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Apple earnings: Was it really an iPad Christmas?

Apple reports earnings Monday after the stock markets close, and as usual every word and number will be scrutinized for clues that will lead to sweeping judgments about the company's health or decline. 

But in the myriad earnings data points released, one figure will be particularly interesting to see: iPad sales. 

Last fall, after releasing the new iPad Air and the iPad mini with Retina display, Chief Executive Tim Cook declared: "It's going to be an iPad Christmas."

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Such bullishness came after what was a surprisingly tough year for Apple's tablet, which had been such a disruptive force since its release in 2010.

After selling a record 22.9 million iPads during the 2012 holiday quarter, the company saw sales of iPads fall for the next three consecutive quarters for the first time in the product's history.

The sales of 14.5 million iPads in the September 2013 quarter was up only slightly from the same period a year earlier. And for the fiscal year 2013 that ended in September, Apple's revenue from iPads grew only 3%.

There were a couple of reasons for this slowdown.

First, Apple had just released the first iPad mini during that fiscal year, which turned out to be hugely popular. But it's lower price meant profit and revenue from iPads would experience slower growth.

Second, Apple waited a bit longer to refresh the traditional iPad. It finally did that with the iPad Air, which along with the iPad mini with Retina, debuted in the middle of the last quarter.

The question now: Did the new upgrades kick-start the iPad's growth?

Many analysts believe it did. And they are expecting the numbers reported Monday to reflect a strong holiday quarter for the gadget -- just as Cook predicted.

Analysts' consensus estimates are that Apple sold a record 24.6 million iPads in the December quarter. (Again, keep in mind the new iPads were available for only part of the quarter. And that there were doubts about whether Apple would be able to supply enough Retina screens to meet demand for the mini.)

Overall, Wall Street analysts expect Apple to post earnings of $14.09 a share, according to Thomson Reuters. That would be up about 2% from a year earlier. 

Analysts expect revenue to set another record with $57.46 billion, up from $54.51 billion last holiday season.

Of course, investors will also be looking for more details of iPhone sales, which represent the majority of Apple's revenue and profits. This was the first full quarter to include sales of the iPhone 5s and 5c, which debuted last September.

The iPhone 5s appears to be popular to the point that Apple was having trouble meeting demand for at least part of the quarter. The mid-priced 5c, which sported a new plastic casing, is reportedly not doing so well and is now the subject of rumors that it may be discontinued this year if Apple rolls out new iPhones with larger screens. 

Analysts expect iPhone sales of 55 million, up from 48 million a year earlier. 

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