PC Sales Rise, Notably for Apple and Google

Couple working on laptops at home

Despite the ongoing hype about tablets and smartphones, people are warming up to laptops and desktops again. Industry tracker NPD Group offered up an encouraging report as part of its tracking service last week, showing that U.S. consumer retail PC sales increased 3 percent during the back-to-school period -- measuring the 10 weeks through Labor Day week -- relative to last year.

It's a welcome bounce for an industry that seemed to have been left for dead in the wake of the mobile computing boom. Consumers flocking to smartphones and tablets had become less interested in standalone laptop and desktop computers. After all, if all you're using your machine for is checking email, surfing the Web, running cloud-based programs and playing casual games, does it make sense to buy a bulky desktop or fragile laptop? If someone's computing needs can be satisfied with the smartphone that they already own or a lightweight tablet that's as little as $100, the choice is pretty clear.

The tide appears to be turning. Smartphone sales are still going strong, but their sales growth is decelerating. The news is even more alarming on the tablet front, where sales of Apple's (AAPL) iconic iPad are starting to slide.

Some Things Don't Compute

That top line number, though, doesn't mean that all PCs are storming back. We're definitely seeing Macs making a comeback. Mac OS-based products saw their sales spike 14 percent during the back-to-school season since last summer. This isn't a surprise. Mac sales grew faster than Apple's iPhone sales in its most recent quarter, more than offsetting declines in its iPad and iPod product lines. Mac sales growth earlier this year was primarily the handiwork of strong international gains, but the platform's starting to experience a renaissance closer to home.

We're also seeing Google's (GOOG) Chrome gaining ground as an operating system. Chromebooks experienced a 37 percent spike in sales. This also isn't a surprise. Chromebooks lean on Chrome's Web-based interface and Google's suite of cloud-based productivity apps to provide a nearly complete computing experience. With Chromebooks going for as little as $199 -- the eight best-selling Chromebooks on Amazon.com are all below $300 -- they've been popular among value-minded customers who prefer an attached keyboard to purchasing tablet input accessories.

However, the tailwinds that have benefited Macs and Chromebooks haven't been as kind to machine that run Microsoft's (MSFT) Windows. NPD Group is reporting that Windows devices declined 3 percent in overall sales. The silver lining there is that Windows notebook units are actually inching slightly higher; they're just selling at lower prices to compete with the dirt-cheap Chromebooks that are flooding the market.

What About Dell and Hewlett-Packard?

The rebirth of the PC may have come at a terrible time for Dell's former public investors. Dell went private in a $25 billion buyout late last year at a bargain-basement price, after its purchaser persuaded retail and institutional investors to cash out based on the fundamentals of its decaying industry.

Things aren't perfect. Analysts see Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) -- Dell's rival and the world's largest PC supplier -- posting a marginal dip in revenue this fiscal year and again in fiscal 2015. Prices have been dropping, and even market darling Apple is seeing the average selling price of its Macs heading lower.
The PC is back, but the turnaround has been slow and it's still susceptible to a rebound in tablets or any potentially disruptive product category.

Motley Fool contributor Rick Munarriz has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Apple and Google (A and C shares). The Motley Fool owns shares of Apple, Google (A and C shares), and Microsoft. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. Check out our free report on the Apple Watch to learn where the real money is to be made for early investors.