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    Beginner's Guide to Turntables

    If you’re of a certain age, you may remember the first time you ever heard a vinyl record. For me, the song was the Beatles’ "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da" and the turntable belonged to my dad. I can almost see him placing the LP on the turntable, lifting the tone arm and gently dropping the needle on the fourth track of “The White Album.” I heard a popping sound, then a slight hiss, and then, that wonderful, lively, rhythmic burst of piano notes.

    I repeated that ritual myself many times, playing hundreds of different LPs throughout childhood and my early adult years. And those memories fuel the excitement I feel over the return of the turntable, a technology on sale in such stores as Urban Outfitters, Target, Bed Bath & Beyond, and Kmart. 

    The details have changed a bit from the heyday of the technology. Many new turntables include USB ports, letting you connect them to a computer to digitize your Pink Floyd collection. Most also include traditional RCA jacks to connect to speakers, and some turntables are Bluetooth-compatible, allowing you to play the music through wireless speakers.

    One thing that hasn't changed much—the vast price range. You can spend anywhere from $100 for the crudest model and up to $4,000 or more at the high end. To understand why, consider the analog wizardry performed by a turntable. As the needle—or, to use the right term, stylus—on the tonearm moves along a groove in a record, it glides up and down the tiny peaks and valleys carved into the vinyl. That sets up vibrations that are converted into electrical signals, which are sent to an amplifier and eventually to your ears via speakers or a pair of headphones.

    If that sounds like it requires mechanical precision, you're right. And in engineering, "precise" can often be translated as "expensive."

    We've listed a few turntables at vastly different prices below. We haven't tested any of today's crop of turntables, but these models have good reputations and will give you a sense of what features to look for. First, though, here's what you need to know before you go shopping.

    What Components Do You Need?

    Here are the basics. First, all turntables need a cartridge and stylus, also called a needle. Many of the less expensive models come with the cartridge/stylus installed, but some pricier models require that you buy the unit separately. There are two types of cartridges: "moving magnet," the most common type, especially on more affordable turntables; and "moving coil," typically found on pricier players. Cartridges can cost as little as $20, or more than $1000 for use with audiophile-grade turntables.

    You'll also need a phono preamp, which takes the signal produced by the cartridge and prepares it for use by other audio equipment. Some turntables, and many receivers, have built-in phono preamps, but if necessary you can buy an external preamp, which can range in price anywhere from $50 to several hundred dollars. If your turntable has a USB output, it already has a preamp. Just note that the preamp has to match the type of cartridge—either moving magnet or moving coil—you're using.

    Finally, there's some setup involved with all but the least expensive turntables. (That's right: Low-end models are actually easier to get started with.)

    You may need to install and align the cartridge, set the tracking force (the weight being applied to the record), set the azimuth (the tilt of the cartridge), and adjust the anti-skating force, which keeps the needle centered in the record's grooves. There are numerous websites and videos that can help you set up a turntable—we like this one, for example. If you prefer a more comprehensive guide on DVD, we recommend "21st Century Vinyl: Michael Fremer's Practical Guide to Turntable Set-up," which costs about $30 at various outlets. 

    Now, onto the turntables.

    Entry Level

    For roughly $100 to $250, you can buy a turntable that will be easy to set up, though it won't produce great sound. You also won't have much flexibility in choosing components. The $100 Audio Technica AT-LP60-USB, for example, has a fixed 1/2-inch cartridge, which means you can change the stylus, but not the device that converts sound vibrations into electrical signals. If fine-tuning is important to you, it's best to look elsewhere.

    On the upside, though, the LP60 does have a built-in preamp, which means it's ready to play tunes via powered speakers, a computer, or a home stereo system. To help you digitize your record collection, the turntable also includes a USB port and software that's compatible with Mac and PC devices.

    Mid-Range

    In the $300 to $600 range, you'll find turntables such as the Pro-Ject Debut Carbon ($400), which features an interchangeable cartridge, along with heftier construction.

    That's important because you want a turntable to register the vibrations generated by a vinyl record, not those created by the device's motor or the feet dancing around your family room. If a turntable is too light or poorly constructed, the stylus may even skip out of an LP's grooves.

    To further cut down on unwanted resonance, this model features a tonearm made of very stiff carbon fiber, instead of steel. This turntable requires a separate amplifier, but if you'd prefer a built-in pre-amp, check out Pro-Ject's Debut Carbon USB turntable ($550).

    High End

    While there are many good turntables in the $600 range, a top-end model can cost anywhere from a thousand dollars to tens of thousands. But quality comes down to the same factors we've already discussed: The $1,000 price tag on Music Hall MMF-5.1 essentially brings you sturdier construction and higher precision.

    In this case, the unit is heavier, about 24 pounds, roughly twice as heavy as the Pro-Ject Debut Carbon (12 lbs.) and four times the weight of the Audio Technica AT-LP60-USB (6.6 lbs.) But that’s not the only difference. The manufacturer also built the MMF-5.1 with two plinths or platforms, instead of just one. According to manufacturer, the platter, main bearing, tone arm and cartridge are built into the top platform, while the motor, switch, wiring and feet are included in the bottom platform. This construction, combined with its weight, allows the turntable to isolate the vibrations on the turntable from any outside interference.

    On this pricier model, you can also upgrade various components, as well as fine-tune them. For instance, you can be rather specific in adjusting the counter weight on the tonearm.

    For more information on how to buy audio equipment, including wireless speakers, headphones, and sound bars, be sure to keep reading the Consumer Reports website.  

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

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    Verizon FiOS Packages Are Incredibly Confusing

    After sifting through all the new Verizon FiOS packages for TV, I'd hate to see what things would look like if the company were to try any harder to confuse customers.

    Earlier this week, Verizon split its original Custom TV offer—a "skinny" Verizon FiOS package that combined about 35 channels with genre-based, add-on programming packs—into two separate services: Custom TV Essentials and Custom TV Sports & More. The move was seen by some as a way to placate ESPN—which had sued Verizon for relegating the channel to an add-on sports TV bundle in order to create a lower cost plan for those not so interested in college basketball and Monday Night Football.

    But when I started to compare the new Verizon FiOS packages to the old one to see which provided the best deal, the dizzing array of offers made it incredibly difficult to do the math.

    In the screen grab below, the most basic offer for Custom TV Essentials or Sports & More costs $55 a month. Essentials features a lineup devoted to entertainment, kids programming, lifestyle and news. Sports & More includes some general interest channels, plus ESPN and Fox Sports. If you'd like to add a pack of six to 12 channels tailored to kids, teens, movie lovers, or global sports fans, you can do that for an extra $6 a month each.

    But while reviewing the shows offered in each package, I came across the promotion below, which lists the price for the basic TV service at $65 a month.

    For the original Verizon FiOS TV package, we recommended a bundle that combined the TV service with broadband, since it cost only $20 more each month. So we decided to look into that option once again.

    The triple-play ad below promises Custom TV plus 50Mbps broadband and phone service for $80 a month. But right next to it, there's a bundle with faster 100Mbps broadband for only $70. You have to look carefully to see that the offer for the faster-speed bundle lasts only one year, while the other stretches to two years.

    To determine the overall cost of the $80-per-month plan, though, you have to factor in the $300 Visa gift card that comes with it and then consider that the monthly rate jumps to $100 in the second year of the deal.

    As you can see in the screen grab from yet another Verizon website promo, you can also get a double-play deal—TV and fast 100Mbps broadband—for $65 a month, provided you're willing to sign up for two years. There's even an $80 per month double-play deal somewhat similar to the $80 triple-play offer above.

    After doing enough math to rival an accountant, we found that the $65-per-month TV and 100Mbps Internet Verizon FiOS TV package would cost $1,560 over two years, excluding Verizon's add-on fees (see below). Oddly, the same plan would set you back $2,040 with the slower 50Mbps service.

    The triple-play plan with the faster Internet service is also the better deal. At $70 per month, it costs $1,680 over two years. Once you subtract the $300 Visa gift card from the $2,160 total of the other plan, you end up with $1,860.

    And, oh, remember those add-on fees we mentioned earlier? You might be in for a shock when your first bill arrives. Based on the fine print, Verizon charges up to $150 as a "set-up" fee, $12 per month for an HD settop box, and $10 per month for a router fee. There's also a $5.85 regional sports network fee, a $2.99 per month broadcast fee, and $.95 a month fee for something called an "FDV Admin," which is apparently a Verizon-imposed surcharge for voice service.

    If you divide the $150 set-up fee over 12 months and add in the other charges, you'll be paying $44 a month on top of the stated cost of the plan. Suddenly, that $65 deal has ballooned to nearly $100. Try not to have any misgivings, though. If you decide to cancel your service after the second month, Verizon can charge up to $230, depending on the plan, as an early-termination fee.

    Our Take

    After doing all the math, you might still find that one of the Verizon FiOS packages for TV makes sense for your family. But, frankly, we don't think it should be this hard to determine that. You have the right to know exactly how much you'll be paying each month, and Verizon seems to be going out of its way to make it hard for you to make an informed choice. It doesn't have to be this way. 

    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 Replace Furnace Filters

    If you’re a first-time owner of a home with a forced-air furnace, you might not realize there’s a filter in there that needs changing. And even if you do, you might not know it needs to be replaced every few months to keep your furnace running at peak efficiency—and to help prevent pollutants from entering your living space. 

    Fortunately, replacing a furnace filter is a pretty simple task, once you know what you’re doing. There are ways to botch the job, however, for example by buying the wrong furnace filter or putting it in backwards, which could block the flow of air instead of cleaning it. Here’s how to do the job properly in three simple steps.

    Step 1

    What kind of filter do you have? Start by turning off the furnace. Remove the existing furnace filter, which will be located inside the furnace or inside the return air vent. Look for an arrow on the filter indicating airflow direction. Using a permanent marker, draw the airflow direction on the outside of the furnace, so you'll always know the right way to install the filter. Then note the furnace filter size, which will be printed on the cardboard frame.

    Step 2

    Get the right replacement. Furnace filters are sold at home centers, hardware stores, and online. Disposable ones are typically 1 or 2 inches thick. Check our Ratings of furnace filters, also known as whole-house air filters, for a right-sized model that was effective at removing dust, pollen, and smoke when air passed through it at both high and low speeds. We also test thicker furnace filters, some up to 5 inches, and they often provide superior air cleaning. But if your furnace isn’t already equipped to handle a thicker filter, it will need to be modified by an HVAC professional.

    Our top-rated 5-inch furnace filter is the Lennox Healthy Climate CarbonClean 16, $100. For 1-inch furnace filters, we recommend the Filtrete Healthy Living Ultimate Allergen Reduction 1900 MPR, $20. For more choices and sizes, see our full Ratings and recommendations of furnace filters.

    Step 3

    Install the new filter. Look for the markings that tell you which side of the filter should face the furnace. Then slide the filter back into place and replace any cover that goes over it. Keep a record of the date so that you’ll know when it’s time to change the furnace filter again.

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

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    Best Vacuums for the Red Carpet

    On Sunday, the red carpet at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood will take a beating as celebrities arrive for the 88th Academy Awards. Glitter, sequins, beads, and maybe an errant splash of champagne will fall to the carpet only to get ground in by the spiked heels of the next arrivals.

    Instead of asking, “Who are you wearing?” Consumer Reports is asking, “Who’s going to clean up this mess?” Our nominees? Dyson and Kenmore.

    Small but Mighty

    A standout in the light vacuum category, the cordless Dyson V6, $300, nabbed first place in our tests of stick vacuums. Weighing a mere 4.75 pounds, the rail-thin Dyson was a top performer in our tests vacuuming carpet, cleaning bare floors, getting into corners, and picking up pet hair. And with its colorful styling, innovative features, and upscale advertising campaign, Dyson is the Dior of the vacuum world.

    Other nominees: Dyson V6 Motorhead, $400; Shark Rocket HV302, $180; Hoover Platinum LiNX BH50010, $160; and the Shark Navigator Freestyle SV1106, $100.

    A Heavyweight Performer

    Kenmore has been a contender in our tests year after year. Typically, upright vacuums are better at cleaning carpet than other types of vacuums and the bagged Kenmore Elite 31150, $350, is no exception. It weighs 21 pounds and is loaded with such extras as a brush on/off switch, suction control (protects delicate fabrics), and manual carpet pile-height adjustment. Strong airflow for tools, clean running, and superb pet-hair pickup are other attractions.

    Other nominees: Miele Dynamic U1 Twist, $450; Miele Dynamic U1 Cat & Dog, $650; Kenmore 31140, $200; and the Kenmore Progressive 31069, $200.

    Carpet Cleaning Tips

    To clean red carpet, or any other type, set the vacuum’s power head to the correct height for that particular carpet. Deep-pile carpeting needs a different setting than a flat-weave rug, for example. Some vacuums adjust automatically. Change the vacuum cleaner bag when it becomes full. An overstuffed bag impairs a vacuum’s ability to suck up the detritus.

    Now about that champagne. To avoid stains, blot—don’t rub—the area with a cloth dipped in a mixture of one teaspoon detergent added to one cup of warm water, then dab with plain water and let dry. Finally, roll up the red carpet until next year. It’s been a long night.

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

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    Wheelchair-Accessible Ford Explorer Is an Alternative to Vans

    If you're in a wheelchair, your choice of vehicles is pretty well limited. This isn't for lack of demand; by some estimates there are well over 3 million wheelchair users in the U.S.

    To be wheelchair accessible, a vehicle must have a large door opening and a low floor, as well as  room for a retractable ramp and enough space inside for a wheelchair occupant to turn and roll into position (as driver or passenger). So, it's no surprise that most accessible vehicles are minivans, vans, or raised-roof vans.

    Ford and BraunAbility, a mobility manufacturer based in Indiana, are teaming up to provide something a little different and a lot more stylish. BraunAbility is the same company that some years ago developed a wheelchair-accessible version of the Scion xB, and their latest creation is an accessible Ford Explorer dubbed the BraunAbility MXV.

    “We all aspire to drive a vehicle that’s a reflection of our personality,” says Megan Wegner, BraunAbility brand manager. "Now wheelchair users can own a vehicle that’s edgy, tough, and a true original. It’s been a long time coming.”

    Turning the Explorer into an accessible vehicle requires some serious reconstruction. The conversion involves reshaping the right-side B-pillar (the structural post between the front and rear doors) in order to provide enough width for a wheelchair to enter. Like all BraunAbility conversions, the MXV is recertified to meet government safety standards, with third-party head-on, side-impact, and roof-crush testing to validate the vehicle's structural integrity.

    The Explorer's second-row seat is removed, and BraunAbility replaces the rear passenger door's front hinges with a mechanism that allows the door to move out and back in a plug style, similar to the sliding door on a minivan. They rework the floor to provide space for a side-access wheelchair ramp and fit a kneeling function to lower the ramp angle. The suspension itself remains unchanged, ensuring that ride and handling are similar to an unmodified Explorer.

    Driver's seat arrangements are tailored to the customer's needs. Drivers (or passengers) who can transfer out of their wheelchair may use the standard-fit removable front seats, which can be rolled back into the passenger area (or out of the van completely). Or they may use a locking system to secure their wheelchair in place. BraunAbility has developed a sliding mount that allows the Explorer's console-mounted transmission shifter to be moved out of the way for easier access to the front seating positions.

    One of the appeals of the Explorer is its third-row seat. The seat stays in place after the conversion, allowing the MXV to serve as a true family vehicle.

    Modifications to the floor dictate that the MXV may only be based on Explorers powered by the 3.5-liter V6 with front-wheel drive, precluding the conversion of the top-of-the-line Sport and Platinum models and losing the winter traction of AWD. However, the MXV can be fitted with an optional towing package. (Owners should take into account the weight of the converted vehicle and their wheelchairs when calculating the maximum tow capacity.)

    Pricing for the BraunAbility MXV starts around $60,000—about double the Explorer base price. Most wheelchair-accessible vehicles are custom-tailored to fit their owners' needs, so out-the-door pricing will vary. BraunAbility estimates that an MXV with a transfer seat and basic hand controls will be priced in the mid-$60s. There are many grant programs available that can assist with the conversion costs, in some circumstances.

    Buyers purchase the MXV through BraunAbility dealers that provide 24/7 emergency support and have the ability to scan the vehicle for trouble codes. If there's a powertrain or chassis problem, they can give the customer a print-out to bring to a local Ford dealership for repairs or warranty work. All modified components are covered by BraunAbility's 3-year, 36,000-mile warranty.

    With so many Americans relying on wheelchair-accessible vehicles, it's great to see something more adventurous offered than a minivan. Too bad it isn’t available in AWD to broaden its appeal. Hopefully more SUVs will be available for conversion, although BraunAbility has no immediate plans. The company also offers conversions of minivans from Chrysler and Honda.

    For now, the BraunAbility MXV may be the coolest wheelchair-accessible ride.

    Learn more about options for enhanced mobility from the National Mobility Equipment Dealers Association.

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

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    Bella Coffee Maker Targets Grown-Up Millennials

    Bella Housewares made a splash in 2013 with a line of products specifically intended for millennials, and its coffee makers included such series as the Bella Dots Collection, $35, and the Bella Linea Collection, $45—both priced cheaply and available in an array of bright colors. But millennials are growing up, and those who are outfitting a kitchen rather than a dorm might prefer a more sophisticated machine like the Bella Triple Brew 14405, $90. At least that's what Sensio, the manufacturer, is banking on.

    What paying roughly twice the price of the earlier models gets you is more versatile brewing. In addition to the same 12-cup capacity as the Dots and Linea series, the Bella Triple Brew accepts K-Cups. The third option of the “triple” brew is merely a K-Cup adapter, which accepts loose grounds—as do many other single-serve coffee makers that aren’t billed as double coffee makers.

    As with other coffee makers that make both drip and single-serve coffee, this Bella coffee maker appears in our coffee maker Ratings for both drip and single-serve coffee makers. (The tests vary significantly, hence the separate Ratings tables.) As a drip coffee maker, the Bella Triple Brew brewed close to recommended guidelines for brew performance and duration. We found it convenient to use, and we judged the carafe fairly easy to handle.

    One caveat: After the initial break-in, our testers still noticed some plastic off-tastes in hot water cycled through the new Bella coffee maker. We can’t say for sure, however, that you’d notice it in what you’re brewing, particularly if you add milk and sugar.

    But as a single-serve coffeemaker, it didn’t impress us. We won’t be done with our testing until we’ve completed our taste tests, but so far the Bella Triple Brew is clearly a mixed bag. Serving temperature and size were very consistent from cup to cup, but we waited relatively long for that first serving to appear—and even longer for subsequent servings. The latter result owes to the manufacturer’s recommendation that you let the Bella coffee maker cool off for five minutes between brewing cycles.

    Outfitting a Kitchen?

    Of course, there are many more brands to choose from, although you’re limited to the Bella coffee maker and a few others—such as the Hamilton Beach FlexBrew 49988, $100, if you’re committed to models that deliver both drip and single-serve coffee. And both those models perform well at just one task.

    Our advice: Look for machines that make coffee just one way, but do it well. Among our top picks are the DeLonghi Nescafé Dolce Gusto Genio EDG455T, $130, a single-serve machine, and the KitchenAid KCM1202OB, $100, a 12-cup drip coffee maker.

    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 It Time to Change Winter Tires?

    Winter tires have a soft, pliable compound engineered to provide maximum grip on snowy and icy surfaces at freezing temperatures, but these specialized tires wear quickly and deliver longer stops on cleared roads compared to all-season tires. You should remove winter tires once winter is done in your area.

    Of course, you cannot predict that last rogue snow storm, but consider removing winter tires when temperatures are consistently above 40° F. That’s particularly important if you're contemplating putting summer tires back on your car, which are not pliable in cold weather.

    If you are driving on studded winter tires, the incentive to remove them might be dictated by state restrictions, as well as desire to minimize stud wear. Contact your local department of motor vehicles or AAA for guidance.   

    Check our tire buying advice and Ratings.

    Beware potholes

    Frost-heaved roads damaged by this winter's nasty weather will guarantee a bounty of potholes this spring. So slow down and pay particular attention to road conditions during this seasonal transition.

    Sometimes you can't avoid driving into a pothole, but if you have to go through one, drive straight into it to limit exposing the tire’s vulnerable sidewall. Try to reduce speed before striking the pothole.

    Check your tires after a rough encounter with a pothole. If you observe sidewall cuts or bulges, or spot other damage, have the tire serviced. While at the shop, get the wheels and suspension looked at, as well.

    For optimum tire performance and durability, routinely check and maintain proper inflation pressure. With temperatures changing, you'll need to adjust tire pressure.

    Gene Petersen

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

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    iRobot Roomba Messes With Success

    When it comes to robotic vacuums, iRobot's Roomba line has tended to zoom to the top in Consumer Reports' tests. But a change to the Roomba's innovative way of cleaning has surprised us with a small step back for the company’s latest model, the iRobot Roomba 980, $900, in our Ratings of robotic vacuums.

    In the past, the Roomba vacuums we’ve tested have all cleaned in the same pattern, randomly going over the same areas over and over again. The result, however, was consistently top-notch cleaning of carpet surfaces and bare floors.

    Change of Pattern

    The new Roomba 980, however, shows a change in that cleaning pattern. While this model’s navigational intelligence remains as good as ever—a plus when the vacuum is roaming among power cords and carpet fringes—this vacuum cleans in a row-and-column grid pattern. That apparently made a difference in its cleaning of carpet surfaces, scoring a notch below excellent for the first time. The top performer in our robotic vacuum Ratings, therefore, remains the older Roomba 880, $700.

    While the Roomba 980 still earned our recommendation, we have a few concerns. This model is the first to offer programming and operation via an iOS or Android smartphone app. If you’re a fan of smart-home products, you might appreciate that you won't have to add another remote control to your dusty collection. But if you prefer to choose which apps go on your phone and which companies track your activities, you might prefer to have a remote—even if you have to pay an extra $10 or so. You can’t; it’s not an option.

    Still, here’s a bit of perspective: Another robotic vacuum we’ve just tested, the Samsung PowerBot Essential VR2AJ9020UG, $700, allows no programming whatsoever. A first for our tests, this shortcoming means you can only set the vacuum manually whenever you need it. Compared to this, a nosy app looks pretty good.

    Need a Full-Sized Vacuum?

    If you’re not ready to spend up to $900 for a robotic vacuum, check out our buying guide for vacuums before browsing our vacuum Ratings of more than 140 models. Top-ranked vacuums include the Kenmore Elite 31150, $350, a bagged upright; the Hoover WindTunnel T-Series Rewind Bagless UH70120, $130, a bagless upright; and the Panasonic MC-CG937, $330, a bagged canister.

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

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  • 02/29/16--03:00: Best New Cars Under $25,000
  • Best New Cars Under $25,000

    On a budget but need a new car? Have we got some low-cost winners for you.

    Our roster of the best new cars under $25,000 features high-performing vehicles that won’t dash all of your dollars to bits. These models are proof positive that you don’t have to spend a mint to get performance, safety, fuel economy, or reliability.

    In fact, all are recommended by Consumer Reports, meaning they did well in our testing, haven’t failed any crash tests, and have at least average predicted reliability.

    Cars are listed here by category with prices for versions with an automatic transmission, unless otherwise noted.

    Subcompact Cars

    Chevrolet Sonic LT (1.8-liter, $18,420)

    The Sonic is fairly quick and quiet for the class. It handles responsively, although the steering is a bit darty. The standard 1.8-liter four-cylinder performs well but doesn't sound that polished. A modestly quicker and thriftier turbo four-cylinder is offered on the uplevel version. The sedan has a huge trunk and better visibility, but the hatchback has better cargo versatility. Both have a tight rear seat. Crash-test results are impressive for a subcompact. The infotainment touch-screen system is infuriating, with a convoluted menu and slow response time. Advanced safety features such as forward-collision alert, lane-departure warning, and a backup camera are available.

    Read the complete Chevrolet Sonic road test.

    Honda Fit EX ($19,435)

    The Fit hatchback has always been an appealing urban runabout. Thanks to its clever multi-configurable seating, the Fit delivers versatility similar to a small SUV. The Fit gets great fuel economy at 33 mpg overall. But that comes with excessive noise when the continuously variable transmission keeps the engine at high revs. Handling is responsive, but the Fit has a stiff ride. On top of that, the cabin is loud, making the Fit unfit for long drives. Opting for the EX brings a sunroof and paddle shifters, while the EX-L includes heated leather seats. The button-free touch-screen radio on EX and higher trims is a constant frustration, and the seats and driving position aren't very comfortable. Reliability of the redesign has been average.

    Read the complete Honda Fit road test.

    Nissan Versa Note SV ($18,420)

    This little subcompact offers amazing space and versatility. It's also quieter and more relaxed to drive than most competitors. Its tall stance and wide doors make it easy to maneuver, park, and hop into and out of. The rear seat is roomy, and the ride feels comfortable and relaxed. Handling is more responsive than the Versa sedan's. Our main gripes are its awkward driving position, squishy front seats, and lack of interior storage. The continuously variable transmission can magnify coarse engine noise when accelerating, but its 31 mpg overall is respectable. Updates include standard Bluetooth, available heated seats, and new interior refinements. Reliability has been well above average.

    Read the complete Nissan Versa Note road test.

    Scion iA ($17,570)

    Scion's first four-door sedan is actually built by Mazda. It's based on the new Mazda2 (not yet sold in the U.S.) and is powered by a 106-hp, 1.5-liter four-cylinder hooked up to either a six-speed manual or automatic. In our testing we got 35 mpg overall with the automatic. The iA proves to be quite pleasant for a subcompact with nimble handling and semi-decent interior decor. It also comes with a standard low-speed pre-collision system that uses a laser sensor to help the driver avoid collisions. A backup camera is standard. Inside, the iA gets steering-wheel controls for the audio, a 7-inch center screen display controlled via a center knob, just like in current Mazda models. A navigation system is a dealer-installed option.

    Read the complete Scion iA road test.

    Compact Cars

    Honda Civic LX ($20,275)

    Redesigned for 2016, the Civic has been significantly improved, and is now a more substantial, refined, and capable car than the previous model. The base engine is a 2.0-liter four-cylinder; a 1.5-liter turbo four-cylinder comes on EX-T and Touring versions. The continuously variable transmission works well with the turbo. The ride is more comfortable, handling is precise, and the quieter interior has a lot more storage space. However, the car's low stance means difficulty getting in and out. In addition, the front seats lack adjustable lumbar, which could cause discomfort on a long drive. Advanced safety features are available, but a full blind-spot monitoring system is not offered. EX trims and above have a complicated radio.

    Read the complete Honda Civic road test.

    Kia Soul Plus ($24,750)

    There is more to the boxy Soul than quirky styling. Count on abundant interior space, with chairlike seats and big windows providing an excellent view out. Though fundamentally a budget hatchback, the Soul can be an SUV alternative, functionality-wise. The driving experience isn't special: The ride is stiff, and handling is sound but unexceptional. Power delivery from the 2.0-liter four-cylinder feels just adequate, and its 26 mpg overall is not outstanding. An extensive options list includes heated seats, touch-screen navigation, and a backup camera. An electric version is available on the West Coast and in some Northeast states. Available features for 2016 include forward-collision and lane-departure warning systems.

    Read the complete Kia Soul road test.

    Mazda3 i Touring (2.0-liter, $21,740)

    Whether as a sedan or hatchback, the Mazda3 is fun to drive, thanks to its perky handling. At 33 mpg, the Mazda3 is the most fuel-efficient compact that isn't a hybrid or a diesel. It also offers a host of luxury features rarely matched by any other compact car, including a multimedia system with a large center screen and active safety features like a blind-spot monitoring system. On the downside, the car tends to be loud on the highway, and ride comfort isn't stellar. The infotainment system controls can be daunting at first and take a while to master, and the Toyota Corolla and Volkswagen Jetta have roomier rear seats.

    Read the complete Mazda3 road test.

    Subaru Impreza Premium ($21,345)

    The well-rounded Impreza is among our top-scoring compacts. The ride is very absorbent and controlled. Handling is responsive and secure. Acceleration is adequate, and fuel economy of 27 mpg overall for the sedan is excellent given the standard AWD. The hatchback gets 26 mpg overall and has a handy-sized cargo area. A freshening improved isolation from road and wind noise. The infotainment system has been updated and now includes a handy touch screen. The interior is spacious for the class, controls are straightforward, and visibility is good. Crash-test results are excellent, and Subaru's EyeSight suite of advanced safety gear is available. A redesign comes in late 2016.

    Read the complete Subaru Impreza road test.

    Midsized Sedans

    Honda Accord LX (4-cylinder, $24,820)

    The Accord is well-equipped, competitively priced, and performs well, making it one of our top-rated family sedans. It handles responsively, though the ride can be choppy. It has a roomy and well-finished interior, and gets 30 mpg overall with its mostly unobtrusive continuously variable transmission. The 3.5-liter V6 is lively and refined, and returns a very good 26 mpg overall. EX, EX-L, and Touring trims have an unintuitive-to-use infotainment system.

    Read the complete Honda Accord road test.

    Mazda6 Sport ($23,590)

    Sporty yet sparing with fuel, the Mazda6's 2.5-liter four-cylinder delivered 32 mpg overall in our tests, the best fuel economy among conventional midsized sedans. The six-speed automatic is very smooth and delivers quick shifts. We found the 6 to be capable in the corners. The ride is taut and steady but on the firm side, and the cabin is rather loud for the class, with considerable wind noise on the highway. For the 2016 model year, the car receives a mild freshening that includes a new dash, and a center display screen that is operated via a central knob on the console, which takes some getting used to. A head-up display is optional.

    Read the complete Mazda6 road test.

    Subaru Legacy 2.5i Premium ($24,837)

    The Legacy is one of the roomier, quieter, and more refined midsized sedans—attributes that help it become one of our top-scoring vehicles in the class. Its ride is better than some luxury cars, and handling is sound and secure. The 2.5-liter four-cylinder is no rocket, but it gets the job done and returns 26 mpg overall. The unobtrusive CVT behaves much like a conventional automatic. The infotainment system includes an easy-to-use touch screen with Internet radio and Bluetooth. A rear camera is standard. Advanced safety gear like blind-spot monitoring and the EyeSight safety suite, including forward-collision warning with automatic braking, is optional.

    Read the complete Subaru Legacy road test.

    Toyota Camry LE (4-cylinder, $23,905)

    If you're looking for smooth, dependable transportation that skews toward comfort and convenience, the Camry delivers what you need. Interior appointments have been upgraded and center dashboard controls simplified. Suspension changes made the already comfortable ride steadier, and further isolated noise. Handling is sound and secure. The 2.5-liter four-cylinder delivers ample, unobtrusive power and returned a competitive 28 mpg overall in our tests. The long history of solid reliability and high owner satisfaction scores is another asset.

    Read the complete Toyota Camry road test.

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

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    Meet the Toughest Car Critics in America

    Giving consumers the most thorough product information requires expertise and experience. No other publication has a facility like ours, in Colchester, Conn. Our staff of 30 engineers, editors, statisticians, and support staff put vehicles, tires, and child safety seats through rigorous testing year-round. We buy all of the products we test—rather than borrow them from manufacturers—so we can remain independent in our evaluations. Our team also churns through reams of survey data to bring you the detailed reliability, safety, and owner satisfaction insights you need to buy your next vehicle.

    What makes our auto testing unique?

    We spent about $2.6 million on cars last year. We buy all of our tested cars and don’t rely on freebies or on exotic press junkets paid for by automakers.

    We shop like you shop. We buy cars anonymously, at dealerships. Reviewers for other publications often base their judgments on loaners hand-picked by manufacturers.

    We drive. And drive some more. Our tested vehicles are each driven thousands of miles over several months. At many other publications, reviews are often based on just a day or week of seat time.

    We’re test crazy. Every vehicle undergoes more than 50 tests, including evaluations for braking, accident avoidance, fuel economy, and acceleration.

    We’re unbought and unbossed. We take no advertising of any kind, so we have no one to please but you. Which is why . . .

    We tell it like it is. Lots of magazines will list their top cars of the year. We’re the lone voice that will also reveal the clunkers, junkers, and rip-offs.

    We can tell the future. This is what no one else can do: We can predict how reliable your new car will be based on our exclusive surveys that cover more than a million ownership experiences per year, as reported by our subscribers.

    We sum it up in a single Overall Score. Combining road test, reliability, safety, and owner satisfaction into a single rating helps consumers quickly see how models compare.

    Learn more about how we test cars.

    Consumer Reports Auto Test Center

    Road-Test Course

    Our 1.2-mile handling circuit consists of long straightaways and sweeping curves designed to challenge a vehicle’s acceleration, braking, and cornering capabilities. We evaluate ride comfort on our private course, which has the kind of potholes, undulations, and drainage grates that drivers encounter every day. We judge the illumination distance and intensity of headlights on moonless nights.

    Inside Jobs

    Our Auto Test Center is about more than just cars; buildings on our campus house various other testing programs. We buy and stock over 500 tires each year for evaluation. Hundreds of child seats are tested for fit and ergonomics. And we use our professional photo and video studio to share our findings.

    Vehicle Dynamics

    This 100,000-square-foot area is where our engineers and technicians conduct braking and handling tests for tires under wet conditions. Our facilities staff prepares the surfaces so we can evaluate tire resistance to hydroplaning. Through the trees on the right, we have constructed a steep rock hill to see how four-wheel-drive vehicles handle tough terrain.

    “You can get a lot more for less with a reliable used car.”

     

    Jake Fisher, director of auto testing, evaluates and rates every vehicle we test.

    “Even for the shortest trips, make sure everyone is safely buckled in.”

     

    Jennifer Stockburger, the test center’s director of operations, oversees our tests of child seats and car-safety systems.

    “Check the pressure in your tires—including the spare—once a month.”

     

    Gene Petersen, who manages our tire program, has more than 35 years of experience leaving rubber on the road as a professional tester.

     

    “Always have your vehicle and pricing data in hand when you’re ready to shop at a dealership.”

     

    Anita Lam, our auto program’s data manager, analyzes our Annual Auto Survey and oversees all of the data generated by our vehicle testing. 

     

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

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    Reliable and Safe New Cars for Teens

    If you are looking to buy a new car for your teen driver, there are some good options that are safe and reliable, and won’t break the bank.

    The following list highlights recommended models that perform well in our testing and adequately in government and insurance-industry safety tests, plus have average or better predicted reliability, based on our subscriber surveys. (Consumer Reports maintains reliability Ratings on our website going back 10 model years.) Making selection easier, as of 2012, all cars offer standard electronic stability control, a proven lifesaver that is especially beneficial to less-experienced drivers.

    Generally speaking, bigger and heavier vehicles perform better in crash tests. But very large vehicles can have unwieldy handling, offer poor fuel economy, and allow for more passengers, a potentially dangerous distraction that has been shown to increase a young driver’s crash risk. Thus you won't see them here.

    Large pickups and SUVs are not recommended for inexperienced drivers because their high centers of gravity make them more prone to roll over than other vehicles. Sports cars are also a poor choice for young drivers. They beg to be driven too fast and have a higher rate of accidents than other cars. Consequently, they often carry high insurance premiums for young drivers.

    We did not consider cars with 0-60-mph acceleration times faster than 7.5 seconds or slower than 11 seconds, those with braking distances longer than 145 feet in dry conditions, or those with mediocre emergency-handling scores. Many of the vehicles here are designated as Top Safety Picks by the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety (IIHS).  

    New models generally offer more safety features and provide better crash protection than older cars. Try to buy the most safety that your budget can afford, because no one needs those safety advantages more than a teenage driver. Specifically, features such as forward-collision warning (FCW) and automatic emergency braking (AEB) have been shown to have real-world safety benefits in avoiding crashes.

    Click on the model links below to access the complete road test, reliability, safety, owner satisfaction, pricing, and other key data.

    Model Price range
    Chevrolet Equinox (4-cyl.) $25,410-$31,690
    Chevrolet Sonic Sedan
    $14,345-$21,495
    Ford Edge $28,700-$40,900
    Ford Fusion $22,600-$35,730
    Honda Accord $22,205-$34,680
    Honda Civic $18,640-$26,500
    Honda CR-V $23,745-$33,395
    Honda Fit $15,890-$21,165
    Honda HR-V 19,215-$25,990
    Hyundai Elantra $17,150-$22,350
    Hyundai Sonata $21,750-$34,075
    Hyundai Tucson $22,700-$31,300
    Kia Optima $21,990-$35,890
    Kia Soul $15,800-$35,950
    Mazda3 $17,845-$26,495
    Mazda6 $21,495-$30,195
    Mazda CX-3 $19,960-$26,240
    Mazda CX-5 $21,795-$29,870
    Nissan Rogue $23,290-$33,400
    Scion iA $15,700-$16,800
    Scion iM $18,460-$19,200
    Subaru Crosstrek
    $21,595-$29,995
    Subaru Forester $22,395-$33,795
    Subaru Impreza $18,295-$23,595
    Subaru Legacy (4-cyl.) $21,745-$29,945
    Subaru Outback (4-cyl.) $24,995-$33,395
    Toyota Camry (4-cyl.) $23,070-$31,370
    Toyota Corolla $17,300-$23,125
    Toyota Prius $24,200-$30,935
    Volkswagen Golf Sportwagen $21,625-$29,385
    Volkswagen Tiguan $24,890-$36,420
    Volvo S60 $34,150-$59,300

    Consumer Reports' Recommendations

    Choosing a car for a young person will usually involve compromises between budget, desirable features, and the wants of an image-conscious teen. The best bet is to buy the newest, most reliable model with the most safety equipment you can afford. Do not even consider a car without antilock brakes. If you can reach a little deeper and get a car equipped with multistage advanced front air bags, side and head-protection curtain air bags, antilock brakes, and electronic stability control, so much the better. The lifesaving potential assistance those systems can provide is worth every penny in an emergency situation and can be especially beneficial to an inexperienced driver. Another benefit can be gained by an advanced driving training course. Such courses are offered by various advanced driving schools at closed tracks throughout the country and teach car control and proper driving.

    Tremendous advances in crash protection have been made in the past 10 years. Check the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration websites to see crash results for models you are considering. Both sites post results that go back to the 1990s.

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

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  • 02/29/16--10:11: Tech Terms Decoded
  • Tech Terms Decoded

    No matter what else they build, consumer electronics companies seem to be prolific manufacturers of jargon. And if you’re shopping for anything from speakers to TVs to phones this year, you’re going to run into a lot of it. That’s why we’ve pulled together some of the most important tech terms for consumers to know in 2016. Some are new, while others have been kicking around for the past couple of years but are now making their way into more products—and into more ads, packaging, and sales pitches from store clerks.

    While some of these terms apply to great technologies that you may really like, others may not live up to the hype—at least not yet. One thing that’s fairly predictable: If a product has a lot of jargon attached to it, it’s probably accompanied by a high price tag.

    High Dynamic Range (HDR)

    In both still photography and video, HDR refers to imaging technologies that try to bring out the details in scenes where there’s a wide range of bright and dark elements. Often, the optimal settings for presenting or capturing objects in bright light obscure what’s happening in the shadows, and vice-versa. HDR has been a feature on cameras (including smartphone cameras) for about five years, but now you’ll be seeing the term applied to quite a number of new televisions, as well.

    In a still camera, HDR solves the exposure problem by shooting quick photos at various exposures and then forming a composite from the best parts of all of them. When it works well, every part of the image looks vivid and detailed—though in some cases the photos can appear a bit surreal or even fake. You can turn HDR off if you don’t like it, and some newer cameras from Sony and others allow you to adjust the intensity of the HDR effect.

    In a TV, HDR is all about increasing the range between the darkest and brightest elements within an image. The result is a dramatic, lifelike picture, with brighter whites and deeper blacks that really pop off the screen. The key reason that HDR in TVs has lagged behind HDR in still cameras is that the shows have to be shot and broadcast or streamed in HDR, and televisions have to be built to read and display that signal. It took awhile for TV manufacturers to settle on a technical standard that all of those players will adhere to. Now that appears to be happening, and any HDR TV will follow something called the SMPTE standard. (Some will also support a second standard called Dolby Vision.) These HDR televisions will be on the market starting in March, along with HDR content from the major studios.

    But HDR in TVs will actually have more jargon attached to it—“Ultra HD Premium” sets promise to take full advantage of the technology, while other sets will only be “HDR-capable.” And televisions will still vary in picture quality for lots of reasons that go beyond their dynamic range. Of course, sorting out those performance differences is our job. Stay tuned for test results on the first sets with HDR, which should be available soon.

    4K or Ultra HD

    Back in 2013, 4K or Ultra HD televisions were a high-priced, new-tech, man-cave indulgence. Today they’ve gone mainstream and will probably make up about one-third of the TVs sold in 2016. You can find quite a few of these TVs in our Ratings for under $1,000 and even some for as little as $500, though they’re still not as cheap as plain old 1080p HDTVs.

    Are they worth the extra bucks? That depends on several factors.

    On the spec sheet, UHD TVs are quite impressive. They have four times as many pixels (about 8 million) than already-sharp HDTVs. Specifically, an Ultra HD TV has 3,840 pixels horizontally and 2,160 pixels vertically, compared to 1080p TV's resolution of 1,920 x 1,080. With all of those extra pixels, even the smallest details are visible—the finest strands of hair and the subtle texture of a cotton shirt, for example.

    To the naked eye, the jump from regular HD to Ultra HD isn't as dramatic as the change from standard definition to HD. In fact, you’re probably not going to appreciate 4K resolution unless you’re looking at a 4K content on a model with a screen that’s at least 65 inches measured diagonally, or you’re sitting quite close to the TV.

    Also, there isn’t much 4K content available right now, although Netflix, Amazon, DirecTV, and other content providers will be offering more 4K viewing options later in 2016. And new Ultra HD Blu-ray discs and players are starting to roll out.

    So, is it time to buy one of these new sets? If you’re a casual television observer shopping for a set with a screen 50 inches or smaller, you’ll save a lot and miss little by going with an HDTV. But if you’re a serious sports fan or movie buff, or plan to use your TV as a part-time computer monitor, an Ultra HD TV is the way to go. And if you can wait a few months, prices are sure to drop. There's also another reason to consider a UHD TV: Many of them will also feature HDR.


    Hi-Res Sound

    If 4K TV has a linguistic counterpart in audio, it’s something called hi-res (aka “high-def”) sound. And you’re probably going to come across this tech term a lot in 2016: Apple Music is rumored to be adding a high-res music streaming option in the spring.

    Most music you download or stream comes in the form of MP3 or AAC files, and the data has been compressed to make it easier to store and download. Both file formats use “lossy” compression, meaning bits of data—presumably those you’ll miss least—are removed. The more data that's taken away, the smaller the file becomes, but the likelihood grows that the sound will be noticeably degraded.

    The alternative is hi-res, “lossless” compressed file formats, such as ALAC (Apple Lossless Audio Codec) and FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Codec). These maintain all of the original information, so when a song is uncompressed it should sound exactly the same as the source material. The downside is that these files can more than 10 to 15 times the size of AAC and MP3 files (say, 150MB for a FLAC song vs. 12MB for the MP3 or ACC version).

    To enjoy hi-res audio, you’ll need a compatible player, such as the $300 Sony NWZ-A17Hi-Res Walkman or the HTC One M9 smartphone, along with premium headphones. And you’ll pay a lot more for the music, which you can download from websites including Acoustic Sounds, HDtracks, and Pono Music. Expect to pay about $20 to $25 for an album, compared with $10 for a typical iTunes or Amazon Digital Music album.

    So is it worth it? In our testing, Consumer Reports audio engineers could sometimes hear a bit more detail and clarity in hi-res files than in CD-quality and AAC audio files, especially when the music was played through great equipment, such as a pair of $300 Grado Prestige SR325e headphones. But hi-res audio is probably not worth the splurge for casual listeners who store music on a portable service and listen through average gear.


    qHD (quad High Definition)

    Smartphones, like TVs, have been undergoing their own resolution revolution for several years. The first smartphones with true high-definition (1920 x 1080) displays appeared in 2011. Initially, HD was a tech term that applied only to Android smartphones, but the other phone platforms, including Apple, have since caught on. The advantages of an HD smartphone display over lower-res ones are obvious. Details in photos and videos become more noticeable while text on webpages and documents look crisper and are easier to read.

    In the fall of 2014, the screens of some flagship smartphones from LG and Samsung became significantly more refined, boasting a resolution 1440 x 2560 (about 500 or pixels per inch, or ppi, depending on the phones display size). These new displays, designated qHD, are often confused with the displays of 4K televisions, though they’re not quite as sharp. The “quad” part of the term comes from the fact the qHD screen has four times as many pixels as a 1280 x 720 (720P) display.

    You’d think that a qHD display would mean sharper, eye-popping pictures and more detail. But in our tests, we found that most users don’t notice those extra pixels in everyday use, partly because even the largest phones have relatively small displays. What’s more noticeable—and not it a good way—is when a phone has a very low resolution. Our advice: Choose a model with a screen resolution of at least 720p (also expressed as 300ppi). 


    Augmented Reality (AR)

    Virtual Reality is a big buzzword for 2016, with products such at the Google Cardboad and the long-awaited Oculus Rift headset receiving lots of attention in the media. But the VR has a close relative, known as augmented reality, and it’s a toss-up as to which technology will matter more to the average consumer in the coming years.

    Here’s the difference: Virtual reality is similar to what you see in the movie The Matrix—the user is immersed in a digitally created environment (though no Matrix-style brain implant is involved, at least not yet). As you turn your head, you gaze at a complete world that seems to exist in all directions. Augmented Reality (AR), on the other hand, is a real-world view with data overlays. An example would be the backup displays on many cars, which add overlays showing your direction of travel to assist with parallel parking.

    Google Glass, which was withdrawn from the market in January 2015, was an augmented reality product—one that annoyed more people than it attracted. Now Microsoft is developing an AR headset called the HoloLens, and the company has shown how it could be used for practical purposes, such as viewing a 3D model at your kitchen table, or allowing you to fight off aliens that seem to emerge from your living room wall.

    Because AR is tied to the real world, it avoids problems such as the motion sickness and vertigo sometimes associated with VR headsets. But it remains to be seen whether it will become a technology that has appeal for people in their everyday lives.


    USB Type-C

    In 2016, you’re going to see a growing number of smartphones, tablets, and computers with a new type of connector: USB Type-C. This new cable has a multitude of advantages over the micro USB connectors commonly found on computers and smartphones that aren’t iPhones.

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

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

    What’s more, USB Type-C supports bi-directional power. That means your phone will receive a charge while it’s transmitting files to a compatible TV, printer, or other accessory over the same cable. The bad news: Once your new phone has this connector, you'll need to buy a whole bunch of Type-C adapters to connect them to your old PCs and accessories. Also, there have been reports of some aftermarket cables damaging electronics—we expect the issue to be resolved quickly.

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

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    5 Products on Deep Discount in March

    You might think that because you faithfully compare prices online before buying, dutifully download coupons to your phone, and vigilantly watch for deep discounts on yesterday's inventory as new models appear in stores, you're getting the best deals you possibly can.

    Still, for some products, deep discounts go by the calendar. Consumer Reports product research experts, who track prices all year long, have compiled a list of items that are typically discounted most deeply in March. 

    Price Cuts on Boxed Chocolates

    It's not every day that our expert tasters find themselves saying things like "smooth melt, "milky and caramelized," "amazing," "artistic-looking," "sophisticated," and "ultra-smooth." But those are exactly the words they used to describe some of the excellent chocolate bars and boxed chocolates in our Ratings.

    Use our chocolates buying guide to discover which flavors, textures, and other characteristics are most important to consider. We've found boxed chocolates can be very different. Among the more traditional choices are Candinas and La Maison du Chocolat. People willing to try new tastes might like Christopher Elbow, Vosges, and Xocolatti. Whatever your choice, enjoy it soon: Prices often drop between Valentine's Day and Easter. And the shelf life of most candy is 10 days to two weeks.

    Shopping tips
    Shipping is expensive.
    For the candy in our Ratings, standard overnight or one-day shipping to New York added from about $17 to $45 to the total cost. Note that we ordered in the summer, when shipping costs can be higher than they are in winter. 

    Nutrition pluses and minuses. Eating a little dark chocolate occasionally might be healthful, as some research links it to lower blood pressure and certain other health benefits. But as with all good things, moderation is key: The tested chocolates that reveal nutrition information have about 200 calories and 8 to 17 grams of fat per 1.4-ounce serving.

    Digital Camera Discounts

    Whether you're looking for a basic digital camera (simple point-and-shoots with just the features you need for routine shots), or an advanced model (feature-laden and sophisticated cameras that let you change lenses), now is a good time to shop. Our digital camera buying guide and Ratings give you the details on different models, as well as information on features and brands.

    Shopping tips
    Do your research. Buying a digital camera can be confusing. There are hundreds of models available at many different types of retail outlets (online and in traditional stores), with prices ranging from $75 to several thousand. Some cameras are small enough to fit in a shirt pocket. Others are large and can weigh up to two pounds. Some are easy to use. Others look like you need an engineering degree to operate them.

    Take the next steps. After you consider the type of camera you want and the number of megapixels you need, but before you dive into specific models, be sure to check out our brand profiles, which outline many of the most popular camera product lines and their particular character traits.

    Deals on Ellipticals

    The moving hand grips and adjustable resistance on an elliptical machine allow you to turn this cardiovascular exercise into a full-body workout.  

    Shopping tips
    Consider your workout intensity.
     The more expensive ellipticals in our Ratings tend to feel more solid, operate more smoothly, and have more features than the under-$1,000 models. You might also get superior ergonomics, a wider range of features, and a more generous warranty.

    Beware of trials. A "30-day money-back guarantee" sounds good, but returning the product might not be easy. Some of the machines are heavy or bulky or both, and you might have to pay for return shipping, which could cost $90 or more. Before signing up for a trial, verify with the company the proper return address and how soon you can expect a refund if you send the device back. A scan of online complaints about home fitness equipment revealed that problems with returns, including lack of a valid return address or exorbitant shipping charges, were commonly reported.

    Whether you want to shop online or purchase a machine from the store, be sure to try it out in person first. You might notice a problem that you couldn't detect by sight or reviews alone. For more shopping tips and product information, check our elliptical buying guide.

    Sales on Humidifiers

    A humidifier can relieve itchy eyes, sore throat, and cracked skin by adding moisture to dry, heated air.  

    Shopping tips
    Before you buy, check the features.
     A humidistat—if it's accurate—can help you maintain relative humidity between the optimal levels of 30 to 50 percent.

    Put substance over style. Models resembling a radio, say, can liven up your decor but their output might be too low for the area you need to humidify. Some humidifiers with a touch of whimsy, however—like an owl model from Crane—also delivered on performance.

    Check our humidifier buying guide for more tips on finding the right model in our Ratings. To learn how we test humidifiers in our labs, watch the video below.

    Treadmills

    A piece of home exercise equipment can be a pricey purchase, as our tests of treadmills show. Our top-rated nonfolding treadmill costs a cool $3,800. Spending that much can get you sturdier construction, better hardware, and more features. But you can get a decent machine that provides a great workout for less than a third of that price.

    Shopping tips
    Consider the size. Most treadmills are about 6.5 feet x 3 feet. Folding treadmills are about half the length when folded. Don't assume that because you buy a folding treadmill you'll actually fold and stow it. If that feature is important, try folding the machine before buying to see how easy it is to do and whether folding makes it easier to store. You'll also need adequate space in the open position—about two feet on each side and the back—to get on and off safely.

    Think about assembly. A treadmill can weigh up to 400 pounds, so ask about delivery and check whether assembly is included or available at an additional cost. It might be worth it if you're not particularly deft with a toolbox. It generally takes our experienced engineers about 1 to 2 hours to put together a treadmill, depending on the number of steps. Lifting heavy parts, applying grease, and working on your knees are part of the process. Some of the steps require two people.

    Our treadmill Ratings include dozens of models that we evaluated on construction, ease of use, ergonomics, exercise range, and safety. Our treadmill buying guide has information on different types and brands, features to look for, and other shopping tips. 

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

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    Best American Cars: Top Picks for 2016

    Buying American is a priority for many car buyers. To help them choose a great car, Consumer Reports annually compiles a list of American Top Picks, highlighting exceptional models. These are the top-scoring domestic-branded cars—based on a composite of road test score, reliability, safety, and owner satisfaction—across 10 popular categories. (Learn more about our Overall Score.)

    We need to get an important footnote out of the way: Because the automobile industry is global, many cars are manufactured in countries far from their corporate headquarters. It doesn't make things easier that Chrysler is owned by Italy's Fiat. Therefore, for simplicity's sake, we have defined an "American" car as one coming from the three traditional domestic manufacturers: Chrysler, Ford, and General Motors. To help gauge its patriotic pedigree, we have also listed where each vehicle is built and its percentage of North American content.

    Thanks to reinvigorated competitiveness, buying American doesn't require sacrificing quality—far from it. Two cars on this list—the Chevrolet Impala and Ford F-150—also show up on Consumer Reports' official Top Picks list. They're the prime choices in their respective categories, besting all global competition.

    The American Top Picks list also shows Ford's strength in building refined, fun-to-drive cars. Many also benefit from improving reliability as Ford works out their bugs. But the list also reveals that some weak spots still exist among the domestic manufacturers.  


    Subcompact Car: Chevrolet Sonic

    Expectations are modest when you spend around $19,000 for a new car, but the Sonic packs some surprises. Unlike many slow and noisy rivals, the Sonic is relatively quiet and the ride isn’t punishing. Forward-collision warning, a safety feature we think all cars should have, comes at a reasonably affordable price.
    Built in Ohio
    U.S./Canada content: 55 percent

    Read our complete Chevrolet Sonic road test.


    Compact Car: Ford C-Max

    Returning 37 mpg overall, the Ford C-Max hybrid doesn't match the fuel economy of a Toyota Prius, but it is more enjoyable to drive and more refined.The tall body makes for easy access, good visibility, and abundant cargo space. Ford's new Sync 3 infotainment system is also a big improvement over the buggy and unintuitive MyFord Touch system it replaced. It also comes as a plug-in hybrid with 18 miles of electric only range.
    Built in Michigan
    U.S./Canada content: 46 percent

    Read our complete Ford C-Max road test.
     


    Midsized Car: Ford Fusion

    Yearn for a European luxury sports sedan, but can't swing those payments? The Fusion is a satisfying substitute. While many midsized sedans prove to be a snooze to drive, this Ford's sharp steering makes even a routine commute fun, while still providing the absorbent ride and quiet cabin needed to churn out those miles. A broad line-up includes a 39 mpg hybrid, a plug-in hybrid, and available all-wheel drive. You still need to put up with the frustrating MyFord Touch infotainment touch screen in the Fusion (one of the last holdouts with this system), but Sync 3 arrives for 2017 along with other updates.
    Built in Mexico and Michigan.
    U.S./Canada content: 26 percent

    Read our complete Ford Fusion road test. 


    Large Car: Chevrolet Impala

    Long relegated to the inglorious life of airport rental fleets, the current version of the Impala puts the competition in its rearview mirror. The Impala is a fully contemporary and very accomplished large sedan. It combines what made big traditional American road cruisers great—plenty of room inside a plush and quiet interior—with surprisingly good road manners that make the Impala rewarding to drive. It’s one of Consumer Reports’ Top Picks for 2016.
    Built in Canada and Michigan
    U.S./Canada content: 65 percent

    Read our complete Chevrolet Impala road test.


    Small SUV: None Qualify

    We enjoy driving the refined and nimble Ford Escape, but below-average reliability and a Poor score in the IIHS offset crash tests disqualify it from consideration. All of Jeep's small SUVs—the Compass, Patriot, and Cherokee—are both unreliable and uncompetitive. GM lacks a true small SUV; their dated Chevrolet Equinox/GMC Terrain are more midsized than small. And the Buick Encore subcompact SUV is both too expensive and too tiny to challenge small SUV stalwarts like the Subaru Forester or Toyota RAV4.  


    Midsized SUV: Ford Edge

    If there were awards for "Most Improved Redesign," the Edge would certainly be in the running. The 2015 makeover transformed Ford's two-row crossover from being musclebound and uncouth into a sophisticated car that graduates with honors from finishing school. Like many other Fords, the Edge excels at balancing being both fun to drive yet quietly subduing the road's annoying imperfections with a roomy interior.
    Built in Canada
    U.S./Canada content: 77 percent

    Read our complete Ford Edge road test


    Large SUV: Dodge Durango

    Easily Chrysler's best current product, the Durango is something of a jumbo-sized Swiss Army knife. Excellent owner satisfaction scores show that buyers love this brawny-yet-sleek SUV. Even though it has room for seven full-sized adults in its three rows of seats, its size doesn’t get in the way of handling with the nimbleness of a smaller vehicle. Quiet and well-finished, the interior also features the optional excellent UConnect infotainment system. The Durango also tows a big trailer and, rare for troubled Chrysler, has average reliability.
    Built in Michigan
    U.S./Canada content: 67 percent

    Read our complete Dodge Durango road test. 


    Minivan: None Qualify

    Chrysler created the modern minivan, but their Chrysler Town & Country and Dodge Grand Caravan are outclassed among their peers. After a long model run, reliability has finally clawed its way to average, but a Poor in the IIHS small offset crash test takes them out of contention. Perhaps the upcoming Pacifica minivan will be Chrysler's comeback in a segment that they pioneered and used to own. 


    Pickup Truck: Ford F-150

     

    With last year's move to an aluminum-body, Ford's latest redesign of their top-selling vehicle really rolled the dice. But the gamble paid off, with best-in-class fuel economy among gasoline-powered full-sized trucks. Top-tier crash test results, an enormous and quiet cab, and plenty of clever features help the F-150's appeal. While the Chevrolet Silverado and Ram 1500 out-point the Ford in road test score, both of those trucks are unreliable. Above-average first year reliability puts the Ford on top, and makes it a Consumer Reports Top Pick.
    Built in Michigan and Missouri
    U.S./Canada content: 70 percent

    Read our complete Ford F-150 road test.

     


    Sports Car under $40,000: None qualify

    Ford dominates this category with a wide variety of models: the Fiesta ST, Focus ST, and Mustang. We greatly enjoy driving all of them, but they all have poor reliability, knocking them out of the running. Competition from Chrysler and GM is sparse: the Dodge Challenger has below average reliability, and we’ve just started testing the new Chevrolet Camaro so the verdict is still pending.

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    How Kids Envision Fuel-Efficient Cars of the Future

    A car that runs off plants and sun. Another that’s powered by solar panels. How about an electric fuel-cell scooter—that can fly!

    These are some of the future modes of transportation dreamed up by kids imagining a world of more fuel-efficient vehicles. Here at Consumer Reports, that’s also a world we like to dream about and feel is important for drivers and the automotive industry.

    In our video above, we talked some of these young dreamers who entered their fuel-efficient car ideas in the Create Tomorrowland XPrize Challenge, a contest run in partnership with Disney and XPrize, a nonprofit known for its boundary-pushing competitions for adult scientists. 

    Consumer Reports' Director of Auto Testing Jake Fisher and MIT Mechanical Engineering Professor Amos Winter teamed up to playfully weigh in on four of the concepts on video.

    Photosynthetic-Fueled Car by Katrina, 14 years old

    Katrina’s idea harnessing the power of the sun and plants to create fuel for the cars of the future is an idea already in the works. Primarily being tested on military and commercial trucks in the form of diesel/algae blends, algae fuel is nearly a carbon-neutral fuel source because it removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Hopefully a commercially viable process of producing algae-based fuel will be readily available by the time Katrina learns to drive. 

    Air Compression Car by Jaden, 14 years old

    Jaden’s progressive idea is for a car’s roof to harness the sun with solar panels that power a turbine motor. So far, car-mounted solar panels have solely been used on production cars for low-wattage features, such as infotainment systems, because the size of solar panels needed to capture enough energy to recharge a car are still too big. Futuristic (and failed) car company, Aptera, a former XPrize competitor, had plans for solar assistance on its high-efficiency three-wheel car. Other automakers, including Fisker, Ford, Mazda, and Toyota have also toyed with solar assistance.  

    Flying Car by Lila, 11 years old

    The flying car has been a fantasy form of transportation since long before the Jetson’s aerocar. One company, Moller International, has for years been planning a gas-powered, spaceship-looking recreational vehicle that will be a combination boat, hovercraft, ATV, and snowmobile, but hasn’t been able to get off the ground. Massachusetts-based Terrafugia believes that the future of personal air transportation is near. That company is developing the Terrafugia TF-X, a semi-autonomous four-seat hybrid electric flying car. While still under development, Terrafugia is taking reservations for buyers, Lila! 

    Electric Fuel-Cell Scooter by Jason, 13 years old

    Hydrogen-powered electric fuel-cell vehicles have been on the roads for about a decade now, albeit in very small numbers. Companies as diverse as General Motors, Honda, Hyundai, Mercedes-Benz, and Toyota have been offering special leases on such cars. Fuel-cell vehicles are electric vehicles that produce their power onboard through a chemical reaction between the hydrogen and oxygen. Hydrogen is a plentiful resource, but its storage and transportation solutions remain a challenge. Jason’s idea of using water to create hydrogen through electrolysis to power an engine is a forward-looking way of creating renewable energy. We’re not so sure about the flying part, though.  

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    2016 Buick Cascada Blows the Roof off Brand's Image

    Few things can enhance your mood as much as a top-down drive on a sunny day or moonlit night. But the convertible market has recently been pretty glum, with slim pickings for buyers seeking an affordable four-seat convertible. Just in time for spring, American convertible lovers get a gift from, of all places, Germany: the 2016 Buick Cascada.

    The Cascada's timing also seems perfect because with the demise of the Toyota Solara, Chrysler 200, and Volkswagen Eos, affordable four-seat drop-tops have been limited to the sporty rear-drive Chevrolet Camaro and Ford Mustang.

    Imported from Europe, courtesy of GM's German arm Opel, the 2016 Buick Cascada is mostly based on the Opel Astra sedan, itself a mechanical sibling to the Buick Verano sedan. Sold overseas for several years, it finally joins the U.S. marketplace as Buick’s first convertible in more than 20 years. The Reatta soft top was offered in North America in the early 1990s. 

    Pricing starts at $33,990, about $3,000 more than a Ford Mustang convertible, but with more standard features, including leather heated seats and navigation. The Cascada Premium trim adds dual windblockers and forward-collision and lane-departure warning for another $3,000. To put that into perspective, the nearest front-drive competitor to the 2016 Buick Cascada is the Audi A3, which starts at the same price as a loaded Cascada but winds up costing thousands of dollars more when comparably equipped. 

    To gather first impressions, we rented a 2016 Buick Cascada from GM and enjoyed an early taste of spring. We anticipate purchasing one very soon for our formal test program. The Cascada comes across as a well-considered convertible that suits its mission as a nice-day cruiser, but it feels just a bit dated in some details.

    Power comes from a 200 horsepower, 1.6-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine that does a decent job of hauling this heavy, front-drive car. A smooth, responsive six-speed automatic is the only transmission choice. We’ve observed 23 mpg overall on premium gas so far.

    The 2016 Buick Cascada gets top marks in top-down friendliness, thanks to many clever details. Well-insulated, the fabric top keeps out noise and keeps in warmth, even in zero-degree temperatures. Fully power operated with no need to release any latches, the top opens or closes in a quick 17 seconds, tucking under a hard cover that keeps everything looking neat and tidy. It can open and close on the go at speeds of up to 31 mph, handy when the traffic light changes mid-top-cycle. A single switch conveniently raises or lowers all windows, but it’s easy to confuse this control with the electric parking brake switch.

    Wind buffeting is kept to a minimum, at least for front passengers, by a small wire-mesh windblocker. If there are no rear passengers, a larger foldable wind blocker can be installed to further reduce buffeting. A trunk partition lets you choose if you want to maximize cargo space or allow the roof to fold.

    Made for cruising smooth boulevards, the Cascada's body structure is largely free of the unwanted shake that afflicts many convertibles. All Cascadas come standard with 20-inch wheels and low-profile tires. While the ride is mostly supple, that wheel/tire combination inherently limits some absorption, allowing sharp bumps to noticeably come through.

    Handling is responsive with fairly quick reflexes and prompt steering response. Body lean is kept in check, but don’t expect the 2016 Buick Cascada to be a sportster like a Chevrolet Camaro or Ford Mustang. That said, it certainly is more nimble than the long-retired Toyota Solara or Chrysler Sebring/200 Convertible.

    Inside, the seats are comfortable and supportive with four-way power lumbar support adjustment. Heated front seats and a heated steering wheel stretch the open-top season, facilitating convertible motoring in chilly weather. Seat belt presenters extend from behind the front doors, making for an easy reach to the belts as soon as you close the door. They also keep the belts out of the way when climbing into the rear seat, unlike in many two-door cars. Both driver and passenger’s seats are power operated. Easy-to-reach levers make the seats recline and scoot forward to ease access to the rear; the seat then returns to its original position. You won’t find such niceties at this price anywhere—even on GM’s own more expensive Camaro convertible.

    Two adults will be able to sit in the rear, but with the top up, headroom is restricted. Also restricted is the driver's view to the rear and sides, thanks to a very small rear window. Unfortunately, blind-spot monitoring is not available, but at least a rearview camera is standard.

    Some of the Cascada's dashboard details feel dated, a sign of this design's age. Like many Buicks from five years ago, a sea of buttons and knobs makes the controls look daunting at first. Inserting a key instead of having a push-button start is just so 2008. The IntelliLink infotainment touch screen takes care of connectivity with audio choices, including Pandora and Stitcher, as well as phone interactions, but it's a long reach to its somewhat small screen.

    Opel-related Buicks, such as the Verano and Regal, have shown average or better reliability in our survey. It would be a stretch to project that to the Cascada, but it gives hope.

    Sunseekers who want some wind in their hair and enjoy some niceties without breaking the bank will now have to shop Buick. Who knew?  

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    This Year's Highly Effective Flu Shot Is a Must for Kids and Adults

    Here’s a convincing reason to go get a flu shot if you haven’t already: This year’s vaccine is 59 percent effective against the strains of flu circulating this season, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which monitors flu shot effectiveness. Last year’s flu shot was less than 23 percent effective against the main strains of flu, so this year’s formulation appears to do its job more than twice as well.

    “If you haven’t bothered to get vaccinated because last year’s vaccine was so ineffective, that’s a mistake,” says Consumer Reports chief medical adviser, Marvin M. Lipman, M.D. “Flu season could last another month or two. A flu shot now can provide protection within two weeks and might make the difference between staying healthy or spending 10 days in bed, or even in the hospital,” Lipman says.

    Someone who is vaccinated may still get infected, but according to the CDC, their illness may be milder than it would have been without the flu shot's protection.

    But not everyone is getting the benefit of this year’s vaccine. According to CDC estimates, by the end of this year’s flu season only about 44 percent of adults and 59 percent of children will have gotten the shot.

    “All children 6 months of age and older should be vaccinated against flu each and every year,” says William Schaffner, M.D., professor of preventive medicine and infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville, Tenn.

    Yet a national poll released this month by C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital found that 59 percent of parents who did not get their children flu shots this season rate the flu vaccine less favorably than other childhood vaccines. And overall, the survey found that 35 percent of parents polled reported that they felt the flu vaccine was "less important" than other childhood vaccines. That could explain why flu vaccination rates lag behind measles, polio, and most other childhood vaccines.

    The poll also found that parents who don’t get their kids vaccinated against the flu believe that the flu vaccine is not as effective as other vaccines. That may be true in some cases: For example, two doses of the MMR vaccine are about 97% effective at preventing the measles. But vaccinating children against flu is crucial.

    “Although most kids recover from flu, each year flu kills children. Some of these children have underlying illnesses and are more vulnerable to flu, but some are normal, healthy children,” Schaffner says. It’s also important to vaccinate kids because when they get infected they produce even more flu virus than adults, “so they spread the flu virus readily to others,” he says.

    And a case of the flu can be severe. Each year it puts more than 200,000 people in the hospital and kills thousands. In fact, between 1976 and 2006, the CDC estimates that annual flu-associated deaths in the United States range from a low of about 3,000 to a high of about 49,000 people.

    Don’t have time to visit your doctor? How about stopping off at a drugstore to get the shot? Many pharmacies such as CVS, Rite Aid, and Walgreens offer flu shots. They don’t require appointments and most will file with your insurance company. 

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    Your March Financial To-Do List

    March is the perfect month to get your financial affairs in order. The reason: You are probably already organizing your documents to complete your taxes. While you sort through your tax documents closely, examine your W-2 and 1099 forms. They'll give you insight into how your income is growing and how successful you've been when it comes to saving and investing.

    By comparing your W-2s over the years, Christing Benz, director of personal finance at investment research firm Morningstar, says you can see if your salary is increasing at a pace that is acceptable to you. If so, you should also try to increase your savings rate.

    Even if your salary isn't rising, you may still want to consider saving more, perhaps in your retirement accounts. Your 1099s will give you a glimpse into how much (or little) you've made from money deposited in savings accounts. While interest rates are still very low, it's worth realizing that you can often eke out a little more interest by putting your money into an online savings account, since those rates tend to be higher.

    Here are some other easy steps you can put on your financial to-do list this month.

    Lower Your Tax Bill

    If you haven't filed yet, there are three easy ways to lower your tax bill. One is to lower your adjusted gross income by adding to your retirement savings through an IRA. You can contribute up to $5,500—$6,500 if you’re over age 50—and the deduction will apply to your 2015 taxes if you make the contribution before this year’s tax deadline of April 18 (April 19 for Massachusetts and Maine). See the IRS website for more details.

    Another option, if you made money from self-employment last year, is to contribute to a Simplified Employee Pension Individual Retirement Arrangement (SEP) IRA. The SEP IRA allows you to put aside up to $53,000 or 25 percent of your income—whichever is smaller—regardless of whether you’re covered by a retirement plan at your main job.

    You can also create a Health Savings Account (HSA) in conjunction with high-deductible health insurance plans. An individual can allocate up to $3,350 for 2015; families can fund their account up to $6,650. You can draw on the account to pay for out-of-pocket health-care costs. You can make contributions to your HSA for 2015 until April 18.

    Consolidate Your Investments

    A great financial to-do this month is to find ways to save money on fees, and further reduce your paperwork and inbox clutter. You can do this by transferring stocks, bonds, mutual funds, and exchange-traded funds so that all your investments are at one brokerage firm or mutual fund company.

    Before transferring funds, though, find out whether you'll be charged to move your investments. You should also calculate how much you can save on fees and commissions by consolidating, since you will now have a higher balance at one financial institution. There should be no unpleasant tax consequences; you're not liquidating the old accounts but merely moving them to a new custodian.

    If a move makes sense and you make frequent trades, choose a brokerage firm that charges lower commissions than you currently pay. If your strategy is to buy and hold, commissions may not be a major consideration but you should still choose a company that waives account maintenance fees and offers funds with low expenses.

    Conquer Your Paper Piles

    Getting your financial papers in order helps lower stress in your life, says Peter Walsh, author of "Does This Clutter Make My Butt Look Fat?" (Simon & Schuster, 2008). But you have to know how long to keep your records.

    You can divide nearly all of them into four categories: Papers that you need to keep for at least one calendar year, papers that can be destroyed because they cover items you no longer own, tax records, which you should save for at least three years, and documents that you need to keep indefinintely. Here are more details on each of these categories.

    Buy Products on Deep Discount

    Consumer Reports product research experts, who track prices all year long, have compiled a list of items that are typically at their lowest price in March. To get the best deals, look for sales on boxed chocolates, digital cameras, ellipticals, humidifiers, treadmills, and winter clothes this month.

    If you think you can get an even better deal on products and services try haggling. In a Consumer Reports National Research Center survey of 2,000 American adults, 89 percent who said they haggled received a better price at least once.

    Consider Buying Flood Insurance

    Before April showers arrive, another financial to-do is to see if you need to buy national flood insurance. FloodSmart.gov, the Federal Emergency Management Agency website promoting national flood insurance, estimates that nearly 20 percent of flood claims originate in areas deemed "moderate" or "low" risk. So regardless of where you live, flood insurance may be worth buying. Keep in mind that you can't file a claim until 30 days after your coverage starts.

    You can purchase flood insurance from a private insurance company but not many private insurers offer their own flood insurance. Or you can get coverage through the National Flood Insurance Program, backed by the federal government. These policies are often sold through agents that sell homeowners insurance.

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    A Streaming DirecTV Service Is Coming This Year

    If you want to try satellite TV service but the thought of drilling dish-mounting holes in your roof is less than appealing, you'll soon have a new option: AT&T is launching a streaming DirecTV service later this year.

    The move by AT&T, which acquired DirecTV last year, comes at a time when consumers have a lot more alternatives to traditional pay TV services. In addition to Sling TV and PlayStation Vue, they can choose offerings from networks such as CBS All Access and premium channels, including HBO (HBO Now) and Showtime (Showtime Now), for streaming services untethered from pay TV subscriptions.

    In fact, AT&T will offer three different streaming DirecTV services—all delivered nationally over the Internet. That means you don't need a dish. You simply use broadband service and a streaming device.

    Two of the AT&T services—DirecTV Now and DirecTV Mobile—will be subscription-based. The third, DirectTV Preview, will operate on a free, ad-supported model. AT&T says it expects each DirecTV service to go live in the fourth quarter of 2016.

    Targeted to cord-cutters and those looking for a more cable-like TV service, DirecTV Now will feature a wide range of content, including "much of what is available" from the DirecTV service today, the company says. Think on-demand and live programming from a variety of networks, plus premium add-on options such as HBO. Though no channel lineup has been announced, AT&T says there may be several DirecTV Now plans. It also expects to have local channels in the mix.

    DirecTV Mobile will be a lower-price service available on smart phones across multiple carriers, not just those on AT&T's networks. The mobile DirecTV service will have premium videos and "made-for-digital content." The free ad-supported DirecTV Preview will have a more limited selection of content than DirecTV Now, including the company's own Audience channel.

    AT&T said the new services will be available on a number of streaming devices and platforms, but didn't announce which ones will initially be supported. The company also reported that it will announce pricing for the new pay services closer to launch and it will continue to offer the traditional DirecTV and AT&T U-verse pay-TV services after the new ones debut.

    However, the streaming DirecTV services will reportedly be priced lower than the regular AT&T and DirecTV services. As we recently noted, almost all traditional TV services have instituted price increases in 2016. If you're considering a streaming DirecTV service, there is one thing you should consider: Can you live without a DVR? That won't be included in any of the packages.

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  • 03/02/16--03:00: Social Security Email Scam
  • Social Security Email Scam

    Scammers have a new way of getting to you. Their weapon: a phishing email claiming to come from the Social Security Administration.

    The subject line reads “Get Protected” and the return address appears as “no-reply@ssa.gov.” The email appears to offer new features that will help you monitor your credit report and warn you of unauthorized users of your Social Security number. It even refers to the IRS and mentions the “SAFE Act 2015.” All you need to do to register is click on a link.

    This Social Security email is a classic phishing ploy, a form of identity theft in which hackers use fraudulent websites and fake emails to attempt to steal your personal data, especially passwords and credit card information. Clicking on the link may open your computer to malware, such as viruses and spyware. Or the link might send you to a spoof site—a copycat version of the Social Security Administration’s site—to trick you into entering your personal information, including your Social Security number. 

    Figuring Out Whether It's Fake

    Before you click on any link—ever—take a minute to check it out. These clues from the Social Security email scam will reveal whether the email can be trusted or should be tossed. Here's how to do it: 

    • Hover your cursor over the address link. The URL of the fake Social Security email directs you to an unrelated “.com” address, not the Social Security Administration’s legitimate ssa.gov or another .gov site.
    • Examine the name of the sender. In the case of AAFE Act 2015, nothing seems wrong with the name. Phishing emails often use real-sounding names in order to gain credibility. But look further, and there is reason to be suspicious. While the SAFE Act was passed by the House of Representatives last November, the acronym stands for Security Against Foreign Enemies and refers to the Iraq and Syrian refugee crisis. It has nothing to do with the Social Security Administration.
    • Ask yourself why this email ended up in your spam folder. Email providers use filters to prevent phishing scams and spam from infiltrating your email. If an email ends up in your spam folder, it could be a sign that it's not legitimate.
    • Contact the agency yourself. If you’re unsure about a Social Security email that claims to come from the government, call or email the agency. Just be sure to look up the address on Google; if you use the contact info listed in the phishing email, you’ll be directed back to the scammer, who'll try to convince you that the site is authorized.

    Report all questionable emails to the FTC and to the organization impersonated in the email. 

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