Tablets might be one of the fastest-growing categories in technology, but for sheer numbers conventional PCs still rule, especially those available in the classic clamshell format: Windows laptops, MacBooks, and Chromebooks.
If you want a snapshot of that market, go to Amazon.com and examine the 100 products on their Best Sellers in Laptop Computers list. I took a close look at that list this week, following up on a post I wrote about these same Amazon listings in April 2013, six months after the launch of Windows 8. (If you haven't yet seen that article, it's worth a second look: As the PC market turns, touchscreens start to take over.)
Here's the latest snapshot:
It took me several hours to collect, clean up, and analyze the data. If you'd like to inspect it for yourself and even do your own analysis, be my guest. I've shared the spreadsheet publicly on SkyDrive: http://sdrv.ms/1eLphao. Note that the rankings at Amazon change hourly, so the list you see now will not match my snapshot from November 11. Likewise, I have compiled both manufactuer's suggested prices and actual for-sale prices for each item on the list. As experienced Amazon shoppers know, those numbers change regularly as well. The prices listed were accurate at the time I collected this data.
There's a natural human tendency to focus on the horse race aspect of a list like this, declaring winners and losers. I'm more interested in teasing out clues to what's next for the companies that build tech products and those who use them.
The fact is, all three of these platforms exist and will continue to exist for many years to come. Their size, strength, and ability to attract an ecosystem are important factors to understand when making buying decisions, especially if having a large diverse ecosystem is important to you. But personal preferences and business needs get involved too. Different people can come to different conclusions about which product or service is right for them, even when they're looking at the exact same data. That doesn't make anyone's decision right or wrong—just different.
This week, the sub-$249 11.6-inch Samsung Chromebook (Wi-Fi, 11.6-Inch) is at the top of Amazon's list of best-selling laptops, just as it was back in April and indeed has been since its introduction in October 2012. Acer's $249 C710 Chromebook, which was in the top 5 back in April, is in the top 5 in November as well.
But the rest of that top 100 list is worth looking at as well. Here's how it breaks down.
Three-quarters of the entries on the top 100 list run Windows. Those 74 SKUs represent 43 different models from 11 different manufacturers. The variations are models that have the same screen size and exterior design with different combinations of CPU, RAM, and local storage. You'll find Dell's 15.6-inch Inspiron 15, for example, in no fewer than seven different configurations and prices. Likewise, ASUS has 19 SKUs but only 13 models.
You can get a MacBook Pro (in one of 8 configurations) or a MacBook Air (with 4 configurations available). The list of Apple products also includes 3 very old products that have not been available from Amazon or its retail partners for years.
I found 5 Chromebook models in a total of 10 variations, from HP, Acer, and Samsung. For the most part, Chromebook makers appear to be hedging their bets, offering one or two models compared to a wide variety for form factors and configurations and price ranges for their Windows machines.
Now, trying to draw definitive conclusions from this list about the current market is not always possible. For starters, Amazon is a small slice of the retail market, which in turn is a slice of the larger market for PCs and technology products. Even in its own domain, Amazon's rankings have quirks. Sales of used computers are counted, for example, which means that a G4-based iBook from 2008 was at position #46 in the Amazon Best Selling Laptop Computers list yesterday and moved up to #36 today, all via the used marketplace. On the PC side, the extremely popular 2008-vintage Dell D620 laptop is perennially in the top 100 as well. There's also one weird $99.99 Chinese Android device (a netbook, essentially) that is only available for sale through a third-party advertiser.
But throwing out those outliers, some clear patterns emerge that I think can be extrapolated to the retail market at large.
Price matters. A lot.
Amazon's audience (and much of the consumer PC marketplace as a whole) is driven by the quest for a bargain. So it's not surprising that the top 20 sellers on the Amazon top 100 list are mostly dirt-cheap. In fact, when I graphed the correlation between sale price and sales ranking, there was an unmistakable trendline: as price rises, sales ranking drops. Only one pricey MacBook Air made it into the top 15 laptops by price. The 10 Windows-powered laptops in that list average $388.01; the 4 Chromebooks average $242.56. Chromebooks by design are cheap. Windows OEMs are only just beginning to create form factors that can sell in the same general price range.
Samsung is dominating the Chromebook market.
Wisely, Samsung offers only one model of Chromebook at Amazon, in two configurations: the top-ranked Wi-Fi model and a less-popular 3G model. The two models combined have collected 3,454 reviews and ratings from Amazon buyers. The MacBook Pro is a distant second, with 867 reviews. The very popular ASUS VivoBook X202E is the most-ranked Windows laptop, with 489 rankings. Samsung's showing jibes with the recent report from ISC, which noted that Samsung was the only hardware manufacturer having any luck in the cutthroat Chromebook category. HP's brand-new Chromebook 11, with its white and blue design, has managed to crack the top 5, but it remains to be seen whether it can stay there.
Variety is the hallmark of the Windows market.
One reason Samsung is perched at the top of the list with its Chromebook is that it hasn't cluttered up the supply chain with multiple models. In fact, there are only five models of Chromebook compared to 43 different models of Windows laptops. If someone's in the market for a Chromebook, they have a limited choice. If you're looking for a Windows PC, on the other hand, the range of choices is maybe a bit too dizzying. That explains why no single model dominates among Windows OEMs, whereas Samsung can claim the crown in the uncrowded Chromebook field.
This fall's crop of Windows 8.1 devices have huge potential.
I have lost count of the number of readers, Twitter followers, friends, and family members who have asked about the new ASUS Transformer Book T100. And sure enough, this $379 BayTrail-powered Windows 8.1 hybrid has rocketed to the #2 spot on Amazon's sales charts only a month after it went on sale. ASUS also has a $299 touchscreen notebook, the Celeron-powered X200CA, in the top 10. Most Windows 8.1 devices are still too new to have made their way into Amazon's catalog, much less its sales rankings. It will be interesting to see what this list looks like next April.
I also looked at user ratings from Amazon customers in this category. Those results were illuminating as well and will be coming up shortly.