Confused over what tablet to buy? Join the crowd

As tablet sales slow, marketing focus moves beyond early adopters and techies

Tablet sales are slowing, forcing sellers and potential buyers alike to confront confusion over which device to buy.

Consumers and workers, and even IT managers, who make tablet-buying recommendations for students and work groups, face a range of complex decisions: Do I buy a hybrid device -- a tablet that also runs as a notebook -- or a cheap Chromebook laptop? If it's a true tablet, should it be a small one, with a 7-in. display that can cost as little as $150, or a large one, with a 12.2-in. screen that can cost $800 or more? Does it need a physical keyboard separate from the onscreen virtual keyboard?

"There is confusion about where do I put my money," said Carolina Milanesi, an analyst at Kantar Worldpanel, in an interview. Part of the problem is that vendors are marketing many tablets as having the ability to "do everything," she said.

That vendor pitch applies to tablets marketed for users who want to consume content, like e-books and movies, while also being able to create content, including photos and videos to show to friends or for work presentations, as well as typing or dictating (in speech- to- text programs) longer essays or reports.

Milanesi called on tablet vendors to "improve their messaging around the value of owning and using a tablet," especially as the focus moves beyond early adopters to mainstream buyers.

That improved messaging also needs to go back to basics, Milanesi said. For example, a low-cost tablet with a 7-in. display generally makes the most sense for consuming content, while a tablet with a 12-in. screen is better for typing, even on a virtual keyboard, because there's enough room to see both the keyboard and the content at once, she said. Obviously, there are many other preferences to consider before choosing a tablet, many of which early adopters have already wrestled with, such as price, storage capability, battery life, screen resolution and camera.

Kantar and other analyst firms have noticed that since the first-generation iPad arrived in 2010, many early adopters, who tend to be more technically proficient, bought up the tablets. However, these early adopters, especially those in the U.S. and other developed countries, haven't seen much need to replace their tablets.

In the U.S., tablets of all brands are owned by 37% of Americans, Kantar said in December. Now vendors' focus has shifted to finding ways to get mainstream consumers, the remaining 63% of Americans, to buy a tablet. That task has become increasingly difficult, Kantar said.

Separately, analyst firm IDC reported in early March a decline in the growth rate of tablet sales globally to 19.4% in 2014, down from 51.6% in 2013. IDC projects 260.9 million tablets will ship to retailers in 2014, including 2-in-1 devices.

Kantar on Wednesday released the results of a survey of U.S. consumers conducted in the fourth quarter of 2013 which found that 34% of respondents were unsure if they would buy a tablet in the next year, while another 53% said they definitely wouldn't buy a tablet.

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