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Netbooks dominated PC sales in the United States in the first quarter, driving down average selling prices and pushing Dell from its No. 1 market share position. Gartner, which released its first-quarter PC market share report April 15, says HP rose to claim the top spot in the United States in the first quarter for the first time since 2001, and its dominance can be partially attributed to the HP’s improving channel programs.

Early indications show that the PC industry may be close to reaching bottom, something that processor maker Intel’s CEO Paul Otellini told analysts April 14. But research company Gartner said April 15 that it was still unclear if the bottom had been reached.

“We are seeing some evidence of channel inventory restocking, particularly in the U.S.,” says George Shiffler, an analyst at Gartner, in the company’s report on first-quarter PC shipments. “This restocking should not be interpreted as a recovery in PC end-user demand; it’s still unclear if the global PC market has hit bottom.”

Click here for IDC’s PC market share numbers

Gartner says worldwide PC shipments totaled 67.2 million units in the first quarter of 2009, a 6.5 percent decline versus the first quarter of 2008. The U.S. market fared much better, with PC shipments totaling 15.3 million units in the first quarter of 2009, a 0.3 percent decline versus the first quarter of 2008.

Shipments were stronger than expected due to brisk sales of netbooks. However, while the popularity of netbooks may be boosting unit sales, Gartner notes that the low-priced mini-notebooks are driving down average selling prices and they remain primarily a consumer play. The business market did not show the same strength in the first quarter.

“Low-priced mobile PCs led market growth in the U.S. Mini notebooks did well in the challenging economic environment where consumers’ number one priority was to save money,” says Mikako Kitagawa, a principal analyst at Gartner, in the report. “Mini notebooks continued to put pressure on low-priced mobile PCs. This pressure was mainly felt in the consumer market, but it expanded into select professional markets as well, including the education segment. U.S. mobile PC ASP likely will decline as much as 20 percent year-over-year in first quarter 2009.”

Gartner’s market share numbers generally agree with another report released by rival research firm IDC April 15.

Hewlett-Packard extended its lead in the worldwide PC market, according to Gartner, accounting for 19.8 percent of global shipments in first quarter 2009. HP registered higher growth rates than the regional averages in the United States, Asia/Pacific, and EMEA (Europe, Middle East and Africa), Gartner notes, driven by its consumer portfolio, including netbooks.

Dell and Acer finished the quarter neck and neck for the No. 2 position in the worldwide PC market, separated by just 0.1 percent, according to Gartner. Dell’s performance on market share was generally hurt by its focus on the professional market, while Acer experienced a significant shipment increase fueled by netbook sales in EMEA and the United States.

“Low-priced mobile PCs continued to be the growth driver for the PC industry in most regions,” says Mikako Kitagawa, principal analyst at Gartner, in the report. “However, we anticipate a sharp decline in industry revenues due to the lower average selling prices of these devices.”

PC Shipments in the United States 

Gartner says that in the United States, HP’s PC market share grew to 27.1 percent in the first quarter from 24.8 percent the same period a year ago, while Dell’s market share dropped to 26.2 percent from 31.2 percent during the same period last year. Acer also registered gains, growing its market share to 13.6 percent, compared with 9.1 percent during the same period last year. Apple’s market share remained relatively flat at 7.4 percent in the first quarter of this year, compared with 7.5 percent during the same period a year ago.

The shift marked the first time HP had reclaimed the No. 1 market share position since 2001. Gartner says HP’s improved channel programs helped HP to increase its share in the professional market, while its strong portfolio of low-priced consumer mobile PCs helped drive HP’s growth in the U.S. home market.

Gartner says Dell was hurt by a competitive retail market and the weak U.S. professional market, pushing the company to the No. 2 position in the overall U.S. market.

Meanwhile, Acer’s strong growth was fueled by low-priced mobile PCs and its solid presence in the retail space, as well as in channels, according to Gartner.

As far as Apple is concerned, Gartner says the company’s relatively higher ASPs (average selling prices) created challenges for it in the tough economy, but that the company’s careful eye to inventories limited its shipment decline.