Consumer Device Purchase Trends

The truth is, it’s a bit of a guessing game—even when you ask people their intentions.

Nevertheless, as we enter the holiday shopping season, trying to figure out what devices consumers plan to purchase next becomes a bit of a sport. There are historical trends to study, Black Friday and Cyber Monday ads to pore over, and gut instincts to trust, but ultimately, no one ever really knows for sure what consumer technology products will be winners and what will be losers in a given timeframe.

Despite the uncertainty, people continue to investigate the topic because it’s kind of fun (in a sick, sort of way, I suppose), and because it is critically important to the future of many companies and many individuals.

In my case, my firm, TECHnalysis Research, recently completely a thorough device usage study of over 3,000 consumers across the US, UK, Germany, Brazil and China. The focus of the online study was to get more insight into how people are really using their core devices (PCs, tablets, smartphones, TVs and wearables), but we also asked what devices individuals planned to purchase over the next year.

Note that this doesn’t necessarily translate into what they plan to purchase this holiday season (and most of the responses were actually collected in late September/early October, before most people have planned out their holiday shopping), but it does give a good overall sense of device priorities.

A summary of results for the entire 3,012 person sample are shown below, followed by the US-only results (1,024 consumers).

WW Device Purchase Plans

US Device Purchase Plans

Not surprisingly, smartphones with 5” and larger screens continue to top the list, as many consumers around the world (and even in the US) have yet to make the transition to these incredibly useful devices. What’s interesting, however, is that several PC form factors did well on both a worldwide and US basis. Notebooks were number two across the total of all five countries and desktops were number four. What was surprising, however, was that in the US, notebooks and desktops actually tied for second.

Despite the PC industry’s recent doldrums, the release of Windows 10 has clearly inspired more interest in the category, and that should lead to a reasonably solid 2016 for consumer PC sales. In addition, there’s a large base of much older PCs in need of upgrades, and that, combined with growing interest in PC gaming (thanks to the popularity of things like game streaming channel Twitch), is what likely contributed to the interest in desktop PCs.

Smart TVs were the third most common category for planned purchases on a worldwide basis, but took the fifth spot, just behind non-connected 32”+ size flat panel TVs, in the US. Larger 8”+ tablets were fifth worldwide and sixth in the US.

Looking briefly at the other countries, the top two choices in the UK (in order) were 5”+ smartphones and smart TVs, in Brazil it was notebooks and 5”+ smartphones, and in both China and Germany it was 5”+ smartphones and notebooks.

For the sake of comparison, the same questions were asked in a similar study just over a year ago. The top three responses for the multi-country (WW) group and the top two responses in the US were the same this year as last year. The most noticeable difference was the large jump in desktop PCs, a category that nearly everyone has written off for dead. In addition, there was a modest decline in smaller smartphones, a larger decline for smaller sub-8” tablets, and a modest increase in wearables.

Having conducted decades worth of buying-intention surveys, I can tell you with certainty that next year’s reality won’t match what this year’s results show (people exaggerate their buying intentions, change their minds, and adjust their priorities, etc.) Nevertheless, these types of questions do provide a sense of consumers’ mindsets, which can lead to important insights into where markets may go.

So, if we see a resurgence in desktop PCs next year, remember: you heard it here first.

Have a wonderful Thanksgiving. Enjoy time with family and friends and, hopefully, away from some of your devices!

Published by

Bob O'Donnell

Bob O’Donnell is the president and chief analyst of TECHnalysis Research, LLC a technology consulting and market research firm that provides strategic consulting and market research services to the technology industry and professional financial community. You can follow him on Twitter @bobodtech.

13 thoughts on “Consumer Device Purchase Trends”

  1. Interesting to contrast this survey with the holiday buying intentions survey reported on yesterday.

    Part of the difference is surely due to different sampling methodologies and question wording, but it’s interesting to consider differences in what people think of as things they want to buy, vs things they want to get or give as gifts.

    PCs appear to not be very gift-y, whereas tablets are very much so.

    1. Yes, it is an interesting comparison and I do believe the nature of a gift or not can make a big difference. It’s true that most people tend to buy their own PCs (as well as TVs), but can see giving tablets (and other devices) as gifts.

  2. It’s funny how large phones went from object of ridicule to “incredibly useful devices” in the blink of an eye. Was it only yesterday my 4.3″ HD2 was Yuuuuuuge ? I’m taking bets on when my 7″ phone will be recognized as a smart choice.

    I’m amazed that people still buy smart TVs. I’ve yet to come across one that still pertforms acceptably 2 years on. Like entertainment electronics in cars, this seem a very bad case of shelf-life mismatch: putting a 2-3 yrs computer into a 5-10 yrs host.

    I’m not seeing any uptick in PC-buying around me. Why should there be, with Win10 a free upgrade w/ the same requirements as Vista/7/8 ? What I am seeing is a switch from low-end laptops to dual-boot tablets, but that may be my evaligizing.

    1. “I’m taking bets on when my 7″ phone will be recognized as a smart choice.”

      Phones are limited in size because they have to fit in people’s pockets and be held in people’s hands. 5″-ish seems to be the upper bound for “comfortable to hold” and “can be crammed into one of my pockets.” Reviews of Google’s 6″ nexus phone that I’ve seen mention that it’s uncomfortably large in the hand.

      1. Ah, the phone size discussion. Nobody who hasn’t used a large phone has ever been swayed by it, and nobody who has used a large phone has ever needed it. But here goes. I’ve added a 0- since last year (been using it since my Galaxy Note -which I just sent to my iBrother as a dedicated Clash of Clans console, he loves the larger size-)

        Screen size makes a huge usability difference. Very few people who have
        used a “ridiculously large” phone for a few hours (not minutes, hours,
        you need to get used to it and learn to make use of it) have gone back
        to small. For me, 6″ is when ereading becomes comfy, and 7″, videos
        comfy and Office bearable. Also, 4″ to 6″ is like 15″ to 23″. I’d never go back to 15″ on my desk !

        0- Remember what you all felt about 5.5″ before the iPhone 6+ ? Same thing. Especially because Apple is so bezelly that their 5.5″ is bigger than anyone else’s 6″.
        1- I have regular hands and I can use one; so can you.
        2- You don’t actually need to wrap your fingers all around your phone, you can just rest the middle of its back on your fingertips, and secure the bottom right corner in the palm of you hand. Holding and scrolling is definitely one-handed, the rest is 50:50.
        3- What’s your non-phone hand doing while you’re using your phone ? Writing symphonies ? Mine is usually idle so putting it in occasional use isn’t drama inducing ? If not, one-handed acrobatics to reach the top of the screen are fun !
        4- My phone fits in all my pockets: pants, shirt, jacket, coat… I’m 5.9ft and non-slim though :-p

        1. “Screen size makes a huge usability difference. Very few people who have used a “ridiculously large” phone for a few hours (not minutes, hours, you need to get used to it and learn to make use of it) have gone back to small. For me, 6″ is when ereading becomes comfy, and 7″, videos comfy and Office bearable.”

          1. I did not use the phrase “ridiculously large”. In fact, your entire reply appears to be a knee-jerk response to an argument you’ve had many times with other people rather than a response to what I said.

          2. I said that 5-ish inches seems to be an upper limit, and for the one 6 inch device I’d seen talked about, reviewers were saying it was unwieldy. I didn’t pull that assertion out of my hat. A few years ago there were phone screen size wars, in which every android maker sought to put out a phone bigger than the other guy’s phone. That seems to have stopped, and new flagship android phones now seem to mostly come in two size classes, a “medium” phone around 4.5-4.75 inches, and a “large” phone around 5-5.5 inches. (aside from the iphone 5s, “small” phones seem to only get made in low-end budget models that don’t get reviewed).

          Screen size is important for usability as a computer, but phones also have to be wieldy. You have to be able to hold them securely and comfortably in one hand while going about your day. Phone buyers have spoken with their dollars, and the “right” size for that seems to be a bit more than 4.5 inches, with a maximum, for those with a size fetish, of a bit more than 5 inches.

          3. Pockets: What I said earlier was ill considered. Much more important than fitting the phone into a pocket is being able to move about comfortably with the phone in that pocket. Again, reviews tend to touch on this issue when reviewing large sized phones, and the consensus seems to be that 5″ is pushing it for being able to put the phone into a normal pants pocket and still be comfortable.

          Full disclosure: my own phone is an ancient iphone 4. I may be getting a hand-me-down 4s from my mother next year. I upgraded from my dumb phone to it mainly for the camera and for the ability to quickly and easily email photographs. Since I don’t use the phone to socialize or to surf, I have zero interest in getting a larger model.

          1. 1. It is.

            2. Reviewers and commenters have been saying larger phones are unwieldy or unsightly ever since the original 5.1″ Galaxy Note. Wait, make that the 4.3″ HTC HD2. Not sure why they’d be more right this time around than the previous 3-4 times.
            Large phones *are* are big and ugly (can a phone be beautiful ? I’ve never seen one), same as 17″ laptops and 10″ tablets are compared to 14″ laptops and 7″ tablets. Yet big phones have a place and a use, same as big laptops and big tablets. There’s no god-ordained one size that fits all, even Apple had to eat their words on that one.

            3. People make allowances for the weirdest things: most mens’ wallets are fat ugly bulging messes, and then there’s another pouch for coins. A large phone is a bit heavy, might peek out of its pocket…

            My personal choice is to disregard fashion and social acceptability, and get what’s best for me. That leaves the simple constraints vs benefits analysis. Again, for me reading starts being OK at 6″, video and work at 7″. I’m on the fence about my next phone, I don’t watch videos nor work that much on my phone, and when I do I probably could break out a tablet instead (on planes, trains, at lunch break). A pity 6.5″ phones are few and all have problems, mostly not the right bands for Europe. Mostly, I lament phones aren’t using platforms, with the same innards tucked behind a range of screens.

            There are small phones still. Sony have been regularly releasing “Compact” versions of their flagships; the Alcatel Idol 3 4.7″ is OK at the mid range. Also, it’s important to not tunnel onto screen size: a 5″ Android is typically only1-2mm bigger than a 4.7″ iPhone 6. Bezels vary a lot lot (iPhone 6’s screen is only 66% of its surface; GS6E+’s is 75%)

          2. One more try. Bit by bit:

            1. you posted about taking bets when your chosen 7″ phone would become more mainstream.

            2. I said that that isn’t going to happen, because people have to hold phones in their hands.

            3. You lashed out at an argument that wasn’t being made.

            4. I tried again, stating that phone makers have mostly decided (evidenced by the end of the phone size arms race) that somewhere between 5 and 6″ is as big as they can push it and still have broad appeal.

            5. Again you responded to arguments that weren’t being made.

            Obviously some people find 6″ or 7″ phones useful because you have one of the latter and Google makes one of the former. That doesn’t change the fact that the phone size arms race has ended, which means that many customers are finding something between 5-6″ as big as they want to go, with (evidenced by the continuing existence of mid-sized phones) another large group of customers deciding they’d rather go for something in the 4-5″ range.

            Those customers are making in-store decisions where they look at a big display, think “that’s nice and big” and then try holding it to see if they like the feel. If they think the feel is OK, they get the big phone. if they think the feel is too big for comfort, they get the medium phone. Since those customers are not going to grow bigger hands, the phones they choose to get are not going to get much bigger than they are now.

            Again, for the nth time: unless I am totally misreading the stat blocks for new phone reviews on Anandtech, the phone size arms race has ended, which means for 90% of phone buyers, the phones you prefer are too big, and 5-6″ is going to stay the top end of the size range for the mass market.

          3. My point is we don’t know if the size increases have ended yet. The first 7″ phone was only released last year, then updated this year (which means it must have found buyers). Your “customers are choosing current sizes and will from now onto enternity stick with those” isn’t any more intrinsically valid today than it was 3 years ago at much smaller sizes. Extrapolating from statistics is mostly invalid: statistics describe the past and present, and have very little power to forecast disruptions (granted, XXL phones are a very small disruption).
            Phones have to be used with our hands indeed. But also with our eyes. Even Apple have started designing phones for… not our hands. The ease of handling vs ease of using tradeoff will evolve, as social norms, uses, and bezel sizes evolve. More huge phones are being launched (LeTV, BLU, Sony…)
            Saying a phone is “too big” is like saying a handbag or a car are too big: depends on what you use them for. For an ereader or gaming station or Office appliance, 7″ is nicer than 5.5″.
            I’m not sure how you define mass market. Larger phones or voice-enabled tablets are available from the usual suspects via the usual channels.
            And above all, smartphones are mostly not phones.

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