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The iPhone may be the hottest phone on the planet, but it does have flaws that keep holdouts like myself still searching for something better. Our wait may soon be over thanks to Palm, the embattled company that held the high ground in the smartphone wars with its Treo handset before falling woefully behind the pack. I recently test-drove the upcoming Pre smartphone, and I think they got me.

Pre's advantages over iPhone start with a full, physical QWERTY keypad that slides down from the back of the phone when you need it, and disappears when you don't. Poking at a picture of a keyboard on a piece of plastic, iPhone-style, doesn't work for me, even after many attempts. The Pre keys are small, granted, but even with my big paws I was pecking away with accuracy almost immediately. Another iPhone-busting difference is that the Pre operating system keeps multiple programs running at the same time, making it easy to jump instantaneously from one to another. Each application appears like a card on the beautiful LCD display. Flicking your finger horizontally across the touch screen takes you through the virtual deck. And if you're done using a program, just give it an upward touch-screen flick and it disappears.

The whole calendar/e-mail/Internet integration challenge has never been tackled more elegantly. Contacts and communication from multiple sources are automatically and conveniently combined, including personal and corporate e-mail accounts, instant messages and social networking sites, so all your info is available at a glance.

There's no iTunes store (of course), but there is a direct connection to the Amazon MP3 store, where prices are reasonable and the selection is fine, and you can always play your ripped-from-CD MP3s.

Palm also realizes that the option to take out a dead battery and replace it with a spare is basic stuff, an idea Apple pooh-poohs.

Suffice it to say that the experience of using the Pre is polished, intuitive, aesthetically pleasing and fun. Of the Big Three Cell Phone Questions, though, we only have one answer so far. Question 1: Who's the carrier? Answer, Sprint, which is fine for a data-centric device. Question 2: How much does it cost? and Question 3: When can I get one? We're still hanging at this writing, but you'll find the latest info at palm.com.

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