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Windows desktops and notebooks reach near price-performance parity for Holiday 2009

By Joe Wilcox, Betanews

Historically, Windows portables sold for considerably more than desktops, while delivering less performance or features. This holiday season, prices will be closer than ever — and, aside from netbooks, there will be little significant difference in performance for price. The question: If prices are about the same, who wouldn’t buy a notebook for portability over a desktop? Further: At what point should desktops go the way of the dodo?

At U.S. retail in October, the average selling price for a Windows portable PC was 9, just more than desktops, according to NPD. A year earlier, the portable ASP was 9 and 6 for desktops. Windows desktop and portable ASPs could grow even closer, as super low-cost netbooks continue sales gains. Go back a few years and the gulf between desktops and portables is greater — as is the ASP. According to Merrill Lynch, in 2006, the portable ASP was ,160 and 5 for desktops (high Mac ASPs inflate these numbers, which are for the whole PC market not just Windows).

Comparing Cyber Monday Deals

The sales battle between Windows desktops and notebooks can be seen in so-called Cyber Monday deals offered by the same PC manufacturers — for example, two Dell systems compared at their default configurations and prices. The notebook is the Inspiron 15, which lists for 9 but Dell discounted to 9: 15.6-inch glossy display with 1366 x 768 resolution, Intel Pentium 4300 dual-core processor (2.1GHz with 1MB cache), 800MHz front-side bus, integrated Intel Graphics Media Accelerator X4500HD, 4GB DDR2 memory, 250GB SATA hard drive (5400 rpm), 8X dual-layer DVD burner, 802.11g wireless and Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit.

The Dell desktop is the Inspiron 546 MT, which lists for 7 but Dell discounted to 9: Dell IN1910N 18.5-inch external monitor with 1366 x 768 resolution, AMD Athlon II X2 215 processor (2.7GHz with 1MB cache), 800MHz front-side bus, integrated ATI Radeon HD3200 graphics, 4GB DDR2 memory, 500GB SATA hard drive (7200 rpm), 16X dual-layer DVD burner, 10/100 networking and Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit.

For price, the Inspiron 15 is slightly better and for performance the 546 MT is slightly better. Yes, the desktop comes with a larger display, but it’s VGA (not digital) and has the same screen resolution as the notebook (Trust me, most people shouldn’t want an 18.5-inch monitor with such low resolution and VGA only). Graphics accelerators are comparable as are front-side bus and system memory between the computers. The processor is faster on the desktop and the hard drive is larger. Are these big differentiators? Not at this price point, I say.

Another comparison: HP desktop and notebook offered during Best Buy’s two-day Cyber Monday sale. The notebook is the HP Pavilion dv4-1514dx, discounted by 0 to 9.99: 14.1-inch glossy display with 1280 x 800 resolution, Intel Pentium 4300 dual-core processor (2.1GHz with 1MB cache), 800MHz front-side bus, integrated Intel Graphics Media Accelerator X4500M, 4GB DDR3 memory, 250GB SATA hard drive (7200 rpm), dual-layer DVD burner, WebCam, 802.11g wireless and Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit.

The desktop is the HP Pavilion s5220y slimline PC, which Best Buy offered for 9.99 non-discounted and with no external monitor: Intel Pentium E5300 dual-core processor (2.6GHz with 2MB cache), 800MHz front-side bus, integrated Intel Graphics Media Accelerator 3100, 4GB DDR2 memory, 640GB SATA drive (7200 rpm), 12X dual-layer DVD burner, 10/100 networking and Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit.

Again, these two computers are fairly comparable, depending on which features matter more to the buyer. Graphics accelerators and memory are close enough, although faster for the notebook. The desktop has faster processor and much larger hard drive, while the laptop has 14.1-inch display, WebCam and HDMI port.

PC ASPs 10-09

The point: At the prices where most U.S. consumers will shop for a Windows desktop or laptop, price is no longer major differentiator or inhibitor. As prices close together, holiday shoppers will choose more based on function, such as portability versus larger display.

Similarities at Higher Prices

Some Betanews readers will ask what about computers selling for more, which is a good question. I wouldn’t buy any of these four systems, nor would I recommend them. Low as the prices seem to be, the value for buck is marginal at best. All four Windows PCs come with underpowered graphics accelerators for today’s demanding digital media content creation or consumption needs. Nor am I swooning with excitement about the AMD or Intel processors. Considering that most shoppers will have at least one computer at home, they should reasonably expect to get something better for their bucks spent. So, I will do another desktop-notebook comparison at higher selling prices.

SonyStyle store raises features and price into the 0 range. The Sony notebook is the VAIO VPCCW13FX/R, which is sold non-discounted for 9.99: 14-inch LED glossy display with 1366 x 768 resolution, Intel Core 2 Duo T6600 processor (2.2GHz with 2MB cache), 800MHz front-side bus, 256MB dedicated nVidia GeForce G210M graphics, 4GB DDR3 memory, 320GB SATA hard drive (5400 rpm), dual-layer DVD burner, 802.11n wireless, Bluetooth and Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit.

The Sony desktop is the VAIO VGCJS410F/S all-in-one PC, which is listed as backordered and non-discounted for 9.99: Built-in 20.1-inch monitor with 1680 x 1050 resolution, Intel Pentium E5400 processor (2.7GHz with 2MB cache), 800MHz front-side bus, Intel Graphics Media Accelerator X4500HD, 4GB DDR2 memory, 320GB SATA hard drive (7400 rpm), dual-layer DVD burner, WebCam, 802.11n wireless, 10/100/1000 networking and Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit.

Once again, the systems are fairly comparable, depending on which features matter more to the buyer. The processors should deliver reasonably similar performance because of differences beyond clock speed. The notebook has better graphics accelerator and faster memory. The desktop packs a much larger and higher resolution display and faster hard drive.

Not long ago, Windows desktops packed more features and performance for much lower selling price than notebooks. But as prices have fallen and closed together, so have the features and performance gaps diminished. No doubt, some Betanews readers will write in comments about quad-core systems that cost a little more than portables packing less performance or features. I will concede that you can find them. The point here is what the average — not necessarily the most sophisticated — computer shoppers will see at retail.

All six of these computers share one feature in common: Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit. There is no differentiation in operating system. During Holiday 2008, Windows Vista 64-bit differentiated higher-cost portables from cheaper laptops. This year, 64-bit Windows is standard across most price points.

I have to ask: What’s your dream desktop, laptop or netbook this holiday? Please answer in comments.

Copyright Betanews, Inc. 2009

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