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    10 super slow-cooker recipes for game day

    The worst thing about hosting a Super Bowl party is that you’re stuck in the kitchen preparing and serving food while everyone else is gathered in front of the TV drinking beer. Enter the slow cooker, which as one brand brags, you can “set and forget.” Make taco filling or if you prefer more sophisticated fare, there are lots of slow cooker recipes online that don’t resemble anything that came out of a slow cooker in the 1970s. Here are some recipes from around the web.

    Serious Eats
    The pork for the Slow Cooker Kalua Pork Sandwiches With Crispy Asian Slaw spends 18 hours in the slow cooker but you can make the meat ahead of time and reheat it during halftime. The makings of Slow Cooker Chicago-Style Italian Beef and Sausage Combos spend 4 hours in the slow cooker so you can start it that day.

    Cooking Light
    An aromatic Vegetable and Chickpea Curry spends 6 hours in the slow cooker and is chock full of vegetables. Or try the recipe for Moroccan Meatballs in Spicy Tomato Sauce, which take the same amount of cooking time.

    Food Network
    At the Food Network website, you can find Trisha Yearwood’s recipe for Slow Cooker Georgia Pulled Pork Barbeque, which takes 12 hours of cooking time. And from the celebrity chef Sandra Lee comes a recipe for Slow Cooker Short Ribs, which take 8 hours.

    Martha Stewart
    In 7 hours you can make Martha Stewart’s Slow Cooker Cajun Stew, which has a bit of a kick to it. She also features a recipe for the late-night host Jimmy Fallon's Crock-Pot Chili that is no laughing matter.

    Epicurious
    Another vegetarian option is the Slow-Cooked Ratatouille Over Goat Cheese Polenta, which spends 4 to 5 hours in the slow cooker (the polenta is made separately). And for dessert, the Lemony Strawberry-Rhubarb Cobbler, which takes 4 hours to cook, is a perfect finale for the party. The secret ingredient is pepper.

    Consumer Reports no longer tests slow cookers because in our last tests, we found only small differences in performance. What distinguished one from another was convenience features such as programmable settings and a timer that automatically switches the temperature to warm when the food is done. To find out more about buying and using a slow cooker, check our slow cooker buying guide.

    —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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    Do you own one of these recalled dehumidifiers?

    The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission today announced the recall of 350,000 dehumidifiers sold under the GE brand name. The units can overheat, smoke, and catch fire, posing fire and burn hazards to consumers. There have been 16 reported incidents with the GE dehumidifiers, including five in which fire spread beyond the units, causing about $430,000 in property damage.

    The affected 30, 40, 50, and 65-pint dehumidifiers were sold at Sam’s Club, Walmart, and other stores nationwide and in Canada, and online at Amazon.com and Ebay.com, from April 2008 through December 2011. You can find the models numbers of recalled units on the recall notice. In September 2013, Gree, manufacturer of the defective GE units, was part of a larger recall involving 2.2 million dehumidifiers sold under 12 other brand names. Those units have been associated with more than 71 fires and $2.7 million in property damage. None of the models are in our current dehumidifier Ratings.  

    If you own one of the recalled dehumidifiers, unplug it and contact Gree to receive a refund. The manufacturer can be reached toll free at 866-853-2802 or online at www.greeusa.com.

    For more information on appliance fires, including tips for protecting yourself from defective models, read our special reports "Appliance Fires: Is Your Home Safe?" and "Microwave Mystery: When Do Wayward Ovens Warrant a Recall?" Our advice includes registering new appliances so that you'll hear about recalls and other prooblems promptly, and warning signs that your appliance may be defective.        

    —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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    Expert tips and tricks for grilling in cold weather

    Tailgating isn’t allowed in the parking lot of the MetLife Stadium before the Super Bowl on Sunday, just another reason to be glad that you’ll be home watching the game. And while the weather will be cold in much of the country, that doesn’t stop some people from grilling. About a third of grill owners say they grill when the temperature is below freezing, according to a survey from Weber. And while that may sound nuts, the payoff is sizzling burgers and tender ribs.
     
    And then there are chicken wings. Stephen Raichlen, author of the popular “Barbecue! Bible” says on his website that they’re the perfect Super Bowl food as they’re: “Infinitely customizable. Easily held in one hand. Spicy enough to take the chill off a winter’s day. Primal as well as beer-compatible. Relatively inexpensive, even for a crowd.” Sounds good to us. Raichlen has 10 tips for acing chicken wings on the grill, including how to get the skin nice and crispy. His Super Bowl menu (and recipes) on Epicurious.com includes Calgary Hot wings, sage and garlic grilled tomatoes, and Filipino-style London broil. Now we’re talking.

    Keeping the grill hot when it's cold outside
    If you plan to grill in cold weather, be sure to dress warm but skip the scarf and other dangling fabrics. Shield the grill from wind and place it about 10 feet from combustible surfaces and materials. And to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning, always grill in a well-ventilated area and never inside an enclosed patio or garage. Keep in mind that preheating your gas grill can take up to twice as long in below-freezing temperatures, and cooking may also take longer so use a meat thermometer to ensure meats and fish are safe to eat. For the grill to retain as much heat as possible, cook with the lid closed.

    Winter may seem like an unlikely time to buy a grill but with a quick search, we found gas grills available at the usual home improvement and big box stores. Use our Ratings of dozens of gas grills to help find a grill with a cooking surface that matches how much you usually cook. We group grills based on our measurements of the main cooking area. Manufacturers might also include warming racks and searing burners in their claims.

    And to round out your Super Bowl menu, check the results of our craft beer taste tests and 10 tasty slow cooker recipes.

    —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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    Smart lock from Kwikset knows who's knocking

    What if you could touch your door lock to get into your house, knowing the door won't open for just anyone? That's the promise of the Kwikset Kevo Bluetooth Electronic Lock.  It doesn’t actually identify your touch but detects the smart phone in your pocket or backpack. It’s one of several app-enabled electronic locks we’re about to test in our labs.

    Developed by UniKey, the Kevo (pronounced “Key-voe”) app lets you create encyrpted electronic “eKeys” for everyone in your household who needs access and also lets you send eKeys to people you want to let into your home, such as a sitter or contractor. When they no longer need access, you can disable or delete the eKeys. As administrator, you get a log of who passes in and out and when, and you can have the app text you when your teenager tiptoes in at 3 a.m. The lock can even detect whether an authorized user is inside or outside the house.

    The app currently runs only on Apple smart phones and tablets, but versions for Android and other platforms are in the works. And for family members without smart phones, an included Bluetooth-enabled key fob also permits entry by touch. An added benefit: Because it’s a Kwikset lock, you can rekey it in seconds without calling a locksmith. It’s sold in a choice of finishes at Amazon.com, Best Buy, Home Depot, Lowe’s, and other sellers for about $220. Extra key fobs cost $25 apiece.

    We're also planning to test smart locks from Baldwin, Okidokeys, Schlage, and Yale and any others that become available in time for our testing. If you prefer an old-fashioned lock, check the results of our dook lock tests and our door lock buying guide. Our top-rated high security door lock is the Medeco Maxum 11*603, $190, which was the most difficult to defeat in our tough tests.

    Whichever type of lock you buy, be sure its strike (what the bolt enters when locked) is made of heavy-duty metal and is installed with the 3-inch screws we think should come with all locks. Hinges should also be secured with 3-inch screws.

     —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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    Smart LED system lets you turn on lights from afar

    If you could control your home’s lighting from anywhere using your smart phone or tablet, would you? Several manufacturers now offer remote-control LEDs and the lightbulb experts at Consumer Reports are testing Connected by TCP a smart lighting system for the home. Here’s what we’ve found so far.
     
    We paid $50 at Home Depot for a Connected by TCP system that includes two LEDs and a gateway that enables you to control the bulbs. In our initial tests, it was easy to set up the hardware, install the app, and navigate the menus. The system was fairly intuitive but if you get stuck we found that the TCP website was helpful and so was their customer service when we had a question. You can use a smart phone, tablet, or personal computer and your wireless router or you can buy TCP’s battery-powered remote control for $20 to control the LEDs while you’re home. TCP says the remote works within 150 feet of the bulbs.
     
    Remote control away from home, using a smart device, was a cinch to set up and worked smoothly. We were able to turn the lights on and off and dim them to low from wherever we were. The app provides timers so you can set up the bulbs to go on and off at different times and different days. TCP says you can control up to 250 bulbs, including the company’s smart CFLs. To buy more LEDs for this system you’ll pay about $17 for a 60-watt replacement for lamps and ceiling fixtures (A19 LEDs in lightbulb lingo) and $25 for a BR30 reflector that replaces a 65-watt incandescent.
     
    As replacements for 60-watt incandescents, these LEDs were just as bright and cast a warm light while using about 12 watts each in our initial tests. And when it comes to accurately showing the colors of objects, the LEDs were good at it and in line with others we’ve tested. They appear to evenly cast light in all directions but we haven’t tested them for this yet. And they’re supposed to last about 23 years when used 3 hours a day.
     
    The TCP Connected LEDs are the pragmatic cousin to the Philips’ Hue smart device-enabled LEDs, which are fun and party ready and allow you to change the colors of the lights. Think of the possibilities. You’re too tired to go upstairs and turn off the lights. You don’t like coming home to a dark house. You’re on vacation but want to give the impression that your house is occupied. Your elderly parents or a disabled sibling have a hard time moving about. Remote controlled lighting is here.

    In addition to testing these systems, Consumer Reports has lightbulb Ratings of the best replacement LEDs, CFLs, and halogen bulbs.

    —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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    Put popcorn on your Super Bowl snack roster

    The salty—or sweet—goodness. The crispy crunch. The buttery, finger-licking mess. It’s hard to imagine that those little, white fluff balls of deliciousness are whole grains wrapped in only 133 calories per cup—well, when “lightly” buttered, that is. Yet it’s not difficult to understand why Popcorn Day exists. After all, Americans chow down on 16 billion quarts of popcorn annually, according to the Popcorn Board. Opinions differ on when Popcorn Day is; some say Jan. 19, while others opt for Super Bowl Sunday.

    No matter the date, there are no shortages on how you can enjoy this snack—from caramel-nut popcorn crunch to popcorn con pesto. But before you start popping, learn how to prepare popcorn.

    Stovetop popping directions

    You will need:

    • A 3 or 4-quart pan with lid
    • Popcorn kernels
    • ⅓ cup of oil for every 1 cup of kernels
    • Salt or other seasonings of your choice. (Try one of these: Cinnamon, brown sugar, and nutmeg, cumin; dry taco seasoning mix, garlic salt,; lemon pepper; oregano; parmesan cheese; or thyme.)

    Directions:

    1. Heat the oil to 400° to 460° F.
    2. Test the oil by tossing in a few kernels.
    3. When they pop, add the rest of popcorn. Use enough kernels to cover the bottom of the pan—about one kernel deep.
    4. Cover the pan and shake it to evenly coat the kernels in oil.
    5. When the popping slows down to about 2 to 3 seconds apart, remove the pan from the stovetop. (The heated oil will still pop the remaining kernels.)
    6. Salt and/or season to taste. (Never presalt the kernels because the salt toughens popcorn.)

    —Kaitlyn Wells

    If you don’t want to pop your own, check the results of our recent taste tests of cheddar cheese and caramel popcorn.

    Find the best microwave—for making popcorn and everything else

    What’s the easiest method for popping your own? Nuke it. Indeed, making popcorn is one of the main uses for microwave ovens, says the Popcorn Board. Just follow the manufacturer's directions to get perfectly popped kernels every time. If your microwave tends to burn or under pop the kernels, skip the automatic settings and follow the directions on the popcorn bag.

    Each microwave oven in our Ratings gets evaluated with a number of different tests, including heating evenness, defrosting, and ease of use. (While we don't break out a separate popcorn score, how well each microwaves makes popcorn is a part of the overall score.)

    We use the automatic popcorn setting on each microwave to pop a 3.5-ounce bag of a national brand’s natural-flavor popcorn. The vast majority of the machines we test do at least a good job, producing a minimum of 9 cups of popcorn.

    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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    4 ways getting more sleep keeps you healthier

    Yes, poor sleep leaves you groggy, sluggish, and accident prone. But did you know that getting the recommended amount of sleep—7 to 8 hours a night—can boost your health, by building your immune system, protecting you from chronic diseases such as diabetes and heart disease, and speeding how quickly your body heals from injury.

    Strengthens immunity

    Sleep regulates immune cell functions and the levels of antibodies, proteins that help the body fight off bacteria and viruses, according to a recent review in the European Journal of Physiology. That helps explain why a lack of sleep may make you more susceptible to the common cold. Other research suggests that a good night’s sleep boosts the effectiveness of some vaccinations, while poor sleep reduces it.

    Want to sleep better? Read our reviews of mattresses and our advice on how to treat insomnia.

    Protects against chronic disease

    Sleep may be as critical to good health as diet and exercise, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Poor sleep has been linked to poor blood sugar regulation, inflammation, stress hormones, increased blood pressure, and clot formation. Those problems contribute to obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. Sleep helps balance your levels of the hormones ghrelin and leptin, which make you feel hungry or full.

    Aids healing

    Your body repairs itself while you sleep. That’s when your body increases production of proteins needed for cell growth, including those in the heart and blood vessels, and to mend damage from stress and ultraviolet rays. While asleep, you release human growth hormone, which boosts muscle mass.

    Improves mood and mental function

    Getting ideal amounts of good sleep relieves stress and enhances mood, of course. But it also improves memory and concentration. Research suggests that sleep may help nerve cells repair themselves, and form new connections. There’s even new evidence that during sleep, the brain clears away proteins and other cell waste byproducts that otherwise may interfere with mental function. Recent research, albeit animal studies, suggest that some of the proteins sleep helps clear away, called amyloid, might otherwise build up on the walls of the arteries in the brain and contribute to Alzheimer’s disease progression. 

    —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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    Find the flooring you want with this matching tool

    Major paint manufacturers commonly offer online tools and smart phone apps that let you take a photo of a color you like and match it to the paint maker’s selection. At this week’s International Builders Show, Lumber Liquidators introduced a similar tool for flooring, using an online tool called Color Match.

    The tool, accessible through your laptop or a mobile version on your smart phone, lets you take a photo of flooring you like in a friend’s home or a restaurant, or even of your kitchen cabinets, and view the closest product Lumber Liquidators offers. A spokesperson for Lumber Liquidators calls color a key factor in the flooring decision process for customers.

    While the online tool is not yet live, the company has been demonstrating it in its booth at the Builders’ Show. The accompanying photo shows the steps to uploading a photo and finding a match through the tool.

    A feature we’d like to see would be a way for you to view the product Color Match has found for you in your own home. That capability already exists in the company’s existing Floor Finder app, available for the iPhone and iPad only. We'd like to see a way to launch the app from within the Color Match too to show how the flooring would look in the room where you’ll have it installed.

    We’ve run a few products from Lumber Liquidators through our tough flooring tests and although they fell short of our recommended list, they did well on many of the tests. But before checking our flooring Ratings of 50 wood, laminate, vinyl, and other flooring products, check out our flooring buying guide.

    —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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    5 dependable dishwashers for $400 or less

    For some of us, the extra benefits of paying the average $1,200 price for one of the dishwashers recommended by Consumer Reports aren't worth the extra money. What you get by paying more—lots of flexibility, quiet running, a stainless tub, and shorter cycles—doesn’t matter if you can’t afford more than, say, $400. With this in mind, here are a handful of dishwashers that aren’t perfect—they all lack a stainless interior and an adjustable upper rack— but they'll get your dishes clean and you can spend the extra money on something else.

    Frigidaire Gallery FGBD2432K[W], $400
    The best of the bunch, this Frigidaire was Very Good in our wash test, which uses a full load of very dirty items, and was energy-efficient and easy to operate. Where it fell short was in its middling scores for noise, but if you’re replacing a dishwasher that’s 10 or more years old, you might not find this one particularly loud. It has all-visible controls but lacks an adjustable upper rack and special flatware slots.

    Can’t find this one? Consider these similar models, which should perform the same but may differ in features: the Frigidaire Gallery DGBD2432K, Frigidaire Gallery LGBD2432K (Lowe's), and Frigidaire Gallery BBBD2432K (Best Buy).

    Maytag MDB4409PA[W], $380
    Washing, drying, and efficiency were impressive in this model, and you do get delayed start and ample flatware slots. What you don’t get are hidden controls (a matter of preference) and adjustable tines—helpful if you want to fit a larger item. Yet there’s a bonus: With a 115-minute normal cycle, this machine finishes more quickly than some tested models costing more than $1,600.

    Frigidaire Gallery FGBD2434PF, $400
    This Frigidaire also did fine in our wash test, and it was energy-efficient, too. For drying it was so-so, and it lacks flatware slots and adjustable tines as well as the adjustable upper rack. The Frigidaire Gallery FGBD2432K[W] and its similar models did better overall, but you could do worse for $400.

    Amana ADB1100AWW, $300
    Inexpensive models sometimes lack a soil sensor, which adjusts water and wash time to the turbidity of the water, but this Amana had Very Good washing in our tough tests despite having none. It was also efficient. What you give up for the price is fine drying, ease-of-use, and such features as delayed start, adjustable tines, and hidden controls. But while you might shudder at the plodding 160-minute time to run a normal cycle, note that five models in our tests that cost more than $1,000 took even longer.

    Frigidaire Gallery FGBD2435N[W], $400
    Although this Frigidaire scored the lowest overall of the five, it washed well and efficiently—and has a soil sensor. For flexibility, options include delayed start and adjustable tines. But none of the controls are hidden and the filter is self-cleaning. That means a bit more noise but no filter-cleaning to remember. You also get no flatware slots, just the usual basket.

    Whatever price range you have in mind, you’ll find something to like in our Ratings of 228 dishwashers. Before heading out to the store, remember to look up our dishwasher buying guide.

    —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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    Marvin integrates shades into its windows

    If you’re paying top dollar for windows and doors, you might not want them hidden behind bulky curtains or shades. But some sort of covering is needed to control light flow into the home and to maintain privacy after the sun goes down. That’s the beauty of Marvin’s new fully integrated interior shade systems on display this week at the International Builders’ Show in Las Vegas.

    The made-to-order shades integrate seamlessly with doors and windows, without protruding into the living space or interfering with the hardware. Their top-down or bottom-up operation provides flexible control over how much light enters your home, and from what angle. And the shades are made out of durable, stain-resistant fabric, says Marvin, in 15 colors with options for light-filtering and blackout material. A standard size casement window with interior shades installed will cost between $1,000 and $1,300, compared with $700 to $900 for just the window.

    Marvin is also unveiling an exterior shading system that, like the interior shades, integrates fully into the window frame. It can be programmed by remote control or from any smart phone or computer. That means you could program the shades on the south side of your home to close during mid-day in the summer, minimizing solar heat gain. In the winter, you could then program those same shades to remain open, naturally heating the home. Pricing for the exterior system, including a typical casement and shade, is $3,000-4,000.

    —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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    New tiling system works with any tile you choose

    Installing tile hasn’t been as formidable a project since products like Snapstone and Daltile came along, letting you install tiles bonded to interlocking resin frames for a do-it-yourself floating installation. But one drawback of both lines is that you’re limited to their selection of colors and textures. Replacing tiles is another issue. A new product line, announced in time for this week’s International Builders’ Show, lets you lay 12-inch-square tiles of your choice into a series of interlocking trays. Lay down adhesive, drop in the tile, grout, and you’re done.

    The EZ Tool System, from Bullet Tools, is claimed to work on any hard floor—no prepping or underlayment needed—and the plastic trays conform to slight irregularities in the surface. The grout, once hardened, remains flexible to accommodate the usual flexing of a floating floor. And the trays leave space as necessary for airflow to hinder moisture buildup.

    To install the system, the process is easy: You lock together trays, squeeze out adhesive in a ring where indicated, lay down tiles, and fill the spaces with the grout. If the flooring is less than 12x12-inch square, the company says you can cut down trays using utility scissors with no ill effect on the tray’s integrity or performance. While the product was initially intended for indoor use, the grout’s waterproof properties allow for outdoor installation as well.

    Should you crack a tile, Bullet Tools’ solution is less challenging than other floating-tile products we’ve tested. With the Daltile product, replacing a tile meant pulling up an entire row, putting in a new tile (bonded to its plastic frame), and easing two adjacent rows back down. With Snapstone, you could take out a single broken tile, but you have to snap off the connecting tabs around the replacement tile’s frame, drop the frame in, and grout around the tile. The EZ Tile System lets you instead chip out a cracked tile while leaving the tray in place. You apply more adhesive to the tray, lay down the tile, and grout.

    Bullet Tools hopes to sell the EZ Tile System through big box chains, large flooring retailers, and other sellers. In the meantime, you can contact the company at sales@bullettools.com or 800-406-8998. The expected price is $2 per tray, $8 per tube of adhesive, and $9 for a tube of grout—the ratio is three tubes of adhesive and a tube of grout for 30 trays. According to the company, a 120-square-foot job should cost about $372 plus the cost of the tile you’ve purchased.

    Floating options are increasing for a number of products in our flooring Ratings. Before shopping, though, familiarize yourself with the types of flooring, and what’s new in the market, using our buying guide.

    —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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    Smart thermostats respond to your every command

    Google’s $3.2 billion acquisition of Nest shows how quickly mobile-controlled thermostats are heating up. Now, other big-name brands are getting in on the action in some interesting new ways as discovered at Design & Construction Week in Las Vegas.

    As with the Nest, you can program Honeywell’s Wi-Fi Smart Thermostat from your computer, tablet, or smart phone—handy if you want to turn up the heat before getting home from work or to make sure you didn’t forget to turn down the heat or AC while you’re away.

    And when you’re home, you can literally talk to this thermostat and tell it what to do—a first for these devices. Other features include an easy-to-read color touch screen, automatic alerts if temperatures get especially hot or cold, and an indoor humidity sensor.                

    Honeywell’s Wi-Fi Smart Thermostat costs $300 at Home Depot, Amazon, and Best Buy. The Nest was a top pick in our thermostat tests, though some other models proved easier to use. We’ll see whether this new Honeywell can be convenient without being too complex.

    Then there’s the Lennox iComfort Wi-Fi thermostat, which costs between $300 and $400 installed. As with the Honeywell, it can be controlled from anywhere. Its touch screen has clear prompts, and a weather-on-demand feature includes five-day forecasts. An available zoning system called iHarmony lets you remotely control and vary temperatures in up to four areas of your home—a potential energy-saver—though you’ll need to spend roughly $3,000 to upgrade your home’s ductwork for iHarmony to work.

    With or without iHarmony, the Lennox also makes a style statement, with customizable covers in your choice of artwork, photographs or simply your favorite color.

    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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    Decking offers the look of wood without the work

    Composite decking materials offer the look of wood without the need to stain. And as the material evolves, it continues to take on new colors and textures, as evidenced by several new products launched by Trex and Fiberon at the International Builders’ Show in Las Vegas. If you’re planning a new deck, patio, or other outdoor space, you may want to give these attractive wood alternatives a look.  

    Trex is adding a new light brown color, called Saddle, to its Enhance composite decking collection, which already includes Beach Dune and Clam Shell. The new shade pairs well in both contemporary and traditional settings, says Trex. Pricing is approximately $3 per linear foot, not including installation. The company is also launching an all-in-one spiral staircase made from recycled steel or aluminum content. Pricing begins at around $4,000.

    Fiberon, another big name in wood alternatives, is launching its Good Life line of decking. The product is pre-finished in brown, gray, and cedar, and Fiberon claims an industry leading composite technology that prevents the rotting, warping, and splintering of wood. Maybe the biggest hook with the Good Life decking is its price, which is closer to wood than other composites.

    One thing to remember about composite decking is that it’s often heavier than the usual pine decking. Check out our buying guide on decking materials to learn the various pros and cons of all the options we tested.

    —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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    Is it wise to control appliances by smart phone?

    From cars to garage doors, the list of things you can control with your smart phone is growing fast. That list now includes more home generators and even the kitchen stove. We saw a bevy of smart appliances at Design & Construction Week in Las Vegas.

    A new app lets you control Dacor’s Discovery iQ dual-fuel range and wall oven with a built-in wireless tablet or your own tablet or smart phone. The app sends you Wi-Fi product updates and lets you choose pre-loaded recipes or download your own. The promise? You put in what you’re cooking and do other things until the app texts you that food is ready and switches the oven to warming mode.

    But if texting while driving poses risks, so might remote-control cooking: The app lets you preheat the range and wall oven remotely—but won’t accept commands for full cooking or running the cleaning cycle. It also lowers temperatures to warming mode if you’re delayed. That control comes at a hefty price: $4,300 for the Discovery IQ single wall oven, $7,400 for the double oven and $12,000 for the dual-fuel range.  We’ll see whether Dacor’s  range and wall ovens live up to their lofty prices in our kitchen range tests.

    Kohler’s new OnCue Plus mobile app lets you monitor the brand’s whole-house generators on your phone—and tells you and a servicing dealer if there’s a problem. The new app runs on Apple and android systems and could also help you save energy by checking how much electricity your home is using—even when you’re back on the grid.

    That convenience and control doesn’t come cheap: You’ll pay some $290 a year, including hardware as well as the roughly $40 in annual service fees. But those fees are waived for the first year—and downloading the app is free.

    --Ed Perratore

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    Kohler faucet with sweep spray speeds cleaning

    A new faucet from Kohler, on display at the International Builders' Show, replaces the familiar circular pattern spray with a wide, forceful blade of water. That makes it easier to rinse pans and other large items, in addition to spraying down the sink when the dishes are done. It will be available March 15 in prices ranging from $280 to $675, depending on the choice of faucet and finish.       

    Sweep spray uses specially angled nozzles to create a uniform blade of water. “It gives the user more control that makes the mundane task of kitchen clean-up quick and easy,” said Sarah Fitzsimmons, product manager of Kohler Kitchen Faucets. You’ll find it offered on four existing Kohler faucets: Cruette, Bellera, and Simplice with a three-function sprayhead (sweep, aerated stream and pause) and Sensate with a two-function sprayhead (sweep and aerated stream).

    If you’re remodeling the kitchen, check out our advice for incorporating time-saving features and appliances into the design.   

    —Daniel DiClerico

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    6 secrets of successful meal planning

    Whether you're whipping up a weeknight meal or throwing a multicourse dinner party, good planning is key. It's also what trips people up the most. In our recent report about cooking habits, more than 40 percent of respondents cited "too much planning" as the reason they don't make more meals at home. If you feel similarly, the following tips will help make you a more efficient and effective home cook.

    1. Organize the pantry. "Well-stocked" doesn't mean overflowing; it means having all the basic ingredients at hand. Smart organization will help you keep track of pantry supplies. Consider adding cabinet organizers, such as a lazy Susan or tiered shelf insert, to keep items visible and in their proper place. In our tests of assorted cabinet organizers, we saw big differences in durability and ease of use.

    As for the pantry supplies you keep stocked, that will depend to some extent on the type of cooking you do, but it helps to divide staples into categories, such as condiments, grains, oils and vinegars, etc. (Find the best extra-virgin olive oils from our tests.)           

    2. Save time with strategic menus. Grandma was right: Cooking a substantial dish, like a roast or turkey, on the weekend sets the stage for progressive dining during the days to come. Because at least one element of the meal is already cooked, these weekday meals are more about speedy assembly than from-scratch preparation. For example: Sunday's roast chicken can be transformed into tacos, and later into sandwich fillings or a salad topping.

    3. Consider online supermarkets. If your mantra is "time is money,: grocery home-delivery services like Peapod and FreshDirect might merit a look. While they do free you from walking the aisles in person, that convenience comes at a cost. There are minimum-order requirements and the delivery charges are often prorated on this basis. Fuel surcharges, which vary by geographical location, are also often part of the deal. Canceling or changing an order can be tricky, and incur additional fees.

    On the plus side, most services accept (and may even double) manufacturers' coupons. Signing up—and paying—for a premium membership may eliminate per-use delivery charges, a significant savings for regular users. Make the most of your online grocery-shopping experience.

    4. Use efficient equipment. Households large and small will benefit from work-saving countertop appliances. Slow cookers, for example, can free you from the kitchen for hours at a time. The models we tested turned out tasty spare ribs, pulled pork, honey chicken wings, and apple brown Betty. Prices, which ranged from $40 to $250, didn't predict performance.

    A top-rated immersion blender can eliminate the messy extra step of transferring hot soup to a conventional blender for pureeing. Beware of overkill, though, and scale the tool to the task: If all you need is a half cup of shredded cheese, don't break out the food processor—a box grater will do. See which kitchen gadgets, including graters, peelers, and zesters, aced our tests.

    5. Know the ingredient substitutions. There’s no such thing as a "quick" run to the store when you're in the middle of getting dinner on the table. North Dakota State University has compiled a list of ingredient substitutions that might be helpful if you unexpectedly find yourself short on essentials such as flour, eggs, or milk.

    6. Plan for future kitchen upgrades. If you're considering a kitchen remodel, avail yourself of the latest technologies and designs intended to streamline life in the kitchen. Electric induction cooktops heat faster than conventional electric smoothtops, as well as gas burners, according to our latest report on these cooking appliances. Convection fans can shave substantial minutes off cooking times in the oven. A top-scoring double oven, whether on the wall or in a range, can break a baking or roasting logjam. And we were mostly impressed with the time-saving potential of several new steam ovens.

    —Leslie Clagett

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    Frozen dinners get the steam treatment

    “Freshly steams in minutes,” the Lean Cuisine package says about its latest garlic chicken. “Uses the power of steam to cook flavorful Seven Whole Grain pasta in just minutes,” Kashi says of its new three-cheese ravioli. But are those steamable meals any different from standard frozen entrées?  We decided to put 10 to the test.

    The packaging is clearly different. Kashi and Lean Cuisine use vented plastic bags that release steam during cooking. Healthy Choice and Marie Callender’s have a steamer basket that sits inside a sauce bowl. Cooking times for most were 4 to 5½ minutes—about what it takes to heat conventional frozen entrées.

    Flavor and texture were also what you’d expect from a typical frozen meal: tasty, but not off-the-charts. Lean Cuisine’s garlic chicken has large white chicken pieces and flavorful vegetables, Kashi’s sesame chicken offers a nice mix of chewy whole grains, and Marie Callender’s three-cheese tortellini has a soft cheese filling and decent tomato sauce. With the others, pasta could be hard in spots and the chicken could be dry.

    Nutritional profiles were comparable, too, with most steamable meals receiving the same very good scores we’ve seen with many diet meals. But if you’re counting calories or following a low-sodium diet, check the labels, because we did note some variations there.

    Bottom line

    Steamable meals offer a fast and fairly tasty and healthful dinner for one. But any suggestion that they’re reinventing frozen entrées is just a lot of hot air.

    This article appeared in the February 2013 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.

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    How to save when buying a washer and dryer

    If you had to put a price tag on a new washer and dryer, how high would you go? When Yahoo posted an article from Consumer Reports on impressive laundry pairs for $1,600 or less, readers made hundreds of comments—some said that was way too much money to pay for these two workhorses. A matching pair should last about a decade before an expensive part blows, according to several appliance manufacturers, but even so you have to pay now, wash later. Here are some ways to save money when shopping for laundry appliances.

    Hunt online for deals. Look for rebates and special offers from manufacturers and retailers. Check for Energy Star washer rebates; we found one for $75. Not bad. Some manufacturers sell overstocked and discontinued washers and dryers through their outlet sites. On the Whirlpool outlet website, which sells Whirlpool, Maytag, and Amana appliances, we found a top-loader, the Whirpool WTW4900AW, for $390. It’s usually around $600 and while it didn’t make our top picks list, it was impressive at cleaning and gentle on fabrics, has a large capacity, and normal wash time on the heavy soil setting was 55 minutes. But like many models in this price range, it’s relatively noisy. This washer doesn’t have a center-post agitator and uses a lot less water than a regular top-loader, but was just so-so at extracting water and that affects drying time.
     
    We also saw the Maytag MEDX500XW electric dryer for $419, a savings of about $130. It didn’t make our top picks list but was excellent at drying and has a large capacity, although it wasn’t as convenient to use as some and relatively noisy. Of course, you might not care about the noise if your washer and dryer are in the basement. Before choosing a laundry applaince, check our washer and dryer Ratings or to see how these outlet models did in our tests. They’re only a bargain if they do their job.

    Practice your negotiating. When we surveyed 2,000 American adults about their haggling habits, we found that successful appliance negotiators saved $200 on average. Savvy negotiators know that politeness, friendliness, and a smile are harder to resist than tough talk. Here are some of the tips they shared in "13 ways to get to yes." And keep in mind that delivery and installation costs can add up, so ask about both before haggling and consider hiring a pro you know to install the appliance.

    Consider these top-loaders. First, the good news. You can find a large capacity high-efficiency top-loader that uses a lot less water than a conventional top-loader yet is impressive at cleaning and costs $600 or less. We found five washers from Maytag, Kenmore and Whirlpool that fit the bill, but all five are relatively noisy. Here are the details.

    Check out these dryers. The Whirlpool Cabrio WED5800BW is $700 and a CR Best Buy. It was superb at drying, has a large capacity, and is relatively quiet. We expect a similar model, the $600 Whirlpool Cabrio WED5500BW, to perform similarly, although it may differ in features. The $600 Maytag MEDE200X[W] didn’t make our top picks but was impressive in all our tests and is relatively quiet. Gas dryers cost anywhere from $80 to $150 more. When shopping for a dryer while trying to save money, pass on a thermostat model and choose a dryer with a moisture sensor. It will do a better job detecting when your laundry is dry and stop the machine. That’s easier on fabrics and saves money.

    Impressive pairs for $1,600 or less. Now about those matching pairs. In our report "Top-rated matching washers and dryers," we found four sets that were impressive in our tests and range in price from $1,400 to $1,600. And yes, some are relatively noisy. For a quieter couple, you’ll have to pay so take the opportunity to try out your haggling skills.

    —Kimberly Janeway

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    Bosch cooking gear has common-sense features

    When it comes to kitchen appliances, convenience is increasingly synonymous with high-tech mobile control. But some new work-saving features are more about good old-fashioned common sense as we discovered when we saw some new appliances from Bosch at Design & Construction Week in Las Vegas.

    Take the door on Bosch’s 30-inch Benchmark electric wall oven: Instead of opening downward, this one opens to the side like a microwave’s. That’s an advantage when you’re cooking a big roast because you don't have to lift it over a hot door. The price is about $3,000 for a single oven, $4,600 for a double oven,  including a convection feature.

    Then there’s Bosch’s Benchmark FlexInduction cooktop. Like other induction cooktops, it uses an electromagnetic field that sends most of the heat to the pot or pan. That’s made induction ranges and cooktops the fastest in our cooking appliance tests. Unlike other induction cooktops, this one lets you combine two cooking zones into one large one to accommodate outsized roasting pans, griddles, or a big lobster pot.

    You’ll pay about $2,350 for the 30-inch FlexInduction and $3,100 for the 36-inch cooktop. And as with any induction range or cooktop, add in the cost of new cookware if yours isn’t magnetic, which is essential for induction cooking.

    —Kimberly Janeway

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    Water-saving Niagara toilet has a hushed flush

    Dual-flush toilets with one setting for what we’ll politely call solid waste and another for liquid use less water, at least in theory. But many toilets tested by Consumer Reports have struggled with the rough stuff and were noisy to boot. Niagara’s Stealth dual-flush toilet promises to be quiet and powerful and to use far less water per flush. The toilet was on display at Design & Construction Week in Las Vegas.

    Toilets must use no more than 1.28 gallons of water per flush to get the WaterSense designation from the Environmental Protection Administration. Niagara clams just .95 gallons per flush for solid waste—and a mere .5 gallons for liquid waste. That’s roughly half as much water used by the most efficient toilets in Consumer Reports’ toilet tests.

    Niagara credits a patented hydraulic technology for those benefits: Pushing the lever allows air in the tank’s inner chamber to push down on the water, depressurizing the trapway below. A vacuum effect pulls water and waste from the bowl into the trapway without the loud “whoosh” typically associated with pressure-assist toilets.

    Made of white vitreous china, the toilet is available in round or elongated shapes—and both stand at the 17-inch “comfort height” more homeowners are choosing.

    The Niagara Stealth toilet costs $350 online and at local plumbing stores.  We look forward to testing this toilet to see if it can handle our series of tough tasks. Meanwhile, you’ll find a winning selection of toilets in our toilet Ratings.

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