101 secrets from our experts

The insider’s guide to practically everything

Consumer Reports magazine: May 2013

The testers, reporters, and other experts who create our articles and product Ratings have a dazzling depth and breadth of knowledge about all kinds of products based on their decades of experience. For this roundup, we’ve asked them for their best tips—money savers, time savers, and just plain interesting tidbits. Enjoy.

If you drop an electronic product in water, don’t assume it’s a goner. Let it dry completely, then see whether it works.

It’s perfectly fine to leave your laptop connected to its charger at home. The smart charger will prevent over-charging, and the laptop’s processor will run faster when it’s connected.

In your refrigerator, don’t put delicate foods like lettuce near the vent—they might freeze.

Many retailers that use coupons or other promotional sales tools will offer receipt adjustments before or after start or expiration dates. Just ask.

If you’re serious about buying a car, ask the dealer to let you borrow or rent a model overnight. Or consider renting one for a few days; you and your family will get more of a feel for the car than you would with a 15-minute test drive.

  • When you’re replacing windows, the installer should measure each new window before taking out the old one to make sure the factory sent the right size. You don’t want to end up with a boarded-up hole as you wait for the right window.
  • On computers, the Enter, Select, or OK buttons are your friends. We hear many complaints from people who think their computer is to blame when a document doesn’t reflect their changes, but the reason is that they didn’t save their work.
  • Microfiber cloths, though a little pricier, do a much better job wiping off car wax than rags do.
  • Scope out products that have many user reviews when you research online. That can indicate, among other things, that they’re best sellers and/or have been on the market a long time and have a broad base of reviews.
  • Just in case your GPS device winds up in the hands of a crook, don’t input your address under “Home.” Instead, pick a local landmark—like a police station.

To tell whether that new lightbulb will work in a fixture rated for a certain wattage, check the actual wattage used, not the claimed equivalent. A compact fluorescent bulb that claims to have the light output of a 75-watt bulb uses only around 17 watts.

  • When you change your car battery, you typically lose radio presets and other electronic functions. Consider using a jump-start battery you plug into the cigarette lighter to power those functions while the battery is out.
  • Bigger or smaller TV? Go bigger.
  • To save money on printing, avoid the Arial font; our tests have shown that it uses more ink than Times New Roman and other fonts. Minimize the use of color ink by printing text in grayscale or use black-only mode. And recycle spent cartridges for a refund or credit at an office-supply store.
  • To clean ground-in sand or dirt from your carpet, set the carpet head to the lowest level. That will allow brushes to really get the grit out. (Don’t use that setting all the time; you could wear out your carpet.)
  • For any equipment that requires gas —your generator, mower, and more—add a gas stabilizer to your gas can. It will help the gas from gumming up the carburetor. (For gear that requires an oil-and-gas mix, the stabilizer is already in the oil.)

Oldies are still goodies. We recently rated Pine-Sol tops among general cleaners, and Fels Naptha was good for pretreating stains.

  • When you’re comparing the prices of electronics, know that some brands include a charger and a case; others make you pay extra.
  • If your printer has a “standby” timeout (most do), leave it on; don’t shut it off after each use. Models we’ve tested in the past five years use only a tiny amount of power that way (about 1 watt). And we’ve found that some inkjet printers waste more ink getting ready to print when switched on than when left in standby between uses.
  • Don’t shop for a new car during sales events advertised by direct mail. They’re often run by contracted specialists trained in techniques to increase the dealer’s profit.
  • It usually pays to upgrade your phone at the end of a two-year contract. (Phones are subsidized as part of your contract, so you’re paying for the subsidy anyway.)

When you buy sunglasses know that polarizing lenses can make the LCD screen on your smart phone, tablet, or GPS display impossible to view at certain angles (though it won’t affect an e-book reader).

  • If your computer hard drive is more than half full, programs and disk operations like copying and backing up will slow down, since the hard drive’s heads have to move farther across the spinning disk surface as they gather data. That’s a reason to pick a hard drive with more capacity than you think you’ll need when you buy a new computer. It’s also one of the advantages of SSDs (solid-state drives), which have no moving parts: They don’t slow down as they fill up.
  • Smart phones need a fresh (re)start. They’re actually full-fledged computers and need to be restarted every few days to purge memory reserved by programs no longer running and to fix glitches that can hinder performance.
  • To quickly find info about the new product you bought, download the manual, then use “Control F” (“Command F” on a Mac) to search for a particular word, etc.
  • Laptop or tablet? Here’s one way to tell what you need: Tablets are good for consuming media. Computers and laptops are good for creating it.
Photo: Roger Stowell

Cook rice in twice the amount of water recommended on the package. It could reduce any arsenic in the rice by 30 percent.

  • Don’t bother using nitrogen in your tires to keep up tire pressure. It’s a waste of money. Air is about 80 percent nitrogen anyway, and air or nitrogen will leak out of tires over time, our tests show. Check your tire pressure regularly.
  • Never wash or rinse raw chicken in the sink. You’ll splash germs around the kitchen and risk food poisoning.
  • To save money on airfare, shop online on weekdays, specifically from Monday evening about 8 p.m. ET to Thursday 8 p.m. ET. And the best time of all, according to one expert we interviewed: 3 p.m. ET Tuesday.
  • Vacuum filters need replacing twice a year or so. That will help ensure adequate suction.
  • Relax. Our surveys show that very few readers inadvertently destroy their electronic gear by dropping it, immersing it in water, or sitting on it.

Fire extinguishers, smoke detectors, and carbon monoxide alarms have expiration dates (typically 12 years for single-use extinguishers and five years for the others). Write down the dates where you can see them to know when to replace the devices.

  • When it’s time to clean and store the stainless-steel carafes we use in our coffee tests, we fill them with hot water, add several denture tablets, and let them soak overnight. The results are amazing. Scrupulous rinsing is essential—unless you enjoy that “minty fresh” taste in your coffee.
  • Your lawn mower will cut better if after each use you turn it on its side and rinse it off.
  • With photographs and home videos, back everything up. Then back it up again. Too many people lose those cherished moments. Many of our experts back up to external hard drives and cloud storage services.
  • Don’t reuse water from your dehumidifier. It contains dust, mold, pollen, and other irritants.
  • Your smart-phone lens can easily pick up smears and dust, and make your photos look blurry and dirty. Use a microfiber cloth to clean it.
  • If you think granola is healthy, think again; it’s often loaded with fat and sugar. Try mixing it with a puffed cereal to lighten the calories.

When you read food labels, don’t assume that a health claim applies to everything on the nutrition panel. Low-fat foods may claim to be good for heart health, but they may also be high in sodium or sugar.

  • If you feel you were tricked, manipulated, or maneuvered into an unfair consumer transaction, never be sheepish or too embarrassed to demand your money back or to undo the deal.
  • In cars, leather or leather-like seats are much easier to clean than fabric.
  • To conserve your smart- phone battery, seek strong signals and don’t bury the phone in a desk; it uses more power trying to access a weak signal. Turn off Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and other wireless access when you’re out of range. Reduce screen brightness. And cut the number of times you allow updates of news, e-mail, and other network feeds.
  • No matter how fancy they look, dried plums are prunes. Don’t pay extra for clever packaging.
  • Generators aren’t supposed to get wet. Get a cover.(Manufacturers make them.)
  • Never, ever take out a payday or auto-title loan. Those small, short-term loans come with interest rates of several hundred percent. Research suggests it takes people five months to pay them off.
  • Need help with research? The public library is a resource many people overlook. Libraries subscribe to databases you undoubtedly don’t, and librarians can find information not easily available with a Google search or to a person without library-science training.
  • You don’t need to pay for a high-definition TV calibration. Do it yourself: 1. Use your typical room lighting. 2. From a DVD or DVR video, freeze on a frame with a face and some detail. 3. Press the Menu button on the remote to find picture mode. 4. Try the options, such as THX mode, Cinema, Movie, and Pro. See which provides the most natural-looking picture.

If you’re considering an electric or plug-in car, consider leasing instead of buying. The technology is changing quickly, and some lease deals are attractive.

  • Many devices draw power when they’re off or in standby mode. You could save $125 a year by pulling the plug or turning off the power strip they’re plugged into. For air conditioners, the biggest energy hog is leaky ducts. A contractor can fix leaks.
  • Wipe up spills immediately from your smoothtop; sugars in, say, tomato sauce can bond to the surface and damage it.
  • To install audio gear with fewer headaches, consider using a labeling kit, which helps you identify all the wires and inputs.
  • Buy the cheapest TV cables and connectors you can find. Don’t overspend on those accessories.
  • Many toaster ovens have a built-in convection oven, but if you don’t use that feature, you can save $50 with a basic model.
  • Home speakers have an equalization system that balances sound so that you don’t have to do it manually.
  • Create a strong password –and remember it–by creating a saying or sentence and using the first letter of each word. That probably will provide stronger protection than using a word that can be found in a dictionary, often the place where hackers start. Then substitute a few numbers or symbols. The length of a password is more important than its complexity.

Before you buy that car, check the manufacturer’s recommendation about oil. More are recommending expensive synthetic blends, which could noticeably add to the price of an oil change.

  • All charged cell phones— even those with expired service contracts—are required by law to be able to make an emergency 911 call. Keep an older phone and charger handy in case you or a family member needs it.
  • Count the features on any double oven you’re considering. In some we’ve tested, features like convection cooking, which helps shorten cooking times, are available for only one oven.
  • If you’re painting with dark colors, use a tinted primer.
  • Don’t wash or dry one or two small items. They won’t get as clean as they would in a fuller load, and the dryer’s moisture sensors might not work.
  • You need two kinds of smoke alarms: ionization types that detect fast-moving flames and photoelectric alarms that warn you of a smoldering fire. Dual- sensor models exist, though many models use one or the other. Also make sure you have a carbon-monoxide detector.
  • If your barbecue grill seems to overcook or undercook meat or fish, the problem could be uneven flames, a sign of blocked burner tubes or ports. To check, follow the manufacturer’s directions for cleaning. A toothpick can sometimes help clear burner holes.

When you pick paint colors, use magazines or paint chips for inspiration—not the Internet. Your monitor and printer can misrepresent colors

  • Can’t log in? Always check that “caps lock” isn’t on, which scrambles your password.
  • We haven’t tested a commercial deer or squirrel repellent that works well.
  • Measure your laundry detergent with the provided cap. Use too much, which many people do, and you could get residue on your clothes. Remember that today’s washers use much less water than older machines.
  • Don’t use cooking sprays on your nonstick pans. They can build up and actually cause food to stick. Instead, use nonstick pans on low or medium heat without spray.
  • An empty freezer makes your compressor cycle on and off, creating more temperature swings than a full one. Consider freezing bottled water to help fill it.
  • Here’s how to take your blood pressure: Sit quietly for at least 5 minutes before taking a measurement and put your feet flat on the floor while sitting straight up. Don’t talk or move. It also helps to take readings at the same time of day.
  • Our tech and auto testers aren’t usually early adopters. If you can wait a year or so for a new product, do so. The kinks get worked out.
  • Ever wonder about those warning tags on pillows—the ones that say by law, you can’t pull them off? It’s OK to remove them. The tag is meant for pillow manufacturers, distributors, and retailers.
Photo: GE Profile

Don’t slide pots on a smoothtop range or cooktop; they can scratch the surface.

  • Don’t wait until the vacuum bag is full to replace it. By then, it will have lost significant suction power.
  • Synthetic paintbrushes and rollers tend to hold latex-based paints better and apply it more evenly than those with natural materials.
  • Change your sewing-machine needle! And don’t sew with cotton thread that’s more than a few years old; it can become weak.
  • For outdoor lighting, compact fluorescent bulbs usually take longer to brighten up in cold weather. LED bulbs aren’t affected by the cold.
  • Today’s smart-phone bodies often include Kevlar, carbon fiber, or other tough material. After- market cases may offer extra protection but often hinder access or slow the responsiveness of the phone’s screen, buttons, and ports.
  • If your gear doesn’t start, unplug it or otherwise reboot it and start over.
Photo: Android

Use your Android Power Control widget, which lets you turn Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, GPS, and Sync off and on, and adjust screen brightness. It’s free and comes with your device, and it can really help battery life without your having to search through Settings.

  • You don’t necessarily need the Swiffer brand, but a microfiber cloth will attract dust better than a regular cloth.
  • It’s harder for vacuums to thoroughly clean high-low-patterned carpets than smooth-pile carpets.
  • It’s a hassle to organize smart-phone photos on your phone. Transfer them to a computer and use software to organize them.
  • Wrinkle creams? Sigh. They don’t work as well as you might hope.
  • Cut down on your cell phone’s data charges by using a Wi-Fi network. Start at home and in the office, but there are more that you can take advantage of. Many cable TV providers, including Comcast, Cablevision, and Time Warner, have Wi-Fi hotspots that you can access if you’re a cable customer. AT&T wireless customers can use 29,000 mostly free hotspots around the country.
Photo: Sony

The fact that you bought an HDTV doesn’t mean you’re watching HD. You need an HDMI cable or component-video connections (not a coaxial cable) and a high-def-capable cable box. And make sure you’re set for 1080p or 1080i.

  • To clean your computer screen, put a drop of dishwashing liquid on a soft, damp, lint-free cloth and wipe the screen. Non-ammoniated glass cleaners are OK, too. Don’t use ammonia-based cleaners.
  • Many cell-phone touch screens come with a protective layer that makes scratches unlikely. Some protectors reduce glare, but they can also make your display less responsive, and they often develop air bubbles and scratches of their own.
  • The refrigerator door is warmer than elsewhere in the fridge; don’t store milk there.
  • Don’t pay extra for ID-theft protection for your credit card. If your card is stolen, federal law limits your liability to $50. And if your card number (not the card itself) is stolen, you’re not liable for anything.
  • Pass up built-in car navigation systems, which can add $1,500 or more to the sticker price. Instead, consider a $100-to-$250 portable device or a smart-phone app.
  • Attention, technophobes: Don’t be afraid of your computer. You won’t break it by merely typing.
  • Pet insurance generally cost more than it paid out in our comparison of policies. Only in uncommon cases when a pet required very expensive care would the coverage have more than paid for itself.
Photo: Dmitriy Eremenkov

Auto headlights dim over time, so replace them after several years even if they haven’t burned out. You can alsomake them brighter by using a lens cleaner or restorer.

  • Any shampoo will clean your hair, our tests have shown. So buy by what you like and want to pay.
  • If you use dryer sheets, periodically wash the dryer sensors and lint filter with warm, soapy water.
  • Bug repellents that contain deet (25 percent is best) are top picks in our tests.
  • You don’t have to change your oil every 3,000 miles as some service shops suggest. Follow the interval recommended in your owner’s manual, usually 5,000 miles or more.
  • Cut your grocery bill by up to 60 percent by choosing store brands over name brands, shopping at a warehouse club, and using coupons and store reward cards.
  • We hope you never face this, but here’s how to tame a runaway car: Press and hold the brakes and shift the transmission into neutral. Then use your brakes to bring the car to a stop on the side of the road and shut off the engine. Shift the car into Park.
  • When choosing a product from our Ratings, first check out the brand’s reliability. Then pick the model.

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