Smartphone shipments broke the previous record in the fourth quarter of 2011, as a wider variety of devices available combined with the Christmas buying frenzy made their mark.

According to IDC, 157.8 million units were shipped in Q4 2011 compared to 102 million units in 2010, a 54.7 percent year-on-year growth. The figure beat the 49.2 percent growth seen in Q3 and the 40 percent growth forecast by IDC.

Over the year, total smartphone shipment volumes hit 491.4 million units, a 61.3 percent increase from 2010’s 304.7 million units. The growth was again higher than IDC’s estimate of 54.7 percent but lower than 2010’s 75.7 percent growth. However, IDC forecasts double-digit growth for the foreseeable future.

Senior IDC research analyst Ramon Llamas said one out of every three mobile phones shipped during the quarter was a smartphone, while the launch of Apple’s iPhone 4S was significant in the sales growth. "The launch of Apple's iPhone 4S played a key role in smartphone growth to capture pent-up demand, and smartphone launches from other vendors also provided a broad selection to meet varying preferences and budgets,” he said.

Apple resumed its number one position in the smartphone market following the launch of the iPhone 4S in October, breaking the industry record for shipment volume in the process.

Fellow IDC senior research analyst Kevin Restivo added that the growing number of Android-based smartphones priced under US$250 also helped vendors grow smartphone volumes.

Research by market research firm NPD Group found that first-time smartphone buyers in the US preferred devices powered by the Android OS, with 57 percent of first-time smartphone buyers going for Android devices compared to 34 percent for iPhones. Android held a 48 percent market share in the US compared to the iPhone’s 43 percent.