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    Great Advanced Cameras for $600 or Less

    If you shoot most of your snapshots and video on your smartphone, you’ve probably been disappointed in how some of them look. Sometimes, the light’s not great—especially at a Thanksgiving dinner or holiday party—and your photo ends up underexposed, or simply dull and lackluster. In other cases, you’re too far away, or you just can’t freeze the action in a sports shot. In fact, unless you’re shooting in relatively bright light, even very good phone cameras may just not be up to the task in a lot of shooting situations.

    That’s why buying an advanced camera, like those you'll find in our Ratings of SLR, mirrorless, and advanced point-and-shoot cameras, will make a world of difference. Compared to phones, these models have larger, more capable imaging sensors, which more accurately capture the scene you’re shooting with less distortion. So, when you’re shooting a photo of family and friends in low light, everything from your subjects’ skin tones to the subtle textures, colors, and patterns of their clothes will be faithfully reproduced. Plus, these cameras offer ample controls and settings that further ensure that you’ll be able to capture the shot you envision.

    For many people, one of the big sticking points in buying an advanced digital camera is, in fact, the sticker price. So, we’ve combed through our Ratings and compiled a list of five very capable, extremely versatile advanced cameras that won’t break your holiday budget, whether you're shopping for yourself or for someone on your gift lift. Some of these models have been around for a couple of years, but they’re still available and they still take great pictures.

    Nikon D3300 ($500)

    Although it’s an entry-level SLR, this Nikon is very versatile and has both an excellent quality viewfinder and LCD, so you’ll never miss a moment when composing your images or checking how they look. The camera is also very fast: It can fire off 5 frames per second in burst mode, in full resolution. If you like to do a lot of cropping when you're image editing your photos, you’ve got 24-megapixels to work with, which means you’ll have lots of pixels to spare. And it even comes in three colors—black, gray or red.  


    Canon Rebel SL1 ($500)

    Like the D3300, this is a very compact and lightweight SLR (although it’s still larger and heavier than most other types of cameras). But it’s packed with powerful features. It can fire off 4 frames per second in burst mode, in full resolution, and it has a very good through-the-lens viewfinder. For those who want to experiment with effects, it includes a number of built-in creative filters, such as a water painting effect and soft focus. Like the Nikon D3300, this Canon is cheap enough that you might even consider spending a little extra money to buy an extra lens to go along with the 18-55mm kit lens.  

    Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF7 ($510)

    If you’re looking for a lot less bulk and weight, but still want an interchangeable lens camera, like an SLR, you should consider a mirrorless camera like this one. This Panasonic is roughly half the weight of each of the two SLRs we mention above. But it’s got lots of premium features, including an excellent quality, swiveling, touchscreen LCD that allows you to set focus and shoot by touching the display. Plus, unlike both the SLRs we mention, this one comes with built-in Wi-Fi, including near-field communication (NFC), which allows you to control the camera from a smart phone or tablet or back up your photos and video to a computer. Unfortunately, this camera lacks a hot shoe and an electronic viewfinder. 


    Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100M2 ($600)

    This advanced point-and-shoot is small and compact enough to fit in a pocket. It’s easy to use, yet very versatile. It’s also very powerful, like an SLR or mirrorless camera: It not only lets you capture JPEGs, but also RAW files, which give you the most flexibility when editing your images in image-editing software. The camera itself offers precise, nicely designed controls for tweaking photos and capturing videos. Unlike some in its class, this model has a hot shoe, for attaching an external flash and a swiveling LCD. It also has built-in wireless and NFC capabilities. 


    Olympus Stylus 1S ($600)

    One very nice feature on this wireless advanced point-and-shoot is that it has a long 10.7x optical zoom, which means you can zoom in close to the action without worrying that you’ll degrade your image the way you do when you use digital zoom on your smartphone. It also comes with an excellent quality image stabilizer, which will compensate for handshake that can produce blurry photos or jittery video. And, it has a long battery life, so you can be out in the great outdoors longer and not worry that you’ll run out of juice during your holiday photo shoot.  

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

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    Lumber Liquidators Will Stop Selling Vinyl Flooring Made With Reprocessed Plastic

    Vinyl flooring is a common target for environmentalists because of claims of lead and phthalates mixed in with polyvinyl chloride (PVC), the material the flooring is mostly made of. And when vinyl flooring is made using reprocessed plastic sourced from substantially different products, it can contain cadmium, brominated flame retardants, and other toxic chemicals as well. This week Lumber Liquidators became the first major flooring retailer to announce that it will end the use of reprocessed plastic over the next year and also limit lead content in the vinyl flooring it sells.

    Lumber Liquidators’ announcement is part of the Mind the Store Campaign, a project of Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families, and is one of several commitments made as part of the program. Earlier this year, Home Depot, Lowe’s, and Menards announced they would stop selling vinyl flooring containing phthalates by the end of this year. Phthalates, used to make plastic more pliant, are known endocrine disrupters, and the Environmental Protection Agency classifies at least two as possible or probable carcinogens.

    Manufacturers purchase plastic from a number of sources, but according to a study by the Healthy Building Network, much is processed overseas, where there are fewer controls and protections. So the plastic that ends up exported, referred to as reprocessed, is plastic that is sorted manually from cable and wire insulation, pipes, roofing membranes, and other products.

    Lumber Liquidators this time finds itself on the right side of an issue. In early March, the CBS news program 60 Minutes reported that the retailer was selling laminate flooring with formaldehyde emissions several times higher than California’s standards for flooring sold in that state. The company’s CEO resigned in May, and the company suspended sales of all laminate flooring sourced from China, pending its investigation.

    What You Can Do

    In a recent test Consumer Reports conducted on phthalates in vinyl floors from multiple manufacturers, we found only very low levels in the air and on wipes we ran across the 17 vinyl samples and one sample of wood flooring we tested. Still, we recommend caution since you can’t be absolutely sure—without contacting the manufacturer—of all that’s in your floor. Parents of toddlers should wet-mop the floor often and wash children’s hands after the little ones have been crawling on a vinyl floor.

    For more on flooring, see our flooring buying guide and the results of our tests of six types of flooring.


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

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    Americans Plan to Increase Holiday Spending

    Even in these turbulent times, the winter holidays are giving Americans something to smile about. Nine of 10 adults surveyed by Consumer Reports National Research Center, are looking forward to this festive time of year. One-quarter of those surveyed are “really” excited about the upcoming holidays.

    And that enthusiasm translates to good news for the economy: Overall, Americans will likely spend more during the holidays—the median amount they expect to spend is $529, up from $437 last year.  

    But it’s probably a stretch to conclude that Americans are back to their pre-recession, free-spending ways. That's because the majority of respondents—58 percent—say they plan to spend the same amount as last year and 27 percent say they’ll cut back on their holiday spending this year, compared to only 14 percent who plan to spend more.  

    Among those who expect to dig deeper into their pockets, 53 percent tell us they feel more flush with cash this year than last; 47 percent say they’re simply feeling more generous; while 45 percent say they received a raise or landed a better-paying job. About one quarter of respondents point to lower fuel prices as a reason for their largesse.

    Cash Is King

    Many Americans, though, are planning to cut back on their holiday spending because they are still struggling financially or are just being very cautious about their spending. In fact, slightly over half of respondents tell us they intend to make a budget this season. While that can be a good way to track holiday spending, more than one-third of those who made a budget last year exceeded their spending limit; 3 percent admitted to going way over budget.

    To avoid incurring debt and to maintain better control over this year’s spending, many consumers are turning to cash and debit cards instead of credit cards to pay for their holiday purchases. Seventy-two percent of those surveyed say they’ll use cash this season, a full 10 percentage points higher than in 2014. Fifty-four percent plan to pay by debit card; 40 percent say they’ll charge their purchases; while 32 percent will use gift cards for their holiday shopping.

    Security concerns is another big reason to not use credit cards. Twenty-five percent of respondents worry about potential data breaches. That’s up significantly from 2014, when only 11 percent of those surveyed were concerned about their data being stolen.

    The Consumer Reports Holiday Poll has tracked shopper sentiment and behavior for a decade. Findings are based on a nationally representative November 2015 survey of 1,007 adults (ages 18 and older), 77 percent of whom will be shopping this holiday season. Fifty-two percent of the sample was female; the median age was 45 years old.  

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

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    5 Best Portable Headphones Under $100

    There are probably a select few who can entertain the possibility of buying the $55,000 Sennheiser Orpheus headphones suggested as a holiday gift by Gwyneth Paltrow's lifestyle website, Goop. But for the rest of us who lack that kind of extra cash—or mind-set—particularly around the holidays, there are thankfully other options.

    In fact, we've compiled a list of five great but affordable portable headphones that will suit just about any kind of activity, from jogging or hiking to just lounging around the house. You might even decide to wear them while contemplating how you might spend the $54,900 you just saved ignoring Goop's recommendation. 

    AKG by Harman Y23 ($40)

    These in-ear AKG headphones are pretty barebones when it comes to extras. For instance, they lack volume or other function controls. But they deliver where it matters most: very good sound quality. They’re also very lightweight, so they won’t bog you down if you’re exercising. And like many in-ear models, the ear-insert design muffles many external noises and sounds.


    Philips ActionFit Sport SHQ2305 ($40)

    If you're an active, outdoors type, consider a set of headphones with a more rugged design. This model claims to be sweat and moisture proof, which makes them well suited for strenuous workouts or for hiking or biking in rainy weather. But its weather-resistant design doesn't come at the cost of its audio performance—this model provides very good overall sound. 

    Skullcandy Strum ($50)

    If you like your headphones to have a cool, edgy design, this model might fit the bill. Each earbud is adorned with a tiny skull logo. But it’s not just about looks: It has very good sound quality. It even comes with a carrying case, so your headphones won’t get tangled up with your other gear.  


    Motorola Moto Surround ($80)

    Our headphones Ratings show that wireless headphones are typically pricier than those without this feature. But this pair from Motorola, which delivers very good sound quality, will likely fit into many budgets. A distinctive feature of this wireless Bluetooth model is its contoured collar, which wraps around the back of the neck. Motorola says the band, which includes all the controls for functions such as changing audio tracks and adjusting volume, is constructed to resist movement. When not in use, the earphones can magnetically attach to the band.


    Phiaton BT 100 NC ($100)

    If you crave quiet in the midst of a noisy environment or while traveling on a plane or train, noise-canceling headphones can provide the peace and serenity you seek. Most, however, tend to be pretty pricey. This wireless model, by Phiaton, breaks that trend, while adding wireless Bluetooth capability. The BT 100 NC combines active noise-cancellation with a passive in-ear design to provide decent noise reduction, along with very good overall sound quality.   

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

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    Best Photo Printers for the Holidays

    If you’re not in the habit of going to the drug store to print out your photos, chances are they’re still on your camera (or on your Instagram account). But printing photos is incredibly easy nowadays, especially if you’ve got the right printer to do your Disney World trip justice. Whether you're making albums from old family photos or planning to create holiday cards, here are three printers that should satisfy your image quality needs, along with some tips to help you make an informed purchase.

    Before you buy, make sure you keep a few things in mind. All-in-one printers have scanners that are usually meant for documents, so look for a high-resolution scanner that can handle photos well. Many printers support borderless printing, which is great for making seamless photos. Finally, printing text is cheap, but photos are much more pricey. Before you hit "print" on a folder with dozens of pictures, make sure you're comfortable with the price: It could be 50 cents a page or more.

    Canon Pixma MG5620 ($70)
    The Canon Pixma MG5620 is a great choice for photographers looking for a bargain. At $70 it’s an inexpensive inkjet printer, but it prints excellent photos, especially on glossy paper. It has built-in Wi-Fi, and even supports email printing. Its scanner is ok for general purpose scanning, but won’t reach archival quality. But beware: This Canon doesn’t have some of the other features serious photographers might want: Camera card readers and direct printing from cameras using PictBridge are both missing, as is a dedicated photo paper tray.

    Canon Pixma MG7720 ($149)
    For the more serious photographer or family historian, features like memory card readers and a quality scanner are required. The Canon Pixma MG7720 ($149) is an all-in-one printer with a top-notch scanner, useful for importing family photos into your digital library, and a memory card reader that accepts MS and SD cards. You can use the printer’s 3.5 inch touchscreen to select which photos to print from the memory cards. There’s also a separate tray for 4x6 or 5x7 photo paper, and it prints on CDs that have printable backs. Wireless PictBridge, Apple Airprint, Google Cloud Print, and vanilla Wi-Fi printing are all present. Unfortunately, the jump in quality comes with a jump in printing costs. It’s still pretty cheap, but with a single 4x6 photo costing over 50 cents to print (including paper), putting your family vacation in a book could get costly.

    Epson Expression Premium XP-820 ($149)
    If you’re into scrapbooking as well as photo printing, Epson’s Expression Premium XP-820 ($149) fits the bill. The XP-820 is great at printing graphics as well as photos, so your Christmas cards (complete with candy cane border) will look great. You can print via email or wirelessly from a multitude of devices. Duplex printing lets you print, scan, or copy on both sides without losing quality. It has two trays for both regular and photo paper, and even prints on CDs that have printable backs. Its scanner isn’t as great as the Pixma MG7720's, but it will do fine with documents or images that don’t contain a wealth of detail.

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

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    Consumers Union Testifies About Unfair Car Insurance Pricing

    When it comes to car insurance, how much you pay could have little to do with how well you drive.

    That’s something Richard Harbaugh and his wife, Kathleen Spencer, of Duluth, Minn., found out first-hand. The couple—he’s retired from the military and she was a nurse for 30 years—say they never made a claim on their car insurance in the six years they had the policy, yet their premium kept going up. When they called their insurance company to complain, Harbaugh says they were told their rate reflected the fact that they didn't have a credit card. They were advised to get one and use it on a regular basis to raise their credit score.

    “My wife doesn’t believe in being in debt, so we didn't use credit cards,” says Harbaugh. “I don’t see why we should be penalized for that.”

    Today, Norma Garcia, a senior attorney for Consumers Union, the policy and advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, shared Harbaugh's story—and similar stories from thousands of Americans—in testimony about unfair car insurance pricing at the annual meeting of the National Association of Insurance Commissioners in Washington, D.C. 

    Garcia also delivered a petition signed by more than 15,000 consumers calling on state insurance commissioners to ban the use of non-driving factors such as credit scores when calculating premium prices. Instead, she said, premiums should be based mainly on a policyholder's driving record, miles driven, and years of driving experience. "By relying heavily on these non-driving factors when pricing insurance, many good drivers end up getting unfairly penalized with higher premiums,” Garcia said.

    Time for Reform

    Garcia's testimony follows the publication of “The Truth About Car Insurance,” Consumer Reports' investigation of the car insurance industry. We analyzed more than 2 billion car insurance price quotes from 700-plus insurance companies across every U.S. general ZIP code to get at the heart of how insurance companies determine what to charge you. We found that socioeconomic factors weighed heavily. For instance, we found that a driver with an unblemished driving record who had a less-than-stellar credit history could pay more—often significantly more—than a driver with an excellent credit score and a drunk driving conviction.

    A new report from the Consumer Federation of America described another disturbing trend: A female driver who lived in a predominantly African-American community could pay much more for car insurance than a female driver who lived in a mostly white neighborhood, even when all other factors were equal. The study found that in ZIP codes where more than three-quarters of the population were African American, premiums were 70 percent higher, on average, than they were in communities where the population was less than one-quarter African-American.

    Consumers Union is urging the NAIC to undertake a number of reforms to address such inequities in car insurance pricing. Among them:

    • State insurance commissioners should ban insurers from using non-driving factors when setting premiums, including credit data/scores; education level; occupation; marital status; and price optimization (the practice of charging higher rates to policyholders who fail to shop around for a better deal).
    • The NAIC should conduct a market survey to learn more from insurers about their rating practices involving non-driving factors that are unfairly driving up car insurance rates.
    • The Federal Insurance Office should collect data from insurers to evaluate auto insurance access and affordability.

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

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    How Walmart Is Fighting Amazon's Black Friday Deals

    Here's more proof that Black Friday shopping is a competitive sport for retailers: Walmart's new "Dare to Compare" promotion for Black Friday, which promises to match or beat the best online prices offered by several major retailers. Not every product is covered, but Walmart says it will check prices on certain items, including TVs, throughout the day, and revise its deals at least every hour, and sometimes as frequently as every 15 minutes.

    The program includes Best Buy and Target, but it seems to specifically target Amazon and its rapidly evolving Black Friday deals. Yesterday, we profiled some of Amazon's Black Friday specials, including Deals of the Day and Lightning Deals, which are spread over an eight-day period. 

    On Walmart's Dare to Compare site, the fine print says that the retailer is tracking prices on select online items from a number of retailers, including Amazon, Best Buy, Home Depots, Toys "R" Us and Babies "R" Us. On the right-hand side of the page, just below the Dare to Compare banner, there's a notice of when the five pages of watched items was last updated.

    Although the deals change regularly, a lot of the TV deals early this morning when we looked were on secondary brands, such as RCA and Sceptre, though we also saw a few Vizio TVs. But it's not just TVs: The price-beating program covers a broad range of product categories, from toys to tablets to kitchen appliances.

    TV Deals

    Here are some of the TV deals we saw early this morning, along with Walmart's assessment of its competitors' pricing:

    • A 32-inch Sceptre X322BV-MQC for $140; Amazon, it said, was selling it for about $175.
    • A 50-inch Sceptre X505BV-FMQR1080p TV for $330, compared to $398 at Amazon.
    • A 55-inch RCA LED55G55R120Q 1080p TV for $450, compared to $520 at Amazon. (Walmart had this set for $400 this summer when it matched Amazon's Prime Day sales.) We reviewed the 65-inch version of this set.
    • A 50-inch RCA LED50B45RQ 1080p TV for $370, $438 at Amazon. Walmart and Sears both had this same set during Black Friday last year for $380.
    • A 55-inch Vizio E55-C2 1080p smart TV for $568. It's $600 at Target and $630 at Amazon. This set is in our TV Ratings, available to subscribers.
    • A 43-inch Vizio D43-C1 1080p TV for $298. It's $326 at Amazon. This set is also in our Ratings.

    There was also a low-priced 49-inch Sceptre U500CV-UMK UHD TV for $350, which disappeared briefly, and seemed to be nearly out of stock at Amazon. When we checked back later, the item had returned to Walmart's site, and there were 10 sets on Amazon, priced at $420 each. It all goes to show how quickly these deals are changing.

    We expect price competition to get even fiercer next week, as we get closer to Thanksgiving and Black Friday. While stores used to get locked into the deals they printed in their Black Friday circulars, in the online age, retailers can constantly monitor competitors' pricing and make adjustments. So we anticipate that pricing this year will be especially fluid as retailers react right though the Black Friday weekend and into Cyber Monday.

    Over the next week, we'll be compiling a list of the best Black Friday TV deals we've seen, so keep checking back for news on where to find the biggest bargains. In the meantime, take a look at 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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    Redesigned 2016 Toyota Tacoma Doesn’t Feel All New

    The Toyota Tacoma has always had a well-deserved reputation for off-road toughness, good reliability, and high resale value. But it also suffered from clumsy handling, a stiff ride, and an odd and uncomfortable seat-on-floor driving position. Its shortcomings were overt and arguably straightforward to address, but our initial experience in the “all-new” Tacoma shows that progress has been more evolution than revolution.

    The redesigned 2016 Toyota Tacoma debuts with a new powertrain, reworked suspension, more muscular appearance, and contemporary infotainment features.

    Pricing for the 2016 Toyota Tacoma starts at $23,300 and soars to $37,820 for the top-level four-wheel drive V6 Limited.

    We bought a four-wheel drive SR5 crew cab version fitted with Toyota’s new 278-hp, 3.5-liter V6 (which gets a 42 hp boost over last version) and six-speed automatic transmission. With a few options, such as 16-inch alloy wheels and the V6 Tow package, our truck cost $34,364.

    A 159-hp, 2.7-liter four-cylinder engine is also available with select configurations.

    EPA fuel economy estimates for the 4X4 V6 automatic clocks in at 18 mpg city, 23 mpg highway, and 20 mpg overall. Sounds reasonable. We’ve been seeing about 20 mpg overall so far.

    The aforementioned Tow package lets the 2016 Toyota Tacoma pull up to 6,800 lbs., an increase of 300 lbs. over the previous V6.

    Toyota claims the 2016 Toyota Tacoma is quieter due to enhanced seals and the addition of a multilayer acoustic windshield, sound-absorbing headliner, and a floor silencer pad. We found that road noise seemed somewhat more suppressed than in the past. However, the mechanical roar of the V6 and a fair amount of wind and tire noise show that Toyota might not have gone far enough.

    All versions have a composite bed that Toyota says is 10-percent lighter than steel. It’s also rust proof and may very likely outlast the rest of the truck. And the tailgate is nicely damped and doesn’t slam down when you release it.

    Infotainment features include standard base Entune audio system, which gets you a 6.1-inch touch-screen display, AM/FM/CD player, six speakers, auxiliary audio jack, a USB port with iPod connectivity and control, voice recognition, hands-free phone capability, Bluetooth music streaming, Siri Eyes Free, and a backup camera. The features sound great on paper, but the double-DIN stereo looks like an outdated aftermarket head-unit, with graphics that don’t even match the color information display between the gauges.

    Stepping up to the SR5 brings standard Entune Audio Plus, which adds a “Connected Navigation Scout GPS Link App” and SiriusXM radio with three-month’s complimentary service.

    The Entune Premium Audio is standard on TRD Sport and TRD Off-Road models and adds an Integrated Navigation and App Suite, and a 7-inch touch screen.

    One cool, low-buck feature is that all Tacoma trim lines come with a GoPro mount located near the rearview mirror. Capture all your off-road adventures or have your own dash cam—your choice.

    Just because the 2016 Toyota Tacoma is offered with such luxury items such as dual-zone climate control, and leather-trimmed heated front seats, don’t think it’s gone all soft.

    Other available premium features include blind-spot monitor with rear cross-traffic alert and keyless ignition.

    Our first impressions are that the Tacoma still rides, sounds, and handles like a truck; don't expect the quiet refinement of a Ford F-150 or the comfort of a Ram 1500. Of course, those are much bigger (and more expensive) rigs. Also, the driving position is still distressingly low and the engine sounds quite agricultural.

    We also think the 3.5-liter V6 and six-speed automatic are geared heavily toward improving fuel economy rather than boosting performance. As a result, the powertrain feels flat-footed and as unresponsive as a stumbling zombie.

    The relatively new Chevrolet Colorado leads the small truck pack in our Ratings, but we weren't overly impressed with its stiff ride, uncomfortable seats, and a V6 engine that seemed to go on a low-torque diet. Is the 2016 Toyota Tacoma enough to topple the Colorado? The jury is still out on that.

    We're really not sure that all the Tacoma's “newness” Toyota claims is adding up to all that much.

    Remember when you were in school and pulled an all-nighter to finish an assignment? And maybe you got it done, but your teacher wasn't fooled. Herein lays the problem with the 2016 Toyota Tacoma: It feels, drives, and sounds an awful lot like the unrefined old truck. We were expecting more.

    We'll have a better idea of how much (or how little) the Tacoma has evolved when we gain more seat time and miles in our test truck.

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

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    Best Outdoor Power Gear Gifts for the Holidays

    Outdoor chores don’t stop for a holiday break, so we asked the outdoor power equipment experts at Consumer Reports for their top picks from among our recommended products. Not every choice is appropriate for every user, and not everyone wants another gas engine to maintain—especially if their property is modest enough for an electric model. So your best bet is to check return policies and get a gift receipt.

    Generators

    Providing ample power, cleanly and consistently, are top strengths of the 6,800-watt, gasoline-powered Ridgid RD906812B, $1,000. You get a number of helpful features for the price, including electric start, low-oil shutoff (which protects the engine from overheating if the oil level dips too low), and fuel shutoff, which prevents leaks and keeps gas from getting trapped in the fuel system and spoiling during storage.

    For $300 less, the Generac GP5500 5939 is rated at 5,500 watts and performed almost as well as top-scoring models that cost hundreds more. Features include fuel shutoff, low-oil shutoff, an hour meter, and a fuel gauge. It also comes with the wheels and the starter bottle of engine oil you'll find with many portable models. One feature you give up is electric starting (you'll need to pull a cord, as you would with many lawn mowers), and this model is noisier than the Ridgid. But it’s still a great value. See our generator Ratings for more top picks.

    Snow blowers

    A novel, second impeller in the front helps make the 30-inch, two-stage Cub Cadet 3X 30HD 31AH57SZ710, $1,650, a top performer. Super-fast clearing and enough throwing distance to clear wide driveways are the major perks, along with easy steering and slick controls. The price includes electric starting and a headlight. It's the perfect pick for large driveways, consistently heavy snows up to about 24 inches—or occasional winter dumpings where the recipient wants the ultimate in clearing speed.

    For less snow or where you typically have more time to clear snow, the 24-inch, compact two-stage Craftsman 88173, $680, has impressively quick and clean removal with the necessary muscle for dense plow piles. Other models, though, got more distance with what they picked up. Features include an overhead-valve engine that should start easily and run efficiently when properly maintained, along with electric start and multiple speeds. On the minus side, it lacks single-hand controls (which let the operator hold down both control levers with one hand), a single-lever chute adjustment, and freewheel steering (so turning requires more muscle). Noise is below the 85-decibel level at which we recommend hearing protection, though that's still a smart precaution.

    And for those who rarely get more than about a foot of snow at a time, the single-stage, gas-powered Toro Power Clear 721E, $570, outdid all others in this category. The Toro was the only single-stage gas model to make short work of our test plow pile, and its removal speed was impressive, too. Another plus: As with most other models of its class, it cleared down to the surface and was easy to handle. For more snow blower picks, see our full snow blower Ratings.

    Chain saws

    Ultrafast cutting and relatively lightweight help justify the higher price of the 16-inch, gas-powered Stihl MS 180 C-BE, $230. So do a chain brake and tool-free chain adjustment, along with a durable blade cover. As with other gas-powered saws, it requires a mix of gas and oil for fueling its two-stroke engine. We strongly advise hearing protection and other protective gear for the operator.

    For lighter duty in a machine that needs no engine maintenance, the plug-in electric Worx WG303.1, $100, was faster and better balanced than its larger 18-inch sibling, the Worx WG304.1, despite having a shorter bar. Indeed, cutting speed was on a par with the fastest light-duty gas saws we tested. Other pluses include a chain brake, tool-free chain adjustment, and a durable bar cover for safe storage. But as with other plug-in saws, the operator will need to work within 100 feet of an outlet—and you'll need a generator to use when the power is out. One caveat: There's no vibration dampening. We advise hearing protection and other protective gear for the operator. Need more picks? See our full chain saw Ratings.

    Leaf blowers

    The Echo PB-255LN, $200, doesn't come cheap, but this gasoline-powered handheld blower gets the job done with lots of sweeping power for big leaf piles and enough loosening oomph for embedded leaves. There's spring-assisted starting and a five-year warranty. The Echo was also very easy to handle. If the neighbors’ peace and quiet are a consideration, note that this blower was fairly quiet from 50 feet away—the model name's "LN" stands for low noise. (We still recommend hearing protection for the operator.) But since the engine is two-cycle, it requires a mix of gas and oil for fueling.

    Prefer to give a powerful blower with no maintenance? This Ratings champ among corded-electric handhelds, the $75 Toro Ultra Blower Vac 51609, had superb sweeping and vacuuming and impressive loosening of embedded leaves and other debris. The powerful unit was nevertheless easy to handle and use, and neighbors hearing it from a distance shouldn't have much to complain about. We still, however, recommend hearing protection for the operator. Check out our full leaf-blower Ratings for more choices.

    String trimmers

    Anyone thinking about a string trimmer as a gift might find one more easily online in many parts of the country. For a top choice in a gas-powered model, consider the curved-shaft Stihl FS 38, $130. It’s relatively light (10.5 pounds) and easy to handle, yet it was superb at regular trimming and edging along with tall grass. Controls proved easy to use. And like most trimmers, this one has two trimming lines.

    Choose the straight-shaft Green Works 21142, $90, if you want the easy starts and low maintenance of an electric, and the trimming needs would fit within the 100-foot limit of a power cord. Pluses include trimming, edging, and tall-grass performance on a par with some lighter-duty gas trimmers, along with the two lines most trimmers have. We also liked this unit's good balance and bump head. For a corded electric trimmer, this one is on the heavy side at 9.7 pounds; you'll find much lighter, though lesser-performing, models in this category. See our full string trimmer Ratings for details.

    Need more guidance? Read our buying guides for generators, snow blowers, chain saws, leaf blowers, and string trimmers before venturing forth into that holiday shopping jungle. One bit of good news: Models sold at dealerships might be easier to shop for, with more sales help than you're likely to get this time of year in a home center or department store.

    —Ed Perratore (@EdPerratore on Twitter)

    Holiday Planning & Shopping Guide

    Check Consumer Reports' 2015 Holiday Guide for our picks of the best gifts, details on the latest deals, time-saving tips, and much more. And see our countdown calendar for top gift ideas for everyone on your list.

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

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  • 11/20/15--05:00: When Gifts Go Bad
  • When Gifts Go Bad

     Most gifts are given with the best intentions. And of course it’s bad manners to be ungrateful. But if the holiday present from your mother-in-law is a gift certificate for six months of weekly house-cleaning services, should you feel paranoid—or maybe even insulted?

    Just remember to consider the context. If she does that after visiting your new house for the first time, you’re probably right that’s she’s pegged you as a slob. But if the gift arrives shortly after you’ve given birth to twins, it’s probably a thoughtful gesture.

    Holiday gifts can say a lot—even unwittingly—about the relationship between the gifter and the giftee, says Elizabeth Dunn, Ph.D. a psychology professor at the University of British Columbia who has done research on the emotional effects of gift giving. A box of chocolates, for example, could be just a standard-issue gift. Or, if it’s given by your notoriously jealous sister, who knows you’ve just dropped 25 pounds, it actually may be a passive-aggressive act.

    So does that mean you should never buy someone a gift that could be construed as controversial? No, but make sure your sensitivity antenna are way up, says Jodi R.R. Smith, president of the etiquette consulting firm Mannersmith. For example, if your partner has been saying that he or she wants to get an activity tracker as part of a plan to exercise more and lose a few pounds, consider getting a pair of matching Fitbits with the stated goal of exercising together, Smith suggests. That also sends the message that you’d enjoy spending more time together.

    But there are some items that are too emotionally charged to ever be received graciously, according to Kit Yarrow, a consumer psychologist. “Buying gifts like an acne-treatment kit, tummy-control undergarments, or books on parenting advice may be well-intentioned, but just don’t do it,” she says. “Especially during the holidays, when people really don’t want to be reminded about the red bumps on their faces, their large behinds, or their shortcomings as parents.”

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

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    What to Pack in a Car Emergency Kit for Your Holiday Road Trips

    Winter holiday plans often involve abundant road travel—whether it's multiple gift-shopping expeditions to the mall or piling the clan into the family car for the annual road trip to visit Grandma. 

    If you're going to be one of those hitting the crowded highways and byways this holiday season, do yourself a favor and have a well-stocked emergency kit. Even if it seems like your travels are through busy, civilized areas, inclement weather and ensuing accidents can cause traffic to grind to a halt, making many of these emergency items helpful.

    Checklist: Car Emergency Kit Basics

    While properly preparing your car for holiday road trips will minimize the risk of mechanical troubles during your journey, various roadside emergencies—from punctured tires to collisions to passenger illness—can happen at any time.

    Our guide of what to carry in your car's roadside emergency kit contains an extensive list of items to have on hand to help manage almost any emergency while traveling in a car.

    Here's a short checklist of the basic items every car should always have:

    • Cell phone. You can't call for help without a phone. And a mobile charger will help too since areas with weak cellular reception can kill your phone's battery.
    • First-aid kit. Pack basic non-prescription drugs in your emergency medical kit, such as pain killers to handle holiday shopping headaches.
    • Fire extinguisher. A compact dry powder unit that's labeled "1A10BC" or "2A10BC" can handle fires fueled by solids (plastic, rubber, paper, etc.) as well as by combustible liquids and gases.
    • Warning light, hazard triangle, or flares. Give motorists the heads-up that you're stuck at the side of the road.
    • Jack and lug wrench, foam tire sealant or a portable compressor and plug kit. Most newer model cars don't have spare tires anymore, so make sure you know how to use the car's included "mobility kit"—and how to reach roadside assistance if you have a severe flat tire.
    • Jumper cables or a portable battery booster. New, "mini-jumpers" can start your car as well as provide back-up power for your smartphone, tablet, GPS navigation unit, or other portable electronic device.
    • Flashlight. Remember, you have fewer hours of daylight in most parts of the country during the fall and winter seasons. A head-mounted light can be especially helpful during tire changes.

    Car Emergency Kit Items for Winter Road Trips

    For long-distance road travel in the fall and winter months, consider adding these additional items to your roadside safety kit. Drivers will find them especially useful in dealing with car emergencies during road trips through the cold and dark.

    • Windshield scraper. Good visibility is your most important safety item, but persistent snow and ice can build up quickly and make it hard to see. A long-handled, soft-bristled brush can also come in handy. Be sure to do the heavy clearing with a tool, rather than the windshield wipers.
    • Tire chains and tow strap. Familiarize yourself with how to put the chains on your vehicle's tires or attach a tow strap before you need to do it in cold and possibly dark conditions.
    • Blanket, extra layers, winter hat. If you run out of fuel or if your battery dies, the vehicle won't be able to provide heat. A blanket, extra layer (like a sweatshirt or fleece) and hat can help keep you warm if you have to wait for a long time in cold conditions.
    • Chemical hand warmers. These small, inexpensive packets are available at ski shops and sporting-goods stores.
    • Water and nonperishable emergency food. Bring enough food and water to sustain you and any passengers for at least a meal—longer for remote areas or in extreme cold regions.
    • Small folding shovel. If you get stuck in snow, this can be a vital tool. A folding camping-style shovel will require more digging effort than a longer-handled shovel, but it is more convenient to store in the vehicle.
    • Bag of cat litter. Spreading the litter around your tires might provide extra grip to help you get unstuck from slippery embankments. Plus the added weight in the trunk might give a bit more traction with a rear-drive car.
    • Reflective safety vest. These can fit over your warm, oversized winter coat, yet still allow you to be seen up to 300 feet away.

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

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    Redesigned 2016 BMW X1 Is More Contemporary, But Less Fun

    While automotive brands are tripping over themselves to enter the small premium crossover space, BMW is rolling out its second-generation X1. Carving a niche between a 3 Series wagon and the X3 SUV, the 2016 BMW X1 strives to be a versatile, transitional vehicle that addresses the desire for an elevated ride height, cargo flexibility, all-wheel drive, and upscale status.

    The X1 pioneered this sub-genre in 2012, and it returns with a new platform and more high-tech features. While the original X1 was essentially made out of previous-generation 3 Series guts, the new 2016 BMW X1 shares its basic architecture with the Mini Cooper Clubman, a front-drive-based car. Deviating from the purity of rear-wheel drive is, to die-hard fans, like killing a sacred cow for BMW.

    This X1 comes only as an all-wheel drive, with the sole engine offering being a new 228-horsepower, 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder. Prices start at an inviting $34,800, but with several desirable options, the X1 quite easily breaks the $40,000 mark. The well-equipped X1 we bought came in at $44,745, placing it at the high end of the segment.  

    Outwardly, the X1 looks like a scaled down X3 or X5—testament to how effectively BMW carries its familial design language across models. Despite the look, those accustomed to BMWs will realize after a few miles that this isn’t your typical BMW.

    Most BMWs impress you right away with a sense of control and handling precision. The X1? Not so much. While the car is responsive and surefooted, steering response is not as resolute. In routine driving, this BMW does not possess any extra magic over several other models among more mundane small SUVs. In fact, the Ford Escape has more verve when it comes to carving corners, with a tied-down and athletic demeanor.

    Neither is the ride as cosseting as you might expect from a premium car. The X1 tends to transmit the texture of the road a bit too faithfully as it encounters pavement corrugations and the standard 18-inch run-flat tires don’t help with isolation. Road noise is too noticeable for a car at this price bracket. 

    The turbocharged engine delivers ample pull with virtually no delays or hesitation and the eight-speed automatic shifts smoothly and smartly. But this engine doesn't have any personality or character, lacking the rich sound and feel that’s normally associated with a BMW. On the plus side, fuel consumption appears to be frugal, as the trip computer has been registering 26 mpg overall so far.

    To be fair, if this were another car that doesn’t have the famed blue-and-white Roundel logo, the X1 would come across as competent and even commendable. But you expect more from a BMW. In fact, brand loyalists will notice the rather mundane ride and handling on a test drive; these aren’t the things one can’t tell from touring the showroom with a latte in hand.

    Instead, potential buyers will spot the supportive seats, innately high-quality interior, high-tech infotainment system, and striking attention to detail. Heated seats and steering wheel are common options, as is a panoramic sunroof, which add to the upscale allure and makes the small-ish cabin feel airy. And the standard hands-free power liftgate puts on a show.

    The low step-in height and relatively low (for an SUV) seating position strike a nice access balance. Driving the X1 feels closer to driving a sedan or a wagon in terms of seating height and visibility. The center console, which includes the iDrive control interface and shifter, is lower than expected and the shifter itself diverges from BMW’s electronic wand with a more conventional one.

    Rear seat room is generous for the class and benefits from the low floor. Another fringe benefit of the front-drive architecture is the added storage space under the arm rest. The rear seat can fold in three sections aiding versatility, and each outboard section can be folded by a flick of a lever from the nicely finished cargo area.

    For its first impression, the 2016 BMW X1 provides a familiar BMW look and feel with good versatility in a compact, maneuverable size. It may be a bit short on the fun-to-drive quotient, but it's very likely that most potential customers care more about the brand cache and interior ambiance. As such, they will find the X1 to be very satisfying.

    As soon as we accumulate enough break-in miles, we’ll start putting the X1 through its paces. As instrumented tests begin, we’ll see how the X1 competes with classmates such as the Audi Q3 and Mercedes-Benz GLA

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

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    Best Car Deals for Thanksgiving and Black Friday

    The airwaves are abuzz with door-busting Black Friday deals on the latest gizmos and gadgets, but if you're looking for colossal savings, check out the offers at your local car dealerships.

    Consumer Reports' analysis shows that there are hundreds of cars with savings potential measured into four figures. As you strategize how you'll spend time shopping this November, consider the benefits of spending that time buying a car:

    • You could save thousands on a new car.
    • If you can still find them, remaining 2015 models are heavily discounted to clear the way for the 2016 models, and dealers may even sweeten the deal further to clear their lots.
    • It’s the end of the month, so dealers are more willing to negotiate to meet their quotas.
    • And, you’ll find plenty of parking and fewer crowds at the dealership than the local mall.

    Below is a tasty sampling of Consumer Reports’ recommended cars with potential savings of at least 10 percent below the manufacturer's suggested retail price, factoring customer rebates, hidden dealer incentives, and dealer holdback. These are just a few of our best new car deals, meaning notable discounts on models that meet Consumer Reports criteria to be recommended. These vehicles scored well in our testing, had average or better reliability in our subscriber survey, and performed at least adequately if included in government or insurance-industry safety tests.

    Each vehicle featured below is a 2016 model, and all nationwide incentives carry until at least Nov. 30. Of course, some offers might be extended. The vehicles are listed in order of total savings available.

    In addition to these models, we also discovered many compelling lease deals during our research, including one from Toyota that effectively makes lease payments on a Camry nearly like those on a Corolla. Hyundai is offering sweetheart deals, with discounted leases augmented by retail bonus cash and a loyalty rebate.

    However you wish to finance your next car, do explore the options. There are definitely deals out there worth being thankful for.

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

    Cadillac CTS

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


    Hyundai Equus

    Hyundai’s flagship competes with the largest luxury sedans but costs a good deal less. The Equus absorbs and hides all but the most severe impacts, but buoyant body motions give the car a busy feeling at times. Handling can best be described as ponderous, with notable body lean and steering that lacks any feedback. The standard V8 has smooth and refined power delivery, and the eight-speed automatic does its job with little notice. The interior is spacious and well-finished, but some controls are complex. Overall, the Equus doesn’t quite measure up to the established luxury brands. Available features include adaptive cruise control and a lane-departure warning system.


    Hyundai Veloster

    The sporty Veloster hatchback has three doors, with the right-side rear door providing access to the tight rear seat. Based on the small Accent, the Veloster’s 138-hp, 1.6-liter four-cylinder delivers adequate power, and the precise six-speed manual has low-effort throws. A dual-clutch, six-speed automated manual is optional. We got 31 mpg overall from a version with the manual transmission. Moving up to the Turbo gets you a strong 201-hp turbo four and an available seven-speed automatic. Handling is responsive and secure. While the ride is quite stiff, it isn’t punishing. Rear visibility through the split back window is decent at best.


    Chevrolet Malibu

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


    BMW 3 Series

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


    Hyundai Elantra

    The Elantra combines nimble and secure handling with a fairly comfortable ride. The 1.8-liter four-cylinder and six-speed automatic deliver solid performance and a very good 29 mpg overall. Some versions get a more powerful 2.0-liter four-cylinder. The car is well-equipped for the price, the controls and features are logically laid out, and rear-seat room is fine for two adults. Our major gripe is the pronounced road and engine noise. The GT hatchback has more adventurous styling and is competent enough but not a standout. Fuel economy of 27 mpg overall is nothing special, and the hatchback suffers from a loud cabin and stiff ride. A redesigned Elantra has just been unveiled.


    BMW 2 Series

    The small 2 Series is a fresh, exhilarating coupe with razor-sharp handling and a sense of immediacy that is missing in other recent BMWs, which seem to focus more on luxury and comfort. The 228i comes with a 240-hp, 2.0-liter four-cylinder; the uplevel M235i we tested has a terrific 320-hp, 3.0-liter turbo six-cylinder that responds instantly to every prod of the throttle. Available six-speed manual and eight-speed automatic transmissions are slick and smooth. The excellent front seats have ample space, but the rears are very cramped. Interior appointments are first-rate, but the iDrive unified control system remains a bit of a pain to fully master. All-wheel drive and a convertible are both available.


    Ford Fusion

    The Fusion is a delight to drive, with a supple ride and agile handling rivaling that of a European sports sedan. All trim levels and powertrains feel solid and upscale, with a well-finished and quiet cabin and comfortable seats. But the rear seat is somewhat snug, and the MyFord Touch interface is an annoyance. Most Fusions get either a 1.5- or 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder matched with a six-speed automatic. The 1.5-liter does the job, but the 2.0-liter packs more punch and better suits the car. We recorded 24 and 22 mpg overall, respectively, which is among the lower performers in the category. The Hybrid turned in an excellent 39 mpg overall.


    Kia Forte

    Kia’s Forte provides generous interior room and a wide assortment of amenities. Our tested base LX sedan got 28 mpg overall with the smooth 1.8-liter four-cylinder and six-speed automatic. Though the ride is absorbent, it tends to feel buoyant over undulations. Handling is very secure but not particularly agile. All EXs get a stronger 2.0-liter four-cylinder, and the SX coupe and hatchback version use a 1.6-liter turbo. The spacious interior is quiet for a compact car, and the controls are logically arranged. Available features include front/rear heated and ventilated seats. Changes for 2016 include an optional rearview camera for the LX trim line, and standard keyless entry and heated mirrors.


    Honda Odyssey

    This versatile and capable hauler combines clever and generous packaging with responsive handling and a supple ride. Its vigorous 3.5-liter V6 and smooth six-speed automatic returned 21 mpg overall in our tests. The Odyssey can seat eight in relative comfort, with varying configurations for cargo and passenger needs. Easy access, excellent child-seat accommodations, and abundant cabin storage add to the family-friendly quotient. Among our few gripes is the tediously complicated dual touch-screen infotainment system. In addition, fit and finish and some material selection are not what one would expect at this price.

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    5 Ways to Keep Your Car Secure While Holiday Shopping

    The holiday spirit hangs in the air this time of year, filling shoppers with feelings of good will and generosity—when they’re not busy fighting for bargains. It also brings out a spike in crime, as bad guys prey on distracted shoppers who make their work all too easy.

    “We see a definite rise in crime around the holidays,” says Sgt. 1st Class Gregory Williams of the New Jersey State Police. “People leave packages in vehicles, and criminals know it’s that time of year. They’re just looking for something they can grab.”

    By taking a few simple precautions, you can help make sure that your gifts end up with their intended recipients, rather than in the hands of a thief.

    1. Watch where you park

    Find a parking space as close as you can to the store entrance and under a light, if it’s dark. Make a note of any nearby signs, poles, or other landmarks to make it easier to find your way back. Try to avoid parking next to large vans or SUVs that give a thief privacy.

    2. Lock it up

    It may sound obvious, but law enforcement professionals say that many thefts are the result of unlocked cars. Double check to make sure you close the windows and lock all the doors before leaving the car. And don’t forget the sunroof.

    3. Hide the goods

    Don’t leave packages, phones, music players, or other valuables on the seats, floor, dash, or anywhere in sight. Lock items in the trunk or otherwise stash them out of sight. Even a cell phone cord is an invitation for trouble.

    4. Keep moving

    If you come out of the store to drop off a load of packages, move the car to another space before going back for more shopping. Criminals may be watching and know you won’t be back for a while.

    5. Stay focused

    Pay attention to your surroundings while walking to and from your car. Walk with a purpose, and stay off the phone. Have your keys ready as you approach the car, and get yourself and your packages inside quickly. Then lock the doors.

    See our holiday gift ideas and Black Friday guide.

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    How to Prep Your Car for a Holiday Road Trip

    With the holidays right around the corner, now is the time to get the family sleigh ready for travel and gift-delivery duty. By taking care of simple maintenance checks now, you can help ensure stress-free driving all winter long.

    Start with holiday lights

    Take a walk around your car to make sure all the lights are working properly, including high and low beams, flashers, directional signals, brake lights, and the license plate light.

    Wipe away troubles

    If you can’t remember the last time you replaced your wiper blades, now would be a good time to do it. Our tests have found that even the best-performing blades can be ready for retirement in as little as six months. Cracks, tears, streaking, and missed spots are all sure signs. Many auto parts stores will do the installation for free while you wait.

    Don’t forget washer fluid

    One long road trip on slushy, salt-covered roads can require a lot of washer fluid to keep the windshield clear, and a dark and stormy night is not the time to run out. Keep a gallon in the trunk, just in case. If it gets really cold where you’ll be traveling, switch to washer fluid with an antifreeze agent.

    Keep the engine cool in the cold

    Extreme cold is tough on mechanical components. Check the radiator and heater hoses for cracks and leaks. Hoses should be firm yet pliable when squeezed. Generally, the antifreeze mix should be flushed at least every two years to prevent corrosion buildup. If your vehicle is almost due, take care of it now.

    Check the battery

    At 0° F, your battery has only half of the cranking power it has at 80 degrees. And all batteries lose strength as they age, so don’t take any chances. Many auto-parts stores or repair shops will check yours for free. If it needs replacing, check our car battery Ratings and buying advice.

    Keep up the pressure

    Underinflated tires cause unsafe handling and braking. Keep a tire gauge in the glove compartment, and check the pressure in all your tires once a month and before any trip. Check your owner’s manual or driver’s doorjamb for the correct pressure.

    Consider winter tires

    If you’re likely to encounter a snow storm in your travels, think about investing in a set of high-rated all-season tires or better yet, four winter tires. Their tread patterns and rubber compounds are designed to grip on snow and ice. Check out our full tire Ratings and buying advice.

    Be prepared

    Finally, make sure to have a few basics along in case you do have trouble, including a cell phone and charger, flashlight, first-aid kit, fire extinguisher, warning light or flares, jumper cables, and the proper clothing including a hat and gloves.

    For more tips, see our complete guide to winter driving.

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    New Ways to Avoid Identity Theft and Tax Fraud

    If you do your taxes yourself, it’s going to take a little longer come tax time. That’s because the IRS and tax software companies have started a new initiative that will require you to take a few extra steps when filling out your tax return. The initiative, known as "Taxes. Security. Together." aims to beef up security and reduce the risk of identity theft.

    Why now? While tax fraud has been around for years, it’s becoming a bigger problem, according to John Koskinen, the IRS Commissioner. Koskinen says tax related crimes are increasingly sophisticated, and criminals are able to gather huge amounts of personal data from sources outside the IRS. A criminal, for example, might use your Social Security number to steal your identity. He then files for a refund early in the tax season and the IRS sends the refund directly to him. You may not learn about this until you file your return and the IRS informs you that a refund was already made. Over 5 million tax returns were filed using stolen identities during the 2013 filing season, according to the IRS. They claimed approximately $30 billion in refunds. 

    Here’s what to expect.

    When you start using a tax software program to complete your 2015 taxes, you’ll have to verify whether you’re using a desktop, laptop, or a mobile device to access your tax software. You’ll also have to register your device with the software company, so it knows that the tax return being filed is legitimate. Intuit, the maker of TurboTax, says its software will also provide:

    • More layers of authentication. If you access your account online, you’ll be able to set up your account to require several layers of authentication when signing in. But you can get even more security by requesting that TurboTax send you a unique, six-digit code to a trusted device, like your laptop or mobile phone, that you then use to sign in.
    • Fingerprint ID. If you use an Apple iPhone or another iOS device, you can link your fingerprint to your TurboTax account to authenticate who you are.
    • “Soft-token technology.” You’ll also be able to install an app on your mobile device to deliver a random, six-digit number that you can use to access your TurboTax account. The number will only work once.
    • More lockouts. Expect to face more lockouts if you take too long to sign in to your account or if you try unsuccessfully to log in multiple times. If someone else tries to sign into your account or use a device that you haven’t registered with the software company, you’ll also be notified.

    What You Can Do

    Besides the added security software companies are providing, the three major tax-prep software makers recommend that consumers also take additional steps. Among their suggestions:

    • Use updated security software on your computer, and keep it turned on.
    • Use updated firewall and anti-virus software.
    • Create strong passwords.
    • Keep paper records under lock and key.
    • Shred tax papers you no longer need. Tax records can be destroyed after seven years.
    • Encrypt electronic data and store it on a backup hard drive.
    • Wipe your computer’s hard drive clean before disposing of it.

    Finally, if despite all these measures you discover that you have been a victim of tax fraud, submit IRS Form 14039, Identity Theft Affidavit, to the IRS. That will start an investigation.

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

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  • 11/21/15--05:00: Tips for Giving Gift Cards
  • Tips for Giving Gift Cards

     Gift cards are big business; about half of all shoppers in the U.S. plan to give one, according to a Consumer Reports poll. And the amount we spend on those quick and easy gifts has risen steadily since 2009, to almost $32 billion in 2014, the National Retail Federation estimates.

    It’s easy to understand why the cards are so popular. For recipients, they’re “found” money. For harried shoppers, they solve the problem of what to buy for the impossible to buy for, whether it’s a finicky teenager, a co-worker, or a friend with a particular passion.

    The Best Gift Cards to Buy

    There are two basic types. Merchant-specific gift cards bear the name of a retailer or restaurant and are redeemable only at that spot. Bank cards carry the logo of a payment card network like American Express, Discover, MasterCard, or Visa. They can be spent wherever that payment method is accepted. Bank cards usually have a purchase fee of $4 to $6.

    Consumer Reports used to warn people about bank cards because they often came with short expiration dates, service charges, and inactivity fees. In fact, our opposition to them became the cornerstone of a highly publicized campaign for more consumer-friendly regulations. Since federal rules took effect in 2010 addressing the worst problems, we no longer advise consumers not to use them.

    Today, cards can’t expire for at least five years from the purchase date or from the last date any additional money was loaded onto it. If the expiration date is earlier than either of those dates, the money can be transferred to a replacement card at no cost. Issuers are required to disclose expiration dates and any fees on the card or packaging; inactivity fees kick in only after a year.

    Avoid These Traps

    With the new rules, gift cards are a better buy than they used to be. But you can still fall prey to scams and other pitfalls.

    • Fake or stolen gift cards. Avoid online auction sites that offer cards because they may be counterfeit or stolen, the Federal Trade Commission warns.
    • Discounted gift cards. Inspect cards before you buy them to make sure that the codes on the back haven’t been scratched off, which could indicate that the card has been drained of its value.
    • Hefty fees. Our holiday polls a few years ago revealed that as many as 15 percent of gift givers had at least one unused gift card almost a year after receiving it. The main reasons were that shoppers said they didn’t have time to use them, they couldn’t find anything they wanted to buy, or they simply forgot they had them.
    • Shaky retailers. A card from a company that files for bankruptcy or goes out of business could wind up being worthless. So be wary of companies making negative financial news.
    • Discounted gift cards. Inspect cards before you buy them to make sure that the codes on the back haven’t been scratched off, which could indicate that the card has been drained of its value.
    • Hefty fees. Our holiday polls a few years ago revealed that as many as 15 percent of gift givers had at least one unused gift card almost a year after receiving it. The main reasons were that shoppers said they didn’t have time to use them, they couldn’t find anything they wanted to buy, or they simply forgot they had them.
    • Shaky retailers. A card from a company that files for bankruptcy or goes out of business could wind up being worthless. So be wary of companies making negative financial news.

    It’s a good idea to give recipients the receipt for the card, too, so they can verify its purchase in case it’s lost or stolen. Also write down the card’s ID number, and register the card if possible. (Both will probably be required to get a replacement.) If you have a problem with a card, contact the issuer. If you can’t resolve a dispute, consider filing a complaint. For merchant cards, contact the FTC by phone (877-382-4357) or online (ftc.gov), or your state’s attorney general (find yours at naag.org). For bank cards, contact the Comptroller of the Currency Customer Assistance Group, at 800-613-6743.

    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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  • 11/21/15--08:59: Is Your Parking Lot Safe?
  • Is Your Parking Lot Safe?

    Holiday shopping season presents many challenges. Tracking down this season’s “it toy” or negotiating mall traffic may seem like the biggest perils you’ll encounter, but be wary of the real dangers that occur in the mall parking lot.

    According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1 in 10 property related thefts occur in parking lots. Follow these rules of the mall parking lot, and you can avoid becoming part of that 10 percent.

    1. Chose your parking spot wisely

    At the risk of stating the obvious, the closer to the mall entrance, the better. Not only is this convenient, but it is typically the most populated area of the parking lot. It is also the best lit. If you can’t find a spot that’s close to the mall and well lit, keep searching, even if it takes longer.

    2. Lock it up

    If you are on the home stretch of a shopping marathon, it may seem like a small hassle, but take that extra moment to completely lock your car. Most new cars have remote key fobs, but for the older ones, be patient and lock it all up.

    3. Out of sight, out of (the criminal’s) mind

    The best way to keep a mouse out of the house is to hide the cheese. The same can be said for leaving valuables visible in your car. Any bags or expensive items of any kind should be put in the back and out of sight of would-be-criminals. Make sure the GPS gets put away, as well.

    Criminals might also camp out waiting for someone to drop off a large item in the car and go back into the mall. If you have to make another trip back inside, move to another parking space on the other side of the mall.

    4. Have a plan

    Getting lost in the parking lot is a surefire way to make you easy prey. If you have Google Maps on your smart phone, you can “drop a pin” simply by opening the app and holding your finger down on your location when you park. Save that location and you can use GPS to get back to your car without getting lost.

    But don't spend too much time looking at the map. People are easily distracted when staring at a phone, so look occasionally, and be aware of your surroundings the rest of the time.

    5. Avoid Strangers

    The holidays might be a time of goodwill, but criminals play on that sentiment. Be wary of strangers who approach you in the parking lot. Have your keys in one hand and your cell in the other—in case you need to call 911. And remember, the parking lot can also be a crowded place. If you scream, Good Samaritans are not too far away.

    See our holiday gift ideas and Black Friday guide.

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

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    The hottest holiday gifts? IBM's Watson predicts...

    You may recall IBM’s Watson as the supercomputer that soundly defeated "Jeopardy!" champs Brad Rutter and Ken Jennings. But last week IBM announced that the data-crunching tech platform will now devote its outsized processing power to a more useful goal—helping holiday shoppers find great gifts for their loved ones.

    By eavesdropping on thousands of online forums, blogs, social media posts, comment sections, ratings and reviews, Watson searches millions of “conversations” for patterns that reveal which products or brands people are gearing up to buy. The new IBM Watson Trend app—available for free download only at the Apple App Store—then displays the results of predictive analytics to forecast if those consumer preferences are likely to strengthen or fade.

    Watson's Hot List

    Here are a few of the items identified as popular picks. (Prices are approximate.)

    • Star Wars Millennium Falcon Lego set ($150). With all the buzz surrounding the impending release of "The Force Awakens," Lego sets tied to the movie will be the “it” toy of the 2015 holiday season, says IBM. And that’s very likely to affect sales of the manufacturer’s Lego City and Friends sets, too. So shoppers should be prepared to pounce on Black Friday deals.
    • Hello Barbie ($75). The privacy concerns related to the toy’s Internet connectivity have not deterred parents from placing it atop their gift-giving lists, says Watson. But many are planning to employ the parental control feature in the companion app to restrict conversation.
    • Nikon DSLR cameras ($450 and up). Amateur photographers looking for better picture quality than a smartphone offers are making DSLR cameras—and specifically Nikon’s models—a popular choice this season, says Watson. (See our digital camera buying guide for more ideas.)
    • Sony’s 42-megapixel Alpha 7RII mirrorless camera ($3,200). Expert photographers who can afford it seem to want this model, which includes Ultra HD 4K video.
    • Gameband Minecraft ($79). The polyurethane wristband functions as a watch, but gamers covet it because it allows them to play Minecraft on any device with a USB port. At the end of each play session, the player’s progress gets backed up to a cloud-based server. If you lose the band, you order a replacement without losing the data.
    • LeapFrog Imagicard PAW Patrol ($18). These interactive game cards, featuring six pups from Nick Jr.’s popular preschool cartoon series, help children with a LeapFrog pad develop math skills while earning Good Citizen badges.

    At the moment, the Apple Watch, the Microsoft Surface Pro 4, and TVs from Samsung and Sony are also trending on the Watson app’s consumer electronics list. There are individual lists for toys, and health and fitness products, too.

    This year, for the first time, IBM predicts, shoppers will rely more heavily on mobile devices than desktop computers to find Black Friday deals. Over the five-day Thanksgiving break, the company expects mobile sales to rise by 34 percent compared to the same stretch in 2014.

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

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  • 11/23/15--03:00: 2015 Naughty & Nice List
  • 2015 Naughty & Nice List

    While Consumer Reports consistently puts products to the test, we have also developed an annual tradition where we scrutinize the policies, practices, and behavior of the companies that make and sell the goods and provide the services you use every day.

    The release of our sixth annual Naughty & Nice List of not-so-friendly and consumer-friendly policies by well-known businesses, including automakers, banks, restaurants, and retailers, is timed to coincide with Black Friday and the upcoming holiday season, when spending is in the spotlight. (Check out the Naughty & Nice lists from 2014201320122011, and 2010.)

    Whether you’re flying or buying, shoppers are particularly vulnerable during the high-octane holiday season. So there’s no better time to be vigilant about how—and with which companies—we choose to spend our shopping dollars. 

    This year, we took companies to the woodshed for gouging, annoying fees, and sneaky marketing practices. Conversely, we lauded others for transparency, generosity, and stand-up behavior that improves and enhances health, safety, and the overall quality of life.

    The list, based on input from Consumer Reports experts and presented in alphabetical order, is neither an endorsement nor criticism of an overall company. In other words, we’re not rating the firms themselves. Rather, it’s praise or condemnation of a specific policy or practice that we believe helps or hinders consumers.

    Naughty

    Allegiant Air
    Few industries rile customers more than air travel because of all the nickel-and-diming. But we couldn’t help but notice some of the extras imposed by the Las Vegas-based discount carrier that advertises “low-low fares.” They include (per one-way segment): A 3.2 percent processing fee ($8 max) for purchasing your ticket with a credit card; a $13 “Electronic Carrier Usage Charge” tacked onto each ticket bought outside of an airport ticket office; an additional $14.99 fee for tickets booked through the airline’s call center; up to $80 for a seat assignment; $5 for a printed boarding pass; $14.99 to $35 per first and second checked bag if you pay when you buy your ticket, $50 to $75 if you wait until you arrive at the airport. Similarly, you’ll pay around $15 to $20 to take a carry-on aboard if you pay in advance, $45 if you do so at the airport. (Find out which airline to fly.)

    Citibank
    The financial giant engaged in deceptive marketing and unfair billing for credit-card add-on products and services from at least 2000 through 2013. The federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau ordered Citibank to pay an estimated $700 million to millions of consumers harmed by myriad illegal practices as well as $35 million in civil penalties. They include: misrepresenting costs, fees, and benefits of some products; enrolling consumers in services without their consent; misrepresenting or omitting information about eligibility for coverage; and charging for benefits consumers never received.

    Citizens Bank
    The bank has agreed to pay fines of $20.5 million to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and other federal authorities for failing to fully credit customer accounts for certain deposit discrepancies stemming from bank errors—either misreading a deposit slip or another gaffe. At the time, the bank, which operates branches in about a dozen states, required its customers making a deposit to fill out a slip listing the checks or cash being deposited, and the total amount. The customer then turned the deposit slip over to a teller and got a receipt. An investigation, however, showed that for more than five years, Citizens Bank ignored discrepancies when the scanner misread the deposit slip or the checks, or if the total on the deposit slip did not equal the total of the actual checks. Instead, the bank pocketed the difference, shorting consumers millions of dollars.

    Costco
    The warehouse club is facing a jury trial for trademark infringement for selling “counterfeit” Tiffany diamond engagement rings. In September, a federal judge in New York agreed with the luxury jeweler’s claim that Costco confused customers by using the word “Tiffany” in display-case signage. In doing so, the court rejected Costco’s argument that "Tiffany" was a generic description for a type of ring setting. A jury trial has been scheduled for early next year. Costco has filed an appeal. Tiffany originally filed suit on Valentine’s Day 2013, claiming hundreds, possibly thousands, of Costco members bought rings they thought were genuine Tiffany baubles.

    FedEx and UPS
    Why is it that companies continue to impose fuel surcharges even when prices are relatively low? According to the industry publication TruckingInfo.com, the price of diesel won’t rise markedly until next year and even then, the increase is expected to average well below that recorded in 2014. Yet the two shipping titans continue to add fees, based on U.S. Energy Information Administration averages. For November, FedEx adds a 4.25 percent surcharge for ground shipping services; the add-on at UPS is 5.25 percent. Both carriers already include a surcharge for residential home delivery.

    LifeLock
    The company has once again been accused of misleading consumers. The Federal Trade Commission says LifeLock violated a 2010 settlement with the agency and 35 state attorneys general by continuing to make deceptive claims about its identity theft protection services, and by failing to take steps required to protect its users’ data. Specifically, the FTC says it caught LifeLock "falsely advertising" that it protected consumers’ sensitive data with the same high-level safeguards as financial institutions; failing to establish and maintain a comprehensive information security program to protect users’ credit card, Social Security, and bank account data; and falsely claiming that it protected consumers’ identity 24/7/365 by providing alerts “as soon as” it received an indication there was a problem. In late October, LifeLock announced that it had reached an agreement (which is awaiting final approval) with the FTC to settle charges as they relate to its “past marketing representations and information security programs” and has set aside $116 million “for this matter.”

    Sprint and Verizon
    The companies billed customers for millions in unauthorized third-party premium text messaging services, a fraudulent practice called “cramming.” As a result, the companies were ordered to pay $158 million in penalties and restitution (Verizon's share is $90 million; Sprint's is $68 million). “For too long, consumers have been charged on their phone bills for things they did not buy,” said FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler. “Consumers rightfully expect their monthly phone bills will reflect only those services that they’ve purchased,” added Travis LeBlanc, chief of the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau. These two latest cramming cases bring to 19 the total number of enforcement actions brought against various companies since January 2014. Under the terms of the agreement with Verizon, the $90 million settlement will include a minimum of $70 million to fund a consumer-redress program, $16 million for state governments participating in the settlement, and $4 million as a fine paid to the U.S. Treasury. Sprint’s $68 million settlement will include a minimum of $50 million to fund a consumer-redress program, $12 million for state governments participating in the settlement, and $6 million as a fine paid to the U.S. Treasury. (See our review of cell phone carriers.)

    Tom’s of Maine
    The company made a name for itself by touting its use of only natural ingredients in its toothpaste, deodorant, lotions, sunscreen, and other products. But plaintiffs in a class action accused Tom’s of being less than pure. Earlier this year, the company, without admitting wrongdoing, agreed to create a $4.5 million fund to help settle claims that it mislabeled personal care and beauty products as natural when they allegedly contained chemical ingredients including the sweetener xylitol and cleaner sodium lauryl sulfate. As part of the preliminary settlement, which covers purchases between March 25, 2009, and September 23, 2015, consumers can claim a $4 refund on up to seven Tom’s products (without a receipt); the company also agreed to provide enhanced disclosure on its website about the ingredients it uses, and better define how it defines terms like “natural,” “sustainable,” and “responsible.” A hearing in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida is scheduled for late January to decide whether the settlement is reasonable and adequate.

    Turing Pharmaceuticals
    The biotech startup created a firestorm over drug pricing when its 32-year-old founder and CEO, Martin Shkreli, a former health industry hedge-fund manager, purchased the prescription drug Daraprim (generically known as pyrimethamine) in August from Impax Laboratories and increased the price by more than 5,000 percent at hospital pharmacies, from $13.50 to $750 a tablet. Daraprim is an old drug primarily used to treat potentially life-threatening parasitic infections such as toxoplasmosis in people with compromised immune systems, including HIV and AIDS patients and those suffering from certain cancers. Now Congress is demanding an explanation. A committee is looking into the staggering price hike, and in a letter to the firm’s chief executive, legislators say there’s "no justification for an increase of this magnitude for a medication approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 1953." Responding to the swell of negative publicity, Turing, which has been in business less than a year, changed its tune. In mid-October the company announced what it termed “improvements” in “accessibility and affordability" to the medication. We'll be following developments carefully. (Check the Consumer Reports' Best Buy Drugs guide.)

    Volkswagen
    The German automaker is accused of circumventing the emissions control system in more than half a million diesel vehicles sold in the United States. Following notice by the EPA in September 2015, the company admitted that it cheated by installing software that enabled four-cylinder diesel vehicles, including Beetles, Golfs, Jettas, and Passats, and the Audi A3, to pass emission tests while emitting up to 40 times the permissible U.S. levels of nitrogen oxides in the real world. In November 2015, 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 situation continues to worsen, with Volkswagen telling the EPA that the issues with the 3.0-liter V6 diesel engine impacts model years 2009 through 2016. As investigations continue, Audi, Porsche, and Volkswagen diesel-car owners await corrective measures. (Check our guide to the Volkswagen emissions recall.)

    Whole Foods
    The grocery chain, known for its social responsibility, was caught twice overcharging customers—by selling products with the weight incorrectly labeled. In June, the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs released the results of its investigation that revealed that Whole Foods routinely overcharged customers by overstating the contents of prepackaged foods. The discrepancies resulted in overcharges of 80 cents to nearly $15 per package. In addition, the Department of Consumer Affairs said that 89 percent of the packages it reweighed failed to meet the federal standard for the maximum amount that a package can deviate from the actual weight. Earlier, Whole Foods and attorneys in several California cities settled charges of widespread pricing violations that included: Failure to deduct the “tare” weight of containers when ringing up charges for self-serve foods at the salad bar and hot bar; giving less weight than the amount stated on the label for packaged items sold by the pound; and selling items such as kebabs and other prepared deli foods by the piece, instead of by the pound as required by law. The chain agreed to pay close to $800,000 in penalties and implement a strict in-house pricing-accuracy program.

    Nice

    Brinkmann and Home Depot
    When you buy a gas grill you expect it to work and work safely. When it doesn’t, you have to hope that the problem will be quickly resolved. That’s exactly what these two companies did when Consumer Reports testing uncovered a safety issue with a Brinkmann grill and gave it a Do Not Buy designation last spring. While Brinkmann challenged the existence of a safety threat, the company nevertheless made available an easy-to-install, do-it-yourself fix for grill owners. Meanwhile, Home Depot, which sold the vast majority of the grills, put a freeze on its sale—the stores’ checkout systems wouldn’t allow a purchase transaction at the register. The grills were fitted with the new part that solved the problem, and soon were made available for sale. We bought and tested the revamped grill, then removed the Do Not Buy designation.

    California Health Insurance Exchange
    Shopping for health insurance can be overwhelming. But Covered California, the state’s Health Exchange, has eliminated much of the confusion because it allows for simple at-a-glance comparisons among all plans within the various “metal” tiers—Platinum, Gold, Silver, and Bronze—created as part of the Affordable Care Act. While the Affordable Care Act established plans that differ in generosity of benefits—the top tier being Platinum, which typically carries higher monthly premiums but lower co-pays, the lowest being Bronze—it did not require consumer cost sharing within those tiers to be identical. Covered California chose to standardize cost-sharing within each tier. For example, all Bronze plans on the Exchange have the same out of pocket costs for particular services whether you select one from Blue Cross, Kaiser, Blue Shield of California or Health Net. In any Bronze Plan, there is no charge for preventive care, and your first three doctor visits (primary or specialty) are $70 per visit without having to satisfy the big deductible. “For too long, benefit designs have been nightmares of confusion and all too often barriers to consumers getting needed care,” Covered California’s executive director Peter Lee told Consumer Reports. “These standard designs not only promote true apples-to-apples comparisons when consumers are shopping, they also make sure there are no ‘gotchas’ like not being able to get to a primary care doctor because of a surprise deductible.” (Read more about California Health Compare.)

    Chipotle Mexican Grill and Panera Bread
    These fast-food restaurant chains were the only ones to publicly affirm that the majority of their meat and poultry offered is produced without routine use of antibiotics. (The overuse of antibiotics contributes to the problem of antibiotic resistance.) In addition, the prevalence of antibiotic misuse and overuse in U.S. meat production reflects a broader tendency of poor farm management and animal welfare practices in industrial U.S. meat production. Eliminating unnecessary uses of these antibiotics by the meat industry is an important step towards creating a healthier food system, according to Consumer Reports advocates. Subway, which has more restaurants than any other chain, also recently announced its plan to eliminate antibiotic use in its entire meat supply. Subway says all of its chicken products will be antibiotic free by the end of next year. It will take until 2025 for all of its beef and pork to complete the transition, the company said. (Check our food safety guide.)

    CVS
    The drugstore chain already boasts almost 1,000 walk-in medical clinics and plans to expand its wellness commitment this fall to include hearing centers in some stores in the Dallas and Cleveland markets, and professional optical services (exams, contacts, and glasses) at select locations in the Baltimore and Washington, D.C., areas. Free audiology services will include in-store hearing loss screenings and hearing-aid checks and cleanings. All prescription glasses come with a 90-day total-satisfaction guarantee, and can be returned for any reason for a full refund. Glasses purchased for children 14 and under will be covered by a one-year guarantee that provides free replacement for pairs that are lost, damaged, or broken. Will the services eventually expand to all 7,800 CVS pharmacies? “We will use learnings from these locations to determine how we can continue to serve our customers and help them on their path to better health in innovative ways,” said spokeswoman Stephanie Cunha.

    There is one area where CVS can improve in the wellness space. We found in a recent retail drug pricing analysis of five common generic prescription drugs that three big drugstores, including CVS, charged more for the combination of those five drugs together than did some independent pharmacies, an online retailer, supermarkets, and national chains.

    Dish Network
    The pay-television service unveiled a helpful online appointment tool called My Tech that allows customers to receive personalized information about their service appointment including the name and a photo of the technician, and his or her proximity to your home. “We recognize that people want control of their own time and Dish’s My Tech tool helps them get on with their day without waiting on the TV guy,” said Erik Carlson, executive vice president of operations. “A minute-by-minute countdown and interactive map allow the customer to track their Dish technician to determine when to leave work or if they have time to run to the store.” My Tech is available on mydish.com to all customers with a scheduled service appointment.

    Dr. Martens
    You’ve got to love a product with an honest-to-goodness lifetime guarantee. Dr. Martens, the venerable British footwear maker, has a line of products guaranteed for life, meaning for as long as you live, the company will repair any component subjected to normal wear and tear—upper leather, stitched seams, eyelets, soles, welt, linings, and reinforcements. “With a little help from you, these boots and shoes will give you years of wear,” the company says. “Even so, they will eventually wear out. When they do, we will repair or replace them. We will go on repairing or replacing them for the rest of your life—guaranteed.”

    JetBlue
    Paying for Internet connectivity on a flight can break the bank. But not with JetBlue. The carrier’s Fly-Fi service offers free broadband in the sky, available on most aircraft, that allows travelers to browse the Internet, surf websites, stream video, and scan social media. Fly-Fi+ is an upgrade ($9 per hour) that will additionally allow large file transfers, the ability to play online games, download audio and video, and access VPN and cloud storage. (Check out where JetBlue landed in our latest review of airlines.)

    Nomorobo
    More than 200 million Americans have signed up for the federal Do Not Call list, but many continue to be harangued by the incessant, annoying and, often, illegal, robocalls. Enter Nomorobo, a winner of the FTC Robocall challenge. Nomorobo, which has blocked more than 40 million robocalls, is a cloud-based app that analyzes caller IDs and automatically disconnects suspicious calls. It’s free and is available to many consumers who use Internet-based VoIP service. The goal is to eventually include Nomorobo into all phone lines. (Read our report, "Rage Against Robocalls.")

    Procter & Gamble
    Since 2012, thousands of children have been injured or sickened after ingesting or coming into contact with those tasty-looking laundry detergent packets or pods. Roughly 12,000 of the 2.2 million calls to poison control centers every year are related to laundry packs. The hazard is so troubling that Consumer Reports, which has been lobbying manufacturers since September 2012 to make pods safer, will not include pods on our list of recommended detergents until we see that the injury rate declines meaningfully. We are encouraged by recent developments achieved through a voluntary industry standards-setting committee, which was co-led by Procter & Gamble, maker of Tide, Gain, and Ariel pods, and included Consumer Reports. P&G's brands represent 80 percent of total category sales. Thanks to the new standards, P&G and other manufacturers are putting new safeguards in place that are based on what the European Commission enacted in June. They include: applying a bitter tasting substance to the outer layer, making the packet stronger to resist a child’s squeezing, and designing the packet in such a way that the release of liquid is delayed long enough to give a child the chance to spit out the packet. These are safety improvements we can get behind, and we are hopeful that they will reduce injuries. Next steps: Consumer Reports is co-chairing a committee with P&G as part of the standard-setting process to ensure that all stakeholders have access to real-time data on injuries, so we can see if the changes have gone far enough to assure public safety. (Learn more about laundry detergent pods.)

    PwC (PricewaterhouseCoopers)
    The global business consulting firm introduced a new employee benefit that will pay $1,200 a year to staffers with one to six years of work experience to help reduce their student loan obligations by as much as $10,000, and shorten loan payoff periods by up to three years. The new benefit will be available to approximately 22,000 of PwC’s U.S. employees, more than 45 percent of its entire domestic workforce. “Seventy-one percent of students are now graduating with college loans with an average loan balance of $35,000,” said Tom Codd, vice chairman, US Human Capital Leader, PwC. “As a firm that recruits more than 11,000 new hires off campus each year, this is an opportunity to differentiate ourselves with a key talent group—millennials—and provide a meaningful way to help reduce their debt.”

    Southwest
    Kudos to Southwest for providing the most frequent-flyer award program trips of any big airline, according to a recent Consumer Reports analysis of millions of passenger trips for the fiscal year ended September 2014: 11.9 million, or 11.5 percent of total passenger seats. The Dallas-based carrier also did some Texas-sized butt-kicking of rivals by providing the highest percentage of award-seat availability on 72 percent of the 25 most popular U.S. award routes. “The most frequent pain point for consumers is having all these miles they can’t use,” Jonathan Clarkson, director of Southwest’s Rapid Rewards program, told us. “We don’t hear that much around here.” He said the airline’s high availability of rewards is possible because it has fewer restrictions. “Every seat is available as an award seat, even the last seat on the day before Thanksgiving.” (Check our ultimate frequent-flyer guide and see how Southwest fared in our airline Ratings.)

    Target
    The retailer has enacted several policy revisions that benefit consumers. The chain (and its website) expanded its price-match policy to include all major in-store and online competitors, including warehouse clubs, Amazon, and Walmart, and dozens more, and doubled (to 14 days) the timeframe to seek a price adjustment. Target also revised its policy earlier this year on shipping, lowering the purchase minimum to $25, from $50, required for free year-round shipping on online orders. Walmart still has a $50 minimum. In addition, the chain has extended the return period for all Gift Registry items from 90 days to one year from the guest-designated event date. Guests can return most new, unopened items at any Target store using a gift receipt or their Gifts Purchased List.

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

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