Computer sales were so hot this past quarter, that even Apple's (NASDAQ:AAPL) projected 23% uptick in unit shipments makes it a slacker.

According to IT research specialist Gartner, domestic computer shipments rose 26.5% to 19.8 million units during the fourth quarter. It's a beefy gain, but it's also a logical bounce from the depressed final quarter of 2008 when the economy was tanking. The release of Microsoft's (NASDAQ:MSFT) Windows 7 also likely led companies to ramp up production on shiny new desktops and laptops.

The end result, according to Gartner, is that Apple's 23.3% year-over-year gain actually held back the sector. Hewlett-Packard (NYSE:HPQ), Acer, and Toshiba were the real speedsters, clocking in with unit shipment gains of 45.9%, 48.4%, and 70.7%, respectively. Toshiba's blazing ways find it passing Apple, which falls to fifth place after a fourth-place finish a year earlier. Dell (NASDAQ:DELL) is the only one of the major players to not gain market share at Apple's expense with its uninspiring 5.5% spurt.

Company

Q4 2009

Market Share

Y-O-Y Growth

HP

5.9 million

30%

45.9%

Dell

4.5 million

22.6%

5.5%

Acer

3.1 million

15.6%

48.4%

Toshiba

1.7 million

8.7%

70.7%

Apple

1.5 million

7.5%

23.3%

Others

3.1 million

15.6%

1.5%

Source: Gartner. U.S. PC shipments.

Apple isn't going to be crying over slipping a spot, if Gartner's preliminary metrics stick. There are actually several things that bear pointing out here.

  • We're talking unit shipments here, not dollar volume. PC makers have been flooding the market with sub-$500 netbooks, laptops, and even desktops. Apple's market probably looks a lot chunkier if we turn to the actual percentage of dollars being spent on Apple systems.
  • Contrary to logic, Apple's share of shipments typically slips sequentially during the holiday quarter. In terms of market share, the company rocks the house during the third quarter, given its strength in the educational market.
  • Gartner isn't the only sales trend tracker. Marketing research firm IDC predicts that Apple sales were a heartier 31% during the quarter. However, IDC also has Apple in fifth place domestically.

If anything, the Gartner report opens the door for Apple to make a dent with its inevitable tablet launch this year. If it's priced well below the company's entry-level MacBooks, Apple may actually make a dent in the explosive netbook and Windows-propelled cheap laptops markets.

Apple may have been a relative laggard, but it has nothing to be ashamed of -- and everything to be excited about in the future.

Did you buy any computers this past quarter? What did you buy -- and why? Chime in using the comments box below.

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Longtime Fool contributor Rick Munarriz has HP, Dell, and Apple computers throughout his home. He does not own shares in any of the companies in this story. He is also a member of the Rule Breakers analytical team, seeking out the next great growth stock early in its defiance. The Fool has a disclosure policy.