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    Organize Your Fridge for Healthy Eating This Holiday

    Trying to eat healthfully but overwhelmed by all the holiday goodies in your kitchen? Some simple refrigerator organizing steps can make it easier to make better choices during the busy, calorie-heavy holiday season—and on into the New Year. “Organizing your refrigerator the healthy way makes improving your diet a lot easier,” says Maxine Siegel, a registered dietitian and manager of food testing at Consumer Reports. Here are four ways you can do just that.

    Put Healthy Food Where You Can See It

    Stock up on pepper slices, carrot sticks, cut fruit, hummus, yogurt, and hard-boiled eggs, and keep it all at eye level. You’re three times more likely to reach for healthy food if it’s on the middle shelf, according to research from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

    Go a step further and store healthy foods in clear containers or bags, Siegel advises. What to keep in the fridge drawers? “Cheese, luncheon meat, and sweets like pies, sweet drinks, and pudding, and other foods you want to cut back on,” she says. “Out of sight, out of mind.”

    Stock the Fridge With Healthy Drinks

    “Fill a glass pitcher with unsweetened iced tea or try water with some cut-up oranges or other fruit, mint, ginger, or cucumbers,” Siegel suggests. Seeing the pitcher will remind you to stay hydrated, and adding the flavorings makes plain water more palatable.

    Keep Good-For-You Condiments on the Side Door

    Have plenty of flavorful, healthy ingredients, such as salsa, exotic mustards, pesto, jarred garlic, roasted red peppers, and artichoke hearts on hand. They’re low in calories and fat and can be used as a base for sauces, dips for sliced raw veggies, and toppings for cooked lean meats or fish.

    Don't Forget to Healthy Up Your Freezer

    “Most people don’t realize that cooked whole grains and beans can be frozen,” Siegel says. Store one or two servings in individual plastic freezer bags and stack the bags on top of each other in the freezer. That way, you’ll always have the foundation for a quick, healthy meal.

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

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    Top Cyber Monday Deals on Electronics

    Not everyone enjoys the Black Friday, leaving home to join the mobs in a store. No worries: That's what Cyber Monday is for.

    This year, many major retailers are kicking off Cyber Monday early, so check them right now to see which deals are in effect. Also, many are extending Cyber Monday into a week of cyber deals, so there's a chance you can continue getting discounts through December 6.

    Here's a quick look at some of the electronics deals we've seen online at Amazon, Best Buy, Target, and Walmart. With many of these sites, you'll need to check back regularly or sign up for alerts to know when new deals hit the Web.

    Amazon.com

    One of those retailers not content with just a single day of deals, Amazon is offering a Cyber Week of deals that run through December 5. Just like with its Black Friday sales, you have to check back regularly to see the latest deals. Here are some of the major ones for electronics.

    • An unnamed 60-inch LG 60 1080p TV for under $700.
    • A 28-inch TCL 28S3750 720p Roku smart TV for $170. We don't see this set elsewhere.
    • A 32-inch Upstar P32ES8 720p TV for $150. It's $168 at Walmart, and $180 at Kmart.
    • A 48-inch UHD TV home theater bundle, which we assume is a TV and sound bar, for under $600.
    • A Vizio 54-inch 5.1 sound bar speaker for under $300. If it's the Vizio S5430W-C2, it's selling for that price at a few places.

    Amazon Products

    • Amazon Echo Bluetooth speaker with Alexa for $149, normally $180.
    • Amazon Fire TV for $75 instead of $100.
    • An Amazon Fire TV Stick with voice remote for $35 instead of $50.
    • A Kindle Paperwhite for $100, usually starting at $119.
    • Fire Kids Edition for $85, normally $100.

    Other Items

    • MEE audio Sport-Fi M6 noise-isolating in-ear headphones, $18 instead of $30.
    • Philips Fidelio noise-canceling headphones for $200 instead of $300.
    • $100 discounts on certain flat and curved Samsung monitors.
    • 25 percent off a "top-rated" HD action camera, which we presume is a GoPro Hero.
    • Sony SmartBand 2 for $95, down from $130.
    • A Mira wellness and activity bracelet for less than $120, down from $169 normally.

    Best Buy

    Thanks to bfads.net, we got a preview of Best Buy's Cyber Monday deals, which may have the best selection of TVs. However, a lot of the deals can be found elsewhere. Many of these TVs are in our TV Ratings, which are available to subscribers; the Samsung models we tested don't have the "FXZA" suffix.

    • A 65-inch Samsung UN65JU7100FXZA UHD smart TV for $1,700. Though it was usually about $2,300, it's also available at Amazon and several other retailers right at this price.
    • A 65-inch Samsung UN65JS9000FXZA curved Ultra HD smart TV for $3000, $500 less than usual.
    • A 60-inch Samsung UN60JU6500FXZA UHD smart TV for $1,200.
    • A 40-inch Samsung UN40JU6500FXZAA UHD smart TV for $600. This is its selling price right now at a few retailers. Walmart has the UN40JU6500 model for $598.
    • A 65-inch Sony XBR-65X850C UHD smart TV for $1,800. Again, this TV—the only Sony set we've really seen discounted this season, is available right now for this price at Amazon and several other retailers.
    • A 55-inch Sony XBR-55X850C UHD smart TV for $1,200. Again, available elsewhere at this price.
    • A 65-inch LG 65UF8600 UHD smart TV for $2,000.
    • A 55-inch LG 55UF6450 UHD smart TV for $700.

    Other Deals

    • Lenovo ThinkPad 14-inch 2-in-1 with 8GB RAM, a 256GB SSD, 2GB dedicated graphics, and a 1080p touchscreen for $900.
    • $100 discounts on certain off HP and Lenovo all-in-one computers, and some iMac and MacBook computers.
    • A GoPro Hero4 Silver for $400, plus an $80 Best Buy gift card and 64GB memory card. If you don't need the extras, you can buy this action-cam for $329 at several places.
    • A Samsung Galaxy Tab 3 Lite Kids Edition for $100, a $50 savings.
    • Samsung Galaxy Tab S2 9.7-inch 64GB for $450, down from $600.

    Target

    Target is making things easy this year: You get 15 percent off everything on Target.com when you use the promo code "CYBER15" at checkout. Even better, the retailer is letting you "stack" it on top of other discounts, including those in its current “10 Days of Deals.” That said, Target doesn't have quite as many deals on electronics as other chains. Here are a few of the offers.

    • A 48-inch Samsung UN48JU6400FXZA Ultra HD TV, plus a $100 Target gift card, for $600. The TV, which is in our TV Ratings, is usually $900, according to Target—although it's selling for $750 on Target now, before the sale starts.
    • An Xbox One 500GB Gears of War bundle for $350, plus a free EA Sports game. Walmart had this bundle, minus the EA game, for $399.
    • A GoPro Hero+ action cam for $200, plus a $30 Target gift card.
    • 50 percent off Sennheiser headphones.
    • A Pebble Time Round smartwatch for $250 with a free $50 Target gift card.
    • A Nintendo 3DS XL for $200, bundled with a Super Smash Bros game. The game system itself usually sells for $180.

    Walmart.com

    Walmart.com is also kicking things off early with the action getting heavy on Sunday, November 29, at 5:00 p.m. ET, when it rolls out some 2,000 online deals. Here are a few we know about.

    • A 48-inch Samsung UHD TV 60Hz, $598. We think it's the Samsung UN48JU6400, which is available at this price elsewhere.
    • 50-inch Samsung 1080p 60Hz for $498.
    • An unidentified LG 65-inch 4K Ultra HDTV for $799. If it's the LG 65UF6450 it's a $100 to $200 more elsewhere. Best Buy has the 55-inch version for $700.
    • LG's BP155 wired Blu-ray player for $48.
    • An Xbox One console bundle with Gears of War and an extra wired controller for $300 (normally $350).
    • The PlayStation 4 Star Wars Console Bundle, which comes with four classic Star Wars games, for $399.
    • Beats by Dre Drenched Solo on-ear headphones for $99 (normally $119).
    • Toshiba N2840 Celeron laptop 2GB/32GB SSD for $179.
    • Microsoft Surface Pro 3 for $599, a claimed $200 savings.

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

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    Giving Tuesday Encourages Philanthropy During the Holiday Season

    Last week, millions of Americans went on their annual holiday-shopping spree. The gift-buying season got started on Thanksgiving night and reached warp drive on Black Friday. The retail bonanza will continue until Christmas, but there is a day when one organization hopes that people will at least partially turn away from consumerism and consider the charitable side of the holiday season.

    Tuesday, Dec. 1, has been dubbed Giving Tuesday. Started in 2012 by the New York 92nd Street Y, Giving Tuesday was conceived as a way "to create a national day of giving at the start of the annual holiday season."

    Last year, more than 30,000 organizations in 68 countries came together to celebrate #GivingTuesday. Since its founding, #GivingTuesday has inspired giving around the world, resulting in greater donations, volunteer hours, and activities that bring about real change in communities. 

    Whether or not you donate, you can spread the word about Giving Tuesday via social media, including Twitter (using #GivingTuesday).

    And before you make any type of charitable contribution, make sure your donation counts.

    Donate to Consumer Reports for #GivingTuesday and your gift will be matched dollar for dollar by a generous donor up to $10,000.

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

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    Where to Find Cheap Gas Online

    Want to know where to find the least expensive fuel near your home or place of work? Several websites now offer that information free, without the need to register. Sites we liked best show prices for regular, plus, premium, and diesel at local gas stations, and they tell you when the prices were last updated. They also link to maps to help locate the gas stations.

    The first site derives its information from credit-card transactions at more than 85,000 outlets nationwide, plus reports from individual chains. Other sites mainly use reports from volunteer "spotters," which may or may not be verified by the websites themselves. As such, they're good for general reference tools.

    Here are four helpful sites:

    • The American Automobile Association's TripTik Travel Planner (available via the web site or a downloadable app) shows prices for local gas stations. Enter your location and click the fuel pump icon at the bottom of the screen. AAA also maintain a site with quick national and regional pricing called Fuel Gauge Report.
    • GasBuddy.com displays user-reported fuel prices and can be sorted by distance or price. Along with the website, GasBuddy has a downloadable app.         
    • Automotive.com highlights the lowest prices for each grade within your area when available.
    • GasPriceWatch.com also spotlights the best local price, and it also lets you sort your results to find the most recently posted prices.

    Learn how to save gas in our guide to fuel economy.

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

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    What Ever Happened to Free Holiday Gift Wrapping?

    How much time will you spend wrapping holiday gifts? Americans typically devote around three hours to boxing, wrapping, taping, and tagging, according to previous Consumer Reports' polls. You can eliminate some or all that time by getting the gift wrapping done for you, but most brick-and-mortar and online retailers now charge for the service.

    “Wrapping has become a profit center during the holidays,” says retail expert Jack Abelson of Jack Abelson & Associates in Leawood, Kan. “It was a time-honored perk that used to be done for free, and was part of a combination of services we called value. But like so many other things, merchants have gotten away from it and are nickel-and-diming customers.” 

    To get a handle on the latest trends, Consumer Reports reached out to brick-and-mortar stores—including Kohl's, Lord & Taylor, Macy's, and Williams-Sonoma—and their online counterparts. (We selected the physical stores to call at random; so policies listed here might differ from the location where you shop.)

    We also got in touch with retailers' media contacts, engaged customer-service reps, and participated in live chats to gather details.

    The results: Most department and specialty stores offer gift wrapping for the holidays, but the service can be pricey. Charges ranged from $2 to $16, depending on the bells and whistles and package size.

    Discounters such as Target and Walmart offer gift wrapping on select online purchases, also for a fee.

    A few free gift wrappers are still out there, including Von Maur, a family-owned department-store chain known for outstanding customer service. This Midwest retailer offers year-round complimentary wrapping (and shipping).

    Below you'll find  a rundown of the basics. Retailers are listed in alphabetical order.

    —Tod Marks

    Our Holiday Gift Ideas page can help you find great deals on great presents for everyone on your list. Also, get the inside dope on outlet malls.

    Retailer

    Stores

    Online

    Amazon

    Does not operate retail stores.

    Price depends on size and shape: $3.50 for items we tracked: a hardcover book, coffeemaker, and sweater. Most items come in a wrapped box or gift bag with ribbon and a card.

    Barnes & Noble

    Price depends on store. One local merchant said wrapping is always free.

    $4 per item for books and boxed products.

    Bed Bath & Beyond

    Free do-it-yourself wrapping station with ribbons and other supplies.

    $4 per order for eligible items. Large or boxed items come in a gift bag. Other goods come wrapped or in a gift box with tissue paper and ribbon.

    Best Buy

    $3 to $6 for gift bag, depending on size.  

    $5 for decorative box with tissue paper.

    Dillard’s

    $4 to $7 for wrapped box with ribbon, depending on size.

    $6 per gift box; no wrap.

    Jared The Galleria of Jewelry

    Free Jared box with wrapping paper and ribbon.  

    Free wrapped box, with option to add personal message.  

    JCPenney

    Free box. Wrapping paper or gift bag costs about $4.  

    $4 per item, which includes gift wrap, a bow, and a personalized message.

    Kohl’s

    Boxes available free during the holidays.

    $6 per box, which comes with color-coordinated wrapping paper and ribbon.  

    Lands' End

    No wrapping available at the standalone outlets -- called "Inlet" stores -- that we called.

    $6 for a box with ribbon. No wrapping paper.

    L.L.Bean

    Free gift boxes.

    $6 for a gift box with ribbon, tissue paper, and a card.

    Lord & Taylor

    $6 for gift box and ribbon.

    Same as at stores.

    Macy’s

    Price depends on size, location, and other factors. At the flagship store in New York City, for example, options range from $6 to $16.

    $6 for a gift box and ribbon.

    Nordstrom

    Free boxes, paper, and other supplies.  

    For $5, a gift box, bow, and gift card with a message; for $2, a gift box with tissue paper and a blank card; or a free eight- to 12-word message.  

    Sears

    No

    $5 for wrap or gift bag, plus a message.

    Target

    No

    $6 for eligible items.

    Von Maur

    Free.

    Same as at stores.

    Walmart

    No

    $4, but free for some items, including jewelry.

    Williams-Sonoma

    Free box, paper, and ribbon.  

    $6 per box, includes wrapping paper and ribbon.

     

    More holiday gift ideas and tips

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

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

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    That Itching Rash Might Require Medical Attention

    Itching is arguably the most universal symptom known to humans. It is a rare person who at one time or another has not scratched an itch.

    Some itches are mild, and others are maddeningly severe, affecting sleep and lifestyle. Fortunately, most—such as those caused by insect bites and contact allergies due to poison ivy, fabrics, cosmetics, and the like—improve or disappear within a short period of time.

    But some itches do become chronic (lasting longer than six weeks) and are more perplexing, possibly requiring a skin biopsy for diagnosis. In one large published survey of Norwegians, about 8 percent suffered from chronic itching. An even higher prevalence (17 percent) was found in a published survey of German workers.

    Different itches require different tactics to subdue them. But most important to the sufferer is to know when it’s time to seek medical advice.

    If You’re Itchy All Over

    Generalized itching commonly affects older adults as a result of dry skin, also known as xerosis. That becomes a problem in winter, when indoor heat reduces humidity and dries the air. As we age, skin loses the precious sweat glands that exude protective oils, and a dry environment magnifies the problem.

    Proper self-treatment can save the day. Avoid excessive contact with water, which washes away what little oil remains on the skin surface. Take tepid (never hot) showers instead of baths, and limit showers to only a few minutes. Afterward, apply a skin-protective emollient lotion, such as Vaseline Intensive Care. You can use the emollient several times per day on exposed parts of the body.

    But if the itch doesn’t yield to self-­management, check with your doctor—the cause may be of more concern. Anemia, or thyroid, liver, or kidney disease, can be accompanied by itching. At times, itching can be the tip-off to the presence of cancer—most commonly a lymphoma or another type of internal malignancy.

    When the Itch Is Limited

    Localized itching (confined to one or two areas) is usually due to an itch-scratch-itch-scratch cycle that takes place over a period of months or even years. The repetitive scratching leaves a thickened, even itchier patch of skin, which is often slightly darker than the surrounding area. The initial cause of the itch is usually forgotten with the passage of time.

    To break that distressing cycle, you may need a topical over-the-counter cream containing capsaicin (Zostrix and generic) or lidocaine, or a prescription cream containing doxepin (Prudoxin, Zonalon) or a corticosteroid. And resist the urge to scratch! Clipping your nails helps, as can covering the area with gauze or a bandage.

    Have a Rash, Too?

    Generalized itching accompanied by a rash is probably the least amenable to self-help measures and the most frequent reason for seeking professional advice. Although myriad itchy skin rashes without a known cause abound, drug reactions constitute a large portion, and the most common offenders are antibiotics, notably penicillin and sulfa drugs.

    Foods are also a major cause of itching, with shellfish at the top of the menu, and infection is likely if you have a fever along with an itchy rash.

    Another common cause is the auto­immune condition psoriasis: Only one in five people with it escapes without severe itching. An old remedy, sunlight, is helpful, as is a new class of prescription drugs known as tumor necrosis factor (TNF) antagonists.

    Localized itching with a rash is most often set off by insect bites or fungal infections. Fungi thrive in areas that are dark, moist, and warm, such as the armpits, feet, groin, and under the breasts. Common and uncomfortable manifestations are athlete’s foot, jock itch, swimmer’s ear, and ringworm. Anal and vaginal itching can be especially troublesome, if not downright embarrassing.

    For all of the above, many OTC preparations such as clotrimazole and miconazole are available. But they are rarely totally successful, and professional attention might be needed for diagnosis and targeted treatment.

    Mosquito or “no-see-um” bites usually require only a cold compress or a dab of OTC hydrocortisone cream. But spider bites can turn ugly when they ulcerate and become infected, requiring antibiotics and professional wound care. Bee stings usually resolve on their own (the stinger should be removed) and need medical attention only when the area of itching and redness extends well beyond the bite site.

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

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    New Cooper Snow Tires Put to the Test

    Cooper has introduced two new snow tires in time for what The Old Farmer’s Almanac is forecasting will be a tough winter season for many in 2015-16.

    The Cooper Weather-Master WSC is a studdable winter tire designed for wet and severe winter conditions. We tested the Weather-Master WSC without studs and found it offered very good snow traction and braking on ice; wet grip is a notch higher than many other winter tires, but not quite as good as most all-season tires.

     

    If you live in an area where roads are routinely plowed after a storm, then the Cooper WM SA2 is worth considering, along with several other tires in our Ratings. The WM SA2 is a studless winter tire, and we found it to be a better all-weather choice than the typical winter tire. It offers a good balance of grip on cleared roads, confident handling, and strong snow traction, but the downside was just average stops on ice.

    Cooper offers the WSC in 38 popular sizes that are, or will be, available to cover a wide range of cars and crossovers. The WM SA2 comes in 19 sizes to fit mostly cars.

    For more information on these Cooper snow tires and others, see our tire buying advice and Ratings.

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

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    Holiday Lights: Deck the Halls With LEDs

    As much as things have changed in the lightbulb aisle, you can still buy strings of Christmas lights made with incandescent bulbs. But they’re being phased out to make room for more LED holiday lights, according to the American Lighting Association. LEDs do have their bright spots. Here’s a look at both the pros and cons of LED holiday lights.

    Advantages
    Consumer Reports hasn’t tested Christmas lights recently but our ongoing tests of LEDs and CFLs have found that Energy Star-qualified bulbs meet high standards for brightness, energy use, and more. Holiday light strings carrying the Energy Star offer these advantages over strands of incandescent lights:

    • Use 75 percent less energy.
    • Can last up to 10 times longer.
    • Remain cool to the touch, lowering the risk of a fire.
    • Are more durable and shock resistant since there are no filaments or  glass.
    •Come with a three year warranty.

    Unlike incandescents, LEDs do not burn out—they dim over time. While incandescent bulbs are usually rated for 3,000 hours (that's how long they're expected to last), LEDs are rated for 25,000 to 50,000 and even up to 100,000 hours. 

    Energy Star doesn’t break down how much money you’ll save, but Terry McGowan, director of engineering for the American Lighting Association, calculates that a string of 50 mini-LED holiday lights saves just 46 cents in electricity, compared to a string of mini-incandescents, when used seven hours a day for the month of December. You'll save energy by using LEDs, but the payback time could take many years—it depends on how much you pay for the lights and electricity. Keep in mind that bigger bulbs, such as C9 or C7, use more energy than the minis do. "Changing from the traditional C7 bulbs to the mini type reduces operating costs by over 90 percent, but the LED bulbs increase the reduction to 98 percent," says McGowan. For the geek in all of us, check out "How Holiday Lights Work," from the Department of Energy.

    Disadvantages
    • Cost more upfront.
    • Some cast an unappealing bluish white light or flicker.

     

    When you're shopping, take the time to look at displays of lit holiday lights, or ask to see them illuminated to be sure you get the light color you want. And before you shop, searh for utility rebates

    What’s New
    More apps are available that let you change light colors and create the must-see house of the neighborhood. McGowan says here’s what else you’ll see in stores and around town:

    Miniature Light Strings
    Dew Drop lights are tiny and have a nearly invisible but flexible light string that’s stiff enough so the lights stay in place. When placed inside glass display containers, the Dew Drops look as if they’re floating. Use them on plants or floral centerpieces, Dew Drops come in various colors and are available in both plug-in and battery-operated options, which are ideal for lighting handrails.

    Tree Wrapping
    To save time putting lights up and taking them down, without the help of a lift or cherry picker, closely wrap just the trunk and the first couple of feet of a deciduous tree—up into the main branches. McGowan suggests using strings of light with six inches or less between bulbs, and then wrapping the trunk and limbs with no more than three inches between the layers of wrapped wiring.

    Shopping for LEDs?
    Then first look at our lightbulb Ratings. We’ve tested dozens of CFLs and LEDs—for both inside and outside—and found some stark differences in brightness. Top-rated LEDs include the dimmable Feit Electric 9.5 Watt, $7, and Walmart’s Great Value Soft White Dimmable LED, $9. They’re as bright as 60-watt incandescents and cast a warm light.

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

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    How Much Snow Blower Do You Need?

    The number of inches of snow you need to move per storm is an important consideration, but so is how quickly you want to move it, how much snow your town’s plows leave at the end of your driveway, and how much storage space you have in the garage or shed to stow equipment. If you’re concerned about your driveway freezing, you’ll also need a flat snow shovel or a steel-bristled broom and ice melt.

    Up to 24 inches

    Go for a heavy-duty two-stage model. All models have a spinning auger that breaks up the snow, and an impeller that hurls it out the chute. Better models also have beefier engines, easier steering, and better tires. Lighter-duty two-stage models have the same auger and impeller as larger models and are easier to store. But they don’t clear as fast.

    Pros. These models clear the widest swath and handle steeper inclines. They can muscle through the snow as well as the frozen piles at the foot of the driveway.

    Cons. They’re heavy and expensive, and they can take up as much storage space as a lawn tractor. They don’t usually clean right down to the pavement, a plus only for gravel driveways, and they need maintenance.

    Our picks. For sheer power, the Cub Cadet 3X 30HD, $1,650, and the Troy-Bilt Vortex 2890, a CR Best Buy at $1,300, come with a second impeller in front that helps with plow piles. And if you’ve gotten complaints about noisy snow clearing, go with the Craftsman 88694, $900, which was quieter without sacrificing performance.

    Learn about the best outdoor power gear gifts for the holidays. And 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.

    Up to 18 inches

    Lighter-duty two-stage models have the same auger, impeller, and driven wheels as larger models, but they don’t clear snow as quickly because of their narrower clearing widths.

    Pros. They cost a bit less and require less storage space than their larger siblings.

    Cons. The less expensive ones come with fewer additional features, such as freewheel steering and single-hand controls.

    Our picks. The 24-inch Troy-Bilt Vortex 2490, a CR Best Buy at $1,100, costs more than most others in this group but has the same second impeller as larger units and was as effective against plow piles. Its freewheel steering and single-hand controls also make handling excellent. The 24-inch Cub Cadet 2X 24HP, $900, carries an extra year of warranty, for three total, and cleaned closer to the surface than any other compact two-stage. And though the Craftsman 88173, a CR Best Buy at $680, gives up some helpful features for the price, including easy handling, it did as well as pricier models at ramming through plow piles and ran a bit more quietly.

    Up to 9 inches

    When you have less than a foot of snow, a single-stage model, which has a high-speed auger to loosen and hoist the snow through the chute, will suffice. These machines have a rubber-­tipped auger that helps propel them forward and is safe for deck finishes.

    Pros. They’re fairly light and easy to handle, and they clean down to bare pavement. They also take up only about as much storage space as a lawn mower.

    Cons. These smaller models have the most trouble with dense, wet snow, particularly plow piles, and they can’t be used on gravel surfaces. Their modest pulling power is no match for steep slopes and tends to make the machine pull sideways.

    Our picks. The Toro Power Clear 721E, a CR Best Buy at $570, remains the standout for this category, with impressive speed and power for plow piles; it falls short only in throwing distance. The Cub Cadet 221 LHP, $550, offers single-lever chute adjustment and comes with a three-year warranty, a year more than the Toro’s. But it scored a notch lower for removal speed, throwing distance, and surface cleaning.

    —Ed Perratore

     This article also appeared in the January 2016 issue of Consumer Reports magazine. 

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

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    10 Top-Rated Small Appliances for $50 or Less

    With Christmas fast approaching, stores and online retailers are offering discounts and free shipping so there are bargains to be found. Fortunately, the experts in Consumer Reports' labs are on the lookout for good deals all year long and have found some top-performing small appliances that cost $50 or less. Here are 10 to consider.

    Cuisinart Mini Prep Plus DLC-2A food chopper, $40

    Cuisinart’s 3-cup chopper combines very good value with solid performance. It was particularly adept at chopping almonds and onions in our food processor tests, and at grating hard parmesan cheese. Pureeing of peas and carrots wasn’t quite what we measured with our recommended full-size machines, but the Cuisinart is still a top chopper in our Ratings.

    Cuisinart Power Advantage HM-50 hand mixer, $40

    Cuisinart’s 5-speed hand mixer had no trouble powering through stiff cookie dough in our mixer tests and it was very quick at whipping. We also like the well-priced mixer’s wire beaters, which are easier to clean than the traditional center-post variety. But this mixer is louder than other recommended models.

    Mr. Coffee BVMC-SJX33GT coffeemaker, $40

    This 12-cup machine delivers great value and an even better cup of joe. The automatic drip machine gets the water hot enough to bring out the coffee’s full flavor, and we found it easy to set up, operate, and clean in our coffeemaker tests. Plus the spill-free carafe is helpful if you’re a bit clumsy before that first morning cup.

    Calphalon Simply Nonstick 10-inch omelette pan, $40

    This skillet beat out models from All-Clad, Le Creuset, and Rachael Ray in our cookware tests. It’s superb at evenly heating food, say, for an omelet or frittata. Plus it’s easy to clean and shrugged off our tough durability test in which steel wool is rubbed over a pan up to 2,000 times.

    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.

    Cuisinart CPT-320 2-slice toaster, $40

    This two-slice toaster from Cuisinart is one the least expensive in our toaster Ratings, but it managed to achieve one of the highest overall scores. Toast popped up evenly brown with nearly every batch, and the toaster offers very good control over color range, in case some in your household like toast dark and some like it light. Special features include a bagel setting, and slide-out crumb tray for easy cleanup. Its retro metal housing looks good on the countertop.

    Holmes HFH436 space heater, $40

    In our space heater tests, the Holmes was very good at heating an average-size room in 15 minutes but a little less so at spot heating a person in the room. Still, it was easy to use, has very good safety features and isn’t hot to the touch when it’s turned on. It has a fan and was so-so for noise, a consideration if you’re using it in a bedroom.

    Rowenta Effective Comfort DW2070 steam iron, $50

    The least expensive Rowenta steam iron in our tests, this was also the best of that brand. It was excellent overall and delivered superb ironing and lots of steam. The surge button provides a burst of steam when trying to remove stubborn wrinkles and the vertical steam feature lets you remove wrinkles from hanging garments and drapes. The sole plate is stainless steel and the ready light indicates the iron is hot enough to use. There's a self-clean feature and auto-shutoff, which turns off the iron when left stationary for a short time.

    Eureka Easy Clean 71B hand vacuum, $50

    Eureka's corded hand vacuum was better suited for pickup on bare floors and at edges, but in our vacuum tests it was impressive overall and fairly quiet. Pluses include a spacious dust bin, onboard tool storage, and an electric rotating brush that adapts for vertical surfaces. As for minuses, the exhaust from the powerful motor can blow debris around before it can be picked up. And it was a bit on the heavy side for a hand vacuum.

    Crane Owl humidifier, $45

    This Crane tabletop was excellent in overall performance, and is intended to humidify areas up to 250 square feet. In our humidifier tests, this ultrasonic model earned excellent scores for moisture output, noise level, energy efficiency, and its output with hard water and was very good for convenience. Daily output is 1.4 gallons. The Crane comes in many other colorful child-friendly shapes.

    Clear2O CWS100A carafe water filter, $23

    Clear2O's carafe-based filter was superb at removing lead and organic compounds in our water filter tests and costs relatively little per year to do it. There's also a filter-life indicator that tells you when it's time to change the filter. You fill the carafe by removing your kitchen faucet's aerator and connecting the attached hose to your faucet, which allows quicker fill-ups than you typically get from a carafe filter. The downside: The adapters may not be compatible with spray-type faucets, and you can't fill the carafe manually.

    --Mary H.J. Farrell (@mhjfarrell 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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    Consumer Reports Drugstore Survey Finds Substantial Price Differences for Commonly Prescribed Drugs

    CVS and RITE-AID are among the highest priced drug stores in nationwide price scan; CR finds some drugs can cost as much as 10 times more at one retailer than another, even in the same town or city

    January 2016 CoverYONKERS, NY—In a national price scan of more than 200 pharmacies, Consumer Reports uncovered startling variation in drug costs at a time when unpredictable drug pricing is an increasing national concern.  The scan found that some drugs can cost as much as 10 times more at one retailer versus another—even within the same zip code. The new report is available online at www.ConsumerReports.org and in the January issue of Consumer Reports, which hits newsstands on December 1st.

    Consumer Reports’ secret shoppers called pharmacies and requested retail prices—the out of pocket price you would pay if you didn’t use your insurance—for the generic versions of five common prescription drugs: Actos (pioglitazone), for type 2 diabetes; Cymbalta (duloxetine), an antidepressant also used to treat muscle and bone pain; Lipitor (atorvastatin), for high cholesterol; Plavix (clopidogrel), a blood thinner; and Singulair (montelukast), for asthma.  Some highlights:

    • In Raleigh, N.C., prices for a month’s supply of the same drug—generic Cymbalta—varied widely even among stores that were just a few miles from each other. On the low end, the drug was available for $43 at Costco versus a high of $249 at Walgreens (though the pharmacist at Walgreens did suggest using the store’s discount program to lower the price to $220, but that would require paying a $20 annual fee).

    • In Dallas, a shopper was quoted a price of $150 for generic Plavix at CVS while Preston Village Pharmacy, an independent, said it would sell the drug for just $23.

    • In Denver, the grocery store Albertson’s Save-On said its price for generic Actos was $330, but nearby Cherry Creek Pharmacy said it would sell the drug for just $15.

    “The pricing differences are nothing short of shocking. Our advice to consumers is simple: Shop around for your meds each and every time. Prices can vary significantly, no matter where you live and shop,” said Lisa Gill, deputy editor, Consumer Reports Best Buy Drugs. “Do your research, and remember to include reputable online outlets, big box stores and your local independent drug store.”

    A recent nationally representative poll by Consumer Reports showed that one-third of those who currently take a drug said they experienced a spike in price in the past 12 months—anywhere from just a few dollars to more than $100 per prescription. The poll of 1,037 adults also found that when faced with sudden price increases, less than 20 percent of consumers comparison shop to get a better deal.

    CR’s experts fear that consumers may wind up making some risky tradeoffs because of the higher drug costs, such as not taking the proper dosage or skipping the medication altogether.

    Another of CR’s concerns is the difficulty consumers face pricing drugs and making smart comparisons between different products. “One of the most consistent findings in Consumer Reports’ price scan is a lack of price transparency in the pharmacy marketplace. It is it extremely difficult to understand what the real or lowest possible price of a drug should be,” Gill said.  “And of course the big question is, how do you comparison shop if the prices are a moving target? The best advice, given the dynamic pricing we are seeing now, is for the consumer to simply ask, ‘Is this your best price?’”

    No doubt, pharmacists play a critical role in helping consumers navigate the often confusing drugstore aisle. But sometimes they are prohibited from offering better prices unless they are asked directly. “Our secret shoppers found again and again that pharmacists will not offer a better price unless you ask. Asking for a better price will often prompt the pharmacist to dig a little and help you find a discount,” Gill said. And while most consumers assume that the best, lowest price will be the price of their co-pay, sometimes it’s possible to get an even lower price. Consumers should ask the pharmacist how much it would cost to pay for a medication without using their insurance. Certain store discounts can lower a drug’s retail price below a person’s copay.

    What Consumers Can Do

    Here are some strategies for savings:

    • Regardless of which drugstore you use, go generic whenever you can. Talk to your doctor about cost when you are first being prescribed a drug and ask for a generic. Choosing a generic over a brand name drug can save you a lot of money—as much as 90 percent in some cases.  If a generic doesn’t exist, ask if there is a low-cost alternative in the same class of drugs.    

    • Skip chain drugstores. For all five drugs Consumer Reports priced, the big pharmacy chains charged the most. Among all the walk-in stores, Costco consistently offered the best prices hands down. And you don’t need to be a member to use Costco’s pharmacy.

    • Support independents. Though you might think that mom and pop stores usually charge higher prices, CR found that wasn’t always the case. Secret shoppers found some real bargains at the independents. Independents may have a little more flexibility in terms of matching and beating competitors’ lower prices. But you have to ask.

    • You may get a better deal without your insurance. Many chain and big box stores offer hundreds of common generics at prices as low as $4 for a 30-day supply and $10 for a 90-day supply for people who pay out of pocket. But be careful. When consumers bypass insurance, money spent on their medication won’t count toward their deductibles or out-of-pocket maximums.

    • Always ask “Is this your lowest price?” Believe it or not, some pharmacists are forbidden from offering you a lower price unless you ask first.  Case in point, Costco cannot offer consumers using Medicare Part D a better cash price unless they ask.  And Rite Aid told Consumer Reports their pharmacists process prescriptions through insurance unless customers ask them to do otherwise.

    • Seek a 90-day prescription. Buying a three-month supply can save you cash and offer convenience.

    • Look online. If you’re paying out of pocket, check GoodRx.com to learn its “fair price” and use that to negotiate if a pharmacist quotes you a higher price. You can also fill a prescription with an online pharmacy. The one Consumer Reports’ secret shoppers used, Healthwarehouse.com, had the lowest prices overall. Be careful about the site you choose. Many sites that bill themselves as Canadian are actually fake storefronts selling low quality or counterfeit products. You can search for the “VIPPS” symbol to show that the pharmacy is a Verified Internet Pharmacy Practice Site.

    • Access Consumer Reports’ Free Drug Savings Guide. Visit CRBestBuyDrugs.org to access Best Drugs for Less, a comprehensive shopper’s guide to saving at the pharmacy. Best Buy Drugs is a public education project that evaluates prescription drugs based on safety, efficacy, and cost.

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

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    How to Avoid Regifting Regrets

    Is it okay to rewrap clunker gifts—say a neon Hawaiian shirt that you’d never willingly wear or a book about backyard chicken coops, even though you live in a high-rise—and pass them on to someone who might actually appreciate them?

    Those who recycle presents were dissed on a classic January 1995 “Seinfeld” episode. In "The Label Maker," Elaine was outraged to discover that a friend had passed along a label maker she had given him—to Jerry, of all people. “I knew it!” Elaine exclaimed when she showed up on her friend’s doorstep to ask to see the label maker. “You’re a regifter!”

    But times have changed, and the regifting stigma has gone the way of new “Seinfeld” episodes. Three out of four Americans surveyed by American Express in 2014 considered regifting perfectly acceptable. And a 2015 Consumer Reports nationally representative survey of 1,000 adults in the U.S. found that one in five regift holiday presents they don’t want.

    These rules will help you do it right—and stay out of trouble:

    • Regift only brand-new items that match the recipient’s tastes. Unless you’re passing down a family heirloom, any regift should be unused, and it should be something you would have bought for that person.
    • Search for telltale signs of regifting before wrapping a gift. Make absolutely sure you remove any gift tags or cards from that Hawaiian shirt before you put it back in its original packaging and rewrap it. And if you’re regifting the book on backyard chickens, check to make sure there’s no inscription to you. “I know someone who got a dress shirt as a gift from his father, but when he pulled it out of the box, he saw that it was monogrammed with his dad’s initials,” says Kit Yarrow, Ph.D., a consumer psychologist and author of “Decoding the New Consumer Mind: How and Why We Shop and Buy” (Jossey-Bass, 2014). Oops.
    • Make sure the giver and receiver won’t cross paths. Regifting among immediate family members is a no-no. Imagine your mother walking into your sister’s house next Thanksgiving and seeing her in the sweater she knit especially for you. The same goes for friends in the same social circle.
    • Keep track of who gave what, so that you don’t sabotage yourself. “One of the best stories I’ve heard was from a woman who gave her friend a beautiful set of coasters as a housewarming gift,” Yarrow says. “A couple of years later, when that friend traveled to visit her, she brought along a hostess gift that turned out to be that same set of coasters—still unused in the original packaging—because she’d forgotten who had given them to her in the first place.”
    • When in doubt, remind yourself that you’re reducing waste. “I love regifting because it’s actually a wonderful form of recycling,” says Elaine Swann, a lifestyle and etiquette expert based in Los Angeles. “And if you don’t have someone else in mind who would appreciate that gift, donate it to a charity so it ends up with someone who could really use it.”

    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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    Save Money on Meds: 6 Tips for Finding the Best Prescription Drug Prices

    This past summer when Debbie Diljak, 54, of Raleigh, N.C., went to pick up her pain medication from a nearby pharmacy, she was shocked when she says she found that the price had skyrocketed from $38 to almost $200 for a month’s supply. Dilja kdidn’t have insurance, so she simply didn’t fill the prescription for duloxetine (generic Cymbalta), an antidepressant that also is used to treat certain types of pain. Instead, she took another anti-inflammatory drug that cost less. What happened next wasn’t a big surprise: “I stiffened up and hobbled around a lot,” Diljak says. “But I just couldn’t afford the drug at that price.”

    Like Diljak, millions of Americans have been hit with high drug costs within the last year. In fact, a recent Consumer Reports National Research Center poll of 1,037 adults showed that a third of those who currently take a drug said they experienced a spike in price in the past 12 months—anywhere from just a few dollars to more than $100 per prescription.

    According to the American Society of Health-System Pharmacists, big price jumps can be due to anything from a product shortage to a change in your insurance coverage. And in rare instances, manufacturers may raise prices simply because they have no competitors also selling the medication. (Because this landscape can be so confusing, Consumer Reports Best Buy Drugs evaluates medications for price as well as safety and efficacy; go to CRBestBuyDrugs.org to learn more.)

    Frustrating as sudden price hikes can be, our poll shows that most people just fork over the money. Only 17 percent comparison-shopped to see whether they could get a better deal. If you have a standard insurance co-pay, it might not occur to you to shop around. But sometimes the price you’d pay out of pocket (what those without insurance are charged) might be less than your co-pay —a fact pharmacists may neglect to mention. Case in point: Metformin—used to treat type 2 diabetes—sells for just $4 for a month’s supply, or $10 for a three-month supply, at stores such as Target and Walmart, while a co-pay for a month’s worth averages about $11.

    And if you do decide to pay out of pocket, the prices retailers charge can vary a lot. To find out what various retailers were charging, we had secret shoppers check prices for five common generic drugs at stores around the country, including chain drugstores, big-box retailers, supermarkets, and independent pharmacies.

    What We Uncovered

    In our national price scan, secret shoppers made more than 300 phone calls in all, to more than 200 pharmacies in six cities and their surrounding areas across the U.S. They requested prices for five common generic drugs: Actos (pioglitazone), for type 2 diabetes; Cymbalta (duloxetine), an antidepressant also used to treat muscle and bone pain; Lipitor (atorvastatin), for high cholesterol; Plavix (clopidogrel), a blood thinner; and Singulair (montelukast), for asthma. What we found was startling. In short, prices can vary widely from retailer to retailer, even within the same ZIP code.

    Drugs could cost as much as 10 times more at one retailer vs. another. We’re not talking about regional differences; we found big variations at retailers in the same area. For example, where Debbie Diljak lives in Raleigh, N.C., the cost for a month’s worth of the generic Cymbalta she takes ranged from $249 at a Walgreens to $43 at Costco. (At Walgreens, the pharmacist did suggest using the store’s discount program to lower the price to $220, but it comes with a $20 annual fee.) See more examples in the map below.

    Similar patterns emerged across the U.S. In Dallas, a shopper was quoted a price of $150 for generic Plavix at a centrally located CVS. But Preston Village Pharmacy, an independent just a 20-minute drive away, said it would sell the drug for just $23. In Denver, the grocery store Albertson’s Save-On said its price for generic Actos was $330, but nearby Cherry Creek Pharmacy said it would sell it for just $15. For the variety of prices we found, see the chart below.

    The price isn’t always set in stone. Shoppers sometimes found that they could get a discount, but only after they asked. At a supermarket pharmacy outside of Des Moines, a shopper was first quoted a price of $75 for generic Actos, but after asking whether there was a better deal, she was offered the drug for $21.

    “It sounds crazy that you would need to approach buying prescription medications like you would a used car—by shopping around and haggling. But that’s the reality of today’s pharmaceutical marketplace,” says Stephen Schondelmeyer, Pharm.D., a pharmacoeconomics professor at the University of Minnesota.

    Retail pharmacies don’t really expect anyone to pay those high prices, says Adam Fein, Ph.D., president of Pembroke Consulting. “The list price is just a fantasy number,” he adds. In fact, reps from both CVS and Rite Aid told us that they expect cash buyers to access discounts. “Pricing surveys fail to take into account the various value and discount programs available at most pharmacies for cashpaying customers,” according to the CVS representative. And Rite Aid directed us to its Rx Savings Program, which has no annual fee and offers a 30-day supply of certain generics for $9.99; a 90-day supply, for $15.99. But none of the newer generics we priced were on the posted list.

    And many pharmacies don’t quote a bottom-line price until they have your prescription in hand, or in the computer. “At that point they basically have your business,” Schondelmeyer says. “They count on customers not wanting to hassle with transferring their prescription elsewhere.”

    Why Prices Vary So Much

    Retail pharmacy chains such as CVS and Rite Aid set high retail “list,” or usual and customary, prices because that helps determine what the insurance companies will pay for the drug, Schondelmeyer explains. Still, those huge discrepancies are puzzling. As with other consumer products, such as toothpaste and cereal, we’d expect prices to be more consistent among stores competing for your business. Though chains have their own contracts with drug suppliers, it’s unlikely, according to Schondelmeyer, that the wholesale price would vary that widely. So we reached out to a few retailers, but they would not comment on the wild swings we’ve seen.

    In a written statement, a Rite Aid representative told us that its pricing strategy was “proprietary” and that “we regularly evaluate our pricing strategy to make sure we remain competitive.” Similarly, a CVS rep wrote that the full list prices of drugs aren’t relevant because the majority of its customers are just charged their insurance co-pay. But our follow-up analysis suggests that many people do pay out of pocket. For example, in Raleigh last year, some 3,000 prescriptions for generic Cymbalta cost consumers an average of $242 each, or a total of $716,000.

    That gets at the heart of the matter, Schondelmeyer says. Retail chains such as CVS and Rite Aid aren’t concerned about consumers who pay out of pocket, he says, because they typically make up less than 10 percent of their business. What does concern them is how much third parties, such as insurance companies, will pay, usually either a negotiated reimbursement fee or the list price —whichever is lower. So retailers intentionally set the list price very high so that there’s no chance it could undercut what they get paid by insurers. “If your pharmacy quotes a cash price of $40, then a third-party payer will balk if you turn around and charge them $75,” Schondelmeyer says.

    Of course, as Fein explains, “very few consumers understand pharmacy economics well enough to negotiate with their pharmacist. That’s why retail pharmacies earn much higher profits on uninsured and underinsured individuals.”

    We found one exception to that practice: Costco.“We just price products as low as we possibly can and still make a modest profit,” says Victor Curtis, R.Ph., senior vice president of pharmacy. Costco does that by scrupulously controlling expenses, so you can expect more of a no-frills experience: no 24-hour drive-thru or Sunday hours, for example. One big cost savings comes from filling prescriptions at a central facility and shipping them overnight to stores. So when you phone in a refill, you might be asked whether next-day pick up is okay. “That halves our labor cost,” Curtis says. (Customers can still opt for same-day service.) According to Curtis, Costco pharmacies have four times more cash customers than the national average.

    Because retail pharmacy chains set the list price of drugs so much higher than places like Costco, we also wondered whether they are charging insurance companies more. “Unfortunately, the true costs are hidden,” Schondelmeyer says. For example, he notes that if you have insurance and see your doctor, you’ll receive an explanation of benefits, or EOB, which shows your costs and how much your insurance company paid. But when it comes to drugs, there’s no EOB, so it’s not clear how much pharmacies actually charge. “The sad part is even consumers who try to find the true cost in this crazy market just can’t do it,” Schondelmeyer adds.

    The situation for consumers could worsen as new marketplace changes occur: CVS recently bought Target’s pharmacy business. And Walgreens has announced its intention to take over Rite Aid. “Having effective competition at all levels in the supply chain is critical for protecting consumer choice,” says George Slover, senior policy counsel for Consumers Union, the policy and advocacy arm of Consumer Reports. “That’s why it’s so important that antitrust enforcers examine these types of mergers carefully.”

    Who Sells It for Less: Our Pricing Analysis

    Earlier this year, we had secret shoppers make calls to the pharmacies of more than 200 stores across the country to price a market basket of five common generic prescription drugs. We followed up with half of them recently, and also checked one online pharmacy, to get the most up-to-date prices. The numbers in the chart below are averages of the price retailers quoted for a one-month supply. Retailers are listed from least to most expensive for the total price of our market basket.

    Getting the Best Deal

    With rising drug costs, people whose insurance company stops or reduces coverage of a drug—or those without coverage at all—will feel the pinch. Even those with insurance may still face higher out-of-pocket costs as co-pays and deductibles increase.

    Not being able to afford medications has consequences: About 40 percent of people in our survey said they cut corners with their medication to make ends meet—they split pills without their doctor’s okay, for example, skipped doses, or like Debbie Diljak, simply didn’t fill their prescription. People hit with high drug costs were also twice as likely as others to avoid seeing their doctor or to forego a medical procedure. But as Diljak discovered, there may be other options that are better for you and your wallet.

    Regardless of which drugstore or pharmacy you use, choosing generic over brand-name drugs can save you money—as much as 90 percent in some cases. Talk to your doctor, who may be able to prescribe lower-cost alternatives in the same class of drugs. For more ways to save money on your next prescription, see our list of tips, below.

    Last, once you’ve done the work to find a pharmacy that you like and that offers a good price, our medical consultants advise filling all of your prescriptions there. Keeping all of the drugs you take in one system helps avoid duplications and dangerous interactions.
     


     

    Smart Strategies for Savings

    1. Skip chain drugstores. For all five drugs we priced, the big pharmacy chains consistently charged the most. Among all of the walk-in stores, Costco offered the lowest prices. You don’t need to be a member to use its pharmacy, though joining can net you more discounts.
    2. Support independents. Though you might think that mom and pop stores usually charge higher prices, we found that wasn’t always the case. In fact, we found some real bargains at local independent pharmacies, as well as some higher prices. We also found wide fluctuations at supermarkets, another place you might not expect to save. Another advantage of independent drugstores: We often had luck asking for a lower price, where pharmacists might have more flexibility to match or beat competitor’s prices.
    3. Don't always use your health insurance. Many chain and big-box stores offer hundreds of common generics at prices as low as $4 for a 30-day supply and $10 for a 90-day supply for people who pay out of pocket. Sam’s Club even fills some prescriptions free for members. Check the fine print: There may be a small fee to sign up, and not all discount programs are open to people with Medicare, Medicaid, or Tricare insurance. And keep in mind that when you bypass your insurance, money spent on your medication won’t count toward your deductible or out-of-pocket maximums.
    4. Always ask "Is this your lowest price?' " Victor Curtis of Costco told us that its contracts for Medicare Part D plans prohibit pharmacists from offering a better cash price to a customer unless a customer asks. And Rite Aid told us that their pharmacists process prescriptions through insurance unless customers tell them to do otherwise. Usually we found that asking can prompt the person on the phone to dig a bit for any available discount programs, cards, and coupons. Check back often, because prices and offers may change. And never assume that one pharmacy’s “discounted” price is lower than another’s regular price.
    5. Seek a 90-day prescription. For drugs you take long term, it can be more convenient and even cheaper. For example, if you use insurance, you’ll pay one co-pay rather than three. And for discount generic drug programs, paying $10 for a 90-day supply works out to less than $4 every 30 days.
    6. Look online. If you’re paying out of pocket, check GoodRx.com to learn its “fair price” and use that to negotiate if a pharmacist quotes you a higher price. You can also fill a prescription with an online pharmacy. The one we shopped, HealthWarehouse.com, had the lowest prices overall. Just be careful about the one you choose. Only use an online retailer that clearly operates within the U.S. and displays the “VIPPS” symbol to show that it’s a Verified Internet Pharmacy Practice Site. Most sites that bill themselves as “Canadian” are actually fake storefronts selling low-quality or counterfeit products. Internet pharmacies based in other countries that advertise heavily discounted medications are almost never legitimate, according to the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy (NABP), a nonprofit organization that accredits pharmacy websites. Once you’ve verified that a retailer is legit, read terms carefully. For example, HealthWarehouse.com ships to all 50 states; others may not. And you’ll have to wait for shipping.
       

    Editor's Note: These materials were made possible by a grant from the state Attorney General Consumer and Prescriber Education Grant Program, which is funded by a multistate settlement of consumer fraud claims regarding the marketing of the prescription drug Neurontin (gabapentin).

    This article also appeared in the January 2016 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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    Car Batteries: Which Ones Do Best?

     The only time you probably think about your vehicle’s battery is when you try to start your car . . . and it doesn’t. If you’ve ever had that sinking feeling—in your empty office parking lot or when you need to rush the kids to school—you’ll remember how important it is not to take the battery’s health for granted.

    The modern car battery is actually a pretty impressive bit of engineering. The technology that powers it is more than 100 years old and has seen only minor changes. Most batteries last about two to four years in hot climates and four to six years in cooler climates. But eventually every battery reaches the end of its life span and will need to be replaced.

    We test about 150 car batteries year in and year out, generally 15 models every six months. For our tests, we buy five units of each battery at multiple stores. All testing is done in a lab, not in vehicles. That ensures consistent conditions and repeatable results.

    We evaluate batteries for three major qualities. The first is cold-cranking amps (CCA), a measure of the ability of the battery to start an engine during extreme cold weather. We put a battery into a freezer until the battery temperature is 0° F, then check to see whether the battery will deliver half of its claimed CCA power. According to our test engineer, John Banta, “We test this way to see if batteries are exaggerating their claims.”

    A second metric we check is reserve capacity, which indicates how long a battery can run your vehicle if the charging system—the alternator, stator, and rotor—happens to fail. It’s also a measure of how long you can accidentally leave the headlights on in the mall parking lot and still get the car started without needing a jump. To test reserve capacity, our engineers see how long it takes to discharge a fully charged battery.

    A third critical factor, battery life, is measured by repeatedly discharging and recharging at a test temperature of about 167° F for 15 weeks, or until performance drops to unacceptable levels. The higher the score, the longer the battery will be reliable.

    That’s why our car battery Ratings are heavily biased for longevity. In fact, our life test makes up a majority of our overall score. Reserve capacity and cold-cranking amps are weighted less. We also take cost into account; our recommended models are well-priced for their performance.

    That said, not all batteries from top brands carry a blanket recommendation.

    Check our car battery buying guide and Ratings


     

    3 Signs of a Dying Battery

    You might be surprised to learn that most of the damage to your battery is done in summer, when high temperatures drive up the heat under your hood and accelerate the onset of failure. If your battery is aging, wintertime’s low temperatures and thickened engine oil could be the final straw.

    Your first indication of battery failure might be a no-start, but you may have missed an earlier, more subtle warning. Signs of impending failure include:

    • The obvious: The battery warning light appears on your vehicle’s instrument panel.

    • The engine cranks slowly when the ignition key is turned.

    • The headlights dim when the vehicle idles.

    Complicating matters, those are the same warning signs as a failing charging system or corroded battery cables. If your vehicle shows those symptoms, have a repair shop perform a simple check of your battery and charging ­system—it’s often free with the understanding that the shop will perform any subsequent repairs. Your mechanic should do a battery-system check as part of any regular service or winterization.

    If your battery is not ready for replacement, you can carry a lithium-ion “jump pack” in your trunk. The Spirit A8 Car Jump Starter, $70, did well in our tests.

    Editor's Note: This article also appeared in the January 2016 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.

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

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    The Guide to All Your Electric Car Questions

    Once a high-tech novelty, electric cars are becoming increasingly common. In fact, several models from mainstream brands have now been sold for years. But most consumers have limited exposure to electric vehicles (commonly referred to as "EVs") and may have many questions regarding whether an electric car might fit into their lives.  

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

    What Models and Types Are Available?

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

    Pure Electric vs. Plug-In Hybrid?

    In addition to pure EVs, other battery-enhanced models, known as plug-in hybrids, can use both electricity and gasoline. Equipped with a backup gasoline engine, most plug-in hybrids  can run solely on electricity, but on longer trips can rely on gasoline to extend their range indefinitely. With a 35 mile electric range, Chevy Volt drivers spend most of their time in electric mode, averaging 75 percent of their mileage in all-electric mode. (Learn more in “Hybrids 101.”)

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

    Why Should I Buy an Electric Car?

    Electric cars use far less energy than gasoline-powered cars, generally cost about a third as much as a gas-powered car to run, and often have lower maintenance costs. Electricity in most parts of the country costs the equivalent of about $1-a-gallon gas. You can compare how much you’d save in your state using the DOE’s eGallon tool. And you could save even more if you take advantage of lower off-peak charging rates—in Texas, some utilities even offer free electricity at night.

    In addition:

    • EVs produce no tail pipe emissions and have lower lifecycle emissions than efficient gasoline powered vehicles.
    • EVs are quiet and many models are fun to drive.
    • EVs don’t rely on imported petroleum, and electricity prices are more stable than gasoline prices.
    • Charging at home is convenient and takes less time than going to the gas station.
    • When combined with rooftop solar, “fuel” costs can be completely eliminated.  

    Why Shouldn’t I?

    Electric vehicle selection is still limited and electric models often command a price premium. In addition, several pure electrics may not meet people’s driving needs between charges if they drive more than 70 miles per day and do not have access to workplace or public charging. Plug-in hybrids solve the range problem, but they still need a place to plug in. Unless they are relying entirely on workplace charging, electric vehicle owners generally need to have ready access to an outlet (or 240-volt battery charger) and parking spot for overnight charging. In most areas of the country, this means access is limited to single family or townhomes rather than apartments or condos, although many state initiatives have begun to foster charging and parking solutions for multi-family housing.    

    While statistics show that 78 percent of American drivers travel less than 40 miles a day, and 90 percent drive less than 50 miles a day, single-vehicle households who need to make long  trips even occasionally are probably not the best match for most current EV offerings. Of course, nothing says an EV has to be somebody's only car. A conventional gas-powered car can fill in where an EV falls short—and vice versa. Likewise, a rented minivan could be an alternative for the annual long-distance road trip.

    The main questions to ask yourself:

    • How many miles do I drive each day?
    • Do I have regular access to charging at home or at work?
    • How much would I pay for electricity?
    • Do I need a faster charging option, or can I charge overnight with a regular outlet?

    What's the Cost to Buy?

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

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

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

    What's the Cost to Drive?

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

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

    What Are They Like to Drive?

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

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

    How Far Can They Go?

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

    Gasoline-fueled cars will typically go 350 to 400 miles between fill-ups and take 5 minutes to fill. Driving an EV requires more planning. But, plug-in hybrids have a combined gasoline and electric range of 400 to 550 miles, and if you plan it right, you may never have to go to a gas station except for long trips.

    How Long Does It Take to Charge One?

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

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

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

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

    And DC fast chargers, which can power 50 to 70 miles of range in about 20 minutes, are expanding around the country, with a current tally of over 1,300 nationwide. In addition, Tesla’s supercharger network boasts over 500 stations around the country and 170 miles of range in as little as 30 minutes for the Tesla Model S.

    How Much Do They Cost to Charge?

    A full charge at the national average rate of 11-cents per kilowatt-hour costs about $3 for a typical, limited-range electric car. Due to their massive battery packs, charging a Tesla can cost as much as four times that. If you drive the national average mileage, you could expect to pay about $40 a month for electricity for an electric car—less than a single fill-up of gasoline for many cars. And many utilities offer further discounts for nighttime charging. In Texas, at least one utility is even offering free electricity at night in exchange for a slightly higher rate during daytime hours.  You can compare how much you’d save in your state using the DOE’s eGallon tool.

    What About Home Chargers?

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

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

    Public chargers are being installed in some cities throughout the United States, but their distribution varies widely. Convenience and pricing vary, and some may only charge at 1,500 watts, a slow trickle for a full electric car.

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

    Couldn't Electric Cars Cause a Power Blackout?

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

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

    Utilities are committed to building more infrastructure to meet the demand from electric cars, which they see as expanding their market and possibly providing grid storage through the electric vehicle batteries.

    Can I Buy an Electric Car Near Me?

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

    Why Electric Cars?

    The biggest motivators driving the production of electric cars are cutting petroleum consumption and dependence  and reducing pollution, including carbon-dioxide emissions. 

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

    Doesn't the Power Just Come From Dirtier Coal Instead of Gasoline?

    Some does, but mostly not. About 39 percent of America’s electricity today comes from coal, and even in regions with the dirtiest electricity, EV emissions are equivalent to a 35 mpg gasoline vehicle. America’s population centers are on the coasts, where electricity production comes from much cleaner sources, and electric vehicle emissions are equivalent to 51-97 mpg gasoline vehicles. California accounts for 40 percent of the nation’s electric vehicle sales, and California uses no coal and has one of the cleanest electric grids in the country.

    What Does the Future Look Like for Electric Cars?

    New fuel-economy standards, along with zero emission vehicle targets in California and other states, will push automakers to produce increasing numbers of electric cars by the end of this decade. Most will probably be plug-in hybrids. While battery costs still command a price premium for plug-ins, larger-scale adoption is bringing down costs. Breakthroughs in battery technology will drive even lower prices and wider adoption. Also, more public charging options are planned to make charging more accessible.

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

     

     

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    Talking Cars Tackles the All-New Honda Civic and Lexus RX

    Rebuilding a reputation can take a lot of work. Just look at the Honda Civic. A botched 2012 redesign scuttled the Civic's sterling reputation, with the car scoring so low in our tests that Consumer Reports didn't recommend it. To make amends, Honda went clean-sheet on their 2016 redesign, claiming it is the biggest transformation in the car's history. Talking Cars discusses this big change and why it was necessary, while sharing our first impressions of this more substantial-feeling Civic. (See our 2016 Honda Civic first drive.)

    Lexus faced a different challenge with redesigning their RX luxury SUV: How do you keep loyal owners, while trying to appeal to a younger audience tempted by sporty German competitors? Toyota's luxury brand cleverly builds a sheep in wolf's clothing, retaining the RX's familiar comfy, quiet feel beneath a newly aggressive skin.

    Redesigns like these aim to enhance owner satisfaction, but some models inevitably fall well short. We talk about the least-satisfying cars by segment, noting that multiple Nissan and Infiniti models languish at the bottom, as they fail to meet buyer expectations. Finally, we talk about a good car choice for a viewer's elderly mom, with one pick earning universal votes from our podcast's panelists.

    As with the other Taking Cars, this episode is also available free through the iTunes Store. Subscribe to the video or audio. You'll also find the video on YouTube.

    Share your comments on this show below, and let us know if you need any advice for choosing a car.

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

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    Best Juicers for Novices and Nutrition Nuts

    Sales of juicers have been surging as more people look to bring the juice-bar experience home. Follow the hashtag #juicing and you’ll be inundated with recipes, from conventional carrot and apple to trendy green juices (Martha Stewart starts every morning with one) packed with kale, pears, cucumbers, and the like.

    Though the health benefits of juicing tend to be a little overblown—there’s no substitute for whole fruits and vegetables—a juicer can definitely add more vitamins, minerals, and disease-fighting substances to your daily diet. But only if you use it every day, of course. And here’s the, er, fruit fly in the ointment. Some of the juicers we tested were so complicated to operate and hard to clean that they’d probably end up collecting dust in a dark corner of your kitchen cabinet.

    But we did find capable models from the two main types. Juice extractors, also known as centrifugal juicers, use a rapidly whirling disk to cut fruit or vegetables into tiny pieces that are then spun to separate the juice from the pulp. Auger-style juicers, also called masticating or cold-press juicers, work by slowly crushing and mashing the fruits and vegetables. There are pros and cons to each, so see our juicer profiles to find the juicer that’s just right for you.

    (To make the best produce choices for your health and for the environment, read our special report on pesticides in produce.)

    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.

    For first-time juicers

    Juice extractors are easy to use, and they’re generally less expensive than auger-style machines, two reasons we recommend them for juicing novices. The top-rated Juiceman JM8000S (shown above), $100, features a large feed tube the size of a tennis ball, which means you won’t have to spend a lot of time cutting up your fruit and veggies. Plus its blades can handle hard produce, such as carrots and beets. The Cuisinart CJE-1000, $150, performed almost as well, and this machine is a bit quieter, which you might appreciate if there’s a baby sleeping in the next room. Because of the high speed of their cutting blades, both models turned out juice that was fairly frothy in our tests.

    For nutrition nuts: Auger-style

    Because they slowly crush produce, the auger-style juicers we tested left behind more pulp, and that can make for a healthier, more fiber-packed juice. They’re also better suited to wheatgrass and leafy vegetables. Best of the bunch is the Kuvings Whole Slow B6000, $430, which features a wide feed tube and produced a nice volume of froth-free juice. The Fagor Platino 967010008, $200, has a smaller feed tube, but if you don’t mind the extra prep work, its juice output was among the best of all tested models, plus it’s well-priced for an auger-style juicer. Both models come with a reverse button for when produce gets jammed in the masticating augers.

    For multitaskers

    The Omega NC900HDC, $330, auger-style juicer also scored big for juice output, and it’s different from other juicers in that it comes with attachments for fresh pasta, coffee beans, almond butter, and more. We cranked out a few pasta batches, and it worked as promised. Note that you have to make the dough separately, so it’s not as handy as a dedicated pasta maker that mixes, kneads, and extrudes all in one.

    —Daniel DiClerico (@dandiclerico on Twitter)

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

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  • 12/01/15--15:21: Perfect Gifts for Car Lovers
  • Perfect Gifts for Car Lovers

    Got a few car enthusiasts on your holiday shopping list? From inexpensive do-dads to gifts that will most certainly break your bank account, we’ve got a few cars and car-related items that will surely jazz those loved ones that claim to have gasoline running through their veins.

    SiriusXM Radio Subscription

    For about $11 a month, the music fan on your holiday list can stream over 80 channels of country, rock, hip-hop, classical, or pop. Or for around $15 a month, you get 155 channels, including news, sports, and comedy. A subscription allows you to listen in your car, at home, in the office on your computer, or via smartphone and tablet. For some of us, satellite radio is an essential road trip companion.

    Learn more about car infotainment.
     

    Jump Starter Battery Packs

    Is there a car person in your life who always seems to need a jump start to get their car going? Well, if you’re tired of dragging out your jumper cables, you can buy micro-sized battery packs (most only weigh a pound and are roughly the size of a paperback novel). They’re powerful enough to get your motor running and can also be used to recharge portable devices, such as mobile phones and tablets—a function that makes them a useful part of a home emergency kit, as well. All of the units we tested had at least one built-in USB port, as well as a flashlight, and some had connectors to charge certain types of laptops. We tested 10 units that had an average price of about $90.

    See our jump starter buying guide and Ratings.


    Driving Schools

    Perhaps you know of a budding wannabe racecar driver or you want to give a new driver some top-notch car control training; there are a number of high-performance driving schools that will do the job. Often held at racetracks around the country, there’s something for everyone—from off-roading and karting to open-wheel racing and even a NASCAR experience. One-day events start at around $500. Check the links for specific pricing and locations, and search online for schools based in your region.
    • Skip Barber
    • Richard Petty Driving Experience
    • Bob Bondurant School of High Performance Driving


    Performance Tires

    Suppose your holiday honey already has the car of their dreams, but has been lusting for a set of high-performance tires? One extra-special indulgence is the Pirelli P-Zero, tied for our highest rated ultra-high-performance summer tire. It has impressive grip and braking in wet and dry conditions. Pricing starts at around $177 per tire (but might vary by retailer and by size). Of course, performance all-seasons may be more appropriate for year-round driving. Check our ratings for the best performers in whatever class you need.

    See our tire buying guide and Ratings.


    Volkswagen GTI

    The GTI is one of those cars that delivers a ton of driving fun for just pounds of money. It’s powered by a 210-hp, 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine, driving through either a six-speed manual or six-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission. We got an impressive 29-mpg overall with our manual-transmission test car. While it’s a ball to drive, the taut ride won't beat you up. Handling is very agile, and throttle response is immediate. Inside is a high-quality, quiet, and refined interior with comfortable seats. USB ports were finally added for 2016, as well as available lane-keeping assist, blind-spot monitoring, and cross-traffic alert. With pricing starting at $25,815, you might also want to get one for yourself.

    See our complete Volkswagen GTI road test and Ratings.


    BMW M235i

    Not often do we test a true weekend toy that also makes for a fabulous (and reliable) daily driver. Yes, the M235i is one of those great purist cars that delivers razor-sharp handling and a sense of immediacy that is missing in other recent BMWs. The M235i has a terrific 320-hp, 3.0-liter turbo six-cylinder that responds instantly to every prod of the throttle. Starting at $45,145, adding a few options such as metallic paint, heated leather seats, and a premium stereo make it peak past $50,000. You can get the M225i in coupe or convertible body styles and with rear- or all-wheel-drive. Unfortunately, only the RWD car gets a manual transmission. We love this car.

    See our complete BMW M235i road test and Ratings.


    Porsche 911

    If you know of someone who’s wished for a 911, the current model would make an excellent gift. It delivers other worldly performance and relative refinement. The base model has a 370-hp six, and the Carrera S a 420-hp six, both matched with a seven-speed manual. The 911 is quick and super-agile, with sublime handling. The exhaust note is terrific, and driving the automated manual is just as thrilling as the stick shift. Thanks to its relatively supple ride and ample sound deadening, the 911 is rather well-suited to long trips for a sports car. The interior is beautifully crafted. Even reliability has been above average of late. The tough part may be writing the check: the 911 coupe starts at $89,400 and rises to $194,600 for the Turbo S convertible. But there are always used 911s to choose from . . . 

    See our complete Porsche 911 road test and Ratings.
     

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    How to Get the Right Car Battery

    Different vehicles need different-sized batteries, mostly because of the engine size, space restrictions under the hood, and the number of powered accessories.

    Bigger engines take more energy to crank, requiring a physically larger battery. A battery suitable for a compact car probably won’t have the capacity to start a large pickup’s V8 engine.

    And on the flip side, that pickup’s battery probably wouldn’t fit into the compact car’s smaller engine compartment. Also, crowded engine bays require shoehorning in different-shaped batteries. Some batteries are placed in the trunk, which brings other concerns into play.

    Batteries are grouped by physical size, type and placement of the terminals, and mounting style. Replacing your battery with one from the same group ensures that the battery will fit the tray and that the leads will connect properly.

    Once you know the size you need (group number), choose from one of two types of batteries:

    Low-Maintenance/Maintenance-Free

    Batteries once required drivers to periodically top up the water in the electrolyte, the battery’s power source. Modern maintenance-free batteries consume far less water than traditional “flooded cell” batteries. In the past few years maintenance-free ones have crowded the older style off the market. (We no longer test those batteries.)

    Low-maintenance batteries retain their fluid for the life of the battery. Caps on maintenance free-models aren’t meant to be removed.

    AGM

    Absorbed glass mat (AGM) batteries contain a very sparing amount of acid electrolyte, have a sealed case, and use a different internal chemistry that reabsorbs loose hydrogen molecules that react back into water. That combination eliminates the need to replenish electrolytes, extending the battery’s life span.

    These batteries are more forgiving of “deep discharge,” which happens when you accidentally leave your car’s headliner dome light on, for example—at which point turning the ignition key results in nothing but clicking sounds from under the hood.

    A single instance of deep discharge, which coats the lead plate electrodes with sulfate deposits, can reduce the life span of a conventional battery by a third or more. That makes AGMs a good option for absent-minded drivers or for vehicles that regularly sit unused, such as motor homes.

    That resilience comes at a price, though, and AGM batteries can cost twice as much as others. Many higher-end vehicles come with an AGM battery; never replace an original-equipment AGM battery with another type, because the toxic gases vented or electrolytes leaked by non-AGM batteries may be dangerous if the battery is mounted in the trunk or passenger compartment.

    Editor's Note: This article also appeared in the January 2016 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.

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    Top-Rated Gifts for Your Favorite Cook

    For some, pushing a microwave button counts as cooking and then there are those who enjoy spending a Saturday afternoon leafing through cookbooks and trying new recipes or rolling out dough for an after dinner sweet. Here’s some cooking gear that impressed the testers at Consumer Reports and that your favorite cook will appreciate.

    The sharpest knives in the drawer

    Zwilling J.A. Henckels is a premium name in kitchen knives and its $315 Twin Professional “S” 7-piece set was the best in our kitchen knives tests. The forged knives are sturdy and sharp and the handles are very well balanced, which should keep your hands from getting tired. Always wash your knives by hand and keep them sharp with regular honing.     

    Cookware that sizzles

    The 10-piece nonstick Swiss Diamond Reinforced cookware set is made of aluminum and comes with a lifetime warranty. It was the best set in our cookware tests and at $600, the most expensive. The Swiss Diamond pots and pans were very good at evenly heating food and superb at releasing food when new, and the sturdy handles stay cool to the touch. Our nonstick durability tests are tough—steel wool is rubbed over a pan for up to 2,000 strokes—and the Swiss Diamond nonstick surface held up very well. The $200 Calphalon Simply Nonstick 10-piece set was nearly as good overall but its handles aren’t as sturdy or comfortable.

    A toaster oven tell-all

    Consumer Reports just tested several large toaster ovens that may be worth considering for cooks who have the counter space. Although it didn’t unseat the Breville Smart Oven BOV800XL, $250, the Cuisinart TOB-260, $260, came close. Unlike many toaster ovens in our tests, it actually makes good toast and can do it nine slices at a time. The manufacturer claims it can fit a 9-pound chicken and in our tests it was very capable at both baking and broiling so it would come in handy as a second oven

    A stand mixer for the baker

    In our stand mixer tests, the Breville BEM800XL, $300, was excellent at whipping cream, mixing large batches of cookie dough, and kneading bread dough. It beat out such favorites as the KitchenAid Classic and the KitchenAid Artisan, which we also recommend, as well as other brands thanks to a bevy of convenience features, including a leaf beater with a flexible edge that scrapes the bowl as it turns and a timer that lets you set your desired mixing time. But the KitchenAid Professional 6500 Design Series, $550, was best of all.

    A blender that makes and heats soup

    Blenders have gone upscale and have the price tags to prove it. But for cooks who often puree soup or sauces or who like to crush ice for drinks, a top-performing blender can be a welcome gift. The 8-cup Vitamix Professional Series 750, $650, may give you sticker shock but it earned an excellent overall score in our blender tests, making a very good smoothie and ice drink and doing a superb job at pureeing. Vitamix also says it will make hot soups, a claim we tested in the $450 Vitamix 5200 model. Another bonus is this blender is shorter than the original Vitamix, so it will fit under the upper cabinets in most kitchens.

    Smart meat thermometers

    Meat thermometers have come a long way from the analog one your grandmother used. Some even talk to your smartphone reminding the cook when the meat is ready. In our meat thermometer tests we liked the Williams-Sonoma Smart Thermometer 87072, $200, which has a probe you leave in the meat while the digital readout sits on the counter so there’s no opening and closing the oven multiple times as your roast cooks.

    Classic cookbooks

    Giving a cookbook together with cooking gear may get you invited back for dinner. Some of our favorites include “Gourmet Today,” “Around My French Table,” and Cook’s Illustrated's “The New Best Recipe,” which all feature recipes that are easy to follow with impressive results. Or you can check out cooking classes offered by top restaurants and bakeries in food-crazy ZIP codes or by culinary schools such as the boot camps and artisan bread baking classes at the Culinary Institute of America.

    —Kimberly Janeway

    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.

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