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    What to Do When You Can't Defrost an Icy Windshield

    Q. My front windshield is always icing over, and the defroster doesn’t clear it up. What helps?

    A. It sounds like your defroster system needs repairing, says Jeff Bartlett, deputy cars editor. If it were working correctly, it would help clear your windows on the coldest days, even if your car sits outside all day. He suggests starting your car and turning on the defroster with the fans on high speed to start to melt exterior ice before you start to remove it with a scraper. Don’t use windshield wipers while the glass is icy because that will wear out the blades. By the time you finish scraping, any fog on the inside should start to clear. If those steps don’t do the trick, have a mechanic check your vehicle for a leaky heater core or a faulty thermostat. 

    Send your questions to ConsumerReports.org/askourexperts.

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

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    CES 2016 Promises Major Automotive Announcements

    The Consumer Reports Cars team will start 2016 in Las Vegas attending CES. While CES has traditionally been where the electronics industry rolls out the latest gizmos and gadgets, over last few years, the automotive presence at the consumer electronics show has exploded. Nearly 500 of the more than 3,000 exhibitors this year will be from the auto industry—both vehicle manufacturers and suppliers will be demonstrating the technologies that will define the future of how we all will drive.

    Our team will be meeting with industry leaders, reporting on big announcements, and even driving some of the cutting-edge cars.

    Trends We'll Be Keeping an Eye On

    • Autonomous Driving – We're looking for GM, Ford, and Mercedes-Benz, among others, to show how this technology will make driving safer and more convenient.
    • Electric Vehicles – From General Motors' announcement of the production version of the Chevrolet Bolt to the first effort of the secretive Faraday Future, electric vehicles will be one of the big newsmakers of CES.
    • Connected Cars – We expect some bold thinking on new ways to bring your digital life and your vehicle life closer together.

    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 check for bed bugs in hotels

    Q. How can I check for bed bugs when I am staying in hotels?

    A. To avoid the tiny bloodsuckers—which hide in hotel mattresses, box springs, and upholstered furniture—put your luggage in the bathroom and inspect bedding and furniture before you unpack.

    The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency points out it can be helpful to use a flashlight to spot signs of bed bugs, but adults, nymphs, and eggs are all visible to the naked eye.

    Learn about safer head lice treatment, and how to protect yourself from mosquitoes and ticks.  

    If you see evidence of the bugs—including reddish, rust-colored stains on sheets or mattresses (from the bugs being crushed), shed skins, or dried blood—ask for a new room that is not next to the infested one. If all is clear, play it safe and keep your suitcase on a luggage rack and your belongings off the bed and upholstered furniture.

    Back home, kill any unwanted hitchhikers by tumbling your travel clothes in a hot dryer for 30 minutes (simply washing the clothes usually won't kill bed bugs). Store emptied luggage in the garage, the basement, or a hot attic (temperatures above 120° F kill bedbugs).

    This article appeared in the June 2015 issue of Consumer Reports on Health.

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

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    Most doors can be defeated so a good lock is key

    A lot has been said about sprucing up the entrance to your house to improve its curb appeal. But when choosing a new door and lock, make sure you’re not also creating an attractive target for break-ins. In Consumer Reports past tests of entry doors, most eventually failed when our testers used a battering ram, regardless of what the door was made from. That means the lock you choose can be the key to your safety.

    To be safe and secure, Consumer Reports recommends you do the following:

    • Use a lock with a 1-inch-long dead bolt and a reinforced-metal box strike.
    • Install the lock with 3-inch-long mounting screws to lodge in the framing beyond the doorjamb.
    • Do the same with the door that leads from the garage into the interior of your house.
    • Any dead-bolt lock is better than the common key-in-knob variety, which can easily be opened with a credit card.

    The dead bolts we tested are single-cylinder and operate with a thumbturn. High-security locks have hardened cylinders, unique pin configurations, and other defenses. Our testers spent weeks prying, hammering, picking, pummeling, and drilling. Here are three to consider.

    High-security lock. Medeco Maxum 11*603, $190. It costs significantly more than a standard door lock, but this high-security winner excelled in all our tests, resisting picking, kicking-in, and drilling admirably

    Standard door lock. Kwikset 980, $30. This standard door lock topped our tests. It came with a sturdy strike plate and resisted all of our assaults—including picking and kicking-in—except for drilling.

    Connected door lock. Schlage Camelot Touchscreen, $200. This top-rated, app-enabled connected door lock withstood our simulated kick-in test admirably, but a cordless drill disabled it in two minutes.

    A caution. Double-cylinder dead-bolt locks need a key to open whether you’re inside or outside. Homeowners like them because a burglar can’t simply break the glass and reach in to unlock the door. But some municipalities ban them because they may make it harder to get out in an emergency. Be sure to check the requirements with your building department and, if you install one, always leave a key within arm’s reach of the interior lock.

    —Adapted from Your New Home, published by Consumer Reports

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

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    Most Innovative Home Products of 2015

    This was the year that outdoor equipment and large appliance makers started thinking outside the box in a big way. The refrigerator box. The dishwasher box. The space heater box. The result was some interesting and innovative products that maximize space, use new technologies, or just have a fun twist. Like a refrigerator that makes hot coffee and a washing machine that brings back the old washboard. Robotic mowers and vacuums cleaned up with little effort on our part and we found appliance doors that open in new or unusual ways.

    Here are some of the most creative products that Consumer Reports brought into the Home and Appliance labs this year.

    A Refrigerator Gives New Meaning to Instant Coffee

    A GE refrigerator equipped with a single-serve Keurig coffee maker has just arrived in our labs for testing. GE already makes a refrigerator that dispenses hot and cold water so this takes that idea one step further.

    Why we like it: It saves counter space. Plus GE claims the GE CYE22USHSS refrigerator uses an advanced water filtration system that removes 98 percent of five trace pharmaceuticals from water. The dispenser is also Wi-Fi enabled, meaning you can preset the brew time via your smartphone so that water in the reservoir is hot when you're ready for your morning cup.

    Here’s the score: Our test results aren’t in yet but the feature will be available on two GE Café Series French-door bottom-freezer models, including the GE CYE22USHSS, $3,300.

    The First 5-Door Refrigerator in Our Tests

    Door? drawer? In the world of refrigerators they’re considered the same. It used to be all refrigerators were two-door then came the three-door French-door models and now four-door and even five-door have hit the market.

    Why we like it: We tested the KitchenAid KRMF706EBS, $4,000, which has French-doors on top and three drawers on the bottom. The side-by-side middle drawers have multiple settings for meat, drinks, deli items, produce and so on and the bottom drawer is a freezer.

    Here’s the score: While the KitchenAid didn’t rise to the level of our top refrigerator picks list, it has excellent temperature control and was quite quiet. It struggled with energy efficiency and we estimate it would cost $88 a year to run, more than many French-door models in our tests.

    Knock, Knock. Who’s There? Your Clean Dishes.

    Your hands are messy but you have to stick one more dish in the dishwasher. With a gentle rap of your knuckles you can open the door of the Miele Futura Lumen G6595SCViK2O dishwasher.

    Why we like it: It’s a fun feature and makes it easy to leave the door slightly ajar as your dishes cool and dry. Other fancy features include a lighted interior and a lot of flexibility such as adjustable racks, tines, and 11 different wash options. You can add a custom panel so it matches your cabinets.

    Here’s the score: The $1,800 Miele didn’t make our list of top dishwasher picks but got excellent marks on our wash test and very good scores for energy efficiency and noise.

    A Swanky Wall Oven With French Doors

    Wall ovens are convenient because you can place them at a comfortable height so you’re not stooping over to put a roast in the oven, as with a range. But you still have to lift heavy pans over the swing-down open door.

    Why we like it: Enter the GE CT9070SHSS wall oven, which has French doors that swing open, borrowing a design from some commercial ovens. With its narrow door clearance, the sleek oven can also be a space saver in smaller kitchens.

    Here’s the score: A top pick, the 30-inch oven was impressive at baking and broiling and superb at self-cleaning. There's a touchpad for setting cooking time and two dials for setting temperature and mode. The convection option cuts cooking time on some foods and you can control the oven from your smartphone, and for that price—$4,000—you should.

    A Coffee Maker Puts on a Slow Show

    The KitchenAid Siphon Coffee Brewer is a throwback to simpler times when brewing coffee was both an art and a science. But with the continuously growing coffee craze, such brewing methods are coming back.

    Why we like it: KitchenAid claims the coffee maker is theatrical and we agree. The whole show takes eight minutes. The brewer has two sections connected by a siphon tube—an upper spherical chamber and a lower carafe. As water in the bottom section gets warmer, vapor forces it through into the upper chamber where it mixes with the grounds. The circulating vapor swirls the water around. When the heat below is turned off, a vacuum is created that draws the coffee back down into the carafe.

    What’s the score: The retro KitchenAid Siphon Coffee Brewer, $250, doesn’t fit neatly into any category of our tested coffee makers—drip, pod, and electric French press. To compare its brew performance to other machines we measured the temperature range and how long the machine maintained optimal brewing temps, and it brewed close to industry standards.

    A New Spin on a Blender

    Unlike most blenders that click on to a base, the pitcher of the KitchenAid Torrent Magnetic Drive KSB5010 blender slides in like a coffee maker. A magnetic drive locks the pitcher in place and the controls are on top rather than the bottom.

    Why we like it: The new design lowers the profile of the blender so it fits on the counter under most cabinets. And you don’t have to hold down the top with your hand as you make your mixture.

    What’s the score: While the KitchenAid was excellent at pureeing and very good at crushing ice, it was only so-so at making icy drinks and smoothies and was a bit noisy.

    A Washing Machine Does Double Duty

    Pedestals were originally designed to raise washers and dryers off the ground making them easier to load. Some incorporated a storage drawer but LG decided to maximize the space and add another washer.

    Why we like it: The 1-cubic-foot mini-washer can be used at the same time as the front-loader so together they’re called the LG TwinWash. The $700 mini can be paired with any LG front-loader made from 2009 on. It has six cycles and is intended for lightly soiled clothes.

    What’s the score: The $1,800 main washer, the LG WM9000HVA, is one of the most expensive of our top picks and was superb at cleaning. It has a jumbo capacity and fits about 26 pounds of laundry. Gentle on fabrics, it’s relatively quiet, and vibration wasn't an issue. Despite its convenience, the mini-washer doesn’t deliver the cleaning power of the front-loader.

    With This Washer, Everything Old Is New Again

    It’s called a built-in sink but the top insert in the Samsung Activewash looks more like an old-fashioned washboard. And its function is the same as you’re encouraged to rub stained clothes on the ridges before tossing them in the washer.

    Why we like it: The washboard eliminates the step of soaking your clothes in the sink and then transferring the dripping garments to the washer.

    What’s the score: This $1,000 top pick offers impressive cleaning, excellent water efficiency, and a jumbo capacity. In our tests, it held about 26 pounds of laundry. It's relatively quiet but wasn't so gentle on fabrics, which is true for most high-efficiency top-loaders. Normal wash time, using the heavy-soil setting, is 75 minutes. Speedier settings shave off time without affecting cleaning.

    A Robovac That Tackles Pet Hair, Not Pets

    Videos of cats riding robotic vacuums are popular on YouTube but the appeal of the Roomba 880 is that it can tackle your chores with little supervision.

    Why we like it: No more pushing an upright or pulling a canister vacuum around and it takes up less storage space.

    What’s the score: While on the expensive side, for robotics there's no beating this $700 Roomba’s ability to clean carpet surfaces and bare floors, including edges. You can set a different program for each day and it includes a quick setup guide. Programming it entailed a bit of a learning curve, and we needed to occasionally clear cat hair from the brush. Still, this robotic is a winner overall.

    A Sculptural Space Heater With a Small Footprint

    The tall Dyson AM09 space heater looks better than most space heaters and costs more too—$450. But it is full of features you don’t usually find on a space heater.

    Why we like it: Dyson has done it again by applying upscale design to the lowly space heater. You can also use it as a fan when you don’t need the extra warmth.

    What’s the score: The Dyson AM09 aced our space heater tests and was equally adept at quickly heating a room or just heating a person. It stays relatively cool to the touch and employs a lot of safety features. Using the handy remote, you can turn it on without bending over. But it was a bit noisy.

    A Snow Blower That’s Easier to Push

    The Toro Snow Master 724 QXE snow blower is one of the first  single-stage blowers that's self-propelled, a technology often found in walk-behind lawn mowers.

    Why we like it: With the added oomph, the Toro Snow Master was easy to maneuver making quicker work of what’s often a thankless task in frigid weather.

    What’s the score: While surface cleaning was excellent, the Toro Snow Master scored fair for removal speed and also at removing the plow pile at the end of the driveway. Throwing distance was only good; this matters most if you have a wide driveway. Manipulating the various controls—the speed, chute, and auger—was excellent.

    Mow the Lawn From Your Lawn Chair

    While the Roomba is working inside, you can turn the robotic Worx mower loose outside.

    Why we like it: No more wrestling with a mower. The Worx Landroid WG794 has the best quality cut and was the easiest to use of the four robotic mowers in our tests.

    What’s the score: The $1,000 Worx robotic mower has a 7-inch cutting width and can maintain a maximum area of 10,800 square feet, about a quarter-acre. It weighs 20 pounds and has a cutting-height range of 1.6 to 4 inches. It cut the grass more cleanly than the competition but sometimes left a random pattern. Establishing the mowing perimeter and setting up the mower was relatively easy.

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

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    6 Safety Tips for Serving Shrimp Cocktail

    As far as finger food goes, shrimp cocktail is nutritionally one of the healthier options out there. Consider: One large shrimp provides just 7 calories and virtually no fat, yet packs more than a gram of protein; by comparison, one cocktail-size pig-in-a-blanket has 67 calories, 6 grams of fat, and 1.5g protein. But serve up that shrimp platter without taking the proper safety precautions and you might end up sending your guests home with an unwanted party favor: food poisoning. Why? Because shrimp may harbor bacteria that could make you sick.

    Last year Consumer Reports purchased and tested nearly 500 pounds of frozen shrimp (some raw, some cooked) from an array of stores in 27 cities across the country. What we found concerned us: 60 percent of the raw samples and 16 percent of the cooked samples harbored bacteria, including vibrio and E. coli—bacteria that can cause food poisoning, which can include diarrhea and dehydration. (Read the full coverage of our testing here, including which shrimp to buy.)

    But that doesn’t necessarily mean you should cross that shrimp platter off your party menu. Handling and cooking shrimp properly can go a long way towards preventing bacteria that might be on your shrimp from multiplying. And if you're cooking it yourself, almost all the bacteria we found will be destroyed during the cooking process.

    Here are six tips to help you serve the safest (and healthiest) shrimp platter possible.

    1. Choose Wild Shrimp Caught in the U.S.

    In our tests of raw shrimp, the samples of U.S. wild shrimp were least likely to contain bacteria: 20 percent contained bacteria as compared with 69 to 83 percent of the farmed shrimp from Indonesia, India, and Bangladesh.

    2. Buy Shrimp Last

    Bacteria multiply at temperatures above 40° F, so don’t let shrimp warm up before cooking or serving. Make shrimp one of the last items you place in your grocery cart, and if you’re buying shrimp at the seafood counter, ask for a bag of ice to keep them chilled for the ride home.

    3. Wash Up

    If you’re deveining and cooking raw shrimp, immediately wash your hands, and any kitchen utensils that have come in contact with them, with soap and water. That reduces the risk of spreading bacteria from the shrimp to any other food you’re serving. Running any kitchen implements, including plastic cutting boards, through the hottest cycle in your dishwasher is an effective way to eliminate bacteria. Consult our guide for more tips on how to safely devein and prepare shrimp.

    4. Keep Shrimp Refrigerated

    Once you’ve arranged your shrimp platter, place it in the fridge until you’re ready to serve it. To store shrimp and all other foods safely, your fridge should maintain a temperature between 35° F and 38° F.

    5. Put Shrimp on Ice

    Never leave perishable foods out of the fridge for more than two hours (1 hour when temperatures are above 90° F). That's because bacteria that can cause illness grow quickly at warm temperatures. To help keep it cold, serve shrimp on chilled stainless steel platters or in stainless steel bowls placed over a slightly larger platter or bowl lined with ice. That way the platter transmits the cold and your shrimp stay chilled.

    6. Serve Shrimp the Healthy Way

    This isn’t exactly a safety tip, but why ruin shrimp’s healthfulness by serving it up with sugary sauces? A quarter cup of McCormick Original Cocktail Sauce for Seafood, for example, packs 16g of sugar—that’s four teaspoons of the white stuff. Instead, Consumer Reports in-house chef Claudia Gallo has masterminded this delicious, no-sugar recipe that will look festive on any holiday spread.

    Shrimp Cocktail With Herbed Green Sauce

    • 2 pounds jumbo shrimp, cooked and chilled
    • 1 cup parsley leaves
    • 1 cup cilantro leaves
    • 1/3 cup chopped walnuts
    • 2 tablespoons chopped chives
    • 1 clove garlic
    • 1/2 jalapeno pepper, seeded and chopped
    • 1/3 cup fresh lime juice
    • 1/4 cup olive oil
    • 1/4 teaspoon salt and black pepper

    In a food processor, combine the parsley, cilantro, walnuts, chives, garlic, and jalapeno. Pulse to a rough paste. Add the lime juice; process until the sauce comes together. With the motor running, slowly pour in the oil; process until combined. Stir in the salt and pepper. Chill until ready to serve.

    Nutritional Information: 4 oz of shrimp plus 1-1/2 tbs sauce contains 230 calories, 12g fat, 230mg cholesterol, 400mg sodium, 1g dietary fiber, 0g sugar, and 29g protein.

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

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    6 Products on Deep Discount in January

    This time of year you see plenty of "Sale" signs in stores. You might think just about everything is on deep discount after the holidays.

    Have you made a New Year's resolution to get back in shape? You can even get a great deal on a gym membership in January. Health clubs sign up more new members early in the year than at any other time, and they’re all competing for your business. However, there's no need to rush; gyms have monthly new membership quotas to meet, so you're most likely to get a deep discount if you sign a contract toward the end of January.

    Despite all the sale signs, some items are more deeply discounted later in the year. Consumer Reports product research experts, who track prices all year long, have compiled a list of items that are typically at their lowest price in January. So if you're shopping for the best deals, here are the products to put on your list.  

    Want to know what's on sale the rest of the year? See our calendar of deals.

    1. Bargains on Bedding

    Ever since Philadelphia department store pioneer John Wanamaker decided he would increase store foot traffic by decreeing January the time for a "white sale" in 1878, sheets (which were available in white only then) have been sold at a deep discount this month. But buying new sheets might not be as simple as checking the price tags.

    Shopping tips

    Don't shop on thread count alone. Our tests have confirmed that higher thread count doesn't guarantee better sheets. In fact the top-scoring percale sheets in our last test, which had a claimed thread count of only 280, were strong, shrank very little, and easily fit mattresses up to 17 inches high, even after we washed and dried them five times.

    Make sure you can return them. Only 4 of 23 sets of queen-size sheets performed well enough for us to recommend them in our last test. As for the other 19, we found a litany of problems: Some fitted sheets easily ripped or came apart at the seams in our strength tests. Other sets had fitted sheets that popped off the corners of mattresses they claimed to fit, or flat sheets that fell short on the sides of the bed. And some wrinkle-free sheets weren't.

    For more shopping tips, check out our sheet buying guide. Our Ratings show which sheets did best in our lab tests. If you're shopping for young children, see our crib bedding buying guide.

    2. Elliptical Deals

    Ellipticals mimic the motion of running but without the impact. The moving hand grips and adjustable resistance on these machines allow you to turn cardiovascular exercise into a full-body workout.  

    Shopping tips

    Every model is a little different. Don't buy an elliptical before using it in the store. That's especially important with elliptical exercisers because the movement is less familiar than walking or running, and each machine has a slightly different pedaling profile. See our elliptical buying guide for more shopping tips.

    What price can tell you. In our tests we've found ellipticals that cost $2,000 and up were well-built and felt stable to our testers, more like the $5,000 machines at gyms. And they were less likely to have defects. But you can still get a good basic model for less. In our elliptical Ratings (available to subscribers), the quality score reflects the severity and frequency of those defects.

    3. Discounts on Toys

    Now that the holidays are over you should be able to find great deals on most toys, although popular stuff, like anything with a Star Wars label on it, may still be full price for awhile.

    Shopping tips

    Check age suggestions When toy shopping for young children, follow the manufacturer's age recommendations displayed on the package. Although you might think that a more "advanced" toy will present a welcome challenge, in reality, it could be a source of frustration.  

    Look for hazards Avoid magnets and toys that have them. Small magnets can be accidentally swallowed by children and they can do tremendous harm. The CPSC recommends keeping toys with magnets away from children younger than six.

    For more shopping and safety tips, read our toy buying guide.

    4. Price Cuts on Treadmills

    Spending several thousand dollars on a treadmill can get you sturdier construction, better hardware, and more features. But you can get a decent machine that provides a great workout for much less.

    Shopping tips

    Take factors besides cost into account before buying. One important consideration is the amount of space you have for a treadmill. Non-folding models take up as much floor space as a couch or dining room table. A folding treadmill can save you about six-square-feet.

    Decide where you want to shop. Budget and mid-priced treadmills are sold at large retailers such as Dick's Sporting Goods, Sears, Sports Authority, and Walmart. For more expensive brands, you'll generally need to hit a specialty fitness store. Whether you want to shop online for the best price or in a store, try the machine in person first. You might notice a problem–the deck is too short for your stride, for example–that you can't detect by sight or user reviews alone.

    Our treadmill buying guide provides more shopping tips; subscribers can also take advantage of our treadmill Ratings to make wise buying decisions.

    5. TVs for Less

    It's possible to find a good television selling for a few hundred dollars, while others go for several thousand, and there are many sets that fall in between those extremes. Screen size, features, brand, and more affect the price. Our TV buying guide will help you get the most bang for your buck, no matter how much or how little you want to spend.

    Shopping tips

    It's hard to judge TVs well in stores. That's because televisions are usually set to a Retail or Store mode, which pumps up brightness and color to a level that looks great under fluorescent lights. Subscribers should consult our TV Ratings to make sure you get a set that performed well in our lab tests.

    Consider the size. Budget and room size permitting, we believe most consumers would be best served by at least a 40- to 42-inch screen for a primary television. A 46- or 50-inch set is often preferable in rooms where you'll be sitting 8 to 10 feet or so from the screen. Consider an even bigger set for spacious family rooms. Just don't buy a jumbo screen and sit right on top of it: If you sit too close to a TV screen you might notice the picture elements (pixels) that make up the images, which can be distracting, especially with lower-quality content like you might get when streaming video.

    Ultra HD TVs, which have four times the number of individual picture elements (or "pixels") as 1080p models, allow you to sit closer to the TV without seeing the pixel grid; as a result, you may opt for a larger set without changing your seating distance.

    6. Sales on Winter Clothes

    As temperatures plummet, you'll find good deals on winter clothing. In order to make room for new spring merchandise, stores will deepen discounts on winter apparel this month.

    Shopping tips

    Time your visits. Shopping at the right time can save you even more. Kohl's fans, for example, should check out the "Gold Star Clearance" racks, where prices are slashed up to 80 percent on weekend nights. Every Wednesday, shoppers who are 55 years old and older get an extra 15 percent off (customers should bring ID to verify their age).

    At many large retailers, items are marked down on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday. Markdowns at Marshalls and T.J. Maxx usually happen on Wednesday, for example.

    Look for deals in other departments. Another clothing item that will be cheap this month: Swimsuits.  

    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 Washing Machines of 2015

    This year brought several changes to the washing-machine market. In March, tougher federal standards kicked in, requiring all washers to use even less water and energy. Innovations included LG’s Twin Wash and Samsung’s Activewash, and yet front-loader mold is still a battle for some. One thing that didn't change: Matching washers and dryers remain popular. 

    Here are our top picks for 2015.  

    Top-Loaders with Agitators

    Most agitator top-loaders we tested cost $500 or less and do a normal wash in 40 to 50 minutes using the heavy-soil setting. But as a group, they don’t clean as well as high-efficiency top-loaders, and have less capacity, aren’t so gentle on fabrics, and are noisy.
    Top pick: GE GTWN5650FWS, $650

    High-Efficiency Top-Loaders

    Most clean better and hold more laundry—17 to 28 pounds—than agitator top-loaders. Some HE top-loaders have deeper tubs, and some are also taller now, making it tricky for shorter people to retrieve laundry at the bottom of the tub. The higher spin speed reduces dryer time and saves energy by extracting more water, but this high spin can wrinkle clothing and cause the machine to become imbalanced. See these tips from our experts for getting the best performance from your HE washer.
    Top picks: Samsung WA52J8700AP, $1,000; Samsung WA56H9000AP, $1,100; Kenmore 28132, $800; Whirlpool Cabrio WTW8500DW, $1,000; and Maytag Bravos MVWB855DW, $1,050.
    Impressive and less expensive: Kenmore 26132, $600, and Kenmore 27132, $700.

    Front-Loaders

    The best front-loaders typically clean better while using even less water than the best HE top-loaders. Most front-loaders can fit about 17- to 28-pound loads. They spin even faster than HE top-loaders, extracting more water and shortening dryer time. Many are relatively quiet and can be stacked on a matching dryer to save space.

    But they’re often $1,000 or more. A front-loader's high-spin speeds might vibrate too much for the machine to be placed near living areas, so check the vibration scores in our washing machine Ratings. Keep in mind that concrete floors absorb vibrations well, unlike wood-framed floors.
    Top picks: Samsung WF56H9110CW, $1,450; Maytag Maxima MHW8150EW, $1,350; LG WM9000HVA $1,800; and Maytag Maxima MHW5100DW, $950.
    Impressive and less expensive: LG WM4270HWA, $830, and Maytag Maxima MHW3100DW, $850.

    More Choices
    See our washing machine Ratings and find out how dozens of washers did in our tests. Overall scores range from 13 to 85 (out of 100). Click the Features & Specs tab to find out dimensions and capacity in cubic feet, and find out what over 115,000 people have to say about a brand by clicking the Brand Reliability tab. Any questions? Send them to kjaneway@consumer.org.

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    Hot Smartphone Tech for CES 2016

    We don’t expect to see many new smartphones from the big phone makers at CES 2016. But we do expect to find more evidence of the best developments in smartphone design to come along since 4G networks.

    The show floor and back rooms should be overflowing with accessories from charging mats to new cables that support a new kind smartphone mobility. We'll have the details on product launches once we're at the show. But smartphone owners are already starting to see the kind of mobility that gives them more options regarding where they can bring their phones, how they can charge them, how to connect them, and more. Here’s what I mean.

    Multi-network Smartphones

    Since the early days of cell service, carriers have trapped consumers into their plans through draconian two-year contracts, proprietary networks, and phone locks that couldn’t be removed without a hassle and quite a bit of groveling. Well, the restrictive contracts are rapidly giving way to more flexible, less binding plans, and a growing number of smartphones are taking advantage of this new service freedom.

    First, many of the latest models, such as the Motorola Moto X Pure Edition and iPhone 6s, are being sold unlocked to any provider's service. They also come with the radios and other hardware necessary for handling the voice and high-speed LTE data services of various cell providers, including the major ones: AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon. Changing services is often as easy as swapping one nano-SIM card for another. And when you’re traveling abroad, you can avoid expensive network roaming charges by popping in a prepaid SIM card from a local carrier.

    Multi-SIM Smartphones

    OK, what if you really need two phones, such as for travel or business use, but you only have the budget—or pockets—for one?

    We’re seeing more phones with dual SIM-card slots that allow you to add a second phone account—even from a different provider. So, is this really like having two phones in one? Actually, it's like having 1-1/2 phones in one. That’s because the second phone line on the models we’ve seen does not support cellular data connections for e-mail, Web browsing, and other Internet-dependent functions.

    Some dual-SIM phones force you to make additional sacrifices. For instance, on the Huawei P8 Lite, to install the secondary SIM card you have to remove the phone's microSD memory card. That's a big loss for a phone that comes with only 16GB of on-board storage.

    Most of the phones now are GSM-based, which means you can use them with AT&T and T-Mobile, but not Sprint or Verizon, which use CDMA cellular tech. But since GSM is the most popular network technology around the world, it’s not a big deal.

    Multi-function Connector

    We’re starting to see a growing number of smartphones, including the Microsoft Lumia 950 and the Nexus 5X, come with a new type of connector: USB Type-C, which has a multitude of advantages over the microUSB connectors you’ll find on most smartphones that aren’t iPhones.

    First, just like the Lighting connector on an iPhone, USB-C connectors can be inserted into the phone no matter which way you hold it; there is no "wrong-side up." That eliminates the fumbling and squinting that has become a ritual on phones that use micro USB cables.

    But here’s how Type-C is better than the iPhone’s Lightning connector. Type-C has a potentially much larger transfer rate—up to 10 gigabits per second (Gbps)—versus Lightning’s speed limit of about 4 Gbps. That should mean nearly instant transfers for the mega-size photos and HD videos produced by today's high-resolution smartphone cameras.

    What’s more, USB Type-C supports bi-directional power. That means your phone will receive a charge while it’s transmitting files to a compatible TV, printer, or other accessory over the same cable. The bad news: Once your new phone has this connector, you'll need to buy a whole bunch of Type-C adapters to connect them to your old PCs and accessories.

    Multi-charging options

    Sadly, we’re seeing fewer smartphones these days with user-replaceable batteries, which allowed you keep fully charged spares on-hand for when the original battery ran down, or outright died. But a growing number of phones such as the Samsung Galaxy S6 and the Motorola Droid Turbo 2 have a rapid-charging capability that can bring a near-dead handset to about 50-percent capacity within about 15 minutes—though only if you use the special, high-output charger they come with. Better yet, these and other models support both Qi and PMA wireless charging standards. And with wireless charging spots popping up all over the place these days, it's nice to know that the phone in your pocket will pretty much work with any of them. 

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

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  • 12/31/15--06:57: Top 10 Food Stories of 2015
  • Top 10 Food Stories of 2015

    This year, Consumer Reports has covered a wide variety of food stories, from food safety issues (mostly based on research conducted in our labs) to expert tips for eating a healthier diet. In cased you missed them, here’s a list of our top picks for 2015.

    1. Another Reason to Cut Back on Soda

    Following up on our research into caramel color, which may contain a potential carcinogen called 4-MEI, in foods and beverages, Consumer Reports’ food safety experts published a study that shows that more than half of Americans drink soda in amounts that could expose them to enough 4-MEI to increase their cancer risk.

    2. So Long, Trans Fat

    Consumer Reports has voiced concern about the link between trans fat in food and heart disease for more than 20 years, so we were pleased when the Food and Drug Administration announced that food manufacturers will have to eliminate trans fat from their products.

    3. Prevent Food Poisoning From Listeria Bacteria

    The outbreak of illnesses and deaths from contamination of Blue Bell ice cream with Listeria monocytogenes raised awareness of this rare but dangerous bacteria. But ice cream wasn’t the only food where listeria was a concern this year. Our food safety experts offered tips to help you protect yourself and your family.

    4. America’s Best and Worst Supermarkets

    Clean eating and freshness were big dietary trends this year, and they were top of mind for the 62,000-plus Consumer Reports subscribers who participated in our annual supermarket survey.  

    5. Eat the Peach, Not the Pesticide

    Our food safety experts analyzed 12 years of data from the Department of Agriculture’s Pesticide Data Program and calculated the risk of pesticide exposure from eating 48 fresh non-organic fruits and vegetables grown in 14 different countries.

    6. How Safe Is Your Shrimp?

    Consumer Reports took an in-depth look at shrimp from a testing, tasting, and shopping viewpoint. We unearthed some worrisome findings about bacteria and other problems in our shrimp supply.

    7. GMO Foods: What You Need to Know

    The fight for GMO labeling heated up this year, and the FDA approved the sale of genetically modified salmon. This primer answers all your questions about GMOs. And for the latest developments on the GMO front, consult our GMO Guide

    8. How Safe Is Your Ground Beef?

    Consumer Reports tested for the prevalence and types of bacteria in ground beef and found that the way cattle are raised influences both measures. 

    9. Food Trends That Aren't Always Healthy

    The truth about ancient grains, high-protein diets, and all-day snacking.

    10. Healthy Eating Made Easier

    Five research-proven ways to eat smarter without a lot of extra effort.

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

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    What You Should Know Before Buying a Brinkmann Grill

    You’ll might see some tempting prices on Brinkmann gas grills at Home Depot. But before you buy, here's something to keep in mind: Brinkmann filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in October and stopped selling products in November, according to its website.

    Four Brinkmann models landed on the recommended list in our gas-grill Ratings. The Brinkmann 810-6550-S was the best large gas grill Consumer Reports tested. It originally sold for $350 and now is listed at Home Depot for $239. Among small grills, the $130 Brinkmann Patio 810-6230-S was also impressive. It's now priced at $69 at Home Depot.

    Home Depot says it's selling the inventory in stock and it'll honor the warranties. 

    “We have universal replacement parts for Brinkmann grills, not all parts, but burners, regulators, and cross-channel parts” says spokesman Stephen Holmes. 

    If Home Depot doesn’t have the parts, it will make concessions to take care of customers on a case-by-case basis, which could mean a refund, says Holmes. You can call Home Depot’s customer care department at 1-800-466-3337. 

    Brinkmann, now called Outdoor Direct Corp., according to its website, didn't respond to a request for comment.

    If you're shopping for a gas grill, check our Ratings. We tested dozens of grills that cost $115 to $2,600. You’ll see familiar brands such as Weber and Char-Broil and newer names too. Any questions? Email me at kjaneway@consumer.org.

    Kimberly Janeway

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

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    Top 10 Health Stories of 2015

    Consumer Reports covered a wide variety of health stories in 2015, from rising concerns about the spread of dangerous, hard-to-treat bacterial infections, to high drug costs.

    In case you missed them, here’s a list of our top picks for 2015.

    1. The Rise of Superbugs

    The antibiotics we have relied on for nearly 70 years to protect us from deadly bacterial infections are losing their effectiveness, because of misuse of the drugs in doctors offices, hospitals, and farms.

    2. The 12 Hospitals You Might Want to Avoid

    Consumer Reports identified the 12 hospitals in the U.S. that got low scores in preventing hospital-acquired infections in our hospital Ratings

    3. The Dangers of Radiation From Medical Tests and Cell Phones

    Consumer Reports investigated the surprising dangers of radiation from CT scans and X-rays and looked into the controversy over radiation from cell phones.

    4. How to Avoid Surprise Medical Bills

    Just in time for health insurance open enrollment season, we identified seven costly surprises and gave advice on how to avoid them.  

    5. Best Sunscreens and Insect Repellents

    We identified which sunscreens provide the most skin protection (and don't stain your clothes), and found that the most effective insect repellents these days are also among the safest.

    6. Are You Paying More for Your Meds?

    A Consumer Reports’ poll found that one-third of Americans were hit by high drug prices. We also gave our 6 best tips on how to save money on prescription drugs.  

    7. Home Medical Tests to Try—and Skip

    Do-it-yourself doctoring is all the rage these days. We identified which home kits to try for cholesterol, blood glucose, HIV, colon cancer, and more.  

    8. 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. Our experts identified 10 ways to cut costs and find the best care for your teeth.

    9. How to Protect Your Medical Identify

    Why you shouldn't share your Social Security number with your doctor and other tips on how to keep your health information away from hackers.

    10. Dangerous Supplements Abound

    It was a bad year for the supplements industry, with reports of the U.S. Department of Justice charging more than 100 supplement makers with fraud, contaminated diet supplements (including some spiked with speed-like drugs), and new risks linked to yohimbe, an herb reputed to boost sexual performance. We also highlighted the problems with homeopathic medicine and herbal remedies in general.  

     

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    Tire Socks: An Alternative to Snow Tires?

    In the winter, there are times when most drivers wish they had a bit more traction, particularly when scaling a slippery hill or ascending an icy driveway. Beyond winter tires and all-wheel drive, there are aftermarket products that promise to provide added grip for occasional use.

    Consumer Reports recently evaluated three textile products that fit over tires to aid traction. Think of them as alternatives to clunky metal snow chains. (See below for a note about states that require tire chains.) Two of the products—AutoSock and ISSE—resemble a cloth sock that slips over the tire. The Michelin Easy Grip looks and works more like a snow chain made out of rope. Like the “socks,” the Easy Grip slips over the tire.

    Installing these products is straightforward, but by no means is it easy or clean. Kneeling in the snow and working in close proximity to a wet, cold, and dirty wheel well is no treat. Plus, it takes some muscle and patience to slip one of these products over the tire. All are intended for use on snow- and ice-covered roads only, and they have limited speed ranges of 25 mph (Michelin Easy Grip and ISSE) to 30 mph (AutoSock).

    We purchased all three products online, in a size to fit the 215/60R16 tires on our 2012 Toyota Camry. (Tip: Be careful when ordering to get the appropriate size, as proper fit is vital.) Each product comes with a pair for the drive wheels of a front- or rear-wheel drive car, but they can be used in a set of four for an all-wheel-drive vehicle. The Michelin Easy Grip cost $139.60, the AutoSock was purchased for $109.95, and the cheapest was the ISSE was the least expensive at $71.96. Prices will vary depending on retail outlets and sizes.

    Where the Sock Meets the Road

    We measured the snow traction performance of these products on a set of Michelin Premier A/S all-season tires in our standard snow traction test where we accelerate from 5 to 20 mph. Less distance needed to reach 20 mph equates to better snow traction. With no traction devices installed, our Toyota Camry took 73 feet to reach 20 mph. The AutoSock and ISSE “tire socks” significantly improved snow traction, shortening the distance to 58 feet, while the Michelin Easy Grip did even better at 49 feet. For comparison, a dedicated winter tire took 57 feet to reach 20 mph.

    The good news is all three products offer added grip on snow. The bad news is installation can be tough, particularly when you factor in the cold. It is important that these be installed in a safe place away from traffic. In our experience, the ”tire sock” products were a little easier to install than the Michelin Easy Grip, but all three are hard to pull over a tire. Each requires the tire to rotate periodically during installation to position the traction aids properly over the tire’s tread. Consequently, this process is easier with an assistant.

    If you need temporary traction to get out of a slick-wintry spot once in a great while, then these products might make sense as a part of a winter emergency kit in the trunk. For most snow-belt drivers, dedicated winter tires are more practical and versatile for the wide variety of wintry conditions.

    Tire Chain Laws

    Some localities require tire chains on certain roads under certain conditions, even for vehicles fitted with snow tires, and these products may or may not fit the bill. Some states allow textile-based products; others require actual metal chains. Before deciding what to buy, consider where you will be driving and do a Web search for tire chain requirements in those states.

    Check our tire ratings to find the best-performing models for snow traction that fit your car.

    Gene Petersen

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2016 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Get the Best Cell Phone Plan for Your Family—and Save up to $1,000 a Year

    Update 1/2/15: The Big Four carriers’ shell-game-like pricing practices have become so convoluted, you need an accounting degree to decipher them. They continually shift prices up or down according to the number of phone lines you need and the amount of data you're purchasing. They further complicate matters with “special” short-term offers to lure customers from rivals. We’ve decided to omit these specials from our calculation tables because of their extremely short lifespan and their fragility (deal benefits often vaporize when a customer buys a new phone or makes other changes). Here’s a rundown of the major carriers.

    T-Mobile. T-Mobile doesn't offer data-sharing cell phone plans. You have to purchase data for each phone in your household. But this carrier, whose prices are among the best, continues to frequently either lower prices or offer more services at no additional cost. For instance, streaming music and movies from Pandora, YouTube, and other popular sources doesn’t count against the customers’ data allowance.

    Sprint. Among the Big Four carriers, this carrier has the most convoluted phone access fees: $20 for one phone using 1 GB of data; $25 per phone accessing 2GB to 4GB of data; and $15 per phone accessing data buckets 8GB or larger. Also, Sprint prices have actually gone up by a few dollars since the fall. But the beleaguered carrier does have one of the cheapest options for data hogs: It charges only $120 a month for 4GB of data (excluding $15 per phone access fees).

    AT&T. This carrier has widened the chasm between its small and large data buckets. The next-size data bucket up from the 5GB plan ($50 month) is a 15GB plan ($100). Also, the $25 access fee AT&T charges per line drops to $15 when customers buy a data plan of 15GB or larger. That means AT&T customers feeding three or more phones may actually save a few bucks by buying more data than they need.

    Verizon. Big Red keeps things simple: It charges a flat $20 for every phone tapping into its sharable data plans. But it recently made things a bit more complicated—at least temporarily—by throwing in an additional 2GB for customers who choose or upgrade to 12GB of shareable data. If the offer is still there when you're shopping for a phone, by all means take it.

    Often, we steer people away from that kind of arrangement, but in this case, the pricing should work out well for a lot of consumers. Let's crunch the numbers for someone who needs just one phone line. With All-In, you can get a 16GB iPhone 6 and use it for two years for $1,920 (that doesn't include the activation fee.) The same phone and 24 months of service would cost $2,210 on the company's 4GB Family Share Pack data plan ($65 a month, plus about $27 while you paid off the phone, which costs $650).

    What if you keep your iPhone for a third year? All-In will end up costing $2,880 ($80 per month for 36 months). If you have the Family Share Pack, the monthly bill will drop to $65 after two years, once the phone is paid off, but the total for three years is still higher, at $2,990.

    That doesn't mean the All-In is better for everyone. You need to do some arithmetic to get the best deal. If you need multiple phones, the price-per-phone drops for most plans, but not for the All-In. You can economize on data usage to bring costs down on most cell phone plans, but not the All-In. And if you keep a phone you've paid off for a fourth year, trade it in—or just decide to sell it on eBay—the numbers change again.  

    Update 2/5/15: Thanks to price-war incentives and greater plan flexibility, there are more opportunities now to save a few bucks on the new, no-contract cell phone plans from AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon Wireless—a.k.a. the Big Four.

    These cell phone plans separate the purchase of the phone from the service charges, effectively giving you an interest-free loan you can pay off in about two years. When you’ve paid off the phone, your monthly bill goes down accordingly. And there are no termination fees; if you want to leave the carrier, you just pay any remaining balance on the phone.

    Although our recent report, "Small carriers outrank the big ones in Consumer Reports' latest cell phone service survey," covering 63,352 subscribers in 26 metro areas, found some very happy customers who switched to smaller cell providers, there are still good reasons for staying big.

    Verizon, for example, earned decent marks across the board for voice, text, and data service, while AT&T was a standout for its 4G service. It recently slashed prices on its More Everything plans, added more data tiers to allow customers to better fine-tune plans, and monkeyed with the access fees it charges (for a limited time) to lower costs further.

    T-Mobile was tops for value and customer service. And Sprint, which didn’t do particularly well in any category, has recently become very aggressive about pricing—and some people actually do like the company.

    Thinking about changing your wireless company? We'll help you find the best cell phone carrier.

    Unfortunately, these plans are rather complicated, and the carriers have done their best to make apples-to-apples comparisons difficult among one another’s offerings. For example, they charge different rates for additional phone lines, break data allowances into chunks that don't match the competition’s, and provide differing discounts for multiple phones. In fact, plan pricing is so bizarre and counterintuitive that customers, particularly those with multiple phone lines, can often save money by buying more data for each phone.  

    The good news: We’ve already done the math for you in the tables below to help you find the best deal. And to make sure your needs are covered, we’ve presented the service-cost breakdowns for one to five family members for light, medium, and heavy data service. All you need to do is figure out how much data your family needs, which we also help you do in  "How much service do you need?"

    Looking to save money on your Internet, TV, and home-phone service? Here's how you can create your own triple-play bundle and save money.

    T-Mobile Simple Choice

    Number of people

    1GB of data per phone 

    2GB of data per phone

    6GB of data per phone

    1

    $40 (prepaid only)

    $60

    $65

    2

    NA $80

    $110

    3

    NA

    $90

    $135

    4

    NA

    $100

    $160

    5

    NA

    $110

    $185

     

    Sprint Family Share Pack

    Number of people

    1GB of data per phone

    2GB of data per phone

    4GB of data per phone

    1

    $40

    $55

    $75

    2

    $85

    $100

    $100

    3

    $125 (1.3GB)

    $115 (2.7GB)

    $165 (13.3GB)

    4

    $150

    $130

    $180 (10GB)

    5

    $145 (1.6GB)

    $175

    $195 (8GB)

     

    AT&T Next on Mobile Share

    Number of people

    1GB of data per phone

    2GB of data per phone

    4GB of data per phone

    1

    NA

    $55 (3GB)

    $75 (5GB)

    2

    $80

    $100 (2.5GB)

    $130 (7.5GB)

    3

    $105 (0.67)

    $125 (1.67GB)

    $145 (5GB)

    4

    $150 (1.25GB)

    $160 (3.75GB)

    $200 (5GB)

    5

    $225

    $175 (3GB)

    $215

     

    Verizon Simple Plans

    Number of people

    1GB of data per phone

    2GB of data per phone

    4GB of data per phone

    1

    $50

    $55 (3GB)

    $80 (6GB)

    2

    $85 (1.5GB)

    $100 (3GB)

    $120 (6GB)

    3

    $105  

    $120 

    $140

    4

    $140 (1.5GB)

    $160 (3GB) 

    $180 (4.5GB)

    5

    $160 (1.2GB)

    $180 (2.4GB)

    $220

     

    Note that in comparing rates, we couldn’t always find perfect matches, but we used the most similar plans.

    For instance, AT&T, Verizon, and now Sprint sell their data in chunks that can be shared by all the phones on one account, while T-Mobile requires you to buy data plans for each phone. So we selected sharable data plans that matched (or came as close as possible to matching) the per-phone data plan of T-Mobile.

    Then there's the question of what happens if you don't use your full data allotment. T-Mobile and AT&T both provide ways for you to "bank" unused data from your monthly allowance for later use. With the T-Mobile Data Stash plan, you get a “gift” bucket of 10 gigabytes of data per phone line, plus the ability to roll over unused data into the following months—it just needs to be used within a year. The AT&T Rollover Data offer is more stingy. There is no data bonus and you have to use rolled over data by the end of the following month.

    Another adjustment: T-Mobile offers unlimited data plans, while AT&T's and Verizon's plans cap off at 50GB, and Sprint's at 60GB, at rates well north of $200. We determined that 4GB to 5GB per phone would be comparable to having unlimited data, for most users.

    —Mike Gikas

    How much service do you need?

    1. First see whether a 500MB to 1GB data plan is enough for you. It will be for many consumers, especially if you confine your cellular-data activities mostly to browsing the Web, using news and e-book apps, and sending and receiving e-mails without large attachments. Save video calls, media streaming, and big-file uploads for when you have Wi-Fi access.

    2. If you stream a fair amount of music and video on the road, such as during your commute to work or on business trips, you'll probably need 2GB to 3GB per month.

    3. If your eyes are permanently glued to Netflix, YouTube, and other data-draining activities, you might want to consider a high-limit or unlimited data plan.—M.G.

    If you're thinking about what your next smart phone should be, check our cell phone buying guide and Ratings.

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2016 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    The Virtual Reality to See at CES 2016

    In a few days, Consumer Reports will be in Las Vegas covering CES, the country’s largest tech expo. While there will be a multitude of products from drones to printers, virtual reality products are some of the most exciting ones to keep an eye out for.

    You’ve probably heard of the major VR players Oculus, PlayStation, etc. But what about the other guys? A new slew of VR toys is set to debut in 2016. Here are just a few things we expect to see.

    Cheap VR Is (Already) Here

    If you think dropping a few hundred bucks is the only way to get into virtual reality, CES has your wallet covered.

    Expect a flood of inexpensive VR headsets, many based on the Google Cardboard standard. Cardboard is the popular headset Google introduced in 2014 to help popularize VR. It employs the user's phone and only costs a few dollars.

    These offshoots will be compatible with most smartphones and support basic VR functions. And a few are bringing some special features to the table. For instance, the Freefly VR headset can accommodate a variety of phones, using the Google Cardboard standard. But it also comes with a cool remote to help you control the screen.

    The VicoVR will be one of the many non-headset pieces of VR tech shown at CES. It's  a camera that tracks your body in the virtual reality space much like Microsoft’s Kinect works for the Xbox One. It has infrared cameras and features gesture control and support for up to two players, turning head-bobbing games into full-body experiences (as long as the rest of your set-up is compatible).

    Wanted: VR Content

    Your iPhone isn’t really useful without its signature apps. The same thing goes for virtual reality—it needs content, and that's been in short supply. While VR-ready games are in development, video companies are taking your favorite pastimes (read: sports) and turning them into technological experiences that cost less than some courtside seats.

    Sideline views of football games in 3D are just one of the many sporting events NextVR wants to use to highlight its virtual reality live-streaming system. The company has plans to expand its content to nearly all VR headsets, but now it only works with Samsung’s Gear VR.

    More Weird Controllers

    There have always been weird controllers in the gaming world, but virtual reality controllers take the digital cake. When you can’t see your hand in front of your face, or you’re floating through space, you’ve got to find another way to move through the world around you without compromising the immersive experience.

    Oculus will be showing off its Rift headset, complemented by Oculus Touch, the company’s pair of VR controllers that lets you use your hands in the VR space instead of a traditional controller that just sits in your hand. (The Touch, originally planned for release early in 2016, has now been delayed at least into the second half of the year.)

    Leap Motion, a gesture-control company, will be there, no doubt showing off how its tiny motion sensor can track your hand movements in VR space (it even has a tiny mount that hooks up to an Oculus Rift headset). It's like a "Minority Report" adapter in a box the size of a smartphone.

    If your hands are too busy holding a controller or flailing in the air, you can always use your feet. 3DRudder is pushing its feet-controlled VR motion controller. The UFO-shaped disc responds to tilts, presses, spins, and can act as a joystick even if you’re not in a VR headset.

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2016 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    LG Adds 'Super' 4K UHD TVs to Its Lineup, Unveiling Them at CES 2016

    LG's OLED 4K UHD TVs are considered by many—including Consumer Reports—to be the best TVs available. But those state-of-the-art OLED sets remain very expensive. So at CES 2016 LG will unveil a premium series of "Super" 4K UHD sets, presumably at a lower price than its OLEDs. The company claims the new sets will offer the best picture quality it can wring out of LED LCD TV technology.

    Among the highlights are ultra-slim designs, support for high dynamic range (HDR) content, and an expanded palette of colors. The first of these new 4K UHD TVs will arrive in early spring.

    The LG Super UHD lineup will be available in three series. At the top of the heap are the flagship UH9500-series sets (the model shown in the photo at the top of the page), in screen sizes ranging from 55 to 86 inches. Just below those sets are UH8500 models, which top out at 75 inches. The UH7700 models, in sizes ranging from 49 to 65 inches, will make up the entry-level Super UHD series.

    The UH9500- and UH8500-series sets get LG's Color Prime Plus technology, which achieves a wide color gamut thanks to both phosphor-coated LEDs and an improved color filter. That will bring them beyond the regular color standard used by most TVs to as close to 90 percent of the digital color space that you get in theatrical movies. These new LGs also get 10-bit panels, which in simplest terms means they can produce more shades of colors.

    The super-slim design of the UH9500-series TVs have nearly invisible bezels and a screen depth of just 6.6mm—that's less than a quarter-inch at its thinnest points.

    The flagship models also get a premium pioneer Harman/Kardon sound system, an auto-calibration system for fine-tuning the sound, and LG's updated webOS 3.0 smart TV platform. 

    Pricing for these sets hasn't been announced.

    98-Inch 8K Set Also to Debut

    LG will also showcase a 98-inch 8K UHD TV with even greater screen resolution than the 4K UHD TVs, though we have to imagine that it's more a statement piece than a model many consumers will buy. The UH9800 set will likely be sold through custom installers rather than regular retail outlets.

    Given the UH9800's extra resolution—it has four times the number of pixels that a 4K UHD set has—and size, we expect the UH9800 to be quite expensive. LG previously offered a 98-inch 4K UHD TV in its UB9800 series for $40,000.

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    The Right Exercise Equipment for You

    A mericans spend more than $65 billion per year on fitness—everything from gym memberships to exercise equipment to infomercial weight-loss devices. But if our goal is to be more buff, we’re not getting our money’s worth. Obesity rates climbed to 38 percent for U.S. adults in 2014, up from 32 percent a decade earlier, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In fact, the number of obese Americans exceeds those who are merely overweight.

    When we regularly do work out, two-thirds of us do so at home, mainly for comfort and cost savings. A sleek new cardio machine can, by itself, inspire and motivate, but take home the wrong one and it will quickly become the world’s priciest clothes hanger. Consumer Reports' latest tests of treadmills and ellipticals—and an innovative piece of exercise equipment that’s a cross between the two—will help get you up and running, and keep you going through your favorite podcast or guilty pleasure on Netflix.

    If you’ve been waiting to buy exercise equipment, your patience might have paid off. The latest machines are more connected than ever—to apps that track your results or hook you into a community of like-minded enthusiasts. Add a fitness tracker for dynamic feedback on your progress.

    Treadmills

    Treadmills are ideal for avid runners and walkers, especially those who live in regions where the climate isn’t conducive to year-round outdoor exercise. You can spend as little as $300 on a budget folding treadmill or 10 times as much on a higher-end nonfolding model. Serious runners who have the space should consider investing in a top-rated, nonfolding treadmill, because those machines tend to have a longer deck that’s better suited to a runner’s open stride. Work hard enough, and you could burn up to 350 calories in a 30-­minute workout. That’s roughly equiv­a­lent to a slice of cheese pizza, so you can enjoy the occasional guilt-free indulgence, provided you put in the miles.

    Ellipticals

    Ellipticals are best if you want a weight-­bearing exercise that’s lower-impact than running. Most ellipticals have moving handgrips that allow for a more full-body workout. Calorie output tops out around 270 for a vigorous 30-minute session.

    Most of the machines we tested cost $800 to $3,000. Many basic models provide sound ergonomics, solid construction, and a variety of exercise options, but you might have to pay more for connectivity. Several tested models feature iFit, which for a $99 annual fee allows you to track your workout data, choose from professional exercise programs, and create simulated workouts with Google Maps. Other machines connect to free sites such as ­­MapMyFitness and MyFitnessPal, which measure how workouts are affecting blood pressure, cholesterol, and more.

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

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  • 01/04/16--06:06: Roku TVs Get 4K, HDR in 2016
  • Roku TVs Get 4K, HDR in 2016

    We've liked the Roku TV smart TV platform, but so far it's been relegated to regular HD sets. Not anymore. Roku is here at CES 2016 saying that it now has a new 4K reference design—and with the release of those specs, this spring should bring the first UHD TVs that include the 4K-ready Roku TV interface. Roku is also working on a version that includes support for high dynamic range (HDR)—both the SMPTE 10 and Dolby Vision standards—for models that will launch later in the year.

    TCL, which showed off a 4K Roku model at CES 2015 but never shipped it, will be the first company to bring these models to market, but Roku says other brands will follow. Last year, regular Roku TV models were available from companies including Haier, Hisense, Insignia, Sharp and TCL, so we imagine that several of these brands will offer 4K Roku TVs in 2016. Models that use the 4K Roku TV platform will be able to stream 4K content from a number of services, including Amazon and Netflix.

    Roku also says that TCL will be the first TV brand to adopt the Roku TV HDR reference design in TVs this year. TCL is holding a CES press conference on Tuesday, so we expect to hear more about specific models, availability, and pricing. And we'll also look for news from several other TV brands.

    Although we haven't yet seen any of these new 4K Roku TVs, we did recently test the new 4K-enabled Roku 4 streaming media player, which should provide a good preview of what we can expect from Roku TVs, since they will have the same user-friendly interface and access to content. The Roku 4 player now tops our streaming media player Ratings.

    Here at CES this week, we expect to hear a lot more about UHD TVs, HDR technology, and 4K streaming services, so keep checking back for all our CES 2016 updates.

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    Hot Tech to Watch for at CES 2016

    If you want a glimpse of the technology consumers will be seeing in 2016, pay attention to the news from CES, the enormous trade show taking place in Las Vegas next week. Consumer Reports will be heading out to the show, where we expect to see tons of new tablets, laptops, drones, robots, gaming peripherals, cameras, and other products. While all those categories will generate news, we think that the following trends are the ones that will matter most to consumers.

    4K TVs with HDR, Plus More OLEDS

    Next year, 4K UHD sets will dominate store shelves—and at CES 2016, TV makers are moving on to other ways to enhance their displays. Many will be focusing on high dynamic range, or HDR, technology, which boosts contrast and color accuracy to make the picture more vibrant. Technical standards for HDR have now been set, and that should lead to a big increase in the amount of HDR content available—until now, it's been severely restricted, showing up mainly in a few Amazon Prime shows. (Confusion alert: Video HDR is different from HDR in cameras, in which multiple images with different exposures are combined to create a single, richer-looking photo.) In related TV news, 4K Blu-ray players will launch at CES 2016, and you’ll start to hear a lot about Chinese brands that most Americans don’t know. Finally, we expect to see more OLED TVs, which should be good news for television lovers who failed to buy a plasma TV before that technology disappeared. The rich, deep black levels of plasma have been reborn in OLEDs, which now top our Ratings. However, right now only LG is selling these sets; at CES, we expect to see one or two more manufacturers join in. 

    Virtual Reality, Now on Sale

    Virtual reality headsets and games have been a hot, almost-here technology at CES for the past few years, with companies showing off prototypes or equipment meant for content developers. It was only in 2015 that the Google Cardboard and the Samsung Gear VR put this cutting edge technology in front of the eyes of everyday consumers. At CES 2016, virtual reality is taking over a sizeable corner of the Las Vegas Convention Center. And we expect to see real-people-ready versions of the Oculus Rift, Sony PlayStation VR (aka Project Morpheus), HTC Vive, and other headsets. The primary use for all this technology is gaming, but CES-goers will also see VR used in other applications. For instance, Lowe’s Holoroom, which is already in limited distribution at the company's home centers, lets customers design a room, then explore it in a VR environment. We also expect to see lots of 360-degree cameras for shooting VR content, along with demonstrations of how virtual reality can be used in education.

    The Internet of Things You Wear

    Fitness trackers are mainstream devices now, and smartwatches have moved from a niche category into solid early-adopter territory. But those are just two subsets in the wearable-tech world. At CES 2016, more than 40 companies will be showing off wearables that will range from jewelry to computerized sports clothing to headphones with bio-tracking features—along with devices for measuring blood pressure, sleep cycles, and other health data. Finally, smartwatches will continue to take on fitness tracking features, while some fitness trackers will edge closer to smartwatch territory. 

    The Internet of Everything Else

    Houses that track their owners are either super useful or deeply creepy, depending on your perspective. But many companies at CES are going all in on the concept. Among the many connected products at CES, we expect to see more voice-activated devices such as the Sengled Voice—a microphone-plus-speaker built into an LED bulb—and off-beat products such as the Somabar, an automated cocktail-mixing machine that can be controlled from a smartphone. And, of course, major appliance makers (LG, Samsung) will be showing off their own products. We'll also be watching the development of competing smart-home ecosystems—including Google’s Works with Nest, Apple’s HomeKit, Amazon’s Echo compatibles, and Samsung’s SmartThings.

    CES: The First Car Show of 2016

    The Detroit Auto Show takes place just a week after CES, but that doesn’t keep Toyota, Audi, Chevrolet, Daimler Benz and other automakers from showing up in Vegas armed with innovative technologies. The production version of the all-electric Chevy Bolt, which we reported on last year, is set to debut in Vegas—as will a concept vehicle from electric car startup Faraday Future, whose leadership ranks are filled with Tesla alumni. Autonomous parking and steps toward autonomous driving were big topics at CES in 2015. This year, Ford is reportedly going to provide details on a joint venture with Google to build self-driving vehicles. We should also see a new digital-mapping initiative from Toyota, an intro from Volkswagen that could be a new microbus, and advances in user interfaces such as BMW’s AirTouch gesture-control system.

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    New Logo Will Tell If Your Ultra-High-Def TV Is Truly High Performance

    There's potential for confusion when you shop for ultra-high-definition TVs that support some of the latest enhancements, including high dynamic range (HDR) and wider color gamuts. One reason is that we expect to see some dramatic differences in HDR performance among sets and brands.

    So how do you know you're buying a TV that can deliver top-level performance?

    At CES this evening, the UHD Alliance, an industry group, tackled the issue with a new "Ultra HD Premium" logo and certification program that'll let you know you're getting a TV that's capable of a high level of performance.

    But the program isn't limited to just TVs; it sets minimum specifications and requirements for other 4K, or ultra-high-def, devices, such as Ultra HD Blu-ray players, as well as 4K content and services.

    To earn the Ultra HD Premium logo, products and services have to go through a certification process to prove they can meet or exceed requirements for resolution, HDR, peak brightness, black levels and wide color gamut, among others. (HDR is the term used to describe a wider range between the whitest whites and blackest blacks in an image, so contrast is significantly improved. A wider color gamut shows more colors.)

    There are also recommendations for immersive audio and other features. Independent centers around the world will handle testing and certification.

    For UHD TVs, UHD Blu-ray players and other devices to receive certification, they have to support a lot of things consumers will never actually have to understand, among them 3840x2160 resolution, a wider color gamut (at least 90 percent of the P3 digital cinema color space) and 10-bit colors. They also have to support the SMPTE standard for HDR, also called HDR 10, but may additionally support other HDR technologies, such as Dolby Vision.

    As we mentioned in an earlier blog, brightness proved a sticking point during the development of the program, since OLED TVs don't get as bright as LCD sets but are capable of much deeper blacks. The UHD Alliance addressed this issue by allowing two different requirements for peak brightness levels, depending on black level of the set.

    At CES this week, we expect to hear more about which brands and models will be able to meet these new UHD specifications and earn the Ultra HD Premium logo. We believe that OLED TVs will meet the criteria, but we're wondering if LCD TVs will need full-array LED backlights with local dimming to earn the mark.

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