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Consumer Reports

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    The scoop on ice cream scoops

    Perhaps equal to how much we love ice cream is how much we hate scooping it. Tackling ice cream straight out of the freezer isn't an easy task. Our testers tried four different scoopers on dense ice cream and found that, unfortunately, there was no clear winner. Here are the four types that were tested:

    Antifreeze design. It's claimed that the heat from your hand warms the fluid in the handle for easy scooping. Our testers said it took a lot of force to make nice round scoops.

    Lever. The lever-release button ejected nice rounded scoops. But testers said it was hard to penetrate the ice cream or found it a little hard on the wrist.

    Antifreeze paddle. It scooped slices or wedges instead of balls. Testers said it might be better for adding mix-ins or scooping from large containers instead of pint-sized ones.

    Electric. The easiest to use, it heated up quickly and made scooping effortless. But it melted the edges of the ice cream a bit, the cord got in the way, and it's a pain to clean.

    Editor's note: A version of this story first appeared in ShopSmart Magazine

    --Ciara Rafferty

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    In our chain saw tests, a Stihl is the clear winner

    After so many severe storms in recent years, homeowners who never dreamed of buying a chain saw now consider the power tool a must-have. That's why first-time buyers comprise 60 percent of the market. And that's why Consumer Reports has been testing more and more chain saws. In our latest chain saw tests we found a clear winner, the Stihl MS 180 C-BE, $230, which works for wooded properties as well as for fallen trees and storm-tossed limbs.

    The Stihl MS 180 C-BE is fast, which is a real plus when you've got lots of cutting to do. It's relatively light and well-balanced, attributes that keep you from getting tired as you work. And the Stihl is the only gas-powered unit we've tested that needs no tools to tighten the chain, a task that typically has to be performed every 10 to 15 minutes.

    For $80 to $100 less, we recommend three models from among the light-duty gas saws and corded-electric models we tested. Light-duty gas saws like the Craftsman 34190, $150, cut a little more slowly than their more powerful counterparts. But for storm cleanup the difference in speed won't be an everyday problem. And the better corded-electric models—the Worx WG303.1, $100, and Worx WG304.1, $130, are on our list of picks—are just as fast and have push-button starting. The biggest limitation is how far you can roam with an extension cord. Check your manual for proper gauge and maximum length.

    In coming weeks, we'll report on other chain saws we've tested including the pricey battery-powered Oregon CS250S, $400, which was a performance standout for all the wrong reasons but that includes one great feature—a built-in chain sharpener. We also tested two power loppers, which are adequate for limbs no wider than four inches.

    If you're uncertain about what to buy, consult our chain saw buying guide, which includes important safety tips. And check our Ratings of 30 chain saws.

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    Cook your turkey burgers and hamburgers the right way

    If you're grilling burgers this weekend, remember to use a meat thermometer—and that different temperature rules apply to ground beef and turkey.

    Cook ground turkey to at least 165° F, and ground beef to at least 160°F to kill potentially harmful bacteria. An instant-read thermometer like the Taylor Weekend Warrior 806 is a good choice, since that lets you quickly gauge the doneness of all the burgers on your grill.

    That's important since more than half of the raw ground turkey and patty products we recently analyzed contained fecal bacteria, and 90 percent had at least one of the five bacteria that we looked for, including some notorious for causing foodborne illness, like salmonella and staphylococcus aureus. Thorough cooking kills those bugs.

    In addition, make sure you cook steaks and other cuts of beef properly, too. Much of the beef sold in grocery stores has been mechanically tenderized, or run through a machine that punctures them with blades or needles to tenderize them. Unfortunately, the process also can drive deadly bacteria from the surface into the center of the meat, where they are harder to kill, increasing the risk for people who eat their beef rare or medium rare.

    Finally, remember to place cooked meats on a clean platter, not on the dish that held the raw product. The juices left on the plate from raw meat can spread bacteria to safely cooked food. And once cooked, be sure to keep hot foods hot.

    If you decide to buy a new grill, take a look at the results of our gas grill tests and Ratings. Our tests of models include their ability to cook evenly. And see our advice on how to avoid other BBQ blunders.

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    Personal blenders make quick work of your morning smoothie

    Taking your morning smoothie on the road used to require a separate travel cup. So-called personal blenders simplify the process by combining blending and drinking in a single device. The containers on these mini mixers typically hold 2 to 3 cups and feature a travel lid and handle or carry hook. Consumer Reports' latest blender Ratings include five personal models ranging in price from $20 to $120. While none delivered the all-around performance needed to make our recommended list, depending on your blending needs they might still be worth a look. Here are the details:

    We put personal blenders through the same tests as full-size blenders. That includes whipping up pina coladas, pureeing soup, and crushing ice. The $35 Back to Basics Blender Express BPE3BR performed superbly across all tasks, but it didn't pass our durability test, which involves crushing successive batches of ice. The Hamilton Beach Single Serve Blender 51101, which costs just $20, performed fairly well, though one of its samples also flubbed our durability test. Three other models from Oster, Big Boss, and NutriBullet proved durable, but they earned subpar scores in our frozen drink/smoothie test.

    The bottom line? Personal blenders as a category don't offer the same power and performance as their full-size countertop counterparts. For low-impact tasks, however, say blending fresh fruit smoothies or mixing up a milk shake, the Back to Basics and Hamilton Beach models should do the trick. If your recipes call for ice and other hard objects, like nuts or frozen fruit, you're better off investing in a full-size blender. Our Ratings of more than 60 models include 10 picks starting at $100.

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    Washer and dryer features that save loads of money

    Expensive washers and dryers don't necessarily clean or dry better than those that cost $700 to $900. But they do have the latest features and in Consumer Reports tests of washers and dryers we looked at all of them. Here's our take on 10. Keep in mind that features are often bundled, so to get one you want , you may end up paying for several you don't.

    Six must-haves
    Large-capacity machines let you do more laundry in a single load so you can get done faster. Washers earning excellent capacity scores in our tests fit 17 to 24 pounds of laundry, or about 9 to 13 pairs of men's jeans.
    Recommended model: The LG WM8000H[V]A, $1,350, front-loader is the largest we've tested and holds about 13 pairs of men's jeans, or 24 pounds. But its two inches wider than usual and wash time is 100 minutes for an eight-pound load. (Matching electric dryer is the LG DLEX8000[V], $1,350 and gas model is the LG DLGX8001[V], $1,440.)

    Auto-load sensing matches water used to the load size, saving you a step and possibly saving water.
    Recommended model: The LG WT1101CW HE top-loader, $700, is our top-rated washer of this type. (Matching electric dryer is the LG DLE1101W, also $700, and gas model is LG DLG1102W, $800.)

    Automatic temperature control adjusts the hot and cold water to the appropriate temperature for each cycle. Washers without this feature just mix hot and cold water in preset amounts so a "hot" wash will be hotter in the summer than in the winter because the temperature of water from your main is higher.
    Recommended model: The Samsung WA422PRHD[WR] is a HE top-loader, $800. (Matching electric dryer is the Samsung DV422EWHD[WR], $750, and gas model is the Samsung DV422GWHD[WR], $850.)

    Automatic dispensers release liquid or powder detergent, bleach, and fabric softener at the right time in the cycle. Some washers have reservoirs that can hold months' worth of liquid laundry products, and the bleach dispensers also prevent spattering.
    Recommended model: The Whirlpool Duet WFW88HEAW, front-loader, $1,000. (Matching electric dryer is the Whirlpool Duet WED88HEAW, also $1,000 and the gas model is Whirlpool Duet WGD88HEAW, $1,200.)

    An extra rinse cycle may help if you're sensitive to detergent residue.
    Recommended model: The GE GTWN7450DWW HE top-loader, $800, has this feature. (The matching dryer did not make our top picks list.)

    Moisture sensors are must on a dryer. Compared with a thermostat, these sensors are better at determining the moisture level in laundry and will turn off the dryer when clothes are dry. That's easier on your utility bill and on fabrics.
    Recommended models: All the matching dryers mentioned above have moisture sensors.

    Four features to skip
    Steam options on dryers left our shirts wrinkled, though they did remove more odors from fabrics than conventional dryers. On washers we found that steam settings only slightly improved stain cleaning.

    Custom programming on washers and dryers may be a laundry lover's dream because you program your own cycles and can save them for future loads. But for everyone else, standard cycles and settings should do. Electronic controls make selection even easier.

    Overnight cycles that let you wash and dry while you sleep. After the wash cycle, the washer spins laundry dry, but this cycle is limited to just a few, often lightweight, items at a time.

    Smart washers and dryers offer the possibility of saving energy and money by letting you schedule use when energy rates are lowest. But these smart appliances won't save you a cent unless you have a compatible smart meter and your utility cuts rates during off-peak periods, such as weekends or weekdays from 10 p.m. to 10 a.m. Not that many utilities do. And even if yours does lower rates, you don't need a smart machine to save; just wash and dry your laundry during off-peak hours.

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    Premium blenders are worth the price—if you choose wisely

    You could spend a few hundred bucks on a new blender only to wind up with watery margaritas and smoothies that might better be called chunkies. Worse yet, your high-priced device could conk out after a few months of service. That's clear from Consumer Reports' latest blender tests, which include several pricey models from the fast-growing premium blender category. The good news: some of these über blenders meet, or even exceed, expectations, whipping up superb smoothies and shakes, plus tasty juices and even hot soup. We also found a handful of inexpensive models that are sure to satisfy. Here are the details:

    Blenders have become big business. The industry grew 11 percent in 2012 to $673 million dollars, in large part because of consumers' continued taste for smoothies. That has more manufacturers introducing high-performance blenders meant to compete with the likes of Vitamix, which is perhaps the biggest name in premium blenders—and with good reason. The $450 Vitamix 5200 has long been our top-scoring blender. Besides acing our frozen drinks, puree, and ice crush tests, it's one of the few models that makes hot soup and blitzes whole fruits and vegetables into smooth, creamy juice, as this video from our labs demonstrates.

    Our recommended list also includes high-performance blenders from Breville, Hamilton Beach, L'Equip, and Waring. Check the complete Ratings to parse through the differences. For example, if you prefer a glass jar to one made of plastic, the $450 Breville Juice & Blend BJB840XL is your best bet. Looking for maximum capacity? The Waring Xtreme MX1000R is the way to go.

    If value is your top concern, then the choice comes down to a single brand: Ninja. We've tested three separate blenders from the Newton, Massachusetts-based manufacturer and they all made our winner's podium. The Ninja Master Prep Professional QB1004 actually shares the top spot with Vitamix despite costing just $60. It's a different type of blender, with a unique top-mounted motor that you press down to operate. And it comes with smaller chopping and processing containers, in addition to the 48-ounce blending jar. While it doesn't claim to make hot soups and juices, like the Vitamix, it excelled at all the main blending tasks.

    And what about the high-priced duds? The $300 DeLonghi 3-in-1 DFP-950 turned out frozen drinks with chunks of ice while the $200 Waring Pro MegaMix HPB300 flubbed our durability test, which consists of crushing ice 45 times. See our complete blender Ratings for other models to consider or avoid.

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    A $2,000 pro-style range beats some bigger names in our tests

    Wolf, Viking and Thermador are familiar names to fans of pro-style ranges, but what about the lesser known brands that cost less? Consumer Reports tested two NXR pro-styles that we bought online from Costco—the NXR DRGB3001 and the NXR DRGB3602. They're half the price of most pro-style ranges and our tests found some surprising results.

    Among 30-inch pro-style ranges the $2,000 NXR DRGB3001 was better than the Viking VDSC530SS, the Thermador PRG304GH, and the Wolf GR304, which range in price from $4,500 to $5,500. But better may not be good enough for you if you love to cook. While this NXR was superb at simmering, it didn't provide fast cooktop heat, and baking and broiling were so-so, helping to keep it off our list of recommended ranges. Like most 30-inch pro-styles the NXR's oven is small, and there isn't a self-clean function. The 36-inch NXR DRGB3602, $3,000, also has a small oven and performed similarly, and didn't make our recommended list either. Overall, it scored nearly as well as the $6,000 Wolf GR366. The $7,500 Thermador PRG366JG and $7,200 Viking VGSC536-4G scored better than both, but still not good enough to be recommended.

    Boxy pro-style ranges have become status symbols, with Wolf being the most prestigious, but the NXR isn't a social climber. Its look is simple, with a dull stainless finish, regular cast iron grates (rather than continuous) and knobs that are lightweight instead of heavy and chunky. And here's a quirky touch: Some of the oven temperature settings—350 degrees F, 400 degrees F, and so on—were in bold on the 30-inch range but others weren't. That's not a big deal, unless small details matter to you.

    Take a look at our range Ratings. In addition to pro-styles, we test gas and electric ranges, including induction, and dual-fuel models that pair a gas cooktop with an electric oven. You'll find a $430 coil-top range, the Kenmore 90212, that we recommend as well as a $7,500 pro-style Thermador, and everything in between.

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    The best wrinkle remover? A steam ironing system.

    Despite their pressing prowess, steam ironing systems aren't as popular in the U.S. as they are in Europe. With their large water tanks, the systems produce prodigious amounts of steam, making it possible to breeze through a batch of dress shirts or linen tablecloths. Consumer Reports tested three steam ironing systems and two earned nearly perfect scores for steaming rate, ironing and ease of use, outperforming many of the traditional steam irons in our tests.

    Although they appear bulky, ironing systems typically have a lighter iron and a longer cord. When the iron is in use, the water tank stays put on the ironing board. To better understand the pros and cons of steam ironing systems, also called ironing stations, we talked to our textile expert, Pat Slaven, who tests irons for Consumer Reports and owns six herself.

    "Americans iron a shirt once in awhile," says Slaven, so they like appliances that work fast. That's why the Maytag Premium Analog M 800, which heats up in 55 seconds, is a popular model. Steam ironing systems can take as long as 11 minutes to heat up so aren't as convenient for quick ironing jobs.

    But once they start steaming, the job goes fast thanks to the steady head of steam coming from the water tank. Most systems can produce about an hour's worth of steam, making them a good choice for someone who irons frequently and in big batches, says Slaven. The systems are also good for ironing silk or other delicate fabrics as well as for people who sew or quilt.

    We tested the Reliable IronMaven J420, $300, the Rowenta DG-5030, $150, and the DeLonghi Pro 300, also $150. In our linen tablecloth test, the Reliable IronMaven and Rowenta earned excellent marks and made our list of top steam iron picks. The DeLonghi was very good, but not excellent, at steaming rate and ease of use.

    One drawback of steam ironing systems is that the large tanks don't fit comfortably on standard ironing boards. "Our ironing boards are flimsy," says Slaven, adding that European ironing boards are typically longer and often have a special shelf to accommodate the steaming station. "American ironing boards don't have a spot for it."

    At $220, our top-rated traditional steam iron, the Panasonic NI-W950A rivals the ironing systems in price and almost matched their performance. It was excellent at steaming rate and ironing and ease of use was very good. For much less you can get one of our CR Best Buys, the Singer Expert Finish EF, $60, or the Rowenta Effective Comfort DW2070, $50. Both were superb performers, heated up quickly and are just the thing for ironing a shirt when you're in a hurry.

    Izabela Rutkowski

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    The best hand and stick vacuums for light-duty cleaning

    Hand and stick vacuums are small, lightweight picker-uppers meant for spilled cereal, dirty car interiors, and other messes too small to require lugging out the heavy equipment. They're also designed for quick surface pickup rather than the deep cleaning that upright and canister vacuums are known for. Consumer Reports recently tested more than 20 small vacuums and found eight top picks that start at $35.

    Hand vacuums. These small vacuums tend to be lightest and can handle car cleaning. Strong carpet and floor cleanup, even along edges, helped put the corded Bissell Pet Hair Eraser 33A1, $35, on our winners' list. But for cleaning up after pets, we suggest the corded Eureka Easy Clean 71B or the cordless Shark Perfect Pet II SV780; both get very good scores.

    Stick vacuums. Stick vacuums take up more space but usually free you from bending. The corded Hoover Flair S2220, a CR Best Buy at $60, cleaned impressively. Paying another $100 or so for the Hoover Platinum LiNX BH50010, $150, or the Shark Navigator Freestyle SV1100, $140, buys cord-free convenience; choose the Shark if carpets trump floors and edges on your list.

    Hand and stick combos. Six stick vacuums we tested can double as hand vacuums, but with mostly unimpressive results. The corded Eureka Easy Clean 2-in-1 169B, $30, did better overall as a hand vacuum than as a stick, but its fixed brush head makes handheld use awkward. And turning the same-priced Dirt Devil Simpli-Stick SD20000RED on or off in stick-vac mode requires a long reach down. Keep these other tips in mind:

    • A motorized brush tends to boost cleaning, especially for pet hair. Most of our top small vacuum picks have one.
    • Check noise. vacuums that scored poor for noise in our tests were above the 85-dBa level for which we recommend hearing protection.
    • Don't assume that models with lithium-ion batteries are better; only one cleaned well enough to make our picks. Also, cordless vacuums with lithium-ion batteries tend to operate at full power until they run out, then they stop completely. Models with older battery technologies will rev down gradually.

    Editor's note: A version of this article originally appeared in Consumer Reports magazine.

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    Honda mower with self-charging electric start cuts great too

    One of the frustrations of mowing the lawn is getting the dang mower to start. So when Honda introduced a nifty self-charging electric start feature on its self-propelled Honda HRR2169VLA it was a welcome improvement. Especially for homeowners who've been met with a recalcitrant mower at the beginning of mowing season when the weather is often too cold for the starter's battery to charge properly.

    Mimicking a car's alternator, the battery charges as you mow. This keeps the mower ready to start without the pull-cord until the end of the season. But that's not the only thing we liked about the Honda HRR2169VLA, $500, which is one of two top-rated Hondas in our lawn mower Ratings. It mulched finely without clumping and filled its bag to capacity. The side-discharge mode of this and several other Honda mowers in our tests is a bit of a misnomer because the discharge is out the back, in the path of your feet. But the Honda HRR2169VLA did nearly as well in this mode and was easy to push, pull and turn.

    If you don't want to pay $500 for a mower with this convenient feature, models that cost $400 or less also ranked among our picks of self-propelled mowers. The Honda HRR2169VKA cut equally well, falling a notch short in side-discharge. The Toro Recycler 20333 is the one to choose if you always mow in mulching mode. Both cost $400. If you prefer to bag clippings, you can save $60 more by opting for the Ariens Razor 911179, $340.

    Our list of top mower picks includes 50 models from the $220 Craftsman 37432 push mower to the $4,000 John Deere X310 lawn tractor.

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    Breville reclaims its spot atop our food processor Ratings

    When we first reported on the Breville Sous Chef BFP800XL food processor last year, it made news by beating out Cuisinart, the appliance category's long-time leading brand. Breville stayed atop our Ratings for many months, until an astute reader informed us that the machine's online manual stated that grating cheese would void the warranty. That wasn't true with the model we tested, but we pulled it from our Ratings while we investigated. Satisfied that Breville has fixed the issue, we are once again awarding top honors to the food processor, which has the slightly different model number the Breville Sous Chef BFP800XL/A and the same $400 price tag.

    According to Breville, grating a large wedge of cheese in the original BFP800XL could cause the machine to seize or its shredding disk to become unbalanced. We recently purchased the new BFP800XL/A and found minor redesigns to its shredding disk and lid. In this round of tests, the device was excellent at grating cheese, though in fact we had similar results with the original model. The new model, like the old, was also superb at chopping, slicing and pureeing.

    The Breville Sous Chef BFP800XL/A has other features we like, including an adjustable slicing disk, mini-bowl attachment, and whipping blade. It's a lot of appliance, weighing 19 pounds and standing 18 inches tall. Plus the container for its various blade and accessories will eat up additional storage space. And, yes, it's expensive, costing two to three times as much as our four other recommended models, all of which are made by Cuisinart. But if you want top performance, that once again means going with Breville.

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    Dryers get better at letting you know lint is blocking the vent

    A lint-filled dryer vent is not just a lot of fluff. The clogged vent increases drying time and energy use, and worse, lint can cause dryer fires. Consumer Reports latest dryer tests found that blocked-vent indicators have improved on some newer models. They aren't perfect, but they detected fully blocked vents more reliably than earlier versions.

    Lint remains mysterious enough to warrant a Wikipedia entry, but is just loose fabric fibers and one reason some people line dry their laundry. Lint is also the leading cause of an average of 4,400 reported dryer fires a year, according to the National Fire Protection Association. So when Kenmore and LG introduced dryers several years ago with vent-blockage indicators, we blocked each dryer's duct to test how well the indicator performed, but the results were too inconsistent to trust the indicators.

    Our latest tests found that the new Airflow Alert and Check Vent indicators on Maytag and Whirlpool dryers, LG's FlowSense, and Samsung's Vent Sensor detect fully blocked vents more reliably. LG's sensor even stopped the dryer, and an app for the Whirlpool dryer can send a text or e-mail if there's a problem. But these indicators weren't as good at detecting partially blocked vents.

    Among the recommended dryers you'll find these indicators on many of the higher rated models, including the Samsung DV50F9A8EVP, $1,100, the Maytag Maxima XL MED8000AG, $1,450, and the LG DLEX3470[W], $1,000. The Whirlpool Duet WEL98HEAL $1,500, is Wi-Fi enabled and can text or e-mail you when there's a problem. We note this and other features, such as electronic controls and steam option, in our summary of each dryer.

    Check our Ratings of dozens of electric and gas dryers to find one that matches your needs and budget. "Even if you buy a dryer with one of these blocked-vent indicators, you'll lower the risk of a dryer fire by using only a flexible or solid-metal duct and sealing joints and seams," says Emilio Gonzalez, the engineer who oversees our tests of laundry appliances. "Remove the duct regularly and clean it, and clean the lint filter after every load."

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    Can our top-rated knives cut it in a professional kitchen?

    Consumer Reports has put more than 50 knife sets to the test. But what do professional chefs look for in a blade? To find out, we asked Kenji López-Alt, chief creative officer of Serious Eats, whose weekly column The Food Lab explores the science of home cooking. We sent a pair of Consumer Reports recommended knife sets to Kenji's test kitchen in downtown New York City, then showed up a week later with our TV crew to get his take. The verdict? Watch the video to find out.

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    How to use your shades, blinds and curtains to beat the heat

    Air conditioning is blissful during the summer but running it non-stop during a heat wave will have you cursing when you get your utility bill. Fortunately, clever use of blinds, curtains and other window treatments can help keep your house cool and your bills in check. The Department of Energy reports that smart management of window coverings can reduce heat gain by up to 77 percent. And as a bonus these same practices can reduce heat loss in the winter. Here are some energy-saving suggestions from the DOE that'll pay off immediately.

    Awnings. Window awnings can reduce solar heat gain by up to 65 percent on south-facing windows and 77 percent on west-facing windows, according to the DOE. For best results choose awnings in light colors that reflect more sunlight. In the winter, you can roll up retractable awnings to let the sun warm up your house.

    Curtains and drapes. On summer days, keep your curtains closed, especially on windows that get direct sunlight. The ability of curtains and drapes to reduce heat gain depends on fabric type (closed or open weave) and color. Studies show that medium-colored draperies with white-plastic backings can reduce heat gain by 33 percent, according to the DOE. Hang the curtains as close to the window as possible. For maximum effect, install a cornice at the top of the draperies, seal the draperies at the sides and overlap them in the middle using Velcro or tape.

    Shades. When properly installed, window shades are one of the simplest and most effective ways to save energy but they need to be drawn all day to work. Mount them as close to the glass as possible within the window frame, creating a sealed space. Reversible shades that are white on one side and dark on the other can be switched with the seasons with the white side reflecting the sun in the summer and the dark side absorbing it in the winter. Quilted roller shades and Roman shades with several layers of fiber batting act as both insulation and an air barrier and are more effective than other soft window treatments.

    Blinds. Because of the horizontal slats, it's difficult to control heat loss through interior window blinds, although they do offer some flexibility. Unlike shades, you can adjust the slats to control light and ventilation. When completely closed, highly reflective blinds can reduce heat gain by around 45 percent, says the DOE. They can also be adjusted to block and reflect direct sunlight onto a light-colored ceiling, which diffuses the light without much heat or glare.

    Reflective films. Window films are best for homes in regions with long cooling seasons. Silver, mirror-like films typically are more effective than colored, more transparent films and east- and west-facing windows benefit most because of their greater potential for heat gain. Keep in mind that reflective films are tricky to clean and impair outside visibility.

    Best Buy air conditioners
    If these old-fashioned tricks don't help you beat the heat, consider buying a new, more energy-efficient air conditioner and run it in energy-saver mode. The Kenmore 70051 is our Best Buy among small air conditioners. Despite its bargain price of $190, the 43-pound unit offers great cooling power. The Sharp AF-S85RX, $200, sold at Costco is a Best Buy in mid-sized air conditioners. It has a digital display, built-in timer, auto-fan speed and a five-year warranty. Two large air conditioners that we named Best Buys include the Frigidaire FRA106CV1 and the LG LW1210ER, both $320. Both were aces at keeping a room comfortable and continued to operate under brownout conditions. For more choices go to our air conditioners' ratings, which include 15 top air conditioner picks.

    —Izabela Rutkowski

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    Essentials for your summer camping trip

    July, which happens to be National Park and Recreation Month, offers a perfect chance to explore America's more than 400 national parks. If camping is in order, as it was for 282 million Americans at national parks last year, be sure to make a list and check it at least twice. Consumer Reports can help.

    Pack the basics. "People have a tendency to forget the simple things," says Michael Hayes, an outdoor-gear expert at L.L.Bean, which was rated highly by our shoppers. Don't forget a backpack, extra batteries, hand sanitizer, medications, a cooler, trash bags, and of course, toilet paper. Try Off Deep Woods Sportsmen II to keep mosquitoes at bay; and Equate Ultra Protection Sunscreen SPF 50 offers great UVA protection.

    Go digital. Bring a digital camera to photograph adventures for your Facebook friends. The Olympus Stylus XZ-10, a compact camera, is great for outdoor performance and does well even under an overcast sky. From trekking through the mud to toasting marshmallows over an open fire, camping is a dirty business, so don't forget to keep that camera safe from the elements.

    Don't get lost. A GPS navigation system can help you answer an inevitable question: "Are we there yet?" If you really want to be new age, consider the Garmin HUD, which reflects directions onto a windshield, without the distracting buttons and maps on a traditional GPS. But always have a backup plan. "The old map and compass is something that you can fall back on," Hayes says.

    Enjoy the outdoors. Take in everything nature has to offer, and bring a pair of binoculars to check out the local wildlife without disturbing it. If hiking is your thing, a comfortable pair of hiking boots and sunglasses are essential. Trailblazers who prefer speedier transportation may want to bring a bike.

    Prepare for the worst. To be ready for anything, pack an emergency kit with bottled water, nonperishable foods, and a first-aid kit. The Eton American Red Cross Solar Link FR600 emergency weather radio is a good addition. It's a combination radio, flashlight, clock, and cell-phone charger that can be powered by a hand-crank, the sun, or batteries.

    Get there in style. If you're in the market for a new vehicle to transport your camping gear, there are many good options. Among them is the Lexus GX 460 SUV, which can clear deep brush and tow toys up to 6,500 pounds without blowing a head gasket.

    Shop early. If your list is missing something, visit your local sporting goods store to find the best deals on camping gear. Hayes recommends buying in May for access to the newest gear and discounts on last year's products. Late August through September is the best time to snag end-of-season sales.

    To find a national campsite that's perfect for you, visit www.recreation.gov.

    10 most-visited national parks:

    1. Blue Ridge Parkway, North Carolina and Virginia
    2. Golden Gate National Recreation Area, California
    3. Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina and Tennessee
    4. George Washington Memorial Parkway, District of Columbia
    5. Lake Mead National Recreation Area, Arizona and Nevada
    6. Lincoln Memorial, District of Columbia
    7. Natchez Trace Parkway, Alabama, Mississippi, and Tennessee
    8. Gateway National Recreation Area, New York and New Jersey
    9. Gulf Islands National Seashore, Florida and Mississippi
    10. Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, New Jersey and Pennsylvania

    —Kaitlyn Wells

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    Don't short sheet the bed and other tips for college living

    College students will be off to campus in the coming weeks and are shopping in earnest to furnish the rooms where they'll be spending the next nine months. Towels? Check. Pillows? Check. Sheets. Not so fast. Before investing in a good set of bed linens, check the size of the dorm bed. Most college dorms have beds that are five inches longer than the standard twin so regular twin sheets won't cover them. The extra-long twin sheets aren't sold everywhere so you may want to shop online in advance. Here's how to find sheets that'll last until graduation.

    The longer sheets, known as XL twin or dorm sheets, are often sold in university bookstores but may cost more there. Bed Bath & Beyond, Target and Macy's don't offer a huge variety in their stores, but they do have back-to-school collections on their websites as does Amazon.com. Look for fitted sheets that are 80-inches long (the XL flat sheets are longer). And remember that most twin sets come with one standard pillowcase, which means you'll need to buy an extra pillowcase if you use two pillows.

    Look for sales when you shop as the XL twin sheets are often discounted at this time of year. Or use coupons. Some stores, like Bed Bath & Beyond, send coupons via traditional mail as well as e-mail. And you may also find bargains on standard-sized bedding for students who are living off-campus. No matter what size sheets you buy, consider the fabric. According to Pat Slaven, Consumer Reports' textile expert, some sheet fabrics last longer and are more comfortable than others. Here's what you'll find.

    • Microfiber. "Skip it," says Slaven. Microfiber is not as breathable as other fabrics and may cause the sleeper to become hot and sweaty.
    • Jersey. It's not the most durable fabric. The sheets can stretch out of shape after only a few washings and definitely won't least for four years of college, says Slaven.
    • Cotton-poly blend. An Internet search showed that most dorm sheets are made of 60 percent cotton and 40 percent polyester. "Cotton-polyester blends work well, but 100 percent cotton is going to be much more comfortable," says Slaven.
    • 100 percent cotton. It's the best choice. "If you look around you'll find 100 percent cotton sheets for a reasonable price," Slaven says, adding that a twin set of cotton sheets should cost between $20 and $30.
    And XL sheets aren't the only thing you have to worry about. "The regular comforter is too short, the blanket needs to be longer, the mattress topper has to fit," Slaven says. "And the student needs to know how to do laundry."

    Pack pods for the laundry
    Slaven advises parents to do at least one load of laundry with their first-time college student before sending him or her off to campus. She also suggests buying laundry detergents in pods, which are quick and convenient and pre-measured. Pods are also easier to carry to the laundry room or laundromat. In our tests of laundry detergent, Kirkland Signature Ultra Clean Pacs sold at Costco and Tide Pods were the best pod performers and are recommended by our experts. For more standout choices check our laundry detergent ratings.

    Best Buy mattresses
    Students who are moving off-campus may need a lot more than a set of sheets. In our mattress tests, we named two Best Buys but mattresses often go on sale so if you're patient you can find one at a good price. The Serta Perfect Sleeper Elite, $835, is a firm innerspring mattress that offers excellent support for those who prefer sleeping on their backs. Another good choice is the Novaform Foam Collection Serafina, $900, memory foam mattress sold at Costco. The medium-firm mattress is infused with gel beads and is also good for back sleepers. And because it comes folded six ways in a box, it's easy to transport. The Sultan Holmsta sold at Ikea didn't make our list of top mattress picks but at $550 is still a good choice. Our other top picks range in price from $1,100 to $1,765 when not on sale.

    —Izabela Rutkowski

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    Keep pets safe in the dog days of summer

    A heat wave is hard enough to take as a human, but it can be just as dangerous—or more so—for pets, as I was reminded in a recent e-mail alert from my vet. Cats and dogs lack the sweat glands we upright creatures rely on for cooling. And some dogs may keep running and playing right into the advanced stages of heat stroke, which can cause brain damage, organ failure, and even death.

    So it's up to pet owners to take steps to protect our furry companions during hot, humid weather. These tips come from the American Red Cross and my own excellent vet in Brooklyn, N.Y. (who reports having already treated an unusually large number of pets for heat-related illness this year):

    • Never leave pets in the car. As with children, it's unsafe and potentially deadly to leave an animal in the car—even for a few minutes—on a hot day. The inside temperature of the vehicle can quickly reach 120 degrees, regardless of whether the windows are cracked.
    • Avoid activities (even long walks) during the hottest time of the day.
    • Know the signs of heat stroke, including heavy panting, brick red gums or tongue, rapid pulse, staggering, seizures, bloody diarrhea or vomiting, and an inability to calm down, even when lying down. If you suspect your pet has heat stroke, take his or her temperature rectally. If it's above 104 degrees, cool the animal using a water hose or by applying wet towels to the paws and neck. Avoid using ice water, which can constrict blood vessels and impede cooling, but do offer your pet ice cubes to lick. Get to the veterinarian as soon as possible.
    • Be extra cautious with high-risk pets. Dogs with short noses or snouts, like bulldogs and pugs, are especially prone to heat stroke. So are any pets who are obese, have very thick coats, or have upper respiratory problems such as laryngeal paralysis or collapsing trachea.


    Learn which cars are safest for road tripping with pets.

    I'm lucky to have a retired racing greyhound who's long of nose and would rather snooze the day away in front of the air conditioner than set one paw outside in a heat wave, let alone chase a ball. But even on our brief daytime walks I can see the toll the heat takes, leaving him panting and exhausted. So I've been restricting our longer jaunts to early morning and late evening, keeping the AC cranked all day despite what it will mean for my electric bill, and avoiding the dog park until milder temperatures return. You can't be too careful with your best friend.

    Source:
    "Keep Your Pet Safe As Temperatures Rise" (American Red Cross)

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    Four new Bosch dishwashers added to our list of top picks

    Of the 51 dishwashers on Consumer Reports' top picks list, 34 are made by Bosch including four new models that we just added. In our dishwasher tests, all four earned excellent scores for washing and energy efficiency with cycles that are two hours long. And two of them offer a speedier cycle that gets the job done in less time using little water and energy.

    The Bosch 800 Plus Series SHX7PT55UC, $1,300, and the Bosch 300 Series DLX SHX53TL5UC, $850, dishwashers feature a "Speed Perfect" cycle that Bosch claims washes the same full, soiled load of dishes you'd put through the normal cycle but up to 25 percent faster, saving 30 minutes. The pricier 800 Plus has other perks such as an adjustable third rack for utensils, hidden controls, a water softener, and cycle status that's projected on the floor. The 300 Series DLX SHX53TL5UC projects a red dot to tell you the machine is running.

    Some of the other dishwashers in our tests offer an extra-quick cycle that runs as briefly as 20 to 30 minutes including the Thermador DWHD651JFP, at $2,200 one of the more expensive models in our Ratings. But cycles like that are intended for small, lightly soiled loads, not the typical post-dinner batch of dishes, glasses, utensils and pots for which you'd run a normal or Speed Perfect cycle.

    The other newly recommended Bosch dishwashers include the Bosch 500 Series SHP65T55UC, $900, which has three racks, hidden controls, and a red dot to indicate operation, and the Bosch 800 Series SHE68T55UC, $950, which has a third rack and fully visible controls. While all four were excellent overall, the Bosch 300 Series DLX SHX53TL5UC was a bit noisier than its brand mates.

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    The five best food processors from our tests for $100 or less

    Consumer Reports' top-rated food processor, the Breville BFP800XL/A is masterful in just about every way, and it's incredibly quiet. But at $400, it's also the priciest model in our Ratings by far. What if you can only spend $100? Or even $50? It turns out there are some decent models at that price point, though you'll have to settle for one or two deficiencies. Here are five to consider from Consumer Reports' complete food processor Ratings.

    Cuisinart MFP-107BC, $100. This is the one $100-or-less model on our recommended list, combining superb slicing and shredding with very good chopping and grating. It holds 7 cups, which could be a plus or minus depending on your needs. The compact machine won't take over your countertop, but if you do a lot of high-volume processing, say for slaws and stir-fries, the relatively smaller capacity (other recommended models hold 11 to 16 cups) could be an issue.

    Hamilton Beach Big Mouth 70573, $70. This 14-cup food processor performed very well or better on every processing task, beating out models that cost two or three times as much. Its model name refers to its ample feed tube, which you'll appreciate when shredding chunks of cabbage or slicing large potatoes. The only knock against the Hamilton Beach is the noise. It's a lot louder than most recommended models, and that could be an issue if you're sensitive to sounds or there's a baby sleeping in the other room.

    Farberware FP3000FBS, $60. This Walmart-exclusive from Farberware has a roomy 12-cup processing bowl, plus a mini-bowl for chopping nuts, herbs, and other smaller items. It performed very well at chopping, slicing, shredding, and grating. But it struggled with purees, so this is not the best choice if you like to blitz soups and sauces in the food processor. Like many inexpensive food processors, it's also on the noisy side.

    Hamilton Beach 70730, $50. Another low-priced option from Hamilton Beach, this 10-cup model combines decent capacity with mostly standout performance. Shredding in particular is superb, and it also does a fine job chopping, slicing, and grating. Like the Farberware, it's not great at pureeing and noise is once again an issue.

    Oster FPSTFP4010, $30. Oster's 4-cup model looks like it belongs in our food chopper Ratings, but the fact that it slices and shreds makes it a food processor, and it actually holds its own against many full-sized models. It did struggle somewhat in our shredding tests, but otherwise it should do the job for all of your processing needs.

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    Backyard and bathroom updates are the summer's top projects

    Home improvement activity is heating up this summer with 60 percent of homeowners expecting to spend an average of $1,200 on at least one upgrade. At the top of the list is improving outdoor spaces, followed by bathroom remodels, according to Zillow Digs, an online real estate website that tracks design trends. Here are 10 ideas for backyard and bathroom projects as well as some top-rated products from Consumer Reports that'll help all your hard work pay off.

    Five ways to enjoy your backyard
    Younger homeowners and homeowners with children are the most likely to be planning a summer project and many are looking outside. "Homeowners want outdoor spaces that are just as comfortable as their indoor spaces," says Cynthia Nowak of Zillow Digs. "Specifically, pool and patio spaces are used more for socializing and lounging, rather than recreation."

    Go low-maintenance. A sustainable backyard design can save you work and money. To save on watering costs, choose drought-resistant plants and shrubbery that's native to your area.

    Bring the indoors out. If you have a covered porch, sunroom or other protected outdoor area, furnish it with comfy weatherproof furniture. Some homes even have a place to safely install a television so you can watch movies al fresco. The 32-inch Samsung UN32EH5000, $350, has excellent high-definition picture quality and a matte-like screen that minimizes reflections.

    Make it festive. Bright colors like tangerine, turquoise, hot pinks and corals are becoming more popular. Refresh your old wooden furniture by painting it a fun color—or more than one. In our tests, Behr Premium Plus Ultra Flat Enamel, $37 a gallon, lasted the equivalent of nine years outdoors, and resisted cracking, color change and mildew.

    Create an outdoor kitchen. Camp-like elements, such as stone fireplaces and brick barbecues can make a setting seem more natural. Build a brick or slate workspace for your backyard kitchen with a gas grill as the centerpiece. The Weber Spirit SP-320 46700401, $600, is perfect for slow cooking ribs and roasts. While the Char-Broil Red, $400, sold at Home Depot, and the Brinkmann 810-2545-C, $260, sold at Walmart, offer great performance at appealing prices.

    Decked out dining. If you're spending more time outdoors, you'll want your deck to be in good repair. If yours is in need of replacement, we found that ACQ Southern Yellow Pine, $175 per 100-square-feet, is an inexpensive, slip-resistant deck material that resists mildew and color change over time.

    Five fun and functional bathroom updates
    bathroom_remodeling_1.jpgBathroom remodels are the second most popular project this summer, according to Zillow Digs. "Because the bathroom is small, folks are giving that room an identity," says Alan Zielinski, who has 25 years of kitchen and bath design experience and is on the board of directors at the National Kitchen & Bath Association. "That's opened it up to make it a lot of fun."

    Frame it. With a few inexpensive touches, you can dress up the décor. Install a large vanity mirror and frame it. Get creative by using repurposed wood, installing backsplash tile on the frame or painting it in an accent color.

    Get inspired by glass. More homeowners are opting for spa-like showers instead of tubs and doing away with the shower curtain. You can extend the trend to the counter by adding a tempered glass bathroom sink, which held up well to stains, scratches and heat in our sink tests but not to dropped items.

    Plan for the future. More consumers are thinking ahead when redesigning the bathroom. Installing attractive yet functional shower grab bars will serve you down the road. As will a "comfort-height" toilet, like the Aquasource AT1203-00, $100, which is also a champ at conserving water.

    Relax with sound. Technology in the bathroom is a growing trend. If you like to sing in the shower, sing along to Kohler's Moxie Showerhead + Wireless Speaker. It pairs with a Bluetooth-enabled device and lasts for long, leisurely showers. Although we haven't tested the Moxie, we do recommend the Kohler Forté K-10282, $55, which has a rain-shower feel.

    Stay neutral. Whites and off-whites remain the top color schemes in bathrooms, especially for cabinetry. You can add a pop of color with bath towels, soap dishes and accent tiles. Glidden Premium Satin, at $24 a gallon a CR Best Buy, works well in bathrooms because it withstands moisture, reflects light well and wipes clean easily.

    More ideas
    For more home improvement projects and products, check out Consumer Reports' guides to Home Improvement, Lawn and Garden and Bathroom Remodeling.

    —Kaitlyn Wells

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