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Consumer Reports

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    GE Cafe Refrigerator Has a Built-in Keurig Coffeemaker

    If you’re remodeling the kitchen, a refrigerator and a coffeemaker are probably two items on your wish list. GE hopes to streamline the appliance-buying process for you with its new GE Café Series refrigerator with a built-in Keurig K-Cup Brewing System. The industry-first appliance ($2,969) just went on sale at Lowe’s and select independent retailers. It will be available at other major retailers starting in 2016.  

    The coffee-dispensing French-door model will free up some countertop space and will also save you a bit of time—instead of your having to fill the coffeemaker reservoir, freshly filtered water is piped directly into the coffee machine. The dispenser also produces plain hot water (from 90° F to 185° F, which you can set with your smartphone), so it’s also good for making tea or instant oatmeal or soup.

    The Keurig K-Cup Brewing System takes more than 400 varieties of coffee from more than 60 brands, including Dunkin’ Donuts and Starbucks. In Consumer Reports’ coffeemaker tests, single-serve coffee tends not be as flavorful as freshly brewed coffee. If you’re already a single-serve convert or if you take your coffee with a lot of milk and sugar, coffee freshness shouldn’t be a major issue. 

    Not Just a Novelty

    The GE Café CFE28USHSS is pricey, but you’re getting more than just a refrigerator with a Keurig coffeemaker. It also has a lot of the features Consumer Reports looks for in a great refrigerator, including a temperature-controlled meat/deli bin, split shelves allowing for the storage of taller items, LED lighting, and dual evaporators, which help preserve food freshness by maintaining optimal humidity levels. The refrigerator is manufactured in GE’s Louisville, Kentucky, factory.

    GE French-door refrigerators have performed very well in our refrigerator Ratings of late, including the GE Profile PWE23KMDES, $2,600, and the GE GNE29GSHSS, $1,800, a CR Best Buy. We’ll see whether this latest coffee-brewing model matches up when we get it into our labs for testing.

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

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    Pilates And Yoga For Muscle Building

    Q. I do Pilates and yoga regularly. Will they help me build up my muscles?

    A. Yes. If done under proper instruction, exercises in which you support or lift your own body weight, such as a plank in yoga class or side kicks in Pilates, can help with muscle building. And other research, including an analysis from the influential National Health Interview Survey (NHIS), confirms that yoga has other health benefits, too.

    In a small study from India, people who performed 24 rounds of the yoga sequence “sun salutation” six days per week boosted their upper-body strength significantly after 24 weeks. And 60 minutes of vigorous Ashtanga yoga, including warm-up and cool down, twice per week for eight months increased women’s leg strength in a small University of Oklahoma study. Research suggests that Pilates can build lower-body and core strength.

    Besides muscle building, yoga has other benefits, according to the recent analysis of data from the NHIS survey. It found that nearly two-thirds of yoga practitioners said they were motivated to exercise more, 40 percent that ate better, and 80 percent they felt less stressed and had better emotional health. They also they cut back on alcohol and cigarettes. 

    The NHIS is an annual study conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau in which thousands of Americans are interviewed about their health- and illness-related experiences. The survey results are based on data from 34,525 adults age 18 and older.

    Send your questions to Ask Our Health Experts.

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

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    Are Cooktops Worth the Extra Money?

    The cooktop-and-wall oven combo has a sleek, modern look and conveniences not possible with a range. Install a cabinet under the cooktop and you have a handy spot to store lots of cookware. Place the wall oven at a height that makes it easier to use. This winning combination is usually more expensive than a range, so here’s what to consider before you shop.

    Price Range
    $350 to $5,000
    At the low end are cooktops with two burners, which Consumer Reports does not test. Electric induction and gas pro-style are the more expensive options. 

    Size
    Widths range from 12 to 48 inches. Most cooktops are 30 or 36 inches wide, so that’s what Consumer Reports buys and tests. Measure the cutout in your countertop before you shop if you’re replacing a cooktop. Solid-surface countertops may require a somewhat different installation, so check the manual.

    Gas or Electric
    Electric includes radiant smoothtops, induction smoothtops, and coil tops. Coil top are the least popular so we do not test them. If the choice between electric and gas is yours, know that both delivered impressive performance in our tests. That said, the best electric cooktops outperformed the top gas models, typically because the high-powered electric burners delivered faster heat. Beyond performance, cooking with gas has its fans.

    Knobs or Touch Controls
    Some controls are front and center, others are off to the side. Gas cooktops such as the $900 Whirlpool WCG97US0DS, and the $2,200 Viking VGC5366BSS have knobs. When shopping try out the knobs. Do they feel sturdy or flimsy? Electric smoothtops under $1,000 have knobs. Above that, touch controls are the norm, such as the $1,200 Bosch NETP066SUC radiant smoothtop.

    Design
    Gas cooktops can have a porcelain enamel surface, but most we’ve tested have a stainless surface for a polished look—it may take some work to keep it looking good. Electric radiant and induction smoothtops usually feature black ceramic glass. Some are trimmed with stainless on two sides. Even the $700 Maytag MEC7403WS has this. The Thermador CIT36XKB induction cooktop is framed in stainless, but at $5,000, why not?

    Features
    Typically there are four burners on 30-inch electric cooktops, five on gas. The 36-inch gas and electric cooktops usually have five burners. All cooktops in our tests have at least one high-power burner. It delivers heat faster and is good for searing, stir-frying, and heating large quantities.

    Most radiant smoothtops have an expandable burner that lets you choose the size burner—six or nine inch, for example—that best matches the pot you’re using. An elongated bridge element spans two burners to accommodate a griddle. A hot-surface warning light lets you know that the surface is still hot, long after the burner has been turned off.

    On gas cooktops heavy porcelain-coated cast iron grates should stand up to abuse. The $900 Whirlpool WCG97US0DS’s grates are hinged at the back so you can lift the entire grate for cleaning.

    Brand Reliability

    Every year we ask thousands of subscribers about their experiences with cooktops and repairs. Based on our latest survey of nearly 6,000 people about nine brands, we estimate that by the time the cooktops are three years old, only four percent of electric cooktops and six percent of gas cooktops will need repair or have serious problems. The differences among brands were not big enough to call out most and least reliable. See our Brand Reliability tab in our cooktop Ratings for more details.

    Shopping for a Cooktop?
    See our cooktop Ratings first. Use the filter to narrow your choice by size, brand, and price. Check the Features & Specs tab to compare models, and the Brand Reliability tab to help you decide.

    And be sure to look for sales and rebates online. It’s holiday season, and we’re seeing some good deals.

    Questions? Send me an email at kjaneway@consumer.org.

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

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    How to Host a Party Without Busting the Budget

    Is this a year when you have more time than money? Then it’s a great time to be a host. Put your extra hours to work on food and décor, and you can throw a terrific party or dinner and have DIY fun at the same time. Here are some tips from party-planning pros around the country.

    Get cooking

    Homemade food is cheaper and healthier than store-bought. “Premade croutons, pies, and hors d’oeuvres are expensive because you’re paying for the time spent to make the product,” says Nicole Straight, marketing manager at Marcia Selden Catering & Event Planning in Stamford, Connecticut. “Buy day-old bread to make delicious stuffing, and bake your own pies for under $5. Homemade spiced nuts, flat breads, and dips are easier than you think!”

    For cost-conscious, crowd-pleasing appetizers, Andrea Greco, a stylist and crafter in New York City, recommends hot spinach-artichoke dip and brie wrapped in puff pastry. For a lower-budget event, Phil De Maiolo, Executive Chef at Pier 60 and the Lighthouse at Chelsea Piers in New York City, suggests croustades (slices of baguette, ficelle or walnut and raisin bread, brushed with olive oil and baked) topped with tapenade, hummus and babaganoush—all of which you can easily whip up in a food processor or blender. Or, do a pasta bar—give guests a choice of pesto, or a cream-  or tomato-based sauce.  Want a meaty but money-wise entrée? David Mashburn, proprietor of the restaurant Classic on Noble in Anniston, Alabama, goes for marinated, grilled flank steak when he’s looking to save money—starting at $7 a pound versus $14 for beef tenderloin (prices vary by region). Another favorite: boneless chicken thighs, chopped, grilled, and served with barbecue sauce on miniature biscuits.

    Spread the joy

    Not a cook? Host a cookie exchange and ask guests to bring a couple dozen cookies each. “The host provides drinks—maybe a great mulled wine—and cute containers for guests to take home a couple of cookies from each tray,” explains Andrea Greco. Or, “In lieu of random hostess gifts, ask people to bring a traditional holiday dish from their own family. It not only cuts your food budget but creates an instant way to get party conversation started,” says Brent Ridge, the founder of lifestyle brand Beekman 1802 along with Josh Kilmer-Purcell. Better yet, says Ridge, go in with a group of friends and pool your funds for one big party.

    Forget about an open bar

    Instead of running up a huge tab at the liquor store, save money by serving a signature drink at your party. “Make an appropriate amount in advance, based on your guest list,” says Serena Thompson, founder of The Farm Chicks in Mead, Washington. For the holidays, she likes Apple Cinnamon Punch: for 4 to 6 drinks, combine 2 cups apple juice with a cinnamon stick and simmer 5 minutes. Remove cinnamon and combine cooled juice, ½ cup simple syrup, 1 cup ginger ale, and ½ cup vodka. Serve over crushed ice with an apple slice garnish. For festive fizz without a champagne price tag, “Prosecco is always great,” says Nicole Straight. “Add a fresh raspberry or a few pomegranate seeds for a splash of color and flavor.”

    Forage for greenery

    Seriously! Step outside with some pruning shears and harvest evergreen boughs, pine cones, and any plant with red berries. Arrange the bounty on your table or mantle, use it to create garlands for the door or banister, or place branches in vases you already own. If you live in a city, Serena Thompson recommends searching out inexpensive eucalyptus bunches in the floral section of the supermarket. As long as you’re there, pick up seasonal fruit (apples, pears, pomegranates) and display in soup tureens, wooden bowls, or other vessels.

    Décor for a dime

    Ikea is stylist Andrea Greco’s secret source for taper candles ($3.99 for 10), wine glasses and champagne flutes ($4.79 for 6), colorful napkins ($1.99 for 30) and carafes ($2.49). She shops CB2 for colored glassware that’s so pretty it doubles as decor ($2.95 per glass), and square white porcelain appetizer plates ($1.50 each). For table runners (and napkins), simply cut burlap or linen to the length you want, then pull and thread an inch or two from each edge and fray the fabric to create fringe.

    —Cathy Cavender

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

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    Which Countertop Will Hold Up Better in the Kitchen and Bathroom?

    Q. You rate laminate countertops higher than granite for bathroom use but the reverse for kitchens. Why?

    A. The kitchen environment is much tougher than the bathroom, generally speaking, which is why we test and rate countertops differently for each room. With kitchen countertops, for example, we look at how well surfaces resist damage caused by slicing and chopping. That isn’t relevant for bathrooms, obviously. We use different staining agents, too: hair color and lipstick in the bathroom tests, and beet juice, grape juice, hot vegetable oil, mustard, and tomato sauce in the kitchen tests. Both granite and laminate have performed excellently in our heat tests, however, resisting any damage.

    For more information, learn the pros and cons—and costs—of 10 countertop materials, then check our countertop buying guide.

    Send your questions to ConsumerReports.org/askourexperts.

    Editor's Note: This article also appeared in the December 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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    Should You Buy a Real or an Artificial Christmas Tree?

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

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

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

    Check our Holiday Gift Ideas page for recommendations on presents for everyone on your gift list and tips on ways to save. Learn how to host a holiday party without busting the budget and discover the 8 kitchen tools that make holiday cooking a breeze.

    To decrease fire hazard, opt for a fake tree

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

    If you want to buy American, choose a real tree

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

    When it comes to allergies, it's a draw

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

    Bottom line

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

    —Kaitlyn Wells

    More holiday gift ideas and tips

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

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

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    What to Look for in an Artificial Christmas Tree

    Had enough of needles from your Christmas tree making a mess of your home over the holiday season? It might be time to abandon the real-deal cedar, fir, pine, or spruce and buy an artificial Christmas tree. You certainly won't be alone. More than 80 percent of American households with Christmas trees are celebrating with an artificial tree, according to the American Christmas Tree Association.

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

    Go 'true' or 'real'

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

    Choose hinged branches

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

    Check our Holiday Gift Ideas page for recommendations on presents for everyone on your gift list and tips on ways to save.

    Get a sturdy base

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

    Choose the right kind of bulbs for a prelighted tree

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

    Make sure the tree is fire retardant

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

    —Kaitlyn Wells

    More holiday gift ideas and tips

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

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

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    Don't Let Your Thanksgiving Dinner Make You Sick

    With the holidays around the corner, you’re probably making your grocery list for the big feast. While checking your cupboards for supplies, you find a bag of stuffing mix, but the “best by” date on the package was in October. Is it still safe to use for your Thanksgiving dinner? Surprisingly, yes. In most cases, eating food that has been on the shelf—or even in the fridge—past the date on the package won’t put you at high risk for foodborne illness, says Ben Chapman, Ph.D., a food safety specialist and associate professor at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. Shelf-stable foods, including most canned and packaged goods, are manufactured to keep germs, air, and moisture (which contribute to spoilage) out, but deeply dented, leaking or bulging cans or those that spurt out liquid upon opening should be discarded. Packaged products, such as crackers, could have mold or bugs but usually just turn stale.  

    Rather than relying on package dates as a guard against food poisoning, it’s more important to make the right moves in the kitchen. Use these five smart kitchen safety tips, during the holidays and throughout the year. 

    1. Watch Out For Mold

    Some types cause allergies or respiratory problems; others can produce mycotoxins that can make you sick. Even if the mold is in one spot, discard the food. (Skip the sniff test; certain spores can be inhaled.) There are some exceptions. Surface mold on hard salami and dry-cured country hams can be scrubbed off. Also, for hard cheeses (such as cheddar and Parmesan), firm vegetables (such as bell peppers and carrots), and cheeses made with mold (such as Gorgonzola), you can cut off the mold and about an inch around it and use the rest of the food. 

    2. Know How To Battle the Bad Bugs

    Keep raw meat cold (37° F or colder) and cooked meat warm (140° F or warmer) to prevent bacterial growth. Defrost meat in the fridge, cook thoroughly, and refrigerate leftovers within 2 hours. Don’t let raw meat or its juices touch other foods, and wash your hands, cutting boards, and utensils in warm, soapy water.

    3. Use a Meat Thermometer

    Tricks such as wiggling the turkey leg, checking the color of roast beef, and piercing chicken with a fork to see whether the juices run clear are unreliable. You need to be sure that meat has reached a safe temperature: 145° F for beef roasts, pork roasts, and fresh ham (140° F for precooked hams that you reheat), and 165° F for chicken and turkey. 

    4. Consider Avoiding Certain Foods

    “Refrigeration slows the growth of most pathogens, such as E. coli, norovirus, or salmonella, but not listeria,” Chapman says. Deli meat is a top source of listeria. The meat may not contain enough of the bacteria to make you sick when you first buy it, but the bacteria multiply with time, so you want to eat it within a few days. Older adults, pregnant women, and people with weakened immune systems are more susceptible to listeria infection, and the USDA recommends that they avoid eating deli meats and hot dogs unless those foods first reach a temperature of 165° F. Ready-to-eat refrigerated foods, smoked seafood, pâtés, meat spreads, and blue-veined and soft cheeses such as Brie, feta, and queso fresco are also risky.  

    5. Use Your Eyes and Nose

    Regardless of the package date, avoid food that’s obviously spoiled. If your eyesight or sense of smell can’t be trusted, have a friend or family member check out the food for you, or simply discard it when you’re in doubt. Never taste a food that you suspect has gone bad.

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

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    Why tick bites can be so dangerous

    If you’ve been spending a lot of time working outdoors, take note: it’s still tick season, and those tiny beasts can cause big health problems. I know this first-hand because one of the blood-suckers made my husband so sick recently that he was nearly hospitalized.

    The problem is that right now, in some areas of the country, up to half of ticks can be infected with diseases such as Lyme, compared with just 25 percent of ticks in the summer. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the reason for the increase is that the spiderlike creatures have had more opportunity to pick up disease-causing bacteria.

    And they’re not picky eaters. Ticks feed on rodents, pets, and deer, though they acquire illnesses like Lyme from mice and chipmunks. Their tick bites then spread disease to people who spend a lot of time outside, like my husband.

    Find what really works against bug bites and how to get rid of ticks in your yard.

    Tick reality check

    “Mosquitoes kill more people than ticks do, but ticks can infect people with more than one disease at a time,” says Marc C. Dolan, M.Sc., a senior research biologist for the CDC in Fort Collins, Colo.

    That’s why it’s important to keep up your guard when you’re outside. “I spend one week a month working in tick habitats,” Dolan says, “I’ve never gotten sick, but I’m diligent about wearing insect repellent, tucking my pants into my socks, and wearing long pants and boots.”

    Because ticks grow larger at each life stage, they’re easier to spot in the fall if one hitches a ride on you. Still, a tick bite may go unnoticed because its saliva contains a numbing agent. So daily tick checks are important, too.

    Dolan says if you see a tick you need to remove it quickly, within 24 to 36 hours, to prevent it from transmitting Lyme disease. But other diseases may be transmitted in minutes, not hours.

    Remove the tick with fine-tipped tweezers or, as a last resort, your fingernail. Special tick-removers you see advertised don’t actually work any better, he says. Make sure to use direct, even pressure to pull the tick straight out—don’t twist it. Then, flush it down the toilet or wrap it in tape or a sealed plastic bag. Never crush the tick with your fingers because infected material can come out of the damaged tick.

    Should you panic?

    Once you remove a tick you might be worried about getting sick. You should discuss your concerns with your doctor, says Ben Beard, Ph.D., chief of the CDC’s bacterial diseases branch in the Division of Vector-borne Diseases. Sometimes an antibiotic may be warranted if all of these conditions are met:

    • Lyme disease is common in the area where you live or have recently traveled.
    • The tick bite is from a blacklegged (deer) tick.
    • The tick was attached for more than 36 hours (based on how engorged it is with blood or when you were likely exposed to it).
    • You’re able to take the antibiotic within 72 hours (3 days) of removing the tick.
    • You’re not allergic to the antibiotic.
    • You're 8 years old or older.
    • You’re not pregnant.

    "Antibiotics are powerful drugs and should only be taken in situations where they are likely to be effective,” Beard says.  

    What to do if you get sick

    Despite all this, what if you come down with flulike symptoms—fever, chills, headache, fatigue, and muscle aches? You might be confused because you didn’t develop the usual bull’s-eye rash (my husband didn’t) that an estimated 70 to 80 percent of people do get. Or maybe you don’t recall having gotten a tick bite at all.

    Still, if you live or recently traveled in certain parts of the country, Consumer Reports’ medical advisers say you should suspect a tickborne illness and call your doctor so that treatment can start quickly and you can get some relief from your misery.

    Tickborne diseases can be severe and even deadly if not treated early. “The sooner you get treatment the better, especially for the elderly or those with weak immune systems,” says Orly Avitzur, M.D., Consumer Reports’ medical director.

    My husband fell ill swiftly, starting with night sweats, chills, and a splitting headache. He woke up with a high fever and, on the advice of his doctor, we went to the emergency department on a Sunday afternoon.

    The doctor on duty at the hospital recognized an illness he had seen so often in New York and prescribed an antibiotic called doxycycline right away, though blood tests were still pending. My husband's symptoms didn’t really start to subside until about 48 hours later. The diagnosis of Lyme wasn’t confirmed until weeks later in follow-up blood tests because it usually takes that much time for the antibodies against the disease to develop.

    My husband is back to cutting the grass and raking the leaves, but now he reaches for the insect repellent first.

    —Sue Byrne (@SueCRHealth)

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

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    How to Remove White Haze From Your Good Dishes

    Soon it’ll be time to get out the good dishes and glassware for holiday entertaining. If you have hard water in your home, chances are your dishware is hazy or covered with a whitish film. If so, don’t despair, there are some dishwasher detergent additives on the market that can get rid of that haze and make your glasses and dishes sparkle again. And switching to a top-performing dishwasher detergent will keep them that way.

    Consumers started seeing residue and haze on their dishes and inside the dishwasher after polluting phosphates were banned from dishwasher detergents a few years ago. Manufacturers responded by reformulating their dishwasher detergents to prevent such hard-water buildup and also developed additives to get rid of it. Consumer Reports tested three additives and, after some trial and error, all removed the haze from dishes and glassware and cleaned the dishwasher too.

    We tested Finish Power Up Booster Agent, Glisten Dishwasher Cleaner & Hard Water Spot Remover, and Lemi Shine Original. When we used the same amount of each product—about 50 grams—all three worked splendidly. But when we followed Finish’s directions for machines with a prewash-detergent dispenser, the product didn’t work nearly as well. It did get the job done when we placed two tablespoons directly into the bottom of the dishwasher (following instructions for machines without a prewash dispenser). Glisten and Lemi Shine did their job as directed, though you might need a second wash cycle to completely eliminate buildup.

    The Best Dishwasher Detergents

    Choosing the right dishwasher detergent can also help. In our dishwasher detergent tests, we found that Cascade Complete ActionPacs was excellent at resisting mineral buildup while getting dishes and pots clean. And a rinse agent can help eliminate water spots, a less severe condition than white haze. We also recommend two detergents from Finish, including Finish Powerball Tabs and Finish Gelpacs. And we named Member's Mark Ultimate Clean Dishwasher Pacs from Sam's Club a CR Best Buy.

    Keep in mind that not every glass or dish on your holiday table can be put in the dishwasher, including the following.

    • Gold-plated dishes or dishes or flatware with gold trim can become discolored or the trim may even wash away.
    • Fine crystal is sensitive to heat and may crack. The detergent may also etch the glasses, causing them to lose their brilliance.
    • Expensive china, especially pieces with a pattern, may become worn with repeated washings.
    • Keep anything made of pewter, brass, or bronze out of the dishwasher as it will tarnish.

    For more information on how to treat your best dishes with a little TLC read, "Don't Put Granny's Glassware in the Dishwasher."

    —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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    AA Batteries That Are Built to Last

     Nothing kills the joy of a holiday morning like forgetting the batteries. So if you don’t want to run to the store in your pajamas, plan ahead and buy the best batteries to power those train sets and talking dolls.

    We recently tested and rated 15 AA batteries for performance and price—13 alkalines and two lithiums (no rechargeables). Prices ranged from just 62 cents per pair to almost $5 per pair. To simulate toy use, we put each battery to work for one full hour per day until it died. To test how well the AA batteries work in a flashlight, we ran each model for 4 minutes per hour for 8 straight hours, let it sit for 16 hours, then repeated the pattern.

    What we found: A Duracell alkaline—priced in the middle of the pack at $2.48 per pair—did as well as an Energizer lithium that cost almost twice as much. And a Rayovac alkaline ($2) surpassed the highest-priced battery we tried, another Energizer lithium ($4.96). Check our AA battery buying guide and Ratings for all the details.

    Does that mean you should avoid lithium batteries? No, they still rate higher than most of the alkalines we put to the test.

    It’s always smart to stock up on AA batteries when they go on sale, especially when you find a good price on larger-sized packages, which are usually a better value anyway. And here’s a sweet deal for Costco members: High-scoring Kirkland Signature alkalines, sold only in packs of 48 or 72, come out to about $1 per pair.

    Find out why batteries leak. And check our holiday gift guide for information on money-saving deals and more.

    To Get the Best Results

    • Don’t mix and match. To avoid leaks and ruptures, always use batteries of the same age, brand, and type to power your devices.
    • Clean the contact surfaces and battery compartment. Use a fresh pencil eraser or rough cloth to do that each time you install new batteries.
    • Don’t keep batteries in your pocket. Exposure to metals—say, loose nickels and dimes—can short-circuit them.
    • Store them in a cool, dry place—ideally in the original packaging. That will protect them from heat, moisture, and short-circuiting. Notice we didn’t say anything about storing them in a refrigerator. Despite what you may have heard, batteries don’t like the cold.
    • Don’t try to recharge them. Unless they’re rechargeable, of course. Regular batteries can explode. Abusing them is a bad idea, too. So put down that sledgehammer!
    • Give them a break. Before you store those singing, blinking holiday decorations, remove the batteries. Better to replace a few AAs a year from now than to lose a family treasure because of leakage.

    Editor’s Note: This article also appeared in the December 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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    Driving Them Crazy: Americans' Top Customer Service Complaints

    Like many Americans, Judy Sharum had a customer service meltdown last year. Fed up with overpaying for a landline phone and Internet service from AT&T, Sharum signed up for the company’s U-Verse triple-play package. It seemed like a great deal. The package also included cable TV and the price was better.

    But just after a crew installed the equipment and left her Rockford, Michigan, home, she discovered that none of the services worked. The reason? U-Verse was not yet available in Sharum’s neighborhood.

    For two weeks, the 64-year-old retired accountant implored representatives to “flip the switch” and restore her previous services. “I went on the warpath,” she said, taking to the company’s Facebook page and “letting AT&T have it in all caps.” Eventually, she coaxed a representative to call in a favor from a technician to do the deed. But with all that bad history, Sharum soon cut ties with AT&T.

    That wasn’t the end of the story, however. Sharum’s ordeal and Facebook rant caught the eye of AT&T’s assistant to the president, who phoned her to right the wrong.

    “Too late,” Sharum groused, who received an apology and a refund check for a month’s service for her trouble.

    Sharum’s odyssey isn’t unique. Nearly 90 percent of Americans have dealt with customer service for one reason or another during the past year, according to a recent survey by Consumer Reports National Research Center, and the experience is often frustrating. Half of those surveyed reported leaving a store within the past year without making their intended purchase because of poor service; 57 percent were so steamed that they hung up the phone while talking to a customer service representative without a resolution. Women were more annoyed than men, as were those under age 45.
     

    Customer Service Complaints
     

    Issue

    Percentage of Respondents

    Can’t get a human on the phone

    75

    Salesperson is rude or condescending

    75*

    Disconnected

    74

    Disconnected and unable to reach same rep

    71

    Transferred to representative who can’t help or is wrong

    70

    Company doesn’t provide—or hides—customer service phone number

    68

    Long wait on hold

    66

    Many phone steps needed

    66

    Repeatedly asked for same information

    66

    Proposed solution was useless

    65

    Salesperson ignored me

    64

    Unsure whether on hold or disconnected

    62

    Can’t speak with a supervisor

    62

    Phone menu doesn’t offer needed option

    61

    Voice-recognition system works poorly

    61

    Sales pitch for unrelated goods or services

    60

    Salesperson is too pushy

    60

    *For in-store experiences, rudeness was highly annoying to 71 percent of respondents.
     

    How to Get Results

    Consumers have more tools than ever to cut through customer-service clutter. Technology has given people a powerful voice, allowing their customer service complaints to be heard. Internet forums can turn one person's headache into a corporate nightmare. Companies actively patrol social-networking venues such as Facebook and YouTube to monitor what's being said about them—and often respond to customer service complaints before they go viral. Twitter has become the go-to brand for support. There's even an app called GripeO that will take your complaint right to a company's doorstep. Other tips:

    • More businesses offer live chats on their websites with agents. It's faster and more efficient than e-mail because you can have real-time dialogue and have a transcript of the conversation before signing off.
    • User communities within a firm's site will get you noticed. You can post questions, comments, and air grievances about products and services. Often, a representative will join the discussion to put out a fire before word gets out. Studies have shown that bad news travels fast; those who have a negative experience are much more likely to express their unhappiness than those who have a good one. Also, be sure to publicly praise a company if they resolve your problem. It's only fair.
    • Sidestep automated phone menus. Check out websites such as DialAHuman and GetHuman, which list hard-to-find customer service numbers and advise how to bypass automated prompts to get a live person. You can also try pressing "0" repeatedly to reach an operator. Another trick: Press the prompt to place an order; companies are often more gracious to potential customers than existing ones.
    • Drop the “E” bomb. If you make it through to a live person and still feel you are getting the runaround, tell the agent you want to “escalate” the status of your complaint. That’s a surefire attention grabber because agents can be criticized for bumping too many calls “upstairs.”
    • Climb the corporate ladder. Companies discourage direct dialog by forcing customers to submit comments and complaints to a generic inbox via a “contact us” web page. Responses can take days, if ever. If your comments are ignored, go to the bottom of the website’s home page and sniff around for hyperlinks to “corporate” contacts, “investor relations,” “company information,” and so forth. That’s where you can typically find names and contact information for top management.

    —Tod Marks

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

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    7 Products On Deep Discount In November

    There are some sales this month will be come and go quickly. For example, early November is a good time to look for candy discounts of 50 to 90 percent so you can stock up on goodies to share with your Thanksgiving gang. (They won't mind bonbons in the shape of pumpkin heads, right?)

    On Veterans Day (November 11), look for sales on home goods like furniture and mattresses that could be 40 to 60 percent off, says Howard Schaffer, vice president of merchandising and partner management at Offers.com, a coupon, promo code, and product deal site.

    Then, of course, there are Black Friday sales. We will keep track of those deep discounts until the big day and will help you save money and time throughout the holiday season.

    Looking for sales that will be around all month? Our product research experts, who track prices all year long, have compiled a list of seven items that are typically discounted most deeply in November.

    Another way to save more this holiday season: Do all or some of your shopping at outlet malls.

    1. Super TV Deals

    You'd think shopping for a TV would be simple, especially now that plasma TVs are gone and almost all new TVs are LED LCD sets. But buying a TV still involves many choices, some of which may be new to you. You'll see plenty of Ultra HD (UHD), or 4K, TVs that promise greater picture detail than HDTVs, and improved contrast and color.

    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. Some shopping tips:

    Think about screen size. Televisions going into kitchens or small bedrooms might measure just 24 to 32 inches, but if you’re shopping for your primary TV, we recommend going bigger, say a set with a 50- to 60-inch screen. You could consider an even bigger set for spacious family rooms, or if you'll be sitting very far from the TV. 

    Shop where you'll get a price guarantee. Many retailers will match or beat a lower price from a local competitor, so go to the store with those prices in hand. Even after the sale, some stores promise a refund within a specified period of time, often 30 to 60 days, if they reduce the price of your TV within it or if you find the set selling elsewhere for less. There are usually restrictions, so check the details. Save your receipt and keep checking the ads even after you buy.

    Consult our TV buying guide and Ratings before hitting the stores to make sure you get a set that performed well in our lab tests.

    2. Discounts on Toys

    Early holiday shoppers will find great sales on toys this month, although you may not find discounts on the hottest playthings. Our tech toy guide can help you to find age-appropriate kids tablets, game consoles, and more. Some shopping tips:

    Consider the classics. Don't overlook toys such as stackable plastic "doughnuts," shape sorters, building blocks, and interlocking plastic oversized beads for very young children. There's a reason that they've been around so long. Many forgotten favorites are still around, like Lionel trains, Flexible Flyer sleds, and Mouse Trap.

    Shop around. Browse stores, catalogs, and Web sites for other ideas and to spot the best deals. Also, ask for suggestions from parents who have children of similar ages.

    3. Baby Product Sales

    You should be able to find great prices on a variety of baby products this month, including strollers. First and foremost, you want your baby to be safe and comfortable in her stroller. But think about yourself, too, since you're the one who'll be pushing it. There's a wide price range among types and brands in our stroller Ratings. What makes one stroller worth $100 and another $1,000 or more? Several things drive up the price—such as accessories—but we've found good models in a wide range of prices. Some shopping tips:

    Consider your environment. If you're a city dweller who relies on subways, buses, and cabs, you'll need a lightweight but sturdy stroller that folds quickly and is compact. If you'll be tromping through snow or on unpaved roads or grass, a model with large wheels is a great option.

    Think about extras. Factor stroller accessories into the price of models you like, because you may find yourself needing (or wanting) extras such as a parasol, rain cover, netting to keep out bugs, drink holder, and more.

    4. Price Cuts on Camcorders

    Buying a camcorder can be complicated. Models vary not only in size and capabilities but also in price. You can spend as little as $150 or as much as $1,600, or more. Some shopping tips:

    The right camcorder features are important. If you want better quality and more options, consider a full-size model. If you need a smaller, more portable model—or if you're an athlete or adventurer who loves to capture action footage—then consider an action cam. 

    Chances are you won't always be shooting in bright light. In our tests using the default mode, we found models varied in quality when shooting in dim light. Most full-sized HD camcorders captured at least good quality video in low light, but some had excellent quality.

    Give some a try. In the store, try different camcorders to make sure they fit your hand and are comfortable to use. Most camcorders are designed so that the most frequently used controls—the switch to zoom in and out, the record button, and the button for still photos—are readily at hand.

    Check our camcorder buying guide and Ratings to find out which features are most important to you.

    5. Gas Grills Markdowns

    It's the end of the season for grilling (even though some of us have been known to clear a path through the snow to do some wintertime grilling), so you'll find some deep discounts on the stock still in stores. Some shopping tips:

    Think about size. Match the grill's cooking area to the number of people you typically feed. Remember, manufacturers might include racks and searing burners when tallying cooking area. Our measurements are based on the main cooking area and how much food it will hold.

    Think about space. Next factor in how much area the grill will take up on your patio or deck. Some of the grills we tested are a whopping six feet wide.

    You'll find more details tips in our grills buying guide and Ratings.

    6. Bike Bargains

    You'll find great deals on these wheels in October, because we're approaching the end of the riding season in many places in the country. Some shopping tips:

    Decide what kind of riding you'll do. That will narrow your choice to one of the four basic types. If you're an avid cyclist, you may prefer a conventional road bike. Looking for a leisurely ride on flat, paved roads? A comfort bike may be more your speed. If rugged trails are in your sights, than a mountain bike might be best.

    Find a good bike shop. You'll pay more, but we think you're more likely to be satisfied. Bikes from big-box stores might not be properly assembled or well matched to your body. If you don't like the pedals or seat on a particular model, some bike shops will swap components at little or no cost.

    For more shopping tips and information about different brands, see our bike buying guide. And check our bike helmet buying guide to make sure you get the best fit.

    As the weather gets colder, you might want to consider an exercise bike for indoor use. If you decide to buy indoor exercise equipment, including a treadmill or elliptical machine, try to wait until January, when we've found they'll be on deep discount.

    7. GPS Devices for Less

    In today's competitive market, GPS prices have come down to the point where even budget units include features previously available only on more expensive models (and not available on some apps), such as the ability to speak street names, issue speed warnings, and provide reality view, graphically representing major intersections. Shoppers looking for navigational aid can choose from many types of GPS devices, including aftermarket portable or in-dash units, cell phones, factory-installed in-dash units, telematics systems, and even laptop computers.

    All GPS types advantages and disadvantages, as our GPS buying guide points out, and choosing the right one for you depends on your needs and budget. Some shopping tips:

    Do some research. Before you buy a GPS navigator, think about your typical driving conditions, how often you're in unfamiliar areas, and figure out which features are most important to you. For example, if you often encounter traffic congestion on your commute, choosing a nav system with real-time traffic information can help you avoid traffic congestion, accidents, or road construction, and plot a route around it before you even get to the trouble area.

    Think about where you'll use it. If you're buying a new car, check to see if a built-in system is available and how much it costs. These are nicely integrated into the car, but they are typically far more expensive than portable systems, initially and for subsequent map updates. Still, if most of your driving is done in one car, you might be happier with a built-in system. If you often fly to new places and rent vehicles, or if you own more than one car, a portable system might be the way to go, especially with prices for entry-level systems starting at less than $100.

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

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    A Wake-Up Call About the Calories in Coffee

    Chances are, you'll indulge in some special—and high-calorie—foods this holiday season. But you probably don’t think of the coffee you sip at the end of your meal as one of those fattening treats. But maybe you should. While coffee has some nutritional benefits, there can be quite a few calories in coffee. Two cups each with two ounces of cream and two teaspoons of sugar contain about 300 calories and 24 grams of fat—about the same amount of calories and twice the fat as a slice of pumpkin pie.

    Let's say you drink two cups of coffee a day. Simply adding cream to two cups a day adds up to 87,600 calories and 8,760 grams of fat in a year. Add sugar, and you tack on another 23,360 calories. While whole milk is a little less caloric than cream it's still no weight-loss bargain; pour it in two cups of coffee a day and you’ll add 27,740 calories and 1,460 grams of fat to your diet over the course of a year. And that can lead to weight gain: The usual rule of thumb is that 3,500 calories equals about a pound of body fat.

    Does all this mean you have to drink your coffee black? Not at all. But a few simple adjustments, such as switching to 2 percent or nonfat milk or weaning yourself off sugar, can make a big difference to the number of calories in coffee. (Learn how almond, coconut, hemp, rice, and soy milks compare with dairy.)

    To figure out how many calories and grams of fat you’re adding to your coffee, keep these numbers in mind:

    • 2 ounces of nonfat milk adds 22 calories and 0.1 grams of fat.
    • 2 oz of 2% milk adds 30 calories and 1.2 g of fat.
    • 2 oz of whole milk adds 38 calories and 2 g of fat.
    • 2 oz of cream adds 120 calories and 12 g of fat.
    • 1 teaspoon of sugar adds 16 calories and no fat.

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

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    These Wall Ovens Are No Wallflowers

    There was a time when choosing a wall oven over a range meant you had to compromise on performance, or settle for a small oven without a self-cleaning feature. No longer. The best wall ovens in Consumer Reports' tests deliver impressive baking, broiling, and self-cleaning. Here’s what to consider before you shop.

    Price Range
    $600 to $8,000
    At the low end are 24-inch wide wall ovens, which Consumer Reports does not test. Pro-style double wall ovens are the more expensive options.

    Size
    Available widths are 24, 27, 30, and 36 inches. Wall ovens 30 inches wide are the most common and what Consumer Reports tests. If you’re replacing a wall oven it’s crucial that you measure the wall oven and the cabinet cutout. GE’s website offers step-by-step instructions, which includes removing the screws that secure the oven and pulling it forward an inch or two. Sounds like a lot of effort, but it will save you headaches later.

    Electric or Gas
    Overwhelmingly most wall ovens sold are electric. By overwhelmingly we mean that you’ll have 233 electric and 16 gas wall ovens to choose from on Home Depot’s website. At Lowes.com you’ll see 224 electric wall ovens and four gas, and at Sears.com there are 324 electric and five gas wall ovens to consider. That’s why Consumer Reports buys and tests electric single wall ovens. Double wall ovens appear in our Ratings and performance is based on the tested single wall oven models.

    Features
    Most have just a touchpad for setting the oven temperature. A few add knobs for setting various oven modes. A control lockout prevents the oven from being turned on, and is recommended for households with children. Most wall ovens in our tests have a convection option. It uses one or more fans to circulate hot air and some have an additional heating element. Convection can trim cooking time, especially for large roasts. In double-oven models convection is typically in the top oven.

    A covered element, also known as a hidden baking element, means the heat element is out of sight and hidden inside the oven floor, making it easier for you to wipe the oven clean. All wall ovens in our tests have a self-clean feature.

    Design
    The look ranges from box-in-the-wall to sleek and stylish. Available finishes include white, black, stainless, black stainless, and slate. The $4,100 Viking VESO5302SS has a small window, but many have a large window, offering you a better view without having to open the door. The GE CT9070SHSS has two side-by-side doors, known as French doors. They open to the side, rather than down, and pulling one handle opens both doors at the same time. You can control this $3,900 wall oven from a smartphone.

    Capacity
    Manufacturers are finding ways to increase capacity in wall ovens. Of the 19 single wall ovens in our tests, capacity scores range from fair to excellent. The $2,100 Fagor 5HA-780X had the smallest oven—2.86 cubic feet is what Fagor claims. Among the largest ovens are the $1,500 Whirlpool WOS92EC0AH, a CR Best Buy, and the $1,800 GE JT5000SFSS. Both are claimed to be five cubic feet.

    The capacity scores in the Ratings are based on our measurements of usable space, and the same scales and scoring is used for wall ovens and ranges, allowing you to compare. There are eight double wall ovens in our Ratings, and capacity is based on our measurements of the single oven model (the upper oven in a double-oven model).

    Pros, Cons, and Brand Reliability

    Advantages
    The cooktop-and-wall-oven combo is stylish and eats up less space than a range. The oven is built into the wall and the cooktop can be installed over a cabinet that stores cookware. For convenience, place the wall oven at a height that makes it easier for you to use. Choose between single and double ovens, and if you prefer a gas cooktop and an electric oven, that’s possible too.

    Drawbacks
    This combo is usually more expensive than a range. Keeping in mind that the wall oven is built into the wall, there are complaints online, including some of our user reviews, about the cooling fan making a loud noise in some wall ovens. The manufacturers’ websites explain what is normal and what’s not. “Cooling fans may whistle or whoosh when the cooling fan is on high,” says Wolf. A rubbing/metal on metal noise when operating is not normal, says Whirlpool, adding, “It is normal for all wall ovens to have an automatic cooling fan that runs when the oven is in use and/or after a cycle completes. It is normal to hear the automatic cooling fan move air when the oven is in use and/or cycle completes.” Check before you buy.

    Brand Reliability
    Every year we ask thousands of subscribers about their experiences with electric wall ovens and repairs. Based on our latest survey of 4,703 people about seven brands, we estimate that by the time the wall ovens are three years old, 11 percent will need repair or have serious problems. The differences among brands were not big enough to call out most and least reliable. However, Kenmore and GE and GE Monogram appear at the top of our reliability chart and are better than KitchenAid, which appears at the bottom.

    Shopping for a Wall Oven?
    Then see our wall oven Ratings first. We’ve tested 19 wall ovens from Whirlpool, GE, Frigidaire, Kenmore, Electrolux, Viking, Wolf, and more. Single-oven models range from $1,300 to $4,100. Double ovens cost $2,000 to $6,300.

    Use the filter to narrow your choices by brand and price. Check the Features & Specs tab to compare models and the Brand Reliability tab to help you decide. Look for sales and rebates online. We’re seeing some great deals. And if you have questions, send me an email at kjaneway@consumer.org.

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

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    Pros and Cons of Amazon Prime

    A decade ago, Amazon Prime debuted as a membership service that offered fast, free shipping. While two-day delivery remains the cornerstone of the $99-a-year service, the e-commerce juggernaut now provides buffet-style access to thousands of free TV shows, movies, music, and hundreds of thousands of e-books (for Kindle owners) as well as unlimited cloud storage for photos.

    Members also get 30-minute early access to Lightning Deals on Amazon, and can shop on MyHabit.com 30 minutes before other customers for things such as designer duds from the likes of Burberry, Fendi, and Hermès. There are periodic teasers, too, including Prime Day, a one-day, members-only global shopping event last June that touted more deals than on Black Friday.

    Then there's the latest perk, Prime Now, an app-enabled service that offers shoppers in 16 metropolitan areas ultra-quick delivery. If you want, say, paper towels or a container of milk, you can get it in an hour for $7.99 per order or in two hours for free. The service is available for tens of thousands of items, including television sets and Kindles. In some locales, you can even browse menus of participating restaurants, place orders, track the status of a delivery, and watch as the driver travels from the restaurant to the delivery address in real time.

    So what's to complain about? Actually, not much. But if you don't care about streaming services and photo storage, and enjoy paperbacks more than e-books, you're paying for benefits you'll never use. If you routinely spend at least $35 per order, Amazon offers free, albeit slower, delivery. If you don't shop online enough, a Prime membership could end up being pretty expensive—the more you shop, the more economical the membership fee becomes. Amazon Prime might also be a disappointment if you mostly do business with independent third-party vendors that operate out of the Amazon Marketplace. Many of those purchases are not fulfilled by Amazon and, thus, not eligible for free Prime shipping.

    Plenty of Benefits

    Even so, Amazon Prime offers plenty of benefits, and consumers have been quick to sign up. While hard numbers are difficult to come by, the company acknowledges that there are “tens of millions” of Prime members and Prime shoppers spend almost double the amount on Amazon than non-Prime members, according to research by RBC Capital Markets. Those results are reflected in the company's third-quarter sales. For the quarter ending in September 2015, Amazon brought in revenues of $25.4 billion, up 23 percent from the same period a year ago.  

    Amazon Prime Benefits

    For most people, the linchpin of Prime is swift package delivery, so it's easy to understand why Amazon makes other shipping options less attractive. If you're a non-Prime member and your order qualities for free freight because you've met the $35 purchase minimum, you might have to wait as long as eight days for your package to arrive. By contrast, "standard" shipping, the default delivery method for non-Prime members that carries a nominal charge, usually takes four to five business days. Those extra few days could be a deal breaker during the peak holiday season, when delays are common because of high package volume.

    Among the key benefits you can enjoy as an Amazon Prime member:

    • Free two-day shipping on eligible items to addresses in all states, except Alaska and Hawaii.

    • Free same-day delivery in eligible ZIP codes.

    • Prime Instant Video: Unlimited streaming of movies and TV episodes.

    • Prime Music: Unlimited, advertising-free access to hundreds of Prime Playlists and more than a million songs.

    • Prime Photos: Secure, unlimited photo storage in Amazon Cloud Drive.

    • Prime Pantry: You can buy low-priced grocery, household, and pet care items. Shipping costs $5.99 for each Prime Pantry box. (Prime Pantry boxes cannot be shipped to Alaska or Hawaii, P.O. boxes, or Amazon Lockers.)

    • Prime Early Access: 30-minute early access to Lightning Deals on Amazon.com and new events on MyHabit.com.

    • Kindle Owners' Lending Library: Access to more than 800,000 e-book titles.

    • Kindle First: Download access to a new book for free every month from the Kindle First picks.

    • Deals and Discounts, Compliments of Amazon Mom: These include 20 percent off diapers through Subscribe & Save and 15 percent off eligible products from your baby registry.

    • Membership Sharing: Two adults living in the same household can create an Amazon Household to share certain Amazon Prime benefits.

    If you’re unsure about how much shopping you'll be doing over the holiday season, you can sign up for a free, 30-day trial for Amazon Prime. But beware: At the end of the free trial (or annual membership period if you're already a member), your credit card will be charged the $99 annual membership fee automatically for the next period unless you cancel in advance. If you paid the fee and haven't placed an Amazon Prime-eligible order, however, you still qualify for a full refund.

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

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    November Financial To-Do List: Get Ready for Black Friday

    Black Friday and the holidays are fast approaching, so it's a good time to think about how you'll keep your spending in control, and how you can get your finances in shape before the end of the year. To build on the progress you made in October, here's a checklist to help you stay on track and reach your financial goals.

    1. Shop Clearance Sales

    Some of the items on your holiday list might be at their deepest discounts this month. Discounted products include baby products, bikes, gas grills, toys, and TVs.

    Don't forget to check out the holiday sales at outlets. Price slashing generally takes place on holidays and during traditional retail sales periods, including Black Friday. To avoid wasting time and missing bargains, log on to your local outlet center's website and download a map and coupons before shopping. The typical outlet mall today covers more than 400,000 square feet and has 100 or more stores.

    No matter how much (or little) a price tag has been slashed, there's no reason you can't haggle for a better deal – even when you're shopping at outlets or online. Our tried and true haggling tips will help.

    2. Research Charities

    If you plan to cut your taxes by making end-of-year charity donations, now is the time to research worthy recipients. Some nonprofits with great-sounding names don’t put enough of their money toward their mission. To be sure your generosity counts, do some homework before you give. Look for reports or commentary at the three major charity watchdogs: the BBB Wise Giving Alliance, Charity Navigator, and CharityWatch. Read the reviews and comments from donors and charity professionals, such as the ones you'll find at Charity Navigator and GuideStar.

    Also, check a charity’s website for information about the group’s mission and achievements, and read the donor privacy policy.

    3. Send Holiday Gifts Early

    The Postal Service expects to deliver approximately 600 million packages between Thanksgiving and New Year's Eve, an increase of 10.5 percent over last year's volume. FedEx predicts that package volume will be up 12.4 percent between Black Friday and Christmas Eve this year. Mail holiday gifts as soon as possible to take advantage of lower shipping rates and shorter post office lines.

    Of course, you can avoid delivery hassles by dealing with online merchants. Many offer free shipping promotions throughout December to avoid the last minute shopping rush. And more than 200 merchants will participate in "Free Shipping Day" this year, which takes place on December 18. Merchants listed on the Free Shipping Day site pledge to suspend shipping charges on all orders placed online that day, and deliver the goods by Christmas Eve.

    4. Review Your Health Care Coverage

    November is Benefits Awareness Month. Review your health coverage during your company's open enrollment period if you have a plan through work.

    The open enrollment period for 2016 plans bought through the health insurance marketplace is November 1, 2015 to January 31, 2016. (You may qualify for special enrollment periods if you have certain life events, like getting married, having a baby, or losing other coverage.)

    5. Turbocharge Your Retirement Plan

    If you're over 50 and saving for retirement in a 401(k), 403(b), most 457 plans, or the federal government’s Thrift Savings Plan, see if you can increase your contributions by as much as $6,000 before the end of the year to take advantage of catch-up contribution rules.

    If you contribute to a regular IRA, the additional catch-up contribution limit is $1,000 this year.

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

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    The Best Mattresses for Guest Rooms

    Company is coming, and the mattress in the guest room is old and lumpy. You want to replace it fast without spending a lot on a bed that will be slept in only occasionally. And while you're persnickety about your own mattress, you might be less choosy when buying one for a guest room as long as it's comfortable for most sleeping styles and doesn't bounce your guest awake when her partner turns over. Here are several good choices from Consumer Reports' mattress tests. All prices are for queen-size mattresses and don’t include the box spring or foundation.

    An innerspring with consistent support

    Want your guests to take their time leaving? You'll want to take a look at the Denver Mattress Doctor's Choice, just $500. Many innersprings in our tests offer equal support for the side and back, but that support is often mediocre. This mattress is the exception. We judged its support for both side and back sleepers to be impressive, and it aced our durability test as well. The company has 90 locations in 30 states.

    An all-around memory foam winner

    Costco’s Novaform Memory Foam Collection Serafina 14" mattress is infused with gel beads and was impressive for both back and side support. And at $650, the price is right. The mattress comes folded in a box, but if you need to return it, getting it back into the box isn’t required.

    Memory foam for less

    Sam’s Club’s Night Therapy 14" Deluxe Grand Firm mattress was only so-so for support, but its $515 price is attractive. The mattress was top-notch at muting vibrations, and it showed little wear after eight years of simulated use.

    And another for much less

    Decent back support from a $360 mattress? After the price for the Spa Sensations 10" Memory Foam SPA-1000Q, that’s more good news. Side support was only so-so, but at this price you could do worse. Where this one disappoints is in how hard visitors might find it to change positions due to that sinking feeling common with some foam beds, including this one.

    Adjustable air at an underinflated price

    You don’t have to pay thousands for an adjustable-air mattress to get impressive side support and even better back support. The pricier Sleep Number i8 bed edged out the $800 Sleep Number c2 bed in overall performance, but you’ll pay $2,200 less without a noticeable difference in support. Trying the bed before buying will tell you if this mattress’s thinner top foam layer might be less comfortable for guests.

    When price trumps support

    The Ikea Sultan Holmsta innerspring mattress, $550, includes a latex pillowtop for "precision support" but as mattresses go, it's on the softer side. The mattress was top-notch at muting vibrations but was somewhat ineffective at supporting the curve of sleepers’ spines while they’re on their back, and only so-so at supporting side sleepers.

    Want more to choose from?

    See our mattress Ratings of nearly 50 models, along with our survey-based Ratings of mattress stores and brands. And check our mattress buying guide, which is full of shopping tips, including how to get the best deal.

    —Ed Perratore (@EdPerratore on Twitter)

    Holiday Planning & Shopping Guide

    For more ideas and inspiration, check Consumer Reports' Holiday Planning & Shopping Guide. You'll find plenty of gift suggestions of products that did well in our tests including:

    *Blenders *Coffeemakers *Mixers
    *Toasters *Cookware
    *Knives

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

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    How to Keep Your Old Stove Going

    Cooking season is heating up, but if your old stove isn’t, try these tips from Consumer Reports' experts. They can help you keep your old—or new—range cooking and even looking good. Of course, if you need a new one before the holidays check out our range Ratings and recommendations.  

    On the cooktop

    • Gently place heavy pans on electric smoothtop ranges to prevent breaking the cooktop. Lift pots, rather than sliding them, to avoid scratches.

    • Clean up smoothtop spills promptly to prevent stains, but wait until the surface has cooled and is safe to touch.

    • Don’t cover a coil-top range’s drip pans and bowls with foil; it can short-circuit the burner.

    • If a gas burner’s flame is uneven, food could be clogging the burner ports. Consult your manual for cleaning advice.

    In the oven

    • Put away the foil. Lining the bottom of the oven to catch drips may permanently damage the interior finish and void the warranty.

    • Foiled again? Covering oven racks with foil blocks airflow, so food might not cook properly or evenly.

    • Check your manual for self-cleaning tips, but the usual advice you’ll find says that you should remove racks from the oven before pushing the self-clean button. The process can discolor racks and make them harder to glide. Too late? Apply a coating of vegetable oil to the sides of racks to improve sliding.

    • Remove loose debris coating the oven cavity before starting the self-cleaning cycle.

    Get money- and time-saving tips in our 2015 holiday guide.

    Budget-friendly ranges from our tests

    If your range has seen better days but you're on a tight budget as the holiday approaches, consider these four budget buys from our tests. They were good performers and have features that make cooking faster and cleanup easier.

    Electric smoothtops. These impressive smoothtop ranges performed similarly in our tests but the LG was much better at broiling.

    Gas ranges. These two ranges were better overall than gas ranges that cost thousands more but were also mediocre at broiling.

    For more choices, see our full range Ratings and recommendations. And check our buying guide if you're new to the market.

    —Kimberly Janeway

     

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    Best Snow Blowers for Quick Clearing

    If you need a new snow blower or are planning to buy one for the first time, now's the time to do shop. The better-performing models in Consumer Reports' tests could be hard to find in stores as the weeks pass and snowstorms increase.

    There hasn't been any snow at our Yonkers. New York, headquarters so far this season, but that doesn't mean we can't test snow blowers. How do we do it? We use wet sawdust (actually horse bedding), which in comparative tests against real snow has tracked closely with our results for the white stuff. With wet sawdust, we can test even in the summer in order to get results to you in time for the winter.

    Here are some of the best models we’ve tested and others to pass up:

    The Most Muscle: Two-Stage Gas Models

    The spinning impeller found on two-stage snow blowers grabs what the usual auger gathers and flings it up and out of the chute. This, along with driven wheels (there’s a transmission), easier controls, and clearing widths up to 30 inches or more, helps the best of these large models clear your driveway and walks in a hurry.

    The high-scoring Cub Cadet 3X 30HD 31AH57SZ710 (shown below), $1,650, and Troy-Bilt Vortex 2890 31AH55Q, $1,300, boast an additional impeller in front that helped us clear more quickly. They’re among the only models that aced our tests for all but noise. (We recommend hearing protection for nearly all gas models we’ve tested.) For less money, consider the Ariens AX254 921030, a CR Best Buy at $1,000, which did nearly as well.

    Two low-priced models to pass up are the Power Smart DB 7103PA-26, $650, and the Power Smart DB7651-26, $685. While they were effective at dealing with the end-of-driveway snow piles created by a municipal plow, their removal speed and throwing distance were unimpressive. Some similarly priced smaller models, such as the Craftsman 98536, perform better.

    Power With Storage: Compact Two-Stage Gas Models

    With clearing widths of 22 to 24 inches, compact snow blowers don’t clear as quickly as their larger siblings, and they often lack the easy controls that make the larger, heavier models easier to move around. But they will fit in your garage or shed.

    Two high-scoring compact two-stage models also have that extra impeller. That feature helped the 24-inch Troy-Bilt Vortex 2490 31AH54Q, $1,100, and the Craftsman 88870, $1,200, clear snow faster than some models with a wider clearing width. But you don't have to pay $1,000 for a compact model that gets the job done. The Craftsman 88173 ($680) not only costs less but is also one of few gas-powered snow blowers for which you don’t need hearing protection.

    Among compact, two-stage models that fell way short in our tests are the 24-inch Power Smart DB 7651-24, $560, and 22-inch Power Smart DB7659-22, $500. But there’s also one made by MTD, the same company that manufactures Cub Cadet, Troy-Bilt, and Craftsman snow blowers. The 22-inch Yard Machines 31A-32AD, $500, was among the worst at fast clearing, plow-pile removal, and throwing speed.

    For Lesser Snowfalls: Single-Stage Gas

    Single-stage snow blowers have only an auger for clearing, but that auger spins more quickly than in two-stage units. And since the auger is typically more of a rubber-tipped paddle, it tends to better clear down to the pavement. Most are less evenly matched against a plow pile, and they can’t handle snow beyond about 9 inches deep. Single-stage models do require less storage space.

    We recommend a handful of models of this type, but for sheer performance for the price, there’s no beating the 21-inch Toro Power Clear 721E, $570, which is the only single-stage gas unit we tested that aced our plow-pile test. It was also fairly fast at overall clearing speed.

    Not all Toro single-stage models performed well in our tests: The 18-inch Toro Power Clear 518ZE, $400, and the 21-inch Ariens Pro Path 938034, $450, and the 21-inch Poulan Pro PR621ES, $450, scored only fair overall.

    We’ve also tested battery-powered and corded electric models. But every model we’ve seen bogs down in anything more than a few inches of snow, making them suitable for only a walkway or patio. You’ll likely finish the work faster with a shovel.

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

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