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The Associated Press

SEATTLE – Worldwide shipments of personal computers edged back up in the third quarter, according to researchers, a promising sign for the industry as it heads into the holiday shopping season.

Last year’s holiday quarter was the worst in about six years, and PC shipments declined in the first half of 2009 as the recession inhibited spending by consumers and businesses.

On Wednesday, however, analysts at research group from the same period of last year, as consumers kept buying the low-cost laptops and tiny netbooks that have been the bright spot in the industry.

The third-quarter uptick should have little impact on holiday bargains, because those pricing decisions have already been made, said IDC analyst Bob O’Donnell.

While computer makers may not have been banking on blockbuster sales, they did expect the second half of the year to be better than the first. That could mean fewer bargains for consumers than last year. However, average PC prices have dropped dramatically in the last few years, which could make deep seasonal discounts less critical.

Framingham, Mass.-based IDC was expecting shipments to fall nearly 3 percent in the third quarter, and many technology companies have been muted in their expectations for 2009.

One notable exception has been Intel Corp. and its CEO Paul Otellini, who proclaimed in April that the PC market had hit bottom and said in September that the industry was turning around fast and could even post growth for the year. On Tuesday, Intel issued a better-than-expected sales outlook for 2009.

Wednesday’s reports from IDC and Gartner Inc. give Otellini’s bullish position more weight. IDC said a robust back-to-school shopping season and ahead-of-schedule government spending in China and Taiwan helped drive the surprise results.

Such growth just ahead of the Oct. 22 launch of Microsoft Corp.’s new PC operating system, Windows 7, bodes well for the fourth quarter and next year, IDC said. The analysts expect to see more businesses replacing aging PCs in the middle of next year.

"Despite the ongoing mix of gloom and caution on the economic front, the PC market continues to rebound quickly," Loren Loverde of IDC said in a statement.

Gartner said Gartner and IDC numbers differ because the groups use slightly different methods for their calculations.

Hewlett-Packard Co. held its spot as the world’s biggest computer maker. Taiwan’s Acer Inc. unseated Dell Inc. at No. 2.

Like HP, Acer is prominent in retail stores, and has done more deals with wireless carriers to subsidize netbooks. Since consumers led the spending in the quarter, HP and Acer benefited while Dell, which is more reliant on corporations, lagged.

But in a statement, Gartner analyst Mikako Kitagawa cautioned that rising shipments and gains in market share aren’t predictors of financial success, because the most popular products among consumers are inexpensive, and less profitable for PC makers.

"Revenues and margin performance are key to surviving in a very competitive market," she said.

Morrisville, NN.C.-based Lenovo Group Ltd. and Japan’s Toshiba Corp. rounded out the top five, according to both IDC and Gartner.
In the U.S., IDC said HP took back the No. 1 spot from Dell, though just barely. Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner said Dell remained at the top in the U.S. by the same margin of half-a-percent of market share.

Acer, Apple Inc. and Toshiba were the third, fourth and fifth-largest PC companies in terms of U.S. shipments, according to both groups.