Global shipments of personal computers slid 7.1 percent in the first quarter, industry tracker IDC said on Wednesday, although falling prices and the increasing popularity of netbooks helped keep sales from slipping even further.

In a break from the past, the PC market in the United States fared better than the larger global market with shipments falling just 3.1 percent, IDC said.

Separately, research firm Gartner said worldwide PC shipments fell 6.5 percent in the quarter--and were essentially flat in the U.S.

The U.S. was surprisingly strong, it outperformed our forecast, said IDC vice president Bob O'Donnell, calling the numbers a positive sign for the overall market.

The fact that the U.S. outperformed the worldwide totals is I think somewhat hopeful.

IDC also said the global result was slightly better than it had expected, and that PC demand has shown some resilience compared with the previous downturn.

It estimated the total global PC market in 2008 was $243 billion.

The firm expects more stable production over the coming quarters, with growth returning around the end of the year.

Gartner sounded a somewhat more pessimistic tone. Research director George Shiffler said there is evidence of restocking of inventory in the distribution channel, but that this should not be interpreted as a recovery in demand.

It's still unclear if the global PC market has hit the bottom, he said in a release.

What is clear is that consumers' move to low-cost laptops--including netbooks--is keeping PC shipments from slipping further. Netbooks shipments remain on track to double in 2009, IDC said.

Top PC maker Hewlett-Packard Co managed to grow overall shipments by 2.9 percent and increase its industry-leading global market share to 20.5 percent.

HP also claimed the top spot in the U.S. market from Dell, which had held that position since 1999, IDC said.

Dell continued to lose ground, with shipments diving 16.7 percent in the first quarter, hurt by weakness in the enterprise market.

Dell's market share slipped to 13.6 percent, IDC said, good for second-place, while No. 3 Acer Inc gained ground and increased its share to 11.6 percent.

But Gartner's data showed Dell and Acer in a virtual tie for second place.

Lenovo and Toshiba Corp rounded out the top five.

On Tuesday, Intel, the world's largest chipmaker, said it saw signs that a bottom in the PC market had been reached, a hopeful indicator for the sector.

IDC's O'Donnell said it was too early to say for sure if his firm's numbers support Intel's comments, but, I think in some ways there's a small bit of confirmation of that.

(Reporting by Gabriel Madway; Editing by Richard Chang, Leslie Gevirtz)