It has been a difficult run for Gateway (NYSE:GTW), despite acquiring eMachines two years ago to help fortify its position as the country's third-largest seller of personal computers (in terms of units sold). And now that the stock is trading 15% lower, winning the bronze is a small consolation. The company posted fourth-quarter profits of $0.04 a share before favorable one-time charges on $1.12 billion in sales. That came a little lighter than analysts had been expecting on the top and bottom lines.

The company's report was a mixed bag; strength in its retail business was offset by declines in its corporate and direct-selling operations. The company moved nearly 1.4 million units during the December quarter, a 13% improvement from last year's showing, but it did so on weaker gross margins. This is the sixth consecutive quarterly profit for Gateway, but it comes after the company had scored 10 straight quarters in the red.

In this race, the $3.9 billion in sales that Gateway ultimately recorded for 2005 is still a distant third to front-runners Dell (NASDAQ:DELL) and Hewlett-Packard (NYSE:HPQ). In fact, Gateway may not even really deserve third; even though Apple Computer (NASDAQ:AAPL) sold less than 1.3 million Macs this past quarter, it did so at higher selling prices. Apple rang up $1.7 billion in desktop and portable computers for the period.

All this doesn't mean that investors should forget about Gateway. The company closed out the period with $1.42 a share in cash, or more than half of the company's current market cap. Thanks to this morning's tumble, Gateway can be bought for about a buck a share over the greenery on its balance sheet. That may prove tempting, especially since the company has been consistently profitable since the third quarter of 2004.

That value may win over a new crowd of turnaround investors, or it may invite Dell or Hewlett-Packard to pad their market lead by acquiring a huffing and puffing Gateway. Either way, Gateway is still a legitimate player on the thrifty-minded retail front -- even if it really should be mailing that bronze medal out to Cupertino.

Dell is a Stock Advisor pick.

Longtime Fool contributor Rick Munarriz does have a pair of Gateways in his house, though he favors working on his HP computer and Dell monitor. He does not own shares in any of the companies mentioned in this story. The Fool has a disclosure policy . He is also part of the Rule Breakers newsletter research team, seeking out tomorrow's ultimate growth stocks a day early.