SHOPPERS snapped up Apple’s iconic Mac computers, iPhones and iPods in the run-up to Christmas, helping the US consumer electronics giant to notch up forecast-busting profits ahead of tomorrow’s long-awaited launch of its tablet device.

Sales of the company’s Mac computers hit a record in the first quarter, rising 33 per cent on a year ago to 3.36m units, outstripping analysts’ average estimate of about 3m.

And Apple shipped 8.7m iPhones in the quarter, which the company said represented a doubling of unit sales growth over the same quarter a year ago, although the numbers slightly disappointed analysts who had expected the company to sell at least 9m.

It sold 21m iPods during the quarter, representing an eight per cent unit decline from a year earlier.

Apple posted revenues of $15.68bn (£9.65bn) and net income of $3.38bn, or $3.67 a share in the three months to 26 December, up from $2.26bn or $2.50 a share a year ago. Analysts had expected Apple to earn $2.09 per share on revenue of $12.09bn.

Last night’s results come ahead of tomorrow’s launch of a tablet device, dubbed the “iSlate”, which investors hope will be as big a phenomenon as the company’s iPod and iPhone.

The device is a portable touch-screen media gadget that is said to bridge the gap between smartphones, laptops and digital book readers. It is tipped to sell for about $700 apiece.

Magazine, book and newspaper publishers are said to be in talks with Apple about providing material for the device in moves that could revolutionise the way people get their news and information.

Analysts believe Apple will sell between 2m and 5m tablets in their first year on the market.

Chief executive Steve Jobs said: “The new products we are planning to release this year are very strong, starting this week with a major new product that we’re really excited about.”

Analysts said the iPhone sales were not as good as expected, but that the results still showed Apple was defying the downturn.

Hudson Square Research analyst Daniel Ernst said: “It’s a continued sign that Apple has great products that consumers want despite this recession.”

Edward Jones analyst Bill Kreher said: “This just highlights the fact that Apple’s earnings power is consistently underestimated.”