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This year will see a raft of personal technology devices launched, while many others already in the market will be improved, sometimes dramatically. The question for consumers is whether to buy a new laptop, smartphone or digital recorder now, or wait for the next generation.

With this in mind, I have decided to gaze into the personal technology crystal ball in an effort to discover what may lie ahead in 2010.

First, some safe predictions. There will not be a new version of Windows launched in 2010 (Windows 7 was launched in late October 2009) and any updates to Apple’s OS X Snow Leopard operating system are likely to be fairly modest.

From a software perspective, this means there is little reason to delay purchasing a new all-singing, all-dancing laptop. Indeed, hardware improvements will probably be relatively meagre, though the trend towards ultra-thin and light machines is expected to continue.

For all except gamers, who demand the performance that only the latest graphic processors and super-fast memory chips can provide, desktop machines are predicted to change relatively little, though all-in-one machines such as Apple’s iMac family and HP’s TouchSmart will gain market share, at least outside the office.

Netbooks – small and lightweight laptops usually powered by Intel’s Atom processor – could change more dramatically. In particular, most new machines will have LED-backlit screens measuring 10-13 inches, effectively closing the screen-size gap with small laptops while still costing $400 or less.

While many early netbooks launched with a Linux operating system, Windows XP became the favoured choice in 2009, and some machines even came with the “starter” version of Windows 7. I expect the launch of more powerful netbooks with extra memory, faster processors and the upgraded “home” version of Windows 7. However, Microsoft and Windows 7 will face competition from Google’s Chrome operating system, which will launch this year.

Nevertheless, if you are in the market for a netbook, I would pick one running either Windows XP or Windows 7 rather than wait for Google Chrome, which is unlikely to arrive until the third quarter at the earliest.

Buying a new e-book reader is also tricky because of the number of new devices and manufacturers that are expected to enter the fray. Consumers looking for a paperback-sized e-reader have the widest choice, though not all devices are available in all markets.

In the US, the Kindle 2 and the Sony family of e-readers are locked in a fierce battle for market share, while new entrants such as Barnes & Noble’s Nook look promising. If you are looking for a standard-sized e-reader, make sure you pick one that supports the open e-book format and that can display PDF files. I would also choose one that comes with a built-in cellular modem and supports wi-fi downloads.

The choice is more limited for those who require a large-screen device suitable for displaying textbooks, PDF files and graphics. Amazon’s Kindle DX and the iRex iLiad 1000S compete in this niche, but are expected to be joined by some interesting new devices shortly.

Plastic Logic’s long-promised Que reader, which targets business professionals, is generating a lot of interest, in part because of its large and flexible screen format, but also because the company has signed deals with a raft of business book and magazine publishers. The British company’s reader is extremely thin and weighs less than 1lb, in spite of its large screen.

In contrast, digital recorders, ideal for recording the verbal fruits of a brainstorming session, are a relatively old market segment and unlikely to change much. This is a pity because I would love to be able to go directly from a digital recording to an editable transcript.

Speech recognition software has improved considerably, thanks in part to the extra horsepower that modern processors offer. Dragon Dictate, the leading speech recognition software package now sold by Nuance, is pretty good at transcribing the voice of an individual user. Unfortunately, I have had much less success using the package (or any other speech recognition package) to transcribe, and my crystal ball gazing session gave me little hope that this will change anytime soon.

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