NPD: Quarterly tablet shipments decline for the first time

At a time when notebook and desktop PC sales are stagnant, industry watchers tend to think of tablets as shining stars. But for the first time since modern tablets hit the scene a few years ago, research firm NPD DisplaySearch says tablet PC shipments in the first part of the year were lower than the same period a year earlier.

NPD still thinks by year’s end more tablets will ship in 2014 than in 2013, but in the most recent quarterly report the company estimates device makers including Apple, Samsung, and Lenovo shipped about 56 million tablets, down from nearly 60 million during the first quarter of 2013.

toshiba tablets_02

There could be a few reasons for the decline. Since NPD sees a dip in 7 inch tablet sales, the company suggests that growing popularity of smartphones with 5 inch or larger screens could be eating into small tablet sales… and that could mean that 8 inch and larger tablets will see the most growth moving forward.

It’s also possible that tablets have reached the “good enough” stage, which means that a tablet you buy today is good enough that you don’t feel the need to replace it next year.

While folks in the US tend to replace their smartphones every 2 years or so, they tend to hold onto notebook or desktop computers for much longer.

If tablets are close to reaching a saturation point (everyone who wants one has one), and the existing models are good enough to hold onto indefinitely, we could start to see people replace them more like laptops than smartphones… which is good news for consumers (and the environment), but not great news for device makers — which explains why they’re already trying to come up with the next big thing in consumer electronics, which they seem to be hoping will be wearable devices including smartwatches.

For now, NPD has lowered their estimates for 2014 tablet shipments from 315 million to 285 million.

Earlier this year the analysts at IDC made a similar move, dropping their more modest estimates from 260 million to about 354 million.

Of course the distinctions between tablets and other types of computers is kind of blurry these days, thanks to a new breed of 2-in-1 devices like the Asus Transformer Book and Lenovo Yoga families of devices which can function as notebooks or tablets.

  • Michael Thompson

    I’d be willing to guess that the state of the art for the lowest tier of tablets has reached a state where actually USABLE units are hitting the streets so that consumers aren’t forced to get another one as quickly now.
    A usable device is less likely to be replaced unless you are a tech enthusiast.
    Just my guess of course…

  • grfrog2

    Or the spec bumps don’t come at the start of the year? We are about to make the jump to faster baseline standards for networking and cable connections and video codecs. I know I’m holding off for something that has enough future proofing to where being able to to replace the battery becomes an actual concern.

    • alan

      This is a year over year comparison though. Same period last year.

      • grfrog2

        Last year it was usb2, this year usb2, last year n networking, this year n networking, last year h.264 support this year h.264 support. On the cusp of upgrades on so many things that don’t change very often, Why would anyone have upgraded in the last half of year? What is available isn’t better enough.

      • pogo

        Not everyone upgrades at the same cycles. The people who last upgraded 2, 3, or more years ago may upgrade this year. Hardware that are one year apart are almost always not much different in real world scenarios. It’s been like that for a while. So sales remain at least consistent year over year.

        So I doubt the reason for the decline in sales are due to people waiting on these up and coming new technology. I’m sure most buyers don’t even look at the spec sheet or if they do, they don’t really understand it anyway. They probably buy based on the marketing they see.

  • Joe

    About that last paragraph. Do these numbers not include Windows 8 tablets? I went from iOS -> Android and now Windows 8 for my tablet purchase.

    • http://www.liliputing.com/ Brad Linder

      My point is that the conventional wisdom is that notebook sales are sluggish and tablet sales were on the rise… but it’s becoming less clear what the difference is between a tablet and a notebook actually is…

      • Jeff

        Ya but how is tablet PC defined in this report? 7″ screens seem to imply Android and iOS while 11″ could mean Windows 8 tablets as well.

        That last paragraph mentions Windows tablets so I assume it’s included. In addition to blurring the line between notebook and tablet, people sometimes don’t group Windows devices into that tablet category. I remember reports before where “tablet” sales didn’t include Windows 8.

  • http://rationaldreaming.com/ Mike

    A few random thoughts…

    Phones go through a lot more than most tablets, given that they’re taken everywhere their owners go, not to mention they’re being recharged every day. So after a couple of years, many of them are showing signs of wear and tear, operating sub-optimally, and are prime candidates for replacement. Tablets, unless the kids are playing Minecraft on them every day, will last a good deal longer in good condition, so don’t need replacing as often.

    New mobile apps aren’t putting as much pressure on the need for hardware upgrades as new applications did with PCs and video games still do. Graphically intensive mobile games on tablets are not pushing the market forward, not yet anyway. Most hardcore gamers who play mobile games tend to buy a handheld console like the PS Vita instead.

    The cloud is shouldering more and more of the processing that used to be done on the client. Editing videos, manipulating photos. storing media files, business apps, social media and communications — pretty much all cloud based for mobile apps these days. I know some people who read this website still want lots of disk space to store all their media files locally, but the truth is that most mobile users prefer streaming services these days, for music and video, so there is virtually no demand for increased storage on tablets and phones (above what is needed for the apps installed).

    Reasons for upgrading hardware of all types are getting less common. I’m coming up to two years with my current laptop and, after boosting the memory to 8GB and installing an SSD, I suspect I’m set for another two years at least. The only thing that would have me upgrading my desktop PC, which is three years old, would be if I wanted to play some of the newest games out there. Otherwise, a new SSD and I’ll be fine there too.

    Mobile companies are clearly finding it harder to find upgraded specs to excite the customer. Pixel density is reaching ludicrous proportions given the size of the screens involved. I guess 4k video will be the next big driver of home entertainment upgrades, but even then, it’s not exactly taking off quickly.

    “Good enough” seems to be the order of the day for most people (i.e. not the enthusiasts who commonly post here!). Perhaps we are reaching a stage where instead of continually replacing and upgrading our core computing devices (phone, tablet, laptop, desktop), we’re going to be adding more dedicated devices — smart watches, home automation systems, smart appliances, health monitoring systems and other wearables, etc.

  • realjjj

    There are no compelling devices in many parts of the world.
    Few decent devices and even fewer when you factor in the price.
    Most tablet makers are PC makers and they got that PC losing mentality that took decades to get to.
    They just put out the same turd at the same price and then wonder why it doesn’t sell..

  • pogo

    “everyone who wants one has one”
    I’m guessing this is likely it. Not a whole lot of people replace their devices every year be it a tablet, notebook, desktop, etc. Even smartphones aren’t replaced every year by most people. Smartphone sales have been stagnating/decling as well probably for the same reason. There are a few out there that do replace their stuff every single year even though there is hardly any noticeable improvement in real world use.

  • captain irrelevant

    I don’t know about the rest of you, but the next big thing for me is a home use 3d printer.. not wearables.

    • http://rationaldreaming.com/ Mike

      You’re going to look a little silly wearing a 3d printer around your wrist…