SAMSUNG Electronics reported a record $5,2bn profit in the first quarter on Friday, overtaking Nokia as the top cellphone seller, and its Galaxy smartphones outsold Apple's iPhone at the top of the market.

The South Korean group's handset division shifted more than 20000 Galaxy phones an hour in the quarter and contributed most of its operating profit.

Its shares hit a lifetime high after the results, pushing its market value to $190bn, 11 times that of Japanese rival Sony, though still only a third of Apple's, the world's most valuable company. Samsung sold 93,5-million handsets in the quarter, according to Strategy Analytics, toppling Nokia from the top spot after 14 years.

The total included 44,5-million smartphones, giving Samsung a 30,6% share of the high-end market. Apple's sales of 35,1-million iPhones gave it a 24,1% share. "Samsung and Apple are out-competing most major rivals, and the smartphone market is at risk of becoming a two-horse race," said Strategy Analytics analyst Neil Mawston.

Nokia has suffered a sharp drop in sales since it abandoned its own smartphone operating system and switched to the largely untried Windows Phone. It sold only 12-million smartphones in the first quarter.

The near duopoly in high-end smartphones is unlikely to come under much threat this year or next, according to Sanford C Bernstein analysts, and Samsung will look to keep that momentum going next week with the launch in London of a third generation of Galaxy S, hoping to boost sales ahead of the Olympics, where the group is among the leading sponsors.

While Apple said last week that iPhone 4S sales boosted its quarterly revenue in China fivefold, there are more Samsung handsets than Apple phones in the world's biggest mobile market. Samsung said it increased its share of China's smartphone market to just above its global average, implying it took more than 30% share of a market where, unlike Apple, it already has deals with all three big telecoms operators.

Samsung's quarterly handset division profit nearly tripled to 4,27-trillion won ($3,8bn), accounting for 73% of total profit, and operating margins jumped to 18,4% from 12% in the preceding quarter on strong sales of the Galaxy S and the Note phone/tablet, the surprise consumer hit of recent months.

Nokia had its credit rating cut to "junk" status by ratings agency Standard & Poor's on Friday, its second downgrade to non-investment grade last week as the company battles falling sales and doubts over its product strategy.

The rating cut, which follows a similar move by Fitch Ratings earlier last week, drove Nokia's shares down by 0,9% to ?2,732, not far from a 15-year low of ?2,60 set earlier this month.

Reuters