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Consumer Reports

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    New top-rated iron from Consumer Reports' tests

    What makes a great iron? Models that release more steam tend to do the best and fastest job, based on Consumer Reports' tests of dozens of models. And features that make ironing go more smoothly include a light that indicates that the iron has reached the proper temperature; auto-shutoff, a safety feature that powers the iron down when left stationary for a short time; a steam-surge button that releases a burst of steam for tackling stubborn wrinkles; and vertical steam, which lets you remove wrinkles from drapes and hanging garments. Here's how to get the best results from any iron.

    Heed hard-water advice. Most irons work fine with tap water. But if your water is very hard, you might want to mix it with distilled water. Mineral deposits are more common with hard water, so you also might need to clean the soleplate and steam holes more frequently. Follow the owners’ manual.

    Start cool. Irons heat up faster than they cool down. So start with synthetics and other fabrics that require a cooler iron, then do wools at medium and finish on high with cottons and linens. Allow a minute or so between changes for the iron to heat up.

    Prevent dribbles. Leaking can occur when you iron at lower temperatures, so add water after you have pressed delicate fabrics. Remember to empty any leftover water once you’re done ironing. That reduces the chance of drips the next time you iron, and the heat will evaporate the remaining moisture.

    Clean the iron, including the soleplate. Even if you don’t have hard water, do that occasionally, especially if you use starch. Some have a self-clean setting.

    The best irons from our tests

    • Rowenta Steamforce DW9280, $140, our new top-rated steam iron, was excellent overall and provides lots of steam. But at 3.7 pounds, it's heavier than most top picks.
    • Panasonic NI-W950A, $130, emits plenty of steam and has a large reservoir so that you can do lots of ironing before you need to refill it, but this iron is also big.
    • T-Fal FV4495 Ultraglide, is $45 and a CR Best Buy. It was excellent overall and provides lots of steam. And it's lighter than most.

    —Kimberly Janeway

    This article also appeared in the August 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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    4 common laundry problems and how to solve them

    Even if you have the best washer and dryer, there are no guarantees that your laundry will come out perfect every time. Your fabrics may pill, colors may bleed, and after awhile the washer may start to smell. So we asked the laundry experts at Consumer Reports how to get the most from your efforts load-after-load. Here's what they said.

    Problem: Soap residue
    Solution:
    Measure the recommended amount of a top-rated high-efficiency detergent for a medium or regular load. It won’t be as sudsy as regular detergent and improves the performance of HE top-loaders and front-loaders. And be sure to use the detergent dispenser because it mixes water with dissolved detergent at the start of the cycle, improving wash and rinse performance. If you’re a fan of detergent pods, put the pod at the bottom of the washtub, then add laundry. Residue streaks can also occur when fabric softener is added during the wash cycle. If all else fails, select the extra rinse option. When adding bleach, follow the instructions.

    Problem: Fabrics that pill
    Solution:
    Pilling can happen when items with short, weak, fuzzy fibers rub against ones with long, strong fibers. To minimize the risk, don’t wash short-fiber towels, fleece, corduroy, sweatshirts, and cheap T-shirts with long-fiber items, such as sheets and most synthetics.

    Problem: Colors that bleed
    Solution:
    Larger capacities and longer wash times make it tempting to throw everything in the same load. But don’t. Wash darks apart from lights, and items that can be washed in hot water, usually cottons and whites, separate from those for cooler temperatures, such as synthetics. Lightly soiled items should be in one load, heavily soiled in another.

    Problem: Mold or mildew in the washer
    Solution: Moisture and debris can get trapped in a front-loader’s door seal, causing mold and odor. After doing your laundry, wipe the door gasket and glass dry, and clean dispensers monthly. If you don’t have young children, keep the washer door ajar when the washer isn’t in use to let air circulate. Some models have a cycle that washes the inside of the machine. If yours doesn’t, run an empty load with a hot-water wash or with some chlorine bleach.

    The best laundry detergents from our tests

    —Kimberly Janeway

    The best matching washers and dryers

    Check out the matching washers and dryers that cleaned up in Consumer Reports tests. The pricier pairs tend to be quieter but you can get good performance for less if noise isn't an issue.

    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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    Thermostats that know when you're coming home

    A programmable thermostat can help make your home more comfortable and energy efficient by automatically adjusting its temperature, say raising the air conditioning while you’re sleeping and turning it off after you leave for work. But those benefits are only possible if the thermostat is simple to set up. That’s why ease-of-use is a key criteria in Consumer Reports' tests of programmable thermostats. Several models made our latest recommended list, including a new product from Honeywell that’s both user-friendly and innovative. Other programmable thermostats left our testers scratching their heads. Here are the details.                          

    Ever since the arrival of the Nest learning thermostat in 2011, manufacturers have been competing to create the smartest programmable thermostat. Our latest roundup includes voice-activated models and those with “geofencing,” or the ability to track your location and adjust temperatures accordingly, say cranking up the AC shortly before you get home. These features are pretty cool, but only as add-ons to a device that’s also very easy to operate.

    That’s why we really like the Honeywell RTH959OWF, $300, one of 14 models in our thermostat Ratings that can be controlled remotely via your smart phone or computer. Its touchscreen color display offers crisp contrast and its prompts are intuitive. We also had no trouble connecting to our Wi-Fi router or downloading the easy-to-use app. And it’s the industry’s first voice-activated programmable thermostat, which we found logical and responsive. Among connected models, the American Standard AccuLink AZone950, $450, also impressed our testers with its expansive touchscreen display and equally intuitive controls. 

    If you don’t care about controlling your home’s temperature from your smart phone, you can save a lot by choosing a model without remote access. Honeywell is the clear winner in this category. The Honeywell Prestige HD YTHX9321R, $250, offers an exceptionally sharp display and its ease-of-use score was the highest of all tested models. Its tabletop remote lets you control thermostats in other parts of the home. Less expensive models from Lux ($70) and Robert Shaw ($125) also made our winner’s list of thermostats without remote access. For more details, including models that earned middling marks for usability, see our complete programmable thermostat Ratings.

    —Daniel DiClerico (@dandiclerico on Twitter)

    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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    Run your Crock-Pot or Mr. Coffee from your phone

    Unless you're very absentminded, you might not feel the need to turn your slow cooker or coffeemaker on or off from your smart phone. But that's the way small appliances are going with the owner of such brands as Mr. Coffee, Crock-Pot, Sunbeam, and Oster, among more than 100 others, allying with the maker of the WeMo smart home platform. Starting with the Crock-Pot Smart Slow Cooker this summer, Jarden Consumer Solutions, will begin rolling out connected coffeemakers, slow cookers, air purifiers, humidifiers, and space heaters.

    The first products of the WeMo line were debuted by Belkin at the Consumer Electronics Show two years ago, and so far Consumer Reports has tested the Belkin WeMo light switch, with plans to test more connected products as they become available. Here’s the lineup:

    Crock-Pot Smart Slow Cooker, $130
    Stuck at the office? This WeMo-enabled appliance lets you check status, get reminders, or change cooking settings such as extending cooking time or switching to warm. Announced at this year’s CES, the slow cooker should be available by August and can be pre-ordered on Amazon now. (The other products should ship this fall.)

    Mr. Coffee Smart Optimal Brew Coffeemaker, $150
    This drip coffeemaker with 10-cup thermal carafe uses WeMo to automate the traditional programming many coffeemakers offer. Should you decide to sleep an hour later on the weekend, you can set up grounds and water the night before and, upon rising, tell the machine to brew the coffee then. You can also set up 7-day programming a week ahead. The WeMo app can remind you to set up the machine.

    Holmes True HEPA Smart Air Purifier, $200
    Consumer Reports doesn’t recommend you buy an air purifier before taking some free or low-cost steps to improve your home’s air. But if you do feel you need one, this one can notify you when air quality is poor—so you can turn the unit on remotely—and it can tell you when it’s time to replace the filters. One thing we don’t yet know is whether the replacement feature works by a timer or by sensing an obstruction of airflow. If it’s timer-based and you don’t use the unit much, you might want to inspect the purifier yourself before ordering a new filter.

    Holmes Smart Whole House Console Humidifier, $200
    Even without the remote control, this is one big unit, claiming to cover 2,500 square feet over its 60-hour runtime. The WeMo app lets you set it remotely and will notify you when its filter needs replacement, even making the order for you if you like.

    Holmes Smart Console Heaters, $150 and $200
    You shouldn’t turn on a space heater from anywhere but the heater’s immediate vicinity, but if you’ve accidentally left it on, you can turn it off from elsewhere. In your home, your phone can act as the heater’s remote, letting you change settings or the timer. The large unit is 1,000 watts; the extra-large, which has wheels, is 1,500 watts.

    The WeMo app, which controls any WeMo-enabled product, comes free with any of the above products, and Jarden representatives we spoke with say that if anything on one of the products need updating, the app itself will download the features or fixes. They, like other manufacturers in this arena, say they are learning from Nest’s recent mistakes in which a touted motion detection feature proved to be too sensitive to motion.

    The time might come when you won’t be able to buy a product that isn’t “smart,” but that may be years away. And not all of us believe everything in the home needs to be connected. What's wrong with using the on-off switch? If you want a small appliance that's capable but maybe not-so-smart, see our Ratings of coffeemakers, air purifiers, humidifiers, and space heaters.

    —Ed Perratore (@EdPerratore on Twitter)

    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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    Back-to-school shopping guide

     

    Ways to save with student discounts
    With the start of school just around the corner, you may be fretting about how much you'll have to spend on clothing, electronics, and other back-to-school must-haves. Luckily, if you or your child is a college student, many stores and services offer discounts that make purchases more affordable. Some even extend the invitation to high school or even kindergarten through 12th grade students.

    How to go to college free
    Starbucks made headlines recently with its plan to help finance four-year college degrees for employees. A deal between the coffee giant and Arizona State University covers the cost of tuition—full or partial, depending on credits completed—for employees enrolled in the school's online degree program.

    But you don't have to be a macchiato-making maven to get a free college education. Consumer Reports has identified many ways to go to college free, no matter your household income.

    How to minimize student debt
    With each passing year, college costs are increasing. By one estimate, they will continue to rise at a rate of 5 percent annually for at least the next 15 years. Debt may be unavoidable, but there are several steps you can take to minimize the amount of money you will owe when you graduate.
     
    As a rising junior at a state university, here’s what I’ve learned.

    Student loan rates set to rise
    Certain types of federal student loans will cost borrowers more beginning next month, as their interest rates adjust to reflect the higher borrowing costs of the federal government.

    How to handle a college student’s money needs
    Your child is heading to college this fall. After you’ve figured out the big spending issues—tuition, room, meal plan, and fees—you need to consider how your scholar will handle spending on everyday expenses, such as toiletries, supplies, laundry, travel, activities, and entertainment. Here are some smart ways to handle transferring funds and teach your child how to manage money.

    How to insure your college student's stuff
    College students take a lot valuable stuff with them to school: computers, printers, TVs, bicycles, cell phones, digital music players, and more. So it's important to protect your kid's possessions against loss. Several insurance options exist, and the one you choose depends on where your son or daughter goes to school and the type of coverage you want.

    Best everyday products for college students
    When children are in elementary school, teachers typically send home a list of school supplies that parents should buy. When they go off to college, students need some of the same everyday items but this time you have to come up with the list. Keep in mind that students will be moving into unfurnished spaces and will want familiar things such as paper towels, tissues, batteries and laundry detergent within easy reach. The experts at Consumer Reports scoured our labs and found some extraordinary everyday products.

     

    5 best laptops and tablets for back to school
    Students need a lot more than pencils and notebooks in today’s classrooms: The way they learn has changed radically since computers and the Internet arrived. As an educator and tech advocate, Vicki Davis, told us, “Tablets and laptops are the new paper, the new textbook, and the new podium from which teachers share with their classes.”

    Best electronics gear for college students
    For college students, one harsh reality of dorm or small-apartment living is that space can often be severely limited. Their budgets are also unlikely to be too grand, which means that no matter how much an undergrad wants high-end name-brand electronics, that gear might not be worth enduring an endless diet of cheap supermarket ramen noodles. Check our suggestions for the space-starved, budget-minded student who doesn't want to compromise on quality electronics equipment.

     

    Best small appliances for college students
    Colleges are pretty consistent about what you should bring to campus—linens, laptops, and a yearn to learn—but they vary on what’s allowed in the dorms. Some prohibit any high-heat appliance such as toasters, coffeemakers, and popcorn makers; other campuses permit them.

    Colleges usually allow dorm residents to buy or rent a refrigerator, but students who like to make their own Pop-Tarts and coffee should check the college website. Of course, the rules are different for students who live off campus. Here are some of Consumer Reports’ top-rated small appliances for small spaces.

    Laundry tips for college students help them take a load off
    With all the studying and, ahem, extracurriculars that are part of campus life, doing laundry is the last thing college students want to do. Still, unless you're going to pay to get it done or wait until an upcoming break to wash your clothes at home (who has that many pairs of underwear?), it's a necessity. But if you don't do it right, all kinds of problem can ensue.

     

    5 best used cars for teen drivers
    School's out for summer, and teens have places to go. Whether heading to a friend’s house, commuting to work, or preparing for school in the fall, many young drivers need (or at least want) their own car. While there can be the temptation to buy whatever cheap model is being advertised in your neighborhood, or to provide a hand-me-down car, choosing the best used cars for teens warrants a bit more strategy.

    Tips for safe carpooling
    As summer winds down, kids will soon return to school, complete with hectic schedules and extra-curricular activities. For many families, dealing with the logistics of an active child means sharing transportation duties in a carpool. But not every parent adheres to safe practices when it comes to strapping young children into safety or booster seats and that can put your child in danger. Likewise, many are content to buckle a child in an adult three-point belt before they are large enough.

    Smart car-packing tips for heading back to school
    After endless trips to stores to stock up on back-to-school supplies and dorm essentials, you’re ready to send your child off to college. Of course, it never looks like a lot of stuff until you try to fit it in a car. College necessities don’t just include clothes and toiletries, but bigger items such as computers, electronics, furniture, and small appliances. The challenge is to pack your car safely in a way that doesn’t interfere with visibility and secures all items so they don’t become dangerous projectiles. Use our tips on how to pack up your car for a back-to-school road trip.

    Best new cars for teens
    If you are looking to buy a new car for your teen driver, there are some good options that are safe and reliable, and won’t break the bank. Plus if you buy one this summer, you can take advantage of model-year-end deals on 2012 vehicles before the 2013s arrive in showrooms.

    Our list also highlights models that perform well in our testing and government and insurance-industry safety tests, plus have average or better predicted reliability, based on our subscriber surveys. (Consumer Reports maintains reliability Ratings on our website going back 10 model years.) Making selection easier, all 2012 cars offer standard electronic stability control, a proven lifesaver that is especially beneficial to less-experienced drivers.

    How to choose the best GPS navigator for back to school
    As families prepare to send their students off to college, most have a mile-long shopping list filled with essentials for independent living. One great gift that may not be on the radar is a GPS navigator to help the student get around campus area and back home safely.

    Does your child use a booster seat when carpooling?
    Most parents routinely strap their young school-aged kids into boosters, even for a 1-mile trip to the supermarket. But when it comes to carpooling, parents are a lot less consistent in their use of booster seats, according to a study published online in January 2012 by the journal Pediatrics.

    School bus safety tips for motorists
    Riding the bus to school is a safer mode of transportation for children than driving or walking, but the real risk for injury is from motorists who don’t follow the proper laws and procedures when driving near a bus. Here are some rules to make sharing the road with buses safe for everyone.

     

    6 back-to-college health tips
    Staying healthy at college is no easy task between busy schedules, limited budgets, and lots of germs. Here are six ways to maintain your well-being when you head back to college.

    Healthy food choices for students on the go
    Raiding the refrigerator is a cinch when you want a late-night snack at home. But when you’re living in a dorm without a full kitchen, it can be slim pickings. Fortunately, there are plenty of good, healthy choices that take little or no preparation and can be easily stored in a dorm room or compact refrigerator. Here are some breakfast foods, snacks, and frozen entrees that received high marks from the food testers at Consumer Reports.

    How to get rid of lice
    For parents, back to school means packing lunches, getting kids out the door in the morning, and countless other tasks big and small. For students, the return to the classroom brings the joy of seeing friends as well as the burdens of homework, class projects, tests, and more.

    And for parents and kids alike, back to school can also include one major nuisance in a tiny, sesame-seed-size package: head lice, which are wingless insects usually transmitted by head-to-head contact. If you notice your child scratching his or her scalp a lot, especially behind the ears or at the back of the neck, check for head lice.

    There’s a chance that the itching could be caused by eczema, dandruff, or an allergy. But if it is a case of lice, it will not clear up on its own, so treat it right away.

    Make healthy school lunches your kids will love
    You won’t necessarily save money by packing lunch for your kids—school cafeteria fare is pretty cheap. And the lunchroom offers choices that can be just as nutritious as anything you pack. Ah, but will your child choose the salad bar and an apple? Or is he more likely to grab the chicken nuggets with a side of fries? Making lunches at home can help you keep control of your kids' school-day meals and also ensures that picky eaters will have something they like to eat.

    Sure, the do-it-yourself approach takes time. But we have good news: By following the guidelines below, you’ll not only shave precious minutes off of your lunch-making routine, you’ll also get new ideas for healthy, palate-pleasing meals—plus expert tips on food safety and cool gear to transport lunch to school in style.

    6 tips for keeping off the pounds during college
    According to a recent study in the journal Social Science Quarterly, most first-year college students don't gain the "freshman 15." But they do pack on some weight, typically about three pounds. Those numbers, like student-loan debt, grow over the four years of college: Men add on about 13 pounds; women, about 9 pounds. Here you'll find easy solutions to common dietary problems faced by college students.

     

     

    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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    To get a paint job that lasts, prep properly first

    It’s fine to be house proud, and nothing shows it better than a couple of coats of fresh paint. But even the toughest exterior paint will probably fail before its time if it’s improperly applied or the surface isn't prepped properly. Here’s some tips on how to prep before you paint from the experts at Consumer Reports as well as some paints that made our list of top paint picks. Before you paint:

    Protect the perimeter of your house. Tie back shrubs and tree limbs. Cover plantings, air conditioners, and exhaust vents with drop cloths.

    Scrub and wash. Dirt, mildew, and chalky old paint will prevent fresh paint and stain from adhering properly. Scrub the surface with a wire brush or rent a power washer, and use a detergent such as Red Devil TSP Free to eliminate dirt. Use a chlorine bleach solution or a commercial cleaner for mildew. Be sure to give the siding several days or longer to dry thoroughly.

    Caulk and prime. Scrape away dried and cracked caulk around windows, doors, and trim. Apply fresh acrylic caulk where needed. Prime any bare wood exposed during scrubbing and scraping, using the primer recommended by the paint manufacturer.

    Scrape and sand. Using a hand scraper, power sander, or power washer, remove all traces of peeling and cracked paint. Scrape out rotted areas, fill with a wood filler, and then sand smooth to hide the patch.

    Replace cracked or rotted boards. Simply filling and repairing cracked or split boards will still allow water to get in.

    Paint a test patch. Create a sample board with each color you’re considering to see how each one looks before you paint.

    Check the forecast. Many paints applied in cold weather might not dry properly, resulting in poor adhesion. Daytime temperatures between 60° F and 85° F and little or no wind are best. Try not to paint in direct sunlight. Never paint in the rain; postpone the job if necessary

    Consider the surface. Materials other than wood might require other procedures. Stucco and masonry, for example, might need sealing first.

    The best paints from our tests
    Like interior paints, exterior paints come in a variety of finishes, with different properties. For best results, choose the right gloss level:

    Eggshell and satin finishes have a slight gloss and can work well on siding, especially if the material is new and smooth. Our top three satin/eggshell paints are:

    Flat finishes reduce reflections and hide imperfections. They look best on siding that’s older and more weather-worn. Our top three flat paints are:

    Semi-gloss and gloss finishes, most often used for trim, highlight the details of woodwork. They're easy to clean. Pair them with flat, eggshell, or satin-coated siding for a strong visual contrast. Our top three semi-gloss paints are:

    For more choices see our full exterior paint Ratings and recommendations and find out the best places to buy the best paints.

    —Adapted from Your New Home, published by 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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    What to get at Lowe's and what to forget

    In the battle of the home centers, Lowe’s likes to position itself as the friendliest choice for consumers, with “cleaner, wider, brighter aisles offering a more pleasant shopping experience.” But what about the actual merchandise? You can enjoy shopping for a lawn mower, lightbulb, or bucket of paint 'til you're blue in the face, but if the goods don’t deliver top quality, you won’t stay happy for long. Fortunately, Consumer Reports tests loads of products sold at Lowe’s, including brands exclusive to the store. Many earn top marks, though others landed near the bottom of our Ratings. With that, here’s your guide to a truly pleasant Lowe’s experience.

    Lowe’s winners

    Cordless Drills. The $160 Kobalt KT200A, a Lowe’s exclusive, packs plenty of power and speed, and the battery can be charged in less than an hour. We also like the easy handling of its rubberized grip. Lowe’s also carries the top-ranked model in our cordless drill Ratings, the Hitachi DS18DSAL, for $170. 

    Generators. A portable generator is your best friend during a blackout, and the top-rated model in our generator Ratings is a big seller at Lowe’s, as well as a CR Best Buy. The 7,000-watt Troy-Bilt XP7000 30477, $900, delivered more than enough wattage to power our test appliances and it handled surges very well. Its 9-gallon tank should give you about 15 hours of run time, plus it features a fuel gauge and battery-powered electric start.

    Interior paint. Valspar, Lowe’s house brand, has many models on our winners’ list of interior paints. Valspar Signature Matte and Valspar Signature Semi-Gloss are both top scorers, thanks to their superior hiding. They’re also self-priming, which saves you time and money. The Valspar Signature Satin was less impressive, due to its gloss change. For a satin/eggshell finish, you’re better off with Home Depot’s Behr Premium Plus Ultra Satin Enamel.

    Lightbulbs. Especially if you’re replacing exterior flood lights, go to Lowe's. The Utilitech 13-Watt (75W) BR30 Soft White Outdoor Flood LED, $20, was practically perfect in our tests, with an overall score of 98 boosted by its exceptional brightness. Another top pick for your outdoor fixtures is the Utilitech Soft White PAR38 90W 75232. It’s a CR Best Buy at just $7.50, though the trade-off for top value is very slow warm-up time. For indoor lighting, we like the Utilitech 100W Soft White CFL.        

    Snow blowers. Last year’s heavy snowfall caused a run on snow blowers in many parts of the country, so if you’re in the market, you should shop early. Lowe’s is as good a place as any, especially if you want a two-stage gas blower. The Troy-Bilt Storm 3090XP 31AH55Q, $1,100, is a CR Best Buy, offering superb removal speed, even when it comes to the tough pile deposited at the end of the driveway. Paying $100 more for the Troy-Bilt Storm 3090XP 31AH55R gets you slightly better handling.

    ZTR Tractors. Lowe’s Troy-Bilt standard lawn tractors tend to struggle in our tests (see below), but the brand excels in the zero-turn-radius, or ZTR, category. The Troy-Bilt Mustang 42" 17WFCACS is our top-rated model, and at $2,300 it’s a CR Best Buy. Notable features include hydrostatic transmission, a comfortable high-back seat, and a visible fuel gauge.  

     

    Lowe’s losers

    Air purifiers. The best air purifiers in our air purifier Ratings do especially well at filtering dust, tobacco smoke, and pollen at high and low speeds. Two models sold only at Lowe’s—the Idylis IAP-10-280 and the Idylis IAP-10-200—did the job at high speed, but not at low. That and the fact that they’re quite noisy made them also-rans in our latest air purifier tests. Try the Whirlpool Whispure AP51030K, available at Amazon, Sears, and Walmart.      

    Exterior paints. Though Valspar does well in our interior paint Ratings, most of its exterior paints miss our picks list. The exception is the Valspar DuraMax Semi-Gloss, $40 per gallon, which is our top-rated semi-gloss exterior paint. But for flat and satin finishes, better for siding since they hide flaws by reducing reflections, models from Ace, Behr, Benjamin Moore, California Paints, Glidden, and Sherwin-Williams delivered better results, often at a lower price.          

    Lawn mowers and tractors. While Troy-Bilt makes a top-notch ZTR tractor (see above), none of its standard tractors make our recommended lawn mower list. Its push mowers also miss the mark, due to middling side-discharging and ease-of-use. The brand fared a bit better among self-propelled mowers, with several recommended models. But others fell well short. Home Depot, by comparison, scores big in these categories with its selection of Honda, John Deere, and Lawn-Boy winners, making it the better home center for lawn-care equipment.

    Leaf blowers. None of the eight handheld or backpack leaf blowers we tested from Troy-Bilt made our recommended list. Bottom of the barrel is the Troy-Bilt TB125QS electric handheld blower, $85, which combines subpar sweeping and loosening for an overall score of just 36. Even pricier models, like the $230 Troy-Bilt TB4BP EC gas-powered backpack blower, failed to impress. The only time we’d send you to Lowe’s for a leaf blower is if you want a gasoline wheeled blower. The Troy-Bilt TB672 makes our picks list, and at $400 it’s well priced.                           

    String trimmers. Though Troy-Bilt fared slightly better in our string trimmer tests, its consistency isn’t enough to make Lowe’s your go-to retailer for this product category. The Troy-Bilt TB22 EC and the Troy-Bilt TB32 EC gas string trimmers do earn CR Best Buys, but four other models in that category fall short, including the $240 Troy-Bilt TB6044 XP. Among light-duty battery string trimmers, the Troy-Bilt TB57 lags far behind our top picks.     

    —Daniel DiClerico (@dandiclerico on Twitter)

    More Get it or Forget it

    Find out what to get and what to forget at Costco, Walmart, and Home Depot in our continuing series:

    What to get at Walmart and what to forget

    What to get at Costco and what to forget

    What to get at Home Depot and what to forget

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    Make your washer and dryer last

    Washers and dryers are getting bigger and better and some are more expensive. Once you've made the investment, you'll want to make sure your machines perform at their best for years. Here's some tips from the experts at Consumer Reports on how to extend the life of your washer and dryer.

    Make your washer last

    • Make sure that it’s level, which helps to prevent vibration.
    • Remove grit from the screens where hoses attach to the water supply to improve water flow into the machine.
    • Use the right type of detergent and the proper amount. A surplus of suds makes the washer work harder. It can also trigger extra rinse cycles, extending wash time.
    • Wash larger loads rather than more frequent smaller ones to save wear and tear on the machine.
    • Don’t overfill the washer; check the manufacturer’s recommended capacity. Regularly overstuffing it could shorten its life.

    Make your dryer last

    • Remove lint from the filter after each use to keep air flowing freely.
    • Check the exhaust duct periodically. As it fills with lint, the dryer may take longer to dry clothes, and that uses more energy.
    • Clean the exhaust duct yearly to prevent clogging and fires.
    • Replace plastic or foil dryer ducts. They can sag and let lint build up at low points. Metal ducts, either flexible or solid ones, are far safer because they don’t sag.

    Select matching washers and dryers from our tests

    For more prices in every price range, read our full report "The best matching washers and dryers from Consumer Reports' tests."

    —Kimberly Janeway

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    Forget the juice and eat the whole fruit instead

    Q. Is drinking 100 percent fruit juice as healthful as eating the whole fruit?

    A. No. Juice derived from fruit with no added ingredients, or 100 percent fruit juice, is certainly healthier than juice from concentrate or with added sugar. And it contains many of the vitamins found in the equivalent whole fruit. But it still lacks the dietary fiber found in whole fruit, which may help reduce heart disease risk, control weight, and aid digestion. Juice also has more calories per serving than whole fruit—112 calories in an 8-ounce serving of 100 percent orange juice, for example, compared with 65 calories in a medium-sized orange.

    Read our report on arsenic in apple and grape juice and learn how to protect your family. If you want to make juice yourself, find out which blenders and juicers did well in our tests.

    If you prefer to drink your fruits and vegetables, using a juicer is an easy way to reap most of the vitamins, minerals, and certain other disease-fighting substances. But juicing strains out most of the fiber and possibly other, unknown beneficial substances. In contrast, using a blender retains everything in the produce.  

    The best foods to juice in a blender are cucumbers, tomatoes, celery, pears, apples, and watermelon, and easier-to-mince softer greens like spinach and chard. Skip hard vegetables like carrots, broccoli, and asparagus, which make for a gritty, mushy concoction. Also forgo low-liquid avocados and bananas. Papaya and mango will juice, but they can clump up.

    A version of this article also appeared in the August 2014 issue of Consumer Reports on Health.

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    Why do washers and dryers cost so much?

    Consumer Reports' top-rated front-loader, the LG WM8500HVA, has 14 cycles, holds about 26 pounds of laundry, and comes in eye-catching graphite stainless steel, but it costs $1,600. That’s $3,200 if you also buy the matching dryer, the LG DLEX8500V, and $3,800 if you add optional pedestals to raise the machines by almost 14 inches so that you don’t have to bend as much to load and unload laundry. Blame the rising cost of manufacturing and transportation, as well as much larger capacities, stainless-steel drums, added ­cycles and features, and even ­improved styling for machines that are meant to be seen.

    But you can save money by following these tips: Specialty cycles take out the guesswork, but they also up the price. Our tests have found that basic cycles can handle most laundry chores, and our surveys have found that most subscribers use the normal cycles most of the time anyway. So ask yourself if you really want to pay for a dedicated bedding cycle to wash your sheets and comforters, or a special cycle for your jeans.

    Before you shop, look online for rebates and special offers from manufacturers, retailers, and utilities. Then haggle to bring down the price, or have delivery or installation costs waived or lowered. If the price is still too high, search manufacturers’ online outlets, which sell overstocked and discontinued models. But see how the models did in our tests or the brand’s performance history. Remember, they’re only a bargain if they do their job.

    Matching pairs for $1,600 or less

    The best washers and top dryers in Consumer Reports' tests are typically among the most expensive. But if your budget is around $1,600 or less, take a look at the pairs that did well in our tests and that won't break the bank. A word of caution. Some are relatively noisy but that's okay if your laundry room is in the basement. Here are four pairs to consider.

    Find more top-notch matching washers and dryers.

    —Kimberly Janeway

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    The truth about product registration cards

    When you buy a TV, lamp, or even a mesh chair for your teenager to take to college this fall, what business is it of the manufacturer to ask about your income, education, hobbies, and the car you drive? Frankly, none. It’s a tactic called data mining, the harvesting of personal information for companies to sell to marketers.

    Companies make money from the data; you get peppered with spam and unsolicited sales pitches. Yet many consumers are scared into filling out those pesky product registration cards (or doing so online), fearing that failure to do so will void their warranty rights.

    According to the California-based Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, a nonprofit consumer education organization, the demographic questions amount to a deceptive data collection practice that has nothing to do with product registration. If you need to file a warranty claim, a sales receipt should suffice.

    Do you know your consumer rights when it comes to warranties, credit cards, return policies, and advertising? Take our quiz to find out. And read our extended warranty guide.

    None of the demographic and lifestyle information is necessary to register the product with the company, according to the PRC. Yet, registration forms don’t typically say so. Instead, there’s often a warning about the importance of filling out and mailing in the form, with the implication that failure to do so can invalidate the product warranty. The opt-out notices on such forms are usually written in vague terms, small type, and appear at the end of the survey.

    Federal regulations actually require companies to disclose to consumers if the return of a registration card is a requirement for warranty coverage and vice versa.

    The Federal Trade Commission says that the Code of Federal Regulations allows companies to ask consumers to complete warranty registration for products that come with a “limited” warranty (the kind of coverage that accompanies most products) if they disclose up front precisely what is required. Products that come with a “full” warranty, a relative rarity, cannot require registration as a condition of coverage.

    There is a plus side to product registration. If you make available your college-bound teen's name and contact information, along with a product model and serial number, a company can reach her if there’s a safety recall. In fact, many children’s products must be accompanied by registration cards for that very reason.

    Bottom line: Read the warranty to determine the coverage requirements and provide the bare minimum. If registration is required, consider whether the likelihood of making a claim is worth the disclosure of personal information. It’s probably unwarranted for, say, an inexpensive, nondangerous product such as a flash drive for storing electronic files, but worth considering for a product such as a lawnmower, though that is something your child is unlikely to need. 

    Tod Marks

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    What you can get for the $120,000 cost of the 105-inch Samsung TV

    As Mr. TV—that is, my colleague Jim Willcox—just reported, the 105-inch Samsung UN105S9W UHD TV will be available for preorder soon—for a jaw-dropping $120,000. Once the sticker shock subsided, the news got me to wondering what else I could get for $120,000 (which is more than twice the median U.S. household income).

    Here's how I would spend some of that $120,000 on highly rated products from Consumer Reports' tests. Join the discussion and tell us how you'd spend $120,000.

    Samsung RF31FMESBSR, $2,900

    Our 25-year-old Sub-Zero has a space-wasting side-by-side design, it's something of an energy hog, and it lacks the latest convenience features, such as those on the Samsung RF31FMESBSR. This Samsung bottom-freezer has an external water dispenser with a built-in Sodastream sparkling-water maker, and a convenient middle drawer between the fridge compartment and the freezer. 

    Kohler 14RESAL, $3,700

    My New Jersey town got slammed during Superstorm Sandy in the fall of 2012, and we were without power at home for an extended period. We managed okay, but I'd still rather not deal with a blackout ever again. That's why a chunk of fantasy money will go to a whole-house generator. In our tests, the Kohler 14RESAL stationary model delivered ample smooth power and is among the quietest units we reviewed.

    BMW M235i, $50,400 as tested

    My 4-year-old Infiniti G37x is a great ride, but this new BMW, with one of the highest overall scores of any car we've tested, sounds awesome: "This car, successor to the laudable 135i, is just the right size for a little sportster, and it feels taut, quick, and eager, the way a BMW should," our Cars team noted. Sold.

    Those three products total $58,000, but after tax, delivery, installation (epecially for the generator), I'd still have about $50,000 to $55,000 of my $120,000.

    There are plenty of other things I'd get, including the Canon EOS 70D digital camera ($1,150) and the Sony Bravia XBR-65X900A UHD TV (at $2,900 it's $117,100 less than the Samsung UN105S9W). But as the team that covers personal finance for Consumer Reports would advise, my wife and I should invest this imaginary $120,000 for our three daughters' college funds.

    Our oldest kid is about to start her sophomore year at Yale (nearly $60,000 a year for room and board, but not textbooks and sundries), and our 16-year-old twins are only two years from college. My colleagues' advice is smart for sure, since the cost of student loans is on the rise—as is student debt. Maybe the twins will go to a free college.

    No doubt that such practical advice should win the day, so I'd invest the remaining fantasy funds. Got any hot stock tips?

    —Steven H. Saltzman

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    Washers and dryers that are loaded with features

    The best washers and dryers in Consumer Reports' tests use less water and energy to remove tough stains and dry clothes. They also hold much more laundry, are stylish, and are quiet enough to place near bedrooms or the family room. Here's the details.

    Performance and price. Not everything in 2014 is an improvement. That performance power translates into longer wash cycles, up to 115 minutes, because it takes longer to wash well with less water. Prices have also increased as manufacturers load washers and dryers with more cycles and increase capacity. It’s easy to find models that cost $1,000 or more each. But you don’t have to spend that much to get great performance.

    Features. Some newer features, such as a steam option, make good advertising copy but increase cleaning only slightly and don’t remove wrinkles in the dryer. Other features really do make doing laundry easier. Auto load sensing is terrific because it figures out just how much water is necessary for each load. Auto temperature control adjusts the water to the appropriate temperature, and auto dispensers release detergent, bleach, and fabric softener at the right time.

    Capacity. Jumbo capacities let you wash more things at once so that you can do laundry less often. (A machine now needs to hold about 25 or more pounds of laundry to earn an Excellent score for capacity in our Ratings.) But not everyone needs to wash 12 to 15 pairs of men’s jeans at once. Nor can you just stuff everything into the same load and get great results.

    Connected machines. Wondering whether your wash is done? Some washers and dryers from LG, Samsung, and Whirlpool let you start and monitor cycles via an app on your smart phone—no need to run up and down stairs. And some Kenmore, LG, and Samsung models let you use your smart phone to diagnose washer problems.

    For Kenmore and LG, just dial an 800 number, put your smart phone over the washer’s power button, and push the button, and your machine sends information to a company rep who may be able to solve the problem without having to come to your house. Samsung’s app recognizes the error message displayed on the control panel and provides a remedy for the problem. It’s no surprise, though, that “smart” features are usually available on pretty pricey machines. Here are the top washers and dryers from our tests.

    3 top top-loading washers

    3 top front-loading washers

    3 top electric dryers

    —Kimberly Janeway

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    For perfect roasts, use a digital meat thermometer

    When you think of all the money and effort it takes to turn out a perfectly grilled steak, braised pork tenderloin, or a moist, tender turkey, it’s surprising that intuition often trumps a reliable meat thermometer. No more. Consumer Reports tested 46 meat thermometers and found 10 impressive enough to make our top picks list. Spoiler alert: They’re all digital.
     
    Most of the meat thermometers we tested were accurate within 2 to 4 °F of the reference thermometer and none was more than 5 °F off. Digital models generally performed better and were more accurate, consistent, and convenient to use than analog models. Analog thermometers were often more difficult to read, had the longest response times, and have few if any features. So go digital. Here’s a glimpse at several top picks.
     
    Instant-read digital thermometers. Simple and straightforward to use, instructions weren’t needed for most since all you do is turn them on. They usually had the fastest response times, are better for thin cuts of meat, and easier to use for checking the temperature in several spots. Use one near the end of cooking to check the final temperature. Most have handy features such as auto shutoff and temperature hold, which lets you see the displayed temperature longer.
    Winners: The top-rated CDN ProAccurate INTP626X was excellent overall, with impressive accuracy and superb consistency. It was simple to use and has a folding probe. Large digits made it easy to read, and it’s a cinch to clean, but at $85 it’s the most expensive in this group. The $18 Polder Stable Read THM-379 was nearly as good and easy to use, read, and clean.

    Leave-in digital thermometer. With this type of meat thermometer, the probe remains in the meat while it cooks, monitoring the temperature without your having to open the oven door. It can also be used as an instant read. The probe is at the end of a long cord that connects to a base unit with a digital screen. The base can be placed on the counter and some can be attached to the oven door by a magnet. Leave-in digitals pack the most features, including timers, audible alerts, and programmable temperatures. Some are wireless, allowing you to keep an eye on the temperature while you’re more than 100 feet away, using a smart phone or the wireless device that’s part of the unit.
    Winners: Three are recommended. All are wireless, offering remote control. The $200 Williams-Sonoma Smart Thermometer 87072 was the best of all the meat thermometers we tested. It offers excellent, consistent accuracy, and impressive features, such as estimated time remaining to reach the target temperature and more than a dozen programmable settings. It has a sleek design, brushed stainless steel base, and an easy-to-ready LCD screen. But the function buttons are small and can be difficult to push.

    If you want wireless setup, you’ll need to read the instructions, but once the app is downloaded it automatically syncs with the receiver. The Williams-Sonoma thermometer only works with Apple products—iPhone, iPad, or iPod Touch—and we found it works at more than 100 feet away. We also recommend two less-expensive models, the Oregon Scientific Wireless BBQ/Oven AW131, $50, and iGrill mini Bluetooth, $40.

    Of course, taste isn't the only reason to use a meat thermometer. Eating undercooked meat may pose health risks. Remember that when you’re cooking, insert the thermometer in the thickest part of the meat—avoid bone, fat, and gristle—and check the temperature in several places. To find the correct temperature for the meat you're making, check the Safe Minimum Internal Temperature Chart from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

    For the details on our tests of dozens of meat thermometers, check our Ratings, which include analog instant-read and leave-in thermometers.
     
    —Kimberly Janeway (@CRJaneway on Twitter)

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    Safety a must when using a generator or chain saw

    Even with the milder hurricane season expected along the Atlantic seaboard this year, generators and chain saws come in handy for any severe storm that results in power outages and downed trees. But as with any powerful tool, careless use can cause injury and even death. Carbon-monoxide exposure causes the most generator fatalities, according to preliminary Consumer Product Safety Commission data. And while chain-saw fatalities have dropped over the past few decades, the CPSC estimates nearly 29,000 injuries per year—with lacerations to fingers, knees, and legs most common. Here’s how to use these products safely:

    Generators
    Stationary generators are installed away from where fumes could enter the house. But portables can be wheeled anywhere, and users often run them in or near garages, where carbon monoxide fumes can enter the rest of the house and endanger family members.

    • Run the generator only outdoors, at least 15 feet away from the house, away from doors and windows, and never in the basement, garage or any other enclosed space. And never run a portable in the rain; you can buy protective covers from companies such as GenTent Safety Canopies.
    • Reduce fire risk by turning off a gasoline-powered generator and letting it cool before refueling.
    • When you think you might need to run the generator to supply power, stock up on extra gasoline. (Most gas-powered portables use about 12 to 20 gallons a day.) Store gas only in an ANSI-approved container in a cool, well-ventilated place. Adding stabilizer to the gas in the can will help it last longer.
    • For electrical safety, have a transfer switch (about $500 to $900 with labor) installed to connect the generator to your circuit panel. This lets you power hard-wired appliances and avoids the risk and hassle of extension cords. Most transfer switches also help you avoid overload by showing wattage levels. You’ll need at least a 5,000-rated-watt generator to be able to use one.

    Chain saws
    Some of the most serious chain-saw injuries occur when the chain snags and the saw kicks back toward the operator's chest and head. But although chain saws now have safeguards designed to reduce kickback, even saws laden with safety features can cause injury.

    • Start with snug-fitting clothing and sturdy work boots, preferably steel-toed. Shield your legs with cut-resistant chaps and the backs of your hands with protective gloves, and wear a helmet with a face shield. While this gear together costs about $200, you won’t think about the money the first time you avoid injury.
    • You'll need hearing protection, since practically all saws—including electric models—exceed 85 decibels at ear level, where hearing damage occurs.
    • Before you fire up the saw, check that its parts are in working order. In particular, keep the cutting chain properly sharpened, tensioned, and oiled (a sharp saw can help prevent kickback and will make the work go faster). Tip: Always have a second, sharpened chain on hand so that you can keep working when the first gets dull.
    • Grip gas-powered saws firmly when pull-starting and keep both feet firmly on the ground; most handles include a spot for securing the saw with one foot while pulling the starter cord.
    • Avoid sawing with the tip of the chain and bar, where kickback typically occurs. While plunge, boring, and other cuts that use the bar tip are essential for some kinds of sawing, they’re for experienced users and raise the risk of kickback.
    • Saw only tree limbs you can reach from the ground. Never saw on a ladder or while holding the saw above your shoulders.
    • Use a bar sheath or carrying case to protect yourself and the bar and chain when you’re carrying the saw. For hand-carrying, be sure that the engine is stopped and face the bar and chain to the rear. Also be sure the muffler is away from your body in case it’s still hot. For storage in a car or truck, stow it in the trunk or cargo area.
    • Cutting down a tree is a job best left to the pros, particularly for trees larger than about 6 inches around. While trees often fall in the direction they’re leaning, it can be tricky to know where a tree will come down.

    Looking for a new generator or chain saw? We’ve just tested dozens of both. Our Ratings of about 40 gasoline-powered, corded-electric, and battery-powered chain saws have just gone live, and next week we’ll post updated Ratings of about the same number of portable and stationary generators. See our buying guides for both generators and chain saws before going out to shop.

    —Ed Perratore (@EdPerratore on Twitter)

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    Latest NutriBullet poses safety hazard

    "Even the toughest ingredients don't stand a chance," claims an infomercial for the NutriBullet Pro 900 blender, $150. That wasn't our experience in the Consumer Reports labs. Though the machine made an excellent piña colada and soup puree during performance testing, a blade cracked or broke on two separate units during our durability test, a stress test in which we crush seven large ice cubes 45 times to simulate rigorous use. One of the NutriBullet’s second assemblies (each package includes two) also had a visible crack. 

    We are not aware of any injuries caused by this model, but because a broken blade fragment could be small enough to hide in a blended beverage, posing a potential hazard to users, we’ve judged the NutriBullet Pro 900 a "Don't Buy: Safety Risk." If you already own the product, we suggest you stop using it.

    Response from the distributor. As we normally do when we find a safety concern with a product, we informed the company, as well as the Consumer Product Safety Commission, of our findings. NutriBullet, LLC, responded by stating that the machine is not a blender or an ice crusher and should not have been subjected to the ice-crush durability test, which we developed years ago after receiving increased consumer complaints about blender durability. The company added that crushing ice with the NutriBullet Pro 900, without the presence of water or other liquid, constituted a misuse of the product.

    The NutriBullet Pro 900 is indeed marketed as a “superfood nutrition extractor.” Yet major retailers such as Amazon.com, Best Buy, and Walmart sell it as a blender, and NutriBullet, LLC itself compares the product to “other blenders” in its owner’s manual. What’s more, an earlier generation of this model has been in our blender Ratings for several years; it made it through our durability test without any trouble. As for the alleged misuse of the machine to crush ice, nowhere are users given this warning. We think it’s a conceivable use, and in an FAQ on the NutriBullet website, users are even encouraged to add ice to “NutriBlast” recipes because it “will give a slightly thicker consistency and nice chill.” And though many recipes call for water, there’s no explicit warning against using ice without liquid. 

    A concerning pattern. This experience with a faulty blender blade is not an isolated incident. In July 2013, we judged the Calphalon XL 9-speed blender a Don’t Buy: Safety Risk after its blade assembly broke during testing. Calphalon later recalled the product, in conjunction with the CPSC. And the manufacturer fixed the problem, sending owners of the affected model a replacement blade assembly, which passed our follow-up durability tests. 

    However, additional recalls of blenders from Vitamix (August 2013, models 7500, Professional Series 300, and Professional Series 750) and Frigidaire (September 2013, model FPJB56B7MS) for blade-related problems make for a concerning pattern. Consumer Reports will be proposing changes to the relevant safety standard for this product category.     

    The bottom line. Given the potential safety risk posed by the NutriBullet Pro 900 Series, we recommend you avoid it in favor of a blender that performed safely and capably in our tests. One to consider: the Nutri Ninja, a $90 personal blender that made a very good icy drink, a superb puree, and completed our tough durability test without incident.

    —Consumer Reports 

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    Best small appliances for college students

    If you are among the parents packing college students off to school for the first time, you may be tempted to equip their dorm rooms with all the creature comforts of home, including small appliances to satisfy their needs. But before you do, check the university’s website for what to bring and what not to. Typically, small appliances with exposed coils, such as toasters, are prohibited. For example, the University of Indiana at Bloomington says not to bring toaster ovens but allows irons, while New York University permits the use of  blenders, hand vacuums, and humidifiers, but not hot plates. Of course, students living off-campus can bring whatever they need. Here are some affordable, top-rated small appliances from Consumer Reports tests.

    Blenders

    Students with early classes may not have time to eat breakfast in the dining hall. But with a personal blender, they can whip up a smoothie and drink it on-the-go. The Hamilton Beach Single Serve Blender 51101, $20, was a good, not great, performer in our smoothie test. But it comes with a travel lid, which makes it easy to carry to class without spilling your drink.
    Tip:
    Blend two cups of any kind of frozen fruit with a cup of skim milk, one banana, and two spoons of peanut butter for a quick and healthy breakfast.
    Full blender Ratings and recommendations.

    Toasters

    Toasters are typically forbidden in dorm rooms but allowed in common cooking areas and campus apartments with fully equipped kitchens. That and a box of Pop-Tarts and you’re good to go. Or choose some whole-grain toast with jelly. Our experts named the Hamilton Beach Digital 22502, $35, a CR Best Buy. It made evenly browned toast batch after batch. If you plan to cook frozen pizza or reheat leftovers, you'll want a good toaster oven like the Oster TSSTTVMNDG, $80, which was very good at baking and broiling.
    Tip: Clean the crumb tray a few times a week to lessen the chance of the crumbs starting to smoke or smolder. Remember, the smoke alarms installed in student housing are very sensitive.
    Full toaster Ratings and recommendations.

    Coffeemakers

    While they cost more than drip coffeemakers, pod coffeemakers allow you to brew coffee directly into your travel mug without the need to measure coffee or clean filters and the carafe. The DeLonghi Nescafé Dolce Gusto Genio EDG455T is our top-rated model and had excellent brewing speed on the first and subsequent cups. It costs $130 and takes up less space than most pod coffeemakers.
    Tip: To get the most coffee flavor from a pod machine, adjust it for the strongest cup and choose a smaller serving size. Do the opposite if you like a weaker brew.
    Full coffeemaker Ratings and recommendations.

    Steam irons

    Your student may not think she needs an iron but there’s always that dinner with the Dean or that interview for an internship. Any student would appreciate an iron like the T-Fal FV4495 Ultraglide, $45, which heats up quickly, has an excellent steaming rate and was an excellent performer overall. It also has auto-shutoff, an important safety feature. And at that price we named it a CR Best Buy.
    Tip: Iron your silk garments first, followed by cotton and linen, because it’s easy to get your iron hotter, but it may take an hour for the iron to cool down. High temperatures can damage delicate fabrics.
    Full steam iron Ratings and recommendations.

    Compact refrigerators

    Many colleges let you bring or rent a compact refrigerator and they’re handy to have to keep cold milk for your cereal. None of the iconic cube models in our tests made our list of top compact refrigerator picks. The best of the lot was the Danby DCR059BLE, $100, which got excellent marks for keeping food cold and very good freezer performance. But it uses almost as much energy as a full-size model. If you have a little more space and twice as much money, consider the tall compact Frigidaire FFPH44M4L[M], $220, which we recommend. You can buy similar Frigidaire models for a bit less at Lowe’s and Best Buy.
    Tip: Before buying a refrigerator check with your roommates to make sure they aren’t shopping for one as well. If so, you can split the cost.
    Full refrigerator Ratings and recommendations

    Hand vacuums

    The Bissell Pet Hair Eraser 33A1, $35, is the least-expensive hand vacuum cleaner we’ve tested and was excellent at cleaning bare floors and edges. And good enough at carpet to make it a recommended model. While the name suggests it’s good for pet hair, it got our lowest score on that test. But pets aren’t allowed in dorms anyway.
    Tip:
    Never try to vacuum up water or liquids with a vacuum cleaner. It can damage the motor and pose the risk of electrocution. Clean the debris cup after every use to prevent odor buildup and loss of suction.
    Full vacuum Ratings and recommendations.

    Humidifiers

    Dorm rooms can be very hot and dry. A tabletop humidifier can make a room more comfortable during the heating season. The Safety 1st 49292, $30, a CR Best Buy, scored excellent in overall performance and was quiet, a plus when sharing a room. The humidifier also shuts off automatically when empty.
    Tip: Clean the humidifier after each use to prevent the build up of bacteria.
    Full humidifier Ratings and recommendations.

    And don't forget. Although Consumer Reports does not test fans, every college student should have one. Dorms in older buildings typically are not air conditioned and in the winter, some rooms get overly hot. Tower fans are great space-savers and can be found at a good price at many big box and department stores.

    —Izabela Rutkowski

    Back-to-school shopping guide

    From backpacks to cars and for grade school to grad school, our guide has you covered.

    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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    How to safely remove a tick from your dog

    Removing a tick from your dog can be a tricky and icky affair. But if your dog has been bitten by a tick you must remove it quickly because an infection can be transmitted to your dog in 24 to 48 hours, according to the Humane Society. Of course, the best way to prevent tick bites is to disrupt the areas where they live. Watch the video to see the best way to remove a tick. And to keep ticks out of your yard, follow these simple landscaping tips from the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station and the Centers for Disease Control.

    Ticks can’t fly or jump so they climb aboard their hosts—animals and people—when you or your dog brush up against the tall grass or other foliage where ticks lie in wait. The areas of your property with the most ticks include the perimeter of your lawn, brushy areas, groundcover vegetation, and the woods. To keep your pets and family out of harm’s way, you can create what the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station calls a tick-managed area around your home concentrating on places where your pets or children play and on other well-traveled spots such as around your grill and along the path to the mailbox. Here’s how.

    • Remove leaf litter, brush, and weeds. Clear tall grasses and brush around your house and at the edge of the lawn.
    • Place a 3-foot wide barrier of wood chips or gravel between your lawn and any wooded area to restrict tick migration into your yard.
    • Mow the lawn frequently and keep it shorter than 3-inches.
    • To discourage rodents, stack wood neatly and in a dry area away from your house.
    • Keep playground equipment, decks, and patios away from trees and the edge of the yard.
    • Discourage unwelcome animals (such as deer, raccoons, and stray dogs) from entering your yard by erecting a fence.
    • Remove old furniture, mattresses, or trash from the yard that may give ticks a place to hide.
    • Trim trees and shrubs around the edge of the lawn to let in more sunlight. Bright sunny areas are less likely to harbor ticks.

    If your dog has been infected by a tick, the symptoms may not be immediate. Lameness in dogs, one of the telltale signs of Lyme disease, can occur two to five months after tick exposure, according to the Baker Institute for Animal Health at the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine. In addition to lameness, your dog may show signs of severe pain and joints that are swollen, hot, and painful upon manipulation. A dog may also develop a fever, lose its appetite, and become lethargic. If your dog has any of these symptoms, call your vet.

    —Mary H.J. Farrell

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    Get out your chain saws, 'Sharknado' is back

    A year after it became an instant cult classic, “Sharknado” is back with a sequel: “Sharknado 2: The Second One.” As if the movie isn’t over-the-top enough, the Syfy network has teamed up with the Philips Hue lightbulb so viewers can create their own interactive light show while watching at home. The connected smart bulb syncs up with the audio of the movie and flashes different colors that amplify the action. For example, red light pulses during the scenes of chain saw-shark carnage.

    When Consumer Reports tested the Hue, we found it easy to setup and use and the bulbs provided instant light. To synch the bulbs with the movie, you have to download the Syfy Sync app for iPhone and iPad from iTunes. According to the instructions on the Syfy website, Syfy Sync will detect all the Hue-enabled products in your network. And you don’t have to wait until “Sharknado 2” airs on the Syfy network, the app works with the first movie too.

    Now about those chain saws
    In the sequel, the sharks take a bite out of the Big Apple as the action moves from Los Angeles to New York. The screenwriter promises that the new movie will be “bigger and better than the first” and that goes for the chain saws too. Actor Ian Ziering wields a 45-pound chain saw, which is almost three times heavier than any of those in Consumer Reports' chain saw tests. At 16.6 pounds, our top-rated Echo CS-590-20, $400, has excellent cutting speed and was easy to start and adjust. But it was only so-so at handling. For a chain saw that vibrates less and is easier to maneuver consider the Husqvarna 445, $300, which got very good scores in all tasks and is a CR Best Buy. It weighs 13.5 pounds.

    For a lighter chain saw that’s even easier to tote through the streets when evading falling sharks, consider the Stihl MS 180 C-BE, $220, which weighs only 11 pounds but still has excellent cutting speed and handles like a champ. Or if you’re using a chainsaw for more pedestrian purposes such as clearing fallen branches, try a corded electric model like the Stihl MS 170 C-BQ, $300, which tips the scales at 10.1 pounds and is a capable cutter.

    “Sharknado 2” airs on the Syfy network at 9 PM Wednesday. But if you want a full night of Hue-enhanced viewing, tune in two hours earlier to see the first movie too. A Philips executive promises that the so-called light track will take “a further bite out of the audience’s imagination.” Ouch.

    —Mary H.J. Farrell

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    Why your outdoor power equipment won't start

    Anyone who uses handheld outdoor power equipment such as gasoline-powered string trimmers, leaf blowers, and chain saws has probably known the frustration of trying to start a balky machine. Most small outdoor gear come with a two-stroke engine, the type you fuel with a mixture of oil and gas. As a rule they're harder to start than four-stroke engines more commonly seen in larger equipment. Fortunately, there’s a trick that often works.

    All gas-powered handheld tools have a choke that lets you adjust how rich or lean the mixture of gasoline and air that goes to the engine, and for a cold start it needs to be in a closed position. A select few models have a choke that automatically adjusts, making for easier starting presuming your gear has been well maintained. But the majority of chokes are manually set, often with icons that indicate the fully open or fully closed positions.

    Whenever you’re starting a gas unit with a two-stroke engine and a manual choke, the usual process is to close the choke fully at first and then, once the unit has started up, to open the choke so that the engine doesn’t get too rich a mixture of gas and air and flood, stalling the unit. This method, however, often results in a partial start or one in which the unit initially roars to life but suddenly—before you can close the choke—stalls out. If that happens, you could have trouble starting with the choke open or closed.

    So here’s the trick: Close the choke fully at first but then, once it almost or briefly starts, switch to a half-choke position until it fullly starts and can idle on its own. Also switch to half-choke if you’ve tried multiple cord pulls to no avail. And remember to press the throttle switch if the engine has flooded from too many pulls with the choke closed. Some products, such as the $180 Stihl MS 180 C-BE chain saw, have an actual position for the half-open stop indicating that the resulting mixture is just right. Other gear such as the Stihl BG 55 leaf blower, $150, have no formal setting yet will stay in a half-open position until you close the choke.

    While testing some chain saws with especially large engines, we found them harder to start since they were more prone to flooding in warm weather. Part of the problem was that we needed a third hand to get it started. One hand was used to hold down the saw from above, using the upper handle. Another pulled the cord. But we needed a third to press the throttle switch—to allow sufficient airflow to clear the excess gas. Your foot could help to push the throttle open, but it’s an awkward procedure either way.

    We’ve updated our Ratings of new chain saws with new models, including easy-starting electrics, but check our buying guide first if you’ve never shopped for one or haven’t in some time. Also review our Ratings of string trimmers and leaf blowers.

    —Ed Perratore (@EdPerratore on Twitter)

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