Fixing the PC market in the Post-PC Era: Build better PCs

Fixing the PC market in the Post-PC Era: Build better PCs

Summary: If you build it, they will come. No truer words were ever spoken. Building a better PC isn't difficult; it's just not something that anyone thinks about while lamenting the dramatic drop in PC sales. Build a better PC and we'll buy it.


It's true that losers outnumbered winners in PC sales figures last year, but the winners; Lenovo, HP, and Dell pulled away from the pack in a big way. Their PC* sales figures for the "Back to School" period were all up from the same period in 2012. But they were up in small percentages: 2.8, 1.5, and 1.0, respectively. It doesn't sound like a lot of "growth" but the raw numbers are pretty impressive: 14.1 million, 13.7 million, and 9.3 million, respectively. Not small potatoes but certainly not where they want to be or perhaps thought they should be. The solution to lagging PC sales is simple: Build a better PC.

And if you really step back and analyze the market over the past five to ten years, you'll have to agree that's exactly what PC manufacturers have done—especially in the last three years. I've seen amazing advances in PC technology, overall quality, and product durability. A few years back, I thought the PC industry was trending toward low end, disposable computers, which, if someone really analyzed it, probably coincides with the downward sales trends. 

I think the introduction of tablet computers has made PC manufacturers step back and examine their disposable PC trend. Because tablets are the new disposable PC, consumers and businesses alike want longer lasting hardware. In fact, some companies have PCs refurbished and redeployed in order to avoid the disposability of their investments.

Tablets have driven manufacturers to raise the bar on quality and that's a very good thing for consumers and businesses. If you look at the new lineups from Acer, Asus, Dell, HP, and Lenovo, you'll see what I'm describing. They've all moved to a smaller but better type offering in their lines. 

For example, PC manufacturers offer so-called budget PCs that are really meant for those who don't require something with more horsepower—email, browsing, word processing, and some online games. Next, you have your "business" PCs and educational PCs. Manufacturers offer a short range of five or fewer but they cover the gamut from small and portable to higher end workstations. Finally, you have the high end PCs that carry a heavy price tag as well. These PCs generally describle users with heavy needs such as developers, testers, support, and gamers.

And now manufacturers have released a line of "touch" PCs that have Windows 8.x enhancements. And all have a Chromebook available for those who want to face the future of personal computing a little early.

Prices generally range from $250 to more than $2,000, with a happy medium hovering near the $600 mark for the above average consumer or the average business user units.

I'm personally hooked on the Ultrabook and Chromebook PCs. I love the power and portability of the Ultrabooks and as I wrote earlier, Chromebooks are awesome because of their portability and user friendliness. Long battery life for both of these platforms is excellent as well.

I'm so hooked on Ultrabook PCs that I've, as you probably know, wanted an Ultrabook for myself but bought a Mac mini instead. But I did get a Chromebook, so now I'm set. My wife's boss asked her to evaluate a list of new laptop computers so that he could buy one for himself. I looked at the list and went off list to recommend the HP Envy Ultrabook. After much mulling, he bought the Envy and loves it. And, as the name implies, I'm green with Envy. Honestly, it is much better than any of the PCs he considered and had recommended to him by other "experts". I actually told him that if he didn't love the Envy, that I'd buy it from him. That, my friends, is a no lose situation.

I digress but you see my point that PC manufacturers have risen to the occasion by building better PCs and it has worked. PC sales are up over the previous year. They'll keep going up too.

One reason is that quality of personal computers is on the way up but also that people realize that tablets are limited use devices. For example, I couldn't write this post on a tablet without using many well-chosen expletives. It would take two or three times as long to write it and require many fermented beverages along the way. In either case, quality and blood pressure would both suffer greatly.

I believe that as PC quality increases, sales will also increase. Tablets can't do the same job as efficiently and I think people have discovered this fact. But we want quality. We want our PCs to last from three to five years. Most businesses figure the life of a PC is three years. Consumers generally have no idea how long a computer should last. Of course, the rules change depending on many factors such as environmental conditions, use cases, and personal habits.

Beyond quality, manufacturers need to build loyalty into their products. What I mean is that warranties, accessories, upgradeability, and trade-in options will build that long-term loyalty. Unfortunately, the customer's value has slipped in previous years. Consumers have become numbers such as indicators, stock prices, and units sold.

Computer buyers are the lifeblood of a company. If you build quality products and build brand loyalty into those products, your stock price will go up. Focus on the people who buy your products. Design for them. Create for them. You can't build a better consumer, so you have to build a better PC. If you build them, they will come. And they'll keep coming back.

What do you think? Do you think that PC manufacturers care about their consumers? Is there such a thing as brand loyalty? Talk back and let me know.

*For the purposes of this post, my definition of "PC" covers laptops, notebooks, Ultrabooks, and desktop computers. It does not cover tablets, netbooks, or convertibles.

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Topics: Hardware, Enterprise Software, Software


Kenneth 'Ken' Hess is a full-time Windows and Linux system administrator with 20 years of experience with Mac, Linux, UNIX, and Windows systems in large multi-data center environments.

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  • PC+ era

    Post-PC is a made up Apple term. Were in the PC+ era, where everyone has a PC plus other devices. Every business, every IT professional, every gamer still uses them. We also have other devices, however an ergonomic workstation with large monitor will never go way. The Surface Pro with docking station is probably the closest thing that brings mobile computing and PC together. Other than the Surface Pro, there aren't any other good solutions to replace real PC needs.
    Sean Foley
    • Brand Loyalty

      As far as brand loyalty, yes that exist! More so for people with extra spending money that stay loyal to a brand such as Dell. I have found that kids and young adults without much cash will tend to go with products that are cheaper. I think over time it is human nature to establish brand loyalty with anything (cars, bicycles, computers, etc).
      Sean Foley
      • It's true

        Now I'm a bit older I always gravitate to a particular brand. Why? Because (touch wood) that brand has never failed me. Nothing has broken, failed, blown-up or whatever.
        It build faith that I know the devices will work for the long term, so even if they cost a bit more, I'll always lean to that brand.
        • I think many people believe that way too.

          I stick with Chevy's as they work for me. Same with Dell, MS, Apple for computing needs - get the job done easily and without hassle, and I'll look at your new stuff when it comes out.
      • BRAND?. . . LOYALTY?

        You have GOT to be kidding.
        In a world where TAXES have sent almost every business on this planet scrambling for the lowest overall cost,..?
        TAXES have virtually NIXED brand loyalty.
        MONEY is everything these days, most simply don't have it.
    • They Must Build PCs That Can Go Mobile...

      With both a Desktop and Mobile OS, using the mobile OS on the go and the Desktop OS when docked.

      I know what you guys are thinking: "That's what Microsoft already did".

      Umh, no they didn't.

      The Windows NT kernel is about as far away from being a truly mobile OS as a minivan is from being a Maserati.

      MS needs to go back to the drawing board ASAP!

      But they will never do it because they are arrogant, greedy, lazy, and woefully out of touch with the modern, mainstream computing landscape.
      • I'm guessing you're projecting

        with the arrogant, greedy, lazy, and woefully out of touch with the modern, mainstream computing landscape thing, IMHO.
    • Finally someone who gets it!

      It makes me facepalm how many "tech" journalist constantly keep spouting off this idea of a post-PC era. The only difference is that desktops have gone back to the users who actually can use them. Great response! You win the internet for today.
      Those who hunt Trolls
      • Yes, Yes, Yes

        I suspect Google has an entire server somewhere dedicated to hits on the phrase "post pc era". If someone hadn't coined this expression, I honestly can't imagine what would have kept tech bloggers employed for the last three years. There will always be PC's and laptops with keyboards and mice/pads. Sales volume will obviously be less than in the past as other devices are used for tasks that they do well. But there are many tasks for which a conventional workstation is needed.

        To its credit, MS is developing the Surface concept for people who also want to be able to 'pick up there desktop and bring it with them'. Unfortunately, the only thing worse than their execution of the new UI itself has been their failure to convey to the public the benefits that a Surface Pro represents, as compared to lesser devices like the Kindle, Nexus and yes, the iPad.

        Ignoring for a moment how much Metro s**ks when used with a keyboard/mouse, the Surface Pro is an awesome device, and would be selling far, far better than it is if MS had figured out how to make the public understand what a revolution it actually could represent. The SP really is the most significant threat to sales of conventional Desktop/Laptop systems, but it seems like no one really understands that.
        • Gah!

          ... pick up THEIR desktop! How embarrassing!
  • Better PCs = more expensive PCs

    That though would widen the price gap between tablets and PCs/laptops even more making Windows devices even more unattractive to consumers.

    The editor is unfortunately remiss to mull over reasons of the small rise in sales figures. It's simply because after having postponed laptop/PC purchases for years (due to mobile devices and economical recession !!) there is a certain backlog in Windows devices among consumers.

    That said, PC sales figures will inevitably stay low (at current level) simply because replacement cycles have extended. During the 90s a new PC was due almost every other year. In the 2000s this time-span has grown to 4 years and consumers are even content with a 5 year old PC. Why wouldn't they ? Windows 7 still is a great OS and for MS Office and websurfing a dualcore is good enough. No compelling reason to go i7 except for gamers and power users (video/photo editing and pro work).

    Don't get your hopes up. Consumers budget for electronics is limited and mobile stuff takes its share from that trove.
    • 90%+ senario

      For a lot of people, smaller and cheaper devices handle 90% + of the things that they used to need a PC to do.
      Be those smartphones/tablets/chromebooks etc, the old PC is left to handle that 10% or less that it's needed for and the "new" money goes on on a smaller cheaper "just works" device to handle the 90%+.
      • Percentages?

        Where did you get those percentages? Did you do a facebook usage study? If you work in any type of office you can flip your percentages backwards.
        Sean Foley
        • I made them up on the spot

          It was just to convey a point, not to be taken literally.........
          • another 90% scenario

            90% of points conveyed by made up percentages normally just reinforce false stereotypes whereas 10% of the rest of this statement is pure gold dust.
      • Percentages

        I've heard proven scientific fact that 86.3% of the time that a percentage is quoted, only 73% of the information is accurate, but 98.2% of the people will believe it unless 18.6% of those people have red hair. Now, another proven study showed that 96.5% of the time 86.6% of people will agree with 93.7% of the facts provided ASSUMING that 99.4% of the time they are backed by "some" study.

        No, really. Google it yourself!
  • Stable PCs

    Vendors need to focus on quality, not quantity. Stop building a dozen different models. Build six with immaculate quality. Quality doesn't mean expensive, either. It means a stable experience. If you cannot offer a feature that's stable, get rid of it!

    IMO, the biggest long-term problem in the PC space is drive quality. Sans defective hardware, no other single source has as much impact on customer's experience. Products shouldn't be released until drivers are thoroughly tested.

    Do I speak from experience? Absolutely. I like my Dell Venue 8 Pro but the drivers have been a challenge from day 1. I still have a problem using Miracast with Netflix. All video is fine if I play it without Miracast. Other local/network/streaming video is fine if I use Miracast. Just Netflix. It routinely crashes after just a few minutes of viewing. It's a hard crash and the device reboots. I suspect it's a problem with the security features required to stream video to a Miracast dongle. Dell's support site is a no show other than folks who try to help but simply recycle tired ideas.

    Perhaps you are thinking it's Netflix. Perhaps but it works flawlessly unless I ask my device to beam that stream somewhere else. Other than making sure the new stream destination meets security requirements, what would the Netflix app do differently? I find it hard to believe it's Netflix and the crash report claims it's Intel's system32/igfx.... something or other.
  • I'm not saying there isn't a market for quality PCs

    Certainly in the tech center workplace and private gaming there is a strong market for quality PCs. However those really are niche markets, and outside of those markets customers are going to gravitate towards cheap "throwaway" PCs, especially as more and more of their apps and data are in the cloud. Better is not necessary for these users, "good enough" is plenty.
    Michael Kelly
  • Build better PC's?

    Maybe PC's are too good and last too long so people don't need a new one. The problem is most computer technology stopped getting better. Hard drives aren't 100TB. RAM isn't in the terabytes yet. Most people can just upgrade their graphics card if they want to make it better. If you can't buy a much more powerful new computer why bother?
    • Mostly agree

      As an adjunct to this, I'd add that for people with typical needs, widely available refurbished PC's are a very attractive option.

      I'm an aggressive deal-shopper, and my last three PC's (yeah, we have quite an impressive network running in our humble ranch house) have been refurbed mail-order Win7 towers from Best Buy and Tigerdirect. One HP, one Lenovo and one Dell -- whatever's the best deal when we need one. These are all multicore-CPU 6 or 8-GB 64-bit OS boxes that work great, and they were less than $300 each.

      Certainly the number of consumer and business customers shopping for 3-year-old refurbs is less than those who want shiny-new PC's. But the avalanche of excellent refurbs available, and the fact that there are still many buyers who want Win7, has to represent a sizable dent in new-unit sales, doesn't it?