In brief: The first three quarters of 2020 were difficult ones for the smartphone industry. The pandemic ensured constant YoY declines, but the market turned around in Q4. Apple can take a lot of credit for the reversal: Cupertino sold more handsets than any other vendor has ever managed in a single quarter.

IDC's latest worldwide smartphone shipments report reveals that 385.9 million handsets shipped between October 1 – December 31 last year, marking a 4.3 percent increase compared to the same quarter in 2019.

It was a bumper period for Apple. The company shipped 90.1 million iPhones in Q4, taking 23.4 percent of the total market. It also had the largest yearly growth rate of any company: 22.2 percent.

In its recent earnings report, Apple said Q4 was its first quarter to bring in over $100 billion in sales, 59 percent of which came from iPhones.

Apple was followed by Samsung in second and Xiaomi in third. The Chinese firm's 32 percent YoY growth was the largest of the top five firms.

It was bad news for Huawei; with US sanctions now finally having an effect, the 32.2 million smartphones it shipped marked a 42.4 percent decrease compared to the previous year. The company sold its Honor unit for over $15 billion in November, and may do the same with its Mate and P brands.

"There are a lot of elements at play that are fueling the smartphone market recovery – pent-up demand, continued supply push on 5G, aggressive promotions, and the popularity of low to mid-priced phones," said Nabila Popal, research director with IDC's Worldwide Mobile Device Trackers.

"Lockdowns also have people spending less on areas like leisure, travel, and dining out – and smartphones are benefitting from this. In addition to all these factors, the fast recovery and resilience of the smartphone supply chain also has to be given some credit."

Overall shipments for the entire year were just under 1.3 billion. That's still 5.9 percent lower than 2019, but IDC believes demand is set to grow, and the market's recovery will accelerate.