pc

Now that 2014 has come to a close, we can definitively say that the PC market has turned around in the US, growing 5% after years of decline.

Without much category competition, PC innovation grew stagnant over the decades. Then tablets came and easily beat PCs that catered to low cost, light computing needs. PC makers tried new things, but the technology wasn’t ready. New, experimental devices were either too heavy, too slow, too short on battery life or too expensive. Windows 8’s bad reputation certainly didn’t help.

2014 was a comeback because the entire PC value curve shifted upwards significantly. You got far better PCs for a given price, and customers — now used to great smartphones and tablets — demanded and expected quality. Only the top PC makers met that expectation.

Meanwhile, the tablet form factor saw little change so naturally, it made sense for customers to upgrade their old PCs for a dramatically better experience. The tablets they already had were just fine.

Now that we are on the brink of “good enough” convergence between PCs and tablets, I expect the hybrid form factor to grow even more as people seek to save money and do work on their tablets.

Last year, I consistently beat the gong for big display smartphones, and that was before the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus made the notion popular. This year I am beating the gong for hybrid devices.

Well, that was a longer lead-in than I expected to write. On with actual numbers from IDC.

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2015 will be an exciting year for fans of 2-in-1 devices — i.e., hybrid convertibles that double as both laptop and tablet. Driving it are Intel’s new line of chips, which broadly offer a significantly better performance-to-power ratio. This means you can get reasonably performing PCs that don’t require fans, so designs can be thinner and lighter and have longer battery life.

As companies announce new devices that take advantage of the new chips at CES (happening right now), I’ll be zeroing in on one key metric: weight.

If you’ve been reading this blog, you know I believe the right form factor for a 2-in-1 is as large of a display as possible given a maximum weight of 1.5 pounds. Above that threshold, the tablet part of a 2-in-1 is heavy to hold with one hand as the other taps the screen.

2-in-1s have not yet achieved mainstream success because limitations of technology meant they were either too slow, too heavy or too short on battery life. Hopefully, this year, manufacturers get it right.

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Chromebooks are finally getting serious about penetrating the mass market. No, it’s not better offline capabilities, though that would help greatly. And no, Minecraft is not making an appearance any time soon.

Chromebooks are getting serious because finally, Acer is releasing a 15.6-inch version of its Chromebook, supposedly on March 2015.

Months ago, I wrote about how the most popular computing device of the future will be a 15-inch tablet weighing less than 1.5 pounds with a keyboard accessory. While we are a good three to five years away from that getting there, the rationale is that the 15-inch display size is actually the most popular category of laptops.

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The $200 HP Stream 11 is an intriguing laptop — it comes with full Windows, has 32 GB of eMMC memory and houses an attractive design (though that’s subjective) — all for $200. You also get Office 365 and 1 TB of OneDrive storage for one year; and just for kicks, HP is throwing in a $25 Windows Store coupon.

That’s incredible value. If you are in the market for Office 365 and want to spend money on the app store, this laptop effectively costs $105.

Tempting!

Reviews around the web are positive. Performance is fine for low computing tasks and the laptop can even manage bigger Windows programs, albeit slowly. It boots from sleep quickly. You don’t want to overload it with too many tabs on your browser however. The keyboard is great while the touch pad is finicky. The display isn’t the greatest but average for the price. Battery life is excellent. You’ll want to buy the Signature Edition direct from Microsoft; otherwise the laptop is weighed down by bloatware.

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I’ve written before how the only meaningful advantage Chromebooks have over Windows laptops is price. Now that prices for Windows laptops have fallen, there is no compelling reason to get Chromebooks.

Make no mistake, I am a big believer in thin client computing and think Chromebooks are well positioned for that future. But that future is not here yet.

I can also see Chromebooks doing well in primary education, where you don’t want kids messing with system settings and who don’t have any expectations for legacy software. I’m not talking about specific markets though.

So it is interesting to see Chromebook World — yes, that’s a website dedicated to Chromebooks — pit a $200 Windows laptop from Acer to its Chromebook equivalent and conclude the two offer comparable experiences. Both have similar performance, battery life, and quick start-up times.

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When Steve Jobs coined the “post-PC” term, it was to indicate that general purpose PCs would decline as certain functions become replaced by devices that do those things better. Jobs was thinking about mobile phones and tablets, but the HP Sprout is another fantastic example of the post-PC world.

A quick primer for those unaware — the HP Sprout is a desktop that eschews the traditional keyboard and mouse for a camera and mat. The camera projects to the mat to form an interactive display. The camera can also be used to scan 2D and 3D objects into digital copies, which you can manipulate and insert into images and documents. While elements of the Sprout have existed before, HP brought everything together into something new and innovative.

HP deserves kudos for the Sprout. I’m writing in large part because these types of risks should be rewarded; and also because I can actually see a market for the Sprout.

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I previously wrote how Microsoft and PC makers should be concerned about Mac computers, which saw record growth the previous quarter and will likely see continued growth. However, there’s chatter on the blogosphere that is taking the “Mac is destroying PCs” narrative too far.

Charts like this get posted:

Provocative, but very misleading.

This is probably more representative of the big picture:

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