I Need a PC and I Know It

by Ben Bajarin   |   June 16th, 2013

One of the fundamental characteristics of a mature market, is mature consumers. These consumers are mature in the sense that they know what they want and more importantly they know why they want it. This kind of maturity can only come with a defined sense of needs, wants, and desires.

That defined sense, can only come when you have experience with a product. Owning multiple generations of a product or category is required to fully understand not just what you want but why you want it. For many consumers they know by now whether they value a traditional PC like a desktop or notebook and they know why. These consumers know they need a PC and have a sense of what they want. Interestingly with smartphones and tablets, I don’t believe we have fully mature customers. 1

The Screens That Rule Our Lives

When the iPad joined our world, we knew it was more than a screen to entertain us. We knew it was a profound new kind of computer. At the same time, recognizing that the tablet will not replace the PC is a key understanding. For many, the tablet can and will become a primary computing device, but I doubt the presence of a more powerful computing will cease to exist in most consumers home in some way or another. But as important as the tablet is, there are many hundreds of millions of consumers who depend on the traditional PC to make a living. What is interesting for this class of customer is that they need a PC and they know it.

We are fond of saying we are in the post PC-era. What this term simply means is that the PC is no longer the only computer in which we can perform computing tasks. But the metrics of how a PC is valued has changed. One can make a strong argument that there are many consumer who don’t value the PC and will rather value the tablet and that may be true. But for those who need a PC, and know it, value has shifted from processing power to battery life.

Battery Life is the New MHZ Race

The raging question throughout the PC industry has been “what is going to get consumers to upgrade their PCs?” The answer is iPad like battery life.

At last weeks WWDC Apple released new MacBook Air’s running Intel’s 4th generation core processor. At one point in time when a company released a new PC, they proudly announced how much processing power it had, and the crowd would applaud. At WWDC last week when Apple discussed the MacBook Air, the crowd did not cheer or applaud when they announced the speed of the processor. Instead, the crowd went wild when they announced the new metrics for battery life. The new 11″ MacBook Air now has 9 hours of batter life, and the new 13″ MacBook Air now has 12 hours of battery life. Even now, we learn that after some benchmarking and reviews those battery life claims may even be conservative. No computer on the market comes close to these battery life claims and I will be interested to see if a battery life competitor to the MacBook Air comes to market this year.

Casually read some of the reviews of the new MacBook Airs and you will see how the reviewers are raving about their experience having more than all-day battery life in a notebook.

Without question there is a huge opportunity waiting for the PC industry with regard to notebook upgrades. Many consumers and corporate workers are using PCs that are out dated in nearly every major category. Yet it is not the high-definition screens, the touch screens (or lack there of on Macs), the ultra-thin design, or the overall look that will give their new owners a profound computing experience–It is the battery life.

Apple has set the bar high with these new battery benchmarks. All PC makers are making progress in this area and the new processors from Intel and AMD will help push this needle forward.2 One thing I will be watching very closely with the fall lineup is the battery life claims from all the new notebooks. I am convinced this is the feature-of-all-features for the PC industry this year.

  1. I’ll dive into this in a future column, but some of the experimentation we are seeing in platform switching or experimenting demonstrates this nuance of the consumer market. []
  2. If Windows RT can gain traction, ARM processors can be a solution for even longer battery life []

Ben Bajarin

Ben Bajarin is a Principal Analyst at Creative Strategies, Inc - An industry analysis, market intelligence and research firm located in Silicon Valley. His primary focus is consumer technology and market trend research. He is a husband, father, gadget enthusiast, trend spotter, early adopter and hobby farmer. Full Bio
  • Rich

    The new 13″ MacBook Air now has 12 hours of battery life.

    And check out the many impressive innovations in the new Mac Pro.

    “Can’t innovate anymore, my ass.”
    – Phil Schiller.

  • Defendor

    Nice insight. It never occurred to me before, but I think you are obviously correct. After generations of ownership, we get much better at ignoring the spec sheet marketing and zeroing in on the really important personal factors.

    Battery life will be a huge one for traveling professionals/students.

    But OTOH, most home users I know, simply use their laptops as a relocatable desktop that is nearly always plugged in. It simply moves setup location from den/living room/kids playroom as needed.

    • benbajarin

      Yes, I see that as well. I still believe a PC is necessary in that environment but perhaps for those consumers a new desktop will be in order. Especially when paired with a tablet to become a best of both worlds situation.

    • FalKirk

      “…most home users I know, simply use their laptops as a relocatable desktop that is nearly always plugged in.” – Defendor

      That is true now, but as battery life improves, users will get accustomed to the true freedom that the notebook has always promised us. Notebooks will stop being moved from plug to plug and will start being move with us, wherever we are.

  • Glaurung-Quena

    Anand Lai Shimpi wrote a while back about how component selection makes a huge difference in battery life (unable to find the link, sorry). He wrote that spending a bit more by choosing the lowest power chips and controllers from those available, and carefully engineering your integration of components and writing of drivers to take full advantage of every component’s power saving features, can make a huge difference to battery life… but, he went on to say, none of the Windows PC makers were willing to spend the extra money on components and engineering to achieve such a goal, which was why Apple’s notebooks consistently had such superior battery life.

    So, will the new Macbook Airs be a wakeup call to all the other notebook makers out there? I suspect sadly not – they’re too wedded to cutting corners, putting the cheapest components together and squeezing every penny to cut their costs so they can undercut the competition and be the cheapest, rather than building quality machines with quality engineering that they can sell for a decent profit margin.

    • benbajarin

      I remember when Anand wrote that. I was a part of a small council where the case was made for this but a chip company. That was true then, but I feel that something like Haswell is going to up the game in both CPU and battery life.

      What will be fascinating to watch is the battery life claims of other OEMS and the price of those machines compared to the Air.

      • tz

        Perhaps I could start a sub thread here. Are we at a a place where for almost all purposes, hardware capabilities on the computer (vs tablet & smart phone) is far more than adequate?
        After getting used to the ipad Mini, which feels quite responsive, my 2009 macbook pro with the 2.2 C2D (and an aftermarket SSD) feels very peppy.

        Indded

        • Glaurung-Quena

          “Are we at a a place where for almost all purposes, hardware capabilities
          on the computer (vs tablet & smart phone) is far more than
          adequate?”

          Depends on what you’re asking it to do. I’d say that for basic MS office, web surfing, and email, desktop and laptop PCs are powerful enough and have been for a while now (especially since the main “too darn slow” aspect has become the hard drive, which buying a newer computer does little to alleviate, but buying an SSD completely solves).

          On the other hand, for multimedia manipulation, database stuff, or serious number-crunching, no.

      • Glaurung-Quena

        “I was a part of a small council where the case was made for this but a chip company.”

        Can you finish that sentence? I’m not sure what you’re trying to say. It would be nice if the other laptop makers started getting that they need to pay attention to optimizing battery life even if that means spending a tiny bit more per machine… but given past history, I’m dubious that it will happen.

        • Recision

          I think it is a typo – swap BY for BUT

        • benbajarin

          Yes, that was meant to say by not but. I’m emphasizing this message of battery life in our industry reports to the OEMs.

          Here is to hoping a few take it seriously.

    • Rich

      Jeff Bezos said that many companies have their eye on their competition and not their customers. He said “Your competitors are never gonna send you a check.” It makes sense to me.

    • nicknormal

      Sorry but, you’re wrong. It’s chicken-and-egg. You can’t blame “Windows PC makers” when consumers are also to blame. For example I won’t spend less than $2K on a laptop, because I know in that price range I’m getting top-notch components and hardware return value. It’s not all them, you know. It’s also us. We’re to blame, for wanting cheap crap.

  • smidgenpc

    Reviewers rave about battery life in laptops because we, as a group, are likely to need it. The people who review are likely to be a bit younger than average, have a decent income, and live in an urban center. We’re also obviously writers, so we have far more opportunity to go out into the world and work where we like. Battery life is pretty important to this demographic.

    Thing is, that’s not how most people use laptops. Most people more or less sit them in one place, and perhaps take them to the couch now and then. Many laptops never leave the home, many others leave only once a week or less. Not because of battery life, but rather because the average person rarely has no need for a mobile PC.

    I’m reminded of an Intel CES conference (2011, I think…) in which they were talking about how ultrabooks would take the PC market by storm. At this conference, they showed a slide of someone on a beach using a laptop, connected to the Internet via mobile data and enjoying blissfully long battery life.

    Just one problem; almost no one uses a computer that way! For most people, the computer is a tool, and that’s it. If you were you hand a person an amazing tool that could hammer, drill, screw or fasten anything in one second, and didn’t need any power, would you expect them to become a carpenter? Of course not. So why would you expect people to start using laptops more, just because they have better battery life?

    • benbajarin

      Of course but there are several different markets at play here. For the market you mentioned, the tablet is probably the mobile computer that will suffice. We see people with iPads at parks, beaches, etc., and not notebooks and this is true. But that does not negate the fact that a larger screen more powerful computing device is still needed and relevant. It simply means its role has changed. For these consumer who prefer the mobility of a tablet, they are likely well served by a powerful desktop all in one at home for the heavy lifting and big screen when they need it.

      But there are hundreds and hundreds of millions of people who still need and use a portable desktop (which is what a notebook is) to make a living, get educated, etc. To my point, this group knows they need it, and they value it, and the battery performance curve that just got leaped from later gen devices is going to be a compelling feature to upgrade. There is an estimated 400-500 million notebooks out there over 4 years old. This market will receive a profoundly fresh experience with the new devices on the market.

      • smidgenpc

        Isn’t the demographic of people you’re describing among the least likely to have a device over 4 years old? I doubt there’s going to be a surge of demand from such users; most are already in the market in every 2-5 years.

        • benbajarin

          No, after digging into the global IT landscape, its clear many people are still on old machines. The replacement cycles for PCs has been steady elongating and all market insight we have points to this picture of the market.

          Now, I don’t think these will happen at once, upgrades will probably roll out over the next few years. I don’t see the PC market as a growth, but I do see replacement and in this case the feature of battery life, as a compelling reason to drive upgrades over the next few years. My main point is intended to be that battery life, not shiny screens, touch, or even cheaper prices, will lead the features that drive upgrades.

          • smidgenpc

            I see. Yes, in that environment, that likely does make some sense.

    • SockRolid

      Think of it this way: in the 1960s, American car buyers wanted power. Gas was cheap. In the 21st century, American car buyers want safety and fuel economy. Cars evolved along with the market. Likewise, laptops, being firmly rooted in the “PC era,” will need to evolve to stay relevant in the post-PC era. Hence the MacBook Air. Slim, light, industry-leading battery life.

      So, the answer to your question “So why would you expect people to start using laptops more, just because they have better battery life?” would be “Yes, but not all laptops. Just MacBook Airs.”

    • FalKirk

      “Most people more or less sit them in one place, and perhaps take them to the couch now and then.” – smidgenpc

      That’s how they use them NOW because they can never stray too far from their power umbilical cord. But once laptops have 12 hours of battery life, they will start to pop up on all sorts of places where they were impractical before.

      Of course, there will still have to be an internet connection. Nowadays, a computer without an internet connection is about as useful as a brick.

  • muaddibx

    I would like to see how much more battery life it gets when Mavericks is installed.

    • benbajarin

      Very good point. The feature of app napping and bringing key parts of the OS to a zero state is certainly going to help. Fascinating the things you can do when you control your own hardware and software.

  • qka

    “Battery Life is the New MHZ Race”

    The takeaway line of this article.

    • FalKirk

      Excellent observation.

  • RealTechTalk

    If you gave me a Microsoft Surface with Macbook Air battery life, that’s the best product ever.