At the end of last summer, I sold my beloved 48-year-old Saab. It never actually went wrong, but it took a lot of effort and love to keep going, was hard work to drive and I just lost my nerve. The moment the buyer drove it away, I began to regret my decision and started looking longingly at ads for other interesting old cars.
The joy of the Saab was the elemental sense of it being a bare-bones machine rather than an assemblage of software. You really have to drive a car like that. I was thinking of this while struggling, initially, to operate this new home espresso machine from La Pavoni – the most extravagantly beautiful product I have ever tested for this page. Its magnificence is not just a question of looks – the all-Italian build quality is superlative. But you do have to drive it.
The Swiss Jura Ena 8 machine I reviewed in January and the Sage Oracle Touch machine from Australia, which I tried in April, are now, for me, the Audis of coffee – faultless and easy-peasy, but lacking excitement. The La Pavoni, by contrast, is like my old Saab, requiring skill and practice to get the best performance, but bringing joy on multiple levels.
The thrill of commanding such a beautiful thing, with its twin pressure dials, wooden handles, scalding-hot chrome – and that ludicrous but fabulous eagle on the top – does not wear off. Once I got to know and understand its (literal) hissy fits as the boiler built up pressure, I felt I was driving the world’s smallest and most stylish steam train.
And the coffee? Well, you can’t insult a machine like this with pre-ground stuff, and even if you source good beans they warn you against using a cheap grinder with metal blades (ceramic, please). But you’re in coffee-geek land now, and by the time I sent the machine back to Smeg (which lately bought La Pavoni), I was producing a luscious, thick, oily espresso the likes of which I’ve rarely had outside Italy. Tip: buy the La Pavoni from somewhere that will give you a how-to- do-it demo. Much easier than trawling through the impenetrable manual. La Pavoni Esperto Abile, £999, lapavoni.com
A compact camera with big ideas
Until Lynton Jones, a reader from Sevenoaks, emailed me about it, I have to confess I didn’t even know there was such a thing as a full-frame compact camera, which is to say one with a sensor the same size as an old-school 35mm negative, meaning your photos will be of the same quality as those from the most sophisticated – and enormous – DSLR.
While it’s not quite pocket-sized, the Sony A7C is undoubtedly compact. And, while smartphones are now terrific for photography, the sensor in this is up to 30 times the size of anything in a phone, and more than twice the size of that in many high-end cameras. If you need a reminder that, even in an increasingly close race, a real camera still outperforms any phone, this is it. The A7C can also be adapted with software to act as a very superior webcam. Sony A7C, £2,150 with 28-60mm zoom lens, sony.co.uk
Coding with Kanye
As one whose father promised him a build-your-own-computer kit for Christmas 1970 then reneged because, er, there was no such thing,
I was drawn like a moth to a flame by this kit computer from Kano (in which Kanye West is an investor).
It’s a pretty simple kit to build – a little too easy to satisfy me now. But my 14-year-old self would have been glowing with pride at putting it together. As well as looking rather cool, it’s also a really good little Windows 10 machine. I’ve even been using it for work to prove the point, and it was perfectly up to the job. It comes with Microsoft Office ready-loaded, so it’s great for homework, but Kano’s real mission is to open up the world of coding to children, and the machine has its own software to train you. As a Christmas present for anyone aged, I’d say, from about 8 to 13, it takes some beating. Kano PC, £300, kano.me
The fairest smartwatch of them all?
The Apple Watch Series 6 is unparalleled as a smartwatch, and it looks sleek. But what if you want something just a little bit more traditional in demeanour? TAG Heuer’s devices look convincingly like fine mechanical watches. Running Google Wear OS software, they don’t offer the wonder of Apple’s operating ecosystem, but they are more flexible, being compatible with both Android phones and iPhones. However, it’s TAG’s rival Montblanc that has, for me, the most exciting and attractive smartwatch now available. It looks sumptuous and has at least one function to make Apple Watch owners envious: stress tracking. Montblanc was hesitant when I asked how it assesses stress, but it seems to be based on heart rate variability – and I certainly found it uncannily accurate in testing. It’s also both Android- and iOS-compatible. Montblanc Summit 2+, £1,040, montblanc.com
Top tech for the foot of a rainbow
I have occasionally dabbled with metal detectors and dug up a couple of curios, but haven’t scratched the itch for decades. It was only when I was showing a friend on Zoom the view from my Thames-side flat, which includes a beach where Julius Caesar, Canute and George III are known to have trudged, that she suggested it might be fun to have a snout about.
For a beginner-level machine that is up to more sophisticated use, the Garrett Ace Apex is a good bet. It has many of the features found in top machines. You can chose a radio frequency suited to a particular type of treasure – I like the “relics” setting. You can set it to ignore iron, though it would be ironic to miss actual Iron Age stuff. It will also give five distinct tones for different metals – and work with the search head underwater. My best find so far? A maritime fixing, possibly 19th century. Probably worth zilch. But, for satisfaction value, it could have been bullion. Garrett Ace Apex, £460, regton.com
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