A slightly-smaller percentage of American families plan to buy a tablet during the holiday sales season than last year, a market research company reported today.
According to Dallas-based Parks Associates, 29% of 2,500 U.S. households surveyed said that a tablet was on their to-get gift lists, down from 32% in the same period of 2012.
But tablets remain the hot-ticket item in consumer electronics, said John Barrett, director consumer analytics at Parks -- and Apple's iPad is still the top preferred brand, repeating its position of 2012 and 2011. Amazon, which sells the Kindle, and Samsung were again in second and third place, choice-wise, while Microsoft debuted this year in the fourth spot.
Microsoft sells its own line of tablets, dubbed Surface, in several configurations, including the lower-priced Surface 2 that runs Windows RT and the more expensive Surface Pro 2, powered by Windows 8.1.
Tablets may be tops -- they're the sole item on the lists of households that plan only one consumer electronics purchase, as well as on those for families that believe they'll buy multiple devices -- but there's an undercurrent that could be long-term trouble for sellers, including Apple.
"There are some underlying dynamics, primarily a competitive tension between tablets and laptops," said Barrett in an interview. "The question is, 'Will the tablet carve out a lasting presence in the home?'"
Barrett said that Parks' data showed consumers are often undecided between tablets and more traditional personal computer laptops because, while each has strengths, each is also a compromise.
"What happens with some consumers is that they go into the store, not sure about what they want," Barrett said. "At the end of the day, those who are undecided pick a laptop." They do so, he said, because they see a notebook as more useful, albeit less convenient.
"We ask consumers about usefulness by asking them how painful it would be without a specific device," said Barrett. "Tablets don't rank as high as other devices."
Of the people polled by Parks, 69% and 61% agreed it would be "very difficult" to give up their smartphone or laptop, respectively, but only 43% said the same about their tablet.
Ideally, consumers want a true 2-in-1, a device that works equally well as a tablet one moment and a notebook the next. But they're not willing to pay a premium price to have one.
"If they can buy it for the same price as a notebook or tablet, that really changes things," said Barrett, even as he acknowledged that that's not the case now. "But I think we'll get to that point eventually."
This desire for devices that blend tablets and notebook traits should be encouraging to traditional PC makers. "There's an indication that tablets are serving a purpose right now, but there also seems to be an opportunity for PC makers, like Dell, to get a little fire back if they can capture that segment," said Barrett of 2-in-1s. "They don't want to give up quite yet."
That's not to say that tablets aren't attractive, or that they don't affect sales of traditional personal computers, particularly laptops. "They do divert a lot of would-be buyers from the laptop to the tablet category," said Barrett.
He also echoed numerous analysts who have tracked the dramatic changes in the technology and consumer electronics industries over the last two years.
"It's simply amazing how the consumer electronics space has changed," said Barrett. "Who would have thought that cell phone makers, like Nokia and Ericsson, once the leading players, would be struggling? Meanwhile, Apple is doing so well in desktops, notebooks and tablets. There's been a lot of change and it hasn't been kind to some players -- Dell is one, I think.
"The world's been turned upside down," he concluded.
Parks Associates polled 2,500 U.S. households with broadband access to the Internet in the fourth quarter for its holiday purchasing plan report.
Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, on Google+ or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His email address is email@example.com.