On the marginalization of consumer laptops

You probably saw that Gartner report earlier this week about the sluggishness of PC shipments last quarter. Shipments were so sluggish, according to Gartner, that they shrank by almost 5% compared to the same quarter in 2011. I'm sure there were many factors at play, but Gartner pins the blame on one in particular: users relinquishing PCs for daily use.

Whereas as once we imagined a world in which individual users would have both a PC and a tablet as personal devices, we increasingly suspect that most individuals will shift consumption activity to a personal tablet, and perform creative and administrative tasks on a shared PC. There will be some individuals who retain both, but we believe they will be exception and not the norm. Therefore, we hypothesize that buyers will not replace secondary PCs in the household, instead allowing them to age out and shifting consumption to a tablet.

I'm a PC enthusiast, and chances are you, the reader, are as well. We might therefore find it hard to imagine folks ditching their computers for comparatively limited tablets. I mean, you can't do much on a tablet, can you? Most of them lack Flash support, make multitasking awkward at best, and don't play terribly well with keyboards. I use mine for e-book reading and some light gaming, but I would never dream of taking it to a trade show instead of a laptop. No way.

Yet Gartner's suspicion is truer than you might think—and as it happens, I have some very convincing anecdotal evidence to support it.

I bought my girlfriend an iPad 4 for Christmas. Well, technically, we went to the Apple Store and picked it out together. Aline chose the base Wi-Fi model (in white) and a matching SmartCover (in pink) for a total of $538 U.S. before tax. She unwrapped everything a couple of days early (because waiting sucks), played with it some, and then promptly stashed away her notebook PC—a relatively speedy 13" machine with a Trinity APU and Windows 8.

The laptop has been sitting under her desk ever since. She hasn't switched it on in almost a month. Not once.

And really, the substitution makes perfect sense, if you think about it from her perspective. The iPad has a great many advantages over a cheap consumer laptop:

  • It's fast. Aline's laptop wasn't slow by any means, but many consumer notebooks are. The iPad isn't. The iPad's user interface feels snappy and responsive. Apps load quickly, and you rarely get the sense that you're waiting on the device. Part of the credit goes to Apple's excellent A6X processor, but a big part goes to iOS, which is expertly tailored to run smoothly on the low-power hardware. The same can be said for a lot of third-party iOS apps. Using a brand-new iPad is just a very satisfying experience all around.
  • It's cool and quiet. The iPad has no fans to whine and moan at you when you're running games or watching online videos. It never gets uncomfortably hot to the touch. It never scalds your thighs. Getting those same perks from a cheap PC laptop is difficult if not impossible. During Netflix marathons, Aline usually had to prop her Trinity laptop atop an Amazon box to keep her thighs cool. She did the same with her old Intel CULV ultraportable before that. The iPad can be cradled comfortably in her arms no matter what it's running.
  • It's supremely portable. At 1.44 lbs, the iPad is lighter than virtually any notebook south of $1,000. And since it's just one big, super-thin screen with some hardware glued to the back, you can use it comfortably anywhere—on the couch, in bed, on an airplane, and even in the john. (Or so I hear. Ahem.)
  • It actually has all-day battery life. Notebook vendors have promised us all-day battery life for years now, and they keep falling short more often than not. A fancy ultrabook might get you seven or eight hours, but cheaper systems aren't even close. The iPad, meanwhile, stayed up for over 12 hours in our web surfing test. With a device like that, there's no need to worry about running out of juice or sitting near an outlet during use. Charge it overnight every other day or so, and you're good. Heck, you don't even have to shut it down, because its standby time is preposterous—something like a month, according to Apple.
  • It doesn't get gross. Have you seen a consumer laptop after a few months of use? It's a mess: crumbs in the keyboard, gunk on the screen, finger oil on the touchpad, food stains on the palm rest, and so on. The iPad doesn't get anywhere near that filthy. All of the action happens on the touch screen, which is easy to wipe clean with pretty much any piece of non-abrasive cloth. I usually wipe mine on my t-shirt. The back doesn't really get dirty, either, because it's just a slick sheet of anodized aluminum. The buttons and connectors might gather a little lint or miscellaneous gunk here and there, but that's nothing compared to a well-loved notebook PC.
  • It runs all the games you can buy for the platform. Intel's integrated graphics have made some huge strides over the past few generations, but let's face it: laptops without discrete GPUs are still iffy for gaming. If you're a neophyte, there's no telling whether or not a game will run well. That isn't a problem on the iPad. Every title you can buy or download runs smoothly, and there are some shockingly pretty ones out for iOS. Sure, triple-A games aren't available—but you can't really run Far Cry 3 on an Intel IGP, anyway.
  • It makes consuming content delightfully easy. Everything is right there, a few finger taps and swipes away: movies, TV shows, music, e-books, comics, magazines... Even the web is more fun to browse on a tablet than on a laptop with a crappy touchpad. (And yes, most laptop touchpads are still really crappy.)
  • It takes data loss out of the equation. Hardware failures happen. So do thefts and accidental damage. Those events can mean losing years' worth of data with a consumer laptop, but not so with the iPad. If the device breaks, you can just go to the Apple Store, get it swapped out, and reload your backup from iCloud. Your software and data will be pretty much just like you left them.
  • It looks pretty. People like beautiful objects. If we didn't, we wouldn't have invented jewelry, Art Deco, and German cars. PC laptops have gotten a lot prettier in recent years, but for the most part, they're still pretty ugly. The iPad looks gorgeous by comparison—especially with a matching SmartCover. It doesn't hurt that iOS's candy-coated icons are a lot prettier than Windows 8's drab tiles—or that text and graphics are razor-sharp on the Retina display.

For the price of the iPad and SmartCover, Aline could have snagged an Asus VivoBook X202E, which is selling for $549.99 at Newegg right now. I had a chance to play with that pseudo-ultrabook before Geoff got to work on his review, though, and I wasn't impressed. The thing is abysmally slow, has a really ugly screen, and seems to run its fan continuously, even at idle. Geoff measured the battery life at four hours, which sort of sucks. Overall, I found it unpleasant and frustrating to use.

Sure, the X202E runs things the iPad cannot—things like Word, Excel, Photoshop, and a full-featured operating system with proper file management. If you need to do real work, then there's no substitute for a real laptop (although you'd be surprised how much an iPad can do with a Bluetooth keyboard and Apple's iLife apps). The thing is, however, most consumers already have an old PC they can use to write resumes or telecommute. Why should they buy a new laptop when a tablet can serve their other needs so much better?

I can't think of a good argument.

When the iPad came out in early 2010, I thought of it as a nifty companion device for folks who already owned smartphones and laptops. Tablets seemed, in short, like gadgets for the technologically privileged—cool but unnecessary. Yet in three short years, these new devices have become something else altogether. In a very real sense, they've become highly compelling replacements for consumer laptops in non-productivity usage scenarios. That's exciting... and, frankly, a little scary.

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