Chromebooks, Windows touch laptops offer lifeline to PC makers

PC sales may continue to shrink, but hardware makers can point to a couple of bright spots--Chromebooks and touch-based Windows laptops.

Chromebooks, which had negligible market share a year ago, accounted for 3.3 percent of U.S. sales during the back-to-school season, according to market research firm NPD Group. Nearly 175,000 of these low-cost laptops, which run the browser-based Chrome OS from Google, were sold between June 30 and September 7. NPD has previously said that Chromebooks make up 20 percent to 25 percent of the sub-$300 laptop market.

PC makers have been showing more interest in Chromebooks as a potential source of growth. Both HP and Lenovo began producing Chromebooks this year--with Lenovo targeting schools-only--and a new wave of Chromebooks based on Intel's Haswell processors is coming soon from Acer, HP and Toshiba. Acer has said that Chromebooks make up 5 to 10 percent of its U.S. shipments and that it may bring Chromebooks to other developed markets. While Google's operating system has its share of detractors, the software has matured over the last year, and the launch of Chrome Apps may lead to a wider range of offline applications.

While the gradual rise of Chromebooks could be bad news for Microsoft, Redmond can at least take comfort in the news that touch-equipped Windows PCs are gaining some traction, thanks in large to part to lower prices. NPD says that touch-based notebooks made up a quarter of back-to-school sales, and more than 33 percent of those touchscreen notebooks cost under $500.

Touch computing also made its mark on the high-end, contributing to a 24 percent rise in sales of $700-and-up Windows notebooks. Users are upgrading their PC less often, but they may be willing to pay more when it's time for a new machine.

The main trouble spot for Windows PCs in the U.S. market is the $300-to-$700 price range, which makes up nearly two-thirds of all Windows notebooks sold. U.S. sales in this segment fell by 16 percent from last year, dragging down the entire U.S. market for Windows PCs by 2.4 percent.

Even Apple took a small hit in the laptop department, with NPD reporting a 0.2 percent decline in U.S. MacBook sales and a big drop in average selling price from $1442 to $1286.

"Chromebooks and Windows Touch helped offset what could have been much steeper declines this back-to-school season," NPD analyst Stephen Baker said in a statement. Still, he cautioned that any declines in this crucial laptop shopping season do not bode well for the holidays. It'll likely another season of explosive growth for the iPad and Android tablets, as people drift away from laptops for their casual computing needs.


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