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Dirt-cheap laptops might be this year's stocking stuffer

Mark Hachman | Nov. 25, 2014
Black Friday and Cyber Monday promise commodity-priced laptops and tablets, while the biggest-ticket items may be in the smallest packages: smartphones.

Dell Inspiron 11 3000

Two ads tell you everything you need to know about how crazy notebook PC pricing is.

The first, a Dell Black Friday ad from 2010, advertises a Dell Inspiron 15 for $450--the "doorbuster" the PC company used to lure shoppers to The second, another Dell Black Friday ad for 2014, promotes another Inspiron 15--but for just $190.

Meanwhile, Apple and Samsung are selling smartphones for about the same prices they always have--$200 and above, and far more if their carrier-subsidized pricing is removed from the equation.

The shift in pricing means the biggest tech presents of the year will be wrapped in the smallest packages. Smartphones--even subsidized ones--are now the premium gifts, while cheaper PCs are arguably a stocking stuffer. Still not sure? Then get in line for the 11-inch Asus EeeBook X2015TA notebook, on sale at Staples for just $100.

And oh yes, tablets. They're in even worse shape, analysts say.

PCs struggle, while phones thrive
While the PC market was originally expected to decline by about six percent this year, analysts now say it will  dip only a bit more than three percent. That's what passes for good news in the PC market these days. But even after expanding into tablets and phones, PC makers are still compelled to chase as many sales as they can during the holidays--and the easiest way to do that is by lowering the price.

Several related trends further reinforce the PC's role as second fiddle to phones this holiday season.

The first is the staying power of smartphone pricing. In 2010 Apple sold the iPhone 4 at a subsidized price of $199 and $299--and left it, unchanged, through the iPhone 6 launch four years later. That same year, Samsung began selling the first of its Galaxy devices under names like the Sprint Epic 4G, for $249. Today, Sprint sells the Galaxy S5 for $199 with a two-year contract.

In other words, in 2010 Dell's doorbuster PC was more expensive than Apple's priciest phone. Four years later, that same Inspiron--with significantly improved components inside, naturally--is now cheaper than Apple's least expensive iPhone. 

Tablet pressures
NPD analyst Stephen Baker, who tracks retail sales of computers and other technology, says another reason for the PC price decline is more subtle: tablets, or specifically how the PC and phone industries have responded to them.

Tablet sales surged in years like 2012, when sales increased 75 percent year-over-year during the fourth quarter. But then phone and notebook PC makers made changes: phones have steadily pushed screen size into "phablet" territory, while notebooks have cut both costs and size to compete with lighter, more portable tablets. 


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