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Tablet buyers shift as market sag drags on

New twists on the traditional design could catch the fancy of consumers and businesses alike, says market researcher IDC.

Traditional tablet sales are dropping but hybrid devices are winning over consumers.
Xiomara Blanco/CNET

Tablet makers will surely take their glimmers of hope wherever they can find them.

To be sure, sales of tablets are continuing their long, slow decline, according to the latest figures from market researchers, but new twists on the traditional design could catch the fancy of consumers and businesses alike.

For all of 2015, worldwide tablet shipments are projected to drop to 211.3 million units, a decline of 8 percent from last year, research firm IDC said Tuesday. That full-year estimate follows consecutive quarters of falling tablet shipments stretching back to the end of 2014.

Manufacturers have responded with variations on the tablet theme intended to get you opening your wallet. More companies such as Lenovo and Dell are releasing hybrid, or 2-in-1, tablets, with attachable keyboards, while tablet titans Apple, Microsoft and Samsung in recent months have started pushing a new crop of large-screen devices.

The goal is to win over those who might otherwise buy a regular laptop or a supersized smartphone. Big-screened phones, aka phablets, have been a hit with consumers, a trend that picked up steam with the iPhone 6 line last year following the success of the generously proportioned members of Samsung's Galaxy family. Meanwhile, several generations of tablets had come and gone without giving people enough reason to replace their old ones.

That's changing with what IDC calls detachable tablets, which it expects to account for a growing portion of total shipments. With keyboards that can be attached and removed, such tablets can more easily be used for work as well as for play. Lower prices on such devices should help drive demand.

"With attractive price points, including the introduction of sub-$100 detachables, and platform innovation being driven by competition," Jean Bouchard, IDC tablet research director, said in a press release, "the detachables segment will nearly double in size in the next year

Makers of bigger-screened tablets are also trying to shake up the market. Microsoft, which has seen healthy demand for its Surface Pro lineup, recently introduced the Surface Pro 4 with a 12.3-inch screen. Apple is attempting to boost tablet sales with its new iPad Pro, which sports a 12.9-inch display. Then there's the really big contender, Samsung's Galaxy View and its 18.4-inch screen.

Microsoft and Samsung are aiming their big-screen tablets at consumers, while Apple is targeting business users and creative professionals.

"Though early reviews for the iPad Pro have been mixed, we believe the Pro to be the only reason for Apple to gain tablet market share in the coming years as they target select enterprise and prosumer audiences," Jitesh Ubrani, an IDC analyst, said in a press release.

Tablets with a screen size of 9 to 13 inches will rise to 42 percent of the worldwide market this year and then to 55 percent in 2019, putting the squeeze on the market share for tablets smaller than 9 inches, IDC said. Devices larger than 13 inches will grow from under half a percent this year to 2 percent in 2019.

All that said, tablet makers will have to reckon with a resurgence of sorts in the PC market, specifically for notebooks. Market researcher TrendForce, which also on Tuesday cited a tablet slump for 2015, expects a rise of 1 percent for notebook sales next year following a 6 percent decline this year. The change in direction will stem from the arrival of new contenders including China's Huawei and Xiaomi and from the winding down of Microsoft's offer of free upgrades to Windows 10.

"It will be difficult for large tablets to replace notebooks in short term," TrendForce analyst Anita Wang said in a statement, "because the former are priced too high, whereas low-priced notebooks are plentiful."