Pandemic rebound? PC shipments post biggest upswing in a decade

The pandemic-induced rush to work at home also helped drive up PC sales at the fastest rate in 10 years. But will that buying surge last?

arrows showing upward trend growth chart graph
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The PC market rebounded last year, sporting the highest growth rate in a decade, industry analysts said this week, pinning credit (or blame) on the coronavirus pandemic.

Research firm IDC pegged 2020's global shipments of personal computers at 302.6 million devices, a 13% increase over the year prior, which represented the largest annual gain since 2010. The shipment volume was the largest since 2014, said Jitesh Ubrani, research manager with IDC's mobile device trackers team, in an interview.

The turnaround was striking: Of the past 10 years, six saw year-over-year declines while one had been flat.

Gartner Research, an IDC rival, also claimed a notable boost in PC shipments. Even though Gartner's numbers for 2020 differed from IDC's — the former firm said last year's increase was just under 5%, less than half IDC's — it agreed that that growth was the highest measured since 2010.

The difference between IDC's and Gartner's total shipments for the year — 302 million and 275 million, respectively — was largely due to the former counting Chromebooks as personal computers, while the latter did not.

"A lot of volume early in the year was because companies had people working at home," said Ubrani, reflecting on the spring months, when businesses worldwide first shuttered, then asked employees to work from home. Enterprises, Ubrani said, purchased large numbers of laptops to equip those suddenly-remote workers, the sales volume at times sufficient to completely throttle the component supply chain.

School districts soon added their PC demands to the rising chorus as many tried to equip their students with devices — low-cost laptops in almost all cases — so that children could learn remotely. "School systems were not used to one-for-one," Ubrani said, referring to PC-to-student ratios. "They were used to students sharing laptops."

A third group — families with school-aged children — joined in on the rush-to-PCs, adding machines to the household when school districts did not (or simply could not) step in.

"Beyond the enterprise and educational [markets], there has been a lot of strength in the consumer market," said Ubrani, citing not only the desire of families to give each child their own notebook but also an increase in interest in gaming-centric PCs. Hunkered down at home for long stretches of lockdowns and quarantine, families needed entertainment distractions; some solved that by buying not only PC gaming rigs but also spending more on game titles.

Consumers also rediscovered PCs in the past nine months, Ubrani said. "Many of them had gone years since buying a PC," he noted, and as at-home orders lengthened — or returned — realized their old machines didn't cut it in gaming, crafts or other projects. "They found they needed a new device."

The PC industry benefited from the pains suffered by other areas of the economy, Ubrani contended. Some families and individuals had more disposable income available during the pandemic because they weren't spending the usual amounts on travel, say, or dining or out-of-the-house entertainment.

In fact, Ubrani expected that consumer PC buying would continue to recover from the past decade, when many — including some here at Computerworld — were writing off that market as not only moribund but also purposeless in the face of smartphones and tablets. "I think this shows that there has been a resetting and rethinking of the importance of PCs" for consumers, Ubrani said.

Macs on the march, Chromebook shipments skyrocket 80%

Lenovo, HP, Dell, Apple and Acer booked the largest PC shipment numbers for 2020 (and in that order), IDC reported. Gartner's numbers were preliminaries, like IDC's, and ranked the vendors in the same order, albeit with different year-end tallies.

Apple easily took honors as the Big 5 vendor with the highest year-over-year growth rate in 2020, posting a 29% gain by IDC's data and a 23% increase in Gartner's estimate. IDC pegged Apple's shipments at 23.1 million for the year; Gartner tapped it as 22.5 million.

Chromebooks, the label applied to laptops powered by Google's Chrome browser-based operating system (Chrome OS), also surged in 2020, analysts said.

Gartner said that the December 2020 quarter witnessed a 200% year-over-year increase in Chromebook shipments, reaching 11.7 million units. Over the course of the full year, Chromebook shipments grew by more than 80%, totally nearly 30 million.

IDC put Chromebook laptop shipments at 19.6 million through the end of the September quarter, or analogous to Gartner's count for the same nine-month stretch. (Numbers were still being tabulated for the December 2020 quarter, Ubrani said.)

"Demand is pushing the PC market forward and all signs indicate this surge still has a way to go," said Ryan Reith of IDC, who leads the firm's mobile device trackers group, in a statement. "In retrospect, the pandemic not only fueled PC market demand but also created opportunities that resulted in a market expansion."

Ubrani agreed. Although he expects a slight slowdown in shipments to businesses during 2021, consumer shipments are projected to increase through 2024. "We'll see a lot of demand in 2021 because some of that went unfulfilled [in 2020]. Those orders slipped from the end of 2020 into early 2021," Ubrani said.

PC shipments 2020 IDG/Gregg Keizer

Shipments in 2020 climbed for all Big 5 global manufacturers, with Apple leading the pack in percentage increase. (Data: IDC.)

Copyright © 2021 IDG Communications, Inc.

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