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Consumer Reports

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    The best tile for floors, counters, and backsplashes

    Walking into a tile showroom can be as overwhelming as it is inspiring. The displays are spectacular, but there are so many options, at so many price points. Before you run to the home center for a box of plain white subway tile—and miss out on the chance to make a bold impact in your kitchen—use Consumer Reports’ tile primer to get the lowdown on this durable, beautiful material. To help you shop, we’ve asked an expert panel of tile manufacturers, retailers, and installers for their best tips on the pros and cons of the most common types of tile.

    Ceramic

    Price: $2 to $7 per square foot
    What is it? A mix of clay, minerals, and water, ceramic tiles are fired at high temperatures. Glazed styles are then treated with a liquid glass coating and fired again, creating a hard, stain- and scratch-resistant surface. Unglazed tiles are sometimes referred to as “quarry” tiles.
    Best for: Ceramic tile is typically affordable, durable, easy to install and comes in a nearly endless array of colors and designs.
    But: Colors can vary from lot to lot and ceramic is not ideal for high impact areas. Handmade or “art” tiles can be extremely pricey.

    Porcelain

    Price: $3 to $7 per square foot
    What is it? Porcelain tile is a type of ceramic tile that is fired at a higher temperature than standard ceramic, making it denser and less porous.
    Best for: Use stain- and impact-resistant porcelain tiles on floors, walls, backsplashes. It’s easy to clean and comes in a wide variety of styles.
    But: It requires a special setting material designed to adhere non-porous materials—DIYers often buy the wrong one. Check with the manufacturer to be sure you’re using the recommended adhesive.

    Glass

    Price: $7 to $30 and more per square foot
    What is it? Thin pieces of glass sold individually or as a mosaic, sometimes with other types of tile, on a mesh backing.
    Best for: Colorful, reflective, easy-to-clean glass tile is best for walls and backsplashes. Some glass tile is rated for use on floors. The wide range of colors gives glass tile great “wow” factor.
    But: It can be expensive and difficult to install. Because the tiles are transparent, the adhesive is visible through the tile. Unless you’re highly skilled, getting professional-looking results is difficult for a DIYer.

    Cement

    Price: $9 to $17 per square foot
    What is it? Handmade of natural materials, cement tiles—also known as encaustic or Cuban tiles in the U.S.—typically boast bold patterns.
    Best for: Resilient and beautiful, cement tiles are appropriate for floors, backsplashes and walls.
    But: They’re pricey and not as common as other tiles, so your installer may not be used to working with them. Also, cement tiles are prone to etching by acid or harsh detergents and must be sealed on installation and resealed periodically.

    Stone

    Price: $6 to $15 per square foot
    What is it? Pieces of natural stone—granite, slate, travertine, marble, onyx, sandstone, to name a few—cut into thin, regular pieces, stone tile has a rich, one-of-a-kind look.
    Best for: Use stone on walls, backsplashes, or floors. Get the look of a granite countertop for less by using granite tiles instead of a slab.
    But: Most stone tile can be damaged by exposure to water, pigment, or acid, so be prepared for extra maintenance. Seal on installation and reseal every 10 years.

    Best flooring and countertops

    Consumer Reports tests both tile flooring and tile countertops. In our flooring tests, only vinyl scored better. The top tile performer is SnapStone Beige 11-001-02-01, $8.00 a square foot. It was aces at withstanding foot traffic and resisting stains, scratches, and fading. However it was only so-so at resisting dents.

    In our kitchen countertop tests, ceramic and porcelain tile fell behind winners quartz and granite but at $5.00 a square foot was by far the most budget friendly. It was only so-so at resisting stains but was a champ at standing up to heat and slicing and chopping.

    —Adapted from Consumer Reports' Kitchen Planning & Buying Guide

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Sleep monitor keeps track of your restless nights

    Not everyone with sleep issues needs to go for a professional sleep study. But for at least some of the 56 percent of Americans who report they don’t sleep well, a new app-assisted sleep monitor from Sleepace could provide enough information to help them tell for sure.

    Shown at CES 2015 in Las Vegas for the first time, RestOn has a console that attaches to the side of your bed. An attached strap stretches across the mattress, beneath the fitted sheet. Once you turn the device on through the app at bedtime, it measures sleep time, heart rate, respiratory rate, body movement, and sleep cycles. The device collects this data during the night and automatically syncs it via Bluetooth to the app, which runs on an iOS or Android phone.

    From the information it collects and analyzes, the app will give you personalized daily reminders that help you form better sleep habits. You also get weekly and monthly reports on your sleep quality, which identify trends in your sleep habits and even warn of potential health issues. Another plus is that the device can store the data it collects, helpful if your phone is off during the night, and sync only when it can. The device’s lithium-ion battery lasts about a month on a charge.

    The company claims that the sensor isn’t deterred by thick sheets or heavy pajamas, even sweats. Still, it’s not failsafe. RestOn is intended for only a single user, so if sleep partners switch places on the bed the sensor will collect false data. (Sorry, pets need to stay off that side of the bed, too.) And while the sensor can detect sleep apnea—the number, frequency, and duration of apneic episodes—it cannot, like a formal sleep study, advise you on which sleep positions might be better or worse for minimizing apnea.

    The project’s launch comes through an Indiegogo funding drive, which will also go toward efforts to reach out to sleep centers. The company claims, however, that it has already compared RestOn’s readings of heart and respiratory rate with medical-grade sleep monitors and found no inaccuracies.

    One minor caveat: Since the device’s strap extends a bit longer than 34½ inches, it falls a few inches short of the 38 inches that marks half of a king-size bed. But if your bed is narrower—say, a full-size—you can wrap the excess beneath the working part of the strap without interfering with the device’s operation.

    The product will cost $149 when it begins shipping in February (Indiegogo backers get $50 off), and will initially be sold through Sleepace’s website—with additional sellers perhaps in place by the end of CES.

    The product might not answer your every question about your sleep issues, but between the analysis and subsequent tips it offers, you might get close enough that you don’t need to look further. If your mattress is several years old, however, that might be affecting how you sleep and feel when you get up in the morning. See our free mattress buying guide for information on how to shop for a replacement, and check out our test-based Ratings of more than 20 mattresses, along with our survey results on the best mattress brands and retailers.

    —Ed Perratore (@EdPerratore on Twitter)

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    New Whirlpool washer simplifies setting cycles

    While LG and Samsung battle it out for the washers with the largest capacity, Whirlpool is challenging its overseas competition on another front: Ease of use. The company is also one of several we’ve seen at CES 2015 to integrate products with the Nest thermostat, for better or worse.

    Typical washing machines have you select options such as desired cycle, load size, soil level, wash/rinse temperatures, and more. The Whirlpool Cabrio WTW8700EC top-load washer, expected to sell for about $1,300, asks two simple questions through its touchscreen display: What are you washing? How soon do you want it? From there, claims the manufacturer, sensors determine the needs of the load and adjust water temperature, levels, and more. A matching dryer, the electric Whirlpool Cabrio WED8700EC and gas Whirlpool Cabrio WGD8700EC, both about $1,300 each, will also be available.

    The washer’s Nest thermostat integration, however, comes on a number of new Whirlpool washers, including the already available Whirlpool Duet WFL98HEBU front-load washer and its matching electric dryer, the Whirlpool Duet WEL98HEBU, $1,500 each. With all three washers, the Nest device signals to the washer that nobody is home. The washer subsequently can tumble finished clothes in fresh air, perhaps drying small loads. Until the Nest says you’re back home, the dryer can tumble clothes after a cycle is over to keep them from getting wrinkled.

    If you participate in Nest Rush Hour Rewards, you can also have your Nest thermostat set the appliances to run only when energy rates or demand—as determined by your local utility—are lowest. Of course, most of us want our clothes clean when we need them. Having your Nest delay a washer or dryer cycle’s cycle until late in the evening might not be welcome in a busy household with lots of dirty laundry.

    As with many new washers, Whirlpool’s accompanying app lets you download new cycles as needed. And should you need service, a diagnostic tool helps you resolve the issue—without a service call if possible.

    The Whirlpool Cabrio WTW8700EC is expected to be available in April; we’ve already tested the front-load Whirlpool Duet WFL98HEBU and its matching Whirlpool Duet WEL98HEBU dryer. If  you're replacing your washer and dryer now, see the results of our tests of the best matching washers and dryers, and check out our free buying guides for washers and dryers. Then check our Ratings of 135 top- and front-load washers and more than 275 dryers.

    —Ed Perratore (@EdPerratore on Twitter)

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    6 products on deep discount in January

    This time of year you see plenty of "Sale" signs in stores. You might think just about everything is discounted after the holidays.

    But Consumer Reports product research experts, who track prices all year long, have compiled a list of items that are typically discounted most deeply in January. So if you're shopping for the best deals, here are the things to put on your list.  

    Want to know what's on sale the rest of the year? See our calendar of deals.

    Mandy Walker (@MandyWalker on Twitter)

    It's the month for white sales, but buying new sheets might not be as simple as checking the pricetags.

    Shopping tips

    Don't shop on thread count alone. Our latest tests again confirmed that higher thread count doesn't guarantee better sheets. In fact the top-scoring percale sheets, which had a claimed thread count of only 280, were strong, shrank very little, and easily fit mattresses up to 17 inches high, even after we washed and dried them five times.

    Make sure you can return them. Only 4 of 23 sets of queen-size sheets performed well enough for us to recommend them in our last test. As for the other 19, we found a litany of problems: Some fitted sheets easily ripped or came apart at the seams in our strength tests. Other sets had fitted sheets that popped off the corners of mattresses they claimed to fit, or flat sheets that fell short on the sides of the bed. And some wrinkle-free sheets weren't.

    For more shopping tips, check out our sheet buying guide. Our Ratings show which sheets did best in our lab tests. If you're shopping for young children, see our crib bedding buying guide.

    By the way, if you've ever wondered if it's possible to fold those fitted sheets neatly, watch the video below.

    Ellipticals mimic the motion of running but without the impact.

    Shopping tips

    Every model is a little different. Don't buy an elliptical (or a treadmill) before using it in the store. That's especially important with elliptical exercisers because the movement is less familiar than walking or running, and each machine has a slightly different pedaling profile. See our elliptical buying guide for more shopping tips.

    What price can tell you. In our tests we've found ellipticals that cost $2,000 and up were well-built and felt stable to our testers, more like the $5,000 machines at gyms. And they were less likely to have defects. But you can still get a good basic model for less. In our Elliptical Ratings (available to subscribers), the quality score reflects the severity and frequency of those defects.

    Now that the holidays are over you should be able to find great deals on most toys, although popular stuff like a signing Elsa from Frozen doll may still be full price for awhile.
     

    Shopping tips

    Check age suggestions When toy shopping for young children, follow the manufacturer's age recommendations displayed on the package. Although you might think that a more "advanced" toy will present a welcome challenge, in reality, it could be a source of frustration.  

    Look for hazards Avoid magnets and toys that have them. Small magnets can be accidentally swallowed by children and they can do tremendous harm. The CPSC recommends keeping toys with magnets away from children younger than six.

    For more shopping and safety tips, read our toy buying guide.

    If you're shopping for older children, you probably know tablets for kids are hot. See how different models did in our lab tests; the video below provides some great shopping tips.  

    Spending several thousand dollars on a treadmill can get you sturdier construction, better hardware, and more features. But you can get a decent machine that provides a great workout for much less.

    Shopping tips

    Take factors besides cost into account before buying. One important consideration is the amount of space you have for a treadmill. Nonfolding models take up as much floor space as a couch or dining room table. A folding treadmill can save you about six-square-feet.

    Decide where you want to shop. Budget and midpriced treadmills are sold at large retailers such as Dick's Sporting Goods, Sears, Sports Authority, and Walmart. For more expensive brands, you'll generally need to hit a specialty fitness store. Whether you want to shop online for the best price or in a store, try the machine in person first. You might notice a problem--the deck is too short for you stride, for example--that you can't detect by sight or reviews alone.

    Our treadmill buying guide provides lots more shopping tips; subscribers can also take advantage of our Treadmill Ratings to make wise buying decisions.

    It's possible to find good TVs selling for a few hundred dollars, while others go for several thousand, and there are many sets that fall in between those extremes. Screen size, features, brand, and more affect the price. Our TV buying guide will help you get the most bang for your buck, no matter how much or how little you want to spend.

    Shopping tips

    It's hard to judge TVs well for yourself in stores. That's because TVs are usually set to a Retail or Store mode, which pumps up brightness and color to a level that looks great under fluorescent lights. Subscribers should consult our TV Ratings before hitting the stores to make sure you get a set that performed well in our lab tests.

    Consider the size. Budget and room size permitting, we believe most consumers would be best served by at least a 40- to 42-inch screen for a primary TV. A 46- or 50-inch set is often preferable in rooms where you'll be sitting 8 to 10 feet or so from the screen. Consider an even bigger set for spacious family rooms. Just don't buy a jumbo screen and sit right on top of it: If you sit too close to a TV screen you might notice the picture elements (pixels) that make up the images, which can be distracting, especially with lower-quality content like you might get when streaming video. Ultra HD TVs, which have four times the number of individual picture elements (or "pixels") as 1080p models, allow you to sit closer to the TV without seeing the pixel grid; as a result, you may opt for a larger set without changing your seating distance.  

    As temperatures plummet, you'll luckily find good deals on winter clothing this month.

    Shopping tips

    Time your visits. Shopping at the right time can save you even more, say the editors at Shop Smart magazine. Kohl's fans, for example, should check out the "Gold Star Clearance" racks, where prices are slashed up to 80 percent on weekend nights. Every Wednesday, shoppers who are 60 years old and older get an extra 15 percent off.

    At Target, women's clothing is generally marked down on Tuesdays, men's on Wednesday, and kids' on Mondays. Markdowns at Marshalls and T.J. Maxx usually happen on Wednesday.

    Look for deals in other departments. Another clothing item that will be cheap this month: Swimsuits.  

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Kidde hub links all your smoke and CO alarms

    Connected household products are everywhere at CES 2015, and smart smoke and carbon monoxide detectors have been getting attention since the debut of the $130 Nest Protect—and that product’s later recall. But if you’re interested in a smoke or CO alarm that can notify you of a problem while you’re out of the house, you don’t have to spend hundreds on replacing all your alarms with smart ones. Kidde’s RemoteLync lets you keep your existing devices by "listening" for their alarms and telling you, wherever you are, that there’s an emergency.

    Expected to cost $95, the Kidde RemoteLync plugs into a centrally located outlet, and voice prompts assist in setup. This includes testing the alarm farthest from the remote, connecting the device to your home’s wireless network, and selecting notification options on the included iOS or Android app. The device recognizes the patterns of all UL-approved smoke and CO alarms made after 1999, and Kidde says it can cover a 2,000-square-foot home. Have a larger home? The app can control more than one RemoteLync unit spaced so together they can hear any alarms. The app lets you choose who gets alerts (you can specify multiple people, along with emergency personnel) and how they’re notified: via the app or by text or email.

    When it hears an alarm, Kidde will notify you—and the app will prompt you to call someone in your network (say, a neighbor), dial 911, or ignore the prompt. While it can’t monitor for alarms during a power outage (and there’s no battery backup), the device will resume monitoring as soon as power is restored.

    The Kidde RemoteLync will be available next month at HomeDepot.com and in March at retail stores yet to be determined at press time. It comes with a 10-year warranty. A competing technology, the Roost smart battery, replaces your smoke detector's 9-volt battery with a lithium-ion one that can connect to your home's wireless network and notify you of alarms—and warn you weeks in advance that the battery is running low.

    In the market for new smoke or CO detectors? Smoke detectors in your home should be replaced every 10 years; CO detectors, after five years of use. Our Ratings of smoke and CO detectors, along with our buying guide, will help you select the most reliable models.

    —Ed Perratore (@EdPerratore on Twitter)

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Schlage's smart door lock may outwit burglars

    The notion of unlocking your door with your smart phone or changing access codes on the fly is appealing. And while you might worry about the smart lock being hacked, the greater threat to electronic locks isn’t your neighborhood geek. It’s the common burglar who knows he can pick or even drill out most locks—electronic or not. Schlage Sense, the company’s first Bluetooth-enabled lock, could be the first lock to withstand both forms of attack.

    Expected since before CES 2015, Schlage Sense pairs Bluetooth technology with an app to offer many features we’ve seen in other makers’ electronic locks, such as the ability to remotely check on the lock’s status, add or delete access codes from your phone, and update settings remotely. But our confidence in the lock, without having tested it yet, stems from the brand’s performance in Consumer Reports' lastest tests of door locks.

    Also at CES 2015 comes a fresh update to the Kwikset Kevo 925, the first Bluetooth-enabled deadbolt lock we tested. We liked the feature that lets you open the lock by touching it, provided you have your smart phone or a key fob. That lock hasn’t changed, but updating its app lets you set up schedules and guest eKeys (electronic keys). You can also get Nest thermostat integration, which prompts you to set the Nest to Away mode when you lock the door—and to Home mode when you return.

    Kwikset hopes you’ll be willing to pay on a regular basis for your home security. Kevo Plus, an optional account upgrade, will use a free Bluetooth-enabled gateway device that plugs into your wireless router. Without that service you can send eKeys to other users, who would need to be in front of the door with their phone or fob to get in. With Kevo Plus, you can lock or unlock the door without sending an eKey. Pricing will be set closer to the service’s springtime launch. In our labs, however, the Kwikset Kevo 925 failed easily in our kick-in and drilling tests. It would have excelled in our kick-in test had it been equipped with a $10 box strike, no great expense for a $220 lock. Alas, there’s no protection against the drilling test other than pricy construction like that of the top-rated Medeco Maxum 11*603 ... or neighbors with very good ears.

    Both electronic Schlage locks we tested—the $130 Schlage BE365 V CAM 619 and the similar Schlage Camelot Touchscreen Deadbolt with Alarm BE469NX CAM 619, $200—were impressive or even exceptional against all our efforts in our kick-in test. That brought both locks to the top of the Ratings in those categories.

    We hope to learn soon whether the Schlage Sense fares as well as its sibling products, but if you’re looking for a deadbolt lock in the meantime, see our door lock Ratings of almost 20 conventional and electronic locks. Just be sure to first check our free buying guide.

    —Ed Perratore (@EdPerratore on Twitter)

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Forget the smart home, here’s the smart doghouse

    You may have always suspected that your dog climbs on the couch as soon as you leave for work but now you can check on Fido in real-time with one of the latest pet wearables or monitors. In fact, you can even order him to get off the couch, check the temperature in the room, and find out if he’s barking too much. That’s the promise of three of the pet products on display at CES 2015. Here’s the details.

    Motorola Scout 5000, $199

    Modeled by a gorgeous Golden Retriever, the Motorola Scout 5000 from Binatone makes it possible to watch your dog over a live video stream and talk to him too. Because it includes a wide-angle camera, GPS tracker, and is Wi-Fi enabled, the collar is a bit large, too big for small dogs.

    The collar can stream video to your smart phone using the free Hubble app, which also works with baby monitors. The Scout 5000 also uses geo-fencing so you can create your own “invisible fence” to keep your dog on your property. Should he make a run for it, the collar emits a high-pitched sound that the dog will find unpleasant. It will be available in June.

    Tagg GPS Plus, $99.95  plus a monthly fee

    The Tagg GPS tracker by Snaptracker was modeled by a Doberman service dog. An update of an earlier model, it integrates with other connected devices in your home through a partnership with Alarm.com. The monitor tracks your pets activity and takes the temperature of the ambient air to make sure he doesn’t become overheated.

    The Tagg is smaller than the Scout and can be used on smaller dogs if you use a harness rather than a collar. It can also be used to set boundaries and sends alerts if the dog strays. Video monitoring is connected through Alarm.com.

    Available now on Pettracker.com, the device requires a $9.95 monthly access fee or you can pay by the year at a small discount. The collar comes with a docking station to recharge the battery.

    PetCube, $199

    The PetCube operates more like a baby monitor and does not rely on the animal to wear a collar. Place it in the room where you pet spends its time and you can check in on your dog or cat by live-streaming video to your smart phone. The PetCube app is free for both iOS and Android.

    Not only can  you talk to your pet through PetCube but you can play with her from afar using a built-in laser light that your pet can chase around the room. Another welcome feature is the ability to post photos right from the phone to Instagram. It’s available now on the PetCube website.

    Consumer Reports tests GPS for pets

    While we haven't tested the new products on display at CES, Consumer Reports has tested three other GPS trackers. Read on: "How to track a lost animal" and check out our full report on pet products and advice.

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

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    4 ways to avoid this season's flu

    Nearly 7 percent of deaths in the U.S. now stem from the flu or pneumonia, according to the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approaching epidemic levels.

    The flu is also widespread in 43 states. Here’s how you can avoid the illness, and what you should do if you come down with it.

    1. Get your shot.

    The CDC says that the vaccine this year is not a great match for the flu strain that is responsible for most of the illnesses being reported. But it still helps prevent some cases and may reduce the severity of your symptoms, says Marvin M. Lipman, M.D., Consumer Reports’ chief medical adviser. And there are other strains that may show up in the coming months that the shot will protect you against.

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

    2. Scrub your hands frequently.

    The flu virus can linger on surfaces, such as doorknobs, that then spread to you when you touch your mouth or nose. But to combat this, don’t scrub with antibacterial soap—it just contributes to antibiotic resistance and other health threats. Instead, use clean running water—the temperature doesn’t matter—and regular soap, and take your time. Lather up for 15 to 30 seconds, or the time it takes to hum “Happy Birthday” to yourself twice. Then rinse and use a clean towel to dry your hands. Damp hands are more likely to pick up and spread germs.

    3. Use alcohol-based hand sanitizer as a backup.

    Just make sure the product is at least 60 percent alcohol (ethanol or isopropanol). And make sure you put on enough so it takes at least 10 to 15 seconds to dry, says Elaine Larson, R.N., Ph.D., professor of epidemiology at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University.

    4. Keep your distance during flu season.

    Droplets containing flu germs spread when people cough, sneeze, or talk, and they can land on your nose or mouth up to about 6 feet away. And since symptoms start one to four days after the flu virus enters the body, you really don’t know who is a carrier and who is not. So try to avoid crowds, especially if you have underlying illnesses, 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.

    "In the Southeast where flu started this year, we’re still seeing lots of hospital admissions and emergency department visits, so the season has not yet peaked,  unfortunately," he adds.

    What to do if you still get sick

    Finally, flu symptoms come on swiftly. If you suddenly have body aches, fever, sore throat, and coughing, chances are good that you have the virus. If you are in one of the high-risk groups, including people 65 and up and and children 5 and younger, get to a doctor right away for prescription antiviral medication, such as oseltamivir (Tamiflu) and zanamivir (Relenza). The drugs are effective in reducing the severity of symptoms if taken within 48 hours of getting sick and have been shown to reduce the risk of complications such as pneumonia and respiratory failure.

    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. But be aware that the cure can be as bad as the disease: Antivirals can cause nausea, vomiting, and increase the risk of headaches.

    —Sue Byrne

     

     

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    LG and Samsung reinvent the washing machine

    Washers have changed quite a bit since the late 18th century, but you might think by now that most of the best new advances are years behind us. LG and Samsung, however, have other ideas—including two washer innovations among a bevy of other CES 2015 product announcements.

    Take the pedestal available for most front-load washers, which typically serves only as support to keep whoever’s doing the laundry from having to bend to add or remove their laundry. We’ve seen better uses for the space, such as GE’s SmartDispense pedestal, which dispenses detergent and fabric softener and stores six months’ worth of both. But LG has gone one better: A Mini Washer.

    LG Mini Washer

    LG says this little top-loading washer drawer, called the Twin wash system when purchased with a washer, lets you run two loads at once. The pedestal can be installed beneath any full-size LG front-loading washer, and its 1.0-cubic-foot capacity makes it useful for small, delicate loads. It also matches the overall design of the main washer, so there’s little difference in appearance. There's also no creative plumbing required to install it—just T-fittings for the hot and cold lines.

    The Mini Washer has six specialized cycles, and the control panel is tilted upward so you can check remaining cycle time. We’ll be checking LG’s claims that users save energy as well as time, but we’re not worried about reliability; LG is among the more reliable brands of front-loading washers in Consumer Reports' tests. One question remains—whether washer owners who want a pedestal to avoid bending want to bend to open a washer drawer that's mere inches from the floor.

    Expected on the market this May at LG retailers, the Mini Washer model WD100CV is expected to sell for $500 whether or not you buy a washer at the same time. LG is backing up the product with a 10-year warranty.

    Samsung Activewash laundry machine

    Samsung’s announcement harkens back to one of the earliest methods of washing—rubbing clothes on rocks in a stream, which later gave way to rubbing them against ribbed washboards. Samsung's innovation removes the need to pre-soak, hand-wash, or pre-treat items in a separate sink or other basin—through a tray built into the top-loading washers’ opening. There's a water jet, and the surface of the tub is ribbed for easy scrubbing. Among cycle options is a 36-minute cycle Samsung has dubbed "SuperSpeed" technology.

    The company says the integrated “sink” adds convenience and avoids dripping water while transferring items to the washer. And when you’re through with any initial process, you can drop whatever goes into the next cycle by overturning the little tub.

    Washers offering this feature range from the Samsung WA7700J, about $900, to the Samsung WA8700J, about $1,200. While we don’t have enough data to know for sure about the reliability of Samsung top-loaders, both Samsung and LG are among the more promising brands of top-loaders in terms of reliability.

    Need a washer in a hurry? These LG and Samsung models should be in stores by the spring, but you’ll want to see our washing machine Ratings of 135 top- and front-loading washers. Check out our buying guide for washers if you haven’t shopped in some years, and don't miss this piece about the best matching washers and dryers.

    —Ed Perratore (@EdPerratore on Twitter)

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    High-capacity refrigerators get more family friendly

    With today's tendency to buy staples in bulk, refrigerators have been getting bigger and bigger. And the models Consumer Reports has seen at CES 2015 this week are no exception. On display are refirgerators from some of the top names in appliances including large capacity refrigerators from LG, Samsung, and Whirlpool. All are 36-inch models and should be in stores sometime this spring.

    LG double door-in-door “mega-capacity” refrigerator

    Both LG and Samsung announced last year refrigerators with so-called door-in-door, a design that offers a small compartment that lets you reach often-used items, such as beverages and condiments, without opening the refrigerator's main chamber. This year the LG LPXS34886C offers this feature on both sides. LG says that by using the door-in-door option instead of opening the entire refrigerator you can reduce cold-air loss by up to 47 percent.

    Features and finishes. With a claimed 34 cubic feet of space, the refrigerator offers LED interior lighting, bins that let users adjust the height of the internal compartments, and a finish LG calls Contour Glass.

    Samsung counter-depth T9000

    Back in 2013, Samsung announced what was then among the first truly four-door refrigerators, the Samsung T9000 French-door refrigerator. The company this week announced a counter-depth version of the same refrigerator that gives it a look that’s more in harmony with modern kitchen cabinets. As with the prior model, the $4,000 Samsung RF22H9010SR’s lower right cavity is especially flexible and can be used for kids’ snacks, as a prep zone for a special meal, or additional freezer space.

    Features and finishes. With about 22 cubic feet overall, the Samsung RF22H9010SR has two compressors, three evaporators, and various sensors designed to keep food fresh by maintaining even humidity levels. Among other features are slide-in/flip-up shelves and two crisper drawers. It comes in stainless steel.

    Whirlpool double-drawer French-door refrigerator

    Consumer Reports has tested many four-door, French-drawer bottom freezers. But Whirlpool’s 26-cubic-foot, double-drawer French-door refrigerator splits what’s typically a short horizontal drawer between the refrigerator and freezer into two separate drawers. The right-hand one is intended for produce that doesn’t fit in the upper compartment; it’s cooled from above with no other settings. The left drawer, however, has a choice of five independent temperature settings.

    Features and finishes. The icemaker is built into the left door and takes no space from the left inside compartment. Certain models, still to be specified, might add a second icemaker with an ice bin replacing the left-hand storage. There’s more to like: soft-close drawers, under-lit shelves, frozen-casserole and pizza drawers within the freezer drawer, and gallon-size door bins. It’s expected to start at about $3,200 and come in two finishes: monochromatic stainless steel (Whirlpool WRV996FDEM) and black ice (Whirlpool WRV996FDEE). One caveat: Whirlpool is among the more repair-prone brands of bottom-freezer refrigerators with icemakers.

    Need a refrigerator now? Check out our refrigerator buying guide before viewing the results of our tests of almost 300 top- and bottom-freezer, side-by-side, built-in, and compact refrigerators.

    —Ed Perratore (@EdPerratore on Twitter)

    Click on the image above to find all of Consumer Reports' coverage from CES 2015.

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    An app that gets rid of monsters under the bed

    Paying $1,000 for a child's mattress may seem a bit much but Sleep Number claims that its new SleepIQ Kids bed will grow with your child, making it worth the expense. Just like Sleep Number adult mattresses, you can adjust the bed’s firmness to your preference. The mattress also tilts up for reading and, better yet, a light shines under the bed when a child gets up at night. But best of all, the connected app has a “monster detector” so the little darlings can sleep worry-free. Consumer Reports hasn’t tested the SleepIQ Kids but two adult Sleep Number beds are some of the best in our tests.

    Called, “the smart bed for smart kids,” the SleepIQ Kids bed is on display at CES 2015 in Las Vegas. Sleep Number claims that the bed has so many fun features that your kids will look forward to going to bed and develop better sleep habits. That remains to be seen but the SleepIQ Kids bed does have a few features that may help. Using an app, parents can slowly dim the lights or turn them off remotely after the child is asleep. They can also be alerted when the child gets out of bed—and then start the process all over again! In a pinch, you can destroy any (virtual) monsters under the bed with the amusing app.

    Sleep Number beds excel in Consumer Reports’ tests

    Consumer Reports tested two adjustable air Sleep Number mattresses and both were tops in our mattress tests. The Sleep Number i8 bed, $3,000,  edged out its brandmate, the Sleep Number c2 bed, $700, but you may want to save the money and choose the less expensive model. Here's how they compare:

    There’s a lot to like about the Sleep Number i8 bed if you sleep primarily on your back. As with other memory foam, adjustable air beds from this company, you and your partner can adjust the firmness of independent halves of the bed to your preference. Besides its superb back support, the mattress was impressive at supporting you while you’re on your side. The mattress measures 12 inches high—so you won’t need deep-pocket fitted sheets.

    With the Sleep Number c2 bed, you don’t have to pay thousands to get impressive side support and even better back support. You’ll pay $2,300 less without a noticeable difference in support. Trying the bed in the store before buying will tell you if the thinner top foam layer on this mattress is less comfortable. It measures just 8 inches high—so you’ll also get by without deep-pocket fitted sheets.  

    Prefer innerspring or memory foam mattresses?

    Consumer Reports has tested numerous models. Our-top-rated innerspring mattress is the Serta Perfect Day iSeries Applause, $1,075. It’s also a CR Best Buy. Among memory foam models, the Novaform Memory Foam Collection Serafina 14" from Costco is our top pick. And at $650 it’s also a CR Best Buy.

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

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Should you rent or buy a home in retirement?

    Deciding whether to rent or buy a home was never an easy question for my parents. Now age 83 and 84, they always treated homeownership as sacrosanct. Not only was owning their home a symbol of success, but it provided a haven that offered security and comfort. 

    But when my parents recently left the home they owned in New Jersey for 43 years to move near my sister in California, they opted to rent. And after decades of do-it-and-pay-for-it-yourself, they are finding—surprise!—that it’s nice to have someone else handle the landscaping and call in the plumber.

    My husband and I might do the same in retirement. And as I’m learning, though some factors in the decision to rent or buy are the same at any age, others take on more significance in retirement.

    Check out Consumer Reports' advice on smart real estate moves, and find out how to judge Top 10 lists for relocating in retirement.

    A first consideration is how long you expect to live in your new residence. Just because you’re retired doesn’t mean you’ll stay in your new digs. Down the road, you might want something smaller or more accommodating to a disability.

    But the shorter the stay, the less financially attractive owning a home in retirement becomes. For one, you’ll have to spread points and other closing costs over less time. If you finance, you’re likely to have little new equity to show because you’ll pay so much in interest in a mortgage’s first years.

    For that reason, if you are retired, you should rent your home if you don’t expect to stay more than three or four years, says Josh Fatoullah, founder and CEO of JR Wealth Advisors in Great Neck, N.Y. “The last thing we would want is where you’ve paid the closing costs and then you’re just not happy,” he says.

    Assuming you can determine the minimum time you’ll stay in a new home, you can then compare the costs of homeownership and renting. Early retiree Darrow Kirkpatrick provides an analysis in his insightful blog Can I Retire Yet?. He took a hypothetical $300,000 home in his Tennessee town and added up its expected maintenance and repair costs, property taxes, and homeowners insurance, then figured in the opportunity cost—what his money could earn in stocks and bonds if it wasn’t tied up in home equity.

    Kirkpatrick’s estimated, effective cost of homeownership over a 10-year period was $834 per month for every $100,000 of a home’s value. In other words, a $300,000 home would generate $834 x 3, or about $2,500 per month in ownership costs. If a retiree could find a comparable property to rent for less than $2,500 per month, he should rent.

    Online mortgage calculators can personalize calculations like that for you. The New York Times’ sophisticated rent-vs.-buy tool is among the better ones I’ve seen.

    The Times’ tool and Kirkpatrick’s calculations also consider the impact of buying a home outright vs. getting a mortgage. If you can stomach holding on to debt late in life, you might benefit from getting a mortgage and investing in stocks, bonds, and other holdings rather than paying for your home outright. The National Association of Realtors says that since 1968 (when it began tracking real-estate inflation) through 2013, single-family home prices have increased 5.3 percent annually on average. In that same period, 10-year Treasury bonds returned an average 7.4 percent annually (neither figure accounts for inflation).

    Of course, future stock, bond, and real-estate markets won’t necessarily act as they have historically. Point is, the opportunity cost could be greater if you tie up money in a home rather than taking out a mortgage.

    I can’t speak of mortgages without mentioning the federal tax deduction on mortgage interest. It’s often held up to justify owning. But it may be worth less if your retirement income puts you in a lower tax bracket than when you were working. (Income from required minimum distributions also can raise you to a higher tax bracket.)

    Other, non-monetary factors may dominate your decision. If your pug requires a backyard lair or you’ll feel lost without a home-improvement project, you’ll want to buy—or find an owner who is OK with Roxy’s ranging or welcomes your tinkering.

    As for my mother, she’s gardening at her rental home, just as she did in her New Jersey yard. This spring she expects to greet blooms of chocolate cosmos, hyacinths, tulips, bluebells, and daffodils. As a tribute to her new locale, she’s adding California poppies.

    They add a homey touch. 

    —Tobie Stanger

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

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    iFit reveals the Internet of healthy things

    Don’t know what to do with all that health and fitness data you get from your fitness tracking device? At CES 2015, we’re seeing that companies are finally realizing that, and they're doing something about it.

    Playing off this year’s CES theme, “The Internet of Things,” iFit showcased the Internet of healthy things at its booth. The company has a line of Internet-connected—and interconnected—products designed to help you live a healthy life, including a bed, a kitchen appliance, a scale, a treadmill desk, a treadmill, and a strength-cardio workout machine.

    Here’s an example of how they work together: The bed will track sleep patterns and sense if you’re too hot or cold, then adjust the mattress temperature to help improve your sleep.

    And if you tossed and turned all night, the bed will send a message to your iFit treadmill, which will recommend a workout that matches your energy level. Look for the products to be available in the fall of 2015.

    —Trisha Calvo

    Check out our reviews and ratings of smart watches, activity trackers, treadmills, and ellipticals.

    Click on the image above to find all of Consumer Reports' coverage from CES 2015.

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Best time-saving appliances and electronics

    Time is a precious commodity—and it’s one that Americans are willing to pay for. In fact, when Consumer Reports asked more than 4,000 readers if they would shell out more for the best time-saving appliances and electronics—such as speedier dishwashers, washers, and dryers—25 percent of the appliance owners said yes. (About one-third of that group said they would pay an extra $100 or more.)

    Manufacturers are aware of that need for speed. Induction ranges and cooktops are growing ever more popular, single-serve coffeemakers are crowding store shelves, and faster settings are being built into washers and dishwashers. Buyers of electronics have a different definition of fast; they want devices that stream, process, and download swiftly. Whatever the product category, all of that clock-watching can pay real dividends: 15 minutes here, an hour there. If you owned one of each type of product on these pages, you could save more than two hours per day. Just think of what you could do with that!

    The two recent innovations that have trimmed kitchen time the most are induction cooking and pod coffeemakers. Induction rangetops and cooktops hold the speed record in Consumer Reports' tests, often heating a large pot of water 20 to 25 percent faster than a regular electric smoothtop. They’re even faster when compared with gas models. That’s because a magnetic field directly heats pans, offering precise simmering and control. And cleaning spills quickly is easier because the induction surface is much cooler than a smoothtop’s during cooking and after. Prices for induction appliances have come down, but most still cost more than electric or gas. As for pod coffeemakers, though they have a downside—limited coffee choices, less-than-top-shelf taste—there’s no denying that they’re easy and speedy.

    Ranges
     

    Make & model Kenmore 95073, $1,530 Frigidaire Gallery FGIF3061NF, $1,800 GE PHB920SFSS, $2,200
    Details Delivering superfast cooktop heat and precise simmering, this induction range (a top pick) has four cooktop elements (two are high-power). The large oven has a convection option and offers impressive baking and broiling; self-cleaning was excellent. The warming drawer keeps side dishes hot. Two high-power elements on this top pick quickly bring water to a boil. It also offers induction’s superb simmering and precise control, ideal when heating sauces or making delicate foods. Baking and self-cleaning are impressive, though broiling is only so-so. The oven’s convection option can trim cooking time. Fast cooktop heat and great simmering make this induction range excellent overall. The large oven was impressive at baking and superb at self-cleaning, but broiling was so-so. Features include four cooktop elements (three are high-power), convection, steam for light cleaning, and a warming drawer.
    Estimated time saved  It’s about 3 to 4 minutes faster than an average smoothtop at heating water for pasta. It’s about 3 to 4 minutes faster than an average smoothtop at heating water for pasta. It’s about 3 to 4 minutes faster than an average smoothtop at heating water for pasta.

    Coffeemakers
     

    Make & model Starbucks Verismo 600, $150   DeLonghi Nescafé Dolce Gusto Circolo Flow Stop, $180 DeLonghi Nescafé Dolce Gusto Genio EDG455T, $130
    Details First- and second-cup delivery were speedy and consistent, and this top-pick coffeemaker was fairly easy to use. But brewing strength and coffee flavors are limited, though flavors are similar to what you’ll find at a Starbucks store. The coffee tastes so-so, and you’ll need Starbucks capsules to get your java jolt.
    This pod coffeemaker, a top pick, is pretty easy to use, with a scroll button to select the serving size. The reservoir holds 44 ounces of water, and it’s easy to see how much is left from both the front and side. As with other pods, the coffee tastes just OK, and you’re limited to the company’s 18 flavors. Plus you can use only one pod at a time no matter the size of your cup.
    Single-serve coffeemakers are all about speed and ease. This top-rated pod coffeemaker was among the fastest, consistently serving the same amount of hot coffee cup after cup. It’s fairly easy to use, refill, and clean, and it allows you to adjust the brew strength. But taste was only so-so, though that’s true for all pod coffeemakers in our tests.
    Estimated time saved It’s 3 minutes faster than the slowest pod coffeemaker. It’s 3 minutes faster than the slowest pod coffeemaker. It’s 3 minutes faster than the slowest pod coffeemaker.

    Induction cooktops
     

    Make & model Whirlpool GCI3061XB, $1,200   GE Profile PHP900DMBB, $1,400 Kenmore 43820, $1,700
    Details Fast heat and precise simmering at a price lower than many others we tested make this 30-inch induction cooktop a CR Best Buy. Features include easy-to-read touch controls placed in the front and center, and four elements, including two that are high-power. Even the fastest electric smoothops can’t beat the heating speed of the fastest induction cooktops, which use an electromagnetic field to send most of the heat to pans. This 30-inch top pick has four elements (three high-power) and offers superb simmering. The stainless trim is a nice touch. Super at simmering, this 30-inch induction cooktop is also among the fastest models we’ve tested at bringing water to a boil. It has four elements; three are high-power and one is low-power. Touch controls and stainless-steel trim add to the sleek look of this top pick.
    Estimated time saved It’s about 2 minutes faster than an average smoothtop at heating water for pasta. It’s about 4 minutes faster than an average smoothtop at heating water for pasta. It’s about 4 minutes faster than an average smoothtop at heating water for pasta.

    Washing machines
     

    Make & model LG WT1701CV, $950   Samsung WF45H6300AG, $1,050 Whirlpool WTW4850BW, $580
    Details This high-efficiency top-loader fits 24 pounds of laundry, doing an impressive job in 75 minutes. The TurboWash option cuts about 20 minutes without sacrificing cleaning. Most HE top-loaders take 60 to 90 minutes but extract more water than agitator washers, so dryer time is trimmed. The matching dryers were superb: the electric LG DLEY1701V, $1,100, and gas DLGY1702V, $1,200. Front-loaders tend to use the least amount of water, extract the most water, and have wash times of 70 to 100 minutes. This Samsung takes 80, but the SuperSpeed option cuts about 20 minutes, and cleaning is comparable. We fit 22 pounds of laundry. The matching dryer is excellent but noisy: the electric DV45H6300EG, $850, and gas DV45H6300GW, $950. This top pick offers impressive cleaning in 50 minutes using the least water of this type. Most other top-loaders with an agitator in the middle take a similar amount of time but don’t deliver similar performance. But like other agitator washers, it’s relatively noisy and not as gentle on fabrics as front-loaders. This one fit 15 pounds of laundry.
    Estimated time saved 15 minutes per load 20 minutes per load 5 minutes per load

    Dishwashers
     

    Make & model Bosch Ascenta SHX3AR7[5]UC, $730   Blomberg DWT54100SS, $750  
    Details The 95-minute normal cycle is faster than most we tested. This CR Best Buy dishwasher excelled at cleaning and is especially energy efficient and relatively quiet. Try the 30-minute express wash for lightly soiled or prerinsed items. Features include a delayed start and an adjustable upper rack and tines. You need to clean the filter, and the controls are hidden. Clocking in at 85 minutes, this dishwasher’s normal cycle was the fastest we tested. It offers superb cleaning but is relatively noisy, so use the delayed-start mode when hosting parties. Adjust the upper rack to fit large items. The quick cycle is for light jobs and takes about 35 minutes. You need to clean the filter periodically.  
    Estimated time saved 110 minutes vs. the slowest model 120 minutes vs. the slowest model  

     

    Make & model OKI MB471w printer, $470   Jabra Solemate Max wireless speaker, $300 Brother MFC-J4310DW all-in-one inkjet printer, $130
    Details If you need a presentation for a client meeting that started 5 minutes ago, you want a printer that can spit out pages in a hurry. Home printers don’t come much faster than this OKI laser all-in-one, which can deliver 23 text pages per minute. That’s speedier than most laser printers we’ve tested and significantly faster than inkjets. Text pages cost just a penny apiece, and text quality is excellent, so you won’t pay a penalty for your need for speed. Want to blast out your playlist quickly? Bluetooth speakers like this one use near field communication (NFC) technology to speed the pairing process. Just tap an NFC-compatible phone or tablet to the speaker and you’re ready to listen. The Solemate Max has good sound quality with decent power, and its weatherproof design and integrated handle make it ready for the great outdoors—even if that’s no farther than your backyard. You can print snapshots in a snap with this Brother multifunction device. It’s the fastest photo printer in our Ratings, cranking out a very good 4x6-inch photo in just 15 seconds. That’s much speedier than average; many printers take up to a minute to deliver that same photo. Other photo-friendly features that can save you time include a memory-card reader and PictBridge, for direct printing from compatible cameras.
    Time advantage Prints 23 pages per minute. Bluetooth pairing in a flash. A stack of photos in a few minutes.


     

    Make & model Samsung Galaxy Tab Pro 8.4 tablet, $280   Microsoft Surface Pro 3 detachable, $1,000 Apple AirPort Extreme wireless router, $185
    Details This 8.4-inch version of the Galaxy Tab Pro offers outstanding performance when running demanding apps, with speedy performance and smooth graphics, thanks to the quad-core 2.3 GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 processor. If you want to play games on your tablet, this is a great choice. It’s slim and light, with a long-lasting battery. Also consider the Apple iPad Air 2 (64GB), $600. This laptop, configured with 128GB and a keyboard, has enough oomph to tackle tough tasks like editing HD video and playing demanding games at top speed. It’s versatile, too: Detach the keyboard and use the 12-inch touch-screen device as a tablet. Our tested model had a powerful fourth-generation Intel Core i5-4300U 1.9GHz processor. Also consider: Toshiba Satellite Click 2 Pro P30W-BST2N22 Ultrabook, $1,500. For pure speed, you can’t beat the sixth generation of Apple’s wireless router. Its 802.11ac Wi-Fi performance was tops in our tests at near and midrange distances (although it faltered farther away). This router can handle a crowd of devices. And if you have ultra-high-speed broadband (say, 50 Mbps or faster), the whole family can stream HD videos, send e-mail, and browse the Web at the same time without stuttering.
    Time advantage The most sophisticated graphics won’t slow it down. Speedy video editing and gaming. Fast downloads and multiplayer gaming.

    Modern life may be moving at warp speed, but many new appliances we like actually take longer than their predecessors to do their tasks. That’s because other things we prize—such as great performance, energy efficiency, and water conservation—mean longer cycles. Today’s most efficient front-loaders, for example, cost about $1,400 less to run over 10 years compared with most top-loaders with an agitator. Want speed and efficiency? Try these tips:

    Dishwashers

    • Run the hot water. It’s faster to heat water at a faucet than for a dishwasher to heat it.

    Washers

    • Fill ’er up. Larger capacities mean fewer loads.
    • Measure detergent. Use too much and it can prolong the rinse cycle.
    • Pick the right setting. The heavy-soil option adds time, so use it only when needed.
    • Understand speedy settings. Quick-wash cycles are only for two to four lightly soiled items. Other fast settings, such as GE’s Time Saver, Kenmore’s Accela-Wash, LG’s TurboWash, and Samsung’s SuperSpeed, cleaned well and shaved off 15 to 20 minutes in our tests using full loads of dirty laundry.

    Dryers

    • Clean filters. Do it after each load to keep air flowing freely. If laundry is taking longer to dry, clean the exhaust vent.

    You can save time, effort, or money in the long run by taking more time up front. Here are some ways to do that:

    All-purpose cleaners. Ignore claims about just spraying and wiping; let the cleaner sit for a minute (5 minutes for products that disinfect). We did and got better cleaning power in our tests. Pine-Sol Original liquid was the best; it’s a CR Best Buy. Among sprays, Seventh Generation All-Purpose natural cleaner was tops but no match for the Pine-Sol.

    Heavily soiled or stained items. The sooner you tackle stains, the better your results. Help lift them by soaking garments overnight or for at least two hours in oxygen bleach, which brightens colors without fading. but don’t soak silk or fabrics that “bleed,” and follow directions on the container. And don’t toss an item in the dryer until the stains are out or the heat will set them.

    Slow cookers. Chop and stir your ingredients in the morning, then do the other tasks on your list—or put your feet up—while the slow cooker makes dinner. That not only saves time but can also save money. That’s because cheaper, tougher cuts of meat are better for slow cookers than expensive cuts. Our tests have found little difference between slow cookers. All of the 6- to 7-quart models turned out tasty spare ribs, pulled pork, honey chicken wings, and apple brown Betty.

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

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Sears has big plans for the connected home

    CES 2015 in Las Vegas has been awash with connected-home products, ranging in size from wearables and other diminutive doodads to major appliances such as ranges and refrigerators. But while you might expect Sears to make a major splash, given its more than 150 years of history, company representatives we spoke to say Sears is instead taking its time—in the hopes of being the go-to store for these products.

    The retailer’s first efforts focused on three Chicago-area Sears stores, each of which devoted 2,000 square feet of space under the Connected Solutions banner. Now the company has begun to roll out this model to what it hopes, by about mid-year, to 200 additional stores nationwide. At about the same time of year, Sears expects to retrofit its San Bruno, California, store to devote 3,900 square feet to a Connected Solutions department organized like rooms of a home.

    Sections of these stores devoted to connected-home products will be staffed primarily by existing electronics-department salespeople—no new hiring is likely—and the selection is expected to number about 100 products from a variety of makers, including Nest, Belkin, and many others. Want to check out what’s there before you visit the store? You’ll find those and more at the retailer’s Connected Solutions hub, but don’t expect deep technical guidance on what works with what from the online chat-room staffers. They’ll likely refer you to the company’s brick-and-mortar store, or manufacturers’ websites.

    It’s too soon to tell whether Sears’ efforts will succeed, given the relative urgency with which other big retailers have rushed to form partnerships and pack their shelves with smart products. The retailer might have an uphill climb against the likes of Home Depot, Lowe’s, Staples, and Walmart, but it has one thing the others lack: a longtime foothold in appliances, home maintenance, consumer electronics, fitness, and auto-aftermarket. If Sears can shepherd its sales staff to truly engage with customers who haven’t a clue what they need—but have a sense such products might be helpful—the company has a shot at the brass ring.

    Consumer Reports increasingly tests connected features in the products in our labs. For a recap of our tests read our report "Run your Home from your Phone," which brings together several categories of connected-home products.

    —Ed Perratore (@EdPerratore on Twitter)

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    Heating vents that direct warmth where you want it

    Anyone with a forced-air heating or cooling system at home can appreciate how some commonly used spaces never seem warm or cold enough, or how seldom-used rooms routinely get warmed or cooled more than they need. A home with two heating zones you can adjust independently might not need extra help. But if a single thermostat is controlling your entire home, a set of smart vents that communicate with your thermostat might pay for itself in savings as well as deliver more comfort. Here are two different approaches Consumer Reports saw at CES 2015 in Las Vegas:

    Keen Home Smart Vent

    Expected this July, the Keen Home Smart Vent consists of replacement vents that monitor temperature and air pressure and redirect air, opening or closing vents as needed to correct imbalances. But the company doesn’t expect you to replace all your vents—which could number 20 or more—with theirs. The primary focus is guest rooms that don’t need routine heating or cooling, along with any other room that routinely feels either too hot or too cold. In fact, the company recommends that no more than a third of your vents be Keen Home vents to avoid damage to the heating/cooling fan, so you might not be replacing more than four to six vents. The Smart Vent communicates over ZigBee and will be part of Lowe’s Iris line of connected products.

    The product is cheaper up-front at an expected $85 per vent, which includes one vent cover. And you needn't pay the $10 or more for Lowe's premium Iris services, or even use Iris at all; any hub that supports Zigbee, such as Wink, would suffice. Vents come in four sizes: 4x10, 4x12, 6x10, and 6x12 inches. They take four AA batteries, claimed to last about three years.

    Ecovent

    Ecovent is a more elaborate system, consisting of separate sensors and a hub that ties everything together. The vents, as with Keen Home’s, replace your usual floor, wall, or ceiling vents. The sensors plug in over a power outlet (one per room) and monitor temperature, humidity, and air pressure—sending data to the hub, which directs the vents to adjust airflow. One important difference here is that Ecovent recommends you replace every vent for proper operation and protection of your heating/cooling equipment.

    Vents and sensors should cost about $100 each by the time the system ships in August. The hub costs about $100 more. But the company says you’ll never pay another penny, either for software updates or connectivity. The hub has both Wi-Fi and ZigBee capability, but communication among the components is over a proprietary protocol . Vent sizes at least for now are limited to 10x4, 10x6, and 6x12 inches. Its four AA batteries are also claimed to last about three years.

    —Ed Perratore (@EdPerratore on Twitter)

    More on home comfort

    Thermostats:  Once you start considering a smart-vent product, you should consider whether your thermostats are helping as much as you need. To learn about your options, see our buying guide for thermostats and our thermostat Ratings.

    Gas furnaces:  Looking for a replacement furnace? Before you buy check our report on the most and least reliable gas furnaces.

    Central air:  Believe it or not, now is a good time to get quotes if you're planning to install central air conditioning because the installers aren't as busy. Before you do, read our report on the most and least reliable central air systems.

    Click on the image above to find all of Consumer Reports' coverage from CES 2015.

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    How far would you go to fix an old appliance?

    Back in 1973, Richard Nixon was president, Vietnam divided the nation, and I was in high school. It also was around the time I developed a serious interest in baking, and convinced my parents to buy a stand mixer.

    I had my eye on a workhorse KitchenAid K5-A, then made by the Hobart Corp., and sold mainly through restaurant-supply stores. So I dragged my father from our home in Yonkers, N.Y., to  out to Brooklyn, where he plunked down $130 for the KitchenAid (shown above). For 41 years the mixer didn’t miss a beat. It churned through everything from brioche to bagel batter and never needed servicing.

    Until last September, that is, when the mixer overheated and unceremoniously conked out. While I had certainly gotten my money’s worth, I was reluctant to say good-bye to my countertop companion.

    Find out what to do when product repairs go wrong. And check our buying guide and Ratings (which include KitchenAid models) for mixers.

    Deciding whether to fix a broken product or spring for a new one often feels like an expensive guess. In fact, we at Consumer Reports say that it doesn’t always make financial sense to keep old electronics or appliances going as long as possible.

    But it’s hard to put a price on sentiment. There was something about the mixer that transcended dollars and cents. It was a 300-watt motorized bridge to my youth, and I had hopes of passing it on to my son, a professionally trained chef who developed his own affinity for the mixer.

    Sentiment aside, there were practical obstacles. I contacted KitchenAid customer service via live chat, and was abruptly informed that the company offers neither repairs nor stocks parts for ancient mixers. She suggested I try authorized service centers, which also turned out to be a dead end. Local independent shops expressed little interest either.

    But before calling it quits, I began searching out so-called vintage-appliance-repair websites, leaving a trail of phone and e-mail messages to shops across the country. One responded. Richard Nelson of NelsonEzy.com, in Casselberry, Fla. Nelson has built a business repairing and refurbishing iconic kitchen appliances like Sunbeam Mixmasters, Waring blenders, Hamilton Beach milkshake makers and, of course, KitchenAid mixers.

    After describing the problem, Nelson was confident it was fixable, so I prepaid the flat $150 repair charge, which included return freight. It cost me another $40 to ship the unwieldy 32-lb. mass of metal to Florida. That $190 was almost as much as the price of a new, entry-level KitchenAid.

    Weeks past. Then months. About 100 days, to be precise. Nelson apologized for the delay, saying he’d been swamped with work. I guess there’s no shortage of consumers who want to hold onto the past or simply feel that they just don’t make ‘em like they used to.

    I asked what the problem was with the mixer. Nelson said it was a minor glitch: The brush springs needed replacement because they lost their springiness. They lacked the necessary tension for the motor brushes to make adequate electrical contact. Nelson also cleaned and polished the armature contacts and speed controls, removed and replaced all the old grease, and completely lubricated the unit. Overall, he said, “the mixer is in great condition.” 

    I'm happy to say it's back to work and running as smoothly as ever.

    I was proud I’d taken such good care of it all these years, and am confident the mixer has enough life left in it to give my son another 40 years to make his own baked good—and memories.

    —Tod Marks

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    Welcome to the appliance door wars

    The CES 2015 techfest is wrapping up in Las Vegas and consumer drones, wearable technology, and smart home appliances created buzz, again. But Consumer Reports' experts spotted some tech-free tweaks and it looks like doors may be the next big thing.

    Dryer doors, your way

    LG’s EasyLoad door works two ways and is meant to make loading and unloading laundry easier. For loading the dryer you open the door from the top and pull it toward you. For unloading just open the door to its side—the way a dryer door normally works. A door on the dryer top opens upward and reveals storage space for dryer sheets and your collection of orphaned socks. The LG DLE7700VE electric dryer will be in stores this spring. Gas model is the LG  DLGX7701VE. LG hasn't set a price yet.
    Dryers, a sequel. Of the 104 dryers in Consumer Reports' tests all have conventional doors. The top-rated Samsung DV56H9100ED has a jumbo capacity and was excellent at drying. But it’s $1,520. Check our dryer Ratings and you'll see models that cost $800 or less, like the Samsung DV42H5000EW, $600, Kenmore 81382, $800, and the LG DLE1001W, $650.

    Dual oven doors, sort of

    So what’s the big deal about a range door? It matters if you like to cook and bake, all at once. Samsung introduced a $1,900 Samsung Flex Duo Dual Door electric smoothtop range at CES. It has a partition that divides the oven into two cavities with separate temperature controls, but this time there are two oven doors integrated into one, so you have the option of opening just the upper door if you need to check on that cake.
    The backstory. When we tested the $1,800 Samsung NE58F9710WS electric smoothtop slide-in range and the $1,500 Samsung FE710DRS freestanding range we noted that while each has a slide-in partition that converts the cavity into two ovens with separate temperature controls, there’s only one oven door so when you open it to check your roast in the bottom oven you’re letting hot air out of the top oven, interrupting the baking cake and extending baking time.

    More and more refrigerator doors

    Two years ago it was big news when Samsung introduced its first four-door refrigerator, the Samsung T9000, our top-rated four-door. This year it introduced a counter-depth version of the popular model, which sits flush with your cabinets. But Whirlpool did Samsung one better with its new French-door split-drawer model with a bottom freezer—so technically five doors. It will come in two finishes and cost $3,200.
    The back story. What's cool about the Samsung T9000 is that you can adjust the overall refrigerator-to-freezer ratio in the bottom compartments if you need more or less space in the freezer or refrigerator. In the Whirlpool, the right-hand side of the split drawer can be used to store extra produce while the left-hand side has five temperature settings.

    Kimberly Janeway 

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    Three surprising—and unexpected—gadgets

    In my four days at CES 2015, I expected to see lots of laptops, tons of tablets, and many, many TVs. And I wasn't disappointed. But there were also some things I did not expect to come across at the show. Here's a sampling.

    A printer that prints food

    Hungry? Print yourself a cookie with XYZ Printing's 3D printer. (XYZ is the manufacturer of the popular DaVinci 3D printer line.) Import your own design (snowman? flower?) into the printer, and it prints out raw dough. Pop the dough in the oven, and you've got a cookie. You can also print designs made of chocolate. The printer isn't available yet, but when it is, a spokesperson said, it will be priced at "less than $2,000." That's a costly cookie.

    A baby monitor that sings lullabies

    This baby monitor does everything but change diapers. D-Link's HD Pan & Tilt Wi-Fi Baby Camera can, as the name says, pan and tilt to give you a wider view of baby's room, communicating with your mobile device. It has night vision, a motion sensor, and even a heat sensor that lets you know if your child's room gets too cold or too hot. It also has two-way audio so you can not only hear what's going on, but also speak to the baby. Five pre-recorded lullabies let you soothe your little one to sleep. If you'd rather lull baby to dreamland on your own, or read Junior a bed-time story, no problem—there's a memory-card slot that lets you play your own recordings. The company website lists the price as $230.

    Check out Consumer Reports' coverage of CES 2015 with our special Insiders Guide.

    Light bulbs that play music and more

    Smart lighting has been around for a while. But a series of LED light bulbs from Sengled do a lot more than shed light. The Pulse and Pulse Solo have wireless speakers built in. They range in price from $60 to $170. Another, called Boost, acts as a Wi-Fi repeater to boost your signal strength. It lists at $50. The newest addition to the line is the Snap, a bulb with security features such as a camera and a microphone to enable you to monitor your home remotely. Pricing and availability haven't been announced.

    —Donna Tapellini

     

    Click on the image above to find all of Consumer Reports' coverage from CES 2015.

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    Keep your home warm and safe from your phone

    The race is on to keep homeowners comfortable and safe, judging by the number of companies introducing smart thermostats and home monitoring systems at CES 2015. Honeywell, First Alert, Panasonic, Ecobee, and others all introduced new or upgraded systems. Some are subscription services while others you install yourself. With so many players in the market, it’s difficult to predict which systems will prevail but here’s what Consumer Reports has learned so far.

    Honeywell

    Already on the market with the Lyric thermostat, which was a very good performer in Consumer Reports thermostat tests, Honeywell introduced a home security system that can integrate with the thermostat and other devices. Like the thermostat, the security hub responds to voice commands. The system features cameras for inside and out as well as motion, smoke, and intruder (broken glass) detectors.
    What it costs. Installation costs $99 and a three year contract is another $25 to $50 a month.

    Panasonic

    Maker of everything from batteries to toaster ovens, Panasonic has jumped into the home monitoring fray with do-it-yourself kits that let you remotely control appliances and lights and monitor your baby or pet. The kits work with a hub that connects to your Wi-Fi. They include the Baby Monitoring Kit with a camera, the DIY Home Surveillance Kit that monitors the outside of your house, and the Home Monitoring and Control Kit, which monitors the inside.
    What it costs. Home Monitoring Kit, $250; Home Surveillance Kit, $300; and the Baby Monitoring Kit, $180. There’s no monthly fee and you can easily add on devices that don’t come with the original kit. Available now on Panasonic.com.

    Ecobee

    Already a contender in the thermostat market, with two good performers in Consumer Reports tests, Ecobee introduced the Ecobee3 thermostat with a new innovation. Typically, homes have one, two, or maybe three heating zones and the temperature can vary from room to room. To solve that dilemma, the Ecobee3 comes with a number of sensors that you place around the house to monitor the temperature. Using the related app, you can check the comfort level of each room and adjust it accordingly.
    What it costs. The Ecobee3 will sell for $250 and be available at Home Depot and Best Buy.

    First Alert OneLink

    First Alert, which makes three of Consumer Reports’ top-rated carbon monoxide detectors, expanded its home portfolio with a smart thermostat, “environment” monitor,” home safe, pet tracker, and a smart watch. All of the devices can send messages to your smart phone but not necessarily talk to each other, according to a report on techhive.com. Sensors in the environment monitor measure temperature, humidity, and carbon monoxide. You can open the safe with your smart phone, the tracker locates your pets (or kids) and the watch monitor’s heart rate and activity level.
    What it costs. You can pre-order the thermostat, $230, and watch, $200, on Amazon. Prices for the other items weren’t listed yet.

    Wait there’s more

    A number of other companies exhibited their smart home wares at CES 2015, including Carrier, Insteon, Interlogix, and Wemo. In addition Nest, maker of the Nest learning thermostat and Nest Protect carbon monoxide detector, announced a slew of partnerships with manufacturers of locks, light bulbs, appliances, and more. Let the home monitoring games begin.

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

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