One in four consumers with notebook replacement plans put unconventional designs on wish list

Although tales of tablets replacing personal computers have essentially evaporated, computer makers should pin what hope they can muster for growth on the tablet's close cousins, 2-in-1 devices and convertible notebooks, a Gartner analyst said today.

A Gartner-conducted survey of 19,000 consumers in the U.S., Brazil, China, France, India and the U.K. found that just 2% of those planning to replace a desktop PC in the next 12 months would pick up a tablet instead of another personal computer, sticking a fork in the idea that slates would crush traditional computers. Laptop owners were slightly more likely to do so, but even among them, only 4% claimed they would ditch their current system for a tablet.

On the surface, that sounded like good news for PC makers, who were spooked by the explosion of the iPad, rushed their own tablets into the market to compete, but then watched the tablet market go seriously south after a very solid majority of consumers in developed economies bought one.

So with the threat from tablets declining to the vanishing point, why haven't sales of PCs rebounded Why have they continued to contract -- 15 consecutive quarters and counting -- with no near-term hint of growth

Because people are holding onto what they have, said Meike Escherich of Gartner, in many cases indefinitely -- and because a recent proliferation of choices simply stumps them.

Overall, Escherich said, half of the respondents don't want to replace any of their computing devices -- whether PC, tablet or smartphone -- until they absolutely have to. And almost-as-large percentages of those surveyed -- 28% in the U.S., 35% in France, 31% in the U.K. -- have no plans to refresh any of their devices in the next year.

The news isn't much better for PC replacements. Of those polled, just 22% living in mature markets such as the U.S. and Europe said they intended to purchase or upgrade a laptop, a percentage slightly larger than the 17% who planned on buying or replacing a tablet.

With device penetration levels at or near saturation numbers, no replacements mean no sales.

For those who now own a PC and do plan on replacing it in the upcoming 12 months, most will stick with what they have. Two-thirds of those with a desktop PC who said they would replace it would purchase another desktop. Fewer notebook owners -- 46% -- said they would buy a new laptop.

"Most just 'go with the flow,' i.e. buy whatever is in the shop when they decide to buy new hardware," Escherich said in an email reply to questions.

The remaining laptop owners with purchase intentions were the only bright spots for OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) hoping to capitalize on what replacements will be sold. Thirteen percent of laptop owners who acknowledged they would buy in the next 12 months said that they would buy a convertible notebook, which Gartner defined as one whose screen does not detach, although it does pivot or fold back from the keyboard. Lenovo's Yoga line is among the best-known of such hybrids.

An additional 12% said they would purchase a 2-in-1 whose screen could be separated from the main body of the device -- a la Microsoft's own Surface Book -- in lieu of a traditional clamshell form factor.

In other words, a quarter of those thinking of refreshing their current notebook planned to migrate from an old-school-style design to one with more flexibility.

That's made analysts like Escherich and her Gartner colleagues bullish on the hybrid category, pegging it as the only real growth area for personal computers.

"Dissatisfaction with standard laptops comes from issues around battery life, weight and boot up times," said Escherich. "Others see the versatility of a hybrid meeting the needs of a tablet and a notebook, especially with the benefit of a keyboard. [And] users are definitely disenchanted with tablet-only usage, and most want their keyboard back. In fact, 45% of current tablet users want to swap form factor next time or at least aren't sure yet."

Gartner has predicted that by 2019, a third of traditional PCs will be replaced by what it dubbed "premium ultramobiles," a class that includes ultralight laptops such as Apple's MacBook Air, as well as 2-in-1s like Apple's iPad Pro and Microsoft's Surface Pro and Surface Book lines.

OEMs would love for Gartner to be right, since devices in that category are priced significantly higher than the average personal computer. In the third quarter, the average selling price (ASP) of all Apple Macs, most of which were laptops, was over $1,200, more than double the ASP of all notebooks. Microsoft wants to tap into that luxury market, too, and so has set the starting price of the Surface Book at $1,499.

The downside of the new choices, however, is well, that there are more choices. Significant chunks of each current device ownership class have no idea what they'll buy to replace what they plan to junk. Among desktop PC owners, it's 11%, with 13% of tablet owners in the same boat. Notebook owners are the most confused: 19%, or nearly one in five, answered "not sure" or "undecided" to the question.

What they buy, said Escherich, will largely be determined by the size of their wallets. "The price premium will determine if they choose a laptop or a hybrid next time round," she said.


Gregg Keizer

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