For mattresses, ovens, paint, vacuums, and more, cheaper is better

By Amanda WalkerConsumer Reports

Our laboratories test thousands of products each year, and we go to great lengths to make sure the ones you buy will work the way they’re supposed to and are safe to use. Sometimes, we’re also happy to report that lower priced versions consistently beat more expensive alternatives. These six products check all of those boxes.

––Mandy Walker

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Our battery-life tests include partially draining, then recharging, each battery almost 3,000 times over a 15-week period. We also measure how long a battery can supply power if you–oops–leave on your headlights. And we mimic frosty morning starts by testing the current that’s available at 0° F. The EverStart Maxx batteries sold at Walmart (about $80 to $90) beat batteries from other makers that can cost twice as much. For more details, check our car battery Ratings.

Shopping tip: All batteries lose strength over time, even when they’re idle. Check the shipping code on the case to make sure the batteries are less than 6 months old. Some use a letter for the month (“A” for January) and a number for the year (“4” for 2014); others just use a numeric date. You'll find more shopping tips in our car battery buying guide.

Some cooktops from makers of pro-style products look sharp, but they fall below less expensive versions in our Ratings. Recently a $900 KitchenAid smoothtop unit outperformed a $1,500 model from Jenn-Air, a $1,600 Miele version, and a $1,500 Thermador cooktop. Some of our tests include timing how long it takes the highest powered burner to heat water to near-boiling, and how well that large burner simmers a sauce on low without burning it. On the smallest burner, we use thermocouples to measure how low a pot’s temperature remains on a low-heat setting for 30 minutes.

Shopping tip: Electric smoothtops are easy to clean but can be damaged by dropped pots and sugary liquids. Coil tops are tougher but require more cleaning time. Our buying guide has more shopping tips.

Paints from Farrow & Ball, $93 to $105 per gallon, and Benjamin Moore, $68, are widely used by interior decorators. But our lab tests show that Behr Premuim Plus Ultra (Home Depot's brand, which costs $32 to $34 per gallon) matched or did a better job covering dark colors, held up better to cleaning, resisted stains better, and left fewer roller marks. For the best choices in each paint category, see our Ratings.

Shopping tip: Use eggshell and satin only on smooth, well-prepared surfaces because their shine can accentuate imperfections on the wall. A flat finish is the least stain-resistant, so it’s better for low-traffic areas. Semigloss is generally the easiest to clean but may tend to dull when it’s scrubbed. For more information and shopping tips, see our paint buying guide.

For the times of year these and other products are at their deepest discounts, see "The Best Time to Buy Things, Month by Month."

We replicate eight years of simulated use by pushing and pulling a 308-pound roller across each mattress 30,000 times, then we open up each to check for internal injuries. We also put sensors on 36 points of testers’ spines to see how well that line is maintained when they lie on their backs. And we measure how level the mattresses keep their spines when they lie on their sides. To see how easily a shifting spouse or Doberman could interrupt your reverie, we drop a 38-pound weight on mattresses with sensors inside and check how much vibration is picked up. In our most recent test, as subscribers can see in our Ratings, a $1,075 Serta rated higher in durability than a $4,800 Duxiana.

Shopping tip: Specialty mattresses such as the Duxiana usually have a set price, but you can save at least 50 percent off list price for ordinary mattresses if you wait for a sale. We have other tips that will help you get the best deal in our mattress buying guide.

Year after year, less expensive vacuums such as Kenmore and Panasonic ($250 to $400 recently) top our ratings, and pricey models from Aerus, Riccar, and Simplicity ($900 to $1,500) are just meh. To separate the great from the meh, we embed carpet with real cat hair (from groomers) and “dirt” to see how well vacuums can suck out both. We also see how well they clean bare floors. The tools and features are checked out, and we have a machine that measures the force needed to move the vacuums back and forth. For the full list of vacuums, see our Ratings.

Shopping tip: A motorized brush cleans carpets better than only suction does. A brush on/off switch helps protect bare floors from scratches. Another tip from our vacuum buying guide: manual pile height adjustment, which can be matched to specific carpet thickness.

To put ovens through their paces, we see how evenly they broil a tray of burgers and cook two trays of cookies and cakes. We examine the burners. And we paint a mix of eggs, lard, cherry-pie filling, cheese, tomato purée, and tapioca throughout the ovens, bake it on for an hour at 425° F, then turn on the self-cleaning mode to see how well it works. Maytag and Whirlpool ovens ($1,400 and $1,500, respectively) did a better job than professional-style models from Viking ($2,900 and $3,600) at cleaning up that tough mess and broiled more evenly—and they had more oven space. See our Ratings for the full details.

Shopping tip: Focus on convenience. Some models come with racks on rollers to make sliding them in and out effortless. If you entertain frequently, consider a double wall oven so that you can roast a turkey and bake a pie at the same time. For more tips, see our buying guide.

This article also appeared in the June 2014 issue of Consumer Reports Money Adviser.

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