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Apple shares barrel past $50 on iPod juice

A small bite of Apple has become a mouthful--the iPod has helped the stock double since January.

Apple Computer's stock has continued to soar along with sales of its iPod digital music player, topping $50 a share for the first time in four years.

The stock, which has doubled since January, has risen 25 percent just this month. The latest spike followed Apple's Oct. 13 announcement that it had sold 2 million iPods in the past quarter. Shares continued to climb following Tuesday's announcement of the iPod Photo, which is arriving just in time for the all-important holiday shopping season.

Apple's share gain is in sharp contrast to the performance of rivals such as Dell, IBM and Hewlett-Packard, whose stocks have been more or less treading water for much of this year--even losing ground in HP's case.

Near the end of regular trading on Thursday, Apple shares were changing hands at $51.99, up another $1.69 after closing Wednesday at $50.30.

Analysts have continued to raise their price targets on the stock, but Apple's shares have outstripped even those bullish calls.

Brokerage firm Merrill Lynch this week upped its financial forecast for Apple based on a prediction of higher iPod sales and said the company may do even better in the long term if it can introduce iPod fans to its Mac computers.

"If iPod success spills over to Mac sales, there could be further upside to our estimates," Merrill Lynch analyst Steven Milunovich wrote in a research note on Wednesday. At the same time, he noted risks if Apple's iPod success doesn't boost Mac sales or if the player itself loses share at the hands of competitors.

Milunovich said a recent meeting with Apple executives left him with the impression that more is in store for Apple, including a flash memory-based iPod that could start selling early next year in the $149 price range, $100 less than Apple currently charges for its 4GB iPod Mini.