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Apple becomes No. 3 PC maker in US with industry-leading 21% growth

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Apple climbed to third place among U.S. PC vendors in the fourth quarter of 2011 as the rest of the top five vendors saw shipments decline year over year as part of a worldwide contraction in the PC market, according to a new analysis.

Research group Gartner released preliminary PC shipment results for the fourth quarter of 2011. According to the report, Apple saw 20.7 percent growth of Mac sales in the U.S. market from the year ago quarter, pushing it past Toshiba and Acer to take the No. 3 spot behind HP and Dell. Its estimated 2.1 million Mac shipments during the period gave it an 11.6 share of the market.

Faced with the possibility that HP would spin off its PC business, customers shied away from the world's largest PC maker in the fourth quarter, causing a 26.1 percent decline year over year. Shipments fell from 5.6 million in the last quarter of 2010 to 4.1 million in the most recent quarter. HP's new CEO Meg Whitman worked to resolve the uncertainty by announcing in October that the company would keep its PC business, but the damage appeared to have already been done.

The firm estimates second-place Dell had a 4.5 percent decline in shipments from 4.2 million in the year ago quarter to 4.0 million in the most recent quarter. Oddly enough, the company still gained market share as the overall PC market in the U.S. saw a larger decline of 5.9 percent.

Toshiba's shipments declined from 1.97 million a year ago to 1.93 in the December quarter, leaving it with 10.7 percent market share. Acer came in fifth after an 11.4 percent decline in shipments.

Credit: Gartner

Weak holiday shipments around the world resulted in a 1.4 percent decline year over year in the global PC market. Shipments totaled 92.2 million units during the most recent quarter, compared to 93.5 million last year. HP remained the No. 1 vendor worldwide, despite a 16.2 percent drop in shipments. Lenovo climbed to second place with 23 percent growth. Dell, Acer and Asus rounded out the top five PC vendors.

“While economic uncertainty in Western Europe had an effect on consumer PC shipments, expectations of a healthier economic outlook in North America could not stimulate consumer PC demand in that region," principal analyst Mikako Kitagawa said. "The healthy professional PC market as well as growth in emerging markets could not compensate for the weaknesses in mature markets, with overall growth still negative.”

Gartner attributed some of the slowdown in overall PC sales to a lack of consumer interest in Intel's new ultrabook initiative. The firm did, however, note that 2012 will be a "big debut stage" for the category, based on the range of ultrabooks on display at the Consumer Electronics Show this week.

“Ultrabooks were quietly introduced into the market during the 4Q11 holiday season,” Kitagawa said. “Ultrabooks didn’t seem to draw consumers’ attention. Consumers had very little understanding and awareness of ultrabooks, and only a small group of consumers was willing to pay the price premium for such models."

Analysts also warned that the negative impact of hard-disk drive (HDD) shortages brought about by floods in Thailand last October may not have been fully realized in the fourth quarter. They expect a "major impact" will materialize in the first half of 2012 and could potentially continue throughout the year. The shortages are expected to affect PC shipment growth during 2012.

For its part, Apple is not expected to be seriously affected by the Thailand HDD shortage. Inventory data provided to AppleInsider last month revealed few of the strains that the rest of the industry is experiencing. The growing success of the MacBook Air, which eschews an HDD in favor of a solid-state drive, has been viewed as one factor that helped Apple avoid shortages.