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What's the State of the PC Market? Depends on Who You Ask

The prognosis is mixed when it comes to the health of the worldwide PC market, which has been mired in a years-long slump.

Last Thursday, research firms IDC and Gartner Inc. each released their data on PC shipments during the fourth quarter of 2017, as well as throughout the year.

On the positive side, by IDC's tally, PC shipments increased slightly in Q4 by 0.7 percent year over year, defying the firm's earlier forecast of a 1.7 percent decline. This marked the first positive holiday season for the PC market since Q4 of 2011, according to IDC.

For 2017 overall, IDC estimates global PC shipments fell by a mere 0.2 percent, making it "the most stable year the market has seen since 2011."

IDC said the PC market is showing signs of "steadying" after years of decline, a trend driven by an uptick in consumer demand, as well as PC makers' increasing focus on notebooks.

"The fourth quarter results showed some potentially encouraging headway against the difficult environment in retail and consumer PCs," said IDC research manager Jay Chou in a prepared statement. "Enticed by a growing array of products that promise all-day battery life, high portability, and address emerging use cases that require more compute power, pockets of the consumer base are taking a serious look at these revamped PCs. However, the overall PC market remains a challenging one."

In comparison, Gartner's end-of-the year assessment of the PC market was more bearish. The firm found that PC shipments actually shrank by 2 percent year over year in Q4, marking the 13th straight quarter of declines.

Gartner also saw shipments fall by 2.8 percent for all of 2017, making it the sixth consecutive year of declines.

According to Gartner principal analyst Mikako Kitagawa, the signs point to the PC market being ruled by more "specialized, purpose-driven" devices, and less by generalized devices with mass appeal.

"PC buyers will look for quality and functionality rather than looking for the lowest price, which will increase PC average selling prices (ASPs) and improve profitability in the long run," Kitagawa said. "However, until this point is reached, the market will have to go through the shrinking phase caused by fewer PC users."

The differences in the firms' analyses may be attributed to what form factors they each consider to be part of the traditional PC category. For example, Gartner's data excludes Chromebooks and tablets like the iPad, while IDC's data does include Chromebooks, but not tablets. On the other hand, Gartner does count "ultramobile" devices like the Microsoft Surface as part of the PC category, but IDC excludes "detachable tablets" -- a category that the Surface pioneered.

The two firms do agree on two things. First, PC shipments in the United States took a bigger hit than other regions in Q4, a fact that Gartner attributed to U.S. holiday shoppers demanding more peripherals (like voice-enabled speakers and smartphones) than PCs.

Second, according to both IDC and Gartner, the top four PC vendors worldwide in 2017 were (in order) HP, Lenovo, Dell and Apple.

About the Author

Gladys Rama is the senior site producer for Redmondmag.com, RCPmag.com and MCPmag.com.