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The growing popularity of netbooks may have saved sales of personal computers—desktops and notebooks—from falling off a cliff in the first quarter. While global demand for PCs dropped 7.1 percent in the first three months of the year, netbook sales remain strong and on track to double this year, according to IDC.

Demand for PCs in the United States was stronger than the rest of the world. Domestic PC sales fell only 3.1 percent, compared with 6.5 percent in comparable markets, according to industry research company Gartner.

For more on Gartner’s PC market numbers, click here.

"The U.S. was surprisingly strong, it outperformed our forecast," said IDC Vice President Bob O’Donnell, calling the numbers a positive sign for the overall market. "The fact that the U.S. outperformed the worldwide totals is I think somewhat hopeful."

Solution providers weren’t bullish on PC sales this year. In the Channel Insider 2009 Market Pulse Report, only 12 percent of solution providers and VARs said that they had demand from their customers for desktops, notebooks and handheld computers.

While analysts say the PC sales numbers could have been worse, the news isn’t good for Dell, which continues to lose ground to rival Hewlett-Packard.

According to IDC, HP is the undisputed global market leader in PC sales, officially knocking out Dell from the top spot. HP’s global PC shipments increased 2.9 percent in the first quarter and its total market share is 20.5 percent.

Conversely, Dell’s quarterly unit sales dropped 16.7 percent under the pressure of weaker enterprise PC demand.

Worse for Dell is surging Acer, which saw its global sales grow. Acer is now the third largest PC maker in the world with a market share of  11.6 percent. Dell’s global market share is 13.6 percent, according to IDC.

The quarterly PC sales report comes just days after Intel stated that it appeared the weak PC market had bottomed out and may be on the mend. Gartner reports that inventories are rising in distribution and reseller channels, and that could signal the beginning of a recovery.

"It’s still unclear if the global PC market has hit the bottom," said Gartner research director George Shiffler in a release.