Apple is the world's biggest smartphone maker again

iPhone 12
(Image credit: TechRadar)

Global sales of smartphones fell by 5% in Q4 with the traditionally busy Christmas period easing rather than reversing the contraction that has taken place in 2020.

The coronavirus pandemic has caused economic and supply challenges across the world, with many consumers delaying purchases because they no longer need or can afford a new device.

Lockdown restrictions have also caused retailers in many parts of the world to shut their doors, while the development and manufacturing of new handsets has also been affected.

Worldwide smartphone sales

Gartner’s Q4 figures suggest that although it is still a difficult market for manufacturers, Apple has been able to grow its share thanks to demand for the iPhone 12.

“The sales of more 5G smartphones and lower-to-mid-tier smartphones minimized the market decline in the fourth quarter of 2020,” said Anshul Gupta, senior research director at Gartner. “Even as consumers remained cautious in their spending and held off on some discretionary purchases, 5G smartphones and pro-camera features encouraged some end users to purchase new smartphones or upgrade their current smartphones in the quarter.”

Apple’s pursuit of the high-end of the market, relatively strong brand loyalty, and the inclusion of 5G connectivity to its latest handsets, saw it shift 79.8 million units during the quarter. This growth rate of 14.9% is enough to give the company a 20.8% market share and become the world’s biggest vendor for the first time since the same quarter in 2016.

Xiaomi was the only other major vendor to record growth in the quarter, increasing sales by 33.9% to 43.4 million, but it still trails Samsung in second place. The Korean electronics giant saw sales slip by 11.8% to 62.1 million.

Sales of Huawei, hindered by ongoing difficulties with the US government, fell by 41.1% to 34.3 million – a share of 8.9% for Q4.

Samsung still sold the most devices across the entire of 2020, ahead of Apple in second, and Huawei in third.

Despite a challenging year, Gartner believes that 5G will offer an opportunity for a return to growth in 2021.

“In 2021, the availability of lower end 5G smartphones and innovative features will be deciding factors for end users to upgrade their existing smartphones,” added Gupta. “The rising demand for affordable 5G smartphones outside China will boost smartphone sales in 2021.”

Steve McCaskill is TechRadar Pro's resident mobile industry expert, covering all aspects of the UK and global news, from operators to service providers and everything in between. He is a former editor of Silicon UK and journalist with over a decade's experience in the technology industry, writing about technology, in particular, telecoms, mobile and sports tech, sports, video games and media.