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.
Of those who were unsure, 67% said they know very little about tablets. Also, 47% said the price of tablets is too high and 16% said they were unsure about not having a physical keyboard.
The average amount spent on a tablet in the U.S. in the fourth quarter of 2013 was $300, down from $326 a year earlier. Milanesi said that for mainstream consumers, "tablets are still a nice to have and not a must have." While the Kantar survey addressed consumers, Milanesi said the same findings can be applied to workers who buy tablets to potentially use both at home and at work and can help inform IT managers making tablet recommendations for schools, companies or other organizations.
"There are a lot of tablet choices out there, affecting consumers as well as IT," she said. "But people are looking at the size of a tablet and not necessarily at its overall usability." For instance, it might be more important to have a touchscreen-only tablet that costs less if the user is primarily a child. A large screen with a virtual keyboard, on the other hand, will matter more for work productivity in many jobs.
Of the 53% who don't plan to buy a tablet in the next year, fully 72% said they were happy with their current laptop or PC, while 25% said tablets were too expensive and 20% wanted a physical keyboard.
That 20% figure for those wanting a physical keyboard was lower than many might expect, Kantar said, since not having a keyboard is generally considered a major factor for why people reject tablets.
But Milanesi argued that the virtual keyboard can be enough for serious work tasks.
"Even for people that use a tablet a lot for serious work -- say, to write an essay -- they might say they need to go back to a physical keyboard, but the real question is if the tablet has enough screen real estate to see the keyboard and the content being worked on," she said. "So it's not just physical keyboard or virtual, but how much real estate the virtual keyboard gets."
Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed. His email address is email@example.com.