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Consumer Reports

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    What the purchase of Nest by Google means to you

    Google is buying Nest Labs, a company that makes Internet-connected products for the home—combination smoke/carbon monoxide alarms and thermostats that take note of your schedule and preferences and fine-tune your home’s climate accordingly. So Google gets a company that makes smart devices for the home; Nest receives a reported $3.2 billion in cash. But what does it mean for consumers?
     
    “Nest’s privacy policy, so far, has been pretty good, but it’s something that definitely should be watched since Google collects information about its users based on their behavior on the Internet and Nest collects information about users’ behavior in their homes,” Glenn Derene, lead electronics editor for Consumer Reports, said. “There’s no explicit reason to believe the data would be abused but it’s something that should definitely be watched.”
     
    Ad Age reported that Google did not offer specific plans for Nest, but parsing the possibilities wasn’t hard, adding, “The company has built a $50-billion business based on gathering information from Internet-enabled services like search and e-mail that can then be packaged to sell and target ads.” Nest’s blog post on Monday assured readers that Nest will continue to be Nest and explained the acquisition this way: “Google will help us fully realize our vision of the conscious home and allow us to change the world faster than we ever could if we continued to go it alone. We’ve had great momentum, but this is a rocket ship.”

    Consumer Reports is testing the Nest Protect Smoke +Carbon Monoxide alarm now and we’ll report our results soon. It has some promising features, including Heads-Up, an early-alert signal that’s supposed to light up and speak in a human voice to let you know where there's smoke or that your home’s CO levels are rising. And rather than stand on a chair to push the hush button or throw a towel at the alarm to silence it, the Nest Wave feature is designed to let you quiet the alarm by standing beneath it and waving your arm.

    The Nest Learning Thermostat is one of 39 programmable thermostats in our Ratings and a top thermostat pick. The $250 thermostat is round and has a rim dial for making adjustments, a nod to the traditional thermostats common in many older homes. But everything else about it is entirely modern. Program it or it will program itself based on changes you make the first week, and from then on it keeps on tweaking. It’s connected to the Internet via Wi-Fi, so it automatically installs software updates made by the company. You can control the thermostat from your computer, tablet, or smart phone and set the Nest to send you e-mail alerts. That’s some rocket ship.

    —Kimberly Janeway

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers or sponsors on this website. Copyright © 2007-2013 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    The best mattresses for back and side sleepers

    In 2012, Americans spent an astounding $32.4 billion on sleep-related aids, according to the Wall Street Journal. Searching for a better way, the reporter tried four different methods of easing into sleep, including an iPhone app and a six-CD set, with mixed results. Of course, getting a good night’s sleep could be as simple as having the right mattress. In Consumer Reports recent tests of 24 mattresses, we found huge differences in the spine support that counts most, especially if you spend at least part of the night on your back.

    Almost three out of four respondents to a recent industry survey believe a new bed would help them sleep better. If yours is showing signs of age, try rotating or flipping it first. But any mattress that shows sags or lumps should be replaced. Many of the best mattresses in our tests cost within the $800 to $1,200 range that people typically spend, although you can pay a lot more.

    Our top-scoring innerspring mattress, the Serta Perfect Day iSeries Applause, $1,075, is very good for both side and back sleepers and was excellent in our durability tests, which simulate eight years of use. We named the Serta a CR Best Buy. Our top-rated foam mattress is the Sleep Number Innovation Series i8 bed Pillowtop, $3,000, which was very good for side sleepers, excellent for back sleepers and has excellent durability. But for almost a quarter of that price, you can buy the Novaform Memory Foam Collection Serafina 14" for $800 at Costco, which was very good for side and back sleeping and a CR Best Buy.

    How to get a good night's sleep
    The most expensive mattress in our tests was the Duxiana DUX 101, $4,800, but it fell short of our list of top mattress picks. While it was durable and very good for side sleepers, it was only so-so for back sleeping. If you have a difficult time turning day into night, try these sleep tips from the pros.

    • Keep a consistent bedtime, even on weekends.
    • Turn off the TV and other electronics one hour before going to bed. Those bright screens can fool your brain into thinking it’s morning. If you use a tablet or e-book reader, try using white text on a black background.
    • Avoid caffeine after 6 p.m. It could keep you up all night. If you’re still having trouble, stop earlier.
    • Have your last meal at least 3 hours before sleeping.
    • Exercise during the day (or at least 4 hours before bedtime). The same stress hormones that rev up your heart rate can keep you awake.
    • Enjoy a drink earlier in the evening. Alcohol starts out as a mild sedative, but becomes a stimulant as it’s metabolized, so avoid it 6 hours before bedtime.
    • Keep children and pets out of your bed. You’ll all sleep more soundly.

    —Artemis DiBenedetto

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers or sponsors on this website. Copyright © 2007-2013 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Maytag Man gets a makeover and gets busy

    The days of the lonely Maytag Repairman lamenting his lack of work are over. He’s been replaced by a younger spokesman who’s kept busy performing the functions of a refrigerator, range, dishwasher, and matching washer and dryer. Not only is the rebranded Maytag Man working, he’s multitasking—washing your clothes, cooking your meals, and literally running to keep your refrigerator running.

    As far as repairs go, Maytag is neither the most nor least repair-prone brand in Consumer Reports tests of kitchen and laundry appliances. And some Maytag products have been stellar performers in our tests, including the top-rated Maytag Maxima XL MHW8000AG front-loading washer, $1,450. In our washing machine tests, the Maytag Maxima had superb wash performance, a large capacity, and excellent water efficiency and energy efficiency. We also recommend the matching electric dryer, the Maytag Maxima XL MED8000AG, also $1,450, which was excellent at drying and among the quietest we’ve tested.

    In our tests of kitchen ranges, the Maytag MET8885XS, $1,700, just missed the top spot. The 30-inch electric smoothtop range features a smaller oven on top and a larger oven below, allowing you to cook a roast in one while baking a pie in the other. It was excellent at baking and cooktop heating but not as good at broiling and self-cleaning.

    In the new ads, the Maytag Man squeezes himself into a spot for a French-door refrigerator but in our refrigerator tests, none of the five models in that configuration made our list of top refrigerator picks. We do recommend two conventional bottom-freezer Maytag refrigerators, the Maytag MBF2258XE[W], $1,100, and the Maytag MBF1958XE[W], $1,150. Both were very good overall with excellent temperature performance. We also recommend the Maytag M1TXEGMY[W] top freezer, $770, but don’t expect many convenience features. No Maytags made our list of recommended dishwashers.

    We’ll kind of miss the old Maytag Repairman but it’s clear that his replacement has a lot more to do. In addition to filling in for your appliances, he has his own Maytag Man website and is active on social media. You can follow him on Twitter @TheMaytagMan and he has his own Facebook page and YouTube channel. Guess that’ll keep him from being lonely.

    —Mary H.J. Farrell

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers or sponsors on this website. Copyright © 2007-2013 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Plan ahead for a busy remodeling season

    If you've been thinking about a home renovation, there's no time like the present. The home remodeling market could see double-digit year-over-year growth in 2014, according to Harvard University's Joint Center for Housing Studies. That means remodeling contractors should soon be a lot busier, and you might have a harder time finding that just-right slab of granite at the stone yard, or other coveted materials and products.

    “The ongoing growth that we’ve seen in home prices, housing starts, and existing home sales is also being reflected in home improvement activity,” said Eric S. Belsky, managing director of the Joint Center, in the news release. “As owners gain more confidence in the housing market, they are likely to undertake home improvements that they have deferred.”

    Consumer Reports has tested many of the appliances and home improvement products that go into a remodel, whether you're redoing the kitchen or looking to boost your home's curb appeal. A few recommended reads:

    • SaveTime in the Kitchen, which looks at ways to design a highly-functional and efficient kitchen using the speediest ranges, steam ovens, small appliances, and more from our tests.                     
    • Bathroom Remodeling Guide, covering design advice, in addition to the best toilets, showerheads, sinks, vanity tops, and more.
    • 5 Home Repairs You Shouldn't Ignore, zeroing in on problems that could lead to catastrophic damage if left unchecked, such as leaky roofs, cracked foundation walls, and mold infestations.

    Be sure to check out our extensive buying guides to every major appliance in the home, including dishwashers, refrigerators, and washing machines.   

    —Daniel DiClerico

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers or sponsors on this website. Copyright © 2007-2013 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Save time in the kitchen with these speed cookers

     

    Cooking appliances are the engine of any kitchen. Wimpy burners, a wonky oven, and a microwave with a mind of its own can get in the way of efficient meal prep. Our latest tests of kitchen appliances found plenty of first-rate models with true timesaving enhancements. That includes high-powered cooktops that will bring water for pasta to a rapid boil and double ovens that let you simultaneously prepare two dishes at different temperatures.

    But not every speed claim from manufacturers pans out in our labs. Case in point: the infrared oven broiler we tested that cooked burgers only a minute faster than the brand’s standard broiler. We also see gas burners with high Btu/hr., or British thermal units per hour, that don’t deliver faster cooktop heating.

    Read on for our picks of appliances that will help keep your kitchen running at top speed, including steam-enhanced technology. Professional chefs have embraced the technology for years, and it’s just starting to catch on in homes. We’ve also included our take on steamable frozen dinners and provided a bunch of tips for maintaining a clean and tidy kitchen—before, during, and after the mealtime rush.

    The full article is available to ConsumerReports.org subscribers. Sign in or subscribe to read this article.

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers or sponsors on this website. Copyright © 2007-2013 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Repair or replace? Find out when you should fix it and when you should nix it

    Deciding whether to fix a broken product or spring for a new one often feels like an expensive guess. But there’s no need to throw away good money on a bad product. In fact, repairing broken items or keeping them going as long as possible isn’t always the best way to save money. We’ve done the homework for you, creating year-by-year advice for more than a dozen common home appliances, electronics, and lawn and snow equipment.

    Our advice is based on the experiences of 29,281 subscribers we surveyed as part of our 2013 Online Annual Questionnaire. We also spell out how much repairs usually cost and what our readers thought of the job. And we offer tips that can help extend the life of your current product or new purchase. Here’s what you need to know.

    Products aren’t breaking faster. The repair rates of most products in our latest survey are similar to what we found when we conducted the survey in 2010. Some products are breaking less often. Laptops had a repair rate of 24 percent, down from 36 percent in 2010; the LCD TV repair rate is 7 percent, down from 15 percent. So why does it seem like things don’t last as long as they used to? Because when products do break, it’s memorable: They stop working altogether (53 percent) or work poorly (32 percent), according to our survey.

    Avoiding a lemon. Check our “What Breaks and What Doesn’t” lists for the most temperamental product types and—from our repair-history surveys—the most and least reliable brands for each. Then use the “Repair or Replace” data chart to help decide whether a repair is worthwhile, questionable, or a bad idea. The chart also gives you an idea of how much a new product costs.

    Save money on repairs. People who used independent repair shops were more satisfied with the repairs than those who used factory service, which is consistent with what we’ve found previously. And repairs cost less, too. That was especially true when it came to large appliances and lawn equipment.

    Another way to save on repairs is to do them yourself, as did 31 percent of those surveyed whose products weren’t covered by warranty. The prevalence of how-to videos on YouTube and other sites—such as RepairClinic.com, which itself hosts more than 1,400 videos—makes repairing even complicated appliances a much less formidable challenge.

    But if your product is under manufacturer’s warranty, you’ll need to use a factory-­authorized repair shop or risk voiding the warranty. Just make sure the technician who will be sent to your home has been properly trained on your product.

    No matter who does the repair, our long-standing advice remains. Don’t spend more than 50 percent of the cost of a new product on repairing an old one. And if an item has already broken down once before, replacement may make more sense.

    Warranties don’t improve satisfaction. Only 15 percent of products in our survey were covered by the manufacturer’s regular warranty when they broke, and about 10 percent were under a service contract or extended warranty. People who had a service contract or an extended warranty weren’t any happier with their repairs. They actually were more likely to have had repairs done incorrectly the first time around and waited at least two weeks for the repair than people who didn’t have those contracts.

    Even the 77 percent of people with those contracts who were offered a free repair or replacement for their product didn’t save much money overall. The median cost for the contract or warranty was $136; the median cost for repairs was $152.

    The full article is available to ConsumerReports.org subscribers. Sign in or subscribe to read this article.

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers or sponsors on this website. Copyright © 2007-2013 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Interior paints that look good—and last

     

    Picking a paint has become harder than just picking a color (as if that wasn’t confusing enough). Relying on past experiences isn’t a good way to pick a brand because paints are frequently reformulated, which changes their performance.

    Consumer Reports tested 67 paints, including a pricey import from England known for its colors, to see how well they hide old paint, how well they hold up to stains and scrubbing, and the smoothness of the finish.

    In fact, we’ve toughened our tests by applying water- and oil-based stains to painted panels. Most paints faltered in our new staining tests. Satin finishes from two major brands didn’t make our recommended list this time around. If one of the big home-improvement stores is your go-to place for paint, use those paints in low-traffic areas.

    Though its colors were lovely, Farrow & Ball was the worst at hiding old paint. It took two coats of the $105 eggshell finish in white to do what the top-rated satin did in one. (The terms “eggshell” and “satin” are used interchangeably by companies to describe paints with some sheen.) More coats mean more money and time, and the Farrow & Ball paint isn’t self-­priming, unlike most we tested. The eggshell and gloss paints also left a rough, grainy finish and lost most of their sheen after cleaning, though both resisted stains well.

    How to choose

    White and other neutrals are in style again. And warm grays are hot, too, according to color experts. You can find in­spir­ation at the manufacturers’ Pinterest boards and websites, where you can compare color palettes or play with tools that let you upload a photo of your room and paint it virtually before picking up a brush. Here’s what else to consider:

    Pick the finish. “More people are using the same color for walls and trim, without much contrast in sheen,” says Leslie Harrington, a color expert. “This creates a clean line and redirects your eye to other things in the room—the furniture, art.” Semigloss isn’t a must for trim. Many eggshell and satin paints have become much better at standing up to scrubbing, according to our latest interior paint tests. Flat paints are better than eggshell at hiding imperfections because they don’t reflect light. But flats are the least stain-resistant, so they aren’t a great choice for busy rooms.

    Nail the perfect color. Light affects color significantly. So once you’ve zeroed in on a hue, consider buying three samples: the color you’re drawn to, and a shade lighter and one darker. Paint a sample next to a window and in an area that’s dark, viewing the colors in daylight and at night, with the lights on and off.

    The full article is available to ConsumerReports.org subscribers. Sign in or subscribe to read this article.

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers or sponsors on this website. Copyright © 2007-2013 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Paint tips from the pros at Consumer Reports

    Painting is often touted as an inexpensive way to transform a room and while that’s true, getting a perfect paint job isn’t so easy. Roller marks, missed spots, and paint runs are a few ways to mess up the transformation. Rico DePaz has tested paints in Consumer Reports’ lab for eight years and applies his knowledge every time he paints at home. Here’s his advice for perfecting your next paint job.
     
    DePaz starts with a roller that’s saturated with paint so that it’s just about dripping from the roller. Then he does what he calls the three S’s:

    • Smear. In a 2x2-foot section smear the paint in an X, V, or Z pattern.
    • Spread. Spread the paint to cover the 2x2-foot section. It doesn’t matter which way you roll because you’re going to smooth it over.
    • Smooth. Do a series of single roller passes from top to bottom to smooth it out.

    Repeat this process in 2x2-foot sections. Our video shows DePaz demonstrating the three S’s so take a look.

    Consumer Reports' latest interior paint tests found that Behr Premium Plus Ultra Satin Enamel, $34 at Home Depot, was the best of the 67 interior paints tested. Behr Premium Plus Ultra Matte, $32, was tops in the flat and matte category, and when it came to semigloss, the $33 Clark+Kensington Semi-Gloss Enamel from Ace took the top spot. See our full paint Ratings to compare your favorite brand with other popular paints and keep in mind that paints are frequently reformulated, which changes their performance and makes choosing a paint tricky. We test how well a paint hides old paint, how well the paint holds up to stains and scrubbing, and the smoothness of a finish.
     
    —Kimberly Janeway

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers or sponsors on this website. Copyright © 2007-2013 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    5 low-cost vacuum repairs you can do yourself

    When is a broken vacuum cleaner too old to repair and when is it worth saving? According to Consumer Reports’ latest surveys, upright vacuum cleaners usually aren’t worth fixing after five years and canisters after seven years. But some repairs make sense even on an older vacuum, provided the repair is no more than half of the cost of a comparable new model. Here are five low-cost repairs you can do yourself.
     
    Problem: Vacuum is especially hard to push across carpeting.
    Solution: Simply raise the height a notch on machines with a manual carpet-height adjustment—not too high, though, or carpet cleaning will suffer.
    Cost: Free.
     
    Problem:
    Brush roll barely turns, if it turns at all, when it should.
    Solution: Check the brush roll for hair, fabric, and other debris. Otherwise, you’ll need a new belt, brush roll, or both.
    Cost: $3 to $40.
     
    Problem: Weak suction with no clog in the hose.
    Solution: For a bagless vacuum, clean or replace filters, which trap dirt and protect the motor. For a bagged vacuum, replace the bag.
    Cost: $10 to $70 for filters that aren’t washable.
     
    Problem: Paper clips or other items get stuck in hose.
    Solution: Use a broomstick to clear the clog.
    Cost: Free.
     
    Problem: Vacuum quits while vacuuming.
    Solution: Many vacuums have an overload switch that cuts power if the motor gets too hot. Let the motor cool for a few minutes, then restart. Also check for a full bag or bin, and for clogs—common causes of overheating.
    Cost: Free.

    The best from our tests
    If your vacuum is beyond repair, see the results of our tests of upright, canister, robotic, and small vacuums. Our top canister vacuum is the Kenmore Progressive 21714, $400, which was aces at cleaning bare floors and pet hair and very good at carpets. We also recommend canisters from Miele and Panasonic. Kenmore also took the top spot in our upright vacuum tests with the Kenmore Elite 31150, $350, followed closely by models from Miele and Kirby.

    For more information on vacuums, see our full vacuum Ratings and recommendations. And if you’re considering a repair for a large appliance, mower or snow blower read, “Repair or Replace.”

    —Ed Perratore

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers or sponsors on this website. Copyright © 2007-2013 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Effort to save incandescents likely too late

    Hidden in the new $1 trillion spending bill for the fiscal year that takes us through September is a provision that prevents the Department of Energy from spending any money to enforce the law requiring energy-efficient lightbulbs. But it may have come too late to affect lightbulb sales as retailers told us they've already made the switch to LEDs, CFLs, and other energy-saving lightbulbs.

    The 2007 law still stands, meaning 60- and 40-watt incandescent bulbs cannot be made in the U.S. or imported after January 1, 2014 (remaining stock can be sold until it runs out). In the past two years 75-watt and 100-watt incandescents have been phased out. “Manufacturers have gone through the process of retooling their factories to manufacture energy-efficient lightbulbs. The transition is already complete,” says Paul Molitor, assistant vice president of NEMA, a trade group representing lightbulb manufacturers. “Our only disappointment is that somebody will import incandescents.”
     
    That’s a possibility without DOE enforcement of the standard. However, reps for Home Depot and Lowe’s told us they’ll continue working with their manufacturers and have no intention of going back to standard incandescents. Walmart did not get back to us by press time. But here’s the deal. If you want to save energy and money then buy the best LEDs and CFLs you can, such as the GE A19 Dimmable 60W LED, $11, and the Great Value 14W 60W Soft White CFL from Walmart. It’s $1.25.

    We’ve heard stories that some shoppers are hoarding incandescents. But keep in mind that the typical 60-watt incandescent costs more than three times as much a year to run as a similar LED bulb. And as more LEDs come to market, the cost is dropping while choices increase. To find the best bulb for your sockets, see the results of our tests of scores of energy-saving LEDs and CFLs.
     
    —Kimberly Janeway

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers or sponsors on this website. Copyright © 2007-2013 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    It's lights out for the incandescent lightbulb

    The New Year may look a lot like the old, but not in the lightbulb aisle. As of January 1st the most popular bulb, the 60-watt incandescent, is on its way out, pretty much ending the incandescent era. Here’s a look at your energy-saving options.

    The phase-out was prompted by the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 and started with 100-watt incandescent bulbs, followed by 75-watt bulbs, and now 60- and 40-watt incandescent bulbs can no longer be made in the U.S. or imported. You might see them on store shelves and online for a few months as remaining inventory can be sold until it runs out. You can stock up on incandescents but they use a lot of energy to provide the same amount of light as the alternatives. Better to choose one of the following bulb types and save energy and money over the life of the bulb.

    Halogen bulbs. These incandescent bulbs use about 25 to 30 percent less energy than standard incandescents, so they meet the new energy-efficiency standards and aren’t being phased out. And halogen bulbs instantly produce light, accurately reveal the colors of objects, are fully dimmable, and can be used almost anywhere. The A-type bulbs, the kind you put in lamps, cast light in all directions. But some halogen bulbs do not last much longer than standard incandescents yet cost more.

    CFLs. Some cast a weird light color or take too long to fully brighten, but in our lightbulb tests we did find a few that were impressive. The Great Value 14W 60W Soft White CFL replaces a 60-watt incandescent yet uses about 75 percent less energy and brightens fairly quickly and casts a bright, warm yellow light, similar to that of an incandescent. A CR Best Buy, this spiral CFL is $1.25 at Walmart and you can save about $60 in energy costs over the bulb’s claimed life of nine years (10,000 hours). But it isn’t dimmable—most CFLs aren’t—and since frequently turning CFLs on and off shortens their life, it shouldn’t be used in certain sockets. All CFLs contain a small amount of mercury but several brands offer bulbs with a plastic coating that contain the mercury and any shards if the bulb breaks.

    LEDs. These use slightly less energy than CFLs and manufacturers claim they last 20,000 to 50,000 hours, about 18 to 46 years when used three hours a day. LEDs instantly brighten and their lifespan isn’t affected by frequently turning them on and off. Some we tested dim as low as incandescent bulbs. Among 60-watt replacements the best we tested was the Samsung A19 60-Watt Warm White. It casts a bright, warm yellow light in all directions, making it ideal for lamps. But it’s $30 and while you can save around $125 in energy costs over it’s life, that’s still expensive. LED prices are dropping fast. Here’s a look at our preliminary tests of lightbulbs that cost $10 to $13.

    For more choices, take a look at our Ratings of dozens of LEDs and CFLs for lamps, ceiling fixtures, recessed and track lights, and outdoor fixtures, and keep an eye on LED prices. With manufacturers eager to win you over, prices will continue to drop dramatically this year.

    —Kimberly Janeway

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers or sponsors on this website. Copyright © 2007-2013 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Three GE microwaves top our tests

    How hard can buying a microwave be? That’s what we thought until we tested three different GE over-the-range (OTR) microwaves that look alike and found that they performed similarly, yet have very different price tags. Each has a stainless-steel finish, touchpad controls, and about the same amount of usable space. Of the dozens of microwaves tested by Consumer Reports, these three GEs were the top OTR models. They were easy to use, excellent at defrosting, and impressive at evenly heating food and venting. Here’s how they differ.
     
    GE JVM3160RFSS. A CR Best Buy, this $250 microwave is among the least expensive we tested and outperformed models costing $1,000 or more. It’s ideal for doing the basics with programmed settings for reheat, popcorn, beverages, and auto-defrost. But it doesn’t have a sensor that detects when food is done, a handy feature that helps prevent under- and overcooking.

    GE JVM7195SFSS. At $400 this microwave boasts 1,100 watts, while the others are 1,000. More watts typically mean more cooking power but differences of 100 watts or so don't matter much. It does offer slightly faster heating and you can cook two foods at once using a wire rack. There are more programmed settings, including snacks, steam cook, and an USDA MyPlate menu option meant to encourage healthy choices and portions. The exhaust fans adds a third and higher speed, but this GE wasn’t as quiet as the others.

    GE Profile PVM9215SFSS. The top-rated microwave, this GE costs $550 and slightly outperformed its brand mates. It also has a wire rack and the programmed settings found on the $400 model, but adds a knob, a fourth speed to the exhaust fan, and a limited 5-year warranty on the magnetron tube, the part that creates heat.

    These three GE models were the only over-the-range models to make our recommended list. Take a look at our Ratings of over-the-range and countertop microwaves to compare models and our brand reliability information to help you decide.
     
    —Kimberly Janeway

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers or sponsors on this website. Copyright © 2007-2013 Consumers Union of U.S.

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  • 01/04/14--02:59: What's making me so itchy?
  • What's making me so itchy?

    Q. My skin feels itchy all over, not just in one or two places. What could that mean?

    A. The likeliest culprit is either dry skin (especially if the weather is cold or very dry) or allergies. In those cases, steps that can help include using mild soap, bathing or showering in warm (not hot) water, and using plenty of over-the-counter moisturizing lotion. Avoiding harsh chemicals and scratchy fabric can also help, as can using a humidifier to put more moisture in the air. Allover, or "generalized," itching can also be a side effect of certain medications, including commonly used ones such as ACE inhibitors and cholesterol-lowering statins, as well as of radiation treatment. And in rare cases it might indicate a systemic problem, such as kidney disease or even cancer. So if the simple steps above don’t help your itching, see your doctor.

    This article appeared in the February 2014 issue of Consumer Reports on Health.

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers or sponsors on this website. Copyright © 2007-2013 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Repair or replace? Find out when you should fix it and when you should nix it

    Deciding whether to fix a broken product or spring for a new one often feels like an expensive guess. But there’s no need to throw away good money on a bad product. In fact, repairing broken items or keeping them going as long as possible isn’t always the best way to save money. We’ve done the homework for you, creating year-by-year advice for more than a dozen common home appliances, electronics, and lawn and snow equipment.

    Our advice is based on the experiences of 29,281 subscribers we surveyed as part of our 2013 Online Annual Questionnaire. We also spell out how much repairs usually cost and what our readers thought of the job. And we offer tips that can help extend the life of your current product or new purchase. Here’s what you need to know.

    Products aren’t breaking faster. The repair rates of most products in our latest survey are similar to what we found when we conducted the survey in 2010. Some products are breaking less often. Laptops had a repair rate of 24 percent, down from 36 percent in 2010; the LCD TV repair rate is 7 percent, down from 15 percent. So why does it seem like things don’t last as long as they used to? Because when products do break, it’s memorable: They stop working altogether (53 percent) or work poorly (32 percent), according to our survey.

    Avoiding a lemon. Check our “What Breaks and What Doesn’t” lists for the most temperamental product types and—from our repair-history surveys—the most and least reliable brands for each. Then use the “Repair or Replace” data chart to help decide whether a repair is worthwhile, questionable, or a bad idea. The chart also gives you an idea of how much a new product costs.

    Save money on repairs. People who used independent repair shops were more satisfied with the repairs than those who used factory service, which is consistent with what we’ve found previously. And repairs cost less, too. That was especially true when it came to large appliances and lawn equipment.

    Another way to save on repairs is to do them yourself, as did 31 percent of those surveyed whose products weren’t covered by warranty. The prevalence of how-to videos on YouTube and other sites—such as RepairClinic.com, which itself hosts more than 1,400 videos—makes repairing even complicated appliances a much less formidable challenge.

    But if your product is under manufacturer’s warranty, you’ll need to use a factory-­authorized repair shop or risk voiding the warranty. Just make sure the technician who will be sent to your home has been properly trained on your product.

    No matter who does the repair, our long-standing advice remains. Don’t spend more than 50 percent of the cost of a new product on repairing an old one. And if an item has already broken down once before, replacement may make more sense.

    Warranties don’t improve satisfaction. Only 15 percent of products in our survey were covered by the manufacturer’s regular warranty when they broke, and about 10 percent were under a service contract or extended warranty. People who had a service contract or an extended warranty weren’t any happier with their repairs. They actually were more likely to have had repairs done incorrectly the first time around and waited at least two weeks for the repair than people who didn’t have those contracts.

    Even the 77 percent of people with those contracts who were offered a free repair or replacement for their product didn’t save much money overall. The median cost for the contract or warranty was $136; the median cost for repairs was $152.

    The full article is available to ConsumerReports.org subscribers. Sign in or subscribe to read this article.

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers or sponsors on this website. Copyright © 2007-2013 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Interior paints that look good—and last

     

    Picking a paint has become harder than just picking a color (as if that wasn’t confusing enough). Relying on past experiences isn’t a good way to pick a brand because paints are frequently reformulated, which changes their performance.

    Consumer Reports tested 67 paints, including a pricey import from England known for its colors, to see how well they hide old paint, how well they hold up to stains and scrubbing, and the smoothness of the finish.

    In fact, we’ve toughened our tests by applying water- and oil-based stains to painted panels. Most paints faltered in our new staining tests. Satin finishes from two major brands didn’t make our recommended list this time around. If one of the big home-improvement stores is your go-to place for paint, use those paints in low-traffic areas.

    Though its colors were lovely, Farrow & Ball was the worst at hiding old paint. It took two coats of the $105 eggshell finish in white to do what the top-rated satin did in one. (The terms “eggshell” and “satin” are used interchangeably by companies to describe paints with some sheen.) More coats mean more money and time, and the Farrow & Ball paint isn’t self-­priming, unlike most we tested. The eggshell and gloss paints also left a rough, grainy finish and lost most of their sheen after cleaning, though both resisted stains well.

    How to choose

    White and other neutrals are in style again. And warm grays are hot, too, according to color experts. You can find in­spir­ation at the manufacturers’ Pinterest boards and websites, where you can compare color palettes or play with tools that let you upload a photo of your room and paint it virtually before picking up a brush. Here’s what else to consider:

    Pick the finish. “More people are using the same color for walls and trim, without much contrast in sheen,” says Leslie Harrington, a color expert. “This creates a clean line and redirects your eye to other things in the room—the furniture, art.” Semigloss isn’t a must for trim. Many eggshell and satin paints have become much better at standing up to scrubbing, according to our latest interior paint tests. Flat paints are better than eggshell at hiding imperfections because they don’t reflect light. But flats are the least stain-resistant, so they aren’t a great choice for busy rooms.

    Nail the perfect color. Light affects color significantly. So once you’ve zeroed in on a hue, consider buying three samples: the color you’re drawn to, and a shade lighter and one darker. Paint a sample next to a window and in an area that’s dark, viewing the colors in daylight and at night, with the lights on and off.

    The full article is available to ConsumerReports.org subscribers. Sign in or subscribe to read this article.

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers or sponsors on this website. Copyright © 2007-2013 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Buy a snow blower now before they sell out

    Northeasterners who waited until today to go out to buy a snow blower might not find a great selection. Fortunately, despite a storm that dumped as much as 15 inches of snow in the area with sub-zero wind chills right behind it, we found that you can still find a model if you call around.

    Home Depot, Lowe’s, and Sears stores we called in the hard-hit metropolitan New York region still had some inventory. Lowe’s in Orangeburg, N.Y., and Paterson, N.J., still had plenty of two-stage models with clearing widths of 24 to 30 inches. Two-stage models can clear snow more quickly than single-stage models because of an impeller behind the usual auger, which throws out what the auger collects. This type of snow blower also has driven wheels, which means less pushing, and wider clearing widths than you'll find in single-stage models.

    For nearby Sears and Home Depot, the pickings were slimmer. Sears, according to a representative we spoke to, had “a little bit of both” single- and two-stage models. But while the Yonkers Home Depot still had several single-stage snow blowers, that store was down to a single Ariens two-stage model, about $1,000. Still, location matters: For the northernmost parts of the region that got only 4 to 6 inches this time around, a single-stage model can get the job done.

    Even if checking with nearby big box stores turns up nothing, don’t forget about local outdoor-gear dealers. We checked with a few manufacturers, including Toro and MTD, which makes brands such as Cub Cadet, Troy-Bilt, and Yard Machines, and inventory was mostly in place for supplying dealerships and big box stores alike.

    Need snow-melt and shovels, too? For temperatures hovering in the single digits, don’t waste your money throwing down salt and similar products—they won’t melt anything until temperatures rise. As for shovels, you don’t need a big box store if you need one in a pinch; check your local supermarket or hardware store. Given a choice, though, pick the right shovel for the job.

    And if you have a choice of snow blower, don’t buy one without checking out your options. Our buying guide for snow blowers offers all the shopping tips you need to pick a model you’ll be happy with for years, given proper maintenance. Then check out our Ratings of 99 models.

    —Ed Perratore

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers or sponsors on this website. Copyright © 2007-2013 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    How to prevent your pipes from freezing

    Plumbers have been busy during the recent cold snap because when the temperature plummets, the risk of pipes freezing goes up. In fact, frozen pipes are one of the most common causes of property damage during frigid weather and can cause more than $5,000 in water damage, according to the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety. The pipes that freeze most frequently are those in such unheated interior spaces as basements, attics, and garages. But pipes that run through your cabinets or that are against an exterior wall are also at risk. Here’s some advice from the American Red Cross on how to prevent your pipes from freezing as well as how to thaw them if they do.

    How to prevent pipes from freezing
    Once the temperature starts dropping outside, you should take measures inside to keep your pipes warm and water running. Some may go against your better instincts of conserving water and heat but the extra expense is nothing compared to a hefty repair bill. Here’s what to do.

    • Keep garage doors closed if there are water supply lines in the garage.
    • Open kitchen and bathroom cabinet doors to allow warmer air to circulate around the plumbing. (If you have small children, be sure to remove any harmful cleaners and household chemicals.)
    • Let the cold water drip from a faucet served by exposed pipes. Running water through the pipe—even at a trickle—helps prevent pipes from freezing.
    • Keep the thermostat set to the same temperature both during the day and at night.
    • If you plan to be away during cold weather, leave the heat on in your home, set to a temperature no lower than 55° F.
    • For the long term, add insulation to attics, basements and crawl spaces. Insulation will maintain higher temperatures in those areas.

    How to thaw your pipes
    If you turn on a faucet and only a trickle comes out, suspect a frozen pipe. Likely places for frozen pipes include those against exterior walls or where your water service enters your home through the foundation. If the water is still running, you can take the following steps but if you suspect a more serious problem, call a plumber.

    • Keep the faucet open. As you treat the frozen pipe and the frozen area begins to melt, water will begin to flow through the frozen area. Running water through the pipe will help melt ice in the pipe.
    • Apply heat to the section of pipe using an electric heating pad wrapped around the pipe, an electric hair dryer, a portable space heater (kept away from flammable materials), or by wrapping pipes with towels soaked in hot water. Do not use a blowtorch, kerosene or propane heater, charcoal stove, or other open flame device.
    • Apply heat until full water pressure is restored. Check all other faucets in your home to find out if you have additional frozen pipes. If one pipe freezes, others may freeze, too.
    • If you are unable to locate the frozen area, if the frozen area is not accessible, or if you can not thaw the pipe, call a licensed plumber.

    If your you need supplemental heat, you can add a space heater to a room where pipes may be at risk. In Consumer Reports tests of space heaters, the Ambia ACH-120, $60, was the best at heating up a standardized room in 15 minutes. But models from Holmes, Lasko, Vornado and Bionaire were very good at heating a room in that time and also made our list of top space heater picks.

    —Mary H.J. Farrell

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers or sponsors on this website. Copyright © 2007-2013 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Help! My snow blower won’t start!

    Even when snowstorms are predicted, like those that swept across the country this week, homeowners can be caught short. For every person who runs out to buy a snow blower after the snow is already on the ground, there are several more caught out in the cold yanking on a starter cord with no results. Cursing the manufacturer won't help but even if you failed to put your machine away properly after the last storm, there are a few steps you can take before resorting to buying a replacement.

    Fact is, taking care of outdoor power equipment can be a hassle. Too few of us pay attention to the manual’s exhortations about using only fresh gas, adding stabilizer, changing oil, and keeping spare parts on hand, among other maintenance measures. Here's what to do if your snow blower won't start.

    • Chances are, you left gas in the machine for too long. Pouring in new gas over the old won’t solve your problem. Siphon out the old first—a siphon tube, hand or battery-powered, costs less than $20. With a lighter, single-stage snow blower, turn it upside down if you have to, but get as much of that old fuel out as you can before refueling. (Gas stations accept used gas, but you can even put fuel from any four-stroke engine into your car’s gas tank.) Before filling up with fresh gas, mix in fuel stabilizer.

    • Take out your spark plug. If it’s only a year or so old, give its electrode a good cleaning with a wire brush and screw it back in. If you don’t recall when you last replaced it, do so now; be sure it’s properly gapped. (Your manual will explain how, though plugs today often come gapped.)

    • If your snow blower starts but runs very roughly even after you've adjusted the choke, you might need to spray in some carburetor cleaner. And if it starts but the auger won’t turn, a belt has snapped. In a two-stage model, only one of two augers turning means that a shear pin has snapped—which they do when stressed to protect the transmission. A bag of these, enough for a few seasons, costs about $10.

    • While you’re at it, check the oil level. Even if you don’t change the oil now, ensure that there's enough to protect the engine. Run the machine with too little oil, and ironically you might  feel sorry you got it started. A seized-up engine generally means you need a new snow blower.

    Unfortunately, if you left unstabilized fuel in the engine since last winter these tips may not get the machine moving. At the very least, you might get away with needing only a carburetor rebuild, which costs far less than a new snow blower. But if you’re ready for a new model, check out our buying guide for snow blowers before viewing our Ratings of almost 100 models. Winter's not over yet.

    —Ed Perratore

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers or sponsors on this website. Copyright © 2007-2013 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    DeLonghi tweaks a winning coffeemaker design

    The DeLonghi Nescafé Dolce Gusto line has dominated our single-serve coffeemaker Ratings for years. But in our tests of the $150 DeLonghi Nescafé Dolce Gusto Circolo and the $100 DeLonghi Nescafé Dolce Gusto Piccolo EDG200T, we've had mixed feelings about the joystick control. On the one hand it seemed to speed brewing and gave us the flexibility to put in only as much water as we wanted. But on the other hand, all that freedom lost these units points in our tests for portion-size consistency.

    As it turns out, the company claims it was users who gave the ultimate thumbs down to the joystick, resulting in new “Flow Stop” models with cup-size presets. The company routinely conducts focus groups and online surveys, along with engaging with customers on Facebook and monitoring user reviews. And when it came to the Dolce Gusto’s joystick, the objections were clear. “Consumers want to enjoy great results without having to spend a lot of time in the process,” said Enrico Baso, senior product manager of kitchen products, including coffeemakers, for the DeLonghi and Kenwood brands. “With the Flow Stop feature, they could set the machine for the cup size they want and walk away to do other things while the coffee is brewing.”

    We’re all in a desperate hurry in the morning. But hey, today’s innovation starts with yesterday’s experimentation, so you can’t fault a company for trying. Fault it if it won’t accept criticism, which clearly doesn’t apply here.

    The $180 DeLonghi Nescafé Dolce Gusto Circolo Flow Stop, the second such model we’ve tested, is one of four new pod coffeemakers in our Ratings. The other is the Bosch Tassimo T12 Brewing System, $80. Neither has an overall score yet, pending taste tests. We’ve also tested two drip coffeemakers, the $20 Living Solutions Single Serve Coffeemaker, a to-go model that brews into a travel mug, and the $60 Melitta 46894, a standard carafe model. But don’t rush to buy one without doing your homework. Check out our buying guide for coffeemakers before viewing our Ratings of 112 models.

    —Ed Perratore

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers or sponsors on this website. Copyright © 2007-2013 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Can the cold help you lose weight?

    The cold snap gripping much of the nations might have an unexpected health benefit: weight loss. Cold indoor temperatures may rev up your metabolism so you burn more calories.

    Researchers say that mildly cold indoor air appears to activate the body’s stores of brown fat, which, unlike most fat, burns lots of calories. Spending two hours a day at a brisk 63º F for 6 weeks increased brown fat activity and resulted in a significant decrease in body fat among 51 healthy men, researchers in Japan recently reported in the Journal of Clinical Investigation.

    If you need to lose weight, try diet and exercise, say the experts at Consumer Reports.

    And Dutch investigators, in a separate study, say their research suggests that daily exposure to a more balmy 66º F might also activate brown fat. Such mildly cold indoor temperatures might help middle-aged people in their weight-loss efforts by boosting their metabolism up to 30 percent, the team reported in Trends in Endocrinology & Metabolism. But they warn that the cold temperatures might have the opposite effect on young people and seniors because they tend to have reduced metabolism when cold.

    If burning calories by turning down your thermostat doesn't appeal to you, consider an indoor exercise machine. Read our reviews of treadmills, ellipticals, spin bikes, rowing machines, and activity trackers such as the Fitbit One.

    —Doug Podolsky

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers or sponsors on this website. Copyright © 2007-2013 Consumers Union of U.S.

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