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    Microsoft Ending Support for Older Versions of Internet Explorer

    Microsoft will discontinue support for older versions of its iconic browser, Internet Explorer, on January 12. This is another step on its march toward modernity, already evidenced by the advent of the Cortana virtual assistant and the other tech goodies enabled by Windows 10

    The move may inconvenience some, but it shouldn’t come as a surprise; Microsoft announced as early as August of 2014 that support for the browser would be ending. 

    Upgrading to the company's new browser, Microsoft Edge, is extremely easy to do. But, in reality, Internet Explorer isn't being abandoned quite yet. For now, Microsoft will continue to support Internet Explorer 11, the latest version of the browser, with security upgrades. And, somewhat surprisingly, the company will also continue supporting Internet Explorer 9 on machines running Windows Vista Service Pack 2, at least for now. Other versions of Explorer will no longer receive security updates or technical support.

    There’s no need to panic if you can’t upgrade right away. Your browser will continue to work normally, just without protection from new viruses. Unfortunately, that means if a virus finds a way into your older version of Internet Explorer, you can’t count on Microsoft to patch it up, and you can count on hackers to go after users who haven’t upgraded to a more secure web browser.

    Ending support should spur consumers holding off on switching web browsers to try out Microsoft’s two options: Internet Explorer 11, or the more modern Microsoft Edge, with the latter available only for Windows 10 PCs. Microsoft Edge ditches backwards compatibility, which should force the hand of businesses that might be sluggish in updating their browsers. It’s a more modern-looking browser, and supports Microsoft’s virtual assistant, Cortana, as well as touchscreen use on tablets and convertible PCs.

    If you browse the web at home, upgrading to a more secure or alternative web browser is simple enough. Turning on automatic updates and checking for updates should take care of the upgrade for you. If you’re upgrading to Microsoft Edge, the company offers a quick tutorial on how to import your old bookmarks to the new web browser. Or do things the old-fashioned way and download Edge manually from the Microsoft site.

    Of course, if you’re abandoning Internet Explorer entirely, it’s a perfect time to check out some alternative browsers from companies such as Google and Apple.

    Google Chrome is available on nearly every operating system, from iOS to Windows. You can sign in with your Google account and take your bookmarks, extensions, and other Google services wherever you can run Chrome, including on a Chromebook.

    Apple offers its own browser, Safari, for Windows, iOS, and Mac. You can keep track of bookmarks, just like in Google Chrome, but also your Reading List, a feature that saves sites for you to read later.

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

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    Prevent Identity Theft When Filing Taxes This Year

    Tax software makers and service providers are offering new layers of security this tax season to protect you from identity theft. You might find shorter shutdown times after inactivity, for example, and fewer chances to try again after a log-in error. Users of TaxSlayer, TurboTax, and other services will have the option to use a unique log-in code along with the usual ID and password. The updates reflect a coordinated effort by the Internal Revenue Service, states, and the tax-prep industry to prevent ID theft involving pilfered Social Security numbers.

    Thieves usually claim tax refunds by filing taxes before their victims do. So another way to protect yourself is to file long before the tax deadline, which is Monday, April 18, this year (April 19 in Maine and Massachusetts).

    What Victims Can Do

    You might not know you’ve been a victim of tax-related ID theft until you get an IRS notice. It might say that you collected wages from an employer you don’t recognize, for example, or that your Social Security number has been used on more than one return.

    Report incidents of ID theft to the Federal Trade Commission. Then set up a fraud alert with one of the three big credit bureaus—Equifax  (888-766-0008); Experian (888-397-3742); or TransUnion (800-680-7289). The bureau you choose will share your alert with the other two; all three will give you a free credit report. You can also request that the bureaus issue security freezes to prevent any new credit from being issued without your permission.

    At irs.gov, fill out Form 14039, an Identity Theft Affidavit. The IRS will issue you an “identity protection personal identification number” (IP PIN) intended to prevent further fraud. (All residents of the District of Columbia, Florida, and Georgia—not just victims—can get IP PINs as part of an IRS pilot program.)

    Avoid Other Scams

    Fraud involving IRS impersonators spikes during tax filing season. Remember:

    • The IRS never asks for personal or financial information via email, text, or social media, and it will never contact you by phone to demand payment. Report suspicious email.
    • The agency will never ask for credit-card numbers over the phone, require payment without allowing you to question it or appeal, or threaten you with arrest for nonpayment.
    • Report fraud to the IRS by filling out this IRS form or calling 800-366-4484.

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

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

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    4 Reasons to File Taxes Early

    Get Your Refund Sooner

    About two-thirds of Americans can expect a federal tax refund this year. Last year, the average tax refund was more than $2,700.

    Fund an IRA

    If you get money back, consider using it to fund an individual retirement account for 2015 before the April 18 deadline. The contribution limit is $5,500 for those under 50 and $6,500 for those older.

    (You’ll need to estimate your 2015 contribution on your return. Assuming you meet income limits, the contribution will be deducted from your taxable income, increasing your tax savings.) Or use your tax refund toward your 2016 IRA; you’ve got through the next tax season to do so.

    Get a Jump on College Aid

    You can use information from your tax forms to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Early applicants get more financial aid, says Mark Kantrowitz, president of MK Consulting in Las Vegas and a financial-aid expert.

    Buy Yourself Some Time

    If you don’t get a tax refund but owe more, knowing the amount before the deadline gives you more time to plan how you’ll pay. You can pay by credit card, but you’ll get hit with a service fee of as much as 2.35 percent of your tax liability. For a list of accepted services that process tax payments by credit card, search for “pay taxes by credit card” at irs.gov. 

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

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

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    Your January Financial To-Do List

    Now that the holidays are in the rearview mirror, it's time to see whether you're on track to meet your financial goals—and to make any necessary adjustments. Our financial to-do list can help.

    Whether you're just starting out, in the midst of a busy career, or living on a fixed income, a bit of financial housekeeping at the beginning of the year can help you save money, get the most out of your investments, and avoid making costly mistakes. Here are five to-do items for the month of January. We'll continue to provide you with financial to-do lists at the beginning of each month to help you improve the chances that you'll have a prosperous 2016.

    1. Simplify Your Budget

    If you missed some of your financial goals in 2015, create a realistic household budget or make adjustments to the one you already have.

    If you've found keeping a budget exasperating, you might be making it too complicated. For instance, monitoring separate categories to track everything you spend, such as groceries, restaurant meals, drugstore purchases, and gas, can be frustrating. You'll see why when you try to figure out where all of those items you buy at Costco, Target, and Walmart fit into your budget.

    Instead, create a budget that's simple enough to use. All you really need is spreadsheet software. A basic budget requires just two sections: One for your monthly income and spending goals, and another where you enter your actual monthly expenditures as the year progresses.

    While you're setting it up, review how much of your salary you managed to save and invest last year. Christine Benz, Morningstar's director of personal finance, suggests 15 percent is a reasonable minimum target.

    2. Avoid a Tax Penalty

    Tax season never ends for Americans who have to pay quarterly estimated income taxes. If you’re self-employed, you probably already know that four times a year—in mid-April, June, September, and January of the following year—the Internal Revenue Service expects you to pay estimated taxes on your current earnings. If you don’t, you’ll pay a penalty.

    Lots of other folks also need to make those payments to avoid penalties. If you have a major gain during the year—from the sale of stock or property, for instance, you should pay estimated taxes on that income. Social Security beneficiaries with income from other sources, including pensions, might also have to pay. 

    Make sure that paying your quarterly estimated taxes by Jan. 15, if applicable, is on your to-do list. And start collecting your receipts for tax deductions and income statements for your 2015 annual tax return.

    3. Buy Products on Deep Discount

    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. If you're shopping for the best deals, look for sales on TVs, toys, treadmills, ellipticals, sheets, and winter clothes.

    Want an even better deal on all the products and services you buy? Try haggling. In a Consumer Reports National Research Center survey of 2,000 American adults, 89 percent of people who said they haggled received a better price at least once.

    To increase the odds you can negotiate a better deal, remember that nothing is off limits. You should always be polite. Make sure you know what constitutes a fair price before you start. For more tips on becoming an expert haggler, read our tips on effective bargaining.  

    Grab Discounts on Summer Travel

    Winter weather got you down? Start researching summer vacation possibilities to take advantage of discounts for early bookings.

    To save the most, see our airline travel buying guide. We also have tips on using your frequent flyer miles, and ways to save on hotel roomsrental cars, and luggage.

    Check our ratings of U.S. airlines, based on our survey of more than 14,000 coach passengers and some 6,000 first-class passengers who gave us their opinions about the width of their seats and how comfortable they were. They also weighed in on how much legroom they had and whether there was enough space for their carry-on bags.  

    5. Update Your Home Inventory

    Make sure your list of possessions covered by your homeowners insurance policy is up-to-date. Add any new electronics and other items of value that you received over the holidays.

    If you don't have a home inventory, creating one is easier than ever thanks to myHOME Scr.APP.book, an iPhone and Android application from the National Association of Insurance Commissioners. This free app lets you photograph your belongings and scan bar codes and serial numbers. It then stores the data electronically. You can organize this information room by room, and create a back-up file automatically.

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

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    Would You Buy a High-End TV From Hisense or TCL?

    TV shoppers looking for a bargain in the past few years have embraced Chinese brands, helping those companies gain a firm position in the U.S. marketplace. These relative newcomers include Haier, Hisense, Seiki, and TCL.

    Now, several of these companies are targeting consumers with more to spend on a TV, with 2016 product lineups that include high-end sets. These TVs, which we saw at the CES 2016 electronics trade show last week, will be competing with premium models from better-known players such as LG, Samsung, and Sony.

    Probably the most aggressive move into the high end is coming from Hisense and TCL, which are the two leading TV brands in China. While neither company is very familiar to U.S. shoppers, Hisense and TCL are among the top 10 television brands worldwide, trailing only Samsung, LG, and Sony, according to research firm IHS.

    High-end television shoppers may already know Hisense thanks to its first high-end UHD TV—the $3,000 H10B "ULED" 4K TV that it introduced in 2015. And even consumers who don't know the Hisense name will recognize the company's other TVs: Last year, the company acquired the license to the Sharp TV brand here in the U.S. 

    At CES last week, we got a glimpse of that premium Hisense TV's successor, the 65-inch 65H10C, which will sell for $2,800. Like last year's 65-inch 65H10B ULED TV, which did very well in our TV Ratings, the new model is a higher-end quantum dot set (for a wider palette of colors) with a curved screen. Like that set, it also supports high dynamic range (HDR), which pumps up the TV's ability to display both the brightest white and deepest blacks, providing greater contrast.

    But this year the set has a full-array LED backlight with more local dimming zones. (Local dimming can help the TV exert more control over brightness and contrast by dividing backlight sections into small zones that can be independently dimmed and darkened.)

    The TV will also support the new industry HDR (HDR10) standard. Hisense will also offer a 55-inch ULED TV in a new H9 series, which will sell for just under $1,000.

    Also in the mix this year will be a new N9000 flagship series of 4K UHD TVs sold under the Sharp brand. There are two models: a $3,300 70-inch set with a flat screen, and a 65-inch curved screen model, which will sell for $3,000. Both feature quantum dots for wider colors, making them the first Sharp TVs to use this technology, and the new HDR10 standard. Hisense says the TVs will have more local dimming zones than any other Sharp model, though the exact number wasn't specified.

    Yes, these sets are pricey, but they are in line with their competitors. Most of the major brands declined to reveal prices last week, but last year's flagship LCD-based UHD TVs from Samsung and Sony cost $4,000 or more, and LG's 4K OLED sets, at about $5,000 for a 65-inch model, were even more expensive.

    TVs for Everyone

    Not that Hisense is appealing solely to well-heeled buyers. Entry-level UHD TVs in the Hisense line will start as low as $400 for a 43-inch model in the H7C series, going up to just $1,300 for a 65-inch model. Prices for 50- to 55-inch sets in the mid-tier H8C UHD line will be in the $600 to $700 range.

    Under the Sharp name, Hisense will also have a more affordable line of N7000-series sets, which will range in price from $500 for a 43-inch set to $2,000 for a giant 70-inch model.

    TCL to Offer the First 4K Roku TV

    TCL, which first broke into the U.S. by licensing the RCA brand, has been selling TVs here under its own brand, mainly targeting budget buyers. Last year the company announced a 55-inch flagship 4K model in the H9700 series that would include quantum dots and Roku 4K technology—but the TV never actually shipped here in the U.S.

    This year the company is seemingly confident that its new higher-end X1 series, which it is calling QUHD, will actually become available. Like the Hisense ULED TVs, it will use quantum dots for a wider range of colors, and it will support HDR. It will also use an LED backlight with what TCL calls "slim" local dimming; the company says that the TV will be the the skinniest quantum dot set on the market. According to the company, this TV will be the first to incorporate the new 4K Roku TV design as well as support for Dolby Vision HDR.

    TCL didn't announce pricing, but we imagine the TV will have to be less expensive than comparable major-brand models. It will be interesting to see where it's priced compared to Hisense's ULED TVs, as well as to the new 4K HDR-capable models from Vizio, another company that built a following here in the U.S. by offering full-featured TVs at prices significantly lower than the major brands.

    Last year, Hisense proved it could make a great TV, though the set we reviewed wasn't without its flaws. (CRO subscribers can dig deeper into our full TV Ratings, as well as our comprehensive Detailed Test Results, to learn more of what we found.) We've tested a number of TCL TVs, though so far no 4K UHD models. 

    We'll be looking forward to getting several models from both brands—including their respective flagship UHD sets—into our TV labs for thorough testing to see how well they compare to the best models from the majors.

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

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    2017 GMC Acadia Is Smaller and More Feature Packed

    Nearly a decade after its original introduction, the second-generation GMC Acadia has arrived with a new look, seven-inches shorter length, lighter curb weight, and more fuel efficient powerplants. The midsized crossover also makes new advanced safety features available.

    Looking less like a truck and more like a family-friendly SUV, the 2017 GMC Acadia design has softened around the edges with wraparound headlamps and dressed with more chrome. The All Terrain and Denali trims each get even more refined details in their design with elements like body-color grille surrounds and black chrome trim.

    Weighing in at up to 700 pounds lighter than the previous model, the 2017 Acadia is primed to be more fuel-efficient. A new 2.5L four-cylinder engine is standard and promises 28 miles per gallon on the highway. The top engine is a 3.6-liter V6 with approximately 310 horsepower. The Acadia is the first GMC to offer start/stop technology, which will help with fuel economy in the city by turning the engine off when not needed.

    Inside, the flexibility of the 2017 GMC Acadia really begins to show. Depending on the model, the Acadia is available in 5-, 6-, or 7-passenger configurations. The now-midsized SUV sports a split-folding second-row seat, with the outboard seats sliding and tilting forward, even with a forward-facing child seat in place.

    While not standard in every trim, as we’d like to see, the 2017 GMC Acadia is available with a bevy of safety features that can protect occupants, as well as others. Those options include forward-collision warning with automatic braking, pedestrian detection, lane warning, blind-spot monitor, and other dynamic safety options. 

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

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    Whole Foods under fire for overcharging customers

    Update, January 12, 2015: In late December 2015, Whole Foods agreed to settle allegations with the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs that the chain overcharged customers. The settlement calls for the Whole Foods to pay a $500,000 fine and be more vigilant about its pricing practices. Going forward, Whole Foods will implement the following practices at all nine of its city stores: 

    • Conduct quarterly in-store audits of at least 50 products from 10 different departments to help ensure products are accurately weighed and labeled, and to correct all inaccuracies.
    • Immediately remove all mislabeled products (discovered in the future) and, within 15 days, check the accuracy of that product’s pricing, as well as 20 additional products from the same department.
    • Require employees to weigh—not estimate the weight—of each individual package.
    • Conduct training seminars for all store employees engaged in weighing and labeling products.

    Whole Foods released its own response to the settlement, saying the company has had in place preexisting pricing and weights/measures programs including third-party auditing, training programs, and a 100 percent pricing accuracy guarantee that gives customers a full refund on any item inadvertently mispriced. "We agreed to $500,000 in order to put this issue behind us so that we can continue to focus our attention on providing our New York City customers with the highest level of quality and service," the company said.

    For the second time in a yearWhole Foods Market has been slammed for ripping off shoppers by selling products with the weight incorrectly labeled. The New York City Department of Consumer Affairs (DCA) on Wednesday released the results of its ongoing investigation that contends the high-end grocer routinely overcharged customers by overstating the contents of prepackaged foods. The discrepancies resulted in overcharges of 80 cents to nearly $15 per package, according to officials.

    In addition, the DCA said that 89 percent of the packages it re-weighed failed to meet the federal standard for the maximum amount that a package can deviate from the actual weight. DCA tested 80 different types of pre-packaged products including meat, dairy, and baked goods.

    Take a look at the results of our latest survey to see which supermarkets have the best and worst prices.  Also, read about "The real cost of impulse shopping at the supermarket."

    The department characterized the overcharges as the byproduct of a “systematic problem with how products packaged for sale at Whole Foods are weighed and labeled,” according to a DCA statement. “The findings suggest that individual packages are routinely not weighed or are inaccurately weighed, resulting in overcharges for consumers.” The overcharges were especially prevalent in packages that had been labeled with exactly the same weight when it would be practically impossible for all of the packages to weigh the same amount, the report said. The products included nuts, berries, vegetables, and seafood. 

    In response to the charges, Michael Sinatra, public relations and public affairs manager for Whole Foods Northeast region, said, “We disagree with the DCA’s overreaching allegations and we are vigorously defending ourselves. We cooperated fully with the DCA from the beginning until we disagreed with their grossly excessive monetary demands. Despite our requests to the DCA, they have not provided evidence to back up their demands nor have they requested any additional information from us, but instead have taken this to the media to coerce us. Our customers are our number one stakeholder and we highly value their trust in us.”

    DCA Commissioner Julie Menin pulled no punches in describing the severity of the allegations: “Our inspectors tell me this is the worst case of mislabeling they have seen in their careers,” she said.

    Regular inspections

    In New York City, the Department of Consumer Affairs regularly inspects supermarkets for scanner, scale, and pricing accuracy. Inspectors first noticed labeling problems at Whole Foods stores last fall, which persisted when they revisited several of the locations during the winter.  To date, the probe has involved the chain’s eight stores that were in operation at the time of the inspections. Since then, a ninth has opened.

    The fine for falsely labeling a package is as much as $950 for the first violation and up to $1,700 for a subsequent violation. The potential number of violations that Whole Foods faces for all pre-packaged goods in the NYC stores is in the thousands, the DCA said.

    Last June, we reported on a settlement between Whole Foods and City Attorneys in the California cities of Los Angeles, Santa Monica, and San Diego over widespread pricing violations that included: Failure to deduct the “tare” weight of containers when ringing up charges for self-serve foods at the salad bar and hot bar; giving less weight than the amount stated on the label for packaged items sold by the pound; and selling items such as kebabs and other prepared deli foods by the piece, instead of by the pound as required by law. The chain agreed to pay close to $800,000 in penalties and implement a strict in-house pricing-accuracy program. 

    What you can do

    Our subscribers have long been less than satisfied with pricing at Whole Foods. In our latest supermarket survey, respondents criticized Whole Foods for having some of the highest prices of any grocery store in the country. Whole Foods isn't the only supermarket chain that's got in hot water for pricing irregularities in recent years. Safeway and Ralphs have been penalized, too. If you suspect an item isn't the correct weight, take a few packages and compare them on the consumer scale set aside at most grocery stores for that specific purpose.

    —Tod Marks

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

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    Major Car-Safety Initiatives Coming Soon From NHTSA

    The top U.S. car-safety administrator is urging the auto industry to work with regulators to develop safety technologies instead of waiting until the government mandates them.

    “The era of the big recall is not a sign of progress,” said Mark Rosekind, chief of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. “Record civil penalties are not a signal of success. Too often it means Americans have given their lives.”

    Instead, Rosekind wants automakers to pursue a “proactive safety culture” with NHTSA, which will reward automakers for bringing out safety technologies to reduce deaths on the road. In 2014, 32,675 people died on American roads.

    Rosekind hinted at “history making” announcements on Thursday and Friday that will entail “the future of safety technology.”

    Not that NHTSA’s boss is looking through these announcements through rose-colored glasses. How quickly technology can reach market is something that concerns him.

    For instance, more than 10 automakers have signed up to make automatic emergency braking and forward-collision warning a standard feature—rather than something for just luxury cars or top trim levels of mainstream vehicles. But even the automakers’ most fervent backers of this plan said it would take seven or eight years for that goal to be reached.

    Rosekind said that any automaker who can bring that standard technology to market ahead of that schedule will be rewarded “in lives saved and crashes deleted.”

    “Not that we won’t rule-make if others are still struggling” to meet the standard, Rosekind said at the Automotive News World Congress at the 2016 Detroit auto show

    A goal of zero driving deaths is NHTSA’s ultimate long-term objective—something that clearly won’t happen before Rosekind’s term expires at the conclusion of the Obama administration.

    “Success comes not when find we safety solutions, but when we work with industry to keep the crisis from happening in the first place,” Rosekind said.

    That includes working in the rare air of cybersecurity. So far, “There is not a single incidence of a malicious hack affecting vehicle safety,” Rosekind said.

    But the idea of technology sharing among automakers to prevent hacks from happening is something Rosekind is pushing automakers to accomplish without government regulation.

    “We need to address this before, and not after, Americans are at risk. If you try to regulate that, by the time the regulations come out, you will be so far beyond the technology, they will be worthless,” Rosekind said.

    NHTSA’s safety culture has also shifted from the idea that crashes are inevitable and that the agency must protect occupants. Now the objective is to prevent crashes from happening in the first place, Rosekind said.

    Because human beings are at fault in a clear majority of accidents, Rosekind wants technology to help prevent those accidents. In addition to introducing semi-autonomous driving, Rosekind is pushing hard for a Driver Alcohol Detection System that will not start a car if it detects alcohol on the driver’s breath or on the driver’s thumb via a laser.

    In meetings with automakers, Rosekind has issued this challenge, “Is safety our highest priority or merely one of many priorities? What we’re looking for is outcome.” 

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

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    Small Appliance All-Stars for Your Counter

    Small-appliance manufacturers would love for you to outfit your entire kitchen with their products, even offering small-appliance suites in matching colors and finishes for a super coordinated look. But Consumer Reports' tests routinely find that no one brand dominates every small-appliance category. So if you want the best of the best, you’ll have to mix and match across multiple manufacturers.

    To streamline that process, we pulled together the winners from our latest tests. The roundup assumes price is no option. If you don’t have $2,180 to spend—the grand total for this all-star roster—you can spend hundreds less and still get a top-notch suite with the use of our Ratings of small appliances.

    Blender: Vitamix Professional Series 750, $650

    Vitamix holds the top few spots in our blender Ratings, and the Vitamix Professional Series 750 is the crème de la crème. It whips up superb smoothies and icy drinks and is also great at pureeing sauces, soups, and more. It can even make those soups hot if you want. The 8-cup blender is shorter than the original Vitamix, so it will fit under the upper cabinets in most kitchens. If you want to include an immersion blender in your appliance suite, the Breville Control Grip BSB510XL, $100, is our current Ratings champ.


    Coffeemaker: Cuisinart Perfec Temp DCC-2800, $100

    This 14-cup Cuisinart delivers the closest thing to a perfect cup of coffee. Standout brew performance is matched by a an easy to handle carafe. It's also programmable, with both a small-batch setting and brew-strength, so you can have your coffee waiting for you each morning, just the way you like it.  


    Food Processor: Breville Sous Chef BFP800XL/A, $400

    Cuisinart might have the most name recognition in the food processor category, but Breville is by far the best model in our tests. The 16-cup Breville Sous Chef does everything well, including slicing, shredding, and grating. For all its power and performance, it’s also surprisingly quiet. Added features include an adjustable slicing disk, mini-bowl attachment, and whipping blade.


    Stand Mixer: KitchenAid Professional 6500 Design Series, $550

    From the manufacturer that invented the device, this 10-speed stand mixer will take care of all your baking needs. The stylish machine was superb at whipping cream and had no trouble folding chocolate chips into stiff cookie dough and kneading bread dough. Like other KitchenAid mixers, it can receive a variety of helpful accessories, including a meat grinder and pasta press—so it’s actually good for a lot more than baking. Want a hand mixer for smaller jobs? The $40 Cuisinart Power Advantage HM-50 outperformed all other models in our tests.


    Toaster: Krups 2-Slice KH732D50, $70

    This newcomer to the market wasted no time taking over the top spot in our Ratings, thanks to its ability to produce evenly browned toast batch after batch—a difficult task for many toasters. Its convenience features include defrost, reheat, and bagel settings, as well as a removable crumb tray and easy-to-clean push-button controls. The blue LED indicators and brushed-and-chrome stainless steel housing add a touch of style to the countertop, and integrate nicely with the other appliances from the suite.


    Toaster Oven: Breville Smart Oven Pro BOV845BSS, $270

    Australian manufacturer Breville gets a second all-star selection with the Breville Smart Oven Pro. It delivers very good baking and broiling, plus unlike many toaster ovens, it’s very adept at making toast. It’s also quite roomy inside, with space for a 4-pound chicken and six slices of toast, and its stainless steel housing and beefy controls combine for a sleek, professional look.

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

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    All-New 2017 Lincoln Continental Impresses With Style and Luxury

    Lincoln took the wraps off its much-anticipated reincarnation of the four-door Continental luxury sedan at the Detroit auto show. Not surprisingly, it isn’t quite as striking as the concept upon which it’s based, but there’s no question the full-size Lincoln flagship has road presence.

    The 2017 Lincoln Continental uses a global architecture (which also serves as the basis for the Lincoln MKZ and MKX, and Ford Fusion) as a starting point, but it has a unique wheelbase and width.

    The base engine will be a 3.7-liter V6 with standard front-wheel drive; all-wheel drive will be optional. Exact power output wasn’t disclosed, but we expect it is around 300 hp.

    Next up is a 2.7-liter twin-turbo V6, again with front-wheel drive standard and all-wheel drive optional. Figure on 325 hp or so here.

    The top-level Continental will get a Lincoln-exclusive 3.0-liter twin-turbo V6 producing an estimated 400 hp and 400 lb.-ft. of torque—on 93-octane fuel. (The midsized MKZ sedan will also make use of this powerplant.) This top version will come with all-wheel drive and the ability to transfer power between the rear wheels during cornering.

    Lincoln Drive Control will be available, giving the driver the ability to alter steering and suspension settings between three modes. Adaptive steering will also be an option.

    But enough specifications. Lincoln execs stressed the 2017 Lincoln Continental is all about “quiet luxury,” not necessarily huge horsepower or performance figures. Their goal? That the new car creates a “personal sanctuary” for each buyer.

    There’s no question the interior is luxurious, at least in the top-end models on display. Leather abounds and the headliner is covered with a soft, suede-like material. The hugely contoured front seats take center stage, though. Private jets and high-end office furniture inspired the patented design, called Perfect Position. They are 30-way adjustable and feature heating, cooling, and massage, as well as quite possibly the coolest feature in the entire car: individually adjustable thigh support—for each leg. 

    Lincoln says a goal with the 2017 Lincoln Continental was “Audi A8 levels of spaciousness.” We can verify the rear seat has enormous legroom, with decent but not spectacular headroom. Comfort is excellent, and the rear seats recline. You certainly get a high-end feeling when you sit in the car.

    Upgrading from the standard Lincoln audio system brings two premium stereos from Revel, the high-end home audio speaker branch of Harman. The mid-level system brings 13 speakers, and the top stereo counts 19 speakers.

    Lincoln continues to be mum about many of the car’s specifics, but we were told the base 2017 Lincoln Continental will have a starting price “under $50,000” when it goes on sale in the fall.

    Lincoln is promising a lot of car for the money. We’ll be the judge when we buy a 2017 Lincoln Continental for evaluation. 

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

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    Talking Cars Podcast Deciphers the 2016 Detroit Auto Show

    Consumer Reports' auto experts discuss the key news from the 2016 North American International Auto Show in Detroit. While the show lacked any superstar debuts, it did feature many redesigns of important models. Key among them was the new Chrysler Pacifica; after years of lagging behind competitors, the originator of the modern minivan tries to get back into the game. The Pacifica is also a big test for Fiat Chrysler to see if the company can deliver a solid clean-sheet redesign.

    For years, the GMC Acadia was essentially a minivan on stilts, larger than midsized competitors. Its 2017 redesign shrinks the Acadia to match the rivals, while promising better fuel economy. Another right-sized SUV from General Motors is the Buick Envision, joining the hot compact luxury SUV segment. Since Buick is hugely popular in China, maybe it's no surprise that the Envision has been sold and built there for over a year.

    Several luxury brands brought their new sedans to Detroit.

    Hyundai introduced the first model of its new Genesis sub-brand, the G90. Rather conventional in design, the G90 has comprehensive advanced safety gear, including self-steering capability, as standard.

    Another sedan that stresses safety is the Volvo S90, which has the same big touch screen, four-cylinder engines, and luxurious interior as the recently redesigned XC90 SUV.

    Two German brands also launched new sedans, the Mercedes-Benz E-Class and the Audi A4. Both are lighter and feature new technology; the E-Class looks like a bigger C-Class, while the A4 looks a lot like the last one.

    And Lincoln finally gets a proper flagship with the new Continental, featuring imposing styling and lots of plush details.

    Two sports coupes generated of attention on the show floor. The Lexus LC 500 is a rakish and low-slung sports coupe, with styling that stayed true to its original concept and a 10-speed automatic. While still a concept, the Buick Avista also stood out.

    Check out all this and more in the latest episode of “Talking Cars with Consumer Reports.” And be sure to see our complete Detroit auto show coverage

    As with the other "Taking Cars," this episode is also available free through the iTunes Store. Subscribe to the video or audio. You'll also find the video on YouTube.

    Share your comments on this show below, and let us know if you need any advice for choosing a car.

    Past Episodes of "Talking Cars"

     

  • 2015 Automotive Year in Review, episode 84
  • Debating Two Thrilling Mercedes-Benz AMG Cars, episode 83
  • Honda Civic, Lexus RX, & Owner Satisfaction, episode 82
  • Pros and Cons of Tesla's Autopilot, episode 81
  • Car Reliability Trends, episode 80
  •  

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    You May Be Paying High Fees for an Index-Hugging Fund

    Consumer Reports often compares generic products and their higher-priced branded counterparts in the pharmacy and the grocery aisle. But recently, academics have made a similar comparison when it comes to financial products.

    Professors from four universities have published research that examines the relationship between index-based mutual funds—funds made up of investments that allow them to closely track an index, such as the Standard & Poor's 500 Index—and actively managed funds, which are run by managers who use their judgment and analytical skills to make investment decisions. For that service, actively managed stock funds have expense ratios that average nearly 1 percent annually making them more expensive than index funds.

    In their research, the academics found that there were a number of funds that were being sold as actively managed—and charging higher fees—when in fact they were far more similar in their makeup to index funds. Such funds are colloquially known as "closet indexers" or “index huggers.”  If you have money invested in one of these, you are paying retail prices for generic performance. 

    Regulators in Europe have recently turned their attention toward index hugger funds, where fund selection is much more limited than in the U.S. In some countries, these funds hold as much as half of the assets available to its nation's investors.

    In the U.S, where investors have more choice, the index hugger isn't as insidious a problem. Even so, investors are not immune from the problem. A recent study focusing on "tax-managed" stock funds, for example, concluded that those funds seem to follow simple index-tracking strategies, while charging investors higher fees. Nor did they appreciably save on taxes compared to index funds, which are naturally tax efficient (most index funds only buy and sell when there's a change in the underlying index).

    How to Test for Index Hugging

    Regulators in the U.S. don’t police against the activity, so here the onus is on you to do your homework to see if you have an index hugger in your portfolio. When considering a fund as an investment, look at the R-squared, which shows how much of a fund's performance is explained by it's similarity to an index. For an index fund, like the Vanguard 500 index fund, the R-squared score is 1.00, or perfect. The closer the score is to 1.00, the more of an "index hugger" it is. Although there's no definitive R-squared score that makes a fund a closet indexer, anything above 0.90 should raise eyebrows and lead you to consider switching to an index fund instead of paying the fees.

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    The Secrets to Buying a Great Gas Grill

    Now that the holiday decorations are out of stores you’ll start to see gas grills in their place—just in time for the Super Bowl. Consumer Reports has tested dozens of gas grills, and we’re getting ready to test new models for prime grilling season. Our secret shoppers buy them in stores and online, and then return to our labs with shopping advice.

    The shoppers are secret because nothing they do or say gives any hint that they work for Consumer Reports—we want to make sure they receive the same products as you do. Our shoppers pay close attention to details, not missing a thing. Here’s what our man of mystery has to say about his recent experience shopping for gas grills.

    How’s your back? You may have to carry the boxed grill out of the store and load it into your car, so bring a friend.

    Check all the parts. Do this before you start to assemble the grill, or you might wind up assembling it twice once you discover an important part is missing. 

    Or pay to have it assembled. It will save you time and frustration, and you avoid the surprise of missing or broken parts. And keep in mind that some cheaper grills have even more parts that you'll need to put together. Whatever you choose, the assembled grill has to fit in your car unless you can have it delivered.

    Scout end-of-season sales. You can save by buying a gas grill after Labor Day; our shopper saw deals of 25 percent off at big box stores on Columbus Day weekend. But when you buy a grill late in the season, you may have to buy it unassembled—same with early in the season. The assembly staff may be seasonal subcontractors who do not work the fringe seasons.

    Buyer beware. When ordering a gas grill that will be shipped to you, know that you may get a damaged grill that can be difficult to return—you might have to repack it too. In our most recent tests, a manufacturer sent our shopper replacement parts for those that arrived damaged.  

    Shopping for a grill? Then see our gas grill Ratings and filter grills by brand, size, and price. Click the Features & Specs tab to compare, and use the buying guide to help you decide. Any questions? Email me at kjaneway@consumer.org.

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    3 Common Misconceptions and 1 Important Truth About Privacy Policies

    It’s right there, somewhere. Buried deep in a menu under “legal” in an app, or lurking somewhere in the footer of a website that never seems to stop adding content while you scroll. Each of us encounters dozens of them every day and yet most of us never give any thought to them. It is, of course, the privacy policy.

    There is an implicit promise apparent in the phrase “privacy policy,” an indication that a business is going to respect your privacy—or, at the very least, that you have some privacy. It’s right there in the name, so “privacy” must be involved somewhere, right? Somehow?

    The policies are definitely about privacy, yes, so it is involved . . . it’s just not actually guaranteed.

    Nearly every website, service, app, and online business has a privacy policy. Sometimes it’s right there, linked from a homepage. Sometimes it’s a few paragraphs buried thousands of words into a user agreement you’ll likely never read.

    In spite of their prevalence, most of us don’t know what these policies say, do, or are—and misconceptions abound.

    This is our attempt to clear up some of those myths, like . . .

    Myth #1: Federal Law Requires All Online Businesses to Have a Privacy Policy


    Reality: False

    There is no global right to privacy, online or off, under U.S. law (other nations’ laws vary), nor is there a universal legal requirement that privacy policies be written or posted.

    You can feel the “but” coming though, right?

    Yes, there’s a but: there are several specific industries and types of data that, under federal law, do require a certain kind of handling or disclosure, as well as some relevant state laws—and that patchwork quilt of laws and regulations is pretty widespread.

    Health care providers, for example, are covered by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). However, not all entities that might hold sensitive health data are covered by or required to adhere to the HIPAA rules, which is becoming a problem as the world of personalized and wearable health tech expands.

    Another type of highly-protected data involves your money. There are two important laws out there dealing with businesses that handle consumers’ financial info, and the privacy parts of both are enforced by the Federal Trade Commission.

    One is the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA), which was first passed in 1970 and has been updated and amended a few times in the 45 years since. The other is the 1999 Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, which changed a number of banking rules.

    These are two complicated pieces of legislation, but businesses that have data about your money are often covered under one or the other. The FCRA generally applies to consumer reporting agencies, and the the GLBA covers any business that’s “significantly engaged” with financial activity—a larger pool of businesses than you might think.

    The FTC has guides explaining which businesses need to adhere to the FCRA or to Gramm-Leach-Bliley, but both are full of lots of conditional statements and very important details.

    In short, these are the rules that cover your banking transactions, your Social Security number, your credit history, and even information that relates to your “character, reputation, or personal characteristics,” depending on who is gathering it and what it’s being used for.

    There are also other, narrower laws and regulations applying to even more niches of data. Cable and telecoms’ uses of consumer data are regulated by the Cable Act and Telecommunications Act, for example, and enforced by the FCC.

    Federal government sites and services have their own regulations and disclosure rules. And then there’s a whole separate world of privacy, COPPA, that applies to the data of children under age 13.

    Beyond all that, though, there is also one state-level law that has had a large impact. California passed its Online Privacy Protection Act in 2003, and that law requires anyone who operates a website that California residents can access or use to “conspicuously post its privacy policy.”

    Because of the way the Internet works, the list of websites accessible to California residents is functionally the same as a list of all websites, and so in a sense that California law has become a de facto national policy.

    Myth #2: Privacy Policies Guarantee That My Data Will Be Kept Private

    Reality: False

    A privacy policy is a document disclosing what information a business gathers and what they do with it, not a guarantee that your data will be treated with any particular sensitivity or regard.

    In a general sense, most privacy policies are telling you three things:

    1. What data is this business collecting about you and your actions?
    2. How and why (for what uses) does the company collect that data?
    3. With whom, and under what circumstances, does the company share that data?

    For most online businesses, those disclosures are going to be about how they collect, use, and share your interactions with them—things like your web browsing and purchase histories—with third-party data brokers and marketers who can use this info to try to sell you more stuff.

    They may also include descriptions of which sharing you can or can’t opt out of, and explanations of how to do that.

    This is easier to understand with examples.

    Take Bank of America’s consumer privacy notice. As a bank, they’re limited under the laws we just discussed. Even so, though, the bank is quite clear that it will share whatever data it can share with third-party marketers. And BofA tells you quite clearly which kind of marketing you can or cannot opt out of.

    Most policies, though, strive to be at once both accurate and vague. Take Kohl’s, for example, a brick and mortar retailer with a sizable online presence. And, like many other retailers who exist in both the on- and offline spheres, Kohl’s has a privacy policy that tries to cover all the bases.

    Under “types of information we collect,” Kohl’s says:

    “Information from other sources” is a broad category that covers Kohl’s in the physical and virtual worlds.

    Likewise, under the heading “how we share this information,” Kohl’s says it shares with “companies that provide support services to us and our business partners.” That category of “support services” and “business partners” is also very broad, and could effectively encompass any company that does business with Kohl’s.

    As for that language . . .

    Myth #3: Privacy Policies Always Have to Be in Incomprehensible Legalese


    Reality: False

    Granted, many privacy policies are so positively impenetrable that you could go cross-eyed in about ten seconds flat trying to parse them, but they don’t necessarily have to be.

    In fact, there has been a consumer-friendly trend over the past few years of trying to make privacy policies almost comprehensible to the casual reader. This trend toward readability has picked up so much steam that even The Wall Street Journal has noticed it. (Consumer Reports is working to improve the readability of its own privacy policies.)

    Perhaps surprisingly, Facebook is one of the exemplars in this move toward increased coherence. While the company might have its fingers in basically every aspect of the online world, its privacy policy is (now) clear and explicitabout what data the site collects and how it is used.

    The layout, too, is meant to be readable, using plain English headers, white space, and color-coding to make sure that you don’t completely glaze over between learning that data includes not only things you do but things everyone else you know does, and learning the long list of entities it can be shared with.

    Crowdfunding platform Kickstarter likewise has a plain-English policy, as do Pinterest and Spotify. But there’s a reason that even the policies that try hard to be accessible still use very, very carefully crafted, lawyer-friendly language. It’s because . . .

    Myth #4: A Business Must Adhere to the Terms of Its Posted Privacy Policy, Whatever It Says


    Reality: True

    This last part is where companies get in trouble: if you say you’re going to do a thing, you are beholden to that thing.

    Regardless of whether you are required under any specific law to protect any data in a certain way or post a privacy policy, if you do post one, you must adhere to it.

    It’s the FTC’s job to protect consumers from false, misleading, or deceptive advertising or promises, and failing to adhere to your statements about privacy counts.

    For example, if you happen to be an app that promises that content vanishes into the ether 10 seconds after someone views it, you actually need to make sure that content is not accessible (and stealable) more than ten seconds after someone views it.

    That’s what got Snapchat in trouble with the FTC back in 2014: the company made claims about privacy that the feds found were just not true. Messages did not, as claimed, vanish completely after being viewed. Users did not, as claimed, always receive a notice when someone permanently saved their content. And users were not, as claimed, connected only to their friends but sometimes, accidentally, to complete strangers.

    In a statement at the time of the settlement, FTC chair Edith Ramirez made the agency’s position clear: “If a company markets privacy and security as key selling points in pitching its service to consumers, it is critical that it keep those promises.” She added, “Any company that makes misrepresentations to consumers about its privacy and security practices risks FTC action.”

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    Lab Report: Wi-Fi Cameras Can Be Knocked off Your Network

    Background: How Home Security Cameras Work

    They’re growing in popularity: Small video cameras that can sit anywhere in your home or business and let you keep an eye on things anywhere you have an Internet connection. CR has reported on a few models that work through their own mobile apps.

    There are also video baby monitors that work within the home Wi-Fi network, sending video to either an app or to a dedicated monitor. These are the modern equivalent of CCTV (closed circuit TV) cameras. However, since many new cameras are on a wireless network connection, they aren’t “closed” any longer.

    Potential Security Threat

    And therein lies the problem: We discovered that, just like in a Mission Impossible movie, it’s easy for an attacker with a laptop to disable your security cameras from outside your house, as long as they work through Wi-Fi.

    A hacker within range of your router—and that distance can extend for hundreds of feet, especially if he or she adds a special antenna—determines the name of your Wi-Fi network, the unique address of your router, and the Internet address of your camera, using free software tools available to anyone.

    Then, the hacker can send the camera a “deauthorization (deauth) packet” that temporarily disconnects it from your network. If they keep sending the packets, they can prevent it from reconnecting. The hacker doesn't need to be on the Wi-Fi network itself.

    What We Did

    We downloaded a free hacking tool (we’ve decided not to name it) that has a number of functions, including the ability to send deauth packets. We installed it on a Microsoft Surface Pro tablet running Linux, the operating system of choice for hackers. We used an external wireless card attached to the tablet’s USB port that was able to transmit Wi-Fi packets to anyone’s network.

    In our tests, it was a simple matter to send a deauth packet that would knock any Wi-Fi device, including the cameras we tried, off their network temporarily. If we wanted them to stay disconnected, we just chose an option in the tool that would repeatedly send the deauth packet.

    We were even able to get one camera to reconnect to a “rogue” router we set up, which could have allowed us to take control of it once we guessed the camera’s password. 

    Conclusion and Recommendations

    While the jury may be out on whether any given camera is truly hackable—meaning that the perpetrator can actually view its image remotely—we think the vulnerability of Wi-Fi cameras to being knocked offline makes them questionable for critical tasks, such as property surveillance and keeping a watch on kids and pets.

    For those tasks, you’re better off using a camera that allows a wired Ethernet connection to your router. Unless a hacker actually logs into your network (you DO have a strong Wi-Fi password, right?), a wired camera is pretty secure.

    In the wider world of the Internet of Things, there may be no practical solution to the problem of “denial of service” attacks of this sort, which can knock any Wi-Fi device off the network, including motion detectors, sensors that report when a door is opened, and other security devices.

    We'd like future Wi-Fi standards to use “frequency-hopping,” in which the signal is rapidly switched among frequency channels. This is already employed by cordless phones, and it would make it much harder for a hacker to jam your Wi-Fi.
     

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    Turn a Bad Air Day Into a Clean Air Day

    Many of the things we do to keep energy costs down in winter, such as fixing drafty doors and leaky windows, can also seal in pesky pollutants and irritants. To keep the air clean, use the exhaust fans in your kitchen and bathroom and vacuum frequently, especially if you have pets. And ditch the scented candles. If that doesn't do the trick, you may want to consider an air purifier.

    Consumer Reports tested dozens of portable air purifiers and whole-house air filters that use high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) or similar filters to clean the air. If you have a forced-air furnace, it may simply need a filter upgrade. The best filters are designed to capture pollen, dust, or smoke particles; regular furnace filters don’t do that. If you don’t have a forced-air system, check out our top portable room air purifiers. But skip electrostatic air purifiers, which can produce small amounts of ozone, a respiratory irritant, and ozone generators, which emit higher levels of ozone. Here are some affordable air cleaners to consider.

    Portable Honeywell HPA300, $250
    Why we like it. This Honeywell is our top pick because it combines excellent smoke and dust filtering with handy features, including four speeds and a programmable timer. It tells you when it’s time to change the filter. And unlike most models, it was relatively quiet at its highest speed.
    But consider. The annual cost for filters isn’t cheap and will surpass the cost of the machine within 16 months.

    Portable Whirlpool Whispure AP51030K, $300
    Why we like it. The Whirlpool cleaned as well as the Honeywell at its lowest speed and offers similar features but is slightly smaller. It also was relatively quiet.
    But consider. Annual costs for its filters are even higher than the Honeywell.

    Whole-house Filtrete Healthy Living Ultimate Allergen Reduction 1900 MPR, $20
    Why we like it. This furnace filter only involves a simple swap with your current one. It was especially effective at removing dust from the air with little noticeable restriction of the furnace’s airflow.
    But consider. It was only so-so at removing smoke.

    Can a HEPA Vacuum Do the Job?

    HEPA filters, which provide the highest level of vacuum-cleaner filtration, can benefit someone with asthma. And in our vacuum cleaner tests, models with a HEPA filter have been very effective at reducing emissions. Some models that don't have HEPA filters, however, have performed just as well, and such vacuums typically cost less than HEPA models.

    If you’re concerned about a vacuum’s emissions, buying one with a HEPA (high-efficiency particulate air) fi‰lter is a good choice. But you can find other worthy models in our vacuum cleaner tests that scored well for low emissions. Two bagged canister models that fit the bill are:

    Kenmore Elite 21814, $500
    Why we like it. Fine cleaning and pet-hair pickup helped make this bagged canister a top pick. Carpet cleaning and airflow for tools are both impressive, while pickup on bare floors was superb. Other pluses include manual carpet pile-height adjustment, suction control for drapes, a brush on/off switch for bare floors, and a retractable cord. Among canister brands, Kenmore has consistently been among the top performers.

    Panasonic MCCG937, $330
    Why we like it. Panasonic's bagged canister had impressive cleaning across the board, making it one of our top picks. Panasonic is also among the more reliable brands of upright vacuums. This model had ample airflow for tools and did equally well at picking up pet hair. Helpful features include a brush on/off switch for bare floors, suction control for delicate items like drapes, easy on/off, manual carpet pile-height adjustment, and the expected retractable cord.

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    Best Cars of the 2016 Detroit Auto Show

    Detroit kicked off the new year with a bang, unveiling dozens of new, updated, and concept cars at the massive North American International Auto Show (NAIAS). Consumer Reports was on site for the initial reveals, ahead of the public days, to get an early look at the fresh sheet metal.

    Cutting through the hype and hoopla, our experts have narrowed the field down to the select few models that stood as the most significant. The ones car shoppers and enthusiasts want to take note of. We present here, the best cars of the 2016 Detroit auto show.

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    Most Cable Subscribers Would Dump ESPN to Save $8 a Month

    Pay TV bundles that force you to pay for channels and shows you never watch has long been one reason people say they hate their cable companies. Now a new survey says that more than half of us would give up ESPN—the single biggest programming cost on your bill—if they could save $8 on their bill every month.

    In a blog post on its website, BTIG Research cited a recent survey by Civic Science, which polled 1,582 consumers, 87 percent of whom currently subscribe to a multichannel pay TV service.  

    What the survey found was that 56 percent of them would give up ESPN/ESPN2 if they could shave $8 off their bill every month. A larger number of female respondent—60 percent—than males—49 percent—were willing to trim ESPN to save money.

    It's long been speculated that it would cost as much as $30 a month to get ESPN by itself if it became untethered from a pay TV bundle. In what is surely a bad sign for the company and its parent Disney—which reported last summer that the sports network had lost about 7 million subscribers over the last two years—only 6 percent of the respondents said they'd pay $20 a month for ESPN as a standalone channel. (About 85 percent of the respondents said they wouldn't pay, while 9 percent said they weren't sure.) Based the estimates that we've seen, we think the monthly cost of a standalone ESPN service would be $30 or more to compensate for the lower number of subscribers.

    Last year, a few new TV services, including Sling TV and Verizon's Custom TV, offered ESPN as part of slimmed-down packages. But it was still part of what is essentially a programming bundle combined with other channels, not an a la carte service.

    If you're a pay TV subscriber who has been paying for, but not watching, ESPN, then BTIG analyst Richard Greenfield probably summed up your feelings in this comment about the survey in his blog post:

    "Simply put, ESPN has been the largest beneficiary of the 'Big' cable bundle for decades and is now dramatically overearning, with consumers the biggest losers."

    If you're a pay TV customer, let us know in the comments section below if you'd be willing to give up ESPN/ESPN2 to save $8 each month on your cable bill.

     

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    Before You Renovate Your Kitchen, Review Your Plan in Virtual Reality

    If you want to know what the future of virtual reality looks like, let me tell you.

    It’s a red kitchen.

    Not a very cool kitchen, either. It has two small windows and four meager cabinets. The gleaming white countertop on the center island overwhelms the space. Mostly, though, I hate the color of the room. It’s too dark. Too formal. Makes me feel like I should don a sport coat before I have my morning oatmeal.

    But, hey, no big deal. It will only take a few moments to fix.

    That’s because I’m not seated in a real kitchen, but rather a virtual reality kitchen—one designed with software created by a company called Marxent.

    By gazing into an Oculus Rift headset, I can survey the whole room, right down to the faucets, the light fixtures, the floor tiles, the art on the walls, and the red KitchenAid mixer in the foreground. All were assembled to precise scale using a renovation app developed for Lowe’s, the home-improvement retailer.

    Given all the attention lavished on VR gaming, it’s easy to overlook the technology's likely impact on the everyday consumer. In the years ahead, you may well try on wedding dresses via a virtual reality headset. Visit reception halls, too. Or tour 10 for-sale homes in a single afternoon—without ever leaving your sofa.

    Lowe's new Holoroom program lets you download an app to a tablet, quickly create a grid mirroring the layout for a kitchen or bathroom in your home, and then renovate that room with hundreds (if not thousands) of items from Lowe’s inventory.

    Choose a sink cabinet and slide it along the wall until it's right where you want it. Now swap in a few faucets and Formica samples. Add a refrigerator, dishwasher, windows, floor tiles, light fixtures, cabinets, etc. Those products have all been laser scanned and uploaded to the app so they look much like the real thing.

    Once you've got everything the way you want it, you upload your design to the cloud, then drive to a store to review it on a virtual reality headset. At the moment, those headsets are available at six Lowe's locations—three in Ohio and three in Colorado—but the retailer plans to expand the program in the next few months.

    Inside the store, a Lowe's associate will seat you in the Holoroom booth, help you put on the headset, and get your impressions as you survey your work. If you look down in dismay at an overly busy floor pattern, he or she can replace it with a new one, using a monitor that reflects what you see.

    After you've made those last few tweaks, you return home with a free Google Cardboard headset—just in case you want to run the design by your family and friends.

    The very idea that I can create the kitchen I want with so little effort really appeals to me. And the fact that I can then see before my eyes a three-dimensional representation of that kitchen is even better. Marxent has designed similar apps for Toyota and TimberTech, which means that customizing cars (at least to some extent) and outdoor decks may be just as simple.

    Imagine, if you will, checking out the view from Machu Picchu before you book a flight to Peru. In fact, who says you have to limit yourself to dry land? I recently took a virtual reality scuba dive. Explored an underground cave, as well.

    That’s not to say those experiences measured up to the real thing. In truth, the scenes in my headset looked a lot like the ones you’d find in a video game. Then again, it's way too early to disparage the picture quality, especially given the new camera tech unveiled at CES 2016, the huge technology trade show held last week in Las Vegas. (Who knows what VR content might look like in another year or two?) Plus, in the end, the images I viewed did reveal things I hadn’t expected.

    When the red on the kitchen walls in the Lowe's app reflected off the stainless steel sink, for example, it gave the room a pinkish hue. And, while the light fixtures on the ceiling looked nice, they lacked the oomph to brighten up the space. Strangest of all, I now have the urge to go spelunking.

    But because the Lowe's experience also provided me with a pretty solid estimate of the material costs for my renovation, I knew where my money was going and what sort of adjustments I could afford to make. When I discovered the horror of those red walls, I simply selected another color from the Sherwin-Williams catalogue—something more like peach—and voila! Problem solved.

    Tools like those are useful enough to offset any reservations I have about sharing my design wish-list with a retailer. And they make virtual reality seem less like a novelty, and more like, well, the future.

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

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    Yes, You Can Avoid Those Bank Fees

    Last year, U.S. banks and credit unions collected $42 billion in account fees. But you don't have to be one of the ones contributing to that pot.

    Sure, your bank will waive the monthly checking account service fee if you keep $1,000, $2,500, or more on deposit. But that means you have to have a large chunk of money sitting idle. And in any event, other fees can sneak up on you and take back your savings. 

    Instead, use these five, mostly painless ways to avoid monthly checking account service charges and ATM fees. Then see our companion report, How to Avoid Bank Overdraft Fees, to dodge that infuriating penalty.

    Monthly Service Fee

    1. Get truly free checking. Genuine "free checking" doesn't come with any minimum balance requirement, it's free regardless of the size of your account balance. You're more likely to find truly free checking at a credit union, 80 percent of which offer it, according to Moebs Services, a bank research firm in Lake Forest, Ill. Credit unions also rated highly on satisfaction in our banking survey of Consumer Reports subscribers.

    Eighty-four percent of smaller community banks also offer free checking, according to the Independent Community Bankers of American trade association. We also found that primarily online banks like USAA Bank, Discover Bank, and Ally tend to offer free checking. Switching can be a hassle, but that can be minimized by following our step-by-step advice on how to fire your bank

    2. Sign up for direct deposit. Maybe your bank doesn't offer real free checking, but its branches are convenient and you like it anyway. No problem. Many banks will waive the monthly service fee if you agree to have your paycheck directly deposited electronically into your account each pay period. A minimum $500 monthly direct deposit to Chase Total Checking, for example, will waive the $12 monthly fee. 

    3. Look for a fee waiver for debit card us. Wells Fargo will waive its $10 monthly fee for its Everyday Checking if you use the account's debit card to make at least 10 purchases per month. Not all banks offer this deal, so ask.

    ATM Fees

    While you're enjoying free checking, don't forget that you can also rack up costs on careless out-of-network ATM withdrawals, which can result in double-whammy charges by the bank or vendor that owns the ATM, as well as surcharges by your own bank.

    4. Use the fee-free ATM networks. Banks don't charge you for using their own automated teller machines, so be sure to seek out that freebie if you're with a big bank that has hundreds or thousands of branches and ATMs. Many smaller banks or credit unions are members of regional or national fee-free ATM networks, such as CO-OP and Allpoint, which offer 30,000 and 55,000 ATMs, respectively. Find locations using your bank's or network's mobile app. 

    5. Take the free cash-back option at retailers. In many cases, you can avoid the need for an ATM altogether by exercising your cash-back option when you pay for purchases using your debit card at supermarkets, drugstore chains, and other retailers. Typically, there is no fee for this.

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

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