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Apple investors searching for hints of next quarter in this quarter

Aaron Pressman

Apple's (AAPL) October quarterly reports haven't been big market movers the past few years, but there's still several key metrics to watch for after the market closes on Tuesday.

The third quarter, Apple's fiscal fourth quarter, comes just as last year's iPhone models reach the end of their run as the company's flagship. As in previous years, the new 6S and 6S Plus models went on sale only at the very end of the quarter.

"The tight range of expectations along with the fact that the new iPhone 6S only sold during two days of the quarter, make the September quarter less relevant to stock performance," Morgan Stanley analyst Katy Huberty wrote in her preview of the results.

Analysts are expecting Apple will report earnings per share of $1.88 and total revenue of $51 billion, according to FactSet. The company's growth is still largely driven by the iPhone and analysts expect Apple sold about 48 million. New models went on sale Sept. 25 and Apple has already disclosed that it sold 13 million in the first weekend.

Investors are more concerned with sales for the upcoming holiday quarter. Apple rarely says much in advance, but analysts will try to suss out the company's expectations from the broad revenue guidance it will deliver along with the past quarter's results. Analysts expect Apple will collect $77 billion of total sales and earn $3.23 per share, driven largely by 76 million iPhone sales, according to FactSet. Higher guidance or a projected profit margin much above 40% could ignite some excitement.

A majority of Apple's total revenue growth lately -- 57% last quarter -- has come from sales growth in China, making that segment of the quarterly report a possible market mover.

Much of the recent bearish commentary around Apple was based on fears that Chinese consumers would slow their iPhone purchasing because of the weakening economy there. Three months ago, Tim Cook dismissed those concerns and many China economic experts agreed. Then on Aug. 24, Cook sent CNBC host Jim Cramer an email making the point even more forcefully. "I can tell you that we have continued to experience strong growth for our business in China through July and August,” Cook wrote.

Apple shares have been in the doldrums lately, especially after a 3% drop on Monday thanks to a poor quarterly report from one of Apple's Asian suppliers. The stock is down 6% over the past three months. The past three October reports from Apple have moved the stock an average of less than 2% the following day.

Apple hasn't given much information out about some of its newer efforts, such as the Apple Watch and Apple Pay mobile service. On Monday, a new survey showed 14% of U.S. credit card households have tried Apple Pay at least once. With mobile payment usage and watch sales still at tiny levels relative to Apple's more-than $200 billion of annual sales, don't expect much more data from Cook this quarter.

(Correction: Apple last month disclosed that it sold 13 million, not 11 million, iPhones in the first weekend of sales this year)