Embracing the Low-Cost PC

Embracing the Low-Cost PC

A $250 PC? Sure, why not?

Looking at the PCs in today's Best Buy flyer brought with it a weird mixture of memories, misgivings and questions about the future. Here, we can see the changing PC market in living color, a reminder that things will never be like they used to be. And maybe that's OK.

First, a bit of history.

Growing up, we had Lechmere—which we always misstated as "Lechmere's" for some reason—a regional department store that sold everything from furniture to clothes to household appliances and consumer electronics. In the 1960's my father bought my mother's wedding ring at the Lechmere's—sorry, Lechmere—in Dedham, and I later frequented the store as a youth, where alongside Sears and Radio Shack I experienced the earliest days of the video game and personal computer industries.

Lechmere was special, so much so that when the then-recently-married Paul moved to Phoenix in 1993 one of the many things I was worried about missing in this transition was that retail store. It was just such a major part of the fabric of life in those pre-Internet, post-shopping mall days. But when I arrived in Phoenix, I was happy to discover something even bigger and better than Lechmere: Best Buy, a giant and national version of Lechmere whose stores made my favorite shopping spot of old look silly by comparison.

Best Buy has certainly had its ups and downs. It weathered the rise of other national consumer electronics chains in the 1990s, not to the mention Wal-Mart, but it has fared worse against the online retailing giant Amazon. Its vaunted CD music section is now a backwater thanks to online music, but the stores still host semi-important midnight openings for big video game releases. Like all of us, Best Buy has had to deal with ever-changing markets.

Anyway, if you listen to Windows Weekly or What the Tech, or frequent this web site, you know that I talk and write occasionally about not letting rote tradition get in the way of change, about how we sometimes do things with technology simply because that's the way things have always (where "always" often equates to "just a few years") been done.

This thinking leads to blind spots about up-and-coming change makers, like the iPad, but it also can make us personally inefficient. It's what makes people complain about the lack of traditional PC backup tools in Windows 8 or whine about missing music match functionality in Xbox Music. It's not that these aren't valid complaints per se, it's just that the world has moved on and left the complainers behind. Things change. Not always for the best, of course. But sometimes you need to just roll with the punches.

Cue this week's Best Buy circular. It arrives with the Sunday Boston Globe, which is itself a shadow of its former self in every way imaginable. Why do we still get it? Tradition.

For many years, I actually looked forward to the Best Buy circular. If there was a particularly good deal on something I really (read: sort-of, maybe not really) needed, I'd head out to the store to get it. That was true while we've lived in Phoenix—through 1999—and it was true for even more years here outside of Boston: There's been a Best Buy in Dedham for many, many years now. In fact, it's located in what used to be the Lechmere parking lot. Weird.

I can't tell you when I stopped caring about the Best Buy circular in particular or about Best Buy a bit more generally. But it's been a few years. My wife still separates it out of the pile of paper in a Sunday morning ritual that hasn't changed much in 20-plus years, but these days it sits there unread most Sundays as I read the (superior but still flawed) New York Times on my Kindle Paperwhite. (Oh good, another review of a car that sells for more than the price of my first house. This paper really gets its audience. Sorry, moving on.)

Today, I picked it up. I thought about how much things have changed, about how I used to really care about this thing and about how I feel bad that I no longer do. (This is the same guilt I feel about bookstores, by the way, and I'm not sure if this is horribly misplaced or simply understandable.) Flipping through it, though, you can see the changes sweeping the PC market writ large.

On the front page of this circular are three PCs that cost $279, $399 and $499, respectively, plus a $199 Windows mini-tablet—the Lenovo Miix 2—which is actually a particularly good deal. Yes, there are far more expensive computers to be had at Best Buy: The next two pages feature several laptops that range from $599 to $1199, the most expensive of which is a Sony Flip 13 that even its parent company doesn't want. (Sony is selling its PC business.) It also features a desktop PC that, sans monitor, costs just $299. The most expensive desktop unit, an all-in-one 23-inch model, costs $799.

I won't bother to do the math on this one, but it's fair to say that for the average consumer the PC market is defined by machines that cost from $200 to $1200, but is heavily weighted towards the low-end of that scale. (In fact, that $1199 Sony is the only machine in the ad that costs over $1000.) Given Microsoft's new licensing terms, in which PCs that cost under $250 will incur a much smaller cost for Windows, it's likely that prices will trend down even more.

And maybe that's OK.

There will always be people like me, and you, probably, who need a higher-end PC. We're the guys who actually use PCs to get work done, whereas much PC usage in the past was attributed to people who bought these devices because they were the only way to compute. Today, they can choose between simpler (but not always less expensive) tablets and smart phones.

In fact, they don't really need to choose. If you consider that the average consumer very rarely needs a "real" PC—perhaps to write and then print a document, do taxes, whatever—then it's reasonable to expect them to continue to use an older PC as long as possible because they rarely use it anyway; they spend more time leisurely on a tablet and/or phone. But if a PC is inexpensive enough, why not grab one for those keyboard-based productivity moments?

There are parallels for this kind of usage which map nicely to the throwaway society we have here in the United States. When we purchased our first HDTV, it was a plasma-based 720p wonder of its day that cost an expensive $1600. We purchased it at Best Buy, of course, and actually paid for an extended warranty because, you know, the thing was already so expensive. That TV died within weeks of the warranty expiration, so for HDTV #2 we purchased a bigger, superior 1080p unit for just $600 (at Costco). If that thing last two years, we'll just toss it out and buy something else. It's inexpensive enough to not worry about.

Ditto for PCs. If you were magically starting from scratch right now, you could purchase a $400 PC, a $200 mini-tablet and get a free or inexpensive smart phone (with a two-year contract, most likely, though that is changing too), and spend less—in many cases much less—than you would have on just a PC a few years ago. And then you'd have three devices that all worked well in certain situations, and could use each to its strengths.

And if that PC lasts a few years and then needs to be replaced ... so what?

In fact, I'll take this to a slightly different place and suggest that the changes in the PC market could very well effectively (but not literally) mark the end of retail versions of Windows. After all, with rare exception, very few people buy Windows in a box and then install it on a PC, an action that is, when you think about it, archaic and semi-pointless. A tradition. The Windows RT model—really, the mobile device model—where the OS comes with the device and is then upgraded electronically, may simply be the future. Your PC is out of date? Toss it, sell it, or pass it down. You only paid $250 for it, anyway. Two years ago.

To be clear, I'm talking about the mass market of consumers here. I realize that there will always be those with more complex and complicated needs. I'm in that group, too. But for average users, increasingly, the only real pull of a PC is a set of productivity scenarios that they just don't need all that often. Most people don't buy a riding mower when a normal lawn mower will do. A low-cost PC gets the job done.

That's the theory anyway. It's one I've been meaning to test out by actually buying one of these $300 wonders and seeing how such a PC really works. I may still do it.

And in case it's not clear that everything is changing, there's another little omen in today's Best Buy circular that should be a little disquieting to virtually anyone: They're selling a 7-inch Android tablet (with Google Play) for just $59. It's one of 15 (15!) tablets that are selling for under $100.

Yep. $59.

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