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PC sales shrank less than expected during back-to-school 2013

Don't be alarmed, it was still a disaster

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Want a shock? Sales of desktop and notebook PCs during the all-important back-to-school period were actually better than expected, according to the latest figures from research firm the NPD Group.

That doesn't mean the PC market has suddenly leapt off its sickbed and started tap dancing, mind you. The numbers are still shrinking – they're just shrinking more slowly than the market-watchers guessed they would.

Overall computer sales were down 2.5 per cent when compared to 2012 for the period between June 30 and September 7, the bean-counters report. Broken down by form factor, notebook sales were down almost 2 per cent, while sales of desktop PCs were down 5 per cent.

What's more, consumers shelled out less cash than ever for new PCs. The average price of a back-to-school computer shrank to $671 this year, versus $709 in 2012 – a 5.4 per cent drop.

Sales of "entry-level" Windows PCs – defined by the NPD Group as machines costing $300 or less – made up a bigger chunk of the total than they did last year, growing 14 per cent in 2013.

And even the fanbois were feeling frugal this year. The average price of a MacBook declined from $1,445 in 2012 to $1,286 this year, but overall MacBook sales still fell more than 3 per cent.

Microsoft should be happy to learn that consumers are buying more notebooks with touchscreens than ever before. Touch notebooks accounted for 25 per cent of the total this year, which would seem to validate Redmond's touch-centric strategy for Windows 8.

But it should come as no surprise that those sales were only spurred by deep price cuts. More than a third of all touch notebooks sold during the period cost less than $500, and the average price of a touch-enabled PC fell nearly 10 per cent to $646, from $715 in the first half of the year.

One category of devices that actually did well was Chromebooks. In fact, as the NPD Group analysts have observed before, Google's browser-based portables accounted for all of the growth in the notebook segment.

Chromebooks "didn't exist in 2012," the analysts claim – an odd statement, given that you could buy them at Best Buy stores in the US and at Dixons in the UK as early as June 2012 and they were available online before that – but they added nearly 175,000 units to the sales totals this year.

Those sales hardly bucked the overall trend, however. With the exception of the posh Chromebook Pixel, which is only available direct from Google, most of the current Chromebooks fall squarely into the entry-level price category, with the most expensive ones still priced 33 per cent cheaper than the average PC.

To sum up, not many people ran out and bought a new notebook or desktop PC for back-to-school this year – note that the NPD Group's figures don't include tablets – and if they did, they weren't willing to pay very much for it.

On the plus side, some customers are still buying, and there were actually more of them this year than the analysts expected. But the NPD market-watchers didn't see this as much cause for optimism.

"While these results are better than the almost 4 percent decline from the first half of the year, any declines in the crucial back-to-school period leave reason to be concerned for the upcoming holiday season," NPD's Steven Baker said. ®

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