Swarovski Optik AX Visio Binoculars

A pair of A.I.-enabled binocs that will spice up your bird-watching …

Sometime in the early 1960s, your columnist’s dad, a keen radio ham, made history in our London suburb by having a conversation with his friend Tom in Sydney, Australia, while both were in their cars, one driving to work in the morning and the other driving home after a day at the office.

A reporter came from the local newspaper to report on this modest leap for mankind. My father explained how neither of their car transmitters was much more powerful than a 100-watt light bulb and how the feat was possible because of long skip propagation in the ionosphere.

The reporter nodded sagely. “So, what did you talk about?” she asked. “Uhm, I think we may have discussed the weather,” my father said. The technology, for him, was the big thing, not the benefits of communication.

The memory of this exchange was in this writer’s mind while trying out these smart binoculars from Swarovski, the Austrian makers of sparkly stuff, who also have a line of high-end optical equipment. Their new Optik AX Visio binoculars are a high-quality and stylish pair, designed by the Australian industrial designer Marc Newson, that can help you identify any bird or animal, as well as photograph them for future reference.

Even before using the AX Visio, the thought occurred that this remarkable ability might be another prime case of a tech accomplishment for accomplishment’s sake. One would imagine, after all, that a wildlife enthusiast spending almost $5,000 on a pair of binoculars would already know a few birds on sight. For perspective, you can buy some very fine binocs from a brand such as Vortex for well under $200, and even the top-of-range Leica model comes in at just $3,000.

Nevertheless, the concept of intelligent binoculars is intriguing, especially for an urbanite with zero knowledge of ornithology.

I took the AX Visio down to the nearest bird sanctuary, which by luck is 300 yards away, on an island in the River Thames. From the riverbank opposite, the electronic rifle-sight-style L.E.D.’s in the right barrel of the binocular indicated that in the space of 30 minutes, I saw a Caspian gull, a herring gull, a slaty-backed gull, a ring-billed gull, a lesser black-backed gull, a great black-backed gull, a Wilson’s phalarope, a Canada goose, a hooded merganser, a ring-necked duck, a long-legged buzzard, a Nazca booby, and a brown booby.

Identifying the birds so quickly was strangely compelling, but how credible are the A.I.-assisted sightings? Well, either “not entirely” or I am one of the most successful bird-spotters of all time. Three of the birds the binoculars identified are “extremely rare” in Britain and one is resident only in the Galápagos Islands, 6,000 miles away.

There were other birdbrain moments. The glasses correctly categorized a woman walking on the other side of the Thames as “human (homo sapiens)” before identifying a cat as a dog. It flagged a blackbird, then a rock, as a harbor seal. A black, flapping bird behind a gull was supposedly a barn owl, which are strictly nocturnal.

I am still inclined to be generous to the AX Visio, even if their early performance lacked the full-on Swarovski sparkle. These kinds of products always improve vastly with software updates, although they might also tweak the ergonomics—it was hard to work out which button is which, and I ended up turning the binoculars off when something quite exciting came into view. They are also heavy. But they are superb optically even without the A.I., and for anyone who is just fascinated by technology, they are a wonder.

You can’t help imagining, however, someone on safari looking intently into his AX Visio and saying, “Yep, definitely a lion.” And then being eaten.

The Tidbyt Retro-style Display

The Tidbyt retro-style display, $199.

A charmingly nostalgic screen that will help you put down your phone …

In defiance of the extraordinary effort it took to invent and perfect smartphones these past 30 years, those of us who rely on them most are doing everything we can to spend less time looking at them.

This playfully conceived, but actually very practical, eight-by-four-inch, walnut-enclosed, retro-style screen, from a badly named Brooklyn start-up, Tidbyt, relieves the user of having to pick up the damned phone every two minutes.

You can get the Tidbyt to display a wide range of phone notifications in its authentic 1980s low-res, as well as screen a bunch of pre-built apps, such as weather, stocks, news, Bitcoin, sports scores, calendars, and—our favorite—live subway times from the station of your choice. The true geek can build their own apps on Tidbyt’s open platform with a few lines of code.

You do need a smartphone to set Tidbyt up and adapt its content, but once running, you can leave it on for years at a time. You could have a few through the house, too. Tidbyt is particularly handsome in dimmed mode as a digital nightstand clock, which can be set to regale you with the morning facts of your choice when you wake up.

The Shure Nexadyne 8/c Microphone

The Shure Nexadyne 8/C microphone, $299.

A new microphone that turns down the noise, but in a good way …

Shure, the near-100-year-old Chicago audio-product maker, has just released a new microphone for performers. Like many previous Shure products, it is designed to become a staple for decades.

The Nexadyne costs $299, and nearly everyone who has tried the device is enthusiastic about it. Its revolutionary tech is having two mikes within its elegant case, one to pick up and enhance desirable sound, and one to tone down undesirable audio, such as handling noise.

It was the price that particularly interested this columnist, who has no meaningful way to test a microphone built for singers. It’s miraculous to think that $300 can buy a product from one of the world’s top microphone-makers that, once used to make a recording, will require the listener to have loudspeakers or headphones costing thousands or hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Pondering this led to another small revelation, thanks to an interesting talk on Shure at the launch, given by the company’s resident historian, Michael Pettersen. He explained how the Nexadyne was designed over several years as a successor to the Shure SM58, which went on sale in 1966 and has the reputation as pretty much the world’s most celebrated microphone.

The design of the SM58 (SM stands for “studio microphone”) goes back to technology Shure developed between 1937 and 1939. And the microphones have been, he said, used by all U.S. presidents up to the present, have been on the International Space Station, and have been favored for live performances by everyone from the Rolling Stones and Billy Joel to Mark Knopfler and Sting. They are robust devices, too. The mike Roger Daltrey, of the Who, swung around by its cable, Mr. Pettersen told us, was an SM58.

And here’s the surprise. Fifty-eight years into its illustrious career, the Shure SM58 is still available new for just $99. It’s hard to think of any electronic product that dominates its category for such a low price.

The EZQuest USB-C Multimedia 10-in-1 Gen 2 Hub

The EZQuest USB-C Multimedia 10-in-1 Gen 2 Hub, $59.99.

An adapter that makes it possible to plug pretty much anything you can imagine into your laptop …

The USB-C connector, which 10 years ago was still being invented, seems a modest technological advance, but its benefits in convenience have already been felt by billions of people. It is quite the modern miracle that a single tiny socket can perform the same work as their large, unsightly, dust-collecting predecessors.

You do need a separate USB-C hub or dock, though, to feed multiple inputs and outputs into that discreet USB-C socket on your MacBook, and it’s rather surprising that the task of manufacturing them is mostly left to accessory-makers such as Anker, Belkin, and Twelve South.

But it’s a lesser-known California company, EZQuest, that has the most universal USB-C hub we’ve come across. Their slimline, three-ounce Multimedia 10-in-1 is rightly described as the Swiss Army knife of tech gadgets.

In a trim, portable case, it expands your USB-C socket to accommodate two USB-C ports; one USB-C power-input port; two standard, old-style USB-3.0 ports; a 4K HDMI socket; slots for an SD and a MicroSD card; a 3.5-mm. socket for audio output or input; and a one-gigabit ethernet port for wired connection to a router.

Boring, we know, but ridiculously useful.

Based in London and New York, AIR MAIL’s tech columnist, Jonathan Margolis, spent more than two decades as a technology writer at the Financial Times. He is also the author of A Brief History of Tomorrow, a book on the history of futurology