New U.S. sales figures show the changing face of PC and tablet markets in 2013

A snapshot of the U.S. commercial sales channel for the first 11 months of 2013 shows a big shift in the marketplace for computing devices. Windows PCs are flat, Apple PCs are down, and tablets of all kinds (including Android and Windows devices) are way up. But the big winner is the Chromebook.
Written by Ed Bott, Senior Contributing Editor

A new study released just before Christmas by The NPD Group paints a vivid picture of how the marketplace for PCs and tablets shifted in 2013. It also offers some clues about what to expect in 2014.

According to NPD, in the 11 months from January through November 2013, 14.4 million desktops, notebooks, and tablets were sold through U.S. commercial channels. That total includes only preconfigured notebooks and desktop PCs, and it doesn’t include direct channels. As a result, the number of devices sold represents only a fraction of total sales in the U.S. By way of contrast, IDC’s most recent Quarterly PC Tracker report shows that 16.4 million notebook and desktop PCs (tablets not included in the total) were shipped in the U.S. in the third quarter alone.

So the NPD number offers a snapshot of what American businesses and institutions are buying through the commercial channel, which includes large distributors and resellers. To summarize: Simpler and cheaper is better. Windows-based desktop sales increased by about 10 percent and Windows notebooks stayed flat, while sales of Apple notebooks and desktops combined fell by 7 percent, NPD said.

Meanwhile, tablets of all kinds and Chromebooks showed the greatest year-over-year growth.

  • Android tablet sales grew more than 160 percent, accounting for 8.7 percent of all sales in this channel.
  • Windows tablet sales nearly tripled during that period, off a very small base, reaching 2.2 percent of all devices sold through the channel.
  • The iPad slipped in share year over year, although it still commands 59 percent of all tablet sales in this channel.
  • Chromebooks were the big winner, according to NPD. The cheap devices from HP, Acer, Samsung, and others “accounted for 21 percent of all [preconfigured] notebook sales, up from negligible share in the prior year, and 8 percent of all computer and tablet sales through November, up from one tenth of a percent in 2012.”

While those are impressive percentage gains, it’s too early to declare any of the products on that list a hit. Unlike PCs and notebooks, Chromebooks are sold almost exclusively through the retail channel and into education markets. Some quick calculations from the NPD figures suggest that a total of 923,000 Chromebooks and 836,000 Android tablets were sold to U.S. buyers through these channels over the first 11 months of 2013. During the same period in the same channel, more than 1.5 million iPads were sold, while Windows tablet sales went from practically zero to approximately 317,000 in the same period.

The mostly flat sales for Windows PCs reflect a tepid response to Windows 8. That should change in 2014, as new products that were introduced with the launch of Windows 8.1 on October 26 reach the market. Windows 8.1-based hybrids like the ASUS T100 Transformer and smaller tablets such as the Dell Venue 8 Pro have been selling well and getting good reviews. Microsoft has struggled to keep its new Surface 2 and Surface Pro 2 devices in stock, a welcome change from last year, when it had to take a massive writedown on unsold devices.

“The market for personal computing devices in commercial markets continues to shift and change,” said Stephen Baker, NPD’s vice president of industry analysis. The winners this year, he noted, were brands that focused on alternative form factors and operating systems. Baker cautioned against declaring the death of the PC, however: “[T]he Windows PC in commercial channels is clearly not dead, and its biggest brand proponents, HP and Lenovo, remain deeply committed to that product. However, as businesses upgrade from older machines and operating systems in the year ahead, the long-term trend is clearly towards greater hardware diversity, which all manufacturers will need to embrace in order to continue to grow.”

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