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    Roadside Assistance: Who You Gonna Call?

     You get a flat tire in the middle of nowhere, or the radiator just went Old Faithful. You’re stuck.

    When it comes to roadside assistance, the American Automobile Association claims to be North America’s largest and best-known provider. But there are options in addition to AAA that you should consider.

    If your situation simply involves getting roadside help, AAA has its limitations. Like other providers, its breakdown services can be subcontracted to local providers, and customer service and towing distances can vary.

    Basic membership prices are different from state to state (generally from $48 to $96 per year). AAA offers nationwide service, but there’s a cap on the number of yearly service calls. And specialized services, such as RV towing, come at an additional cost or may not be available at all.

    So consider your options before you’re stranded on the side of a barren interstate. First, find out whether your car is still under the manufacturer’s warranty. Roadside assistance—with jump-starting, lockout service, and towing—may already be part of your coverage at no additional cost. And summoning assistance—such as with OnStar- or AcuraLink-equipped vehicles—is as simple as pushing a button. Of course, cars are least likely to break down while under warranty.

    Next, consider other companies that offer services with a specific focus. Eco-friendly Better World Club uses members’ premiums to offset carbon emissions from vehicles. It also provides discounts for owners of hybrids. Coach-Net gears its programs to RVs; US Rider offers coverage for horse transport, including trailer service and veterinary referrals.

    A new app-based provider, Urgent.ly, offers on-demand, pay-per-use services with no membership required. But at $75 for a basic service call and $99 for towing up to 10 miles, a single call can be more expensive than a full year of AAA membership. (Consumer Reports has not evaluated AAA or any of those alternative providers.)

    Some auto-insurance providers also offer roadside-assistance coverage. The programs cover the car rather than the member, so they’re a good choice for older vehicles shared by several family members. If you’re considering that option, ask your insurance provider whether making multiple service calls will affect your insurance premiums.

    Read our special report, "The Truth About Car Insurance."

    Although prices can be lower than AAA, those programs generally provide only basic roadside assistance.

    Bear in mind, too, that those alternative plans also use independent service providers, so the quality of service may vary. Some offer their own discount programs, but it’s hard to match the breadth of AAA’s offerings, which have added benefits such as travel-planning assistance, DMV services, and hotel discounts.

    If you travel frequently, AAA’s discount program alone could be worth the cost of membership. Even if you find a provider or program better for your needs, you may want to consider keeping your AAA membership just for the discounts, with its roadside assistance as a backup.

    At the extreme end of the solutions scale, do-it-yourself roadside assistance is now easier than ever. Lightweight battery jump-boxes take the hassle out of jump-starting a car. Many modern vehicles are equipped with tire sealant and an air compressor rather than a spare and jack—although a sealant kit won’t help you if a tire’s sidewall, rather than the tread, is damaged.

    But sometimes a rudimentary repair kit and a little elbow grease can get you on your way in less time than it would take for a tow truck to show up.

    Still, the most common breakdowns are caused by dead batteries, flat tires, lockouts, and running out of fuel. If you decide to be your own roadside-assistance provider, be sure you always have a cell phone and charger. And remember that for bigger breakdowns requiring a tow, you’ll have to pay out of pocket.

    Questions to Ask Before Signing Up

    • Is there a limit on the number of service calls I can make in a year?

    • Is coverage provided in all 50 states?

    • What distance is covered for towing? And what is the per-mile cost beyond that limit?

    • Can I always get a flatbed tow truck?

    • Do you offer coverage for trailers? Dual-rear-wheel pickups? Large SUVs?

    • For insurance programs: Will making service calls affect my premiums?

    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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    Should You Give a Car as a Holiday Gift?

     We’ve all seen those TV ads, where happy couples wow each other with the holiday gift of a 5,000-pound, $50,000, red ribbon-wrapped luxury vehicle. To be sure, a brand-new set of wheels is the holiday fantasy gift for some Americans. But does it ever really make sense to gift a car?

    “These holiday sales events are not really about people buying cars for loved ones,” says Ian Beavis, chief strategy officer at automotive marketing consultants AMCI. “The bows or gift imagery are all devices to aid memorability in a very cluttered TV environment.”

    If you’re thinking of giving a gift that goes vroom, December is the month for it. That’s when consumers have the most bargaining leverage at the dealership, according to TrueCar data.

    Among 2012 to 2014 sales transactions, December had the largest average discount off the manufacturer’s suggested retail price, at 7.5 percent, according to TrueCar.

    “Last December was absolutely the best month of the year for deals,” says TrueCar spokesman Alan Ohnsman. “Black Friday has become a major opportunity for dealers to promote year-end deals.”

    With that in mind, let’s say you have your heart set on giving a car as a holiday gift. How will that gift go over?

    First, consider who is on the receiving end. As the snowflake-sprinkled commercials might suggest, the most common gift is most likely from one spouse to another or from a parent to a child. Give outside of the immediate family, and, in most states, the recipient will have to pay sales tax on it—anywhere from 2 to 12 percent. “If it’s between in-laws or friends, it might be easier to just give them a check,” says Seung Min Yu, an automotive analyst for Consumer Reports.

    Then, of course, you need to make sure that it is the car of their dreams—not yours. Returning a gift of this size—if that’s even possible—is more trouble than thinking of another gift.

    Choose wrong, and you and your loved one will be dealing with a very costly, long-term misunderstanding.

    “A woman told me her husband gave her a car with a big bow on top for Christmas, just like the ads you see on TV,” says Kit Yarrow, a consumer psychologist who teaches at Golden Gate University in San Francisco. “But unlike the scenes in the ads, she wasn’t delighted by it. She felt cheated because she’d had no say in picking out the car, and it was really a family purchase, rather than a gift specifically for her.”

    The more practical, if less romantic, move is to take Yu’s advice. Write a check to help with the down payment, promise to ride shotgun during the test drives, and point your loved one in the direction of a good deal.

    Certain brands, including Hyundai, offer matching incentives to those with “social spending” dollars gifted from friends and relatives. And if you have a college kid on your gifting list, you can urge him or her to enroll in the GM College Discount program. Details on the General Motors program are at gmcollegediscount.com. Other brands have student discounts as well.

    Like depositing a puppy on a doorstep, leaving a car in the driveway really can be a gift that keeps on taking. In the case of the woman mentioned above, “They also have shared family finances, so they are now making monthly payments on a car that they both drive,” Yarrow says. “Some Christmas gift!”

    In addition to monthly payments, considerations include insurance and registration—not to mention gas. So perhaps the first step is to make sure the recipient’s pockets are deep enough to fit more than just keys. That way, you’ll avoid giving them a December to remember—for the wrong reasons.

    Check our 2015 Gift Guide for the Gadget Geek.

    But Will It Fit Under the Tree?

    For Your Kids

    Subaru Impreza Sport
    $18,695-$23,295

    Annual trips moving into and out of the dorm are helped by this roomy hatchback’s interior. Top-notch crash test results, all-wheel drive, and available EyeSight safety gear keep your kids safe.
    Other options: Mazda3, Kia Soul

    For Your Spouse

    Porsche Macan
    $50,895-$73,295


    For those willing to put up with below average reliability, this dynamic, responsive crossover scored high in our road tests. Think of it as a 911 that got comfy in middle age.
    Other options: Audi A6 2.0T, BMW X3

    For Your Parents

    Chevrolet Impala
    $27,885-$36,265


    There are great deals on this spacious, well-equipped sedan. A lot of folks think the Impala is still a crummy rental car, rather than a significantly upgraded sedan. That means dealers are pushing a strong car out the door with cash on the hood.
    Other options: Toyota Camry Hybrid, Hyundai Genesis

    Then There's the Bow

    Yes, you really can get one of those huge bows that they put on cars in holiday commercials. King Size Bows sells them in sizes ranging from 2 to 12 feet in diameter. According to company owner Jan Kingaard, the big bows aren’t just for cars; customers use them to decorate everything from jet planes to buildings. Ready-made bows start at $40, and custom jobs can go into the thousands. And don’t worry about your gift’s paint job, the in-stock bows come with rubber feet to prevent scratching.

    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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    7 Products On Deep Discount In November

    There are some sales this month will be come and go quickly. For example, early November is a good time to look for candy discounts of 50 to 90 percent so you can stock up on goodies to share with your Thanksgiving gang. (They won't mind bonbons in the shape of pumpkin heads, right?)

    On Veterans Day (November 11), look for sales on home goods like furniture and mattresses that could be 40 to 60 percent off, says Howard Schaffer, vice president of merchandising and partner management at Offers.com, a coupon, promo code, and product deal site.

    Then, of course, there are Black Friday sales. We will keep track of those deep discounts until the big day and will help you save money and time throughout the holiday season.

    Looking for sales that will be around all month? Our product research experts, who track prices all year long, have compiled a list of seven items that are typically discounted most deeply in November.

    Another way to save more this holiday season: Do all or some of your shopping at outlet malls.

    1. Super TV Deals

    You'd think shopping for a TV would be simple, especially now that plasma TVs are gone and almost all new TVs are LED LCD sets. But buying a TV still involves many choices, some of which may be new to you. You'll see plenty of Ultra HD (UHD), or 4K, TVs that promise greater picture detail than HDTVs, and improved contrast and color.

    Our TV buying guide will help you get the most bang for your buck, no matter how much or how little you want to spend. Some shopping tips:

    Think about screen size. Televisions going into kitchens or small bedrooms might measure just 24 to 32 inches, but if you’re shopping for your primary TV, we recommend going bigger, say a set with a 50- to 60-inch screen. You could consider an even bigger set for spacious family rooms, or if you'll be sitting very far from the TV. 

    Shop where you'll get a price guarantee. Many retailers will match or beat a lower price from a local competitor, so go to the store with those prices in hand. Even after the sale, some stores promise a refund within a specified period of time, often 30 to 60 days, if they reduce the price of your TV within it or if you find the set selling elsewhere for less. There are usually restrictions, so check the details. Save your receipt and keep checking the ads even after you buy.

    Consult our TV buying guide and Ratings before hitting the stores to make sure you get a set that performed well in our lab tests.

    2. Discounts on Toys

    Early holiday shoppers will find great sales on toys this month, although you may not find discounts on the hottest playthings. Our tech toy guide can help you to find age-appropriate kids tablets, game consoles, and more. Some shopping tips:

    Consider the classics. Don't overlook toys such as stackable plastic "doughnuts," shape sorters, building blocks, and interlocking plastic oversized beads for very young children. There's a reason that they've been around so long. Many forgotten favorites are still around, like Lionel trains, Flexible Flyer sleds, and Mouse Trap.

    Shop around. Browse stores, catalogs, and Web sites for other ideas and to spot the best deals. Also, ask for suggestions from parents who have children of similar ages.

    3. Baby Product Sales

    You should be able to find great prices on a variety of baby products this month, including strollers. First and foremost, you want your baby to be safe and comfortable in her stroller. But think about yourself, too, since you're the one who'll be pushing it. There's a wide price range among types and brands in our stroller Ratings. What makes one stroller worth $100 and another $1,000 or more? Several things drive up the price—such as accessories—but we've found good models in a wide range of prices. Some shopping tips:

    Consider your environment. If you're a city dweller who relies on subways, buses, and cabs, you'll need a lightweight but sturdy stroller that folds quickly and is compact. If you'll be tromping through snow or on unpaved roads or grass, a model with large wheels is a great option.

    Think about extras. Factor stroller accessories into the price of models you like, because you may find yourself needing (or wanting) extras such as a parasol, rain cover, netting to keep out bugs, drink holder, and more.

    4. Price Cuts on Camcorders

    Buying a camcorder can be complicated. Models vary not only in size and capabilities but also in price. You can spend as little as $150 or as much as $1,600, or more. Some shopping tips:

    The right camcorder features are important. If you want better quality and more options, consider a full-size model. If you need a smaller, more portable model—or if you're an athlete or adventurer who loves to capture action footage—then consider an action cam. 

    Chances are you won't always be shooting in bright light. In our tests using the default mode, we found models varied in quality when shooting in dim light. Most full-sized HD camcorders captured at least good quality video in low light, but some had excellent quality.

    Give some a try. In the store, try different camcorders to make sure they fit your hand and are comfortable to use. Most camcorders are designed so that the most frequently used controls—the switch to zoom in and out, the record button, and the button for still photos—are readily at hand.

    Check our camcorder buying guide and Ratings to find out which features are most important to you.

    5. Gas Grills Markdowns

    It's the end of the season for grilling (even though some of us have been known to clear a path through the snow to do some wintertime grilling), so you'll find some deep discounts on the stock still in stores. Some shopping tips:

    Think about size. Match the grill's cooking area to the number of people you typically feed. Remember, manufacturers might include racks and searing burners when tallying cooking area. Our measurements are based on the main cooking area and how much food it will hold.

    Think about space. Next factor in how much area the grill will take up on your patio or deck. Some of the grills we tested are a whopping six feet wide.

    You'll find more details tips in our grills buying guide and Ratings.

    6. Bike Bargains

    You'll find great deals on these wheels in October, because we're approaching the end of the riding season in many places in the country. Some shopping tips:

    Decide what kind of riding you'll do. That will narrow your choice to one of the four basic types. If you're an avid cyclist, you may prefer a conventional road bike. Looking for a leisurely ride on flat, paved roads? A comfort bike may be more your speed. If rugged trails are in your sights, than a mountain bike might be best.

    Find a good bike shop. You'll pay more, but we think you're more likely to be satisfied. Bikes from big-box stores might not be properly assembled or well matched to your body. If you don't like the pedals or seat on a particular model, some bike shops will swap components at little or no cost.

    For more shopping tips and information about different brands, see our bike buying guide. And check our bike helmet buying guide to make sure you get the best fit.

    As the weather gets colder, you might want to consider an exercise bike for indoor use. If you decide to buy indoor exercise equipment, including a treadmill or elliptical machine, try to wait until January, when we've found they'll be on deep discount.

    7. GPS Devices for Less

    In today's competitive market, GPS prices have come down to the point where even budget units include features previously available only on more expensive models (and not available on some apps), such as the ability to speak street names, issue speed warnings, and provide reality view, graphically representing major intersections. Shoppers looking for navigational aid can choose from many types of GPS devices, including aftermarket portable or in-dash units, cell phones, factory-installed in-dash units, telematics systems, and even laptop computers.

    All GPS types advantages and disadvantages, as our GPS buying guide points out, and choosing the right one for you depends on your needs and budget. Some shopping tips:

    Do some research. Before you buy a GPS navigator, think about your typical driving conditions, how often you're in unfamiliar areas, and figure out which features are most important to you. For example, if you often encounter traffic congestion on your commute, choosing a nav system with real-time traffic information can help you avoid traffic congestion, accidents, or road construction, and plot a route around it before you even get to the trouble area.

    Think about where you'll use it. If you're buying a new car, check to see if a built-in system is available and how much it costs. These are nicely integrated into the car, but they are typically far more expensive than portable systems, initially and for subsequent map updates. Still, if most of your driving is done in one car, you might be happier with a built-in system. If you often fly to new places and rent vehicles, or if you own more than one car, a portable system might be the way to go, especially with prices for entry-level systems starting at less than $100.

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

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    GE Cafe Refrigerator Has a Built-in Keurig Coffeemaker

    If you’re remodeling the kitchen, a refrigerator and a coffeemaker are probably two items on your wish list. GE hopes to streamline the appliance-buying process for you with its new GE Café Series refrigerator with a built-in Keurig K-Cup Brewing System. The industry-first appliance ($2,969) just went on sale at Lowe’s and select independent retailers. It will be available at other major retailers starting in 2016.  

    The coffee-dispensing French-door model will free up some countertop space and will also save you a bit of time—instead of your having to fill the coffeemaker reservoir, freshly filtered water is piped directly into the coffee machine. The dispenser also produces plain hot water (from 90° F to 185° F, which you can set with your smartphone), so it’s also good for making tea or instant oatmeal or soup.

    The Keurig K-Cup Brewing System takes more than 400 varieties of coffee from more than 60 brands, including Dunkin’ Donuts and Starbucks. In Consumer Reports’ coffeemaker tests, single-serve coffee tends not be as flavorful as freshly brewed coffee. If you’re already a single-serve convert or if you take your coffee with a lot of milk and sugar, coffee freshness shouldn’t be a major issue. 

    Not Just a Novelty

    The GE Café CFE28USHSS is pricey, but you’re getting more than just a refrigerator with a Keurig coffeemaker. It also has a lot of the features Consumer Reports looks for in a great refrigerator, including a temperature-controlled meat/deli bin, split shelves allowing for the storage of taller items, LED lighting, and dual evaporators, which help preserve food freshness by maintaining optimal humidity levels. The refrigerator is manufactured in GE’s Louisville, Kentucky, factory.

    GE French-door refrigerators have performed very well in our refrigerator Ratings of late, including the GE Profile PWE23KMDES, $2,600, and the GE GNE29GSHSS, $1,800, a CR Best Buy. We’ll see whether this latest coffee-brewing model matches up when we get it into our labs for testing.

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

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    Sam's Club Kicks Off Pre-Black Friday Sales on November 14

    Can't wait for the Black Friday shopping weekend? Then you'll be happy to know that Sam's Club is kicking off its pre-Black Friday sales on November 14. Based on the leaked scans we've seen at BestBlackFriday.com and theblackfriday.com, this one-day event will feature some pretty decent deals on electronics, including a number of TVs.

    We took a look at several of the Sams's Club pre-Black Friday sales, which kick off at 7:00 a.m. on November 14, to see how much you'll be able to save.

    TV Deals at Sam's Club

    • A 65-inch Vizio D65u-D2 4K UHD Smart TV for $998. Currently, the set costs almost $1,500 at Amazon and $1,300 at Sam's Club and some other stores. (Dell will also feature a Vizio 4K TV, the step-up 60-inch M60-C3 4K UHD TV, for $800.)
    • A 50-inch Vizio D50u-D1 4K UHD Smart TV for $498. This set is currently $728 at Sam's Club. It's about $300 at a number of retailers, including BrandsMart and Beach Camera.
    • A 55-inch Hitachi LE55A6R9 1080p TV, which comes with a Roku Streaming Stick, for $398, down from $528; it's $600 right now at Walmart. The TV uses the Roku Stick to access online content, and it has three HDMI inputs. We tested the 43-inch version of this set, the Hitachi LE53A6R9.
    • A Samsung 55-inch 1080p TV and sound bar speaker bundle for $578. The TV is the UN55J620DAFXZA, a 1080p smart TV with two HDMI inputs, and the sound bar is the HW-HM45C. The claimed savings is almost $300. We believe the TV will be similar to the UNJ6200-series sets; we tested the UN60J6200 model, which is in our comprehensive TV Ratings.

    Other Sam's Club Electronics Deals

    Sam's Club will have the Vizio SB3851-CO 5.1-channel sound bar speaker for $179, $60 off its usual selling price. The system, designed for TVs in the 42-inch size range, has a wireless subwoofer and two rear-channel speakers. This Bluetooth sound bar normally sells for about $250 at Vizio's website and Walmart and Target; it's $200 at B&H Photo.

    Gamers looking to step up their action with a new PlayStation 4 can get one at Sam's Club for $299, along with a bundled game that will vary by store.

    In the area of computers, you'll find an HP desktop 550-177cb, bundled with a 24-inch monitor, for $699. This is no stripped-down computer—it comes with 12GB of RAM and a 1TB hard drive, and has Intel's powerful i7 processor. It normally sells for about $900.

    If portability is important, take a look at HP's 15-inch 15-2c147c1 laptop computer, with an i5 processor, a 1TB hard drive, and 6GB of Ram. On November 14 it will be priced at $400.

    Sam's Club will also have deals on Samsung Galaxy phones and tablets, and Apple iPhones and iPad Air 2 tablets.

    Keep checking back for all our Black Friday updates. And be sure to use our top 10 Black Friday shopping tips and visit our Countdown to Black Friday calendar.

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

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    Pilates And Yoga For Muscle Building

    Q. I do Pilates and yoga regularly. Will they help me build up my muscles?

    A. Yes. If done under proper instruction, exercises in which you support or lift your own body weight, such as a plank in yoga class or side kicks in Pilates, can help with muscle building. And other research, including an analysis from the influential National Health Interview Survey (NHIS), confirms that yoga has other health benefits, too.

    In a small study from India, people who performed 24 rounds of the yoga sequence “sun salutation” six days per week boosted their upper-body strength significantly after 24 weeks. And 60 minutes of vigorous Ashtanga yoga, including warm-up and cool down, twice per week for eight months increased women’s leg strength in a small University of Oklahoma study. Research suggests that Pilates can build lower-body and core strength.

    Besides muscle building, yoga has other benefits, according to the recent analysis of data from the NHIS survey. It found that nearly two-thirds of yoga practitioners said they were motivated to exercise more, 40 percent that ate better, and 80 percent they felt less stressed and had better emotional health. They also they cut back on alcohol and cigarettes. 

    The NHIS is an annual study conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau in which thousands of Americans are interviewed about their health- and illness-related experiences. The survey results are based on data from 34,525 adults age 18 and older.

    Send your questions to Ask Our Health Experts.

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

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    Skip the Best Buy Pre-Black Friday TV Sale

    Adding to the growing list of pre-Black Friday sales, Best Buy will hold an in-store-only event from 1 to 5 p.m. on Saturday, November 7. Among the promoted items: Samsung and Sony TVs, Apple products, and PlayStation 4 and Xbox One game console bundles.

    After taking a look at the TV deals, though, our advice is to skip the event and wait for even better offers closer to Black Friday.

    TVs are always a Black Friday draw, especially name-brand sets. And Best Buy boasts that you'll save $1,200 on the Sony Bravia XBR-65X900C model, a 65-inch smart UHD TV notable for its super-slim design. (See the details on the 55-inch version in our TV Ratings.)

    But the claimed savings are compared to the TV's suggested retail price of $4,000, not it's current selling price. You can buy this set today at Best Buy, Amazon, and elsewhere for about $3,000. So you're really saving about $200—not bad, but nowhere near the retailer's claims.

    The deal for the Samsung 60-inch UN60JS8000 UHD TV is a little harder to measure; the retailer claims it has trimmed $500 from the price tag and sweetened the offer by including a free wireless keyboard or a $100 discount on a curved 29-inch monitor valued at $600.

    But we can't find this set on sale anywhere else, not even on Samsung's product pages. That makes us think it's a special "derivative" model made exclusively for Best Buy. The retailer says the TV regularly sells for $2,000, but based on the Sony pricing, we doubt it.

    The closest match we can find for Best Buy's on-sale set—the 60-inch UN60JS7000 model—currently sells for $1,500 on Amazon, Crutchfield, and even Samsung's own website. So we strongly suspect that what you're really getting in the Samsung TV deal is either a free keyboard or a discount on the monitor.

    It's also nearly impossible to evaluate Best Buy's other November 7 deals, too. For instance, the retailer says you can "save on any Beats by Dr. Dre Pill 2.0 Bluetooth speaker," but neglects to say how much.

    We'll be tracking lots of Black Friday deals before the big day, so keep checking back. If you plan to start you're holiday shopping soon, use our Top 10 Black Friday shopping tips.

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

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    Are Cooktops Worth the Extra Money?

    The cooktop-and-wall oven combo has a sleek, modern look and conveniences not possible with a range. Install a cabinet under the cooktop and you have a handy spot to store lots of cookware. Place the wall oven at a height that makes it easier to use. This winning combination is usually more expensive than a range, so here’s what to consider before you shop.

    Price Range
    $350 to $5,000
    At the low end are cooktops with two burners, which Consumer Reports does not test. Electric induction and gas pro-style are the more expensive options. 

    Size
    Widths range from 12 to 48 inches. Most cooktops are 30 or 36 inches wide, so that’s what Consumer Reports buys and tests. Measure the cutout in your countertop before you shop if you’re replacing a cooktop. Solid-surface countertops may require a somewhat different installation, so check the manual.

    Gas or Electric
    Electric includes radiant smoothtops, induction smoothtops, and coil tops. Coil top are the least popular so we do not test them. If the choice between electric and gas is yours, know that both delivered impressive performance in our tests. That said, the best electric cooktops outperformed the top gas models, typically because the high-powered electric burners delivered faster heat. Beyond performance, cooking with gas has its fans.

    Knobs or Touch Controls
    Some controls are front and center, others are off to the side. Gas cooktops such as the $900 Whirlpool WCG97US0DS, and the $2,200 Viking VGC5366BSS have knobs. When shopping try out the knobs. Do they feel sturdy or flimsy? Electric smoothtops under $1,000 have knobs. Above that, touch controls are the norm, such as the $1,200 Bosch NETP066SUC radiant smoothtop.

    Design
    Gas cooktops can have a porcelain enamel surface, but most we’ve tested have a stainless surface for a polished look—it may take some work to keep it looking good. Electric radiant and induction smoothtops usually feature black ceramic glass. Some are trimmed with stainless on two sides. Even the $700 Maytag MEC7403WS has this. The Thermador CIT36XKB induction cooktop is framed in stainless, but at $5,000, why not?

    Features
    Typically there are four burners on 30-inch electric cooktops, five on gas. The 36-inch gas and electric cooktops usually have five burners. All cooktops in our tests have at least one high-power burner. It delivers heat faster and is good for searing, stir-frying, and heating large quantities.

    Most radiant smoothtops have an expandable burner that lets you choose the size burner—six or nine inch, for example—that best matches the pot you’re using. An elongated bridge element spans two burners to accommodate a griddle. A hot-surface warning light lets you know that the surface is still hot, long after the burner has been turned off.

    On gas cooktops heavy porcelain-coated cast iron grates should stand up to abuse. The $900 Whirlpool WCG97US0DS’s grates are hinged at the back so you can lift the entire grate for cleaning.

    Brand Reliability

    Every year we ask thousands of subscribers about their experiences with cooktops and repairs. Based on our latest survey of nearly 6,000 people about nine brands, we estimate that by the time the cooktops are three years old, only four percent of electric cooktops and six percent of gas cooktops will need repair or have serious problems. The differences among brands were not big enough to call out most and least reliable. See our Brand Reliability tab in our cooktop Ratings for more details.

    Shopping for a Cooktop?
    See our cooktop Ratings first. Use the filter to narrow your choice by size, brand, and price. Check the Features & Specs tab to compare models, and the Brand Reliability tab to help you decide.

    And be sure to look for sales and rebates online. It’s holiday season, and we’re seeing some good deals.

    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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    Walmart Offers 10 Holiday Deals a Day

    In a thinly disguised effort to make other retailers offering deal-of-the-day specials—yes, you Amazon—feel like underachieving slackers, Walmart is now rolling out 10 online specials a day. The deals will continue past Black Friday and go throughout the holiday season.

    Because they're linked to special buys and rollbacks, the prices will remain discounted for at least 90 days, as supplies last.

    Below are some of Walmart's deals on electronics and toys. For a daily list of other hot products, check out Consumer Reports' Countdown to Black Friday calendar.

    • PlayStation 4 Call Of Duty III Limited Edition Bundle, $429. GameStop has the system for the same price, but without the extra bonus Madden or FIFA 16 game.
    • Xbox One 1TB FIFA 16 Limited Edition Bundle, $399. A few places have this bundle for the same price, but they only include the game controller, not the headset.
    • Nintendo 3DS Handheld Animal Crossing Happy Home Designer Bundle, $199. It's $220 at GameStop.
    • 24-inch RCA 1080p HDTV, $100. Walmart says the set—model LED24C45RQ—usually sells for $180. Amazon and Fry's list it at about $120.
    • Dell 15.6-inch Inspiron laptop PC with an Intel Pentium N3540 Processor, $288. Amazon offers it for a little more than $325.
    • Jetson Junior Kids' Electric Scooter Bike, $199. That's almost $100 off the regular price, claims Walmart.
    • Kalee Mercedes-Benz 300SL Battery-Powered Ride-On, $99. Amazon offers the 12-volt battery-powered riding toy for $148.
    • Star Wars The Inquisitor Lightsaber Clock, $19. It's $50 at Target and Toys "R" Us.

    All get free shipping except for the lightsaber clock, which gets delivered only to the closest store without charge. You'll find these and other upcoming online specials can be found at the Walmart's Daily Savings Center.

    We'll be tracking lots of Black Friday deals before the big day, so keep checking back. If you plan to start you're holiday shopping soon, use our Top 10 Black Friday shopping tips.

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

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    Will Your Insurance Cover You Against Uninsured Drivers?

    Q. If I have health and car insurance, won’t that cover me and my passengers if I get hit by an uninsured driver?

    A. Your health insurance will cover you, minus any deductibles, but it won’t cover your passengers if you get hit by an uninsured or underinsured motorist. Your auto-liability coverage will pay for any damage you cause, but it may not pay for your injuries or those of your passengers if the other driver was at fault.

    You can’t rely on your passengers having their own health insurance, either. That’s why something called uninsured or underinsured motorist coverage (or UM/UIM, as it’s known in the business) exists: to stand in place of the other guy’s missing or insufficient liability coverage. It has no deductibles. About 13 percent of all drivers in the U.S. are uninsured, so we recommend that you buy UM/UIM coverage with the same limits as your own liability insurance.

    For more auto insurance advice, read our investigative report, "The Truth About Car Insurance," and find the top car insurance companies that won't break the budget.

    Send your questions to ConsumerReports.org/askourexperts.

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

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    How to Host a Party Without Busting the Budget

    Is this a year when you have more time than money? Then it’s a great time to be a host. Put your extra hours to work on food and décor, and you can throw a terrific party or dinner and have DIY fun at the same time. Here are some tips from party-planning pros around the country.

    Get cooking

    Homemade food is cheaper and healthier than store-bought. “Premade croutons, pies, and hors d’oeuvres are expensive because you’re paying for the time spent to make the product,” says Nicole Straight, marketing manager at Marcia Selden Catering & Event Planning in Stamford, Connecticut. “Buy day-old bread to make delicious stuffing, and bake your own pies for under $5. Homemade spiced nuts, flat breads, and dips are easier than you think!”

    For cost-conscious, crowd-pleasing appetizers, Andrea Greco, a stylist and crafter in New York City, recommends hot spinach-artichoke dip and brie wrapped in puff pastry. For a lower-budget event, Phil De Maiolo, Executive Chef at Pier 60 and the Lighthouse at Chelsea Piers in New York City, suggests croustades (slices of baguette, ficelle or walnut and raisin bread, brushed with olive oil and baked) topped with tapenade, hummus and babaganoush—all of which you can easily whip up in a food processor or blender. Or, do a pasta bar—give guests a choice of pesto, or a cream-  or tomato-based sauce.  Want a meaty but money-wise entrée? David Mashburn, proprietor of the restaurant Classic on Noble in Anniston, Alabama, goes for marinated, grilled flank steak when he’s looking to save money—starting at $7 a pound versus $14 for beef tenderloin (prices vary by region). Another favorite: boneless chicken thighs, chopped, grilled, and served with barbecue sauce on miniature biscuits.

    Spread the joy

    Not a cook? Host a cookie exchange and ask guests to bring a couple dozen cookies each. “The host provides drinks—maybe a great mulled wine—and cute containers for guests to take home a couple of cookies from each tray,” explains Andrea Greco. Or, “In lieu of random hostess gifts, ask people to bring a traditional holiday dish from their own family. It not only cuts your food budget but creates an instant way to get party conversation started,” says Brent Ridge, the founder of lifestyle brand Beekman 1802 along with Josh Kilmer-Purcell. Better yet, says Ridge, go in with a group of friends and pool your funds for one big party.

    Forget about an open bar

    Instead of running up a huge tab at the liquor store, save money by serving a signature drink at your party. “Make an appropriate amount in advance, based on your guest list,” says Serena Thompson, founder of The Farm Chicks in Mead, Washington. For the holidays, she likes Apple Cinnamon Punch: for 4 to 6 drinks, combine 2 cups apple juice with a cinnamon stick and simmer 5 minutes. Remove cinnamon and combine cooled juice, ½ cup simple syrup, 1 cup ginger ale, and ½ cup vodka. Serve over crushed ice with an apple slice garnish. For festive fizz without a champagne price tag, “Prosecco is always great,” says Nicole Straight. “Add a fresh raspberry or a few pomegranate seeds for a splash of color and flavor.”

    Forage for greenery

    Seriously! Step outside with some pruning shears and harvest evergreen boughs, pine cones, and any plant with red berries. Arrange the bounty on your table or mantle, use it to create garlands for the door or banister, or place branches in vases you already own. If you live in a city, Serena Thompson recommends searching out inexpensive eucalyptus bunches in the floral section of the supermarket. As long as you’re there, pick up seasonal fruit (apples, pears, pomegranates) and display in soup tureens, wooden bowls, or other vessels.

    Décor for a dime

    Ikea is stylist Andrea Greco’s secret source for taper candles ($3.99 for 10), wine glasses and champagne flutes ($4.79 for 6), colorful napkins ($1.99 for 30) and carafes ($2.49). She shops CB2 for colored glassware that’s so pretty it doubles as decor ($2.95 per glass), and square white porcelain appetizer plates ($1.50 each). For table runners (and napkins), simply cut burlap or linen to the length you want, then pull and thread an inch or two from each edge and fray the fabric to create fringe.

    —Cathy Cavender

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

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    Which Countertop Will Hold Up Better in the Kitchen and Bathroom?

    Q. You rate laminate countertops higher than granite for bathroom use but the reverse for kitchens. Why?

    A. The kitchen environment is much tougher than the bathroom, generally speaking, which is why we test and rate countertops differently for each room. With kitchen countertops, for example, we look at how well surfaces resist damage caused by slicing and chopping. That isn’t relevant for bathrooms, obviously. We use different staining agents, too: hair color and lipstick in the bathroom tests, and beet juice, grape juice, hot vegetable oil, mustard, and tomato sauce in the kitchen tests. Both granite and laminate have performed excellently in our heat tests, however, resisting any damage.

    For more information, learn the pros and cons—and costs—of 10 countertop materials, then check our countertop buying guide.

    Send your questions to ConsumerReports.org/askourexperts.

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

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    NHTSA Accelerates Implementation of Automatic Emergency Braking

    The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has announced that it will add automatic emergency braking (also known as AEB) to its 5-Star rating system as a recommended technology for the 2018 model year.

    This move follows the announcement in September that 10 automakers had committed to making automatic braking standard: Audi, BMW, Ford, General Motors, Mazda, Mercedes-Benz, Tesla, Toyota, Volkswagen, and Volvo.

    Automatic emergency braking systems could drastically reduce rear-end crashes—either in avoiding them altogether, or at least reducing the velocity of the collision. And in doing so, some potentially dangerous accidents may be minimized to the point where the driver or occupants don’t need to go to a hospital.

    “We’re putting the brakes on rear-end crashes,” said NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind.

    Consumer Reports has evaluated numerous automatic emergency braking systems through our vehicle test program, both at our 327-acre test facility track and in real-world situations.

    “Forward-collision warning with automatic emergency braking is the biggest safety advancement since the introduction of stability control over two decades ago,” said Jake Fisher, director of auto testing for Consumer Reports.

    Before it was made standard in 2012, electronic stability control was a recommended technology, just as rearview cameras, forward-collision warning, and lane-departure warning are today.

    "Automatic emergency braking saves lives," said William Wallace, policy analyst for Consumers Union, the policy and advocacy arm of Consumer Reports. "We look forward to working with NHTSA and automakers to make this technology standard on all vehicles."

    When shopping for your next new car, choose a model that performs well in Consumer Reports' dynamic tests, has better-than-average predicted reliability, and strong marks for safety in crash tests performed by the government and insurance industry.

    To put safety odds further in your favor, consider investing in the latest advanced safety features, such as forward-collision warning with automatic emergency braking, blind-spot monitoring, rear-cross traffic alert, and lane-departure warning.

    Watch the NHTSA demonstration of how automatic braking works.

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    Consumer Reports Suspends Recommendations on Audi, Volkswagen V6 Diesels

    Consumer Reports is suspending its recommendation of the Audi A7 TDI and Volkswagen Touareg TDI. The move comes after the Environmental Protection Agency said the cars used software, called “defeat devices,” to cheat on emissions tests.

    The EPA cited six 2014-2016 models fitted with 3.0-liter V6 diesel engines from Audi, Porsche, and Volkswagen, all owned by Volkswagen AG, as not complying with emissions regulations.

    The other four models—Audi A6, A8/A8L, and Q5 and Porsche Cayenne—were not tested by Consumer Reports in diesel form. We do not place recommended ratings on cars we haven’t tested so there’s no change in the status of those models. (Of those, the Audi A6 and Q5, and the Porsche Cayenne are recommended with gas engines.)

    To earn our recommendation, vehicles must perform well in our testing; have average or better reliability; and perform adequately if they’re included in crash tests conducted by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety or the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

    VW has yet to say how it will fix the emissions issue on these cars, so there is no way to speculate if any corrective action could hurt fuel economy and performance. That means we can’t say if our past test results will be applicable to the revised cars.

    The EPA says the defeat device software optimizes emissions performance during laboratory testing, while producing a multiple of allowable nitrogen oxide emissions when driven in the real world; nitrogen oxides are a contributor to ground-level ozone and fine particulate matter—sources for health concerns.

    Volkswagen has denied these latest allegations, stating that it didn’t install software to alter emissions to cheat testing. 

    In September, the EPA found that VW had installed defeat device software in the 2.0-liter diesel engines used by certain Audi and Volkswagen models. VW admitted it had used the software in those models.

    Consumer Reports in September suspended its recommendation of the Jetta and Passat diesels.

    Audi, Porsche, and Volkswagen dealers have been directed by VW to stop selling new or certified pre-owned diesel models. Note that the EPA says the vehicles named in its allegations are legal and safe to drive.

    Our advice for used car shoppers is to wait on buying the suspect Audi, Porsche, and Volkswagen diesel models until the EPA investigation is complete—and the impact of any corrective measures has been determined.

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

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    Should You Buy a Real or an Artificial Christmas Tree?

    For many people, there's no question about whether to choose a real or an artificial Christmas tree. But if you’re not sure which type to choose, let our advice help you out.

    If you want to minimize mess, go with an artificial tree

    No one likes cleaning up the piles of needles from a natural tree. “No matter what you do, there’s going to be needles falling off a real tree,” said Chal Landgren, a professor in the department of horticulture at Oregon State University. If you want to avoid the mess, go with an artificial Christmas tree.

    Check our Holiday Gift Ideas page for recommendations on presents for everyone on your gift list and tips on ways to save. Learn how to host a holiday party without busting the budget and discover the 8 kitchen tools that make holiday cooking a breeze.

    To decrease fire hazard, opt for a fake tree

    The National Fire Protection Association reported that the risk of a fire is three times greater with natural trees than artificial ones, although the total number of Christmas-tree-related fires is small. But if you are worried about home fires, take note that electrical failures and burning candles are more-common culprits.

    If you want to buy American, choose a real tree

    In 2012, U.S. farmers harvested 17.3 million Christmas trees, which resulted in $305 million in sales, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. “It’s a livelihood for many rural parts of the country and it’s an American product,” Landgren said. In contrast, 97 percent of artificial trees in 2012 were imported from China, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s Foreign Trade Division. 

    When it comes to allergies, it's a draw

    Natural fir or pine Christmas trees are extremely unlikely to be the cause of an allergic reaction, according to the National Institute of Environmental Health Science. If you routinely sneeze in the presence of Christmas trees, it's less likely to be due to the tree and more likely due to mold spores on trees, according to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology. Similarly, a fake Christmas tree improperly stored in the attic or basement can collect dust or mold. Real or fake, allergy experts suggest hosing down the tree outside and letting it dry in a garage or enclosed porch before bringing it indoors.

    Bottom line

    There are pluses and minuses to natural and artificial Christmas trees. It really comes down to your holiday traditions and what works best for your family. And no one said you couldn’t purchase more than one!

    —Kaitlyn Wells

    More holiday gift ideas and tips

    Visit our Holiday Gift Ideas page throughout the season to find the best deals, time-saving advice, and much more.

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

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    What to Look for in an Artificial Christmas Tree

    Had enough of needles from your Christmas tree making a mess of your home over the holiday season? It might be time to abandon the real-deal cedar, fir, pine, or spruce and buy an artificial Christmas tree. You certainly won't be alone. More than 80 percent of American households with Christmas trees are celebrating with an artificial tree, according to the American Christmas Tree Association.

    Here's how to get real quality in a fake tree.

    Go 'true' or 'real'

    If you want your artificial Christmas tree to last and look good year after year, buy a tree labeled “true needle” or “real feel."

    Choose hinged branches

    Artificial trees come with two types of branches: hooked or hinged. Hooked branches must be attached individually to assigned spots on the central pole. Hinged branches are permanently affixed and thus easier to set up. Trees with hooked branches cost less than trees with hinged branches.

    Check our Holiday Gift Ideas page for recommendations on presents for everyone on your gift list and tips on ways to save.

    Get a sturdy base

    If you’re a zealous ornament hanger, make sure your fake tree has not only strong branches but also a sturdy stand to ensure it won’t topple over. Tall trees also need the right stand. For example, a tree more than 6 feet tall should have a metal stand, says an ACTA member, Thomas Harman. Some stands even come with rubber feet to protect wood floors.

    Choose the right kind of bulbs for a prelighted tree

    Are tangled lights (aka Giant Ball of Doom) the bane of your Christmas-tree setup? Then you're a candidate for a prelighted artificial tree. But if one bulb on your prelighted tree burns out, well, there goes your Saturday trying to figure out which one it is! How to avoid? Select a tree that comes with bulbs that have no-twist sockets and that’s labeled “continuous-on lights” or “with burn-out protection." (Read about LED lights for the holidays.)

    Make sure the tree is fire retardant

    Each year, 230 home fires in the United States can be traced to Christmas trees. Your artificial Christmas tree should be labeled “fire retardant.” When you get it home, place it at least 3 feet away from any heat source, including fireplaces, candles, and heat vents.

    —Kaitlyn Wells

    More holiday gift ideas and tips

    Visit our Holiday Gift Ideas page throughout the season to find the best deals, time-saving advice, and much more.

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    Sam's Club Black Friday Deals Include 4K UHD Sets

    We don't know the specifics yet, but TVs certainly will play a big role in retailers' Black Friday plans. Sam's Club, for instance, plans to offer specials on 4K UHD smart TVs from Samsung and Vizio.

    Here are some of Sam's Club's most attractive deals, which were leaked to BestBlackFriday.com. As always, remember that quantities will likely be limited, and there will be no rain checks once supplies run out.

    Pre-Black Friday Deals

    If you're itching to start shopping before Thanksgiving, consider these pre-Black Friday sales scheduled for November 21 to 25.

    • A 55-inch Samsung UN55JU640DAFXZA UHD smart TV, $778, plus a $30 Sam's Club gift card. This model, a derivative for warehouse clubs, is currently selling for about $1,000 at BJ's.
    • A 58-inch Samsung UN58H5202AFXZA 1080p smart TV with two HDMI inputs, $548. It's selling for about $840 at Best Buy.
    • A 40-inch Samsung UN40H5201AFXZA 1080p smart TV with two HDMI inputs, $298. It's selling for close to $380 at several retailers, including Sears.

    The advertised specials also include a Samsung HW-HM45 2.1-channel sound bar speaker system for $140, the Samsung BD-JM57C smart Blu-ray player for $48, and the Samsung WAM1500 Omni Wi-Fi speaker for $95. All three items are priced lower than we can find anywhere else.

    Thanksgiving and Black Friday Sales

    The following deals are available online Thanksgiving Day and in stores starting at 7 a.m. on Black Friday:

    • A 58-inch Vizio D58U-D3 4K UHD smart TV, $698, down from $998. It's actually a bit higher ($1,050) at some other retailers now, including Beach Camera.
    • A 65-inch curved-screen Samsung 65JU670DFXZA UHD smart TV, $1,498. Costco offered it earlier for about $400 more. 
    • A 75-inch Samsung UN75JU641DFXZA jumbo-sized UHD smart TV, $2,398. That's down from $3,298. BJ's sells it for $3,280 right now.

    Other deals include a 55-inch Vizio E55-C2 set for $448. It's $568 at Walmart right now. We tested this set. Check out our TV Ratings.

    There's a Roku Streaming Stick for $40 (that's a $10 discount), an HP x360 2-in-1 Windows 10 laptop computer for $399 (a claimed $200 savings), and 8- and 9.7-inch Samsung Galaxy A tablets for $179 and $229, respectively. You can also get an XBox One Gears of War Bundle with a 500GB console and the game for $299.

    The online-only Thanksgiving Day event features two low-priced 1080p TVs from JVC: a 49-inch set for $300 and a 43-inch model for just $200. It's hard to pinpoint the precise models, but there's a 43-inch JVC LT-43EM75 set that sells for $300 at Sam's right now.

    Other online deals include the 38-inch Vizio SB3820X-C6 sound bar speaker for $69, and a 500GB PS4 Star Wars Battlefront bundle that includes the game and an extra controller for $389.

    If you do intend to do some Black Friday shopping, be sure to check our top 10 Black Friday shopping tips and our Countdown to Black Friday calendar.

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    Target Offers One-Day Black Friday Sale Today, More Deals on Thanksgiving

    Make a quick visit to Target's website right now and you'll get some Black Friday-style prices—today only—by ordering online. The ad for the deals, which we found thanks to a tip from FatWallet.com, is a bit hard to follow, since today's specials are mixed in with others available on Thanksgiving. It doesn't look like TVs are part of the pre-sale.

    Looking through the ad, it appears you'll be able to get 25 percent off an Apple TV streaming media device, though based on the remote control it looks like the older model. You can also get 25 percent off all Beats wireless headphones and a Beats Pill 2.0 Bluetooth speaker for $120. Many of the deals are sweetened with Target gift cards of varying amounts.

    Other items include a 9-inch Polaroid Android tablet and wireless keyboard bundle for $50, an 8-inch RCA Android tablet for $40, and a Jam Trance mini Bluetooth speaker, complete with $20 Target gift card, for $40.

    There are also deals on toys, Blu-ray discs, and vacuum cleaners.

    But if we're reading the ad correctly, things start to get really interesting at 6 p.m. on Thanksgiving Day, when doorbuster deals on TVs start to make an appearance. There's an interesting mix of brands, including several deals on Samsung sets and some very low prices on lesser-known labels such as Element and Westinghouse.

    TV Deals

    Major Brands

    • A 55-inch Samsung UN55JU6400 UHD smart TV, $798. This one generally sells for about $1,000, so you'll save $200.
    • A 49-inch LG UHD TV smart TV, $500. We're not sure what model, but we tested the LG 49UF6700 UHD TV, and it's selling for about $550 at Walmart.
    • A 60-inch Samsung UN60J6200 1080p smart TV, $698. That's about what this set, which is in our Ratings (available to subscribers), usually sells for, so it's not much of a deal.
    • A 40-inch Samsung UN40J5200 1080p smart TV, $318, including a $20 Target gift card. This set sells for about $428 at several retailers, so the savings are decent.
    • A 32-inch Samsung UN32J4000, $178. This model, also in our TV Ratings, sells for just under $200 at a number of retailers.

    Secondary Brands

    Since there were no specific models given for any of these low-priced sets, it's hard to fully evaluate the deals. Keep in mind that secondary brands generally haven't performed as well as major-brand sets in our tests—especially if you're looking to replace the main TV in your house.

    • A 55-inch Element 4K UHD smart TV 1080p, $400. We don't know for sure, but the Element E4SFC551 model is about $650 at Costco right now. Last year there was another 55-inch set, the ELUFT551, that sold for $500, including at Target.
    • A 55-inch Westinghouse 1080p set, $250, Target said it was selling for $600. We think it's the Westinghouse DWM55F1G1, which usually sells for about $500 or more.
    • A 50-inch Element 1080p TV, $240. Again, we don't know the model, but we've seen Element sets of this size sell for under $300.
    • A 43-inch Element 1080p TV, $170. No regular price was given.
    • A 32-inch Westinghouse 1080p TV, $100, Target says it's usually $190.

    If you're not happy with your TV's sound, Target will have two sound bar speaker deals: a Vizio SB2920 for $50 and Samsung's more powerful HW-J355 2.1-channel system for $88. The latter is selling for $138 right now on Amazon. We didn't test either, so try to listen to them before you buy.

    For more Black Friday TV deals, take a look at our posts on Sam's Club and Dell. We'll be tracking all the best holiday shopping deals, so keep checking back for updates. Also, check out our 10 top Black Friday shopping tips and our Countdown to Black Friday calendar.

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    Volkswagen Rolls Out 'Goodwill' Program for Some Diesel Owners

    Volkswagen of America has announced a "Customer Goodwill Package" to compensate owners of 482,000 2.0-liter diesel cars found to have violated EPA-governed emissions standards, including the VW Beetle, Golf, Jetta, Passat and Audi A3. The plan provides owners with a combination of a $500 pre-paid Visa card, $500 in dealership credit, and three additional years of roadside assistance. 

    However, the plan does not include those customers who own one of the six 3.0-liter Audi, Porsche, and Volkswagen models also cited by the EPA as not complying with regulations. While Volkswagen has accepted responsibility for cheating on EPA emissions testing with the 2.0-liter TDI engines, the automaker has denied wrongdoing related to the V6.

    But VW owners shouldn’t expect to see $1,000 worth of credit arrive in their mailboxes automatically.

    Rather than simply sending activated cards to registered owners, Volkswagen is calling for owners to submit information online, wait four weeks, then visit a dealership and present a driver’s license, vehicle registration, and title or lease agreement. Owners must claim this award by April 30, 2016. Both cards expire in one year.

    In the wake of this scandal, Volkswagen has offered loyalty rebates for repeat customers, and it is currently offering very aggressive financing. Those efforts are focused on driving sales. The $500 dealership credit card could serve as another gambit to increase service and parts business at dealerships from customers who normally take their cars to independent shops.

    Consumers Union, the policy and advocacy division of Consumer Reports, feels the company should compensate owners. These VW owners purchased a vehicle thought to be a “clean diesel,” yet EPA testing has shown it can pollute up to 40 times as much in the real world. Consumers Union also believes Volkswagen should commit to making sure owners don’t suffer financially, due to any potential post-recall decrease in fuel economy and performance, or due to loss of vehicle value. In addition, the company must commit to cooperating fully with all independent investigations, verifications, and tests, and ultimately bring all its vehicles into compliance with emissions standards, while taking steps to offset the damage that has been done. Visit the Consumers Union site to see how you can help hold VW accountable.

    To check your vehicle’s eligibility for VW’s compensation package, check your vehicle identification number at the company's official Volkswagen Diesel Information website.

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    Don't Let Your Thanksgiving Dinner Make You Sick

    With the holidays around the corner, you’re probably making your grocery list for the big feast. While checking your cupboards for supplies, you find a bag of stuffing mix, but the “best by” date on the package was in October. Is it still safe to use for your Thanksgiving dinner? Surprisingly, yes. In most cases, eating food that has been on the shelf—or even in the fridge—past the date on the package won’t put you at high risk for foodborne illness, says Ben Chapman, Ph.D., a food safety specialist and associate professor at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. Shelf-stable foods, including most canned and packaged goods, are manufactured to keep germs, air, and moisture (which contribute to spoilage) out, but deeply dented, leaking or bulging cans or those that spurt out liquid upon opening should be discarded. Packaged products, such as crackers, could have mold or bugs but usually just turn stale.  

    Rather than relying on package dates as a guard against food poisoning, it’s more important to make the right moves in the kitchen. Use these five smart kitchen safety tips, during the holidays and throughout the year. 

    1. Watch Out For Mold

    Some types cause allergies or respiratory problems; others can produce mycotoxins that can make you sick. Even if the mold is in one spot, discard the food. (Skip the sniff test; certain spores can be inhaled.) There are some exceptions. Surface mold on hard salami and dry-cured country hams can be scrubbed off. Also, for hard cheeses (such as cheddar and Parmesan), firm vegetables (such as bell peppers and carrots), and cheeses made with mold (such as Gorgonzola), you can cut off the mold and about an inch around it and use the rest of the food. 

    2. Know How To Battle the Bad Bugs

    Keep raw meat cold (37° F or colder) and cooked meat warm (140° F or warmer) to prevent bacterial growth. Defrost meat in the fridge, cook thoroughly, and refrigerate leftovers within 2 hours. Don’t let raw meat or its juices touch other foods, and wash your hands, cutting boards, and utensils in warm, soapy water.

    3. Use a Meat Thermometer

    Tricks such as wiggling the turkey leg, checking the color of roast beef, and piercing chicken with a fork to see whether the juices run clear are unreliable. You need to be sure that meat has reached a safe temperature: 145° F for beef roasts, pork roasts, and fresh ham (140° F for precooked hams that you reheat), and 165° F for chicken and turkey. 

    4. Consider Avoiding Certain Foods

    “Refrigeration slows the growth of most pathogens, such as E. coli, norovirus, or salmonella, but not listeria,” Chapman says. Deli meat is a top source of listeria. The meat may not contain enough of the bacteria to make you sick when you first buy it, but the bacteria multiply with time, so you want to eat it within a few days. Older adults, pregnant women, and people with weakened immune systems are more susceptible to listeria infection, and the USDA recommends that they avoid eating deli meats and hot dogs unless those foods first reach a temperature of 165° F. Ready-to-eat refrigerated foods, smoked seafood, pâtés, meat spreads, and blue-veined and soft cheeses such as Brie, feta, and queso fresco are also risky.  

    5. Use Your Eyes and Nose

    Regardless of the package date, avoid food that’s obviously spoiled. If your eyesight or sense of smell can’t be trusted, have a friend or family member check out the food for you, or simply discard it when you’re in doubt. Never taste a food that you suspect has gone bad.

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

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