The smart money says that laptops and desktops are dead, replaced by tablets and smartphones. According to a new report from analyst firm IDC, Global PC shipments were 13.9 percent lower in Q1 of 2013 than during the same period last year, the largest decline ever. But handheld devices aren’t cannibalizing PC sales, older PCs are.
If you have a working 3- or 4-year-old PC, you have few reasons to upgrade and one really big reason to stand pat: the new Windows 8 operating system that makes it harder to get things done. While laptops have virtually stood still (or even gotten worse), tablets and phones have raced forward with a host of compelling new features in 2013 that you couldn’t get in 2012. If PC vendors want to get people excited about their products again, they need to step up their game in these seven ways.
Users still need PCs and always will because their larger screens, better keyboards and faster processors make them infinitely better at multitasking and productivity tasks than tablets. By burying the multi-window desktop in favor of full-screen apps with low- information density, Windows 8 turns your PC into a unitasker. You can actually get a better multitasking experience view with the Dual View feature on Samsung’s Galaxy 5.5-inch Galaxy Note II, which lets you split the screen evenly between two apps, than with Windows’ new Modern UI, which gives you just one full screen app plus a sliver of a second.
PC OEMs should either start selling more new computers with Windows 7 on them or configure Windows 8 to boot straight to the desktop and run a third-party Start menu replacement. Microsoft could also help by improving its interface to make it more multitasking friendly than Windows 7 rather than less.
More: 5 Windows 8 Apps to Bring Back the Start Menu
That sound you hear is the beep of a laptop shutting itself down because it ran out of juice. Between February 2012 and February 2013, the average battery life for an ultraportable notebook we tested at LAPTOP dropped from 6 hours and 39 minutes to 5 hours and 52 minutes. That’s not progress.
In their rush to slim down their notebooks and add touch screens to them, vendors seem to have forgotten about battery life. Unfortunately, users haven’t forgotten what it’s like to stay chained to an outlet or run out of power halfway through the day. The answer to these problems is simple: use higher capacity batteries and lower-power parts. Intel says its upcoming Haswell platform should consume a lot less juice, but we don’t know how much impact that will have on battery life overall. The average 13-inch or smaller notebook should last more than 8 hours, not under 6 hours, on a charge.
More: 7 Worst Battery Life-Guzzling Gadgets
Screen quality matters. So does screen real estate. That’s why tablet and phone makers keep improving the resolution on their displays. But while a new $399 tablet like the Google Nexus 10 has a higher-than-HD 2560 x 1600 resolution, most laptops are stuck on the same lame 1366 x 768 panels they used back in 2009 and most with 1600 x 900 or 1920 x 1080 displays cost an arm and a leg.
If Samsung, HTC and LG can all pack 1080p displays onto their smartphones without jacking up the price, notebook vendors should be able to provide the same resolution on a 13-inch screen for under $600. It’s also lame that the typical notebook screen is washed out, dull and dim. If a tiny device with long battery life can have a vibrant screen that measures 400 lux on our light meter, there’s no excuse for the average notebook to offer half the intensity with a heavy dose of backlight bleed and whitewashing.
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Despite hardware vendors’ fantasies about selling $1,200 Ultrabooks to everyone, the average PC notebook still sells for just over $500. There’s no question that some consumers will pay a premium price for a premium product, but the delta between a “great” laptop and a “just good enough” budget notebook shouldn’t be this wide.
If $500 buys you a 15-inch notebook with a Core i5 CPU and a 500GB hard drive, then it should cost $600 or $700 to get a 14-incher with an SSD. However, if you want a really light laptop or one with an SSD built in, you’ll be paying through the nose or, more likely, giving up and sticking with your old computer for another year.
More: Top 6 Laptops Under $500
The leading mobile devices come preloaded with plenty of manufacturer exclusive apps, but Windows PCs just come loaded down with crapware rather than useful apps. PC vendors should learn from Samsung, which builds a ton of powerful software into its mobile devices, with functions ranging from the note-taking S Note to the innovative Galaxy Beam to neat camera features like Share Shot.
OEMs should not only work on supplying their own software titles, but they should license and preload key features that users need, like an office suite, photo- and video-editing software and a really good email client. Microsoft could help here by making it cost effective for OEMs to preload a non-trial version of Office. If not, there are plenty of other software publishers. The selling point for consumers: pay one price for your notebook and get all the functionality you need, right out of the box.
More: 8 Worst Windows 8 Annoyances and How to Fix Them
While the rest of the PC industry faltered in Q1, both Lenovo and ASUS increased their U.S. sales. It’s no accident that the two vendors most known for innovative, high-quality hardware are the ones who are succeeding.
Lenovo has long been known for its impressive, tactile keyboards and durable chassis. The Chinese company also isn’t afraid to take a risk and build something completely new and exciting like the IdeaPad Yoga, which is the first notebook with a screen that bends back 360 degrees. ASUS has even more original designs, from the dual-screened Taichi to the ASUS Zenbook UX31A and its gorgeous 1080p display.
Companies that do nothing more than churn out gray hubs of molten plastic with flexy keyboards and washed out screens are the ones who are losing. Why buy another cheap plastic computer to replace your 2010-era cheap plastic computer?
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The PC’s greatest secret weapon is hiding in plain sight, right under the sticker that says “Intel” or “AMD” inside. Even a budget notebook has more raw processing power available than a high-end phone.
However, few apps take advantage of all that extra performance. Where Windows Vista pushed the hardware envelope with an Aero interface that required faster components than many users had, Windows 8 and all of its apps shoot for the lowest common denominator.
PC OEMs need to work with Microsoft and other software publishers to build more must-have apps that require or at least take advantage of newer processors. As it stands, most users don’t see a reason to upgrade from a first-gen Core i3 to a third-gen Core i7.