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  • A Look at the PC Junk Factor

    November 26th, 2010

    On several occasions, Apple executives have been famously quoted as saying, in response to questions about matching the prices of cheap PC gear, that they didn’t know how to make junk. Of course, the critics will usually claim Apple is run by a bunch of greedy so-and-sos and all they want to do is extract as much cash from you as possible.

    The skeptics will seldom admit that it’s not just a matter of a company wanting to earn a decent profit, but to provide extra value for their customers.

    In contrast, most of the rest of the PC industry is busy flooding the market with loads of sometimes barely different models in hopes that one or two will catch fire and deliver decent sales. The netbook seems mostly an attempt to get PC users to just sell something, anything, during a time of economic downturn. At roughly $300 a pop, these shrunken note-books have demonstrated no innovation whatever, just a rush to the bottom and efforts to make something as cheaply as possible, without regard to whether they even deliver satisfactory performance.

    The netbook phenomenon, however, appears to have been short-lived. It may be that the iPad’s arrival has made it obvious that, with a little more money, a really usable computer can be bought. What’s more, PC makers are beginning to offer supposedly full-featured portables for not much more than a netbook, so the latter may be best offered for $200 or less.

    Now this is not a survey, but I did notice several netbooks on the closeout counter at the local Sam’s Club, so maybe the point has been reached where customers have begun to realize that Apple was right about that cheap stuff all along.

    Unfortunately, someone new to the PC marketplace, and there are such people still, may not understand why a PC note-book can be sold for $400, yet the cheapest MacBook or MacBook Air is $999. Just why is the Apple so expensive?

    Such suspicions may be compounded by the unfortunate efforts of our largest product review publication, Consumer Reports. Now CR, as I’ve said previously, prides itself on being incorruptible. They do not take advertising from third parties, the magazine is published by a non-profit corporation, and they buy all of the products they test in retail outlets. Hence, there’s no opportunity for a manufacturer to build a “trick” version that will work better than the units sold to regular customers.

    Of course, having reviewed electronics gear for years, I can tell you from first-hand experience that I’ve never received a “ringer,” or something I could be suspicious about. The very same defects that affect the shipping versions afflict the ones I’ve received direct from the manufacturer or its marketing agency. Indeed, on some occasions, the well-worn review sample may actually function worse.

    Alas, CR also clouds the issue by comparing Macs with cheaper PC gear, without regard to whether the core features, hardware configurations, and bundled software, are comparable. They fail to distinguish the well-known differences between Mac OS X and Windows, and thus leave the impression with their readers that there is no difference. The Mac is just a pretty, overpriced PC.

    In any case, it also seems clear that more and more people are realizing that it’s better to pay for value than buy an inferior product that may be less useful and perhaps fail quickly. That probably explains why Apple’s sales have mostly grown faster than the competition in recent years. Customer surveys tell the tale, demonstrating that large numbers of people place Apple on the top of their shopping lists for the next few months.

    A recent NPD Group consumer survey revealed that some 11% were planning to buy an iPad between now and February 2011. Just as fascinating is the fact that use of the iPad appears to increase the longer they’re owned. It grows from 15 hours a week after two months to 18 hours a week after three months.

    I’m more curious about what these iPad owners are giving up. The PC? Smartphones? Or do they just allocate more and more of their busy lives to Apple’s newest iconic gadget?

    Of course, this explains the rush by other companies to somehow steal Apple’s thunder. In the PC space, that’s often done simply by using cheaper parts, or removing features, but with tablets, Apple has already set a price for the iPad that’s hard to beat.

    What’s more, the customer is clearly not listening, as higher and higher numbers of would-be buyers prefer Macs. According to a ChangeWave survey, some 36% of buyers who plan to buy new note-books in the next three months expect to buy a Mac. Even more intriguing is the fact that this level of interest has grown by 11% over the past month alone, which may indicate that the updated MacBook Air might be a factor. These increases come, in large part, at the expense of Dell and HP.

    Or perhaps they are just having second thoughts about buying the cheap junk far too many PC box assemblers continue to offer.

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