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PC market a mixed bag when tablets factored in

New data from research firm Canalys says that the total PC market, including tablets, fell 6 percent in the fourth quarter but was up 3 percent for all of 2014.

Apple's combination of Macs and iPads helped the company lead the PC market in the fourth quarter. Sarah Tew/CNET

The PC market had a rough fourth quarter but a relatively decent 2014, new data from research firm Canalys shows.

Total worldwide PC shipments, including notebooks, desktops and tablets, reached 148 million units in the fourth quarter, a 6 percent decline compared with the same period in 2013, Canalys reported Tuesday. Full-year 2014 PC shipments hit 528 million units, representing a 3 percent gain over the previous year.

Canalys is one of the few companies that combines tablets with desktops and notebooks in its PC market data. Typically, tablets are viewed as mobile devices, while notebooks and desktops are categorized as PCs.

Without that tweaked definition, the PC market's troubles would have looked a bit different in the fourth quarter. Canalys said that while desktop shipments fell in the quarter, notebook shipments rose 1 percent year over year. Worldwide tablet shipments were down 12 percent to 67 million units in the fourth quarter.

The tablet market's troubles were echoed an IDC report released Monday that showed tablet shipments in decline. However, the research firm included both traditional tablets and 2-in-1 devices (hybrids of laptops and tablets) in its report. Thus, IDC reported that total tablet market shipments reached 76.1 million in the fourth quarter, declining by 3.2 percent from a year earlier.

The discrepancy between the numbers is common among research firms. All of the companies that handicap the technology industry have slightly different definitions of PCs, tablets and hybrids. Therefore, the numbers they produce are often quite different.

Still, both companies agreed that Apple was the top tablet maker in the fourth quarter, despite declining shipments. In addition, Canalys said Apple was the top PC vendor by units shipped in the fourth quarter, beating out Lenovo, Hewlett-Packard and Samsung with its collection of Macs and iPads. The Cupertino, Calif.-based company shipped about 27 million PC units in the fourth quarter, by Canalys' definition. Lenovo shipped nearly 20 million PC units, while HP sent more than 17 million PCs to store shelves, registering its best quarter since the third quarter of 2011.

Digging deeper into its findings, Canalys found that the lower end of the tablet market was especially weak in the fourth quarter as the space experienced "cannibalization from large-screen smart phones and the intense price competition that has seen margins evaporate, making the segment unattractive to both vendors and channel partners." The company believes large-screen tablets will play a crucial role in sales this year.

Another major force in 2015 might just be Windows 10, the highly anticipated operating system launch from Microsoft. According to Canalys, part of the trouble in the traditional PC market is that customers have no interest in buying Windows 8-based machines. That could all change with Windows 10.

"The reception of Windows 8 has been akin to that of Windows Vista," Canalys senior analyst Tim Coulling said in a statement Tuesday. "In that case, Microsoft redeemed itself by following up with Windows 7. The launch of Windows 10 will need to mirror that success. We expect the notebook market to experience a short-lived slowdown as users wait for Windows 10, skipping Windows 8."

One other prediction from Coulling and Canalys: Chromebooks, the bare-bones notebooks running Google's Chrome OS, will see a "boost" in shipments in 2015 as they "make further headway, particularly in the US education market."

The companies included in the report did not immediately respond to a request for comment.