Traditional personal computers have stronger-than-expected showing in 2016

Global shipments of personal computing devices (PCDs) — comprised of traditional PCs (a combination of desktop, notebook, and workstations) and tablets (slates and detachables) — are forecast to decline from a total of 435 million units in 2016 to 418.2 million units at the end of the forecast period in 2021, according to the Worldwide Quarterly Personal Computing Device Tracker from International Data Corporation (IDC). This represents a five-year compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of -0.8%.

The new forecast comes on the heels of a stronger-than-expected showing for traditional personal computers (PCs) such as Macs in 2016, when a combination of aggressive promotional activities in the second half of the year and tightening component supply for notebooks helped to drive stronger volume across both the consumer and commercial channels in the fourth quarter, says the research group. Commercial notebook shipments finished the year on a positive note, growing more than 2% year-over-year. Meanwhile, consumer notebook shipments declined by only 1% from quarter four of 2015, helped by strong model launches in the Ultraslim and Convertible notebook categories.

In the tablet market, slate shipments continued to decline as expected and detachables saw a dramatic decline in the fourth quarter, largely due to the segment's dependence on individual product launch cycles from the likes of Apple and Microsoft, according to IDC. The absence of product refreshes in the quarter led to a year-over-year decline of 26.1% for detachables in quarter four of 2016 and contributed to a more tempered outlook for the entire tablet market. Despite the 2016 decline, IDC expects growth will return to the tablet market over the next five years due to the growing popularity of detachable devices.

"Regardless of what marketers are saying, detachable tablets are simply not putting pressure on notebooks yet," says Jitesh Ubrani, senior research analyst, Worldwide Mobile Device Trackers, IDC. "Consumers are just starting to graduate from old, consumption-based, slate tablets to a more productive detachable tablet. At the same time, the benefits of having a thin, touch-sensitive, productivity-based machine is shining light on the traditional PC category, causing vendors and consumers to focus on more premium devices in the Convertible and Ultraslim space."

Looking ahead, the outlook for traditional PC shipments has improved somewhat due to better economic conditions as well as slower sales of competing devices such as tablets and smartphones. While still in decline — traditional PC shipments are expected fall to 252 million units in 2021, a five-year CAGR [compound annual growth rate] of -0.6% — the outlook has been raised slightly compared to the November forecast. 

Adding in detachable tablets would raise 2021 shipments to more than 308 million units with a 2016-2021 CAGR of 1.8%. Juxtaposed against the struggles of mature form factors such as slates and desktops, continued innovations should lead notebooks to take a higher share in the overall personal computing landscape, up from 36% of the total PCD market in 2016 (barely ahead of slates) to being the dominant device by 2021 with nearly 39% share while slate tablet share declines to 26%, according to IDC. Detachable tablets are also expected to make further inroads, going from 4.9% in 2016 to 13.4% of the total PCD market by 2021.