There are bathroom scales that know your heart health and lipstick machines that know your perfect colour. There are radars for bikes and lidars for vacuum cleaners. There are computers that fold and trainers that bounce.
Most of all there are a lot of previously-inanimate objects — from tables to board games — that suddenly require bluetooth compatibility.
Here is a list of some of the top luxury technology releases of recent months. And if it seems out of your reach? It soon, most likely, won’t be. The thing about gadgets is that they start off as luxury, and rapidly become necessity. Today’s luxury tech all too often becomes tomorrow’s ubiquitous tech. Better get updating your table’s wifi settings.
Imagine, for a moment, that you had a tandem bike. Imagine that whenever the going got tough, your fellow cyclist stepped up the effort. When you started out, he or she pedalled that bit harder to give you a little boost. When a hill approached, they gamely stood on the pedals and sweated away. Throughout, you just kept on cycling at the same pleasant, easy pace. What would happen? Well, depending on your relationship to the other rider, you would get either a divorce or a punch. The Cowboy C4 ebike is just like that, except without the threat of violence. Doing away with the tedious necessity to adjust manually the output of the electric motor, instead it monitors how much effort you are putting into cycling and automatically increases its assistance accordingly. The result, as I discover on a short cycle ride around a nearby lake, is a very pleasant amalgam between cycling and sitting on my bum watching the ducks. Twenty minutes later I park the bike, unflustered, unruffled, and check out the stats on its smartphone app. First comes the distance: 1.4 miles. Next, the fitness goals. During that distance, it says, apparently without a sense that this might be moderately embarrassing for me, I burnt seven calories. I have had sneezes that have been more slimming. Still, like the best tandem partner, it is there not to criticise or chivvy but to support. “The weekend warrior is back,” my bike app tells me cheerily, if not accurately, when I dismount.
From £2,190, uk.cowboy.com
Steam Deck handheld gaming PC
There are games from around the early 2000s at which I was embarrassingly good. Ask me to invade the Holy Roman Empire in Medieval: Total War or take out a Chinatown gangster with a sniper rifle in Grand Theft Auto and, still, I can picture the mouse movements required. Then I got married. I’d become a man; it was time to put away childish things. Since then I have had three children, written five books and taken up running. Except the books failed, the kids disrespect me and my knees hurt. Productivity is overrated. Meanwhile, like a former footballer who still follows his team (or perhaps more appositely, like a recovered alcoholic who still lingers in the drinks aisle) I have kept an eye on games. I have watched YouTube videos of better, sleeker carjackings. I have read reviews of more extensive medieval conquest games. I have dreamt of leading those conquests, of jacking those cars. Then along comes Steam Deck. For the first time, there is a handheld gaming PC. Designed to be portable, it isn’t a midlife-crisis statement in the living room like, say, a PlayStation 5. It can instead — like a vodka bottle in the toilet cistern — be hidden away. But inside its sleek black exterior lies a full PC. And the result? During my commute I have access to the 20 years of games I have missed. I can take out gangsters with photorealistic graphics. I can not only invade the Holy Roman Empire but — in the sequel to Medieval: Total War — conquer the New World too. Technologically Steam Deck is a marvel. Personally and professionally it’s been a catastrophe. Giving me a gaming computer has been like giving a bottle of whisky to an alcoholic. I used to work on that commute. I used to read books at night. Now I practise carjacking and overtaxing colonies. It’s a miracle I even wrote this column. But gosh, it’s fun. Escape from reality
From £349, steampowered.com
Bird Buddy feeder
There is a push notification from the BBC about a new horror in Ukraine. There is a push notification from HSBC about a new horror in my bank account. And then there is another — from my bird table. With this missive the world seems that bit kinder, my phone that bit less hostile. “You have had visitors,” it says. Then it sends me a picture of them. Installing the Bird Buddy was weird. Even as a tech columnist used to the idea that everything from my coffee machine to my footstool should have Bluetooth connectivity, adding a wi-fi link to my bird table felt like a technification too far. Yet, somehow, rather than making me feel more distanced from the tangible world it has had the reverse effect. Each morning, as usual, I wake to a series of emails from people in the US and a smattering of WhatsApps from friends out late. Now, I also have a rundown of the early-morning activity at the feeder. A blackbird. A blue tit. A squirrel. Another blue tit. Nature, I think somewhat piously, is a wonderful tonic. Another squirrel. Yet another (or possibly the same) squirrel. Each comes with a photograph, a video and an AI identification. A squirrel’s bum, again. Nature, I think slightly less piously, can be a bit annoying. Within a week there are so many squirrel pictures you could put them in a flipbook and see the greedy sod getting fatter. This is the first iteration of the Bird Buddy and it’s wonderful. But I do have an idea for a tweak: if it can automatically identify squirrels, would it be so bad if it could automatically electrocute them? It would be the perfect fusion of the natural world and our brave technological — and squirrel-free — future. And the video would definitely improve my mornings. £196, mybirdbuddy.com
Roomba Combo robot vacuum and mop
My wife doesn’t like our robomop. Talk of robot apocalypse is in the air. Chat GPT-4 is already threatening our nice, middle-class jobs. And now there’s a sleek, black, semi-sentient disc licking our floor clean. “Why don’t you do a dog column?” asks my wife. “Dogs would do the same job, be nice, and wouldn’t threaten to take over humanity.” I am less antagonistic. To me, the Roomba Combo j7+ vacuum cleaner and mop, from iRobot, is the logical next move for the company that has already cornered the market for mildly creepy autonomous vacuum cleaners. And, frankly, if it can keep the floor clean it saves me from feeling guilty about not keeping the floor clean. As a devoted fan of robot lawnmowers, I am impressed by its programming. While my lawnmower will just drive off in random directions for hours, the mop learns the layout of the room then attacks it in stripes, sucking where sucking is required, mopping where mopping is needed. I start to consider it a friend — or perhaps a more useful, less annoying version of a child — and watch with pride as, like a child, it maps our kitchen. One morning I leave the door open and its curiosity gets the better of it. I find it lost, far from home in the study, its battery long dead. Mournfully it lies there, killed by its own intrepidness, like a Victorian explorer trying to find the source of the Nile. But when I plug it in and shut the door, it is revived. It is impossible not to anthropomorphise robomop. It’s not that I think it feels affection for me — if its programming required, it would probably happily vacuum me to death then mop me to a shiny buff. But so what? I used to have a pet praying mantis which, if it had grown big enough, would probably have eaten me. I cannot be cross with it for that — it’s simply its nature. Anyway, the robomop can’t yet do stairs; humanity is safe for now. And until then, our ground floors will be a lot shinier.
Hotel Chocolat Velvetiser
At meal times, it’s said, Chinese emperors would sit down to a selection of dishes, choosing what to eat from the dozens of options provided. Most of the food would go untouched. The waste must have been vast. But then, you can do that if you’re an emperor. As with the absolute sovereigns of ancient civilisations, so with three-year-olds in my house at breakfast. Parents can often feel like slaves. Rarely is this so true in our house as between the hours of 7am and 8am, while serving breakfast, with every cereal type requested at ever-increasing volume. Which brings us to Hotel Chocolat and its sublime Velvetiser. It promises “barista-quality” hot chocolate. The sleek copper machine arrives like a mocha pot in a world of Nescafé, a freshly brewed cafetiere in the freeze-dried Eighties. Its sachets come, like good coffee, with provenance and tasting notes: a hint of chilli here, ginger there. After frothing — for about two minutes — it pours into the cup like a fluffy chocolate cloud. I didn’t know I needed barista-quality hot chocolate until I tasted it. Unfortunately, neither did my children. The result? Now there are three extra dishes to be provided at the table: hot chocolates. Mind you, unlike the meals of the Chinese emperors, this is a dish that is reliably consumed.
I have never understood who it is that highlights passages on their Kindle. Worse still, who switches on the facility for seeing what others have highlighted? Nothing, for me, is more likely to undermine the profundity of a statement in a novel than to see the little dotted line pop up: “357 people have highlighted this passage.” All the more so when I’m reading a Lee Child thriller. So it wasn’t immediately clear to me why I needed a Kindle with a pen, to make this highlighting process even easier. Do we really need more people informing their fellow readers which of Jack Reacher’s bons mots is especially well formed? Then I tried it — not as a way to tell others my thoughts (at least, not directly) but as a way to record my own. I review a lot of books and read a lot of academic papers. I like hard copies because I can scribble on them; I like digital copies because I can search them. With this Kindle, I can do both. In a minor but significant way, it makes my life easier. The paperless office, long prophesied, has not arrived because paper is useful. Maybe this will get us a little closer to the dream. And if you’re reading this on a Kindle, you can underline that typically perspicacious prediction of mine.
Philips PerfectDraft Beer Machine
There comes a time, in the affairs of man, when thoughts turn to a pub of one’s own. It is a time when the music in your local is just a touch too loud, friends a touch too distant, children more than a touch too close. That is when a gentleman of a certain age finds the shed calling. This gentleman has dreams of dartboards above the toolbox, of seeing his breath fog up as he plays billiards beside the family bikes. Most of all he has dreams of a pint, a pint that he has just pulled, using a proper handle and a proper pump. That gentleman is me. And that pint comes from the Philips PerfectDraft Beer Machine. For the home publican, this tool has much to recommend it. It takes real (albeit mini) kegs, which you can have delivered containing branded beer (I, being a man of a certain age, go for Leffe and Goose Island). It refrigerates them to the right temperature and has a handle that is satisfying to pull, while perhaps explaining pompously to any children who will listen the importance of holding the glass at 45 degrees. And — since men of a certain age like gadgets as well as pub nostalgia — it has a display to tell you how cold it is and how much is left. I take my first sip. “Aaah,” I sigh, watching the condensation drip down the glass like someone in a 1980s Heineken advert. My future has arrived. I might not have friends any more, but I do have a pub.
Withings Body Comp scale
Until a few weeks ago not only was I uninformed of my pulse wave velocity — I didn’t even know it existed as a concept. Nor did I know my body fat percentage. Today, thanks to my Withings Body Comp scale, I know they are, respectively, 6.1m/s and 15.5 per cent. I also know, after googling, that pulse wave velocity — the speed at which blood pressure pulses propagate through my system — is linked to arterial health. The faster the pulse can move, the higher the blood pressure, the worse the arteries. My body fat is fine. My cardiovascular health could be better. Should I be thankful for this information? I find idioms at war in my mind. On the one hand, ignorance is definitely bliss. On the other, forewarned is forearmed. Which is it to be? Modern life is about accepting that more and more of your household objects are going to find more and more ways to judge you — normally via the medium of Bluetooth. So it is with my bathroom scales. Whereas once I would have simply learnt my weight, today I gather data on an app. I construct graphs, I view trajectories. According to independent validation of the scales, the fat-mass estimate is good enough to use clinically, while the pulse wave velocity measure is pretty accurate. Do I want to know its findings? Not really. But perhaps I should. Knowing about my health — especially once I’ve reached the age where I notice the early warning signs, such as hankering after constructing a pub — means I can do something about it. Because there is, I fear, a third idiom that settles the debate firmly in favour of the scales: a stitch in time saves nine.
Asus Zenbook Fold laptop
Sometimes we use technology to make our life easier. Sometimes we use it to be more productive. And sometimes? Sometimes our motivations are a little less utilitarian. I like having the Asus Zenbook Fold for work. It is a perfectly serviceable, high-end laptop that can transform into a document reader. I quite like to use it for play — when you fold out the screen it can give you a full cinematic experience. But most of all? I like to use it in public. During the first few days of trying it out I perfect the moment of what I come to call “the reveal”. There I am, sitting on the train, tapping away like any commuter. I yawn discreetly, like any commuter. Enough work for me, my face says. Then nonchalantly — nonchalance is absolutely crucial at this point — I remove the magnetic keyboard, I lean back, I fold out the screen. “What, this?” my face says. “This little thing? This bendy tablet-cum-laptop-cum-technological-miracle? Haven’t you seen a foldable laptop screen before?” And how do my fellow commuters react? Well, part of my nonchalance is never looking at their expressions. I never get to see the furtive looks of admiration and frank jealousy on the 08:47 to Waterloo, as they marvel at my latest gadget. The looks I definitely get. And definitely haven’t entirely imagined.
Moleskine digital notebook
Sometimes being a journalist is disappointing. As a teenager I imagined a life on the edge of war zones, drinking beer through grizzled stubble beneath a languorously swishing ceiling fan. Sitting alone in some sticky southeast Asian bar, I would read through my Moleskine notebook, in which — burdened by my noble calling — I had recorded the terrible scenes witnessed that day. I did not imagine — with the greatest respect to Yves Saint Laurent — testing lipstick shades in the home counties. Thus it is that a man reaches an age where he realises he will never be a footballer, and will never leave a string of mistresses across the Orient as he hitches dusty lifts in Land Rovers in pursuit of man’s inhumanity to man. What about the notebook, though? Even in a digital age? There is no shortage of electronic notepaper on the market. What I would like, though, is electronic notepaper with the emphasis more on the “notepaper” bit than the “electronic”. I don’t want a rigid screen that behaves like a marginally more sophisticated Etch A Sketch. This is where Moleskine’s Smart Writing Set comes in. It looks, and is, almost exactly like a Moleskine — beloved by eminent writers and people who would like to be eminent writers. What is different is not the paper, but the pen. Instead of a rigid “document”, recording what I write with a stylus, I have a real notebook, on which a pen really writes — but then a tiny camera on the pen records it for an app. The result is a set of notes that are, literally, just notes. The pen will upload these to an app that will record and save the page (if you use a non-Moleskine page you will learn that part of the magic comes from tiny dots that triangulate its position for the camera) — and, if wanted, convert your scrawl into typewritten text. Now all I need is the ceiling fan.
Yves Saint Laurent Rouge Sur Mesure lipstick maker
There is a surprising amount for men to enjoy in Rouge Sur Mesure, a home lipstick printer by Yves Saint Laurent. It loads like a shotgun, for one. “Ker-klunk” it goes as you put in the blush-pink cartridge. Ker-klunk it continues as you add a delicate shade of red. I can imagine I am an SAS hostage rescuer on a daring night-time raid, rather than a husband installing a choose-your-own lipstick machine for a mildly technophobic wife. Then there’s the app. When I point the phone towards my wife, on screen it shows versions of her with different lipstick colours. Briefly, tantalisingly, I have a customisable wife. Except, just on the lips. Also, the lips object and start saying things. And the hands take control of the phone. You can choose a colour to automatically match your Christmas party frock, or pick something bolder to kiss Santa under the mistletoe. My wife chooses something a bit more muted. She presses the button and from out of the machine, emerging like a pink wormcast, comes the chosen colour — in just the right quantities for one application. It works, but my wife is not completely sold. For her, part of the fun of lipstick is going to a shop, trying it out and “getting away from everyone. Seeing how it is made kills the magic: like seeing inside the sausage factory.” For women who change their lipstick colour regularly, however, she tells me this would be just the ticket. Apparently I know several such women, although have never noticed their ever-changing lips. When I point out that my not noticing — as a man — might negate the point of the regular lipstick changes, it is strongly implied that that view is precisely the problem with men.
Sony home cinema projector
When people ask us what we watch on television, I like to reply that we don’t have a television. The implication is clear: of a winter’s evening we sit around the fire reading improving tracts in companionable silence. Perhaps, if my wife or I is feeling frivolous, we will request that one of the children “play something jolly on the pianoforte”. What I don’t usually add is that, while we don’t have a TV, we do have a big projector so that this Christmas we can watch less-than-improving movies on a really big screen. The problem with projectors, though, is that they don’t work so well in the daytime. On a bright winter’s day with the curtains drawn, sometimes we have to wait until 4pm before we can anaesthetise our minds with television. How to watch the King’s Speech? The answer is Sony’s top-end projector. The VPL-XW7000ES is huge. It is at least ten times the volume of my now-emasculated projector. Even switched off there is an uneasy menace to it, like a powerful stallion at rest. It doesn’t so much project the image on to our wall as etch it on frame by frame. This is a projector that is about sheer brightness. And while it takes up a lot of room, it is intended, I suspect, to disappear into your ceiling when done. What should I watch to test it? It is clear that a projector of this power needs — nay demands — a film of comparable stature: something high-octane and high-tech, masculine yet sophisticated. Something where manly men sweat together then stand around in handkerchief-sized towels. It needs, obviously, Top Gun. What it also needs, I realise only as Danger Zone begins, is a separate speaker. As someone used to an all-in-one cheapy projector I hadn’t appreciated that at the top end, as with sound systems, everything comes as separates. So it is that on screen, in pinprick detail, an F-14 Tomcat roars off to battle for freedom, but in my living room that roar comes out of my laptop. The baddies are beaten in dazzling Technicolor, but the sound of their defeat comes out of tiny, tiny speakers.
Garmin Varia radar bicycle light
The first time the Luftwaffe managed to miniaturise a radar so it could fit on a plane, it caused such a panic that in 1942 the RAF sent up a bomber as bait. The poor pilot had to allow a German night-fighter to get so close they could hear the pings of its radar and then fly level so the British radio operator could transmit its characteristics to HQ while shells smashed into its fuselage. When the RAF miniaturised its own radar, the device was considered so war-changing, a special delegation took it across the Atlantic to present to the Americans. I happen, oddly, to be researching these incidents for a book when I take delivery of the Garmin Varia RCT715: a rear bike light. As well as red light, it shines light waves from far into the invisible part of the spectrum — the light we use for radar. As cars approach from behind, these waves bounce back and are registered. I get advance warning I am about to be overtaken on a display on my phone attached to my handlebars. Ostensibly, the range is 140m but seems a fair bit further. If the cars are gaining fast, the screen displays them with more urgency. If they appear to be behaving dangerously, I can set it to take a video. Here, on a pedal bicycle, I have a device that, were it around 80 years ago, could have probably knocked six months off the war. I am using it to fight my own more modern battle: between the glorious Mamil forces and the evil armies of the internal combustion engine.
Adidas Adizero Adios Pro 3 trainers
Is there such a thing as a foot placebo? Can a leg become bouncier just through the power of suggestion? I ask because when I put on the Adidas Adizero, I just feel springier. Despite being a grumpy sports-brand sceptic — my last trainers came from Primark and I annoy acquaintances at parties by sneering at people who buy graphene tennis rackets — I can’t help but think I’m going a little further with each stride, or that the hilly section of my run feels a little less hilly. This is, of course, precisely the stated intention of these trainers. They are the latest addition to the world’s shoe rack of super-shoes, with carbon plates in their soles to give runners the edge. The first were Nike’s Vaporfly, made famous by Eliud Kipchoge’s attempts on the two-hour marathon. Other brands followed and last year Adidas’s Adizero line received the most wins in the World Major Marathons. Let us assume then that the springiness really does come from my super-shoes, rather than from my brain telling my foot I am wearing super-shoes. Does it even matter? I am not an international-standard athlete; I am a middle-aged tech columnist. I don’t run to break a two-hour marathon; I run to postpone death. And yet, I also run to clear my mind and feel energised. As my daily jog continues on its now familiar route, I feel a little less tired, a little more enthused. I am an urban gazelle, pogoing along the pavement, running towards an imaginary finish line. I am, briefly, a middle-aged tech columnist allowing myself to imagine what it would be like to be someone who needed carbon plates in his trainers.
Arcade1Up Infinity game table
Schrödinger had his cat — the cat that was both alive and dead. Plutarch had the Ship of Theseus — the ship that was both new and old. I have my own philosophical metaphor: the games table that is both a wholesome family board game and a less wholesome computer screen. It is the last day of school holidays. It is raining. We have entered a deathly ennui. Children roll around the house purposelessly like a damp fog, appearing periodically to ask for food. I am not wholly sure if all of them even got dressed yesterday. Today, however, they are miraculously energised. Next door, as I at last manage to work, they are playing chess. Later, they will spend several hours on Monopoly. After years of telling them to play a board game, instead of pestering me to play Minecraft, here they are, doing so voluntarily. It is like they have swapped brains with a child of the 1950s. And yet, there is a niggle. They are indeed playing the games, but they are doing so on the Infinity game table: a touchscreen with dozens of classic games built in, from Scrabble to Guess Who?. Does this count as a screen? Does it matter? Does asking the question itself show the utter absurdity of our screen prejudices, proving I am just bound by the ridiculous mores and middle-class guilt of my time? Maybe parents of the 1950s pointlessly tortured themselves by denying their children board games in favour of Latin translation? Or perhaps I’m kidding myself. Perhaps by pretending this noisy table with a noisy screen is anything other than a computer game, I’m philosophising my way out of my own lax parenting. Then again, my kids are happy, I’m working, and next door I can hear they’ve moved on to Hungry Hungry Hippos. Maybe I should give myself a break.
Bang and Olufsen Beolab 28 wireless speakers
How do you judge a sound system? I once interviewed the lead singer of Napalm Death who said he liked to make music so loud that it “upsets people’s digestive systems”. He was banned from performing in a concert at the V&A in case he shattered the pottery. That is a serious sound system. It’s also not quite what I’m looking for when I install the Beolab 28 in my living room. It is, on the face of it, a sophisticated sound system for sophisticated people. It sits, sophisticatedly, looking vaguely disapproving that it has landed in a household of audiophilistines. I need some audiophiles. I invite round my neighbours, professional mandolin players who once made a hit single about a parrot that included the rather un-Napalm Death line, “If I joined the army / Wouldn’t it be super! / I couldn’t join the Royal Marines / I’d be a parrot-trooper.” Unlike us, they already have a high-spec sound system. They come to judge ours, giving it the grudging approval of a professional. I switch it on and my two-year-old watches, mesmerised, as the wooden slats pull aside to reveal the cylindrical speakers. It is imposing, but not in a scary way. I select some Beethoven on my phone. Then it plays, set to the sort of respectfully robust volume that speakers of this stature deserve. Crockery remains extant, digestive systems remain largely unruffled. But it is still loud enough that Whipple Junior runs into the next room crying, utterly appalled, and demanding to be hugged. It’s not quite rock’n’roll, but I like to think Napalm Death would approve.
Pocketalk S translator
God saw the achievements of humanity and was appalled. “They are one people, and they have all one language,” he said miserably, looking down at the Tower of Babel. Still smarting from the apple and snake debacle, he fretted about what they would get up to if they worked together. “Let us go down and confuse their language, so they will not understand one another’s speech.” What God rent asunder, Pocketalk can at last unite. This device will hear what you say in any language and repeat it back in any other. Just a decade ago, it would have seemed science fiction, four decades ago it actually was — as the Babel fish in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. And now you can put it in your pocket and head off to Greece, confident you can have at least a rudimentary chat. Of course, I can do the same with Google translate. The difference is I’m not paying data roaming charges (the mobile tariffs the EU joined, Brexit has rent asunder) and it doesn’t involve my phone, which I like to turn off on holiday. So what do I use it for? Freed from the barriers of language, what bonds of friendship can I form? As soon as we arrive, we find a use for it. “Can you go slower?” my wife asks the taxi driver. “Please drive slower,” she repeats. “Or we won’t pay you,” she adds, to no effect. She gets out Pocketalk. “Οδηγήστε πιο αργά διαφορετικά δεν θα σας πληρώσουμε,” it says. The effect is immediate: a deferential tap on the brakes, a raised eyebrow to me — seeking to deploy the universal male language that says “silly women” — and, when the eyebrow was not reciprocated, a considerably frostier atmosphere for the rest of the drive. Take that, Yahweh.
From £209, uk.pocketalk.com
There is a problem with jet skis. Yes, they are fast. Yes, they are fun. But they also make you look like a total idiot. Everyone else is trying to enjoy a nice day out at the beach and you’re buzzing around on a lethal waterbound motorbike. There is also a problem with windsurfing boards. Yes, you are at one with the ocean. Yes, you are able to whizz noiselessly over the waves. But they also require skill, years of dedication and a favourable wind. Into this gap steps Fliteboard. What, its creators thought, if you attached a motor to a windsurfing board? What if you made it electric so you didn’t sound like a horny teenager on a 250cc trail bike? Would it attract windsurfing wannabes who also have a realistic appraisal of their own skill set? Would it, in other words, attract me? Over the course of a single session in Weymouth I go from wobbling uncertainly on my knees then falling off, to wobbling less uncertainly on my legs, pushing the speed to 20mph while humming Surfin’ USA and then falling off. It is enormous fun, especially when it goes fast enough to use its hydrofoil, leaving me balancing on a slowly-rising platform like the star prize in The Price is Right. Looking at the proper windsurfers, I do feel a bit of a fraud. But, crucially, I’m also not being really annoying. I am happily enjoying the sea, not ruining others’ enjoyment of it. As if to underline this, there is a flicker, a ghostly streak of light blue. Two dolphins have come to inspect the board, to judge its credentials. With a leap that causes me to fall off again, they begin a half-hour — one of the best of my life — of frolicking around me. I can only assume that, in their view, it has passed.
Gozney Dome outdoor oven
“Do you,” my wife asks, “feel connected to your manliness?” I’m in the garden, positioning a kiln-dried log beside a seared salmon in a £1,499 glorified barbecue. Survival-wise it’s not exactly Bear Grylls. Not least because, just in case the logs are too onerous to light, there’s a gas canister at my feet. And yet, the honest answer is: I do. Cooking is never just about making food hot. It’s a social, almost anthropological, process. I’m controlling fire and making food. I’m a hunter-gatherer, albeit one for whom both parts of the process were delegated to Ocado. There is an inherent tension in selling outdoor cooking equipment. Make it too hard and it’s raw chicken and charcoal sausages. Make it too easy and the customer can get overwhelmed by the absurdity: why not just use an oven? Despite all its bells and whistles — temperature gauge, ash collection, back-up gas — the Gozney Dome doesn’t make it too easy. It takes time to heat it up. When I get impatient and put too many logs on, it takes even longer to cool down. I accidentally hit 400C and the only way to get it to 200C faster is to take out burning logs. The recipe, supplied by Gozney, calls for the salmon to gain its smokiness through being cooked on a cedar plank, with me on hand to tamp down any flames. On a normal Tuesday evening I could have put the salmon on, taken it out when ready and read the paper in between. But sometimes cooking isn’t just about cooking; it’s about ritual, process and fire. On a normal Tuesday evening I wouldn’t be here in the sun, my children playing, my wife teasing me, and me feeling ever so slightly more manly.
Leica M11 camera
The latest Leica is, I have no doubt, an absolutely superb camera. The pictures, even when taken by me, are beautiful. The functionality — many buttons, many menu options, many twiddly mechanical bits — is legion. For those who want (again like me) to merely point and click, it is also not overwhelming: if you ignore all the twiddliness, this camera points and clicks with aplomb (and, indeed, with a satisfyingly mechanical click). But the quality of the technology is not really why people buy a Leica. Nor is it why I am starting to think about things like “composition” and “exposure” as I use it. Leicas are to cameras as Moleskines are to notebooks. Pick up a Moleskine, and you are Hemingway, pondering the snows of Kilimanjaro. Pick up a Leica and you are Cartier-Bresson, about to tour the Maghreb. They are as much a statement of artistic intent as a tool. The latest iteration can take pictures at 60 megapixel resolution, allow you to see them and control settings on a large touchscreen, then save them on a hard drive and removable memory. Its ISO range is, apparently, superb. That’s all great, if you know what an ISO range is. But really it’s about the classic lines, the studiedly retro shell, and the feeling that you are about to be the next great of photojournalism. Even if, for all the ISO range, when I look back through the pictures, it’s just shaky shots of my toddler with both eyes shut and my six-year-old looking the other way.
Sometimes, climbing in winter at Cairn Gorm, the sleet will hit you the moment you open the door in the car park. It will continue, unrelenting, until you reach the cliffs. You can hunch your shoulders and pull down your hat, but there will always be exposed skin, to be blasted by the horizontal slush. In these circumstances, as I “enjoy” my chosen hobby, I haven’t often wondered why I’m not using an umbrella. But maybe I should have. Climbers don’t typically use umbrellas. Partly this is because they fancy themselves manly and rugged sorts, whose walking accessories are restricted to ice axes and crampons. Partly it’s because umbrellas are not terribly practical. Once, on Ben Nevis, the wind was so strong I had to crawl. How could an umbrella resist that? Blunt claims its designs are able to survive hurricane-force winds. Can they? I take one to Cairn Gorm to find out. Once again I am greeted by Scotland in all its frozen, sandblasting glory. This time, though, I have my umbrella. Walking up the valley, I have a shield from the sleet. Trekking to the base, it does sometimes go inside out, but recovers quickly without apparent damage. An ordinary umbrella would have been shredded. The manufacturer claims it’s designed to absorb forces more evenly, with special attention to the structure around the tip of each rib, where tears and breaks typically happen. It backs this up with a two-year guarantee. Although, perfectly reasonably, this does not cover the other big attrition on umbrellas — leaving them on the train.
Vespa Elettrica scooter
Before the Vespa arrives, there are two things I have to do. The first is to pass a test: the government, I discover, is oddly fastidious about people on scooters knowing how to drive them. The second is to buya suede jacket: my wife, it turns out, is fastidious too and doesn’t like people with my dress sense sullying objects of beauty. To ride a sleek silver Vespa you need to be a sleek silver fox is, I think, her logic. When I hop aboard, twisting the throttle, I feel less like a silver fox and more like a 19-year-old preparing to zip around the town square like James Dean, ostentatious cigarette in mouth, hoping to be spotted by the ladies. Which is probably also precisely why silver foxes (or, at least, men of a certain age) get Vespas. This Vespa, though, has an extra twist. It is all-electric. No exhaust pipe, no noisy engine, just a lot of torque (at least, by the judgment of someone who has never done this before) and the slightly smug feeling of commuting to the station without harming the planet. It is a smugness only marginally undermined by reminding myself I normally do that commute on a bicycle. The scooter is astonishingly easy to use. There is a clever display, which doesn’t undermine the bike’s retro styling, and a charging plug that goes straight in a normal socket and gives it a 60-mile range. It is, most of all, fun. Driving back, opening the throttle, I find myself grinning. I feel the wind battering my face, I see the lampposts whizzing by. I hear myself say, “Vroom vroom”, which is ironic, because going “vroom” is one of the few things this electric bike definitively doesn’t do.
Fauna Spiro audio glasses
In the world outside, the world beyond the tinted lenses of my sunglasses, my boss is talking to me. I, however, am listening to Bon Jovi — a stirring guitar solo directed precisely into my ears. Very relaxing. Until, that is, she asks me a direct question: “And why are you wearing sunglasses indoors?” It’s a fair question and an unanswerable one. I tap the side of the glasses, Jon Bon Jovi stops and reality returns. These are not merely sunglasses. They are audio Bluetooth sunglasses. The arms are tiny speakers, angling sound directly into your ears. They can take calls or play music and podcasts, all controlled by tapping or stroking the sides. They can do so — I discover on my train journey to work — at a surprisingly high volume without disturbing those around you. Smart glasses have had a bad time of it. Google Glass, the spectacles designed to introduce augmented reality to the marketplace, are a paradigmatic example of Big Tech hubris; they worked OK, but people felt like idiots wearing them. What is crucial about these glasses, which come in a non-tinted version and can take prescription lenses, is that by just looking like normal glasses they, and I can’t stress the importance of this enough, don’t make you look like an absolute chopper. Provided, that is, you aren’t wearing the tinted version indoors on an overcast day.
Zain smart side table
Sometimes, the march of technology feels likea glimpse of the future. Sometimes — and this is not necessarily mutually exclusive — it feels like a process during which I have to convert previously inanimate objects into things I need to plug in or charge. Which brings us to the Zain smart side table. It is a stylish occasional table that is also a speaker. Why would you want a table that is a speaker, you might ask? Why would you want a class of technology largely perfected in pre-history, previously judged on its ability merely to provide a flat surface at the required height, to startle you by saying “Bluetooth connected” when you walk into the living room with a phone in your pocket? To which the answer is, why not? If my phone can be a GPS, a computer and a games console, why can’t my table have discreet volume controls in its wood veneer and an ability to play podcasts? There’s a satisfaction in rationalising, in removing extraneous objects, in slimming down. What could be more minimalist than combining your good-quality speaker with your good-quality table? And, I think as I put my coffee on a coaster while listening to music coming from the table, it’s even pretty good at being a flat surface at the required height too.
Louis Vuitton speaker
Is it, one friend asked, an electronic astrolabe? Or, perhaps, could it be a steampunk incense burner, an unholy thurible anointing your house with the scent of capitalism? Then I tap on my phone to play some country and western music and the object’s true purpose is identified and, somehow, insulted. It is a speaker. Specifically, it is a Louis Vuitton Horizon bluetooth light-up speaker. And, with its swishy lead and its bright LED display, it is the sort of speaker that one suspects would be affronted by playing Johnny Cash. This is a speaker for Beyoncé singing about diamond rings, Big Brovaz singing about their favourite things. It is big, brash and bling. With its lighting and jeweling, it is not some discreet speaker to play Bach in a minimalist living room. It is built to be noticed. When it starts up, it flashes its display at you. When it plays, the lights dance along. If it were a dog, it would be Paris Hilton’s chihuahua. If it were a car, it would be Kanye West’s Hummer. A confession: I’m more of a labrador and Volvo kind of guy. But that’s fine, I can appreciate that this is a glorious and unapologetic example of the sort of speaker that a different me would bring to a beach party, its strap clutched between my ring-adorned knuckles, R&B cued up on my phone, another night of partying to come. £2,320, uk.louisvuitton.com
Glowstone Smart Mug 2
I like coffee that is very strong, very hot and very black. This may not be unconnected to having three children under eight. The problem is, very strong and black coffee comes in an espresso-sized quantity meaning it becomes lukewarm quickly. I suppose, if you were being snide, you could call this a first-world problem. And, of course, it is. But the minor annoyances of comparatively wealthy people are still annoyances. If I have to find a child’s gym kit mid-morning, or change an unexpected nappy, then that is all the interruption required to turn my coffee from a pleasant method of gaining the necessary caffeine into an unpleasant — but still absolutely necessary — method of gaining caffeine. This was one of many niggles that I had accepted as a fact of life. Glowstone, the maker of the Smart Mug 2, did not. Its mug is designed to keep coffee hot, and do so with elegance. There is no switch, no charging cable and no need to turn it on or off. It detects that you are drinking coffee, keeps the coffee at the right temperature, switches off when the coffee is gone, then charges wirelessly. There is something sublime about an object that does this while seeming indistinguishable from . . . a mug. The plain and boring kind a Victorian would have identified. I’m not going to pretend this is a revolution. The other niggles — nappies, gym kits, three children — are still there. But, with the arrival of this mug, my life is incrementally better. Glowstone identified a problem and quietly solved it in a way that requires no extra effort from me. I can think of no higher calling for technology. £129, glowstone.tech
Coco-Mat folding bicycle
When I cycle around the local park a group of sixth-formers stop me to take selfies. At work people pause by my desk to run their fingers along the smooth, rounded ash handlebars. Later Robert Crampton, The Times’s self-appointed Man of the People Correspondent, gives his own verdict. “What’s that poncey wooden bike you’re cycling?” he asks. “It makes you look like a massive ponce.” The best art always provokes reactions — especially from the demos. And to appreciate, or not appreciate, the Coco-Mat bike you have to realise that, really, it’s as much an artistic object as a means of transport. Lovingly crafted from wood, it is heavier than a normal bicycle, and more expensive. It also has “kick-shift” gears, controlled from the pedals. But this is not about competing with Raleigh. This is a bike for getting you to the coffee shop in style, rather than to work at speed, and for each one sold a new tree is planted. I opt for the folding one because I commute, and if I left one of these bikes at my local station it would, at best, be stolen. At worst, a gang of local Robert Cramptons would lie in wait and beat me up for being a ponce. Is it worth it? Should a bicycle be art? Particularly, if that art is heavy enough that I have to stop in the middle of Waterloo station to rest? I like to imagine asking the designer that question, and watching him spit flat white in horror. Is the Coco-Mat worth it? Is the Sistine Chapel worth it? To even ask makes you not worthy.
£1,990 for the folding two-speed, coco-matbike.uk
DJI FPV drone
Remember that scene in Top Gun where Maverick buzzes the control tower, causing his commanding officer to spill his coffee? My last Sunday afternoon was a lot like that, except that for “commanding officer” substitute “neighbours”, for “control tower” substitute “terrace” and for “spill his coffee” substitute “look confused, then later tell me it was a bit sinister”. The FPV in the DJI drone’s name stands for first-person view, and it is key. From the virtual-reality goggles, with their swivelling, forward-facing camera, you have an unimpeded cockpit view that allows you to imagine you are the 1980s fighter pilot the child version of you always assumed he would become. Its automatic “return to home” function has a big enough range that, on a trip to Bath, I could use it to snoop on loft extensions on the Royal Crescent almost a kilometre downhill from me (although speedily, given its battery life is sub-30 minutes). And it has controls so stable and intuitive that you could use it to follow someone through a door — which, of course, I try. Later, when the same neighbours come around for dinner, I get the drone to follow them to our door, at a polite 2m distance like, I imagine, a discreet valet. The husband tells me that the continuous whine of a drone isn’t actually as welcoming as I think. Although, after taking a drink, he has a go himself and starts considering ways he could justify the purchase to his wife.
Ooni Karu 16 pizza oven
It was a different group of neighbours who came, without the creepy drone butler, to test out my new pizza oven. Outdoor cooking has always felt like one of those great modern follies. Why, our cavemen ancestors might wonder, when we have the finest cookery devices known to civilisation — that reach a chosen temperature in minutes, stay there for as long as we want and consume pennies of fuel in doing so — do we insist on using up bags of charcoal in inferior “outdoor ovens”, which routinely leave us choosing between chicken with E.coli or carbon? It was in a mood of such cynicism that I tried out Ooni’s top-of-the-range pizza oven. My cynicism burst about as rapidly as the crisp dough of the crust did in my mouth. Because, as my guests put it, this tasted like an actual Italian pizza. That’s because pizza isn’t meant to be done in an electric oven for 20 minutes at 200C, but within touching distance of fire for 90 seconds at 500C. It’s meant to be crisp and misshapen and just slightly burnt in places, which you can only do with a proper wood-burning pizza oven. This one is particularly simple to operate: you fill it with charcoal and wood, leave it for 25 minutes and, as a digital gauge reads 500C, put in a wonky circle of dough. With an additional temperature gauge — to help reliability — and sleek Italian design, this Ooni feels like the Lambretta of outdoor cooking.
Owl Labs Meeting Owl Pro
No surveillance equipment can be sinister if it hoots. The meeting owl does just that, and to add to its unthreatening cuteness it does so from behind endearing blinking eyes. Although, I don’t actually hear my owl’s hoot or see its eyes, because it is many miles away in an office that I generally try not to visit. The point of the owl that it is a proxy version of me, sitting in the office in my stead. So when it hoots to announce it is on, it is my bosses who hear. And after it does so, I, like an owl, have a 360-degree view of the office. The pandemic has taught us that a lot can be done remotely. It has also taught us that doing so is a compromise. The owl is an attempt to make it less of one. It plugs into a laptop to act as its camera, then when you use that computer to log into teleconferencing software, it transmits an owl’s-eye view to anyone signing in remotely. Using it is as simple as selecting “owl” from a dropdown menu. The idea is that if there’s a physical meeting, it can sit in the middle of it, like a Zoom camera with a full panoramic view, focusing on the speaker. It gives the feeling of being in the meeting — albeit in the centre of the table, beside the triangular sandwiches, and hooting occasionally. Does the owl mean that I no longer need to be physically present? Can this replace my commute? It’s great tech and does exactly what it should. But when I finally go into the office, I learn the owl is stored in a news editor’s bottom drawer, alongside old clippings and office detritus. There’s a metaphor there somewhere.