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Consumer Reports

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    Hoverboard Safety: Consumer Reports Puts Self-Balancing Scooters to the Test

    Eleven-year-old Aaron Ohebshalom had just finished playing basketball at a friend’s house when he spotted a hoverboard that belonged to the friend’s family. The motorized, self-balancing devices have gone viral over the past year, becoming favorite gifts for tweens and teens. Like many kids his age, Aaron was eager to see what a hoverboard could do. So he stepped aboard.

    Ohebshalom has always been a gifted athlete—obsessed with Derek Jeter and LeBron James. He plays point guard on a traveling basketball team. And he didn’t need much time to find his balance and get rolling.

    It wasn’t until he tried to turn the device that he lost control. The hoverboard shot out from underneath him and his head slammed into the pavement, leaving a nasty bump. He wasn't wearing a helmet. He never lost consciousness, but he did complain of a headache when his mother arrived to pick him up.

    Later that night, Aaron woke up disoriented, according to his mother, Shadi, the cousin of a Consumer Reports employee. “He didn’t even know who I was,” she says. A short while later, Aaron vomited and his parents rushed him to the hospital near their Long Island home. “That’s when they discovered a subdural hematoma—bleeding on the brain above the front left eye,” says Shadi.

    Safety Concerns

    Hoverboards (which, for the record, don’t actually hover) are two-wheeled, battery-powered machines that resemble skateboards, and can move at speeds greater than 10 miles per hour. There are many brands, but they all work in much the same way. Increasingly, they’ve become controversial.

    The devices haven’t been around long enough to collect reliable sales figures, but the Consumer Product Safety Commission (or CPSC) has identified 39 emergency room visits related to hoverboard falls since August. In the last year, they’ve leapt from trade shows to YouTube videos to the Tonight Show (beneath the feet of Jamie Foxx) to playgrounds and city streets all across the country. They’re now featured in the December gift guides of many consumer magazines.

    But the backlash against hoverboards has been as swift as their rise. Within the past two months, they’ve been banned from public streets in New York City and throughout the United Kingdom—and many airports, airlines, and shopping malls have restricted them, too. Amazon recently removed most models from its website in the wake of news reports blaming the devices for starting fires. (Consumer Reports reached out to Amazon for comment, but the company did not immediately respond.) The Consumer Product Safety Commission is currently investigating at least 11 such incidents. And Overstock.com has stopped selling the boards altogether, citing safety concerns.

    For Aaron Ohebshalom, recovery has a long and painful process. He suffered headaches, dizzy spells, sensitivity to noise and light. He could do very little but sit and wait for his brain to heal. In the end, he missed a full month of school. He’s still not cleared to play sports. In fact, a neurologist has advised him to refrain from even playing his trumpet for the time being. “It’s awful to see him like this,” said his mother a few weeks after the fall. “It was just one second, but it’s left weeks of stress for him.”

    “I don’t like this toy,” she added. “I’ve seen what it can do.”

    So can these scooters be a worthwhile gateway to high-tech fun, or are they an inevitable accident waiting to happen? Are they easy to ride, or just a frustrating waste of time and money? Given the intense fascination and all the safety questions surrounding them, we decided to purchase a few hoverboards and test them out.

    How We Tested Them

    We bought three models from Amazon—each at a different price point: a $400 Swagway X1, a $600 MonoRover R2, and an $830 Chic Smart S1. (At the time we published this article, none of these three models was still available on Amazon's site.)

    Once the boards arrived at our labs, about 50 people learned to ride them—on carpet, tile, and asphalt. We ran them up and down a ramp in the office and up and down hills on the Consumer Reports campus.

    It was not hard to find test subjects. People routinely dropped what they were doing to come see the boards in action. When offered a chance to mount them, most eagerly accepted. The boards are fun to ride—there’s no denying that. They respond in thrilling ways to subtle shifts in balance. They can zip forward, inch backward, swerve from side to side and loop around in a pirouette-like circle. If you haven’t yet seen the hoverboard dance video featuring Justin Bieber's hit song What Do You Mean, check it out. It really captures the magic of gliding on a hoverboard.

    How Do They Work?

    Hoverboards remain level using advanced motors and controls. The speed and direction of each wheel is controlled individually, based on the pressure applied to the footpads on either side of the board. Press with your toes and the board moves forward. Press with the heels and it moves backward. Press with one toe and the other heel, and the device turns in a very tight circle, like a zero-turn mower.

    Hoverboards are relatively fast, too, with claimed speeds between 6 and 12 mph. At higher speeds, riders have to lean forward, ahead of the board, to supply the pressure needed to keep them zipping along. And that can leave readers vulnerable to face-first injuries when things go wrong.

    In our tests, we found that an unexpected obstruction—even a small stick, pebble, dip, or bump in the sidewalk—can jolt the rider into shifting his or her weight from one side to the other. That shift can make the wheel on one side speed up or slow down, forcing the hoverboard into an unplanned turn. When that happens, it’s very easy to fall: At any speed, the rider’s feet can  quickly be swept away, with the potential for hitting one's head, much like Aaron Ohebshalom did.

    In short, hoverboards are almost too responsive.

    What We Recommend

    Before you first step onto a hoverboard, find yourself a spotter. Because the board begins to move the moment you apply pressure, it helps to have someone strong at your side, holding your hand, ready to catch you if you lose your balance.

    And, always, always, always wear a helmet—a skateboarding or dual-use helmet is preferable to a bicycle helmet. There’s no predicting when or how you’re going to fall and it happens so quickly that you have no time to react. If you’re lucky, you can leap off the board and regain your balance. If not, you can get seriously hurt. One of our engineers experienced two scary spills during testing—despite hours of experience riding the boards—and he was fortunate to escape with only a few bruises because he wore a helmet (and pads, after his first fall).

    Stay away from traffic, too. A recent death in England resulted from a fall that might only have been bruising if a bus had not been driving past.

    The injuries reported to the CPSC include fractures, sprains, contusions, and lacerations. So, if you’re planning to speed around on the board, you should also consider knee, elbow, and wrist guards.

    What to Think About When You're Buying One

    These are not brand-name products. They’re generally purchased from Chinese factories by small companies you’ve probably never heard of (we hadn’t). These companies then turn around and sell the products in the U.S.

    They’re not as rough-and-tumble as they seem. Some consumers have complained about the boards snapping apart in the center, where the deck narrows. Others have purchased boards that simply stopped working (our Swagway included). Warranties vary from six months to one year and generally cover only defects in material or workmanship. For more details, be sure to check the manufacturer’s website.

    Price may not indicate quality. Although brands at the high end of the price spectrum claim to use superior components, we could not easily verify that. We didn’t have time to dismantle the boards and test individual parts, but we did remove the outer shells and take a look inside. The design and construction for all three was strikingly similar.

    They’re barely regulated. Aside from New York City and the U.K., the National Conference of State Legislatures is not aware of any other governing bodies planning to take action. The CPSC suggests that you look for a certification label like UL before buying a hoverboard. The models we purchased each had at least one CE label (the European Union equivalent of UL); one had the label only on its charger, one on its box and on its charger, and the third on the charger, the box, and the device itself. The CPSC also advises customers to report any unexpected falls or issues involving the electrical components—shocks, overheating, fires—to saferproducts.gov.

    Be very careful when charging them. Due to the threat of fire, the CPSC and Consumer Reports both advise you to monitor boards carefully when recharging the battery. Do not do leave them plugged into an outlet overnight or when you’re away from home. However, not all fires have started while the devices were being charged—in several instances, boards reportedly ignited while they were being ridden.

     

    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 Pick the Best Dog Toys for the Holidays

    Toys are vital to a dog's health. They help to ward off boredom, prevent poor behavior problems and strengthen jaws. They can also keep a dog's teeth clean. But if you get the wrong kinds of toys dog, they could also be dangerous. 

    So if you go holiday shopping for Fido this year, try to buy toys that are size-appropriate. Big dogs, for instance, might rip apart and eat toys meant for little pups, which could cause choking or intestinal blockages. Small dogs (or older ones) could injure their teeth on hard toys meant for large dogs.

    Run this little test. See if you can make a dent in your dog's toys with your fingernail. If they don't give a little, the toys might eventually lead to a broken tooth, especially for a small dog. Many toys are labeled so that you know what size dogs they’re intended for. But if you have any questions, ask your vet or dog trainer.

    Also, think also about the purpose of the dog toy. Is it a toy that you will use to play with your dog? Is a toy that will entertain your dog when you are away? Perhaps it's a toy that can help a hyper dog to calm down.  

    Play With Me Toys

    Choose toys that let you interact with your dog, perhaps allowing you to play some form of Frisbee or a gentle version of tug-of-war (if your dog is very aggressive, skip tug-of-war). Such games can give your dog a good cardio workout. “Dogs, like people, often don’t get as much exercise as they need,” says Bonnie Beaver, a professor at Texas A&M University College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences and former president of the American Veterinary Medical Association.

    Remember that size matters.  Stick with a small Frisbee (or something similar) for little dogs and pups and a tougher Frisbee (or something bigger) for bigger dogs.

    Keep Me Busy Toys

    Do look for tough toys like Kongs that you can fill with treats. They might be the only ones your dog plays with by himself, trying to extract the goodies. Softer versions are good for young pups and older dogs.

    Don’t forget to check labels to get the right version for your pooch. Large dogs might quickly chew through softer toys meant for small pups, which would be a waste of your money at best, a hazard at worst.

    Calm Me Down Toys

    Consider giving your dog a stuffed animal. “Dogs often just like to hold soft things in their mouths,” Beaver says. Some dogs seem to find it calming to chew on toys like a stuffed animal or rope knot, she says.

    Forget buying your dog a stuffed animal if your pooch is the search-and-destroy type that tears out (and eats) stuffing. Such toys can be dangerous. Be sure to toss out any snuggly animal toys when the insides start to come out.  Animal-shaped toys without stuffing can be a good substitute. And never give Fido a worn-out shoe to gnaw; your dog won’t be able to differentiate between your old slipper and your new Burberry loafers.

    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 Pick the Best Cat Toys for the Holidays

    We know your holiday shopping list would not be complete without a present for your feline family member. You can find aisles full of cute toys for cats (not to mention toys for dogs, birds, rabbits, and other critters) at pet stores, kids’ toy stores, discount stores like Target and Walmart, and on shopping websites. Many toys are safe and give your cat something to chew on and scratch besides your couch. But some can cause injuries so you need to be careful about what you buy.

    In addition to safety, think about buying the right mix of toys for your kitty. Our goodies are broken down into three categories: Play-with-me, keep-me-busy, and calm-me-down toys, plus we have some shopping and safety tips.

    Cats will play with just about anything, so you don’t need many toys to make them happy. A couple from each category will do. Even a paper bag (with the handles cut off for safety) or a small cardboard box can provide hours of fun. Also, rotate your cat toys every few days just to keep things new.  

    A word of caution: Always inspect each pet toy. If it's worn or torn, replace it before your cat tries to eat it. Ribbons, feathers, string, or elastic on toys should be carefully monitored, trimmed away, or avoided.

    Play With Me Toys

    Do get toys you’ll want to play with, too. “Playing with your cat for, say, 15 minutes twice a day gives cats the exercise they need and bonds you together,” says Nancy Peterson, the former Cat Program Manager at The Humane Society of the United States.

    Some cats will play fetch with small balls. Cat dancers—usually sticks or mitts with things that dangle—are tantalizing and provide great jumping exercise. Toys that dangle from doorknobs are also fine as long as any elastic is well enclosed and there is no risk that the cat will eat the string.

    Don’t leave toys with strings, feathers, ribbons, or other objects that can be swallowed lying around; that can cause choking or intestinal blockages. When play time is over it's a good idea to put away balls with small bells in them for the same reason, and replace them if they crack or show signs of wear.  

    Keep Me Busy Toys

    Do try catnip toys. They encourage play when you’re not around, which can keep cats away from stuff you don’t want destroyed. Snip off bits on toys that might be chewed off as cats play with them while you're gone, like feathers, strings, or bells.

    You may find catnip doesn't have much effect on little kitties and older cats. If the opposite turns out to be true, and you find catnip makes your cat extremely aggressive, you can donate those toys to a local shelter.

    Don’t forget cats, like dogs, enjoy treats. Toys like Kongs that slowly dispense dental snacks and other goodies can keep them occupied.

    Calm Me Down Toys

    Do see if your cat likes carrying around a stuffed toy he can cuddle with and bite. Or your cat might prefer fabric toys that make a nice crunch, like a chew ring or fish.

    Don’t hesitate to trim anything that can be swallowed if you want to let your cat have access anytime to these toys.

     

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

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    Avoid Online Scams While Holiday Shopping

    In a rush to complete your holiday shopping? Online scammers hope so. Identity theft and online scams peak at this time of year when consumers are often too distracted to follow the usual safety precautions.

    An astonishing 40 percent of online scam attempts occur during the last quarter of the year, says Rurik Bradbury, a marketing executive at e-commerce security company Trustev. Don’t rely on retailers to shield you, he warns. Because they’re overwhelmed by high volumes of online shopping, “their manual processes of reviewing and checking transactions for online fraud flags are not sustainable," he explains.

    With almost half of holiday shopping (both browsing and buying) occurring online this year, according to the National Retail Federation, it’s up to you to watch for signs of a scam and protect yourself.

    Check Before You Click

    • Click with care. Scammers try to lure you to copycat websites of well-known brands or retailers by advertising great deals on hot-ticket items on social media sites or through search engines. Their goal: to deliver malware to your computer, steal your credit card number, or “phish” for personal information. To outsmart them, check the website addresses for misspellings, such as extra letters or words in common names, or domains other than the usual “.com” or “.org.”  To further protect yourself, type the URL directly into your browser; do not click on a link from an email or social media site unless you are absolutely sure the message is from a legitimate business.
    • Check for prior complaints. Unless you are absolutely sure that the seller is legitimate, do an online search for the vendor’s name and the words “scam,” complaint,” or “review.” If you find mostly negative information—or no information at all—your fraud antenna should start humming. You may also want to check the name of the company or website with the Better Business Bureau.  
    • Search for the “S.” Look for the “https” instead of “http” on the web address of the payment page before you enter a credit card number or other personal information. The “s” stands for a secure connection which reduces the chance of online scams. Also, do not use free, public Wi-Fi to enter your credit card or other financial account information; scammers routinely hack public Wi-Fi hotspots to steal your passwords.   
    • Use a credit card. Paying with a credit card, not a debit card, generally offers stronger protections against online scams. Be sure to save invoices and confirmation emails to compare them to your credit card statements. 

    If you can squelch your spontaneity, take ten minutes to install updates on your phone, tablet, computer, or other electronic devices before shopping online. Installing updates can add new security patches to your apps, operating systems, anti-virus software, and other important programs. Be sure to download updates only from the official app provider. 

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

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    Slow Cookers a Charm for Holiday Potlucks

    With the cold weather, holiday crush, and a pile of party invitations, now’s a great time to get out your slow cooker. It’s the perfect appliance for making comfort food while you do other chores or for preparing a dish for a potluck supper. In Consumer Reports’ past tests of slow cookers, the models didn’t differ significantly in how well they cooked. Where one rose above the other was in its convenience features, such as a locking lid, electronic controls, and easy cleaning.

    About 85 percent of households already own a slow cooker. But if you’re thinking of replacing your own or buying one as a gift for someone in the remaining 15 percent, here are some features to consider.

    • Shape. Slow cookers are typically round or oval. An oval pot can more easily accommodate a whole chicken or other cuts of meat. But round is fine for soups and stews.
    • Glass lid. A transparent lid will help you resist the temptation to open the pot. Each time you do can add 15 to 20 minutes of cooking time.
    • Locking lid. For folks who routinely hit the potluck circuit, a locking lid with a tight gasket is key.
    • Stovetop safe. A metal insert allows you to brown meat or veggies on the stove before transferring it to the slow cooker.
    • Oven safe. Ceramic oven-safe inserts allow you to reheat your dish in the oven. You shouldn’t reheat leftovers in the slow cooker. Instead heat them to an internal temperature of 165° F in your oven or microwave.
    • Electronic controls. Unlike manual controls, electronic ones let you program a dish, usually in 30-minute intervals, and then automatically switch the cooker to the warm setting when cooking is done.

    A smarter slower cooker

    Crock-pot, a name almost synonymous with slow cookers, has introduced the WeMo-enabled Smart Slow Cooker, the first slow cooker that you can control and monitor from your smart phone. The $150 slow cooker was a respectable performer in Consumer Reports' tests but you can find a capable cooker for a fraction of that if you forgo the bells and whistles.

    Slow cooker recipes

    Recipes for slow cookers have gotten a lot more sophisticated than those in the past that called for canned soups and other packaged ingredients. Instead of chunks of beef and cream of mushroom soup you’ll find Slow-Cooked Ratatouille Over Goat Cheese Polenta on epicurious.com or Moroccan Brisket with Red Onions and Apricot Couscous on foodnetwork.com. If you're giving a slow cooker as a gift, throw in a cookbook, too. America’s Test Kitchen’s Slow Cooker Revolution is a good choice or just buy it for yourself.

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

    Holiday Planning & Shopping Guide

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

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

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    Dental Insurance That Will Save Your Smile

    Doling out the cash to get a toothache treated can hurt almost as much as the tooth itself. That’s because about 40 percent of people in the U.S. have no dental insurance. And most who have dental plans lose their coverage once they retire.

    But ignoring dental problems or skipping preventive care can harm you. Some studies suggest that chronic gum infection is associated with an increased risk for heart attack. So how can you maintain oral health without wrecking your budget? Our experts recommend these 10 steps:

    Savvy Strategies

    1. Get dental insurance through work if you can. Most employers who offer dental insurance pay half or more of the premium cost, and most plans fully cover exams, X-rays, and cleanings; 80 percent of basic procedures such as fillings; and 50 percent of bigger-ticket work such as crowns, says Evelyn Ireland, executive director of the National Association of Dental Plans. Expect an annual deductible of $50 to $100; the yearly maximum many insurers pay out is usually $1,000 to $1,500.
    2. Consider dental savings plans. No dental insurance through work? Participants in these buying-club-like programs pay an annual fee of $80 to $200 to access a large network of dentists (60 percent of those nationwide) who offer discounts of up 50 percent for members. Find dental plans here.  
    3. See whether a dental HMO may work. Dental health maintenance organizations, most often available in larger urban areas, charge $200 to $300 per person per year. Participants get twice-yearly cleanings and exams with no additional fee, and pay a few dollars to a few hundred for fillings, root canals, and crowns. About 20 percent of dentists nationwide participate. Search for dental plans here by checking the “DHMO” box and then your state.
    4. Consider ACA coverage. If you get health insurance through the Affordable Care Act, you can also purchase optional dental insurance. Currently, dental is available only when you enroll in a full health plan. But dental coverage will be available separately next year for Medicare recipients on the exchange in Kentucky, and more states are expected to follow suit.
    5. Check veteran’s benefits. If you have a service-connected disability, you’re eligible for free comprehensive dental care from the Department of Veterans Affairs. Other veterans can buy comprehensive dental insurance at a reduced rate.
    6. Bargain hunt. Look up local rates for dental procedures at Fair Health Consumer and Healthcare Bluebook, then ask your dentist for a discount. In our 2012 survey, Consumer Reports readers who asked for a break were often successful.
    7. Create an emergency dental fund, and put aside money every month. “Unpredictable things happen, and you have to have a way to pay for it,” says Julia Hallisy, D.D.S., president of the nonprofit Empowered Patient Coalition in San Francisco. “You could bite on a peach pit and crack a tooth.”
    8. Check community health centers. Some offer low-cost dental care but may have limited services and, possibly, waiting lists. Call the local health department or state dental association, or go to Tooth Wisdom to find those centers.
    9. Try university dental schools. Many charge 30 to 40 percent less than private dentists, and you’ll be treated by supervised students. “The quality of care is excellent,” says Judith Jones, D.D.S., professor of dentistry at Boston University and an American Dental Association spokeswoman. Find dental schools here.
    10. Help your teeth last longer. Brush for a full 2 minutes—most of us stop after 30 seconds—twice each day with a soft-bristle manual or electric toothbrush, and floss before bed. Drink tooth-friendly beverages, including plain water. (Soda and drinks with lemon and lime can erode enamel and weaken teeth.) Increase your production of saliva, which helps protect teeth, with sugar-free hard candy and gum. Avoid sugary food and drinks. See a dentist once each year—more often if you have periodontal disease or are still getting cavities.

    Dental Insurance You Can't Rely On

    • Medicare. It covers little dental care (except for hospital services such as post-accident jaw reconstruction). Medigap (the supplemental private insurance) generally offers no dental insurance. Medicaid coverage is quite limited.

    • Dental insurance you buy on your own. Just 4 percent of Americans do that. “Insurance makes you feel protected, but there are often one-year waiting periods before you can qualify for work like root canals and crowns,” says Julia Hallisy, D.D.S. “Some plans exclude these altogether.” One typical plan, AARP’s PPO “Plan B” dental insurance, begins at $474 per year per person. It has a $100 deductible and an annual cap of $1,000, and you pay part of the cost for all services and procedures. So you’d spend at least $574 before reaping a benefit.

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

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    A Stock Gift Card for Your Little Investor

    Around the holidays, kids clamor for all kinds of things—from board games and talking Barbie dolls to iPads and video games. But this year, they may have something more unusual on their holiday list: shares of stock.

    The reason? You can now give a gift card loaded with money for the purpose of buying shares of stock. You can buy the stock gift cards at drug stores, grocery stores and at retail outlets like K-Mart. (Electronic gift cards are also available). What could be cooler for a money-minded kid than getting a gift card emblazoned with the logo of a hot company such as Apple, Tesla, or Facebook? 

    While it may make for an unusual stocking stuffer, there’s no guarantee that stock gift cards will be big sellers this year. While gift cards are big business—some $130 billion will be loaded onto them this year, according to CEB, a management consulting firm—kids aren’t exactly pining for stocks. In years past, well-meaning adults would introduce kids to investing by bequeathing shares (or often, a share) of stock in the form of stock certificates. Those certificates would, inevitably, be stashed away in the back of a closet or in a filing cabinet until the day came when, years later, the kids would cash them in.

    But if the marriage of gift cards and stocks catches on, this could be a novel way for kids to start investing. It wouldn’t be bad for the online brokerage firm, Stockpile, either, which is behind the stock gift cards. The company could end up with some new, long-term customers.

    Stocks on a Card

    Here’s how it works. If you want to buy a gift card it’ll cost you the face value of the amount you want to give ($1 to $1,000) plus $1.99 (though the price could change in January) for amounts of $100 or less. For anything more than $100 there’s also a 3% gifting fee, which covers the credit/debit card fee and trading commission, so the recipient won’t have to pay anything to get the stock. There's no sales tax.

    The gift card comes emblazoned with a company name and its ticker, but recipients can choose to purchase shares (or fractional shares) of any company or exchange-traded fund they want. The shares would be maintained in a Stockpile brokerage account.

    There are some hurdles to opening the Stockpile account, however. The target market for these gift cards is kids and teenagers but since they are minors they'll need an adult to open a custodial account. The minor owns the stock, while the adult has legal responsibility over the account until the child turns 18.

    The minor can receive her own log-in credentials to see how her stocks are performing anytime. She can also trade shares as long as the adult agrees. When the child sets up the order to buy shares online, for example, an email is automatically sent to mom or dad for approval. Once approved, the order would be executed.  

    What happens if the kid you have in mind has no interest in stocks? The recipient can exchange the stock gift card for a more typical store gift card, perhaps one from Amazon.com. But it can’t be redeemed for cash.

    There are other stock-giving alternatives as well. For example, Charles Schwab offers custodial accounts to clients who want to open an account for their children or grandchildren, through its service, Schwab Intelligent Portfolios

    As for the old-fashioned paper stock certificate gifts, we suggest skipping them. Eventually you'll need a broker to sell the shares, and converting the shares from the shareholder's name to street name may result in additional fees. We'll make an exception for Berkshire Hathaway stock, whose A shares are currently trading at about $200,000 each.

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

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    5 Reasons to Skip High Doses of Vitamin C This Cold Season

    Sniffles, sneezes, and an achy head are a good indicator that you’ve caught a cold—and nobody wants to be sick during the holidays. But megadoses of vitamin C won’t make your illness magically disappear. In fact, it could add to your woes.

    “Once you've come down with symptoms, nothing, including vitamin C, can significantly shorten the course of a common cold, which usually lasts 7 to 10 days,” says Marvin M. Lipman, M.D., Consumer Reports' chief medical adviser. Here are five reasons vitamin C is not much better than a tincture of time.

    1. It’s Probably Too Late

    People who regularly take supplemental doses of vitamin C may recover slightly faster from the common cold than others, according to a 2013 review of 31 studies including nearly 10,000 individuals. But those people are no less likely to get sick in the first place, the review found. And taking high doses of vitamin C once you start feeling cold symptoms won't help you recover any faster, either, the researchers found.

    2. You Might Get Kidney Stones

    Men who regularly take vitamin C are twice as likely to develop kidney stones. That’s according to an 11-year study of 48,850 Swedish men. Over the course of the study 436 reported developing kidney stones.  

    3. Your Body Will Just Eliminate It Anyway

    Your body won't benefit from high doses, anyway. That's because any vitamin C that your body can’t absorb will be excreted in your urine. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), adult women only need 75 milligrams (mg) and adult men need 90 mg per day—and you’ll get more than enough in one large orange or a cup of strawberries

    4. It Could Give You Diarrhea

    The maximum that adults should ingest is 2,000 mg, according to the NIH. Any more and you could end up with nasty stomach cramps and diarrhea in addition to your runny nose and headache.

    5. It's Not Worth the Money

    Save the cash for tissues and tea and maybe a new fever thermometer and a humidifier. You’ll feel better in a week or so anyway.

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    Small Appliance Suites Give Kitchens a Sweet Look

    A full kitchen makeover might not be in the budget, but you can give your space a fresh look for a fraction of the cost with a new suite of small appliances. In recent months, several manufacturers, including some better known for large appliances, have unveiled suites of small appliances with coordinated designs. But do they work as well as they look? To answer that question, Consumer Reports tested suites from Wolf, Smeg, Oxo, KitchenAid, and Electrolux. While no brand aced every product category, some are better than others at marrying form and function. Here are the details.

    Wolf

    For more than 80 years, Wolf cooking appliances have stood out for their commercial looks and pro-style performance. In 2015, the Los Angeles-based company launched Wolf Gourmet, a premium line of countertop appliances with the brand's iconic red knobs and industrial design. We were very impressed by the Wolf Gourmet 4-slice WGTR104S toaster, which shares the top spot in that category. At $400 the toaster isn’t cheap, but it’s less than the $5,000 you can spend on a Wolf range.

    We also tested a Wolf Gourmet toaster oven and blender. Neither appliance cracked our recommended list, though the $500 Wolf Gourmet Countertop WGCO100S Oven performed very well overall, especially in our broiling and toasting tests; its so-so baking performance was the biggest disappointment. As for the Wolf Gourmet High Performance Blender WGBL100S, it also performed capably, if not exceptionally, with more than a dozen blenders scoring higher in our Ratings. For $600, you might expect more standout performance, though with its distinctive red control dial, there will be no mistaking the Wolf on the countertop.

    Smeg

    You might be familiar with Smeg’s colorful, retro-styled refrigerators, which the Italian manufacturer launched in the 1990s—though the look hearkens back to the middle of the century. Now you can get the same nostalgic design in a line of Smeg small appliances, including a blender, toaster, and stand mixer. Available in cream, chrome, black, red, pink, and pastel shades of blue and green, the appliances are the perfect accessories if you’re going for a vintage look in the kitchen.

    In terms of performance, the best of the bunch is the Smeg 5-quart SMF01RDUS stand mixer, $460, which combined superb mixing and whipping to nearly knock off our top-rated KitchenAid. Results weren’t as good for the Smeg BLF01CREU blender, $250, whose icy drink/smoothie was just average in our tests. The $150 Smeg 2-slice TSF01 toaster was also middle-of-the-pack, though its stainless steel ball lever knob and backlit chrome control dial are certainly eye-catching.

    KitchenAid

    This upscale Whirlpool brand has been making coordinated small appliance suites for as long as anyone. The look of its new Pro Line products is inspired by the iconic KitchenAid stand mixer, with its classic curves and candy red coloring. We included the food processor, toasters, and coffeemaker in this round of testing. The line also includes a stand mixer, immersion blender, and electric kettle.    

    The $300 KitchenAid Pro Line KMT2203CA 2-slice toaster and the $400 KitchenAid Pro Line KMT4203CA 4-slice toaster both delivered solid results, though neither makes our recommended list. The $600 KitchenAid 16-Cup Pro Line KFP1642 food processor is middle-of-the-pack, due to its so-so chopping and pureeing and subpar grating. Testing isn’t complete on the KitchenAid Nespresso by KitchenAid KES0504, $450. Early results have been excellent in terms of brewing speed and temperature consistency, though less impressive at brewing up a range of flavor intensities.

    Oxo

    This New York City-based company has built a name around simple, elegant, and easy-to-use housewares. Think kitchen gadgets with comfortable grips and salad spinners with pump-style designs. That same philosophy is evident in Oxo’s venture into small electric appliances, including a coffeemaker, hand mixer, immersion blender, and toaster. The wares are unified by simple black-and-metal design suited to contemporary kitchens, and they’re all fairly well-priced.

    Our testers were most impressed by the $75 Oxo Bright Digital Hand Mixer. In addition to its very capable whipping and mixing, the hand mixer is one of the quietest in our tests, which you’ll appreciate if you live in a small apartment or there’s a baby sleeping in the next room. The Oxo Bright Digital Immersion Blender, $90, also delivered solid results, though it couldn’t topple the top-rated Breville Control Grip BSB510XL.

    The Oxo Barista Brain 9-cup 8710100 coffeemaker, $200, and the Oxo 2-slice Motorized Toaster, $100, round out the Oxo suite. Performance was a bit less impressive with these appliances. Given Oxo’s tradition of sound ergonomic design, the so-so handling of the coffeemaker carafe was surprising. The toaster’s motorized lift that lowers and raises bread with the push of a button is a nice convenience, but toasting performance itself was only slightly above average.

    Electrolux

    The Swedish manufacturer is out with two new lines of small appliances. The Masterpiece Collection is geared toward high-end consumers and features a food processor, countertop blender, and immersion blender. The mid-level, though still sleek Expressionist Collection includes a drip coffeemaker, toaster, countertop blender, immersion blender, and electric kettle.

    Electrolux is pushing its commitment to innovation with both lines. For example, the container of the Electrolux Masterpiece PowerTilt ELFP15D9PS food processor, $500, has a tilted design that’s supposed to harness the force of gravity for superior food-prep performance. It did a very good job overall in our tests, but so-so slicing and pureeing kept it off our recommended list. The Electrolux Masterpice ELHB10D9PS immersion blender, $230, also performed well, but there are better options that cost much less.

    We were less impressed with the Expressionist line. Subpar carafe handling sank the $150 Electrolux Expressionist ELTC10D8PS 10-cup coffeemaker in our Ratings. The $120 Electrolux Expressionist ELHB08B8PS immersion blender was so-so at both yogurt blending and soup purees. And the $100 Electrolux Expressionist ELTT02D8PS 2-slice toaster didn’t brown as evenly as the top toaster in our tests.

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    Darth Vader Toaster Makes Toast on the Dark Side

    Star Wars is behind some of the hottest holiday gifts. Here’s one that actually heats up. The Star Wars Darth Vader toaster, $50, in the shape of the dark lord’s iconic helmet, pops out toast with the Star Wars insignia—that internationally recognizable ITC Serif Gothic font logo from the original 1977 movie poster—on one side. Would the force be with it in Consumer Reports’ exacting toaster tests? Consumer Reports included the 2-slice toaster in our latest toaster reviews to find out.

    Evenness is a key component of our tests, but it would have been unfair to judge the Darth Vader toaster too harshly on that note, since it’s obviously not meant to produce evenly browned toast. So we only evaluated the side that was fully toasted, as well as the actual Star Wars impression, and found the toaster to be extremely even. It’s also very good at producing toast ranging from light to dark.                     

    Where the toaster lost points (enough to make it the second worst model in our toaster Ratings) was in its limited functionality and difficult cleaning. For starters, the toaster’s slots are too narrow to accommodate a bagel. An English muffin did just fit, but the toaster couldn’t get hot enough to properly toast the muffin’s moist dough. In other words, this is strictly a bread-only toaster. It’s also missing many convenience features common on today’s toasters, such as defrost and reheat settings, and there are no incremental markings on the dial, so it's hard to pinpoint desired levels of brownness. As for cleanability, the Darth Vader toaster’s helmet shape results in many cracks and crevices that are sure to collect grime over time. 

    Serious Star Wars fans will probably be able to overlook these deficiencies and see only pure Jedi-grade genius in the Star Wars Darth Vader 2-Slice toaster (a quick aside: you can also get toast with an impression of your favorite presidential candidate through the Vermont Novelty Toaster Corporation). If you want a toaster that makes batch after batch of evenly browned toast, check out the winners from Consumer Reports’ toaster Ratings. Our top 2-slice toaster is the Krups 2-slice KH732D50, $70.   

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    Organic Mattress Labels You Can Trust

    Concerned about harmful chemicals in your mattress? Manufacturers of organic mattresses suggest that their products are safer, and this product category—though still niche—is growing.

    But figuring out whether these mattresses are partially or completely chemical free can be a challenge because there are so many different labels making various claims.

    Take the term "natural" on a mattress. It's meaningless, with no standards behind it and no required verification. Even a mattress labeled “organic” may have only some materials that are actually certified organic. For a mattress to be truly organic, it should have at least 95 percent certified organic materials. It should also prohibit potentially harmful chemicals used in processing.

    You might even notice a mix of the labels, with some applying only to part of the bed. Casper mattresses, for instance, are compliant with Oeko-Tex Standard 100 for its top latex layer alone; the rest of the bed is labeled CertiPUR-US (more on what those mean in a moment).

    If you’re in the market for a mattress made without potentially harmful chemicals, here’s what you need to know about the labels you’ll see and their claims based on our in-depth analysis.

    Best: GOTS and GOLS

    Only two mattress labels precisely meet the most stringent qualifications: the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) and, for mattresses that contain latex, the Global Organic Latex Standard (GOLS), which is found on the OrganicPedic by OMI Flora Nouveau we’re currently testing.

    GOTS requires that at least 95 percent of the materials in the mattress be certified organic, and it prohibits outright the use of certain substances even for the other 5 percent, such as chemical flame retardants and polyurethane, the chief ingredient of memory foam.

    GOLS ensures that a mattress with latex is made of organic latex, with restrictions on the other 5 percent of the mattress’s components. Natural-latex mattresses may have both the GOTS and GOLS labels.

    Good: Oeko-Tex Standard 100

    While Oeko-Tex Standard 100 doesn’t ensure that a mattress’s fiber is produced organically, it does set limits for the emission of harmful chemicals such as formaldehyde and other volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which are linked to ozone, smog, respiratory illnesses, and memory impairment. It also bans the use of certain chemical flame retardants, colorants, and allergenic dyes.

    Some Value: CertiPUR, Greenguard, Greenguard Gold, Organic, and Organic Content Standard 100

    We found these five additional certifications only somewhat meaningful since many address certain components and are more limited than the labels above. Still, you may find a certification that addresses a particular concern, such as use of chemical flame retardants. None of these, however, address the sourcing of raw materials.

    CertiPUR-US applies only to the polyurethane foam in a mattress. While other standards such as GOLS bar this foam altogether, CertiPUR-US prohibits certain substances that are in many foams (such as polybrominated diphenyl ether, or PDBE, flame retardants) and requires testing for formaldehyde and other chemicals.

    Greenguard requires testing of a finished mattress for specific emission limits of formaldehyde and other volatile organic compounds.

    • The related Greenguard Gold has more stringent emission limits on the above VOCs.

    • The U.S. Department of Agriculture allows the term “organic” on mattresses (for instance, “made with organic cotton”) if only a portion of the components are certified organic. Other components, in fact, not only don’t need to be organic, but can be processed using potentially harmful chemicals.

    Organic Content Standard 100 refers only to the percentage of certified-organic materials, not to the presence of flame retardants, VOCs, colorants, or dyes.
     
    Prices for mattresses with green claims run from as little as $600 to more than $25,000 for luxury versions. In general, expect to pay around $2,000 for a queen-size mattress—more for one meeting GOTS or GOLS.

    Whatever mattress you buy, air it out for at least 48 hours before using it to reduce your exposure to harmful chemicals. That likely means you’ll have to dispose of the old mattress yourself (rather than letting the retailer haul it away when they deliver the new one), but you might thank yourself in the long run.

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

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    Boost Smartphone Battery Life

    Smartphones are configured at the factory to optimize such factors as display quality and data-connection speeds. But these default settings might not meet your needs as well as you'd like. These seven steps will help your improve your smartphone's battery life, make it work faster, protect your privacy, cut your phone bill, and even improve what you see and hear.

    1. Extend Battery Life

    Make sure the screen brightness is set to Auto (on most iPhones, go to Settings, then Display & Brightness), so the device can adjust to indoor and outdoor conditions. But lower the baseline brightness (usually by using a sliding switch in the Display menu). Set the screen to sleep after 15 or 30 seconds of inactivity. If you’re in an area with no signal, turn on airplane mode. If possible, reduce the update frequency of email, social-network feeds, and other apps to once every hour or so. Check out these 9 mobile gadgets with long battery lives.

    2. Improve Voice Quality

    People have long complained about cell-phone voice quality. The HD Voice feature promises to help you converse with the clarity of a face-to-face meeting.

    HD Voice works by transmitting calls over wider frequency ranges, with a higher number of audio samples carried per second. But you have to turn it on—HD Voice often is off by default.

    Check your phone’s Settings menu. On iPhones, you can turn on HD Voice by selecting Voice & Data in the Enable LTE sub menu of Cellular settings. On Androids, it’s a little more varied. For instance, on some Verizon handsets the HD Voice switch, called Advanced Calling, is next to a green square with the letters “HD” in it. Depending on the phone and the carrier, the controls may also appear under headings such as  “noise reduction,” “personal call settings,” or “VoLTE."  

    But before you get excited about HD Voice, you should know that its benefits extend only to people talking on compatible phones within a carrier's networks. So, for example, Sprint customers won't be able to have HD Voice-quality conversations with their Verizon friends. Don’t fret if HD Voice is not yet an option on your phone or from your carrier. You can also improve the sound by maxing out the volume on your phone app (not the same as the volume control for multimedia playback, which won’t raise call volume). Also, adjust the position where you hold the phone—experiment to find the sweet spot where the microphone and speaker both seem to work best.

    3. Restrict GPS Tracking

    A smartphone GPS mode is great when you need directions or want a local restaurant review, but you may want to restrict marketers from accessing your location data. 

    To enhance privacy, iPhone users can go to Location Services in the Privacy section of Settings. Take a good look at the apps listed and review their GPS privileges. Make sure you switch GPS on for mapping apps and perhaps for weather or shopping apps, and to Never for apps that don’t really need to follow you in order to serve your needs.

    Android 6.0 Marshmallow users can go to the Permissions section for each app in the Apps section of Settings. On phones running versions of Android 5.1 or older, you’ll have open up each app to change location tracking and other privileges. Unfortunately, many apps take an all-or-nothing approach, so you may have to remove some apps entirely if you don’t want them accessing your location data.

    4. Make It Easier to Read and Type

    Apple and Android phones have Accessibility menus in Settings where you can adjust screen brightness and the look of text.

    On an iPhone, go to Accessibility in General Settings to find controls for making text larger and bolder, as well as a switch called Button Shapes that makes navigation controls more prominent. You can also experiment with the Settings designed for users with hearing and visual impairments, whether you fall into that group or not. You can make app icons a tad bigger by activating the Display Zoom feature in the Display & Brightness section of the main Settings menu. And to reduce distractions, move the icons for your favorite apps to the home page and stash the rest in a folder in the corner.

    When it comes to Android phones, easy modes on many LG and Samsung models automatically boost the size of app icons and fonts, and make the interface more senior-friendly by paring features down to the essentials. If you phone lacks such a switch, you can also experiment with the settings for users with hearing and visual impairments, typically found in the Accessibility submenu within settings.

    5. Save on Data Usage

    Because transferring data via cell service is expensive, you should try to use Wi-Fi whenever possible to back up or share large files (photos, streaming videos, etc.). You can also adjust the settings for individual apps to prevent them from downloading news or updates until you’re on a Wi-Fi network—ideally one you trust (think home or office).

    6. Turn on Bluetooth Sharing

    You don’t need to fumble with e-mails and attachments when the friend with whom you want to share a photo, video, or any other type of file is standing right in front of you. You can just beam it directly, phone-to-phone. On iPhones, this trick is called AirDrop, and you can access and turn it on from the iPhone Control Center (an upward swipe of your finger from the bottom of the phone screen). Make sure you friend has Airdrop on as well. Both your friend and you will have to make yourselves discoverable by selecting Contacts Only or Everyone. Then, from the photo or document select the sharing button (the symbol is a square with an upwards pointing arrow in it.) and tap AirDrop. Your file will be transmitted to your friend via Bluetooth.

    Androids phones have a similar feature called Android Beam, which also uses Bluetooth to transmit photos and other docs. This system uses NFC, the short-range radio technology that enables mobile payments at the register by bumping your phone against a special terminal. This time, however, NFC launches Android Beam when you bump the phones together. You’ll find the switch for Android Beam in Settings. And, as with Apple’s AirDrop system, both you and your friend will have to have this feature on. Bummer: AirDrop only works with Apple devices, and Android Beam works only with Android devices.

    7. Back It Up

    Many of the things you do on your smartphone, like e-mail, calendar appointments, and Facebook updates are backed up automatically up to the cloud in an account. Photos and videos can be, too, but you have to take steps to make that happen.

    Apple’s iCloud Drive, available to any device that can access an iTunes account, provides 5GB of free storage. Go to Settings, then iCloud, then Photos. Flip the switch for iCloud Photo Library. Google Drive provides a more generous option for both all smartphones, including iPhones: 15GB of free storage. All you need is a free Gmail account and the Google Drive app on your phone.

    Also consider downloading Google Photos, which lets you set up automatic photo and video backups, and provides a great interface for viewing, editing, and sharing photos. Get more details about backing up your files.

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

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    You're Not the Only One Hooked on Netflix

    If you think you might be watching a bit too much Netflix lately, you're probably right. According to a new report by bandwidth-management company Sandvine, Netflix continues to dominate prime-time Internet traffic into homes here in North America.

    Netflix alone accounted for more than 37 percent of that downstream traffic in September and October 2015, says Sandvine. That's double the volume of its closest competitor, YouTube. But the report also shows that some Netflix competitors—namely Amazon, Hulu, and YouTube—also saw their share of traffic increase, as entertainment viewing continues to play a more prominent role in overall Internet activity.

    In fact, the report states that real-time entertainment—both audio and video streaming—has grown dramatically, now representing 70 percent of peak-time evening traffic on fixed networks, meaning the wired broadband you get from your cable or telco service provider. That's double what it was just five years ago, and far more significant than the volume devoted to Web browsing (7 percent), download purchasing from sites such as Google Play and iTunes (6.79 percent), social networking (5.15 percent), and gaming (4.01 percent).

    Mobile Mavens
    But when it comes to mobile devices, Netflix isn't the dominant player. In fact, streaming movies or TV shows from Netflix accounts for just 3 percent of mobile broadband traffic.

    Instead, YouTube and Facebook rule the roost, accounting for more than 19 and 16 percent of mobile broadband traffic, respectively. One reason, we presume, is that the shorter videos these sites favor are a better match for viewing on smartphones and tablets.

    Although real-time entertainment accounts for only 41 percent of peak mobile downstream bytes, it's still the largest individual category, ahead of social networking (22 percent) and Web browsing (almost 14 percent).

    With streaming entertainment on the rise, it's no surprise that streaming media players continue to be a popular choice with consumers. A just-released study from market research firm Parks Associates says that 14 percent of U.S. broadband households intend to purchase a player by the middle of 2016. And, as of the third quarter of this year, 31 percent of households already own one, up from 27 percent at the start of the year.

     

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    Can Car Scratch-Repair Kits Remove Damage You Get in the Parking Lot?

    Nothing says “holidays” like a scratch-repair kit—at least if you’re unfortunate enough to pick up some new door scrapes while out shopping. The key to success is to choose the right scratch remover, because our tests have found that some work much better than others, and some don’t work at all.

    We tested several liquid products, including Mother’s California Gold Scratch Remover ($8), Nu Finish Scratch Doctor ($10), Quixx High Performance Scratch Remover ($20), and Turtle Wax Scratch and Swirl Remover ($6).

    All were easy enough to use. You just apply and buff them out, much like you would with a car wax but with a little more rubbing. And all were effective at removing the fine scratches or swirls, or hazing, like you might get at the car wash. (Learn more about money-saving DIY car maintenance and repair.)

    Visit our guide to car maintenance and repair.

    For deeper scratches, including anything you can feel with a fingernail, only the Quixx performed well. And even Quixx won’t help with larger damage. For deep scratches, dings, or dents, plan on paying a visit to the auto-body shop after the holidays. Unfortunately, those kind of repairs can run to hundreds of dollars fast.

    As for those scratch-repair pens you might have seen in department stores or on TV, don’t even bother. We’ve tested several, including the DuPont Pro Fusion Color, the Simoniz Fix It Pro, and the Turtle Wax Scratch Repair Pen. All cost $15 or less. But none of those tested products was worth the trouble.

    Our advice is to skip these quick fixes for minor abrasions and try a cleaning polish instead. For deeper scratches, a visit to the body shop might be your best bet.

    More holiday gift ideas and tips

    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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    Best Everyday Cleaning Products for Special Events

    Before shopping for food for your holiday baking and cooking, make sure you have enough cleaning supplies on hand, especially if you’re expecting house guests. This is the week to stock up on paper goods, detergents, and other cleaners so you have room in your shopping cart for a roast, veggies, and other fresh ingredients on your next supermarket outing. Here are the best paper goods and detergents from Consumer Reports tests, plus some to skip.

    Laundry detergents

    Dishwasher detergents

    All-purpose cleaners

    Paper towels

    Toilet paper

    Facial tissues

    Need something that's not on this list? Check our recent report on "The best everyday products" at your local supermarket and the big box stores.

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

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    2017 Mercedes-Benz SLC Roadster

    Mercedes-Benz continues to revitalize, and rename, its product line, with the latest example to be the transformation of the SLK retractable hardtop into the SLC. By adopting the classic SLC moniker, the brand is recognizing the roadster’s C-Class pedigree while aiming to better align the models in its range. Some may recall that the SLC was a 2+2 coupe version of the SL from the late 1970s and early 1980s.

    Mercedes has released details on the 2017 SLC300 Roadster and 2017 AMG SLC43 during a sneak peek ahead of the vehicle’s official unveiling at the 2016 Detroit Auto Show next month.

    Of course, the new SLC variants will still feature the SLK’s pioneering “vario-roof,” a mechanical feat that defined the roadster as one the first retractable hardtop convertible sports coupes sold. The top can now deploy or retract at speeds up to 25 mph. The SLC will also offer the Magic Sky Control option, which adjusts the opacity of the retractable glass roof to control the amount of sunlight allowed through.

    The SLC300 will have a 241-hp, four-cylinder engine shared with the C300 sedan. Mercedes-Benz claims 0-60 mph sprints in 5.7 seconds.

    The souped-up Mercedes-AMG SLC43 boasts a 362-hp, 3.0-liter V6 twin-turbo engine that promises 0-60 mph times of 4.6 seconds. Both models use a nine-speed automatic transmission. The SLK had lost its manual transmission after the 2015 model year. 

    The cockpit freshening features updated instrument clusters, including the 7-inch touch screen seen in the C-Class sedan, and extended infotainment features. Forward-collision warning with auto braking is standard, with blind-spot monitoring and lane-keep assist being optional. For top-down motoring in chilly temperatures, the new car will offer the Airscarf—vents built into the head restraints that blow warm air.

    We fondly remember testing an SLK350 in 2012. It was fun to drive with playful yet predictable handling. It was also a civilized cruiser with comfortable seats, a quiet cabin, and cultured ride.

    Up against the now-dated BMW Z4 and the recently redesigned Audi TT, the 2017 Mercedes SLC will continue to be a mini version of the larger, more luxurious Mercedes-Benz SL, for about half the price.

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    How to Make Great Holiday Gifts With Do-It-Yourself Photo Books

    Remember photo albums? They were popular back in the darkroom ages, when you had to wait for someone to process prints from a film camera. Well, they’re still a great way to capture the memories from a wedding or a once-in-a-lifetime trip, but you don’t have to stick your snapshots into plastic sheets anymore.

    Today’s photo books have gone high-tech. In fact, there are many online services that can help you create one in just an hour or two and you don't need a lot of money or experience to get the job done, which means they make great holiday gifts.

    I've created books using four services—Blurb, Shutterfly, Snapfish, and Walmart. All were easy to use, allowed me to upload photos from a variety of locations including social networking sites, and featured templates or themes to assist in design. Though some are cheaper, most services start at around $10 (plus shipping). For extra pages, you'll likely pay in the range of $.50 to $2. (Note: Not all books let you add pages.) Beyond that, costs vary based on factors such as book size and paper stock.

    With so many options, it's not hard to find one that's right for you. As with ordering photos, you should be on the lookout for emailed promotions. They're a great way to save money.

    Standard delivery is typically seven to 10 days, but you can pay roughly $15 to $20 extra to trim that to four to six days. In some cases, you can even find same-day or one-hour service. 

    Here are details on the four services I tried.

    Blurb

    How it works: This versatile service not only lets you create a photo book via Bookify.com, but also lets you use professional software tools like Adobe's InDesign or Lightroom to complete your project. The site's clean design is easy to navigate. However, the wide array of options can be overwhelming.  

    What you’ll pay: Prices start at $12.99 for a soft cover. Hardcover books range from 7 x 7 inches to 11 x 13 inches, which costs $79.49 using the standard paper photo stock.

    What you’ll get: I created a 20-page, hardcover book in a landscape format measuring 10 x 8 inches. It included a cover photo on a dust jacket, although it would have been nice to have the photo printed on the cover of the book itself, too. I paid extra for higher-end paper stock, which didn't dramatically improve the quality of the photo reproductions. But the book looked fine and I was impressed by the help, tutorials, and tips available on the site.

    When you’ll get it: I chose the speediest delivery option: Federal Express, standard overnight, which added more than $20 to the price. Total cost was $72.76.

    Shutterfly

    How it works: Shutterfly's website offers two ways to build a book. The first is called Simple Path; it offers few options, but still works well and creates nicely designed books. The second is called Custom Path, and as the name implies, it provides more ways to make your photo book unique. Since you can import photos from many places, including Facebook and Instagram, there's a chance you might import a low-resolution photo. But Shutterfly displays a warning icon if the photo won't print properly at a given size in the layout.

    What you’ll pay: Prices start at $12.99 for a softcover 5 x 7 inch photo book, using either Simple Path (available in five sizes) or Custom Path service (available in seven sizes). Offerings are often discounted.

    What you’ll get: I chose the Custom Path option to create a 20-page, 10 x 10-inch book. I paid $10 more for a matte finish on the cover, to minimize glare, and chose four different photos for the cover design template. I also was able to add text, in a wide variety of fonts and colors. Total cost was $66.51.

    When you’ll get it: I chose the speediest delivery option, Rush, which added more than $20 to the price. I got the book in five days.

    Snapfish

    How it works: On the Snapfish site, one of my favorite features is the "See a book we started for you" link, which uses the photos you most recently uploaded to Snapfish. You can start with that book project and customize it, or, of course, create something from scratch. This site also deserves credit for making it easy to resize photos—I was even able to turn an ordinary image into an ultra-wide panorama.

    What you’ll pay: Books are available in (from most to least expensive) premier, custom, and classic styles. Prices start at $11.99 for 5 x 7 inch classic photo books, and rise to $89.99 for an 11 x 14-inch premier lay-flat photo book. Snapfish also offers several binding options. Offerings are often discounted.

    What you’ll get: I created an 8 x 11-inch hardcover photo book, which included one photo that wrapped around both the front and back covers of the book. I also added two additional photos on the front of the book. It was easy to change layouts, and to alter the size and shape of the photos. The service also included a variety of text fonts for the photo captions, and even has a spell-check option.

    When you’ll get it: I chose the speediest delivery option—overnight—which added about $18 to the price. However, I saved more than $16 using a promotional code. Total cost was $34.21 

    Walmart

    How it works: This online service was the least expensive of the ones I tested, and it included some nice ease-of-use features. For instance, a step-by-step tour takes you through all the steps in creating your project. And you can quickly autofill the blank pages of your book.

    What you’ll pay: Prices start at $3.88 for a 24-page mini photo book (2 x 3 inches) and cost up to $40 for a 12 x 12-inch hardcover book. In addition to the many delivery options, Walmart had one-hour and same-day services, although these offer far fewer design options. For example, the same-day service (which allows you to pick up the book from a Walmart store) only had two cover options.

    What you’ll get: I created an 8 x 11-inch hardcover photo book, which included one photo on the cover and another smaller one on the back. (I choose a cover template from about 42 different choices.) I was easily able to alter the size of the photos, as well as the number of photos that appear on a particular layout. The service also included a variety of text fonts for the captions.

    When you’ll get it: I choose an album that had same-day service. Total cost was $26.07.

    Tips for Creating a Stunning Photobook

    Here’s are some tips to consider when gathering and organizing images for a great photo book.

    Give yourself time to locate photos: If you're including older, non-digital photos in your album, you'll need time to actually find and scan or photograph them. And even if they are digital photos, they may not be all on one hard drive. You'll then want to give yourself time to decide which photos you'll be keeping and which you'll be editing out of the book.

    Study the online service you'll use: Although it's tempting to jump right in and start using the online photo service, it's best to take some time to study the different parts of the photobook site before you begin. If you're confused, check out the help sections of the site first.

    Have a plan and stay organized: Construct a plan for how you'll present your images. For instance, you can structure the album chronologically, by geographic location, or by family members. Then, set up folders on your computer that reflect your organizational scheme.

    Be selective: Choose carefully when selecting photos for a book. Be sure to check that your photos aren't blurry or marred by other flaws. If you're making an album of family photos, make sure everyone is represented and identified accurately.

    Vary photos: Don't just use all horizontals. Include verticals, or portraits, as well as panoramas. You'll want to also include various types of photos, such as formals, candids, action shots, group portraits, and selfies. But don't forget landscapes and still lifes, too.

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

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    What the Federal Reserve Interest Rate Increase Means for You

    The long-awaited interest rate hike by the Federal Reserve was finally announced today.  The Fed announced that it would raise rates by a quarter of a percentage point, up from close to zero. While the increase was small, the move was significant.

    The last interest rate hike came in mid-2006. The Fed’s decision to lower rates and keep them close to zero for so long was unprecedented. But it made sense. Since 2007, when the country entered a financial crisis, the Fed kept moving rates lower in the hopes of boosting economic activity. The idea was the low rates would allow consumers and businesses to borrow and spend more.

    Now, however, the economy looks stronger. Unemployment is approaching 5 percent—very close to the point when inflationary pressure typically starts to kick in. While there really isn’t any inflation yet, the small increase in interest rates could help to ward it off.

    So how will the interest rate hike today affect you?

    Mortgages. Rates are going to go up. Most economists recently polled expect the conventional 30-year mortgage rate to rise in 2016. If you are already locked into a 30-year fixed mortgage, you have nothing to worry about. Most adjustable mortgage rates, however, are reset once per year. So if rates rise a number of times before your next reset, you could end up paying more. An alternative would be to consider refinancing to a fixed rate loan before long-term rates increase significantly.

    Credit cards. Similar to adjustable rate mortgages, credit card rates are likely to rise almost immediately. That, in turn, will mean a higher annual percentage rate (APR) for many variable-rate credit card borrowers—the predominant type of credit card agreement. And unlike other credit card rate increases, a 45-day notice from the credit card issuer isn't required.

    However, some credit card rates have a ceiling. These credit card borrowers are already paying more than the prime rate plus additional percentage points, so a small increase isn't likely to affect the APR for these credit card borrowers.

    Here's a tip: If you want to protect yourself against higher credit card rates, you could get a 0 percent balance-transfer card and move your outstanding balance there. That could give you up to 18 months to pay off your balance.  

    Auto loans. As rates increase, the cost of borrowing to buy a new car rises. The result of a rate increase is that you may decide to put that purchase off for now. The rate increase today was small, but if future increases are on their way, car loans stand to become much more expensive. But there is some good news. If fewer people are buying cars, inventory levels could climb, which, in turn, could lead to the price of new cars falling.

    Savings. Don't expect to start seeing 1-year CDs offering a 3 percent return anytime soon. The best rates (usually found at online banks) will barely budge, unless there are further Fed increases in the coming months. Banks don't immediately pass on higher savings rates to their depositors.

    Stocks. While it's never wise to make short-term stock market forecasts (and one year certainly counts as short term for prudent investors) stocks typically do well in the year following an initial Federal Reserve rate hike, according to data crunched by Fidelity. Intuitively, this makes sense: Central bankers typically won't raise rates unless the economy is deemed healthy enough to tolerate an action that could slow the economy. 

    But keep in mind that there have been times when the Fed raised rates and stocks fell in the following 12 months.  

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

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    3 Great TV Deals If You Have a Sound Bar

    Vizio E60-C3

    Vizio TVs have typically done well in our Ratings, and this 60-inch 1080p TV would have scored higher but for its fair sound quality. If you add a speaker and focus instead on the set's excellent high-definition picture quality, it starts to look like a great deal. Although it's an entry-level model, it doesn't skimp on features, which include a full-array LED backlight with local dimming and the company's Vizio Internet Apps Plus smart TV platform. If you're looking for a slightly larger set, the E65-C3 costs about $200 more and performs similarly (although its sound is actually a bit worse), making it another attractive deal.

    Samsung UN60J6200

    This 60-inch 1080p LED LCD TV from Samsung is less pricey than the models in the J6300 series, which have a bit better sound and a few more features. It delivers very good high-definition picture quality. It also does a nice job of reducing motion blur on fast-moving scenes. For those looking for an Internet TV that can access streaming movies and TV shows, the set comes with Samsung's Smart Hub Internet service, though not its newer, more advanced Tizen smart TV service.

    LG 65UF7690

    We've seen this 60-inch LED LCD UHD TV from LG selling for as little as $1,300. While that's not exactly cheap, it's a great price for a 4K TV this size from a major brand. The set offers very good high-definition picture quality, excellent UHD performance, plus a wider-than-average viewing angle for an LCD TV. Features include an edge LED backlight with local dimming, the company's webOS 2.0 smart TV platform and LG's point-and-click Magic Remote control.

    Coming Soon: Best TVs of 2015
    If you'd prefer a similar deal on a smaller set, you'll find other sound-challenged options sprinkled throughout our Ratings. Before you shop for a TV this holiday season, though, make sure you check out our new TV Buying Guide for helpful advice. And, if you can wait a week, we'll post our best TVs of 2015 list soon.

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

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    Worst Cars of 2015 in Consumer Reports' Tests

    At Consumer Reports, we test cars of all shapes and sizes. We experience everything from high-horsepower supercars to models that we wouldn’t drive even if they were free.

    As the year winds down, we have reflected on our Ratings and flagged those models that trailed in our Ratings. These cars are the worst of the worst.

    What makes a car bad that it one of the worst cars of 2015? An insufferably noisy cabin. A spine-jolting, kidney-quivering ride. Underwhelming fuel economy. Wobbly and vague handling. Some cars even manage to have all of those downsides. Those vehicles that are clearly deficient in multiple areas earn scores well below the norm for their class.

    As you gaze upon the list of the five lowest-scoring new cars in our rankings, it might seem as if we’re picking on small cars. We aren’t. In fact, a few small cars do well in our tests and are recommended, including the Chevrolet Sonic and Honda Fit. But low-budget models tend to struggle in our tests, due to the packaging, noise, and performance shortcomings inherent when trying to meet a low-cost package.

    The worst cars of 2015 are true stinkers and have the lowest scores in our tests. Regardless of reliability or owner satisfaction, none scored high enough to earn our recommendation. (Scores are on a scale of 1 to 100.)

    To avoid one of the worst cars of 2015 and other subpar vehicles, check all of our tested models.

    Toyota Yaris

    Base MSRP price range: $14,895-$17,670
    Score: 47
    Despite a face-lift for 2015, the Yaris remains a slow, noisy, and tinny subcompact with a choppy ride and an awkward driving position. Further, the Yaris remains spartan in an age of increasingly better and more refined subcompacts. This two- or four-door hatchback uses a 1.5-liter, four-cylinder engine that delivers weak acceleration. A five-speed manual transmission is standard; a four-speed automatic is optional. That's two gears fewer than most of the competition; you need as many ratios as possible when dealing with an engine as wheezy as this one. The Yaris we tested returned 32 mpg overall. All versions have Toyota's Entune infotainment system, with a 6.1-inch touch screen and phone connectivity. A dealer-installed navigation system is available as an option. If you are set on buying a subcompact from Toyota, the Scion iA might be a better choice.

    See our complete Toyota Yaris road test.


     

    Scion tC

    Base MSRP price range: $19,385-$22,400
    Score: 44
    Question: When is a sporty car not sporty at all? Answer: When it’s the Scion tC. It certainly looks inviting, and the Scion tC comes with lots of standard equipment, including a touch-screen audio system and a large sunroof. But that’s where the good news ends. The Scion tC’s stiff suspension and heavy steering shouldn’t fool you into thinking this is a performance machine. Handling is entirely humdrum, and even smooth roads produce a jarring ride. Granted, we don’t expect a car like the tC to be quiet, but the cabin produces a din of unpleasant engine drone and a tiresome exhaust howl. Need more convincing that the tC belongs as in our list of the worst cars of 2015? None of our drivers thought the Scion tC fit them well; sitting behind the wheel feels like you've descended into a cave. The 2016 tC gets a new standard audio system with a seven-inch touch-screen display, and a standard backup camera. If you want something with a Toyota/Scion pedigree that’s truly fun to drive, check out the Scion FR-S—a proper sporty car.

    See our complete Scion tC road test.


     

    Mitsubishi i-MiEV

    Base MSRP price: $22,995
    Score: 35
    Some electric cars have impressed us (Tesla Model S, Ford Focus Electric, Nissan Leaf), but Mitsubishi’s lackluster effort somehow feels short-circuited in contrast. It’s not even because its meager 59-mile range and a six-hour recharge time. It's that the ride is horrendous, acceleration is painfully slow, and the i-MiEV comes with an antiquated interior with fit and finish that feels decidedly third-world cheap. True, zero tailpipe emissions and low operating costs are pluses. But we’ve driven better golf carts.

    See our complete Mitsubishi i-MiEV road test.


     

    Mitsubishi Mirage

    Base MSRP price range: $12,995-$15,395
    Score: 29
    The Mitsubishi Mirage lives up to its name. While its low $16,000 sticker price and good fuel economy of 37 mpg overall might conjure up an inviting image of a good, economical runabout, that illusion quickly dissipates into the haze when you drive this tiny, regrettable car. The Mirage is powered by a small, vibration-prone three-cylinder engine. Handling is so clumsy, it feels scary. To lure customers, Mitsubishi primed the pump with a rather impressive list of standard features. But the car is far too slow and noisy, even for a cheap subcompact. If, for some reason, you’re still intrigued, the freshened 2017 model (which goes on sale this spring) will be offered with Android Auto and Apple CarPlay. The company also claims that the car’s handling and brakes are upgraded, with enhanced shock absorbers and bigger brakes. We'll let you know if the updated version is any improvement on one of the worst cars of 2015.

    See our complete Mitsubishi Mirage road test.


     

    Jeep Wrangler Unlimited

    Base MSRP price range: $22,995-$35,695
    Score: 20
    Meet the lowest-ranked vehicle, the Jeep Wrangler Unlimited. The Wrangler is one of those rare vehicles that basically bombs in our tests, but our subscribers are wild about it—warts and all. In fact, 76 percent of the owners in our most recent satisfaction survey said they’d buy one again. So what’s the problem? Driven daily on “normal” roads, the ride is punishing, handling is reluctant, and it drinks fuel like kids devour juice pouches, returning just 17 mpg overall. But there are few vehicles that have a “cool” factor as high as a Wrangler. We get that. We also know that it’s impressive off-road. But to use this as an everyday car? Literally, every other vehicle on the market is judged to be better.

    See our complete Jeep Wrangler Unlimited road test.

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

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