The Apple Store in Hamburg, Germany (© MAJA HITIJ, epa, Corbis)

At long last, Apple (AAPL) is finally in the green year-to-date in 2013. And while the stock has still woefully underperformed the S&P 500 ($INX), it's undeniable that the tech giant finally has some swagger back after some recent strength.

But what's next? Is Apple stock ready to push even higher, or just giving investors another head fake?

I'm convinced it's the former -- and that Apple stock is a buy for long-term investors.

No, Apple is not on its way back to the valuations of late 2012 when it topped $700 a share. The company has changed a lot since then, and so have expectations.

And yes, there's the risk of buying a top. Shares are up over 40 percent in less than six months, and tech broadly is starting to feel a bit frothy to many market watchers after a big run in 2013.

But Apple's run since July has been built on a number of very real improvements in the business that bode well in the long term for shares even if we may see volatility in the short-term.

Investors who think this is just a short-lived uptrend amid a choppy "new normal" for AAPL stock are not giving the company credit where credit is due. Here are 10 reasons to buy Apple now:

1. Valuation

Apple is at a 52-week high after its big run from the summer lows, but still has a reasonable forward price-to-earnings ratio (P/E) of less than 12. That's lower than the average forward P/E of about 15 for large-cap tech stocks in the S&P 500.

Furthermore, that P/E of 12 is only slightly higher than the typical range Apple traded in over the past few years -- and anyway, that E part of the equation was unfairly low as Apple in the past year has regularly lowballed analysts on its profit forecasts.

2. E-commerce

Tech giant Adobe (ADBE) broke down recent holiday e-commerce trends, and Apple was the runaway winner among mobile shoppers. According to Adobe, "iOS-based devices drove more than $543 million dollars in online sales, with iPad taking a 77 percent share. Android-based devices were responsible for $148 million in online sales, a 4.9 percent share of mobile driven online sales." Say what you want about overall market share, but Apple is the clear winner among people who actually spend money -- a much more valuable statistic to investors than adoption with no dollar signs attached. 

3. China

Last week, we finally got confirmation of a deal between Apple and China Mobile (CHL) to put the iPhone into the biggest telecom market in the world with access to some 700 million subscribers. Yes, Apple will still have to figure out how to connect with low-income consumers with its high-price devices. But Apple's China market share was just 5 percent to start 2013 -- meaning massive untapped potential.

4. Cash hoard

Everybody says it, so I will, too -- Apple is a cash cow.

Its stunning stockpile of $146 billion continues to grow and is a giant pile of untapped potential. And if the cash alone wasn't enough for you, Apple has shown it's willing to borrow on top of that. Apple raised $17 billion this year in a bond offering with rock bottom rates -- including $3 billion of debt at just 3.85 percent on its 30-year bonds. The cash is plentiful and debt is cheap, giving Apple a lot of dry powder for 2014 and beyond.

5. Buyouts

Buyouts are one use for that dry powder, and next year could be the time we see the first major Apple acquisition. Apple had been notoriously reluctant to buy out anybody, likely because of Steve Jobs' rather top-down view of the world, but the company has changed in many ways since Tim Cook took over. That includes shopping around. Apple's $200 million purchase of Twitter (TWTR) data provider Topsy recently could be the first foray into growth via acquisition -- something the company has ample cash to bankroll.

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6. Buybacks

Buybacks are another use for the big cash stockpile. And even if Carl Icahn doesn't get his way with his most recent "precatory proposal," Apple is already big into share repurchases and we can expect that to continue. Remember, the company has a $60 billion buyback plan that will run through 2015. That's enough to erase over 10 percent of outstanding shares. And you can bet shareholders won't allow this buyback plan to be the last after getting a taste.

7. Carl Icahn

Speaking of that agitator, Carl Icahn, I still see the investor as a net positive even if the buyback fight doesn't end in his favor. His track record speaks for itself, and with a position valued at about $2.5 billion -- which he increased by 22 percent this fall -- investors can have a bit of faith in the stability provided by some "smart money" in Apple stock.

8. Dividend growth

Apple's yield is OK at about 2.2 percent, but it's the dividend growth potential for the long-term that really should have investors excited. The company initiated its first-ever payment last year at $2.65 a share each quarter, and has already bumped that up 15 percent to $3.05. Even so, that's still under 29 percent of fiscal 2014 earnings forecasts -- meaning there's plenty of room to increase that dividend even if profits flatline. Which, by the way, they surely will not.

9. Kids love Apple

Go ask any pre-teen about their Christmas list and I guarantee an iPod, iPad or iPhone is on there. The devices are slick, easy to use and continue to have brand cache. I have an iPhone that I'm pretty ambivalent about, since most gadgets are the same to me . . . but my 2-year-old has already figured it out and can navigate the drawing and puzzle apps like nobody's business. Don't underestimate the staying power of a gadget that puts its claws in that early through intuitive programming -- especially during the holiday shopping season.

10. Expectations are right

Some of you are probably turning up your noses at my armchair analysis, writing this off as another fanboy's stupid argument for an overvalued stock past its prime. Good! That proves that we are far from the state of irrational exuberance that led Apple to trade over $700 despite slowing earnings momentum and margins pressure. Apple is surely a stock with challenges, but as long as we are honest about those challenges it will keep the stock's rally honest, too.

I also believe that Apple is transitioning back into growth mode -- incremental growth, anyway -- thanks to easier year-over-year comparisons in 2014 and continued expansion of its product line and global footprint. But since Apple bears would see 8 to 10 percent earnings expansion simply as validation that the company has fallen from grace when compared with its high-growth heyday, I won't go there.

At least not yet.

For now, I'm considering Apple a good value play for dividend growth over the long term. And you should, too.

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