As the PC market turns, touchscreens start to take over

Summary:Samsung's Chromebook has been at the top of Amazon's list of bestselling notebooks for several months. But a closer look at the rest of that list reveals some interesting facts about an industry in transition. Most notably, touchscreens are finally starting to take off.

Google’s Chrome OS isn’t exactly setting the online universe on fire , according to the latest numbers from NetMarketShare. In fact, Chromebooks are so lightly used that they don't even appear on the latest reports from the web metrics company.

When I wrote that news earlier this week, I heard two reactions, for the most part. The first was, "This surprises you?" The second was: "But that can’t be. The Samsung Chromebook has been at the top of Amazon’s bestselling laptops list for months!"

Indeed it has. That apparent contradiction surprised me, too, so I decided to take a much closer look at that Amazon list. I came away with a plausible explanation for Samsung’s success and some insights into the PC market as we head into midyear.

samsung-chromebook-amazon-bestseller

First, a little background. As a book author, I know a thing or two about Amazon’s bestseller lists. They’re based on complex (and highly secretive) algorithms that blend long-term sales with short-term momentum. So a product that sees a spike in sales in a single day can move impressively up the charts for a day or two, and then drop quickly back to its normal slot. But the products that stay atop the charts are those that sell steadily over time.

By that measure, there’s reason to congratulate Samsung for the Chromebook’s performance. Its tenure at the top means it has been selling consistently over time. So what’s the secret of its success?

Let’s start with the most obvious attribute: its price. At $249, the Samsung Chromebook is the second-cheapest device on the Amazon list. In fact, when I copied the list into a spreadsheet and sorted by price, lowest prices first, Chromebooks magically rose to the top.

chromebooks-are-cheap

Two of the top five notebooks are dirt-cheap Chromebooks. When you sort the 100 laptops on the list by price, only one Windows-based machine, the Acer Aspire One, managed to sneak into the bargain basement. With the Samsung getting excellent reviews for its build quality, at a price of $249, it passed the “What the hell?” threshold for many gadget buyers.

But I found the rest of the list much more enlightening. Here’s the short version:

  • Apple’s MacBooks are very popular indeed.
  • Touchscreens are making inroads into the mainstream.
  • Cheap PCs are still the no-profit lifeblood of the industry.

Let’s dig in.

For starters, there really aren’t 100 discrete devices in the Amazon top 100 list. I threw out 10 of the entries on the list that were available only from third-party sellers, not fulfilled by Amazon. This group included three ancient Apple iBooks powered by G4 CPUs. It also included listings for five equally antique refurbished Dell machines. After excluding those listings, we end up with a total of 90 entries in the Formerly Top 100 list.

And there are a lot of duplicates on that list. The Samsung Chromebook comes in a single configuration, but many of the other entries on the list represent the same device with a different CPU or memory, in a different color, or with a slightly different model number.

One could, in fact, make a plausible case that ASUS deserves the top spot on the list with its amazingly inexpensive low-end touchscreen notebook powered by an Intel i3. The ASUS X202E appears in the #10 spot on the list, but its siblings, the silver and pink units with the same model number and the identical device sold as the Q200E, appear on the list as well. All told, this machine appears five times. If those sales were consolidated, it would certainly move up the charts - perhaps all the way to the top.

I found a total of six Apple MacBooks in the top 100. They paint a picture of Apple’s amazingly successful sales strategy. Create a manageable number of models, build them very well, slap a premium price on each one, and collect the greenbacks.

macbooks-in-top-100

If you sort the list by price in reverse order, MacBooks float to the top of the list. All of the 12 Mac models on the bestseller list were among the 20 most expensive laptops you can buy at Amazon. Only one had an actual selling price of (barely) under $1000. Collectively, they represent only six models: the 11- and 13-inch MacBook Airs, and the 13- and 15-inch MacBook Pros, with and without Retina displays.

And then there’s the incredibly diverse Windows laptop lineup.

When I combined all the duplicate entries, I found a total of 46 Windows-powered devices on the bestseller list. Here’s the breakdown:

  • Only 2 were running Windows 7
  • 32 were running Windows 8 on conventional notebook form factors
  • 12 were running Windows 8 with touchscreens

That middle group is basically the strip mall of PCs: ho-hum, mostly heavy lookalike devices at price points that make you wonder how the OEMs can make a dime of profit. Of that group, 56 percent were priced at $500 or less and 88 percent were $700 or less.

But if you’re looking for signs of life, look at the list of touchscreen devices, most of them fairly recent additions to the bestseller list.

  • Acer: Aspire V5
  • ASUS: Taichi Convertible Ultrabook; VivoBook S400CA and VivoBook S500CA; Q200E/VivoBook X202E
  • HP: Envy X2 convertible
  • Lenovo: IdeaPad Yoga 13; Thinkpad Twist; ThinkPad X1 Carbon Touch
  • Samsung: ATIV Smart PC 500T; ATIV Smart PC Pro XE700T
  • Sony: VAIO T Series

On average, the touchscreen devices sold for $802 each. By contrast, the non-touchscreen devices sold for $515. Part of that is the current premium price for touch-enabled displays. But as volumes go up, that component price should go down, making touchscreens more popular.

What I found most fascinating about this list were the Lenovo entries. In the recent dismal Q1, Lenovo nearly hit the top of the worldwide PC sales charts. And it’s not doing it with just cheap PCs. The Yoga 13, ThinkPad Twist, and X1 Carbon Touch are genuinely innovative designs, sold at premium prices.

We are in a time of transition in the PC industry. By the end of the year, I predict this list will look very different indeed.

Topics: PCs, Apple, Google, Microsoft

About

Ed Bott is an award-winning technology writer with more than two decades' experience writing for mainstream media outlets and online publications. He has served as editor of the U.S. edition of PC Computing and managing editor of PC World; both publications had monthly paid circulation in excess of 1 million during his tenure. He is the a... Full Bio

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