IFA 2014: Device Makers Rally Behind Cheap Windows PCs, Tablets

IFA 2014: Device Makers Rally Behind Cheap Windows PCs, Tablets

Brace yourself for a new race to the bottom

With Chromebooks eating away at low-end PCs and cheap Android tablets gobbling up that market, Microsoft went with the nuclear option earlier this year and made Windows available for free—excuse me, for "zero dollars"—to device makers. And now they're responding in kind, by announcing wave after wave of cheap Windows devices that will ship to consumers this holiday season.

What's amazing about this, really, is that we already have fairly inexpensive PCs and tablets. I literally just wrote about a $249 PC in Acer Aspire E 15 First Impressions, and of course there are many alternatives out there from rival PC makers. And the market for low-end Windows tablets is likewise healthy, with many options in the $199 to $249 range. How low do we need to go?

Quite low, as it turns out.

Chromebooks currently start at about $199, though I suspect the average selling price (ASP) is closer to $299. These products aren't just about price, however: Chromebooks are marketed as being simpler than Windows PCs, which is certainly accurate enough. Until recently, Microsoft has pushed the notion that Windows PCs can do more than Chromebooks—also accurate—but with over 1 million Chromebooks sold in the most recent quarter, mostly to schools, it's clear that Microsoft and its partners needed to do more.

So now Windows laptops will compete in new ways. That is, they won't just meet Chromebook pricing. They'll often be cheaper. And they won't be giant, 15-inch hulking devices like Acer Aspire E 15. Many of these newly announced devices are small, thin, and light too. Desirable, in other words, and not just pragmatic work boxes.

On the tablet front, we're starting to see really low-end Android tablets just north of $100, though I suspect the mainstream of the 7-inch models is closer to $200. Certainly there is tremendous choice in the $200 to $300 range. Here, Microsoft's partners will be offering Windows-based tablets that start at the low, low price of $120, and when you consider that Windows-based tablets actually do less than Android tablets, getting the pricing right is in fact a big deal.

Here are a few of the announcements we're seeing at the IFA 2014 industry show in Germany this week.

Acer Tab 8 W. Starting at just $149, the Acer Iconia 8 W is a new take on the original Windows mini-tablet, with an 8-inch 1280 x 800 screen, a newly thin and light form factor, a quad-core Intel Atom processor, and an optional Acer Crunch Keyboard. It will ship in November.

Toshiba Encore Mini. This 7-inch mini-tablet starts at just $119.99 and features a 7-inch screen with a weird and low resolution of 1024 x 600. It's backed by an Intel Atom processor, of course, 1 GB of RAM and 16 GB of onboard storage (with microSD) expansion. So it's not a barn burner. But did I mention it cost only $119.99? No? How about this little enticement then: It also provides a free one-year subscription to Office 365 Personal, a $69.99 value, which of course provides 1 TB of additional OneDrive storage. The best part: It is available for purchase right now.

ASUS EeeBook X205. This 11.6-inch laptop costs just $199 and provides a quad-core Intel Atom processor, InstantGo (formerly Connected Standby) instant resume, 8 hours of battery life, and a large touch gesture trackpad. It ships in November in four colors: black, white, gold, and red.

Acer Aspire Switch 10 and 11. The Acer Aspire Switch products are 2-in-1 notebook PCs (really transforming PCs) that offer four usage modes—touch, typing, viewing, and sharing—and feature removable 10.1 and 11.6-inch HD IPS screens, respectively. The Acer Aspire Switch 10 series starts at just $329.99, and the 11 series starts at $399.99, and while the base units provide 1366 x 768 resolution screens, 1080p is an option on both.

In addition to these low-end devices, hardware makers are of course launching higher-end PCs and tablets, and stay tuned for some exciting developments from Microsoft's devices group, which I'll be writing about as soon as I get the OK. It's going to be a big week for Windows hardware, so stay tuned for more.

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