The Skinny blog is written by Rick Smith, editor and co-founder of WRAL Tech Wire and business editor of WRAL.com.

RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, N.C. – In the world of PC statistics, the best known firms (Gartner, IDC) don’t count tablets as part of their computer sales tracking. But another research firm, Canalys, does. And in that broader statistical realm, Lenovo is NOT the world’s No. 2 PC maker.

Rather, Lenovo is No. 3 behind HP and Apple.

Should “pads” as Canalys count as PCs? The analysts will debate that, but how many owners are demanding and finding new apps to make them more useful? Pads such as the Amazon Kindle and the Barnes & Noble Nook continue to add new features. Plus, the astounding growth of tablets seems to indicate that the PC analysts will have to lump all categories together soon.

“If you look at the US, pads are approaching 40 percent of all client PC shipments,” said Canalys’ Principal Analyst Chris Jones said. “The rest of the market here was down slightly in Q1. The pad proposition for US consumers is very strong – thanks to the wider choice in content and apps – and the impact on the other categories is more severe.”

In its latest report, Canalys says HP regained the No. 1 spot from Apple after a big drop-off in iPad shipments in the first quarter. Plus, HP appears to be regaining its footing in the PC business after new CEO Meg Whitman scuttled plans to drop the whole line.

But even at No. 3, Lenovo continues to make strides with its global growth strategy of “attack and defend” – defend the home turf of China where it dominates and attack the rest of the world through acquisitions, mergers plus a slew of new, cutting-edge products.

Canalys notes that Lenovo’s shipments the first quarter with “impressive year-on-year growth of 50 percent,” Canalys said. Last month, Gartner and IDC reported a slightly smaller increase. (See details here.)

Lenovo, which maintains its executive headquarters in Morrisville, is due to report first-quarter financials in the next week or so, and based on the data from Canalys and other firms the China-born firm is likely to have another slam-dunk success. The leadership wants to be No. 1.

The “Pad” War

However, Lenovo is way behind Apple in the tablet world. And the iPads are extremely popular in China.

So in a PC-tablet world, can Lenovo still become the top player?

The Canalys statistics seem to indicate the answer is “Yes.” 

iPad sales fell to 11.8 million in the first quarter from more than 15 million to end 2011, and HP retook the combined market lead over Apple by some 40,000 machines at around 15.9 million.

Overall, the industry showed a 21 percent increase from a year earlier with “pads” up a sensational 200 percent followed by notebooks (11 percent) and desktops (8 percent), Canalys said. Only netbook shipments declined. Pads now make up 19 percent of the PC market, down from 22 percent in the fourth quarter of 2011 but still up from 7 percent a year ago.

Meanwhile, Lenovo keeps surging as its deals in Japan and Europe help grow market share there. But Lenovo is also growing in the U.S., proof coming Wednesday with the dedication of a major expansion of its distribution and service center in the Triad. Soaring demand led to the additional space, the company said.

Lenovo also has its own tablets (including a unique Yoga “flip” model – see photo) and will no doubt add more. Just a few weeks back, Lenovo did release a video about its iPad counter. Obviously, executives are not conceding pad defeat. And HP basically has already quit the tablet game.

Canalys noted that the U.S. market surged more than 30 percent with tablets leading the way. And that rising tide is lifting Lenovo.

“Most of the leading PC vendors have done a reasonable job of offsetting the declines in their netbook shipments over the past year with increased pad business,” said Canalys Research Analyst Tom Evans about the latest stats.

“Samsung and Lenovo are two that stand out in terms of substantially increasing overall volume, though Asus has performed well too. The challenge is breaking out into the really big volumes to challenge the leaders – Apple and Amazon. So far, only Samsung has shown it can routinely ship more than a million pads a quarter.”

Some other points to keep in mind about Lenovo:

1. It is the first vendor to embrace new software from Intel for computer maintenance and improved security.

2. Lenovo also is embracing Intel’s new Ivy Bridge processors, which some analysts believe will be a huge hit.

3. Microsoft’s new Windows operating system hits the market soon – and Lenovo loves Microsoft.

But despite all the factors driving Lenovo’s continuing growth, the tablet remains a big, big challenge.

[LENOVO ARCHIVE: Check out six years of Lenovo stories as reported in WRAL Tech Wire by clicking here.]