It's that time again to make some predictions about what to expect in consumer tech for 2011. But first, here's a quick review of last year's predictions.

Mostly right

I predicted that we'd see new smartphones with larger 4- and 4.5-inch touch displays, and that proved correct with the Droid X, HTC EVO and Nexus S phones, in spite of Steve Jobs referring to them as Hummer phones.

The debate over network neutrality heated up as predicted, with Google and Verizon trying to make their own side deal. One prediction that hasn't panned out is that the FCC would take a strong stand against network neutrality. Instead, it's shown no backbone.

The prediction of a new iPhone that would be built of more rugged materials proved to be true, unless you drop it and shatter the glass back. That the iPhone would continue to encounter problems on AT&T's network proved true, and that AT&T would try to limit data usage and charge for higher usage also happened. No more unlimited data plan for the iPhone (unless you're grandfathered in). That Verizon would begin selling the iPhone seemed like an easy prediction, but we're still waiting.

Apple did introduce a tablet computer that everyone predicted, but no one knew how successful it would turn out to be, except, perhaps, Jobs.

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My wife Jane and I just returned from a
3,500-mile driving vacation, traveling north from San Diego to
Vancouver and Victoria, along the coasts of Northern California, Oregon
and Washington, and back through the Willamette Valley and California.
Over the two weeks I tried out a variety of gadgets designed for the
road.

One of the most useful, of course, is a GPS, and
I used three different devices; the built-in GPS in our 2009 Toyota
Highlander, a Garmin 1690 ($250) (garmin.com), and the Google
navigation app built into the new Motorola Droid X cell phone from
Verizon.

While none of these devices were without their
faults, it seemed to be that the less you pay the more you get. The
Toyota unit was the most error prone and fidgety, particularly with its
confusing user interface, older maps, and the difficulty of inputting
your destination and searching for local attractions. For example,
there was no consistency on when to use "3rd Street" or "Third Street,"
and, as a passenger, I couldn't use the GPS while the car was moving.
In one instance when we headed down a highway in the wrong direction,
the Toyota GPS couldn't figure out what to do, since it has no option
to allow u-turns. Searching for businesses was slow and brought up
stores 2,000 miles away near the top of the list.

The Garmin was much easier to use, had more
up-to-date maps, provided local search, traffic, and, unlike older
models, quickly connected to the satellites. It even navigated around
traffic accidents. But its capacitive touch screen often required
multiple key presses to register.

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Images Over the past few months we've been inundated
with new smartphones, culminating with the release of the iPhone 4 and
the announcement of the Motorola Droid X this past week. If you find
all this commotion a little confusing, and you're not sure what's right
for you, you're not alone. Hopefully this column will provide some
guidance.

Smartphones from all carriers

If your phone is a year old, you'll be surprised
by how much better these new models are. They're fast, have large,
multi-touch screens, and run thousands of new apps. They sync
wirelessly to your computer's calendar and contacts, ensuring you'll
have the most up-to-date information with you all the time.

They each send and retrieve e-mail using
on-screen keyboards, provide a great browsing experience, and do
everything from making dinner reservations to finding your way to a
destination. But they do require some learning; not everything is
obvious. The user manuals are sparse and often answers are easier to
find by Googling.

Some include wireless tethering that turns the
phone into a wireless hotspot for another $20 to $30 per month. Your
computer connects just as it does to any WiFi hotspot.

Excellent smartphones are available from all of
the carriers. While the iPhone was so far ahead than anything else when
it first came out, that's no longer the case.
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Images (3)New smartphone models are being introduced weekly, all
trying to challenge the dominance of Apple’s iPhone. Phones running Google's
Android operating system, in particular, are reducing the iPhone's once huge
advantage over other smart phones. Why? They have a similar form factor,  a big bright colorful touch display, an
app store, and a similar user interface.

Most of the Android phones offer one big advantage: they
make calls that rarely drop. The call performance of the iPhone on AT&T's
network has been its biggest weakness. Dropped calls are so rampant that
late-night comedian Stephen Colbert noted the similarity of his newly acquired
iPad to his iPhone, commenting "Neither can make calls."

Users have tolerated that weakness because of the iPhone's
other capabilities, particularly its outstanding interface, great browsing and
e-mail, built-in iPod player, and the huge number of apps. 

This past week I've been testing two new Android models, the
Samsung Moment from Sprint ($100) and the HTC Droid Incredible from Verizon
($200). 

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