Apple's September product events are usually noteworthy for their hardware announcements. But this year, like with just about everything else, was different. Apple did unveil new Watches and iPads, but the company’s most significant announcements came in the form of services. There's a new set of subscription bundles that lumps all of Apple's streaming services together, and a new service for connected home workouts (called Fitness+) aimed squarely at competitors like Peloton. These offerings are feature-packed, relatively affordable, and meant to draw you even deeper into the Apple ecosystem.
This week on Gadget Lab, WIRED senior associate editor Julian Chokkattu joins us to talk about Apple's announcements and what they mean for the gadget buyers among us.
Read up on all of Apple’s announcements from this week. Also read our deeper look at the new Apple Watch Series 6, and our list of the standout features in iOS 14.
Julian recommends the Fluance RT80 turntable but also just getting any record player in general. Mike recommends the show 3% on Netflix. Lauren recommends WIRED’s list of best air purifiers.
Julian Chokkattu can be found on Twitter @JulianChokkattu. Lauren Goode is @LaurenGoode. Michael Calore is @snackfight. Bling the main hotline at @GadgetLab. The show is produced by Boone Ashworth (@booneashworth). Our executive producer is Alex Kapelman (@alexkapelman). Our theme music is by Solar Keys.
If you have feedback about the show, or just want to enter to win a $50 gift card, take our brief listener survey here.
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Lauren Goode: Mike.
Michael Calore: Lauren.
LG: Mike, how do you feel about bundles?
MC: I am mostly against them.
LG: Can you give me a three-word answer as to why you're against them?
MC: Too much stuff?
LG: Yeah, I have to say, I don't miss the bundle where you end up paying for services you didn't even want in the first place, and that's one of the things we're going to talk about on this week's show.
[Gadget Lab intro theme music]
Hi, everyone. Welcome to Gadget Lab. I'm Lauren Goode. I'm a senior writer at WIRED, and I'm joined remotely by my cohost, WIRED senior editor Michael Calore. Hey, Mike.
MC: Hello, hello.
LG: Hello, hello. We're also joined by WIRED senior associate editor Julian Chokkattu. Julian, thanks so much for joining us again.
Julian Chokkattu: Hello. Thank you for having me
LG: It's becoming the Lauren, Mike, and Julian show, and I'm not mad about it. All right, today we're taking a bite out of Apple. The company held its annual September product event this week. The big news in September is usually Apple's hardware announcements. There's usually a new iPhone, Apple Watch, for the past five years or so, or iPad. But this year, of course, was different, because everything is different this year.
First of all, there was no new iPhone; that's expected later in the fall, and the only hardware announcements were watches and iPads. The event was relatively short compared to September events of years past. We're going to get to the new hardware later in the show. But, to me, the really significant announcements this week were Apple's plans for services.
We know this is a big area of growth for the company and that Apple has embraced bundling now, which is lumping most of its subscription services together for a monthly fee. Apple's even made moves to compete directly with fitness services now, like Peloton, because it launched its own fitness service called Apple Fitness+. Julian, what do you make of Apple's increased emphasis on services?
JC: I think it's a pretty smart and natural move. They have a great ecosystem of products that you can choose from right now, and the services are something they've been focusing on for a long time, and now that they've built enough of them up, it makes sense that you might want to bundle up and get a couple of them, rather than just paying specifically for one thing, right?
So now if you have Apple Music, you might be enticed to say, "Well, for only $5 more I can pay and get Apple News+," for example. It just seems like something that's a great way for Apple to keep people hooked into its ecosystem of hardware and also entice them with these other software features. Especially with things like Apple TV+, maybe there's a show that'll come to the platform that you'll really want to watch, and this'll give you an extra reason to just pay that extra money, to be able to watch that show.
I do think there are some issues with the Apple One services that they showed so far. The iCloud seems a little too low for what you're paying. 50 gigs for a person, these days, I feel like, is something that you can easily go through, and then if you step up to the family plan, it's 200 gigs. I currently pay for 200 gigs of Google Drive storage, and I had to recently upgrade it because apparently my family takes too many photos. So it just seems like Apple could offer better storage options with iCloud, but I think that's always been an issue with Apple.
LG: Yeah, it's interesting because iCloud is really like the … it feels to me like the bedrock of the services that they're offering. A family member said to me recently, "I know I've been paying Apple monthly for a really long time now. I'm just not sure exactly what it's for." But of course it's for iCloud, and that's the thing that a lot of people have opted into for years now.
Now they're sort of building on top of that idea. But I do agree that, I think if you purchase iCloud storage a la carte, your options are really small for $2.99 per month, or then a lot of storage for $10 per month, and there really isn't much in between. I would have hoped they addressed that with this bundle, but it doesn't sound like what you're saying they really have.
Mike, what are your thoughts on the services we heard about from Apple this week?
MC: I like the bundles. I agree with you guys, I think they're smart. For me, I think the trickiest one is going to be the lowest tier, the $15 tier, because like Julian was saying, that's not a lot of iCloud storage, and there are a lot of people who only subscribe to one service. So either they just pay monthly for iCloud, or they just do Apple TV, or they just do Apple Music, and they're paying $10 a month for that. So getting them to pay an extra $5 is probably going to be a struggle if that person is happy with what they have and don't feel like they need anything else.
I think the next tiers up are probably going to be the ones that make the most sense for people, because if you already have Apple Music and you're paying for that, or if you already have Apple TV+ and you like it, and you want to share it with your partner, and you want to get some iCloud storage—that, to me, feels like it makes the most sense. Likewise, people who already subscribe to maybe one or two things. So somebody who already subscribes to Apple Music and Apple News+, they're the ones for whom the $30 bundle makes sense.
Likewise, for somebody who's curious about Apple Fitness+. So, for example, if you are interested in Apple Fitness+ and you don't have any of the other services, maybe this is your opportunity to go all in and pay $30 a month to get music, TV, and games, and all the iCloud storage, and the fitness. So I think for people who are already into one Apple thing, it makes a lot of sense. I don't see people defecting to Apple just for the bundles.
LG: That's interesting. I mean, is that a consumer behavior we see that much anyway, though?
MC: We saw it with Apple Music, where people left Spotify, and I think when Apple TV+came out, a lot of people made a decision that they were going to cancel Hulu or Showtime in order to spend that money with Apple.
LG: Right. Well, and I also think Apple TV is a little bit different. because Apple was offering so much of it for free for the first year, if you bought new hardware last year, basically. I think we're probably going to see some of that, too, with some of these new services, right, just to incentivize people to get locked into the ecosystem.
I want to put a pin in Fitness+ and come back to that, certainly. But when you say Apple Music, to me, that's the thing that, when you said at the top of the show, "Too much stuff," that's where you lose me, because I don't really have interest in Apple Music. At this point, I'm in the Spotify universe, and I have some issues with Spotify too, but at least I know I can use it across multiple devices and it's platform agnostic, and I've just been using it for a while.
So when I look at a bundle and it has Apple Music in it, or some other service that I'm like, "Not really interested in using that one," I mean, it's just going back to the cable bundle—this idea that you're paying for all these channels that you aren't going to watch, and some of those are actually priced at a premium because of the way the licensing deals are structured. Then you're just like, "I don't need this bundle. I have options that are a la carte." So, for me, that's kind of a turn-off, though I know Apple will probably try to address various tiers.
All right, let's talk about Fitness+. Julian, let's bring it back to you. What did you make of Fitness+?
JC: It certainly seems like the thing that Apple would do. They have this following with the Apple Watch, and a lot of people use it to complete those rings, and that's just become this big phenomenon. So it makes sense that they would capitalize on it by having their own studio filled with athletes and putting out weekly videos that people can now watch.
I just feel like, ever since the pandemic began, my girlfriend and I have been working out every day, or at least trying to every day, by following YouTube videos. There's just so much that you can get for free, that, for me, when I saw the announcement, I was like, I don't really feel like I need this. Because if you're telling me that the biggest sell is that I can see the data from my watch on the screen, I think I'll just stick with looking at the watch, because isn't that the whole point of what the watch was, right? Just, you're able to just see your information with a quick glance, rather than looking at your phone or something else.
I do think that it'll be helpful for some people. But for me, the value doesn't quite make sense, because there's already so much great content out there that you can totally access without spending any money. It'll just really come down to whether the fitness personalities on the shows are going to be unique and interesting enough that they'll create a cult following, and that is totally up in the air until we actually see the service.
LG: Have either of you ever been incentivized to pay for a fitness app before?
LG: No. OK. Interesting. Interesting.
JC: I paid for five years of Planet Fitness, and I went for a week, so I'm also in a different boat, I think.
LG: Yeah. Well, you're also then getting, back in pre-pandemic times, a location, a community that you would go to when you're paying for a gym membership. But there is something that feels like you must be a real glutton for punishment if you're paying $10 a month for someone to shout at you through your iPhone screen to do more push-ups or something like that.
I happen to be a Peloton subscriber, which we talked about on last week's show with Brian Barrett. So go back and listen to that one when you're done listening to this Gadget Lab. So, of course, there was a lot of chatter when Apple first announced Fitness+t hat this was going to be a Peloton killer. In fact, I even tweeted, "Oh, my God, Apple just announced a Peloton app."
There are some key differences there, though. I mean, the hardware that both companies make is very different. Peloton makes very purpose-driven hardware. You pay a premium for it, but you get the exercise bike or treadmill, right, and they have successfully built up both what feels like a social network and then those personalities that you talked about, Julian, where people get really excited to work out with them. They're like mini celebrities now, these Peloton instructors.
I just did a ride last night where Cody was selling his merch, and I'm like, "Wow, he has a branded T-shirt line now." But we'll see if Apple is able to successfully mimic that, because at the end of the day, they're not competitive, but they sort of are, because this is all about getting eyeballs onto one platform, right?
MC: And it's about getting people into the ecosystem, because the thing about Fitness+, which I was sort of surprised to see, is that it requires two devices, two Apple devices. It requires a watch—you have to have a watch to use it—and you have to have either an iPhone, an iPad, or an Apple TV. You can't do it on your computer. There's no web interface or anything.
Which, if you think about it, makes sense, because Apple's always done this, where they try to sell you on not just the gadget but the whole experience, right, this rich ecosystem. So the watch ties into what you're doing on the screen, on your iPad, and that feedback loop is their special sauce here.
In the same way that with Peloton, the equipment that you have and the relationship you have with the instructor and the platform, the social aspects of the platform, that's their own special sauce. So you can see how the wheel is going to turn with Apple Fitness+, and to me, that was the real revelation.
LG: You mean how the bike plate is going to spin? Is that what you meant? How the … Sorry, that was really bad. Yeah, you're right. It's almost as though the competition is not necessarily Peloton-specific, but just, it's about Apple having been this platform for a long time for third-party apps, and then increasingly getting into the same services that are provided through third-party apps, so it becomes competitors with them.
It's going to be interesting to see how well Apple takes information that it gets from the third-party fitness apps you use. Like if that app writes to Apple Health and sends your data to Apple Health, and then Apple knows that you like doing this yoga class on this app, so then Apple starts recommending its own Fitness+ yoga class. That's going to be, I think, where the competitive power lies for Apple, as opposed to competing with a company that makes exercise equipment. But, of course, we also know that Apple is being scrutinized for its massive platform and the way that it uses that platform. So we will see how that evolves.
All right. We're going to take a quick break, and when we come back, we're going to talk about hardware.
LG: Welcome back, everyone. All right. Apple's announcements, well, it wasn't the iPhone, but there were some new products. There are two new Apple Watches. There's a premium version with blood oxygen monitoring capabilities. There's a less fancy budget version of Apple Watch, although I think it still starts at $279. The company also announced two new iPads, including a redesigned iPad Air. Mike, what were your thoughts quickly about just the fact that we didn't hear about a new iPhone?
MC: Well, I think we were all expecting to not hear about a new iPhone, and by we, I mean the people who report on this company and follow it closely. Earlier this summer, there was an earnings call where Apple executives mentioned that because of delays in the supply chain, and because of the economic slowdown globally, the iPhone's release was going to be delayed by a few weeks or a couple of weeks. I can't remember the exact language, but we knew that it was going to be delayed.
So when the announcement came that there was going to be an event in September, we knew that it was probably not going to be the iPhone, because it was still within the iPhone normal date range, and they'd already told us that it was going to be delayed, and also, the event invitation said, "Time flies," which is in typical Apple fashion—they like to tip their hand a little bit about what they're going to be talking about. The fact that they mentioned the word time, and we know there's a new watch coming, we knew that this event would mostly be about the watch.
That's basically the story of the iPhone. So we can expect that there's probably going to be an iPhone in a couple more weeks. So we'll all be back on the show, talking about it in the beginning of October.
LG: All right. Julian, tell us about the new Apple Watches and what you thought of them.
JC: I mean, overall, it seems like a pretty solid improvement from last year's one. The big new thing here is blood oxygen saturation tracking. It's weird that I feel like they didn't quite spend as much time on sleep tracking. It was a thing that they talked about at WWDC when they first announced it in the new watchOS version, but I still thought they would have focused on it a little bit more, because this is something people have been clamoring for, for a long time, on an Apple watch, and now you can finally do it. I think they barely even mentioned it, other than saying it's a thing in the new watches.
So it's interesting. I don't know if they think that the data there isn't going to be as helpful for people, or if they just don't know what to do with it, other than saying, "Here's your sleep score," which, to be honest, that's normally what I feel when I see a sleep score on one of these watches. It's like, "Great, I got a 90 out of 100. I don't know what to do with that information."
But, overall, I think this is a pretty great improvement from last year, but it also feels like we're reaching the ceiling, because where is the competition? When it comes to Samsung's watches, yes, you can get similar experiences, but I feel like Apple is still leading the charge here in terms of the quality of the apps you can use on the watch and overall with the entire ecosystems and with its phones as well.
LG: Yeah, I have to wonder if the lack of mention of sleep tracking is just acknowledging that none of us are sleeping much these days. But in terms of the new Apple Watch, so I happen to be wearing the new Apple Watch Series 6 now. The embargo for first looks on the watch lifted this morning, the morning that we're taping the podcast, so I guess I can talk about it now.
MC: This is the first listen.
LG: It is a first listen instead of a first look. When I put it on last night, I thought, "Yeah. Looks just like the Apple Watch Series 5. Don't really notice any differences here." But there is the SpO2 tracking, which so far hasn't been great, but I have to give it a few more tries before I really make my assessment. I was surprised a little bit by what just felt like maybe the least exciting Apple Watch announcement so far in its five years of existence. To me, this year felt like incrementalism more than any other year.
There have been these steps that Apple has taken to either waterproof it, or add GPS and heart rate tracking to it, or then a couple years ago … Was it a couple of years ago or was it last year? I think it was last year when they announced the EKG function, and they had taken it a step beyond what some other watch manufacturers had done. They had gotten "de novo" clearance, which is a type of FDA clearance, though not FDA approval. So they were sort of legitimizing that feature in a certain way.
They did fall detection, they have SOS calls, all these things that felt pretty, I don't know, fairly significant updates for this tiny little thing that goes on your wrist, and then yeah, to your point, Julian, we didn't hear a lot about sleep tracking. We didn't hear about any major changes in battery life. It seems to me like the big differentiator is going to be this SpO2 sensor and a slightly brighter display, right, that's the other thing?
JC: Yeah, in always-on mode.
LG: In always-on mode. Yes, OK.
MC: There is that ceiling that happens again and again, in any technology. Like if you remember when smartphones first came out, for the first three or four years, it was like innovation, innovation, innovation. Then you hit a point where the next one is just kind of like the last one and a little bit better, and it gets a little bit better battery life, and the camera's a little bit better, and the screen's a little bit better.
We're sort of hitting that with smartwatches now, where the best smartwatches have parity on all the major features. A few are better than others at some things. I think the thing where Apple really needs to improve is battery life. When you get an Apple Watch you can wear all day and all night, so you get a full day before you have to charge it—I think that's when it's really going to become like the … The battery is the killer app on the Apple Watch, as I always like to say.
But the smartwatches are pretty close to being boring. They're getting to the point where it's just going to be like, "Yeah, there's the new one." Like the iPad is now. I mean, the iPad is absolutely amazing, but the version eight that was announced this week is just a notch better than the version seven that came out two years ago or whatever.
LG: Tell us about the new iPad, Mike.
MC: It's an iPad. There isn't really much more to say about it. The exciting one is the iPad Air, which has the most design changes that I can remember in an iPad. The screen has the same footprint, but they squeezed more pixels and a bigger screen into it. Touch ID has moved into the sleep/wake button. There's a sapphire crystal on the button now, so it can see your finger, and it has this new chip in it, the A14 Bionic, which is, as far as we know, the first chip in the computer industry to ship at a massive scale that uses the new 5-nanometer process.
It sounds very nerdy, but the way that chips evolve is they get smaller and more powerful, so you can squeeze more computational circuits onto the same surface area. So Apple has taken the next step in this, and we expect that the other companies are going to be taking the next step in this over the next five or six months. So for the next year or two, all of the chips that are coming out in all the new machines are going to be 5-nanometer chips. Apple beat everybody, so that's big news. Whether or not that actually changes how the iPad Air feels to you is negligible, but from a nerdy evolution-of-computers perspective, that's a big deal.
LG: Julian, what did you think of the new iPads?
JC: I do think that there is an air of a complacency with the iPad, the base model. I think they know that there is not much else in terms of competition that you can get at that price range that's really good. So, yes, it's a very good iPad, and I'm grateful that they're continuing it and improving it and adding a better processor, but I do think they could be a little more competitive and offer some of the features that they're bringing in the new Air to that base model.
Like why is there still a first-gen Apple Pencil? It makes no sense. They shouldn't be selling an iPad that you can't just slap an Apple Pencil on and have it wirelessly recharge and pair. The other thing is USB-C, which I think is just, at this point I'm so tired of having this one Lightning cable. I charge my iPhone with wireless charging because that's more convenient than holding onto Lightning cables, but the iPad has just been the sole thing that I need to have a Lightning connector, just to be able to charge it.
I'm super thankful that the Air is finally also going USB-C, but it's just things like that, and another thing I think someone else pointed out on Twitter was 32 gigs of storage in the base model, which, in 2020, should be pretty … that's a no-no.
LG: Yeah, it's this interesting combination of seeing the high-end iPads become these delivery mechanisms for really interesting new technology, like lidar or new display technology like ProMotion and things like that, but then as you get down the product line, it really just becomes classic product differentiation, right?
MC: That's something that I'd like to point out, which is that it's really important that Apple has an iPad at $330, or if you're in the education market, for $300, because it's the cheapest way into their app ecosystem. It's cheaper than the cheapest iPhone, and the Apple Watch can be less expensive, but you still need an iPhone or an iPad to pair to the Apple Watch.
So it gives Apple a cheap skew, right? Something that they can sell to anyone in the world. Families, schools love iPads. They're never going to not have a cheap version of the iPad, and that iPad does not need to be exciting. It needs to be capable, it needs to not require any maintenance, and it needs to be cheap. $330 is not cheap, but for a fully functioning mobile computer that has all of those amazing apps and works with the Pencil, that is a bargain.
LG: So it's interesting, because I'm hearing Julian say that it's not very exciting, but what you're saying, Mike, is that it doesn't need to be, because there needs to be something at that end of the market that can just suit a mass audience, or people who are just looking for the cheapest iPad they can possibly get.
MC: Yeah, exciting doesn't matter at the low end. It just, like, cheap, and it works, and it never breaks. That's all that matters.
LG: And you know when exciting doesn't matter? When you're just using it to deliver a bunch of services …
LG: … and get people into subscriptions. OK, let's take another quick break and when we come back, we're going to do our recommendations.
LG: All right, Julian, our guest of honor, what is your recommendation this week?
JC: I have gotten a turntable to test. It's called the Fluance RT80, pretty technical name, but I have never really used a turntable, and I don't think I've really ever listened to vinyl or just had that experience of putting on a record. I have to say, it is probably a magical moment during this pandemic, which was just, literally, my girlfriend and I were just sitting on the couch, I set it all up, and then I had this one record that I bought like a year ago at some event, and I brought it home and I didn't have anything to play it on, so I just put it up on a display. I pulled it out and I put it on there, and just the sensation of just putting that … I don't know what it's called. See, this is how little I know about turntables.
MC: You can just say needle.
JC: The needle! Yeah, the needle. So when you put the needle on the record, and when it just started producing music, we both kind of just sat back in awe. I just was staring at this rotating disc, and I was like, "This is producing music right now." It's not particularly this turntable that I'm saying is something that I recommend, but I just think the general idea of getting a turntable, and getting records, and we then spend a weekend going to different record shops and buying a couple different records. I just think it was such a different experience from just opening up my phone app, and pressing play on a song, and using my Bluetooth headphones, that I think this was just such an interesting and physical experience that I think everyone should really spend some time and try it out.
MC: It's great that you can go record shopping together as a couple, because I'm a huge vinyl nerd and I've ruined so many vacations by just … I need a day, just to go to all the record stores. I get a really bad case of it's-right-over-here-itis, or there's-one-more-thing-I'm-looking-for-itis.
JC: Well, as someone who doesn't really know what I'm doing, both of us just went in there, and we're just like, "Do you see anything you recognize?" I'm like, "No, but this artwork looks interesting," and so we're just ending up, just buying by what things look like. It's been fun, also, just doing that alone, so trying and seeing whether this would be a genre of music that I like, but yeah.
LG: How much does this record player cost?
JC: It's $200, but the nice thing about this one is that it has a preamp built in, so you don't really need anything else outside of speakers. You just plug it into your speakers, you put the record on, and that's it, voila.
LG: Nice. Julian, this was the record player that you Instagrammed the other day, where you were playing the Florence album?
JC: Yes. Yes. That is one thing that I bought from eBay, because I play the game … Something I guess I could also recommend, I played that game last week and it was like, an hour of my time, but the music in that game was so beautiful that I was like, "This is something that I should totally buy for the record player."
LG: Yes. It's such a great game. That's by Annapurna Interactive, right?
LG: Yes. OK. Mike, what's your recommendation this week?
MC: I would like to recommend a television show on Netflix. It's called 3%. It has nothing to do with the far-right political group called Three Percenters. It's a science fiction show. It takes place in the near or distant future, and it's basically a dystopian world where there are people who live in poverty, and then there are people who live in a society that you have to find your way into, through a lottery and passing all these tests. So the show follows a group of people, young people who are trying to advance from the poor society into the utopian society, and of course, if you've read any dystopian literature, you would know that not everything is as rosy as it seems once you get there, and the journey often takes you into new places.
Anyway, fantastic show. It is Brazilian, so it is in Portuguese. So you'll be watching a show with subtitles. It's really fascinating, though, because the production design really sets it apart. These are people who are living by their wits and they don't have a lot of resources. So the costumes feature a lot of knitwear and crochet wear. You'll see people using woven baskets. It adds this sense of realism to it, that if you were in this situation, this is how you would make your clothes, this is how you'd make your supplies. When you get your hands on technology, this is how closely you would guard it.
So it's really wonderful. The reason I'm recommending it right now, it's been out for a while, but the fourth and final season just dropped this week. So you can start it if you haven't already and you can finish the whole thing. It might take you a couple of weeks to get through it because it is four seasons, but highly recommended, 3%.
LG: That sounds great, and very dark during these already dark times.
MC: It is pretty dark, but it's not depressingly dark the way that a lot of those shows can be. The acting is very stern and there's not a lot of humor in the show, but the way that the production is done, it's very bright and has a sort of a nice human glow about it that I really like.
LG: A nice human glow. That's how I think of all of you, as we're Zooming during this podcast.
MC: What's your reco?
LG: My recommendation this week, because in the Bay Area we've had a week of unprecedented poor air quality, and so lots of people have been asking you about the best air filters or air purifiers, and WIRED has a guide to that. We published it in May of this year, so it's pretty up-to-date. Matt Jancer and Adrienne So wrote it for us.
I have a Coway. There is a Coway Airmega at the top of our list. It's somewhere between $180 and $250, depending on where you buy it. I don't have that exact Coway, but I have a similar one that I paid around $200 for, and I really like it. But this list has short descriptions of the Blueair Pure 411, which a lot of people have asked me about, a Dyson, there's a Honeywell option on there. It's a pretty comprehensive list of air purifiers, and so I would take a look if you are in the market for an air purifier. We'll link to that in the show notes, as well.
LG: All right. That's our show for this week. Thank you, Julian, for joining us again.
JC: Thank you for having me.
LG: And thanks to all of you for listening. If you have feedback, we would love to hear it. You can find all of us on Twitter, just check the show notes. Our producer is the excellent Boone Ashworth. Our executive producer is Alex Kapelman. Goodbye for now. We'll be back next week. Until then, stay well, stay healthy, go into your settings and check your subscriptions, because you might be subscribed to something you don't want to be subscribed to. OK.
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