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Gadgets

Handspring engineers put its latest Treo on a diet.

The Treo 600 is 15% smaller than the Treo 300 but has hardly cut bone. The buttons on the Blackberry-like keyboard are larger (though closer together, a heads-up to those with big thumbs), and the new navigational pad allows you to scroll through your address book and dial with a few clicks, instead of futzing with the stylus. A juiced-up processor speeds up everything from surfing to games on this Palm OS 5 device, and talk time has been upped to six hours. Plus, a VGA camera's been added to send instant postcards or for photo caller ID. You'll have to spring extra for software to take advantage of the MP3 capability, and we wish Wi-Fi was built in as with some Pocket PCs, but add-on cards are imminent. $500; www.handspring.com. Mark Spoonauer

First there was the iPod.

Now the portable entertainment ante has just been upped with the RD2780 RCA LYRA Audio/Video Jukebox, which records up to 80 hours of television to view on the crisp 3.5-inch color screen. Connect the LYRA to your TV, and the MPEG-4 encoder records your favorite shows, cable movies, and home videos to its 20 GB hard drive. You can allot some of that storage space to MP3s or digital photos, which can be transferred either via USB 2.0 or Compact Flash slot. Battery life is up to 12 hours for audio, and three hours for video (Gangs of New York, anyone?). At 13 ounces, the RD2780 is certainly not as sleek as the iPod, a trait videophiles might be willing to overlook. $449; www.rca.com. Mark Spoonauer

Books

Small Things Considered: Why There Is No Perfect Design, by Henry Petroski (Knopf, 273 pp., $25) Though Henry Petroski is best known for his 400-page history, The Pencil, the Duke engineer's real love is design. In this new book, he peers closely at some of our most common household objects and explains how they work -- or don't. Why is a round glass superior to a squarish one? Do plastic bags have any advantages over paper sacks? Is the thick-handled Oxo potato peeler really better than the old-style Ekco model? How should a supermarket efficiently organize its shelves? Petroski's reflections gain much of their charm from his own easygoing personality; he is, after all, the author of a memoir about being a paperboy. In discussing why his Volvo's cup holder is so poorly designed, he wistfully recalls carhops hooking trays over partially rolled-down windows and confesses, "all engineers delight in the challenge of packing a car trunk." Not surprising, he observes, "When I give engineering students the option of redesigning any consumer product they wish, they often choose the CD jewel box." Whether he's tracing the evolution of the Oral-B toothbrush or explaining why the fastest tollbooth is always the one on the far right, Petroski clearly knows the designs of our times. Michael Dirda

CDs

1. It Still Moves, My Morning Jacket (BMG) Jim James may sing like Neil Young, and the rest of the band may play like Crazy Horse, but Louisville's My Morning Jacket's songs are lusher, warmer, and more contemporary. It's the kind of record that makes you want to pick up a pal, choose a direction, and drive until dawn. Rowan West

2. Seal, Seal (Warner Bros.) After a five-year hiatus, Seal is back with his third self-titled record. Is this a return to form? It is if you like soulful, dark-before-the-dawn lyrics sung in a rich voice that's part darker Lionel Richie and part gruffer Marvin Gaye. The arrangements -- impeccably tasteful with a touch of dancefloor synth -- are a perfect complement. Rowan West

3. Show Me Your Tears, Frank Black and the Catholics (spinART) Former Pixie Frank Black turns in a tight 12-song collection that rocks, rolls, and occasionally strolls. If the Pixies were arty surf punk, the Catholics are brainy rockabilly, full of hollow guitars and tinkly pianos. Black's vocal dynamism and flair for melody take you places you haven't been. Rowan West

DVDs

The Office (BBC Video, $29.98) Whether you get your office banter via IM or over the water cooler, it's likely that the BBC's brilliant series The Office has come up in conversation. The Office follows, mockumentary style, the soul-cauterizing existence of the workers of Wernham Hogg, a grim suburban paper company in constant downsize mode (what the Brits call "redundancies"). Boss David Brent (creator Ricky Gervais) is the prototypical, uninspiring putz with a bad goatee and an even worse sense of humor. He's surrounded by all the major elements of any modern house of work: the loathsome sycophant, the bitter funnyman, and a couple of hotties -- all going nowhere fast. The humor is dry, the laugh track is absent, and the result is the perfect workplace sitcom. DVD EXTRAS: Gervais's 40-minute doc, How I Made The Office, is worth a spin, as are deleted scenes from the first season and "Slough Slang," a glossary of the local lingo. Larry Smith

Last updated: Sep 1, 2003




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