Gadget Lab Podcast: Our Favorite Stuff From 2019, Plus Our 2020 Predictions

2019 was a tumultuous time for technology. While product engineers created hybrid Frankengadgets and software companies turned nearly everything into a subscription service, we also grappled with the increasingly chaotic ripple effects of social media and the realization that there are people listening to our private home recordings. (Not to mention Elon Musk’s new Murdertruck.)

On this episode of Gadget Lab, we’re going to try to make sense of it all. We talk about the most important product developments of 2019 and look ahead to predict the trends that will matter in 2020.

Show Notes

Read Lauren’s review of the Sonos Ikea Symfonisk Speakers here. Read the story about the making of the California Consumer Privacy Act in The New York Times. Read more about this year’s wild phone design choices here.


Lauren recommends the iPad Pro. Mike recommends the Google Pixel 3a. Arielle recommends getting an Amazon Kindle.

Lauren Goode can be found on Twitter @LaurenGoode. Arielle Pardes is @pardesoteric. Michael Calore is @snackfight. Bling the main hotline at @GadgetLab. The show is produced by Boone Ashworth (@booneashworth). Our consulting executive producer is Alex Kapelman (@alexkapelman). Our theme music is by Solar Keys.

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Lauren Goode: Welcome to Gadget Lab. I’m Lauren Goode and today it’s our end of year episode. Later in the show, we’re going to look ahead and make some predictions about what’s going to happen in consumer tech next year and beyond. But first, we’ll go around the room and we’ll talk about the most interesting stories in gadgets, gear, in consumer tech from 2019. I’m going to ask everyone to share the product or trend they think impacted our lives and your lives the most this year. Let’s kick it off with Mike. Mike, what do you think?

Michael Calore: Well, I thought long and hard about nominating a product. I think my bed was at the top of the list, and my bicycle was not far below it, but I’ve decided instead to highlight a trend: the Swiss Army gadget. These things have been around for a couple of years now. It is the lamp that’s also a speaker, or the wireless charger that also has a digital photo frame attached to it.

These are things where a company is basically looking around your house at all the things that are plugged in and trying to find two or three things they can combine into one item. You only have to plug one thing in. This is more than just putting a chip in something that has never had a chip in it before. It’s more than just adding a camera and a microphone and putting Alexa inside of it. Although I will say that the rise of Alexa and specifically Amazon’s release of the Alexa software developer’s kit two years ago has led to this becoming a much bigger trend in the consumer product space. But this year was the year that we really saw the breakout of the Swiss Army gadget. We actually started tracking this at CES last year. Our colleague Brian Barrett wrote a lovely story about the rise of the Swiss Army gadget that you should all go read right now.

So some things that we saw this year that I really liked, there was the Simplehuman Sensor Mirror Hi Fi, which is a bathroom mirror. So it’s like a makeup mirror that has a light around it that also has an Alexa speaker in it so you can like ask it to play NPR while you’re doing your makeup in the morning. There is the Barisieur, which was a pour-over coffeemaker with a digital alarm clock in it, which is totally weird and delightful.

Probably the pinnacle of this trend is the Ikea Symfonisk. Lauren, you reviewed this for WIRED. It’s a $180 Ikea lamp that also has a Sonos speaker in it, so I think it’s the pinnacle because it just looks like a lamp, but it’s also a Sonos speaker. Those are two things that everybody wants in their house. They’re not things that you’re trying to think may work in your house. These are things that you absolutely want in your house.

Arielle Pardes: But it’s so ugly.

MC: It’s not beautiful. It’s not perfect. It’s also like-

AP: I don’t want that in my house.

MC: It’s also not the best lamp and not the best Sonos speaker, but it is two big giants bringing their strengths to the table to create something new and unique that actually has utility for people. That’s the thing that I’m excited about in this space and that’s the thing that I think we can look forward to growing next year.

LG: It’s a really interesting trend and one of the things that I did note in my review as well is that it caters to a certain consumer tech buyer or audience that perhaps is living in smaller spaces. You tend to think of younger people who are still living in apartments or just that our home space tends to be smaller in general in some places, in cities, in metropolitan areas. And so, like you think about the ways that these gadgets can do double duty in ways that you don’t have to fit an entire speaker system and lamps and alarm clocks and whatever else there is.

But while these may make things more convenient in some ways, I do wonder, this is the cynical part of my brain, if it’s also much more convenient for companies to then siphon our data away into, I don’t know, somewhere where they’re using our data in ways we don’t really know about or fully understand because you’re no longer just buying the lamp, you’re buying the lamp with the smart speaker, with the voice assistant that you’re talking to, and then those supposedly anonymous aggregate voice bits are being sent back to somebody’s server somewhere.

MC: Why did you have to cast this dark cloud on my sunny optimism?

LG: I’m just saying, just saying. And that’s actually a great transition to Arielle. Arielle, what do you think was the biggest trend in 2019?

AP: It’s got to be privacy. This is something that we hear about every single year. The word privacy is nothing new in our space, but I think this year things really heated up and the telling example is definitely smart speakers. So smart speakers sales are way up this year. I just checked a report that said they had risen 35 percent in 2019. There are millions of smart speakers around the world. They’re like in your grandma’s house now and at the same time, as people are really excited about smart speakers and voice assistance have gotten so good and now everything’s a speaker and it’s so convenient, people are freaking out about the privacy implications.

And we saw this, this year with both Google and Apple catching a lot of flak for the ways that their voice recordings are being processed on the backend. So people for the first time got to peek behind the curtain and say, “The things that my Alexa speaker or my Google assistant or HomePod is recording are actually being processed by people,” which means someone’s listening to you in your house.

I think that sentiment has really shifted this year. Obviously, privacy concerns are nothing new, but this was the first time I can really remember hearing people at cocktail parties saying like, “I’m scared of what the tech companies are doing with my data of whether or not they’re watching me, of whether or not they’re listening to me” and people are interested, I think, now and pushing back.

LG: Do you get the sense that there’s going to be any real action taken in 2020 or beyond that addresses some of the concerns that we’ve seen emerge over the past couple of years, whether that’s concerns around social media sites and how Facebook is using our data or whether it’s how giant tech companies are using human contractors to listen to our audio bits and train their AIs on them?

AP: Yeah, I do. So I think public sentiment is really powerful or at least recently has become so. Because of public sentiment now Google and Apple have both changed their practices for how people review these voice bits when they’re collected on the backend. So that’s already one example of something that the public has influenced in tech. But there’s also this big push around regulation and there’s something really exciting happening January 1, which is that this new piece of legislation called the California Consumer Privacy Act will go into effect.

This is a piece of legislation that was drafted by a bunch of unlikely activists in California who were wary of what these tech companies were doing to their data. They took inspiration from GDPR, which is this sweeping regulation across Europe that basically set standards for how tech companies can use people’s data, what they can store, when they have to delete it, stuff like that. And yeah, these Californians got this piece of legislation passed.

It’s going into effect in January. And I actually think that we’ll have some widespread effects, not just because California is such a big economy with such a big population, but because all of these companies are headquartered here, and if there’s now regulation that says, “Hey, if somebody asks you to delete their data, you actually have to do that.” Then that changes how some of these companies operate.

LG: So that means going forward, if you’re listening to this podcast and you want to send in a request that we delete all of your data, we’ll have to do it.

OK, so one of the biggest trends for me this year was the emphasis on services. Very unsexy word. What are services? OK, it’s software but it’s also subscription software. So, for example, Apple is known for its very expensive hardware, its phones and whatnot, but the company also makes its own software and more and more. It’s been pushing people to pay for software on a subscription basis.

At least that’s been my experience both on Mac and iPhone and whether that’s news or Apple’s TV streaming services, they want you to start paying for everything now on a monthly basis and it’s not just Apple, it’s also Google. I also pay for Google’s cloud services. I finally hit my limits this year on Gmail. I had to start paying more per month. I was really irritated. Boone and I wrote a guide about how to clear out your Gmail so you don’t encounter this. Then there are streaming video services that we all subscribe to, Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime Video, HBO Now.

Then there are direct to consumer companies, whether they’re selling dental floss or shaving cream or whatever it is, who all wants you subscribing on a month to month basis. So this isn’t exactly new. The whole idea of companies wanting recurring revenue from you as a customer, not a new idea, but it feels like in 2019 we hit something of a subscription peak.

I like to say it feels like we’re frogs boiling in subscription water and it’s a good idea once in a while to take a look through your bank statement or just look at all the products you are using and figure out what you no longer need and you no longer need in a subscription basis. What services are no longer serving you and it’s something I plan to keep a closer eye on in 2020.

AP: Is there anything you canceled recently?

LG: I canceled a lot of stuff recently. I was doing Rent the Runway on a monthly basis. I ended up canceling that. Let’s see. I unsubscribed to a few Patreon accounts I was no longer using. I unsubscribed to Adobe services that I was no longer using. Yeah, I’ve really been going through a lot lately and trying to pay attention to things. I did end up canceling Hulu, but then Spotify was offering a media bundle with Hulu, so I ended up resubscribing to that …

AP: Off.

LG: …and that’s happening a lot too now as well. You’re seeing the bundles.

You get cell phone service and then you get one of the streaming services. You buy an iPhone and you get access to Apple TV+ free for a year. All of this stuff and we’re going to see more of this, I think, in 2020 so it’s a good idea to pay close attention to services and what you’re actually paying for.

All right, let’s take a quick break and then we’re going to talk about the future.

LG: Welcome back to the future. See what I did there? OK. 2019 was supposed to be all flying cars and 3D printed VR headsets and blockchain. But sometimes what tech companies say don’t actually work out that way or things take a little bit longer than expected. So we at the Gadget Lab are going to make some predictions around the biggest developments we’re going to see in 2020 and beyond. Arielle, you want to go first?

AP: Sure. So my prediction is called “look ma, no hands” and it’s around how in 2020, we will stop touching our technology. So what do I mean by that? People are already really into voice controls. It’s very common to shout into the void to play a song or unlock your smartlock or whatever. But I think 2020 is going to be the year that gesture controls really take off. And we’ve already started to see some of this with devices like the Pixel 4 that came out a couple months ago.

This has some really advanced gesture controls on it. You can do things like pinch to zoom or swipe to change a song without ever touching your phone. And I’m actually really bullish on this. I’ve gotten some flak about this on Twitter from people saying this is stupid. No one wants to be waving at their phone. Why don’t you just touch it? But I actually think this is going to take off a lot. And not only that, but I think that we’re barreling into a future where people are going to start developing genuine neural interfaces that allow us to control our devices with just our thoughts.

It sounds crazy, but it’s coming. You heard it here first.

LG: Can you give some examples of that and how is that going to work?

AP: Yeah, I mean I think that’s the million-dollar question, but there-

MC: Billion-dollar question.

AP: There are a handful of startups out there that are developing various types of neural interfaces that are noninvasive. So these are things that are either worn on your head or they’re worn on your wrist and they pick up on brain signals or motor action potentials, which are a signal that comes through your arm basically. And this is basically data that can be translated into a control. So there are companies that are building this for gaming, companies that are building this as an alternative for a mouse or a keyboard.

I don’t know that that’s going to pan out in 2020 but I think this move toward gesture control and toward touchless control of our machines is definitely on the horizon.

LG: I hate to be cynical again, but I also wonder what that looks like in the early days in the world of false positives. I mean right now it’s not that big of a deal if Siri accidentally hears a command—you say the word “seriously” and Siri starts responding and it’s something awkward and goofy and you’re like, “Oh, Siri misheard me.” But like what does it mean when our brains are actually sending signals and they are interpreted or misinterpreted as something, some type of action that then happens in the real physical world.

MC: It’ll be lulz. It will be definitely be lulz.

AP: I mean, you know the thing where you ask Siri to send a text message and Siri just totally bungles what you’re trying to say, like that is definitely going to happen with gesture controls and it’s going to be amazing.

LG: Yeah. Or brain computing interfaces. OK. Mike, what’s yours?

MC: My prediction for 2020 is the death of the notch.

LG: Finally.

AP: Alright.

MC: You all know and love the notch. It’s been around for a little more than two years. It showed up on the original Essential phone in 2017 and then in the iPhone X or the iPhone 10, as nerds call it, in 2017 and the notch is, you know there’s stuff there that we need. There are things like the cameras that run the face unlock software. There’s the selfie camera. There’s a radar in there on some phones, but the notch has been getting smaller and smaller and now we’re starting to see phone designs that are leaking out. We’re starting to see patents. We’re starting to see actual devices that get rid of the notch.

MC: So the solutions right now are a little bit inelegant. There are pop-up selfie cameras that pop up out of the top of the phone. There’s also one phone that has come out recently. The Oppo Find X, which actually hides the camera behind the screen. Samsung has a patent that hides the camera behind the screen, so I think that it’s coming. I think that the future is going to be a phone that has all that stuff. It has face unlock. It has a selfie camera, but when you look at the front of the phone, all you see is the screen. You’re not going to see anything else. You’re not going to see a notch.

MC: Personally, I don’t mind the notch. Like the first time I got a phone, within a couple of days, I never saw the notch. It just disappeared. But I think we’re actually going to see it disappear. I think the 2020 iPhone will probably have a notch but the 2021 iPhone definitely will not have a notch. And if you believe the rumors, it probably will also not have any ports.

LG: OK. But will it be folding?

MC: I certainly hope not.

LG: How do you think that this trend of disappearing design plays into what you said earlier about 2019 gadgets doing double duty? I mean, are things just going to start to disappear in our homes too, not just in the phones in our pockets?

MC: Yes and not only that, but we will control it all with our mind.

LG: Of course. And then of course our data will go somewhere that we don’t understand and there will be a completely opaque privacy controls and then there will be some regulation that’s passed as a result of disappearing design and data siphoning.

LG: OK, great. Well that’s really great. My prediction for 2020 is that this is the year we seriously consider the role of public social media and that’s probably not just for the next year, but maybe for the next few years. So there’ve been a lot of questions about social media’s impact on our lives. Four or five years ago, researchers were doing some work into whether or not social media was making us depressed. And then over the past two years, ever since Facebook’s mistakes around Cambridge Analytica came to light, there have been more questions about data of course and where that data is going and how it’s being used. But I think next year is going to be the year that we start to question social media’s role in our lives as a public or semi-public presence.

I think that people who build their businesses or their brands or they run a small business, maybe, influencers and that sort of thing will continue to use Facebook and Instagram and YouTube in the way that they have to to generate revenue and that is in a very public way. But I think for normal people, it’s going to become a lot more about disparate, separate, private groups. We’re starting to see that happen. We’ve heard Facebook talk about this in earnings calls saying that in some ways Mark Zuckerberg himself believes that the future of social media could be a more private experience, a more private social network.

We’ve seen the rise of messaging apps, WhatsApp, WeChat, in the past decade that create a private or a semi-private experience for people to connect. And then even just last week, Jack Dorsey, who runs Twitter, announced that Twitter has created a team of five people to explore a more decentralized Twitter experience, which makes me wonder what kind of apps are going to pop up around Twitter that offers something like Twitter, but it’s not the main Twitter timeline or feed, which is a very public thing.

So yeah, I think 2020 is going to be a year where we reconsider social media as a thing that we use to put some public blast out there and instead define the whole idea of social as something that’s more tightly connected within our own personal groups or spheres.

MC: More intimate, if you will.

AP: As Mark Zuckerberg would put it, it’s a return to the living room and away from the public square.

LG: Sure. Alright. We’re going to take a break and then we’re going to come back for recommendations.

LG: Welcome back. We’re doing recommendations a little differently today. Instead of telling you all what we’re into this week, we’re going to give you our number one buying recommendation for this whole year. Mike, you want to kick it off?

MC: Sure. I would like to recommend the thing that I have recommended to my own friends and family more often than any other device this year, and it is the Google Pixel 3a. This is Google’s $400 smartphone. It’s the device that made cheap phones cool again, and I think it’s super important and the reason I keep recommending it is because phones are so damn expensive now. Like, for example, the Google Pixel 4, the big brother to the 3a, is $700, the iPhone 11 is $700, the iPhone 11 Pro is $1,000, the Samsung Galaxy S10 is $900. The cheap, big, good flagship phone is the OnePlus 7 Pro, which is around $620 to $650 depending on how the tariffs are shaking out that week.

Basically, the Pixel 3a is a plastic phone. It has a different screen. It’s not an OLED, but it proves something very, very important. Having a phone that doesn’t have all that stuff in it and is made of plastic is totally fine. You don’t need a phone that has all of the latest, fastest, shiniest components in it. You can just have a phone that works and has great software on it and still have a tremendous experience and that experience is close to 90 percent of the experience that you get from something that costs literally twice as much money. So bargain of the century, bargain of the year. That’s my pick.

LG: I like it. Arielle, what’s yours?

AP: I would like to recommend something that is also plastic and is also something I recommend to friends and family all the time, which is a Kindle. Get a Kindle. This is the device that will last you for years. You never have to charge it and it will enhance your life so, so much. People don’t think that they like reading on a tablet before they get a Kindle. Like I’ve talked to a lot of people who say like, “Oh, I prefer reading real books.” And the thing is you can still read real books but you’ll read so much more when you get a Kindle.

The key to reading more books on your Kindle is to get a library card and then download digital library books onto your Kindle. It’s so convenient. I’ve read so many books this year. The other great thing about the Kindle is that it only does one thing. You can only use it to read books. You can’t surf the internet. You can’t check your text messages. You can’t take a picture. You can just read and there’s something so valuable in a world where every gadget does multiple things as Mike said earlier in the show. Where your phone is just this minefield of distractions, stuff you don’t actually want to spend your time on but end up spending your time on anyway.

There’s something really special about a device that does one thing. It’s the thing you want to do. It’s something that’s good for you and there’s no risk of doing anything else ever, ever again.

Mike, Lauren, do you have Kindles?

LG: I have used a Kindle I think when I’ve written reviews of Kindles but I don’t own one currently, but I do like the Kindle and I particularly liked the newer versions that are waterproof because you can take them in the bath or if you’re lucky enough to have a hot tub, the hot tub.

AP: Love to read in the hot tub.

LG: Yes. I mean pretty much I would get the Kindle just to take a bath.

MC: I have the Kindle Oasis. I love it. I take it absolutely everywhere. I paid too much money for it, but that’s fine because it’s awesome and it’s my best friend.

AP: I have the Paperwhite, which is the standard, good for everyone, not expensive.

MC: It’s like the middle one.

AP: Exactly. And the other thing about these devices is that they’re so durable and they’re so long lasting, you can buy one and expect to keep it for many, many years. You don’t have to charge it often. They hold up really well.

LG: Yeah. It’s one of those things that you can just charge and then take on vacation, but you don’t have to bring the charger on vacation.

AP: That’s right.

LG: Provided you’re not going away for 30 days or something like that. It’s just one less charger to carry around, which is really nice. OK, so my recommendation is a little bit more expensive than a Kindle and a little bit more expensive than a Pixel 3a but it’s an iPad. This was the decade of the iPad. They were launched early 2010. My God, I can’t believe it’s been that long. But for about 10 years, I have resisted pretty much the whole notion of an iPad being unnecessary gadget. That may be because I don’t work in an environment that lends itself well to iPads, feel like we have to have our laptops all the time because we have to just do a lot of writing and media production and that sort of thing.

Also, I know parents really like iPads because they are effectively a proxy for a babysitter sometimes, keeping your kids occupied and all that, but I personally just never really found the value in an iPad. This year though, that changed. I started using the iPad Pro 11-inch sometime. I think it was late spring, early summer, and I started taking it with me everywhere and it’s so fast. I mean it’s so amazingly fast and powerful and the way that the latest version of the software makes it more of like a desktop-like experience and not a tablet experience and how great it sounds when I’m watching videos on it, how long the battery life is. Even shopping on it if you’re using Safari ends up being just really easy. If you have your information set up in Apple Pay, it’s crazy how easy it is to buy stuff when you’re browsing on it.

So yeah, I just, I don’t know. I feel like a convert. I feel like I’m finally pro iPad Pro and it is pricey. That particular model starts at, I think, $650. I still don’t use the pencil all that much, although it is occasionally convenient for signing documents digitally and things like that.

MC: You can do that with your finger.

LG: You can do that with your finger too. You don’t need that. I’m not an artist so I’m not sketching and things like that, but it really is a pretty remarkable machine. I’m still not at the point where I would necessarily write like a 3,000-word story using it or using the smart keyboard, but I can see a future in which we are using things like iPads more than we’re using traditional clamshell laptops.

MC: Hear, hear.

LG: Alright. That is our show for this week and also this year.

MC: Yay.

LG: Yay. Thank you so much for listening. Not only today but being our loyal Gadget Lab fans. We’ll be off next week, but the show will be back the first week of January and we’ve got some really exciting things coming in 2020. Of course, early in 2020, we’ll be at CES in Las Vegas, the huge consumer electronic show that we just can’t avoid. Lucky for you, but we’re going to be really excited to be podcasting from there as well. So stay tuned.

If you have feedback for this episode or just for Gadget Lab in general, you can find all of us on Twitter. Just check the show notes. You can also find us on This show is produced by Boone Ashworth. Our consulting executive producer is Alex Kapelman. Arielle, Mike, thank you for joining me and thanks for a wonderful year and we’ll talk to all of you in 2020.

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