Unlike the recession of 2002, the current downturn has in many ways spared the technology sector.

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Unlike the recession of 2002, the current downturn has in many ways spared the technology sector.

For the year ended Tuesday, the PowerShares tech exchange-traded fund (QQQ) was down 19.4 percent, less than the 22.1 percent drop for the Standard & Poor’s 500.

Some companies are even benefiting as ailing businesses look to save money by automating tasks with software.

Still, many corporations are cutting back, and tech companies are feeling the pain. Dell (DELL) warned Sept. 16 it is seeing “softening” global demand, and its shares hit a 10-year low, rattling the tech sector.

John McCarthy, Forrester Research vice president and principal analyst, says we are “clearly” entering a period of judicious spending.

But, he adds, this isn’t the “outright slash and burn” of budgets seen in 2002 when the bust was in the tech sector itself. This time, the financial, real-estate and automotive industries are leading the downturn.

Forrester even raised its 2008 U.S. technology spending forecast this month, saying the market will grow 5.4 percent instead of its May prediction of 3.4 percent growth.

To be sure, the firm says that growth in 2009 will be slower than expected — a case of good news now and so-so news later.

The tech sector has taken its share of lumps. Even Google (GOOG), the Internet search leader, added only 448 employees this past spring, the fewest in a single quarter since 2004.

But any hiring is positive when many industries are cutting thousands of workers. In August, unemployment hit a five-year high, but in the tech sector, employment and wages are up overall, notes McCarthy.

In another sign of sector strength, Hewlett-Packard (HPQ), along with Microsoft (MSFT), announced share-buyback programs Monday at a time when other companies are looking to conserve cash.

Tech companies with a range of products and geographic reach are faring best in the tough economic climate, says Shaw Wu, an analyst with American Technology Research. IBM (IBM) and HP are two examples.

Wu is less bullish on Dell. It derives at least 10 to 15 percent of revenue from the financial-services sector and has most of its business in the United States.

Even Apple (AAPL), a tech-sector darling, may expect customers to tighten their belts: It recently unveiled new iPods that are $50 to $100 cheaper than their predecessors.