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    Is Fine China Safe in a Dishwasher?

    Q. I’m about to purchase a new dishwasher and want to know which models will not harm my delicate china. (It has gold trim around the edges.) I’m mainly considering the Frigidaire Gallery FGHD2472PF model. What do you think?—Orah Rosenblatt, Brooklyn, NY

    A.
    We don’t do any tests using delicate china, says Emilio Gonzalez, our senior test program leader for appliances, but we consulted the manual for the Frigidaire model you mentioned. It says that the appliance's china crystal cycle, “for lightly soiled china and crystal,” uses less water than the other cycles and is of shorter duration. Always closely follow the user manual and, of course, carefully load delicate items, making sure they don’t touch other dishes. The manual doesn’t mention gold-trimmed china, so it wouldn’t hurt to call the manufacturer to see what it recommends. And when in doubt, hand-wash.

    For related information check our buying guides for dishwashers and detergents.

    Send your questions to ConsumerReports.org/askourexperts.

    This article also appeared in the January 2015 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.

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

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    Collision-Avoidance Systems Are Changing the Look of Car Safety

    N ot so long ago, it would have seemed incredible that your car would be able to “see” other vehicles or pedestrians, anticipate collisions, and automatically apply the brakes or take corrective steering actions. But more and more cars can do that to some degree, thanks to a growing list of collision-avoidance systems.

    Some of these capabilities, such as forward-collision warning systems, have been around for a few years, mostly on high-end luxury cars. Others, like steering assist, are just getting ready for prime time. The good news is that the collision-avoidance systems are getting better and are spreading to mainstream cars.

    The potential for these systems is so great that the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has added collision-avoidance system testing to its suite of safety evaluations. The IIHS has determined that some of these collision-avoidance systems could prevent or mitigate many crashes. Now, to win top overall safety scores from the IIHS, a car needs to have a forward-collision warning system with automatic braking. In addition, any autobrake system has to function effectively in formal track tests that the IIHS conducts. Visit IIHS website for test results on individual models.

    The federal National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is also on board, with an eye to making some collision-avoidance systems mandatory. NHTSA’s 5-Star Safety Ratings note which systems are available on cars they crash-test. Their presence doesn’t affect the Star ratings yet, though.

    The cost of collision-avoidance systems can still be an obstacle. Most advanced systems today come only as part of a large options package or on a model’s higher, more expensive trim versions. Jumping to the trim line where the safety goodies are offered can add thousands of dollars to a vehicle’s price. 

    Lasers, Radar, and Cameras

    These cutting-edge active safety systems rely on a number of sensors, cameras, lasers, and short- and long-range radar. They monitor what is going on around the vehicle—vehicles, pedestrians, cyclists, and even road signs—as well as the vehicle itself. Inputs are processed by computers, which then prompt some action from the car or the driver. Those actions may start with attention-grabbers, such as a beep, a flashing dashboard icon, a tug from the seatbelt, or a vibration in the seat or steering wheel. If the driver doesn’t respond, the more advanced systems then apply partial or full braking force.

    In our ongoing evaluations we’ve found that there’s a fine line between a helpful electronic co-pilot and a computerized backseat driver. If a warning system emits too many inappropriate alerts, then there is an increasing temptation to switch it off.

    Not every system on the market today is top-notch. The IIHS has found that some autonomous braking systems are more effective than others. But they conclude there’s a net benefit regardless.

    A 2009 study conducted by the IIHS found a 7 percent reduction in crashes for vehicles with a basic forward-collision warning system, and a 14 to 15 percent reduction for those with automatic braking.

    “Even in the cases where these systems failed to prevent a crash, if there’s automatic braking going on, or if the driver does brake in response to a warning, that crash is going to be less severe than it would have been otherwise,” says David Zuby, chief research officer at the IIHS.

    In the end, these systems can do a lot of good in preventing crashes from happening in the first place. But it’s important for drivers to realize that none of these aids reduces the need to stay alert.

    Current Active Safety Systems

    Manufacturers routinely use unique, marketing-friendly names for their various systems. This makes it confusing to know the system’s full capabilities. When you are shopping for a new car, make sure to ask what the safety feature does. For a detailed listing of the available systems for each manufacturer, visit our free Car Safety Hub.

    Rear cross-traffic alert
    Cross-traffic alert warns you of traffic approaching from the sides as you reverse. The warning usually consists of an audible chirp and a visual cue in either the outside mirror or the rear camera’s dash display. The more advanced systems can also pick out bicycles and pedestrians.
    CR’s take: Cross-traffic alert systems are especially handy if you have to back into a traffic lane when adjacent parked cars obscure your view.

    Forward-collision warning (FCW) and autobrake
    Also called a pre-crash warning system, these stand-alone or combined radar-, laser-, or camera-based systems warn drivers of an impending collision by using visual, auditory, or physical cues. Most vehicle systems also pre-charge the brakes and take other steps to prepare for impact. If the driver ignores the warnings, systems with autonomous braking, or autobrake, will apply partial or full braking force. They can be active at anywhere from walking to highway speeds.
    CR’s take: Sometimes you want or need to stay closer to the car ahead of you than at other times, so systems that let you adjust your follow distance have a distinct advantage.

    Blind-spot monitoring (BSM) and assist
    A blind-spot monitoring system uses radars or cameras to scan the areas beside and behind you, looking for vehicles entering or lurking in your blind zones. When such a vehicle is detected, an illuminated icon appears in or near the appropriate side-view mirror. If you signal a turn while a car is in your blind zone, some systems send a stronger alert, such as a blinking light or louder chirps. More advanced systems help keep you in your own lane by applying the brakes on one side of the vehicle.
    CR’s take: In general, we like these systems and find them helpful.

    Pedestrian detection and braking
    Pioneered by Volvo and now offered by others, pedestrian detection can recognize a person straying into a vehicle’s path. Some will automatically apply the brakes, if needed, sometimes partially and sometimes to a complete stop. Some newer systems can also detect bicyclists.
    CR’s take: They’re a good investment, especially if you often drive in cities or other populous areas.

    Adaptive headlights
    As you turn the steering wheel adaptive headlights will swivel, which helps illuminate the road when going around curves. A 2014 IIHS study found that adaptive headlights improved drivers’ reaction times by about a third of a second. That could be just enough to avoid, say, hitting a parked car on a dark road.
    CR’s take:
    Our drivers have mixed feelings about adaptive headlights. The wider view can be helpful, but the swiveling motion of the light path can be a little distracting, especially if the headlight beams’ motion isn’t exactly synchronized with the steering wheel’s.

    Lane departure warning (LDW) and assist LDW
    These systems use a camera, along with various sensors, to identify lane markers and monitor your distance from them. If you stray over the line without signaling, you’ll hear a warning tone or perhaps a physical alert like a vibration in the steering wheel or seat. More advanced “lane keeping assist” (LKA) systems selectively apply brakes or nudge the steering to guide you back if you’re wandering.
    CR’s take:
    We’ve found LDW more useful on highways than on narrow, winding country roads where they can beep at you too often. We also prefer systems that make corrections using the steering rather than the brakes.

    Drowsiness detection
    Various methods are used to detect if a driver is tired or falling asleep. Mercedes-Benz pioneered one of the first, which uses a computer algorithm that compares a driver’s steering behavior with those recorded at the start of the trip. Other systems monitor the car’s position within its lane of travel, looking for erratic maneuvers indicative of inattention. Some also track the driver’s eye movements with an in-car camera, noting rapid or prolonged eye blinks. Alerts may include a chime, a dab on the brakes, a tug on the shoulder belt, and/or an illuminated cup-of-coffee icon on the instrument panel.
    CR’s take:
    Anything that keeps a driver from falling asleep is probably a good idea. We haven’t experienced any problems, such as false alarms, on cars we’ve tested with the feature. In addition to drowsy-driving, these systems can tell you to look sharp if you’re wandering around in your lane. Some may even keep drivers from looking down to text or answer emails.

    Automatic park assist
    The system will identify a parallel or perpendicular parking space your car can fit into. Once found, the system steers the car into the space; some can also exit from parallel parking spaces. The driver still does the braking and has to follow commands from the system.
    CR’s take: These can be awkward to initialize. The driver has to activate the system and then drive by an open space for the system to recognize the spot. It may not recognize the parking space the first time. But most do a good job at steering the car into the spot.

    Rear cameras and parking assist
    Rear-view cameras will be mandatory with the 2018 model year. They can help prevent a back-over accident, such as hitting a child who wanders behind your car. Parking assist sensor systems notify you with progressively louder and quicker beeps as you close in on an obstacle.
    CR’s take: These are a must-have on SUVs and pickups, which often have large blind zones behind them. In addition, rear cameras are great when backing into tight parking spaces or lining up a trailer.

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

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    Should You Buy a Router to Save Money?

    Q. Can I save money if I buy my own router rather than leasing from my cable provider?

    A. It generally costs $5 to $10 per month to lease a router from the cable company, and those we recommend in our Ratings range from $85 to $240. Simple math reveals that if you buy a router, it will quickly pay for itself in monthly savings on your bill. A new router should speed up file transfers between devices in your home and allow you and the people you live with to stream more videos simultaneously. Our top pick, the LinkSys AC2600, $240, should get you consistent speed throughout the house (depending on doors, walls, and other obstructions).

    But you can pay far less for a good, basic dual-band 802.11ac router (meaning it uses two frequencies, 2.4 and 5GHz, to avoid interference with other devices and nearby Wi-Fi networks). For example, the Asus AC1200, $100, performed almost as well as Netgear’s AC2350 Nighthawk X4, $210. 

    For more check our Wireless Router Buying Guide and Ratings.

    Send your questions to ConsumerReports.org/askourexperts.

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

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

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    5 Anti-Consumer Provisions That Didn't Make It Into the Omnibus Spending Bill

    Congress has reached an agreement on a year-end spending bill and tax package to keep the government funded through September 2016. The House and Senate are expected to start casting votes on the deal today and Friday.

    Because the spending bill must pass to avoid a government shutdown, many lawmakers saw it as an opportunity to slap on last-minute riders to gut or weaken a variety of consumer protections. Many of these proposals were the result of behind-the-scenes efforts by the banking industry, food companies, and other business groups to advance their special interests. Fortunately, several of the most anti-consumer proposals were firmly rejected, after lawmakers who support these issues pushed back on the riders. Plus, there was an outcry (and some well-placed public pressure) from consumers and advocacy groups, including Consumers Union, the policy and advocacy arm of Consumer Reports. In a statement, Consumers Union said, "Some industries tried to strong-arm Congress and roll back some important consumer safeguards. Consumers stood up and made their voices heard, and we’re pleased that several of these riders were kept out of the agreement.”

    However, a deal this size is rarely perfect, and Congress did include a few clunker provisions that we're not fond of. But we'll get to those in a minute. First, the happy victories. 

    Labeling GMOs. Despite a heavy push by food manufacturers, lawmakers rejected a proposal to preempt mandatory labeling of genetically modified foods by state and local governments. The agreement also contains full funding to implement the Food Safety Modernization Act, a landmark law to crack down on deadly foodborne illnesses. Plus, the deal requires the FDA to develop labeling for genetically engineered salmon before it can be introduced in the marketplace.

    Keeping the consumer watchdog on the beat. A controversial proposal backed by banks would have undermined the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the watchdog that protects consumers from financial rip-offs, by changing its funding and restructuring it as a commission. These efforts failed. The banks also tried to get Congress to weaken reforms aimed at abusive mortgage lending and other problems—that didn't make it in the final bill, either.

    Keeping retirement advisers honest. Lawmakers rejected an item that would have blocked the Department of Labor’s proposed rule to eliminate potential conflicts of interest among retirement advisers.

    Preserving net neutrality. The deal almost contained a proposal that would have prevented the FCC from implementing its Open Internet rules to protect consumer rights to net neutrality. That language was left out.

    Boosting green power. The agreement extends tax incentives for consumers to install solar panels, and legislators rejected a rider that would have blocked the Environmental Protection Agency from implementing its Clean Power Plan to improve public health and promote energy efficiency.

    Stopping these measures represents a definite victory for consumer advocates, but the agreement still has some provisions Consumers Union finds objectionable. For example, language in the bill repeals mandatory country-of-origin labeling for beef and pork, although the repeal was not extended to poultry as some lawmakers wanted. On the health reform front, the agreement imposes a two-year moratorium on the medical device tax and a one-year halt to the insurance tax, which are critical funders for the Affordable Care Act.

    The agreement is now teed up for Congress to debate and approve in a matter of days, and the White House says the President will sign it.

    By the way, if you’re the type of person who enjoys reading pages and pages of federal legislation, you can plow through the text of the agreement here and here.

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

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    The Worst Gifts You Could Buy This Holiday Season

    What’s the worst gift you could give over the holidays? We’re not talking gag gifts, but the kind of things many people routinely pick in a pinch or give with a perfectly straight face. In Consumer Reports latest holiday poll, we asked Americans to rank from a list of fairly common presents the worst gifts possible—those that they would least want to receive.

    Topping the list of worst gifts (again) was booze. Hard liquor like rum, vodka, or whiskey, was given a “thumbs down” by 20 percent of respondents. Next came flowers, reviled by 16 percent of those surveyed; anything that was clearly re-gifted (cited by 12 percent); home décor items like picture frames or candles (11 percent); and lottery tickets (10 percent).

    Five percent of those surveyed identified gift cards or gift certificates as the worst gifts possible.  Wine, books, food, kitchen items, socks, each were singled out as worst gifts by 4 percent of Americans. Four percent also cited clothes. That, perhaps, is unfortunate since an earlier Consumer Reports poll revealed that clothes was the one item Black Friday weekend shoppers planned to buy as a holiday gift.

    Our poll revealed other gift-related insights as well. The vast majority—80 percent—of respondents said they’d prefer to receive a practical present this year than some fancy, luxury bauble. Cash, it turns out, is also still king when it comes to giving gifts. Given a choice between money and a gift card, 57 percent opted for cash.

    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 1300 randomly selected adult U.S. residents; 80% 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% points at the 95% confidence level. Fifty-two percent of the sample was female, and the median age was 45 years old. The earlier poll (conducted in November, 2015) was administered by ORC International via phone to a nationally representative sample of 1007 adults; 77% will be shopping this holiday season. The margin of error for this poll is +/- 3.1% points at the 95% confidence level.

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

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    Should My Pillow Become Your Pillow?

    If you’ve been up late channel surfing—maybe because you’re having trouble sleeping—chances are you’ve come across the infomercial for My Pillow. The ad for My Pillow is running “constantly somewhere in the U.S.” every day across multiple networks, and 10 times per day on the Fox network alone, according to My Pillow inventor and manufacturer Mike Lindell.

    The company makes some bold claims for what it calls the “most comfortable pillow you’ll ever own,” including an “exact custom fit.” Explains Lindell, “You can adjust the My Pillow to make it fit you. The foam pieces interlock and hold that position without going flat, so you get support where you need it.” That results in “deeper, longer REM sleep,” according to the pillow’s packaging. (Check our comparison of sleeping pills for insomnia.)

    Consumer Reports bought three My Pillows to test. Although we weren’t able to test that REM sleep claim, we did examine them inside and out. My Pillow describes itself as having “3-piece interlocking fill,” but it actually has thousands of torn polyurethane foam pieces in three sizes. We were able to shift the foam pieces around to different positions, and they did seem to stay put under pressure. The case is 100 percent cotton, and it didn’t have any noticeable off smells like some new pillows can.

    How does it feel? Our tester described My Pillow as “kind of lumpy, but comfortable.” We also polled staffers who bought My Pillow on their own. Most said they bought it to help alleviate a sleep problem such as insomnia, neck pain, or snoring. Half of the 18 staffers said it helped a lot, 17 percent said it helped a little, and 33 percent said it didn’t help at all. Only one-third of the group said they would buy My Pillow again. (Use these exercises to help stop snoring.)

    The 60-day money-back guarantee means that you can return My Pillow; you’ll have to pay for shipping and handling on both the original purchase and the return. Exchanges are free, however, including shipping.

    In the Market for a New Mattress?

    Consumer Reports tests innerspring, memory foam, and adjustable air mattresses. These CR Best Buys combine performance and value. 

    Innerspring

    Memory foam

    Adjustable air

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

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    Scam Tracker Warns You Before Scammers Knock on Your Door

    For years, the Better Business Bureau has been alerting consumers that their neighborhoods might be under the watchful eye of scammers. They've warned of door-to-door sales scams, scammers posing as contractors, and even some trying to hawk tree trimming or tree removal services. Now, the Better Business Bureau has come up with an even better way to alert you about scams: a new online tool it calls the Scam Tracker.

    This free interactive tool uses crowdsourcing to collect real-time information from victims of scams and consumers who have thwarted scams, then transfers the data to a heat map to show where scams are being reported across the United States and Canada.

    You can search for or report scams using a variety of filters on the Scam Tracker:

    • By keyword. Typing in a keyword such as “lottery" generates a report showing the national results for that word. The interactive map in the Scam Tracker then allows you to narrow your search to a particular city or region to find out where the most lottery scams are taking place.
    • By type of scam. An alphabetized drop-down list in the Scam Tracker lets you choose among over 30 common scams, from debt collections to government grants, identity theft to IRS imposters, and from romance to tech support cons. 
    • By country. The Scam Tracker currently reports on scams in the U.S. and Canada; BBB Mexico is expected to join in the future.
    • By date. The “date reported” field allows you to see which scams are most prevalent at any specific point in time. For example, lottery scams have been especially popular during the past week. 

    Consumers can also report scams that they hear about, whether or not they are victims.

    In addition to alerting consumers, the Scam Tracker reports are sent to the National Cyber-Forensics and Training Alliance for analysis and collaboration with law enforcement agencies to help prosecute scammers in the U.S. and overseas.

    “Scammers use technology to defraud,” says Mary E. Power, president and CEO of the Council of Better Business Bureaus. “BBB is using technology to stop them.”

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

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    These Are Not the Levitating Wireless Speakers You're Looking For

    The Star Wars films are chock full of levitating objects, from hovering orbs and vehicles to airborne Jedi knights. And although we didn't purposely time our testing to coincide with the opening of the new movie, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, our labs have just evaluated three levitating wireless speakers that would seem quite at home in any of the Star Wars episodes. They don't have any official tie-in to the movies, but they sure look like they could.

    The three levitating wireless speakers are designed in more or less the same way. Each speaker includes a base, which is essential to getting the speakers to float. Two of them—the ICE Orb, $150 and Power Lead Flat F400, $130—have a spherical design that makes them look like mini Death Stars. The third, the Air 2 CSBT-311, $130, has a more pancake-shaped design, which perhaps could double as a mini-floating city. (Check out the 5 best wireless speakers under $300.)

    How Levitating Wireless Speakers Work

    What makes these speakers stand out, obviously, is that they float in mid-air. To achieve this, each model uses magnets—one in the speaker itself and four around the base. In order to have the speaker levitate, the base needs to be plugged into an electrical outlet. (The speakers themselves are portable; they'll work when not levitating above the base.) The speakers tend to slowly rotate while levitating, which gives them a nice mesmerizing effect.

    Just to be clear, they float only in one specific spot above the magnetized base. And, that spot can be tricky to find. The ICE Orb and Power Lead both have four indicator lights on the base to help you place the speaker in the right location: When all four lights are red, the speakers should float. Unfortunately, if it’s positioned even just slightly off, the speaker will crash down and stick to one of the four magnets on the base. The Air 2 does not have guide lights, which makes it even trickier to find the sweet spot. 

    How These Levitating Wireless Speakers Sound

    But these models aren’t meant to be just floating works of art. They’re audio speakers. And, unfortunately, all three had just fair sound quality and scored rather low in our tests. We don’t recommend them for listening to music: Among other issues, each produced bass that has almost no impact and overall, we found that the audio sounded congested and lacking in detail. That means you won’t hear the subtleties in any type of music or audio. However, all the models provided a decent volume level. So, they’ll produce enough sound to fill a small room.

    Our testing revealed the speakers sounded the same whether they were floating or not floating. In other works, the floating feature had no effect on the quality of the audio.

    These speakers do have a futuristic, sci-fi appeal, but since they fall short where it matters most—in delivering sound—we suggest you choose one of the many other, better-performing models we've tested.

    Check our wireless speaker buying guide and Ratings for more details.

    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 Make Sphero's BB-8 Toy Even Better

    Like millions of Star Wars fans worldwide, John Blakely will be rushing out to the movie theater in the next 24 hours to catch The Force Awakens. Unlike the others, though, he’ll be on the clock for work.

    Without once seeing the film, Blakely led the team that produced the hardware, software, and user experience for Sphero’s app-controlled BB-8 toy—destined to be one of the top-selling gifts for children this holiday season.  And so, he’ll have his eye trained on the heroic droid throughout the screening, searching for ways to make the product even better.

    That’s one of the big benefits of living in an age of connected products. Because Sphero’s BB-8 is controlled by an app that you download onto a smartphone or tablet, it can be upgraded via software updates. In fact, Sphero has already fixed a few bugs and added movie-related content—info on the on-screen characters and vehicles—through the toy’s hologram messaging system. And in the next few days, the company will offer a fresh update with sounds and animations pulled straight from the film.

    “We wanted to make it feel as if the droid rolled off the screen and into your home,” says Blakely.

    Coming Soon

    That means there will be more surprises to come in the weeks ahead. “We’re going to be continually updating,” Blakely says. “Adding some new things you can do with BB-8. I’m not at liberty to talk about that, but we are definitely working on those things right now.”

    When the toy was unveiled in September, it was greeted with glowing reviews. Gizmodo called it “the coolest Star Wars toy ever.” And it certainly lived up to the advanced billing: When we invited children to our office earlier this month to try out tech toys, they were immediately drawn to it. For Blakely and Spheros, that’s no small victory—given the challenges they faced in designing the toy.

    They earned the opportunity with a stroke of great fortune. In July 2014, the company’s founders—Ian Bernstein and Adam Wilson—were working on the fledgling firm in a business startup program when they were granted a brief audience with Disney CEO Robert Iger. After learning of their expertise in robotics, Iger pulled an iPhone from his pocket and showed them a still image of BB-8. “Can you make one of these?” he asked.

    By chance, Bernstein and Wilson had been toying around with a ball-shaped droid. They had even begun to explore techniques for attaching things—like, say, BB-8’s floating head—to the ball. Within 24 hours, to Iger’s delight, they had ginned up a working prototype.

    Bringing BB-8 to Life

    That was only the first challenge. Converting the prototype into a convincing-looking BB-8 took far longer. Sphero was given a brief character bio, some input on the droid’s decoration and markings, and a few prop shots that demonstrated how the creature moved—details that were eventually unveiled in the film’s trailer. For everything else, Blakely’s team had to play detective. He compares the experience to a game of 20 Questions with the movie’s creators at Lucasfilm.

    “We assembled a huge document of questions that were instrumental in helping us determine what kind of experience to create,” he explains. Often the answer was a simple yes or no. At other times, the Sphero crew might be referred to other parts of the Star Wars cannon. “Sometimes they’d say we don’t know the answer to that or we’re not at liberty to give you the information,” Blakely adds.

    In the end, Sphero created a toy that looks and moves just like the on-screen character. Using the app, the team added chirps and beeps and other details that reflect its personality. And now, with updates, they hope to add another layer of verisimilitude.

    Blakely offers up one example. In the Drive feature on the app, there’s a function called the Droid Translator, which lets you role play with your droid. In the months since the launch, Sphero has added ways to not only make the toy execute a figure eight, but also make it seem scared, exasperated, or angry.

    “It allows people to create little videos,” says Blakely. “To act out scenes or respond to things in the world.”

    And that in turn makes BB-8 the rare toy that improves with age.

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

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    Cars You Shouldn't Get Your Teen Driver for the Holidays

    Buying the first car for your kid is an important rite of passage; car ownership brings a host of responsibilities, from driving etiquette to car maintenance. But it all starts with selecting the right car—one that will be safe, reliable, affordable, and hopefully serve them well for years to come. With all the teenage budget constraints and image concerns, it's easy to gravitate toward models that are poor choices for an inexperienced driver.

    Given that teens are three times as likely to crash as adults ages 20 and over (according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety), these young drivers need all the advantages they can get. And that's why when you’re buying for your kid, you should avoid the car types featured here.

    See our recommendations for the best new and used cars for teens.

     

    Larger Engines

    Generally speaking, the ideal car for a teenager is a four-cylinder mid-sized sedan—something large enough to provide good structural protection and small enough to be easily controlled. When shopping for even mainstream sedans, know that many offer larger engines that may prove too fast for an inexperienced teen. We suggest teens start with a car with modest acceleration: 0 to 60 mph between 7.5-11 seconds. Four-cylinder engines tend to fall into that window, whereas V6 versions of many sedans are often quicker than that. Speed is a known contributor in crashes for people of all ages but perhaps an even larger contributor to teen crashes. As a bonus, four-cylinder engines tend to be more fuel efficient and cheaper to maintain.

     

     

    Sports Cars

    If too much speed is to be avoided, then it should be a no-brainer to avoid high-performance sports cars. By their nature, sports cars with swift acceleration invite misbehavior. Sportier cars also tend to come with higher price tags, followed by higher insurance rates and maintenance costs. While used versions may be appealing, older, affordable models may lack the latest safety features. Combined with their potential for speed, this makes sports cars even less appealing.

     

    SUVs and Pickups

    Many are tempted by the crash protection advantage of larger SUVs and pickup trucks in a multi-vehicle crash over a smaller car. There is no denying the fact that one-on-one, a larger vehicle will often fair better than a smaller one. Simple physics. But not all crashes are multi-vehicle and will take advantage of that mass differential. According to IIHS, even though passenger car occupant death rates are similar in single (55 percent) and multi-vehicle (51 percent) crashes, single vehicle crashes accounted for 61 and 62 percent of SUV and pickup truck fatalities in 2013. Size alone may not give the advantage you expect in a single vehicle crash event.

    Additionally, size and mass can be a challenge for an inexperienced driver to control in an emergency situation. Ratings for larger SUVs and pickups in our emergency handling tests are often lower than better-handling vehicle types. Plus, they introduce unique risks, such as carrying many, potentially distracting passengers; overloading with cargo (thereby altering the center of gravity and stability); or towing a trailer.

     

    Too Many Passengers

    Passengers can be particularly significant distractions, which make minivans and three-row SUVs risky—a carload of teens is not a recipe for safety. Though graduated licensing programs in many states limit a new driver’s ability to load up a car with friends or even siblings for a period of time, eventually passengers will be allowed and the more of them there are, the more distracted your young driver will be. And the greater the risks should something go wrong.

     

     

    Other Things to Consider

    Braking ability and handling are also important for avoiding crashes. We only recommend vehicles that stop on a dry surface in 145 feet or less in our tests, and perform adequately in our accident avoidance maneuver test. Electronic stability control is a must-have feature. If shopping new, forward-collision warning with automatic braking is highly recommended.

    Even with all of these factors considered, the odds are still skewed toward a young driver experiencing a crash at some point, so make crash-test performance an important checkpoint. In the end, don’t scrimp on safety.

    Read more about choosing the right car for a teen driver.

     

    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.

    • Best New Motorcycles to Wish for This Holiday Season

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

    • Perfect Gifts for Car Lovers

    • 3 Dangers to Avoid in Packed Parking Lots

    • Tips for Keeping Children Safe During Holiday Travel

    • How to Prep Your Car for a Holiday Road Trip

    • 5 Family Cars for Holiday Road Trips and Shopping

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

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    Best Dishwasher Detergents for Big Dinners

    Lots of people enjoy cooking the holiday meal. But cleaning up after? Not so much. The last thing you want is to have to run the dishwasher a second time because it didn't do the job on your leftover-smeared dishes, greasy pots and pans, and messy silverware. A top-rated dishwasher is key, but you also need to choose the right dishwasher detergent. We see a wide range of performance in our tough tests, which are meant to simulate a detergent's worst nightmare. The following picks, each with specific strengths, should get the job done. 

    Best all-around

    The Cascade Complete ActionPacs, 29 cents per load, earned the best overall score in our tests. It was tough on dishes, silverware, and pots, plus it didn't leave behind water spots or white film. The Cascade Complete Powder, 21 cents per load, is our top-rated powder, though it wasn't quite as effective on pots and pans.   

    Warehouse club winner

    Store brands are starting to rival the big name brands, which can mean big savings. Case in point: the Member's Mark Ultimate Clean Dishwasher Pacs cleaned dishes and pots nearly as well as the top-rated Cascade and it costs just 10 cents per load. The Kirkland Signature Dishwasher Pacs, 9 cents per load, also performed very well overall.

    Cleanest dishes

    Not a warehouse club member? Two detergents sold everywhere deliver the most sparkling results on glasses and dishes. Finish Powerball Tabs, 18 cents per load, and Finish Gelpacs, 21 cents per load. They're also excellent at resisting water spots, so your glassware should come out crystal clear. But as for pots and pans, results were mediocre. 

    Bargain buy

    Gel dishwasher detergents are the least expensive, but most of them had serious struggles in our tests. The one exception is Palmolive eco+, which was tough on dishes and superb at resisting water spots. Its cleaning performance was merely so-so on pots, so you may want to wash those by hand if you go for the Palmolive.    

    Green champ

    Lots of detergents make green claims. But the only one that performed well enough to make our winner's list is the Seventh Generation Powder, 19 cent per load. It had an even harder time than the Palmolive with pots and pans, but it was excellent in every other way. One green-claiming detergent to avoid is the Mrs. Meyer's Clean Day Auto Dish Pacs, which came in dead last among single-dose detergents and also costs the most.   

    —Daniel DiClerico (@dandiclerico on Twitter)

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

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    Tips for Keeping Children Safe During Holiday Travel

    No matter how far away you may be from family and friends during the holidays, it's likely children are at the top of everyone’s invite list. Likewise, winter break brings far away family getaways. Whatever the motivation to hit the road or skies, take time to plan your holiday travel to ensure the little ones are as content and safe as possible. Following these tips will help:

    Stick With What You Know

    We’ve had mixed experiences with our investigations into renting car seats from car rental agencies

    But even in the best of cases, using a car seat that is unfamiliar to you can increase your odds for misuse and consequently reduce your child’s safety. Working with a familiar seat that is already adjusted to fit your child is a better and safer option. Plus, by using your own seat, you can save the often-significant seat rental fees. Admittedly you end up hefting your seat along, but child seats can typically be checked as baggage for free. Some manufacturers also make travel bags that protect the seat and make it easier to move. If you’ve purchased a ticket specifically for your child (as opposed to carrying them on your lap), be aware that they may be most comfortable and most “contained” by using their child seat on the plane, as well. Most are approved for airline use by the FAA but check the label to be sure. According to the FAA, most airplane seats should accommodate a child restraint that is no wider than 16 inches.

    Check our car seat buying guide and Ratings. And use these other tips safe travel.

    Know the Law

    If you’re traveling across state lines via car and have a child at or near booster-seat age, you may want to take a minute to check the booster seats laws for any state you may be traveling to or crossing through. Booster seat laws vary state-by-state and range from as young as four years of age to as old as eight years old and for kids who weigh as much as 80 lbs. What may be legal in your state may not be in another. Regardless of what your state law says, most kids don’t fit the vehicle seat belts correctly until they reach about 4-foot-9 (57”) in height and are 8-12 years of age. Use our booster seat check list to see if your child is ready for a vehicle belt or not. 

    Be Careful Packing Your Car

    Chances are that holiday travel will not only require the typical amounts of “kid stuff” but also the addition of gifts and other holiday-related items. Take care in packing your car to put heavier items low in the load space, secured so that they can’t become a projectile during a crash or even in the event of emergency braking. Obviously, take special care for items closely surrounding your children. After packing the car, perform a quick check by moving slowly and giving your brakes a quick punch in your driveway or on a clear road, without traffic behind you. Does the load stay put? If so, you’re good to go.

    Expect the Unexpected

    Plan for the worst. If you’re traveling with kids, Murphy’s Law says your flight and train will be delayed or an accident on a major highway will lead to long hours in the car. Think ahead to packing additional snacks, games and other items, cell-phone charge cords, and pertinent contact information. Though most parents and caregivers do this anyway, take extra care to plan for the unexpected. If traveling by car and in cold climates, be sure to have cold-weather gear for everyone in the car. You just never know. (Learn what to pack in an emergency kit.)

    But don't forget that wearing cold-weather outfits in a harnessed seat can compromise your child's crash protection.

    Most of all, enjoy the wonder of the holidays through your children’s eyes and enjoy their company. Time passes all too quickly!

    Jen Stockburger

    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.

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    New Rules for Loading New Dishwashers

    We all know someone who is persnickety about loading the dishwasher—maybe you're even married to one. Fortunately, “there isn’t one correct way to load a dishwasher but there are many wrong ways,” says GE. Loading a dishwasher haphazardly results in wasted water, wasted energy, and wasted time when dishes come out dirty and need to be run through a cycle all over again.  

    To get dishes cleaner, dishwasher manufacturers have reconfigured the racks and sprays to make sure dirty pots, plates, glasses, and flatware get as much exposure to the water jets as possible. That means that some of the old rules for loading a dishwasher may no longer apply to newer models. On its website, GE says that with its newer dishwashers you no longer have to face the dirty side of the dishes towards the center and that new silverware baskets are better at keeping your spoons from spooning.

    The best way to learn how to load your dishwasher is to read the manual that came with it. Most have diagrams that show you a normal load of dishes and silverware as well as where to put your stemware and your dirtiest pots and pans and why. Such innovations as third racks and middle racks that are easy to adjust offer more loading options for odd-sized items. You’ll appreciate these improvements when the kitchen is humming over the holidays and you need to wash large pans, mixing bowls, your best china, stemware, and more. Here’s how to get the most out of the dishwasher you have:

    Dishwasher Dos and Don'ts

    • Right before turning on the dishwasher, run the hot water faucet on the kitchen sink until the water gets hot. That prevents the wash cycle from starting with cold water.
    • Pre-rinsing is a real water waster and today’s dishwashers can handle the food detritus. Scraping off leftover food is usually enough.
    • Check the location of your water jets then load large items in a way that doesn’t block them or the soap dispenser.
    • If your manual says so, you can face your dishes in the same direction rather than towards the center. But make sure bowls and plates aren’t nesting as that can interfere with proper water circulation.
    • Use the top rack for dishwasher-safe plastics and delicate items like wine glasses (if they fit without hitting the roof). If you’re washing sauce pans or mixing bowls put them face down.
    • Rest glasses on the prongs to prevent breakage and to keep water from pooling in the stems of wine glasses.
    • Load forks and spoons with the handles facing down, but place knives with their handles up, to avoid cutting yourself as you remove them. The baskets and top racks in newer models make it easier to separate flatware but if your dishwasher has an open basket, mix pieces to prevent them from sticking together.
    • Use the bottom rack for plates and saucers and such large items as platters and serving bowls. Place items with baked-on food face down and toward the spray arm.
    • Don’t put brass, bronze, cast-iron, wood, or china with gold leaf in the machine. And to keep china from chipping, don’t allow it to touch other items.
    • Consider hand-washing your fine china and porcelain by lining the sink with a towel to prevent chipping, and using a mild dish detergent.
    • Use a top-rated dishwasher detergent from Consumer Reports' tests. Our top single-dose detergent is Cascade Complete ActionPacs. For powders, try Cascade Complete Powder.

    Need a New Dishwasher?

    For a look inside some of Consumer Reports’ top-rated dishwashers, check out the model pages, which show the configuration of the racks as well as the controls on the exterior. Here are the five top models from our tests.

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

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    Volkswagen Initiates Program to Compensate Diesel-Car Owners

    Volkswagen of America has hired Kenneth Feinberg, a prominent victim compensation attorney, to create and administer a claims program that will address the needs of car owners impacted by the company’s diesel emissions violations.

    Feinberg has overseen large and complicated compensation programs, including the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund, BP Oil – The Gulf Coast Claims Administration, and the General Motors Ignition Compensation Claims Resolution Facility, among others. The agreement with VW has Feinberg and his law offices developing a program, based on input from VW and affected car owners, although details of how it will work and who will be eligible are not yet determined. 

    Consumers Union, the policy and advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, has called for Volkswagen to compensate owners. While this announcement is a promising development, the details of the program will be key. VW owners purchased a vehicle thought to be a “clean diesel,” yet EPA testing has shown it can emit up to 40 times as much as regulation allows. Further, compensation should account for any potential post-recall decrease in fuel economy and performance, or due to loss of vehicle value.

    Visit the Consumers Union site to see how you can help hold VW accountable.

    To check your vehicle’s eligibility for VW’s compensation package, check your vehicle identification number at the company's official Volkswagen diesel information website.

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    Fastest, Lowest-Cost Holiday Shipping

    If you still haven’t sent your gifts to friends and family around the country, don’t worry—the carriers are ready to whisk your packages to their destinations in time for Christmas Day. But which one should you use? FedExUnited Parcel Service , and the U.S. Postal Service all seem pretty similar. They deliver to nearly every address in the U.S. and they'll all get your parcels to more than 200 countries and territories. But there are some key differences:

    Price. If cost is your main concern, the USPS is usually the way to go, but it pays to check around. We compared shipping costs offered by FedEx, UPS, and the USPS between 30 pairs of cities around the country for a medium-size package insured for $200 and for a larger package insured for $400. The USPS prices were best for next-day, second-day, and third-day delivery in almost all cases. But in fewer than 7 percent of the city pairs we looked at, either FedEx or UPS was cheaper.

    To get the best price at the USPS, you must pay for shipping online by visiting the USPS website and also use the boxes provided by the USPS. If you don’t do either, you’ll pay more.

    Packaging and delivery options. All the carriers offer ways to reduce shipping costs, even for speedy delivery. At the USPS, your best bet is to choose the flat-rate box deal; you’ll pay one price regardless of the package weight. A medium-size package can cost $11 for second-day delivery.

    There are ways to cut costs at the other carriers too. At UPS, the "Next Day Air Saver" option was, unsurprisingly, less expensive than the “Next Day Air Early” option. But the difference in price was significant. Sending a medium-size package from Seattle to Miami for delivery by the end of the next day costs $95. But to deliver that same package by 8 a.m. the next day, costs much more, $130.

    At FedEx, you can lower your costs by choosing the One Rate option, which is typically cheaper than its Standard Rate service. With One Rate, you select a standard box size, choose the kind of service you want (one-, two-, or three-day delivery) and pay the same fixed rate as long as the package is worth less than $100 and weighs under 50 pounds. The Standard Rate, by contrast, takes the package weight and dimensions into account.

    Dependability. While FedEx and UPS usually charge more, we also found that their services were more dependable. Both carriers delivered more than 97 percent of their packages on time all year round, including during the hectic holiday season, according to ShipMatrix, a shipping software company.

    The USPS, however, was not as dependable. It delivered just 77 percent of packages on time from October through December 2014, according to its own quarterly performance filing. (ShipMatrix did not have sufficient data on USPS deliveries.) However, those numbers do not include the Parcel Select or Priority Mail services, which are commonly used for holiday shipping, says Sarah Ninivaggi, a USPS spokeswoman. Taking those into account, Ninivaggi says more than 90 percent of USPS packages are delivered on time.

    Delivery days. If you’re really leaving things to the last minute and you need a service that delivers on Christmas Day, your best bet among the three carriers is the USPS. While FedEx and UPS deliver only 307 days of the year (no Sundays or holidays), the USPS’ Next Day Priority Mail Express and guaranteed delivery service operates 365 days per year to select ZIP codes. Be prepared to pay a $12.50 surcharge.

    There’s one more thing to keep in mind. The USPS can work all kinds of magic to get your package to its destination on Christmas Day. But it’s up to you to get it to the post office. You’ve got until noon on Christmas Eve.

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

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    In DirecTV Case, Consumers Lose Again When It Comes to Arbitration

    Mandatory arbitration's winning streak continues.

    Mandatory, or forced, arbitration clauses are an increasingly prevalent tool companies use to resolve disputes outside courtrooms. These clauses often bar class-action lawsuits, and the result of the arbitration proceeding is typically sealed, so other consumers in the same position won’t even learn about the case.

    Arbitration decisions also are usually binding, with no appeal option available. Mandatory arbitration clauses are in the fine print of hundreds of millions of consumer contracts for products and services.

    The latest decision involves DirecTV customers in California who claimed they were charged illegal cancellation fees of up to $480. The 6-3 decision means they can't join together to sue the company in court.

    DirecTV, now part of AT&T, is the largest satellite TV provider in the U.S. with over 19 million customers. The lawsuit alleged that DirecTV's customers were forced to pay cancellation fees even if their equipment could not be installed, or they moved and DirecTV service wasn’t available in their new location, or the equipment simply stopped working.

    California courts had routinely held that mandatory arbitration clauses with bans on class actions were “unconscionable.” Some companies, including DirecTV, had an extra condition in their contract terms that voided the entire arbitration clause “if the law of your state” did not permit agreements barring class actions. In 2014 the California Court of Appeals had ruled that DirecTV’s arbitration clause was illegal and therefore unenforceable under California contract law, and allowed a class action to proceed. 

    The Supreme Court didn’t rule on the merits of the complaint against DirecTV, but was instead asked to decide if the dispute had to be resolved through individual private arbitration or if the class-action lawsuit could move forward. The Supreme Court ruled that, under its earlier Concepcion and Italian Colors decisions, the Federal Arbitration Act overrode the “law of your state” on which the California court was relying. In other words, the state law no longer applied, the Supreme Court said, and the class-action ban, along with the entire mandatory arbitration clause, was valid and enforceable.

    But in her dissent, Justice Ginsburg pointed out that the parties to the agreement had intended for the state law to apply. With this decision, the Supreme Court is reversing a state court’s interpretation of what the parties intended under state contract law, a legal issue traditionally left to state courts to decide. The majority of the Court has “misread” the Federal Arbitration Act to “deprive consumers of effective relief against powerful economic entities that write no-class-action arbitration clauses into their form contracts,” she wrote. Justice Ginsburg was joined in her dissent by Justice Sotomayor; Justice Thomas wrote a separate dissent.

    DirecTV applauded the decision.

    “The ruling affirms the strong federal policy favoring arbitration agreements that efficiently allow consumers and businesses to resolve disputes without further burdening our overloaded courts.” says DirecTV spokesman Robert Mercer.

    But consumer groups see the decision as a further weakening of consumer rights under the law.

    “This is another troubling day for American consumers who are ripped off by corporate greed and malfeasance, whether it’s a satellite TV system that doesn’t work, unlawful credit card fees, or a defective vehicle,” Harvey Rosenfield, founder of Consumer Watchdog and one of the lawyers who represented consumers in the litigation, said in a statement. “The Supreme Court has taken away Americans’ only right to obtain justice: Their day in court."

    George Slover, senior policy counsel at Consumers Union, the policy and advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, concurs. "This decision hammers another nail in the coffin for consumer access to the courts and holding corporations accountable. Congress needs to act to restore these fundamental consumer rights."

    What You Can Do

    Look for mandatory arbitration clauses in the fine print of contracts before you sign up for a product or service. They’re in the terms for car loans and leases, credit cards, checking accounts, insurance, investing accounts, student loans, and even certain employment and nursing home agreements; you can be legally bound to mandatory arbitration by signing a contract or by clicking “I agree” on a website.

    If you find an arbitration clause, see if you can opt out. A few contracts, such as certain nursing home agreements, allow it.

    When you can, do business with companies that don’t use arbitration clauses. It’s difficult to find a credit-card, mobile-phone, or checking-account agreement where arbitration isn’t required. But according to a Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s study on arbitration clauses in financial products and services, midsized banks and credit unions are more likely not to have forced arbitration clauses in their customer service agreements.  

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

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    The Best Waterproof Cameras and Action Cams

    Olympus Stylus TG-4

    This sturdy, top-rated, wireless model ($380) can capture photos as RAW files, a capability found mostly on advanced cameras. It also has an excellent LCD. It's waterproof to 50 feet and is able to survive a drop from 7 feet. The camera has an f/2-aperture lens and built-in GPS for geo-tagging your photos, along with a built-in compass. However, the camera's not perfect: It captures only fair quality video and audio.

    Nikon Coolpix AW130

    A top model, this wireless camera has fine overall performance and very good image quality for shooting stills without a flash. Its zoom is among the widest in its class, and the lens has a maximum aperture of f/2.8. It also includes a GPS feature and a built-in compass and map. Video quality is good, but below what you would find on some other top-performing cameras. It's waterproof to a depth of 98 feet and can withstand a drop from 7 feet.

    Olympus Stylus TG-860

    What makes this stylishly designed, wireless rugged-and-waterproof model stand out is that it has a very wide angle zoom lens (21mm-105mm), which is great when you're shooting landscapes or underwater seascapes and you want a broader vista. This is also helpful when you want to get more people into a group portrait. It has a very good quality LCD that swivels, which is helpful for shooting selfies and hard-to-reach shots. And the camera can fire off seven frames per second in burst mode. However, if you plan on shooting a lot of video, you might want to consider another model: It only captures fair quality video. 

    Sony HDR-AS100V

    It's one of the few action cams we've tested that captures both very good quality video and good quality still photos. Unlike many in its class, this Sony ($200) includes a very good image stabilizer, which counteracts hand shake and gives you less jittery video and sharp still photos. The action cam's body is waterproof to a depth of 16 feet when used with its protective housing.

    GoPro HERO4 Silver Standard Edition

    Although more expensive than most action cams, this wireless GoPro also has more features, including a 1.7-inch touchscreen LCD, rare on this type of camcorder. It also has both Bluetooth and Wi-Fi capability. Another standout feature is that it has more manual settings designed to improve image quality. It captures good quality video and still photos. We also liked its easy-to-use mobile app, which is quite versatile.

    Sony FDR-X1000V

    It's about $100 to $200 pricier than most top-rated models, but in many respects, this action cam is worth the high price tag. For starters, it’s one of the first in its class to offer both 4K video capability and image stabilization. The image stabilizer helps counteract hand shake and gives you less jittery video and sharp still photos. (However, the camera did not score that much higher than others in its class, including GoPro models, which lack an image stabilizer.) The action cam's body is splashproof, which means light rain or a little bit of water won't affect it. Another feature that sets this action cam apart is the ability to adjust some settings manually, including exposure and white-balance settings. It’s waterproof to approximately 33 feet when used with a special enclosure. 

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    Automated Tire Tread Depth Scanners Gain Traction

    It used to be that just a simple tread depth gauge or a coin was used to measure the remaining rubber on tires, but now there is new technology to give retailers a much more precise look at treadwear.

    Seen at the 2015 SEMA show this fall was the Quick Tread tread depth measuring system by Hunter Engineering Company, a maker of vehicle and tire service equipment. There was also a portable system presented by Tire Profiles called GrooveGlove.

    The Quick Tread system is designed for car and tire dealers to quickly scan tire tread depths of customer cars simply by rolling over laser sensors embedded in drive-over floor plates. The handheld GrooveGlove device uses a laser to scan the tires and measure tire tread depth.  

    These products provide detailed reports of the wear profile of each tire, looking at tread depth, type of wear, and extent of the wear. They can also indicate whether the vehicle is in need of wheel alignment or suspension work. With routine monitoring, a retailer could potentially predict when the tires might need to be replaced, giving the consumer advanced notice and time to shop for new tires.

    These new tire tread depth systems will help retailers retain consumers and sell more services, such as wheel alignments and of course sell more replacement tires. But these systems are also a powerful tool for consumers, as they provide quantifiable data on the condition of the tires. Armed with this tire tread depth information, consumers are likely to be proactive in replacing tires before traction is compromised, thereby keeping them safer, especially in inclement weather.

    Until these systems become common place, you best hold onto your tire tread depth gauge or trusty quarter to measure tread depth. Be sure to inspect your tires monthly and check the tire inflation, too.

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    Beware of Delivery Scams During the Holidays

    Ding dong! Delivery scam! The holiday season is a busy time for delivery companies like FedEx and UPS—and for scam artists trapping victims with variations of the delivery scam.

    Here’s how the basic scam works: Your phone rings, and someone claiming to be from a delivery company says that you have a package on the way. A short while later, your doorbell rings and, sure enough, there’s a deliveryman holding a package. You might inquire about the sender, but the deliveryman doesn’t know who it is or might say that the card was sent separately. You accept it anyway. Who can resist a holiday “gift”?

    However, before the deliveryman can leave it with you, he says that you have to pay a small “verification fee,” payable by credit or debit card on the handheld card scanner he promptly produces. You reach for your credit card.

    Stop right there!

    The “card scanner” is actually a skimmer, a device that collects your card’s number, PIN and/or security code. Scammers then use this to make duplicates of your card, make unauthorized charges and possibly, steal your identity.

    There are other versions of the delivery scam as well that you should be aware of. For example, the deliveryman might tell you that the package contains a bottle of wine and that he needs you to confirm that you are of legal drinking age. He asks for a proof of ID in the form of a credit or debit card.

    A big part of the success of the delivery scam is making it appear legitimate. One way delivery scammers do this is to make you a willing partner. For example, you might receive a notice of an attempted delivery left at your door with a telephone number for you to call. Once you respond and make the call, you are now interested in having that delivery made and you are more likely to pass along your confidential information, such as your credit card information.

    Or you might be contacted online through a bogus email claiming to come from a retailer, such as Home Depot, or a delivery service such as FedEx, UPS, or the U.S. Postal Service with an alleged tracking update. You’re given a link to click on to get further details. If you follow through and click on it, you are clearly interested in receiving that package and you are likely willing to provide personal financial information. The danger here, is that you could be the victim of a phishing scam, where you are actually providing the information to the scammer instead of to a legitimate company. Another danger: By clicking on the link, malware could download onto your computer.

    Stop the Scammer

    • Be suspicious of a package from an unrecognized delivery service. Even if the service claims to be handling packages for UPS or FedEx, ask for their physical address and check them out with the Better Business Bureau.
    • Do not give your credit or debit card to someone at your door. It is acceptable to ask for identification when alcohol is being delivered but you should not be required to pay a fee to receive a gift.
    • Read notices very carefully, especially unsolicited emails. Clues that this is a scam include poor grammar, urgent requests (“You MUST reply in two hours!”), unfamiliar domain names and website addresses, and generic greetings. A legitimate sender would know you by name. 

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

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    Why Cash Is Always a Good Gift

     Cold hard cash. The phrase is the antithesis of the warm, fuzzy feelings associated with the holidays. No wonder that giving money as a gift has gotten a bad rap. But there’s nothing “Bah! Humbug!” about it. Turns out, it’s not only easy for the giver but also valued by the lucky person on the receiving end.

    What’s more, cash has a classic, comforting permanence—even more so in this age of bitcoin and PayPal, which begins to make money feel like a faraway abstraction. Certain currencies have had an extra allure, thanks to their iconic designs. Think of $2 bills, Kennedy silver dollars, or even the often maligned Susan B. Anthony coins. And there’s no sign that will slow down, especially with the new $10 bill—featuring a woman—on the horizon.

    Until then, the newest currency out there is new “artisanal” paper money created by and for people who live in certain regions. Designed to encourage citizens to support small businesses rather than chain stores, local currencies in the U.S. include BerkShares notes adorned with artwork—including the paintings of turnips shown here that can be spent only at participating businesses in western Massachusetts. Other examples are stamped clay tokens known as Santa Barbara Missions and Ithaca Hours, paper bills accepted by more than 300 establishments around Ithaca, N.Y. (Similar small-batch currencies also exist in a few spots in the United Kingdom and Germany.) Outside of the pertinent ZIP code those babies aren’t worth zip.

    But, welcome as cash might be to the recipient, is it tacky to give money, in whatever form? Not according to Jacqueline Whitmore, an etiquette expert based in Palm Beach, Fla., who notes, “It’s rarely returned, and one size fits all.” True, the sight of a pyramid of presents, festooned with ribbons and shiny wrapping paper, makes the heart beat faster. But the fact is, no one will turn their nose up at a fan of crisp Jacksons or a fresh-from-the-bank $100 bill. The Chinese have been on to that for eons, hence the tradition of handing out red envelopes called lai see at the New Year and other happy occasions. And who wouldn’t remember the delight of slipping their hands into the pocket of a new bathrobe and finding—surprise!—a fresh-from-the-bank $50 bill?

    Some also argue that a gift is nothing more than devalued currency. As economist Joel Waldfogel points out in his book “Scroogenomics: Why You Shouldn’t Buy Presents for the Holidays” (Princeton University Press, 2009), there’s often a disparity between what giftees thought their presents had cost and what they would have been willing to pay if they bought those items for themselves.

    A 1993 survey of 86 undergraduate students showed that the students estimated that their gifts had cost $438.20—but thriftily said that they wouldn’t have shucked out more than $313.40 for them. A second poll two months later found an additional group of students who calculated the cost of their holiday haul at $508.90 on average—although they confessed that they valued the gifts at $462.10. Waldfogel calculates that approximately 20 percent of the value of holiday gifts is destroyed by gift-giving—and because annual holiday spending in the U.S. is approximately $616 billion, that’s about $123 billion per year tossed out with the wrinkled wrapping paper. “Apart from the joy that givers get from choosing gifts and recipients get from receiving things, as a means of resource allocation, gift-giving is pretty bad,” Waldfogel says.

    In addition, recipients are getting pickier, says Evan Polman, an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Consider the long lines of folks returning presents on December 26. Chalk up the boomerang phenomenon to an excess of options. “The more options someone has, the more she or he expects to find something that matches their preferences perfectly,” Polman says.

    And though gift cards can expire, money is timeless. Cash may be hard and cold, but like bedrock, it endures. Barring regulatory changes that eliminate it, Ron Shevlin, director of research at Cornerstone Advisors, calculates that Americans will still be using paper currency in 200 years.

    So we say: Show us the money. Just make sure it comes in a nice wrapping.

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

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

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