Intel (Nasdaq: INTC) should have invited Katy Perry to perform her hit "Hot n Cold" at last night's earnings party. To recap, Intel started out the last earnings season with a bang and optimistic forecasts, then cut guidance down to size in August -- only to skip right over the midpoint of their lowered bar with ease.

Its $11.1 billion of revenue and earnings of $0.52 per share represent 18% and 58% year-over-year growth, respectively. Consumer sales came in soft as expected, particularly in the Atom netbook chip segment, but strong sales of corporate-class server chips made up for that shortfall. "We continue to see healthy worldwide demand for computing products of all types," CEO Paul Otellini said.

Even the Atom line should come back strong at the end of the year thanks to the chip popping up in "everything from the new Google (Nasdaq: GOOG) TV products to a wide array of tablets based on Windows, Android, and [Intel's and Nokia's (NYSE: NOK)] MeeGo operating systems." Otellini loves the tablet category in particular, even if Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL) stole a march on everyone with the iPad tablet that doesn't feature an Intel processor.

The biggest fly in Intel's Chardonnay is an unseasonable rise in finished product inventories. It's particularly worrying to hear Otellini explain that the ramp-up of next-generation Sandy Bridge chips doesn't even factor into that balance because the products haven't been qualified for sale yet -- they're still works in progress. Furthermore, the 8% sequential rise happened despite Intel's efforts to dampen the trend; distributors and system builders are reportedly keeping lean inventories now so they don't get caught with batchfuls of unsellable chips, which is why Intel's warehouses are bulging a bit.

So we got a big bag of mixed messages out of Intel this time:

  • Next quarter will be great, but inventories of not-quite-cutting-edge chips are building too fast.
  • And this quarter wasn't as bad as we thought -- nor as great as we had hoped to begin with.

If you jump to any investing conclusions from this report, you're a brave soul. Extending these contradictory trends to how Advanced Micro Devices (NYSE: AMD), NVIDIA (Nasdaq: NVDA), and other competitors are doing would be even more gutsy.

For me, the third-quarter report didn't change my opinion of Intel one iota: The chip giant is in good shape and possibly undervalued, but not exciting enough to make me start a real-money position for myself. How do you feel? Discuss Intel's numbers in the comments below while humming "You're yes, then you're no."