Not immune to sluggish sales, Apple sold about the same number of Macs in 2012's fourth quarter as it did during the year-earlier period, research firm IDC has estimated.
IDC projected Mac sales in the U.S. last quarter at 2.03 million, down slightly from the 2.06 million during the third quarter and essentially the same as the fourth quarter of 2011.
Rival Gartner was slightly more optimistic, forecasting Mac sales of 2.15 million, higher than either the third quarter's 2.08 million or the 2.04 million of 2011's fourth quarter. By Gartner's forecast, Mac sales increased 5.4% year-over-year.
But IDC and Gartner agreed on one thing: Apple did better than the U.S. PC industry average.
"The limited amount of dollars had an effect on all devices," said Jay Chou, an analyst with IDC, "but it was more pronounced on PCs." IDC said total U.S. computer sales fell 4.5% in the fourth quarter compared to the same period in 2011.
Analysts have cast a wide net to explain the downturn in PC sales, blaming everything from fragile economies to a rejection of Windows 8. Last week, IDC said the global sales decline was due to shortages of touch-enabled PCs, while on Monday Gartner pointed to a "structural shift" from PC purchases toward tablets.
The experts had almost as many explanations for Apple's relative success.
Chou argued that Apple's "halo effect" -- the term when one product from a company helps sell others -- was still shiny, and should receive some of the credit for the Mac's performance. "The launch of the iPhone 5 and iPad Mini created awareness and brought traffic into Apple's stores," said Chou, noting the company's ability to get customers in the door, whether to shop or seek out service.
Gartner analyst Mikako Kitagawa had a different explanation for the Mac's stronger sales showing, one that may make Microsoft cringe.
"The fourth quarter is always strong for Apple among SMBs, really more like self-employed professionals," said Kitagawa. Some of those buyers, she believed, were nudged to the Mac because they were dissatisfied with Windows 8 -- too tilted toward consumers -- and were unable to find Windows 7 Professional-powered notebooks.
Chou echoed Kitagawa, pointing out that unlike Microsoft and its Windows 8 stress on touch, Apple markets computers differently than tablets. "Apple takes pain to differentiate their laptops from their tablets. There's no touch-enabled MacBook Air, for example," said Chou. "So in that respect, they clearly are playing to a different dynamic."
Of course, Macs remained a small minority of all personal computer sales. By IDC's reckoning, Apple's machines accounted for only 11.4% of the market during 2012.
And while Apple at least matched 2011's numbers, not all is rosy in Cupertino. Striking out in the fourth quarter, when Mac sales traditionally climb, was a troubling sign.
"This isn't really great news for Apple," Kitagawa said of her sales estimates. "It's not so fantastic for them this year. [The final numbers] could be close to flat."
Apple will disclose its fourth-quarter Mac sales numbers Jan. 23 during an earnings call with Wall Street analysts.
Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.