Intel and IDC Predict Stronger PC Sales in 2014 But Slow SSD Adoption Could Limit Growth

According to a joint survey from Intel and IDC, the PC market could see sunnier days in 2014. That's the proposed takeaway from a survey IDC conducted of 3,977 adults across both suburbs and cities. The respondents, who all owned at least one PC or Mac, were organized into two basic groups -- those using a PC 4 years old or older, and those using a PC purchased in the last 12 months. Between the two groups, 45% had tablets and 64% owned smartphones -- further underscoring that tremendous popularity of tablets in the American market.

According to the survey, 40% of buyers are interested in upgrading a PC within the next 12 months. 97% identify the PC as their primary computing device, 83% believe it's more productive than a PC or smartphone. For a market suffering through an unprecedented collapse, those are attractive figures -- at least, potentially. More troubling is this blurb.

Think about that for a moment. According to IDC, owners of a four year old system spend only 23% more time waiting on systems to complete tasks. There's an ugly reason why, though it won't jump out at you if you haven't checked laptops of late.

The majority of laptops sold today, including laptops priced in the $600-$800 range, are selling with 5400 RPM hard drives. The $700 Inspiron 15R with Haswell? 5400 RPM HDD. Lenovo's 1TB Z500 Touch, at $999? 5400 RPM HDD. In the past, you could custom-order such parts, but most manufacturers have stripped out the customization options that used to come standard. At both Lenovo and Dell, what you see on a given model is what you get; opportunities to choose your hardware on standard systems are few and far between.

With the average laptop price sitting at $420 as of December 2012, it's clear that consumers aren't typically opting for $999 systems -- but even if they are, they aren't necessarily getting the kind of performance an SSD drive can offer. It might seem odd to hang on a single piece of technology, but in this case, I think it's important. If you've upgraded to an SSD from a hard drive, you know that it's one of the most important speed boosts you can get. It delivers the feeling that jumping to a new processor used to offer.

This is what Seagate predicted in 2009. This year, the company gave notice it would cease 7200 RPM mobile production altogether

Programs open faster. Movies, music and games load quicker. Need to copy files? No problem. Want to open 250 photos that you took over the weekend at the same time? Not an issue. There's an enormous boost associated with going SSD, but top-end laptops are actually getting slower as far as storage is concerned.  Seagate's decision to stop manufacturing 7200 RPM HDDs hasn't apparently sparked increased uptake of its solid state hybrid drives (SSHDs) and laptop caching solutions haven't become as popular as you might expect. I'm genuinely surprised to see $999 laptops shipping with 5400 RPM drives in 2013.

And that's a problem. The appeal of tablets isn't that they do everything just as well as notebooks, but that they offer a new, exciting experience that a notebook doesn't match. The discrepancy is stark.  Buy a $420 laptop, and you're almost certainly buying a 5-6lb clunky shell with a low-resolution display, slow storage, and mediocre WiFi. Battery life might be better, but since the battery in your four year old laptop hasn't worked in years, you won't be able to tell. Buy a laptop, you get Windows 8. Buy a tablet you get a sleek device with a better screen (resolution varies), a snappy-feeling OS, and a device you can carry in one hand.

I'm not saying Intel is wrong and that the PC market won't pick up next year. I very much hope it does. But I think part of the reason for the collapse in sales is that it's really, really hard to get excited about a low-end laptop. When the $999 models are carrying 5400 RPM HDDs, that's indicative of a siege mentality that extracts profits at the cost of a better experience. Yes, 40% of surveyed people are planning to upgrade a PC -- but I'd bet money, they already bought a tablet.  It's time to think about why that is.