Is Apple now the PC leader? Depends on your definition of PC

iPad? That's a PC. iPad Mini? That's a PC. Amazon Kindle? Oh, you better believe that's a PC, according to Canalys

While research companies including IDC and Gartner deemed HP the PC leader for Q4 2012, Canalys has a different perspective. The analyst firm has declared Apple the top PC vendor for the past quarter, thanks in part to the booming success of the iPad and the iPad Mini. Amazon, too, now beats out the likes of Acer and Asus as a leading PC vendors, having shipped 4.6 million Kindles in Q4.

Canalys didn't explicitly define PC in its announcement, but the company clearly is lumping in tablets large and small alongside desktops, laptops, and notebooks. By contrast, IDC defines PC as "desktops, portables, mini notebooks, and workstations" but not "handhelds, x86 servers, and tablets (i.e. iPad and Android-based tablets)." Gartner includes "desk-based PCs and mobile PCs, including mini-notebooks but not media tablets such as the iPad" in its PC categorization.

All three companies do base their quarterly PC-vendor rankings on shipments, not sales (which, as observed by InfoWorld's Woody Leonhard, is an important distinction: Just because a company shipped a gazillion PCs in a given quarter doesn't mean it sold that many.

Now on to the numbers: Apple, Canalys' said, was the PC leader for the quarter with 27 million shipped units, giving the company a market share of 20 percent for the first time. Canalys didn't break out total iPad shipments vs. total Mac shipments; it did, however, note that more than half of the iPads shipped were of the mini variety.

"Apple timed the launch of the iPad Mini well," said Canalys Research Analyst Pin-Chen Tang. "Its success proves there is a clear demand for pads with smaller screens at a more affordable price. Without the launch, Apple would surely have lost more ground to its competitors."

That lost ground refers to Apple seeing its tablet share dip to 49 percent, per Canalys, marking Q4 2012 as the first quarter that Apple did not control more than half of the tablet market. IDC similarly saw Apple's tablet market share dwindle in Q4.

Neither Gartner nor IDC had Apple ranked among their respective top five worldwide PC vendors for the quarter (again, because they don't count tablets as PCs) -- though both research firms ranked Apple third for PC shipments in the United States.

HP, by Canalys' reckoning, ended the quarter with the second-highest number of worldwide PC shipments at 15 million, representing 11 percente of the PC market. (IDC also pegged HP's PC shipments at around 15 million.) Lenovo, meanwhile, shipped just 200,000 fewer PCs than did HP, per Canalys.

By shipping 11.7 million PCs (7.6 million of which were tablets), Samsung launched itself into the fourth-place slot among Canalys' list of top PC vendors. Canalys attributed Samsung's high rate of tablet shipments -- a year-over-year increase of 226 percent -- to the company's "ability to push products down into lower price bands." Like Apple, Samsung didn't make IDC's nor Gartner's top 5 list of worldwide PC vendors, nor did it crack the top five in the U.S. market.

Trailing Samsung on Canalys' list was Dell, which shipped only 9.7 million units for the quarter, a 19 percent decline on 2011. The company ranked third on both IDC's and Gartner's top five lists of worldwide PC vendors for the quarter.

Rounding out Canalys' ranking is none other than Amazon, "whose worldwide shipments grew 18 percent to 4.6 million units, as it expanded the Kindle Fire range and launched in markets outside the United States," according to the research company.

Amazon didn't make it onto IDC's or Gartner's top PC vendors lists: Both companies pegged Acer in the No. 4 slot and Asus in the No. 5 slot.

Though Canalys made no mention of Acer and Asus, it did note that Microsoft shipped just 720,000 of Surface tablets in Q4. (IDC pegged the number at 900,000.) "The outlook for Windows RT appears bleak. Hardware OEMs are ignoring it due, in part, to a pricing strategy that does not align with the economics of the pad market," said Tim Coulling, senior analyst at Canalys. "We expect Microsoft to rethink its pricing strategy for RT in the coming weeks. Dropping the price by 60 percent should get OEMs back onside."

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