How many generations does it take to change a lightbulb joke?

Is this the end of lightbulb jokes? With a claimed life of 18 to 46 years, LED bulbs may only have to be changed once every generation—or two. So in the future when someone is asked, “How many [fill-in-the-blanks] does it take to change a lightbulb?” the answer might be, “You mean you have to change lightbulbs?” Consumer Reports is trying to answer that questions in its first full test of LEDs.

Most of the LEDs we recently tested were impressive, and when 19 staffers tried the bulbs at home, they liked them and favored some over others. But our testers also said they wouldn’t buy LEDs until prices dropped. The bulbs in our labs cost $20 to $60 each. Our tests found they can take four to 10 years to pay for themselves. But even at those prices, you can still save $65 to $400 in energy costs over the life of the LED, compared to an incandescent.

Some of our Facebook followers have asked questions about performance. We tested 10 different LEDs, 100 bulbs total, including ones for table and floor lamps, indoor downlights, outdoor floodlights, and porch/post lights. After 3,000 hours of testing, energy use matched or exceeded claims and frequently turning them on and off didn’t affect them. No one brand was consistently high performing across the different bulb types. Some LEDs are dimmable and dimmed as low as incandescents. Most LEDs are in the 2700 to 3000 Kelvin range, meaning the light’s color is warm like an incandescent’s. Our lightbulb Ratings provide important information on brightness, warm-up time, and light distribution and, of course, note which are standouts.

And that brings us back to the question of how long LEDs really last. The claims range from 20,000 to 50,000 hours. Nearly all the LEDs we tested are still burning brightly after 3,000 hours; only four stopped working. And two Cree LEDs we turned on over a year ago have been burning nonstop for more than 9,000 hours. Our tests continue, and we’ll continue to update you in the months and years to come.

—Kimberly Janeway

Avoid the 5 most common grilling mistakes

To help you sidestep typical gaffes, we sought the expert advice of Steven Raichlen (www.barbecuebible.com), barbecue-cookbook author and host of “Barbecue University” on PBS, as well as our in-house grillmeisters. Here are their tips:

  • Food sticks to the cooking grates and/or won’t sear properly.Preheat the grill for 15 to 20 minutes. “Gas grills have a tendency to burn cooler than charcoal, so it’s imperative that yours be fully preheated,” Raichlen says.
  • Flare-ups occur. Don’t overcrowd the cooking surface. Raichlen suggests keeping 40 percent of the grates empty. If fatty foods such as salmon or rib-eye steaks flare up, move the items to a cooler or nonflaming section of the grate.
  • Food is under- or overcooked. Cooking with the lid open allows heat to escape and compromises roasting. Use high heat for searing thick cuts of meat, then lower to finish cooking.

    To check doneness of meat, insert an instant-read thermometer into the sides of steaks and chops or into the thickest part of burgers and chicken to ensure proper temperatures have been reached. Cook food to at least the following internal temperatures, as recommended by the U.S. Department of Agriculture: beef burgers, 160° F.; beef steaks, chops, and roasts, and lamb, 145° F. (medium-rare) and 160° F. (medium); chicken, 165° F.; fin fish, 145° F. or until flesh is opaque and separates easily with a fork; pork, 160° F.

  • Food tastes bland. To add flavor and tenderness, use a marinade made with an acid–vinegar, lemon juice, plain yogurt. But marinate for too long and the food can become mushy. Marinate shrimp for 15 to 30 minutes; salmon steaks, 30 to 60 minutes. Chicken breasts need at least an hour, and up to 4. Marinate other chicken pieces for 4 hours. Tender cuts of beef need 15 minutes to 2 hours, while ­less-tender ones can take 6 to 24 hours. Always refrigerate marinating foods.

    Spice rubs are another great way to add flavor. Start with a base of sugar and salt and doctor it with the spices and herbs you enjoy–black pepper, chilies, cumin, and garlic and onion powder. Apply the rub just before cooking or, for less-tender cuts, up to one day in advance to intensify the flavor. Note: Brush on barbecue sauce near the end of the cooking time. This allows the meat to thoroughly cook without burning the sauce.

  • Smoking results are poor. People often make the mistake of trying to smoke food on a gas grill. The results will never be good even with a smoker box, says Raichlen, because too much smoke rushes out of the grill vents, making it hard to get true barbecue flavor.

Air purifiers

Our tests reveal which ones deliver

Viruses, airborne toxins, dust mites, pet dander in the air—it’s enough to make you want to hold your breath or, if manufacturers have their way, buy an air purifier. Some of the 30 models we tested were quiet and effective; two did so little that we judged them Don’t Buy: Performance Problem.

Some air purifiers can remove or reduce smoke, dust, and pollen from your home. The Whirlpool AP51030K, $300, and Hunter 30547, $260, worked very well even at lower, quieter fan speeds. That’s important because most people put portable purifiers in bedrooms or living rooms. Other models, such as the Airgle 750, $800, and FilterStream AirTamer A710, $280, cleaned very well only at the highest, noisiest speed. But no air purifier alone will relieve asthma and allergy symptoms, and if you don’t have respiratory problems, you probably don’t need one.

We focused on portable and whole-house models that use filters because they don’t produce ozone, a respiratory irritant that can aggravate asthma and cause permanent lung damage. We also tested two widely available purifiers that rely on electrostatic precipitation. (For more information on the various technologies used in purifiers, see Guide to purifier types and technologies.) And we even tested one that claims to transform plants—yes, plants—into effective air cleaners.

Here’s what else we found:

Nonfilter products were lacking

With no fan to aid airflow, the LightAir IonFlow 50F, $400, was about as effective at removing dust and smoke in our tests as having no purifier at all, though it didn’t emit ozone. We judged the Light-Air a Don’t Buy: Performance Problem. The Oreck AIR12GU, $400, “electronically charges dust, allergens, and germs and pulls them out of the air like a magnet,” its maker claims. But the Oreck was only slightly better than the LightAir at removing dust and smoke on its lowest speed and only fair on its highest speed—and it produced low levels of ozone.

Whole-house systems vary

The most effective ones are usually professionally installed and cost hundreds. One do-it-yourself filter, the Web Plus Adjustable Electrostatic 20x25x1, $17, is claimed to trap dust and pollen but was ineffective in our tests. Unlike the more effective do-it-yourself filters we tested, it was only marginally better than a standard furnace filter, which is meant only to protect equipment, not purify air. The Web Plus is also a Don’t Buy: Performance Problem.

Dubious claims continue

Some claims by manufacturers have prompted government responses. The Federal Trade Commission last year ordered several companies to stop marketing purifiers as being effective against the H1N1 virus. The Environmental Protection Agency cautions that air cleaners outfitted with ultraviolet light are unlikely to kill bacteria and mold because they won’t be in contact with UV light long enough to have any effect. And Florida’s attorney general warned residents that using an ozone generator would make wiring problems associated with defective Chinese drywall worse, not better.

Toyota Camry

What is it? Clearly, Toyota is not straying far from its popular formula with the new car. It even takes a close look to see that the styling has evolved beyond the front and rear fascias. The exterior dimensions are near identical, but the interior is freshened, with changes throughout.

The engines essentially carry over, with the Hybrid variants seeing the most improvement.

The base Camry will be fitted with a 178-hp, 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine. Toyota estimates that it will be EPA-rated at 25 city, 35 highway mpg, a notable increase over the 22/33 rating for the 2011 model.

The top engine will be a 268-hp, 3.5-liter V6 engine. Fuel economy is claimed to be 21 city, 30 highway mpg, just a notch above the 20/29 rating for the 2011 sedan.

The Hybrid features a 156-hp, 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine. In LE trim, Toyota cites 43 city, 41 highway mpg, signaling a large, 30-plus-percent increase from the current 31/35 rating. New for 2012, the Hybrid will have an EV mode to allow the car to be driven a low speeds on purely electric power for up to 1.6 miles.

What’s new or notable? Pricing has been cut across many trim levels, from $200 to $2,000 off sticker price.

CR’s take: We would expect the Camry to retain its comfortable ride and quiet interior and hope the interior quality doesn’t backslide, as it has in some recent Toyotas.

When will it be available? October 2011.

Fuel-efficient vehicles

As the government pounded out an ambitious new fuel-economy standard of 54.5 mpg, proposed to kick in by 2025, automakers were working on the technology and designs that will make that fuel economy possible. The cars we tested for this issue reflect some of the ways that automakers are stretching gas mileage, with more small cars and greater use of hybrid, diesel, and electric powertrains.

All of the cars in this group returned very good fuel economy, ranging from 33 to 40 mpg overall. But they’re made for different buyers, and each has high and low points.

Our upscale Lexus CT 200h hybrid hatchback (available to subscribers) achieved the highest overall test score, 71, but also had the highest price, $32,012. It’s powered by the same drivetrain used in the Toyota Prius and gets an excellent 40 mpg overall. But the Prius is roomier and gets 44 mpg. The CT’s handling is capable but isn’t very sporty. Acceleration is leisurely, the ride is stiff, and the cabin is well finished but snug and noisy.

Rounding out the group are the diesel-powered Volkswagen Jetta TDIHonda Civic Hybrid, and small Fiat 500 (all available to subscribers).

The Jetta sedan was redesigned for 2011. The TDI model gets 34 mpg overall, which is much better than the 25 mpg we got in the gas-powered Jetta SE. But diesel usually costs more than regular gas, so you won’t see as much savings at the pump. At $25,100, our TDI also cost notably more than the $20,300 SE.

Redesigned for 2012, the Civic Hybrid now uses a lithium-ion battery, which is lighter than the previous nickel-metal-hydride unit, and gets much better fuel economy than its conventional counterpart (40 mpg overall compared with 30). But at $24,800 the Civic Hybrid costs about the same as a basic Prius, which gets better gas mileage and scored much higher in our tests.

Perhaps the least expensive way to get better fuel economy is to buy a very small car with a tiny engine. The $18,600 Fiat 500 fits that description. Widely anticipated in the U.S. since the Italian automaker took control of Chrysler, the 500 is a retro-styled sporty car that competes with the Mini Cooper. The 500’s 1.4-liter, four-cylinder engine helps it achieve an overall fuel economy of 33 mpg, although acceleration is leisurely. Passengers also experience a choppy ride, noisy cabin, and tight rear seats in this subcompact.

None of vehicles we tested for this issue is recommended. The CT 200h and Jetta TDI are too new for us to have reliability information. The Civic Hybrid and 500 scored too low in our testing to be recommended.

More fuel-efficient vehicles are on the way. We’re currently testing the Nissan Leaf, the first mainstream fully electric car. Electric and hybrid versions of the redesigned-for-2012 Ford Focus are coming, as is a plug-in and a larger wagon version of the Prius. A diesel version of the Chevrolet Cruze will arrive for 2013 along with the Chevrolet Spark minicar. Among new gas-powered cars, redesigns of the Hyundai Accent and Kia Rio recently went on sale. Soon to come will be redesigned versions of the Nissan Versa and Toyota Yaris and the new Chevrolet Sonic.

Extra review: Chevrolet Volt

After more than seven months of driving, we’ve completed our all-season testing of the Volt, an innovative electric car with a backup gasoline engine that eliminates the range anxiety of pure electric vehicles. See our review of the Chevrolet Volt (available to subscribers).

Sony to sell a 4K front projector; Epson adds 3D to its lineup

If you’re just not getting enough detail from your home-theater projector, Sony has a solution, albeit a costly one: the VPL-VW1000ES, a $25,000 4K home theater projector that has four times the picture resolution of standard high-def models.

If 3D is more your thing, Epson is adding 3D capability to several new LCD projectors in its fall lineup. Both companies announced these new products at the CEDIA trade show last week.

electronics_sony_vplvw100es.jpg

Sony VPL-VW1000ESSony’s new projector—an LCoS-based SXRD model—is billed as the first 4K projector designed for the home-theater crowd; it will be sold though custom installers. According to the company, the projector’s claimed 2,000 lumens of brightness make it suitable for screens up to 200 inches (measured diagonally). Given that there’s not a lot of native 4K content, the projector has a built-in video processor that will upscale 2D and 3D 1080P content. The projector will be available in December.

Epson’s new 3D projector lineup starts at $1,600, for the entry-level Home Cinema 3010 model. A model with a wireless transmitter for sending high-def video signals to the projector (3010e) is $1,800. (We recently wrote about Optoma introducing the lowest-cost 1080p 3D projector, the HD33.) All the new Epson models have access to online content and feature a 2D split-screen mode for watching two pictures at once (or watching a movie while accessing the Internet simultaneously). Other common features include 1080p resolution and the use of Epson’s Bright 3D drive technology—which drives the LCD panels at 480Hz, double the rate of 240Hz models—for improved image brightness and less crosstalk, the company says. Both the 3010, which comes with two sets of active-shutter 3D glasses, and the 3010e, which doesn’t, will be available in October.

Stepping up to Epson’s 5010 and 5010e models—$3,000 and $3,500, respectively—gets you a bit more brightness, more sophisticated video processing, and improvements in contrast and color, plus a 2D-to-3D conversion feature. The 3D glasses have to be purchased separately with these models, which will be available in November.

At the top of the new lineup is the $4,000 PowerLite Pro Cinema 6010, which has all the features of the 5010 series plus two anamorphic lens modes, ISF calibration, color isolation, and a ceiling mount, cable cover, and an extra lamp. It also comes with two sets of 3D glasses and has a three-year warranty, one year longer than the warranties offered on the other models. Like the 5010 and 5010e models, it will be available in November.

Personally, my front projector–based dedicated home theater is where I’d like 3D, and these new lower prices have me considering one. Let us know whether a $1,500 or $1,600 price tag would be low enough to lure you into the market.

—James K. Willcox

First Look review: Motorola Droid Bionic is super, but battery life may be a concern

The Motorola Droid Bionic, which landed on store shelves September 8 for a whopping $300 with a two-year contract, is Verizon’s most powerful Android smart phone to date. Having used a press sample of the phone for a day, I find that it’s easily one of the fastest phones I’ve ever used, and it’s a superb multitasker.

But the Bionic’s hefty battery drained very quickly in my informal trials, even compared with other phones that run on fast 4G networks, which draw more power from phones than do 3G networks. Our engineers are now conducting a battery of lab tests on a Droid Bionic we bought at retail to get more definitive data on its battery life.

Key features of the phone include a dual-core 1GHz TI OMAP processor, 1GB of RAM, a giant 4.3-inch qHD Gorilla Glass display, an 8-megapixel camera with 1080P video recording, and 32GB of memory (16GB on board and 16GB on a preinstalled microSD card). The phone runs on Android 2.3.4 (Gingerbread), which gives the phone top-notch document-editing tools and makes it easier to insert teleconference information within Google Calendar meetings (conference bridging).

The details:

It’s rocket fast. Applications launched almost instantly, and Web-based content populated browser and app screens loaded almost as quickly—within a fraction of a second. The Bionic seemed even a tad faster than its AT&T cousin, the Motorola Atrix.

The battery drained fast. In my trials, the Bionic’s hefty 1,735 mAh min battery seemed to drain quickly, with its gauge moving from full to almost empty in just a few hours, even when the phone was idle. And during a video chat (see below), I was concerned to see the phone’s battery gauge drop from full to 40 percent after 12 minutes of conversation.

It’s a bit of a handful. The Bionic is large but comfortable to hold, measuring 2.63 inches wide by 0.5 inches tall. The specs say it’s just 0.43 inches thick, but that’s only in the middle: The phone is actually 0.53 inches at the top end housing the camera and also flares out to 0.48 inches at the bottom.

Decent, bullet-proof display. The Bionic’s Gorilla Glass screen is super tough. Using considerable force, I pecked it repeatedly with keys, coins, and even a small ball peen hammer, but I couldn’t make a scratch. Text and photos appeared quite sharp on the 540 x 960 display (256 pixels per inch), though not as sharp as on the displays of the iPhone and Galaxy-class Samsung models. Readability in sunlight was also decent.

Clean interface. The Bionic’s desktop is relatively clean, with a contacts widget on top of the home page and another carousel-like widget that pulls photos posted on Facebook and other social networks. One point of frustration: I couldn’t get the e-mail app to show me more than one account on the same page. This may be a glitch with my review sample, so stay tuned.

Video chat, even on the Verizon network. Like most 4G phones, the Droid Bionic has a front-facing camera, but it’s one of the first phones that allows you to use the Google’s Video Chat app to make video calls to Google Video Chat users on PCs and Macs. And unlike iPhone’s Facetime, Google Video Chat on the Bionic works on 3G and 4G networks rather than just via Wi-Fi.

Video Chat quality was decent, with few hiccups, when I held the phone vertically, even when the phone’s 4G signal gauge showed only one or two bars. But when I tilted the phone sideways to switch to widescreen mode, the screen froze. I was still able to carry on a voice-only conversation with my friend without interruptions.

A cool streaming app. Verizon is notorious for cluttering its phones with apps few people need or want. But I was intrigued by one app called ZumoCast, a free service that allows you to download or stream multimedia, Office documents, and other files from your PC or laptop over the Verizon network. In short, your computer becomes a content server for the phone.

I found that ZumoCast worked well enough in allowing me to use my iTunes playlists, which sounded fine. But video-streaming from my computer was more problematic: ZumoCast wouldn’t allow me to stream copy-protected videos from my computer. The videos I ripped myself streamed quickly but appeared severely compressed, much like a low-grade YouTube video. Also, the service stops working when your computer goes into sleep mode, and leaving your computer on all day may be hard on the computer as well as on your electric bill.

Multitasking on the Lapdock. I also used the Bionic with its optional $300 Lapdock accessory. This dock, which we first reviewed with the Motorola Atrix, transforms the Bionic into a thin laptop.

The accessory proved to be a great showcase for the phone’s ample processing power and Verizon’s high-speed network. Snapping the Bionic into the rear, flip-out port of this semi-dumb laptop terminal gave me a humongous 11.6-inch display, a full-size keyboard, and a track pad. I was able to stream music and view Web pages while editing documents with reasonable speed.

Besides giving you the larger-scale hardware at your fingertips, the Lapdock improves the mobile computing experience through its own Internet-connected “webtop” applications, which include a full version of the Firefox Web browser and Facebook. Most other times, you’re accessing mail and other apps directly from the Bionic. But as with the Atrix’s identical Lapdock, I found the Shift, Enter, and Arrow keys on the keyboard’s lower-left side too scrunched together, which made typing occasionally awkward.

Bottom line: With its large display, powerful processor, ultra-fast data connection, and intriguing accessories, the Droid Bionic may just be one of the best smart phones on the market. But those exceptional qualities may potentially be hampered by gluttonous power consumption. Check back with us soon for the results of those and other tests of this highly promising phone.