Every year since 2007, Apple has released one new iPhone at a time. But this year marked the company's first foray into multiples, with the colorful iPhone 5c joining Apple's lineup as the flagship iPhone 5s' sidekick. Is a new look reason enough to buy one phone over another? Let Gizmag help you answer that, as we review the new iPhone 5c.
The iPhone 5 gets a makeover
Have you ever used an iPhone 5? If so, then you're already pretty well acquainted with the iPhone 5c. That's because Apple took most of the internal hardware from last year's iPhone 5, wrapped it in a candy-colored plastic body, and called it the iPhone 5c. It then replaced the iPhone 5 as the cheaper "last year's iPhone" in Apple's lineup.
So when we're talking about things like performance, screen quality, and camera quality, the 5c is identical to the iPhone 5.
But we think we know why Apple chose this year to spice up last year's model with a fresh coat of paint. See, the iPhone 5 was the first iPhone that didn't have any obvious limitations. Its screen was bigger than Apple's first five iPhones, its camera made for a terrific point-and-shoot replacement, it supported 4G LTE, and its overall performance was as fast as most of us would ever need. It was the first iPhone that could continue to serve as a flagship a year after the fact.
So, even though this year's iPhone 5s adds things like a fingerprint sensor, faster processor, and slightly-improved camera, it isn't really a huge – or necessary – leap over 2012's iPhone 5 ... or, for that matter, an iPhone 5 with a new look and a new name.
Which brings us back to the iPhone 5c. It takes all of the top-notch specs and features from the iPhone 5, and wraps them in a fun new package. And if, like me, you're growing a little weary of the angular, metallic-edged look of Apple's last four flagship iPhones, this new look and feel will be a welcome change.
Apple describes the iPhone 5c as "unapologetically plastic," and that it is. But rather than the cheap, flimsy-feeling plastic you get from most of Samsung's recent phones, the 5c is a very solid polycarbonate. It's a lot like the iPhones 3G and 3GS, with its smooth finish, sloped edges, and plastic that somehow manages to feel high-end.
I think the 5c feels great in hand. It's a little heavier and thicker than the iPhone 5s (by 18 percent), but it doesn't feel hefty or beefy at all. That buttery-smooth, solid-as-a-rock polycarbonate is a pleasure to hold. And since Apple hasn't joined the phablet club, it's still small enough that it practically disappears in your pocket.
The iPhone 5c's killer feature is color. No more toned-down black and white here. The 5c lets you choose among several rich pastel hues, including green, blue, yellow, pink, and ... well, white did make an appearance after all. But apart from the pale one, they're all deep, bold, and eye-catching. The 5c is the most playful iPhone yet.
The iPhone 5c case
Adding to that playfulness is a new Apple-made case with a, shall we say, "unique" look. The silicone case wraps snugly around the iPhone 5c, and has 35 holes on its back. Those holes let the phone's primary color peek through, and blend with a second complementary color, depending on which case you choose.
The cases feel good in hand, and I like the texture created by the holes in the back. Of course it also protects your iPhone 5c, covering most of the phone. The case protrudes outwards in the front so that most drops should leave the screen unharmed. There's also a microfiber lining on the inside so the case itself won't scratch your phone.
You might think the cases are fun and different, or you might find them putrid. But one thing I think we can all agree on is that these suckers are expensive. Apple wants US$30 for each of these puppies. How much do they cost to manufacture? A dollar? Maybe 50 cents? Apple is known for high margins, but this thing sits alongside the iPhone 4 bumper in the High Margin Hall of Fame. It's hard to buy one without questioning your own sanity.
Fortunately the cases are optional, and there are already lots of third-party options that don't cost anything near Apple's sky-high asking price.
In case you aren't already familiar with the iPhone 5, we're looking at a 4-in screen with 1,136 x 640 resolution. It's the same sharp Retina Display you already know and love. It runs Apple's speedy A6 chip from 2012. The new A7 found in the iPhone 5s, iPad Air, and Retina iPad mini blows it away in benchmarks, but in regular experience, I think the A6 is plenty fast, zipping through the new iOS 7 without the slightest hesitation.
I was always a fan of the iPhone 5's camera, and despite improvements by other phones (including the 5s) in the last year, that same sensor in the 5c is still plenty sharp for most smartphone photography needs. Its 8-megapixel sensor makes for sharp images, it handles poorly-lit conditions pretty well, and there's a flash that helps out when lighting goes too far south.
Here are a few sample shots with the iPhone 5c's camera (note that the second shot is under pretty crappy indoor lighting):
The iPhone 5c did get one internal hardware upgrade from the iPhone 5. The 5c's battery holds five percent more juice than last year's model did. In our standard test, where we stream video with brightness set at 75 percent, it lasted six hours. That's a very solid number, and only 15 minutes less than the iPhone 5s lasted in the same test. With regular use, you should have no problem getting through a full day on one charge.
A new toy
So there you have it. Take the guts of the iPhone 5, add a splash of color, some smooth and solid plastic, and a unique but overpriced case, and you have the iPhone 5c. It isn't quite as high-end as the iPhone 5s, but it's still pretty darn close.
And let's face it: though gadgets like the iPhone serve plenty of practical purposes, we enjoy them much like children enjoy toys. Sometimes a fresh coat of paint is all it takes to make a toy new again.
Is the 5c worth buying instead of the 5s? Well, as always, that's going to depend on what you're looking for. The 5s gives you that Touch ID fingerprint sensor. It also has a slightly better camera, including a terrific new burst mode that automatically captures the sharpest shot. That camera also records slow-motion video. If you're into any of those things, then the 5s might be worth that extra $100.
But otherwise, the iPhone 5s is such a minor upgrade over its predecessor that an iPhone 5 in colorful sheep's clothing makes a lot of sense on store shelves. And if the look and feel of your phone means more to you than some relatively minor hardware upgrades, then the 5c might also make a lot of sense in your pocket.
The iPhone 5c is available in the US starting at $550 off-contract, or $100 with a new two-year contract. For more on the 2013 lineup of iPhones, you can check out our iPhone 5s review and our comparison of the three iPhones you can buy today.