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Hardware vs. software: Playing the PC sales blame game

What's really to blame for the decline in laptop and desktop sales?

Sarah Tew/CNET

By now, anyone interested in the PC business has heard about the poor showing for global computer shipments in the first quarter of 2013. As noted here:

First-quarter global computer shipments dropped 14 percent from the previous year, said International Data Corp., much worse than its forecast for a 7.7 percent decline. The pullback marked the worst-ever quarter since IDC began tracking quarterly PC shipments in 1994, and it's the fourth consecutive quarter of year-over-year shipment declines.

Some were quick to blame Windows 8, which launched in October 2012, while others pointed to everything from the increasing popularity of tablets such as the iPad to skittish consumers holding onto existing hardware for a few years longer than usual (and note that the story for Mac computers may not be particularly rosy, either).

For the CNET editors responsible for laptop reviews, the big dip in sales is hardly surprising. Over the past few months, our hallway debates have centered on two big problems in the PC world: consumer confusion over Windows 8 and the lack of high-quality, must-have hardware, in the form of exciting, inventive new laptops, desktops, and hybrids.

There's no denying that PC sales look grim, at least for the first quarter of this year. Is the culprit hardware or software? The Windows 8 operating system or the uninspiring hardware it runs on?

Vote in our poll and let us know what you think in the comments section below.

The problem lies with Windows 8. You can blame manufacturers for uninspiring or confusing hardware strategies, but you need to carry that all the way to the top: Microsoft's relationship with OEMs. It's a chicken-and-egg thing; unsuccessful hardware certainly isn't driving software success, but it's clear that Windows 8 is already an OS that no one really wants to install on an old computer. That's a huge problem. Windows 8 is more annoying to use on old hardware, so many people aren't familiarizing themselves with it. If Windows 8 ends up being even a mild step back in functionality for non-touch PC users compared with the rock-solid-feeling Windows 7, then it's less likely to be used. It's fine for a touch-enabled PC, but...are you planning to buy one of those?

From years of talking to laptop shoppers, I'm convinced that most are not actively looking to avoid Windows 8 as a specific operating system. The usual methodology is to pick out a laptop with the right combination of price, design, and features, and it just comes with whatever the current version of Windows is preinstalled. So, if the right hardware were out there in the marketplace, I don't think that the fact that it has Windows 8 instead of Windows 7, Vista, or XP would be the deal breaker in a lot of buying decisions.

The big problem is that, having heard that there's a new OS, and that touch screens and tabletlike features are the future, shoppers have gone to stores only to find almost the exact same laptops as last year, just with touch screens bolted on, usually for an extra $100 or so. That doesn't feel particularly inspiring to me.

There is one excellent example of a new design out there, but even Microsoft's own take on Windows 8 hardware, the Surface Pro, hasn't caught on. The lesson: if you're dictating a sea change for computing, a clearer, cleaner product-based strategy helps. Otherwise, you get the sort of hardware mess that the Windows 8 launch has inspired. But, that's because Windows 8 tries to have its cake and eat it: a regular PC and a tablet OS, with neither one being good enough.

Once Windows 8 has a clearer idea of what it is, then maybe better products will emerge naturally. But right now, I'm not sure whether Windows 8 is an OS for laptops with a tablet element added in, or a tablet OS with a more-PC-like underpinning. Does it matter? Well, it does when apps in the "grid" mode perform very differently from apps in Desktop mode, and the two seem as separated as they do in Windows 8. There isn't necessarily a cohesive computing environment. That matters, both for apps and for influencing product design.

The Surface Pro was the best of the new Windows 8 devices, but that's largely because of its cool keyboard case -- the actual tablet was fine, but not exceptional. What we've reviewed to date shows a lack of forward thinking. Most are either old products not designed from the ground up for Windows 8, or too-clever hybrids and convertibles -- don't get me started on the slider-style laptops that look like giant slider phones -- that are awkward and hard to use in laptop mode, tablet mode, or both. It feels like these crossover devices didn't go through enough usability testing before being released (and I told ABC News essentially the same thing earlier this week).

While a couple of early Windows 8 laptops have nice designs and feel like upscale consumer products, there's not a single must-have killer product right now we can all get behind. Where's the MacBook Air/Roku/BioShock: Infinite of Windows 8 hardware? I can't blame consumers for not buying right now if their only options are uninspired retread gray boxes (basically the same ultrabooks they didn't buy last year), or awkward cash-in attempts at bolting a tablet and laptop together, Frankenstein style.