Samsung Galaxy S3
Best-selling smartphone from Samsung Electronics. Samsung

Korea’s Samsung Electronics Corp. (KRX:005930) was the top seller of all mobile phones in 2012, snatching the crown formerly held by Finland’s Nokia Oy (NYSE:NOK). Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) stayed in third place but gained share, according to new figures compiled by Gartner Inc. (NYSE:IT).

Total sales of all kinds of mobile phones last year eased to 1.74 billion from 1.77 billion in 2011, the market researcher said, attributing the 1.7 percent drop to difficult economic conditions, sharp competition and shifting consumer preferences.

“The last time the worldwide mobile phone market declined was in 2009,” said Anshul Gupta, a principal researcher. The company predicted sales of feature phones to continue to fall this year with overall mobile phone sales rising about 15 percent to 1.9 billion units, including about 1 billion smartphones.

Gartner reckoned that smartphones running on the Android OS from Google Inc. (NASDAQ:GOOG), accounted for nearly 70 percent of smartphone shipments in the fourth quarter, compared with about 21 percent for Apple’s iOS. In the year-earlier period, Android sales were about 51 percent compared with about 24 percent for iOS.

In the fourth quarter, Samsung and Apple, of Cupertino, Calif., boosted their combined share of the smartphone sector to 52 percent from 46.2 percent in the third quarter of 2012. Samsung’s sales of 64.5 million phones leaped 85 percent from the year-earlier’s fourth quarter.

For Apple, Gartner said, fourth-quarter sales rose about 23 percent to 43.5 million iPhones, with strong consumer preference for discounted iPhone 4 and iPhone 4S over the new iPhone 5.

On Tuesday, Apple CEO Tim Cook told the Goldman Sachs Technology Conference his company had “sold out” of older iPhones and was aware that high prices may discourage new buyers. But he said the company wouldn’t develop cheaper models but likely keep older ones on the market for lower prices. That was a change from previous Apple sales policies.

Gartner said there’s “no manufacturer that can firmly claim the No. 3 spot in smartphone sales,” noting major gains by China’s Huawei Technologies, which sold 27.2 million units in the fourth quarter for a 73 percent year-over-year gain.

Other vendors among the top sellers included China’s ZTE, BlackBerry Inc. (NASDAQ:BBRY), the Canadian smartphone developer, Google’s Motorola unit and China’s HTC Corp. (TPE:2498).

Shares of Apple rose $2.39 to $470.29 in early Wednesday trading.