Tablet sales boosted by Covid-19 pandemic lockdown measures

Global sales of tablets have gone through the roof.
Global sales of tablets have gone through the roof.PHOTO: PEXELS

One of the few winners in the coronavirus-stricken economy appears to be the tablet.

Global sales of these portable touchscreen computers have gone through the roof in recent months as Covid-19 lockdown measures force users to switch to working and playing at home. In Singapore though, sales are expected to fall slightly this year.

Market research firm Strategy Analytics says global tablet shipments increased by 17 per cent year-on-year in the second quarter of the year to reach 43.3 million units - its highest growth rate in six years.

It is quite a reversal of fortune for tablets, which have lost ground to smartphones in recent years.

Mr Eric Smith, director of connected computing devices at Strategy Analytics, says: "Gaming, video streaming, and group video chat have become more popular during lockdown to cope with loneliness and boredom, giving tablets a new chance to compete for casual entertainment needs."

He adds that the current crop of tablets fit the bill as a computer for working and learning at home, and that entry-level models are good enough for school work and are cheaper than laptops, while higher-end tablets are capable of handling work tasks.

Analysts say that the rebound in global tablet sales is likely to persist for the rest of the year.

Market research firm IDC expects worldwide tablet sales to reach around 150 million units this year, up slightly from 144 million last year.

However, unlike many parts of the world, the Covid-19 pandemic has not led to an increase in tablet sales in Singapore. In fact, sales are expected to be lower this year at around 257,000 units, down from 292,000 units last year, according to market research firm Euromonitor International.

It would be a fifth straight year of declining tablet sales in Singapore, which Mr Jason Tjiptadi, a research analyst at Euromonitor International, attributes to the trend of larger smartphone screens - which reduces the need for a tablet for media consumption - and a longer replacement cycle for tablets.

Mr Ishan Dutt, an analyst at market research firm Canalys, also predicts that local tablet sales will fall this year. The demand bump for computing devices from Covid-19 in Singapore was "mostly seen in the notebook space, as service sector employees with greater computing and security needs transitioned to work-from-home", he says.

 
 

But he adds that the Government's recent move to ensure greater access to computing devices for low-income students could lead to an increase in tablet shipments through public sector channels.

Ms Powell, a product manager in her late 30s, has used Apple's iPad tablet for work, but it was not until Singapore implemented circuit breaker measures in April that she saw the need for a personal tablet.

The lockdown restrictions led to her watching more home-based workout videos. "Most YouTube videos look fine on my 6-inch smartphone, but I couldn't see the movements of my workout videos clearly on my phone," she says.

She bought her first tablet, an entry-level 8-inch model, at a sale earlier this month.

TABLETS BECOMING MORE LIKE LAPTOPS

There is a growing trend among manufacturers to make the tablet more like a full-fledged notebook.

Microsoft arguably started this trend in 2013 with the Surface Pro 3, which was marketed as a laptop replacement device with a 3:2 aspect ratio that suits office tasks, as well as a removable keyboard accessory and a stylus.

Android-powered tablets, especially premium models, have also been adding more laptop-like features over the years.

Samsung recently enhanced its DeX desktop mode - which offers users a desktop computing experience - for its latest Galaxy Tab S7 tablets, giving the mode wireless capability such that it can connect to a separate display without a cable. Huawei's latest MatePad tablets follow a similar formula with keyboard and stylus accessories and a quasi-desktop mode.

But the most notable example is last year's introduction of the iPadOS mobile operating system for the Apple iPad, which improves the tablet's multitasking ability and adds support for computer mice, trackpads and external USB storage drives.

Mr Bryan Ma, vice-president of client devices research at IDC, expects tablet makers to continue focusing on productivity, such as "improving the software ecosystem to facilitate workflows that previously were contained to a PC."

 
 

Echoing this point, Mr Dutt says: "The renewed interest in tablets due to the pandemic will help drive app developers towards the tablet form factor, particularly in the space of collaborative work and video conferencing."

However, Mr Maurice Klaehne, a research analyst at market research firm Counterpoint, says that these laptop-like features will only be seen in mid-range to high-end devices. The majority of tablets will continue to be used mainly for media consumption.

He adds that more tablets will offer cellular connectivity (4G and 5G) as an option because users are increasingly using them outside the office and home.

Looking even further ahead, the lines between tablets and laptops could be blurred when foldable displays become mainstream, says Mr Smith. He says firms like Dell, HP and Lenovo are working on various types of book-like folding computing devices that come with larger screens than smartphones. These devices would be as handy as a tablet while having a similar screen size as a laptop.

"The stylus could become more important in these types of devices, which could change our workflow and reduce paper-based notes and documents." he says.