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Thursday, May 23, 2024

Twisty Laptops, Bendy Phones: Microsoft Bets Big on Design

It's the time of the year when all the latest tech products are announced, and this week was Microsoft's turn to show off the goods. The company slid out a few new Surfaces, a weird flippy laptop thing, and an eco-friendlyish mouse that looks like a bar of soap. Microsoft also doubled down on its dual screen mobile design with the Surface Duo 2, a device that we're still not quite sure what to do with.

This week on Gadget Lab, WIRED product and reviews writer Brenda Stoylar joins us to talk all about Microsoft's hardware announcements and the future of the company's multiple screens and detachable keyboards.

Show Notes

Check out everything Microsoft announced this week. Read Lauren’s story about the weird Surface Duo 2. Read our review of the last Surface Pro X. This is a password journal.


Brenda recommends the Peacock original Dr. Death. Lauren recommends the non-alcoholic craft beer made by Athletic Brewing. Mike recommends trying some Indian pizza.

Brenda Stolyar can be found on Twitter @BStoly. Lauren Goode is @LaurenGoode. Michael Calore is @snackfight. Bling the main hotline at @GadgetLab. The show is produced by Boone Ashworth (@booneashworth). Our theme music is by Solar Keys.

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Michael Calore: Lauren.

Lauren Goode: Mike.

MC: Lauren, which do you prefer? A laptop with a detachable screen, or a tablet with a detachable keyboard?

LG: So many choices this early in the morning. I have to say that I probably go first and foremost with a clam shell. Call me traditional, call me old fashioned. Followed by a tablet with a detachable keyboard. How about you?

MC: I want a clam shell where the screen also detaches and swivels over the keyboard, so I can type.

LG: Oh, OK. Well, do we have something for you.

MC: We're going to talk about all those options on today's show.

LG: All right.

[Gadget Lab intro theme music plays]

MC: Hi, everyone. Welcome to Gadget Lab, I'm Michael Calore, a senior editor at WIRED.

LG: And I'm Lauren Goode, a senior writer at WIRED. And this week I'm podcasting from Casey Newton's Closet.

MC: Hello, Casey.

LG: It's not actually his closet, it's just his apartment. Thank you, Casey.

MC: We are also joined remotely by WIRED's newest products and reviews writer, Brenda Stoylar. Welcome, Brenda.

Brenda Stoylar: Hello. Thank you for having me.

LG: Your inaugural Gadget Lab. It's so exciting to have you on.

BS: Thank you. Yeah, I'm very excited to do this.

MC: We are deep into what we here at WIRED call hardware silly season. Last week, Apple announced a bunch of new stuff, in this week, Microsoft took its turn. In a splashy live stream on Wednesday, the company detailed some of its upcoming hardware drops. We saw new surface computers, a weird laptop with a flippy screen, an update to the Surface Duo, the dual screen, phone, foldable, mobile thing. OK, well, it's definitely a phone, but we'll get into the Duo later on in the show. First, we want to talk about all the new surface hardware. Now, Brenda and Lauren, you both got a chance to report on the new Microsoft stuff this week. So, let's start with you, Brenda, of the many Surfaces you saw, which Surface was the most surprising?

BS: OK. So, I thought about this question for a while. Well, 24 hours, I guess at this point. And I know we're going to be talking about the Surface Duo 2 later, but I just have to say, that's the one thing that came to mind. I don't know if I was in denial over it, because of how it went last time around. I know that there were rumors, I know that we saw it coming, but I remember when I walked into the demo area, that was the first thing I saw and I was just like, "OK, we're doing this, it's here and we're all going to act like the first one didn't happen. We're just going to move forward." And so, yeah, I think just seeing it in person, in my brain, I was like, "They tried, Microsoft tried."

But then, the other thing I'm going to say, is the Service Laptop Studio, which I know Lauren, you're also going to talk about, but I think it was just nice to see something completely different, a whole new category, so to speak, I guess, in their lineup, because everything else, we all knew that there was going to be some upgrades to existing models. So, it was refreshing to just see something new from the yearly changes.

LG: What exactly is new about the Surface Laptop Studio? Try to explain it to us. And I love this by the way, because Brenda, you saw this a few hours before I did on East Coast time. And then, I saw, later in the day on Pacific time. And you came back to the newsroom, the virtual newsroom, and you were trying to explain it via Slack. And we were all like, "What does this thing do?" And you were-

MC: Wait, so it has a what? Where's the-

LG: Wait, where does the screen go? Yeah. So, tell us about this.

BS: OK. And I didn't realize it was so difficult to explain until I had to explain it. And I felt, I might as well have been speaking another language, because I was like, "I see it in my brain, but I don't know if the verbal explanation worked." OK, so at first glance, it looks just like a regular laptop. You have your screen, you have your keys, your keyboard and your touch pad. And then, behind the display are two hinges. And what you do, is you can move the display towards you. So, essentially the hinge almost splits the display and it lets you move it towards you. So, you can place it in three different modes. So, you have laptop mode, touchpad keyboard, you have stage mode, which lets you place the display, move it forward towards you, so you can watch movies, makes it more comfortable, it's at a slant.

And then, there is studio mode, which lets you place it flat like a tablet. And it's compatible with the Slim Pen too, so you can comfortably draw on it. So, it's built on the Surface Book 3, which I thought it was at first. And then, I wasn't sure if it was built on the Surface Laptop design, but yeah, Surface Book 3, and then Surface Studio. So, they basically just combined it to create one. Also, I will say, I really like that the internals are all on the bottom, because with the Surface Book 3, it's very top heavy. This one was pretty lightweight for such a intense contraption.

LG: And you can also get it with a Nvidia graphics card too, right? So, I mean provided that there aren't supply chain issues for that. And it's expensive. So, it's aimed at people who want to do "pro grade work".

BS: Yeah. It starts at $1,600, which is an investment, but you are getting a lot in one. So, for people that have a day to day workflow that works with that, I think it might be worth it. I don't know, we'll see. We'll see how it works in the wild, but it was cool. Cool concept.

MC: What about you, Lauren? What was surprising to you when you saw this stuff?

LG: I agree with Brenda, that I think this the Surface Studio Book Laptop Surface and Surface Book had a baby thing, was probably the most interesting. Ever since Microsoft started making its own PCs, dating way back to the giant surface tabletop computer. I don't know if you guys remember that?

MC: I do, yeah.

LG: But then, even more recently, the hybrids that it started rolling out in 2012, the company has just been experimenting, right? And a lot of these have been whiffs, either because the hardware was too early. I'm sure a lot of you remember the ARM processors and the Surface RT, it was a flop. And now, we see more and more of a move towards ARM-based processors and PCs. So, in that case, they were too early, or because the software was just a flop too, like windows eight, right? So. That's a bit of a chicken and an egg problem.

And also Microsoft, like a lot of other PC makers, are still relying on Intel for their chips. And Intel has flagged in innovation in recent years, right? Because, our mobile phones in many cases, are our computers now and mobile processors can do amazing things. That said, Microsoft has the money to experiment. They keep pushing forward with Surface. There have been times in recent years when it has even eked into the top five of PC makers globally, which is pretty impressive. It's now a billion dollar business for Microsoft, the whole Surface business, and they're willing to experiment. So, I think if anything stood out to me, once again, it was the Surface … What is it called? The Surface Book, the Surface Laptop Studio. Is that correct?

BS: Yes, Surface Laptop Studio. Although, it should have been the Surface Book Studio literally. I don't-

LG: Yes, that's so true. Because, it's based on the Book, it's not based on the laptop.

BS: Yeah, which is why I thought it was the Surface Laptop and the Studio mixed together. And then, they were like, "We built it on the heritage of the Surface Book-"

LG: Of the Book.

BS: And the Surface Studio. And I was like-

LG: Wait.

BS: That's a Surface Book Studio.

LG: Right.

BS: That's not a Surface Laptop Studio. I guess they just want to make it known that it's a laptop and they don't want to confuse people who maybe aren't familiar with the Surface Book line. I don't know. They just want people to know it's a laptop, clearly.

LG: Yeah. They want people to know it's a laptop, it's not a detachable. But, I guess, it doesn't have the alcantara fabric, it's not super slim and light, the way that they're striving for with the Surface Laptop. It really is more the heritage of the book. Yeah, just the design was nifty. I also thought the pen was pretty cool. The redesign pen, it's got a little bit of a drag to it now, in a good way. Not latency, not like when you connect it with the screen, it's slow to write. It's just, they've created this feedback, where it feels like you're actually dragging a pencil across a piece of paper, which I thought was a pretty cool for a stylus. And then, I guess if I had to throw in an accessory that I thought was really interesting, Microsoft also showed off a couple of interesting accessories.

One, is an accessibility pack, for Surfaces in particular. So, this is for people with low vision, or limited motor skills. It's basically just a pack of stickers. These are tactile adhesive buttons that you can put on certain key caps. You can put on a cable, and then put a corresponding sticker on the corresponding port on a laptop. You can attach a lanyard to the front of your keyboard. It has a loop at the end of it. And then, you can just get your finger in there and open your laptop a lot more easily. Sometimes, laptops can be surprisingly challenging to open. And so, that was pretty interesting. And then, the second small thing was, I think we all loved this. It's a mouse made of 20 percent recycled ocean plastic, little bit of a gimmick, in sustainability and whatnot. But, it looked cool, it was really lightweight, and it looked like a bar of soap. And I was saying yesterday that I think, it's the first computer mouse I've wanted to like wash my face with.

MC: Eww.

LG: It just looked cool. I just, roll it over there. Who needs a Jade roller? You just take the mouse and you just … Sorry. OK. Mike, what surprised you about Microsoft's announcements yesterday?

MC: I was surprised to see the X, the Surface X, just because it has traditionally not been the best computer. It's cheaper, right? It's the low budget Surface. It runs in an ARM processor-

LG: Mm-hmm.

MC: And as we know, there have been some issues with app support for ARM processors, and they got that mostly ironed out last year. But, I think now you still need to have apps that are optimized to run on ARM, in order for them to feel like the regular windows apps. Also, the price dropped on it. It's now $899, which makes it $200 cheaper than the actual Surface Pro starting price. So, maybe more people will be attracted to it at that price, but still, if you have the ARM version, or the full Intel version and you have to make a choice, why would you choose the ARM one? It just seems so underpowered. At least, that's what our testing has proven. And all the reviews that I've read have said the same thing about it. So, it feels like something that should just go away.

LG: Mm-hmm.

MC: But, it didn't.

LG: Mm-hmm.

MC: And honestly, we've all been praising Microsoft's experimentation and their willingness to experiment. And while I do appreciate that, my favorite Surface is the Surface Laptop. It's-

LG: You like that alcantara?

MC: Yeah. Well, it's not-

LG: Yeah.

MC: It's not just-

LG: Yes.

MC: The alcantara fabric coating. It's the fact that it's inexpensive and it's a laptop. It is the best machine for most people, right? And when you have these tablets that have the detachable keyboards and they have these kickstands, you can't really use that on your lap. You need a table and just think about how you use your laptop around your house. Right now, I'm standing in my closet and I have my laptop on a little shelf. If I had a surface, it wouldn't work. It just would not work at all.

LG: Mm-hmm.

MC: Of course, I could probably take the keyboard off and put it on a stand, because it's a tablet. So, it's a little bit more versatile in that regard. But, for the most part, if you're buying something to do laptopy stuff, you should just get a laptop.

MC: So, my favorite is the Surface Laptop. Now, the Surface Laptop 4 came out at the beginning of this year, or at least that's when all the reviews dropped, at the beginning of this year. And everybody's saying, if you're just getting a Microsoft laptop, just get this one.

LG: Mm-hmm.

MC: So, I agree with that. And to me, it was surprising that when we go into an event like this, there's all this flashy new stuff. And nobody talks about the Jetta of the lineup, the accord of the lineup. The thing that is the thing, that most people are going to buy, that everybody loves, that works for everyone.

LG: Mm-hmm.

MC: So, much love for the SL 4. We missed you this week.

LG: I have a Surface Laptop 4 at home here, Mike, on loan from Microsoft. I asked to borrow one, so that I could start running beta versions of windows 11. And you're welcome to borrow it if you'd like, just wanted to say that.

MC: No, thanks. I'm an Apple boy. All right, we're going to take a break. And when we come back, we're going to talk about that Duo 2.


MC: Welcome back. Last year, Microsoft jumped aboard the foldables trend and released the Surface Duo. Longtime listeners to this show have heard us talk about this thing before. You've probably heard Lauren talk about how much she loves it. It's a pocket-size device that flips open and closed like a book. And unlike other foldables we've seen, where you get one big screen on the inside with a barely-there crease running down the center, the Duo actually has two screens that are separated by a big old hinge. And back when it first launched, Microsoft pitched the device as a multitasking mini computer made for work, which is so very Microsoft. The company also absolutely insisted that it was not a phone. Now, it ran Android and it could make phone calls, but they refused to call it a phone. Well, almost nobody bought a Duo. And now, Microsoft has revamped the design. Lauren, you got a chance to look at the Surface Duo 2 this week. So, please tell us, can we start calling it a phone now?

LG: Yes, we can.

MC: Yay.

LG: We can call it a phone now. Panos Panay was very insistent during that briefing in the Fall of 2019, back in person in the before times, that it was not a phone, as you mentioned. It was more like, it's a new category of device, right? It was how it was presented. And I said, "Well, it makes phone calls." I remember one of the intro screens for the marketing video for it, was a woman accepting a phone call. And I'm like, "That's a phone." And they're like, "No, it's not a phone." But, there were a couple things about it that maybe indicated, OK, it is a weird hybrid device. It didn't have rear-facing cameras. It had a front facing camera. And if you wanted to, you could flip the flat back, and then take a photo that way. But, I don't know if anyone who bought the thing, ever used it that way. So, there were no rear cameras. And the emphasis really was on productivity. Here's how you use Microsoft Outlook across two panes of screens.

MC: Ah.

LG: Yeah, yeah. Outlook.

MC: The most exciting phone demo ever.

LG: Yeah.

MC: Outlook.

LG: So, now it's a phone. I mean, now there is a three camera module on the back of it. So, there's a wide angle, an ultra wide angle and a telephoto lens-

MC: Like a phone.

LG: Like a phone, it's a 12 megapixel camera system. I mean, the module is ugly, but it's there. And the way that Microsoft was demonstrating, it was really more about, having fun with it. Here's how you play casual games, using these two different screens. And I even got a demo of TikTok, where one page you're looking at the video that you're currently on. And the other page is basically, your for-you page, that shows rows and rows of upcoming videos, which was a cool way to experience TikTok.

And then, just snapping photos with it. You can use one side of the Duo 2, as your view finder, and then immediately the photo you've just snapped, appears briefly on the other display. And so, you can look at it and see if you need to continue taking more photos to get the shot, and then you can go into edit mode, and then you end up having this palette essentially, for editing your photos across two different displays. So, it's been an interesting strategy for them, because on the one hand, that split down the middle means that apps have to be optimized to work around that. But, on the other hand, maybe it's not quite as vulnerable to durability issues as something like the Samsung Galaxy Fold, or the Z Flip, which are creating one, unified, flexible, polymer display across two different sections of a phone. Which we know they're less durable, right?

So, maybe the Duo is actually the way to go, reminds me of, if you just took an iPad Mini and cut it in half, and then said, "It's a book now." Yeah, I don't know. I'm excited to play with this thing. It's also $1,500.

MC: Yikes.

LG: So, yeah. Brenda, what did you think of it when you saw it?

BS: So, when I first picked it up, my first thought was, "Oh, OK. This feels a lot nicer than the last one." I don't know why, when I first picked up the last one, it still just felt very prototypey to me. It just didn't feel nice, but this one felt a lot more sleek. Definitely, a lot more high-end almost. But, for me, I know that we have foldables, and then you have your dual screen phones. People like to keep those separate. And I guess, after seeing literally, the Fold 3and the Flip 3, and just seeing glass fold, to me, compared to the Duo, it feels like that should have happened so much longer ago. You look at these two dual screen phones and you're like, "OK, a feat of engineering, compared to a folding glass display. Yeah, it just doesn't feel as exciting for me anymore.

I think if the Duo had come out, yeah, long before the fold, or the flip. Even the razor, I'll throw that one in there, even though it definitely sucked, they still managed to make that one fold. It just feels dated to me at this point. And I still feel like it's a little bit confusing for the common person to grasp the concept of, when you have these dual screens. I don't think it's as easy as just picking it up and learning how to use it. I think that it very much reminds me of one of those, do remember the password journals, when we were kids? Does anybody remember those plastic password journals? That's what it looks like to me. It was this square device. And you had to type … No? Don't remember that? OK, nevermind.

LG: Brenda, I'm old enough that my diaries were dead tree.

MC: Yeah. Brenda, I am flattered. I am flattered right now.

LG: I was using composition notebooks.

BS: There's no display on the front, OK? That's what really reminds me. Not having anything on the front, it just looks dated.

MC: Yeah.

BS: Just a long winded way of me saying it looks dated. I think also just the $1,500 price tag, that's asking for a lot. But, I'm glad that they did make improvements that they should have applied to the first round. It's all to say that it just feels like they're really behind on this one. And it shouldn't have been so difficult for a dual screen phone. I think with Samsung, it's easier to almost forgive, because foldables are still very much in their infancy, I feel, for the mainstream. So yeah, seeing the iterations, I was less harsh. But, with this, it's just two screens. I don't know. Am I being-

MC: No.

BS: It's two screens. Why is it so hard?

MC: You're not wrong at all. I'm going to agree with you, because especially for $1,500, right? For 1500 bucks, you get a phone that has two screens on it. Where for the same money, you could get an actual phone with one screen that has one of the best mobile cameras that has ever been created, has a superior display. And you can actually use it to shoot a feature film, if you want to. You can't necessarily do that on the Duo. You can also actually watch a feature film on it, which if you do on the Duo, you're only using half the screen. So, I think if you're talking about spending that money, you should just get a real phone that can do real phone things, that's just super badass.

BS: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

MC: Instead of this one, which feels limited for phone things, because of the dual screen arrangement. And I understand, for productivity and for the cool thing, it is really cool that you can have the photo on one side, and then have the controls to adjust the photo on the other side. But, have any of us ever really had that much of a problem doing the same thing inside of a photo editing app on a phone with just a regular screen? I'd say-

BS: No.

MC: Probably 95, about a hundred percent of people would say no, right?

BS: Probably not.

LG: Yeah, yeah. We're so used to tasks switching and app switching at this point-

MC: Yeah.

LG: On our current, somewhat limited, mobile devices. Limited in terms of real estates, that it's not that hard to do.

MC: So, I would argue that the problem that Microsoft is looking to solve, is something that our brains have already solved for us.

LG: Hmm. That's interesting.

MC: And we shouldn't have to pay $1,500 for it.

LG: Yeah. I mean, I guess I'm definitely intrigued by the Duo 2 and I hope that I get a loaner unit to review. Julian reviewed the last one for us. I think he gave it a four out of 10. So, we'll see. We'll see what we think of this one. But, just to pile on here, when I look at something like the Samsung Galaxy, so the Z Flip 3 folds, blah, blah. The one that folds closed, like an old fashioned little flip phone. And I think about outdoor activities, going for a jog, going for a hike, anything that involves the phone actually being on your person. And you're not just holding in your hands, doing work. Something like the Duo 2 is still really not appealing. Something like the Z Flip Fold I think, is the way to go.

And so, yeah, we're seeing innovation happen in these weird areas, coming from different directions. I still believe in some ways, foldables might end up being the 3D TV of this decade. We'll see if that turns out to be true. If I'm wrong, I will admit that I'm wrong, but you got to appreciate the experimentation, I think too.

MC: Lauren, I look forward to reading your piece about how foldables are the new 3D TVs.

LG: You can go to WIRED.com and enjoy that right now.

MC: Oh, right. You already wrote it.

LG: Yes.

MC: Nice.

LG: And if I don't respond to your slacks, while I'm writing about the Duo 2, it's because I literally can't find the Slack App on the screens.

MC: Let's take a break. And when we come back, we'll do our recommendations.

MC: Brenda, you are our guest. You get to go first. What's your recommendation?

BS: OK, so it is a show. It's a Peacock original. So, you'll have to have Peacock, subscribe to that. And-

LG: Are you giving out your username and password on this program?

BS: Honestly, sure. If anybody wants it, I don't really use it that often. This is literally a once in a lifetime type thing. No offense to Peacock, but I don't know. This was a recommendation from a friend. So, it's a recommendation in a recommendation. So, it's called Dr. Death and it is based on a true story. And there's also a documentary, but this show is a little, I guess, they emphasized and fictionalized a lot. But, it is about a doctor who botches a lot of spinal tap surgeries. And basically, people end up paralyzed, people end up dying, but he just keeps jumping around from hospital to hospital. So, it's essentially, the journey of getting him to stop and to lose his license and to put him in prison. I mean, all this is already known, because there's a documentary, but very intense, a little bloody. So, if you guys don't like watching surgeries and stuff, which I don't, but I am making an exception. It can get a little intense, but very good. I'm not done yet. I'm almost there, but yeah, highly recommend. It's a very thrilling show.

MC: Dr. Death.

LG: Dr. Death.

MC: Solid first recommendation for the show, by the way.

BS: I know, I'm going very morbid.

MC: Lauren, what's your recommendation?

LG: Hopefully, that's not a metaphor for the Surface Duo.

MC: Oh.

BS: Staying on theme.

LG: Have I already recommended Athletic Brewing, Non-alcoholic Beers? I may have on an earlier show, maybe around dry January. I know that our executive editor of news, Brian Barrett is also a fan of this brand. But, you know what? I'm light on recommendations this week. So, I'm going to go for it again.

MC: Nice.

LG: I recommend checking out Athletic Brewing, non-alcoholic beers. My favorite, I think it's called Upside Dawn, which is a golden ale, but there's also a stout and IPA and other types of beer as well. I'm recommending this, because it is hardware silly season. And occasionally, you want to kick back and have a beer, have a drink, but I'm just working on … It feels like all the time right now, maybe with the exception of last Friday night. And so, I'm drinking non-alcoholic beer at the moment, which is great. They're delightful. You wake up feeling fresh the next day, when you have to tape early morning podcasts, or micro blogs, some weird Microsoft device. And I recommend that if you're either not drinking alcohol at all, or taking a break from alcohol and looking to detox and you're looking for a tasty beer, check out Athletic Brewing beers.

MC: Nice.

LG: Mike, what's your recommendation?

MC: So, I'm going to recommend something that is probably not as healthy as non-alcoholic beer.

LG: Mm-hmm.

MC: But, it is Indian pizza. So-

LG: It sounds way more delicious than non-alcoholic beer.

MC: If you can imagine a pizza, I'm sure you can all imagine a pizza, but instead of the toppings that you would expect to find on pizza, things like pizza sauce and pepperoni and mushrooms and cheese and spinach and olives and green peppers and all the things that you put on pizza, it is Indian sauces and Indian delicacies that go on it. So, things like spiced lentils, spiced spinach, chicken Tikka Masala, sauces, covering the pizza. And then, often also covered with cheese either like Paneer, the Indian cheese, or just regular old shredded mozzarella cheese, like you'd find on a normal pizza. This is something that's a cross-cultural hybrid, that was according to lore. According to popularly accepted Lore was born in San Francisco in the mid '80s, there was a guy named Dalvinder Multani who bought a restaurant that had a pizza oven and he wanted to serve Indian food, but he decided that he would get started just by making pizza.

And then, he started making Indian pizza and that place was called Zante's. I used to live within walking distance of Zante's and I got hooked on Indian pizza. But, now I live pretty far away and a little bit of shade here, their delivery is really terrible. Sometimes, you wait three hours for your delivery to show up and it's cold and you got to put it in the oven. So, I stopped eating it. And then, a couple of months ago, a place opened up here next to my house that makes Indian pizza. And now, I'm back on the train. Since then, it has exploded in popularity and you can find Indian pizza restaurants in places like New York, Chicago, different parts of the Midwest. You can find it in any good food city. So, my recommendation is check your local listings, find an Indian pizza place near you and try it. And if it's not great, try a different restaurant and see if you like that one better, because I'm telling you, it's amazing.

LG: That sounds delicious.

BS: That really does. And I'm probably going to look for that this weekend, I think. Especially, in New York.

MC: It's pretty dope and it's versatile, right? So, whether you're a vegetarian, or vegan, or if you like chicken, you can always get something fun on it, that's good for you, that speaks to your palette. So yeah, that's my rec. All right. Well, that's our show. Brenda, thank you for joining us.

BS: Thank you for having me.

MC: Been delightful. We look forward having you back on the show many, many more times.

BS: I would love that.

MC: And thank you all for listening. If you have feedback, you can find all of us on Twitter. Just check the show notes. This show is produced by Boone Ashworth. Goodbye. We will be back next week.

[Gadget Lab outro theme music plays]

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