Earlier this month, I finally got a chance to check out the most buzzed-about gadget of the year — the upcoming Palm Pre smartphone.

I'm happy to report that all the hype from the gadget shows is true. Palm's got a winner on its hands and Apple's got a challenger for first place among smartphones.

I'll have a full review once Palm lets me borrow one for longer than 10 minutes. But based on what I saw, I may have found my next smartphone.

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The Pre takes everything that's great about the iPhone — multitouch commands, the App Store — and adds most of what the iPhone's missing, such as a real keyboard, MMS messaging and a multitasking OS that can do more than one thing at once.

And I also got a pleasant surprise. Contrary to previous reports, the Pre will be able to run Palm OS legacy applications. Millions of Palm PDA, Treo and Centro owners can simply port their favorite apps over to the new platform.

Like its competitors, which also include the BlackBerry Bold and Storm, the T-Mobile G1 "Google phone" and half a dozen Samsung, Nokia and HTC also-rans, the Pre is very pretty and rather heavy. It looks like one of those heated sauna rocks that get put on beautiful women's backs in ads for upscale hotels.

When it's inactive, it's solid black and very minimal. Swipe a finger across the face, and the 320 x 480-pixel touchscreen lights up and the Pre comes alive.

Like the rest of the smartphone bunch, it's got all the latest bells and whistles: audio and video playback, a standard 3.5-mm headphone jack, Wi-Fi, 3G, GPS, Bluetooth, push e-mail, a 3-megapixel camera.

The QWERTY keyboard, similar to those on the Treo and Centro, slides out from the bottom. An accelerometer repositions the screen 360 degrees around, twice as far as the G1 or iPhone.

The camera's got an LED flash, but there's no zoom or video-recording capability for now. An ambient light sensor automatically adjusts screen brightness.

There are also a couple of things I wish the Pre had but doesn't — a memory-card slot for additional storage (it's got 8 GB built in), a stylus or trackball for when my fat fingers can't accurately select something.

Palm won't narrow down the Pre's release date beyond "first half of 2009," but the Palm reps I met with said it'd be "soon." Rumors have Sprint store personnel already being trained in demonstrating it to customers, indicating a "street date" of late April or early May.

The Palm people also said the purchase price would be "very competitve," which to me indicates about $200.

As for the service plans by Sprint (the exclusive U.S. carrier for the moment), I was told they wouldn't be any different from Sprint's current smartphone planes, which start at $70/month for unlimited data and messaging and 450 minutes of talk time, and also includes the $100 all-you-can-eat plan.

The Pre runs on an embedded, Linux-based operating system Palm calls WebOS, the successor to its very user-friendly but antiquated PalmOS. As always, applications are represented by big fat icons on a touchscreen, and swiping your finger both up-down and right-left reveals more apps.

As with the iPhone, separating or narrowing two fingers zooms out or in; Apple had threatened legal action, but the Palm reps simply said, "There's no lawsuit."

The area below the screen to the left and right of the single "Home" button is also touch-sensitive, with various gestures resulting in different results. so that basic commands can be done with the thumb of one hand. It took some practice to get right.

Applications can opened and then flipped around in a manner similar to Apple's "cover flow"; Palm prefers the "deck of cards" analogy, since the apps can be shuffled or put aside even as they're all still running.

Individual Web pages can be handled the same way, with even those not currently visible automatically updating. Most apps remain unobtrusive when you're not looking at them, with the exception of the music player.

Like the G1, the Pre can buy MP3 tracks from Amazon's online store, and also supports AAC tracks, which means Apple's non-DRM iTunes purchases will also play if you port them over from a PC.

I'm not sure about video downloads; Amazon's streaming player is dependent on Flash, which Adobe says it's porting to the Pre, so it's possible the phone will be able to download and stream movies.

Palm's touting the Pre's real killer feature, however, as something more prosaic yet revolutionary — Synergy, an all-encompassing "cloud"-based aggregator that gathers together all your e-mail, calendar schedules and searches from different sources into single interfaces.

This means that not only will all your e-mail messages from Gmail, Yahoo and Outlook (and possibly Apple's Mobile Me/.Mac) be grouped together as they are on BlackBerries, but that all your time-management info will be as well.

Typing in a search term doesn't query specifically Google or Yahoo or Microsoft's LiveSearch — it looks it up in all of them at once, as well as Wikipedia, without opening a Web browser window.

Better yet is the combined instant-messaging and text-messaging application. It merges messages from the major Internet-based IM services — AIM, GoogleTalk, Yahoo Chat — together with standard cellular-based text messages into one interface.

The Palm people told me it seamlessly could hand off from one protocol to another, so that a text-based chat could switch to an IM-based one and back again.

Palm is so confident in "cloud"-based computing that it doesn't even provide a desktop application to go with the Pre.

I was a little confused about this, since the Windows companion desktop to go with the PalmOS is still one of the best desktop calendars/schedulers around (the Mac version kind of sucks).

But the Palm reps told me that Pre users could simply use Google Calendar, Yahoo Calendar, Outlook's scheduler or presumably even Apple's iCal instead — and it'd all show up on the Pre. I guess that's nice, though I'd really just prefer to stick with the old Palm desktop.

Nonetheless, the phone-based calendar is great. Scheduled items have different colors depending on which external application was used to create them, so you can tell what's on your work-based Outlook calendar as opposed to your personal Google one. Unused time gets scrunched up like an accordion to give more screen space to allocated periods.

Adding calendar items seemed like a snap. The keyboard itself could use a little work — the keys were too flush with the board, and didn't give a satisfying bounceback. But they were easier to hit than the Centro's tiny keys, which I can only hit with my pinky.

Just 18 months ago, Palm looked doomed. Dumb management decisions had frozen the PalmOS in 2003, and the Treos seemed antiquated next to the iPhone.

Then the company bought itself some time with the low-end but still very useful Centro, which essentially brought smartphones to the masses.

Judging from what I saw of the Pre, it was time well spent. Palm's future once again looks as bright as the Pre's screen.