The Soft Improvements in new PCs Could be their Biggest Draw

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.