The tech research firm, which evaluated the total available market for chip purchases, found Samsung bought 8 percent, or $23.9 billion, of all chips this year. That's up 29 percent from the previous year and reflects Samsung's soaring mobile device sales.
Apple, by comparison, purchased 7.2 percent, or $21.4 billion, of the semiconductors sold last year. That's up 14 percent from 2011 but not enough to maintain Apple's position as the top semiconductor customer.
While Apple likely isn't crying about spending less on processors than Samsung, the ranking reflects Samsung's rising grip on the mobile market and the shift in the overall computing market toward mobile and away from PCs. Apple and Samsung control essentially all of the mobile industry's profits, and Samsung sells more mobile phones than any other company.
Its flagship smartphone, the Galaxy S3, has even been outselling the iPhone, some analysts have estimated. Tech research firm Strategy Analytics in November noted the Samsung Galaxy S3 became the world's most popular smartphone in the third quarter, though it expected Samsung to give that title back to Apple later in the year.
Gartner, meanwhile, today said that few companies are seeing the strength of Samsung and Apple. Six out of the top 10 chip buyers reduced their demand last year, largely because PCs didn't sell well. The computer market, while struggling, still represents the largest sector for chip demand, Gartner noted.
Hewlett-Packard was the top chip buyer in 2010, but the large PC and server maker has since struggled. It fell to No. 3 in 2011, supplanted by Apple and Samsung, and it remained in that position in 2012. Last year, HP cut its chip spending by 13 percent. Dell, another traditional PC provider, has been the fourth biggest chip customer for the past couple years. It also cut its chip purchases by 13 percent in 2012.
Nokia, meanwhile, dropped sharply in the ranking to No. 10 from No. 5 in 2011. The handset vendor has been fighting to survive as consumer taste shifts. The Finnish company's spending on semiconductors dropped a whopping 43 percent from 2011 to 2012.
Here's Gartner's full 2012 ranking: