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Tech goes back to school

Notebooks, mice, and keyboards will be in hot demand as students head back to campus. Though handy for toting to class, netbooks will still make up a small portion of notebook sales this fall.

Erica Ogg Former Staff writer, CNET News
Erica Ogg is a CNET News reporter who covers Apple, HP, Dell, and other PC makers, as well as the consumer electronics industry. She's also one of the hosts of CNET News' Daily Podcast. In her non-work life, she's a history geek, a loyal Dodgers fan, and a mac-and-cheese connoisseur.
Erica Ogg
3 min read

Heading back to school means two things: getting back on a regular sleep schedule, and going shopping.

And consumer electronics retailers have always been particularly grateful during the season in between the Super Bowl and Black Friday for the spike in money spent at their stores during July and August every year.

Typical spending this time of year is on a computer, but as the U.S. becomes more and more saturated with PCs, the back-to-school retail boon for retailers is expected to be more modest this year than in years past.

More than 80 percent of computers purchased at retail this time of year are notebooks. Click the image for a full photo gallery.

This year there should be a 25-percent increase spread across July and early August, according to forecasts by The NPD Group. To compare, the week before the Super Bowl normally sees a 16 percent jump over the weeks before, and Black Friday alone sees a 160 percent jump.

As with previous years, the notebook is the computer of choice for most students heading back to campus. Currently, three out of every four computers sold at retail is a notebook, the rest are desktops. But it's more pronounced this time of year, when "over 80 percent" of computers sold are notebooks, according to Stephen Baker, vice president of industry analysis for The NPD Group.

And though retailers would love for shoppers to pick up cameras, GPS, and MP3 players while they're loading up for school, consumers do tend to stay focused. Printers, mice, USB sticks, external hard drives and keyboards--things that are made for use with the PC--are the other products that tend to get a back-to-school bump.

There are a few things happening this year that could prove interesting. First, there have been rumors of Apple redesigning the MacBook. It's the notebook that has a lot of cachet for college students in particular. The most sales for the season are done over Labor Day, but Apple--if it does update its signature notebook--won't do that until mid-September at the earliest.

There are also some things we won't see. Those cutesy, lightweight laptops you've been hearing about? Even though they're intended for educational applications, don't expect them to be on campus in large numbers come this fall. Though netbooks are no longer the domain of second-tier PC makers--all the big guys are making them now--Hewlett-Packard, Acer, Lenovo, and soon Dell.

"We haven't see a lot of indication that there's going to be much out there for back to school," said Baker, who tracks retail electronics sales. "Most (vendors) won't hit in big quantities until Christmas." Though models like Acer's Aspire One and HP's Mini-Note are available, they're online-only at this point.

And though it's done well at e-tailers like Amazon.com--where nine of the top 20 best-selling laptops are netbooks--online retailers are not necessarily indicative of the larger computer-buying population. "To get real industry-changing volumes, (netbooks) need to be at Best Buy, Circuit City, and Costco," said Baker.

Also, don't anticipate huge discounts on computer hardware. The average price of a Windows-based notebook sold at retail these days is $750, which hasn't changed at all from this time last year. That's because there's just not as much room for a lot of price slashing.

"There's not so much room for pricing to collapse anymore," said Baker. "We're not talking about $1,100 notebooks anymore." He's right. The margins are so thin on these that the lowest traditional notebooks can go anymore is about $399 or $499. Of course, exceptional consumer demand for netbooks could eventually change that.

Click here to view CNET's Back-to-School Gift Guide 2008.