Tablet sales sink, though there is one ray of sunshine

The exception to the worldwide drop are tablets that double as laptops via an attachable keyboard. Such hybrid units saw a 120 percent surge in shipments last quarter, says research firm IDC.

Lance Whitney Contributing Writer
Lance Whitney is a freelance technology writer and trainer and a former IT professional. He's written for Time, CNET, PCMag, and several other publications. He's the author of two tech books--one on Windows and another on LinkedIn.
Lance Whitney
2 min read
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Tablets as a whole have lost much of their appeal, but the ones that come with detachable keyboards are catching on with consumers.

For the first quarter of 2016, overall worldwide tablet shipments fell to 39.6 million, a 14.7 percent drop from the same period a year ago, according to preliminary data released Thursday by IDC. The research firm pinned the decline on traditional first-quarter slumps but also a lack of interest on the part of customers.

Traditional tablets, or slates as IDC dubs them, accounted for 87.6 percent of all tablet shipments. But tablets that come with detachable keyboards upped their game with shipments of more than 4.9 million units last quarter. That was a gain of 120 percent from the same period last year and an all-time high for tablets with detachable keyboards in the first quarter of any year.

Tablet demand overall has been hurt by several factors. More people are buying big-screened phones as an alternative. More tablet owners are hanging onto their devices longer or sharing them with family members. And newer tablets don't offer enough new features to entice people to upgrade.

To counteract the downturn, more manufacturers are turning to tablets with detachable keyboards that can thus serve as laptops.

"With the PC industry in decline, the detachable market stands to benefit as consumers and enterprises seek to replace their aging PCs with detachables," IDC senior research analyst Jitesh Ubrani said in a statement.

Among the top five tablet makers, Apple saw its shipments and market share drop but remained in first place. Apple's latest 9.7-inch iPad Pro and the new 256GB storage option for the 12.9-inch iPad Pro are "healthy additions" to the lineup, IDC said. Samsung also saw its shipments and market share decline. Though the Samsung Galaxy Tab lineup is still popular, its detachable TabPro S has hit a wall. IDC blames its $900 price tag.

Amazon has found success with its starting-at-$49 Fire, showing that consumers will still buy bargain-priced tablets. Missing from the list was Microsoft in spite of the popularity of its Surface Pro products, which start at $900.

"The Surface line is great," Ubrani said, "but it's tough to drive volume in the first quarter." Ubrani added that the prices of Surface products are fairly high. But fellow IDC analyst Jean Philippe Bouchard pointed out that Microsoft is in the top five list for tablets with detachable keyboards.

"The top five for tablets as a whole is a tougher nut to crack given the large slate volumes compared to detachables," Bouchard added.