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    Best Deals for Printing Holiday Photos Online

    Today’s mobile technology makes sharing digital photos so easy, you might go an entire year without ever producing a printed photo. But if you're like me, you also like sending actual prints of your family to friends and loved ones during the holidays.

    While it's true that if you want to print your photos at home, many all-in-one printers, like these, will do a very good job. However, it can be cheaper to order prints online. In fact, many online photo-printing services, like the ones listed below, have special offers and promotions available right now. So, check out some of ways you can save money, and then be sure to visit the websites, since these services continually update their discounts. Note the expiration dates on all offers and be sure to read the fine print before you finalize any order to make sure you're actually getting the right discount.

    Discounts & Deals

    Here are some of the deals we found for five leading photo-finishers.

    • Snapfish: For its Cyberweek sale, you'll get 70 percent off all orders of $200 or more, and 60 percent off any other order on the site. It also offers 61 percent off 5x7 flat stationery cards and 50 percent off premium card sets. Also, if you refer a friend who joins Snapfish, you can earn a $10 credit (when he or she makes a purchase of more than $10). New customers get 100 free 4x6 prints.
    • Shutterfly: You'll get free economy shipping on printed orders of $49 or more. Shutterfly has additional offers on other gifts, including getting one free photo card and $5 off gift wrap and 16x20 prints. Plus, new customers get 50 free 4x6 prints, one free magnet, and one free set of address labels.
    • Walgreens: Save 50 percent on photo-card orders of $25 or more, 40 percent on photo calendars and 30 percent on other photo gifts. You'll also find offers on same-day pickup of various photo orders.
    • Walmart: Get 30 percent off 5x7 folded cards and 20 percent off custom-cover books; save up to 30 percent off calendars. New customers get 25 free 4x6 prints.
    • CVSPhoto: You'll save 40 percent on photo-card orders and 30 percent on photo books. If you order 100 4x6 prints or more, each print is just 10 cents.

    These aren't the only online photo-printing services available. You can check the bargains at other photo finishers as well, including Adorama, MPix, and York Photo.

    Tips When Ordering Photos Online

    Most online photo printers offer other photo-related products in addition to prints. Also, you can get your prints in a variety of sizes. Here are some tips to consider when ordering online.
     

    • Don't settle on a photo format too quickly. You pictures can be printed in a variety of formats (such as folded or flat) and can have different finishes, such as matte or glossy. Some services let you choose from a variety of premium card stocks. So take your time to choose a keepsake you'll really like.
    • Try ordering straight from your phone. There's no need to first transfer images to a computer: Many photo-printing and photo-sharing websites have mobile apps.
    • If you're in a rush, look into expedited or even same-day delivery, available from some services. Of course, you can save money if you choose standard delivery. And in some cases, you can even get free shipping.

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

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    Does Recycled Wrapping Paper Make the Cut?

    The holidays are a time for giving, but they’re also a period of tremendous waste. Think about all of the boxes, bows, and wrapping paper that get tossed into the garbage. The Environmental Protection Agency says that Americans generate more household trash—25 percent more, or about 25 million tons—than usual between Thanksgiving and the new year. But we can minimize the environmental toll by reducing, reusing, and recycling what we can. An easy place to start is with gift wrap.

    To save a few trees this holiday season, try some new ways of dressing up your presents. For instance, instead of traditional wrapping paper, use a map for the adventurer on your list, or a section of the newspaper. (Try the dining section for your favorite foodie or the sports page for a superfan.) You can reuse traditional paper—as long as you unwrap gifts carefully and store the stuff neatly. Or you can buy green paper and other wrapping paper supplies made from recycled materials.

    How does recycled gift wrap stand up? We tested and compared a few samples of recycled and virgin paper. We also looked at the various label claims so that you can sort out what you’re really buying.

    What Our Tests Found

    In our labs, we tested three 100 percent recycled wraps (two from Earth Presents and one each from Earth Love’n Paper Products and Green Field Paper) against four virgin papers (two from American Greetings and one each from Hallmark and International Greetings). The recycled papers generally cost more; prices ranged from 15 cents per square foot for the cheapest virgin paper from American Greetings to 66 cents per square foot for the ­recycled Green Field paper.

    We measured each sample’s strength using an Instron, a device that slowly pushes a steel ball through the paper. Our technicians measured and recorded the force required to punch through the paper. We also noted how thick each sample was.

    Not surprisingly, the thicker papers were the strongest—and the recycled papers were all thicker than the virgin products (including one labeled “heavy weight”). The biggest difference we found: The Earth Love’n wrap was three times as strong as one of the American Greetings papers, and it cost about three times as much.

    The bottom line: Although the stronger, recycled papers are able to stand up to more abuse, all should withstand routine handling—if a wrapped box bounces around in the trunk of the car, for example.

    What Those Labels Really Mean

    No matter what wrap you buy, look for specifics on the labels of any recycled products, according to the Federal Trade Commission, which oversees labeling rules and polices the marketplace for misleading claims. How much of the product is made with recycled content? Look for the highest percentage of pre- and/or post-consumer recycled materials. (Post-consumer is the waste we toss into the trash; pre-consumer is materials that have been recovered or diverted from the solid-waste stream during manufacturing.) Unless the product contains 100 percent recycled materials, the label should tell you what portion is recycled, the FTC says. Also note whether recycled claims concern the product, the package, or both. And don’t confuse recycled with “recyclable,” which just means that a product can be recycled, not that it contains recycled materials.

    Be aware that the claims are not regulated. Though the FTC hasn’t come down on any gift-wrap maker for misleading labeling, a commission spokesman says that companies are not required to provide the FTC with evidence unless it is requested during an investigation.

    “While purchasing products that display an eco-label indicating ‘100 percent recycled materials’ offers a greater degree of assurance than products with labels that simply indicate ‘recycled material,’ neither of these claims is verified by an independent third party,” says Nicole Darnall, professor of management and public policy at Arizona State University’s School of Public Affairs and School of Sustainability.

    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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  • 12/02/15--13:59: Best Ranges for Entertaining
  • Best Ranges for Entertaining

    Tradition might be the byword this holiday season, but when shopping for a range you’ll want the latest and greatest. Many innovative, timesaving features are borrowed from restaurant kitchens. High-power burners put out fast heat, convection fans trim cooking time by circulating the oven’s hot air, and induction rangetops provide fast heat and precise control. 

    Electric smoothtop freestanding ranges still win the popularity contest. But if you entertain often or cook multiple dishes at once, you might step up to a double-oven range. For a built-in appearance, consider a slide-in range that rests on a countertop; the controls are up front, so there’s no rear panel to hide your beautiful backsplash.

    We’ve rounded up the best ranges for entertaining from Consumer Reports' range tests. They offer generous capacities and features that speed up cooking. Look online for great deals. 

    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 avid entertainers

    These ranges offer fast cooktop heat, impressive or superb simmering, and a large oven that was impressive or excellent at baking. They have a convection option that trims the cooking time of some foods—read your manual as it takes some practice. The $2,000 LG LDG4315ST gas range pairs a smaller top oven with a larger oven below. Among electric smoothtops, the $1,800 LG LDE4415ST has a smaller top oven and a bigger oven below. The $1,000 LG LRE3023S has a single oven. Induction ranges are expensive, but at $1,700, the top-rated Kenmore 95073 is among the least expensive in our tests. 

    Best at baking

    These ranges were impressive or excellent overall, but they stand out because they have large ovens and were excellent at baking. They turned out evenly browned cookies and cakes when baked on two racks simultaneously without our moving the pans to different racks or rotating them to get impressive results. Among gas ranges, the top-rated Samsung NX58F5700WS, $1,600, has seven oven rack positions. The $1,100 Kenmore 95052 electric smoothtop has six.

    Splurges

    Impressive or superb overall, these ranges also have lots of style and features. The $2,500 Samsung NX58H9500WS gas slide-in is loaded with style and has a warming drawer. So does the $2,800 GE PGS920SEFSS gas slide-in and it was excellent at baking. Note that slide-ins have their controls up front. The $2,800 GE Cafe CS980STSS electric smoothtop also has its controls up front, aced baking, and boasts a warming drawer. The $3,600 Samsung NE58H9970WS induction slide-in is part of Samsung's stylish Chef Collection and is loaded with extras, such as virtual flames. And if what you really want is a pro-style range, then you'll be happy to hear we test them too. See our range Ratings for details.  

    Bargains

    Who says you have to pay a fortune to get a range that offers fast cooktop heat, impressive or superb simmering, and a large oven that was impressive or excellent at baking? Consider the $700 Kenmore 74132 gas range, the $800 LG LRE3083SW and the $700 Frigidaire FFEF3018LW electric smoothtops. And for $430 the Kenmore 94142 electric coil top was the best of its bunch. It even comes in stainless, as many ranges do, which ups the price by $100 or more. 

    See our range Ratings  for all your choices and check the brand reliability information to see what over 6,000 people had to say about the brand they bought. Email questions to kjaneway@consumer.org. 

    —Kimberly Janeway

    Holiday Planning & Shopping Guide

    For more tips and tricks see our Holiday Planning & Shopping Guide. It's loaded with ideas for holiday gifts that were excellent performers in Consumer Reports' tests.

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

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    Beware of Fat-Finger Dialing Scams

    Who doesn't misdial a phone number now and again? Unfortunately, that innocent mistake can cost you money if the number you punch in by accident is a toll-free one being used as part of a so-called "fat-finger dialing" scam. 

    The idea behind fat-finger fraud is to get you to pay for something you didn't want or to steal personal or financial data, and it's ridiculously easy to fall victim to it. It can happen if you accidentally use the wrong toll-free code—say the real number's code is 800, but the scammers have paid to have an 888 or 866 attached to the number's other seven digits. Or scammers may buy a toll-free number that has the same prefix as the number of a legitimate company but is otherwise off by one number. 

    Familiar Numbers Make Good Targets

    Fat-finger scammers target frequently called toll-free numbers, especially those that belong to respected companies and government agencies. AARP Fraud Watch has identified at least 30 commonly called numbers that have been spoofed in this way, including those for banks, investment firms, utility companies, insurance agencies, and government offices, such as the Social Security Administration, the Veterans Administration, and the IRS.

    When consumers are patched through to the misdialed number, they're told they've won a prize, have been selected for a survey, or are eligible for gift vouchers, low-cost medical alert systems, magazine renewals, or vacation rewards. All they have to do is provide their address and the number of their credit or debit card, after which the voice on the other end of the line promises to transfer them to their intended party.

    In fact, if you follow through, the only thing you’ll receive is an additional charge on your credit card, bank account (if using a debit card), or phone bill. Worse, you may find that you’ve been automatically enrolled in an ongoing subscription service you’ll be billed for every month. Worse, by sharing personal and financial information, you may open yourself to identity theft.

    Adding insult to injury, the lure the scammers use is perfectly legal, says Bikram Bandy, coordinator for the FTC’s National Do Not Call Registry. “It’s not illegal under our rules to obtain a phone number that is similar to the phone number of another company,” he says. “What is illegal is saying or doing things to trick someone into thinking you’re someone you’re not. But if someone calls and I say, ‘Congratulations, you’ve won a magazine offer,’ and I tell you how much it will cost and ask you for your credit card information, that’s not illegal because no misrepresentation has been made even if the way the consumer stumbled into the offer was through a fat-finger dial situation.”

    How Consumers Can Protect Themselves

    • Double-check before you dial. “Be careful when you dial out,” warns Amy Nofziger, regional director with the AARP Foundation. “If you have a phone that digitally displays the number you dialed, make sure to compare it to what you meant to dial.”
    • Know your toll-free codes. It’s important to understand that there are multiple toll-free codes (800, 888, and 866). “Sometimes I’ve heard consumers say they didn’t know, so they automatically choose 800 for dialing out,” Nofziger says.
    • Don’t hesitate to hang up. If you are greeted by a recording or a live operator who doesn’t mention by name the company or agency you think you’ve called, hang up, check the number again, and redial. If it happens again, hang up and wait till you can confirm the number you are calling. Similarly, if you are told that you’ve qualified for a prize, have been selected for a survey, or are being offered a “free” product, end the phone call immediately.
    • Guard your personal information. Always be suspicious of anyone who asks for your Social Security number, birth date, or other personal information.
    • Pay attention to your phone bills. Check to make sure you aren’t being charged for any services or long distance calls you didn’t authorize or make.
    • Call it in. If you see anything suspicious report it to your phone company immediately. Also consider filing a complaint with your State’s Attorney General’s office, the Federal Trade Commission, and the Federal Communications Commission.

     

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

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    From Our Experts: Car Battery Tips

    1. Don’t buy an old battery. Look for a date code printed on a sticker on the side of the battery. Always check to make sure you get the newest one on the shelf. When batteries sit, they can start losing their charge. Here’s how to decipher the code: A battery made in October 2015 will have a numeric code of 10-5 or an alphanumeric code of K-5. “A” is for January, “B” is for February, and so on (the letter “I” is skipped). We instruct our shoppers to buy batteries that are no older than six months—preferably three months or newer.

    2. Take your old battery to the store so that it can be recycled. Don’t just throw it in the trash! That is important because batteries contain lead and must be disposed of properly. If you don’t have your old battery with you at time of purchase, you may be charged a “core charge,” or a deposit of $5 to $25.

    3. Don’t focus too much on cold-cranking-amp (CCA) claims. Modern cars with fuel-injected engines controlled by computers take no more than a few seconds to start. They don’t need the highly inflated CCA numbers that manufacturers like to put on the packaging and marketing materials. We keep this in mind when weighing this measure against the others in our tests.  

    See our complete car battery buying advice and ratings.

    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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    Mattress Firm and Sleepy's Are New Bedfellows

    Mattress Firm, the country's largest mattress retailer, agreed to buy Sleepy's, the second largest, resulting in a coast-to-coast network of about 3,500 mattress stores. Between them the two had already bought up Sleep Train, Mattress Discounters, and 1800mattress. All five sellers now fall under one management.

    Mattress Firm’s 2,000-store national presence was spotty in the northeast and mid-Atlantic states, while in recent years Sleepy’s 1,000-store network had spread from its New York base to Chicago and the Carolinas. The combined company will cover every state except Wyoming and Hawaii.

    It’s too soon to know what benefits the merger may offer consumers. However, in past surveys of our online subscribers, Mattress Firm fared just slightly better than Sleepy's. In mattress store Ratings based on 6,105 shopping experiences between 2011 and mid-2013, Sleepy’s received some of the lowest scores in overall satisfaction, with so-so grades for quality, service, and selection. Mattress Firm fell closer to mid-pack, with better scores for service. Sleep Train did better still.

    We are in the process of collecting new data for our mattress store Ratings and will post the results this coming spring. In the meantime, check out our Ratings of 48 mattresses including innerspring, memory foam and adjustable air. Our buying guide will help you narrow your choices.

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

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    The Real Difference a Fuel-Efficient Car Can Make

    Many of us try to make choices to reduce the amount of energy and effort it takes to live our lives. It's human nature to strive for efficiency. The benefits can be experienced daily, including having more time to spend on the things and people that matter most. Collectively, our actions can have a far-reaching impact, such as reducing energy consumption and contributing to cleaner air.

    Choosing to buy a fuel-efficient car is one way a personal choice for efficiency can make a real, collective difference, and give some personal benefits as well. Fuel-efficient models save on fuel costs and time spent filling up. Plus, through their efficiency, they have the added benefit of reducing the amount of smog-contributing pollution compared to driving other cars. Advanced technologies such as plug-in hybrids and pure electrics can push efficiency to further extremes.

    Even during dips in gas prices, fuel-efficient vehicles can save consumers money, no matter what size of vehicle they are looking for, and are a smart hedge against the inevitable rise in gas prices.  

    When it comes time to purchase your next car, there are many factors to consider, such as safety and reliability. Be sure to consider fuel economy, as well, to keep your operating costs in check.

    Thanks to increasingly tough fuel economy standards and higher consumer expectations, efficiency has been improving across most vehicles, so it's easier than ever to find a fuel-efficient model that meets your needs and your budget. However, buyers should still pay close attention because every vehicle segment sees fuel economy cover a spectrum, from better to worse. (See the most fuel-efficient cars.)

    For example, the small SUVs tested by Consumer Reports returned between 21 and 29 mpg overall, all using regular gas. That spread results in a $400 to $600 difference in annual fuel costs, even when gas is between $2 and $3 per gallon. That's nothing to scoff at, especially given that most people hold on to cars for many years. (See the most fuel-efficient SUVs.)

    Pickup trucks rate between 14 and 20 mpg overall, resulting a fuel cost spread of $500 to $800 per year. Over the long ownership span for pickups, that can really add up.

    And in the midsized car segment, fuel economy varies by an even larger gap, spanning from 22 to 39 mpg overall, when hybrids are included in the mix. This translates to a difference of $600 to $900 per year in annual fuel costs. Fuel-efficient models often carry no price premium, making them attractive choices even when gas prices are down.

    Similar comparisons can be found in every segment. (See the best and worst for fuel economy.)

    No matter which vehicle type you are considering for your next purchase, it definitely pays attention to study EPA fuel-economy numbers, Consumer Reports' test results, and the vehicle’s window sticker, which details emissions for that particular model.

    You don’t have to be the world’s most fuel-efficient woman, or man, but it is wise to remember that when buying your next car, choosing better efficiency benefits everyone.

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

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    Best Cell Phone Carriers: Small Providers Top the Big Four in New Consumer Reports Survey

    Odds are you haven’t made any changes to your cell service in years. That’s too bad. According to Consumer Reports National Research Center’s recent survey of about 90,000 subscribers, nearly half of the people who switched cell phone carriers in the past year saw their monthly rates drop by $20 or more. And roughly 40 percent said they enjoyed more reliable coverage, faster data service, and better customer service. However, only 6 percent of our readers switched cell phone carriers—perhaps more should consider shopping around. 

    Many of the most satisfied respondents are those who use smaller cell phone providers such as Consumer Cellular, Cricket, Page Plus Cellular, Republic Wireless, and Ting Wireless. Exceptional scores for value helped propel these cellphone providers to the top for overall customer satisfaction. These companies offer lower costs and responsive, knowledgeable staff members. And some of them compensate subscribers who use less service than they've planned for. For instance, Republic Wireless and Ting Wireless charge customers only for the minutes, texts, and data actually used—not what consumers signed up for.

    Three of the Big Four cell phone carriers—AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon—lined the bottom of the customer-satisfaction barrel, while T-Mobile led the Big Four in terms of overall customer satisfaction. Sprint had a poor showing for both its traditional, monthly billed service and its prepaid service. Both AT&T and Verizon got good marks for voice, text, and Web service.

    Despite the relatively low scores, 80 percent of the survey respondents get their service from the Big Four cell phone carriers, and 81 percent of those respondents are either AT&T or Verizon customers. The Consumer Reports National Research Center analyzed results for these and other cellphone providers in 31 metro areas across the country, using responses from 29,000 subscribers. Consumer Cellular was the top-rated provider in six locations, including Los Angeles, Phoenix, and Washington, D.C. Check our cell phone carriers guide for more details.

    Tips for Choosing a Plan

    If the phone in your hand costs close to $100 a month to feed, it’s time to make some changes—even if you’re inclined to stick with your service provider. As a general rule, you shouldn’t spend more than $25 to $50 a month per phone line above the cost of the phone itself. If you are thinking about making a change, first check out our survey results. Then follow these steps to make the best choice.

    1. Round up your best provider options. Generally speaking, prepaid service from the smaller carriers benefits people with modest data needs (Web browsing, e-mail, Facebook) and little lust for the hot phone of the moment. Heavy data users, especially those looking for three or more phone lines, will most likely be happier with the Big Four.

    2. Confirm the coverage. The promise of coverage is the number one reason our survey participants cited for switching plans—and that gives large carriers such as AT&T and Verizon a distinct advantage. They have the country quite well-covered with high-speed 4G Internet service. There’s no point in finding a great deal if it doesn’t let you receive phone calls in your home or office.

      Virtually all carriers provide maps on their websites with ZIP code, address, or local landmark prompts to confirm coverage. Don’t rely on those alone. They don’t account for small dead zones created by natural and man-made obstacles. You should also make sure you can cancel service and return the phone if a coverage problem like that crops up. For some carriers, including Sprint and Verizon, the grace period is a brief 14 days. They’ll charge you a $35 restocking fee as well.

      Before settling on a carrier, invite friends with various services to break out their phones so you can assess how good each carrier’s signal is in your home, office and favorite haunts.

    3. Count your phone lines. This one’s easy: You + partner + dependents.

    4. Do the math. For smartphone users, the biggest charge is usually related to data use. Most people can live with 500 megabytes to 1 gigabyte per phone per month—especially if they confine their cellular-data activities to browsing the Web, using news and e-book apps, and sending and receiving e-mails without photos, videos, and other large attachments. It’s always good to save tasks like those, plus video calls and media streaming, for when you have Wi-Fi access.

      But maybe you stream a fair amount of music and video when you commute. If that’s so, you’ll probably need 2GB to 3GB a month. And if your eyes are permanently glued to YouTube while you’re on the go consider 4GB or more. You should also note that T-Mobile lets its customers enjoy content from popular music and video streaming services such as Netflix and Pandora without dipping into the data allowance.

      The Big Four Carriers offer unlimited texts and voice minutes with their plans. For providers that don’t, factor in about 200 to 300 minutes and several hundred texts per phone. That should add $15 to $25 per line to your costs.

    5. Beware of weird pricing. Sometimes it makes financial sense to purchase more data than you need. AT&T provides a good example. The carrier charges a $25 access fee per phone for data buckets of 5GB or less. (The 5GB of data, which are shareable, cost $50.) But if you choose the company’s 8GB plan, that fee falls to $15 per phone. (The 8GB of data cost $80.) Do the arithmetic, and you’ll find that if you have four phones on the 80GB plan, the total cost is $140. The total would actually be more—$150—for the same four phones on the 5GB bucket.

    6. Finally: Stay away from two-year contracts. These have lost popularity, but they are still available at AT&T, Sprint, and Verizon. In addition to hefty early-termination fees, you might have to contend with a hefty monthly $40-per-phone access fee.

    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 High-Tech Gifts for Homeowners

    Pretty soon we’ll all be monitoring our homes from smart devices that enable us to turn lights on and off, adjust the temperature, and start the washing machine or dryer. And then we can put up our feet and watch robots vacuum the floor. Robots and Wi-Fi enabled thermostats, locks, and generators are just some of the smart appliances that Consumer Reports tested this year. And we have to admit, most of them were pretty cool. Perhaps just the thing for the gadget lover on your list.

    Thermador CIT36XKB induction cooktop, $5,000

    This 36-inch induction cooktop is the first of its kind and the most expensive model in our cooktop tests. There are no set elements, just a smooth surface and a touchscreen. You can place a pot anywhere on the surface and it adjusts automatically to the pot's shape and size, accommodating up to four items—three can be large stockpots. If you move a pan to another spot the cooktop transfers the programmed setting originally selected. This cooktop delivered fast heat and superb simmering. And like all induction cooktops requires magnetic cookware. The touchscreen is fairly intuitive.

    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.

    GE CT9070SHSS wall oven, $3,900

    The most expensive of our wall oven top picks, this stylish GE Cafe 30-inch wall oven has two doors, known as French doors. It was impressive at baking and broiling and superb at self-cleaning. There's a touchpad for setting cooking time and two dials for setting temperature and mode. The convection option can cut cooking time on some foods and you can control the oven from your smartphone, which at that price you should.

    Wemo slow cooker, $150

    A smart slow cooker might sound like an oxymoron but there are times when having remote control of your slow cooker can come in handy. This year Crock-Pot, the brand synonymous with slow cooking, introduced the WeMo-enabled Smart Slow Cooker, the first slow cooker you can control and monitor from your smart phone. In our tests, the WeMo-enabled app was a bit tricky to connect to both our Samsung Android and Apple iPhone smart devices at first. But when we succeeded, we found that the smart Crock-Pot did a capable job of heating water and turned out a pretty nice beef stew. But so did the $30 and $40 slow cookers we’ve tested in the past. The new Crock-Pot does have several helpful features you might not see on basic models, including a roomy 6-quart capacity, cool-touch handles, and dishwasher-safe stoneware and glass lid.

    Oregon Scientific Wireless BBQ/Oven AW131 meat thermometer, $40

    With this handy meat thermometer you can join your guests in the living room while finishing the roast in the kitchen. The Oregon Scientific Wireless BBQ/Oven AW131 requires instructions for wireless setup, but once connected, it’s  easy to take a basic temperature and use safe meat presets. You can also set your own temperature alarm. On the plus side, the display screen is large and easy to read with automatic backlight. The only negative is that to use it, you have to turn on the transmitter and receiver even if you don't need the wireless alert. And while the transmitter takes the temperature it’s only displayed on the receiver.

    Honeywell Lyric TH8732WF5018 thermostat, $280

    Not since the Nest Learning Thermostat burst onto the scene three years ago has a programmable thermostat generated so much excitement. Honeywell clearly had its sights set on Nest with the design of the Honeywell Lyric TH8732WF5018. Both devices are a sleek, contemporary take on the round, manual dial thermometers of old. And they can be controlled from any smart phone. The key difference with the Lyric is its use of "geofencing" technology that can detect your smart phone when you get within a certain distance from home and turn the temperature up or down. Honeywell claims the innovation could knock about $125 off your annual energy bill.

    Roomba 880 robotic vacuum, $700

    While on the expensive side, there's no beating this Roomba robotic's ability to clean carpet surfaces and bare floors, including edges. You can set a different program for each day. And as with the other robotics we tested, it includes a quick-setup guide. On the minus side, we found programming a challenge, and we needed to clear cat hair from the brush. Still, this robotic is a winner overall. For less money but comparable cleaning power, consider the iClebo Arte YCR-M05 robotic vacuum for $450, a CR Best Buy.

    Dyson AM09 space heater, $450

    It costs more than most space heaters, 10 times as much as some in our tests, but with its sleek design and operation the Dyson AM09 doesn’t disappoint. It earned top marks in our tests and was just as good at spot heating, warming just you, or heating an average-size room. Its safety features are top notch and it was easy to operate, especially if you use the remote. A bonus is that  you can turn the heat off and still use it as a fan.

    Schlage Camelot touchscreen deadbolt BE469NX-CAM, $200

    This connected door lock can be used with a standard key, a touchscreen keypad, or operated remotely from a smart phone or by using a Z-wave compatible home automation or security device. In our door lock tests, we tried to defeat it by kicking in the door, picking the lock, and drilling it. It was excellent at resisting kick-in, very good at resisting picking but poor at resisting drilling—as were all but two of the dozens of locks in our tests. You can customize codes for different members of the family or to allow entry to a repairman. And the lock features a graduated set of alerts that let you know if someone has opened the door, tampered with the lock, or attempted a forced entry.

    Whirlpool Duet WFL98HEBU, $1,500, and
    Whirlpool Duet WEL98HEBU
    , $1,500

    Sometimes you don’t feel like running up or down stairs to see whether your clothes are done. This matching washer and dryer pair has apps that let you track your laundry’s progress while you’re doing other things and even turn the machines on or off. The dryer is also among those with a duct-blockage indicator, which the manufacturer says improves lagging performance and efficiency and helps prevent dryer fires. Both made out list of recommended washers and dryers.

    Generac Mobile Link, $280

    Having a stationary generator doesn’t guarantee you’ll have power. You still need to regularly check the LCD screen on the unit to ensure that the machine is working and isn’t displaying any service-needed messages. But you can’t always be home to do that. Mobile Link is one of a few products that can e-mail or text you or a servicing dealer if a problem arises during the generator’s periodic self-check. Service after the first year is $12.50 per month or $100 per year. Among stationary generators it works with are two that we recommend: the 7-kilowatt Generac 6237, a CR Best Buy at $2,250, and the 13-kW Generac 6241, $3,500.

    —Mary H.J. Farrell (@mhjfarrell on Twitter)

    Holiday Gift 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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    What's in Those Holiday Coffee Drinks?

    Starbucks just added a new offering to its menu of holiday coffee drinks—the Holiday Spice Flat White, which has 240 calories, 7 grams of fat, and 30 grams of sugars in 16 ounces. That’s more calories and sugars than you’d get in a Hershey's Bar. But what’s really surprising is that it’s one of the better seasonal options available at popular coffee chains.

    To see just how much diet damage these drinks can do, we compared the nutrition numbers on a few 16-ounce holiday coffee drinks ordered straight off the menus with no customization at Caribou Coffee, Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf, Dunkin' Donuts, Peet's Coffee, and Starbucks. And then our nutrition experts came up with some tips to help you turn them into more manageable indulgences.  

    Make Them Healthier

    While we can’t turn them into health foods, if you mix and match these tips, you can shave significant calories, fat, and sugars off your holiday coffee drink.

    1. Downsize. Sounds obvious, but ordering a smaller size improves the drink’s nutritional profile while still giving you the flavor you’re craving. In some cases, it will drop the drink’s calorie count below 200. For example, a Short (8 ounces) Gingerbread Latte at Starbucks clocks in at 180 calories, 8 grams of fat, and 20 grams of sugars. A small drink is still a treat, but it’s one that’s a lot easier to work into your diet.

    2. Swap in nonfat milk. It won’t help you cut the sugars, but it will trim calories and fat. For example, at Dunkin’ Donuts, where the default milk is whole, you save 150 calories and 9 grams of fat on a 16-ounce Peppermint Mocha Latte by switching to skim. (At Caribou, Peet’s, and Starbucks, you get 2 percent milk if you don’t specify.) This trick won’t help at Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf, though; all the flavored drinks are already made with nonfat milk. It also doesn’t work if the drink is created with a premade mix, as some of the eggnog lattes are.

    3. Leave off the whipped cream. Not all coffee drinks come topped with whipped cream, but skipping it on the ones that do can save you 80 to 150 calories and 7 to 14 g of fat.

    4. Combine tips 1 through 3. It will make a real dent in the calories, fat, and sugars. For instance at Starbucks, a Short Caramel Brulée with nonfat milk and no whipped cream has 160 calories, 0 grams of fat, and 25 grams of sugars. That's 64 percent fewer calories and half the sugars of the original—and you completely cut the fat. The Holiday Spice Flat White drops to 100 calories, 0 grams of fat, and 17 grams of sugars when you order a Short with nonfat milk (it doesn’t come with whipped cream).

    5. Skip the eggnog drinks. They have more calories, fat, and sugars than an equal size serving of actual eggnog. In fact, eggnog lattes were usually the nutritionally worst holiday coffee drinks in the chains we looked at that served them.

    6. Switch the syrup. Although milk has about 12 grams of sugars per 8 ounces from the lactose that it naturally contains, the majority of the sugar calories in a lot of these drinks come from flavored syrup. Some of the chains offer sugar-free syrups for certain drinks.

    For instance, you can order the Northern Lite version of the 16 ounce Caramel High Rise at Caribou—made with sugar-free syrup, nonfat milk, and nonfat whipped cream—and cut the calories by 40 percent and the sugars nearly in half compared to the original. If there isn't a sugar-free option, ask the server to use half the normal amount of syrup in your drink.  

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

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    Beware of Fat-Finger Dialing Scams

    Who doesn't misdial a phone number now and again? Unfortunately, that innocent mistake can cost you money if the number you punch in by accident is a toll-free one being used as part of a so-called "fat-finger dialing" scam. 

    The idea behind fat-finger fraud is to get you to pay for something you didn't want or to steal personal or financial data, and it's ridiculously easy to fall victim to it. It can happen if you accidentally use the wrong toll-free code—say the real number's code is 800, but the scammers have paid to have an 888 or 866 attached to the number's other seven digits. Or scammers may buy a toll-free number that has the same prefix as the number of a legitimate company but is otherwise off by one number. 

    Familiar Numbers Make Good Targets

    Fat-finger scammers target frequently called toll-free numbers, especially those that belong to respected companies and government agencies. AARP Fraud Watch has identified at least 30 commonly called numbers that have been spoofed in this way, including those for banks, investment firms, utility companies, insurance agencies, and government offices, such as the Social Security Administration, the Veterans Administration, and the IRS.

    When consumers are patched through to the misdialed number, they're told they've won a prize, have been selected for a survey, or are eligible for gift vouchers, low-cost medical alert systems, magazine renewals, or vacation rewards. All they have to do is provide their address and the number of their credit or debit card, after which the voice on the other end of the line promises to transfer them to their intended party.

    In fact, if you follow through, the only thing you’ll receive is an additional charge on your credit card, bank account (if using a debit card), or phone bill. Worse, you may find that you’ve been automatically enrolled in an ongoing subscription service you’ll be billed for every month. Worse, by sharing personal and financial information, you may open yourself to identity theft.

    Adding insult to injury, the lure the scammers use is perfectly legal, says Bikram Bandy, coordinator for the FTC’s National Do Not Call Registry. “It’s not illegal under our rules to obtain a phone number that is similar to the phone number of another company,” he says. “What is illegal is saying or doing things to trick someone into thinking you’re someone you’re not. But if someone calls and I say, ‘Congratulations, you’ve won a magazine offer,’ and I tell you how much it will cost and ask you for your credit card information, that’s not illegal because no misrepresentation has been made even if the way the consumer stumbled into the offer was through a fat-finger dial situation.”

    How Consumers Can Protect Themselves

    • Double-check before you dial. “Be careful when you dial out,” warns Amy Nofziger, regional director with the AARP Foundation. “If you have a phone that digitally displays the number you dialed, make sure to compare it to what you meant to dial.”
    • Know your toll-free codes. It’s important to understand that there are multiple toll-free codes (800, 888, and 866). “Sometimes I’ve heard consumers say they didn’t know, so they automatically choose 800 for dialing out,” Nofziger says.
    • Don’t hesitate to hang up. If you are greeted by a recording or a live operator who doesn’t mention by name the company or agency you think you’ve called, hang up, check the number again, and redial. If it happens again, hang up and wait till you can confirm the number you are calling. Similarly, if you are told that you’ve qualified for a prize, have been selected for a survey, or are being offered a “free” product, end the phone call immediately.
    • Guard your personal information. Always be suspicious of anyone who asks for your Social Security number, birth date, or other personal information.
    • Pay attention to your phone bills. Check to make sure you aren’t being charged for any services or long distance calls you didn’t authorize or make.
    • Call it in. If you see anything suspicious report it to your phone company immediately. Also consider filing a complaint with your State’s Attorney General’s office, the Federal Trade Commission, and the Federal Communications Commission.

     

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

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    2017 Volvo S90 Sedan Unveiled

    Flush with a multibillion dollar cash infusion from its Chinese owner, Geely, Volvo continues its product line revival with the introduction of the all-new S90 luxury sedan, previewed here ahead of its official world debut at the Detroit auto show next month.

    Based on the same platform as the XC90 SUV, the Volvo S90 shares a design aesthetic, with artful creases and Scandinavian minimalism communicating a premium feel. More significantly, Volvo promises that the S90 continues the march down the road to no deaths or significant injuries by the year 2020 in the brand’s new cars through the implementation of active safety technology. 

    Among its high-tech tricks, the S90 introduces large-animal detection to its City Safety system, enabling the car to spot a large critter, like a deer, day or night, then issue a collision warning and assist with braking, as needed. Also, the Volvo S90 will feature Pilot Assist, a semi-autonomous feature with lane-keep assist that works at speeds well beyond U.S. speed limits. (Read about automatic emergency braking.)

    The Volvo S90 will be powered by the same powerplants as the XC90: a four-cylinder, 2.0-liter turbocharged engine called T5 (about 250 hp); a supercharged variant called T6 (316 hp); and the T8 (about 400 hp), a plug-in hybrid.

    Details are expected to be released in the weeks ahead, but for now, these photos provide a look at a near-future model with promise.

    The Volvo S90 will compete with the Audi A6, BMW 5 Series, and Mercedes-Benz E-Class. We just completed our XC90 road test, finding the interior to be impeccably finished, albeit with a confusing infotainment system; the four-cylinder engine does the job, though fuel economy isn’t so stellar; and handling responsive and secure.

    Read the complete Volvo XC90 road test.  

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    8 Products on Deep Discount in December

    This time of year you'll see plenty of deep discount signs in stores. You might think just about everything is on sale for the holidays. But Consumer Reports product research experts, who track prices all year long, have uncovered the items that are truly on deep discount in December.

    So if your holiday gift list includes small or large appliances (from blenders and juicers to ranges and refrigerators), electronics (including camcorders, fitness trackers, and cell phones), bikes and other toys (including tablets for kids, plus cat and dog toys), we've got the shopping tips that will help you find the right models. If you're a subscriber, you can check our Ratings to find out which models did best in our lab tests.

    1. Sales on Appliances

    Both large and small appliances will be on sale this month. Many stores will slash prices on last year's inventory to make way for new models. Plus some appliances go on sale around most holidays; check out our list of 10 top-rated small appliances for $50 or less. Some shopping tips:

    Become an expert. No matter what appliances you're in the market for, our buying guides will steer you to the right model for your needs and tell you what to look for in stores, whether you're looking for blenders, coffeemakers, dishwashers, food processors, juicers, ranges, microwaves, mixers, refrigerators, toasters, washing machines and dryers, and more.

    Postpone your purchase. If you're not in a rush, prices should drop even more after December 25, though inventories are likely to be thin.

    2. Steals on Wheels

    The weather this time of year can make it tough to jump on your bike and go for a spin. Stir-crazy cyclists who find it's time to update or replace an old bike will find great deals in stores in December. Some shopping tips:

    Zero in on the right type of bike. Start by reading our bike buying guide. And don't forget important accessories when you shop. Cycling shoes with cleats can increase your efficiency while pedaling, for example.  

    Find the right helmet. It can provide lifesaving head protection in an accident. For more on that important piece of equipment, see our bike helmet buying guide and Ratings.

    3. Camcorder Deals

    Want some great video of your holiday celebrations? Although many of us take videos with our phones, in most cases you'll get better quality (due to better lenses) if you spring for a camcorder. Some shopping tips:

    Check the type, size, weight, controls, and features. Decide on the type of HD camcorder you want to buy. If you want better quality and more options, consider a full-size model. If you need a smaller, more portable model or if you're an athlete or adventurer who loves to capture footage of yourself, then consider an action cam.

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

    Drill down to the right model. Check out our camcorder buying guide. If you're a subscriber you can access our Ratings of camcorders to see which ones were tops in our lab tests, including each model's picture quality, audio quality, and battery life.

    4. Price Cuts on Grills

    It's the end of the grilling season in most areas of the country, so you can find deep discounts. Shopping online will likely be your best bet; you'll find more selection, and many free shipping offers. Some shopping tips:

    Examine the burners. Burners are the most-replaced part. So look for high-quality stainless steel, cast iron, or cast brass burners, and a 10-year or longer warranty. Those with a long warranty should last longer than the plain steel burners in most grills.

    See what the grates are made of. Stainless steel and coated cast-iron grates are best; such grates are sturdy and resist rust. Wide, closely spaced bars sear better than thin round rods.

    For more shopping tips, read our grill buying guide. And, if you're a subscriber, you'll find the top performing grills in our Ratings.  

    5. Reductions on GPS Devices

    GPS prices have come down to the point where even budget units include features previously available only on more expensive models, such as the ability to speak street names, issue speed warnings, and provide reality view, graphically representing major intersections. Some shopping tips:

    Where will you use it? If you often fly to new places and rent vehicles, or if you own more than one car, a portable GPS system might be the way to go, especially with prices for entry-level systems starting at less than $100. To help you decide, check our GPS buying guide and Ratings.

    Check the local laws. States have been known to place restrictions on windshield mounts. Most manufacturers include a plastic disk that sticks to the dashboard to provide an alternative mounting location.

    6. Discounts on Small Electronics

    December is a good time to buy many small consumer electronics. As with many items you buy, deciding which ones are right depends on which type fit your needs and come with features that are important to you. Our buying guides can help; for example, we have one for Blu-ray players, E-book readers, and headphones, and a list of other electronics guides. Some shopping tips:

    Give them a try. Make sure you'll be comfortable using the product. Look for displays that are easy to read and controls that are easy to use. For example, check out E-book readers' screen size. Measured diagonally, screens range from about 5 to 10 inches. A 6-inch screen offers a good combination of adequate size and moderate price for most people. It will be small and light enough to slip into a handbag or briefcase.

    Consider online retailers, too. In recent years, the Consumer Reports readers we've surveyed who shopped online were more satisfied overall than those who shopped at a walk-in store. In fact, websites as a whole outdid walk-in stores for quality, selection, and price.

    7. Lower Prices on Toys

    Early holiday shoppers will find great sales on toys this month, although you may not find discounts on the hottest playthings. The right toy can make key developmental stages more fun—for your child and for you. Our toy buying guide can help you to find age-appropriate toys for your baby—and to learn what you can do to play up their important lessons.

    Don't forget your pets. Our shopping and safety advice in our cat and dog toys guide will make the holiday more enjoyable for them, too. Some shopping tips:

    Consider the classics. Don't overlook toys such as stackable plastic "doughnuts," shape sorters, building blocks, and interlocking plastic oversized beads for very young children. There's a reason that they've been around so long. For more clues about what toys your child might like, take note of what toys he or she gravitates to on play dates and/or at day care.

    Tablets are likely on the list for older kids. Since the advent of the game-changing Apple iPad early in 2010, tablet computers have been one of the hottest electronics products on the market. Much as adults love them, though, children may just love them even more, as tablet-owning parents can verify.

    So how do you choose the best tablet for your child? Here's our roundup of the best kids' tablets for the holidays. If you're a subscriber, see our Ratings of kids’ tablets.

    8. TV Costs Drop

    It's possible to find good TVs selling for a few hundred dollars, while others go for several thousand, and there are many sets that fall in between those extremes. Screen size, features, brand, and more affect the price. Our TV buying guide will help you get the most bang for your buck, no matter how much you want to spend. Subscribers should consult our TV Ratings before hitting the stores to make sure you get a set that performed well in our lab tests. The video below shows you how we test TVs in our labs. Some shopping tips:

    It's hard to judge TVs well in stores. That's because TVs are usually set to a Retail or Store mode, which pumps up brightness and color to a level that looks great under fluorescent lights. And despite many improvements, most LCDs still have limited viewing angles. That means the picture looks best only from a fairly narrow sweet spot right in front of the screen. We recommend checking the viewing angle by watching a TV from off to the side, and from above and below the main part of the image.

    And whatever you experience in the store, it's important to also check the viewing angle after you've set it up in your home. We suggest you do it immediately so you can easily return the set if it proves disappointing.

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

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

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    Amazon Updates Alexa on the Fire TV

    If you've lamented that the Alexa voice assistant on the Amazon Fire TV in your living room just didn't seem as smart as the one on the Amazon Echo Bluetooth speaker in your kitchen, you were right. But no longer.

    Thanks to a recent update, Fire TV's Alexa is now on par with the Echo's, so it can control smart devices, play music and audiobooks, and provide news, weather, traffic, and sports updates. You can also re-order items you've purchased through Amazon Prime.

    Perhaps the biggest news is the Amazon Fire TV's growing ability to act as the control interface in the company's vision of the smart home, since many Fire TVs will be located in living rooms and family rooms, while the Echo is often relegated to the kitchen. That means that, just like the Echo, your Fire TV can now control Philips Hue and GE Link lights, Insteon dimmers and hubs, Wink products such as thermostats, and Samsung SmartThings devices, using voice commands.

    In addition, both devices support IFTTT—"If This, Then That"—an Internet-based third-party service that automates how your apps, web services, and devices interact with each other, using a set of rules or conditions called "recipes." Basically with IFTTT, one action can automatically trigger another one. So, for example, "liking" an Instagram photo will cause it to be automatically saved to your gallery, or asking Alexa to find your phone will trigger it to start ringing.

    Just be aware that for now Alexa is only available on Amazon Fire TV devices running Fire OS software version 5 or higher, and Fire TV Stick devices running Fire OS 5.0.3 or higher. So if you own one of these devices, make sure the firmware has the latest update.

    If you're in the market for a new streaming media player, we recently tested four of the newest models, including the new Apple TV, Fire TV, the revamped Chromecast, and Roku 4. And if you'd like more information on IFTT, visit Amazon's Echo help website.

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

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    Potato Latkes Face-off: Grater vs. Food Processor

    Eating latkes—aka potato pancakes—is the favorite part of Hanukkah for many people. But making them, oy vey (or not so much fun). While traditionalists love the taste of latkes made with a box grater, you can’t beat a food processor for speed, ease, and safety—and no scraped knuckles.  Consumer Reports has tested both graters and food choppers and processors, so here’s the news on whichever tool you choose.

    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.

    By hand

    In our tests of kitchen gadgets, we found three that will help with the latkes. For peeling potatoes, we liked the Kyocera Perfect Peeler, $18, which has a comfortable handle and sharp ceramic blade that adjusts to left, right, and center positions. The blade is horizontal. If you prefer the more familiar vertical blade, opt for the Oxo Good Grips Serrated Peeler. It only costs $8.

    On to the shredding. Oxo Good Grips also makes an $18 box grater that our testers found convenient. It has multiple grating surfaces, a soft grip, nonslip base, and an optional storage container with measurement markings. Do you add onions to your latkes? Then opt for the Cuisinart Mini Prep Plus DLC-2A, $40, a 3-cup chopper that combines very good value with solid performance.

    By machine

    The Breville BFP800XL/A, $400, aced our shredding and chopping tests, perfect if you shred half of the potatoes and then do a coarse puree on the other half with the metal blade. Plus its 16-cup capacity means plenty of latkes to go around. The Cusinart Elite Die-Cast, $300, also holds 16 cups and was very good at shredding in our tests.

    A recipe for “Crispy Potato Latkes” by America’s Test Kitchen recommends “shredding the potatoes on the large holes of a box grater” and adds if you decide to use a food processor, make sure to “cut the potatoes into 2-inch lengths so you’re left with short shreds.” And may we add, don't forget to pass the sour cream and applesauce.

    —Celia Kuperszmid Lehrman

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    Should You Update Your In-Car Nav System for the Holidays?

    Built-in navigation systems have improved in recent years, and they now offer more features for less money. (Some systems now cost as little as $500.) Compared with portable GPS, factory-installed systems are well-integrated into your car’s operation and controls. They work seamlessly with the entertainment system, respond to voice commands, and can readily access your smartphone’s contact list. But keeping those maps up to date can be much more expensive and take more work than updating a portable unit or a smartphone.

    Unlike Google Maps on your phone, most built-in systems don’t continually update themselves over the air with new roads, lanes, interchanges, and businesses, or even traffic laws, such as speed limits and left-turn restrictions. Nor do they offer periodic one-click updates like leading navigation apps.

    Instead, updates must be purchased at a cost of $129 to $299, either through the automaker, dealership, or online. Plus, there can be an extra charge for installation. For that much money, you could buy a very nice portable GPS unit with lifetime map and traffic updates. (Check out the Garmin Nuvi 58LMT, for example.)

    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.

    According to navigation-system maker TomTom, 18 percent of roads in maps need updating every year. Unless you have updated your maps recently, you could be relying on really old maps. Navigating to a point of interest, such as a restaurant? Be prepared to improvise. Navteq says more than 230,000 points of interest may be added to their database in a year. So it pays to have the latest maps in your car, and the holidays are a good time to think about getting an update.

    We suggest starting with Navteq’s website, where the electronic mapmaker posts links to updates for more than 30 automotive brands. Some updates can be downloaded directly from Navteq and installed yourself. Others make you enter the year and model of your car and may take you to your automaker’s website, where you can download the software or make an appointment at a local dealer to have your maps updated. The updated map software comes either on a DVD or an SD card, depending on what your car requires. Having a professional handle the installation costs extra, of course.

    A Navteq spokesperson explained that maps are updated for each automaker every 12 to 18 months. At over $100 a pop, updating maps at that frequency is hard to justify for most drivers. But, if you routinely use a built-in navigator and/or count on it for periodic travel, best budget for at least one, if not two, map updates during your ownership period. During the holiday season, we've seen discounts offered on maps from several brands.

    If you’re road tripping for the holidays this year, you probably don’t want to risk heading out with a map that’s more than a few years old. Plus, upgrading maps for a family member can be a kind gift, as they not be familiar with how to do it. And if you have an older car, whose system can no longer be readily updated, take solace in knowing that the touch screen can be a great place to suction-cup-mount a new portable GPS device.

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

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    Best Small Appliances for Holiday Gifts

    Some of Consumer Reports’ top-rated small appliances carry big price tags so now’s a good time to look for holiday sales online or in the stores. As the holiday countdown continues, prices are bound to go down as well. Of course, you can also find some top-performing gems for a lot less as we recently reported in “Small appliances at Black Friday prices all year long.” Here are some of the best small appliances from our tests (prices are suggested retail).

    Stand mixers

    For those who have always coveted a stand mixer, consider one of the three KitchenAids on our list of top mixer picks, the Professional, the Classic, and the Artisan. We also recommend the Breville BEM800XL, $300. Another good choice is the Hamilton Beach Eclectrics 6322[1], $180.

    Blenders

    Our four top blenders range in price from $200 to $650 with the Vitamix Professional Series 750, $650, taking the top perch. For the same price you can get the next best performer, the Blendtec Designer 725. But for hundreds less you can buy the Dash Chef Series Digital, $200, and add a pop of color to your countertop as well.

    Pod coffeemakers

    There DeLonghi single-serve coffeemakers have percolated to the top of our Ratings and range in price from $130 to $180 including the top-rated DeLonghi Nescafé Dolce Gusto Genio EDG455T. Joining them on the list is the Starbucks Verismo 600, $150. All four make a good cup of Joe but you may want to make your selection based on the type of coffee you prefer as they all use proprietary pods.

    Toaster ovens

    Breville also won the top spot in our toaster oven tests with its Breville Smart Oven BOV800XL, $250. Another good choice is the Panasonic FlashXpress NB-G110P, $150, which is the revived version of a fan favorite discontinued in 2006. It’s speedy and also makes good toast. Joining them on the list of top toaster oven picks are models from Cuisinart and another Breville.

    Juicers

    Our top-rated juicer is the Juiceman JM8000S, $100, but we’ve seen it on sale for less, which makes it even more of a bargain. Another pick from our  juicer tests is the Kuvings Whole Slow B6000, $430, an auger-type juicer that is a good choice for nutrition nuts because it leaves more pulp behind.

    Food processors

    Again, Breville sits atop our Ratings with the Breville BFP800XL/A food processor, $400, but it’s joined on the list of top picks by four Cuisinarts, a name almost synonymous with food processors. They range in price from $170 to $300. And don’t overlook the Oster Versa 1100 Series Performance, which at $150 is the lowest priced of all our picks.

    Where to buy small appliances

    In a Consumer Reports’ survey of subscribers who made almost 32,000 appliance purchases last year, Amazon.com was given top marks for selection, quality, service, checkout ease and shipping, and the prices were considered very good. Almost as satisfying were shopping experiences at QVC.com, although readers gave Amazon better marks for selection.

    —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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    A New Calculator Helps You Decide When to File for Social Security

    When should you file for Social Security benefits? It’s a question millions of Americans stew over.

    You can start receiving benefits as early as age 62. Or you can wait until you are 70 years old. The answer, ultimately, is that like a fine wine, or an aged hunk of beef, waiting to file has its benefits. It can mean a difference of hundreds, or even thousands of dollars in monthly checks.

    new calculator from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau in cooperation with the Social Security Administration can help you determine when to file for Social Security so you can maximize your benefits.

    By typing in your date of birth, the age at which you expect to retire, and a few other pieces of information, you’ll get an estimate of how much money you can expect to receive monthly and annually, as well as the cumulative amount over your lifetime, assuming you live to the age of 85. You can use this calculator on a mobile phone.

    The results can be eye-opening. Let’s say you type into the calculator a birth date of Nov. 23, 1954. You also plug in that your current annual salary is $90,000 and that you plan to file for Social Security benefits at the age of 62. The calculator will tell you that over your lifetime, you’ll reap a total of $464,232 in today's dollars. Not bad, you may think.

    But it will also tell you that if you wait until age 66 to claim benefits (the age that Social Security considers full retirement age for people born in 1954), you’ll bring in an additional $44,200 over your lifetime. Hold off until age 70 and that number climbs to $65,688.

    There are other calculators. Some will give you even more precise results than the CFPB’s calculator, but you’ll have to pay a fee. Others are free but may require more personally identifying information. The Quick Calculator from the Social Security Administration, for example, is free. It requires you to register on its website, and then input your Social Security number. It then incorporates your past earnings to give you a more exact projection of how much your benefits will be.

    The AARP provides a free Social Security benefits calculator that, like the CFPB’s calculator, does not require personally identifying information.  It estimates the benefits you’ll receive depending on when you first claim Social Security. Unlike other calculators, it also allows couples to estimate their combined benefits, useful if they claim at different ages or continue working until age 70.

    If you are willing to pay a fee, Social Security Choices offers greater precision than the free calculators, taking into account not just your work history, but whether you are married, widowed or divorced. You can also tell this tool if you expect to work beyond your full retirement age. The service provides you with a customized report that tells you when to file in order to maximize your benefits.

    No matter which calculator you choose, there is one common lesson you’ll learn from all of them: If you can, it pays to wait until the age of 70 to file for benefits. But never consider waiting any longer. After that age, there are no future increases in Social Security payouts.

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

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    5 Best Wireless Speakers Under $300

    Wireless speakers are becoming household essentials for many music lovers, especially at this time of year when holiday parties are fueled by tunes stored on smartphones or laptops, or streamed from services such as Spotify and Pandora. There are very good models available for under $300, bringing wireless speakers into range as holiday gifts. So, whether you and your shopping-list headliners are looking to blast out “We Are the World” or get mellow with Nat King Cole’s “The Christmas Song,” we can recommend the best wireless speakers for your budget and taste. The music will sound much better than it would if you were playing through the tiny speakers on your phone or laptop.

    Marshall Kilburn, $300

    If you’re a guitar enthusiast, you’ll quickly recognize the product design on this speaker from the company’s renowned line of guitar amps. What makes this speaker stand out is that it’s easier to use than most models in our Ratings. Each of the three most prominent controls (for volume, bass and treble) on the top of the unit has a nice, tactile feel to it. The speaker also has two buttons that make it easy to change audio sources and for Bluetooth pairing. We particularly liked how all the controls were clearly labeled and were easy to access. And the speaker has good audio quality.

    Sony SRS-X77, $250

    This elegant-looking wireless speaker has touch-sensitive buttons on top, a metal mesh grille on the front, and brushed aluminum side panels. The speaker is both Apple AirPlay- and DLNA-compatible. (Airplay works primarily with iOS devices and DLNA works with Android and PC-based devices. Both let you wirelessly access content located on one device, like a smartphone or tablet, to play on another.) You can touch your speaker with most Android smartphones or tablets, using NFC to link the two via Bluetooth. Or connect to the speaker via an Ethernet line. We found the speaker to have good audio quality.

    Sony SRS-X55, $180

    Although it’s cheaper than many portable wireless speakers, this Bluetooth-compatible speaker still produces good sound quality. We found it very easy to use—for instance, the touch controls are large and simple to spot. The volume is clearly marked and the source selector is easy to find on top of the unit. And the device is versatile, offering analog audio inputs as well.  

    Denon HEOS 1 w/ Go Pack, $300

    This wireless speaker from Denon stands out for its intriguing hexagonal-shaped design. But it's not just about looks: The HEOS 1 delivers good sound quality. It can join a Wi-Fi network or get its music through a DLNA connection. The Go Pack accessory is a combination battery-and-Bluetooth adaptor that makes the speaker a travel companion. But if you want to use this speaker only at home(without the Go Pack accessory), you can save $100. 

    Logitech UE Megaboom, $300

    Unlike many speakers, which look boxy and black, this long, artfully designed Bluetooth stereo speaker comes in four colors. We found it easy to use and it delivers good sound quality. Another nice extra is that the manufacturer claims it’s waterproof, so you won’t have to worry if you want to listen to your tunes by the pool next summer. If you stand it upright, the speaker is tall and thin and doesn’t take up a lot of room on a tabletop.

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

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    Pro-Style Ranges That Produce Amateur Results

    At Consumer Reports we buy every range we test. So we know what it’s like to pay big money for pro-style ranges. We recently bought the $4,600 Viking RVGR33015BSS and the $3,600 Blue Star RCS36SBSS ranges. We don’t rate them on style—that’s for you to decide—but we do review them on how quickly they delivered cooktop heat, and how well they simmered, baked, broiled, and more. Here’s what we found.

    Blue Star RCS36SBSS, $3,600
    Five of the six burners on this 36-inch gas range are high power. The Blue Star RCS36SBSS, above, wasn’t the fastest at delivering heat to bring our 6-quart pot of water to a near boil. Simmering was poor. This range was unable to simmer tomato sauce using a high-power large burner set to low. The oven is big but fair at baking although good at broiling. And it doesn't have a self-cleaning feature. Overall, this range was among the lowest-scoring 36-inch pro-style models in our Ratings. 

    Viking RVGR33015BSS, $4,600
    Three of the five burners on the Viking RVGR33015BSS 30-inch gas range (shown above) are high-power and delivered fast heat. Simmering was superb. We measure usable oven space and found the oven to be small. Baking was only fair, meaning cookies were not evenly browned when baked on two racks simultaneously, and the same for cakes. Broiling was good, and self-cleaning was fair. Overall, this range was among the lowest-scoring 30-inch pro-style models in our Ratings. 

    A few things to consider
    When you’re thinking of spending thousands on a range there are some things you’ll want to consider. Through years of testing 30- and 36-inch- wide pro-style ranges we’ve found that they’re not the best ranges we’ve tested. Even though the ranges may look similar, features vary. Some have small ovens despite their width, typically 36 inches or more, and warranties differ. For more pros and cons, read "Some Pro-Style Ranges Look Better Than They Cook."

    Shopping for a range?
    See our full range Ratings first. In addition to pro-style ranges we test single and double-oven electric smoothtops, induction, gas, and dual-fuel ranges. They pair a gas cooktop with an electric oven.

    Be sure to check our kitchen planning guide if your new range will be part of a remodel.

    And if you have any questions about ranges, send them to kjaneway@consumer.org.

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

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