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  • 12/10/15--13:01: Top 5 Gifts for Mom
  • Top 5 Gifts for Mom

    There's no doubt that moms do so much for us. From keeping us healthy as kids to lending the best advice well after we leave the nest, most of us would be lost without our moms. This holiday season, let us help you find the perfect gift for your mom. From top-notch smartphones to the latest e-reader these 5 products will put a smile on her face all year round.

    Fitbit Surge, $250

    What makes this fitness tracker so appealing? In addition to monitoring your heart rate and steps, it has a built­-in GPS to track your pace, distance, and speed. Much like a smartwatch, it also notifies you about text messages and phone calls, which lets you keep your phone in a purse or backpack when you race off to do errands.

    Check our smartwatches buying guide and Ratings for more information.

    Kindle Paperwhite, $120

    With its velvety case. sharp contrast, and super-crisp text, the Paperwhite is a welcome treat for anyone who takes pleasure in reading. The new typeface was designed for bookworms (hence the name Bookerly), and the character spacing and kerning engine has been upgraded, Amazon says. Spouses will love this gift, too, because the adjustable front light won't disturb their slumber. 

    LG G4, $480

    The 2015 model earns kudos for its excellent 5.5-inch, quad-HD display and a very good 15.9-megapixel camera that allows a user to take still photos while shooting video. Other useful features on the Android 5.1 device include a removable battery, a memory card slot, a built-in infrared blaster to control TVs and cable boxes, and the ability to split its screen between two running apps.

    Check our cell phone & services buying guide and Ratings for more information.

    Pebble Time, $200

    Many widely sold smartwatches offer fancy touch screens, advanced fitness functions, and wireless wallets—they try to do so much at once that their batteries are spent after a single day. Pebble designs for simplicity. This watch has a built-­in heart-­rate monitor and a no-­frills, energy­-efficient color screen that Pebble claims will last three to seven days on a charge. The interface is easy to operate. In short, the Time gives you the features you want at a fraction of the Apple Watch’s price. Pairs with Android (4.0 or later) and Apple (iOS 8) devices. Available in black, white, or red.

    Check our smartwatches buying guide and Ratings for more information.

    Apple iPhone 6s, From $650

    It may look just like the iPhone 6, but this model has an enticing edge over its sales-­record predecessor. The sensitive 3D Touch display lets users preview messages, peek at attachments without opening them, and take instant selfies without having to launch the photo app. In short, it makes the pointer finger more powerful than ever. As an added bonus, it ranks with the 6s Plus among the first iPhones to take 4K video.

    Check our cell phone & services buying guide and Ratings for more information.

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

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  • 12/10/15--23:59: How to Avoid a Lemon Car
  • How to Avoid a Lemon Car

    Even a normally reliable vehicle can become a problem if it’s not properly maintained. Worse is the used car that has hidden damage from an accident, flood, or other incident that can affect its performance, safety, or reliability. That’s why it’s important to thoroughly check out any vehicle you intend to buy. The last thing you want is to pay thousands of dollars for a set of problems someone else is trying to get rid of.

    Here, we’ll tell you how to begin sizing up a vehicle over the phone by asking the right questions. We’ll also show you how to perform a preliminary inspection and test drive, check a vehicle’s past for hidden problems, and discuss the pros and cons of certified used cars.

    By investing a reasonable amount of time up front, you can greatly reduce the chance that you’ll end up buying a car that will be trouble for you down the road.

    Ask The Right Questions

    When you’ve found a vehicle or two you’re interested in—whether being sold by a dealership or privately—you can begin sizing up their condition and history over the phone. Ask some basic questions. The answers can help you determine whether it’s worth a trip to take a closer look, particularly if you’re buying from a private party. Break the ice with soft questions such as the car’s color, but get specific about its condition, features, and history. Any strange or far-fetched answers should put you on guard.

    “How many miles does it have?”
    If the mileage is higher than 20,000 per year or lower than 5,000, ask why. A high-mileage car used on a long highway commute is better than if it did a lot of short trips or stop-and-go driving. Still, take any “these were all highway miles” claim with a grain of salt. Low mileage is nice, but it is no guarantee of gentle care.

    “How is it equipped?”
    Whether they’re listed in the ad or not, ask about key features: transmission type; A/C; antilock brakes; airbags; audio system; power windows, locks, seats, and mirrors; cruise control; and so forth. Double-checking on those could produce some telling comments.

    “What's the car’s condition?”
    Start broad and see where the seller takes it. He or she could bring up something you wouldn’t have thought to ask about.

    “How about the body and interior?”
    If these areas weren’t covered before, ask about them specifically.

    “Has it been in an accident?”
    If yes, ask about the extent of the damage, the cost of repairs, and the shop that did the work. Don’t worry too much about minor scrapes, but think twice about a car that has been in a serious crash.

    “Do you have service records?”
    You want a car that has been well cared for. It should have had maintenance performed at regular manufacturer-specified intervals. Be skeptical if the owner claims to have done the maintenance but can’t produce any receipts. Ask for receipts for any new muffler, brakes, tires, or other “wear” parts that have been replaced. Repair-shop receipts normally note the car’s odometer reading, helping you verify the car’s history.

    “Has the car been recalled?”
    Ask if any safety-recall work was performed or, more important, still needs to be done. Dealerships keep records of that. Note the mileage when work was performed.  

    Questions for Private Sellers

    “Have you owned it since it was new?”
    You want to be able to piece together the car’s service history. Be wary about a car that has changed hands several times in a few years.

    “Are you the person who drove it the most?”
    Ideally, you want to meet the car’s principal driver or drivers to see if they strike you as responsible.

    “Why are you selling the car?”
    Look for a plausible explanation rather than an interesting story. If the answer sounds evasive, be wary.

    Inspect it Carefully

    No matter who you buy from, always look over the vehicle thoroughly and take it to a mechanic for a complete inspection. Dress in old clothes and give the car a good going-over. You can learn a great deal by using your eyes, ears, and nose.

    Take along a friend for help. Do your inspection in daylight on a dry day, as floodlights can make cars look shiny and hide body defects. The car should be parked on a level surface and shouldn’t have been driven for at least an hour before your inspection.  


    Body condition. Check each panel and the roof looking for scratches, dents, and rust. Watch out for misaligned panels or large gaps, which can indicate either sloppy assembly at the factory or shoddy repair. The paint color and finish should be the same on every body panel.

    If you think a dent may have been patched, put a small magnet on it. The magnet won’t stick to an area with body filler. If other parts of the car have been repainted, there may be paint adhering to the rubber seals around the hood and trunk lid.

    Minor cosmetic flaws and light scratches are no cause for concern, but rust is. Check the body for blistered paint or rust. Also inspect the wheel wells, the panels beneath the doors, and the door bottoms. Bring a flashlight to look inside the wheel wells for rust.

    Open and close each door, the hood, and the trunk. Gently lift and let go of each door, particularly the driver’s door. If it seems loose on its hinges, the car has seen hard or long use. Inspectrubber seals for tearing or rot.

    Glass. Look carefully at the vehicle glass to make sure there are no cracks or large, pocked areas. A small stone chip may not be cause for alarm, though you should bring it up as a bargaining point in negotiations. But cracks in the windshield will worsen and lead to a costly repair.

    Suspension. Walk around the car to see if it’s sitting level. Push each corner down. If the shock absorbers are in good shape, the car should rebound just once, not bounce up and down. Grab the top of each front tire and tug it back and forth. If you feel play in it or hear a clunking or ticking sound, the wheel bearings or suspension joints may be shot.

    Lights and lenses. Have a friend confirm that all lights are working. Make sure all light lenses and reflectors are intact and not cracked, fogged with moisture, or missing.

    Tires. You can tell a lot from the tires. A car with less than, say, 20,000 miles should probably still have its original tires. Be wary of a low-mileage car with new tires; the odometer may have been rolled back. Also check that all four tires are the same. Any different tires may show they have been replaced.

    Tread wear should be even across the width of the tread and the same on the left and right side tires. Ask if the tires have been regularly rotated. If not, the wear is usually more severe on the drive wheels.

    Aggressive drivers tend to put heavy wear on the outside shoulder of the front tires, at the edge of the sidewall. Assume the car has been driven hard if that area shows heavier wear.

    Tires that have been driven while overinflated tend to wear more in the middle than on the sides. Chronically underinflated tires show more wear on the sides. Cupped tires, those that are worn unevenly along the tread’s circumference, may be a sign of a problem with the steering, suspension, or brakes.

    Tires must have at least 1/16 inch of tread to be legal. Check the tread depth with a tread-depth tool (available at auto-parts stores) or a quarter. Insert the quarter into the tread groove, with Washington’s head down. If you can see the top of his head, the tire should be replaced.

    Examine the sidewalls for scuffing, cracks, or bulges, and look for dents or cracks on each wheel. Be sure to check that the spare is in good shape and the proper jack and lug wrench are present.


    It’s the inside of a car that may matter most since that’s where you’ll be spending the most time.

    Odor. When you first open the car door, sniff the interior. A musty, moldy, or mildewy smell could indicate water leaks. Remove the floor mats and check for wet spots on the carpet. An acrid smell may indicate that the car was used by a smoker. Check the lighter and ashtray for evidence. Some odors, such as mold or smoke, can be very hard to get rid of. If you don’t like what you smell, find another car.

    Seats. Try out all the seats even if you likely won't sit in the rear. Upholstery shouldn’t be ripped or badly worn, particularly in a car with low mileage. Try all the seat adjustments to make sure they work properly and that you can find a good driving position.

    Pedals. The rubber on the brake, clutch, and gas pedals gives an indication of use. A car with low miles shouldn’t show much wear. Pedal rubber that’s worn through in spots—or brand-new—indicates that the car has been driven a lot.

    Instruments and controls. Turn the ignition switch, or without starting the engine. You should make sure that all of the warning lights—including the “Check engine” light—illuminate for a few seconds and go off when you start the engine. Note if the engine is hard to start when cold and if it idles smoothly. Then try out every switch, button, and lever.

    With the engine running, turn on the heater full blast to see how hot it gets, and how quickly. Switch on the air conditioning and make sure it quickly blows cold.

    Sound system. Check reception on AM, FM, and satellite radio. If there's a CD player, try loading and ejecting a disc. Bring along your smartphone or MP3 player to test out the connection. Try pairing the device via Bluetooth if the car is so equipped.

    Roof. Check the headliner and roof trim for stains or sags to see if water is leaking through ill-fitting doors or windows. If equipped with a sunroof or moonroof, check to see if it opens and closes properly and seals well when shut. Inspect the convertible top for tears by shining a flashlight up into it.

    Trunk. Use your nose as well as your eyes. Sniff and look for signs of water entry. See if the carpeting feels wet or smells musty, and check the spare-tire well for water or rust.

    Under the Hood

    It’s best to make these checks with the engine cool. Look first at the general condition of the engine bay. Dirt and dust are normal, but be wary if you see oil splattered about or on the pavement below. Also be on the lookout for a battery covered with corrosion, or wires and hoses hanging loose.

    Hoses and belts. Squeeze the various rubber hoses running to the radiator, air conditioner, and other parts. The rubber should be firm and supple, not rock-hard, cracked, or mushy. Feel the drive belts to determine whether they are frayed.

    Fluids. The owner’s manual will point out where to look to check all fluid levels. Engine oil should be dark brown or black, but not gritty. If the oil is honey-colored, it was just changed. If the dipstick has water droplets on it or gray or foamy oil, it could indicate a cracked engine block or blown head gasket, two serious problems. Transmission fluid should be pinkish, not brown, and smell like oil, with no “burnt” odor. The dipstick shouldn’t leave visible metal particles on the rag, another sign of a serious problem.

    Check the automatic-transmission fluid with the engine warmed up and running. On some, the dipstick has two sets of marks for checking when the engine is either cold or warm. Power-steering and brake fluid should be within the safe zone.

    Radiator. Look into the plastic reservoir that’s connected by a rubber hose to the radiator. The coolant should be greenish or orange, not a milky or rusty color. Greenish stains appearing on the outside of the radiator are a sure sign of pinhole leaks.

    Battery. Some “maintenance free” ones have a built-in charge indicator: green usually means the battery is in good shape; yellow or black usually means it's dying. These reveal the condition of just one cell and may not give an accurate reading on the health of the whole battery. If the battery has filler caps, wipe off the top with a rag, then carefully pry off or unscrew the caps to look at the liquid level. A low level may mean that the battery has been working too hard. Any competent mechanic can check out the charging system and do a “load test” on the battery.

    Under the Vehicle

    If you can find where a car is usually parked, look for marks from old puddles of gasoline, oil, coolant, or transmission fluid. Clear water that drips from under the car on a hot day is probably just water condensed from the air conditioner.

    Feel the tailpipe for residue. If it’s black and greasy, it means burnt oil. Tailpipe smudge should be dry and dark gray. While some rust is normal, heavy rust might be OK but could mean a new exhaust system might be needed.

    If the vehicle is high enough to slide under, you may be able to do some basic checks underneath. (If not, make sure your mechanic checks it.) Spread an old blanket on the ground and look under the engine with a flashlight. If you see oil drips, oily leaks, or green or red fluid on the engine or the pavement beneath the car, it’s not a good sign.

    On a front-wheel-drive car, examine the constant-velocity-joint boots inboard of the front wheels. They are round, black-rubber bellows at the ends of the axle shafts. If they are split and leaking grease, assume that the car has bad CV joints, another costly repair.

    Structural components with kinks and large dents in the floor pan or fuel tank all indicate a past accident. Welding on the frame suggests a section might have been replaced or cut out to perform repair work. Fresh undercoating may hide recent structural repairs.

    Visit Your Mechanic

    Before you close the deal, have the car scrutinized by a repair shop that routinely does diagnostic work. A dealer should have no problem lending you the car to have it inspected as long as you leave identification. If a salesperson tells you that an independent inspection is not necessary because the dealership has already done it, insist on having your mechanic look at it. If a private seller is reluctant to let you drive the car to a shop, offer to follow the seller to the shop where the inspection will take place.

    A thorough diagnosis should cost around $100, but check the price in advance. Ask the mechanic for a written report detailing the car’s condition, noting any problems found and the cost to repair them. You can then use the report in any negotiations with the seller.

    If you don’t know of any repair shops, try to get a referral from someone you trust. You can also ask for the name of a good shop at a local auto-parts store. If you can’t get referrals, look on the Yellow Pages website or at the Car Care Council. This organization is supported by the auto aftermarket industry, but there are no performance criteria for shops listed on the site.

    To check for complaints about any shops you aren’t familiar with, research the companies at the Better Business Bureau’s website. Members of the American Automobile Association (AAA) can use one of its recommended facilities.

    If you’re visiting a shop for the first time, look for certificates or window decals from AAA or the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence (ASE). AAA-certified garages must meet certain quality standards. The ASE grants certificates to mechanics who pass exams in any of eight areas of expertise. The institute does not certify shops as a whole, but if 75 percent of the employees are ASE-certified, the shop can carry the seal.

    The Problem of Salvage Vehicles

    Repairing and reselling “salvage” vehicles is a very large business. About one million salvage vehicles are returned to the road each year, according to the National Association of Consumer Advocates (NACA), an organization of attorneys who represent consumers victimized by fraudulent or abusive business practices.

    While it is possible to restore such a vehicle to good condition, rebuilders often cut costs to make a profit. Even if they try to do a good job, no one can predict the crashworthiness and mechanical reliability of those vehicles.

    Similar issues affect the estimated 60,000 vehicles that are repurchased by manufacturers under state lemon-law programs. Many are resold at retail. Lemons usually don’t have the severe problems you’d expect with salvage cars. But it can be very difficult verifying that the chronic defect has been corrected.

    State laws differ, sometimes considerably, on what they define as salvage vehicles and on how—or even if—those vehicles need to be inspected and buyers informed before resale. Your state DMV can explain how to spot a salvage title.

    Consumer Reports found that differing standards have led to interstate trafficking of salvage and lemon vehicles. Even if titles of former lemon and salvage vehicles are conspicuously branded or labeled as such, those who buy a used car from a dealership often never see the previous title.

    If you’ve unknowingly purchased a salvage vehicle or recycled lemon, contact your state consumer and motor vehicle officials. You can check with NACA, which keeps a list of lawyers who specialize in such cases.

    Before you buy, check to see what protection your state offers and what’s required of the seller. The Federal Trade Commission requires used-car dealers to post a "buyer’s guide" on every used car, which details in writing all warranty information. Keep this after the sale.

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

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    Poll: Consumers Are Slow to Begin Holiday Shopping

    Three weeks before Christmas and all through the nation, it looks like many Americans are taking a shopping vacation.

    That, at least, is the upshot from the latest Consumer Reports Holiday Poll. According to the poll, 36 percent of adults, who responded to our questions between December 1 and December 6, 2015, haven’t done a lick of shopping. That puts the number of holiday spending procrastinators 6 percentage points higher than last year at this time.

    Why that’s the case is hard to pinpoint. While bargain-conscious shoppers might be lusting for last-minute blockbuster deals, our poll reveals that people are of two minds when it comes to holiday spending. On one hand, they’re not fretting as much about buying beyond their means. Only 28 percent of respondents said they were “fairly, very, or extremely concerned” about overspending this season compared to 44 percent in 2014. In fact, 47 percent told us they’re “not at all concerned” about over-the-top holiday spending—more than double the number last year.

    But for others, a lack of money to cover their holiday spending on gifts, entertaining, travel, and so forth, preys on their minds during this festive period. It was by far the top source of holiday-related anxiety, cited by 46 percent of those who feel stressed. Other anxiety-inducers: not enough energy to get everything done (cited by 13 percent); insufficient time to buy gifts (12 percent); trying to figure out good gifts to give (12 percent); having to entertain certain family members or in-laws (7 percent); and travel (3 percent).

    That’s not to say consumers are in panic mode about their holiday spending, as Christmas Day nears. Fifty-five percent of those surveyed who’d started their gift shopping have finished at least half of it; 29 percent are done with three-quarters of their list. And most people—73 percent—say they have things under control and expect to be ready and raring to go for the holidays. Only about one in 10 say they’re feeling overwhelmed and unprepared.

    The Christmas Tree Debate

    As in past years, there continues to be one hot-button issue driving a wedge between Christmas celebrants: whether to buy a real tree or an artificial one. This year, chalk one up for the faux faction. Fifty-three percent of respondents said they’d rather have an artificial tree; 44 percent prefer the one made by nature. However, the gap is narrowing. Last year 60 percent favored an artificial tree.

    Poll Methodology: The Consumer Reports National Research Center designed a survey to explore general sentiment and shopping behaviors for the 2015 winter holiday season. In December 2015, ORC International administered the survey via phone to a nationally representative sample of over 1,300 randomly selected adult U.S. residents; 80 percent will be shopping this holiday season. The data were statistically weighted so that respondents in the survey were demographically and geographically representative of the U.S. population. The margin of error is +/-3.0 percentage points at the 95 percent confidence level. Fifty-two percent of the sample was female, and the median age was 45 years old.

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

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    Top-Performing Coffeemakers for Under the Tree

    Coffee preferences vary from person to person and region to region. So the trick to finding the perfect coffeemaker to give as a gift is to know at least something about the intended recipient. To help, Consumer Reports tests drip, single-serve, and other varieties of coffeemakers. Here are several coffeemakers from our list of top coffeemaker picks as well as a few near-misses to consider as you narrow down your choices—everything from a quick serving on the go to all you need for a discriminating crowd.

    Speedy and convenient single-serve coffeemakers

    Coffee made in a single-serve (pod) coffeemaker may not please a true coffee aficionado, but for the coffee drinker in a hurry the best of these machines can’t be beat. The DeLonghi Nescafé Dolce Gusto Genio EDG455T, $130, has a scroll button for selecting among serving sizes. Cup speed and size consistency are top-notch, and the unit is fairly easy to use. One caveat: Like other DeLonghi Nescafé models, it requires so-called “flavor capsules” (only 18 choices in all), available only from Nescafé.

    For Starbucks lovers

    If you're a die-hard fan of both Starbucks and the single-serve coffee experience, you can appreciate the Starbucks Verismo 600, $150, which improves on the earlier Verismo 580 for service-size options. First- and second-cup delivery are speedy, and each cup is of uniform size. Where the Starbucks falls short, though, is in its limited options for varying the strength of what you brew. The selection of Starbucks capsules is limited to about 15 so far, though this might suffice if you like Starbucks’ usual flavors.

    To fill travel mugs in a hurry

    Make 16 ounces of coffee with most pod coffeemakers, and you’ll get an 8-ounce brew with twice the water. The Black & Decker Single Serve CM620B, $35, makes enough standard drip coffee to fill a 16-ounce travel mug. Most of the to-go drip models we tested are fairly barebones, reflected in their convenience scores, but this model brews close to industry guidelines for time and temperature. For even better brew performance, the pricier KitchenAid Architect KCM0402ACS, $100, brews 18 ounces.

    For serving a crowd

    A machine intended for the weekday-morning dash may not suffice when you’re hosting a party. The Cuisinart Crystal SCC-1000 Limited Edition Perfec Temp, $200, is one of the only drip models in our tests that can brew a full 14 cups. While it's pricey—this one’s gussied up with Swarovski elements for a jeweled look—it has top-notch brew performance matched by a carafe we found easy to hold and pour from. It's also programmable, with both a small-batch setting and brew-strength control. The Cuisinart Perfec Temp DCC-2800 is similar and costs half as much.

    A more affordable drip machine

    A CR Best Buy, the 12-cup Mr. Coffee BVMC-SJX33GT, $40, is among the best all-around drip coffeemakers we tested. It brews at industry-recommended guidelines, and we found setup, operation, and cleanup fairly easy. Among other attractions for the bargain price are a water filter, special cleaning cycle, and two-hour auto-shutoff. An insulated carafe is sold separately.

    When serving coffee at a buffet

    How about letting guests fill up their mugs at the coffeemaker? The 12-cup brew-and-dispense Cuisinart Coffee on Demand DCC-3000, $100, has top-notch brewing and convenient operation. A gauge tells you how much coffee is left in the tank, the water and coffee reservoirs are removable for cleaning, and an indicator tells you when the machine itself needs cleaning.

    When you want to grind your own

    For the freshest cup of coffee, grind your beans just before you brew them. The Cuisinart Grind & Brew DGB-700BC, $150, is impressive overall and has auto-shutoff, a water filter, and a permanent, cupcake-style filter basket.

    A fun machine that makes a tasty brew

    The best performer overall among machines we’ve billed as electric French-press coffeemakers, the iCoffee RCB100-BC12, $150, looks like a drip coffeemaker with a slightly larger basket. Hot-water jets in the basket spritz and circulate the grounds in hot water—similar to a French press—before filling the carafe. Remington says the process eliminates the bitter aftertastes of drip coffee. We liked how easy this unit was to use, and we found the carafe easy to handle, pour from, and empty.

    Even more choices

    See our coffeemaker Ratings of more than 120 coffee and espresso makers. Need a little more guidance on what to buy? Read our coffeemaker buying guide.

    —Ed Perratore (@EdPerratore on Twitter)

    Holiday Planning & Shopping Guide

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

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

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    Top 5 Gifts for Teens and Tweens

    Anyone who has ever tried to buy for a teen or tween knows what a monumental task it can be. We're here to help. We put together a list of some of the top-rated electronics of 2015 that will have your kids high-fiving you this holiday season (because hugging just isn't cool at that age). 

    Grado Prestige SR325e headphones, $300

    These high­-quality, over­-the-­ear headphones earned our top rating for good reason: Superior sound comes from the swiveling ear cups, housed in aluminum. They have a cool retro ’60s look, too. And thanks to the open­-air design, they won’t keep you from hearing the doorbell when the UPS man arrives with other gifts you’ve ordered.

    Check our headphone buying guide and Ratings for more information.

    GoPro Hero4 Silver, $390

    This lightweight action cam lets the wearer be an auteur with its built-in wireless and 1.7-inch touch-screen display, not to mention the arsenal of GoPro mounts and accessories. it delivers good-quality video and pictures. And it performs just fine 100 feet underwater, according to our tests. it doesn't have an image stabilizer, though, so prepare for some shaky-cam footage if you take it off-road.

    Apple MacBook MF855LL/A, $1,200

    Extremely thin and lightweight, this 12-­inch laptop features a new pressure-­sensitive trackpad that lets you preview info and issue commands with the force of your touch. Outfitted with a Core M processor and a 256­-gigabyte solid state drive, it also earns props for its 16.25-­hour battery life, an excellent 2304x1440 display, and very good performance and ergonomics.

    Check our computer buying guide and Ratings for more information.

    Kindle Paperwhite, $120

    With its velvety case. sharp contrast, and super-crisp text, the Paperwhite is a welcome treat for anyone who takes pleasure in reading. The new typeface was designed for bookworms (hence the name Bookerly), and the character spacing and kerning engine has been upgraded, Amazon says. Spouses will love this gift, too, because the adjustable front light won't disturb their slumber. 

    Apple iPhone 6s, From $650

    It may look just like the iPhone 6, but this model has an enticing edge over its sales-­record predecessor. The sensitive 3D Touch display lets users preview messages, peek at attachments without opening them, and take instant selfies without having to launch the photo app. In short, it makes the pointer finger more powerful than ever. As an added bonus, it ranks with the 6s Plus among the first iPhones to take 4K video.

    Check our cell phone & services buying guide and Ratings for more information.

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

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    How to Avoid Holiday Package Theft at Home

    Unless you’ve had a package stolen from your doorstep, you probably don’t give much thought to where FedEx or UPS or the U.S. Postal Service drops off a delivery.

    But maybe you should. Law-enforcement agencies from Jacksonville, Florida, to Princeton, Colorado, are alerting people about package theft by Scrooge-y crooks who could make the holidays a little less merry by snatching holiday gifts from their doorsteps. This comes in a year when package-delivery companies are forecasting record deliveries: FedEx estimates it will transport 317 million parcels from Black Friday through Christmas season, UPS says it will handle 630 million packages, and the U.S. Postal Service expects to make 600 million deliveries.

    Fortunately, there are some steps you can take to make sure your packages stay out of the grasp of pilferers.

    With the U.S. Postal Service, for instance, you can authorize the USPS to have certain deliveries left at a back or side door, on the porch, in the garage, or with a neighbor (to do so, you'll first need to create an account at and enter the package tracking number to see whether it's eligible). Deliveries can also be held for pickup at a post office or be delivered to a GoPost location. Gopost is a new, convenient way to receive and ship packages. They’re automated, secured, self-service parcel lockers placed near certain post offices, grocery stores, pharmacies, transportation hubs, shopping centers.

    FedEx and UPS also offer alternatives. With FedEx Delivery Manager, for instance, you can customize delivery times and addresses, have your packages held at a FedEx location, sign for your delivery in advance, and provide specific delivery location instructions. You can sign up for free but FedEx charges a fee for certain services, such as scheduling a delivery.

    UPS offers a service called My Choice (the basic program is free) that gives you advance notice of delivery times and allows you to reroute packages to another address or reschedule deliveries for a future date. You can also activate a vacation setting to have packages held and delivered when you return home.

    UPS has a separate service, Access Point, that allows you to drop off and pick up packages at designated neighborhood businesses—supermarkets, convenience stores, pharmacies, dry cleaners, and the like. (You’ll need a government ID to retrieve your package.) There are more than 8,000 Access Point locations nationwide, and the service has expanded to around 100 cities including, Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, and New York City. All 4,400 UPS Store locations across the country are part of the network. also offers an alternative to home delivery. Instead of adding a shipping address at checkout, you can designate delivery to an Amazon Locker—a self-service kiosk located in shopping centers, retail stores, transit stations, and elsewhere. Once you select an Amazon Locker, you’ll receive a pickup code when the package is delivered. You can then collect your package up to three business days after delivery. If you fail to do so, the package will be returned to Amazon. Amazon Lockers are currently in a smattering of cities including Philadelphia, Portland, and San Diego.

    If you do nothing and end up being a victim of a package snatcher, you might have at least one good way to recoup your loss. American Express offers protection for members who charge a covered purchase that ends up being stolen. The coverage is limited to $1,000 per occurrence. Check with your credit-card company for specifics.

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

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    The Danger of Making Assumptions With Crash Tests

    Crash test results provide valuable insights into how a car will perform in a collision. They're a motivator for automakers to make ongoing improvements. But sometimes, the results defy expectations—even with popular models.

    For instance, consumers might assume vehicles from a prestige brand would be top performers. But paying extra for an upscale model doesn’t automatically translate to greater occupant protection.

    For instance, the 2015 Acura TLX earned an Acceptable score from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety in the challenging small overlap front crash test, measured by careening a car at 40 mph into a rigid barrier that strikes just the front corner. The test approximates what would be a glancing head-on impact of two cars each traveling at 40 mph—what would happen when a car slightly drifts over the double-yellow centerline on a rural road.

    With recently redesigned cars, the presumption is that they will achieve a Good rating. Clearly, that is not always the case.

    Dissatisfied with its test outcome for the 2015 model, Acura reinforced the front pillar structure. And yet, when the 2016 Acura TLX was tested, it scored worse—earning a Marginal rating.

    This unusual scenario underscores the need to check ratings, rather than assume an Acura would perform well, or that the new model would be better than last year’s car.

    For those looking at safety and value, it is hard to ignore that the Honda Accord gets Good marks across the board from IIHS. This is an interesting scenario, in that the TLX borrows quite a bit of its structure from the Accord. 

    Acura is not alone among the upscale/midsized sedans in having troubles with the small-offset test. The Audi A4 is rated Poor, with the BMW 3 Series and Volkswagen CC being rated Marginal.

    Toyota has struggled with this test, as well. In 2013, the RAV4 earned a Poor score. At the same time, the Subaru Forester received top marks for front, side, rear, rollover, and small offset tests, proving that this wasn’t an inherent limitation of small SUVs. The RAV4 returned with updates to score a Good with 2015 models built after November 2014—a confusing situation for used-car shoppers who must look to build dates to ensure they are getting the protection they expect.

    The same can be said for the Toyota Camry, a model that struggled to achieve top marks since its 2012 redesign. Out of the gate, the Camry scored a Poor for the small overlap test, admittedly the year the test was introduced, when other models struggled, as well. Updates for 2014 saw the score rise to Acceptable; Toyota advises that the score applies to 2014.5 models built after December 16, 2013. Improvements continued the following model year, pushing the score up to Good for 2015.

    As the Camry and RAV4 struggled to earn IIHS accolades, each had its Consumer Reports recommendation suspended when their scores were Poor. We are pleased by the improvements, but expect that, again, used-car shoppers can be easily confused. Both models have excellent reputations for reliability, road test scores, and perhaps even safety, but their crash test protection has varied significantly.

    But as you can see from these examples, tests do motivate positive change. However, as automakers watch costs, it is clear that some models are specifically engineered for the test, rather than in the spirit of the intended protection.

    The IIHS exposed just such a scenario with the latest Ford F-150. Comparing cab variations, IIHS found that the popular SuperCrew had extra material to improve its small offset performance that was absent on the SuperCab truck. Where the F-150 extended cab came up short was in allowing compressed structure to intrude into the passenger cabin, earning a Poor structure rating.

    IIHS test findings show that the toepan, parking brake, and brake pedal were pushed by 10-13 inches toward the driver, and the dashboard was jammed against the crash-test dummy’s legs. Further, the steering column was pushed back nearly eight inches, coming “dangerously close” to the dummy’s chest.

    “Ford added structural elements to the crew cab’s front frame to earn a good small overlap rating and a Top Safety Pick award, but didn’t do the same for the extended cab,” said David Zuby, IIHS chief research officer. “In a small overlap front crash like this, there’s no question you’d rather be driving the crew cab than the extended cab.”

    Bottom Line

    Crash tests provide a valuable service for consumers. But to truly benefit, car shoppers must look deeper into the ratings rather than rely on marketing and hearsay.  

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

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    Food Court Picks and Skips: What to Eat and What to Avoid at the Mall

    If you want to keep both your wallet and your waistline happy this holiday season, don’t shop on an empty stomach. Researchers from the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota analyzed the purchases of 81 department store shoppers as they left the store and found that those who were hungry bought more and spent about 64 percent more than those who weren’t famished.

    The best advice is to hit the mall fully fortified, but marathon gift buying works up an appetite—and the wafting scent of cinnamon rolls or chocolate chips cookies can lead you by the nose right to the food court. To help you make smart choices, Consumer Reports’ dietitians scoured the menus at 10 popular mall food court chains and found some better alternatives to 20 not-so-healthy dishes.

    Au Bon Pain

    Small swaps at this food court eatery can make a big dietary difference. At Au Bon Pain, a simple change in salad dressing on the Chicken Caesar Asiago Salad results in a savings of 180 calories and 21 grams of fat. Leaving off the Cheddar cheese on the plain bagel sandwich saves 60 calories and 5 grams of fat. But skip the cheese and choose the smaller Skinny Bagel, and you save about half the calories and 5 grams of fat.

    Auntie Anne’s

    Pretzels have a reputation for being a low-fat snack, but not at Auntie Anne’s, where they’re slathered in butter. Plus, the savory options are often rolled in salt. Fortunately, the chain gives you the option of ordering many of the pretzels sans butter and salt, which cuts calories and sodium. If you must have a dip, your best option is the marinara. The other savory dips and the sweet glaze and caramel dips from this food court favorite pack in too many calories and too much fat, sugars, or sodium.  


    Cinnabon certainly isn’t the healthiest place you could visit at the food court, but if you can’t resist, it’s good to know that there are some better choices. Be sure to say no thanks to the frosting cup that come with the Cinnasticks and Cinnasweeties, though—it adds 210 calories, 13 g fat, 6 g saturated fat, 21 g sugars, and 120 mg of sodium.  

    Five Guys

    Portion control is the secret to having the burger you crave without going overboard. The “little” options are still a satisfying 6 to 7 ounces, compared to 11 ounces for the regular size. Just forgo the fries—a order here will set you back 953 calories, 41 g fat, and 962 mg sodium. 

    Panda Express

    You probably wouldn’t expect a beef dish to have the equivalent of 6 teaspoons of sugars (24 grams). Some of the sugars in the Bejing Beef at this food court Asian restaurant come from the onions and red peppers, but a fair amount is found in the “sweet-tangy” sauce everything is tossed in. The Veggie Spring Roll is actually not such a bad option, but we included it here to show you that the vegetarian choice isn’t always the better nutritional choice. 


    Our first skip choice here is a bit misleading because a cheese slice is the second lowest calorie and fat pizza slice at Sbarro. But the Skinny Slice is the best pizza option. Strombolis are among the worst choices here; the meat ones are upwards of 1,000 calories and even the spinach one is 900 calories. The Tomato, Broccoli, and Spinach is the best of the bunch. Split one with a friend or go for a Broccoli, Tomato, and Spinach Slice—it's a little better overall. 


    Both these sandwiches sound as if they’d fall into the lighter fare category, which just goes to show you that you can’t always choose by the name. In fact, the Chicken Artichoke sandwich has as many calories as Starbucks’ BBQ Beef Brisket on Sourdough—and more fat. As with most fast food fare, both sandwiches are too high in sodium. You shouldn’t get more than 2,300 milligrams a day. The Santa Fe supplies 37 percent of that, but the Chicken Artichoke is worse, providing nearly half your daily maximum. 

    The Caffe Mocha is made with 2 percent milk and comes topped with sweetened whipped cream. Skip the whip and the calories drop to 290, the fat to 8 grams, and the saturated fat to 5 grams. The Skinny is made with nonfat milk, sugar-free syrup, and no whip. These nutritional values are for the 16-ounce Grande; order a Short (8 ounces) and you’ll slash the numbers in half. Tempted by one of the holiday coffee offerings? Be aware that they can be calorie and sugar bombs, not just at Starbucks, but at other coffee chains, too. 


    Depending on what else is piled on, a turkey sandwich can be rather high in calories and fat, as this Turkey Italiano shows. Roast beef is actually one of the leanest cold cut options. Adding Cheddar cheese increases the calories by 60 and the sodium by 110 milligrams. With either turkey or roast beef, though, the simpilier the sandwich, the healthier. Skip condiments if you can—they add lots of sodium and sometimes calories. For example, mustard is practically calorie-free, but it contributes 120 milligrams of sodium to the roast beef sandwich. Add extra veggies for flavor and moisture instead. 

    Taco Bell

    The Fresco Soft Taco’s are on the small side, but as you can see even if you eat two, you still making a healthier move by choosing the tacos over the taco salad. And the sodium count of the Grilled Stuffed Burrito—just 100 milligrams shy of your maximum daily allotment—is a good example of why it’s best to stay away from foods with XXL in their name. We found a hearty alternative that has less sodium along with far fewer calories and much less fat, saturated fat, and sodium. 


    Sorbet Fizz sounds so light, doesn’t it? When you look at the numbers you see it’s anything but. The drink is made with sorbet and Sprite. Nutritional information depends on the flavor of sorbet; what we used here is the best possible scenario. The counts can rise far higher—up to 610 calories and a whopping 111 grams of sugars. That’s 28 teaspoons. Plain sorbet is a far better pick, or if you want something creamy frozen yogurt is OK—just watch what you top it with.

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

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  • 12/12/15--04:29: 7 Great Tech Gifts for Kids
  • 7 Great Tech Gifts for Kids

    When it comes to amazing and delighting young family members, it's hard to top an electronic toy. With holiday shopping in full swing, we picked seven cool gifts that feature some surprisingly sophisticated technology—the kind that’s transforming our world—and yet, each one somehow manages to make that tech instructional, easy to master, and, yes, fun. Of course, many of these tech gifts require apps, which means you should be prepared to hand over your tablet and smartphone for the holidays.

    Sphero BB-8, $150 (age 8+)
    Based on the heroic droid in the new Star Wars: The Force Awakens movie, this app-controlled tech gift was the big hit at our annual party for pint-sized testers. It instantly drew kids in with its chirps and beeps and LED-infused glow—not to mention the marvelous, head-scratching way that its head remains firmly perched atop its rolling-orb body. (Hint: magnets.)

    Beneath all that charm, though, there’s some fairly advanced technology, including an inductive charging system and an internal guidance system governed by a gyroscope and an accelerometer. But you don’t need to know anything about that stuff to operate it. You just need to download the app and swipe your finger across the virtual joystick on the screen of a Bluetooth-enabled phone or tablet.

    Little Live Pets CleverKeet, $60 (age 5+)
    If you know a child who likes feathered-friends, this parakeet makes for a charming companion. It talks, sings, dances, swings, and drives its own plastic cart. It’s also billed as an interactive toy. What does that mean? Well, the CleverKeet asks questions. It records words and phrases it hears and, yes, parrots them back to you. And it has sensors on its chest, back, and feet that initiate responses when touched or engaged. It does take a little muscle to attach and detach the feet from the various perches, though.

    Osmo Numbers, $30 (age 6+)
    In our view, any game that teaches math skills without feeling like homework deserves extra credit and this one earns that distinction.

    Part of the Osmo Gaming System (sold separately for $80), Osmo Numbers uses a little red mirror that clips over the camera on an iPad to scan numbered tiles placed on a tabletop in front of the device. Numbered bubbles on the screen encourage kids to add by placing tiles side by side, subtract by taking tiles away, and multiply by linking tiles together. When a child settles on the correct answer, the bubbles pop, freeing a cartoon fish or token.

    The game has multiple levels and numerous solutions to each task, but, thankfully, no time constraints. Why pressure kids when they’re having fun?

    Crayola Color Alive Easy Animation Studio, $25 (age 6+)
    This tech gift is designed to appeal to the budding filmmaker in your family. It comes with 12 colored pencils, a booklet featuring 10 characters, and a small plastic mannequin you can use to bring those characters to life. Once you color in the superhero, for example, you can scan it into a tablet (iOS or Android) and, using a free app, direct it through a series of pre-programmed moves, adding short snippets of dialogue to create a story.

    That part works okay. But you can also place the mannequin in a series of poses, snap them with the tablet’s camera, and the toy’s app is supposed to fill in the stop-motion gaps for “ultra-smooth life-like motion.” But our pirate’s beard somehow slid down his neck and his right arm mysteriously morphed right through his upper body—which is not exactly the sort of production quality a young Spielberg would accept. More disheartening still, the app often crashed when we tried to re-edit videos.

    Kano Computer Kit, $150 (age 6+)
    This kit won’t appeal to the diehard gamer set, but for 6- to 10-year olds fascinated by how things work—and DIY-happy moms and dads—the Kano is a great way to learn the fundamentals of computer science. Powered by a Raspberry Pi 2 processing unit, it takes roughly 20 minutes to assemble and includes WiFi and a touchpad-enabled keyboard. The open-source operating system invites safe exploration in a contained environment.

    PowerUp 3.0, $50 (age 14+)
    Flying paper airplanes is always fun, but this gadget literally takes it to a whole new level.

    Armed with the PowerUp’s mini motor and app, you can pilot your new craft by remote control, adjusting the speed of the propeller and the rudder via a Bluetooth-Smart-connected smartphone or tablet (iOS or Android). The kit comes with paper templates, a micro-USB cable for charging, and a spare rudder and propeller.

    Because the craft can be controlled from up to 180-feet away and it takes a hearty throw to get it airborne, you’re better off using it in a wide-open space, preferably with little wind. Our indoor flights tended to end quickly—with a crash.

    If you're concerned about safety, the rotors on the PowerUp 3.0 and the SKEYE Pico Drone below are not large enough or powerful enough to break the skin or cause serious pain. They can potentially get tangled up in hair, though. And both of these tech gifts move fast so take precautions to keep them from flying into someone's eyes.

    SKEYE Pico Drone, $45 (age 14+)
    Billed as the world’s smallest drone, this aircraft is less than an inch square and weighs only a quarter of an ounce. But don’t let the tiny size throw you off.

    The four rotors and six-axis flight control system allow you to perform some expert maneuvers, including hovering, flipping, spinning and diving. It takes some patience to master the controls, though, so you should probably reserve this gift for teens or flight-happy grown-ups. Once again, you'll want to use it in a wide-open space, at least until you earn your wings. If you’re indoors, we recommend high ceilings, too. And it’s a good idea to buy extra rotors.

    If you're still working on your holiday shopping list, be sure to check out our top gifts for moms and dads.

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

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    What to Do When Test-Driving a Car

    This is your chance to see how the vehicle performs and whether you can detect any problems with its drivetrain, steering, suspension, brakes, or other important system.

    You should drive all the vehicles you’re considering on the same day so you can compare them more easily. Drive them as long as possible—at least 30 minutes—and over different types of road surfaces and in various driving conditions. Plan your own driving route in advance. A salesperson or private seller may suggest routes that hide or minimize problems.

    Try to eliminate as many distractions as possible. Many dealerships may insist on sending someone along with you, and a private seller will certainly want to be present. Because the last thing you need is someone jabbering in your ear while you’re trying to concentrate, have a friend or relative engage in conversation with the salesperson or seller.

    Following are some of the major things you should concentrate on during your test drive. All cars have different personalities, and it’s important to find one that matches yours. Things that might seem insignificant now, such as the shape of the seats, could become major irritants later.

    Ride comfort. Is the ride soft, harsh, or somewhere in between? Does the suspension isolate you from the road, or do you feel every bump and ripple? Some suspensions feel comfortable over bumps but tend to be floaty, wallowing up and down a bit after a large bump. Look for a vehicle that feels tight and controlled over bumps, but not harsh.

    Ride comfort is determined by a vehicle’s suspension, tires, and even its seats, but it’s certainly one attribute measured by personal preference. Sporty cars, and even some sedans, have a firm ride, a common trade-off for sharp handling characteristics.

    This may not be for everyone. Some buyers who excitedly bought a sporty car regretted it later because the stiff ride seemed to accentuate every little bump in the road. To confirm your preference, we suggest you drive several comparable vehicles to evaluate the differences. Be sure the ride you experience during your test drive is one you can tolerate for the life of the car.

    Acceleration. Make sure that the engine provides adequate acceleration when starting from a stop and that you can merge safely into highway traffic.

    Acceleration depends primarily on the engine power, but it is also closely linked to the transmission. A great engine coupled with a mediocre transmission will deliver less-than-stellar performance. Conversely, a fairly small engine can appear much better in combination with a modern, well-designed manual or automatic transmission.

    One of the real benefits of a test drive is to see if you like the powertrain. If so, that’s great; but if not, now is the time to change your selection or keep looking. During your test drives, be sure to try quick acceleration from a stop and a rolling merge into fast freeway traffic.

    Braking. Do the brakes feel responsive without being too jerky? Braking is hard to evaluate thoroughly without professional help, but you can do a basic assessment. Feel how the vehicle responds when you depress the brake pedal, both softly and with more force. It should be nice and smooth, and it should be easy to get just the amount of stopping power you need without the car stopping too quickly or not quickly enough.

    Steering and handling. Does the car respond well to quick steering maneuvers? Does it track well (stay on course) when driving straight ahead on the highway, or does it need small, continual corrections? Does the car feel relaxed or too darty to be comfortable? And does it stay relatively composed on rough roads?

    Since vehicle response to quick steering maneuvers is a key factor in avoiding emergency situations, it’s important that you’re comfortable with the way your vehicle responds. It should be easy and controllable to maneuver along the road. The steering should not be so sensitive that it feels darty and not so slow that it takes a lot of turning to make a maneuver. You should also get good feedback through the steering wheel about what the car is doing on the road. Some steering systems feel numb and disconnected from the road.

    While driving slowly, turn the wheel a little right and left to make sure there’s not a big dead space in the center. Many vehicles have variable power steering, which makes them feel one way on the highway and another at slow speeds, such as when trying to maneuver into
    a tight parking space. You want the steering to feel light at parking speeds, with a firmer and more communicative feel at cruising speeds.

    An important note: You can’t test a vehicle at its handling and braking limits on a public road to see how it would respond in an emergency situation, such as when you’re trying to avoid an accident. For this see Consumer Reports’ road-test reports. We tell you how each car responded to our braking and emergency-handling tests and give individual Ratings for overall braking and emergency handling.

    Quietness. Consider engine, wind, and road noise, as well as squeaks and rattles. Turn off the radio and drive with the windows closed so you can hear what else is going on. Most cars suffer from background noises of one sort or another. The question is whether the ambient sounds are at a level you can live with.

    Engine noise has to do with the quality of the engine as well as its size and configuration. Four-cylinder engines are often the noisiest; V6 and V8 engines are far quieter. If any engine sounds coarse and loud under heavy acceleration or at highway speed, it could become more annoying later. Engines don’t get quieter with age.

    Wind noise is the next biggest annoyance, and side-view mirrors are the major culprits. Poorly designed mirrors roar and whistle, unlike better-designed ones. You should have little trouble telling which is which during your test drive.

    Listen at highway speed for wind noise coming through the roof. Leaky sunroof trim or roof rails may make a whistling sound.

    High-performance tires on sporty cars and off-road tires on SUVs and pickup trucks create the most tire noise. It can be annoying, but buyers who want those kinds of tires are usually willing to put up with the noise. The test drive is a good way to determine your tolerance level.

    Visibility. This takes into account a number of design factors, such as seating position, mirror effectiveness, and body design. It can vary greatly, even among similar vehicles. Several back-to-back test drives will quickly show which have the best visibility. And don’t forget to check out back when reversing.  

    Driving at night. It’s better to visually inspect a vehicle in daylight. But if you become serious about buying it, you should also try to test drive it at night. That’s the only way you’ll be able to tell how well the headlights perform, how and which switches, gauges, and controls are lighted for nighttime use, and whether there are any annoying reflections in the windshield.

    New Car Buying Guide

    Learn more about choosing a car, what to do at the dealership, pricing, trading in your car, financing, closing the deal and more in our new car buying guide.

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

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    3 Ways to Save While Shopping at Outlets

    To save money while holiday shopping, it may seem like a good idea to head to the outlets. But beware: Outlet malls can cause even the most disciplined shopper to overspend, especially this time of year.

    The main draw, of course, is that everything is on sale, and discounts are even better around the holidays. Typically you can save 25 to 65 percent; the average discount is 38 percent, according to Value Retail News, an industry publication.

    But don't assume every sweater, pair of slacks, or kitchen appliance is a steal. We shopped the outlets, and while we did find significant savings on many items, some of the goods we bought were actually cheaper in regular retail stores. To see the items that we found were worth a trip to the outlets–and those that weren't– read "The Inside Dope on Outlet Malls" and check out our Ratings of dozens of the biggest outlet chains based on value, quality, selection, and customer help.

    To get the deepest discounts, follow these three tips:

    1. Head to the Sales Rack

    Like regular stores, the biggest markdown on goods can generally be found on sale racks in the back of outlets. But before you buy, make sure the item you're interested in is really a good deal. There are shopping apps that will help you to scout for cheaper deals elsewhere.

    Some items, like clothing, can be made specifically for outlet malls so you won't be able to compare prices on all the items you find. Manufacturers usually tweak some construction details on their retail goods (using less expensive buttons, fewer stitches per square inch, thinner materials, or example) to sell them for less at outlets.

    The good news: We found very few seconds, irregulars, or returned items when we shopped at outlet malls recently. But it's a good idea to inspect goods carefully before you head to the register just to be sure they are in good condition.

    2. Time It Right

    Getting to an outlet mall can be a long trip. In Consumer Reports' survey of 15,789 readers who shopped at outlets, 34 percent traveled more than 50 miles from their home; one in five had to go more than 100 miles.

    If possible, grab a to-go coffee and hit the road early. Crowds are smaller and merchandise hasn't been picked over in the morning. Most shoppers go to outlets between noon and 3 p.m. If you're not a morning person, try going in the early evening.

    Another smart idea: Shop midweek if you can. Tuesday to Thursday is usually the quietest time at outlets. Weekends are chaotic, especially around holidays.

    Also, do some advance reconnaissance. It will help you to stay sane when you get to the outlet Check the website for the outlet the night before you go to find out the hours it is open. Study the outlet's map to find the best parking area and park close to the stores you want to visit so you can get in and out before the crowds (and checkout lines) became overwhelming.

    3. Be Loyal

    See if the malls near you have rewards programs. You can get exclusive, personalized coupons and sale offers. For example, Tanger, which operates 38 malls in the U.S, offers free coupon books that you can access on your mobile device, free gift cards once you hit certain spending levels, exclusive Web offers, and more for a one-time $10 fee.

    While you’re on the website, look for printable coupons. Some centers charge a fee for a book of coupons on-site, but you can generally download it for free if you've signed up for the rewards program.

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

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    Best and Worst Charities for Your Donations

    'Tis the season for charitable giving. But before you write a check, make sure you do a charity check-up. The sad truth is that not all nonprofits put their money where their mission is. 

    Earlier this year, the Federal Trade Commission and law enforcement partners from every state and the District of Columbia charged four cancer charities with defrauding consumers of more than $187 million. Instead of helping cancer patients, the heads of the Cancer Fund of America, Cancer Support Services, Children’s Cancer Fund of America, and the Breast Cancer Society allegedly funneled donations into luxury cruises, college tuition for family members and friends, gym memberships, sporting event and concert tickets, and even dating website memberships.

    And the ongoing refugee crisis in Europe led H. Art Taylor, president of the Better Business Bureau’s Wise Giving Alliance, to warn consumers about spurious solicitations for humanitarian help. (Use our advice to find out whether a charity is a scam.)

    Then there's the fact that even without being fraudulent, some charities routinely spend a larger amount of their donors’ dollars on administrative and fundraising costs than on programs that benefit people in need.

    Similar-sounding names can further confuse consumers. For example, while the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society allocates $19 to raise $100 and funnels 73 percent of its budget to programs, the Childhood Leukemia Foundation spends $65 for every $100 it raises and targets just 27 percent of its budget to programs. 

    So before you donate, check out organizations you’re considering with charity watchdogs, which make it easier to see where your dollars have the greatest impact. The three major ones are: the BBB Wise Giving AllianceCharity Navigator, and CharityWatch. They evaluate charities by looking at a number of factors, including how much of your donation actually reaches the causes you want to support.

    To get the approval of the Wise Giving Alliance, for example, organizations must spend at least 65 percent of their donations on charitable program activities, and fundraising costs can’t exceed 35 percent.

    CharityWatch gives its top rating to about a third of the more than 600 charities it evaluates. Charity Navigator, which looks at more than 8,000 organizations, many of them small and regional, lets you see which charities rate high by metro area. It also provides provides easy-to-follow lists, such as “10 top-notch charities” and, conversely, “10 consistently low-rated charities.” 

    Below are examples of high- and low-rated charities in various categories. As part of of this report on the best and worst charities, we looked for agreement—on positive and negative traits—among the three major watchdogs. Because not every group is evaluated by all three watchdogs, we relied in some cases on agreement by just two. We also left out highly rated charities that CharityWatch says obtain a considerable amount of income from the government (such as Save the Children).

    In short, to ensure that your dollars will make the most difference, do your homework before you donate. 

    How to Detect Charity Scams

    Whether the solicitation comes via email or on the phone, it might not be easy to tell whether it's legitimate. But the Federal Trade Commission says these signs should make you suspicious:

    • The “charity” can’t provide details about how donations are used.
    • The caller can’t provide proof—like a Federal tax ID number—that it’s a qualified charity and that your donation is tax-deductible.
    • You're pushed to donate immediately.
    • You’re asked to wire a donation.
    • You're thanked for a pledge you never made to convince you that you already agreed to donate.

    Charity Navigator says you should be especially skeptical of charitable solicitations that come via email if you haven't signed up to receive electronic communications from the organization the email purports to be from.

    Many scams also use the names and logos of legitimate charitable entities to trick you into giving money. So even if you see a heart-wrenching picture of a wounded warrior or a mournful-looking lemur, do not automatically click through to any link. Respond with your head, not your heart, by checking the organization out at the charity watchdog websites and assuring yourself that the email is legitimately connected to the organization you wish to help.

    If the organization is real but poorly rated, there's no need to investigate further. Just don't give.

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

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    Compact Strollers for Holiday Travel

    With gas prices low and the economy improving, more families will be traveling for the holidays this year than in recent memory, according to AAA. Whether traveling by car, train, or plane, families with tots in tow will appreciate the lightweight compact strollers that Consumer Reports recently tested. Here are four models that will get you and your little one on your way.

    Mountain Buggy Nano, $200

    A super-compact but full-featured stroller, the Mountain Buggy Nano folds down to the size of a small suitcase and fits in an overhead airplane bin. The stroller weighs 13 pounds and is suitable for children from 6 months old to 44 pounds. Included with the Nano are a belt and adapters to secure an infant car seat, so it can also be used for a newborn. Although storage in the stroller is a bit skimpy, this is a great choice for travel.
    Pros. The Nano was nimble with very good maneuverability. Features, especially folding, were not intuitive, but very easy once you’ve done it once or twice. Extras include a travel bag.
    Cons. The canopy can be a conundrum. When closed it can interfere with hand placement on the handlebar and gets in the way when folding the stroller. When open, the canopy obscures your view of the child passenger. The smallish basket has limited accessibility from the rear and is easier to reach from the front. The instructional videos on Mountain Buggy's website are more helpful than the owner's manual.

    Maclaren Mark II, $195

    Another travel option is the ultra-lightweight (about 7.5 pounds) Maclaren Mark II, an umbrella-style stroller with carry handle and strap.
    Pros. It folds compactly and is easy to carry around. Plus, our testers noted that the Maclaren Mark II was surprisingly maneuverable for such a small, lightweight stroller.
    Cons. The seat back does not recline, so if your child likes to lie back to nap, he’s out of luck. It’s not car-seat compatible and is not suitable for babies under age 6 months or who can’t sit up on their own. Testers found the handlebars a bit stiff and uncomfortable. Access to the storage basket is limited by the frame, especially from the rear.

    Graco Snugrider Elite, $100

    The Snugrider Elite car seat carrier frame accepts Graco SnugRide infant seats of either the Click Connect or Classic Connect series, which vary in weight limits from 30 to 40 pounds, or the Graco Infant SafeSeat.  
    Pros. It’s lightweight, compact, and easy to use. Maneuverability was very good in our tests. It’s car-seat compatible as sold, without the need for extra adapters. The large storage basket features a zippered pocket to hold small items such as your phone or keys.
    Cons. Although very good overall in maneuverability, our testers noted a slight wobbly feel when pushing the Snugrider. And because it’s a car seat carrier frame, once your child outgrows his infant car seat, he’s also outgrown this stroller.

    Nuna PEPP, $300

    Another compact option for travel but at 19 pounds, it’s heavier than it looks. Nuna calls its stroller the “Small Wonder” due to its many features and compact folded size. It’s suitable from “the moment your baby enters the world” through toddlerhood. Other features include a fully-reclining seat, one-touch brakes, and a 3-position seat back with zipper adjustments.
    Pros. Our testers found the Nuna PEPP to be easy to fold and open, even though folding required two hands. It stands when folded. The fully reclining seat means the PEPP can be used from birth.
    Cons. Heavier than the other three, the Nano PEPP isn’t car seat compatible as sold. You can buy an adapter for $50 that works with Nuna and some Maxi-Cosi and Cybex infant car seats. Testers found the handle to be hard and uncomfortable when pushing. The basket is small and narrow with limited access. The restraint system’s buckle is somewhat tricky at first.

    More choices

    For the results of our tests of traditional, all-terrain, and double strollers see our full stroller Ratings and recommendations.

    —Joan Muratore

    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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    Does the Volkswagen Jetta 1.4T Render the Diesel Engine Pointless?

    Fuel economy-minded buyers have long been drawn to Volkswagen's TDI diesel-powered cars. But in September, the Environmental Protection Agency called out the automaker for cheating on emissions testing with some of its diesel vehicles. VW then had to put a hold on selling new diesels, leaving car buyers searching for an alternative.

    But Volkswagen already has another option available—the gasoline-powered, 1.4-liter turbocharged four-cylinder Jetta.  

    We recently bought a new 2016 1.4T SE Jetta (which showed a lot of potential in our first drive in October), and tested it extensively at our track. When we compare the results of the 1.4T to those of the diesel-powered 2015 Jetta TDI we've previously tested, we started to question the value of diesels in passenger cars, in general.

    One thing to remember: Fuel economy and acceleration results for the 2015 Jetta TDI that we tested could change after VW fixes the emissions issue. After all, when we put a VW diesel in what we believe is the “cheat mode” used to pass emissions testing, we found that fuel economy fell.

    Consumer Reports has suspended recommendations on applicable Audi and Volkswagen models until they are updated and their performance verified.

    Let's break down how the new 1.4T Jetta stacks up against its TDI sibling.  

    Fuel Economy

    Diesel still holds the upper hand, but the margin has diminished considerably. We measured 37 mpg overall with the diesel and 32 mpg overall with the gasoline 1.4T. Highway fuel economy, long a diesel stronghold, also goes to the TDI, posting 53 mpg. But no one should complain about the 1.4T's 47 mpg in the same test. 

    Fuel Costs

    On nationwide average, diesel costs more than gasoline. This offsets the benefit of buying fewer gallons of fuel. Calculated based on driving 12,000 miles a year in mixed traffic conditions, the TDI will save you all of $55 a year compared to the gas-fueled version. 


    The gasoline engine conclusively wins here. Gasoline-powered engines emit very little nitrogen oxide, a stumbling point for diesels and the nexus of VW's emissions cheating woes. Even though the 1.4T consumes more fuel than the diesel, typically a direct proxy for greenhouse gas emissions, combustion chemistry leaves diesels emitting approximately 15 percent more carbon dioxide per gallon consumed. According to the EPA’s test data for the 2015 model, the TDI generates 2 grams more of the greenhouse gas each year, making it basically a wash with the less-efficient 1.4T. (Should the emissions recall affect the diesel fuel economy, the emissions balance should still strongly favor the gasoline engine.) 


    The gasoline-powered 1.4T, tested with a six-speed conventional automatic, has a slight edge over the diesel TDI, tested with a six-speed dual-clutch automatic. Zero-to-60 mph sprints take 9.1 seconds for the 1.4T, making it just 0.2 seconds quicker than the diesel. The gasoline engine is also slightly quicker and faster through the quarter mile than the diesel, running the distance in 16.9 seconds compared to 17.3 seconds for the diesel. 

    On the Road

    Typically, diesels pull strongly for highway merging and passing, and small-displacement gasoline engines feel taxed. But in the case of these two cars, neither proves true. The TDI often feels slow, especially around town. We were pleasantly surprised by the 1.4T. It seldom feels underpowered, even with several adults in the car. And, one cannot dismiss the 1.4T’s refinement edge over the diesel’s clatter. 

    Sticker Price

    Apples to apples, there’s a $2,850 difference between the 2016 1.4T and the more expensive 2015 TDI, both equipped in SE w/Connectivity trim. (Trim line differences muddy the comparison between the sticker prices of our two test cars. Also, the 1.4T is constrained to lower-level trim lines, while the TDI was available in fully loaded versions. For now, there is no 2016 Jetta TDI.) While increased resale traditionally bumped TDI diesel values on the used market, that remains an open question now. We'd rather save the money upfront, not knowing how a future emissions recall could affect efficiency and performance. 

    The Bottom Line

    Given the negligible difference in fuel costs, the major bump in purchase cost, and the slight sacrifice in performance, it's hard to make a case for the diesel vs. the 1.4T. Also, keep in mind that there are other super-efficient gasoline-powered cars, namely the Mazda 3 and Mazda 6, that can meet or beat the Jetta 1.4T's fuel economy. (That's not even counting hybrids, several of which are more efficient than either Jetta.) All of these options, combined with the environmental downsides of diesel, make it increasingly difficult to prove diesel's case, at least in small to midsized passenger cars. 

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

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    Tipping Point: How Big a Tip to Give for the Holidays

    Who should you tip and how much should you tip during the holidays? Those are questions consumers grapple with every year and there's no clear-cut answer. But there are guidelines, depending on the kind of worker you're tipping.  

    In Consumer Reports' previous national surveys, we found that about six in 10 Americans tip at least one of 14 common service providers. Those providers are apartment superintendents, barbers, child-care providers, school-bus drivers, teachers, fitness trainers, gardeners or lawn-care workers, hairdressers, housecleaners, mail carriers, manicurists, newspaper carriers, pet-care providers, and sanitation workers.

    Housecleaners were the most often tipped and the best compensated; in our most recent survey, their median tip was $50. Those in most other professions typically received a holiday tip or gift with a median value of $20. Least likely to be tipped were garbage collectors.

    Slightly more than half of respondents didn’t tip at least one of the providers whose services they used, and 39 percent didn’t tip any of those on our list. Some nontippers said they reward only exceptional service, and about one-fourth said they don’t tip at any time, period.

    Why Americans Tip

    Americans don't always tipping out of appreciation, according to a recent survey by, a website that helps people find babysitters, senior-care workers and pet sitters. Of 1,148 people surveyed nationwide earlier this year, 85 percent said they tip to reward good service. But 21 percent said they tip because it's expected, and 11 percent feared that not tipping would mean they'd get worse service in the New Year. (More than one response was permitted.)

    Most Americans will tip as much or more this holiday season than in the past, the survey showed. Eighteen percent of respondents said they'd tip more. The survey showed that 41 percent of parents budget for holiday tips. Among those tippers who decided not to use cash, 77 percent use gift cards or gift certificates, up from 45 percent in 2014; doing so often provides the givers with rewards or incentives from rewards programs.  

    One in five respondents said they spend more than $250 on total holiday tips, 34 percent budget between $101 and $250, and 8 percent spend more than $400, total. The top reason that respondents in both surveys gave for not tipping was a tight budget.

    Tips on Giving Tips

    • Be sure to check the gift-giving policy at a child’s school before giving teachers a present.
    • Be aware that the U.S. Postal Service restricts the gifts that mail carriers can accept. Presents worth up to $20 are fine, but carriers can’t accept cash.
    • Don't give food unless you're certain the recipient can eat it. With many people changing to more restrictive diets, your symbol of generosity might end up regifted or thrown out. Similarly, not every recipient would appreciate wine or spirits as a gift.
    • If you're giving cash, go to your bank to get nice, crisp bills, which present better and show a bit more effort on your part.
    • If you really can't afford to buy a gift or give cash—and don't feel you have the talent or time to bake or make a gift—a heartfelt note of thanks is better than no recognition at all. As Daniel Post Senning, great-great-grandson of etiquette maven Emily Post, says, money isn't everything. "We like to say that holiday tipping is really holiday thanking," he points out. "Words mean a lot, so you can say something even if you're not a crafty person or baking person. A geniune and thoughtful thank-you goes a long way."

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

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    Snow Blower Maintenance: Get Your Machine Ready for Winter

    While daytime temperatures have been mild in many parts of the country, once nighttime temps dip below freezing and the annuals have wilted, snow isn’t far behind. Now's the time to do a little snow blower maintenance, before the white stuff start to fly.

    Before starting up your snow blower, flip through the owner’s manual. If your snow blower runs on gasoline, the manual probably says to replace the spark plug periodically. Change the oil too, at least once a year. If you find it difficult to remember what you did from year-to-year start keeping a snow blower maintenance log.

    Fuel Matters Most

    When fueling your snow blower at the start of the season, it's important to use fresh gas to which you’ve added a stabilizer. Leaving gas sitting in the engine, especially if it has ethanol in it, encourages gum and varnish buildup that can clog the carburetor and fuel passages. If you left gas in the tank since last season (which we don't recommend), siphon out as much as you can before adding fresh, stabilized fuel. 

    What to Keep on Hand

    If your snow blower is two-stage—meaning it has a fan-like impeller to throw snow that the auger has scooped up—keep some spare auger shear pins on hand. These bolts are designed to protect the gearbox by breaking should the auger hit a hard object. We also suggest you keep spare belts on hand, though replacing one is a much bigger job than changing a shear pin. 

    A Few More Checks

    For all machines, tighten nuts and bolts, especially on control linkages, which tend to loosen as a snow blower vibrates. The owner's manuals of two-stage models also recommend that you adjust the auger's scraper and skid shoes. Doing so helps keep the auger closer to the surface, but not so close that the scraper touches the ground. The result? Less snow left behind to freeze.  

    After you've done all this, turn the snow blower on, run the auger, and drive the machine back and forth at various speeds to make sure it works. You don't want to get an unpleasant surprise when the first snowstorm hits.

    If nothing you do will get it started, and your local shop has thrown in the towel, read our snow blower buying guide and check out our latest snow blower Ratings of more than 85 models, plus our survey-based Ratings of brand reliability. For more snow blower maintenance tips, read "Keep Your Snow Blower Running All Winter," by Peter Sawchuk, our lead engineer for testing outdoor power gear.

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

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  • 12/14/15--11:43: 5 Hot and Healthy Drinks
  • 5 Hot and Healthy Drinks

    Feeling tired, cold, or under the weather? Sometimes, there's nothing better than relaxing with a mug of something hot, whether it's a flavorful coffee or a comforting herbal tea. And if you're dealing with a cold, hot drinks help to replace fluids lost from fever and loosen mucus. But they also may actually protect your health all year long. Consider the benefits of these healthy drinks. 


    Benefits: Java’s caffeine can make you feel more alert, boost your mental and physical performance, and elevate your mood. Both regular and decaf are rich in polyphenols, those antioxidants that may help regulate blood sugar, prevent blood clots, and neutralize DNA-damaging free radicals.

    Need to know: Eight ounces of coffee typically has about 100 milligrams of caffeine. Limit yourself to 400 milligrams a day as a healthy drink option. Depending on your sensitivity to caffeine, more than that may make you feel jittery, interfere with your sleep, or cause heart-rhythm or blood-pressure problems.


    Benefits: Tea’s antioxidants and other compounds may protect against cancer, heart disease, osteoporosis, and memory decline. And researchers at Penn State found that people who drank multiple cups of hot tea a day had a body mass index 3 points lower, on average, than non-tea drinkers. To get the most antioxidants, let the tea steep for at least 3 minutes.

    Need to know: Adding any type of milk to your tea may actually block the absorption of some of the antioxidants.

    Herbal Tea

    Benefits: Herbal teas aren’t really teas; they’re caffeine-free infusions of flowers, roots, barks, and berries. Although the evidence is slim, some people use slippery elm tea for coughs and sore throats because it is viscous and coats the throat. Chamomile tea has been shown to have anti-inflammatory properties, according to Case Western Reserve University researchers. (Inflammation is a factor in many diseases, from eczema to certain cancers.)

    Need to know: Common herbal teas are healthy drinks when it comes to sore throats or stomach woes. But before trying to use them for more serious medical conditions, consult a doctor.

    Hot Cocoa

    Benefits: Cocoa contains flavanols, antioxidants that may lower blood pressure, reduce stroke risk, and protect against diabetes by improving insulin sensitivity. Drinking two cups a day may also boost cognitive function in people with impaired blood flow to the brain, Harvard researchers reported in the journal Neurology.

    Need to know: Indulging in a cup of hot cocoa too often could expand your waistline. Sugar is first on the ingredients list of individually packaged mixes, such as Swiss Miss. Each serving has 8 grams of sugar, or about 2 teaspoons, and 90 calories.

    Hot Toddy

    Benefits: This cold-weather drink of warm bourbon or rum, plus antioxidant-rich honey, lemon, and cloves, can’t prevent a cold or the flu. But it might help soothe a sore or scratchy throat or make you feel more comfortable.

    Need to know: Don't mix alcohol with cold and flu drugs. Remember that the healthy limit for alcohol consumption is one drink a day for women and two for men. And a hot toddy counts!

    Should You Sip Your Medication?

    “Sip while hot,” say the package directions on at least 74 multi-symptom cold and flu products. Those powders, which you dissolve in hot water and drink like tea, contain some combination of a pain reliever (acetaminophen), a decongestant, an antihistamine, and a cough suppressant. But our medical advisers don’t recommend multi-symptom products. You might not need all those drugs, and some have side effects. Nor is there evidence that meds in hot liquid get into your system quicker—and therefore help you feel better faster. Instead, take a single ingredient drug to target each symptom you have along with a hot beverage of your choice if you want those soothing benefits. 

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

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    Nexen Aria AH7 All-Season Tire Holds Its Own Against Top Competitors

    A relative underdog in the U.S. replacement tire industry, Nexen has come out swinging with its Aria AH7 touring performance all-season tire. This is a tire befitting a company with $2 billion in global sales, and one that rivals the offerings from some of the best-known brands in the States.

    The Nexen Aria AH7 is touted as a long wearing, precise handling, quiet, and good gripping tire designed for all year use. Sure, many tire manufacturers make similar claims, but we found Aria AH7 lives up to the promise—and then some.

    Dry and wet braking and handling is competitive in class. Plus, the Nexen Aria AH7 has very good snow traction and offers one of the quietest rides among all-season tires. Long life? Yep, based on our extensive treadwear test, we project the tire to last about 75,000 miles—on par with the 80,000 treadwear warranty.
    All told, the Aria AH7 scores in the top five of our all-season tires, in the company of Michelin, Continental, General, and Pirelli, and ahead of Goodyear.

    Check-out the full ratings on this tire and competing models at  

    What It Is

    The Nexen Aria AH7 is an all-season tire available in T (118 mph) and H (130 mph) speed-rated sizes to fit many cars, with 15-, 16-, 17-, and 18-inch wheels. Plus, there are 11 new sizes scheduled to be introduced next year in the U.S.

    CR tested the 215/60R16 T-speed-rated size. Our tires cost $139 each, but we were able to buy additional tires more recently at $119, proving it pays to shop around.  

    Why Consider This Tire

    The Aria AH7 has solid performance among all-season tires based on Consumer Reports testing. The tire comes with a customary treadwear warranty as part of Nexen’s Total Coverage Warranty. It also includes a two-year limited road hazard warranty protecting against damage from punctures and potholes, and it is protected by a three-year roadside assistance program that provides free tire change or free tow if there is no spare tire. This all adds up to providing peace of mind that few other brands offer.  

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

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    Flying First Class in All-New 2016 BMW 7 Series

    Among large, ultra-luxury sedans, the BMW 7 Series has always played second fiddle to the Mercedes-Benz S-Class. In sales figures, prestige, and ride comfort, the Mercedes is king. BMW has tried to change that with the all-new 7 Series.

    Fully redesigned for 2016, the new BMW 7 Series gets a lighter-weight chassis that makes extensive use of carbon fiber, in an effort to make the car both more agile and improve fuel efficiency. The cabin is loaded with high-tech wizardry, the highlight of which is gesture control. This allows you to adjust audio volume or answer your phone with a mere sweep of your hand. On top of that, the BMW can steer itself down the highway, but you need to keep your hands on the wheel.

    Starting at $81,300, the 740i is the least expensive version, powered by a 320-hp, 3.0-liter turbocharged six-cylinder. But most customers, according to BMW, opt for the $94,400 750i, which has a 445-hp, 4.4-liter turbocharged V8. Adding all-wheel drive costs $3,000.

    We recently bought an all-wheel-drive 750i, which with typical options rang in at $110,645. For that kind of price you expect the world, and even before we’ve finished testing it, we can say the new BMW 750i impresses on several levels. 

    Driving Impressions

    It’s quite striking how the 750i gathers speed in such a decisive, yet effortless way. Even with the weight of the all-wheel-drive system, this limo catapults itself to triple-digit speeds without breaking a sweat. That sensation is certainly helped by the super smooth eight-speed automatic transmission, which imperceptibly executes each shift.

    Combine that graceful performance with the supremely steady ride—courtesy of the standard air suspension—and the absence of virtually any wind noise, and you can see how the new BMW 7 Series can easily become a board room on wheels. Even at Autobahn speeds or over undulating pavement, the big 750i keeps its composure and comforts its occupants with a planted and pliant feel. All isn’t perfect, however. We think the Mercedes-Benz S-Class still has the ultimate edge in terms of low-speed ride comfort.

    In the not-so-distant past, a 7 Series was the choice for those who wanted a limo that could carve corners and act as a sports sedan. But as markets opened and buyer demographics changed, so too has the 7 Series. Evidently, it got back to the engineers in Munich that these cars are driven by chauffeurs. But while the 7 Series traded sporty for comforting over the past couple of generations, the last-generation version was rather clumsy. From behind the wheel of our 750i, it’s clear that, while more athletic, talented, and capable on the road and track, the BMW hasn’t gone all the way back to its sports sedan roots. For that, you’d have to turn to the Porsche Panamera or a Maserati Quattroporte.

    Traditionally, when dealing with cars in this elite stratosphere, fuel economy isn’t a primary concern for buyers. Still, the 21 mpg overall that we’ve so far observed is quite commendable.  

    CR’s Take

    With high-tech galore, exquisite attention to detail that caters to your every need, a cabin that’s beyond impeccable, a serene ride, and a tomb-like silence, the BMW 750i has been delivering a first class travel experience. Whether or not that’s what’s going to challenge the Mercedes-Benz S-Class’ hegemony remains to be seen.

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

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    Best Streaming Devices for Gaming

    If you’re hoping for a gift-wrapped game console to appear under the tree this year, you might be surprised to see a smaller-than-average box. And what's inside could be a streaming device instead of a dedicated gaming machine. The best streaming devices still pump out House of Cards episodes as their main activity, but they are also becoming miniature game consoles, with many popular titles available. Can they replace a new Microsoft Xbox or Sony Playstation for dedicated gamers? Well, you won’t find anything as expansive as Fallout 4 or graphically beautiful as Journey on a streaming device. But if you just want to kick back between movies and shoot some aliens or anger some birds, the best streaming devices for gaming might be all you need.

    Apple TV

    The Apple TV ($149) is a great choice for a casual gamer. It comes with a touchpad remote, but one that's more suitable for navigation than knocking out opponents. All games on the Apple TV will work with the remote, but you'll be happier playing with a traditional game controller from a company such as Steelseries or Hori. Right now there aren’t many games available for the Apple TV, but you can use Airplay to send games from your iOS device to your TV and bring your Hearthstone games to life on a bigger screen.

    Amazon Fire TV

    An Amazon Prime subscription brings the streaming portion of the Amazon Fire TV ($139) to life, giving you access to more than a million songs, thousands of movies, and online storage for your own photos and videos. And, according to Amazon, more than 800 games can be played through the Amazon Fire TV. Buying the gaming edition gets you the streaming box, an Xbox-like controller that supports voice commands and private listening through a headphone jack, and two great games right off the bat, Shovel Knight and Disney DuckTales: Remastered. And the Fire TV supports watch 4K Ultra HD programming. (You do, of course, need at 4K TV.)


    NVIDIA Shield TV

    The closest thing to a true gaming console in the streaming player world is the NVIDIA Shield TV ($199). It looks like a futuristic DVD player but runs Android TV, letting it access the Google Play Store and play compatible games with the included controller. Yeah, it can run apps like Netflix, YouTube, Hulu, as you'd would expect, but the ace up its sleeve is an NVIDIA exclusive. True to NVIDIA's gaming heritage, Shield TV includes the company’s game streaming service, GEForce Now. Similar to the way Netflix streams movies, GEForce Now streams games such as LEGO Hobbit, Batman: Arkham City, and Ultra Street Fighter IV for $7.99 per month, at up to 1080p. If you’ve already got a PC that you use for games, NVIDIA’s GameStream feature lets you play your local PC games on your TV, as long as you have a compatible graphics card. Any way you slice it, the Shield TV is great for gamers who are mainly interested in a streaming device.

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