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Monday, March 16, 2009, 11:00 am PT (02:00 pm ET)

Mac sales fell 16% in February ahead of desktop refresh

Apple saw double-digit declines in Mac unit sales last month but is nonetheless seen in good shape to pull off a March quarter that's fairly in-line with current Street estimates thanks to accelerated shipments of new desktop models this month.

NPD data released Monday shows Mac sales for the month of February fell 16% when compared to February of 2008. Gene Munster, an analyst with Piper Jaffray, analyzed the data alongside tepid results from January and his expectations for March.

His conclusion: Apple will still manage to sell 2.0 to 2.2 million Macs for the combined period of January through March, which would represent yearly Mac unit growth of anywhere from -13% to -4%, or a rate that's likely to fall in line to slightly behind Wall Street's average expectations of -4% growth. Apple shipped 2.289 million Macs last March quarter.

"[We] note that year-over-year Mac performance faced a tough comp in the month of February 2009 due to the February 2008 MacBook Air launch," the analyst told clients in a research note. "That said, we expect Mac NPD data to rebound in the month of March due to the shipment of new iMacs, Mac minis, and Mac Pros in early March."

Therefore, Munster believes the data should be "perceived as a neutral or a slight positive" given the uncertainty surrounding the March quarter due to a pullback in consumer spending that's resulted from the grim state of the global economy.

Following a trend similar to that of the Mac line, iPod shipments also fell 16% year-over-year during the month of February, according to NPD. After applying some analytics, Munster said he believes combined March quarter shipments will come in anywhere from 9.0 to 10.0 million units, compared to Street expectations of 9.5 million units.

"This range implies year-over-year iPod unit growth of -15% to -6% vs. the Street at-11% year-over-year," he wrote. "Given concerns regarding iPod weakness, we believe the segment's in-line performance relative to Street expectations is a positive."

The analyst appears to have weighed a portion of his quarterly expectations for full-quarter iPod sales on expectations that "shipment of new iPod shuffles, announced on 3/11, will likely drive improvement in the data in the month of March."

Piper Jaffray maintained its Buy rating and $180 price target on shares of Apple.