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Consumer Reports

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    Finally, the lowly dryer can reach for Energy Star

    It took a while, but soon you’ll see Energy Star dryers in the appliance aisle—perhaps as early as this summer. Energy Star dryers will use on average about 20 percent less energy than dryers that meet the Department of Energy’s 2015 minimum efficiency standards. Here’s why that's a good thing.
     
    Dryers use more energy than washers to get the job done and were the most energy-intensive appliance not covered by the Energy Star program. That’s because dryers have traditionally used similar amounts of energy, according to Energy Star, and without impressive differences in energy use, there is no Star. But finally dryer technology is evolving.
     
    Moisture sensors have been around for years and are more accurate than a thermostat in determining when laundry is dry. Dryers with moisture sensors use less energy by shutting themselves off as soon as the laundry is dry. Energy Star says that dryers meeting their requirements are likely to have advanced sensors.

    And then there are heat pump dryers and their impressive energy-saving claims. Heat pump dryers are popular in Europe but LG will be the first manufacturer to bring them to the U.S. We’ll buy and test the LG EcoHybrid DLHX4072 electric dryer as soon as it comes to stores this summer. LG says energy use is cut by around 50 percent using the most efficient settings. The EcoHybrid combines conventional vented drying with a heat pump to cut energy use by recycling heat generated during drying. But this dryer isn’t cheap. It will cost about $1,600.
     
    Whether a dryer is gas or electric, standard size or compact, manufacturers can shoot for the Star, but most dryers will not meet the requirements, says Abigail Daken of Energy Star, and models earning Energy Star status will probably cost over $700. You can expect to save about $18 a year in energy costs with an Energy Star electric dryer—around $217 if you keep the dryer 12 years—or $9 annually with a gas model, compared to a dryer that meets the DOE’s 2015 minimum efficiency standard.
     
    We’ll let you know which dryers earn the Energy Star as they come out. Until then, use our Ratings of dozens of electric and gas dryers to find a dryer that meets your budget and your needs.
     
    —Kimberly Janeway

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers or sponsors on this website. Copyright © 2006-2014 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Air conditioners that keep you and your wallet cool

    With temperatures rising, one thing’s for certain: your utility bill will, too. Now’s a good time, before the thermometer hits triple digits, to assess your cooling needs for the summer. At the very least you should check and clean your equipment, whether you cool your home with central air, room air conditioners, or good, old-fashioned ceiling fans.

    If you’re replacing an old room or central air conditioner, the choices on the market today are likely to be more energy efficient than what you have. But don’t buy too little or too much—getting a cooling system that is the wrong size is the most common mistake people make, regardless of the type. Underestimate your cooling needs and you could be hot and sticky and still increase your electric bills. Buy more capacity than you need and you may wind up with a cool, damp space.

    To keep your cool, get the best performing and most reliable equipment. Consumer Reports has new Ratings of window air conditioners, and this year we talked to 34,000 readers about the reliability of their central air conditioning systems. We learned what made readers hot under the collar and which systems cooled when called upon. During our research and testing, we discovered which units to buy and which to avoid.

    Although more and more homes have central air conditioning, about 6.5 million window units are sold each year. Our latest tests of small, medium, and large window air conditioners found that all were excellent at cooling. What distinguished the best from the rest was quiet operation, convenient controls, and whether they kept working under brownout conditions. All of our top picks exceed federal Energy Star standards and use at least 10 percent less energy than conventional models. Those energy-savers often include other features, such as timers, digital displays, remote controls, and directional vents, which coax the most comfort from the machine.
     
    How to choose
    Before going to the store, determine the size of the space you need to cool and where you’ll place the unit. An air conditioner that's too small won't cool the room. One that's too big will cool so quickly that it won’t have time to remove enough moisture, leaving your room cold and clammy.
     
    Get the right size. When calculating the size of the air conditioner you'll need, take into account not only the size of the room to be cooled but whether the unit will be placed in a window that gets shade or direct sunlight, the height of the ceilings, and even the part of the country where you live. The Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers has a worksheet on its website that will help you make the right determination. All you need to get started is a tape measure, a scratch pad, and a calculator.

    Assess the airflow. Air conditioners generally do a better job blowing air in one direction than the other. To uniformly cool a room, you'll need to ensure that air is distributed throughout. When the window air conditioner is located near a corner, it must be able to direct air to the center, so check whether your air conditioner needs to blow air to the right or to the left.

    How quiet? If the unit is going to be placed in a bedroom or another quiet area, check our Ratings for noise. Models that scored excellent or very good in our noise tests are so quiet that the only sound you might hear is the fan running. But air conditioners that scored fair or worse for noise could disturb light sleepers when set on low and are distracting on high.
     
    Our latest tests of almost three dozen room air conditioners include an $550 model that cools superbly and quietly, and even comes in colors that match the drapes. But you don’t have to spend a lot to cool down as the mercury climbs; other top performers start at $175.

    Installation
    If you’re planning to install the air conditioner yourself, consider buying one with a slide-out chassis. That way you can attach the cabinet and adjustable side curtains to the window before sliding in the heavy working parts of the machine. One person can do it, but it’s easier with two.
     
    Check the electricity. Before installing an air conditioner, be sure that the electrical circuit to the room can handle the electrical load of the unit. Read the owner's manual; larger models usually need a dedicated circuit. Never use an extension cord with an air conditioner.
     
    Secure the unit. Always use the manufacturer's safety hardware, such as sash locks and mounting brackets. Unless the manufacturer's directions say otherwise, the window air conditioner should be level from left to right and pitched slightly toward the outdoors so water that condenses on the evaporator drains properly to the rear of the unit and doesn't leak into the home. Seal around the perimeter of the unit with new weatherstripping.

    Maintenance
    A clean machine will keep you cool and cost less to run. Plan on a thorough cleaning before and after the cooling season and regular filter checks during the season.

    Clean or replace dirty filters. You’ll need to clean the filter regularly. Depending on how much time the unit is actually operating and how clean the air is, cleaning may be needed every few weeks to monthly during the cooling season. With that in mind, make sure you determine how easy it is to remove the filter when selecting a new unit—some are trickier than others. Remove debris with a vacuum then wash the filter in warm, soapy water; be sure filters are dry before you reinstall them. Replace damaged filters.

    Vacuum coils and fins. When the filter is removed for cleaning, it's also a good time to check the surface of the evaporator coil, which will now be visible. If there is dust or debris on the surface, gently remove it. Taking care not to deform the soft fins, use an upholstery-brush attachment to vacuum the coils. If your unit has a slide-out chassis, you will usually have good access to the condenser coil when the chassis is removed from the cabinet. That's a good time to inspect and clean any debris off that coil.

    Seal the perimeter. Be sure to seal any air leaks around the unit.

    Avoid "short cycling.” Though most models with electronic controls now have built-in timers to prevent the unit from restarting immediately after shut-down, those with the “old-style” mechanical controls may not. Wait 5 minutes after shutting off the unit to restart it. That allows pressure in the refrigeration system to equalize, avoiding stress on the compressor.

    If your room has only one window or if window units aren’t allowed in your building, a portable air conditioner might seem like an ideal solution. But our past tests found that portables weren’t as good at cooling as manufacturers claim. Plus they’re pricey and use more energy than similarly sized window units. And because all the mechanical parts are sitting in the room, they can be noisy.
     
    Even portable models with dual hoses, which vent through a window, weren’t impressive. One hose brings air in from the outside to cool the condenser, and the other hose directs heated and moisture-laden air back outside. Dual-hose units did a slightly better job cooling off our test chamber than the single-hose models we tested, but their performance fell far short of similarly sized window units.
     
    If a portable is your only option, choose a dual-hose model. But in our tests, even those models produced less cooling than they claimed and didn’t cool the room to our required temperature. And rolling 85-pound “portables” around on carpeting isn’t for weaklings.

    Consumer Reports asked 40,000 readers about central air conditioning systems purchased between 2005 and mid-2011. Based on their experiences, you may want to give three brands the cold shoulder. All logged the most repairs in our latest reliability surveys. The good news: Choosing one of the more reliable brands can boost the odds that you’ll keep comfortable.

    How to choose
    Adding a central cooling system to your home can be relatively straightforward if you already have ductwork. But not all ductwork is equal, and duct systems that were originally designed for a heating system may not be able to handle the air volume required by a cooling system. Another obstacle can be the placement of supply registers. Systems originally designed only for heating might have registers placed in the floor or located low on the walls—good locations for heating but not the best choice for cooling. The less obvious issue is the amount of air being provided to each room, which really determines the amount of heating or cooling being supplied. For example, some rooms may actually require additional supply outlets in order to deliver the necessary cooling air in summer, which would likely make them too warm in the winter.
     
    Your contractor should use a duct-sizing method such as the Air Conditioning Contractors of America (ACCA) Manual D to make sure that the main plenums and all the supply ducts are adequately sized and properly constructed. Further, the system must have the proper number and location of supply registers to deliver sufficient air to the right spots. Leaky or uninsulated ducts can reduce system efficiency considerably. In fact, one of the most beneficial improvements to a ducted system is to have it properly sealed and insulated. If your home doesn’t have ducts, adding them can be expensive and messy, though that is the best option when cooling an entire home.
     
    When replacing or upgrading a central air system, don’t automatically buy the same-sized system. Any changes you’ve made to improve your home’s energy efficiency, such as replacing windows or adding insulation, can reduce your cooling needs. On the other hand, if you’ve added rooms, you might need more cooling.
     
    Have your contractor do a load calculation based on a recognized method, such as Manual J from the ACCA. The contractor’s evaluation should include whether the ducts need to be resized, sealed, and insulated, or replaced. Remember that an indoor evaporator coil and an outdoor condenser must be a matched set, or the performance, efficiency, and capacity claims might not be accurate. After the required cooling capacity has been determined, focus on installation.

    Installation
    Replacing central air conditioning equipment, especially components that are more than 15 years old, can result in energy savings. And if you choose an Energy Star qualified model, you can save even more—but savings will only be realized when a new matched system is correctly installed. A matched system is one in which the indoor evaporator or fan coil and the outdoor condensing unit were meant to be installed together—the manufacturer considers the two components a system with its own unique efficiency rating. If you allow a contractor to install an unmatched set, your home has essentially become a test site and your contractor is the system designer. Though the system may function, it's unlikely to deliver the claimed efficiency that was based on a matched set.
     
    Beyond the cooling hardware, there are other important issues that a good contractor will address in the installation. Under- or overcharging the refrigerant on even a matched indoor/outdoor split system can cause a loss of capacity, efficiency, or both, so proper system charging is critical. Likewise, the proper amount of airflow across the indoor coil (evaporator) is critical for proper operation. Finally, if the air is allowed to leak from supply or return ducts, those leaks will have a significant impact on the operating efficiency and costs. So ensuring that system ducts are properly sealed and insulated is one of the most important improvements you can make.
     
    Finding the right contractor is often a challenge. North American Technician Excellence (NATE) offers a certification program for contractors focusing on specific skill areas. Contractors who participate in that voluntary program differentiate themselves from their competitors. You can also find an installer at contractor associations such as the Air Conditioning Contractors of America. Energy Star follows the ACCA guidelines and recommends the following:
     
    Size the unit properly. Installing equipment that is the correct size is essential for getting the best performance. Bigger isn't always better—a system actually operates best when each component is properly sized. Oversized equipment may cycle on and off more frequently, which can make the home less comfortable and shorten the equipment’s life. Larger capacity cooling equipment requires greater airflow. If the duct system was not sized for that flow, it can become noisy or restrict the flow, causing performance or operational problems.
     
    Seal ducts. Ducts circulate air from the central air conditioner or heat pump throughout the house. The duct system is actually many individual pieces, meaning there are lots of seams and joints. Without sealing, air escapes from those cracks, sending your heated or cooled air directly outdoors, which is not a good use of your energy dollars. Sealing ducts can greatly improve the efficiency of your system.
     
    Optimize airflow. Every evaporator or fan coil is designed to have a specific amount of airflow to meet its efficiency and capacity claims. A duct system that is too small can restrict airflow, which not only negatively impacts efficiency and capacity but can cause operational problems as well. Too high of an airflow is not good either, as it can mean a noisy system.
     
    Check the refrigerant. It's important for a central air system to have the correct amount of refrigerant, or correct refrigerant charge. An improperly charged system may consume more energy and provide less cooling capacity.

    Maintenance
    One of the best ways to keep your air conditioner humming is to keep it clean. That means changing the filters regularly and making sure that no debris accumulates around the outside unit. Here’s some guidance from our experts.

    Call a pro. Have a licensed professional clean and flush the coils, drain pan, and drainage system; vacuum the blower compartments; and check the refrigerant charge and mechanical components.

    Seal and insulate ductwork. Make sure that ducts are sealed and insulated. Up to 40 percent of cooling energy can be lost due to leaks or when uninsulated ducts pass through uncooled spaces such as attics.

    Conduct seasonal checks. Clear debris and keep vegetation at least 2 feet away from the outdoor unit. Clean indoor grills and filters monthly.

    Use a programmable thermostat. You can reduce cooling costs by up to 20 percent by programming the thermostat to raise the temperature when you’re at work and lower it when you return home. Consider using a ceiling, table, or floor fan in occupied rooms so that you can set the thermostat to a higher temperature. For every degree you raise the setpoint, you will save about 2 percent on your cooling costs. And remember, don’t operate a fan in an unoccupied room. That just wastes energy because the breeze doesn’t cool the room, it cools people.

    If you live in an older home or one in which it would be difficult to install the ductwork for a central air system, there is another alternative to getting window units. Split ductless systems are similar to central air but need no ductwork. They have an outside condenser and one to four indoor units with blowers mounted high on the wall. Tubing connects the parts and circulates refrigerant. The tubing, along with an electric and drain line, is usually run through a 3-inch hole hidden behind the indoor unit. Each indoor unit cools the room in which it’s installed and has its own remote control.
     
    The systems we tested in the past had a single indoor unit, did an excellent cooling job, and were much quieter than window air conditioners. When they were set on low, they were barely audible. The systems were about 12,000 Btu/hr., enough to cool roughly 650 square feet, and handled brownouts with ease. And they all used an eco-friendly refrigerant.
     
    Split ductless systems are more expensive than window air conditioners, and professional installation is recommended, but it’s a way to add cooling without tearing up walls to install ducts. A drawback is the large indoor unit (evaporator and fan) that must be mounted on the wall in the room being cooled. The systems can be a good choice when you're only cooling a few rooms. But if you plan to cool many rooms, the cost can increase significantly, often making a ducted system the better choice.

    Ceiling fans cool you, not the room, and they don’t remove humidity. But they’re generally inexpensive to buy and run, whether you use them alone or with air conditioning. And with a little help, you can install one yourself. When shopping for a ceiling fan, you’ll find models that conjure images from old movies and versions that are more modern. In the past we found that although pricier fans had fancier finishes, they didn’t necessarily provide better performance. What’s more, most fans performed similarly in our air-movement tests.
     
    How to choose
    A 52-inch-diameter fan is ideal for rooms that are 225 to 400 square feet. Pick a 42- to 44-inch fan for 144 to 225 square feet. If your room size is on the border, choose a larger fan and run it on a slower speed. In our past tests, ceiling fans with the most airflow were the noisiest, although it was wind noise and fluttering, not a whirring motor. And fans with blades that have ridges, bumps, or other surface texture were often noisier on high than those with smooth blades.
     
    Motor. Most ceiling fan motors have sealed and lubricated ball bearings. The lubrication provides smooth operation and contributes to the longevity of the motor, which requires little or no maintenance. Higher-priced models usually offer higher-quality motors, which provide quieter operation and can stand up to longer periods of operation.
     
    Motor housing. The housing is the decorative body of the fan that encloses the fan motor. Fans that use heavier material, such as die-cast metals, tend to vibrate less, provide more stability, and make a good surface for high-quality finishes.

    Blade. The pitch of the blade is measured in degrees. Higher blade pitches move more air per revolution, but a higher pitch is not always better because it affects noise and motor power requirements. Blades should be sealed from moisture to prevent warping, bubbling, and peeling. High-quality blades are weighed and balanced prior to shipment and come in factory-matched sets with specific mounting systems. For that reason, blades from one fan cannot be switched with blades in other fans. Doing so can create a safety hazard.
     
    Controls. Most residential ceiling fans (and all Energy Star qualified fans) feature the ability to reverse the motor and airflow direction, allowing you to operate the fan year-round. They’re usually sold with a remote control.

    Installation
    No matter how handy you are, you’ll probably want an electrician to install your ceiling fan. Here’s what Energy Star recommends.

    Use an appropriate electrical box. When hanging the fan, make sure you use the appropriate listed box, marked “For Use With Ceiling Fans.” That outlet box is mounted above the ceiling and houses all the wiring needed to support and connect the fan. If you are replacing a light fixture, you’ll probably need to replace the electrical box.

    Balancing a fan. All fan blades should be balanced prior to shipment; however, if the fan is wobbly after installation, there are ways to fix it. First, make sure that all connections are properly aligned and tightly fastened. If the blades still wobble, use the balancing kit (clips and blade weights) that came with the fan.

    Maintenance
    A ceiling fan that is covered with dust or pollen can fling those offending particles around the room when it's in use. And if you have a fan in the kitchen, cooking grease can make it a dust magnet. That’s why it’s important to keep the fan clean, especially if you use it year-round. Doing so requires a ladder, an all-purpose cleaner, and some elbow grease.
     
    Cover the floor. Spread drop cloths or old sheets on the floor and over any furniture that's under the fan. Try to cover an area about twice as wide as the fan. Position the ladder so that you can see the top of the blades. Remove any globes and hand-wash them in the sink.
     
    Dust then wash. First remove loose dust with a cloth or duster. Then moisten a cloth or sponge with an all-purpose cleaner—don’t spray liquid on the fan—and wash each blade. Don’t apply heavy pressure, which can bend the blades and cause the fan to not work properly. Dry thoroughly; damp blades attract dust.
     
    Cool tools. There are special fan-cleaning cloths and tools on the market, and a few cleaning websites recommend using an old pillowcase, slipping it over each blade and then pulling it back to remove dust and dirt. If cleaning the ceiling fan is a chore you hate, try waxing the blades with car wax to prevent dust from sticking.

    The average home spends almost 20 percent of its utility bill on cooling, according to Energy Star. But there are ways to save even on hot summer days. A good strategy may be to use air conditioning and ceiling fans in concert. Instead of setting the air conditioner at 74° F to 76° F, raise the temperature to 78° F and let the fans do the rest. Each degree you lower the thermostat increases cooling costs by 2 percent. Here are some simple moves you can make that are recommended by our experts and the Environmental Protection Agency.

    Switch to energy-saving lightbulbs.
    Less than 10 percent of the energy used by an incandescent bulb produces light; the rest escapes as heat. That’s one reason energy-wasting bulbs are being phased out. Energy Star qualified lighting not only uses less energy but also produces less heat, reducing your cooling costs.
     
    Set the thermostat. Use a programmable thermostat or the timer on a window unit to program cooling around your schedule. Avoid cooling an empty house by setting the thermostat a few degrees higher when no one is home and timing your window unit to go on an hour or so before you arrive.
     
    Use ceiling fans. Run the ceiling fan to create a cool breeze. If you raise the thermostat five degrees and use a ceiling fan, you can lower cooling costs by around 10 percent. Remember that a ceiling fan cools you, not the room, so turn it off when you go into another room.
     
    Pull the shades. Close the curtains and shades before you leave home to keep the sun’s rays from overheating the interior. If you don’t have natural shade, move container trees and plants in front of sun-exposed windows.
     
    Reduce oven time. Use a microwave instead of an oven to cook when you can. Ovens take longer to cook food and add heat to your home, working at odds with your air conditioning system. If you have a gas grill outside, consider using that.
     
    Check air conditioner filters. Check your cooling system’s air filter every month. If the filter looks dirty, change it. A dirty filter will slow airflow and make the system work harder.
     
    Plug leaky ducts. As much as 40 percent of your heating and cooling energy can be lost due to leaks and lack of insulation. Seal ductwork using mastic sealant or metal tape and insulate all the ducts that you can access (such as those in attics, crawl spaces, unfinished basements, and garages). Also make sure that connections at vents and registers are well sealed where they meet floors, walls, and ceilings. Those are common places to find leaks and disconnected ductwork.
     
    Work with your utility company. Many utility companies offer rebates to homeowners who upgrade their cooling systems with energy-efficient equipment. Some also offer homeowners free programmable thermostats or discounts and rebates to use an outdoor digital cycling unit (DCU) that “talks to” the utility via radio signals. When the electrical grid gets stressed during heat waves, the utility cycles your central air conditioner’s compressor on and off to decrease demand. Your home may get a little warmer, but it’s better than a blackout.

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers or sponsors on this website. Copyright © 2006-2014 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Size up your generator needs for hurricane season

    Home Depot sells a lot of things that you need to prepare for a hurricane or to clean up afterwards but this Saturday it’s giving away something for free—advice. At 700 stores in 19 states, the home improvement store is offering hurricane preparedness workshops to help homeowners get ready for a possible storm. As we wrote earlier this month, forecasters are expecting a milder hurricane season this year but even one tropical storm can inflict a lot of damage.

    On the agenda Saturday will be how to size a generator and use it safely. The experts at Consumer Reports say to pick a model with a wattage at least equal to the total of what you're powering. Manufacturers also suggest totaling the higher surge watts some appliances draw when they cycle on. A small portable, up to 4,000 watts, can typically power a refrigerator, sump pump, microwave, TV, and a few lights but you may want more oomph than that. Here are some recommended generators from our tests ranging from medium to large.

    Midsized portable or small stationary, 5,000 to 8,500 watts
    What it powers. Everything that a small model can power plus a portable heater (1,300 watts), computer (250 watts), heating system (500 watts), second pump (600 watts), and more lights (400 watts).
    Recommended portable. Troy-Bilt XP7000 30477, $900. This 7,000-watt, gasoline-powered portable generator was tops in our tests. Helpful features include electric start, fuel shut-off (which prevents leaks), low-oil shutdown, a 9-gallon tank for an average 15 hours of run time, and a fuel gauge. One caveat: It's noisy.
    Recommended stationary. Kohler 8.5 RES-QS7, $3,200. Stationary generators turn themselves on and off when needed and run on propane or natural gas for longer runtime and safer fueling. The Kohler delivered smooth, steady power and offers 7,000 watts with natural gas and 8,500 using propane. It was also among the quietest of the stationary models we tested, and it shuts down automatically if the engine-oil level gets low. On the downside, it's pricey and requires professional installation.

    Large stationary, 10,000 to 15,000 watts
    What it powers. Everything you can run with a midsized model plus a choice of small water heater (3,000 watts), central air conditioner (5,000 watts), electric range (5,000 watts), clothes washer (1,200 watts), or electric dryer (5,000 watts).
    Recommended model. Generac 6241, $3,500. This stationary generator was top-notch at providing ample, smooth power with consistent voltage. Generac claims the unit supplies 13,000 watts using natural gas and an additional 1,000 using propane. It also comes with a transfer switch, needed for safe operation. Among features are fuel shutoff, low-oil shutoff with an indicator, and electric start.

    The best generators from our tests
    For more capable models see our full generator Ratings and recommendations. The Home Depot workshops will be offered from 10 AM to 12 PM at select stores in the following states: Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Maine and the District of Columbia. You can register on the Home Depot website.

    Can’t make it? Then read our Storm and Emergency Guide and Generator Buying Guide.

    —Mary H.J. Farrell

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers or sponsors on this website. Copyright © 2006-2014 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    The perfect kitchen for entertaining and every day

    The open kitchen is more popular than ever—but with a twist. It’s now designed to accommodate parties, homework, and even multiple cooks. And many electronic devices are finding a new home in the kitchen.

    Despite all of the benefits of the social kitchen, creating one can be a challenge. That’s where our 2014 Kitchen Remodeling Guide comes in. Want to know which floors hold up best to heavy foot traffic? Our flooring buying guide can help. Looking for a whisper-quiet dishwasher that won’t drown out the after-dinner conversation? Check our dishwasher buying guide and Ratings.

    Before you delve into the product reports, read our essential steps to creating a truly social kitchen, along with our advice for hiring professionals, planning the budget, and sidestepping those trends that haven’t stood the test of time.

    1. Open up the space—with care (shown above). Be judicious about how many barriers you eliminate. “Too many pathways moving through the space will lead to chaos,” says Sharon Olsen, a certified kitchen designer in Portland, Ore. Using half-walls or arched openings can create a sense of openness while maintaining traffic flow.

    It’s also important to visually integrate the kitchen with the rest of the home. “The latest iteration of the open kitchen sees it as an  ‘interior design’ feature within a larger living/dining space,” says Erica Broberg Smith, an architect based in East Hampton, N.Y. Color can be a great connector. Repeat a hue from the living room in your choice of artwork on the kitchen walls, for example, or the color of your countertop appliances.

    Shown counterclockwise, above:

    2. Create activity areas. Establishing zones will help organize the space, especially in multicook kitchens. The layout should steer children away from the main work triangle, formed by the refrigerator, range, and dishwasher and sink.

    Put a beverage and snack station toward the public-facing edge of the kitchen. That helps keep kids—and guests—away from the hot stove and sharp knives. The station might take the shape of a wet bar, with a wine chiller and sink. Or the emphasis could be on coffee and snacks, with a coffeemaker, a cabinet for cups and mugs, and a refrigerator drawer for milk and juice boxes.

    If you love to bake, add a baking station. Unlike the other zones, this one should be near the oven, with room for baking supplies and equipment, and a marble countertop for rolling out dough.
     
    3. Contain the mess. Some homeowners resist an open kitchen because they don’t want guests staring at messy pots and pans. But there are ways around the dilemma. In the kitchen featured here, a peripheral cleanup zone, with sink, dishwasher, and expansive landing area for dirty dishes, helps keep the mess off to the side during dinner parties; a second island prep sink serves the main work triangle. Another strategy is to add a raised bar to the  “public” side of a kitchen island. That will give guests a place to perch during meal prep, then homeowners can hide the mess from view once dinner is under way. An island bar also provides seating during casual meals.

    4. Create a drop zone. When the kitchen is the nucleus of the home, it can become a dumping ground for papers, bags, jackets, and the like. A well-appointed “drop zone,” usually located just off the kitchen, will provide a place for those items so that they won’t enter the kitchen in the first place. If space permits, consider a full-sized mudroom with a durable flooring material, such as stone or ceramic; open shelves with baskets assigned to each family member; and plenty of hooks. A hallway closet can also be converted into a functional drop zone, especially in smaller households.

    Shown left to right, above:

    5. Bring back the eat-in kitchen. Casual dining is integral to the social kitchen, and it’s good for resale value too. In fact, the eat-in kitchen was among the most desired features in a 2013 survey of homebuyers by the National Association of Realtors. Built-in banquettes are making a comeback. “Children love them, and they are great for cozy informal dining,” says Broberg. They’re also a place to pay the bills and do the homework (or at least see that it gets done). And the base of a banquette can provide additional storage space for napkins, tablecloths, and other accessories.

    Add an island. This central counter will give people a place to sit while you’re preparing the meal. Just don’t let it clog traffic. There should be 42 to 48 inches of clearance on all sides.

    When entertaining, an island can function as an interactive buffet. “Food has gone from something you serve at a party to something you do at a party,” says Steven Raichlen, author of “Man Made Meals: The Essential Cookbook for Guys.” Mindy Weiss, a party planner based in Los Angeles, likes to arrange salad bars, panini stations, and other dishes on the island that bring guests into the food-prep experience. Another crowd pleaser: Fill an island prep sink with ice and use it for a raw bar or a place to serve chilled drinks.

    6. Build in charging stations. For many people the kitchen is where their electronic devices live. Charging stations can be tucked into a cabinet or drawer that’s fitted with docks and electrical outlets. If you need to charge only a couple of devices, Leviton and other manufacturers make electrical outlets with built-in USB ports that can be installed in a kitchen backsplash, letting you power your smart phone while running the blender or stand mixer.

    Other measures to consider

    Let your devices talk to each other. In the last year Dacor and GE have introduced wall ovens and ranges that you can control and monitor from your smart phone, for example preheating the oven from the backyard or checking the status of a roast chicken while you’re doing laundry. “In that sense technology is actually freeing up the cook from being in the kitchen,” says Shelia Schmitz, editor of Houzz.com, a home design website. Given how much time we’re spending in today’s social kitchen, an occasional break might be a good thing.
    Pay attention to acoustics. The drawback to open kitchens is noise. “With the hardwood floors and stone countertops that everyone wants, it can sound like a restaurant on Saturday night,” Olsen says. Soft layers, such as an area rug in the adjacent room, will help absorb the sound. Also pay attention to the appliances. A dishwasher that scores an excellent for noise will be less distracting than one that’s average or worse. And many wall ovens have a cooling fan that runs for a few minutes after the unit is turned off, a gripe with some consumers.

    This article also appeared in the July 2014 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers or sponsors on this website. Copyright © 2006-2014 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Find a nail polish that lasts

    For $27 per bottle, Chanel Le  Vernis nail polish had better be spectacular, especially if adding bottles of top coat and base coat brings the total cost to $79. But that  “exclusive formula” was bested by five other polishes, including one that costs just $2 per bottle. Check our Ratings below to avoid making a pricey mistake

    How we tested. We hired a professional manicurist to apply the tested polishes to 10 volunteers in our  Yonkers, N.Y., headquarters. The panelists wore two products simultaneously, each on every other fingernail of both hands. On the seventh, 10th, and 14th days after each manicure, two trained testers evaluated the panelists’ fingernails and scored wear. We recruited 10 additional volunteers to apply and remove the polishes at home and assess ease of use.

    What we found. Sinful Colors, which is a CR Best Buy; CND Vinylux; and Revlon looked very good at day 7 and good at day 10. In our home-use tests, CND Vinylux also took less time to dry. No products looked good at day 14. Sally Hansen and Covergirl looked good at day 7 and fair at day 10.

    As for Chanel, four of 10 home-use panelists said it chipped the day they applied it.  And Nutra Nail gel polish was poor, despite its claim of  “ding-free protection.” Seven of 10 home-use panelists said it chipped the day they put it on. It was hard to apply, taking three coats of  “activator” and two coats of gel color.  And it had a bothersome aroma (“I would never apply this inside again,” said one panelist).

    Bottom line. Sinful Colors is top-rated and a CR Best Buy. It takes longer to dry than the other polishes, so if quick drying is important, choose CND Vinylux. It’s sold online and in nail salons; the others are sold online and in stores. If the convenience of one-step application appeals, try Sally Hansen or Covergirl.

    This article also appeared in the July 2014 issue of Consumer Reports magazine; it cinludes details from the June 2014 issue of ShopSmart magazine.

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers or sponsors on this website. Copyright © 2006-2014 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Best places to buy appliances

    Home Depot, Lowe’s, and Sears may sell the most large appliances in the U.S.—and Walmart the most small ones—but they aren’t necessarily customer favorites. Our latest survey of more than 22,000 readers shows that Amazon.com and local independent retailers meet or beat the big boys on selection and leave them in the dust when it comes to good old-fashioned service.

    Savvy shoppers rated Chicago-area Abt Electronics best overall for large appliances for the fourth year, and for good reason. Abt topped our scores for selection, service, and checkout ease, among other areas, which can mean the difference between a satisfying experience and a shopping nightmare. It was also among the best for low prices, which are the biggest draw for most shoppers. Don’t live near the Windy City? Abt ships anywhere within the lower 48 states, and sells online from its site and on Amazon.

    Online buying is growing fastest for small appliances: Roughly 25 percent were bought that way in 2013 compared with 16 percent the year before. Amazon.com topped most small-appliance retailers and outdid QVC.com for selection. Relatively low prices for both online retailers and better service this year from Amazon are likely part of that strong showing.

    Here’s how the stores—online and off—compare when judged on price, selection, and service based on almost 30,000 purchases:

    Lowest prices. Think Best Buy and Costco. Big-box stores such as Home Depot and Lowe’s offer one-stop shopping if you’re buying lumber along with your fridge. But when it comes to the best large appliance deals, Best Buy beat them and matched both Abt Electronics and a regional player, HHGregg. Shopping for smaller stuff? No one matched Costco on price; the warehouse club edged out Sam’s Club and even Amazon.com and QVC.com.

    Best selection. Hit Abt, HHGregg, and Pacific Sales. For variety, none of the largest chains matched those three regional retailers for large appliances or Amazon.com for small ones. But if you want to buy food with your food processor, you’re likely to get more choices at Target than at Costco, Sam’s Club, or Walmart.

    Service and easy checkout.
    Shop the locals. As our Ratings show, it’s hard to beat your neighborhood mom and pop retailer if you want attentive, knowledgeable salespeople and you prefer a physical store over a virtual one. And when it comes to small appliances, our shoppers gave Kmart, Sam’s Club, Target, and Walmart our lowest marks for service. Common complaints included inexpert, hard-to-find sales help. Hate long waits? Then consider skipping Sears, which got mediocre scores for checkout ease. For small appliances, choose Bed Bath & Beyond, Costco, and Kohl’s—and steer clear of Kmart, Sam’s Club, and Walmart.

    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 © 2006-2014 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    5 best small appliances from Consumer Reports' tests

    Most of the product categories covered by Consumer Reports are pretty competitive, with several models vying for the top spot. But every now and then we see a model pull away from the field by a sizable margin—say 10 points or more in our 100-point scale. Versatility is often the key differentiator, whether it's the ability to chop, slice, and dice with equal precision, or a knack for cleaning carpets as readily as bare floors. Here are five standouts from our recent rounds of testing.       

    Breville food processor. The Breville BFP800XL/A is the only food processor judged excellent overall in our tests, with an overall score that's 11 points better than the next-best model. It combines superb chopping, slicing, and shredding with very good grating. It's also very quiet, especially given its powerful motor. At $400, you are paying a premium for the exceptional performance.     

    Breville immersion blender. Breville also has our top-rated immersion blender, the Breville Control Grip BSB510XL, which scores a 92 in our Ratings, 13 points ahead of the second-place model from Miallegro. The $100 Breville was the only immersion blender to ace both our yogurt blend and soup puree tests. If you blend a lot of soups or sauces in the pot, this is the tool for you.        

    Vitamix blenders. Among full-size blenders, the Vitamix 5200 actually shares the top spot with the Ninja Master Prep Professional QB1004; both models scored an impressive 91. But we're giving Vitamix props as a standout brand because all of the Vitamix models we've tested made our recommended list. That consistency is impressive, since we often see brands with both high and low performers. Vitamix also backs its products with a generous 5- or 7-year warranty.        

    Roomba robotic vacuum. These devices help take the grunt work out of cleaning. But not all robotic vacuums are up to the task. The Roomba 760 is the best exception. It was excellent on carpet and bare floors in our tests, good enough for an overall score of 90. The next best LG Hom-Bot Square also made our picks list, but it wasn't quite as effective at cleaning, for an overall a score of 79. The $450 Roomba is also quite a bit cheaper than the $800 LG.   

    Clear2O water filter. It's not technically an appliance, but the Clear20 CWS100A carafe style water filter sits out on the countertop, so we're including it here. Plus it was truly exceptional in our tests at removing lead and chloroform while maintaining a strong, steady flow. That earned it an overall score of 93, 23 points better than the next best carafe filter, the ZeroWater ZP010. And at $23, it's a CR Best Buy.  

    —Daniel DiClerico (@dandiclerico)

    Kitchen Planning Guide

    Need a counter to put those countertop appliances on? Read our Kitchen Planning Guide, which has Ratings and recommendations for products and projects as well as the best places to buy appliances.

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers or sponsors on this website. Copyright © 2006-2014 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Kitchen floors that stand up to foot traffic

    Hand-scraped, grooved, and other distressed floors are more than just a style statement: Those prefab dents and dings help hide and blend the real-world wear and tear in today’s busy kitchen. Even vinyl floors are capturing the rustic look and feel of vintage wood, but without the expense. In Consumer Reports' flooring tests, many of the best within all types literally make do-it-yourself installation a snap by clicking together and “floating” in place without glue or nails. Here’s what to look for when you’re shopping for a new kitchen floor.

    Consider your kitchen. All of our top picks scored good or better in our slip resistance tests, a plus for busy kitchens. But foot traffic and dropped objects are a challenge for most wood and bamboo—another reason to consider distressed finishes or opt for tougher laminate or vinyl.

    Pick certified wood. Certification by the Forest Stewardship Council and the Sustainable Forestry Initiative offers assurance that the wood is from responsibly managed forests. Check packaging to be sure that the product and manufacturer are certified.

    Think twice about vinyl and babies. Vinyl floors with the industry’s Floor-Score certification (such as our picks) emit relatively few volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which are linked to health concerns and pollution. Still, we suggest choosing another type of flooring if your household includes young children who play on the floor.

    Choose a factory finish. Prefinished wood and bamboo cost about 40 percent more than unfinished floors. But prefinished floors can help you save overall, because factory finishes tend to last longer than finishes that are applied later, which also add to the total cost.

    Top floors from our tests
    The top performer in Consumer Reports tests of six types of flooring was the vinyl Tarkett NAFCO PermaStone Collection Natural Slate-Sand Stone NS-660, $4.70 a square foot, which got excellent marks on our tests for foot traffic and resisting dents, scratches, stains, and sunlight. Another vinyl, Congoleum DuraCeramic Sierra Slate SI-74 Golden Greige, $5.00, did almost as well with excellent marks in everything but resisting denting, which was still very good. Not far behind was the ceramic tile SnapStone Beige 11-001-02-01, $8.00, which like its name implies is a snap to install.

    Good wood. If you prefer the look of wood, our top prefinished wood is Teragren Portfolio Naturals Wheat TPF-SYN-WHT-126-DL, $7.50 a square foot, followed closely by EcoTimber Woven Honey WBH061, $6.00. Both were very good at withstanding foot traffic and excellent at resisting scratches and stains. Teragren was also tops in engineered wood with its Teragren Synergy Wide Plank Java, $7.00. For full Ratings and recommendations see our Flooring Buying Guide.

    —Ed Perratore

    Kitchen Planning Guide

    Interested in other surfaces? Our Kitchen Planning Guide also includes reviews of countertops and sinks. The latest trends in kitchen design include social kitchens that work for both entertaining and every day. Before replacing your appliances, check our appliance buying guides and full Ratings and recommendations.

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers or sponsors on this website. Copyright © 2006-2014 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    8 products on deep discount in June

    Consumer Reports analysts track prices year-round, so we can tell you when products are on sale, month by month. If you're looking for a new swimsuit or summer sports gear to take advantage of the warm weather, you can find deep discounts on them in June. Time to spruce up your indoor living spaces? Look for great deals on furniture and carpets.

    Just in time to record your famiy's summer vacation, camcorders will be marketed down this month. If you need to find gifts for June brides and grooms, pots, pans, and dishware will be deply discounted. Small consumer electronics such as Blu-ray players, home theaters, and streaming media players will also be on sale.  

    If you're in the market for these and other items on deep discount this month, we've got the shopping tips, buying guides, and ratings that can help you find the right models. Want to know what's on sale the rest of the year? Check our calendar of deals.

    —Mandy Walker

    The right camcorder features are important, whether you're considering a standard definition or high-def model. Many options, such as LCD monitors and autofocus, are available on most models while others, such as a built-in light, are less common.

    Use our camcorder buying guide to discover which features are most important to you. We also have unbiased Ratings based on our lab tests, plus camcorder reviews to help you choose the best model at the right price.

    Even the most luxurious carpet doesn't have to cost a fortune. Shop around to find carpet that fits your lifestyle and budget. Always request separate pricing for materials and installation so you can make an "apples-to-apples" comparison among different suppliers.

    The wrong carpet may wear out quickly, fade, or show stains that resist your best cleaning efforts. Our carpet cleaner buying guide lists the pros and cons of DIY carpet cleaning versus hiring an expert. Our Ratings of carpet cleaning machines show which ones did best in our tests. We also have stain-fighting tips in our carpet stain remover buying guide, and Ratings of the most effective stain-removing products. And we've found that upright vacuums, especially with a bag, clean carpets best.

    Laptops let you use your computer away from your desk, but you pay for that mobility with a keyboard that's a little more cramped, a higher price, and sometimes, reduced performance. They're also more expensive to repair than desktops. Screen size will be an essential factor in deciding which type of laptop is right for you. Find the right model in our laptop Ratings; be sure to check out our reliability data.

    Desktops deliver more performance. They allow for a more ergonomically correct work environment, let you work on a larger screen, and typically come with better speakers. But most of them take up a lot of space, even with a thin monitor. For tips on getting the right model, read our buying guide. To see which desktops did best in our lab tests, check out our Ratings.

    Furniture is on sale this month because stores need to make way for new lines that will arrive after the spring High Point Market.

    Where you shop makes a difference. Catalog retailers, for example, have been around for several years, sometimes as an adjunct to a chain of stores. Mass-market retailers, including Ikea, Levitz, Value City, and Walmart, tend to stress price. Expect a fairly limited fabric selection on upholstered furniture.

    Find the best furniture stores, and check this interactive guide, which includes details on upholstered furniture, styles, and furniture-care tips.

    You're likely to find these three products on many wedding registry lists. Luckily, many stores put them on sale now. If you're looking for a cookware set for a couple getting hitched, you'll want an assortment of skillets and pots, a stockpot, and lids. But don't overbuy. A set that contains more pieces might not be the smartest choice if new cooks will use only a few and the rest take up space in their cabinet. For more shopping tips, see our cookware buying guide, and read our Ratings to find the brands and models that did best in our tough lab tests.

    If you take advantage of discounts to replenish your dishes, our dishwasher detergent buying guide will help you keep them sparkling clean (we've also got a dishwasher buying guide packed with shopping tips if you're in the market for a new model). 

    If you've been on the hunt for smaller consumer electronics such as an MP3 player, Blu-ray or streaming media player, or a home theater system, now is the time to buy.

    But before you hit the stores, check out our shopping tips in our MP3 player reviews, buying guide, and Ratings. We've also got a buying guide for Blu-ray players and streaming media players and services, and one for home theater systems and sound bars. Check our Blu-ray player Ratings, streaming media player Ratings, and home theater systems and sound bars Ratings.

    And for additional ways to save on any electronics you're buying, watch the video on getting the best deal below.

    Two of the best ways to get moving this summer— walking and bicycling—are not only enjoyable, but they also happen to be among the most affordable. Safety and comfort are the two most important factors when buying a bike, and finding one that fits is essential.

    Our lab tests show that the lighter the althletic shoe, the better—as long as cushioning and stability don't suffer. Invest in a pedometer to keep motivation up.

    Backpack baby carriers are great for people who want to hike nature trails with their tots in tow. We have more tips for ways the whole family can enjoy a workout this summer, plus info on the best sunscreens and the best ways to stop bug bites.

    As temperatures soar, you'll find good deals on swimsuits (and fetching caps). Because it's the end of the swimsuit season for retailers, however, selection may suffer.

    Shopping at the right time can help save even more, say the editors at ShopSmart magazine. Kohl's fans, for example, should check out the "Gold Star Clearance" racks, where prices are slashed up to 80 percent on weekend nights. At Target, women's clothing is generally marked down on Tuesdays, men's on Wednesday, and kids' on Mondays. Markdowns at Marshalls and T.J. Maxx usually happen on Wednesday.

    You might find the best deals on swimsuits at outlets; read our guide to outlet shopping.

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers or sponsors on this website. Copyright © 2006-2014 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    The best time to buy things, month by month

    Every day you probably get e-mail, texts, tweets, and circulars announcing great sales. The days of watching the calendar and buying products at the time of year when prices are lowest would appear to be over.

    Or are they? Consumer Reports' product-research experts, who monitor prices, have found that deep discounts for some things still go by the calendar. Some sales are tied to the introduction of new models, while others are long-standing traditions, like January white sales.  

    Use the month-by-month information below to see when you can typically find the best prices on a variety of products. But keep your eye on your apps, e-mail, and Sunday circulars, too, because there will always be exceptions. And bear in mind that the best time to save money isn't always when you'll find the best selection. Sales on some items occur when a season is coming to an end and inventories are thin.

    January

    Bedding

    Linens

    Toys

    Treadmills and ellipticals

    TVs

    Winter clothing

     

    (For more on these items, and shopping tips, see 6 products on deep discount in January.)

     

    February

    Humidifiers

    Indoor furniture

    Treadmills and ellipticals

     

    (For more on these items, and shopping tips, see 4 products on deep discount in February.)

    March

    Digital cameras

    Humidifiers

    Small consumer electronics (MP3 players, DVD and Blu-ray players, etc.)

    TVs

    Winter sports gear

     

    (For more on these items, and shopping tips, see 5 products on deep discount in March.)

    April

    Laptop computers

    Desktop computers

    Digital cameras

    Lawn mowers

    Spring clothing

     

    (For more on these items, and shopping tips, see 5 products on deep discount in April.)

     

    May

    Athletic apparel and shoes

    Camping and outdoor gear

    Carpeting

    Cordless phones

    Lawn mowers

    Mattresses

    Small consumer electronics

     

    (For more on these items, and shopping tips, see 7 products on deep discount in May.)

    June

    Camcorders

    Carpeting

    Computers

    Indoor furniture

    Pots, pans, and dishware

    Small consumer electronics

    Summer sports gear

    Swimwear

     

    (For more on these items, and shopping tips, see 8 products on deep discount in June)

    July

    Camcorders

    Indoor furniture

    Outdoor furniture

    Swimwear

     

    August

    Air conditioners

    Backpacks

    Dehumidifiers

    Outdoor furniture

    Snow blowers

     

    (For more on these items, and shopping tips, see 5 products on deep discount in August.)

    September

    Bikes

    Digital cameras

    Gas grills

    Lawn mowers

    Shrubs, trees, and perennials

    Small consumer electronics

    Snow blowers

     

    (For more on these items, and shopping tips, see 7 products on sale in September.)

    October

    Bikes

    Computers

    Digital cameras

    Gas grills

    Lawn mowers

    Winter coats

     

    (For more on these items, and shopping tips, see 6 products on sale in October.)

     

    November

    Baby products

    Bikes

    Camcorders

    Gas grills

    GPS navigators

    Toys

    TVs

     

    (For more on these items, and shopping tips, see 7 products on deep discount in November.)

     

     

    December

    Bikes

    Camcorders

    Gas grills

    GPS navigators

    Home appliances, large and small

    Small consumer electronics

    Toys

    TVs

    Want an even better deal? Haggle, haggle, haggle.

    In a Consumer Reports National Research Center survey of 2,000 American adults about their haggling habits, 89 percent of people who said they haggled received a better price at least once.

    To increase the odds you can negotiate a better deal, remember that nothing is off limits. You should always be polite. And make sure you know what constitutes a fair price before you start. For more tips on becoming an expert haggler, read our tips on effective bargaining.  

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers or sponsors on this website. Copyright © 2006-2014 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    5 capable mowers for $300 or less

    Pay the average amount for the top-performing, self-propelled mowers in Consumer Reports Ratings, and you’ll easily shell out $425—with prices going up to $600 for the top-scoring Honda HRX217VKA. The very best of these were superb at cutting evenly in mulching mode, the most commonly used. But if all you can spend is $300 you don't need to settle for an inferior model. Here are five of our mower picks that cost no more than that yet scored very good or better in all three mowing modes:

    Snapper SP80 12AVB27W, $300
    A multi-speed, self-propelled mower can trundle along as fast as you need it to, and the 21-inch Snapper SP80 12AVB27W is the lowest-priced of our picks in that category. What you get for the price is consistently fine mowing in all three modes. Its front-drive transmission won’t be a bother if your lawn is flat and you don’t often bag clippings. But this mower isn’t without compromises. In this case it’s the side-valve engine, a less efficient design (than the premium overhead-valve) that generally doesn’t last as long—though the machine started easily. We also find mowers with high rear wheels to be harder to tip back when turning.

    Toro 20370, $280
    Single-speed, self-propelled mowers don’t tend to score as high for handling because their single ground speed can be tedious for anyone hoping to finish the lawn before dinnertime. But if you’re not in much of a hurry to mow, the 22-inch Toro 20370, $280, might do fine. It mowed well across the board but superbly in mulching mode, and its premium Kohler engine (with no-prime starting) should last many years if properly maintained. It’s also a front-wheel-drive model, as rear-drive often raises the price.

    Snapper SP70 12A-A27X, $280
    Another single-speed, self-propelled mower, the 21-inch Snapper SP70 12A-A27X was impressive across all three mowing modes and was easier to handle than the Toro. There’s also no-prime starting. Caveats? Its Briggs & Stratton engine is a less-efficient side-valve design, which tends to have a shorter life cycle.

    Cub Cadet SC100 11A-A92J, $250
    The 21-inch Cub Cadet SC100 11A-A92J, did the best of push mowers, which lack transmissions so are more of a challenge on hilly lawns. For a flat lawn, it’s all you need. Impressive evenness across all mowing modes is the main attraction; there's also a premium, overhead-valve engine.

    Yard Machines 11A-B96N, $240
    Like the similarly performing Craftsman 37432, $220, the 21-inch Yard Machines 11A-B96N, $240, trailed the Cub Cadet but not by much. Cutting evenness was consistent across all modes with the exception of the Yard Machines’ side-discharge, which was the best of all push mowers. Otherwise, it’s a basic model. The Briggs & Stratton engine is a side-valve, though you do get no-prime starting. And this model has high rear-wheels.

    Whatever you’re able and willing to pay, you’ll find a gamut of prices among the nearly 170 mowers, tractors, and zero-turn-radius riders in our lawn mower Ratings. Be sure to check out our lawn mower buying guide first.

    —Ed Perratore (on Twitter, @EdPerratore)

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers or sponsors on this website. Copyright © 2006-2014 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    5 great reads for Father's Day

    If dad loves to read, why not make his Father's Day with a fun new book? Consumer Reports dropped in on the 2014 BookExpo America, which took place May 28-31 at the Javits Center in New York, to peruse the latest titles. Amid the stacks on display from more than 1,000 exhibitors were many strong Father's Day contenders. Below are five favorites from our editors. You might also consider an E-book reader to lighten dad's load. Our Ratings include several versions of the Amazon Kindle and Barnes & Noble Nook, among others.    

    Man Made Meals: The Essential Cookbook for Guys ($14, Workman) 
    By Steve Raichlen 
    Consumer Reports often turns to Raichlen for grilling tips, so we were thrilled to see his new book at the Expo. It contains more than 300 recipes that will whet the appetite of any man's man, including Fire-Eater Chicken Wings and Finger-Burner Lamb Chops. Billed as the Joy of Cooking for guys, the book is also loaded with helpful tips, like how to shuck an oyster or truss a chicken. 

    The Big Book of Hacks ($19, Weldon Owen)
    Edited by Doug Cantor
    From the pranksters of Popular Science, this compendium of offbeat DIY projects is perfect for dads who like to tinker around the house. Want to turn that Consumer Reports-recommended Roomba robotic vacuum into a surveillance camera? This book will show you how. Other clever projects with a home improvement twist include building a toilet-powered zen fountain and making a Rubik's Cube-inspired chest of drawers.

    Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt ($17, W.W. Norton & Company)
    By Michael Lewis 
    Though it's been out for a couple months, there was still plenty of buzz at the show surrounding Lewis' expose of high-speed trading, especially after the Commodity Futures Trading Commission said it will investigate the practice. If your dad is into the shadowy dealings of the world of finance, he'll find this a compelling read.

    The Hall: A Celebration of Baseball's Greats ($31.50, Little, Brown and Company) 
    By the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum   
    Baseball buffs will enjoy this compilation of all 306 players inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame since it's founding 75 years ago. The coffee table tome comes alive with plaques and photographs, and each section opens with an essay by a living Hall of Famer who played that position, guys like George Brett and Nolan Ryan. Another new baseball book worth considering is The Closer by future Hall of Famer Mariano Rivera. 

    Proof: The Science of Booze ($20, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
    By Adam Rogers
    Our love affair with alcohol is taking an intimate, artisanal turn, with everything from craft beers to boutique bourbons. Rogers, an editor at Wired, explores the sophisticated ways in which modern scientists are refining our relationship with the hard stuff. And for Father's Day, there's even a scene where Rogers takes his old man to an upscale Boston restaurant for their first taste of single Malt scotch, which he calls the start of "an expensive hobby." 

    —Daniel DiClerico (@dandiclerico)  

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    Find the right range for your cooking style

    New ranges, cooktops, and wall ovens offer a dizzying number of features and finishes, and come in many sizes and configurations. So when it comes to picking appliances, you’re faced with a lot of decisions in addition to budget and space constraints. Your choices may be limited if you are just replacing one appliance with another but if you’re tearing your kitchen apart, you have the opportunity to better tailor your options to your lifestyle. Here are three scenarios.

    I want a pro-style range


    Gas or electric?
    Gas.
    Most pro-style ranges use gas or propane. Dual-fuel models pair a gas cooktop with an electric oven and top our Ratings. But with all of these high-powered burners, you need to pay attention to ventilation,
    Electric. you can find a slide-in electric range with a glass cooktop and stainless finish with a sleek built-in look. Induction ranges, which use electromagnetic coils under the glass cooktop, deliver the fastest cooktop heat we’ve seen and offer precise simmering and control.

    Pro or faux pro?
    Pro. You’ll have fun choosing among the stunning colors available (and stainless), knobs that are chunky and others that are red status symbols, and ranges that are 30-inch, 36-inch, and wider. But don’t expect top performance; most 30-inch models we tested have small ovens, and baking and broiling were unimpressive; 36-inch models did better. The best offer superb simmering, fast cooktop heat, and impressive baking.
    Faux pro. Many mainstream brands mimic the pro look with stainless steel and beefy knobs and grates; others offer sleek styling in stainless or glossy black or white. Another option is a slide-in range, which has a built-in look and doesn’t have a back panel. The controls are up front, so you can show off your backsplash.

    What’s your budget?
    $4,000 to $8,000. Lots of choices, but you might have to compromise a bit on performance at the low end of the range.
    $2,000 to $4,000. Plenty of options in our Ratings of ranges and cooktops.

    Recommended ranges
    KitchenAid KDRS407VSS pro-style range, $4,000
    This 30-inch pro-style outperformed all others, making it the only recommended model of the group. A dual-fuel range, it pairs a gas cooktop with an electric oven, delivering impressive performance overall. Superb simmering and fast cooktop heating helped put it on top, along with evenly browned cakes and cookies and very good self-cleaning. Timesavers include convection, which can cut oven time for some foods, and three high-power burners.

    Samsung NE58F9500WS slide-in electric, $1,800
    This electric smoothtop range is pricier than most in this category as it's a slide-in model, offering a built-in look since the cooktop is flush with the counters. There's no back panel and controls are on the front of the range. There are four surface elements, including two high power. Simmering was superb and cooktop heat was fast. There's a warming element to keep a side dish hot while you finish the rest of the meal. The large oven was very good at baking and excellent at broiling, and the convection option can trim cooking time.

    I love to cook

     

    One cook or two in the kitchen?
    One.
    look for a gas range with at least one high-power burner (about 15,000 Btu/hr.) or an electric range with at least one high-power element (about 2,500 watts) to deliver heat quickly. Continuous grates let you slide cookware between gas burners without lifting. Expandable electrical elements let you match the pot size to the element. Generous oven capacity with five or more rack positions lets you cook multiple dishes. Not all ranges are great at broiling, so check the results of our range tests.
    Two or more. A separate cooktop and wall oven gives each of you space to work without bumping into each other. Plus wall ovens put food at eye level, so less bending and lifting are required.

    Cooking for a crowd?
    Yes. Double-oven ranges let you simultaneously cook different dishes at different temperatures. Larger, 36-inch cooktops also have more burners or elements; pair one with a double wall oven.
    No. A single-oven range should be fine.

    How important is styling?
    Very. Check out our advice on pro-style ranges, above.
    Not crucial. Read our “faux pro” advice.

    Recommended cooktops and wall ovens
    Thermador SGSX365FS gas cooktop, $1,900
    Fast heating and superb simmering put this 36-inch gas cooktop at the top of this category in our cooktop Ratings. Features include five burners, three of them high-power, along with continuous grates and the high style of stainless trim.

    Whirlpool WOD93EC0AS double wall oven, $2,500
    This Whirlpool electric double wall oven offers very good baking prowess, excellent broiling and self-cleaning performance, and large oven windows. Oven capacity is large and the top oven has a convection option, which can speed up cooking by using fans to circulate the warm air. The numeric keypad makes it easier to set a precise temperature.

    I’m pressed for time


    Do you cook most meals from scratch?
    Yes. Induction cooktops and rangetops bring water to a boil about 25 percent faster than electric smoothtops in our tests and even faster than gas models, though high-power burners or elements help. Convection can trim cooking time by using one or more fans to circulate the hot air in the oven.
    No. Skip the fancy features and go for a basic range with fast cooktop heating. Then get an impressive microwave for reheating, fast cooking, and steaming.

    Are you cooking for a family?
    Yes. Get into multitasking mode with a double-oven range with convection. Some pair a smaller oven on top with a larger one below; others have two same-sized ovens. Read the manual to make the most of the time-saving convection feature. It’s usually in the bottom oven, but some have convection in both. Fast-heating burners help, too. Look for them on a cooktop if you’re pairing it with a wall oven with convection.
    No. You can still choose a double-oven range and primarily use the smaller oven for everyday cooking and both for holidays, or get an induction range with for very fast cooktop heat and a convection oven.

    Are looks important?
    Yes. Stainless remains popular, but you’ll also see lots of gray finishes and glossy white and black. Handles are sleeker, and knobs are nicer.
    No. There’s a reason white is still a big seller.

    Recommended ranges
    Samsung FTQ307NWGX induction range, $2,000
    What's faster than induction? Nothing we've tested. The process uses an electromagnetic field to send most of the heat to the pot or pan, heating some 25 percent faster than the fastest conventional ranges. This one also excelled in simmering, baking, and broiling, and includes a generous oven with convection yet costs hundreds less than others we've tested. But you'll need magnetic cookware for induction to work.     

    LG LDE3037SB double oven range, $1,300
    The only electric smoothtop range to ace all of our tests, it's at the top of our Ratings of double-oven ranges. It was superb at simmering, delivering fast cooktop heat, baking, broiling, and self-cleaning. On the rangetop there are four cooking elements, including two high-power, and a warming element to keep a side dish warm while you finish the main dish. The oven has convection and steam-clean function for light cleaning.

    —Kimberly Janeway

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    Things to watch out for when planning a wedding

    If there's one thing June is known for it's weddings, a time for great happiness and joy—unless something goes wrong. Imagine that just before the big day, you find that the bridal shop has gone belly-up, leaving you and your bridesmaids without your wedding dresses, or the photographer you hired has absconded with your deposit. We've seen such disappointments occur time and again.

    Earlier this month, for example, the Pennsylvania attorney general announced a series of settlements, including one with a wedding photographer who was accused of accepting payments and then either failing to show up at weddings or failing to provide consumers with their albums or photographs. Also this month, the Florida attorney general filed a lawsuit against the operator of a wedding venue that suddenly shut down after taking $22,600 in deposits from at least eight consumers. And in time for the wedding season, Attorney General Eric Schneiderman of New York warned consumers to take precautions when booking caterers, musicians, and other wedding products and services.

    Is wedding insurance the answer? Read 'Should You Buy Wedding Insurance?' And if you know someone who is tying the knot, check out our report 'Wedding Gifts From Our Tests That Stand The Test Of Time' and the 'Consumer Reports' Guide To Wedding Gift Registries.'

    What to do

    • Try to use a known provider of wedding-related goods and services. Get recommendations from friends and relatives, if possible.
    • Check out the company. Obtain at least three references. Look for a report at the Better Business Bureau, and use a Web search with the company or individual's name and such terms as "reviews" and "complaints."
    • Read contracts thoroughly before signing. Be sure any times and dates are included and are correct. Find out what the cancellation policy is. You never know who might get cold feet.
    • When leaving a deposit or making a payment, use a credit card instead of cash, check, or debit card. That way, if there are any shenanigans or a company disappears overnight, you can ask your card issuer for a chargeback. Never pay in full ahead of time.
    • As an extra precaution, double check with the providers a few days before the wedding that everything is ready to go and that there are no complications. Verify dates and times.
    • If you think you've been scammed or otherwise victimized, file a complaint with your state or local consumer protection agency and the Better Business Bureau.

    Anthony Giorgianni

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    What to watch out for when planning a wedding

    If there's one thing June is known for it's weddings, a time for great happiness and joy—unless something goes wrong. Imagine that just before the big day, you find that the bridal shop has gone belly-up, leaving you and your bridesmaids without your wedding dresses, or the photographer you hired has absconded with your deposit. We've seen such disappointments occur time and again.

    Earlier this month, for example, the Pennsylvania attorney general announced a series of settlements, including one with a wedding photographer who was accused of accepting payments and then either failing to show up at weddings or failing to provide consumers with their albums or photographs. Also this month, the Florida attorney general filed a lawsuit against the operator of a wedding venue that suddenly shut down after taking $22,600 in deposits from at least eight consumers. And in time for the wedding season, Attorney General Eric Schneiderman of New York warned consumers to take precautions when booking caterers, musicians, and other wedding products and services.

    Learn whether wedding Insurance is a smart investment. If you or someone you know is tying the knot, read "Wedding Gifts From Our Tests That Stand the Test of Time" and check our guide to wedding gift registries.

    What to do

    • Try to use a known provider of wedding-related goods and services. Get recommendations from friends and relatives, if possible.
    • Check out the company. Obtain at least three references. Look for a report at the Better Business Bureau, and use a Web search with the company or individual's name and such terms as "reviews" and "complaints."
    • Read contracts thoroughly before signing. Be sure any times and dates are included and are correct. Find out what the cancellation policy is. You never know who might get cold feet.
    • When leaving a deposit or making a payment, use a credit card instead of cash, check, or debit card. That way, if there are any shenanigans or a company disappears overnight, you can ask your card issuer for a chargeback. Never pay in full ahead of time.
    • As an extra precaution, double check with the providers a few days before the wedding that everything is ready to go and that there are no complications. Verify dates and times.
    • If you think you've been scammed or otherwise victimized, file a complaint with your state or local consumer protection agency and the Better Business Bureau.

    Anthony Giorgianni

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    Are all-wheel-drive mowers all they claim?

    For a small, flat lawn to mow, you’ll never need anything more than a push mower, which is exactly what it sounds like—you do all the work. But for a larger, hillier lawn that’s too small for a tractor or rider, you’ll want a self-propelled mower that does much of the pushing for you. And you now have more choices thanks to the introduction of new all-wheel-drive mowers from Husqvarna and Craftsman.

    Husqvarna led the way into AWD last year with models such as the Husqvarna HU800AWD, $500. This year’s expanded crop includes the multispeed Husqvarna HU725AWD/BBC, $450, and the single-speed Husqvarna HU675AWD, $300. Another Husqvarna-made, AWD model is the Craftsman 37592, $500, which we’ve gotten in for testing. That’s an AWD version of the Craftsman 37545, $340, an especially quiet model we in Consumer Reports' recent mower tests.

    The notion of "all-wheel drive" takes some of its cachet from cars that drive more safely, with wheels that keep their grip on slippery roads. Husqvarna says its mowers let users “easily handle hills, thick grass, and tough terrain” with the result of “maximum control and maneuverability.” We agree that all-wheel drive has its place but unless you have a seriously graded property to mow, you can get a better-cutting, rear-wheel drive mower for less money. We're also concerned about the single thin, serpentine belt (see manufacturer's photo) that distributes power from the rear wheels to the front. It adds to the complexity of the machine and could need replacement over time.

    By contrast, self-propelled mowers with rear-wheel drive get great traction on moderate slopes. If you’re bagging, RWD also comes in handy since a mower’s front wheels tend to rise as the bag fills up. Try this with a front-wheel-drive mower, and you’ll be doing all the pushing while the drive wheels spin in the air.

    For the lower price of a self-propelled mower, front-wheel drive could suffice if you have a very flat lawn. And because of the front-driven wheels, these mowers are easier to turn by tipping the mower back. One drawback: Most single-speed, self-propelled models have FWD and won’t let you speed up on long stretches from one end of a property to another.

    As for their cutting, none of the AWD models we’ve tested have risen to the level of our recommended mowers. This year’s Husqvarna AWD models have improved their evenness in mulching mode, but bagging remains mediocre. (The Husqvarna HU675AWD can’t even bag.) High performance across the board, in fact, is primarily the realm of rear-drive, self-propelled mowers such as the Honda HRR2169VLA, $500, and the Toro Recycler 20333, $400.

    Whatever kind of mower you’re shopping for, we have almost 170 mowers, lawn tractors, and zero-turn-radius riders in our lawn mower Ratings. Be sure to make a stop at our buying guide before settling on your choices.


    —Ed Perratore (on Twitter, @EdPerratore)

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    What to get at Home Depot and what to forget

    Consumer Reports’ Get It or Forget It series continues with a visit to the Home Depot. As the home improvement season hits full swing, this ubiquitous home center is probably somewhere on your to-do list. Or maybe you need a new lawn mower, gas grill, or room AC. We’ve tested scores of these products, including a bunch of Home Depot exclusives. Many offer standout performance at a competitive price. But there are also some duds lurking in the Home Depot aisles. Our guide will keep that orange shopping cart pointed in the right direction.

    Home Depot winners

    Outdoor power equipment. Home Depot carries many top picks from our Ratings of mowers, tractors, and string trimmers. The $400 Honda HRR2169VKA is a CR Best Buy self-propelled gas mower, while the Lawn-Boy 10730, $240, is a push mower pick. Prefer electric? Consider the EGO LM2000, our No. 1 battery-operated push mower. And if your large yard calls for a tractor, the Home Depot-exclusive John Deere D125 is a CR Best Buy. Over in the string trimmer aisle, the $70 Homelite UT33600A is tops among light duty gas models, while the $130 Ryiobi Ry24210A is our best battery-powered string trimmer. 

    Behr paint. Whether you’re repainting your home’s interior or exterior, Home Depot is one of the best places to shop for materials. Behr Premium Plus Ultra, sold only at Home Depot, is top-rated among satin/eggshell and flat/matte interior finishes, for $32 to $34 per gallon. Its semigloss formulation, perfect for kitchens and bathroom walls, is another excellent value.

    We also give top marks to the Behr Premium Plus Ultra exterior paint line, where you’ll pay between $31 and $40 per gallon. Its flat and satin finishes are best for siding because they hide flaws by reducing reflections. The semigloss version will add some shine to doors and trim, providing visual contrast.

    Char-Broil gas grill. Looking for a midsized grill that can sear steaks and slow-cook ribs to perfection? Home Depot’s Char-Broil Gourmet TRU-Infrared 463251713, $400, is second only to Weber in our Ratings. We found it quick to preheat and it offers solid temperature range.

    Not all Home Depot grills sizzled in our tests, so be sure to check the model number closely. For example, the $200 Char-Broil Classic 463211513 lacks some key convenience features, such as low-maintenance porcelain-coated grates.  

    Rigid cordless drill. A good drill will help on countless household projects, such as installing cabinets, hanging shelves, and securing deck boards. The $180 Ridgid R86008K, available only at Home Depot, is a CR Best Buy, combining superb speed with solid power, handling, and run time.

    EcoSmart lightbulbs. As you continue to replace your home’s incandescent bulbs, which have been phased out of production, Home Depot is the place to find new LEDs or CFLs. The $1.50 EcoSmart 100W Soft White CFL makes our recommended list of 100-watt equivalent bulbs. We also like the EcoSmart 6 in. 9.5-Watt 65W LED Downlight ECO 575L for $25.

    But not every bulb at Home Depot is a winner. In fact, the EcoSmart Soft White PAR38 90W is our lowest-scoring bulb, due to its dimness and slow warm-up time.          

    Quartz countertops. Quartz trumps granite as our top-rated countertop material, offering durability and stain resistance. Home Depot has carried Silestone for years, and it recently introduced a Martha Stewart Living line of quartz in seven colors that mimic marble. Figure on about $3,600 to $4,500 for a typical kitchen. We haven’t tested it yet, but we expect it to perform similarly to other quartz counters.

    GE air conditioner. The GE AEL06LS makes our winners’ lost of room A/Cs designed to cool areas that are 100 to 300 square feet, say a bedroom or smaller living room. If you need to cool a larger space, you should also be able to find our top-rated models, both from LG, in the 250 to 400 square foot and 350 to 650 square foot range. See our full air conditioner Ratings for the specifics. 

    Home Depot losers

    Brinkmann grills. Bargain grills tend not to make the cut in our Ratings, and that’s true with Home Depot’s economy line from Brinkmann. Take the Brinkmann Elite 810-3660-SB. Though it cost hundreds less than our best midsize grills, so-so high and low heat performance dropped it down in our Ratings. The $400 Brinkmann Medallion 810-4580-SB is our lowest-scoring large gas grill.

    Home Legend flooring. We haven’t tested all the flooring materials sold at Home Depot, but we would advise you to think twice about several products from the exclusive Home Legend line. The Home Legend Lisbon Natural HL9311LN was one of our lowest-scoring engineered wood floors, due to its poor resistance to fading, denting, and scratching. The Home Legend Jatoba HL89 laminate and Home Legend Horizontal Solid Bamboo Toast BAFL24TO prefinished solid wood flooring also missed our winners’ podium by a wide margin.

    HDX Paper towels. The best paper towels in our tests combine absorbency with strength. Home Depot’s exclusive HDX paper towels struggled with both, for an overall score of just 36. That’s a full 60 points below the top-rated Bounty DuraTowel, though to be fair the DuraTowel is head and shoulders above the competition, and the only paper towel judged excellent in every way.       

    Glidden paint. While Home Depot’s Behr line of paints aced most of our tests, many of its Glidden exclusives were middle-of-the-pack at best. In particular, the High Endurance and Duo lines each had significant flaws in all their satin, flat, and semigloss formulas. In some cases, they were susceptible to staining, while in others the paints didn’t go on smoothly. Some Gliddens did a bit better, but if you’re paint shopping at the Home Depot, your best bet is to stick with Behr.            

    Essick whole-house humidifier. Home Depot’s Essick EP9R 500 is one of our lowest scoring console humidifiers, because of its poor moisture output. Fortunately, Home Depot also carries our top-rated console humidifier, the Essick MA1201, which performed very well overall, and it costs about $50 less than its Home Depot-exclusive brand mate. Go figure. 

    —Daniel DiClerico (@dandiclerico)

    More Get it or Forget it

    Shop at Walmart or Costco? Here's what to get and what to forget at those stores.

    What to get at Walmart and what to forget

    What to get at Costco and what to forget

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    The right window air conditioner for your room size

    Size matters when you’re buying a window air conditioner. Buy too small and it will struggle to keep the room at a comfortable temperature; buy too big and and the room will cool too quickly without removing enough humidity from the air. Buy just right and you’ll be comfy and save money too. At Consumer Reports, we test air conditioners in the size rooms that they're intended to cool. Here are the best small, medium, and large window air conditioners from our tests.

    Bedroom or office (100 to 300 square feet)
    For a small bedroom, home office, or guest room you’ll want an air conditioner with good scores for comfort and quiet.
    The GE AEM05LS, $210, a CR Best Buy, aced our comfort tests and was very quiet on both low and high fan speeds.
    The GE AEM06LS, $230, was very good at cooling a small room and just as quiet as its brandmate. Similar models are sold at Home Depot and Sam’s Club.

    Master bedroom or playroom (250 to 400 square feet)
    To cool a bigger or busier room, you’ll want to step up to a mid-sized air conditioner.
    The LG LW8014ER, $240, was tops in its class with very good scores for cooling a medium-size room. But it was a bit noisy when the fan was on high.
    The Friedrich Chill CP08G10A, $380, was quieter so perhaps a better choice for a bedroom. Its comfort scores were just as good.

    Living room or family room (350 to 650 square feet)
    For a living room or family room, you’ll want a large air conditioner, especially if you have an open floor plan.
    The LG LW1214ER, $350, made our top picks list with its excellent scores for comfort. And despite its size, it operates at a quiet hum. None of the other large units in our tests made the recommended list.

    Size up your needs
    Window air conditioners typically have cooling capacities ranging from 5,000 to 12,500 British Thermal Units (BTUs). But don’t buy by BTU alone. As a rule of thumb, an air conditioner needs 20 BTU for each square foot of living space but there are other considerations such as the height of your ceiling and the size of your windows and doorways. To measure your room, multiply the length of the room by the width. Energy Star recommends that you make adjustments for the following circumstances:

    • If the room is heavily shaded, reduce capacity by 10 percent.
    • If the room is very sunny, increase capacity by 10 percent.
    • If more than two people regularly occupy the room, add 600 BTUs for each additional person.
    • If the unit is used in a kitchen, increase capacity by 4,000 BTUs.

    Install it correctly
    To get the most from your window air conditioner, install it right. If your window is not in the center of your room, check that the direction of the airflow is into the room, not into the corner. Here are some tips from EnergySavers.gov.

    • Make sure it’s level so the drainage system works effectively.
    • Check your outlets. Some larger units need a dedicated circuit.
    • Don’t put lamps or TVs near the air conditioner’s thermostat as the heat will cause it to run longer.
    • Set the thermostat as high as is comfortable, typically 78° F. You’ll appreciate the savings.
    • Don’t dial the temperature down when you turn the air conditioner on—it won’t cool the room any faster.
    • On humid days, set the fan speed on low; the slower air movement removes more moisture from the air.
    • Use an extra fan to spread the cooled air around.

    Save energy too
    Energy standards for window air conditioners are getting tougher, making them cheaper to run. Look for an Energy Efficiency Ratio of 10 or above. The higher the EER, the more efficient the air conditioner. Look for models with filters that are easy to remove for regular cleaning. All the air conditioners in our tests have remote controls, digital displays, and timers that you can set to cool down the room before you get home.

    —Mary H.J. Farrell

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    Sales on gifts for dads and grads

    Not sure what gift to give your dad for Father's Day, or a member of the graduating class of 2014? The suggestions below should be appreciated by them all. Better yet, our market research analysts, who track product prices year-round, have found that these products are at their deepest discounts this month.

    Before you buy, check out our shopping tips, buying guides, and ratings so you'll know what to look for when you head to the store.  

    None of these items exactly what you had in mind? For your father, consider a copy of "Golfing with Dad: The Game's Greatest Players Reflect on Their Fathers and the Game They Love," on sale for about $16 on Amazon.com. The site also has a great price on the perfect book for grads: "101 Things To Do With Ramen Noodles" ($8.99).

    ––Mandy Walker

    Today's full-sized camcorders are smaller and more lightweight than previous models. If you think a more compact model is more appropriate, you have two options: a pocket camcorder or an action cam. There are fewer new pocket camcorders available these days. But in their place, you'll find action camcorders, such as GoPro's Hero line of camcorders. Such models are very small and lightweight, and they often have rugged bodies, which might suit a graduate who's heading abroad for a backpacking adventure.

    Use our camcorder buying guide to discover which features make the most sense for the person on your list. We also have Ratings based on our lab tests, plus camcorder reviews to help you choose the best model at the right price.

    Laptops and even all-in-one desktops continue to get thinner and lighter, which could be ideal for the dorm-room-bound scholar, or the dad who likes the sleakest designs. As you're shopping around, you'll find Ultrabooks, which are laptops with Intel-mandated standards for thinness, performance, and other features. You'll also find thinner and lighter laptops with AMD processors, such as HP's series of Sleekbooks. And with its latest all-in-one iMac, Apple offers a desktop computer that measures just under 0.2 inches thick at its edge.

    For tips on getting the right model, read our buying guide. To see which computers did best in our lab tests, check out our Ratings.

    Need to get some chairs, dressers, or bedside tables for the dorm room? Could Dad use a new easy chair? Furniture is on sale this month.

    Where you shop makes a difference. Catalog retailers, for example, have been around for several years, sometimes as an adjunct to a chain of stores. Mass-market retailers, including Ikea, Levitz, Value City, and Walmart, tend to stress price. Expect a fairly limited fabric selection on upholstered furniture.

    We can help you find the best furniture stores, and check out this interactive guide, which includes details on upholstered furniture, styles, and furniture-care tips (you might want to forward that last one on to your grad).

    Want to know what else is on sale this month? Read 8 products on deep discount in June.

    Stores cut prices on pots and pans now to attract shoppers looking for gifts for brides and grooms. You can take advantage of these price cuts for the dad who likes to cook, or a grad moving into his or her own apartment.  

    Consider nonstick pans for grads; they're best for easy cleanup. Uncoated pans are your best choice for Dads who do a lot of browning and braising. For more shopping tips, see our cookware buying guide, and read our Ratings to find the brands and models that did best in our tough lab tests.

    If your gift recipient would be interested in some smaller consumer electronics, such as an MP3 player, Blu-ray or streaming media player, or a home theater system, now is a great time to buy.

    Before you hit the stores, check out our shopping tips in our MP3 player reviews, buying guide, and Ratings. We've also got a buying guide for Blu-ray players and streaming media players and services, and one for home theater systems and sound bars. Check our Blu-ray player Ratings, streaming media player Ratings, and home theater systems and sound bars Ratings.

    Now is a great time to find deals on summer gear for the outdoor sport enthusiast. If you'd like to get your grad a new bike, remember safety and comfort are the two most important factors, and finding one that fits is essential. So in this case, you'll want to shop with your grad (or Dad) so he or she can give the bike a try.

    Stop by a bike shop. You'll pay more, but we think you're more likely to be satisfied. We've found bikes from big-box stores aren't always properly assembled. If the pedals or seat on a particular model aren't right, some bike shops will swap components at little or no cost.

    We've also got a bicycle helmet buying guide and Ratings of the helmets that did best in our lab tests (those tests are tough; see the video below). And check out our Ratings of activity trackers and Ratings of pedometers to find the best models.  


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    Newfangled appliances that make old chores easier

    Consumer Reports' product specialist were on hand at the latest Hot Housewares show in New York, hosted by the International Housewares Association. Some of the items left us scratching our heads, like the iStraw, billed as "the world's first drinking cup with an integrated straw that holds your smartphone!" But a few products could, just maybe, bring true innovation to the housewares category. Below are five with maximum gee whiz appeal. We'll see if they actually do the job when we get them into our labs for testing.    

    Ronco Ready Grill, $60. This has As-Seen-On-TV written all over it, but hey, some of those late-night wares actually do well in our tests. Built like a toaster, the Ready Grill is a vertically-oriented indoor electric grill with a removable basket designed to hold steaks, vegetables, chicken breasts, or other commonly grilled items. As food roasts between flanking infrared heat shields, juices drip down to the exterior drip tray. The "set it, and forget it" analog timer promises to free you up for other kitchen tasks. The Ronco Ready Grill will debut on the Home Shopping Network on June 23rd.  

    Brim SW30 Size-Wise Programmable Coffee Station, $60. Convenient pod coffemakers have become extremely popular, but they don't brew the most flavorful joe in our tests, in part because the pods use pre-ground coffee. Brim's new machine promises to change that, without compromising convenience, by being the "only machine on the market that enables you to brew a single cup, travel mug, or full carafe all with the same machine." Look for it at Target starting in September.         

    Bellini Intelli Kitchen Master, $600. Available now, the Kitchen Master is supposed to combine the function of eight appliances in one unit. Steam rice, blend smoothies, stir-fry vegetables, cook sauces, whip up sorbets, and more. It reminds us a bit of the Kenwood Cooking Chef Kitchen Machine, which ended up on our "Don't Buy: Performance Problem" list. But if the Bellini lives up to the promise, it could be a useful multi-tasker, especially in small kitchens.

    iDevices iLP liquid propane monitor, Pricing not available. If you've ever run out of gas for your grill in the middle of a barbecue, you get the logic behind this gizmo. Place it under the gas tank and the Bluetooth-connected device will send detailed information to an app on your smartphone, including how much gas is left in the tank and at what rate you're burning through fuel. The product doesn't launch until early autumn, but if you're shopping for a grill now, several winning models in our gas grill Ratings feature a gauge showing how much gas is left in the tank.

    Omega NC800/900 Nutrition Center, $375. As juicing grows in popularity, manufacturers are adding more and more functionality into the devices. This masticating-style extractor can supposedly turn out nut butters, baby food, almond milk, and more, in addition to the usual fruit and vegetable juices. It can also extrude pasta ands grind spices, claims the manufacturer.    

    —Consumer Reports  

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers or sponsors on this website. Copyright © 2006-2014 Consumers Union of U.S.

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