Review: Apple iPhone 5c (16GB/32GB)
Pros: A more affordable version of 2012’s iPhone 5, still packing a 4” screen, LTE cellular support, and two very good cameras, with modestly improved low-light performance on the front camera. Features slightly improved headphone port audio, and still solid iOS 7 software foundation, newly augmented by a collection of excellent free iWork and iLife apps. Small improvements to battery performance. Now offered in five different colors and two different storage capacities.
Cons: Plastic shells are a major downgrade from both iPhone 5’s metal casing and earlier plastic enclosures developed for the iPhone 3GS, with mostly stale color options, and no trace of metallic sparkle. Real-world battery performance continues to fall below Apple’s best case estimates, most noticeably for cellular calling and data. LTE service remains inconsistent, now with not only widely varying data speeds and availability, but also increased user saturation in areas with “strong” signals. Verizon users still can’t talk and access cellular data at same time. FaceTime HD support has apparently been dropped in iOS 7 software for 720p video calling. Physically incompatible with cases and battery cases developed for the iPhone 5.
Although Apple has suggested that the iPhone 5c was never intended to be a “low-cost” model, reports from overseas consistently suggested that the company was aiming to release an inexpensive iPhone—one that could be sold at a lower price in China, India, and other developing countries. For whatever reason, that didn’t happen, so the iPhone 5c became the equivalent of 2008’s iPhone 3G, merely shedding the prior model’s expensive metallic body in favor of glossy plastic while making relatively minor tweaks to the hardware. Measuring 4.9” tall by 2.33” wide by 0.35” deep, the iPhone 5c’s exterior is thus nearly identical dimensionally to the iPhone 5 but 0.2” to 0.5” larger in each dimension, and 0.7 ounces heavier at 4.65 ounces.
In curves and concept, the 5c is effectively a fifth-generation iPod touch made from plastic rather than anodized aluminum, roughly 50% thicker and losing the chamfered front edges. Because it’s a phone, the iPhone 5c adds a speaker above the 4” diagonal Retina Display—here, always on a black glass face—a ringer switch on the left side, and a SIM card slot on the right, while losing the rear iPod touch loop attachment point, but they’re otherwise extremely similar devices. Even the bottom speaker, headphone port, and Lightning port are in precisely the same places; Apple has added one new hole for a bottom microphone, and removed one of the five for the speaker, very small tweaks indeed.
What iPhone 4, 4S, and 5 users will notice most is Apple’s shift away from metal, a decided downgrade that the company has attempted to spin with marketing phrases such as “beautifully, unapologetically plastic,” offered in five colors “with uncommon beauty and depth.” It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see through these claims; the iPhone 5c isn’t so much beautiful as workmanlike. To Apple’s credit, the iPhone 5c does feel solid thanks to a metal internal frame, a dense bundling of internal components, and an external lacquer coating that shines in the light like the plastic iPhone 3G and 3GS did years ago; our impression is that it will resist cracks and scratches better than Apple’s last plastic devices. One of our five review units had a little give in the screen, but not enough to matter to most people.
But there are a couple of noticeable changes that drop the iPhone 5c decidedly below the iPhone 3G and 3GS in class. First, Apple has stripped this model of the front metal bezel that traditionally appears on iPhones, and similarly switched every previous metal element to plastic, ranging from the Apple logo to buttons and port rings. The plastic elements don’t even attempt to look special; Apple’s logo and the rear text all have a dull dark gray tone without a hint of energy or sparkle. Consequently, iPhone 5c doesn’t look like a midrange smartphone, but like a budget model, reminiscent of the original all-plastic iPod shuffle before Apple switched back to aluminum for subsequent versions.
Second, Apple has selected an initial set of colors that are surprisingly weak—less impressive, even, than the somewhat questionable tones selected last year for the iPod touch. Safest is the white version, which is as ultra-bright as all of Apple’s products, lacking only obvious visual evidence of a thick clear coat.
Blue and green are milquetoast tones not terribly dissimilar to the original iPod minis and early iPod nanos, minus the metallic luster. The iPhone 5c’s yellow is the sort of faint shade one winds up with accidentally, either going too yellow when trying to warm up white, or running out of pigment when attempting to achieve a bright yellow. Pink is the tone of farm-raised, artificially-colored salmon, similar to but flatter than the current iPod touch color.
In any case, Apple has paired each iPhone 5c shell color with default iOS 7 wallpaper that’s somewhat matched to its tone; the white 5c has light gray wallpaper, the blue 5c wallpaper fades from light blue to aqua, the pink is salmony with a hint of hot pink at the bottom, green fades down to yellow, and yellow transitions to orange. Apple includes all of the other wallpaper colors, plus a dark gray and plenty of other options as alternatives. Designed with simple dots and gradients, the default paper is as forgettable as the current-generation iPod nano’s; Apple’s pre-iOS 7 wallpaper for the iPod touch was at least more interesting.
Considered as a set, the plastic shells evoke the weak inks of decades-old posters rather than vibrant modern tones, and we can’t say that we like any of them except for the white—perhaps that’s by design, deliberately selected by Apple to avoid stepping on the iPhone 5s’s toes. None of them has the intense reach-out-and-grab-you saturation of Apple’s best colored iPods, and no iPhone 5c looks as nice as a less expensive iPod touch, either. The only thing we prefer to the prior iPhone 3G/3GS design—somewhat—is the new shape, which won’t rock around on a flat surface when the phone is vibrating. Even so, the curved iPhone 3G/3GS felt better in the hand.
The iPhone 5c is the first iPhone to ship in a plastic box rather than cardboard—a hybrid of recent iPod touch and iPhone packages. White plastic is used for the bottom two-thirds of the box, which is curved on all sides rather than flat-edged, while a clear plastic top third shows off the iOS 7 Home Screen-stickered iPhone 5c on a clear tray.
There’s nothing daring about the design besides its elimination of two of the white cardboard inserts we’re accustomed to seeing in past Apple boxes, one that previously hid the packed-in accessories and paper inserts, the other an envelope that held the inserts inside.
This time, you open the box, pull out the iPhone, and find a thin white card that says “Hello” without having any other purpose; this isn’t typical Apple. Below it are a Quick Start Guide, warranty card, Apple logo stickers, and sometimes—carrier-dependent—a SIM card removal tool. Apple’s EarPods earphones are included inside a carrying case, alongside a 1-meter Lightning to USB cable and 5-Watt USB Power Adapter. All of these components are exactly as expected.