Tablets threaten laptops, but there's more to this picture

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This is it: 2013 is the year that tablets surpass notebooks in sales and assume their rightful place atop the mobile computing gadget throne. Don’t start playing "Taps" for the notebooks just yet, though—they’re not really going anywhere.

NPD DisplaySearch released new data this week projecting that more tablets will ship in 2013 than notebook PCs. "Tablet PC shipments are expected to reach more than 240 million units worldwide in 2013, easily exceeding the 207 million notebook PCs that are projected to ship," said a DisplaySearch blog post.

Numbers are a funny thing, though. There are so many ways to look at them, and it's easy to lose the details in the big picture, or to lose the big picture by cherry-picking specific details. If you look more closely, you can see that tablets are, in fact, a threat to notebook PCs…but that's not the whole picture

Why tablets are a threat to notebooks

First, consider what is a “tablet” and what is a “notebook”? The NPD DisplaySearch data includes tablets ranging in size from 5.6 inches to 13.3 inches. The lion’s share of projected shipments fall into the “traditional” size established by the original iPad of around 10 inches, but smaller tablets skew the data.

NPD data breaks down estimated tablet sales by display size.

NPD claims that tablets with 7 to 8 inch displays will make up 45 percent of the tablet shipments this year, compared with only 17 percent for the 9.7-inch models (which, I believe may be only the iPad). If you lump the 9 and 10 inch models together it’s a more even comparison, but the smaller tablets still win.

The bottom line is that the success of tablets like the original Amazon Kindle Fire, the Samsung Galaxy Tab 7.0, the Google Nexus 7, and the recently introduced Apple iPad Mini will drive a surge in tablet sales this year. These are all quality tablets available at bargain prices (with the possible exception of the iPad Mini).

An average consumer doesn’t have unlimited discretionary income. They’re walking in to Best Buy trying to find the best gadget they can get for the money. They’re comparing an Amazon Kindle Fire, or a Samsung Galaxy Tab 7.0 for $200 against a netbook that starts at $250.

A $250 netbook has a weak single core processor, and too little RAM to effectively run the Windows 7 operating system that it comes with. The netbook is bigger and heavier to carry around, and the battery life of an economy netbook may only be two or three hours.

The iPad Mini is on the high end of the "cheap" tablets at $329.

For $200, that same consumer can get a tablet with a sharper display and higher pixel density. The processor and RAM may seem similar on paper, but the ARM architecture, and a mobile OS like Android or iOS will deliver blazing performance instead of lagging and frustration. The $200 tablet is lighter, thinner, and can run all day on a single charge.

Granted, it’s not entirely an apples-to-apples comparison. The netbook probably has a larger storage capacity, and it’s capable of running standard Windows software. But, the tablet can do email, instant messaging, Web, social networking, and play games—which sums up about 90-plus percent of what most people need to do from a mobile device.

It’s easy to see why (cheap) tablets will beat netbooks.

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