Cheap PCs are the present and future of Windows

A new slice of data highlights the incredible diversity of the PC ecosystem. Thousands of unique PC models are running Windows 8 and RT. What does it mean that the top slots on the sales charts are dominated by cheap, generic Windows notebooks?
Written by Ed Bott, Senior Contributing Editor

If you want to know everything that’s right and wrong about the PC ecosystem in the Windows 8 era, just look at this chart.


Image credit: AdDuplex

That’s a snapshot of the data collected in one day earlier this month by AdDuplex, an ad network that specializes in apps for the Windows Phone and Windows 8/RT platforms.

The most interesting slice of that pie chart is the giant dark blue segment on the left. In the one-day sample from AdDuplex, more than three-quarters of the incoming data came from a hodgepodge of machines representing 7,400+ unique models.

That’s a microcosm of the Windows marketplace, with its incredible array of different form factors. You can get a PC in just about any shape, size, color, or design/build quality, at price points ranging from well under $400 to well over $2000. 

And most of them have no touchscreen, which means they’re not exactly showing off Windows 8 in its best light.

The most popular Windows 8 model on the list is HP’s Pavilion G6, a budget notebook that typically sells for around $500. Second on the list is the HP 2000, which starts at $350 direct from HP. The Pavilion G7, with a similar price point and a larger screen, is tied for a spot in the top 5. The HP Compaq CQ58, another sub-$400 business-focused PC, is also in the top 10. Collectively, those four HP models account for nearly 10 percent of the AdDuplex sample.

The Toshiba Satellite C855D, Samsung 300E, and Dell Inspiron 3520 are similar generic sub-$500 notebooks.

The largest slice of the pie goes to Microsoft’s Surface, an ARM-powered touch-enabled tablet running Windows RT. It’s a $500-600 device. The two entries from ASUS are also new, touch-enabled devices. One is the ASUS VivoTab RT, a Surface competitor. The other is the VivoBook (X202E) a $500 touch-enabled laptop designed for Windows 8.

And then there are those 7,400+ other devices, most of which are probably devices originally designed for and sold with Windows 7 and upgraded to Windows 8 by enthusiasts and early adopters taking advantage of Microsoft’s limited-time $40 upgrade deal.

The AdDuplex data is too skimpy to support any authoritative conclusions, of course. You can’t extrapolate from these percentages to the larger market, because this sample doesn’t represent an accurate cross-section of the PC market in early 2013. It’s biased toward early adopters, and it only counts device owners who have downloaded and used one of the 2000 apps that include ads from the AdDuplex network. That fact undoubtedly tends to artificially increase the relative percentage of Windows RT devices, because those machines can only run apps downloaded from the Windows Store.

But the unmistakable takeaway from this limited sample is that the PC market today is driven by price sensitivity. There’s room for high-priced devices, but the big sellers, the ones that dominate the market, are those that sell for $500 or less.

If you want to see what the PC ecosystem will look like next year at this time, zero in on the ASUS VivoBook. It’s the only touch-enabled Windows 8 device that broke out of the pack. It’s no coincidence that it sells for $500. If ASUS was able to make a profit on this machine at $500, its competitors can too, especially as prices come down for touchscreen components as the marketplace grows.

At Best Buy, where this $499 device is labeled the Q200E, it’s been a top seller, and the reviews have been excellent. The Amazon version, labeled the X202E and selling for $50 more, also has consistently excellent reviews and is in the top 12 on the list of best-selling notebooks.

The bad news for PC makers on that top 12 list is that half the entries aren’t running Windows at all. At the top of the list is Samsung’s Chromebook, which has the distinction of being cheaper than even the cheapest Windows PC. Another five devices are Apple MacBooks (Pro and Air), all of which are over $1000.

Apple’s advantage in the sales charts is its limited selection. At the moment, Apple sells exactly six MacBook models: two MacBook Airs (11- and 13-inch) and four MacBook Pros (13- and 15-inch, with or without Retina displays). By contrast, there are literally thousands of unique Windows PC models currently on sale from OEMs large and small.

That diversity in the PC ecosystem means lots of price pressure. It also means support headaches for manufacturers and for Microsoft, which in turn translate into headaches for customers. Those hassles, along with early confusion as people struggle with the Windows 8 interface on non-touch-enabled devices, are part of the growing pains of the Windows 8/RT transition.

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