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Consumer Reports

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    High-powered magnets sets recalled by Toys R Us and other retailers

    Super strong rare-earth magnet sets are being recalled by several retailers according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission. The retailers, which include giants such as Barnes & Nobel and Toys R Us, have been marketing the magnetic kits as decorative and novelty items for adult owners. However, the high-powered magnets may cause serious injury if swallowed by children who mistake the items for colorful candy.

    As previously reported, the CPSC have tried to stop the sales of magnet sets such as Buckyballs and Buckycubes by makers Maxfield & Oberton. And while Buckyballs' maker has stopped selling the powerful magnets in December, today's CPSC recall notice says approximately 3 million sets have been sold at retail outlets.

    If you have Buckyballs or Buckeycube magnet sets, you should take them away from children and teenagers and contact the retailer from which they purchased the product to obtain instructions for their remedy.

    Six Retailers Announce Recall of Buckyballs and Buckycubes High-Powered Magnet Sets Due to Ingestion Hazard [CPSC] Recalls High-Powered Magnet Sets Due to Ingestion Hazards [CPSC]
    Toys R Us Recalls High-Powered Magnet Sets Due to Ingestion Hazards [CPSC]

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    Picks and pans from our tests of 10-inch skillets

    No matter how carefully you treat your nonstick frying pan, the day will come when it loses its slickness and your once beautiful omelets turn into a mess. After the pan becomes scratched and damaged, replacing it is the best option. If you're doing that every two or three years, you probably don't want to pay top dollar for a new skillet. In Consumer Reports new tests of 10-inch frying pans we found three nonstick top picks including a Calphalon for $40 that's a Best Buy. We also tested four uncoated frying pans but none rose to the level of recommended.

    The Calphalon Simply Nonstick Omelette Pan, $40, was excellent at evenly heating food, and when new, superb at releasing food. The handle stays cool to the touch, but wasn't as sturdy as others in our tests. The Calphalon Simply Nonstick was excellent at withstanding our nonstick durability test in which steel wool is rubbed over a pan for up to 2,000 strokes. It's also easy to clean, made of aluminum, and comes with a 10-year warranty.

    The two other top nonstick picks, at $90 each, were the Swiss Diamond Classic and the Scanpan Classic, which is a quarter-inch larger. The Swiss Diamond Classic was very good overall. Food cooked evenly and when the pan was new, released easily. It was very good on our durability test and the sturdy handle stayed cool to the touch. Cleanup was a snap. The aluminum pan comes with a lifetime warranty. The Scanpan Classic was very good overall, superb at evenly heating food and when new, did a very good job releasing food. The handle is sturdy and stayed cool to the touch. It was very good at withstanding our durability test and, like most nonstick cookware, it's easy to clean. This aluminum pan is dishwasher-safe and comes with a lifetime warranty.

    None of the uncoated frying pans in our frying pan tests were easy to clean and cooking evenness was mediocre at best. Of the group, the Tramontina Tri-Ply Clad Saute Pan, $40, scored slightly above the rest. It's stainless steel. The cast iron Lodge Pro-Logic, $30, had its issues but some cooks swear by these classic frying pans because they withstand high heat and if cared for properly can be handed down for generations.

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    Four must-have appliance upgrades and six you can skip

    Appliance manufacturers regularly update their top-of-the-line products with new technology and fresh design elements—and pass the expense of each "improvement" along to the consumer, of course. Some of these upgrades do in fact deliver the added convenience they promise, but others may not be good enough to pay more for. Here's a rundown of features to consider and those to skip:

    Refrigerator raves
    Digital temperature controls. They display the actual temperature and the temperature you set, allowing you to correct discrepancies and prevent meltdowns—yours and the ice cream's.

    Maybe not
    Through-the-door ice and water dispenser. This frequently requested feature is a minor convenience with a major drawback. Consumer Reports' surveys show that, as a group, refrigerators with water and ice dispensers require considerably more repairs than those without. And dispensers boost energy use and cost while eating up food-storage space.
    Grab-N-Go door. Offered on the Kenmore Elite 7206 refrigerator, this extra compartment swings open with the touch of a button, offering easy access to snacks, beverages, and frequently used condiments. Besides adding convenience, it supposedly saves energy by preventing cool air from escaping the refrigerator's main compartment. The Kenmore Elite 7206 did receive very good and excellent Ratings in our tests, but at $3,360 is far more expensive than other top-performing French-door refrigerators we tested. Our advice: Say no to the Grab-N-Go.

    Dishwasher desirables
    204349-dishwashers-thermador-dwhd651jfp-d-6.jpgHeavy-duty adjustable racks. Easy-to-load models typically include adjustable racks, plenty of flatware slots, and sometimes fold-down tines so you can fit odd-sized dishes. Thicker coated wire holds up better over time.

    Maybe not
    Dishwasher drawers. They're high in price and typically low in performance. Instead, opt for a traditional model with a half-load option.
    Specialized cycles. Normal, heavy-duty, and delicate cycles are all you really need.
    Hidden controls. Yes, they help make the front of the dishwasher look sleek, but they might not allow you to see how much time is left in the cycle. Look for a model with a cycle-time display. The Thermador DWHD651JFP offers a creative solution: a light beam that projects cycle status on the floor in front of the dishwasher. But it's also pricey: The model performed well in our tests but costs $2,200, more than five times the price of the lowest-priced dishwasher model we recommend, the $420 Kenmore 1327.

    Kitchen range and cooktop conveniences
    Hot-surface warning lights. This is an important safety feature on electric ranges and cooktops, because the surface can remain hot long after an element has been turned off. Many smoothtops have at least one warning light, but ideally each element should have its own.
    High-power elements. Available on both gas and electric ranges and cooktops, these elements can quickly bring a pot of water to a boil or heat large quantities of food fast, and they're terrific for high-heat cooking styles like searing or stir-frying.

    Our top-rated 30-inch gas range, the LG LRG3097ST, $1,900, has two high-powered burners and was very good at bringing water to a boil. Our top electric range, the Kenmore 92163 smoothtop, $1,550, also has two high-powered elements and was a champ at the high temperature test.

    Maybe not
    Buying by Btu. Short for British thermal unit, Btu is often touted by range or cooktop manufacturers. But that measure merely indicates the amount of gas used and heat generated, not performance. Indeed, a higher number didn't guarantee faster heating.

    Adapted from Consumer Reports Kitchen Planning & Buying Guide.

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    Space savers that maximize every square inch of your kitchen

    High-end cabinets offer a wide variety of storage accessories, including roll-out shelves, vertical sliding spice racks, and small appliance lifts. But you don't have to rip out your existing storage to get those clutter-busting extras: You can buy and install them yourself and save thousands over a kitchenful of new cabinets.

    Before you head to a home center or specialty store, take a good look at what's inside and on top of your cabinets and counters, evaluating what you really need. Next, carefully measure cabinet interiors. Many organizers come in various sizes, and the dimensions are usually listed on the box, but this is one place where fractions of an inch count. And when you get to the store, check the packaging and read the installation instructions, if possible. Here are some ways to maximize your kitchen space.

    Hide your trash can
    Frequently forgotten but truly essential, trash cans are always installed in base cabinets, preferably as close to the main sink as possible.

    Pick a type. Some trash cans slide in and out on tracks that are mounted to the bottom of the cabinet's interior. Others attach to the cabinet door, which slides out with the can rather than being hinged. Those units are generally pricier and more difficult to install. But they let you use the cabinet handle to access the trash can rather than having to first open the door and then reach in to pull out the trash.
    Consider the configuration. Some models have multiple waste bins, for example, one to hold recyclables such as bottles and cans and the other for regular trash.
    Think about durability. These units are opened and closed many times each day, so quality is important. Models with ball-­bearing assemblies often hold up better than those that slide on nylon wheels.

    Lazy_Susan.jpgGet in those tight corners
    Storage accessories can ease access to the recesses of corner cabinets, increasing your usable storage space.

    Corner pull-out shelves. By pivoting into the interior of the corner cabinet, these pull-out organizers can provide easier and more complete access to the contents of each shelf.
    Lazy Susans. These round, spinning shelves (some have a pie-shaped cutout) put items at the back of the cabinet within reach. But even the simplest model is tricky to install because the center pole must be perfectly plumb for the unit to rotate smoothly. You might have to tilt some taller items to get them in and out.
    Blind-corner lazy Susans. These types of lazy Susans have half-moon shaped shelves that pivot at the front of the cabinet for easy access.

    Extend the shelf life of your shelves
    Pull-out shelves are usually installed in base cabinets, on the bottom of the box itself, or on an existing fixed shelf. They create accessible storage in cluttered kitchens. Consider these important points before you buy:

    Determine the volume. Some shelves are much deeper, when measuring from front to back, than others. Also consider the height and design of the sides of the shelf. Taller, straight sides keep items more secure than short or sloped sides.
    Decide on construction. Solid-construction shelves contain spills and keep small items from falling through, but open-wire shelves make it easier to see items stored on the shelf.
    Look for smooth mechanics. A drawer that slides in and out easily from the start is more likely to function better over time than one that sticks.

    If you're in the market for new cabinets, look for those that offer lots of storage options. Use our cabinet buying guide to compare basic, mid-level and premium cabinets.

    Adapted from Consumer Reports Kitchen & Planning Guide.

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    Mickey and Minnie brighten up Walmart's paint department

    With names like Minnie's Polka Dots, Eeyore's Rain Cloud and Belle of the Ball, Walmart has introduced a line of Disney-themed paints. Sold in colors that match Disney bedding products, the retailer hopes to appeal to parents who continually redecorate their children's rooms as they grow. Claimed to be kid-tough, the paints are made by Glidden, a brand that has typically done well in Consumer Reports paint tests.

    While we haven't tested the new Disney line of Glidden paints, Glidden Brilliance Semi-Gloss, $26, sold at Walmart is one of our top paint picks. It offers superb hiding and resistance to stains and scrubbing, with little change in gloss after cleaning. Walmart's Glidden Brilliance flat and satin paints didn't fare as well in our tests and neither made the list of top paint picks. But other formulations of Glidden, some of which are sold at Home Depot, did well in our punishing paint tests.

    Parents of small children want paints that'll stand up to dirty hands, greasy fingerprints and a young artist's wall paintings. That's one of the reasons we include a scrubbing task in our paint tests to see how they do when washed with an abrasive cleaner. Almost all of our recommended paints got top marks on that test, making them a good choice for busy families.

    Semi-gloss paints are the easiest to clean and are formulated to stand up to stains. The shiniest of paint finishes, they are best for windowsills and other trim. Our top-rated semi-glass paint is Clark + Kensington Semi-Gloss Enamel, $33, sold at Ace. Paints with an eggshell or satin finish have a slight sheen and are a good choice for family rooms, kids' rooms, kitchens and hallways. Clark + Kensington also makes our top-rated satin paint. Flat paints are not as forgiving and are more appropriate for little-used areas like formal dining rooms. Valspar Signature Matte, $32, sold at Lowe's is our top flat paint.

    In addition to Walmart's 112 Disney-themed colors of Glidden, the new paints come in a number of finishes including metallic, glitter, chalkboard and glow-in-the-dark. A feature called Room Painter on Glidden's website helps parents coordinate colors. But the truth is you don't need Disney's fairy dust to match a paint to your curtains or bedspread. Almost any good paint store can do it, although the color's name might not be as cute as Pluto's Paws or Mouse Ears.

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    Energy-saving appliances and electronics for Earth Day

    April 22 marks the 43rd anniversary of Earth Day, when millions of Americans turn green or at the very least think about the environment. At Consumer Reports, green--in the form of fuel economy, energy efficiency, recycling, and many other areas--is part of what we do every day. Below you'll find some Earth Day information for appliances and electronics equipment.

    Efficient compact refrigerators. The Magic Chef MCBR445W mini-fridge uses more energy than the Samsung RF323TEDBSR French-door bottom-freezer, despite being one-seventh the size. The annual energy cost for the Magic Chef is $81 compared to $73 for the Samsung. A better option for a compact refrigerator is the Frigidaire FFPH44M4LM, which costs about $27 a year to run, our tests show. Stricter federal energy standards, to go into effect in September 2014, should improve the efficiency of all compact refrigerators.

    kenmore_washing_machine.jpgWashing machine energy and water use. For our tests of washing machines, we measure how much energy and water it takes to wash an eight-pound load of laundry. The Kenmore 21252 top-loader was mediocre at energy efficiency and poor at water efficiency. Despite those scores, it scored a Very Good at washing and capacity was an Excellent. But Kenmore makes another machine that was excellent in both energy and water efficiency, the Kenmore 28002, and matched its brandmate in washing performance and capacity in our tests.

    Old equipment. Don't just trash your gear if it's still in decent shape. Instead, sell them on Craigslist, eBay, or Amazon, or trade them in at retail stores such as Best Buy, Target, or RadioShack. Or give them away to a charity such as Goodwill or via Your last resort is to recycle them. Read "How to Recycle Old Electronics Devices" and check the EPA website for tips.

    Unplugging to save power. Many devices in your home consume electricity even when they're not in use. All that "vampire power" can add up to 10 percent of your electricity bill. Unplugging or powering down devices such as a set-top box ($25 per year in savings) and video-game console ($75) will save you some real money, especially if they're older models without auto-shutdown modes.

    HP_printer.jpgMore ways to use less electricity. Mother Nature will welcome your using less electricity, as will your bank account (your utility bill will shrink). Our printer Ratings include a power-savings score that indicates which printers are most effective in this mode. Among the best in this regard are the HP Photosmart 7520, Canon Pixma MG3220, and Samsung SCX-3405FW (the latter two are CR Best Buys, too). Others don't fare so well, including the Epson Workforce 845 and Epson Workforce WF-7510--each was rated only fair for power saving.

    For your smart phone, a few easy moves will help conserve battery life. Seek strong signals and don't bury the phone in a desk; it uses more power trying to access a weak signal. Turn off Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and other wireless access when you're out of range. Reduce screen brightness. And cut the number of times you allow updates of news, e-mail, and other network feeds.

    By the way, the move toward unremovable or difficult to remove batteries seems decidedly nongreen. Products so configured become essentially disposable once their original battery wears down.

    Panasonic_TV.jpgEfficient televisions. LCD displays that use LED backlighting stand out for power conservation. Even the biggest screens use energy sparingly. For instance, the 60-inch Samsung UN60ES6100 would add an estimated $23 a year to your utility bill--that's just one-third as much as other same-size models that use different display technology. And among 55-inch models, the LED-backlit Panasonic Viera TC-L55WT50 has an estimated annual energy cost of $16, compared to $62 for other sets of this size. Our TV Ratings include the energy cost per year for every set we test.

    Greener PCs. Some computers meet the new Energy Star standard for efficient power use; look for the Energy Star label. You probably won't notice much difference in your computer's operation, but you might in your electric bill. Another standard is EPEAT, which offers guidelines on environmental attributes for a computer's full life cycle. Check the list of EPEAT-compliant PCs and other devices.

    More planet-friendly content and tips:
    Here's another bright idea for Earth Day: Switch to energy-saving lightbulbs
    Green cars don't have to have gray personalities. Check out our 13 favorite green cars.

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    A bright idea for Earth Day: Switch to energy-saving lightbulbs

    Here's a small thing you can do today to help save the earth—change a lightbulb. If every household in the nation replaced just one lightbulb with a bulb that meets Energy Star standards, enough energy would be saved to light 3 million homes for a year, saving about $600 million in annual energy costs and and preventing 9 billion pounds of greenhouse gas emissions. CFLs use 75 percent less energy than an incandescent lightbulb and LEDs use even less than that. And as Consumer Reports found in its tests of energy-efficient lightbulbs, there are lots of cost-saving choices for every fixture in your house.

    Of course, not every energy-saving lightbulb can be used in every fixture. In fact, incorrect use of an energy-saving bulb can affect its performance and shorten its life. Before buying a replacement bulb, check the package for proper use. Here are some tips on how to choose the right bulb for the fixtures in your home.

    Lamps and ceiling fixtures. Make sure the bulb can be used in a fully enclosed fixture, if that's what you have. If the lightbulb will be exposed, as in a table lamp, consider covered CFLs if you don't like the spiral look, but those bulbs take longer to warm up.
    Recessed or track lights. The interior color of the recessed can or track head affects brightness. Shiny metal and white interiors reflect light. Black absorbs some light, so you might want more lumens to compensate.
    Outdoors. The colder the temperature the longer it will take for CFLs to brighten up. LEDs aren't affected by the cold.
    Vintage fixtures. Light fixtures are designed to handle a bulb that uses a certain wattage. Because a CFL uses far fewer watts than a standard incandescent bulb while providing the same amount of light, you can replace a 60-watt incandescent with a 13- to 15-watt CFL without worrying about overheating the fixture.
    Dimmers. Not all lightbulbs will work with dimmers so check the package to make sure bulbs are dimmable.
    Three-way. Only bulbs marked 3-way will work in these fixtures.

    In our tests of lightbulbs to replace 60-watt incandescents, the most common type, two LED's and three CFLs made out list of top lightbulb picks. The EcoSmart A19 60W bright white 400674 dimmable LED sold at Home Depot scored 99 points (out of 100) followed by the Philips AmbientLED 12.5W 12E26A60 60W 409904 with 98 points. Both scored excellent marks on every task in our tests.

    The three best 60-watt replacement CFLs in our tests include the GE Energy Smart SAF-T-GARD 60W 78961,the EcoSmart 60Watt Soft White 423-599 ES5M8144 sold at Home Depot, which we named a CR Best Buy, and the Feit Electric ECObulb Plus 60W ESL13T/4/ECO. All were excellent on our brightness test, among others.

    If you're looking for another size or type of lightbulb check the results of our tests of replacements for 40-, 75- and 100-watt bulbs as well as lightbulbs for flood/reflector and porch/post lights.

    More earth-friendly tips:
    Energy-saving appliances and electronics
    Our 13 favorite green cars

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    Move over microwave, GE's new refrigerator can heat water

    The first refrigerator to dispense hot water has just nabbed a spot on Consumer Reports' recommended list of French-door bottom-freezers. The new GE Café CFE29TSDSS French-door fridge rode excellent temperature control and energy efficiency into our winner's circle. But it's the 36-inch-wide refrigerator's innovative dispenser that truly sets it apart from the pack.

    Through-the-door ice and water dispensers have been improving for some time. Kenmore and LG recently came out with extra-tall housings that make it easy to fill pitchers and other outsized containers. GE adopted that innovation as well for its latest line of French-door refrigerators, but then broke new ground by incorporating hot water into the Cafe model. The dispenser can heat up to 10 ounces of water in minutes. You can choose from four pre-programmed temperature settings, ranging from lukewarm for baby's bottle to piping hot for tea, oatmeal, or soup.

    The 29 claimed-cubic-foot fridge also features a slim in-door icemaker, which frees up the top shelf for food storage. Adjustable shelves, gallon door storage, and a full-width temperature-controlled drawer also help keep food organized. And the showcase LED lights let you find what you're looking for fast.

    GE's new Café French-door hot-water refrigerator sells for around $3,000 at national retailers, including Best Buy and Lowe's, as well as local appliance stores.

    For about half that, consider one of the three French-door refrigerators that we named CR Best Buys, two of which out-performed the GE. The Kenmore 7160[3], $1,700, is one of the most energy-efficient models in its category, though that's partially due to the fact that it lacks through-the-door ice and water dispensers. The Whirlpool Gold GX5FHTXV[Q], also $1,700, also boasts excellent energy efficiency but was a bit noisier than other top-rated French-door models. The Kenmore 7201[2], at $1,550 the most affordable of the three, has superb temperature control and exceptional energy efficiency. It's also fairly quiet.

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    Dishwashers so quiet you barely hear them running

    Noisy dishwashers aren't a bother if your kitchen is separated from the rest of your living area. But that isn't the case with most homes today where open plans are the preferred configuration. That's why dishwasher manufacturers put a premium on quietness, a feature they tout loudly in their ads. At Consumer Reports we put two newly tested dishwashers side-by-side and recorded the noise. One washed with a whisper but the other was like that boring dinner guest who drones on and on never letting anyone else get a word in.

    The two dishwashers are featured in our latest dishwasher tests. The quieter one scored some of the highest marks in our tests for noise—or lack thereof. The other made more of a racket but as loud as it was, there are others that are noisier still. In fact, the noisiest dishwashers we tested maxed out at about 70 decibels, about as loud as a typical vacuum cleaner.

    Despite the din, there's no need to wear ear protection when you're cleaning up after dinner. Unlike the noise from outdoor gear, the sounds coming from the dishwasher are more of an annoyance than a threat to your hearing. As a rule, hearing protection is recommended once the noise level hits 85 decibels, the level at which gas-powered mowers, leaf blowers and generators typically operate.

    Bosch has trumpeted its quiet dishwashers for years and they have proven to be on the quiet side in our tests. The Bosch SHX98M0[9]UC, $1,550, scored excellent on our noise test and was also a champ at getting dishes clean and saving energy. But, as we reported recently, the top-rated Kenmore Elite 12783, $1,200, has overtaken another Bosch model in our dishwasher Ratings and also scored excellent for noise. KitchenAid too has cracked the quiet code with its KitchenAid KDFE454CSS, $1,500. Both the Kenmore and the KitchenAid were aces at getting dishes clean.

    The noisiest dishwasher in our tests was the Amana ADB1000AWW. It also got mediocre marks for washing. On the plus side it's energy efficient and only costs $260. To check the noise level and performance of the 27 dishwashers recommended by Consumer Reports, check our dishwasher buying guide.

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    GE debuts its first U.S.-made front-loader and matching dryer

    GE has added two new assembly lines to its plant in Appliance Park and for the first time will manufacture front-loading washing machines and their matching dryers in the U.S. The folks in Louisville, Kentucky are happy because the move creates 200 new jobs. The matching machines are GE's new RightHeight models, which are elevated on seven-inch risers to reduce the back-bending job of doing laundry.

    The matching washer and dryer also have larger door openings. "Approximately 59 percent of consumers purchase a washer based on its opening and how easy it is to access," said Paul Riley, marketing manager for the GE Clothes Care team in the company's announcement. GE is touting other features that get clothes clean but because the duo is so new, Consumer Reports hasn't yet gotten the taller machines in for testing. They will retail for $1,400 each.

    When we get the machines in our labs, we'll be interested to see how they stack up to other matching washers and dryers in our tests. Currently, no GE front loader has made our list of top washing machine picks but the GE Profile PFWS4600L made a respectable showing with very good washing performance and excellent energy efficiency. It vibrated more than many and was not as gentle on clothes as some. The matching dryer, the GE Profile PFDS450EL, was also middle of the pack although drying performance was excellent.

    Four GE high-efficiency top-loaders made our list of recommended washers including the GE Adora GHWN8350DWS sold at Home Depot and the GE GTWS8650DWS. Washing performance for both was very good. We also recommend the GE Adora's matching dryer, the GE Adora GHDS830EDWS as well as the mate for the other washer, the GE GTDS850EDWS.

    Our top-rated front-loader is the Samsung WF457ARGS[GR], which offers excellent wash performance and superb water- and energy efficiency. The matching dryer, the Samsung DV457EVGS[GR] is also a top pick. The Samsung WA422PRHD[WR] high-efficiency top-loader holds the top spot for that type. The matching electric dryer, Samsung DV422EWHD[WR], isn't a top pick, but did a superb job drying our laundry and is relatively quiet.

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    Home Depot sells 'new' chain saw that's been through the mill

    Consumer Reports recently went to a Paramus, New Jersey, Home Depot to buy a chain saw for an upcoming test, using secret shoppers just as we do with everything from cars and refrigerators to detergent and toilet paper to avoid skewing our results. But when our incognito shopper opened the box of the $159 Homelite UT10589A chain saw, he found a worn, loose blade covered with sawdust and accompanied by leaking bottles of oil.

    Apparently the sold-as-new saw had been used, returned, and repackaged for sale, a practice that's legal in the Garden State as long as buyers are told the item was returned. We found out our "new" Homelite chain saw had seen some sawing only when we opened the box. But our troubles didn't end there: When our shopper tried to return it, the store told him he couldn't return products that were used—even though our Homelite chain saw was, indeed, used when he bought it.

    The problem with used "new" Homelite chain saws at Home Depot is not limited to New Jersey. A Consumer Reports staffer found seven Homelite chain saws that were missing their cardboard packaging sleeves at a Home Depot near our Yonkers, New York, headquarters. Three of them showed obvious signs of use and when asked about one, the salesperson confirmed that it had been. According to the New York Attorney General's office, stores in New York aren't required to tell buyers that products have been returned.

    We think New York should revisit its no-disclosure policy on returned products, especially used chain saws and other power equipment that could be a safety risk if they've been misused or improperly maintained. According to Home Depot, it has a clear policy that any gas-powered equipment that's been returned be sent to a repair center for refurbishing and then marked and sold for less as a reconditioned model. (The company is following up with the stores we cited.) Lowe's, for its part, says that outdoor power equipment returned within the 30-day period following purchase must be in like-new condition.

    Our chain-saw buying advice: Check for less-than-pristine packaging, a clue that the chain saw inside may be less-than-new. We also suggest checking the saw itself for sawdust, dirt or oil stains, wear on the bar where it contacts the chain, and other signs of use. And even if a retailer is selling a saw as used, with a come-hither price, think twice—you could be buying someone else's problem. And that reduced price may also mean reduced or voided warranty coverage.

    Chain saw tests are underway at Consumer Reports with results due in a few months. In the meantime, there are 10 models in our current Ratings including three top picks: the gas-powered Stihl MS 180 C-BE, $230, and two electric models, the Husqvarna 316, $220, and the Poulan Pro 400E, $110, which we named a CR Best Buy.

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    The five brightest ideas from this year's Lightfair

    Lightfair in Philadelphia this week bills itself as the world's largest commercial and architectural lighting trade show. But for the Consumer Reports staffers who test and report on energy-saving lightbulbs, Lightfair is our geeky go-to for the latest in lighting. As competition for the growing LED market heats up, manufacturers are promising lightbulbs that do more and cost less. Here are five developments from the show that turned us on.

    Cree: Warm light at the right price
    Consumers want energy-saving LEDs that look like incandescent lightbulbs and are lower-priced than earlier LEDs, says Craig Lofton of Cree. It makes perfect sense and explains why Cree recently introduced a $13 LED at Home Depot that's half the price of some and replaces a 60-watt incandescent. The Cree 60W Warm White Dimmable LED looks a lot like an incandescent and in our initial tests it did what it promised—it instantly gave off a warm, bright light. And its 10-year warranty is unusually long. "If you're going out there with a long-life product, you should put the teeth behind it," says Lofton.

    Philips: Hue the Who's Who of LEDs
    The Lightfair judges gave special recognition to an innovative product, the Philips Hue LED web-enabled system. It lets you switch the color of Hue LEDs from warm to bright white or numerous other colors using any smart device either in your home or remotely with the flick of a finger. In our initial tests last fall we said that Hue takes lighting technology way past on, off and dimmable, redefining what a lightbulb can do. "Hue shows the controllability issue of lighting and where lighting is going," says Ed Crawford of Philips. "For more than 100 years lighting was on and off, but Hue shows us that it's about interaction." You walk away thinking this all makes a light switch seem quaint.

    Whirlpool: New to the lightbulb aisle
    A multi-year licensing agreement gives Elec-Tech International the rights to manufacture, market and distribute LEDs bearing the Whirlpool name. They'll be available online in late June and in stores this fall, says Russ Owens of Whirlpool. He understands that you might find lightbulb lingo confusing—PAR, lumens, Kelvin—and blames engineers for not thinking like consumers. He adds that Whirlpool wants to make it easier for consumers to find the right LED and at an appealing price that's soon to be determined.

    Samsung: Good, better, best?
    Confusing or refreshingly straightforward? You decide. Samsung has grouped its latest LED lines into three categories based on performance qualities. For example, the Essential Range LEDs that replace 60-watt bulbs are supposed to last 15,000 hours but are not dimmable or omni-directional, meaning they cannot cast light in all directions. For a step up there's the Performer Range LEDs, which are dimmable and meant to last 25,000 hours. Want an LED that casts light in all directions like an incandescent does? The Optimum Range LEDs promise to do that and more. As you would expect, these LEDs go up in price as the capabilities increase. Samsung's David Douglass couldn't provide prices but said they'd be competitive and that Samsung is considering having these LEDS in stores by late 2013.

    Lutron Electronics: Dimmers designed to save energy
    Lutron claims its Maestro Occupancy Sensor C.L Dimmer has a sensor that only turns on the light if there's not enough natural light filling the space—say your laundry room when you're loading your washer. It also detects fine motion and sees subjects up to 30 feet away so lights don't accidentally shut off when you're reading or watching TV. Maestro is sold at home centers, lighting showrooms, and online with a suggested list price of $54.

    Back at Consumer Reports, scores of LEDs, CFLs and halogen lighbulbs are undergoing our tests for brightness, light distribution, warm-up time, life cycle and more. We are testing replacement bulbs for 40- 60- 75- and 100-watt incandescents as well as lights for outdoor fixture. And all the lightbulbs in our tests are available now.

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    An aerosol fire spray is no substitute for a fire extinguisher

    With their low prices and ease of use, aerosol fire sprays are a tempting purchase. But the sprays are no substitute for a fire extinguisher. In fact, in Consumer Reports' tests the sprays sometimes made a grease fire flare up, which could make it spread. Performance problems caused us to judge two aerosol fire sprays—the First Alert AF400 Tundra Fire Extinguishing Spray and Shield Fire Protection Kitchen Guard—Don't Buy: Performance Problem. Now we've found a third brand being advertised called Knockout 360 that's also an aerosol fire spray.

    None of the sprays has a pressure indicator that shows whether the unit is ready for use. Although their labels state that they are not intended to replace a standard National Fire Protection Association compliant fire extinguisher (NFPA 10), that statement can be easily overlooked. The sprays have a relatively short shelf life of three years as opposed to six to 12 for dry chemical units. We recommend that you pass on the Knockout 360 and any other fire fighting spray that lacks these key features and buy a conventional fire extinguisher with a gauge that meets NFPA 10 requirements.

    When it comes to fire extinguishers, the general rule is to always buy the largest model that everyone in the household can handle. They contain more flame retardant and in our past tests could deliver it quicker and longer. To be fully protected you should have one full-floor multipurpose fire extinguisher on each level of your home, one in the garage, and smaller supplemental models for the kitchen and car.

    Fire extinguishers are categorized by letters and numbers. The most common letter types are A, B and C. A is meant to put out such combustibles as wood, paper and cloth. B is for flammable liquids and gasses such as kerosene, oil and gasoline. And C is for electrical fires and equipment such as televisions and wiring. The number preceding the A designation is the amount of retardant or capacity of the extinguisher. So a 2A extinguisher would contain the equivalent of about 2-1/2 gallons of water, a 4A would have double the capacity. The number preceding the B designation indicates the approximate square footage the extinguisher can handle. A 40 B means it can put out a 40-square-foot fire. The C designation does not have a corresponding number and simply means the retardant is non-conductive and can be used on electrical fires.

    Most full-floor extinguishers will have a 2A to 4A designation and 10B to 60B designation. Supplemental extinguishers for the kitchen may sometimes lack an A designation and have a 5BC to 10BC rating. Finally, only use a fire extinguisher when the fire is small and not growing, the fire is not between you and an exit, and after you have already evacuated the house and called the fire department.

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    Superstorm Sandy, six months later: An exclusive survey of its impact

    Six months ago today—on October 29, 2012—Sandy slammed into the mid-Atlantic region. A new Consumer Reports survey documents the deep disruption and devastation Sandy wrought, along with highlighting the steps that helped victims cope in its aftermath.

    The Consumer Reports National Research Center asked Consumer Reports online subscribers in the areas hit hardest by Sandy, including New York City, New Jersey, and Connecticut, about their problems and actions during the days following the storm's landfall.

    Some 8,389 people responded, providing perhaps the most comprehensive survey of Sandy's effects on consumers. Highlights from our findings include:

    • Nearly 30% of all homeowners whose homes experienced flood damage had no flood insurance.
    • More than half (54%) of homeowners reported property damage with 44 percent experiencing minor damage and 10% experiencing major damage.
    • Flooding was most frequently cited for major damage, followed by damage to roofs, windows, and doors, possibly by wind, falling trees, debris, and so on.
    • Of those homeowners who experienced major property damage, one in five (20%) said their home was still uninhabitable in March.
    • Nearly half of all insurance claims for $40,000 or more were still pending in March, a finding that confirms what CR has noted in the past—that insurers tend to be least likely to satisfy their customers when homeowners need them the most.
    • Three-quarters of respondents lost power from their utility company for at least one day, and seven days was the median length of time for which power was out.

    The loss of power plunged whole communities into darkness and caused residents a host of major inconveniences:

    • Loss of TV and Internet service (73%)
    • Loss of heat (65%)
    • Loss of home phone service (58%)
    • Lack of hot water (42%)
    • Lack of hot food (30%)
    • Lack of running water (17%)

    A Consumer Reports team—including staffers who cover Home, Automotive, Electronics, and Money products and services—have assembled a special guide that details the experiences of Sandy victims and can help prepare you for storms or other disasters that might affect your area. Topics include:

    • Using a generator to restore power
    • Food safety when there's no refrigeration
    • Home repairs—working with contractors
    • Phone service—home phones and cell phones
    • Internet access
    • What to do when your TV goes dark
    • Insurance—flood, homeowners, and auto
    • Financial survival kit
    • Safe driving during and after a major storm
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    Low-priced kitchen cabinets with top-drawer features

    New cabinets can make a huge impact on your kitchen—and an equally huge dent in your budget. Consumer Reports' surveys have shown that readers who hired contractors paid an average of roughly $9,000 for new cabinets, with about a quarter of them spending more than $15,000. It's usually the biggest single investment you'll make in your project. The good news: Many once-premium features, such as dovetail joints, have moved down to lower-priced stock cabinets, available as near as your local big-box store.

    Even basic stock cabinets offer a growing number of options, and mid-level and premium semi-custom lines include dozens of styles and storage features. Choices also go far beyond traditional oak finishes and include tight-grained maple and cherry. Here's what you'll find on the market today.

    Just the basics
    Best for those who don't need the size and storage options offered by custom and other high-end cabinets. Often called stock, these off-the-shelf units include ready-to-assemble cabinets packed in flat containers.
    But: You get fewer style and trim options, sizes, and features overall. Cabinet boxes are often thin-veneered particleboard rather than solid plywood. Many models use frameless construction, with the doors and door fronts hiding the frame.
    Price: About $250 to $350 for a typical 21-inch-wide base and 30-inch-tall wall cabinet duo.

    Mid-level cabinets
    Best for most kitchens. Includes lower-priced semi-custom models that offer many made-to-order choices in size, door style, materials, finish, trim, and accessories. Many use face-frame construction, where part of the frame shows between doors and drawers.
    But: Features and quality for this group varied most in our tests. Cabinet boxes still tend to be veneered particleboard, despite the higher prices.
    Price: About $400 to $900 for a typical 21-inch-wide base and 30-inch-tall wall-cabinet duo.

    Premium cabinets
    Best for those who want the most style and storage options short of made-to-order custom cabinets. Includes higher-priced semi-custom models with plywood boxes and other premium materials and hardware. Widths can come in finer, ¼-inch increments rather than the typical 3 inches.
    But: Some can cost almost as much as made-to-order cabinets without offering as many options.
    Price: About $600 to $1,000-plus for a 21-inch-wide base and 30-inch-tall wall cabinet duo.

    Of course, new cabinets deserve new appliances. To find the best performing refrigerators, dishwashers, ranges and cooking gear, check the results of our appliance tests.

    Adapted from the Kitchen Planning & Buying Guide.

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    Whirlpool dishwasher's overnight cycle not the stuff of dreams

    With more and more delay-start options to choose from on today's dishwashers, you might assume that a cycle called "overnight" would be quiet enough not to disturb your slumber. But when Consumer Reports tested the overnight cycle on the Whirlpool WDF735PABB, not only did it take as long as a decent night's sleep, almost seven hours, but it was noisy too.

    Curiously, the Whirlpool WDF735PABB, $550, spent roughly the first four hours of the cycle spritzing the dishes with soft, light sprays that essentially kept them wet. Then, as if getting a wake-up call, it kicked in and did a full wash in the typical time. That cranked up the volume, which wouldn't be welcome in the fleeting hours just before dawn.

    Despite the volume of the Whirlpool WDF735PABB, it was stellar in our wash test, which uses a full load of very dirty items, and did just as well at drying plastic items. It was also exceptionally energy-efficient. The normal cycle takes 130 minutes and uses five gallons of water. The overnight cycle takes 405 minutes, used more energy and about the same amount of water with roughly the same results.

    In addition to the Whirlpool, we also recently tested the GE GDT550HSDSS, $650, which was excellent at getting dishes clean and saving energy but didn't rise to the level of a top pick. Our top-rated dishwasher is the Kenmore Elite 12783, $1,200. Top-notch washing paired with stellar energy and water efficiency elevated this dishwasher to the top of the Ratings. And it's one of the quietest in our dishwasher tests.

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    New Nest learning thermostat feels the heat of the sun

    The Nest Learning Thermostat is already one of the smartest devices on the market, learning your habits and controlling your home's climate accordingly. Thanks to Nest's WI-Fi capability, the $250 gadget can also receive IQ-enhancing software upgrades, including a batch this week designed to conserve energy during the cooling season.

    The first upgrade, called Sunblock, uses built-in sensors to track the sun's patterns. Direct sunlight can cause conventional thermostats to think it's warmer than it is, making your home uncomfortably cool as the AC kicks into overdrive. With Sunblock, Nest now knows the sun is beating down on it and makes the necessary temperature adjustments. That improves comfort while saving money.

    The new and improved Nest also lets you sync up your home's fans, for example scheduling them to run all night and turn off in the morning. And the Cool to Dry feature uses a humidity sensor to turn on your home's AC when humidity reaches unhealthy levels. While that may provide relief, especially in the extremely humid climates for which it was designed, a dehumidifier is still best at sucking moisture out of the air. The Frigidaire FAD704DUD tops our current Ratings for about $240.

    The latest Nest is supposedly even better at understanding when you're coming and mobile app updates provide easier operation. Find out how the Nest we tested compares with several dozen competitors in our programmable thermostat Ratings, including the top-rated Venstar ColorTouch Series T5800 and the CR Best Buy Lux TX9600TS.

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    Five great refrigerators for small kitchens

    Maybe you've downsized from a big house in the burbs to a smaller city condo. Or you're a DINK—that's "double income, no kids" household—who has made the switch from renting to owning. Whatever the case, if you live in an apartment you need a refrigerator sized to fit a modest kitchen. Fortunately, manufacturers have been rolling out more models aimed at this market that don't skimp on features. Here are five to consider from Consumer Reports' latest refrigerator tests.

    Kitchenaid KFFS20EY, $1,900

    This KitchenAid is one of the few 30-inch-wide refrigerators available in the popular French-door style, which puts the fresh food section at eye level behind two side-by-side doors. It delivers very good temperature performance and efficiency, plus it's quiet, nice for small apartments where the kitchen is within earshot of the TV.

    Samsung RF4267HA, $2,600
    This 33-inch-wide Samsung is a bit wider than the KitchenAid, but the French-door refrigerator features a temperature-controlled middle drawer that can store meat, drinks, and more. It's also exceptionally quiet and delivers superb temperature control. Its dual evaporators should help keep food fresh longer by maintaining optimal humidity.

    Samsung RS265TD, $1,300
    Side-by-side refrigerators offer narrow door swings, making them natural fits for small spaces, including galley-style kitchens. This 36-inch-wide Samsung is our top-rated model, delivering solid marks across all test categories. Its dual evaporators should help keep food fresh and it has an external ice and water dispenser. And at that price, we named it a CR Best Buy.

    Frigidaire Gallery FGHT2144K, $800
    If you're a first-time homebuyer, chances are your budget is as compact as your kitchen. This 30-inch-wide Frigidaire top-freezer is fairly no frills, but it's incredibly energy efficient and does a very good job maintaining consistent temperatures. Plus it has some storage conveniences, like split shelves and gallon door storage. It made our list of top refrigerator picks.

    Bosch Integra B30BB830SS, $6,500

    Many built-in refrigerators impress with their size, measuring 42 inches wide or more. This Bosch bottom-freezer, however, is just 30-inches wide, so it will fit where most of its counterparts can't. It offers exceptional temperature performance and quietness, though it's not quite as energy efficient as other tested models.

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    How to keep your lawn healthy while waiting for a rainy day

    With states in the Midwest bracing for flooding and a rare May snowstorm predicted in the Plains states, other parts of the country have been unusually dry this spring. It's been a tough start to the growing season for some lawns. During dry weather, it's tempting to overirrigate, but grass is actually very resilient—though you may have to settle for a less-than-verdant lawn until the rains return. Here's how to make it through a dry spell.

    Let the lawn go brown. The color change is merely an indication that the plant is entering a natural state of dormancy designed to conserve nutrients. If you can't live with brown grass, the time to water is when you leave footprints in the lawn after walking on it. Instead of a light daily watering during dry spells, which will encourage a shallow root system that does more harm than good, give the lawn a nice long soak, say 30 minutes worth. At that point it should be good for another month.

    Consider a lawn reduction. You'll cut your water needs by 20 to 50 percent, depending on where you live, by switching from an all-lawn yard to one that's 40 percent lawn and 60 percent trees, shrubs, ground cover, and hardscape. In a typical yard, that leaves 2,500 square feet of lawn for kids to play. Some municipalities offer rebates to homeowners who trade their lawn for a low-water alternative.

    Look at low-maintenance grasses. If you're putting down new lawn consider one of the newer slow-growth, drought-resistant species. Fine fescues, including creeping red, chewings, and hard, all qualify as low maintenance. But fine fescues don't tolerate traffic well, so consider tall fescue in those conditions. It does better underfoot but is susceptible to damage from ice cover. Remember that slow-growth fescues will take a bit longer to get established, so you'll need some patience.

    Mulch, don't mow. Sending finely cut clippings back onto the turf instead of bagging them returns nutrients to the soil, resulting in a healthy lawn that's better able to handle drought. Mulching also makes mowing the lawn a heck of a lot easier. One of the few times you need to bag is during a lawn-disease outbreak, in which case the clippings might need to be taken to a landfill instead of being added to your compost pile.

    Grow it out. Cutting grass too short can hurt root development. But the old rule that you should never remove more than one third of the blade's total height has been relaxed. Most domestic grasses thrive with 50 percent or more of the blade removed, meaning you can let the lawn grow to about 5½ inches before mowing. That might result in a shaggier lawn than you're used to, but it will reduce mowing frequency by about 25 percent.

    Recommended mowers
    If you're just getting out your mower and it's not working like it used to, it may be time for a new one. In our latest lawn mower tests, we found 48 mowers good enough to recommend including 23 tractors, 16 self-propelled mowers and 9 push mowers. There are 18 CR Best Buys in the lot that combine the best price and performance. Our top-rated tractor is the Snapper NXT2346, $2,800, which is also a Best Buy. This 46-inch rider had impressive cutting across three modes.

    Self-propelled walk-behind mowers from Honda and Toro dominate the top of our tests of gas-powered models with multiple speeds. They range in price from $360 to $600. We also liked the electric Black & Decker SPCM1936, $450. Our push mower champ is the Cub Cadet SC100 11A-A92J, $250, which was very good on all mowing tasks.

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    After Sandy, homeowners say generators worth the investment

    Six months ago Superstorm Sandy knocked out power to millions in the Northeast and the homes of Consumer Reports readers were no exception. When we spoke to 8,389 of our subscribers who live in the affected areas of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, 76 percent said they lost power for at least a day and the median number of days without power was seven. A fortunate few, 19 percent, used generators during the outage and, in part, because of the unavailability of fuel, those who owned portable models fared worse than those with stationary models.

    As a result of Sandy, many folks got a crash course in the types of generators. Typically, a portable generator is powered by gasoline and moved into place when needed. Some use propane. Regardless of the fuel type, the generator has to be well maintained between uses so it starts when you need it. In our survey, 22 percent of those who used portable generators ran out of fuel, 10 percent said the generator didn't power what they needed it to and nine percent said it was hard to start or didn't start at all. More than half of those asked had a combination of problems, including these and others, with their portable generator.

    Stationary generators are ready when a storm hits but only 12 percent of the generator owners in our sample had one. More expensive than portables, stationary generators require professional installation and typically run on natural gas. Some are powered by propane. The advantage they have over portables is that they are hard-wired into your electrical system and most perform periodic self-checks to ensure smooth operation. And when the power goes out, the generator switches on. In our survey, 89 percent of those who used stationary generators were highly satisfied with their performance.

    Since Sandy, generators of both types have become a hot commodity. And with hurricane season starting in June, more and more homeowners are considering generators as essential rather than optional.

    In Consumer Reports tests of generators, six models made our list of top generator picks including four portables and two stationary models. The two CR Best Buys were both made by Generac. Of the stationary models, the Kohler 8.5 RES-QS7, $3,200, delivered smooth, steady power and offers 7,000 watts with natural gas and 8,500 using propane. It was also the quietest model we tested, and it shuts down automatically if the engine-oil level gets low. The Generac CorePower 5837, $1,800, offers capable performance for roughly half the cost of the top-rated Kohler. It offers 6,000 watts using natural gas and 1,000 more if using propane. This generator was the only one we tested that comes with a transfer switch, usually an extra $400.

    Our top-rated portable was the Troy-Bilt XP 7000 30477, $900, with such helpful features as electric start, fuel shutoff (which prevents leaks and keeps fuel from getting trapped in the fuel system and spoiling during storage), low-oil shutdown, a nine-gallon tank for an average 15 hours of run time, and a fuel gauge. The Best Buy Generac GP5500 5939, $670, performed almost as well as the top-scoring Troy-Bilt for hundreds less. Features include fuel shutoff, low-oil shutdown, and a fuel gauge.

    For more information on surviving a major storm, read our full report: Lessons learned from Superstorm Sandy.

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