Dell

(DELL) - Get Report

, renowned for its unerring ability to nail its guidance, is likely to deliver more of the same when it reports earnings Thursday.

The computer hardware maker has now met or beaten Wall Street expectations for each of the past nine quarters, notes Merrill Lynch.

For the July quarter, analysts are gearing for $9.76 billion in sales, assuming growth of 15% from last year's levels. Earnings per share of 24 cents would reflect profit gains of 26%.

Besides meeting the numbers, as usual, Dell management is expected to mouth the near-obligatory "we're seeing slow recovery" line. "Dell's demand comments will likely continue to be around some attitudinal improvement, but no significant pickup yet," predicts a note from Bear Stearns, which expects in-line financial results.

"Dell has been cautious regarding overall IT demand, usually referring to areas of stability rather than anticipating a major PC upgrade cycle anytime soon," writes Merrill Lynch analyst Steve Milunovich. "Share gain remains the overriding story with Dell." He notes that data from market research firms IDC and Gartner Dataquest suggest Dell gained 3 points of market share in the PC market from last year in the June calendar quarter.

By outgrowing the market, Dell could even wring out some top-line upside, pushing revenue as high as $9.9 billion in the July quarter, says Fulcrum Global Partners.

Fulcrum says Dell looks like it's growing at about 1.5 times the rate of the broader notebook market, but up to 5 times the desktop market. Meanwhile, higher-margin enterprise servers and storage revenue is likely to be up 20% year on year, reflecting Dell's "enviable positioning at the sweet spot of low-end standards-based/modular demand," according to analyst Robert Cihra.

Fulcrum doesn't do investment banking.

But the outperformance won't all fall to the bottom line. Merrill Lynch says most of the market-beating results on the unit side are likely to have been offset by declines in Dell's average selling prices and a slowdown in reductions on component prices.

Analysts are upbeat about Dell's October quarter, predicting it will endorse EPS guidance of 26 cents.

On the top line, Merrill Lynch says Dell could even guide for upside. Consensus estimates call for October quarter sales of $10.34 billion, assuming sequential sales growth of close to 6%.

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"The October quarter normally benefits from good back to school demand and federal government spending," writes Milunovich. "This seems likely to be the case this year as well. Several important consumer indicators such as

Best Buy

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and

Wal-Mart

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have been relatively optimistic on back to school demand, and federal government spending has increased this year.

The small and medium business

sector looks to be solid in the U.S., while large corporations are stable."

Still, even nailing Wall Street's targets may not be enough to stem a recent slide in the stock. After hitting a 52-week intraday high of $34.52 on July 31, shares have ebbed, closing at $31.77 on Aug. 12.

"It wouldn't surprise us if the stock sold off a bit given that every one of our IT hardware companies that reported in July saw their stock retreat," notes Milunovich.

Indeed, when Dell last

reported in-line earnings and guidance in May, the stock reacted by trading down a couple of percentage points. Simply meeting expectations may not be enough to satisfy Dell's demanding investors.