The Soft Improvements in new PCs Could be their Biggest Draw

by Patrick Moorhead   |   April 26th, 2013

Last week was an ugly week for the computer world. The IDC figures that came out for Q1 said that it was the biggest contraction the PC market that had ever been seen since their tracking began. The best Apple could muster was a slight YOY decrease in Mac sales, which looked great compared to the rest of the industry. I spend a lot of time as an industry analyst dissecting the “why’s” and thinking about what it will take for the PC market to rebound. I talk to other analysts too, like Tech.pinion’s and Creative Strategies’ Ben Bajarin, and we’ve had some recent conversation that helped clarify the PC conundrum. I’m convinced that the “softer” improvements of new PCs could be the most important, yet under-communicated and understood reason to buy a new PC. By “softer” I mean those things that don’t have hard metrics or measurements. I want to peel back the onion a bit and let’s start with a little background.

Intel estimates that there are 500M computers actively being used that are over 4 years old. Think of just how many thick, chunky and poor experiences that equates to. If that’s your PC experience and haven’t experienced a new one, I can see why a new tablet or phone will be your next purchase. Consumers don’t really know the reality that new PCs offer a significantly improved experience and while I’ve already hit the “hard” reasons to buy a new one, I want to hit on the softer side. Let’s start with starting up a PC.

Waking an old PC from sleep or even worse hibernation is like starting an old tractor. With a Vista-based PC, it can take nearly three minutes to get it to the point you can actually do something with it. Compared to a phone or tablet this is ridiculous, which is one key reason consumers gravitate to the tablet and phone. The reality is, though, that the latest notebooks based on Intel and AMD technology wake up almost instantaneously. Intel’s Atom designs are literally instant-on like the best tablets and notebooks based on Intel’s Core and AMD’s Trinity with SSD storage isn’t too far behind. I think many consumers would be surprised just how far the PC has come.

Similar to “boot” time is the advancements in application load time with a new PC. The human brain amplifies wait time, and before smartphones and tablets, consumers settled for the lousy experience of an old PC. SSD’s and software optimizations changed the expectations when consumers used their phones and tablets. This put the burden on the PC industry to improve the experience, which it has done very well. App load time is nearly instantaneous due to advances in SSDs, software cache, and application architecture. Let’s move to physical UI.

Older PC notebooks have small track pads, typically three buttons and don’t support gestures. With this configuration, you really need an external mouse or trackpad to get anything old touchpaddone. Compared to a new PC, this is archaic, but if a consumer never experienced it, how would they know? Windows 8 PCs with high quality touchpads are a lot different. Systems like the Dell XPS 13 have a large trackpad without buttons and support all the Windows 8 gestures. We have to all thank Apple for raising the experience bar here. Touch is another great adder in new Windows PCs at prices as low as $499. How many times have you reached up from your notebook to touch the display? While Apple has ignored this so far on Macs, I believe it’s inevitable that touch display becomes the $499 PC standard in 2014.

Fan noise is another “soft” feature of new PCs that gets overlooked. I had the first MBA and it was loud as the fan seemed to always run. Today, even the thinnest Mac, Ultrabook or premium ultrathins barely make a sound. This has driven by many factors, including a lowering of the CPU TDP from 35 watts to 17 watts but more than that, a major decrease in idle power draw. There has been literally a 5X improvement in idle power draw and the result is the fan rarely kicks in. See a pattern here? Like a tablet.

Backlit keyboards are another feature that has made its way to the $499-$599 price point. The feature literally determines if we can use the notebook in the dark or low light conditions on a plane or in bed. Old PC notebooks don’t have this and new generation Windows 8 notebooks and MacBooks do. While some scoff at the importance of the feature, research I have conducted shows consumers value it and will pay dearly for it. Again, it is one of those “soft” features that can make the difference.

The final “soft” variable I want to discuss is design. Led by Apple, the entire PC industry raised their game in the last five years. Cheap looking, shiny ABS plastic has given way to magnesium, aluminum, textured plastic and rubberized surfaces on the newer class of notebooks. If you are reading this on your five year notebook, look and compare how it looks versus something you can buy today from $499-999. It’s ugly and you know it.

While these “soft” improvements in new PCs are difficult to measure, I believe they could be the strongest reasons to buy a new PC. Whether it’s improvement in looks, their silence, or the speed at which they start programs, newer notebooks are light years ahead of their predecessors. The PC industry has been spending a lot of money on this, but challenges exist. The first is legacy. Macs had such a premium perception for so long that it’s hard for consumers to accept that a Windows PC can have the feel of a tablet or smartphone. Therefore it could take a while for the new reality to sink in. Retailers are a big part of the problem, too. How many times have you walked into “big box” retail and the PCs weren’t turned on, weren’t connected to the internet, had an error message on the display or had some silly protection device that gets in the way of the trial. Net-net, the PC industry needs to shift a lot of their marketing spend to increasing awareness and motivating trial to point out the softer improvement in PC or face a very painful few years.

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Patrick Moorhead

Patrick Moorhead was ranked the #1 technology industry analyst by Apollo Research for the U.S. and EMEA in May, 2013.. He is President and Principal Analyst of Moor Insights & Strategy, a high tech analyst firm focused on the ecosystem intersections of the phone, tablet, PC, TV, datacenter and cloud. Moorhead departed AMD in 2011 where he served as Corporate Vice President and Corporate Fellow in the strategy group. There, he developed long-term strategies for mobile computing devices and personal computers. In his 11 years at AMD he also led product management, business planning, product marketing, regional marketing, channel marketing, and corporate marketing. Moorhead worked at Compaq Computer Corp. during their run to the #1 market share leader position in personal computers. Moorhead also served as an executive at AltaVista E-commerce during their peak and pioneered cost per click e-commerce models.
  • jfutral

    “While these “soft” improvements in new PCs are difficult to measure, I believe they could be the strongest reasons to buy a new PC.”

    I agree this will be important, but only within the remaining (and declining?) markets. This won’t be enough to take back anything the PC is losing to mobile devices.

    Joe

  • http://www.facebook.com/stephen.rodda Stephen James Richard Rodda

    It took me a few moments to realise that “YOY” meant year-on-year. Personally, I believe that people are voting away from Windows 8.

  • Rich

    The “soft” features may be an attraction but PC manufacturers may have a tough sell if they install Windows 8 on their computers, because from what I’ve seen, Windows 8 is not a draw, it’s a repellent to many people. It might well have contributed to the biggest contraction the PC market has ever seen.

  • bradpdx

    I think that PC tools have to improve from “familiar” to “actually good” for most people, and one may consider this part of “soft” features. The example that springs to mind is watching dozens of instances of PC users employing MS Office for wildly clunky tasks that are just barely appropriate and with which they have a terrible experience. MS Office is used simply because it is for many the only tool they know of, however unsuited.

    Compare this to a new phone or tablet, and people have elegant, if constricted choices for jobs to be done. The experience is far less intimidating and more playful. There is PC-level software that approaches this goal, but for most people it is unknown. Until people are introduced to tools better suited towards their many goals, PC experiences will be mediocre.

    Excuse me, I must now leave to assist my wife with another instance of the Worst Excel Spreadsheet Ever.

  • Albin

    The PC sales problem this year is caused by it being the last year of support for XP. Full stop. Watch the miraculous “rebound” in 2014 when 40% of currently running PCs lose security updates and third party software upgrades. Obviously the weirdness of W8 added to the instinctive frugality of enterprise and consumer XP users, who are not operating system enthusiasts and in no flaming rush to replace good working equipment. They’ll hang on to those machines til the last minute, but the last minute is coming in a year or so. And of course that is another year for MS to resolve the off-putting interface issues in version 1 of W8 – who in their right mind buys version 1 of anything anyway?

    • Rich

      Okay but that’s another year for Microsoft to lose more enterprise customers to BYOD, probably permanently.

      • thesafesurfer

        No way I would ever let my employees BYOD. The risk to sensitive eyes only data is too great.

        • jfutral

          I think there are a lot of businesses and industries that what you say is true. But this is not true of all enterprise, nor even company wide for the all companies in those industries. As such, MS has to figure out how to compete on more than just an enterprise level.

          Joe

          • thesafesurfer

            I guess you’ve missed the fact that the Xbox 360 dominates the living room.

          • jfutral

            Too bad they can’t translate that “dominance” to much of anything else except game consoles.

            Joe

          • thesafesurfer

            I’m sorry that you forgot about the dominance of the xbox when you said that “……MS has to figure out how to compete on more than just an enterprise level.”

            You should get an xbox so you learn that it is much more than a game console. If you need any more help just let me know.

          • jfutral

            I didn’t forget it, I just think it is irrelevant. And when Windows and Office is the focus of MS, I think they believe it is irrelevant, too, especially for a declining market (dedicated game consoles).

            All you have to do is look and see that MS is doing nothing to leverage any real or perceived XBox dominance beyond game consoles.

            Joe

          • thesafesurfer

            Please keep posting your ignorance of the xbox. Everyone who owns one is just shaking their heads at how uninformed you are about what this device does.

          • jfutral

            So, explain to me why this has to be a personal attack? Did I insult you in some way? I’ve kept my opinions directed toward MS, their observable actions, and their current predicament. I took no pot shots at you and made no comments about whether I think you are “ignorant” or “ill informed”. Is there some reason this is such a personal discussion for you? Does that somehow increase validity for your position? Can you not simply articulate an opinion without throwing in an ad hominem?

            Joe

          • thesafesurfer

            You are ignorant about the capabilities of the xbox. I consider this a statement of fact not a personal attack.

          • jfutral

            All I said was the Xbox is irrelevant. Do you have evidence otherwise?

            Joe

          • thesafesurfer

            Saying the xbox is irrelevant in a discussion of the relevance of MS beyond enterprise software indicates an utter ignorance of the capabilities of the xbox.

            How can you present evidence to the ignorant?

          • jfutral
          • thesafesurfer

            As I said, you are ignorant of the capabilities of the xbox.

          • jfutral

            This has nothing to do with capabilities. It has everything to do with relevance as an expanding platform and neither XBox nor Windows 8 is accomplishing that for MS at this point.

            This author thinks the soft improvements being made can help as well as (in his follow up article) a better shopping experience. Rich queried the affect of BYOD. Now, unless you think the XBox is a threat as a BYOD device, your example is irrelevant, either as a way to expand Windows specifically or MS generally. MS is doing nothing to leverage the XBox reach (regardless of how well it is or isn’t doing or its capabilities) for Wintel PCs, which is the crux of this discussion.

            Or if you would be so kind as to contribute why you think the XBox capabilities and its shrinking relevance, will help MS, Windows, and PCs, I’d love to hear it. Otherwise your just slinging mud. If that’s what you’d rather do, carry on.

            Joe

          • thesafesurfer

            The xbox is not an “expanding platform?” Only an individual ignorant of the xbox capabilities could make such a statement.

            Your ignorance makes your entire diatribe irrelevant.

            I don’t know why you insist on your indefensible and flawed line of argument. I really don’t care either. You have nothing relevant to add to the conversation given your ignorance on key topics.

            The xbox entered the conversation because you made the statement that MS couldn’t compete outside enterprise, and the $16 billion in revenue from the xbox department and the huge upside of the xbox integration with home entertainment proves MS can compete outside enterprise.

            Rant on.