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    Holiday Countdown: 6 Things to Do Now to Get Your Home Ready

    Getting ready for the holidays may seem like an overwhelming job but it doesn’t have to be. The experts at Consumer Reports have broken down a typical holiday to-do list into little jobs to tackle over the next few weeks. If you start right now, you won’t be scrambling to get stuff done at the last minute. As part of your holiday countdown, here are six things you can do in the coming weeks to ease your way into the season.

    Light up entrances

    Double check that doors and pathways are amply lighted, especially if you usually use the side or back entrance. For porches and posts, we recommend the Cree 9.5-Watt (60W) A19 Warm White Dimmable LED, $8.50. It warms up fast, works in enclosed fixtures, and works with timers, photo cells and motion sensors. For security lights, consider the Great Value 90W PAR38 LED Soft White Non Dimmable, $22, sold at Walmart, which was a winner in our lightbulb tests. Or you can pay more for the TCP 17W PAR38 Flood LED, $40, if you prefer a bulb that that works with a timer,  photo cell, and is motion sensitive.

    Inspect your appliances

    It might take a few weeks to repair a major kitchen appliance or get a new one, so now’s the time to make sure yours aren’t about to conk out. A cold oven could be the result of an iffy circuit board or igniter switch, and inoperable burners or elements could be caused by a bad receptacle. If your range is beyond repair, check the results of our range tests. You’ll find some top-performers at good prices including our top-rated electric smoothtop, the LG LRE3083SW, $800. For gas, consider the affordable Kenmore 74132, $700.

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

    Consider buying a freezer

    A separate freezer can store frozen cookie dough, stock, and other make-ahead stuff, saving time during the holiday crunch. And throughout the year, it can lighten your food budget by providing storage for bargain bulk purchases. Upright freezers take up less floor space, and many self-defrost, so you won’t need to thaw out the unit. Our freezer testers’ pick: the Frigidaire FFFH21F4QW, $830. Chest freezers typically cost less, offer more usable space than uprights, and are less likely to cause freezer burn. We like the Frigidaire FFFU17M1QW, $700.

    Sharpen your knives

    Sharp blades make all of the chopping, slicing, and carving to come faster and safer. You can use the honing steel that came with your knife set or go for a professional sharpening, which can cost $5 or less per blade. Need some new knives? Two top knife sets from our tests are the Zwilling J.A. Henckels Twin Professional “S,” $315, and Ginsu Chikara, $75. The knives in these sets are available as individual pieces, so you can buy only what you need.

    Fireproof your home

    If you burn wood fires in your fireplace, an annual checkup is a must. The nonprofit Chimney Safety Institute of America can steer you to a certified sweep, who will probably charge $150 to $300. Also remember to extinguish candles when leaving a room or before going to bed at night.

    Arm the alarms

    Your home should have a smoke alarm on each level and in all bedrooms and hallways. In our smoke alarm tests, dual-sensor models quickly detected fast, flaming fires as well as smoky, smoldering ones. We recommend the dual-sensor First Alert 3120B and Kidde PI2010, both $30. You should also keep a full-floor fire extinguisher on each level of your home, plus a supplemental one in the kitchen.

    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 Know When Buying a French-Door Refrigerator

    Sleek design, easy access to fresh-food items, abundant innovations, and more have helped make French-door bottom-freezers the most popular refrigerator configuration. But if you’re making the switch from a top-freezer or side-by-side refrigerator, be aware that French-door refrigerators have a few drawbacks. They’re not deal breakers, but knowing them before you buy could help ward off buyer's remorse. 

    Less vertical storage
    Storing upright bottles of soda or magnums of white wine is no problem for most top-freezers or side-by-sides. But it could be hard to do in a French-door refrigerator, since the fresh-food shelves tend to be closely stacked, reducing the amount of vertical storage. Many French-door refrigerators, including the LG LFXS32766S, $3,600, come with split shelves, whereby one section slides out of the way, allowing for the storage of taller items on the shelf below.

    Even with that feature, you might have trouble storing a large pot, Dutch oven, and other oversized items in a French-door refrigerator. The upside is that you get more horizontal space for catering trays, pizza boxes, and other wide items.  

    Higher price
    The price tag on French-door models might surprise you, especially if you haven't bought a new refrigerator in a while. Most of the three-door models on our list of recommended refrigerators cost $2,000 to $3,000, while many top four-door models start around $3,000; some cost north of $5,000.

    A handful of French-door refrigerators sell for less than $2,000, including the $1,500 LG LFC24770ST and the $1,800 GE GNE29GSHSS. But if you want to spend less than $1,000, you’ll have to go for a conventional bottom-freezer, such as the $950 Kenmore 69313, or a top-freezer, including the highest-scoring model in that category, the $950 LG LTCS20220S

    External dispensers can be repair-prone
    Many French-door refrigerators come with a through-the-door ice and water dispenser. But icemakers are a common failure point on refrigerators, so models with an ice dispenser tend to be more repair-prone than those without it. Check our refrigerator reliability data (available to subscribers) to find an icemaker-equipped refrigerator from a brand with a lower repair rate.

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

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    Baking Equipment That Hits the Sweet Spot—or Not

    With holiday feasts featured in food magazines, newspaper supplements, and on your favorite food channels, you know it's time to dust off your old recipes or find new ones to try. No matter what you decide to cook this season, you’ll want baking equipment that puts your best food forward. As Consumer Reports found in its tests of baking supplies, some newfangled tools aren’t always an improvement over your tried-and-true bakeware. And some classic cookware is still worth considering.

     

    Check Consumer Reports' 2015 Holiday Guide for our picks of the best gifts, details on the latest deals, time-saving tips, and much more. And see our Countdown to Black Friday calendar for got top gift ideas for everyone on your list.

    3 Baking Pans That Fell Short

    A brownie pan that makes individual portions, a silicone pan insert that promises to release the grease, and ceramic cookie sheets that claim even browning. Before you replace your old pans with these new ones, see the results of Consumer Reports’ tests.

    Slow-baking ceramic cookie sheets

    We tested two ceramic cookie sheets, from the Pampered Chef, $34, and Hartstone Pottery, $40. They browned cookies about as evenly as air-bake cookie sheets and more evenly than coated sheets, and cookies didn't stick. But in addition to costing more, they're heavy, break when dropped, and baked a bit slower than metal baking sheets. The ceramic sheets also retain heat, making it difficult to quickly cook successive batches.

    No point to the Pyramid Pan

    The infomercial for the Pyramid Pan claims that the silicone insert will prevent “dining disasters” because food rests on the points of the pyramids instead of the pan’s surface. That supposedly allows air to circulate under the food and fats to drip away, leaving food crisp, juicy, and evenly baked. In our tests we cooked a variety of foods including puff pastry appetizers on baking sheets with and without the Pyramid Pan liner. It was nonstick but because the food didn’t make contact with the pan, the tops of the appetizers were golden brown and the bottoms pale and undercooked. Save the $19.95 plus shipping and use nonstick cooking spray instead.

    The not-so-perfect brownie pan

    The Perfect Brownie Pan Set promises to be "the nonstick way to bake, slice, and serve perfect brownies." Using an insert that resembles an ice-cube tray, the pan bakes each brownie separately. Because the bottom of the pan is not attached to the sides. the instructions say you can line the pan with foil or support it with a baking sheet to prevent leaking. A set cost $20 plus $8 shipping and handling. We baked fudge brownies four ways: in an unlined, Perfect Brownie pan; in the pan lined with foil; in the pan on a baking sheet; and in a regular 9x13-inch pan. Our trained taste testers found that brownies baked in a regular pan had better texture and flavor than the Perfect Brownies, which were all underdone to varying degrees, though we baked them 2 to 9 minutes longer.

    Top-Performing Holiday Helpers

    Although the classic KitchenAid stand mixer was overtaken in our tests by another brand, we still highly recommend it. Here are the mixers and ranges that were best for baking in Consumer Reports tests and a handy new item to help spread holiday cheer.

    Stand mixers to stand by

    The Breville BEM800XL, $300, was excellent at whipping cream, mixing large batches of cookie dough, and kneading bread dough. It beat out favorites from KitchenAid and other brands thanks to a bevy of convenience features, including a leaf beater with a flexible edge that scrapes the bowl as it turns and a timer that lets you set your desired mixing time. We also recommend the more familiar KitchenAid Classic, $200, the KitchenAid Professional, $550, the KitchenAid Artisan, $300, and the Hamilton Beach Eclectics, $180. All four were excellent at mixing cookie dough.

    Handy hand mixers

    The KitchenAid KHM926, $100, combines very good mixing power with very good whipping time. Unlike a lot of lesser mixers, it's strong enough to fold chips into stiff cookie dough. It’s also one of the quieter hand mixers we tested, which you’ll appreciate if you’re cooking at odd hours when others may be sleeping. We also recommend the KitchenAid Architect KHM7210, $80, which is even quieter, and a $40 Cuisinart Power Advantage HM-50 that gets excellent mixing scores.

    Best ranges for baking

    Surprisingly, not all ranges get excellent marks for baking in our range tests. Two electric smoothtop ranges, the Kenmore 95052, $1,100, and the GE Cafe CS980STSS, $2,800, were excellent at turning out evenly baked cakes and cookies and had large oven capacities. If you prefer gas, the Samsung NX58F5700WS, $1,600, and the GE PGS920SEFSS, $2,800 had very good baking performance and impressive capacity. For more choices, including pro-style ranges, see our full range Ratings and recommendations.

    A decorative, disposable dish

    Chinet Bakeware nonstick paper pans are “the first disposable baking dishes that let you take your food from oven to table to freezer to microwave,” the product’s website says. The pans, along with plastic lids, come in square, rectangular, and oval shapes, in various sizes. We paid $4.95 per pack, consisting of two or three pans. Our food experts cooked casseroles and brownies in Chinet and in similar-size metal and aluminum-foil pans. Chinet panned out. It’s disposable yet tough and was more rigid than disposable aluminum pans. And you won’t need pot holders when you pick up the heated dish. That said, because the paper bakeware is flexible, the lids may pop off; and the paper seems to extend baking time. Brownies in a metal pan were done in 40 minutes; those in Chinet required 55.

    More holiday gift ideas and tips

    Check Consumer Reports' 2015 Holiday Guide for our picks of the best gifts, details on the latest deals, time-saving tips, and much more. And see our Countdown to Black Friday calendar for got top gift ideas for everyone on your list.

    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 Boost Holiday Safety With Home Automation

    A few days ago I accidentally left my space heater on when I left for work, and then rushed home once I remembered. It seemed smart to be cautious: Many space heaters have new safety features built in, but they still cause one third of house fires, according to the National Fire Protection Association.    

    If I installed a few smart devices at home, I'd never have to worry about this sort of thing again. These gadgets include connected outlets that let you turn off your iron or television from anywhere, sensors that tell you if there’s a gas or water leak, and smart hubs that let you control them all from anywhere. Many of these gadgets require almost zero handyman skills and are completely portable. 

    This is a great time of year to be thinking of home automation. As the holidays approach, people start plugging in more devices, from Christmas lights to electric blankets.

    Like my space heater, these should generally be turned off before you leave home, but it's also the season when harried families rush off to visit relatives in distant cities. That leaves lots of opportunities for appliances to remain on and unattended longer than they should. And it makes home automation gear a worthy investment for yourself, or a smart gift for both homeowners and renters.

    One thing to remember: Like other connected devices, all of these home automation products send data across the Internet. Here's where you can learn more about the potential privacy and security concerns.

    Belkin: Quick and Cheap

    Belkin’s WeMo Insight Switch ($59.99) is a smart outlet that gives any normal power outlet an Internet connection. To use the Belkin WeMo Insight Switch, you need to download the iOS or Android app, plug in the smart outlet, and connect it to your Wi-Fi network. From there you can set schedules and timers for your Insight Switch (or multiple compatible devices). For example, you can use the Belkin app to tell your Insight Switch to turn your space heater on every weekday at sunset, and off at 6 a.m.

    If you forget whether you shut off a device, you can check on your connected appliances from anywhere your smartphone has an internet connection, making it more useful than similar outlets that you can only control if you’re home.

    Compatible devices, such as Belkin’s wireless cameras, can trigger other connected devices (for instance, the Insight Switch) to turn on or off when someone arrives home, or when motion is detected in a room. Belkin’s WeMo products are best for people who want to monitor one or two devices, or who just want the lights off at the same time every night.

    Insteon: iOS-Oriented Hub

    If you want to keep an eye on more of your home than the Belkin system will allow, you’re going to have to venture into smart hub territory. And Insteon is a particularly good place to start if you’re an Apple fan.

    The Insteon Hub ($79.99) can manage multiple connected sensors from your Windows Phone, iOS, or Android device. To get started, plug the Hub into your router and download the corresponding smartphone app, which lets you set up rules that affect multiple appliances or lights simultaneously. One rule could dim all lights, turn off the television, and lock the front door. You can keep track of all your connected devices by room as well, letting you control every device in the living room without messing with the lights in the kitchen.

    In addition to smart outlets that work much like Belkin’s WeMo Insight Switch, you can pair other sensors to the Insteon Hub to beef up security and safety. Insteon-compatible smoke detectors, motion sensors, water leak sensors, and door-opening sensors can pair to the Hub.

    You can program the Insteon Hub to alert you if motion is detected or a door is opened while you’re away. Water leak sensors can be placed under sinks or near water tanks so you can avoid being surprised by a flooded kitchen or basement, and you can use the smoke detector sensor to unlock all doors and turn on all lights in case of an emergency.

    Insteon also sells the Insteon Hub Pro ($149.99), which only works with iOS devices. It doesn’t support a few of Insteon’s old sensors, but it is compatible with Apple’s HomeKit, letting you control your smart outlets or other HomeKit-enabled devices with Siri.

    When you’re ready to pack up and go to your next home, you can just pick up the Insteon sensors, unplug the smart outlets, and set up shop somewhere new.

    Samsung SmartThings: Versatile Choice

    If you don’t care about telling Siri to turn down the lights, or you have devices that aren’t supported by Insteon, consider Samsung’s SmartThings series of connected devices. Samsung’s SmartThings is similar to the Insteon Hub. Plug the required hub ($99) into your router, download the Windows Phone, iOS, or Android app, and pair your devices. There’s a smart outlet ($54.99) that lets you control appliances anywhere, a water leak sensor ($39.99), and even a temperature and humidity sensor for any temperature-sensitive areas (like the kitchen).

    It’s compatible with a substantially larger variety of products, including sirens, smoke detectors, Philips Hue bulbs, and Sonos speakers. In case of a fire, you can tell your lights to flash red, siren to blare, and speakers to turn off. SmartThings’ multitude of plug-and-play sensors makes it easy to set up or take down anywhere.

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

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    Ninja Blenders Recalled Due to Laceration Risk

    Ninja blenders feature a unique "stacked blade" assembly consisting of multiple sharp blades mounted at different heights inside the container—or "Total Crushing Technology" as the company calls it. Many Ninja blenders do perform very well overall in Consumer Reports' blender tests. The drawback is that the knife-like assembly isn't anchored in any way to the container, raising the risk of laceration. That's led to the announcement from Ninja that, in accordance with the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, it is recalling a dozen blender models, following 53 reports of injury.

    This recall is different from most in that Ninja isn’t actually telling consumers to stop using their blenders, nor is it issuing a stop sale with retailers. Instead, it's giving customers a revised safety warning.

    Specifically, Ninja owners are being told to “empty the blender’s pitcher through the locked lid’s pour spout, or by removing both the lid and the stacked blade assembly from the pitcher before pouring.”

    Every Ninja blender we’ve tested features the same stacked-blade assembly, including the Ninja Professional NJ600 blender not listed in the recall. A company representative told to us that manuals for all models will eventually be updated with the same safety warning.

    Ninja is the only manufacturer we know of that uses a blade assembly that isn't locked into the container during use. Its blades are also sharper than many other blenders, especially those with a blunt blade assembly that's designed to pulverize food by spinning at high speeds, rather than slicing through it.

    That being said, all blenders can cause injury. Indeed, blender injuries result in thousands of emergency-room visits each year. Many of these injuries occur during washing.

    With Ninja blenders, it’s best to use a dishwashing utensil to avoid direct hand contact with the blades; do the same with blenders with removable blade assemblies. When the blade assembly can't be removed, we advise adding soapy water to the container and running the blender until the container and blades are clean, instead of washing by hand.

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

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    The Quickest Way to Find Replacement Parts for Small Appliances

    They might be small, but when it comes to all their moving parts, many countertop appliances are anything but simple. Consumer Reports has tested food processors and juicers with more than 20 separate components, many of them tiny enough to easily go missing, whether lost during a move or accidentally tossed into the trash. Other parts are prone to breakage—think glass coffee carafes and the blade assembly on a blender. In those cases, the loss of the part could render the machine unusable.

    That got us thinking: How easy is it to get replacement parts for small appliances? The question takes on added urgency during the holiday season, when you want to have all your small appliances in working order to help with the flurry of cooking, baking, pureeing, blending, and more. With that in mind, we decided to run a nonscientific experiment to learn more about the replacement-part process. 

    The setup was simple. We selected food processors that have been on the market for at least six months from five major brands: Breville, Cuisinart, Hamilton Beach, KitchenAid, and Oster. On the same day, we contacted each company to order a replacement for each model’s “pusher,” that little cylindrical widget you use to push food down into the processor. In each case, we tried to order the part two ways—by phone and online.

    As the chart below shows, there was a good deal of variation, enough for us to draw several basic conclusions. Despite the small sample size, we think the findings could save you time and money (and maybe your famous holiday soufflé or homemade eggnog) the next time a vital small appliance part is lost. 

    Model and Price   Duration of Call Total Cost Days to Delivery
    Breville Sous Chef BFP660SIL
    $300
    Phone 9 min. 
    (including 2 min. on hold)
    $4.68 7
    Online 1 min. N/A N/A
    Cuisinart FP-12BCN
    $200
    Phone 27 min. 
    (including 12 min. on hold)
    $16.45 4
    Online 3 min. $17.33 4
    Hamilton Beach 70725A
    $60
    Phone 15 min. 
    (including 10 min. on hold)
    $10.79 7
    Online 4 min. $19.78 4
    KitchenAid KFP1466CU
    $350
    Phone 11 min.
    (including 3 min. on hold)
    $0.00 10
    Online 8 min. $12.37 7
    Oster FPSTFP1355
    $50
    Phone 11 min. 
    (including 5 min. on hold)
    N/A N/A
    Online 5 min. N/A N/A

    Lessons Learned

    Ordering by phone can save money, if not time. The 73 minutes we spent calling the five customer service centers (including 32 minutes on hold) was no one’s idea of a good time. But on average, we saved about $7 compared with the online approach. Consider KitchenAid. The Tennessee-based representative who took our call was not only pleasant, but also she waived the cost of the pusher and the shipping fee. Though ordering online took 3 fewer minutes, it cost us $12.37 (with none of the pleasantries!). In the case of Breville, the pusher wasn’t even available on its website, whereas by phone, the Australian manufacturer won top prize for quickest service call and the cost was reasonable.

    Give it at least a week. All of the replacement parts arrived within 10 days of ordering. Cuisinart was the fastest overall, with both parts arriving in four days. But manufacturers tell us that there could be some seasonality at play here (the holidays are particularly tough on food processors and stand mixers, while summer sees a surge in demand for blender parts). So you might want to leave a little more time during those periods. In a pinch, you can also opt for faster delivery, though the costs get excessive in a hurry. For example, next-day delivery of our $5 Hamilton Beach pusher would have been $57.34, up from $19.78 for standard ground delivery.

    It’s worth noting that a handful of larger small appliance parts are sold at stores. For example, Bed, Bath, & Beyond sells certain thermal carafes for Cuisinart coffeemakers, while Target carries some KitchenAid stand mixer bowls. Start by doing a quick Google search of the brand and model number, which should be stamped clearly on the main body of the appliance.

    Failure could be an option. Our 11-minute call to Oster was all for naught when the representative failed to locate our replacement part in the system. She suggested we check back in 4 to 6 weeks. She also recommended we try the website www.ereplacement.com, which bills itself as a sustainable provider of aftermarket replacement parts that might otherwise end up in the landfill. The site trades more in electronics and large appliances, including items like laptop batteries and dishwasher control boards. Good to know about, but not for our Oster pusher.

    Of course, the best advice of all is to keep your small appliances organized and in good working order. Storing them in a dedicated cabinet or drawer will help prevent parts from wandering away. In terms of care and maintenance, be sure to check the owners’ manual. You might find that some parts are dishwasher safe, while others could come out of the machine warped and damaged—perhaps just when you need it most.

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

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    Best Small Appliances for the Big Holiday Dinner

    With a roast filling the oven and side dishes on every available burner, a holiday host can quickly run out of space to cook a meal and all the trimmings. But with some creative use of small countertop appliances, you can coordinate your dinner so that everything's ready at the same time. Many of today's microwaves and toaster ovens have improved cooking capabilities and warming trays have given way to induction burners that can be used to cook as well as serve. Here are some holiday hints and helpers from the experts at Consumer Reports. 

    Microwaves

    The most basic microwave can be used to reheat casseroles and side dishes made in advance. But a microwave with a convection mode is far more versatile and can be used to brown and crisp food. In our tests, at least one of our microwaves with a convection function, the GE Profile PVM1790SR[SS], $600, baked biscuits adequately in a preheated oven.

    One of the midsized countertop models, the LG LCSP1110[ST], $230, features a pizza oven in a drawerlike oven beneath the microwave cavity, although it can't be used at the same time as the microwave. Still it has preset buttons not only for pizza but other baked goods. It scored very good overall as a microwave and baked biscuits to satisfaction.

    At least two of the microwaves in our tests feature a grill—the Sharp Steamwave AX-1100S, $500, and the over-the-range Maytag MMV6186W[S], $680—that capably grilled a steak. The Sharp Steamwave also has a steamer option. We steamed fish nicely, but fresh broccoli took longer than expected. Still, it's an option when the cooktop is otherwise employed.

    Toaster ovens

    A large toaster oven can serve as a second oven. Use one to bake muffins or bread and to warm up pie for dessert. Several of the toaster ovens in our tests have convection heating, which manufacturers claim is faster and cooks more evenly. At least one model, the Panasonic FlashXpress NB-G110P, $110, also has speedy infrared heating.

    The Hamilton Beach Set & Forget 31230, $100, a midpriced toaster oven, provides very good overall performance, especially when it comes to broiling. The interior is large enough to accommodate a 4-pound chicken, though in our tests the built-in thermometer wasn't as accurate as the Set & Forget label might lead you to believe.

    192586-hotplates-waring-proict100.jpgInduction burners

    Countertop induction burners are, basically, high-tech hotplates. They provide extra cooking space in kitchens that need it. They plug into standard 120V 15-amp outlets so are limited by their electrical supply to provide less heat than what is provided by induction cooktops or ranges, which use 240V 50-amp supply circuits. Still, the burners use magnetic coils to heat more quickly and efficiently than conventional electric hot plates by sending most of the heat to the pan rather than to the cooking surface, but work only with magnetic cookware.

    The induction burners in our past tests were all ceramic glass, don't get as hot as standard radiant cooktop burners, were easy to clean and easier to keep clean (since they don't as readily burn spilled food). For typical cooking tasks, they offer plenty of power, above and beyond what a standard hot plate can offer. 

    Food processors

    If you are mashing potatoes or squash, move the cooked veggies from the pot to a food processor. Pulse it to get it to the right consistency but don't over mix it. Then place the food in a serving dish for reheating later. You can also purée winter squash soup. Four of the six the recommended food processors in our tests were very good at puréeing, including three Cuisinarts and a Breville. Our top-rated machine is the Breville BFP800XL/A, $400, which was superb at slicing, shredding, and grating. And for all its power and performance, it’s surprisingly quiet.  

    coffeemaker_Krups_Silver_Art_Collection_KT600.jpgCoffeemakers

    To save time after dinner, make coffee ahead of time and store it in a thermos. All the better if you already have a thermal carafe. In our tests, none of the recommended models comes with a thermal carafe—though the recommended Mr. Coffee BVMC-SJX33GT, $40, has one you can purchase separately. Several other models in our coffeemaker tests come with that feature, including the Panasonic NC-ZF1, $200.

    If time isn't an issue, use a single-serve coffeemaker to make everyone an individual cup of coffee. All three of the top models in our pod coffeemaker tests are from DeLonghi Nescafé and range in price from $130 to $150. For Starbucks lovers, there's the Starbucks Verismo 600, $150.

    Don't blow it

    Before plugging in your high wattage helpers, make sure they are running on separate circuits or at least not at the same time. You don't want to trip a breaker switch just as your guests are gathering around the table. 

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

    Holiday Planning & Shopping Guide

    Check Consumer Reports' 2015 Holiday Guide for our picks of the best gifts, details on the latest deals, time-saving tips, and much more. And see our countdown calendar for top gift ideas for everyone on your list.

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

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    Small Appliances at Black Friday Prices All Year Long

    You don’t have to wait until Black Friday to get a top-rated small appliance at a good price. Some of the best performers in Consumer Reports' tests cost $110 or much less including a hand mixer and a coffeemaker for $40 each. Of course, if you want to spend more, we also test small appliances with big price tags. Here are five good buys and five splurges that were impressive in Consumer Reports' small appliance tests.

    Hand mixers

    A good buy. Cuisinart Power Advantage HM-50, $40
    Cuisinart’s 5-speed hand mixer had no trouble powering through stiff cookie dough in our hand mixer tests and it was very quick at whipping. We also like the well-priced mixer’s wire beaters, which are easier to clean than the traditional center-post variety. But this mixer is louder than other hand mixer top picks.
    Splurge:
    KitchenAid KHM926, $100
    The $100 KitchenAid costs more than many other hand mixers, but it performed very well in our tests, combining very good mixing and whipping time. It also scored points for versatility, thanks to its dough hooks, whisk attachment, and liquid blender rod, which is designed to blend soups, smoothies, and more. On the downside, this mixer is noisier than other recommended models.

    Coffeemakers

    CR Best Buy: Mr. Coffee BVMC-SJX33GT, $40
    This 12-cup Mr. Coffee is among the best all-around drip coffeemakers in our tests. It brewed at industry-recommended guidelines of 195° F or more, maintained for five or six minutes. Setup, operation, and cleanup were fairly easy, and we found its carafe easy to use. (A thermal carafe is available separately.) And among attractions for the bargain price are a water filter, special cleaning cycle, and two-hour auto-shutoff.
    Splurge: Cuisinart Crystal SCC-1000 Limited Edition Perfec Temp, $200
    This Cuisinart drip coffeemaker is gussied up with Swarovski elements for a jeweled look, but it was a gem in our coffeemaker Ratings as well. First, it's the only model that can brew a full 14 cups. And while it's expensive, it had top-notch brew performance matched by a carafe we found easy to hold and pour from. It's also programmable, with both a small-batch setting and brew-strength control.

    Blenders

    A good buy. Black + Decker Fusion Blade Digital BL1820SG-P, $50
    This 6-cup blender performed very well overall, was a champ at making icy drinks and very good at purees. It's not the quietest we've tested and fell short of our top blender picks but costs hundreds less so is worth a look.
    Splurge. Blendtec Designer 725, $650
    Part of the trend of high-end, high-priced blenders, the Blendtec Designer 725 was superb in our icy drinks tests, which means it’s a good choice for smoothie lovers. It also aced our puree and durability tests although, like the Ninja, it was only so-so for noise.

    Toaster ovens

    A good buy: Panasonic FlashXpress NB-G110P, $110
    Devotees of the original version of this Panasonic toaster oven were happy to see this relaunched version. It looks fairly basic from the outside, but its quartz and ceramic heating elements cook more efficiently than conventional coil-heated ovens and don’t require any time for preheating.
    Splurge: Breville Smart Oven BOV800XL, $250
    This Breville toaster oven is one of the higher-priced models in our toaster oven Ratings, but its top performance and sleek, sturdy design might justify the cost. It was very good at baking and broiling, and it can accommodate a 4-pound chicken. It was excellent at toasting full batches and successive batches and very good at toasting just one slice.

    Steam irons

    CR Best Buy: Rowenta Effective Comfort DW2070, $50
    The least expensive Rowenta steam iron we tested was also the best. In our steam iron tests, it was excellent overall and delivered superb ironing and lots of steam. The steam surge button provides a burst of steam when trying to remove stubborn wrinkles and the vertical steam feature lets you remove wrinkles from hanging garments and drapes. The sole plate is stainless steel and the ready light indicates the iron is hot enough to use. There's a self-clean feature and auto-shutoff.
    Splurge: Rowenta Steamforce DW9280, $140
    This top-rated steam iron was excellent overall and provides lots of steam. It has a stainless steel soleplate. Features include steam surge, which offers a burst of steam to help remove stubborn wrinkles, vertical steam for drapes and hanging garments, and auto-shutoff, a safety feature that powers the iron down when left stationary for a short time. A ready light indicates the iron is up to temperature.  

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

    Holiday Planning & Shopping Guide

    Check Consumer Reports' 2015 Holiday Guide for our picks of the best gifts, details on the latest deals, time-saving tips, and much more. And see our countdown calendar for top gift ideas for everyone on your list.

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

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  • 11/17/15--15:16: Good Deals on Great Ranges
  • Good Deals on Great Ranges

    When did Black Friday morph into Black November? Many deep discounts on appliances can be found right now. And, unlike some sales, even really good appliances are discounted. Here’s a look at deals on some of the best ranges from Consumer Reports’ tests. And if you love to bake, note that these top picks were very good, or even excellent, at turning out evenly browned cookies and cakes.

    We test dozens of ranges, baking hundreds of cookies and cakes. We do not move the pans to different racks or rotate them to get impressive results—we let the oven do what it's made to do. An excellent baking score means the oven turned out evenly browned cookies and cakes when baked on two racks simultaneously. Cakes and cookies must be cooked properly, with the centers done. If you enjoy filling tins with homemade chocolate chip cookies, also consider ranges that scored very good in baking. The results were impressive, although browning was slightly less even than ranges scoring excellent.

    We also test ranges to find out how quickly they bring a large pot of water to a near boil, how well they simmer, and whether they're impressive at broiling and self-cleaning. Manufacturers tell you the oven's capacity in cubic feet. We measure the oven's usable capacity and then rate it.  

    Here's a look at some of the ranges that made our top picks, were very good or excellent at baking, and are on sale now.  

    The Best Ranges for Baking

    Gas double oven

    Gas single oven

    Induction single oven

    Electric smoothtop double oven

    Electric smoothtop single oven

    Shopping for a range?
    Check our range Ratings before you decide, and use the range buying guide to help you get started.

    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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    5 Ways to Save on Appliances on Black Friday

    Savvy shoppers know there’s almost no reason to pay full price for a large appliance in November. Black Friday is no longer just a day but a season so you can skip the long lines and shop right now. We breezed through the sale sections of the websites of Best Buy, Home Depot, Lowe's, and Sears and found some of our top-performing appliances at bock-bottom prices of 40 percent off or better. But not every discount is a good deal, especially if you end up with a brand that’s repair-prone. So do your homework before opening your wallet.

    Here are five things to know:

    1. Not every suite is a sweet deal
    You might be tempted by offers and rebates on various kitchen suites—typically a refrigerator, range, dishwasher, and microwave from the same maker—but Consumer Reports' tests have shown that it’s difficult to find brands that combine top performance and reliability across all four categories. Take the Samsung Chef Collection suite, for example. In our tests, the Samsung RF34H9960S4 4-door refrigerator, $5,400, and the Samsung NE58H9970WS induction range, $3,600, were top performers but the Samsung DW80H9970US dishwasher, $1,450, and the Samsung ME21H9900AS over-the-range microwave, $600, missed the cut although they still have their plusses. And, at those prices, they should.

    2. Don’t buy large appliances by brand alone
    Some consumers are brand loyal and if you’re one of them, keep in mind that not all models from one manufacturer are created equal. We tested two Kenmore 3-door French-door refrigerators with comparable prices. Our top performer, the Kenmore Elite 74093, $2,800, was aces at temperature control and energy efficiency. Its brandmate, the Kenmore 73063, $3,000, had very good temperature control and energy use but was one of the noisiest models in our tests. We found it on sale at Sears for $1,899.

    3. Always try for a better bargain
    Sure the prices are low but you may be able to get an even better bargain by haggling. In a national survey conducted by Consumer Reports, 89 percent of those who negotiated for a better price were rewarded for their efforts at least once in the past few years. Appliance shoppers who haggled typically saved about $100 on major appliances and $40 on small ones. And here’s a winning trick: Ask whether you can buy a floor model or one that's slightly blemished (in a spot that won't show) for less.

    4. Don’t overlook online
    While you wouldn't think twice about buying a toaster or a coffeemaker online, ordering a large appliance online takes a bigger leap. But it’s one that more and more shoppers are willing to make, especially if they visit a store first. After all, you’ll probably want to get a firsthand look at the materials and controls of the refrigerator or dishwasher you’re considering. Ordering online often comes with free shipping although you likely can’t skip out on the taxes. And you can still attempt to barter by contacting a customer-service rep either by phone or in an online chat.

    5. Get those free extras
    Even if you fail to chip away at the sale price, there are other ways to save on a large appliance, such as asking the retailer to waive fees for shipping or delivery. Many already offer this service and also include free haul-away of your old appliance. Ask whether installation is included, especially if you’re just replacing one appliance with another and not undertaking a kitchen remodel.

    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 Clean Up Common Holiday Messes

    Getting Ready

    Dealing with dusty decorations, polishing Grandma’s beloved silver platter, getting last year’s candle wax off menorahs and candlesticks, cleaning stained tablecloths—there’s always plenty to do around the holidays. So Consumer Reports asked our cleaning and textile experts how to make the prep work easier and faster. They offered advice about what to do before company arrives and after the last guest has left but their stains remain.

    Removing wax from candlesticks and menorahs

    Place silver or other metals in the freezer until the wax hardens, then gently scrape it off with a plastic spatula. If wax remains, pour boiling water over the item or immerse it in a pot of boiling water, making sure any felt covering on the base remains dry. For glass or wood, point a blow-dryer at the wax and then blot the melting wax with a paper towel, but be careful not to overheat wood because it can crack.

    Freshening up sheets, towels, and linens

    There’s no need to rewash clean guest room sheets and towels that haven’t been used in months. Just toss them in the dryer on low heat for 15 minutes. And if you don’t want fold lines on your freshly ironed tablecloths, roll them up on empty wrapping-paper tubes.

    Dusting an artificial Christmas tree

    Set up the tree and spread out a sheet at its base to catch debris. Cover the vacuum’s upholstery attachment with a piece of hosiery or mesh netting fastened with a rubber band. Starting from the top of the tree and moving down, gently vacuum on the lowest setting, holding the attachment about an inch away from the branches to remove dust and cobwebs. Still dingy? Check the manufacturer’s website for any wipe-down tips.

    Dusting artificial wreaths

    Hold a blow-dryer, set on a low speed and the cool setting, about 10 inches from the wreath and then fluff. A soft feather duster may also work, or try the Christmas tree dusting tip.

    Cleaning glass ornaments

    Surface decorations are usually applied with water-soluble paint, so avoid treating them with soap, water, and cleaning solutions. Use a soft feather duster instead.

    Caring for silver

    Remove tarnish with a polishing mitt or by applying silver cleaner with a damp sponge; buff dry. Washing by hand is usually recommended, but there are lots of no-nos to keep in mind.

    • Don’t soak silver for long periods because non-silver parts can rust. And the salt and acids in leftover food particles can stain or pit the silver.
    • Never wash silver and stainless together because a chemical reaction between the metals can cause pitting.
    • Avoid lemon-scented detergents because they can damage silver.
    • Never pour detergent directly on silver. Instead, add a mild detergent to water, wash and rinse thoroughly, and dry right away with a soft cloth to prevent spots.
    • Don’t leave silver out; air accelerates tarnishing. Instead, store silver in a clear, heavy, sealable plastic bag.

    The Aftermath

    Once the guests are gone and all the dust has settled, it’s time to survey the damage. It pays to act quickly, even with messes that have been there for a while. Another rule of thumb: Always blot stains on carpets, napkins, clothing, and the like, because scrubbing can damage their surfaces. Below are specific treatments for seven common problems. Whatever the recommended cleaning solution, try it first on an inconspicuous spot, and follow any care-label instructions that apply.

    Wine and soda on fabrics or carpet

    Cure: For white wines and clear sodas, launder washable items as soon as possible. Blot carpet with water, apply our homemade detergent solution (1 teaspoon of a mild clear or white dishwashing liquid without bleach in 1 cup of warm water), and blot again with water. For red wine, follow the same instructions and then dab with 3 percent-strength hydrogen peroxide. For colas on carpet or fabrics, blot with our detergent solution and, if needed, then try our vinegar solution (⅓ cup of white vinegar with ⅔ cup of water). Blot with warm water, and if a trace remains, dab with 3 percent-strength hydrogen peroxide.

    Christmas tree sap on carpet or upholstery

    Cure: Whether your tree is a pine, fir, or spruce, the sticky sap is basically the same, according to a tree expert at Cornell University. Blot sap with isopropyl rubbing alcohol to dissolve it and then use our detergent solution. Blot carpet or upholstery with the solution, then blot with clean water. Dry with a white cloth.

    Chocolate on carpet or fabrics

    Cure:  Scrape off excess. Blot carpet with our detergent solution. If the stain remains, try the vinegar solution. Dry with a white cloth. For washable items, use your washer’s soak cycle and one of our top-rated detergents that’s tough on chocolate, such as Wisk Deep Clean, then wash.

    Cranberry sauce on fabrics or carpet

    Cure: Scrape away excess. Pretreat washable tablecloths and other fabrics with Resolve stain remover, launder, and line dry. If the stain persists, dab with 3 percent-strength hydrogen peroxide and line dry. For carpet and upholstery, blot with our detergent solution. If the stain remains, use 3 percent-strength hydrogen peroxide. Repeat with clean white cloths until none of the stain transfers to the cloth. Then blot with water to remove cleaning solution. Dry with a white cloth weighted down with a stack of books.

    Gravy on table linens

    Cure: Scrape off excess with a spoon. Pretreat with a Fels-Naptha paste or Resolve stain remover and wash. Do not put items in the dryer until the stain is gone or it will be even harder to remove.

    Lipstick on cloth napkins

    Cure: Blot with acetone-based nail polish remover. If the stain remains, apply our homemade detergent solution, then rinse.

    Candle wax on tablecloths

    Cure: Pour boiling water through the washable fabric from a height of 12 inches (the height increases the velocity of the water, helping separate the wax from the fibers). For fabric that can’t be washed, sandwich it between paper towels and apply a warm iron; repeat with a clean towel until the wax is lifted.

    Holiday Planning & Gift Guide

    Check Consumer Reports' 2015 Holiday Guide for our picks of the best gifts, details on the latest deals, time-saving tips, and much more. And see our countdown calendar for top gift ideas for everyone on your list.

    This article appeared in the December 2013 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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    Coffeemakers That Please a Crowd

    Sitting down over a cup of coffee ties a nice bow on an enjoyable social gathering. But a coffeemaker that isn’t up to the task of serving a room full of company can make an awkward end to the evening. Here are some crowd-pleasing models from Consumer Reports' tests:

    Conventional Drip Coffeemakers

    These brew up to 14 cups at a time, but keep in mind that the “cups” are actually 5 or 6 ounces each. Drip machines fill a carafe for serving; some come with a thermal carafe, which helps keep the coffee hot longer.

    Brewing close to industry guidelines of 195° to 205° F for five to six minutes helps the KitchenAid KCM1202OB, $100, make java any coffee drinker can enjoy. This 12-cup drip model had convenient operation and easy carafe handling, along with an LCD display of brew-cycle status, a removable reservoir, and an indicator to tell you when cleaning is needed. There’s also a cupcake-style filter basket with a permanent filter and a brushed-stainless finish (with onyx or white trim).

    Another we like at the same price is the 12-cup Kenmore Elite 76772, which brewed close to industry guidelines and was especially easy to use. It has some similar features, such as a permanent filter (though cone-style), a removable reservoir, and an indicator to tell you when the machine needs cleaning. We also found the carafe fairly easy to use, hold, pour from, and empty.

    Brew-and-Dispense Coffeemakers

    Had enough standing by the end of the night? These coffeemakers brew 10 to 12 cups’ worth of coffee but keep it hot in a tank. Guests serve themselves at the machine so you can relax.

    The 10-cup Viante Brew-N-View CAF-05T, $100, offers more flexibility than other brew-and-dispense coffeemakers we've tested. It brewed at industry-recommended guidelines, and we found its setup, operation, and cleanup fairly easy. Remove the drip tray, and you can brew into travel mugs; a thermal carafe is available as an option. Other pluses: the removable coffee tank and water reservoir, coffee-level window, a washable, cupcake-type filter basket, and a cleaning-needed indicator.

    Grind-and-Brew Coffeemakers

    For serving a more discriminating crowd, you can grind beans and immediately brew them for the freshest coffee. The best from our tests, the 12-cup Cuisinart Grind & Brew DGB-700BC, $170, was impressive in overall performance and has a water filter and a permanent cupcake-type filter basket. We found it fairly convenient to use, and the carafe was easy to manage.

    Single-Serve (Pod) Coffeemakers

    Guests who want Keurig or other single-serve coffees are the opposite of the grind-and-brew crowd—they want it fast. You’ll need to judge, however, whether the minute the fastest of these take to deliver a serving (not counting swapping pods in and out and refilling the reservoir) multiplied by the number of guests to serve, is too much of a hassle.

    The DeLonghi Nescafé Dolce Gusto Genio EDG455T, $130, has ranked high in our tests. It’s an improvement on earlier Nescafé models’ brewing process. Glowing bars indicate how much hot water is available and buttons let users select a serving size. Cup speed and size consistency were top-notch, and the unit was fairly easy to use. On the minus side,  it uses only Nescafé "flavor capsules," and only 18 flavors are available.

    Prefer the flavor of your local Starbucks? Then you'll appreciate the $150 Starbucks Verismo 600, which improves on the earlier Starbucks Verismo 580 for service-size options. First- and second-cup delivery were speedy, and each cup was of uniform size. Where the Starbucks falls short is in its limited options for varying the strength of what you brew. The selection of Starbucks capsules is also so far limited to 12 options, though this might suffice if you like Starbucks stores' offerings.

    Not sure which to choose? Browse our coffeemaker buying guide before checking our coffeemaker Ratings of more than 100 models.

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

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    Has Black Friday Regained Its Mojo?

    For all the hype, Black Friday doesn’t resonate with everyone.

    Last year, 55 percent of Americans avoided the retail rush on the day and the weekend after Thanksgiving, according to the first 2015 Consumer Reports holiday poll.  

    But 44 percent did, in fact, participate in the buying Bacchanalia. By contrast, only 30 percent shopped the same period two years earlier.

    This year, even more people will likely hit the stores: 47 percent of Americans polled told us they plan to go shopping on Black Friday.

    Does that mean consumers are back to their free-spending ways in the post-recession world? Probably not.

    For some, Black Friday represents an opportunity to score unbeatable bargains; for others, it’s as much a part of the season as watching, “It’s A Wonderful Life” for the hundredth time. Among those who plan to shop on Black Friday weekend, 83 percent say it’s because of the deals. Thirty-four percent say Black Friday shopping is a tradition and that shopping during this period is “energizing and exciting.” Others rush to the stores to buy items before they’re out of stock. (Our percentages exceed 100 because respondents could select multiple reasons.)

    While the lure of doorbuster savings is a big part of the Black Friday appeal, retailers don’t always deliver. Forty-four percent of those who shopped during last year’s Black Friday weekend were disappointed with the quality of last year’s deals; 13 percent characterized their overall 2014 Black Friday shopping experience as negative.

    How do Americans really feel about Black Friday? Ten percent love it, according to our survey; 17 percent like it; and 22 percent merely tolerate it. However half avoid it, characterizing it as mostly “hype and a hassle.”

    Christmas Creep

    Black Friday has had its ups and down as a seminal sales period. There are various explanations. It started with the ever-expanding holiday shopping season, sometimes referred to as “Christmas creep.” For several years, retailers have been providing holiday discounts in stores and online much earlier in the cycle (remember Amazon’s Christmas in July sale?), so consumers need not wait until Black Friday for ballyhooed bargains.

    The steady surge in online shopping, with its nonstop barrage of deals and discounts, has further eroded the Black Friday mystique. Credit more generous price-matching policies, too. Major chains like Target now not only pledge to meet or beat the price of other brick-and-mortar competitors, but those of online merchants as well.

    Retail consultant Jack Abelson advises shoppers to not only think about price, but quality, which can be lacking during the highly competitive holiday season as merchants try to undercut one another.  

    “The outside of the television may look the same." says Abelson, "But the components are not as good."

    He says you'll also find retailers selling garments made of fabric with lesser quality. Retailers do this because they are fixated on price, as opposed to value, he says.

    In-Store vs. Online Shopping

    Americans are split on how they'll shop this year on Black Friday weekend. In our poll, 37 percent said they expect to hit the malls, while 34 percent plan to shop online. Some online retailers will also offer free shipping, making online an especially attractive alternative to dealing with crowds, traffic, and long lines at the stores.

    While millions of people will likely experience a shoppers’ high on Black Friday, there’s a growing backlash against the recent trend of stores opening on Thanksgiving Day. Dozens of chains including Costco, TJ Maxx, Publix, Bed Bath & Beyond, Costco, and Crate & Barrel will be closed.

    The 143-store outdoor-gear chain REI made a splash with its plans to not open on Black Friday. CEO Jerry Stritzke said in a statement, “Black Friday is the perfect time to remind ourselves of the essential truth that life is richer, more connected and complete when you choose to spend it outside. We’re closing our doors, paying our employees to get out there, and inviting America to OptOutside with us because we love great gear, but we are even more passionate about the experiences it unlocks.” 

    Although the chain’s sales will likely take a hit, Abelson suspects those losses will be easily offset by the windfall of free advertising the OptOutside campaign has generated.

    Timely Tips for Black Friday Warriors

    If you do plan to shop on Black Friday, here’s some guiding advice:

    • Do your homework. Websites such as www.bfads.net, www.fatwallet.com, and www.gottadeal.com reveal advance information about Black Friday circulars and other sales at many stores, and feature downloadable coupons. You can also find out which products come with rebates and which merchants offer free shipping.
    • Is it really a bargain? If you find a product in a flyer at a seemingly low price, go online first to determine whether you can get it at Amazon or elsewhere for less. Take advantage of price-match policies whenever possible.
    • Are online and in-store prices the same? Sometimes, the better deal is available online even if you factor in shipping (often waived this time of year or eligible at a lower purchase threshold). Remember, too, that many big retailers will let you place an order online and pick the item up locally without a shipping charge.
    • Consider the risks and rewards of late-night and pre-dawn sales. It’s true, many retailers offer huge discounts, often selling a few attention-grabbing toys or electronic items at or below cost to lure you into the store, where you’ll hopefully purchase other more profitable merchandise. These “loss leaders” are typically offered in extremely limited quantities and it’s first-come, first-serve. Don’t bother to show up unless you’re willing to wait, sometimes for hours before the store opens, and even then there’s no guarantee. Such sales can be hazardous, too, as overzealous shoppers battle one another for the last Star Wars BladeBuilders Jedi Master Lightsaber.
    • Check return policies. Retailers are becoming stricter when it comes to enforcing return policies. Be sure to ask for gift receipts. If you lack a receipt, be prepared to be issued a gift card or store credit for the lowest price the item actually sold for, not necessarily what you paid for it.
    • Be mindful of restocking fees. Certain products at certain stores are subject to fees, typically of as much as 15 percent, if you open the package and decide to return it afterwards.

    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 White Laundry White

    Doing laundry is so routine that it's only when it goes wrong that you give it much thought. White T-shirts gone gray and streaks of detergent crisscrossing clothes fresh out of the dryer are two of the wash woes mentioned in user reviews for washing machines. Here are some solutions from the pros at Consumer Reports.

    Most front-loaders and high-efficiency (HE) top-loaders that Consumer Reports has tested clean better than agitator top-loaders while using a lot less water. Because these washers use less water and work differently than agitator machines you have to use them differently. Pat Slaven, Consumer Reports’ textile expert, offers this advice.

    Problem: White Laundry Turns Gray

    Soil from dirty clothes transferring to other items in the washer is usually the culprit, along with not using enough detergent.

    The fix: Even though new washers have much larger capacities, sorting laundry is still a must. Wash whites separately, and wash very dirty items with other messy things. Load the washer, but don’t pack it, adding a few items at a time to reduce tangling. It’s important to use the recommended amount of HE detergent. It’s less sudsy than regular detergent so it’s perfect for water-saving front-loaders and HE top-loaders. And most detergents today contain agents that help keep soil from redepositing on other clothes.

    “If graying is still a problem, use a detergent with bleaching components,” says Slaven. Tide HE Plus Bleach Alternative made our top picks in our tests of dozens of laundry detergents. “Or try a mild oxidizing agent in powder form, such as OxiClean. It’s milder than chlorine bleach and you can use it for most whites, including cottons and cotton blends.”

    Problem: Detergent Streaks or Clumps

    Streaks jump out on dark clothes. Using too much detergent or water that’s too cold is the probable cause. Liquid detergent doesn't dissolve well in very cold water and can leave streaks; powder can clump and leave patches of powder on clothes. 

    The fix: Measure the HE detergent, no winging it. Mark the fill line on the detergent cap or cup that comes with the powder detergent with a Sharpie to make it easier to get it right.

    The detergent’s enzymes work best when the water is at least 60°F. Most cold tap water is around 60 to 75°F, but it may be 40°F or less in colder regions in northern states and Canada. Automatic temperature control can help. This washer feature adjusts the water to the optimal temperature for the selected setting.

    "If the incoming water is too cold the washer will add some hot water to raise the temperature to an appropriate level," says Emilio Gonzalez, the engineer who oversees Consumer Reports' tests of laundry appliances. All front-loaders and most top-loaders we tested have this feature. Click the Features & Specs tab in our washing machine Ratings to see which models do.  

    Shopping for a Washer?
    You’re timing is right on. We’re seeing big discounts on washing machines and dryers as retailers hype early Black Friday specials. Before you shop see our washing machine Ratings and our buying guide. Check for utility rebates and if you have questions, email me 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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    Lumber Liquidators Will Stop Selling Vinyl Flooring Made With Reprocessed Plastic

    Vinyl flooring is a common target for environmentalists because of claims of lead and phthalates mixed in with polyvinyl chloride (PVC), the material the flooring is mostly made of. And when vinyl flooring is made using reprocessed plastic sourced from substantially different products, it can contain cadmium, brominated flame retardants, and other toxic chemicals as well. This week Lumber Liquidators became the first major flooring retailer to announce that it will end the use of reprocessed plastic over the next year and also limit lead content in the vinyl flooring it sells.

    Lumber Liquidators’ announcement is part of the Mind the Store Campaign, a project of Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families, and is one of several commitments made as part of the program. Earlier this year, Home Depot, Lowe’s, and Menards announced they would stop selling vinyl flooring containing phthalates by the end of this year. Phthalates, used to make plastic more pliant, are known endocrine disrupters, and the Environmental Protection Agency classifies at least two as possible or probable carcinogens.

    Manufacturers purchase plastic from a number of sources, but according to a study by the Healthy Building Network, much is processed overseas, where there are fewer controls and protections. So the plastic that ends up exported, referred to as reprocessed, is plastic that is sorted manually from cable and wire insulation, pipes, roofing membranes, and other products.

    Lumber Liquidators this time finds itself on the right side of an issue. In early March, the CBS news program 60 Minutes reported that the retailer was selling laminate flooring with formaldehyde emissions several times higher than California’s standards for flooring sold in that state. The company’s CEO resigned in May, and the company suspended sales of all laminate flooring sourced from China, pending its investigation.

    What You Can Do

    In a recent test Consumer Reports conducted on phthalates in vinyl floors from multiple manufacturers, we found only very low levels in the air and on wipes we ran across the 17 vinyl samples and one sample of wood flooring we tested. Still, we recommend caution since you can’t be absolutely sure—without contacting the manufacturer—of all that’s in your floor. Parents of toddlers should wet-mop the floor often and wash children’s hands after the little ones have been crawling on a vinyl floor.

    For more on flooring, see our flooring buying guide and the results of our tests of six types of flooring.


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

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    Best Outdoor Power Gear Gifts for the Holidays

    Outdoor chores don’t stop for a holiday break, so we asked the outdoor power equipment experts at Consumer Reports for their top picks from among our recommended products. Not every choice is appropriate for every user, and not everyone wants another gas engine to maintain—especially if their property is modest enough for an electric model. So your best bet is to check return policies and get a gift receipt.

    Generators

    Providing ample power, cleanly and consistently, are top strengths of the 6,800-watt, gasoline-powered Ridgid RD906812B, $1,000. You get a number of helpful features for the price, including electric start, low-oil shutoff (which protects the engine from overheating if the oil level dips too low), and fuel shutoff, which prevents leaks and keeps gas from getting trapped in the fuel system and spoiling during storage.

    For $300 less, the Generac GP5500 5939 is rated at 5,500 watts and performed almost as well as top-scoring models that cost hundreds more. Features include fuel shutoff, low-oil shutoff, an hour meter, and a fuel gauge. It also comes with the wheels and the starter bottle of engine oil you'll find with many portable models. One feature you give up is electric starting (you'll need to pull a cord, as you would with many lawn mowers), and this model is noisier than the Ridgid. But it’s still a great value. See our generator Ratings for more top picks.

    Snow blowers

    A novel, second impeller in the front helps make the 30-inch, two-stage Cub Cadet 3X 30HD 31AH57SZ710, $1,650, a top performer. Super-fast clearing and enough throwing distance to clear wide driveways are the major perks, along with easy steering and slick controls. The price includes electric starting and a headlight. It's the perfect pick for large driveways, consistently heavy snows up to about 24 inches—or occasional winter dumpings where the recipient wants the ultimate in clearing speed.

    For less snow or where you typically have more time to clear snow, the 24-inch, compact two-stage Craftsman 88173, $680, has impressively quick and clean removal with the necessary muscle for dense plow piles. Other models, though, got more distance with what they picked up. Features include an overhead-valve engine that should start easily and run efficiently when properly maintained, along with electric start and multiple speeds. On the minus side, it lacks single-hand controls (which let the operator hold down both control levers with one hand), a single-lever chute adjustment, and freewheel steering (so turning requires more muscle). Noise is below the 85-decibel level at which we recommend hearing protection, though that's still a smart precaution.

    And for those who rarely get more than about a foot of snow at a time, the single-stage, gas-powered Toro Power Clear 721E, $570, outdid all others in this category. The Toro was the only single-stage gas model to make short work of our test plow pile, and its removal speed was impressive, too. Another plus: As with most other models of its class, it cleared down to the surface and was easy to handle. For more snow blower picks, see our full snow blower Ratings.

    Chain saws

    Ultrafast cutting and relatively lightweight help justify the higher price of the 16-inch, gas-powered Stihl MS 180 C-BE, $230. So do a chain brake and tool-free chain adjustment, along with a durable blade cover. As with other gas-powered saws, it requires a mix of gas and oil for fueling its two-stroke engine. We strongly advise hearing protection and other protective gear for the operator.

    For lighter duty in a machine that needs no engine maintenance, the plug-in electric Worx WG303.1, $100, was faster and better balanced than its larger 18-inch sibling, the Worx WG304.1, despite having a shorter bar. Indeed, cutting speed was on a par with the fastest light-duty gas saws we tested. Other pluses include a chain brake, tool-free chain adjustment, and a durable bar cover for safe storage. But as with other plug-in saws, the operator will need to work within 100 feet of an outlet—and you'll need a generator to use when the power is out. One caveat: There's no vibration dampening. We advise hearing protection and other protective gear for the operator. Need more picks? See our full chain saw Ratings.

    Leaf blowers

    The Echo PB-255LN, $200, doesn't come cheap, but this gasoline-powered handheld blower gets the job done with lots of sweeping power for big leaf piles and enough loosening oomph for embedded leaves. There's spring-assisted starting and a five-year warranty. The Echo was also very easy to handle. If the neighbors’ peace and quiet are a consideration, note that this blower was fairly quiet from 50 feet away—the model name's "LN" stands for low noise. (We still recommend hearing protection for the operator.) But since the engine is two-cycle, it requires a mix of gas and oil for fueling.

    Prefer to give a powerful blower with no maintenance? This Ratings champ among corded-electric handhelds, the $75 Toro Ultra Blower Vac 51609, had superb sweeping and vacuuming and impressive loosening of embedded leaves and other debris. The powerful unit was nevertheless easy to handle and use, and neighbors hearing it from a distance shouldn't have much to complain about. We still, however, recommend hearing protection for the operator. Check out our full leaf-blower Ratings for more choices.

    String trimmers

    Anyone thinking about a string trimmer as a gift might find one more easily online in many parts of the country. For a top choice in a gas-powered model, consider the curved-shaft Stihl FS 38, $130. It’s relatively light (10.5 pounds) and easy to handle, yet it was superb at regular trimming and edging along with tall grass. Controls proved easy to use. And like most trimmers, this one has two trimming lines.

    Choose the straight-shaft Green Works 21142, $90, if you want the easy starts and low maintenance of an electric, and the trimming needs would fit within the 100-foot limit of a power cord. Pluses include trimming, edging, and tall-grass performance on a par with some lighter-duty gas trimmers, along with the two lines most trimmers have. We also liked this unit's good balance and bump head. For a corded electric trimmer, this one is on the heavy side at 9.7 pounds; you'll find much lighter, though lesser-performing, models in this category. See our full string trimmer Ratings for details.

    Need more guidance? Read our buying guides for generators, snow blowers, chain saws, leaf blowers, and string trimmers before venturing forth into that holiday shopping jungle. One bit of good news: Models sold at dealerships might be easier to shop for, with more sales help than you're likely to get this time of year in a home center or department store.

    —Ed Perratore (@EdPerratore on Twitter)

    Holiday Planning & Shopping Guide

    Check Consumer Reports' 2015 Holiday Guide for our picks of the best gifts, details on the latest deals, time-saving tips, and much more. And see our countdown calendar for top gift ideas for everyone on your list.

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

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  • 11/20/15--05:00: When Gifts Go Bad
  • When Gifts Go Bad

     Most gifts are given with the best intentions. And of course it’s bad manners to be ungrateful. But if the holiday present from your mother-in-law is a gift certificate for six months of weekly house-cleaning services, should you feel paranoid—or maybe even insulted?

    Just remember to consider the context. If she does that after visiting your new house for the first time, you’re probably right that’s she’s pegged you as a slob. But if the gift arrives shortly after you’ve given birth to twins, it’s probably a thoughtful gesture.

    Holiday gifts can say a lot—even unwittingly—about the relationship between the gifter and the giftee, says Elizabeth Dunn, Ph.D. a psychology professor at the University of British Columbia who has done research on the emotional effects of gift giving. A box of chocolates, for example, could be just a standard-issue gift. Or, if it’s given by your notoriously jealous sister, who knows you’ve just dropped 25 pounds, it actually may be a passive-aggressive act.

    So does that mean you should never buy someone a gift that could be construed as controversial? No, but make sure your sensitivity antenna are way up, says Jodi R.R. Smith, president of the etiquette consulting firm Mannersmith. For example, if your partner has been saying that he or she wants to get an activity tracker as part of a plan to exercise more and lose a few pounds, consider getting a pair of matching Fitbits with the stated goal of exercising together, Smith suggests. That also sends the message that you’d enjoy spending more time together.

    But there are some items that are too emotionally charged to ever be received graciously, according to Kit Yarrow, a consumer psychologist. “Buying gifts like an acne-treatment kit, tummy-control undergarments, or books on parenting advice may be well-intentioned, but just don’t do it,” she says. “Especially during the holidays, when people really don’t want to be reminded about the red bumps on their faces, their large behinds, or their shortcomings as parents.”

    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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    What to Pack in a Car Emergency Kit for Your Holiday Road Trips

    Winter holiday plans often involve abundant road travel—whether it's multiple gift-shopping expeditions to the mall or piling the clan into the family car for the annual road trip to visit Grandma. 

    If you're going to be one of those hitting the crowded highways and byways this holiday season, do yourself a favor and have a well-stocked emergency kit. Even if it seems like your travels are through busy, civilized areas, inclement weather and ensuing accidents can cause traffic to grind to a halt, making many of these emergency items helpful.

    Checklist: Car Emergency Kit Basics

    While properly preparing your car for holiday road trips will minimize the risk of mechanical troubles during your journey, various roadside emergencies—from punctured tires to collisions to passenger illness—can happen at any time.

    Our guide of what to carry in your car's roadside emergency kit contains an extensive list of items to have on hand to help manage almost any emergency while traveling in a car.

    Here's a short checklist of the basic items every car should always have:

    • Cell phone. You can't call for help without a phone. And a mobile charger will help too since areas with weak cellular reception can kill your phone's battery.
    • First-aid kit. Pack basic non-prescription drugs in your emergency medical kit, such as pain killers to handle holiday shopping headaches.
    • Fire extinguisher. A compact dry powder unit that's labeled "1A10BC" or "2A10BC" can handle fires fueled by solids (plastic, rubber, paper, etc.) as well as by combustible liquids and gases.
    • Warning light, hazard triangle, or flares. Give motorists the heads-up that you're stuck at the side of the road.
    • Jack and lug wrench, foam tire sealant or a portable compressor and plug kit. Most newer model cars don't have spare tires anymore, so make sure you know how to use the car's included "mobility kit"—and how to reach roadside assistance if you have a severe flat tire.
    • Jumper cables or a portable battery booster. New, "mini-jumpers" can start your car as well as provide back-up power for your smartphone, tablet, GPS navigation unit, or other portable electronic device.
    • Flashlight. Remember, you have fewer hours of daylight in most parts of the country during the fall and winter seasons. A head-mounted light can be especially helpful during tire changes.

    Car Emergency Kit Items for Winter Road Trips

    For long-distance road travel in the fall and winter months, consider adding these additional items to your roadside safety kit. Drivers will find them especially useful in dealing with car emergencies during road trips through the cold and dark.

    • Windshield scraper. Good visibility is your most important safety item, but persistent snow and ice can build up quickly and make it hard to see. A long-handled, soft-bristled brush can also come in handy. Be sure to do the heavy clearing with a tool, rather than the windshield wipers.
    • Tire chains and tow strap. Familiarize yourself with how to put the chains on your vehicle's tires or attach a tow strap before you need to do it in cold and possibly dark conditions.
    • Blanket, extra layers, winter hat. If you run out of fuel or if your battery dies, the vehicle won't be able to provide heat. A blanket, extra layer (like a sweatshirt or fleece) and hat can help keep you warm if you have to wait for a long time in cold conditions.
    • Chemical hand warmers. These small, inexpensive packets are available at ski shops and sporting-goods stores.
    • Water and nonperishable emergency food. Bring enough food and water to sustain you and any passengers for at least a meal—longer for remote areas or in extreme cold regions.
    • Small folding shovel. If you get stuck in snow, this can be a vital tool. A folding camping-style shovel will require more digging effort than a longer-handled shovel, but it is more convenient to store in the vehicle.
    • Bag of cat litter. Spreading the litter around your tires might provide extra grip to help you get unstuck from slippery embankments. Plus the added weight in the trunk might give a bit more traction with a rear-drive car.
    • Reflective safety vest. These can fit over your warm, oversized winter coat, yet still allow you to be seen up to 300 feet away.

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

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  • 11/23/15--03:00: 2015 Naughty & Nice List
  • 2015 Naughty & Nice List

    While Consumer Reports consistently puts products to the test, we have also developed an annual tradition where we scrutinize the policies, practices, and behavior of the companies that make and sell the goods and provide the services you use every day.

    The release of our sixth annual Naughty & Nice List of not-so-friendly and consumer-friendly policies by well-known businesses, including automakers, banks, restaurants, and retailers, is timed to coincide with Black Friday and the upcoming holiday season, when spending is in the spotlight. (Check out the Naughty & Nice lists from 2014201320122011, and 2010.)

    Whether you’re flying or buying, shoppers are particularly vulnerable during the high-octane holiday season. So there’s no better time to be vigilant about how—and with which companies—we choose to spend our shopping dollars. 

    This year, we took companies to the woodshed for gouging, annoying fees, and sneaky marketing practices. Conversely, we lauded others for transparency, generosity, and stand-up behavior that improves and enhances health, safety, and the overall quality of life.

    The list, based on input from Consumer Reports experts and presented in alphabetical order, is neither an endorsement nor criticism of an overall company. In other words, we’re not rating the firms themselves. Rather, it’s praise or condemnation of a specific policy or practice that we believe helps or hinders consumers.

    Naughty

    Allegiant Air
    Few industries rile customers more than air travel because of all the nickel-and-diming. But we couldn’t help but notice some of the extras imposed by the Las Vegas-based discount carrier that advertises “low-low fares.” They include (per one-way segment): A 3.2 percent processing fee ($8 max) for purchasing your ticket with a credit card; a $13 “Electronic Carrier Usage Charge” tacked onto each ticket bought outside of an airport ticket office; an additional $14.99 fee for tickets booked through the airline’s call center; up to $80 for a seat assignment; $5 for a printed boarding pass; $14.99 to $35 per first and second checked bag if you pay when you buy your ticket, $50 to $75 if you wait until you arrive at the airport. Similarly, you’ll pay around $15 to $20 to take a carry-on aboard if you pay in advance, $45 if you do so at the airport. (Find out which airline to fly.)

    Citibank
    The financial giant engaged in deceptive marketing and unfair billing for credit-card add-on products and services from at least 2000 through 2013. The federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau ordered Citibank to pay an estimated $700 million to millions of consumers harmed by myriad illegal practices as well as $35 million in civil penalties. They include: misrepresenting costs, fees, and benefits of some products; enrolling consumers in services without their consent; misrepresenting or omitting information about eligibility for coverage; and charging for benefits consumers never received.

    Citizens Bank
    The bank has agreed to pay fines of $20.5 million to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and other federal authorities for failing to fully credit customer accounts for certain deposit discrepancies stemming from bank errors—either misreading a deposit slip or another gaffe. At the time, the bank, which operates branches in about a dozen states, required its customers making a deposit to fill out a slip listing the checks or cash being deposited, and the total amount. The customer then turned the deposit slip over to a teller and got a receipt. An investigation, however, showed that for more than five years, Citizens Bank ignored discrepancies when the scanner misread the deposit slip or the checks, or if the total on the deposit slip did not equal the total of the actual checks. Instead, the bank pocketed the difference, shorting consumers millions of dollars.

    Costco
    The warehouse club is facing a jury trial for trademark infringement for selling “counterfeit” Tiffany diamond engagement rings. In September, a federal judge in New York agreed with the luxury jeweler’s claim that Costco confused customers by using the word “Tiffany” in display-case signage. In doing so, the court rejected Costco’s argument that "Tiffany" was a generic description for a type of ring setting. A jury trial has been scheduled for early next year. Costco has filed an appeal. Tiffany originally filed suit on Valentine’s Day 2013, claiming hundreds, possibly thousands, of Costco members bought rings they thought were genuine Tiffany baubles.

    FedEx and UPS
    Why is it that companies continue to impose fuel surcharges even when prices are relatively low? According to the industry publication TruckingInfo.com, the price of diesel won’t rise markedly until next year and even then, the increase is expected to average well below that recorded in 2014. Yet the two shipping titans continue to add fees, based on U.S. Energy Information Administration averages. For November, FedEx adds a 4.25 percent surcharge for ground shipping services; the add-on at UPS is 5.25 percent. Both carriers already include a surcharge for residential home delivery.

    LifeLock
    The company has once again been accused of misleading consumers. The Federal Trade Commission says LifeLock violated a 2010 settlement with the agency and 35 state attorneys general by continuing to make deceptive claims about its identity theft protection services, and by failing to take steps required to protect its users’ data. Specifically, the FTC says it caught LifeLock "falsely advertising" that it protected consumers’ sensitive data with the same high-level safeguards as financial institutions; failing to establish and maintain a comprehensive information security program to protect users’ credit card, Social Security, and bank account data; and falsely claiming that it protected consumers’ identity 24/7/365 by providing alerts “as soon as” it received an indication there was a problem. In late October, LifeLock announced that it had reached an agreement (which is awaiting final approval) with the FTC to settle charges as they relate to its “past marketing representations and information security programs” and has set aside $116 million “for this matter.”

    Sprint and Verizon
    The companies billed customers for millions in unauthorized third-party premium text messaging services, a fraudulent practice called “cramming.” As a result, the companies were ordered to pay $158 million in penalties and restitution (Verizon's share is $90 million; Sprint's is $68 million). “For too long, consumers have been charged on their phone bills for things they did not buy,” said FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler. “Consumers rightfully expect their monthly phone bills will reflect only those services that they’ve purchased,” added Travis LeBlanc, chief of the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau. These two latest cramming cases bring to 19 the total number of enforcement actions brought against various companies since January 2014. Under the terms of the agreement with Verizon, the $90 million settlement will include a minimum of $70 million to fund a consumer-redress program, $16 million for state governments participating in the settlement, and $4 million as a fine paid to the U.S. Treasury. Sprint’s $68 million settlement will include a minimum of $50 million to fund a consumer-redress program, $12 million for state governments participating in the settlement, and $6 million as a fine paid to the U.S. Treasury. (See our review of cell phone carriers.)

    Tom’s of Maine
    The company made a name for itself by touting its use of only natural ingredients in its toothpaste, deodorant, lotions, sunscreen, and other products. But plaintiffs in a class action accused Tom’s of being less than pure. Earlier this year, the company, without admitting wrongdoing, agreed to create a $4.5 million fund to help settle claims that it mislabeled personal care and beauty products as natural when they allegedly contained chemical ingredients including the sweetener xylitol and cleaner sodium lauryl sulfate. As part of the preliminary settlement, which covers purchases between March 25, 2009, and September 23, 2015, consumers can claim a $4 refund on up to seven Tom’s products (without a receipt); the company also agreed to provide enhanced disclosure on its website about the ingredients it uses, and better define how it defines terms like “natural,” “sustainable,” and “responsible.” A hearing in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida is scheduled for late January to decide whether the settlement is reasonable and adequate.

    Turing Pharmaceuticals
    The biotech startup created a firestorm over drug pricing when its 32-year-old founder and CEO, Martin Shkreli, a former health industry hedge-fund manager, purchased the prescription drug Daraprim (generically known as pyrimethamine) in August from Impax Laboratories and increased the price by more than 5,000 percent at hospital pharmacies, from $13.50 to $750 a tablet. Daraprim is an old drug primarily used to treat potentially life-threatening parasitic infections such as toxoplasmosis in people with compromised immune systems, including HIV and AIDS patients and those suffering from certain cancers. Now Congress is demanding an explanation. A committee is looking into the staggering price hike, and in a letter to the firm’s chief executive, legislators say there’s "no justification for an increase of this magnitude for a medication approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 1953." Responding to the swell of negative publicity, Turing, which has been in business less than a year, changed its tune. In mid-October the company announced what it termed “improvements” in “accessibility and affordability" to the medication. We'll be following developments carefully. (Check the Consumer Reports' Best Buy Drugs guide.)

    Volkswagen
    The German automaker is accused of circumventing the emissions control system in more than half a million diesel vehicles sold in the United States. Following notice by the EPA in September 2015, the company admitted that it cheated by installing software that enabled four-cylinder diesel vehicles, including Beetles, Golfs, Jettas, and Passats, and the Audi A3, to pass emission tests while emitting up to 40 times the permissible U.S. levels of nitrogen oxides in the real world. In November 2015, the EPA cited six 2014-2016 models fitted with 3.0-liter V6 diesel engines from Audi, Porsche, and Volkswagen, all owned by Volkswagen AG, as not complying with emissions regulations. The situation continues to worsen, with Volkswagen telling the EPA that the issues with the 3.0-liter V6 diesel engine impacts model years 2009 through 2016. As investigations continue, Audi, Porsche, and Volkswagen diesel-car owners await corrective measures. (Check our guide to the Volkswagen emissions recall.)

    Whole Foods
    The grocery chain, known for its social responsibility, was caught twice overcharging customers—by selling products with the weight incorrectly labeled. In June, the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs released the results of its investigation that revealed that Whole Foods routinely overcharged customers by overstating the contents of prepackaged foods. The discrepancies resulted in overcharges of 80 cents to nearly $15 per package. In addition, the Department of Consumer Affairs said that 89 percent of the packages it reweighed failed to meet the federal standard for the maximum amount that a package can deviate from the actual weight. Earlier, Whole Foods and attorneys in several California cities settled charges of widespread pricing violations that included: Failure to deduct the “tare” weight of containers when ringing up charges for self-serve foods at the salad bar and hot bar; giving less weight than the amount stated on the label for packaged items sold by the pound; and selling items such as kebabs and other prepared deli foods by the piece, instead of by the pound as required by law. The chain agreed to pay close to $800,000 in penalties and implement a strict in-house pricing-accuracy program.

    Nice

    Brinkmann and Home Depot
    When you buy a gas grill you expect it to work and work safely. When it doesn’t, you have to hope that the problem will be quickly resolved. That’s exactly what these two companies did when Consumer Reports testing uncovered a safety issue with a Brinkmann grill and gave it a Do Not Buy designation last spring. While Brinkmann challenged the existence of a safety threat, the company nevertheless made available an easy-to-install, do-it-yourself fix for grill owners. Meanwhile, Home Depot, which sold the vast majority of the grills, put a freeze on its sale—the stores’ checkout systems wouldn’t allow a purchase transaction at the register. The grills were fitted with the new part that solved the problem, and soon were made available for sale. We bought and tested the revamped grill, then removed the Do Not Buy designation.

    California Health Insurance Exchange
    Shopping for health insurance can be overwhelming. But Covered California, the state’s Health Exchange, has eliminated much of the confusion because it allows for simple at-a-glance comparisons among all plans within the various “metal” tiers—Platinum, Gold, Silver, and Bronze—created as part of the Affordable Care Act. While the Affordable Care Act established plans that differ in generosity of benefits—the top tier being Platinum, which typically carries higher monthly premiums but lower co-pays, the lowest being Bronze—it did not require consumer cost sharing within those tiers to be identical. Covered California chose to standardize cost-sharing within each tier. For example, all Bronze plans on the Exchange have the same out of pocket costs for particular services whether you select one from Blue Cross, Kaiser, Blue Shield of California or Health Net. In any Bronze Plan, there is no charge for preventive care, and your first three doctor visits (primary or specialty) are $70 per visit without having to satisfy the big deductible. “For too long, benefit designs have been nightmares of confusion and all too often barriers to consumers getting needed care,” Covered California’s executive director Peter Lee told Consumer Reports. “These standard designs not only promote true apples-to-apples comparisons when consumers are shopping, they also make sure there are no ‘gotchas’ like not being able to get to a primary care doctor because of a surprise deductible.” (Read more about California Health Compare.)

    Chipotle Mexican Grill and Panera Bread
    These fast-food restaurant chains were the only ones to publicly affirm that the majority of their meat and poultry offered is produced without routine use of antibiotics. (The overuse of antibiotics contributes to the problem of antibiotic resistance.) In addition, the prevalence of antibiotic misuse and overuse in U.S. meat production reflects a broader tendency of poor farm management and animal welfare practices in industrial U.S. meat production. Eliminating unnecessary uses of these antibiotics by the meat industry is an important step towards creating a healthier food system, according to Consumer Reports advocates. Subway, which has more restaurants than any other chain, also recently announced its plan to eliminate antibiotic use in its entire meat supply. Subway says all of its chicken products will be antibiotic free by the end of next year. It will take until 2025 for all of its beef and pork to complete the transition, the company said. (Check our food safety guide.)

    CVS
    The drugstore chain already boasts almost 1,000 walk-in medical clinics and plans to expand its wellness commitment this fall to include hearing centers in some stores in the Dallas and Cleveland markets, and professional optical services (exams, contacts, and glasses) at select locations in the Baltimore and Washington, D.C., areas. Free audiology services will include in-store hearing loss screenings and hearing-aid checks and cleanings. All prescription glasses come with a 90-day total-satisfaction guarantee, and can be returned for any reason for a full refund. Glasses purchased for children 14 and under will be covered by a one-year guarantee that provides free replacement for pairs that are lost, damaged, or broken. Will the services eventually expand to all 7,800 CVS pharmacies? “We will use learnings from these locations to determine how we can continue to serve our customers and help them on their path to better health in innovative ways,” said spokeswoman Stephanie Cunha.

    There is one area where CVS can improve in the wellness space. We found in a recent retail drug pricing analysis of five common generic prescription drugs that three big drugstores, including CVS, charged more for the combination of those five drugs together than did some independent pharmacies, an online retailer, supermarkets, and national chains.

    Dish Network
    The pay-television service unveiled a helpful online appointment tool called My Tech that allows customers to receive personalized information about their service appointment including the name and a photo of the technician, and his or her proximity to your home. “We recognize that people want control of their own time and Dish’s My Tech tool helps them get on with their day without waiting on the TV guy,” said Erik Carlson, executive vice president of operations. “A minute-by-minute countdown and interactive map allow the customer to track their Dish technician to determine when to leave work or if they have time to run to the store.” My Tech is available on mydish.com to all customers with a scheduled service appointment.

    Dr. Martens
    You’ve got to love a product with an honest-to-goodness lifetime guarantee. Dr. Martens, the venerable British footwear maker, has a line of products guaranteed for life, meaning for as long as you live, the company will repair any component subjected to normal wear and tear—upper leather, stitched seams, eyelets, soles, welt, linings, and reinforcements. “With a little help from you, these boots and shoes will give you years of wear,” the company says. “Even so, they will eventually wear out. When they do, we will repair or replace them. We will go on repairing or replacing them for the rest of your life—guaranteed.”

    JetBlue
    Paying for Internet connectivity on a flight can break the bank. But not with JetBlue. The carrier’s Fly-Fi service offers free broadband in the sky, available on most aircraft, that allows travelers to browse the Internet, surf websites, stream video, and scan social media. Fly-Fi+ is an upgrade ($9 per hour) that will additionally allow large file transfers, the ability to play online games, download audio and video, and access VPN and cloud storage. (Check out where JetBlue landed in our latest review of airlines.)

    Nomorobo
    More than 200 million Americans have signed up for the federal Do Not Call list, but many continue to be harangued by the incessant, annoying and, often, illegal, robocalls. Enter Nomorobo, a winner of the FTC Robocall challenge. Nomorobo, which has blocked more than 40 million robocalls, is a cloud-based app that analyzes caller IDs and automatically disconnects suspicious calls. It’s free and is available to many consumers who use Internet-based VoIP service. The goal is to eventually include Nomorobo into all phone lines. (Read our report, "Rage Against Robocalls.")

    Procter & Gamble
    Since 2012, thousands of children have been injured or sickened after ingesting or coming into contact with those tasty-looking laundry detergent packets or pods. Roughly 12,000 of the 2.2 million calls to poison control centers every year are related to laundry packs. The hazard is so troubling that Consumer Reports, which has been lobbying manufacturers since September 2012 to make pods safer, will not include pods on our list of recommended detergents until we see that the injury rate declines meaningfully. We are encouraged by recent developments achieved through a voluntary industry standards-setting committee, which was co-led by Procter & Gamble, maker of Tide, Gain, and Ariel pods, and included Consumer Reports. P&G's brands represent 80 percent of total category sales. Thanks to the new standards, P&G and other manufacturers are putting new safeguards in place that are based on what the European Commission enacted in June. They include: applying a bitter tasting substance to the outer layer, making the packet stronger to resist a child’s squeezing, and designing the packet in such a way that the release of liquid is delayed long enough to give a child the chance to spit out the packet. These are safety improvements we can get behind, and we are hopeful that they will reduce injuries. Next steps: Consumer Reports is co-chairing a committee with P&G as part of the standard-setting process to ensure that all stakeholders have access to real-time data on injuries, so we can see if the changes have gone far enough to assure public safety. (Learn more about laundry detergent pods.)

    PwC (PricewaterhouseCoopers)
    The global business consulting firm introduced a new employee benefit that will pay $1,200 a year to staffers with one to six years of work experience to help reduce their student loan obligations by as much as $10,000, and shorten loan payoff periods by up to three years. The new benefit will be available to approximately 22,000 of PwC’s U.S. employees, more than 45 percent of its entire domestic workforce. “Seventy-one percent of students are now graduating with college loans with an average loan balance of $35,000,” said Tom Codd, vice chairman, US Human Capital Leader, PwC. “As a firm that recruits more than 11,000 new hires off campus each year, this is an opportunity to differentiate ourselves with a key talent group—millennials—and provide a meaningful way to help reduce their debt.”

    Southwest
    Kudos to Southwest for providing the most frequent-flyer award program trips of any big airline, according to a recent Consumer Reports analysis of millions of passenger trips for the fiscal year ended September 2014: 11.9 million, or 11.5 percent of total passenger seats. The Dallas-based carrier also did some Texas-sized butt-kicking of rivals by providing the highest percentage of award-seat availability on 72 percent of the 25 most popular U.S. award routes. “The most frequent pain point for consumers is having all these miles they can’t use,” Jonathan Clarkson, director of Southwest’s Rapid Rewards program, told us. “We don’t hear that much around here.” He said the airline’s high availability of rewards is possible because it has fewer restrictions. “Every seat is available as an award seat, even the last seat on the day before Thanksgiving.” (Check our ultimate frequent-flyer guide and see how Southwest fared in our airline Ratings.)

    Target
    The retailer has enacted several policy revisions that benefit consumers. The chain (and its website) expanded its price-match policy to include all major in-store and online competitors, including warehouse clubs, Amazon, and Walmart, and dozens more, and doubled (to 14 days) the timeframe to seek a price adjustment. Target also revised its policy earlier this year on shipping, lowering the purchase minimum to $25, from $50, required for free year-round shipping on online orders. Walmart still has a $50 minimum. In addition, the chain has extended the return period for all Gift Registry items from 90 days to one year from the guest-designated event date. Guests can return most new, unopened items at any Target store using a gift receipt or their Gifts Purchased List.

    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 a Clogged Sink Ruin Your Thanksgiving

    It’s no coincidence that garbage disposals often break on Thanksgiving Day—or that the day after is Roto-Rooter’s busiest of the year. Poultry skin, potato peels, rice, celery, fats, and pumpkin pulp are clog culprits; it’s better to toss them in the garbage or compost what you can.

    Liquid grease solidifies when it cools, coating and clogging pipes. Collect grease in a jar and throw it away. In most cases if the disposal is broken and clogged, the sink won’t drain easily. So reach for a small hand-crank plumbing snake to push debris into the branch drain line, or try a plunger (accordion-style ones worked best in Consumer Reports' past tests). Cans of pressurized gas, sold at home centers and online, worked even better.

    For a double sink, put a drain cover over the drain you’re not plunging to allow the pressure you’re creating to work. Drain cleaner should be the last resort, and if it doesn’t do the trick, let a plumber know that it’s in the line so that he can protect himself against its caustic lye.

    To avoid hanging out with your plumber this holiday weekend consider these clog-preventing tips from Roto-Rooter.

    • Don't put fats or cooking oils down drains.
    • Do remove grease from pans with paper towels then toss.
    • Don't put stringy, fibrous, or starchy waste in your garbage disposal.
    • Do make sure the disposal is running when you toss in food.
    • Don't wait until disposal is full to use it.
    • Do ask weekend guests to wait 10 minutes between showers so slower drains have time to drain.
    • Don't flush cotton balls or swabs down the toilet. They cause clogs since they don't dissolve.

    And always ask your plumber if there's an extra holiday service fee. If you need a new garbage disposal, check our Ratings. Our past tests found some standouts. And in our toilet tests, we found some excellent models that resist clogging and still save water.

    —Kimberly Janeway

    Holiday Planning & Shopping Guide

    Check Consumer Reports' 2015 Holiday Guide for our picks of the best gifts, details on the latest deals, time-saving tips, and much more. And see our countdown calendar for top gift ideas for everyone on your list.

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

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