The iPhone 5C is kinda, sorta, technically a new product -- colorful, cute, with a variety of interchangeable color cases much like the recently released Motorola Moto X -- but under the hood it's really aniPhone 5 with a new paint job, and a cheaper price: $99 on contract (or even less, if you shop around).
To be clear, we loved the iPhone 5 when it first hit in 2012. It met every one of our needs, kept up with the competition, and presented a sweet spot of features: fast LTE wireless, a larger 4-inch screen, plenty of performance tweaks, a faster processor, and a really great camera. All of those features are back with the 5C.
The only new additions to the 5C (versus the old 5) are iOS 7 coming preinstalled, new LTE antennas that work with more international carriers, a better low-light-sensitive front-facing FaceTime HD camera, and a slightly increased internal battery versus last year's model -- better on paper, but not on a magnitude that most people would appreciate.
What the iPhone 5C isn't is a radical "budget" iPhone. It's not the affordable contract-free prepaid device some dreamed of. Instead, it's an iPhone 5 with a candy-colored polycarbonate shell. If you want something more advanced under the hood, the iPhone 5S is what you're looking for; if you want a bigger screen, nearly any Android phone will be a better choice.
Still, despite largely year-old tech inside, the iPhone 5C does a fine job for most people. Don't be surprised if it's a go-to choice for kids, for instance, who may value the color choices (and parents looking to get out of the store for less than $100.) It's the Basic White MacBook of iPhones. And, for everyday tasks, you'll have a hard time right now noticing the performance gap between it and the 5S with the naked eye. That's likely to change in a few months or a year, as Apple evolves iOS computing to areas where, perhaps, only the bleeding-edge 64-bit A7 chip in the iPhone 5S can reach. But for everyday people who aren't following every evolutionary step of the iPhone, the 5C covers most of the important bases. Just make sure you set your expectations to "last year's iPhone 5."
Configurations and carriers
The iPhone 5C comes in 16GB and 32GB variations, for $99 and $199 on contract, respectively, or contract-free for $549 and $649. That's a hundred dollars less than an iPhone 5S at identical storage capacities across the board. In the US, the 5C is available on all four major carriers: AT&T, Sprint, Verizon, and T-Mobile. And T-Mobile's new "Uncarrier" model lets you buy the phone for zero (16GB) or $99 (32GB) down and spread the cost of the hardware over a two-year period, for $20 extra a month.
The 5C not only looks more like an iPod Touch, it even comes packaged in an iPod Touch-like jewel box with clear plastic. Inside you get the phone, a Lightning cable (with AC adapter), and pair of EarPod in-ear headphones with a built-in mic.
What do you give up over the 5S?
This is the question everyone's going to ask: what am I missing out on between the iPhone 5C and 5S for that extra hundred dollars? For starters, the 5S has that crisp metal design. It also has a newer, faster A7 processor, a fingerprint-sensing Home button, an even better camera with faster autofocus, burst shooting, better low-light and antiblur features, and a Slow-Mo video recording mode that records at 120 frames per second at 720p. What's more, the 5S is capable of 64-bit computing, has better graphics, and has an M7 processor for enabling future built-in motion-tracking and health/fitness apps. And it's also available in a 64GB capacity, versus just 16GB or 32GB for the 5C.
A lot of those features are theoretical, or embedded so deeply the casual person wouldn't notice. The 5C and 5S have the same screen size and Retina resolution, and the same LTE antenna bands. Those are features most people will notice a lot more. The 5C, from an everyday boot-up, application-loading standpoint, feels similar to the 5S. That said, I wouldn't be surprised to see the phones' speed begin to diverge as the months and years progress -- once more advanced apps begin to appear that are optimized for the more sophisticated hardware of the 5S.
A brightly colored plastic iPhone: it sounds like something new, doesn't it? Not exactly: Apple's had brightly colored iPods for years, and the iPod Touch got its multicolored refresh in 2012. The iPhone 5C just feels like the extension of that bright-color philosophy into the iPhone line.
It doesn't feel like cheap plastic, though; the smooth, shiny polycarbonate shell around the back feels like a candy lacquer coating. It's a dense device, heavier than the iPhone 5 by nearly an ounce, but it has a comfortable feel -- maybe even better than the more hard-angled metal iPhone 5/5S. It's a return to the plastic iPhone, three years later.
The funny thing is, pull out an old iPhone 3G or 3GS and you'll see a remarkably similar finish. The 3GS looks bulbous and squat by comparison -- the 5C is flat-backed and longer, but it shares the wrap-around polycarbonate feel. This is not new so much as old and familiar.
The cosmetic differences between the 5C and the 5S feel like the old white MacBook versus the MacBook Pro line: plastic versus metal. Maybe this is meant to paint the iPhone 5S as a "pro" device. The 5C is comfortable, smooth and clean; the 5 and 5S have an angular, descended-from-a-spaceship industrial design.
The 5C is a hair longer (4.9 versus 4.87 inches), a hair wider (2.33 versus 2.31 inches), and a little thicker (0.35 versus 0.3 inches) than the iPhone 5 and 5S. What this really means is you can't put most iPhone 5 cases on it.
It's also heavier: 4.65 ounces, versus the iPhone 5S' 3.95 ounces. But it's still a little thinner and lighter than the iPhone 4S, if you're keeping score.
Just like the iPhone 5 and 5S, the headphone jack's on the bottom. Audio comes from a small four-holed grille on the bottom, and is as loud as that from the iPhone 5. The home button below the display remains exactly the same as previous iPhones: there's no fingerprint sensor here.
The iPhone 5C will be a far more appealing phone for kids: it seems less fragile, warmer, even simpler. It feels like an iPod: even the side volume rocker buttons are more elongated and iPod Touch-like. The colors are bright and oddly pastel, except for the white-backed 5C I ended up reviewing. All the iPhone 5Cs, incidentally, have black fronts. iOS 7 comes preinstalled with color-matched wallpaper and themes for each phone, which helps tie the whole color package together. The EarPods...well, those are still white.
Case and accessories
A new design means new cases: Apple's selling its own, at $29 each, in a variety of bright colors, made of the same polyurethane/microfiber material as the iPad Smart Covers and Smart Cases. The bright cases are attractive; they're punched with large holes, so the iPhone's colors and the case colors play off each other for color combinations. You can only imagine third-party case manufacturers are going to be all over this type of idea.
Apple's own cases are comfy, but oddly designed: the open holes expose some of the stamped FCC and model information on the back of the iPhone. Peeking at bits of text ruins a bit of the ultra-clean effect. Why not shift those holes higher up, or place the text elsewhere? It's nitpicky, but Apple's design usually prides itself on these sorts of details.
Display and speakers
The iPhone 5C's 4-inch, 1,136x640-pixel Retina Display seems every bit as bright and crisp as on the iPhone 5. But, it's also the same exact display: no extra pixel resolution, no added screen size. In a world of ever-larger smartphones, the iPhone 5C is more on its own now than it would have been in 2012. There's a lot of extra unused space above and below the screen.
That being said, Apple's iPhone 5 Retina Display remains one of the brightest and most color-accurate displays CNET's tested. It's an excellent display, and has very good 326 ppi pixel density. It could just be...well, a little bigger. There are 4.3- and 4.7-inch-display Android phones that don't feel honkingly large to hold, and perhaps show how Apple could have worked in a little extra screen.
A single speaker to the right of the Lightning port pumps out equivalently loud audio to the iPhone 5. Just like previous iPhones, it's possible to accidentally bottle up all noise by pressing a thumb to the speaker grille while playing a game or watching a movie.
The same iSight rear-facing 8-megapixel camera that was in the iPhone 5 is in the 5C. iOS 7 adds a few more extras, such as digital zoom when recording video. Both 1080p video recording, photos and panoramic pictures all look great, but the iPhone 5S camera is even more refined, and adds slow-motion recording and multiburst.
A front-facing FaceTime HD camera has been slightly improved, adding better light sensitivity. Dimly lit selfies in my apartment hallway came out better on the 5C.
Are there better cameras on phones? Absolutely. However, at this price range, the iPhone 5 still does a very, very good job.
Antenna and wireless connectivity
The iPhone 5C has dual-band 802.11 a/b/g/n Wi-Fi, just like the iPhone 5, along with Bluetooth 4.0. Apple's AirDrop technology in iOS 7 allows for local file sharing, perhaps minimizing the omission of NFC in the iPhone, but it's worth noting that NFC still isn't in any Apple device. Both the iPhone 5C and 5S also lack faster 802.11ac Wi-Fi, which has been introduced in many products, including 2013 MacBook Airs and AirPort routers. Also, note that like the iPhone 5, the CDMA iPhone 5C (so, the Verizon and Sprint versions) do not support simultaneous voice and data.
Not a surprise, but the iPhone 5C's call quality seems equivalent to the iPhone 5 and 5S. That's good to know, since the 5C sports a slightly different antenna construction than the 5/5S, but network reception and audio quality seem on par.
FaceTime Audio (available via iOS 7) calls made over Wi-Fi sounded far clearer, more like Skype audio. I predict that a lot of people will start moving to FaceTime audio, both for call quality and potential long distance call savings.
Both the iPhone 5C and 5S come preinstalled with iOS 7, Apple's latest version of the mobile operating system. Much like the iPhone 5 was to iPhone hardware last year, iOS 7 is a soup-to-nuts graphical and design overhaul: familiar apps have new layouts, Siri's been greatly enhanced to do more and show more, and there are even new ringtones and alert sounds.
There are a lot of people already running around with developer builds on their phones; the final version feels largely the same as those early versions. As an operating system, iOS 7 runs smoothly on the iPhone 5C, but its aesthetics sometimes feel like a mixed bag. New display-maximizing layouts in many apps like Safari are a huge plus, but these come along with sometimes-confusing new interfaces and menus. Much like a Facebook redesign, I think many longtime users will find themselves suddenly (and hopefully temporarily) confused. Some additions, like an expanded Notifications pull-down screen, are welcome; others, like a new, confusing Calendar app that lacks appointment lists, will throw hard-core iPhone users off their game.
Luckily, iOS 7 does have its distinct advantages: AirDrop for local person-to-person wireless file sharing; crisp and excellent-sounding FaceTime Audio calls, which don't use up much bandwidth and can be used to make calls over Wi-Fi for free; and also the brilliant flip-up Control Panel, which puts many necessary settings and controls at your fingertips at any time. Siri's smarter and can do more things, like turn on Bluetooth or play requested movie trailers.
iTunes Radio, a free streaming music service similar to Pandora, comes baked into the Music app. Make-your-own artist-generated playlists had a good selection of content. The streaming's ad-supported, but iTunes Match customers get the experience ad-free. Considering it's free either way, it sounds pretty good and is nice to have.
Redesigned Camera and Photo apps are part of the iOS 7 package, as well, and both feel like big improvements. Digital zoom for video and added photo filters, plus an Instagram-esque "square" photo-crop mode, come built-in. The Photo app presents previous photos in a large timeline organized by year and location. It's a great way to sift through thousands of photos, but this level of presentation feels better-suited to a Mac version of iPhoto. That archive-style presentation would be a lot better if iCloud enabled full syncing and uploading of Mac/PC photo libraries.
Apple's also offering its core suite of iWork and GarageBand/iMovie iOS apps for free with new device purchases, a nice little package of tools that finally gives iOS devices the type of productivity software that's increasingly being bundled on competing mobile products.
The A6 processor, revisited
Compared to most cutting-edge phones in 2013, the iPhone 5's once bleeding-edge dual-core A6 processor doesn't feel quite as amazing. It still tested well in the benchmarks we used, but it's the iPhone 5S with its 64-bit dual-core A7 processor that makes the leap the iPhone 5 did last year. Across GeekBench 3, Linpack, 3DMark and Sunspider tests, the iPhone 5C looks like the same phone as the iPhone 5...which it is. Most tests show it performing at about half the speed of the iPhone 5S' A7 processor, though, and some more recent Android phones may outperform it.
The A6 remains an excellent processor for handling nearly every iPhone user's need, and is capable of impressive graphics. And, keep in mind, the iPhone 5C has a more powerful processor than the fifth-gen iPod Touch and 2012 iPad Mini, both of which use the older A5 instead.
Apple claims there's a slightly larger battery in the 5C versus last year's 5. Using a video-playback battery drain at half-brightness and airplane mode turned on, it lasted 10 hours and 16 minutes via the first run, which is better than the iPhone 5. Stay tuned for final battery results.
Fully charged in the morning, the 5C lasted me most of a full day. It's not a super battery by any means, but it gets the job done.
The iPhone 5C versus the $99 competition
There are a lot of very good phones falling into the $99-with-a-new-contract territory. TheMotorola Droid Mini and HTC One Mini are prime competitors. Lining their specs up side by side, (http://reviews.cnet.com/8301-19512_7-57602457-233/battle-of-the-benjamins-iphone-5c-vs-droid-mini-htc-one-mini-lumia-520/), despite being built from the guts of last year's iPhone model, the iPhone 5C remains quite a potent little mobile number. In fact, even when you compare it with its current high-end Android competition, this candy-colored handset may have a playful exterior but is all business when it comes to performance. The iPhone 5C can hold its own in terms of processing prowess with the likes of the more expensive HTC One ($199.99),Samsung Galaxy S4 ($199.99), and Moto X ($199.99) flagship models.
The iPhone 5C, equipped one of the best digital imaging systems to ever grace a smartphone (at least until the iPhone 5S), can also capture photos and video of comparable quality with Android's heavy hitters from Samsung, HTC, and Motorola. Now factor in the 5C's low $99 price and that's when things really get interesting. Its closest competitors -- namely the Droid Mini ($99.99, Verizon) and the One Mini ($99.99, AT&T) -- make more compromises than the 5C to reach the same price. For instance, while the 5C has the same Retina display as the 5S, both the One Mini and Droid Mini have inferior displays when compared with their full-size counterparts. At least the One Mini flaunts an aluminum-build quality, arguably better than the iPhone 5C's premium polycarbonate chassis, but the Droid Mini's cheap plastic design wouldn't impress anyone.
Who is this phone for?
Much like the White MacBook was to Apple laptops, the iPhone 5C feels like a perfect cover-all-your-needs smartphone, offering the average person a complete set of tools to get everything done. The extras on the iPhone 5S aren't necessarily ones you'll miss: unlike like last year's leap from the iPhone 4S to iPhone 5, all the basic requirements are covered.
Of course, a $99 iPhone isn't anything new. Apple's been selling "last year's iPhones" for years at a hundred-dollar discount alongside whatever new versions are sold. For the past 12 months, 2011's iPhone 4S sat in the $99 spot; it's now offered as a free phone with a new contract, in a take-it-or-leave-it 8GB version. But Apple's never offered a $99 iPhone this good, and with a redesign to boot.
Those who don't care about the latest and greatest graphics or camera quality, or are due for an upgrade -- like my mom -- would be a perfect fit for the iPhone 5C. It's a good year to make an upgrade if you haven't done so recently, because both the 5C and 5S are very polished phones.
But if you own an iPhone 5, you already have a 5C in metal. And you certainly don't need to upgrade.
Incidentally, I tried to convince my mom to get the iPhone 5C, until I realized that she upgrades so infrequently, and uses her phone so much as a camera for getting snapshots of her grandkids, that the iPhone 5S is probably worth her extra $100 investment. So might the argument go for many. But, more than before, Apple's new step-down iPhone is a great destination for newcomers. It feels like the new baseline for the mainstream iPhone. The 5S is the "pro" model with technologies that need to be worked out; the 5C has less to bank on.
In the end, I steered my mom to the iPhone 5S. You should too, unless you really, truly need to save a hundred dollars. In that case -- or in the event you really love brightly colored plastic -- get the iPhone 5C. Apple may not have set the global smartphone world on fire, but the 5C is another small step toward a more affordable iPhone. And if I were to pick an iPhone that wasn't cutting-edge but still had everything most people needed to do everything they wanted, the iPhone 5C is it.