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    Give the Gift of Travel on Valentine's Day

    If you're still trying to find the perfect Valentine's Day gift, here's an alternative to wine and chocolates. Surprise your spouse with travel, the most-desired gift on Cupid's day, according to a survey of more than 2,000 people by Offers.com, an online marketplace that aggregates product deals and discounts.

    The combination of love and travel has special appeal. "The spontaneity of a romantic getaway is key to keeping the passion of your relationship alive," says Dr. Kat Smith, a sex therapist and author of the book, Romantic Retreats in Texas.

    While that may be true, a little planning may be wise. While far-off destinations like London, Paris, and Rome may have romantic appeal, they often require more advance planning than a domestic trip. Travel closer to home, however, is usually more flexible—consider a weekend roadtrip to a bed and breakfast—and more budget-friendly.

    Be Practical

    Keep in mind that while plans for a trip may seem romantic, it may not be practical. A good idea: Forewarn your spouse of the planned travel dates, especially if you're making non-refundable deposits or purchases.

    Even more practical—you may want to simply give your spouse the promise of a trip. Then, you can figure out the details and the budget together, to avoid any unpleasant surprises. One recommendation: If you're pregnant or planning to get pregnant, avoid travel to the 27 countries, American Samoa, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands, where the mosquito-borne Zika virus has been reported.

    Finally, use these valuable money-saving travel tips:   

    • Look for savings on accommodations by finding last-minute deals online, booking a condo, house, or apartment instead of a hotel and using your rewards card points.
    • Plan the dates of a bigger, more expensive trip to a less-expensive shoulder season, which takes place, for example, in April and May in Florida, mid-March in Hawaii, and April in the Rocky Mountains when the ski season is coming to an end.
    • Don't let high airfares, cramped airline seats, and poor service on a flight spoil your vacation. Choose a top-rated airline and shop wisely for the best fares.
    • Get the best car-rental price by booking through discount websites like Hotwire and Priceline, and carefully consider whether you need rental car insurance—your credit card company may already provide it.

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

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    Top-Freezer Refrigerators Are Still the Sensible Choice

    Top-freezer refrigerators don’t show up in many design magazines and they're not front-and-center on showroom floors, like the flashier French-doors. What the best top-freezers do offer is solid temperature control, superb energy efficiency, and a compact design, for thousands less than you’ll spend on more stylish configurations. That’s what Consumer Reports tests routinely find.

    Although there was one top-freezer in our latest batch that might look the part in a glossy magazine. The question is: can it match the high design with peak performance? We’ve got the details here.         

    GE raises the bar for value
    At $540, the GE GTE15CTHRWW top-freezer is the least expensive on our recommended list. Then again it’s also the smallest, offering just 11.6 cubic feet of usable capacity, or about half as much storage as the roomiest French-door refrigerators. The GE is also short on convenience features—no adjustable shelves, no ice dispenser, no touchpad controls. But for apartment-dwellers or that first-time single homeowner, it’s definitely worth a look.

    Summit hits new high for style
    Based in the Bronx borough of New York City, Summit Appliances has built a name around major appliances in hard-to-find footprints, so its fresh take on the top-freezer makes sense. The Summit Ingenious Series FF1935PLIM, $1,500, stands 73 inches tall, which is a good foot taller than many top-freezers. It also looks like no other top-freezer we’ve tested, thanks to its exterior digital control panel and a drop-down door that lets you grab snacks and drinks without reaching into the main chamber. The platinum finish and curved door design are also unique. 

    Performance with the Summit was less impressive. Temperature control was only average and the refrigerator was also noisier than the best top-freezers in our Ratings. As for storage, its 17.1 cubic feet of usable capacity is a lot for a top freezer, but you can find roomier models in the category that are several inches shorter.                            

    LG still tops the category      
    For the time being, three top-freezers share the top score in our top-freezer Ratings, and two of them come from LG (the third is a GE). The LG LTCS20220S, $950, combines solid temperature control with outstanding energy efficiency and quietness; features include spillproof shelves and touchpad controls. Paying a bit more for the LG LTCS24223S, $1,080, gets you similar features and performance plus an additional two cubic feet of usable storage.

    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 Get the Best Eyeglass Lenses

    Picking frames that look right is tough enough. After that all-important decision, you still have to choose eyeglass lenses and coatings. Those decisions are key to how well you’ll see and how much you’ll spend. Americans shell out an average of $275 after insurance for new glasses, and most of that money is for lenses—not frames.

    You can’t always rely on salespeople, who may work on commission, to guide you. But Consumer Reports' expert steps will help.

    Looking at Lenses

    The two best-selling eyeglass lenses are the most basic ones: CR-39 and the polycarbonate, both plastic. (Few people now use glass, which is heavy and breakable.) If you have a single-vision prescription (glasses to see far away or close up), you can generally get by with CR-39 lenses. They can be inexpensive—we found them for $29 to $149—but they can look thick with stronger prescriptions.

    A more durable, thinner, lighter, and more popular option is polycarbonate lenses, which we found for $9 to $205. Some retailers even offer lenses free of charge as part of packages. But if you need glasses to see both near and far, lens choices get more complex. Here are four, along with their national average costs:

    • Progressives ($260) provide a smooth, gradual change in lens strength for seeing well at any distance. Consider them if you need glasses for distance and reading and find the split screen of bifocals or trifocals uncomfortable. Pricier than bifocals ($105), they can be made with CR-39, polycarbonate, or high-index lenses.
    • High-index lenses ($150 for single vision, $350 for progressives) are thinner and lighter than CR-39 or polycarbonate lenses, and they will work for even the strongest prescriptions.
    • High-definition lenses ($310 for progressive HD lenses) offer sharper vision and better peripheral vision than standard technology. You might want to opt for them if you have more complex visual problems, such as cataracts or corneal scars. They can be made with CR-39, polycarbonate, or high-index lenses.
    • Trivex lenses ($200 for single vision, $400 for progressives) are more scratch-resistant than either CR-39 or polycarbonate lenses. They can be useful if you wear rimless or semi-rimless frames, or if you’re hard on glasses.

    Coatings to Consider

    Lens coatings are meant to protect your eyes from light or increase lens durability. Five common treatments to know about:

    • Anti-scratch­—generally a good idea for all—comes with 95 percent of plastic lenses. Check the warranty; retailers such as Warby Parker will replace lenses that get scratched in the first year after purchase free of charge.
    • Anti-reflective coating ($50 to $100), often bundled with high-index and HD lenses, used to be hard to clean and smudge-prone but now has anti-smudge/anti-fog technology. If you have trouble seeing properly when on a computer, driving, and at night, consider them.
    • Ultraviolet protection ($20 to $100) is a good idea for most people because the sun’s UV rays may boost the risk of cataracts. Most lenses already come with this coating; make sure yours do.
    • Photochromic coating ($50 to $150) darkens in sunlight and shields you from UV rays. It’s helpful if you’d rather not carry separate sunglasses.
    • Blue-light-blocking coatings ($30 to $180) are said to reduce exposure to computer screens’ LED light. (Some studies suggest that overexposure can damage the retina and increase the risk of age-related macular degeneration and cataracts.)  

    But there’s “no strong evidence that blue light affects the retina in any way we have to be worried about,” says Neil Bressler, M.D., chief of the retina division at the Johns Hopkins Wilmer Eye Institute. The orange or yellow tints may give you the perception that the tint is soothing to your eyes when you’re on a computer, but there is no strong evidence that you need them for eye health or safety.

    4 Ways to Save Money

    • Ask your optician for a discount. “Prices are not set in stone,” says Steve Kodey, senior director of industry research for The Vision Council, a trade organization.
    • Have costs broken down. Eyeglass lenses and coatings are often bundled together. A listing of prices will help you see where you can shave costs.
    • Find out about cheaper alternatives. Some lenses and coatings are available in less expensive generic forms.
    • Check online prices. Kodey says that many optical shops are inclined to match those prices. If not, check the big-box stores. At Costco, a pair of HD progressive lenses with anti-reflective coating and UV protection costs $130; at Walmart, the price is $255.

     

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

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    When is a mattress sale not a mattress sale?

    Not all mattress sellers run sales, but those that do seem to make up for the rest. During holiday weekends in particular, huge markups often let retailers lower prices by 50 percent or more. But even at other times of the year, department stores and some specialty mattress sellers invariably put something on sale. But don't take a salesperson’s word at face value as you may end up paying top dollar for a mattress that you could have gotten cheaper.

    Here’s why: No matter what time of the year, the intention is to get you into the store. Salespeople on the floor typically work by commission, so if you pay half-price for the exact model advertised, that’s half the commission, too. So you’ll typically be steered toward “better” mattresses said to be firmer, more comfortable, recommended by the most customers, and whatever else it may take to sway you. And it doesn’t end there. Other upsells—think mattress covers, comforters, or the foundation—bring the price of the overall package higher still.

    And even if you insist on a particular low-priced mattress that you saw online or in a circular, the $300 sample might not be anything you’d really want to take home. The salespeople know this, and if you spend the 10 to 15 minutes that we recommend to lie on the mattress before making a decision, you’ll know it, too. Which is part of the game.

    Consumer Reports' mattress Ratings give you a sound basis for selecting among the dozens of innerspring, memory foam, and adjustable air mattresses we’ve tested.  The safest strategy for getting a great mattress at a price that won’t keep you awake nights: Over a period of weeks or even a few months, monitor the full selling-price range of the mattress you’re considering at the retailer you want to patronize. And once you’re ready to buy, insist on that mattress alone—and at the lowest price you’ve seen the store advertise it.

    Chances are, you’ll get resistance, perhaps even a flat-out refusal. The salesperson, after all, is counting on you to want to settle the deal and walk out with a delivery scheduled, done with the onerous process for the next decade. But even if you desperately want the whole thing over, say thanks anyway and head for the door. You won’t make it. And once you shake hands on the deal, at the price you wanted, resist the upsells.

    Not all stores routinely put mattresses on sale. Bob’s Discount Furniture and The Original Mattress Factory are among sellers that set one price for their mattresses and seldom, if ever, discount them. Others, such as Sleep Number, run sales only a few times a year. But that leaves myriad other sellers that play price games every day.

    Top mattresses from our tests

    Our mattress Ratings score beds on support, durability, and other criteria, with top-ranked models such as the innerspring Sealy Posturepedic Hybrid Elite Kelburn, $1,350; the Novaform 14-inch Serafina Pearl Gel, $800 at Costco; and the adjustable-air Sleep Number i8 bed, $3,000. We also feature survey-based Ratings of mattress brands and stores to gauge shopper satisfaction. Be sure to check out our mattress buying guide before venturing out to the store.

    —Ed Perratore (@EdPerratore on Twitter)

    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 Save Money With Car Seat Trade-In Events

    With the average price of a new convertible car seat hovering around $175, any chance to save some money on seats, or really any baby products, is something to consider. Significant savings are available through sales and especially trade-in events, like those offered by Babies "R" Us. Such events provide an opportunity to trade-in older or outgrown child seats or other gear for the next step in safety.

    The old seat could bring a 25 percent, or more, discount on a purchase. Plus, it is a convenient way to dispose of a child seat—a pricey item that should not be handed down.  

    When It Is Time to Trade In?

    There are several key factors to consider when determining if it is time to trade-in a seat. Probably the most important tip is to not advance your child too soon. It isn’t a race to progress your child through the seats quickly. Rather, the real contest should be how to keep the little one as safe as possible. Consumer Reports provides car seating buying advice and ratings to help you through the selection process.

    Your baby is too big for their infant seat: Though many rear-facing-only infant seats have weight limits of 30 lbs. or higher, most don’t have height limits to match. So don’t be surprised if your baby outgrows their infant seat and the convenience of the carrier long before they reach the advertised weight limit. Trading in that infant seat for a rear-facing convertible will not only allow them to stay rear-facing longer (the safest orientation), but you may get the best bang-for-your-buck on a more pricey convertible.

    Your baby is a year old: Based on our most recent recommendations and tests results, if your child has reached their first birthday and still fits in their rear-facing only infant seat, moving to a rear-facing convertible seat at age 1 offers the safest transport. Our newest crash-test methodology for child seat includes a surface that simulates a front seatback.

    Comparing tests of both infant and convertible seats, we found that a dummy simulating a 1-year-old child was far more likely to hit its head on that simulated front seatback in an infant seat than in a rear-facing convertible seat. If your child is getting close to their first birthday, a move to a convertible seat may allow you to take advantage of some cost savings.

    Your seat has expired: Many parents don’t realize that child seats carry expiration dates. For most seats, the manual or a label on the seat indicates a date from the seat’s manufacturing date for when that seat should be discontinued; a typical service life is six years.

    Expiration dates are set to make sure that key components of the seat haven’t degraded and that it meets contemporary safety standards, which are always improving. (Learn more in "When to retire a child seat, how to recycle an old one.")

    Your seat has been in a crash: Though most seats can be reused after a minor fender bender, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) recommends replacing a seat if: it has been involved in a collision that involved injuries or required the vehicle to be towed; deployed airbags; or damaged the seat or nearest door. If you’ve had such a circumstance and haven’t yet replaced the seat, a trade-in may offer a good time to do so.

    Your seat is damaged: Daily use, heat and cold cycles, and less than careful storage can take a toll on a seat’s structure. Check for cracks, loose parts, and worn straps and fasteners. If the seat is damaged, it may not offer as much protection in a crash. Even if you’re trading for the same type of seat, one with new, undamaged components will prove better than a worn one.

    It’s simply time for the next step: If your child has outgrown any of their child seat stages or is close to doing so, a trade-in event may be the time to make the move. But don’t rush the process, even if the savings are tempting. Other than moving from a rear-facing infant to a rear-facing convertible seat, other transitions may actually prove less safe. For example, a forward-facing seat is less safe than a rear-facing seat and a booster is less safe than a forward-facing harnessed seat.  

    So whether your child’s ready to make a key transition or if your seat just needs an upgrade, a trade-in event may be just the time to make a move. The national Babies "R" Us event runs through February 29th. Also, check with your local baby products retailer to see if they have an event planned.  

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

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    Best Presidents Day Appliance Sales

    Presidents Day weekend is one of the best times of year to find sales on major appliances. Consumer Reports combed the websites of Best Buy, Home Depot, Lowe’s, and Sears and found some great discounts on some of our top-rated appliances including kitchen and cleaning appliances. Depending on the store, you’ll find discounts of 25 to 40 percent and most stores are throwing in free delivery as well.

    Below are top picks from our tests and the sale prices at each of the four stores. All the prices are taken from the retailers’ websites. If a retailer isn’t listed under a particular product, that means it doesn’t carry that model, the item isn’t on sale, or the final sale price is only revealed at the online checkout. In the case of Kenmore, which is a Sears brand, only the price at that store is listed.

    Refrigerators

    Top top-freezer refrigerator: LG LTCS20220S
    Best Buy: $900 from $1,050
    Home Depot: $900 from $1,050
    Lowe’s: $898 from $1,050
    Sears: $898 from $1,050

    Top bottom-freezer refrigerator: Kenmore Elite 79043
    Sears: $1,260 from $2,100

    Top 3-door French-door refrigerator: Samsung RF28HDEDPWW
    Best Buy: $2,195 from $3,200
    Home Depot: $2,195 from $3,000
    Lowe’s: $2,879 from $3,199

    Top 4-door French-door refrigerator: Samsung Chef Collection RF34H9960S4
    Best Buy: $5,400 from $6,000
    Home Depot: $4,994 from $5,549
    Lowe’s: $4,998 from $5,999

    Top side-by-side refrigerator: Samsung RS25H5121SR
    Home Depot: $1,596 from $1,774

    Top standalone freezer: Kenmore Elite 27002
    Sears: $780 from $1,120


    Cooking Appliances

    Top countertop microwave: Panasonic Inverter NN-H965BF
    Best Buy: $153 from $170

    Top over-the-range microwave: GE Profile PVM9215SFSS
    Best Buy: $495 from $550
    Home Depot:  $495 from $550
    Lowe’s: $495 from $550
    Sears: $495 from $550

    Top electric range: Kenmore 95052
    Sears: $1,000 from $1,500

    Top induction range: Kenmore 95073
    Sears: $1,700 from $2,000

    Top gas range: Samsung NX58F5700WS
    Best Buy: $1,200 from $1,700
    Home Depot: $1,198 from $1,700
    Lowe’s: $1,200 from $1,700

    Top pro-style range: KitchenAid KDRS407VSS
    Best Buy: $4,140 from $4,600
    Home Depot: $4,140 from $4,600
    Lowe’s: $4,140 from $4,600
    Sears: $4,417 from $4,600

    Top electric cooktop: KitchenAid KECC604BBL
    Best Buy: $765 from $950
    Home Depot: $854 from $950
    Lowe’s:  $764 from $950
    Sears: $850 from $950

    Top induction cooktop: GE Cafe CHP9530
    Best Buy: $1,780 from $2,000
    Home Depot: $1,800 from $2,000
    Lowe’s: $1,800 from $2,000
    Sears: $1,800 from $2,000

    Top gas cooktop: Whirlpool WCG97US0DS
    Best Buy: $810 from $1,000
    Home Depot: $808 from $1,000
    Lowe’s: $809 from $1,000
    Sears: $808 from $1,000

    Top wall oven: Whirlpool WOS92EC0AH
    Best Buy: $1,485 from $1,650
    Home Depot: $1,484 from $1,650
    Lowe’s: $1,484 from $1,650
    Sears: $1,484 from $1,650


    Laundry and Cleaning

    Top dishwasher: KitchenAid KDTM354DSS
    Home Depot: $809 from $1,100
    Lowe’s: $989 from $1,100
    Sears: $809 from $1,100

    Top front-loader washer: Samsung WF56H9110CW
    Home Depot: $1,439 from $1,600

    Top HE top-loader washer: Samsung WA52J8700AP
    Best Buy: $850 from $1,200
    Home Depot: $849 from $1,200
    Lowe’s: $849 from $1,200

    Top electric dryer: Samsung DV56H9100EG
    Best Buy: $1,230 from $1,700
    Home Depot: $1,299 from $1,700
    Lowe’s: $1,299 from $1,700

    Top canister vacuum: Kenmore Elite 21814
    Sears: $420 from $600

    Top upright vacuum: Kenmore Elite 31150
    Sears: $262 from $350

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

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    Mattress Recycling Is Easier Than You Think

    Because one old mattress can occupy 40 cubic feet or more in a landfill, mattresses are an obvious candidate for recycling. And although 80 percent of the components can be recycled, not everyone makes the effort. That’s one reason Rhode Island has become the third state to require that mattresses be recycled joining California and Connecticut. And at least 20 other states have mattress recycling facilities.

    Rhode Island launches its approved recycling plan on May 1. It’s operated by Bye Bye Mattress, which was established by the Mattress Recycling Council. In the three states where recycling is mandatory, mattress retailers are adding a $10 recycling fee to the price of every mattress sold.

    At least 20 million mattresses and box springs are discarded each year. In addition to being better for the environment, recycling an old mattress makes good business sense. There are plenty of materials to glean from a dismantled mattress, a process that’s typically done by hand. Steel from the springs can be melted down and used in many products. Foam is often processed into carpet padding. Wood from box springs can be made into wood chips for mulch. And fiber is reprocessed for a number of uses, such as filters for industrial equipment.

    Even if you don’t live in a state that requires mattress recycling, check the Bye Bye Mattress database to find the recycling center closest to you. 

    That’s for when you get rid of an mattress, but you certainly don't want to unknowingly buy one. Be aware that some smaller, lesser-known stores could be selling used mattresses. To avoid ending up with someone else's old mattress, always look for the label “All New Material” on the tag. And if a mattress is delivered to you without that tag, don’t accept it.

    Need a New Mattress?

    Among top picks from Consumer Reports' Ratings of dozens of mattresses are the innerspring Sealy Posturepedic Hybrid Elite Kelburn, $1,350, which had impressive support for side sleepers, and the bargain-priced Denver Mattress Doctor's Choice, $500, which had fine back support as well. For a foam bed, both side and back sleepers should appreciate the Novaform 14" Serafina Pearl Gel, $800 at Costco. And consider the $800 Sleep Number c2 Bed if you’d like an adjustable-air mattress. See our mattress buying guide if you haven’t shopped for a mattress in several years.

    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 Save Money With Car Seat Trade-In Events

    With the average price of a new convertible car seat hovering around $175, any chance to save some money on seats, or really any baby products, is something to consider. Significant savings are available through sales and especially trade-in events, like those offered by Babies "R" Us. Such events provide an opportunity to trade-in older or outgrown child seats or other gear for the next step in safety.

    The old seat could bring a 25 percent, or more, discount on a purchase. Plus, it is a convenient way to dispose of a child seat—a pricey item that should not be handed down.  

    When It Is Time to Trade In?

    There are several key factors to consider when determining if it is time to trade-in a seat. Probably the most important tip is to not advance your child too soon. It isn’t a race to progress your child through the seats quickly. Rather, the real contest should be how to keep the little one as safe as possible. Consumer Reports provides car seating buying advice and ratings to help you through the selection process.

    Your baby is too big for their infant seat: Though many rear-facing-only infant seats have weight limits of 30 lbs. or higher, most don’t have height limits to match. So don’t be surprised if your baby outgrows their infant seat and the convenience of the carrier long before they reach the advertised weight limit. Trading in that infant seat for a rear-facing convertible will not only allow them to stay rear-facing longer (the safest orientation), but you may get the best bang-for-your-buck on a more pricey convertible.

    Your baby is a year old: Based on our most recent recommendations and tests results, if your child has reached their first birthday and still fits in their rear-facing only infant seat, moving to a rear-facing convertible seat at age 1 offers the safest transport. Our newest crash-test methodology for child seat includes a surface that simulates a front seatback.

    Comparing tests of both infant and convertible seats, we found that a dummy simulating a 1-year-old child was far more likely to hit its head on that simulated front seatback in an infant seat than in a rear-facing convertible seat. If your child is getting close to their first birthday, a move to a convertible seat may allow you to take advantage of some cost savings.

    Your seat has expired: Many parents don’t realize that child seats carry expiration dates. For most seats, the manual or a label on the seat indicates a date from the seat’s manufacturing date for when that seat should be discontinued; a typical service life is six years.

    Expiration dates are set to make sure that key components of the seat haven’t degraded and that it meets contemporary safety standards, which are always improving. (Learn more in "When to retire a child seat, how to recycle an old one.")

    Your seat has been in a crash: Though most seats can be reused after a minor fender bender, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) recommends replacing a seat if: it has been involved in a collision that involved injuries or required the vehicle to be towed; deployed airbags; or damaged the seat or nearest door. If you’ve had such a circumstance and haven’t yet replaced the seat, a trade-in may offer a good time to do so.

    Your seat is damaged: Daily use, heat and cold cycles, and less than careful storage can take a toll on a seat’s structure. Check for cracks, loose parts, and worn straps and fasteners. If the seat is damaged, it may not offer as much protection in a crash. Even if you’re trading for the same type of seat, one with new, undamaged components will prove better than a worn one.

    It’s simply time for the next step: If your child has outgrown any of their child seat stages or is close to doing so, a trade-in event may be the time to make the move. But don’t rush the process, even if the savings are tempting. Other than moving from a rear-facing infant to a rear-facing convertible seat, other transitions may actually prove less safe. For example, a forward-facing seat is less safe than a rear-facing seat and a booster is less safe than a forward-facing harnessed seat.  

    So whether your child’s ready to make a key transition or if your seat just needs an upgrade, a trade-in event may be just the time to make a move. The national Babies "R" Us event runs through February 29th. Also, check with your local baby products retailer to see if they have an event planned.  

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

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    Best Presidents Day Appliance Sales

    Presidents Day weekend is one of the best times of year to find sales on major appliances. Consumer Reports combed the websites of Best Buy, Home Depot, Lowe’s, and Sears and found some great discounts on some of our top-rated appliances including kitchen and cleaning appliances. Depending on the store, you’ll find discounts of 25 to 40 percent and most stores are throwing in free delivery as well.

    Below are top picks from our tests and the sale prices at each of the four stores. All the prices are taken from the retailers’ websites. If a retailer isn’t listed under a particular product, that means it doesn’t carry that model, the item isn’t on sale, or the final sale price is only revealed at the online checkout. In the case of Kenmore, which is a Sears brand, only the price at that store is listed.

    Refrigerators

    Top top-freezer refrigerator: LG LTCS20220S
    Best Buy: $900 from $1,050
    Home Depot: $900 from $1,050
    Lowe’s: $898 from $1,050
    Sears: $898 from $1,050

    Top bottom-freezer refrigerator: Kenmore Elite 79043
    Sears: $1,260 from $2,100

    Top 3-door French-door refrigerator: Samsung RF28HDEDPWW
    Best Buy: $2,195 from $3,200
    Home Depot: $2,195 from $3,000
    Lowe’s: $2,879 from $3,199

    Top 4-door French-door refrigerator: Samsung Chef Collection RF34H9960S4
    Best Buy: $5,400 from $6,000
    Home Depot: $4,994 from $5,549
    Lowe’s: $4,998 from $5,999

    Top side-by-side refrigerator: Samsung RS25H5121SR
    Home Depot: $1,596 from $1,774

    Top standalone freezer: Kenmore Elite 27002
    Sears: $780 from $1,120


    Cooking Appliances

    Top countertop microwave: Panasonic Inverter NN-H965BF
    Best Buy: $153 from $170

    Top over-the-range microwave: GE Profile PVM9215SFSS
    Best Buy: $495 from $550
    Home Depot:  $495 from $550
    Lowe’s: $495 from $550
    Sears: $495 from $550

    Top electric range: Kenmore 95052
    Sears: $1,000 from $1,500

    Top induction range: Kenmore 95073
    Sears: $1,700 from $2,000

    Top gas range: Samsung NX58F5700WS
    Best Buy: $1,200 from $1,700
    Home Depot: $1,198 from $1,700
    Lowe’s: $1,200 from $1,700

    Top pro-style range: KitchenAid KDRS407VSS
    Best Buy: $4,140 from $4,600
    Home Depot: $4,140 from $4,600
    Lowe’s: $4,140 from $4,600
    Sears: $4,417 from $4,600

    Top electric cooktop: KitchenAid KECC604BBL
    Best Buy: $765 from $950
    Home Depot: $854 from $950
    Lowe’s:  $764 from $950
    Sears: $850 from $950

    Top induction cooktop: GE Cafe CHP9530
    Best Buy: $1,780 from $2,000
    Home Depot: $1,800 from $2,000
    Lowe’s: $1,800 from $2,000
    Sears: $1,800 from $2,000

    Top gas cooktop: Whirlpool WCG97US0DS
    Best Buy: $810 from $1,000
    Home Depot: $808 from $1,000
    Lowe’s: $809 from $1,000
    Sears: $808 from $1,000

    Top wall oven: Whirlpool WOS92EC0AH
    Best Buy: $1,485 from $1,650
    Home Depot: $1,484 from $1,650
    Lowe’s: $1,484 from $1,650
    Sears: $1,484 from $1,650


    Laundry and Cleaning

    Top dishwasher: KitchenAid KDTM354DSS
    Home Depot: $809 from $1,100
    Lowe’s: $989 from $1,100
    Sears: $809 from $1,100

    Top front-loader washer: Samsung WF56H9110CW
    Home Depot: $1,439 from $1,600

    Top HE top-loader washer: Samsung WA52J8700AP
    Best Buy: $850 from $1,200
    Home Depot: $849 from $1,200
    Lowe’s: $849 from $1,200

    Top electric dryer: Samsung DV56H9100EG
    Best Buy: $1,230 from $1,700
    Home Depot: $1,299 from $1,700
    Lowe’s: $1,299 from $1,700

    Top canister vacuum: Kenmore Elite 21814
    Sears: $420 from $600

    Top upright vacuum: Kenmore Elite 31150
    Sears: $262 from $350

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

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    Mattress Recycling Is Easier Than You Think

    Because one old mattress can occupy 40 cubic feet or more in a landfill, mattresses are an obvious candidate for recycling. And although 80 percent of the components can be recycled, not everyone makes the effort. That’s one reason Rhode Island has become the third state to require that mattresses be recycled joining California and Connecticut. And at least 20 other states have mattress recycling facilities.

    Rhode Island launches its approved recycling plan on May 1. It’s operated by Bye Bye Mattress, which was established by the Mattress Recycling Council. In the three states where recycling is mandatory, mattress retailers are adding a $10 recycling fee to the price of every mattress sold.

    At least 20 million mattresses and box springs are discarded each year. In addition to being better for the environment, recycling an old mattress makes good business sense. There are plenty of materials to glean from a dismantled mattress, a process that’s typically done by hand. Steel from the springs can be melted down and used in many products. Foam is often processed into carpet padding. Wood from box springs can be made into wood chips for mulch. And fiber is reprocessed for a number of uses, such as filters for industrial equipment.

    Even if you don’t live in a state that requires mattress recycling, check the Bye Bye Mattress database to find the recycling center closest to you. 

    That’s for when you get rid of an mattress, but you certainly don't want to unknowingly buy one. Be aware that some smaller, lesser-known stores could be selling used mattresses. To avoid ending up with someone else's old mattress, always look for the label “All New Material” on the tag. And if a mattress is delivered to you without that tag, don’t accept it.

    Need a New Mattress?

    Among top picks from Consumer Reports' Ratings of dozens of mattresses are the innerspring Sealy Posturepedic Hybrid Elite Kelburn, $1,350, which had impressive support for side sleepers, and the bargain-priced Denver Mattress Doctor's Choice, $500, which had fine back support as well. For a foam bed, both side and back sleepers should appreciate the Novaform 14" Serafina Pearl Gel, $800 at Costco. And consider the $800 Sleep Number c2 Bed if you’d like an adjustable-air mattress. See our mattress buying guide if you haven’t shopped for a mattress in several years.

    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 Keep Your Black Clothes Looking Their Best

    While fashions change, wearing black never goes out of style. But show up dressed in black that’s faded and covered in fuzzies or detergent streaks and the look is anything but cool. Here’s how to keep your black clothes looking good from the pros at Consumer Reports. (Learn how to keep your white laundry white. And before you shop, find the best places to buy appliances.)

    Wash only when needed
    The more you wash, the more black dye washes away, especially with denim. So in between washings try airing out clothes. "Blot stains with a white cloth and a mixture of 1/2 cup water and a teaspoon of clear or white liquid dish detergent. Then blot with plain water," says Pat Slaven, a textile engineer at Consumer Reports. "Gently scrape semi-solids with the edge of a rounded spoon, then blot with a white cloth and the cleaning solution above." 

    Sort by color and weight
    Mixing fabrics, colors, and very dirty items with not-so-dirty can have disastrous results. Black clothes when new can bleed dye onto lighter colors. Washing delicates with heavy fabrics, using the delicate setting, can damage the fine items and do a poor job cleaning the heavier fabrics. So sort like items by color and weight.

    Turn clothes inside out
    Protect the outside of the black garment by turning it inside out, shielding it from the agitation, which breaks down the fibers and causes them to appear faded. Zip zippers and button shirts to prevent snagging. 

    Wash in cold water
    The cold water helps keep the fibers in black laundry from losing their color. Inspect the garments to see how dirty they are, and adjust the washing machine's soil setting, using the light-soil setting when possible as it’s gentler on fabrics than the medium- or heavy-soil setting. And use the shortest cycle possible needed to get them clean. Less time in the washer means less fading.

    Choose a detergent that gets the job done
    Use a detergent that was impressive or excellent in our cool water (75° F) cleaning tests. The best were Persil ProClean Power-Liquid 2in1 and Tide Plus Ultra Stain Release. They were also very good at removing grass, blood, and ring around the collar. When washing black laundry pass on detergents with bleach alternatives. 

    Measure detergent
    Streaks of laundry detergent jump out on dark clothes and the culprit is usually too much detergent or water that’s too cold. Liquid detergent doesn’t dissolve well in very cold water and can leave streaks. Powder can clump and leave patches on clothes. So measure detergent—no pouring.

    The detergent’s enzymes work best when the water is at least 60° F. Most cold tap water is around 60° to 75° F, but it may be 40° F or less in colder regions in northern states. Automatic temperature control can help. This washer feature adjusts the water to the optimal temperature for the selected setting. All front-loaders and most top-loaders in our tests have this feature. Click the Features & Specs tab in our washing machine Ratings to find the models that do.

    Hang dry
    Tumbling in the dryer with other clothes roughs up the surface of the fibers, creating a halo of fuzz that catches light and makes black clothes appear faded. Instead, keep the garments turned inside out and hang them to dry in your laundry room, or lay sweaters flat to dry. The sun will fade them so do not hang them outside. 

    Shopping for a new washer?
    Before you shop see our washing machine Ratings and our buying guide. Check for utility rebates for energy-efficient machines.

    Email any questions about laundry to me at kjaneway@consumer.org.

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

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    0 0

    How to Keep Your Black Clothes Looking Their Best

    While fashions change, wearing black never goes out of style. But show up dressed in black that’s faded and covered in fuzzies or detergent streaks and the look is anything but cool. Here’s how to keep your black clothes looking good from the pros at Consumer Reports. (Learn how to keep your white laundry white. And before you shop, find the best places to buy appliances.)

    Wash only when needed
    The more you wash, the more black dye washes away, especially with denim. So in between washings try airing out clothes. "Blot stains with a white cloth and a mixture of 1/2 cup water and a teaspoon of clear or white liquid dish detergent. Then blot with plain water," says Pat Slaven, a textile engineer at Consumer Reports. "Gently scrape semi-solids with the edge of a rounded spoon, then blot with a white cloth and the cleaning solution above." 

    Sort by color and weight
    Mixing fabrics, colors, and very dirty items with not-so-dirty can have disastrous results. Black clothes when new can bleed dye onto lighter colors. Washing delicates with heavy fabrics, using the delicate setting, can damage the fine items and do a poor job cleaning the heavier fabrics. So sort like items by color and weight.

    Turn clothes inside out
    Protect the outside of the black garment by turning it inside out, shielding it from the agitation, which breaks down the fibers and causes them to appear faded. Zip zippers and button shirts to prevent snagging. 

    Wash in cold water
    The cold water helps keep the fibers in black laundry from losing their color. Inspect the garments to see how dirty they are, and adjust the washing machine's soil setting, using the light-soil setting when possible as it’s gentler on fabrics than the medium- or heavy-soil setting. And use the shortest cycle possible needed to get them clean. Less time in the washer means less fading.

    Choose a detergent that gets the job done
    Use a detergent that was impressive or excellent in our cool water (75° F) cleaning tests. The best were Persil ProClean Power-Liquid 2in1 and Tide Plus Ultra Stain Release. They were also very good at removing grass, blood, and ring around the collar. When washing black laundry pass on detergents with bleach alternatives. 

    Measure detergent
    Streaks of laundry detergent jump out on dark clothes and the culprit is usually too much detergent or water that’s too cold. Liquid detergent doesn’t dissolve well in very cold water and can leave streaks. Powder can clump and leave patches on clothes. So measure detergent—no pouring.

    The detergent’s enzymes work best when the water is at least 60° F. Most cold tap water is around 60° to 75° F, but it may be 40° F or less in colder regions in northern states. Automatic temperature control can help. This washer feature adjusts the water to the optimal temperature for the selected setting. All front-loaders and most top-loaders in our tests have this feature. Click the Features & Specs tab in our washing machine Ratings to find the models that do.

    Hang dry
    Tumbling in the dryer with other clothes roughs up the surface of the fibers, creating a halo of fuzz that catches light and makes black clothes appear faded. Instead, keep the garments turned inside out and hang them to dry in your laundry room, or lay sweaters flat to dry. The sun will fade them so do not hang them outside. 

    Shopping for a new washer?
    Before you shop see our washing machine Ratings and our buying guide. Check for utility rebates for energy-efficient machines.

    Email any questions about laundry to me at kjaneway@consumer.org.

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

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    Smartphones With the Best Battery Life

    The best smartphone in the world isn’t worth much if the battery requires charging every few hours. That's why we decided to take a closer look at our Ratings to find the models that excel at powering through the day—those with the best battery life. (Check out our review of the best smartphone cameras.)

    The five smartphones below manage to stand out, even in a field that has seen significant improvement in recent years, thanks to batteries with 3,000mAh of storage, plus processors and wireless connections that smartly adjust power consumption to suit the job at hand.

    Two of the models let you remove batteries, which means you can carry a spare in your pocket on days that call for extra power. And all but one model offer rapid charging, which can bring a near-dead handset back to life at almost 50 percent capacity within roughly 15 minutes (assuming you use the high-output charger that came with your phone).

    Best of all, each of the five smartphone models—ranked in order of battery performance—is among the top performers in our Ratings.

    To test battery life, our engineers precisely measure smartphone battery drain under a variety of conditions, including cellular signal transmissions and display and processor activity.

    Some of these models are equipped for wireless charging. If they support both Qi and PMA standards, they'll work with pretty much any wireless charger—even one you've had on hand for many years.

    Remember, a large-capacity battery requires a large-capacity shell, so, yes, these phones tend to be on the bigger side.

    Battery Life Tips

    Here are five ways to squeeze more juice from phone:

    • Set the screen brightness to Auto so the device can adjust to indoor and outdoor conditions. For Apple users, this option is in the Settings menu under Display & Brightness.
    • Lower the baseline brightness (usually by using a sliding switch in the Display menu).
    • Set the screen to sleep after 15 or 30 seconds of inactivity.
    • Turn on airplane mode when you’re in an area with no signal.
    • Reduce the frequency of updates for email, social-network feeds, and other apps to once every hour.

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

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    Smartphones With the Best Battery Life

    The best smartphone in the world isn’t worth much if the battery requires charging every few hours. That's why we decided to take a closer look at our Ratings to find the models that excel at powering through the day—those with the best battery life. (Check out our review of the best smartphone cameras.)

    The five smartphones below manage to stand out, even in a field that has seen significant improvement in recent years, thanks to batteries with 3,000mAh of storage, plus processors and wireless connections that smartly adjust power consumption to suit the job at hand.

    Two of the models let you remove batteries, which means you can carry a spare in your pocket on days that call for extra power. And all but one model offer rapid charging, which can bring a near-dead handset back to life at almost 50 percent capacity within roughly 15 minutes (assuming you use the high-output charger that came with your phone).

    Best of all, each of the five smartphone models—ranked in order of battery performance—is among the top performers in our Ratings.

    To test battery life, our engineers precisely measure smartphone battery drain under a variety of conditions, including cellular signal transmissions and display and processor activity.

    Some of these models are equipped for wireless charging. If they support both Qi and PMA standards, they'll work with pretty much any wireless charger—even one you've had on hand for many years.

    Remember, a large-capacity battery requires a large-capacity shell, so, yes, these phones tend to be on the bigger side.

    Battery Life Tips

    Here are five ways to squeeze more juice from phone:

    • Set the screen brightness to Auto so the device can adjust to indoor and outdoor conditions. For Apple users, this option is in the Settings menu under Display & Brightness.
    • Lower the baseline brightness (usually by using a sliding switch in the Display menu).
    • Set the screen to sleep after 15 or 30 seconds of inactivity.
    • Turn on airplane mode when you’re in an area with no signal.
    • Reduce the frequency of updates for email, social-network feeds, and other apps to once every hour.

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

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    Subscribe to ConsumerReports.org for expert Ratings, buying advice and reliability on hundreds of products.
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    Are Connected Toys the Next Big Thing?

    Consider the case of Edwin the Duck. Little, yellow, and rubbery, Edwin looks identical to the millions of his kind who patrol soapy bathtub waters. He capably floats. But the duck, created by a company called Pi Lab and already on the market, is a connected toy that contains motion sensors, a speaker, and a Bluetooth chip. When you move him, his digital double mimics the action on a paired smartphone or tablet screen; the companion app allows Edwin to tell stories, sing, and lead children in gesture-controlled games.

    To the thousands of gadget and gizmo makers currently gathered in New York for the Toy Fair, the industry’s largest annual trade show, incorporating Internet technologies into traditional toys like rubber ducks is seen as a possible salvation from the threat posed by app-rich smartphones and tablets. The trend has many strains and is represented by catchphrases like “connected play,” “toys to life,” and “the Internet of Toys.” Play, like seemingly every other aspect of human life, is going digital.

    There’s opportunity and peril. Hello Barbie, released this past fall by Mattel, has a Siri-like capability to carry on conversations with children, backed by sophisticated artificial intelligence and language processing capabilities housed in the cloud. Security researchers have shown that connected toys can be compromised; in 2015 hackers demonstrated how they could get a conversationally capable doll named Cayla to say dirty words.

    Responding with bug bounties and security countermeasures, toy makers are hardening toy targets from cyber attack, and almost nobody at the Toy Fair thinks that the digital trend will die. “I truly believe that if you fast forward 10 to 15 years, every toy will have some connected element,” says Jesse Sutton, a toy industry consultant.

    Consumer Reports will continue to report on privacy and security issues emerging for both toys and the larger Internet of Things. Meanwhile, here are six of the most innovative new connected toys expected to migrate from the Toy Fair to kids' playrooms in 2016.
     

    CogniToys Dino

    CogniToys, $119, June 2016
    Dino has a generic happy dinosaur look, like Barney, but an endearingly gruff and distinctive voice. He does all of the prerequisite tasks for a contemporary talking toy, telling jokes and stories and playing games on command.

    Powered by the artificial intelligence platform of IBM’s Watson, which Dino accesses via Wi-Fi and an Internet link, the connected toy can also have back-and-forth conversations with children, at least to a limited degree.

    Like its closest and only real competitor, Hello Barbie, Dino chats on pre-planned tracks; if you jump to a random topic Dino won’t follow. But unlike Hello Barbie, the toy’s content isn’t all scripted and prerecorded; with the help of Watson, Dino can roam the Web to find answers to questions, such as, "How far away is the moon?" 

    Barbie Hello Dream House

    Mattel, $299, fall 2016 release
    What to give a doll that has everything? How about a connected smart home, with lights and appliances that activate automatically when Barbie is placed in different rooms?

    Wi-Fi linked and powered by ToyTalk, the same artificial intelligence company that gives Hello Barbie the ability to converse, the Dream Home responds to a limited range of commands: A kid can tell it to lower the elevator, get breakfast started in the kitchen, or fire up the lights and music for a dance party.  

    Love2Learn Elmo

    Hasbro, $69, October 2016
    Red, furry, and robotic, with a mouth that opens and shuts widely as he talks, Elmo is both adorable and vaguely scary.

    The Muppet connects via Bluetooth to a companion app with educational games and activities, and, following the prevailing trend in connected toys, it has multimodal controls. This means that preschoolers can tap and swipe the screen, and also interact with the games by squeezing Elmo’s nose, clapping his hands, or using them to pat his belly.

    Dino Mundi Triceratops Interactive Racetrack Set

    Immplay, $49.99, currently available
    Cars speed along a plastic racetrack, under the looming maws of a triceratops. Dino Mundi also allows kids to point a smartphone or tablet at playing cards around the track that then morph into moving dinosaur animations onscreen. It's an example of how toys can employ augmented reality, a suite of technologies that combine real-world objects with digitally generated pictures and sounds.

    The dinosaurs are magical the first time you see them, but only a child can report on how quickly the novelty fades with repeated play.  

    Sky Viper Streaming Drone

    Skyrocket, $99.99, August 2016
    It flies; it films. You can pick a point on a digital map and send the Sky Viper drone there automatically. The Sky Viper being shown at the Toy Fair is an updated version of a recently introduced drone; the new model streams images via Wi-Fi to a phone or tablet. This appears to be an affordable way for kids to tap into the creative potential of drone photography—or, potentially, drone snooping.

    Turtle Mail

    AE Dreams, $99.99, winter 2016
    One of the Toy Fair’s most graceful integrations of the digital and physical realms is Turtle Mail, a tiny wooden mailbox that you put on a child's shelf or bedside table. The mailbox has Wi-Fi. A parent at work or on a business trip, or a grandparent who lives across the country, uses the Turtle Mail app on their phone to send a kid a short message or cartoon drawing.

    On the child’s end, there is no screen to display it. (The toy industry, for all of its loving embrace of technology, seems keen to peel children away from screens.) Instead, a petite thermal printer outputs the message on paper that emerges from a little slot; rather than a text message, it feels more like mail.
     

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

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    Are Connected Toys the Next Big Thing?

    Consider the case of Edwin the Duck. Little, yellow, and rubbery, Edwin looks identical to the millions of his kind who patrol soapy bathtub waters. He capably floats. But the duck, created by a company called Pi Lab and already on the market, is a connected toy that contains motion sensors, a speaker, and a Bluetooth chip. When you move him, his digital double mimics the action on a paired smartphone or tablet screen; the companion app allows Edwin to tell stories, sing, and lead children in gesture-controlled games.

    To the thousands of gadget and gizmo makers currently gathered in New York for the Toy Fair, the industry’s largest annual trade show, incorporating Internet technologies into traditional toys like rubber ducks is seen as a possible salvation from the threat posed by app-rich smartphones and tablets. The trend has many strains and is represented by catchphrases like “connected play,” “toys to life,” and “the Internet of Toys.” Play, like seemingly every other aspect of human life, is going digital.

    There’s opportunity and peril. Hello Barbie, released this past fall by Mattel, has a Siri-like capability to carry on conversations with children, backed by sophisticated artificial intelligence and language processing capabilities housed in the cloud. Security researchers have shown that connected toys can be compromised; in 2015 hackers demonstrated how they could get a conversationally capable doll named Cayla to say dirty words.

    Responding with bug bounties and security countermeasures, toy makers are hardening toy targets from cyber attack, and almost nobody at the Toy Fair thinks that the digital trend will die. “I truly believe that if you fast forward 10 to 15 years, every toy will have some connected element,” says Jesse Sutton, a toy industry consultant.

    Consumer Reports will continue to report on privacy and security issues emerging for both toys and the larger Internet of Things. Meanwhile, here are six of the most innovative new connected toys expected to migrate from the Toy Fair to kids' playrooms in 2016.
     

    CogniToys Dino

    CogniToys, $119, June 2016
    Dino has a generic happy dinosaur look, like Barney, but an endearingly gruff and distinctive voice. He does all of the prerequisite tasks for a contemporary talking toy, telling jokes and stories and playing games on command.

    Powered by the artificial intelligence platform of IBM’s Watson, which Dino accesses via Wi-Fi and an Internet link, the connected toy can also have back-and-forth conversations with children, at least to a limited degree.

    Like its closest and only real competitor, Hello Barbie, Dino chats on pre-planned tracks; if you jump to a random topic Dino won’t follow. But unlike Hello Barbie, the toy’s content isn’t all scripted and prerecorded; with the help of Watson, Dino can roam the Web to find answers to questions, such as, "How far away is the moon?" 

    Barbie Hello Dream House

    Mattel, $299, fall 2016 release
    What to give a doll that has everything? How about a connected smart home, with lights and appliances that activate automatically when Barbie is placed in different rooms?

    Wi-Fi linked and powered by ToyTalk, the same artificial intelligence company that gives Hello Barbie the ability to converse, the Dream Home responds to a limited range of commands: A kid can tell it to lower the elevator, get breakfast started in the kitchen, or fire up the lights and music for a dance party.  

    Love2Learn Elmo

    Hasbro, $69, October 2016
    Red, furry, and robotic, with a mouth that opens and shuts widely as he talks, Elmo is both adorable and vaguely scary.

    The Muppet connects via Bluetooth to a companion app with educational games and activities, and, following the prevailing trend in connected toys, it has multimodal controls. This means that preschoolers can tap and swipe the screen, and also interact with the games by squeezing Elmo’s nose, clapping his hands, or using them to pat his belly.

    Dino Mundi Triceratops Interactive Racetrack Set

    Immplay, $49.99, currently available
    Cars speed along a plastic racetrack, under the looming maws of a triceratops. Dino Mundi also allows kids to point a smartphone or tablet at playing cards around the track that then morph into moving dinosaur animations onscreen. It's an example of how toys can employ augmented reality, a suite of technologies that combine real-world objects with digitally generated pictures and sounds.

    The dinosaurs are magical the first time you see them, but only a child can report on how quickly the novelty fades with repeated play.  

    Sky Viper Streaming Drone

    Skyrocket, $99.99, August 2016
    It flies; it films. You can pick a point on a digital map and send the Sky Viper drone there automatically. The Sky Viper being shown at the Toy Fair is an updated version of a recently introduced drone; the new model streams images via Wi-Fi to a phone or tablet. This appears to be an affordable way for kids to tap into the creative potential of drone photography—or, potentially, drone snooping.

    Turtle Mail

    AE Dreams, $99.99, winter 2016
    One of the Toy Fair’s most graceful integrations of the digital and physical realms is Turtle Mail, a tiny wooden mailbox that you put on a child's shelf or bedside table. The mailbox has Wi-Fi. A parent at work or on a business trip, or a grandparent who lives across the country, uses the Turtle Mail app on their phone to send a kid a short message or cartoon drawing.

    On the child’s end, there is no screen to display it. (The toy industry, for all of its loving embrace of technology, seems keen to peel children away from screens.) Instead, a petite thermal printer outputs the message on paper that emerges from a little slot; rather than a text message, it feels more like mail.
     

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

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    'Always On' Power Adapters Must Meet New Energy Standards

    In addition to being unsightly, those boxy power adapters that come with almost all your electronics have an ugly effect on your electric bill. But that’s about to change under new federal energy-efficiency standards that quietly went into effect recently. The new standards require external power supplies to be 33 percent more efficient. And with 5 to 10 power adapters in the average U.S. home, the savings can add up quickly. (Learn how to tame the energy hogs in your home.)

    External power supplies convert the power from a wall outlet into the lower voltages needed to charge laptops, smartphones, and countless other devices. They were considered a prime candidate for an efficiency upgrade because, when plugged in, they draw power all the time even if the devices they are charging are at full power, according to Pierre Delforge, the director of the High Tech Sector Energy Efficiency for the Natural Resources Defense Council. In older power adapters, much of that energy is wasted as heat.

    More than a billion power adapters are in use in the U.S., and with the proliferation of electronic devices, that number is certain to grow. In addition to the wasted energy, a lot of money is being needlessly spent on these “always on” power adapters.

    Starting February 10, almost all types of power adapters must meet the new standards, which means that any new smartphone, laptop, or other device manufactured after that date will come with the new energy-efficient external power supply. To experience the difference, touch the adapter when it’s plugged in: Newer ones should be cooler to the touch, while an adapter for an older device will likely give off some heat.

    To save energy even with an older adapter, make sure you unplug it from the wall and your device once it's fully charged. The external power supply continues to draw power even when it isn’t connected to your device but is still plugged into the outlet.

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

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    'Always On' Power Adapters Must Meet New Energy Standards

    In addition to being unsightly, those boxy power adapters that come with almost all your electronics have an ugly effect on your electric bill. But that’s about to change under new federal energy-efficiency standards that quietly went into effect recently. The new standards require external power supplies to be 33 percent more efficient. And with 5 to 10 power adapters in the average U.S. home, the savings can add up quickly. (Learn how to tame the energy hogs in your home.)

    External power supplies convert the power from a wall outlet into the lower voltages needed to charge laptops, smartphones, and countless other devices. They were considered a prime candidate for an efficiency upgrade because, when plugged in, they draw power all the time even if the devices they are charging are at full power, according to Pierre Delforge, the director of the High Tech Sector Energy Efficiency for the Natural Resources Defense Council. In older power adapters, much of that energy is wasted as heat.

    More than a billion power adapters are in use in the U.S., and with the proliferation of electronic devices, that number is certain to grow. In addition to the wasted energy, a lot of money is being needlessly spent on these “always on” power adapters.

    Starting February 10, almost all types of power adapters must meet the new standards, which means that any new smartphone, laptop, or other device manufactured after that date will come with the new energy-efficient external power supply. To experience the difference, touch the adapter when it’s plugged in: Newer ones should be cooler to the touch, while an adapter for an older device will likely give off some heat.

    To save energy even with an older adapter, make sure you unplug it from the wall and your device once it's fully charged. The external power supply continues to draw power even when it isn’t connected to your device but is still plugged into the outlet.

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

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    Why You Might Fall for an Investment Scam

    The typical victim of an investment scam is often portrayed as poorly educated, elderly, financially naive and lonely. But recent research from True Link Financial suggests just the opposite. If you consider yourself thrifty, financially sophisticated, and friendly, you are more likely to be defrauded. 

    This builds on a 2006 study sponsored by the NASD Investor Education Foundation, which found that investment fraud victims scored higher on financial literacy questions. Men are also more likely to fall for an investment scam than women.

    Scam artists have long targeted people who are already successful. Back in 2004, convicted felon Eric Stein described his "marks" in an interview with the Wall Street Journal.  “They were people who had cash—had made money—and had worked very hard for it," he told the newspaper. "They were doctors, they were dentists….Some attorneys, not too many. A lot of car-dealership owners, some golf-course owners, some high-profile restaurateurs. A lot of business owners, mostly entrepreneurs.”

    You’d think such people would be too savvy to fall for a scam. But potential victims share certain attributes that put them on the top of a scammers list: They have money to invest, they’re confident in their ability to make smart money decisions, and they’re interested in new investment ideas. Thrifty seniors lose five times as much to fraud as their open-walleted peers, the True Link survey found, perhaps because they are often enticed by potential bargains. 

    Are You Safe?

    A survey by the FINRA (Financial Industry Regulatory Authority) Foundation lists five characteristics that make investors especially vulnerable:

    • Owning high-risk investments. People who favor high-risk investments are often targets of fraud: 31 percent of investment scam victims surveyed had purchased penny stocks; 23 percent invested in commodities, futures, or options; and 24 percent had made private investments in Internet start-up companies.
    • Relying on friends and family for advice. Some 70 percent of victims bought an investment primarily because it was recommended by a friend, co-worker, relative, or neighbor, compared to 30 percent of investors overall.
    • Being open to new investment information. Curiosity has a high cost. The more open you are to receiving new information—three times as many victims went to a free investment seminar than the national sample—the more likely you are to expose yourself to investment scams. Being willing to listen to sales pitches is especially dangerous.
    • Failing to check the background of an investment or broker. Caveat emptor is the most fundamental advice before laying out your money, but fraud victims tend to skip this all-important step: 80 percent failed to check whether an investment professional had a criminal background and 70 percent hadn’t checked whether they were licensed or registered to sell investment products.
    • Being unable to spot persuasion tactics. Scammers use many different techniques to convince you to invest in their scheme, but if you don’t stay alert, you’re more likely to fall into their trap.

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

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    Subscribe to ConsumerReports.org for expert Ratings, buying advice and reliability on hundreds of products.
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    Why You Might Fall for an Investment Scam

    The typical victim of an investment scam is often portrayed as poorly educated, elderly, financially naive and lonely. But recent research from True Link Financial suggests just the opposite. If you consider yourself thrifty, financially sophisticated, and friendly, you are more likely to be defrauded. 

    This builds on a 2006 study sponsored by the NASD Investor Education Foundation, which found that investment fraud victims scored higher on financial literacy questions. Men are also more likely to fall for an investment scam than women.

    Scam artists have long targeted people who are already successful. Back in 2004, convicted felon Eric Stein described his "marks" in an interview with the Wall Street Journal.  “They were people who had cash—had made money—and had worked very hard for it," he told the newspaper. "They were doctors, they were dentists….Some attorneys, not too many. A lot of car-dealership owners, some golf-course owners, some high-profile restaurateurs. A lot of business owners, mostly entrepreneurs.”

    You’d think such people would be too savvy to fall for a scam. But potential victims share certain attributes that put them on the top of a scammers list: They have money to invest, they’re confident in their ability to make smart money decisions, and they’re interested in new investment ideas. Thrifty seniors lose five times as much to fraud as their open-walleted peers, the True Link survey found, perhaps because they are often enticed by potential bargains. 

    Are You Safe?

    A survey by the FINRA (Financial Industry Regulatory Authority) Foundation lists five characteristics that make investors especially vulnerable:

    • Owning high-risk investments. People who favor high-risk investments are often targets of fraud: 31 percent of investment scam victims surveyed had purchased penny stocks; 23 percent invested in commodities, futures, or options; and 24 percent had made private investments in Internet start-up companies.
    • Relying on friends and family for advice. Some 70 percent of victims bought an investment primarily because it was recommended by a friend, co-worker, relative, or neighbor, compared to 30 percent of investors overall.
    • Being open to new investment information. Curiosity has a high cost. The more open you are to receiving new information—three times as many victims went to a free investment seminar than the national sample—the more likely you are to expose yourself to investment scams. Being willing to listen to sales pitches is especially dangerous.
    • Failing to check the background of an investment or broker. Caveat emptor is the most fundamental advice before laying out your money, but fraud victims tend to skip this all-important step: 80 percent failed to check whether an investment professional had a criminal background and 70 percent hadn’t checked whether they were licensed or registered to sell investment products.
    • Being unable to spot persuasion tactics. Scammers use many different techniques to convince you to invest in their scheme, but if you don’t stay alert, you’re more likely to fall into their trap.

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

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