How bad is the PC market? Intel's earnings may tell

A customer looks at computers at a Best Buy store in Northbrook, Ill.
Tim Boyle | Bloomberg | Getty Images
A customer looks at computers at a Best Buy store in Northbrook, Ill.

The PC market is making headlines for all the wrong reasons, and Tuesday after the closing bell, when Intel reports earnings, investors could have a better sense of where that market is headed.

Worldwide shipments totaled 68.5 million units during the first quarter of 2015, a drop of nearly 7 percent from the year-ago period, according to research firm IDC.

Much of that decline is the result of Microsoft ending technical support for its Windows XP operating system in 2014, forcing companies to upgrade their computers. That tail wind isn't as strong this year.

Trading Intel ahead of earnings
Trading Intel ahead of earnings   

That's a problem for Intel. The company controls the market for PC chips, which account for more than 60 percent of its sales. RBC's Doug Freedman thinks sales at Intel's PC division could be down nearly 20 percent quarter over quarter. (Tweet This)

And, even if Intel does offer a positive outlook on the PC market, Freedman says investors might not trust that forecast. After all, he notes that the company slashed its first-quarter revenue guidance by almost $1 billion back on March 12.

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The downbeat PC news has weighed on Intel's stock. The chip giant was the darling of the Dow last year, enjoying the biggest gain in the index. So far this year, it's down more than 12 percent.

Intel bulls, such as FBR's Christopher Rolland, believe the company remains a smart place to commit capital. Rolland argues that Windows 10, the new version of Microsoft's operating system due out later this year, will give the PC market a stronger-than-expected boost.

Rolland also says that Intel's data center group, which represents about 20 percent of the company's sales, is performing strongly and should more than offset modest PC declines. Rolland rates Intel "outperform" with a price target of $40.

Of course, a softer-than-expected PC market poses potential challenges for companies other than Intel, most prominently Microsoft.

Read MoreRead one analyst's bullish take on Intel's stock

Brent Thill, an analyst at UBS, said that his checks in Asia indicate what he described as "meaningful" declines in PC shipments in the first quarter due to muted emerging market demand. Still, despite those challenges, Thill continues to tell his clients to buy Microsoft, arguing that the stock, which is down some 10 percent this year, is attractively valued.

"We believe the company is pivoting behind the scenes and heading in the right direction but also acknowledge this may take time to execute on," Thill wrote in a research report.

Microsoft reports fiscal third-quarter earnings on April 23.