Smartphones are back! (after pandemic drag last year)

Samsung's Galaxy S21 Ultra and others in the series helped Samsung top other brands in the first quarter. Meanwhile, Huawei dropped out of the top 5. (Samsung)

Smartphone shipments climbed 25% in the first quarter compared to a year ago, with half the gains coming from China and much of the rest of Asia, according to IDC.

“The recovery is proceeding faster than we expected,” said IDC research director Nabila Popal, who noted that the first quarter of 2020 was one of the worst quarters in smartphone history at the start of the pandemic. Much of the supply chain was halted a year ago and China was in full lockdown.

When compared to two years ago, in first quarter 2019, shipments are still 11% higher and reached 346 million devices shipped. “The growth is coming from years or repressed refresh cycles with a boost from 5G,” Popal said. “It is a clear illustration of how smartphones are becoming an increasingly important element of our everyday life.”

In the first quarter, Huawei dropped out of the top five smartphone producers for the first time in years due to declines traced to U.S. sanctions. Chinese vendors Xiaomi, OPPO and Vivo all grew share and all are focused on international markets with low- to mid-priced phones.

Samsung finished the quarter on top with 75.3 million phones shipped and nearly a 22% overall share. The Galaxy S21 series performed well with a $200 price drop below last year’s launch, IDC said. Apple lost some share compared to its strong holiday quarter but shipped 55 million iPhones, including the iPhone 12 series, attaining a 16% share.

IDC said LG’s exit from the smartphone market will create opportunities for other brands, especially in the Americas where LG was strongest.  Competition will be “more cutthroat than ever, especially at the low end,” said Ryan Reith, program vice president with IDC’s Worldwide Mobile Device Trackers.

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