alongside the space at a low speed until you hear an audible “bing” and the letter P appears in the instrument cluster. Tap a button on the big screen to give the process the green light, and the car parks itself. No, the Tesla won’t park itself with you outside the car, nor deliver itself to you like a robotic valet.

    While these features bring potential safety and convenience benefits, they won’t take you door-to-door—so don't check your email while driving, or expect the car to help drive you home after a night of bar hopping. And a self-driving car won’t get you off the hook with the law; it still qualifies as driving under the influence if you’re intoxicated. Distracted driving is a serious safety issue, even in a car with some autonomous driving capability. Tesla says drivers must remain fully engaged.

    And while impressive, some of these features aren’t unique. Mercedes-Benz introduced active cruise control about a decade ago. Acura, Jeep, Mercedes-Benz, and Volvo models, to name a few, have lane-departure warning systems with active lane correction, so you feel the steering wheel tug under your palms to keep you in the lane, in case you failed to do so. (Watch our impressions of the "self-driving" Mercedes-Benz.)

    Likewise, the automatic parking is not new. We first experienced this convenient feature in our 2007 Lexus LS 460 and since then it has proliferated into various Chrysler, Ford, and Volkswagen models, among others.

    The key with Autopilot is that it incorporates all of these features, better approximating a self-driving car than any other current production model.

    The Autopilot part of the software update works on cars built after September 2014. It also includes some changes for all Model S cars—an entirely new look for the dashboard instrument cluster and some graphic changes to icons in the giant iPad-like center touch screen.

    Tesla says the Autopilot still is in the early stages, with further refinements and new functionality under development. Coming next: Version 7.1 of the software will enable the Model S to drive itself in and out of a garage.

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

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    Robocallers May Soon Be Ringing Your Cell Phone

    If you think you’ve had enough with all the robocalls coming to your phone, be prepared. You may be getting many more calls soon. The reason? The House of Representatives voted yesterday to allow debt collectors to use robocall technology—where calls are autodialed—to contact borrowers of federal loans who haven’t made their payments. The big target: those struggling under mountains of student debt.  

    The vote comes just months after the Federal Communications Commission tightened rules to protect consumers from such calls.  Currently, per the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA) and the Fair Debt Collection Protection Act (FDCPA), it’s illegal for debt collectors to call a cellphone to collect a debt, unless the debtor has granted prior permission. It’s been illegal for other companies to use auto-dialing equipment to call cellphones for nearly a quarter century.  

    But buried in the 144-page bipartisan budget bill working its way through Congress this week is a provision that would allow loan servicers and other collectors of federal loan debt to use robocalls “to collect a debt owed to or guaranteed by the United States.”

    “There are millions of student loan borrowers out there and a good chunk of them have fallen behind on their loans because they can’t find a job or have problems with their loan servicers,” says Suzanne Martindale, a staff attorney with Consumer Union, the advocacy and policy arm of Consumer Reports. “Now they will be subject to harassing calls anywhere, anytime.”

    Trillions of Dollars of Debt

    Currently, there’s more than $1.3 trillion dollars of outstanding student loans. More than 11 percent of that debt is delinquent, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. But it's possible that other types of government-based debt may also be subject to this legislative exception, such as back taxes and Federal Housing Administration (FHA) loans.

    According to the Department of Education, using robocall technology to go after students is not necesarily a bad thing. In a report, the department says it can help prevent student loan borrowers from defaulting by reminding them to make payments.  President Obama’s latest budget proposal also recommended amending the current law to allow student loan servicers to contact borrowers via their cellphone.

    However, Consumer Union's Martindale points out that student loan servicers, such as Navient and Nelnet, could use robocalls to hound students to pay their loans even before the loans go into default. It would be better, argues Martindale, if they helped those struggling with loans to find a way to repay them instead.

    Then there's the question of how effective debt-collection robocalls would ultimately be. The Office of Management and Budget estimates the program would only net the government $120 million over 10 years—just 0.01 percent of the Federal student loan debt currently outstanding. 

    If you want to tell lawmakers how you feel about this issue, our colleagues at Consumers Union have put together this form that identifies your relevant members of Congress and allows you to easily send them a message expressing your concerns.

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    Easy Ways to Boost Smartphone Storage

    If you have had your smartphone for a while, you may be getting messages that say “not enough storage” or “storage almost full.” Smartphone storage can fill up fast with photos, videos, games and other apps, and song playlists, especially if you went for the 16GB “bargain” model iPhone or Android. Photos and videos shot with high-resolution cameras are the most notorious storage hogs. A single photo can eat up 5MB, and just 1 minute of a high-definition (HD) video may take up 500MB or even more.

    But don’t panic. You have great options without having to shell out for a larger-capacity phone.

    Get a Backup Plan

    Apple and Google have cloud-based servers to back up your files. See the comparison table, below.

    Apple’s iCloud Drive, available to any device that can access an iTunes account, provides 5GB of free storage. To maximize it, go to Settings, then iCloud, then Photos. Flip the switch for iCloud Photo Library, then Optimize Photo Storage. That stores photos on your phone at a lower resolution while they’re backed up on the cloud at full quality.

    Google Drive, available for Android and iPhone, provides 15GB of free storage. All you need is a free Gmail account and the Google Drive app on your phone. Also consider downloading Google Photos, which lets you set up automatic photo and video backups, and provides a great interface for viewing, editing, and sharing photos.

    Both services let you buy more storage (see table for prices). Tip: To conserve data usage, set the apps to perform backups only when your phone is connected to a Wi-Fi network you deem safe to use. To set that up on Google Photos, open Settings within the app. For iCloud Drive, open the app in Settings and switch off Use Cellular Data.

    Add Storage

    Many Android phones have slots that accept microSD, a memory card that can expand your smartphone storage up to 128GB. And the cards are cheap: about $25 for a microSD card with 64GB of storage. iPhones don’t offer that feature.

    Clean Up Your Act

    Once you have safely backed up your photos, videos, and other files, delete them from your phone to reclaim the smartphone storage space. Then open up a few more gigabytes by deleting apps and games you no longer use. Ditto for movies or music playlists you may have downloaded for some past road trip. Don’t worry: Amazon, Apple, and Google keep copies of the apps and media content you bought from them, so you can download them again anytime. And of course the files you copied onto your phone from your computer, using iTunes or a similar program, are still on your computer. Music lovers may want to skip storing music on their phones altogether and instead stream it from such services as Pandora, Rdio, and Spotify—but remember to use Wi-Fi as often as possible.

    Service

    Free Storage

    Lowest Price

    Highest Price

    Apple iCloud Drive

    5GB

     

    50GB at $1 per month

    1 terabyte at $20 per month

    Google Cloud

     

    15GB

     

    100GB at $2 per month

    1 terabyte at $10 per month

     

     

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

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    2015 Gift Guide: For the Food Lover

    At Consumer Reports, we buy and rigorously test thousands of products and services all year long so that you have an independent source by which to evaluate safety, performance, value, energy efficiency, and environmental impact. At holiday time, that will make you a shrewder shopper, resulting in smarter, cooler, more delightful, and useful choices. We’ve reviewed a year’s worth of testing to bring you the standouts from our labs—from TVs to toasters, smartphones to slow cookers, coffeemakers to cars. The results add up to our Best Products of 2015. 

    Are you shopping for someone who loves food and spending time in the kitchen? We've rounded up the best kitchen gadgets on the market, including a mighty microwave, snazzy cookware, and more. 

    More Gift Guides

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    Top LEDs and CFLs for the Dark Days Ahead

    Daylight Saving Time has its critics. But for the sleep-deprived, it’s hard to argue with the appeal of gaining an hour of sleep come Sunday, November 1, as Daylight Saving Time ends. Until you remember that for the next few months it will be dark when you wake up, dark before you sit down for dinner, and dark when you walk the dog after you eat. Time to turn on the lights.

    Lights are on longer in the fall and winter, whether people need more light for reading and cooking or to lift their mood. And while some turn off lights when they leave a room, a walk through my neighborhood tells me otherwise—some homes are lit up, floor to floor. That's a lot of electricity being used, especially considering that the average home has more than 40 light sockets, according to Energy Star. 

    Now’s a fine time to switch to energy-saving CFLs and LEDs. CFLs use about 75 percent less energy and last seven to 10 times longer than the incandescent bulbs they replace. LEDs use slightly less energy than CFLs, and most are claimed to last 18 to 46 years, based on three hours of use each day. LEDs are more expensive, but their prices continue to fall as manufacturers try to speed up adoption; utility rebates can help offset some of their higher cost.

    5 CR Best Buy Lightbulbs to Consider

    These lightbulbs are as bright as the 60-watt incandescents they replace, and the LEDs are dimmable. Use these energy-saving lightbulbs in frequently used lamps and open ceiling fixtures. All except the Philips can be used in fully enclosed fixtures. (Prices are per bulb.)

    Check our lightbulb Ratings for all the details. You’ll also find general-purpose bulbs that replace 40-, 75- and 100-watt bulbs, and BR30 and PAR38 bulbs for indoor and outdoor use.

    If you have any questions, send them to me at kjaneway@consumer.org.

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    Best vacuums for holiday cleanup

    You can plan your dinner courses to a tee, chill the wine just right, and still feel behind the eight ball because your vacuum cleaner conked out at a critical moment. If you have time, you might find there’s hope for that old vacuum. But if you need a new vacuum anyway, you can’t go wrong with these five favorites from Consumer Reports' vacuum tests, which also make great gifts.

    Kenmore 31140, $200

    For an upright bagged model, the type with the most suction for deep-cleaning carpets, we recommend the Kenmore 31140. Some models costing up to $515 more did better overall, but the Kenmore was impressive for deep-cleaning carpets and even better at picking up pet hair, cleaning bare floors, and keeping in what it picked up. We also liked its easy-to-reach on/off switch, the manual carpet pile-height adjustment—better than automatic systems at matching the brush to the surface—and the brush on/off switch, which safeguards bare floors and keeps from scattering debris rather than picking it up.

    Hoover WindTunnel T-Series Rewind UH70120, $130

    Impressive cleaning and superb pet-hair pickup helped put the bagless upright Hoover WindTunnel T-Series Rewind UH70120 on our winner's list. This model also delivers lots of suction for tools, manual carpet pile-height adjustment (better for matching the brush to the surface), and a retractable cord--all in a low-priced, relatively light machine that weighs just 18 pounds. Two things this value-priced model doesn't include: suction control for drapes and a brush on/off switch to safeguard bare floors' finish and prevent scattered dust and debris. Among upright brands, Hoover has been a solid performer in our tests.

    Panasonic MC-CG937, $330

    Panasonic's bagged canister had impressive cleaning across the board, making it one of our top picks. The Panasonic MC-CG937 had ample airflow for tools and did equally well at picking up pet hair. Helpful features include a brush on/off switch, suction control, easy on/off, manual carpet pile-height adjustment, and the expected retractable cord. Also, the bag resides on a little caddy that we found easy to empty.

    Kenmore 22614, $350

    Impressive cleaning, lots of airflow for tools, and fairly quiet running helped make this bagless canister a top pick. The Kenmore 22614 is also a great choice for picking up after cats or dogs. Key features include manual carpet pile-height adjustment, suction control, a brush on/off switch, and a retractable cord. And among canister brands, Kenmore has consistently been among the top performers. One caveat: Handling this vacuum's 23 pounds took some muscle. But you wanted to keep in shape for the holidays, right?

    Shark Rocket HV302, $180

    Among stick vacuums, the cordless Dyson V6, $300, and Dyson V6 Motorhead, $550, are the performance champs. But for hundreds less, the corded Shark Rocket HV302, $180 did nearly as well and matched the Dysons for carpet-surface cleaning and pet-hair pickup. In both those tests the Shark was top-notch. It was also impressive at cleaning edges, doing bare floors, and is fairly quiet. Prefer a cordless model? Consider the Hoover Platinum LiNX BH50010, $160, instead.

    Before checking our vacuum cleaner Ratings of more than 140 vacuums, be sure to check our buying guide for vacuums.

    —Ed Perratore (@EdPerratore on Twitter)

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  • 10/30/15--10:54: 7 Scariest Kitchen Accidents
  • 7 Scariest Kitchen Accidents

    Kitchens are considered the heart of the home but they’re also home to a lot of equipment that can pose safety hazards. Cooking fires top the list of things that can go wrong in the kitchen followed by injuries from knives, cookware, food processors, microwaves, and blenders. Fires related to cooking peak over the holidays—Thanksgiving has three times the average cooking-related fires. Here are some tips from safety pros and the experts at Consumer Reports that will help you avoid accidents and keep you out of the emergency room over the holidays.

    Cooking fires

    Fires involving cooking equipment account for two of every five reported home fires. Unattended cooking equipment accounts for one in three fires, and half are ignited by fat, grease, oil, or related substances, according to the National Fire Protection Association. If you spend a lot of time in the kitchen, take a minute to bone up on these safety tips to avoid accidents.

    • Stay in the kitchen when you are frying, grilling, or broiling.
    • If you are simmering, baking or roasting, remain at home and check the food often. Set the timer as a reminder.
    • Keep anything that can catch fire—pot holders, towels, food packaging—away from the stovetop.
    • Always keep a lid nearby to smother small grease fires by sliding the lid over the pan and turning off the burner.
    • If a fire starts in the oven, turn it off and leave the door closed.
    • If the fire gets out of hand, leave the house and call 911.
    • Keep a fire extinguisher with a minimum 5-B:C rating on hand.

    Knife cuts

    Lacerations caused by knives of all kinds (not just the kitchen type) affected more than 350,000 people in 2012, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission. Dull knives are actually more dangerous than sharp ones, because they require more pressure to use and their worn edge can cause the knife to slip off food and into your fingers. To avoid accidents and injuries:

    • Keep knives sharpened.
    • Use a cutting board that doesn’t have a slippery surface and put a damp towel under it to prevent it from moving.
    • Cut away from your body, keeping the fingers of the hand holding the food curled toward the palm.
    • Store knives in a block, not in a drawer, where they can easily slice fingers.

    Range tipovers

    Almost 40,000 people were injured from these appliances. Kids are especially at risk if they’re not supervised and climb on an open door, causing the range to tip over. To prevent accidents and injuries:

    • Install an anti-tip bracket if your current range does not have one to ensure that it is securely in place.
    • Never place heavy roasts and other food on an oven door that’s been left open.
    • Drape a towel on the oven handle while a pan is cooling to remind you that it’s still hot.

    Shattering cookware

    More than 37,000 people were injured from using cookware. Hot handles can burn and sometimes glass cookware can shatter. Heed these no-nos:

    • Don’t take the dish directly from the freezer to the oven or vice versa.
    • Don’t put the dish directly on a burner or under a broiler.
    • Don’t add liquid after the dish is hot or put a hot dish on a cold or damp surface.
    • Stop using a dish that’s chipped or cracked.

    Food processor lacerations

    Food processors caused more than 21,000 injuries, including cuts from the blades. To prevent accidents and injuries:

    • Don’t leave motorized models on for a long time; they can overheat.
    • Never reach into a slicer or a chopper. There is no need to hand wash and subject your fingers to injury; many parts are dishwasher-safe—including blades.

    Microwave oven burns

    More than 10,000 people were hurt using microwaves. Burns were most common. To prevent accidents and injuries:

    • Be careful when removing a wrapper or cover on a microwaved dish; steam can escape and cause a nasty burn.
    • Food can heat unevenly in a microwave, so use caution when touching or tasting.
    • Let food cool for a minute or two before removing it from the microwave.
    • Boil water on the stove. Superheated water in the microwave may appear placid but can violently erupt.

    Blender injuries

    More than 9,600 injuries occurred involving blenders. Immersion blenders are great for soups because they blend directly in a pot, but recent reports show that injuries are growing with the use of those small appliances. To prevent accidents and injuries:

    • Avoid the temptation to put your hand inside, especially if it’s plugged in. Most blenders don’t have safety interlocks, so you could accidentally turn it on and mangle your hand.
    • To clean blades without touching them, add dishwashing detergent and hot water to the container and let it run on high for a minute. Unplug, then rinse.

    This article was adapted from Consumer Reports ShopSmart magazine with additional reporting.

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    Reality Check: It Wasn't Tesla's Autopilot That Prevented Crash in Viral Video

    A recent viral video purporting to show how Tesla’s new Autopilot software helped a driver avoid an accident underscores that there is confusion about how advanced safety systems work and what they actually do.

    In that dramatic video, a dash camera shows the Tesla Model S motoring alongside a lane of stopped traffic at night, when a car coming from the other direction turns into the path of the Tesla. In the YouTube title, the driver says Autopilot deserves credit for avoiding the accident, as the description explains that he didn’t see the car coming nor have his foot on the brake. However, the reality is that forward-collision warning with automatic braking is the hero—a feature that many brands offer across the price spectrum.

    Tesla’s Autopilot suite performs an array of safety and convenience functions, pushing this electric car further toward automated driving. However, what saved the day (or night in this case) was the car’s ability to sense the closing speed of another vehicle and take action to prevent a collision. This system is referenced in the auto industry as forward-collision warning with autobrake. It has been available on the Tesla for more than a year—well before the recent software updates that included Autopilot.

    Consumer Reports strongly supports this type of automatic-braking technology, and we have openly advocated for this life-saving technology to become a standard feature across all price points, not just for well-heeled buyers’ luxury cars.

    The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety agrees, having factored forward-collision systems into its award protocol for its Top Safety Pick Plus designation, a new accolade that lauds cars that perform well in its crash tests and also have technology to help avoid such accidents.  

    Advanced safety features are propagating through the car market, with systems becoming standard or readily available on such affordable, mainstream models as the Fiat 500X ($20,000 base), Mazda3 ($17,845 base), Scion iA ($15,700 base), and Subaru Forester ($22,395 base). 

    The Takeaway

    Safety is a primary purchase consideration among car shoppers, according to a new nationwide survey conducted by Consumer Reports. Many in-market car buyers who consider safety as one of their top three concerns say that crash-test scores are of the utmost importance, followed by high-tech safety features.

    When buying your next car, we recommend adding forward-collision warning with autobraking to your list of must-have safety gear. Simply put, whether shopping for a new car or used vehicle, buy as many safety features as you can afford.

    See our full list of cars with available advanced safety features.  

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

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  • 10/31/15--04:59: Is Expired Food Safe to Eat?
  • Is Expired Food Safe to Eat?

    For every dollar Americans spend on food, they chuck about 10 cents’ worth into the trash. That doesn’t sound like much, but it adds up fast—to the tune of about $1,500 per year, on average, for a family of four, according to the Department of Agriculture. Not only is that a hit to your wallet, but food waste also has far-reaching consequences. Food is the largest source of garbage in landfills, and it’s a significant contributor to the production of methane, which is a cause of global warming. And then there are the water, electricity, fuel, and other resources wasted on growing and producing food that no one ever eats.

    Picky kids, busy lifestyles, and poor planning are a few reasons so much of what we toss into our grocery carts winds up in garbage cans. But another major factor is a misconception about what all of those date labels on food packages—“sell by,” “use by,” “best by,” and the like—really mean.

    “Most consumers don’t realize that they’re really more about food quality than food safety,” says Robert Gravani, Ph.D., a professor of food science at Cornell University. Food may not be at its peak after those dates, but such factors as staleness and color change are quality problems, not safety concerns. The truth is that in many cases, food on a shelf—or even in a fridge—past the date on the package is fine to eat. That "expired food" doesn’t have to be thrown away.

    “Foodborne illness comes from contamination, not from the natural process of decay,” says Dana Gunders, a staff scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council and the author of “Waste-Free Kitchen Handbook” (Chronicle Books, 2015). “And our senses are well-equipped to recognize decay.” Foods past their prime might develop mold, become rancid, or spoil in other ways, but they are likely to look, smell, and taste bad before they actually become unsafe to eat.

    Check our food-safety-guide, and read our special report. "How Safe Is Your Ground Beef?"

    There’s no federal requirement that foods carry a date label except for infant formula, for which the concern is nutritional quality, not safety. Several states have regulations, but the guidelines used to set the dates—and the meaning of terms—vary. The USDA offers these general definitions:

    • ‘Sell by.’ This is the date by which manufacturers suggest that retailers remove the product from shelves. The goal is to ensure quality for a period of time after you buy it. That can be several days to several weeks, depending on the item. For instance, milk, assuming proper refrigeration, should last five to seven days past its sell-by date before turning sour.
    • ‘Best by’ and ‘use by.’ Those terms tell you when to eat (or freeze) a product for the best quality. A jar of salsa may not taste as fresh and tangy as it’s supposed to, for example, and crackers may be soft instead of crisp after those dates.

    How are the dates determined? In most cases, manufacturers decide on dates and terms based on their own product testing. According to a report from the NRDC and Harvard University, they use a number of methods, such as lab tests and taste testing, to set them. And consumers have no way of knowing the background. In many cases, dates are conservative, and if you go beyond them, you may not notice any difference in quality, especially if the date has recently passed.

    And in some cases, even expired food that has seen better days can still be used. “Use sour milk like buttermilk in pancake or biscuit batter,” Gunders says. “You can revive wilted vegetables like carrots and celery by soaking them in ice water, and salad greens that are too limp to serve raw can be sautéed.”

    Editor’s Note: This article also appeared in the December 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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  • 10/31/15--07:00: How to Identify a Phone Scam
  • How to Identify a Phone Scam

    When someone claiming to be a “deputy marshal” calls to tell you that you missed jury duty and will have to pay a hefty fine immediately or face arrest, how do you know whether it’s a legitimate call or a scam? If you know what to look for, telling the difference isn't that difficult.

    Scammers try to terrify you with startling news and threats. And legitimate companies and government agencies will never call you. Official communications are delivered by U.S. mail or, in certain circumstances, by certified mail.

    Four Common Phone Scams

    Yet precisely because people don’t know that, these four scams continue to find vulnerable targets:

    • The IRS scam. As tax season begins, the IRS phone scam ramps up. Scammers threaten legal action, police arrest, and deportation—unless you pay a heavy fine. They also ask you to “verify” your personal information, such as your birth date and Social Security number, which lays out the welcome mat for ID theft. This scam tops the list of the IRS’s official “Dirty Dozen” tax scam warnings for 2015 and was recently ranked #3 on the FTC’s list of the top 10 consumer complaints.
    • The jury duty scam. A caller claiming to be from the U.S. Marshals Service or a “deputy marshal” with the sheriff’s office warns of your imminent arrest because you didn’t report for jury duty. As with the IRS scam, you’re offered an out with the jury duty phone scam: Prove that you’re not the scofflaw by giving your Social Security number and/or give the scammer your credit card number—or buy a prepaid card and share the account number. 
    • The Microsoft scam. Also known as the “tech support scam,” someone claiming to be from Microsoft, Windows, or “computer tech support” calls to warn you that your computer is experiencing serious errors or has a virus. To prove it, the caller might ask you to check your Windows event log viewer, which is likely to contain thousands of records about various errors, most or all of which are actually nothing to worry about. If you bite, the caller then asks you to log onto a Web service that lets him or her take control of your computer. The goal of this phone scam is to install malware that can steal your personal information or trick you into enrolling in phony computer maintenance or warranty programs.
    • The Government grants scam. The bait is that you’re being offered free money from the government, just because you’ve been a good citizen. Or you’ve qualified to receive a “free grant” to pay for education costs, home repairs, home business expenses, or unpaid bills. The catch with this phone scam is that you must pay a “processing fee” of $150 to $700 to receive the grant. Or scammers ask for your checking account information so they can “deposit your grant directly into your account”—and then clean out your account. By the way, the caller might he’s from the “Federal Grants Administration.” There is no such government agency. 

    How to Respond to a Phone Scam

    What should you do if you get such a call?

    • Hang up the phone immediately. Don’t engage with the caller, even if you know it’s a phone scam and you think it would be fun to irritate the caller. Having a conversation only proves that your number is attached to a live person. You’ll be bombarded with more calls in the hope that you’ll fall prey to one of the scams.
    • File a complaint with the FTC. If you think you might have been a victim of a phone scam or suspect that you were targeted, file a complaint with the FTC online, or call 877-382-4357 (TTY: 866-653-4261). The FTC enters Internet, telemarketing, identity theft, and other fraud-related complaints into Consumer Sentinel, a secure online database available to hundreds of civil and criminal law enforcement agencies in the U.S. and abroad.

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

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