Best & Worst of 2014

Best & Worst of 2014

Highlights and lowlights of the year

Published: September 2014

What a year it’s been. Super viruses invading our computers. TVs getting bigger, and smart phones getting smarter. Cool cars on the road—yoo-hoo Tesla!—and nasty stuff in our chicken (ugh, salmonella). We have lightbulbs that last longer than many marriages, and retailers who treat us like real human beings.

Electronics

Photo: Andrew B. Myers/Apostrophe

Smartest smart phone

Samsung Galaxy S phones have historically been among our higher-rated models. The Samsung Galaxy S 5, the company's latest flagship phone, has an excellent 5.1-inch display and a very good 15.9-megapixel camera. It’s built to survive a 30-minute dunk in 3 feet of water and gets excellent marks for messaging and Web browsing.

Scariest security failure

That would be the Heartbleed bug. On April 7 researchers discovered that one of the most widely used security protocols on the Web had been leaky for more than two years and that 66 percent of the active sites on the Internet could have been affected. The bug let hackers steal users’ passwords and other data; it was implicated in a hospital hack.

Most wonderful wireless speaker

Sonos, which pretty much pioneered the wireless, multiroom audio category, offers the Sonos Play series of speakers, which can be controlled over your existing Wi-Fi network using your computer, smart phone, or tablet. All speakers in the series can be used alone or combined with other Sonos speakers, in some cases to form a multichannel home-theater configuration.

Top tablet for type A personalities

The Samsung Galaxy Note Pro 12.2 is Samsung’s best argument for the tablet-as-productivity-device. This large slab of Android 4.4 goodness has a 2560x1600-pixel display that rivals high-end laptops in size and resolution. It has a multiwindow multitasking mode and comes preloaded with an Office-like productivity suite.

Best TV, even at $3,800

Yes, the Sony Bravia XBR-65X900B’s price can be heartstopping—but so can its super-detailed Ultra HD picture, with four times the resolution of 1080p sets. The 65-inch Bravia sports a stylish, angled design and has access to Netflix and other streaming services. And it has excellent sound. Another likely star: the LG 55EC9300, $3,500, still being tested. OLED sets like this one could have even better picture quality.

Worst thing to happen to the Internet since spam: Net Neutrality goes off a cliff

In January, a federal court threw out the Federal Communications Commission’s Open Internet rules, which were designed to stop service providers from blocking or discriminating against Web content. Instead of finally bringing clarity to the debate over net neutrality, the court simply eliminated the concept altogether. Now the FCC is scrambling to rewrite its rules, with plenty of big-business-friendly caveats.

Most powerful point-and-shoot camera

The 13.1-megapixel Canon PowerShot G1 X Mark II not only outscored all of the other cameras in its category for image quality and video, it also outscored all of the SLR cameras in our Ratings. It has built-in wireless capabilities and an excellent swiveling LCD touch screen.

Fastest evolution

The smart watch, a device category that barely existed at the beginning of 2013, is already in its third generation in 2014, with almost every big tech company either introducing or planning to introduce models.  The third-generation Samsung Gear Live launched in June, and the company has already announced another new one, the Gear S. And Apple will finally enter the smart watch arena: The Apple Watch goes on sale in early 2015.

Best reason to call an $1,800 camcorder a bargain

Sure, you can get an HD camcorder for less than $300 these days, but capturing video in the emerging world of Ultra HD is a pricier proposition. And for the uncompromising video auteur, the Sony FDR-AX100 is worth every penny, with incredible sharpness and detail, and a wealth of features, including an electronic viewfinder and large LCD. Not ready for 4K video? You can spend a lot less and get the Panasonic HC-V750, which at $600 is a CR Best Buy.

Best category shake-up

With the Amazon fireTV, the online retailing giant continued its push into established product lines through the sheer force of its brand to compete with the Apple TV and Roku. The fireTV has fast operation, games, and a kids area that lets parents set viewing limits. It adds voice search, so instead of fumbling with a remote, just hit the button and say the name of the title, actor, or director.

A true boob tube

Cheap? Yes. Big? Sure. Beautiful? Not so much. The RCA LED65G55R120Q is a 65-inch 1080p LCD TV, costing $950. But it’s among the worst TVs we’ve tested this year for picture quality. Objects onscreen appeared almost cartoonlike, with very harsh edges; the background in some scenes looked streaky. And the sound quality was below average.

Cars

Photo: Andrew B. Myers/Apostrophe

Best car of the future—now!

The electric-powered Tesla Model S is a dual winner. It earned the highest score—99—of any car we’ve ever tested, and it aced our owner-satisfaction-survey ratings. This innovative luxury vehicle blends a comfortable ride with leading-edge technology and design, blistering acceleration, razor-sharp handling, and a practical 225-mile driving range.

Best small car

Redesigned for 2014, the eye-catching Mazda3 delivers on several fronts. Agile handling and precise steering make it fun to drive. Its excellent fuel economy—33 mpg overall for the sedan and 32 for the hatchback—is the best of any non-hybrid/diesel compact car. Plus, it’s loaded with advanced safety features and has earned top-notch crash-test scores—all at an affordable price of $21,740 for the Touring sedan we tested.

Best roomy and affordable SUV

The Subaru Forester succeeds in a competitive class by sticking to the basics. It boasts space-efficient design, easy access, one of the roomiest rear seats in the category, and a class-leading 26 mpg overall. You can add to that an affordable price—our Forester cost $26,814—and excellent reliability. It’s the whole package!

Best-of-both-worlds hybrid

Even as hybrids and electric cars proliferate, none has yet to match the blend of affordability, practicality, and fuel efficiency of the Toyota Prius. Its 44 mpg overall is the best we’ve measured in any five-passenger, non-plug-in vehicle. Its roomy interior and hatchback design make it family-friendly. And its great resale value and excellent reliability helped it earn the top spot in our new-car value ratings.

Best 'you’ve-made-it, you-deserve-it' ride

When you’re ready for a no-compromise driving experience, the Mercedes-Benz S550 is a logical—and blissfully emotional—choice. It pampers you with an extremely hushed cabin, effortless power, and the most comfortable ride of any car we’ve tested. It also pushes the envelope with state-of-the-art electronic safety features. Only the six-figure price intrudes on the tranquillity.

Best cure for a midlife crisis

But don’t wait for middle age to experience the BMW M235i. This sport coupe’s potent 320-hp turbocharged engine delivers smooth, punchy performance and a commendable 25 mpg overall, as well as a satisfying exhaust snarl. Handling is crisp. The manual shifter is a delight. And the M’s screaming-red leather in the model we tested perfectly fit the car’s in-your-face personality.

Best lifesaving legislation

The Department of Transportation’s new federal rear-visibility standards, which require backup cameras in all new light-duty vehicles by 2018, will avert many heart-wrenching tragedies. A study by the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute found that almost 300 people are killed and 18,000 injured in backover accidents every year. Consumers Union, which long urged the DOT to pass the standards, considers backup cameras a must-have feature for all drivers.

Worst corporate black eye

GM’s delayed response to faulty ignition switches should be a warning to all automakers. The initial lack of action led to 13 deaths and the recall of millions of vehicles. A 2005 technical service bulletin shows GM knew about this serious safety problem long before reaching out to car owners to correct it. The issue has also damaged GM’s image at a time when the company had finally gotten on the right track with its current models.

Worst design idea

More and more automakers are using fussy, frustrating touch-sensitive controls for audio and climate functions in place of easy-to-use buttons and knobs. Many systems don’t always respond as expected. And the ones that make you slide your finger to change a setting, such as Cadillac’s CUE, can be particularly difficult to use in a moving vehicle.

Best trim touchup

Chrome is out and dark plastic trim is in on more vehicles—but it can fade and turn chalky over time. The solution: Spruce it up with special cleaners that restore lost luster. The two top ones in our tests were ReNu Finish and Wipe New, far outlasting others in our 10-week test. (Read the full trim cleaner report.)

Home & Appliances

Photo: Andrew B. Myers/Apostrophe

Best reason to get out of bed in the morning

Traditional French presses immerse coffee grounds in hot water, then use a manual plunger that traps grounds for pouring. The Remington iCoffee RCB100-BC12, which costs $150, automates the process and minimizes the fuss. Plus, it’s easy to use.

Best big fridge

Pricey, true, but the four-door French-door, Samsung Chef Collection, $5,400, has the most usable capacity of any model on the market (23.4 cubic feet)—and performs like a dream.

Best big chill with a smaller price tag

You can keep your cool for less. At $1,700, the Kenmore 71603 was the highest-scoring CR Best Buy among conventional, three-door French-door refrigerators (two top doors and a single bottom freezer door). Though not nearly as spacious as the Samsung, we rated it Excellent overall, with superb temperature evenness, efficiency, and quietness.

Best washday miracle

Here’s one when you’re washing for a crowd. The LG WM8500HVA front-loader washer, $1,600, has a 5.2-cubic-foot drum—among the largest-capacity models sold. In our tests it performed superbly. The washer was at the top of our scores for front-loaders—including in washing and efficiency—while also being gentle on clothes. And it has a matching dryer.

Biggest laundry letdown

“Does detergent-free laundry sound too good to be true?” says pureWash, one of the two detergentless laundry cleaners we tested. The answer is yes; these $300 to $400 systems that use ozonated water were only slightly more effective than water alone at cleaning.

Second best reason to get into bed at night

Sure, it’s expensive ($3,000) but the Sleep Number i8 Bed adjustable air mattress provided impressive support for side sleepers and even better support if you sleep on your back. And it didn’t transfer vibrations from one side of the bed to the other—nice if your companion tends to toss and turn. Want a less expensive alternative? TheSleep Number c2 Bed adjustable air mattress performed nearly as well and costs only $700 for queen size.

Best gas range for multitaskers

The gas GE Profile PGB950 SEFSS, $2,100, is a double-oven range, so you can bake two different dishes at the same time. This 30-inch-wide range had one of the faster-heating cooktop burners in our tests. It includes five burners—among them a high-heat burner for very fast heating—and a neat center griddle for burgers and other fare.

Best range for electric loyalists

Among electric ranges with double ovens, the LG LDE3037SB, $1,300, is top-rated. This one scored Excellent in every category.

Best news for babies on-the-go

At the urging of Consumers Union and others, a mandatory safety standard for strollers, effective in 2015, was set by the Consumer Product Safety Commission and passed by Congress. The CPSC has already set mandatory standards for other baby products, most notably the ban on dropside cribs.

Brightest idea

Bright, energy-efficient, and dimmable, the Cree TW Series LED bulb renders colors more accurately than most other LEDs we’ve tested and comes with a 10-year warranty. Even at $13 per bulb, the Cree can save you hundreds of dollars on energy costs over its life. Utility rebates may help lower the cost even more.

Best dirt bag

Impressive carpet cleaning and superb airflow helped the bagged upright Kenmore Elite 31150 vacuum, $350, outscore every other vacuum we tested. The motor drives the brush roll directly, without a belt. It was also great at pet hair pickup. Smart technology includes a QR code that you can scan to order bags from your phone or tablet—a first in our tests.

Best opportunity to save the environment

The government’s new energy standards for dishwashers, room air conditioners, and dehumidifiers are saving consumers energy and money. If your appliances are more than 10 years old, you’ll be surprised at how much more efficiently new ones run. Longer running cycles, smarter electronics, and upgraded refrigerants are among the elements that have helped achieve these efficiencies.

And worst underminer of the environment

Federal tax credits for most home energy-efficiency upgrades expired in 2013 (the ones for solar, wind, and alternative technologies are in effect through 2016). Despite widespread bipartisan support for a bill to renew the energy credits, the legislation is languishing. Our advice to Congress: Just do it.

Money

Photo: Andrew B. Myers/Apostrophe

Most forgiving credit card for tardy payers

Most cards charge a late fee of $15 to $35 perinfraction. Citibank’s Simplicity card never assesses a fee for late payments. But note that a pattern of late payments can hurt your credit score.

Worst idea in credit cards

That would be deferred-interest cards, which let customers pay for purchases interest-free for a set period. The downside is that there’s a heavy burden on those who fail to pay down the entire amount by the end of the promotional period: The prevailing interest rate gets applied retroactively to the entire original balance, not just the remaining amount you owe.

Best airline for flight switchers

Airlines typically allow flight cancellations within 24 hours of booking without financial penalty. Southwest, though, lets you modify your itinerary without time restriction and simply pay the difference in cost between fares. At other airlines, that could cost hundreds of dollars.

Top supermarket

CR subscribers gave Wegmans top marks out of 55 supermarkets, with top scores for service, perishables, and cleanliness.

Not-so-super market

Sorry, Walmart Supercenter. When CR surveyed 27,208 subscribers, eight out of 10 had at least one gripe with the grocery giant, including too few open checkout lanes and too many out-of-stock items. Readers also gave low scores to the quality of meat and produce.

Most liberal return policies

Here are three of our faves:

  1. Lands’ End: The catalog merchant has an unconditional “Guaranteed. Period.” policy that entitles customers to return for refund or exchange any product at any time, for any reason—even personalized items that have been hemmed or monogrammed.
  2. Nordstrom: It’s the king among department stores. It offers free shipping and free returns on orders of any size.
  3. Costco: The warehouse club has a satisfaction guarantee that allows members to return anything for any reason. The period is open-ended for all products except electronics, which are limited to 90 days.

Pickiest return policy

Electronics chain Best Buy has an alert for customers if they try to return an item: Even if you have a receipt, you will need to present a photo ID. In addition, the third-party firm that tracks returns for the retailer retains the right to store information from your ID in its database to “help us validate future returns.” In other words, Best Buy could deny a return based on your previous behavior. If that happens, customers can request a copy of their Return Activity report by calling 800-652-2331.

Best on-time arrivals

The winner is Hawaiian Airlines, which had 93.6 percent of its planes arriving at their destinations right on schedule. Plus, you land in Hawaii!

Worst on-time arrivals

The major airline loser is Southwest, with a 71.8 percent on-time arrival rate.

Best retailer for price adjustments

Few things are as annoying as purchasing an item just before the price drops. If you ask, many stores will adjust the price within a week or two of purchase. Bed Bath & Beyond’s policy is even more liberal. The chain periodically distributes 20 percent discount coupons that have a long shelf life; customers can bring in their receipt and the coupon as long as it’s valid to obtain an adjustment.

Sanest cell-phone company

No-contract Consumer Cellular is miles ahead of the major carriers in satisfaction among our subscribers, a surprise in that it uses AT&T’s network, which lies at the bottom end of our Ratings. We like how CC thinks, too: “We prefer to earn your business every day, not force you to stay because you signed a long-term contract.”

Best insurers for your home sweet home

You probably don’t think about your homeowners insurance much—until a storm hits and you really, really need it. Consumer Reports’ surveys of people who filed a claim reveals a perennial favorite: Amica has stood out in our insurance ratings for as long as CR has been evaluating insurance companies—since 1988. In our latest survey of more than 90,000 readers, Amica, as well as Auto-Owners, received among the top scores for overall satisfaction. All three were rated highly for claims handling, damage estimates, premium paid, agent courtesy, and timely payment.

Health & Food

Photo: Andrew B. Myers/Apostrophe

Best way to prevent flu in kids

The Centers for Disease Control says FluMist, a nasal spray, works better than the shot in kids 2 through 8 years old, which means no needles, no tears!

Worst new threat to kids

Manufacturers are marketing e-cigarettes in fruit and candy flavors but not making packages tamper-resistant,leading to a skyrocketing number of poisonings from concentrated liquid nicotine.

Best drug news

The CDC has gotten serious about the misuse of antibiotics, calling it one of the nation’s leading public-health crises. Overuse of the drugs breeds “superbugs”—dangerous antibiotic-resistant bacteria. To combat the problem, the government is helping drug makers to fast-track the development of new antibiotics. Even more important will be getting doctors to prescribe all antibiotics only when they are really needed.

Worst news for patients

New estimates show that hospital errors are the third leading cause of death in the United States. Why does that happen? Up to 30 percent of patients suffer serious problems after surgery, including infections, heart attacks, strokes, or other complications.

Most bogus food claim

The word “natural” on food labels doesn’t have to mean anything and tells you nothing about how the food was raised or its nutritional value.

The ingredient we're happiest to wave goodbye to

Trans fats—which were created in the hope that they would be safer than the saturated fats found in foods such as butter—are on their way out of food. The Food and Drug Administration has taken steps to eliminate the main source of trans fat in our food supply, which is partially hydrogenated oils. What’s the problem? Trans fats are the worst type of fat for your health, raising risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes.

Best reason to go vegetarian

Chicken is the nation’s most popular meat; Americans buy about 83 pounds of chicken per person each year. An out break of salmonella in contaminated chicken from Foster Farms sickened more than 600 people nationally from March 2013 through mid-July 2014.

Riskiest weight-loss strategy

Sales of weight-loss supplements, including garcinia cambogia, reached record levels this year, as the $2.4 billion weight-loss industry flourished. Despite the money spent, there’s little evidence that the supplements work.

Worst new pain pill

As addictive as heroin, but legal with a prescription, Zohydro ER is no more effective than other opioids already on the market, and its potency makes it a target for misuse. Some 17,000 Americans a year already die because of opioids. The Drug Enforcement Administration recently added greater restrictions for this class of drugs.


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