Investors were fighting a pitched battle over


(AAPL) - Get Report

on Monday amid a mixed crop of recent analyst reports.

Sales of a rumored flash memory-based iPod should boost the company's overall revenue and earnings in its next two fiscal years, said analyst Andrew Neff of Bear Stearns, in a report issued on Sunday. The company could see further upside if the iPod helps draw in new customers for the company's Macintosh computers, said Neff, reiterating his outperform rating on Apple shares. Neff raised his price target on Apple to $72 from $60.

"We continue to find

Apple attractive on our higher EPS numbers," he said. (Bear Stearns has not done investment banking for Apple in the last year.)

Like Neff, Kevin Hunt of Thomas Weisel upped his earnings forecast for Apple. But he went the other way with the stock, downgrading it to a peer perform from outperform and placing a $59 price target on the stock.

"The long-term story remains positive for Apple ... as consumer spending in the electronics space ... is rapidly accelerating and Apple is clearly a key player at the center of this trend," Hunt said in a report published on Monday. "Why downgrade? The answer is that we believe that at the current valuation, the good times ahead are already priced into the stock." (Apple is not a current investment banking client of Thomas Weisel.)

But in recent trading, Apple investors were following Neff's lead, not Hunt's. The stock was up $1.59, or 2.5%, to $64.27 on heavy trading.

Apple's stock has more than tripled in price this year, as investors have banked on the success of the company's iPod digital music player. But the company's shares sold off sharply last week after Smith Barney

downgraded the stock and advised clients to take some profits at the shares' current price.

Despite Smith Barney's outlook -- and that of Hunt over at Thomas Weisel -- the prevailing view in the latest sell-side reports was that Apple's stock still has room to grow.

J.P. Morgan's Bill Shope, for instance, reiterated his rating of overweight on Monday, while raising his revenue and earnings estimates. Recent checks of retail stores indicate that Apple's products are selling well this holiday season, Shope said.

The company is expected to announce a flash-based iPod at its Macworld confab on Jan. 11, Shope said. Because Apple is expected to offer the product for at least $100 less than its lowest-priced hard-drive based iPods, the product should expand the market for Apple's digital music players, he said.

Meanwhile, recent sales data indicate that Apple is gaining share with its desktop and notebook computers, Shope said. Those data are helping to build the case that the iPod is creating a "halo effect" for Apple, boosting sales of its other product, he said.

"While we believe concerns over Apple's valuation are certainly understandable given the stock's rapid appreciation, we believe expectations for the company's revenue and profit growth may still prove conservative," Shope said. (Apple has not been an investment banking client of J.P. Morgan in the last year.)

Perhaps the most optimistic analyst was Robert Cihra of Fulcrum Global Partners, who reiterated his buy rating on Friday, while raising his price target to $81 from $65. Cihra got to his higher price target by placing a multiple of 40 times "operating cash" earnings per share on Apple's stock, vs. his previous multiple of 30 times. While that multiple is higher than the company's historical valuation, it is justified by the company's rapid revenue and earnings growth, he said.

Sales of Apple's Macintosh line, particularly its notebook computers, should outpace the broader PC industry in the current quarter, Cihra said.

"While iPods remain Apple's single-biggest growth engine ... better core Mac growth would enable Apple to complement, rather than "rely" on, its phenomenal iPod momentum," he said. (Apple is not an investment banking client of Fulcrum.)