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    Volvo Ups the Value Quotient on the XC90 SUV

    The redesigned 2016 Volvo XC90 SUV has made a lot of news this year, accumulating awards and accolades. It earned good marks from Consumer Reports, with a competitive overall road test score thanks to a roomy interior, quiet cabin, great fit and finish and secure handling. We weren’t overly enamored with the stiff ride and unintuitive touch screen, however. (Recommendation is pending reliability experiences from owners.)

    In the three-row luxury SUV segment, the XC90 is positioned above the Acura MDX and below the German competitors from Audi and BMW. Our XC90 T6 listed for $56,805. Now Volvo has introduced a less expensive, less powerful, two-row version called T5, starting at $43,950.

    The new, lower priced trim level comes with a less powerful version of the 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine. The turbocharged engine produces 250 horsepower, as opposed to the T6 we tested which is both turbocharged and supercharged. It produces 316 hp. Typically equipped, the T5 will hover around $50,000.

    The T5 also sees a slight improvement to the gas mileage compared to its more powerful sibling. EPA estimates are 23 mpg overall as opposed to the T6’s 22 mpg, when equipped with AWD. The T6 yielded 20 mpg overall in our tests.

    Clearly, Volvo is making an effort to attract buyers who would never think of having a prestige-branded SUV in their garage. Part of that effort is a T5 Intro Package which, for $1,800, adds blind-spot protection, cross-traffic alert, and Volvo’s LED headlights—with high beams that are some of the best and brightest in our testing. These premium features are usually only offered in more expensive packages.

    Even by adding the $1,800 Convenience Package on top in order to get more safety features like adaptive cruise control, lane keeping, and parking assist, will still keep total pricing well below its direct competition.

    With the XC90’s T5 price, it brings the XC90 SUV closer to the brand’s smaller and older XC60. That might mean that XC60 prices are heading down, if not officially, at least in reality.  

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

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    Stop-Sale Issued for Mazda CX-5 SUV

    Mazda has issued a stop-sale action for its CX-5, due to concerns for fire risks. The directive for dealerships to hold off selling this fuel-efficient SUV precedes an expected recall on 2014-2016 CX-5s.

    The company advises that, in a rear collision, the fuel filler pipe could rupture, causing a potential leak. Mazda states that approximately 264,463 vehicles are affected in the U.S. No accidents or injuries have been associated with this problem.

    Until the recall fix is available, dealers will offer a free loaner, demo, or rental vehicle to owners who are concerned about the risk.

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

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    Public Service Could Help Erase Your Student Loan Debt

    If you're fearful of joining the 40 million college graduates struggling to repay their U.S. student loan debt, here's a way to reduce the burden.  

    Consider a job in public service.

    Over the years, lawmakers, colleges, and government employers have created potentially valuable loan relief programs for graduates who seek public service employment and often forgo a high-paying career. In some cases, borrowers can maximize the assistance available by combining overlapping benefits from two or three separate assistance programs.

    Unfortunately, many public service workers are unaware of this financial aid option. Since the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program began in 2007, the U.S. Education Department says just over 308,000 borrowers have started working toward meeting the requirements for public service loan forgiveness. But a 2015 report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office says there are 4 million borrowers who may be eligible.

    If this sounds like an option for you, the earlier you start thinking about these plans the better. "It's worth making sure you're accessing all of your options to reduce your education debt, especially if you’re going into public service, which benefits all of us," says Suzanne Martindale, a staff attorney at Consumers Union, the policy and advocacy arm of Consumer Reports.

    Here's what you need to do.

    Choose Your Loans Carefully

    To be eligible for the federal Public Service Loan Forgiveness program you must borrow using a federal direct loan that originates with the Education Department. Since 2010, all federal education loans are now direct loans. Older Federal Family Education Loans and Perkins loans qualify too, but only if they're first converted into a Federal Direct Consolidation Loan. Private loans don't qualify. 

    Look for Public Service Jobs

    While in high school or college, set your sights on jobs where you can be employed full-time by a federal, state, or local government agency, a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt nonprofit or a not-for-profit provider of public services. That could mean looking for positions in health care, education, social assistance, and the arts.
    Not all public service qualifies, however. Congress' definition of public service work excludes time spent on religious instruction, worship services, or any form of proselytizing; employment at a labor union; or work for a partisan political organization.

    Closely Examine Repayment Plans

    A requirement of student loan debt forgiveness is that you make 120 qualifying monthly payments under a qualifying repayment plan. But do the math to see which kind of loan makes sense. If the term of your loan is the typical 10 years (120 months), your student loan debt will have been repaid in full by the end of your 10-year commitment. At that point, there will be no outstanding balance to forgive.

    An income-driven repayment plan, such as the new, federal Revised Pay As You Earn (REPAYE) plan, may be better. With this plan, your monthly payments will be limited to 10 percent of your discretionary income and payments will be spread over 20 or 25 years, so the monthly payments will be lower than in a 10-year plan.

    If you also work in public service, you get the advantage of the lower monthly payments and the balance will be forgiven after 10 years.  

    Find a School That Offers LRAPs

    People engaged in public service work can often get funds to help make their monthly student loan payments through little-known loan repayment assistance programs (LRAPs), provided by a growing number of colleges and universities.

    LRAPs were created for students attending law schools in the late 1980s to encourage graduates to do low-paying public service legal work. Yale Law School's Career Options Assistance Program pays up to 85 percent of your loan, depending on your income.

    Some 70 small, private and faith-based colleges also offer LRAPs as a recruitment tool through partnerships with the LRAP Association. It's a benefit for students who may have a low income after graduating because they choose jobs in public service or, say, in the ministry.

    These LRAPs typically pay 100 percent of the monthly loan payment if the graduate's employment income is below $20,000 a year. The benefits phase out above that threshold to an upper limit of $40,000.

    Find an Employer That Offers LRAPs

    Another option: Many employers offer LRAPs to attract and retain new employees. Those provided by government and non-profit employers help reduce the out-of-pocket cost of your payments and subsidize your 10-year journey toward forgiveness of any remaining balance.

    The amount of assistance varies depending on the employer. Each branch of the U.S. military, for instance, is authorized to offer active-duty, enlisted service members a total of up to $65,000 in federal student loan payments. Federal agencies may offer eligible employees up to $10,000 a year in student loan repayment assistance.

    Private employers are also beginning to offer repayment assitance, partly to help employees burdened by student loans save for retirement. In January, Natixis, a large international asset management firm, began offering its employees student loan repayment assistance worth up to $10,000, payable over 10 years if they remain employed with the company. 

    "People who are not able to start their retirement savings early can never make up those lost years," says Tracey Flaherty, Natixis senior vice president of retirement strategies. Millennials who start off their careers with $30,000 in student loan debt, for example, may end up with $325,000 less in retirement savings than if they had no debt, according to a recent study by LIMRA, an association of more than 850 financial services companies.

    What should you look for in a good assistance program? Mark Kantrowitz, publisher and vice president of Cappex, a website that connects students with colleges and scholarships, says the best programs pay more of your student loan debt over a longer time, with the fewest restrictions. 

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

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  • 02/02/16--03:00: Pressure Washer Safety Alert
  • Pressure Washer Safety Alert

    A garden hose, soap, and elbow grease can take care of many a cleanup job—if you want to spend all day on it. But if you have better things to do, a pressure washer speeds up all sorts of onerous tasks, from scrubbing grime and mildew from siding and getting oil stains off a driveway to cleaning a deck or patio, sprucing up outdoor furniture, degreasing a grill, and even washing a car.

    Pressure washers use either a gas engine or an electric motor, a pump, and a concentrating nozzle to boost water pressure from your hose connection by 30 to 80 times. Though a garden hose alone delivers water pressure at about 50 pounds per square inch, pressure washers can generate 1,500 to 4,000 psi. That’s a lot of power. And when operated properly, they blast away stains without damaging the surface material beneath.

    But despite the benefits, they can cause serious injury—and few consumers may appreciate just how serious. A pressure washer’s powerful spray is hazardous when misdirected, strong enough to damage skin in an instant. Lacerations are the most common injury, followed by bruises, punctures, and eye injuries.

    Lee Krause of Alberta, Canada, was using his gas-powered pressure washer to clean his ATV when the spray passed over his hand for an instant. He didn’t go to a hospital, but six years later there’s a scar to remind him to keep his guard up. He was one of the lucky ones.

    “The extreme danger with pressure washers is that even with what seems a very minimal skin break, the fluid can get deep into the tissue and spread out and cause bacterial infection,” says Howard Mell, M.D., a spokesman for the American College of Emergency Physicians. He recalls a patient who was hit in the calf, producing a laceration less than 2 inches across. But internally, there was infection to the muscle. It took a long operation and months of physical therapy for the patient to heal.

    Pressure washers are sold with either a set of interchangeable nozzles or an adjustable wand tip, both of which usually allow users to vary the flow of water from zero degrees, the finest, to about 65 degrees depending on the task. (See our guide to nozzles and settings, below.) They’re inherently dangerous no matter which spray tip or setting you’re using. But the unnecessary risk of using a zero-degree nozzle—which concentrates the tool’s full pressure into a single, pinpoint blast—outweighs the utility because the spray can cause severe damage in a short amount of time. And higher-degree nozzles can get the job done.

    Rental World in Lancaster, Pa., won’t include zero-degree nozzles when it rents pressure washers. “We warn customers that they’re dangerous even with wider-degree nozzles,” explains Vern Dettinger, the store’s manager.

    The Pressure Washer Manufacturers’ Association notes that a pressure washer’s manual and markings on the products themselves describe safe use, and it stands by the utility of zero-degree nozzles.

    “The zero-degree nozzle in this case may be used to extend the reach of the water and thus eliminate the need of a ladder,” the trade group said in a statement. “In addition, it may also be used for etching or removing extremely stubborn debris prior to washing or rinsing using 15-degree or larger-angle nozzles.”

    Our Recommendation

    An estimated 6,057 people in 2014 alone went to an emergency room with injuries related to pressure washer use, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission. And 14 percent of those ER visits led to additional hospitalization. (Not all of the injuries could be attributed to contact with a powerful spray.)

    The same kind of cleaning can be done with wider-angle settings; it just might take a bit longer. And many pressure washers let you connect wand extensions to reach higher surfaces without resorting to a zero-degree nozzle.

    Based on the potential extreme risk of very narrow nozzles and their limited benefit, we no longer recommend pressure washers that come with nozzles that produce sprays of less than 15 degrees, despite how well they clean.

    We have confined our pressure washer recommendations to two products that scored sufficiently well and lack the capability, as sold, to create a zero-degree stream. They are the GreenWorks GPW1951, $190 (a 1,950 psi 120-volt electric-powered washer), and the NorthStar 1573021, $850 (a 3,000 psi 240-volt electric). We tested the NorthStar to see whether you can get the performance of a gas machine with an electric model. You can, but only if you’re willing to pay a premium for the tool and for installing a 240-volt line for it. So it’s likely to be of niche appeal.

    If you buy a model that comes with a zero-degree nozzle (it’s red) or you already own one, we advise that you get rid of it to reduce the chance of damaging property or causing injury to you, your family members, or anyone else who might use the sprayer. And if your power washer comes with a zero-degree adjustable setting, we recommend that you not use it.

    In addition, wear goggles, long pants, and sturdy footwear—never flip-flops—to protect yourself while using any pressure washer.

    To ensure pressure washer safety, we’re asking manufacturers to stop including tips and settings that produce streams finer than 15 degrees. We have also notified the CPSC of our findings and our advice for consumers. If products that meet our performance criteria are updated to comply with our pressure washer safety expectations, we will add them to our list of picks.


    Color Coded

    0˚ (red)
    For removing tough stains and dirt from concrete, cleaning in crevices, and washing second-story siding. But at closer distances, it can cause serious injury. We don’t recommend its use because higher-degree nozzles can get the job done without the unnecessary risk.

    15˚ (yellow)
    For heavy-duty cleaning of concrete, such as outdoor walks and garage floors, plus stripping paint and grease from hard surfaces.

    25˚ (green)
    For general cleaning of outdoor furniture, patios, walks, and decks.

    40˚ (white)
    For more easily damaged surfaces, such as siding and stucco walls, and for cleaning vehicles.

    Low-pressure (black)
    For cleaning agents only. Attaching this tip reduces pressure, which triggers the pressure washer to draw from the soap dispenser as well as the water supply.  


    Before You Buy a Pressure Washer

    Pressure washers are easy to rent. You can get a gas-powered unit for about $75 to $100 for a day. But owning one—and being able to use it whenever you want—has become irresistible for many homeowners. (In fact, sales of pressure washers have grown 15 to 20 percent in the past four years.) So if you’re in the market, here’s some guidance:

    All models are sold with an indication of the machine’s pressure capacity, expressed in pounds per square inch, or psi. The higher the psi, the more powerful the tool. Many of them will also indicate the gallons per minute (gpm) used. Though that’s not a meaningful indication of power, it can show which sprayers can clean using less water.

    Gas models, which range in price from $250 to $500, deliver more pressure, making them the pick for cleaning large decks, siding, driveways, and other large areas most quickly. But they’re relatively noisy and heavy, and their engines require regular tuneups and proper off-season storage.

    Corded-electric sprayers, which cost $100 to $250, aren’t as powerful, so they might not be able to remove stubborn stains from concrete and will take more time to clean. But they’re fine for cleaning small decks and patios, furniture, and cars. They’re relatively light and quiet, require little upkeep, and are small enough to be stored indoors without winterizing. 

    Editor's Note: This article also appeared in the March 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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  • 02/02/16--09:10: 5 Best TVs of 2015
  • 5 Best TVs of 2015

    Naming the best TVs of any given year is a difficult but ultimately rewarding task, and this year is no exception. Our top picks for 2015 are especially notable for two reasons. One is that this is the first year that OLED TVs dominated our TV Ratings, which are available to subscribers. The other is that it's the first time that no plasma TVs make an appearance, since no TV manufacturer is still making them. This leads us to believe that OLED TVs will be the eventual successor to plasma sets as the top choice for those looking for the best picture quality available.

    But there's another important element to this year's TV Ratings that shouldn't be overlooked: Two TV brands, Samsung and Sony, managed to overcome the inherent shortcomings of LCD TV technology to produce sets that can stand toe-to-toe with the best OLED TVs you can buy.

    For example, the difference in overall score between LG's 65EF9500 OLED UHD set and Samsung's UN65JS9500 LED LCD TV was only a fraction of a point, though the difference would have been slightly larger if not for the Samsung set's superior sound, which affects a TV's overall score. Sony's XBR-65X930C wasn't far behind in terms of picture quality, and its built-in sound system blew us away.

    There was one other notable achievement: LG's 55-inch 55EG9100 OLED also made the top-5 list despite being a 1080p TV, the only regular HD set included. That's a convincing argument that extra resolution alone doesn't count for all that much when viewing a set this size from a normal viewing distance. However, the main reason this set had a higher overall score than the 55EG9550, a UHD OLED TV, was its better sound.

    Not that OLED TVs are perfect. On the five OLED TVs we tested, we saw some vertical bands across the screen, which varied in intensity. They weren't really visible on regular content. On darker scenes, however, we also noticed some visible darkening on the edges of the picture, almost like a vignette effect. The degree of these issues varied, depending on the set. You can find out more about both anomalies in our First Look review of the LG 55EG9600.

    You'll still pay a premium to get an OLED TV, especially when you compare them to flagship LED LCD TVs from the major brands— though OLED prices have come down significantly this year. Only LG is offering these sets, but we expect to see other companies enter the OLED TV market at the Consumer Electronics Show in January. That should help drive prices down.

    Enough preamble: Let's get to our top TV picks for 2015.

    LG 65EF9500

    The 65-inch LG 65EF9500 is our top-rated TV for 2015. Unlike some other models, this set has a flat, rather than curved, screen. The TV has excellent high-definition picture quality, with benchmark-setting black levels. It also has excellent UHD performance—with support for high dynamic range (HDR)—and very good 3D. Like all OLED TVs it has a virtually unlimited viewing angle, and it comes with LG's webOS 2.0 smart TV platform. Yes, at $5,000 the TV is comparatively pricey—but no longer outrageously so. We also recommend the 55-inch version of this set, which costs about $3,000.

    Samsung UN65JS9500

    The Samsung UN65JS9500, a pricey 65-inch flagship LED LCD UHD TV in Samsung's SUHD lineup, deserves kudos for giving LG's 65EF9500 a run for its money. It's the best LCD TV we tested this year, with excellent high-definition picture quality, excellent UHD performance, and even excellent sound. It also has very good 3D, a plus if you care for that feature. The TV, which uses quantum dots for extended colors, sports a curved screen, a full-array LED backlight with local dimming, and Samsung's Tizen smart TV platform. It is also able to display high dynamic range (HDR) content.

    LG 55EG9100

    Looking for a slightly smaller, less expensive OLED TV with a curved screen? Then the LG 55EG9100 may be the ticket. The only set on this list with 1080p, rather than 4K, resolution, it's nonetheless among the best TVs we tested this year, with excellent high-definition picture quality and a virtually unlimited viewing angle—and a price around $2000. Like all the OLED TVs we've tested, it has benchmark-setting black levels, and it comes with LG's webOS 2.0 smart TV platform.

    Sony Bravia XBR-65X930C

    A quick look at the 65-inch Sony Bravia XBR-65X930C set and you'll know you probably don't need a sound bar speaker. The oversized speakers flanking the panel have a decidedly love-it-or-leave it-look, but they deliver the best out-of-the-box sound we heard from a TV this year. (You can even add an external subwoofer if you need more sonic oomph.) Situated just below the company's flagship X940C series, this HDR-capable TV also delivers excellent high-definition picture quality and excellent UHD performance. And this year, Sony's step-up TVs embraced Google's Android TV smart TV platform.

    LG 55EG9600

    The 55-inch LG 55EG9600 OLED UHD, which has a curved screen, has excellent high-definition picture quality, very good UHD performance, and the benchmark-setting black levels we've come to expect from OLED TVs. Like the other LG OLEDs, it comes with LG's webOS 2.0 smart TV platform. We should note that the first set we bought had some of the most noticeable OLED issues mentioned above, but they were less obvious on the second TV we purchased. Even with these shortcomings, it was among the top TVs we tested in 2015.

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

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    How Likely Is Your Point-and-Shoot or SLR to Need a Camera Repair?

    Over the years, many brands have touted the reliability of their products. Remember those Timex ads? “It takes a licking and keeps on ticking.” Or Dodge trucks? “Ram Tough.” When it comes to cameras, though, it's hard to imagine that sort of durability.

    They have glass lenses, right? Computer components? Lots of moving parts? However, according to a 2015 Consumer Reports Reliability Survey, they're pretty hardy. Based on input from more than 34,000 subscribers, we learned that on average only 5 percent of point-and-shoot cameras required repairs or had serious problems during the first three years of use. For interchangeable-lens cameras (SLRs, mirrorless cameras, etc.), that number was not much higher: Most brands had an estimated failure rate of 7 to 8 percent.

    Due to differences in performance standards and frequency of use, it's impossible to do a straight-up comparison between product categories, but—with that in mind—we'll tell you that the estimated failure rates for laptops in our most recent survey hovered between 10 and 19 percent. And the spread was even greater for dishwashers—9 to 24 percent.

    In fact, since the failure rate for all digital camera brands ranged between 4 and 8 percent, we can't single out any one of them as the most or least reliable. (Differences of fewer than 5 percentage points are not meaningful.)

    For owners of point-and-shoot cameras, the most common part to fail was the power-up function (14 percent of the time). The autofocus, lens/lens mount, and zooming feature were also problematic (10 percent). For interchangeable lens cameras, the lens/lens mount and autofocus were the most common parts to break (16 percent).

    Is a digital camera worth repairing? Yes, you should at least look into that option. 

    Conducted by the Consumer Reports National Research Center, the 2015 Reliability Survey involved subscribers who bought digital cameras between 2010 and 2015. All told, those readers purchased 23,753 point-and-shoot models and 10,311 higher-end interchangeable-lens models. Our statistical model estimates failure rates for three-year-old digital cameras not covered by a service contract.

    Check out our exclusive information on the durability of specific brands and find out the best electronics stores.

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

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    How to Make Your Washer and Dryer Last

    How long do you expect your new washer and dryer to last? Readers debate this in the comments section of Consumer Reports’ online stories and, given that most machines come with a 1-year parts and labor warranty, we asked manufacturers for an answer. Here’s what they had to say.

    Every manufacturer stressed that to make your washer and dryer last proper installation of the machines is crucial, as is reading the manuals (especially noting what can’t be washed or needs special attention, such as waterproof items), following garment care labels, loading machines without stuffing them, and using the correct amount of detergent. HE detergent should always be used in HE top-loaders and front-loaders.

    For the dryer, you’ll need to remove lint after every load, and clean the vent periodically. The dryer vent should also be cleared before your new dryer is installed. Here's what else the manufacturers had to say about how to make their washers and dryers last.

    Kenmore

    Consumers can expect 10 to 13 years for washers and dryers, and this is not unique to Kenmore, says Chris Granger, vice president of Sears Home Services, which repairs nearly two million washers a year across brands. He adds that about 40 percent of those repairs do not require parts, and are tied to maintenance and learning how to properly use the machine.

    Of the 60 percent of repairs requiring parts, Granger says they do a variety of fixes, including water valves and electronic control boards, but no one part accounts for the majority of repairs. Control board issues they saw 15 years ago no longer exist and aren’t a top failure anymore, he adds. As for electronic touchscreens versus knobs, Granger says Sears Home Services hasn’t seen an increase in service rates even though there are more electronic machines.

    What you can do
    • Granger suggests that you improve dryer airflow with a straight rather than twisted vent, ideally metal, not plastic, and noted that the shorter the run the better.

    • Clean the moisture sensor with a little rubbing alcohol if you use dryer sheets. The fabric softener can coat the sensor with a film buildup making it harder for it to do its job and determine when clothes are dry.

    Kenmore couples to consider: Kenmore Elite 41072 front-loader and Kenmore Elite 81072 electric dryer, each $1,000. Kenmore 27132 HE top-loader and Kenmore 67132 electric dryer, each $700.  

    LG

    Expect LG machines to last 10 years, says Clara Chang, senior manager of LG public relations and communications.

    What you can do
    • Chang says to perform routine maintenance, such as running the washer’s tub-clean cycle.
    • Use a front-loader cleaning solution periodically.

    LG duos to consider: LG WM3570HVA front-loader and LG DLEX3570HVA electric dryer, $800 each. LG WM4270HWA front-loader and LG DLEX4270W electric dryer, $830 each.

    Samsung

    “We design all our products to strict standards expecting a minimum 10 years under normal consumer use conditions,” says Dean Brindle, director of laundry product marketing.

    Samsung sets to consider: Samsung WA52J8700AP HE top-loader and Samsung DV52J8700EP electric dryer, $1,000 each. Samsung WF56H9100AG front-loader and Samsung DV56H9100EG electric dryer. Washer is $1,200; dryer, $1,300.  

    Speed Queen

    “Our primary focus is with commercial laundry and the machines are designed for 10,400 cycles of average life. That’s about 10 years in commercial use and translates to 25 years for the average home doing eight loads per week,” says Jay McDonald, vice president North American Home Laundry Sales. Speed Queen offers a longer warranty—3 years on parts and labor for washers and dryers with mechanical controls, and 5 years for models with electronic controls.

    What you can do
    • McDonald says to run the washer with a full load as a small load is more prone to become unbalanced.

    Speed Queen pairs to consider: Speed Queen AFNE9BSP113TW01 front-loader and Speed Queen ADEE9BGS173TW01 electric dryer. Washer is $1,900; dryer, $1,039.

    Whirlpool and Maytag

    Washers and dryers are designed and life tested to last 10 years, and the actual life can vary depending on a customer’s usage habits, says Dick Conrad, senior director of top-loader laundry. 

    What you can do
    • Conrad suggests that you use HE detergent for all washer types.
    • Clean washers with Affresh cycle every 30 loads or once a month if washer has this cycle.
    • Replace washer inlet hoses every five years.

    Whirlpool and Maytag mates to consider: Maytag Bravos MVWB855DW HE top-loader and Maytag Bravos MEDB855DW electric dryer, $1,050 each. Whirlpool Cabrio WTW8500DW HE top-loader and Whirlpool Cabrio WED8500DW electric dryer, $1,000 each.

    Consumer Reports’ Brand Reliability Survey

    Speed Queen top-loaders, and front-loaders made by LG and Samsung are among the more reliable brands of washing machines. LG top-loaders, on the other hand, are among the more repair prone, as are front-loaders made by Frigidaire and GE.

    LG dryers are significantly more reliable than any other brand. Fisher & Paykel electric dryers are the most repair-prone brands of dryers analyzed. That’s what we found when we asked over 105,000 subscribers about their experience with a washing machine or dryer bought new between 2007 and the first half of 2014. Click the Brand Reliability tab in the washer and dryer Ratings for details and information on other brands, and email me at kjaneway@consumer.org if you have questions.

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

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    New Computers to Watch for in 2016

    If you’re hoping for a groundbreaking personal computing product in the year ahead, you may be disappointed. But that doesn’t mean you won’t see some thoughtful, quirky innovations along the way. Two examples: a PC with a built-in projector, and one that can slip into a pocket. Here's an early look at some of the computers to watch for in 2016.

    Thinner Convertible Laptops

    With 2016's new crop of convertible laptops, we may have reached the useful limits of thinness—unless you want a computer that also dices vegetables. Lenovo claims the new 0.5-inch Yoga 900S (starting at $1,099) is now the world’s trimmest model, edging out Microsoft’s $1,499 Surface Book by 0.4 inches. We'll get out our micrometers once the device is in the lab, and let you know for sure. The Yoga’s 360-degree hinge lets you flip the keyboard around so you can hold the device in your hand like a tablet or prop it up on a table to watch a movie.

    HP’s sleek 13-inch Spectre x360 has spawned a larger model touted as the "world's thinnest, lightest 15.6-inch convertible yet." The newcomer measures 0.63 inches and can be outfitted with an optional 4K high-definition display. If you go that route, you only get 9.5 hours (a typical workday) of battery life per charge, the company claims, compared to 13 hours for the standard 1080p display.

    The refreshed 13-inch model—also a svelte 0.63 inches—offers a brighter, slightly lighter, OLED display option. (Organic light-emitting diode screens, which don't need a backlight, can combine crisp, deep blacks with energy savings.) Once again, you're looking at a claimed 13 hours of battery life, depending on the final configuration. The 13-inch HPs start at $900 and the 15-inch models start at $1,150. All feature a geared hinge that lets you bend the keyboards up to 360 degrees, much like the Yoga.

    More Surface Imitators

    Microsoft has had enough success convincing consumers that a two-in-one laptop (think tablet with a detachable keyboard) is a smart idea that companies like Samsung and Lenovo are now angling for a piece of the market. And so, the Surface Pro 4 will have some extra competition. Much like the Pro 4, the two new Windows-powered devices take advantage of the adaptive user interface to shift from laptop to tablet mode.

    Samsung’s Galaxy TabPro S is similar to Dell’s 2-in-1 in that it lets you run Windows 10 in either tablet or laptop mode. But it comes with a Super AMOLED display, which theoretically translates to a brighter picture and longer battery life. The company hasn't announced a price.

    Lenovo’s ThinkPad X1 Tablet ($899) takes portability and augments it with modular components for different needs. Want to show off your latest presentation? Pop in the projector module ($279) on the tablet. The productivity module ($149) is an external battery that is said to add 5 hours of battery life, and the 3D imagery module ($149) is for scanning objects.

    Changing Desktop Shapes

    Oddly, the most interesting innovations for 2016 may not come from either the laptop or tablet camp, but rather the desktop market.

    If you’re looking for a desktop that will, surprisingly, fit in your pocket, the $99 Kangaroo PC fits the bill. The size of a large chocolate bar, the Kangaroo PC runs Windows 10, and gets plugged into a monitor, TV, or even an iPad. You also need your own keyboard and mouse. The Kangaroo’s battery lasts about four hours per charge, according to the company. And you can use the included dock to connect USB 3.0, USB 2.0, and HDMI devices.

    An even smaller PC, Intel’s second generation Compute Stick, fits into any HDMI port, and brings Windows 10 anywhere you can tote a keyboard and mouse. The price is about $150.

    For those searching for something slightly more conventional, Lenovo’s got an offering that looks more droid than desktop. Billed as a compact entertainment hub, the Ideacentre 610S is a triangular tower small enough to fit in a backpack and it comes with a detachable projector that sits on top like a tiny robot Cyclops, casting a 720p display that can, according to Lenovo, go as wide as 100 feet. (Prices start at $850, including the projector.) That’s not ideal for videophiles, but it should work well for showcasing presentations, family photos and, yes, digital games. You can also link a monitor to the device via Bluetooth or Wi-Fi and browse the web for summer camps while your kids watch "Frozen"—again.

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

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    TV Calibration Will Turn Your Set Into a Super Bowl MVP

    If you're hosting a Super Bowl 50 party on February 7 when the Carolina Panthers take on the Denver Broncos at Levi's Stadium, you're probably spending more time thinking about what beer goes best with wings than about how to fiddle with your TV's menus. But make some adjustments to the settings and you can probably get a much better view of the big game. Fortunately, you don't have to be a TV guru to get your set running like a champ in time for kickoff.

    Things have changed when it come to television settings. It used to be that when you brought a TV home, the settings would all be cranked too high—to "torch mode" in industry speak. Manufacturers would turn up the set's brightness controls and oversaturate the colors to make the picture pop in the harsh lighting of a typical retail sales floor.

    These days, TVs offer a first-time setup option that lets us select a "home" mode instead of a "retail" or "store" setting. But we now have the opposite problem: Because manufacturers try to hit Energy Star energy-use guidelines, the out-of-box home settings might make the TV too dim or undersaturate the colors.

    You could pay a few hundred dollars for a professional TV calibration, but it's easy to do it yourself. And the adjustments you make for Super Bowl Sunday will probably work throughout the year, for all kinds of programming. Note: If you're nervous about screwing up the settings just before for the big game, don't worry. Nearly all TVs have a reset button that will return the set to its default factory settings if the turf starts looking more blue than green.

    Here's the TV calibration plan.

    1. Try a factory picture preset. All TVs now come with a menu of picture modes with names such as "vivid," "natural," "sports," or "cinema." When you select one of these modes, the brightness, contrast, and sharpness are automatically adjusted to preset values optimized for different viewing environments. Although it might seem odd, don't choose the "sports" mode for watching sports. Also stay away from the "vivid" and "dynamic" modes, which tend to dramatically boost contrast and sharpness and lower brightness to less-than-optimal levels. We've found that modes with names like "natural," "cinema," "movie," and "pro" generally provide the best results.

    2. Now tweak the settings individually. With us so far? Once you've selected one of those preset modes, many TVs let you tweak the picture's appearance further. On other sets, if you try to change the settings, your picture mode will automatically change to a "custom" or "preference" mode. Either way, your procedure for the next part of the TV calibration will be the same.

    • Brightness level: This is also called black level, and it's critical to top picture quality. Ideally, a TV should be able to display deep blacks without losing the detail within the darkest areas. Freeze-frame a nighttime scene, such as one from a Batman or a vampire movie. Turn the brightness/black level up until you can see the details in the image's darkest areas. Then turn it down so the black gets as black as possible without obscuring the details in the dark areas. With LCD sets, you won't get as deep a black as you can with plasma or OLED TVs.
    • Contrast: Also called white level, contrast affects how bright the picture looks. Find an image with lots of white—say, a wedding gown, a man's dress shirt, or a sky full of puffy white clouds. Lower the contrast until you can see all the detail, such as the shadows in the folds of the gown, the buttons on the shirt, or the subtle gray shadings in the clouds. Then raise it to get the brightest picture possible without washing out those details. You'll generally want to set the contrast below the maximum level.
    • Color and tint: Once the black-and-white quality is optimized, it's time to adjust the color settings. Start with color temperature, sometimes called color tone. We recommend choosing the "warm" or "low" setting, so whites don't appear too blue. Then adjust the tint/hue control so that flesh tones look natural, neither too red nor too greenish-yellow—this setting generally works best when it's in the middle of the range. Adjust the color-level control (saturation) so that colors look vivid and realistic but not like they're glowing. All these settings may interact with one another in odd ways, so repeat the process as necessary.
    • Sharpness and more: Manufacturers often set the sharpness control rather high and turn on noise-reduction and other image-enhancement modes. These are rarely needed when you're watching high-quality HD programming or a DVD movie. In most cases, resist the temptation to crank up sharpness to enhance HD's fine detail. The best HDTVs need little or no help to show all the resolution in HD images.

    If you set the sharpness control too high, the background will start to look grainy, and a halo will appear around the edges of objects, making the overall image appear less natural. We suggest you turn the sharpness control down to zero, and then add sharpness sparingly only if the image looks soft. Also turn off any noise-reduction and image-enhancement modes; these tend to reduce image detail.

    There's one exception to this rule: If your TV viewing still consists mainly of standard-definition programs with typically noisy picture quality, then you may want to explore the noise reduction modes. 

    Remember, if you're unhappy with your TV calibration, just hit the reset button to start over. 

    3. Consider the source
    Here's one wrinkle: You may want to tweak the picture settings for various video sources, depending on the signal and its TV input. Each TV input has different circuitry that processes various types of signals, so brightness, color, and other picture attributes may vary. You may find that an older DVD player connected to the component-video input yields a different quality picture than the same player connected via HDMI. When you switch sources, you'll get the best picture quality with settings customized to each input. Some TVs let you store the settings; others, unfortunately, do not.

    If you're a real picture-quality aficionado, you can calibrate your TV more precisely by using a calibration Blu-ray disc, such as the "Digital Video Essentials HD Basics" or "Disney WOW: World of Wonder on Blu-ray." When we tested these discs a few years ago we found the latter was the easier of the two to use for first-timers. Both discs will walk you through a step-by-step picture alignment process, eliminating guesswork. In addition, some THX-certified Blu-rays include a free THX Optimizer calibration tool that will help you optimize video and audio settings on your TV.

    So that's really all it takes to get your TV primed for prime-time viewing. At the very least, try switching to one of the more accurate presets. But if you decide to go whole hog with the individual adjustments in time for the pigskin pageant, let us know how it went, and whether the improvements you've made are noticeable to your other family members. And of course, you can check out our TV Ratings if you decide it's time for a new TV.

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

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    For Teens, Vaping Leads to More Cigarette Smoking, Study Finds

    Teens who vape—use an e-cigarette—were almost three times more likely to have started smoking tobacco cigarettes a year later than those who had never vaped, according to a recent study in the journal Tobacco Control.

    “That’s worrying news,” says Consumer Reports chief medical adviser Marvin M. Lipman, M.D. “Although the long-term safety of e-cigarettes and other nicotine vaporizers is still unknown, there’s no question that nicotine in any form is an extremely addictive drug and that tobacco products can be deadly,” he says.

    To find out how vaping affected teen’s cigarette smoking habits, researchers from the University of Hawaii Cancer Center asked 2,338 9th and 10th graders at six Hawaiian high schools in 2013 about their vaping and smoking habits. One year later the scientists quizzed the teens again. The upshot: 20 percent of the e-cigarette-using teens had started smoking traditional cigarettes. By contrast, 2 percent of the non-vapers had started smoking tobacco cigarettes, 10 percent had tried vaping, and 4 percent were both smoking and vaping.

    The study also found that teens who were heavier users of e-cigarettes were more likely to become regular cigarette smokers a year later. And for those who already smoked cigarettes, e-cigarettes did not help them quit smoking, contradicting the popular argument that vaping leads to a reduction in smoking.

    Earlier studies have arrived at similar conclusions. For example, a  study of 40,000 middle- and high-school students published in 2014 in the journal JAMA Pediatrics found that smokers who also used e-cigarettes tended to smoke more than smokers who didn’t use e-cigs. And in October 2015 the U.S Preventive Services Task Force, an independent panel of experts that advises the government on health issues, decided not to recommend e-cigarettes as smoking cessation devices.

    “E-cigarettes and other liquid nicotine vaping devices come in a variety of sweet-smelling and tasting flavors, such as bubblegum, cherry, gummy bear, and watermelon, which are clearly designed to appeal to teens,” Lipman says, “and once teens are hooked on nicotine, studies like this one suggest that teens frequently graduate from vaping to smoking regular cigarettes—creating a new generation of smokers with all the associated health risks, including heart disease and cancer.”

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

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    Is Peach Still the Next Big Social Network?

    A few weeks ago, a social network named Peach arrived with a pedigree that made tech bloggers and Twitter nerds swoon over what could be the next big thing. Yes, I was skeptical: There are only so many ways you can post a photo of your lunch, wish your cousin a happy birthday, or complain about a canceled flight. And mastering a new repertoire of online tricks can be daunting, often yielding nothing more than another password to remember.

    After using Peach for a couple of weeks, though, it’s grown on me, to the point where I check for updates at least twice a day. I find it a superior way to keep track of what's going on with my closest friends. Of course, that doesn't mean the service is going to last. The hype machine quickly turned on Peach, announcing its demise almost as soon as it started gaining attention—and with good reason: Social networks like Path, App.net, and Ello were heralded as worthy Facebook challengers as well, but ultimately each one failed to pull in enough loyal users. What good is a social network if your friends aren't users of the network?

    With its short, breezy posts, Peach seems like an only-for-good-friends version of Twitter. Created by Dom Hofmann, co-founder of the video-based social network Vine, the service is available—for now, at least—only via app and only to Apple's iOS users. (In fact, the new network's name and logo appear to playfully refer to Apple's fruity emoji.) 

    Each time you open the app, the first thing you see is a list of simple updates from your friends. Instead of a firehose of information, you're treated to an easy-to-read diary of their day. When you tap on a friend's profile, you see his or her posts: status updates, photos, music selection of the moment. To view previous posts, you have to scroll up. Tapping on an update brings you to the comment section, where Peach suggests you “say something nice.” Double-tapping adds a “heart” to the post, much like on Instagram. The point is to let you do the bulk of your posting with a few simple keyboard tricks.

    You can add friends to Peach in a few ways. The quickest route is to press the Add Friends button and type a username. But if you can’t remember your buddy’s anime-inspired nickname, you can always connect via the address book on your iPhone. Swipe left to see a list called “Friends of Friends,” which lets you review posts from non-acquaintances. To comment on those missives, however, you must first get approval from the poster. Unlike Twitter, which considers following and unfollowing a one-sided transaction, Peach operates more like a private club. Without permission, you don't get access.

    Peach also lets you favorite up to 20 people, ensuring that you see posts from your best buds before the rest of the crew. If you want to protect your privacy, you can remove yourself from the list of friends. To change your visibility (and other aspects of your profile), tap the Settings icon at the top of the app.

    Swiping right lets you see your notifications, telling you who liked your picture of last week’s lunchtime salad (no one) or commented on your choice of ruffage (thanks, Michael).

    Keyboard tricks like those are Peach’s secret sauce. Similar to Slash, the service uses shortcuts to make communication easier, and those shortcuts make conveying common bits of information as simple as typing a "magic word." Weather brings up the current forecast based on your location; Gif brings up—naturally—a selection of gifs based on your keywords; Rate grants you the ability to proffer a one to five-star review, and so on. It feels more like programming a quip than writing your musings.

    And Peach is adding more shortcuts all the time. For a full list, type help in the app—or check out the chart below. The network's creators are still fixing bugs, too, and whipping up features such as user biographies.

    For all the online buzz it generated in the first 72 hours, though, Peach hasn't produced any metrics that confirm growth. And, like I said, its success depends on who uses it. Lately I've been disheartened to find two-week-old posts from my list of friends.

    If Peach is a fad, I'm still jumping on the bandwagon. It's a nice change of pace from the constant stream of images, status updates, and breathless comments on other networks. Focusing on one person's story at a time, engaging with true friends, and updating your feed with little tidbits of info makes for a simple way to connect with the people you really care about.

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

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    7 Reasons Why Airlines Can Bump You

    Most of us realize we need to be on our best behavior while traveling by air. Gate crews and flight attendants are particularly concerned about the possibility of a petulant passenger going off the rails. But you might not realize that airlines are empowered to bump you from your flight or your seat even if you're not perceived as some sort of threat or hothead.

    That reality made headlines recently when actor Andie MacDowell sounded off on social media after being ignominiously bumped from first class to coach while traveling with her dog on an American Airlines flight. It’s not clear why MacDowell couldn't be accommodated in first class but in a Twitter post, she wrote that the crewmember was in no mood to negotiate.

    “Airline staff have been given a lot more power and have become policemen in the skies since 9-11,” says George Hobica, founder of Airfarewatchdog, a travel website. “I think many are abusing that authority." 

    Most of your rights and company policies—including when you are entitled to compensation for your inconvenience— are spelled out in the conditions of carriage which can be found on an airline’s website. The lengthy terms are filled with jargon and legalese, though they’re still worth eyeballing to understand the basics.

    Here are key reasons why an airline can bump you or otherwise make travel difficult for you:

    1. The airline priced tickets for this flight too low. If a carrier realizes through its electronic reservation system that a non-stop flight fills too fast, that could indicate the ticket fares are too cheap. In such a case, your flight could be switched from a non-stop to a connecting flight. 

    2. The air marshal needs your seat. Because air marshals protect the public, they are sometimes seated in first class without prior warning. If one of them shows up and needs your seat, you can be bumped, reassigned to another seat, or put on the next available flight. And you won’t even get an explanation; the government doesn’t want you to blab that there’s an air marshal on board. 

    3. The carrier abandons the route. Consolidation within the industry has prompted some airlines to cut back on the number of available flights. Some, such as Allegiant Air and Frontier, have also abandoned routes that are no longer profitable. "An airline should be required to put you on another carrier for the price you paid," says Hobica. "But that’s not the case.” While you’ll get your money back, you may be forced to buy a ticket at the last minute from another airline at top dollar. 

    4. You have poor fashion sense. The decision rests with the cabin crew, but if you wear a T-shirt with vulgar or semi-vulgar words or pictures, you could be refused boarding. The same holds true if you’re showing excessive skin. 

    5. You’re too large for one seat. Every airline has a rule on passenger size, but it’s generally not enforced—unless someone complains. If a passenger is spilling over the armrest, he may be required to buy two seats or wait for another flight in which two adjacent seats are available. 

    6. You can’t control your kids. Parents and their offspring have been booted from flights as a result of ill-mannered children who throw a temper tantrum, refuse to stay in their seats, wear a safety belt, or follow crew instructions.

    7. The flight is overbooked. Despite sophisticated computer systems, airlines still overbook flights and, occasionally, double book seats. The latter usually happens with last-minute check-ins. Who gets priority? It depends on the airline, but many will give preference to upper tier frequent-flyer members, according to Hobica. It’s also based, to some extent, on when you checked in. If you’re bumped, you are entitled to receive up to $1,350 in cash, depending on the reason for the bump, the length of any delay, and the price of your ticket. Some airlines may prod you to take a travel voucher instead. Don’t take it. "Vouchers can be difficult to apply and they expire in a year," says Hobica. “Leave with the cash.”

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

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    The best matching washers and dryers

    Matching washer and dryer pairs are a popular choice although some don't make a great couple. Their coordinating style makes a statement, but you'll question how a terrific washer and a noisy dryer that's tough on clothes ended up together. Enter the matchmaker. Consumer Reports' tests found pairs that are worth a look.

    Now about the prices. The top-rated pairs are expensive. Blame it on rising manufacturing costs, larger capacities, stainless drums, and added cycles and features. Our tests have found that basic cycles can handle most laundry needs. So ask yourself if you want to pay extra for a bedding cycle or one for your jeans. 

    The washer and dryer Buying Guides highlight the advantages of each washer type and features. Use the Ratings selector to narrow choices and the Features & Specs tab to compare features. Our Brand Reliability offers helpful information and so do user reviews. If you have questions email me at kjaneway@consumer.org. 

    Full washing machine Ratings and recommendations.
    Full clothes dryer Ratings and recommendations.

    The Quietest Couples

    Consider machines that scored very good or better in our noise tests if placing near bedrooms. You'll know they're working but they shouldn't disturb you. Note that wash times are based on the normal wash cycle heavy-soil setting. You'll save about 15 minutes using the normal-soil setting.

    Many washers and dryers have a steam setting. We found it slightly improved a washer's stain removal. Steam removed more odors than dryers without steam, but left clothes wrinkled. The dryers highlighted here have moisture sensors, the most important feature. It turns off the machine when laundry is dry—that saves energy and is easier on fabrics. For more details see our Ratings of washing machines and dryers

    Kenmore set

    Kenmore Elite 41072 front-loader and Kenmore Elite 81072 electric dryer
    Price: $1,000 each
    Here's the deal: The washer is near the top of our Ratings and made our top picks. It has 14 cycles, offers excellent washing, was gentle on fabrics, and has a jumbo capacity—it fit about 25 pounds of our laundry. Claimed capacity is 5.2 cubic feet. The dryer excelled at its job and also has a jumbo capacity. Claimed capacity is 9 cubic feet. 
    Consider this: Wash time is 95 minutes. The Accela-Wash option offers comparable performance and saves 15 to 20 minutes. 
    Need to know: Each machine is 29 inches wide—2 more than usual—but can be stacked. Gas dryer is Kenmore Elite 91072, $1,100. 

    LG duos

    LG WM8500HVA front-loader and LG DLEX8500V electric dryer 
    Price: $1,450 each
    Here's the deal: The washer is near the top of our Ratings and both machines make the recommended list. They have jumbo capacities, each holding about 26 pounds of our laundry. Claimed capacity is 5.2 cubic feet for the washer, 9 for the dryer. The washer was superb at cleaning and gentle on fabrics and has 14 cycles; the dryer aced its job. 
    Consider this: It took 90 minutes to do a normal wash on the heavy soil setting, but the TurboWash option offers comparable wash performance in 15 to 20 minutes less time.
    Need to know: Each machine is 29 inches wide, two more than usual, but can be stacked. Only available in a graphite-steel finish. Gas dryer is LG DLGX8501V, $1,550. 

    LG WM4270HWA front-loader and LG DLEX4270W electric dryer
    Price: $830 each 
    Here's the deal: Neither made our top picks but both were impressive at their task and relatively quiet. Claimed capacity is 4.5 cubic feet for the washer, and 7.4 for the dryer. The washer fit 22 pounds of our laundry, was gentle on fabrics, and has 14 cycles. 
    Consider this: Normal wash time on heavy-soil setting is 75 minutes. The TurboWash option offers comparable cleaning and saves 15 to 20 minutes.
    Need to know:  Machines can be stacked. Each is 27 inches wide. Gas dryer is the LG DLGX4271W, $930. 

    Maytag mates

    Maytag Maxima MHW8100DC front-loader and Maytag Maxima MED8100DC
    Price: 
    $1,400 each
    Here's the deal: This recommended front-loader offers excellent washing and held 22 pounds of our laundry. Claimed capacity is 4.5 cubic feet. It was gentle on fabrics and there are 11 wash cycles. The dryer was superb at its task and among the quietest tested. Claimed capacity is 7.3 cubic feet. Both machines are made in America.
    Consider this: The washer took 75 minutes using the normal cycle on heavy-soil setting.
    Need to know: Gas dryer is Maytag Maxima MGD8100DC, $1,500. Appliances can be stacked. Each is 27 inches wide. The newly tested white Maytag Maxima MHW8150EW front-loader was even slightly better in our tests and costs $1,350. It can also be paired with the Maytag Maxima MED8100 dryer. Matching white dryer is the Maytag Maxima MED8100DW dryer. 

    Maytag Bravos MVWB855DW HE top-loader and Maytag Bravos MEDB855DW electric dryer
    Price: $1,050 each 
    Here's the deal: The washer made our top picks, delivers impressive cleaning, and was among the most water efficient of the HE top-loaders. It fit about 26 pounds of our laundry. Claimed capacity is 5.3 cubic feet. There are 11 wash cycles. The dryer was impressive at its job and claimed capacity is 8.8 cubic feet. These machines are made in America. 
    Consider this: Normal wash time was 80 minutes using heavy-soil setting. This washer wasn't so gentle on fabrics, but that's true for most top-loaders. 
    Need to know: Washer is 27 inches wide; dryer, 29. Gas dryer is the Maytag Bravos MGDB855DW, $1,150. 

    Samsung sets

    Samsung WF56H9110CW front-loader and Samsung DV56H9100EW electric dryer
    Price: $1,450 washer, $1,300 dryer
    Here's the deal: These recommended models are top rated, excellent at their job, relatively quiet, and have jumbo capacities. The washer held 28 pounds of our laundry and was among the gentlest on fabrics. Claimed capacity is 5.6 cubic feet for the washer and 9.5 for the dryer. There are 15 wash cycles.
    Consider this: Normal wash on heavy-soil setting is 90 minutes. The SuperSpeed option saved about 15 to 20 minutes without affecting cleaning.
    Need to know: Each machine is 30 inches wide and can be stacked. The matching electric dryer is shown in the ratings as ending in "EG" to indicate the tested model has an onyx finish; "EW" is white and listed here as it matches the tested washer. Gas dryer is shown in ratings as the Samsung DV56H9100GG, $1,400. 

    Samsung WF56H9100AG front-loader and Samsung DV56H9100EG electric dryer
    Price: $1,200 washer, $1,300 dryer
    Here's the deal: Both made our top picks. The washer has one of the largest capacities tested and fit about 28 pounds of our laundry. Claimed capacity is 5.6 cubic feet. It offers impressive cleaning and was gentle on fabrics. There are 15 wash cycles.The top-rated dryer was superb at drying and has a jumbo capacity. Claimed capacity is 9.5 cubic feet. 
    Consider this: Normal wash time on heavy soil setting was 85 minutes, but the SuperSpeed option cut wash time of full loads by about 15 to 20 minutes without sacrificing performance.
    Need to know: Each machine is 30 inches wide and can be stacked. Gas dryer is Samsung DV56H9100GG, $1,400.

    Samsung WA56H9000AP HE top-loader and Samsung DV56H9000EP electric dryer
    Price: $1,100 each
    Here's the deal: Both are top picks. This washer has a jumbo capacity and can hold about 28 pounds of laundry. Claimed capacity is 5.6 cubic feet. Washing was impressive and there are 15 cycles. Normal wash time on heavy soil setting was 75 minutes. The dryer aced its job and has a jumbo capacity. Claimed capacity is 9.5 cubic feet. 
    Consider this: As with most top-loaders this washer wasn't so gentle on fabrics.
    Need to know: Each machine is 30 inches wide. The waterproof cycle prevented the washer from becoming unbalanced when we washed several waterproof jackets. Gas dryer is Samsung DV56H9000GP, $1,200. 

    Samsung WA52J8700AP HE top-loader and Samsung DV52J8700EP electric dryer
    Price: $1,000 each
    Here's the deal: The washer was impressive at cleaning and made our top picks. The jumbo capacity fit 26 pounds of our laundry. Claimed capacity is 5.2 cubic feet. The dryer was excellent at its job; claimed capacity is 7.4 cubic feet. Both machines are relatively quiet. 
    Consider this: Wash time was 75 minutes using the normal wash heavy-soil setting. The SuperSpeed cuts wash time by 15 to 20 minutes and cleaning is still impressive. However, the washer wasn't so gentle on fabrics although that's true for most top-loaders. This washer has Activewash, a water jet and built-in sink with ridges that enable you to hand wash and soak stained items before they go into the machine.
    Need to know: Each machine is 27 inches, the standard width, yet capacity is very large. When shopping reach into washer to see if you can touch the bottom of the tub. The dryer is Energy Star qualified and using the eco-mode can save you some energy but extends dryer time. Gas dryer is Samsung DV52J8700GP, $1,100. 

    Whirlpool pairs

    Whirlpool Duet WFL98HEBU front-loader and Whirlpool Duet WEL98HEBU electric dryer
    Price: $1,500 each
    Here's the deal: Both have a large capacity. Claimed capacity is 4.3 cubic feet for the washer and 7.4 for the dryer. The washer offers excellent cleaning and was gentle on fabrics. There are 13 wash cycles. Normal wash time, on heavy soil setting, is 75 minutes. That's faster than most.The dryer was superb at drying and among the quietest tested.
    Consider this: These machines are Wi-Fi enabled, providing remote control via your smart device that lets you monitor your laundry's progress, start/stop the machine, and more.
    Need to know: Made in the U.S.A. Machines have a silver finish and can be stacked. Each is 27 inches wide. Dryer is not available as a gas model.

    Whirlpool Cabrio WTW8500DW HE top-loader and Whirlpool Cabrio WED8500DW electric dryer
    Price: $1,000 each
    Here's the deal: The washer was impressive and made our top picks.The dryer excelled at drying. Both are relatively quiet. This washer fit 26 pounds of our laundry and was one of the gentlest on fabrics. There are 26 wash cycles. That's right, 26. Claimed capacity is 5.3 cubic feet for the washer and 8.8 for the dryer. 
    Consider this: Normal wash time on heavy-soil setting was 80 minutes. 
    Need to know: Washer is 28 inches wide; dryer, 29. They're made in the U.S.A. Gas dryer is the Whirlpool Cabrio WGD8500DW, $1,100. 

    CR Tip

    Some HE top-loaders come with a warning not to wash waterproof items, or the manufacturer may suggest using the low-spin or no-spin mode to prevent the load from becoming unbalanced. That can cause the machine to shake too much, even damaging the machine and laundry area. Check the manual before you buy.  

    Impressive Pairs for $1,700 or Less

    All were impressive at cleaning or drying though most did not make our top picks. The dryers have moisture sensors, a must. Keep in mind that most improvements in performance and efficiency are on washers. If you're set on a matching duo pick your washer and then the dryer. For more details see our Ratings of washing machines and clothes dryers.

    Kenmore couples

    Kenmore 28132 HE top-loader and Kenmore 68132 electric dryer
    Price: $800 each
    Here's the deal: The washer is the least expensive and fastest of the top picks. It took 60 minutes using normal wash on a heavy-soil setting. There are eight wash cycles. Cleaning was impressive and the washer fit about 26 pounds of our laundry. Claimed capacity is 5.3 cubic feet. This machine is relatively quiet, as is the dryer. The tested dryer was superb at drying. The dryer highlighted here is a similar model and we expect performance to be similar to tested dryer. Claimed capacity is 8.8 cubic feet.
    Consider this: The washer wasn't so gentle on fabrics although that's true for most HE top-loaders we've tested. The dryer is Energy Star-qualified and you will save some energy but extend drying time using the eco-mode.
    Need to know: Washer is 27 inches wide, standard width, and yet capacity is jumbo. When shopping reach into the bottom of the washer to see if you can grab that last sock. Dryer is 29 inches wide.

    Kenmore 27132 HE top-loader and Kenmore 67132 electric dryer
    Price: $700 washer, $700 dryer
    Here's the deal: Neither made our top picks but the washer came close. It performed similarly to the Kenmore above and also has eight wash cycles and a wash time of 60 minutes (normal wash, heavy-soil setting). But capacity is slightly smaller. Claimed capacity is 4.8 cubic feet. We fit about 23 pounds of laundry. The dryer was impressive at drying. Claimed capacity is 7 cubic feet. Both machines are relatively quiet. 
    Consider this: Like most top-loaders this one wasn't gentle on fabrics.
    Need to know: Washer is 27 inches wide, dryer is 29. Gas dryer is the Kenmore 77132, $800.  

    LG duos

    LG WM3570HVA front-loader and LG DLEX3570HVA electric dryer
    Price: $800 each 
    Here's the deal: They didn't make our top picks but the washer was excellent at cleaning, gentle on fabrics, and fit about 21 pounds of our laundry. Claimed capacity is 4.3 cubic feet. There are 12 wash cycles. The dryer aced its job; claimed capacity is 7.4 cubic feet. Both machines were relatively quiet. 
    Consider this: Wash time on normal wash heavy-soil setting was 95 minutes. The TurboWash option cut wash time of full loads by 15 to 20 minutes and offers comparable wash performance.
    Need to know: Each machine is 27 inches wide and stackable. They have a graphite finish. In the ratings the dryer model name ends with a "W" to indicate that the tested model was white. It costs about $100 less than the graphite finish. Gas dryer is LG DLGX3571W in white or LG DLGX3571HVA in graphite. 

    LG WM4270HWA front-loader and LG DLEX4270W electric dryer
    Price: $830 each 
    Here's the deal: Not on our top-pick lists but worth considering since LG front-loaders are among the more reliable brands and LG dryers are significantly more reliable than other brands, according to our survey of more than 100,000 subscribers. The washer was impressive at cleaning and has 14 cycles. The dryer was impressive at drying. Claimed capacity is 4.5 cubic feet for the washer, 7.4 for the dryer. Both have large capacities and are relatively quiet. 
    Consider this: Normal wash time using the heavy-soil setting was 75 minutes. The TurboWash option cuts 15 to 20 minutes off wash time and cleaning was just as good in our tests.
    Need to know: Stackable. Each machine is 27 inches wide. Gas dryer is the LG DLGX4271W, $930. 

    Maytag mates

    Maytag Bravos MVWB835DW HE top-loader and Maytag Bravos MEDB835DW electric dryer 
    Price: $850 each
    Here's the deal: They didn't make the top picks but are worth considering. The washer was impressive at cleaning and took 70 minutes using the normal wash heavy-soil setting. You'll save about 15 to 20 minutes using the normal soil setting. There are 11 wash cycles. We fit about 25 pounds of our laundry in this washer. Claimed capacity is 5.3 cubic feet. This machine is relatively quiet. You'll hear it working but it shouldn't disturb you. The tested dryer was impressive at dryer and among the quietest tested. The dryer highlighted here is a similar model and we expect performance to be similar to the tested dryer. Claimed capacity is 8.8 cubic feet. The washer and dryer are made in the U.S. 
    Consider this: The washer wasn't so gentle on fabrics but that's true for most HE top-loaders tested. Our tests use the normal wash heavy-soil setting. Use the normal wash normal-soil setting and it will be gentler on fabrics.
    Need to know: Washer is 27 inches wide, standard width, but capacity is jumbo. When shopping reach into the machine to see if you can grab that stray sock. Dryer is 29 inches wide. Both machines come only in white.  

    How We Test Washers and Dryers

    In addition to washing performance Consumer Reports' washing machine tests look at how gentle a washing machine is on fabric as well as its energy and water efficiency. We look at noise and vibration, and note cycle times using the normal wash, heavy-soil setting. As for our capacity scores, models scoring excellent fit 25 or more pounds of laundry; a very good capacity score means the washer fit 20 to 24 pounds, and good, about 15 to 19 pounds. 

    In our clothes dryer tests we run the machines with different sized loads and a variety of fabrics. We measure noise, capacity, and convenience. Models that earned excellent or very good capacity scores in our dryer tests can hold large loads as well.

    —Kimberly Janeway

     

     

     

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    Best Last-Minute Super Bowl TV Deals

    If waiting until the last minute to find a great deal on a TV is part of your Super Bowl 50 game plan, we've got you covered. We've pored over all the ads and promotions leading up to the big game and come up with a list that highlights the best last-minute Super Bowl TV deals out there.

    While we haven't uncovered the same kind of eye-catching, blockbuster blowouts we see with Black Friday doorbuster specials, this is still a great time to get a super-low price on a set you'll be happy to own long after the game is a distant memory.

    One word of advice before we get to our last-minute Super Bowl TV deals list: See if you can get a 30-day price match guarantee from the retailer when you buy a TV this week. Pricing at this time of year is volatile, and all the models in this list are 2015 sets. We expect the first 2016 sets to start arriving by the end of the month, so prices on these sets could drop further in the next few weeks as retailers start to clear out inventories.

    Also, check the retailer's return policy—we haven't tested all these sets, and some models seem to be "Super Bowl specials" we haven't seen previously. Make sure you can return the TV if you're not satisfied with your purchase.

    Last-Minute Super Bowl TV Deals

    The 55-inch Toshiba 55L310U, $350. Not every one needs, or wants, a 4K set. Priced at just $350, Best Buy is matching its Black Friday price on this fairly basic 55-inch 1080p set. We didn't test this set, but in general Toshiba TVs have done well in terms of picture quality, though their sound has been lacking.

    The 55-inch Philips 55PFL6900, $550 at PC Richard. You'd be hard pressed to find a better deal on a 4K TV of this size. It's $700 at BrandsMart and $1,000 at Best Buy. The set, a 4K UHD model that did well in our TV Ratings, comes with Philips' Net TV smart TV platform.

    The 55-inch LG 55UF6450, $515. We saw the price on this 4K UHD set drop to $515 at Walmart from $698 just this morning. This model, which we haven't seen previously, has LG's webOS 2.0 smart TV platform. It's still priced at $700 at several other retailers, including PC Richard and Best Buy.

    The 55-inch Vizio M55-C2, $800. This 55-inch 4K UHD smart TV in the middle of Vizio's 4K lineup in 2015 is at this price at Amazon, Best Buy, Target, and a few other retailers, though (as usual) its $2 cheaper at Walmart.

    The 60-inch LG 60UF7300, $900. Another LG 4K UHD set we didn't get our hands on for testing. We found this model at Best Buy for this price, about $100 less than at most other retailers that carry this model.

    The 65-inch Hisense 65H7B2, $950. We've seen this bigger 4K smart UHD TV from Hisense at Amazon for $950 to $1,000, a good price for a TV this size. We didn't test this set, but we did test both the Hisense 50H7GB UHD TV and the 65-inch Hisense 65H10B, its flagship UHD model, and both did well. Our overall impression is that Hisense—one of China's biggest TV brands—is trying to up its game and status in the U.S. this year.

    The 55-inch Sony XBR-55X810C, $998. This 4K UHD smart TV is available at several outlets at this price; earlier in the month Dell offered a $250 gift card with the purchase, so check back to see if it's been reinstated. Like other Sony 2015 Internet TVs, it uses Google's Android TV platform.

    The 60-inch Samsung UN60JU7090FXZA, $1,000. This 4K smart UHD TV from Samsung, another model we didn't see earlier and haven't tested, is available at several retailers, including Best Buy, at this price. It's in Samsung's JU-series mid-tier UHD TV lineups.

    The 65-inch Vizio D65u-D2, $1,100. Walmart has the 4K UHD smart TV at this price, about $100 less than most other places we looked. It's in Vizio's newer entry-level "D" series.

    The 55-inch Sony XBR-55X850C, $1,200. Several retailers, including Best Buy and Dell have it for this price, but at B&H you'll get a $50 gift card. This set is a 4K smart UHD TV with smart TV. It's a step up from, and has more features than, the 55X810C model mentioned earlier.

    The 60-inch Samsung UN60JS7000FXZA, $1,400. This flat-screen 4K UHD smart TV from Samsung's step-up SUHD line is at this price at several retailers and Samsung's own website, and $1,398 at Walmart. It's $1,398 at Jet, but you can knock $30 off the price if it's your first order from that online shopping site.

    The Bundle Bowl

    As we were checking for the deals we uncovered above, we came across a few interesting bundle deals that combined other items with a TV purchase.

    Here in the New York Tri-State area, regional retailer PC Richard is advertising a triple-play deal that combines the 65-inch Samsung UN65JU6400 4K UHD smart TV, with a 40-inch (UN40J5200) and 28-inch (UN28H4500) Samsung HDTVs. The total price is $1,500, a claimed savings of more than $1,100. We didn't test that 65-inch set, but we did test the Samsung UN48JU6400, and it did very well in our TV Ratings.

    PC Richard is also offering several bundle deals with LG 4K UHD TVs. For $1,000, you can get the LG 60-inch 60UF7300 UHD smart TV, plus the 32-inch 32LF9500B. There's also a triple-play option that combines a 65-inch 65UF6450 4K TV with a 32-inch 720p set, the 32LF500B, and a sound bar speaker (LAS454B) for a total of $1,300.  

    Speaking of LG, the company itself has put together some deals that are available through several retailers. You can get one LG's pricier 55- ($3,000) or 65-inch ($5,000) 4K OLED TVs, along with another TV, a sound bar speaker system, or a gift card if you buy the day of the Super Bowl through February 13. The deal is good on either flat-screen EF9500-series or curved-screen 55EG9600-series models. With the bigger sets you can pick a free 4K TV (43UF6400), a curved or flat sound bar speaker system (LAS855M/LAS851M), or $300 gift card. The smaller sets come with either a free 1080p TV (42LF5600/43LF5400), sound bar speaker (LAS551H/LAS454B), or a $200 gift card.

    If you do decide to get a last-minute TV for the big game, let us know what you bought in the comments section below. And you can check out the full testing details of many of these sets in our TV Ratings, which are available to subscribers.

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    Scion Brand Reaches End of the Road

    It is official: Toyota has announced that it will shut down the Scion brand after 13 years. Unlike the numerous automotive brands shuttered in recent years, such as Saab and Saturn, the impact to Scion owners should be negligible.

    Beginning in August 2016, new Scion vehicles will be badged as Toyotas, including the FR-S sports coupe, iA sedan, and iM hatchback. The tC coupe will be retired at that point, after an obligatory special-edition trim package is offered. The C-HR crossover concept shown at the LA Auto Show will join the line as a Toyota.

    Scion customers continue to be able to have their cars serviced at Toyota dealerships. Unlike those abandoned GM brands, there are no worries about parts availability, nor significant concerns about resale value.

    Scion launched in 2003 as a youth-targeted brand with the goal to appeal to younger customers who might perceive the Toyota brand as too stodgy. There was a willingness to bring over a car for a few years, without committing to a traditional multi-generation plan. As a consequence, the Scion dealership offerings by design would change significantly year to year.

    Despite the promise, this approach led to a rather starved product portfolio of mediocre, barebones cars that often outlived their marketplace novelty. There were awkward periods where the dealership offerings became quite meager, or even out of tune with U.S. needs. The diminutive, short-lived iQ being a recent example. 

    But the Scion products were known for reliability and affordability. And the shopping experience was distinguished by no-haggle pricing and strikingly simple models that invited customers to personalize their vehicle with dealer add-ons, rather than shop a wide menu of trim levels and options packages.

    Over the course of selling one million cars, Scion succeeded in that 70 percent of the cars were bought by first-time Toyota customers and about half the buyers were under 35 years old. This latter element was key to the brand’s original strategy to create lifelong Toyota customers from an earlier age.

    Looking at the current models, the real standouts are those vehicles that Toyota has co-developed or rebranded from other automakers, namely the FR-S and iA. These will soon crowd dealerships alongside the Yaris and Corolla, saturating the showrooms with entry-level vehicles better suited to a market with higher gas prices.

    It is ironic that this moment comes at a point when the Scion line-up now is arguably the strongest in the brand’s history. 

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

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    Find a Stroller That Fits Your Family and Your Finances

    Some of today’s strollers come with such high-end features as leather trim, designer fabrics, beefy tires, shiny metal frames, and a price tag to match. A number of these pricey rides have become urban status symbols but in Consumer Reports’ stroller tests we found that a higher price doesn’t guarantee better performance and that some of the more expensive strollers can be as bulky as their hefty price tags.

    Consumer Reports recently added 19 new strollers to its stroller Ratings ranging in price from $100 to $1,300. Which ones were best? That’s a trick question; there’s no one stroller that’s best for every family. What works for a city apartment dweller is likely very different from what works for a suburbanite who’s in and out of the car multiple times a day. The best stroller is the one with the features that fit your child at a price that fits your budget. Here are the details on four strollers from our latest tests.

    Chicco Bravo

    Modular or combination strollers are versatile, but tend to be expensive. The modulars in our stroller Ratings range in price from just over $200 to $1,300, with an average price of $573. So at just $230, you’ll see why we named the Chicco Bravo a CR Best Buy. The Bravo works in three modes and grows with your baby.

    For newborns, remove the Bravo’s stroller seat and snap a compatible Chicco KeyFit 30 infant car seat into the stroller frame. Once a baby turns six months old—or is able to sit up on his own—put the stroller seat back on the frame. The seat reclines nicely for napping and you can still attach the KeyFit car seat without additional adapters. When the baby outgrows the infant car seat, you can use the Bravo as a toddler stroller until he reaches 50 pounds. Other pluses include very good maneuverability, you can fold it one-handed, and it stands up for compact storage.

    Summer Infant 3Dzyre

    For an older baby, age six months and up, you may want a lighter, umbrella style stroller. Consider the Summer Infant 3Dzyre, $140, also a CR Best Buy. It’s lightweight and nimble, easy to maneuver and has some great features. The already large canopy has a zip-out extension—one of the biggest canopies we’ve seen on an umbrella stroller—that protects your passenger from the sun and wind. The canopy also features a mesh window for ventilation that lets you peek in to make sure your little one is okay. The storage pocket has two open and one zippered compartment to hold a cell phone, keys, tissues, or other small necessities. One drawback is that the stroller’s storage basket is just average-sized.

    Stokke Trailz

    The Stokke Trailz consists of a stroller frame and seat that you purchase separately, for a total of $1,300. The seat also works with other Stokke stroller bodies such as the Stokke Xplory. A carrycot/bassinet attachment is sold separately. The Trailz can be used from about six months up to 33 pounds. What else do you get for that money? The Stokke Trailz has a sturdy feel and very good maneuverability. The high seat gives your child a better vantage point and allows you to push the stroller right up to a table in a restaurant, almost like a high chair. The shopping basket is very large, and easy to access.

    While the Stokke Trailz was easy to push, it wasn’t all that easy or intuitive to use. In addition, the Stokke Trailz is large, heavy, and bulky, even when folded, so it’s not the stroller for someone with a small car trunk or limited storage space at home.

    Bugaboo Buffalo

    The Bugaboo Buffalo, $1,190, comes in nine parts that you can use in various combinations starting with the stroller chassis or frame. To that you can add the basic fabric seat or, for newborns, a bassinet that allows a baby to lie down. Other extras include a canopy, rain cover, and underseat basket. The Bugaboo Buffalo can be used from birth till 36 months or 37.5 pounds. It’s compatible with several brands of car seats, but you must buy the appropriate adapter separately. All-in-all, the Bugaboo Buffalo is a very good stroller, with versatility and great maneuverability but you don’t need to spend well over $1,000 to get a stroller that’s comparable in performance.

    For more choices, see our full stroller Ratings and recommendations. They’ll help you find the  stroller that’s right for you, at a price you can afford.

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    Tips on How to Win a Super Bowl Pool

    Americans will be betting billions of dollars on Super Bowl 50 this Sunday, according to the American Gaming Association. While much of that staggering total includes betting at sportsbooks (legal and otherwise), it may also include a relatively innocent bet in a Super Bowl pool—one of thousands that take place in offices and parties around the country.

    There are many different variations of the Super Bowl pool. Most commonly, though, it's a version of football squares. You and others fill in one or more of 100 squares in a 10-by-10 grid for a set price, say $10. After all the squares are accounted for, numbers 0 through 9 are randomly drawn and written along the top and side edges of the grid. As the game unfolds, prizes are awarded for end-of-quarter scores. The bettor with the box that matches the final score is usually the big winner. 

    You don’t need any special insight about the Carolina Panthers’ defensive schemes to win a Super Bowl pool, just dumb luck. Still, a few informative and fun observations won’t hurt. Here are five.

    If you buy multiple squares, don’t choose a single row or column. From a cold, probabilistic standpoint, it doesn’t matter which squares you choose—before the numbers are assigned to the grid, each square has the same value. If you ended up purchasing half of the squares in the Super Bowl pool where the Denver Broncos score ends in a 6, you’ll have a very specific rooting interest.

    Sevens and zeros aren’t what they used to be. Thank the two-point conversion. The NFL reintroduced the two-point conversion in 1994, leading to special-team coaches carrying around conversion charts and making 20-17 finals slightly less common occurrences. In addition, extra points are no longer a sure thing in the NFL—one out of 18 extra point kicks were missed this season.

    Don’t expect to win with a 2-and-2 box. Deuces aren’t wild in the NFL. According to the Pro Football Reference website, of the over 15,000 NFL games played since 1922, only six ended with both teams scoring either 2, 12, 22, 32, or 42 points.

    Make sure final is final. There’s never been overtime in a Super Bowl, but there’s always a first. So make sure your pool ringleader is clear about the difference between the end of the 4th quarter and the final score.

    Stop worrying about what might happen to your retirement savings. According to the Super Bowl indicator, investors are supposed to worry if an original NFL franchise doesn’t win the Super Bowl. As neither team in Super Bowl 50 is an original NFL franchise, 2016 will continue to be bleak for stocks according to the indicator. An alternative to playing in a Super Bowl pool: consider increasing your weekly retirement savings by the amount you would have spent on this week's pool.

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

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    How Prepared Foods Stack Up to Frozen Meals and Restaurant Takeout

    Prepared foods are now the rage in supermarkets. But many consumers who don’t want to cook still turn to two old standbys: restaurant takeout and frozen dinners. How do those three types of meals compare nutritionally? Below, we calculated the calorie, fat, and sodium levels for frozen and restaurant dishes that were similar to a few of the prepared foods we tested. (The packaged sizes varied considerably, so we had to make the portions uniform.) And here’s the rub: None of the options was predictably more healthful than the others. Most contained too much sodium. That leaves us to conclude that homemade—where you can at least control the salt shaker—is still best.


    More on Prepared Foods

    • Supermarket Prepared Meals: What to Watch Out For
    • From Our Experts: Buying Prepared Food
    America's Best Supermarkets—and Worst

    Nutritional Information for Prepared Meals

    We identified popular dishes sold at six supermarket chains in the New York metro area. We picked four dishes per chain—two main courses and two sides—and sent them to a lab to be analyzed to get the kind of nutritional profile consumers can’t always find. We bought three samples of each dish at different store locations; the nutritional values here are averages of those samples.

    Click on the image below to download a our "Nutrition by the Numbers" PDF.

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

    Editor's Note: This article also appeared in the March 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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    From Our Experts: Buying Prepared Food

    Between long work hours and frustrating commutes, there isn't always a lot of time to make healthy meals for your family. Buying prepared food at the supermarket is one option—if you choose carefully. Here are a few guidelines to remember before you take the plunge.

    1. Stay fresh. Buy prepared food to eat today or soon after. You want the dish to be as fresh as possible, so plan to store it in the fridge for no more than three or four days, max. (That’s true for leftover prepared meals, too.)

    2. Buy prepared food last. When shopping, plan to pick up prepared food last so the cold items stay cold and the hot items stay hot. Buy hot food only if you plan to eat it within 2 hours, making sure to keep it at least at 140° F. Otherwise, it’s better to buy food that needs refrigerating, then reheat it to at least 165° F. No food thermometer? Pick one up so you can make sure your food is cooked and served at safe temperatures.


    More on Prepared Foods

    Supermarket Prepared Meals: What to Watch Out For
    How Prepared Foods Stack Up
    America's Best Supermarkets—and Worst

    3. Keep it healthy. The idea is that prepared food is an alternative to cooking at home, so it should contain the kind of ingredients you cook with, such as fresh vegetables and spices, and it shouldn't have a lot of added salt. If something is smothered in gravy or slick with oil, for example, it’s probably not a healthy choice.

    4. Get creative. You can stretch prepared food to save money as well as calories, fat, and sodium. For example, serve a prepared side dish from the deli counter over fresh greens from the produce section.

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

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

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    Supermarket Prepared Meals: What to Watch Out For

     Barbecued pulled pork with garlicky greens. Spicy tuna rolls with avocado. Artichoke asiago rice croquettes. Are they menu choices at a white-tablecloth restaurant? These days, you’re just as likely to find prepared meals like those at your local supermarket. According to a survey of almost 63,000 Consumer Reports subscribers, more than half buy meals at the fresh prepared-food counter of the grocery store. In fact, preapred meals have become almost a $29 billion-a-year business, growing twice as fast as overall grocery store sales.

    Wendy Rose, 53, is one such consumer. She works full-time as a program manager for a nonprofit, and depends on prepared foods—such as adobo chicken and kale, cranberry, and pecan salad—from Whole Foods and Union Market to help get dinner on the table for her family of three in Brooklyn, N.Y. A few times a week, she or her husband pick up part of their meal from the prepared-food counter to supplement what they make themselves. So mini meatloaves are paired with their own mashed potatoes and green beans. “We all want to be sitting down at the table together,” she says. “Anything that’s going to help that happen is a winner.”

    Convenience may have fueled this trend, but what’s keeping it going is a desire for meals we think are healthier than traditional takeout or dinners from the frozen-food aisle. “Consumers want the time savings they could get from a fast-food restaurant, but fresher, healthier meal options and more customized choices,” says Karen Buch, R.D.N., L.D.N., a consultant to the food industry who spent a dozen years as a supermarket dietitian.


    More on Prepared Foods

    • How Prepared Foods Stack Up to Frozen Meals and Restaurant Takeout
    • From Our Experts: Buying Prepared Food
    America's Best Supermarkets—And Worst

    Consumer Reports wanted to find out whether this burgeoning breed of convenience food is actually fresh and healthful. Our nutrition experts and secret shoppers scanned the prepared-food cases at six major supermarket chains in the Northeast. They made several visits over four weeks last spring to see which dishes were offered regularly. With that information in hand, we chose 24 prepared meals—entrées and side dishes—that were a mix of such basics as rotisserie chicken or mashed potatoes; upscale dishes, such as Parmesan-crusted tilapia, and healthier-sounding fare, such as edamame-cranberry salad.

    Then shoppers went to at least three locations of each chain, where they bought the selected dishes and asked counter personnel questions about where the food was prepared and whether nutritional information was available. All three samples of each dish were analyzed in a laboratory for calories, fat, saturated fat, sodium, and—for foods expected to contain it—fiber. (Download a PDF of “Nutrition by the Numbers” for a list of the average values.)

    Our testing and analysis revealed some surprising findings that smart food consumers need to know.

    1. ‘Freshly Made’ Doesn’t Always Mean Fresh Ingredients

    Not all stores promise that the preapred meals they sell are fresh and not processed. But that’s certainly the implication; by going to a bustling counter with chef-like personnel, you might think you’re getting a meal that’s something close to homemade in the traditional sense of the word.

    But you’d be wrong to assume that there are always cooks in the back peeling and mashing potatoes or dipping chicken cutlets into egg and breadcrumbs. In fact, only about half of the prepared meals we purchased for our tests were made on the premises, according to the store clerks who were quizzed by our secret shoppers.

    None of the supermarkets we went to made every dish they sold in-house. What’s more, our investigation revealed that some dishes weren’t even prepared in the same ZIP code as the store. “In-store preparation”—a kitchen in every location—carries high costs. As a result, those stores that make dishes on-site charge accordingly.

    So where does most of the prepared food sold in supermarkets come from? Some chains use centralized kitchens to prepare big batches of ready-to-serve dishes such as soup, then deliver them to stores.

    Others “provide meal solutions that consumers perceive to be fresh but in fact have been delivered frozen [to the supermarket] and are reheated in the store ‘kitchen,’ ” according to a report from the consulting and research firms A.T. Kearney and Technomic.

    Neither option produces dishes that are necessarily free of preservatives or other ingredients you’ll find in processed food. The mashed potatoes we bought from two ShopRite locations, for instance, contained sodium benzoate, a preservative, and disodium pyrophosphate to maintain color. Costco’s mac and cheese contained artificial color, and Wegmans’ chicken Parmesan contained wheat gluten.

    Sometimes the meals were actually made with packaged processed foods. The creamy sauce that topped the turkey meatloaf at The Fresh Market, for example, wasn’t the supermarket chef’s recipe. The counterperson told our shopper that it was actually a brand of bottled poppyseed salad dressing called Briannas.

    Is any of this actually harmful for consumers? Not necessarily. But many people try to minimize the processed foods in their diet, sometimes for health reasons such as a sensitivity to preservatives. And they might assume—not unreasonably—that the prepared meals they buy are made from fresh ingredients. Common allergens like nuts and eggs often have to be disclosed, but federal regulations don’t always mandate that stores provide an ingredients list unless the food has a health claim such as “low fat.”

    Most of the stores we went to provided that information. But some lists were missing ingredients. The salad dressing on The Fresh Market’s turkey meatloaf didn’t appear on the ingredients list, nor did the clearly visible avocado in some of the samples of Stop & Shops’ spicy tuna roll. Omissions such as those could pose a problem for people with allergies to less common ingredients, or those who avoid certain ingredients because they’re high in fat, calories, or sodium, says Amy Keating, R.D., a dietitian at Consumer Reports who oversaw our testing.

    In addition to concerns about health, some consumers may simply feel that “fresh” means that a dish was made on the premises. In fact, a group of shoppers in New Jersey brought a class-action lawsuit against three supermarket chains last year, saying that claims that their baked goods were made in-house were misleading because the products were actually delivered to the stores frozen or partially baked, then reheated. The judge dismissed the case because it didn’t meet the requirements for a class-action lawsuit, but it suggests how seriously some consumers take those claims.

    2. Pass the Salt, Again and Again and Again

    Most of the sodium in our diet comes from salt added to processed and restaurant foods. But our testing revealed that there’s loads of sodium hiding in the dishes you find in the prepared meals department, Keating says.

    Mini turkey meatloaves from The Fresh Market were mini salt licks: 891 milligrams in 6 ounces. And who would guess that a cup of the chain’s delicate lemon orzo was a salt bomb, with 938 milligrams per serving? That’s about 40 percent of the daily recommended limit of 2,300 milligrams per day. How about the vegetarian eggplant rollatini (635 milligrams) or spicy tuna rolls (834 milligrams in 6 ounces)?

    The health consequences of overdosing on sodium are serious. Too much boosts the risk of high blood pressure, which in turn raises the risk of heart disease and stroke. To get a sense of the amount of sodium in a healthful-sounding entrée, download a nutrition information app such as Calorieking.com, Buch suggests. You won’t find data for specific dishes, but the estimates for items like meatloaf or Asian noodles will at least be in the right ballpark, she says.

    3. Stores Can Stonewall on Nutritional Information

    Here’s a big loophole: The Food and Drug Administration requires packaged foods to carry Nutrition Facts labels, but it isn’t mandatory for many fresh prepared meals to have those same labels. And that’s not likely to change significantly anytime soon, even with some new FDA nutritional-labeling rules set to go into effect at the end of this year.

    The new rules will require amusement parks, coffee shops, movie theaters, restaurants, and vending machines with 20 or more locations to post calorie counts for the food they sell and make other nutritional information available upon request. So will grocery stores, but the rules won’t apply to all fresh prepared meals there.

    The FDA says the information will be required for food intended to be “eaten on the premises, while walking away, or soon after arriving at another location.” That covers such items as sandwiches prepackaged or made to order at a deli counter or food you serve yourself at a hot bar or salad bar, but not food sold by weight from behind a counter, says Lauren Kotwicki, an FDA spokeswoman.

    “It’s confusing,” Keating says. “For dishes that are sold at the hot bar or salad bar, the store will have to provide nutrition information. But if you buy the same dish by the pound from the deli counter, it won’t.”

    Currently, information on calories and other nutrients is hard to come by. Of the six chains we went to, only Wegmans and a dish from one ShopRite location had calorie information printed on packages. Wegmans also had full nutritional information on its website.

    But at The Fresh Market and Costco, we were able to obtain nutrition info only by contacting the companies. Aside from a sample of one dish at ShopRite, the other stores didn’t have the nutritional information, although Whole Foods said it planned to by the fall of 2016.

    Even more of a concern was that when nutritional information was available from a store, it didn’t always match our lab’s findings. Some stores provided sodium and fat levels that were lower or higher than what our lab calculated.

    The Fresh Market, for example, claimed its turkey meatloaf had 7 grams of fat, but our findings revealed an average of 18 grams per serving.

    We also found wide variations in some nutrients in the same dishes from store to store. Our three samples of ShopRite’s chicken marsala, for example, ranged from 359 milligrams of sodium per 6 ounces to 1,003 milligrams. The amount of fat in the tortellini and sundried tomato salad from Stop & Shop was 18 to 29 grams per cup.

    4. Don’t Underestimate the Power of Portion Control

    Unlike packaged foods, most prepared foods have no suggested serving size. With no guidance—and because you buy those foods either by weight or by the piece—a serving size is pretty much up to you to calculate. Another potential trap: Research has found that big containers of food translate into bigger portions spooned onto plates, says David Just, Ph.D., a professor at Cornell University’s Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management.

    When we calculated our nutritional numbers, we used 6 ounces as a serving for main dishes and 1 cup for sides. “Those are reasonable portion sizes,” Keating says, “but what you get at the store may be quite different.” Even within the same chain, portions sold by the piece can vary from location to location. For instance, one piece of the tilapia with Parmesan crust we bought at a Whole Foods was 5 ounces, but we were served an 11-ounce piece at another branch.

    “Most people would look at a ‘piece’ as a serving,” Keating says. “An 11-ounce serving of that fish would come in at 728 calories vs. 307 for a 5-ounce piece.” That’s why it’s important to weigh your food, because if your store does offer nutritional information, you can apply it to the portions you’re eating.

    Don’t want to be bothered with a scale? A deck of cards or the palm of your hand is about the same size as about 3 ounces of fish, meat, or poultry. Imagine a baseball or use your fist to judge what a cup of beans, grains, dried pasta, or vegetables looks like on your plate.

    Keep in mind, too, that you’re probably going to eat a main dish and a side—or two—and that even foods with moderate calorie counts for reasonable portions can add up when you add them all together. So if you pair 6 ounces of tilapia with 1 cup of Whole Food’s asparagus salad, your meal will be 448 calories. But if you choose the cranberry couscous side instead, the calorie count will jump to 767.

    5. The Cost of Convenience Is Steep

    You may not want to spend your after-work hours julienning vegetables or preparing slow-roasted pork, but the convenience of fresh prepared foods comes at a pretty stiff price. There are some good deals—rotisserie chicken was $1.66 per pound at Costco, for instance. But $9.99 per pound for asparagus salad at Whole Foods or $4.99 per pound for mashed potatoes at ShopRite was a bit on the high side. Kristen Gradney, R.D.N., L.D.N., a spokeswoman for the American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, suggests spending on items that are the most time- or labor-intensive, such as a rotisserie chicken that can provide more than one meal, but make simpler dishes yourself. Our testers found that some fancy-sounding dishes, such as tuscan kale and cannellini bean salad—with correspondingly fancy prices—were relatively easy to make for less than half the cost. (See “The Price of Ready-Made Meals," below.)


    The Price of Ready-Made Meals

    We calculated the cost of the ingredients and labor required for making these four simple dishes from scratch in our test kitchens. What we learned: To make them at home cost about half the price of the store-bought version—plus about 30 minutes of labor. Only you can decide which trade-off matters most.

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

    Editor's Note: This article also appeared in the March 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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