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    Toaster ovens get bigger but are they better?

    Some of the latest arrivals to our toaster oven lab are about the size of a microwave, with speed-cooking claims to match. Consider the Oster XL Toaster Oven TSSTTVXLDG. Measuring 22 inches wide and 19 inches high, it's the largest model in our toaster oven Ratings and its manufacturer promises "faster, more even cooking for optimal results." We put the toaster oven to the test, along with several other behemoths, to see if these countertop wares are truly ready for "second oven" status.

    As with all the new toaster ovens we tested, the $100 Oster uses convection technology to distribute heat throughout its cavity. While we see some benefit to this feature in full-size ovens, where it can lower cooking times, it doesn't seem to be a game changer with toaster ovens, even with the latest oversized models. While the Oster produced an evenly-baked pizza and tray of corn muffins, several toaster ovens without convection performed better overall. Another extra-large model, the $70 Black and Decker TO3250XSB, whose extended interior can handle a 13x9-inch lasagna pan, lost points due to its so-so broiling.      

    If you are looking for the benefits of an extra-large toaster oven—including multi-tiered cooking and the ability to bake 13-inch pizzas and toast 8 slices of bread at once—our tests did find some winners. Best of the latest batch is the $260 Cuisinart TOB-260. Its spacious interior is big enough for a 9-pound chicken, according to the manufacturer, and it actually held 9 slices of toast in our tests. More importantly, it's very capable at both baking and broiling, and it turned out a nice batch of toast, which not all toaster ovens can manage.

    Despite the Cuisinart's solid performance, it couldn't quite dethrone our top-rated toaster oven, the Breville Smart Oven BOV800XL, $250, which is also on the large side, measuring 19 inches wide. If your countertop doesn't have that kind of real estate, consider the Panasonic FlashXpress NB-G110P. It's a compact 10x13x12, and it performed comparably to Breville and the Cuisinart, for about $100 less.

    —Daniel DiClerico (@dandiclerico on Twitter)                                

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

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    What to look for in an artificial Christmas tree

    Had enough of needles from your Christmas tree making a mess of your home over the holiday season? It might be time to abandon the real-deal cedar, fir, pine, or spruce and buy an artificial Christmas tree. You certainly won't be alone. Last year, about 75.2 million American households displayed a fake Christmas tree, according to the American Christmas Tree Association.

    Here's how to get real quality in a fake tree.

    Go 'true' or 'real'

    If you want your artificial Christmas tree to last and look good year after year, buy a tree labeled “true needle” or “real feel."

    Choose hinged branches

    Artificial trees come with two types of branches: hooked or hinged. Hooked branches must be attached individually to assigned spots on the central pole. Hinged branches are permanently affixed and thus easier to set up. Trees with hooked branches cost less than trees with hinged branches.

    Check our Holiday Gift Ideas page for recommendations on presents for everyone on your gift list and tips on ways to save. And learn how to recycle a real Christmas tree.

    Get a sturdy base

    If you’re a zealous ornament hanger, make sure your fake tree has not only strong branches but also a sturdy stand to ensure it won’t topple over. Tall trees also need the right stand. For example, a tree more than 6 feet tall should have a metal stand, says an ACTA member, Thomas Harman. Some stands even come with rubber feet to protect wood floors.

    Choose the right kind of bulbs for a prelighted tree

    Are tangled lights (aka Giant Ball of Doom) the bane of your Christmas-tree setup? Then you're a candidate for a prelighted artificial tree. But if one bulb on your prelighted tree burns out, well, there goes your Saturday trying to figure out which one it is! How to avoid? Select a tree that comes with bulbs that have no-twist sockets and that’s labeled “continuous-on lights” or “with burn-out protection." (Read about LED lights for the holidays.)

    Make sure the tree is fire retardant

    Each year, 230 home fires in the United States can be traced to Christmas trees. Your artificial Christmas tree should be labeled “fire retardant.” When you get it home, place it at least 3 feet away from any heat source, including fireplaces, candles, and heat vents.

    —Kaitlyn Wells

    More holiday gift ideas and tips

    Visit our Holiday Gift Ideas page throughout the season to find the best deals, time-saving advice, and much more.

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

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    Top-rated matching washers and dryers

    Matching washer and dryer pairs are a popular choice but some don't make a great couple. Their coordinating style and color make a statement, but you'll question how a terrific washer and a noisy dryer that's tough on clothes ended up together. Enter the matchmaker. Consumer Reports tests found a number of matching pairs that are worth a look.

    Now about the prices. The top-rated washers and dryers are expensive. Blame the rising cost of manufacturing and transportation, as well as much larger capacities, stainless-steel drums, added cycles and features, and improved styling. Specialty cycles take out the guesswork, but up the price. Our tests have found that basic cycles can handle most of your laundry needs. So ask yourself if you want to pay extra for a bedding cycle or one for your jeans.  

    CR Tip: Take a look at the washers and dryers that scored very good or better in our tests for noise if you're placing the washer and dryer near bedrooms. You'll know they're working but they shouldn't disturb you. You'll hear the machines that scored good or lower. They make sustained sounds that can be annoying.

    Full washing machine Ratings and recommendations
    .
    Full clothes dryer Ratings and recommendations.

    Our tests found a number of matching washer and dryer pairs that are quiet enough for prime placement near a family room or bedrooms. All offer large or even jumbo capacities and the dryers have moisture sensors that help save energy by turning off the machine when the laundry is dry. Many of the washers and dryers have a steam option. Our dryer tests have found that steam didn't remove wrinkles but did remove more odors than conventional dryers, and steam washer settings slightly improved stain cleaning. We frequently show appliances in white but many pairs are also available in other colors. Here's a glimpse.

    For more details on their performance and features, see our Ratings of washing machines and clothes dryers.

    Kenmore set
    Kenmore Elite 41073 front-loader and Kenmore Elite 81073 electric dryer
    Price: $1,450 each
    Here's the deal: The washer has 14 cycles, offers excellent washing, was gentle on fabrics, and has a jumbo capacity—it can hold about 26 pounds of laundry. It made the recommended list. The dryer was excellent at its job and also has a jumbo capacity. Both machines let you transmit data by smart phone to technicians who will try to solve the problem without a house call.
    Consider this: Normal wash time using the heavy soil setting is 95 minutes. Try the Accela-Wash option. It offers comparable wash performance in about 15 to 20 minutes less. 
    Need to know: Each machine is 29 inches wide—2 more than usual—but can be stacked to save room. Gas dryer is Kenmore Elite 91073, $1,550. 

    LG duos
    LG WM8500HVA front-loader and LG DLEX8500V electric dryer 
    Price: $1,450 each
    Here's the deal: The washer is top rated and both machines make the recommended list and have jumbo capacities, each holding about 26 pounds of laundry. The washer was superb at cleaning and gentle on fabrics and has 14 cycles; the dryer excelled at drying. Each has SmartDiagnosis. It enables you to use your smart phone to transmit data to technicians who will try to solve the problem without a house call.
    Consider this: It took 90 minutes to do a normal wash on the heavy soil setting, but the TurboWash option offers comparable wash performance in 15 to 20 minutes less time.
    Need to know: Each machine is 29 inches wide, two more than usual, but can be stacked. Available in a graphite-steel finish. Gas dryer is LG DLGX8501V, $1,550. 

    LG WT5680HVA high-efficiency top-loader and LG DLEX5680V electric dryer
    Price: $1,200 each
    Here's the deal: This top-rated washer is recommended and among the few top-loaders to deliver superb cleaning. It has 14 cycles and a jumbo capacity that can hold about 26 pounds of laundry. Normal wash time on the heavy soil setting was 75 minutes. The TurboWash option offers comparable cleaning in less time. The dryer was superb at drying and also has a jumbo capacity. 
    Consider this: As with most top-loaders this LG wasn't so gentle on fabrics. And if you're short, reach into the washer tub when shopping and try to touch the bottom. If you'll need tongs to retrieve clean socks find another washer. 
    Need to know: Each machine has SmartDiagnosis. Gas dryer is LG DLGX5681V, $1,300. 

    LG WT5070C[W] high-efficiency top-loader and LG DLEX5170[W] electric dryer
    Price: $830 washer, $900 dryer 
    Here's the deal: The washer was impressive at cleaning and gentle on fabrics. It has 12 cycles and normal wash time on heavy soil setting is 65 minutes. The dryer excelled at drying and of the dozens tested, it's one of the few to score excellent in our noise tests. Both machines have large capacities.
    Need to know: Each machine has SmartDiagnosis. Gas dryer is LG DLGX5171[W], $1,050.

    Maytag mates
    Maytag Maxima XL MHW7000AW front-loader and Maytag Maxima XL MED7000AW electric dryer.
    Price: $1,150 each
    Here's the deal: The washer aced our cleaning tests, was gentle on fabrics, and was one of the few front-loaders to ace our vibration tests. The dryer offers excellent drying. Both machines have large capacities.  
    Consider this: Normal wash time was 90 minutes on heavy soil setting.
    Need to know: Washer and dryer can be stacked to save room. Gas dryer is Maytag Maxima MGD7000AG, $1,300. These machines are made in the U.S. 

    Samsung sets
    Samsung WF56H9100AG front-loader and Samsung DV56H9100EG electric dryer
    Price: $1,520 each
    Here's the deal: The washer has the largest capacity of the tested front-loaders and fit about 28 pounds of our laundry. It offers impressive cleaning.The top-rated dryer was superb at drying and also has a jumbo capacity. Both are recommended. 
    Consider this: The washer wasn't so gentle on fabrics. Normal wash time on heavy soil setting was 85 minutes, but the SuperSpeed option cut wash time of full loads by about 15 to 20 minutes without sacrificing performance.
    Need to know: Each machine is 30 inches wide, three more than usual, and can be stacked. Gas dryer is Samsung DV56H9100GP, $1,620.

    Samsung WA56H9000AP high-efficiency top-loader and Samsung DV56H9000EP electric dryer
    Price: $1,500 each
    Here's the deal: This washer has a jumbo capacity and can hold about 28 pounds of laundry, the most of all tested top-loaders and more than most front-loaders. Washing was impressive. Normal wash time on heavy soil setting was 75 minutes. The dryer was excellent at its job and has a jumbo capacity. Both are recommended. 
    Consider this: As with most top-loaders this washer wasn't so gentle on fabrics.
    Need to know: Each machine is 30 inches wide, three more than usual. The washer's Waterproof cycle prevented the washer from becoming unbalanced when we washed several waterproof jackets. Gas dryer is Samsung DV56H9000GP, $1,600. 

    Whirlpool pairs
    Whirlpool Duet WFL98HEBU front-loader and Whirlpool Duet WEL98HEBU electric dryer
    Price: $1,500 each
    Here's the deal: Both have a large capacity. The washer offers excellent wash performance. Normal wash time, on heavy soil setting, is 75 minutes. That's faster than most.The dryer was superb at drying and among the quietest tested.
    Consider this: These machines are expensive, in part because they are Wi-Fi enabled, providing remote control via your smart device that lets you monitor your laundry's progress, start/stop the machine, and more.
    Need to know: Machines are only available in silver and can be stacked. Dryer is not available as a gas model.

    CR Tip: Some HE top-loaders come with a warning not to wash waterproof items, or the manufacturer may suggest using the low-spin or no-spin mode to prevent the load from becoming unbalanced, which can cause the machine to shake too much, even damaging the machine and laundry area. Check the manual before you buy.  

    The best washers and top dryers in Consumer Reports' tests are typically among the most expensive, so if you want a matching dryer for your new washer you might have to spend lots of money to do loads of laundry. You'll pay about $3,000 for a top-rated front-loader and its matching electric dryer. 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, something to think about if you want to install them near bedrooms or a family room.

    CR Tip: Before you give up on your dryer consider that most of the improvements in performance and efficiency are found on washers. If you're set on a matching duo, in general it's smart to select your washer first and then the dryer. Here's a look at several matching pairs, most of the models did not make our Recommended list, but all of these washers and dryers were still impressive at cleaning or drying. For more details on their performance and features, see our Ratings of washing machines and clothes dryers.

    Kenmore couples
    Kenmore Elite 41472 front-loader and Kenmore Elite 81472 electric dryer
    Price: $700 each
    Here's the deal: They didn't make our top picks but were impressive. The front-loader was superb at cleaning, very gentle on fabrics, and relatively quiet. The dryer was impressive at its job and also relatively quiet.
    Consider this: The normal wash time, on heavy-soil setting, was 85 minutes in our tests. Try the Accela-Wash option. It cut wash time by about 15 to 20 minutes without affecting cleaning or gentleness. Washer capacity isn't as large as the top models. It held about 19 pounds of our laundry, so it should suffice for most families.
    Need to know: Gas dryer is Kenmore Elite 91472, $800. Washer and dryer can be stacked. 

    Kenmore 27102 high-effiency top-loader and Kenmore 67102 electric dryer
    Price: $600 washer, $770 dryer
    Here's the deal: Not on our list of top picks, but keep reading. The washer was very good at cleaning, used less water than most top-loaders tested, and got the job done in 45 minutes. That's fast, for a washer without an agitator. The dryer was excellent at drying and relatively quiet.
    Consider this: The washer is noisy and capacity isn't as large as the top-rated models—it held about 19 pounds of our laundry—but should do for most families. 
    Need to know: Gas dryer is the Kenmore 77102, $820. 

    LG duos
    LG WT1001CW high-efficiency top-loader and LG DLE1001W electric dryer
    Price: $650 washer, $600 dryer
    Here’s the deal: The washer was one of the few top-loaders to excel at washing and made our recommended list. Normal wash time on heavy soil setting was 70 minutes. The dryer aced its job. Both machines are relatively quiet.
    Consider this: Like most top-loaders this LG wasn’t so gentle on fabrics. Washer capacity isn’t as large as the top models, but should suffice for most families.
    Need to know: Control panels are on front. Gas dryer is LG DLG1002W, $750. The washer and dryer have the SmartDiagnosis feature. If a machine is on the blink you can transmit data by smart phone to technicians who try to solve the problem without a house call.

    LG WT4870CW high-efficiency top-loader and LG DLE4870W electric dryer
    Price: $800 each
    Here’s the deal: They didn’t make our recommended list but the washer was impressive at cleaning and gentle on fabrics. Normal wash time on heavy soil setting is 75 minutes. The dryer was superb at its job. Both have large capacities and can hold about 22 pounds each, and are relatively quiet.
    Need to know: Both machines have the SmartDiagnosis feature. Gas dryer is LG DLG4871W, $900.

    Maytag pair
    Maytag Bravos XL MVWB725BW high-efficiency top-loader and Maytag Bravos XL MEDB725BW electric dryer
    Price: $800 each
    Here’s the deal: Neither made our recommended list but offer impressive washing and drying and have large capacities. The dryer is relatively quiet.
    Consider this: Like most top-loaders the Maytag wasn’t so gentle on fabric, and this washer is relatively noisy. Normal wash time on heavy soil setting was 90 minutes—longer than most.
    Need to know: Gas dryer is Maytag Bravos XL MGDB725BW, $900.

    Samsung set
    Samsung WA45H7200AW high-efficiency top-loader and Samsung DV45H7200EW electric dryer
    Price: $800 each
    Here's the deal: While they didn't make the recommended list they were very good overall. The top-loader was impressive at cleaning, has a large capacity, and is relatively quiet. Normal wash time on heavy-soil setting was 75 minutes. The dryer was superb at drying and relatively quiet.
    Consider this: Like most top-loaders the Samsung wasn't so gentle on fabrics.
    Need to know: Gas dryer is the Samsung DV45H7200GW, $900. 

    Whirlpool set
    Whirlpool Cabrio WTW5800BW high-efficiency top-loader and Whirlpool Cabrio WED5800BW electric dryer
    Price: $700 each
    Here’s the deal: Neither made the recommended list but the washer was impressive at cleaning and did a normal wash on heavy soil setting in a brisk 40 minutes. The dryer was excellent at its job.
    Consider this: Like most top-loaders this washer wasn’t so gentle on fabrics, and it’s relatively noisy.
    Need to know: The washer’s capacity isn’t as big as the top models, but should suffice for most families. The capacity earned a good score, and can hold about 17 pounds of laundry. Gas dryer is Whirlpool Cabrio WGD5800BW, $800. 

    CR Tip: Increasing capacities meant it was time to update the capacity scores in our Ratings of washers and dryers. A machine now needs to hold about 25 or more pounds of laundry to earn an excellent capacity score. Most families can get by with a machine that’s rated very good or even good in capacity. Very good indicates that the washer fit about 20 to 24 pounds of our laundry. A good score means the washer held about 15 to 19 pounds.

    In addition to washing performance Consumer Reports washing machine tests look at how gentle a washing machine is on fabric as well as its energy and water efficiency. We also look at such factors as noise and vibration that might annoy you if your laundry room is adjacent to a living area. And we compare cycle times. Front-loaders usually take anywhere from 65 to 105 minutes to wash an 8-pound load. Top-loaders are a little quicker, most ranging from 45 to 90 minutes. As for capacity, models rated excellent in capacity fit 25 or more pounds of laundry. Models scoring very good in capacity fit 20 to 24 pounds of our laundry. 

    In our clothes dryer tests we run the machines with different sized loads and a variety of fabrics. We also measure noise, capacity and convenience. Models that earned excellent or very good capacity scores in our dryer tests can hold large loads as well.

    You can find more details on the model page for each washer and dryer, and compare up to five washers or dryers using the comparison feature in our Ratings. Before you buy look online for sales as well as manufacturer rebates and utilitiy rebates for Energy Star washers; the first Energy Star dryers arrived in stores the summer of 2014.

    A word about washer types
    Front-loaders use less water than top-loaders but typically have longer wash cycles—some take 100 minutes or more. That's not the end of the world, but it may be the beginning of laundry pile-up. Since front-loaders use less water, the detergent is more concentrated and the machine's tumbling action can also help boost cleaning. Manufacturers recommend using HE detergent—that's high efficiency—for front-loaders and HE top-loaders. Regular detergents are too sudsy for these machines.

    The best front-loaders clean better and use even less water than the best HE top-loaders. Front-loaders spin faster than HE top-loaders so more water is typically extracted, reducing drying time but front-loaders generally have longer wash cycles. HE top-loaders don't have a center agitator and use a variety of methods to lift and tumble laundry. They're high-efficiency because they use less water and spin faster than conventional top-loaders, also cutting dryer time.

    —Kimberly Janeway

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

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    How does Consumer Reports decide which windows to test?

    Q. In your window Ratings, you listed windows from at least 10 manufacturers. We get a lot of local advertising from Window World, which claims to be “America’s largest replacement window and remodeling company.” If it’s so large, why wasn’t it even mentioned in the magazine?­—Ken McGarvey, Loudon, TN

    A.
    The process of determining what to test takes into account a variety of factors, only one of which is a company’s advertising, says Mark Connelly, our senior director of product testing. We do consider a company’s market share, which is why, of the 25 windows we most recently tested, you saw several Ander­sens and Pellas among them. (It’s worth noting that Consumer Reports doesn’t accept paid advertising or free test samples—and is therefore not swayed by manufacturers.)

    Our market analysts keep a lookout for promises companies make to consumers. In some categories, including cars and smart phones, we’re constantly testing. Others, such as windows, get our workout just once or twice per year.

    Our team tracks what consumers across the U.S. are saying, especially our own subscribers. Last year, 127,887 of you wrote or called us with comments or questions about the products we test or should test. (To send in your suggestions, contact our customer service department at ConsumerReports.org/tips.) We also think hard about the real-world experience of consumers and purchase products just as you would. Which is how, to return to your question, we lost Window World.

    “We actually wanted to test their windows,” says market analyst Mike DiLauro, “but when we sent a shopper to one of their locations to buy one, the company wouldn’t sell it unless they were the ones to install it. I called the company to try a workaround, but my voice mails were not returned.”

    For more check our full window Ratings and recommendations and read "How To Choose Replacement Windows" and "When To Repair And When To Replace Your Windows."

    Send your questions to ConsumerReports.org/askourexperts.

    This article also appeared in the January 2015 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.

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

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    6 reasons not to take zinc for your cold

    Does your co-worker’s first explosive sneeze or your child’s burgeoning cough send you racing to the store for zinc supplements to protect yourself from catching their colds? If so, listen up: It’s true that recent studies have found that zinc may shorten the duration of a cold, but there’s no proof that it will prevent one, and it won’t ease symptoms such as your runny nose or aching head. And beware: Zinc has side effects, too. Here are six reasons to skip the zinc this cold season.

    1. It won’t relieve your cold symptoms

    Zinc is no magic bullet. An April 9, 2014, review published in JAMA analyzed studies of 1,781 cold-riddled participants in the U.S., the U.K., and elsewhere. Some received zinc-laden lozenges and syrups while the rest were given placebos. Those who began taking the zinc regularly 24 to 48 hours from the onset of their colds reportedly got better about a day before those who took the placebos. However, the analysis found that taking zinc had no effect whatsoever on the severity of the symptoms.

    2. It has side effects

    While slicing a day off your suffering may sound great—and there is evidence that zinc ions have an antiviral effect, at least in a petri dish—the reality is that taking zinc can have some pretty unpleasant side effects. These include leaving a foul taste in your mouth and making you feel nauseated—adding to your pain and misery instead of relieving it. "Although zinc products may reduce a cold's duration by a day or so, if started early enough,” says Consumer Report’s chief medical adviser Marvin M. Lipman, M.D., “the bad taste and nausea can make the treatment worse than the disease."

    3. It can be toxic

    A healthy adult woman should get a minimum of 8 milligrams (mg) of zinc per day, and adult men 11 mg, but that amount is easily obtained in a healthy diet that includes zinc-rich foods such as poultry, red meat, and fortified breakfast cereal. In fact, the National Institutes of Health advises that unless you’re taking zinc for medical reasons under the care of a doctor, the maximum daily limit you should get is 40 mg. Too much can cause nausea, vomiting, stomach cramps, diarrhea, and other problems.

    4. It can interact with medications

    Zinc has been shown to interact with various prescription medicines. For example, take it with tetracycline or quinolone antibiotics such as  ciprofloxacin (Cipro and generic) and you’ll reduce the amount of both the zinc and the antibiotic that your body absorbs. It can also interfere with the absorption of penicillamine (Cuprimine, Depen), a drug used to treat rheumatoid arthritis and Wilson’s disease (a rare genetic disorder).

    Read more about dietary supplements, including some found to contain banned drugs.

    5. It can cause health problems

    Getting too much zinc may increase the risk for prostate cancer, lead to copper deficiency and neurological problems, and reduce levels of HDL (good) cholesterol. What’s more, zinc products may also contain cadmium (another metal that is chemically similar and occurs alongside zinc in nature), and long-term exposure to high levels of cadmium can lead to kidney failure.

    6. Some zinc preparations can be dangerous

    Avoid using zinc in the form of nasal preparations, which can make you lose your sense of smell. Several years ago, the Food and Drug Administration took several zinc nasal products off the market after receiving more than 130 reports from people who had used certain nasal Zicam Cold Remedies and lost their sense of smell—some permanently. 

    On balance, staying hydrated and getting plenty of rest will do more to help you recover than any supplement—and a bowl of chicken soup won’t hurt either.

    —Lauren Cooper

    Use our free app to explore your health insurance options

     

    Not sure where to begin with getting health insurance? Our free interactive tool, Health Law Helper, will point you in the right direction.

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

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    10 top-rated small appliances for $50 or less

    With Christmas fast approaching, stores and online retailers are offering discounts and free shipping so there are bargains to be found. Fortunately, the experts in Consumer Reports' labs are on the lookout for good deals all year long and have found some top-performing small appliances that cost $50 or less. Here are 10 to consider.

    Cuisinart Mini Prep Plus DLC-2A food chopper, $40
    Cuisinart’s 3-cup chopper combines very good value with solid performance. It was particularly adept at chopping almonds and onions in our food processor tests, and at grating hard parmesan cheese. Pureeing of peas and carrots wasn’t quite what we measured with our recommended full-size machines, but the Cuisinart is still a top chopper in our Ratings.

    Cuisinart Power Advantage HM-50 hand mixer, $40
    Cuisinart’s 5-speed hand mixer had no trouble powering through stiff cookie dough in our mixer tests and it was very quick at whipping. We also like the well-priced mixer’s wire beaters, which are easier to clean than the traditional center-post variety. But this mixer is louder than other recommended models.

    Mr. Coffee BVMC-SJX33GT coffeemaker, $40
    This 12-cup machine delivers great value and an even better cup of joe. The automatic drip machine gets the water hot enough to bring out the coffee’s full flavor, and we found it easy to set up, operate, and clean in our coffeemaker tests. Plus the spill-free carafe is helpful if you’re a bit clumsy before that first morning cup.

    Calphalon Simply Nonstick 10-inch omelette pan, $40
    This skillet beat out models from All-Clad, Le Creuset, and Rachael Ray in our cookware tests. It’s superb at evenly heating food, say, for an omelet or frittata. Plus it’s easy to clean and shrugged off our tough durability test in which steel wool is rubbed over a pan up to 2,000 times.

    Hamilton Beach Digital 22502 toaster, $35
    This two-slice toaster from Hamilton Beach is one the least expensive in our toaster Ratings, but it managed to achieve one of the highest overall scores. Toast popped up evenly brown with nearly every batch, and the toaster offers very good control over color range, in case some in your household like toast dark and some like it light. Special features include a digital display, bagel and defrost setting, and slide-out crumb tray for easy cleanup. Its brushed-finish metal housing looks good on the countertop.

    Holmes HFH436 space heater, $40
    In our space heater tests, the Holmes was very good at heating an average-size room in 15 minutes but a little less so at spot heating a person in the room. Still, it was easy to use, has very good safety features and isn’t hot to the touch when it’s turned on. It has a fan and was so-so for noise, a consideration if you’re using it in a bedroom.

    Rowenta Effective Comfort DW2070 steam iron, $50
    The least expensive Rowenta steam iron in our tests, this was also the best of that brand. It was excellent overall and delivered superb ironing and lots of steam. The surge button provides a burst of steam when trying to remove stubborn wrinkles and the vertical steam feature lets you remove wrinkles from hanging garments and drapes. The sole plate is stainless steel and the ready light indicates the iron is hot enough to use. There's a self-clean feature and auto-shutoff, which turns off the iron when left stationary for a short time.

    Eureka Easy Clean 71B hand vacuum, $50
    Eureka's corded hand vacuum was better suited for pickup on bare floors and at edges, but in our vacuum tests it was impressive overall and fairly quiet. Pluses include a spacious dust bin, onboard tool storage, and an electric rotating brush that adapts for vertical surfaces. As for minuses, the exhaust from the powerful motor can blow debris around before it can be picked up. And it was a bit on the heavy side for a hand vacuum.

    Crane Owl, $45
    This Crane tabletop was excellent in overall performance, and is intended to humidify areas up to 250 square feet. In our humidifier tests, this ultrasonic model earned excellent scores for moisture output, noise level, energy efficiency, and its output with hard water and was very good for convenience. Daily output is 1.4 gallons. The Crane comes in many other colorful child-friendly shapes.

    Clear2O CWS100A carafe water filter, $23
    Clear2O's carafe-based filter was superb at removing lead and organic compounds in our water filter tests and costs relatively little per year to do it. There's also a filter-life indicator that tells you when it's time to change the filter. You fill the carafe by removing your kitchen faucet's aerator and connecting the attached hose to your faucet, which allows quicker fill-ups than you typically get from a carafe filter. The downside: The adapters may not be compatible with spray-type faucets, and you can't fill the carafe manually.

    --Mary H.J. Farrell (@mhjfarrell on Twitter)

    Holiday Planning & Shopping Guide

    For more gift ideas in every price range, check our Holiday Planning & Buying Guide. You'll also find entertaining tips and tricks and how to clean up afterwards without breaking a sweat.

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    The best juicers for novices and nutrition nuts

    If 2014 was the year of the blender, driven by smoothie lovers, juicers could share the spotlight in 2015. Sales have been surging as more people look to bring the juice-bar experience home. Follow the hashtag #juicing and you’ll be inundated with recipes, from conventional carrot and apple to trendy green juices (Martha Stewart starts every morning with one) packed with kale, pears, cucumbers, and the like.

    Though the health benefits of juicing tend to be a little overblown—there’s no substitute for whole fruits and vegetables—a juicer can definitely add more vitamins, minerals, and disease-fighting substances to your daily diet. But only if you use it every day, of course. And there’s the, er, fruit fly in the ointment. Some of the juicers we tested were so complicated to operate and hard to clean that they’d probably end up collecting dust in a dark corner of your kitchen cabinet.

    But we did find capable models from the two main types. Juice extractors, also known as centrifugal juicers, use a rapidly whirling disk to cut fruit or vegetables into tiny pieces that are then spun to separate the juice from the pulp. Auger-style juicers, also called masticating or cold-press juicers, work by slowly crushing and mashing the fruits and vegetables. There are pros and cons to each, so see our juicer profiles to find the juicer that’s just right for you.

    For first-time juicers

    Juice extractors are easy to use, and they’re generally less expensive than auger-style machines, two reasons we recommend them for juicing novices. The top-rated Juiceman JM8000S, $100, features a large feed tube the size of a tennis ball, which means you won’t have to spend a lot of time cutting up your fruit and veggies. Plus its blades can handle hard produce, such as carrots and beets. The Cuisinart CJE-1000, $150, performed almost as well, and this machine is a bit quieter, which you might appreciate if there’s a baby sleeping in the next room. Because of the high speed of their cutting blades, both models turned out juice that was fairly frothy in our tests.

    For nutrition nuts: Auger-style

    Because they slowly crush produce, the auger-style juicers we tested left behind more pulp, and that can make for a healthier, more fiber-packed juice. They’re also better suited to wheatgrass and leafy vegetables. Best of the bunch is the Kuvings Whole Slow B6000, $430, which features a wide feed tube and produced a nice volume of froth-free juice. The Fagor Platino 967010008, $200, has a smaller feed tube, but if you don’t mind the extra prep work, its juice output was among the best of all tested models, plus it’s well-priced for an auger-style juicer. Both models come with a reverse button for when produce gets jammed in the masticating augers.

    For multitaskers

    The Omega NC900HDC, $330, auger-style juicer also scored big for juice output, and it’s different from other juicers in that it comes with attachments for fresh pasta, coffee beans, almond butter, and more. We cranked out a few pasta batches, and it worked as promised. Note that you have to make the dough separately, so it’s not as handy as a dedicated pasta maker that mixes, kneads, and extrudes all in one.

    —Daniel DiClerico (@dandiclerico on Twitter)

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    Top-rated gifts for your favorite cook

    For some, pushing a microwave button counts as cooking and then there are those who enjoy spending a Saturday afternoon leafing through cookbooks and trying new recipes or rolling out dough for an after dinner sweet. Here’s some cooking gear that impressed the testers at Consumer Reports and that your favorite cook will appreciate.
     
    The sharpest knives in the drawer. Zwilling J.A. Henckels is a premium name in kitchen knives and its $315 Twin Professional “S” 7-piece set was the best in our kitchen knives tests. The forged knives are sturdy and sharp and the handles are very well balanced, which should keep your hands from getting tired. Always wash your knives by hand and keep them sharp with regular honing.     

    Cookware that sizzles. The 10-piece nonstick Swiss Diamond Reinforced cookware set is made of aluminum and comes with a lifetime warranty. It was the best set in our cookware tests and at $575, the most expensive. The Swiss Diamond pots and pans were very good at evenly heating food and superb at releasing food when new, and the sturdy handles stay cool to the touch. Our nonstick durability tests are tough—steel wool is rubbed over a pan for up to 2,000 strokes—and the Swiss Diamond nonstick surface held up very well. The $200 Calphalon Simply Nonstick 10-piece set was nearly as good overall but its handles aren’t as sturdy or comfortable.

    A toaster oven tell-all. Consumer Reports just tested several large toaster ovens that may be worth considering for cooks who have the counter space. Although it didn’t unseat the Breville Smart Oven BOV800XL, $250, the Cuisinart TOB-260, $260, came close. Unlike many toaster ovens in our tests, it actually makes good toast and can do it nine slices at a time. The manufacturer claims it can fit a 9-pound chicken and in our tests it was very capable at both baking and broiling so it would come in handy as a second oven

    A stand mixer for the baker. In our stand mixer tests, the Breville BEM800XL, $300, was excellent at whipping cream, mixing large batches of cookie dough, and kneading bread dough. It beat out such favorites as the KitchenAid Classic and the KitchenAid Artisan, which we also recommend, as well as other brands thanks to a bevy of convenience features, including a leaf beater with a flexible edge that scrapes the bowl as it turns and a timer that lets you set your desired mixing time.

    A blender that makes and heats soup. Blenders have gone upscale and have the price tags to prove it. But for cooks who often puree soup or sauces or who like to crush ice for drinks, a top-performing blender can be a welcome gift. The 8-cup Vitamix Professional Series 750, $650, may give you sticker shock  but it earned an excellent overall score in our blender tests, making a very good smoothie and ice drink and doing a superb job at pureeing. Vitamix also says it will make hot soups, a claim we tested in the Vitamix 5200 model. Another bonus is this blender is shorter than the original Vitamix, so it will fit under the upper cabinets in most kitchens.

    Smart meat thermometers. Meat thermometers have come a long way from the analog one your grandmother used. Some even talk to your smart phone reminding the cook when the meat is ready. In our meat thermometer tests we liked the Williams-Sonoma Smart Themometer 87072, $200, which has a probe you leave in the meat while the digital readout sits on the counter so there’s no opening and closing the oven multiple times as your roast cooks.

    Classic cookbooks
    Giving a cookbook together with cooking gear may get you invited back for dinner.  Some of our favorites include “Gourmet Today,” “Around My French Table,” and Cook’s Illustrated's “The New Best Recipe,” which all feature recipes that are easy to follow with impressive results. Or you can check out cooking classes offered by top restaurants and bakeries in food-crazy ZIP codes or by culinary schools such as the boot camps and artisan bread baking classes at the Culinary Institute of America.

    —Kimberly Janeway

    Holiday Planning & Shopping Guide

    For more gift ideas, check out our Holiday Planning & Shopping Guide, which features gift lists in all price ranges for people of all ages. We also have tips and tricks for enjoying the holidays without getting stressed out.

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

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    $450 single-serve coffeemaker causes double takes

    The Italian brand DeLonghi has long dominated the top ranks of our pod-coffeemaker Ratings with three Nescafé Dolce Gusto machines—until the Starbucks Verismo 600 broke in with comparable speed and other attractive features. Another brand, KitchenAid, now wants in. But even with brewing speed that rivals the big boys, the KitchenAid Nespresso KES0504 could have on uphill climb to woo consumers thanks to its $450 price.

    At 22 pounds, the KitchenAid Nespresso KES0504 is among the heaviest coffeemakers we’ve tested due to its all-metal, die-cast construction. If anything, it looks durable and, admittedly, it's eye-catching. The Bloomingdale’s-exclusive version we tested is candy apple red, but other colors are available, such as the medallion silver model sold at Williams-Sonoma. The Bloomingdale's model comes with a milk frother. All take a choice of Grand Crus coffee and espresso pods (about 24 flavors in all), a selection of which sometimes come with the machine.

    The KitchenAid Nespresso KES0504 appears to have a shot at our list of picks, but our results won't be complete until we conduct our taste tests. But the scores so far are promising. It matched the $130 DeLonghi Nescafé Dolce Gusto Genio EGD455T and other recommended models for swift first and subsequent cups and kept temperatures consistently hot across multiple servings.

    We tested two other pod coffeemakers, the $200 Keurig 2.0 Brewer K550—which we’ll be covering in more detail soon—and the Mr. PODhead eBox, $130. But if you’re shopping now, you can choose a fully tested model from the results of our tests of 30 pod coffeemakers, along with coffeemaker Ratings of more than 85 drip machines. Be sure to check out our coffeemaker buying guide before narrowing your choices.

    —Ed Perratore (@EdPerratore on Twitter)

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  • 12/04/14--13:29: Holiday gifts for busy moms
  • Holiday gifts for busy moms

    What do all multitasking moms want? A little extra time. We’ve scoured our reviews of thousands of products and found an array of organizational, time-saving, and easy-to-use gifts that could help make a parent's life easier.

    Smart Watch: Pebble Watch ($100)

    This is no ordinary watch. It channels e-mails, texts and other notifications from smart phones and tablets. So busy moms just need to glance at their wrists to find out who called. The Pebble Watch also has lots of apps and comes in a variety of fashion-friendly colors.

    Check our 2014 holiday guide, watch our Ultimate Gift Ideas interactive video, and explore our Gadget Gift Finder.

    Pod coffeemaker: DeLonghi Descafe Dolce Gusto Circolo ($150)

    No waiting around for a morning cup of Java with this DeLonghi. Our tests show that this single-serve coffeemaker delivers a first cup fast. It uses a manual joysticklike control for quick filling and refilling, and it is fairly easy to operate, refill, and clean.

    Shopping on a budget? Check out our best gift ideas under $100, under $50, and under $25. We've also broken out picks for momdadgrandparentskids, and teenagers.

    Portable Navigation: Garmin nuvi 3490 LMT  ($150)

    Navigation apps drain cell phone batteries very quickly. This portable global positioning system ensures that moms will take the best route to their destination. A Consumer Reports Best Buy, this Garmin GPS is easy to use and comes equipped with traffic info, Bluetooth hands-free calling, and voice recognition capability.

    Car: Subaru Forester ($22,195 to $33,095)

    Okay, so this is a big gift. But the Forester got high marks in our tests. Not only is it a safe, reliable SUV with good gas mileage (26 mpg), it's also spacious, with plenty of room for packages and passengers. The Forester is available with an advanced safety system called Eyesight, which will automatically apply the brakes if the driver is about to run into another vehicle.

    Front-seat organizer ($10-$40)

    Never dig around for a pen, sunglasses, or a juicebox. This front-seat organizer is roomy enough to store it all—and keep it handy. 

    For additional information on lots of great SUVs, check out our SUV buying guide  and Ratings.

    Luggage tracker: Trakdot Luggage Tracker

    ($49.95 plus $8.95 activation fee and annual service fee)

    Even if Mom isn’t a frequent traveler, she might love this device. Palm-sized, it slips into a suitcase. When the plane lands, Trakdot reports its location via e-mail or text.  You can also install the GlobaTrac mobile app and track luggage from there.

    Read our luggage buying guide for information on types, features, and baggage rules for airline travel. 

    Streaming media player: Roku Streaming Stick HDMI  ($50)

    Easy. No messing with cables or inscrutable installation instructions. This Roku model—a Consumer Reports Best Buy—is a small, flash-drive-shaped player. Just plug it into the TV’s HDMI port to stream favorite movies and TV shows from all of the major services. Oh, and did we say it’s only $50?

    More holiday gift ideas and tips

    Visit our Holiday Gift Ideas page throughout the season to find the best deals, time-saving advice, and much more.

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

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    Here's why you should still get the flu shot

    The news from the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may worry you: This season's flu shot won't protect against half of the nasty flu strains that have been making people sick across the U.S. But experts say there are still reasons to get vaccinated if you haven't already.

    "This wily influenza A virus has 'drifted' so that it's not a perfect match for the antigen in the flu vaccine," says William Schaffner, M.D., an authority on infectious diseases and chairman of the preventive medicine department at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville, Tenn. "But this season's flu vaccine is still on target to protect you against the other strains, some of which don't show up until later in the season."

    Find out how to get the right flu vaccine for you, and where to get it.

    If you haven't gotten your flu shot this year—and it's not too late to get one—you still should, says Marvin M. Lipman, M.D., Consumer Reports' chief medical adviser. "Even if you get this type A drifter, a flu shot may reduce the severity of those symptoms," he says. The CDC warns that this could be a tough flu season. Protection is important, since an average of 5 to 20 percent of Americans get the flu every year, more than 200,000 are hospitalized, and thousands die. It poses special risks to the very old and the very young.

    So what should you do if, despite getting vaccinated, you come down with symptoms? If you're in a high-risk group, ask your doctor for anti-viral drugs, Schaffner says. Research suggests that the drugs osel­tam­ivir (Tamiflu) and zanamivir (Relenza) can ease flu symptoms, reduce complications, such as pneumonia, and cut the chance of spreading the disease—if you start taking one within 48 hours of getting sick. You’re at high risk if you are 65 or older or younger than age 5, are pregnant or delivered a baby within the last two weeks, have a chronic disease such as asthma, diabetes, or heart, lung, or kidney disease, have a weakened immune system, are obese, or live in a nursing home or other chronic-care center.

    "The flu can make you really sick," Schaffner says, "If you wait three days to call the doctor for antiviral drugs, it could be too late." If you're in a high-risk group, one strategy he suggests is to ask your doctor for a prescription now so that it's ready to be filled in case you show flu symptoms. Don't wait for lab tests to come back, he says, since many are false negatives. Flu symptoms can include fever, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, body aches, headache, chills, and fatigue.

    A CDC study out in July found that only about one in five high-risk patients got anti-viral drugs, which can lessen the severity of the symptoms by about a day and reduce the risk of complications, hospitalization, and death.

    And if you're not in a high-risk group? The CDC says antiviral treatment also can be considered if your doctor thinks it's necessary and if the drugs can be taken within 48 hours of showing flu symptoms. But be aware that the cure can be as bad as the disease: Anti-virals can cause nausea, vomiting, and increase the risk of headaches.

    Your best bet against catching the flu this year is still the vaccine, Lipman says, along with frequent  handwashing. If you do get sick, stay home to avoid spreading the illness.

    Schaffner says the flu shot is not perfect, but it's all we have for now, and there's hope for the future. "The lights are on in research labs right now to develop a so-called universal influenza vaccine," he says. "It would cover a much broader spectrum of viruses. It's not ready yet, but it may be five or six years from now."

    —Sue Byrne

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    4 ways to organize your fridge for better health

    Getting your fridge in shape now makes it more likely that you’ll eat healthier during the busy, calorie-heavy holiday season—and on into the new year. “Organizing your refrigerator the healthy way makes improving your diet a lot easier,” says Maxine Siegel, a registered dietitian and manager of food testing at Consumer Reports. Here are four ways you can do just that.

    1. Rotate the shelves

    Stock up on pepper slices, carrot sticks, cut fruit, hummus, yogurt, and hard-boiled eggs, and keep it all at eye level. You’re three times more likely to reach for healthy food if it’s on the middle shelf, according to research from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

    Go a step further and store healthy foods in clear containers or bags, Siegel advises. What to keep in your crisper? “Cheese, sweets, butter, and other foods you want to cut back on,” she says. “Out of sight, out of mind.”

    2. Keep the pitcher full

    “Fill a glass pitcher with unsweetened iced tea or water and add some cut-up oranges or other fruit, mint, ginger, or cucumbers,” Siegel suggests. Seeing it will remind you to stay hydrated, and adding the flavorings makes plain water more palatable.

    3. Spice up the side door

    Stock up on flavorful, healthy ingredients, such as salsa, exotic mustards, pesto, jarred garlic, roasted red peppers, and artichoke hearts. They’re low in calories and fat and can be used as a base for sauces, dips for sliced raw veggies, and toppings for cooked lean meats or fish.

    4. Cook, then freeze

    “Most people don’t realize that cooked whole grains and beans can be frozen,” Siegel says. Store one or two servings in individual plastic freezer bags and stack the bags on top of each other in the freezer. That way, you’ll always have a foundation for a quick, healthy meal.

    —Ian Landau

     

    Visit our Holiday Gift Ideas page throughout the season to find the best deals, time-saving advice, and much more.

    Watch our new Ultimate Gift Ideas interactive video below and check out our Gadget Gift Finder.

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

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    10 top high-tech gifts for homeowners

    Pretty soon we’ll all be monitoring our homes from smart devices that enable us to turn lights on and off, adjust the temperature, and start the washing machine or dryer. And then we can put up our feet and watch robots vacuum the floor and clean the windows. Robots and Wi-Fi enabled thermostats, lights, and generators are just some of the smart appliances that Consumer Reports tested this year. And we have to admit, most of them were pretty cool. Perhaps just the thing for the gadget lover on your list.

    Thermador CIT36XKB induction cooktop, $5,000

    This 36-inch induction cooktop is the first of its kind and the most expensive model in our cooktop tests. There are no set elements, just a smooth surface and a touchscreen. You can place a pot anywhere on the surface and it adjusts automatically to the pot's shape and size, accommodating up to four items—three can be large stockpots. If you move a pan to another spot the cooktop transfers the programmed setting originally selected. This cooktop delivered fast heat and superb simmering. And like all induction cooktops requires magnetic cookware. The touchscreen is fairly intuitive.

    Wemo slow cooker, $150

    A smart slow cooker might sound like an oxymoron but there are times when having remote control of your slow cooker can come in handy. This year Crock-Pot, the brand synonymous with slow cooking, introduced the WeMo-enabled Smart Slow Cooker, the first slow cooker you can control and monitor from your smart phone. In our tests, the WeMo-enabled app was a bit tricky to connect to both our Samsung Android and Apple iPhone smart devices at first. But when we succeeded, we found that the smart Crock-Pot did a capable job of heating water and turned out a pretty nice beef stew. But so did the $30 and $40 slow cookers we’ve tested in the past. The new Crock-Pot does have several helpful features you might not see on basic models, including a roomy 6-quart capacity, cool-touch handles, and dishwasher-safe stoneware and glass lid.

    Oregon Scientific Wireless BBQ/Oven AW131 meat thermometer, $50

    With this handy meat thermometer you can join your guests in the living room while finishing the roast in the kitchen. The Oregon Scientific Wireless BBQ/Oven AW131 requires instructions for wireless setup, but once connected, it’s  easy to take a basic temperature and use safe meat presets. You can also set your own temperature alarm. On the plus side, the display screen is large and easy to read with automatic backlight. The only negative is that to use it, you have to turn on the transmitter and receiver even if you don't need the wireless alert. And while the transmitter takes the temperature it’s only displayed on the receiver.

    Honeywell Lyric TH8732WF5018 thermostat, $280

    Not since the Nest Learning Thermostat burst onto the scene three years ago has a programmable thermostat generated so much excitement. Honeywell clearly had its sights set on Nest with the design of the Honeywell Lyric TH8732WF5018. Both devices are a sleek, contemporary take on the round, manual dial thermometers of old. And they can be controlled from any smart phone. The key difference with the Lyric is its use of "geofencing" technology that can detect your smart phone when you get within a certain distance from home and turn the temperature up or down. Honeywell claims the innovation could knock about $125 off your annual energy bill.

    Neato XV-21 robotic vacuum, $400

    We just got a new batch of robotic vacuums in our labs for testing but if you’re considering buying one now as a gift, the Neato XV-21 made our list of recommended vacuums. In our tests, the Neato was very good at picking up the cereal from bare floors—and most of it from carpet—and got most of the rice and sand. But the Neato couldn’t pick up paper. It also tended to trap itself between chair legs and could end up stopping short of its charging base as it ran down. Like other robotics, you can program it to run when guests or children aren’t around.

    Winbot window-cleaners, $350 to $400

    The Winbot W710 and Winbot W730, $350 and $400, are 4.5-pound robots that claim to "clean your windows, glass doors, mirrors and more with just the touch of a button." In one pass, the Winbots run a pad dampened with cleaning solution over glass, squeegee it, and then dry it. The devices hold on by suction and use two antislip treads to move around. You can direct the devices with a remote control. The Winbots do windows, but not perfectly. Although they cleaned fingerprints, dust, and streaks in our tests, they didn't handle heavy stains, and sometimes missed a spot. If you have high windows that are hard to clean safely, a Winbot could make sense. Otherwise grab some glass cleaner.

    LIFX LED lightbulb, $99

    Few lightbulbs come with as good a story as LIFX. The inventor, Phil Bosua, pitched these color-changing LEDs that connect to a Wi-Fi network on the Kickstarter crowdfunding website and raised $1.3 million in six days. That caught our attention. In our preliminary tests, this dimmable bulb was nearly as bright as a 75-watt incandescent, used about 17 watts of energy, and cast light like a floodlight. You can use a light switch to turn the LED on and off, but a smart phone lets you brighten and dim the LED remotely. Our tester set up the bulb with his home Wi-Fi network and started playing with colors and sampling six effects. One caused the light to pulsate to the beat of music and switch colors. The candle effect created a yellow-orange light flicker, while lava light cycled through intense colors. The LIFX website says more features are coming via free app updates.

    Schlage Camelot touchscreen deadbolt BE469NX-CAM, $200

    This connected door lock can be used with a standard key, a touchscreen keypad, or operated remotely from a smart phone or by using a Z-wave compatible home automation or security device. In our door lock tests, we tried to defeat it by kicking in the door, picking the lock, and drilling it. It was excellent at resisting kick-in, very good at resisting picking but poor at resisting drilling—as were all but two of the dozens of locks in our tests. You can customize codes for different members of the family or to allow entry to a repairman. And the lock features a graduated set of alerts that let you know if someone has opened the door, tampered with the lock, or attempted a forced entry.

    Whirlpool Duet WFL98HEBU, $1,500, and
    Whirlpool Duet WEL98HEBU
    , $1,500

    Sometimes you don’t feel like running up or down stairs to see whether your clothes are done. This matching washer and dryer pair has apps that let you track your laundry’s progress while you’re doing other things and even turn the machines on or off. The dryer is also among those with a duct-blockage indicator, which the manufacturer says improves lagging performance and efficiency and helps prevent dryer fires. Both made out list of recommended washers and dryers.

    Generac Mobile Link, $280

    Having a stationary generator doesn’t guarantee you’ll have power. You still need to regularly check the LCD screen on the unit to ensure that the machine is working and isn’t displaying any service-needed messages. But you can’t always be home to do that. Mobile Link is one of a few products that can e-mail or text you or a servicing dealer if a problem arises during the generator’s periodic self-check. Service after the first year is $12.50 per month or $100 per year. Among stationary generators it works with are two that we recommend: the 7-kilowatt Generac 6237, a CR Best Buy at $2,250, and the 13-kW Generac 6241, $3,500.

    —Mary H.J. Farrell (@mhjfarrell on Twitter)

    Holiday Planning & Shopping Guide

    For more gift ideas in all prices ranges see our Holiday Planning & Shopping Guide. You'll also learn some tips and tricks on how to get through the holidays without stressing out.

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    When is a mattress sale not a mattress sale?

    Not all mattress sellers run sales, but those that do seem to make up for the rest. During holiday weekends in particular, huge markups often let retailers lower prices by 50 percent or more. But even at other times of the year, department stores and some specialty mattress sellers invariably put something on sale. But don't take a salesperson’s word at face value as you may end up paying top dollar for a mattress that you could have gotten cheaper.

    Here’s why: No matter what time of the year, the intention is to get you into the store. Salespeople on the floor typically work by commission, so if you pay half-price for the exact model advertised, that’s half the commission, too. So you’ll typically be steered toward “better” mattresses said to be firmer, more comfortable, recommended by the most customers, and whatever else it may take to sway you. And it doesn’t end there. Other upsells—think mattress covers, comforters, or the foundation—bring the overall package higher still.

    And even if you insist on a particular low-priced mattress that you saw online or in a circular, the $300 sample might not be anything you’d really want to take home. The salespeople know this, and if you spend the 10 to 15 minutes that we recommend you lie on the mattress before making a decision, you’ll know it, too. Which is part of the game.

    Consumer Reports' mattress Ratings give you a sound basis for selecting among the 21 innerspring, memory foam, and adjustable air mattresses we’ve tested. (We’re wrapping up tests of 16 more.)  The safest strategy for getting a great mattress at a price that won’t keep you awake nights: Over a period of weeks or even a few months, monitor the full selling-price range of the mattress you’re considering at the retailer you want to patronize. And once you’re ready to buy, insist on that mattress alone—and at the lowest price you’ve seen the store advertise it.

    Chances are, you’ll get resistance, perhaps even a flat-out refusal. The salesperson, after all, is counting on you to want to settle the deal and walk out with a delivery scheduled, done with the onerous process for the next several years. But even if you desperately want the whole thing over, say thanks anyway and head for the door. You won’t make it. And once you shake hands on the deal, at the price you wanted, resist the upsells.

    Not all stores routinely put mattresses on sale. Bob’s Discount Furniture and The Original Mattress Factory are among sellers that set one price for their mattresses and seldom, if ever, discount them. Others, such as Sleep Number, run sales only a few times a year. But that leaves myriad other sellers that play price games every day.

    Top mattresses from our tests

    Our mattress Ratings score beds on support, durability, and other criteria, with top-ranked models such as the innerspring Serta Perfect Day iSeries Applause, $1,075; the Novaform Memory Foam Collection Serafina 14", $650 at Costco; and the adjustable-air Sleep Number i8 bed, $3,000. We also feature survey-based Ratings of mattress brands and stores to gauge shopper satisfaction. Be sure to check out our mattress buying guide before venturing out to the store.

    —Ed Perratore (@EdPerratore on Twitter)

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

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    Consumer Reports' top holiday gift ideas for 2014

    Looking for the perfect present? You've come to the right place. Check Consumer Reports' top holiday gift ideas for 2014 and watch our interactive video (above), which provides a unique way to learn about the our test center and the products we test.

    If you're looking for other gift options, read about our picks for moms, dads, grandparents, teens, and kids. Or explore by price: under $200, under $100, under $50, and under $25.

    Finally, check our Gadget Gift Finder and visit our Holiday Gift Ideas page throughout the season to find the best deals, time-saving advice, and much more.

    Flat-screen TV: LG 55" OLED ($3,500)

    OLED is the most impressive display technology out there. It has unlimited viewing angles (like plasma TVs) and is super thin (like LCD TVs). In our tests, LG's OLED set new benchmarks for performance, most notably for black levels and contrast. The LG 55-inch 55EC9300, in particular, is thinner than even the sleekest LCD TV in our labs and has a gently curved screen. Moreover, OLED is an energy-efficient technology, and the LG model used less energy than any TV its size in our Ratings. 

    Check our buying guide and Ratings for TVs.

    Headphones: Grado Prestige Series SR325e ($295)

    This retro-looking pair of headphones is our highest-rated model. It has excellent sound quality that will please even serious audiophiles. Although the open-air design doesn't eliminate outside sounds, it still maintains exceptional detail.

    Check our buying guide and Ratings for headphones.

    In addition to these top picks from our Ultimate Gift Ideas Interactive Video, we have a few more recommendations in the electronics category. Opening up a brand new tablet computer is always a crowd-peaser, so you may want to take a look at the Amazon Fire 8.9 ($380 for the Wi-Fi, 16GB version) and the Apple iPad Air 2 ($500 for the Wi-Fi, 16G version; add another $130 for 4G). If someone on your list wants a phone upgrade, look at the Apple iPhone 6 ($650) or 6 Plus ($750). (Prices are for 16GB version, without contract.) Can't decide between a phone and a tablet? Consider a phablet such as the Samsung Galaxy Note 4 ($700, without contract).

    Yard gear: EGO POWER+ Tool System ($1,100 for entire system)

    This line of cordless tools includes a lawn mower (EGO LM2000), chain saw (EGO CS1401), leaf blower (EGO LB4801), string trimmer (EGO ST1201), and hedge trimmer (EGO HT2401). All are powered by a 56-volt lithium ion battery—a powerful battery that works with all items in the system.

    Check our buying guide and Ratings for string trimmers, lawn mowers, chain saws, and leaf blowers.

    Snow blower: Troy-Bilt Vortex 2890 ($1,300)

    This gas-powered blower with a 28-inch clearning width is designed to feed snow to the impeller quicker than most other blowers we tested. Our tests found superb snow-removal speed and throwing distance. It was also top-notch at tackling dense plow piles at the end of driveways. Handling and controls were superior too.

    Check our buying guide and Ratings for snow blowers.

    Rower: Concept2 Model D ($900)

    Our highest-rated rower, the Concept2 Model D, operates smoothly and quietly. It's also the only rower in our tests that offers games and programmed workouts.  Our testers loved that the foot pedals and foot-restraining straps are fully adjustable.

    Watch our rowing maching buying guide video.

    Blender: Vitamix Professional Series 750 ($650)

    Among our top-scoring models. It aced our frozen drink, purée, and ice-crush tests. It blitzes whole fruits and veggies into juices and creamy smoothies. It's one of the few models that can heat soup and other liquids with the speed of its blades. Plus—a seven-year warranty!

    Check our blender buying guide and Ratings.

    Looking for more suggestions for the kitchen dweller? We also recommend this food processor, the Breville BFP800XL/A ($400), and this espresso maker, DeLonghi EC155 ($100)

    Need more ideas for the fitness fanatic in your life? Take a look at the Fitbit One ($100) activity tracker and the Diamondback 510ic ($800) spin bike. And just for fun, an adventurer may like the GoPro Hero4 Silver ($400) action camcorder.

    Bike Rack: SeaSucker Talon ($270)

    This rack uses vacuum mounts for a firm attachment to your vehicle. It securely holds up to one 45-pound bicycle. It's perfect for the cyclist on your list who wants a quick easy-to-use way to transport a bike.

    Detailing kit ($35, combined)

    For that car-lover in your life who washes the car until it sparkes—every weekend! Try this combination of DIY car-care products recommended by the Consumer Reports auto experts.

    Check our buying guide and Ratings for car wax.

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

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    The dangers of winter coats and car seats

    As temperatures start to dip we bundle our children up to prepare them for the elements, but even with good intentions, a bulky coat and a car seat is a dangerous combination.

    We all want to keep our children warm while traveling in the car, but there are ways to safely transport children in the cold weather while still keeping them warm.

    As a general rule, winter coats should not be worn underneath the harness of a car seat. A bulky coat under a child seat harness can result in the harness being too loose to be effective in a crash. Here is a simple way to check if your child's coat is too big and bulky to wear under their harness:

    • Put the coat on your child, sit them in the child seat and fasten the harness. Tighten the harness until you can no longer pinch any of the harness webbing with your thumb and forefinger.
    • Without loosening the harness, remove your child from the child seat.
    • Take the coat off, and put your child back in the child seat and buckle the harness straps, which are still adjusted as they were when he was wearing the coat.
    • If you can now pinch the webbing between your thumb and forefinger, then the coat is too bulky to be worn under the harness.

    See our complete car seat buying guide and test-based ratings.  

    If you find that the coat can not be safely worn under the harness, here are a couple things you can do to keep your child safe and warm in his/her child seat:

    • After securing your child in his/her child seat, turn the coat around and put it on backward with their arms through the arm holes and the back of the coat acting like a blanket
    • Lay a blanket over your child to keep him/her warm.

    One of the most common misuse conditions seen in child seats is that the harness is too loose and wearing a big winter coat under the harness is just one of the potential causes.

    It is very important that the harness is tight enough that you can't pinch the webbing between your thumb and forefinger. Extra slack in the harness can be very dangerous; it can lead to too much excursion or even ejection during a crash.

    These tips should help keep your precious little ones safe and warm this winter.

    Related:
    Guide to safe winter driving.

    Michelle Tsai Podlaha

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

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    Is fine china safe in a dishwasher?

    Q. I’m about to purchase a new dishwasher and want to know which models will not harm my delicate china. (It has gold trim around the edges.) I’m mainly considering the Frigidaire Gallery FGHD2472PF model. What do you think?—Orah Rosenblatt, Brooklyn, NY

    A.
    We don’t do any tests using delicate china, says Emilio Gonzalez, our senior test program leader for appliances, but we consulted the manual for the Frigidaire model you mentioned. It says that the appliance's china crystal cycle, “for lightly soiled china and crystal,” uses less water than the other cycles and is of shorter duration. Always closely follow the user manual and, of course, carefully load delicate items, making sure they don’t touch other dishes. The manual doesn’t mention gold-trimmed china, so it wouldn’t hurt to call the manufacturer to see what it recommends. And when in doubt, hand-wash.

    For related information check our buying guides for dishwashers and detergents.

    Send your questions to ConsumerReports.org/askourexperts.

    This article also appeared in the January 2015 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.

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

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    Should you buy a real or an artificial Christmas tree?

    For many people, there's no question about whether to choose a real or an artificial Christmas tree. But if you’re not sure which type to choose, let our advice help you out.

    If you want to minimize mess, go with an artificial tree

    No one likes cleaning up the piles of needles from a natural tree. “No matter what you do, there’s going to be needles falling off a real tree,” said Chal Landgren, a professor in the department of horticulture at Oregon State University. If you want to avoid the mess, go artificial.

    Check our Holiday Gift Ideas page for recommendations on presents for everyone on your gift list and tips on ways to save. Learn how to recycle a real Christmas, tree and learn how to select an artificial Christmas tree.

    To decrease fire hazard, opt for a fake tree

    The National Fire Protection Association reported that the risk of a fire is three times greater with natural trees than artificial ones, although the total number of Christmas-tree-related fires is small. But if you are worried about home fires, take note that electrical failures and burning candles are more-common culprits.

    If you want to buy American, choose a real tree

    In 2012, U.S. farmers harvested 17.3 million Christmas trees, which resulted in $305 million in sales, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. “It’s a livelihood for many rural parts of the country and it’s an American product,” Landgren said. In contrast, 97 percent of artificial trees in 2012 were imported from China, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s Foreign Trade Division. 

    When it comes to allergies, it's a draw

    Natural fir or pine Christmas trees are extremely unlikely to be the cause of an allergic reaction, according to the National Institute of Environmental Health Science. If you routinely sneeze in the presence of Christmas tress, it's less likely to be due to the tree and more likely due to mold spores on trees, according to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology. Similarly, a fake tree improperly stored in the attic or basement can collect dust or mold. Real or fake, allergy experts suggest hosing down the tree outside and letting it dry in a garage or enclosed porch before bringing it indoors.

    Bottom line

    There are pluses and minuses to natural and artificial Christmas trees. It really comes down to your holiday traditions and what works best for your family. And no one said you couldn’t purchase more than one!

    —Kaitlyn Wells

    More holiday gift ideas and tips

    Visit our Holiday Gift Ideas page throughout the season to find the best deals, time-saving advice, and much more.

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

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    Washers that can handle loads and loads of laundry

    If your washer is on the fritz and repairing it doesn’t make sense, start looking online for good deals. We’ve seen some nice surprises lately. Hosting holiday gatherings doesn’t allow much time for trips to the laundromat as baskets of tablecloths, towels, and clothes pile up. Here’s a list of some of the washers that were impressive or excellent at cleaning in Consumer Reports’ tests.

    Top-load agitator washers

    High-efficiency top-loaders

    Front-loaders

    Our washing machine Ratings offer the details on how each washer did in our tests for cleaning, energy- and water efficiency, capacity, gentleness of fabrics, noise, vibration, and cycle time. Features and specs are noted—some washers with jumbo capacities are wider than typical washers—and the brand reliability gives you a look at what nearly 73,000 people have to say about their washers.

    Kimberly Janeway 

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    Don't be a product repair victim

    This is the first part in a two-part series on product repairs. This installment explains what you can do to reduce or prevent problems before authorizing a repair. Part two will discuss your rights and what you can do if, despite your best efforts, things go wrong.

    After a mechanic charges you hundreds of dollars for a new transmission for your car, you drive off only to find that your vehicle still has the same problem it had before you went to get it fixed. You pull over at the closest garage, which discovers that the real problem was simply a bad spark plug wire.

    Whether it’s a broken refrigerator, television or any other product, you’ve probably been a repair victim due to a technician’s poor training, mistake, or outright fraud. Or maybe you found out later on that you paid too much.

    So what can you do when repairs go wrong, and how can you prevent problems from occurring in the first place?

    Start with research. When you first encounter a problem, contact the product manufacturer. The issue may be a common one for which the company has developed a fix, perhaps at no cost to you.

    Also, search the Web using keywords that include the type of product that is broken and a short description of the problem. For example, you might type: “freezer stays cold but refrigerator is warm.” That alone might produce results that suggest what the problem is and how to diagnose it, as we found on Repairclinic.com.

    Try narrowing things down further by repeating the search using your make and model. You also can try posting the problem on a message board for your product. Some are frequented by pros and knowledgeable users.

    If you’re mechanically inclined, you may find that you can do the work yourself using the many videos and other tutorials experts and amateurs have posted online. Or the information simply may help you anticipate what to expect from a technician and evaluate the diagnosis.

    Find a pro. If you haven’t already established a relationship with a trustworthy repairer, ask people you know to recommend someone. Even then, be sure check out the company to make sure it's reliable. Here are some factors to consider.

    • Reputation. Look for a company report at the Better Business Bureau, and use a Web search with the company name and terms such as “reviews” and “complaints” to see what others are saying.
    • Licensing. Some states require the licensing or registration of some technicians, such as those who do car repairs, general home improvements; and electrical, plumbing, and heating equipment work. Check your state’s requirements, and verify the repairer has met them
    • Certification. Some types of repairers can obtain professional certifications indicating they have met industry standards. For example, car mechanics are certified by the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence. Appliance technicians may be recognized by the Professional Service Association. To find more certification programs, use a Web search with the type of repairer and “certification.” Don’t hesitate to ask a repair shop about the credentials of the technician who will be assigned to your repair, says Don Pierson, who heads the Certified Service Center program, which certifies electronics and appliance repair shops.
    • Manufacturer connections. You’ll probably have to use a dealer or and other factory-authorized repairer if the product still is covered by the manufacturer’s warranty or safety recall. Factory-authorized repair shops often have access to so-called technical service bulletins and other product-specific information that may not be available to nonauthorized repair shops. And they may be in a better position to negotiate with the manufacturer for a free out-of-warranty repair on your behalf. But factory-authorized shops may charge a premium.

    Have a repair nightmare? Please tell us your story, which we may use in a future report. And for more repair advice, read: "Repair or Replace? Find Out When You Should Fix It and When You Should Nix It."  

    Get a diagnosis. Ask in advance what the shop expects a diagnosis will entail and how much it's likely to cost, including a trip to your home, towing, or anything else that might apply. Provide as much detail about the problem as you can and describe any recent repairs you have made to the item (but never offer your own diagnosis). You may find that the diagnostic charge justifies buying a new product instead of repairing an old one. If the shop can’t tell you how much the diagnostic charge will be or if it seems unreasonable, check with other shops or ask for opinions on one or more online forums that focus on your product.

    After obtaining a diagnosis, ask how sure the technician is that he has identified the cause of the problem and whether he’s guaranteeing that the repair will correct the issue. If he is, find out if he'll put it in writing, advises Dan Blinn, founder and managing partner of the Rocky Hill, Connecticut-based Consumer Law Group. If the repair doesn't fix the problem, a contract that contains such a guarantee may give you stronger legal rights than one that simply says the technician will replace a certain part or perform a specific service. If the technician seems unsure about his diagnosis, be careful, you may be dealing with a so-called parts replacer, a technician who begins replacing parts in hopes of stumbling on the problem, says John Nielsen, AAA’s managing director of automotive engineering and an ASE-certified automotive technician.

    Decide whether to obtain a second opinion. A second opinion may be worth it if it’s a big-cost repair or your gut tells you that the diagnosis may be wrong. Of course you’ll likely have to pay the first shop’s diagnostic charge, as well as another one for the second shop. And second opinions sometimes are impractical, for instance if the first shop disassembled your transmission into a thousand pieces trying to figure out the problem.

    Verify the price. Find out whether the price is fair by checking with competitors, use a web search, or ask on online forums for your product. If parts are involved, review prices online to verify the shop isn’t marking up the part unreasonably. But be sure you’re comparing the same parts. A technician may be basing his estimate on factory parts while you’re online quote may be for aftermarket ones. For car repairs, the website RepairPal provides price estimates.

    Get a written estimate. Read the estimate carefully, checking the guarantee for parts and labor and any fine print. If the price is only an estimate, ask how much it can change. Be sure the work contains a clause requiring the shop to get your approval before exceeding the estimate. And never sign a blank work order. The estimate should specify the type of parts: New, used, genuine manufacturer replacement, or aftermarket.

    Ask for the old parts. While you’re at it, tell the shop that you want to retain the old parts, if practical. That may reduce the likelihood of fraud or provide an extra incentive for the technician to make sure the part really is defective. Of course, some parts simply may be too big or bulky to keep, or the shop may have to return it to the part manufacturer for a credit. Some states require certain repairers to returned replaced parts, although you may have to make the request in writing.

    Use a credit card. Use a credit card for any deposit and payment. That way, if the shop tries to pull a fast one, you can contest the charge with the credit card issuer.

    —Anthony Giorgianni


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