Apple gained high-end smartphone market share in China, Nielsen report reveals

A customer compares the iPhone SE (left) and the iPhone 6S (right) at an Apple Store in Hangzhou, China.
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Apple strengthened its hold on the high-end smartphone market in mainland China in the March quarter, a new report showed, just a day after the tech giant's broader Chinese sales numbers for the period sent investors into a tailspin.

The Nielsen Device Share report, released Thursday, revealed that Apple increased its on-quarter marketshare by 0.94 percent in the three months to the end of March, for smartphones priced 2,000 yuan ($308) and above.

Despite the gains in marketshare in high-end phones in the January to March quarter, Apple had said sales in mainland China fell 11 percent on a reported basis and 7 percent on a constant currency basis.

"Apple's share increase [from January to March] was much lower than Q1 2015, where Apple added more than 2 percent market share," James Gong, vice president of Nielsen China, told CNBC. "Adding less market share translates into lower sales."

Gong added that "this doesn't mean that Apple is not doing well in China, where the iPhone is still the ultimate choice for Chinese premium smartphone consumers."

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The Cupertino, California company's marketshare gains did lag domestic brand OPPO, which increased its marketshare of the medium-to-high-end sector by 1.27 percent in the same period, but substantially outperformed fierce rival Samsung, which saw its marketshare slide by 1.76 percent.

Domestic brands Xiaomi and Lenovo also experienced declines in marketshare, while Huawei's share increased - though by less than Apple - overtaking Samsung as the third-biggest brand in the sector.

According to Nielsen, Samsung's premium brand image is slowly eroding in China, as seen from softer sales of the Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge compared with previous Galaxy S models.

The medium-to-high-end sector made up 48.2 percent of the total Chinese smartphone market in the first quarter, a 2.4 percent increase on the previous quarter as more smartphone users upgraded to pricier handsets.

Apple performed best in China's tier 1 cities, where buyers are more focused on "stylish and high quality smartphones," Nielsen said.

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"In the first quarter of 2016, Apple's popularity continued, increasing competition for other phone manufacturers," the data provider said in its report.

Gong warned that Apple's mainland China sales will face challenges this year, largely because the iPhone sold too well in the past.

But Apple chief executive Tim Cook said he was "really optimistic about China."

"When I look at the larger picture, I think China is not weak as is talked about," Cook said, while Apple's chief financial officer Luca Maestri noted that the Q2 revenues were being compared to an extremely strong Q2 2015, when Apple reported an 81 percent revenue rise in mainland China.

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