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    5 Ways to Save on Printer Ink

    Among the great nuisances of modern life, few things irritate consumers more than the high price of printer ink. If you want to see black clouds roll in, just tell someone it's time to drive to the store, open the wallet, and purchase a new round of color cartridges.

    Of course, that gloom is understandable. It's hard to justify paying so dearly for the privilege of printing out a grocery store coupon. And, while third-party printer ink cartridges may promise savings, they often get rejected by printers designed to sniff out off-brand intruders.

    So how do you save on printer ink? Here are a few ideas.

    1. Change the Font

    Two years ago, a 14-year-old student in Pittsburgh created a stir on CNN by announcing that the U.S. government could save $234 million a year by printing its documents in Garamond instead of Times New Roman. While that discovery was eventually discredited—due to a point size issue unique to Garamond—the teen's instincts were right: Your choice of typeface can make a difference in ink consumption.

    When Consumer Reports tested fonts several years ago, we got 27 percent more mileage when using Times New Roman rather than Arial, a default font in many browsers. Calibri and Century Gothic both outperformed Arial, as well. An option called Ecofont is designed specifically for frugality—it removes enough printer ink from its characters to stay legible while saving money. But you have to pay for it—lifetime licenses for Ecofont start at $19.99.

    2. Print in Black and White

    What's the point of wasting precious ink on a colorful ad or logo, when all you want is the driving directions to your best friend's summer home? By changing your default settings to black-and-white (otherwise known as grayscale), you spare the color cartridges.

    3. Strip Out the Stuff You Don't Want

    Many websites let you select printer-friendly versions of their stories, which automatically remove color ink-sucking ads and images, leaving you with nothing but text. If the site you're reading doesn't offer that option, a service like Instapaper, Clean Print, or Print Friendly can help you reformat the story yourself, saving on ink and paper. Some even let you skip the printing process altogether and save the article for future reading on a laptop, tablet, or smartphone.

    4. Upgrade Your Printer

    Printers vary quite a bit in how much ink they use, and this is one of the factors that Consumer Reports tests in the lab. Laser printers are known for their low cost-per-page (around 2 cents, usually) and fast print speeds—a particularly strong performer in our Ratings is the Dell S2825cdn, which costs $280, and $0.02/page to print.

    Inkjets are catching up on per-page printing costs, if not speed: Consider the HP Officejet Pro 8610, an all-in-one model that costs $100 upfront, and prints at a cost of just 0.017 per page.

    Then there’s the Epson EcoTank line of printers, which have a novel take on the home printer, eschewing the classic ink cartridge for ink bottles and reservoirs. The bottles cost $12.99 each, and you need four of them. The printers have a pricey upfront costs—the Epson Expression ET-2550 costs $299. But the per-page printing cost is tiny, roughly an order of magnitude lower than some other printers at just $0.003. Do all that arithmetic, and you'll be saving money after about three years. According to Epson, a set of Ecotank ink bottles is equivalent to around 20 standard-capacity printer ink cartridges.

    5. Use Draft Mode

    If you're like me, you rarely use your printer for dissertation projects, wedding invitations, or quarterly earnings reports. As long as the device spits out a legible soup recipe, you're happy. When the end result doesn't have to be high quality, use the draft mode in your printer settings. This will not only use less ink, but also print faster.

    For more advice on printers, check out our buying guide and the Maintenance Ink Use column in our Ratings.

    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 Clean Your Small Appliances

    With their curves, knobs, and moving parts, small appliances can get gritty and dirty sitting on the counter. To keep them looking shiny and spiffy, follow a few simple cleaning rules and tackle each mess as you make it. For safety’s sake, always unplug the device before removing any parts for cleaning, and carefully follow manufacturer’s instructions. And of course, never immerse your small electrics in water. Here's how to clean your small appliances from Consumer Reports’ book, “How to Clean Practically Everything.”

    How to Clean Blenders and Food Processors
    Clean after each use. Although certain parts may be dishwasher safe—usually in the top rack only—their odd shapes can make them difficult to secure; hand-washing is therefore strongly advised. Remove the cutting or shredding blade from the bowl, and wash each part separately (to minimize the chance of injury or damage) using a mild detergent in hot water, followed by a thorough rinse in warm water.

    Use a toothbrush or a bottle brush to clean off any stuck-on food, but do not allow cutting blades to soak in water or to become obscured from view. Carefully wipe metal parts dry with a soft, clean towel; let plastic parts air-dry. Use a mild all-purpose cleaner or a soft cloth dampened with water or white vinegar to clean the motor base.

    How to Clean Juicers
    When cleaning a juice extractor, do not use your fingers or any metal utensils to remove pulp from the inlet chute, the cutting teeth, or the strainer. Use the handle of a spatula or of a wooden spoon to clear clogs in the chute. Clean the strainer and cutting teeth with a toothbrush or other firm-bristled brush.

    How to Clean Drip Coffee Makers
    Dried coffee oils can ruin the taste of even the best blend. After every use, wash the carafe and brew basket of an electric drip coffee maker in dish soap and water, then rinse and dry. Once the hot plate cools, wipe any coffee that may have spilled onto it and remove burnt-on stains by using a little baking soda on a damp sponge. To avoid accumulation of minerals in tanks and tubes, especially if you have hard water, occasionally run equal parts of water and white vinegar through the machine. Then run water through it a couple of times. (Check the manual first: Some coffeemakers will suggest a different ratio.) Or use a special coffee-machine cleaning solution.

    How to Clean Pod Coffee Makers
    Clean your coffee maker regularly. Mineral buildup and coffee residue slow brewing; they can also affect taste. Some models of pod coffee makers recommend using filtered or bottled water for brewing. Coffee maker owner’s manuals typically advise running a cycle of white vinegar through the machine every month or so; the process differs by model.

    Pod coffee makers have a similar process, though they might vary further. And Keurig, for example, sells a special Descaling Solution ($13 for 14 ounces), which it calls “the only Keurig-approved cleaning solution for Keurig brewers.” The one-year Keurig warranty excludes damage from using non-Keurig pods and accessories; that could include using another cleaning solution. But after the warranty is up, there’s no reason not to try white vinegar instead. As always, run at least one cycle of just water afterward.

    How to Clean Toasters
    It doesn’t take long for a toaster or toaster oven to become filled with crumbs, but fortunately most models come with removable crumb trays that make for easy cleaning. Before cleaning, make sure the device is cool to the touch. Place a plastic garbage bag or a few sheets of newspaper underneath the tray, then carefully slide it out, and shake off any crumbs or loose food. Use a damp, soapy sponge or nylon scrubber to remove any baked-on particles, rinse well, and dry with a soft cloth or paper towel. Make sure the tray is completely dry before reinserting it.

    If your toaster does not have a crumb tray, turn it upside down over the sink or garbage and shake out loose crumbs. Use a thin paint brush or basting brush—never a fork or metal utensil—to loosen any crumbs that may get caught.

    How to Clean Toaster Ovens
    Because they are typically used for broiling and baking as well as toasting, toaster ovens require more frequent cleaning. Regularly wipe down the exterior walls and the crumb tray with a sponge dampened with some water and a drop of mild dishwashing liquid, then wipe down with a damp sponge. Carefully slide out the cooking racks, and clean them in the dishwasher or let them soak for 20 to 30 minutes in hot soapy water. Use a damp, sudsy cloth to clean the glass door, wipe off any leftover soap with a damp sponge, and dry with a clean towel.

    The interior walls of most toaster ovens have a “continuous clean” coating that helps ward off stains and splatters, but which can be damaged by metal scouring pads and abrasive cleaners. To remove any burnt-on food from inside a toaster oven, use a polyester or nylon scrubber dampened with water, but take care not to touch the heating elements. Make sure all parts are completely dry before using the toaster oven.

    How to Clean Microwave Ovens
    Use a mild cleaner and soft cloth to clean the exterior. Wipe up any spills in the interior immediately. To remove cooking stains, wipe the walls and floor of the oven with a hot, damp cloth. Wash removable parts, such as the turntable, in hot water and dishwashing liquid.

    To mask odors, place a bowl of water containing 1⁄4 cup of lemon juice in the oven and run it on high for one minute. Remove the bowl and wipe the oven cavity, using the condensation that will have formed to clean it. Wipe stains using plain water. Repeat if necessary. Scrape off stubborn stains with a plastic credit card. However, never scrape the inner surface of the window as this might damage any microwave blocking finish.

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

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    Apple Ransomware Case: What It Means

    Apple users just got some bad news: The first successful ransomware attack against Macintosh computers was discovered this past weekend. It certainly won’t be the last. And online crooks have been targeting Windows machines this way for years. Whether you use a Mac or a PC, here’s what you need to know about this attack, and how to protect yourself.

    What is ransomware?

    Ransomware is a form of malware designed to extract money from individuals and small businesses by holding their data hostage. Imagine coming home to find a big padlock on your front door and a criminal standing next to it, demanding money to let you in. That's ransomware. Only instead of being locked out of your house, you're locked out of all your personal files. The next time you log on, your computer displays a ransom note saying your data has been encrypted, with instructions on how to pay to unlock it. 

    Can cybercrooks really make money doing this?

    Oh, yes. Ransomware is big business. Individual ransoms can range from $200 to $10,000, according to the FBI's Internet Crime Complaint Center, usually paid in the "virtual" currency Bitcoin, which is nearly impossible to trace. The longer you wait to pay, the higher the ransom becomes. The most common ransomware, CryptoWall 3, infected more than 400,000 machines in 2015, costing users $325 million in ransom and damages, according to a report by the Cyber Threat Alliance.

    Why is this particular ransomware attack significant?

    Because it's the first piece of ransomware to successfully target Apple computers. Nearly all malware affects Windows machines. In part that's because Windows software has traditionally been more vulnerable than Macintosh software, but it’s mostly because Windows software is a much bigger target; Windows PCs outnumber Macs by more than nine to one. From now on, though, Apple users must face the fact that their machines are at risk, too.

    How do you get infected?

    Most ransomware infections happen when a user is lured by a bogus “phishing” email to a site that infects his or her computer, or by clicking on an attached file that secretly installs it. In this case, however, some people's Macs were infected when they installed a piece of software called Transmission 2.90, which allows them to download  large files using BitTorrent's peer-to-peer file sharing protocol. Approximately 6,500 copies of the infected software were downloaded before the problem was detected—a small number in the world of malware.

    How did this happen?

    It's unclear. But it's possible cybercrooks hacked Transmission's Web site and replaced the good version of its software with an infected one, according to researchers at the security firm Palo Alto Networks, which discovered the problem. Apple issues certificates to software developers, which the Macintosh operating system then checks before it allows users to install the software – like a bouncer checking your ID at the door. After being notified by Palo Alto about the ransomware, Apple revoked Transmission's certificate. Transmission has since issued a clean version (2.92) of its software that removes the infected one.

    How can you avoid having your data taken hostage?

    You avoid ransomware the same way you avoid any malware infection: By being careful. In this particular case, that wasn't so easy. Users thought they were upgrading software they trusted.

    But there are things you can do to steer clear of problems.

    Don’t casually click a link inside an email; instead, type the Web address directly into your browser. Never open an attachment unless you were expecting to receive it and you're certain of what it is. Don't spend time in the disreputable corners of the Internet that specialize in risqué content or pirated movies; you can get infected simply by visiting a dodgy site. Never install software just because a Web site tells you to do it. And always keep a backup copy of all your personal files on a separate drive or an Internet-based backup system, like SOS Online Backup, iDrive, or Backblaze. That way, if the worst happens, you'll always have access to your most important data—cybercrooks be damned.

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

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    'Dirty Dozen' Tax Scams for 2016

    With barely a month to go before tax filing deadline, identity theft, phone scams, and phishing top the IRS’ annual “Dirty Dozen” tax scams for 2016. These email, phone, and texting scams, designed to trick taxpayers into sharing personal information that can be used to file for fraudulent refunds, have surged 400 percent in this tax season alone, the IRS warns.

    These tax scams are being reported in every part of the country, according to the IRS. Phishing scams spotted by the IRS ask taxpayers about a wide range of topics, including information related to refunds, filing status, personal information (address, phone number, and Social Security number), ordering transcripts, and verifying PIN information.

    "The dramatic jump in these scams comes at the busiest time of tax season," said IRS Commissioner John Koskinen. He urges consumers to beware of fraudsters “trying to confuse people at the very time they work on their taxes."

    Tax Scams to Watch For

    This year’s tax scams lineup includes:

    • Identity theft. The No. 1 scam this year is tax-related identity theft, which the IRS defines as someone using a taxpayer’s stolen Social Security number to file a return and claim a fraudulent refund.
    • Phone tax scams.  Phone calls from criminals impersonating IRS agents remain an ongoing threat. The IRS has seen a surge of these phone tax scams in recent years as scam artists threaten taxpayers with police arrest, deportation and license revocation, among other things.
    • Phishing. Phishing emails and text messages appear to come from the IRS and direct consumers to go to what resembles an official website, such as IRS.gov. The sites also may carry malware, which can infect people's computers and allow criminals to access your files or track your keystrokes to gain information. “The IRS won’t send you an email about a bill or refund out of the blue,” said Koskinen. If you receive a suspicious email, forward it to phishing@irs.gov.
    • Return preparer fraud. While the vast majority of tax professionals provide honest high-quality service, the IRS warns of “dishonest preparers who set up shop each filing season to perpetrate refund fraud, identity theft and other scams that hurt taxpayers.” It happens frequently enough that this scam makes it onto the “Dirty Dozen” list every year.
    • Offshore tax avoidance. Hiding money or income in offshore accounts in order to avoid paying U.S. taxes is among the enduring tax scams.
    • Inflated refund claims. This scam, closely related to return preparer fraud, fools consumers into believing preparers who promise a big refund. Inflated refund claims often involve claims for tax credits that taxpayers are not entitled to, such as education credits, the earned income tax credit, or EITC, and the American opportunity tax credit. Scam artists use flyers, advertisements, phony storefronts and word of mouth via community groups to find victims.
    • Fake charities. Groups masquerade as charitable organizations to attract donations from unsuspecting contributors. Fake charities often use names similar to well-known organizations and may set up fake websites, which can steal your credit card number and other personal information. Charity tax scams tend to increase in the wake of large-scale natural disasters, so don’t make any contributions without checking first with the IRS or one of the three major charity watchdogs: The BBB (Better Business Bureau’s) Wise Giving AllianceCharity Navigator, and CharityWatch.
    • Falsely padding deductions on returns. New this year to the “Dirty Dozen” list, this scam consists of consumers falsely inflating deductions, such as charitable contributions, or expenses on their returns to under-pay what they owe or possibly receive larger refunds.
    • Excessive claims for business credits.  Taxpayers claim the fuel tax credit, research credit, or other business credits without satisfying the proper requirements.
    • Falsifying income to claim credits. Shady tax preparers sometimes talk taxpayers into falsifying their income to qualify for the Earned Income Tax Credit. The penalty is big bills in back taxes and interest, and sometimes even criminal prosecution. 
    • Abusive tax shelters. If a complex tax avoidance scheme sounds too good to be true, it probably is. 
    • Frivolous tax arguments. Don’t even think of using unreasonable or outlandish claims to avoid paying taxes. The IRS doesn’t have a sense of humor, witnessed by the penalty for filing a frivolous tax return: $5,000. 

    While these “dirty dozen” scams can be encountered at any time of the year, the IRS reports that they peak during tax season

    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 Properly Stow Your Snow Blower

    Outside of a few pounding snow storms, El Niño kept this winter from being a rerun of last year's. And with spring in the air, you may be tempted to wheel your snow blower to the back of the shed and forget about it. Not so fast. If you take a few minutes now to properly care for your machine, next winter you'll be glad you did. Here’s what to do:  

    Spruce it Up

    Take the snow blower out in the driveway on a day that’s in the 40s or warmer and hose it down. Dirt and road salt from the caked snow tends to coat the auger, impeller, and auger box, and promote corrosion if left on the machine. Wipe your snow blower down afterward; you can try drying it with your leaf blower.

    Drain the Fuel

    Once temperatures rise, any fuel you’ve left sitting in the snow blower becomes your machine’s worst enemy. Even if you’ve used fuel stabilizer, the odds of starting up your snow blower next winter are best if you’ve siphoned out or run down the gas from this winter. Consider adding a few ounces of ethanol-free fuel, sold in Sears, home centers, and some outdoor-gear dealers, and running it dry again. After the engine cools, drain the carburetor bowl.

    Make Some Adjustments

    Control linkages on a two-stage snow blower tend to loosen over the season from vibration. (You know your drive cable is too loose when changing gears results in no change in speed.) Retighten cables if needed and firm up any nuts and bolts that have gotten loose. Inspect your engine’s pull cord by gently pulling it out to check for fraying. And if you haven’t already, stock up on some extra shear pins, which protect a two-stage snow blower’s engine and transmission by breaking if the auger hits something solid. Inspecting and perhaps swapping out the shear pins now gives you one less thing to do next winter.

    If you have a two-stage model, this is also a good time to adjust the skid shoes that keep the auger box’s lower edge from scraping against the pavement. (You can tell they need adjustment if there’s no space between the auger box and the ground.) A quick way to adjust them: Loosen the skid shoes on both sides (they’re the short plastic or metal rails on either side of the auger box), and place a piece of corrugated cardboard under the scraper. Set the shoes to ground level and tighten the bolts. 

    Check the Tires

    If turning your snow blower was cumbersome this past winter, it could be from low tire pressure. When they’re underinflated, which can occur over time, you’ll work harder to maneuver the machine and notice less traction. And if just one tire is deflated, the snow blower may lean a bit to one side. More obvious, though, is the scraping of one bottom corner of the auger box on the side with the deflated tire. The manual will specify the proper pounds per square inch. (Since tires will lose pressure over the summer, you can inflate them to a full two pounds over the recommended level.)

    Keep a Log

    Other maintenance tasks don’t necessarily need doing now, but if you pass on them, they should be done before next winter. These include changing the oil, checking and perhaps changing the spark plug—all of which should be outlined in your manual. By keeping a maintenance log, you can keep track of what needs doing when—and what doesn't. It will also keep you from doing certain tasks both now and later. 

    For Cordless Electrics

    If you have a cordless-electric model, follow recommendations in the owner’s manual to ensure that it will last as long as possible. These guidelines include not recharging batteries in freezing temperatures. 

    Need a Snow Blower?

    Mowers, tractors, and grills have replaced snow blowers in most stores, but you can find a few models—at dealerships if not home centers—if you want to save on a new model. Among the best snow blowers we've tested are the two-stage, 28-inch Troy-Bilt Vortex 2890 31AH55Q and 30-inch Ariens 921032, both $1,300; the 24-inch, two-stage Craftsman 88173, $680; and the single-stage 21-inch Toro Power Clear 721E, $570. Read our buying guide for snow blowers before you shop, and call ahead to check what’s available.

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

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    Tax Tips If You Made Money Through Airbnb

    Like thousands of others, you may have ventured into the sharing economy by renting out a room—or your entire home—to travelers. Services like AirbnbHomeAway, and OneFineStay have helped many people to earn some extra income. Now, it's time to figure out if you owe taxes on that income. 

    "We've seen an increase in Airbnb related questions, especially in the last year," says Mike Slack, senior tax research analyst at the Tax Institute at H&R Block. "It's a very intricate tax situation, and the rules can get pretty hairy."

    The 15-Day Trigger

    We'll try to make it easier. First, the good news: Homeowners can rent out property through Airbnb, as well as other services, for up to 14 days in one calendar year without paying any taxes—regardless of how much income you make.

    However, as soon as you rent it out for at least 15 days, you'll have to file with the IRS. Understanding this can be tricky because Airbnb only sends you a 1099-K if your rental income was at least $20,000 or you have had more than 200 reservations in a year. But you'll need to file even if your rental income was lower if you rented your property for at least 15 days. The tax issues here can get more complicated. While Airbnb does not provide individual tax advice, it does provide more detailed information about taxes on its site. 

    Use the Right Forms

    If you need to file, the next step is to determine how to classify and report your rental income. You'll either use the Schedule C or Schedule E. If you simply rent a room—and skip the extras, such as room service, use Schedule E. In this case, you'll pay income tax on the profit after deducting expenses. However, if you provide meals, transportation services or have a maid clean the room while it's occupied, Slack says you'll need to file Schedule C. That will trigger self-employment taxes, so you should set aside quarterly payments to cover both the 15.3 percent self-employment tax and estimated income taxes. Neglecting those payments can result in IRS penalties.

    Track Your Expenses

    If you rent your property, you can also deduct the fees you pay to Airbnb or other rental-service companies. That includes expenses such as cleaning fees and purchasing new supplies like sheets and towels.

    The issue becomes more complicated for shared expenses, such as electric bills. You'll need to apportion such expenses for the part of the house that’s rented out, says Lee. Deductions for homes rented in their entirety are based on the number of days the home is rented.

    The IRS also requires homeowners to depreciate their rental property. Depreciation is based on the purchase price and closing costs of the property but doesn’t include the property's land. Depreciation kicks in when a host starts renting out the property.

    Both Slack and Lee emphasize the importance of record keeping, either with a ledger, spreadsheet, or tax software. Even homeowners who rent for fewer than 15 days should keep careful track of their income and expenses in case any questions come up with the IRS.

    “Keep track of every penny you spend,” says Lee. “If you have set up a record system, that will make your life simpler.” 

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

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  • 03/08/16--11:41: What Makes a Car Fun?
  • What Makes a Car Fun?

    Want to stir up an argument among car enthusiasts? Ask them what makes a car fun to drive—you're likely to get as many answers as there are voices in the discussion. On this episode of "Talking Cars with Consumer Reports," we're joined by Raphael Orlove, a writer for car enthusiast website Jalopnik.com. Raphael convincingly argues that automotive fun can be found in unexpected places.

    Car enthusiasts typically have a rather narrow vision of what exactly a "fun car" is. It's typically something expensive with a lots of power, rear-wheel drive, and a manual transmission. But one of the tenets of finding joy in cars is the realization that the car—any car—is merely a tool, a conduit for the driver. Jake Fisher, director of Consumer Reports' Auto Test Center, talks about his racing experiences, and how people can take their everyday cars to the track during weekend events to learn driving skills and have fun. Then I expand the definition of fun to include meeting like-minded enthusiasts and taking road trips with my Airstream trailer.

    We wrap up this episode by talking about regrets in the pursuit of automotive fun. Raphael mourns the demise of a Lexus ES, Jake misses his Toyota MR2 being in factory-fresh condition, and I muse about the fun cars I didn't buy thanks to misguided frugality. 

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

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

    Annual Auto Issue & Top Picks, episode 88
    Popular Cars and SUVs, episode 87
    Self-Driving Cars, episode 86
    2016 Detroit Auto Show, episode 85
    2015 Automotive Year in Review, episode 84

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

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    Samsung Galaxy S7 and S7 edge Smartphones Look Like Winners

    The Samsung Galaxy S7 and S7 edge seem to have most, if not all, of the ingredients for being the smartest-designed smartphones on the market. Not only do these Galaxy S7 devices claim to fend off damage from accidental dunks in water but they also do so without the flimsy-seeming flaps that get in the way when you’re trying to plug in a USB cable. Their large-capacity batteries promise long runs between charging sessions, and their displays minimize phone fiddling by continually showing you the time and other notifications even after the display goes to sleep.

    And then there’s the affordable, do-it-yourself storage upgrades via Micro SD memory cards. Finally there’s a new camera, which Samsung says is twice as bright and four times as fast as the already good one on its previous models. This despite the camera downsizing in resolution from 16 megapixels to 12.

    Our full assessment of these models' camera, water resistance, battery life, and more will have to wait until we finish testing the retail versions we bought. In the meantime, here are additional impressions from the Galaxy S7 edge press sample I’ve had in my hands for the past few days. 

    Relative Comfort

    The softer, rounder edges do appear to make these glass-and-metal phones more comfortable to hold, particularly when comparing the Galaxy S7 edge to last year’s Galaxy S6 edge model. But despite its softer edges, the S7 edge, whose 2.7-inch width is 1/10 of an inch narrower than the S6 edge, is still a big phone. And that makes reaching app icons or menus on the upper parts of the screen a challenge for anyone without extra-long fingers.  

    Photos That Won't Keep Still

    The Samsung S7 and S7 edge have new camera hardware but their menus and picture options remain largely the same, except for a mildly interesting photo effect called Motion photo. This feature, which is similar to Live Photos on the iPhone 6s models, breathes life into still photos by turning them into GIF-like movie clips lasting several seconds.

    It’s not magic. Rather, the camera constantly buffers a few seconds of video; once you press the camera shutter it grabs a snippet of that video. Motion photos can be viewed only on these new Galaxy S7 models, and you can share them with other Galaxy S7s. For now, if you send a Motion photo to friends with any other type of smartphone, they’ll see only a still image.

    Beefier Batteries

    Samsung beefed up the storage capacity of the batteries in the new S7 models. The batteries on the Galaxy S6 and S6 edge were 2,550mAh and 2,600mAh, respectively; their battery life each earned a Very Good in our Ratings. Not too shabby. But the extra capacity of the S7 (3,000mAh) and S7 edge (3,600mAh) could mean these devices will keep on working long after you say goodnight. Our lab testing will provide the full story.

    Better Fingerprint Reader

    Fingerprint readers are one of the easiest ways to safely unlock a phone screen or sanction a transaction, and Samsung smartphones have had this feature for several generations. Yet these fingerprint readers have always been, shall we say, a bit more temperamental than the iPhone’s Touch ID. You had to swipe your finger a certain way. But with the S7, resting your finger on the home button unlocks the screen. In my informal tests, it worked quite consistently.  

    Missing Notifications

    It’s cool that these Galaxies can continuously show the time, the date, and app notifications after the display goes to sleep. This feature, called Always On, is also on the upcoming LG G5. But I was a little disappointed with Samsung's implementation of Always On. There’s currently no notification support for third-party apps like Facebook, or even the weather.

    There are also limits on what you can see. For instance, you have to choose between Calendar and Clock. Calendar mode shows you all the days of the month, plus the time and remaining battery life (as a percentage). Clock shows you the date and battery life and adds message notifications. Most people will probably find Clock view the most useful, but Samsung could make a good thing better by adding alternating views and notification support for popular third-party apps.  

    A Small Disconnect

    Many consumers are holding onto their smartphones longer because, frankly, improvements from one year’s model to the next have become somewhat incremental. These Samsungs seem to have what it takes to please their owners for a long time.

    And that’s why it’s a shame that Samsung didn’t equip them with a USB Type-C port, the connector you’re going to see on a growing number of smartphones, tablets, and computers, including those from Apple. A USB Type-C connection has significant advantages over USB 2.0, which is being phased out. For instance, it can simultaneously charge a phone while providing dramatically faster data connections (10 gigabits per second vs. 0.5 gigabits per second), which you’ll appreciate if your streaming hi-res video to your Ultra HD TV or transferring several gigabytes of files off your phone to a computer.

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

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    Tesla Model S Update Improves Safety of Its Summon Feature

    At Consumer Reports, we welcome smart, cutting-edge automotive convenience features, but we also prioritize safety. That’s why last month, after evaluating Tesla’s Summon self-parking feature, Consumer Reports contacted the company to express our concerns about the functionality of that system.

    Summon allows Model S owners to tuck their Teslas (which have wide bodies) into a garage or tight parking spot, without having to be in the vehicle. That’s a pretty revolutionary idea, since, by design, it allows a car to move without the operator having physical access to the steering wheel or brake pedal. This makes it critically important for that vehicle to have failsafes that prevent it from accidentally colliding with a wall or other obstacle.

    When it was first rolled out, Summon allowed users to park their vehicles using Tesla’s smartphone app or the keyfob, provided they were positioned within 10 feet of the car. Pressing once on the smartphone screen or keyfob started the car in motion, pressing a second time stopped the vehicle.

    We tried Summon multiple times with a Model S P85D we purchased for Consumer Reports’ test fleet, and discovered several scenarios that could make it difficult for a user to stop the vehicle—including a dropped keyfob or an accidental shutdown of the app while the car was in motion.

    Consumer Reports has long advocated for "deadman's switches," and we believed that the Tesla Summon feature should have one, as well. In this case the user would always have a finger on the app or keyfob in order for the car to keep moving. Drop the controller or take your finger off the keyfob or smartphone for any reason, and the car should stop.

    In response, Tesla promised to send an update out wirelessly to all Model S’s. Our P85D received its update on February 26, and we have evaluated it to see if the fix addresses our concerns.

    Visit our guide to Tesla Motors.

    Our Findings

    As before, the user has to activate Summon mode through the car’s interface. The Summon function on Tesla’s smartphone app has been updated, and now does operate as a deadman’s switch. When we tried it out, the car stopped almost immediately when a tester removed his finger from the screen.

    Tesla also has disabled the use of the keyfob in Summon’s default mode. Keyfob control is still available, but to enable it, users will have to go through a series of menus in the car’s interface and acknowledge warnings about its use. We don’t recommend using this, since the keyfob still does not operate as a deadman’s switch. Tesla told Consumer Reports that, because the keyfob can only communicate with the vehicle for four seconds at a time, the company could not update its functionality, so we suggest people only use the app.

    It’s encouraging to see how wireless technology allowed a safety fix of this nature to be executed so quickly across a line of deployed vehicles. However, the Summon rollout also highlights the importance of making sure such software is as safe as possible and takes all potential consequences into account before deploying into the field. 

    Read our complete Tesla Model S road test.

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    Counter-Depth Refrigerators to Consider

    Refrigerators have gotten a lot bigger in recent years. That’s good for food storage, but not so much for space efficiency, especially in smaller kitchens, where a mammoth fridge might jut out 10 inches or more past the countertop. Counter-depth (also referred to as cabinet-depth) refrigerators are a slimmer option that provide a more streamlined look. And thanks to improvements in refrigerator design, some of the best examples in our latest refrigerator Ratings can hold a lot more food than previous generations.

    One point of clarification: though they’re called counter-depth, most models in this category are around 28 inches deep, so they do protrude a bit past the edge of the countertop. That’s unlike true built-ins, from the likes of Thermador and Sub-Zero, which typically measure 25-inches deep, the standard depth of a kitchen countertop (there are also some 24-inch and 26-inch models in our built-in refrigerator Ratings).

    We should also explain why not many counter-depth refrigerators make our recommended list. In a lot of cases, this is the result of less-than-stellar energy efficiency, which reflects electricity consumption (based on our tests) per cubic foot of measured usable storage space. The fact that counter-depth refrigerators are, on the whole, less spacious can drive down their efficiency and, in turn, their overall score. But that may be a worthwhile compromise if space efficiency is your top priority. 

    Here are 10 strong picks to consider from the various configurations we test.

    Best French-Door Counter-Depth Refrigerators
    It used to be hard to find a counter-depth refrigerator with French-door styling, but manufacturers have made more of an investment in the option. Best in class in our current Ratings is the GE Profile PWE23KMDES, $2,600, which delivers excellent temperature control and is also surprisingly energy efficient, given the challenges described above. GE has the only other recommended model at this time, the GE Cafe CYE22USHSS, $2,970, which is the first coffee-dispensing refrigerator, thanks to its built-in Keurig brewing system.

    Though it missed the winners podium, the counter-depth Samsung RF18HFENBSR is well priced at $1,250 and performed very well overall. The Kenmore Elite 74053, $2,800, is another impressive option.  

    Best Bottom-Freezer Counter-Depth Refrigerators
    The traditional bottom-freezer category in general has gotten smaller in recent years, which has meant fewer counter-depth models coming through our labs and into the Ratings. If you have your heart set on this configuration, our top point scorer is the Fisher & Paykel ActiveSmart E522BRX5, $1,800. Temperature control, energy efficiency, and noise are all solid, though it’s lacking in convenience features—no ice maker, no water dispenser, no temperature-controlled meat/deli bin. Paying $500 more for the Fisher & Paykel ActiveSmart RF170WDRUX5 gets you similar performance, plus an ice maker and external water dispenser.

    Best Side-by-Side Counter-Depth Refrigerators
    Two counter-depth refrigerators make our current recommended list in this configuration: the LG LSC22991ST, $2,200, and the Samsung RS22HDHPNSR, $2,400. Their overall scores are identical, with the Samsung proving slightly quieter in our tests. At 28 inches deep, the Samsung is also an inch shallower than the LG, which you’ll appreciate if space is super tight in your kitchen. The Fagor FQ9925XUS, $2,300, and the GE Cafe CZS25TSESS, $3,050, are two other 28-inch deep side-by-sides that earned solid marks in most of our tests, though not enough to be considered top picks.

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    The Big Appeal of Compact Washing Machines

    Compact washing machines are big on promises, including being able to wash up to 18 towels in one load. And our readers have been posting comments on ConsumerReports.org, urging us to test compact washing machines and dryers. “Not everybody lives in a big house,” wrote one reader.

    So the pros at Consumer Reports are putting compact washing machines to the test. We’re buying and testing eight to 10 front-loader compact washing machines and their matching electric dryers (some of which are ventless) from Bosch and other major brands. These machines are 24 inches wide and stackable.

    Our engineers have been developing test methods for compact washing machines and dryers. We plan to post test results on the first models in April, with more to come in early May.

    Small Package, Small Price?

    Just because these machines are small doesn’t mean you pay less—they cost around $800 to $2,000. The Bosch WAT28402UC front-loading compact washing machine (shown above, right) has a claimed capacity of 2.2 cubic feet and costs $1,400. The full-sized front-loader LG WM3170CW (shown above, left), with a claimed capacity of 4.3 cubic feet, earned a Very Good in our capacity tests and was excellent overall. It costs $720—about half the price of the compact Bosch. 

    Why are compact washing machines and dryers so expensive? One reason is that they represent only a small part of the market. We'll find out what else contributes to their price and report on those findings when we post our compact washing machine Ratings.

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    Toyota's Project BLAID Is an Empowering Mobility Device for the Visually Impaired

    In recent years, automakers have been stretching their development beyond vehicles and targeting personal mobility, developing an array of portable scooters, city cars, compact unicycles, and even the Honda robotic stride assist. Now, Toyota is taking another twist on personal mobility.

    The company is developing a wearable device that assists blind and visually impaired individuals. Named Project BLAID, the horseshoe-shaped device that's worn across the neck and shoulders gives guidance through cameras, speakers, and haptic stimulation.

    “We want to extend the freedom of mobility for all, no matter their circumstance, location or ability,” says Simon Nagata, executive vice president of Toyota North America.

    Toyota’s Project BLAID is just the latest in a series of new devices from conventional automakers, who are applying their engineering expertise to other facets of personal mobility. Among the clever prototype machines being showcased, some are drawing upon similar technologies to those being developed in the pursuit of developing autonomous vehicles and advanced safety systems.

    For example, Toyota intends to add mapping, object identification, and facial-recognition technologies to Project BLAID. Google’s own autonomous car project is based on the company’s ability to develop mapping for cars of the future. The haptic feedback, or vibrations, of Project BLAID is similar to lane-departure alerts present in many cars. It will effectively help keep the visually impaired on the right track, communicating cues about their environment. 

    In a similar vein, the CEO of Mobileye, an Israeli company that provides camera-based safety components to about 90 percent of all automakers, is a professor of machine vision and development of computers that can learn. He has also developed a wearable device for the visually impaired called Orcam. A similar automotive technology is the pedestrian alert found in Volvos.

    Connecting the dots: Down the road, it is feasible that a person with vision and/or physical limitations will be aided to enter a self-driving car—granting them new levels of freedom.  

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    Asking for Lower Credit Card Interest Rates and Fees Works, Survey Shows

    There's a simple way to cut credit card interest rates and fees: Ask for a reduction or waiver.

    Seventy-eight percent of people who asked card issuers for lower interest rates got their wish, according to a new survey of more than 3,300 cardholders by CreditCards.com, a credit card comparison site. And 89 percent of those who were charged a credit card late payment penalty and asked for a waiver didn't have to pay that fee.

    Those results jibe with Consumer Reports' long-standing advice that consumers should always negotiate rather than voluntarily accept fees and penalties. 

    But while many are rewarded when they attempt to haggle on everything from the sales price of a product to credit card interest rates, Consumer Reports has found that most people don't do it.

    CreditCards.com saw a similar issue. Nearly 81 percent of the cardholders it polled did not ask for a reduction in interest rates.

    "The best way to ask for a lower interest rate is to come armed with better offers you’ve seen or received in the mail," says Matt Schulz, senior industry analyst at CreditCards.com.

    Competition among credit card issuers has been heating up, prompting some to offer 1.99 percent promotional interest rates for six months to existing card holders, says Schulz. The idea is to keep customers from switching to another card.

    But it's unlikely that your current card issuer will offer you the kinds of deals that other banks will give you to transfer your balances, such as 0 percent interest for as long as 21 months.

    While the CreditCards.com survey shows that it's worth negotiating on credit card interest rates and late payment penalties, Consumer Reports recommends that you take the strategy one step further and try to negotiate away other credit card fees as well.

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

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    Some Chevrolet Volts Were Sold Missing a Key Part

    A new Technical Service Bulletin for the 2016 Chevrolet Volt should serve as a reminder to all car buyers: Check to ensure your new vehicle includes all the expected equipment. In this case, some Volts were sold without a tire inflator kit—a true concern for a vehicle without a spare tire.

    The fix is quite simple. Volt owners can look in their trunk, under the load compartment floor, to see if the inflator kit is there and all the contents (sealant, compressor, etc.) are present. If missing, the local dealership can supply one. Just cite the customer satisfaction TSB #26900.

    Fortunately, the Volt we recently purchased for testing was properly equipped.

    Tire inflator kits are becoming commonplace, and they can even have appeal to drivers looking to outfit an emergency kit to handle roadside surprises. Keep in mind a sealant repair is just a temporary fix, and the tire should be serviced as soon as possible for a proper permanent repair or replacement.

    In 2013, we reviewed several aftermarket inflator kits, finding that they can be helpful in addressing repairable flats, such as a simple tread puncture. Of course, a sidewall tear would be beyond repair, even at a shop, making the true spare tire the most versatile solution to tire problems.

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    A New Scam Targets College Students

    Many college students are newbies at managing their own finances, making them attractive targets for a new type of phone scam that aims to steal their money and personal information.

    The scam is a variation of the “imposter” telephone scam: The scammer calls college students and claims to be from the FBI or other U.S. government agency, “spoofing” a local telephone number to appear legitimate on the receiver’s caller ID. The scammer tells the student he or she owes money on student loans, unpaid taxes, or outstanding parking tickets. He then threatens the student with arrest or failure to graduate unless the student immediately settles the fees. Payments are required via untraceable methods such as MoneyGram, some other preloaded debit gift card, wire transfer, or cashier’s check.

    According to the FBI, the scam targeting college students has occurred in over eight states so far: North and South Carolina, Georgia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Nebraska, Montana, and Washington.

    While the criminal’s primary goal is to coerce college students into sending money, there’s a second, more pernicious scam going on: to trick students into sharing their personal information to supposedly help expedite the process. That can easily morph into ID theft.  

    Phone Protection 101

    It’s never too early to learn how to spot and avoid common scams. Start by following these three steps:

    • Don’t believe what you hear. Government agencies will never call you out of the blue—not the FBI, the IRS, financial institutions, or the judicial system. They will never ask for payment or personal information over the phone.
    • Don’t believe what you see. Caller ID can be—and often is—spoofed. If you want to verify a call, look up the website or telephone number yourself. Don’t assume that the link or customer service number provided is legitimate; it may lead you right back to scammers.
    • Do check your credit report regularly. Signs of identity theft often first show up in your credit report. The government-sanctioned website AnnualCreditReport.com allows you to get a free copy of your credit report from each of the three major credit reporting companies every 12 months—in other words, once every quarter. Reviewing your reports regularly helps you spot signs of identity theft early. You will be asked to supply your date of birth and Social Security Number. 

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    How to Allergy-Proof Your Home

    The simplest way to keep allergy symptoms at bay? Avoid exposure to the substances that provoke your sneezing, wheezing, and itchiness. But how? We looked at the research, spoke to leading experts, and reviewed our own product tests to determine what can help and what to skip when you're trying to allergy-proof your home. Read on to find out which of the five following strategies really work.

    Anti-Allergy Bedding

    Swathing mattresses, box springs, and pillows in allergen-impermeable covers can entrap dust mites and animal dander as long as you use covers that are made from woven fabrics, according to research studies. Non-woven covers are less durable and won’t protect you from dust mites long-term. Plus, their dimpled surface can allow a variety of allergens to collect there. So before you buy, check product labels for a fabric pore size (the size of openings in the weave) no greater than 6 micrometers or microns, and for words such as “woven fabric.” 

    Washing Bedding in Hot Water

    Researchers have found that washing bedding in very hot water (in some studies, above 130° F) will kill dust mites—ubiquitous, microscopic creatures that may provoke allergy symptoms. A hot water wash will also reduce animal dander (tiny skin flecks), another common allergen.

    But to avoid scalding, two leading organizations for allergy specialists recommend laundering linens at 120° F. Hotter water will kill only a few extra mites, says Jay Portnoy, M.D., division director, allergy/asthma/immunology at Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City, Mo. Many drown in the wash anyway, he notes, and a cycle in a hot dryer should do in the rest. But weekly laundering is a must to keep allergy symptoms at bay. 

    Using a Vacuum With a HEPA Filter

    Vacuuming regularly can help subdue allergens. Our tests of vacuums found that those with regular filters sucked up similar amounts of dander and dust as those with high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters. And some, but not all, were just as good as those with HEPA filters at keeping small particles from escaping from the vacuum and blowing back into the air. If you’re the allergy sufferer, give someone else the task of vacuuming. And avoid bagless vacuums, which can stir up dust when you’re emptying the bin.

    Purifying the Air

    Air purifiers are available in two configurations: portable models you can move from room to room and whole-house air filters, which can be used only in homes with forced-air heating and/or cooling. Typically, those are thin filters used in place of regular furnace or central air filters. Thicker models that may require professional modification of your heating and/or cooling system are also available. 

    Cutting the Humidity

    Keeping your home’s humidity to 30 to 50 percent on a constant basis minimizes the growth of moisture-loving dust mites and mold, Portnoy says. Because dehumidifiers should generally be used only in basements (they generate a lot of heat), a better strategy is running a properly sized air conditioner.  

    Our Top-Rated Tools for Fighting Allergies

    Air purifiers: Our top-rated portable air purifiers include the Honeywell HPA 300, $250, for large rooms and the GE AFHC21AM, $230, for medium rooms. The Honeywell did an excellent job of removing dust, pollen, and smoke from the air at high speed and a very good job at low speeds. The GE did a very good job at high speed and a good job at the lowest speed. The Lennox Healthy Climate CarbonClean 16, $100, and the Filtrete Healthy Living Ultra Allergen 4 MPR 1550, $29, both whole-house filters, were very good at removing dust, smoke, and pollen at high and low speeds.

    Vacuums: Look for models that scored well for emissions, such as the Kenmore Elite 31150, $350; Hoover Wind­Tunnel Max UH30600, $180; and Miele Dynamic U1 Twist, $450.

    Air conditioners: For a small room, our top-rated air conditioner is the GE AEM05LS, $210. It’s also a CR Best Buy. 

    Editor's Note: This article also appeared in the April 2016 Issue of Consumer Reports on Health.

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    5 Streaming Sites for People Who Want More Than Netflix

    When it comes to streaming video services, Netflix clearly looms large over its competitors, accounting for more than one-third of all peak-time downstream traffic, according to research firm Sandvine. Maybe that explains why you never hear anyone say they're going to a friend's house to "Hulu and chill." But that doesn't mean there are no worthy streaming alternatives.

    Here are five services for people with a taste for something different. Many offer free plans and access via computers, mobile devices, smart TVs, and media players like Apple TV and Roku.

    The other good news? It doesn't hurt to give these streaming services a try. Most offer free trials of two weeks to 30 days.

    Acorn.tv

    If you like British TV fare such as the comedy "Jeeves and Wooster" (Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry) or the "Prime Suspect" (Helen Mirren) mystery series, you should definitely check out Acorn TV. The people who vote in Consumer Reports' annual survey recently named it one of their favorite streaming sites.

    For only $5 a month, Acorn TV is available on Roku, some Samsung smart TVs, and Apple TV boxes that run tvOS. You can also watch it on iPhones, iPads and computers, ideally those using the Chrome browser, according to the site's FAQ. For those with an Amazon Prime membership, Acorn can be ordered as part of Amazon's streaming partners program.

    Mubi.com

    Mubi.com has morphed from an all-you-can-eat, independent-film version of Netflix to one of the best curated streaming sites for those who enjoy cult and classic films, too. Also priced at $5 a month, the site always has at least 30 titles to choose from. And every day Mubi's film experts add a new one, viewable for 30 days before it gets replaced. Think Of Mice and Men, The Aviator, even a healthy smattering of foreign films like Amelie.

    Available in the U.S. on a PC or a Mac; an Android or Apple mobile device; and some Samsung smart TVs.

    Crunchyroll.com

    Tweens and teens who spend hours watching anime, manga, and other Asian TV fare will love Crunchyroll.com. The free ad-supported version—accessible on fewer devices—features standard-definition streams. The $7-a-month plan offers high-def video quality and ad-free access to popular Japanese shows such as Naruto Shippuden and Sailor Moon within minutes of their broadcasts. There's also a $12-a-month plan with exclusive content, free shipping for scale figurines, costumes and other items purchased in the Crunchyroll store, and VIP access to meet-and-greets at anime- and manga-related conventions.

    Available to paid subscribers on Apple TV, Chromecast, and Roku streaming boxes; Nintendo, Xbox, and PlayStation game consoles; Android and iOS mobile devices; and Windows phones.

    Fandor

    Similar in concept to Mubi.com, Fandor—which costs $10 a month or $90 up front for a one-year subscription—offers films handpicked for hard-core movie buffs. Like Mubi, it also lets you create movie lists and share them with friends. But this service appeals to cineasts who prefer the sort of obscure film titles you'd never find on Netflix, everything from silent-film classics to B-grade horror flicks. It also has some Criterion Collection gems, thanks to a deal with Hulu.

    Available to subscribers on a PC or a Mac computer; Apple TV, Chromecast, and Roku streaming players; and some iOS and Android mobile devices.

    Tubitv.com

    If "free" and "legal" are words you'd love to see together in a streaming movie service pitch, then Tubi TV may be a revelation. The ad-supported service claims to have 40,000 titles, including selections from the libraries of MGM, Lionsgate, and Paramount Pictures. And just last month, Tubi TV inked a deal with Starz Digital for some independent films and TV shows from that channel, as well.

    Available on PC or Mac computers; Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV, and Roku players; some Samsung smart TVs; and many iOS and Android mobile devices.

    A Few More Options

    Crackle.com

    Sony's Crackle.com, a free, ad-supported service, is probably best known for Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, where you can watch Jerry Seinfeld tool around in cool cars while cracking wise with various comedian guests. But the site has a ton of other content, ranging from classic TV shows ("All in the Family," "Mad About You") to popular older movies (Ghostbusters, Big Daddy).

    Available on Amazon Fire TV, Apple TV, Chromecast, and Roku; Android and iOS mobile devices; LG, Samsung, Sony, and Vizio smart TVs; and game consoles.

    Shudder.com

    If you're more of a fan of things that go bump in the night, check out Shudder.com, a horror-film-focused service that costs either $5 a month or $50 a year. On Shudder, you can browse by individual title (American Werewolf in London, Children of the Corn) or theme-focused collection (Psychos and Madmen, Zombie Jamboree). From intelligent psychological thrillers to slasher-type gorefests, just about every horror genre is represented.

    Available on some Android and iOS mobile devices.

    Spuul.com

    And, finally, Spuul.com is basically a ticket to Bollywood films. The free, ad-supported version lets you stream movies and even download them to mobile devices. A $2-per-month "Lite" plan includes extra ad-supported content, but limits you to one offline sync at a time. The $5-a-month premium plan grants you access to ad-free content while granting you up to 10 offline syncs.

    Available on Apple TV or Chromecast; and some LG, Panasonic, and Samsung smart TVs.

    If you're a Consumer Reports subscriber in need of a device for streaming, you can find full evaluations of media players and smart TVs in our Ratings.

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    Supermarket Prepared Meals: What to Watch Out For

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

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

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


    More on Prepared Foods

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    2. Pass the Salt, Again and Again and Again

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

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

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

    3. Stores Can Stonewall on Nutritional Information

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    4. Don’t Underestimate the Power of Portion Control

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

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

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

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

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

    5. The Cost of Convenience Is Steep

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


    The Price of Ready-Made Meals

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

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

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

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

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    How to Beat High Hearing Aid Prices

    Have you put off buying a hearing aid? Less than one-third of older adults who would benefit from a device have ever used one, according to government statistics. And in Consumer Reports’ February 2016 survey of readers with hearing problems, 71 percent who bought hearing aids said they delayed doing so for two years or more, most often because of high hearing aid prices.

    Readers told us they spent an average of $2,710 out of pocket, and 16 percent shelled out $5,000 or more. Two-thirds of the cost isn’t spent on the devices but on visits to audiologists (who have four years of graduate training) for an evaluation, fitting, programming, and adjustments. If you’re considering a hearing aid but want to save on the cost, follow these steps:

    Check Your Insurance

    Insurance usually won’t cover the entire cost of a hearing aid, but about 37 percent of our survey respondents said they saved some money through private insurance plans. (Medicare won’t cover the cost, but some Medicare Advantage plans may.) For example, Aetna members can purchase aids at a discount through certain suppliers. And veterans may qualify for almost free hearing aids.

    If you have a flexible spending account at work, you can use $2,550 in pretax dollars to cover the cost of hearing aids and batteries if they’re not covered by insurance.

    Determine What You Need

    When you see an audiologist, discuss your biggest hearing challenges—background noise in restaurants, for example, or phone conversations. That will help determine the best device for you. Try on models to see what feels comfortable. Then get hearing aid prices, and find out the length of the warranty and money-back trial period, which can vary widely.

    Ask whether the audiologist will “unbundle” or separate the cost of a hearing aid from fees for fittings and other services. Not all will, but “it makes the cost more transparent,” says Neil DiSarno, Ph.D., chief staff officer for audiology at the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. That may help you negotiate a discount.

    Decide whether you really need pricey extras such as Bluetooth capability; they can add hundreds of dollars to your bill. And ask whether you can get by with one hearing aid instead of two.

    Seek Out Savings

    Before you buy, request a lower price. Of the 16 percent of survey respondents who did, almost half were successful, mainly at name-brand hearing-aid stores or freestanding offices. Or consider a wholesale club such as Costco, where hearing aid prices can be much lower. (But you may see a hearing-instrument specialist, who has far less training than an audiologist.)

    Another option: Find a school that offers treatment by an audiology student who is supervised by an experienced audiologist. There are more than 70 clinics nationwide. To find programs that may help you with hearing aid prices check out this guide compiled by the Better Hearing Institute, the educational arm of the Hearing Industries Association.

    Be aware that hearing aids are available on the Internet, but you may have to mail them back for adjustments. Some people also see buying preowned aids as a way to save money. But refitting and reprogramming them can cost as much as buying new ones, and it isn’t always successful, says Stephanie J. Sjoblad, Au.D., an associate professor at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine. “The audiologist might have to spend a lot of time making a preowned device fit your needs,” she notes.

    Can Over-the-Counter Hearing Devices Help?

    Personal sound amplification products (PSAPs) turn up the volume on soft voices and other sounds. Sold over the counter, they cost $10 to $600. (A behind-the-ear model is shown above.) PSAPs aren’t regulated by the Food and Drug Administration because they’re not considered medical devices, but that may change. The FDA has been asked to consider a new category of “basic” hearing aids, including PSAPs.

    “Some can help with mild hearing loss,” says Barbara E. Weinstein, Ph.D., a professor of audiology at the City University of New York. But make sure that you see a doctor first to rule out medical issues that may affect your hearing.

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

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    Appliances Shrink to Fit Smaller Kitchens

    Small appliance manufacturers gathering in Chicago earlier this week for the International Home + Housewares show definitely got the memo about the surge in single households—roughly half of all American women are unattached and by 2025 there will be as many single-person households in the U.S. as there are homes with families.

    That shifting demographic was evident in the bounty of super-compact countertop appliances, aimed at the single set and their presumably smaller kitchens. One manufacturer's representative went so far as to call the mini appliances part of our “single lady line.” Though some of the products will appeal to bachelors, too, not to mention downsizing empty nesters or anyone looking to save space on the countertop. Here are a handful of our favorites. 

    KitchenAid Artisan Mini Stand Mixer

    From the brand synonymous with stand mixers, this 3.5-quart mixers represent the first downsizing of the appliance since 1962. “Particularly among millennials, urban dwellers and empty nesters we saw a desire for a smaller mixer that provides the same overall features of our larger models,” Derek Ernst, global marketing director for KitchenAid small appliances, said in the news release.

    The mini mixer is 20 percent smaller and 25 percent lighter than its full-size counterpart, though KitchenAid says it has the same power. It can supposedly mix ingredients for 5 dozen cookies, compared to the 12 dozen cookies you’ll get from a largest mixer.

    The Artisan will be available in a wide array of colors worthy of the iconic KitchenAid brand, including empire red, honeydew, hot sauce, and twilight blue.

    Available June, $400.

    Aroma Mini Rice Cooker

    A lot of rice cookers on the market can steam 20 cups or more of cooked rice, enough for a small village. With their maximum capacity of 2 to 3 cups cooked rice, the latest mini cookers from Aroma are meant to feed a small household.

    The Aroma MRC-903 features one-touch operation, a removable nonstick cooking pot, and a handle design for meals on the go (soups, pastas, and even omelets are also possible in the cooker). Paying more for the Aroma MRC-903D gets you all the same features, plus programmable digital controls for white and brown rice and a keep-warm mode.

    Available now, $30 to 40.

    Bella 1.5 Quart Slow Cooker

    Forget about the Sunday pot roast or Super Bowl chili, but for smaller meals—morning oatmeal, say, or a small batch of yogurt—this mini slow cooker from Bella is up to the task. Features include a removable stoneware pot and tempered glass lid, both of which are dishwasher safe. The cooker will be available in multiple patterns, including rose quartz and serenity, named the 2016 colors of the year by Pantone.

    Available Fall 2016, $15.

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

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