Samsung remains smartphone leader as Apple struggles

But Chinese vendors accounted for three of the top five global smartphone players, according to a new report from research firm IDC.

The Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge helped Samsung retain first place in the global smartphone market.
Josh Miller/CNET

Samsung saw a slight dip in smartphone shipments last quarter but was still top dog thanks to demand for its Galaxy S7 lineup.

For the first quarter of 2016, Samsung shipped 81.9 million phones, down slightly from 82.4 million in the same quarter last year, research firm IDC said on Wednesday. The decline would've been larger if not for the success of Samsung's new Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge. The new Galaxy phones "sold vigorously" during March, according to IDC, helped by promotions from wireless carriers.

Apple saw a larger drop in smartphone sales, to 51.2 million last quarter from 61.2 million in the same period in 2015. The iPhone maker was hit by its first year-over-year descent in smartphone shipments as the lack of new features on the iPhone 6S and 6S Plus may have dissuaded many iPhone owners from upgrading.

Smartphone ownership has reached a saturation point in key markets across the world. With only small improvements in each new generation of phones, the major players are finding it more difficult to tempt smartphone owners to jump to new models.

More Chinese vendors are bucking the trend of slowing smartphone demand by hawking low-cost and premium-priced devices.

China's Huawei took third place last quarter behind Samsung and Apple by selling 27.5 million phones, up from 17.4 million in the year-ago quarter. The company focused on both premium and entry-level phones, not just in China but in major markets across Europe, according to IDC.

Two new Chinese vendors made the top five list, stealing spots from Xiaomi and Lenovo.

Oppo sold 18.5 million phones last quarter, up from just 7.3 million in the prior year. The company has recently been expanding from its home base of China to Asia, the Middle East and Africa. In fifth place, Vivo sold 14.3 million phones, up from 6.4 million over the same period. Unlike Oppo, Vivo sells mainly in China yet has also reached out to consumers in Southeast Asia and India.

But the Chinese vendors are still small fries compared with the likes of Samsung and Apple.

"Outside of China, many of these brands are virtually unknown," IDC research manager Anthony Scarsella said in a statement, adding that they'll have to crack markets like Europe and the United States if they want to take on Apple and Samsung.