I tested the BlackBerry 7100g about a year ago. It was a valiant effort to marry a cell phone with an e-mail device, but it was an ugly marriage. To slim down the unit for phone use, BlackBerry ditched the full QWERTY keyboard for a cell phone-like design where each key is assigned multiple letters. That made typing long e-mails nearly impossible. The 7100 also lacked BlackBerry’s signature ruggedness. The other phone-BlackBerry combination was the 7200 series, which was basically a PDA masquerading as a phone. It was about as comfortable as holding a brick against the side of your face.

With the release of 8700c, BlackBerry has created a near-perfect smartphone.

Available only on the Cingular network, the 8700c looks like the athletic offspring of a 7100 and 7200 union. It retains the signature, rugged look of the 7200 while adding the sleek, tapered edges of the 7100. The latter makes the unit comfortable enough to use as a primary phone. The slimmed-down design, however, forced BlackBerry to design a more compact (though full) keyboard, which might frustrate users with thicker digits.

BlackBerry has loaded the 4.7-ounce, 8700c with some cool features, such as a 320-by-240-pixel screen that supports 65,000 colors. The 2.65-inch screen is bright and crisp, making it ideal for viewing photos, playing video games and Web browsing. The 312MHz Intel processor adds some zip to applications, and Cingular’s wireless broadband EDGE network makes Web surfing and e-mail retrieval a breeze. The only thing that might slow you down is the Web browser, which has trouble loading certain sites.

Another advantage is that the 8700c has quad-band support. I recently took it to Europe and had no problem sending and receiving phone calls and e-mails.

Although the 8700c is the best smartphone on the market right now, it’s not perfect. Some callers had trouble hearing me, and I had a number of problems with dropped calls. In addition, the battery drains quickly, especially if you are running graphics-intensive programs. Another problem is that the dial pad for the cellphone is integrated into the compact keyboard, making it difficult to dial by feel.

All said, though, 8700c is about the best you can do if you want to divorce yourself from a separate cellphone.