Samsung Electronics has signalled better-than-expected profits for the first quarter, with rising demand for memory chips helping offset slumping smartphone sales. 

The South Korean electronics giant - the world's top mobile producer - flagged an operating profit of 5.9 trillion won ($5.4bn) for the January-March period.

The estimate was down 30.5% from a year ago, but beat average analyst forecasts of around 5.5 trillion won, and was up 11.5% from the previous quarter. 

Sales reached 47 trillion won, down 12.4% from a year ago, Samsung said in its quarterly earnings estimate.

The company has seen profits sag since late 2013 due to heightened competition in an increasingly saturated smartphone market that it had dominated for years. 

Samsung has faced a double challenge from US arch-rival Apple in the high-end smartphone market and rising Chinese firms like Xiaomi in the mid-and low-end market. 

The estimate, which comes ahead of audited results to be released later in the month, did not provide a net income figure.

It also gave no breakdown of divisional earnings, but analysts attributed the better-than-expected performance to profits from high-margin chip sales which helped cushion the downturn in its overgrown mobile sector. 

The company - which produces a range of electronics products from chips to household appliances - saw profits in its semiconductor division jump 35.7% on-year in the fourth quarter.