The Whisker Litter-Robot 4
Keep an eye on your feline friends without making them feel self-conscious
Love technology as we do round here, it can’t be denied that the whole “push notifications” thing, begun by Apple for the iPhone in 2009, has gotten a little out of hand.
Imagine, say, you are in a business meeting, at the opera, or on a date, and your phone vibrates.
If you bought one of the products we have recommended in the past few months, that buzz could indicate anything from a brief rain shower detected by your Netatmo Weather Station to a colleague brushing by your bag in the office, as sensed by your Invoxia LongFi GPS Tracker, to incoming video of a rare bird grabbing lunch from the Bird Buddy smart feeder in your backyard.
And now there’s potential for a new buzz in your pocket, to inform you that your cat has … well, pooped. This latest self-imposed invasion of your privacy comes courtesy of a Michigan-based company, Whisker, and their remarkable automated, self-cleaning, Wi-Fi-connected litter box.
Yes, this veritable deluxe restroom for cats could be accused of providing humans with a tad too much information. And at $699 it is by some distance the world’s most expensive litter box. But you can only marvel at the genius that’s gone into the Litter-Robot 4, which, as the name suggests, is the fourth iteration of the product in a few years.
Our sample Litter-Robot 4 arrived—fittingly, perhaps, for an item of such grandeur—in one of the largest boxes we’ve ever seen for a gadget. We wondered if they had mistakenly sent a litter box for a tiger. Unpacked, the machine is still gigantic, and we should warn you that its size would be a bit overwhelming in a small apartment.
The Litter-Robot 4 resembles a front-loading washing machine. The cat (or cats—it can accommodate four, performing at different times) steps up onto a rubberized platform to enter the inner sanctum. A laser and other sensors register its arrival, halt the device’s motorized innards if they happen to be cleaning the machine at that moment, and, crucially, inform you, wherever in the world you may be.
When the cat exits, you are notified again, but more importantly, the self-cleaning procedure kicks in. The “drum” of the machine slowly rotates and pours the befouled litter through a grate. This lets clean litter pass through, but traps the clumped, mummified unpleasantness, which is dumped into a lower chamber and ensconced in a plastic bag that needs to be changed only once or twice a week. The odor-insulated apparatus is then ready to receive its next customer.
The Litter-Robot 4 is dazzling in both its simplicity and its complication. When it comes to getting your cat to use the thing, it’s no different than a regular litter box—as long as your feline friend is housebroken, he’ll take to the new lavatory quite easily.
Apparently, earlier versions were a little noisy, but this one sounds like a very distant jet airplane. The Landing Gear decibel meter measured it at 30, which is audible but negligible.
Along with its laser and weight-sensor technology—the machine functions as a scale too—there’s a night-light for elderly animals whose night vision is failing, a provision for an optional backup battery to cover for power outages, and even a USB port, so you could conceivably charge your phone from the litter box. Bizarre, but O.K.
Pawnote: While Hank, Landing Gear’s Bengal test cat, likes enclosed places, one prominent cat-lover site reports that not all cats do. If yours is claustrophobic, or is just a Luddite, Whisker offers returns within 90 days.
The iPhone 14 Pro
A phone to surprise and delight the most complacent of Apple fans
We all know that feeling of struggling up a hill, convinced we’re not getting very far, then looking down and being amazed how far we’ve climbed.
It’s become routine to be unexcited by each year’s new iPhone. The only real revolution was in 2007, when the first was introduced, and subsequent improvements have been incremental. That said, the new iPhone 14, especially the Pro version we’ve been trialing, is astonishing when you consider how far the technology has come.
It’s easy to be blasé and say this phone is not that different from the 13 or the 12. Yet, any one new feature of the 14 Pro would be worthy of a lengthy article, from the 48-mega-pixel camera with a three-times optical zoom to the crash-detection system, which senses an auto accident using a gyroscope, accelerometer, microphone, and G.P.S., and automatically calls emergency services if you seem to be unconscious.
If a science-fiction writer or movie had suggested 30 years ago that such a device would be not just available but in common use all over the world, by 2022, it would have seemed too extreme to be even faintly plausible.
Reading the list of innovations from Apple, each with a fancy new name (Dynamic Island, Photonic Engine, the Adaptive True Tone flash, the TrueDepth camera) is strangely soporific. And trying to learn all the phone’s functions quickly, well conceived as they all are, is too exhausting to truly hit home.
So, as usual, each of us will find the new things that suit us best. Here are a few of the improvements that have been most impactful—and, in some cases, almost joyful—for your columnist.
The screen is pretty much always on, apart from after a long spell of darkness, so you can see a calmingly dimmed-down version most of the time—great for the nightstand. If you use the iPhone’s voice recorder for meetings, you can see that the recording is proceeding correctly at all times without leaving the screen on at full blast and wasting battery.
The Dynamic Island, an expandable window at the top of the screen that consolidates alerts, notifications, and activities in one place, is a work in progress and will develop over years, but it is intriguing and helpful.
The screen—Super Retina XDR—is fantastically brighter, clearer, and subtler than any seen before.
The camera is even more extraordinary, both for stills and video. A “real” camera is still far preferable if you’re a serious photographer, but if the greatest photo or film opportunity in the world unfolded in front of you, the 14 Pro’s camera would be more than good enough to handle it.
And a tiny feature: Say you’re looking for an app and can’t quickly conjure it up because you have so many of the damn things. There’s now a simple little search box at the bottom of the screen. Type in a couple of letters of the app’s name, and you’ll be there in less than a second.
Best smartphone ever. Until the iPhone 15, which Apple engineers are already working on in Cupertino.
The Moonbird Breathing Coach
Breathe a sigh of relief with the help of this rubber bird
Breathing is insanely popular.
So it’s counter-intuitive that, according to experts ranging from physiologists and sleep scientists to psychiatrists and yogis, most of us breathe incorrectly, resulting in anxiety, stress, insomnia, pain, low energy, and lack of focus.
It was late in 2019 when a Belgian Ph.D. in pharmaceutical sciences, Stefanie Broes, and her brother Michael, an economist, set out to build a portable training device and associated app to help people slow down and regulate their breathing. Their timing was fortuitous, because when the coronavirus hit Belgium especially hard, they noticed a sharp rise in anxiety and sleeplessness among people they knew.
The result is this strange and unusual gadget, Moonbird. It sits in the hand, almost like a tiny bird whose pleasing, rubberized skin physically expands and contracts.
The mechanism is quite smart, and the effect something close to a new sensation. You would not imagine that a tactile stimulus could so intuitively help you breathe more steadily, but it works.
It makes a very slight whirring noise if you use it at night, but not enough, in our view, to disturb the user or partner.
The Broes siblings’ journey—from raising much of their $2.2 million funding during coronavirus lockdowns to having their factory in Ukraine bombed by the Russians—might have been enough to keep them awake at night, but the product is now out, and you may well love it.
The Punkt AC02 Alarm Clock
Design so good it’s worth interrupting sleep for
Why do we love this defiantly low-tech, high-quality, analog alarm clock from Swiss maker Punkt so much?
Possibly for the same reason that design gurus across Europe admire Punkt’s simplicity-über-alles products: they are or have been displayed at the Salone del Mobile design fair, in Milan; the Triennale museum, in the same city; the Tate Modern, in London; the Centre Pompidou, in Paris; a London Design Festival exhibition in Trafalgar Square; and the Museum für Gestaltung, in Zurich.
The Punkt AC02 is a little piece of perfection in heavyweight anodized aluminum, with a scratch-resistant glass face and a clever, one-short-twist way of turning the alarm on or off.
It is an evolution of London industrial designer Jasper Morrison’s 2011 design for Punkt’s AC01 clock, with inspiration from the Bauhaus movement, and more than a nod to Braun clocks, which were discontinued in 2005.
Morrison’s new AC02, which was launched last month at the London Design Festival, is handmade in Japan rather than China, as the AC01 was. It’s slightly bigger and heavier, with L.E.D. lighting that fades down gently, and a completely new, silent mechanism.
Like Punkt’s niche non-smartphones, which do nothing but make calls and send texts, the AC02 does nothing but tell you the time and wake you up. We are sure it will appeal to analog fans, and at least be a stylish conversation piece for the digerati.
Based in London and New York, AIR MAIL’s tech columnist, Jonathan Margolis, spent more than two decades as a technology writer for the Financial Times. He is also the author of A Brief History of Tomorrow, a book on the history of futurology