Shipments were up over 34% from the industry’s low point in 2017, to 349 million units, according to preliminary data provided by IDC.
It’s a noteworthy recovery for a sector that had been written off by tech investors and operators as a sleepy field in decline as recently as a few years ago as smartphones became the most important and highest-volume product in the electronics business.
The recovery has been driven by lockdowns and the rise in remote work and learning during the Covid-19 pandemic, as households purchased new laptops and PCs for schoolchildren in virtual classes and businesses bought equipment for employees working from home.
The recovery also happened in a year that was marked by temporary shortages in PCs, especially during the fall, driven by supply constraints from a global chip shortage.
Some observers cautioned that the sales pace would not be sustainable after the pandemic ebbs. In December, for example, IDC said the market had pulled passed peak pandemic demand and forecast a slowdown in 2022.
But some market participants remain optimistic that PC sales will continue on their current trajectory.
Intel CEO Pat Gelsinger said in an October interview that he believes the PC market is on a new upward path that is sustainable. Intel is the leading maker of central processors for desktops and laptops with about 80% market share.
“We do think the PC business is now just structurally larger. [It’s a] million-unit-a-day kind of business now,” Gelsinger said.
Dell executive Rahul Tikoo echoed that sentiment, saying the pandemic has driven a permanent shift in buying behavior now that everyone needs their own PC.
“We’re going from one PC per household to one PC per person per household, which is the smartphone model,” said Tikoo, senior vice president for Dell’s Client Product Group. “I think PCs are are in the middle of transitioning to that now.”
The six largest PC companies by number of units shipped in 2021 were Lenovo, HP, Dell, Apple, Asus, and Acer, according to IDC.
Microsoft, which sells the Windows operating system used on the vast majority of PCs, is another major beneficiary of the PC boom.
Although the software giant has shifted its focus to cloud services like Azure in recent years, Windows is still a sizable business, generating $5.68 billion in sales in the third quarter, an increase of 10% from the year-earlier period.