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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6 Responses to “A Look at the PC Junk Factor”

  1. Jon T says:

    There is another angle to all this.. and Greenpeace should be onto it if they weren’t busy always -misguidedly- attacking Apple. How long do these products last? What is the cost to the planet of all the junk that gets made only to end in landfill a year later?

    Research would surely find that Apple products cost the earth a whole lot less. The junk a whole lot more.

  2. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by David R. Poole, Gene Steinberg. Gene Steinberg said: Here's my latest Tech Night Owl commentary: : A Look at the PC Junk Factor http://bit.ly/hE3t5u […]

  3. tom b says:

    CR reviews simple things like cars, dishwashers, and lawn spreaders well. I wouldn’t trust them with complex products like cameras, audio equipment, or computers.

  4. Richard says:

    You overlook the obvious. Neither Intel nor M$ wanted the netbooks to succeed and so imposed terrible restrictions on them. There really is nothing wrong with the concept of a small, comparatively inexpensive, device for email, web browsing some document creation, and limited photo editing.

    We will never know what might have become of the netbook movement had the dynamic duo not tried so hard to kill it, but it did illustrate the desire of a great many people for a lighter, smaller, more portable device with a battery that would make it through most, if not all of, the day.

    The iPad shows limited capabilities along those lines, but is not a device for content creation. I am aware of people who drag a keyboard along with their iPad to try to overcome its most serious limitations, but it would be better if there were a solution which was designed from the outset to do these things.

    The iPad is NOT a laptop replacement. It is an auxiliary device, an adjunct to a real computer.

    One of the more interesting uses I have seen for the iPad is for the display of images to clients by professional photographers. It shows the image in a sufficiently large size to do it justice and allows the photographer to maintain complete control over his/her work product and is simple enough for the client to “flip through the pages”.

  5. Richard says:


    The netbook market was very much an experiment to see just what customers wanted. Many of the restrictions were imposed as the market developed. M$ and Intel tried the “ignore them and they’ll go away” approach first. At this point in time it is a real toss up as to whether the iPad is any better than some of the later netbooks. Neither one is a speed demon. I give the iPad the nod because of battery life and the screen. It is still very much a “work in progress” though. It will be interesting to see what the second generation iPad offers when it is released…supposedly some time early next year. It very badly needs a compact keyboard, preferably Bluetooth or other wireless to avoid adding the bulk back that it is intended to overcome. You just can’t do much without a real keyboard.


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