updated 4/15/2009 6:40:18 PM ET 2009-04-15T22:40:18

Intel Corp.’s first-quarter profit blew past Wall Street’s grim forecasts Tuesday and the company claimed that personal computer sales “bottomed out” and have started recovering. But that wasn’t enough to keep its shares from tumbling.

The optimistic comments were notable because Intel was the first technology company to report earnings for the first three months of 2009. However, Intel let investors down by not giving specific revenue guidance. It’s not yet clear whether people are buying significantly more PCs, or whether Intel is mainly benefiting from computer makers replenishing their chip inventories, which had been whittled to low levels to save cash.

Intel shares were down 82 cents, 5.1 percent, to $15.19 in after-hours trading. The shares had gained 3 cents to close at $16.01 before the earnings report.

“The numbers are good — there’s nothing wrong with the results they posted. The guidance is where people are finding disappointment,” said Doug Freedman, an analyst with Broadpoint.AmTech. “They’re continuing to highlight a rather large degree of uncertainty, both in terms of revenue and gross (profit) margins.”

The Santa Clara, Calif.-based company’s net income of $647 million, or 11 cents per share, was less than half what the company earned in the same period last year. But analysts polled by Thomson Reuters were expecting far worse. They had forecast profit of just 3 cents per share. Some analysts even predicted Intel would lose money for the first time in nearly 25 years.

Intel said its profits were helped by a tax rate that was much lower than expected — 1 percent instead of the 27 percent that was forecast.

Intel’s sales of $7.1 billion were down 26 percent from last year, but about $100 million higher than estimates.

In a broad sense, Intel’s outlook was relatively upbeat, given the uncertainty about the length and depths of the recession.

“We believe PC sales bottomed out during the first quarter and that the industry is returning to normal seasonal patterns,” Intel’s CEO, Paul Otellini, said in a statement.

Yet Intel said it was too hard to predict its financial results for the second quarter. The company would only offer that revenue will likely be flat from the first quarter, and gross profit margin will be in the “mid-40s” as a percentage of revenue. Gross margin measures how much money a company makes once the cost of making its products is stripped out. It’s particularly important for chip makers, which have heavy manufacturing costs.

Intel’s gross margin in the first quarter was 45.6 percent. That was down from 53.1 percent in the fourth quarter — a sign that Intel is running its factories at less than full capacity to account for soft demand.

Analysts were predicting second-quarter revenue of $7.01 billion, so Intel’s forecast was roughly in line with that.

As the world’s largest semiconductor company, Intel’s results help gauge demand for personal computers, and are a proxy for the health of overall technology spending.

When times are good, consumers and businesses buy more PCs, which leads PC makers to buy more of Intel’s chips. When times are tight, PC makers clamp down, and Intel’s sales fall. This recession is bearing that out: Computer sales fell slightly in the fourth quarter of 2008, according to market tracker IDC, the worst performance since 2002.

Intel owns about 80 percent of the world’s PC microprocessor market, and has been stealing share from smaller rival Advanced Micro Devices Inc. with the Atom chip. Atom is Intel’s first microprocessor for “netbooks,” which are mini-laptops that do less than regular laptops, but are very popular because they also cost less.

In the first quarter, Intel’s laptop-chip division had sales of $2.9 billion, down from $3.7 billion last year. The group that makes processors for desktop PCs and servers saw its sales fall to $4 billion from $5.4 billion.

Intel says Atom chip sales were $219 million, down 27 percent from the fourth quarter, a decline the company attributed to netbook makers working through existing inventory.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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