Samsung Electronics <005930.KS>, the world's top maker of memory chips and LCD screens, reported on Friday a 72 percent drop in quarterly net profit on weak chip prices, but the result vastly exceeded forecasts thanks to strong handsets.

January-March net profit fell to 619 billion won ($458.1 million) from 2.19 trillion won a year ago, soundly beating an average forecast for a 149 billion won net profit in a Reuters poll of 12 analysts.

Samsung, which had booked a 22 billion won net loss in the previous quarter, faces an improving outlook as a battered memory chip sector shows signs of emerging from a severe downturn, with big production cuts helping ease a glut of chips.

Samsung's January-March operating profit was 148 billion won, much better than a forecast for a 152 billion won loss. A year ago, Samsung booked a 2.15 trillion won operating profit, but slumped to a 937 billion won loss in the fourth quarter.

Shares in South Korea's biggest company, worth around $68 billion, had gained 39 percent this year through Thursday, beating the wider market's <.KS11> 22 percent rise.

($1=1351.1 Won)

(Reporting by Marie-France Han and Rhee So-eui; Editing by Jonathan Hopfner & Ian Geoghegan)